Zach LaVine's father Paul noticed his son had the potential to be special at an early age. Sam Smith details how Zach's upbringing set the course for him to become an NBA star.
Zach LaVine knows a little more than most about a three-point contest, not that he is the favorite Saturday Night during NBA All-Star weekend. It's just that LaVine, the Bulls high scoring shooting guard, has been practicing regularly for it. You know, since the fourth grade when it was just a small part of a remarkable lifelong training regimen and commitment filled with equal parts hard work and family love that took him on a unique and special path to an elite place.
Not quite the star yet in Sunday's game program, but one that appears to be peeking above the horizon of excellence and perhaps destined to shine even brighter on the world of basketball.
Zach's a two-time slam dunk contest champion. He's aiming Saturday for the unique contest double on the way to an All-Star game appearance that appears inevitable. But now third things first, the three-point competition.
Zach LaVine looks to become the first player ever to win the slam dunk contest and the three-point contest in a career.
"My dad would go around to the Goodwill stores all over Seattle and he'd get these cheap swimming pools, the little plastic ones with the fish on them," LaVine was recalling earlier this week. "Then he'd get all these different types of balls, basketballs, soccer balls and I'd have like 50, 60 balls and he'd set up the pools around the backyard and I'd continually shoot, just getting my touch. Like doing the contest. One after another filling them up with balls. I could shoot 50 in a row without having to have a rebounder since my dad was working. Then I'd pick them up and shoot 50 more. Started doing that every day around third or fourth grade."
LaVine smiled at the memory of a childhood devoted to the games, not always easy, but never a Marinovich robo-life of demands. Zach was driven, but he basically was at the steering wheel.
We were sitting in a lounge in the team hotel, LaVine in his familiar uniform of jeans with tears (though I believe he can afford ones not ripped) and a snug polo shirt. He ordered a fruit juice drink. He's filled out considerably, still slender but sinewy. His close cropped beard is filling in well, framing his bright, welcoming smile and curly brown hair. He's as approachable as NBA stars get, humble and inviting. A pro sports career became something of a combination avocation and destiny almost from the crib, though Zach admits he's still pinching himself about his blessings.
"It's been my life for so long, but I am literally living a dream," LaVine says. "I know there is going to come a point where I can't do this anymore, and it's going to kill me. So I try to take in every game and appreciate what it is. Like when we are there for the national anthem and I look around seeing little kids wearing my jersey and people saying your name. And you go out to play with 20,000 people there. I know that's not going to be forever. I'm young, but I appreciate and enjoy it. It's what's so beautiful about the sport."
So after shooting and shooting and shooting into those kiddie pools, Zach would sit down and record the session. How many were elbow shots, long shots, free throws, from 15 feet, 18 feet, 25 feet? From what angle?
"By my senior year, I had three notebooks filled with the shots," Zach said. "It's something you can go back and look at, something cool. My dad was my biggest influence. He's the reason why a lot of this stuff happened for me. He put the time in and he had a plan from the get go, when I was four, five years old. I know it sounds crazy, but he had a plan to try to make me a pro. I used to be in the car and he'd have me do interviews. I'd play in a Little League game and he'd interview me in the car. I didn't understand at the time, but he'd have me talking into a microphone. ‘You didn't have a good day today, Zach. What was the problem?' This and that so I can get prepared. When I was in third and fourth grade I took shots before the game like we do at shootaround, did what pros did. After the game, I went and shot. But it wasn't weird to me because I really liked it. I just thought it was normal and everyone did this.
"He saw the ability and drive I had," says LaVine. "I was never ranked in the top 100. I was never the big recruit in high school. I started growing a little bit, though before I had to play point guard. But I had the drive.
"I don't want to say I was sheltered, but I didn't have a lot of friends growing up," LaVine explained. "I didn't go to a lot of sleepovers. I didn't go to a lot of parties. I had one girlfriend my entire life. I met her when I was a junior in high school and we've been together since, Hunter. Basketball has been my life. I enjoyed the process, and seeing where I am now enjoying the fruits of these labors is such a big thing."
Zach LaVine sits at a photo shoot on the first day of All-Star weekend.
Paul LaVine never really planned to be a basketball sculptor. Sure, he'd played some professional football, the USFL, NFL tryouts and a season during the 1987 strike, Canada, overseas. Getting hurt in a tryout with the Oakland Raiders finally ended it. He'd had a tough adolescence, not always proud of everything he'd done, though more embarrassing than criminal. But mostly unsupervised after his parents divorced, he never trained much, partied too much. Regrets, he has more than a few. He'd work at his construction job and advise his kids, but then he began to notice some unusual things about young Zachary.
"He started walking at about six months, doing things other babies weren't doing," Paul says. "I'd take him to the park and put him on the monkey bars and he'd hold himself for 30 seconds at four, five years old. I played softball (in a pro league) and a guy had a baseball bat on his shirt. Zach would be trying to grab it to swing the bat from the picture. I'm thinking, ‘This kid is different.' In second grade he was going to the park to play sixth grade kids for money. He'd come home proud about $10. He always was playing two, three, four years ahead."
Though Paul was a muscular linebacker at Utah State and in the pros, he also was an accomplished softball player in high level leagues. Zach followed dad. Baseball was his best sport and Paul began to believe Zach might have a career. At least be able to get a college scholarship. The family wasn't poor, but Paul and wife C.J. both worked, C.J. two jobs at times so, as Zach said, they could get one Christmas present and stay on the AAU circuit. "Sports saved me, kept me out of the bad stuff," says Paul. "Sports and a scholarship got me out of the bad neighborhood I came from. With Zach we were living in a suburb of Seattle (Renton), so it wasn't like that. It was first about the scholarship. I told him we are going to get you to college. From there you have to figure it out.
"I always told him to chase his dreams," Paul said. "That's what he did. I remember one time they had one of those career days in school and a teacher in fourth grade asked what he wanted to be. He said he wanted to be an NBA star. The teacher told him to write down something more realistic. He came home and said, ‘The teacher wants me to be a policeman or fireman.' Me and my wife went to school and said that was my son's dream, so don't mess it up; that's what he wants to be."
Paul's message was always the same: Pursue your dream and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Work hard and you'll get the results. And even if you don't, you can't hang your head because you gave it everything you could. When Zach was drafted No. 13 by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014, his mom sewed the quote in his lining: "I didn't say it would be easy; I just said it would be worth it."
Zach hanging out at an "NBA on TNT" themed set on the first day of All-Star weekend.
Michael Jordan's Space Jam movie became the turning point for Zach's sports career, though he didn't commit to basketball until about ninth grade. Paul told him in this era to concentrate on one sport. It was basketball. Space Jam was released in late 1996 and when Zach saw it and the road to adulthood cleared. Little Zach watched the movie repeatedly until the VCR tape literally wore out. Paul picked up Jordan tapes and Kobe Bryant tapes, Zach's two idols, and Zach mimicked the two endlessly along with a Breaking Ankles tape. Zach did the usual routine, travel teams and backyard games, but also the training that wasn't so routine. There were quickness drills and explosion drills from Paul's football days, discipline, repetition, muscle memory. There was a morning run before school, getting up 250-300 shots after school, then basketball practice, then recovery like in the pros. Every day.
"He wanted to do it," Paul says. "I never had to tell him you have to go out and shoot; he just wanted to. I was worried about the Marinovich example (a parent pushing a child to exhaustion and defeat). I was kind of hard on Zach. I had a talk with my wife about it. I did let him know when he did something wrong and sometimes in a harsh way.
"The first thing is you have to be honest and let them know what they are doing wrong. I have only stood up and cheered for Zach once," Paul said. "It was the second dunk contest when he went between legs. I'd seen him practice that and he missed all the time. When he did it I jumped up and everyone looked at me and said, ‘You don't cheer.' I never wanted to let him know he was better than what he was. I always sat on the opposite side at his high school games so I could hear the criticism of what they said about Zach and we could work on that. Zach would say he could score 50 points and his dad would find something wrong. I'd tell him he did good, but we have to work on something else. I told him when he gets older the coaches are going to be worse than I am."
It was loving, but not gauzy. This wasn't fathers playing catch with sons, cue the music from Field of Dreams. This was more intense.
"Remember when Thibodeau first came to Minnesota," Paul asked. "Remember what Zach said? He said, ‘I dealt with my dad. Thibodeau ain't close to my dad.' But every night before he went to bed I made sure I asked him if he wanted to keep doing this. And I made sure I told him I loved him."
Zach LaVine dunks against the Atlanta Hawks as Vince Carter looks on.
Zach's life beyond his profession is his family, two sisters and a couple of friends, his mom and dad, a god sister and a close friend of his dad's. After the season, they all usually go somewhere in the Caribbean. "I'm like a big kid," says Zach. "I like the water slides and playing video games. My dad sits around and plays the penny slots all day. Mom and my girlfriend go shopping. I love it."
When the 6-5 guard signed his big contract with the Bulls, he believed it was payback time. A house of their choice and dreams anywhere they wanted. Florida, California? Paul picked a remote seven-acre parcel in Snohomish, north of Seattle. Zach was mystified. Of all places? But Paul envisioned something of a training complex with football and basketball facilities, recreation activities like paintball, gyms and a weight room. So Zach goes back to dad and mom for the summer.
"All he wants to do is be around his family," Paul says with a laugh. "I don't understand it. He goes out to eat with his girlfriend who's going to be his future wife and he always says, ‘Dad, let's go out to eat, dad let's go to a movie.'"
Paul didn't have that father around, so he wanted to be there for his kids. Paul quit his construction job when it wouldn't give him much time at home to work with Zach. He gave up softball and started a delivery business. On days off, Zach would join him for the drives around Seattle.
"Those were some of my favorite things to do," Zach recalls. "In the car talking about basketball and things I wanted to do when I got older and the plan. Listening to rap music. My dad would rap to me and I would try to, also. That was fun, real fun.
"It would be, ‘Zach, you want to come over and hang out? Zach, you want to go to this party?' I was never into all that stuff," said LaVine. "I was content with what I was doing."
It was working out, the daily regimen, the demands. And yes, the disputes, the criticism, the welcome-to-real-life times.
"I love my dad to death, but I'm not saying growing up was easiest thing. He would get on me after games. I've been called every name in the book, which also is why confrontation doesn't bug me," says Zach. "No coach can break me because I've been called the worst things in the world by my dad since third grade. But I never got burned out. I loved it. I'd keep asking him to go with me, ‘Hey man, let's go shoot.' Go hit 200 baseballs. It never was him pushing me; it was me wanting to do it. After he got off a nine-hour day he didn't have to spend two, three hours with me. But he was looking out for me and from a young age I understood that. I won't say there weren't arguments, but I know he loved me and we'd wake up and do it again. My dad always said people are going to have their doubts about you; there are going to be critics. You get to pick your life."
Zach admits school was difficult for him. "It's probably not the best way of thinking about it, but I knew to play basketball I had to get grades. I had to take the SAT like four or five times. I was good at reading and writing, but I couldn't get math at all. It took me about four or five times to get the right score on the math section to go to UCLA. I got a 2.8 in high school, but college I had 3.0. I was getting used to it, but I was focused on basketball."
Coming from the suburbs south of Seattle, even a Mr. Basketball, Zach was overlooked. No McDonald's all-American, barely into the top 50 collegiate prospects after a broken hip joint in high school. Sixth man on his UCLA team. Then as a pro, you know, just a dunker, can't defend, selfish scorer, not a No. 1 guy. He's heard it all, yet he continues to get better, improving his game and his scoring every season, which is a sign of the elite talents. Can you come back better? LaVine has from averaging 10.1 points as a rookie to 25.3 this season and remaining one of the game's great athletes despite the severe anterior cruciate knee injury.
"I know who I am and I put the work in, so I can't worry what others say. I'm not doing it for them. I'm doing it for my family to get in position where they don't have to work anymore and for my kids' kids," says LaVine. "I'm doing it for me. I love the game of basketball. Obviously you want individual accolades, but I want individual and team success because I know it all goes into one. I've gotten overlooked, but it's a lesson for everyone. A lot of people feel that way and experience that.
"What matters is it won't stop me from going out and doing what I want to do," say LaVine. "You either give in to others' judgments or you show who you are and what you can do. I know who I am every time I step on the court. I'm going to continue to work on my shortcomings in basketball because that's how I was raised and I want to be a compete player, an All-Star, an all-NBA guy. I want to be great. Peoples' verdicts or opinions are not going to stop my progress."
It seems like LaVine has been around for a long time, and it is his sixth NBA season. But he missed almost two years with the injury and is still only 24. He's improved every year in almost all facets of the game.
"I have been living my dream," LaVine says. "I went through the injury with my knee and the game got taken from me. I came to Chicago and got the opportunity to be a No. 1 player and when opportunity knocks you've got to open the door. I feel each year I've developed and gotten better and I am going to continue to do that going forward."