Mamba memories and Blazer ball: Watching the playoffs with Trevor Arizaon August 25, 2020 at 6:29 am

It’s excruciating to watch, but Trevor Ariza does anyway. He hasn’t missed a minute of his Portland Trail Blazers team competing in the Orlando, Florida, bubble, and he screamed so vociferously and triumphantly when the Blazers put the finishing touches on their shocking Game 1 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, his daughter Taylor ambled up the stairs of their Los Angeles home and pleaded, “Daddy, can you not be so loud? Everyone in the neighborhood can hear you!”

“She’s right,” Ariza said. “My voice is still hoarse from Game 1.”

Ariza, in his 15th season, playing for his ninth NBA team, agreed to remotely watch Game 4 of his Blazers’ first-round battle along with this ESPN reporter. He is acutely aware the clock is ticking on his career, which has been an all-encompassing obsession playing a game he felt certain he couldn’t live without.

Yet Ariza made the heart-wrenching decision to opt out of playing alongside his Portland teammates because he was presented with an opportunity to have 30 days of visitation with his oldest son Tajh, who he had not seen in nearly a year due to custody issues. Ariza has no second thoughts about his choice, but that doesn’t mean life outside the bubble has been easy. He has heard the pundits lamenting his absence, as he is a big, strong veteran player who could have helped handle Lakers forward LeBron James.

“Man, the word ‘hard’ doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Ariza told ESPN. “This is what I was born to do, to play basketball. I’ve been doing it my whole life. And to know my team has a chance to compete for a championship, and I’m not with them. … It burns me up inside.”

And yet, he insisted, the time with his son was worth it. Tajh is 12 years old, named after Trevor Ariza’s baby brother, who, in 1996, when he was just 6 years old, plunged 30 floors to his death outside a hotel room window in Caracas, Venezuela, while under the care of a babysitter. Trevor and his mother were at a gymnasium watching his stepfather compete in a basketball game.

His son Tajh is learning Spanish, plays the piano and loves to hoop. He can shoot, has a decent handle and can run all day. He lives with his mother in North Carolina, and Ariza misses him desperately when he can’t see him.

“So when there were options put on the table, and one of them was to have some time with my son, I chose my family,” Ariza said. “Our youth is our future. Period. If I can’t take the time to teach Tajh the little things that every father teaches their son, then I’m not doing my job. And my job is to be a father before anything else.”

Ariza said he steeled himself for the inevitable backlash regarding his decision not to play, but it never came. Fans tweeted their support. The Trail Blazers stood behind him and never once questioned him or pressured him to reconsider. His teammates, particularly star Damian Lillard, sent him text after text affirming their belief in what he was doing.

“You know what? It’s weird, but the opinions that mattered the most to me were all the opinions applauding me for my actions,” Ariza said. “The Blazers couldn’t have been more supportive. They understand how big this is, the times we are in, how important it is to teach a young Black boy to grow to be a successful Black man.”

During his month-long visit with Tajh, Ariza celebrated his son’s charisma, his wise cracks, his dance moves and his strong opinions. He taught him to box in his home gym, shot baskets with him at sunset and spent a lot of time listening and learning.

“To be honest, we didn’t do too much,” Ariza said. “I wanted the time to help him grow as a person. Sometimes we parents don’t take the time to stop and understand a kid’s perspective.

“Tajh is coming between two households. There are two different sets of rules, and it’s confusing to him. I wanted to be understanding and patient.”

When Tajh recently returned to North Carolina, Ariza jumped on the phone and dialed up the Blazers to see if he could rejoin his team.

“I asked if there was any way,” Ariza said, “but the league wouldn’t allow it. They made that clear when I opted out.”

He has lived vicariously through Zoom calls with teammates and coaches. Daily texts from Lillard and guard CJ McCollum have kept him apprised of locker room antics and stories in the bubble. He has offered pearls of wisdom to young big man Wenyen Gabriel, who Ariza predicts has a long, fruitful NBA career ahead of him. It’s strange, he conceded, to be watching his “brothers” on television.

The early moments of Game 4 were both frustrating and concerning. The Blazers fell behind quickly, 15-0. But when Jusuf Nurkic asserted himself at the 4-minute mark of the first quarter with an offensive rebound and basket, Ariza noted, “This is how Nurk needs to play for us to have a chance.” He’s an optimist by nature, and when the Blazers cut the Lakers’ lead to 18 late in the first half, Ariza said, “The sense of urgency has risen. We’re playing harder now.”

He acknowledged the lack of bodies to guard James has hurt the team. Zach Collins was lost to injury just days before the playoffs. Gary Trent Jr. has admirably guarded “The King” but lacks the size and strength Ariza could have provided.

“When you’re playing against guys like LeBron, you need to try to take them out of their comfort zone,” Ariza said. “Get them out of their routine, bother them as much as you can. We did a better job of that in Games 1 and 2 than we did in Game 3.”

Before Game 4, I asked if he agreed that Portland looks gassed from the string of “must-win” games they had to put together in the bubble. “Everybody’s tired right now,” Ariza said. “Tired can’t matter. You gotta lock it in and trick yourself into being great.”

The Lakers wore their Black Mamba jerseys on Mamba Day — Aug. 24, or 8/24, representing both jersey numbers Kobe Bryant wore in his NBA career — one day after what would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday. Ariza watched the game wearing his own No. 8 Bryant Lakers jersey, even as he rooted tirelessly for the Blazers.

Bryant was Ariza’s mentor, teammate and friend, his basketball North Star since he was 10 years old. In November 2007, he was traded from the Orlando Magic to the Lakers and fretted there would be no playing time for him on a team with championship aspirations. As he arrived at his first team shootaround, Bryant grabbed him tightly, then grinned and said, “Welcome, motherf—er!”

“Kobe was the one who totally changed my perspective of the game,” Ariza said. “Everything small or big, it all mattered the same to him. His attention to detail was what separated him. You can be a great athlete, a great scorer, but what if you are playing hurt and can’t get to the spot you normally like to operate from? Kobe’s the one that showed me how to pay attention to angles, to footwork, to the nuances that can take you a long way in situations like that. He broke down the game differently than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

He spoke to his friend and mentor for the final time in October during the preseason. Ariza is a Nike athlete, and his shoes had not yet arrived. “I called Kobe up and said, ‘What’s up bro?'” Ariza recalled. “I said, ‘I need you to press the play button. I need my kicks.’ The next day, my Nike PE 4s showed up on my seat. I sent a picture to thank him.

“Man, I looked at that text for a long time today. Ever since Bean has been gone, the world is in turmoil.”

Ariza has tried to simplify things since COVID-19 hit. Though Tajh has returned home, his wife and their children, Tristan and Taylor, have kept him fully engaged. He’s also focused on his foundation, Choices Mentoring program, which helps young African Americans pursue their professional dreams by providing access to SAT/ACT tutoring, college counselors, scholarships and therapists.

“We’re trying to show them there are other avenues other than being an athlete, a rapper or an entertainer,” Ariza said. “We want them to realize they can be lawyers, doctors, firemen, therapists. We bring people in with similar backgrounds from L.A. and they tell the kids about their journeys. The kids walk away saying, ‘Wow, this man sat right here in this chair, and he’s taking care of his family with a great job, and he was just like me once.’ It gives them hope.”

While Ariza tuned into Game 4 with high hopes of the Blazers pulling off another upset, the Lakers’ early domination made it difficult for Portland to recover and L.A. won easily, 135-115.

Portland is now one game away from elimination and an unceremonious exit from the NBA bubble. Back in Los Angeles, Ariza conceded, “We got blitzed tonight.” Asked what his team can do in Game 5, he answered, “Kitchen sink. Everything we got.”

He wondered if he could have helped, but remembers why he didn’t. “The guys understand,” he said. “They know I’m with them in spirit.”

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