Over 2,500 miles away from the NBA Bubble inside of the Disney World campus in Orlando, Florida, Trevor Ariza watched as his Portland Trail Blazers competed in Game 4 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ariza sat on his couch in Los Angeles, cladded in a Lakers yellow and purple jersey with the name Bryant on it, screaming emphatically as he watched LeBron James and the Lakers dismantle a fatigued Trail Blazers squad. He knew he could have helped, and it was excruciating to watch.
"Man, the word 'hard' doesn't even begin to describe it," Ariza told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan. "This is what I was born to do, to play basketball. I've been doing it my whole life."
Ariza, a 15-year NBA vet, made the difficult decision to opt out of the NBA's return to play in Orlando for an opportunity to spend 30 days of visitation with his son Tajh. Tajh lives with his mother in North Carolina, so Ariza's time watching his son play piano, learn Spanish and hoop is limited. He told ESPN he expected backlash from the decision, but was met with love and support from his teammates, including Damian Lillard.
Lillard, a proud father to a son of his own in Damian Jr., understood the decision.
"You know what? It's weird, but the opinions that mattered the most to me were all the opinions applauding me for my actions," Ariza told ESPN. "The Blazers couldn't have been more supportive."
Ariza maintained contact with his teammates inside the NBA bubble, and attempted to rejoin Portland after his visitation with Tajh had concluded, but he said the "league wouldn't allow it." Instead, he watched as Zach Collins fell victim to a season-ending ankle injury and Gary Trent Jr. struggled, but admirably guarded King James.
Ariza's defensive prowess would have been very welcomed.
"When you're playing against guys like LeBron, you need to try to take them out of their comfort zone," Ariza told ESPN. "Get them out of their routine, bother them as much as you can. We did a better job of that in Games 1 and 2 than we did in Game 3."
As Ariza watched the Trail Blazers and Lakers on the court on 8/24, Kobe Bryant was on his mind... and on his shirt.
While rooting on his Portland team, Ariza donned Bryant's jersey, just one day after what would have been his 42nd birthday. The gesture brought back memories of the Black Mamba, who had been Ariza's mentor, teammate and friend since he was 10 years old. The two won a championship together in 2009.
"His attention to detail was what separated him. You can be a great athlete, a great scorer, but what if you are playing hurt and can't get to the spot you normally like to operate from?," Ariza told ESPN. "Kobe's the one that showed me how to pay attention to angles, to footwork, to the nuances that can take you a long way in situations like that."
After playing eight seeding games to lock in the eighth, and final playoff spot, then topping Memphis in the play-in seeding tournament, and suiting up against the Lakers for a fourth contest, Ariza sees what we all see on his team's face.
"Everybody's tired right now," Ariza told ESPN. "Tired can't matter. You gotta lock it in and trick yourself into being great."
Portland is just one game from being eliminated from the playoffs and Lillard's status remains up in the air heading into Game 5. For Ariza, there's only one thing the Trail Blazers can do.
"Kitchen sink. Everything we got," Ariza said.
[Listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts Channing Frye and Dan Sheldon!]