HOUSTON – Patrick Beverley watched his first shot drop, double-tapped his heart, raised his hand toward the rafters, then fought with all of his might not to break down on the court. The tears were about to fall but Beverley held back, covering his face, then dabbing his eyes with his fingers as he ran back on defense. A critical, playoff basketball game was being played Sunday at Toyota Center by members of the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, and while Beverley was a participant, the exercise of competing was merely a two-hour distraction from his heartache.
Beverley’s grandfather and biggest fan, Rheese Morris, died earlier in the afternoon, and the Rockets’ spiritual and emotional leader was awakened from his usual pregame nap with the devastating news. Anyone who spent a few minutes in the locker room before tipoff – teammate, team staffer, reporter – would’ve recognized that something had deeply shaken Beverley, who was paralyzed in his chair, wailing and sobbing uncontrollably as he attempted to prepare for a game that the Rockets had to have if they wanted any chance to win their best-of-seven West semifinal series against the Spurs. Beverley wanted to find the first flight back to Chicago, to grieve with his grandmother and other relatives, but his loved ones encouraged him to stay and play.
“I’m a really strong guy, and I can deal with a lot of things,” Beverley said after the Rockets evened the series at 2-2 with a 125-104 victory. “But I can’t deal with anybody suffering. He suffered, but he’s in a better place now.”
Beverley chose to subdue his sorrow to be there for his teammates – his second family, the group with whom he spends more time than anyone else. But they would’ve understood if the player coach Mike D’Antoni described as “the heart and soul” of the team had elected to sit this one out. Trevor Ariza maintains a neighboring locker-room stall and noticed Beverley’s agony before the game as Beverley spoke on the phone with a lowered head and a lowered tone. Beverley told Ariza what happened and Ariza wondered, momentarily, why Beverley was even there.
“I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I could do that,” Ariza told The Vertical while his 6-year-old son, Tristan, circled him outside the Rockets’ locker room.
Beverley played because that’s what he does. He fought because that’s what has come to define him through a career that went sideways numerous times – kicked out of Arkansas, then off to the Ukraine before getting drafted in the second round, then Greece, then cut by Miami and back out to Russia – before he found an eventual home in Houston as a feisty, gritty irritant who consistently competes with the determination of someone whose 10-day contract was soon set to expire. Morris was the “man of the family” who raised Beverley as one of nine siblings and cousins. He was with Beverley through that incredible ride, showing up to his games on the West Side of Chicago and proudly wearing Beverley’s uniforms wherever he went – whether the jersey read Rockets or Spartak St. Petersburg. Having to grapple with that loss caused Beverley to fretfully rub his hair and sniffle as he addressed the media after the game.
“It’s tough. It’s so tough,” Beverley said. “Everybody knows I work extremely hard to prove myself each and every night. And to have somebody that was right there supporting the whole way, wore my jersey every single day of his life. To have a person like that taken from you is so hard. But it’s a bigger plan and I’m going to keep my faith and I’m going to be there for my family. Anyone who has grandparents, mothers, whatever, to have them taken away from you is super, super hard.”
These NBA playoffs have already been dominated by the valiant performance of Boston Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who has been playing through the unimaginable pain of losing his younger sister, Chyna, in a car crash on the eve of the postseason. Thomas has returned to his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., twice in the first two rounds, to grieve with family and later to attend her funeral. He now uses the loss as an inspiration, displaying an amazing mental fortitude, the ability to compartmentalize his suffering, and even scoring a career playoff-high 53 points in an overtime win.
Professional athletes often serve as uplifting examples for their ability to overcome distractions, setbacks and injuries to achieve the improbable. They are hailed for their toughness when they are able to persevere, but there really is no proper way to handle grief. The urgency of the postseason makes it more difficult to take a break because every game matters and every loss is magnified. But the emotions find a way of rising to the surface and, at times, bubbling over – whether they are confronted immediately or much later. Ten years ago, Larry Hughes lost his younger brother, Justin, to a heart condition and took some personal time to deal with the loss during an unlikely Finals run for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His teammates joined Hughes at the funeral during the conference finals and upset the Detroit Pistons without him. After taking the time he needed to mourn, Hughes returned for what would be the only Finals appearance of his career.
Beverley wasn’t going to be able to change what happened or erase the pain by sitting, so he decided to honor his late grandfather with his play. After Beverley scored 10 points and handed out a playoff career-high six assists, Ryan Anderson gave him a long hug on the bench. Beverley and Anderson have forged an unlikely friendship this season, bonded by their religious faith. Anderson underwent his own personal struggle with grief after his girlfriend, Gia Allemand, committed suicide in 2013. He offered his own perspective on how Beverley handled his situation.
“Life hands us some tough things that are so much more important than this game,” Anderson said. “I think Pat realizes that. He and his family have a ton of faith in God. It’s just tough. Those are moments you have to take a step back, especially when it happens to somebody you’re close to. Emotionally, that’s even more important than a playoff game. He locked in like you expected and played his heart out.”
James Harden was unaware of Beverley’s situation before the game, as some members of the team were informed much later. Anderson told The Vertical that Beverley is never one to draw attention to himself and didn’t want his teammates to be overly concerned about him with so much at stake in Game 4. Those who knew of Beverley’s loss made sure he knew they supported him. “He’s a huge part of this team. He’s a guy everybody respects a lot,” Anderson told The Vertical. “Everybody went up to him and told him, ‘We’re here for you.’ ”
Harden said the Rockets have a saying this season that goes, “Adversity is going to hit, it’s how you respond from it.” But he was referring mostly to the kind of basketball worries that the team had to fight through on Sunday, such as fending off a championship-tested franchise in San Antonio, or Anderson filling in at center after Nene injured his left abductor and was lost for the remainder of the playoffs. Beverley’s struggle was a different kind that wouldn’t be affected by the outcome of the game, or this series.
“In a series, you’re going go through things. You’re going to lose players. People are going to have their problems or whatever, but our mentality is, we have to stick together. And whatever our team needs, that’s what we have to focus on,” Ariza told The Vertical. “Like Nene going down, we need somebody who is going to be physical. We need a rebounder. We need people to be strong in there. Ryan stepped up and did that. With Pat’s situation, it’s tough. Mentally, he was tough. Hurt, before the game, and we’ve got to show him love. We have to bring him in and show him love for that.”
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