Suddenly, here he is, this dreadlocked, tattooed revelation that has burst upon the postseason stage fully formed, as admirable a person as he is a player. How did Brian Grant crash this party, and why didn't we know he was coming? These aren't just the playoffs, these are the conference finals: The pretenders have been banished, and the teams that remain are supposed to have All-Stars and MVP candidates as their foundations, players whose stories America knows intimately. The driving forces are supposed to be Patrick and Reggie, Tim and the Admiral, not someone who has spent most of his career in relative obscurity and in Sacramento—which, until recently, were more or less the same thing.
But here's Grant, the Portland Trail Blazers' power forward and the rock upon which they stand. Rasheed Wallace may be more athletic, Isaiah Rider and Damon Stoudamire more explosive, but Grant is the Blazers' most consistent player. He may look like a bulked-up Bob Marley, but his peers know that he's closer to being the James Brown of the NBA. "He's the hardest-working guy in the league," says Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. "You've got to respect that cat."
If we had known him better, that cat surely would have had our respect long before now. Had we realized that Grant was a man of such substance, we might have expected his noble post-season performance, in which he has been matched against three All-Stars and has suffered two bell-ringing blows to his face, one of which opened a six-stitch gash over his right eye. We would have known that his struggles against Duncan and the Spurs in last Saturday's Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, an 80-76 Blazers loss in which Grant had only eight points and seven rebounds, wouldn't discourage him. Nor would Monday's heartbreaking 86-85 defeat, as Grant scored 10 points and again grabbed seven boards. The losses only served to inspire him to get his hands dirtier as the series shifted to Portland where a friendlier crowd will greet the Blazers for Friday's Game 3. "Hard work comes naturally to me," Grant says.
Why wouldn't it? While other kids were playing at basketball camps and in AAU leagues, Grant spent many of his teenage summers cutting tobacco in the fields around Georgetown, Ohio, which was considerably more taxing than establishing low-post position. "We hacked away from morning to night, on our knees most of the time, in the heat and humidity," he says. "We'd have to jump snakes. I hate snakes. And there was this stuff that came from the plants—tobacco gum, we called it. It would get in the creases of your hands and in your fingernails. It would be almost a year before you could get it all out."
Grant is 27 years old and has been in the league for five years, and we really should have been paying attention to him. Then we would have known it was completely in character for him to spend the idle months during the NBA lockout regularly making the two-hour round-trip from Portland to Sublimity, Ore., to visit terminally ill 12-year-old Dash Thomas, a brain cancer victim to whom he dedicated this season after Dash died in February. We already would have known the reason why Grant has become the type of guy who will buy a Santa hat and toys at Christmastime and make spur-of-the-moment visits to children's hospitals, which is the kind of philanthropy that earned him the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award this year. When he was in second grade, Brian contracted double pneumonia and was in the hospital for weeks. "They had me in this tent, this bubble," he says. "Knowing that your mom was coming when she got off work or your uncles were going to come see you didn't keep you from feeling lonely all the time. I'll always remember that feeling. That's why I go see kids in the hospital a lot."
Maybe now you're beginning to understand what Blazers forward Walt Williams means when he says solemnly, "Brian Grant is a man." Maybe you can see why Grant, who had never advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs before this season, hasn't wilted under playoff pressure, why the brutal elbows to his head from Karl Malone during the Blazers' second-round series against the Utah Jazz left him only momentarily rattled. When Grant wasn't cutting tobacco, baling hay or playing basketball, he often watched his father and uncles work at a factory welding boxcars. He saw the way they sliced potatoes in half and placed them over their eyes to soothe the pain of the flash burns they got when the flame passed too close to their faces. One night Grant's father came home from work with a patch over his eye from having been hit by an errant piece of hot metal. "A cut on my eyebrow?" Grant says. "I mean, stitch it up and let's play."
Not everything about Grant is so easily explained. He wears dreadlocks, likes Marley's reggae and answers to the nickname of Rasta Monsta, but he's not Rastafarian. In fact, he often seeks the counsel of his Baptist pastor. He's exceedingly humble, and his willingness to forgo scoring in favor of rebounding and defense attests to his lack of ego, yet he has his own publicist and Web site. "It's just a way for people to connect with me and get to know me," he says of the site. People certainly have done that, buying dreadlocked Grant wigs that are sold in Portland stores. All proceeds go to Grant's charitable foundation, which assists the families of seriously ill children.
But nothing has contributed to Grant's popularity as much as his impressive play, especially as the matchups have grown increasingly difficult during the playoffs. He outplayed the Phoenix Suns' Tom Gugliotta in the Blazers' first-round sweep, averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, and then survived a memorable duel with Malone in which the Mailman apparently mistook Grant's face for an armrest, placing his elbow there repeatedly. Grant took an elbow to the jaw in Game 1, for which Malone was fined $10,000, and then suffered the gash above his eye in Game 5. But Grant got his revenge in Game 6, in which he helped limit Malone to eight points on 3-for-l6 shooting as Portland won 92-80 and clinched the series. "That was the series that made people start to notice Brian more," says Blazers coach Mike Dunleavy, "but he just did the same thing we've seen him do all year. He scores when we ask him to, but he knows we need his defense and rebounding every night, and he keeps giving it to us."
Grant appreciates the newfound acclaim, but it provided no consolation after Portland's Game 1 loss to the Spurs. "I don't see these last few weeks as any kind of breakthrough for me," he said on Sunday. "I'm not looking for anything like that. I'm just trying to get to the next round and play for a ring, and I know I need to play better for that to happen." Matched for most of the game against Duncan, a silken 7-footer, the 6'9", 254-pound Grant failed to fling his bulk around with his usual abandon. "Gotta find a way to play against these long guys," he said afterward, referring to Duncan and 7'1" San Antonio center David Robinson. "I didn't play a smart game. I have to realize who I'm playing against. These guys are long and athletic, so I have to go to my strength. That means all-out brawling down low."
Grant didn't go to the free throw line once in either Game 1 or 2, which isn't a good sign for a player who usually creates a great deal of contact around the basket. Blazers assistant Tim Grgurich addressed the aggressiveness issue in a private session with Grant in the locker room before practice on Sunday. "We need you to be our Barkley, our Malone," Grgurich told him. "We need you stirring things up inside, the way those guys do. Play the way Brian Grant plays."