Warriors center Erick Dampier was driving around Oakland last week, a mix CD of 50 Cent songs blasting from the stereo as he rattled off his needs. "Minutes," he said. "I need minutes to be productive: 30, 35 a night. And touches—I need to know I am going to be involved in the offense. And I need teammates who are willing passers."
Dampier, 29, has all of the above for the first time in his eight-year career, and he's meeting Golden State's needs in turn. At week's end he was averaging 12.3 points and 14.0 rebounds a game (including a league-high 5.9 offensive boards)—substantial increases over his career marks of 8.4 and 6.7, respectively. Last Saturday against the Spurs, Dampier had his 13th double double in 15 games, lifting the Warriors to a 91-89 win that gave them an 8-7 record, their best start since 1994-95. "Other than Shaq," says Warriors coach Eric Musselman, "there's not a better center in the league right now?
Dampier was at his home in Jackson, Miss., this summer when the groundwork for his improvement was laid. After free-agent point guard Gilbert Arenas signed with the Wizards, the Warriors traded Antawn Jamison to the Mavericks for Nick Van Exel. That meant the team's top two scorers from last season were gone. Speedy Claxton and Calbert Cheaney then signed with Golden State as free agents, and the Warriors dealt for Clifford Robinson. Though many believed that the team had sacrificed talent for future salary-cap space, Dampier lauded each move.
"There were problems on the team [last year]," the 6'11", 265-pound Dampier says. "Players didn't like playing with each other; the chemistry wasn't there. It was almost like we were trying to make something work that wasn't meant to work By letting Gilbert go and moving Antawn, it only made this team better."
Dampier's desire for more minutes (he was averaging 34.8 through Sunday, 10.7 more than last season) was satisfied when backup Adonal Foyle suffered a left knee injury; he won't return until January at the earliest. "That takes a lot of the stress off me," Dampier says. "I can just go out and rebound and defend."
Last February, after a tough loss at Minnesota, Dampier referred to his coach as Muscle-head and withdrew from his teammates. Last week he invited a group of Warriors—including Musselman—to his house in Alameda, where they feasted on catfish that Dampier's mother, Mary, had shipped from Mississippi. Says Musselman, "He's opened up a lot more to all of us."
After the season Dampier can opt out of the seven-year, $48 million contract he signed in 1999. A center at the top of his game-one whom Grizzlies G.M. Jerry West tried to acquire last summer—might fetch more than the $17 million Dampier's due. For now, though, he just wants to enjoy what may be his first season as an Ail-Star. "I've got to keep it going," he says. "But I am as happy as I have ever been."