When it comes right down to it, you can't blame Arron Afflalo's mom for what she did. Her 8-year-old son had worn his Magic Johnson Lakers warm-ups for the better part of three years when she finally impounded them. The kid was starting to look like a faded, tattered bumblebee, for Pete's sake.
So she forcibly removed them from Afflalo's wardrobe. In spite of his tearful protests. Looking back, Afflalo — now a senior shooting guard at Compton Centennial High and one of the best high school ballers in the country — gets a kick from his loyalty to his Magic duds.
"When I first got those, I didn't shower for a week," recalls Afflalo, 18, a rock-solid 6-foot-5, 205-pounder who is rated the nation's No. 34 overall recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com. "I'd sleep in them, go to school in them, play in them. I'd go to church in them if I could. I cried when she took them off me."
A decade later, it seems spooky coincidental that Afflalo's earliest allegiance was to basketball's greatest playmaker ever. After all, Afflalo has become the type of player the original MJ would appreciate, averaging a well-rounded 26.7 points, five rebounds and five assists per game as a junior while leading the Apaches to a 20-10 record and the Division III state quarterfinals.
"What I love about him is his ability to make it happen when you need him to," says Centennial fifth-year head coach Rod Palmer, 36, a former Dominguez High point guard. "He just makes play after play after play. What surprises me is how this otherwise quiet kid is so demanding on the court. He asks for the ball, and not every elite kid is willing to do that in crunch time."
That's a big reason why Afflalo will continue his basketball career at UCLA next season, and it's also why he's hesitant to peg himself as a pure shooting guard. So much so that he requests, "Why don't you write: point guard/shooting guard." Call him whatever you want, but opponents should know this about him: If the game is on the line and a way to win exists, Afflalo will find it.
That's largely due to the fact that he has worked tirelessly on his game. Not just on skills, either. Afflalo is a conditioning freak, downright obsessed with improving his overall strength, his ability to muscle through traffic and his ups. Three times a week, he tortures his already chiseled frame through a regime of weighted broad jumps, lunges and calf raises. That's after practice, of course.
But Afflalo doesn't stop there. He's equally consumed with the in-game condition of his basketball brain.
"What I'm really trying to develop is my ability to push myself mentally as far as fighting through getting tired," says Afflalo. "I don't want to get tired, but I don't want to play tired, either. You have to develop mental strength to do that."
What's perhaps most striking about Afflalo, however, is the strength of his focus. There appear to be no real distractions. There's zero distortion in his mission.
"His attitude makes it a lot easier on me, and it makes it easier for me to get on him," says Palmer. "I know he wants to get better, so there's no hesitation about asking him to do more."
"When situations or people try to keep me from what I'm trying to do, I stay away from them," adds Afflalo. "The talent I have is something special, and you have to work your body hard to force it to do what you want it to do. When I was a freshman and sophomore, I wasn't ready physically. Once I was, the rest of my game came. In and outside of basketball, you just can't allow any roadblocks."
The words come so easily to Afflalo and flow so freely, it seems as if he's done as many interviews as Magic himself. Afflalo says his state of ease is interwoven with the language of basketball. In other words, he's just talking shop.
"It's my life, it's what's going on," he says. "I hear a lot of people say they don't like reporters. Well, they're out there getting you out there. I like them. My dad tells me to always be prepared in whatever you're doing. So I am with interviews. On top of that, I enjoy it."
Ben Afflalo has had plenty more to do with his son's evolution than simply cautioning him to keep a good sound bite in his back pocket. The elder Afflalo has deftly shepherded, encouraged, cajoled and loved Arron into young adulthood.
And his son is grateful.
"I can't even begin to explain my father's influence," says Afflalo. "He put the ball in my hands (at age 2). He's been part of all my tough decisions basketball-wise and off the court. He's a major part of my life support system."
Afflalo's most recent tough decision actually involved playing this season at Centennial. The school lost its academic accreditation before his senior year began, and he reluctantly made the decision to transfer to L.A.'s Price High.
But the same sense of loyalty that caused him to cry over those old Magic Johnson warm-ups still runs deep. Afflalo spoke to the appropriate admissions officers at UCLA and confirmed that playing at Centennial wouldn't affect his qualifying status. Apparently, he says, they were impressed with his loyalty.
"A lot of his intensity and integrity comes from his dad," says Palmer, who played college ball at UCLA in the 1980s before transferring to finish his hoop career at UC-Irvine. "Their relationship is a unique one and a great one. His dad pushes him, but not in an overbearing way. Just to the extent that Arron really wants to please his dad and his coach."
So far, the results have been magical.