Gafford finds his level amid frustrating season


WASHINGTON -- When the All-Star break arrived in February, Daniel Gafford just wanted to go home. He had not had many opportunities to do so since entering the NBA in 2019 and he needed a breather after a whirlwind of a season to that point. 

So, he returned to El Dorado, Ark. and saw everyone he wanted to see. He took his family on a surprise shopping trip. He played pick-up with his hometown friends on the same court they grew up on, at a gym a guy he knows rents out for $20.

"There was a lot of stuff up here mentally," Gafford told NBC Sports Washington, pointing to his temple. "So, I had to kind of take a step back and evaluate myself. It was good, I actually got to finally take a break and go back home and reset."

As the Wizards' season swerved off a cliff, Gafford was along for the ride. He began the year as the starting center and enjoyed a significant role until January when his minutes were cut in half. Then, he was replaced in the starting lineup by Thomas Bryant and soon after that missed nearly two weeks due to COVID-19. During his time away, the Wizards traded for Kristaps Porzingis, which pushed Gafford to the bench more permanently. 

The most difficult part seemed to be when his minutes were slashed. The Wizards would start Gafford, then pull him from the rotation after about a quarter's worth of action. He would sit on the sidelines watching Bryant and Montrezl Harrell close out games.

Twice during that period, Gafford apologized to the organization in press conferences for his actions on the bench despite not being asked or prompted to do so. While no fans or media noticed it, he said his emotions get the best of him during games and he didn't want the team to think less of him for it.

"They're gonna think I'm a hothead, they're gonna think I'm not coachable and that's something I don't want hanging over my head. There's a lot of stuff that I'm already dealing with. That's one thing that I'm trying to prevent," Gafford said.

Gafford has a lot on his plate and it goes beyond the basketball court. He is the main provider for an extended family, some here and many more back in Arkansas.

Basketball is the key to him fulfilling that role. Back in October, he signed a contract extension with the Wizards which guarantees his career earnings to reach roughly $46 million through his age-27 season. It's life-changing money, the type that should not only supply a comfortable lifestyle for his family, but set them up for generations.

That was always the goal from when Gafford was a kid. He didn't start playing organized basketball until eighth grade when he was encouraged to try out for his school's team. Up until then, he was an all-region band member, his specialty the bass clarinet.

The more Gafford played basketball, the more people noticed. He credits his middle school coach, Landon Dover, with helping him realize his potential to make the NBA.

"I was a family guy, I was always trying to figure out what can I do for my people to be able to take a lot of stress off of them," Gafford said. "He told me 'you've got a God-given gift, a God-given talent. With a lot of hard work to be able to use that to make money.' I was like 'oh, okay, I like where this is going.' I was like 'so, what would I have to do?' He was like you've just gotta play. Plain and simple. Fall in love with the game and just work.'"

At times that was easier said than done. During his eighth grade season, Gafford's shoes were stolen from his locker. He had to play the rest of the year in a size too small. That was in part because it was hard to find Size 15s in El Dorado.

But it was also because Gafford grew up with modest means. His mother was a janitor, actually, at the school he went to, which gave him an appreciation for hard work, but also the motivation to make enough money to give his family a better life.

"It was rough growing up the way I did, I was always in my head and I overthink a lot of stuff," Gafford said. "It took me time to realize that I have somewhat of a purpose. I have somewhat of a purpose being in this world. I can take care of my family."

Gafford takes that responsibility to heart. He feels he was the "chosen one" to be the breadwinner for his family and to set an example for the next generation, including his sister's kids.

Doing all of that isn't as easy as just playing basketball and making millions. He deals with related pressures of people asking for money and what they should do when the kids are acting up.

"I have a lot going on, as you can see," Gafford said.

Those types of phone calls are more frequent than Gafford would prefer. He says he has to remind his family to give him space and time. He just got a nice new contract, but it hasn't kicked in yet and he has a long list of goals he wants to accomplish. He preaches patience, telling those around him it will be worth the wait.

"[Over the All-Star break] I was able to give back to my family like I really wanted to, finally. So, I finally got to be able to take some weight off my shoulders because I finally got to make my family feel like, okay, this is the life that you guys want to live. I'm gonna give it to you, you've just got to be patient with me," he said.

The seriousness Gafford applies to his job is just one of the things those in the Wizards locker room love about him. Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said he's "great to coach" because he plays hard and is always learning. 

Gafford's Wizards teammates describe him as basically a kid trapped in a 6-foot-10 body. Corey Kispert called him "goofy" and one of his favorite teammates. Rui Hachimura, who is from Japan, marvels at how much Gafford loves Japanese anime. 

"He's always asking me 'what does this mean, what does that mean?' I always answer, but I feel like he knows more than I know, so it's hard for me to answer sometimes," Hachimura said.

While Kispert called him "goofy," Gafford uses the word "clumsy." Or, he might say, formally clumsy.

Back in middle school, when he was a standout clarinet player, Gafford went on a trip to regionals with his bandmates. They stayed in a hotel where he and some friends decided to go exploring. They first spent some time in the pool and then realized there was an unattended weight room. 

As many young kids would do, they found a way to turn it into a competition: who could run the fastest on the treadmill. One of them clocked at 20 miles per hour, a speed Gafford was certain he could beat. So, when it was his turn, he put the burners on and watched it count upward.

He got to 19 and 20 and then to 21.

"As it goes as soon as it hit 21 I tripped over my foot and face-first on the treadmill and it slung me off. I think I still got the scars to prove it," he said, smiling and shaking his head.

Gafford then pointed out all the places he suffered injuries; his face, the left side of his chest, his shoulder. You're probably wondering if he went to the hospital. The answer is no.

"I just put ointment on it and went to sleep," Gafford said. "It was real bad. It was literally like white."

The next day was the big all-region concert. He walked up to one of the band directors whose immediate reaction was "oh my God, what happened?" 

"I was like 'man, if we're being honest, I don't want to talk about it,'" Gafford said.

The show went on and Gafford played his part without a hitch, other than the constant pulling of his shirt away from his skin to ease the pain. It's a story he wanted to share because he feels it shows he's "human."

It also says something about his ability to compartmentalize and persevere. This season has been another lesson for him in that regard.

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