The winter of 2011 was particularly frigid on Long Island, but even worse, the phone lines were cold too. For two months, nobody called Danny Green. He had briefly found himself out of basketball after a standout career at the University of North Carolina during which he helped the Tar Heels to the 2009 national title. The Cleveland Cavaliers took Green with the 46th pick in the NBA draft, but his time there was short lived—the Cavs cut him before the 2010-11 season. He did everything he could to get back, even playing in Slovenia during the 2011 lockout. The former superstar out of North Babylon and St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset was forced to think about playing overseas and even considered 9-to-5 jobs.
Then the phone did ring. It was the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League. They drafted him and immediately traded him to the Reno Bighorns in exchange for Patrick Ewing Jr. Green desperately sought an opportunity, any opportunity, to get back in the game and he seized it. “Once you’re out of the league, it’s very hard to get back in, especially as a young guy with no real resume,” Green said. “You don’t really understand the business side of the game until you’re in it. You don’t know how wild it can get, how it can change and how ugly it can get.”
With Reno, he squared off against teams with names like the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Bakersfield Jam and the Idaho Stampede, averaging better than 20 points per game. The San Antonio Spurs took notice and signed him for their playoff charge.
Today he’s entrenched as a starter for the Spurs and the recipient of a three-year, $12-million contract. Still, Green carries the memory of his time away from the game. The big payday changed his life, but not his mindset.
“I’m able to live more comfortably, but I still approach the game the same way because you never know who’s trying to take your job,” Green said.
He’s now in his second full season with the Spurs, playing alongside three potential Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) and for future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich. The veteran group is in the running for the team’s fifth title since 1997. It would be Green’s first. “There’s more of an urgency because we have a small window with this group,” Green said. “We’re trying to get it done in the next couple of years. We don’t do anything flashy and we don’t have the highlights. We just try to win games and get better as the year goes on.”
Green has time on his side—he’ll be 26 this summer. He grew up in North Babylon watching players like Duncan, Ginobili and Stephen Jackson on tv and now he runs the floor with them. They’re extensions of Coach Popovich, the mastermind behind the first four titles.
Green has another coach back home: His dad, Danny Sr., who put a ball in his hands at age 2. “He was my biggest critic and he still is,” Green said of his dad, a former girls hoops coach at North Babylon. “He still coaches me from afar.”
Pickup games were fierce back at North Bab’s Peter J. Brennan Junior High, with Green quickly towering over his peers. He attended North Babylon High before enrolling at St. Mary’s and starred for Tim Cluess’ squad, which locked horns with some of the best teams on Long Island and in New York City. “He’s the reason why I’m successful,” Green said of Cluess, now the head coach at Division I Iona College. “He pushed us to be perfect and got the best out of us. He helped us as athletes and as students as well.”
Green’s current job description in San Antonio reads much like it did in college. On the offensive end, he’s counted on to knock down the perimeter shot. Even more important is what he does on the other end. Long and lean at 6-foot-6-inches, 210 pounds, Green is charged with defending the opposition’s top perimeter threat—Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among others.
His consistent play at both ends of the court helped him carve a niche. When Ginobili broke his hand last January, it paved the way for Green to start for the Spurs. “I never thought in a million years I’d be starting for this team,” Green said. “I got lucky. I was given an opportunity and I was prepared for it.”
On the road, sometimes he wakes up and needs time to remember what city he’s in. The truth is, the NBA season is a grind, particularly for a perennial title contender like San Antonio, for which the offseason is measured in weeks, not months.
Few NBA players would complain and Green is no exception. He’s part of a winning tradition in San Antonio and his personal goals—an All-Star appearance, an NBA All-Defensive Team selection, Team USA and of course, that first NBA championship—are within reach. “Every day, I wake up and I’m very thankful,” Green said. “I think I have the best job in the world. I wanted to play in the NBA since I was a kid and I want to be here as long as I can.”
Green manages to return to Long Island each year for his annual camps—two weeks in North Babylon and another week in Floral Park. In San Antonio, he’s a long way from home, but there’s no denying where that is. “New York will always be my first home,” Green said. “Texas and North Carolina, they’re my second and third homes, but New York’s where I was born and raised. It will always be my number one spot.”