By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Seated on a couch in a Georgetown hotel lobby, Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger reached down and pulled up his pant leg to reveal a two-inch scar on his right shin. It's from a bullet that ricocheted off a street and grazed his leg when he about 12.
Granger had been hanging out with friends in a dangerous neighborhood just outside of New Orleans that his father, Danny Sr., had warned him to stay away from. Granger, who was not the target, dove to the ground in horror during the drive-by shooting, which left behind a permanent lesson.
Granger never told his stern and overprotective father about the incident for fear of punishment. He just patched himself up and limped home. "Back then, I was so afraid to tell my dad, I didn't really think about it. Now, when I look back, I got lucky that I didn't get killed," said Granger, who wears a protective pad on his leg during games.
Granger, 25, has overcome much -- from escaping a drug-infested area in Metairie, La., to dealing with the pain of having his mother leave the family when he was a teenager, to later having a close friend commit suicide in college -- to become a first-time all-star this weekend in Phoenix. But when asked to name his greatest hurdle to NBA stardom, he didn't hesitate. "Convincing myself that I was good enough," said Granger, a fourth-year forward who ranks sixth in the NBA in scoring at 25.4 points per game.
"Some of the players that started off as big recruits, everybody always gave them their confidence. You got so many people telling you you are going to be good, you start believing it, like, 'Yeah. I really am good.' It works the opposite way when people are telling you, 'You are not good enough.' Sometimes it can mess with your mind."
Granger was lightly recruited coming out of Grace King High School, overlooked until late by Louisiana State and offered scholarships by just Birmingham-Southern and Bradley. His strong academic record and 30 ACT score also led to a financial package offer from Yale. The elder Granger pleaded for his son to get an Ivy League education, but Danny said he felt uncomfortable on his visit and elected to study civil engineering at Bradley. Even though he was Bradley's leading scorer as a sophomore, Granger said he never seriously thought about playing in the NBA. He often was the pessimist whenever his teammates discussed making it to the league. "When they would talk about the NBA I'd say: 'Y'all know the statistics of people going to the NBA. It's very low. You might as well use this to get a degree, so that you don't have hoop dreams your entire life,' " Granger said.
After a coaching change at Bradley, Granger transferred to New Mexico for his final two seasons. He still didn't fully grasp his potential, even after leading the Mountain West Conference in scoring as a junior at 19.5 points -- even after the Lobos coach at the time, Ritchie McKay, told him that NBA scouts were watching and that Granger could someday share the spotlight with the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. "He said, 'Coach, if I'm just on the bench [in the NBA], I'll be happy,' " McKay said. "But [his success] was inevitable by the way he works. He was never satisfied."
The summer before his senior season, Granger earned $10 an hour, five hours a day, four days a week, working at an Albuquerque racetrack, getting quarterhorses to the starting gate and cleaning the track. He had been working at that job since he arrived in Albuquerque because Bradley refused to release him from his scholarship, forcing him to pay for his first year at New Mexico.
When Danny's father found out that he was still spending his summers at the horse track instead of working out at the gym, he immediately went to the bank, withdrew $5,000 and flew to New Mexico. "I said, 'You have NBA potential, you don't need to be picking up manure, you need to be in the gym,' " Danny Sr. recalled. "That's the kind of stock that I had in Danny."
Granger quit his job and hit the gym. And McKay eventually persuaded Granger to attend longtime NBA assistant Tim Grgurich's camp for NBA and college players in Las Vegas. His father tagged along and was awestruck by NBA stars such as Jermaine O'Neal, Rasheed Wallace and Paul Pierce and coaches such as George Karl and Rick Carlisle. While Granger was slowly building his confidence, his father was seeking autographs.
Near the end of the camp, Granger spotted him and told him to put away the pen and pad. "You don't need to get their autographs," he told his father. "I can handle this. I'm going to be a star."
Granger suddenly believed. "Now that I have that confidence, it's over," said Granger, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract last October. "Right now, I don't think nobody can stop me. Even if I have a bad game, it's not because somebody played good defense, it's because I did something wrong. That's the way I look at it."
Danny Sr., now retired after owning a business repairing backhoes and forklifts, raised his three kids to have successful careers after his ex-wife and their mother, Janice, left the family in 1998. Granger's older sister, Jamie, is an engineer in Phoenix and his younger brother, Scott, has been a background singer for Alicia Keys and is currently on tour with "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks. (Danny Granger's great aunt is legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, but he said he didn't inherit her musical talent.)
Granger said he has had sporadic conversations with his mother and hasn't spoken with her in more than a year. "It's difficult. It's funny when you're in the NBA, a lot of people try to come into your life. Nobody is trying to get out of your life," Granger said, turning away, voice drifting.
When the Pacers selected him 17th overall in 2005, Granger said he paused for a second after shaking David Stern's hand to think about Bill Feeney, his best friend at New Mexico. Feeney hung himself before the two could make their debut for the Lobos. "That was one of the hardest things I had to deal with, emotionally. It hit me so hard because we were so close," Granger said. "It took a long time to get over."
Granger has watched close friends from his old neighborhood make bad decisions, too. Some sold drugs, including one friend Granger said is in a Texas prison and in a wheelchair after getting shot 18 times. Granger credits his father for keeping him focused on academics and basketball as a kid. "He just wanted me to stay straight, get out of the neighborhood and have a good life. He never wanted me to sell myself short," Granger said.
To keep an eye on his son -- not necessarily to groom an NBA player -- Danny Sr. built a 60-by-40-foot court in a lot next to his house, using a rim donated from a local school.
He would often rough up his son on the court, at times pushing him to tears. He also recruited the toughest kids on the block to test Danny with physical one-on-one games, nodding in approval whenever he traded elbows and hard fouls. Now that tough love has produced an all-star.
"I feel definitely blessed with how far I've come," Granger said. "I'm so grateful for the journey that I've taken to get here. Lord knows, it's been hard."