Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Updated: May 18, 12:54 PM ET
Understudy Daniels schooling Ridnour on the job
By Frank Hughes
Special to ESPN.com
It could have been about payback for Antonio Daniels, playing against his former team with the notion of something to prove.
Instead, it is about paying it forward.
At the time, in 1997, Daniels did not want to admit it.
But now that he is older and ostensibly wiser, he looks back and wonders why it wasn't apparent to him then: When he was taken with the fourth pick in the draft by Vancouver, he wasn't ready to be the Grizzlies' starting point guard.
He was young, immature and didn't know what the NBA was about, and when things didn't work out as well as expected, his immaturity kicked in and things began to get ugly, both with his coach and with the media.
He was subsequently traded to the San Antonio Spurs, where, he says, Avery Johnson took him out to dinner whenever the team was on the road. Not only did Johnson pay for the meal every time but he imparted priceless wisdom to Daniels about the way the NBA operated.
In the NBA, where era begets ever-younger era, Daniels says he now tries to convey the insights that Johnson passed on to him to Luke Ridnour, the Sonics' second-year point guard who has spent a lifetime proving the critics wrong.
"Honestly, this was Luke's rookie year," Daniels said. "Me playing against these guys for a number of years, I try to give him as much knowledge as I can. Just little things. I bought him a PSP, a golf game, so we can play each other on the plane. Just stuff like that, so I can make sure throughout a game that his confidence is OK and he knows that we are always behind him."
Now with the distinct possibility that Sonics forward Rashard Lewis will miss his second straight postseason game with a sprained left toe, or at the very least, be severely restricted, Daniels and Ridnour make up two-thirds of the Sonics' three-guard rotation that gave San Antonio fits in Game 4, allowing the Sonics to improbably tie the series.
Daniels' story could be one of redemption, considering he won a championship ring with San Antonio in 1999 and then, three years later, was cast aside, traded to the career suicide hitching post in Portland for Steve Kerr.
There are a number of stories about the reasons for Daniels' departure from the Alamo City.
His theory is that a confrontation he got into following a summer league game soured the button-down Spurs on his image.
Daniels was playing at the city's Jewish Community Center. After the game, a player from the other team threw a ball at Daniels. Some words and pushes were exchanged, but Daniels said he left with his fiancée and nothing happened, although a few of Daniels' friends who had attended the game apparently got into a further altercation with the man after Daniels left.
So the next day, Daniels was at home and the phone rang. It was Gregg Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, asking Daniels what happened.
"What do you mean what happened?" Daniels asked.
"Turn on the news," they told him.
The story led the local newscast, with reporters interviewing the man, who Daniels said was displaying scratches on his neck.
"I mean, I was leading the news, that shows you how small San Antonio is," Daniels said.
He said he publicly apologized to Spurs fans to protect the team's image, even though he said he didn't do anything wrong.
Daniels said the issue disappeared when it was discovered the man with whom he argued was wanted for burglary.
But Daniels said soon after, Popovich called to tell him the team was considering trading him and other teams were calling. He was traded to the Blazers that summer.
"Who knows if that had anything to do with it?" Daniels said. "In my four years there, that was the one thing I got into. Right after that happened, that was when trade talks started."
Of course, it is never as simple as it seems. There also is the notion that Daniels never really embraced the point guard role, and the more looming fact that the Spurs had drafted Tony Parker and considered him the point guard of the future.
In any case, Daniels, who signed as a free agent with Seattle after his torturous season with the Blazers, said he is not trying to avenge his abrupt departure from San Antonio. He has built a 12,000-square-foot mansion in the Hill Country, where he lives in the offseason, holds two summer camps and held his own wedding. Tim Duncan and former Spur Malik Rose were groomsmen in the wedding and Johnson gave away the bride.
"Those bitter feelings are gone," Daniels said. "I am having the best year of my career. I am on a very good basketball team."
Instead of channeling his anger at proving the Spurs wrong, Daniels has taken to grooming Ridnour, the undersized passing wizard.
Playing the same position, they should have been, if not enemies, at least strongly combative opponents, particularly since Daniels will become a free agent after this season and needs to raise his value as much as possible to maximize his potential dollars.
Instead, Daniels embraced Ridnour.
"He just has been real supportive of me," Ridnour said. "Coming into the year, it could have been a problem. But he has been supportive. Even when we play together, it has been good to play off each other, we take the pressure off each of us. It allows us to run around. He has been good about supporting me this entire time."
Ridnour is the kid from tiny Blaine, Wash., the last town you hit before you cross the Canadian border.
He was so raw last season that when the Sonics were in Tokyo and the NBA held a function that required coats and ties, Brent Barry had to tie Ridnour's tie for him because he had never worn one. His sports coat, which belonged to his grandfather, had a fish hook in it.
He wears a shoe string as a belt. He sneaks into the gym late at night for extra shooting practice. He reads the Bible every day. He once got stopped by an usher at KeyArena this year when he was trying to go back to the locker room and the usher didn't know who Ridnour was.
He's the likable kid everyone wants to do well but nobody believes can.
He is, in many ways, the face of this year's over-achieving Sonics.
And so if Lewis cannot go tonight, it will be Daniels and Ridnour playing alongside Ray Allen, the team's one constant.
They say they don't have a set definition of who plays the point guard and who plays the shooting guard. Usually, the player who brings the ball up the court and initiates the offense is the one not guarded by Tony Parker.
Then, the point guard runs a pick-and-roll. If it doesn't work, he passes it to the other side of the court and the other player runs a pick-and-roll.
No matter who it was in Game 4, they were sensational. Daniels scored 19 points, his fourth straight game with at least 15 points after averaging just nine during the regular season.
After getting torched by Parker in the first two games though it wasn't always his fault, given his post players' defensive breakdowns Ridnour played exceptionally well in Game 4. The Spurs were burned by the pick-and-roll in Game 3, so they sagged off the screen and dared Ridnour to hit the open jumper.
Ridnour responded by scoring a career playoff high 20 points, including 15 in the decisive third quarter.
"I told Luke, 'I love when you play like that,' " Daniels said.
Amazing what can be accomplished when the good karma of support is offered rather than the bitter venom of revenge.
|The Sonics are looking to Antonio Daniels and Luke Ridnour (right) for big things.|
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.