When Knicks forward Lee Nailon speaks with the media, his
eyes glaze over in apparent indifference. But underneath it all, Nailon can
barely stand it. He has to play. Just has to. Every minute Nailon steps onto an
NBA court represents a giant leap from his past.
The tattoo on his left biceps, a gravestone with the name of a childhood
friend, reminds Nailon of what he left behind in a South Bend, Ind.,
neighborhood saturated with drugs and gangs. Nailon admits he ran with a
dangerous crowd, but his high school coach said the lanky boy with an easy
smile and impish sense of humor always attended class because basketball was so
important to him. When he needed love and advice, Lee turned to his
grandmother, Ruby Dungey, whom everyone knew as "Granny."
Nailon was a senior when his South Bend Clay High School team won the 1994
state championship. Not long after that, Nailon said, gang members shot and
killed his friend Duane Reid, who was a neighborhood drug dealer. "We was all
standing in a line; everybody was. They just pulled out guns and I ran," said
Nailon, his eyes suddenly sharp, his voice animated. "All gang guys, they shoot
guns but they don't go to the range just to shoot. So they may not be pointing
at you, but it might hit you, you know what I'm sayin'? Once that happened, I
was like, 'I gotta watch who I hang out with.' It opened my eyes. I wanted to
be the first to get out of South Bend to make a name for myself then, to show
everybody in South Bend that it can happen."
Nailon played two seasons at junior colleges and two years at TCU before
the Hornets - whom the Knicks will play tonight in New Orleans - drafted him in
the second round (43rd overall) in 1999. He played a season in Italy and
signed with Charlotte in 2000.
His short stay with the Knicks has been promising (20 points in 22 minutes
games ago, Nailon's playing time has decreased considerably. He sat out the
entire second half Monday night as the Knicks nearly blew a 32-point lead over
the Detroit Pistons.
Knicks coach Don Chaney said he must learn to trust Nailon. "When I put him
in the game, I have to depend on him being able to rebound and defend. It's a
two-way street," Chaney said. "We're getting to know each other."
Nailon would rather forget his two seasons with the Hornets, who cut him in
October after his differences with Paul Silas. The New Orleans coach tired of
Nailon's complaining about minutes and his unwillingness to play defense. After
a verbal confrontation with Nailon, Silas chose to keep defensive-minded
George Lynch. "I'm not saying it's the [wrong] decision, but when he gets to
the point in the game where he needs somebody to score, he can't go to George
Lynch to score," Nailon said.
Tom DeBaets, Nailon's high school coach at Clay, agrees that his former
player needs a refresher course on defense. "I think he played harder
defensively in high school than he does in the NBA. He doesn't play any
defense," said DeBaets, who added: "I keep telling him if he hit the offensive
boards he'd get more minutes."
Until Chaney finds a comfort zone with his newest player, Nailon will wait,
somewhat impatiently, for his chance. For reassurance, he recalls the words of
Granny, who died last October. "God has a plan," she always told her grandson.
"I don't know [what it is]," he said. "I have to wait till the end of the
season to find out. One door opened and another one closed. Now this door is
open and hopefully I can keep it open."
New York, after all, is a giant leap from South Bend.
At New Orleans
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