by Rus Bradburd
I was surprised when Trail Blazer assistant GM Tom Penn phoned me around the New Year. I’m surprised when anyone in basketball calls anymore, because I’m a writer and English professor now, and have been for years.
Penn knew me from my previous life. I’d been a college assistant coach for well over a decade and gained a weird cult status as a private dribbling tutor. Too much of that reputation sprouted because I happened to be one of Tim Hardaway’s college coaches. Hardaway’s eye-popping skills inspired a generation of junior point guards, but even as a college kid he was more my teacher than I was his. Some of the reputation, I’ll admit, might have been deserved. I’d worked alone with NBA players Vern Fleming, Shane Battier, Rudy Gay and Earl Watson, as well as Jerry West’s son Jonnie and Nancy Lieberman-Cline, a legend of the women’s game.
Two years ago, Jerryd Bayless was one of the best teenage guards on the planet, based on his strength, quickness and automatic stroke from beyond the three-point arc. Bayless was a film star, too, one of the players featured in Adam Yauch’s Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, about high school basketball’s elite players. The movie portrayed him as dedicated, tough, motivated and focused. After a single year at the University of Arizona, he entered the ’08 NBA Draft and was the 11th player picked. Portland traded for him and stressed the big plans they had for the 6-3 guard.
Portland’s big plans went further than Bayless—only four teams would finish with better records in ’08-09. By the end of December, though, management and coaches were concerned about their youngest rookie. Bayless’ season wasn’t quite going as expected, especially after his sensational summer league showing. Stuck behind point guard Steve Blake, as well as the young Spaniard Sergio Rodriguez, Bayless’ playing time was sporadic. On top of that, when he did play, he wasn’t shooting the ball as well as expected—shooting was the last thing anyone thought Bayless would struggle with. (He would finish his rookie season averaging 4.3 ppg on 37 percent shooting in about 12 minutes per game.) Still, many experts continued to predict greatness for him.
Penn said they needed me to teach Bayless my elaborate, extensive and, OK, tedious dribbling routine. The Blazers wanted to take advantage of the lull in playing time that Bayless was experiencing by loading him up with basketball homework. “Can you be ready to go with him in 10 days?” Penn asked.
I hadn’t handled a basketball in nearly a year; I’d turn 50 in April. “No problem,” I told him. “I can get ready.”
Equipped with a StairMaster, air pump and black low-top Spira walking shoes (with arch inserts), I struggled to get in reasonable shape. It was all for nothing, though. Blake got hurt in January, and Bayless was suddenly getting all the playing time he wanted. He was terrific, too, and Portland was every bit as tough without Blake. My dribbling tutorship was put on hold.
The Blazers called again after they were eliminated from the Playoffs. We set another date, this time in Bayless’ hometown of Phoenix. But Bayless canceled: a family picnic fell on one of our scheduled days. Two weeks later, another holdup: he’d tweaked a hamstring and was worried the drills would make it worse.
I was worried, too. Worried that the movie had gotten Bayless wrong. Here was a kid—yes, a kid—with everything. Perhaps he didn’t really want to be bending his back in the brutal Phoenix heat. Maybe he’d rather relax at a Scottsdale resort with a piña colada—assuming he could borrow an ID that claimed he was 21.
One of my theories on improving dribbling skills is centered on the concept of failure. This has less to do with any scientific understanding of human learning than my own experiences as a DIII walk-on who couldn’t make his high school team. I fumbled the ball a lot before I made progress, but that feeling of experimenting with failure seemed to be at the core of my improvement. (Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code explains this idea; the world’s most skilled performers and teachers often understand it instinctively.)
I had no choice but to experiment with failure. But how would Bayless respond to drills that involved precise footwork and coordination that might make him look clunky? I was going to put him through a maze of exercises involving hand quickness, reflexes, agility and timing. What would his reaction be when I asked him to let himself proceed making embarrassing mistakes?
Phoenix has become one of our largest cities, but it’s not exactly a hotbed of hoops. The brutal sun makes summer playground basketball as unlikely as skiing. Bayless didn’t face the daily challenges that a New York or Chicago point guard would confront every time he called next on the asphalt. Who would push Bayless if the locals would not? Who would tell him that his handles were not yet NBA-point-guard-ready?
Nearly every NBA player swaggers with confidence, a cocksuredness that is only sometimes deserved. That’s a given. But the players who continue to improve, even after they’re in the League, seem to me to have a balance: arrogance and humility. Could Bayless balance the two?
The setting for our first tutoring sessions couldn’t have been worse: Saint Mary’s High School in central Phoenix, where Bayless graduated two years earlier. There’s nothing wrong with the court; it was simply that this was a place where he had hardly ever failed before.
Bayless had plenty in his favor. His parents are both driven and successful. While Phoenix wasn’t a mecca for prep basketball, Saint Mary’s had fine teams and college-bound players. Their gym had the feel of old success, the kind of place where winning was expected. And he had long been training with former NBA coach and player Frank Johnson, who pushed Bayless relentlessly.
“Bayless isn’t really a point guard,” one former NBA head coach told me. “He’s a shorter guy who can shoot. The jury is still out on him.” That proved to be a common point of view on Bayless; not a criticism so much as a judgment on what his most effective position might be.
Still, I could tell from the DVDs the Blazers sent that he had the most overlooked attribute a baller can possess: great balance. He could curl off a screen at sprinter speed, catch a bad pass and still go straight up on his shot. He banked in shots at odd angles while being hit in midair. Could he harness all that ability at a time when most kids his age are still deciding on a major?
My apprehension seemed justified when I got to Saint Mary’s. Bayless was finishing an efficient shooting routine designed by Trail Blazer shooting coach John Townsend when we were introduced. I was used to the look I got: “What can this dude teach me?” Even wearing all the cool Blazer gear that came with the DVDs, I didn’t look the part of ballhandling guru; I looked like an English professor in Trail Blazer gear. To make matters worse, there were a handful of high schoolers in the stands, checking out Bayless’ regimen. I could just imagine them thinking, “Who’s the old white dude in the skippies?”
We started with some easy between-the-legs stuff, followed by some behind-the-back walking drills, then moved into the wearisome repetition to coordinate his hands and feet—a series of drills that stress pushing off the outside foot when the dribbler changes hands, via crossovers, spins, behind the back or between the legs.
“Part of the trouble in reaching these guys,” the retired NBA coach told me, “is that they don’t know who to trust. They haven’t quite adjusted their antennas, and they’re wary of strangers.”
That seemed true with Bayless. He doesn’t give much feedback. He doesn’t giggle or joke around. He also can be bluntly direct.
“Try again, but now at a 45-degree angle,” I said after one drill.
“That was a 45-degree angle,” Bayless said.
The kids laughed, and Bayless turned to see if they were laughing at him. They weren’t, but it confirmed my suspicion: looking awkward might be an issue.
“Bayless is going to be in the League, sure,” the retired NBA coach told me, “but will he take the steps to be a great player?”
We moved to Arizona State’s recently built practice gym for day two. The newness of the court seemed to open up something in Bayless. He relaxed, even laughed a little, and looked me in the eye each time I spoke. He’d been remarkably fluid up to that point, and I did some fine-tuning, reminding him to stay low.
Midway through our workout, during the full court drills, something important happened: Bayless accidentally kicked the ball. Lionel Messi would have been proud of the way it rocketed and ricocheted across the empty court.
“Try that one again, but slower,” I said, tossing him my ball.
He did, and I could see him thinking his way through the move, then repeating it and picking up speed. This is what Coyle calls “deep learning” in his book. As we moved on to the most elaborate two-ball drills, Bayless seemed more comfortable screwing up and trying again. Afterward, I stressed to him that he needed to find a workout partner whom he didn’t mind messing up with—if he used a teammate or practiced moves he hadn’t mastered in front of coaches, it could cause a crisis in confidence on both sides.
The drill is a sort of loony litmus test. It took me two months to master, an indication of my DIII benchwarming status. Rudy Gay could do it pretty well after a minute or two. But was that really a positive, for things to come so easy to a player?
When Nancy Lieberman-Cline tried it, balls bounced everywhere, and I got tired of chasing her mistakes around the gym. But when I suggested we move on to the next drill, she refused. She wasn’t going to budge until she mastered the drill. Fifteen minutes passed. That kind of relentless pursuit of a skill seems to be a common trait among players who continue to improve after college.
Bayless watched me do the mind-boggling drill a few repetitions. I flipped both balls to him. We were near the gym’s corner, so his turnovers wouldn’t roll across the gym. He began tentatively, stepping slowly, leaning back. With each slip-up, I tossed him a spare ball, or he caught his as it bounced off the wall.
I didn’t say anything while Bayless was trying the drill. Not “Had enough?” or “Let’s move on,” or “We’re staying here until you learn this.” I wanted to see how he’d respond to this little failure.
Bayless kept at it without complaint or excuse. Each time he came a little closer, moving in for the kill. Sweat was pouring off his face. He set his jaw and took a deep breath.
I thought about the intense spotlight that has been on Bayless since he was a high school freshman. And about the jury still being out on him. Would he have the patience and determination to keep climbing as his road got steeper? The Blazers traded Sergio Rodriguez, but soon picked up Andre Miller. Would Bayless stick to the grind, or let up?
My job was over. The rest, that’s for Jerryd to decide.
Rus Bradburd is the author of Forty Minutes of Hell: the Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson (HarperCollins, January 2010). Bradburd coached at UTEP and New Mexico State for fourteen seasons. His first book was the acclaimed Paddy on the Hardwood: a Journey in Irish Hoops. He teaches writing classes at NMSU. For more information, go to rusbradburd.com.