Motivated by his brother’s death, Trevor Ariza has persevered to success with Wizards


Wizards forward Trevor Ariza is motivated by the memory of his brother Tajh, who died in an accident during their childhoods. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

While spending some time with his oldest son, Tajh, in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, Trevor Ariza was startled by a question that required both a response and an explanation.

“How come you didn’t name me Trevor?” Tajh, 6, asked his father.

Ariza was planning to share the story with his son, waiting for a time when Tajh would fully understand what the name meant and why it will always serve as an inspiration. Whether or not Ariza felt Tajh was ready, the opportunity had arrived.

“I told him, ‘Because I named you after a better person,’ ” Ariza recalled, his eyes welling up. “I told him, ‘I named you after my brother, who was the best person I ever met in my life.’ ”

Ariza, 28, endeared himself to Washington Wizards fans — and reintroduced himself to many who lost track of him after he won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 — when he tied a franchise playoff record with six three-pointers and scored a playoff career-high 30 points on April 27 in Game 4 of the team’s first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. The breakthrough performance, which finally brought his mostly overshadowed contributions to the forefront, helped the Wizards reach the second round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2005.

But the moment that defines Ariza’s life occurred 18 years ago on another continent. Ariza, then 10, was in Caracas, Venezuela, where his stepfather Kenny McClary was making his latest stop as a professional basketball player.

The journey had already taken the family on a world tour through leagues in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the Philippines and Turkey. McClary also played in two minor leagues in the United States. In Caracas in March 1996, Ariza joined his mother, Lolita, to watch McClary play while his younger brothers, Kenny, 8, and Tajh, 5, stayed behind with a babysitter at a high-rise hotel. Just before tip-off, Ariza noticed McClary being pulled off the court. Trevor’s mother told him to go check on his stepfather.

Ariza approached the locker room and saw a weeping McClary break a table in half with his bare hand. Rushing back to find his mother, Ariza realized both of his parents were already gone, leaving him alone, lost and confused.

“I just remember like, everybody standing up and the announcer said, in Spanish, ‘We’re going to take a moment of silence,’ ” Ariza said. “Come to think about it, it’s crazy. They left me at the arena.”

Ariza remembers leaning against a railing and looking toward the ceiling before catching a ride on the back of a moped to the hotel, which was surrounded by police and emergency vehicles. When he made it up to the room, Ariza found out Tajh had fallen from an open window, more than 30 floors up, to his death.

Tajh’s death led to the dissolution of Kenny and Lolita’s marriage. Lolita, a former Miss Turks and Caicos, moved her surviving sons to Los Angeles. McClary, who starred in college at Florida, returned to his native state.

Trevor’s brother Kenny, who had been playing with Tajh, suffered nightmares and the torment of hearing his little brother screaming for his mother. Ariza had to deal with the loss of a brother with whom he shared a bed.

“They were more close than he and I were,” Kenny said in a recent telephone interview. “As kids when we talked about what we wanted to do, my younger brother, he wanted to be an athlete. When he passed, my brother really took it to heart, like I’m going to make it for all of us.”

An up-and-down career

In a family where basketball was at the center, Ariza was drawn to the game. In high school, he spent all of his free time in the gym or Los Angeles’s Westchester Park in pursuit of a career in the NBA.

“I looked at basketball as something that I love and escape from the real world, and in order to continue to escape the real world, you got to work hard at it,” he said.

Ariza played on powerhouse teams at Westchester High, which featured future NBA players Amir Johnson, Hassan Adams, Bobby Brown, Marcus Williams and Gabe Pruitt and former Georgetown players Ashanti Cook and Brandon Bowman.

Westchester won two California state titles. The team was so popular, Ariza said, “The Clippers used to come watch us play.”

After one season at UCLA, Ariza declared for the 2004 NBA draft, a decision he initially made to test the waters before a falling-out with then-Bruins Coach Ben Howland led him to keep his name in the pool. He fell to New York at the 43rd pick.

“At that time, he was an excellent athlete in terms of running and jumping and he never quit on a play. So he had all the things that you can really put a skill set on top of,” said Isiah Thomas, who was president of the Knicks in 2004. “He was a willing learner and he was someone who was committed to getting better.”

But a promising rookie season was followed by frustration as he clashed with Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown. Ariza had lost his spot in the rotation and expressed his confusion about the decision. Brown responded by calling Ariza “delusional,” a comment that still stings.

“That was a real tough time for me. Because being young, and this legendary coach is telling you not to look at the basket, telling you not to shoot. That messes with your confidence,” Ariza said.

Ariza approached Thomas for a trade and was shipped to Orlando, where he again met a coach in Stan Van Gundy who didn’t have any interest in Ariza shooting outside of 10 feet. Stuck behind Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, Ariza was traded to his hometown Lakers.

The move — and an injury suffered his first season in Los Angeles — would change the trajectory of his career.

In January 2008, Ariza broke a bone in his right foot during practice. Sidelined for four months, he was limited to shooting stand-still jumpers, forcing him to improve his form and develop more accuracy from three-point distance. The next season, his second with the Lakers, Ariza had the encouragement of both Kobe Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson.

“They all told me, ‘You have to shoot, because you can shoot the ball,’ ” Ariza said. “I was one of those people that sometimes needed the, ‘You’re good. We got this.’ Phil was one of the masters of manipulating your mind to work the way he wants it to work. It was a beautiful thing.”

Ariza played a career-high 82 games in the regular season, then made more clutch three-pointers than any Laker other than Bryant to help his team beat Van Gundy and the Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals. Ariza fully expected to return to the Lakers as a free agent that summer. Instead, he found out the Lakers had replaced him with Ron Artest.

“I know he didn’t want to, because L.A. is home for us,” Kenny said of his brother leaving the area. “But at the same time, he had to realize this is a business and everything isn’t going to go the way he wants to, so he just had to deal with it and move on.”

Ariza signed a five-year, $33 million deal with Houston. After a challenging season in which he flopped as an offensive focal point, he was traded again, to New Orleans. Another trade after the 2011-12 season sent Ariza to Washington. On his sixth team in eight seasons, he seemed destined to be a journeyman passed along to any team willing to take on his contract. In his first season with the Wizards, he suffered a strained left hamstring and lost his starting job.

“It was different. It was definitely different than what I was used to,” Ariza said. “Nothing against my teammates, but I wasn’t happy about that. And I kind of let my frustration get the best of me. And I didn’t play well and I didn’t do anything that I normally do. I was just frustrated.”

The Wizards nearly shipped Ariza to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Caron Butler in February 2013 before the deal was nixed by Clippers owner Donald Sterling. And after Ariza picked up his player option for this season, Washington made him more unsettled in the summer after drafting Otto Porter Jr. and re-signing Martell Webster.

“I was like, ‘Okay, the writing is on the wall about what you guys think of me and the direction you guys are going in,’ ” said Ariza, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.

‘Sheer hard work’

Instead of being a malcontent, Ariza helped the team come together behind the scenes. He made a suggestion to owner Ted Leonsis to provide meals for the players after practice. When the team got off to a 2-7 start, he organized a players-only meeting that he refuses to acknowledge but his teammates credit for turning around the season.

On the floor, Ariza has put together the best season of his career. He made a career-high 180 three-pointers in the regular season — the fourth-highest total in franchise history. He averaged 14.4 points and a career-high 6.2 rebounds and locked down several of the top scorers in the NBA. In the first-round series against the Bulls, Ariza helped silence Chicago’s leading scorer D.J. Augustin, made several huge three-pointers and scrapped for rebounds.

With the Wizards in the midst of one of their most successful campaigns in the past 35 years, Ariza was asked if he wanted to return.

“I don’t know. It would be nice to come back here, but again, who knows what’s going to happen,” said Ariza, denying a rumor that he desires a return to the Western Conference to be closer to family. “That’s not . . . I don’t have to. Wherever I’m wanted. Whoever wants me on their team, I guess.”

Ariza’s transformation from a one-dimensional slasher with limited range to a versatile glue guy and consistent deep threat has been gratifying for Thomas, the man who drafted him.

“Out of all the players I ever drafted, [Ariza] is probably the one I’m most proudest of how far he had to come to get to where he’s at,” Thomas said. “The thing that I was always impressed with him about was his sheer determination. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player that was more determined to be good and succeed than him. Everything that he’s become, it’s because of sheer hard work.”

The motivation for that hard work can be found in the tattoos covering Ariza’s body that pay tribute to his brother — the praying hands on his right arm, the picture of Tajh’s face on the left side of his chest, the etching on his left wrist that reads, “Blood is thicker than water. I am my brother’s keeper. Rest in peace, Tajh. I miss you.”

Tajh now lives on in Ariza’s first-born.

“That was my best friend,” said Ariza, who has a 1-year-old daughter, Taylor, and another son, Tristan, who will turn 3 on Wednesday, with his girlfriend, Bree. “He’s the one who told me I was going to play in the NBA. So, every time I step on the court, before our games and every night, I always pray for him. Tell him to look out for me.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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