Ex-Blazer helps rookies, veterans play the game of life
Work is pleasure for Darnell Valentine. For a decade now, the one-time Trail Blazer point guard has served as regional representative to the NBA Players Association, serving players and helping administer the league's annual rookie transition program.
'I would like to continue doing this forever,' says Valentine, 44, whose effervescent personality almost always bubbles to the surface. 'Why wouldn't I?'
The Wichita, Kan., native appreciates the job that keeps him close to the NBA and the game he loves. And he has developed a greater appreciation of life after what happened 6 1/2 years ago.
It was July 3, 1997: After playing basketball at RiverPlace Athletic Club, he returned to his Tigard home and began to feel back pain. The pain intensified to the point where he called his wife, Cindy, at her office. She took him to a hospital emergency room, where tests showed Valentine had suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Within 30 minutes of the analysis, he was in surgery.
For a while, life was touch and go.
'The doctor said it was 50-50 whether I would live or die,' Valentine says. 'It was shocking. You couldn't have told me I was that close to passing away. No way.
'They had to give me 20 units of blood. The thing that saved me was I was in such good shape, they could find where I had ruptured real quickly.'
Valentine, skin jaundiced while in the process of losing 20 pounds, spent a week in the hospital. His recuperation at home lasted another couple of weeks. Then he was back at it, feeling well and, remarkably, better for the experience.
'I wouldn't change one moment of all the pain and the sense of urgency,' Valentine says. 'It makes you realize what is important in life. I guarantee it is not how much you own or how much you have. It is the people around you who love you. That is the thing that matters, absolutely. That moment crystallized it all for me.'
Despite trade, Portland's home
Valentine appears a picture of health these days. He works out daily and has his 6-1 frame at about 190 pounds, what he weighed as a player. He has called the Portland area home since coming to the Trail Blazers as the 16th pick in the 1981 draft out of Kansas.
'Even after I was traded (to the L.A. Clippers in 1986), I kept a place here,' Valentine says. 'I didn't realize then that Portland would become my home, but the fans embrace you and you get comfortable with an area. It is really a great place to live. That is why so many Blazers stay here after they retire.'
Valentine spent the first 4 1/2 years of his nine-year NBA career in a Blazer uniform. He started most of that time under coach Jack Ramsay, averaging 9.8 points and 5.6 assists in 300 games.
'Portland was a great experience,' Valentine says. 'We had such a team of incredible guys. It was the first time I had even been to the Northwest and the veteran players embraced me with no ulterior motives. I remember Calvin Natt picking me up for practice, Jim Paxson sharing things about the team and the game with me. É It made me feel so welcome. And (director of player personnel) Stu Inman has this fatherly way about him that I always appreciated.'
In 1985, things went sour. The Blazers had two young point guards, Steve Colter and rookie Terry Porter, who both wanted to play.
'I was playing some pretty good ball and had been starting much of the season,' Valentine recalls. '(Coach) Jack Ramsay came to me one day in December and said, 'We are going to start Steve and play Terry.' I asked him what my role would be, and he said, 'Nothing. You can come to the games, but you are not going to play.' '
Hurt, Valentine left the team and sat at home for a month before the trade with the Clippers was consummated in January 1986.
'That was bittersweet at the end of my time in Portland,' he says. 'I didn't like the way things were handled before they traded me, but you move on. I can empathize with what some of the Blazer players are experiencing right now with the trades and all the rumors. You might just be a lame duck. You fear you are going, and you don't know where to. Those things are personal. They hurt.'
Valentine spent the next 4 1/2 seasons with L.A. and Cleveland before moving on to play 2 1/2 seasons of pro ball in Italy.
'Got some culture, made some money,' Valentine says. 'Italy was good for me.'
Lessons run the gamut
In 1994, a year after his retirement as a player, Valentine was hired by the NBA Players Association as part of a fledgling support staff that now includes five ex-players Ñ Valentine, Pervis Short, Tim McCormick, George Johnson and Roy Hinson. Each has a particular area of responsibility in addition to helping administer the overall program. Valentine helps educate players on health matters.
'It started with HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and the fallout from the Magic Johnson story,' Valentine says. 'Now we concentrate on relationships and a whole bunch of other issues.'
The player program staff divides up the NBA teams and conducts awareness meetings twice annually with each team. Each session lasts 1 1/2 hours and are mandatory for all players.
'We explore all the current issues that need to be covered,' Valentine says. 'This year we are concentrating on private banking to better manage the players' money. We are cautioning against identity theft, which has become a bigger risk, especially since these guys are high-profile athletes.'
The player program staff is in charge of the NBA's rookie transition program, an annual six-day affair that is mandatory for all draft picks in September. What gets covered?
'It's better to ask what is not covered,' Valentine says. 'Guys are in meetings from about 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Very intense. We talk about money, women, drugs, social etiquette, dealing with media, dealing with coaches and the front office. It is a lot to absorb, but the rookies are almost always receptive to it, because they want to be prepared for the lifestyle of the NBA.'
Players can be placed in three categories in terms of receptiveness to what the player program staff has to offer, Valentine says.
'No. 1 is rookies and young players, who are very open and receptive,' he says. 'No. 2 are players who have been in the league awhile. They usually have their own management team and people to confide in. No. 3 are players nearing the ends of their careers, knowing they will be on their own soon and wanting to take advantage of the resources we have to offer. They understand how important it is to renew the process before they retire.'
Valentine attends most Blazer games at the Rose Garden, visiting with players to see if he can be of service in any way.
'I try to gauge what is on the players' minds, what they might have questions about or problems with,' he says. 'Until there is a need, you don't hear often from players. We have to be kind of like a net, catching anything and everything.
'You have to be realistic about the impact you have with these guys. A lot of them don't need our services. The ones who do, we can help them or direct them to where they can get help. I wish they would have had a program like this when I was a player.'
Valentine says he counts his blessings. He has a job that keeps him inside the NBA circles. He and Cindy have a daughter, Tierra, a freshman cheerleader at Tualatin High, and a good home life. He has moved his mother, Rose, from Kansas to West Linn, where she lives in a retirement home.
And he has his health.
'I never want to forget that,' Valentine says. 'Every July 3, I have a little champagne with the family and toast to my little incident, and that I'm still here to appreciate what I have.'