/It Can Mess You Up: The Perils of Playing with Your NBA Idol

It Can Mess You Up: The Perils of Playing with Your NBA Idol

Everyone who has ever picked up a ball has at least one idol, a gold standard personified, a player they grew up wishing to be, whose moves they attempted to master. There’s often a commonality between the grasshopper and his imagined sensei—they come from the same place, went to the same school or look somewhat the same, be it in appearance or build.

The difference for NBA players is they often get the chance to face their personal demigod in real life and find out how they measure up. It’s a moment of truth many young players across the league are now facing for the first time, thanks to another massive migration of superstars. Suddenly, they find the posters on their walls only a few years ago come to life in the locker next to theirs, lacing up the same signature shoes they wore in homage to the player on the poster. It is the rare chance for firsthand validation by their idol, something most people can only dream of.

So what happens if they don’t get it?

Look no further than last season’s Lakers for an answer. The young nucleus formed the previous season—Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart—had a stupid-grin marathon after learning that LeBron James, the guy voted by their draft class as its favorite player, had decided to be their teammate. Ball explained on James’ HBO talk show, The Shop, what it was like sharing a locker room with his personal icon for the first time.

“I had been watching him my whole life, and I own his jerseys and everything,” Ball recalled. “… I was kind of on edge, like I didn’t know how to be around him. Because I had never really been around someone I looked up to like that. Then I seen him in the locker room, and it was crazy.”

You know the rest. The grins and a 20-14 start were replaced by injuries, crestfallen looks and a 9-18 finish. James, the favorite player of most of the young Lakers—Brandon Ingram aspired to be the next Kevin Durantinsinuated they were holding him back and that his favorite player at the time was Pelicans forward Anthony Davis.

Injuries prevented Ball, Kuzma, Hart, Ingram and James from spending much, if any, time on the court together after all that, but Hart acknowledged on Inside the Green Room with Danny Green (now a Laker; then a Toronto Raptor) that they were all “riding together” at the start of the season and it was “a totally different vibe” by the end.

Neither Ball nor Hart, who were traded along with Ingram to the Pelicans for Davis this summer, nor Kuzma, who remains a Laker, have said directly that they felt unwanted by James and were crushed by it. But that’s also a tough admission, especially for a young player in the never-show-vulnerability world of professional sports. Teammate Rajon Rondo saw it firsthand, and players young and old across the league took it as a matter of course.

“It makes sense,” says Celtics forward Jayson Tatum of the young Lakers being rattled by a vote of no confidence from LeBron. “For people my age, he was ‘the man’ growing up. I went to a LeBron camp and I had his jersey. I remember the first time I played against him how nervous I was.”

Tatum, however, earned James’ respect. After Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals between Tatum’s Celtics and James’ Cavaliers, James raved about Tatum, saying, “He boomed me,” a reference to Tatum dunking on him, a comment that has since gone viral as a meme.

Jayson Tatum admits he was nervous the first time he played against LeBron James in the NBA, but by the end of the Eastern Conference playoffs that year, James publicly proclaimed how impressed he was by the then-rookie.

Jayson Tatum admits he was nervous the first time he played against LeBron James in the NBA, but by the end of the Eastern Conference playoffs that year, James publicly proclaimed how impressed he was by the then-rookie.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

He was never that flattering about any of the young Lakers. After a trade for Davis failed to materialize before the trade deadline last season, James intimated that not all his teammates were cut out for a playoff push. “If you are still allowing distractions to affect the way you play,” James told reporters in late February, “then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of, and you should just come in and say, ‘I can’t do this.'”

Those words from any team leader would be demoralizing, and Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes says that coming from someone as revered by young players as James, they are the ultimate disparagement.

“Everybody went to his camp!” Barnes says, laughing. “In high school, Nike structured it so his camp was the top camp. You’re always trying to be around the greatest player. When you’re a young guy in the league, you don’t have much background to draw from as far as trade talks. You don’t really understand.

“You’re thinking: ‘I was a high pick. I feel like I’m doing well. Why would they want to trade me?’ And then it’s like, ‘Yeah, I always patterned myself after this player, and that player is like, ‘Yeah, we need some guys who can win…’ That’s worse than any critique you could get from a media member or coach.”

Not that James stands alone as a superstar who has expressed dissatisfaction with teammates or admirers. Kobe Bryant, one former player says, initially balked at being in the team picture of the 2014-15 Lakers’ 21-win team, saying loud enough for everyone to hear, “I don’t want to take a picture with these losers.”

Sometimes the superstar doesn’t even have to say anything.

Pacers forward Myles Turner, as a high school junior, made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Dallas to Austin for an unofficial visit to the University of Texas and ended up hanging out with fellow former Longhorn Kevin Durant, one of his idols. Durant happened to be visiting the campus at the same time, and Turner wound up as his teammate in a pickup game.

You’re thinking: ‘I was a high pick. I feel like I’m doing well. Why would they want to trade me?’ And then it’s like, ‘Yeah, I always patterned myself after this player, and that player is like, ‘Yeah, we need some guys who can win…’ That’s worse than any critique you could get from a media member or coach.
— Harrison Barnes

“I wasn’t as adult as I am now, so I was kind of gangly and wasn’t getting shots up, and he kind of looked at me sideways,” Turner recalls. “He was passing me the ball to score, and I was being super passive, passing the ball back every time. I was just trying to fit in.”

Did he feel KD’s silent scorn?

“Hell yeah, definitely,” Turner says. “If you’ve got your mentor looking at you a little sideways, you’re going to be, ‘Dang, I disappointed him a little bit.’ But I didn’t let that determine my career. You just kind of rub it off and play better next time.”

Years later, he credits KD for creating the template that has allowed him to flourish in the NBA as an inside-outside threat despite being listed as 6’11” and 250 pounds. “KD opened the doors for a big man who can handle it and shoot it,” he says.

Derrick White had a more positive experience the first time he faced his idol and fellow Coloradan, Chauncey Billups, in a pickup game as a virtual unknown at Division II Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Myles Turner played nervously when he joined Kevin Durant in a pickup game at Texas but credits Durant with creating a template for the type of player he has tried to become.

Myles Turner played nervously when he joined Kevin Durant in a pickup game at Texas but credits Durant with creating a template for the type of player he has tried to become.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

“Pretty crazy, personally,” says White, who would transfer to Billups’ alma mater, the University of Colorado, for his senior year. “This is a guy I’ve been watching play, and now I’m playing against him? I just wanted to compete and show what I could do. I was playing really well, and I could just tell it was different after that.”

But not every encounter happens in a pickup game. Barnes faced his basketball role model, Kobe, in his first preseason game as a rookie with the Warriors.

“It was kind of surreal,” Barnes says. “I remember there was one play where it was the patented [Kobe] shot fake. Somebody said, ‘Stay down!’ I remember he shot-faked once, twice, and the third time I left my feet. I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve seen this play a million times. How do I still fall for it?’

“I had met him before, so it was an honor actually to just be stepping on the court against a guy like that, dap him up. At least from my generation, the ABC Sunday matchups, it was always the Lakers vs. somebody. Now for these young guys who look up and see his jersey retired and they never played against him, it’s pretty cool [that I did].”

Not every idol-aspirant first encounter is harrowing; for Brook Lopez, it was gratifying.

“One of my first games against Timmy [Duncan] is where I got that we must be on the same wavelength, that this is definitely my guy. It must’ve been in the third quarter during a timeout. They were playing music in the arena, ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ And he came up to guard me and he starts singing really low in my ear, ‘Wel-come to the jung-le,’ and I was like, ‘This is my guy, for sure. This is awesome.'”

Winning the approval of Jason Kidd was Richard Jefferson’s holy grail. Jefferson grew up in Phoenix and played at the University of Arizona while Kidd was a perennial All-Star for the Suns. “Jason was the next Magic,” he says, and when they became teammates with the New Jersey Nets, “I was like a puppy dog. Whatever he said, I soaked it all in.”

It took Jefferson some time to earn Kidd’s respect, but that wasn’t anything new to him. Despite playing in the 2001 NCAA Finals with Arizona and being a lottery pick (13th by the Houston Rockets), Jefferson was never regarded or treated as a star, either with the Wildcats or the Nets, who acquired him on draft night from the Rockets. By the time he joined Kidd, he was accustomed to having to prove his worth.

Not so with the Lakers’ young stars. Prior to LeBron’s arrival, Ball and Ingram were the franchise’s most prized players. It was their approval everyone sought. LeBron’s arrival swiftly ended that.

“A lot of these guys go to a premier university for a year and they’re a god,” Jefferson says. “Lonzo goes to UCLA, and all he hears is ‘whatever you want.’ Then he comes to the Lakers, one of the most storied franchises in the league, and it’s the same thing—’whatever you want.’ And he hasn’t even done anything yet. Of course, it’s going to be a shock when suddenly someone suggests he’s the reason they’re not winning.”

Turner, imagining himself in their place, agreed. “It can mess you up, but you’ve got to know your worth,” he says. “You’ve got to know why you’re here. You’re not here because LeBron or KD wanted you hereyou’re here because the organization brought you in and they saw something in you no one else saw. Now it might be a shot to your confidence if the best player on the team doesn’t agree with that, but at the same time you’re there for a reason.”

Unlike Ball, Hart and Ingram, Kuzma remains a Laker. He, of course, didn’t have the gilded path to the NBA that Ball or Ingram had and suggested that might be why the trade rumors or any dissatisfaction from James didn’t affect him. He shot season highs of 50 percent overall and 37.3 percent on threes during that tumultuous February while posting the second-highest scoring average (20.7) of his young career.

A lot of these guys go to a premier university for a year and they’re a god. … Of course, it’s going to be a shock when suddenly someone suggests he’s the reason they’re not winning.
— Richard Jefferson

“I can only speak for myself—I’ve dealt with a lot, and I’ve handled a lot,” Kuzma says. “The biggest thing was early childhood, making it out of Flint [Michigan]. A lot of people don’t make it out. It’s a super violent place. It’s hard to really make it to 21 where I’m from. I made it out. That’s the hardest thing a kid can go through.”

In short, a withering stare or two, even from an idol, isn’t going to rattle a young man who has seen a whole lot worse.

Kyle Kuzma believes the difficult times he lived through as a kid toughened him up to not be thrown off by criticism from any player, even an idol of his like James.

Kyle Kuzma believes the difficult times he lived through as a kid toughened him up to not be thrown off by criticism from any player, even an idol of his like James.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Kuzma also doesn’t count James as his only idol. “I had a lot,” he says. “Kobe. Melo. Bron. MJ. Shaq.”

There’s a difference between aspiring to be like someone and wanting someone to see you as being like them. It’s an important distinction for Turner. He still admires Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, but he says he isn’t seeking their approval or anyone else’s. “You’ll never reach your potential or be successful if you rest your hat on what other people think of you,” he says.

No matter how highly you might think of them.

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.