Terrell Brandon must have some fire in him, has to. A kid 5'11", born with legs so crooked that he had to wear a corrective brace, and he makes the NBA All-Star team? Got to have some fire. Maybe it's well banked, maybe he knows better than to kick cameramen in the end court (or wherever you kick them), but a kid like that has to be burning inside. Just has to. This is professional basketball!
But what his eyes reflect is mostly a coolness, not heat. He's pleasant, he's agreeable, he's polite to the point of absurdity. (Sir? He calls sportswriters sir?) And there are examples of his showing warmth, for sure: At a free camp in the inner city—the only kind he appears at—somebody hears him tell a counselor to pull that kid aside, take him behind a tree, whatever, give him new sneakers, and Brandon will explain to the mother later. "Oh, you should see him with those kids," a friend says. "He's all hugged up." But in the NBA he's a human Sub-Zero.
Here's what we mean: Arguably the most complete point guard in the NBA and certainly the best player you've never heard of, Brandon spent his first four years with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a backup to All-Star Mark Price and never made a peep. There's not one byte of bitterness out there, nothing you can call up from his years of frustration. Don't 5'11" NBA players (especially ones with legs so badly deformed that the doctors wanted to break them and start over) need the kind of self-confidence that civilians so often mistake for arrogance? Four seasons sitting on the bench—and he knows how good he is—and there's not one quote of complaint along the way. Look through the papers; you won't find one. The year Price left in a trade with the Washington Bullets (he's now with the Golden State Warriors), Brandon stepped in and made the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Brandon is odd like that. Is it possible that great athletes don't need the kind of egos we normally forgive in them? Brandon makes you think so, makes you think understatement might work at high levels of achievement, too. The Cavaliers' best player, he's flaunted his status as follows: He was late for practice, once. By two minutes.
Sadly, or predictably, he is not very famous for what you can only call an outlandish maturity. He's not very famous for anything, actually. Not even in Cleveland. A parking-lot attendant one block from Gund Arena eyes him getting out of his Explorer (his one extravagance; his only other car, a 1991 325 BMW, dates to his NBA signing six years ago). "Are you a Cav?" the attendant inquires. Brandon says yes, sir. The attendant, delighted, says, "Oh, man!...What's your name?"
His all-around skills are better appreciated by the people in the league than by the people in the stands. Even playing for the Cavaliers, whose coach, Mike Fratello, has slowed his undermanned team to a highly unpopular walk (at week's end they were averaging 88.4 points per game, 27th in the league, and attendance has declined with the scoring), Brandon's talents stand out. Through Sunday he stood 18th in the league with a 20.2-points-per-game average, 17th in assists (6.3 average), 14th in steals (1.84 average), ninth in three-point field goal percentage (42.1%) and second to Price in free throw percentage (90.1%).
He is certainly no secret to his peers. Chicago Bulls guard Ron Harper, who is often assigned to guard Brandon and is accustomed to a certain amount of flash on the court, marvels at the quiet way Brandon gets the job done. Whereas some point guards, Harper notes, are "doing their own thing, he's doing it for the team. He knows who's hot, and he passes the ball." Harper is sufficiently impressed to have jokingly vowed a boycott if Brandon didn't make the All-Star team again. "The kid can play," he says.
When NBA East coaches named Brandon to this year's All-Star Game, to be played this Sunday at Gund, Fratello was almost smug about the selection. "The coaches know who they're pulling their hair out over," he told reporters.
Although Brandon, 26, was visibly pleased to have made the All-Star team for the first time last year and not so secretly hoped to make it again this year, not much else scratches his veneer of indifference. This imperturbability makes him more interesting than does his dead-eye shooting, his crossover dribble or anything else he does on the court for the determinedly boring Cavaliers. In a league that seems hinged more on celebrity than on athletics, Brandon is purposely anonymous.
Not even his teammates pretend to know him. "He hangs out with us when he's hanging out," says Cleveland forward Chris Mills, kind of puzzled now that he thinks about it. "It's just that he doesn't hang out."