Tuesday, September 6, 2011
We all know the road to the NBA is never easy and there are no guarantees. Luck has nothing to do with making it. Like Von Wafer you have to claim your place. 13 is just a number, but it's the number of a great player. Give him a week and he'll give you a career, doing more before Friday than most do in a season.
Lets take it back. It's early 2008 and the Denver Nuggets are amidst a road trip which now has them inside the Staples Centre taking on the one Los Angeles team that nobody wants to face. As per usual in Hollywood everyone is sticking to the script like Jay-Z. The leading man in this picture is Kobe Bryant who channels Magic and deals a season high 11 assists to his fellow Lakers en route to a 116-99 blowout. Kobe for a player like he is has a quiet 17 but still plays like the MVP he will become that year. His former understudy and then Nuggets backup Von Wafer has just four. The Lakers rout is punctuated by a big shot from Bryant which puts Denver down for good. Who does Kobe hit this shot over? The same guy he used to hit shots over again and again in practice, a guy that the Lakers waived just over a year prior, the then Nuggets backup Von Wafer. If this wasn’t embarrassing enough for Von on his way back down court Kobe slowed down, spun him around and playfully slapped him on the backside. Welcome back to the NBA young fella!
Still remember when Shaquille O’Neal was torching Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the first game of the 1996 Eastern Conference finals until he slapped Jordan’s backside mockingly after one particular play. M.J. saw that as a sign of weakness and then decided to return the favor on the court, extinguishing the diesel and eventually sweeping his Magic team? OK, so what happened in January of 2009 may not have exactly been of the same magnitude. Still when Kobe and the Lakers came to play Von’s then new Houston Rockets team, Wafer showed he aint’ no joke and earned the God, M.V.P., Kobe’s respect paid in full. He went 10 out of 14 from the field for 23 points including three from downtown. This was second only to Kobe’s game-high 33. What a difference a year makes.
This career high didn’t stop the Lakers from winning the game 105-100, but it did give them a serious challenge with Wafer when the Lakers were probably too busy focusing on a game plan for Yao Ming. It also made everyone sit up and take notice. NBA legend and now Rockets commentator Clyde Drexler reckoned that Kobe and the Lakers would be wondering ‘who is this kid with the Mohawk that’s lighting us up’? Still ‘The Glyde’ was wrong on this one. Kobe remembered and recognized his old Laker teammate. “Any time you play against somebody who was either traded or left the ballclub, they have extra incentive” Kobe said postgame admiring Von’s performance. “I told him I was proud of the way you’ve been playing”. This time there was no slap from Kobe. You earned your spot young fella!
Vakeaton Wafer certainly has earned his place in this league, lockout and international duty aside (Von recently signed with Vanoli Cremona of Italy). The 26 year old started his basketball career out at Pinewood State High school averaging a mean 32 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in his Junior year. He also finished second to a certain Lebron James in the McDonald's All-American slam-dunk contest. This kid was making an impression in high school and this would continue in College too, where in his sophomore year with Florida State he led the team in scoring. Still, however Von wasn’t making the same positive impression in his studies. Cutting classes led to Von being suspended for games, hurting his rep in the process. This could be a reason why this promising youngster was drafted so low in the second round of the 2005 NBA Draft. He was still taken with the 39th pick by the Los Angeles Lakers. A great place to start your career…expect when you’re a guard. A guard isn’t going to take many minutes off Kobe Bryant, especially when your playing time is decided by Phil Jackson, a guy notorious for handing rookies more ‘DNP-Coaches Decisions’ than plays.
Never discouraged however, Von still looked good when he played. A real energy guy when he played, hitting buckets, difficult shots, driving hard to the basket and being tenacious on D like Jack Black is on the acoustic with comedy, Von played with the Lakers in perfect harmony. The thing about Von is he made the most of his sparse minutes. Even in garbage time with the game decided he cleaned up and took the rubbish out, playing like he was trying to make a game-winning play. Go and Youtube Von Wafer against the Toronto Raptors and you’ll see an example of this tenacity. Kobe takes a free throw as everyone remains still, watching, expecting it to go straight in. Von's magic however sees the game before it happens as he darts out of nowhere anticipating the miss. Before anybody registers what has just happened, he runs into the paint and tips in the rebound without breaking stride. That’s a big play, an Iverson, or legendary play. With that being said however, the Lakers had a lot of legends and guys that could make big plays. So Von was expendable and released soon after, but he got his taste of the NBA and he was still hungry.
Some D League time was a required appetizer first though. So Von honed his skills with the Colorado 14ers. Then the Lakers neighbors the Clippers called Von up to the L for a week. This next shot at the association resulted in only one minute of playing time unfortunately, before he was again placed on waivers. Where others would be frustrated and give up Von kept grinding to earn his place back in the league that had already shown him the door twice. Hard work, hustle and of course talent pay off eventually and things got better for Von. First he played out the season with Denver. Then he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2008, showing that he was a valuable commodity to this league and not just another 10 day contract player anymore.
It was when Wafer joined the Houston Rockets however that he was able to cement a new reputation for being a key backup on a top tier ball club. The Rockets had a lot of options from three all-star players to a deep bench, but when Tracy McGrady went down with an injury it was time for Von to step up. Von's explosive, passionate and often clutch play was very refreshing for the Houston fans who were starting to have their doubts about whether T-Mac was the same player he once was, even before his injury, this led to fans McGrady number one jerseys being defaced to a number 13 in honor of Von. Unlucky for some. The Rockets still needed an All-Star like Mac to help them go deep, but Von showed an unwavering enthusiasm and energy that gave Houston a real spark in those mid-second quarter type moments of the game where others switch off.
Just like Vinnie ‘The Microwave’ Johnson of the 80’s era Detroit Pistons, Von heated up at any given moment when his number was called. Just like when he averaged 14.3 points one month, just like when he net 21 against Northwest powerhouse Utah and just like when he hit a game-winning three against the previous years champions. This kind of play earned him a great substitute year with the former Eastern champs and NBA legends; the Boston Celtics.
Before he took off from the Rockets however, Houston found that missing energy player off the bench that kept them going when Yao, T-Mac, Ron et al where out of the game. Back in 2009 Houston made it to the second round of the playoffs, after many years of first round heartbreaking losses that Tracy McGrady knew all too well about. The Rockets and Von faced their biggest challenge yet. A Western Conference second round clash against the red-hot, championship favorite Los Angeles Lakers team that had home-court advantage. The last time Von played against his former team Kobe was proud of him, this time he was aware of him. As daunting as it was for Von, this is a guy who still made it on a playoff team as a significant contributor after being written off and waived twice early in his career. Many other players would yield under this sort of pressure, but Von didn't give up for anything, or anybody. Even in in a series of losses, Von won even more respect and set his career off on a winning path, that would lead him to Kobe and the Lakers Boston Celtics rivals.
Today Von is the same lose-hard, everything for his team to win, key player. Even if the tempo of the game is slow Wafer can step in and reset the tone of the game providing a boost for his team, just like he does when he’s barely sitting on the bench and encouraging his starters to go hard. This type of tempo change can help his team change the flow of a game and even the momentum of a playoff series. Even after being bounced around the league from team to team it seems that Von Wafer still has a basketball home in America, even though like most players he'll have to segue abroad until certain negotiations open up. Still, when Davis Stern unlocks the doors to the NBA you can bet Von Wafer will return with more than his foot in the door, kicking it in with his notorious B.I.G. talent. Then we can alll say; welcome back to the NBA young fella!