Channing Frye's locker-room superpowers still strong as he gets ready for retirement
Frye, 35, told CBS Sports that life outside of basketball is calling him, and teammates explained his locker-room superpowers
This itself was not unusual -- Frye, who will turn 36 in May, has been "talking shit about it all year," Cleveland Cavaliers big man Larry Nance said. In retrospect, Kevin Love thinks Frye was trying to "tell us something without telling us something," but, at the time, it wasn't completely clear if he was serious.
"When Channing says something dramatic like that, we all say, 'Shut up Channing, we don't want to hear that shit,'" Love said.
The next morning, Frye made official what he had been thinking about for some time: This will be his last season in the NBA. Rather than publishing an essay or a video explaining his decision, he announced it on Instagram.
Alongside a photo of himself at his introductory press conference 14 years ago, standing next to fellow rookie David Lee and then-Knicks coach Herb Williams, Frye wrote a single sentence: "Playing at MSG for the last time last night, had me thinking of how fast time has flown by." Frye loves to talk, but he thought this called for brevity and subtlety.
"The attention I'm even getting for it now is kind of shocking," Frye said. "I think, for me, most people would have been like, 'I thought he was retired anyways.'" He laughed, explaining that he's "never one to toot my own horn" or "be a distraction for the team."
Back in New York to play the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, Frye joined Fox Sports Ohio's pregame broadcast for some banter with Richard Jefferson. His friend, former teammate and podcast partner called for Frye to be in the starting lineup in his final game at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. "No way," Frye pleaded. "Please, God, don't start me. Please."
As Frye shot corner 3s at the Barclays Center, a Cavs assistant coach yelled, "Retirement tour!" Before going to the locker room, he caught up with a procession of old friends -- Nets general manager Sean Marks, forward Jared Dudley and assistant coach Bret Brielmaier among them -- and posed for a photo with an early-arriving fan. She got his attention with an NBA Jam-style Road Trippin' podcast shirt.
Frye did not get in the game at Barclays Center, nor did he expect to. He and Jefferson made headlines, though, by simultaneously congratulating and roasting LeBron James for passing Michael Jordan for fourth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Driving in Miami the next day, Frye and Love spotted a man walking around in a Jefferson jersey. They filmed him as Frye heckled, "Did you get a discount on that or did you really buy that?"
Frye roasts with love. Around the league, he is known as much for his glue-guy qualities as he is for his 3-point shooting. This season, in which he has mostly served as a mentor, his happiness "has come from watching everybody grow and develop," he said. Even when he was playing major minutes, though, Frye added value off the court. "He's a good bridge for everybody," Nance said, describing him the same way James did two years ago.
Frye will not let a teammate sit quietly in the locker room. "He ropes everybody in," Nance said, which means the 20-year-old Collin Sexton might wind up having a conversation he wouldn't have otherwise had with the 30-year-old Love. Then there are the nicknames: Frye calls center Ante Zizic "Ivan Drago," forward Marquese Chriss "Quese-a-dilla" and David Nwaba "Nwamba." (An assistant coach once misspelled Nwaba's last name.) These monikers will outlast Frye in Cleveland, Nance said. "Especially Quese-a-dilla."
"There's one thing about everybody that, once you get to know them, that you have in common," Frye said. "You just kind of create that bond. I think that's what being a good teammate is, and I think that's what creates a good environment for the locker room. I think if guys are connected, it's easier to know where they're coming from when they get upset or they're down on themselves."
While Frye had a limited role in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers might not have been cohesive enough to pull off their historic comeback without him. He arrived in February that season in a trade from the lowly Orlando Magic and could not believe how little fun they were having. Frye famously arranged team dinners and started a lively group text. Jefferson remembers watching a game at home and getting a text from Frye during a break in play: "Did you guys see that stupid-ass commercial?" Players spent the next 45 minutes cracking jokes together.
"He was just like, 'We have the best job in the world,'" Love said. "I think people lose that perspective all the time. We get to play this game that continues to grow, this beautiful game, and the business aspect sometimes overrides being able to just go out there and play the game that you love. It was my first love. I've been playing basketball since I could walk. I had a ball in my hand since I could crawl. You just have to continue to remind yourself of that, and I think Channing is that constant reminder of the good things."
Nance described Frye as a 35-year-old teenager. "This has been a rough season for a lot of us," he said, "and I still haven't seen the guy have a bad day." It is true that, at a time when commissioner Adam Silver is concerned about players feeling isolated, anxious and unhappy, Frye stands out. He has never seemed trapped by his success, and he has challenged himself to remain a positive presence regardless of his role. It is notable, though, that the guy who keeps everybody's spirits high has also spoken publicly and frankly about his depression.
Frye had to sit out the entire 2012-13 season because of a heart issue. He was just 29 years old, diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and told that he would never play again. Later, as he told The Athletic, he came to believe that diagnosis was incorrect, but his myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) was partially caused by stress and anxiety. In a Player's Tribune story about how the ordeal changed his life, he offered an ode to Cavs' pre-shootaround brunch: "Sometimes we players don't appreciate the little things. Let's enjoy this wonderful French toast."
"I've had conversations at length with him about the season that he missed with his heart and what he went through," Love said. "And, really, the anxiety that it gave him as far as providing for his family and not being able to get back to the game that he loved potentially. He's been very open to me about that and has helped me with some of the struggles that I've had.
"That's my favorite thing about Channing. We'll be lifelong friends. He'll live in Portland and I'll get to see him a lot even in his retirement." He didn't even pause before delivering the punchline: "My least favorite thing about Channing is that I'm going to see him a lot in retirement."
Frye's mother died of cancer on in October 2016. Less than a month later, on Thanksgiving, his father died of complications from dilated cardiomyopathy. Throughout the 2016-17 season, Frye struggled to get out of bed and cried driving to practice. He told teammates that, sometimes, he just didn't have any emotional energy. A psychologist told him he had to be OK with not being OK, and, per another Player's Tribune story, his teammates were there for him with fart jokes and cheese plates. Frye is so naturally gregarious that it wasn't hard to tell when he was in a funk.
"He reads like a cheap novel," Love said. "He'll wear his heart on his sleeve around his boys. I think him having gone through a lot and, especially at this level where so much is expected of you, having that responsibility has made him who he is."
Road Trippin' listeners know what it means to be in "the matrix," Frye and Jefferson's term for negative thought patterns that come with playing poorly. There is humanity in how the podcast addresses the fickle nature of confidence and demystifies life as a professional athlete. If Frye has a superpower, it is his ability to mix silliness and vulnerability. He is a class clown with a heart of gold.
Frye still checks in on Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving via text message. "I think when you win a 'chip, you have a loyalty to each other that's kind of weird and different," he said. He mobbed Timofey Mozgov when the Magic visited Cleveland on Sunday, then put a photo of their smiling faces on Instagram. Unlike the caption of his retirement post, this tribute warranted more than one sentence. When Frye says that the most important thing about his career is the relationships he's built during it, you believe him.
Love, who spent so much time with Frye and Jefferson as teammates that they came to be known as "The Triangle," said he loves Frye to death and being around him has made this season easier to handle. Jefferson is always ready to joke about Frye "being limited athletically," but he is equally apt to rhapsodize about how basketball is a breathing entity and Frye fosters team unity.
"There are just certain people that have a different sense of humor that just enjoy life and have fun and work hard," Jefferson said. "He embodies everything that you want as a teammate. I try and tell people, 'Try and find somebody to say something bad about Channing.' It's impossible."
Before deciding to retire, Frye felt life outside of basketball calling him. He loves the game and wants to be around it, but he asked himself what more he needed to accomplish as a player. He didn't have an answer. He then asked himself whether he was functionally more of a player or a coach.
"If I'm a coach, let me be a coach, you know?" Frye said. "And I think, for me, I want to explore that and see if that's where my passion is and see if that's the next direction of my career. That's why I said it's time."
Despite the Cavs' 16-49 record, Frye insisted their locker room is one of the best he's ever been in. Alec Burks was on the roster for less than three months, and Frye is in touch with him regularly. As well as helping other players grow, though, Frye wants to make sure he is still growing. He is not afraid of retirement, and he's genuinely happy to be walking away with enough left in the tank to "ball up in the Portland rec leagues." The coals are burning, Frye said, and he needs to light another fire.
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