Montrezl Harrell returns to game his grandmother helped him love
For as long as Montrezl Harrell has been in the NBA, he has worn customized clothes. Considering the occasion Monday — his first Clippers game in 160 days — only a statement piece would do.
On his feet, the 6-foot-7, fifth-year center wore a pair of Reebok Question sneakers featuring the picture and name of Breonna Taylor.
There was another woman Harrell wanted remembered, too. While teammates emerged for the layup line before Game 1 of a first-round playoff series against Dallas wearing NBA-approved, Nike warmup shirts, Harrell donned a black T-shirt that included her picture, close to his heart.
Printed in a cursive font, the shirt’s message was the same Harrell has posted to social media for weeks since the death of his grandmother: “RIP Ma.”
“My grandmother was the one introduced me to the game of basketball," Harrell said. "One of my biggest supporters, biggest fans, one of my best friends. Only way to put it. There's no other way to explain the things she done for me. She was my entire world."
The Clippers would not be a championship contender and the Western Conference’s second-seeded team without Harrell, the backup whose statistics (18.6 points, 7.1 rebounds) reveal only part of his influence.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle noted before Game 1, a 118-110 Clippers victory, that Harrell "has an effect on their team with his energy and effort.” But Harrell would not be a finalist for the league’s top reserve, and in position to command a significant pay raise when he becomes an unrestricted free agent following this season, without the influence of his father's mother, he said.
While his two younger brothers focused on football, Harrell stuck to the game he'd played ever since his grandmother filled their house with toy hoops.
“I destroyed, I don't know, thousands of those things,” he said.
Harrell had six points and two rebounds in 15 minutes Monday in his first action since departing the NBA’s campus near Orlando, Fla., on July 17 to be with family as his grandmother’s health worsened. Harrell chronicled his three weeks away from the team through a series of emotionally raw social media posts that ranged from mourning to motivated. He began a seven-day quarantine upon returning to Disney World on Aug. 10.
When Harrell emerged in time for shoot-around Monday morning, his first time alongside teammates in one month, the reception was so loud that coach Doc Rivers joked that he thought Nelson Mandela had walked in.
“He has gone through a lot of emotional stuff,” Rivers said. “I think it was good for our guys to be able to grab him and hug him and touch him. Good for him to see us. I thought it was a good medicine.”
The timing of his departure meant that Harrell missed all eight of the team’s seeding games and must regain his conditioning and timing at a time when stakes are highest. There were times Monday when Harrell told Rivers that he was running to the wrong spots while remembering plays.
There was no debate whether he would return to North Carolina, to the home where his mother, father, a brother and two aunts live.
“We've always been that tight,” Harrell said Tuesday, the day before Game 2 of the series with Dallas. “… But I had to do it. This is the role I've took on for my family since I can remember. I can't stop now. I'm never going to stop. It just means that I have to do it to an extremely higher level.”
Teammates empathized with his decision to leave because Harrell is one of four Clippers whose arrival or stay at the NBA bubble was either delayed or interrupted by the death of a loved one. During his quarantine, teammates occasionally stopped by his room to chat through the door.
“It wasn't just one of those, ‘Hey, sorry for your loss,'” Harrell said. “No. Every person on the team really wrote a message to me, what they reflected on, instances of something they had to deal with in this matter in life, just words that would help me be able to get through this time.”
Said teammate Lou Williams, a close friend and fellow finalist for the league's top reserve: “When we get an opportunity to step inside the lines, that is an opportunity to let our minds go, let our hearts be free, kind of let go of some of that grief, let go some of that hurt and bond with the guys. ”
With players isolated from their families, the NBA restart has led such bonds to grow tighter, Rivers said.
“We are their family right now,” Rivers said. “They're with us every day. They're not coming home to a girlfriend or wife. They're going back to their rooms and they're coming back to us.”
Harrell was still wearing his custom warmup shirt as he approached the scorer’s table Monday to check in for the first time. But in truth, his tribute began hours earlier while choosing an entirely different outfit for his ride to the arena — pink shorts, pink button-up shirt, pink highlights on his sneakers.
I got back to my room last night and shared a great amount of tears and conversation with you. Because I couldn’t call you like we always do, I couldn’t hear your voice, you didn’t have my joke for me, and I am still adjusting MA. I MISS YOU SO MUCH, you wore Pink to your Eternal Home in the sky, so it’s only right I wore it heading back into a game that you brought me to know and love. I LOVE YOU MA, AN I WILL HONOR YOU EVERY DAY IN EVERYTHING I DO! I LOVE YOU AND KEEP A PLACE WARM FOR ME TILL WE TOGETHER AGAIN!
A post shared by Montrezl Harrell (@trezz24) on Aug 18, 2020 at 9:14am PDT
Pink was his grandmother’s favorite color, he said.
"Coming back into my first game since the season ended, dealing with that tragic loss, it's tough. Still wears on me to this day," he said. “... I wanted to connect with her going back into something that she's empowered me and instilled in me to do, that I found this love and passion that was passed along from her.”