This story originally appeared in the March 16, 2015 edition of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
On the day of last month’s NBA trading deadline, a record 37 players changed teams, and Alonzo Gee was one of them. His recollections of that manic morning are not unusual—the calls from harried executives, the texts from stunned relatives, the disorienting sensation that life is about to pull a reverse 360. Except he was experiencing it all for the fifth time since Father’s Day.
Today Gee is a Blazer, but in the past eight months he has been a Nugget, a King, a Rocket, a Pelican, a Cavalier and sort of a Hornet. He can barely re-create the list. “I want to get all the different jerseys and hang them up,” he says, “because it’s such a crazy story.”
His tale of transactions begins in September 2012. Gee was coming off his finest season: He had averaged 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Cavs, and they rewarded him with a three-year, $9.75 million contract. He was so thrilled, he barely noticed that the last year wasn’t guaranteed.
Fast-forward to June ’14. Gee’s numbers have sunk to 4.0 points and 2.3 rebounds, and the Cavaliers have fired the coach and the GM. He is still a tenacious wing defender, but he is entering the final year of his contract, and the Cavs are clearing cap space to pursue a different small forward.
On draft night Gee’s agent informs him that Cleveland has traded him to Charlotte. He is heartbroken, but the Hornets seem excited to have him. Two weeks later, on the day LeBron James announces his return, the Cavaliers modify the Charlotte deal and send Gee to New Orleans instead. He is confused but encouraged. The Pelicans need a small forward.
Four days later he is off to Houston, in a three-team swap that lands center Omer Asik in New Orleans. Gee works out with Rockets coaches. He is issued number 10. I’m all set, he thinks. Two weeks before training camp, Houston jettisons him to Sacramento for guard Jason Terry.
Gee is accustomed to instability. Growing up near West Palm Beach, Fla., he and his mother lived in six different apartments. An undrafted free agent out of Alabama in 2009, he has been waived four times, signed two 10-day contracts and had a stint in the D-League. “Could be a lot worse,” he tells himself.
But back in West Palm friends ask his mom, “What’s going on with your son? Why doesn’t anybody want him?” Alonzo struggles to explain the value of a nonguaranteed expiring contract, the NBA’s version of funny money. A team like the Rockets can use such a contract to match salaries in a trade with a team like the Kings, who can then dispose of it without ramifications.
After winding up with the Kings, Gee relays a message to the front office through his agent: If you want me, I’m flying out there today. If not, let me go. I have to get out of this contract. The Kings waive him, nullifying the final, nonguaranteed year of his deal.
A lot of good came from that contract. Gee bought a house for his mom and another for himself. But never has a player been happier with a 65% pay cut than Gee, who signed a league-minimum $1.1 million one-year pact with Denver the day before camp.
“I don’t like to bounce around,” he says. “I want to be in one place.” And he was—for four months. Denver had no financial incentive to discard Gee at the deadline, but Portland asked for him, along with guard Arron Afflalo. On their flight west Gee reviewed his odyssey. “That’s not possible,” Afflalo said.
Today’s NBA is a fantasy league writ large, with players as chips to be moved. Last week in Los Angeles, after a shootaround at Staples Center, Gee walked back to the J.W. Marriott in his practice uniform. Passersby eyed him curiously. “Nobody thinks about this side of the business,” he said. He was not complaining. The Blazers are contenders, and even though he’s only logging a few minutes per game, his first trip to the postseason beckons.
Gee glanced down at his jersey, as if he needed a reminder of the name on the front. “This feels different,” he said. “They don’t just want the contract. They want me.”