November 4, 2010
Elton Brand's keeping it real.
By Bethlehem Shoals
Elton Brand is the consummate pro’s pro, an underrated, undersized workhorse who puts up All-Star numbers while receiving only a fraction of the attention his flashier peers get.
Over the course of his eleven pro seasons, Brand’s been on good teams and bad teams; he brought an ailing LA franchise back to the playoffs, and before that, played on a dismal Chicago squad. Throughout it all, though, Elton’s manned up in the post, grabbed every rebound and sized up his man to get points—whether or not anyone noticed.
Okay, so they have. Brand’s made two All-Star teams, and gotten most of the credit when Los Angeles ended up on national television. Still, EB has never quite gotten the credit he deserves, except from his fellow pros and real hoops devotees around the world. Good thing fame and cash isn’t what drives the power forward. For Brand, it’s personal. He feeds off of “The drive to the best, to be known as one of the best just brings me back every year. Even if I’m dealing with injuries, or losing games—I just love this game.”
It may sound like typical athlete cant, but it’s Elton Brand in a nutshell. Brand’s hardly a dumb jock. In his spare time, he produces films; 2007’s Rescue Dawn, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Christian Bale, was about as legit an entry into the field as you can imagine. While Brand has always known he could play, especially coming up on AAU teams with future pros, he’s also never lost sight of what got him to where he is: determination with a healthy dose of humility and resourcefulness.
As Brand puts it, “You know, I remember it being, in playing basketball to this point, if I made one shot out of forty I’d be happy. I just wanted to be better, wanted to get better. I wanted to be the best in my area, and then the best in New York, and then I wanted to be the best in the country. It pushes you to want to be better, love for the game, the competition of it.”
During his two years at Duke. Brand proved unstoppable, winning the National Player of the Year. He came to Chicago in 1999, the top pick in the draft. Expected to revive a moribund franchise, he was soon shipped off to LA. Rather than mope, Brand suited up for his new team and quickly turned the Clip Joint into one of the league’s most exciting young clubs. The team then stumbled, but Brand soldiered through the rough patches and got even better. He expanded his game in the pros, adding range and agility to his game as he matured. It’s also worth pointing out that, for all the ups and downs he’s faced in his career, Brand’s never once complained. He’s a soldier in the old school sense, resilient because that’s what the job calls for. And for Elton, it’s not machismo—it’s just the right way to play the game of basketball.
In 2005-06, LA made the postseason for the first time since 1976, and Brand for the first time ever. They were eliminated in conference semis, but Brand had made the leap from undervalued stud to institution. No one does dirty work with as much skill, or enthusiasm, as Brand; no player gives it his all at both ends, piling up stats without ever getting in the way of the flow of the game, quite like EB. Not only does this style just plain make sense to the thirty-one year-old forward. It’s also something he takes great pride in.
“I pride myself on just getting the job done. That’s what I absolutely pride myself on. To me it’s not about being flashy, it’s about working hard and doing all the little things, intangibles to win the game, if it means diving on a loose ball, getting the ball out of bounds, getting the block, getting the rebound. I like to work on, mentally, things like standing up straight and holding my position so I can set better picks. You know, the little nuances of the game because that helps win ballgames.”
Now with Philadelphia, Brand is entering a new phase of his career, one where he’s expected as much to pass his wisdom on to Philly’s crop of young talent as he is change the game on his own. Brought in as a high-priced free agent, he has often found himself in the role of a teacher. That’s fine with him. In his mind, he’s simply completing the karmic circle, paying back those who helped him learn the sport in bits and pieces over years, especially at the pro level. And for Brand, the role players’ advice was every bit as important as what superstars had to say.
“They’re my teammates, so I definitely feel a duty to pass it on. I’ve learned things from life like how to get dressed and how to wear a suit from guys like Dickey Simpkins. I learned how to do a left-hand jump hook from Will Perdue—I didn’t even know he could do anything with his left hand. I learned mid-range jumpers from Sam Cassell. As a veteran, you have to pass things down to the young guys. I’m looking forward to that.”
As the team develops its young players and tries and surprise teams in the East, Brand still has a major role to play. He might not be out there putting up twenty points and grabbing ten rebounds a night—a prime statistical benchmark that he could do in his sleep—but Brand takes no joy in empty numbers. It’s about the little things, the fine details, and how those add up to swing basketball games. It might seem strange to call a physical power forward “cerebral,” but Brand is nothing if not immersed in every moment of the game. Even at his peak, he had his way with opponents not only because he worked harder, but also because he thought before he acted.
That’s why, if you ask a hoops fan about Elton Brand, the response will tell you more about them than it will Brand. If they aren’t familiar, or dismiss him as “boring”, your friend doesn’t know the game—or only knows a superficial, highlight-centric version of it. If they tell you he’s “nice”, they’ve seen the interviews, but haven’t really watched Brand make split-second calculations in the post, or seen the fire in his eyes. Brand’s a gentleman, but backing down or shying away from hard contact is not in his repertoire. It’s just hard to wrap your head around the idea of blue collar basketball elevated to an art form.
Anyone who knows that Brand is one of the premier players of his generation, a thinking man’s bruiser whose game is as subtle as it is powerful, though, is a real student of the game. Someone who, actually, Brand himself would be excited to sit down and talk hoops with. Not because of ego—he just loves the sport that much.
Bethlehem Shoals is a regular contributor to AOL FanHouse and a founding member of FreeDarko, whose Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History comes out this October. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, and Spin. In his spare time, he ties together crayfish until they pop and makes it funky.