Beyond talents, Chris Bosh’s drive to learn, grow led him to Hall of Fame

Chris Bosh as a member of the Toronto Raptors in February 2010. (Chris Young/CP)

The 2006-07 Toronto Raptors were an eclectic, internationally-flavoured group, intentionally so.

In his first full season with the club, then-president and general manager Bryan Colangelo thought that recruiting players from overseas or with experience playing outside of North America could be an advantage for the NBA’s lone Canadian team.

Yet the undisputed fulcrum of the club was Chris Bosh, who grew up in Hutchins, Texas surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins, was a high school star in Dallas and played one year of college at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Would there be a culture clash? A battle of wills? A season of misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Nope. The opposite.

With Spanish the second language of the dressing room – an ode to Spanish national team stars Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa as well as Anthony Parker, who spoke Spanish at home with his wife – Bosh announced a plan.

“One time Jose and Jorge are talking and the Spanish is going back and forth and whatever and Chris is like, ‘I wanna know what you all are talking about, I’m going to start taking Spanish’,” says Anthony Parker, who played three seasons alongside Bosh on teams that made the playoffs each year.

“And he got a tutor and started taking Spanish and maybe three or four years later my wife had Despierta America [the rough equivalent of Good Morning on Univision] on the TV -- and they had Chris on and he did the entire interview in Spanish. The entire thing. I can’t do that. I still have this broken Spanish, but he did the entire thing and that’s just an example of him as a learner.”

When Bosh is formally inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday night, much will be made about his abilities and talents as a basketball player. He played 13 NBA seasons and was still in his prime as a 32-year-old when he had to stop playing in the middle of the 2015-16 season and eventually retire due to health concerns after persistent problems with blood clots.

But even so he was an 11-time All-Star, won two championships with the Miami Heat and helped them to four Finals appearances as part of the ‘Big Three’ along with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Prior to his six seasons in Miami, Bosh was a franchise player for seven years with Toronto with five all-star appearances as a Raptor and team records for scoring and rebounding to his name before leaving in free agency the summer of 2010.

But that only partly explains why a willowy 6-foot-10 post player was able to become one of the defining big men of his era.

The other was his ability to adapt, learn, grow and humble himself; his willingness to become fluent in Spanish is just one example.

It’s what stays with Parker, a former European pro who had the best years of a nine-year NBA career playing alongside Bosh with the Raptors. Parker has spent the last four seasons as the general manager of the Orlando Magic’s G-League franchise, trying to help young players figure out what it takes to stick in the NBA.

Bosh’s off-court example is one he refers to regularly.

“As great as a player as he is and as deserving as he is of the Hall of Fame and the all-star appearances and the championships, whenever I talk about Chris Bosh it's almost always Chris Bosh the person,” says Parker.

“In the minor leagues and these players want to accomplish all these things and I always talk about Chris Bosh being such a hungry learner.

“He wanted to grow off the court as much as he wanted to grow on the court,” says Parker. “A lot of people want to grow on the court, but he had the same hunger off the court.

Bosh’s career can almost be neatly divided into two phases: His seven years in Toronto when he evolved from a skinny, closely cropped teenager trying to find his way, to a well-muscled, highly-skilled power forward with a silky mid-range shooting touch that set up a crafty dribble-drive game.

In 2009-10, he made second-team All-NBA and finished seventh in MVP voting for putting up a career-best line of 24 points and 10.8 rebounds on 51.8 per cent shooting while getting to the free-throw line more than eight times a game – where he shot 79.9 per cent for his career. It was the culmination of a five-season run where Bosh averaged 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds and made his first of five all-star games.

But even as his profile grew, Bosh could be found on the floor at Scotiabank Arena before working through a wide range of drills to hone his skills. A regular one involved then-Raptors assistant coach Jay Triano firing multiple passes at Bosh in the post, the second ball coming almost before Bosh had a chance to pass out the first one. No detail was too small.

“You can’t take the fundamentals for granted if you want to be great,” says Triano, now an assistant coach with the Charlotte Hornets. “It was a post drill, and I would always throw him two balls in rapid succession so that he would have to read and react where the ball was going and move his feet accordingly without losing his balance … it worked on his catching, his passing, his footwork. He was always determined to get better.”

Eventually, Bosh determined that he had done his best as a Raptor, and for him to achieve what he wanted to in the NBA he would have to leave in free agency, joining forces with 2008 Team USA pals James and Wade in Miami, a move that many point to as ushering in the so-called ‘player empowerment era.’

It was a blow to the Raptors and there were some hard feelings. Had Bosh been more transparent in his plans the Raptors could have worked with him in a trade. Instead, Toronto lost a franchise centrepiece for next to nothing, a setback that plagued them through several lean years to come.

Things didn’t work out instantly for Bosh in Miami either. He became the clear third wheel offensively with James and Wade carrying the lion’s share of the offence for the Heat. Over the next four seasons, as the Heat made it to four Finals and won titles in 2011 and 2012, Bosh averaged just 17.3 points a game.

It was an adjustment.

"To change your role at this point in your career, it was difficult," Bosh told ESPN during the 2010-11 season. "That was going to be the main thing that was going to be tested. 'What are you willing to sacrifice in order to win?'"

Bosh sacrificed shots, touches and the ego-stroking that goes with being the undisputed No. 1 option on an NBA roster. He became a more versatile defender and eventually a more dangerous perimeter shooter, all in an effort to make life easier for James and Wade.

Bosh learned and he adapted.

“That has been tougher for other players to do, but he’s always had this growth mindset which is now what everyone is talking about all the time, but Chris already had it way back then,” says Parker. “He had the awareness and recognition that he was this kind of player in Toronto and now he’s trying to accomplish something else and this is what they need [him] to be.

“I don’t think Chris loved playing the five [for the Heat] and banging with those big guys, but he did it and he adapted and became a three-point shooter so there’s more evidence of the growth mindset and the hard work and being adaptable and being open to change and then successfully doing it – he allowed the Heat to play the way they did. I marvel at what he did off the court, but that’s evidence of him doing it on the court as well.”

There is at the very least a sense of a circle being completed at the notion that Bosh’s career came to a close where it started. After missing the second half of the 2014-15 season when blood clots were discovered in his lungs, Bosh returned to play for the 2015-16 season but had to pull out of the all-star game in Toronto with a calf problem that eventually revealed more blood clotting. Bosh’s career was effectively over, a development he has called “heartbreaking.”

Perhaps even more so because his growing skills as a shooter and the NBA’s transition to the ‘pace-and-space’ era where multi-skilled bigs who can shoot are some of the most valuable pieces on the floor meant that his prime might have been extended considerably.

“You think about where the game has gone – with the emphasis on the three-point shot and spreading the floor offensively and defensively and how impactful a player like Chris would be in his prime, man,” says Parker. “But that’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame, those guys are effective in any era you put them in.”

But the father of five continued to do what he’s always done. He travelled; he threw himself into writing a memoir “Letter to a Young Athlete.” He’s got a record label, brews his own beer, and plans to move into music production.

For Bosh, there is always something new to learn, try or master. It’s been a life-long journey.

But on Saturday night a well-deserved appreciation for a stellar career, and the ultimate basketball ‘gracias’.

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