Luke Babbitt not giving up faith

There’s more to Blazers forward than a Chalupa shot

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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photoLuke Babbitt was considered the best shooter of his draft class in 2010 and taken 16th overall. He is shooting .485 from 3-point range for the Blazers this season.

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Some of you are not going to want to read this, because it will be like finding out that Steve McQueen preferred the slow lane, or perhaps more appropriately, that Jared frequents Quiznos.

It has to do with Luke Babbitt’s first 3-pointer of the season, and the crazy, no ... not crazy — loco reaction that ensued.

The NBA’s most celebrated promotion, you see, revolves around Chalupa coupons at the Rose Garden. Whenever the Trail Blazers score 100 points or more, fans are treated to that particular Taco Bell item for free.

Well, one evening against the Kings last January, with Portland leading 98-86 and the crowd chanting “Cha-lu-pa!,” Babbitt innocently crept to left-side elbow, received a pass from rookie point guard Nolan Smith, and swished a 24-footer with 29 seconds left in the game.

The arena erupted as though Luke had just sent the Blazers back to the conference finals, and afterward, the second-year forward delivered one of the most viral quotes of the season when he said, “It feels good to give the fans Taco Bell.”

But if Babbitt had known that his shot would prompt the city’s top-rated sports radio show to open its broadcast the next day with a five-minute dissection of the Chalupa, if he had known that Yahoo Sports would later plug a highlight video featuring him and myriad images of the flat-bread-wrapped entree, if he had known that fans would tag him “Cha-Luke-a” for the remainder of the season, or that his roommate would encourage him to seek a Taco Bell endorsement deal, or that Wesley Matthews would dub him the team’s designated Chalupa shooter, well ...

“If I had known,” Babbitt said, “I would have missed the shot on purpose.”

To say that Babbitt made this statement half-jokingly would be a bit generous to the joking portion. In all likelihood, he was 30-percent kidding at best.

Obviously, Babbitt never takes pleasure in missing a shot. Ever since he was a 2-year-old yelling “from the corner!” while playing on his Little Tikes hoop in Cincinnati, Luke has been rather unforgiving toward basketballs that refuse to find the net.

At the same time, it’s not as though Babbitt is without humor. Teammates and coaches consistently laud his wit, and when SportsCenter superimposed a diaper and bonnet on his frame last month to suggest that one of his turnovers “was like taking candy from a baby,” Luke said he laughed and called the anchor “hilarious.”

But Babbitt also confessed that by then, he had grown accustomed to being a punchline — a scrub whose haircut and dance “moves” had elicited more ink than anything he’d accomplished on the court. So even though most of us would sit on the end of the bench with the Taco Bell chihuahua in our laps for $1.7 million a year, Luke saw that particular association as one solidifying his jester status.

“There are guys like that on every team, where it becomes a joke. That’s what I was, and to some people, I still am. I’m trying to bust out of that,” said Babbitt, 22. “I play to be a winner, to be a contributor, not a guy who comes in and makes Chalupa shots. ... Still, we’ve got the best fans, and I can’t really blame them because for a year and a half, I hadn’t really done anything else.”

Yes, Luke’s rookie year was to statistics what “Gigli” was to the box office.

Considered the best shooter from his draft class, the 16th overall pick shot .273 from the field, .188 from 3-point range, and a ludicrous .333 from the free-throw line in his first season with Portland.

It got so bad that some people thought Babbitt was former Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard’s way of exacting revenge on the organization for canning him on draft day. But despite his futility — despite his lack of playing time and hijacked confidence, Luke insists that it was all part of the plan.

Not his plan, of course — His plan.

• • •

“The only reason I’m in the NBA is because of God. It’s nothing that I did,” said Babbitt, who lists faith as his top priority, family as his second, and basketball as his third. “If you look at the statistics, it’s not very common for a 6-8 white guy from Reno, Nevada, to be here. This is an opportunity for me and I’m going to use it to glorify God.”

Unlike another left-handed 20-something, Luke isn’t transparent when it comes to his devout Christianity. He rarely mentions the Lord in interviews, and seeks no soap box to espouse his beliefs.

However, he is part of a house church that meets during the week to discuss God’s teachings. He does try to read the Bible every day while citing Matthew 6:33 as his favorite verse. And last week, he did say “neither” when asked “Beyoncé or Rihanna?” during a jumbotron interview, later explaining that “I don’t listen to that genre of music. I listen to Christian, worship songs.”

Babbitt’s religious zeal can be traced to his parents, Bob and Laura, who moved from Cincinnati to Reno when Luke was 8. His athletic prowess? Eh ... not so much.

Matthews, who sits next to Babbitt in the Blazers’ locker room, has a former NBA point guard for a father and an All-American track star for a mom. Luke’s dad is an engineer who spent much of his career trying to make airplane engines quieter, while his mother is a nurse practitioner who played tennis in high school.

In fact, the only time Babbitt’s folks would offer their son basketball advice was when he lost his temper on the court. In other words -- they offered him a lot of advice.

Luke had so many technical fouls his junior year at Galena High (at least 10 by his count), that school administrators had to implement a rule stating that a player would be ejected after just one T. It’s not that Babbitt was a bully, he just had a competitive drive that would leave 19-for-20 shooting nights 5 percent short of expectations.

His high school coach, Tom Maurer, said the only speeding ticket he ever received came when he was rushing to open the gym for Luke after 10 p.m. on a weeknight. Babbitt’s roommate, Marcus “Goose” Robinson, said he has repeatedly called in sick because Babbitt drags him to the gym in the middle of the night and leaves him too pooped to work in the morning.

And while Babbitt was anything but anti-social as a teenager (he was the homecoming king who dated the homecoming queen for years), he did forgo his junior prom to play in an AAU tournament.

The payoff? A high school state championship, a career high school state scoring record, and a scholarship offer from Ohio State.

Babbitt actually reneged on his commitment to the Buckeyes and signed with the University of Nevada, a decision he admits was partially motivated by the fear of leaving his comfort zone. But on the basketball court, he was simply in the zone, averaging 21.9 points as a sophomore, winning WAC Player of the Year, and earning projections as a lottery pick.

Even so, Nevada coach David Carter implored Babbitt to be prepared to ride the bench his rookie year, a notion Babbitt agreed with ... at the time.

“I said I was ready to sit,” Babbitt said. “I wasn’t as ready as I thought.”

• • •

Babbitt’s move from Reno to Portland marked the first time he had ever been away from his family and friends. And his move from college to pro marked the first time he was something other than the star of his team.

Injury-free throughout the year, Babbitt appeared in just 24 NBA games in his inaugural season — logging double-digit minutes only once after December.

He didn’t complain, though. Never approached Nate McMillan about more opportunities — not even after the Blazers would go 2 for 20 from 3-point distance and teammates were pleading for him to talk to their coach.

They knew what he could do. Matthews said that if Babbitt gets hot, he can make 92 out of 100 uncontested 3’s in practice, while Nicolas Batum confessed that when it comes to intra-squad shooting contests, “we’re all just playing for second.”

It was tough for anyone back home to extract anything out of him, either. When mom or dad would want to talk about basketball, Luke would opt to discuss his grandfather, who suffered a stroke last year. And when Maurer would try to console him on his struggles, Babbitt would instantly turn the focus back to Maurer, whose contract at Galena High in Reno was not renewed last month.

“There was not a more influential person in supporting me than Luke. He would always say ‘no, let’s talk about you,’ ” Maurer said. “He told me that this would be a blessing down the road. That maybe I was being told that it’s time to spend more time with my family. I had never thought of it that way until I talked to him.”

It is not uncommon for Babbitt to try and deflect attention away from himself. When Galena wanted to retire his jersey, he told the school that he wouldn’t sign off on it unless all of his state-championship teammates had their numbers retired as well.

Perhaps such actions made him that much easier to root for when he finally got his chance with the Blazers last month.

Since Kaleb Canales has taken over as head coach, Babbitt has played at least 10 minutes in 15 out of 18 games, including the past 12.

He scored a career-high 16 points in a close win over the Hornets, and had the NBA’s top 3-point percentage in March.

Shooting .485 from 3-point distance on the year, Babbitt is 0.27 points higher than the league-leading Steve Novak, but needs to hit 11 triples in the next five games to qualify for the 3-point title.

In other words, he’s stoked, right?

“Some people would say I’m still not a happy person,” said Babbitt, adding that his struggles as a rookie was not due to a lack of confidence, but because he “wanted to make every shot so bad.” “Part of being a Christian is not wanting too much. But if I score five points, I want eight. I’m always thinking about the shots I missed.”

Perhaps lack of contentment will always be one of Luke’s quirks — right up there with buying pre-owned cars (he said he needs to save the money), having an entire cupboard filled with chocolate, and bolting from China last summer because he didn’t like the milk.

But even as he’s shooting 200 3-pointers a day, or getting workhorses like Matthews to say “Luke, go home” after a particularly lengthy workout, the one thing Babbitt wants people to know is — he’s not the one responsible for his success.

“It’s not me that’s doing it. It’s nothing that I’m doing,” said Babbitt, who has not had a technical foul since high school. “My goal is to show that my actions, the way I live my life, it’s because of God. Everything I’m blessed with, I want to use to glorify Him.”

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or by email matt.calkins@columbian.com