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The news was arriving by text, Twitter, email, videos, news sites. Ian Mahinmi, born and raised in Rouen, France, with family and friends living now in Paris, was trying to make sense of the developing Nov. 13 terrorist attacks that would kill 130 people in the French capital.
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He was also trying to prepare for his NBA game that night as the starting center of the Indiana Pacers Jerseys.
“I didn’t go through the links because I didn’t have time,” Mahinmi would tell reporters later that night. “Let me try to focus on this game, try to win this game.”
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He would produce 12 points and nine rebounds in a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves Jerseys and their No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns. In playing his best game of the young season, Mahinmi was doing what he could to assert control. He was defining himself once again.
“It’s a very scary time,” said Mahinmi, who has been living in the U.S. as an NBA player for nine years. “It’s a time where I really want to be close to my family. I have a lot of friends in Paris, and I’m happy that everybody is safe. But I’m also so sad for the rest of the people that got killed or got affected by this tragedy.”
His teammates would be drawing closer to Mahinmi over the days to come. It was the least they could do after all that he has done for them. On the court Mahinmi holds himself responsible for anticipating and covering for their mistakes. In the locker room, before and after practice, on the buses and planes and in the social events that he plans routinely, wives and children included, Mahinmi brings the Pacers together. He is a catalyst to the NBA’s most surprising team.
“He’s the guy that you want your daughter to end up marrying — that’s what all the coaches say,” said Indiana coach Frank Vogel. “If I had a daughter, I would want my daughter marrying a guy like that. He is a terrific human being.”
Early lessons in San Antonio
“T.D. didn’t really speak to me my whole first year, except for, ‘Hi, what’s up?”‘ Mahinmi said of his former teammate Tim Duncan. “You have to be around him and earn his respect a little bit. He needs to see what you can bring to the table and what type of character you are.”
Mahinmi had been the surprise discovery of the Spurs as an 18-year-old big man from France. After commissioner David Stern announced his name as the No. 28 pick of the 2005 Draft by San Antonio, his slot on the scoreboard at the Madison Square Garden Theatre in New York remained vacant for several minutes because no name plate had been prepared for him.
Mahinmi remained another two years in the French league before coming to San Antonio, where his three seasons would be blighted by injuries and minimal playing time. But the experience was not wasted on him.
“For me it was his work ethic that really stepped out,” Mahinmi said of Duncan. “You’ve got your best player being on the court an hour before shootaround by himself, getting his shots. He’s always in the weight room. Always on time. Everything to me he does is right. He never does wrong — he’s taking his criticism from the coaches, the press, and he’s never showing any type of bad mood or that he is going to give up on the team or he’s going to be mad. He’s always the same way and he always is so focused.
“Tim, Manu (Ginobili) and T.P. (Tony Parker) are very mentally tough that way. They don’t show much. But they do a lot. Seeing that every day, right away, it was like, man, I want to be that type of player.”
By 2010, Mahinmi was departing in free agency to the Dallas Mavericks Jerseys, who would quickly make use of his institutional knowledge. An injury to backup center Brendan Haywood would create minutes for 24-year-old Mahinmi down the stretch of their successful 2011 NBA Finals comeback against the Miami Heat Jerseys.
“That was huge for my career, for my confidence, for everything,” Mahinmi said of the 27 minutes he played in Games 3, 5 and 6.
“It’s like everything is magnified. All of a sudden every little move matters out there. And all you are doing is thinking about it. You dream about that, you wake up and you’re thinking about it. And the people around you, that’s all they think about too. It’s a time where basketball is just everything.”
I really feel like I have paid my dues. I have been patient. I have been working on my stuff and I kept believing in myself.
– Pacers center Ian Mahinmi
In the course of turning over their roster after the championship, the Mavericks moved Mahinmi to Indiana in a 2012 trade that reunited him with guard George Hill, the former Spur who had become a close friend during their years together in San Antonio. Mahinmi’s education continued for another three years around power forward David West, whose leadership transformed the young Pacers into contenders.
“D-West was more of a leader by example,” Mahinmi said. “He was the guy who was directing people, and that’s what I try to do because I am far back and seeing everything. So when I call the play on defense I try to command my guys to be in the right place at the right time. And I got that from D-West. He was that voice telling you where to be and what was going to happen. On the court, off the court, he was professional.
“It was a big loss for me when he left. I really lost my big brother, so it was tough.”
But it was time. When West sacrificed more than $10 million last summer by opting out of his contract in order to sign for the veteran’s minimum with the Spurs — to experience the same NBA environment in which Mahinmi had been raised — the Pacers faced a turning point of their own. Team president Larry Bird essentially replaced West and starting center Roy Hibbert (traded to the Lakers) with the signing of explosive 6-foot-3 guard Monta Ellis.
The change in identity was abrupt. After years of plodding in the halfcourt, the Pacers were going to relaunch as an uptempo team around Mahinmi, even though he had started only 21 NBA games over the previous eight seasons.
“Ian is a winner,” Vogel said. “To cut your teeth in those two cultures (the Spurs and Mavericks) is why he is who he is today. It’s why he’s so valuable to us as a leader.”
At 7-foot-2 and 270 pounds, Hibbert had difficulty adapting to the NBA trend of smaller, quicker lineups. Mahinmi, surprisingly athletic at 6-foot-11 and 262, is able to defend out to the 3-point line and still recover to protect the rim. The Pacers were seeking to remodel themselves around the strengths of Paul George just one year after his gruesome leg injury, and they were counting on Mahinmi to bring out the best in his 25-year-old teammate.
After an 0-3 start, the Pacers have gone 11-2 while winning their last five games. Mahinmi had 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a big divisional victory against the Bulls on Friday, and he added eight points and 10 rebounds in a win Sunday in Los Angeles amid the emotional retirement announcement of Kobe Bryant.
Mahinmi Throws Down
Paul George hits Ian Mahinmi in the lane for the easy dunk.
The Pacers are No. 4 in points allowed (95.6), No. 9 in defensive field-goal percentage (43.0) and No. 3 in forcing turnovers (17.1) around the defensive leadership of George, Hill and Mahinmi. At the other end of the court, Mahinmi’s ability to step away from the basket and make quick decisions with the ball is providing George with space to attack the basket or post up.
“Ian plays the game differently,” said George, who is emerging as an early MVP candidate with career highs of 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists. “I don’t want to discredit everything Roy did. Roy was phenomenal for us. He did a great job. The only difference now is we have a more mobile big, and with his style of play it’s fun for us to be able to get out and run — and have a big that can run with us.”
Mahinmi does not take his long-building development as a team leader for granted.
“I really feel like I have paid my dues,” he said. “I have been patient. I have been working on my stuff and I kept believing in myself.”
In gratitude for those qualities of patience and perseverance, he recalls his upbringing in France. In particular he points to his father.
A world view
“He’s a teacher,” Mahinmi said of his father. “My dad was a teacher, he speaks four languages and wrote two books — nothing that was published, but he wrote the books for himself and for us. Now that I am older I realize that everything he told me is happening.”
His father is from Benin in West Africa. His mother is Jamaican. Mahinmi’s worldly point of view takes account of their cultures as well as his own in France and the U.S.
“He says he’s from France but I don’t believe it,” joked his friend George Hill from the locker next to Mahinmi’s after a recent game. “It’s like you had a passport that had two sides to it — one side said France, the other side said Africa. I said, ‘Which one are you?’ He said it depends on what type of day it is.”
“Oh, stop it,” said Mahinmi, though he couldn’t stop laughing.
“We’ll be listening to music, and it’s like one day he hears African music, one day he listens to French rap,” Hill went on. “I’m like, where you from?”
“I like diversity, man,” Mahinmi said, still laughing. Ian Mahinmi (second from left) has been key to the Pacers’ tight team chemistry.
The open-mindedness that enabled him to embrace the examples of Duncan’s Spurs, Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks and West’s Pacers was passed down from his father.
“His books are great,” Mahinmi said of his father’s writings. “It’s a lot about his life. My dad left Africa at an early age and went to my hometown of Rouen. He finished school and became a teacher for poor people — people who came from Africa, from Eastern Europe, from overseas. He was a great teacher.
“Whenever we would go to the grocery store or we were walking downtown, we would always come across somebody that knew my dad. He touched so many people in my hometown. He and my mom were there every step of the way for me.”
As the center of a team that means to thrive in this era of ever-smaller lineups, Mahinmi’s role is to influence the result without need for receiving the credit. His stats are unimpressive — 7.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and a team-leading 1.5 blocks per game — and yet the Pacers’ overnight transformation from big to small could not be succeeding without him.
“It’s all about direction,” Mahinmi said. “You could go 100 miles an hour and you are going nowhere. You have to know where you are going. And then, knowing where you’re going, you have to go the fastest way possible. It’s like my dad tells me, every day when I talk to him on the phone: You can run, you can walk, but once you look back you have to stop. You can’t walk or run and look back at the same time. That is one of the things he has been telling me and my sisters and brothers. I have been trying to go somewhere with direction and with vision.”
A team unifier
For Halloween last month, he and Hill drew together the Pacers and their families for a Halloween party. A few days later, when he turned 29, Mahinmi brought his fellow players out with him to celebrate with a team-building dinner. He is one of those who treats all of the employees of the franchise with respect. He remembers the names of his teammates’ wives and their children.
“I am really proud of that,” Mahinmi said. “I like to know them personally. When you go up to your teammate’s wife and you call her by her first name, she appreciates that. I think that brings us closer as a team.”
What is the secret to chemistry? The pursuit of this question has been directing Mahinmi all his life toward the summit of this high, humble position he holds now, as the unnoticed and yet indispensable member of a team that is outperforming expectations. This is why his teammates have been rallying to support him in these recent days, in the mourning of the attacks on Paris.
“For me this is much more important,” Mahinmi said of his relationships. “You can be a great basketball player, but at the end of the day I’m not just looking at that. I’m looking at you as a person and what type of character you are. And we have great characters. And when I see that, I welcome you into my family. I want to embrace everything, and let’s be more than teammates.”
Let us be more than we were. This is how the big man moves forward, looking ahead, with purpose and joy.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.
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