It’s A Revival: Jamaal Tinsley

Via Flickr – Nutmeg, Nikita Awakumov

Sometimes we get a second chance to leave a first impression, an opportunity to turn around a career and life gone awry, set right wrongs and leave behind a patched if parceled legacy. Such is the story of Jamaal Tinsley, left for dead by the basketball world, exiled first to the bench, then banned from the arena, and finally forgotten by the NBA at large.

As was the case recalled here today by guest writer Sean O’Connor, Tinsley was always on the periphery, never the center-piece, but always a key cog in a chaotic life on and off the basketball court. Tinsley never gave up his love of the game and continued to ply his trade, seeking a second chance, a shot at redemption. That chance to leave another first impression, this time upon a new generation.

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The Indiana Pacers once decided that paying Jamaal Tinsley to stay away from the team was the best move they could make for the franchise.

 While getting paid millions of dollars to literally not do anything for a year seems like a dream for most people, for Jamaal Tinsley the above scenario represents rock bottom for his basketball career. Tinsley, at the time a highly paid and fairly productive player, carried so much baggage that the Pacers decided he wasn’t worth keeping him with the team, “exiling” him from the team and telling him to stay at home until they could get rid of him.

 The Pacers reached this conclusion through a series of incidents that occurred over the darkest times in franchise history, of which Tinsley was an integral part. The following is a timeline of Jamaal Tinsley’s career, along with notable events of some of his Pacer teammates, to understand exactly how the Pacers reached this decision, how Tinsley ended up sitting out a full season, and how Tinsley has been able to salvage his career in Utah.

 2001 NBA Draft – The Vancouver Grizzlies drafted Tinsley 27th overall and traded him to the Atlanta Hawks in a deal involving Pau Gasol and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The Hawks then traded Tinsley later on draft night to the Pacers. Tinsley, after being traded twice, would experience more whirlwind nights like this throughout his life and career going forward.

 2001-02 Season – Tinsley earns the starting point guard spot for the Pacers, starting 78 of 82 games for a Pacers team that made the playoffs. Tinsley finished 7th in the league in assists per game. The 78 games started and 80 games played to this day represent career-highs for Tinsley, whose production sadly would not improve much over his rookie campaign. He did, however, earn a spot on the All-Rookie 2nd Team for his efforts.

2003-06 Seasons – Tinsley missed games repeatedly for injuries, so often that he had to earn his starting job back upon his returns. He played no more than 53 games per season, but he was so important to the Pacers’ on-court success that he earned a contract that averaged over $6.5 million per season over 6 seasons.

 November 19, 2004 – The Malice at the Palace occurred. Tinsley was not among those suspended or majorly involved in the carnage, while teammates Metta World Peace, Stephen Jackson, and Jermaine O’Neal all served multiple-game suspensions. The former Ron Artest was suspended the entire season for the incident. The Malice marked the start of what was a major PR problem for the Pacers, as players from the team would eventually get involved in a series of incidents over the coming years, which includes (but is not limited to) Tinsley. This also marked the start of a breakup of a 61-win roster, one that seemed primed for a second consecutive championship run. The Pacers fell down in the standings without their star defender, and since this point the Pacers have yet to reach the Eastern Conference Finals again.

 January 25, 2006 – The Pacers traded Metta World Peace to the Sacramento Kings for Peja Stojakovic. This would be the first of three major trades designed to rid the team of its association with the Malice at the Palace.

October 4, 2006 – Tinsley (along with two teammates, including Marquis Daniels) was present when a car ran over his teammate, Stephen Jackson, outside of a strip club. Jackson then proceeded to fire bullets from a gun he legally owned. According to Jackson, in an interview with ESPN’s Chris Palmer, Jackson took out his gun when saw someone follow Tinsley out of the club, possibly looking to rob him.

 January 16, 2007 – The Pacers traded Jackson, among others, to the Golden State Warriors for a group headlined by Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy. Jackson eventually led the “We Believe” Warriors to the second round of the playoffs, while the Pacers missed the playoffs.

 February 6, 2007 – Tinsley, along with Marquis Daniels, got into a bar fight and were eventually arrested. According to the police report, Tinsley allegedly punched a bar manager and threatened to kill him. Both Daniels and Tinsley eventually had to serve 32 hours of community service in lieu of going to trial. This was the second major incident for Tinsley in less than six months.

2006-07 Season – Tinsley remained healthy for the most part, and while he struggled shooting the ball, he provided enough in other areas to be a solid contributor for what ended up being a disappointing Pacers team.

December 9, 2007 – Tinsley, along with a group of companions, was shot at late in the night following a gathering at an Indiana night club. The bullets did not hit Tinsley, but they struck Pacers equipment manager Joey Qatato, who was with Tinsley and who eventually sued him for $400,000. Tinsley was found not guilty in the civil suit after passing a polygraph test spurred on by an assumption that Tinsley had started the altercation, when he was in fact the victim of circumstances.

This marks the last major off-court incident Tinsley had as a Pacer, all in fewer than 1.5 years. He would eventually play out the season, playing more games than he had at any point since his second NBA season. At this point, following the incidents on-court and off-court, the Pacers felt they still had a PR problem even after trading World Peace. World Peace had maybe the worst moment of violence on an NBA court ever seen (with the only competition belonging to Kermit Washington), and the Pacers couldn’t condone that. But the off-court troubles, and their legal ramifications, eventually pushed the Pacers to blow up their core.

2007-08 Season – More of the same for the Pacers and Tinsley: injuries for Tinsley limited him to fewer than 40 games, and the Pacers disappointed again.

 July 9, 2008 – The Pacers traded Jermaine O’Neal to the Toronto Raptors. This trade did a number of things which ultimately changed Jamaal Tinsley’s life. For one, it represented the trade of the third and final majorly suspended player from the Palace brawl. O’Neal, aside from that one incident, had been seen as a fine, upstanding member of the NBA. Second, it brought T.J. Ford, a starting-quality point guard, onto the roster, providing a good excuse to bench Jamaal Tinsley.

 2008-09 Season – Aside from fan-favorite Jeff Foster, Tinsley was the only member of those maligned teams left on the roster. His large contract for multiple years and his injury history prevented him from being moved in a trade over the summer, but the Pacers wanted to move on. So while trying to find a trade partner, they sent Tinsley home. They “exiled” him from the team, which included taking him out of the media guide despite his being on the official roster, removing his belongings and his name plate from the Pacers locker room, and banning his presence at Pacers team facilities. Because he was not playing, his trade value dropped even further, and the Pacers were unable to complete a trade by the trade deadline. Eventually, the Union filed a grievance on Tinsley’s behalf, forcing the Pacers to buy Tinsley out during the 2009 summer.

 By not playing a year and having a bad reputation around the league, Tinsley went unsigned throughout the summer. At this point, Tinsley had been 31 and wasted maybe the last year of his athletic prime, but teams knew of his passing ability, and he figured to sign somewhere at some point during the season.

 November 14, 2009 – Tinsley signs with the Memphis Grizzlies, technically his second stint with the organization after being drafted by them eight years prior. He signed to essentially replace the disgruntled Allen Iverson as a point guard off the bench. He had a sub-par year by his standards, averaging career per-36 lows in practically every statistic. His performance left him unsigned and out of the league in 2010-11.

 November 3, 2011 – Tinsley declares for the D-League draft just before the deadline, and because of his history in the NBA is drafted first overall by the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers NBADL affiliate. He averaged 9.9 points and 7.6 assists per game in 8 games. Meanwhile, the Lakers are still looking for a decent backup point guard.

 December 10, 2011 – Tinsley becomes a D-League call-up by signing with the Utah Jazz. He would sign a one-year deal with a team option, which would be picked up after a solid season and eventually earning the backup point guard spot. The Jazz have since lauded him for his leadership role on a young team.

 Jamaal Tinsley, it seems, was more of a victim of circumstances than someone who looked for trouble. He couldn’t have been paired with a worse franchise for him than the Pacers – a team with an image problem after a nasty incident that did everything it could to break away from it. Combine that with the contract and the injuries, and Tinsley was robbed of his prime years. He went from leading a potential NBA finals team to getting injured, nearly losing his life, then sitting out some of the final years of his athletic prime. Some of this was his fault. Much of it was not.

 Tinsley could not have foreseen the brawl with fans happen. While he could have not partied late at night, that behavior isn’t out of the ordinary. He also didn’t look to get robbed or shot at, and by all accounts he was only a victim of the club incident and the shooting. Again, much of his image problem had more to do with his surroundings.

But now, in Utah, his image is well on its way to being restored. Since signing in Utah, he’s been a model citizen by all accounts, a “true professional” in the eyes of Utah’s head coach Tyrone Corbin, and a solid backup point guard for the Jazz. He’s been a source of stability for a young roster as part of a larger, stable organization, one unlike an Indiana Pacers organization in flux and looking to solve a major image problem. He has stayed healthy for the most part, too.

In a perfect world, it could have worked out better for Tinsley, whose value and career got derailed by staying at home for a full two years. But now he has a solid role for a solid team in a solid place. Maybe that’s what Jamaal Tinsley needed all along.

Sean O’Connor (@soconnor76) is a graduate student and a CPA-in-training in Philadelphia. He previously served as editor for The Sixer Sense and currently writes at various spots around the internet, most notably the general NBA blog Hoop City, where he hopes to profile more NBA comeback stories.

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• With a reputation earned as a tough defender for those stingy Pacers squads, Tinsley brings much needed perimeter defense to the Jazz. He is the point guard in three of Utah’s top four defensive units this season, minimum 20 minutes played

• Of Utah’s ten most-used lineups this season, Tinsley plays point in it’s best net offensive and defensive rating, 114.0 on offense and it’s best defensive lineup with an 85.6 DRtg, a net plus 28.4, alongside Gordon Hayward, Marvin Williams, Paul Millsap, and Al Jefferson, indicating that when Utah plays better perimeter defense it puts a lot less pressure on it’s big men to play late, scrambling anchor D

• Never known as a consistent shooter, Tinsley started the season 1-14 from the three point line, since shaking off the rust going 16 of his last 34

• Tinsley has a career assist percentage of 38.2% and, while clearly rusty in a rotation as a backup where head coach Ty Corbin has played Tinsley two games on and two off, with Earl Watson, a respectable career turnover percentage of 21.5%. Expect the career high 31.3% turnover rate to continue to dwindle, as it has all season long, as he continues to shake off the rust

• Tinsley shows not only quiet tenacity on defense, but also patience on offense, often finding the right man with the shot clock running dry, making the correct passes with smooth confidence, a necessity in many of the lineups of fresh young faces he often plays with in Utah

• While he’s logged minutes in ten NBA seasons, thanks to the Pacers, Tinsley has only 13,539 NBA miles on his legs, only about halfway to the typical decline of an NBA player’s numbers. Think Marcus Allen, whom most thought his career was finished with the Raiders, only to have him play several more years for Kansas City

• If he was qualified for minutes played, which he soon will be with starting point Mo Williams out indefinitely, Tinsley would currently be ninth in the NBA in assist percentage

• The Jazz are 4-1 this season when Jamaal Tinsley starts

With his mother as his inspiration, the Brooklyn, New York native has returned home each holiday season for the last nine years to give back to the less fortunate. You can learn more about what the Jamaal Tinsley Foundation does at his official website.

Jamaal Tinsley continues to be a pillar in the community, and although he is away from Indiana, he continues his toy drive yearly becoming ‘Santa Tinsley,’ providing over 200 kids with a Christmas party, gifts, clothes, and computers. Kids who maintained a good GPA were provided with coats and Thanksgiving during this past holiday, a blessing for children who now reside in the neighborhood where he grew up.

Kids were given tickets to the Utah Jazz at Brooklyn Nets game on December 18 at the new Barclays Center. “These kids need the guidance and help to get through tomorrow. I don’t mind being that extra push,” said Tinsley. “It was rough growing up for me during the holidays, so any extra help goes a long way,” Tinsley reminisces about spending Christmases at the old recreation center in his neighborhood.

Mel Mel the Abuser says, don’t forget to add some nutmeg to your eggnog this holiday season.

Special thanks to Jamel and Jamaal for the quotes and additional information included in this post. 

Seth Carstens