Behind a brick storefront on the east side of Cleveland is a greasy spoon called Landmark Restaurant, where factory workers sit elbow to elbow at the counter, heaping egg sandwiches go for three bucks, and a small Greek flag honors the family of the immigrants who opened the diner 22 years ago. Last Election Day, when President Barack Obama needed one final photo op to remind Rust Belt voters that we are all at this counter together, he dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to the Landmark for lunch. Compared with Biden's motorcade, Tristan Thompson's black Bentley, parked down the block, looks discreet.
This is an article from the Oct. 7, 2013 issue
A waitress asks Thompson if he'd like marshmallows in his hot chocolate—"Oh, yeah!" he replies—and she chuckles under her breath. "I feel like I'm eight years old again," Thompson says, lifting his mug of cocoa, the marshmallows forming a small archipelago on the foamy surface. A 6'9", 227-pound power forward for the Cavaliers who nearly averaged a double double last season, Thompson is the same age as the restaurant. But if you measure a basketball player's growth by the evolution of his jump shot, hoisted from frozen driveways all the way to hardwood palaces, then yes: Tristan Thompson is an eight-year-old.
In the summer of 2011, Thompson was the fourth pick in the NBA draft, and in the summer of '13, he finally learned to shoot, which sounds about as backward as a brain surgeon starting his own practice and then returning to elementary school so he can dissect frogs. Thompson rattles off recent lessons he has committed to memory, which could have easily been imparted at the Cuyahoga Falls YMCA: "How to hold the ball, tuck the elbow, make the 90-degree angle with my arm, follow through with my wrist." For the first two weeks of training, Thompson took only set shots and none more than five feet from the basket. He repeated jab steps, 50 at a time, before he went to bed. He dreamed of elbow jumpers. When he finally sank a few, on the Quicken Loans Arena practice court, a friend filmed them.
Thompson produces an iPhone from the pocket of his gray sweats and proudly plays the video over breakfast, apologizing for his buddy's jumpy camera work. There are no skyscraping dunks on the screen, just a man deliberately raising and unfurling his right hand, yet when Thompson forwarded the footage to LeBron James, the best player in the world promptly responded from China: "That's crazy!" As Thompson beams, an elderly woman approaches from a nearby booth, holding a paper place mat she has torn in half. She'd like to give him her phone number and cook him dinner sometime, but first she wants his autograph. He grabs a pen. He signs the paper with his left hand.
Larry Bird famously added one element to his hoops repertoire every summer, and subsequent generations have been peer-pressured to follow suit. The enhancements are usually minor—a teardrop, a baby hook, an up-and-under move—and often abandoned shortly after they are unveiled at training camp. Last year Thompson introduced a nifty righthanded floater. This summer he took on a more ambitious project, perhaps the most dramatic off-season alteration in NBA history. "I became a whole new person," he says, exaggerating only slightly. A basketball player's stroke, after all, is his identity.
Thompson has unleashed tens of thousands of jumpers in his 22 years, starting on the portable basket his dad bought at a Walmart near their home in suburban Toronto, and almost all of them were released with his left hand. His halting form was never mistaken for Ray Allen's—"It was like a slingshot," Thompson says—but it didn't exactly hold him back. He was a top 20 recruit, spent just a year at Texas and won over the Cavs with his affable personality, unrelenting effort and tightfisted defense. They could overlook that he hesitated to fire an open 10-footer and made less than half of his free throws in college. Even last season Thompson took only 14.2% of his shots outside the paint and made just 37.2% (42 of 113) of them.
After a morning shootaround in Phoenix last November, while players iced ankles in the courtside seats at US Airways Center, reserve guard Jeremy Pargo challenged Thompson to a shooting contest with their off hands. Thompson won so easily that Pargo told him afterward, "You should do this all the time. You look better. You look more natural. You'll always be a solid player, but you could be an All-Star." Thompson flashed back to those tens of thousands of jumpers. "But I'm lefthanded," he protested. "I got here lefthanded, and I'm going to make it work lefthanded."
Thompson was starting full-time for the struggling Cavs and hitting some of his floaters, but he couldn't forget Pargo's words. In early January, Thompson drove Rich Paul to the team's practice facility one night around one, curious if his agent would see the same thing his teammate did. They ran pick-and-pops, with Thompson shooting lefthanded, then right. Before a practice two weeks later, Thompson asked ball boys to videotape him launching 100 shots with each hand, and they discovered that his right yielded more buckets. Thompson studied the footage at home, asking himself whether he could sacrifice what amounted to his life's work—and whether he could live with himself if he didn't. He remembered how he left Canada at 16 for a superior basketball education in the U.S., how he declared for the draft as a freshman and how the temporary discomfort paid off.
"A lot of people stick with what they know because they're insecure about putting something new out there and getting embarrassed," Thompson says. "I don't want to sit here in 12 years and think, What if I made that change? Could I have been one of the best power forwards in the league? Could our team have taken a leap?" He thought about James, who dropped into the low post two years ago and emerged with consecutive championships. The immortals step out of their comfort zone in order to expand it. "They aren't afraid to put it on the line," Thompson says.
Cleveland general manager Chris Grant keeps a football in his office to squeeze tight when he's making important decisions. Late last season he met with Thompson, who confided that he was thinking of overhauling his shot. Grant flipped him the ball and asked him to toss it across the practice court. Thompson hurled a deep post—with his right hand. "It was like John Elway," Grant recalls. Thompson has always thrown footballs and baseballs righthanded, gripped pens and swung golf clubs lefthanded. He only started playing basketball at 12 and assumed that shooting was like writing instead of throwing. Canadian coaches, awed by his size and speed, didn't nitpick. "If he were in America, he'd have been in a layup line by second grade," Paul says. "Somebody would have told him, 'That shot is so ugly. Do it with the other hand.' " Perhaps somebody once said something along those lines to James, who also writes with his left hand but shoots with his right.
Paul searched for another player who switched dominant hands in the midst of his NBA career, but he couldn't find one. Neither could the Cavaliers or the league office or Harvey Pollack, the 76ers' director of statistical information, who has been chronicling the NBA since its inception in 1946. Bird scored 20 points shooting lefthanded in a 1986 game against Portland, but that was a stunt, and Kobe Bryant made a lefty three-pointer against Dallas in 2005, but that was a desperation heave. This is like Clayton Kershaw showing up to spring training and announcing he's not a southpaw anymore.
The Cavaliers trickle into their facility at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday in mid-September, everybody from star point guard Kyrie Irving to undrafted free agents, all eager to show off their summer improvements. Thompson is already on the court, flanked by three coaches, including shot doctor Dave Love. The Cavs hired Love to assist with Thompson's transition, and the pair has spent most of the past four months together. Per Love's orders Thompson assumes an exaggerated stance, feet wider than his shoulders to maintain balance. He keeps his left hand, now the guide hand, off the ball so it doesn't interfere. He drains 10 shots from one spot before shuffling to another. Teammates, stretching on the baseline, steal glances. He feels their eyes. "I understand why they're watching," Thompson says. "They want to see something that hasn't been done before."
There is much more to his makeover than placing the ball in a different palm and letting fly. Thompson has revamped his footwork, learning to jump, pivot and reverse pivot with his left sole instead of his right. Playing for the Canadian national team in the FIBA Americas Championship in Venezuela last month, Thompson shot righthanded but often leftfooted, elevating off the wrong leg. The tournament was still a triumph, though, because he drained 78.7% of his 47 free throw attempts. He's a long way from spacing the floor like Miami's Chris Bosh or knocking down pick-and-pop jumpers, but the foul-shooting spike alone will validate the transformation. Thompson led Cleveland in attempts from the line last season (291) but made only 60.8%. Raise that figure into the high 70s, and he might inspire Dwight Howard to ponder a switch.
Basketball players build habits early, fortify them through hundreds of AAU and high school games, and rarely change course. It takes an unusually brave player to deviate from the only style he's ever known, risking stats, minutes and therefore dollars. "I don't know a lot of people who would do this when they're in the NBA—I can't even think of kids who have done it—but Tristan is driven to be the best he can, and he wasn't going to do that lefthanded," says Jay Triano, coach of the Canadian national team and a Blazers assistant. "There were glitches in his shot. You could afford to foul him and know he'd only make one of two. Now he's a real threat. You can't hit him. He will make the points count. His free throws look perfect."
Opposing teams don't know what to expect from Thompson this season. Maybe they'll have to start defending him outside of 10 feet. Maybe they won't. He honestly has no idea, either. "I am fully prepared for my first shot to be an air ball," he says with a laugh. But there is no switching back, no more sleight of hand. "I can't even shoot with my left anymore," he says. "I try but it feels too weird." Love assures him that by sniper's standards, he is not eight years old anymore. "Now he tells me I'm 15," Thompson crows.
Thompson keeps Post-it notes stuck to a wall in his house on which he scrawls goals for the season. He wants to look like a natural righty; he wants to average a double double; and he wants to taste the playoffs for the first time. Mike Brown, back for his second stint as Cleveland's coach, could employ a lineup with four players who were top four picks the last three years: Thompson, Irving, shooting guard Dion Waiters and rookie Anthony Bennett, who will compete with Thompson at power forward but could also play alongside him. The frontcourt is crowded, especially if the troublesome knees of center Andrew Bynum heal, and the stakes are high. James can opt out of his contract in Miami to become a free agent next summer, and a playoff push would give the Cavaliers more to sell than sentiment.
Thompson had a dream recently about a decisive playoff game. The score was tied in the final seconds, and the ball came to him at the left elbow. He was watching himself, as if on television, seeing the name and number on the back of his jersey. "Remember the camera angle on the Michael Jordan shot in the Finals against Utah, how it was behind him?" Thompson says. "That's how the camera angle was." He didn't hesitate. He didn't pass. He jab-stepped and rose. He felt the seams, tucked the elbow, formed the 90-degree angle with his arm. He snapped the wrist and held the follow-through, ball in the net, right hand in the air.