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Steve Aschburner

Joel Przybilla (left) feels healthy enough to bang with the likes of Miami's Udonis Haslem.
Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Healthy again, big man Przybilla aims to help ailing Blazers

Posted Mar 20 2012 12:01PM

John Lucas III feinted right. Nothing. So he tried left. Still nothing. A couple more herky-jerky moves and Joel Przybilla just stayed put, out near the top of the arc, a redwood between the smallish Chicago Bulls backup point guard and everything else that mattered on the United Center court at that instant.

Przybilla, the Portland Trail Blazers' lumbering 7-foot-1 center, had gotten stuck out on an island against a shifty little man, yet Lucas couldn't see the floor for this tree. He gave up the ball, Przybilla backpedaled and order was restored in the Portland defense.

"He pump faked like five times, right?" Przybilla said afterward, a big smile on his face.

There was another moment in the game at Chicago over the weekend, too, that tickled Przybilla just as much. It was way nastier -- falling to the floor in a tangle with Carlos Boozer for a loose ball, catching a Boozer elbow on the play, then going all WWE on the Bulls power forward once they were upright. The TV cameras caught Przbilla providing an Intro to Lip Reading moment -- adult education only, please -- when he appeared to yell at Boozer, "Meet me after! Meet me after! I'll [bleep] you up!"

Menacing on the outside, loving it on the inside. For Przybilla, it's great to be back.

Even those "fake thug" episodes -- that was the label Kevin Garnett hung on Przybilla early in their decade or so of jostling -- are to be treasured now that the big man with the buzz cut is at it again. Przybilla, the 12-year NBA veteran with the imposing size and pesky lower extremities, sat out the first two months of the post-lockout season and, for most practical purposes, seemed done with pro basketball at age 32.

But his body, then his mind, began to stir again as fall turned to winter in the Milwaukee suburbs where he, his wife Noelle and sons Anthony and Jayden make their permanent home. Przybilla's phone began to ring, agent Bill Duffy passing along the queries from teams in Miami, Chicago, Portland and right there in Milwaukee.

Przybilla's buddies in workouts began to wonder what it was that had sidelined him in the first place -- that's how stable his right knee has looked -- and he started asking similar questions of himself. Finally, after meeting with the clubs that called, the answers lined up in Przybilla's head and heart. Yes, he did want to play again. And yes, he was going back to the Blazers. The Heat and the Bulls offered instant winning and his best shots at a championship ring. The Bucks play just a half hour's commute from the house he bought as an NBA rookie.

But Portland ... well, that felt like basketball home.

"It was tough. But my wife, my kids, we've been very blessed with the situation we've had in Portland," Przybilla said. "I'm a guy who's very big on loyalty. ... We've got friends out there who are almost like family to us. It was a tough decision -- trust me -- but at the end of the day I looked in my heart and that's what I wanted."

The native of Monticello, Minn., never has sought bright lights or big markets. Wisconsin suits him fine, and Noelle is from Big Bend (tucked between Muskego and Mukwonago for some market-size reference points). Portland suits the Przybillas fine.

Injuries had cut into his first four seasons enough that he nearly limped away at age 24. But as Przybilla got healthier, his mood improved and Portland (and its fans) won him over. He enjoyed his seven seasons there prior to the deadline-day deal last February that sent him, gimpy once more, to Charlotte.

It was the physical stuff that kept him out after the lockout this fall, the result of twice rupturing his right patella in December 2009 and March 2010. He played in just five games for the Bobcats and wasn't sure he had anything left when the NBA opened its doors in December.

But Przybilla's knee surprised him. "If it didn't feel close to 100 percent, I wasn't coming back," he said. "But this feels almost better than it did before."

Chimed in Blazers trainer Jay Jensen, standing nearby in the United Center dressing room: "And the thing of it is, he'll be even better next year. He'll be in better shape, too."

Plenty of NBA big men haven't had the desire to play -- their size almost forces them into the game and, frankly, it shows. But Przybilla said that never was an issue for him.

"No, I missed it," he said. "I started getting calls and I was working out, and I thought, 'Man, if I feel like this, I'm going to try to play as long as I can.' Because I really missed it, man. Granted, I did get to spend a lot of time with my family. But I'd done this my whole life. I don't know what else to do."

Said Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge, happy for Przybilla's return in a season when so many other Blazers -- Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, Nate McMillan -- have departed: "Nobody was telling him to come back, he wanted to come back. He told me personally he missed the game and wanted to play. He definitely has the passion for the game."

Przybilla's numbers have been modest: 2.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 14.2 minutes. When he played 19 minutes against Miami on March 1, it was his first NBA performance in 359 days. But Przybilla started twice over the weekend, grabbing 11 rebounds in a loss Sunday at Oklahoma City and logging 25 minutes in the giddy victory at Chicago two nights earlier.

That was the game in which former video intern Kaleb Canales -- a good friend who began in Portland the same year that Przybilla arrived -- won his first game as interim coach. By the end of the night, he and the center were saying how much they loved each other.

"He's been part of our team for a long time," Canales said. "He knows what we're about. We feel comfortable with Joel out there. You saw out there tonight, he's just so big physically and from a leadership standpoint, and he anchors our defensive game plan."

The victories aren't coming easily these days. The playoffs look iffy and, on many nights, the Trail Blazerrs are undermanned. But Przybilla is happy to be among them, this time for as long as they'll have him.

"As long as I keep on feeling good, I'm going to give it a shot," he said. "I've only been here three weeks, but honestly, I've had the most fun I've ever had. Even though we've gone through some bumps. This is the most enjoyment I've had, y'know, just being away from it and realizing it can be taken away from you at any time."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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