Every time I step on the court now, I’m appreciative. It wasn’t always this way.
Before every game, I have this 30-second routine where I’ll pretend like I’m doing some stupid stretch, but what I am really doing is just closing my eyes and taking in the moment, imagining every arena and every city I’ve been in, smelling all the smells, seeing all the fans.
I’ll never forget Game 5 of the Finals, back in Golden State. We were down 3–1 in the series. As we ran out of the tunnel I was thinking, This might be my last game this year. I didn’t let that moment last long. As soon as the lights came on, I just knew it was going to be a special night. I looked into the crowd and I saw Drake and Lil Dicky — I love Lil Dicky. I saw all these different dudes from my career — Grant Hill, Isaiah Thomas, Jason Richardson — and they all congratulated me on getting to the Finals. But I knew that wasn’t enough for me to feel satisfied. I thought, Man, how exciting is it going to be when we make history?
The NBA Finals. Who the hell would have thought I’d ever be in the NBA Finals? Who’d have thought I’d be playing against Atlanta in the second round, much less that I’d score 27 in a big Game 3? Or that I’d come off the bench to help us win the Toronto series, leading up to the Finals? And who’d have thought I’d be playing with LeBron — the best player (along with Kobe and Tim Duncan) of our generation?
Who the hell would’ve thought Channing Frye would be an NBA champion?
Just four years ago, a team doctor in Phoenix looked at me and said the words that changed my life: “Channing, this is serious. If you exercise, there’s a chance you could die.”
Before I start getting all sentimental, let me go back to the start. Kick your feet up and let me build this thing.
Growing up, I wasn’t the best player — Richard Jefferson, whom I’ve known since I was 14, will gladly vouch for that, and often does. (Richard is the biggest bully on the Cavs, hands down, by the way.) In high school, I had size and I had raw potential, but as a basketball player I was hot garbage. When I got to Arizona, I got beat one-on-one every day in practice. A redshirt was hanging over my head. I knew I had to get stronger and better, fast. I was in the weight room constantly. I was shooting extra shots at night with Jason Terry, Luke Walton and RJ. Seeing guys like Jet and Richard work out that summer, it showed me how much they sacrificed to get so good.
Ultimately, I didn’t get redshirted. In fact, I had a great career at U of A. My senior year I averaged 16 and 8, and entered the NBA draft. My family is from New York, so of course they wanted me to go to the Knicks at pick number 8. (I was ranked in the 100s in my recruiting class, for perspective.) Eight felt like a fucking stretch. But I had been working out with Tim Grover and Mike Procopio. Mike is one of the smartest minds in basketball — he’s the guru who Kobe would call at 3 a.m. to go over game film. Scouts heard about me working out with Mike and thought, Wow, this guy must be legit. I got picked by the Knicks, and since the draft was at the Garden, I got booed, of course.
When I got to the NBA, that first Knicks group was pretty dysfunctional. But it was on me, too. I didn’t understand the game as much as I should have. I should have watched more film. Instead of thinking of the team, I was thinking about me. That Knicks team went 23–59.
When I got to Phoenix a few years later, I was like, Damn, this is what it’s like to win? I got that taste going to the Western Conference finals in 2010. I learned that 90% of winning is about what happens before the game. Are you doing the right stuff off the court? Are you preparing correctly? Are you taking care of yourself? I didn’t understand the importance of that stuff, at the time. But I was starting to grow and figure it out.
Then one long year changed my life, and my attitude. Forever.
It was 2012. Our Suns team was battling for a playoff spot. Four games before the end of the season, I went down with a shoulder injury and had to have surgery. It wasn’t great timing because my daughter, Margaux, had been born just a week before. For the first six weeks of my daughter’s life, I was flying to Phoenix from Portland — where we live in the offseason — on my own dime, just so I could rehab. I was in overdrive, emotionally.
One day when I was home, my wife, Lauren, comes up to me and says,
“Channing, I think something’s wrong with Margaux’s eyes.”
You could tell something wasn’t right with her eyes, because where there was supposed to be color, her eyes were white.
Just … white.
We thought, O.K., maybe that goes away? Babies are babies.
We took her to the doctor for some tests, and they gave us a diagnosis that just crushed us. Margaux had cataracts in both eyes. The doctors couldn’t be certain that she was ever going to see again unless we took action immediately. That day, when I walked out of the hospital with my baby, I thought, If there’s anything I can do to put this on me, and not my little girl, let it be. She doesn’t deserve this. She’s barely eight weeks old! It’s just not fair.
I tried to keep a straight face and be strong for my family. Inside, though, I was a mess. To be honest with you, that entire summer I did the only thing an athlete knows how to do; I just worked out harder. I poured everything into the gym. I don’t think I gave myself a chance that summer to rest or a chance to decompress and let out how I was really feeling about the situation.
When I got back to Phoenix in September, I was trying to get myself ready for the start of the season when a team doctor pulled me aside. He told me that there was something wrong with my heart assessment and that they needed to run some more tests. I was thinking it had to be a mix-up. But, deep down, I was also kind of freaking out.
Days went by, and the doctors started getting the blood tests back and receiving more information. They were throwing around big words, and I didn’t understand what was happening. Finally, one of them gave it to me straight.
“Channing, you have an enlarged heart. You will never be able to play basketball again.”
I’m like, Wait a second. What?
Everything happened fast. I’m seven, eight tests deep. Eventually, I had these electrodes on my chest monitoring my heart for six weeks at a time. Every time I showered, I had to take ’em off and put ’em on. I had five electronic pads stuck on each side of my chest — like the stickiest Band-Aids you could imagine. When they got removed, it looked like an octopus had kissed me. I still have the scars.
Everyone wants to walk away from basketball on their own terms. When someone tells you you’re done, you just feel helpless.
The doctors explained that any workout could literally kill me.
I started to get antsy. What could I even do to blow off steam? I couldn’t run, I couldn’t shoot, I couldn’t bike, I couldn’t get my heart rate up. To make things more stressful, my daughter had to undergo five surgeries on her eyes before her first birthday. I was looking at a year-plus rehab — I wouldn’t be able to shoot a basketball until the following summer.
Life smacked me in the face, and I had to ask myself some important questions.
Do I need basketball?
If I do, am I going to even be able to make it back?
Do I want to start from zero?
Finally, my wife was like, “Listen — in Phoenix, the training staff is great. If your knees hurts, they never say, O.K. let me just look at your knees. They look at your toes, your hips, your back. So why don’t you take that approach with your rehab?”
About three or four months later, in early 2013, I found a yoga teacher and I started to get into golf. Those two things literally changed my life.
It was slow going, for real. The first day of yoga class, I’ll never forget walking up the stairs for my first lesson with Angie Fie, my teacher and life coach. It was maybe 15 stairs — one flight. I was out of breath when I got to the top. When we started out, I couldn’t even meditate for two minutes. Shit, I couldn’t even sit still for two minutes. I couldn’t do 25 pushups. I had gained weight from inactivity, and I had no idea how to lose it without getting my heart rate up. I was like, Am I gonna have to buy Shape-ups?
On the golf course, 75-year-old ladies were kicking my ass. Basketball was down the road in my mind — I had to start from the beginning. Basketball was step 8 through 10. Yoga was step 1.
Around the same time, I had decided to consult with the doctors at Johns Hopkins, who happen to be the best doctors in the world — the same ones who treat President Obama. I started losing weight. I started getting a better attitude. I felt less grouchy. Later that summer, in about August 2013, I began shooting hoops and running again. I’d always have to live with and manage an enlarged heart, but I was going to make it. Margaux was doing great, too — she was even getting used to wearing glasses sometimes.
The biggest thing that I took away from this period was an attitude of, What have I got to lose?
I had already started to change my game before my year off. When I was with the Suns, I had learned how to guard centers better. The nature of defensive matchups, and how to exploit them, had begun to click for me. I was deepening my understanding of how to make winning plays.
During my year off, though, I had thought a lot about the 2010 Suns, who were coached by offensive mastermind Alvin Gentry. The big men on the team were myself, Robin Lopez, Amar’e Stoudemire and Lou Amundson. One day, we were playing three-on-three, and Robin was guarding me, and I had my two feet planted on the three-point line. Alvin started yelling, “Channing, what the hell are you doing? Take a step back.”
I was like, “I can shoot a three? For real?”
He said, “You shoot a thousand of those. If you don’t shoot, I’m going to take you out of the game, so shoot it every time you touch it.”
That changed my whole mentality. From that day on, the entire floor opened up for me.
So, I’m rehabbing and thinking, When I come back to basketball I’m doing it with a fresh attitude. What’s the worst that can happen if I go 1 for 21? I get roasted on Instagram? That mindset prevailed when I returned to Phoenix, and then on to Orlando where I got that big contract.
When I got traded to the Cavs in February, I knew it was going to be special. I almost cried on the plane because I was getting the chance every player wants — a shot at the title. From the jump, I told myself that I was not gonna waste a day. I was not going to waste a moment. I was going to enjoy everything.
That includes brunch.
We have to talk about the burritos.
The burritos that the Cavs provide are next level.
Every other place I’ve been, the preshootaround spread had been nonexistent. In Cleveland, they give us burritos, coffee, yogurt, parfait and some wonderful French toast. When I first saw the spread, I was like, “Free burritos before shootaround? Are you shitting me? This is the best!”
They’re not standard, O.K.? I’m talking a whole wheat tortilla, egg white, maybe a little goat cheese, maybe some cheddar. Sometimes they have pork sausage, sometimes chicken sausage. They switch it up to keep it fresh.
This might sound crazy to you. But life moves so fast in the NBA, sometimes we players don’t appreciate the little things. Let’s enjoy this wonderful French toast. Made-to-order omelets. Let’s eat these breakfast burritos. Let’s get some wins and let’s make history.
That’s exactly what we did. And I was a part of it, thanks to the biggest and best game of my career.
Let’s fast-forward to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semis this year. We’re in Atlanta, and we had hit 25 threes the game before. If you watch film from the first two games, when I was in they weren’t leaving me open. I was thinking, Please Richard, make your shots so one of these games I can get open. If I get a chance, I’m gonna make these threes.
Defensively, the Hawks had to make a choice. Every game they chose somebody different to leave open, and every game someone from our team stepped up.
J.R. Smith made seven three-pointers in Game 2.
In Game 3, I knew they weren’t gonna leave J.R.
They weren’t gonna leave Richard open, because he was hot. They liked to play a big lineup, and they put Paul Millsap on LeBron in the second unit. Al Horford was on me, and he’s a center. It was Horford’s job to sag off the center some in order to help defend the lane from LeBron’s drives. That was just their defensive scheme.
So I let it fly. The first one went in, and I said to myself, It’s your time.
I went 7 for 9 from deep and we won.
I’d joke around with the guys all the time like, “All the pressure’s on LeBron, so it doesn’t matter what we do. It’s not on us!”
As we approached the Finals, we were cutting down the rotations; we wanted to stick to who we were defensively, and that involved going with more physical lineups against the Warriors. I knew there were going to be less opportunities for me, but I was cool. I’d be watching from the front row with my brothers.
I think that closeness showed up in Game 7, which was the greatest game I’ve ever watched in my life. I was like, You know what? I gotta go to the back. I understood my role: Be a good teammate, stay ready for anything and support your bros.
That game was epic.
We just never gave up on each other, even when we got down momentarily. It was like, think about everything you’ve done all summer, all year — your whole life, my whole life. We deserve this!
I was so into the game that when Steph Curry missed at the end and Mo Speights got the ball — and LeBron put his arms up — I was screaming, “Contest the shot!” And someone said, “We’re up four.” And I realized, Holy shit, we’re going to win!
When the clock hit zero, I looked around and thought, Who am I supposed to hug? I hugged my friend Bret Brielmaier, I hugged Richard. I was hugging everyone I could find, the owners’ wives, everybody. The magnitude of what we did didn’t hit me till days later, and I lost it.
I’m enjoying this summer as a champion, but I can’t wait to get back to my boys. We’re one of the closest teams I’ve ever been on. We have text chains about all types of stuff. Everybody’s always talking shit to each other — except we don’t really say too much to LeBron. Sometimes I’ll say like, Bron, you weak, dug. You only got 40? Then he’ll go out and try to drop 50.
My attitude now is this: Every day is a great day when you get to hoop. But the most important thing is, I’m healthy and my family is healthy and happy. Margaux is doing great — she wears contacts now and may get artificial lenses for her eyes when she’s older. But otherwise, her vision is great.
This summer, I taught her and my son, Hendrix, “What do we call Daddy now?”
They say, “Champion.”