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Thursday, November 19, 2009
The right way? Let them play!

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

Ever wonder what would've happened to Michael Jordan had Portland selected him instead of Sam Bowie in 1984?

Clyde Drexler already was well established at shooting guard. Do you think Jordan would've come off the bench as a rookie? And if so, would he have still made the All-Star team?

Michael Jordan
How different would MJ's career have been if this 1984 photo had him wearing a Portland jersey?

Been rookie of the year?

Become the greatest ever?

The more I'm around professional sports -- particularly basketball -- the more I realize a player's career has less to do with what he's capable of and more to do with what he's allowed to do. That's not to discount hard work and talent, but think how fortunate Magic Johnson was to have a high school coach who allowed him to play point guard at 6-foot-9 back in the 1970s. Another, more narrow-minded coach might have tried to force Johnson to play a position that was more traditional for a player his size.

As gifted as Magic was, chances are he still would have had an incredible career at small forward, but what happens to Showtime?

I'm not suggesting Lancaster Gordon or Leon Wood, the two shooting guards taken after Jordan in 1984, would have been as successful as No. 23 if Chicago had drafted them instead. But there certainly is no denying finding the right fit is as important as practice.

Look at Channing Frye -- a player who couldn't hold on to his starting job on the Knicks and stayed buried on the bench in Portland last season, a guy who at first glance appeared to be signed out of the Suns' need to round out their roster rather than to be depended on for key minutes in the fourth. After all, he's four years into the league, and he averaged only 11-plus minutes and 4.2 points per game last season. And yet, here he is, hitting big shots and flashing an even bigger smile, averaging a career-high 13.3 ppg as the starting center for one of the best teams in the league.

"What can I say, man? I found my home," the former lottery pick says. "I tell young players all the time, everybody's career is different. Sometimes you can work hard and do all of the right things and still not get the opportunities you think you should have. But you have to keep working hard, because when that chance comes, you have to be ready.

Channing Frye
Channing Frye -- and the Suns -- have been all smiles since he arrived in Phoenix.

"In New York , none of us really knew what was expected of us. We just went out and tried to win games. In Portland , they wanted me to be a big, banging center in the paint, and that's not really my game, either. But the Suns see what I can do and they are letting me do it, and it's great."

I hear NBA players say that all the time: Let me play my game. It certainly is said more routinely in basketball than in the other team sports, maybe because individualism is celebrated in basketball more than in other sports.

Would Portland's style of play have been right for Jordan? Or better yet, are the Knicks the right fit for a still-capable Allen Iverson? Each coach has his own scheme; the ability of a big man to hit a midrange jumper might be important to one guy but not so much to the next.

And sometimes, it isn't just about the system. Sometimes, it's about personality clashes.

Remember Steve Francis when he played for Houston? He was co-rookie of the year (along with Elton Brand) in 1999-2000 and a starter in the All-Star Game under Rudy Tomjanovich. When Rudy T. stepped down in 2003 and Jeff Van Gundy took his place, things began to unravel for "Franchise." He clashed with Van Gundy, got traded to Orlando and had problems there. And by January of this year, Francis was being waived by the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that finished the season with 24 wins.

At 32, physically, Francis obviously could still be a contributor on somebody's team, but the lasting image I have of the man is of someone with no confidence. Had he stayed with Rudy T. or a coach like him, would he still be in the league?

Or look at four-time defensive player of the year Ben Wallace.

A perennial All-Star with the Detroit Pistons, Wallace was so inconsistent and hampered by injuries in Chicago and, later, Cleveland that almost everyone assumed the 35-year-old forward was being brought back to Detroit this season just to add "veteran leadership" to a rebuilding team. But guess who is once again leading the Pistons in blocks, rebounds and steals?

Ben Wallace
It helps that Ben Wallace has been healthy this season. And it doesn't hurt that he's back in familiar surroundings.

"I'm finally healthy, for one," Wallace says about his rejuvenated play. "I had knee injuries, back injuries. … I was never able to really perform [in Chicago and Cleveland] the way that I knew I could."

So is it a coincidence that he gets healthy when he returns to the team with which he's had all of his success?

"I don't know," he says. "I mean, this is my basketball home. I know the city. I know the organization. … I have a couple of friends still on the team that will be lifelong friends, and it's just the all-around atmosphere.

"I remember [a fan] who used to sit behind the bench, and when things ain't going well, he would stand up and start coaching a little bit. And when things were going well, he would stand up and coach us even more. It's things like that helps a player feel comfortable."

And if you don't have those things, is talent enough?

"I don't know. … I don't think so," Frye says. "For the first time, I have a coach who really just encourages me to play my game, and it feels good to be able to contribute again. I always knew I could do some of the things I'm doing now, but you have to have somebody who believes enough in you to let you do it."

Apparently, even professional athletes still need a little luck and someone in their corner.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.