Andray Blatche would’ve had an easy choice for a jersey number after signing with the Brooklyn Nets had all-star guard Joe Johnson not already claimed the No. 7.
“That’s what messed me up,” Blatche said with a grin on Monday, as he prepared to face his former team, the Wizards, on the Nets’ practice court at Barclays Center.
Blatche wore the No. 7 in his last three seasons in Washington – the “Seven Day Dray” period when he was supposed to rise above the underachieving early part of his career and provide some production to match the potential. But just as he rose to being a promising talent who earned a massive contract extension, he fell into being a downtrodden flameout who was unceremoniously brushed aside.
Moving to Brooklyn forced Blatche to pick a number that now has multiple meanings. He chose zero – which his former teammate Gilbert Arenas turned into a movement; and a number that Blatche said symbolically described where he was last July, when the Wizards used the amnesty clause to end their seven-year relationship with him.
“I was at rock bottom,” Blatche said. “I felt like after that, nobody felt I was going to make it back into the league after last season, so zero reminds of me how everybody gave up on me.”
The No. 0 also allowed him to connect with a player who aided him, and pranked him, early in his career with the Wizards. For Blatche, the thought of how Arenas went from zero to hero resonated with him.
“Gil told me a lot of stuff that was going to happen to me and gave me a lot of advice on how to handle it. So I took zero,” Blatche said. “I feel like it matched me the best.”
Given a fresh start in his home state, Blatche, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., hopes to have another upward arc for his career, which flatlined last season with the Wizards. The lockout-shortened season wasn’t kind to Blatche, who arrived to training camp out of shape and battled nagging injuries until he eventually lost his starting power forward job. His weight ballooned to more than 280 pounds, fans at Verizon Center booed him, basically, for existing, and after being unable to trade him, the Wizards shut him down.
“I would say, the last season, I wasn’t ready,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t prepare right, due to me thinking it was going to be a lockout. I kind of put my guard down. I don’t really blame the fans for booing me, because I put that on myself.”
The Wizards gave him $23 million to go away, and Blatche felt that the perception around the league was that he was also finished with the NBA at age 25.
“It was a real wakeup call, that this could be taken at any moment, so I’m going to make sure I make the best of it,” Blatche said. “It’s a brand new start. The teammates are great. Couldn’t ask for nothing better than this. I’m blessed to be here with a second chance.”
The irony of Blatche playing in Brooklyn is that the two most forgettable nights of his final season in Washington occurred while the Wizards played the Nets. He had the infamous “This is your captain” speech before the season-opening debacle that ended with him complaining about play calling. And on March 21, when Nene made his Wizards debut, Blatche also had to deal with the ignominy of looking at a box score that read, “DNP-Conditioning.”
Blatche said the listing was the most upsetting incident of his time with the Wizards and quickly let him know that his time was up with the organization.
“That’s not what we talked about when it was time for me to shut it down. It was more about injuries. For them to put conditioning, it was basically like a slap in the face. It didn’t really show too much loyalty,” Blatche said. “I knew it was over. I just had that feeling. I knew either trade or amnesty was going to happen. Something had to happen.”
Before getting cut, Blatche had already begun working out in Houston with former NBA coach John Lucas, who helped him re-discover his passion for the game and reconstruct his body. He worked two or three times a day, claims that he has lost 25 pounds and has developed more definition in his upper body.
Lucas focused on “losing the weight and getting the body into fine, tuning shape, so I can go out there and bang and have a successful season,” Blatche said.
Blatche signed with Brooklyn on a make-good contract, meaning that he has to earn a roster spot on the team as a backup center. Coach Avery Johnson has taken him under his wing and plans to stay on Blatche to make sure he maximizes his abilities.
“I’ve put him on a program,” Johnson said. “He’s always early, whenever there is a certain part of his program. We don’t expect any problems with him. He knows I don’t have a failure to communicate. There is a price to pay if there is a failure to cooperate in a certain area, so he is doing well.
“He’s been consistent. He’s like a kid in a candy store. He’s excited to be here,” Johnson said. “He’s got great positive energy. I hear that from my coaches, training staff, strength and conditioning.”
Blatche scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds in his Nets debut against the Philadelphia 76ers in Atlantic City. The game was his first in the NBA representing a team other than the Wizards and also allowed Blatche to face his former teammate, Nick Young, for the first time. Blatche fouled, rather embraced, Young while Young was driving to the basket and Young gave him a menacing look before the two had a laugh.
“I’m feeling good,” Blatche said. “I could be here now and go back to having fun. Last time I said ‘having fun,’ they were like, ‘Basketball is not fun.’ Basketball is fun. Whatever your job is, you’re supposed to enjoy doing your job. So I’m back to having fun.”
Since joining the Nets, Blatche has had the chance to meet rap mogul and Nets minority owner Jay-Z for the first time at the opening of the 40/40 Club at Barclays Center and he also attending his opening-night concert. Now, Blatche will get an immediate reminder of how far he has come, with a chance to face the team that wanted nothing to with him in the first basketball game played at the new arena.
“Of course, playing against your old team and old teammates, you’re always going to have a little plus-side to it, but other than that, we’re getting prepared for the season,” Blatche said. “It’s more than just my rivalry with the Wizards.”