ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — It’s natural for a human being to long to feel needed or wanted. There was a stretch of time this season in which Bucks center Samuel Dalembert felt neither.
More often than not in professional sports, players used to playing a big role that suddenly find themselves not playing at all sulk, pout and bring nothing positive to the team.
Though he called the stretch in which he barely ever left Milwaukee’s bench the toughest part of his 11-year career, Dalembert put on a smile, went about his business and served as a mentor to the team’s younger big men.
“It’s been a down side in my career, the lowest of my career,” Dalembert said. “It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of focus to not be angry. You’re upset, but you step back and say, ‘It’s a new day. Let’s get to practice, let’s be professional, let’s go support (the team).'”
Ever since his rookie season, Dalembert has been a major contributor to teams he’s been on. The Haitian center has started 84 percent of the games he’s played in the past nine seasons, averaging 26.6 minutes per game.
When he was traded to Milwaukee from Houston this past summer, Dalembert expected more of the same. He heard the talk of how badly the Bucks needed a true center to replace Andrew Bogut and was ready to step into the job.
For the first month of the season, Dalembert was Milwaukee’s starting big man. But without much of an explanation, he fell completely out of the rotation. The emergence of Larry Sanders left Dalembert out of the starting lineup, and he couldn’t even find a bench role for former coach Scott Skiles.
Dalembert was active and healthy, but didn’t see the floor in 20 games because of a coach’s decision.
“A lot of guys in my situation can relate to that,” Dalembert said. “It’s not easy. When you’re in it, in any business, you go crazy. But I feel like it was a blessing where you learn to mature.”
There was no reason for Dalembert to feel ill will toward Sanders, but that hasn’t stopped other professional athletes from holding grudges and refusing to help a younger player because his job was taken. Instead, he did everything he could to help Sanders and was the first player to jump off the bench in celebration when any of the young big men did something impressive on the court. His teammates certainly took notice, and Dalembert was leading by example.
“He’s a warrior, man,” Sanders said. “He’s seen a lot of things (in his career). To survive this long in the NBA you’ve got to play through some tough situations.
“Being a veteran (not playing), and not taking any frustration out on us. It feels good to have teammates like that.”
After Jim Boylan took over as head coach, Dalembert slowly began to work his way back into the rotation. He played sparingly at first, but really broke back into regular playing time on Jan. 26.
In Milwaukee’s last eight games, Dalembert is averaging 12.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. He’s posted double-doubles in six of those eight games, including a career-high 35 points and 12 rebounds on Feb. 5 in Denver.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Dalembert became the first player in NBA history to score 35 points and grab 12 rebounds in just 27 minutes. He hit 17 of 21 field goals, joining LeBron James as the only players to hit 17 shots in a single game this season.
Athletes admit all the time there’s something to being in a zone, and Dalembert has had the feeling before, but always had to come out of the game because his team was up by a large margin. On that night, Boylan was stretching Dalembert to his minutes limit because the Bucks were locked in a close game.
“I felt like everything was a matrix, slow motion,” Dalembert said. “You can see the action happen before it happens. You can see where the ball is falling before it happens.
“It was effortless for me, to tell the truth. It was a beauty. My teammates kept cheering me on the bench and I didn’t understand it.”
Unfortunately, two events overshadowed Dalembert’s career night. Not only did the Bucks lose after holding a big lead, but Sanders went down with a scary injury.
Trying to draw a charge on Denver’s Kenneth Faried, Sanders hit the floor hard late in the fourth quarter and hasn’t played since due to a bruised lower back. While he’s hopeful his teammate can return soon, Dalembert is ready to hold down the fort until Sanders is ready to rejoin the starting lineup.
“Sam’s a good veteran NBA player,” Boylan said. “When he gets out there for extended periods, I expect him to perform well and produce.”
One of the biggest challenges for Dalembert is to find his legs again. While sitting out, his conditioning suffered.
“He’s still working his way into big-minutes shape,” Boylan said. “Not having Larry around forces us to push him a little bit.”
Even back when he wasn’t playing, Dalembert would walk into the BMO Harris Bradley Center with a gigantic smile before each home game, greeting every security guard and team employee along the way with a fist bump.
For his teammates, the man they call “Sammy D” is an easy guy to root for because he never wavered, even in his lowest time as a professional.
“Everything in life is a test,” Dalembert said. “I waited and I waited and my opportunity showed up. I will continue to be a professional and continue to support a good team of guys.”