How tough love (and disrespect) fuels Paolo Banchero


ABOUT 20 MILES EAST OF EPCOT, well past the glitter and glow of every roller-coaster tycoon’s biggest dream, lies an isolated court where Paolo Banchero stands unsteady at the charity stripe. It’s nearly noon. Practice ended a half hour ago, and all of his teammates have disappeared from the floor. He’s calculating, steadily going over his mistakes.

The night before this, against New Orleans, Banchero clanked all of his free throws, something the 21-year-old obsessive won’t let himself forgive or forget. He’s working through his emotions, the same dance he’s done since childhood, one shot after another, aiming to balance passion with perfection. More importantly, he’s trying to quiet the pangs of uncertainty swirling around his mind. To become one with the pressure of living up to his new nickname, “The Franchise.”

He bobs in place at the line, holding his follow-through, his braids swaying between his shoulders. On rare occasions, even by himself, or confined with coaches, when he misses a shot, there’s a small eruption. Sometimes, the frustration is audible. Others, more sudden: staring with contempt into the heavens, or hastily kicking the basketball until it spins to the roof and crashes back down, all without a word said in between. When the shots start falling again, he looks around the gym searching for pieces of relaxation in his new home. On an adjacent wooden wall, there’s a quote from Muhammad Ali: “The fight is won far away from witnesses — behind the lines and in the gym.”

He nods and goes back to the line, sinking as many as he deems necessary before a slight satisfaction creeps across his face. I can see the contours of what he keeps hidden. The deep yearning and desire, the self-driven adherence to his chase for greatness. The moment he has craved his entire life is finally here, and he is determined for the world to remember his name. Basketball, Banchero says, is his singular motivation, his lone fascination that’s won over his time and fed his mind.

“Obviously, this all comes with a lot of pressure,” Banchero tells me on the practice court in late March. “But, I don’t look at it like it’s all on me. … I just look at it as I got the opportunity to help get the Magic back to where they want to be and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get us there.”

He takes a moment to digest the words he let loose. They’re floating in the silence between us. As much as he wants it to be, it’s not only basketball anymore. And, if he wanted to visualize the maddening disharmonies of pressure, well, bringing basketball glory back down to O-Town, which hasn’t won a playoff series in 14 years, should be enough to keep him up at night for a few years. It’s a tall task for someone barely 21. But, when Banchero finally comes back from his mental oasis, there’s a determination in his glare. Indignation flaring up to his eyes.

“I just know how hard I work,” he says. “I wouldn’t be acting like this, I wouldn’t get upset or be a perfectionist if I didn’t work as hard as I do, and spend as much time as I do just studying the game, watching the game, thinking about the game.

“At this point in the season, it’s not worth it. We don’t have time for it. In the position I’m in, I can’t be the guy who’s letting everything get to him.”

BANCHERO’S FIRST childhood lessons center around being coachable. Mario and Rhonda Banchero had to do something. Their child was 3 feet tall before he turned 2 years old. They surely expected one of their three children to be born with the bones for athletics, and with Paolo, they didn’t have much time. He was 6-foot-5 before he got to the eighth grade.

It was hard for Paolo not to take after Rhonda. She was one of the greatest women’s basketball players in the history of the University of Washington. She finished her career as the school’s all-time leading scorer, feasting on players in the post in the ’90s before her ABL debut in Seattle, and eventually WNBA days in Sacramento. Her schooling came straight from doin’ it the rough way, with real results. So, she’d ensure her son was no slouch.

When Paolo wasn’t vocal enough during his days hooping with Seattle’s famed Rotary Club, where pros from Dejounte Murray to Brandon Roy have played, Rhonda would get in his ear. At the time, she was coaching high school basketball. So wherever he played, he’d hear his mom telling him to get his hands up, to shoot more and defer less, to make his presence known and call for the ball. Paolo wasn’t the most vocal player growing up, preferring to let his actions do the talking. But he was always inspired by his mother’s resilience on the court. He wanted to carry the torch for the family’s new basketball name.

His father, Mario, is the son of some of Seattle’s most famed butchers. While Rhonda was working her way into the Huskies’ Hall of Fame, Mario was holding down the turf as one of Washington’s tight ends. Paolo initially dreamt of becoming the greatest quarterback Seattle had ever seen. By his freshman year at O’Dea High School, where his father coached football, Paolo was already 6-foot-7 and poring over tapes of Cam Newton and Peyton Manning. He left junior high as a top 50-ranked athlete in football and hoops. One year later, he played backup quarterback for a state championship team. He told himself that he wanted his game, no matter which sport he stuck with, centered around controlled chaos. Being a force, but also being cerebral.

Banchero’s curriculum for life was simple. “It’s about hard work, integrity, character and the family name,” Mario says. “You are held to a standard. The neighborhood knows you. He was five years old playing football in Rainier and the people knew who he was at the grocery store. He never had a chance to act up.”

After his freshman year, he gave up football and fell in love with hoops. Banchero says he was too tall to play quarterback, and by his third varsity game, he earned a spot as a starter. He picked up the rock when he was four years old, his most lucid memories coming from scoring on the single rims at the Rotary. By the time he was 14, he was telling Rhonda he already saw himself playing at the next level. He was blossoming into a star on the Seattle scene, winning a state championship at O’Dea in his sophomore season and cementing himself as one of the best prep players in the country.

At Duke, under the wings of Mike Krzyzewski, the world immediately began to see the type of player Banchero always wanted to become. Coach K was the hardest on his final era of stars, which included Banchero, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson. He knew if you weren’t 100% invested in basketball, especially while you wore a Blue Devil jersey. And when moments of doubt crept in, Banchero’s parents were there to give him the extra nudge he needed to be great, especially one day, when Coach K called home.

The scout team’s bigs were pushing Banchero around at practice. Practically bullying him. He was committing Rhonda’s cardinal sin, and Coach K couldn’t let it stand. They both wanted him to exude his toughness, but pushing the wrong button could send him over the edge.

“Paolo’s gonna call you tomorrow because I’m about to get in his ass,” Coach K told Rhonda over the phone.

“Coach, I promise you he won’t call this house,” she said. “This is not a soft place to land.”

“I’ve been trying to talk to him, and I can tell he’s mad,” Coach K said. “But, I’m trying to be nice.”

His mother offered one solution: “If you want him to get pissed, if you want him to do what you want him to do: Ream his ass, and then kick him out of practice. Don’t kick him out where he can sit in the locker room. Tell him he’s got to leave the building.”

There was an awkward silence on the phone. Rhonda says Coach K initially thought she was joking. But Banchero’s parents prepared him for greatness since childhood. If they didn’t want their son to be coached hard, they wouldn’t have let him leave home for Tobacco Road.

“Ream his ass! Then, kick him out!” Rhonda continued. “He’s gonna be upset, he might even cry, you are Coach K.”

Coach K didn’t end up kicking Banchero out of practice. He found other methods to poke and prod his young star. And, that’s all Rhonda wanted. She says her son hates to be embarrassed publicly, but he typically uses those demonstrative moments to transform. He’s always found ways to embrace his failures and use them to evolve.

In Banchero, Coach K saw an unshakable young man who strived to be unselfish and was “never afraid of a moment.” When he played at a level below what should’ve been his standard, his Duke coaches held him accountable, and they were usually happy with his response.

“When he played here, I wanted him to believe he could be a great player,” Coach K tells me. “So at times, I wanted him to show emotion and assert himself more … at certain times you had to get on ’em. And he responded. He was a no-excuse kid. He looked you in the eye and then went to work.”

Banchero only stayed at Duke for one season, but Coach K knew he was special and knew he would flourish in Orlando when he was drafted. This summer, he called Banchero a handful of times for a few reminders about what he’d seen of his game and what he needed to improve. He’s still nudging him, even now, to aspire for something he can’t see.

“There isn’t a part of the game that he cannot be really outstanding at,” Coach K says. “He’s one of the ultimate positionless players. There aren’t as many that attain that level of status and achievement. And he’s got it. He’s got it.”

“He has a chance to be one of the truly elite players in the NBA.”

EACH GENERATION of the Orlando Magic’s 35-year history has yielded a frontcourt star. From the days when Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal inspired cool across the country, to Dwight Howard’s reign as one of the kings of the Eastern Conference, it has never taken the Magic too long to rebuild. There were years when the experiments didn’t work out: Nic Vucevic migrating north to Chicago, or Aaron Gordon mining for championship gold in Denver.

Around the league, Orlando had a reputation for ineptitude. Game nights were much quieter in the Kia Center unless there was a traveling brigade from out of town to cheer for opposing stars. Hell, players used to consider it a night off whenever they stopped on that side of Florida. They’d pick out their favorite restaurants to try in Winter Park in advance. Joe Ingles, now a wily vet with the Magic, often tells the team that when he played with the Jazz, a game in Orlando meant a nice night out with the missus and a family trip to Disney, while still expecting to win by 25.

Ahead of the 2022 NBA draft, the club’s front office recognized Banchero as a player who truly had the potential to turn around the franchise’s fortunes. The team concealed its plans to select Banchero with the No. 1 pick until the very end. Orlando managed to preserve the mystery of that choice, even from Banchero. When I first met Banchero during draft week, he seemed lost on where he’d end up, more certain he’d be going to Houston until a few hours before his name was called, leaving him in a pool of his tears next to Rhonda. “That s— hit me like a bus,” he tells me now.

It was that emotion the Magic craved for their franchise. They loved how serious-minded Banchero came across, even as a 19-year-old entering the league. The Magic discovered the traits they sought in their next frontcourt superstar: poise, patience and an alpha doglike hunger to turn Orlando into a winner again. “He doesn’t skip steps. He wants to be told the truth. As a trait, he’s very hard on himself,” says Jeff Weltman, the Magic’s president of basketball operations. “He feels the weight of carrying his team and putting the team in a good position.” And when things aren’t going as planned? “Well, he’s tough on himself,” Weltman says.

At his first home game in the Kia Center, Magic staffers placed T-shirts on every seat to commemorate their prodigal son’s opening moments. Banchero remembers it looking like a playoff game. The arena went dark during a timeout and fans started flashing their phones, making it feel like a rave — the premier event on a weeknight in Orlando. Gary Harris, a starting Magic guard, walked over to Banchero and hugged him, saying, “Man, it ain’t been like this ever since I got here.” Coming from Duke, sellouts were the standard, even if it was a Division III team in town for a scrimmage. “It was a shock for me,” Banchero tells me. “For my teammates, they hadn’t experienced that with the Magic.”

It was something he didn’t take for granted. He took pride in rebuilding the Magic, not only for his own ambitions but for the guys he went into battle with.

“My first year here, any time a road team came, half the stadium would be cheering them on,” says Jalen Suggs, the Magic’s starting 2 guard. “Now, it’s hard to get tickets when another team is here … And a lot of credit goes to Paolo for that.” Suggs says he relates to how calm Banchero is on the court. “He’s always ready to kill,” he says. “When we step between these lines, he’s not too high, and not too low, but he’s out there to win and compete.” There’s now an unmistakable attitude coming from the locker room in Orlando. “When you come down here you really gotta lock in, because we here to crack heads.”

But this new mindset didn’t come quickly. Last season, there were still reminders of why the Magic needed Banchero. The team started 5-20. There were empty seats and so many fans rocking jerseys for teams that weren’t his. “That’s what really, really irked me when I first got here,” Banchero says.

But the ultimate disrespect, he says, came against the Los Angeles Clippers that December. It was only then that he thought: Enough is enough.

“I remember looking at Kawhi [Leonard], Paul George, Ty Lue, all of them,” he says. “They just had the most kick-backed, relaxed demeanor and attitude. It’s the first quarter, and Ty Lue was callin’ plays and they were laughin’ and s— during the game. You could just tell they were not worried about us at all.”

The Clippers were up 20 in the first half before the Magic tied the score and sent the game to overtime. With the game on the line, Lue sat Leonard and George for the entire extended period. “We beat them,” he remembers, still feeling slighted, like no one in the league took his team seriously. “The looks on their faces, you could tell: the way them dudes were playin’, the way they carried themselves, nobody is stressin’ about us at all.

“That kind of pissed me off.”

That was all part of his Floridian initiation. Nothing would come easy, even to someone gifted with a generation-changing game. That evening was the day the old Magic died. Banchero and Orlando won eight of their nine games leading into Christmas break. The lesson was clear: As long as he was around, he would do whatever he could to will the Magic into contention.

As a 19-year-old rookie, Banchero became the Magic’s leading scorer overnight. But like any young star with the new constraints of a franchise on his shoulders, there’s always a struggle to adjust to the lights. Banchero had never played this many games, at this intensity, against world-class athletes every single night. By the February All-Star break, during the winter months that bite rookies the hardest, Banchero was feeling run-down.

“I had some nerve damage in my neck that was kind of messing [me] up. It had me just off,” he says. “My hands couldn’t really function right. So, I wasn’t shooting well, and I didn’t want to not play. I wanted to keep playing, but it was f—ing up my shot. So I was struggling. I wasn’t able to make any shots.” In these tough moments, Banchero looks inward for balance to stay true to himself. He tries to embrace being alone more often than not. He’s been telling himself more, and more, that he has to learn to live with the results of the games. To ease the dark pangs in his mind, he turns to mindfulness practices, meditation and present-moment awareness exercises — anything to get Paolo out of Paolo’s head. “If I’m struggling in the moment, I’m always able to see past it. To get to the next thing. But, my rookie year, in the middle of that slump, it was a little worse,” he says. “I think that’s why it lasted so long.

“I kind of got lost in it.”

Banchero has always visualized a successful pro career, but I’m sure he hasn’t been able to foresee all of the bumps that could possibly come along the road. The perfection he seeks could only appear on the back of innumerable failures, which is why last season’s biggest challenge wasn’t basketball: It was surviving.

“Getting the right amount of sleep, eating right, and really getting the proper amount of fuel,” he says, shaking his head. “I just didn’t know. There would be games where I only ate two meals before the game, and I’d come out and have no energy. I’d be out there huffin’. If you don’t have no fuel, it’s nothing you can do. [It’s] those little, stupid things,” he says, pounding his hand into his fist three times.

When it felt like everything was going wrong that winter, Banchero heard encouraging words from two players he had always looked up to: Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. The two stars pulled him aside at a party during the All-Star break and gave him a pep talk. “You’re one of us,” he says Durant and Anthony told him, repeating the words a few times. “You’re one of us,” Banchero says to me, replaying the memory aloud with a smile.

But the free game was also a warning.

“It ain’t just gonna happen, though,” Banchero remembers them saying. “You have to be in that gym every day, every summer and sacrifice to get there.” All Banchero could do was soak it all in. “I was like, ‘Damn, if they looking at me telling me I’m one of them, I don’t need to hear from anybody else.'”

IF LAST SEASON WAS about surviving, this season has been about maintaining. His first year ended with a Rookie of the Year trophy and an invitation to represent Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. His sophomore season concluded with an All-Star nod while leading the Magic back to the postseason for the first time in four years. Banchero has also been keeping healthier habits. “I make sure I get the [right] amount of food and rest so my mental sharpness is all there,” he says. “It’s now more about me focusing on the actual game rather than trying to get my body to catch up.”

The biggest thing the Magic have been trying to inspire in Banchero is the will of a leader, something he’s been working at since he was a teenager. Most of it felt like a drag: carrying himself the right way, limiting his negative reactions during games, picking his head up and wiping off the glum when the game didn’t go his way, showing his teammates what it meant to be about the work. That idea of expectation was still new to Banchero. He was still learning the gravity of his stature and the weight his words had — not only with his team but around the league.

His attitude, whether righteously on fire or muted and unseen, could change how his whole world was shaped as a pro. “It rubs off on everybody,” Banchero says. “I can’t lose sight of that.” His head coach, Jamahl Mosley, has told him ever since his summer impression with Team USA that how he carries himself changes how people look at the floor and the way people look at the team. As Mosley often tells him, “Someone’s always watching.”

“It ain’t always fair, but it is what it is,” Banchero sighs.

Banchero’s competitive fire isn’t always immediately appreciated. Mom and Dad don’t love all that cussin’ on TV. Coach K and Mosley sat down last summer to discuss Banchero’s tendency to explode. Coach K shared the same thing he told Banchero in exit meetings at Duke: Keep a strong appearance, and show no weakness.

“That’s why you got chosen No. 1, and you got what you got because you are able to handle that,” Banchero says. “It’s a great thing, but it comes with a lot of pressure and s— that you feel is unfair. But, you gotta take that blame, you gotta take that responsibility.”

So many guys who play for Orlando use the word “love” to describe Banchero. They understand the jolt he has provided to a once-destitute team.

“We call him The Franchise because he is The Franchise. We’re just the supporting cast,” says Cole Anthony, one of the Magic’s key guards. “Man, he had 23 a game for most of the year. And until Wendell got his rebounding up, he was leading our team in every statistical category except steals. That’s what you call a franchise.”

The Magic’s identity has been built around grit on defense and joy on offense. A bond built through a youthful team that resembles more of a clubhouse than a serious place of work. Still, the onus is placed on Banchero to rally the group when things don’t go right.

“It’s not always playful — there’s plenty of times in the game I’m pissed, s—,” Banchero says. He admits he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on his teammates. “If I do that, then everyone feels that pressure I already feel. So I carry it naturally. I carry it lightly. So that they not feelin’ that pressure. And, if it don’t go the way it’s supposed to? We still live to fight another day.”

Perfection is unattainable for all of us, though it remains one of the roots of our Earthly struggles. To expect it from someone who lives their life under constant public scrutiny is part of the psychosis surrounding the American pursuit of athletic success. Perhaps that’s why so many of Banchero’s teammates love playing with him, why his coaches cannot do anything but offer such effusive praise. Because in their ranks is a young man willing to run full speed at uncomfortable for the sake of getting everyone else some shine.

“He’s 21, he could be taking it all in and having fun with it. But, there’s so much more he wants from this game,” his teammate, Wendell Carter Jr., tells me. He has a certain style of maturity with him where he’s not overbearing, but he’s very locked in on what’s important.”

“He’s taken on all the backlash, all of the critics. Man, he’s a unique player,” Carter says. “He’s taken on all the s— and keeps playing the game he’s known since he was a kid.”

WHEN THE POSTSEASON arrived last season, Banchero was on his couch watching the festivities, amazed at what a higher level of the game looked like. Compared to what he witnessed, the regular season felt like more of a boring formality. “Like, this was it?” he scoffs now. “We’re done and these guys are still playing hard as hell. It felt like the season was nothing.”

Last season, the Magic finished 34-48, 13th in the Eastern Conference. “Ant Edwards told me that once I get a taste of the playoffs,” Banchero says, “that’s all I’ll be thinking about.”

As we sit in the empty practice arena, a few weeks before the playoffs, I see a man unsatiated by the demands of the regular season. He’s hungry for something greater. Quietly crazed for the opportunity to elevate his game and stake his name among playoff legends.

The NBA has provided him with endless bulletin board material in his two seasons — early quips that his defense would not translate to the pro game, to being snubbed from nationally televised games despite his team’s success this season. But there’s one thing that stirs his competitive fire like none other: the chance at postseason success.

“Ain’t been a team or a player that has shut me down, especially this year,” he says. “I’ve had some bad games, but every team I’ve gotten the best of, at least once.”

But the real question still dangling over his career was whether he could overcome what most men hadn’t figured out yet in Orlando: can his overall skill be enough to help this team win a championship? Right now, he hopes the answer lies in elevating his teammates.

“The scoring and everything comes naturally, so how can I make others better?” he asks. “If they do double, I have to make the right play. If I get too into the ‘This motherf—er can’t guard me’ or ‘I should have 30 right now’ — that’s how it creates a division throughout the team. It starts to look like you’re only out to get yours.”

It doesn’t seem like selfishness is in his psychology. Ever since his father started dragging him out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for wake-up calls to get to the Rotary to work on his game, Banchero has imbued the attributes required to turn himself into a phenom. After a few days, Mario said he didn’t even have to wake Paolo up.

That empty, six-court canvas became his paradise as a kid. It taught him to walk with a cold force now that he takes to pro arenas. Now, he’s spent so many hours alone in practice gyms that his workouts have become lore among his teammates.

Surely many of us see Banchero and think it’s more of the same. The lofty aspirations of Magic teams that have come and gone, deranged and left merely to the thin, egalitarian concept of hope. But for someone like Banchero? It seems belief is a bulwark. The only notion he ever needed. Because in a mad world, only the mad are the ones who are truly sane.

“You can call me delusional, and I probably am a little delusional, but I’ve never felt like I’ve had no real weaknesses in my game. Ever,” Banchero says. “Everything is going to get elevated once I get to that stage.”

He stares directly into my eyes.

“It’s been a while since the world has truly seen me hoop. Everyone will see how I play when it matters the most.

“Everyone will see.”


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