CHICAGO – There are a host of players from all over the world at the Wintrust Arena trying to impress NBA scouts and executives withDampier their basketball skill set.

Erick Dampier was one of them back in the day.

In 1996, Dampier was a 6-11 hot-shot center out of Mississippi State who came to the NBA Draft Combine in hopes of ultimately increasing his stock in the draft.

“It’s very excited during that time, and I was just happy to be part of it,” Dampier told “At that point you just know your name is in the draft. You don’t know where you’re going to be drafted.

“You know you might go (to the NBA Draft Combine) and impress one of those general managers and be drafted a little higher. You work so hard your whole life, and just getting the opportunity to play on the highest level of basketball is hard.”

Dampier led Lawrence County High School in Monticello, MS, to a pair of state championships before moving on and guiding Mississippi State to an appearance in the Final Four during his junior year in 1996. From there, it was on the NBA Draft Combine, and then Dampier was eventually drafted No. 10 overall by the Indiana Pacers in the 1996 NBA Draft.

“It was always a dream of mine to play in the NBA,” Dampier said. “If that dream was going to be a reality, I didn’t really know. I used to always watch Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), and then go out and try to do some of the moves that they did when I was a kid.

Dampier“And then as I began to get older and my skill set got better and my talent got better, it just made me a better player playing against some of the top tier talent in the state and nationally. That was always my goal. Whether I achieved it or not, I always worked toward it and I just kept getting better and got an opportunity to get a scholarship at Mississippi State and play there my freshman year. “

From there, Dampier’s career began to blossom.

“I had the opportunity to get my name into the draft after my sophomore season, and I was like, ‘Man, this is going to be a reality and a real thing for me now that I’ve worked so hard,’ “ he said. “I ended up going back to school for my junior year and I had a great year and went to the Final Four, and after that year I decided to come out and enter my name into the draft again and I ended up being a lottery pick.”

Allen Iverson was in the same draft class with Dampier and was chosen No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.

“That was no surprise,” Dampier said. “We pretty much knew going in that he was probably going to be the number one pick. He was a very talented player, very exciting player and very fun to watch.”

Kobe Bryant was drafted 13th overall — in the same draft class with Dampier. In retrospect, Dampier said of the epic NBA career Bryant established: “He was a young kid out of high school. Whoever thought that he was going to be that type of player? You never really know what players are going to develop into.”

Steve Nash also was in Dampier’s draft class and was chosen No. 15 overall by the Phoenix Suns.Dampier

Dampier wound up playing 16 seasons in the NBA, including for the Dallas Mavericks from 2004-10. He was on the Mavs’ team that advanced to the 2006 NBA Finals and was a teammate of LeBron James and a member of the Miami Heat squad that lost to the Mavs in the 2011 NBA Finals.

“My whole career I only got the opportunity to get to the Finals two times,” Dampier said. “There were a lot of great players before me that never got the opportunity to get there and never won a championship.

“It’s not like you can come in off the streets and win a championship. Even the great teams lose.”

Since he played against Jordan and played against – and with – James, Dampier was asked who is the greatest NBA player of all time. He said:

“I don’t know. There’s a bunch of them. If it was me, during my era, people are going to say Jordan. If it’s some younger kid that’s a lot younger than me, they’re going to say LeBron. Those are two great guys and they’re both right up there at the top.

“I played with (James) that one year (during the 2010-’11 season). He’s a great guy, it was a great experience. I never had any problems with him. We all hung out together, so he was a great teammate to play with. He worked hard every day at practice and pushed his teammates to get better.”

Dampier said he’s not surprised that James, even at age 38, is still a dominant force in the NBA today.

“He takes care of his body,” he said. “He does the necessary things during the summer to stay ready. He keeps his body in shape.

Dampier“Everything that he needs to work on, he brings it. He does all the right things to prepare himself for that upcoming season.”

These days, Dampier, now 47 years old, is running around the country and preparing himself for the onslaught of media attention that his son, Erick Dampier Jr., will eventually receive. At 6-8, Dampier Jr. plays for Alabama Fusion in Birmingham, Ala., and has already been dubbed the best seventh grader in the world by some publications.

Dampier Jr. also is lauded as the No. 1 player in the country in the class of 2028. That means he’s on target to one day attend the same NBA Draft Combine as his dad.

“He’s on all the social medias — Instagram, Facebook,” Dampier said. “We’re keeping him going. We’re on the road with him all the time.”

In the meantime, Dampier reflects on how being able to get himself attached to the NBA pipeline was a generational life-changer for him and his family.

“You work your whole life watching players on TV, and you’re idolizing those players,” he said. “I used to say, ‘That could be me one day. I want to be on the TV. I want little kids to see me. I want to play on the highest level of basketball that you can play on.’

“For me it was a really exciting time. I was happy for me, happy for my family. Just the sense of, ‘Hey man, I finally made it.’ It was like a dream come true.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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