Outlaw in waiting
• Trail Blazer draft pick has a ways to go before he sees significant playing time
Travis Outlaw is taking on the look of a wily veteran.
Why, after a recent game-day shootaround, the Trail Blazer rookie let coach Maurice Cheeks beat him in a shooting game they have every so often.
'I beat him a couple of times; I didn't win today,' Outlaw says after catching a minor barrage of trash talk from the coach.
What did Cheeks say as he walked off the court and into his office?
'He was just jokin' on my jump shot,' Outlaw says.
Outlaw, always a good sport, takes it in stride. A good relationship with the coach can't hurt when you are trying to move up the ladder on the team's depth chart.
There is nowhere to go but up. Since Feb. 4, Outlaw has been on the Portland injured list, beset with 'bilateral patellar tendinitis.' The Blazers are playing along with the NBA's charade mandating that each player on a team's de facto taxi squad must list an injury. In truth, Outlaw is healthy as a bustling young colt, with hops rivaled only by Qyntel Woods on the Blazer squad.
But Outlaw is not playing. The Starkville, Miss., native has seen 11 minutes of mop-up duty in seven games this season, collecting four points and no meaningful playing time. As an injured-list player, he works hard on individual skills with assistant coaches for 45 minutes prior to each game, then watches the game in street clothes from behind the Blazer bench.
Outlaw's 'games' are on the practice court each day, matching his developing talents against the Blazers' other small forwards Ñ Woods, Darius Miles and Ruben Patterson.
'I have to motivate myself as if it is a game situation,' he says.
'Sitting down during the real games is the toughest part,' Outlaw says. 'But the way I look at it, it is just a learning step for me. I am going to get as much learning as I can right now, and maybe next year, I can produce for this team.'
Few rookies have entered the league as raw as Outlaw, a willowy graduate of Starkville High whom Portland made the 23rd selection in last June's draft. Shy, country-simple and yet to shave his face, Outlaw simply wasn't prepared to make an impact in the NBA this season.
'This is all new and different for Travis,' Cheeks says. 'He has a lot to learn. He doesn't know a whole lot about some fundamental things we do in the NBA. We have to teach him how to work. We need to teach him to push himself a little bit harder. In high school, he was better than everybody else. You can get away without doing some things.
'He is a good offensive player in terms of getting the ball into the basket. His jump shot isn't pretty, but it works. He is athletic and has great jumping ability, but his defense is suspect. He needs to work on that, which is another thing that is typical of a guy just a year out of high school. He doesn't understand the nuances of defending, particularly one-on-one. It is going to take a little time.'
Priority was bulking up
The first thing Outlaw had to do when he hit training camp last fall was to improve his physique. A legitimate 6-8, Outlaw Ñ who won't turn 20 until September Ñ weighed barely 200 pounds when he arrived in Portland last summer.
'Unlike LeBron James, who has a full body, Travis has a kid's body,' Cheeks says. 'He is nothing like he will be two to three years from now.'
Outlaw now is at 218 pounds, thanks in part to a rigorous weight-training program engineered by the team's whip-cracking strength and conditioning coach, Bob 'the Bandit' Medina.
'Bobby has done a great job with Travis in the weight room,' assistant coach John Loyer says. 'He is getting stronger. Physically, he feels good about himself, and deservedly so. But his conditioning needs to improve. He can shoot the ball, but until a guy is in shape, he can't shoot with the same repetition. He has great lift on his shot, but if you are worn out, your legs feel different and you can't get the same lift.'
Outlaw signed a letter of intent to play at Mississippi State before he decided to turn pro. He has watched with mixed emotions as the Bulldogs, ranked fourth nationally, have amassed a 25-3 record this winter and serve as a veritable contender for the NCAA championship.
'I am happy for them,' he says. 'I know just about all the players, and I have talked to them a little bit. At the beginning of the season, I was kind of like, 'Maybe I should have gone to college.' But now, I'm glad I went to the NBA. I think it is best for me. I'm learning a lot.'
It doesn't hurt that Outlaw is making $943,000 this season, certainly more than what he would have reaped as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Outlaw's coaches don't worry about his attitude or behavior. Travis' father, John, is assistant chief of police in Starkville. John and his wife, Markeeta, raised their children in the Baptist faith and have instilled strong values. They remain a support system, having visited Portland twice. And John Jr., Travis' 26-year-old brother, is living with him here now.
'It is real important to have John out here, to have somebody at home with you,' Travis says.
Often on off nights in town, Travis accompanies John to his city-league basketball games. Most of the rest of the free time is spent playing video games and watching movies, 'and we sometimes go sightseeing,' he says.
What have the Outlaws seen?
'I don't know where it was, but it had nice scenery, just riding along and looking at it,' he says.
During the fall, Travis and John Jr. served as volunteer coaches for Jesuit's Catholic Youth Organization high school team that played on Sundays.
'Travis is a very good person,' says Tennessee-bound quarterback Erik Ainge, who played on the team. 'He was a good influence on us, a good role model for people to look at an NBA player and see how he acts.'
Team's notoriety an issue
John Outlaw Sr. acknowledges he had reservations about Portland's 'Jail Blazer' reputation when Travis was drafted.
'As a father and police officer, you just say, 'Well, here we go now,' ' Outlaw says. 'We had that father-and-son talk. I told Travis, 'They already have enough bad press with the team; you don't need to add to that.' Everybody is going to be looking at you a little bit. You need to be a positive influence, not just for the team but for the community.'
But Outlaw says he doesn't really worry about his son getting into trouble, or the influence of his older teammates on him.
'In my profession, you run across good policemen and bad policemen,' Outlaw says. 'Just because you run across the bad type, you can't stop working. If you truly like playing pro basketball, it doesn't matter where you are. You have to learn to adapt and go on. You can take what was happening with the Blazers and make it a positive. Like I told him, once he leaves the practice facility, find things to do. Go fishing. Coach a team. Do things that won't put you in trouble's way.
'You can't control who you are around. You can only control yourself. With his upbringing and family connections, Travis will do pretty well. He is young and subject to making some mistakes, but I don't think it will be drinking or drugs or anything like that. Maybe oversleeping or that sort of thing. You can never say never, but you hope and pray everything turns out OK.'
Travis shrugs when the subject is brought up.
'It ain't hard to stay out of trouble,' he says. 'You know what's right and wrong. Just stay on the right side.'
Outlaw says many of his veteran teammates have been helpful in showing him the ropes.
'Derek (Anderson) and Damon (Stoudamire), especially, and É what's their names?' he asks, referring to new teammates Theo Ratliff and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. 'Like, they tell me when I am out there on the court, joking around, 'It's time to get serious.' They just keep me on track.'
Outlaw's future with Portland is anything but secure. The Blazers can protect eight players from Charlotte when the Bobcats make their selections in the June 22 expansion draft. Odds are Portland's protected list will include Outlaw, but nothing is set in stone.
'You could make a case for either/or,' Portland General Manager John Nash says, 'but there is a lot of time before we have to make that decision.'
If Outlaw stays with Portland, his development during summer-league play will go a long way toward determining whether he will be in the hunt for playing time next season, or whether that tendinitis will act up again.