God Is Not Dead

The vastness of God Shammgod's legend always outpaced his on-court performance. But after a long career, the streetball legend seems ready to make his next move.
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Originally published March 22, 2013.

He is now, as he was in his superhuman youth and his brief time on the Providence College campus, more or less the size of a normal person—not too tall, not dauntingly buff or otherwise remarkable in the ways that ordinarily mark legendary basketball players. But many fans entering Alumni Hall for the women’s basketball game between Providence and Notre Dame on March 2 recognized him all the same.

God Shammgod, he of the unforgettable name and dribbling ability, mingled with people who came over for an audience with the ease of a savvy politician. Sitting beneath the basket, he wore a black and white Nike Providence hooded sweatshirt and black sweatpants. His untied black and red Converse sneakers had God inscribed on one side, Shammgod on the other and #7—his uniform number from his former Chinese professional team—on the tongue. He gave out handshakes and hugs, and with them the opportunity for the fans who sought him out to say to their friends and family, I met God Shammgod today. Not every fan will find that interaction all that meaningful, but those who do—who remember Shammgod’s short and dazzling stint at Providence, who understand how much more Shammgod is than that—clearly understood it as a meaningful thing. There are only so many opportunities in life, after all, to get even the briefest audience with God.

Despite leaving after his sophomore season at Providence, having a sometimes tumultuous college career, playing only 20 NBA games and spending most of the past 15 years overseas or in minor leagues, Shammgod remains a basketball cult figure more or less without compare.

And yet there he is, back on campus and, still, the size of a normal man. Sixteen years after leading Providence to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, Shammgod is a full-time student at his former school and in his first season as an unpaid, undergraduate assistant coach for the Friars. He’s hoping to earn his degree in education and leadership next year, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother. And he’s preparing for the next phase in his life. And yet there is still the past, and its long shadow. “He’s a legend,” said Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, a friend since he and Shammgod were teenagers. “Shamm’s a legend, man.”

***

How popular was Shammgod in college? During the Friars’ 1997 postseason run, he caught the attention of director Spike Lee, who named the lead character of He Got Game Jesus Shuttlesworth after seeing Shammgod play.

“I was thinking, that’s a great name,” Lee told the New York Times when the film was released in 1998. “You have a great athlete with a mythical name like that, it even heightens the legend.”

Now, the 6-foot point guard is best known for a move that still resonates. It goes like this: the offensive player throws the ball in front of his body before quickly using his opposite hand to pull it back, perform a crossover dribble and drive past the defender. Clippers guard Chris Paul is fond of the move, as are countless kids, many of whom never saw Shammgod play live in person or on television. Its name? “The Shammgod.”

“I wished I would have copyrighted it,” Shammgod said, laughing.

In a game that happened on the same night as that Providence/Notre Dame women’s game—and which had a significantly higher profile—former Duke Blue Devils guard and current ESPN broadcaster Jay Williams was struck by a particularly deft play from the Miami Hurricanes’ point guard against Duke. “Shane Larkin with that God Shammgod… #OhMy,” Williams tweeted. So God was at that game, too.

He’s everywhere, still, even though Shammgod no longer displays his skills in professional games. He retired last year after hurting his knee. Yet, the man who claims he taught Kobe Bryant how to dribble when they were teammates at the ABCD camp in high school still shows off in scrimmages and in teaching sessions with Providence’s players. “He definitely still has his handle,” Providence point guard Vincent Council said.

Still, for all the fame he has received, Shammgod finally understands that he needs to focus on academics if he wants to get into coaching or any other profession. Once an indifferent student who had trouble concentrating during class, he’s now thinking about what it would be like if he’s able to earn his degree.

“Man, I can’t wait,” Shammgod said. “I’m gonna have a party. And I don’t even party. I’m having a celebration. Where I come from, people don’t graduate from college.”

***

Tom Konchalski, the noted basketball scout, first saw the man who would become God when he was a barely 5-foot tall eighth grader, in a summer league in New Rochelle, N.Y. Konchalski had come to watch high schoolers, but when the game between St. Raymond’s and its opponent was cancelled, he walked out of the gym and up a hill to two outdoor courts. Late in a blowout, Shammgod was making a team from Westchester look silly. Lopsided score aside, he wasn’t about to back down. “Shammgod was putting on like a Globetrotter routine, dribbling through their legs,” Konchalski said. “You would’ve thought he was Marques Haynes or one of those guys.”

Afterward, Konchalski returned to the gym to watch Rice High School and its star freshman, Felipe Lopez, who would become the nation’s top recruit and among the most hyped prep players in history. As Konchalski watched, Shammgod introduced himself. “He said, I’m Shammgod Wells,” Konchalski said. “He was a bit of a character, but a good kid.”

Born God Shammgod, he asked to be called Shammgod Wells as a child, choosing to take his mother’s surname because his father wasn’t part of his life. He grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Harlem as a 12-year old. Smaller than most classmates, Shammgod nonetheless loved basketball. He spent nearly every day going through a ball handling routine that soon became his signature.

“The great Tiny Archibald always told me, If you can dribble, you’ll always have a position on the team,” Shammgod said. Yes, this was that Tiny Archibald, the 6-foot-1 basketball Hall of Famer who once led the NBA in scoring and assists in the same season. Archibald coached Shammgod’s team in the 8th grade at Harlem’s P.S. 175.

Shammgod patterned his game after New York point guards, especially Kenny Anderson, his idol and the player Shammgod still calls “the greatest point guard ever to come out of New York.” Vincent Smith, older brother of former NBA player and current TNT broadcaster Kenny Smith, trained both Anderson—who went to Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, spent two years at Georgia Tech, and then played in the NBA for 14 seasons—and Shammgod. But for all the work that Smith did to shape Shammgod’s game, his reputation was made in a gym without a roof, and thanks in large part to the influence of Antonio “Mousey” Carela, who first introduced Shammgod to New York’s streetball scene. “If it wasn’t for a guy named Mousey, there wouldn’t be the whole legend of Shammgod,” Shammgod said.

Like both Archibald and Anderson, Shammgod made a name for himself as a teenager in pickup games at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park, often against players a decade or more his senior. Said Bill Aberer, Shammgod’s high school coach: “(Rucker Park) is basically where he gained his reputation as being the ball handler that he was…Reputations are made there.”

Shammgod’s was, certainly, although he also excelled in traditional settings. He took the train 45 minutes each way to attend La Salle Academy, an all-boys Catholic high school in Manhattan that then had one of the nation’s top basketball programs. In the ninth grade, the 5-foot-5 Shammgod had 11 assists in his first varsity game; shortly thereafter, he received his first recruiting letter. It was from coach Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech, whose star, Kenny Anderson, had recently been selected second overall in the 1991 NBA draft.

In the summers, Shammgod competed in AAU tournaments and in prestigious events such as the ABCD and Five-Star camps. He started playing for the New York Gauchos AAU team with fellow point guard Stephon Marbury before switching to Queens-based Aim High. Kenny Smith provided the funding for Aim High, according to Kevin Jackson, the program’s coach.

“I remember him best as a defender and a driver,” said Howard Garfinkel, co-founder of Five-Star. “He wasn’t a three-point threat. He wasn’t a great shooter. Terrific defender. Played hard. Made the play. He was a quarterback, you know? He ran the show. You couldn’t take the ball off him.”

As a senior at La Salle, Shammgod averaged 23.7 points and 9.3 assists per game for a squad that included sophomore Ron Artest. He had also matured in the classroom, according to Aberer, who said Shammgod was “borderline” academically as a freshman but made the honor roll as a senior.

After the season, he earned another honor: Shammgod and Marbury were the two New Yorkers named to the 1995 McDonald’s All-American game. In his first national television exposure, Shammgod didn’t disappoint. In the first half, Shammgod dribbled between his legs, behind his back and then pulled up at the foul line and made the jumper. CBS broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery couldn’t believe what they had witnessed. “Greatest handle since The Messiah,” Raftery said.

By then, Shammgod had already made his college decision. He signed with Providence before his senior season, choosing the Friars over Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia, Seton Hall and Rutgers.

If he had waited, Shammgod would almost certainly have received offers from more prestigious programs, but he was glad to reunite with Bobby Gonzalez, a Providence assistant coach who had known Shammgod since he was a sixth grader. “It was a no brainer for me at the time,” Shammgod said.

***

Before he went off to college, Shammgod changed back to his birth name. People warned him that being called God Shammgod would bring unwanted scrutiny. Thing is, that was his real name, and he said Providence wouldn’t allow him to be referred to as Shammgod Wells unless he legally changed the name, which would have cost $500. That was money he didn’t have.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal like everybody else thought it was a big deal,” Shammgod said. “At the end of the day, it worked out. Between the way I play and my name, it just all goes together. I can’t see myself being named anything else.”

Shammgod’s career got off to a rocky start. He sat out the first exhibition of his freshman season for violating team rules, including using a stolen credit card number to make long distance phone calls to his mother and girlfriend. Other students used the card, too. When caught, they were all required to pay back the money. Shammgod also was benched for a January game against Seton Hall for refusing to re-enter an earlier game.

He averaged 9.6 points and 6.5 assists per game as a freshman, but made only 33.6% of his field goals and 20.9% of his three-pointers. He’d improve, but that lack of shooting accuracy was telling: it was something that would hinder his career in college and after, his ungodly handle notwithstanding. That 1995-96 season, there were tensions between Providence’s talented but sometimes immature group of freshmen and veterans such as junior Austin Croshere, a future NBA player. The Friars finished 18-12 and lost in the second round of the NIT tournament.

“I was just young,” Shammgod said. “[Then-coach Pete Gillen] is a great basketball teacher. He can teach you the game of basketball like no other. But there’s a lot of personal stuff that you go through at 19 that he couldn’t relate to, like (current Providence) coach (Ed) Cooley can relate to. That was the immaturity of me at 19, not understanding why (Gillen) didn’t understand certain things. I love him (now). A lot of lessons he was trying to teach me I didn’t understand. It makes sense now.” Gillen, for his part, said Shammgod went through a “learning process” as a freshman in a Big East conference that featured top guards such as Connecticut’s Ray Allen, Georgetown’s Allen Iverson and Villanova’s Kerry Kittles.

Shammgod was learning, but it was a process. As a sophomore, Shammgod failed to show up in court for hitting three parked cars in the Emerald Square Mall parking lot in nearby North Attleboro, Mass. He was ordered to pay $317 in fines but didn’t miss any games. On the floor, Shammgod could be thrilling, self-defeating, or both. The Friars ended the regular season with five losses in their last seven games before defeating Rutgers and West Virginia to advance to the Big East tournament semifinals, where they lost to Villanova by 10 points. They secured a 10th seed in the NCAA tournament and went on a memorable run, beginning with victories over 7th seed Marquette and 2nd seed Duke.

After defeating Tennessee-Chattanooga in the Sweet 16, Providence faced Arizona, which had upset top-ranked Kansas. The Friars trailed for much of the second half and were down by seven points with less than 1:30 left before a three-pointer from Jamel Thomas tied it at 85 with 15 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, Providence forward Derrick Brown forced a turnover near halfcourt. Shammgod picked up the loose ball and pulled up for a jumper from the left elbow. He missed, but the ball went off an Arizona player and out of bounds, giving the Friars a final chance with 3.9 seconds remaining. The Friars inbounded the ball to Corey Wright, who missed a three-pointer as the buzzer sounded. Arizona ended up with a 96-92 overtime victory on its way to the national championship. Shammgod finished with 23 points and five assists in what was arguably his best collegiate performance.

“Anytime he wanted he could get into the lane and create a shot for himself or for his teammates, kick it out for an open three or dump it inside to a big guy for a dunk,” Gillen said. “He was special. His shooting was a little inconsistent at times, but he was a terrific player and he was fun to coach.”

He was also confident.

“No one at any program in the country is better than me,” Shammgod told the Boston Globe in March 1997 after Providence won its first two NCAA tournament games. “And next season, when I work on my shooting, I'll be even better.”

But there would be no next college season. Gillen and others advised Shammgod to return to Providence, but his mind was set. He was ready for the NBA.

***

Soon after the NCAA tournament ended, Shammgod began considering his options. He stopped attending classes and drove to Stamford, Conn. a few times per week to work out with agent Eric Fleisher and fellow college players such as Billups, a friend of Shammgod’s since high school. Gillen, Gonzalez and Aberer were among the people telling Shammgod to stay in school. Instead, he thought he could make an impact in the NBA. He also had a young son and wanted to care for him.

“He listened to some people he shouldn’t have listened to, people in the streets that were telling him what he wanted to hear rather than what he should hear,” Gillen said. “He should have stayed, but he had to do what he thought was best. It was not the right decision. That’s life.”

Numerous reports had the Knicks selecting Shammgod with the 25th pick of the first round, but they ended up taking Syracuse forward John Thomas. “There are rumors every year in the draft,” Fleisher said. “The hope was that he would go some place in the late first round. In his instance, he was coming off a terrific season, and people were projecting an upside, but there were an awful lot of guards in that draft. It’s not a perfect science.” Shammgod fell to the second round, where the Washington Wizards took him with the 45th overall choice. He spent just one season with Washington, and appeared in only twenty games. When he was healthy enough to do so, Shammgod backed up both Rod Strickland, who led the league in assists and made second team All-NBA, and Strickland's backup, Chris Whitney; he averaged just 7.3 minutes per game.

Still, he was recognizable in a way few end-of-the-bench rookies have been. Before a game against the Chicago Bulls, Shammgod was working out when Michael Jordan approached him. Jordan had bet $500 that Providence would defeat Arizona a year earlier. He wasn’t about to let Shammgod off easy. “He was like, The whole world wanted you to win,” Shammgod said. “I just started laughing. He was like, 'You owe me $500.'”

The debt would wait. His small size, immaturity and inability to consistently make his outside jumper cost Shammgod another shot at the NBA. “He had the speed—he was very quick,” said Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff, Shammgod’s coach with the Wizards. “He could get where he wanted. I called him a burner. I just thought he was one of those kids who needed more time (in college) and maturity to stay (in the NBA). But I thought he was a great kid.” After the Wizards released Shammgod in February 1999 before the strike-shortened season began, he played one game with the La Crosse (Wisc.) Bobcats and then left the team. He had played his last NBA game, but his basketball career was a long way from over.

***

Shammgod became a basketball vagabond, playing for teams in the Dominic Republic, Poland and Saudi Arabia and the USBL. His best professional moments came in China, where he spent several seasons and made a nice living. Few people spoke English when he first arrived there, but he eventually settled into the country, although he wasn’t a big fan of the local cuisine. He ate most of his meals at T.G.I Friday’s and also frequented McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC. “China’s always going to be like a second family to me,” Shammgod said. “I have a great relationship with the people in China.”

It was a lucrative one, too. When he first got to China, Shammgod said he was paid $20,000 per month for playing from September through March. Eventually, he claimed he received monthly payments of $48,000 for 12 months. He also had his housing and many other living expenses compensated for by his Chinese team.

“I was getting paid so much at that time that I was like, 'Yo, at this point I’ve just got to take care of my family,'” Shammgod said. “That’s what’s best for my family. I was still getting treated like an NBA person (overseas). I was like, Do I want to sacrifice and play summer league (in the United States) and stuff and things like that or do I want to take care of my family? At that point, my family took precedent over anything. When I was young, my father wasn’t there for me until I was 20. I always promised, no matter what, I would take care of my kids to the fullest and always be there.”

For all the talk that Shammgod should have returned to Providence for his junior season, Shammgod himself claims not to have any regrets. “I don’t think life gives you mistakes,” Shammgod said. “I’m just happy I was blessed enough and talented enough to get my name called for the NBA and be in the NBA atmosphere. I wouldn’t exchange that experience for the world.”

During the summers, Shammgod returned to his home in Monroe, N.Y. and visited his old neighborhood and former high school. By then, “The Shammgod” move had become a sensation. Shammgod even discussed “The Shammgod” in a 2010 commercial for Converse. The shoe company had signed him to an endorsement deal, more than a decade after his last NBA game.

“He’s a playground legend in New York,” said Charlotte Bobcats guard Ben Gordon, who grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. before helping Connecticut win the 2004 NCAA tournament title. “Everybody in New York knows who Shammgod is. He’s one of New York City’s best.”

***

Last May, Providence held a 15-year celebration for the Friars’ 1997 team. Most players and coaches attended, as did hundreds of fans. Gillen hadn’t seen Shammgod for a while, and while he was struck by how personable and charming Shammgod had remained, it was also clear that much had changed. “He certainly matured a lot,” Gillen said. “He’s a good person. I’m very happy for his success. I think it’s a great decision by him to go back and get his degree.” It was, Gillen added, great to meet Shammgod’s sons.

Shammgod now has four children, all boys. His oldest, Shammgod Wells, is a 5-foot-10 point guard for Believe Prep Academy, a prep school in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He graduated last year from La Salle Academy, his father’s alma mater, but didn’t receive much recruiting interest. Kevin Jackson—Shammgod the Elder’s former AAU coach and now an assistant coach at Believe Prep—said the younger Shammgod is considering playing for smaller Division 1 programs such as Quinnipiac, Canisius and South Carolina State.

Shammgod first thought about getting back into the classroom a couple of years ago when he returned to Providence to rehabilitate an injury. He credits athletic director Bob Driscoll and associate athletic director Steve Napolillo for encouraging him. This past fall, Shammgod joined coach Ed Cooley’s staff as an undergraduate assistant coach. Per NCAA rules, he must be enrolled as a student at Providence to keep the position; he is allowed to work out players, attend practices, travel with the Friars and sit on the team’s bench during all games. He cannot be paid other than receiving financial aid. He cannot scout opponents or perform any recruiting functions. He doesn't mind any of that.

“I’m blessed,” Shammgod said. “The school has bent over backwards to make sure I’m okay, and I’ll do the same for them. There’s really nothing to complain about.”

This summer, Shammgod plans on taking more classes and continuing working out Providence’s players as well as NBA players such as Ben Gordon. Shammgod first helped Gordon when Gordon was in high school, and the two have remained close. “He has a lot of things he can teach me, especially from a ball handling aspect,” Gordon said. “He’s definitely the best ball handler I’ve ever seen. I haven’t met anybody that handles the basketball like him.”

The relationship between Billups and Shammgod is also strong. They met as teenagers on the AAU circuit, Billups playing for the Oakland Soldiers in California and Shammgod playing for New York City teams. Although they were never teammates and their careers turned out much differently, they have stayed in touch for more than 20 years.

In February, Shammgod visited Billups when the Clippers played the Celtics in Boston, around an hour from Providence. Shammgod took the short trip to the Celtics-Lakers game, too, catching up with old friends such as Kobe Bryant, Artest—now, of course, the enlightened being known as Metta World Peace—and assistant coach Darvin Ham.

“Too many times you see stories out there of guys whose NBA careers didn’t pan out just kind of fall off the face of the Earth and struggle in life,” Billups said. “I’m very proud of Shamm for just sticking with it. I think he’s using the tools that God gave him to the best of his abilities.”

Earlier this month, Shammgod was in a reflective mood. Discussing his past, he took his cell phone out of his pocket and showed a picture of Tyrone Evans, a friend since competing against each other on the New York City playgrounds. Best known as “Alimoe”, his nickname from traveling the country with the AND1 Mixtape Tour, Evans had died in late February from complications from diabetes. Shammgod planned on attending the funeral a few days later. Evans was only 37 years old. He was 6-foot-7, a terrific athlete and seemingly healthy. He still played basketball all the time.

“Life is too short not to live the dream, you know?” Shammgod said. “I’m in the right place at the right time. I’m in the place where God wants me to be at right now.” Once again, that place is Providence. Once again, what's next is in Shammgod’s hands.


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