<
>

Aldridge finds light in dark matter

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Sometimes the best tales are the ones that unfold over multiple volumes, with the resolution waiting in the sequel. That's how it is with LaMarcus Aldridge's story, a narrative of a mother and her son, a case study in the connection between mental approach and results.

Aldridge tried to write a feel-good story last season. No one bought the script. After learning that his mother, Georgia, had breast cancer, Aldridge became determined to make the All-Star Game for the first time, to give his mom something to be proud of, to show the world the type of man she had raised. Aldridge became more aggressive, developed the inside game we'd yearned to see from him and had a career season. He still missed out on the All-Star Game, done in by the glut of talented Western Conference forwards with spectacular numbers (Kevin Love and Blake Griffin) and long-tenured stardom (Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan).

So much for nice and heartwarming. Just as the "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" series got better when the movies took a turn for the darker, the best thing for Aldridge was to get angry. Last year, the All-Star reserves were announced on Feb. 4. Soon afterward Aldridge had a tear of 115 points in three games, and he wound up averaging 28 points and shooting 56 percent in February, by far his best month of the season.

"After the All-Star Game [snub], I was on a mission to, like, kill everybody," Aldridge said. "Being in that mindset of trying to kill everybody kind of put me in a good rhythm and showed me how I should be every night. I've taken that same mentality -- I have to prove something every night -- and I've carried it over to this year. It's going well for me. Being that mad was good for me. It showed me how you have to think every night."

This season he has taken his game to an even higher level. He's better at driving to the hoop, and now can beat his defender every way possible. Now more of his shots are coming from within 10 feet, as opposed to longer jump shots -- just as it should be for someone who's 6-foot-11.

And the best part of all is that Georgia's cancer is in remission, and she's been able to travel from her Dallas-area home and see more of her son's games in person. She was in Portland to witness Aldridge's season-high 39-point game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night. For everything that All-Star starter Kevin Durant threw at the Trail Blazers, Aldridge was able to give something back, with a little extra. Aldridge even blocked Durant's last-ditch attempt to tie the game near the end of regulation, only to get whistled for goaltending on a call the NBA admitted was wrong the next day.

Not even the subsequent overtime loss could diminish the wattage on Georgia's face afterward.

"It's a blessing just to be here," she said.

Now she hopes the next chapter will bring her son a spot on the All-Star reserves selected by the coaches, which will be announced Thursday.

"It would be so great," she said. "It would make his dreams come true, which would make my dreams come true. I would be so excited. I'm waiting for him to send me a text or call me. I know I would cry, because he's worked so hard. To me, he deserves it. That's my child, but ... I really think he deserves it."

It doesn't require a mother's biased eyes to feel that way. The numbers say the same thing, albeit with less affection. Aldridge's 23.7 points per game rank second only to Love's 25 points among power forwards; his 8.6 rebounds per game rank 10th; his .514 field goal percentage is fourth.

And with Brandon Roy's worn-down knees forcing him into retirement, there isn't a doubt who gets the ball when Portland needs a basket. The offense runs through Aldridge, leans so heavily on him that point guard Raymond Felton even felt compelled to call on the rest of the team to take on a greater share of the burden.

"We've got to have somebody else step it up at some point, because he can't carry the load the whole game like that," Felton said.

Aldridge doesn't mind. It's all part of his evolution.

"Last year I had to take a different mindset to want that," he said. "I felt like I had been so used to being the second option late in the game that I was just kind of passive. But I think last year I took a big step [in saying], 'OK, give me the ball. I'm going to score, I'm going to get fouled, or I'm going to pass it.' I think last year I grew in that aspect."

He had to grow into greatness. He had to learn the mentality that it required. Aldridge had been through setbacks in his early days of ball, including not getting picked when he went to the park with his older brother, or getting schooled by the older kids when he did get on the court. But it's telling that he didn't really get into the game until his sixth-grade team went 32-0.

Before that, basketball "was something to do." Aldridge said. Winning the Dallas city championship changed that.

"That kind of made me want to love it more and more," Aldridge said. "Since that day, I felt an actual passion for the game."

He was pleased by the wins, but wasn't obsessed with winning. There's a difference. The best players feel more pain from losses than joy from victories.

Maybe it came too easy for too long. He was already 5-foot-11 in sixth grade. He towered over the other kids. He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft, he got a $65 million contract extension in 2009 and for the longest time it seemed that was enough. He could get you 18 points and eight rebounds a game, and it seemed as if that was fine by him, too.

Good enough is no longer good enough for Aldridge. The goals he sets for himself now exceed what we expect of him. Before last season, no one was expecting him to be an All-Star. Now there could be a grand jury investigation if he's not a part of the festivities in Orlando, Fla.

Portland coach Nate McMillan compares Aldridge to Eli Manning. Manning talked and acted like a big-time quarterback, and what do you know, now he's considered one. It's about wanting to be great.

Aldridge is even getting good reviews from his mom.

"I can be hard on him," she said. "If he has a bad game -- or, I think it's bad -- if he could have done more, I'll text him and tell him, 'I think you could have played a little harder.' I'll ask him, 'Are you tired? What's going on with you?'"

But lately?

"I have no criticisms," she said. "When I watch him go out there, I see he's giving his all. And as long as he's giving his all, that's all we can do."

LaMarcus Aldridge's mom is happy. In the abstract, that doesn't sound like much of a story. But when you know the background and consider the context, you understand why this is one of the rare times the sequel is better than the original.