For Wizards guard Tyronn Lue, the team's chase for a playoff berth -- Washington is three games behind Milwaukee for the final Eastern Conference postseason spot -- is important, but it's not life and death.
That realization came unexpectedly a few weeks ago when he received a phone call from family members in his home town of Mexico, Mo., telling him that Tyrone George, 62, the maternal grandfather who virtually raised Lue, was near death. Cancer has rendered the man he calls "my best friend" on life support, alive in only the medical sense.
"This is kind of hard," said Lue, who added that there were other issues going on with his family back home that he did not want to make public.
George's condition remains the same, Lue said Thursday. And, the strain of the past few weeks has taken its toll on the point guard.
For more than a week, Lue chose not to share his concern, internalizing the sorrow and pain. It wasn't until assistant coach Larry Drew, whose relationship with Lue dates from their time together with the Los Angeles Lakers, took him aside that Lue opened up during a practice in Oakland the day before the Wizards played the Golden State Warriors.
"I was reading his body language and, after watching the Phoenix game, I knew he wasn't himself," Drew said. "I knew he had injuries and stuff and sometimes it takes a little while to get back into things but he didn't seem to be that cheery guy."
Lue's on-court issues included a healing-but-still-separated left shoulder. Off the court, Lue made matters worse late last month when he likened the war in Iraq with the Wizards' push for a playoff position.
"I went to him and he and I sat down for an hour and a half, two hours," Drew said. "That's when he opened up and said he's going through some personal things."
Said Lue: "It felt good to finally open up. My grandfather was like my father since my father was never really around. When I was younger I lived with my grandparents -- a lot of young kids are growing up with their grandparents. He taught me a lot of things. He taught me to be a man and he did the things that a father should be there to do for you. He did a lot of those things for me.
"Growing up he's been one of my closest friends and I could always count on him for information I needed. Or, if I'm down he'll get me straight. We did a lot of fun things together, like playing basketball, going fishing, learning how to do this and do that."
Drew immediately relayed his conversation with Lue to Coach Doug Collins. Collins said he told Lue, "If you've got to go, go take care of your family stuff. If you can't put your heart and soul into this then you've got to go see him. If you have to get that taken care of then you go. He said, 'No, I'm going to stay here.' "
Collins inserted Lue into the starting lineup against the Portland Trail Blazers, a game after the loss to the Warriors. The Wizards won. Lue felt great to help reinvigorate the team's playoff hopes. Since getting back the starting job he first lost to Larry Hughes, then lost to his shoulder injury, Lue has averaged 14.6 points and 5.3 assists. It has arguably been the best run of success in his five-year career (he is averaging a career-high 8.5 points).
Even so, when the games end, Lue's thoughts sway back to his family and his grandfather.
"Hopefully he'll be able to live until the season's over with," said Lue, who will become a free agent after the season. "They said it's not 100 percent he's going to die. He's got cancer and he's on life support but he's a strong man and hopefully he'll make it through. The way my grandfather is, he would want me to try to finish up this playoff run. It's a big time in my career and a big time for this team."
Only two of Lue's teammates, Bobby Simmons and Juan Dixon, knew about his personal strain at the time. Some Wizards players still don't. He didn't want his problems to become an issue in an already unstable locker room. Dixon, who lost both of his parents as a youth to HIV-related diseases, offered Lue counsel.
"I said, 'You can't get down,' " Dixon said. "You've got to stay strong for your grandfather. Let it be motivation for you to work harder."
Lue said that talking about things made him feel better and the support he received from those he's spoken with has done a world of good. He calls home to see how things are going but the news is rarely positive.
So Lue keeps plugging along, smiling when he can, wishing his grandfather could see him battling on the court.
"I know he did what he could for me so I could be here," Lue said. "Giving everything I can is the least I can do."