It’s heartbreaking to watch, but Trevor Ariza does it anyway. He didn’t waste a minute of his Portland Trail Blazers team competing in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, and he screamed so loudly and triumphant as the Blazers put the finishing touches on their shocking Game 1 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, his daughter Taylor slowly walked up the stairs to their Los Angeles home and begged, “Dad, can’t you be that loud? Everyone in the neighborhood can hear you!”
“He’s right,” Ariza said. “My voice is still hoarse from game 1.”
Ariza, in her fifteenth season, playing for her NBA ninth team, agreed to remotely watch Game 4 of her Blazers’ first round battle alongside this ESPN reporter. He is keenly aware that time is running out in his career, that it has been an all encompassing obsession playing a game he was sure he couldn’t live without.
Yet Ariza made the heartbreaking decision to give up playing alongside his Portland teammates because he was offered the opportunity to have 30 days of visits with eldest son Tajh, whom he hadn’t seen for nearly a year due to custody issues. Ariza has no second thoughts about her choice, but that doesn’t mean life outside the bubble was easy. He has heard the experts complain about his absence, as he is a big and strong veteran player who could have helped manage Lakers forward LeBron James.
“Dude, the word ‘tough’ doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Ariza told ESPN. “This is what I was born for, to play basketball. I’ve been doing it all my life. And knowing that my team has a chance to compete for a championship, and I’m not with them … it burns me inside. “
Still, she insisted, it was worth spending time with her son. Tajh is 12, named after Trevor Ariza’s little brother, who in 1996, when he was only 6 years old, plummeted 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 in a gym watching his stepfather compete in a basketball game.
His son Tajh is learning Spanish, plays the piano and loves the basket. He can shoot, has a decent handle and can run all day. He lives with his mother in North Carolina and Ariza desperately misses him when she can’t see him.
“So when there were options put on the table, and one of them was spending 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 his son, then I’m not doing my job. And my job is to be a father before everyone else. thing . “
Ariza said he braced himself for the inevitable backlash against his decision not to play, but it never came. Fans tweeted their support. The Trail Blazers were behind him and never once questioned him or pressured him to reconsider. His teammates, especially star Damian Lillard, sent him a message after a message stating their faith in what he was doing.
“You know what? It’s strange, but the opinions that mattered most to me were all the opinions that applauded me for my actions,” Ariza said. “The Blazers couldn’t have been more supportive. They understand how great this is, the times we’re in, how important it is to teach a young black boy to grow up to be a successful black man.”
During her month-long visit with Tajh, Ariza celebrated her son’s charisma, his wise lines, his dance moves and his strong opinions. He taught him how 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 haven’t done 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 child’s perspective.
“Tajh is between two families. There are two different sets of rules, and for him it is confusing. I wanted to be understanding and patient.”
When Tajh recently returned to North Carolina, Ariza phoned and called the Blazers to see if he could rejoin his team.
“I asked if there was a way,” said Ariza, “but the championship didn’t allow it. They made it clear when I gave up.”
He lived indirectly via Zoom calls with teammates and coaches. Daily texts from Lillard and guard CJ McCollum kept him informed of the locker room antics and the stories in the bubble. He offered pearls of wisdom to young great man Wenyen Gabriel, who Ariza expects to have a long and fruitful NBA career ahead of him. It is strange, he admitted, to watch his “brothers” on television.
The first moments of Game 4 were frustrating and troubling. The Blazers went quickly behind, 15-0. But when Jusuf Nurkic established himself in the 4 ‘of the first quarter with an offensive rebound and a basket, Ariza remarked: “This is the way Nurk has to play for us to have a chance.” He is an optimist by nature, and when the Blazers cut the Lakers’ lead to 18 at halftime, Ariza said: “The sense of urgency has increased. We are playing harder now.”
He acknowledged that the lack of bodies to protect James hurt the team. Zach Collins was lost to injury just days before the playoffs. Gary Trent Jr. has admirably defended “The King” but doesn’t have the size and strength that Ariza could have provided.
“When you play against guys like LeBron, you have to try to get them out of their comfort zone,” Ariza said. “Get them out of their routine, disturb them as much as possible. We did a better job in Games 1 and 2 than in Game 3.”
Before Game 4, I asked him if he agreed that Portland seems giddy with the series of “to win” games they had to put together in the bubble. “Everyone’s tired right now,” Ariza said. “Fatigue can’t matter. You have to lock it and fool yourself to be great.”
The Lakers wore their Black Mamba jerseys on Mamba Day – August 24, or 8/24, which represent both jersey numbers Kobe Bryant wore in his NBA career – a day after what would have been Bryant’s 42nd birthday. Ariza watched the game wearing his number 8 Bryant Lakers jersey, even as he cheered tirelessly for the Blazers.
Bryant was the mentor, teammate and friend of Ariza, his basketball North Star since he was 10. In November 2007, he was transferred from the Orlando Magic to the Lakers and feared there would be no time for him on a team with championship aspirations. When he got to his first team shooting, Bryant grabbed him firmly, then smiled and said, “Welcome, son of a bitch!”
“Kobe was the one who totally changed my perspective on the game,” said Ariza. “Everything big or small, it mattered to him all the same. His attention to detail was what separated him. You can be a great athlete, a great scorer, but what if you are playing poorly and can’t get to the point you normally like to trade. from? Kobe is the one who showed me how to pay attention to the angles, the footwork, the nuances that can take you far in such situations. He broke the game unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. “
He spoke to his friend and mentor for the last time in October during the preseason. Ariza is a Nike athlete and her shoes hadn’t arrived yet. “I called Kobe and said, ‘What’s going on brother?'” Ariza recalled. “I said, ‘I need you to hit the play button. I need my kicks.’ The next day, my Nike SS 4 showed up on my seat and I sent him a photo to thank him.
“Man, I’ve looked at that text for a long time today. Ever since Bean left, the world has been in turmoil.”
Ariza has been trying to simplify things since COVID-19 hit. Although Tajh has returned home, his wife and their children, Tristan and Taylor, have kept him fully engaged. He also focused on his foundation, the Choices Mentoring program, which helps young African Americans pursue their professional dreams by providing access to SAT / ACT mentoring, college counselors, scholarships and therapists.
“We are trying to show them there are other avenues besides being an athlete, a rapper or an entertainer,” Ariza said. “We want them to realize that they can be lawyers, doctors, firefighters, therapists. We bring people with similar backgrounds from Los Angeles and tell the kids about their travels. The kids walk away saying,” Wow, this man was sitting right here in this chair, and he’s taking care of his family with a great job, and he was once just like me ”. Give them hope. “
As Ariza tuned in to Game 4 with high hopes the Blazers would bring out another upset, the Lakers’ early dominance made it difficult for Portland to recover and LA easily won, 135-115.
Portland is now one game of elimination and an unceremonious exit from the NBA bubble. Back in Los Angeles, Ariza admitted, “We were blitzing tonight.” When asked what his team can do in Race 5, he replied: “Kitchen sink. All we have.”
He wondered if he could help, but remembers why he didn’t. “Guys understand,” he said. “They know I’m with them in spirit.”
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