The heel, the agitator, aggravating, the firebrand. Annoying, a pest, the worst. They’re all descriptions and names Patrick Beverley has sat with through his soon-to-be 10 seasons in the NBA. At a glance, and against the team you’re rooting for, the characterizations stick. It’s easy to dismiss somebody as a one-dimensional instigator, relevant just when they manage to irk you, when they only present as an obstacle. But Beverley is exacting about his targets, pressing on the most untouchable superstars until they bend, and outworking, in livid bursts, the people he’s not likely to get a rise out of. He’s a consummate pro when it comes to picking who he’s going to bother.

Beverley took a roundabout route to the NBA, playing three years overseas in Europe because of his own bad decision in college. He’d had someone else write a paper for him and got caught once he’d turned it in. He owned up to it and returned in the summers to workout for NBA teams, but didn’t manage to land a roster spot until five years after being ruled ineligible to play for the Arkansas Razorbacks that led to his international stint — and when the Rockets picked him up it was initially for their G League arm. 

The lessons Beverley learned in Europe, a 20-year-old playing against men 30 years and older, seemed to simultaneously widen his perspective while honing him in on his runway. He said it “opened his eyes to the real world” and what it meant to be, and carry oneself, like a pro. Three years grinding in perceived relegation, with an eye to the NBA and what his college contemporaries were doing in it, had to be clarifying, and when Beverley got his shot with the Rockets he played with a razor-keen certainty of intent. Three points, one assist and one steal in under two minutes the first time he set foot on an NBA court. The Rockets saw just what they had and who they had it in.

It’s easy to dismiss what Beverley does, especially when he’s making your team miserable, as one-dimensional annoyance, but being a nuisance on two legs takes work. His taunts are targeted to the most publicly understood aspects of an opponent’s on-court persona. With Damian Lillard, he mocked “Dame Time”, Lillard’s heralded ability to get hot when it matters, by pantomiming a broken wristwatch. Peering closely at an invisible watch on his wrist, shaking it, smacking his wrist and finally taking the watch off and shoving it into his shorts. Knowing what makes stars tick (sorry, couldn’t resist) is one thing, but knowing what’s going to draw the ire of a fanbase is another. Beverley delights in it. It was barely a 30 second sequence but he did it on Portland’s home court with half a minute in the game to go, the Blazers down just enough to the Lakers that there wasn’t a chance the team was going to catch up. That kind of clutch time show is absolutely petty, which is the point. 

In tangles with Joel Embiid, Beverley literally does tangle himself around the bigger man’s body, arm coiling around arm so Embiid, frustrated, antes things up physically to get Beverley off of him. Similarly, with Kevin Durant, when the Clippers and Warriors faced off in round one of the 2019 playoffs, Beverley hounded Durant all of Game 1 of the series. Beverley pantomimed Durant’s flailing in a likeness more like those car dealership inflatable tube men, tore after Durant for hang-on chasedown blocks, inching up the temperature bit by by all game until midway through the 4th when Durant, exasperated, shoved Beverley from behind and down to the floor. The two were both ejected, but never being any of his team’s best scorers (he’s made a home for himself around his team’s basket, he averaged 5.9 total rebounds per game, 4.4 of them defensive, in his best season with Houston), Beverley had to know it was going to hurt Golden State more to lose Durant in those last few minutes.

If Beverley gained perspective by starting his career away from the thing he wanted most, a lot of that wider perspective shows in the way he currently plays, where his role as the agitator has somewhat eclipsed his earlier explosive sequences. When the Bulls (a team that, being from Chicago, Beverley has said he’d always wanted to play for) faced the Lakers (a team that cut Beverley loose) this week, Beverley taunted LeBron James and the Lakers overall standings as a team this season. Beyond the recency in which he played for — and was part of that struggling franchise — L.A. being funny, calling somebody like James “too small” is so blatantly contradictory that the joke gains an absurdist edge.

“I was just having fun, getting lost in the game,” Beverley said after the match, the Bulls having won by 10, "We’re not construction workers. We’re not guys that have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning. We’re professional basketball players. It’s all about having fun. That’s what we tried to do tonight, well, what I tried to do tonight.”

The Bulls could use any edge they can get right now with the potential of the play-in tournament looming, and Beverley understands that. He’s also a person who comes alive in a playoff situation, most notably as he did with the Timberwolves last year where he made the team winning the play-in tournament feel like a title. Verve and guts and not being afraid of being the cinematic bad guy in thousands of people’s heads is one side of the coin in being an exasperater, the other side, the one that tends to get tarnished, is the inherent joy it takes.

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