Discarded by the second team in less than six months, Josh Childress’s basketball career had reached its nadir when the Brooklyn Nets cut him last December. Instead of wallowing, or rushing to find another team to prove that he belonged, Childress decided to step away from basketball.
Childress enrolled back in Stanford to finish the sociology degree that remained incomplete when the Atlanta Hawks selected him sixth overall in 2004. Needing 28 credit hours to graduate, Childress crammed his classes into two semesters, a daunting task for someone nine years removed from his last final exam.
“Probably the first three weeks, for sure, I felt like they were speaking Chinese,” Childress said with a laugh, when describing the lectures. “I didn’t understand anything. But after that, I got back into a routine.”
Childress graduated in August, ready to trade in his cap and gown for another NBA jersey. Nine months after he put his career on hold, the 6-foot-8 Childress is back as a training camp invitee with the Washington Wizards.
Re-acclimating to academic life was a more difficult adjustment than getting back to athletics, but Childress said he still needs some time before he can fully regain his routine and rhythm with basketball.
“You can do drills, you can run around and work out, but unless you’re playing against guys at that next level and that next speed, you really don’t have that rhythm,” Childress said. “It’s been up and down and I think over the next few weeks, it’s going to get a little more consistent for me. I look forward to that.”
With 15 players already under contract — and the Wizards loaded at small forward with veterans Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster and rookie Otto Porter Jr. — the odds of Childress latching onto the team are longer than the twists of his hair. But Childress leapt at the opportunity the Wizards have given him to show that he still has something to offer.
“To make sure I wasn’t out of sight, out of mind,” Childress said. “It’s going to be a challenge. No question about it. That’s where I have to come in and work hard, work harder.”
Childress was in greater demand five years ago, when he made the controversial decision to turn down a five-year, $33 million contract with the Hawks to sign a three-year deal worth the equivalent of $32.5 million with Greek power, Olympiacos. The move was expected to create a global competition for free agent talent, but the mass overseas exodus never followed. Within two years, Childress hungered to get back to the NBA and signed a five-year, $34 million deal with the Phoenix Suns.
The return from Greece has been less than graceful. Childress broke the ring finger on his shooting hand in his first season in Phoenix, where he was an ill fit and rarely played for the run-and-gun Suns. Phoenix later waived him using the amnesty clause, cutting him an almost $22 million check just to clear up some salary cap space.
Childress then ended up in Brooklyn on a non-guaranteed deal but suffered a severely sprained ankle early in the season, slipped out of the rotation and never found his way back.
Having a desire to play rather than collect a paycheck, Childress requested and received his release after 14 forgettable games. He returned to Phoenix to sell his home and ponder his future, then opted to go back to Palo Alto, Calif., for a meaningful distraction; to get a degree that carries more meaning to him at age 30 than it did when he first entered college.
“It’s a little rocky no doubt,” Childress said of the past three seasons, in which he has played a total of 102 games and averaged just 3.8 points and 2.6 rebounds. “But that part is behind me and I’m looking forward to better things. My time in Phoenix was frustrating. Brooklyn last year, it was just, it was . . . I don’t know how to describe it. I’m all about the now, all about the present and trying to come in here and make an impression.”
A versatile, defensive-minded wing willing to do the dirty work, Childress has more of an opportunity to contribute during the preseason with injuries to Chris Singleton (left foot) and Porter (right hip). But he also has taken the time to pass along some wisdom to Porter.
“Whether I was in the team or not, I want to make his transition as smooth as possible, because you have to pay it forward,” Childress said, while mentioning to advice he received from Tony Delk and Al Harrington during his rookie season in Atlanta.
“Chills is a good guy,” said Harrington, teammates with Childress once again in Washington. “I’m hoping this works out for him. I think he’s deserving. He plays extremely hard. His game is still the same. It’s just about him trying to get into the right situation, where a team can use him.”
The Wizards will make their preseason debut against the new-look Nets on Tuesday at Verizon Center. Childress isn’t sure how much of a chance Coach Randy Wittman will give him against his former team, “but obviously, I hope we kick their butts.”