PORTLAND, Ore. — You’d think Rodney Hood would be sick of answering questions about last year’s disastrous postseason with the Cleveland Cavaliers. After all, it was one of the most painful and demoralizing experiences of his life.
Many players have been cast alongside LeBron James. Only a few have been able to withstand the pressure and the relentless scrutiny and emerge with their dignity and reputation still intact. Hood was decidedly not one of those players. Instead, he suffered through the worst stretch of his basketball career at the worst possible time, and it nearly undermined his place in the NBA altogether.
When the Cavs acquired him last season at the trade deadline to fortify their second unit and give LeBron some relief on offense, they were under the impression they were getting the lengthy and versatile combo guard who had given Utah better than 16 points per game on 38 percent shooting from behind the arc earlier that season. But Hood, the unassuming Mississippi native who’d spent his entire career up to that point on a small market team, never looked comfortable under the enormous expectations of making meaningful contributions to a Cavs team that had its eyes on a championship.
The media, at the time, wasn’t very kind about it. To be certain, his counting stats are still enough to make you shudder. Hood averaged a paltry 5.4 points per game and shot a brutal 16 percent from three, and he couldn’t even sniff the court in the Cavs’ Game 7 wins against Boston and Indiana. That’s before we get to the whole “he refused to check into a playoff game” thing.
Fast forward to Thursday night at the Moda Center, after Hood put up a delirious 25-point performance to help his team stave off elimination and force Game 7 back in Denver on Sunday. Trying his best to hide a sheepish grin as he made his way to the podium, you could almost see the pain of last year’s playoffs fading further and further into the past.
Still, even at his highest moments, Hood is forced to relive it, forced to entertain questions about it, to try and put it in context, to have the scab ripped off the old wound over and over again. In some ways, it will always be a part of him. Yet rather than fight it, rather than bristle at all its implications, Hood patiently and graciously addresses it with the type of perspective that comes not only through time, but the healing power of persistence and positive thinking.
“Last year, I was down on myself,” Hood said. “I didn’t really know how to get out of that. It was a dark moment for me, but my family really kept me positive. Guys who was with the team at the time, with Cleveland, kept me positive, because they knew what type of player I was. Just an unfortunate situation, that’s what I chalk it up to. But things always flip around. This time last year was one of my lowest, and now it’s my brightest. That’s God. Working hard, keep believing, and it always turns around. I hope everybody back in Mississippi is watching and they smiling right now.”
Hood may well have missed his calling as a motivational speaker. He’s a walking avatar for working hard and believing in yourself in the face of overwhelming adversity. Regardless of how things play out in Game 7 on Sunday, his redemption journey this postseason has been one of the most inspiring and vindicating stories in the NBA in years. And the gravity of the moment is in no way lost on him.
“I think it’s just God and patience,” Hood said. “Everything is not gonna happen like you want it to happen. Everybody has a dream, like it’s supposed to happen now. Last year, I wasn’t playing a lot, and I was kind of down on myself, and I knew it would come through. I didn’t know when it would come through, but it did. I’m just grateful that I didn’t give up on myself.”
Beyond the inspirational quotes, Hood represents something else, a deeper and more complicated truth about the NBA, about the sports world in general, about life itself. Watching his personal renaissance, you can’t help but get an unsettling feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you wonder just how many other Rodney Hoods are out there, toiling away in obscurity, wrestling with inner demons, fighting against people’s perceptions of themselves, just waiting for their chance to do something amazing.
So much of that is about having someone who believes in you take on active stewardship of your success. For Hood, it’s been all across the board in Portland, from GM Neil Olshey taking a chance on him at the trade deadline, to Stotts handing him the keys at critical junctures of pressure-cooker playoff games, to his superstar teammates being willing to defer to him in pivotal moments.
“When you got another guy on the wing that’s making threes, posting up, scoring in the mid-range, drawing fouls, doing all these things, it gives the other team something else that they have to worry about,” Damian Lillard said. “It takes a lot of pressure off of us. He’s probably been our most consistent player. I feel like, all six games, he’s had good games. We’re gonna need him to continue that in Game 7.”
“Rodney has been exceptional,” C.J. McCollum said, “Getting into the mid-range, dominating the block, hitting threes, defensively bringing the pressure.”
And it wasn’t just his teammates who were awestruck by his electrifying performance in Game 6. Nuggets coach Mike Malone called him the game’s MVP, while Nikola Jokic was equally effusive with his praise.
“They’re talented players,” Jokic said when asked about both Hood and Zach Collins, who was another difference-maker for the Blazers with 14 points and hard-nosed defense on Denver’s bigs. “He was a really big factor in their team right now. He’s making a lot of shots, he’s getting to the basket, he’s a little bit taller than our guards, so he’s using that to his advantage. He shot 8-for-12, and that’s a really high percentage, so we just need to be aggressive on him and don’t let him pick us apart because he had a lot of wide-open shots.”
It all culminated in an appropriate new nickname, i.e. “Mt. Rodney Hood,” a nod to Portland’s long-dormant volcano that is nevertheless capable of erupting at any time.
Maybe you know a Rodney Hood. Maybe you are Rodney Hood. It’s tempting to turn him into a symbol for something, or to see him as just another blip on an NBA news-cycle that will be gone and forgotten in a couple of weeks. In some ways, that latter part is the biggest lesson to take away from Hood’s story.
In the moment, the attention and acclaim is a beautiful and flattering thing, but it’s also fleeting, effervescent. Hood’s story is about what happens when the cameras are off, and the stage is empty, and no one’s singing your praises anymore. It’s about what you do in those dark, lonesome hours of self-doubt, and more than anything, it’s a reminder that no narrative is ever written in stone.