- Chris Palmer, ESPN the Magazine
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GERALD GREEN'S best weekend ever begins with a toothache.
It's the Friday morning before the NBA Slam Dunk contest, and the nagging pain just won't go away. Maybe if he eats something. Sitting in a Reebok marketing exec's suite at the Palms, Green peruses a room service menu and settles on a cheese omelet, mixed fruit and a glass of OJ. Then he starts to pace, letting out slow, measured breaths. "Cancel that order," he yells moments later. "I got to get to a dentist right now." The exec, Brian Lee, finds a dentist who's available on short notice, but his office is 30 minutes off the Strip. "I don't care. Let's go," says Green, who quickly jets out the door and heads for a waiting limo.
The 21-year-old knows pain all too well, and not just because he lost two-thirds of his right ring finger to a stray nail on a homemade rim when he was 11. Pain these days is being a card-carrying member of the lowly Celtics, a team that recently lost a franchise-worst 18 straight. He's averaging 19.9 mpg and 9.3 ppg but is having trouble cracking the regular rotation of those 13-38 Celtics. An invite to the marquee event of All-Star Weekend was a chance to shake the soph out of his doldrums. Then the day he was heading to Vegas, he dropped his PDA in the toilet, and his plane wasdelayed three hours out of Logan. And now this damn tooth.
Meanwhile, Green's driver doesn't know the area-and can't seem to find the accelerator-but the limo finally pulls into a complex of one-story, gray-stucco buildings. Fittingly, there are no signs, and the building numbers are hard to read. As the car creeps along, Green suddenly pops the door open and makes a mad dash across the empty parking lot, with no clue where he's headed. One publicist gives chase; another finds the office. Once inside the right building, Green sprints down the hallway. "I need to see a dentist now," he says frantically.
He came to Vegas for this?
Ninety minutes later, though, Green is back on the Strip and feeling chipper enough to stop in at a Ben & Jerry's. He orders three scoops of cookies & cream smothered in thick chocolate sauce and sprinkled with a handful of gummy bears. It's 10:30 a.m. "No wonder your teeth hurt," Lee says. "You'd better win the dunk contest after all this."
And, of course, he does. When the 6'8'' Green bounds over the soon-to-be-dethroned dunk champ, 5'9" Nate Robinson, he brings down the house. And his final attempt, in which he windmills the ball while sailing over a table, rings up the night's only perfect 50. On his way off the floor, Green gets the ultimate validation: Judge Michael Jordan offers a "Nice job, kid." Hey, it's a start.
By the time the All-Star Game ends the next night, throngs of admirers behind the velvet ropes are there to scream his name and clamor for photos and autographs as he strides through the lobby of the Palms. Green and his agent, Byron Irvin, have already met today to plot how to turn the big win into lucrative endorsement deals. Reebok, for one, is planning to feature Green prominently in future ad campaigns. Now Green and Irvin are being guided to one of the hotel's trendy restaurants, N9NE Steakhouse.
The sudden star walks through the door, tucking a large wad of hundreds into the pocket of his Red Monkey jeans. Patrons point and stare. "It feels like my life has completely changed in the last 24 hours," he says. "Now everyone knows who I am." Even the hostess is too busy gushing to seat him. Soon, N9NE executive chef-and native New Englander-Barry Dakake descends to ask Green to autograph a couple of basketballs, and something more. Dakake leads Green through the bustling kitchen. Deep inside, a white metal door is covered with the Hancocks of scores of other dignitaries. Green eyes a slim space just above Joe Montana and just below Roger Clemens and scrawls: 2007 NBA DUNK CHAMPION, GERALD GREEN.
"Just thinking how this weekend started, I never thought I would end up here," he says. "But I told myself I wasn't going to let anything stop me from doing what I came here to do."
As they weave back through the kitchen, Dakake grabs a freshly prepared dish of calamari that had moments before been destined for a paying customer. "I know you're hungry," he says as he hands it to Green. "Come on, stay awhile. Best damn calamari in town." Dakake's offers come rapid fire: popcorn shrimp, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, filet mignon. As Green scoops calamari into his big, goofy, pain-free smile, his head spins. "This is what I've wanted," he says. "For people to recognize what I do on the basketball court."
Dakake invites Green to sit at his personal table. "You were incredible last night," says another of Dakake's seated guests, Extra correspondent Jon Kelley. "I appreciate it," replies Green, now at work on a shrimp platter.
Emeka Okafor strolls by to give props. The dishes keep coming, but exhaustion is beginning to set in. Green has a 7 a.m. flight out but still wants to try his luck at the tables before heading to bed. "Nice dunking, man," someone in Carlos Boozer's party yells, but Green misses it. Don't worry, he'll get back to you when his feet finally touch the ground.
Six nights later, Green is grounded again. Riding the bench in Utah, he couldn't be farther from the spotlight of Vegas. And the Celtics, well, they're losing again. The tooth, on the other hand, has settled down for now, though Green still plans to have it pulled at season's end.
At least he'll have it as a reminder of happier times.