Rush shooting for second chance
By Conrad Brunner
| Oct. 8, 2007
A sweet shooting stroke got Kareem Rush his opportunity to return to the NBA. He must prove more than a one-trick pony, however, to take full advantage.
Out of the league since being unceremoniously released by the Charlotte Bobcats late in the 2005-06 season, Rush is trying to rebuild his career with the Pacers. After spending last season with a team in Lithuania, the 27-year-old signed a one-year contract with Indiana.
He admits the experience overseas brought him some needed perspective and he has a much different mindset now than when he first broke into the NBA as a first-round pick with the Lakers in 2002.
"Back then, I'd never been through a bunch of adversity," Rush said. "Things were given to me; I'd always been the star of the team or had a place on the team. Once it's taken away you start to value what you had a little bit more. Going overseas taught me a lot about my work ethic and trying to change what people perceive of me. That started in Charlotte and I think it was a little bit unfair what happened but it's in the past and I'm looking forward to the future."
Few coaches value the 3-point shot more than the Pacers' Jim O'Brien but Rush must show an all-around game, including a full commitment to defense, in order to get the minutes he needs to re-establish his value and secure a long-term NBA future.
"He's not a good shooter, he's a great shooter," O'Brien said. "And he knows that in order to get on the court – and this is the first thing I said to him before he ever signed, that we'd love to have him because he's a great shooter but there are no guarantees, because you are a great shooter that you're going to get X amount of playing time."
Though Rush missed practice time last week with a sore ankle, he has thus far impressed O'Brien with his approach because he has demonstrated the hunger necessary to earn his way back into the league.
"I don't remember him ever being in better condition than this," said the coach. "He knows how much I like the three; he also knows he's not going to get out on the court unless he can defend at a high level. I think that would instill a hunger in me, if I wanted to be in the league for a long time.
"I think he has without a doubt the capabilities to do whatever is asked of him at a very high level. I told him my goal for him would be at the end of this year for us to be worried about how we're going to keep him. That would be my best wish and hopefully it'll turn out that way."
Rush still is baffled by the circumstances that led to his departure in Charlotte. He averaged a career-best 10.1 points in 47 games with the Bobcats, including a career-high 35 (on 12-of-15 shooting) against the Pacers but was released on April 1, 2006, with just a handful of games remaining. The press release announcing the move included an unusually harsh statement from then-General Manager and Coach Bernie Bickerstaff: "The Bobcats are about two things – hard work and maximum effort. With that in mind, we think that it is best to go in a different direction with Kareem.”
Though Phil Jackson, Rush's former coach with the Lakers, came to the player's defense by calling the move "vindictive," the damage was done. A once-promising career was suddenly teetering on the brink of extinction.
"At least an intervention would've been good," Rush said. "Sit me down and say, 'Kareem, you're not doing something right and if something doesn't happen we're going to have to make a move.' But there were nine games to go in the season. All he had to do was put me on the I.R. (injured reserve) and let me finish out my contract. They still had to pay me. They weren't making the playoffs. They weren't picking up anybody. He just wanted to embarrass me as much as he could and make me look as bad as he possibly could, which, in turn, made it tougher for me to get a contract that next summer.
"Teams were hesitant to take a look at me because they were wondering, what could I have possibly done with nine games to go for him to waive me like that? If you look all through my career, I've never had any problems. My coaches never said I had problems. Phil (Jackson) stood up for me and so did Mitch (Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager). That all was quite bizarre but I persevered and stayed hungry and I'm back now."
Invited to Seattle's training camp last year, Rush tore a groin muscle on the first day of practice and re-aggravated it when he tried to come back. With the Sonics unable to wait for him to heal because of a pressing need in the frontcourt, Rush was released. Thus began his Baltic League career.
"I didn't get the chance to show (the Sonics) anything and they had to make a move," Rush said. "When I got healthy, instead of waiting around for a team to call me, I went overseas to keep myself in shape, make some money, get a chance to play and get that hunger back, get back that offensive mentality I had in college. It ended up being a tremendous benefit for me."
Rush was MVP of the Lithuanian Basketball League All-Star Game as well as the Baltic League Final 4 after leading his Lietvos Rytus team to the title.
Though the team was a success, the experience was something he'd rather not have to go through again.
"I don't like having beer bottles (thrown) and all kinds of crazy fans heckling and trying to kill us when we're beating a team on their homecourt," he said. "I don't like catching eight flights to get to one place. I don't like having roommates, grown men, sleeping on little-bitty beds close together. I don't like the food; I'm a picky eater so that was tough to swallow. There were just a lot of things I wasn't accustomed to. Being back, I took all these things for granted. I'm going to focus and work hard so that never happens to me again."
There is plenty of competition for playing time at shooting guard, with Mike Dunleavy expected to start and Marquis Daniels factoring in prominently. But on a roster thin on shooting, Rush has a talent in high demand. He knows, however, he'll have to do more. He'll not only need to play defense, but erase questions about his durability.
"I think everybody knows I can shoot but coach told me early on before training camp that if I do the little things it's going to be hard to get me off the court," Rush said. "I'm going to try to do everything they ask me to, play defense and be an integral part of the team.
"I feel like I'm a rookie again, getting my feet wet, getting back in the league again. I'm real excited about opening night. I'm excited about this training camp, showing this coaching staff that I belong in this league and hopefully I can earn some playing time. I'm just happy to be back."