MyCover: Mikal Bridges And The Suns Control Their Own Destiny

Barry Gossage x Uproxx

Every time Tyneeha Rivers thinks about it, her voice grows tense and tears spills down her face. She anticipated this moment would come, doing everything in her power to ensure it would arrive. Despite his being in the league for three years now, the emotions Rivers feels are as powerful as ever.

Her son, Mikal Bridges, is an NBA player, serving a critical role for the title-contending Phoenix Suns. He is entrusted to act as Phoenix’s defensive stopper, checking eventual Hall of Fame inductees every night. And yet her steadfast belief this would happen one day is not a safeguard for her emotions.

Overwhelming waves of gratitude pour in. This is her son, born when she was 19 and raised in a single parent household. They grew up together, learned to navigate life as a duo. Twenty-four years of love, resolute faith, and persistence converge with tears and choppy, breathless words.

“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, what is my son doing guard LeBron (James)?’ … I just get so choked up when I see him out there guarding players like Kawhi (Leonard) and all those players that are just at their best and known to be All-Star, superstars,” Rivers says. “I have a friend who said to me, ‘Aren’t you used to it now? It’s his third year in the league and you still see him on TV and get choked up and cry.’ I think I’m going to always just be that way because I am so grateful.”

From the time Bridges was in the third grade, Rivers told anyone and everyone he was destined for the league. They all considered her ridiculous, another parent exaggerating their kid’s abilities.

Jim Nolan, Bridges’ high school coach at Great Valley High in his hometown of Malvern, Penn., heard Rivers’ refrain. Jay Wright heard it, too, imploring that first, Villanova’s coaching staff focus on making Bridges the best Wildcat he could be.

As a kid, Bridges reiterated his mother’s sentiment. Basketball was the priority. Video game consoles were buried in the trunk of her car until he finished shooting for the day. Hanging out with friends before time in the gym was a nonstarter. Whenever it snowed enough to blanket the courts in Malvern, his mom encouraged him to shovel the obstacle away — Rivers loved telling Bridges that his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, would do this, too.

Every summer, basketball sat central to his plans. Free time meant another chance to sharpen his game. Rivers sent him to the best camps she could afford and found coaches who would emphasize the tenets of hard work and accountability. She designed a plan that “entrenched” him in the sport at 3 years old, guaranteeing any potential hurdles on his path to the league were independent of his control.

“When he was younger, it was harder, especially being a young, high school teenager and you see the kids hanging out, they want to have fun and they want to do things,” Rivers says. “He’s like, ‘I need a break’ and I’m like, ‘No, no breaks, like get your butt out there and shoot that ball and dribble and work on your game.’ He was taught very early on at a young age that your current situation doesn’t have to dictate what your future holds. The only behavior you can control is your own.”

As a single mother, she earned everything, working and attending night classes for her master’s in human resources, all while caring for Mikal. Bedtime stories and help with homework were the norm, as was instilling in him the competitive drive that enabled her to juggle everything.

This meant Bridges would never be given an easy win. No matter the activity — sports, board games, miniature golf, whatever it may be — Rivers established the upper hand in an effort to foster a sense of determination.

“My mom was like, ‘What mother won’t let their child win?’ “ Rivers says. “I’m teaching him how to be competitive. I let him win? No, he has to earn it.”

By the time Bridges was a junior in high school, Rivers’ approach clicked for him. He understood why video games and hangout sessions never preceded basketball in daily routines. He understood why persevering through inclement weather mattered.

To achieve his self-described goal of earning a scholarship for a high-level college, the motivation needed to come from within. If these were truly his objectives, Rivers could not be the one constantly reminding him of his responsibilities.

Unprompted, he went to the court to shoot every day during the summer leading up to his junior year. No longer was Rivers demanding more of him than he expected of himself. The gravity of the opportunities ahead and the influence he wielded over those opportunities crystallized.

“I’ve coached gym rats. He wasn’t a gym rat,” Nolan says. “He wasn’t, but that’s not a bad thing. He was still growing, he was still learning and I think that kept coming and kept coming. … Into his junior and senior year, it definitely changed.”

Barry Gossage

You’re not working hard enough.

Bridges did not want to hear those words, but he knew he had to hear them.

Amid a road trip last season, Bridges and Monty Williams sat down in Memphis for the type of discussion the Suns’ head coach holds with every player throughout the year intended to help them and the team.

After playing nearly 30 minutes per game as a rookie and starting 56 of 82 games under former head coach Igor Kokoškov, Bridges started only five of his first 45 games and was logging a tick over 24 minutes each night during Williams’ first season. He thought he deserved to play more and made that clear to his coach.

Williams, who later acknowledged he was doing “some things” that hindered Bridges, digested the second-year wing’s qualm and provided a sobering, candid solution: work harder. Since that conversation, Bridges has started the successive 102 games across two seasons, playing a crucial role in the Suns going from lottery fodder to championship contender.

“I don’t think either one of us realized how important it would be,” Williams says of their heart-to-heart. “He wasn’t comfortable at the time. He wasn’t playing as well as he could.”

That conversation reoriented how Bridges viewed himself as a player. Sure, the baseline work ethic existed, but it was just enough to carve out a role in the league, not enough to garner the respect he craved and tap into everything he could offer. Williams and Bridges knew it. The latter suppressed it, the former verbalized it. Together, they kindled an early inflection point in his career.

“He respects Monty for that,” Rivers says. “You can see the confidence that he has this season versus what he had last season. And I think I can credit that to Monty that really told him, ‘You gotta step onto that court, you got to have more confidence and believe in yourself.’ ”

There was no sweeping shift from Bridges after that day, merely an understanding to spend more time in the gym, maintain a calm demeanor, and be honest with himself about his work ethic. Everything Rivers sought to imprint on her son during his formative years came in handy.

“A lot of people could fold off that and be like, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he just doesn’t want to play me,’ and just to keep doing what they’re doing,” Bridges says. “It was just knowing what he said, took it to heart, fighting, kept getting better, and going harder than what I was actually doing. It got me to the position I’m at right now.”

That position: Starting every game for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, a team that finds itself down, 2-1, against the defending champions in a hotly-contested series. Averaging career-highs in points (13.5), rebounds (4.3), and blocks (0.9). Shooting a career-best from deep (42.5 percent) and the field (54.3 percent). Potentially earning an All-Defensive Team honor this year and lucrative contract extension at some point in the offseason.

To glance at Bridges is to see limbs. To watch him dutifully — effortlessly bounding from baseline to baseline, draining threes, spiraling around defenders for layups, hounding offensive superstars — is also to see limbs at work, a 7’1 wingspan glued to a wiry, 209-pound frame. He’s heard all the nicknames: Stretch, Noodles, Inspector Go-Go Gadget, String Bean, Brittle, Praying Mantis.

He does not care for any of them, in part because he’s had long arms dating back to elementary school. Before a high school growth spurt as a sophomore caused him to sprout above his peers, from 6’3 to 6’6, his long arms stood out. Rivers advised him to put those sprawling arms to use.

“You have an advantage over those other kids,” she’d say. “You can block their shot, you could take the ball.”

Years later, Bridges still heeds his mother’s advice on the defensive end. He winds around screens and embeds himself to guys. Adapting across assignments like a chameleon, he defends anyone from Stephen Curry, to Luka Doncic, to Paul George. There are no easy shots around him, his arms a ubiquitous code for opponents to decipher.

“Some guys be like, ‘Damn, your arms are like so long, like, I didn’t know you could get back,’” Bridges says. “Trust me, I play against people with long arms as well. And I can already tell, I’m like, ‘Man, if I get guarded like this, I would be frustrated as well, too.’ I understand what length can do to a person and how much it could bother somebody, so just use it to my advantage.”

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Bridges starts speaking but immediately backtracks. His last phrase wasn’t quite right, so he corrects himself to avoid a canned response that undersells playing with an all-time great point guard.

Chris Paul, the outspoken, doggedly determined leader and basketball player, aligned with what Bridges knew and heard prior to Paul joining the Suns this past offseason. The other stuff — friendship, leadership, locker room presence — was not something for which anyone could prepare him.

“Knowing just how he is as a leader, as a person … actually, not as a person,” Bridges says. “I didn’t know how good of a person he was. People did talk about it, but you just don’t know until you be around a person. If you feel like you need help or something, you can always ask him and he always can help you with this. I think that’s the biggest thing, is knowing I got him as a friend rather than a teammate just shows how good of a guy is, and he’s perfect for the team.”

As a nine-time All-Defensive Team honoree, Paul is well-versed in the trials of undertaking the opponent’s primary option every game and tutors Bridges for these tests before, during, and after they transpire. Prior to an early season game against the Golden State Warriors, Paul tapped into his extensive memory bank to give Bridges pointers on how to check Curry.

He told Bridges how to identify certain actions the Warriors run for the two-time league MVP, to stay tethered even when Curry doesn’t have the ball in his hands (being cognizant of off-ball screens was a point of emphasis), and to key in on the patented give-and-go sequences between Curry and Draymond Green.

Bridges and Paul are in continuous communication during games and practices. Early on, Bridges remarked to Paul about their unceasing dialogue, with Paul stressing the value of these interactions.

“Yeah, that’s how it’s supposed to go, like, we’re supposed to get on each other if somebody is messing up, get on that person,” Bridges recalls. “If you don’t agree, you’re not just gonna sit there and not say anything. Tell him what you think is wrong and right. And then, we’ll talk about it and come to an agreement.”

Consider a midseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Bridges is guarding Damian Lillard, one of the league’s preeminent scorers and a ball-screen wizard. Paul suggests Bridges steer Lillard away from the screen by opening himself up and funneling Lillard toward the lane. Bridges is dubious, retorting that if he does so, Lillard will not wait for the screen and simply pounce on the driving angle by zipping inside. If Bridges crowds Lillard, trying to close down his air space and any advantage from a screen, he risks committing a foul. They discuss all these options, cycling through the benefits and risks of each.

Bridges can only say one thing about these sorts of back-and-forths with one of the greatest to ever play the game: “It’s dope.”

A commitment to defense was instilled in Bridges during his days at Great Valley. He was not a good defender, Nolan says, when he arrived on campus as a sophomore. Not because his deficiencies stood out compared to his peers, but because few young players are taught the intricacies of that part of the game.

“Growing up through the sport, everything is offense, shooting, passing, dribbling — everything is offense. And so when you get to a program that’s going to really emphasize and teach defense, man-to-man defense, it becomes culture shock,” Nolan says. “Defense is just not something kids like to do.”

The nuances of on-ball defense — arms spread wide, sitting low in a stance, watching the opponent’s belly button to forecast their next move — were preached. Tendencies such as communication, boxing out, precise closeouts, help-side rotations, taking charges, and ball denial were enforced. Players jumped rope to improve their foot speed. Every practice, a minimum of 45 minutes were dedicated to defense.

Bridges quickly saw the work translate to success on the floor. As a junior, he averaged more than one steal and block per game, merging keen instincts and budding defensive knowhow with his God-given length. Many nights, he’d foretell a pass, dart in front of the ball, and snag it for a breakaway jam. Or, he’d rotate inside and elevate for a block that always seemingly occurred at a vital juncture of the game.

“It was such a momentum-builder to have somebody that could do that,” says Michael Gregory, Bridges’ teammate at Great Valley. “We didn’t have anybody else that could do that on our team.”

When it came time to work on the other end of the floor, Nolan had his players perfect his pass-and-screen offense, saturated with ball and player movement. Practices rarely involved scrimmaging. Two, sometimes three hours were devoted to refinement via hands-on instruction.

They learned how to set and maneuver off-ball screens. Lead your man into the pick. Take a tight route around it. Read how defenders position themselves. Back-cuts and back-screens were hallmarks of the offense. Off-ball separation and proper floor-spacing were imperative. Everyone touched the ball each possession, often multiple times. Pick-and-rolls or isolations were footnotes. Great Valley made their opponents work. They loved it. The other team hated it.

“That’s where I learned all my cutting from, was in high school,” Bridges says. “Literally on a possession, the ball might not even touch the ground but like five times.”

Once Bridges emerged as a 20-point scorer and the team’s undisputed best player his junior year, the path to buckets remained the same: passing, cutting, screening. Identify soft spots in the defense, shift them off-kilter, and strike. Today, playing alongside Devin Booker and Paul, he still scores in a similar manner, bolting to the rim when defenders turn their head, attacking closeouts and blazing in transition for smooth finishes.

“He has great spatial awareness,” says George Halcovage, Villanova assistant coach. “He’s a really good cutter off the ball.”

Barry Gossage

Devin Booker keeps bugging Mikal Bridges.

“You haven’t been on a game in a while,” the All-Star guard says.

Both guys are Call of Duty connoisseurs. They’ll often play together. Bridges deems Booker the best on the team, but stresses this is only because he has not played in a while.

Recently, he’s been preoccupied tending to his 5-year-old retriever and lab mix, Sonny. Between taking Sonny for walks and bathroom breaks, COVID testing, road trips, games, and practices, Bridges is drained of the requisite energy to battle against his teammate.

“I feel like a father over here taking care of this dog sometimes,” Bridges says. “I just be tired.”

When Bridges was in the fourth grade, he and his mom briefly owned a golden retriever named Frosty until they moved and gave the dog to a family friend. Shortly after, when he was in middle school, Mickey, also a golden retriever, entered their lives and was with the family until he passed away after Bridges finished high school. “That was my favorite dog,” Bridges says.

As a sophomore in college, he begged Rivers for a new dog, saying he would take care of Sonny after he graduated if Rivers did so until then. The two agreed, but after Bridges was drafted in 2018, Sonny remained in Philadelphia with Rivers. A newly minted professional basketball player assimilating to radical life changes, Bridges insisted he was too busy to house a dog full-time.

“I’ve been tricked,” Rivers says.

Earlier this year, Bridges dearly missed Sonny. FaceTime calls were not an adequate connection. So, Sonny headed westward to Phoenix in February and has lived with Bridges over the past few months.

“They have this special bond,” Rivers says. “Even though I get all the work raising Sonny, Mikal will always be Sonny’s favorite and Sonny will be Mikal’s favorite.”

Once the offseason begins, Sonny will travel back to Philadelphia and provide his papa the space to center himself solely on basketball. Rivers tries to tell her son he is not the only NBA player or Phoenix Sun with a furry friend. Dog walkers and dog sitters are part of the agenda. Her efforts, at least for now, are futile. To hone his craft, Bridges needs to clear his schedule; Sonny does not allow for that.

Fathering Sonny is the only responsibility he can skirt. If Rivers has a say, every other venture he clamors for would come to fruition — not through her doing, but through his own patterns of accountability and discipline. They’re foundational traits belabored and practiced since the day Bridges expressed his goal of being an NBA player nearly two decades ago.

“I might’ve been too hard on him,” Rivers says. “But I think it paid off.”

Barry Gossage x Uproxx