He was one of the brightest young men to come into the NBA, a star, a player who thrilled the Los Angeles franchise, a man admired by his peers and beloved by fans. And Wednesday night that apparently was the end of a marvelous career.
Yes, it may be the final NBA game for…
“Nah, superstars announce their retirement,” the one time No. 1 overall NBA draft pick for the Bulls was saying with a laugh before the 76ers played the Bulls in the final game of the season for both teams. “Guys like the rest of us just don’t get picked up.”
But what people around the NBA know—and the 76ers as well for essentially bringing Brand out of retirement this season as a model for their drifting, young players—is that Elton Brand is hardly like the rest of them.
Brand, 37, in his 17the NBA season, has long been as highly regarded as any of the elite players among the triumvirate of players, media and fans. Unhesitating in connecting with fans, Brand Wednesday was posing with fans for selfies as he left the court after pregame workouts. It’s a rarity among players. It’s legend among media, especially when Brand was in his prime as a 20/10 player for the Bulls and two-time All-Star for the Los Angeles Clippers, that Brand would actually stop as he was leaving games for late arriving reporters to ask if they had their interviews. And then return to the locker room to accommodate them if they didn’t.
It was one reason the Professional Basketball Writers Association selected Brand for it’s Magic Johnson award to acknowledge excellence both on the basketball court and with the media and community.
When I asked Brand before Wednesday’s game about his highlights, he said: “Being drafted first, the All-Star games being around all the superstars. Building the relationships, but not just the players, the staff, media, fans. You see the same people (in the stands) and I look forward to seeing them again; it makes it real.”
It’s probably the end for Brand, who played 17 games for the 76ers this season, averaging 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds. He averaged about 12 minutes with one start. Brand played four seasons with the 76ers as a free agent after leaving the Clippers in 2008. The new Jerry Colangelo inspired management brought in Brand to help provide credibility for the damaged franchise. Media reports had indicated Brand would retire after last season. So this is probably the end, someone less celebrated than to get Kobe Bryant’s year long victory walk. But the substance of Brand’s career and his personal integrity and professionalism is among the most highly regarded in the NBA.
“It’s surreal; it’s not even real,” Brand said before what figures to be his final game as a player. “That’s why you don’t want the dream to end; you don’t want it stop. The dream starts getting bigger and bigger and then you don’t want to wake up. Peekskill, New York; no one every played professional ball from that area to play 17 years in the NBA, just surreal, a joy.”
It was a joy to be around him, and it looked like Brand would be the foundation of the Bulls post-Michael Jordan rebuilding as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft. Though a smallish center at 6-9 but with long arms, Brand averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds in both his seasons with the Bulls, 1999-2000 and 2000-01. Brand was also Co-Rookie of the Year in 2000. The Bulls failed to win 20 games in each of his two seasons with the Bulls. So team Bulls decided to make a major gamble and traded Brand for the rights to the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft to select Tyson Chandler to pair him with Eddy Curry in a twin-big man approach that inevitably proved futile. Eventually, both were traded and the Bulls began their return to competitiveness with the drafting of Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon.
Brand then basically saved the Clippers franchise, the first true significant era for the team that led to the current group under Doc Rivers that has become a perennial contender.
Brand with his physical, inside game and reliable mid range jump shot he developed after leaving the Bulls became the first Clippers’ All-Star in eight years his first season with the team. In an unprecedented move for the Clippers then, they matched his major free agent contract from the Miami Heat. He then made a second All-Star team when he averaged 24.7 points and 10 rebounds in 2005-06, was among the top contenders as league MVP and led the Clippers to a controversial Game 7 playoff elimination in the second round.
He suffered a ruptured Achilles missing most of the 2007-08 season. He opted out after the season and signed a long term deal with the 76ers. He suffered major shoulder injuries his first season and was let go with the amnesty clause after four seasons. He then played for Dallas, Atlanta and returned this season to the 76ers as a veteran sage with still career averages of 16 points and 8.5 rebounds. He averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in his stints with both the Bulls and Clippers.
“Getting your first time, playing with the Bulls, a storied franchise was a special feeling,” said Brand. “I had an Illinois license for four years even though I only played there for two; I thought I wasn’t going anywhere. I loved playing in Chicago, playing for the Bulls even with everything we went through. But there are always changes. Chicago always will have a special place in my heart; people still think I’m from Chicago. People are always yelling at me, ‘Chicago.’ Because it started with the Bulls.
“It was special,” insists Brand of his time with the Bulls. “You’re young (20 out of Duke), get there and you think you will stay there. But there are only a few guys who stay with a franchise for their careers.
“I’m proud of the hard work and trying to be a model teammate,” said Brand, “working hard, fighting through injuries. Once the Achilles went that was a whole new thing, the shoulder, a torn labrum. But I still have been able to compete. I’m proud of that. I love to do what I do and I still do."
“I know I would play even without the crowds,” said Brand. “I love going to the gym, the preparation, just going in the locker room before the game. It’s still exciting, getting ready for a game, ready to play. It’s so special.”
If it is finally goodbye, it’s to one very special guy. He’s grateful, but it’s the rest of us who follow the NBA who owe thanks to a guy like Elton Brand.