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Kenny Green left Washington, against his wishes, about 16 years ago. Yet every spring since, sure as the azaleas bloom and the Wizards begin another off-season sans playoffs, fans and scribes bring up Green’s name when talk turns to the team’s perennial lousiness.
After so many years of suffering in silence, Green is finally ready to deliver a rebuttal to his scapegoaters, in the third person: “Don’t blame Kenny Green for what’s going on in Washington,” he tells me from his Eustis, Fla., home. “Stop pointing the finger at Kenny Green. This isn’t about Kenny Green.”
To those who take his name in vain, Green’s big flaw is, simply, that he isn’t Karl Malone.
In 1985, Green, a 6-foot-7 small forward, decided to go pro after just his junior year at Wake Forest. In college, Green had held his own against some of the brightest hoop luminaries in the history of the glitzy Atlantic Coast Conference: Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Ralph Sampson, and Len Bias, to name a few. The then-Bullets decided to take Green with the 12th pick of the first round in the NBA draft. The Utah Jazz, which had the next pick, used it on Malone, the farm boy from decidedly unglitzy Louisiana Tech. And the rest is misery.
Bullets general manager Bob Ferry built Green up as being capable of providing the same sort of inside/outside threat that Bobby Dandridge had given the team during its glorious “Fat Lady” title run of 1978. And Green wasn’t too shy about his own skills. “When it’s one on one, it doesn’t matter [who is guarding me],” he told reporters during a post-draft visit to Washington. “As long as nobody’s helping out, I’m going to score.”
His transition to the NBA, to understate things, didn’t go smoothly. The Bullets at that time were coached by geezer-friendly Gene Shuewhich explained the roster stocked with graybeards, including Tom McMillen and Dan Roundfield. Shue didn’t immediately take to the new kid. Green, as it turned out, had but one good game for the Bullets. That came in Philadelphia in early December, when he poured in 25 points against Dr. J, Charles Barkley, and another MaloneMoses.
That performance, Green now thinks, proved to
be his undoing. Because when Frank Johnson, the injury-plagued Bullets point guard, subsequently broke his foot, management went shopping for a replacement in hopes of salvaging the season. The Sixers made the best offer: They’d deal their point guard, Leon Wood, but only if the Bullets parted with that rookie from Wake Forest who’d lit up the Spectrum a few weeks earlier.
“As it turned out, that was it for my career,” says Green. “I wanted to stay in Washington. Coach Shue was not a guy who played rookies, but he was at least looking to get me in the game. In Philly, I just sat.”
Well, to get nitpicky, Green didn’t just sit; he also admits to sulking and moping. After another year of keeping a seat warm, Green was told that the Sixers would eat the remaining year of his contract and cut him in the fall of 1987. Nobody picked him off waivers.
Wood, meanwhile, didn’t do squat for the Bullets. He was traded to the New Jersey Nets at the end of the season for Mike O’Koren. Unluckily for Green, neither Wood nor O’Koren nor any Bullet nor Wizard since made anybody forget Karl Malone, who went on to essentially create the position of power forward and change the importance of muscle in the pro game.
The Bullets had appalling drafts before and after Green, for sure. Take a gander at some of their first-round busts from the ’80s: John Williams, Anthony Jones, Tom Hammonds, Mel Turpin, Randy Wittman, Wes Matthews.
But when Ferry got fired, in 1990, it was the Green-over-Malone pick that was cited as Exhibit A of his weakness as a talent evaluator. And it’s still brought up as the beginning of the woeful period that the franchise is still mired in.
After Philly sent Green packing, he went home to Eustis, the small town outside Orlando where he grew up. He’s been there ever since. He works as a private contractor now.
“My heart wasn’t in basketball anymore when I had to sit and watch people play,” Green says. “From being a top pick and then just sitting, I didn’t handle it well. I just went into a shell. I had no love for the game at all.”
He says he got out of his depression by ignoring basketball when he got back home. He didn’t even visit local parks to play pickup games.
Eustis, Green says, is a place that has “one of everything: one McDonald’s, one high school, and one Burger King.” And one local kid who ever made it to the NBA. But Green, who set and still holds every Eustis High scoring record imaginable, has never been allowed to feel like much of a success since returning to his hometown.
“Around here, I’m the guy that messed up,” Green says. “I can understand that. I know I had the talent to make it. I don’t care what anybody says: I was worthy of being a first-round pick of the Washington Bullets. I’m not saying it worked out, and I know I didn’t handle everything well. I should have worked harder, but I just gave up. And the people here don’t want to forget that I gave up. But that’s so far in the past, I don’t even think about it anymore.”
Over the years, however, Green has slowly gotten back into the game he so loved and excelled at as a kid. He returned to the hardcourts not to playGreen puts his current weight at “around 340 or 320 pounds” and says with a laugh that he’s done playing basketball at any level, foreverbut to coach his son, Wesley. The 6-foot-8 center led the Eustis Panthers in scoring and rebounding, and to the semifinals of the state high school tournament, and he made several all-Florida teams. And he’s just a sophomore.
“My son will break every one of my records before he’s out of here,” says Green. “He can play, and he’s a good kid. So maybe I did something right.”
According to NBA statisticians, Green scored 265 points as a pro. Malone, now in his 16th year, has logged 31,041and counting. Green posted 101 career rebounds. Malone has 12,618and counting.
But there’s one stat that Green shares with Malone. And he knows it.
“Last time I checked, Karl doesn’t have any rings, either,” Green says. Dave McKenna