WASHINGTON, D.C. – Iman Shumpert heard his name called and looked up from his locker. It was NBA star Carmelo Anthony, poking his head out of the New York Knicks’ showers.
“Shump, bring me that brown bag,” Anthony said, gesturing toward a toiletry kit in his locker.
Shumpert sprang out of his chair, grabbed his All-Star teammate’s bag and turned to toss it to him, but Anthony had already disappeared back into the showers. Turning to veteran Mike Bibby, Shumpert grinned and muttered, “That’s some rookie hazing right there. Not only do I have to get it for him, I’ve gotta bring it to him, too.”
Shumpert has been hearing his name called in a lot of unusual ways lately. This was Friday night, Jan. 6, after the Knicks called on Shumpert for 37 minutes of action off the bench in a narrow victory over the host Wizards. Two days prior, Shumpert sat on the Madison Square Garden bench nursing a cramp as calls of “We want Shum-pert!” rained down from the home crowd. And all this just six months after Knicks fans called out boos when Shumpert’s selection was announced at the NBA Draft in New Jersey.
“This is kind of an ‘I-told-you-so’ feeling,” Shumpert said. “The fans just didn’t know who I was. They booed Patrick Ewing in New York, and he’s one of the greats. New York just wants somebody that plays hard, and now they know that’s what I do.”
The city – and the Knicks coaching staff – have taken notice. Against the Wizards in just his third career game, Shumpert’s 11 points, seven assists and five steals overall helped spark the Knicks to a come-from-behind 99-96 win. After icing the game with a free throw with 3.7 seconds left, Shumpert was the first player approached by the throng of New York media. Did he think he might crack the starting lineup soon? Did it make him nervous to be getting so much playing time so soon?
Shumpert seemed taken aback by the question: “I don’t have a reason to be nervous. It’s just basketball. I’ve been wanting to be in the NBA all my life, and now I’m here. I don’t see a point in being nervous.”
‘Not a surprise to me that I’m here’
Shumpert’s early success, for which he was rewarded with his first career start on Jan. 7 (in only his fourth game), clearly comes as no shock to the former Chicago-area athlete. A native of suburban Oak Park neighboring the Austin community, Shumpert said the two biggest thrills so far have been his first paycheck – just a portion of his $1.5 million rookie salary. The second thrill was his first ride on the team plane – “It was so nice. I’m not used to that with the leg room and food and music,” he said.
Shumpert said he hasn’t made any extravagant purchases yet and is living in a hotel while looking for permanent housing. His best friend, former high school teammate Troy Aldridge, is moving to New York soon to be his assistant, Shumpert said, “to help me get my living situation in order and so I can focus on basketball.”
There are other signs of Oak Park and his former life, too. Shumpert, who played ball at Oak Park and River Forest High School, has an area-inspired tattoo on his left bicep. It’s a portion of the CTA’s Green Line – a star marking Oak Park’s Ridgeland Avenue, his stop. He got the tattoo to show people how close Oak Park really is to Chicago. He also keeps in contact with his former high school coaches, who plan to see him play in person when the Knicks face the Chicago Bulls March 12.
So perhaps as surprising as the central role Shumpert is taking on the Knicks is the manner in which he goes about his business. Recently described by the New York Times as an “improbably confident rookie guard,” Shumpert strolls through the locker room before the game like a veteran, singing along with the rap music blaring from his headphones. “Ball, son!” he barks at a ballboy during the pre-game shoot-around. Following the Jan. 6 win, he jokes with equipment managers and feigns frustration when the Knicks’ second big star, Amar’e Stoudemire, asks to borrow his hairbrush.
As for being intimidated as a 21-year-old rookie who was not supposed to be drafted in the first round, on a team with two superstars in the U.S.’s largest city Shumpert insists, “No, I’m not going to be like that. It’s not a surprise to me that I’m here. I’m not here for no reason. People don’t realize that. I worked hard to get here.”
The season is only a couple weeks old at this point, but it’s already been a roller-coaster for Shumpert. He missed four games after spraining his knee in the Knicks’ opener on Christmas Day – his parents made the trip from Oak Park to New York for the debut. In his first game back Shumpert went off for 18 points against Charlotte on Jan. 4, before suffering leg cramps, and this time the home crowd booed when he was taken out of the game.
Asked how it felt to be cheered by the very same fans who once shunned him, Shumpert said, matter-of-factly: “I wasn’t paying that much attention. It didn’t matter that much to me. I want to win and I want to play if I can. I wanted to get back out there but with the cramps I just couldn’t.”
While in Washington for the Wizards game, he was able to visit with his Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who is now at nearby George Mason. Hewitt had advised Shumpert to go back to school for his senior year – perhaps a thought shared by NBA watchers who doubted him – but Shumpert said that “seeing me now, [Hewitt’s] happy I made the decision I did.”
Though he is occasionally reminded of his rookie status by having to carry team bags on road trips, Shumpert’s stock has unquestionably risen. Though perceived as an unknown quantity on draft night, he’s no longer booed. Shumpert said he’s now recognized, and encouraged, around New York.
Fan now tell him, “‘keep playing hard, keep working hard – bring us a championship.’