A disclaimer: I am very biased.
I grew up in Houston, Texas, and came of age during the glory years of Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon. When the Houston Rockets won the NBA Championship in 1993, I was a fifth-grader, barely allowed to stay up late enough that summer to watch them take down the Knicks in seven games for their first-ever championship. I loved the Dream, of course, but I really loved the role players. If you made me rank them, I’d tell you my favorite was Vernon “Mad Max” Maxwell, followed by Mario Elie and “Big Shot” Robert Horry, who strongly resembled Will Smith in those “Fresh Prince” days.
I’m always fascinated by role players, especially those specialists who have a role that’s both unique and extremely valuable to their team’s strategy. In the era of LeBron James and Steph Curry, it feels vintage to celebrate teams – but LeBron and Steph would both tell you they couldn’t have done it without Ray Allen and Andre Iguodala, respectively.
So as a Houston fan, as a lover of role players, and as a fan of a good story, I love P.J. Tucker.
You may know two things about P.J. Tucker, other than his role as elite defensive specialist for Houston: He loves pancakes and eats them every morning, and he’s got a legit sneaker collection. But while I definitely envy him the sneaks, what I admire about P.J. Tucker is way beyond pancakes and fashion sense. In a lot of ways, P.J. is a grinder, the kind of player I look to for inspiration in my own career.
Here’s what I’ve learned from P.J. Tucker’s long, strange journey.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of your failure
P.J. didn’t have a great start. In fact, he had one of the worst starts to an eventual elite career I’ve ever seen.
It started with such promise: he was the BigXII’s player of the year in 2006, a second team All-American, picked 35th in the draft to go to Toronto. Then… record scratch. After just 12 months in the league and 83 minutes played for Toronto, he was out of the league.
“I did everything wrong,” P.J. would later say. “That was one of the worst years of my life. I wasn’t playing. I couldn’t get reps. Toronto didn’t need me. And it’s big-boy basketball. Grown men. Guys feeding their families. I didn’t know what it meant to be a pro.”
Even then, after what had to be one of the worst, most reality-check years in his life, P.J. was being honest. His ego might have made him want to make excuses, to say his talent wasn’t being utilized, that he wasn’t in the right place. To fail well, he had to own it. And he did.
Be patient with the long odyssey
Over the next 5 years, P.J. Tucker would put on 7 different team jerseys in 6 countries. It had to be lonely. He was far from home, playing for teams in Israel, in Ukraine, in Germany, in Italy; until 2007, the closest he got to playing in his home country was a stint on Puerto Rico’s team. But he clearly stayed hungry. In his first season in Israel, he led his team to a title, breaking their opponent’s 14-year streak as Israeli champions and snagging the MVP. In 2012, he’d do the same for a team in Germany.
He learned to specialize, to focus less on making the big shots and more on doing whatever his team needed that night to get the W. “It was tough being away from home,” P.J. would say. “Overseas, it ain’t about dropping 30 every night, being the man. They care about winning over there. If you’re a winner, you can play forever over there.”
I think that’s where he became the P.J. Tucker I admire: intense, focused, anticipatory, driven.
All it takes is one opening
He’d gotten content, playing overseas. He didn’t feel like the NBA valued what he could do; he knew most couldn’t see his potential as the right puzzle piece for the right team. He was getting paid. He was happy.
And then the NBA called. Would he try out for the Phoenix Suns, asked general manager Dan Majerle?
If it hadn’t been Dan, P.J. might not have left his comfortable berth abroad. But Dan had a very specific strategic plan in mind for P.J.: Your job is to defend the best man on every team. Shut that man down. That’s your whole job.
“Dan used to sic me on people,” P.J. says. “I knew that defense was my way, but that is where I learned to enjoy it and saw how much of an effect it could have on games. You can really change games that way.”
Other teams noticed. Not long after, P.J. Tucker was pursued by the Houston Rockets and signed a four-year, $32 million contract.
They played the Warriors to open that season; P.J. scored 20 points and made the final two free throws to seal a one-point win. I had found a new favorite player.
Remember how you got there
This last season, 2018-2019, was P.J. Tucker’s coming out. Suddenly, the national media loved him as much as I did. (Exhibit A: This article.) They love his pancake obsession, his sneakers, his physical old-school playing style, his enthusiasm for the game and his teammates. But P.J. is still the same guy who remembers his hard first years playing the game professionally; who knows the emptiness of awards without championships.
“I try to help [players] that are in the brink of getting out [of the league],” he says. “I really take pride in being a good vet and helping guys.”
But now he has fun. The sneakers are wilder than ever. The fashion got weirder, more fun. He clearly takes joy in his game, sounding rapturous about guarding former Texas teammate & superstar Kevin Durant the way some guys sound about scoring 30 points.
“This is my dream. I’m living my dream right now guarding Kevin Durant in the NBA playoffs,” he said, just a few weeks ago.
“I want to win. I don’t care if somebody says I’m the best or the worst defender. I’m going to go out and do what I do every single night no matter what.”
He’s a joy to watch. But beyond that, I love his growth mindset. I love his commitment to getting better every day, doing the hard, small things no one sees. The focus, honed on doing what he’s good at and playing Robin to James Harden’s Batman.
You can’t control everything. The NBA likely wasn’t ready for an ‘in between’ position player like P.J. Tucker when he was drafted, and P.J. Tucker likely wasn’t ready for the dog eat dog realities of the NBA. He had to prove himself in ways he wasn’t expecting, in places he definitely did not expect to be. But he stayed humble, embraced that growth mindset, and kept doing the work, and eventually the NBA and P.J. Tucker were ready for each other.
Thanks for reading. Who are your unexpected professional inspirations? I’d love to hear them.
David Phillips is Vice President at Far West Capital, a company that funds the goals of high-growth entrepreneurs. Know a great company in need of capital to unleash their potential? Send them here and we’ll give them a call.