LOS ANGELES—The players’ parking lot at the spiffy training facility of the Los Angeles Clippers in Playa Vista is filled with luxury vehicles, as one would expect.
There’s a Mercedes-Benz over there, an Escalade over here. Any number of new, impressive rides all kept in pristine condition, because there’s a car wash off the corner of the building and you can’t sweat the details in the detailing, right?
As a visitor wanders around, he wonders which one might belong to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the ascending Clippers point guard who got his start in the sport in Toronto and Hamilton.
Kids buy cars with first contracts, right? It’s a statement that they’ve arrived, a way to show their teammates what kind of taste they have, another way to belong. And with a salary that starts at nearly $8 million (U.S.) and will top out at something around $20 million, he’d have the pick of the automotive litter, wouldn’t he?
Not the Mercedes, not the SUV. None of those ritzy vehicles belong to Gilgeous-Alexander, who might be one of the few 20-year-olds in driving-mad L.A. who doesn’t have the keys to any car.
He doesn’t have the licence needed to operate a motorized vehicle.
“I’ve just always been lazy,” he jokes. “Now I need to drive places, so I’m going to get it.”
For now, he’s driven hither and yon — it’s a three-freeway trek that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to hours on the traffic-choked L.A. routes from the facility to Staples Center where the team plays — either by good-hearted teammates or franchise employees or by whichever Uber driver takes the fare.
Some day, he’ll drive. The lessons are underway. Some day. Maybe.
“It’s annoying,” he concurs about the traffic. “It almost makes you not want to get it. Sometimes it’s like, you know what, it’s not worth it.”
Later on that night, after the drive or the ride or whatever (wonder if he ever thought of doing the Kobe Bryant helicopter commute?) Gilgeous-Alexander enjoys one of the true breakthrough moments of his life.
The skinny kid — he’s six-foot-six, and it’s a generous estimate to list him at 180 pounds — makes the first of what will be many NBA starts when the Clippers take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The move may have been hastened by injury, but L.A. insiders said the day before that his ascension to a starting role was going to come sooner rather than later.
Gilgeous-Alexander just has a way about him — a style, a form, an intelligence — that can’t be taught. One NBA assistant coach thinks the Toronto-born, Hamilton-raised youngster is going to be an NBA all-star before everything is over.
His coach raves.
“He’s really good,” says Doc Rivers, the Clippers head coach and a 14-year NBA point guard who knows a bit about what it takes to be a good one. “Not just as a player. He’s very cerebral. I think he just, he’s one of those players — I hate putting names, I’ve said it before, he does remind me of (Rajon) Rondo in his rookie year, where in shootarounds he would call out the plays or he would already know.
“I ask a lot of questions in practices, just general questions, and Shai seems to always smile or he knows the answer. I don’t know what that means. I just know that he’s studying and he really understands the game.”
That Gilgeous-Alexander would be some kind of sponge when it comes to absorbing basketball information should come as little surprise. He’s been listening and learning and applying those lessons for years: the first decade of his life in Toronto, a move to Hamilton, prep school in Tennessee before a year at Kentucky that turned him into the 11th pick in last June’s draft.
He credits his parents — mom Charmaine Gilgeous, who ran for Antigua and Barbuda at the 1992 Olympics, and dad Vaughn Alexander — for driving him, figuratively and literally, to become what he is.
“Both my parents are really confident and that’s how they raised me,” he said. “Always be confident in yourself and believe in yourself. Growing up, my parents were always hard on me, always expected better of me in every aspect of life. I wouldn’t be here where I am without it.”
Mostly because he knew what was best for him.
“I’ve always been, I like to say, the good kid in my family. My brother’s a little bit more rebellious, my cousins are a little bit more rebellious. I’m always the listener and I take things in.”
The Clippers would like him to be a bit more assertive, and he surely will, to be a bit more of a talker than a listener as he guides the team in the post-Chris Paul, post-Blake Griffin, post-DeMarcus Cousins era. It will be part of Gilgeous-Alexander’s maturation.
“He has to learn the word no,” Rivers said. “Especially if you’re young, to veterans, otherwise it’ll drive you crazy. It’s a tough spot sometimes for a young point guard. I tell him all the time: You have the most power ’cause you have the ball and they want it, so they’ll listen to you. Trust me, and they will.”
Speaking of Chris Paul, the last great Clippers point guard …
It was the summer of 2016, Gilgeous-Alexander, as star-struck as any teenage basketball prodigy would be, desperately wanted to accept an invitation to a Chris Paul Basketball Camp that summer, to test himself against other North American teens and, maybe, learn a thing or two.
The wise men who run Canada Basketball had other ideas, though.
They wanted the 18-year-old to accompany the team to Manila for a last-gasp chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t going to play and everyone knew that. He was there as insurance and a piece for the future.
What’s a kid to do? Be buried on the bench half a world away at a tournament no one was paying attention to? Or be at a Chris Paul camp?
Because he’s no dummy, and because Canadian officials convinced him it would be wise to stay with men instead of competing against boys, he went to the Philippines.
He worked out against Cory Joseph and Tyler Ennis after having spent a training camp going against Steve Nash. He had one memorable dinner with Joseph, Joel Anthony, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, revelling in the atmosphere with multiple NBA champions.
Way better than some camp, right?
“That was my first time really playing against pros and I learned so much in that month or so that I was with them, on and off the court as well,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “That experience kind of helped me for this, being in the NBA today. I’m a little bit ahead of the game, being with those guys and seeing how they act on and off the court and how professional they are.”
And what kinds of cars they drive.
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps