The Other Side Of Round: The Rejuvenation Of Raymond Felton
Raymond Felton has heard every fat joke in the book at this point. He's still round, but playing great for a Dallas team that loves him. Who's laughing now?
Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Genuinely pudgy professional athletes are rare, and not generally received kindly. Some of this has to do with social mores about weight, but mostly, when athletes get fat it suggests they aren't totally holding up their end of the deal. There are variables and qualifiers, of course. There always are. None of them make much of a difference when it comes time for fans to pick a target for their boos.
So when Raymond Felton showed up for his 2011-2012 season with Portland looking like he was trying to smuggle a pumpkin under his jersey, it went about how you might expect. He didn't play well, and fans were mean to him. The next season, he went back to the Knicks; two years earlier, a notably slimmer Felton had his best NBA seasons with the Knicks. This go-round, fans got a rounder and less effective version of him, and they didn't like it much, either.
In his final season with New York in 2013-2014, Felton averaged 9.7 points and 5.6 assists. More importantly, the Knicks finished, 37-45, missed the playoffs, and their starting point guard didn't look like a guy in peak physical condition.
And this is how Felton earned his reputation as A Fat Athlete, with all the attendant negative connotations. This is associated with laziness, which is associated with a lack of professionalism, which is associated with immaturity or a deficit of motivation and so unflatteringly on. And Felton did fall off some after the initial weight gain, which has effectively cemented the narrative. Felton Fat Jokes became cliché, but that didn't stop anyone from making them.
We should now clarify that Felton is no longer actually overweight. Four years of NBA basketball since the Portland season meant he was bound to lose weight—and the fact that a guy who is in better physical condition than 98 percent of America is still basically a meme for "fat basketball player" probably isn't a good sign for the state of body-shaming. That said, pudgy point guards don't come around very often, and Felton is unique. It would take a pretty dramatic body transformation in the opposite direction for him to shake that perception. Instead, he's inverted it from the inside out. Where fans disdained Felton for gaining weight, they've embraced the round, slightly pudgy dude currently hustling on a basketball court as endearing. When Raymond Felton checks into a game for the Mavericks, the Dallas crowd cheers enthusiastically.
Felton's season in Dallas can be summed up by one late-game sequence in a victory against Boston on November 19. Felton was intentionally fouled with less than 20 seconds left in the game and Dallas up two. He calmly went to the line and missed both shots. Isaiah Thomas received the outlet pass for the Celtics and quickly dribbled up court looking to tie the game. Felton sprinted nearly the length of the court, caught up to Thomas, and stole the ball from behind and to give Dallas another chance to seal the game.
"That was the most impressive non-scoring play I've seen from Dallas all season," Mavs.com writer Bobby Karalla said weeks later. "You never see a play like that." Rick Carlisle called it the play of the game.
Felton was traded to Dallas before last season and immediately suffered a severe right ankle sprain in the preseason. He spent most of the season diligently rehabbing. This year, injuries and strict minute restrictions for his teammates, plus necessary rest for players like Wes Matthews and Dirk Nowitzki, have led to Felton filling in whenever and wherever he's needed. He's done so with striking effectiveness, averaging 27 minutes per game; he is the rare veteran who has played stretches of crunch time and garbage time.
The Dallas fans collectively lose their minds in the silliness of a "Watch Me Whip/Watch Me Ray Ray" arena video, and the term "Everybody Loves Raymond" is thrown around without irony. "It's always good to have a city or fans that no matter what they're going to ride with you, through the good times and the bad," Felton told me after the team's December 4 loss to Houston. "Certain teams that I've played for that hasn't always been the situation."
But Felton's teammates and coaches in Dallas all love him, too, and it has nothing to do with his weight. "I've said it before, but he's an ultimate pro," Nowitzki said. Chandler Parsons suggested to Carlisle that Felton start in place of him while Parsons is still on a minute restriction due to knee surgery.
In a mid-November game in Houston the Mavericks rested Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, and Wes Matthews. Felton led Dallas to the unlikely victory by scoring 23 points, including the two that led to this:
After the game Nowitzki hilariously and enthusiastically claimed, "I said to the team, screw 2011, this is the greatest win in franchise history. [Felton's] a good dude off the floor. He's a team guy. He's easy to root for."
Felton told me that the entire team, full of veterans, care about each other and spend time together off the court. "I've been on teams where you have your two guys that you hang out with, but [this team] does things as a whole group and that's something I've never really experienced. Just happened that way."
This year has proven that, along with an apparent personality match, Felton's game is a great fit for the Mavs' roster. It brings up an interesting hypothetical: If Felton hadn't suffered a preseason injury last year, would Dallas have risked trading for Rajon Rondo? The Rondo trade was an absolute disaster for Rondo and the team, and the now-King is thought of fondly by few in Dallas. Felton, though, with just as much baggage to overcome and a less heralded playing career, is playing a similar role, and being appreciated for the first time in a while.
Simply by sticking around and playing his funky, off-kilter game, Felton has become something like a long-running supporting character on a beloved TV show. He has never been the lead, and there have been episodes in which he disappeared entirely; there was one whole season in which he was pretty brutal to watch. The show could easily go on without him. But he's seen a lot of stuff go down and has had his moments too.
"Those who forgot about me or those who forgot about the nine years of work that I put in this league before last year, just letting them know that I'm still here," Felton said after the November Houston victory. "It's really just coming out and showing everyone that I can still play basketball. That ain't changed."
A player that talked like that after a big game might well be described as "hungry." In Felton's case, it's probably better to pick another word. Or not—Raymond Felton has heard every fat joke there is, at this point, and appears intent on getting the last laugh.