Not So Mad Max
With Allen Iverson officially being named into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night, and the media and social media crush of positive responses to his induction speech, there might be hope for some of the perceived "bad boys" of the NBA to start getting their proper due.
The man once known as “Mad Max” isn’t very mad these days, in fact he’s quite happy, especially on the course. “I think golf has settled me down,” says Vernon Maxwell who admitted to playing “up to four times a week” during a recent phone interview. The guy that once ran into the stands at San Antonio to get in touch with a particularly rowdy fan now finds other ways to deal with stress. “[Golf], That’s my relaxation, it’s what I enjoy doing.”
From 1988 to 2001 Vernon Maxwell enjoyed playing basketball for 10 NBA teams while garnering the reputation for confrontation and above all else winning. Everywhere he played the team was better for his being there, if not in the locker room than definitely on the court. A Gainesville, Florida native, Maxwell was destined to play for legendary former N.C. State and then University of Florida coach Norm Sloan and the Gators. An all-state, All-American caliber recruit while coming out of Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Maxwell had his choice of high level programs but those schools would have had to be within driving distance to land the 6’4” guard. Even some of the game’s best collegiate coaches couldn’t get the versatile scorer away from his momma’s cooking. “I probably made my decision when I got on my first ever flight to Raleigh, North Carolina,” said Maxwell. He was en route to visiting the reigning NCAA champion N.C. State Wolfpack and their enigmatic head coach Jim Valvano. Valvano was only 37 years old when he lead the Cinderella “Cardiac Pack” to the NCAA title in 1983 and even before that was regarded as one of the nation’s best recruiters. “The flight was probably an hour and a half but it felt like forever,” said Maxwell. “I didn’t want to play too far from home but I would have loved to play for V, God bless him, he was the best recruiter I’ve ever met.” Valvano and the Pack didn’t close the deal on Maxwell and they would ultimately regret it. N.C. State’s loss was Florida’s gain.
During his four years at Florida, Maxwell helped what was then a mediocre program-having failed to ever make the NCAA tournament-turn into a force to be reckoned with in the SEC. During his freshman and sophomore years that trend of March-less basketball continued despite Maxwell averaging 13.3 as freshman and a team high 19.6 points per game during his sophomore season. The breakout year and the season that brought Maxwell and the Gators into public view was the 1986-’87 season, his junior year, when the Gators made the Sweet 16. Maxwell’s team leading 21.7 points per game, the addition of the late Dwayne Schintzius, a former McDonald’s All-American and NBA center from Brandon High School along with senior point guard Andrew Moten all contributed to powering Florida to their first ever tournament appearance and a first round matchup with Valvano and Sloan’s former employer, N.C. State. The pack didn’t stand a chance as the unheralded but higher seeded Gators (The Gators were a six seed, the Wolfpack an 11) won the game, 82-70, behind Maxwell’s 28 points. Former NBA players Vinny Del Negro, Chucky Brown and Charles Shackleford couldn’t do anything to stop Maxwell on the biggest stage. “That was big because they were supposed to beat us,” said Maxwell. “Vernon was our go-to guy,” says Moten, currently the head basketball coach at West Gadsden High School in his hometown of Quincy, Florida. A four-year starting point guard at Florida and himself one year ahead of Maxwell in Gainesville, Moten echoes what many of Maxwell’s former teammates say about “Mad Max” the teammate. “He was one of the best teammates you could have on a basketball court, you knew he had your back.”
The Gators moved on to blowout the number three seed Purdue Boilermakers 85-66. Coached by Gene Keady, the 25-5 Boilermakers were the 1987 Big-10 champs (over eventual national champion Indiana and Bob Knight) and had lost just four games up to that point, only of which one was at home. The Sweet 16 would match the Gators up with eventual runner-up and second seeded Syracuse. The 87-81 loss still bother Maxwell till this day, he believes his team was just as good or better than an Orangemen side loaded with NBA talents like Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas, all of whom played a decade or longer in the league. “We definitely underachieved, “said Maxwell. “We had a lot of characters on that team but we were really good.” Moten agrees, “We made some key mistakes down the stretch that cost us that game.”
His senior year would end with a loss in the second round to a Michigan team loaded with eventual NBA players Glen Rice, Gary Grant, Loy Vaught, Terry Mills and Rumeal Robinson. Maxwell once again shined amongst the stars finishing the game with 23 points and 10 assist.
An All-SEC first team selection, it was a no-brainer that a team with a first round selection in the 1988 NBA draft was sure to pick the top off-guard in the draft, the player most responsible for bringing big-time basketball to the University of Florida right? Wrong. Maxwell was drafted 47th in the second round three spots ahead of current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and after the likes of Temple’s Tim Perry (picked seventh overall by Phoenix before being thrown in the Charles Barkley trade of ‘92-’93 with Philadelphia), Jeff Grayer of Iowa State (13th to Milwaukee), Missouri’s Derrick Chievous (16th to Houston, 3 years in the league), Randolph Keys of University of Southern Mississippi fame (22nd to Cleveland, 5 years in the league with a career 5.2 points per game average) and Orlando Graham. A 6’8” power forward from Auburn University at Montgomery, an N.A.I.A. school. Graham was drafted by the Miami Heat with the 40th pick. Even the home team wouldn’t take a chance on a player that admittedly “kind of had a bad attitude.” Moten agrees, “Vernon was definitely supposed to be a first round pick.” Legend has it that Maxwell probably would have been better off playing his college ball away from where he grew up, his drop on the draft board supposebly having to do with minor scrapes with the law. “Sometimes people say one thing about a kid and the next thing you know the player starts slipping,” said Moten, himself an all-SEC first team selection the year before, was drafted in the fourth round of the ‘87 draft by New Jersey.
Following a solid rookie season for the Spurs in which Maxwell not only made the team but started 36 games while averaging 11.7 points per game, 3.8 assist and a steal. He was splitting time at shooting guard behind Willie Anderson and Johnny Dawkins for a 21-win Spurs team under current SMU head coach Larry Brown before he was traded to Houston during his second season. For the next five and half seasons Maxwell was the starter at shooting guard for what would ultimately be some of the best and worst years of his career. His career 14.9 points per game average (averaging over 17 per game during his first two full seasons with the team) as a Rocket would be a career high for any single stop during his career. Maxwell’s 51 point game in January 1991 against Cleveland (30 of which came during the fourth quarter) was a clear demonstration of Maxwell’s ability to dominate a game and would one of many of his memorable Rocket moments. The “Clutch City” Rockets teams of 1993-94 and ‘94-’95 were special to Maxwell and two of his best friends on the team and till this day are former NBA veteran guards Mario Ellie and Sam Cassell. “My favorite season was the ‘93-’94 and ‘94-’95 seasons, you know the back to back championships, especially the first one in 1994,” said Maxwell. “I knew how much it meant to the city, to the fans. To bring the first professional championship to the city was big.” Both Cassell, now an L.A. Clipper assistant coach and Ellie, an Orlando Magic assistant coach, were close to Maxwell and “hung out everyday” according to Maxwell. Both players joined the Rockets before the ‘93-’94 season and were in for the ride of their basketball playing lives en route to back to back championships. “He was one of the fiercest competitors I have ever played with or against,” said Ellie. Cassell concurs, “[Max] was an ultra competitor, some of the other two-guards in the league were taller or stronger but he never backed down and he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with anybody.” As a rookie fresh out of Florida State, Cassell wasn’t sure what he was getting into as a first round pick joining a team with an already established backcourt in veteran point guard Kenny Smith and Maxwell. Maxwell, then a five-year veteran, could have given the rookie the cold shoulder but he did the opposite. “My first year in the league he took me under his wing, he gave me my toughness,” said Cassell. Toughness was Mad Max’s most visible quality for better or worse. “Even if he was 0 for 10 he kept shooting with confidence that he was going to make the next one,” said Ellie.
That toughness was on display for all to see when the Rockets were up against a potential sweep during the 1994 Western Conference semi-finals in Phoenix after losing consecutive 20 point leads in Game 1 and 2 before losing both to the Suns. Maxwell’s 31 second half points in Phoenix sealed a Game 3 win and an eventual series win (in seven games) for the Rockets. Maxwell’s 21 points on 6 for 11 shooting - only Hakeem Olajuwon (25 points) and Knick point guard Derek Harper (23 points) scored more on that night - and game clinching three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Knicks guard John Starks in Game 7 of the NBA Finals solidified his position as a Rocket great.
Things couldn’t be better for Maxwell and the Rockets as they maneuvered their way to the playoffs in 1995 looking to become back to back champs following a trade for former Houston Cougar, Portland Trailblazer and current Hall of Fame shooting guard Clyde Drexler. The addition of a Dream Teamer was sure to cut into Maxwell’s minutes, he started the least amount of games as a Rocket, 54, while also having his scoring average fall to 13.3, his lowest since coming to Houston. The conclusion of Maxwell’s time as a Rocket would come soon after the conclusion of the regular season. During Game 1. of the playoffs in Utah, with the Jazz up by two, 102-100, Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich put Maxwell in the game to attempt a game winning or game tying shot with 2.4 seconds remaining in the game. Maxwell had played 16 minutes in the game and shot 1 for 7 from the field, scoring three points and by his own admission didn’t feel respected by his coach. Maxwell missed the forced three-point attempt and famously stormed off the court. He never wore a Rocket uniform again. “That was the worst decision of my life,” said Maxwell. “I’ve run it through my mind a thousand times, all I had to do was sit there, there was a whole lot of series left to play.”
“We were all hurt especially Sam and I because we were tight,” said Ellie. “We lost one of our soldiers, [he] was one of the best teammates I have ever had in my life.”
“[He] thought he was disrespected,” said Cassell. “I told him this wasn’t our series, but he was just, he didn’t understand. We won the championship the year before with him as the starter and he just couldn’t understand the present situation with him coming off the bench.”
Maxwell now knows what he did was no way to be a professional. “I shouldn’t have jumped the gun,” he says.
Maxwell was traded to Philadelphia to play for John Lucas and the 76ers on what would ultimately be a 18-win team. The Rockets would go on to win 48 games that season before losing to Seattle in the second round of the playoffs. The old saying is true: You can’t live with him or without him. The Rockets would fail to return to the NBA Finals without Maxwell on the roster. Maxwell didn’t fare much better, moving on to San Antonio following his one season in the City of Brotherly Love (a year before the team drafted Iverson) and expecting to play with another great center in David Robinson, Maxwell would once again play for a loser. The Spurs hall of fame center would get hurt early in the season and the Spurs would win 21 games under Brian Hill and following Hill’s firing, first year coach Greg Popovich. Maxwell started 31 games for the Spurs and averaged 12.9 points per game. He would fail to reach those numbers again for the remainder of his career while playing for Orlando, Charlotte, Sacramento, Seattle, again in Philly and finally in Dallas. Maxwell enjoyed his time in Sacramento because of the young talent that surrounded him there during the strike season of ‘‘98-’99. “I felt like I was a good fit with the Sacramento Kings, guys like Webber, Stojakovic, Jason Williams, Corliss Williamson and Divac were becoming a good team,” said Maxwell. “Unfortunately the contracts didn’t work out.” Only a few seasons later that Kings team would play the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Maxwell would once again miss a final opportunity to play for a championship during his final year in the league in 2001 with Philadelphia as the team traded him to Dallas before going on a magical run through the Eastern Conference before losing in five games to the Lakers in the Finals.
The glory days of ‘94 were gone and his career over, Maxwell moved to the Charlotte area, played golf and removed himself from any NBA circles, keeping up with close friends but making no overtures to join college or professional coaching staffs. At 50 years old Maxwell still sounds like he’s ready to get back into the game in some way and the league has yet to grant him entry the same way it gave him a hard time coming out of Florida.
“I’m getting my resume together,” said Maxwell from his home in Houston. The veteran guard is interested in getting into coaching like his buddies Ellie and Cassell. “Hopefully I can start at the bottom of some organization and work my way up.” Ellie thinks he can bring something to a team for sure, “Once you’re out of the league [as a player] you have to keep in contact with people and Vernon didn’t do that. He has a wealth of basketball knowledge and I know he’d be a fantastic coach.”
“Vernon did a lot of winning compared to a lot of guys,” said Cassell. However the reputation of the man who at one time was universally called “Mad Max” for good reason-YouTube video of his on-court fight with Michael Jordan-may hinder his opportunities. “Perception is everything in the league,” says Cassell. “Vernon is a great guy but perception is everything.” Maxwell agrees, “When it comes to coaching you have to climb that ladder. I don’t know if it’s because of my past, I’m just waiting for that opportunity to happen for me.”
On March 19 the Houston Rockets celebrated both championship teams and every member was invited back to partake in reminiscing about the good old days. ‘Not-so Mad Max’ made an appearance and was once again a Houston Rocket, if only for a day. “When [he] came back for the reunion everyone welcomed him back with open arms,” said Ellie. “Everybody loves Vernon.”
And you can’t be mad at that.