November 1, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Xavier Henry (7) is treated for an injury by trainer Gary Vitti during a stoppage in play in the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Rough and Tumble (NBA) Ride of Xavier Henry

Xavier Henry has lived in three NBA cities. The cities did not care about his infamous dunk. They were more concerned with maximizing his ability. Xavier Henry has never played more than 50 games in a season.  He has never shot over 41% in a season. He has never made 70% of his free throws in a season. He has suffered through two right knee surgeries and nagging injuries and labels of a washout.

Mar 27, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Xavier Henry (7) during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Milwaukee won 108-105. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

He was born in Belgium to athletic parents, Carl and Barbara. Carl led the University of Kansas in scoring his junior and senior years. Carl was coached by Larry Brown and John Calipari, two all time greats. Carl was taken in the NBA draft by the Kansas City Kings in 1984; he was selected 80th. But he only played one season in the NBA. The rest of his career would deposit him across the globe to Rockford and Fresno and Puerto Rico and Europe.  Barbara was a scholarship basketball player too, another Kansas Jayhawk. Her sister Vickie was one of the best women basketball players in University of Kansas history.

Xavier’s father pushed him the way persistent parents do. Like an architect conceives a blueprint, Carl planned it all out in his head. Professional sports can do that to you, it can incubate your lost aspirations and insert them into someone else.  Carl was the sort of father that made you envy him and he was the sort of father that made you grimace and then ask: did he want Xavier in the NBA? Or did he want to be in the NBA himself?

This is how tough the NBA is and why talent is not as special as we are led to believe. The year Xavier Henry left college for the NBA so did two of his Kansas teammates. One was Sherron Collins, a senior and the other was Cole Aldrich, a junior. Both had good, respectable college careers.  Collins an undersized point guard wasn’t drafted and only played in 20 NBA games. That was four years ago when he played for the Charlotte Bobcats. He is currently in the D-league. Cole Aldrich was a lottery pick; burdened by a lack of athleticism he has played in 135 games for four different teams and he has played in 5 playoff games.

Xavier was at the back end of the lottery, selected by Memphis. He was a starter his rookie year. Memphis asked Xavier to be a facilitator rather than a scorer. They expected him to change.

Memphis’ offense revolved around Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. There wasn’t much a rookie with only one year of college experience could do.  “He didn’t shoot the ball very well but he could get to the basket. He tried to defend. He knew where he was supposed to be. As time went on he lost confidence”, his coach, Lionel Hollins explained.

Xavier Henry missed 34 games his first year in the NBA because of a right knee injury. Defensive genius Tony Allen took his place and never let it go. And so the development of Xavier Henry became the rejection of Xavier Henry all because of his right knee. The next year, the lockout year, the Grizzlies had to make a decision between keeping Xavier Henry or re-acquiring Marreese Speights. Xavier lost. He was traded to New Orleans.

Try to imagine Xavier’s father Carl who invested all the training and all the effort and all the early hours coaching and practices only to witness his son as a quiet player, agreeing to submissiveness. All of it frustrated Carl Henry. Subjectively, he had no tolerance for the way Lionel Hollins used his son in the offense. Carl had been diligent in his training, a perfectionist, and it wasn’t so Xavier could dump the ball into the post and ignore his scoring talent. Hell, a long time ago someone compared Xavier to a young Kobe Bryant. Kobe didn’t start his career off passing the ball.

In New Orleans the coach was Monty Williams. He was a disciple of Gregg Popovich and ran a defense oriented system and while Xavier had always been coachable he struggled with some of the concepts. Williams attributed a lot of Xavier’s challenges with not being prepared after one year of college. He was not ready for the NBA. “He was at Kansas for only a year before he left early in the draft then he goes to Memphis and he is hurt so he doesn’t get the same teaching. Then we have a lockout. That’s two years when he hasn’t played consistently.”

Dec 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Xavier Henry (7) goes for a loose ball in front of Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Kevin Martin (23) in the second half of the game at Staples Center. The Lakers won 104-91. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier had arthroscopic surgery for a lateral meniscus tear on his right knee and the rumors persisted about being injury prone. It was almost a scarlet letter. Xavier’s second year with New Orleans he played both guard and forward but wasn’t particularly great at either. He didn’t distinguish himself. The statistics exposed a trend. In games when he played close to 25 minutes he was invisible.  For instance he played 24 minutes against Denver and had 6 points. He played 28 minutes against the Lakers and had 6 points and 5 personal fouls. The next night he played his father’s former team, the Sacramento Kings. He played 27 minutes and had 15 points- that was a nice game.  But when he played the Clippers he had 4 points and 5 personal fouls.

Whispers began to have company then, it echoed in front offices:  Xavier Henry was a bust.

We know this now. We know the longer players are in the league the more ingrained their identity becomes, almost written in stone. We know it is less about who they think they are (they all think they are great) and more about who they show us they are.  We know the window is as small as an envelope because there is always someone coming behind them who may be better. That is where the desperation comes in, the fighting for your career.

In 2013 New Orleans declined his option and Xavier, out of choices, signed with the Lakers as a training camp body. Los Angeles without Kobe Bryant wasn’t a terrible place to be. They needed a scorer and Xavier need a clean slate but more than that he needed a break. Quickly he discovered it was a reversal of the past three years because no one expected much out of him anymore.

Xavier approached Lakers training camp as if he had been subsisting on bread and water; he was damned hungry. Perhaps it wasn’t his last chance to make a roster, perhaps there was another team out there who saw something in him but he couldn’t depend on abstractions. Mike D’antoni’s freedom offense was a perfect fit for Xavier Henry and for the first time in his NBA career he was being appreciated for what he could do. D’antoni was a blessing; he didn’t believe in criticism or rebuke and he never demonized players for what they did not know. He allowed his players to make mistakes often without any punishment or correction. Xavier Henry thrived in that kind of culture. Sort of.

Oct 29, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Xavier Henry (7) makes a basket past Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) during the game at the Staples Center. Lakers won 116-103. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Just like in Memphis and New Orleans he had games where it seemed as if he was on the cusp of something special. And then he followed a quality performance with a disappearing act. On the Lakers opening night Xavier Henry had 22 points on 61% shooting. It was against the Clippers and on national television.  The next night he had 14 points on 36% shooting. The next night he missed every shot he took. It reintroduced the question of trust. Can you trust Xavier Henry throughout a long season to maintain consistency? Will he be injury free? Is he a damaged player?

At 23 years old he appears young but don’t be fooled by those eyes and that baby face. A lot has happened to Xavier Henry in his up and down career. No one could have anticipated the injuries and setbacks and falling off the map and the things people would say- it was better not to listen. He was a lottery pick who was expected to thrive and he has been a lottery pick who has failed to meet his potential.

This is what they mean when they say a NBA career is a tightrope and this is what they mean when they say no one knows what kind of career a player will have and this is what they mean when they say you have to be lucky. You have to be good. You can’t get injured.

Once upon a time, when he was an Oklahoma boy putting up all those shots, jumping rope, practicing before school, training hard, doing push-ups, when he was obeying his father because his father had a specific plan to turn Xavier Henry into someone greater than Carl Henry had ever been- Xavier Henry was compared to a young Kobe Bryant. It was meant to highlight his potential, of what he could become if he worked hard and things went his way.

Boyish dreams press against the truth, though. A young Kobe in his 4th year was about to become a champion. A young Xavier in his 4th year had to fight to be remembered.  And so the moral of this story is that athletes are not born in isolation nor are they made by overwhelming fathers.  Athletes are some crazy hybrid mix of resiliency and good fortune and the right system and willfulness. These are the bookends to talent.  Lionel Hollins who coached Xavier that failed rookie year said, “You’ve got to earn it and you’ve got to not make mistakes. You’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be aggressive.”

So if anything is his lingering cry, it this one last Xavier Henry lesson. Be tough. Be aggressive. Don’t make mistakes.


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