The Bullets' John Nash couldn't get the kid out of his system. He knew more about Doug Overton than any other NBA general manager did. The thought of Overton's emerging with another team haunted him.
Nash remembered the quick, explosive guard who projected as a first-round pick at La Salle, not the timid player whose confidence was so broken, he needed to go to Australia to repair his ego.
It was a Philly thing -- Nash was the 76ers GM at the time Overton was becoming the all-time steals and assists leader at La Salle, a Philadelphia school rich in basketball tradition.
No other team dared invite Overton for a tryout after the preseason started, but Nash was driven by his hunch. Little did he know the kid would become the Bullets' biggest surprise -- yes, even bigger than Tom Gugliotta.
Overton, 23, didn't sign as a free agent until Oct. 19 and began the season on the injured list, but now he's playing 28.5 minutes per game off the bench, averaging 10.9 points and 5.2 assists.
Tonight at the Baltimore Arena, he plays his first game against the Detroit Pistons, the team that cut him after making him the 40th pick of the 1991 draft. "They haven't done anything to me," he says. "But I want to go out and show them, of course."
Nash deflects credit for his find, saying he had "no excuse" to miss Overton, not after all the games he saw at La Salle. A few years back, he nearly left the Sixers to represent Overton's college teammate, Lionel Simmons. Overton's agent, Steve Mountain, calls him an "old friend."
A friend, a favor.
"Doug Overton owes John Nash big time," Mountain says. "John showed a lot of guts. I'm sure he defied a lot of people in the organization. Teams don't bring in free agents late anymore."
Indeed, every other team passed on Overton this fall, and why not? The kid was rated even with UNLV's Greg Anthony in '91, and Mountain projected him as a top 17 pick. But after he sprained his ankle late in his senior year, his game fell apart.
Overton returned for the conference tournament, but wasn't the same player. He attended pre-draft camps in Orlando and Chicago, but looked horrible.
The ankle was one factor.
The mounting pressure was another.
"When these players think of themselves as first-round picks, they think of multimillion-dollar contracts and long-term security," Nash says. "They dream about it, and pretty much feel it's going to happen.
"Then, when it becomes apparent that it's evaporating -- how would you feel? You're devastated. It's like having a lot of money tied up in a stock that's doing well, and, two months later, it's gone."
Still, Overton figured to get a legitimate shot in Detroit backing up Isiah Thomas. But the Pistons, a veteran team one year removed from back-to-back NBA titles, were a poor fit for a rookie with a fragile psyche.
Overton struggled anew in training camp, and one source recalls that Thomas didn't help matters, playing mind games with his new rival and eventually baiting him into a shoving match. But it was Nash who might have sealed Overton's fate, sending the Pistons Darrell Walker.
That left Overton without a spot, and he landed in the CBA, miserable. He needed to get away. He went far away, to Australia. "The idea," Mountain says, "was to get him playing 45 minutes a game, without feeling anybody was watching him."
Overton loved it. He lived near the beach, and his mother, sister and fiancee flew over. Everything would have been perfect, except his team, the Illiwara Hawks, kept advancing in the playoffs, and he couldn't attend the opening of an NBA camp.
That made Overton a tougher sell -- even to Nash, his biggest supporter. "He kept saying, 'I don't want him, I don't need him, how's he doing?' " Mountain recalls. "He was the only one saying, 'How's he doing?' "
Illiwara finally relented, and Overton came home. The NBA season was just three weeks away, but Nash persuaded coach Wes Unseld to give him a shot. Overton says Unseld spoke more with him the first day than Chuck Daly did his entire time in Detroit.
After that, he needed luck -- specifically, injuries to Brent Price, LaBradford Smith and Rex Chapman -- but now everyone is healthy, and he's still getting most of Price's minutes behind Michael Adams, and some of Smith's behind Chapman.
My, how times have changed.
"I know I can play with the other guards in this league," Doug Overton says. "My confidence is back."