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Q&A: Jeff Green on chasing title and hoping to inspire Caris LeVert

Green believes the Nets will have a championship-caliber defense come the playoffs.

Khari Arnold

Jeff Green, who has overcome a ton of adversity following heart surgery nine years ago, is having an impact for the Nets.

LeBron James was joking around on a broadcast during the Rookie-Sophomore game in 2009.

While showcasing his commentating skills, he compared second-year forward Jeff Green to an old uncle at the gym who would always punish opponents in the low post.

The two barely knew each other at the time.

Years later, however, their relationship has blossomed and so has that LeBron-given nickname “uncle.” It went from a joke about Green’s on-court fundamentals to a true encapsulation of the veteran’s presence in the locker room. He’s the uncle you respect, the one who smiles often but means business, the one who checks in on you even if you’re 730 miles away. 

That’s the distance from Brooklyn to Indianapolis, which is the route Caris LeVert took after he was dealt in the James Harden trade. Hearing news that a small mass on LeVert’s kidney was discovered during a team physical, Green delivered a text message to his former teammate, referencing his own tribulation years ago, as well as the comeback story that’s still being written.

Green stepped away from basketball in 2011 after a heart defect was discovered during a routine physical. He missed an entire season. Since then, Green has carved out an instrumental role on several NBA teams, including his current stint in Brooklyn. The 34-year-old is making half his shots and shooting a career-high 42.7% from deep on nearly 10 points per game. He’s guarding multiple positions and providing productive minutes down the stretch of a championship contender. If it’s not the Nets’ Big Three hitting clutch shots, it’s likely Green.

So, he’s come a long way since having heart surgery nine years ago and expects LeVert to bounce back and eventually become an All-Star. As for LeVert’s reply to Green’s encouraging text:

“Appreciate that Unc.”

Jeff Green also spoke with NBA.com about playing with LeBron, reuniting with Kevin Durant, the Nets’ defensive woes, HBCUs and his “welcome to the NBA” moment from Kobe Bryant. Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.


NBA.com: Describe what it takes to stay in this league for 10+ years as a player who isn’t considered a superstar, but does their job really well? 

Green: Dedication, loving the game, loving the process of the game and journey. The everyday grind, falling in love with that. That’s what it’s been for me. I realize I’ve been with a lot of teams, but deep down the hard work and passion for the game and what I put into it has kept me around. I’m thankful for that and all the opportunities that have been given. My job is just continue day in and day out to keep myself in the gym, stay well prepared and just do my part whenever my name is called. That’s what I’ve been doing. It’s been 14 years and 13 years playing. I’m very thankful for every opportunity. It gives me a lot of excitement everyday to know that I’m able to play this game at a high level with all that I’ve been through. 

Speaking of things you’ve been through, I’d like to hear your perspective on Caris LeVert. It was a somewhat similar tribulation. You had your heart surgery in 2012 after a routine physical exam revealed the condition. LeVert had a physical and MRI after being traded this season, then discovered he needed to have surgery for kidney cancer. Did you reach out to him after the news? 

I’ve talked to CL a lot through text, just letting him know I’m here for him and if there’s anything he needs. There’s only so much I can do from afar, but for me, knowing what I went through, it’s important just having somebody to speak to or just reach out and know that somebody has my back, and that’s exactly what I did for him. Once I found out, five minutes later I sent him a text letting him know you have to embrace the challenge, knowing that it’s a blessing in disguise. 

Yeah, he acknowledged the trade possibly could have saved him. 

It’s bigger than basketball. Basketball will always be there. He’s a young kid, a future All-Star of this league in my eyes. I told him to look at it as a blessing in disguise. Be thankful, keep your faith strong and look at this with a positive lens knowing that your health is more important than this basketball game. Hopefully those words helped him out. We got a chance to see him when we played in Indiana last week, and it was good to see him. He was in good spirits. When I was with him in Brooklyn, I was always talking to him just to see how he was doing on a personal level. He’s a good kid, and for me, it was just about telling him that I got his back, and I’m in his corner if there’s anything he needs along the process of recovering.

Did you expect to be playing this big a role in Brooklyn when you joined? 

I can’t say I expected the role, but with hard work, the experience that I have and being able to play multiple positions, I knew with that combo that I’d hopefully be having a role. But I never came in with an expectation. My job and mindset was to work as hard as I could to put myself in the position where coach is going to trust me enough to put me on the floor. That’s what I always come in with. I always come in with the mentality that I have to work for everything and earn my spot and my minutes. 

I was reading an old article from Sekou Smith, who we admired here at NBA.com, and he labeled you as “a 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward with the length and athleticism to match up against power forwards and the range and ballhandling skills to work on the perimeter.” That was written in 2012, but seems like that applies to you today. You’re guarding opposing bigs and shooting about 43% from deep. Speak to your game at 34. 

First off, RIP to Mr. Smith. I never got a chance to have a conversation with him, but watched his work on NBA TV and throughout his career. Prayers go out to his family. As far as the percentages and everything, I just put in the work, and I trust the work. I go out and I play with joy. I have fun with the game, and I do whatever it takes to help my team win. I just enjoy it all man. There’s no other way to put it; it’s just the love and the passion that I have for this game. I’m naturally motivated. I motivate myself to be better everyday whether that’s being a basketball player, a husband and a father.

As a player who’s lived in so many different cities and been traded during the season before, what’s that been like from a personal and family standpoint? 

I’ll be honest, it’s been amazing to experience our nation as much as I have. But for me, I have the best wife in the world. She makes everything easy for me, making sure our kids are squared away with school and what they need, making sure that I have everything that I need. I have to sacrifice a lot. I have to sacrifice a lot of time and she just makes life easy. Without her, none of this would be possible. She allows me to be stress free. She allows me to go out and do what I love as my number one fan. Without my wife, none of this would be possible. She makes every transition easy for me.

Virtually every team in the NBA that has won a championship in the last 10 years had a top 10 defense. The Warriors were 11th one year, but had the best defense in the postseason. Do you think you all can get to that level? 

I definitely think we can get to that level. There’s not a doubt in my mind that we can. I’m certain we will be, and if not, we’ll be close. I don’t live in the past as far as what other teams have done because of personnel changes year in and year out, and the game changes. I’m not saying that with our offensive talent that’s going to automatically put us in The Finals and have us winning. We do have to play defense, but at the end of the day, I’m confident in what we have regardless of where we rank in defense. People are going to find the flaw, and there are flaws in every team in this league. Defense just happens to be ours. I look at it like at the end of the day, we get questioned about our defense, but we’re second or third in the Eastern Conference standings, and that’s pretty good still. I think we’ll be OK when the time comes and it’s time to battle for that championship.

What has been the best part of reuniting with former Seattle/OKC teammate Kevin Durant, and did you call him when you started looking at Brooklyn in free agency? 

Yeah, me and KD talked on the phone before I signed. But honestly, most of it is not about basketball. I rarely talk basketball when it’s with my close people. It’s mainly about life. I love seeing where Kevin’s at in his life. I love seeing what James has done in his life. Obviously on the basketball side I’ve been a fan of what they’ve done, looking from afar and supporting them. I love seeing what they’ve both done. But it’s more about seeing our growth as men. I was 20 when we came in, KD was 18 and James got with us when he was 20. So we were all young kids. It’s amazing to see where we’re at now, all of us 30 plus, and how we’ve grown as men and matured mentally. It’s a blessing that we’ve reunited and are battling as brothers again to get that championship. That just makes it more special.

It’s January 14th, 2008. Overtime in Seattle. Less than 10 seconds left. Kobe Bryant has the ball in his hand, what are you thinking at this moment? 

(Laughs). That was one of my ‘welcome to the NBA’ moments, man. It was like one of those surreal movie scenes where you just feel every person’s energy and emotion in the arena. I just remember him bringing the ball up, trying to get the game-winning shot. I think I wrote in an Instagram post that I literally felt every fan stand up and start cheering when he had the ball. I felt like all the lights went out, and it was just us two. It was just like mano a mano. Like alright, this young rookie against the legend Kobe Bryant, I got to go for the stop. Obviously it did not happen, but it was that surreal moment like, ‘Wow, I’m guarding Kobe Bryant on the iso for the game.’ It was definitely an experience man. Rest in peace to the legend. It was that welcome to the NBA moment where I’m thinking, ‘You’re here, you’re here, try to make something happen.’ We didn’t get it done, but it was a wonderful experience, something that I’ll never ever forget. 

Do you recall him saying anything to you during or after the game? 

Nah, I just remember I used to leave with welts on my arm. He was a physical cat man. It was definitely a challenge every time I went against him. You had to be ready mentally and physically when you go against a guy like that, and he got the best of me a lot of those nights. I’m just thankful I was able to share the court with him. He was a beast.

Do you have a favorite memory playing against your coach Steve Nash? 

Yeah, I do. It was actually my very first NBA game. We played preseason in Vancouver, Canada my rookie year. I knew of Steve Nash, but I never knew of his presence, especially in Canada. I can’t recall the arena we played in, but every seat was filled. When he ran out, everybody stood up and gave this man the loudest ovation I’ve ever heard. That was the first time we played against him and Amar’e (Stoudemire). And I’m not going to lie, that’s who I wanted to get drafted to. 

Really, why was that? 

It was based on how they play, going up and down, the fast-pace offense they ran back then. It was something I wanted to be a part of, but I didn’t get that chance. I got the chance to see it up close (against them). Amar’e was somebody I saw play when he was in high school. I was a big, big fan of Amar’e. Then to see Steve’s presence in my first game was remarkable. It was insane. 

I read where Nash said people aren’t feeling the chess tournaments he’s proposed as a way to bond. How have you all been able to get closer as a team on this road trip?  

It’s kind of difficult being on the West coast because of the strict (COVID-19) rules and not being able to be in the same place as a group. It’s put some handcuffs on those missions, but we’re making it as best as possible. Being around each other on the floor, being able to communicate, that’s our way of building that chemistry. Being in the locker room during games. We’re just trying to find ways to be around each other more and more. We’re making the best of it, trying to stay within the protocols of what COVID has given us. It’s been good.

You’re facing two former teammates and future Hall of Famers this week in Chris Paul and LeBron James. First, how would you describe Paul’s legacy right now and what was it like playing with him? 

Chris is a true leader, somebody I respect a lot. Somebody who’s done great things in this game for a while. His leadership experience has trickled down to SGA (Shai Gigelous-Alexander) in OKC and all the teammates he had while we were in LA. He’s a guy who demands greatness and brings it on the court every night. You can’t say enough about what he’s done for this game as far as being a floor general and what’s he’s done for other guys he’s played with. I was thankful to play with him.

And LeBron? 

He’s a guy that a lot of the younger generation is going to mimic their game after by being able to do EVERYTHING. Make sure you put that in all-caps and bold. He can do everything on the court. He’s a guy who I learned a lot from in our year in Cleveland together as far as mentally and physically preparing for games. The longevity. You see what he’s doing, the way he’s still flying around. It’s inspirational. Seeing how he’s demanding greatness night in and night out in his 18th year. Pushing through this year with the Lakers has been fun to watch. I’m definitely a fan. He’s definitely a good friend. I’ve been enjoying watching him these last couple years.

One thing I remember about those Cleveland days was the ton of handshakes LeBron and the team would do together. How did y’all keep up with that? 

Look I’m going to tell you this. I only had one handshake and that was with (LeBron). All the other guys got the business handshake. I wasn’t about to remember 15 other handshakes (laughs). It was one I had with him, we had the Wakanda one. I don’t know how he does it every year with everyone. 

You grew up in the DMV, not too far from Howard University. Do you see a path of more college recruits attending HBCUs? 

I hope so. I just want kids to realize that you don’t necessarily have to go to a big school to get looks or be viewed as a good player. I think that’s just the stereotype of what can get you to the NBA. If you’re a good player, you’re going to get recognized regardless of where you’re at. When kids start taking a chance and not just following the norm, then it will happen. I talked to Makur Maker when he signed (at Howard). I sent him a DM and said, ‘Thank you. Keep creating change for the younger generation.’ I told him, ‘I still have people in D.C. My people will be there supporting you, so you don’t have to worry about that. The city is going to be there.’ Obviously, the pandemic hit, but I told him he wouldn’t have to worry about the fan aspect and support because it’s going to be there. D.C. is always going to want to root for the underdog. They want to root for greatness and in his position he’s going to get that support. I do hope that kids will start taking that chance of venturing out to HBCUs and making these colleges known. I think it’s in the making.

How much longer do you hope to play in the NBA? 

Honestly, that’s not my decision. It’s in God’s hands. I’m a guy who goes year-to-year and plays as long as teams will want me. I really, really love the game. I’m passionate about this game and what I can bring to it. One thing I did was always look at this: I went to Georgetown. And we’ve had some great Hall of Famers come out of Georgetown. Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Patrick Ewing. So when I was young at Georgetown, I looked at how many years they played. Given what Zo went through with the kidney (transplant) and bouncing back to play 15-plus years. Dikembe 15-plus. That’s inspiration for me. It’s always been my goal to try to be a guy who came out of Georgetown just like those guys, to go to the NBA and play that same amount (of years). God has put me in a position where now I’m in year 14 and still able to play at a high level. So how many more? I don’t know. I’m going to play until the wheels fall off.

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Khari Arnold is a Senior Producer at NBA.com and graduate of Howard University. You can email him here.The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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