Rescue Me

02.19.09 9 years ago 47 Comments
Rodney StuckeyRodney Stuckey (photo. Tom McKenzie)

I knew everything that I needed to know about Rodney Stuckey to write this feature before I ever spoke with him. His step-mom Diane McElhinney took about an hour out of her day to tell me a story that she says has never been “fully explained”. But ultimately, the details of exactly how her family and the Stuckey family becoming one, “big, beautiful, blended family” aren’t important. In her mind – and in mine – the take-away from their tale is Rodney’s resiliency, which applies to their family life and his basketball exploits in equal measure.


Rodney Stuckey has been blessed to get help on his road to success. But he’s at his best when he’s the one to come to save the day.

On January 17, the Pistons gave away Rodney Stuckey bobbleheads to the first 10,000 fans through the doors at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Though the release of all those mini-Stuckeys might seem insignificant to everyone who isn’t a 10-year old, it is a physical symbol of the Pistons’ confidence in their investment; you don’t get something created in your likeness until you’ve actually made it. But Rodney Stuckey’s path to immortalization in plastic – to officially making it – wasn’t cut and dry.

As the point guard equivalent to an NFL tailback, Stuckey inspired the Pistons’ brass’ utmost confidence, so much so that they shipped off Chauncey Billups, the ultimate floor general in today’s NBA, for Allen Iverson, a prolific scorer with a shaky record at the point. With Stuckey largely waiting in the wings, the first fifteen games of the AI experiment nearly boiled over into catastrophe. Suddenly, a veteran unit that hadn’t finished below .600 since ’00-01 was well under .500 with their new-look squad one month in, looking like an out-of-sync intramural team.

Instead of watching, waiting, and hoping that things would turn around, Stuckey injected new blood and new life into the team when they needed it most. Coach Michael Curry inserted him into the starting lineup after an awful three-game stretch (losses to Philadelphia, New York and Washington), and just as quickly as they fell from grace, they sprung right back. After the Pistons reached the brink of desperation, Stuckey was the catalyst behind their mid-season renaissance.

“Stuckey to the rescue,” laughs fourth-year forward Jason Maxiell when asked about Rodney’s arrival. “I think what makes him special is that he can adjust in the blink of an eye. He learned a lot from Chauncey, and what he doesn’t know he picks up so quickly.”

During this stretch, he’s easily been the Pistons’ best player, boosting his averages from 9.2 ppg and 4.1 apg off the bench to 18.4 ppg and 5.8 apg as a starter, hanging a career-high 40 points on Derrick Rose and the Bulls, 38 on the Kings, and another 30 on the Pacers. His airtight handle and watery jumper, which have had scouts going gaga since he declared for the ’07 NBA Draft following two monster years at Eastern Washington, shined during this stretch like never before.

Rodney StuckeyRodney Stuckey (photo. Tom McKenzie)

That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, especially those who tuned in for Stuckey’s performance in the Eastern Conference Finals last June. Even though he’d been playing in sandbox gymnasiums in the middle of Montana and Idaho roughly one year earlier at Eastern Washington, Stuckey checked onto the parquet floor on the biggest stage imaginable and wasn’t fazed at all. And once he got into the game, he extinguished the fire Boston started in Game One of the series. Though he logged only 17 minutes in Game Two, Stuckey was a handful for Rajon Rondo, using his muscular physique to wedge into the Celtics’ vaunted defense for 13 points, three assists, and two steals. All in all, he tallied 9.8 points and 2.8 assists per game during that series despite seeing just over 22 minutes of tick per game.

“Last year’s playoffs were really big for Rodney,” says Pistons coach Curry. “To do the things he did in the playoffs when we needed it lets you know that he has a chance to be a star in this league.”

Perhaps Pistons president Joe Dumars realized what he’d unearthed before that series. But under the national spotlight, the rest of the world got their first glimpse at this point guard who picks defenses apart with a dynamic blend of fast-twitch explosiveness, brute strength and basketball acumen. Though it was only a quick glance, it was enough for the Pistons to start reshaping some plans in order to best feature his skill set.

But there was one minor problem with the new arrangement: with Allen Iverson being the type of NBA talent who doesn’t come off the bench, how could Detroit actually get the lineup that featured Stuckey on the floor without ruffling any feathers?

Curry moved longtime Pistons star shooting guard Richard Hamilton to the bench so that Stuckey could run free; that’s how good they thought he’d be. It was a much-needed change, reflected not only in Curry’s lineup but also in the comments made by the rest of the team after suffering some bad losses.

After the Knicks game, Tayshaun Prince spoke prophetically about the need for something, anything to happen to lift the Pistons out of their hole. “It’s taking a really long time to get out of this, which is mind-boggling because we do have a veteran group,” Prince said. “When you make a trade, you want that guy in training camp with the team. You wouldn’t think that it’d take a team this long. You’d like to think that 15 games is enough time, but it hasn’t been. But maybe 15 games isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s that we need something else.”

Cue Stuckey’s entrance music. The very next game, Curry backed off the sixth-starter label. As opposed to the 18 minutes that he saw in Madison Square Garden, Stuckey played double-time: 36 minutes as a starter two nights later at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Rodney ripped off 10 points and 11 dimes in that game, sealing his place in the starting lineup.

Locking up the starting point guard duties in Detroit is basically basketball’s equivalent to being named the Red Wings’ starting center. Since 1986 there have only been four guys to hold this job down for any real period of time: ‘Zeke, Lindsey Hunter, Chucky Atkins, and Chauncey. That’s a serious legacy to uphold.

“I took it as my responsibility to show Rodney how to run the team and orchestrate an offense first,” says Chauncey, “and then learn when to look for his shots. He can take a game over from there.”

While Chauncey deserves credit for helping to shape Stuckey’s game, he’s always been the type of player and the type of person to give his best in spite of trying circumstances. Stuckey’s journey has been one of success through struggle.

“I’ve seen the world in many different ways,” says Stuckey. “I’ve seen it from the ‘hood, and I know how that game is played. I know right and wrong, good and bad. I have a real strong mom who had seven kids and struggled to get through life. But at the same time, I’ve seen it from the other side of the street.”

Rodney StuckeyRodney Stuckey (photo. Tom McKenzie)

Well, maybe Stuckey hasn’t actually seen life from the other side of the street, but he’s definitely experienced it a couple houses away from where his mother Faye raised him near Seattle. At some point during Rodney’s teenage years, the Stuckey household had grown to capacity, as Faye’s seven children demanded an increasing amount of her time and attention. So Faye reached out to Diane McElhinney—whose son Matthew played on the Kentwood (Wash.) High School basketball team with Rodney and his brother LaRon—and asked for help.

“Life wasn’t always so good,” says Rodney. “I dealt with stuff that a lot of people haven’t had to. But the McElhinneys have been there since we were in that position. We became one big family, and really we grew together. It really is like stuff that you only hear about in movies.”

Over a period of time, the Stuckeys and McElhinneys merged into one big, beautiful, blended family, with Rodney and LaRon living up the street. “I think that there are so many different levels that it all worked on,” says Mrs. McElhinney. “And the most important part of all of it was the relationship that I had, and continue to have, with Faye. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. She’s the real hero here. And we both want what’s best for our children.”

In truth, Rodney is the child of all three parents. In college, he was listed in his player bio as, “Son of Faye Stuckey and Diane and Brent McElhinney.” Likewise, Rodney understood the responsibility of being a son to them all, as he put himself in their various positions on a daily basis. He made Diane laugh by playing pranks on her son Jeremy, sneaking into his closet when he’d go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and jumping out to scare him when he came back. He put Faye first at times, consulting her opinion on major issues.

“Whenever there was an important decision,” says Diane, “and this is key – any important decision – Faye is absolutely the person Rodney turns to. And I was fortunate to be included.”

Even after Rodney left Kentwood for Eastern Washington, he’d still come back home and bring that same positive perspective to the foster children that the McElhinneys had taken in since he’d been gone. Stuckey would bring them upstairs and play ball with them, as he could see where they were coming from as well.

“He does see things through those different lenses,” says Diane, “and he does a couple of things. He picks the best of what he’s seeing. And he learns what he needs to learn to make himself the best.”

Rodney’s ability to filter his own lens so that he’s able to extract the positives without letting the negative hurt him has helped to make the most of his personal life and his career. Though Rodney was widely considered one of the best high school players in the state of Washington his senior year, as evidenced by Kentwood’s 26-2 record, a Class 4A state title, and an MVP performance in that tournament, the top colleges in the Pacific Northwest backed off of his recruitment when Stuckey failed to meet NCAA academic eligibility requirements. He could have gone JUCO, but opted to sit out for a year at Eastern Washington instead.

“In college, I knew who I was, and I knew the player that I was going to be,” says Rodney. “I was always in the gym working out – I never really went out that much. I’d lift in the morning after class, and then shoot for hours, not knowing how many shots I was taking. I knew it wasn’t the traditional path. But I didn’t care – I knew my time would come.”

Instead of letting this year away from official competition knock him off his feet, Stuckey took it in stride, and worked like a dog to improve his game. And when he wasn’t taking hundreds of jumpers, Stuckey was making a mockery of the Eastern Washington intramural basketball program, hanging about 45-50 points on Eastern’s student body every time out. He just wanted to get a game in – it wasn’t like he was trying to embarrass the non-varsity athletes.

After a full year of destroying the guys playing in running shoes, Stuck was ready for the Big Sky. But they weren’t necessarily ready for him. As a freshman, he won Big Sky Player of the Year, slaughtering the field for 24.2 points 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game, becoming the first rook to take home that hardware. He put up a repeat performance of virtually identical numbers in his sophomore season before declaring for the Draft.

“When I entered the draft, I knew that I was ready,” says Rodney. “It wasn’t a whirlwind for me. That’s how you grow up – you have to challenge yourself, you have to confront challenges. You gotta be
a man.”

The concept of personal struggle makes little sense to Stuckey. As a person and a player, he doesn’t really see how negative influences could hurt him. He’s too focused on helping his family – the Stuckeys, the McElhinneys, the Pistons – achieve success. In his 22 years, Rodney has been blessed to get the help that he needed to get to this juncture. But if he’s going to continue to rise and realize his potential as the future of this franchise, there better be another obstacle in his path.

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