HOUSTON -Ask an NBA veteran how his offseason is going and you’re likely to receive a slight chuckle and quick correction in return. That’s because the truth is that there’s no such thing as an offseason anymore; there’s too much money involved, the stakes are too high and the competition for roster spots and playing time is too fierce. Spend a summer slacking off and you can rest assured that a handful of hungrier, more dedicated players will be waiting in the wings ready and eager to take your place. In other words: you snooze, you lose.
It’s that realization which drives Rockets like Aaron Brooks, Chuck Hayes and Mikes Harris (among others) to spend some of their summer sprinting up and down the various levels of the Toyota Center parking garage like a bunch of high school kids desperate to make varsity. And now, with less than a month remaining until the start of training camp, it’s also the siren song which beckons past, present and future NBA players to Houston for some high-intensity pick-up games at the Rockets’ practice facility.
These scrimmages are fascinating to watch; especially when you focus on the battles taking place at the point guard position. Brooks is there, of course, as is the newly acquired D.J. Strawberry. But things get really interesting when other players who call Houston home during the offseason show up. Damon Stoudamire especially has impressed, showing off some of the skills which once earned him the nickname “Mighty Mouse" during his halcyon days in Toronto and Portland. He’s obviously put in major work to get into prime playing shape and has made no secret that he’s hungry for an opportunity to prove he can still play quality minutes for a contender.
“I feel like I got two more years left," Stoudamire says. “You know how perception is - I’m sure everybody feels like I’ve got too many miles on my legs. They say, ‘He’s been doing it for so long… He’s a guard and guards tend to slow down.’ So that’s all I really all I’m trying to play for right now, just to finish out the way I want to. It’s not about anything else.
"I know I can still contribute. That’s the thing that drives me. When I’m ready to quit at the gym, when I’m ready to quit shooting jumpers, I just think about sitting on that bench last year and that’s what drives me to keep shooting more, because that’s the only thing that sticks in my mind."
As he alluded to, last year was not particularly kind to the 13-year NBA vet. He started the season with Memphis, a team loaded with young point guards and clearly in the midst of a rebuilding project. Salvation seemed to arrive when the Grizzlies waived Stoudamire to clear cap room, providing him the opportunity to chase a ring in San Antonio. But the 35-year old never really clicked with Coach Popovich, so Stoudamire ended up spending most of his time in the Alamo City rooted to the Spurs’ bench.
“I think it was just one of those cases where, at the end of the day, Pop went the way he was most comfortable," says Stoudamire. “And I can live with that. It wasn’t a case of being in the doghouse, or nothing like that. We had a relationship and we talked. I can live with what happened – I may not have liked it, but I can live with it and move on and put it behind me."
Taking part in these pick-up games helps accelerate that transition. They not only allow Stoudamire an opportunity to measure himself against quality competition, they also give him a chance to thrive in the role of mentor for up–and-coming players like Brooks and Strawberry.
“I’ve always been a guy that loves to be around young players," says Stoudamire. “When I was a young player, guys really looked out for me and taught me a lot. So I love answering questions for younger players whenever they need it. So it’s good to come here, look at these guys, get a feel for their games and watch their development as they go along in this league. That’s a big joy for me."
Of course, a far greater joy would be earning a spot on an NBA roster. Would he welcome an opportunity here in Houston? Would the Rockets welcome him? At first glance, the team seems stacked at the point position. Than again, Rafer Alston and Steve Francis are returning from surgery, while Brooks and Strawberry are unproven. It’s at least a question worth asking, right?