- Sam Alipour
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Who knew Raja Bell would be the pivotal player of the 2006 playoffs?
Who knew the player most likely to get death threats would be a guy most fans couldn't pick out of a program?
A year ago, he was the fifth-leading scorer on a Utah Jazz team that won just 26 games.
Now he's the guy responsible for The Shot, The Clothesline and The Calf that continue to shape the most exciting NBA playoffs in memory.
For the Phoenix Suns, he's the tough guy who shadowed and harassed Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers in one series, the sharpshooter who deflated the L.A. Clippers' dream season with a 3 from the corner and the player whose calf injury in Game 1 has altered the West finals vs. the Dallas Mavericks.
Saturday, an MRI confirmed that Bell suffered a partial tear in his left calf. That injury will keep him out of Game 3 on Sunday and perhaps future games.
"That's a little disappointing to hear," Bell told reporters Saturday. "It wasn't as [improved] as I wanted to see today. That's just the nature of the injury."
Bell initially hoped he would be able to play in Game 3, but the Suns' training staff told him his calf is not ready. Now he remains hopeful the original diagnosis of five-to-seven days holds true.
"It's not letting me do it, so there's no way I could talk myself into letting me do it," Bell said. "I just have to trust that they know better than I do what's good for me right now."
"It's been a great run, getting this far and playing the role that I've played." Bell told ESPN.com on Friday. "So to get hurt now ... it sucks, to be honest with you."
The Clothesline ... and Death Threats
For many fans, their introduction to Raja Bell The Player came courtesy of Raja Bell The Wrestler, on May 2, the night he whacked Kobe Bryant. It was Game 5, a blowout win for the Suns in their first-round matchup with the Lakers. With 7:33 left to play, Bell wrapped his left arm around Bryant's neck and threw him to the floor.
He complained later that Kobe was elbowing him, but Bell's real beef with Bryant seemed to run much deeper.
"My problem with Kobe isn't that he doesn't respect me," Bell said. "I felt he was disrespecting me, and that he didn't care that he was doing it. I don't need respect, but you're not going to disrespect me.
"I feed off of that stuff," Bell continued. "As many contracts I get or years I play, I still feel like an underdog. That's what keeps me motivated in the gym on an off-day or on the treadmill in my house. It works for me. It's the way I have to be to have that edge."
Of course, toeing that edge can bring about periodic mishaps, like, say, going Rowdy-Raja-Piper on one of the league's top talents in the heart of a playoff race.
"It's a thin line," Bell admitted. "I play with a great deal of emotion. I tell people all the time, if that's what you want from me, then you have to be OK with the line getting crossed once in a while. Otherwise, I can't give you what you're asking."
Clippers veteran Cuttino Mobley, Bell's primary matchup in Round 2, has come to appreciate Bell's hard-nosed style of play.
"You need to think like Raja," Mobley said. "If you try to bump and bruise him, he's going to come after you. It's what you're supposed to do. Who wants to get beat up all the time?
"But is Raja a dirty player?" Mobley added. "I can tell you he isn't dirty with me."
Bell appreciates the sentiment, but he knows many peers would disagree. And he's OK with that.
"Before the Kobe incident, I would have challenged someone to call me dirty," Bell said. "I take pride in playing really hard without taking cheap shots.
"But I'm not a hypocrite," he said. "I definitely took a shot at Kobe. You bet. So people have a reason to call me dirty now. And that's fine with me."
Still, Bell insisted he wasn't the instigator.
"People forget, it was the Lakers who set the tone for that series," Bell said. "Kwame Brown standing over Boris. Luke Walton with the flagrant on Tim Thomas. They set the tone for a physical, chippy series.
"We weren't expected to succeed in that type of game," he said. "But since Amare went down, we've all taken an us-against-the-world attitude. And we've carried it through the playoffs. We may not talk trash, but we step up when it matters, collectively and individually. And, you know, I have a role to fill."
Does that role involve a leotard and face-paint?
"You could say I watched a little wrestling growing up," Bell said, barely containing his smile. "I didn't follow the storylines and the championship belts. But I picked up a few things."
So, even if he lost his cool, Bell knew what he was doing, and he expected to be ejected.
He even expected the one-game suspension that followed.
What he didn't expect was that it could endanger his life.
"My uncle is my web site designer, so he gets the email," Bell said. "He forwarded them along, and I took a look at the not-so-nice subject headings. You could see there was a theme emerging."
These were hate mail and death threats, and they came fast and furious shortly after the clothesline-heard-around-L.A.
"I don't think I'm in any danger," Bell said. "NBA security is investigating the source of the emails. They made sure everything was safe for when I came back."
Still, there have been some moments. Upon returning to Los Angeles for Game 6 with the Lakers, the newly suspended Bell left the friendly confines of the team hotel in favor of watching the game at a local bar. Wisely, he brought the team security guard with him.
"There were probably 35 Lakers fans yelling at the screen and they were all unaware that I was there," Bell recounted. "Then the guy behind me says, 'I wonder where Raja's at? He thinks he can take Kobe? We should go over there and kick his ass.'
"Later, I'm in the bathroom washing my hands," Bell continued, "and the heckler walks in and uses the sink next to me. He looks up into the mirror and sees me standing there.
"He says, 'Oh my god, I had no idea you were here,'" Bell said, with a chuckle. "I didn't think it was a dangerous situation. We just watched the game and went back-and-forth, giving each other the business."
When Bell returned to Los Angeles -- this time to face the Clippers, this time as a participant -- the natives remained restless.
"I ran into another Lakers fan at our hotel," Bell said. "He was yelling that this was Kobe's town, shooting sets at me. Gang signs and such."
He paused for emphasis. "Keep in mind," Bell said. "This is the Ritz."
The notorious Ritz-Carlton gangbangers notwithtanding, Bell held out hope that cooler heads would prevail.
"I think these letters represent a very small number of Lakers fans," Bell said.
Unrecruited and undrafted
After Bell survived Game 6 amongst Lakers fans, it's no surprise he thrived against the other L.A. team and earned the respect of the Clippers.
"He's a difference-maker," said Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. "He's shooting the ball really well, he's very smart, and he brings tremendous energy. You want Raja on your team."
And, yet, so many did not want Raja on their team.
Though he averaged 29 points per game during his senior year at Miami Killian Senior High School, Bell went unrecruited.
"None of the big schools wanted me," Bell said. "I wanted to go to University of Miami because that's where my dad went, but the coach told me he had four NBA players there and that I wouldn't play.
"Of course," Bell added, "none of those guys are in the NBA today."
Then, after a stellar career at Florida International University, Bell went undrafted.
"I didn't get one invite to work out for an NBA team," said Bell, a longtime Miami resident. "I was a hometown kid, and not even the Heat wanted to see what I had. That was a little bit of a slap in the face."
"I owe a lot to that man. ... [He was] the first coach to show confidence in my offensive game."
Raja Bell on Utah coach Jerry Sloan
After stints in the USBL, CBA, and IBL, Bell would receive his first big break with the 76ers, coming off the bench to aid them in their 2001 East title run.
"They had an opening on their playoff roster, and Larry Brown needed someone to come in there and work," Bell said. "All of a sudden, I'm playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference championship, then all through the finals against the Lakers."
While Bell would be a significant contributor to the playoff effort, it wasn't enough.
"For some reason or another, I got buried on Larry Brown's bench the next season," Bell said. "I was young and I needed time. I only played six games in the playoffs. But I made a big splash and I think that splash might have hurt me."
After a stint in Spain, the Dallas Mavericks came calling.
"They were willing to take a chance on me," Bell said. "I was ready, and I came in in great shape. Back then, they didn't exactly have a reputation for being defensive-minded, so I was able to carve out a niche there."
Bell would go on to play a career-high 75 games for Dallas in '02-03, starting 32 times and averaging 3.1 points in 15.6 minutes per game. But it wasn't until the next season that Bell would find his groove. Under the tutelage of Jerry Sloan in Utah, Bell cemented his reputation as a hard-nosed defender, then set about creating one as a shooter.
"Jerry Sloan put a lot of stock into the way I played, with defense and hard work," Bell said. "But he was also the first coach to show confidence in my offensive game. He told me not to worry about missing shots because he wasn't going to pull me out of the game. I owe a lot to that man."
In the summer of 2005, Bell signed a $25 million contract with the Suns, raising eyebrows across the league. Once again, he set about proving the naysayers wrong. Helped in no small part by his former Mavericks teammate and friend Nash, Bell hit the ground running.
"I've felt at home from the first day I stepped into this locker room," Bell said. "The great thing about our team is that our style of play fits everybody. There are a bunch of players in this locker room who've had career years."
No one Suns player has benefited more than Bell, who in his first season in Phoenix posted career highs in scoring (14.7), 3-point percentage (.442), minutes (37.5), rebounds (3.2) and assists (2.6).
Despite the accolades and the breakout playoffs performance, Bell isn't eager to embrace his newfound status.
"It feels good to finally get that respect," Bell said. "But that's not what I play for. I don't need respect from my opponents."
Raja in L.A. ... and Miami
Beating the Lakers meant more visits to Los Angeles for Bell. While there, prior to Game 6 with the Clippers, Bell was upbeat, even defiant, in light of the threats.
"I like to think that most people can separate reality from the game," he said. "But what am I going to do? I'm not going to stop going out."
Perish the thought. Even in Kobe Territory.
The Clippers may have been the last team standing in L.A., but make no mistake: Los Angeles is still a Lakers town, and waterfront community Marina Del Rey is no exception. Current and former Lakers players make their in-season homes here, where you'll find plenty of purple-and-gold-decorated cars, boats … and fans.
A leisurely stroll through the heart of Lakerland with its top outlaw is not for the faint of heart. For on this day, in Raja's World, a Marina fisherman is a would-be mugger and a power-walking model is a Bond-film villain. Yet, Bell didn't hesitate when approaching a cell-phone-toting college kid.
"Excuse me, my man," Bell said with disarming ease. "Can you get to the diner this way?"
The young stranger immediately recognized Bell, folded his cell phone -- and helped a brother out.
"Yeah, dude, totally," the eager kid responded. "Just keep walking all the way down this path. Can't miss it."
Bell thanked the stranger, then turned to depart. But the kid wasn't done.
"Bro!" he yelled after Bell. "Nice shot last night."
As comfortable as Bell might have seemed in L.A., where he'd rather be, he said, is at home, with his college sweetheart-turned-wife, Cindy Greenman, whom Bell married in July of '04.
Despite what his hard-nosed on-court demeanor might suggest, Bell is a family man. A weekend golfer. A former trombonist in the 7th grade band. And, it turns out, an avid fisherman. He marveled at a docked fishing boat.
"How much to you think that thing goes for?" Bell asked. When he heard the price, he groaned, not playing the part of the $25 million man.
"Raja is so laid back and so down to earth, you would never know he plays professional basketball," his wife said. "He's a homebody, a very normal guy."
Bell's got his parents, Roger and Denise, to thank for that. Born in St. Croix (Virgin Islands), Bell was the product of a happy, middle-class home. Despite Kobe's theories about Raja's lack of hugs.
"My childhood was all barbeques on the beach," Bell said. "There'd be eight to 10 kids, and all our parents, from afternoon to night."
Bell makes his offseason home in Miami, near his parents, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm very close to my family," he said. "They used to come to all my games when I was younger and now they watch every game on television, even if it means staying up till 2 a.m."
Or, as with the shot during the epic double-overtime contest against the Clippers, until 3:30 a.m., so they could talk to their son.
"They were chomping at the bit to see how I was feeling," Bell said, of the call from his parents. "They were excited for me and the team. And for that shot."
While his wife and mom provide the optimism, it's Bell's father Roger who gave him the fire he's known for -- like father, like Sun.
"I definitely get my temperament from my dad," Bell said. "I've seen it my whole life. Let's just say this: When my dad and I play basketball now, we stay on the same team."
Still, Bell isn't a regretful man, by nature, and he certainly doesn't regret the first-round incident, nor is he planning for a heart-to-heart with Bryant.
"We don't need to reconcile," Bell said. "We don't run in the same circle. I don't see Kobe, and he doesn't seem me. I don't mean enough to him, and he definitely doesn't mean enough to me."
"It happened," Bell said. "Nothing I can do about it now except put it in my rearview mirror."
Bell has already done the same with his season-saving 3-pointer.
"Obviously, I'm enjoying myself right now," he said, shortly before moving on to the conference finals. "But I understand the game. You don't get too high when things are going well and you don't get too low when they're not."
That philosophy will be tested if Bell's injured calf prevents him from facing his old team, the Mavs, in the remainder of the West finals. But Bell believes he can play.
Just as he's always believed.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles and writes the "Media Blitz" column for ESPN The Magazine.
Raja Bell talks about Kobe, the death threats he received from Lakers fans and his difficult path to the NBA.