The spotlit days were over for Rickey Green when he came to the Philadelphia 76ers in the off-season. He was a pebble worn smooth by 13 seasons of riding professional basketball's rough tides, and this was just a safe harbor near the end of the journey.
That is the accepted logic for guards who tred too far past their 30th birthday in a basketball uniform, and Green, at 36, is the last of his generation still in the league.Look around. Rickey Green's contemporaries at the guard position have all hit the wall and fallen away. Gus Williams, Lloyd Free, John Lucas and Dennis Johnson ran with him for as long as they could, but Green kept running when all the others had slipped into civilian clothes. He is now the oldest guard in the National Basketball Association, a league where the younger players take nothing off the fastball in deference to what wizened veterans might wander in their path.
Tell the rookies in the Sixers' locker room that Green played against John Havlicek and visions of set shots and center jumps after every basket would probably enter their minds. For them, there is plenty of time and reason to laugh. But one minute you're a rookie and the next you're being called "Uncle Green."
It goes that fast, the snap-finger span of even a long career, and Green came to the Sixers as a player already eased from the glare of the starting lineup to a dimmer role on the bench.
"I don't feel any different than I did when I was a starter with Utah, but at 34 or 35, you stop getting the opportunity to start," says Green. "I never thought I'd be in that situation again. And the way I looked at it, hell, I know I can play 10 or 15 minutes a night in this league for a long time."
The Sixers were not looking for a 36-year-old starting point guard. A year earlier, they had traded away Maurice Cheeks, who happens to be two years younger than Green, in a move for more youth. But they wanted a veteran to provide steady play behind starter Johnny Dawkins, someone who knew the game and would hold the reins tight while the main man rested.
"I knew I could come in and play hard and show some leadership," Green says. "I think you can always use an experienced guy coming off the bench, someone with credentials that the guys will respect. You always need a guy who's been there."
Rickey Green has been there.
And now he's there again.
Green's retirement to the bench, entering its fourth season, came to an end in Milwaukee on Nov. 8 when Dawkins landed oddly on the floor of the Bradley Center and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
The season-ending injury to Dawkins elevated Green to the starting job and the veteran has not looked out of place yet. The Sixers picked themselves up after a 2-3 start and have won 12 of their last 16 games going into Friday night's game with Miami. The lineups have been occasionally patchwork and the offense inconsistent, but the wins have kept arriving. Along with them, Green has gotten used to playing with the first team again.
"It took some games, to get my timing back together, but any athlete who is competitive wants to hold that top spot," Green says. "If you don't want to be playing all the time, you shouldn't be playing. If you don't have that drive, you won't last in this league as long as I have.
"I knew I could handle the situation, but I haven't really played in four years. Now, I'm going against the other starters again, the best point guards in the world, but I don't feel like anybody's going to use me out there. I'm going to hold my own. People have this frame of mind about age. I hate to hear it. Old is however old you feel. If I'm old, it will show up in how I'm playing."
Green's shooting has been up and down. He had his first 20-point night since the 1986-87 season in his second start for the Sixers and worked up to 45 percent from the field before falling off in the last four games. He's now at 41 percent. His control of the court has been excellent, however. He has 103 assists and just 22 turnovers, a ratio of nearly 5:1 that belies his age. When he's old, it will show up on the court. But not yet.
The others are all gone, all but Rickey Green. And now he's gotten a June opportunity in the December of his career, back in the starting lineup again. Most nights, it's like he never left.