Moving without the ball

Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The backstage corridor at "The Tonight Show" is a flurry of activity: Questlove holds court outside The Roots' dressing room; Frank Knuckles cracks jokes with Stephen Curry and DeMarcus Cousins; and a pair of overcaffeinated, 20-something writers run lines with NBA All-Stars for a fake superlatives gag that pokes fun at the show's staff.

"Jimmy Fallon," Chris Bosh reads aloud, struggling not to break, "he was voted most likely to laugh during 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and get a boner during 'SpongeBob.'"

It's nearly time for the dress rehearsal, but one All-Star has yet to arrive. The production assistants start to buzz, worrying aloud about why Kyle Lowry isn't here with the five others scheduled to appear in the sketch.

They need not be concerned. If Lowry's presence in New York means anything, it's that he will reach his destination, no matter how long it takes. Two days later, the Raptors point guard will start in his first All-Star Game, a journey that took 28 years, three pro teams, and one slow, arduous path of self-pity and self-reflection, obstinance and reluctant change.

So, as Lowry finally enters the studio, he does not rush. He focuses on learning his line -- the next writer is Mike Drucker; he was voted Bald Seth Rogen. As unlikely as it once seemed, Lowry belongs on this stage.

Lowry is one of the best at his position in this golden age of NBA point guards. He does not possess Russell Westbrook's otherworldly athleticism or Curry's shooting stroke. He does not handle the ball like Kyrie Irving or see the floor like Chris Paul. Instead, he is a "mutt of all those types," says Raptors coach Dwane Casey. And those assets form an elite package: Lowry ranks 18th in the NBA and fifth among point guards in real plus-minus, a stat that measures a player's overall impact while accounting for the quality of his teammates and opponents.

Above all, Lowry has reached that level through two attributes that remain largely immeasurable: intensity and toughness. Barely 6 feet tall, Lowry has managed to snag more than four rebounds per game in each of the past five seasons. Last season, he led all guards in charges taken with 36, 14 more than second-place Monta Ellis.

As much as Lowry's transition to All-Star starter has been about improving his shooting range and his mastery of the pick-and-roll, it is a tale better suited for a psychology journal. At some point, Lowry had to recognize what was holding him back from realizing his considerable potential. He had to appreciate that all the people in his ear had a point. He had to learn that inflexibility and doing things his way weren't getting him anywhere. Change or fail. Eventually, that became the only choice.

"He was never a bad guy," says his wife, Ayahna Cornish-Lowry. "He just grew up."

And now that growth is being tested. Lowry's triumphs have a nasty habit of foretelling an inevitable crash. Since the high of his All-Star appearance seven weeks ago, the Raptors have dropped 13 of 22 games and fallen from second place to third in the Eastern Conference. They held Lowry out for a week to rest two dislocated bones in his shooting hand, an achy back and an injured knee. On March 18, 13 days after he returned to the court, Lowry took a knee to the back and suffered a contusion that has cost him all but 11 minutes over the past six games. When Lowry has played, he has not been himself: He has hit just 38 percent of his shots and handed out just 5.5 assists per game since the All-Star break.

If ever there were a moment for the old Lowry to burst through his newly formed skin, this would be it. He swears his demons are safely locked away and says that "bad times are the best time to check yourself." But the playoffs are approaching and the Raptors are running out of time to correct their course. "Going through rough times will only make me and my team stronger," Lowry says.

He speaks from experience.

In the winter of 2012, the Rockets were finishing a light shootaround in a Manhattan gym when coach Kevin McHale was asked about Lowry, then in his fourth season playing for Houston. The sixth-year pro was in the midst of his best statistical season, and reporters were teeing up questions for McHale to rave about his point guard's performance. But the coach had a different assessment. "Kyle wanted to do some stuff his way, and we had to get that straightened away," McHale said. "I missed the memo where it said this was a democracy and we're going to do Occupy the NBA. I thought the coach told you what to do and then you do that."

The Rockets would ship Lowry to Toronto four months later. He left the States with a reputation as a surly malcontent, an unsolvable problem for coaches in Memphis and Houston, his first two NBA stops. That's what prevented him from ever earning his team's trust, kept from becoming a full-time starter. "Me and authority didn't get along," Lowry says now.

It has been that way for as long as Lowry can remember. Whether it was nature or nurture that caused Lowry to recoil at the demands of others, he can't be certain. A product of North Philly, he grew up with his mother, grandmother and brother. His father had always been a sporadic figure, and, when Lowry was a preteen, he made the choice to close the door on the last sliver of a relationship that had remained. But, in doing so, he also shut out much of the world around him, opting for self-reliance to navigate a rough neighborhood. The stance helped Lowry avoid trouble, but it also increased his skepticism of anyone in a position of power, particularly teachers and coaches. "You grow up rough, you think differently," Lowry says. "You think you've got to protect yourself at all times. I didn't want any help. I thought I could do everything by myself, which you can't."

That's why Lowry felt so helpless at his lowest moment. Two seasons ago, he joined the Raptors under the impression that they would finally be the team willing to hand him the ball and ask him to lead. But after averaging 23.7 points, 7.0 assists and 7.3 rebounds in the first three games of the season, he missed two weeks with an ankle injury, and the Raptors lost 11 of 12 games upon his return. Another injury left him sidelined for a five-game winning streak, and, when he returned to the lineup, it was as Jose Calderon's backup.

"Coach wasn't feeling me," Lowry recalls. "The media was killing me. It was just like, What else can go wrong? What's next?"

As he vented to Ayahna one afternoon that winter, Lowry vacillated between despondent and defiant. Maybe he really wasn't good enough to start in the league. Or maybe everyone was just out to get him. He thought back to the frustrations he faced in Memphis, where he started his career as a first-round pick after playing two years at Villanova, then saw the organization back coach Mike Conley in their head-to-head battle. He remembered all the labels he had collected in Houston: coach-killer, bad teammate, angry, fat.

"Why is everybody messing with me?" he wondered. "Why is it always me? Always me, me, me."

At some point that day, though, Lowry shifted the emphasis of that question: "OK, why is it you?" he finally asked himself.

Ayahna had long waited for that sort of breakthrough. The two began dating at Cardinal Dougherty High School in Philadelphia, where both were basketball stars. She went on to play at Saint Joseph's, and her dual understanding of hoops and Lowry made her an incomparable source of wisdom. But when it came to her husband's temperament, Ayahna could only do so much. "He had to realize it for himself," she says.

Chauncey Billups felt the same way. Early in Lowry's career, agent Andy Miller put him in touch with Billups, a fellow client. The pair clicked immediately, and Billups took Lowry into the gym for summer workouts and into his home to share meals with his family. Most of all, Billups filled his pupil's head with advice, hoping to strip away the facade that kept so many people from seeing the good that Billups had recognized immediately in Lowry.

"He was like a little lightning rod," Billups says. "He was highly competitive on the floor. Off the floor, he seemed to rub coaches and general managers the wrong way. But knowing him like I knew him, I thought he was just a little misunderstood. He wanted to play and felt like he could give the team the best chance to win. He just went about that the wrong way."

It wasn't that Lowry wouldn't listen. At Billups' house in Denver, he saw all the jerseys Billups had acquired during a slow start to his career, a study in patience. But Lowry struggled to apply those lessons. If a coach wanted him to go under a ball screen and he wanted to go over it, he couldn't resist arguing. Or if his coach kept going back to a play Lowry felt wasn't working, Lowry felt compelled to criticize.

The NBA operates as a star system. If LeBron James wants to play point guard, he'll play point guard. But a young, part-time starter? Lowry didn't have that kind of equity. So he would irritate his coaches, especially McHale, a no-nonsense former player. "Little things turn into big things when you have that perception," Lowry says.

That perception differed based on the observer. Lowry thrived under McHale's predecessor in Houston, Rick Adelman, who gave him the freedom to run the second unit, saying, "You know our offense. You know what to do." Members of the Rockets' organization from Lowry's tenure still laud his drive and competitiveness, and former teammates call him unselfish and sincere. "He has such a fire to want to win that you've got to respect it," says Raptors veteran Chuck Hayes, who also played with Lowry in Houston. "People feel like you've got to pay your dues before you can get a voice. Well, he's always had the voice. But not everybody was ready for it."

His transgressions were small, stupid -- often the result of his being too smart for his own good and unwilling to consider a different perspective. If a coach wanted him to go under a ball screen, and he wanted to go over it, he couldn't resist arguing. Or if his coach kept going back to a play that Lowry felt wasn't working, Lowry felt compelled to criticize.

Lowry finished 2012-13 as a starter after the Raptors traded Calderon to the Pistons. That was a small step forward, as was his realization that he had caused many of his own problems. Changing that behavior would take much more work. So he hatched a plan. "For this year, I'm just going to shut up," he remembers telling himself. "Just shut up and play."

And what happened? "Forty-eight wins and $48 million," Lowry says with a wide smile. The difference is that he became more judicious in deciding when to speak up and when to defer to his coach. Casey responded by bending closer to Lowry's direction, borrowing a technique Rick Carlisle had used with Jason Kidd in Dallas, where Casey had been an assistant coach. If Lowry saw a play he thought would work, Casey allowed him to run it, but on the next trip, he'd run a coach-called scheme. One for me, one for you.

"Most of the great players I've been around -- Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd -- all of them are prickly, and they are computers," Casey says. "They're a lot like Kyle as far as their mentality. And if a coach can't handle somebody asking you about why you're doing this, then you're in the wrong sport. In the NBA, you hope you have enough guys like that."

Eventually, Lowry's fire began to fuel a team instead of burn bridges. After going 7-12 to start 2013-14, the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to the Kings, increasing Lowry's workload. He and his teammates responded by winning 41 of their remaining 63 games to claim the Atlantic Division crown. The only controversy involving Lowry was his curious absence from the All-Star team; for the season, he ended up with career-best numbers in virtually every major statistical category, including points (17.9) and assists (7.4). Suddenly, a man who had felt slighted his entire career was collecting compliments.

On July 1, 2014, McHale entered Lowry's home at 12:15 a.m. and told him he wanted him back in Houston. It was the first day teams could negotiate with free agents -- the first hour, in fact -- and McHale, along with Rockets GM Daryl Morey, had come to recruit Lowry. The pitch came with a caveat. "No one is giving you the keys," McHale told Lowry. "You're going to have to prove yourself because the way you left here was bad."

There was a time when that sort of comment would have ended a conversation for Lowry. But he understood McHale's perspective, and he took those words as a challenge. If the Rockets hadn't been focused on other priorities and if the Raptors hadn't made such a strong push to bring Lowry back, a reunion could have worked. "I'm a different person than what I was in Houston," Lowry says. "Back then I was too stubborn to understand it. I know how to communicate a lot better than what I did."

But change is never an orderly, linear process. Would Lowry have been so accommodating last season had he not been knocking down 38 percent of his treys? What if the Raptors had lost 48 games? Were they winning because he was less prickly, or was he less prickly because they were winning? Toronto's recent struggles, combined with Lowry's accumulation of injuries, is the first real test of his new outlook.

"I've still got that fieriness in me," Lowry says, "but I feel like I can control it way better. Back in the day, I'd snap like that -- it was like me against the world. And I really lived my life like that.

Back at "The Tonight Show," Lowry aims a flawless barb at Mike Drucker, the dress rehearsal ends, and the players head backstage to prepare for the show. Curry catches up with Marc Gasol while Bosh hosts a small army of companions in his dressing room.

And Lowry is missing again.

This time, he is two doors down from his dressing room, sitting across from DeMarcus Cousins. Mere feet from the frenzied hallway, the two talk softly -- and seriously -- for nearly 20 minutes.

Lowry knows a little something about drama, and Cousins has plenty in his life. A Vine of Cousins' motionless, hands-on-knees "defense" against the Warriors has gone viral. He is in the midst of a feud with Charles Barkley over Cousins' reported role in the Kings' hiring of George Karl. And Cousins has posted on Instagram a sports journalist's prediction that he would be arrested within five years -- exactly five years to the day after the original tweet. This has all transpired within the past two weeks.

"Cuz is such a good kid; he is just misinterpreted," Lowry says. "He's so talented at basketball that he's been given the keys. He just hasn't really known how to drive the car yet."

That just as easily could have been Billups talking about Lowry back in Houston. And Lowry is fully aware of that lineage. "It's like 'Pay It Forward,'" he says. "Everyone has seen that movie. If someone teaches you something that helps you in your life, why not pass it along and help the next person?"

As long as he is willing to accept it.