A few weeks ago, I watched the Orlando Magic warm up before a playoff game in Philadelphia.
Adonal Foyle was doing nice slow lateral slides, and chatting with Sixer fans. Dwight Howard was shooting free throws. Rashard Lewis was on the block.
And J.J. Redick was on Mars. He was just locked in. Working around the horn, not shooting ten 3s from each spot, but making at least ten from each spot. At one point I counted that he hit 30 out of 33.
And then he missed a few, and you could tell it really annoyed him.
Catch the ball, put it on the fingertips, raise it ... then that quick little compound motion. It could't take more than a half a second. The elbow, the wrist, the hand. Flick. Then hold the follow-through, and your work is done.
This was a player who had been as big a star as exists at Duke, who was now -- you could make a pretty strong case -- struggling to find a place in the NBA. People who hate Duke loved that this famous Duke scorer was winding up his third NBA season, and still had yet to average more than six points per game in the NBA. People simply were not talking about J.J. Redick.
Although always an elite player, in the NBA Redick was not noted for his athleticism, passing, handle nor size (he's listed at 6-4).
He was known for that flick. That little moment when his shooting motion was more consistent, more regular, more honed, than most other NBA players. Although even that wasn't wholly reliable. This, Redick's third NBA season, saw the player have his worst 3-point percentage of his NBA career.
I thought about asking him about that. Here he was before a game he would not play in very much, pouring even more work into that flick. That little hand trick on which his entire career depended.
What a strange position for a human to be in! He's a millionaire, with trainers and coaches and nutritionists and everything else. He puts in long hours, and people know his name. And yet he has just this one trick, which takes less than a half-second. And most nights, he doesn't even get to use it.
The look on his face -- that intensity -- made me think twice about approaching. Essentially, before a big playoff game in which he would play a little, I'd be denigrating him somewhat. I'd say something like isn't it just a little weird to have your livelihood locked up in this one little motion? He'd have an easy time parrying the question. I can practically guarantee that he would say something like I'm trying to make a name for myself as a hard-worker in all facets of the game.
And it would sound like the right thing to say to a reporter, but it would not be the truthiest version of the truth.
Only, it was true.
Circumstances are funny. But shortly after I didn't ask him about how his career hinged on this one little repetitive instant of human motion, his got to play vastly more than in the regular season, while his team knocked off the defending champions.
And while he was out there, he made some great passes. He sprinted to open shooters and covered them before their teammates even knew they were open. He finished at the rim a few times. But by far the most notable thing Redick did was to play defense -- running around and around after Ray Allen, who (many feel certain it must have been a coincidence) had one of the worst offensive playoff series of his storied career.
Redick shot 39 times in 178 minutes vs. the Celtics, making just 13. That's about one shot every five minutes. He shot more like once every three-and-a-half minutes in the regular season, and made a higher percentage. But Redick was more important than ever in these playoffs because of the defense he has clearly been working on.
Stan Van Gundy rewarded the effort. Redick played in all seven games of this past series, averaging 25 minutes per game. In the regular season, he only got into 64 games, in which he averaged 17 minutes.
In fact -- doesn't Redick's whole body look different? He was vastly scrawnier in college, and you have to credit the man with that. Beefing up. Chasing Ray Allen. That's work. Work for anyone. Even more work for someone who has already made a name for himself playing a different way.
It's the kind of work that can make people forget that they ever forgot about you.