I've always been a fan of Rashad McCants...I hope he can get back into the league.
The Timberwolves' bus pulls up to the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey following an afternoon practice. Players still in workout togs file off. Some have draped towels around their necks, others have fixed ice packs to knees and shoulders. Everything around them seems small: the scurrying bellhop, a lone autograph seeker, an elderly couple in need of directions. It is one of the countless humdrum moments of an NBA season that blur into nothingness.
From a chair inside a dimly lit lounge just off the hotel lobby, Rashad McCants watches his former teammates walk by. He has taken the stroll hundreds of times, but this is the first time he has seen it from the angle of an ex-player. As the Wolves push through the lobby a few of them spot an old pal. "Shaddy!" shouts Corey Brewer, who once battled McCants for minutes. Some wrap him in hugs. McCants grins uncontrollably as he is peppered with questions. Where are you living? When are you coming back? Ryan Gomes offers his new cell number. Al Jefferson sits down to reminisce. He and McCants laugh about the time Kevin McHale put a garbage can by the court after learning that Jefferson had had a birthday party the night before.
Then, just as quickly as they flocked to him, the players head to their rooms. Elevator doors close. A December Santa Ana wind rushes through the now-vacant lobby. Outside, McCants hands over his claim check. "What room is it under?" the valet asks.
Good try. "That'll be $12," the valet says.
Every profession has its sore thumbs, employees who stick out because they can't fit in, underpaid, underappreciated or unloved. Or maybe they're just perpetually pissed off. Still, unless you happen to share a cubicle with one, they are someone else's problem. But who wants to pay to see a bristly millionaire play a game? More important, who wants to pay him? Especially in a sport like basketball, where on-court chemistry is paramount. In the confines of an NBA locker room, one sourpuss can send a season into a tailspin. The slightest frown can fray a relationship, label a guy or halt a career.
Just ask McCants. He'll tell you that gainful employment in the NBA is a delicate thing, easily thrown off kilter by meddling forces, real or imagined. A coach who wants to derail your career, too many visits to the psychiatrist, and, well, suddenly you have a tainted aura that, like an oil spill, grows out of control with no hint of containment.
The common refrain about McCants' predicament is that it has never been about his game. "He's a pure talent with a high basketball IQ," former Wolves GM McHale says of his former shooting guard. "Beautiful stroke, great body, everything. His problem was giving himself up to the team." That view is seconded by many who shared his locker room, whether McCants' under-his-breath mumbles were directed at them or not. "In any line of work you have to know how to talk to people and when to bite your tongue," says Kevin Love, who played with McCants two years ago. "Rashad has a me-against-the-world attitude. You have to get past that if you want to help yourself."
Sye Williams/ESPN The MagazineArmed with a feathery J and a quick first step, McCants says there isn't a two guard that can stop him.
McCants, meanwhile, wonders how a player can "get $25 million for being just a shooter," or why guys with criminal records -- McCants has never been arrested or suspended -- somehow get more consideration than he does. "I'm out of the league because of facial expressions?" he asks. "Players get arrested or demand trades, and I'm the one they call difficult?"
It's not easy being the guy who frowned himself out of the NBA.
"They say I don't smile," McCants says. "Does that make me a bad person?" In his eyes he's done everything asked of a good teammate. He sees none of the accountability issues everyone else can't stop talking about. What coaches label as sulking McCants says is just being quiet. "Management doesn't see how well I get along with my teammates when we're hanging out together," he says. "They're not interested in that."
So for now he remains in an unusual and scary place: outside looking in. He's 25, jobless and lugging around a toxic rep in the midst of an unforgiving economy. "He has to grow out of his old mentality," says McHale. "If he doesn't, he won't play in this league again."
McCants lives quietly by himself in a two-bedroom apartment in an upscale complex in LA. An Xbox 360 is connected to a 42-inch, swivel-mounted plasma. On a coffee table in front of a gray velour couch, next to a folded half-eaten bag of cool ranch Doritos, lies a threadbare copy of the Nov. 22, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated. The cover line reads, "Mystery Man." McCants, in his UNC uni, is the subject.
The flesh-and-blood McCants wears basketball shorts and a white tank top. He adjusts his Yankees cap (one of six he owns) and plops down into a chair that matches the couch. It's six weeks into the 2009-10 NBA season and the muted plasma is tuned to SportsCenter. Subs he once shared minutes with now provide the nightly highlights. Any bravado from his playing days is long gone. "I don't watch the NBA," he says in a voice soft and direct. "I haven't reached the point where I can do that."
He hits rewind on a couple of recent humbling experiences. It's the summer of '09 and McCants is growing anxious over a lack of offers, so he undertakes a quest for answers. "I've heard nothing but bad things about you," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tells him in the midst of an informal run in Miami. At the Vegas Summer League, Mike D'Antoni says he can't give McCants a shot for fear he'd poison the Knicks' locker room. Tar Heel blood brothers Larry Brown and George Karl barely give him the time of day. Some GMs won't even get on a conference call with him. "Everybody said I wasn't a good fit," he says with genuine sadness. "It felt like I had nowhere to turn. It felt like I died."
One final ray of hope quickly vanished. McCants worked out for the Mavericks, and afterward coach Rick Carlisle asked him to see a psychiatrist. "To find out what was wrong with me," McCants says sarcastically. It was the third time a coach had made such a request. During his freshman year at UNC, coach Matt Doherty sent him to see a "friend" who happened to be a shrink. McCants says 10 minutes into the first visit he was told, "There's absolutely nothing wrong with you." Yet, the next season, new Tar Heels coach Roy Williams asked McCants again to make an appointment.
Sye Williams/ESPN The Magazine"Just because I'm not chipper," McCants says, "like I just drank a pot of coffee, doesn't mean I'm a bad guy."
Carlisle's interest in McCants didn't last long enough for the Mavs to make him an offer, and by New Year's 2010 he'd begun to realize that the best he could do was a 10-day contract. "The fact that nobody wanted me was so frustrating," he says.
So now he's left to try to get back into the game any way he can. "Do I have to change who I am to fit into an organization?" he wonders aloud. "That's what I'm asking myself."
He also has to ask how it all went wrong.
McCants was drafted by Minnesota with the 14th pick in 2005, and his baggage seemed to arrive before he did. McCants had long been perceived as sullen, moody and aloof, and he did nothing to change perceptions in his new town. He barely smiled when introduced to season ticket-holders, while an admonishment from coaches to be on time elicited an exaggerated eye roll. He wanted you to hear that sigh from across the locker room, a reminder that he didn't think he was getting the touches he deserved.
Funny thing is, off the court he presents like any pro his age. There's the Cheshire Cat smile when he puts the smackdown on an opponent in DJ Hero, the boisterous laugh when friends hit his BlackBerry. Some nights, all the bottles go on his tab. "He's just a fun, solid dude," says Jefferson.
In his first two seasons McCants earned an on-court rep that didn't exactly sync up to the profile either: a quick-trigger shooting guard physical enough to defend small forwards. He bonded with the team's superstar, Kevin Garnett, the two frequently working out together after practice. When McCants awoke from knee surgery in 2006, KG was sitting at the foot of the bed. In 2007-08, under first-year coach Randy Wittman, McCants began to blossom, selected by his peers as a team captain. As Minnesota's second option, he routinely made highlight reels. Future All-Star was what they said. At his season-ending interview, Wittman praised his effort. Brimming with optimism, McCants spent the summer in the area, organizing workouts and early-morning sprints for his teammates.
Thinking he was in Minny for life, he bought a four-bedroom house with a big yard 20 minutes from downtown and lined the basement theater with signed jerseys from guys like Kobe and LeBron. Life was good. In New York he was often a guest of Jay-Z's at 40/40. He stood onstage with Lil Wayne, texted with Chris Paul, partied in Miami with Shaq and D-Wade. His exterior, once Velcro, was suddenly Teflon, all the negatives no longer sticking. Or so he thought.
By training camp in September 2008, the mood had shifted. McCants and Wittman were now on very different pages, and with the coach looking to put his stamp on the team, McCants' star quickly faded. He couldn't move without Wittman getting annoyed. It didn't help that McCants dribbled through his legs excessively during shootarounds. And it was hard to miss Wittman peering over his glasses with disapproval at the card games McCants organized on team flights.
Early in the preseason, McCants was driving to the airport when he realized he'd forgotten his Xbox. Knowing his teammates wanted to play on the plane, he drove home to retrieve it. When he finally boarded, three minutes late, Wittman was waiting. A week later the two had a meeting. The coach told McCants that his teammates were complaining about his selfishness. "My heart was beating so fast," says McCants. "I didn't know what the hell was happening." Then came the kicker. "You've got 11 days to prove you belong on the roster," McCants says the coach told him, from then on not speaking to his player. (Wittman denies that the meeting took place. "I have an open-door policy," he says, "and he never walked in to say I was doing him wrong.")
The situation quickly spiraled. Wittman stripped McCants of his captaincy at a team meeting, bestowing the duties on Jefferson, Mike Miller and Randy Foye. "A couple of those guys didn't even want the responsibility," says McCants, who thought Wittman was trying to break him. Stunned and embarrassed gave way to depressed and confused. "Nobody would talk to me," McCants says. "I didn't know what was going on." (Wittman says he doesn't remember the incident. "I don't even recall his being captain," he says. But several players, including Jefferson and Love, say they remember it distinctly.) His minutes withered. "He had a hard time accepting his role," says Wittman, who's now an assistant coach with the Wizards. "He'd put his head down and pout and not necessarily give 100 percent."
But after a 4-15 start, Wittman was fired and replaced by McHale. Owner Glen Taylor addressed McCants in the locker room in front of the whole team. "We all know Randy Wittman didn't like you," said Taylor. "Kevin McHale does." A changing of the guard, though, changed nothing.
On Dec. 30, after a game in Dallas, McCants flew to Vegas to spend New Year's Eve with his then-girlfriend, Khloe Kardashian. The team was off the next day, so he had time to recover, fly back and make a shootaround on Jan. 2. But McHale caught wind of his revelry and, by McCants' lights, the coach was none too pleased. "He didn't like the fact I was dating a celebrity," McCants says. "He thought I wasn't putting basketball first." (McHale insists McCants' personal life was irrelevant: "I'm old. I didn't even know who Khloe Kardashian was.")
McCants was benched for the first 14 games of 2009. By then the team had decided he wasn't in its plans. "At that point they were just doing him wrong," says Jefferson. "And there was no explanation for it." McCants' agent called daily to ask for a trade, and finally, an hour before the deadline, he was shipped off to the Kings.
David Sherman/Getty ImagesMcCants says McHale (right) took issue with parts of his personal life.
McCants played well for his new team, averaging 10.3 points in 19.4 minutes, but a chip remained firmly planted on his shoulder. "I talked to some people in Sacramento after the fact, and they had the same problems with Rashad," says McHale. But McCants says that in an exit interview, Kings interim coach Kenny Natt told him he wished he could have done more for him. Natt, though, did have a question for McCants: "Has anyone ever told you your body language is bad? You look like you're mad at the world."
"Just because I'm not chipper like I just drank a pot of coffee doesn't mean I'm a bad guy," says McCants. And he does have his supporters. Dwane Casey, McCants' first NBA coach, says he never had a problem with Rashad. And don't get his father, James, started. James, who, with his wife, Brenda, raised Rashad and his two younger sisters in a tidy, middle-class neighborhood in Asheville, N.C., strictly enforced evening curfews and made sure his son did his chores and homework before hitting the blacktop. "He had it together as a kid," James says, "because he knew if he didn't he had to deal with me." James says people often misread his son initially but warm up once they get to know him.
It's a luxury not afforded many guys in the association. What team execs see are not-so-subtle body language cues that scream lack of interest. The slow walk back to the bench for timeouts. The thousand-yard stare. "He had the tendency to disengage," says McHale. "Unless you're incredibly, ridiculously talented, you can't get away with that." Teammates who couldn't break through the facade would go to McHale to ask if they had done something wrong. "I'd tell them, 'That's Rashad, and you just have to deal with it,'" he says. It remains a touchy subject for many involved. "He's a talented guy who played hard," says former teammate Love. "But he seemed to have his own agenda. I'm a fan of his as a player, but maybe not so much as a person." Love turns to his locker neighbor, Brian Cardinal. "Why do you think Rashad is out of the league?" he asks. Krolik: McCants And Vegas
Rashad McCants was all set to reintroduce himself to NBA fans and scouts by playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers' Las Vegas summer league squad this week, but life got in the way. After being put on the Cavaliers' summer league roster, McCants was a no-show in Vegas. According to his agent, McCants has been tending to the family of his mother, who has serious health issues.
His agent said McCants would come to Vegas ready to perform Sunday and attend Tim Grgurich's camp the following Monday, but not everyone is on board with that plan. If McCants does play Sunday, it won't be with the Cavaliers.
"He's missed the whole time, so we're not going to bring him in here for one game, to play in that game, instead of the people who have been here for day one. No, we wouldn't play him," Cavaliers coach Byron Scott said.
Scott went on to explain why he gave the former UNC standout a camp invite in the first place:
"He's a guy that's been in the league, that understands how to score. He's a true 2-guard; he has some skills. So we thought inviting him to play with the team, inviting him out to Cleveland could have been beneficial to him -- not only for us, but it would have given some other teams a chance to look at him." -- JOHN KROLIK, ESPN TRUEHOOP
"I'm not touching that," Cardinal says before walking away. Another player, who declined to be named, walks up and slaps his own arms. "Because of these right here," he says referring to McCants' tattoos. "He lives by those." On their old teammate's right biceps is written BORN TO BE HATED, on the left DYING TO BE LOVED. "On the floor he was cocky and arrogant a lot of the time," says Foye. "Other times he just kept to himself. His motivations were maybe different than everybody else's." McHale pauses when asked if McCants was interested in making friends. "You know, I don't