Damp Behind the Ears
I thank God Shammgod for every day that I have never been a fan of a team with Erick Dampier at center.
Dampier is 6 feet 11 inches tall but has only averaged double-digit rebounds once in his career. Sure, he’s never averaged more than 32 minutes per game in a season either, but let’s be honest: a player with that size would be given all the minutes he wanted, provided he was doing something right. It’s possible that having more turnovers than assists in 13 out of 14 seasons keeps a ceiling on his playing time.
He’s played two of the worst games I can find in online-searchable NBA history (6 turnovers, 0 points, fouled out against Atlanta in 2005 and 6 turnovers, 1 point, fouled out versus Utah in 2002). Matched up against Amar’e Stoudemire in a 2005 second round playoff game, he was outscored 40-0. There is no sport where a 40-0 deficit is anything better than a slaughter.
The statistics are misleading, as usual. I cherry-picked those games, and there’s no problem with a player being that statistically bad, as long as he’s not on my team, and as long as he can justify drawing a paycheck for terrible job performance. But I don’t like a player that quantitatively bad yapping around LIKE HE IS SOMEBODY.
If you’ve played pickup basketball, you’ve played against Erick Dampier. He was the guy who came to the court with his never-scuffed shoes in the original box, with matching socks and headband, and he refused to talk to anybody because he was busy doing pushups to prime his muscles for play. He roared when he pulled down uncontested rebounds. He made 0 of 8 layups while cursing the tight playground rim and the wind. He got back late on defense and fouled you hard across your brow, then refused to help you up, saying something to the effect of “not in my house.” He beat you to the water fountain afterward and mumbled that next time he wouldn’t go easy on you.
Erick Dampier never just served a plate of crap in 24 minutes of game time. No, that was never enough – he heaped on a steaming side dish of empty talk so absurd it could stop time. As prime example, in 2005 he proclaimed himself the best center in the Western Conference and the second-best center in the entire league, behind only Shaq (who promptly started referring to Dampier as “Ericka”).
I’m not going to waste time proving his statement wrong. It’s actually not as easy as you’d expect, because the Western Conference didn’t have a stellar list of centers at the time. The more important point is that even if Dampier could have been independently affirmed as the best center in the West, it wouldn’t have mattered, because after Shaq left the Lakers, the entire Western Conference descended into a lawless style of slashing, guerilla style basketball that devalued the previous generation’s lumbering, territorial drop-steppers.
There was a reason the Suns won 62 games in 2005, and it wasn’t Jake Voskuhl’s unstoppable low-post moves. Being the best true center in the Western Conference in the mid-2000s was like being the best English major at Goldman Sachs.
In the 2009 playoffs, Dampier made physical threats toward Tony Parker. After admitting that Parker’s dribble penetration caused problems for the Mavs’ defense, Dampier said “My first foul Thursday night is going to put [Parker] on his back. I guarantee it.”
He didn’t say Parker wouldn’t score. He didn’t say he would try to prevent easy baskets. He said he was going to put Tony Parker on his back.
Dampier’s mindset surely was not and is not unique. To prepare mentally for any sport, a player needs to be a bit unrealistic, and if that includes claiming to be the best of all time or drawing a line in the sand for an opponent, so be it. But those declarations are best kept silent, because the difference between self-derived confidence and public foolishness is as simple as saying those things out loud.
When your game isn’t much to talk about, you shouldn’t start a conversation, and Dampier’s game was and is certainly in that category. Unfortunately, his basketball claim to fame is not even his own doing – it’s twice being traded for former Dream Team members: Chris Mullin in 1997, and Christian Laettner in 2004. Oh, and being referred to with a girl’s name.