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Lee Jenkins
January 17, 2011
Remember Tyson Chandler the teen phenom? The Mavericks' center prefers that you don't. He's somebody else now: the reliable center Dallas has been missing
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January 17, 2011

Big D (finally) Gets Its Big Man

Remember Tyson Chandler the teen phenom? The Mavericks' center prefers that you don't. He's somebody else now: the reliable center Dallas has been missing

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When former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause interviewed Chandler before the 2001 draft, Krause apologized to him—"You are nothing like I expected," he told him—and traded for his rights after the Clippers picked him second. The Bulls took fellow high schooler Eddy Curry fourth and explained to Chandler that Curry would be their low-post scorer and he would be their defensive enforcer. "Here is a guy who had been told his whole life how unstoppable he was," says former Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylan, now with the Bucks. "He could have easily resisted that role." Chandler embraced his first chance to change perceptions, abandoning his entire offensive game. He blossomed as a rebounder and shot blocker, but coaches constantly lamented how much he had left to learn. Chandler never fell out of shape or alienated the organization like Curry, but by his fifth season he was still coming off the bench, averaging 5.3 points, shooting 50.3% from the free throw line and getting booed at the United Center, a 23-year-old bust.

New Orleans traded for him in 2006, hoping he could rediscover his high school repertoire, or at least the best elements of it. During an exhibition game before his first season with the Hornets, Chandler grabbed an offensive rebound and, without even looking at the basket, passed the ball out. Coach Byron Scott immediately called timeout and told him, "You are entitled to put that back in." Running alongside point guard Chris Paul, Chandler started to score again, a familiar and intoxicating feeling. He watched Tim Duncan and Amar'e Stoudemire and told himself, You're just as athletic as those guys. Maybe you should be taking those shots. In the summer before his third season in New Orleans, Chandler worked every day on his jumper, and in an exhibition game he decided to float around the perimeter like he was 18 again. "I made two jump shots and I was so excited," Chandler says. "Yeah, two jump shots! Four points! And then after the game I was like, What am I doing? Why am I trying to do something that other people do so much better than me? This is not who I am. I think that's when I realized my calling."

On defense Chandler protects the rim. On offense he attacks it. He rarely takes a shot that's not a dunk or a layup. He is a pure center in a league desperate for them, master of his narrow niche in the middle. He ranks 12th alltime in rebounding percentage and is on pace to finish this season with the second-highest field goal percentage ever—to Wilt Chamberlain's 72.7% in 1972--73—assuming he qualifies. (To lead the league, a player has to make 300 shots; Chandler is on pace to make 248.) Even Chandler's free throw percentage has risen above 75%.

In the middle of the 60 Minutes segment, when acclaimed basketball scout Bob Gibbons and interviewer Lesley Stahl are trying to project the long-term future of an eighth-grade Tyson Chandler, Gibbons asks Stahl, "What does this do to a youngster?"

In this case, counterintuitively, more good than harm. When Chandler is in a restaurant, and notices fans eyeing him reluctantly, he calls them over to chat. When he hears about the latest basketball prodigy, cutting through the grass roots, he asks for his phone number. He has an uncanny memory for names. "He is a positive presence in everybody's life he knows," says former Hornets assistant coach Dave Miller. Last summer Chandler started his own AAU program east of Los Angeles and drove 120 miles every other day to practices. But Team Chandler was a little different than some of the other powers. He instituted a mandatory grade point average, solicited no "donations" and offered no perks. "I paid for everything because I wanted it all on the up-and-up," Chandler says. "And you know what's sad? I couldn't recruit any top guys."

Chandler grew as disenchanted as ever and shuttered the program. He will spend more time at home this summer with his wife, Kimberly, and their three children. But he ponders what he will do if his two-year-old son, Tyson Jr., is 6' 10" in eighth grade. "I will never let him go through the wringer I did," Chandler says. "Men treating kids like they're professionals, like they're properties—it drives me nuts... . I'll let him play, but I'll be the one who takes him to practice. I'll buy his shoes. I'll get his plane ticket to Orlando. But, you know, I'm not worried about my son. He'll have financial advantages. I'm worried about the next kid who is in the same position I was. I want him to know there is a way to get through it all without becoming something you're not."

Once part of the AAU stereotype, Chandler is now the antithesis of it. When the United States faced Brazil in the world championships, he sat on the bench for the entire first half, yet was the first one in the locker room suggesting defensive adjustments at halftime. When Chandler arrived in Dallas, he wasn't even guaranteed a starting job because the Mavericks had re-signed Brendan Haywood, but he has blended as well with point guard Jason Kidd as he did with Chris Paul. Before the Mavs played in Oklahoma City, a few Thunder players watched video in the locker room, and one of them blurted, "That's the New Orleans Tyson Chandler!" Nowitzki, still searching for his first championship, wonders if this is the missing piece. "We've got Tyson and we're going for it," he says.

Chandler is a starter, a potential All-Star, a playoff linchpin. He thinks often of Ben Wallace, who for years applied his craft expertly but was only truly appreciated when he got to Detroit. In Dallas, Chandler believes, he finally has his audience. "That's important to me," he says, "because I think a lot of people have a false sense based on assumptions that were made when I was 16 years old. I want them to know who I am."

A farm boy. A teen star. A big man.

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