Instrumental Contemplation

Norman Powell’s inward journey of reflection and rediscovery.

*Please note this story is entirely fictional, and is the fruit of the author’s imagination. Previous instalments in the  Alternate Basketball Histories series: P.J. Tucker’s originsOG Anunoby’s origins, and Jonas Valanciunas’ trials in Indiana.

Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.

– Joyce Meyer

The crowd roared at the sight of another graceful euro-step by number 55 in red, as Toronto’s bench unit demolished another hapless opponent. Norman rose to his feet in response and clapped his hands together steadily, resolute to show his support. He looked up at the jumbotron to see the replay – a deftly-executed finish in transition following a VanVleet steal.

The smiles were infectious on the bench, even DeMar and OG could not help but bare their teeth. Norm could not force a grin though, a sharp pain tugging at his heart as he sat back down. He placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, only to witness a spectacular chase-down block by Pascal moments later, and another easy run out at the other end. Ecstasy and euphoria gripped the ACC, making Norm feel all the more isolated.

It wasn’t that long ago that he was seen as the figurehead of the team’s future. Russell Westbrook lite, he remembered some had called him. When the team needed an offensive spark, a defensive boost, or even just a different look, he was the one called upon to provide it. He wasn’t envious of the success of his fellow youngsters, just the opposite – watching them was inspiring. He only wished he could play a part in it.

His time had finally come with a few minutes to spare in the fourth. His first touch, a traveling violation. The next, the ball was stripped from his hands on the drive. By the time an open long range look had presented itself, his self-belief had forsaken him, and the shot never had a chance.

In the locker room, the young upstarts took turns answering the post-game questions. They were only a literal arm’s length away, but they may as well have been in a different galaxy. Pulling out his phone, a single text from ‘D.R.’ caught his eye: “I’m coming over, we need to talk.” Norm spared a single wistful gaze toward the huddled mass of reporters before zipping up his pack and heading for the exit.

With the lights dimmed in his spacious downtown condo, eyes shut, he let his fingers work from memory on the piano. He was reproducing Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ symphony masterfully, the music calming both his mind and body.

A sudden thud woke Norm from his trance. He turned his head to the study’s arched entrance to see a hulking, grimacing seven-footer rubbing his head.

“You got the big contract man, it’s time to build a custom house with a higher ceiling,” the large man said, a hint of frustration in his voice.

“How’d you get in here?” Norm wondered aloud.

“You left the door open…”

Norm sighed. “My mind is all over the place these days.”

“That piece was phenomenal. In all my years of playing the piano, I couldn’t perform it like you just did,” the man with two massive NBA championship rings shimmering on his fingers, admitted. He spoke gently, but with an air of confidence found only in those who truly knew themselves.

D.R. in the 90’s

“I didn’t know you were in town, thought you’d be in Texas with your family this time of year.”

“I was, but had an urgent meeting come up, charity stuff. I caught the game today, and had to drop by.”

Norm’s gaze dropped as he felt a large, comforting hand on his shoulder. “I just… I don’t know what to do anymore, D,” he said with resignation.

“This is part of the solution,” D.R. pointed at the heavy piano, wondering for a moment how it had ever fit in the elevator and small entrance in the first place. He pulled out his phone and typed something in, before leaving it in front of Norm as the video played:

“…Norman Powell the rookie with the steal… We are tied! 92-92! Take it to the rim Norman Powell!“

“This was you,” the man said flatly, sauntering to a spacious red sofa where he settled comfortably. “It is you.”

“Feels like that was ten years ago.”

“Play out the rest of the piece,” D.R. suggested, as Norm turned back to the piano in compliance, closing his eyes and allowing the calm bliss to overtake him.

“What if you forget the pressure, the crowd, the expectations, and treat the game of basketball like you do your music?” his friend suggested as the dust settled on the melody. “When you start on a new piece, what do you do?”

Norm paused thoughtfully. “I analyze it. The tempo, the mood, the time signature. All before touching a single key.”

“Right. And how many pieces do you learn at a time?”

“2 or 3 at most at a time. Gets pretty tough when I try to do more.”

“And does it bother you that you aren’t learning those other pieces right away?”

“I mean, I get a little impatient sometimes, but it’s nothing major.”

D.R. nodded, a grin slowly creasing his face. “Play ball like that. I know you put in plenty of video work before games, but take that to the game itself as well. When you’re on the bench, before you even get on the floor, look at emerging matchups, tactical surprises. Look at what the team needs. Is the game too slow and in need of runouts? Who’s hot and needs the next shot? Whatever you decide your team needs, bring that first and foremost. If it’s stops, go on and play the most active defense you ever played, and forget about the offense.

“Look at your guy DeRozan, he didn’t bring out all his tools right away. He worked on them, perfected them, one move at a time. He’s now as close to a complete offensive juggernaut as there can be, in his 9th year. Have patience, work on your game one baby step at a time, and bring it onto the court gradually.”

Norm nodded in response, seeming unconvinced. “You’re right. But will that even matter? I’ve been pulled out of the rotation, don’t even have a chance to play meaningful minutes,” he sulked.

“Come on, man,” D.R. was unimpressed. “We just talked about patience. You’ve been here before, waiting for your chance, and you’ve taken it before. The club believes in you – they’ve signed you long-term. You will get your opportunity, one way or another. But most importantly, when you do, you need to get all the mental distractions out of your head. You need to feel the game like you feel your music. That, too, will come in time. One baby step at a time. Patience, Norm.” He rose and reached out for a handshake.

Norm’s eyes betrayed a quiet determination as he shook the large man’s hand. “I appreciate it, D.”

On that chilly January night in Brooklyn, Norm was thrown into spot duty to close the first half. He had decided defense was going to be his calling card in that stint, and the offense forgotten. He hounded his opposite, returning to his roots as a quality perimeter defender. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but he felt he had accomplished his goal that night. Baby steps.

And then overtime came. In a grueling physical contest, Kyle soared in the image of Icarus for yet another rebound, got too close to the sun and hurtled back onto the court painfully. It was an unnerving sight, watching his leader unable to walk off the hardwood. But as the shock passed, he had realized D.R. was right – his opportunity had arrived.

Norm played the piano for a full hour before heading to the ACC for gameday against the Heat. He prepared for the game by getting shots up and watching tape, running through different scenarios in his head. When the game tipped off, he followed the action closely, making mental notes as it went along. The Raptors needed defense and energy, a spark to ignite them and push the tempo. He tried his utmost to feel the ebb and flow of the contest, to act intuitively and in rhythm, all while focusing on providing constant energetic defense.

Norm missed more shots than he liked, blew a couple of coverages, and the Raptors failed to escape the tight affair with a win. But he found enough positives to build on. Patiently, methodically, one step at a time.