It’s September at McNeese State University, and the sights of construction are all around the Health and Human Performance Education Complex. A crew hauls an oversized ladder, dust swirls inside the cement-floored tunnels and plastic drapes over a swath of seats. On the basketball court, another project is taking shape as the Houston Rockets gather for one of the first practices of this new season.
PJ Tucker joins a group of players stretching that includes James Harden and Chris Paul. A day earlier, Tucker had ripped into a younger player for not giving enough energy. The lack of effort offends Tucker to his core. He is all screens and rolls, dives and elbows and, increasingly these days, three-point shots. The scolding is a small moment now, just one of many in training camp. It can bloom in importance during the spring, when championship aspirations are at stake and one recounts the moments that establish a foundation.
“Honestly, I don’t know where we’d be without him,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey gushes. “He and Clint [Capela] really anchor our defense. More than any player outside of James and Chris, he sets that tone.”
On the court, Tucker alters his approach from game to game, matchup to matchup. His willingness to guard everyone from LeBron to Bogdan Bogdanovic and ability to keep defenses moving with his three-point shooting give Paul and Harden space to dance. Off the court, he and Harden are each another’s shadows. He’s been buddies with Carmelo Anthony since they were teenagers. His friendship with Paul predates puberty.
“We’ve got a bond,” Harden says. “It’s only been a year. I feel like I’ve been knowing him for a long time. Even before, when he was in Phoenix, I used to kill him. I used to hate him. I used to talk mad trash to him. But this past year has been great for both of us.”
Tucker, wearing a Nike T-shirt, eases into a chair at a long table inside his room at the team’s hotel. His fashion sense, which is gaining more attention, is muted after a training-camp practice. Enough red and white sneakers to fit a starting five rest on the table. He’s at ease now, able to consider the context of a career shaped by the labels he’s been given over the years—the good and the bad, the ones that you want and the ones you need to discard for the sake of a career. He has been tagged with both, while mostly remaining the same rugged, determined player. In Houston, he’s been given one that isn’t easy to quantify, but is easy to see: the glue guy.
Photo by Patrik Giardino. Styled by Paige Geran.
“You can’t give me a better description,” Tucker says. “It’s like All-Star. It’s like saying something like that to me. Because I can do everything. … There’s nobody I can’t guard. There’s nothing. There’s no ceiling.”
I used to kill him. I used to hate him. I used to talk mad trash to him. But this past year has been great for both of us.
— James Harden
Now in his eighth season, Tucker is that most coveted of assets, a multipositional player, able to switch on defense and stretch the floor on offense. It’s a role that has evolved over time in the league, and perhaps best manifested in Draymond Green, whom Tucker hopes to unseat from his championship perch this season.
“Nowadays, Draymond’s an All-Star,” Tucker says. “Think about that. He’s an All-Star. He would never be an All-Star in the early 2000s. Never. Never, and that’s no knock to him. It’s props, actually. It’s amazing to me, and I know the game evolves, but that’s a really short amount of time for something like that to change so much.”
Tucker knows this better than most, because he remembers when his type of game was overlooked by NBA decision-makers.
Tucker has always looked more like a football player than an NBA star.
“Am I here to recruit a basketball player or an offensive tackle?” former Texas coach Rick Barnes wondered aloud the first time he recruited Tucker.
Considering his upbringing, it was a fair question. Tucker’s father, nicknamed Pops (PJ comes from Pops Junior), was an Army veteran who demanded from the sidelines that PJ attack the game aggressively, that every rebound be his for the forceful taking.
Tucker and Paul made a pact as teenagers to attend college together, but that collapsed when Wake Forest had concerns that Tucker would not qualify academically. So he landed at Texas, where Barnes found a confidence in Tucker that few other players shared. But Barnes predicted that Tucker would need to develop his jumper to advance another level. Tucker replied that he could score inside at will.
“Which he pretty much could,” says Barnes, now Tennessee’s coach. “He was like a wolf. He wanted to eat. He wanted the ball, and he had those big, big mitts. And if you threw it to him, you thought when he caught it and he slapped it to his other hand, it was going to pop the ball.”
He shared the court with LaMarcus Aldridge, who was more of a traditional post presence. Yet, when Barnes felt Texas really needed to get the ball inside, he often fed Tucker. The plan worked. After his junior season, Tucker was a second-team All-American and the Big 12 Player of the Year. When a prospective freshman named Kevin Durant visited the Austin campus, however, Tucker felt his time at Texas had run its course.
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Tucker played host to the teenage Durant, who wanted to scrimmage against the Longhorns. Typically, though, varsity athletes didn’t play against recruits. Durant was insistent.
What does this guy need to go to school for? Tucker thought.
“We had all the guys come and even some of the [alums] that were in Europe came back and played, and he killed everybody,” Tucker says. “It was like he was in college and we were in high school. … I’m dead-ass serious, and we had dogs on our team back then.”
Barnes wanted Tucker to stay for another season and develop his jumper. Tucker debated returning, but with Durant leading a talented incoming class, he figured it was time to go pro.
Drafted 35th overall by the Raptors in 2006, Tucker found playing time scarce on a team that flexed a respectable roster and finished at 47-35. Forget about games. Even gaining practice reps was a struggle.
He stopped caring as much. During the down moments, he occasionally thought, You know what? Maybe this isn’t for me.
“You can be in the league and still feel like you’re not in the league,” Tucker says. “That was the point I was at when I left Toronto.”
He played 17 games with the Raptors, averaging 1.8 points in 83 total minutes while rotating through D-League stints. The Raptors waived Tucker when they needed a spot for a shooter.
Tucker was labeled a ‘tweener, not big enough to make a living in the paint, not quick enough to attack from the perimeter.
“There was nothing worse you could be than a tweener,” says Tucker, who is listed as 6’6″ and 245 pounds. “There was nothing worse you could be, and there were so many good guys that were so good that were tweeners, and they couldn’t make it. … And when you got that label, it was going to stick. It’s like getting branded.”
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
Tucker told his agent, Andre Buck, that he just wanted to play. Period. “Find me the best deal in Europe,” he said.
He had no idea how difficult it would eventually be, but the doubt left him. He told himself that he would go overseas, win championships and become the best basketball player he could. The NBA, be damned.
“I [focused] on what I was doing there … rather than trying to play to get back into the league,” Tucker says. “It’s kind of weird because you think it would go hand in hand. But it doesn’t, because when you’re trying to play to get back into the league, it’s I’m trying to get buckets. I’m trying to average this or do this and do that,” Tucker says. “But that’s not really what’s going to get you back in the league necessarily.”
Tucker’s overseas basketball sojourn began with Holon In Israel, where he was named league MVP and his club broke Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 14-year streak as Israeli champions. In Ukraine a year later, Tucker adapted to the culture shock of a league in which owners motivated players by offering bags of money before games and coaches took years off players’ careers by grinding them into the ground. In Greece, he thrived while playing a higher level of competition. In Italy, he played for a coach who called for aggressiveness every possession. In Puerto Rico, he learned how to be the guy whom the offense runs through, night in and night out. In Germany, he shared those offensive focal-point duties with Brian Roberts, who would also soon return to the NBA.
In his five years as a basketball tourist, he sharpened his three-point touch and, if he is honest with himself, felt like an NBA player again, even if he hardly ever watched the games of his friends back home.
Opportunities for a return, though, had already cruelly closed. The Cavaliers appeared open to signing Tucker before changing their minds. One summer, Buck says, a representative of the Grizzlies informed Tucker the franchise would sign him. Tucker called Buck excitedly. The offer never materialized. Teams claimed that a 27-year-old Tucker was too old, so he signed a deal with Spartak St. Petersburg of Russia.
“I was super comfortable to go back [to Europe],” Tucker says. “I was not even thinking about getting back in the league, that was so in the back of my mind.”
In 2012, the Phoenix Suns asked him to play in summer league. Buck begged him to accept the invite, having had the foresight to negotiate an NBA out with Spartak should an opportunity arise. This time, he pledged to Tucker, it would be different.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Tucker disliked forfeiting the guaranteed money overseas, but he finally agreed. I’m just gonna do it and make him shut up, he thought.
In Phoenix, Tucker stuck. The NBA had started evolving as Tucker established himself overseas. Tweeners, or multipositional players, as they have come to be called, were now coveted for their ability to defend as well as shoot from outside. Tucker had a role he could play. A partially guaranteed deal with the Suns later turned into a three-year contract in 2014.
“That’s the first time I seen him, like, happiness-cry, ever,” says Marq Bell, a lifelong friend. “He had a happiness cry.”
In their first season together, the pairing of Mike D’Antoni and Harden riveted the NBA. Cast into the role of point guard, Harden averaged a career-high 11.2 assists. But the combined responsibilities of playmaking and scoring in volume appeared to take their toll throughout a second-round playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs. The Raptors, meanwhile, facilitated a trade with the Suns that returned Tucker to Toronto. He appeared in the playoffs for the first time at the age of 32. But like Harden, his playoff run came to an end in the conference semifinals, where Cleveland bounced Toronto in four games.
That summer, Harden and Tucker ran into each other in Atlanta.
Tucker knew Harden through the Morris twins, his former teammates on the Suns, and, of course, through talking trash on the basketball court. The two did not share a deep relationship at that point. But that didn’t stop Harden from making his pitch for Tucker to join him.
“Yo, we’re coming to get you,” Harden vowed.
But for a while last summer, both Houston and Tucker looked elsewhere.
The Rockets targeted Andre Iguodala in an attempt to strengthen their team while weakening Golden State. Paul, recently acquired in a blockbuster trade, even participated in the recruiting.
Iguodala, however, stayed with the Warriors. Buck heard that Houston had moved on and was primed to land Iman Shumpert from Cleveland. Besides, Toronto wanted Tucker back and offered a three-year deal for $33 million.
Houston eventually came calling, but it offered less money for more years. The Raptors were asked to up their offer. Toronto balked, convincing Buck that Tucker should take the Houston offer.
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Still, Buck had second thoughts. He wanted to contact Toronto one more time.
Yet Tucker remained steadfast. He wanted to play in Houston.
“Dre, if you would’ve come to me when I was in Germany and told me that after Germany, I was going to end up making close to $50 million in the league and eventually sign for four years, $32 million, I would’ve fired you,” Tucker told him. “Because I would’ve been, like, ‘You lying.’ There’s no way that’s going to happen.”
Tucker heard from those around him that he was making a mistake to pass up the money, so much so that he started hanging up on people.
“I knew the situation I wanted to be in,” he says. “I wanted to have a chance to win a championship. For that to be my No. 1 priority, I’ve got to give up something. … So, for me, that wasn’t a question.”
The move paid off for both the Rockets and Tucker. Houston rolled to the best record in the league and worked the Warriors into facing a pair of do-or-die games in the Western Conference Finals. But when Paul fell awkwardly on a floater late in Houston’s Game 5 win, the series was essentially over. A strained hamstring forced him to miss the deciding two games of the series.
I wanted to have a chance to win a championship. For that to be my No. 1 priority, I’ve got to give up something.
— PJ Tucker
“For him to go down like that, I hurt as a friend. As my homeboy that I’d been knowing my whole life. I hurt like that. It wasn’t even, like, the series. It was deeper,” Tucker says. ” I couldn’t even talk to him, because it was so much deeper. Seeing him in the training room after the game, I couldn’t even say nothing to him. I didn’t even stop to say nothing. Because it was like I couldn’t look him in the face. It was like that. Because even if we lose, if he plays and we lose, then it is what it is. But that way?”
Tim Warner/Getty Images
Indeed, Tucker internalized the Rockets’ playoff demise. He’s haunted by the 17-point lead they blew in Game 6 as Durant, the former teenager he once hosted at Texas, almost single-handedly led the Warriors to victory. And he thinks back to the unique way D’Antoni tried to explain what happened in Game 7. The more complex the problem, the simpler D’Antoni’s solution.
“Fellas, we missed 27 in a row,” D’Antoni said. “That ain’t us. Wasn’t our night.”
On a team of extroverts, Tucker fits. Not because his personality screams for attention, but because he understands how to get his teammates’ attention without sending them into a corner shaking their heads in anger.
Perhaps, most notably, he does it with fashion.
In May, the New York Times ran a story detailing the playoff outfits of Harden and Tucker headlined: James Harden and P.J. Tucker: Name a More Iconic Fashion Playoff Duo.
The pair attended the fashion weeks in Milan and Paris this summer in between taking boxing lessons, playing at the Drew League in Los Angeles and training in Phoenix.
“We just be ourselves all the time,” Tucker says. “So much stuff today people think we set up and do—it’s just us being us. We don’t even think about it. We just do us. It’s all just having fun being ourselves.”
Shoes remain Tucker’s overwhelming passion. He is the league’s undisputed sneakerhead, an award bestowed upon him by his peers in the NBA Players Association voting. He estimated he spent $200,000 on sneakers in one season to Complex. And he’s played in everything from Air Jordan 13 Retro Low Chutneys from two decades ago to Nike Air Yeezy 2 Red Octobers.
“My early years in Phoenix, nobody talked about it. Like wearing all kinds of crazy stuff, because we’d lose. Nobody cared,” Tucker says.
Sites now document every shoe he wears.
“People want to call me out,” he says of some critics who argue he is not the NBA’s reputed shoe king. “Now, I’m like, ‘You know what? Y’all want [the crown], y’all gonna get it. I ain’t even started to flex yet.’ But I love it, though, because even now, look at LeBron. LeBron’s wearing different colorways every game now, different stuff. Bron never really did that all the time. Now Bron’s … getting into it. It’s good for basketball.”
And this fashion trail blazer plans to stay that way.
“There’s no pressure, because nobody can beat me,” Tucker insists. “They can’t. It’s impossible.”
Only a handful of selections from the 2006 draft remain in the NBA. Tucker’s college teammate, Aldridge, is the sole member of the first seven picks who is still playing. Tucker is one of the few still plugging away.
Photo by Patrik Giardino. Styled by Paige Geran.
The Rockets inserted Tucker into the starting lineup for Ryan Anderson in February last season and finished the year ranked seventh in team defense (and third overall in the 30 games Tucker started late in the season), per NBA.com. Tucker made 115 out of his 310 three-point attempts, up from 70 and 196 a season earlier.
“I’m not going to say I would’ve doubted it, because I know how hard he worked and how much he wants to be good,” says Tommy Moore, Tucker’s high school coach at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I know what I saw in practice every day. You kind of take it for granted a little bit, but now, looking back at it, he’s pretty special.”
Tucker can say that he did not care about an NBA return, that he found fulfillment in establishing himself overseas and providing for his family. Barnes isn’t buying it.
He thinks of the Tucker he had to push to get into shape, the player whose laugh he can recognize from across a court without seeing him, and he appreciates the road he took.
“Knowing the PJ Tucker I know, it was eating away at him, because the bottom line is, he knows that he belongs in that league,” Barnes says. “I would be hard pressed for you to get me to admit that he never stopped thinking, How am I going to work my way back? Even if he said it, I would argue with him about it, because I just know he’s too determined to settle for something where he knows he hasn’t given it his all.”
He’ll get another chance to do so at the league’s highest level again this season.
Both the Rockets and the Warriors made significant additions, Houston adding Anthony, while the Warriors signed DeMarcus Cousins.
“They got to make it work, just like we got to make it work,” Tucker says. “… The way [Cousins] plays is not like [their style], so they got to make that work.”
And if the teams are to meet again, the Warriors will likely go small when the game is on the line, and the Rockets will match them, thanks to Tucker’s versatility. “I’m a center now,” Tucker says, and he’s not joking. “I told them to change my label on my whole bio. I get to roam. I get to be the center of the defense.”
When he shares the floor with Paul, Harden, Anthony and Eric Gordon, Tucker calls it the team’s killer lineup. “It’s our, ‘What are you going to do? lineup'” he says.
Tucker remembers players arguing over positions as he grew up.
“No, no, no, no. I’m the 4. You’re the 3. I’m the 3. You’re the 4.”
“They don’t have a position,” Morey says. “They’re tweeners. Now, it’s literally, like, ‘He’s versatile. He’s multipositional. He can guard everybody.’ It’s been a big shift.”
The Rockets know.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.