Years Later, Donaldson Still 7-Foot-2
There is something to be said for longevity. Quite often it’s, “Is he still playing?”
Anymore, our tolerance for durability beyond the call of duty seems to be reserved for legends (see Nolan Ryan), novelties (see George Foreman) or golfers (see the Geezer Skins Game). Sports has no mandatory retirement age, but at 35 your first name can be legally changed to “Journeyman” - which is probably the real reason Michael Jordan got out when he did.
Funny, it may have been the reason James Donaldson wanted back in.
James Donaldson? Yeah, he’s still playing.
And frankly, the term “journeyman” suits him just fine. It implies dependability and competence. And the mere fact he’s wanted, given the number of National Basketball Association teams - most recently the Utah Jazz - which have sought his services because of one circumstance or another since he graduated from Washington State University in 1979.
The important circumstance, of course, being that even at age 37, he still stands 7-foot-2.
If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have been playing in a Seattle rec league one day and filling Felton Spencer’s shoes as Utah’s starting center the next.
Now the man who spent his first two years at WSU just learning how to run is settled in for his 14th NBA season.
Remarkable doesn’t begin to describe it.
How many graduates of area colleges and high schools have had major-league careers last longer? Ron Cey, another WSU alum, spent 17 seasons in baseball’s bigs. Fifteen great NFL seasons got Mel Hein, yet another Coug, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Wayne Walker, the old Idaho linebacker, also had a 15-year NFL career. Ryne Sandberg pulled a Jordan in the middle of his 14th major-league season.
The least likely of all of those has to be Donaldson.
“When I started out, I really wasn’t interested in basketball,” Donaldson admitted. “I felt I was pushed into it by my friends and coaches. I wasn’t any good and I knew it. Basketball was something I did because everyone else wanted me to.”
And now it’s something he doesn’t want to give up.
It’s why, with his career seemingly over, Donaldson took his Nikes to play for Thessaloniki in the Greek professional league during the 1993-94 season.
“I went over there for the sole purpose of keeping myself active - to keep my skills sharp and let the NBA know I still had the desire and ability to keep on playing,” Donaldson said.
He had gone that route once before, playing in Italy for a season right out of college because his game wasn’t ready for the NBA. Going back was harder than he’d imagined.
“You get over there and the talent isn’t quite up to par and the facilities aren’t anywhere close,” he said. “And the fans - they’re very wild. Fans here understand the game and are civilized about it.”
That would be news to Vernon Maxwell.
“Over there,” Donaldson went on, “you’re liable to get a bottle upside your head and coins thrown at you. This happens every game. Fans storm the court, threatening referees, threatening players. It’s just not a pretty scene.”
So even though no NBA team wanted him at the beginning of this season, he was through with Europe.
“It was a calculated risk and it was a frustrating wait. But last season, once I was over there, I was pretty committed to finishing out the season. It killed me to pick up USA Today or the (International) Herald Tribune and read the transactions, seeing guys getting picked up and thinking, `That could be me.”’
This time, when Spencer ripped an Achilles tendon in mid-January, it was Donaldson.
He is no longer the 10-point, 10-rebound center he was in his prime with the Dallas Mavericks, one of the five NBA teams he’s played for. He plays maybe 14 minutes a game, starting each half to lean on the opposing big man and allowing Jazz coach Jerry Sloan to bring in smaller, more offensive-minded players like Antoine Carr and Adam Keefe for a spark off the bench.
It’s worked. Even after Spencer went down - even after the team that’s supposedly too old to win got even older by signing Donaldson - the Jazz won their next nine games and are still atop the Midwest Division.
“This is probably the greatest team I’ve been on, from players 1 through 12,” he said. “Guys like John Stockton and Karl Malone realize they don’t have that many more chances to win it - and the rest of us are behind them trying to make sure this is the year it happens.”
There must be something to be said for longevity, after all.