Prime Time Player
While it’s been a major adjustment on many levels for the California native, Chandler still considers himself an eager student of the game, a blessed athlete and a normal, fun-loving 20-year-old kid.
In a city infamous for hard work and its love of basketball, fans can’t help but root for Tyson Chandler.
Talented, enthusiastic and hungry, he has a passion for the game that often translates into raw emotion on the court. He’ll argue blown calls and glower at an opponent while snatching a crucial rebound. He’ll also howl to the rafters following a dramatic, put-back slam-dunk. He’s youth personified, and for Tyson Chandler, every game is a trial by fire.
Night after night he battles the NBA’s best forwards and centers that are usually bigger, stronger, more experienced and often hell-bent on taking the upstart youngster to school. Yet, Chandler has never proven to be an easy mark. His unrelenting agility, athleticism and fiery nature have exposed the young man to be an unmistakably budding force among his NBA peers.
“He’s a real good athlete,” says teammate, Corie Blount. “He can jump out of the gym, and he can rip down a lot of rebounds. He doesn’t take [guff] from anybody, and he’s always willing to get after it. I think Tyson’s going to be pretty good.”
Chandler’s flashes of dominance make it easy to forget that just two years ago he was a high school senior getting ready for the prom. Amidst a buzz of controversy, he’s one of just a handful of prep players to successfully make the leap from high school to the pros. While it’s been a major adjustment on many levels for the California native, Chandler still considers himself an eager student of the game, a blessed athlete and a normal, fun-loving 20-year-old kid.
Tyson Cleotis Chandler was born October 2, 1982, in Hanford, California, where he grew up on a farm. As a child, young Tyson sunk his first jumper through a homemade hoop his grandfather nailed to a tree in the backyard. In keeping with farm-life tradition, he rose with the sun to help with daily chores, steadily learning the value of hard work.
At age nine, he and his mother moved to San Bernardino, California. Already taller than most of his peers, he immediately caught the eye of a local recreational basketball league coach who talked him into joining his team. During games, Chandler laughingly remembers imitating his favorite NBA star, Charles Barkley, by tearing down rebounds with flair and blocking opponent’s shots with intimidating force, all the while barking, “Barkley!”
As a freshman he unexpectedly found himself in the national spotlight when he was profiled on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” in a segment about the grooming and exploitation of high school basketball prodigies. The national exposure shed light on his talents and all but guaranteed that upon graduation, hoop fans all over the nation would watch his every move.
Dominguez High proved to be a good fit for Chandler, as evidenced by his breakout senior year. Then 7-feet tall and 225-pounds, he led the Dons to a 31-4 record and the California state championship. He averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots a game. That same year, he was named a Parade Magazine All-American and the California State Player of the Year.
With momentum, some impressive accolades and his family’s support, he made the decision to enter the 2001 NBA Draft. That summer, on June 27, just a few weeks after his high school graduation, he was selected second overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. At first, he and his mother were thrilled that he would be playing so close to home. However, moments later, he was traded to the Chicago Bulls for power forward Elton Brand. The move came as a complete surprise. After all, Brand was the first overall pick of the 1999 Draft and had averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds during his first two NBA seasons. What’s more, Brand was considered the cornerstone of the Bulls’ rebuilding effort.
“When they traded him for me, I was shocked,” says Chandler. “I never expected the Bulls to do that. If anything, I imagined they might draft me to play along side him. Suddenly, I felt a huge weight on my back. I thought, ‘I have to get out there and really do something big—and fast.’ I felt a lot of pressure.”
The trade surprised and bewildered many Bulls fans too. Brand was a proven talent, and likely to become a perennial All-Star. Chandler, on the other hand, was fresh out of high school, untested and still years away from reaching his prime. Former Bulls boss Jerry Krause, however, saw something special in Chandler that transcended time and statistics.
“We never had any doubt,” says Krause. “We knew Elton Brand was a fine player. We understood that he was going put up numbers with the Clippers. Tyson, however, is five inches taller than Elton, and he is exceptionally quick. We really liked him as a player and decided to make the move. We had no doubts that Tyson would be an All-Star down the line.”
With Brand in LA, Chandler knew he had some big shoes to fill. Yet, when fellow high school phenom and Windy City native Eddy Curry joined him as a Bull, it became clear that Chicago was planning its future around a pair of promising big men. By drafting Curry with the fourth overall pick, Krause took a lot of pressure off Chandler’s shoulders. In addition, Krause provided both youngsters with a teammate and friend who would experience the same growing pains.
“With both of us coming right out of high school, we each experienced the same bumps in the road,” says Curry. “We definitely lean on each other. We’ve gone through the same ups and downs and we try to be there for each other.”
For Chandler, who had never lived outside of California, Chicago was a major change. He was leaving behind his mother, his stepfather, three little brothers and 26 cousins.
“Home is always going to be my mama’s house in California,” says Chandler with a smile. “Being away was tough at first, but I really enjoy Chicago. The winter weather isn’t to my taste, but the people are. I’ve met a lot of great folks here, and I want to be the player that brings Chicago back to its feet. I feel like this city deserves another championship. So I’ve put it upon myself to get us back there.”
Chandler has the ability to get Windy City sports fans out of their seats, much like another local athlete has done so many times.
(Photo by Adam Fluck/Bulls.com)
Chandler’s play steadily improved throughout this past season as well. In February, he earned the honor of being the team’s CDW Player of the Month. In 13 games (10 starts), he averaged 12.5 points and 9.8 rebounds a game. He also reached double figures in scoring on eight occasions, in rebounding on six occasions, and posted four double-doubles.
For the month, Chandler finished first in the NBA in offensive rebounds, sixth in total rebounds, fourth in blocked shots and ninth in overall field-goal percentage. Over a seven game stretch immediately after the All-Star break, he averaged 15.9 points, 11.8 rebounds and three blocks, while shooting a blistering .595 from the field.
“Obviously, we’ve seen what he can do,” says Coach Bill Cartwright. “He’s done a real good job. When he plays well, we do well. I think we’ve seen signs of what Tyson’s capable of doing on a regular basis.”
Chandler, along with teammate Jay Williams, was selected to participate in NBA All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, playing in the Got Milk? Rookie Challenge game. The event pits rookies and second-year players in a friendly full-court clash. For Tyson, the weekend served as an inspiration of what’s on the horizon if he continues to work hard.
“Participating in All-Star Weekend was amazing—it was like getting a taste,” says Chandler. “Eventually, I want to be one of the greats in this league, and I believe I’m capable of doing just that. All I have to do is continue working hard at improving my game. I don’t want any letdowns.”
With all the hype surrounding high school players, the media has been quick to concoct a heated rivalry between Chandler and Amare Stoudemire—the talented, rookie power forward of the Phoenix Suns and fellow high school newcomer. Stoudemire, however, coolly dismisses any talk of a rivalry as little more than friendly competition.
“No, there’s no rivalry,” says Stoudemire. “We’re both here representing guys coming out of high school. That’s all it is. There are only a few of us in the league, so we have a bond. Tyson is good. He’s long, athletic and he’s getting better every day. We really don’t talk a lot of trash. Actually, we’re making ourselves better because we seem to play harder against each other.”
While Chandler is long, tall and unquestionably athletic, some critics point to his lack of upper-body size, strength and durability. Yet, assistant coach Bob Thornton, Chandler’s mentor and teacher—and a big man himself—feels much of the criticism is unwarranted.
“Everybody who’s played the post position loves to say he needs more weight,” says Thornton. “Does he need more strength? Yes. Can he use a few pounds? Sure. But I think if the strength is there, the weight won’t be much of an issue because he’s so athletic. If you put it in realistic terms, he’s just finished his sophomore year in college. He’s got time.”
Aside from perhaps being the NBA’s most agile seven-footer, Chandler’s greatest asset is his confidence.
(Photo by NBAE Photos)
“He likes to play and he loves to learn,” says Thornton. “He’s very interested in how to do things the right way. If he keeps progressing, he has a chance to do a lot of wonderful things in this league.”
Aside from perhaps being the NBA’s most agile seven-footer, Chandler’s greatest asset is his confidence. For a young man squaring off against veteran talent on a nightly basis, Chandler isn’t easily intimidated or overwhelmed by his competition.
“That’s one of his best traits,” says teammate, Jalen Rose. “He has pride. Tyson takes competition personally, and that’s a good thing to have in this league. You can measure how fast a guy can run or high he can jump, but you can’t measure his heart and his will to compete. He has a lot of that and that’s why I believe so much in Tyson.”
At 7’1”, it’s hard for Chandler to “blend in” when he decides to go out. Often, he’s stopped by fans, who ask him for an autograph or to pose for a quick picture. Yet, he doesn’t mind. Being so young, he recalls with clarity what it’s like to be a fan.
“As a player, the fans are the greatest thing to be a part of,” says Chandler. “It wasn’t that long ago that I was a fan, so I know how it feels. When I was younger, watching NBA players, it seemed like they were godlike out on the court. Now that I’m a part of this league, every now and then, I like to look up in the stands and think back to how I felt when I was sitting there.”
On his right arm, Chandler exhibits a tattoo touting the Darwinian principle, “Only the Strong Survive.” Partly, it’s a testament to his deep-seated work ethic, but also it’s a lasting and constant reminder of his progress in the league and the effort it will take to succeed. Yet, behind all of that—his potential, progress, talent and desire to carve out a lasting legacy—is a normal, 20-year-old young man.
“A lot of people don’t know me,” says Chandler. “Many times, when it is just me and my family, they say, ‘I wish the public could see you now.’ I’m really just a fun-loving dude. I’m energetic. I’m a prankster. I’m just like any other guy out there. I’m just in a different situation. But I’m still just like you.”
- By Allen Sloan Torpie