As lunch hour approaches on an early January day in Boston, a group of middle-aged men can't wait to kick the Detroit Pistons off the court. The players, momentarily displaced by an NBA workout, have exchanged their business jackets and ties for shorts and knee braces.
The Pistons have just completed a morning shootaround in advance of that evening's contest against the Celtics. It will be their fourth game in a grueling seven nights.
Originally scheduled to take place at the TD Garden, the shootaround -- professional basketball's late-morning wake-up call -- was moved to the Equinox Sports Club inside the Ritz-Carlton.
The Equinox is one of those places. It plays club music as women speed-walk in yoga pants. You can dine at Blu, or visit trendy Salon Marc Harris. And that's just on the health club's floor. Set on the edge of the city's theater district and across from the Boston Common, the Ritz is everything Pistons center Andre Drummond is not: ostentatious and decisively brash.
Admittedly, Drummond is a mama's boy who wears penguin socks. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully. Drummond is young and impressionable. Despite it being his fourth season, he won't turn 23 until August.
Reporters crowd him after the shootaround. A television crew from Connecticut's local NBC affiliate wants to interview the former UConn star about returning to New England. Drummond obliges, and then saunters slowly across a cramped practice court during a stoppage in the lunch-hour pickup games.
None of the players acknowledge the NBA's leading rebounder who is dressed in full practice gear. None of them acknowledges the player who had three 20-rebound games in December alone, then became the youngest All-Star this year as well as a participant the slam dunk competition and hit a 71-foot shot this season, the longest in nine years.
Drummond slides through an attached hallway of squash courts. Strangely, a tension builds. Do they know the 6-foot-11, 280-pound behemoth is averaging 14.9 rebounds per game? Just 10 players have averaged more than that in their age-22 season, and a majority of them are in the Hall of Fame.
Drummond is about to exit a second set of doors, before someone finally recognizes him and exchanges fist bumps. The fan is a 20-something fresh from a workout.
"Good luck tonight, big man," the fan says, breaking the ice.
Need the engine every night
It's Stan Van Gundy's second season in Detroit, where he's the head coach and president of basketball operations.
In his second season with the Orlando Magic, Van Gundy reached the NBA Finals with center Dwight Howard who was in the midst of the best stretch of his career, leading the league in rebounding, setting a career high in blocks and winning his first Defensive Player of the Year Award. Drummond, for his part, doesn't welcome any Orlando comparisons.
"No," he says before the question can be finished. "This is a different team. Different era."
But the Van Gundy effect can't be ignored. In the year before he took over in Orlando, the Magic were 27th in the league in 3s made. With Van Gundy on the bench in 2007-08, they led the league. It's been similar in Detroit, which landed in the top 10 in 3s made last season, Van Gundy's first in the Motor City, after finishing 27th the previous season.
"What Andre needs to understand--and we need to talk to him about it all the time--is when he brings great energy to the game regardless of anything else he will be a major force."Stan Van Gundy
"Stan comes from a tutelage of Pat Riley," says Pistons assistant coach Tim Hardaway. "Riley had great centers when he was coaching: Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning. Stan is kind of forming that type of culture that he had in Orlando here with the Pistons."
Says Drummond: "Coach has done a good job this summer of getting guys that really help us spread the floor and really open me up in the post."
For instance, Van Gundy acquired point guard Reggie Jackson and forward Anthony Tolliver. Through the All-Star break, both have made more than 70 3-pointers each. On Tuesday, Van Gundy acquired power forward Tobias Harris from the Orlando Magic.
Of course, Harris will get out of Drummond's way. ESPN's Amin Elhassan said Harris should create space and make life easier for the Pistons center who routinely draws double teams from defenses collapsing on him in the paint.
"Dwight would say that Stan made him a very good player," says a former Pistons staffer who's familiar with the league's inner workings.
"Stan's consistent and holds guys accountable for all the little shortcomings; that's going to continue to make 'Dre a better player, and 'Dre respects him because of his success -- and his success in making Dwight a good player."
Through the All-Star break, Drummond has averaged a career-high 33.7 minutes and has seen his usage jump from 16.7 in the season before Van Gundy arrived to 22.0 and then to this season's 24.6.
Hardaway says Drummond is a hard worker who has done everything asked of him by the coaching staff, including polishing jump hooks with either hand.
But sometimes, there are large stretches in games when Drummond goes missing.
"What Andre needs to understand -- and we need to talk to him about it all the time -- is when he brings great energy to the game regardless of anything else he will be a major force," says Van Gundy, who does admit Drummond has been better in that department this season.
"But when Andre really gets an every-night approach, he's got a chance to be great."
Growing into his body
"I told him he's too much like me," says Christine Cameron, Drummond's mother. "He just loves to please everybody."
Originally from the Bronx, when Drummond was 7 he and his mother moved to Middletown, Connecticut, a small city 20 minutes south of Hartford. Drummond had bonded with cousins in Connecticut, and hated returning to New York. Now he wouldn't have to worry about that.
Cameron described the move as the "best decision ever." Her son enjoyed smaller class sizes, began playing basketball regularly and enjoyed a family support system.
Sports was a slow progression. On an elementary school peewee basketball squad, Drummond struggled with his coordination and didn't see much playing time.
"His love was basketball. But he just wasn't very good at it yet," Cameron says. "You'd brush against him and he'd fall over on the floor. I used to joke that the ball would be going to one end and he'd be going to the other end. When he would go on the court, you have parents shouting from the stands, 'Don't put him in! Don't put him in the game!'"
No one was saying that when Drummond dunked for the first time. He was 12. By his freshman year of high school at Capital Prep in Hartford, he received the first recruiting letter of a tidal wave that overwhelmed his mother's mailbox.
Every major program in the country pursued Drummond. He eventually would be become the No. 2 recruit in the nation behind Anthony Davis, receiving offers from Kentucky, Louisville, Georgetown and Connecticut.
His junior year, he transferred to St. Thomas More, a Connecticut prep school powerhouse where he would play alongside current Louisville guard Damion Lee. The move was inspired by his AAU program, his mother said, in an attempt to offer Drummond a higher level of competition.
A helpful hand
"When [his mother] was looking at prep schools, she reached out to us when some people mentioned the structure, the discipline, the organization, the community, the family atmosphere of St. Thomas More would probably be Andre's best bet," says Jere Quinn, who is in his 38th season as the school's head coach.
St. Thomas More traditionally catered to players in their post-graduate year. Quinn said he told Drummond, still a junior, he wouldn't play more than 16 minutes a game in his first season as a way to carefully monitor the recovery from a stress fracture in his foot.
"The great thing about Andre is if he wasn't 7-foot, walking around campus, the way he interacted with students, you wouldn't even know he was a basketball player. He always had the ability to kind of hang out with everybody."Jere Quinn, Drummond's high school coach
His second season was more of the same. Quinn said that Drummond played just 24 minutes a game as a senior in 2011 yet still earned Connecticut's Gatorade Player of the Year and team MVP honors, as St. Thomas More won the National Prep Championship.
By then Drummond's elite skills were obvious. Quinn employed a 1-2-2 full-court press in which Drummond played at the top and often would use a wingspan of more than 7-feet, 6 inches to steal an inbounds pass, dunk and hand the ball right back to the inbounder.
Drummond's best qualities, though, were on display off the court, where Quinn said the big man was as regular a guy as a man his size could be. As a senior, he was a resident assistant in the school's dorms and an assistant coach on the junior varsity team.
Indeed, years later, as a member of the Detroit Pistons, Drummond's helping persona came out when he offered the Pistons' 19-year-old No. 1 draft pick Stanley Johnson the chance to live with him after the 2015 draft.
"The great thing about Andre is ... if he wasn't 7-foot, walking around campus, the way he interacted with students, you wouldn't even know he was a basketball player," Quinn says. "He had an eclectic array of friends from the international population, to his basketball teammates, to kids his own age. He always had the ability to kind of hang out with everybody."
Unfortunately, that also meant many of those people had opinions and advice.
"I saw him working on a new foul shot one day and I said, 'Whoa, whoa what are you doing?' He said, "Well, somebody is trying to help me with it," remembers Quinn, who said the person was from Drummond's AAU group.
"And I said, 'Well, Andre, I give lectures on shooting. It's one of the things I do. I'm pretty capable of this.' And even back then I said, 'You're going to have to make a decision. You're going to have to listen to this new guy or me. Because you can't listen to more than one person.'"
According to Quinn, the other guy won.
Free throw nightmares
After graduation, Drummond, at the insistence of his mother, decided to go to college instead of another year of post-graduate prep school, reclassifying himself as a 2011 recruit and choosing his home-state Huskies.
True to his helping nature, Drummond insisted on paying his way through a year at UConn because he refused to take a little-used player's scholarship once the NCAA determined it legal for a recruited player to be a walk-on.
The Huskies were fresh off a national championship, and it was the final season of Hall-of-Fame coach Jim Calhoun's career. Drummond's free throw struggles reared their ugly head. He made 26 of his 88 attempts.
According to Quinn, Drummond had been a serviceable free throw shooter in high school. Still, the Pistons selected Drummond with the No. 9 pick overall in the 2012 draft.
Those struggles have followed him to the pros (career 38 percent). In late January, Drummond dubiously broke Wilt Chamberlain's single-game record by missing 23 free throws in a win over the Rockets. To put that in perspective, Stephen Curry has missed just 24 free throws all season through the All-Star break.
Drummond's struggles set off a national debate about the NBA's hack-a-player rules. And it made the following clear: Drummond, the people person, is alone on that free throw line.
The process at work
It's game time in Boston; a rowdy green-and-white clad crowd fills the TD Garden. The Celtics entered the January game allowing the third-most rebounds per game to opponents and placing in the bottom half of the league in opponents' field-goal percentage from less than five feet. Drummond was leading the league at the time, and now is second, in shot attempts from that distance.
"When Andre really gets an every-night approach, he's got a chance to be great."Stan Van Gundy
But by halftime, Drummond has just two points, two rebounds and three fouls. He spent most of the first half on the bench, playing just nine seconds in the second quarter. He entered the game and promptly fouled Jared Sullinger before getting yanked out again.
But in the fourth, something clicks for Drummond. In a stretch of a little more than three minutes, he displays his whole repertoire. A nifty dribble frees him in the lane for two. A turn to the baseline with a soft bank shot. It was three minutes of that "every-night approach."
The game is tied, 81-81, for the first time since the opening minutes. And then, with 6:13 remaining in the game, Drummond is subbed out for back-up Aron Baynes. He doesn't return, with Van Gundy admitting after the game that he wanted to avoid a parade to the foul line.
So the reality of Andre Drummond, NBA superstar, is incomplete. The YouTube videos with President Obama, and the dunk contest with Steve Nash, and ... everything else is just background noise.
"It's a process," Van Gundy says.
And if that process goes as it should, Drummond -- free and clear of everyone's opinions -- won't be able to walk through any hotel in peace.