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© 2017 Gerald Henderson Jr.

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Gerald Henderson Jr.

Portland Trailblazers

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Duke Pride

Winning a national championship is every college basketball player’s dream. When you don’t accomplish that goal, it’s definitely disappointing. But only one team can win it all, and there are hundreds of student-athletes feeling the same as my Duke Blue Devils right now. Every year, Coach K would tell us that even with his storied success in the NCAA tournament, almost every season besides three (at the time) ended in a loss. You just can’t win every year.

For a lot of programs, making it to the Sweet 16 is almost like winning the championship. That's not the case at Duke. I know the program doesn't look at this year as a failure, but of course we wanted to win the whole thing. Who doesn't? Regardless of how the season ended, as a Duke graduate, I am very proud of this years' team. People thought we’d have a down year after winning the title the year before, but losing three players to the NBA. They experienced some difficulties throughout different stretches of the season, but they stuck together. And they did have some really good moments, like beating Carolina (who’s headed to the Final Four), and some other tough wins. Though young, they were an extremely resilient and hardworking group. They were one of the last 16 teams standing, and at points during the year, they were out of the top 16 in terms of ranking. So they really came together toward the end of the year and worked themselves back in to the mix.

I didn’t get to see the Sweet 16 game vs. Oregon live because we had a game that night. But my guys went up against a tough, #1 seeded team, and knew going in that they were going to be challenged. We faced a talented player in point guard Dillon Brooks, who had a great game, and then we didn't play our best ball. And when that happens, you usually get eliminated. That’s what this time of year is about. In addressing the team after the tough loss, I can't imagine that Coach K was too negative toward his team because they did play hard for him all year. From my experience, Coach K is the ultimate motivator and gives some great speeches. However, his best words were typically before we headed out to win a game. I can't remember a GREAT post-loss speech (that I can share). Preparation is one of Coach’s keys to success. From experience, I know that there's no thought of his that would lead him to be prepared for a speech after not coming out on top. Competing and ultimately winning is the only thing important to him.

I know how tough it is to lose when you think you are capable of more. During my junior (and final) year of college, I didn’t play my best in the tournament. Our first-round game against Binghamton was an easy one for us to win, and we beat Texas after that and I played well. But Villanova (who went on to the Final Four) killed us in the Sweet 16. I played my worst game of the entire year. It was very disappointing. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that you are not going to be the champion, especially because I thought we had a team that could win.

That summer I left early for the NBA, and the following season Duke won the national championship. In a lot of ways I felt like I was part of the win because I played so many games and went through so many practices and battles with my teammates and friends who won it. Following the win, I saw one of the assistant coaches at the time, Steve Wojciechowski. He came over to me and said, “Man, you helped us get here. Just know that.” That was a great feeling! When Duke wins, we all win.

People always ask me, “Do you regret leaving early for the NBA?” The answer is no. I look at things realistically. Had I stayed, the team would have been very different. Team chemistry is such a delicate thing, and there’s no telling if we would have gelled as well with me there or not. My departure also gave guys like Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler a chance to really shine. I have no regrets. I made the choice to go to the NBA, and I’m currently living my dream. I wish we had won the national championship during my time there, when I had the chance! If there’s anything for me to regret, that would be it.

Now, as a seven-year NBA veteran, I can say that thankfully my play in the tournament didn't affect my Draft stock too much…and typically doesn't for most players. These young guys thinking of making the jump shouldn’t worry about how their play will affect them at the next level. NBA scouts look at players as a whole over a long period of time. A couple games probably won’t shape their opinion of you. Believe me, they know what you can and can’t do way before March Madness begins.

At the end of the day, so much of how the tournament plays out has to do with the talent level on a team. This weekend, we’ll see quite a few pros coming out of this Final Four. The NCAA Tournament is also about who is playing well at that time. If a team that started off strong isn’t gelling well at the end of the season, they can easily end up losing early on. It takes a team that’s playing their best ball at the end to come away a champion…and that’s true in both college and the NBA.

This time of the year in college can run you down a bit. However, I actually remember being in my best shape at the end of the season. There are times during the season when your body feels beat up. You’re traveling, you have schoolwork, practices, games. It can be a grind. But knowing that one loss means it’s all over…that’s enough incentive to remain focused and push through. In recent years, I think Coach K is more cognizant of the connection between health and performance, and the importance of rest. There are probably more coaches embracing that approach, especially with the advancements in recovery technology and training.

I feel really good about where the Duke program stands today. The current group has a lot of room to grow, and next year we have the #1 recruiting class coming in. And I assume that if Grayson Allen decides to come back to school, we’ll take the #1 preseason spot also. Kids want to be a part of a great college atmosphere and play for the best coach so they pick Duke. Now it's time to reload, move forward and chase championship #6. That's the process at Duke.

Christmas...NBA Style

As NBA players, we have a job where our game schedule dictates how we spend our holidays. For most, this time of year is about spending time with your closets family and friends, but for us NBA players, it’s unlikely we will be with our families in one common place.

Something as “normal” as getting a Christmas tree must be planned around our travel schedule. This year, the only logical time I had to get one was on a day off between road trips or else I would have had to wait until Christmas Eve! The tree will probably be pretty simple this year (a couple ornaments with a star on top), but Christmas wouldn’t be the same without one, so I make sure to get one regardless of what city we play in on the holiday. And as far as Christmas shopping goes, I end up doing most of that online. There’s not much time to hit the mall!

I’ve been blessed to have some great coaches in the NBA. Not just X and O coaches, but ones who believe that players should be with their families on holidays when it’s possible. Most coaches, I presume, want to be with their families as well. Again, that's what the holiday is about. Also, this time away is good for the overall morale of the team. I think guys come back refreshed after a day or so with their families.

With my sister Jade. I was probably about 6 or 7 here.

Even though our team will be home in Portland on Christmas this year, it’s going to be hard for my family to come all the way out to the Pacific Northwest to celebrate. It's different now. Both my brother and sister are married and have their own family Christmases planned on the east coast. Honestly, I don’t even have enough furniture to house everyone at my place yet in Portland! Long gone are the Christmases that I loved as a child, with our whole family all watching Christmas movies, singing carols, maybe sitting around a fireplace. I grew up in a cold city (Philadelphia) and had family in New York, so our holidays felt traditional, kind of like what you see in the movies. The snow, the lights, etc.

A young Gerald Jr. with Santa!

As a very young kid, with a Dad who played in the NBA, I can remember traveling to spend Christmas in whatever city he was in on that day. We tried to make it feel like Christmas, but it wasn’t very homey. After he retired, around when I was 5, we spent many memorable holidays together as a big family. That’s definitely something I miss!

When I think back to my most memorable Christmas as an NBA player, there’s definitely one that sticks out. I had just bought a house in Charlotte, and later that month my whole family came out to celebrate Christmas together in my new house. My mom took over and decorated the entire house. She cooked all my favorite foods and made the holiday feel like it did when I younger. To top it off, it snowed on Christmas Day (in Charlotte, North Carolina of all places) and we did not have to play, practice or travel. It was about as close to perfect as you could get.

Like most, as I’ve gotten older, Christmas has become less and less about giving and receiving presents. I grew up in a very Christian family, so it’s a religious holiday for me. I always try to "remember the reason for the season.” I do, however, think every kid deserves to have the excitement of opening up a present on Christmas. Therefore, in the past I have participated in toy and gift drives that allow this to happen. I plan to find a place in Portland this year that will help the less fortunate youth enjoy Christmas like every kid should.

I want to wish a very happy holidays to all of the fans out there! I hope it's one to remember, spent with family and friends!

The NBA Life: Perception Vs. Reality

As NBA players, we are very blessed. We are compensated generously to play a game that we love. I have ZERO complaints because I love my job and am so grateful every single day that I can play the sport for a living. And since our fans don’t get a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes, I wanted to share a little about that in my first blog post.

NBA fans are amazing! The fans give us the energy to push – both home and away – when you think you can’t push anymore. Fans, however, don’t get to see what goes into becoming and remaining a professional athlete, which plays a major part in the final product…the game. In other words, there’s much more that goes on behind the scenes in preparation for the game before we step onto the court.

The long flights, the practices, the conditioning, the lifting, the scouting reports…all of the important things that go into the game before we actually play. Just like a 9 to 5 job, where there are meetings, deadlines and projects, there are a number of pressures that come into play before and after each game.

I’d say most NBA fans understand and follow the game pretty well. Fans should know that there are so many factors to consider when they just sit down and flip on a game. For example, there’s a fatigue factor. Maybe a player competed in last night’s game and scored 30 points and played 40 minutes. He could have gotten into a new city at 3a.m. and woken up early to watch film before a back-to-back game. Maybe this is the team’s 4th game in 5 nights and 8th game in 12 nights. Those situations happen. I have been on teams with schedules like that and it takes a lot of mental toughness to get your body going and battle through yet another game.

In addition, there are other factors, not physically related, that play into performance. Players have different contract situations. Some want to have a big year because they will be free agents next summer; some guys don’t know how many minutes they are going to get; some guys are at the end of their playing days and are trying to stretch their NBA careers out; some guys are coming from the D-League and want to stick to a team and make their NBA dream come true. The game is composed of many pressure; physical, mental and emotional. Only NBA players and coaches can really be in tune to the dynamics that go into a team and ultimately impact what you see on the floor.

We have a job that is so different. We work and get paid for six months out of the year. For the other six months, it’s on us to work on our game and our conditioning. I will say that the majority of guys do not look at the offseason as "off" anymore. Most use the time to get better. I'd say a lot of that has to do with competition and never wanting to feel that other players are doing more than you or working harder than you. That's personally how I approach the summer. During the season there’s a lot on the line and a lot of people relying on you. A job has to get done just like anybody else has a job to get done. You have to go and produce, and that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. So you want to be ready.

For me, I try to keep things in perspective and stick with what I can control. You’ve got fans expecting you to do certain things. That’s understandable and going to happen on every team. You are expected to perform at a certain level, not only from the fans, but also from your teammates, your coaches and everybody upstairs. And that’s every night. So I try to minimize complications. I try to focus on the team goals and my own goals, which allows me to play at the highest level possible. The goals I set for myself are probably higher than most people would set for me. If I focus on both the team goals and my personal goals, then all of the other stuff will take care of itself.

Moreover, the next time you sit down on the couch and turn on a game, try to consider all of the elements that could be influencing the competition on the floor. As mentioned, there is just a lot going on. With a wider eye to the dynamics of the game, I believe that viewers could attain a greater appreciation for the truly special athletes that are in the NBA.