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Wednesday, July 10, 2002
Updated: July 11, 3:41 PM ET
Gonzalez knows hoop dreams won't last forever

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

NFL fans probably don't understand what Tony Gonzalez is doing, but they should. Many fans and outsiders have become jaded because of the contract negotiations of athletes who have used multi-sport talents to squeeze out leverage in negotiations.

This isn't the case with Gonzalez. Basketball is a labor of love to him, but he's a football player first. It's a shame that he is in negotiations on a difficult new contract that could lead to his holdout because his basketball fling will be misinterpreted.

Of course, many misunderstood Deion Sanders. His gift was football, having the ability to blanket a wide receiver from the line of scrimmage to the end of a route. But Prime Time could also play baseball. If his love for football weren't so great, Sanders might still be a leadoff hitter in the majors, but bouncing back-and-forth between the two sports fulfilled his athletic dreams even though it may have shortened the length of both careers.

Tony Gonzalez
Tony Gonzalez gathers basketballs as he works out with the Miami Heat summer league team.
Gonzalez's situation is different. His body is different than Sanders. The sport is different. And that's why Gonzalez is fighting an uphill battle that Sanders didn't have to climb. Nature blessed Gonzalez with a 6-foot-4, 249-pound body. The NBA doesn't have a lot of openings for 6-4, 249-pound forwards although Gonzalez is gifted enough to go against the odds. He is a contender.

But put yourself in his basketball shoes for a second. Here is perhaps the most gifted athlete to play the tight end position in the history of the league. He's caught 334 passes in five seasons and he's only 26. He's been to two Pro Bowls. Thanks to basketball, Gonzalez developed such quick footwork that he drives defenses crazy covering him in the middle of the field.

How do you stop him? In basketball, he's physical enough to shed tight defense supplied by 6-8, 260 pound forwards, grab a basketball and slam it through a hoop. Very few linebackers are big enough to handle him. Safeties don't have a chance.

But Gonzalez is getting a great education about his second sport during his current stint with the Miami Heat during their summer league. He's learning that he's good enough to make money playing pro basketball, but that finding the right niche is going to be difficult. Clearly, he's a power forward because of his muscle and body width. In lesser leagues, he could be allowed to switch to small forward where he could dominate slender, finesse players.

Here's the scary part for Gonzalez. His biological clock in the NBA is ticking and this is probably his last chance to see if he can take his basketball game to the NBA. In that regard, Gonzalez knows enough about the game to understand that. He told reporters covering Heat summer practices that if this doesn't work, he will give up professional basketball and concentrate on football even though he will always play pickup basketball games.

On Tuesday night, the Heat opened their summer league schedule in Orlando. Gonzalez didn't get a chance to play because the Heat needed to see three other power forwards.

That's no slight on Gonzalez because head coach Pat Riley and his assistants acknowledge that he's one of the most developed of the 15 players in camp.

But summer camps are for developing draft choices first and talented prospects such as Gonzalez second. Gonzalez will get some playing time in Orlando and Long Beach over the next two weeks, but time is against him.

"Tony is a good basketball player, and there is no question that he could play professional basketball," Heat assistant head coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Whether or not he can play in the NBA will have to be determined down the road. His problem is that he's 26. Generally, the summer league is for those young, developing types. At 26, that window as a young, developing guy is not going to last that much longer."

Understand Gonzalez and his love for basketball. He's never changed his goal that he is a football player first and basketball player second. Last year at camp, Gonzalez was clear about his aspirations.

"This is not a gimmick," Gonzalez said last year of his play in pro summer leagues. "I could go in and do something realistically like an eighth guy in the NBA and maybe spell these guys for 10 minutes. But if I'm not playing in the NBA, I'm playing a pickup game for two or three hours a day."

All along, Gonzalez has said that he wants to be in a football uniform until the end of the Chiefs season, take a month off and then hope to find a spot on an NBA roster as a power forward signing on a 10-day contract.

Van Gundy doesn't doubt that Gonzalez can fill such a role. But at 26 and only 6-4, Gonzalez may not get too many chances that late in the season.

Tony is a good basketball player, and there is no question that he could play professional basketball. Whether or not he can play in the NBA will have to be determined down the road. His problem is that he's 26. Generally, the summer league is for those young, developing types. At 26, that window as a young, developing guy is not going to last that much longer.
Stan Van Gundy, Heat assistant head coach

"What teams will ask is what's the future in such a signing," Van Gundy said. "You'd be talking about a player who missed all of training camp and the first two months of the season. He'd come in early February around the All-Star break. There would be about 35 games left in that year. The timing would make it very difficult."

But Gonzalez intrigues the Heat, not because of the publicity but because of the talent.

"There is no problem with his game and ability," Van Gundy said. "Watch him play. He's quick and strong. He's got great feet and hands. He takes the basketball and blows right past people because of those feet. Because of his size, he's got what we call a great base and great lower body strength. He holds his position well. And that quickness works to his advantage against other power forwards."

In some regards, he compares to current Heat forward Brian Grant, but here's the problem. Gonzalez is five inches shorter than the 6-9 Grant. There are six other forwards currently on the Heats' summer league roster -- all between the heights of 6-7 and 6-11.

Still, the encouragement for Gonzalez is in these summer league games. He's in his element playing against current and former first-round prospects Why? Because in these games he can get matchups against some small forwards. Gonzalez can score 20 points and grab 10 rebounds in these types of game.

But what Gonzalez wants is to find out where he fits in as an NBA player. He can't dominate as well against the established NBA power forwards, who have had years of skill development at one position. The NBA isn't a pickup game or even a well-organized professional summer league. It's the best against the best.

The NFL needs to understand that pro basketball and college basketball have taken away some of those 6-5, 260-pound tight ends and defensive ends. Athletes such as Gonzalez, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss are talented enough to dabble in basketball, but their hearts are in the NFL.

A little better understanding may encourage a few college prospects to play both sports, eventually settling into the NFL. Gonzalez should be looked upon as an NFL treasure. That he wants to squeeze in a few basketball games shouldn't be held against him. Mentally, he needs to see where his basketball skills fit.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.