Before every tipoff, the Indiana Pacers form a circle and jump in unison around a certain player who grimaces, shouts and waves his arms in an effort to create a motivating frenzy.
But this ritual isn’t led by All-Star center Roy Hibbert. Or budding All-Star Paul George. Or veteran power forward David West. Or any other starter, for that matter.
The man in the middle of it all is 6-foot-9 reserve forward/center Jeff Pendergraph. He never starts, doesn’t always play but is always the pregame rallying point.
He not only embraces the role, he takes it quite seriously.
The Pendergraph File
Name: Jeff Pendergraph
Team: Indiana Pacers
Position: Reserve center/forward
Born: Ontario, Calif.
Weight: 250 pounds
College: Arizona State, economics major
Draft status: Selected first pick, second round (31st overall) by the Sacramento Kings in the 2009 NBA Draft. Draft rights traded to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Acquired: Signed a free-agent contract with Indiana prior to the 2011-12 season.
Family: Wife of almost one year, Raneem. The couple is expecting their first child, a daughter, in June.
Pets: A Maltese/Yorkie mix dog named J.J. (Jeff Junior)
Favorite food: “My wife’s baked barbecue chicken.”
Favorite movie: “Grandma’s Boy”
Favorite musician: Wiz Khalifa
Favorite pastime: “Working on cars. My dad’s a mechanic and owns his own shop.”
Favorite athlete: NBA All-Star forward Kevin Garnett
One thing fans would be surprised to know about you: “I was born with 12 fingers and 12 toes. The extra digit on all my hands and feet were removed by doctors when I was a baby.”
One item on your bucket list: “Go to the Indy 500.”
“I feel like I’m the motivational leader for the guys,” Pendergraph said before a recent home game. “I don’t just do that pregame huddle stuff for kicks and giggles. I really try to get everybody going all the time.”
And those around Pendergraph respond because he’s earned their respect with his energetic personality, work ethic and the adversity he’s overcome to earn a living in the NBA. Although he’s appeared in only 10 games this season, and played in just 20 last year, he provides a unique leadership quality the franchise finds indispensable.
“He’s one of the best locker-room guys I’ve ever been around, honestly,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that’s not just coach-speak.
“He’s got an incredible spirit and positive attitude, whether he’s playing or not.”
Pendergraph, who played at Arizona State at the college-level, was selected with the first pick of the second round in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. His draft rights then were traded to the Portland Trail Blazers
Pendergraph’s rookie year in Portland, however, was disrupted by pre-season hip surgery, and he missed the first 27 games. He spent most of his first season getting back to speed while averaging 10.4 minutes per game.
He made a full recovery in time to score a career-high 23 points in the final regular-season game of his rookie year. With such a dominant performance, Pendergraph thought his future was bright in Portland.
“It had me really excited about the offseason and the upcoming season,” he said. “My emotions were really high and I was confident in myself. I felt like, once I came back from the summer, I wanted to have a great training camp and earn that sixth-man spot.”
But during the second pre-season game of his second season, Pendergraph injured his right knee. Initially, doctors thought it was just a sprain, but an MRI later revealed a torn ACL. His season was over before it started.
Devastated and disappointed, Pendergraph had a difficult time processing the deflating news.
“At first, I thought (the doctor) was messing with me,” Pendergraph said. “But it didn’t hit me until later on, during the drive home. I was sitting in the back seat of his car, and all of the sudden, I started crying.
“I had such high hopes for that year.”
Pendergraph eventually came to grips with the circumstances and steeled himself to make a full recovery after the surgery, which took place in Chicago.
But while boarding the plane from Chicago to Portland after the procedure, Pendergraph received a phone call from his agent informing him that he probably would be waived by the Trail Blazers.
Upon arrival in Portland, Pendergraph’s release was confirmed. But the Trail Blazers’ management assured him that it was only necessary because they needed to fill his roster spot with another big man. Team officials told Pendergraph he could still be around the team and prepare for a return the next season.
“But after a little while, that changed,” Pendergraph said. “I couldn’t get into the practice facility any more. I couldn’t get into the games any more. After that, it got real depressing. I hated rehab. I was stuck in Portland. It was already kind of sad up there because it rains every day.
“I was missing home. I was really low.”
At one point, he doubted he would ever return to the NBA.
“There were a couple of dark times where I didn’t think I was going to play basketball again,” he said. “I didn’t know if any teams would want to take a chance on me coming back from another injury.”
But he put his worries aside and embraced the rehab process, a grueling regimen based on mixed martial arts that healed his body, changed his mindset and altered his life.
“My confidence just started getting really high, and my faith got stronger,” Pendergraph said. “I started going to church, and a whole lot of things happened to help flip my outlook.
“I just got back to that underdog mentality.”
And it worked.
Signed by the Pacers prior to the 2011-12 season, he’s had a welcoming NBA home ever since.
“I was extremely excited,” Pendergraph said. “It was the best opportunity I had. What (former Pacers president) Larry Bird and (former general manager) David Morway were offering me was huge. I was really lucky and blessed to accept it.”
Pendergraph wasn’t the only one excited. Hibbert, who had gotten into an on-court altercation with Pendergraph during their rookie seasons, was happy the Pacers signed him.
“I had seen his intensity in that game against Portland when things got chippy,” Hibbert said of Pendergraph. “Once he came here, he was a person I was glad to have on our team. We joke about that game from time to time.”
But on the day Pendergraph signed his contract with Indiana, he sprained the same knee he spent a whole year rehabbing.
Pendergraph said he was nervous about getting cut again and being labeled injury-prone. But Bird and Morway alleviated his worries.
“They just kept telling me not to get down on myself as I kept working back from my injury,” he said. “Larry would just tell me that they loved my game and personality, and to take my time coming back from my injury. He told me once I recovered I would have my opportunities to play. “
Although playing opportunities have been limited the past two seasons, Pendergraph makes the most of his playing time.
Against the visiting New York Knicks last week, Pendergraph logged season-highs in minutes (nine) and points (six).
But even when he doesn’t get into the game, Pendergraph wants his impact to be felt.
“I try to push myself to be the best I can be so I can make all my teammates better,” he said. “I try to be the best leader I can be without making the big bucks or playing the big minutes.”