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Lakers' Trevor Ariza turns 'bust' label into boom times

The young forward is providing the kind of aggressive defense and game-changing, big-play intensity off the bench that Michael Cooper used to bring to the Showtime-era Lakers.

January 21, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Trevor Ariza is a tough guy to slow down, but it happened Tuesday, during the first moments of our chat, when I told him what I thought about him before he became a Laker.

I thought he was a bust.

I thought five years ago, when he left UCLA after just one season there, it was too early, he was not ready, and we would never hear from him again.

I thought when he played for three coaches in New York, then became stuck on the bench in Orlando, he would soon disappear altogether.

He was traded here for good guys Brian Cook and Maurice Evans. He was averaging 3.3 points and 2.2 rebounds.

I thought he was a bust.

Ariza stared at me a second, smiled wide, and patted me on the back.

"Thank you," he said.

For what?

"Everybody thought that," he said. "Somebody has finally admitted it."


Quick, name the signature play of the season.

A Laker chases a ball from midcourt to baseline, leaps ahead of his opponent to save it from going out of bounds, and swats it to a teammate for a layup that becomes a three-point play?

Trevor Ariza against the Boston Celtics.

Quick, name the second-most memorable play.

A Laker steals the ball from the probable league MVP, throws it to a teammate, then races downcourt and catches that teammate's pass for an alley-oop dunk?

Trevor Ariza against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

If I can admit I thought the guy was a bust, then everyone else should admit what they think about him now.

No Laker is more rib-poking, rip-roaring fun than Trevor Ariza.

He's sixth in minutes, fifth in scoring, fifth in rebounding, and the first guy to bring a standing ovation.

He may rank dead last on the team in public words spoken, but nobody's sweat drips louder.

His defense and intensity and occasional acrobatics off the bench increasingly remind longtime Lakers fans of one person, and you know who that is.

"Yes," Coach Phil Jackson said with a knowing smile. "Michael Cooper."

Jackson not being a longtime Lakers fan, how did he know?

"Kareem told me," he said.

Good enough for me.

Since arriving here from Orlando last winter in what has become one of Mitch Kupchak's greatest deals, Ariza has been more than good enough for everyone, turning his energy into smart defense and his skill into improved shooting.

Earlier this week, Ariza made two three-pointers in the last two minutes to help beat Cleveland.

"There is all this talent he has hidden within," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher.

That's also where he keeps everything else. The only thing Ariza doesn't do in old-fashioned Showtime fashion is boast about it, or jersey-pop about it, or strut about it.

"I keep my excitement to myself," he said. "I don't let everybody in on a lot of my things."

After practice Tuesday he was swathed in black, head to toe, sweat suit to shoes, with the only distinguishing features being the two scrawls of ink on his neck.

On the right side is the tattoo of an angel. On the left side is the tattooed name of his brother, Tajh, who was killed a dozen years ago at age 5 when he fell 36 stories out of an apartment window.

"The angel watches over me, and I pray to Tajh," Ariza said.

Five years ago, it was hard for him not to feel alone, after the Westchester High star left UCLA for the NBA draft after just that first nightmare season with Ben Howland.

"A lot of people wrote me off, I know that, and it fuels me," he said. "I could have played for Coach Howland, no coach is too tough for me. I left because I believed in myself, I believed I was ready."

When he arrived back in his hometown last winter, it was as anything but a hero, with everyone, well, underestimating him.

"I'd never seen him play that much, I couldn't accurately say I thought he was a great addition to our team," Fisher said. "I didn't have any idea of that talent."

Really, though, who did? At the time, Ariza was only 22. If he had stayed in school four years, he still would have been a rookie. Better yet, his humbleness bespoke it.

"What he does best is, he doesn't demand anything," Fisher said. "There are very few guys like him who ask for nothing, guys who will do anything for the team and not demand anything in return."

He should be starting? Forget it. He doesn't want to start.

"I would rather come off the bench, it's easier for me to figure out how I can change the pace of the game," he said.

He thrives on the attention of big moments in marquee games? Forget it. Ask him about his favorite play this year, and neither Boston nor Cleveland come to mind.

"It was against New Jersey, I came down the lane like I was going to dunk, then I passed it behind my back to Andrew [Bynum], and he dunked," Ariza said. "Now that was nice."

Imagine that. The most fun player on the most Hollywood of teams bragging about . . . a pass?

"I'm just a cool dude, man," he said, laughing. "The fans tell me they love me, I tell them I love them back."

Message received.


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