As his family has long known—and opponents of the banged-up Trail Blazers are fast finding out—power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is as steady as they come
This is an article from the March 28, 2011 issue
Cancer. The word pierced LaMarcus Aldridge like a blade. Not her. Not Mom. "She's just playing," Aldridge said to himself. "She has to be." Georgia Aldridge wished she were. Her health was never something she worried about. She exercised, ate right. She was stunned when the doctor told her last September that the lump in her breast was malignant. Then he told her the cancer was aggressive. Then he told her to go home and "make peace with your Maker." Just processing the news was tough. Telling her family was even tougher. Especially LaMarcus.
Growing up, LaMarcus went everywhere with his mother. The supermarket. The department store. The nail salon. When LaMarcus was 16, Georgia split with his father, Marvin, because of his excessive drinking, and their bond grew even tighter. They were mother and son, but they were also best friends. "He worries about me all the time," says Georgia, 49. "He's not just my son, he's my caretaker."
But he couldn't protect her from this. She thought about not telling him. He had only a few more days in their hometown of Dallas before he had to go to training camp in Portland to begin his fifth season with the Trail Blazers. She didn't want to burden him. Her sisters told her no, she couldn't keep this to herself. The next day she called LaMarcus and his older brother, LaVontae, over to her house. She took them into the living room and told them everything. She cried. LaVontae cried. LaMarcus didn't flinch. He walked over to his mother, draped a long arm around her shoulder and told her everything was going to be all right. Later he pulled LaVontae aside and told him it was their responsibility to keep her spirits up. If we're just feeling sorry for her, LaMarcus said, she might not fight as hard. "He was probably as hurt and scared as everybody else," recalls LaVontae. "But he wouldn't show it. He's a rock."
Then again, LaVontae already knew that. A few years earlier he ran into his own bad luck. He had just lost his job and had checked into a cheap motel to wallow in his misery. He didn't tell anyone where he was staying, but not long after he got there, LaMarcus was banging on his door. He told LaVontae that in their family, people don't give up. "To this day I don't know how he found me," says LaVontae, 31, now a long-haul truck driver. "But he was the one who got me through."
The quiet, unflappable 25-year-old has always been dependable. At Seagoville High he carried his team to the Texas Class 4A quarterfinals, the Dragons' best showing in 19 years. As a sophomore at Texas he was the Big 12 defensive player of the year and helped the Longhorns advance to the Elite Eight in the 2006 NCAA tournament. He turned pro after that and was selected second by the Bulls, who shipped his rights to the Blazers for No. 4 pick Tyrus Thomas and forward Viktor Khryapa. The 6'11" Aldridge was a starter at power forward by his second year and since then has averaged at least 17 points and seven rebounds each season.
This year, with Portland hampered by knee injuries to guard Brandon Roy (34 games missed) and center Greg Oden (out for the season), Aldridge got off to a pedestrian start. "[My mom's cancer] didn't distract me during games," he says. "But it wore me down mentally because of how much I was thinking about it all day. After a while I told myself that I was going to turn this into a positive. I was going to use it as motivation to make the All-Star team for her." In mid-November he went on a tear, becoming the focal point of the Portland offense and the anchor of its D. Through Sunday he was averaging career highs in points (22.2), rebounds (8.7) and steals (1.1) while matching his career bests in assists (2.1) and blocks (1.2). He was the Western Conference player of the month in February, and at week's end the Blazers were 40--30, sixth in the conference. "In our league most players play either offense or defense," says coach Nate McMillan. "You can't find many players who can dominate on both ends. LaMarcus can."
Still, Aldridge was left off the All-Star team. LeBron James called it "the biggest snub in All-Star history."
Aldridge was a 6-foot seventh-grader when Seagoville coach Robert Allen first set eyes on him. Back then basketball was more his brother's thing. LaVontae was a high school star who played one season at Howard College before a knee injury ended his career. LaMarcus's passion for the game was more lukewarm. He would often get chosen last for pickup games; sometimes the only reason he was picked at all was because LaVontae was a captain.
Still, Allen saw potential. "He wasn't very strong, but he was tall and his coordination wasn't that bad," says Allen. "I thought with some work, this kid has a chance to be special." When Aldridge was in eighth grade, Allen went to Georgia and persuaded her to send LaMarcus to Seagoville. There, Allen developed Aldridge with both carrot and stick. After a lackadaisical first few practices, Allen dragged Aldridge outside to the track. He made him run nearly nine miles and warned him that every lazy practice thereafter would bring similar punishment. "I thought he was going to transfer," says Allen. "The next day, he was the first one in the gym."
Before the season Allen and assistant coach Wendell Thornton sat Aldridge down. They asked him where he wanted to go to college. Aldridge said North Carolina. Work hard, Allen said, and the first letter you will get will be from the Tar Heels. Aldridge started every game for Seagoville as a freshman and was voted team MVP. With two games left in the season, Aldridge received a letter from Carolina. "That gave me so much confidence," says Aldridge. "I started to really believe in myself."
He became a gym rat. When his teammates arrived for practice, Aldridge was usually already dressed and working out. He watched game film during his lunch period. After practice he would hustle to his part-time job at a nearby shoe store. When his shift was over, he would often call Thornton and ask him to reopen the gym for a late-night workout. One night a heavy storm knocked out the power in the building. Undaunted, Aldridge opened the doors so that there was enough moonlight to see the rim.
Basketball was fun. The politics that come with it were not. As Aldridge's game matured, AAU coaches tried to get in his ear. They bad-mouthed Seagoville and tried to persuade Georgia to let LaMarcus transfer to another school, where, with Allen out of the way, they would be able to exert more control. One coach nearly had her convinced, until LaMarcus said he would quit playing if he had to play anywhere else. "It was an old-fashioned way of pimping him," says Allen.
Of course, Seagoville wasn't easy either. Aldridge was big news in Texas, a fact that irritated some of his teammates. During his senior year a classroom wallpapered with newspaper clips of Aldridge's biggest moments was vandalized. In the state quarterfinal game, Aldridge played despite having a stress fracture in his back. In the first half he dominated. Down the stretch his teammates froze him out, as the Dragons lost by one point. "Some of those players were so jealous of him, they would rather lose than see him play well," says Allen. "That's something that I will never forget."
High school jaded Aldridge. Now he keeps his circle of friends tight and requires newcomers to prove they are trustworthy before he lets them in. In Portland he is friendly with his teammates but close to none of them. Most Blazers didn't know his mother was sick until well into the season. "I just don't trust a lot of people," says the 25-year-old Aldridge. "My mom says that once I trust or love someone, I give them everything I've got. But that takes time."
What aremy weaknesses? Aldridge asked himself that question last spring. He was watching the playoffs at home in Dallas when ESPN flashed a scouting report on Kevin Garnett that detailed how opponents could stop the Celtics' big man. It made Aldridge ponder his own shortcomings. Aldridge had developed into a capable scorer, but too often he was pushed around in the post or jammed on the perimeter. Power moves ended in fadeaways or runners. So he made some calls and was eventually referred to Kevin Kordish, a trainer at a gym in nearby Southlake. Kordish usually trains football players. Aldridge told him he wanted to look like one.
Under Kordish, Aldridge built muscle. Hang cleans. Leg presses. Box jumps with a weighted vest. The two worked out four days a week for two months. By the end Aldridge had packed on six pounds of muscle to weigh in at 246, and he dropped his body fat from 12.9% to 10.7%. To test his new frame, Aldridge called Blazers assistant Bill Bayno and asked him to come to Texas. During the season Bayno would regularly whack Aldridge with thick football pads during post drills to get him used to playing through contact. Bayno had been able to regularly disrupt Aldridge as he made a move or forced him to pick up his dribble. Now Aldridge was powering right through Bayno. "He gained strength without losing any speed," says the 48-year-old coach. "I used to wear him out with that drill. Now he's wearing me out."
In past seasons Aldridge floated in and out of the paint; now he sets up shop there. According to hoopdata.com, Aldridge was attempting a career-high 6.5 shots per game at the rim, up from 3.9 last season. As a result, he was averaging 2.1 more free throw attempts. "He's trying to get what he wants rather than what the defense gives him," says Rockets coach Rick Adelman. "He's really imposing his will on people."
Georgia finished chemotherapy last month, and though she won't have any definitive answers until after her radiation treatment, her prognosis is good. Aldridge had hoped she could celebrate the end of chemo by watching him play in the All-Star Game. Instead he booked a suite at the W hotel in Austin, where he treated Georgia to a weekend of massages, room service and lavish dinners.
On the court things continue to look up as well. McMillan calls Aldridge a late bloomer. He evokes names such as Karl Malone and Dirk Nowitzki when discussing Aldridge and eagerly talks about how good Aldridge will be when he deciphers the steady stream of double teams he now finds himself facing. The two frequently exchange late-night calls and texts, with McMillan reminding Aldridge to scrutinize the way Garnett and Kobe Bryant play a two-way game. McMillan encourages Aldridge to keep challenging his teammates and assert himself in the locker room. Be a leader, the coach says. Someone the guys can count on.
As plenty of people can attest, Aldridge is capable of that.
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