Staying Ready

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Carlos Boozer, Power Forward / NBA - The Players' Tribune

It’s 2010. I’m with the Jazz. We’re at a practice facility in Los Angeles — a day away from playing Kobe, Pau and the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. They’re the No. 1 seed, we’re the No. 5 seed. It’s our last team meeting before the series starts.

Coach Sloan takes the floor. He paces a bit, and stares at us — the whole team, up and down. Real slowly. He takes his time to look each one of us in the eye.

And then he speaks.

“Look. We’re afterthoughts in this series … We’re big underdogs … We’re on the road … I don’t care. We need to f***ing beat these guys.”

And then he keeps going.

“If my knee was still good, I’m telling you, I’d go out there and play tomorrow. No … No … Honestly, if my knee was still good, I’d go out there and fight somebody tomorrow. Hell, if my knee was still good, I’d go out there and fight somebody right now. You know what? I’m serious. I’ll go out there and fight the Lakers.

“I’ll go out and fight the Lakers right now!”

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For about a beat — a beat and a half — you can feel everyone in the room just sort of … processing what Coach had said. You see everyone looking around … looking around … not sure what to make of it. Is he joking? Is he being “rah rah”? Or is he for real? It’s like, wait — is Coach about to try to fight Luke Walton? It’s one of those, Well, that escalated quickly moments.

And like I said: This is 2010. Coach Sloan is 68 years old. Sixty-eight! And he’s out here, telling us, dead — listen: dead — seriously, that he would lace’em up and go to battle with us if he could. And he’s got us believing that he really, truly would — that he wants this badly enough, and that we should too. He’s not just spouting some “do or die” nonsense that he knows we’ve all heard a million times. He’s showing us.

I’m telling you: After Coach’s speech, that room went from “focused” to focused. We were a little overmatched in the series — 2010 was a championship-winning Lakers team — and we ended up on the losing end of it. But man were we focused, and man did we give them a run, and man did we fight like hell.

It’s five years later now, but I still think about that speech, and tell guys about it any chance I get.

It was a moment.

*

You always hear people talk about “veteran presence.” Teams “need veteran presence,” guys “have veteran presence,” and so on. And to be honest, earlier in my career, when I was one of the younger players in the league, I figured that most of those people didn’t know what they were talking about. I figured that it was just one of those “things to say”: veteran presence.

Like — what does that even mean? What is it actually about?

But now I’m the veteran, and I think I know. I think it’s about moments.

When you’re in the league for long enough — and you’re on the right teams, in the right situations — you just accumulate these … moments.

Between the ACC and the NBA, I’ve now been playing high-level basketball for 16 years. (That’s right: I’ve been playing since the last millennium.) And from my time with Coach K, to Coach Sloan, to Coach Thibs, to everything in between … I’ve had a career’s worth of moments.

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Well, not quite. I’ve had almost a career’s worth. I’ve decided that I’m going to keep at this NBA thing for a few more years. That’s my plan, anyway: Play another three or four seasons, and then move onto the next phase of my life.

Knowing that this will likely be one of my last times exploring free agency, I wanted to make sure I did it right. And for me, doing it right meant staying patient. It meant not rushing the process. It meant taking my time.

Because at this point, I’ve pretty much done it all in the league: I’ve averaged 20 and 10. I’ve made All Star teams. I’ve signed max contracts. I’ve gone on deep playoff runs.

There’s really only one thing left in my NBA career that I want to accomplish: Win a championship.

With that in mind, I want to make sure the team I sign my next contract with has goals that are similar to my own. I want to really, consciously, pick a team I think can win it — and win it in the next season or two.

Knowing that this will likely be one of my last times exploring free agency, I wanted to make sure I did it right.

Over the summer, I had a good conversation with Ray Allen — who went through a similar process a couple of years ago when he left Boston. Ray was trying to be specific with his search, trying to be thoughtful, just like me. He wanted to end his career in a certain way, in a certain environment. He wanted to win — and he wanted to help. For Ray, that meant signing with the Heat.

For me, it could mean a few different teams. I’m still working it out. Some great organizations have reached out, and I’ve had a number of productive conversations — with the teams, with my family and with myself.

We’ll see what happens. But in the meanwhile: I’m just staying ready.

One thing I’ve really been focusing on this offseason is my jump shot. In the playoffs, most teams are working hard to take away layups. So to succeed in postseason play — especially in today’s league, and especially at the four — you’ve got to have guys on the floor who can shoot. I know that from experience.

And like I said: The playoffs are an active concern for me right now. Whatever team signs me, their fans can rest assured: I’m not just coming back in shape — I’m coming back in playoff shape.

*

The biggest plus of this extended offseason, by far, has been how much time it’s allowed me to spend with my kids. My kids are everything to me. I’m a dad first; the rest comes second. And while I’m always excited for the season to start, one of the downsides, each year, is the knowledge that our family is about to go on “NBA Calendar.” Don’t get me wrong — even on my NBA schedule, we still see each other a lot. I make sure of it. But being on the road, like we are so often in the league, it’s just inevitable that you miss out on stuff.

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So these last few months, being home, I’ve made sure to take advantage. For example, I got to go trick-or-treating with my kids this year for Halloween. We did it big: My oldest son, Carmani, was a jester — had the costume, the two-toned face paint and everything. And then my younger boys, the twins: Cayden was Dracula — and I may be biased (okay, you got me — I’m definitely biased) … but I thought he looked pretty cool. And Cameron: His friends were all going as zombies, so he switched up his flow — and went as a zombie hunter. (You’re mad that you didn’t think up that one for yourself, now, aren’t you?) We had a lot of fun. I was probably the proudest dad of a jester, a vampire and a zombie hunter there’s ever been.

And then there are just the little things. Getting to be a Sports Dad — picking them up from school, then going to their baseball games, their basketball games, and cheering them on: I can’t get enough of it. Even simply watching sports with them — that’s been really cool, too. We watched that whole NBA Opening Night doubleheader together: first, the Cavs and the Bulls, two of my old teams, taking it down to the wire; and then, of course, Steph going off for 40 against the Pelicans. (Surprise, surprise: My kids love Steph.)

Pretty soon, though, it’s going to be time to get back to work. And while I’m not ready to divulge anything yet … you should be hearing from me again, with some news, in a handful of weeks. Until then: my plan is to just enjoy this family time, keep doing my research, and make sure I’m ready to go.

*

Age has a way of revealing new things to you. Back in 2010, I thought it was funny that Coach Sloan was about to go throw down with the Lakers. I sort of figured that it was just, you know, “part of the act” — a really well done motivational speech. But now? Now I know.

Dude was serious.

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And I’m not Coach Sloan’s age … but I’m starting to understand how he felt. You get a little older — you play this game for long enough — and you realize that so much of what you worried about earlier in your career doesn’t matter. You realize that it really all just boils down to a few key moments.

And then, finally, you realize something about moments: You’re only handed so many.

Sometimes you have to go out and make your own.

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