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From Virginia to Europe and football to basketball, Javonte Green’s journey remains unique

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Javonte Green wasn’t supposed to be in the NBA, anyway.

So how’s surgery and some delays going to stop the kid who was a star football player who decided he wanted to be a basketball player? The the big colleges and the NBA didn’t think he was worth the effort.

So he kept going when they doubted he could and made it back when they doubted he would.

The Bulls this week announced Green only continues to progress from January surgery with a status update in two weeks, thus making uncertain his return this season. But Javonte Green knows about defeating uncertainty and doubt. He’s only been doing it through rural Virginia, Spain, Italy, Germany and Summer League tryouts into a prominent role with the Bulls. That’s been derailed by injury this season. But Green never has lost sight of the destination.

“I knew my  journey was going to be different from others,” Green said in a recent interview. “I feel like everything I did in my journey made me stronger and more prepared to play in the NBA. Maybe I wasn’t ready coming out of college. Maybe the route I took was God’s plan to take me through all that to get my mind and body stronger and teach me how to play different styles of basketball. I feel that has helped me know my role for the NBA.

“I know what I’m on the team for and what I bring to the team,” said Green. “I’m here to do my job, be here for my teammates, do whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do it regardless if I’m starting or coming off the bench. I knew I could play at this level. It’s just getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it.”

After getting minimal playing time in Boston, Javonte Green has carved out a significant role for himself in Chicago, starting 45 games in 65 appearances in the 2021-22 season.

No matter what the critics and doubters say about the effervescent and popular Bulls forward, his recent inactivity neither keeping him away from the team or the joy he spreads with his infectious humor and humble demeanor.

“Great team guy,” says Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “Will do whatever is asked. He gives you great effort, is always ready starting or coming in off the bench. You can definitely feel his presence, his energy, his athleticism when he’s on the floor. He only has one gear. He just plays all out.”

The Chicago sports figure who has been compared to Lamar Jackson, the dynamic one-time NFL Most Valuable Player quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens.

Maybe Fields will get there, and the Chicago Bears hope he does. But Bulls forward Green was there. And many from his home state remain surprised that it’s the NBA and not the NFL for the Bulls super sub uber athlete. The Bulls have been grateful Green is in red and rooting for his recovery and return.

Not bad for the salary balancing throw-in from the midseason trade a few years back when the Bulls acquired Daniel Theis and Troy Brown Jr. It was the beginning of the big makeover for the Bulls when they acquired Nikola Vučević from the Orlando Magic in the primary trade and also said goodbye to former draft prospects Chandler Hutchison and Daniel Gafford. Hardly anyone then noticed the undrafted 27-year-old from wherever Radford College was and who played four years in Europe before catching on with the Boston Celtics after a Summer League tryout. The 6-5, 210-pound Green played about 13 minutes off the bench in Boston, scored a couple of baskets per game and barely reached 30 percent on threes. 

Everyone figured there was plenty of see-you-later in that.

But 45 starts later for the Bulls in the 2021-22 season and flying into the 2022-23 season with similar resolve with a nightly highlight dunk before he was sidelined, Green as much as anyone on the Bulls roster lived up to the nickname, “Woo.”

As in, “Woo, did you see that!”

Javonte Green finishes an angry slam.

Which has been a big reason why Green has been such a popular teammate and favorite of coaches. One of whom, especially, knew Javonte was an NBA player. Because he knew what they looked like from his own decade in the league. That was Bryant Stith, the Virginia prep legend who had a 10-year NBA career mostly with the Denver Nuggets, whom the Bulls play Wednesday, after being a lottery selection in the 1992 draft.

Stith returned home to Virginia after injuries prematurely ended his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2002. He dabbled in NASCAR ownership and agreed to help out his alma mater and coach the basketball team at Brunswick High School. They did pretty well, getting to the state finals four times. But they just couldn’t get over that bump in the title road. Until this kid Javonte helped vault them beyond.

“The high school had a rich basketball tradition going back three decades,” Stith said in an interview. “I took over in 2006 and went to four straight state championships. We lost all four, lost to Troy Daniels (seven years in the NBA), Ed Davis who played for the Utah Jazz. Javonte had a back injury when he was a junior, which is why we didn’t win the state championship. Senior year he was fully healthy and he was phenomenal. He was the best player in the state and led Brunswick to its fourth state championship and my first state championship.

“It was a joy watching Javonte grow from a young boy so full of potential to a young man brimming with brilliance,” said Stith, now an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “You could see his future was so bright. The only thing he needed was an opportunity to prove himself at the next level.

“Javonte was such an explosive athlete,” recalled Stith. “He was just able to dominate with athleticism, aggressiveness and his tenacity. He was the tip of the spear for us. He gave everybody in our program confidence because he was the fastest guy in the school, the highest jumping guy in the school, the most athletic person in school, a very passionate basketball player. He plays every possession like it was his last. His emotions were so contagious and spread to the rest of our team. That was the reason why we were able to win the state championship with him leading the way.

“He’s probably the most dynamic player to ever come through Brunswick High School,” said Stith, “and that included me.”

But pretty much everyone, including Javonte, doubted he’d be in the NBA. Because it seemed like he was going to be a star in the NFL. Even Javonte to this day, despite his love for basketball and lack of regret about choices he’s made, misses the football life.

It’s that way for gladiators. 

“I feel like I enjoyed playing football the most,” Javonte admits. “The preparation, getting ready for the game, putting on the gear, the pads in your pants. I miss putting that helmet on. I watch Sunday always. I think to myself, ‘I can do that,’ but I don’t need all the sacrifices for an NFL body you’ve got to go through. They go through a lot more than us with their training. But I do miss all that extra stuff you don’t do in basketball.”

Even, and perhaps especially, the contact. It’s also why Green has been so valuable and so missed for these Bulls. From defending Giannis and KD, there’s no backing down for the undersized forward who defines, if not fits, his NBA position of power forward.

“Everybody who saw Woo play football thought he was going to the next level to play college football,” says Stith. “Even me. Javonte was the Lamar Jackson of Virginia football. He was that dynamic on the football field. It’s why everybody thought it was a no brainer he wanted to play football in college. His heart was torn and he made a tough decision after having such a spectacular year on the basketball court, as well. I think it worked out just fine.”

Javonte Green shoots a three as Nuggets defender Michael Porter Jr. watches.

Although it wasn’t looking like it for a long time even as Javonte always said he never had regrets and never looked back even when it appeared his NBA dreams were extinguished.

“It came down to my mom’s and my aunt’s conversation,” Green recalled. “They knew how much I loved to play football, but by my junior year I had two herniated discs in my back. Mom was scared about that. She didn’t want that to be a problem in later life.”

So by the time Javonte was ready to commit to basketball, the recruiters had moved on. Everyone was sure he was going to quarterback in the split back veer triple option he was running in high school, an offense he likened to that of T.C. Williams High School in Virginia from the Remember the Titans movie.

“I was all-region, all-state,” Javonte recalled. “I was a running quarterback; maybe not Lamar Jackson, but we had the same tendencies. We liked to run. He probably threw a lot more than me, though.”

Which threw the recruiters for a loop.

“I told him, ‘I know you can be a tremendous football player at the next level, but I think you can be an even better basketball player,’” said Stith. “Javonte and his (family) said he wanted to pursue basketball at the next level. I was fortunate to play at that (NBA) level, but I saw all sorts of players go overseas, lottery picks, undrafted. My message to Javonte was, ‘Your path to glory is going to be different than mine. Embrace your journey and if you are willing to embrace your journey, there’s always a pot at the end of the rainbow. When Javonte made his decision after baseball season was over—he was an awesome center fielder as well and track star—most of the basketball scholarships had already dried up. Mike Jones (now head coach at UNC at Greensboro) had just gotten the job at Radford. He had one scholarship left.

“I was calling every coach, every school on the East Coast to see if anyone had scholarships available, if he could go somewhere without without going to prep school or JUCO,” Stith related. “Mike asked me why should he take Javonte at that late date, why anybody else didn’t recruit him. I explained the scenario and told him if he took a chance on Woo he would never regret it.”

No one at Radford has as Green’s jersey was retired last year. Green played four years at Radford in southwest Virginia and became the career leader in rebounds, steals, games played and second in scoring, three years all-league and Big South Defensive Player of the Year. Which was part of the issue for the NBA, Big South, little shot, what position, exactly?

Green tried to find the road to the NBA 5,000 miles away.

“There’s a lot of politics in the NBA,” said Green. “When I didn’t get drafted, I knew my journey was going to be different than everybody else’s. And I kind of liked that; no second thoughts. I always knew I was going to have other options in basketball. I knew they had the G-league, overseas. I knew I didn’t pick the wrong sport. By that time, I had the love of basketball, and that was the only thing on my mind.”

So off Green went east across the pond, as it were, for his tour of the continent. First it was Spain, and then Italy for two years with league MVPs and titles, and a shot with the Suns in Summer League. But as it happens to guys with Green’s history, the Suns didn’t exactly allow him in the games.

“Phoenix had four or five guys they drafted, (Deandre) Ayton, (Mikal) Bridges, a French guy (Elie Okobo), Davon Reed (and Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson),” Javonte recalled. “I knew the NBA by that time was a bunch of politics and I had to figure that out and my way around it. I knew the league was knocking on the door. I knew a bunch of scouts were coming to my practices overseas; I knew I was close.”

But a lot of kids who are close and should get there don’t. Because the kids keep coming from behind, and Green now was 25, starting to be considered old for the NBA.

The travel and the experiences had been enjoyable and eye opening for a kid rarely out of rural Virginia.

“Learning different cultures, the first time living by myself,” Green related. “I’d Face Time with my mom, my aunt, my daughter. I had one child at the time; now I have three. In Spain, I liked to sit by the water, clear my mind. Ate out a lot, but only had one American teammate and he had his wife with him. In Italy saw a lot of the country. You know, there were statutes and sites they said you needed to see. Got introduced to Italian food; changed my life. I just love Italian food. Stayed by the water there, too. Did that a lot.

“My fourth year was in Germany and I told my agent this would be my last try for the NBA,” Green admitted. “I was playing basketball year ‘round with training camps and overseas and I was missing time with my kids. The teams I was on were well balanced. You look at other Americans overseas and they have the ball in their hand all the time, shoot all the shots. That’s their role and what they get paid to do. The teams I was on didn’t have a guy to shoot all the shots, forcing stuff up. I feel that helped me be here.”

Finally Javonte did get a real chance with the Boston Celtics in Summer League in 2019 and in training camp. He nosed out former Bull and current Miami Heat guard Max Strus for the final roster spot, and then finally got some playing time when Gordon Hayward was injured again.

It’s all he ever asked for.

“Once he got that opportunity, I knew Javonte would be himself,” said Stith. “He was going to run fast, play hard and jump high, the formula for success ever since he stepped on the floor at Brunswick. He always has a positive outlook and he’s made the most of his opportunity. And to finally see him enjoy the fruits of his labors brought tears to my eyes because I knew where he had come from and how hard his journey was. He never made an excuse.”

And the 29-year-old Green isn’t making any now. The path to a return remains rocky, but he’s pushed past those obstacles before. His task may seem Sisyphean, but he’s gotten to the top before and plans to return.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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