Nets star Lopez relishes chance to travel globe

7 Jun


Brook Lopez dunks and rebounds basketballs for a living, and — ouch! — collides with fellow 2-meter behemoths in the lane. So when the grind of the 82-game season comes to a halt, the Brooklyn Nets center is eager to take it easy.

Traveling provides a welcome respite for the former Stanford University standout, who recently paid a visit to Tokyo as part of an Asian getaway that included a stop in Manila in late May.

He arrived in Japan on May 28 for some sightseeing and typical tourist activities. Last Thursday, he was back in a somewhat familiar spotlight: in a sporting venue with thousands of eyes staring at him.

This time was different, though. The 213-cm Lopez was at MetLife Dome to throw at the ceremonial first pitch for the Seibu Lions-Hiroshima Carp game.

The easy-going Lopez was in somewhat familiar territory, telling Hoop Scoop in a Friday morning interview that he had thrown at the first pitch at a New York Yankees home game five or six years ago.

“They were super welcoming out there,” Lopez said of the fans at the ballpark in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, while sporting a Lions cap during our morning conversation. “It was great to be out there. They made me feel quite at home, and I was pretty confident going in with what I was doing.

“Then they put the batter up there, which messed me up a little bit. But I tried to keep my composure, and I think I kept the pitch pretty straight on point.”

Did he fire a fastball to woo the crowd?

Not exactly.

“A little bit of a change-up,” Lopez reported with a grin. “It sunk a little. I was really trying to get the batter to go for it.”

Later in the morning, when the topic of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting in the NBA Finals for a third straight season came up during a live TV interview in a WOWOW studio in Tokyo’s Koto Ward before Game 1, followed by a news conference with the Japanese press, Lopez remained upbeat. He expressed excitement as genuine and unscripted as any fan who was looking forward to watching the championship series.

Earlier, I asked if he had ever attended an NBA Finals game in person. He told me he’d gone once, watching the Boston Celtics trounce the visiting Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 series-clinching (131-92) Game 6 victory. Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were among the marquee names Lopez saw in that game on June 17.

“It was two very exciting teams going at it,” he said.

Nine days later, the New Jersey Nets chose Lopez, who had played two seasons at Stanford, with the No. 10 pick in the NBA Draft. His twin brother, Robin, went 15th overall, going to the Phoenix Suns.

For a decade, Lopez has been a fixture with the Nets, from their final years in New Jersey to their early years in Brooklyn. Across nine seasons, he’s appeared in 562 regular-season games and posted solid numbers (18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.5 assists). Injuries, however, limited Lopez to five games in 2011-12 and 17 in 2013-14. He had one of his best all-around seasons in 2016-17, averaging 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 3-pointers and 1.7 blocks in 75 games, topping the 20-point plateau for the fourth time.

Though the Nets have made only two postseason appearances (2013, 2015) during Lopez’s tenure with the team, he hasn’t grown lethargic or lost his passion. He’s proud to represent his team, including being an NBA ambassador overseas for events such as the NBA Finals viewing party hosted by WOWOW for Game 1 at Ebisu Act Square.

Did he consider that invitation a special honor? I asked.

“I do, I really do,” said Lopez, who majored in creative writing at Stanford. “It’s such a great opportunity for a sort of exchange of cultural ideas, and to be an NBA (ambassador) is so huge for me. Japan is such a quickly growing market for the NBA and I think it holds a lot of promise. There are great fans out here. They are really getting to know the game.”

Naturally, Lopez isn’t as familiar to hoop fans as LeBron James and Stephen Curry here. But having made several visits to Japan over the years, the manga fanatic admitted he’s “recognized a bit more on this trip around.”

He added: “And I think it helps with the B. League they have running now. There’s a greater interest in basketball and it just keeps growing.”

In contemporary times, LeBron’s starring role on Miami Heat and Cleveland teams making seven straight trips to the NBA Finals is unprecedented. (Bill Russell led the Celtics to 10 consecutive trips to the Finals, 1957-66, including eight straight titles to cap that run.)

“Pretty much, what doesn’t it say?” Lopez marveled, summing up LeBron’s great run. “It’s really unprecedented (in this era). It’s such an impressive feat. I think it shows the kind of player he is and how he elevates the team’s play.”

While LeBron’s greatness is promoted throughout the galaxy, bragging rights within the Lopez family is something that the 29-year-old Brook is happy to publicize when given the chance.

For instance, he was given the hypothetical scenario of playing 50 one-on-one games against Robin, a career 12.7 ppg scorer, and asked how many he’d win.

“All 50,” Lopez told me. “I might give him one.”

Why?

“Just because there’s always that outlier, you know, I guess in the odds he’s got to maybe hit one — but no, I’m certain I’d get 50,” he added.

Playing up the uniqueness of the Lopez twins’ NBA careers, Brook revealed that he’s made a pitch to endorse Wrigley’s Doublemint gum. He explained it this way: “I want to bring back the Doublemint bike with me and Robin on the bike. Robin would have to be on the back of the bike and I’d be up front as the star of the commercial.”

What happened?

“I tried to tell them, but they don’t answer my calls,” he said.

In a slightly more serious tone, our conversation continued with the subject of how widespread travel while working in NBA has changed him as a person.

“I think one of the coolest things, really a blessing of being in the league, is just being able to travel so much,” Lopez noted. “You’re fortunate that you don’t have to pay for the traveling usually or anything like that. You get to go all over the world and meet so many interesting people, and it really shows how small the world’s become and how connected we really are. . . .

“It’s been a really enlightening experience.”

By his own estimate, Lopez has visited 20-something countries, and he’s planning to visit South America for the first time this summer.

One unforgettable trip took place in the summer of 2013. Lopez and actor Jesse Eisenberg accompanied former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and the Clinton Foundation delegation to Africa, including stops in Malawi, Tanzania and Rwanda.

During various stops of the trip, “we went around (doing) these various personalized clinics for each place to help them realize their potential,” Lopez recalled.

In Santhe, Malawi, “we were out there at an anchor farm to help teach-a-man-to-fish sort of thing,” he said.

The Clinton Foundation website describes the project, which includes five commercial farms and more than 20,000-plus neighboring farmers, this way: “(It’s) a Clinton Development Initiative-operated commercial farm that partners with thousands of neighboring smallholder farmers, providing them with access to quality inputs for maize and soy production as well as training and market access.”

For Lopez, meeting the Malawians taking part in the project left a big impression on him.

“They were out there growing their own food, cooking their own food, cleaning it, producing it, all that stuff,” the native of North Hollywood, California, said. “So put them in a situation where they can grow crops that they can obviously use for themselves and export as well.”

Throughout the trip, Lopez got a closeup view of President Clinton’s famous personality, but away from the unique day-to-day stress of his former life in the White House.

“He’s a very active listener,” Lopez said. “He’s such a great charismatic personable person. It just impressed me because he was always in the thick of it.

“I asked one of the Secret Service agents, ‘Is he always like this?’

“And the guy was like, ‘There’s no on for him. This is just the way he is. He enjoys talking to people, getting to know them and telling stories back and forth with just anyone.”

Without hesitation, Lopez also confirmed, as has been widely reported in the past, that he maintains great admiration for retired San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan.

Seeking details, I asked him to elaborate on why Duncan was a longtime role model.

“Obviously, being a big man with his skill set, that had a great influence on me,” Lopez said of the future Hall of Famer. “But looking at him just the way he carried himself on the court, the kind of leader he was, that just influenced the whole organization. I think it trickled down to everyone else, and I really admired that in him.”

Lopez became the Nets’ all-time leading scorer (with 10,444 points, moving past Buck Williams) on April 10 against Boston, in their next-to-last game of the season.

Lopez is honored to be the Nets’ No. 1 scorer — and humbled by what it signifies.

“I really think it speaks to the caliber of players I’ve played with in my tenure,” he said, including Garnett and Pierce. “I’ve played with a lot of great players. They’ve helped me reach where I am, and I wouldn’t be in this position doing that if it weren’t for them.”

Under first-year bench boss Kenny Atkinson, the Nets went 20-62 this season. After a 16-game losing streak finally ended in late February, the Nets were 10-12 in their final 22 contests.

What keyed Brooklyn’s stronger play to end the season?

“Our team had a never-say-die attitude and we had a lot of young guys on our roster,” said Lopez, whose mother Deborah Ledford was a Stanford swimmer.

“We grew a lot during the season, and it didn’t always show,” he added. “We had an upward trend throughout the entire season, but obviously breaking through that’s when you start getting wins. I just think the growth didn’t show in the statistical columns really. . . . But you could see it if you were just watching our team play. You saw young guys getting better, getting more confident, and then when we broke through and did start playing better and our record reflected that, I think it shows what we are capable of down the road.”

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