Sports

Why the ‘Scariest’ Night Didn’t Keep LaMarcus Aldridge Out of the N.B.A.

In April, Nets center LaMarcus Aldridge was staring into the abyss. He stunned the basketball world by announcing his retirement from the N.B.A. after experiencing an irregular heartbeat during a game. Aldridge had learned during his rookie season in 2006-7 that he had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which causes a rapid heartbeat, but that night in April, he said, was “one of the scariest” in his life.

By his own telling, he was depressed about having his career cut short. Except it turned out that he had more basketball left in him. In the off-season, Aldridge, 36, was medically cleared to return to the N.B.A., which was almost as surprising as his retirement. He came back to the Nets.

“I wanted to fight through and come back and show that I still can play this game,” he said in a recent interview, adding that he wanted to win a championship and “be a part of something special.”

The early returns have been strong. He has been one of the team’s most productive players, averaging 11.6 points and 5 rebounds on 62.9 percent shooting over nine games off the bench through the Nets’ 116-103 win over the Raptors on Sunday. He recently scored his 20,000th point, making him one of seven active players to reach the milestone. Despite a basketball résumé with seven All-Star and five All-N.B.A. selections, Aldridge has never received the attention of the others in the 20,000-point club, like his teammates Kevin Durant and James Harden.

In part, it is because Aldridge has largely eschewed some of the perks that come with N.B.A. stardom and has avoided the media spotlight. His best years came in Portland, where he spent the first nine years of his career. There, playing with teammates such as Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and Damian Lillard, Aldridge has said that he felt uncertain of his place in the pecking order, despite being near the top of the franchise’s career leaderboards in most categories.

He surprised many by leaving Portland before the 2015-16 season for San Antonio, where he helped lead the Spurs to the Western Conference finals in 2017.

In a recent interview at the Nets’ practice facility, Aldridge discussed his retirement that wasn’t, his future plans and his new lease on basketball.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You told The Athletic after the announcement that you were depressed after retiring. Describe to me the feelings you have now. Is there fear?

No. I feel excitement, joy, to be back doing what I love to do. And to have what happened and have it taken away so quickly, and to now be back in it, I feel joy. I’m thankful. I’m enjoying every minute of it as I’m out there. No fear. I went through enough testing where fear is no factor.

What was that first day of training camp like, where you’re running up and down the floor?

It was exciting to be back with the group that I knew the previous year. It was exciting to show that I still can play this game. I wasn’t gone long, but I feel like people feel like I was gone for, like, a whole year, and it was like five months. I feel like everyone was like questioning, “Can he still play after retiring?”

Do you remember what the first day of retirement was like?

The first day didn’t feel real. The first day felt like I had an off day. And then your second day, you feel like it’s a game day, so you’re just at home. And after like a week or two, you’re like: “Man, I’m not at the gym. I’m not with the fellas. I’m not traveling, not playing.” Like two weeks in, I was like: “Man, this is what it is. I have to find my new interest, shift my focus to something else.” That’s when it hit me, like, “Man, what’s next?”

You said a couple years ago you’re probably one of the most misunderstood players in the league. Do you still feel that way?

Not here, no. I think as people get to know me, they realize I’m not about any drama. I’m not about any friction. I just want to be appreciated for what I do, and let’s go win. That’s all. I feel like clickbait and television, it was things that were made up over the years to make me out to be some type of person, but I’m not that person.

Once I’m on your team, I’m on your side. I’m down the whole way. I’ve got your back, no matter what. And I feel like, as people have gotten to know me, they’ve seen that, so I’m not worried about that anymore. I’m the guy that would give you the shirt off my back if you needed it, and I was being painted as this selfish guy, which I’m not nowhere near that.

I’ve seen you describe yourself as an introvert. I’ve seen other people describe you as quiet and reserved. But I don’t actually see that. I see you pretty chatty with teammates. Have you become more outgoing over time?

This is my comfort zone. This is my safe space. We go to war together. We’re in the trenches together. We’re battling together. So then you get that extra chemistry. You get that extra connection with them. But no, they would definitely tell you, other than that, I’m pretty quiet. On the bus, I don’t really talk.

You’ve talked about feeling overlooked in the past, in spite of your sterling basketball résumé, because you don’t do as much media. You don’t do the red carpet stuff. You’re not doing commercials and interviews.

Introvert! [LAUGHTER]

Exactly. Is there a part of you that wishes you did more of that?

No. I am who I am, and I don’t have any regrets of the things I’ve done with my career as far as more cameos. When I was in “Portlandia,” that was fun. I did, like, little things that I thought would be fun for me. But no, I don’t regret that, because that’s not really my brand. I’m more about hard hat and just go to work.

Chris Bosh, after he retired early, talked about how, in retirement, one of the hardest things to come to grips with is not having a full schedule anymore. And not being around teammates or cheered by fans. And the guys that were texting you every day and aren’t texting you as much because you’re not part of the crew anymore. How did you deal with that?

I’m to myself more than most, so the guys not texting me didn’t affect me. I don’t really text with guys now. But the whole traveling and your schedule, you have to figure out how to do it, how to fill that void. Because if you don’t, you end up feeling lost and kind of like, “What’s next?” That was very, very tough.

Your first week or two is tough, because you go from busy, busy, busy to just — your phone’s quiet. Not even just from teammates. Just like, “Be at practice” or “Be at shootaround.” It goes from that to just this tranquil quietness that you could enjoy, but you’re also uncomfortable with, because you never had it.

You’ve said you’ve talked to Damian Lillard about finishing your career in Portland. That seems to suggest to me that there may be some more years left after this one. Is that fair to say?

I’m going year to year, but I definitely, how I feel now, how I’m moving now, I definitely have some more years in me. I feel rejuvenated, refreshed and just ready to go.

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