In the wake of our Lakers’ brilliant 2009 NBA Championship campaign and subsequent selling of draft picks, the league has sprung full-force into the off-season: Jefferson to the Spurs, Foye and Miller to the Wizards, Crawford to the Hawks, and most recently, Shaq to the Cavs, are just some of the big trades that have gone down. Here at FB&G, there has been much discussion about free agency, mostly dedicated to the luxury tax, Lamar Odom, and Trevor Ariza. But as we all know, there are the three “other” free agents on our team: Shannon Brown, Josh Powell, and DJ Mbenga. The consensus amongst us fans at least is that Shannon Brown must be brought back as “Farmar-insurance,” but not much has been made about re-signing Powell or Mbenga. While neither is nearly as important as Odom or Ariza, each brings his own special niche to the team. Powell had a solid regular season, going from a bench-warmer playing only during garbage time, to a rotation player, his high point coming 3/11 in Houston, starting in the place of suspended Lamar Odom (for taking half a step off the bench during the “scuffle” in Portland), dropping in 17 points on 8-14 shooting and grabbing 9 rebounds in a narrow 102-96 Lakers victory, including a very un-Josh-Powell-esque two dunks (he still needs some serious dunking practice). DJ was in a similar situation, playing 3 minutes through the first 3 months of the season, then getting good minutes after Bynum’s injury, leading to a couple “volume scorer” comments from Stu Lantz. Both were called upon in the crucial Game 4 win in Orlando in which Pau, Lamar, and Andrew all picked up 2 fouls in the first quarter. While neither played spectacularly, both played well enough to keep the game close and eventually lead to Fisher’s soon-to-be-legendary 4.6 shot. Yes, compared to Kobe, Gasol, Odom, Ariza, and even Fisher, these two had marginal contributions at best and unnoticeable contributions at worst. Yes, letting either walk this summer probably wouldn’t crush our title hopes for next year. But, perhaps more important than their on-court contributions are their off-court stories. Each has come through his own adversity, taking a long hard journey to the NBA. Neither deserves our pity; simply being basketball players in the NBA for a couple years will earn them more money than some of us will earn in a lifetime. But they have certainly earned our empathy, not only as players, but as hard working individuals who have come through adversity to achieve their dreams of an NBA championship.
Josh Powell spent two years at N.C. State, earning All-Rookie Honors in 2001-02, and earning N.C. State’s Most-Improved Player Award the following year. Yet, most likely due to the staff-induced ball-hogging by Julius Hodge, Powell chose to leave N.C. State after only his second year of eligibility, entering the NBA Draft in 2003. After going undrafted, Powell was the No. 1 pick in the CBA draft, but instead chose to play overseas, taking him on a two year journey through Russia and Italy. After playing for Lokomotiv Rostov in the Russian Super League, Eurorida Scafati (now Harem Scafati) in the Italian Lega 2 (formerly Serie A2), and Pepsi Caserta (now Eldo Caserta) in the Italian League (formerly Serie A), Powell returned to the NBA, signing with the Dallas Mavericks before the start of the 2005-06 season (you don’t want to know how long it took me to look those up). Within short order, Powell was relegated to the D-League, playing for the Fort-Worth Flyers before being recalled by Dallas for their 2006 postseason run (and to think, if not for some suspect officiating and a massive team meltdown, Josh Powell could have two more rings than Lebron James). In the ensuing offseason, Powell was traded to the Indiana Pacers along with Darrell Armstrong and Rawle Marshall for two bags of chips (aka Anthony Johnson). Powell was summarily included in the Stephen Jackson trade, landing him in Golden State as an expiring contract. The following season, Powell signed with the Clippers (talk about desperation), only to be waived when the Clippers signed Marcus Camby in the off-season. Finally, almost by some miracle, he was signed by the Lakers, winning a championship while playing a crucial 8 minutes in the critical Game 4 of the Finals, all this after being told by one Patrick Ewing that he would never make the league. And now, he’s got one more ring than Ewing.
While Josh Powell’s story is one of perseverance, never quitting on his journey to achieve success in the NBA, DJ Mbenga’s is a story of strength and hope. Born Didier Ilunga-Mbenga, DJ was raised in the war-torn Zaire, officially known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which is almost as ironic as “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”). When President Mobutu Sese Seko was ousted by rebel forces led by Laurent-Desire Kabila (a Marxist, surprise!) with support from Rwanda and Uganda, DJ’s father, who worked for the former regime, was thrown into a political prison along with DJ and his brothers (for more information, Wikipedia “First Congo War.”). His father, who later died during imprisonment, negotiated the release of DJ and his brothers, who fled as refugees to Belgium (which draws on the rather sad point that DJ’s Laker teammates don’t know where he’s from, showing their ignorance on national television on Jimmy Kimmel). After being discovered by Belgian basketball player Willy Steveniers, DJ began playing for the Antwerp Diamond Giants in the Belgian Junior Youth League, the Spirou Gilly in the Belgian Second Division, then the Basket Groot Leuven and Spirou Charleroi in the Belgian First Division (I have no idea how to pronounce any of those). In 2004, DJ was signed by the Dallas Mavericks, a three year tenure that would include an ACL tear, going into the stands, and the same championship run enjoyed by Josh Powell (and to think, he could have two more rings than Lebron James). After a short sign-and-waive contract with the Warriors, DJ signed two consecutive 10-day contracts with the Lakers before inking a one-year deal in 2007-2008. DJ was re-signed this past fall, and we all know what happened after that. And yes, he also has one more ring than Patrick Ewing.
Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga are not stars, not by any stretch of the imagination. Neither of them are even solid contributors, both being relegated to mostly garbage minutes and the occasional 1st quarter cameo due to foul trouble for Bynum/Gasol/Odom. Yes, most of their value comes in practice, making Bynum and Gasol work(according to Mbenga, at least). But you can’t grow heart; you can’t practice effort, or get better at determination. You either have them or you don’t. Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga have heart, effort, and determination, not just in basketball, but in life. And that is a rare skill indeed.
PS: For the regulars, this is my first post here, so please, any constructive thoughts are welcomed and appreciated.