Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Updated: January 2, 10:36 AM ET
Leap of Faith
By Ric Bucher
The kid gloves have come off.
Six-foot, 175-pound video coordinator/assistant coach Kaleb Canales used to put them on—forearm barrel pads, technically—in pregame warmups with 6'11", 240-pound LaMarcus Aldridge, allowing Canales to poke and whack the big man without doing any damage. Handling Aldridge with care is an approach the entire Trail Blazers leadership, knowing what it does about the mercurial power forward, has adopted. Sure, Aldridge is a valued player, mixing an impossible-to-block high release with defensive versatility. But the reason he gets kid-glove treatment is because underneath the baller lurks a wary Texas boy—TXBOY 12 is stenciled on the heels of both of his game shoes—who early on learned harsh lessons about betrayal. "I'm not normal," Aldridge says. "The only person I really trust is myself."
When those are the words you live by, your tendency is to examine everything you encounter with a microscope, looking for signs of deception or dishonesty, for any speck of someone trying to get over. Even something as simple as changing a pregame routine—say, replacing Canales—requires deliberation and execution, lest Aldridge peer into his scope and find something not quite right.
Of course, Aldridge's lack of faith in his fellow man isn't the first topic of conversation for those who mull whether the Trail Blazers will live up to the expectations that have them skipping right past "playoff team" to "perennial contender." Greg Oden's right knee, Brandon Roy's nagging injuries, Steve Blake's point guard play … each is a lot more top of mind. This team—which has not made the playoffs in six years, which has half a dozen players (including Aldridge) who will be eligible for options or extensions this summer, which has the NBA's second-youngest roster—is just poking its head out from the cocoon. In other words, the Blazers are as fragile as they are enthralling—just like Aldridge. The Blazers handle Aldridge carefully because they know their mercurial power forward. "I'm not normal," he says. "The only person I trust is myself."
So this metamorphosis is going to take time, which requires patience, which demands, well, trust that the time spent will be worth it. Canales is closer to Aldridge than most because he's a fellow Texan who's there whenever Aldridge needs him—summer workouts, midnight shooting drills, extra film sessions. He's as protective of Aldridge as Aldridge is of himself. But if coach Nate McMillan doesn't feel the same way one night in late November, it's because his team is only barely hovering above .500 and Aldridge is struggling. Mightily. McMillan thinks it's the warmup routine, which has Canales looking part-cyborg, part-Michelin Man. The getup has Aldridge grinning, even as a rolling hook caroms off the backboard.
Now, after a couple of weeks of subtle hints and a one-point home win over the Kings in which Aldridge is so out of sync that he pleads with McMillan to stop calling his number, the coach has had enough. He orders assistant Joe Prunty to work over Aldridge the next day. Prunty is no bigger than Canales, but after practice he and two other staffers put Aldridge through a post drill—pushing, grabbing and slapping with focus—and suddenly Aldridge isn't grinning anymore. Practice is long and the prepractice film session longer, but Aldridge is revving in midgame form, wheeling and crushing dunks. "Haven't done a drill like that since college," he says afterward. Prunty will take over the pregame routine, too. From now on, Aldridge will get Canales and his pads only after Prunty puts him through a crisp set of shooting drills, which includes asking to see the big man's go-to move for that night. Aldridge is so versatile, he can tailor his repertoire to the opponent.
Later, Aldridge is at his locker when McMillan comes over and slides a hand under his T-shirt. Wanting to see if the new workout has produced the desired result, he frowns when he doesn't find a sheen of sweat. Aldridge, exasperated, says, "C'mon, I've been done for a minute! Dang!" The intrusion touches more than skin; it strikes a nerve.
TXBOY 12's trust-no-one mantra didn't fall from the sky. As a kid, he suffered comparisons on the local courts to his father and brother, both accomplished prep players in the Dallas area; he had their height but not their game. Then he'd return home from the latest humiliation and often find his dad inebriated. But Marvin was a friendly drunk, so Georgia, LaMarcus' mom, put up with him well into LaMarcus' teenage years. Marvin, as his son says, "was around physically but gone mentally." So it was left to LaVontae, LaMarcus' older brother by six years, to pass along what he knew about basketball. Even after his mom finally kicked Marvin out of the house, LaMarcus still gave his dad one more chance, inviting him to his draft party back in Dallas after the Bulls made him the No. 2 pick of the 2006 draft, then immediately shipped him to Portland. All he asked was that Marvin show up sober. He didn't. "He reminded me of all the reasons I didn't like him," says LaMarcus. He discusses his father casually, but Mom knows better. "All the pain," says Georgia, "LaMarcus never let it show."
What her son won't reveal in words, though, he reveals in action—or inaction. There is no warning sign. Betray him and you are excised, as was the AAU coach who Aldridge learned was trying to steer him to a particular school he did not want to go to. Aldridge won't mention the coach's name or the school; for him, the man no longer exists. Aldridge can be done with you as quickly and completely as he was with Marvin, whose indiscretions included calling LaMarcus on his 16th birthday—without realizing it. "He's a hard candidate," Georgia says of her son. "He has the same high standards for everyone, and he doesn't care about excuses."
LaMarcus hasn't seen Marvin since draft night.
BEING A Texan, Aldridge has a particular love of red meat. So it was especially wounding when he thought that Roy had left him out of a trip to a Brazilian barbecue joint in Memphis early last season. So that's how it is, he thought, and steered clear of Roy everywhere but on the court. It wasn't until the summer that Travis Outlaw convinced Aldridge that he had simply forgotten to tell him about the dinner. The issue is a memory now, but that kind of response to a perceived slight is what the Blazers work every day to avoid. They can't afford not to. As rock-solid as Roy is, as imposing as Oden may be, most NBA GMs think Aldridge's potential is the most tantalizing. "He's only scratched the surface of what he can be," says one. McMillan agrees and has his pickax ready. "Brandon's game is further ahead offensively than defensively, and Greg's game is further ahead defensively than offensively," says McMillan. "LaMarcus is a player who can dominate at both ends. I don't want to compare players but he has a lot of the same things KG has. Right now, he's Rasheed Wallace. He can get to Kevin Garnett." Neither Roy nor Oden draws similar comparisons. Yet, Roy is an All-Star and the hysteria over Oden was only slightly muted by the microfracture surgery last season that postponed his debut. Only to the public is Aldridge a clear third in the Blazer pecking order.
One of the main reasons McMillan opted to bring Oden off the bench when the No. 1 pick first returned to the lineup was to squelch Aldridge's urge to defer to him. And while the Blazers' marketers gladly would have followed everyone's lead and made Oden and Roy the thrust of their strategies, Kevin Pritchard and McMillan knew better. Aldridge gets equal time on the cover of the team's media guide and on area billboards.
That billing makes the best sense to opponents. "Aldridge is the first guy we plan for," says Kings assistant Rex Kalamian. "Brandon is a handful, but you kind of know what you're going to get from him. When LaMarcus has it going, they're a different team." Aldridge knows how much he means to Portland too. If he was upset at McMillan's sweat check, it's because he knew he'd already taken steps to get back on track. After a 3-for-14 stinker in that Kings game—his worst shooting performance all season—he showered, dressed and took his mom to dinner. After dropping her off at his two-story brick manse in Lake Oswego, he changed back into workout gear and called Canales to arrange a midnight session at the practice facility.
Before the next game, he also called his coach at Seagoville High, Robert Allen, whom he credits with raising him in Marvin's absence. There were days when the electricity was shut off at the Aldridge house and food was scarce, so Allen would use Seagoville's games as an excuse to invite LaMarcus over for dinner and conversation. "He taught me everything," Aldridge says. He knew what Powell would counsel even before he called: Are you getting your 200 shots up? Gotta get your 200 shots up every day. He just needed to hear the voice of the one man who has always been in his corner. "Brandon's game is ahead offensively, and Greg's game is ahead defensively, but LaMarcus can dominate at both ends."
MAYBE THAT change in pregame routine did the trick. Or maybe the self-imposed after-hours shooting session was all it took. Maybe all Aldridge needed was to get over the shock of seeing Dwight Howard fronting him two weeks into the season after he had back-to-back games of 27 and 24 points. "At first, I was like, what is this?" Aldridge says. "I didn't see myself as that big a threat. All of a sudden teams were double-teaming me from different places. For a while, I stopped playing basketball and started thinking basketball." Whatever the reason, Aldridge has been a new man of late. He knocked down seven of 10 shots against the Heat in late November and the Blazers rolled to a 38-point victory, their second-biggest margin of the season. With Aldridge shooting 57%, the Blazers won five straight after the Kings game by an average of 15 points. And neither he nor they have looked back since.
And as his confidence grows, his trust issues begin to fade a bit. About the Blazers' treatment of him in general and the new pregame routine in particular, Aldridge says, "I can't say it didn't help. They've never told me one thing and done another. They've been good." These days, Aldridge isn't so hard on others, either. When a school friend who'd gotten sidetracked and dropped out went back to earn his high school equivalency diploma, Aldridge took him off his blacklist and offered encouragement. Even after Marvin's embarrassing appearance at the draft party, LaMarcus offered all his contact information and promised his dad if he ever got his act together, the door would be open again.
"He's getting there," says Georgia. "He's letting go. He realizes he can't do it all himself. The wall is coming down. Slowly, but it's coming down."