Fierce. Kind. Unsinkable.

After a turbulent summer, Draymond Green is ready to rediscover himself

By Chris Palmer

Illustration by Dadu Shin

October 21, 2016

Bleacher Report

It’s a simple question. Four little words.

But Draymond Green is struck silent. And quite easily so.

He stares ahead, then at the floor. Rocks back and forth. Fiddles with the drawstring on his shorts. Goes to speak. Stops.

Nearly 20 seconds pass. He is surprised by the fact he’s caught off guard.

“Aw, man,” is all his husky baritone offers. “Let me think.”

He sits on a folding chair at the far end of the Golden State Warriors’ downtown Oakland practice facility. It’s two hours after a spring practice and most of his teammates have already departed.

He repeats the question out loud. The words hang in the air. The silence confounds.

Who is Draymond Green?

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Draymond Green warms up with Team USA before a July 26, 2016, game against China at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

“Man, I guess…I mean…,” Green stammers. “What I’m trying to say is…”

He laughs nervously. Steels himself.

“OK, there’s the Draymond Green you see out on the floor,” he explains. “But that’s not me. I mean, it is, but there’s more. People see the fiery guy, the competitive guy, the trash talk and everything. But they don’t see the love and compassion. They don’t see the person. They don’t see the real me who values his friends and puts people first. I put everyone and everything before myself. That’s me.

“I could just give you a bunch of words,” Green continues, “but I want you to understand. People don’t see what’s underneath. At the end of the day, I care for you. It’s not just about how I am on the basketball court.

“I got real love for you,” he says. “That’s what allows my teammates to accept me.”

But Green’s tendency to operate on the razor’s edge has threatened to erode the goodwill his leadership and likability have earned him. His forgettable summer began with a leg to the groin of Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams in the Western Conference Finals, followed by a costly suspension in Game 5 of the NBA Finals for striking LeBron James in the same region.

A month later, he was arrested in East Lansing, Michigan, at 2:28 a.m. for slapping a Michigan State football player outside a restaurant. (Green agreed to a plea bargain and paid a $560 fine.)

Then he accidentally posted a Snapchat picture of his private parts during Team USA’s training camp before heading to the Rio Olympics, which began his tour of contrition.

“I’m human, and I make mistakes,” Green says. “I learned a lot about myself. And I wouldn’t change anything that happened this summer. It helped me grow as a person, and it helped me grow as a leader, and it’s helped me grow as a man. You learn from adversity more than anything because it allows you to see so much. It really allows you to see things in a different way.”

Self-reflection aside, the onus is on Green to walk a straight path lest he exhaust the remainder of his credibility as the vocal leader of a potentially historic dynasty.

“That’s life, and things do happen, but the thing is they can’t happen again because I am a leader, and I’m in a position of responsibility,” Green says.

“I’m going to still be me. That’s something that will never change.”

— Draymond Green

His remorse and willingness to be open with management about his difficulties have served to speed up the recovery process in the eyes of his teammates and coaches.

“He’s been upfront with us about everything,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr says. “He’s learned quite a bit this summer. We still rely on him for energy and leadership.

“He’s talked about taking the next step in terms of keeping his edge and not allowing it to spill over,” Kerr continues. “We’re not good when Draymond doesn’t play with that fire and energy, but he’s got to know where to draw the line.”

“The word that comes to mind is mercurial,” says Bruce Fraser, a Warriors assistant/player development coach. “He’s up and down. He’s emotional. Sometimes it can hurt or help him just like it can hurt or help our team. But you have to take the good with the bad.”

Green says he’ll make the necessary changes but won’t tone down his trademark intensity.

“I’m going to still be me,” he says. “That’s something that will never change.”

✦ ✦ ✦

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant hated each other from the start. The no-name rookie and the All-Star. Green was annoying as hell and wouldn’t shut up. Draymond's mom didn’t like Durant, either. She was as loud as her son. She yelled at the skinny enemy from the sidelines, too.

Draymond would push and shove Durant. He knew KD’s skill set was above his own. So he compensated by being loud. By being tough. By being Draymond.

They would cuss and bitch at each other.

The battles were fierce. KD was killing it. Draymond threw elbows. They had words after timeouts. They were not friends.

Durant was big on getting respect from his peers. He told Draymond he hadn’t proved anything yet.

“But I didn’t back down from him,” Green says. “At first I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’”

And then it happened. Slowly. They realized they liked each other.

They couldn’t know their heated opposition was a precursor to one of the most important friendships of their respective careers. It wasn’t hate—it was fun.

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Draymond Green and Kevin Durant of the USA men's national team stand on the court during a game against Nigeria on August 1, 2016, at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Getty Images)

KD needed approval. Day Day loved to bust balls. The yin to each other’s yang. The respect grew over time, especially over the summer when they played together on Team USA in the Olympics.

“I can’t tell you exactly when we became friends,” Green says, “but when it’s real and genuine, you can’t pinpoint it. The more time you spend with somebody, the more your relationship grows. I think we were together for 37 days this summer. I just realized, man, I like that dude because he’s a lot like me.”

Green was famously involved with Durant’s recruitment to Golden State, to the point of embarrassment about the dozens of texts he sent him during the first week of July. He got up early on the day of Durant’s announcement and shot him one last text for good measure.

During the Olympics, the pair spent most of their downtime on the team’s cruise-ship headquarters playing cards and talking about what they wanted to accomplish. Green said he would show Durant around the Bay Area.

In the preseason, the pair have taken to shooting contests after practice and dinner on off days.

But the official stamp on their friendship came at the expense of Durant when Green recently made fun of his premature balding on Snapchat.

“If Draymond kids, he cares,” says Fraser, the three-year assistant who is known for his strong relationships with his players. “Dray is such a good voice for Kevin on the floor. He’s constantly pumping him up and encouraging him. Kevin’s just trying to fit in, and it can be tough. There is a transition period no matter how good you are, and Draymond is making it as easy as possible on and off the floor.”

“Well, he’s passing him the ball and telling him to shoot,” Kerr says with a chuckle. “So that helps.”

✦ ✦ ✦

It all started because she sat in the wrong section. After arriving late to a game at Arthur Hill High, Mary Babers-Green, Draymond’s mom, was forced to sit in the visiting Saginaw High section. Draymond was still in middle school.

As always, Mary was the loudest voice in the gym. Her taunts and barbs were often punctuated by a deliciously wicked cackle and the occasional expletive. She cheered for Hill and rode the refs unmercifully. A brute sitting several rows up began jawing with the boisterous woman, telling her to pipe down.

But she only got louder. Because that’s what she does. She gave up a hundred pounds to the antagonizing teen but unabatedly proceeded to spew junk.

He began pelting her with Peanut M&M’s. She’d had enough.

“If you don’t stop throwing those things at me, I’m gonna drag you down the steps,” she said forcefully. Another zipped by.

“He has to be an assh--e because that's what his team needs.”

— Mary Babers-Green, Draymond's mother

Several police officers converged on Babers-Green, and a loud argument ensued. After several minutes, she was restrained, and four officers picked her up by her arms and legs and tossed her out of the gym. Protesting all the while, she said the elbows she landed more than made up for the public embarrassment.

“I got in a couple good shots,” she says. “Shoot, had to let them know. But to me, it was the funniest thing ever."

A role model was born.

Asked to describe her son’s personality, Babers-Green responds sarcastically: “Which one? Let’s see, how do I describe Draymond?”

She usually emphasizes the second syllable of her second son’s name—Dray-MOND.

Much like when her son faced the same question, the words easily escape her. “He’s that person that wants to be all things to all people,” Babers-Green says. “He wants to be a friend to everyone. That’s why it upsets me so much when they talk bad about him on social media, because they don’t know who Dray is.

“When he’s doing his job, he has to be an assh--e because that’s what his team needs. They need his fire because the Warriors don’t have any alpha males on the team. His attitude is ‘I can handle it,’ and he just wants to make sure you’re OK.”

But even Babers-Green has insisted Draymond learn to rein in his fiery nature—the one he inherited from her—if it comes at the expense of the team. She could do without the technical fouls.

“I hate it,” she says. “I hate it, but I understand. That’s where his passion goes too far. It’s like, ‘Dray, relax.’ The refs are there to do a job, but they don’t understand your passion. I’ve told him a hundred times, 'Just be quiet!'”

✦ ✦ ✦

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Draymond was raised in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Saginaw, Michigan, which locals affectionately dubbed The Nickel. The tiny three-bedroom house he shared with Babers-Green, older brother Torrian Harris and sister LaToya Babers was a hub of activity that buzzed with laughter and the drama of extended family and neighbors.

After his senior year in high school, in which he led Saginaw High to a 27-1 record and a Michigan Class A state championship and was named Fourth Team Parade All-American, Green started hanging out at all hours, going to clubs and getting in fights.

When Draymond got in trouble, his mom usually knew about it before he got home. His transgressions were usually kid stuff, but she knew how easily things could escalate. She quickly became fed up.

“We’re done with this, buddy,” she told him when he walked in the door one night after she waited up for him.

She had him enroll in summer school at Michigan State to get him out of Saginaw. Even gave him her Impala to sweeten the deal.

Soon, Green found his groove at the next level after butting heads with Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, managing to adjust his fiery nature in accordance with an unfamiliar system.

Green’s passion both aggrieved and excited Izzo.

He was a fireball of emotion in practice. He would scream. He would cuss. He would punt balls up to the concourse level. He’d knock over trash cans. He was a freshman.

He was particularly volatile when it came to the War Drill, a brutal five-on-five rebounding exercise few players looked forward to. But Green loved it. Five players on defense would position themselves inside the lane. The offense lined up along the three-point line. After a coach would intentionally miss a shot, the defense would fight to keep the offense out of the lane and secure the ball.

Green and white practice jerseys crashed together like front lines in an epic war movie. More often than not, the drill would lead to fights, which Izzo didn’t exactly discourage so long as nobody got hurt and there wasn’t an underlying cause other than the moment’s intensity.

Draymond was usually in the middle.

“He’d be getting in fistfights with guys,” Spartans teammate Austin Thornton says. “Seemed like there were brawls all the time. He’d get off a couple punches, end up wrestling on the ground. There were headlocks, torn jerseys, everything. But it was all about love and competition. It was never from a bad place. He never wanted to hurt anyone. He considered his teammates family.

“After practice, he’d be the first one to put his arm around you, then start making jokes. He knew when to be competitive and when to be supportive. But he went at it with just about everybody.”

Green would challenge his teammates on all things. After his junior year, Thornton invited a group of his teammates to hang out at the lake by his parents’ 30-acre ranch in Sand Lake, Michigan. They swam and rode Jet Skis.

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None of the players had ever ridden horses before when they set eyes on the Thorntons’ stable of quarter horses.

“I bet I’ll be the first one to get up on that horse and ride it by myself,” Green said to Michigan State teammate and now-Minnesota Timberwolves forward Adreian Payne, a burly power forward who had never seen a horse that close up before.

After getting acquainted with a mare named Stormy—16 hands high—and walking her around the enclosure, Green mounted the equine.

“It was the funniest thing to see,” Thornton says. “His feet almost touched the ground when he was riding. But that’s just Day Day.”

Green led the Spartans to three conference championships in four years and garnered Big Ten Player of the Year honors, along with a host of other awards after his senior season. None of them were more special than the Glue and Guts Award he picked up at the team banquet at the end of his last year. His teammates stood and cheered. Izzo’s heart burst.

✦ ✦ ✦

Wardell Stephen Curry II, the Brilliant Blur, is changing the game of basketball before our eyes. The awe-inspiring improvisation of step-back, no-look threes mocks defenses designed to thwart it. His wizardry with the basketball is pumped into living rooms and mobile devices and our new consciousness nightly.

But the man who sits directly across from Curry in the Warriors locker room, about a corner three away, is no less an agent of change.

The improbability of Green’s bewildering rise has yielded a cavalcade of praise and put him on a short list of second-rounders to sign a contract in excess of $80 million. His 2015-16 numbers—14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists a game—resulted in the most productive season in NBA history according to plus/minus statistics that measure how a team fares when a player is in and out of the lineup.

His career is a divine avoidance of the scrap heap. He is an underdog who, by the force of his will and contagious cult of personality—and constant study—has become one of the best players on the planet.

Curry pull-ups gloriously live forever on Vine. Klay Thompson’s perfect release gets raves from broadcasters. But Green dominating 7'1" Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert—pushing him five feet away from his comfort zone—swatting San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard’s shot at the rim while helping the helper and improbably stopping Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook at full tilt on the break wins games.

“He’s like our Energizer Bunny,” Curry says. “There’s days when you just don’t have it in games or practices, and he’s the one who picks us up. Sometimes your body is catching up to you and you’re just tired. But he has it every night and every practice.”

“In 10 years, when people ask these guys who's the best teammate they ever had, I want the answer to be Draymond Green.”

— Draymond Green

“He’s just so assertive,” new teammate David West says. “It’s the force of his personality. He’s always moving and always talking. He makes you bring it.”

He screams in the locker room. At Kerr. At opposing coaches. At Kevin Garnett. He rolls his eyes. He flexes. He throws up his hands. He imposes his will. He puts his arm around you. Tells you how proud he is. Tells you he loves you.

“It makes him a real person,” former Warriors center Festus Ezeli says. “He’s not just someone you work with—he’s someone you connect with.”

“As a human being, he has a high emotional quotient and is a loving soul,” Warriors co-owner Peter Guber says. “I learn from him every day. He cares. He feels. He’s kind.”

“In 10 years, when people ask these guys who’s the best teammate they ever had,” Green says, “I want the answer to be Draymond Green.”

Still, critics, loyalists and trolls battle over Green’s authenticity. He may be the most divisive player to never average 15 points.

Despite leading the NBA playoffs in technical fouls, skirmishes and war cries, ad campaigns for the products he endorses don’t play up his fiery persona. He appears in the NBA’s Lean In campaign, which endorses men’s support of women in both the home and the workplace.

Everything about his career feels accidental. Yet his timing is as impeccable as his fit is snug. Guber likens it to a movie.

“Draymond is Jack Nicholson in the original Batman,” says Guber, who has produced more than 40 movies. “He was the villain in a sense, but all the kids loved him. He was the most interesting character. He wasn’t the star of the picture, but he had a role to play and played it with such excitement. The movie depended on him. He was predictably unpredictable.”

✦ ✦ ✦

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Draymond Green reacts against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena on June 19, 2016, in Oakland, California. (Getty Images)

Draymond Jamal Green sits at his locker after the Warriors' Game 2 victory over a plucky Blazers squad in the second round of the NBA playoffs. There’s no rhyme or reason why Mary gave him the middle name Jamal.

“I just thought it sounded good,” Babers-Green says.

There’s no reason a Frankenstein of body parts and indifference and peculiarity and unreasonable enthusiasm should be one of the NBA’s best players.

And then you see it. The incongruence of Green’s awkward perfection.

It’s Mary. It’s Saginaw. It’s being too small and too fat. It’s being nobody. Combined, they transcend improbability and plant a flag. The underdog label fades with deliberate speed. Even if the words take time.

The pudgy kid made it.

It’s a complex question after all.

Who is Draymond Green?

“Look around this room,” he says after that playoff victory over the Blazers. “Look at these guys. This is why I do this. This is why I fight. This is why I love.”

Thompson sits quietly at his locker. Curry whispers to daughter Riley.

“Basketball is a perilous industry,” Guber says. “Fortunes wax and wane. Draymond’s intellectual curiosity will carry him far beyond this sport. He will continue to learn and grow. We are all in transition. We’re all learning from each other. I tell him the only thing I have in my life is my experiences. Everything else is rented.”

We are all in transition. This Mary knows.

“I can’t help him,” Babers-Green says as her voice lowers with the realization. “Not anymore. He’s a man now. This is the life he chose. This is his world. I can’t fly to California and make it all better. But I will always be his mom.”

And Draymond will always be her son.

Correction: This story has been updated to note Draymond Green's sisters Jordan and Gabby Davis did not live in the same house in Saginaw, Michigan, as Draymond when he was growing up. 

Chris Palmer is a senior writer at Bleacher Report. A former staff writer at ESPN, he has covered the NBA for 17 years. He is the author of five books, including The Sixth Man: A Season Inside the NBA Playground. He lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisPalmerNBA

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