It’s official. “I'm back.” I’ve always wanted to say that…like I’m MJ or something LOL. I’m officially back in an NBA jersey, and I could not be more excited for this opportunity.
You may not have noticed that I have been in what I call semi-retirement. And by the way, I’ve been calling it semi-retirement for two reasons. The first is that a 37-year-old professional athlete doesn't really retire; we just transition to our next careers. The second reason being that in pro sports, most of us actually “get retired,” either because the phone is no longer ringing for your services or you're no longer able to accept playing for just any team. As a young player, your only desire is to be in the NBA. As you get older, your desire is to play for certain organizations with certain circumstances, making it a little tougher to find the right fit. Mine was a combination of all of the above. Most of the teams that I had interest in didn't need my services, and I didn't have the desire to go just anywhere. And some teams just didn't want me.
With all that being said – DRUMROLL PLEASE – I am now a proud member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the very team I competed for a Championship with in 2012. I was days away from turning “semi-retirement” into full retirement when I received word from Sam Presti that they had interest in me returning to OKC as a player. That quickly changed the course of my plans and forced me to do some real soul-searching to see if this was something my family and I wanted.
I believe in staying prepared for the opportunities that I think I want, whether they come to fruition or not. You can do no greater disservice to yourself than to secretly want something, but then be unprepared if the opportunity presents itself. I stayed prepared, but when I didn’t foresee any viable opportunities coming my way during “buyout season,” I contemplated shutting down my court workouts and facing the reality that my life as a basketball player was over. I started seriously considering accepting and starting one of my post-career opportunities. I even agreed with Debbie Spander of Wasserman Media Group to represent me if I chose to pursue broadcasting as my next career. But my agent, Michael Higgins, suggested that I give it a few more days to evaluate the landscape.
Like I said, I had a short list of teams that I would undoubtedly come out of semi-retirement for. Of course OKC was on my short list, which consisted mostly of teams I played for in the past. When I spoke to the Thunder, their first question was, “How does your body feel?" Anybody who follows me on social media knows that I’m probably a little addicted to my workouts. I’ve kept up my same training regimen (court work three to five times a week, conditioning, and lifting weights) with my guys at Accelerate Basketball, so I knew I was prepared physically. They happen to train Steph Curry too, so you know my jumper is wet right now LOL! After being a part of two NBA lockouts, I'm the master of staying prepared even when I don't know when my season will start LOL. But the first thing I thought about was my family and whether or not they could handle me being away for the next few months when we were just getting acclimated to a new city and our new schedule (which had me as a big part of it for the first time in my kids’ lives). I knew I needed to talk to them before making a final decision. Regardless, I was shocked, flattered and excited for an opportunity to go into a comfortable situation.
I brought the offer to my wife and kids to see how they felt. My oldest son (10) is an OKC fan, so he was excited. And I better add that he’s a Steph Curry and Jimmy Butler fan too (he’d be mad if I didn’t include that!). My oldest daughter (13) was almost giddy with excitement for me. I'm starting to think they don't love having me around, but I'll save that for another blog down the road LOL. I also have a younger daughter (6), and she was very happy, although I'm not sure she truly grasps time and how long I will be gone. My wife, who knows how much basketball has meant to me, was very supportive. We’ve experienced mid-year trades and things like this before, so we know how to handle it. The only difference now is that the kids are older, and their schedules are a little more hectic with school, sports, practices, tournaments, etc. Now with me not being able to help out with that, more is on my wife’s plate. But we’ll figure it out. Whenever we get a day off, I’ll probably try to fly home, even if I just get to see the family for a few hours. We’ll do a lot of FaceTiming. When their schedule permits, they’ll be flying to OKC. We’ll make it work.
Once I got the green light from my family, it was a fairly easy decision to make, given that I’ve played in OKC before. Plus, I have great relationships throughout the organization, from management to the players (especially guys like KD, Russ, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka). I also played with Royal Ivey, one of the assistant coaches. And since Billy Donovan and I both played for Coach Pitino, I consider us part of the same basketball family. I have a pretty good grasp of this organization, which has always been so great to my family and me. I had such great experiences there, which is what made the decision to go back much easier. From a basketball standpoint, I have a lot of confidence in this team. I have high hopes that this is one of the five or six teams that could compete for a Championship. They have more than enough talent.
This is a winning organization with players who are dedicated to winning and playing basketball the right way. I’m one of Kevin and Russ’s biggest fans. You could argue that Russ is one of the best guards in the NBA. You could argue that Kevin is the best at his position – or even the best player – in the NBA. I like to think of it this way: there are about five or six players in the NBA that can truly claim that they are the best players in the world. And two of those guys are on the Thunder. But even after all that, the deciding factor was the character of the locker room and its stars. Off the court, they are great people; guys that you want to be around. Kevin and Russ epitomize what the stars of this generation are all about…being great players AND great people.
After playing for so many years, I didn’t really need to be informed what my role will be on this team. I kind of know. I bring my experiences and leadership to the table, and I’ll be there to support the guys and the coaching staff. Of course with me being a big guy, I’m going to kind of gravitate to the other big guys and give them whatever tips I can. But I am a basketball player, so whenever I’m needed, I’ll be ready for that. They’re third in the West and having a great season without me. I’m just coming in to do the things that have afforded me the privilege to play in the NBA for 17 years before this…being a good teammate and doing whatever's asked of me to the best of my abilities.
This is also a chance for me to have true closure with the game – as opposed to it just ending – in an environment that I feel is great for me. As I’ve been going through the process of realizing that I was probably never going to play again, I started to appreciate watching Kobe’s farewell tour. I envied Kobe, not for his multiple championships, MVP's, All-Star appearances, career earnings, etc., but because he has the opportunity to say goodbye to the game. That’s closure that most players don’t get. Like I said, most players don’t get to choose when they will end their careers; it gets ended for them.
At the end of last season, I anticipated playing this season. That was my mindset. It didn’t work out that way, so I really didn’t get to experience true closure, knowing that "this is it.” It would have been nice to appreciate my last time in the locker room as a player; my last regular-season game; my last training camp. Now I have the chance to get some of those “last” moments and really soak it in. I think I’m going to be more aware of living in the moment. I won’t save anything, even if that means I’m only going out there for a minute during a blowout. I realize how important it is to leave it all out there on the court, enjoy it and relish in the experience. I’m going in with a “this is it” mindset. There is no next year as far as basketball for me.
To my fans in Chicago: it's a bittersweet moment for me because I was proud to say that my last game was in a Chicago Bulls uniform. You guys and the organization have a special place in my heart because of your support and the fact that "I'm just a kid from Chicago" who got the opportunity to play for the team he grew up loving.
To the fans of OKC: you have been supportive of me for years, even after I left to play in Chicago. I appreciate that and look forward to your continued support. I can't wait to be on the floor representing you one more time.
To my new teammates: I’m ready to give whatever I have in any capacity, mentally and physically. I’m ready to leave it all out there on the court and in that locker room. This is my last go-round, and I’d like to help this team end the season as NBA Champions.