‘I’m fighting for every inch’: How P.J. Tucker found his place in the NBA

P.J. Tucker wasn’t interested in eating the goulash.

It was during the 2008-09 season, and Tucker was somewhere in the Ukraine, playing for BC Donetsk of the Ukrainian SuperLeague. Tucker, when presented with the central European staple, decided he’d rather have something else during the team meal.

“In Europe for team dinners, everybody eats the same,” said Chris Owens, Tucker’s teammate with BC Donetsk and fellow University of Texas product. “There’s no special orders. There might be [the choice of] chicken or steak, but you’re not getting custom meals.”

Tucker figured there had to be a McDonald’s nearby, but none close enough were open. Owens said Tucker resorted to all he could find for dinner, a few Snickers bars.

“The next day,” Owens said with a laugh, “we were on the bus, and he said, ‘Man, I would give $100 for a Chick-fil-A sandwich.'”

When he wasn’t searching for alternatives to team meals, he’d be hunting for high-end fashion.

“He would always go to the Gucci store when we went to [Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city],” Owens said. “He was always in the Louis Vuitton store.

“He would go to any kind of fashion store that was around, [but] he didn’t shop. He would study it. If there were some [fashionable] clothes, he was going to [go see] them.”

Tucker’s taste in clothing and sneakers — the flashier, the better — couldn’t be further from the working-class ethos he embodies on the court. Tucker has established himself as one of the NBA’s ultimate competitors and glue guys during stints with the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and now the Milwaukee Bucks, who acquired him before the March 25 trade deadline.

Tucker’s professional career has spanned 11 teams across three continents — each stop with a story to tell about the 36-year-old journeyman forward who’s playing on the NBA’s biggest stage for the first time.

But for every tale of Tucker’s elite-level fashion sense or fond memory of locker-room antics, there are twice as many about a near-legendary competitive streak that has allowed an undersized power forward to forge a decade-long NBA run.

The connector

After getting drafted in the second round by the Raptors in 2006, Tucker spent one season in the NBA — he played 83 total minutes for Toronto — before heading overseas. He then spent the next four years bouncing around various leagues in Europe, playing in Israel, the Ukraine, Greece and Italy with varying degrees of success.

Following a disappointing 2010-11 season that saw him split time between Greece and Italy, he came upon the radar of Brose Bamberg, a team in the German Bundesliga.

Tucker’s ability to factor into small-ball lineups — something that has translated to his NBA career — initially made him stand out to then-Bamberg head coach Chris Fleming and the team’s scouting staff.

But once he brought in Tucker, Fleming said what impressed him the most was the way Tucker brought the locker room together.

“We had a team with an old Serbian guy who didn’t speak particularly good English,” said Fleming, who is now an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, “and P.J. made a connection with him and had a great friendship with him.

“The U.S. players, the young German players, he had an ability to reach everybody.”

It’s a trait that stretches back to Tucker’s days at Texas. During Tucker’s freshman season in 2003, some players chose to attend the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game at the Texas State Fairgrounds in Dallas.

Not only did they show up, they also decided to make their presence felt at the Red River Rivalry game.

“We decided to wear ‘F— you, I’m from Texas’ shirts to the Texas-OU game,” said Royal Ivey, an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets who played with Tucker at Texas.

“That wasn’t a smart idea.”

“That’s what he does everywhere he goes. He leaves his fingerprints or his sneakerprints — some kind of prints — on that organization.”

Royal Ivey, on P.J. Tucker

This was before the days of smartphones, so no one caught any pictures of the players wandering around in their colorful clothes. But that didn’t stop word from getting back to longtime Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds, who instructed them to write an email apologizing to fans for their actions.

“[Tucker] talked me into wearing the shirt. I was like, ‘Man, what am I doing? I listened to him!'” Ivey said. “But he has that effect, man. Everybody is attracted to him because of his personality.”

It was also a big part of what appealed to the Bucks when they acquired him from Houston at March’s trade deadline to try to help Milwaukee finally break through and make the NBA Finals this season.

And it’s the same reason that so many players and coaches from his past are rooting so hard for him to get over the top and win a championship this year with the Bucks, who are down 2-1 to the Suns heading into Game 4 of the NBA Finals (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET on ABC).

“His laugh is one of those that, if I’m in a room and hear his laugh, I know who it is,” said Rick Barnes, Tucker’s head coach at Texas. “Guys love to be around him.”

The competitor

Tucker went toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant for virtually every second he was on the court during Milwaukee’s seven-game East finals marathon against the Nets.

Throughout the series, Tucker talked about the joy he took from trying to shut down one of the league’s all-time great scorers.

“It’s the playoffs, man,” Tucker said during that series. “I don’t know what people think. We dream about this our whole lives. You dream about being in the playoffs and guarding the best player in the world. Like, I’ll die out there.

“I’m living my dream. I’m not backing down from nothing. I’m fighting for every inch. I don’t understand all this little stuff. Me and Kevin fight every year. I’ve guarded him every year in the playoffs.”

But there may be no better example of Tucker’s drive than what he did in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. Tucker — playing hours after having root canals on three teeth he cracked during the Rockets’ loss in Game 6 — went 45 minutes, guarding Durant much of the time, and finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 4 steals.

“We missed those 27 3s in a row, but he got about 15 of them back with his relentlessness,” then-Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, exaggerating a bit on the eight offensive rebounds Tucker pulled down that night.

“He was doing everything just to keep us in the game until we hit some shots — which we never did — but he was single-handedly just keeping us in the game.

“All that stuff that is invaluable to trying to build a championship team. He was the best.”

That competitive streak stood out to the man who saw Tucker at the polar opposite end of the NBA pyramid, former Suns general manager Ryan McDonough.

Tucker finally made it back to the NBA in the 2012-13 season after winning the German league title with Bamberg the year before as well as being named an All-Star and winning MVP of the championship round.

But after he played in 79 games — and starting 45 of them — for the Suns that season, McDonough asked a then-28-year-old-Tucker to be part of Phoenix’s summer league team.

In a setting normally reserved for rookies and young players, Tucker was given what was essentially a glorified tryout, given that his deal for the following season wasn’t guaranteed. Tucker joined the team without complaint.

“He played hard all the way to the championship game,” McDonough said, “where we lost to Golden State and a young guy named Draymond Green.

“[Tucker] was the same guy you see in the playoffs now: setting hard screens, diving to the floor, crashing for rebounds.”

Tucker earned his roster spot with Phoenix and started 81 games for a 48-win team during the 2013-14 season, the high point of the franchise’s decade-long playoff drought. He then signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal to stay with the Suns.

The mentor

Tucker was a rare source of reliability for a Phoenix franchise that had four head coaches during his four-plus-season tenure and committed to a rebuilding plan midway through his time with the franchise. He refused to take games off, regardless of the many aches and pains he managed or the Suns’ spot in the standings.

“I’d ask our [trainers] about him, and P.J. would overhear me and say, ‘Of course I’m going to f—ing play!'” McDonough said. “We could be a mile from playoff contention and playing a bunch of teenage guys and losing a bunch of games. P.J. still wanted to play because he is the ultimate competitor.”

But Tucker’s longest-lasting impact on the Suns might have been mentoring the budding superstar who has them two wins from their first title: Devin Booker, who arrived before Tucker’s fourth season in Phoenix as an 18-year-old lottery pick.

“We all knew that he was going to be really good,” Tucker said of Booker. “Like, he wasn’t just good, he was really good. Being his teammate at that time and being the vet on the team, it was my job to make him better.”

As far as the Bucks’ 2021 title chances are concerned, maybe Tucker did too good a job.

“I saw them many times going through battles in the practice facility, talking s— to each other,” former Suns guard Leandro Barbosa said. “[Tucker is] such a great defensive player and a physical player. He took it to Devin Booker, and Devin Booker took it. I told him every time he went against P.J.: ‘If you can succeed against him, you will succeed against anyone.'”

That same mindset is how Tucker has made himself into such an essential part of winning during his time in the NBA. Whenever he steps on the court, his opponent knows they are in for a long night.

He’s brought that belief to the Bucks, who, after Sunday’s win, are now three victories from the ultimate prize and the ultimate validation of Tucker’s globe-trotting career. But regardless of how these NBA Finals shake out, it won’t change the way Tucker has impacted so many throughout his basketball journey.

“That’s what he does everywhere he goes. He leaves his fingerprints or his sneakerprints — some kind of prints — on that organization,” Ivey said.

“He’s one of those guys you don’t want to play against, but everybody wants a P.J. Tucker.”

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