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Mazzeo: Brook Lopez is Nets' renaissance man


NEW YORK — He reads. He writes. He sketches. He loves Batman comic books, Disney movies and Michael Jackson’s music.

He already has pitched an animated television pilot, politicked to play a Wookiee in a future Star Wars picture and hopes to pen an action-adventure novel someday.

Oh, and you likely didn’t know, Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez is also learning to play the piano and speak Japanese.

Yes, Japanese.

“I always go to Japan in the offseason, so I’m trying to get better at it,” Lopez told ESPN.com recently, noting that he’s also working on learning “the Kanji,” Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese writing system.

“I know some words. I’m getting there.”

Basically, if Lopez isn’t the most fascinating man in the NBA, he’s certainly up there. His best competition might be his own 7-foot twin brother Robin, who now plays for the rival New York Knicks.

His diverse off-court interests underscore his creativity and imagination, qualities that parallel the versatility and variety of shots he brings to the hardwood. The former Stanford star possesses a soft finishing touch and lethal perimeter shooting range resembling that of a 6-foot shooting guard.

“I think the thing that describes him the most is when I found out that he was building a house that’s attached to Disney World in Orlando,” Nets point guard Jarrett Jack said. “I just thought it was very cool, very different, very unique, very Brook Lopez-ish.

“I don’t know many guys that even know they have residences attached to Disney World or Disney Land or whatever it is. But that’s something he wants to dig and dive into after his playing career is over, so that’s Brook Lopez in a nutshell.”

New York state of mind

These days, Lopez, the fun-loving, laid-back goofball who starting frontcourt mate Thaddeus Young describes as a “stone-cold killer” on the floor, is in what appears to be the best mental state of his career.

The foot injuries and trade rumors that once plagued Lopez are seemingly a thing of the past, and this summer the Nets essentially made him their franchise player, rewarding the 27-year-old with a three-year, $63.4 million contract to remain with the only organization he’s ever known.

“I just wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that I think is here,” Lopez said despite the nagging perception the Nets have wanted to get rid of him in the past.

“Just playing in Brooklyn, playing in New York is such an amazing experience — it’s something that can be so special. I’ve been in on the ground floor with that, and I want to follow it through and see where it goes. I really, truly believe that something special is going to happen here.”

A creative upbringing

Brook Lopez made up his mind pretty early on — he was going to follow in his mother’s footsteps.

“I can remember in second grade coming back from school and telling my mom, ‘You know what, before I play in the NBA, I want to go to Stanford,'” Lopez said. “Because of her, I had everything figured out.”

To her comic book aficionado sons, Deborah Ledford might as well have been Wonder Woman, raising the four of them — Alex, Chris, Brook and Robin — as a single mother on a high school mathematics teacher’s salary.

“She sacrificed so much for us,” Brook said. “She’d always be driving Alex and Chris around, getting them to basketball practice, and then she’d go pick them up and get Robin and me to wherever we needed to be. She was constantly chaffeuring us around. And then she’d get groceries for us and come back with bags upon bags upon bags, just loads and loads, and they’d last for like…two days.”

At 6 feet, Ledford had flirted with swimming in the 1968 Olympics before not making the squad and eventually attending Stanford herself.

“Our mom used to read to us every night,” said Chris, who has lived with Brook in New Jersey ever since he was selected by the Nets with the No. 10 overall pick in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft.

“And she just went through a plethora of children’s books and stories, so that was instilled in us from an early age.”

The Lopez’s maternal grandmother, Inky Ledford, had a massive library of children’s books at her Fresno, Calif., home — and the boys were frequent visitors.

“Growing up my mom was my mother and father figure. She was my role model. I looked up to her. She was all we ever needed. It was normal.”

“She had an entire room devoted to children’s books,” Chris said. “She had the first edition of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and all sorts of great children’s books, thousands of them.”

All sorts of creative avenues — including art and music — were always encouraged. When he was in elementary school, Brook Lopez played saxophone in the band and sang in the choir. He also played a ton of sports — cross country, volleyball, track-and-field, water polo among them — but basketball ultimately stood out from the rest.

Lopez’s father, Humberto, a 6-5 baseball standout from Cuba, has not been a part of his life. His parents split up when he and Robin were five.

“I saw him at southern sectional finals my senior year of high school in Los Angeles. We never communicated or asked him to come,” Lopez said. “And then I saw him maybe four years ago at a Lakers or Clippers game, and that’s about it. Growing up my mom was my mother and father figure. She was my role model. I looked up to her. She was all we ever needed. It was normal.”

Brook and Robin Lopez both had GPAs above 3.7 at San Joaquin Memorial High in Fresno, and ended up at Stanford. The NBA careers they both dreamed up soon followed two years later.

“She did such a good job of instilling the right values and beliefs in us,” Brook said. “She was very trusting and lenient with us. She would get on us if she knew we needed to pick it up in school or something — even on the court.

“She did such a good job that I never really tested her. I went out with my friends occasionally, but there was never really any anything (as far as getting into serious trouble). I have no idea how to emulate what she did.”

Finding his range

Brook Lopez was always destined to be a shooter. He had no choice, really.

His older brothers, Alex (now 6-10) and Chris (6-7), both of whom went on to play college basketball themselves, were taller than he and Robin growing up.

(In fact, Lopez’s family is full of tall athletes. His father’s cousin, Marcelino Lopez, was a professional pitcher in the major leagues. His maternal grandfather, Bob Ledford, was a 6-7 All-American basketball player in college).

“I had to score somehow, and it was easier for me to play outside and shoot over them,” Lopez said.

And with Robin establishing himself on the interior, Brook realized he best complimented his twin brother as a perimeter player.

“I was out on the wing a lot in high school, running the floor, playing that position (the stretch power forward), so just being in that spot, I had to adapt,” Brook said.

The four brothers had some pretty crazy pickup games growing up.

“They were pretty intense,” Chris said. “And they’d usually end in a fight with someone storming off the court.”

Brook credits two coaches for really shaping him when he was younger: Ade Kido and Will Hooker.

“Ade (who worked with Chris’s travel teams in L.A.) put us through all sorts of drills when we were in second and third grade,” he said. “Working on our footwork, our shooter’s touch and just how to properly shoot the ball.

“Will (who coached our travel teams growing up through elementary, middle and high school) was always a great shooter and scorer, so it was always great to learn shooting technique from him.”

Nowadays, Lopez can pretty much do it all — scoring from everywhere on the floor. He is currently working on adding a 3-point shot to his repertoire. He is perhaps at his most lethal finishing what’s called a “push shot” or “half hook, half floater” off pick-and-roll passes in the pocket.

“I’m not the quickest guy in the world, so I figured if I beat a guy off the dribble, I kinda want to get my space and get my shot up fairly quick — not rush my shot or anything, but just get to my spot where I can make it and they have no chance of contesting it,” Brook said.

“And you see smaller guys always shooting floaters and things like that coming into the lane, so I tried to sort of adapt that into something I’m very comfortable with.”

Still, when asked what his go-to move is, Lopez didn’t hesitate.

“My left shoulder jump hook middle with my right hand,” he said. “I’m just super confident in getting to that spot on the floor where I know I can catch it and just go right up with it.”

He’s also a pretty emphatic dunker.

“Like when I got Ersan Ilyasova (with a one-hand posterization) last year I surprised myself,” Lopez laughed. “I honestly try not to do it in practice unless I have to.”

A star grows in Brooklyn

Brook Lopez has already been through quite a bit during his tenure with the Nets: The 12-70 season in 2009-10. Three foot surgeries in an 18-month span. Seven coaching changes. Trade rumors.

By all accounts, Lopez should probably be anywhere but here.

The Carmelo Anthony trade talks may not have gotten to an advanced stage, but the Dwight Howard and Reggie Jackson talks sure did.

Howard was rumored to being dealt to the Nets on multiple occasions, and all of those trade iterations included Lopez. The closest the Orlando Magic and Nets got to pulling off a blockbuster deal involving the two franchise bigs was at the 3 p.m. trade deadline in 2012. But Howard changed his mind about three hours before the deadline, opting into the final year of his contract, killing the deal and stunning Nets executives in the process.

But with the shadows of Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce all gone, it’s Lopez’s time to take the spotlight.

“I want to be a leader on this team, I want to make my teammates better, I want to help our team defy expectations. I want to be the leader of a good playoff team,” Lopez said.

Teammate Joe Johnson definitely believes Lopez has what it takes to earn his first All-Star nod since 2013.

“He has the tools. He’s a lot more vocal now,” Johnson said. “So it’s just up to Brook. As long as he’s demanding out there on the court, and he wants the ball, you can see it, he’s calling for it.”

Last season, Lopez started off slow. Still reeling from foot and ankle surgery, he clashed with old-school, no-nonsense coach Lionel Hollins who briefly moved Lopez from a starting role to a reserve role.

Internally, front office and ownership questioned whether he was a system fit for how the team was trying to play. The Nets thought they had a deal to send Lopez to Oklahoma City in exchange for Reggie Jackson at last season’s trade deadline, but the Thunder backed out and acquired Enes Kanter instead.

The Nets were “stuck” with Lopez,who has been chastised in the past for his rebounding, defense and lack of aggressiveness. However, after the All-Star break, healthy and confident, he averaged nearly 20 points and nine rebounds, leading Brooklyn to the playoffs. And in a 180-degree change, the Nets decided to invest in him and build around him.

“[Coach Hollins and I] are good now. And I have a lot of faith and confidence in him,” Lopez said. “I can see what he’s doing out here. It was really tough to get a read on him at first, tough to get a handle on him, but you see the way he is and the way he does things now, and I think there’s a lot of give and take between the two of us, and the rest of the team, as well.”

The summer before the 2014-15 campaign, Lopez was forced to spend two months in bed recovering from surgery. He has always loved basketball — admitting it bothers him that some people can’t see that.

“These injuries have really allowed me to appreciate my time on the court,” Lopez said. “I really cherish wearing ‘BROOKLYN’ on my chest every day. I just want to leave it out on the floor. I want to be an all-around player. I want to be a playmaker. I want to be a defensive anchor, and that’s all part of being a leader.

“I definitely want to see a proud tradition grow out here in Brooklyn.”



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