When Gerald Green received what was, perhaps, the most important phone call of his life, he hung up. He had just flown from Boston to Houston because his son, who lives there with his mother, was in the hospital after having an allergic reaction. It was December 27 of last year, and the shooting guard had told himself if he hadn’t signed somewhere by New Year’s Eve, he would retire. It had been three seasons since he played meaningful basketball, and prospects were looking thin. Then the phone rang; it was his agent saying that the Houston Rockets were interested. Green thought it was a joke. “I ain’t got time to be playing no games,” he remembers saying. “This is not a good day.” And then he hung up.
His agent promptly called back. It was true, the Rockets had been crushed by injuries, and they needed bodies. They also happened to be in Boston for a game against the Celtics the following night. So Green went to the hospital and found that his son’s health was improving, then met the Rockets for a workout. After signing a contract with the team, he suited up to play in a loss against the Celtics. He didn’t even have a pair of basketball shoes. He had to borrow Rockets forward Trevor Ariza’s.
Green’s strange start to his career with the Rockets makes for a wild enough story on its own. For him to become a team and fan favorite with the Rockets is crazier still. And for it to all happen in Houston—where Green grew up and still lives—is maybe the most unbelievable part of it all. Now, the Rockets are playing the Golden State Warriors with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, and Green just might help get them there. “Every day, I wake up like, ‘Is this really happening?'” Green admits to ESPN.
You don’t need Google to discover that Gerald Green is from Houston. He wears his hometown pride on his sleeve—literally. There’s the word “Houston” tattooed on his left forearm with the city’s skyline rising above it, but there’s also an Interstate 45 sign on his shoulder and an Oilers logo on his back. Since the Rockets signed him, he’s gotten his hair braided in the shape of the team’s logo, although he’ll occasionally change up the design to support the Astros. Before every game, he’ll walk into the stadium wearing a throwback jersey paying respect to the city’s greatest athletes: Nolan Ryan, Warren Moon, Clyde Drexler, to name a few. It’s no surprise that he’s quickly become a fan favorite.
His loyalty has made him beloved in the locker room too. When star point guard Chris Paul’s return to Los Angeles got heated in January, Green joined Trevor Ariza in confronting the Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Austin Rivers in a much publicized “fight” (which may or may not have been anything more than a shouting match), for which he earned a one-game suspension. In March, when Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng shoved Paul, Green immediately pushed Dieng into the first row. Paul was quick to offer to pay Green’s fine for him.
And he’s more than holding his own on the court, which has earned him the admiration of coaches. He was always a prolific scorer, but his biggest flaw was his tendency to put up ill-advised shots. That’s just fine by head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose up-tempo, high-scoring system is built around having role players who shoot threes at will. It’s the basketball match Green has been searching for his entire career, and as a result, he’s thrived. D’Antoni describes him as “instant offense,” which can swing a playoff series. Green has averaged 12.1 points in 22.7 minutes per game during the regular season, and there were flashes when he proved that he could hold his own against any player on the court. In a January meeting against these same Warriors, he scored 29 points, and by the end of the game, Golden State was triple teaming him. They had to. It was the only way he would miss.
Up until December, Green was best known either for his performances at the Dunk Contest (he won in 2007 and should have won again in 2008, when he did the now-famous Birthday Cake Dunk, which involved blowing out a candle atop a cupcake before dunking), or for the fact that he only has nine fingers (he lost one in a freak accident when he was eleven). On the court, he hadn’t done much of note his entire career. The number one player in his high school class coming out of Gulf Shores Academy, Green went straight to the NBA when the Celtics drafted him in the first round of the 2005 draft. But after failing to impress on the court, he was traded from team to team, and from 2009 to 2011, was exiled to play in Russia after all American teams passed on him. Then, he signed with a Chinese team, who cut him after four games. He came back to the U.S. and played the 2011-2012 season in the G-League, until the Brooklyn Nets (who might as well have been playing in the minors at that point), signed him. He continued to bounce around over the past five years until this season, a few games into the preseason, he was cut yet again, this time by the Milwaukee Bucks. So Green went home to Houston last October and waited.
In his free time, he passed out relief supplies for families affected by Harvey. He kept in shape by playing one on one against his Rottweiler, Zeus. For the first time in his career, he considered retiring. Then his phone rang on the tarmac that day.
The big question is why? Why has Houston, after fifteen stops here and abroad, finally the place where Green stuck? It’s almost too perfect. I keep thinking about Green, a nine-year-old Houstonian watching the Clutch City Rockets dismantle the Magic to win the 1995 title, seeing his dad parade around their house with a broom to celebrate the sweep. And I think about him in his friend’s boat this fall, without a team or much of an NBA future, finding people to help after Hurricane Harvey flooded his city. Green is yet another Houston recovery story, one more example of the city healing. The city has lifted him up, and in return, he’s lifted its team.
Nobody would expect Green to be the MVP of these Western Conference Finals, but he’ll almost certainly affect some games. Maybe that’s by hitting a couple of key threes against Golden State. Maybe he’ll knock down Draymond Green if things get chippy. Maybe he’ll just give the fans something extra to cheer for. There’s always that role player that changes a game and in turn changes a series, an unexpected hero. Given his own unexpected path, Green is a prime candidate to be that guy for the Rockets. He would certainly be the most lovable.
“For a long time, I played for me, for my career,” he tells the Houston Chronicle. “You have to sometimes in this league so you can keep your job. But it’s different now. It’s about the name on the front of the jersey now. It’s about playing for Houston.”
Whatever he does next, Gerald Green has finally found what he’s been searching for throughout his entire NBA career, from team to team and all the way to Russia and China and back. All it took was for him to come back home.