Commentary

Green overcomes family adversity to be UNC's spark

Originally Published: March 25, 2008
By Jon Pessah | ESPN The Magazine

It's late February, knee-deep into conference play, and North Carolina has just held off a scrappy Wake Forest team at the Dean Dome for its 27th victory. Danny Green is the first player called into the Carolina players' lounge, a large wood-paneled room filled with leather couches, a huge flat-screen TV, and framed pictures of past Tar Heel greats. Still wearing his No. 14, the lanky junior swingman walks in, drops into a chair, and 30 or so members of the media quickly close ranks.

The local reporters love Green. He's friendly, listens to their questions, and is all but incapable of saying anything he doesn't mean. When they asked him about coming off the bench last season, he told them he thought he should be starting. When they wondered about an upcoming road game, he clued them in that coach Roy Williams calls beating an opponent on its home court "stealing their brownies." Both quotes made Williams grimace, but Roy loves Green, too. Most people in Chapel Hill do.

[+] EnlargeDanny Green
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDanny Green has become a favorite among local reporters, coach Roy Williams and fans for his pregame dancing.

And on this night, there is much to love. His requisite pregame dance to "Jump Around," a YouTube staple, got his teammates and the Tar Heel crowd into it early. The seven quick points he scored upon entering the game at 6:34 gave Carolina a lead it never relinquished. And the laser crosscourt inbounds pass for Wayne Ellington's 3 stretched the margin to nine at the halftime buzzer. By game's end, Green's nine rebounds were a team high, his 15 points third-best, and the bounce in his step enough to energize a team doing just enough to win.

It all reminded Carolina fans why Green was considered the game's best sixth man the first 10 weeks of the season, when their Tar Heels were sitting atop the nation's rankings. It reminded them, too, of Green's monthlong string of hit-and-miss games that coincided with Carolina's only two losses of the season. And now reporters were analyzing Green's slump with an eye toward the past.

Does this game mean things have returned to normal? "I've been on a roller coaster," he says, "so hopefully this gets me back to being what everybody expects me to be."

Was part of it the injury to Ty Lawson? "Yes, but Quentin [Thomas] has been great."

Was part of it the flu that dogged you for weeks? "Yeah, but I'm feeling better now, thanks."

And Danny, was part of it the distraction of your father's release from jail last month? Green pauses. "I don't think my father's situation really affected me," he answers.

Sometimes, even honest people are not always honest with themselves.


Had it only been two years ago when he'd answered that cell phone call? It came late on March 29, just a week or so after his freshman season was cut short by George Mason two games into the NCAA tournament. The caller was his friend John from back home on Long Island. "Danny, you need to call your father," John said. "There's police all over your house."

Danny called, but no one answered. He called and called, and hours later his uncle Darryl finally called back. Police had knocked down the door, rifles drawn, and taken away your dad, Darryl told him. Something to do with drugs. "But your father says it's all a misunderstanding," Darryl said. "Sorry, that's all I know."

Others knew more. "Father of UNC Player Charged in N.Y. Cocaine Sweep," was the headline that hit the AP wire first. "L.I. Hoops Pa in $40M Coke Bust," wrote the New York Post the following day. And there was Long Island's Suffolk County DA Tom Spota and police commissioner Richard Dormer on local cable news, telling their 1.3 million residents they'd broken a 14-member international drug ring, nabbing 420 pounds of cocaine worth $40 million in the process.

Spota and Dormer were standing beside a table holding bags of confiscated cocaine, stacks of money totaling $5 million, three assault rifles, and seven high-powered handguns. Soon, a picture of North Babylon's Danny Green Sr. went up on the screen. The 38-year-old Green, the TV reporter said, was being held on $7.5 million bail -- cash.

Just go home and forget about basketball for a while. You have enough other things to worry about.

--Roy Williams told Danny Green

The reports didn't make sense to Danny. The father he knew had worked three jobs, gone back and finished college, then earned a master's so he could teach school and coach kids. Seven years ago he'd joined the North Babylon's girls varsity basketball staff as an assistant coach. And just that fall he'd taken a full-time job teaching phys-ed to elementary school kids.

No, the man Danny knew had stayed when his mother walked away nine years ago, telling Danny and his two younger brothers, Rashad, 10, and Devonte, 2, "We're all in this together." Then he put Danny in charge, and being Big Danny and Little Danny took on an added meaning. "You have to man up," Big Danny said, and Little Danny did, making sure the house was clean, the shopping done, and his brothers were kept safe from the gangs and the drugs that weren't quite far enough away.

They became best friends, and it was basketball that held them all together. Big Danny built a court in their backyard, where he taught his sons all he'd learned as a high school guard back in the '80s just a few miles from their home. He drove them into the city to play AAU ball, coached their teams and worked the summer camps that showcased his sons to college coaches. And when his oldest son went off to UNC, he drove the nine hours to Chapel Hill for almost every game, then turned around and drove the nine hours back, often the same night.

How do you traffic in cocaine, Danny wanted to know, when you're doing all that? But now his father was sitting in jail, a collect call the only way he could reach him. "Don't worry, I'm innocent, it's all a mistake," Big Danny told him when they first spoke a week after his arrest. "Stay in school and take care of yourself. Everything is going to work out."

Only it didn't. Green pleaded innocent, and later in April a grand jury dismissed all the original charges against him. But it handed down a new one, a felony charge of conspiracy carrying a maximum sentence of eight to 25 years. The judge set bail out of his reach at $4.5 million, the DA offered a deal of five to 15 years that he wouldn't take, and all his lawyer could say for sure was that with 14 co-defendants, a trial date was more than a year away.

That's where it all stood, in limbo, when Little Danny walked into the Riverhead Correctional Facility visitors' room in mid-July. He sat down at the table that stretched from wall to wall, looked over the short glass barrier between them, and saw his father in the orange prison uniform for the first time. There were tears, of course, but not many. Too much to say, only an hour to stay.

"Take care of your brothers," Big Danny told him when their time was just about up. "I need you to step up again."


Roy Williams had every reason to think Danny Green would be a better player when he returned for his sophomore year, and had only one reason to think otherwise. Danny was just what Roy expected: A 6-foot-6, 210-pound McDonald's All-American who could block shots and make plays in transition, hit the boards and the occasional clutch 3, defend the wings and maybe some power players, too.

He'd averaged 7.5 points and 3.7 rebounds and 32 blocks -- a team high -- in 15 minutes, a perfect fit for Williams' fast-paced approach. He knew Danny yearned to play in the NBA, knew he could have gone elsewhere and starred instead of waiting his turn at UNC. Williams loved that about him, too.

But could Danny get better with his father still sitting in jail on Long Island, the wheels of justice turning ever so slow? When he was paying bills and keeping tabs on his brothers, asking his father when he'd be going to trial and never getting an answer? Williams was wondering about all of that when they sat together in his office before the start of the following season.

[+] EnlargeDanny Green
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDanny Green's affable personality masked his on-court struggles and his deeper problems at home.

"I can't tell you I know what you're going through, because I don't," Williams said. "But I'll do anything I can legally do to help."

"Don't worry, Coach," Danny replied. "My dad will be getting out soon. I'm good."

Williams wasn't as sure, but as the season began it was difficult to tell. Yes, he'd noticed the letters ASNF that Danny wrote on his sneakers -- a nod to the "A Son Never Forget" theme from the De Niro flick "Men of Honor." And he'd heard Green was often in the gym late at night, shooting hoops by himself. But Danny was still the one making the other players laugh and getting everyone to practice on time, still the one who got everyone dancing -- the earnest Williams included -- before every home game. Danny was still Danny, head up, quick to smile, full of life.

Just not on the court. A year ago, Williams felt he'd have the edge when he sent Danny into a game. Now he wasn't so sure. When Danny hits a 3, especially in transition, it lifts his game and the whole team with him. But the longer his father sat in jail, the less often his shot went in, and by regular season's end he had missed 28 of his last 32 3-point attempts.

Instead, there were the careless passes or the ill-advised floaters in the lane that seemed to come so soon after he'd make a terrific play. And the charges, those head-down rushes into traffic that Danny made more often than anyone on his team. Williams would yell about those to Danny at almost every practice. He was always yelling at Danny, knowing he could do better, confident he would turn his heated words into motivation.

"If I ever stop yelling at you, that's when you know there's trouble," he'd tell him. "I know how good you can be."

Williams also knew how good his Tar Heels could be, even with their sixth man struggling. And that was very good, indeed. His three freshmen -- Brandan Wright, Lawson and Ellington -- were as good as advertised, and center Tyler Hansbrough had taken a big step up. This was a team that could win it all.

Carolina had won the NCAA title in 2005, Williams' second year back in Chapel Hill. With a 10-point lead and 6:31 left in the Regional Final against Georgetown last year, a trip to the Final Four seemed all but certain. And that's when Williams watched Green rush down the court, pull up far behind the arc, and launch a 3-pointer that never had a chance.

The rest of the game was like a bad movie. Carolina missed its next shot and six of its next seven to send the game into OT, then missed all but two of the next 12 to hand the game -- and a Final Four ticket -- to the Hoyas. Green's mistake certainly wasn't the reason Carolina lost -- there was plenty of blame to go around for this collapse -- but it was the one Williams called "one of the worst shots in the history of college basketball" when he met with reporters after the game. "I don't know what he was thinking," Williams said.

It took a few days, but Williams softened. He remembered earlier in the year when Steve Robinson, his top assistant, got annoyed with a letter from Danny's father, complaining that his son's minutes were down. Williams also received a letter that day, but he figured Big Danny was just venting, so he never opened his. He knew Little Danny didn't have the same luxury.

"I don't think I'll ever get over that shot," Williams told Danny later that spring. "But given all that's gone on, you had a pretty doggone good year. Just go home and forget about basketball for a while.

"You have enough other things to worry about."


"OK, just a few more questions for Danny," says Matt Bowers, one of Carolina's sports information directors. "Let's try to wrap it up."

It's been 20 minutes since Danny Green answered the few questions about the Wake Forest game, but two television cameras and several reporters with their notebooks open are still huddled around him. But he's in no rush. There weren't as many questions a few nights earlier, when he needed a pair of layups at the end of a blowout win against NC State to avoid going scoreless. This felt better.

Besides, this wasn't going to be the end of the questions, even for the night. His old AAU coach Gary Charles had called a few weeks back, telling him he was a story again. The pros have him back on their radar, Carolina is hot, so Danny should expect the national media to come calling soon. One had called Charles already. Get your side of the story out there, Charles told him. Then you're done.

All he needs to do is give me the opportunity. Then everyone will see what I can do.

--Danny Green

And that's what Green's doing an hour or so later as he slips into a booth at the Carolina Brewery, a hamburger and chicken place on Chapel Hill's Franklin Street. He still didn't understand what happened that night two years ago. They claimed his father knew one defendant was caught transporting pounds of coke up to Albany, but wasn't that man a county corrections officer? Was his dad supposed to be suspicious of a cop? They said Big Danny had been seen in the company of known drug users, but users aren't all that hard to find on their side of North Babylon, where a highway splits the town in two.

"The white side has the good stores and the nicer houses," Danny says. "The black side has the gangs and the drugs. It's better than it used to be, but it's still not great."

They'd wiretapped his father's phone, watched him enter and leave his home. If his father was guilty, he wonders, where were all the drugs? Where was all the money? Why didn't they find any of the guns? "They never found anything," Danny says. "Guilt by association."

But if his father was innocent, why did he plead guilty like the other 13 charged when the judge dropped his sentence to one to three years? The offer came down in October, leaving the family with a choice: Risk a maximum sentence and hope that Green could win in a county with an 80 percent conviction rate for drug defendants. Or take the deal and try to put his life back together. Green had a young fiancée and a 3-year-old who barely knew him, and three older sons who needed their father home, too. On Oct. 30, he took the deal. Three months later he was out on parole.

"I told him to keep fighting if he thought he could win," Danny says. "He just wanted to get it all behind us so we could get on with our lives."

It's getting late, and other diners are stopping by on their way out. One apologizes for interrupting and asks Danny to sign a menu for his daughter. Others just want to say hello and congratulate him on his game, and soon the conversation turns to basketball. He's once again the stat-sheet stuffer Williams needs, near the top in almost every category in 22.5 minutes a game. No game showed better what Green could do than Carolina's first matchup against NC State: 23 minutes, 13 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocks.

A day earlier, he'd learned the date his father would be released.

"Roy says he wants to see what you can do with a clear mind," he's told.

"All he needs to do is give me the opportunity," Danny says. "Then everyone will see what I can do."

They already have.

Jon Pessah is a deputy editor at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at jon.pessah@espn3.com.