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Hair-Raising Hero Playing with reckless disregard for personal safety--and glory--the Trail Blazers' Brian Grant has emerged as a star in the postseason, even as Portland fell behind 2-0 to the Spurs

June 07, 1999
June 07, 1999

Table of Contents
June 7, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Hair-Raising Hero Playing with reckless disregard for personal safety--and glory--the Trail Blazers' Brian Grant has emerged as a star in the postseason, even as Portland fell behind 2-0 to the Spurs

Suddenly, here he is, this dreadlocked, tattooed revelation that
has burst upon the postseason stage fully formed, as admirable a
person as he is a player. How did Brian Grant crash this party,
and why didn't we know he was coming? These aren't just the
playoffs, these are the conference finals: The pretenders have
been banished, and the teams that remain are supposed to have
All-Stars and MVP candidates as their foundations, players whose
stories America knows intimately. The driving forces are supposed
to be Patrick and Reggie, Tim and the Admiral, not someone who
has spent most of his career in relative obscurity and in
Sacramento--which, until recently, were more or less the same
thing.

This is an article from the June 7, 1999 issue Original Layout

But here's Grant, the Portland Trail Blazers' power forward and
the rock upon which they stand. Rasheed Wallace may be more
athletic, Isaiah Rider and Damon Stoudamire more explosive, but
Grant is the Blazers' most consistent player. He may look like a
bulked-up Bob Marley, but his peers know that he's closer to
being the James Brown of the NBA. "He's the hardest-working guy
in the league," says Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs.
"You've got to respect that cat."

If we had known him better, that cat surely would have had our
respect long before now. Had we realized that Grant was a man of
such substance, we might have expected his noble postseason
performance, in which he has been matched against three
All-Stars and has suffered two bell-ringing blows to his face,
one of which opened a six-stitch gash over his right eye. We
would have known that his struggles against Duncan and the Spurs
in last Saturday's Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, an
80-76 Blazers loss in which Grant had only eight points and
seven rebounds, wouldn't discourage him. Nor would Monday's
heartbreaking 86-85 defeat, as Grant scored 10 points and again
grabbed seven boards. The losses only served to inspire him to
get his hands dirtier as the series shifted to Portland where a
friendlier crowd will greet the Blazers for Friday's Game 3.
"Hard work comes naturally to me," Grant says.

Why wouldn't it? While other kids were playing at basketball
camps and in AAU leagues, Grant spent many of his teenage summers
cutting tobacco in the fields around Georgetown, Ohio, which was
considerably more taxing than establishing low-post position. "We
hacked away from morning to night, on our knees most of the time,
in the heat and humidity," he says. "We'd have to jump snakes. I
hate snakes. And there was this stuff that came from the
plants--tobacco gum, we called it. It would get in the creases of
your hands and in your fingernails. It would be almost a year
before you could get it all out."

Grant is 27 years old and has been in the league for five years,
and we really should have been paying attention to him. Then we
would have known it was completely in character for him to spend
the idle months during the NBA lockout regularly making the
two-hour round-trip from Portland to Sublimity, Ore., to visit
terminally ill 12-year-old Dash Thomas, a brain cancer victim to
whom he dedicated this season after Dash died in February. We
already would have known the reason why Grant has become the type
of guy who will buy a Santa hat and toys at Christmastime and
make spur-of-the-moment visits to children's hospitals, which is
the kind of philanthropy that earned him the NBA's J. Walter
Kennedy Citizenship Award this year. When he was in second grade,
Brian contracted double pneumonia and was in the hospital for
weeks. "They had me in this tent, this bubble," he says. "Knowing
that your mom was coming when she got off work or your uncles
were going to come see you didn't keep you from feeling lonely
all the time. I'll always remember that feeling. That's why I go
see kids in the hospital a lot."

Maybe now you're beginning to understand what Blazers forward
Walt Williams means when he says solemnly, "Brian Grant is a
man." Maybe you can see why Grant, who had never advanced beyond
the first round of the playoffs before this season, hasn't
wilted under playoff pressure, why the brutal elbows to his head
from Karl Malone during the Blazers' second-round series against
the Utah Jazz left him only momentarily rattled. When Grant
wasn't cutting tobacco, baling hay or playing basketball, he
often watched his father and uncles work at a factory welding
boxcars. He saw the way they sliced potatoes in half and placed
them over their eyes to soothe the pain of the flash burns they
got when the flame passed too close to their faces. One night
Grant's father came home from work with a patch over his eye
from having been hit by an errant piece of hot metal. "A cut on
my eyebrow?" Grant says. "I mean, stitch it up and let's play."

Not everything about Grant is so easily explained. He wears
dreadlocks, likes Marley's reggae and answers to the nickname of
Rasta Monsta, but he's not Rastafarian. In fact, he often seeks
the counsel of his Baptist pastor. He's exceedingly humble, and
his willingness to forgo scoring in favor of rebounding and
defense attests to his lack of ego, yet he has his own publicist
and Web site. "It's just a way for people to connect with me and
get to know me," he says of the site. People certainly have done
that, buying dreadlocked Grant wigs that are sold in Portland
stores. All proceeds go to Grant's charitable foundation, which
assists the families of seriously ill children.

But nothing has contributed to Grant's popularity as much as his
impressive play, especially as the matchups have grown
increasingly difficult during the playoffs. He outplayed the
Phoenix Suns' Tom Gugliotta in the Blazers' first-round sweep,
averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, and then survived a
memorable duel with Malone in which the Mailman apparently
mistook Grant's face for an armrest, placing his elbow there
repeatedly. Grant took an elbow to the jaw in Game 1, for which
Malone was fined $10,000, and then suffered the gash above his
eye in Game 5. But Grant got his revenge in Game 6, in which he
helped limit Malone to eight points on 3-for-16 shooting as
Portland won 92-80 and clinched the series. "That was the series
that made people start to notice Brian more," says Blazers coach
Mike Dunleavy, "but he just did the same thing we've seen him do
all year. He scores when we ask him to, but he knows we need his
defense and rebounding every night, and he keeps giving it to us."

Grant appreciates the newfound acclaim, but it provided no
consolation after Portland's Game 1 loss to the Spurs. "I don't
see these last few weeks as any kind of breakthrough for me," he
said on Sunday. "I'm not looking for anything like that. I'm just
trying to get to the next round and play for a ring, and I know I
need to play better for that to happen." Matched for most of the
game against Duncan, a silken 7-footer, the 6'9", 254-pound Grant
failed to fling his bulk around with his usual abandon. "Gotta
find a way to play against these long guys," he said afterward,
referring to Duncan and 7'1" San Antonio center David Robinson.
"I didn't play a smart game. I have to realize who I'm playing
against. These guys are long and athletic, so I have to go to my
strength. That means all-out brawling down low."

Grant didn't go to the free throw line once in either Game 1 or
2, which isn't a good sign for a player who usually creates a
great deal of contact around the basket. Blazers assistant Tim
Grgurich addressed the aggressiveness issue in a private session
with Grant in the locker room before practice on Sunday. "We need
you to be our Barkley, our Malone," Grgurich told him. "We need
you stirring things up inside, the way those guys do. Play the
way Brian Grant plays."

Actually, Grant has patterned his game more after Dennis
Rodman's than Barkley's or Malone's. When he finished his four
years at Xavier and was taken as the eighth pick in the 1994
draft by Sacramento, he watched Rodman closely and adopted his
practice of tapping a rebound to an open spot and then
retrieving it. Rodman's multihued hairstyle also helped persuade
Grant to grow his dreadlocks, which are tinted red at the tips.
(Perhaps more influential was a trip to Jamaica four years ago
where Grant was exposed to Marley and was so impressed with both
his music and his politics that he had Marley's image tattooed
on his right arm.)

Still, with his ability to win rebounding battles against more
athletic players and his willingness to concentrate on defense
and think about scoring only when called upon, Grant brings to
mind the best of Rodman, without the sideshow theatrics. When
Grant became a free agent in 1997, he signed with the Blazers
largely because the idea of playing a well-defined role appealed
to him. The talent in Portland would make that possible. "I
wanted to be part of a true team," he says. "When I was a kid
with my cousins and one of us got 50 cents, it was dime for you,
dime for you, dime for you. That's the way it should work on a
team. Spread the wealth. That's how we've made it this far."

To make it any further, the Blazers will need Grant's consistency
and, probably, more of his scoring. But whatever the outcome of
the series, Grant's days of anonymity are over. There's a certain
dignified treatment he has earned, in part because of his good
work on the court but probably in larger part because of his good
works off it.

That was evident on Saturday before Game 1, when a pair of Spurs
fans, both dressed in Duncan replica jerseys, stationed
themselves at the railing of the Alamodome stands within
shouting distance of the walkway leading from the Portland
locker room onto the court. The two men greeted each Blazer with
jeers and warnings about the indignities he was about to suffer
at the hands of the Spurs. But when Grant approached, one of the
boo brothers touched the other lightly on the forearm, and they
fell silent as he passed. It wasn't just because they recognized
him, it was because they knew exactly who he was.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BODY OF WORK After battling Gugliotta and Malone in earlier rounds, Grant got no relief from the Spurs' Duncan (21) and Malik Rose.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH TALL ORDER Grant chided himself after Game 1 for coming up short with only eight points and seven rebounds against Duncan.
Grant learned the value of hard work from his father. "A cut on
my eyebrow?" he says. "Stitch it up and let's play."
Grant was so impressed by Marley's music and politics that he
had the singer's image tattooed on his right arm.