Analyze this. Denver Nuggets power forward Antonio McDyess is one of the NBA's most dynamic young stars, but he's so bereft of bravado that he's not afraid to cry in public. In January he chose to leave Phoenix, the league's Shangri-la, and accept $20 million less to sign as a free agent with the Nuggets, who went 11-71 last year. He treats rims with utter disdain, but teammates use words like sweet, teddy bear and—no joke—huggable to describe him. Compared to McDyess, a mob boss with a fragile psyche hardly even qualifies as conflicted.
McDyess's dissonance can be more compelling than, say, that of a Los Angeles Lakers forward with generous flextime. But because McDyess plays for a woebegone team and has Betty Currie's instincts for self-promotion, he's known for little more than his hellacious dunks, a staple of the sports highlights shows. Most fans are oblivious to his downy-soft jumper, his knack for rebounding in traffic and his breakneck ferocity, all of which were on display in a 46-point, 19-board performance against the Vancouver Grizzlies on Feb. 28. They don't realize that in a sport that has left so many with a sour taste, McDyess ought to be regarded as a 6'9" Altoid. "He's refreshing," says Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni. "You don't often find a kid who isn't embarrassed to be nice and sensitive but who is also becoming one of the best players in the league."
The numbers bear D'Antoni out. Through Sunday, McDyess was among the NBA's top 10 in scoring (21.2 points per game), rebounds (10.6) and blocks (2.64). The only forward with comparable stats was the Sacramento Kings' Chris Webber. What's more, McDyess demands to guard the opposition's best frontcourt player and, because of Denver's lack of punch, is inevitably doubled when he has the ball. "As we get better as a team, more people will recognize Antonio," says Dan Issel, general manager of the 7-18 Nuggets. "Talentwise and as a physical specimen, he's up there with anyone."
McDyess's god-given gifts are extraordinary. He runs the court as effortlessly as an impala, his body carries 245 pounds of muscle, and he has hops worthy of a brewery. As a Nuggets rookie in the fall of '95, McDyess blocked a shot in practice with such zeal that he left a handprint on the glass. Measurements later showed that the print was about two feet above the rim.
McDyess's success, however, is founded less on his having won the genetic Pick Six than on his impeccable work ethic. Since being drafted as a 20-year-old out of Alabama, McDyess has made huge strides in his footwork and shot thousands of turnaround jumpers alone in the gym. The Nuggets' strength coaches say they haven't seen a player so relentless in the weight room since Calvin Natt, a renowned workhorse for Denver in the mid-1980s. "Dice leads by example," says Nuggets center-forward Danny Fortson. "I like to think I play mean, but he plays mean."
The considerable, ahem, Rocky Mountain oysters that McDyess shows on the court make his Doris Day personality all the more perplexing. He doesn't drink, swear or refer to himself in the third person. His body is unadorned by tattoos, earrings and other trimmings, save a mesh bracelet embroidered with a small reptile and the letters F.R.O.G. ("You don't know what that stands for?" he asks incredulously. "Fully reliant on God.") McDyess also regards trash talk the way others speak of illicit drugs. "I tried it a few times, but it just wasn't for me," he says. "I can't be someone I'm not. I try to be a warrior on the court, but where I come from—Quitman, Mississippi—being macho doesn't get you anywhere."
Macho he's not. After the Nuggets lost 95-87 to the Miami Heat on March 4, McDyess emerged from the shower and stood before his locker weeping. "It's all my fault," he said, his voice riven with pain. The assembled members of the media, a species seldom summoned to dispense TLC, were dumbfounded. "We felt like we had to console him," says Vicki Michaelis, who covers the Nuggets for The Denver Post. "We were all patting him on the back and telling him to keep his head up." How badly had McDyess played to occasion such self-reproach? He had scored only 20 points and grabbed a mere eight rebounds. Against the best team in the Eastern Conference. On the road. When the Nuggets' bench had been out-scored 35-2. "I just felt my teammates were looking for my guidance in the fourth quarter," McDyess says sheepishly, "and I let them down."
Fact is, there are plenty of nights when McDyess could sue the other Denver players for nonsupport, particularly point guard Nick Van Exel, who was shooting just 38.1% at week's end. But loyalty is vital to McDyess, and no amount of time spent standing wide open in the paint without seeing the ball could justify disparaging a teammate. "Here's all you need to know about Dice," says Nuggets assistant coach John Lucas, a mentor to McDyess. "I first met him before the draft in 1995, when I was coach and general manager of the Sixers. I invited him and six other draft picks to work out for us and stay at my house. Well, only one of the seven guys made his bed. You can guess who that was."
The Nuggets made their bed before last season. Doubting that McDyess was a franchise player, they traded him to Phoenix. When McDyess left town tearfully, vowing he'd be back someday, few took him seriously. But after deciding that he didn't fit in the Suns' pell-mell system, he signed a six-year, $67.5 million contract with Denver after the lockout ended. "I just felt more comfortable with the Nuggets' organization and the city of Denver," says McDyess, who, yes, was reduced to tears as he agonized over choosing between the teams. "I guess I wanted the pressure of being a leader."
He has acquitted himself well under that pressure, especially against top opponents. In a March 11 game with the Utah Jazz, for instance, he pushed Karl Malone off the blocks and repeatedly demanded the ball, abusing the Mailman like a yapping dog. The Nuggets lost 94-89, but McDyess finished with 39 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter. "He was a great pickup for Denver," said Malone that night. "The Nuggets ought to be thankful they got him."