The term rookie year implies that a player's first season in the NBA is a uniform, neatly tied together period of time. In truth, it's anything but. A rookie experiences moments, episodes, tests of skill and character that define him as a pro. SI watched Vancouver Grizzlies point guard Mike Bibby as he spent his lockout-shortened 1998-99 rookie season learning the little lessons that add up to an NBA education. "There was no particular instant when a lightbulb seemed to go on over his head," Vancouver coach Brian Hill said near season's end. "He just learned bit by bit."
Bibby was a stoic student, never seeming overjoyed or overwhelmed as he adjusted not only to the league but also to life in a new city with his girlfriend, Darcy Watkins, and their toddler son, Michael. "I don't get real emotional," he said early in the season. "Whatever happens, good or bad, I have to keep the same attitude. That's the best way to make it in this league."
Bibby isn't an All-Star yet, but when training camp opened in Victoria on Oct. 5, he was indisputably the Grizzlies' starting point guard. The following are some of the first-year encounters that helped establish him as one of the NBA's up-and-coming players.
Feb. 8, 1999: Trail Blazers at Grizzlies
"Trap him! Trap him!" There's a bloodthirsty quality to Portland forward Rasheed Wallace's shouts as Bibby brings the ball downcourt during the second game of the regular season and angles slightly toward the sideline where Wallace has positioned himself. As he races toward Bibby, Wallace urges Blazers forward Walt Williams to help him pin Bibby against the edge of the court. Bibby sees what's developing and changes direction, dribbling back a step or two and then turning toward the middle of the floor. As he nears half-court, he loops a pass over Wallace's outstretched arms to Vancouver forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who's fouled as he makes a move to the basket. After the whistle Wallace pushes out his mouth guard and makes a face at Bibby that looks less like a smile and more like he's baring his teeth. Bibby has avoided being swallowed by the trap this time, but it's clear Wallace, a four-year veteran, sees him as fresh meat.
In the Grizzlies' first preseason game, 10 nights earlier, the long-limbed, athletic Trail Blazers had pressed and harassed the 6'2", 190-pound Bibby into making a lot of mistakes that didn't show up in the box score. "I was nervous for that one," he says. "It was my first game in an NBA uniform, and they definitely took advantage of that. I guess that's what teams try to do to a rookie."
Now Portland is trying to do it again, but Bibby isn't as easily rattled. He sees trouble before he's lured into it, and although the Blazers do a good job of making him give up the ball early in Grizzlies possessions, he doesn't throw bad passes that lead to Portland fast-break scores as he did in that exhibition game. "Their press destroyed him the first time, but tonight he showed how much he has progressed in just a few days," Vancouver assistant Lionel Hollins says after the Blazers' 95-76 win.
Still. Bibby makes just 1 of 12 shots, even worse than his 3-for-14 performance in the season opener against the Sacramento Kings the night before. Grizzlies fans and the Vancouver media seem more concerned than necessary over this start. That's because Bibby is the second straight point guard the Grizzlies have chosen with one of the first four picks in the draft; the 1997 selection, Antonio Daniels, was such a flop that Vancouver traded him on draft day '98 to the San Antonio Spurs. So it's not surprising when the postgame interview in front of Bibby's locker has a negative tone, with the questions zeroing in on his shooting. "My shot will come," he says. "I can't give up on myself. I hope no one's giving up on me."
FINDING HIS TOUCH
Feb. 9: Practice at Grizzlies Training Facility
As Vancouver left the court after the previous night's game, Hollins sidled up to Bibby. "Don't get your head down," he said. "Remember, you're still a good shooter. It's not like you're missing badly, you're just a little short. Get your legs into the shot, and you'll be fine." It was typical Hollins, offering psychological and technical support in one small dose. After 10 years as a point guard and 11 as an assistant coach in the league, the 45-year-old Hollins has a thorough knowledge of X's and O's and an acute understanding of players' psyches. He's an ideal mentor for Bibby, and it's hard to imagine that there are 29 men more qualified to be NBA head coaches.