The Hawks had just played on consecutive nights. A five-game, eight-day West Coast trip loomed. So Thursday, given a reprieve from practice, they rested. Only Elton Brand wasn’t at rest.
That evening, in a suffocatingly hot room, where even the windows of Red Hot Yoga’s storefront dripped with sweat, the Hawks’ nearly 35-year-old high-mileage, undersized center worked on his downward dog and his open-hearted warrior.
He was totally out of scale for the setting. The size-17 high-tops stood out like skis among beach sandals in the hallway where everyone left their footwear. And when the 75-minute yoga session began, Brand unfolding his nearly seven-and-a-half-foot wingspan in the company of mostly petite women, he was an oak tree growing indoors.
Blame Brand’s wife, Shahara, who has introduced him to all sorts of healthy-living concepts: food without glorious gluten; yoga with these people apparently born without connective tissue.
Credit his own desire to defy the broken stopwatch that measures an athlete’s career with a fast-forward second hand. He strains and stretches and sweats in these yoga sessions all the time, even on the road, in order to squeeze out the last measure of balance and flexibility. Once he talked a teammate into joining him. There was no return visit.
It would have been so much easier just to sink into his couch and let the NBA season melt into the cushions until the next practice.
“But if I’m on the couch, I’d be that much more sore tomorrow,” Brand said.
In a Hawks season of faint promise undone by torn pectorals, turned ankles and twisted shoulders, their oldest player still stands. Brand can explain his sturdiness in the midst of such carnage a couple of ways.
There is the extra effort he employs in order to keep in running order, of course.
Additionally, there is the attitude, one that allowed a No. 1 overall draft pick out of Duke and an All-Star-certified scorer to transition to the role of an accessory. He has willingly gone from big name to Brand X in the course of a career in its 15th season.
When the Hawks signed Brand, to a handsome $4 million deal, it was with the idea of using him in small, measured doses.
Then Al Horford’s chest muscle exploded for a second time. The Hawks suffered other big-man breakdowns. That left only Brand. In the last six games, he has averaged more than 35 minutes on the floor per game. In these last 15 games before Sunday night’s engagement at Phoenix, he has averaged more than 25 minutes per game.
Playing a season-high 43 minutes against the Knicks a week ago, he found a certain satisfaction in being a last desperate measure: “Might have been the best one-point game of my life,” Brand said. “I had some rebounds (six) and blocks (three). My thing was to man the paint and play defense. We didn’t have anybody, didn’t have any centers. They needed me out there for 43 minutes. It felt great being out there.
“And the next day I didn’t feel as bad as I thought (I would).”
There has been one immediate benefit to his heightened role. “I moved up the totem pole for massage therapy, so I can get my massage early now. There’s a pecking order (according to playing time). Now I can get a full 30 to 40 minutes before the game or whenever I need it,” he said with a broad grin.
When explaining his unexpected role of Hawks iron man, maybe it is just this: “I think I’ve broken everything already — that makes it all stronger the next time.” Eleven surgeries over the years, by his count. One torn Achilles that cost him most of the 2008 season with the Los Angeles Clippers. A torn shoulder the next year in Philadelphia. A stress-fractured foot dating to his days at Duke.
If he doesn’t exactly bound from end to end like Chicago’s 1999-2000 Rookie of the Year or the Clippers’ 2006 All-Star who averaged 24.7 points and 10 rebounds per game, perhaps you’ll understand why.
In the short list of those named Elton, he would be the second-most famous to take up temporary residence in Atlanta. No debate. Mr. Brand knows his place on the celebrity depth chart is behind Mr. John.
Although he might even place himself third, behind his 5-year-old son, Elton Peace Brand. “Hopefully he’s a peaceful soul when he grows up,” wished his dad.
Named after a friend of his brother’s, not the flamboyant rock star, Elton Brand grew up in Peekskill, N.Y., 40 miles from New York City. The fact that he seems so well-grounded is something of a mystery, given that he played AAU ball with two of the NBA’s more outrageous personalities — Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) and Lamar Odom.
He can appear quite the old soul when he wants, as when after prodding from the Hawks and some of his teammates Brand took to Twitter for the first time. That lasted one day.
“It didn’t go well at all, actually,” said the Hawks’ 27-year-old point guard, Lou Williams. “That’s when older generation meets younger generation, and the Twittersphere can be kind of brutal.” Williams gleefully re-tweeted it when Brand mistakenly referred to Instagram as InterGram. (In his own defense Brand said he did it on purpose to provoke some reaction).
“I grew up in a different era. That just wasn’t for me,” Brand said. “Everyone wants a piece of your life, and I really don’t want to talk to everyone. Even though you don’t have to, it’s like people grabbing at you trying to talk to you. It just wasn’t for me.” Subsequent entries under his name came from a phony source, he said.
Thirty-five hardly seems ancient, but it is considered well on the shady side of the hill in his compressed profession. One reason the Hawks rented him for the season was to provide an elder presence who could transfer certain ideals from the new regime of Mike Budenholzer/Danny Ferry to the locker room. Be the bearer of simple messages, like what it is to be a pro.
They also got a player whose scoring is minimal (six games in double digits this season), but who is blocking shots at a rate — 2.5 per 36 minutes on the floor — that is the best of his career.
“He’s a really, really smart player,” Budenholzer said. “He’s taking all his experience and all his instinct and applying it. I think we’re all a little bit surprised he’s that good defensively. We thought we were getting a very good defensive player, but our entire team defense is significantly better when he’s on the court.”
When he entered the league he was, at 6-foot-9, considered a tad on the small side to play even power forward. Now here he is, still the same height, only with a little less lift, playing meaningful center.
Brand turns 35 on March 11, and he might expect to have a few verbal grenades thrown his way from the youngsters with whom he dresses. Not so long ago, he can remember telling a teammate that he was born in 1979, and how recent that seemed. “Now,” he said, “it’s like: ‘You were born in the ’70s?’ And they just bust out laughing.”
Brand is of the age where there are, as there should be, footpaths that lead away from the main road of basketball. He has his family. He has his charitable foundation. He even has an intriguing fallback business, with skin in the movie game. As a partner in Gibraltar Films, Brand is in the credits as producer for such films as “Rescue Dawn” (with Christian Bale), “Deadly Haze” and “Something’s Wrong in Kansas.”
“That’s my summertime fling, an artistic outlet,” Brand said. “Every movie I’ve been a part of, I’ve read the script and it’s been my baby. Had some critically acclaimed ones and had some flops, but it’s been fun.”
Despite the potential distractions, he said he is guided by a single imperative: Play basketball for as long as possible. He figures he would play somewhere now — at the health club, in a city league — so why not get paid for it?
As the Hawks’ season has taken a turn toward irrelevance, there is at least at its center a sturdy study in survival.
The Brand Plan: If a player can turn down the volume on his ego, if he can commit himself to some extra physical maintenance, he can play longer and suffer fewer regrets than most.
“To make it 15 years, you have to adapt,” he said.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys retire, saying they didn’t want the role of a bench player. And then the next year they’re thinking, ‘What have I done? I could still play for another two or three years. I want back in.’ And now it’s too late. I said I never wanted to be that person.”
Someone is going to have to cut the jersey off his back.
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