DJ Mbenga: Exit Interview
As BK mentioned while posting Shannon Brown's exit interview, it's natural to feel especially happy when a ring graces the finger of a player enduring a bumpy NBA path. DJ Mbenga fits this particular bill. A career 12th man often surviving on non-guaranteed short term deals, every season bears a degree of mystery for DJ. A midseason free agent pick up in 2008, DJ impressed enough to remain in the fold, and now waits to find out if the team will pick up next season's option. I'm guessing they will, and if the fans get a vote, Tacos definitely ain't going no place.
Mbenga described what appeared to be a pleasant sitdown with the brass. "They're really happy the way I progressed," said DJ. "They believe and hope if I keep working, I can make more happen." As Mbenga acknowledged, sweat is a necessary part of the equation, which is why he'll play for the Belgian National team this summer in an effort to keep improving. It's also indicative of how winning a title has inspired Mbenga to crank his skills up a notch.
"Last year, I didn't do it. I wanted to take a little vacation. I was hurt that we lost the Finals, so I didn't want to do nothing. But this year, I really want to do it. I really want to improve myself and my game. Inside. Outside. Because I'm a big man, I don't want to just be an inside guy. I want to be an outside guy, too."
Not sure what type of range DJ is thinking, but should a surprise player nab the three point shooting crown at next season's All-Star Game, remember, you read it here first.
Mbenga became a fan favorite as the season progressed, inspiring an entire section to don "Banging with Mbenga" T-shirts in his honor. A guest was even wearing one at the team party. DJ couldn't believe it, but as the Laker fan explained, "You just don't know how we love to see you play. To do the things you do on the court. You just don't know."
Mbenga's not the first "energy man" (as he labeled himself) to win over a crowd, nor will he be last. Nor is he simply satisfied being the sports equivalent of cult movie. DJ wants blockbuster status (or at least a bigger role in the rotation, whichever comes first), in large part because of a desire to reward fans for their support. "That's the kind of stuff that (makes) me feel like I have to work more. I have to do more. I feel like I can give more."
It's no secret that Mbenga's path to the NBA wasn't covered in rose petals, and not simply because remaining in the league is a quest. While living in the Congo, Mbenga was quite literally forced to fight for his life. I asked DJ to share his emotions upon reaching this point, in light of what he's experienced. Understandably, it's a place he'd prefer not revisit.
"What I'm trying to do right now is forget everything. I've turned everything that's negative to positive. I take all my energy- I should be worried, crying, or doing whatever- and I turn it to the positive way. To work hard to make something happen. Because it's not easy. That's why, for me to have this ring, it's very important."
Asked by another writer if he viewed this championship as "consolation" for the "tough paths of your life," Mbenga said that was exactly the word he was seeking. Powerful stuff, for sure. It also helps explain why DJ created the Mbenga Foundation, which he hopes can provide desperately needed improvements to his homeland's educational system. "To me, education is very important. People, they can bring in food, they bring anything, but if the education is not there..."
Asked whether his game improved practicing all season against the likes of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, DJ wasted no time "reversing the question," since he did just as much to bring out his higher profile mates' best.
"I know which way I can push them the way and they know which way they can push me. They make me better the way I make them so much better. The more I practice with them, the more they improve in their game. That's the credit I receive. I look at it like that.'
Many people forget that DJ (and Josh Powell) were members of the Dallas Mavericks team that blew a 2-0 Finals lead against the Miami Heat. Thus, he made sure to remind teammates that the Finals ain't over until they're officially in the books, no matter how pretty you happen to be sitting.
Previous Exit Interviews: