Golden State center JaVale McGee may loom large at 7 feet, but he never really had a growth spurt. "Always just tall," he says, sitting in the Warriors locker room on Sunday night after his team’s 132–113 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 2 of McGee’s first NBA Finals. "Born 11 pounds, 11 ounces." For his mother, Pamela — a two-time NCAA champion, 1984 Olympic gold medalist, and WNBA player and assistant coach — the ramifications of having such a big boy didn’t end after delivery.
When she took 4-month-old JaVale to baby-and-me classes that were designed for kids 13 months and younger in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, he was so big that other moms wondered what the McGees were doing there. (JaVale suffered from "big discrimination," Pamela says with a smile.) When she brought the 9-month-old JaVale to Europe, where she played in France and Spain and was a four-time Italian League All-Star, she frequently found herself arguing with airline employees. "They would never believe that he was younger than 2," she says now, relaxing on a sofa in the family lounge inside the Warriors’ Oracle Arena and referring to the age below which kids can fly free. "I’d be like, no, ma’am, look, here’s his passport." Both of JaVale’s parents are tall: Pamela stands at 6-foot-3, while his father, George Montgomery, who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers but never played, is 6-foot-9. But JaVale shot past them both: By the time he was 14, according to the Los Angeles Times, he was already 6-foot-2 and wearing a size-17 shoe, and he’d grow another 10 inches from there.
This is JaVale’s first season playing for the Voltron that is the Warriors, his fifth team in a nine-year NBA career. A raw collegiate player with a tantalizing wingspan and a whole lot of upside, McGee was drafted 18th overall out of Nevada by the Washington Wizards and promptly established himself as an eccentric, spacey big man who was both lovable and infuriating. His mustachioed alter-ego, Pierre, and his cinnamon-eating contest broadcasts with Nick Young delighted fans; his wrong-way runs and demonstrative goaltending, not so much. But this season he’s found a perfect role on an all-time great team. He played in 77 games this regular season with the Warriors, two shy of his career high and more than double the number he played last season during a quick stint with the Dallas Mavericks marked by injury issues and a whole lot of Did Not Plays. And while he may have only six points through two games in the Finals, he has had an impact on this series that is as oversized as his long frame.
He arrived for Game 1 wearing a SHAQ hat, a not-so-subtle nod to some ongoing beef with the TNT analyst, who has been ridiculing JaVale’s mental miscues and silly bloopers for years. Both of JaVale’s Game 1 baskets were dunks, the second one a twirling, reverse one-handed slam. That it apparently was the result of a screwup only made it more beautiful and on-brand for a player who can be as frustrating as he is refreshing.
He snagged four rebounds in the first quarter and rejected Tristan Thompson. (He also got posterized by LeBron James, but no one’s perfect.) "I feel like I’m just a spark off the bench," JaVale says. "I’m a vertical spacer, and I bring a lot of energy when it comes to defense." He pauses. "And dunking, really." In Game 2, he did it again, converting an alley-oop pass from Kevin Durant that made an already amped-up Oracle crowd get even wilder. And just as impressive was a small moment where JaVale’s chemistry with his teammates was palpable: After Klay Thompson hit a shot, and stone-facedly high-fived all his teammates, he reached JaVale and broke into a big laugh and a smile. "I think I had said ‘Welcome back,’" McGee says.
As all of that was unfolding, Pamela was there in the stands, the way she usually is. (When JaVale dunked three basketballs near-simultaneously during the dunk contest at the 2011 All-Star Weekend, cameras immediately panned to Pamela hovering near the judges’ table.) She watches games with the sympathy of a former player, the skepticism of a former coach, and the long memory of a forever mother. "You know, people ask me now: ‘How did you go to a foreign country, didn’t speak the language, and then take a 9-month-old-baby with you?’" she says. "I don’t really know. Women do whatever they need to do."
JaVale is the first NBA player whose mother played in the WNBA, a league in which his half-sister, Imani Boyette, is now a 6-foot-7 center for the Chicago Sky. But for Pamela, the two years she spent in the fledgling WNBA were only the coda on a celebrated basketball career. In high school in Flint, she won all 75 of the games she competed in. She and her twin sister, Paula, both went to the University of Southern California, where they earned back-to-back D-I titles in 1983 and 1984 as part of a big three that also included Cheryl Miller. (Paula was briefly engaged to Darryl Strawberry at the time; the twins’ younger sister, Alayna, also played college hoops.) Shortly after graduating, Pamela made the 1984 Olympic team that won gold in Los Angeles. That fall, she and Paula joined a team named the Dallas Diamonds in what was called the Women’s American Basketball Association — in addition to the Diamonds, another team in the league was called the Columbus Minks — but the league was marked by disarray and ultimately folded before its second season. For talented female basketball players at that time, the best solution was to go to Europe.
"Europe has always been ahead of the game when it comes to women’s basketball," Pamela says. "They make a lot more money there than they do here. It’s always been first and foremost."
In 1987, she found out she was unexpectedly expecting. With Montgomery no longer in the picture, and her overseas basketball career not ideal for a single mom, she came close to terminating the pregnancy. But as she told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, she had an 11th-hour conversation with God and a change of heart, and in early 1988 JaVale was born. Nine months later, Pamela brought the giant baby to Sicily and got back on the court. From then on, she would always be sure to have a particular clause written into her contracts.
"The team had to pay for the nanny to sit on the bench with JaVale in the stroller," she says. "And he had to travel with me on all the busses." (In February, Pamela wrote on Instagram that one of those babysitters in Italy had put two and two together and realized that the JaVale McGee on the Warriors was the same child she knew.) She had trouble finding standard American-style baby food on the local shelves, so she made her own, supplementing it with her version of minestrone. "You take all the vegetables and boil them, and then you take all the liquid off, and then you ground it, and you keep all that liquid because that’s where the vitamins are," she says. "And then you season the baby food with that."
JaVale came with her wherever she went, including other stints in Spain, France, and Brazil, and summers back in Michigan. "I was living everywhere," says JaVale. "I got, like, little splotches of a whole bunch of memories." (He hasn’t yet returned to any of the places he once lived, and "I’m mad about that," he says.) In Brazil, Pamela won a league title, and was so happy there that she says she was about to file for dual citizenship.
But when the WNBA began to come together in 1996 and held its first draft in 1997, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of the new American effort. JaVale, now 9 years old, sat behind the bench during games and shot around sometimes at WNBA practices. "I felt that I wanted to be a pioneer, to develop and set a standard for women," Pamela says. When she was drafted by the Sacramento Monarchs, she was 34 years old and close to retirement, but "it was just historical more than anything, to be a part of the beginning of the WNBA."
JaVale knew he wanted to go to college out West, to get "as far away from home as possible," he says. For many years, until he was in sixth grade, Pamela had homeschooled him. (She’s now a homeschooling advocate in Virginia.) "We would do studies while going grocery shopping," she says. "You make pizza, and pizza becomes fractions. You do stuff like, they have a grocery list, and then for economics: How can you feed a family for five dollars?" And even after JaVale was no longer homeschooled, she remained omnipresent. During her basketball career she had occasionally taken part-time teaching jobs during the offseasons, and she began to do more.
"She was my teacher in sixth and seventh grade at the International Academy of Flint," JaVale says. "And I remember I used to get in trouble, and she used to take me out of class and chastise me, and it was like, she’s my teacher and my mother? So it was kind of weird, but it worked, I guess." A story in The Mercury News described how she once noticed JaVale dogging it during a JV practice at Detroit Country Day School and made him wake up at 5 a.m. in the cold and go running as penance. Chris Murray, a columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal, the local paper covering the University of Nevada, where JaVale ultimately enrolled, recalled in a recent piece that JaVale was known to have "a ‘hands-on’ mother, to put it generously."
McGee was almost fully grown, length-wise, at that point — the Nevada athletics website had him listed at 6-foot-11 — but he was a physically raw, painfully skinny teen who weighed nearly 50 pounds less than he does now. He had played for three high schools in four years, moving from Detroit Country Day to Providence Christian in Fremont, Michigan, before he and Pamela relocated to Chicago so that he could attend Hales Franciscan, a small school with a strong basketball program and excellent academics. (His coach at Hales Franciscan, Gary London, described McGee in 2005 as someone who "runs the floor like a deer" and said his mother had worked with him on his ballhandling.) "The schools like USC and stuff, they wanted to redshirt me," says McGee, who was an unranked recruit that according to Murray received only two scholarship offers, to Nevada and the University of San Francisco. "But I wanted to play. I wasn’t rocking with no redshirt."
After two years with the Nevada Wolf Pack, he entered the NBA draft and was taken 18th overall by the Washington Wizards, for whom he played for three and a half seasons. Before he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in 2012, he was averaging a career-high 11.9 points and 8.8 rebounds. In Denver, he earned the nickname "The Great Adventure" and garnered this assessment from assistant coach Melvin Hunt: "If you left him in a first-grade class for an hour, who knows what you’d have when you got back? You might have a statue built out of desks and chairs. And if you left him in a class at MIT, who knows?"
Pamela, like most mothers would, tends to talk about her son more in terms of the latter hypothetical. "He’s an intellectual, very cerebral, a Trivial Pursuit genius," she says. And yet, before the Finals began, an ESPN reporter quoted a nameless member of the Cavaliers as saying that they didn’t expect McGee to play much in the Finals because he isn’t "smart enough." McGee took the report in stride, saying: "How could an anonymous person piss me off?"
But not everyone is anonymous. For years, Shaquille O’Neal has had a segment on TNT called "Shaqtin’ a Fool" in which he lampoons boneheaded plays; JaVale wasn’t just an occasional target, he was a two-time segment "MVP." It all came to a head in February, when O’Neal again ran a compilation of that’s-so-JaVale moments that drew a rebuke from the Warriors player, his teammates, and the team. "Get my (peanut emoji)’s out of your mouth!" JaVale tweeted. "And EAD! #thatisall." Durant made fun of Shaq’s terrible free throws. And Pamela, in an emotional interview with The Undefeated’s Mike Wise, said: "He cyberbullied my son. Totally inappropriate. Shaquille needs to lose his job or be suspended. The NBA needs to make a stand."
Pamela has never been one to shrink back or bite her tongue. She is opinionated and extroverted; in 2014 she starred in a reality show on OWN called Mom’s Got Game that aired for a season. She is similarly involved during games — not just JaVale’s, but Boyette’s too — constantly noticing rotations or switches, doubting lineups, or appreciating strategies. Although her daughter, Boyette, is four inches taller, Pamela calls her a "mini-me," on and off the court; the two told The New York Times last year that they had recently repaired a relationship that had fractured when Pamela and Boyette’s father Kevin Stafford got embroiled in an ugly custody battle in 1998. Now, "we are so much alike, it’s eerie," says Pamela. "You know, same length, she plays in the post, extremely competitive in the game. And she’s bright, too: She got the President’s Award at UT."
Whether Pamela is watching Boyette or JaVale, the games are more nerve-racking than fun: At least when she was a player, she was in control. These days, she has much to say, even if her son doesn’t always listen. "It’s a whole different game [than she played]," he says, pulling a mint-green L’equip sweatshirt over the big, cursive Pamela tattooed on his chest. "It’s a man’s sport. I’m not trying to be a mannish man, but it’s still a man’s sport, just because we dunk, we’re a lot more physical, you understand?" Still, he admits that he has learned a lot about the fundamentals — and about personal finance — from his mother over the years.
Sitting in Oracle Arena, asked if her son might sometimes be a little misunderstood, Pamela pauses in thought before giving her answer. "He’s a 7-footer," she finally says. "It’s like a Great Dane — not too many people get to see one. They don’t come along often, except every blue moon. The gifts he has are different. And if you haven’t seen it a lot, you really don’t know what to do with it. It’s like an enigma."