Against all odds

Publish date:

"When I first got shot I only felt the bullet in my wrist,'' says Andray Blatche, the Washington Wizards' 6-11 forward. "So I thought I was fine. So immediately what I did was, I took the shirt off and wrapped it around my wrist to stop the blood and tighten it up tight. I was real cool the whole time because it didn't really hurt much, because I thought it was just my wrist. But once I got to meet the ambulance at McDonald's, the cop got there first and he seen I got my shirt off and he seen blood come from my chest. And he was like, 'Did you get shot in your chest?' And I said, 'No, just my wrist.' And he said, 'No, you got shot in your chest.'

"And I looked down and it was right over my heart. So after that I thought it was something serious: I thought my whole career was over, I thought I was going to die. I thought everything was coming to an end.''

A story like this reminds me of how steep is the grade for so many potential NBA players. It is amazing to consider how much they overcome. I know a league executive who tells young people they have a better chance of winning the lottery than of making it to the NBA. So furious is the worldwide competition among players for the NBA's 450 jobs that if every little thing has to turn his way in order for a player to make it.

But then you meet someone like Blatche, now 21, who grew up in a single-family home in a frightening part of Syracuse, N.Y., who was lucky to survive the early morning of Sept. 25, 2005, a week before he was to make his debut at Wizards training camp.

"I lost some of the rotation in my wrist because when the bullet wounded me my fist was so tight,'' he says. "It still won't go back all the way where my fingers will be straight.''

He demonstrates by tilting back his wrist. He cannot straighten his fingers: They are permanently curled unless he flattens them with his other hand. But he swears it doesn't affect his shooting.

"The ball is circular so it doesn't really matter,'' he says. "I don't think it will ever get back to how it was before.''

The Wizards are counting on Blatche -- beginning his third NBA season but still their youngest player -- to complete their frontcourt rotation by replacing forward Etan Thomas, who may never return to the league after undergoing heart surgery this summer. His teammates see the makings of a star. Rivals notice the same potential, though their assessments are blended with skepticism. "With his size and skill level, he certainly has the upside to be a very good player in this league. Possibly even an All-Star,'' says an advance scout who has studied the Wizards this season. "I think that is two to three years away, and only if he maintains a good work ethic. I have no idea what his work ethic is like, but watching him play I sometimes wonder. He's boom or bust to me.''

After their 0-5 start Blatche has helped drive the Wizards' current four-game winning streak. Over the last three games, in particular, he has managed an encouraging 7.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 22.3 minutes. His athleticism and feel for the game -- especially as a passer -- give Washington hope he can become his generation's version of Derrick McKey, who at his peak was one of the most valued players in the league. Another personnel scout in the Eastern Conference believes Blatche could ultimately become the next Rasheed Wallace: A tall, skilled perimeter shooter and playmaker.

"He still needs to understand focus and concentration every second he's on the floor,'' coach Eddie Jordan said. "He's got some good instincts on both ends ... We understand that he's not going to play like a seasoned vet. We're going to bide our time and give him some experience, and he's going to give us some things and he's going to make some mistakes. But hopefully the growth curve is shallow and he can get it right and be good fast.''

Yet, trouble continues to follow Blatche. Last summer he and a friend were charged with solicitation in Washington, but the charge was dropped after Blatche attended a day-long seminar for men who solicit prostitutes (known as 'John School').

Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld wisely refuses to engage in the ultimate future for Blatche, who must resolve too many crucial details before he can think about becoming an All-Star. "It's really going to be up to him,'' says Grunfeld. "He has all the physical tools and a good feel for the game, but it's going to be up to just how bad he wants it.''

For most of Blatche's young life he was a guard, a distributor who took pride in his passing. "Before I went to high school I used to play myself one-on-one full-court in my neighborhood on the court outside,'' he says. "I would be playing against myself one-on-one full-court and dudes used to look at me like I was crazy out there, because I used to talk out loud while I was playing.''

He says he grew from 6-feet before his freshman year of high school to 6-9 by the time he was a senior. He turned pro in 2005 after spending a year at South Kent (Conn.) Prep School following his four years at Henninger High School in Syracuse. "I thought I was ready, playing in high school seemed very easy for me,'' he says. "I was very confident about my game, and also I had my mother back in Syracuse. I wanted to make sure my mother was all right. We had a lot of problems with people breaking into the house, stealing her car. I was always nervous and worried about her, and I just wanted to be able to get my mother [as well as a younger brother and cousin] out of Syracuse.''

Blatche was expecting to be drafted in the first round, but before the opening round had been completed excused himself from his private draft party in Syracuse to drive the streets and take deep breaths. After he came back to the hotel, the Wizards used the 49th pick to take him in the second round. "By then I was just excited and happy that somebody believed in me,'' he says.

In the week before training camp Blatche was out late with two friends when they saw the carjacker approaching. One of Blatche's friends stood frozen outside the car. "So I tried to run back and grab her and toss her in the back seat of my car,'' says Blatche. "By the time I got her in the back seat and I got in my front seat, the guy -- he was the one with the gun in his hand -- he said, 'Give me the car.' And I was being young and I was thinking, I worked too hard for this. I told [my friend] P.J., 'Drive off!' And once he was driving off I moved back in the seat and put my wrist up and that's when he shot.

"The gun was at my head but I moved back and that's when it went through my wrist and through my chest.

"P.J. was driving and I took the phone [to call 911] and told them what happened and where to meet me at, I knew where to go.''

When the officer showed him the bullet wound in his chest, Blatche says he phoned his mother to leave a message that he loved her. He believed those might be his last words to her when he collapsed in the McDonald's parking lot. "I woke up like 10 minutes later, and I was on a helicopter going to the hospital,'' he says. "When I got to the hospital they were like, 'You got shot in the two luckiest spots in the body. God must have been with you holding your hand the whole way.' Because the bullet actually went right between the bones in my wrist, didn't hit no arteries, no bones, nothing. So that was fine. And then the bullet in my chest, it pierced my lung so my lung dropped and they had to put that back up. But once I woke up the next morning, my mother was there, and they started working on my lung.''

He is a friendly guy. When I ask Blatche where he might be five years from now, his answer is naïve. "I want to be an All-Star, I want to be a franchise player,'' he says. "I want to be a Gilbert Arenas: I want to have my own commercial and my own shoes, with a very large fan base.''

But does he know how to make his way from here to there? That is the unanswerable question.