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Though the Lakers may have the most talent in the league, their hunger often comes into question. They can appear as if they expect loose balls to simply bounce into their hands. They feed the laid-back Los Angeles stereotype—with the exception of the one starter who is actually from L.A., Ariza, 23, who grew up in Inglewood. (When Bryant was a rookie playing at the Forum, Ariza went to the parking lot one day to get his autograph.) After one season at UCLA, he was drafted 43rd by the Knicks in 2004 and then took a bumpy road back home. Ariza was called delusional by New York coach Larry Brown for expecting meaningful minutes and in February 2006 was shipped to Orlando, which then shipped him to L.A. in November 2007. With a style that leans toward scruffy beards and military jackets, he has shown himself to be the sort of scrapper appreciated by the die-hard Lakers fan who remembers that Showtime meant more than Magic and Kareem. "I'm from Watts, and my favorite player was Michael Cooper," says Ariza's trainer, Tony Bland. "Trevor is the new Coop—just 10 shades lighter with lower socks."
"All good teams have a Trevor Ariza," Lakers point guard Derek Fisher says. "He plays with a toughness and aggressiveness that works for us because some guys don't have it." Ariza cannot explain why his motor runs so much faster than some of his teammates', but he credits L.A.'s hypercompetitive pickup basketball scene, which forced him to defend the likes of Baron Davis and Paul Pierce when he was still in high school. DeWitt Cotton, an assistant at Westchester High, where Ariza played alongside five other Division I prospects, says, "He is a true product of L.A. basketball."
The game that defines Ariza's life, though, was held in another hemisphere. His stepfather, Kenny McClary, was a standout at Florida and played professionally in Venezuela. In March 1996, Ariza flew with his mother, Lolita, and younger brothers, Kenny and Tajh, to Caracas to see a game. They stayed in a high-rise hotel, and Trevor taught Tajh how to swim. They were close even for brothers; at home, they slept in the same bed. The day of the game, Trevor went with his mom to the arena. Kenny stayed back at the hotel with Tajh. Just before tip-off Trevor noticed that his stepdad was being pulled from the court. He remembers being ushered into a hallway, then taken to a motorcycle and whisked back to the hotel.
He could hear the sirens before he arrived. Kenny and Tajh had been playing on the balcony of their hotel room when Tajh accidentally fell more than 30 stories to his death. "That was Trevor's heart," Cotton said. "For a long time, he wouldn't talk about it. He'd go into a shell. But Tajh became his drive. He had to make it for his little brother." After Ariza was traded to Orlando, and Cotton moved there to help him acclimate, they laughed and smiled one night as they watched a home video that included Tajh and Trevor play-wrestling. Cotton also noticed one day that the code on Ariza's alarm system spelled Tajh. Ariza even started talking about wanting to have a son. Today, he does have a one-year-old boy, Tajh, who clings to his leg just the way his brother did. "It seems like he's been here before," Ariza says.
Ariza still has a hard time falling asleep when he thinks about his baby brother at night, but on the court he has found peace in his hometown. He has developed from a one-dimensional slasher who was not allowed to shoot outside of 10 feet a few seasons ago into a bona fide deep threat who has made more clutch threes in the playoffs than any Laker besides Bryant. The remaking of Ariza began in January 2008, when he broke his right foot. It might have been the break that saved his career. Ariza always had a sound shooting stroke, but he tended to kick his legs and twist his body in the air. With his foot immobilized, he could neither kick nor twist. "He couldn't even jump," says assistant coach Brian Shaw. "It made him concentrate on his wrist and his arm and not how high he'd get." Last season, Ariza was 5 of 18 from beyond the arc; this season, 61 of 191.
If the conference finals ever hold form, and the Lakers do meet the Cavs as corporate America has ordained, Ariza will likely be assigned to guard James—again. In 2003, when Westchester played St. Vincent--St. Mary of Akron in a nationally televised game, James scored 52 points, including 18 straight during one stretch. For Ariza, what better way to measure how far he has come?
This year's final four will be remembered for LeBron's improbable shot, Kobe's indomitable will and Melo's postseason emergence. But moving forward, someone will have to assume the crucial role that James Posey filled for the Celtics, Bruce Brown for the Spurs and Cooper for the Showtime Lakers. Once again, Ariza may hold the keys.