On a Saturday morning in the spring of 1987, Pamela McGee sat on the shore at Dockweiler State Beach in Los Angeles, 72 hours from a scheduled abortion. "Do you want to be pregnant?" the counselor at the clinic had asked her. "No," McGee replied. She was a single, 24-year-old professional basketball player, and she could not take maternity leave. And even if she could, she couldn't imagine hauling an infant to Italy and parking the stroller next to the bench. But as McGee looked out over the Pacific, she began to reconsider. "I prayed and prayed and prayed and felt like I heard a voice from God," McGee says. "He was telling me, 'This is your gift.' " The next day she went to Faithful Central Bible Church in Inglewood, and the pastor delivered a sermon about not aborting one's blessings. O.K., God, McGee thought. You don't have to beat it into my head. She called the clinic to cancel, and on Jan. 19, 1988, gave birth to a boy with physical abilities that would border on the supernatural.
This is an article from the April 16, 2012 issue
JaVale McGee is 7 feet, with a 7'6½" wingspan and a 31½-inch vertical leap, unfathomable for a man his size. At 24, he can tap the front of the rim with his forehead. He can slap the top of the square with his palm. He can dunk a cookie in a bowl of milk 11 feet off the ground. When McGee was at the University of Nevada, an opposing player once explained to his coach why he couldn't guard him: "He jumped over me." The JaValevator, as he is known, names jams to keep track of them. The alley-oop he throws himself off the backboard, for example, is the Super Hi-Fi Superphonic Supersonic Ultra Intercontinental Bring It Around the World Throw It Off the Back Dunk.
Unlike most NBA giants, McGee can also dribble the length of the court, between his legs and around his back. When he was traded last month from the Wizards to the Nuggets, his new coaches fixated on his hands. "It was like shaking hands with the Incredible Hulk," says Denver assistant Melvin Hunt. "They have extra parts." In those hands a basketball looks no bigger than a grapefruit. During last year's Slam Dunk Contest, in which he came in second to Blake Griffin, McGee stuffed three balls into one hoop on one attempt, and two balls into side-by-side hoops on another. "I don't know that there's anyone else on the planet that can do this," Reggie Miller said on the TNT broadcast.
But in the NBA you only need to put one ball in one hoop, and McGee struggles with such elementary activity. There was the time he ran back on defense even though his team still had possession, the time he blatantly goaltended a shot into the fifth row and the time he failed to post up 5'9" point guard Isaiah Thomas, events that inspired the website Deadspin to create the tag "That's So JaVale." At week's end McGee was averaging 11.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks—the most blocks among centers—but he has become more renowned for bloopers than highlights. In December 2010, McGee attempted a free throw line dunk, down by 25 points, and hurled the ball off the backboard when he realized he was going to come up short. Ten days later he tried the free throw line dunk again and was whistled for a charge. "You see special," says Nuggets coach George Karl, "and then you see what-the-hell-is-that?"
Sometimes you see them on the same night. Last season in Chicago, McGee needed one basket to complete a triple double, with less than four minutes left. He frantically missed a shot in the lane, air-balled a fade-away and lost a pass out-of-bounds. When he finally dunked, he received a technical foul for hanging on the rim. The Wizards were trailing by 20. "I feel like ima b in a rap song soon," McGee tweeted recently, "but not in a good way."
Players can be as vicious as bloggers, from Mavericks forward Lamar Odom ("The game is called basketball, not run and jump") to Lakers forward Metta World Peace ("I don't think he watches tape. I think he plays video games, and he could possibly have an Atari"). McGee claims he does not feel the jabs—"Everybody makes negative plays," he says—but his closest friends aren't so sure. "I think it gets to him and he starts thinking, I don't want to be in those top 10s anymore," says Clippers guard Nick Young, McGee's teammate in Washington and co-star of The Nick and JaVale Show, which airs on YouTube. In one episode Young and McGee attempt to swallow spoonfuls of cinnamon without vomiting. The Nuggets broke up the comedy duo when they sent Nen√™, their center of nine seasons and the recipient of a five-year, $67 million contract extension in December, to Washington for this oversized enigma. Making matters more curious, Denver is a mile above sea level and McGee is asthmatic. Also, the eighth-place Nuggets are in the midst of a frenzied Western Conference playoff race—the sixth through 10th teams were separated by 1½ games through Sunday--and McGee has never finished fewer than 30 games under .500. But they did not bring him to Denver to sew up the No. 8 seed. They brought him there to learn.
Pamela took JaVale to Parma, Italy, when he was nine months old, and she did, in fact, park the stroller next to the bench. They moved to France, Brazil and Spain, changing addresses whenever Pamela switched uniforms. Customs officials stared incredulously at JaVale's passport. "He can't really be two," they'd say. Pamela negotiated a nanny into every contract and a seat for JaVale on the team plane. She often didn't know anybody who spoke English, so she talked for hours with JaVale, and home-schooled him until he was 10.
They spent summers in Michigan, where Pamela married Reverend Kevin Stafford in 1994, and had a baby girl named Imani. But Stafford filed for divorce two years later and won a brutal battle for custody of Imani, claiming that Pamela's travel schedule compromised her parenting. Mother and son set off again, this time to Sacramento, where Pamela was the second pick in a new league called the WNBA. Nine-year-old JaVale sat behind the Monarchs' bench and referred to players as aunts. Women's basketball legend Cynthia Cooper was his babysitter. Pamela retired in 1999 and the next year underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. JaVale fixed her meals and watched movies with her at her bedside.
Basketball was in JaVale's DNA—his father, George Montgomery, was a 6'9" center at Illinois; Pamela starred at USC alongside her twin sister, Paula, and Cheryl Miller—but not in his heart. When he was 13, and Pamela coached his AAU team in Sacramento, she popped him in the chest for carrying the ball too low in the post. "You're my mom!" JaVale barked. "You shouldn't be hitting me. You should be saying, 'You did your best. You tried.' "
Pamela didn't coach him again until he was 15 and they were living in Detroit, where she had been an assistant for the Shock. "I think I made a mistake," JaVale told her. "I want you to work with me again." Pamela pulled him out of Detroit Country Day, the power that produced Chris Webber and Shane Battier, and enrolled him at Providence Christian High, enrollment 65. The McGees lived with a host family and worked out every morning at six, Pamela forcing JaVale to box and jump rope and block tennis and volleyballs off the backboard.
Nevada coach Mark Fox spotted JaVale at an AAU tournament in Indianapolis, where the best teams played in high school gyms. JaVale's team was in an elementary school across town. He scored two points in the only game Fox saw. "So you don't want him?" an assistant asked. "No," said Fox, now at Georgia. "I'd take him tomorrow." McGee spent just two seasons at Nevada before the Wizards drafted him 18th in 2008. But for someone who attended four high schools in four years and has already played for five NBA coaches, his time in Reno was as stable as life has ever been.
McGee does not say much—a Nevada assistant rejoiced when he learned that McGee knew his name—but when he does speak, it tends to be in unfortunate sound bites. In January, after Wizards coach Flip Saunders scolded him for throwing an alley-oop to himself while trailing by six points, McGee said: "Apparently, if you get a fast break and throw it off the backboard in the third quarter, and you're 1--11, you're not supposed to do stuff like that." Saunders was fired a week later and replaced by Randy Wittman, who benched McGee for fouling a three-point shooter with one second left in the first half. Asked if he knew why he was punished, McGee said, "I can't say I do, but I'm sure I'll figure it out sooner or later." His last shot with the Wizards was a missed alley-oop, and on his way back down the court he plowed into Mavericks center Brendan Haywood. The Wizards, tired of McGee's follies, shipped him to Denver two days later and sent Young to Los Angeles. The Wizards' defense improved dramatically and immediately.
There's more to McGee than he lets on. He writes music. He creates clever comedy sketches featuring his alter ego, Pierre McDunk. (He has a tattoo of a mustache on his index finger, which he puts over his lip when he's in character.) He is a techie with five iPads, six laptops, two desktop computers and all the latest software. When friends and family have computer problems, they call JaVale. Nuggets officials watched the bloopers but viewed them in a different way. Sure, McGee ran back on defense while his team had the ball, but at least he ran back on defense. And sure, he missed a free throw line dunk, but at least he wasn't afraid to fail.
McGee's intentions are sometimes misunderstood. When Clippers forward Kenyon Martin taunted him for attempting a skyhook in a Las Vegas pro-am league game—"He's shooting the ball like he's Kareem!" Martin bellowed—he didn't know McGee had been working all summer with UCLA assistant Scott Garson, studying tape of Abdul-Jabbar on the video kiosks in the school's Hall of Fame. When broadcasters rail on McGee for saluting after dunks ("Knucklehead!" one opponent's play-by-play man called him), they forget the gesture was born when McGee saluted President Obama in the stands during a game.
The day McGee arrived in Denver, general manager Masai Ujiri told him, "Age 18 to 23 is over. Think about 24 to 30 now." Ujiri flips through his iPad, each screen a chart comparing McGee with other NBA centers at a similar stage. The charts are a reminder of the patience required to develop big men. When All-Star center Andrew Bynum was in his fourth season, he averaged 14.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, numbers not so different from McGee's. And Bynum spent all those years with the Lakers, an organization that was able to keep him on the bench and tutor him.
The Nuggets have a way of making players better, from Danilo Gallinari to Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith to Dahntay Jones, and now they are sculpting a 7-foot tower of clay. "As far as raw talent, he's the elite of the elite," Hunt says. "He can do things nobody in this league can do. But there are some fundamental things that still seem so new. It's like a piano prodigy who never learned to play Chopsticks. He just went straight to Beethoven."
McGee's posture is perpetually slouched. He posts up with his back instead of his legs. He positions himself on the low block, so deep that he occasionally shoots from behind the backboard. The first time Hunt asked McGee to take foul shots, he lined up with his feet spread apart. The next time his feet were together. The time after that they were over the line. McGee and Hunt go to every game 40 minutes before anyone else to work on post position (closer to the mid-block), free throw setup (feet apart, right arm positioned over the nail in the middle of the line) and other basics. Hunt beamed when McGee scored the winning basket on a put-back dunk in his Denver debut, waiting in midair for the ball to clear the cylinder so he could avoid goaltending. On Deadspin a glowing post appeared under the headline: JAVALE MCGEE DOES JAVALE MCGEE THING, WINS GAME FOR NUGGETS IN HIS DEBUT, BECAUSE JAVALE MCGEE IS THE BEST.
McGee's performance in Denver has been as inconsistent as ever, but the organization seems to agree with him. He marvels that players pass to one another. A trainer keeps McGee's inhaler on the bench, and when he is ready to check in, he takes two puffs. Something spectacular is about to happen. Last Friday against the Suns, it was an air-balled hook shot, followed by a furious dunk that shook the stanchion for a solid 20 seconds. This month represents a final audition for McGee, who will be a restricted free agent after the season. In a league starved for size, where teams still find a way to pay Kwame Brown $7 million, McGee will be in demand.
Pamela used to sit in the second row at every Wizards game, but she has no plans to move to Denver. She says her boy is a man now, even if he just sprouted his first real mustache last year. Pamela is cancer-free, working as a real estate agent in Northern Virginia and visiting her daughter every three months. Imani Stafford is a 6'7" senior at Windward High in Los Angeles, and she is committed to Texas for next fall. She, too, can jam.
The day after last year's dunk contest in L.A., JaVale called his mother at 8 a.m. and told her he wanted to go to church. Pamela was exhausted, with only five hours sleep, and surprised. But she knew just the place. During the sermon at Faithful Central Bible, JaVale looked over at his mom, tears streaking her cheeks. "Why are you crying?" he asked. There, for the first time, Pamela told him about the clinic and the beach and the reason she cannot get all that upset about alley-oops gone awry. "For me," she told her son, "you've been such a blessing."