LaMarcus Aldridge: Ridin’ with the L-Train

He stands an inch shy of seven feet, with a wingspan of 89 inches -- the second longest player in Trail Blazer history.

He's a polished post player, a good shooter, a solid defender, with a high basketball IQ, and a passion for improving himself through hard work and practice. And he's just 21 years old.

So with credentials like that, you would expect LaMarcus Nurae Aldridge to have been a child prodigy on the basketball court.

Not so.

Aldridge first picked up a basketball in the fourth grade, but the game didn't come easily to him. When he was an eighth grader at Dallas' Seagoville Middle School, he was often overlooked by the older kids in pickup games at Dallas-area parks. He was just told to stand around and if he caught the ball, give it back.

He was your typical 6-foot-7 clumsy kid who couldn't play.

"I was horrible. I sucked," Aldridge recalls, "I couldn't shoot. I couldn't do a hook shot. I was just tall and only scored points because everyone else was shorter than me."

Things soon changed for LaMarcus, thanks to his older brother, LaVontae, who was "always pushing me and motivating me to go to the parks and to hit the gym and work on my game everyday."

LaVontae Aldridge, now 25, had been a solid prep player. At 6-foot-10, he knew that size alone wouldn’t make you a good player. It takes practice and hard work, he'd say.

After LaVontae moved on to play at Howard Junior College in Big Spring, Texas, LaMarcus began to develop his game at Seagoville High School. "My coach, Robert Allen, helped me a lot," Aldridge said. "He had more influence on my growth as a player than anyone else."

Now the head coach at Dallas Carter High School, Allen pushed LaMarcus to the limits of his endurance during his four years at Seagoville.

"Some guys who are stars go to high school and don’t get pushed, but Coach Allen worked me and helped me become the player that I am today," Aldridge said.

While Coach Allen was taking care of LaMarcus' maturation as a basketball player, Aldridge's mother, Georgia, was taking care of the rest.

"When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time either by myself or with my mom," Aldridge said. "But when I hit high school, she really became one of my close friends."

As Aldridge entered high school and folks around the country became aware of his basketball potential, Georgia looked out for her son's best interests, on and off the court.

LaMarcus, like Zach Randolph, Shaquille O'Neal and many other NBA players raised by a single mom, is a mama's boy and not ashamed to admit it.

A four-year starter at Seagoville High, Aldridge improved rapidly as a player, becoming a McDonald's All-America as a senior, averaging 30 points and 14 rebounds a game.

A finalist for the 2004 Naismith Prep Player of the Year award, player of the year in Texas and rated as the fourth best high school player in the nation by USA Today, LaMarcus had made his mark that senior season at Seagoville.

He had some monster games along the way: His 39 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots on 16 of 18 shooting in the state Class 4A tournament semifinals is still being discussed in Texas prep circles. However, Aldridge doesn't mention it in interviews because his team lost by one point to rival Dallas Lincoln. Not only was Lincoln a natural rival of Seagoville, but it also was the school once led by Aldridge's good friend, Chris Bosh, now a budding star for the Toronto Raptors.

LaMarcus and Bosh, who was a year ahead of Aldridge in school, had some great battles against each other. Indeed, Aldridge says his most memorable game in high school was a match-up against the older Bosh in which he scored 24 points and hauled in 12 rebounds to Bosh's 18 points and 10 rebounds.

"I was pleased with my performance against a great player like Chris, but we lost the game, so that individual stuff doesn't matter much," said the modest Aldridge, who counts success in terms of team victories.

In two games against the Bosh during his sophomore season, Aldridge averaged 23 points and 13 rebounds.

"I’ve known Chris since high school," Aldridge pointed out, "and I did pretty well against him. There was a lot of hype going on leading up to those games, and I was able to get myself psyched up and ready to play. I have a great relationship with him and it’s real cool.

"When I’ve been in Dallas this summer, we’ve worked out every day. It’s been helpful for me to get used to going against someone who is long, quick, and All-Star caliber. Hopefully, that will help my game go to the next level."

Another rival in Dallas-area prep ball was Ike Diago, ex-Arizona University star now playing for the Golden State Warriors.

LaMarcus was becoming the dominant player in all of Texas during his junior season, having been named first team all-state, first team all district, and first team all metro.

As a sophomore, he made second team all-state and second team all-district. So the transition from an awkward middle-schooler who couldn't play the game to an all-everything Texas prep star was well underway.

Everywhere Aldridge has gone since high school, his coaches tell the same tale. Texas Coach Rick Barnes talks about Aldridge as if he were his son. "I've never had a player work harder to get better," Barnes said.

In the six years since the kids on the Dallas playgrounds snubbed LaMarcus, he made himself into a good major college player, worthy of a shot at the NBA. But things didn't always go his way, as his freshman season at Texas was cut short by a season-ending hip injury against Nebraska, causing him to miss the final 15 games.

As a sophomore at Texas, Aldridge averaged 15.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and helped the 30-7 Longhorns to an Elite Eight appearance. His total of 59 points, 41 rebounds and nine blocks in the NCAA Tournament didn’t hurt his emerging star status either.

As a result, he was named a third team All-America by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He also was selected the Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

Off the court, he was a public relations department's dream come true. An honor roll student all four years at Dallas Seagoville High, LaMarcus in two years at Texas made one C -- the rest Bs and As.

In the second semester of his sophomore year at Texas, Aldridge took up the piano, taking lessons as an elective. He wants to continue piano lessons in Portland, concentrating on his favorite music -- R&B and Hip Hop. Asked if he would ever tackle the most challenging of all piano works -- Rachmaninoff's piano concerto No. 3 -- LaMarcus rolled his eyes. He doesn't know if he would ever have the skill for such a challenge, but he knows he has the giant hands necessary to play it.

All of these accolades at Texas propelled Aldridge to the head of the draft class of 2006 as various scouting services rated him a cinch lottery pick and likely to go 1 or 2 in the NBA college draft.

One of the many scouts who tracked LaMarcus's play in college last winter had this to say after seeing his 26-point, 13-rebound game against West Virginia in the Sweet 16:

"Wow. Skills galore. And he’s every drip drop of that 6-11, if not a bit taller. He’s ready from a skill standpoint -- nice shooting touch, ready to mix it up underneath the basket and gifted enough to extend his game out to 16 or 17 feet. When he first ran on to the floor, I thought he looked thin. But when they came back out for the start of the game and he lost the warm up jacket, I realized he was cut up a little more than it looked.

"He has to be the best pure center in college, ahead of Patrick O’Bryant at Bradley and whatever other 7-foot projects are roaming the college landscape. The most impressive thing about him was his touch for such a big guy. He can stroke it from 12-16 feet, which is always impressive from guys that tall. If he comes out, I don’t see how someone passes on him at No. 1."

For a while it looked like no one would. Toronto thought about taking Aldridge over Italian star Andrea Bargnani, the idea no doubt coaxed along by LaMarcus's friend Chris Bosh. But Raptor officials changed their mind at the last minute and took Bargnani.

Then the Chicago Bulls, with the second pick in the draft, made it clear they were going to take a power forward -- either Aldridge or LSU forward Tyrus Thomas.

That's when the Trail Blazers moved in and offered the Bulls Portland's fourth round pick (which would be Thomas) and forward Viktor Khryapa for the rights to Aldridge.

The deal was done and the Blazers got the player they had coveted all along.

Since then, it has been love at first, second and third sight between LaMarcus and the Trail Blazers organization.

Trail Blazer assistant coach Bill Bayno, who tutored Aldridge in the Las Vegas Summer League, summed up his feelings this way, "If they were all like him, you'd coach for free.

"I really love his focus," Bayno added, "He really wants to get better. He has confidence, but is realistic about his shortcomings at this level. He doesn't want to settle for just being good, he wants to be great. And he seems willing to work harder than many players I've coached to get there."

"I think the sky's the limit for him," Bayno added. "He's already evolving into a good post player, but he still has a ways to go. He seems to have a sweet stroke on turn-around jumpers.

"Defensively, he's almost there -- shows us a presence in defending his man one-on-one," Bayno says. "I think he showed that in the first half the other night against Tim Duncan. He already knows how to give help to teammates when they lose their man. He's a presence with his height and tremendous reach (7-foot-5 wingspan), so he can help us defend opposing teams."

What are Aldridge's biggest assets?, Bayno was asked.

"A very high basketball IQ (he knows the game and has good instincts for doing the right thing), his work ethic (he shows up for practice early and stays late and wants as much extra individual workouts as he can get). And his eagerness to learn."

Trail Blazers strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina is similarly impressed with Aldridge's commitment and dedication.

"LaMarcus is the team leader in the weight room in terms of the number of times he comes in here and lifts," Medina said. "He has a tremendous work ethic and desire for building a better body."

"As far as his current strength is concerned, I’d put him in the top 10 of the players of his size that I have worked with," Medina added.

Before the start of the regular season, Aldridge had shoulder surgery to repair a torn ligament.

"We need to put more weight on him and strengthen his upper body," Medina said. "After the surgery, we worked primarily to strengthen his lower body. Lower body strength is the key for basketball players because strong legs, thighs, calves and feet are the most critical part of the body for running with speed and quickness and jumping."

"I don't doubt that we can meet our goals with LaMarcus because he is such a coachable learner," Medina adds. "He knows he has to get stronger to compete effectively against all the bigs in the NBA; he knows he has to gain more endurance for the long NBA season grind. So he just wants to get on with it and improve his size as quickly as he can."

Like many impressionable youngsters, Aldridge was a Michael Jordan fan when he first started noticing basketball at the pro level. Soon after, though, his favorite players growing up were Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, partly due to the fact that their body types most resembled his, but mostly due to the kind of players they are on and off the court.

In Portland's 107-98 loss to San Antonio on Nov. 20, Aldridge was assigned to guard Tim Duncan, one of his childhood heroes. "He's such an all-around player," Aldridge said, "He came out tonight and took care of business. He's one of those players you just try to contain. He's very skilled. I don't think I guarded him very well, but I have to look at the video." The video review, though, showed a slightly different story. LaMarcus did a good job of slowing Duncan down in the first half as Portland took a 56-48 lead. Duncan had to resort to jump hooks or fall-away jumpers, because Aldridge's long arms made it difficult for Duncan to merely shoot jump shots over him.

"My long arms help me as I try to become more versatile," he says, "I’d like to be able to guard three positions -- both forwards and the center. I think my wingspan helps me out on defense, because I can cover a little more ground and block a few more shots. It helps on offense too, because when I put up a shot with a little higher release, (like Rasheed Wallace does), it’s a little tougher for guys to challenge or block it."

After the game, Duncan complimented the young Blazer. "He's a great young talent. It was the first time seeing him for me but he surprised me a little bit. They've got a good young talent over there."

Aldridge was moved that Duncan would say such nice things about him -- a mere rookie -- but then Duncan is the kind of person LaMarcus sees as his NBA role model.

"He’s a great player and he’s got a great personality on and off the court. He’s just a great overall guy," LaMarcus says. "With him being in San Antonio, I had the chance to watch him play quite a bit so I’d take pointers from him when I could and used them when I could."

Aldridge says he has learned a great deal since coming to the Blazers from the coaches and his teammates alike. Yet he says the biggest challenge he faces is knowing how to play the NBA game, which is so much different than college ball.

Yet in his very first NBA game against Dallas Nov. 12, Aldridge surprised his coach, Nate McMillan, and the rest of the Blazer staff with his stunning fourth quarter play.

All he did was limit Dallas’ all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki to one shot attempt and one point in the fourth quarter, while scoring 10 points himself on 5 of 7 shooting. He also grabbed seven rebounds, six of them on the offensive glass, converting four of them into two lay-ups and two short jumpers.

"He did some good things," McMillan said afterwards. "He certainly will be playing as part of our rotation. Whether we start him or not ...We'll look at it," McMillian said. "But I like what I've seen of him."

As it turned out, Aldridge did start at center for several games in the absence of center Joel Przybilla, who was sidelined with a lower abdominal injury. And he hasn't been embarrassed against the Nowitzkis, Garnetts and Duncans of the NBA.

That's not bad for a player who at age 13 was often overlooked and snubbed by the older kids in pickup games at Dallas-area parks.

"I wasn't one of those kids who was born with the golden spoon," LaMarcus told writer Andy Katz of ESPN.com last June. "That's why it makes you appreciate it more when you finally get there."

So unlike Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, both of whom showed hints of stardom at an early age, LaMarcus Aldridge has had to do a makeover.

He's the portrait of the self-made young man who reaches for the stars the hard way -- by sweating it out, hour after hour.
Wayne Thompson was The Oregonian's Blazers beat writer from 1970-73 and sports editor from 1977-1979. You can email Wayne at mlou4jazz@aol.com.