Lamar Green: I’ll Be There, 1970

[In the 1969 NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns selected Lamar Green, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward from Morehead State. The selection drew a collective yawn, and the draft raced on to the next pick and yawn: Norm Van Lier. 

Nobody in their right mind thought Green, a top rebounder in college, had a prayer of sticking in the NBA. But stick he did for five seasons in Phoenix. The New Orleans Jazz took Green in the 1974 expansion draft, then waived him and his NBA career after 15 games. Green took his skills briefly to the ABA Virginia Squires before calling it a career in September 1975. 

Though his offensive skills were raw, Green was athletic enough to snatch rebounds with the best of them. He also hustled on every play, got along with everyone, and worked endlessly to improve his game. In fact, during the early 1970s, I watched the Suns play the Golden State Warriors on a weekend afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum. I got to the arena way early and, as luck would have it, watched a Suns coach feed passes to Green as he worked by his lonesome on his mid-range jumper. I was young, maybe 12 years old, and watched mesmerized—no slack-jawed—as everything that left Green’s fingertips swished through the net. And I mean everything. It was like the ball travelled on a string from hand to the net.

I couldn’t wait to see this infallible shooter in action. The buzzer sounded, and Green, a career reserve, eventually got into the game. He took a pass standing wide open in his midrange sweet spot and fired. Clank. And it was clank, clank, clank, and an occasional stuff or a put-back the rest of the game. Jeff Mullins he wasn’t. 

I never-ever forgot this pregame yin and in-game yang. So, years later, I was thrilled to stumble on this Arizona Republic profile of Green that ran on October 11, 1970. I immediately copied the article on one of the old newspaper photocopier machines that used to be standard equipment in libraries. The article has been sitting around in my office for years gathering dust. But I pulled it out recently and loved the fun tone of writer Daniel Ben-Horin. Now in his 70s, Ben-Horin has enjoyed quite a career in journalism and tech. And if you like his writing style and eye for detail, Ben-Horin recently published his first novel Substantial Justice. It’s five stars on Amazon.

One final footnote, Green left basketball and put his college degree to excellent use. In the 1990s, he was assistant director for the Management Bureau of Business Development for the state of Illinois.]

Lamar Green is no longer a rookie. He will enter his second season on the Phoenix Suns as part of the seven-man core the team protected in the recent expansion draft. He is a veteran. Which is a shame, in a way. Because 6-foot-7 Lamar Green was a rookie last year in the same way that Willie Mays was a rookie in 1951 in the Polo Grounds. 

That means similarities in spirit, not talent, though Lamar has plenty of that, too, or the Suns wouldn’t have protected him. But one of the sharply etched pictures of last year’s season has to be Lamar being called off the bench to substitute for the first time. During the huddle, he pawed at the floor, impatient to get in. And then . . .

Well, he played. He did what he does best—jumping—and what he does worst—shooting—with equal lack of self-consciousness. He wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t run scared either. He didn’t make people in the stands sense his fear and hope he wouldn’t embarrass himself or them. 

When the last backboard stopped quivering, Lamar’s first year contained: a rebound every 2.5 minutes; a 4.2 points scoring average; a few games won with clutch tips; a few rims missed entirely on 5-foot shots; a bunch of stuffs perpetrated on surprised, much-taller centers; a bunch of express trips to the floor perpetrated by crafty, much-heftier opponents; a broken thumb; and one memorable occasion when Lamar managed to tangle his descending feet in an opposing jersey. 

There is one scene last year that WAS Lamar. He jumped seemingly 17 feet into the air for a rebound, but it was about 2 seconds too soon. He floated, threatening to remain airborne in perpetuity, looking around for the ball he had been led to believe was up there waiting to be grabbed. Finally, the ball arrived, and Lamar, on his way down, contested for it with his cannier, but less springy, opponents on their way up. 

“Story about me?” Lamar said, when first approached about this article. “There are a lot more superstars in town.”

Yes, there are. But there was only one rookie like Lamar last year. And now, he’s a veteran. What’s the difference? 

In the St. Mary’s High School gym, where the Suns practiced informally, kids pranced their Connie Hawkins stutter steps along the sidelines, while the Suns’ rookies, vets (Dick Van Arsdale, Neal Walk, and, yes, Lamar), general manager Jerry Colangelo, and new coach Cotton Fitzsimmons played loose, full-court games. 

Thirtyish men, most of them just going over to paunch, appraised the new talent from the sidelines and exchanged basketball wisdom on the exact release point of Dick Van Arsdale’s jump shot. Soul music blared. It was a peaceful scene. 

What tension there was came from the rookies, particularly Joe DePre and Fred Taylor, who were fighting each other for one guard’s job. They ran and dove and hustled. Van Arsdale showed little of his mad-dog driving, concentrating on his jump shot. Colangelo shot in an archaic-looking, but effective, one-hand push shot. Five-foot-seven Cotton dribbled around contentedly and stole passes from DePre and Taylor. 

Top rookie Greg “Stretch” Howard wasn’t worried about making the team. But Stretch did have a personality-problem reputation to live down, and he put out accordingly. Stretch is a big fan of the dunk shot. The St. Mary’s baskets rattled with their sound. 

And Lamar . . . Well, Lamar is a veteran now, and he’s not going to murder himself in the St. Mary’s gym. But Lamar is also Lamar, and he’s not going to loaf either. So, he put on a mixed show. The bulk of his passion was reserved for Stretch, his competitor at a forward spot. When he contested a Stretch dunk, the two lean, hungry young men went high over everyone. 

On offense, Lamar worked for the jumper. He worked on it all summer, he said, and now knows to front the basket when he goes to his right. But he still isn’t Hal Greer. Not yet. Lamar takes dunks, too, but without Stretch’s fervor. Lamar doesn’t have to show anybody he can dunk. Once, Lamar got ahead of the field, moved in for the dunk, and, instead, floated the ball gently through. By timing his jump, Lamar caught it as he cleared the other side of the rim. Lamar is still Lamar. 

A week later, Lamar, Howard, and Taylor went with Colangelo to the Jewish Community Center for a father-and-son night. They ate kosher hot dogs, while the film of the Suns’ 1969-70 season was shown. This 16-minute film, like all such promotional jobs, is a fan’s fantasy. A tinkly jazz score backs up shot after shot. Van Arsdale (“who plays every second of every minute he’s on the court,” intones the honey-coated voiceover) is superb. The Hawk makes 108 percent of his shots. Jim Fox and Gail Goodrich—both departed—shine. Paul Silas and Neal Walk muscle. New acquisitions Clem Haskins and Mel Counts make infallible guest appearances. 

Lamar’s name is never mentioned, which is not surprising since promos historically pay more attention to points per game than to grace of spirit. Lamar does make one clear appearance in the film, however. He goes for a rebound and, instead, gets a tremendous clip, which sends him catapulting at great speed into the nearest row of seats. No foul is called. The action moves downcourt. So does Lamar. 

Colangelo gave a short speech. He told a funny story about Lamar and then said it wasn’t true. He told another funny story, a true one, about how Lamar didn’t want to take a last shot, but finally did and made it. Lamar smiled at the conclusion of those stories. 

When Lamar was a sophomore in college, Jerry said, he was a guy who could dunk the ball, but couldn’t play at all. Now, Jerry said, the starting forward job is his, if you can earn it. Jerry discussed the two rookies. Stretch, it develops, wants [the starting job] and wants it bad. “Fred,” he said, “can’t play defense right now, but he’ll learn that.” 

The players lined up with their general manager, and the fans shot questions. Joe Gilmartin, who covers the Suns for the Phoenix Gazette, and Colangelo did most of the answering. Gilmartin was funny, Colangelo was quite frank for that kind of situation. They were applauded. Four tickets and two basketballs were given away. All the hot dogs were gone. The evening was over. 

Lamar slowly made his way out. A fan buttonholed Lamar and gave him his theory about the way basketball has sped up in the last 50 years. Lamar listened gravely and agreed. 

“Hey, get over next to Lamar,” another father screamed at his kid. The kid was embarrassed, but he got over and held out his hand. Lamar shook and said, “What’s happening, man.” The kid said, “Thanks.” Lamar, it was clear, will make a fine veteran.

No one has ever called Lamar’s playing style inhibited, and a couple of interviews he gave last year—his finest moment was when he accepted a $25 gift certificate from a Suns postgame sponsor with the on-the-air comment that it would buy a nice pair of socks—have contributed to a reputation for playfulness off the field of play. 

Two hours of talk after the Community Center event showed the humor. But it also found a newly married, often-serious 23-year-old concerned about his basketball and his life outside of basketball. To break the ice, Lamar was told he was to be admired for the way he had been willing to go out and shoot last year, unlike other jumping phenoms who tend to shoot only from intense shame.

“You have to decide,” Lamar said, “whether you want to be a complete ballplayer or just another rebounder.”

When he was told it seemed he was determined to be a complete player, he looked up and laughed. “Quite determined,” he said softly. 

A native of Birmingham, Alabama, who played football there until they started going for his gangly knees, Lamar turned to basketball midway through high school. In his first college game, at Morehead (Ky.) State College, he recalled, “I was so nervous, man, I went on the court, and I missed a dunk shot.” He thought some more about that distant dunker and, straight-faced, said, “I didn’t miss really, but it didn’t go in.”

An “optimistic” third-round draft choice, Lamar made the Suns last fall when his roommate, number two choice Gene Williams, was cut. “Gene was a pretty good ballplayer,” Lamar recalled. “He hurt his knee while he was at camp and lost the desire to play anymore . . .”

Around the league, Lamar found tests to his own desire in cunning, seemingly foul-immune veterans. “They lock your arms and get your arms under here,” he said, craning around, “And if they see you’re going to a rebound, they hit you right here (he pointed to the beige balloon sleeve which covered his forearms). And, most of the time, they get away with it.”

Lamar agreed with a “very much so” and a chuckle to the suggestion that the bigger stars get away with more malfeasance. “You can’t touch Elgin (Baylor),” he said as an example. “He gets away with so much—cussing the officials. I guess the stars have done a lot for the game, but they should take it ’cause they dish it out too. They beat the devil out of some other people.”

Among them Lamar. Willis Reed and Wes Unseld are labeled by Lamar as “crying exceptionally.”  Lamar said, “Willis will say, ‘Aw ref, he hit me.’ Then the next time, if you block it clean, they’re going to call a foul on you. But he can knock you down. I remember once I was laying on the floor ’cause he had knocked me clean to the floor. I dragged myself up and said, ‘Hey ref, he didn’t hit me? Rookies sure catch hell in this league.’ He didn’t say anything, just ran down the floor.”

One rival center who towers in Lamar’s recollections is the biggest of them all, Wilt Chamberlain. “Wilt’s been my man, ever since I can remember,” Lamar said. “I used to watch Wilt and (Bill) Russell on television. I’d get my kicks off that. 

“Wilt’s a real nice fellow. He could knock you down when he got ready, but he wouldn’t hurt you or anything. Once I blocked one of the shots, so the next time he brought his arm across like this . . . Hey! He busted my lip. So Wilt’s at the line—someone else fouled him—and I’m next to him like this, and I say, ‘Hey Wilt, you trying to hurt the rook, aren’t you, baby?’ and he said (here Lamar switched to a deep voice), ‘No no no no, you know I’m not trying to hurt nobody, Lamar.’ He knows everybody by their first name. That kind of made me feel good.”

The toughest player he guarded, Lamar said, is the Philadelphia 76ers’ Billy Cunningham. “He plays that streetball, and that’s just kind of hard to beat. He’s the type of player who can twist and move and make you hit him, and then he takes the contact and makes a three-point play.”

The first year around the league posed other, typical problems for the rookie. There was that forgettable frozen night in Chicago when the Bulls (“they came to play”) humiliated the Suns by scoring 152 points, and Tom Boerwinkle, the 7-foot, but lumbering, Bulls center, embarrassed the Suns by grabbing 37 rebounds. 

“He had a little charisma on the ball,” Lamar explained. 

Then there was that night when Lamar, Art Harris, and Stan McKenzie sparked a rally against the tough Baltimore Bullets that netted a narrow victory on a Lamar tip-in. It was also the game Lamar made his stand. 

“Jack Marin went up for a rebound and threw an elbow that came right past my face. I said, ‘Do you want to play that way?’ You put it in the kind of voice so they know you mean it. Wes Unseld—if you touch him, he wants the game called his way—said to Marin, ‘Hit him,’ and I said to Wes, ‘Go ahead and hit me yourself.’ Marin just walked away. 

“The higher you jump, you know,” Lamar said, “the better the level you get at peoples’ heads with your elbows. I could cut a few people up, you know.” He laughed. “But that’s not me, I don’t want to play that way.”

Not all a rookie’s problems are on the court. “My first year, there were times I felt kind of lost and lonely, you know? ‘Who knows I’m here?’ they say.  But you got to pick yourself up and say, ‘You’re out here by yourself, you’re a big kid now, you can’t think someone’s going to come and pat you on the back and say, ‘Oh, we’ll take care of you.’”

Off the court, too, is a determination to be more than another basketball player from “such and such school” who never received a degree. Lamar earned a B.S. in industrial technology and business administration from Morehead in four years, plus a term of summer school. He went back to work on his master’s this past summer, but personal problems—his sister was sick and his mother’s house burned down—stalled him. 

“I’d like to get my master’s and possibly,” he laughed shyly, “I’d like to work on my doctorate. But I don’t want to be a Frank Ryan (former Ph.D. quarterback of the Cleveland Browns) or a Dr. Green or nothing like that,” he added. 

Coming to Phoenix was a concern originally, Lamar said, because he had learned the number of Blacks in Arizona, divided by the number of counties, and concluded: “There would be 10 to 15 Black people in Phoenix.”

He was wrong and, about the town as a whole, he said, “I like the way people accept you. They, Black and white, regard you as a regular person.”

Black athletes are urged to come to the front of the Black community, Lamar discovered. “I had an argument with a friend about it. He said, ‘Hey, you big-time professional athlete, what are you doing for the Black community?’ He was working for the Urban League and so on. I explained I was going to start some clinics for the kids. He said, ‘They look up to you, what’s taking you so long?’ I said, ‘Yeah, they look up to me, and so, when I get the time, I’m going to do something for them. But my job is to be a professional ballplayer.’”

Lamar and Fred Taylor did organize the clinics, at Harman, Eastlake, and other parks this summer, and Lamar remembered: “In came this little kid, and he had his fingers all taped up and his wrist taped. I wasn’t going to say anything, but the other kids started laughing at him, saying who did he think he was, the Hawk or somebody?

“The kids get the ball and do the little steps and try to palm it. Little kids 5-foot-3 or so. Anything they see you do, they try to imitate it.”

In the St. Mary’s gym, a pass crashed through Lamar’s hands, off his leg, and out of bounds. At the other end of the court, Stretch moved menacingly for a dunk. Lamar contested. A foot above the crowd they battled. The ball trickled off the backboard. 

A Four Tops song ricocheted around the gym: “Now when you’re lost . . . and about to give up . . . ‘Cause your best . . . just ain’t good enough.” 

Not Lamar. 

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