LAKERS FORWARD Trevor Ariza is a 6' 8" emblem of the laws of basketball improbability. Not long ago he was jettisoned by a lottery team and wasn't trusted to take a jump shot; his NBA future, if he had one, looked as if it would be measured in 10-day contracts. To see Ariza now, finishing L.A.'s fast break, sinking a succession of fourth-quarter threes and defending the opposing team's best player so that Kobe Bryant can preserve his invaluable energy, was among the postseason's most surprising sights. Ariza was a reminder that titles are not won by brand names alone.
Though the 2009 Lakers had the most talent in the league, their hunger often came into question. They appeared as if they expected loose balls to simply bounce into their hands. They fed the laid-back L.A. stereotype, with the exception of the one starter who actually is from L.A., Ariza, 23, who grew up in Inglewood. With a style that leans toward scruffy beards and military jackets, Ariza 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."
The game that defines Ariza's life, though, was held on another continent. His stepfather, Kenny McClary, played professionally in Venezuela. In March 1996 Ariza, his mother, Lolita, and younger brothers, Kenny and Tajh, were in Caracas for a game, staying in a high-rise hotel. Trevor and Tajh 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 back to the hotel.
He could hear the sirens before he arrived. Kenny and Tajh had been playing on the balcony of their room when Tajh accidentally fell more than 30 stories to his death. "That was Trevor's heart," says DeWitt Cotton, an assistant at Westchester High, where Ariza played. "For a long time, he wouldn't talk about it. He'd go into a shell. But Tajh became his drive."
When Ariza played for Orlando, he and Cotton laughed 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 from outside of 10 feet a few seasons ago into a bona fide deep threat who made more clutch threes in the playoffs than any Laker besides Bryant.
This year's playoffs will be remembered for LeBron's improbable shot and Kobe's indomitable will. But someone had to assume the crucial role that Cooper filled for the Showtime Lakers. Once again, Ariza has found his place.