Last Dancer in the dark: Jason Caffey presents his cautionary tale

Jason Caffey #35 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on May 13, 1997 at the United Center in Chicago, IL. Copyright 1997 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Mobile, founded by the French in 1702, is Alabama’s oldest city and a major port facility for the region. It’s also the birthplace of Jason Caffey, the 6’8″ former NBA power forward with many interesting stories to tell, most importantly his own.

Caffey played collegiately at the University of Alabama and was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the 20th pick of the 1995 draft. That was the start of a career that spanned two decades (between 1995 and 2003) and culminated in Windy City. The year Caffey entered the league, Michael Jordan returned to the franchise he had led to one three-peat, only to be at the forefront of another historical accomplishment: a second three-peat and the consolidation of a basketball dynasty the NBA had never seen.

Despite not playing much, Caffey most probably felt he was dealt the right deck of cards. A few NBA rookies could ever imagine that they would win back-to-back championships upon setting foot on the league. Although Caffey was fortunate enough in his first 30 months in the NBA, it was all downhill from there; but not necessarily from an athletic standpoint. Through the 1996-97 season, the Alabama native averaged 7.3 points per game during the Bulls’ second consecutive championship run.

Before being able to co-write the closing chapters of “The Last Dance”, the dynasty’s final season, Caffey was traded to the Golden State Warriors. For many people on the team, it was one of Jerry Krause’s totally unexpected decisions. The cunning GM wanted to allocate more playing time to Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc, thus preventing his other big man from eventually winning a third championship ring.

Caffey compiled 10.9 points and 5.9 rebounds in 25 minutes per game with Golden State, which signed him to a seven-year/$35 million-dollar deal in the summer of 1999. While Caffey was thriving in Oakland, back in Chicago Phil Jackson welcomed Dickey Simpkins -again- with open arms. In keeping with his first season’s promises, the ex-Bull averaged career-highs of 12.0 points and 6.8 rebounds during the 1999–2000 campaign with the Warriors.

However, his days in Golden State were counted. The next stop for him was Milwaukee, where the Bucks offered another long-term, multi-million contract. The dynamic forward stayed in Wisconsin for three years, which proved to be his career-last seasons. The end of his playing time coincided with and was largely triggered by a series of personal problems, including an anxiety attack and an assault charge.

Caffey has pretty much stayed away from basketball ever since, with the exception of coaching the Mobile Bay Hurricanes for a while. The 47-year-old, a father of 10 children with 8 different women over a span of 9 years, has now come to realize that money, fame and a troubled childhood can take a toll on one’s future. Over the last decade or so, Caffey has been trying to rebuild broken relationships with his children and at the same time tying up loose ends with all their mothers, at least from a legal standpoint. All this has resulted in him claiming to be a changed man, having finally understood the reasons for everything he did.

Jason has turned into a businessman who opens homes for mentally ill men, persons with no place to go, famished and in need of care. He also hosts basketball camps and speaks to young males regarding puberty, informing them of the pitfalls of the streets and educating them in the areas of college preparation, financial literacy and safe interaction with police officers. In 2019, Caffey co-authored a book aimed at youngsters from 9 to 12 years old with a view to helping them “find answers about adulthood and the physical and mental problems that may arise”. The preface of the book was written by another of his Bulls’ teammates: Steve Kerr.

TalkBasket.net had a long and interesting discussion with the two-time NBA champion (1996, 1997), who ended up averaging 7.3 points and 4.4 rebounds for his NBA career. Caffey recalled memories from his time in Chicago, the interaction he had with his teammates and the front office, as well as his battles with feelings of self-hatred due to wrong decisions.

“Coming from a very dysfunctional community and neighborhood, I really felt that guys like Jackson, Kerr and Michael, who had been raised right, could help me as a man in the long run. Going away from those guys led me to make some unfavorable decisions,” he admits.

Jason Caffey with the Chicago Bulls vs the Milwaukee Bucks. Photo Source: theportrop.com via Getty Images

Q: Do you believe that “The Last Dance” has been the only good thing to come out in 2020? So far, we’ve had the deaths of David Stern and Kobe Bryant, as well as the coronavirus pandemic that stopped the action worldwide.

A: It’s definitely been the only positive, good thing we had to look at. Starting with the death of David Stern, a great man who turned the NBA around, a big loss. Then came the tragic death of Kobe Bryant who lost his life with his daughter and other people. Now, we’re suffering to the pandemic virus. It’s probably been the worst year in my 46 years on this earth, my friend. It’s really bad. Many people are losing jobs. It’s just sad.

Q: How are things for you right now in Alabama?

A: I’m blessed because my business has not stopped. I own group homes for mentally ill men and my cash flow has not shut down because our business is government-funded. In that sense, I’ve been lucky.

Q: Which memory do you cherish the most and came back to you after watching “The Last Dance”?

A: Just the camaraderie of being with that group of gentlemen. It was not one particular moment; I love the whole two and a half years that I spent in Chicago. I had the opportunity to learn from the best that had ever done it: Michael Jordan. Dennis Rodman was probably the best rebounder and defender ever and Scottie Pippen one of the best second-men you’ll ever see in the world. Phil Jackson … If I had to do it all over again, I would do it the same way because of the camaraderie of the men.

Q: You won two championship rings with the Bulls, but didn’t get to finish off “The Last Dance” season with them. Do you believe that the organization owes you another ring?

A: I don’t feel like the Bulls owe me anything. It was a blessing to be drafted by them and to win two rings. Jerry Krause and I had fallen out in the end and he traded me. It had nothing to do with my teammates not wanting me on the team. So, as long as I know I didn’t let my teammates down, I can accept having two rings, even if I should have been there for three.

Q: In one of your interviews, you said: “It’s a wonder we could work through the egos clashing, fighting over money and still win championships”. To which extent did you feel part of the process on the Bulls team and how did the team manage to overcome inner conflict?

A: Well, being there, now that I look back on it in retrospect, I never saw any of the conflict just because the gentlemen I played with were so professional. Scottie came in with great attitude every day and worked hard, other than the time he took off from when he was supposed to have a surgery. Dennis and Phil were always solid. To be honest with you, the front office had their game going on and we had ours down there on the court, which is where it really mattered.

Q: How did you deal with Krause’s sarcasm and at the same time with MJ’s and Pippen’s treating of rookies and teammates?

A: The treating of the rookies, carrying the bags and doing things like that, was what I needed. You’re coming from college and now you’re playing with the greatest player that ever played and possibly the greatest team. You have to go through some ups and downs, learn some things and not have the big hit because clearly I came into that position out of college as one of the best players and found myself at the bottom of the totem pole. So, it was a humbling situation.

As far as the front office, I didn’t deal with them. I stayed away from Krause as much as possible. He was a very sarcastic man. Once, myself and Michael were on the elevator. I didn’t get engaged in conversation with him, but he said something very sarcastic. It takes a lot to tick me off, but whatever he said, he pushed my buttons and I found myself moving towards his neck with my hands. Michael Jordan jumped in between us and told me: “Jayson, don’t do that. You’re going to end your career. Let me deal with him, verbally”. From that point on, Michael verbally assaulted him and “killed” him. He was like the laughingstock when Michael was around.

Q: I asked Dickey Simpkins the other day about who he thought the best teammate on the Bulls team was. He referred to Toni Kukoc being the most underrated player. What’s your view?

A: OK. Toni was one hell of a player. I can’t say he was the best teammate, but he was a great guy. But as far as that killer instinct, if it wasn’t for Michael who wanted to dominate every time on offense and play defense on the best player of the other team, we wouldn’t have been where we were.

Q: Do you think that Kukoc’s fame of being a Jerry Krause favorite took something away from him?

A: Yeah, it definitely did because it sparked fire between Michael and Scottie against Toni. They felt as if “we’ve been winning championships before you get this guy. Now you get this guy who’s foreign”. I respect foreign players, they’re great. But Toni couldn’t do the same things that Michael and Scottie could do. Krause’s praising him above these two superstars created a lot of animosity between them. It was a shame to see that because Toni was a great guy and he didn’t deserve that. But Krause kind of put that on him with the way he showed his favoritism towards him.

Marcus Fizer #21 of the Chicago Bulls along with Toni Kukoc #7 and Jason Caffey #35 of the Milwaukee Bucks battle for a rebounding position during the game at Bradley Center on January 10, 2003 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bucks won 93-85. Copyright NBAE 2003 (Photo by Garry Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Q: Did you get along with Kukoc in Chicago and for a year in Milwaukee (2002-03)?

A: I did. Toni was my friend and we talked. I liked him. I had no problems with him whatsoever. He was one of the best sixth-men you’d ever want to see. He could have been a starter on any team. Great player.

Q: Phil Jackson, referring to you getting traded, said that it was a good opportunity for you to go. Was it obvious back then?

A: Of course. I hated to part ways with such mentors that I had in Phil Jackson, Jordan and Steve Kerr. I had had enough of Krause’s BS and sooner or later I knew I was going to snap with him. It was the best decision that I went on my way.

Q: Regarding trades and transfers, what was the saying that Jordan and Jackson had during those years?

A: I was really the only one that was shipped off during that time. The other guys weren’t there on long-term contracts. They had like 10-day contracts here and there. The nucleus of the team didn’t get shipped off. Some guys knew from the get-go that they were not going to be there for three years and that they were interchangeable pieces.

Q: How easy was it for you and for other bench players not to get upset by little playing time and remain focused?

A: It wasn’t easy. Michael Jordan didn’t care if you were the sixth or the twelfth man on the team. Every day in practice you had to give 110% just to be there with him or he was going to get you run off that team. A lot of us were nowhere in comparison to the athlete Michael and Scottie were, but as far as our focus, determination and work ethic, we had to give just as much as those guys did or we would have gotten run off from day one.

Q: You signed a multi-year contract with the Warriors in 1999. The next season was probably your career-best. Why did you leave Golden State in 2000?

A: I was able to go on and play for possibly the worst team in the league. I got a decent contract that was good for me. But Golden State and I didn’t really see eye to eye. I always thought of myself as a power forward, who plays defense and rebounds. I can also score some, but that’s really not my thing. I’m not looking to take 15-20 shots a game. I didn’t think we could win like that. I was looking to get 10 shots a game, get 10 rebounds and play great defense. They signed me to that kind of money and expected me to average 20 points and 10 rebounds and that’s not my game. I’m more of a 12/8 guy who’s going to play solid defense. We parted ways and I went to Milwaukee after that.

Q: Would you have given up on that big contract in order to have been able to stay with the Bulls for a more modest paycheck?

A: I would, because coming from a very dysfunctional community and neighborhood, I really felt like guys like Jackson, Kerr and Michael, who had been raised right, could help me as a man in the long run. Going away from those guys led me to make some unfavorable decisions. So, yeah, I would have passed that money to have stayed to Chicago.

Scottie Pippen with Jayson Caffey. Photo Source: Jason A Caffey Facebook page

Q: You have attributed to your teammates the fact that you’re alive and able to provide for yourself. Which personality traits did you pick up from each one of them?

A: As I made the decisions to have the amount of kids I did and I did get married, a lot of negatives came about with lawyers and my kids’ mothers. I’ve always been a businessman. However, when I lost those investments, I went back to the basics, the things I had learned from Michael Jordan: “Never give up, always believe in yourself and continue to fight”. Through that, I was able to acquire more businesses and get back on my feet financially. I’ve been able to sustain that for the rest of my life. This “never quit” attitude pushes me every day.

Q: Had you stayed with the Bulls for more years, do you think your life or career would have been any different?

A: I can’t say yes or no. I just know that when I was around Michael and Scottie, there was such positive influence that I never got into trouble or made bad decisions. When I got away from them and I ran into a lot more money, that’s when the bad decision-making process started. I would like to think that if I had stayed with them, I’d possibly be in a different position today.

Q: You reached the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Milwaukee Bucks. It took the franchise 18 years to repeat that accomplishment. Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell gave way to Giannis, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. First of all, do you think Giannis is the future of the league and secondly, can the two teams be compared?

A: If Giannis doesn’t have to shoot threes and gets a fluid 18-feet jumpshot, he will definitely be the future of the league. He’s the most athletic guy out there already. A guy that can have his 30 points all off driving to the basket, that tells you how athletic he is. Nobody can stay in front of him. If he adds a jumpshot to that, his average maybe goes up another 5-8 points because people will respect his shot.

I don’t think the two teams can be compared. There’s a different dynamic. We had some great offensive players who wouldn’t mind to play defense. Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson were two of the best jump shooters inside the three-point line in the league; Tim Thomas was one of the best athletes and was compared to Kobe when he came out of college as one of the next big stars; Ray Allen was a three-point specialist who could do a lot of things. Had we played defense like we did in Chicago, we could have beaten Philly in that Game 7. We had already swept the Lakers in the regular season because we simply had too many jump shooters for them to deal with.

Q: Starting 2002, a series of personal problems stepped in, resulting in the end of your career in 2003. How did you come to that decision? Did you consult anyone?

A: There was no one to consult. I just came to the conclusion that I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish in basketball. I knew at the age of 18 that I wanted to be a professional player and I knew at the age of 30 that I wanted to retire and be a businessman. Although I had two years left on my contract with Milwaukee, I was ready to walk away from the game. I never looked back or attempted to go back. The lifestyle was too fast for me. I wanted some more slow pace and not have a target on my back anymore.

Q: Over the course of some years, your personal life was highly exposed to the media. Your earnings, investments, assets, child support, divorce alimony became all public. When was the turning point for you? When did you really admit to yourself that you had hit rock bottom?

A: The turning point came probably in 2019. Around 2010, when I came into the group home business for the mentally ill men, I had to put aside the sorrow that I was holding inside for myself for making idiotic decisions. I thought I got to have a higher purpose in life. My calling is to help these mentally ill men that can’t help themselves. I went back to the Lord with that because he dropped that business in my hand. So, it was a very humbling experience that has held me humble to this day. I love what I do.

Q: Do you believe your story is a cautionary tale for pro athletes who often pay a heavy price for ignorance, lack of experience and financial knowledge, increasing income or bad company?

A: Definitely. I actually use my story to teach from it today. I do basketball camps, where I only use the basketball to get the kids there. I also come with an ACT (“American College Test”) prep lady who is one of the best in the whole country. These kids can go to college for free if they get a high score in the ACT test. I bring a financial literacy person to the camp as well and also police officers to do use intervention. A lot of kids are being killed these days because they don’t know how to handle interaction with police officers.

Q: Is it so tough for ex-athletes to adjust to the post-NBA life?

A: It wasn’t tough for me because even though I lost a lot of my businesses, I had invested well and was still making six figures. So, it wasn’t hard for me. I went through bankruptcy with over a million dollars in assets and we were looking at liquidation. With all the negative publicity, the business was never able to get off the ground the right way and that did actually affect me.

Q: You once said that money gave you a fake sense of power and that the NBA lifestyle was getting the best of you. Over the last years, did you get in touch with other retired players dealing with the same issues?

A: No, I never talked to anyone about it. People like me hold it in until it’s too late because they’re too proud to let you know what they got going on. I didn’t have a clue of what was going on with the anxiety attack and I just thought I was crazy. I couldn’t get over it until I checked myself into a 45-day program, talking to people. I think professional athletes have to carry that load on their shoulders and are too proud to tell people about that.

Q: Drawing from your experience and any conversations you might have had with other players, how can a young athlete find answers about adulthood and handle the problems that occur in professional/high-level sport?

A: You got to go back to the basics: prayer. I put a lot with the Lord because I don’t really talk much to people anymore. Prayer helps me navigate through my life now and I would like to think that had I had the same relationship with the Lord back then, he would have helped me navigate through those tough times. There are only sharks out here in the water and pro athletes have targets on their back. The minute they sign that contract, people are working against them to steal their money. So, to them all I can say is: “Surround yourselves with nothing but class-act people that are doing the same things you want to do in the future, keep your circle small and pray”.

Photo Source: Jason A Caffey Facebook page

Q: You recently wrote a book directed to 9-12 year-olds, titled “Richard and the boyz”. What is it about?

A: It was written by psychiatrist and doctor Nadine Pierre Louis and myself. She came to me and let me read it. I found there a lot of the stuff that I went through growing up as a young male. I had a family, but at that age you’re shy; you don’t understand things going on with your body’s changes and you’re afraid to ask questions about it. That’s the tendency leading some children to be gay these days because they see their chest expanding. This book gives young men all the information on their body in a slang-tongue that they can understand, so that they don’t have to panick or go out and get bad advice from people in the streets, like I did. I was getting advice from older men who were womanizers and many other things. I didn’t want to see another kid going through what I went through. So, we compiled this book and put it out for children to learn from it.

Q: Have you ever thought about writing a book for pro athletes?

A: I have not. I’m actually on my second book for kids, but I’m not going to stop writing because I have a lot of information that I want to put out. Eventually, I’m going to do a book for young African-Americans because they are the ones who populate the sport. Most of us come from impoverished areas, we’re not coming from a lot of money. In our society, we’re told to hold things in instead of venting out and talking about our problems. That’s why we came up with the slogan: “Real men talk”. If you open up to someone who has better insight on what you’re might be dealing with, you can change your whole life for the better.

Q: Do you keep up with modern NBA? Do you watch games?

A: Yes, I love watching games. I watched one with Dennis Rodman right before the coronavirus pandemic. The Houston Rockets were playing the Lakers. The Pelicans stadium is close to me in New Orleans. I watch a lot of their games and i still see Scottie, Dennis, Steve Kerr. So, I’m very much still involved in the NBA.

Q: Would you consider assuming a role on a team?

A: No, I have no interest in that at all. The NBA is a very time-consuming thing and people don’t understand that. You’re training for eight months straight and I have no problem with that. But if you want to break away and see your family, you might get one day off. You can’t even fly home from one city to another and get back the next morning for the 10 A.M. practice in one day. I don’t care to live my life like that anymore. I like to remain an entrepreneur.

Q: If you were to refer to one thing that you would like to have done differently in your life or career, what would it be?

A: I wouldn’t take back any of my kids because I love them all. I wish that instead of starting to invest in businesses at the age of 30, I would have started to invest at 25. Had I done that, I think I would have missed the financial curve of the amount of kids that I have and the problems I went through. You want to get money and invest it, so that you can make more money. If I had figured that out at 25, it definitely would have changed me.