For all of his life, Raymond Felton’s never been a tattoo guy.
Jermichael Wright, his best friend, makes a living in the world of ink design as an artist with his own shop.
Together at Latta High School in South Carolina, the two won back-to-back state championships in 2001 and 2002. With career averages of 39 points, 9.1 rebounds 8.9 assists and 5.6 steals per game, Felton led the Vikings to a 104-9 record over four seasons and earned the Naismith Prep award his senior year among future household names, including upstart junior LeBron James, before making a memorable run at the University of North Carolina.
But it wasn’t the accolades and personal accomplishments that stuck with Felton; it was the message he and Wright lived by that made it possible — GBMS, the very phrase the longtime NBA veteran had tattooed on his right arm this past year.
“It means God Bless My Success,” Felton told Basketball Insiders in an exclusive phone interview. “It’s an everyday thing for me. Every dang day.”
One week ago today marked a full year since Felton became a free agent. Following a two-season stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he didn’t end up signing with a team. It’s the first time that the recently-turned 36-year-old hasn’t played professionally since entering the Association in 2005.
That’s quite an adjustment for somebody who’s been around hoops his entire life; however, his everyday regimen hasn’t really changed. Felton is not done with the game yet. Still residing in Oklahoma City, he’s been training, staying in shape and, most importantly, maintaining a healthy diet as he gets older.
“It was tough, mentally, not being able to do something that you love to do and have a passion for,” Felton said of missing the action. “I love basketball. I’d do it even if I wasn’t getting paid to do it. But me, understanding that I’m 36 and getting towards the end of my career, I just didn’t want it to end like that. So that’s why I’m not retiring.
“I feel like I can still play. If I get to the point where I feel like I can’t move the way I used to, then that’s letting me know that it’s time for me to let it go. Even if I’ve got to go across the world, I’m going to play basketball for another two years to satisfy myself and how I want to end it.”
This past spring, erroneous reports surfaced that Felton was signing with Czech Republic Second Division club GBA Jindrichuv Hradec to continue his playing career. So what happened?
Felton spoke with a trainer for the team, who happens to be a friend of his from North Carolina. The trainer tried to persuade him to come overseas and join them for a tournament, so Felton did some research out of curiosity. It didn’t go far. He was offered money and had a conversation with the general manager of the club, but terms were never agreed upon, nor close to agreed upon. In fact, his agent didn’t even speak with the team’s management.
“I started getting all kinds of phone calls from people saying, ‘Hey man, you signed with the Czech Republic and you can’t even go to the Czech Republic,’” Felton said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m at home. I’m not going anywhere.’ I don’t know. It was just a big mix-up with that.”
The closest Felton came to playing was last summer. He was working out with the Houston Rockets frequently and felt the organization would offer him a contract. They didn’t even invite him to training camp in the fall. Ideally, Felton would love to pick up where he left off in the NBA with a team that values his presence.
“I still feel like I’ve got a lot that I can offer, but you know how that goes sometimes in the league now. They want to go young. They want to do different things. It can be unfortunate sometimes.”
It’s not the first time that Felton’s been on the wrong side of lady luck. After four losing seasons with the then-named Charlotte Bobcats, the team made the playoffs and appeared to be set on a franchise turnaround; it didn’t work out the way he thought it would.
Felton went on to sign with the New York Knicks in the summer of 2010, a move that turned out to be outstanding for both the team and himself. Through 54 games, Felton was averaging career-bests in points (17.1), assists (9) and free throw percentage (86.7), all in over 38 minutes per contest.
Led by All-Star big man Amar’e Stoudemire, young talents like Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and promising rookies — Landry Fields and Timofey Mozgov — the Knicks were in the middle of the playoff pack with a 28-26 record and things were looking up in The Big Apple.
On the other hand, the organization had an opportunity to strike gold with a hometown superstar, Carmelo Anthony, aching to play for New York. The Knicks went with the latter option and made a blockbuster three-way trade to acquire ‘Melo from the Denver Nuggets. Felton, along with several key contributors and young talents, was made expendable. It’s a scenario that begs the question: “What if?”
“I’ve got the same question you got,” Felton chuckled. “’What if? What if y’all just waited?’ ‘Melo was gonna come anyway. He was gonna come anyway in free agency that summer. Just like…I don’t know man. To me, that team was special and I thought it could’ve been really special. I would like to have seen what we could’ve done, but that’s how the league goes sometimes.”
After finishing the year out with the Nuggets, Felton was dealt yet again to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent one short season thanks to a lockout. He returned to New York in the 2012 offseason via another trade and ultimately played with the man he was moved for. Under new head Mike Woodson and alongside new teammates, Felton was a part of the best Knicks team since the late ‘90s. Felton thought that group had a “big chance” at a title, and despite a series loss to the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the postseason, it was a great year.
Following his second go-round with New York, Felton bounced around with three teams over five years. When the Knicks sent him to the Dallas Mavericks in June 2014, an injury forced him out of the rotation his first season there. In spite of receiving DNPs for the first time in his career, he credits Rick Carlisle for being upfront with him about his initial role. Felton worked his tail off to earn a spot the next season and did so; he gave key performances for the team in the playoffs. Again, he assumed he’d sign back with the Mavericks when his contract expired, but it fell through the cracks.
So his next decision was signing with the Los Angeles Clippers to back up Chris Paul. It wasn’t a bad call, as Felton received over 20 minutes of playing time per night over 80 games (plus the playoffs). Even in his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder the following year, Felton had a consistent role and appeared in every game. He re-signed with them two summers ago thinking he’d have the same duty. That didn’t happen.
“I had already signed back as a free agent,” Felton explained. “Then [OKC] made that trade later in the summer when they got rid of ‘Melo to go to Atlanta and then they got Dennis Schroder over there. Then they kinda just basically told me that they were gonna play him as the backup point guard. And it was just like, well, okay, kinda wish I would’ve known that going into free agency before I signed back.”
No hard feelings from Felton, though. He made great friends in his Thunder days and still keeps in touch with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Schroder, the young guard that overtook his former role.
He’s learned the way the league works and the unlucky breaks that come with being a part of it, firmly believing that the ability to adapt is the only path to longevity.
It was as recent as the 2019 NBA Playoffs where Felton showed his abilities in spurts, most notably a quick stint in Game 4 between the Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. He scored eight points in rapid fashion and ignited a run that spurred the Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd into a frenzy, a moment he felt showed teams, and the world, that he hasn’t lost a step.
Felton isn’t lost of confidence, and he won’t ever be. He knows he can impact winning — shooting, defense, being a floor general — in whatever amount of minutes are given to him, as well as in a mentorship role.
“You get put in a situation where a lot of teams who are winning teams or are veteran teams that kinda already have their team set, and me going to a young team would basically be another coach, a player-coach. So you go into a situation like that and you already know you’re not gonna be playing ’cause they’re rebuilding. They’re trying to handle their young guys.
“And I’m to the point now where I just want to be around the game. I’m willing to do that. I’m willing to be a player-coach to help young guys and help them develop their skills and help them learn the game, mentally. Because pretty much everybody has the physical attributes, but a lot of them miss the mental part of it that’s really important about being an NBA player. So I’m willing to be able to help in that aspect and still just be ready if my number is called.”
If you’re expecting to see Felton in an NBA uniform anytime soon, it probably won’t be during the league’s restart this month. Like many, he has concerns with the bubble environment at the World of Disney in Orlando. From who he’s spoken to, there have been “iffy” feelings toward the plan itself. Between the surge of coronavirus cases in Florida and the fight against racial injustice and police brutality, Felton isn’t sure if the players will be there from a mental standpoint.
“I kinda wish they would’ve just like canceled the season, just really cancel it and just focus on the draft and focus on that upcoming season and just let this one go,” Felton said. “And I know it’s never been done; it’s been a long time since that ever happened, but it’s been a long time since the world’s been dealing with what we’ve been dealing with right now, too.
“Even the guys who feel the way I feel, we miss the game too. I miss it like crazy. I ain’t played in a whole year, so I would love to go play. I would love that, but not to risk getting sick or risk my life or risk something happening to my kids or my family. Nah, it’s just…not to finish a season. (If) we talkin’ about starting up a whole new season, then okay, that’s a different story. But to like finish and do this format that they’re trying out right now, nah. Not in my opinion. That’s my opinion, but not everybody feels that way, so.”
Despite his feelings on the comeback itself, Felton does feel his friends and players across the league will use their platform in a positive manner to affect change. He shared poignant thoughts on the issues happening in our country and our world.
“Anything can help at this point,” Felton said. “What we’re dealing with right now is just something that just needs to stop. It ain’t no racial thing. It ain’t no blacks against whites. It ain’t that. It’s just that these cops, these bad cops — ’cause not all cops are bad, I will say that; I have cop friends — but the ones who are doing something that other cops need to step up and make a stand and say, ‘Look, this is not how we’re supposed to do things.’ You know, you’re not supposed to put your knee down on that man’s neck for that long and they end up passing out and dying. You’re not supposed to shoot a man because they’re running away from you and you shoot ’em in their back. It’s just too many instances where these things are happening, and it’s just like, it’s got to stop.
“And I’m glad that everybody’s protesting and doing the things they’re doing because it’s like…these things are happening, but nobody’s doing nothing about it. It’s getting brushed up under the rug, and it’s like, no. Enough is enough. We tired. We done. We done with this. I shouldn’t have to answer a question to my son asking me like, ‘Daddy I’m scared. Daddy, I’m scared to be black.’ And it’s like, what? When I hear my kid say something like that, now I’m angry, now I’m mad. It’s just things that gotta stop man. We’re dealing with a lot in the world right now with the (coronavirus) and then all this stuff that’s going on with Black Lives Matter, too.
“It’s just tough times right now,” Felton continued. And I still feel like we’re all gonna get past this, we’re gonna get through this. Change is gonna happen because we’re gonna demand change. We’re gonna demand change. And then with the (coronavirus), it’s just something that we just gotta stay strong as a country and just wait this thing out, man. Just be safe and everybody keep practicing the things we need to practice — social distancing, hand sanitizer, keep your mask on, do the things you gotta do during these rough moments. It’s tough, man. These times like this, you just wanna be close to your family, close to your kids and just try to keep ’em safe. You know, it’s kinda hard to concentrate on basketball when there’s so much going on in the world that you can’t ignore.”
While Felton and Wright carry GBMS on in their respective lives, the two have envisioned starting up a clothing line together. Felton’s already got the shirts and sweatsuits, and people have always asked him about the apparel he wears. It’s a love that motivates him to go through with it down the line.
When asked about his future in basketball once his playing days are over, Felton seems unsure. He does know he wants to be around the game. Still, it’s not the time to talk about that right now. There’s unfinished business left to take care of in his eyes.
Felton’s path to this point has been filled with peaks and valleys. He’s had his fair share of moments at the top and at the bottom.
“I feel like you’ve got to make mistakes and do things in life in order to be a better person and learn how to be a better person and a better man in your life,” Felton said. “Whether it’s (as) a father, a husband or a teammate or a friend or a son or a whatever it is. You have to do some wrong in order to learn.
“So I don’t really know if I have too many regrets because I really can’t complain with my life. Yes, I’ve been through some things — I’ve been through some tough things off the court — but I’ve stayed focused, I’ve always kept God first and believed in God and believed that he’s gonna help me get through this. Mentally, physically, whatever. It’s always been that way. I’ve always gotten through everything that I’ve went through.”
Through it all, Felton wouldn’t change a thing about how he got here.