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Saturday, June 5, 2010
Gaffney: The Celtic Who Was A Laker

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The date was Oct. 24, and rookie Tony Gaffney remembers it vividly.

It was the end of training camp for the Lakers, the day after their final exhibition game against Denver, and Gaffney was sitting with Pau Gasol getting treatment for a neck injury when he took notice that Phil Jackson was in the gym -- an unusual occurrence on a day when there was no formal practice.

Tony Gaffney
Though he has yet to log his first NBA minute, Gaffney saw action in the preseason with Los Angeles.
Gaffney was the 14th man on the roster and the only remaining rookie, and soon he was told that the coach and general manager Mitch Kupchak needed to see him immediately.

He was about to be cut.

"We were in there for a half-hour, and they told me the technicalities of everything that was going on," Gaffney said. "They said they don't want to do it, they went to [owner] Jerry [Buss] and tried to convince him I was someone who could help them out this year, but at the end of the day -- especially with what happened the year before, carrying a 14th guy, it would have been another million dollars."

In referencing what happened the previous year, Gaffney was speaking of the Lakers' futile tutelage of Chinese point guard Sun Yue, who cost Buss $442,114 in salary and an equal amount in luxury tax.

"We encouraged him to pursue his chances overseas, and we hoped to run into him again, but Boston picked him up," Jackson said. "I thought he had a capability of being a real good player, he gave a lot on the court when he played, and I liked that."

The Lakers went through the entire season without ever filling that 14th roster spot, and Gaffney signed overseas with Galil Gilboa of the Israeli League (which upset Maccabi Tel Aviv for the national championship last week), spending 1½ months with the team before breaking his foot while trying to play through a stress fracture.

The Celtics signed him April 13, the day before their final game of the regular season, and Gaffney -- who will play on Boston's summer league team and try to make the roster in training camp next fall -- has been along for the ride through all four rounds of the playoffs, though has not been activated as he works through his recovery.

Not a bad landing for a 25-year-old UMass graduate who grew up a Celtics fan in Berkley, Mass., some 40 miles south of Boston, and still has a 1984 championship banner and a photograph of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish affixed to the wall of his old bedroom.

"I don't think my family would ever be able to get rid of anything like that, even when I was with the Lakers," Gaffney said. "Having lived in Boston my entire life, that's kind of understandable."

Gaffney professes to know none of the Lakers' secrets, explaining that the paparazzi and the media in Los Angeles do a good job of making sure that everything there is to know about the Lakers gets known in some way, shape or form.

But he did reveal one piece of insight he learned in October, the incredible work ethic that Kobe Bryant possesses.

"Having a chance to witness him being the first guy in the gym in the morning, 7:30, and the last guy to leave, leaves you no doubt as to why he's one of the greatest to ever play this game. I tried to kind of mimic that, take after that. But that was something a lot of people don't see, and just seeing that as a rookie, that really helped me. Sometimes I was curious whether he slept there."

Gaffney has remained friendly with Bryant (whose bags he had to tote during training camp as part of his rookie hazing) and Luke Walton, and he even exchanged text messages with Ron Artest following the Lakers' victory Thursday night in Game 1.

He is now being hazed by the Celtics' veterans, making late-night snack runs whenever asked and uttering nary a word of protest, part of the NBA ritual for all rookies. On Monday when the team flew from Boston to Los Angeles on Nate Robinson's birthday, he and fellow rookie Oliver Lafayette were ordered to roll up their pants, tuck their collars inside their shirts and wear their caps backward as they sang "Happy Birthday" to their veteran teammate before being pelted with food.

Gaffney's upbringing would suggest he has a natural hatred of the Lakers, and his last-minute deletion from the roster might seem like the type of thing that would add to his angst.

But with Gaffney, that is not the case.

And a big part of the reason was the month he spent being coached by Jackson.

"I have zero bitterness for what happened, and I'm still grateful for the opportunity they gave me," Gaffney said, recalling how Jackson seemed unusually emotional on the afternoon when he informed Gaffney he was being waived.

"He went into depth with me. Most of the other guys who got cut, it was just kind of wham, bam, thanks for coming. But he sat, and we kind of clicked a little bit. They told me down the line things might be different, you never know what will happen next year, and they were going to keep close tabs on me during my time in Israel. It was a cool thing to hear, especially coming from one of the greatest coaches of all time. When someone like that believes in you and believes that you belong at this level, that gives you all the confidence you need.

"He actually said he puts a twinkle in our eye -- and coming from one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, that meant a lot to me."