September 18, 2005
WALTHAM - Gerald Green shies away from discussing the childhood accident that led doctors to amputate half of his right ring finger. He claims not to remember when it happened maybe when he was 8, maybe a couple of years earlier.
He caught the finger on a nail protruding from a wall and ripped it. He spent three days in the hospital recovering from the surgery. Then Green, who is righthanded, went through physical therapy, learning how to compensate for the loss.
These days, he keeps the half finger tucked close to his palm when not playing basketball, signing autographs, or removing the crust from a ham and cheese sandwich as he did during lunch last week at the Celtics facility.
"It ain't like stitches," said Green. "I can tell you that. You don't just get it removed and go about your business."
It was not until after the amputation that Green became serious about basketball, so he knows only the feel of shooting with 3 1/2 fingers. With an average of 33.0 points per game as a high school senior at Gulf Shores Academy in Houston, he clearly wasn't hampered by the abnormality. And when Green officially starts his NBA career at training camp in two weeks, it will not be a concern.
The coaching staff cares only that Green can make the transition from summer league competition and offseason pickup games to the professional ranks. If all goes well, the partially amputated finger will simply be an unusual footnote.
"I can't imagine shooting like that, but I didn't give it a second thought because I knew he could play," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He's obviously had to overcome something, and that says a lot about him. It tells you obstacles aren't a big thing to him. A lot of people would use that as a disability or wouldn't play basketball."
Green, who was taken by the Celtics with the 18th pick in the June draft, spent most of the summer working with the team's coaching staff, either at the team facility or on the road at selected camps. He met Michael Jordan at one camp ("he's cooler in person") and played against current All-Stars and alongside Paul Pierce at another ("people were constantly in my ear").
Green has settled into a new apartment with roommate Mike Crotty, the former Williams College point guard who just happens to be the Celtics' recently-hired director of player development. He has added about a half-dozen pounds to the 6-foot-8-inch, 200-pound frame that served him well during the high school all-star games where he emerged as a first-round prospect, but that was clearly insufficient for the NBA. He says he works out twice, occasionally three times a day.
"I just want to be a better player than when I got drafted," said Green. "My biggest thing is I just want to win games. We have great players so, hopefully, I can contribute what I can and help them out. I don't care if I'm cheering the team on, I don't care what it is, as long as I'm helping the team win.
"I'm not nervous at all. I'm working hard. They're seeing that. They keep telling me if I keep working hard every day, then I'll be ready. If I wasn't prepared for it, then I'd be nervous."
Rivers promised Green that he will not repeat mistakes he made with high school product Al Jefferson last season, but Green will face high expectations precisely because of all the potential Jefferson showed as a rookie. After one season, Jefferson is now the front-runner for the starting power forward job.
Don't expect the development of Green to follow a similarly quick pace. He joins a team stocked with more experienced wing players. But with Tony Allen expected to miss all of training camp after arthroscopic right knee surgery, Rivers will have more exhibition game minutes and more practice repetitions to dole out to the younger players.
"I don't have any expectations for Gerald, just to continue working on his game," said Rivers. "He's obviously very gifted. There's no question about that. We have to teach him to play and use his athleticism in the best way.
"Because he's so gifted, you can't put parameters on what he can do. He can break through far quicker or he can take longer than expected. I'm comfortable waiting it out, though you'd like it to be quicker. If Gerald plays this year, that would be great. If he doesn't play, that won't disappoint me."
Like all young players, Green must make dramatic improvement on defense. According to Rivers, he has "light years to go" in that area. Offensively, Green has proven adept at moving without the ball and shooting off the catch. Most significantly, Rivers has been impressed with Green's "willingness to work," which the coach finds "unusual for a young kid."
Green listened well when Jordan warned about potential distractions and advised the rookie to "listen to the right people." To that end, he has found a mentor and friend in Ricky Davis. While that may raise eyebrows and concern in some corners, Davis has a game and an approach Green admires and wants to emulate, in part.
Green also lists Pierce as someone he wants to learn from on the court, though he has spent considerably more time with Davis this summer. In fact, Davis was something of a regular at the Celtics practice facility.
"Ricky Davis, he's cool as a fan," said Green. "I'm going to try to get on his level. He keeps it real. Most guys, if you do something good, they won't say anything. When you do something bad, they'll be like 'do this, do that.'
"He's the type of person who will encourage you. He kind of gets your spirit up. Off the court, he'll invite you to his crib."
Green acknowledges that living away from his family in Houston for the first time has been a tough adjustment, especially since he left behind his mother's home cooking, his fishing, and the three pit bulls who were constant companions. He hopes to bring the smallest of the three dogs, Joker, to his new place, though some neighbors have objected.
"I like dogs pit bulls and rottweilers are my favorite," said Green. "I like aggressive, big dogs. My dogs are well-trained, but I want my dogs to be aggressive when it's needed."
Without his dogs around, Green has more time to work out, which suits the Celtics just fine.
"I always hoop," said Green. "I'm always in the gym. I really haven't seen much out here to do, except play basketball. So, you have no excuse but to get better."