There’s something purely Americana about the hometown kid making good in front of the hometown crowd.
Whether it’s David Freese blasting home runs to lead his St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title, or Chauncey Billups going from prep legend to college superstar to NBA bust back to NBA superstar in Denver, or even Jerome Bettis winning a Super Bowl in Detroit in his final NFL game while playing for another team, we like these stories. In a sports culture where free agency and stressed-out GMs eager to trade make it increasingly tougher for fans to claim one group of players as “our guys” for any length of time, hometown ties remain nearly impossible to break.
Some athletes embrace the opportunity to play for their hometown team, while others go the opposite direction. Derrick Rose grew up in Chicago dreaming of playing for the Bulls and lived that dream when the franchise selected him No. 1 in the 2008 Draft. On the other hand, LeBron James spent the first seven years of his pro career (and the first 25 years of his life) in Northeast Ohio, and was ready to bounce to Miami when the ideal of playing for the hometown squad became less important than winning an NBA championship.
Here are 20 NBA players I’d like to see, preferably sooner than later, play for their hometown team:
20. Jerryd Bayless (Phoenix Suns) – It’s not that the Suns haven’t tried auditioning eventual replacements for Steve Nash; they just haven’t landed the right one. Or they let the right one slip through their fingers. Following the footsteps of Goran Dragic and Aaron Brooks, Bayless – who played high school ball at St. Mary’s in Phoenix – has the raw speed, skills and aggressiveness to at least earn a tryout as Nash’s heir apparent.
19. John Wall (Charlotte Bobcats) – North Carolina is going to be a college basketball state until the end of time, but between the allure of Michael Jordan and the excitement of Raleigh, N.C., native John Wall, there’s a chance the NBA team could earn some real estate in the minds of the public. Plus, if there’s any player who should have the NASCAR checkered flag on the side of his uniform, it’s Wall.
18. Rashard Lewis (Houston Rockets) – If you think Raw Lew is miserable in D.C., rewind your mind back to the 1998 NBA Draft: After his senior year at Alief Elsik H.S. in Houston, Lewis was left crying in the Green Room after the three Texas pro teams passed him up SIX TIMES before the Sonics rescued him in the second round. The Rockets, in particular, said no thanks on the local kid three times with their first-round picks. Would the rebuilding Rockets realistically take on Lewis’ monstrous contract anytime soon? No, but money aside, this would be a good ending to what began as a cautionary tale.
17. Kemba Walker (New York Knicks) – After the Stephon Marbury experience, you’d probably have to work hard to convince a Knicks fan that this wouldn’t be a disaster. But I’ve known Kemba ever since he was just coming into his own at Rice H.S. in Harlem, and I’m pretty sure he has the temperament to handle the pressure of running point for the hometown team.
16. Grant Hill (Washington Wizards) – Hill obviously loves Phoenix; his last couple of free-agent summers he’s toyed with some teams that could have given him a better shot at a championship before re-upping with the Suns each time. My guess is that Hill plans to retire in Phoenix and stay there while he grows old, but maybe he could be convinced to do his hometown Wizards a solid and give that franchise a much-needed example of professionalism on his way out.
15. Eric Gordon (Indiana Pacers) – I’m sorry, but as much as I love Gordon’s game and want to see what he can do as the primary scorer in New Orleans, a shooting stroke like that has to be housed in Indiana. For the love of Rick Mount, it’s only right.
14. LaMarcus Aldrige (Dallas Mavericks) – LMA is locked in long-term in Portland and snatching up bigger pieces of the Franchise Player pie for himself every day this season. He probably isn’t going anywhere for a while. But somewhere in the dream scenarios of the people who run the Mavs organization, bringing the local product back as their guy to build around post-Dirk works on every level.
13. DeMar DeRozan (L.A. Clippers) – OK, so the Clippers don’t need another highlight-reel dunker. And they’d probably be better off with a two-guard who can commit to defending the other team’s best wing scorer every night, serve as a threat to knock down threes consistently, and never complain about lack of touches. But still, putting DeRozan on the court alongside Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, with Chris Paul running the show? Murder.
12. Evan Turner (Chicago Bulls) – He could have formed a high school super-team with Derrick Rose when the two were in the same graduating class, but Turner went to St. Joseph H.S. in the suburb of Westchester (Isiah Thomas’ alma mater) while D-Rose went to Simeon Academy in the city. Turner’s progress as a pro hasn’t come as fast as Rose’s instant impact, but he seems like the perfect backcourt complement to the reigning league MVP. Turner defends, rebounds and doesn’t need to dominate the ball to make a difference on the floor.
11. Richard Jefferson (Phoenix Suns) – Say what you want about RJ being past his prime. Go ahead and question whether he was even that good during his prime. But the man excels at running the floor, jumping and finishing at the rim; and this season’s version of the Suns could use a veteran that can run, jump and finish what Steve Nash starts.