Think of it as an initiation, something no NBA rookie is immune to. You’re either wearing funny backpacks, getting your car filled with popcorn, or participating in a dance-off with your teammates. Either way, only a few will find a way around rookie hazing.
Shaq’s “this is my team, bruv” did it for the big guy, although I sense it was more about his frame than about him being the franchise cornerstone. Nevertheless, O’Neal was relieved of all your typical rookie duties.
But Shaq isn’t the only was able to pull it off. José Calderón is another one, and what did it for the 6-3 point guard from Spain was the language barrier.
“I had other rookies on the team, and my English wasn’t great at that time, so the veterans, you know, they tried to do something with me a couple of times, and they were like ‘Look, this guy doesn’t understand anything, leave him alone. We’ll focus on the other two rookies.‘”José Calderón
José joined the NBA in ’05, a year before Google Translate – a free multilingual neural machine translation service – was introduced. It was also during the pre-smartphone era, so there was no solution at hand for language barriers to be broken down.
It really worked in his favor, as there was no way around not speaking English. International players coming into the NBA today don’t have that same luxury. Everything is one click away, so playing the language card is off the table.
And while Calderón was exempted from the advanced rookie hazing stuff, there was no way around all those basic duties you do as a first-year NBA player.
“They made me travel with kids backpack; they wanted me to sing a couple of times and stuff like that, but nothing more. It was great; I had great veterans that year.”José Calderón
One of the rare occasions when not being bilingual works in your favor. José may have been one of the last guys who could play that card. For international players coming into the league today, that ship sailed a long time ago.