Reflecting on the journey to his first NBA All-Star selection, Zach LaVine’s mind raced thousands of miles away. Home, near Seattle, Wash., where courts often run slick with rain and he was raised hoisting jumpers on a makeshift basket nailed to a tree trunk.
“It goes back to me and my Dad being outside in the rain, shooting 500 shots with plastic garden gloves on,” LaVine told reporters over Zoom just over an hour after his bid was announced. “To me hurting my knee and fighting back from that. Being traded and now fighting to help my team get in the playoffs. It’s always a fight.”
For LaVine, that’s where the beauty lies. In his seventh NBA season, he’s already played for six head coaches. He’s been traded while still on his rookie contract, and rehabilitating a torn ACL, at age 22. He’s endured seasons as the foremost spokesperson on losing teams.
Now, he’s the 18th All-Star in Bulls history, and the first since the man he was traded for, Jimmy Butler, appeared in the exhibition in 2017. "It means a lot," he said, and the fact that he earned the bid one day after the Bulls moved into the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed means all the more.
"Even if I didn’t make the team I knew that obviously I think I was one of the better players in the Eastern Conference and I have my team fighting for the eighth spot to get into the playoffs, and that was my main goal," LaVine said. "I definitely want to keep pushing that envelope."
That sentiment is a retread for LaVine and permeated his comments. He continues to fix his eyes on pastures even greener -- a playoff berth, NBA title, All-NBA selection, All-Defense selection, he said -- and emphasized that the All-Star honor resonated deeper with him because of the reaction of his loved ones more than even himself.
In fact, just before speaking to the media, LaVine was surprised by an impromptu, celebratory Zoom call with family and friends set up by his fiancée and the Bulls.
“Just the look on their faces, it's been a long time coming,” LaVine said. “We put a lot of work in for this and my support system is always there for me and has my back, so just to see the looks on their faces and showing me that I made them proud is more than enough for me.”
His father Paul, specifically, LaVine credited for instilling his drive.
“He always pushed. He was on me, making sure I was always going out there,” LaVine said. “He wanted to try to treat me like a pro, so we were shooting before I went and played in AAU games and things like that. I came back afterward and shot and got shots up. I had to write down every time how many shots I took. I had to write it down in a notebook, the workout I did. The thing I started to realize is he can’t want it more than me.”
That has translated annually to his offseason work with both his father and trainer Drew Hanlen, which continues to produce linear improvement. Thirty games into a season which has been condensed, disrupted and colored by the global pandemic continuing to rage, LaVine is posting career-high averages of 28.6 points (sixth in the NBA), 5.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists with career-best shooting splits of 51.8/43.4/86.4. The Bulls, at 14-16, are off to their best start since he arrived in Chicago.
“It’s always been hard work,” LaVine said. “You fall, you get up. You can’t stay in the same place. You can’t have a ‘poor me’ mentality. I’ve always had a ‘I’m going to show you’ mentality.”
As he sat, in his words, “a little frustrated” and feeling wronged watching All-Star selections flick across his television screen in years past, that grew; that seed that was planted in Washington, nourished by the pounding rain, propped up by wooden, two-by-four planks that secured the first rim to ever receive Zach LaVine buckets.
Put on your gloves and shoot it, man.
Soon, he’ll do so at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Ga., under as bright of lights as he’s played beneath, adorned in the garb of the NBA’s best. The journey, LaVine said, makes it all the more fulfilling.
“‘Hard work doesn’t fail,’” LaVine said when asked what message he’d impart on his younger self if given the chance. “It really doesn’t. Just continue to keep your head down and keep grinding, regardless of the result or recognition or the outside perception.
“That’s not what you do it for. You do it for your family and you do it for yourself. That’s what I still do. I could care less about the perception and what people about me. You know, I hear it all. But at the end of the day, I love basketball. I’d do this if I got paid zero dollars. I’ve put in so much work for me and my family. I would do this until I die.”
That means he’s far from finished.