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LaMarcus Aldridge Walks Away, Because Ball Isn’t Life

One of the most devastating low-post forces in NBA history was forced to make a devastating decision on Thursday, retiring from the game after 15 dominant seasons due to a heart ailment

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A few weeks back, when the NBA world decided that LaMarcus Aldridge signing for the veteran’s minimum to be the fifth big man in the Brooklyn Nets’ frontcourt rotation was a cardinal sin worth rending garments over, I thought about the past that served as prelude to all the buyout market Sturm und Drang. No, the addition of the 35-year-old Aldridge—let go by the Spurs because he was no longer playing well enough to be in the rotation—did not make Brooklyn a superteam. Also, though: Could you blame him for wanting to finally be a part of one?

The best teams Aldridge had ever played on never reached the promised land. The sainted 50-win Trail Blazers of the late-aughts never got out of the first round, and fell once the knees of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden did the same. From the wreckage of that squad, Portland built another contender a half-decade later around Aldridge and rising star Damian Lillard, one that won 54 games and made the second round of the playoffs in 2014 and looked poised for even greater things the following year … until Wesley Matthews ruptured his Achilles tendon six weeks before the start of the playoffs. The incredible 60-wins Spurs teams of the mid-2010s came up short, first when the rampaging young Thunder just had too much length and athleticism for San Antonio’s veteran core to overcome, and then when Zaza Pachulia’s foot slid underneath Kawhi Leonard’s.

So, sure: a chance to join Kevin Durant—with James Harden and Kyrie Irving already flanking him—and play about half the game on a legit Finals contender? It seemed pretty reasonable to me, all things considered; if you get to call your shot this late in both the season and your career, you might as well choose wisely.

Just five games into a promising start to his Brooklyn career, though, Aldridge chose wisely again on Thursday. But man, it must have hurt him to do it.

“Today, I write this letter with a heavy heart,” he began in the statement announcing his retirement from the NBA after 15 seasons. “My last game, I played while dealing with an irregular heartbeat. Later on that night, my rhythm got even worse, which really worried me even more.”

This isn’t the first time Aldridge has dealt with an irregular heartbeat; he’d had several cardiac episodes during his career, most recently a “minor arrhythmia” that sidelined him late in the 2016-17 season. He informed the Nets after the game and went in for a checkup, which, thankfully, came back clear. It got him thinking, though.

“What I felt with my heart that night was still one of the scariest things I’ve experienced,” Aldridge wrote Thursday. “With that being said, I’ve made the difficult decision to retire from the NBA. For 15 years, I’ve put basketball first, and now, it is time to put my health and family first.”

It must be devastating for Aldridge—one of the finest players of his generation, but also a quiet and unassuming star who never quite got the due that his gifts and production deserved—to have to walk away so close to what will likely be a deep postseason run in Brooklyn. It sure as hell beats the potential worst-case-scenario downside of pressing on, though.

Ball isn’t life; life is life. And at 35 years old, Aldridge still has an awful lot of that ahead of him.

“The Nets organization fully supports LaMarcus’s decision, and while we value what he has brought to our team during his short time in Brooklyn, his health and well-being are far more important than the game of basketball,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said in a team statement. “We know this was not an easy decision for him, but after careful consideration and consultation with numerous medical experts, he made the best decision for him, his family and for his life after basketball.”

His life in basketball will likely look incomplete to some eyes, a product of the decades-long tilt toward evaluating a player’s career solely by counting the championship rings on his fingers. But with or without a ring, Aldridge—chosen by the Bulls with the no. 2 pick in the 2006 NBA draft, then infamously flipped to Portland on draft night for Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa (which, nice deal, Kevin Pritchard)—was one of the baddest men on the block for more than a decade.

Aldridge’s game came to be viewed as somewhat anachronistic, as the focus of scoring in the NBA moved from the low post and midrange to beyond the 3-point arc. But he remained a player of consequence throughout nearly his entire career—a viable scoring threat, valuable offensive piece, and underrated defender until age and injury started to chip away at his game. (Even then, he showed signs of being able to contribute as a reimagined stretch-5, knocking down nearly 39 percent of his 3-point tries over the last two years with a newfound comfort and volume.)

At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, a level of bulk that belied the balletic grace he evinced as he pivoted and pirouetted, Aldridge presented a rare package of size, skill, and scoring touch, averaging at least 17 points per game for 13 straight seasons. Watching him work from the left block was like attending a master class in low-post footwork: Year after year, he bedeviled the best interior defenders in the business with an evil array of feints, counters, step-throughs, and turnaround fadeaways. Once he’d created space, he’d rise up, flicking the jumper with that signature, impossibly high release afforded by his 7-foot-5 wingspan—a skyscraping delivery that even the best of the best couldn’t touch when he was feeling it.

What everyone remembers most about the Blazers’ first-round series against the Rockets in 2014—for good reason—was how Lillard ended it. It’s worth sparing a minute, though, to recall Aldridge destroying near-prime Dwight Howard in games 1 and 2, scoring 89 points on 35-for-59 shooting in a fashion that left one of the greatest defenders in NBA history looking absolutely helpless:

Two years later, after he’d left Portland on somewhat rocky terms to sign in San Antonio—a marquee free-agent addition intended to extend the championship-contending window of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili—Aldridge put that same evil on Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and the rest of Oklahoma City’s young bigs, hanging 79 points on them on 33-for-44 shooting in games 1 and 2 of their 2016 second-round series:

The hours and hours he’d spent refining his shooting form and release point—much of it coming while seated on a wooden block during his freshman year at the University of Texas, resting and rehabilitating a hip injury—paid dividends, time and again. The result is a résumé that, even without a championship, will merit strong consideration for entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Aldridge closes his account with 19,951 points, 8,478 rebounds, 2,034 assists, and 1,140 blocks in 1,029 career regular-season games. Only 12 other players in NBA history have reached those marks; all are either already in the Hall of Fame or will be voted in the millisecond they become eligible. He made the All-NBA second team twice and the third team three times; only 49 players have more than his five total All-NBA selections, and again, all of them are either already enshrined in Springfield or will be soon.

He’s one of 78 players since the introduction of the shot clock to make at least seven All-Star teams. Sixty of the 66 who are no longer currently active in the NBA already have Hall of Fame busts. Three of the six who don’t yet—Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, and Dwyane Wade—are no-brainers. Chris Bosh—another supremely gifted scoring 4 from Texas whom Aldridge battled in high school, and like Aldridge, a player whose career ended prematurely due to health concerns—is a sure thing, too, thanks to the championship rings and Olympic gold absent from Aldridge’s trophy case. Had Vince Carter retired in his 15th season, his case might have seemed uncertain; after sticking around for seven more years before walking away following Year 22, though, he’s likely a lock.

The last of the six is Joe Johnson;’s Hall of Fame Probability model has Aldridge and Johnson next to each other, with both owning a slightly better than 50 percent chance of making it. The pairing’s kind of perfect. Both ranked among the league’s best players at their position throughout their prime, though never quite at the top. Both served as reliable low-turnover, high-volume, reasonably efficient hubs of offense on perennial playoff teams that never got over the hump.

And both, despite their colossal contracts and redoubtable résumés, operated in anonymity. In an excellent profile by Michael Pina for VICE Sports, self-described introvert Aldridge extolled the virtues of keeping a low profile, carrying himself in “a very protective way” while keeping close counsel with only a small circle of people he trusts.

“I like my little shell,” Aldridge told Pina.

The safety of life inside a hard exterior can come at a cost, though.

“I don’t want this to come off like I’m whining, but if someone else had done the things that I’ve done, it would be talked about more,” he said.

It never was, for a variety of reasons: the lack of fireworks in his smooth and fundamental game; the dearth of deep playoff runs and true title contention; the prevailing stylistic and tactical shifts in the league that led many to view him as a relic of a bygone age; the general lack of attention he invited with that low-profile approach. If there’s a silver lining to Thursday’s surprise announcement, then, maybe it’s this: that LaMarcus Aldridge, forever overlooked and underrated, will finally get his flowers. And that, thanks to the hard but smart decision he’s made, he’ll safely be able to smell them.