Star on home court

Joel Przybilla divides focus between Blazers and his family

(news photo)

JIM CLARK / TRIBUNE PHOTO

Blazer Joel Przybilla and wife Noelle show off son Anthony, 2, in their Tualatin home. After bouncing around some in the NBA, the center and his family are happy he is now a fixture with the Blazers.

Joel and Noelle Przybilla live in a spacious four-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot home in a new subdivision in Tualatin.

Make no mistake about it, though. Anthony Przybilla runs the household.

Not in a bad way. The 2-year-old is simply the apple of the eye of his parents, a pretty good gig for an only (so far) child.

“We’re lucky,” Noelle says as Anthony plays with an array of toys spread out in the living room. “He’s a great kid. Hardly ever cries.”

Fatherhood has been a fulfilling experience for Joel, the Trail Blazer center who will celebrate his sixth wedding anniversary this summer.

“It’s been the best,” he says, confessing, “Everything revolves around Anthony.

“But it has changed my life. I come home after a game or practice, he puts a smile on my face no matter what.”

Sign Joel up for more kids, incidentally.

“I’m planning on it,” he nods.

That is, when Noelle is ready.

“Eventually,” she says with a laugh. “It’s hard. During the season, Anthony and I go home (to Wisconsin) – we’re back and forth. When we’re here, Joel is away a lot and I’m alone … it’s not like I have family or friends here to watch him so I can run here or there. Anthony is with me 24 hours a day, so if I had him and a baby? Wow.”

Not that Noelle is complaining. She’s a hands-on mother who brings Anthony to games at the Rose Garden on a regular basis.

“If I’m there, he’s there,” Noelle says. “He watches the game. He looks down on the court and is like, ‘Hey, there’s Dad.’ ”

Many families of professional athletes hire nannies, even if the mother doesn’t work. Not the Przybillas.

“People will say, ‘You could just pay a nanny for like 40 hours a week,’ ” Noelle says. “But don’t you want to spend the time with your child? I’ll be gone from him for two hours and I miss him.”

Nor do the Przybillas have a housekeeper.

“If we had someone clean the house, you know what she’d do?” Joel asks, grinning at his wife. “She’d come in and clean up after them.”

“I’m a bit of a neat freak,” she agrees. “But I don’t believe in paying people for things I can do myself.”

Joel notes that Noelle also clips coupons.

“She’s thrifty,” he says, a measure of pride in his voice.

If there’s a spender in the family, it’s Joel.

“We kind of joke about it,” Noelle says. “Joel will buy clothes, and he hides them on me. Usually it’s the wife hiding the shopping bags under the bed. I’ll go in the guest room, and there’ll be a box from the Big & Tall store.”

“I’m careful with money,” he says, “but I’ll spend a little on clothes, because we didn’t have a lot growing up. Plus, it was tough to find clothes to fit me.”

Midwest roots intertwine

The Przybillas are a product of their Midwest, small-town upbringing. Noelle grew up in Big Bend, Wis., population 1,300, about 20 minutes outside of Milwaukee. Joel is a native of Monticello, Minn., a town of about 10,000 not far from Minneapolis.

If you listen closely, you can detect a trace of a Midwest accent in both of them (“it’s a-bote 45 minutes away,” “back in Minn-e-soda”).

They met in 2000, during Joel’s rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks. Noelle was a student at Alverno, a Catholic women’s college in Milwaukee, on her way to a triple degree (nursing, business management, communications).

“I gave her my phone number,” Joel says. “She never called back.”

A few weeks later, though, they ran into each other in a bar. This time, he was smart enough to get her number.

They started dating, got engaged that summer and were married the following year.

“After I gave him a chance, I found out he was such a sweetheart, such a nice guy,” Noelle says. “I think he liked that I gave him a run for his money.”

“For me, it was love at first sight, I guess,” Joel says bashfully.

They’re a tight couple, with Joel often deferring to Noelle in family decisions because he has so much faith and trust in her judgment. He is by nature shy. She is the more outgoing of the two.

There isn’t a dose of big shot in the Przybillas. They have plenty of money, but you’d never know it.

“I feel like we’re … well, we’re just normal people,” Noelle says. “I don’t feel any different than anybody else.”

In Portland, of course, the Przybillas are celebrities.

“I’m used to the attention,” she says. “It’s been that way ever since I’ve known him. He would like to hide from that stuff, except he can’t hide.”

Pretty hard to, when you’re 7-foot-1.

“People know him here,” Noelle says, “but a lot of people, just because he’s tall, assume he’s a professional basketball player. Since the day I met him, anywhere we go, people notice. Usually, he’s fine. Sometimes, he gets that look on his face like, ‘Don’t talk to me.’ ”

“I have my days,” Joel acknowledges.

It’s hard to imagine Przybilla – one of the most accommodating Blazers ever – being anything close to rude when dealing with the public.

“Most people are polite,” Noelle says. “They don’t want to bug him. They’ll be whispering, ‘Is that Joel Przybilla?’ ”

Some wives of NBA players complain about unwanted attention from female admirers of their husbands.

“That’s never been a problem,” Noelle says. “But we’re pretty boring, really. We go to the mall and hang out. We don’t go to fancy restaurants. We like Sweet Tomatoes. That’s probably why we don’t have the woman problem, because he doesn’t put himself in those situations. We don’t go to bars. We’ve never been big bar people. Joel hates crowds.”

Truth be told, Joel does have a bit of a woman problem – the older set.

“His biggest fan base is women our moms’ age,” Noelle says with a grin. “They’re the ones who always come up to him. Or somebody will come up and say, ‘My mom’s your biggest fan. She’s 53.’ Or I’ll pull out my credit card at the grocery store and (the clerk) sees the name ‘Przybilla’ and will say, ‘Oh, my mother loves your husband.’ Last time I was at Washington Square, that happened to me twice.”

Blazer GM took a chance

Joel grew up the third of four children of Doug Przybilla, an American Express employee, and Linda, a teacher’s assistant at a middle school. Doug stands 6-4, Linda 5-10.

Brother Matt (6-5) is 34, six years older than Joel. Their sisters are Renee and Lisa, the latter 22 and a student at St. Cloud (Minn.) State. Joel and Lisa are the closest of the Przybilla siblings. She often visits Portland and attends games with Noelle.

“She is Anthony’s favorite person in the world,” Joel says.

Przybilla played football and baseball through middle school before shooting up 5 inches to nearly 6-10 as a freshman in high school. From then, it was strictly basketball, where he earned a reputation as one of the top prep big men in the nation.

As a senior, Przybilla narrowed his college choices to Minnesota, Kansas, UCLA and Kentucky before deciding on the Gophers because of the proximity to home and his feelings for coach Clem Haskins.

Haskins was fired and replaced by Dan Monson after Przybilla’s freshman year. Przybilla averaged 14.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.9 blocked shots and led the Big Ten with a .613 shooting percentage – he declared for the 2000 draft. In a draft-day deal, Milwaukee sent the 15th pick and a future first-round selection to Houston, which had taken Przybilla with the ninth pick.

Przybilla played little as a rookie, got into the Bucks’ rotation in his second season and struggled with an ankle injury in his third. He was sent to Atlanta in a trade-deadline deal in February 2004 but dealt with knee problems and evidently didn’t impress the Hawks, who let him go into the free-agent market.

That summer, Portland General Manager John Nash was the only one to come through with a guaranteed offer, a two-year contract for about $2.2 million. Przybilla made Nash look good by averaging 6.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and ranking seventh in the NBA in blocked shots (2.14) in only 24 minutes a game.

“I just needed the opportunity to play,” Przybilla says. “I always believed in myself. There were some rocky times those first few years, but it was part of the journey. A lot of (the increased productivity) was the change of scenery, too. Nash was the guy who gave me the opportunity – I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”

After the 2005-06 season, Przybilla was a hot ticket as the best young, free-agent center. He considered offers from San Antonio and Detroit before re-signing with Portland for a five-year, $32-million contract despite the Blazers’ NBA-worst 21-61 record.

Loyalty played a part. So did roots, ironically.

“We wanted to stay here,” Przybilla says. “We enjoy it in Portland. Sometimes the grass ain’t greener on the other side. And we saw things were starting to change in the organization.”

“We’d made a home here,” Noelle says. “Anthony was born here. We had doctors here. It’s hard living in a new city. We’ve been lucky not to have gone through it too often.”

Detroit would have been closer to both of their families in the Midwest. The Przybillas have a summer home and a cabin on a lake in Wisconsin. Still, Noelle endorsed the idea of staying in Portland.

“There are so many people in the organization I really, really like,” she says. “I know my way around now, and the people in this area are so wonderful. If it weren’t that our families are in (Wisconsin and Minnesota), I could live here (year-round). I like it here a lot.”

12 games left to go

After being limited to 43 games due to injuries last season, Przybilla worked extremely hard on conditioning, strength and fitness over the summer to prepare for the 2007-08 campaign. His prime goal? Play all 82 games.

So far, so good. Going into Monday night’s game at Seattle, Przybilla had played in each of the Blazers’ 70 games.

“If I can play all 82, there’ll be a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “I’ve never done that before in a season.”

Not that Przybilla has stayed completely healthy.

“He has played through two sprained ankles, a sore back … he plays through everything,” Noelle says. “I’m the one who has to deal with it every night when he comes home in pain. He can’t move, and he has ice all over him.”

Przybilla’s other preseason personal goal was to shoot 70 percent from the foul line, a seemingly ludicrous aspiration given that his career percentage going into the season was .485 – including .370 in 2006-07. Following plenty of offseason work with assistant coach Monty Williams and shooting coach John Townsend and a change in his repertoire and motion, Przybilla is hitting free throws at a career-best .673 clip.

Though playing only 23 minutes per game, Przybilla is averaging 4.9 points and leads Portland in rebounds (8.0), blocks (1.4) and field-goal percentage (.585). He was sensational in Saturday night’s victory over the L.A. Clippers at Staples Center, scoring 14 points and grabbing a career-high 25 rebounds – two shy of Sidney Wicks’ franchise record and the most since Bill Walton had 25 in a game in December 1977.

At 28, Przybilla is at the peak of his physical prowess and has been the Blazers’ starting center each of the past four seasons.

But what about next year? Greg Oden is projected as the future. Assuming he recovers from microfracture knee surgery, Oden will be the guy. Won’t he?

“Who knows?” Przybilla says with a shrug. “We’ll see. The biggest thing is his health. I’ve not played against him at all because he got hurt before training camp. Seems like a great kid. He works hard.

“But when I came here, Theo (Ratliff) was supposed to be the guy. Then Jamaal (Magloire) was supposed to be the guy. I’ve overcome a lot of odds before. It’s another obstacle I have to deal with.”

What’s this? Soft-spoken Joel Przybilla – the ultimate team guy – saying he wants to be the starting center next season, even with Oden on board?

“I wouldn’t mind, yeah,” Przybilla says. “I mean, (Oden) was the No. 1 pick. I know what their intentions are for him. We’ll see what happens.”

Regardless, these are good times for the big man from the small town in Minnesota, both off the court and on it.

“I’ve been lucky to play eight years in the NBA,” he says. “We’ll see how the rest of my career goes. At least I have a role here. In the past, I was unwanted. It feels good to be part of something.”

kerryeggers@portlandtribune.com