The capacity to craft one’s own narrative has become an obligatory skill either possessed or learned by almost every relevant star in the NBA. From Steph Curry’s on-brand waltz through a Brita commercial to Kyrie Irving embracing his inner conspiracy theorist, the NBA’s very best know how to distinguish themselves off the court even more so than on. Aldridge—who’s somehow as puzzling as he is grounded as he is brilliant at basketball—doesn’t have/want that power.“I feel like everything with me gets blown out of proportion,” he says. “I think it’s because I’m so quiet about things that people just run with anything they hear.”Aldridge has never worried about injecting himself into a grandiose marketing campaign, or projecting a façade that elevates a perception that’s probably more dispassionate than anything else. The result? He gets called sensitive, jealous, and insecure. He’s accused of skirting leadership duties and distancing himself from teammates.
Not all of these descriptions are false, but rumors cause reputations to fester in the absence of information. Aldridge has long been a blank canvas, susceptible to speculation about how he really feels on any given topic by fans, reporters, or just anyone loosely connected to the NBA. That reserved persona, combined with a game that’s the antithesis of glamour, have clouded a remarkably consistent career.
“I’m probably one of the most misunderstood people in the league.”
Aldridge grew up in Dallas, Texas where he was a McDonald’s High-School All-American who battled Chris Bosh as a teenager. He was skinny and 6’7” when he first enrolled at Seagoville High School. Three years later he was nearly seven feet tall, with physical advantages that allowed him to control the paint, and enough skill to step out and unleash a potent jumper that started on his right and aberrantly followed through across his body (a form that was nicknamed the “Seagoville Shot” in college).
As the Jr. NBA session winds down, I hop up off the bleachers juggling my notebook and a large iced coffee, then walk over to a partitioned area in the back of the room. To my right are roughly 10,000 Jr. NBA t-shirts neatly stacked on top of a long fold out table. Straight ahead and to my left are a dozen more empty tables. I walk over to the corner and pull out two chairs.As a Spurs employee bends over to ask if I want to do the interview in a quieter space, Aldridge enters with a pair of cell phones cradled in his left hand. He lays both upside down on the white tablecloth and cracks a joke about a promotional video he shot earlier in the morning with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish.I place my recorder down beside the phones and realize that despite all the research done for this story—articles read, interviews studied, videos watched—there isn't nearly enough available information, relative to every other player at or near his stature, to capture who the man sitting next to me really is.
With a new coach and franchise point guard, the Blazers rebounded faster than anyone could have expected. Lillard was an instant spark who won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team as a sophomore, which doubled as the first season Portland advanced out of the first round since 2000.Aldridge was still their best player—and made more baskets than anyone else in the league during the 2014-15 season—but bad luck and unfortunate timing once again kept the Blazers from reaching their full potential. It was a promising situation, but at that stage of Aldridge’s life, with free agency on the horizon, it ultimately wasn’t one worth fighting for.
From Aldridge’s initial glimmer in the Pacific Northwest as the ostensible third wheel beside Roy and Oden, to a productive albeit abrasive partnership with Lillard, to an instantly infamous exchange last summer with Popovich, wherein Aldridge expressed frustration over his role on a 61-win team, every major period of his career has been undermined by some kind of disappointment—at least that’s how it looks from the outside.
In early January, Popovich shed some light on those talks. The primary takeaway being that Aldridge was the first player Pop ever coached who requested a trade. Not that it’s the most meaningful detail, but Aldridge’s version of what happened is a little different.“I think a lot got lost in translation. I didn’t go and say ‘Hey, I want out.’ It was like ‘I can’t be the player you want me to be, so let me help you get that person because I respect you and the organization so much.’ That’s how it really went, but people took it and twisted it.”
“I think it’s because I’m so quiet about things that people just run with anything they hear.”
Throughout our time together, Aldridge hardly resembles the monotonous tower seen on League Pass. His eyes widen, hands twirl, and voice amplifies when responding to questions only he can answer. I ask him to explain why he hates being called a center, why he felt especially overlooked in Portland at the beginning of his career (“They tried to trade me twice!”), and whether he wants to clear up any gossip that splashed across the internet during his free agency.“I’m probably one of the most misunderstood people in the league,” Aldridge says. “I have no bad intentions, but I carry myself in a very protective way. I like my little shell. I like my little circle of three or four people that I’m close to. I think that comes off as bad to people that don’t really know my personality. I don’t like new environments. I don’t like being around a lot of new people. It makes me uncomfortable.”The contrast between him and a majority of his peers is clear when, at the conclusion of our interview, I walk out from behind a curtain and see Steph Curry on the other side of the room, taking his turn with the Jr. NBA kids. He is mic’d up, standing at the far centercourt, facing a wall of fans who all have their hands raised hoping to ask the two-time MVP a question. Aldridge never had a microphone and his voice didn’t project over a loudspeaker. Instead of being the center of attention, Aldridge was right in there among them. It was almost like he was trying (comically) to blend in.And that’s, of course, a perfectly fine way to be. Aldridge is comfortable in his own skin. “He doesn’t try to be something that he’s not,” Barnes says. “And he’s not an attention seeker.”Despite calling himself an introvert several times when we talk, there’s no wall around him. Aldridge is modest and polite, and never looks at either cell phone even when they buzz. He occasionally bookends his replies by looking down at his lap and letting out a chuckle.
Aldridge is having one of the more productive seasons anyone his age, at his position, ever has. But he’s still growing, learning, and working. He hasn’t reached the same level as someone like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, or Dirk Nowitzki—postseason struggles are just one reason why it’s hard to justify those comparisons—but squint hard enough and a general outline of that same mythical talent starts to appear. With one or two reasonable breaks at watershed points in his career, Aldridge could have a ring or maybe even an MVP.“I think he’s a Hall of Famer, and I think that he will get the recognition that he deserves because he’s not done,” Barnes says. “I want to see him keep winning.”Right now, all he wants to do is enjoy a life that is blessed (a word Aldridge repeats multiple times, and had tattooed along his right arm when he was a junior in high school), and focus on maintaining a comfort level that can keep him as upbeat as he appears to be.In arguably the best professional situation of his life, with a new contract, fresh outlook, and numbers that prove he’s never been more efficient or essential, Aldridge is at the point in his career where he can kick both feet up on a desk, lean back, and exhale. On and off the court, as his sport, league, and world revolutionize themselves over again, the big man has evolved on his own time. He’s rooted himself to core principles and beliefs, and emerged on the other side with supreme confidence—almost like a dinosaur who weathered the asteroid’s crash into Earth.“I feel like I’ve definitely shown people I haven’t lost it,” Aldridge says. “That’s what bothered me more last year. People were acting like I lost it and I’m like ‘No, I’m just trying to figure out this system and how to be myself. I haven’t lost who I was and how dominant I can be.’ And then once we found that compromise where I can play as myself again, I’m back to being that guy.”He thinks back to that October night in Miami, which, in a way, kick-started this pseudo-vindication tour.“I remember just playing my game, scoring down the stretch, and I was like ‘This is who I am. This is who I’ve been for my whole career’,” Aldridge says, growing more serious with every word. “I remember feeling: ‘Man, I’m back to that player again, and it feels good.’ That feeling felt really good.”