There are times that the NBA feels like a big family. And Cavs center Robin Lopez knows about big NBA families.
After starring at Stanford, both Robin and his brother Brook were selected in the First Round of the 2008 Draft – with Derrick Rose as that year’s top pick, with Brook being taken by the then-New Jersey Nets at No. 10 overall and Robin going to the Suns at 15. In the Second Round, Phoenix acquired the Draft rights to Goran Dragic.
That Suns team had won 55 games the previous season and had designs on the title the following year – loaded All-Star talent like Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Shaquille O’Neal and Grant Hill. But things didn’t work out that way in 2008-09. Head Coach Terry Porter was replaced by Alvin Gentry 51 games into the season the Suns fell short of the postseason.
In terms of the NBA being a big family, Lopez is one of 10 players from that Draft – including the Cavs picks that year, J.J. Hickson (No. 22) and Darrell Jackson (55) – who’ve made their way through Cleveland. And that 2008-09 Suns squad had its own connections to the Cavaliers, including GM Steve Kerr along with Raja Bell, Lou Amundson and, of course, Shaq.
With the Wine & Gold facing Phoenix at the Footprint Center less than a week after winning a 90-88 thriller at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cavs.com sat down with the 15-year vet to talk about his memorable freshman season with the star-studded Suns …
What was it like for a rookie big man to work with Shaquille O’Neal in your first year out of school?
Robin Lopez: It was quite an impression. You couldn’t ask for anybody better to learn under.
Obviously, his reputation precedes him. So, he’s a lot of fun and he’s an incredible player, but he’s also a good teacher. He’s great at teaching you the ways of the league – good and bad – and he never shied away from that.
He was always vociferous about what a good player does, what a good professional does and what a good big man does.
You and your brother were drafted by different teams and were apart as teammates for the first time as rookies. How did you handle it?
Lopez: I had a brother in Phoenix living with me. He lived a few minutes from me with his family. And my other brother went to live with Brook in New Jersey.
So, that’s how we made the adjustment.
You were drafted by a star-studded Suns team that had title aspirations. What was that like for a young player?
Lopez: It was exciting, but it was also a little intimidating. I walk in the locker room and realize Grant Hill’s been playing pro basketball as long as I’ve been in school.
I wanted to come in and help out and contribute in any way I could. And you do that just by learning from the vets.
You also went through a coaching change that first year. Did that have any effect on you?
Lopez: Most of the staff remained the same. It was all in-season stuff and didn’t’ change too much.
I think that the vets – especially Steve Nash – preached accountability. In that situation, with a midseason change, if you’re a good team, a good veteran team, it’s really all on the players. So, coaching change or no coaching change, it’s got to come from the squad.
What was Steve Kerr like as the team’s general manager?
Lopez: I thought he was great. That season, we didn’t do as well as we wanted to. But my second year, we still had a great team. He made some great moves, and we shored up our bench. We had a great lineup that second year.
Steve wasn’t there every day. He’d make his presence felt, but he wasn’t around every day.
But he helped me mentally a lot. I’ve always been a very emotional player – even more so when I was younger. And he really helped me with that aspect of the game.
You mentioned Grant Hill. What was your experience like as a teammate of his?
Lopez: He’s a guy that I watched play basketball since I was young. (‘Grant Hill drinks Sprite!’) And now I’m seeing him every day!
He’s such a great player. He wasn’t quite as athletic by that point, but he was so intelligent both on and off the floor, and he knew how to make use of everything he had at that point.
You actually saw a lot of action for a rookie on a veteran team, playing in 60 games. How did you handle that mentally, physically?
Lopez: It was a bit of grind for me. My rookie year, it was a little bit of shock and awe trying to figure things out. I’ll admit that.
But I thought it was great for me – throwing me into the fire like that. It helped me have a much better second year.
As a vet, what advice do you have now for rookies and young players?
Lopez: In today’s league, it just feels like you have a lot more younger players. And I always try to communicate to young players that every play, it seems so important in the moment, but it’s not the end of the world if you screw up. It took me a long time to learn that.
But guys like Steve Kerr and Grant Hill, plus some of the guys a couple years older like Jared Dudley, helped me figure out that it’s not the end of the world when you miss a shot or screw up a play. You keep playing. And whether you have a career that’s just a couple years long or you’re fortunate like me to have one that lasts longer than a decade, there’s going to be a LOT of basketball played. And even for the best players, the best shot-makers, miss half the time.
You miss. You mess up. Go play the next one.
Was there a veteran that was particularly tough on you and/or one who took you under their wing?
Lopez: Goran and I were so lucky. We were both rookies together. And he had Steve Nash working with him and I had Shaq with me. You couldn’t ask for two better vets to look up to. So, were so fortunate in that regard.
And Shaq did an incredible job of being fun when it called for that, and being tough when he had to be tough. And he talked about what’s the best way to appease the ‘Basketball Gods.’ He always talked about the ‘Basketball Gods.’
Did he have a nickname for you?
Lopez: He didn’t have a nickname for me, but I had a lot of nicknames going around back then.
Goran came up with my favorite one, which is “Sponge Rob.”
Was there any kind of rookie initiation for you two guys – pink backpacks or anything?
Lopez: We never did backpacks.
During Training Camp, we did have to do defensive slides in a crowded restaurant on a Saturday night. And they did make us wear ridiculous costumes one night for a team dinner – grapes and a banana, I think it was.
I want to say that I was the banana, but I can’t exactly recall.