You gotta want it.
That's something you realize as you watch JJ Redick go about his business. It's 45 minutes before game time, and he's stationed near the far sideline, legs spread in an athletic crouch, right hand pounding a ball into the court, left hand following suit, then both hands, a ball exploding from each, smacking the court like fireworks — boom, boom, boom, the flash of orange leather flickering beneath the lower periphery of a gaze that disappears somewhere in the middle distance. He moves to the circle around the basket, pantomimes his form, introduces a ball, perfects his release as he expands his range outward like a blot of water on a carpeted floor. A cacophony of unrelated action pulses around him, but in the midst of the pregame performers and headset-wearing staff and fans filtering in, he somehow looks alone. High above his head, at various angles, the arena clocks shed their digital seconds, red numbers falling backward in unison like synchronized plot device bombs, melting toward another 48 minutes in the life of basketball's greatest traveling carnival.
"Everything I do from pretty much 90 on the clock is with a sort of intention," Redick says. "I think when you're deliberate about habits, you eventually stop being deliberate, and it becomes habitual."
He says this now with the calm sort of perspective that only a decade of success can afford. He is midway through a season that one could regard as his finest. There are years when his stroke has been purer, and his efficiency more impressive, when his team has won more, and had grander aspirations. Yet at 33 years old, and averaging a career-high 33 minutes per game, for a team that has leaned on him harder than either party could have expected at the outset of their relationship, he can look back to the beginning of this journey from a vantage that counts itself as the pinnacle.
Anybody who followed his transcendent collegiate career might snicker at the notion that his is an underdog story in the classic sense. But the NBA has a funny way of resetting trajectories, and 10 years ago Redick's own arc seemed in danger of bottoming out. Two years after leaving Duke as the ACC's all-time leading scorer and one of the most visible college basketball players in history, he was an end-of-the-bench scrub staring up at a scoreboard wondering if the only thing standing between himself and irrelevance were the two years left on his entry-level contract. By the end of the season, he would play in just 34 games, eight fewer than his rookie campaign, his minutes total having been slashed by more than half. Worse, his team seemed to be playing just fine without him — better, even, as the Orlando Magic posted a 12-game improvement and finished first in their division with 52 wins.
All of this left Redick to play out his garbage-time minutes with an uncomfortable thought swirling through his head.
Maybe it's me.
"The decision was, do you want to play in the NBA or not?" he said. "Do you want to be out of the league? That's what I was facing. I'm honest about that."
To appreciate the gravity of the moment, you must first strip away all that has happened since: the linear progression of his shooting numbers, the steady increase in his minutes, the four appearances in the conference finals, the $75 million in salary he will have accrued by the end of this season. Hindsight has a way of making the present appear as if it was the obvious outcome all along, of coloring potentiality as eventuality, and, thus, of minimizing the consequence of all of the tipping points that occurred along the way. Instead of focusing on the predictors that now seem as if they were always dead giveaways — the championship pedigree, the short, repeatable stroke — take a moment to consider a coldly rational thought.
Am I anything more than what I am? Too weak? Too slow? Too one-dimensional? Too late in development to affect serious change? And, if I suspect that I'm not, is finding out worth the risk of having been shown to be a fool?
"Listen," he says, "I had coaches in the NBA who would be like, why are you even working on this? Just work on shooting threes, that's all you're ever going to do."
In the end, Redick chose the only path whose consequences he could shoulder. At some point during that 2008-09 season, he approached Magic strength and conditioning coach Joe Rogowski with a simple but humbling admission: We need to work on my body.
The next year-and-a-half would see Redick lay the foundation upon which his last decade has been built. He and Rogowski spent hours each day in the weight room and on the track, attacking an increasingly specialized workout program the same way he had ACC defenses. This time, though, the foe was irrelevance, a future spent traipsing across Europe, playing in front of one foreign crowd after another — well-compensated, sure, but for games that served as nightly reminders that you were no longer at the pinnacle of your profession. That all those coaches had been right, that you were too skinny, too slow, too one-dimensional, and too late in the game to turn any of those things around.
"In the end, everything comes down to a guy's mentality," Rogowski said. "JJ is very, very, very competitive."
After a summer spent adding muscle to his frame, and spring to his hop, and burst to his step, Redick arrived at training camp the following September with the kind of results the Magic had hoped for when they drafted him No. 11 overall in 2006. He won the team's annual strength-and-conditioning competition, a feat he would achieve three times in his final five years there, and went on to average 17.5 minutes in 64 games during the regular season. The next year, his minutes bumped up to 22 a night, and, for the first time as an NBA player, he cracked 40 percent from three-point range.
That offseason, the summer of 2010, the Bulls signed him to a three-year, $19 million free-agent offer sheet that Orlando decided to match. Still, he sharpened his focus even more. The next summer, after abdominal surgery, he refined his workout program, his shooting drills, his post-practice and pregame routines. After signing with the Clippers, he requested an audience with Steve Nash and spent an hour picking the future Hall of Famer's brain over drinks at an L.A.-area restaurant, peppering him with questions about maximizing life on the leeward side of the sport's steep aging curve.
"His biggest thing to me, which I've tried to incorporate, is being super-efficient with time," Redick said. "When I work out on the court, I probably do less sprints than I did when I was in my 20s, but I go harder every rep. Every rep is sort of game speed, so I don't need to run as many sprints. … .It's more going really, really hard on each rep and maximizing that."
The cliche says the effort is business-like, but it's deeper than that. Redick is more craftsman than suit, his trade an extension of himself. Each game is an exhibition of his identity, which means the preparation for it is a quest for perfection, which leads to a healthy sort of neuroticism regarding everything that preparation entails.
"We all understand that that is the great separator of the NBA," Sixers coach Brett Brown said. "Our league is different from any other sport in the world in relation to our volume of games in a condensed period of time. You can't pull that off unless you have an elite fitness base. That takes discipline. He epitomizes pro."
A month or so ago, at one stop or another on the NBA's perpetual tour, Redick's path crossed with that of his old strength coach from the Magic. Rogowski, now the director of sports medicine and research for the NBA Players Association, marveled at the condition of his former pupil, suggesting that he write a book, instead of Tom Brady's TB12, he could call it JJ4 (a reference to Redick's longtime jersey number before he joined the Sixers).
"I think all players have that to some degree or else they wouldn't be in the NBA," Rogowski said. "JJ takes it to another level, where it's not just a job for him. It's a lifestyle."