Of the players lost this summer, only Spencer Hawes could be considered a man embedded in the heartstrings of a wide swath of Kings fans. (Kayte Christensen is not permitted in this discussion, largely due to State of California v. rbiegler, et al.) Andres Nocioni had his supporters, but they were lunatics or Argentines (or both). Ime Udoka spent but a season in Sacramento, and while his quiet toughness drew applause, his Pollardian jumpshot and teeth-chattering free throws did not. Dominic McGuire has been handled effectively. Thankfully, we were able to aptly remember Kenny Thomas as the season was in session; he would have left a week of mourning had his exit come during a down time.
Hawes is the one for whom every last person reading this site likely has strong emotions about. Many of those are negative. Others are regretful. Some are whimsical. I like the whimsical ones, like Spencer scoring 30 on the Lakers, and Spencer blocking Pau Gasol's shot, and Spencer wearing a Peaches t-shirt.
I first met Spencer at media day in 2007. He was 19. He looked 19. He was scrawny, and I absolutely mean that in the most perjorative sense possible. He wasn't an NBA player -- he didn't pass the eye test.
He was completely lost, a misshapen electron with no idea which nucleus he ought to be orbiting. I don't mean physically -- he followed his assigned PR flak dutifully, spoke to everyone graciously and handled his photo and video work quietly. Only in speaking to Spencer did you really sense how overwhelmingly vast this whole new world was for him.
That's something lost in the NBA transition: this is a much bigger world these young men are dealing with. In AAU and college, players do see places. It's not that horizons are expanded in an actual sense. Even the poorest, most challenged prospects get out of their neighborhoods plenty during recruiting and the ensuing season(s).
But those are all whirlwind, one-off experiences. An NBA career is persistent, a new life. It is not a series of sojourns dotting an otherwise mundane life. It is the sojourns, it is the mundane life, often all in one day. It is a lonely, lonely existence, especially for those prospects like Spencer who have been treated like royalty since adolescence.
You heard that in Spencer's voice in 2007. He had no guide in Sacramento, no fellow travelers. He had no nucleus to orbit, no purpose. Of course, he had been here only a few weeks at that point. But it seemed clear to me -- and maybe this is revisionist, I don't know -- he was not sure of this whole NBA thing.
Things improved, of course, and he became fast friends with Brad Miller as well as myriad Kings staffers. (Behind the scenes, it appears Hawes, while friendly and social with his teammates, always had closer relationships with team staff.) But the lack of comfort always remained. The revolving door of coaches certainly contributed. Constantly changing expectations. The loss of Miller, a mentor, in early 2009.
In retrospect, no one should have been surprised Spencer skipped out on Summer League 2009. The offseason was a time for Spencer to be with his family and friends. It was his time to be comfortable. To give that up in exchange for hard practices and games in which nothing could really be proved? Why bother? Of course, most of us saw why it was an issue; when I ripped into Spencer on this site, it was because we knew Spencer did have something to prove, that he cared about his game and the game, that he wanted to be the cornerstone Sacramento desperately needed.
What we saw as a lack of heart was really a young man clinging to his comfort zone and his autonomy. It was a teenager skipping out on a family tradition to go to the movies with his friends. It was Chinese food on Christmas. Spencer didn't want to play in Vegas, so he didn't play in Vegas. It's a pity he didn't realize how much that'd damage his relationship with Paul Westphal and Geoff Petrie. (And damage it did: Westphal said the right things in the press, and Petrie never says the wrong thing. But word is Natomas was on fire when Hawes begged off last minute. How Westphal dealt with Hawes during the season -- remember the Sean May era? -- and that Petrie gave up on Hawes 11 months later tells you all you need to know about how Natomas really felt about the snub, and what they believed it said about Spencer.)
Hawes went out as he came to Sacramento: lost, without a purpose. He ought to have been the permanent starting center, our Bargnani (if only because he'll never be a Bogut). But he never found his nucleus to orbit, partly because the Kings could never provide it and partly because he didn't fight hard enough to become a part of it. Thankfully for him, he has all the time in the world to change the league's perception of Spencer Hawes. Thankfully for the team, DeMarcus Cousins, whether he succeeds or fails, figures to blot out any memory (good or bad) of Hawes in Sacramento.
I say "thankfully" because neither the team nor player avoid blame for the failure that was the Spencer Hawes pick and era. The Kings picked the wrong player and did little to support his development; Hawes did not commit as he ought to have. If there's a lesson in the aborted era, it's not that athletically limited shooting big men don't work in the NBA, or that American white centers really can't be trusted in today's NBA. It's that realizing potential is amazingly difficult, and everything needs to fall into place properly for success to come.