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Golden: LaMarcus Aldridge is leaving the NBA with plenty gas left in tank

Texas ex played 15 seasons

Texas ex LaMarcus Aldridge blocks Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker's shot in the first half of last Saturday's game in New York. It turned out to be Aldridge's last game. He announced his retirement Thursday due to an irregular heartbeat after 15 seasons playing for three teams.
  • Aldridge retired Thursday after 15 seasons.
  • Aldridge played most of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • He played five seasons with the San Antonio Spurs

LaMarcus Aldridge had plenty left, but he made the smart decision to walk away.

The Texas ex abruptly retired from the NBA on Thursday, a few days after showing his new team that he was far from finished.

In a span of two minutes in a blowout win over New Orleans on April 7, Aldridge blocked two driving layup attempts by young Pelicans freight train Zion Williamson and sank a 3-pointer on the other end.

It was quintessential Aldridge, giving us a peek at one of the best tool bags in the Association, just as he had for the previous 14 seasons.

My first thought upon watching him work was: if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving stay healthy, the Brooklyn Nets, with Aldridge showing us he has lots of tread left on his basketball tires, are going to win the championship in blowout fashion.

More:Rick Barnes reflects on LaMarcus Aldridge’s retirement while Chris Beard builds up Texas

That could still happen, but Aldridge won’t be a part of it.

His next game — last Saturday, against the Lakers — turned out to be his last. An irregular heartbeat ended a great career of one of the better people to lace up the sneakers. Aldridge had experienced the same condition his rookie season, and the recurrence 14 years later was enough for him to call it a day at the age of 35.

"Though I'm better now, what I felt with my heart that night was still one of the scariest things I've experienced,” Aldridge said in his statement. “... For 15 seasons, I’ve put basketball first, and now, it’s time to put my health and family first.”

The news sent shock waves not only through the NBA but through Aldridge’s University of Texas family. He’s a beloved figure in these parts, respected for how he represented the school but also just for being a really cool person.

“He looked rejuvenated once he got out of San Antonio,” said former Longhorns teammate A.J. Abrams. “Anytime you can leave and go to a place you can handpick and have a fresh start ... I thought the level of excitement with him in Brooklyn was great. I couldn’t believe the news.”

Texas players, from left, P.J.Tucker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brad Buckman and Daniel Gibson celebrate after surviving an upset bid by Penn in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

Former college teammate Brad Buckman, an Austin resident now working in real estate, drove down to San Antonio on Thursday night to hang out with his old friend. He called me from the car while en route and recalled the good times he had with Aldridge on Rick Barnes’ teams in 2005 and 2006.

Buckman was two years ahead of Aldridge and remembers the youngster from Seagoville getting banged around in physical pickup games against tough-minded former Horns who would show up in the offseason for a run.

“It all started with guys like Brian Boddicker, Gabe Muoneke, Maurice Evans and James Thomas,” Buckman said. “That was Coach Barnes’ pedigree. He wanted to muscle other teams around. A guy like LaMarcus was willing to put in the work. He showed up every day to take everyone on. He had the right mindset, the talent, work ethic, drive and determination at that time. We all knew he had the potential to be great.”

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Barnes, it so happens, was watching that same game with the Pelicans. He knew Durant was making his return to the lineup after a 23-game absence. Like yours truly and Abrams, he saw an Aldridge who looked refreshed after being granted his release from the Spurs. And just like the rest us, the sudden retirement came as a shock.

Over our 30-minute conversation, Barnes traveled down memory lane, recalling the gentle giant from Seagoville whose high school coach would leave goodies in his office in case his best player didn’t have food, to the insecure 6-foot-10 freshman who had to develop a higher release point on his jumper because 7-foot alum Chris Mihm was blocking every shot he put up, to the outgoing sophomore who bawled in the corner of the locker room as Barnes spoke after a devastating NCAA Tournament loss to LSU, to celebrating with Aldridge in the NBA draft green room in 2006 when the Chicago Bulls selected him with the second overall pick.

“He’s just a wonderful person,” Barnes said. “I’m a lucky and blessed man to have had him in my life. I always asked him when he played for me, 'If you make it big and something happens to me, will you take care of my family?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ 

"He asked me the same question and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I love the guy.”

LaMarcus Aldridge played nine seasons with Portland and is the franchise's career leader in total rebounds. He also ranks third in total points scored and fourth in blocked shots.

LaSalle Thompson, Mihm and T.J. Ford had better college careers, but Aldridge is in an exclusive club with Durant and Hall of Famer Slater Martin as UT players who became stars at the next level.

The conversation will invariably turn to whether a Hall of Fame person had a Hall of Fame career.  LA was a pro’s pro who is the latest member of a super team of legends —  Pete Maravich, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Steve Nash, John Stockton, Reggie Miller and Allen Iverson — who never won a title.

He averaged 19.4 points and 8.2 rebounds and missed scoring 20,000 points  — recognized by some as the benchmark for Hall of Fame credentials — by a mere 49 points. The seven-time All-Star was never first-team All-NBA, but that isn’t a prerequisite, as current Hall of Famers Miller, Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars can attest.

History will remember him as a member of Portland’s Mount Rushmore, along with Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler and his former Blazers teammate Damian Lillard. He left as the career leader in rebounds while ranking third in total points and fourth in blocks.

“It’s time for the Blazers to retire No. 12,”  Lillard said on ESPN. “There’s no denying the kind of career he had in Portland and what he meant to the city. I think that’s proper respect to retire that jersey because of who he was and what he did for this organization.”

Aldridge played the game on his own terms, and while the ending wasn’t of the fairy tale variety, he walks away with dignity, a boatload of money and enough memories to fill an entire library.

And, most important, he has the respect.

Job well done.