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Green, All-Star Game MVP, Finally Ready for Round Two

After getting jettisoned from the NBA, a new Gerald Green mounts a comeback with an NBA D-League All-Star Game MVP title.

Los Angeles D-Fenders guard Gerald Green (center) scored 28 points to claim MVP honors in the 2012 NBA D-League All-Star Game.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. – Axe the asterisk.

In the end, Gerald Green said, it was never an option. The 2007 NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion could have accepted the offer to compete in Saturday’s NBA Development League Slam Dunk Contest and, by doing so, could have given eventual champion L.D. Williams a run. Had he won, he would’ve become the first-ever Slam Dunk champ in both leagues.

It’s just that, well, he’s no longer the guy you remember. No longer the same Gerald Green that blew out his own candle in 2008.

After winning the 2007 Slam Dunk crown, Green's Birthday Cake dunk earned him a second-place finish in 2008, behind Dwight Howard's Superman. A year later, he was out of the NBA.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“I kinda wanted to take away this myth about me just being a dunker – only a Dunk Contest guy,” said Green, now a member of the L.A. D-Fenders. “I wanted to give the young guys an extra chance, the guys who’ve never been in the Dunk Contest an extra chance to get exposed.”

That’s not to say anybody left the Jam Session at the Orange County Convention Center on Saturday feeling cheated. In his 24 minutes of play at the NBA D-League All-Star Game – most of them spent in flight – Green put on his own private version of the Dunk Contest, throwing down from all over the court to finish with a game-high 28 points and take home the All-Star MVP award. He soared and practically levitated. He twisted. He showed off the raw muscular combustion that made him a first-round draft pick in 2005.

But above all, after spending two years on the other side of the world bouncing between teams that’d take him – because the NBA sure wouldn’t – he showed what’s become of Gerald Green. That he’s kept the bounce but thrown out the bravado, gave himself completely to bettering his game and now considers himself just a ballplayer happy to be back in his home country.

“It was tough,” Green said about leaving the NBA in 2009. “I had to go overseas and kinda re-find myself. I had to rebuild what I had started going early in my career. I’m just glad to be back in the States where I can see old faces and old friends, and I’m just so happy to be here. I really am.”

But after Saturday’s performance, you can consider him the NBA D-League’s hottest Prospect.

Physically, he clearly hadn’t lost anything. In front of a capacity crowd at the Jam Session Center Court at the Orange County Convention Center, Green played – often literally – on a different plane than everybody else.

When he’d dunk, he’d look down at the basket, pounding the rim like he was trying to take it with him. When he’d take an alley-oop, it looked like the Western Conference point guards were just trying to knock out a hanging speaker.

“I told him he was unreal,” said Austin Toros point guard Justin Dentmon. “The way he gets out in transition is crazy. I’ve never seen nothing like it in person. I just told him, ‘You keep running, I’m gonna keep giving it to you.’”

Even Green’s missed dunks charged up the crowd.

At one point, Reno’s Blake Ahearn had the ball on the right side, and Green took off from just in front of the foul line to grab the rebound. Except Ahearn had other ideas. He faked the shot and passed to Green, but a foot behind where the ball should’ve gone. Green reached back with his right hand, transferred to his left – all of this in the air – and just missed the finish at the rim.

“He’s not human,” said Zach Andrews, the L.A. D-Fender that actually was in the Slam Dunk Contest. “They talk about me, but he’s beyond that.”

But that perception, as strange as it sounds, is part of the problem.

Green’s ability was never the question. It’s just that virtually everything else was. He burst onto the scene directly from high school and left his defensive game back with his books, failing to establish himself in a lineup over four years in the Show. He could dazzle, but tended to disappoint.

“A lot of people always ask me, ‘do you regret coming out of high school?’” Green said, “And I’m like, ‘No I don’t, because NBA is the best league you can go to. The best league in the world, and there’s not a better way to be prepared than going right to the NBA.

“I was just immature,” he continued. “I didn’t prepare myself right. It’s like I didn’t know how to be a professional because I was straight outta high school. That’s one good thing I learned when I went overseas. I learned how to be a pro. I learned how to conduct yourself better and don’t take any days for granted.”

So when Andrews talks about Green as “not human,” it doesn’t speak to all the work Green put in in Russia and China before heading to the NBA D-League. Falling out of the NBA did away with his ego. Fate had spit him out, and he wasn’t an NBA player anymore. He was just a man, far from home.

He worked on his defense, his rebounding and his jump shot, making sure that he could do more than just score by putting his entire arm through the hoop.

“I have dedicated myself over the past two to three years to really working on my game,” Green said. “I feel like my defense has gotten stronger, my jump shot has gotten more consistent. I feel like I’m just a smarter player than I was a couple years ago the last time I was in the league.”

The results reflect the work. In the past month, he’s recorded six games with seven rebounds or more (to go along with a 48.0 shooting percentage, and 45.8 percent from 3-point range), and somewhere in the range of three assists per game. But if Green committed himself to rounding out his game, he spent just as much time on filling himself out as a man.

And now you hear a different set of words used to describe Green.

“A lot of people look up to him,” Andrews said. “I learned a lot from him from practicing with him, both on and off the court stuff. He’s a very humble person.”

He’s turned into a leader in Los Angeles. Both a guy who’s been to The Show before and a sort of cautionary tale about what not to do when you get there.

“He helps me maintain my focus,” Andrews said. “It allows me to know we’re always being watched, not just me but everybody on my team. Even if you feel you’re down and your shot’s not falling, keep working hard, because at the end of the day, the NBA has scorers, they’re in need of guys who’ll work hard.

“And if I’m mad or having a bad day, I can’t be mad around Gerald,” Andrews continued. “He won’t let me be mad. He’s always making jokes, keeping me positive.”

D-Fenders coach Eric Musselman – the former NBA coach who’s already delivered four D-Fenders to the NBA this year, after making a career of doing so as a coach in the now-defunct CBA – has helped him get there, Green said. Musselman’s held him as accountable as he’s held himself.

“Every day he rides me about staying focused,” Green said. “Don’t take even a second off. Take no plays off. Don’t take practice for granted, because you never know when it’s gonna be your last day to play basketball again.”

And now, Green’s positioned himself to be playing basketball in the world’s best league once again, and for the first time since a brief stint with the Mavericks in 2008-09. And if he keeps progressing, the three years out of the league won’t need an asterisk, either. Because they’ll just be a footnote.