He can't shoot or dribble, but no one is better at rebounding than the Clips' Reggie Evans
The ball rolls to his feet as if it was meant to, but Reggie Evans isn't as eager to welcome it this time. The hulking power forward peers down at the browning Spalding, almost puzzled by its presence, resting at the tips of his toes in his practically unlived-in condo in Playa Vista, Calif. He lurches over and grasps it with both hands.
He knows this routine all too well. He knows what comes next, too.
Undrafted out of Iowa in 2002, Evans was told that the only way he'd make it in the NBA was through hustling and running down loose balls. A decade later, he has become one of the game's greatest rebounders, a brutish force capable of mucking up the ballet on the court like few others. But his name doesn't appear alongside the career leaders of his craft. With a seriously limited offensive game, his minutes are too minuscule.
So almost every rebound he grabs hold of must end not with glory but more sacrifice, not with a basket but a pass.
Evans relents here, too, letting the ball roll off his fingertips and watching as it short-hops across the hardwood floor until his 1-year-old son R.J. waddles over and retrieves it. He goes straight for the basket and slams it through the net of the plastic mini-hoop that Evans, days shy of his 32nd birthday, had been eyeing since the day he heard he was having a son.
Dad grins wide, the beard that hangs an inch below his rigid jawline puffing out slightly, and claps. His son flashes back a bright smile and smacks his hands together, too.
Evans already has R.J.'s next hoop picked out. When he's old enough, Evans plans on bringing his son to the court he grew up on in the projects of Pensacola, Fla.
"It's better that way," he says in a mellow Southern drawl as he continues shagging balls for his son. "Playing out there, there's really no rules. People may take your basketball, people may kick your basketball. It'll make you grow up tough -- it made me mentally tough and physically tough. Playing on concrete, getting all scratched up.
"I wouldn't change anything. It's what helped me become the person I am now, on the court."
Evans never got a chance to be much more than a rebounder in the NBA. Good for 15 points a game at Iowa, where he led the Big Ten Conference in rebounding and double-doubles in each of his two seasons, Seattle SuperSonics coach Nate McMillan narrowed Evans' responsibilities as soon as he arrived in the pros as an undrafted free agent. From then on, McMillan mandated, his game would center on only four things: rebound, set picks, play defense and give energy.
Evans quickly acknowledged his life as a scorer was over, and he never looked back.
"My change was easy, because I just played one end of the court," he said. "I'm just taking away one thing -- shooting the ball, just scoring. That was it. I was cool with it! A non-drafted kid, starting, playing about 16 minutes a game. I was happy. I was content. All I had to do was work hard."
Evans never really wanted to be much else. He had been living on the fringes, scraping and doing the dirty work to get by since his days in Pensacola, where the crime rate is nearly double the national average. Evans admits that his brother and sister "did wrong" to help out a household splintered by his father's absence. He wasn't immune to it, either.
"We did some things," said Shaddrick Jenkins, a former teammate and neighbor. "We did a lot."
The basketball court next to his building offered Evans a getaway, but the blacktop was almost as rough as the streets surrounding it. There, hordes of kids from the neighborhood would play a game called "30," in which 15 players would a play game to 15 on each basket to determine captains. Much smaller then and unlikely to be picked, Evans would weave his way around the older, much taller players and relentlessly chase after any loose ball. He also made sure never to shy away from the big boys, even if it meant a little contact.
"You can't pretend," he said. "In the games, when you're locked in, you're just locked in. That's it. Growing up, you just can't shy away from it. You show any signs of weakness, you can't do that."
Powerful and tenacious as a teen, Evans began chiseling away at his body in the weight room at Coffeyville Community College, mostly to escape the slow-paced life of Coffeyville, Kan. Stuck between Oklahoma's southeast border and the middle of nowhere while he worked on his grades and game to draw the eyes of the major-college recruiters who had overlooked him at Woodham (Fla.) High School, Evans and Jenkins, his only lifeline to Florida's panhandle, would spend their weekends lifting or playing pickup basketball, oftentimes with football players looking to test their toughness as much as get in a run.
"At Coffeyville you have to grow up quick," said Jenkins, now an assistant at Mobile University after a short playing career at the University of South Florida. "You're out there by yourself, far away from Florida. There's not many girls up there, I can tell you that. [laughs] And with 150 or so football players you've got the whole alpha male thing. They played hard. You had to be tough."
Evans was 6-foot-6, 200 pounds when he arrived at Coffeyville, and he left for Iowa two years later at 6-8, 245 pounds. A workout fanatic who can usually be found in the weight room pregame, his build now befits a UFC heavyweight. But his approach to the game never changed.
"Reggie's a rebounder," former Hawkeyes coach Steve Alford said. "Reggie just feels like any ball that's live, whether it's loose or coming off the rim, that's his. He's very physical, very active. A lot of guys don't want to play against somebody who's relentless every time the ball's live."
Though forced to operate below the rim because of his height, Evans, at a still-cut 245 pounds, can grow roots on the blocks. When beaten for inside position, you'll often see him slide toward the baseline like the floor is slanted only for him. He'll park himself out of bounds along the baseline, a move he learned with the Sonics to spread the floor and avoid three-second calls, and surge toward the hoop when the ball goes up, jolting his man back on contact to create space under the rim. Long arms and big hands help him tip the ball to himself. Forearms and elbows are routine. Flopping, too. Anything to get the job done.
"S---, this is my calling for the NBA! This is what they need me to do," Evans says. "Then you start thinking about what you can do with the minutes you get. And that's when I realized I'm gonna do what I gotta do."
Although still widely overlooked by the everyday fan, rebound rate is among the most easily digestible of the advanced stats to recently intrude upon the game's lexicon. Unlike its forefather, rebounds per game, rebound rate measures the percentage of available missed shots obtained while on the floor. What you're left with is a clearer picture of an individual rebounder's worth, one unmitigated by the influence of factors like playing time, pace and an opponent's shooting percentage.
The statistic has largely defined the 10 seasons Evans has spent in the league, spread out between stops in Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, Toronto and now Los Angeles with the fast-rising Clippers. Evans himself had never heard of it.
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Not once has Evans placed among the league's top 10 in rebounds per game at season's end, and only once has he finished with a double-digit average -- last season, when he averaged 11.5 in only 30 games, not enough to qualify for the leaderboard. But on a per-minute basis, he's a something of a rebounding legend. Evans has finished with a rebound rate of more than 19 nine times in his career, a feat bested by only Moses Malone (12) and Dennis Rodman (11), according to Basketball-Reference.com. His career rate of 21.1 would place him third in NBA/ABA history, and second behind only Rodman in NBA history.
If only he had enough minutes to qualify.
Despite starting nearly half the games he has played in, Evans has averaged only 19 minutes a game over his career, mostly because of his scoring deficiencies. In the 72 times he decided to put it back up this regular season -- with all but 10 coming within three feet, according to NBA.com -- it's often with the clear intent of drawing a foul. That he's a horrid free throw shooter seems to matter little to him.
Living off one exemplary skill is no rare feat in the NBA; virtually every team employs a shooting and/or defensive "specialist."
But the careers of these single-minded players are often fleeting. Not since Larry Smith (1980-93) have we seen a one-dimensional rebounder as dominant as Evans with such longevity, and Smith was never as poor a scorer, having averaged 6.7 points in his career, with six seasons when he averaged between 6-11 points a game.
"Toughness, and they're on the boards every single possession," says Rudy Tomjanovich, who has both coached Smith and coached alongside him. "They wear you down with their bodies. With Larry, some of it was positioning, but most of it was just heart."
Largely because of his rebounding prowess, Evans has earned a reported $27 million in his career. The sweat that so drenches his headband that he's often forced to swap in a new one at halftime is what brought him to this point, and that too is a victory he celebrates.
"A lot of [players are] stuck on scoring," he says. "I take a lot of pride knowing that a lot of these guys got drafted, I didn't get drafted and I'm the one still in the league."
With one minute left in the first quarter of the Clippers' first home playoff game in six years, the buzzer sounds and Evans ambles onto the Staples Center hardwood. The crowd's faint cheer welcomes him to Game 3 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!
With 8:55 to go in the second quarter, Evans darts down the right lane on a two-on-one fast break with Eric Bledsoe scurrying down the center of the court. Right before he reaches the free throw line, Bledsoe dumps off a no-look pass to the streaking forward, who is knocked off course by O.J. Mayo as he coasts to the cup. This time, the crowd surges.
Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!
By the end of an 87-86 victory that gives L.A. a 2-1 series lead, the crowd is in full throat in support of Evans' 11-rebound performance, six days after his energy had served as a catalyst for the Clippers' historic 26-1 game-winning rally in Game 1.
Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!
Other than "C-P-3" or "M-V-P," the chant is probably the Staples Center crowd's favorite when the on-court aesthetics change over to red and blue and the dimmers are turned back up. (It helps that Blake Griffin doesn't offer the crowd any natural cadence.)
"Everybody in the stands works so hard just to earn a dollar, so they at least want to see somebody go out there and work hard just like they do," Evan said afterward. "I guess they appreciate the blue-collar player that I am."
Or maybe it's the brutal honesty with which the quirky reserve approaches everything. After being fined $25,000 for scratching his face with his middle finger, he didn't deny his intent, only that it was meant as a joke for his teammates on the bench, not a flip-off to a fan. When asked how a light shove from Greivis Vasquez in the Clippers' regular-season home finale left him in the starfish position at center court, Evans smiled and said, "He hit hard. He hit real hard."
Joi Evans, his wife of seven years, said her husband's demeanor is what makes him so good with children. Alford's three kids adored Evans and have kept track of his career from afar ever since. The daughters of Jay Herkelman, his coach at Coffeyville, are big fans, too.
Or maybe it's because Evans is admittedly a big kid himself.
"I can eat candy morning, lunch, dinner," said Evans, who has kept his sweet tooth in check the past two years. "I would get full off candy -- Skittles and Starbursts, green packs, purple packs. ... I like the regular yellow packs, but when they start coming out with these tropicals and kiwi flavors -- oh, man. And they've got some candy that's only in the 'hood that be real good. ... I love candy. That's my thing."
"He's a different guy than he is on the court," Joi Evans said. "It's like a switch that turns on and turns off. He's really just a sweet guy."
In a recent Sports Illustrated player poll, Evans was dubbed the dirtiest player in the league with a whopping 37 percent of the 118-player vote. It took more than one incident for the reputation to stick to him, but one night, two days prior to the series-deciding Game 6 of a 2006 first-round series between the Clippers and Nuggets, Evans solidified his reputation.
With 8:50 left in the second quarter and Evans' Nuggets trailing the Clippers by five, Francisco Elson spotted up to the right of the free throw line, no defender in sight. As Elson went into his shooting motion, Chris Kaman began using his wide hips to push Evans outside of the paint, just above the right block.
Evans planted his left foot to stop from sliding further. Without hesitation, he reached with his left hand and grabbed at Kaman's crotch. As Elson's shot splashed through the hoop, Kaman, surprised and angered, spun around in search of Evans and shoved him, sending Evans tumbling to the ground. On his backside, Evans kicked his legs in the air.
"It was unbelievable," Kaman told reporters the next day. "In a basketball game, where you're playing basketball, if someone was to grab your nuts -- and not, like, you're like boxing out, you hit somebody, whatever. But this dude reached from behind me, grabbed my nuts and pulled 'em back towards -- tried to rip 'em off, basically. I couldn't believe it. [I was like], 'What just happened?' I got violated."
The fallout has pierced Evans with the force of a mosquito.
"I had no reaction. I didn't pay any attention," he said six years later, now a member of the Clippers team for which Kaman once played.
"Some of the same ones that say [I'm dirty] are some of the same ones that want me to play with them," he said. "When they get to complainin' -- 'Oh, he dirty' -- I like it. I like it. It shows me something. I don't be carin'."
"I know that side of him as well," Joi Evans said. "When he's down there, getting rebounds, getting rebounds ... that's just his game."
Evans gazes at R.J. standing in front of him, his son's tiny hands on his knees to prop himself up. Evans positions his hands underneath his armpits, exposing the tattoos scattered up and down his arm that he has collected since his senior year at Woodham. Just below the Iowa Hawkeye on the inside of his right biceps, in sweeping black font, reads what he calls his family motto: "Trust Loyalty Till Death Do Us Part Love You Always."
Evans lifts R.J. off the ground so that father and son are nose to nose. Their eyes locked on each other, Evans grits his teeth and growls softly.
His son stares blankly back at him, and then lets out a big giggle.
A smile creeps across the face of one of the most intimidating players in the NBA, and he laughs, too.