The revival of Willie Green

April 22, 2008 4:30:00 PM PDT
Willie Green planned to go on vacation and relax after agreeing to a lucrative deal a few years ago with the Philadelphia 76ers. But first, he wanted to stop by the famed St. Cecilia's gym is his hometown, because that's what basketball players do each summer in the Motor City.

He played one game too many on July 9, 2005.

Green injured his left knee and suddenly the $20 million, six-year deal waiting for his signature was in peril.

"Willie called me from the St. Cecilia's and I could hear it in his voice that something was wrong," Gary Green said Tuesday, recalling the unforgettable conversation with his nephew. "It was a very dark day."

The unfortunate tale became a feel-good story when Green returned home and scored a career playoff-high 17 points to help Philadelphia upset the second-seeded Detroit Pitons in Game 1 of their first-round series.

Sixers coach Maurice Cheeks said Green was effective in the series opener because he blended his game with the team's plans offensively.

"That's tough because a lot of times in that kind of situation, playing at home, you'll want to force things," Cheeks said. "He didn't do that."

When the Sixers announced the signings of teammates Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver, both of whom were restricted free agents as Green was in 2005, they said the contract with Green was on hold.

"That was a horrible day for him when they pulled the deal off the table, and he watched Dalembert and Korver sign," Gary Green said.

Green worked his knee back into shape at his alma mater, Detroit Mercy, and was healthy enough to sign a prorated deal in March of the 2005-06 season to play 10 games.

"He attacked his rehabilitation physically and with a glass-half-full approach mentally," said Perry Watson, his college coach. "The Sixers were patient with him and it paid off for them and Willie."

Two summers ago, Green signed a five-year contract worth about $17 million with the Sixers. The wait was worth it for a player who made about $600,000 when he averaged 7.7 points during the 2004-05 season - his second in the league.

"I was happy that I could get the same deal because I could've got something a lot less," Green said at the time. "But I was never really worried about the exact money. I wanted to get back on the court."

He has paid back the franchise with two solid seasons, averaging a career-high 12.4 points this season as a regular in the lineup and 11.3 last year as a part-time starter.

"He attacks the basket and wants to score a whole lot," Detroit's Richard Hamilton said. "It's always fun to play a guy that is aggressive on the offensive end."

Green had much more fun than the other starting shooting guard in the series opener.

He made 7 of 11 shots in a win while Hamilton missed 12 of 17, leading to the Pistons blowing a 15-point lead midway through the third quarter.

Green has also gotten a chance to enjoy his time off the court during the series.

"I've been with my friends and family every day," he said. "You have to do that. You have to get those home-cooked meals and the chances to relax and have some fun. That's why I love coming back here to play."

Even though Hamilton is not rooting for Green on the court, he is happy for him.

"When a situation happens to a guy like that, you just hope the best," said Hamilton, who will also have a homecoming in the series when it shifts Friday night to Philadelphia. "I'm just happy personally - and I know a lot of people were - that he came back and was able to perform."