AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Here's the reality for Antonio McDyess: He'll never be the same player after undergoing three knee surgeries in a 19-month span – certainly not the one with Amare-like hops who helped the United States win Olympic gold in 2000 and rose to All-Star status with the Denver Nuggets in 2001.
Here's the consolation for McDyess: He wouldn't be playing in these NBA Finals with the Detroit Pistons if his career hadn't taken such a drastic turn.
It's ironic, but McDyess' preseason injuries – a torn patella tendon in his left knee in October of 2001 with the Nuggets, and a fractured left knee cap in October of 2002 with the New York Knicks – ended his reign with the Garnetts, Duncans and Malones as one of the NBA's elite power forwards. But that misfortune sent him on a comeback trail that now has him playing on basketball's biggest stage, albeit in a reserve role.
"I always kind of look back and say, 'What if I hadn't got hurt?' " McDyess said. "But also, if I hadn't gotten hurt, I wouldn't be in this position. Because I don't think I'd be playing behind Ben [Wallace] and Rasheed [Wallace]. I'd be on another team."
The fear of McDyess being damaged goods kept most teams away from the former No. 2 overall pick during free agency last summer. Pistons general manager Joe Dumars had his doubts like everyone else, but he saw everything he needed to see from the 6-foot-9, 245-pound McDyess during a late-season run in which McDyess averaged 8.7 points and 8.3 rebounds a game.
When Mehmet Okur signed with Utah, Dumars offered McDyess a four-year, $24 million contract to be his new backup big man. Being reunited with Chauncey Billups, a former teammate in Denver, and Larry Brown, an assistant for Team USA in 2000, made it a no-brainer for McDyess.
"A lot of people gave up on me," McDyess said. "And he [Dumars] wasn't one of them. He told me when I first came [to Detroit] that I still had it. He believed in me."
"Phoenix wanted me back," he added. "But with what they were offering, it was kind of a slap in the face."
McDyess didn't have much of an appetite for basketball after being shipped to the Suns in January of 2004 as part of Isiah Thomas' shakeup of the Knicks. Told he would be one of the building blocks in New York, McDyess suddenly found himself on the bench in Phoenix. It was one more blow to the ego and another step down in his pursuit of becoming a franchise player again.
A frustrated McDyess told his agent to request his release from the Suns. He even contemplated retirement. "I was at the lowest point of my career," McDyess said.
"It's disappointing when you see a guy like that get injured, especially when the person is a good person," said Robert Horry, who, like McDyess, played his college ball at Alabama. "He's a great guy who's soft spoken and plays hard. I just wanted to see him get better and get healthy."
Unfortunately for Horry and his San Antonio Spurs, they have seen flashes of the old McDyess the last two games. He contributed 15 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes in the Pistons' 97-76 loss in Game 2, then followed up that effort with a starring role in Detroit's 96-79 rout in Game 3 on Tuesday.
McDyess totaled 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in just 19 minutes, shooting a perfect 3-for-3 from the field and pulling down five boards in the fourth quarter. He sank a 20-foot jumper and banked in a 15-footer (after putting an up-and-under move on Nazr Mohammed) to close out an 11-0 run that gave Detroit an 82-69 lead.
"I'm just happy he gave it a second chance," Billups said of McDyess. "I'm even more happy that he gave it a second chance with us because he could have been somewhere else and starting and had a great season. But I think he knew where his career was at. He knows what's most important and that's winning and being part of something special."
"I look at him like another star," Brown said. "With Rasheed and Ben and McDyess, I think we're as deep as any team in the league at the four and five position. Game 2, even though we got beat, gave McDyess got a lot of confidence. I think it carried over [to Game 3]."
McDyess still thinks of himself as a "go-to guy" when he steps on the floor, but he realizes his days of averaging 21 and 12 – as he did with the Nuggets in 2001 – are long gone. The outside jumper is still there, but he admits that he can't run as fast or leap as quickly as he once did.
"Now I just pick and choose my places to shoot – and jump. I know when not to jump," he said. "Maybe I wouldn't have gotten hurt if I was this Antonio."
Through all of the pain, though, this Antonio McDyess finally has something to gain: a ring.