May 19, 2009
Beyond the shock and anger and frustration that comes from hearing the news that Brian Grant has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease comes the startling re-realization that, damn, this has not been the best of years for the NBA.
The play, obviously, has been fantastic. In spite of plenty of injuries, we've had heaps of contenders throw their hats into the ring, overall shooting is nearly at record levels, while the defense has sustained and the youngsters look better and better every time we've seen them.
But, man, we've lost Johnny "Red" Kerr. We've lost Norm Van Lier, on the same day. Chuck Daly passed away earlier this month, and Wayman Tisdale lost his battle with cancer just last week. Notable and well-regarded owners like Larry Miller and Bill Davidson left the courtside seats in Utah and Detroit that we were so used to seeing them in. Kevin Duckworth passed before the season started, and Marvin Webster quietly moved on a few months ago.
Cuttino Mobley(notes), a player who was so instrumental in turning the Los Angeles Clippers around just three years ago, had to retire to a rather scary heart ailment. Grant's diagnosis was a shock, and perhaps most affecting to me, Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter suffered a stroke in late April.
Not exactly the rundown you were hoping to pull up on what I'm sure is a lovely spring morning for most of North America. But, as alway, you can go both ways with this. My particular glass is half full. Just thinking back on Grant's career, on this particular morning, provided the impetus for that.
I don't think I've ever seen a player respond to the signing of a boffo free agent contract like Brian Grant did. Some players relax once the big money rolls in, and some players freak out so much that their play suffers nearly as much as the ones who were only working hard for the big payment plan to begin with.
With Grant, working for the Miami Heat in the 2000-01 season, he took the check in stride. In the first month of that season, Grant averaged 17.5 points per game, 4.7 blocks per contest, and 10.9 rebounds per game. Most impressively? He was working as a 6-8 center, if that, stuck in the pivot next to a 6-5 power forward (in Anthony Mason), as Alonzo Mourning(notes) was diagnosed with a career-altering kidney ailment just before the season began.
This was Pat Riley's big chance, mind you. After being tossed out of the second round by the New York Knicks, again, he re-formatted his team with all the free agent dollars he could stand. He acquired Grant, Mason, and All-Star Eddie Jones(notes) in sign-and-trade deals to surround Mourning and Tim Hardaway; and with the Knicks fading and the Indiana Pacers rebuilding after a trip to the 2000 Finals, the Heat were considered the favorites in the Eastern Conference.
Mourning's illness changed all that, but behind the play of Grant and Mason, the Heat held serve, winning 50 games where a .500 record had once been expected.
The problem that we didn't really know or understand at the time was that Grant was just a little while removed from a microfracture operation on his knee that took place in June 1999, soon after his Trail Blazers were eliminated from the Western Conference finals. Grant's struggles in 1999-00 seemed due to increased power forward competition and minutes from Rasheed Wallace(notes) and Detlef Schrempf, and what appeared to be an unease from Grant in working off the bench.
Of course, that didn't explain why the guy could barely jump anymore. But we didn't know this back then. And we couldn't have pegged it as the reason that, midway through Grant's first season with the Heat, he began to tail off a bit. By the time Mourning returned late in 2000-01, it was Grant, and not Alonzo or Mason, that would have to take to the bench.
What followed was a swift pummeling by the quicker and faster Charlotte Hornets in that year's playoffs, a three-game sweep, and one last attempt from Riley to reconfigure his team with veterans well-versed in postseason play (LaPhonso Ellis, Kendall Gill, Jim Jackson, Chris Gatling, Rod Strickland). It didn't work, the Heat missed the playoffs, and Grant (with his massive contract, just entering its third year) was a target.
Once again, though, we didn't know about microfracture surgery. The thing that essentially pulled the rug out of Anfernee Hardaway's(notes) career. The thing that left Grant, previously slapping backboards and jumping out of the gym with the Trail Blazers, as a below-the-rim guy, trying not to get his shot blocked, somehow averaging a double-double in only 32 minutes of play in 2002-03.
Grant started 76 games for the Heat in 2003-04 as they roared back into the playoffs behind Dwyane Wade(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes), and boy did he have to work. The guy was relentless. But his time, at age 32, was just about up. When the Los Angeles Lakers let it be known that a bit of cap relief and some talent were enough to acquire Shaquille O'Neal(notes) in a deal, Grant became that cap relief. In a way, he had a huge stake in Miami's lone NBA championship. Without his contract, O'Neal never makes it to Florida.
Brian was a bit of an afterthought in Los Angeles and in Phoenix for one final season in 2005-06. The Lakers tried to start him for a few games, but it wasn't working, and even Grant's usually sound perimeter touch left him in Phoenix. After being traded to the Boston Celtics in a salary cap maneuver, Grant retired, never playing a game in Boston.
So, yeah ... Parkinson's? What do you want me to type? This is what I know about Brian Grant. I don't know anything about him living with an illness. The reality of that just hasn't set in. The idea that he'll soon barely resemble the badass that I saw in Blazer red and black just a decade ago just hasn't processed, yet.
Faced with guessing at things, I'm choosing to remember what I remember about this guy. This special, special player -- who, for one month, may have been my favorite in what was a very unlikable NBA in 2000-01.
Beyond that, what can I say? Starting tonight, we have a game. Lakers/Nuggets, lots of anticipation about this, a little new blood, a little less Spurs, quite a few questions, hopefully seven fun games.
On Wednesday, the Magic and Cavaliers tip off; and for those of you that aren't looking forward to that as much as its Western Conference counterpart, consider that the greatest player in the world is now being faced with the only force in this known universe that can stop from getting to the rim. LeBron James(notes) has danced all over this league for a few years now, and he's about to be met with an influence so strong that he'd have nobody but himself to blame if the series went in Orlando's favor.
After that? The Finals. The stage where Brian Grant was left just a step removed from in 1999, 2000, and 2006. Enjoy it.
We could have as many as 21, and as few as 12 games left in 2008-09. No, it hasn't been the easiest of seasons in terms of loss and unfortunate news, but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate what we have, while we have it.