When Joel Przybilla left the Gophers basketball program midway through his sophomore season and soon thereafter declared for the NBA draft, many believed that he was making a mistake.
Eleven years and more than $35 million later, those critics have been quieted, if not muted altogether.
Przybilla, known by many as the “Vanilla Gorilla,” makes no claims to being an elite NBA talent, but his ability to hang around in a league rife with high turn-over is, in its own way, impressive. In 10-plus NBA seasons, he averages just 4.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in 20.3 minutes per game, but will make more than $7 million this year.
“To stick in this league not being a superstar, you have to find your niche and he found it,” former Gophers teammate John-Blair “JB” Bickerstaff said.
Bickerstaff now serves as a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach, and when Przybilla’s Portland Trail Blazers came to town Monday to take on the Wolves, it was a reunion of old friends, despite Przybilla’s abrupt departure from the Gophers in the middle the 1999-2000 season.
“Everybody moved forward and we all accepted and love Joel, and still do,” Bickerstaff said. “Here we are 11 years later. I was in his wedding, he’ll be in my wedding, so we’re still great friends.
“When it comes to your friends, you’re going to stick by them. One hundred percent of his teammates stood behind him and still cheer for him when he comes to town.”
A bitter end
Following an impressive high school tenure in which he was twice selected as Minnesota’s Associated Press player of the year, once as a McDonald’s All-American and once as Minnesota’s prestigious Mr. Basketball, Przybilla’s Gophers career began in 1998 under the tutelage of then-head coach Clem Haskins. The Monticello, Minn. native said Haskins was always close with the Przybilla family and the former coach ultimately swayed the center’s decision to attend the University.
Przybilla said his top-five schools also included Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA.
In his freshman season under Haskins, Przybilla fell three blocks short of the all-time school record, 87.
But in 1999, Haskins resigned and admitted to paying members of the University’s academic counseling office to write papers and do other schoolwork for basketball players between 1994 and 1998. The coach that brought Przybilla to Minnesota was suddenly gone.
Dan Monson took over, and the relationship between Przybilla and his new coach quickly went south. Przybilla reportedly stopped attending classes and was suspended by Monson in the middle of the season.
The Gophers completed the season without their center, and Przybilla never played another game for Minnesota. He declared for the 2000 NBA draft and moved on from college.
An alleged tiff with Monson may have led to the decision, though Przybilla wouldn’t comment on it Monday, saying simply that there were “some side factors that went down behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t know about.
“It was just time for me to move on,” Przybilla said. “People ask me if I regret it. No, not a minute. I look back and I’m in my 11th year in the NBA. I met my beautiful wife [while playing] in Milwaukee and we’ve got two wonderful children. I couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s made me grow into the person I am today.
“Was it maybe a bad decision? Maybe. But I look back and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
A new beginning
The abrupt halt to his college career gave Przybilla the opportunity to enter the NBA draft early — some might argue prematurely.
Przybilla was selected ninth overall by the Houston Rockets and traded on draft night to the Milwaukee Bucks. He played more than three seasons there before the team traded to the Atlanta Hawks.
He said he entered free agency with no teams showing interest or faith in him — save for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They offered Przybilla a reported two-year, $3.35 million contract. When that expired, there were other teams interested in him, notably the soon-to-be NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, but Przybilla opted to remain loyal and reward the faith Portland originally had in him.
“I’ve been blessed. I came to an organization that gave me a chance and I’ve taken advantage of it. This city seems to embrace me and even the first couple years when we weren’t winning, if you work hard the city is going to reward you,” Przybilla said. “I’m not a flashy player, I don’t score a lot but I kind of do the dirty things.”
Those “dirty things” most recently resulted in a reported five-year, $32 million dollar deal signed with Portland in 2006.
An uncertain future
After suffering a knee injury last year, Przybilla is back on the floor but is admittedly still not fully healthy.
He will be a free agent after the season, and with an impending lockout in the NBA, there are few certainties in the future of his playing career.
Bickerstaff saw him play for parts of two years with the Gophers, and as an NBA coach, he knows a thing or two about evaluating talent.
“He’s a coveted center in this league,” Bickerstaff said. “If you called around the league and talked to teams about centers and veterans in this league, he’s one of those guys. He might not show up big in the box scores every night but what he does from a leadership standpoint and what he does on the defensive end of the floor, you don’t always see it in the stat sheet but teams need a guy like that to help win games.”
Whether he’s wanted — and whether he’s healthy enough to play — may prove inconsequential if the NBA Players’ Association and team owners can’t come to a collective bargaining agreement. If no deal can be struck, which appears increasingly likely, the owners will lock out the players for some or all of the 2011-12 season.
“I’m not going to continue playing this game for the money,” Przybilla said. “I want to be on a team that has a chance to win a championship. That’s something when I’m done playing that I could cherish.”