Commentary: Downsized guard Lue lasts in NBA

Former Cornhusker standout survives tough upbringing in Missouri, emerges as leader in Atlanta

Tyronn Lue has always wanted to be looked up to. Where he has come from and what he has done, he figures that should come naturally.

But here’s the rub: Lue is of normal dimensions, straight off the everyman template. In the NBA, that puts him several stories below eye level.

Maybe the Atlanta Hawks’ downsized guard would spend a career surveying a landscape of navel lint. Still, Lue, who grew up in Missouri and attended the University of Nebraska, had a plan. He’d make himself different, in ways other than just vertically.

While some players covered themselves in body art, he’d keep himself as clean as the dry-erase board on the first day of school. No tattoos. Nothing pierced. You’d have to take him as he came.

In lieu of easy popularity by way of the club scene, Lue would brag about how he didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. He’d become very popular with every gender by the persistent power of his personality and a high-rpm style of play.

He would outlast those who measured nothing but height, win a couple NBA championship rings by fortunate positioning with the Lakers in the early 2000s and play with the biggest stars there were. And then find himself on an often foundering franchise in Atlanta, as the veteran in a role that he has grown into by virtue of surviving nearly nine seasons of playing over his head.

And see how they regard the little man now.

“Lue has been a bigger part of this thing than you could ever imagine,” said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. “I call him my son all the time. I like the things that he brings.”

“To be that size, you have to have some fire in your belly,” said Hawks assistant Larry Drew, who coached Lue in Los Angeles and Washington and was central in bringing him to the Hawks in a trade for Jon Barry in 2004. “I’ve always said to little guys, you can’t have a little man game.”

At 5-foot-whatever from braids to toes, Lue was in the process of compiling his best season yet before all the newfound minutes caught up to him (14.7 points per game over 22 games, and nearly four assists a game). His groin injury is healing slowly and he’s listed day-to-day.

Lately, all that has been seen of Lue has been on a continual Allen Iverson highlight loop as the news of his impending trade from Philadelphia to Denver dominated the league. It happened during the 2001 NBA Finals, when Iverson juked Lue all the way to the ground, made his jumper and then stepped haughtily over the prone defender.

“That doesn’t bother me,” smiled Lue, knowing that it was that series, and that defensive assignment, that ultimately allowed him to make his bones in the NBA. Phil Jackson played him specifically to dog Iverson, and he was so effective, it got him a nice free-agent contract the following season with the Washington Wizards.

This unlikely NBA player is an amalgam of conflicting influences. It’s right there in his name. Tyronn is a splicing of his grandfather’s name, Tyrone, with that of his father, Ronald. It is a reminder of the different type of male role modeling in his life – Lue was closer to his grandparents and had virtually no contact with his father until these past few years.

Growing up in Mexico, Mo., is not nearly so quaint as it may sound. His mother, Kim, was trying to raise three children and supplemented her income in sometime larcenous ways. Lue said she was the local “booster,” a job that entailed taking orders from people in the neighborhood and then filling them on prolonged shoplifting sprees.

His mother has changed. “The Holy Spirit told me not to do it anymore, that if I did keep doing it I would go to the penitentiary and lose my children,” said Kim who is now a minister in Houston.

The kids always wondered how Lue routinely was voted best dressed in junior high. Easy, he said, when the threads were hot.

“Then I got to ninth grade, and we had told my mom we wanted her to stop because my best friend had just got caught and gone to jail,” Lue said. “And she stopped doing it. Two or three years later (as the family wardrobe deteriorated), we said, ‘Mom, we need you to start doing it again.’ But she never went back to doing it.”

Maybe it has taken being with a young team that just can’t find the way to win most nights. But with these Hawks, at least, Lue cuts a figure to gather around, whether it is to lighten the mood or strike a spark.

“That’s what I try to instill in these young guys – no matter what anybody else says, you got to have confidence in yourself or you’ll never be a player in this league,” he said.