Dear 12-year-old Dame,
Listen to me. When the reporter comes to your locker with the empty cup, don’t freak out. Don’t curse. Don’t get offended. Don’t even react.
This is a very important test for you. Just smile and go pee in the cup.
I can see you getting all fired up reading this.
Why do they want me to pee in a cup? Naw. Naw. Forget it.
Relax. I’m about to drop a bombshell on you. When the reporter comes to your locker, you’ll be in your 10th season in the NBA.
Yeah, for real. You didn’t even really hit a growth spurt. You’re a 5′ 10″ point guard in the NBA.
That’s not all.
You’re playing for the Portland Trail Blazers.
I’ll give you a minute.
You’re probably running around Grandma’s living room, jumping on the good couch, pretending to be Clyde Drexler.
You’re going to actually be on the team that plays five minutes from your Grandma’s house. You’re actually going to be on the floor. Not up in the cheapest of the cheap seats. Not up so high that the players look like ants. Not in the seats they give away at the rec center.
You’re going to be on the floor, running point, wearing a size medium black-and-red jersey with Stoudamire on the back.
Go ahead, go tell Grandpa.
You guys listen to every Blazers game together on the radio. You know how he does it — sits there in his chair with his eyes closed with the old-man concentration. Nobody is allowed to talk until halftime, not even Grandma.
Then at halftime, Gradma sends you to the store to get her some snuff. When you’re grown, people aren’t gonna believe your Grandma chewed snuff. They won’t even know what snuff is. But that was her thing, so you have to run to the store as fast as you can so you make it back for the second half.
You run to the corner store with the handwritten permission note.
Please allow Damon to buy one can of tobacco. It’s for his grandma. Thank you! — Wanda
So go ahead, go tell Grandma and Grandpa about this letter. Go tell them you’re going to play for the Blazers one day. Because I hate to tell you this Dame, but they’re not going to be around to see you in that jersey.
Matter of fact, you only have a few more years left with them.
So when the reporter comes to your locker with the cup, I want you to close your eyes and hear your Grandma’s voice in your head.
Damon, you know how you was raised. Smile and go pee in that cup, son.
You need to keep your Grandma’s voice in your head. She’s going to get sick your sophomore year of high school. That snuff is no good for her. When she starts to get really sick, you won’t even be able to take seeing her in the hospice. It won’t really be her anymore. It’ll break your heart.
By your junior year, your best friend will be gone. I know this is hard to hear. She’s your best friend. You watch The Young and the Restless with her every day. You sit on the stoop and listen to her stories. She’s your biggest fan. She sits on the porch in her rocking chair, watching you play on the court right across the street.
You play five-on-five, even though you’re all alone out there. Every single day. Full court, five-on-five, running your ass off all by yourself. Imagination is a wonderful thing. With imagination, you can be your hero, Isiah Thomas. You can weave in and out of defenders. You can crossover George Gervin. You can run a fast break, tossing outlet passes to yourself.
You can even be play-by-play man Bill Schonely. “Stoudamire drives, dishes to Kersey. Swish! Mercy, mercy, Jerome Kersey! Yes!”
The arena is packed. They’re going crazy. Even though it’s just your Grandma, rocking herself to sleep, 300 feet away on her porch. Your time with her is going to be shorter than you think. She’ll only ever see you play one real game, in eighth grade. You’ll be so excited all day at school that you can barely sit down.
Grandma’s coming. I’m about to ball out.
When you see her sitting in the bleachers, you’ll go crazy. You’ll drop 40 points in two quarters on those poor kids before your coach takes you out.
When you see Grandma after the game, she’ll have this look.
“Dang, Damon. I knew you was good. But I didn’t know you was that good.”
She’ll never see you play in the NBA. But she knows. Your time with her is going to be shorter than you think, but carry her voice in your head with you the rest of your life.
Because you’re gonna bump your head. You’re gonna mess up plenty.
In 2003, you’re going to be on a struggling Blazers team, and you’re going to do something stupid. You’re going to try to go through airport security with marijuana in your carry-on bag. And you’re gonna get caught.
I’ll give you another minute.
I know you’re mad at me.
I can hear you.
“Why the hell you trying to sink our dreams, man?! I’m waking myself up at 7 a.m every day, ironing my own clothes, taking a city bus 90 minutes across town so I can go to a better school, putting up hundreds of shots a day, playing basketball at a rec center where I literally have to go to the boxing ring in the next room and put on gloves and fight dudes if there’s a disagreement.
… I’m out here killing myself to make this happen, and you’re gonna try to sneak weed onto a plane in the NBA?!”
Look, Dame. I’m sorry. Life is not as straightforward as a 12-year-old thinks it is. Everybody makes mistakes. You’re gonna make them. You. The dude that people in the neighborhood call “the Man” because you’re so damn serious about acting like a grown-up at 12 years old. So damn serious about your master plan.
Here’s the truth. You’re going to play 13 years in the NBA. But your life is going to ultimately be judged by what happens when the basketball stops bouncing.
Let’s back up a second.
You have some questions.
One. Do you ever get to meet Isiah Thomas?
Dude, you’re gonna get drafted by him. In Toronto. For real. Toronto. Canada. I won’t even spoil that one for you. Just wait.
Two. How do you get from this smelly-ass rec center to the NBA? I mean, I can see the arena from Grandma’s house, but it seems like it’s really 2,000 miles away.
There’s a guy named Lute Olson who is going to come to your house when you’re in high school. He coaches the University of Arizona. In 2016, we have a term that perfectly describes Lute.
It’s called swag.
In terms you’ll understand, this dude is super bad, O.K.? He’s going to walk into your living room when you’re in high school with that slick white hair and that immaculate suit, and he’s going to tell you the truth.
He’s not going to be a used-car salesman. He’s not going to tell you that you’re a superstar.
He’s going to say, “You know what, Damon? I already got a point guard. And he’s terrific. But I think you can be terrific, too. I’m going to make you into a man.”
Follow this man to Arizona. Don’t do it because of basketball. Lute is a great coach, but it’s not about that. Do it because he’s going to care about you as a human being. A lot of NCAA coaches want to use you for Ws. Lute wants to turn you into well-rounded human being.
Listen, this is for real. When you get to Arizona, Lute is going to make all the freshmen take etiquette classes — like, with the fancy silverware and table rules. When you’re on the road, he’s going to take you to a nice steakhouse for the first time in your life. The waitress is going to smile and ask you, “How would you like your steak, sir?”
And you’re going to look to Coach for help.
“Medium well, ma’am,” he’ll say.
Lute is going to teach you how to order a steak, how to be polite, how to act like a professional. He’s going to open up your mind to a whole new world. You’ll go to a Final Four at Arizona, but you know what? When you look back on that time, that’s not the first thing that will come to mind.
You’ll remember practice more than anything. You’ll remember laughing your ass off when your teammate tries to cut a steak with a butter knife in a fancy restaurant. You’ll remember Lute strutting down the sideline, working the officials.
Here’s how much people love this man. You’re going to go to his 80th birthday party, and there’s going to be 400 people there. You don’t even know 400 people, Dame. I’m telling you. This dude has swag. Follow him.
When you declare for the ’95 NBA draft after your junior year, you’re going to think you’re ready. Boy, you’re not ready.
On the bright side, your suit choice for draft night is going to hold up pretty well. Dark gray with the pinstripes. Not bad for the mid-’90s.
The problem is, when you’re sitting backstage in the green room, you’re going to get so nervous it’s ridiculous. When the expansion Toronto Raptors call your name with the seventh pick, it’s like you black out. Everything goes slow motion. You shake the David Stern’s hand and it’s not like the cliché. You’re not overcome with emotion.
Craig Sager comes over to interview you in his fly purple suit and you’re so nervous you can barely talk. You’re going to say “help the team” like 100 times in 30 seconds. Say something else, Dame. Anything.
Then your hero is going to walk up to you and shake your hand. Isiah. He’s in the front office for the Raptors. He picked you. The dude you’re trying to be right now, at 12 years old, every single day by yourself at the park, is going to pick you.
You fired up, now? You wanna put this letter down and go shoot at the park for a little bit? I’ll wait.
Those first few years in Toronto are going to be an awesome experience. The fans will be so excited to have basketball, even though the team doesn’t have a real arena. You’re going to have to play in the SkyDome, and it’s going to be so cold in the winter that you’ll be able to see your breathe on the bench. Birds are going to be flying around everywhere. Not little at-the-park birds. Huge wilderness birds. The birds up in Canada don’t even care. They’ll fly right into an outlet pass.
Toronto is going to be a great experience for you. The point guards you’re going to play against? Oh, my God. It’s a golden era.
Jason Kidd. You’re quick, right? Well this dude is just as quick as you at 6′ 4″. He’s going to body you. But he’s also going to impress you with his basketball IQ. He’s the total package.
Allen Iverson. This the most athletic dude you’re ever going to see in your life. In your life. He’s 5′ 10″ like you, but his arms are twice as long. His hands are enormous. He can score at will. And you will never see this dude get tired. Not one single second you play against him will he seem gassed. He’s a freak.
John Stockton. Hey, look at this dude. He’s nothing, right? He just wants to pass all day. You got him. Ten seconds left in the game. He’s down two. Ball at the top of the key. He’ll look for Malone in the post. Four … Three … Two … Wait, what?
Stockton pulls up for three. Swish. In your face. Game. The dude is the most unselfish player in the NBA, and he also wants the big shot. Stockton isn’t just tough. This dude is tough as all hell.
Gary Payton. You’re not a talker, Dame. Don’t even try it. You’re going to embarrass yourself.
You think the dudes at the rec center talk trash?
Wait until you hear how this dude Payton talks. Not just when he hits a big shot. He talks all game. He talks in the warmup. He’s still talking as he’s walking off the court. This dude would follow you to the parking lot if he could.
He’ll go at anyone. He’ll go at Scottie Pippen. One time you’ll be playing Gary in Portland, and he’ll be in Pippen’s ear.
“You ain’t nothin’ anymore, Scottie. Where’s Mike? Where’s Mike at? I ain’t scared of you now, Scottie.”
Mind you, Scottie will have six NBA titles at this point. Gary will have none. And he won’t care.
“Hey, Scottie! You know what, man? You ain’t top 50 of all time. You want me to show you my list? I had you at 51, Scottie. I had you at 51. I had Dominique ahead of you. You’re 51, Scottie.”
This is the level of trash talk you’re up against now. Don’t even open your mouth. If Gary’s going to do Scottie like that, he’ll send you to therapy.
I don’t want to scare you. I just want to prepare you. The pressure of playing at the NBA level is something that not a lot of 20-year-old kids can handle. When you get traded to Portland, it’s going to seem like a dream come true at first.
But coming home also means a lot of scrutiny and pressure. People are going to want a piece of you. You’re going to have money, and you’re going to think you owe everybody. You’re going to want to empower people.
And boy, you’re going to waste a lot of money doing that.
Listen to me, Dame. The only people you owe are the people who raised you. Really raised you. It’s one thing to read that, and it’s another to experience it. People will let you down. That’s life.
There’s going to be times when you feel lost. There’s going to be times when you just want to escape. People will start calling the team the Jail Blazers, and you’re going to be lumped in with it.
For a while in Portland, it’ll be like you’re hiding away from everyone. You’ll sit around watching The Young and the Restless, thinking about your Grandma. There’s a hole in your heart. All I can tell you is this: Listen to your Grandma’s voice. You’ll be able to hear it clear as day, as crazy as that sounds.
Damon, you know how you was raised. You was raised to act right.
The airport incident is going to be the turning point. One reporter in particular is really going to come after you for it. You’ll make a promise to him that it was just a dumb mistake, and that you’re done with marijuana.
“You can test me,” you’ll say. You’re half joking.
A few months later the reporter will show up at practice with a home drug test kit. Seriously.
Don’t get mad at him. Just tell him, “You know what? Fine. But I don’t trust you with my pee. I trust Mo with my pee.”
That’s your coach, Mo Cheeks.
Go into the bathroom and fill the cup. Mo will politely hold the door for you while the reporter waits outside. Seriously.
Hand the cup to Mo. Smile at the reporter. Thank him for his time. Get dressed.
When the results come back, they will say what you already know. You’re clean. The reporter will write a column apologizing, and the Portland fans will give you a standing ovation before your next game.
That’s going to be a bittersweet moment. I know you understand why, Dame. Do I even have to say it?
They don’t know you. If they did, they would know your character isn’t about a mistake. Or one test. Or one game.
They don’t know about you waking yourself up to iron your pants before school. They don’t know about you trying to fall asleep on the packed city bus, hugging your bookbag tight to your chest so it won’t get stolen. They don’t know about the five-on-five you played every day in your head.
They don’t know about the master plan. Only one person really knows. And she won’t be around long. Give her a hug. She doesn’t care about the NBA. She cares about you being a good man.
“He’s so grown,” she always says. You love that.
You know what? Maybe don’t even tell her about the NBA. Tell her something she would really love.
Maybe tell her that you’re going to be an NBA assistant coach when you grow up.
No, better idea.
Maybe tell her that you’re going to be a college assistant when you grow up.
No, matter of fact …
I know what to tell her.
Tell her that today, when you’re writing this letter, you’re going to get your first NCAA head coaching job. You’re going to get the opportunity to lead kids, and show them what Lute showed you. You’ll get to look them in the eye and tell them the truth.
Tell them that life isn’t a movie. Tell them that they’re going mess up. Tell them that being a grown man isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you work for every day.
You’re the head coach of University of the Pacific.
That’s some news that will really make her proud.
Oh yeah, and tell her they give walking tours around the city now. The tour guide stops in her neighborhood, points to the porch where her rocking chair is, and says, “See that? That’s Damon Stoudamire’s house.”
Life is crazy.