Kevin McHale, who had never started a conversation with me before in his life, chucked me on the arm on his way through the Wolves' locker room last month. "I thought you said Rasho couldn't play," he said with a lift of his chin, his voice imbued with a little bit of taunt inside the tease.
Had I been ready for this spontaneous invitation to debate my previous denigration of the Wolves's suddenly improved center, Rasho Nesterovic, there were a variety of ways to answer the jibe. Under the "best defense is a good offense" stratagem, I could have assailed McHale with the names of Stojko Vrankovic, Paul Grant, Stanley Roberts, Cherokee Parks, and Dean Garrett, a quintet of underachieving centers he had either drafted or traded for before Rasho's arrival. I could have protested that I never wrote that Rasho "couldn't play," only that he was "flawed under the best of circumstances," "as fragile mentally as he is soft physically," and constituted "a major disappointment."
Instead, I tilted my head, offered a wan smile. "You're right," I uttered weakly. "Huh?" McHale said, pausing a beat to see if I was going to come up with anything better, or at least more coherent. (He was "right" about what? What I'd said? His faith in Rasho?) Then he continued on his merry way.
I had been pretty confident that Rasho would fade into oblivion like the other aforementioned big men that Saunders and McHale had overrated in their serial bouts of wishful thinking. During his first year in the league, Rasho's foot work, court sense, hands, and passing skills were fairly refined for a 23-year old kid, but the Slovenian native was woefully soft battling for rebounds and challenging opponents who drove toward the basket--the classic pros and cons of a native European.
Last year, however, was a disaster. Rasho's confidence seemed decimated before Christmas. He minced and moped around the court, looking like a player who wanted to disappear. During the last third of the season, Saunders started to oblige him, steadily reducing his minutes to the point where the Wolves were relying on the creaky Dean Garrett and the way-undersized Reggie Slater. There were even rumors the Wolves might agree to a buy-out of his contract before the 2001-2002 season, so he could return to the European leagues.
No player in Timberwolves history has restored his confidence as dramatically as Rasho has done this season. On offense, he moves diligently to create a physical presence, setting-up picks as teammates cut through the painted area and jousting for position near the basket. He's calling for the ball when he's open and, when he's not, spinning toward the hoop for lay-ups or short jump-hook shots. On defense, the new zone coverage schemes have enabled the Wolves to compensate for his lack of physicality; when he's matched up against a behemoth, other teammates can provide assistance. The rule changes have also allowed him to resurrect the zone-oriented instincts he developed in Europe. "Rasho understands what we want to do on defense as much or more than any of our front line people," Saunders explains. "It's one of the big reasons for our improvement."
While Rasho will likely never be a guy who prevails with brute force or a nasty attitude, this year he is much more active fighting for rebounds at both ends of the court; I bet he's already tipped in more errant shots than he did during all of last season. He's also been copying the virtues of his teammates. He prolongs rebounding battles by tipping balls he can't corral back up in the air, like Gary Trent and Kevin Garnett. He is also developing a Joe Smith-like ability to draw charging fouls on opponents, which neutralizes their aggression.
All these hard-earned improvements couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. There is an inherent kindness and sensitivity about Rasho that becomes more poignant when you learn a little about his history. When he was 15 years old, Slovenia became the first republic to break away from Yugoslavia, sparking a ten-day war that resulted in hundreds of deaths. That tragedy would soon be dwarfed by the carnage wrought in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the rest of his former country as the Serbs used ethnic cleansing and other methods to consolidate their influence. "He's had very close family members die and be killed over there," says Wolves' assistant coach Randy Wittman, who has become something of a tutor and confidant for Rasho this season. "I don't know much more than that because I don't want to stir up any memories or feelings that he might not want to get into."
After starring for two years in the Italian basketball league, Rasho first came to Minnesota at the age of 22, where he was thrust into the playoffs in only his third game with the Wolves. He didn't know English or the caliber of the NBA game. "When you're seven feet tall, the only place you find athletic people who are just as big as you are is in the NBA," says McHale. "In Slovenia or the University of Minnesota [where McHale went to school], you can get away with just being taller. But not in the NBA. It takes time to adjust."
During his first full year on the team, Rasho had the psychological luxury of knowing he was a rookie, and that it would take time to make adjustments. But last year, when he came back for his second full season, the expectations were greater; being a nice, sensitive guy, Rasho imploded from the pressure.
"There is no difference from the neck down in most players--it's all confidence," McHale continues. "Rasho's biggest problem is he wants to please so badly that he's afraid to make mistakes. He is such a good guy that all he can think about is, 'How can I help this team?' I tell Rasho, 'I hope my daughter marries someone like you, but you've got to get meaner out there.' I just went out and played and I didn't care what anybody thought. Wally [Szczerbiak] has got some of that and Kevin [Garnett] has got some of that. It's great. But you know what? It doesn't make us very good people, sometimes."
To help repair his confidence, Rasho played for the Slovenia national team at the European Basketball Championships in Turkey last summer, and was reminded what it felt like to be a vital cog on a successful team. When he returned to Minnesota, he brought his mother and sister to live with him. When the Wolves' preseason practices began, Wittman began devoting extra time with him. To reinforce the need to be more aggressive, Saunders set up a large dummy in front of the net that Rasho was to plow through on his way to the hoop during practice. All these things have contributed to Rasho's resurgence.
"You try and find a routine that will help a player relax and gain confidence," McHale says. "We do drills and look at all the big guys; for instance, you find how they set their jump leg and you work on it. Then, if a player gets a little out of line, you can talk about it. But most of it is on the player. The coaches can tell you about the 'look' of what you are doing, but most of it is 'feel' and you can't explain 'feel' to a player. It's like, I can tell you how hard to chip a golf ball, but you have to figure out what feels best to you. So you get a routine that helps a player relax enough to take the potential you see in practice into the game. That isn't easy, especially if a player doesn't have a real assertive, nasty personality."
For two years, on the rare occasions when I have asked Rasho basketball questions, I have received clichÈ, monosyllabic answers. Only recently have I begun to realize that Rasho is just doing his best to avoid mistakes with the press. When I tell him he's played well that night, he quickly replies, "The team played well. We won the game." When I say that I hear he's been more involved in locker room banter this season, he says, "Well, right now we have a rhythm, everybody is happy because we are winning."
Things change ever so slightly the night I get a little personal. When I say I've heard that playing for his national team this summer was helpful in restoring his confidence, his guarded tone brightens a bit: "Yes, that was one of the things that got me going. It was very enjoyable too." Asked if it was also helpful having his mother and sister living with him, he answers, "Yeah. A lot. That is one of the big things too, to have them here. So that when I come home it is not empty."
Given what he and his family have gone through, I continue, he must understand something about the terrorism of September 11 that most Americans don't. "I'm not surprised it happened," he said with surprising passion. "It was happening in my country for ten years, the same stuff, and the rest of the world didn't seem interested and didn't want to see what was happening." He paused. "It is just hard not to think about. But if I think every minute about it, my head is going to blow up. You keep going and don't think about it."
"Can you do that?" I ask.
"I try," he says.
Five minutes later, I am among a group of reporters interviewing Szczerbiak, when someone jostles my arm enough to move me forward a step. It is not that unusual an occurrence in the crowded confines of the Wolves' locker room, so I don't pay attention to it. "Excuse me," a voice says, with just enough exaggeration to make me look. It's Rasho, with a little smile on his face to tell me he did it on purpose, before he walks out the door. Almost a week later, when I go to him for some more post-game comments, he opens the conversation with an "excuse me," and the same little smile. This is the guy you've been ripping the past two years, I say to myself.
As luck would have it, Rasho has regressed into a little bit of a slump in the three weeks since I started thinking about this column. His jump shots are not falling through the hoop as regularly and his personal fouls are coming more rapidly, causing Saunders to go to Dean Garrett and Loren Woods more often. The good news is he has shown little or no signs of self-doubt or timidity, probably because the Wolves have kept winning.
"I wasn't here last year, but I heard that when Rasho would miss a little short jump hook or when he would fumble a pass from Kevin, it was like, 'Don't throw me the ball anymore,'" Wittman says. "That is a major hurdle for him and he's gotten over that."
I hope so. If Rasho were to tumble back into the psychological trough of last season, it would be a "major disappointment," in a much different way than when I used those words to describe him earlier in the year.
Britt Robson posts his Timberwolves column online at www.citypages.com every Monday during the NBA season--and maybe more frequently, if the mood strikes him.
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