The Timberwolves' bus pulls up to the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey following an afternoon practice. Players still in workout togs file off. Some have draped towels around their necks, others have fixed ice packs to knees and shoulders. Everything around them seems small: the scurrying bellhop, a lone autograph seeker, an elderly couple in need of directions. It is one of the countless humdrum moments of an NBA season that blur into nothingness.
From a chair inside a dimly lit lounge just off the hotel lobby, Rashad McCants watches his former teammates walk by. He has taken the stroll hundreds of times, but this is the first time he has seen it from the angle of an ex-player. As the Wolves push through the lobby a few of them spot an old pal. "Shaddy!" shouts Corey Brewer, who once battled McCants for minutes. Some wrap him in hugs. McCants grins uncontrollably as he is peppered with questions. Where are you living? When are you coming back? Ryan Gomes offers his new cell number. Al Jefferson sits down to reminisce. He and McCants laugh about the time Kevin McHale put a garbage can by the court after learning that Jefferson had had a birthday party the night before.
Then, just as quickly as they flocked to him, the players head to their rooms. Elevator doors close. A December Santa Ana wind rushes through the now-vacant lobby. Outside, McCants hands over his claim check. "What room is it under?" the valet asks.
Good try. "That'll be $12," the valet says.
Every profession has its sore thumbs, employees who stick out because they can't fit in, underpaid, underappreciated or unloved. Or maybe they're just perpetually pissed off. Still, unless you happen to share a cubicle with one, they are someone else's problem. But who wants to pay to see a bristly millionaire play a game? More important, who wants to pay him? Especially in a sport like basketball, where on-court chemistry is paramount. In the confines of an NBA locker room, one sourpuss can send a season into a tailspin. The slightest frown can fray a relationship, label a guy or halt a career.
Just ask McCants. He'll tell you that gainful employment in the NBA is a delicate thing, easily thrown off kilter by meddling forces, real or imagined. A coach who wants to derail your career, too many visits to the psychiatrist, and, well, suddenly you have a tainted aura that, like an oil spill, grows out of control with no hint of containment.
The common refrain about McCants' predicament is that it has never been about his game. "He's a pure talent with a high basketball IQ," former Wolves GM McHale says of his former shooting guard. "Beautiful stroke, great body, everything. His problem was giving himself up to the team." That view is seconded by many who shared his locker room, whether McCants' under-his-breath mumbles were directed at them or not. "In any line of work you have to know how to talk to people and when to bite your tongue," says Kevin Love, who played with McCants two years ago. "Rashad has a me-against-the-world attitude. You have to get past that if you want to help yourself."
Sye Williams/ESPN The MagazineArmed with a feathery J and a quick first step, McCants says there isn't a two guard that can stop him.
McCants, meanwhile, wonders how a player can "get $25 million for being just a shooter," or why guys with criminal records -- McCants has never been arrested or suspended -- somehow get more consideration than he does. "I'm out of the league because of facial expressions?" he asks. "Players get arrested or demand trades, and I'm the one they call difficult?"
It's not easy being the guy who frowned himself out of the NBA.
"They say I don't smile," McCants says. "Does that make me a bad person?" In his eyes he's done everything asked of a good teammate. He sees none of the accountability issues everyone else can't stop talking about. What coaches label as sulking McCants says is just being quiet. "Management doesn't see how well I get along with my teammates when we're hanging out together," he says. "They're not interested in that."
So for now he remains in an unusual and scary place: outside looking in. He's 25, jobless and lugging around a toxic rep in the midst of an unforgiving economy. "He has to grow out of his old mentality," says McHale. "If he doesn't, he won't play in this league again."
McCants lives quietly by himself in a two-bedroom apartment in an upscale complex in LA. An Xbox 360 is connected to a 42-inch, swivel-mounted plasma. On a coffee table in front of a gray velour couch, next to a folded half-eaten bag of cool ranch Doritos, lies a threadbare copy of the Nov. 22, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated. The cover line reads, "Mystery Man." McCants, in his UNC uni, is the subject.
The flesh-and-blood McCants wears basketball shorts and a white tank top. He adjusts his Yankees cap (one of six he owns) and plops down into a chair that matches the couch. It's six weeks into the 2009-10 NBA season and the muted plasma is tuned to SportsCenter. Subs he once shared minutes with now provide the nightly highlights. Any bravado from his playing days is long gone. "I don't watch the NBA," he says in a voice soft and direct. "I haven't reached the point where I can do that."
He hits rewind on a couple of recent humbling experiences. It's the summer of '09 and McCants is growing anxious over a lack of offers, so he undertakes a quest for answers. "I've heard nothing but bad things about you," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tells him in the midst of an informal run in Miami. At the Vegas Summer League, Mike D'Antoni says he can't give McCants a shot for fear he'd poison the Knicks' locker room. Tar Heel blood brothers Larry Brown and George Karl barely give him the time of day. Some GMs won't even get on a conference call with him. "Everybody said I wasn't a good fit," he says with genuine sadness. "It felt like I had nowhere to turn. It felt like I died."
One final ray of hope quickly vanished. McCants worked out for the Mavericks, and afterward coach Rick Carlisle asked him to see a psychiatrist. "To find out what was wrong with me," McCants says sarcastically. It was the third time a coach had made such a request. During his freshman year at UNC, coach Matt Doherty sent him to see a "friend" who happened to be a shrink. McCants says 10 minutes into the first visit he was told, "There's absolutely nothing wrong with you." Yet, the next season, new Tar Heels coach Roy Williams asked McCants again to make an appointment.
Sye Williams/ESPN The Magazine"Just because I'm not chipper," McCants says, "like I just drank a pot of coffee, doesn't mean I'm a bad guy."