Elton Brand, 36 years old and five months into retirement from the NBA, rejoined the 76ers on Monday as part of Jerry Colangelo's plan to settle down a situation that had gotten badly out of hand. On Wednesday, Brand took part in a full practice for the first time since last May. On Thursday afternoon, coach Brett Brown sidled up to him.
"You going tonight?" Brown asked.
Brand laughed. Not quite yet.
"Let's give it some time," Brand said. "Maybe a week or two, for sure. Let me get some practices."
Brand had turned down the offer to hang around in a mentoring role several times to several teams since he announced his intention to retire. He is a former No. 1 overall pick. He had played 16 seasons in the NBA and made more than $160 million. He still lived in the Philadelphia area, but he was done.
"I was out and I was comfortable being out," Brand said. "I was on vacation in Jamaica with my family, floating in the water at Blue Lagoon."
If that sounds better than showing a bunch of kids how to be grown-ups, better than getting on an airplane every other day, better than dragging a tired body through the grind of practices and, eventually, games, well, it sounded better to Brand, too.
So, what is he doing? Sometimes a man isn't able to say no.
Colangelo and Brand's agent, David Falk, have a 40-year relationship and that was part of it when Colangelo went searching for a calming veteran presence on a roster that likes to run the streets as well as run the floor. That one of those youngsters who needs calming down is rookie Jahlil Okafor, who, like Brand, played at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski, also had something to do with it. When the call comes, it is answered. (By no coincidence at all, Brand's freshman roommate, Shane Battier, was at Thursday's game and looks as if he might also enter into some sort of adviser/mentor/babysitter role. If Okafor gets into one more nightclub incident, they might decide to relocate the franchise to Durham.)
None of these recent moves, including the acquisition of Ish Smith, a point guard who can actually play the position, was the idea of general manager Sam Hinkie. This has been the work of Colangelo, who was brought in by owner Josh Harris to inject a human equation to the building of a roster. The professional development of a 20-year-old basketball player can't be reduced to an algorithm, no matter how many geniuses with calculators are in your front office.
Whatever the organizational motivation, Brand is determined to make this work as well as he can. In a first-person story published by Sports Illustrated, he made it clear that Okafor is a big part of his mission.
"Despite how he's been portrayed, I know Jahlil. He's a good kid with a good heart. He's not unlike most 20-year-olds you probably know, and he's definitely not at all different than most of his fellow players," Brand wrote. "Hell, if camera phones were around when Brad Miller, Ron Artest, and I were Jahlil's age, we might've been banned from the league altogether, never mind suspended for a few games."
Well, boys-will-be-boys is a decent enough explanation for Okafor's missteps, but the question is whether a guy who was already in college before the rookie turned 2 can get his attention. We'll see about that, but if nothing else Brand can help teach some basketball.
"He's here to guide the young guys and anything else is a bonus," coach Brett Brown said. "I see him at practice pulling Nerlens [Noel] and Jahlil aside and showing them some of [Atlanta forward Paul] Millsap's tricks, how he scored on him in practice, how can that not just be priceless?"
Brand has put a price on it, and it isn't monetary. It's about giving back to the game, about acquiescing to pleas from his college coach and his agent and, maybe a little bit, to the idea that he can get back on the court again for a few minutes at a stretch and show a little something one more time.
"Before practice yesterday, I dropped my son off at school at 8 a.m. I got to practice early, did some cardio, shot with the coaches, lifted, then had a whole long practice," Brand said. "I ate lunch with the team, shot free throws afterward, and still picked up my son. I was home by 5 o'clock."
It sounds so reasonable, and perhaps Brand can pull off this balancing act. If it doesn't work, the season will be over in three months and he can look everyone in the eye and say he tried.
The challenge with the Sixers, however, isn't making sure the kids are where they should be at 5 p.m. They tend to run into trouble somewhat later in the evening. Elton's not going to be much help there. He'll do what he can, though. He promised he would. And then it's back to the Blue Lagoon for good.