Commentary

ESPN The Magazine: Bucking The Weight

Updated: November 26, 2007, 12:06 PM ET
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

This article appears in the December 3 edition of ESPN The Magazine

Boy, this guy is killing Michael Redd.

In the back office of a downtown Milwaukee fitness center, a toned and muscular scoffer is playing the dozens at the star guard's expense. Taking the words on his white Nike T-shirt -- BE TRUE -- literally, he looks at photos of Redd and continues.

[+] EnlargeMichael Redd
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesMichael Redd's sharp shooting proved useful for Team USA.

"Look at those arms," he says. "Flabby, no definition."

Next, he takes aim at the double chin the sharpshooter sported a season ago, leaning back in his chair as he cracks up at the mention.

"Oh, and don't forget the rolls on the back of the neck," he snickers, drawing howls of laughter from the gym's trainer. "There were three of them."

When you think it could get no worse, he glances at a life-size, cardboard cutout of the 6'6", 230-pounder and goes for the jugular.

"Terrible, just terrible," he says, shaking his head. "Look at how full that face is. I hate it."

Right about now you want to say, "Wait a minute--that chunky Michelin Man scored 27 points a game."

But defending Redd is unnecessary; the guy doing the ripping is him.

These days, Michael Redd is a svelte 218, with just seven percent body fat where once there was a whopping 19 percent. He's stronger and quicker now, not to mention the owner of better hops, and those fat rolls are in the process of giving way to washboard abs.

"I've never had a six-pack before," he says, rubbing his midsection. "I'm getting close."

All of which leads to this: If a pudgy, relatively out-of-shape Redd could tear up the NBA, finishing fifth in scoring at a career-high 26.7 ppg last season, what in the world will he do now that he's in the best shape of his life?

"It's gonna be scary," he says, smiling.

Then again, to hear Redd tell it, if he had his way his average would drop. See, this summer's transformation wasn't just a physical one. Now Redd's mind is honed too. Spending a month with the most talented team of the millennium will do that to a fella.


On a brutally hot mid-August day in Las Vegas, just minutes off the Strip in the Valley High gym, some of the most gifted players on the third rock from the sun ready themselves for the Olympic qualifiers. Kobe is in the house. So are LeBron, Melo, J-Kidd and Amaré.

Redd Hot

As crucial as outside shooting is in the NBA, it's even more important in the international game. So when the suits put together Team USA's roster for the Olympic qualifier this past summer, they included Milwaukee's best for the first time. The move paid off, as Redd led the team in threes with 29 (45.3 percent) and made its perimeter game one to fear.

Team USA's three-point shooting in last 3 international competitions
Event 3-PT FG PCT.
2007 FIBA Americas Championship 47.0
2006 FIBA World Championship 36.9
2004 Olympics 31.4

The many GMs, scouts and coaches pinned to the walls and planted on the bleachers buzz about one guy in particular -- and he isn't one of the usual cast of single-monikered studs. After watching Redd drop a couple of treys, a step-back jumper and a driving layup to end the scrimmage, everyone is raving about Team USA's newest outside threat.

"What we all just saw," says Rudy Tomjanovich, USA Basketball scouting director, "is exactly the kind of stuff we've needed in international play."

Redd will not disappoint once the qualifiers begin. His reputation stretches opponents' defenses, and his smooth lefty stroke does the rest. He finishes with 14.4 ppg, fourth-best on the de facto all-star squad that roars to the gold.

Weeks later, Redd meets with Bucks GM Larry Harris and coach Larry Krystkowiak, who note a new swagger that all but announces, I can hold my own with the best. But the confidence is only a prelude to this doozy: "Can this team win a championship?" Redd asks them.

Can this team -- meaning the Bucks -- win a championship? -- meaning within the next few years. It's an awful lot to expect of a crew that is coming off a 28-win season and that even the most optimistic pundits say should consider itself lucky just to make the playoffs. So Harris and Krystkowiak are understandably stunned. But they like the new way the cornerstone of the franchise is thinking.

If only they could muster a response more convincing than, "Uh, yeah -- that's what we're building toward."

Redd recounts the conversation a couple of months later from a black- leather love seat in the players' lounge of the Bucks' practice facility. Joe Torre is on the big screen, explaining why he left the Yankees.

Posters of Oscar Robertson, Kareem, Bob Lanier and Sidney Moncrief adorn the walls, each a highlight of the Bucks' heyday. A copy of NBA at 50 sits on a nearby coffee table, giving glory to the game's greatest. Redd is ringed by reminders that winning is what it's about. But he needs no cues.

"I got spoiled this summer," he says, a fitted Yankees cap atop his head. "I got used to winning, so now I have a low tolerance for losing. I'm tired of settling for mediocrity -- in the playoffs one year, out the next. I'm ready to win, and it starts with me."

That's why the 28-year-old Redd, whose best defense has always been to answer your two-pointer with his three, has committed to improving on the less glamorous end of the floor. He worked one-on-one with Kobe in Vegas, practicing slides and observing the defensive technique and footwork of one of the game's best stoppers.

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It's also why he hired a personal trainer for the first time in an effort to change his game from that of just a scorer to that of an all-around player who would rather average 22 points, six rebounds and five assists than 27, four and two.

Mostly, though, Redd has come to grips with the fact that to get to the level of the league's very best shooting guards, he will have to lift those around him.

"He came back hands-down a better leader," Harris says. "He said, 'I've scored a lot of points, but now I've got to make my teammates better, show more leadership and take more responsibility for the team's success.'"

Redd -- who through the first eight games of the new season is coming close to hitting his preferred marks by averaging 22.8 points and career highs in boards (5.5) and assists (3.5) -- couldn't have picked a better time to trot out his leadership chops.

The Bucks may be lugging low expectations, but they are riding high on drama. Early this past off-season, Australian center Andrew Bogut made what appeared to be racist comments about American (read: black) players in the June 17 edition of Sydney's Sun-Herald in an article headlined "The Bling and I."

That was quickly followed by a six-week stalemate between the Chinese handlers of lottery pick Yi Jianlian and his prospective employers. (Yi signed only after team owner Herb Kohl, a U.S. senator, intervened.)

A little lower profile, but no less important, was guard Charlie Bell's unhappiness after Milwaukee matched the five-year, $18.5 million offer he got from Miami, his preferred destination.

So Milwaukee's team definitely had the makings of something other than one big happy family. But Redd squashed any tensions. When Bogut called from Australia to apologize for his comments -- he said many NBA players are "arrogant" and "want bling-bling all over themselves" and that "80 percent of them go broke by the time they retire or come close to it" -- Redd didn't mince words.

"I told him a lot of guys around the league thought it was racist and a lot of his teammates were disappointed. I said he'd have to make amends, be apologetic. And he has. Bottom line is, when I was 22 I did things I'm not proud of, so I told him I support him."

YI TO THE CITY

If you're rolling along North Milwaukee Street and you see a black man and a Chinese man strolling side by side, please don't panic: No one is shooting Rush Hour 4. It's just new 'mates Michael Redd and Yi Jianlian. Other teammates and the local Chinese community have reached out to Yi to make him feel more at home.

Early indications are that Yi is worth every bit of the aggravation he put the Bucks through when he threatened to stay in China. "He can be real good," Redd says, his eyes widening with excitement. "He's got skills." A seven-footer (okay, 6'11") with speed, hops and touch out to 23 feet, Yi has adapted to the NBA game way faster than countryman Yao did. After beating out Charlie Villanueva for the starting spot at the 4, Yi has averaged 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, putting himself in the early ROY conversation.

His adjustment off the court has been just as seamless. "I know American culture, so the transition is not so difficult," says Yi, who speaks solid English but uses a translator now and then. "I know all the hip-hop artists my teammates listen to, even though I mostly listen to Chinese pop music." On the Bucks' third possession at the Bradley Center this season, Redd drove the lane against the Bulls, drew three defenders, spun in the air and kicked out a pass. Wide-open from 19 feet away, Yi caught the ball and buried the shot. The crowd of 18,717 fans roared. Yi's hometown fans.

-- Otto Strong

He also supports Yi, whom he sees as an answer to his prayers. Redd is aware that every legitimate title contender needs a star big man and he believes the 6'11" Yi can be another Dirk.

"I'm already always looking for him on the court," he says. Redd is keeping an eye out for Yi off the court, too. "I've kind of embraced him like a little brother."


Redd's transition into more of a leader, vocal and otherwise, has been smoothed by the respect he's long held in the locker room. A preacher's kid and devout Christian, he's known as a man of his word.

Who is going to question an NBA star who, because of his religious beliefs, was celibate for three-and-a-half years before he tied the knot in August 2006?

Honeys knocked on his door at 2 a.m., followed him to his car after games and left seductive messages on his phone, but through it all he was faithful, to his Lord and to his future wife, Achea. His teammates thought he was crazy.

"You gay, man?" they asked. "Scared?"

Once they realized he was neither, they got behind his decision.

"We used to joke with Mike about it," guard Mo Williams says. "But we never doubted him because of how he carries himself. He's so sincere you can't help but respect him 100 percent."

From his penthouse, Redd has the best view in Milwaukee. Every side of his crib is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows, and outside Lake Michigan beckons. But the two preachers who sit on his brown sectional on this early-October evening aren't taking in the sights; they're watching a DVD of Redd sharing the Gospel with hundreds of children in a Columbus skating rink.

Pastors Dan Whitelaw and Chip Bernhard are the Bucks' chaplains, and they're going over topics for this season's pregame Bible studies with the team leader. But they're hoop fans, too, and eventually talk turns to the game.

"I found out last year you can average 27 points a game and not make the All-Star team," Redd says, with a laugh.

"You're probably the first to do that," Pastor Bernhard replies.

Almost.

Last season, Redd, whose lone All-Star gig was in 2004, was the highest scorer in 20 years to miss out on the midseason festivities. He's hoping his improved conditioning and focus on all-around play will keep him from being overlooked again.

Not that that is what has made the born-again Christian a born-again workout freak. Although he got off to a rocky start in the weight room last season, Redd is now obsessed with fitness. Gone are the meat-topped pizzas, the soul food, the burgers, the candy, the popcorn, the soda, the late-night meals of pasta and bread.

And that has meant the end to the Oliver Miller jokes. "It's good not to hear those anymore," Redd says.

To be fair, Redd has never been a slacker. Underrated for as long as he can remember, he has a tireless work ethic that has always enabled him to shame the naysayers. As a senior at West High in Columbus, he wasn't even regarded as one of the city's top three players. Redd recalls sitting in Ohio State's locker room as then-Buckeyes coach Randy Ayers wooed Kenny Gregory, a prep All-America, for 90 minutes. Ayers gave Redd his pitch in about five.

"That's the story of my basketball life," he says. "Since middle school, I've always been told I'd never be anything."


Redd eventually was the first true freshman to lead the Big Ten in scoring and was an honorable mention All-American as a sophomore and junior at Ohio State. Still, 27 of 29 NBA teams passed him up in the 2000 draft before the Bucks took him with their second pick at No. 43.

[+] EnlargeMichael Redd and Yi Jianlian
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesRedd has already accepted rookie Yi Jianlian like a little brother.

Maybe it was because he didn't have the look of an athletic highflier. But that just made him work harder. After an uneventful rookie season, tons of extra shooting forced coach George Karl to renege on a preseason promise to play Redd just "five minutes a game."

Two seasons later, Redd was an All-Star and one of the league's quickest and deadliest shots. But until now his training has always been skills-related. In the off-season, he'd hone his handle and launch jumpers for hours, perfecting catch-and-shoot drills that doubled the speed of his release.

But last summer he focused almost completely on lifting and conditioning. His trainer had him kickboxing and playing "power tennis": four 30-minute periods of nonstop volleying with ball chasing, garbage-can hurdling and pylon dodging in between. Redd didn't touch the rock until Team USA convened in July.

Michael Redd is a man in a hurry. He and the Bucks have just finished their sixth game of the season, a 113-88 loss to the Spurs in which the Bucks trailed by as many as 40, and Redd is sounding the alarm. The defending champs scored 50 points in the lane despite a game plan designed to limit such opportunities, and Bruce Bowen held Redd to five shots and 14 points.

In a postgame interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Redd says the team needs better focus and more maturity and that he's no longer able to wave off such shellackings. Such public candor is unusually strong for the typically soft-spoken Redd. But these days, his is the voice of a player reborn -- in spirit, mind and body.