Jon Teitel's Forgotten Legends: Washington State's James Donaldson (Part 1)

April 8th, 2012

In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Washington State great James Donaldson. After two seasons of limited playing time Donaldson would eventually become the school's all-time leading shot blocker, going on to play a long professional career in both the NBA and Europe. 

Jon Teitel: You were born in England but grew up in California. Why did your family make the move to the US?

James Donaldson: My dad was stationed at an Air Force base in England, and we ended up moving to the states a few years after I was born.

JT: You did not start playing basketball until late in high school. Why the late start, and how were you able to get up to speed so quickly?

JD: Physically I looked like an athlete, but I was never really into it mentally and emotionally. I was fortunate to come across some great mentors who showed me the way and took me under their wing. My two greatest mentors were Chuck Calhoun (my high school coach who saw the potential in me without intimidating me) and George Raveling (my coach at Washington State who allowed me to take my time to become a student-athlete).

JT: Despite not playing much during your first two years at Washington State, you averaged a double-double during each of your final two seasons and graduated as the school's all-time leading shot blocker. What changed between your sophomore and junior years, and what is the secret to blocking shots?

JD: Quite frankly, I was simply not good enough to play at first because I was so raw. Coach Raveling gave me two keys: one to the weight room and one to the gym. He told me that he could not hold my hand 24-7, and they ended up being the keys to my success as an athlete.

JT: In the summer of 1979 you were drafted in the 4th round by the defending champion Sonics (eight spots behind Bill Laimbeer), but spent your first professional season playing in Italy. What did it mean to you to be drafted into the NBA, and why did you decide to play abroad?

JD: It was the first of many dreams come true, as it showed that all of my hard work had paid off. The downside to being drafted by a championship-caliber team is that unless there is a lot of turnover, there will not be opportunities to get a lot of minutes. My agent convinced me that I would be able to improve my skills by taking a year-long detour, and he was right.

JT: In 1985 you led the league with 63.7 FG% (still one of the highest single-season performances in NBA history), and your career 57.1 FG% is seventh all-time. Do you feel like you were one of the best shooters in the history of the league, and what is your secret to shooting?

JD: I would not say I was a flat-out "shooter", but I wanted to be efficient with every shot I took. As a big guy, I was a lot closer to the basket than the guards, but every shot had a purpose. I did not throw up a lot of junk.

JT: In 1988 you were named an All-Star, but your West team ended up losing in Chicago (All-Star Game MVP Michael Jordan had 40 points in 29 minutes). What did it mean to you to be an All-Star?

JD: That entire weekend was like living a dream. I kept teasing folks from the Mavericks staff who were in Chicago about how they kept appearing in my dream! As an individual, it was the absolute pinnacle of my career. To be coached by Pat Riley, to be teammates with Magic, Kareem, Worthy, etc.

JT: Later that year you made the Western Conference Finals with Dallas, only to lose to the eventual champion Lakers in seven games. How close did you come to beating the Lakers, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards?

JD: We came so close, as we were one of the few teams that year who could play heads-up with the Lakers at every position (Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, etc.). The only difference is that we did not quite understand what it took to win, and the Lakers did. We were right there in the 4th quarter, but we let it slip away. We thought we would be back for years to come after that, but learned that the window can close on you very quickly.

JT: In 1989 you had a knee injury after playing at least 82 games in seven different seasons during your career. How frustrating was it to go from durable player to career-threatening injury?

JD: The knee injury kind of got me into the world of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

JT: In 1990 you established The Donaldson Clinic to provide physical therapy services to recovering athletes and others seeking enhanced mobility. Why did you go into the physical therapy business, and how is the business going these days?

JD: After eight months of having my own physical therapy sessions, I was able to get back into the NBA and play another 82-game season in the 1990-91 season. I was surrounded by a bunch of great trainers and therapists, and I just had a "light-bulb" moment where I realized that is what I wanted to do. We are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, which I am very proud of.

JT: After retiring from the NBA you spent several years playing in Spain, Italy and Greece. What did you learned from these experiences, and how did they compare to the NBA?

JD: I still enjoyed the game, especially not having the responsibility of having to carry a team on my shoulders as an All-Star. At age 40, nobody expected me to play 40 minutes a night, so I got to teach a lot of the younger guys and be a mentor to them. We won the title in June 2000 in Lugo, Spain. Confetti, champagne, the whole thing. It took 20 years of playing basketball to win my first-ever title, and it happened in my last-ever game.

JT: You also toured with the Harlem Globetrotters. What was your favorite part of being a Globetrotter, and did you ever lose a game with them?

JD: It was a lot of fun playing with the Globetrotters, but it took a while to grow into that role as I had taken basketball very seriously for the previous two decades. They practice every day to become great passers and dribblers, which people do not always realize. We never lost a single game!

JT: In 2009 you ran for mayor of Seattle. Why did you decide to run, and how close did you come to winning?

JD: I heard a great quote the other day: "the price of not getting involved is way too high." I am a doer who likes to get involved, and I felt compelled to become a political candidate rather than just sit on boards and committees and talk about the issues. I finished 4th out of eight candidates, and we got our incumbent mayor voted out, so I feel like I had an impact. I think politics is one of the best ways you can make a difference.

JT: Earlier this year you were elected as a board member for the NBA Retired Players Association. What do you do for them, and how do you like it so far?

JD: It has become one of my greatest passions, as we help retired players make the transition from pro athlete to everyday citizen. Two of the most eye-popping statistics are that only 20% of our retired players have a college degree (which really bothers me) and that 80% go through a divorce within five years after retirement. We put together internships and externships with major corporations, help the players get online degrees, etc. It is a brotherhood that I really love being a part of.

JT: You wrote a book called "Standing Above the Crowd". What is it about, and why did you write it?

JD: The book came out in October. It is comprised of inspirational and motivational stories from my different careers as a basketball player, business owner and community leader. I try to help people navigate the ups and downs, teach them the value of education/mentoring, and discuss the great coaches I had.

JT: When people look back on your career, what do you want them to remember the most?

JD: I am a man of strong faith and conviction, so if I can be called a "good and faithful servant" who stayed positive and was an example for many I would be satisfied with that.

Donaldson is also on Jon's list of the best pro players in Pac-12 history.

Arizona: Gilbert Arenas (2002)
Arizona State: Fat Lever (1983)
California: Jason Kidd (1995)
Colorado: Chauncey Billups (1998)
Oregon: Terrell Brandon (1992)
Oregon State: Gary Payton (1991)
Stanford: George Yardley (1954)
UCLA: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970)
USC: Gus Williams (1976)
Utah: Tom Chambers (1982)
Washington: Brandon Roy (2007)
Washington State: James Donaldson (1981)