Oh, he took the money for damn sure, $82.5 million in July. But since then, if you haven’t noticed through the celebrations and gaudy records and global razzmatazz, all Draymond Green has done is give back. He gave $3.1 million to Michigan State University, where a chubby kid of humble means learned the nuances of basketball and “how to be a man.” He gives to charities, hospitals, homeless shelters, food banks. He gives so much, he is redefining the meaning of an assist ratio.
“I’m always going to do what I can to put a smile on someone’s face,” said Green, “because then it puts a smile on my face.”
This week, dressed as Santa Claus, he gave his afternoon to Kumar Polk, who is eight years old and alive and happy at the holidays after he was struck by two bullets in an April drive-by shooting in Vallejo. When Kumar saw through the white beard, red suit and green bag and instantly recognized one of his favorite Warriors, Green gave him a big hug on the floor of the practice facility.
“As soon as I walked up here, he said, ‘Uh, oh, who is that? Is that Draymond?’” Green said. “I thought that was pretty cool because my face was pretty well covered but he figured it out immediately. Which lets me know that he’s a big Warriors fan, which is cool.”
On Christmas Day, armed with a preposterous 27-1 record after a 103-85 victory over Utah on Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors will be the primary sports accompaniment to America’s collective feast. If that still sounds utterly bizarre, remembering this franchise as a turkey that wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a mass television audience, please realize it wouldn’t be happening without Green. Steph Curry is the darling of the sports world, full of joy and everyman hope, golfing partner of Barack Obama and lead voice in a powerful new public-service announcement that condemns gun violence. Klay Thompson is the scoring fiend capable of all-time point binges, as he’ll tell you himself. Steve Kerr is the brains of the machine. Luke Walton is the caretaker while Kerr regains his health. Bob Myers is the architect, Joe Lacob the check-writer.
And Draymond is the adhesive, the heartbeat, the bullhorn, the working man who never forgets that he grew up poor in the violent, broken-down industry town of Saginaw, Mich., in a house sometimes without heat and water because his now-Twitter-famous mother couldn’t afford the bills. Because those memories are still fresh, Green remains as hungry as he was when he was the 35th pick in the 2012 NBA draft, unearthed by Myers when other general managers didn’t know what to make of him. Suddenly wealthy beyond his fantasies and owner of a championship ring at 25, he easily could have become content and gone soft.
“Instead,” Walton said, “Draymond got better. He got a huge contract and came back a better player. That tells you a lot about his character and how good he wants to be.”
How much better? You could have made an educated case that Green, despite Curry’s cuckoo shooting flurries, actually was the team’s most valuable player during the record 24-0 start. The Warriors are lethal, of course, when Green’s versatility allows them to shift into smallball mode, unleashing his skill set of rebounding, ballhandling, passing, shooting and defensive mastery. It’s an imposing hybrid rarely seen in this league and is translating beautifully in his stat line, which finds him averaging 8.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists with his 14.3 points. In a league ruled by point guards, the assist total is what’s astonishing for a 6-7 player who doesn’t have a specific position because he plays them all. He has had monster games for two months but nothing like his vintage game in Boston, where he went for 24 points, 11 boards, 8 assists, 5 steals and 5 blocks. That’s the sort of line once assembled by the most accomplished of Michigan State players, Magic Johnson, who refers to Green as “mini-Magic.”
“He’s darn near a triple-double every night,” marveled his teammate, Shaun Livingston.
“He does it all,” Curry said. “He defends at a high level, and he’s so versatile the way that he can guard multiple positions. And offensively, he’s a huge outlet to have, for me especially in traffic situations to get the flow of the offense going. Like everybody else in this locker room, he’s a gamer. He’s a guy that shows up every night.”
“Draymond is a jack knife who does everything for us,” Festus Ezeli said, “Whether it’s on defense or offense, he makes life easier for everyone else. He’s definitely a joy to play with.”
Only when placed in the same breath as Johnson does Green demur. “You’re comparing me to the greatest of the greats,” he said. Otherwise, Green is welcoming and embracing his rising status in the league, which now has him earmarked as a certain All-Star in February and a possible U.S. Olympian next summer. Hardened hoops people turn mushy when placing Green in the middle of a dream team with Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. But true to what he’s about, and what he learned from Tom Izzo in college, he knows that individual aspirations run parallel to how the Warriors perform as a whole. Having lost one game since June 9, they’ve become a wide-angle showcase not only for Curry but for Green, proud as he is loud.
“I just have to continue to work knowing that at the end of the day, those are our individual goals and if we have team success, those things can possibly happen,” he said. “I don’t come in every day saying, ‘Hey, I need to make the U.S. team or maybe an All-Star, be Defensive Player of the Year.’ But I also do know that if we have great team success, all those things happen to fall in line.
“The game is just really slowing down for me.”
Sometimes, his will, work ethic and big heart are lost in his bluster, a necessary evil in the Warriors’ success. Flanked by two stylish splashers who don’t talk big games, Green must be the big-mouth enforcer who pounds his chest and injects life. His latest trash-talking episode was regrettable — calling out the Milwaukee Bucks for overcelebrating after handing the Warriors their first loss. “You guys know who he is,” said Bucks guard Michael Carter-Williams, a target of Green. “He’s just trying to stir the pot.”
Stir the pot, he did last Friday night in the rematch. Except Green and the Warriors didn’t come out with much effort to back up his words. It was Green who ignited what seemed another lost cause with a dizzy sequence: a three-point play, an alley-oop layup, a tip rebound that led to him hitting a three in transition. Quickly, an 11-point deficit vanished, and the Warriors survived. Afterward, he had words with Bucks players.
“Show your class,” O.J. Mayo said before patting Green on the head.
That led Green to shove away Mayo and push Khris Middleton. “Ain’t no man gonna touch my head,” he said. “I’m a grown man.”
The Warriors don’t want the post-game drama. But they do love it when Green is fired up, such as he when he went off on the team — despite his own sub-par play — when they were down 2-1 in the NBA Finals. Walton remembers a night when the Warriors started slowly and Kerr, noticing Green’s shoes were untied, chewed him out on the bench.
“As they went back on the court, Draymond was pissed,” Walton said. “He was yelling at Steve, and Steve kind of leans over to us and says, ‘We’re good now. We got him.’ That’s one of his roles for this team. When he gets energized or chippy, we, as a team, have his back. There’s definitely some of that when we need a spark.”
He brings a unique presence for a special team. Having grown up watching NBA games at the holidays, Draymond Green can’t wait for Friday at Oracle, not that every day isn’t Christmas Day in his wonderful, bubbling life.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.