Muhammad settles in, looks for fresh start in NBA

BY foxsports • July 22, 2013

This should be a story about a rookie at summer league. This should be a story about basketball. This should be simple.

It isn't, not quite.

Let's start simple, then, at least, with the rookie's first game in Las Vegas, with a hot Saturday afternoon, the air conditioning on full blast in the Thomas & Mack Center. The rookie's high school coach is in the building, perched in the last row of reserved seats behind the rookie's bench. He's eager to sing the rookie's praises, to talk about what a pleasure it was to coach him. He's soliloquizing about the rookie's family and how wonderful it is, about how he developed in college, about how much better he looks even now.

The rookie's college coach calls a few days later. He didn't get to see last night's game on TV, he says. Did the rookie play well? Sure, I tell him, and we're off. It's the same spiel, what wonderful parents, what a wonderful kid. And his game, oh, his game. This doesn't sound like just another rookie swingman. His work ethic is "outstanding." He's "very coachable." He developed so much, and he'll keep developing, and oh, did I mention what a great teammate he is?

It still seems simple enough. This is a great kid, right? It sounds like it, at least, until we learn the coaches' names: Grant Rice, from Bishop Gorman High School, and Ben Howland, from UCLA. Maybe you’ve heard of the former. You've definitely heard of the latter.

Which means …

The rookie is Shabazz Muhammad, of course, and this just ceased to be simple, not when he's the most controversial player picked in 2013's lottery, a player accused of being the opposite of everything you just read. Abandon simple; this story did years ago.

Suddenly, the coaches' monologues no longer sound like innocent praise. Suddenly, there's cause to wonder if these men might be trying to bombard the world with sing-songy positives in the hope that everyone will forget the games Muhammad sat out during an NCAA investigation, the accusations of being a poor teammate, his fudged age, his father's crimes. But what else can they say? They're doing their jobs. They care about Muhammad. They're loyal.

There's so much history they're trying to sandblast away, but history is Muhammad's enemy. Even if what we think we know is wrong, to try to correct it like these men are doing does nothing more than remind and enforce. What Muhammad needs is to get some distance from that history, from the complications, and to let his fate unfold from there.

What he needs is to know that this should be a story about basketball. What he needs to know is that it still can be.

--

It's June 27, and by the time the Jazz come on the clock with the 14th pick in the NBA Draft, news of a trade has reached the Target Center in Minneapolis. The Timberwolves are dealing Trey Burke, the ninth pick, for No. 14 and another, later selection. The crowd assembled knows who's left on the board. The smart fans know whom their team worked out, what kind of player it needs.

And so the chant starts. Or maybe it's a plea. The fans are rumbling, and loudly, for their team not to take Muhammad.

It takes him.

The Timberwolves' broadcasters, who are serving as the emcees of the draft party, come onto the stage after the pick to a chorus of boos. Fans are booing the pick, booing the broadcasters by proxy. They do not want Muhammad.

Later that night, Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders admits that the trade and eventual pick were hardly his first – or second, or third – choice. That explains things, but it doesn't help.

This is the lowest point in Muhammad's young career. This, not anything that came before. Before, he was still a top player, protected somehow by college and the fact that he was something of a rental. His goal had always been the NBA, ever since he was a kid, ever since his father, Ron Holmes, hired a documentary team to start following him around in seventh grade. His goal had always been the NBA, and this is how it begins, with Muhammad strangely missing from the Barclays Center and his new fans 1,200 miles away and unable to hide their feelings.

Welcome to the NBA; welcome with a chorus of boos. This was not in the script.

--

In those bleachers in Las Vegas, Rice has watched the first half of Muhammad's first summer league game. This is what he worked for all those years, when he shrouded his program in extra privacy and appointed one assistant coach to accompany Muhammad at all times. This is what he worked for, and now, he’s reflecting.

"It was one of those things where – and it wasn't any of his doing – but he was built up so high junior, senior year," Rice says. "Unless you're LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or something like that, there's only one way to go from there."

It's strange, but it's true. Muhammad has already been through the most intense pressure of his life. He's been built up past his ceiling because to sell an 18-year-old superstar, one must sell him as LeBron, not as Nick Young or some other, more reasonable, comparison. Rice says he doesn't know why it happened, but that's just a deflection. It happened because Muhammad's people wanted it to happen, in a sense, because they thought that making this kid into a teenage celebrity was the best way to get him to the pros.

"When you're the No. 1 player coming out of high school, you're poked at and evaluated," Howland says. "It gets almost comical. In his situation, it was comical."

Among these coaches, there’s a sense that life just got easier for Muhammad. David Adelman, son of Timberwolves’ coach Rick Adelman and coach of Minnesota’s summer league squad, seems unconcerned with the past. He talks about Muhammad like any other rookie, and he's not biting on the questions about the rookie's past. This is about the NBA now, about basketball.

Basketball, compared to the rest of this, should be easy.

--

Now, it's Muhammad's turn. He always seems relegated to the last word, to being the afterthought in his own story, but that’s about to change. He'll no longer be the star, but at least he'll have some control. He's about to be nobody, a role player behind the likes of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, and he's looking forward to it.

"In college and high school, I was always the guy in the spotlight," Muhammad says. "In the NBA, I was the 14th pick, which is still really good, but now I can really get a chance to work on my game. The buzz will quiet down a little bit."

He talks about the 14th pick with a hint of distaste. Fourteen. It's like a curse word, but the mildest kind, when he says it.

Maybe the fact that he's in Las Vegas amplifies this sense that there's something to prove. Las Vegas was where Muhammad was minted the future No. 1 or No. 2 pick just a year ago. It's where a billboard of him and Anthony Bennett, who attended UNLV, looms to advertise summer league. A friend texted Muhammad a photo of the thing. He hasn’t found out where it is. It doesn't seem like he really cares to.

Las Vegas is where his family and friends live. He has quite the cheering section at summer league; in fact, he would come himself when he was younger. Even if he does average just 8.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and a woeful 0.8 assists in six summer league games, he's still a star in this city, or at least a name they know. One kid asked him for his underwear when he walked off the court after a game. He's a little bit of a rock star here.

Muhammad doesn't say much, though, not at first. There's a lot of repeating going on, words from questions regurgitated back in answers. There's smiling and talk of passing and defense, NBA-speak for "I'm selfless and a hard worker.” It's everything he should be saying.

Eventually, he opens up a bit, especially when it comes to that underwear. He thinks it's funny. He laughs. He twitches a bit as he gets more animated, a manifestation of the Tourette's syndrome diagnosis he received at age 10.

He seems easygoing, likable, open to improvement. He seems like any other rookie, a little nervous, projecting confidence while talking a mile a minute about all the ways he needs to improve. I'm sad for a minute that those people in that arena in Minnesota booed his very existence. I'll be sad if they do it to him in person, I think. He's just a kid in neon-yellow sneakers.

He's resolute when he talks about what happened with his father, their decision to part ways professionally. He knows the relationship was a strange one, but he also seems to have accepted it. Asked about that documentary crew, he acts as if it's just the most normal thing in the world, like maybe I've got one too, waiting outside the gym for me.

They've got some great footage, he says, and the film is forthcoming. He's excited to see it, he tells me, and for a second I wonder if he's just feeding me the party line. Then he continues.

"I think it's going to really be good, because a lot of stuff that really went on while I was in the spotlight, it's good to see what I do every day in my life," he says. "It's really relatable. … It's like, um, I do everyday stuff. I am actually a real person."

Sure, the documentary will spin the story to Muhammad's benefit. But he's right; it will show him as a person, as a teenager eating his breakfast and gabbing with his friends, and that's a good thing. I am actually a real person. It's haunting, a little bit, that he has to say this.

Muhammad understands the game he has to play this summer and throughout his rookie year. He understands that it needs to be just him, him playing basketball, quietly and only on the edges of the spotlight. Minneapolis will be a good place for that, and Rick Adelman a good coach. The kind of external drama that's come to mark his career won't fly with Adelman. Muhammad seems to understand that, too.

Maybe this is the fresh start he needs. Maybe he's a new man, or maybe he never was a problem; maybe it was everyone else around him. Maybe.

We're wrapping up the interview, and I'm feeling sufficiently bad for Muhammad for everything he's been through. I don’t care if he's 19 or 20; he's still a kid. I'm feeling optimistic that maybe he will use all the negativity as fuel, and I'm finding myself wanting him to. We're talking about his newfound freedom, how he's embracing it.

"I had a lot of people who were in my basketball early, and now I can take the initiative myself," Muhammad says.

Good answer. He should have stopped there.

"I can brand myself now," he continues.

Silly me. I thought we were talking about basketball.

With Muhammad, it's still tied up in so much more.


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