NBA Draft

P.J. Tucker explains ‘Heat Culture,’ feeling good at 36, Pat Riley and why he’s the NBA’s wine king — Andscape

So, are you going to guard Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden?

Miami Heat defensive specialist swingman P.J. Tucker chuckled when asked about defending his old Houston Rockets teammate three days before their Eastern Conference second-round playoff series began. Guarding the NBA’s greatest scorers is why Tucker has been playing in the NBA for 10 years after a five-year stint overseas.

After guarding Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant full court in the postseason last season and Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young in this year’s first round, it was a no-brainer that Tucker would gladly take the unenviable challenge of guarding Harden.

“You know I’m guarding James, for sure,” Tucker told Andscape during a phone call on Friday night. “No doubt. I got to guard James. There’s no two ways around it. He’s important to the team. He is who he is. They look for him to do what he does, and they want him to be him. And to win, we got to have to stop him. So that’s what I do.”

Harden averaged 22 points for the Sixers and Nets during the regular season and has averaged 24.9 points during his illustrious NBA career. But with the physical Tucker shadowing him, the 2018 NBA MVP was limited to 16 points after shooting 5-of-13 from the field (2-of-7 from 3) and attempting just four free throws as the Heat won 106-92 in Miami on Monday night to take a 1-0 series lead.

“Doing my job,” Tucker simply said after the game.

Tucker has averaged just 7.1 points during his NBA career that includes 777 regular-season contests, but all the big scorers respect him. Whether it’s been with the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and now with the Heat, Tucker takes pride in his defense — an elite calling card that has kept him in the NBA. The 36-year-old also won his first NBA title with the Bucks last season and is eyeing a personal repeat with the Heat.

The following is a Q&A with Tucker in which he talks about winning a title, his departure from Milwaukee, being a part of “Heat Culture,” his beloved son King, his sneaker collection, his love of wine, Heat president Pat Riley and much more.

Miami Heat forward P.J. Tucker (left) helped keep former teammate James Harden (right) to 16 points in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series May 2.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

What kind of humility do you have to have to be a great defender and what is the key?

Nobody is 5 years old saying, ‘Yo, I’m locking everybody up when I get to the league.’ It’s not a desirable thing. ‘I get offense. I get buckets.’ That’s what you want to do. At some point, it becomes like a competitive thing, right? Understanding that you’re kind of good at it. If you can stop somebody, then you can make the money and you can really make it a career.

It’s not a desirable job, man. Nobody wants to guard anybody. But from a competitive standpoint, I love the way I came into league, and I made myself in the league being that. It’s like, ‘Nobody wants to guard him. I got him.’ All right. ‘Well, what I got to do to do that?’ I got to study film. I got to study tendencies. I got to study everything. I got to know everybody on the floor. You got to talk. You got to be vocal. You got to be physical. You got to understand the game. You got to understand how games are being read.

There’s so many things as a defender that you got to do in your job that not desirable but you’ve got to be built for, right? Draymond [Green], he’s built for it. That’s what he does. I tell you, Draymond was never like, ‘Yo, I’m going to be a defender. I will just pass the ball and facilitate.’ No, dog. He does his job. It’s a job. He’s one of the most competitive people in the league, but he does his job just as good if not better than anybody in the highest level, championship level. And that’s what it’s about for me. Being a defender’s being the most competitive person out there.

I’m curious as to why you weren’t able to re-sign with the Bucks after winning a championship with them last season.

Look at Andre Iguodala. He’s right back at Golden State. He left and was in the shade for a minute, but he is right back. I feel like every player wants that. That home where everybody loves you and you can go back and it’s love. I felt like I was building that [in Milwaukee]. And then to win it, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, for sure.’ And they just weren’t going over the luxury tax. It just is what it is. They love you and whatever, whatever, but they weren’t going to go over it. They felt like they could replace me, and they did replace me.

Even as a vet being around, it’s like, ‘All right, you f—— replaced me. Cool.’ You figure it out and that’s just what I had to do. And for me, it wasn’t even about money. It was more about respect because they basically told me to go find an offer and they would match it. After hearing that for me, I’m not coming back even if I had to take less money. To me, that was disrespectful. So, as soon as they said that, I told my agent Andre [Buck], basically, ‘We are moving on, whatever we get out of that, that’s what we’re doing.’

“I love everybody. I appreciate everybody. The Bucks fans were amazing. I never expected Milwaukee to be like Milwaukee was. And that whole championship experience, there was nothing like it.”

— P.J. Tucker on his championship run with the Milwaukee Bucks

When you got your NBA championship ring from the Bucks in Milwaukee, were there mixed emotions in that moment?

You think about that moment all the time, but you don’t know until you win it. Picking KD [Kevin Durant] up 94 feet for seven games [in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals], dog … I am not going to lie, after that, I was like, ‘Yo, I thought it was over.’ That’s definitely the hardest thing I ever had to do was guard the best offensive player in the world. That was tough, man. Giannis [Antetokounmpo] got hurt and that was tough. Phoenix got up 2-0 on the series [in the 2021 NBA Finals]. We went through so many trials throughout those playoffs. To win, it was like nothing I ever felt.

I appreciate it for what it was. I love everybody. I appreciate everybody. The Bucks fans were amazing. I never expected Milwaukee to be like Milwaukee was. And that whole championship experience, there was nothing like it.

I know I can go in any restaurant, any bar in Milwaukee, and be good. I can go to any bar or any restaurant in Milwaukee and I got a home. That is better and bigger than anything Bucks-related. If I got the people, the people love me and they respect what I brought and what I did, that is everything. I’ve played there twice now. The love now is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life.

How does your body feel now still in the NBA at age 36?

I told [my agent] that I feel better now than I felt when I was 31 and 32. And he was like, ‘Yo, what?’ I feel like during those two or three years I hit my prime. I’m still in the middle of my prime. From my body to my mind, and the way I play the game and understanding how to win, to be a real winner, I feel like I’m hitting my prime, and it’s crazy, man, to be 36, about to be 37 [Tucker turns 37 on May 5] and still feel like that. It’s crazy. I’ve spent a ton of money on my body, therapists. I take care of my body and I have my whole career. So, that’s a blessing to still be able to be out there and play whatever amount of minutes and do what I do and [put] my body on the line nightly.

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How much longer do you want to play in the NBA?

I’m in the mix. I don’t got time to think about that, man, I really don’t. And the only person I have talked to about it is Jermaine O’Neal. Jermaine O’Neal is my OG, that’s my guy. That’s my No. 1 guy, one of my best friends and that’s my dog I’ve known since my rookie year. He’s always been there to help me out through a lot of s—. And he retired in 2014, and then he was going to make a comeback. And he got hurt trying to come back.

What he told me was: ‘Don’t stop until your body tell you it’s over. Your body’s going to tell you. You’re going to have that moment with you and your body. And you’re going be like, all right, that’s it.’ He said he retired too early. Still had what he thought he wanted to be done because he wanted to play 20 or 21 years, but after [18 years] he said, ‘I’m good.’ He could have still played. He said play as long as you can because once your body tells you, then your heart will follow, and you won’t miss it. You won’t want it no more, because you know can’t do it no more. And that was the last conversation I had about it, and that is the last conversation I’m having about it. And when my body tells me, it tells me. Do I still want to keep up with LeBron [James] and the other [older] players? Yeah. I feel great.

P.J. Tucker was a key player on the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 championship team. “I can go to any bar or any restaurant in Milwaukee and I got a home,” Tucker said. “That is better and bigger than anything Bucks-related.”

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

You have two daughters and a son who are old enough to not only see you play but understand the magnitude of it. What does that mean to you, especially with your 10-year-old son King, who seems to be enjoying every second of your NBA career?

I didn’t cry from the championship. But I have this picture up when they held the trophy up that means everything to me. My son is bawling, crying. It messed me up. I didn’t know he’s crying and I’m celebrating with him, turn him around and he’s bawling. It was the craziest thing for me because it didn’t make me emotional to cry. As happy as I was, I didn’t cry. But he did because he appreciated it that much.

“If I hear ‘Heat Culture’ one more time, I’m going to lose my mind. Heat Culture? You can name a million things. I love that the Heat have bought into it and are like, ‘This is our culture.’ It’s being a [expletive]. It’s being one of the guys. It’s having love for it.”

— P.J. Tucker explaining Miami Heat culture

There is this pride about ‘Heat Culture’ that is always talked about with Miami that is assumed is a perfect fit for you. Now that you’re there, can you explain ‘Heat Culture’ and your role in it?

If I hear ‘Heat Culture’ one more time, I’m going to lose my mind. Heat Culture? You can name a million things. I love that the Heat have bought into it and are like, ‘This is our culture.’ It’s being a [expletive]. It’s being one of the guys. It’s having love for it. Being a hard worker. Being hard-nosed. Putting your nose out there and leaving it out there for your team. That’s all it is and wanting players like that. It’s just dudes that really lay it on the line every night, not being a prima donna, not caring about stuff that other people care about. But really caring about winning and leaving it out there for your teammates. That is all it is.

It’s like, ‘Are you really built mentally to be able to fight for a championship, to really be able to go get it?’ And other teams are able to do that, but the Heat has developed that subculture where everybody buys into it. And I love it, man, I’m good for all that. I’m built for that.

What is Pat Riley really like?

I don’t know if I’ve ever liked somebody as much as I like Pat. Maybe because he’s older. He’s chill. He’s at every practice. He got his pad. He got his pen. He is over there writing. He does not say a word. I don’t know if anybody ever heard Pat say a word at practice. He has not addressed the team. He has not said a word all season. And I’d heard all these Pat Riley stories, so I’m ready for him to start wigging out, come to the locker room and halftime. I have been on teams where owners and presidents come in and say, ‘What y’all doing?’ Bro, Pat Riley hasn’t said one word all year. Hey, I’m telling you all Pat, for me, sends is text messages. Pat text messages with me.

And it’s so crazy because the first one I got, I saw his name and I was like, ‘Oh, I messed up. I don’t know what I did. He saw something on the floor he didn’t like.’ And he said, ‘Hey, ‘Tuck.’ I love it. That’s what I’m talking about. Hey, keep the guys together, keep doing this, keep doing that …’ And it was after the game, I’m driving home, and it caught me off guard. And that, periodically through the season, it’s not a lot, but he’ll text me. And when I see him, we talk cars. He loves old-school cars. I love Pat, his demeanor, how sharp he is, man, and how he still, like, on it. There’s nobody like him. He’s the best.

What is the best thing about being in Miami?

I don’t know what the best part about being in Miami is. I know the worst part is no short flights. Being in Houston for so many years in the middle of the country, we had a lot of two-hour, one-hour-and-a-half, three-hour flights. Every flight from Miami, other than Orlando, is three hours. We have more three-, four- or five-hour flights than anybody in the league. Our flights are something else. But obviously you’ll love Miami. Come on, man. There is nothing like it. I’m by the water in Coral Gables. I can’t complain. The traffic stinks, but once you get to your destination … we by the arena by the water.

Coach gives us our days off and says, ‘Everyone get some Vitamin D today. Go to beach.’ It’s good. But to me, that’s a part of the Heat culture, too. And Coach Spo [Erik Spolestra] has made that a part of Heat culture. Enjoy yourself. It’s a blessing to be here.

P.J. Tucker is known around the NBA for his love for sneakers, and he’s also been a wine collector since 2008. “I’ve been drinking wine before most of these dudes even knew what it was,” Tucker said.

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

What is the key to beating the Sixers?

The key to beating the Sixers is everybody else. Joel [Embiid] is going to be Joel. Joel is so dominant.

Well, but you heard Embiid got hurt? He has a facial fracture.

I heard, but I am not listening to that. Everybody is hurt. I got a strained calf. I got a bum ankle I re-twisted. We can all be questionable for the next game. It’s just the playoffs. It’s about who’s built for this. Who’s going to step up. Who’s going to put the mask on, knee sleeve on, and Icy Hot and be like, ‘I’m going to give you what I got.’ I expect him to play. He’s the MVP of the season.

If the Heat win the title, can you top your speech that you had at the Bucks’ victory parade?

I don’t know about top it. But if I win it this year, I’m going to damn sure try. I’m going to hit my guy from ‘Ace of Spades’ and we’re going to figure it out. But I’m going to try my damn hardest to do it. That’s for sure.

People are enamored with your sneaker collection. What advice would you give to those trying to keep their shoes from aging?

The only thing you could do to keep your shoes amazing is to wear them. You wear them. So, if you don’t wear them, if they’re brand-new, and they get 6, 7, 8 years old, the glue isn’t sealed, they’re not going to last. So, when you wear them, they’re going to break. And that will happen over age anyways, right? But if you want them to last a little bit longer, you got to wear them right away. If you wear them, they’ll last longer.

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And what’s your prized sneaker possession?

My signed Jordan ’94 1s and ’85 1s, easy because Michael Jordan is the greatest ever and my favorite player ever and all that stuff. And my Kanye Yeezy 2 Cheetahs.

What are the conversations like when you, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo are talking amongst each other off the court?

It ranges from superserious because Spo is calling us out because we’re the four. And he’s like, ‘Whatever we are going to do, you four are going to do it.’ and it’s Spo, so we are serious and that’s the conversation, or it’s so light, man, because we all friends. And we all joke and we on that level, too. So, it ranges from the most serious to a lot of, like, the most funny, laughable [conversation] because we all so different and to have us together, it’s crazy.

There is so much talk about the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, CJ McCollum, Josh Hart, etc., being wine guys. But after playing in Europe, you became a wine lover on a high level a long time ago. Is that correct?

I’ve been drinking wine before most of these dudes even knew what it was. LeBron, Melo, all these wine drinkers now. I know more about wine than they will ever know. I’ve been collecting wine since 2007, 2008. I’ve been doing it a long time. I respect everybody and their palette and what they drink. And a lot of guys do the wineries and making their own wine and all that. I’m not into that. I don’t want to do that. The places I would get wine … if I could put my name on it, they would never have me. They would never have anybody because it’s the best of the world.

But, no, honestly, it’s one of those things that it’s easy to get into if you’re around the right people. And as we age and being around people and understanding the culture of it and where it comes from and the people that make it and what goes into the process, that’s the love for it. That’s the stuff that makes you love it. And when you get the product and understand it, there’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like it. And I think the same about food. Some of these chefs in restaurants make some of the best stuff in the world. The best chefs in the world. Same thing.

I’m a Michelin [star restaurant] hunter, so when go to cities, I got to find the best of the best in every city. And everywhere I go it was just pancakes. I do that with everything. I love pancakes for breakfast. Yeah, but dinner and lunch, I find the best spots in every city and do it every time. We try to find different places every year for years.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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