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Massenburg still hanging around NBA

Tony Massenburg (No. 44) guards Andray Blatche during the Washington Wizards preseason practice in Richmond, Va.
Tony Massenburg (No. 44) guards Andray Blatche during the Washington Wizards preseason practice in Richmond, Va.
Steve Helber, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — Clap! Clap!

Tony Massenburg slaps his large palms together, twice for emphasis, as he thinks back to that awful night two years ago and describes the cringe-inducing collisions of concrete pillar on car metal, then car metal on his left leg.

He was in his late 30s and a veteran of 12 NBA franchises when he fell asleep at the wheel while driving home at 3 a.m. and crashed, crushing his ankle. Massenburg was 1 1/2 months removed from winning a championship as a reserve with the San Antonio Spurs, his first ring.

So one might hazard a guess as to what would come next: Time to consider himself lucky to be alive. Time to end the odyssey. Time, clearly, to retire. And those thoughts did cross Massenburg's mind in the summer of 2005, but only briefly.

Instead, here's what stuck: Time to do whatever it takes to get back in the league.

Which is why Massenburg, now 40, is trying to make the Washington Wizards' roster, trying to latch on with what would be his NBA-record 13th club. The forward will be with Washington on Tuesday for its exhibition opener against Cleveland.

Only one other player in his 40s is on a preseason roster, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: Houston's 41-year-old Dikembe Mutombo.

"I would not have been happy never being heard from again," Massenburg said during training camp at Virginia Commonwealth. "I'm out here because I want to finish what I started. I'm out here because I love the game. And I'm out here because I think that I have something to offer."

That would be a big body — 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, chiseled as can be — and an on-court snarl, two things the Wizards do not have in abundance. He's had an offseason home in the area since graduating from Maryland and has worked out for years right under the Wizards' noses at their arena.

That's how Massenburg caught the team's attention, prompting the offer of a nonguaranteed contract shortly before camp.

"They're a little low on bigs," noted Spurs star Tim Duncan, one of Massenburg's many former teammates, "and I think with his experience and his physicality, he'll give them some help."

Massenburg has been offering help here, there and everywhere since he was drafted by San Antonio in the second round of the 1990 draft. His first college coach? Lefty Driesell. One of his teammates as a freshman? Len Bias.

He appeared in 35 games for the Spurs in a ho-hum rookie campaign. Nothing out of the ordinary there, right?

Ah, but keep reading the travelogue.

In 1991-92, Massenburg was with four NBA teams: the Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors. Then came three years of playing in Europe. Back to the NBA in 1994 with the Los Angeles Clippers. The next season began with the Toronto Raptors, before a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then he joined the New Jersey Nets as a free agent. The Vancouver Grizzlies were next, followed by a stint with the Houston Rockets, then back to the Grizzlies, with whom he moved to Memphis (still the same franchise, though, so Massenburg doesn't get to claim another team).

Then the Utah Jazz, the Sacramento Kings and, coming full circle, the Spurs in 2004-05.

Add it all up: 12 franchises, 13 NBA seasons, career averages of 6.2 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Massenburg is frank about his longevity: short games and short seasons.

"I was on some bad teams early, so we were out when the playoffs started," he said with a chuckle. "And I've never been a guy who had to play 48 minutes every single night, so I don't think that I got burned out."

It helped, too, that he always managed to stay in top condition. All of those hours in the gym paid off, year after year.

"I can guarantee he's taking care of his body," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's a hard worker ... and if somebody needs another big on their team, he'd give everything he has."

Which is precisely what everyone associated with the Wizards confirms.

The old man has impressed the young Wizards, the guys in their 20s who don't need to do as much to stay fit.

"T-Mass has done a great job keeping himself up over the years," center Brendan Haywood said. "You would never know Tony Massenburg is 40 until he tells you."

Massenburg's commitment to fitness helped during the slow, depressing recovery from the broken ankle. There were two weeks of bed rest, followed by two months in a cast, followed by month upon month of extensive rehab.

"It was step by step," he said. "Trying to get back the range of motion, and then trying to get back the strength, and then trying to walk, and then trying to jog, and then trying to run, and then trying to run fast, and then trying to play."

Some of that work came alongside Etan Thomas, Washington's burly low-post player who was held out of training camp because of a potentially career-threatening heart problem. The two have been lifting weights and shooting hoops together for about five years, becoming friends along the way.

Massenburg's gravelly voice grows soft as he talks about the awkward situation.

"As bad as I want to be on this team, I don't want to make it under those circumstances," he said. "But he told me, 'You do your thing.' And that's kind of where we left it."

And that, therefore, is Massenburg's aim.

Sure, he knows he might not play in another regular-season NBA game. He also knows what it's taken just to get to this point.

"My heart is in basketball. My heart is in the league. If it happens, that would be great. If it doesn't, I've already accomplished something just being here," Massenburg said last week, his eyes darting around the courts at training camp. "And that will give me more closure than not ever getting a chance."