The term rookie year implies that a player's first season in the
NBA is a uniform, neatly tied together period of time. In truth,
it's anything but. A rookie experiences moments, episodes, tests
of skill and character that define him as a pro. SI watched
Vancouver Grizzlies point guard Mike Bibby as he spent his
lockout-shortened 1998-99 rookie season learning the little
lessons that add up to an NBA education. "There was no
particular instant when a lightbulb seemed to go on over his
head," Vancouver coach Brian Hill said near season's end. "He
just learned bit by bit."
Bibby was a stoic student, never seeming overjoyed or
overwhelmed as he adjusted not only to the league but also to
life in a new city with his girlfriend, Darcy Watkins, and their
toddler son, Michael. "I don't get real emotional," he said
early in the season. "Whatever happens, good or bad, I have to
keep the same attitude. That's the best way to make it in this
Bibby isn't an All-Star yet, but when training camp opened in
Victoria on Oct. 5, he was indisputably the Grizzlies' starting
point guard. The following are some of the first-year encounters
that helped establish him as one of the NBA's up-and-coming
Feb. 8, 1999: Trail Blazers at Grizzlies
"Trap him! Trap him!" There's a bloodthirsty quality to Portland
forward Rasheed Wallace's shouts as Bibby brings the ball
downcourt during the second game of the regular season and
angles slightly toward the sideline where Wallace has positioned
himself. As he races toward Bibby, Wallace urges Blazers forward
Walt Williams to help him pin Bibby against the edge of the
court. Bibby sees what's developing and changes direction,
dribbling back a step or two and then turning toward the middle
of the floor. As he nears half-court, he loops a pass over
Wallace's outstretched arms to Vancouver forward Shareef
Abdur-Rahim, who's fouled as he makes a move to the basket.
After the whistle Wallace pushes out his mouth guard and makes a
face at Bibby that looks less like a smile and more like he's
baring his teeth. Bibby has avoided being swallowed by the trap
this time, but it's clear Wallace, a four-year veteran, sees him
as fresh meat.
In the Grizzlies' first preseason game, 10 nights earlier, the
long-limbed, athletic Trail Blazers had pressed and harassed the
6'2", 190-pound Bibby into making a lot of mistakes that didn't
show up in the box score. "I was nervous for that one," he says.
"It was my first game in an NBA uniform, and they definitely
took advantage of that. I guess that's what teams try to do to a
Now Portland is trying to do it again, but Bibby isn't as easily
rattled. He sees trouble before he's lured into it, and although
the Blazers do a good job of making him give up the ball early in
Grizzlies possessions, he doesn't throw bad passes that lead to
Portland fast-break scores as he did in that exhibition game.
"Their press destroyed him the first time, but tonight he showed
how much he has progressed in just a few days," Vancouver
assistant Lionel Hollins says after the Blazers' 95-76 win.
Still, Bibby makes just 1 of 12 shots, even worse than his
3-for-14 performance in the season opener against the Sacramento
Kings the night before. Grizzlies fans and the Vancouver media
seem more concerned than necessary over this start. That's
because Bibby is the second straight point guard the Grizzlies
have chosen with one of the first four picks in the draft; the
1997 selection, Antonio Daniels, was such a flop that Vancouver
traded him on draft day '98 to the San Antonio Spurs. So it's
not surprising when the postgame interview in front of Bibby's
locker has a negative tone, with the questions zeroing in on his
shooting. "My shot will come," he says. "I can't give up on
myself. I hope no one's giving up on me."
FINDING HIS TOUCH
Feb. 9: Practice at Grizzlies Training Facility
As Vancouver left the court after the previous night's game,
Hollins sidled up to Bibby. "Don't get your head down," he said.
"Remember, you're still a good shooter. It's not like you're
missing badly, you're just a little short. Get your legs into
the shot, and you'll be fine." It was typical Hollins, offering
psychological and technical support in one small dose. After 10
years as a point guard and 11 as an assistant coach in the
league, the 45-year-old Hollins has a thorough knowledge of X's
and O's and an acute understanding of players' psyches. He's an
ideal mentor for Bibby, and it's hard to imagine that there are
29 men more qualified to be NBA head coaches.
"What Mike's going through is even tougher than what most
rookies have to deal with," Hollins says. "With the lockout
wiping out the preseason, he didn't have a summer league and
eight exhibition games [Vancouver played two] to get his feet on
the ground. He would've been so much further along by now if he
had. On top of that, he's got the toughest position to master.
You're trying to learn about your teammates, the plays, the
opponents; and you're trying to learn about yourself, what you
can do in this league. It's all happening at one time."
What's more, the youthful Grizzlies don't have an established
veteran who can show Bibby the ropes on and off the court. Point
guard Lee Mayberry, a seven-year vet, is on the injured list and
also happens to be one of the most reserved players in the
league. Forwards Tony Massenburg, Carl Herrera and Pete Chilcutt
are journeymen who have to worry more about their precarious
hold on their jobs than about nurturing a rookie.
So it's up to Hollins to fill that void for Bibby. He's starting
to feed Bibby tidbits about the point guards he'll face. When
you feel Derek Harper wrap one arm around your waist, his other
arm is about to try to poke the ball away.... Make sure you get
on Damon Stoudamire's outside hip as he comes off the
pick-and-roll, to keep him from curling into the lane for his
shot. But for the most part, Hollins will wait for Bibby to seek
him out. "I usually let the young guys come to me, because you
can't tell someone something before he's ready to hear it," he
says. "The good ones eventually come for help. It usually
happens on the long plane flights. I expect Mike will be no
On this day Bibby is looking for his own answers, staying after
practice to shoot hundreds of jump shots. The coaching staff is
pleased to see Bibby's willingness to attack his problems and
that he's in good enough shape to keep working after a tough
practice. "In terms of conditioning Mike's probably been
affected less by the lockout than anybody else," says Hill.
"Practice is over, and it looks like he's barely broken a
sweat." But that doesn't mean he won't eventually hit the
proverbial wall, even in a shortened, 50-game season.
"He'll get tired," Hollins says. "They all do."
TAKING ON THE TRASH-TALKER
Feb. 28: Grizzlies at Nuggets
Before every game, it seems, Bibby is asked about some other
rookie on another team. For the first few weeks of the season
those questions centered on Jason Williams, the Kings'
surprising point guard, but lately forward Paul Pierce of the
Boston Celtics has become the main topic of conversation. Bibby
realizes that the rookies who are flashier and off to better
starts than he are making more of a splash. "I'm not a high
riser like some other guys, so I'm not on ESPN all the time,"
says Bibby. "But I feel I'm doing a pretty good job. It's going
to take time to be like Jason Kidd, Rod Strickland or Gary
Payton. If people think other rookies are more exciting, I can't
really worry about that."
This is not just a line he has practiced for the media. One of
Bibby's strengths is that he is even-tempered. "He doesn't bring
the game home with him," says Darcy. "He doesn't get frustrated
easily, especially over things he can't control."
Besides, Bibby's more immediate concern is his first matchup
with one of the trash-talkingest, most intimidating point guards
in the league, Denver's Nick Van Exel. The Vancouver coaching
staff has been happy with Bibby's composure, but he hasn't faced
anyone nearly as expert at getting under an opponent's skin as
Van Exel. "Guys like Payton and Van Exel are the ones who get
you out of your game by yapping at you and annoying you," says
Vancouver forward Cherokee Parks. "The thing Mike has to stay
away from is letting Nick draw him into some kind of macho,
At the start it appears that Van Exel is trying to bump Bibby
off his game rather than talk him off it. He keeps his body on
Bibby as much as he can, but that only serves to get him into
foul trouble. Meanwhile, in the early going Bibby goes 3 for 3
on jump shots and throws a long, feathery pass to Abdur-Rahim
for a fast-break basket. He also makes all the right decisions
on the pick-and-roll, knowing when to pull up for the jump shot,
when to make the pass to a teammate rolling to the basket and
when to keep the ball and move into the lane. He seems far more
confident than he did three weeks earlier, especially when
The Grizzlies lose again, 116-112, dropping to 4-9, but Bibby
wins his duel with Van Exel. He finishes with 15 points, on
6-for-9 shooting, and 10 assists, while Van Exel gets eight
points and 12 assists.
"What did you think of your matchup with Van Exel?" Bibby is
"What did you think of it?" he says.
"Looks like you had the better of things," the reporter says.
Bibby shrugs. He obviously has learned one lesson: Rookies don't
gloat. Van Exel is impressed. "You can tell he plays old
school," Van Exel says. "He doesn't turn the ball over much.
Good ball-handling skills. Hits the open shot. He's real solid."
BOOST FROM BIG BROTHERS
March 2: Kings at Grizzlies
Michael, 15 months old, visits the locker room after the game,
in the arms of his father's brother Hank, 24, who along with
another brother, Dane, 30, spends a lot of time in Vancouver
babysitting his nephew and helping Mike keep track of his
schedule away from basketball. Watching the affection Mike
showers on Michael makes an observer wonder about Mike's
estrangement from his father, Henry, a former NBA player who
even after his retirement spent long stretches of time away from
the family. Henry, now USC's coach, could be helping his
youngest son adjust to NBA life, but it's obvious that he won't
have the chance to do that anytime soon. Mike doesn't answer
questions having to do with his father.
THE BEST STRETCH
March 24: 76ers at Grizzlies
Playing one of his best offensive games of the season, Bibby
gets 20 points and nine assists against the Sixers' Allen
Iverson. It's Bibby's 16th straight game scoring in double
figures, a stretch in which he has averaged 16.5 points and 5.7
assists. His shooting ills are a distant memory. "We were never
worried about his shot," Hill says. "He's quietly been playing
well night in and night out, and he doesn't make the same
mistake twice. We couldn't be happier."
The plays by Bibby that don't show up in the stats are the most
indicative of his value. In one sequence against Philadelphia he
doesn't give the ball up on a fast break to a seemingly open
Massenburg because he sees that a defender would converge on
Massenburg at about the same time the ball would. "He's starting
to learn who can do what and where they can do it," says
Hollins. "When you're the new point guard, everybody tries to
buddy up to you so you'll pass them the ball. He's learning
where his teammates like the ball, but he's also learning where
not to give them the ball." No one knows that better than
shooting guard Felipe Lopez, an engaging rookie who has become
Bibby's best friend. Lopez chauffeured Bibby around Vancouver
early in the season. "I thought he would give me the rock more
if I drove him around, but it's not working that way," Lopez
says, smiling. "When it comes to dishing the ball, Mike doesn't
care if you're his friend or not. He only cares if you can make
March will turn out to be Bibby's best month--14.0 points, 6.2
assists--of the season, but he's his usual, matter-of-fact self
when discussing his play. "Things are going pretty well," he
says. "I'm learning." His tone is no different from that night in
February when he shot so poorly against the Blazers.
ACTING LIKE A VETERAN
April 19: Grizzlies at Lakers
Tyronn Lue, Los Angeles's 5'10" rookie point guard, comes off the
bench midway through the first quarter to give his team a spark,
scurrying around like a puppy on espresso. He beats Bibby and
penetrates the lane, but Bibby recovers and fouls him hard. It's
a shrewd move; after getting slammed, Lue isn't as frisky for the
rest of the evening.
A LOST CAUSE
April 27: Grizzlies at Mavericks
Bibby and Lopez kill part of the afternoon before this game by
going to a movie. They take a cab to the theater, but afterward
they decide to walk back to the hotel. Bibby says he knows the
way. "Next thing I know we're lost," Lopez says, laughing. "I
was cursing him out. I said, 'Where are your point guard skills
now? Where's your leadership now?' Finally a guy drove up and
said, 'Aren't you Bibby?' He ended up giving us a ride back to
the hotel. That's why I hang with him--because he's famous."
The end of the regular season is eight days away and the
three-year-old Grizzlies will miss the playoffs again this year,
so Lopez plans to spend the remaining days giving Bibby grief
about losing his way. "But you know what?" Lopez says. "He hated
not knowing where he was. Just hated it. I bet that's the last
time I'm going to see Mike Bibby lost."
HITTING THE WALL
April 28: Practice at Grizzlies Training Facility
For Bibby, fatigue set in a few weeks ago. "I'm tired," he says.
"It feels like I'm running in sand sometimes. Today in practice
I felt like I couldn't go anywhere. Coach said to pick it up and
go hard. I thought I already was going hard."
But there's no time to rest after practice because today he
visits a second-grade class at Caulfeild Elementary School in
west Vancouver. When Bibby arrives, he has all the kids say
their name and age, and he makes like one of them when he goes
last: "I'm Mike, and I'm 20." He was supposed to read to them,
but instead he has each of them read a bit to the others from
Edwina the Emu, helping them sound out the bigger words. Bibby
seems almost as shy as the students, but he smiles a lot and the
kids love him. "That was fun," he says as he heads to his car.
"That was one of the most fun things of the season." For Bibby,
that qualifies as a rave.
FINISHING WITH A FLOURISH
April 29: Spurs at Grizzlies
The next-to-last home game of the season is Mike Bibby Growth
Chart Night. The team gave away posters of Bibby on which kids
can measure their height. As a club the Grizzlies' growth has
been stunted; after going 19-63 in 1997-98, they will end this
season a dismal 8-42. But Bibby is one of the bright spots,
finishing with a 13.2-point average and leading all rookies in
the league with 6.5 assists a game, numbers that earn him a
place on the five-man NBA All-Rookie team. "He has done
everything you could hope for from a rookie point guard," Hill
says. "He has gone from being someone people were concerned
about at the start of the season to someone who's so steady that
they almost take him for granted now."
Bibby isn't taking anything for granted. "It's been good," he
says. "It's been the kind of season where the biggest thing you
learn is how much you have to learn." The day before the game
against the Spurs, he was at a park with Darcy and Michael when
a man in a motorized wheelchair approached him. "You're doing a
good job, Bibby," he said. "You coming back next year?"
"Oh, yeah, I'll be back," Bibby replied, "and I'll be better."
PRACTICE COACH SAID TO PICK IT UP. I THOUGHT I WAS ALREADY GOING
CURSING HIM OUT. 'WHERE ARE YOUR POINT GUARD SKILLS NOW?'"
HIS FRIEND," SAYS LOPEZ. "HE ONLY CARES IF YOU CAN MAKE THE SHOT"