Al-Farouq Aminu knew it would feel different when he made his first return visit to the Moda Center after four years as a member of the Trail Blazers, but the way the strange familiarity struck him was unexpected.
Cutting the walk in from the parking garage short and veering into the visitors locker room wasn’t that odd. He had done that plenty of times in his career prior to signing with the Blazers. Even sitting on the bench and hearing the fans roar during Portland’s introductions didn’t seem all that out of place. Instead it was just maneuvering through the back hallways of his former home arena and seeing all the staff members who used to be fixtures of his game day routine that caught him off guard.
“It’s a little different,” Aminu explained. “A little awkward honestly. And obviously you forget about all the different people that you kinda have a little mini relationship with; like who you fist pound every game. I mean I was looking forward to seeing the players but when I saw different people around town and coming into the arena it was different. But it was nice to see everybody.”
Aminu didn’t play in Friday’s game. He has been out since Dec. 1 after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. He watched as his former teammates easily rolled over his new ones, and then stuck around on the court to catch up with his old friends.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons all came over to chat with Aminu after the final buzzer. There was every one of Aminu’s former Blazers teammates that was in the building on Friday night circled up and sharing a laugh and lingering on the court for a little longer than normal.
“He’s a great guy. He’s a really good dude.” McCollum said. “He’s funny. He talks a lot more than you guys think. He’s very confident and sure of himself, and we just miss him. We miss every aspect of his game and his personality. He’s moved on to a new situation and we wish him nothing but the best.”
McCollum wasn’t alone in remarking about how much the team missed Aminu the person. Terry Stotts and Lillard echoed that exact sentiment when asked about the man they all refer to as Chief. But there is no doubt that the Blazers could use Aminu the player on the court. Even before their roster was depleted injuries, this iteration of the Blazers sorely missed Aminu’s length defensively and tenacity on the defensive glass.
It would have pushed the Blazers, owner's of the league's highest payroll, even deeper into the luxury to keep Aminu, but they had the chance this summer. Instead, the Blazers front office decided to move on, letting him sign a three-year, $29 million deal with Orlando in the opening stages of free agency. Part of the strangeness of Friday’s return to the Moda Center is that Aminu had long assumed he’d be back with the Blazers this season.
“It felt a little weird,” Aminu said of not getting a contract offer from the Blazers last summer. “In a sense we kept hitting our goals as a team. Like, of course we want to win a championship but there’s only one team that does that. And the one team that does that, they kept beating us. So it was like you would think you’d want to keep it together because we had a young core. But you move on.”
Aminu, who is averaging 4.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 21.1 in 18 games with the Magic, said he’s enjoyed the transition to Orlando. He gets along with his new teammates well and he’s enjoyed the new challenge even during an up and down Magic season.
The Magic had an off day in Portland on Thursday and Aminu went back to some of his favorite spots in the city, including the Portland Art Museum. But he didn’t check in with his old Blazers teammates, a fact that McCollum made sure to hammer home when they met on the court after the game.
So that brief interaction after the buzzer had to capture a lot. Aminu was part of 187 wins, four consecutive playoff appearances and a trip to the Western Conference Finals during his Blazers tenure. He started 255 of his 293 games in Portland and enjoyed the four best statistical season's of his NBA career. That’s why a couple hugs and some laughs with old friends felt like a little bit more on Friday night.
“When you’re playing, you’re with guys more than you are with your family so it becomes essentially your family,” Aminu said. “So it’s like seeing your relatives or something like that. Today was sorta like a family reunion almost in a sense. It was really good seeing the guys.”