Basketball wasn’t always Blazers players’ passion

Some Blazers started out in excelling other sports




So you’re in the locker room with Gerald Wallace, realizing you’re approximately 41,000 protein shakes behind him, when he blurts to an assistant coach, “Don’t get it twisted, basketball just fell into my lap, but the main sport in my family has always been baseball.”

And upon hearing this, you react the way any typical human would, which is to think um … excuse me?

So to make sure that a year and a half of sitting in front of Brian Wheeler at Blazers games hasn’t muted your eardrums, you ask him about it.

Baseball, huh?

“Oh, I would rather sit and watch a nine-inning baseball game than a four-quarter basketball game any day,” Wallace replied. “My dad played. My mom played. All my uncles — everybody played.”

Turns out that Wallace idolized former Braves sluggers Fred McGriff and David Justice growing up. He played pitcher and catcher until a growth spurt at the age 12 shifted his focus toward hoops.

To this day, he partakes in softball games and claims he has thrown nothing but strikes when tossing out the first pitch at minor league ballparks.

By the way, how hard did you throw when you were 12?

“About 80,” Wallace said.

This gets you thinking about all the other sports the Blazers crossed off their lists before committing to basketball. So you slide one locker to the right and stick your mic in front of Raymond Felton.

You play anything else growing up?

“Baseball,” Felton said. “I was better at baseball than I was at basketball. I just didn’t love it.”

Yep, in addition to once leading the state in interceptions, Felton also dominated on the diamond at Latta High in South Carolina. He played shortstop and pitcher before quitting after his sophomore year, and said that the Phillies offered him a minor-league tryout once he graduated high school.

By the way, how hard did you throw when you were 16?

“About 80,” Felton said.

Next up is Nicolas Batum, and the Frenchman’s initial response doesn’t surprise you.

“Soccer,” he said.

The second one does.

“And tennis,” added Batum, “I love that game.”

Nic hits up Roland Garros every summer to take in the French Open. He said he is pumped about heading back to the States after the Olympics this year so he can attend the U.S. Open.

He also is good friends with French tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose brother Enzo was one of Batum’s teammates in France. But from a pure fan’s perspective, soccer has long stood atop Batum’s sports podium.

Nic grew up with a poster of Zinedine Zidane in his room and joined his countrymen in a maniacal celebration when France won the 1998 World Cup. He added that he almost cried when Zidane was ejected in the 2006 World Cup final for headbutting Italy’s Marco Materazzi.

Still, despite his admiration for the game, Batum never assumed he had the talent to play soccer on a professional stage.

The same can’t be said about Wesley Matthews.

“If I stayed with soccer, I’d be playing for a Golden Ball right now,” said Matthews, referring to the trophy awarded to the World Cup’s Most Outstanding Player. “I really believe that.”

Matthews may have 20 feet of bravado trapped in a 6-foot-5 frame, but he did set the career soccer scoring record (69 goals, 35 assists) at Memorial High in Madison, Wis. Granted, his coach Ben Voss said he could have doubled his goal total if he could ever convert a breakaway, but perhaps that just speaks to his natural ability.

Matthews said his most memorable moment on the pitch came his senior year, just after his opponent had taken a one-goal lead with 11 seconds left in the match. That was when Matthews, upon receiving a pass from the center forward, rolled it past the goalkeeper to tie the game Memorial would eventually win.

“Longest 11 seconds of my life,” Matthews said.

Even so, that’s a pretty fast turnaround. But Nolan Smith had a teammate that could have done it faster.

Before enrolling in renowned basketball factory Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, Smith played on a traveling soccer team for nine years. Like his Blazers teammates, he eventually chose basketball, but decided to dabble in the beautiful game his senior of high school.

Ty Lawson, arguably the quickest player in the NBA, made the same decision.

A midfielder for Oak Hill’s soccer team, Smith essentially played 80 minutes of fetch with Lawson — lobbing the ball forward while Ty sprinted by the defense and bruised the back of the net.

Needless to say …

“We went undefeated,” said Smith.

The Blazer big men, understandably, figured out faster than most that hoops would be their most lucrative pursuit.

Marcus Camby played football as a child — even returned kicks — until the number of inches he was tall began closing in on the number of pounds he was heavy. LaMarcus Aldridge rocked an Emmitt Smith jersey when the Cowboys were collecting Super Bowl rings in the mid 1990s, but stopped wearing a helmet and pads by the age of 10.

It was always the hardwood for Joel Przybilla, Kurt Thomas and Elliot Williams. Jamal Crawford ran in a cross country meet once, but only because his basketball coach doubled as the cross country coach and forced him to do so. Luke Babbitt, meanwhile, pitched for his high school baseball team and quarterbacked an intramural football squad in college.

Which leaves us with one guy — Craig Smith, the Rhino himself.

For four years, the football coaches at Fairfax High in Los Angeles tried to lure Smith to the gridiron. They were never successful, but had to be salivating at his potential.

They were not alone.

One day, after a spring basketball practice his junior year, Smith sauntered out to the football field where a scout from UCLA was roaming the sidelines. Taken aback by Craig’s physical stature, he asked Smith to run a route.

“So I ran the route, caught the ball perfectly, and then they kind of offered me a scholarship or something,” Smith said. “I didn’t really want to do it, though.”

They kind of offered him a scholarship or something.

Still, can you imagine? Smith, 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, built like a dryer and possessing decent speed.

You get the feeling that if he played tight end, Rhino would have earned his nickname a lot earlier in life.

Matt Calkins is the Trail Blazers beat writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or email Follow on Twitter