JaVale McGee ‘is not a knucklehead;’ just ask his mom


Washington Wizards center JaVale McGee (34) hits a baby hook during first half action against Oklahoma City. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist January 19, 2012

This is the night the hammer comes down, you’ve decided. This is the night to call out the brain lock and the boneheadedness — everything embodied by their starting center’s inability to understand that you don’t throw down a showboat dunk when you’re down six points and about to be 1-12 on the season.

This is the night to eviscerate that kid, just in time for his 24th birthday on Thursday.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Until you meet that kid’s mother.

“He is not a knucklehead,” Pamela McGee says, sitting behind the basket an hour before her son, JaVale, and the Wizards would stun Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder on their best night of the season — albeit the worst start to a season in franchise history. “JaVale is a good kid. My son is special. He has gifts you can’t teach: hands, height and heart. If I’m the Wizards and I’m really trying to build a franchise, really committed to rebuilding and developing, I would nurture that talent. I would help a kid like JaVale the best I could.”

When McGee felt the need to lob the ball off the backboard for a look-at-me dunk in a loss on Monday instead of just routinely depositing the ball through the rim on a breakaway, he became the latest flashpoint for the Team That Doesn’t Get It.

The same goes when he is pining for all-star votes on Twitter after the Wizards fell to 0-7 against the Knicks earlier this month. Or when he euphorically high-fived teammates after a mad scramble to record his first triple-double a year ago — at the embarrassing end of a game his team would lose by 19 points.

You want to give him the Knucklehead Treatment all day, Blake Griffin Andrew Bogut Kevin Love Andray Blatche Nick Youngand then you run into Mama McGee.

“I know people are making a big deal of that play,” she says. “Look, JaVale does that to break up the monotony. Wouldn’t you if you were losing like this? He’s been here for four years and it’s been same ol’, same ol’. I don’t want him to get institutionalized to losing. My son is the future of the NBA. I don’t want him to be part of this culture of losing forever.”

Now Pamela McGee’s pupils have enlarged. Grabbing your arm, she becomes more animated, as if she were back running the floor with her sister Paula and Cheryl Miller on Southern California’s national championship team, as if she was trying to win a WNBA championship or trying to hang onto her playing career in Europe.

“The one thing I never did as a coach, never not once in my career, was throw my players under a bus,” she said angrily in a clear reference to Flip Saunders’s criticism of McGee’s play earlier this week. “If I had a problem, I would take that player in the locker room and would let them know and we would work it out. I would never throw my player under the bus.”

This is her first-born; this is personal. Where you see a guy prone to goaltending and poor rebounding position, she sees the player who leads the league with three blocks per game.

“One game, he goes in for 20 minutes; the next almost 40 minutes,” she says. “Sometimes he can’t even get into a flow, they’re yanking him in and out so much.”

(The club cites the Elias Sports Bureau in saying McGee averages the ninth-most minutes among NBA centers with 10 starts.)

“They aren’t running any plays for him,” Pamela continues. “With a 7-footer with hands like that, the kid is averaging a double-double without plays run for him; he gets those points off garbage.

“Now, let me ask you: If Orlando gets Dwight Howard and they bring in a big man like Patrick Ewing to work with him, and the Lakers get Andrew Bynum and they bring in Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] to work with him, you would think it would make sense to get a coach like that for JaVale, right?”

Asked if she addressed the concerns with anyone, she nods yes (JaVale’s agent said it would come at McGees’ expense). The club maintains that assistant coach Don Zierden acts as a big-man coach for JaVale and other post players, and they were unaware of Pamela’s specific concerns.

Pamela and JaVale actually paid UCLA assistant coach Scott Garson to work with McGee over the summer, which he credits for his improved footwork and swooping hook shot. Reached by telephone in Los Angeles, Garson said he found McGee to be a “very hard worker who did everything I asked of him.”

“I brought him into the UCLA Hall of Fame and showed him films of Kareem,” Garson says. “He picks things up very, very quickly. The thing about a kid that talented and that size, you have to grab his attention. I don’t know the situation there, but if I were a big-time future center, I would want to learn from someone who’s been to where I want to go.”

JaVale? “I think that would definitely help me,” he said after Wednesday’s win. “Working with Coach Garson, some days I went through whole workouts without a single jump shot.”

Of the play that brought him so much criticism, he adds, “I understand: Because we were losing, it looks bad. If we’re winning, no one says anything about it. It bothers me when people want to label me after something like that, like that’s all I stand for or I’m part of a group — when I’m my own man.”

JaVale also acknowledges, yes, Pamela can be a Little League parent sometimes: “You know she’s takin’ my side on things. That’s my mom; we’re close.”

His mother was his AAU coach from 9 years old to sixth grade, getting up at 6 a.m. to work on drills with him. Trying to toughen up her son in the post when the ball dropped below JaVale’s chest as a child, “I hit him in the chest with my fist,” Pamela said.

“You’re my mother,” the boy would wince, “how could you do that to me?”

Pamela: “You stinkin’ up the gym, that’s why. I’m your coach right now.”

JaVale quit till his friends that trained with Pamela made varsity. He started up again in ninth grade with a caveat from Mom: “I’ll take you back, on one condition: When I say jump, you say how high. It wasn’t about basketball; it was about life. It was about discipline.”

Even then, Pamela McGee does not want her son “institutionalized in losing.” She couldn’t even deal with him finishing second to Griffin in the last year’s All-Star Weekend dunk contest.

“We don’t do second,” she said. “We win championships. He’s a McGee. He has to come back to All-Star and represent.”

You realize after 30 minutes there is no sense bringing the hammer down on the kid’s 24th birthday. Mama McGee won’t have it. Her child just needs time to learn and grow, maybe from a big man he respects. After all, she knows best. Just ask her.

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