LaMarcus Aldridge is walking through the temporary NBA House next to Madison Square Garden on the Friday of All-Star Weekend. A wave of fans recognizes the 6-11 forward/center and converges. Aldridge's entourage parts the sea as much as possible, but he slows down to engage with fans. Aldridge patiently ducks his head down for selfies with a few children before being pulled away.
"The Bulls should have never traded Tyrus Thomas for you," a fan hollers.
Aldridge pauses, turns around, chuckles and walks on. Back in 2006 at the NBA draft held in New York, Aldridge was selected second overall by the Bulls. His draft rights were immediately shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers for the fourth pick, Tyrus Thomas, and Victor Khryapa.
Aldridge was back at Madison Square Garden for his fourth All-Star Game. Khryapa left the NBA in 2008 and Thomas is currently in the D-League.
Because he plays in Portland, Aldridge has perhaps had the most overlooked stretch of four straight years averaging at least 21 points and eight rebounds. With averages of 23.6 points and 10.3 rebounds at the All-Star break this season, Aldridge is well on his way to making that five.
But the league's quiet superstar, a Dallas native, wanted a taste of one of the NBA's big markets when he left Texas as a sophomore nine years ago.
"Coming out of college, I wanted to be in Chicago," Aldridge says. "I just loved the city and the tradition, but if I went to Chicago, maybe I wouldn't have had the opportunity to become the player that I am."
That has happened in Portland.
"It's a small city and I'm a homebody," Aldridge says. "I'm usually at home most of the time with friends and family. Being there is fun because I don't do much anyway. And those fans are so loyal. They back us up no matter what. I just love them."
Aldridge's growth has been slow and steady. Even within the small market of Portland, Aldridge was overshadowed Brandon Roy, the sixth overall pick in 2006. Roy, who edged him for Rookie of the Year, led the team in scoring in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10, making All-Star Games all three season. The shooting guard also had Pacific Northwest roots, coming from Seattle.
Aldridge averaged at least 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in Roy's three All-Star seasons. When Roy went down with knee injuries in 2010-11 that eventually derailed his career, Aldridge had to be the guy in Portland.
Last season, Aldridge's 23.2 points and 11.1 rebounds were career bests. He finished eighth in scoring and seventh in rebounding.
Just short of his 30th birthday on July 19, Aldridge will become a coveted free agent after the five-year $65 million extension he signed in 2010 expires. Yet, Aldridge has only expressed a desire to stay in the Portland market. His argument: He wants to be the best Portland Trail Blazer ever.
"I'm definitely top two in every stat category in the organization," he says. "To definitely be the best I need to get a ring and get to the NBA Finals."
Aldridge trails only Clyde Drexler in points, field goals and rebounds. He trails only Drexler and Terry Porter in minutes played and is rapidly closing on Drexler, Porter, Jerome Kersey, Clifford Robinson and Jim Paxson in games played. Of course, Bill Walton might not have the stats, but he is responsible for the franchise's only NBA title.
Last spring, the 54-win, fifth-seeded Blazers took down the Rockets in the first round in six games. Aldridge opened the series with 46- and 43-point games in victories in Houston. Although the Blazers lost to the top seeded and eventual NBA champion Spurs in five games in the conference semifinals, Aldridge averaged 26.2 points in the postseason. Only Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden averaged more points.
"That was after last season," Aldridge said of the team's realization it could compete for a title. "We felt like we had learned versus the Spurs. We came back with the mindset that we could be better defensively and execute. Overall, trying to be better at every aspect of our game. We started the season off with those goals and it was showing. We had a little bit of a slide but we're back on track now."
The Blazers reached the All-Star break third in the Western Conference at 36-17. The team's current .679 winning percentage would be its best since 1999-2000 when Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace, Steve Smith and Damon Stoudamire led the Blazers to the conference finals. (The Lakers came back from 15 down in Game 7 of that series, capped off by the Kobe-to-Shaq alley-oop, but that is a story for another day.)
"We feel like we have a lot of room to grow," Aldridge says. We feel like we can do it and we have to get better defensively every night and focus on the little things. For the most part, we think we're as good as any team in the league right now."
The core of Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum is not getting the Blazers on national television every week, but it is putting wins in the standings. This season, Lillard reached his first All-Star Game as the second injury replacement in the Western Conference. When Lillard was snubbed from the original West roster, Aldridge notes, "I said some things I can't say." Portland's dynamic duo has developed a big brother-little brother chemistry, as Aldridge has watched the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year improve.
"He has that mentality of a winner," Aldridge says. "He gets better every year. He has ice in his veins. He's gotten better as a passer. I've watched him grow and now he's one of the best point guards in this league."
Aldridge is the glue holding Lillard and the rest of the mostly young team together. Chris Kaman and Steve Blake brought in some more veteran leadership this past offseason, but Aldridge is the centerpiece.
Despite his leadership, Aldridge needs his teammates when the going is tough. In a Jan. 19 game against the Kings, Aldridge injured a ligament in his thumb, and surgery appeared inevitable. Inevitable to mostly everyone except Aldridge, who decided to delay the surgery.
Asked whether he thought his season was done in January, Aldridge says: "It was. My initial reaction from the diagnosis was I was going to be out 6-8 weeks and have surgery and then reevaluate it. And I kind of made my own decision of wanting to play through it and I got the support of the organization and the doctors and tried it out. Here I am."
Aldridge said the team did not pressure him to have surgery.
"They supported me either way," he says. "When I said I was out, they all felt bad for me because I was going be an All-Star and was having a great season, but there was no pressure to come back."
Health concerns have gone on for a long time for Aldridge. Despite never missing more than 19 games in a season, Aldridge had one very rare scare with eight games left his rookie season. On April 9, 2007, Aldridge experienced shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat, a condition he had experienced since he was a kid. He was taken to Providence Hospital in Portland, where he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a disorder of the conduction system of the heart.
Aldridge would rather talk about his figurative heart on the basketball court than his physical heart. Now almost eight years since his diagnosis, Aldridge has attended an annual checkup but never had a related issue pop back up.
"I had to have a procedure done and I've been good ever since," he says. "It was scary, but luckily I had the right doctors and I've been fine ever since."
Aldridge says he does not think about WPW when he is on the court or living his everyday life. Over All-Star Weekend, Aldridge was giddy he could take some time away from the arena to relax with family and friends. For the first time in Aldridge's four All-Star trips, new NBA policy would give him an extended break, including four full days off after the All-Star Game. After all, Adam Silver has to cater to the homebodies like Aldridge.
With averages of 23.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, there is not much that can bother Aldridge. Right now, he is leading his upstart team to a low Western Conference seed, and if he can stay healthy, the Blazers may be in prime position to make a run. With the West as wide open as ever, Aldridge and the little guys in Portland see a light.
Unfortunately for Aldridge, there are no more trips this season to see some of his biggest fans in Chicago.
"Fans say they wish they never traded me -- it was the worst trade ever," he says. "They don't understand why they picked Tyrus Thomas. Even to this day, I still hear good things. Even to this day, that's an honor."
Aldridge says he has never talked to Thomas about the trade. Then again, Aldridge does not talk with much of anybody outside his immediately friends and family and the Trail Blazers community. He is a homebody. After all, who knows if he would have succeeded in Chicago?
"Like I always say, I think everything works itself out. It worked itself out."
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.