By John Denton Jan. 17, 2018
CLEVELAND – Not long after the Orlando Magic’s stirring defeat of the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night, forward Arron Afflalo met the squad in the locker room to offer his congratulations and also an apology for the altercation that knocked him out of the game.
Later, when Afflalo made it to his Orlando apartment and flipped on the nightly highlight shows, he said seeing himself lose his cool and swing wildly at another NBA player compared to experiencing some sort of out-of-body experience. The anger displayed during the fight with Minnesota’s Nemanja Bjelica was out of character for the usually mild-mannered Afflalo.
``It’s an unfortunate incident and just competitive nature and an isolated incident within a particular play,’’ a remorseful Afflalo said on Wednesday. ``I’m very proud of my teammates because they stayed composed and put up a great fight.’’
Afflalo and Minnesota’s Bjelica were ejected with 7:28 left in the second quarter after a brief, but wild fracas. The two players were hit with double technical fouls 30 seconds into the second quarter when Afflalo accidentally hit the Timberwolves’ forward in the face on a drive to the basket and Bjelica responded with some nose-to-nose trash talk.
Said Afflalo: ``That (trash talk) happens all the time in the NBA. There was nothing personal and I don’t know him. It’s just unfortunate that it escalated to where it did with us. I’ll try to handle it a little better next time.’’
Several minutes later, Afflalo attempted to box out a hard-charging Bjelica with a chuck and the two players collided another time. The usually mild-mannered Afflalo then swung wildly with his right arm, hitting Bjelica in the back of the head and neck. The much-bigger Bjelica got Afflalo in a headlock and he seemed to take a half-hearted swing at the Magic forward’s back before the players were separated.
The incident seemed to spark the Magic, who went on to topple Minnesota 108-102 to end a couple of streaks. Orlando came into the game having dropped seven games in a row, while Minnesota had won five straight. None of that mattered on a night when Orlando showed plenty of fight and won the game with a tide-turning 14-4 burst in the fourth quarter.
``Regardless of whether the energy was sparked from that (fight), us getting a win and showing some fight figuratively – for me, literally, but from them figuratively – it was a great thing,’’ Afflalo said.
The fire and rage that spewed out of the 32-year-old Afflalo spoke to his roots as a native of Compton, Calif., and to a competitive spirit that has allowed him to survive in the NBA for 11 seasons.
``It’s just a part of my upbringing, a part of my nature,’’ Afflalo said on Wednesday after the Magic’s practice to prepare for Thursday’s game in Cleveland against the Cavaliers. ``I never come into a basketball game with that intent (to fight), but it is who I am as a person and a man. Regardless if I play basketball or I’m just walking on the street, you’re not going to let anybody talk noise to you or try to demean you in any way. As long as I’m around, that’s how I am going to be. I’m not saying here on the (basketball) court, but that’s just how I am as a person.’’
Afflalo said the Magic’s desperation to get out of a slump that has seen them drop 27 of the 31 games might have had something to do with his outburst on Tuesday night. Hoping to revive his career in this his second stint with the Magic, Afflalo has averaged just 3.0 points per game while shooting only 38 percent from the floor in 35 games thus far.
``There was obviously some frustration with us losing, and individually me not playing up to expectations, but we need that fight,’’ Afflalo said. ``For me, over 11 years and the course of my basketball career, it’s been all about fight and trying to prove who you are.
As long as I’m wearing an Orlando Magic uniform and in the league, I’m going to try to maintain a winning spirit and a fighting spirit. Sometimes, it comes out in that way. But our team needed that spirit of being hungry and being willing to defend our territory.’’
Afflalo said that he doesn’t know Bjelica personally and the trash talk that he received early in the second quarter isn’t uncommon during NBA games. After the game on Tuesday Bjelica said he didn’t understand what set Afflalo off and caused him to swing at him.
``We were hitting each other on offense and defense, and that is part of the game. He took a swing at me and I was just trying to protect myself, first of all, and then to help him and calm him down because he was wild,’’ Bjelica said. ``I don’t know what was wrong with (Afflalo), but if at that point you are attacking like that, I have to protect myself and my family.
``Everybody who knows me knows that I am (a) calm guy,’’ Bjelica continued. ``I was raised in the streets (of Serbia), but I am a professional basketball player and I will never fight during the game. I don’t want to feel like I am the victim here, but I just tried to protect myself and I am very happy – thank God – that I react that way. I was trying to calm him down.’’
Afflalo is hopeful that his long track record of being a good citizen on and off the floor will play a factor in whatever punishment the NBA League Office decides to levy against him. He is hopeful that he will be allowed to play on Thursday night when the Magic are in Cleveland to face LeBron James and the Cavs.
``I’ve been around a long time and I’ve only had one or two incidents and I’m not a big (technical foul) person or altercation person,’’ Afflalo said. ``Incidents with me are always isolated, so hopefully they respect that I have carried myself the right way for a long time in this league and they aren’t too harsh. But whatever is to come from it, I’m assuming it’s going to be fair and I’ll move on.’’
What Afflalo hopes ultimately comes from Tuesday’s incident is the way his teammates stepped up and had his back – both during the fight and afterward during the game. Afflalo playfully thanked teammate D.J. Augustin for helping to free him from the Bjelica headlock, but he was even more proud of how his other teammates hung tough in the second half to get a much-needed victory for Orlando.
``For me, a winning attitude is about a love for your teammates, sharing the ball when they’re open and it’s about being competitive on the defensive end,’’ he said. ``If you’re willing to fight and you’re willing to be unselfish, then you have a great opportunity to build a great culture. I’m pretty sure that’s the intent of everyone around here.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.