P.J. Washington, Daniel Gafford have stood on business since they were kids

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DALLAS — Paul Washington still remembers the first time he saw his son stand on business.

It happened in a game played in Brooklyn, N.Y., that was part of Nike’s EYBL circuit, an under-17 league in which the Washington-coached Dallas Celtics, led by his son P.J., were competing. A big man from the other team, the Arkansas Wings, had fouled the younger Washington hard.

“He kind of stomped on P.J.’s head after (P.J.) fell to the ground,” Paul said. “It was the first time I’ve ever seen (P.J.) like that.”

When P.J. Washington stood up, he had only business in mind.

“I just said, ‘Forget the play,’ and I ran and pushed him as hard as I could in his back,” he recalled. “And I just stood there.”

The benches cleared and Washington received a technical foul, but his team ultimately won. The incident can’t be found online like the one last month against the LA Clippers where he stared down the opposing bench, arms crossed, in what he later called his “standing on business” pose, but one of Washington’s current teammates can vouch for it.

He was wearing an Arkansas Wings jersey when it happened.

“I remember that,” said Daniel Gafford, asked about that play at his locker last week. “It was one of those days where it was real physical, refs were just letting us play. We’re young, our tempers were just flaring. As soon as (P.J. Washington) got fouled, he was always going to go do that.”

Today, Washington and Gafford’s lockers are across from each other in Dallas. The teammates, who arrived in Dallas in separate trade deadline deals with the lottery-bound Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards, have started every game this postseason and helped turn Dallas into a squad that’s three wins away from the NBA Finals.

Their shared traits — physicality, toughness, defense — have transformed the Mavericks into a defensive juggernaut no longer reliant on 3s or a high-powered offense to win.

“You’ve got to have some edge to play defense,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said earlier this week. “Those two do. We’ve gotten to see a little bit more of that edge being displayed, and it is what we needed. Those two have delivered.”

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Washington and Gafford, who are both 25, have been playing against each other since they were children. When he was in elementary school, Washington and his parents moved to Frisco, Texas, where Paul Washington founded the Dallas Celtics. The team traveled to play other teams, which included ones in Arkansas, where Gafford was growing up in a small town in the south of the state called El Dorado.

While Washington was always seen as a top prospect, Gafford hadn’t prioritized basketball in the same way. Not until Antonio Buchanan, a youth basketball coach in Arkansas, spotted him during a recruiting trip intended for a guard on Gafford’s middle-school team.

“I saw this lanky kid falling all over the court who didn’t have a clue what he was doing,” Buchanan said. “He was a band kid. He played the drums. So I started recruiting him.”

Buchanan convinced Gafford he should coach him his ninth-grade year, and soon enough Gafford was on the Wings, one of the state’s most prestigious youth teams, in the Nike circuit. It was with the Wings that Gafford began facing teams like Washington’s more often. By his junior year, he had risen to become a four-star recruit, with coaches such as John Calipari, then coaching Kentucky, and Bill Self, the long-time coach at Kansas, calling Buchanan about him.

“Daniel didn’t know how serious it was until we got to 10th grade and we started playing against P.J. and all those guys,” Buchanan recalled. “He was like, ‘Damn, I’ve gotta get my body right. I’ve gotta get my mind right.’”

Buchanan, who remains close with Gafford and describes him as his “long-lost son,” admitted Washington’s teams usually came out on top against the Wings. “They always had a stacked team,” Gafford recalled.

But it was those competitions that formed these two into NBA players. Once, Washington drove baseline and dunked on Gafford with one hand. On the very next possession, Gafford returned the favor, catching the ball off the backboard and dunking on him.

“I got him pretty good and then he got me pretty good,” P.J. Washington said. “But we ended up winning, so it was all good for me.”

Washington spent two years at Kentucky while Gafford played at Arkansas, where he also stayed until he was a sophomore. (Yes, Washington’s Kentucky teams also won both matchups they played against Arkansas and Gafford.) Washington was also drafted higher, chosen No. 12 in 2019 by the Hornets, while Gafford slipped to the early second round.

The two had never played together until the Mavericks changed that in February.


Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington battle for a rebound in a 2021 game while playing for their old teams. (Stephen Gosling / NBAE via Getty Images)

Now, it’s almost impossible to talk about one player without mentioning the other, especially when telling the story of Dallas’ post-trade deadline transformation. Both players had been toiling on low-visibility franchises when Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison identified their similar skill sets as what this team needed. But Harrison, who took the Dallas job in 2022 after two decades at Nike, had known about these players long before they even reached college.

“He’s seen both of these guys play (since they were) kids,” Paul Washington said. “That’s the uniqueness that he brings. It’s not like they’re fresh and new to him. He’s been watching them do this for years.”

Washington has brought scoring and defense to the Mavericks, excelling as a help defender while contributing 29 and 27 points in consecutive games last series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Dallas needed his physicality, his standing on business, which led to the iconic moment that made him a local cult hero.

In Game 3 of the Mavericks’ first-round series win over the Clippers, Washington found himself scuffling with LA wing Terance Mann, who took issue with Washington staring down the Clippers bench in the fourth quarter of a blowout Dallas win.

In response, Washington stood up and stared harder, arms crossed across his chest, a pose that has become iconic. He later described it by saying he was “standing on business.” As Washington told ESPN, “(Mann) was mad that I was looking at their bench, so I decided to look at it again.”

Like he had years ago, he received a technical. And like it was years ago, it was worth it when his team won.

Gafford doesn’t have that playoff moment yet, but Kidd has been quick to point out how his energy can propel the team in a similar way.

“Just the emotion of expression, that helps us,” Kidd said. “We feed off of that.”

Kidd pointed to one specific play, a blocked 3-pointer that Gafford swatted into the stands during last week’s Game 6 against the Thunder. Moments after, Gafford stomped along the baseline while screaming into the stands.

“Daniel’s screams on blocks and dunks, (playing for) the Wizards, meant absolutely nothing to nobody,” Buchanan said. “But now, once you take it to the national stage on a really great team, that s— means a lot.”

They’ve been this way this entire time. The only difference now is they’re doing it in the conference finals.

“They’re a great combo,” Kidd said. “And we’re glad they’re here.”

(Top photo: Glenn James / NBAE via Getty Images)

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