A mile and a half from the family farm, in a clearing off Houston Avenue, is a walnut orchard yielding an unusually bountiful harvest. Tyson Chandler spent his early childhood on that farm in California's Central Valley, and after long days picking cotton in the fields with his grandfather, they would stop by the orchard and crack open walnuts while they rode to the gin. Chandler left the farm when he was 10, bound for an urban basketball odyssey, but he was always as comfortable in cowboy boots as hightops. He could drive a tractor, milk a cow, slop a pig and help grow some of the tallest greens in the Valley. Before every season he headed back to feel the rich soil under his feet.
Last summer Chandler, 28, played for the USA basketball team that won gold at the world championships, so he was unable to make his annual pilgrimage to the farm in Hanford, Calif. He did not see his 80-year-old grandfather, Cleo Threadgill, climb into a GMC pickup in the mornings, head down Houston Avenue and turn into the orchard, where he picked walnuts for hours, dropped them into buckets, poured them into bags and finally drove them to a produce stand to weigh and sell. When Chandler heard what his grandfather was up to, he called the farm and asked, "Papa, why are you out picking all those walnuts?" His grandfather told him he was trying to sell $180 worth. "Why do you need $180?" Chandler pressed. Because, his grandfather explained, for $180 he could buy NBA League Pass on DirecTV and watch every Mavericks game this season.
Chandler tells the story over dinner in an Oklahoma City steak house, the night before Dallas plays the Thunder. He is unsure whether to laugh, because he so happily would have cut the check, or cry. "I think about that conversation now when I'm getting ready for a game," Chandler says. "There are people who worked—who picked walnuts by the side of a road—to watch us play. We owe them everything we've got."
The Mavericks won at least 50 games in each of the past 10 seasons, but every spring they left some nuts on the tree. Chandler remembers facing them in the playoffs and hearing the scouting report: "Very talented, but if you attack, they'll back down." Dallas acquired Chandler from Charlotte over the summer, mainly because he is 7'1" and in full flight looks down on the rim like it's an open manhole cover. But the Mavs also needed someone who would hold his ground. Before every game Chandler stomps along the sideline, a fevered grin parting his black beard. Once the game begins, he positions himself under the basket, hollering at the four teammates in front of him, describing in detail the screens set and cuts made behind them. He makes a point to celebrate stops more loudly than scores.
Chandler is an unlikely catalyst for a culture shift, given that two teams traded him in the past two years and two other deals fell apart. Chandler worried as recently as six months ago that he might lose his leaping ability due to myriad left-foot injuries. But now that he has fully healed, Dirk Nowitzki is calling him the team MVP, comparing Chandler's impact on the Mavericks to Kevin Garnett's on the Celtics in 2007. While Garnett sold defense with a scowl, Chandler is doing it with that delirious grin. The Mavericks have the second-best record in the Western Conference, 26--10, despite losing five of their last seven as Nowitzki recovers from a sprained right knee. They are not just outscoring opponents any more, either: They have allowed only two opponents to shoot 50% in a game, the fewest in the league. Meanwhile Chandler is shooting a Chamberlainesque 68.8%, averaging 9.0 points and 9.3 rebounds, and filling a less quantifiable void that has plagued this franchise ever since its inception. "Tyson has brought us something we haven't had in many years," says Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson. "Or ever."
The alltime list of Dallas centers is as long as 7' 6" Shawn Bradley—and as lean. In 2004 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ranked the top 20, including the likes of Wang Zhizhi, Evan Eschmeyer and Uwe Blab. James Donaldson finished first, Bradley second. "Now it's Donaldson and Chandler," says retired Mavs great Rolando Blackman. Chandler recently walked into the front office and checked out the centers in the old team pictures. It seems he has finally found a place that will celebrate him for who he is and not judge him for who he was once supposed to be. "I've had a long journey to get to this point," Chandler says. "One part of it was the basketball. The other part was the b.s."
In Chandler's first week off the farm, a boy asked to borrow his bicycle. Chandler was new to San Bernardino, Calif., eager to make friends. He handed over the bike. The boy rode one block, then another. Chandler waited for the boy to turn around. He never did.
San Bernardino sits among a cluster of cities east of Los Angeles, and compared with Hanford, it was overwhelming. Chandler lived alone with his mother, Vernie Threadgill, and every morning they walked to the bus stop, he riding one way to school, she the other way to work. By eighth grade Chandler was 6' 10", plotting another route.
He became the ultimate emblem of modern grassroots basketball. Chandler was profiled by 60 Minutes before he was a ninth-grader because shoe companies were already lobbying for his loyalty. He attended a high school—Dominguez High in Compton, Calif.—more than an hour from his home. He never considered college. At Dominguez, Chandler drew sellout crowds so raucous he sometimes required police escorts. "He was like Shaq," says Raptors guard and Compton native DeMar Derozan. Chandler grew bored dunking on smaller boys and drifted out to the perimeter, dribbling between his legs, throwing up all the threes he wanted. No one disciplined him because everybody was afraid to alienate him. When Chandler was a senior at Dominguez in 2001, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED published a 6,655-word report highlighting the opportunists attached to him, including a high school coach who in 2009 would be convicted of molesting a teenage player and an AAU director who lavished players with gifts. "He attracted the biggest slimeballs in California history," says one former college recruiter. Chandler was arguably the most lionized amateur until LeBron James, and because he was in the Los Angeles market, forces of celebrity were added to the mix. "You'd see the girls around Tyson, the Escalade he drove, and you wanted to be like him," says Bucks guard Brandon Jennings, a Dominguez ballboy at the time. "You learn later there's another side."
Chandler might have been the only one who never bought into his own hype. He caught himself on television and swore he was looking at someone else. He accepted the perks—"gifts," he says, "not money"—and opened his circle to anyone who could help him reach the NBA, whether by arranging workouts with influential coaches or wrangling invitations to exclusive camps. But Chandler vowed that once he was drafted and moved his mother out of the three-bedroom house she shared with eight friends in San Bernardino, he would reject the system that turned him out. "I hated it," Chandler says. "I just felt like I had no options. All I wanted was to make it in the NBA so people would sit down and talk to me and find out who I really am." He didn't need to shoot all those threes. He didn't even have to score. He grew up on a farm. He craved the discipline of hard chores.