Larry Hughes Q&A: 'Injuries kept me from being the best I could be'

Larry Hughes Q&A: 'Injuries kept me from being the best I could be'

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Larry Hughes Q&A: 'Injuries kept me from being the best I could be'

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Former NBA player Larry Hughes was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast to discuss his 13-year NBA career, what it was like playing alongside Michael Jordan and LeBron James, battling injuries, how raising his four children changed him and much more. Listen to the interview above or read a transcribed version of the conversation below.

Growing up in St. Louis, when did you start playing basketball?

Larry Hughes: I started playing school-yard basketball probably around fifth grade. You had your pick-up games, your “21” games. Then, I got into organized basketball during my sixth-grade year, when I was about 12 years old. From there, that was really my starting point of organized basketball and I fell in love with the environment, the competition, and it was something that I was naturally good at so I was able to kind of have a head start.

Was there a certain point when you realized that you were good enough to play college basketball or potentially make it to the NBA?

LH: No, I never really knew at each step if I was good enough to be successful at the next step. Playing youth basketball, I never translated that into whether I was going to be good in high school. I had a good high school career, but I never really thought, “Will I have a good college career?” I was just kind of in the moment at every step, and it really worked out for me that way because I didn’t get too far ahead of myself.

You were drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1998. What was your draft night like and what are some of your favorite memories from that evening?

LH: Oh, man, it was amazing. I had a lot of my family there. In my draft year, the draft was actually in Vancouver, Canada. Being from St. Louis and being in the Midwest, I got a chance to travel up to Canada to Vancouver and bring my family along – my grandmother, my great uncles, my high school coach. It was a big time for me.

You played alongside Allen Iverson in Philadelphia. I know you two developed a close relationship, so what was it like playing with Iverson and becoming friends off the court?

LH: He was one of my good friends and still is one of my good friends. We played together for a short period of time; we’ve been friends way longer. We had a connection from day one, with our family history. I had a little brother that was struggling from some medical issues and he had a little sister that was struggling from some medical issues, so that was really our bonding point. My little brother, [Justin], who’s passed away since then, actually met him before I did. So, we had a great connection off the court first.

I’m so sorry about your brother. When that happened, did that change your outlook on life?

LH: It’s perspective. It makes you live one day at a time. Nothing is promised. You have to love your family members and be there for them through tough times. That’s what it taught me, to really be in the moment and really recognize just the gift that we have.

Absolutely. In your second NBA season, you averaged 22.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals with the Golden State Warriors. What did that do for your confidence?

LH: It was huge for me. I came from a winning situation in Philadelphia. [But] I wanted to play more, I wanted to explore. I’ve never been a guy that didn’t get a lot of minutes, so that was a little foreign to me at the time. But it was a gift and a curse. Going to another team, it’s not always greener on the other side. But it did give me a chance to explore my game and understand what I could and could not do. It gave me some roles and responsibilities that I took advantage of, so I understood that I could score the basketball in the league. Then, it was just about finding out how to become a winner.

Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

You then joined the Washington Wizards and played with Michael Jordan during his final NBA season. When Jared Jeffries was on the podcast, he said that it was like traveling with The Beatles. What were some of the craziest fan interactions with Jordan that you witnessed?

LH: There were two, for me, that really stood out. On one road trip, we were going to Chicago and we were playing the Bulls. Obviously, MJ is the greatest thing since sliced bread in that city. We were going to a nightclub to hang out. And M would always hang out with the team, but he would just be there. He would just appear. He wouldn’t necessarily go through the front door and we didn’t know if he came through the back door or if they had a secret entrance for him, but he would always just be there. So we were walking in and we saw him coming in. And as we saw him coming in, all the heads turned. Also, camera phones were starting to become a big thing, so you’d see all the phones come up and now everybody is taking pictures and videos of him walking through. Charles Oakley was with him and there was one guy that would not respect the fact that M was trying to get to his seat. He would not move. Charles Oakley was a teammate, was a coach, but he was more so MJ’s enforcer. So, he had some words with the fan and the guy literally got down on his knees and waved his hands up and down like, “MJ, you are the king! You are the greatest!” Then, he just got up and he moved out of the way, and MJ sat down. I was just like, “Okay, I’ve never seen that happen in real life…” I’ve only seen that happen in the movies, so that was one time that stood out to me.

The other time, we were out at an event where they had families and kids around. We were doing some pictures and some autographs and things of that nature. M had a cigar deal and he would always have a cigar, whether it was lit or not lit. But I can remember that, at this occasion, the cigar was lit. There was this mom who wanted her kid to take a picture with MJ and she did not care that he had this stinky cigar that was lit. She forced her kid into MJ’s hands and basically forced the picture. I don’t know if this picture is still around or what, but there should be a picture around of MJ with a 12-to-18-month-old baby with a cigar in his hand. (laughs) Those were two things that stood out to me.

At that point, you were 24 years old. Were you able to learn a lot from Jordan throughout that season?

LH: I learned a lot. A lot of it had to do with off-the-court situations, whether it was how he walked into our locker room before our games, how he would go in to get treatment at a certain time before our games, how he would address the media in a way that just commanded their attention and commanded their respect, how he walked in and out of rooms. He had this presence and there was a feeling that you got when he walked into a room and when he left a room. It was more [of that stuff]. And I’m naturally like that; I’m more of a thinker and more of a watcher, so those are the things that I remember most about MJ – him off the court and his persona.

There are a lot of stories about how he was difficult to play with. In Washington, there was a lot of talk about how he was hard on the young guys (such as Kwame Brown, though Kwame says it was blown out of proportion). What was he like as a teammate and was he hard on you?

LH: We were good. I didn’t have any [issues]. We’d play cards together. I mean, I got a chance to play cards on the plane with MJ! So, I mean, that was just like a “wow” moment for me. He’s very sarcastic. He’ll get on you, he’ll poke you. And that’s sort of the things that he did with Kwame and some of the other guys. Like with Brendan Haywood, he would poke a little bit. But it was all, really, in fun and I really respected him. I guess the respect was mutual because we didn’t have any of those issues.

A lot of people act like Jordan was awful during his Wizards stint. They say he was washed up, but he still averaged 20.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals in that final season. He obviously wasn’t the same player that we saw in Chicago, but he was still very productive.

LH: I agree, 1,000 percent. He wasn’t the MJ of the Chicago Bulls, but all good players and great players have to go through that phase. But, man, I watched him in practice, I watched him do shooting games, I watched his hand-eye coordination, I watched his fitness level… I saw all the behind-the-scenes things that people may not have gotten a chance to see away from those 48 minutes. And MJ was great until he was done playing, in my opinion.

Not many people can say they played with Michael Jordan and LeBron James. What were the biggest similarities between the two?

LH: I think the natural ability, the attention to detail, the respect that they [had for the game]; they were not going to waste their God-given talent. That stands out to me the most… They had a deeper understanding that they weren’t going to let their talent be wasted. And they were going to inspire other people. I mean, even though I played with Bron when he was younger, we still had young guys who were coming to the team that looked up to Bron. It was a situation where he took advantage of that, and I think MJ took advantage of that as well, knowing that he would impact and inspire a lot of kids through a lot of different generations.

What were the biggest differences between the two?

LH: I think the trash talk. Bron would talk trash and make comments in a joking fashion, but MJ had this way of being really aggressive with the trash talk and really using body language and everything to really get his point across. He seemed to be serious, but he may or may not have been – maybe he was just trying to pull those things out of his teammates and out of his peers. But he just had this way about him [where he wanted] you to really understand that he was the greatest.

LeBron James was 21 years old when you joined the Cavaliers. What was 21-year-old LeBron like?

LH: His ears were open. He was ready to listen. He was ready to incorporate ideas into his game. He had an idea of what he wanted his game to look like, but we had many conversations – you know, early-morning, late-night conversations – about how great he wanted to be and the sort of work that he was putting in to be that great. Also, just his team and who he was surrounding himself with was also a conversation. He felt that he could support in his team in a way that everyone around him could be successful. I think that was his initial goal: For him and everyone around him to gain some success and help their families out.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The hype and expectations were crazy when he entered the NBA, but he managed to live up to it. You had a front-row seat as he developed. What was it like watching him take those next steps as a player when all eyes were on him and there were so much hype and scrutiny?

LH: I love it, man. I love his progression and how he went about things. There was a certain point where he would not listen to anyone. Then, I think he understood that he could take the good out of the things that he didn’t want to listen to and start to make [positives] out of those things and put those things into his game – the post-ups and taking the late-game shots and, now, he’s shooting the three-ball. I think these are all things that he thought about early on in his foundation and when he came into the league, as far as how he would expand this game and grow his game, and he’s put that work in.

In your opinion, who’s the GOAT?

LH: MJ is the GOAT, in my opinion. That’s really a no-brainer for me. Really, the inspiration behind wanting to push forward came from me watching MJ and how he worked and all of his videos and really instilling his work ethic in myself and trying to do the Breakfast Club. He paved the way so, for me, it’s an easy answer. LeBron, he’s not far behind. But, for me, it’s always been MJ.

You played with Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison in Golden State before reuniting with them in Washington. You put up some monster numbers at that point in your career too. How much fun were those Wizards teams?

LH: They were really fun. Eddie Jordan came in after MJ left and he put in a new system, which was the Princeton system. They were running it in Sacramento as well. And that was the change. I mean, we understood that system, we bought into it. We watched hours of film to understand where teammates would be, where we could get people in the best position to be successful. We really took ownership, along with Eddie allowing us to take ownership, in that offense and in that team. And we just kind of relied on our relationship that we had from another stop and were able to communicate and talk to each other, and we had some success there.

Looking back on your career, is there a specific season that was the most fun for you?

LH: Yeah, my last year in Washington, we had a lot of fun. We had different characters on a team: Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Jared Jeffries, Jerry Stackhouse. We had a good time hanging out as teammates. Putting all of those guys on one team that may have come from different places or were trying to make a name for themselves, we kind of put our heads together and tried to figure it out. So we were able to get some different accolades individually, but we also got the opportunity to play some playoff basketball before I left.

You were named to the All-Defensive 1st Team that year. What was the key to making an All-Defensive team? 

LH: It’s really about scouting. Scouting and you need to have a want to play defense. But it really depends on how much film you want to watch. If you know the other team’s plays like the back of your hand and if you can call the other team’s plays out, once you see a set, then that really puts you in the best position to be a good defender. I wasn’t necessarily the strongest guy or even the quickest guy or the guy who could jump the highest, but being in position gave me an advantage, especially when you talk about steals. That’s really about understanding what the next play is before it happens and being in a position to get another possession for your team.

Which season was the worst or most frustrating for you?

LH: Probably my first season in Cleveland after leaving Washington. I suffered a few hand injuries during my time in Washington and that was something that bothered me. Obviously, if you’re not healthy, then you can’t play and you can’t produce. The best thing you can do is actually be healthy enough to get out there on the floor. When I got to Cleveland, that was really my mindset – to be healthy. But I think I got hurt in the preseason. I didn’t tell anybody until around December or January that I was actually hurt, but I pretty much shattered my middle finger on my right hand, so that season was sort of a here-we-go-again sort of deal with being injured, not being able to play, not being able to live up to the contract that I just signed. So, that was a pretty tough season.

When you sign a big contract, that brings certain expectations and it looms over everything. I’ve talked to other players about the stress that comes with a big deal. It’s one of those things that players don’t like to discuss because you don’t want to seem like you’re complaining about getting millions of dollars, but it’s tough when everyone is criticizing you and bringing up the contract. What was that like for you?

LH: It was tough because, I mean, I obviously felt like I earned it. But, for me, it was personal. It wasn’t really any outside noise that would sway me either way; it was just more so the thoughts that I had inside myself that I wanted to take that next jump and I wanted to be the best player that I can be. If you’re injured, you can’t continue to grow, you can’t continue to learn. That was the tough part for me. But as far as the contract goes, fans and the outside people don’t always understand the amount of hours and the amount of work that goes into being a professional basketball player… I completely know and believe that I put in enough hours and I was focused enough to earn the contract. Now, it was internal, for me to continue to grow as a player. Like I said, it’s hard to do that when you get injured and then you take those steps back.

When you were dealing with different injuries and that’s what was holding you back from reaching your full potential, how tough was that?

LH: It’s tough because I think basketball is about rhythm, it’s about flow. And anytime that you get off and you break that flow, you break that cycle of consistent days of being productive and building and growing upon the next day. So, when you’re injured, you just pulled the plug on those consistent days. For every player that’s playing any sport, the more consistent days you can rope together, the more consistent you’ll be. Because we’re all learning and we’re all computing different things on the fly, so the more time that you can get to apply those things that you learn or you see, then the better you’ll be. If you’re injured, obviously you don’t get that opportunity. Meanwhile, other guys are in their flow, in their mix, and they’re still going. So, it’s tough. Then, you drop back into that [flow] and you have to play catch up while trying to recover from an injury as well.

Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

You have four children. How did fatherhood change you?

LH: It gave me something to look forward to and you have someone that’s looking up to you for direction, for comfort, and to make sure that they are heading in the right direction. They’re going to follow us, they’re going to watch us in every move that we make. They’re not able to critique us, but they’re watching. So, for me, I just gained more insight of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to conduct myself.

Since retiring, you run the Larry Hughes Basketball Academy. What does that entail?

LH: Well, it’s really about getting a chance to inspire and impact young people with the thought process that they won’t all make it to the NBA or the WNBA or play overseas or be paid to play any sport, for that matter. So what we’re doing is we’re using basketball as an understanding of skill development, of building a foundation, but also implementing character development. Because we understand that, again, a lot of these young people will be dropped into our communities, they’ll be dropped into our workforce, so we want to teach them how to communicate with each other, how to work as a team, how to fight through adversity, how to follow direction and how to find and create mentorships. So, we’re using basketball as a vehicle to create even more social skills.

What do you make of how the NBA has evolved in recent years?

LH: I think evolution is positive. I think that’s all a part of growth. I’m not one of those older guys that say, “The game should be played like we played it in the late ’90s and early 2000s!” I’m not one of those guys. I think the game is in a good place. I think what we’re trying to accomplish is being more efficient, and I think, fundamentally, that sounds great. I think it’s just an ongoing process of how we become more efficient. Is that more threes? Or is that more mid-range two-pointers? Well, if you’re a great mid-range shooter, then that’s probably your most efficient shot [and you shouldn’t] be swayed by the fact that the number of threes that are taken in a game is escalating… But evolution is very positive, in my opinion.

How much NBA basketball do you watch these days and are there any players who you enjoy watching the most?

LH: I watch my fair share. When I’m not spending time with the young people, I’m plopped in front of the TV watching any basketball game I can find. I’m mainly watching Boston because Jayson Tatum is from St. Louis and he’s my godson, my nephew. Every time they play, I’m pretty much tuned in. Man, Kevin Durant is out, but anytime KD is playing I like to watch him play. Damian Lillard, I’m checking him out whenever I can. There are a number of guys where I just like their journey and I liked the way that they appeared on the scene. Damian Lillard is one of those main guys that I like to watch today. The way that he goes about his businesses is ’90s-like.

As you mentioned, you and Tatum are both from St. Louis. When did you first get to know him?

LH: When he was born! Me and his dad are best friends, we’re like brothers, so I’ve known Jayson since he was in Pampers. I’ve seen his growth from his Little-League-football days to Little-League-baseball days to his [Little-League] basketball days. I talked about this on our podcast (Bleav in Wizards) that I’ve seen his growth the longest. I’d actually give him the Most Improved [award] because of the things that he’s applied to his game, his attention to detail, his taking on the challenge, his coming back after a year of adversity to make an All-Star team. These are the things that we talk about when we talk about progression. Jayson is right there atop the list.

Speaking of St. Louis, you were in a Nelly music video! The song is “Dilemma” and it came out in 2002. You play Kelly Rowland’s boyfriend. How did that come together and what was that experience like?

LH: Well, being from St. Louis, Nelly is obviously from St. Louis as well. I was playing out in Golden State and I was really active in the entertainment space; I think I had just done a few commercials for a shoe brand or something. They asked me, “Hey, do you want to do a cameo in the video?” I thought it would be a quick scene where I would pop in, they would pan the camera, you’d see my face and that would be it. But when I got there, there was a little bit more to the script. I was the boyfriend in the video that actually had his girlfriend taken by Nelly. (laughs) It was a great experience for me. It allowed me an inside track on how videos are done, the kind of the hurry-up-and-wait sort of thing that goes on with the videos and the eight-hour days for a two-and-a-half-minute video. It was a good experience for me.

You mentioned your podcast, which is called Bleav in Wizards. What’s it like entering the podcast space and how are you enjoying it?

LH: It’s new to me. I’m pretty much a laid-back type of person who’s pretty private, you may say. But I made a New Year’s Resolution that I would get more active and get more into the space because people do want to hear certain stories, and I have a ton of stories. People do want to hear certain insight from a guy that’s a natural thinker. So I just wanted to apply that to into the podcast. And I love the Wizards, so the opportunity came across my desk to talk about the Wizards and give some insight on how the team is doing, but also speak about the league and speak about different things that I understand to be true throughout the NBA, so I just kind of said, “Okay, let’s do it.” We’ve recorded two podcasts so far, so we’re just looking to do more and have some fun with it.

To give people a little preview of what they can hear on your podcast, can you share one more fun story from your playing days?

LH: Oh man, this story has kind of been out there a little bit, but it’s a story with Allen Iverson. Obviously, when I was drafted to Philadelphia, he was there and had a name for itself and had a Reebok deal. This is the son of the city; everybody loved Allen Iverson, and it was known that he did it big as far as with the cars and the Bentley’s and the jewelry and all those things. When I came into the league, we had a lockout, so we weren’t necessarily getting NBA checks, but if you had any endorsements, obviously those things were still happening. So when I went to the bank, I went to the ATM machine and I put my card in and got a couple of dollars out for the day. But I went to the bank with Allen Iverson one day, he didn’t go to the ATM. He didn’t go into the bank to talk to the teller either. He actually went into the vault. Yeah, he actually went into the vault, and this is how he took out his deposit. This was really the first interaction I had with someone who had a lot of money. When they gave Allen his money, it was still wrapped in plastic and that was something completely different than I’d ever seen. Really, I’ve only seen it a couple of times after that. But that’s one of my initial welcome-to-the-NBA stories. That was one of the craziest things that I’d ever seen at that point.

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