"I'm working out, trying to stay in shape," Dampier said Saturday during a visit to Humphrey Coliseum. "And waiting around to see which team is going to need my services." That's how confident he is that between now and playoff time a squad needing a proven postman will call him in his current Jackson address. It's where he spent the recent holidays while the delayed National Basketball Association season finally got underway, and six months removed from a championship series season with the Miami Heat.
"That's the first Christmas I've been home in fifteen years," Dampier mused. "It was nice for a change. But I don't want it to become a habit." Or at least not yet. At age 37 the New Hebron native knows the end is not all that far away. But there are still miles and games left in the legs, not to mention the well-maintained upper physique. Dampier says he's still around 270 pounds and ready to go at a moment's notice.
"I mean, I think I could play another two or three years if I just stay healthy, no problems, continue to work out and just keep my body in shape. That's been the biggest key for me, staying in shape year-round and I try to do that during the summer."
For the meanwhile though, Dampier attends to other matters without letting that telephone keep him captive. Another impromptu benefit of the waiting game is getting to watch games, such as Saturday's trip back to the old home court where ‘Big E' helped write the proudest chapter in modern Mississippi State hoops history. By happy coincidence, Dampier got to watch a game that would have suited his own Bulldog style back in the day, as the present club bumped and thumped and lumped with Alabama before winning at crunch time.
"It's always good for me to come back. You know, Rick (Stansbury) recruited me and I'm a fan of him. This is where it all started for me and any time I can come back here and help the guys out, talk to Rick, tell him what I see and things I don't see, just my experience can be a great asset to him."
Funny, how he should say ‘asset'. Because thanks to a whole lot of assets he has been able to accumulate over a decade-and-half drawing NBA paychecks, there is beautiful practice court bearing the name of Dampier and former teammate/current business partner David Rula. It is part of the old Hump's shiny new front porch, the Mize Pavilion.
Everyone who knew Dampier as a collegian was confident this would not turn out to be one of the too-familiar stories of a small-town kid who once flush with big-time cash would go crazy. Not Erick, not at all. Ever since turning pro after his junior season he has been willing to listen to offers…and demanding to convince. This sale, though, was easier than most when Rula made the suggestion they get involved with State's planned practice gym.
"And I just thought it would be something good to do for the team, for the University. They didn't really have a practice facility when I was here so me and the Rulas giving back, I think it's great for the team and great for the University."
Dampier isn't exaggerating a bit about lack of a practice gym. Well, not unless one counts the since-dismantled Tin Gym where Bulldogs would gather for pick-up play along with any other student daring the concrete surface and rims that made anything but a netter or dunk unpredictable.
Fun memories, to be sure. But not the most efficient medium for impromptu practicing, entirely unlike what this and future Bulldog generations will enjoy now. "Oh yeah, it's a big-time upgrade," Dampier says. "It's great, they might have to get me back a little bit more often now that they've got a practice facility." Naturally this is one alumnus who won't have to ask permission for entrance. For that matter Dampier has shown up in Starkville on other occasions, and talks to Stansbury every couple of months or so. With this first winter-off, he was able to catch State's game in Jackson last month. And a year ago he did a quick session with Jackson native and still-developing Dog postman Renardo Sidney, so as to offer the coach an expert's opinion.
"I worked out with Sidney for an hour or so just to see his skill set. He was young and didn't truly understand the game, he had the skill and talent. He just needed to be pushed and motivated to work harder."
There are few former Bulldogs with more authority to speak on the subject of working harder. Today's generation might not believe it but waaaay back when there were basketball scouts projecting a limited ceiling for the stout, strong, but not especially smooth post prospect out of Lawrence County High. "Well, I think I was highly recruited!" Dampier jokingly objects…though those familiar with him can tell that yes, such long-ago comments still rankle him just a little bit.
And candidly, Dampier admits the doubters had a point at the time.
"Like you said, when I came here I was mainly just a rebounder and shot blocker and it took years and years to work on my offensive game. I just kept working on it and working on it and eventually it got to the point I can score easily in the post. I had people behind me working with me, pushing me, and giving me the opportunity to show I really can score."
Dampier still ranks 21st in all-time State scoring, fifth in rebounds and second in blocked shots; all accumulated in just three seasons before turning professional. His finest college hours of course came in Mississippi State's remarkable March of 1996 when Coach Richard William's club won the school's first SEC Tournament title ever; then put together a four-win, two-weekend NCAA streak that carried them to the Final Four. It ended there, but memories burn bright all these winters later.
So much so Dampier wasn't just an automatic choice for the 100-Year Team, he shares ‘starting five' status within the elite of the elite.
"I mean, you're talking about some of the great players that have come through this program. Just to be next to Bailey Howell says a lot about me. It didn't happen overnight. It took years and years of work. And hey, I'm just happy to be part of that team. All the work has paid off and it's just one of the accomplishments of it."
Of course getting paid to play for 15 years is quite the accomplishment, too, especially in a league where careers can burn out so soon. From his start with Golden State, to the big years with Dallas, and this past season on South Beach with a team assembled by Hollywood… "A lot of ups and downs," Dampier says.
"I'd say the best thing for me, I've been to the Finals twice, once with Dallas and once Miami. And those opportunities don't come along too often in the NBA so when you get there you've got to make the most of it. It was a great ride, I enjoyed those two teams that I was on, I had a great experience to play with some of the greatest guys in the league last year. I wish it would have ended differently but I definitely enjoyed the run."
And, hopes he has another run or two still in store. Until the call comes he'll stay involved with off-court business, most notably his own Foundation which sends children to camps all around the country. NBA playoff demands meant putting his own Jackson camp on hold for the last four years but Dampier expects to resume it next summer.
And he'll of course keep track of his alma mater's fortunes. The 2012 team, he says, definitely has the talent and is off to a strong start. Though, "It's not how you start, it's how you finish. A lot of people are always referencing this team to that '96 team; I think its two totally different teams!" His own team assuredly finished strong after a few mid-season stumbles.
Dampier stays in touch with some of those teammates, mostly Jackson area residents like Rula and Whit Hughes. And naturally his most popular partner of the time, Daryl Wilson who a year ago ended his own pro career after lots of productive years in Europe. Not just fiscally productive, but calorically too because the much-loved ‘Super D' packs a few more pounds.
Never mind that though. How proud is Dampier of his old comrades? "Well, you can take the '96 team and go get those guys together, and we'll come play this team now and we'll still win!"
Anyone care to question that? After all, winning is something Dampier has been good at for a long time. A very long time to judge again by those fading follicles, huh Erick?
"Yeah, too much of it actually! I mean, I wish I didn't have it, I've tried to dye it black a couple of times but I didn't like that! So I was like, guess I'll just leave it gray!"