If we were doing a ranking of the young Raptors’ personalities, many (most? all?) would have Lucas Nogueira at the top. He’s gregarious, funny, and even shows some darkness at times (usually a media relations nightmare). Credit then to Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star for connecting Monday’s massive effort from teammate Norman Powell in Game 5 to the soulful Bebe’s reflections on what it means to believe in oneself.
“I just ask him, how,” said Nogueira, after Toronto’s 118-93 blowout of the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of their first-round series. “Because I think he’s the best value in the league. He makes $900,000. And tonight he plays like a $20-million player. I struggle with my focus and my confidence, and I see him in here every day. Every day. He doesn’t play, but he never complains. I’m not saying that just because I’m in front of you. He never complains. And he’s an inspiration to me. He is really an inspiration.”
If you only watched the pre- and post-game video clips of the Raptors, Powell’s presence would come off as merely robotic by comparison. He’s terse, his eyes half-lidded; and while he doesn’t sound angry, one understands where that Angry Man nickname came from. Norm is intense.
He’s also got more personality than we probably give him credit for (see those goofy car commercials with Cory Joseph for Exhibit A). And, as Arthur rightly points out, Norm is now the leader of the young Raptors — a group that includes almost half the roster, from Bruno Caboclo (coming in last in our personality rankings) to, yes, third-year-man Bebe. You don’t usually command that type of respect purely from stoic focus.
So, while we can’t quantify exactly the impact Norm is having on these young guys, quotes like the above are instructive. Nogueira doesn’t play much now, and understands why that is the case. To see Norm — who spent half a season in the D-League along with Bebe, whose role on the team has fluctuated wildly (even in this series!) — excel, sends clear message:
It can happen to you.
Ah, but jealousy and bitterness are so easy. I was in here just two weeks ago exuding emotion in such a way. For all the talk of feeling fulfilled in our current pursuits, it’s extremely tempting (and deviously pleasurable) to see someone else succeed and say, angrily: why not me?
Because it can’t always be you. That person, the target of your ire, has gone through, or continues to go through, the trials and tribulations of their own lives. They have worked hard, and overcome things you maybe do not know about. The veneer of their lives, the front face of it, may mask a struggle of which you know nothing about. This shouldn’t make you happy — the inner turmoil of another — but it should make it easier to empathize with that person, and, in time, celebrate their success.
And what then of your own destiny? Keep on at your pace, and believe.
The other night I saw the Finnish movie The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki. It’s a delightful little black-and-white film, based on a true story, about the titular featherweight boxer and his chance at the title. The description reads like Rocky — once in a lifetime shot mixed with a blooming love story — but the film instead plays out almost all in asides, the lead-up to the fight filled largely with tedium. Its conclusion proves significant, however: the happiest day in a person’s life is, perhaps, the one in which they discover exactly who it is they want to be.
(I’m told this day comes eventually.)
What shades all of this positive sentiment and belief going around is Bebe’s lack of a role in it. To hear him admit he struggles with his confidence and focus is not a grand revelation — it’s been levelled against him since he came into the league — but it does sadden. Lucas got only garbage time minutes this past week, in both negative and positive blowouts, despite spending half the season as the team’s backup centre averaging almost 20 minutes a game.
Bebe’s absence from the court isn’t all his fault. The Raptors added players whose effectiveness ate into the slice of minutes Nogueira had once called his own. Even his “replacement” Jakob Poeltl has mostly disappeared from the playoffs as things have heated up. A team often goes with its best eight guys (or nine, if that team happens to be sitting on a Norman Powell). That’s just the way it goes.
Still, at the beginning of the season, Nogueira admitted to me he wasn’t concerned about making a $100 million. He wanted to be taken seriously as a professional basketball player. Sadly, with maybe only a couple of weeks to go in the season, the goal remains only partially achieved.
Level of High Level
The Raptors are approaching the peak of their powers. Game 5 versus the Bucks had everyone in on the action, playing up to their potential, and pushing the team in the direction we always knew they could head. Everyone believes in it now. Does the thinnest of Bebe minutes somehow lessen the experience? Not if he learned from it. Not if it helped him be who he was meant to be.
High Level Result: 8 out of 10 — It’s impossible to feel down when you’ve been inspired, when you’ve watched your friend, or teammate, or partner, succeed. Another may light the path forward, so you too can believe it within yourself to take the next step.