No Quit

Antonio McDyess fought through 3 devastating knee injuries but found a home in Detroit

Antonio McDyess has found a home in Detroit, following three devastating knee injuries and four different teams throughout his career.
Gregory Shamus (NBAE/Getty)
Editor’s note: The following story on Antonio McDyess appeared in the winter 2008 edition of Courtside Quarterly, the magazine for Pistons season-ticket holders.

The gold medal they draped around Antonio McDyess’ neck during the 2000 Sydney Olympics didn’t stay there long. He tried giving it away. Not because he didn’t cherish the opportunity to represent his country. Not because he wouldn’t treasure the memory of winning a championship on the world’s biggest stage.

As with almost everything Antonio McDyess does, attempting to give Larry Brown – an assistant on Rudy Tomjanovich’s Team USA staff – his gold medal was a spontaneous gesture straight from the heart, a genuine token of his appreciation for all Brown had done to teach him basketball’s nuance. All the subtleties he’d never had to learn to dominate in tiny Quitman, Miss. – “a real friendly town,” McDyess calls Quitman, “where everyone is pretty much family” – or in the SEC during his two years at Alabama. Or in the NBA, where he stood out, even among freakishly gifted athletes, as a freakishly gifted athlete.

But at the root of it was something deeper. Give away a gold medal? Not to be taken lightly, but … why not? There would be plenty more medals and rings in his future, wouldn’t there? He celebrated his 26th birthday in Sydney and he was just learning how to do things that didn’t involve running and jumping and dunking, yet he was already good enough to be an NBA double-double machine.

“An unbelievable, phenomenal athlete,” Chauncey Billups, his teammate once with the Denver Nuggets and now with the Pistons, shakes his head. “Twenty-two and 12 every night. Every night.”

Almost eight years and three devastating knee injuries later, McDyess is on his fourth try for a ring since joining the Pistons following their 2004 title – a big reason he chose Detroit as a free agent that summer, but not the only reason – and if he gets one, this time he isn’t likely to consider passing on the prize.

Not because he isn’t famously generous and as sensitive to those around him as he ever was.

“Antonio can give away more without giving money than people who give away a million dollars,” said Sammy Smith, his high school coach who became more – first a father figure and then an enduring friend – to a kid raised with four siblings by a single mother, Gloria McDyess, in Quitman, a woman who when asked what she wanted her suddenly wealthy young son to buy her, asked for a china cabinet. He bought her a house, instead. “That gold medal he tried to give coach Brown? That’s the type of person he is. Everybody’s got those fairy-tale stories about him.”

“Antonio is one of the nicest, kindest, funniest individuals you’ll ever meet,” said his agent, Andy Miller, whose client list includes Billups and Kevin Garnett. “He has a caring about him that’s very genuine and real. It’s not a façade. Being a professional athlete is what he does, but it’s not who he is.”

“McDyess epitomizes everything I look for in a player,” said Pistons president Joe Dumars, who would go home after Pistons games in the 2004 title season and catch Phoenix on satellite TV, monitoring the work of McDyess as he returned from his third knee injury and filing it away for that summer’s free-agent hunting season. “He genuinely cares about doing the right stuff. He’s a 32-, 33-year-old man now and he understands. He cares about doing the right stuff all the time. If every guy could approach it like McDyess, then I’d be happy.”

‘Raw athleticism’

So it’s not that age and injury have hardened McDyess’ heart or turned him cynical. That’s not why he wouldn’t consider transferring ownership of the gaudy bauble he hopes will adorn his ring finger someday soon. It’s because of what the man the NBA universally knows as “Dice” has endured since Sydney, when a boundlessly energetic 26-year-old – whom Flip Saunders remembers as playing “recklessly, relentlessly” – with an equally boundless future tried giving his gold medal to Larry Brown.

It’s because of those three horrific knee injuries. And the pain, and the surgeries, and the rehabilitation – the endless rehabilitation. And the sweat, and the tears, and the frustration. And the anger, and the loyalty that sometimes got turned against him, and the home he discovered in Detroit, where it finally felt right. Where he found teammates who cared about the team as much as he did. And a front office that didn’t ask more than his left knee could withstand before it was ready to deliver on the promise Sammy Smith saw when he inherited a coiled 6-foot-7, 210-pound mass of sinewy explosion 17 years ago in Quitman, a dot on the map in southeast Mississippi, near the Alabama border.

“Raw athleticism,” Smith recalls of the junior star for the Quitman Panthers when he took over as coach. “I’ve never coached a kid with that much talent as far as pure athletic ability. Athletically, he was off the chain.”

If Smith, still coaching at nearby Columbus High School – “We actually have some stoplights in Columbus,” he laughs – took special interest in McDyess for that off-the-chain athleticism initially, the relationship quickly shifted to other foundations.

“Antonio is very observant, very quiet, but he’s paying attention. I call him A.M. and people assume it’s because those are his initials. But it’s really for A.M. – as in early in the morning. He’s up early and he’s paying attention. When he got to know me, it didn’t take long for him to warm up to me. We talked very little about basketball. I wanted to know what he wanted out of life and what’s your plan and how are you going to get there. He told me what he wanted – to be the best player he could be and go to the college he wanted to go to. I told him the plan and he didn’t look back, he didn’t flinch and he didn’t let anyone stop him.”

Basketball would open the door to their discussions, but once inside the room, everything was fair game – family, friends, girlfriends, school, the future, shoes and wallets.

Shoes and wallets? They talked about … accessorizing?

“We communicated about everything,” Smith said. “We would talk about shoes. He asked, ‘Why don’t you carry a wallet.’ I told him, ‘Wallets cost more money than I’ve got in my pocket. Why carry a wallet?’

“Antonio got married this summer. He kept telling me I had to come to Mexico for the wedding and I didn’t think I could do it. But he kept begging me to come. When I got there, the minister asked me to stand up and I had no idea what was happening. I never had any children. They always say the best thing that can happen to you is the birth of your child. The best thing that happened to me was when he asked me to stand up in his wedding.”

That was a part of the plan he couldn’t see back in Quitman. He couldn’t see past college then. That’s as big as he dared to dream. But he didn’t flinch. And he didn’t look back. And he wouldn’t let anyone stop him.

Not anyone. But anything? Something almost stopped him. His left knee almost stopped him.

‘Me and Rasheed’

The college McDyess wanted was Alabama. It was close to home. The Tide won the 1992 football national championship and that registered with him. And one of Sammy Smith’s buddies had landed a job as a Tide assistant coach.

Recruiting wasn’t quite as crazy then as now, when Internet blogs and message boards chronicle every text message sent and received to hot-shot prospects. But McDyess was nationally known despite shunning the AAU and camp circuit. Sonny Vaccaro, who carved a career out of steering college coaches and future superstars to Nike, adidas and Reebok at various eras over the years, tabbed McDyess to play in the 1993 Magic’s Roundball Classic game at The Palace of Auburn Hills, where he would find himself frontcourt teammates with the player considered the nation’s top recruit that year, a lanky Philadelphian headed for defending national champion North Carolina named Rasheed Wallace.

“Me and Rasheed played on the same team – right here at The Palace,” McDyess says now, almost 15 years later. “That’s when I first met him. Everything we heard going into the game was ‘Rasheed, Rasheed, Rasheed.’ I’m like, ‘Is he really that good?’ But he was really that good. He scored like 30 points in that game. I had about 14 or 15.”

And was Rasheed as quick with the tongue as a teen as he is today?

“He wasn’t loud like he is now,” McDyess says, his trademark incandescent grin lighting up the room. “He didn’t say much at all.”

Valuable object lesson: People can change over time, as can basketball players. If Joe Dumars hadn’t watched McDyess into the early morning hours over February, March and April 2004 – studied him, in fact – he might not have noticed that his repertoire was lean on running and dunking and heavy on stingy post defense and beautifully delivered 18-foot jump shots.

“He’s become a better basketball player,” Flip Saunders said. “He doesn’t just rely on his athleticism. It’s one of those things – the knee injury hurt him a little bit, but made him a better player.”

“He thinks more,” said Chauncey Billups, who made fast friends with McDyess when their paths crossed in Denver and stayed close with him when their career paths separated them. “His game is a little more mental now. When we were in Denver, our team wasn’t very good. If he was playing and getting all the touches like he got then, he could do that now. He probably wouldn’t want to, but he’s capable of doing that now.”

“That was his first two or three years in the league,” Dumars says today, scoffing at the McDyess stereotypes. “Where was Chauncey his first few years in the league? Who was Rasheed? You don’t want to form an opinion and then let those opinions hold for the next 10, 12 years.”

Especially when it’s not only age and experience that changes the player, but traumatic and multiple injuries.

‘A highlight film’

Although he was drafted by the Clippers, McDyess spent his first two season with the Nuggets after a draft day trade.
Fernando Medina (NBAE/Getty)
Dunking. That’s how Antonio McDyess shredded his knee. All three times. How’s that for irony? The very gift that got him a free ride out of Quitman and made him a 1995 lottery pick after two dazzling seasons at Alabama almost cut his career in half, long before the records could have fallen or the rings could be amassed.

“I was pretty much a highlight film,” McDyess remembers. “I had a 47-inch vertical. I used to shoot the ball, but my main thing was I was real physical. Amare Stoudamire reminds me of myself, kind of. Just getting to the basket and dunking. I never played outside the paint like I do now. A double-double was a given every night for me.”

The Clippers drafted him No. 2, two spots before Wallace was drafted by Washington, and shipped him to Denver on draft night – that’s why they’re the Clippers – for Rodney Rogers and a couple of second-round picks. He averaged 13.4 points and 7.5 rebounds as a rookie, steadily advancing those numbers – through a 1997 trade to Phoenix for three first-rounders, a one-year stopover before returning to Denver as a free agent – until he exploded in his fourth season. As a 24-year-old, McDyess put up 21.2 and 10.7 for the Nuggets. The next two years were more of the same, catapulting him on to the 2000 Olympic team.

Late in a season in which he would average 20.8 points and 12.1 rebounds, the Nuggets were playing Phoenix when McDyess – doing what he always did – barreled to the basket and soared to dunk.

“I was coming down the lane real hard and Tom Gugliotta was in front of me. I went up and tried to dunk – I was about to jump right over him – but when I planted he pushed me in the stomach, like he didn’t want me to hit him. I planted so hard that I kind of buckled my knee. I was waiting for the pain to go away, but I didn’t think anything was wrong. I went to the free-throw line and shot my free throws, then I went running back down the court.”

At that point, he knew. Something was wrong.

“My knee started swelling right away.”

The diagnosis: a partially torn patellar tendon, that sinewy strand that attaches the kneecap to the tibia, the big bone in the lower leg. Because it was a 30 percent tear, they decided against surgery.

On the last day of training camp the following fall, in a three-on-two game, planting to dunk again, McDyess felt the same sickening tug at his knee. This time it was an 80 percent tear.

“It was barely hanging on. So they went in and repaired it. Worst pain of my life. It was, ‘Oh, my God.’ Just gruesome pain. It was ridiculous. But I came back and played after the surgery, the last month of that season.”

Hello, Broadway!

Denver was bad and about to get worse. With McDyess, a shell of himself, available only for the last 10 games of the 2001-02 season, the Nuggets won 27 games. They were committed to rebuilding. McDyess didn’t fit their plans to shed payroll and rebuild with lottery choices. So they asked if he was open to trade and he conceded. On draft night 2002, McDyess was swapped to New York, a place Miller, his agent, thought might be a bad fit for the quiet country kid from Quitman.

“I thought it would take him a long time to adjust, a small-town guy in the big city, but he chose to live in the city and reverse commute to Westchester for practice,” Miller said. “He hit the ground running, everything going smoothly. He was the pride of New York, playing very well as he went through the preseason. They were blowing somebody out – then he blew out the left kneecap. It was catastrophic.”

“I’m averaging a double-double in preseason,” McDyess said, implicit in his tone now the disbelief that the Knicks would recklessly push him so soon after returning to basketball. “I wanted to come out and prove the knee injury was behind me. I’m playing hard. We were playing Phoenix – again. I had like 27 and 15 or something, late in the game, tie game, coach left me in. Our team shot the ball and it was bouncing, I came and dunked it off the rim and it felt like somebody hit me – just hit me – and I was like, ‘They ain’t going to call a foul?’

“I looked around and nobody was there. So I knew something was wrong. I went to the ground, grabbed my knee, got up, walked off the floor fine. The pain went away. I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to go back out.’ The doctor told me to bend down. So I go to bend down and I just felt it go … Poof! I had fractured my kneecap in three places. It was split, like the Mercedes sign. They said most likely, how it happened, the tendon was pulled too tight and there was too much stress on it.

“It wasn’t the pain. The first one was the painful one. It was the thought of the rehab. ‘I’ve got to go back in and rehab a whole ’nother year.’ That was on my mind the whole time.”

So was something else: retirement.

‘I’m done – that’s it’

“I still remember that night it happened,” Miller said. “I got a phone call at 5 in the morning. Dice was staying at a hotel – his apartment wasn’t ready yet – and I get there very early in the morning, the lights were out, the shades were drawn. He was manic-depressive. He was really, really upset. The knee being blown out, disappointing the New York fans, not wanting to endure the rehabilitation and everything else. There was a lot of emotion to the whole thing.

“He said, ‘I’m done – that’s it. I don’t want to play anymore. I’ve had it.’ It dawned on me at that point that it wasn’t about the money. Dice is a very shrewd businessman. He had made enough money. He’s not one of those veterans who hangs around for the money because he’d spent frivolously. This was about him being a player again, knowing the season would be lost and he wouldn’t have played for two straight years. After surgery, he was alienated from the team. He couldn’t travel, couldn’t sit on the bench – he wasn’t really a part of the team.”

Miller, based nearby in northern New Jersey, would drive into the city and have lunch with McDyess twice a week, call him daily, McDyess always talking about walking away, Miller always with the same message: You’ll regret it if you do.

“I knew that if he had allowed that injury to determine the rest of his basketball career, at some point he would resent it,” Miller said. “The more he talked about retirement, the more I would push back. I just kept pushing on him and pushing, challenging him.”

As the months passed, Miller saw faint signs of McDyess warming to the idea of returning to basketball. But McDyess was also getting impatient with the progress of his recovery. And with good reason. Every two weeks they took X-rays and he was always attached to a machine that stimulated bone growth. But he was a long way from trusting his left knee. And the doctors weren’t giving him much good news.

“I’m thinking, ‘OK, maybe it will be healed by summertime,’ ” McDyess said, “but we weren’t really seeing any progress in the healing and they never said anything. That’s the thing that upset me. They waited a whole season. Last game of the season, ‘OK, Antonio, the bone isn’t healing and we’re going to have to go in and do something else.’ ”

“We get this final CAT scan and I remember sitting in the doctor’s office,” Miller said. “When they told him, ‘It’s not healing and we’re going to have to do another surgery,’ he bolted out of that room, hysterically crying. We had to literally send out a search party. We had no idea where he’d gone.

“It turned out he was in the rehab office. ‘I can’t do it anymore. I’m done. I don’t want to have another surgery.’ He was distraught.”

‘One more shot’

He wasn’t the only one. Back in Mississippi, the news devastated Sammy Smith.

“It tore me down,” he remembers. “If he was down for a month, I was down for five months. I knew what he was going through and I couldn’t get to him. He needed me. I’d tell him, ‘Antonio, you don’t want to go out like this. We’re going to get back there. We’re going to get back to the potential you had before you got hurt.’ When he’s really down, he’ll find a way to hunt me down and get in touch with me. That was a tough time for me – a tough time for Antonio.”

It got tougher and tougher for Miller, too, but he remained resolute: “You don’t want to walk away like this. Give it one more shot.”

They decided to go to the Mayo Clinic, where bone graft surgery – a piece of McDyess’ right hip is now a part of his left knee – was performed to expedite healing. Miller accompanied him and was there as McDyess emerged from the fog of anesthesia.

“When he was finally coming to, I said to him, ‘Dice, you made it through surgery. The doctors say everything looks good. If you’re OK, I’ve got to go see the Timberwolves play.’ Once you know Dice, he’s the biggest jokester in the world. He was busting on me. ‘You only came to Minnesota to see Garnett play.’ At that point, I knew he was OK.”

Well, yes and no. He still had another rehab to endure. He still felt pressure to return as soon as possible so New York could justify the deal that cost the Knicks the No. 7 pick in the ’02 draft, a young Brazilian big man, Nene, who would sometimes do things – running, jumping, dunking – reminiscent of a young Antonio McDyess.

He returned midway through the 2003-04 season – almost two full years since coming back for the final 10 games of 2001-02 after his first surgery – just in time for Isiah Thomas, newly installed as Knicks president, to begin his radical overhaul. McDyess got shipped back to Phoenix in a package that brought Stephon Marbury home to New York.

He was a long way from healthy and even farther from the highlight film Antonio McDyess. It was disheartening to be on a basketball court and feel abandoned by the skills that delivered you to the NBA, the athleticism that had always been Antonio McDyess’ default position.

“After everything he went through,” Miller said, “he tried to rush back. He wasn’t 100 percent, even after New York traded him to Phoenix and finishing up that year.”

“I played a couple of games for Phoenix before I told them to put me on the injured list,” McDyess said. “I called Andy and told him to tell them to cut me so I could go on. He wouldn’t do it. I begged. I said, ‘Please. I’m not going to go back to practice if you don’t call them and tell them to cut me.’ He never did.”

“I would never acquiesce,” Miller said. “I would not discuss it. ‘You’ll have to fire me if you want to retire. You will not get there with me.’ You have to have a big heart and strong character to fight through the rehab he went through. He had hit rock bottom.”

There was another person who pushed McDyess, who knew he’d always regret walking away before he was certain his body had nothing left to give to basketball, someone besides Andy Miller and Sammy Smith. It was his longtime girlfriend, Liara, who would become his wife last summer when they wed in Mexico and Smith stood at their side.

“She was very critical in all of this,” Miller said. “I remember meeting her in the hospital after the first surgery. She was right there by his side through all of this, and I can assure you that Dice is not a world-class patient. I give her and his mom a lot of credit.”

The climb back started in Phoenix, from gradually regaining confidence in his knee, to seeing better and better results as the otherwise meaningless final days of a 29-53 season wound down, to working with iconic Suns assistant coach Tim Grgurich, who told McDyess, “Son, you might not be able to do the things you used to do, but we’re going to work on other stuff. We’re going to work on your jump shot. It’s perfect – you just need to use it.”

Back in Houston, where he makes his off-season home and has business interests, McDyess worked with ex-NBA star and coach John Lucas, who put him in a chair and had him work on his shooting from a seated position.

“I just gained so much confidence out on the floor, shooting the ball.”

‘A no-brainer’

Miller again had a client who embraced basketball. He also had a client who was a free agent. McDyess yearned to return to his Southern roots, but he wanted to win and the Pistons had a job opening. They were losing Mehmet Okur through a since-closed loophole as a free agent to Utah, which could offer him more than the Pistons. His goo buddy, Chauncey Billups, was in McDyess’ ear, telling him what a great group of teammates he’d have in Detroit, what a terrific situation it would be for him to play off the bench behind Ben and Rasheed Wallace as he rebuilt his career.

Billups served as the matchmaker, but Joe Dumars didn’t need much arm-twisting. He’d seen McDyess get gradually better as the season sped to its finish, not the old McDyess but someone who’d be an ideal fit behind the Wallaces.

There was one other wild card that worked to Detroit’s advantage: strength coach Arnie Kander’s reputation as a miracle worker in rehabbing – and preventing – injury.

“As I negotiated with Detroit that summer, I felt it was the right place for him personally, but I also felt Arnie Kander would be an excellent contributor to his success and that’s really what happened,” Miller said.

“He finally got to a place where the team wasn’t worried about what Antonio would put on the table right now,” Smith said. “They were worried about what Antonio would put on the table when he got healthy. That’s the best thing that happened to him. Everywhere else they wanted him to save the franchise. Those other people weren’t worried about him; they were worried about them. Detroit took the opposite approach. Detroit wasn’t worried about today; they were worried about tomorrow. I thanked Joe Dumars for that.”

McDyess, at first stunned the defending NBA champions wanted him, found in Detroit what he didn’t know existed in the NBA – a family atmosphere as surely as he found back in Quitman.

“When I first heard they were interested, I was speechless. After everything, I didn’t think anyone would want me. I still wasn’t as good as I used to be. I told Andy to stop lying to me. Then Chauncey, being my good friend, told me the same thing. So I knew it was true. When other teams found out the Pistons were interested, then they became interested. But it was a no-brainer for me.

“It’s totally different here. No question. I’ve been on teams where guys don’t even speak to each other when they come in the locker room. This team is a family. They welcomed me on the first day, like I was one of them, and I knew then this was the place for me. It’s rare to find teams with such good guys. You can find teams when you’re doing well and your teammates wish you the worst. This team builds you up. That’s rare. It’s been like that from day one and it still is.”

‘He loves Detroit’

Which is why it stung so deeply last January, after the Pistons acquired Chris Webber and Dumars publicly made it known that he’d have to move one of his surplus big men. McDyess wasn’t his first choice, but his productivity and favorable contract made him the most attractive trade option. Miller was brought into the loop, as agents are in such situations. Another team made an attractive offer that Dumars considered. But when push came to shove, he couldn’t do it.

Good thing, because the trade likely would have been rescinded. Antonio McDyess wasn’t going anywhere.

“I didn’t feel I could move again. Moving from a team like this – being spoiled, pretty much – it would be a downgrade. I told Andy if I have to move to another team, I was retiring. And I was dead serious.”

“He certainly had the value to move him,” Dumars says now, “but as I look at him today, I’ve said to (Pistons vice president) John Hammond, ‘Man, where would we be without McDyess right now?’ Not only am I happy he’s here, I’m happy we have him signed up for the next three years.”

That’s because last summer, when McDyess exercised the opt-out clause in his contract and became a free agent again, there were really no options for Miller. He knew – and the Pistons knew – that there was only one place he wanted to be.

“He loves Detroit,” Miller said. “He didn’t want to go anywhere else. When he was in Phoenix and became a free agent, Detroit was not his ideal locale. He wanted to be in the South. But it’s worked out pretty well, you might say.”

“Antonio, if he’s true to you, he’s true to you forever,” said Sammy Smith, who long ago taught Antonio McDyess that life’s most important possessions couldn’t be carried in a wallet. “He doesn’t get hung up on what you have or what you don’t have. He’s a down-to-earth country boy.”

“He’s fought through a lot,” Andy Miller said. “I respect that about him. This guy had to literally change his entire life. His motivation came from his gut – and, probably in large part, not wanting to hear me in his ear anymore. Come to think of it, that was probably his greatest motivation – getting me out of his ear.”

So the marriage of Antonio McDyess and the Pistons has been mutually beneficial, and for that they all have many reasons to give thanks and just as many people to thank – Andy Miller, Sammy Smith, Liara McDyess and his mother, Gloria McDyess, among them. They’re all a part of the story of Antonio McDyess, the down-to-earth country boy who took the Quit out of Quitman.