It’s hard to image the selection committee arguing over the five to be inducted this year: “[Michael] Jordan was elected to the class of 2009 Monday with David Robinson, John Stockton, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and Rutgers women’s coach C. Vivian Stringer. The announcement was made in Detroit, site of the men’s Final Four. Induction is Sept. 10-12 in Springfield, Mass., home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.”
by Stephen Litel
The Phoenix Mercury were WNBA Champions in 2007. In 2008, they finished with a 16-18 record, tied with Minnesota for last place in the Western Conference and two games out of the Playoffs. How does that occur on a team that features Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and the WNBA’s seventh all-time leading scorer, Tangela Smith?
“We didn’t start the season off on a great note,” says veteran center Smith. “We dug ourselves in a hole from the start and we just couldn’t get on a good enough run to make it into the Playoffs, which was very unfortunate. We can’t make any excuses. We just didn’t get the job done. Yes, we lost Penny Taylor. Yes, we lost Coach Westhead and yes, I had surgery. All those things were bad, but we can’t use them as excuses. We still could have put ourselves in a position to fight to keep the title, but we didn’t and that’s that.”
Whether the team became complacent or learned firsthand how other teams play their best against the reigning champions, Smith is doing everything in her power to lead her team back into the championship hunt. With a now healthy knee, Smith headed to China during the off-season to work her way back into basketball shape.
“China was very interesting,” said Smith. “The season was only four months, but very intense. We practiced a lot and played twice a week, so I barely had time for any sightseeing. My team was number one throughout the entire season and we ended up winning the championship. I won one in Turkey, Korea, Phoenix—that was the best one—and China.”
Playing her college ball in Iowa, as well as WNBA stops in Sacramento, Charlotte and Phoenix over the past decade, Smith is used to certain similarities during all her stops. Although the game of basketball allows Smith to play in a wide range of cities and countries, adjusting to life in China was different.
“I really had to get used to the culture and the way the Chinese did things because it is very different from playing here in the States,” says Smith. “It was a very difficult adjustment for me. For example, we had curfews, we lived in hotels the entire season like dorms and we ate three meals together as a team. Basically, it was more structured and so many more rules. Anything we wanted to do outside of basketball we had to get permission to do, which was sort of useless because the answer was always going to be ‘no.’ I felt like I had joined the army or something similar. It was crazy, but my teammates made it a lot of fun for me because they were the coolest, nicest and funniest teammates ever. I also had a translator that was by my side every step of the way and she was great. The organization really did make my stay in China very comfortable.”
As Smith spent her time winning a title in a different culture, the Mercury organization also showed their commitment to righting their ship. With the WNBA Draft quickly approaching, the Mercury brought in Nicole Ohlde from Minnesota to help in the post. Ohlde’s career averages of 10 points and 5.3 rebounds took a hit in 2008, as her place in the revamped Minnesota Lynx could not find a way to work the talented player into their new mix.
“Nicole Ohlde will be a huge help in the paint,” says Smith. “Nicole is exactly what we need - a big presence down low to take a little bit of the pressure off Dee (Taurasi) and Cap (Pondexter). She will definitely help out me and Le’Coe (Willingham) tremendously on the inside.”
With veteran point guard, Kelly Miller going to Minnesota in the Ohlde trade, the Mercury also acquired Temeka Johnson from the Los Angeles Sparks. Although her regular season statistics do not jump off the page, Johnson sporting a Phoenix jersey is a good move, as her playoff experience will be quite beneficial. Johnson’s statistics in the playoffs jump significantly from her regular season numbers.
“I feel that Temeka Johnson will help us tremendously at the point guard position,” says Smith. “After losing Kelly Miller, we needed to fill the big void that would have been missing in that spot. I believe she’s the type of point guard that fits well in our style of play.”
A decade of playing in the WNBA and overseas. Coming off a knee injury. A franchise bringing in new faces through trades and the draft coming on Thursday. With all the time she has put into the game, as well as the changes in her WNBA home, Smith does not expect much to change as far as her playing time.
“I don’t feel my role will change,” says Smith. “The post position is really interchangeable, so it really doesn’t matter if I’m the four or the five. If anything, my role will become a lot easier now that we have Nicole. I was the one always defending the bigger post players on the opposite team–which I didn’t have a problem with–but sometimes I was just a tad bit undersized, but I still held my own.”
As Phoenix teammate Diana Taurasi plays for a Euroleague championship, the unheralded acquisition of Sequoia Holmes and the fifth pick in the draft on Thursday, Smith looks ahead to the upcoming WNBA season. The veteran and all-time great sees good things on the horizon.
“This year will be different,” says Smith. “I believe everyone wants to redeem ourselves from having a not so good year last season. We’re going to be ready, focused and hungrier than ever. We will also have more depth with the great acquisitions we have coming in. I will be going to Phoenix early to work out with the coaches before training camp starts and try and help get more fans in the stands to watch our wonderful sport and all the great players we have.”
Prepare yourselves, Mercury fans. One of your team’s leaders expects great things during the summer of 2009.
by Franklyn Calle
The Chicago Tribune reported on Monday that Darius Smith gave UConn a verbal commitment. Considered one of the top unsigned senior point guards in the nation, at 6-2 and 170lb, the Chicago native picked the Huskies over Arizona State and Cincinnati. Missouri, Purdue, Kentucky, Indiana, Marquette and Oregon State offered scholarships while UCLA, Memphis and Duke showed interest lately but none put an offer on the table. “UConn’s style of play is my style of play-up and down the court,” Smith told the paper. “With A.J. Price a senior, this was a good fit for them and for me. I pride myself on doing it at both ends of the court, just like him.”
“I like the program and get along real well with the coaching staff. I will be a true point guards there.” Smith attended Marshall Metropolitan HS where he averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 7 steals for the season. He was selected to the first-team All-State. According to the report, he will be the first Public Leaguer to play for Connecticut since Young’s Marcus White back in 2002. He ranks #12 among all senior point guards according to ESPN.com. Smith now joins Jamal Trice- a 6-5 shooting guard from Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel-a 6-6 small forward from The Tilton School in New Hampshire and Alex Oriakhi- a 6-8 forward also from The Tilton School, as part of the Huskies’ 2009 recruiting class.
On Thursday, Penn State received a verbal commitment from Taran Buie. The 6-3 junior shooting guard ranks among the top in the nation at his position. He attends Bishop Maginn HS in Albany, New York. Buie chose Penn State over Maryland, Marquette, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Miami, Notre Dame and Rutgers. According to the Albany Times Union, the New York guard committed to coach Ed DeChellis moments after his team defeated Baylor University at Madison Square Garden to capture the NIT title on Thursday night. “He called me (at 11:45 p.m. Thursday) and told me he gave Coach DeChellis his commitment,” Bishop Maginn coach Rich Hurley told the paper. “I told him, ‘If that is where you want to go, I support you 100 percent.’ He is a Nittany Lion.” Buie becomes the first commit for Penn State’s 2010 recruiting class.
Terrell Stoglin verbally committed to the University of Maryland on Wednesday while on the phone with Maryland coach Gary Williams, according to the Arizona Daily Star. The nationally ranked junior point guard averaged 27 points and 7.5 assists per game this past season. “He told me they put a lot of trust in me to help the team get back to the Sweet 16,” Stoglin told the paper. “It feels real good. I’m just trying to get there and contribute to the team.” His high school coach at Santa Rita HS, Jim Ferguson, told the paper the following: “They’ve been watching him and they like what they see,” Ferguson said. “They have a point guard who’s graduating and he can move right in. I don’t know if Tucson’s ever sent a player to play in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference).” Stoglin reportedly was also considering USC, UCLA, Arizona, Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, Northern Arizona and San Diego. He becomes the first commit for the Terrapins’ 2010 recruiting class.
John Calipari’s arrival at the University of Kentucky on Wednesday as head coach has developed a mass exodus from recruits who have committed to the Wildcat’s program. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, six prospects have backed away from their commitment. Texas point guard G.J. Vilarino, who signed a letter of intent in November, has asked for a release and will be getting it soon. He was the first commitment for the former Kentucky head coach, Billy Gillispie, when getting hired two years ago. According to ESPN.com, Vilarino chose the Wildcats over Memphis, Kansas, Texas A&M, Illinois and Baylor. Juniors Dakotah Euton- a 6-7 power forward from Scott Country HS in kentucky and K.C. Ross-Miller- a 6-1 point guard from God’s Academy in Dallas, Texas, also have decided to open-up their recruitment once again. Konner Tucker, a 6-4 guard who is currently playing junior college ball at Lon Morris College in Texas, also de-committed on Wednesday after Calipari’s announcement. Freshmen Michael Avery de-committed on Thursday. The 6-4 shooting guard who currently attends Crespi Carmelite HS in California gave Kentucky a verbal commitment last April while still in the 8th grade. Then as the weekend began, Dominique Ferguson announced he was also going to open up his recruitment. According to the Courier-Journal, he will be looking at Louisville and Indiana as options. “Calipari is a great coach, and he could fit into that system and excel,” Deon Ferguson (Dominique’s father) told the paper. “Now he has to recruit him. Just because he’s the coach there doesn’t mean he just has to go there. He’s going to look at other options.” Ferguson was the highest-ranked player that coach Billy Gillispie was able to receive a commitment from. He is one of the top ranked juniors in the nation according to every scouting service. Right here at SLAM, we have the 6-9 forward from Lawrence North HS in Indianapolis as #20 in his class. With six of the nine players that committed to Gillispie and the Kentucky Wildcats now looking elsewhere, sophomore Vinny Zollo still hasn’t backed away from his verbal commitment to the program while seniors Jon Hood- a 6-6 small forward from Madisonville North Hopkins HS in Kentucky and Daniel Orton- a 6-10 center from Bishop McGuinness HS in Oklahoma, both of which have signed letters of intent to the program, still remain committed.
The Lawrence Journal-World reported on Saturday that Xavier Henry’s father, Carl Henry, told the paper that his son wants to play for Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks. Henry has already asked for a release from his letter of intent that he signed back in November with the University of Memphis. “I believe what it comes down to is Xavier wants to go to KU,” Carl Henry told the Lawrence Journal-World. “It should all be settled in the next two or three weeks.” Henry will be able to sign with another school because there was an agreement with the school in the letter of intent that if John Calipari was to leave for another job then he would be released. Xavier’s brother, C.J. Henry (a walk-on at Memphis), also wants to follow suit but may have to stay if he wants to play. “C.J. doesn’t want to sit out. He wants to play,” Carl said. “Basically if he transfers, we don’t think C.J. will be able to play. We will not know for sure until we talk to a couple lawyers. I don’t think it’s fair he has to sit out a year. The school is not paying for his scholarship. The Yankees (who signed him out of high school) are paying for it. He didn’t play all year. He should be able to go to Kansas and play right away.”
By Sam Rubenstein
In High School teaching, which as we’ve established, is like coaching, it’s supposed to be all about the players. My job is to put them in a position where they can succeed. With the NCAA tourney coming to a close Monday night, on the same day that my 9th graders will perform scenes from The Odyssey for a big final project, I am sweating a whole war machine’s worth of bullets.
I drew up “gameplans”, meaning activities and lessons to get them ready, and some of them are getting it, but I’m nervous about the group. This is why coaches look like they’ve been sleeping under a train car full of hobos. You should see the bags under my eyes these days. John Chaney is a pretty boy compared to me. But the important question to ask is “Mr. Rubenstein, what type of coach are you?” Why, I’m glad you asked.
There are the Bobby Knight types who are just rude, terrible people, but they know what’s best for your child. Okay, maybe they’re not bad people, neither is Bobby. They sure do yell a lot and fly off the handle for the littest things though. I’m too new to this to be a Calhoun type, although I would love to be able to say things like “Yeah there’s a lot of rules, maybe they got broken. Whaddyagonnado?” The kids have mastered that philosophy. Jim Calhoun would fit right in with the 9th and 10th graders.
There are other teachers at my school who are the fast talking hotshot coaches, in the Pitino-Calipari mold, who work their corrupt magic somehow. I am jealous of them. Sure they both fell short in the tourney, but that’s what one-and-done elimination is. In my world now it’s called high stakes testing. Cruel, unfair, stressful, the way of the world. More importantly, they gettin’ monnnnneeeeee!!!
I have a lot of respect for Tom Izzo, but I’ve seen his pre-game speeches on TV, and that’s just not my style. I wish. Roy Williams is too folksy daggumit, Coach K has too many motivational slogans, Boeheim is too grumpy. I take more of an NBA coach approach to teaching, which is to be a player’s coach.
The key to everything is knowing your students, like knowing your players. I have the LeBron of students in my freshman English class. She’s so smart, has such a good attitude, that I am lucky to able to work with her. I give her every chance to get away with stuff if she wants to, not that she would. She doesn’t need coaching, she just needs to be given a stage to dominate and be reminded not to get too cocky. I also have a Chris Paul in the room, just like LeBron but shorter and usually dressed in flourescent colors. Which one is the best? It’s a debate, although LeBron can do more and has achieved more so far. I thank the education Gods for placing the two of them in my classroom.
There are quieter, humble types of superstars, like the Tim Duncan of my class, a quiet Brazilian girl who claims she has trouble with some of the language, but then she will raise her hand and blow me away with thoughts much deeper than my own. Tim Duncan is complemented by Amar’e, a student who radiates brilliance, but let’s just say she has some “lapses.”
I have closet geniuses who could be the superstars if they so chose, but they just are not built that way. Rasheed Wallaces. Sheed did his best work when he was coached by Rick Adelman and Larry Brown, and if I fall somewhere in the middle between those two, that would be great, because I have no idea how to reach the Rasheeds. Just let them be? Hahahahahahahaha! Oh man… the sheer destruction that would ensue…
Is there a Stephen Jackson/Ron Artest/token violent and insane student in my class? Indeed. He also happens to be a part of the closet genius crew. We went on a field trip to the museum to do science experiments on Friday, learning about DNA in caviar. He raised his hand and asked “Can you buy caviar with foodstamps?” He also told me he missed class because he got into a fight with a cop after he called the cop a “B— a$$ n—-” and the cop had the nerve to grab him!
You’ll be pleased to know there is a Steph 2008-09 in the class. He was away from the school on suspension for 7 weeks and things were going smoothly. Now he’s back, and he’s dragging people down with him. But this is not the NBA where you can throw $20 million at a problem to make it go away. Imagine if D’Antoni was forced to keep Steph involved the whole time. Mikey D, I envy you.
There is a group of kids in the “Can’t stay out of trouble” mode, the ones who make the news for all the wrong reasons. Let’s not even go there, it’s too depressing. Liars!
Others I have to encourage. You know how coaches never say “I can’t believe that scrub dared to take the shot.” I never allow them to lose confidence, and I keep including them, staying as balanced as possible. It’s working out pretty well.
Some are no-shows, DNPs if you will. Yeah, they won’t be in the “NBA” much longer if they keep this up.
My main dude is the quiet funny kid in the back. He’s lazy, he makes funny faces, he makes me laugh. He’s 15 years old and he said to me “Hey man, you’re harshing my mellow.” I guess you could say he’s a class clown, but he’s also really quiet. He’s one of those quirky cult figures that NBA diehards love so much.
There is a Kobe in the class. Oh boy… this is a 14 year old boy with a deep voice, awkwardly tall for his age, and he is absolutely brilliant. I wrote a question on a test “How does Odysseus change over the course of his journey?” and he wrote “Odysseus has acquired a sense of ruthlessness from his desperation.” I’m telling you, this kid is a genius. I am also telling you that I have never had to beg and plead and scream and whine and beg and plead and scream and whine and threaten and praise and want to strangle a person more in my life.
Add it all up, and you’ve got a “team” that finally made it to the big dance. As their coach, I put them in position to do their job on Monday. There’s nothing else I can do for them, other than to be overcome with nervous energy.
AND SO IN CONCLUSION… “Coaching” is a lot more than stalking kids with text messages, accepting bribes from boosters, and writing frantically on dry erase boards. Although as you can see in the picture above, my dry erase game is getting tighter. Big games for Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, and Mr. Rubenstein tomorrow. NERVOUS!!!
by Michael Tillery
As I walked into the pressroom, the player’s absence was unmistakable. Why in the…. Joe? I know you saved yourself some money Mr. Dumars, but quit playin’ man.
How could he not be here for this game? Where was he? Hiding out… avoiding that relentless and vaunted Philly press cap? Watching the game from his spot upstairs in T.G.I. Fridays on the Main Line? Chillin’ amongst the green universe of happy fans and collegians at Ford Field? Nah… a Hoya certainly wouldnt’ do that. But where could he be?
Man this is frustrating. When I heard the news he was deactivated because of “injury,” I thought selfishly to myself, this straight BS, but who cares about my piece right?
Then I found him…
There he is… relegated to a bio sheet on the press info table. Wow, there were at least 20 of him. I waited for one of the carefully stapled pages to say something like a coach looking out into a press conference with no media cojones. Dude… cuss out a ref… do something… steal the rock… put your hand to your ear and run around the Wachovia Center floor… seeking that Philly spiritual and inspired adulation just one more time. Please.
His bio picture screamed passion and hood reason, so I figured there would be some type action. I waited. I braced myself as if the elevator was gonna fall to the next floor… surfer stance and everything, but like they say on the streets…”Sike, nah.”
I looked like a fool standing there begging for inanimate objects to cause some type of basketball fury.
Oh well. Be peace brotha. See you here next year running around like it’s 2001 fun again.
As much as the fans wanted to see Atom (as I call him), the game and the show went on without his likeness. ESPN televised two mediocre teams play with the distinct qualities of the cities they represent as if this was the Red Wings vs. the Flyers.
Oh yeah, the Sixers won 95-90 to clinch a berth in the ‘08-09 Playoffs and did so by closing out a team quickly falling into the ever-crowding sports abyss of irrelevance… at least until 2010, right Joe?
After all the Sixers have been through this season, they found a way to get it done. Even if they finish 2-5 the rest of the way, they’ll still finish above .500 for the first time since ‘04-05. They held Detroit to 26.7 percent shooting in the second half—a season low for any opponent in any half this year. They’ve won the last two games despite being down double-digits and have won nine games this year when down by at least 10.
For the Pistons, Kwame Brown was effective beyond his career in the first quarter. He had 10 points and seemingly was on his way to 40 before he crashed back to the Wizard of Mike earth—but he did score 15 points in total.
Rodney Stuckey led the Pistons with 23, Rip had 15 and Tayshaun 10.
This was a really good game.
While I was waiting to catch up with Rip Hamilton and chat a little, erstwhile Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour happened to stroll through the locker room. He had some things to say about the mag in relation to his kids, but also told me Tayshaun is gonna be alright after suffering some temporary nerve discomfort in his right elbow while being fouled in the 4th quarter. Tayshaun toughed it out and even hit two free throws after being on the floor for at least three minutes.
The Sixers were paced by Iguodala’s 31. Andre Miller had 21 to cap off his triple-double, Louis Williams had 15 and the cat was actually talking trash to Sheed. Marreese Speights had 10.
Andre Iguodala had 15 in the 1st. Something real about him is surfacing. He’s learning to be a leader, and a vocal one at that. He scored at will and you all know Tayshaun is not an easy safe to crack, tossing in 31. He and the Utah trip dub (21, 12, 10) both played the entire second half. Bold move Coach DiLeo… especially heading into a back-to-back, but you get props.
SLAM: What say you Andre Iguodala?
AI: We just gotta finish it out. Andre Miller is pretty quiet and this year I’ve been a lot more vocal to continue working on being a leader. We came into this game knowing we gotta finish strong. The last couple of home games we have been finishing them really strong. I think that shows the younger guys are really maturing and our team getting better.
SLAM: What about Detroit? Any extra incentive after their lock defense on you in last year’s Playoffs? Is there something extra when you play Detroit?
AI: Um…a little bit. They are one of the top defensive teams in the League and I think Tayshaun is one of the top defensive players in the League. With Tayshaun, Artest and Bruce Bowen, you have three guys who really get out there and defend. You gotta be on top of your game to get us a win like we did tonight.
SLAM: Dre, you’ve been taking and hitting big shots this year—more than enough to be noticed. Obviously, none bigger than the Lakers game-winner, but tonight you made a shot that’s expected of you in a clutch moment. Are you working on your jumper to rely on that shot at the end of games?
AI: It’s a little bit of both: to keep teams honest because during the game they are gonna pack it in, and you have to step up and make shots. It’s more or less having confidence. The more you shoot, the more confident you’ll be down the stretch.
With 30 seconds left and the Sixers clinging to a two-point lead, Reggie Evans snatched a rebound and was quickly fouled because of not-so-good history at the line. The energetic firestarter calmly stepped up and swished both free throws. He’s shooting a crazy 80 percent the last seven games but to hit two in a pressure moment? Big time and the crowd loved it. They love Reggie here. Reggie was in a hurry afterward, but Coach DiLeo jumped at the chance when I asked him about the shots that won the game:
“He always wants to be the one to shoot the technicals. He’s been working hard. Bruce Kreutzer, the shooting coach, has come in to work with Thad (Young), Lou (Williams) and Reggie. Reggie’s free throws all season have steadily improved and to make them in a pressure situation speaks volumes.”
Speights has put in work all year. It was good to see someone give it to Sheed verbally. Not many players can pull it off. The young fella was into the game and did what a young Sheed would have done if he were in the same moment.
SLAM: Brothaman what were you and Sheed doing, comparing cooking technique?
Marreese Speights: He told me to give him the ball, and I said you don’t want none of this BS. (Yeah, we laugh.)
SLAM: You do know this is his hometown right? Does it matter?
MS: Nah it doesn’t. We are both on the court hoopin’.
SLAM: Getting in the Playoffs your rookie year is a good look, sir. Any Florida reminiscing?
MS: Of course. I’m always a winner. To win this and get in is a good feeling. I wanna do something in this league.
SLAM: You showed a lot of emotion. Just to get in a playoffs type thing?
MS: I wanted to respond. I have to come out here and play hard.
Thad Young being out for a few weeks has forced everyone to step up. He was on a scoring team before the ankle injury. He needs to experience this and hopefully he’ll come back determined as ever.
Andre Miller is the reticent alchemist. I chide Dre all the time just to get him to talk. Dude is a straight professional. Yeah it was nice he got a triple double—his second this season and the ninth of his standout career—but he doesn’t want to talk about it. Lemme see if I could get him to talk about the anniversary of MLK’s passing. I rocked a black tee with Malcom and Martin’s images emblazoned under my blazer just as a reminder to those who saw me. I wondered if Dre would open up just a little:
“I wasn’t born, but I’ve heard stories and was taught about the greatness of MLK in school. It’s time to definitely reflect. We’ve come a long way since that time and hopefully we will continue to move forward.”
Hopefully no truer words will ever be spoken.
Yeah so what the kid in me wanted to see that dude run around all crazy and put up that patented jumper when fading left in the lane. I wanted to replicate the moment he had here last season, but again, who am I?
Come home brothaman. Come home.
by Aggrey Sam
Yesterday’s NHSI semifinal action at Georgetown Prep didn’t go quite as I expected, but one thing it did prove was who is at the head of the class when it comes to boys high school basketball teams this season. I’ll be brief.
Oak Hill vs. St. Benedict’s:
–While this game close early on (five-point game at the half), Oak Hill extends its cushion by the late stages, and despite St. Ben’s knocking down treys, the held off the Jersey squad, 74-66.
–St. Ben’s senior Tamir Jackson, a 6-3 guard, is going to be nice at Rice. While I definitely believe he could play at a higher level, I love it when kids go somewhere they can make an immediate impact. “Pops” can shoot it, both from deep and mid-range, he’s heady, defends well and handles it well enough to get to the bucket.
–One senior who hasn’t made his college choice yet (although he committed to Louisville as a sophomore and pledged to–and subsequently de-committed from–Virginia Tech this season) is Oak Hill’s Lamont Jones. More of a scoring point or a combo guard than a true floor general, “Momo” has been on tilt for certain stretches of this tourney. Whether it’s getting to the basket and finishing tough shots with contact or knocking down deep jumpers with a hand in his face, he’s certainly proved to be an explosive point producer. That said, I hope the NYC native makes the right decision in regards to selecting a college. I mean, he’s switched schools (Rice to American Christian to Oak Hill) so often, I don’t think anybody would be surprised if he transferred in college.
–Just as I jotted down how St. Ben’s sophomore point Myck Kabongo was doing a nice job taking care of the ball and making solid decisions despite tough D by Oak Hill junior Pe’Shon Howard, the opposite begins to occur. Pe’Shon (much-improved lateral quickness) wears down the thinner Kabongo, forcing im into some crucial mistakes down the stretch.
–Classy move by St. Ben’s coach Danny Hurley to sub out seniors Jackson and Pitt-bound Lamar Patterson in their final high school game for the school.
–”Momo” leads Oak Hill with 22, while Tiny Gallon chips in with 13 and 14. St. Ben’s was led by Jackson’s 20, junior wing Aaron Brown’s 18 and Kabongo’s 14, six boards and five dimes.
Montrose Christian vs. Findlay Prep:
–While I wasn’t shocked at the result of the first game, I expected the second semifinal to be more of a contest. I was wrong. Findlay used smothering D to subdue Montrose by the count of 60-43.
–When I used the phrase “smothering D,” you could substitute that for “Avery Bradley.” The Texas signee was extremely disruptive in the early going, amking it hard for Montrose’s ballhandlers to live, let alone get the ball past halfcourt. On top of that, he was unconscious on offense. His explosive transition finishes, no-fear drives to the cup and pure shooting from all over the court were outright sensational. Talking to my man Joey Whelan, we agreed that he has some Ben Gordon to him offensively (although his handle needs to improve and he penetrates more frequently than Ben), but defensively, he has a chance to be really special.
–Findlay’s perimeter D–while Bradley led the way, Illinois recruit DJ Richardson was almost his equal–forces Montrose to play to their strength, feeding their star big man, Mouphtaou Yarou. “Mouph” was simply too big for Findlay’s slimmer bigs to handle one-on-one, but constant double teams and eventually a zone, limited his effectiveness. Findlay junior Godwin Okonji, a 6-9 junior, was the most impressive individual defender, but he had a lot of help, as Montrose was held to an abysmal shooting performance. Still, I liked how “Mouph” passed out of double teams, something he may need to do during his ‘Nova (tough loss last night, fellas) career.
–The fact that Findlay’s Tristan Thompson and Montrose’s Justin Anderson, the two players with perhaps the highest long-term ceilings in this contest (and tournament), both come off the bench, is funny to me. So is the fact that Findlay only goes eight deep (hey, that’s their whole student body), but has fans who traveled from Vegas with signs and all. It’s likes Findlay’s been waiting for this game all season to officially put them on the map.
–Speaking of Anderson, while he didn’t have the same performance he did on Friday, I was just as, if not more, impressed by him yesterday. He was assigned the unenviable task of defending Bradley, and while Bradley cooked him just as thoroughly as he did the other Montrose defenders, he at least made him work for his shots by using his length. Shows just how highly Montrose coach Stu Vetter thinks of him. In addition, he used his top-notch athleticism to make a couple of huge blocks on Bradley (a high flyer himself, he reciprocated on the other end) and had a big-time put-back dunk.
–For Findlay, Bradley finishes with 27, six boards, three (spectacular) blocks and four steals, Richardson adds 12 and five and Thompson contributes eight and 10, with three steals. Villanova signee Isaiah Armwood leads Montrose with 10, eight boards and four blocks in a losing effort.
–Stay tuned for my recap of today’s chip, featuring Findlay and Oak Hill, or catch it on ESPN at 3 p.m. Eastern. Should be a good one.
With the Final Four tipping off a mere three hours from my igloo in the Great White North, I graciously volunteered to cover it for SLAM (I know, my generosity is astounding). So I made sure our pet polar bear had enough food, loaded up the sled dogs and mushed off to the land of opportunity - the U.S. of A. For good measure I brought along my wife and son to drop some greenbacks and ensure the success of Obama’s economic stimulus plan.
Not surprisingly the city is a sea of green. A swarm of Michigan State jerseys, t-shirts, license plates and hats have swarmed the city. The only place they haven’t invaded seems to be my hotel out in the ‘burbs, which seems to be exclusive Villanova territory. Unfortunately I expect the green-clad fans to go home dissapointed today as I expect UConn to win this game. But, then again, I tend to be wrong on the rare occasion.
Just heading out to the court now - back in a bit.
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Connecticut
by Graham Flashner
Given their speed and athleticism, and the matchup problems they pose, you’d think the Rockets would’ve at least been able to take one game off the Lakers this year. You’d think that, with the Lakers just back from the longest March trip in their history – seven games, 13 days – they’d come out flat and be ripe for the picking.
You’d think. Didn’t happen. Friday night, the Lakers polished off a 4-0 season sweep, winning 93-81 and owning the 4th quarter as they have in every one of those four victories. If the Rockets grab the 4th or 5th seed and win their first playoff series, they’ll likely draw the Lakers in the second round. This was not the way to send a message.
I want to talk to Shane Battier about the brilliant article Michael Lewis wrote about him in the New York Times Magazine proclaiming Battier as the premiere Kobe Bryant-stopper in the NBA.
Battier, though, is in deep stretching with a trainer, and begs off talking before the game.
That leaves Ron Artest, another Kobe nemesis, who got himself in trouble the last time the Lakers played Houston, trash-talking Bryant across the Toyota Center floor. Kobe, who had scored 6 points in a largely invisible first half up to that point, erupted for 31 in the second, 18 in a game-deciding 4th quarter.
It was time for Artest to fess up about that night, and he did, as only he can.
“I wanted to bring the best out in him,” Artest said with a slow smile. “He wasn’t having a good game, so I figured I’d try and see if he could play better. ‘Cause I like to measure myself against the best. It was fun, but I think it took away from the team a little bit.”
Did he have more in store for Kobe tonight? Artest shook his head sheepishly.
“I probably don’t see myself doing that again,” he said, to general laughter.
“I called him the worst player in the world,” Artest continued, and you wonder what he must think of Tracy McGrady. “That’s what I told him. I told him he was the worst player I’d seen in my life.
“[Kobe] had a bunch of great comebacks. He was ready.” Unfortunately, Artest would not divulge what witticisms Bryant might’ve offered.
The conversation continued. Picture Artest, jammed into a corner, with a dozen Chinese reporters (guess who they’re waiting to talk to) shoving TV cameras and tape recorders as close as they dare. Didn’t these people see the Palace Brawl? But Artest is unfailingly polite and patient.
Artest acknowledged that some players were scared to play him but that Kobe was never one of those players.
“It’s easy to talk to someone who’s going to back down to you,” he said. “It’s easy for a big guy to pick on a smaller guy. Some people might not talk to the guy who actually might kill them. So I like to talk to the guy who’s going to kill me.”
On the Lakers’ side, Sasha Vujacic talks about the hot seat that is the Lakers’ bench these days; hot as in, nobody playing particularly well and being under a microscope.
“In order to win the championship, we have to have our bench play up to the level it did last year, and we didn’t play up to that level at all,” said Sasha, referring to the Lakers’ recent trip. Might be mental, might be fatigue, but there’s no excuses. When we play the right way, there’s not one team that can beat us.
I ask Sasha about looking ahead to the NBA Finals and a possible rematch with the Celtics, the team he allegedly said he “hated” back on Dec. 25.
“I want to clarify one thing: I never said I hate the Celtics. Hate is a strong word. There’s just some feelings that you can’t explain. It’s me not wearing green all year.”
On the flat-screen, Lamar Odom chortles at the Cleveland-Orlando score: it’s 64-38, Magic. A Lakers win puts them a game behind the Cavs in the endless chase for home-court advantage throughout the Playoffs. Who says there isn’t meaningful basketball in April?
On the court, an encouraging sight for the Lakers: Andrew Bynum, his right knee protected by a large black brace, shooting in warm-ups, doing one-on-one drills with DJ Mbenga, smiling like a happy kid. Bynum’s projected return is April 12 vs. Memphis. Both of Bynum’s serious knee injuries – this year’s and last year’s – came in games against the Grizzlies. I just wanted to throw that out there.
The National Anthem is not sung live. Instead, the Lakers play Marvin Gaye’s stirring rendition that he sung at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983 in L.A.
Artest starts off on Lamar Odom; Battier is on Bryant. Michael Lewis’s methodical analysis details how Battier tries to exploit the weaknesses — such as they are — in Bryant’s game: less effective going left, shooting off a dribble instead of a pass, less dangerous if he can be kept out of the lane or off the baseline. “My job is not to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient as possible,” Battier had said.
Kobe seems aware of the hype. Stealing an errant pass off a missed Lakers free throw, Kobe’s drive is blocked by Battier, and Kobe gets T’d up claiming Battier held him. When the Rockets get the ball, Kobe barely gives Battier an inch to breathe. But Battier’s a facilitator. He parks himself deep in the corner, waiting for the open three.
One of the recent criticisms of Artest is that he’s become overzealous with the three-point shots, as if trying to pick up the slack for T-Mac. Already, he’s missed two. But he rebounds one miss and zips a pass in to a cutting Yao for a three-point play. 16-14 Lakers.
Jordan Farmar, desperately trying to regain his mojo, takes on Yao on a running one-hander near the basket, and Yao swats it impatiently into the seats.
The Rockets have come out scrappy and chippy, grabbing, pushing, shoving, keeping the Lakers out of rhythm. Probably the best thing that happened to the Rockets this season was losing T-Mac; they’ve played .700 ball in his absence, and while they don’t have an automatic go-to guy — Yao needs too much help and Artest is too unpredictable – they can play smothering defense, and they have a lightning quick PG, Aaron Brooks, who’s a much better quarterback than his NFL namesake.
Kobe misses a three-pointer, a shot that he takes off the dribble from the right side. Just as Battier wanted it.
Yao hits feathery fade-away over Pau Gasol. There should be laws against a 7-6 man resorting to fade-away jumpers that can only be blocked with a pole vault. On the other side, Pau Gasol makes the mistake of trying to lob one handers over Yao’s long arms. It can’t feel good to be 7-0 and have to shoot over someone.
Sasha may not be shooting well, but he finds Gasol with a great backward flip leading to a jam. Rather than trying to play Yao one-on-one, Gasol is starting to wait for plays to develop, finishing shots just as Yao slides over to help.
Artest airballs a trey from the left corner. With a body like his, he should be punishing people. Watching him settle for threes is like watching Shaq settle for scoop shots.
Kobe returns with 8:42 left. He’s the only starter, alongside Luke Walton, DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell and Farmar. Mbegna sees more action tonight after Gasol, who’s been logging over 37 mpg since Bynum’s injury, voiced concerns over wearing down.
Mbenga dunks off a slick pass from Kobe. Then another. Then he makes a great block on a Kyle Lowry shot. All he’s missing is the Mutombo finger-wag. Mutombo, as it happens, is on the Rockets bench, where he will remain.
Artest finally nails a three-pointer, just in time to tie the game, 44-44.
Artest picks up Kobe on a switch – one of the few times they find themselves guarding each other. Kobe drives to the corner, waits for Yao to slide, then whips a pass to a cutting Gasol for a layup.
Kobe splits defense for a sickdiculous dunk, as Michael Tillery would say.
Another beautiful feed from Kobe to Gasol, 60-53 Lakers, first standing O of night, Lakers starting to look like best team in West again.
Season ticket-holding fans in section 104 sport T-shirts that say, “Bang With Benga”. Who knew the guy has a cult following?
Odom draws 4th foul, bailing out Aaron Brooks with 0:01 to go on the shot clock. Event though Odom stood with his hands raised and Brooks jumped into him, Brooks got the call. All Odom had to do was give him some space.
Brent Barry, turning back the clock, hits amazing flying one-hander down lane. Ten-point Lakers lead down to three, 67-64. Rockets won’t get any closer.
Artest, who’s found his shot, goes to the three-point well once too often. His miss leads to a long rebound, which leads to an outlet pass to a basket-hanging Josh Powell. 73-68 L.A.
That old reliable duo, Luke Walton to DJ Mbenga, for 77-71 lead. Except for Mbenga (4-7, 8 points) the bench has once again been awful tonight; a minus 22-point differential for Farmar, Luke, Sasha and Powell, and they combine to shoot 4-22.
Interesting stat from Lewis’s article: NBA teams whose lead is bigger than the minutes remaining in a game win 80 percent of the time. With 6:09 to play, the Lakers lead by 8.
Kobe applies the dagger: two three-pointers in a row, breaking the Rockets back, an 87-76 lead. Battier back to the bench with a resigned look. Kobe only scored 20, but he did it on a very efficient 11 shots, and was in control of the game all night.
With 1:30 to go, it’s all about the tacos, which Lakers fans have earned tonight.
“It’s never a fun night when you guard that guy,” says a weary Battier, talking about Kobe. Battier grades his own performance tonight as average. He calls the Rockets “an immature team in a lot of ways”, a young team still learning the ropes on the road. “In Phoenix, we didn’t bring our defense; we came here and didn’t bring our offense,” he says.
Battier won’t go as far to say the Rockets are a better team without T-Mac. “We’re at our best with a healthy McGrady. He’s a difference-maker in the fourth quarter, working the pick-and-roll. We don’t have that one guy who can create shots for us, but we still think we’re formidable.”
I look over to Yao’s corner. He’s blocked by the Great Wall of TV reporters.
On the winners’ side, Kobe smiles when asked about his early T on Battier.
“They’re a tough team and we’ve had our problems with them in the past and during the regular season,” Bryant said. “I wanted to send a message to my teammates and to the referees that we’re here to play, we’re not going to be out here just kind of going through the motions.
“If a guy’s going to grab my shirt, I’m going to let you know about it. It’s important to come out with a sense of urgency right from the top. We’re fighting for a bigger prize. It’s going to get chippy.”
by Aggrey Sam
So I’m back in my old stomping grounds for the weekend to check out the ESPN/RISE National High School Invitational at Georgetown Prep, right outside DC. The NHSI is a post-season tourney pitting the nation’s top high school teams, serving as a de facto prep national tournament. Unfortunately, most high school state athletic association rules prevent teams from competing past a certain point in the season, so traditional powers like DeMatha, Mater Dei, St. Pat’s, etc., aren’t allowed to compete. Still, with star-studded squads like Oak Hill, St. Benedict’s, Montrose Christian and upstart Findlay Prep out of Vegas, there are still a lot of top prospects in attendance, including four McDonald’s All-Americans, the field isn’t too shabby.
Oak Hill vs. Pinewood Prep:
–On paper, this game is a complete mismatch. Although Pinewood features Clemson-bound McDonald’s All-American Milton Jennings, a 6-9 wing, Oak Hill counters with its own burger boy, Oklahoma-bound big (literally, at around 300 pounds) Keith “Tiny” Gallon, as well as a high-powered backcourt of top uncommitted senior guard, Lamont “Momo” Jones and consensus top-25 junior Doron Lamb, both NYC transplants, along with the always-steady (and polite) Pe’Shon Howard. On top of that, they bring junior West Virginia commit Bryon Allen off the bench, to go with frontliners Baye Moussa Keita, a 6-11 ‘junior ‘Cuse recruit, and high-flying Detroit native Glenn Bryant, an unsigned senior.
–Early on, Pinewood, out of South Carolina puts up a fight, but Oak Hill, led by Momo and his moxie, looks to be in control, despit Tiny picking up two fouls early. Speaking of Tiny, it’s a testament to how good he is that I’ve been hearing observers say he isn’t quite Blake Griffin, but Jeff Capel and Oklahoma can’t be mad that he’s coming in when BG’s departing.
–Jennings, one of the few top recruits I haven’t seen much of, looks good early. He’s hitting outside shots, he’s active on the boards (a must, being that he’s the only significant Pinewood player withany size) and is shifty enough to get to the bucket, evn though he’s clearly the focal point of Oak Hill’s defensive strategy.
–I really like Pinewood senior guard Kenny Manigault. A long, athletic slashing guard with good size (about 6-4 or so), he handles the ball well, plays hard and seemingly gets to the basket at will. Seeing him get up and put one down on the break, I wonder what most people have probably asked him throughout his life: Goat’s kin? Very nice pickup for Wichita State.
–Allen, a DC-area kid who started at DeMatha as a freshman, is pretty talented. A husky, 6-2 guard, he’s solidly built, yet very herky-jerky and has the ball on the string. He definiteloy has some toughness, so I think Bob Huggins will be happy with him, even if he has to rein him in a bit from time to time.
–Doron Lamb is the smoothest cat you’ll see. Stronger and now a legit combo, he’s a playmaker and never really forces the issue, despite being an extremely talented scorer. His mid-range game is a work of art for a high school kid. Turns out he’s pretty cool, too. After the game, him and Howard (who’s really improved since I first saw him as a freshman playing with Michigan State’s Delvon Roe) sit behind me and we talk about likely McDonald’s All-Americans from their class of 2010. Always interesting to get the players’ perspective.
–Anyway, back to the game. Pinewood keeps hanging around, and behind Jennings and Manigault (and some Oak Hill lapses), it’s 31 all at the half. Although Tiny picks up his third and fourth fouls early in the third, Oak Hill gets on a roll and starts running away with it, taking the game by a 83-64 score. Lamb ends up with 26, nine boards and four dimes, while Momo adds 20. Jennings puts up 24 and 12 for the losers.
St. Benedict’s vs. St. Frances:
–St. Frances, the Catholic league champs of B-More is coached by Mark Karcher, who also attended the school. Don’t know how many of y’all remember Karcher, but he played his final college season at Temple when I was a freshman there, and while he never found a spot in the League, I can remember him putting in work in college and before that, being a straight assassin as a prep star. Only 30, it’s good to see him on the bench.
–St. Frances has some talented underclassmen, but their star is 6-7 senior forward Terrell Vinson, a top unsigned prospect who transferred in from Montrose Christian. I was extremely high on Vinson as a youngster and while he hasn’t developed into the prospect I (and others) thought he would be, he’s a very solid player who can do a little bit of everything.
–St. Ben’s is coached by Danny Hurley, son of Bob Sr., of St. Anthony fame. If you’ve ever seen his father coach, you know that watching him stalk the sidelines is almost as entertaining as seeing one of his loaded squads put it on a helpless victim. Well, like father, like son. The make-up of Danny’s team is a little different than his pop’s, as he has a United Nations squad of international players and kids from all over the NYC region.
–I’m very impressed with 6-8 junior forward Gilvydas Biruta of St. Ben’s. A muscular kid who’s a force on the boards, he’s deceptively athletic and really attacks the basket to finish. On top of that, he can also step out to knock down treys. I’ll be keeping an eye on his development and recruitment.
–St. Frances started out down, 14-2, but comes back to lead by five at the half. Vinson has been his solid self, but Dante Holmes, a 6-3 junior, is making a lot of big plays. Holmes is tough, has a nice stroke and plays hard all the time. He’s another kid I’ll be watching in the future.
–Myck Kabongo, a sophomore point guard for St. Ben’s, has had his moments, but turnovers have been an issue for him. Still, I like the fact that the Canada native, a Texas commit gotten stronger, improved his jumper and is more of a ballplayer than a track star who can dribble now.
–Lamar Patterson, a senior Pitt signee, has struggled with foul trouble and is eventually DQ’d, but it’s really a blessing in disguise, as it allows 6-10 St. Ben’s junior John Paul Kambola to shine. I love how he runs the floor, blocks shots and plays the energy guy/drity work role to perfection. In reality, all of Hurley’s kids are willing to play that role.
–St. Ben’s plays solid down the stretch, hits their free throws, plays tough D and ends up coming away with a 74-65 win. Holmes dropped 23 and Vinson had 29 and seven for St. Frances in the loss.
Findlay Prep vs. Mountain State:
–Off the top, this was never really a contest. One of Mountain State’s top players, West Virginia signee Deniz Kilicli, a 6-9 Turkish bruiser who I first saw at adidas Nations last summer, picked up two fouls early, effectively ending the West Virginia prep school’s hopes of a win. One interesting sidenote: both schools are relatively new powers. In fact, I never heard of Mountain State until this season, and I consider myself someone in the know. Findlay is in its second year of existence and while the idea of having a prep school on the outskirts of Vegas sounds crazy, they’ve been pretty successful so far, only losing one game, including this year’s undefeated (so far) season.
–Findlay only has eight players, but one of them is Texas-bound McDonald’s All-American Avery Bradley, probably the nation’s top on-ball defender and a ridiculous athlete, to boot. They also have Illinois signee DJ Richardson, who, like Bradley, is a high-flying 6-3 guard who can both shoot it and defend. Carlos Lopez, a 6-11 UNLV signee, is their other senior. He’s the only one of the trio I haven’t seen, but he immediately catches my eye with his bounciness and aggressiveness, not to mention his eccentric look. Their underclassmen aren’t too shabby either, as Canadian junior point guard Cory Joseph (younger brother of Minnesota’s Devoe) and fellow 2010 prospect Tristan Thompson add to the strong group.
–Speaking of Thompson, a 6-9 Texas commit (think a smaller LaMarcus Aldridge with more perimeter skills), he’s playing alongside his second Grassroots Canada AAU teammate and Texas commit this season. Until a few months ago, he was at St. Ben’s (with Kabongo; Joseph also plays on his AAU squad and Bradley is also committed to Texas), until being dismissed by Hurley and resurfacing at Findlay. Rumor has it that Kabongo may join him at Findlay next season, but time will tell.
–This is my first extended look at Noah Cottrill, a 6-2 junior point guard at Mountain State and a West Virginia commit. Cottrill, an in-state kid, is doing his best to help his team not get embarrassed, but they’re clearly outmanned. Still, I like his competitiveness, his pure stroke, vision and unselfishness. He’s got his hands full with Bradley and Richardson taking turns guarding him, but he’s trying out there. Also, look out for Mountain State freshman Najee Whitehead.
–Findlay wins, 76-55. Thompson goes for 20 and eight, Lopez has 14, nine and three blocks, Bradley has 15, six and five dimes and Joseph puts up 13, five and four, while Cottrill has 23 (including six treys) and four dimes (with seven turnovers) in a losing effort.
Montrose Christian vs. Friends Central:
–Saying this game was never a contest is an understatement. I’m somewhat familiar with Friends Central, a Philly-area team (and alma mater of Mustafa Shakur and Hakim Warrick), and I know they have some nice young players, but there’s no way they were ready for Montrose. 6-10 Mouphtaou Yarou and 6-8 Isaiah Armwood, both Villanova signees, hold things down on the inside, while Oregon native Terrence Ross, a 6-5 junior swingman is their headliner on the perimeter.
–”Mouph” is a straight beast. A true post player, he could help the Wildcats in their Final Four game tonight. Built like a blacksmith, he has excellent footwork, runs the floor wel, has a nice touch and is a force on the inside.
–Armwood, like his former teammate Vinson, didn’t develop the way I expected when I first saw him as a sophomore, but Im like the strides he’s made. He’s forgotten about transforming into the next Kevin Durant (a Montrose alum) and focused on playing to his strengths (his superb athleticism) and improving his mid-range J.
–Ross is a kid I was immediately biased against because my mother saw a picture of him in the paper and said he looked like me at that age. All jokes aside, the kid can play. Smooth, athletic, a fluid ballhandler with a great stroke, look for him to continue the ascension to elite prospect he started on last summer.
–The kid who stole the show, however, was Montrose freshman Justin Anderson. I really try to not talk about kids until after their freshman year on varsity is over, but this kid has got something. A 6-5 guard, he has a frame a lot of seniors would be happy with, crazy athleticism, a dynamic handle and passing ability, and a solid stroke. In other words, he’s no ordinary freshman. Playing under Stu Vetter, one of the very best coaches in the high school game, I fully expect him to live up to the hype he’s already getting in the DC area.
–Friends Central kinda got demoralized after a while, but one kid who piqued my interest was another freshman, 6-6 Amile Jefferson. He desperately needs to add weight, but he has a good feel for the game, a great motor, plenty of length, finishes well and can already guard multiple positions. His poise, however, is what impressed me most. Also, 6-3 sophomore guard Devin Coleman, a smooth lefty, has a lot of potential, as well.
–Montrose won it, 88-45. No need for stats. It was cool to see Montrose’s bench players get a lot of burn and the starters going crazy for them. T. Jordan Omogbehin (great name!), a raw, 7-1 sophomore, might have stolen the show from Anderson toward the end, as he seemed to gain confidence by the minute.
–Back to the gym in a bit for the semis today. Catch them on TV, if you can.
Welcome back to the great state of Michigan for this year’s Final Four! In honor of the occasion let’s take a look back at the squad from Michigan that changed the face of college basketball, altered our view of “cool” and, arguably, paved the way for the SLAM generation (sorry, AI). Juwan, Chris, Jalen, Ray, and Jimmy, this one’s for you. While some disappointed on the pro level and Juwan is the only one still in playing in the Association, we’ll never forget all of your contributions. Thanks for making us possible…SLAM #51. —Tzvi Twersky
by Alan Paul
“The Fab Five was once in a lifetime! What they achieved will never, ever happen again.”
The familiar voice of Dick Vitale’s booms through the phone line, scratchy and emphatic. He may be a bit less frenzied off the air, but Vitale can’t contain his excitement when the subject turns to the Fab Five, the heralded freshmen who drove Michigan to consecutive title games in ’92 and ’93. “This story deserves special acclaim,” Vitale says. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear coaches say, ‘We can’t win because we have two freshmen in our rotation.’ It’s absolutely accepted wisdom and the Fab Five turned it on its head. I think what they did is absolutely unique in the history of basketball and doesn’t get the play it deserves.”
Vitale’s statement is accurate but stunning nonetheless. How could the Fab Five be underrated when, despite never winning a league or national championship, they still managed to change the face of college ball? The concept would have been unfathomable nine years ago when Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King were garnering countless headlines and being covered in a manner more MTV than ESPN.
“They were greeted like rock stars,” recalls Rob Pelinka, a role player on those teams and now an agent whose clients include Jazz rookie DeShawn Stevenson. “We sometimes needed police escorts because our bus would be surrounded by people.”
And just like every new sensation from Elvis to Eminem, there was serious debate about whether the Fab Five represented something creative and wonderful or arrogant and destructive. Their brash confidence, in-your-face trash talking and hip-hop fashion sense were both embraced and attacked like no college sports team before or since. The debate continues to this day, especially in Ann Arbor, where the basketball team struggles along under a cloud of impropriety that dates back to the Fabs’ recruitment. But one thing is beyond debate: the Fab Five represented something entirely new, an entire class of blue chip recruits covering every position, each of whom lived up to their top billing.
Power forward Webber was Michigan’s Mr. Basketball and the nation’s top recruit. Howard, a 6-9 center, and the 6-5 shooting guard King were the top players in Illinois and Texas, respectively, and Rose was a 6-8 pg who had led Detroit’s Southwestern High to two state titles. Jackson was the only one of the five who wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but the 6-6 Texan was one of the nation’s top small forward prospects. And while serendipity and coach Steve Fisher’s intense leg work certainly played huge roles in landing such an esteemed class, the Fab Five also recruited themselves.
“Juwan is responsible for the whole thing,” says Webber today. “Jalen and I had talked about going to school together since we were 12, but Juwan is the one who got it going. He made us believe that we could create something great together.”
Explains Howard, “I started a chain reaction. Jimmy and I met on our visit and decided to go to Michigan. Then I called Chris, because we had become good friends through the All-Star games, and started working on him. I persuaded him and he got a hold of Jalen, which is exactly what I wanted. I was looking to win a national title or two, instead of just going somewhere and being assured of being the man.”
It didn’t take long for the dreams to come to fruition; all five recall that the chemistry was immediate. “The day we all met, we played a pickup game outside our dorm and it was just there,” says Webber.
Nonetheless, it takes a huge leap for a memorable pickup squad to become NCAA title contenders. Most great college teams result from a slow blending of talents, with experience trumping nearly everything else. The Fab Five turned that formula on its head. Juniors Pelinka, James Voskuil, Michael Talley and Eric Riley were key contributors, but clearly support players to the five freshmen, a seemingly impossible situation deftly managed by Fisher and his staff.
“It takes freshmen a while to grasp the college game,” says Randy Ayers, a current Sixers assistant who was the head man at Ohio State at the time. “A high school star has an adjustment period learning to accept sacrificing for the good of the team. That almost always takes a year or two, but the Fab Five found their niches immediately. Chris, Jalen and Juwan were the go-to guys and the Texas kids were the defenders. And they played off each other beautifully.”
Adds Vitale, “These guys truly enjoyed each other’s company and responded as a unit, with the emphasis on the team rather than individual stats. They were a very unselfish team that blended extremely well.”
And, the players all say, they made each other better on a daily basis, filling one another with their trademark confidence. “As a group, we always felt invincible,” says Webber. “Individually, you always have fear and doubt, but we never did as a team. I felt that together we could accomplish anything.”
While the Fab Five’s critics accused them of showboating—“too much with the French pastry and the hot-dogging!” proclaimed broadcaster Al McGuire—the fact is, they played solid, team-oriented ball. If you watch their games today—easy to do, thanks to ESPN Classic—you’ll see a confident unit playing great help D, running crisp sets and effortlessly improvising whenever necessary.
“We had pretty good game-time execution, which is often overlooked because of some of the players’ flamboyance,” says Jay Smith, then a Michigan assistant, now the coach of Central Michigan University. Indeed, from their very first tip-off, Webber, Rose and King in particular exhibited tremendous flavor to go with their savvy. Webber was a dominant post presence with supple hands and ferocious power. Rose was a cocksure point with maddening lapses but an uncanny knack for coming through in the clutch. And King was a tremendous finisher as well as a deadly three-point shooter and reliable defensive stopper. Howard, meanwhile, was rock solid in the post, making teams pay for collapsing on Webber, and Jackson was a steady hand who often came through with crucial baskets, boards and stops. All five turned in highlight-reel worthy jams on a regular basis.
“There were times when we just played basketball, and it may not have been all that structured, but we often ran the passing game, which is really just fundamental ball: reading each other, setting picks and cutting,” says King, who, like Jackson, is now playing in the IBL. “We were able to do it well because of our knowledge and understanding of the game, and because we practiced it a lot.”
But much of the initial buzz about the Fab Five had little to do with fundamentals—or basketball at all. Gallons of ink were spilled about their flapping shorts, black socks and gleaming bald domes and their constant on-court chatter, as they endlessly jawed at both opponents and each other. If it seems hard to understand why such things would cause a furor, that itself is evidence of the Fab Five’s impact. Watch their games and you’ll see that while the Fab Five’s opponents look dated in their clingy unis, the Michigan youngsters—even now—look contemporary. “They completely changed the fashion of college ball,” says Ayers.
And while some critics blasted Fisher for allowing such freedom, the coach wisely used it as a motivational tool.
“Fish would let us do things like get bigger shorts and wear black socks if we practiced hard,” Webber recalls. “He was like, ‘You can wear what you want as long as you work hard, practice right and play smart.’”
The group first came to serious national acclaim in the fifth game of their rookie year, when they took defending champs Duke to overtime before falling 85-81. Most observers considered it a great moral victory, but the Michigan players were incensed they lost a game they could have won. But while the site of Webber and Rose yapping in the faces of Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley delighted those who found the Dookies arrogant and insufferable, it also ruffled a lot of feathers. Columnists spewed and older Michigan alums stewed. Even refs weren’t beyond getting in on the act, as when Rose got T’d up for smiling.
The Fab Five seemed unbothered by any of it, however, finishing their freshman season 21-8 and ranked 14th in the nation, with a sixth seed in the Big Dance. In a fitting omen, the team ran into Muhammad Ali, the man who invented trash talking, at their Atlanta hotel the night before their first tournament game, against Temple. When The Greatest pulled Howard close and whispered “Shock the world!” in his young ear, The Fab Five had themselves a new rallying cry, which they rode to an Elite Eight battle with Big Ten champion Ohio State. The Jim Jackson-led Buckeyes had beaten Michigan twice already, but things had changed.
“They were a totally different team,” recalls Ayers. “They were physically stronger and they played smarter and with more confidence.”
Different enough to win a thrilling OT game, 75-71, catapulting them to the Final Four, where Nick Van Exel’s Cincinnati squad lay in waiting. After winning a nail-biter, the Fab Five had another date with Duke. Though they seemed unflappable, they came out for introductions lacking their usual fire, with nary a chest bump or holler. But if the rookies were a tad nervous, the reigning kings looked downright spooked. Perennial tourney hero Laettner sleepwalked through the first half, and the Fab Five clawed their way to a one-point lead.
It didn’t last. At the six-minute mark of the second half, the roof caved in and Michigan suddenly couldn’t score or defend. They ended up losing by 20, sending Webber running off the court, his uniform pulled over his sobbing eyes. In the locker room, he and his teammates all pledged to never again feel such crushing disappointment. They were at least sure of one thing: there was always next year.
But the sophomore season wasn’t the same for any of the Fab Five. “The novelty wore off and people no longer seemed to like the confidence and swagger they carried,” says Smith. “It got to the point where you either loved them or hated them.”
And, indeed, many younger fans gave serious love. Though they were widely criticized in the press, baggy shorts, black socks and M logos became as ubiquitous as Nikes on playgrounds and in gyms from coast to coast. And the impact was felt throughout college ball. Opposing coaches began letting their players alter their uniforms, and the Fab Five’s fashion sense already seemed less radical. By the time they faced North Carolina in the ’93 title game, the Tar Heels shorts were even longer than theirs. But that was little consolation to a group of 19-year-olds who felt themselves being tarred and feathered as everything-that’s-wrong-with-sports-and-kids-today.
“It’s a good story to build someone up and it’s a good story to tear them back down,” says King. “I understand that now, but at the time we couldn’t understand how we went from being media darlings to the nation’s bad boys. We didn’t really do anything to warrant that.”
In truth, as sophomores, the Fab Five were sometimes a bit out of control. After a big win at Michigan State, several players pretended they were defecating on the Spartans’ center-court S. And the team talked incessant trash before an early season rematch with Duke, with Webber saying he “wished Laettner would come back from [the NBA] so we can beat him too.” The Cameron Crazies had a field day heckling the team, as Duke pasted them by 11.
Still, the Fab Five righted themselves to go 25-4 and earn a No. 1 seed in the West regional. Now the attacks could really begin. Before the start of the tourney, Bill Walton called the Fab Five “one of the most overrated and underachieving teams of all time…who epitomize a lot of what’s wrong with a lot of basketball players.” It was the most vicious and well-publicized—but certainly not the only—assault on the team.
“We were just playing ball and having fun, and people said, ‘Just play, be quiet and don’t enjoy your wins,” says King. “But we weren’t putting on a show. We were just having fun doing what we love. We weren’t kicking people when they were on the ground like Christian Laettner did. But no matter what happened, teams like Indiana, UNC and Duke got only good press, because their coaches were perceived as being strong and in control, and we got attacked for taking over college basketball because we were perceived as being out of control.”
In the second round, the overrated underachievers pulled off the greatest comeback in Michigan history, coming back from 19 down to beat UCLA in overtime 86-84 on a King putback at the buzzer. After beating George Washington, the only thing standing in the way of a second straight Final Four was Temple, led by Eddie Jones, Aaron McKie and a bunch of less-talented tough guys. Chaney’s big men did everything but gouge out Webber’s and Howard’s eyes. On the verge of defeat, Chaney was finally T’d up for spewing profanities at both Fisher and the refs, had to be restrained by his assistant coaches and finally refused to shake Fisher’s hand—then went to a press conference and blasted the Fab Five for taunting.
“That kind of criticism was really bothersome all year long,” says King. “We just ignored it. In fact, we never even talked about how much less fun the second year was until Chris said it in a Final Four press conference. I remember thinking, ‘So it’s not just me.’”
In the semifinals, Michigan was a seven-point underdog to Jamal Mashburn’s powerful Kentucky team, which had dismantled its tourney opponents by an average of 31 points, thanks to Rick Pitino’s brutal end-to-end pressure. The Fab Five took the Cats into OT, their fourth extra period in eight games, before winning 81-78. It was not only their best-played game in months, but also one of the most memorable Tournament battles in recent years.
Despite all the criticism, pressure and close calls, they’d made it back to their second title game, where they would face UNC. In the first half, the Fab Five were again flat and out of sync, down six at the break. Then Fisher aggressively challenged them in the locker room and Webber lifted the team en route to 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. The team got in trouble when Rose and King lost their shooting touches down the stretch, but Webber seemed fated to be the hero when he grabbed a missed UNC free throw with 20 seconds left and looked upcourt. After getting away with an uncalled traveling violation, he was headed for the history books—for all the wrong reasons.
Carolina led by two. With Rose covered, CWebb headed to the other end of the court, picked up his dribble and panicked. With Pelinka wide open and desperately waving his arms behind the three-point line across court and King staking out position underneath the basket, Webber called timeout. Michigan had none left. A T was whistled, UNC hit the shots and went on to win 77-71.
To a man, the Michigan players will tell you they never considered the possibility of losing that game. So they had to skip doubt and leap right to heartbreak. Again. Before long, Webber would announce he was leaving school for the NBA, and that was that for the Fab Five. They finished their two-year run at 56-14, including two losses in the games that mattered most.
Might Walton have been right? Were they just a bunch of overhyped losers? If you ever ask Vitale that question, be ready to duck.
“It is absolutely absurd for people to criticize the Fab Five as underachievers or failures because they didn’t win a title,” Vitale says. “College ball is not the NBA. It’s one game and there’s a lot of luck involved. Many great teams don’t win titles, but we unfortunately live in a world where if you don’t cut down the nets, you didn’t achieve anything. That’s a ridiculous perspective.”
And no team proved that point more than the Fab Five.
Photos by Dan Monick
Originally published in SLAM 116
After finishing his high school career, Jrue Holiday went Hollywood, enrolling in UCLA. Fans of UCLA shouldn’t get too used to him, though; his combination of speed and smarts will have him in the NBA in no time. —Tzvi Twersky
Allen Iverson and the Pistons have decided he will not play again this season. Wow, did that go bad fast.
by Matt Caputo
For the second time this season, Shaun Livingston has a second chance at the NBA career many thought he’d have. The gruesome knee injury almost ended Livingston’s playing days in 2007 is now a distant memory, it’s taken . After the Miami Heat tested the still-recovering Livingston, signed him and traded him to Memphis in January. Dishearteningly, the struggling Grizzlies released him on the same day the deal went down. Livingston stayed under the radar for a minute before resurfacing with the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA D-League in early March. Three weeks after signing with the 66ers, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s D-League affiliate, the big club decided to call the 23-year-old guard up and sign him to a multi-year deal.
We’ve been following Livingston’s progress pretty closely at SLAM. Back in Issue 111, Livingston spoke about his recovery process for our backboard page.
The Long Road Back
With his horrific, YouTubed injury in the past, one-time phenom Shaun Livingston is gamely looking forward.
FROM SLAM 111 / As told to Konate Primus
First and foremost, I want to thank all my fans, friends and family for staying loyal and helping me get through this time in my life. That goes for the ones in Illinois as well as L.A.
I don’t even know how to describe my injury. I didn’t really understand how bad it was. I thought it was just a dislocated knee cap or something—which it turned out to be, but it felt a lot worse. My initial feelings were like, Damn, I didn’t know it was that severe. There wasn’t really any need to panic. I’ve dealt with injury situations before; this wasn’t new, so I was just going to go with the flow and think positive. It’s so hard to describe…the pain was unreal.
Sometimes it feels like there is something out there that doesn’t want me to be the All-Star I know I can be. But I am a firm believer in “Everything happens for a reason.” Obviously this is a situation where people are going to say, “He’s not coming back, he’s not this, he’s not that,” but shit happens. I mean, things happen in life and not just to me. These types of things happen to everyone. It’s not being vulnerable; it’s just looking at life the way it is from a realistic standpoint. I’m a believer in God and I believe that he puts things in your path for a reason.
I had surgery about three months ago. They repaired my ligaments and snapped my knee cap back in place. The doctors haven’t given me any feedback on when I can return because this is quite a complex injury. The timetable is not set in stone; it’s more playing it by ear and seeing how my knee holds up.
Since the injury, I’ve been doing my rehab and staying busy with a lot of work outside basketball. This injury gave me the opportunity to work on some of my offcourt goals and try to strengthen my website and my foundation, working with underprivileged kids and partnering up with other foundations to build up the community. I’m also becoming more business oriented. I’m getting my feet wet in real estate and I’m still out in L.A., so obviously the movie industry is something I want to get into. I’m really just exploring all options because of the injury. As of now I can’t hoop, run or work out my lower body. There are so many things I can’t do now because of my knee, so I have a lot of free time. A lot is on the backburner until I get my knee rehabilitated, so I’m using my time wisely.
Don’t get me wrong, though, basketball is still my number-one priority. I feel like I have plenty of time left. My camp and I are very confident that I will make a comeback. It’s not really a comeback because I don’t really see it that way—I’m just looking at it as an injury that happened, and I’m not going to rush anything. I’m walking, going to therapy five days a week and concentrating on getting back to the court. Everything else is just post-career.
Personally, I would say so far my career has been pretty inconsistent because of all the injuries I’ve dealt with since my rookie year. But like I said, everything happens for a reason. I could either stay down and complain or keep it moving. And if you couldn’t tell, I’m moving. Now you know!
by Chris O’Leary
After a solid year’s buildup, Kanye West’s Nike Air Yeezy is hitting stores in a limited capacity on Saturday April 4. All three House of Hoops locations (New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) plus the Foot Locker and Foot Action on 34th ave. in NYC will be stocked with the much maligned and hyped sneak.
Normally when a limited-release sneaker drops, you get your HOH releases and you call it a day. Living ridiculously far from any of these stores, a shoe like the Air Yeezy wouldn’t remotely be an option for myself or other sneakerheads north of the U.S. border.
That all changes tomorrow, my Canadian friends.
The Air Yeezy will be available at Livestock locations in Toronto and Vancouver (West 4th), as well as at Foosh in my hometown of Edmonton and at NORML in Ottawa.
Regardless of which side of the border you’re on, the campouts are well in effect for the shoe. I spoke with someone at Livestock in Toronto at 1 p.m. ET and they said that they’ve got more people outside waiting for the shoes than they have shoes in the store. Foosh and NORML have extremely limited quantities, so a lot of campers/early risers will be disappointed tomorrow morning. I’d say the same could be said for a lot of U.S. campers as well.
by Ben Osborne
This issue has been teased in various places, on here an elsewhere, but today, finally, is the official unveiling. As always, I’m excited to share it with our readers, most of whom should be able to buy it this weekend in NYC and next week everywhere else.
As far as explaining why we did this dope, original split cover, I don’t think I could say it better than I did in my “6th Man” Editor’s Letter from the issue, so I’m going to reprint that below and then I’ll close with some of the details about availability.
Here’s my letter, word for word:
>>Something for Everyone…
Everyone interested in who their favorite sport’s future stars are, that is. As far as content in our magazine, there is no disputing that SLAM is always looking ahead. We featured Ricky Rubio when few people had ever even heard of him. We put the spotlight on Lance Stephenson before he’d finished his freshman year of high school, and our Punks section brings you the nation’s best prep players on a monthly basis (such as Brandon Jennings about one year ago). You get the point.
So what made us flip the usual script of putting future stars in the mag while the NBA’s top dogs grace the cover? A dash of daring combined with two unique opportunities and the understanding that Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade aren’t going anywhere. The daring comes from our willingness to try something different. Is it just stars who sell SLAM, or have we reached the point in this, our 15th year, where basketball-loving magazine buyers can trust that even if they don’t instantly realize the face(s) on our illustrious front page, the players must be dope because we say they are? The SLAM staff is obviously counting on the latter.
The opportunities came from two once-this-season meetings. The first, which jump-started the entire conversation regarding this cover, was knowing that Brandon’s Lottomattica Roma team was meeting Ricky’s DKV Joventut in Spain last December 11. Sure, we figured every hoop journalist worth their salt would be hounding these great prospects that week, but it couldn’t hurt to ask for some time, right? Well, either no one asked or these guys chose us, because they graciously gave us more than two hours of their time.
Once we had the big international cover locked up, we decided to cover our bases with a look at the two most compelling prep guards in America. Sure enough, just 10 days after Ricky and Brandon were in the same city at the same time, John Wall and Lance were in the same city at the same time. We reached out to those guys, dispatched Kelly Kline (see below) for her second big job in two weeks, and arguably the coolest split cover in SLAM history was born. We sat on them for a minute while Kobe and DWade did their thing, but with high school All-American games here and Draft buzz increasing, the time had come. The future is now.<<
Hopefully my letter answers the “why these guys?” or “why now?” questions people might have. Want more of that? Check out Ricky-Lang cover story writer Lang Whitaker’s extra video content here, and get John-Lance cover story writer Aggrey Sam’s take on his piece here.
Not that I expect too many questions after people have really looked at these covers…I’m expecting more of the “Damn, you guys are good”-type comments.
As for availability, all newsstands in the US will have both covers. That is still the biggest part of our business and we want you all to have a choice. Overseas outlets will most likely just have Ricky-Brandon (for obvious reasons), and subscribers will get Ricky-Brandon as there wasn’t a regional split that made sense. The best solution for people who want both covers? Go to simbackissues.com, click on SLAM and buy ‘em both.
by Lang Whitaker
You might remember the day in December when, apropos of nothing, I popped up in Barcelona to file game notes from the match between Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings? Well, as is often the case with SLAM, there was a little more going on than meets the eye. I was actually in Barcelona because we did a cover shoot the evening before with the two best point guards in the world who aren’t in the NBA: Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings.
The most amazing thing — by far — to me about this cover was that SLAM was the only media outlet not only at the game, but also the only outlet that cared enough about basketball to even ask about doing a photo shoot with Ricky and Brandon. We asked Ricky and Brandon if they’d give us the time, and surprisingly, they both agreed to, rather graciously. We obviously don’t have the limitless resources of SI or ESPN, but when this came together I hopped on a flight to Barcelona to be in the casa for it.
We shot this in a studio in the shadow of La Sagrada Familia, the perpetually under construction cathedral in Barcelona. Brandon was in town with Roma, and he showed up in a taxi. Ricky’s parents brought him (Ricky didn’t have his driver’s license yet but was taking lessons). They’d never met before, and Ricky’s English is good enough that they were able to talk and hang out. We were at the studio ntil after 11:00 p.m., doing the photos and the interviews. And Ricky’s parents are so nice — when they heard we hadn’t bought tickets to see Ricky and Brandon play yet on for the following night, they demanded we go with them and sit with them.
The point I tried to make in the story was that as basketball fans, we’re living in a totally new world. Because for the first time ever, if you wanted to see the two best NBA point guard prospects in the world, you couldn’t do it on ESPN or CBS. You needed YouTube and a Euroleague subscription and Google alerts. Brandon changed the game for US players, and Ricky’s changing it for European players.
Obviously, the cover line says Ricky and Brandon are ready to rock the NBA. And they both are. I can promise you that. I know whenever we mentioned either of them in a post, a lot of you guys start saying there’s no way these kids will make it, they’re not that good, etc. To which I say, you are wrong. I respect your right to have an opinion, but you’re not correct if you think Ricky and Brandon won’t be NBA stars.
We’ll find out soon enough. Brandon is definitely in the Draft this year. (When I asked him if he was going to enter the Draft, he not only said yes immediately but he also mentioned the date of the Draft off the top of his head.)
But is Ricky going to be in the Draft this year? Well, I don’t have a concrete answer for you. When I asked Ricky if he was going to be in the Draft, he said this:
SLAM: Do you want to play in the NBA next year, or I mean what’s your…?
RR: At the moment I only thinking Euro[pe]—
SLAM: Next year, yeah.
RR: ACB. So I don’t thinking NBA. Yeah, I think—
RR: I watch NBA. I think NBA. But no, at the moment, no.
Since then, I’ve heard many rumors. I’ve heard that Ricky’s contract buyout is so big (the number I heard was about $10 million) that he might not be able to buy it out and would have to wait until the contract expires next summer. I’ve heard a rumor that his team in Spain, DKV Joventut, could use the cash and would be willing to take less to let Ricky out of his deal. And I’ve heard most recently that negotiations are underway as I type this to get Ricky out of his contract.
I don’t know where the truth resides in this equation, but I will say this: I would not be surprised to see Ricky and Brandon both in the NBA next season. In the meantime, if you want to see them or hear from them, pick up the new SLAM, on newsstands everywhere next week. Copies are on the way to the Rubios as I type this, and Brandon got his copy yesterday and sent me an email that said, “Thanks for writing a great story, for the new SLAM on Me and Ricky. The COVER is HOT.”
Agreed. Here’s a little video I shot at the shoot, and it includes a few clips of each guy doing his thing. You can see it on YouTube here.
And we don’t stop…
by Aggrey Sam
With Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings, this makes sense. Teenage pro phenoms, one an Olympian, the other a trailblazer (not literally, I hope—that would take “Pritch-slapped” to a new level), playing major roles on top European squads, blah blah blah. Yeah, SLAM is bold, cutting edge, whatever—but knowledgeable basketball fans in general won’t be shocked. Even the most devout high school hoops observers, however, couldn’t have predicted they’d see John Wall and Lance Stephenson on a cover. Not at this point, anyway.
Well, maybe Lance. He is from Coney Island, after all (third time’s the charm?), and graced this publication’s pages as a precocious point-producing phenom before he started the 10th grade. That was after he already took home a NYC PSAL (Public School Athletic League) title (the first of four consecutive; what up, Franklyn), after he faced off with then-rising senior OJ Mayo at ABCD Camp before he entered high school and after he was already a regular playing with and against grown men at the Rucker.
On the other hand, it was before the BK native’s well-publicized (blown out of proportion) off-court incidents, before he was (in)famously cut from the USA Under-18 National Team last summer, before his bornready.tv online documentary (which just moved onto real TV earlier this week) and before most talent evaluators (not this one) dropped him from the top spot in their rankings. Basically, people got tired of Lance Stephenson.
John Wall, though? That’s another story. A lot of casual observers of the prep scene have never even seen him play. Up until about two years ago, even the most ardent national scouts barely knew the kid’s name. So how did a skinny, unknown kid from Raleigh emerge as the most talked-about prospect in the nation? I feel almost privileged to explain his rise to stardom, as I was an eyewitness.
It started in Chicago, back in June of ‘07. Reebok held a tryout camp for lesser-known players and underclassmen to battle for the opportunity to be selected to their invite-only camp in Philly. Wall stole the show in the Chi, then repeated his performance with an encore at the big show a month later, alongside names like the aforementioned Jennings.
His unbelievable athleticism and mind-blowing were the attributes that immediately stuck out, but since then, he’s continued to hone his game. Last summer, his stock went through the roof, as he destroyed any and all comers on the AAU and camp circuit, leading many to rank him as the nation’s top prospect.
I last saw Wall play over the holidays in Florida, and his development was remarkable to me. Tighter ballhandling, an improved J (albeit streaky; still a work in progress, but it was non-existent before), even better playmaking ability and most importantly, newfound leadership skills are what caught my eye. Wall has transformed from a monster athlete into a real ballplayer, and possibly a future All-Star NBA point guard, to boot. The tools were always there, but these days, the production is starting to match the potential.
As for Lance, don’t believe the hate. “Born Ready” still dominates at will (ask the West squad about his second-half performance in Wednesday night’s McDonald’s Game; don’t get me started on why Wall wasn’t in it, or, for that matter, why Lance won’t be in the Jordan game in his hometown, in which Wall will participate), but, in my opinion, not enough people are noticing. Sure, they see the stats—as well as the four city chips, two state crowns and the all-time New York state scoring record—but all you hear is negativity. Remind you of anybody else’s prep career? A certain rookie on the Grizzlies, perhaps? Think about it. Both born scorers. Both nationally known since before the ninth grade. Both heavily criticized for on and off the court issues. Both determined as hell to succeed.
And despite his lack of hype prior to this point, that goes for Wall, too. I could go on and on about their individual games, but I’ve always been a proof-is-in-the-pudding type of dude and I’m pretty damn confident that in two years (if you think them killing their respective one-and-done years isn’t a foregone conclusion, you’re probably on the wrong site), these two will show and prove as NBA rookies. I’m not saying they’ll be better than OJ and Derrick Rose. But if comparisons aren’t being made, I’ll be very surprised. So, international intrigue aside (and believe me, I’m sold on Ricky and Brandon, too), these two homegrown and domestically-developed guards have a chance to be very special for years to come. Just don’t say you weren’t warned…
by Todd Spehr
Scott Brooks looked like he just stepped off a roller coaster.
The Thunder’s head coach sat down for his obligatory post-game press conference, looked out at a three-strong contingent of assembled writers (OKC isn’t exactly overflowing with media folks), and sighed. It was December 29, his team had just lost at home to Phoenix, and, at 3-29, was at a low point.
Brooks just lived through a game where he’d benched his star, Kevin Durant, for not getting back on defense; for letting Jason Richardson leak out for easy buckets on consecutive possessions. He had also watched his rookie point guard, Russell Westbrook, blow a 31-point night by coughing the ball up on three consecutive possessions down the stretch, effectively ending whatever shot his team had of winning.
But for as weary as he looked, for as bloodshot as hit eyes appeared, and with little reason to blurt anything more than the generic, Brooks’ eyes suddenly widened, and he made a vow. One that he, and his Thunder, was going to keep.
“We’re going to get better every day. Every month. Every year.”
Scott Brooks’ name tag still has “Interim Head Coach” on it. Here are five reasons why “Interim” needs to be removed.
5. Offensive and Defensive improvement
The night P.J. Carlesimo was given his marching orders, the Thunder just played their first (and only) national TV game of the year. And they lost by 25. It was one of those snapshot games – one where the entire season, and all its problems, are crammed into 48 minutes for everyone to see. It was the Thunder’s sixth straight double-figure loss, the ninth time in 13 games that they had failed to score 90 points, and at 1-12, it was official that the team had either tuned out Carlesimo, or needed a change. Or both.
Under Brooks, the Thunder are a more solid defensive unit. Even allowing for the fact they have more possessions now, they’re giving up fewer points (103.2 under Brooks compared to 105.6 in the 95 games of the Carlesimo regime), and the average losing margin has dwindled from -12.3 to -4.3. Translation: They are much more competitive.
The offense is better because the shackles have been removed – to the tune of a 9 ppg improvement (98.9 from 88.9). Carlesimo coached the team (sans Durant) with a ball and chain, but Brooks gives them enough freedom to be comfortable, with just enough to snap it back if needed. Kevin Durant is a much better player (read: more efficient) under Brooks, Russell Westbrook is a more confident player under Brooks, and Jeff Green is the most improved player no one talks about — it doesn’t hurt that Brooks text messages the word “Rebound” to him on game-days.
Is Brooks clearly a better coach than Carlesimo? No. But he’s better for this team.
(Note: To put some type of perspective on things in OKC, the average age (20.67) of their top three scorers – KD, Green, and Westbrook – are the youngest for any team in NBA history, according to Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference.com)
4. Positive nature
This may not seem overly important, but considering the situation, it is. The Thunder are a young team; a team that responds to a positive voice. Brooks is that voice. Not to say Carlesimo wasn’t (although he was once called an “intense, grumpy, yelling maniac” by a former Seton Hall player), but hey, the results speak for themselves.
“He’s (Brooks) not always negative,” Durant said shortly after the change. Compliment for the new guy? Or a subtle dig at the old one?
Either way, even when the Thunder were playing like your grandpa’s ’73 Sixers, Brooks was still encouraging, still clapping, still refusing to collect moral victories like he used to collect his team’s laundry when he was a coach in the ABA. Even the locker room, when things weren’t exactly humming, didn’t permeate a team dancing with futility. The players seem to genuinely like Brooks — some even call him “Scotty” — and when you like someone, you tend to play hard for them.
Brooks perhaps draws strength from his own playing career. He was a short, white, undrafted and undersized guard, a CBA refugee who ended up sticking around for ten years and winning a title (with the ’94 Rockets). It’s entirely possible Brooks sees this Thunder team going through the same modus operandi as his own life in professional basketball: Success will eventually be born out of hardship, acquired through scrap and fight, where results and respect will be concurrently earned.
Bottom line: He’s an upbeat guy, and his team is eating it up – 18-24 since their 3-29 start, with wins over San Antonio (twice), Utah, Dallas and Detroit since the second week of January.
3. Relationship with Russell Westbrook
Believe it or not, there was a time when Scott Brooks had the same query on the floor as Russell Westbrook: Shoot or distribute? Brooks was shoot-first in college (23.8 ppg as a senior at UC-Irvine) and in the CBA, and while his natural instinct was to score, he toned ‘er down when he got to the League. Same deal with Westbrook. He was primarily a combo guard at UCLA – slanted toward scoring – as a sophomore, yet was asked to play the point, as a rookie, for a young team. Recipe for disaster? Carlesimo must have thought so — Westbrook didn’t start until Brooks took over.
Despite hitting a watered down version of the rookie wall in March, Westbrook’s numbers grew in each of the first four months Brooks was coach. From 12.2 points and 4.1 assists in November, to 20.6 and 5.9 in February. Yeah, Westbrook still can’t shoot, and yeah, he turns it over like a, well, a rookie, but Brooks has given him a license to grow. And he’ll be a better player for it. When Durant and Green missed time recently, Brooks threw the keys to Westbrook, and the Thunder went 5-1.
Favorite Brooks/Westbrook story: After the aforementioned Phoenix game in December, one where Westbrook had a schizophrenic evening that included 15 points (on Steve Nash) in the game’s first seven minutes, a career-high 31 points, and a flurry of costly turnovers in crunch time, Brooks said, like a father about to teach his kid a lesson, that he was going to sit Westbrook down and watch film with him. Show him the good and the bad stuff. When the line of questioning angled towards blaming Westbrook for the loss, Brooks snapped. “This isn’t about Russell,” he told the writer. “This is about our team.” Silence ensued.
2. Allowing Kevin Durant to thrive – by providing structure
Before delving too far, I need to point out I’m not going to give Scott Brooks entire credit for the phenomenon that was Durant Year Two. Durant is, and always is, going to be a limitless scorer. Anyhow…
There’s a substantial body of evidence that suggests Durant isn’t nearly as effective as a shooting guard – which Carlesimo was bent on proving. Actually, it’s about 90 games worth of evidence (77 last season, 13 this season), and while Carlesimo wanted to show KD off as the World’s Tallest Shooting Guard, it clearly wasn’t ideal.
Scott Brooks, in almost his first move as coach, made Durant a full-time small forward.
Notable changes: Durant, underrated for how hard he works off the ball, comes off more screens to score; he’s getting much better looks this year (take a look at his three-point shooting percentage improvement); and my personal favorite, he’s posting up more of late. All of these things, Brooks designed to make Durant not only a better scorer, but a more efficient one. He’s taking just over two more shots under Brooks than Carlesimo, but is scoring six more points, for crying out loud.
Durant last year: “Forcing the issue and getting to the rim is an element of his game that’s missing.” (Carlesimo’s words, not mine). This year: Over seven free-throw attempts per, and he smashed the Sonics/Thunder 29-year-old franchise record for FTM in a January game with the Clips.
Durant went from being a player with questionable shot selection as a rookie, to a more controlled yet more explosive version in his second season. That structure occurring, due in large part, to Brooks.
1. The public backing of his players
“I have [Brooks's] back… I want him to be back as our coach of the future.” — Kevin Durant
Wait a minute. Shouldn’t it be the other way around: “With seven games left in the season and free agency right around the corner, Lee made a pitch Thursday to remain a Knick as the organization looks to continue its rebuilding phase, with an eye toward landing a pair of big-name free agents during the summer of 2010. ‘I’ve really taken to what Coach (Mike) D’Antoni and everybody are doing around here, and the culture has really improved, and I think they have a good plan moving forward to make this a very successful team,’ Lee said at the Knicks’ practice facility in Greenburgh. ‘I’d love to be a part of that, and hopefully that works out.’”
Which is now begging the question: Is USC basketball on the verge of becoming a more desirable program than Arizona?
Pearl leveraged prospects of a job at Memphis into a six-year extension that will gross him about $3.25 per. The University of Tennessee has shown its commitment to the men’s basketball program by re-negotiating Pearl’s contract, building a new basketball complex and renovating its arena. It’s time to see some serious results.
They also don’t want to see him walk away from the game: “I’ll call him up and see what’s up,’’ Carmelo Anthony said before Thursday’s game against Utah about reaching out to his former teammate, traded last November from Denver to Detroit. “I hope (Iverson isn’t serious about retiring). I don’t want to see him ago, but I don’t know his situation… They’ve got all the keys to do it, but I’m really surprised with what they’ve (done) this season,’’ said Nuggets guard J.R. Smith. “(Iverson is) a competitor. He always wants to play. I think he feels he can play up to where he used to play. So it’s a team thing I guess.’’
That’s the word on the street, it seems: “The draft lottery is May 19…and I’ve talked to several NBA executives and scouts who feel like this is going to be a very weak draft year. Some scouts actually don’t like to watch NCAA Tournament games because it can give you a false prospective of a players talent (especially considering the much weaker competition that player could face). Still, there is something to be said about coming up big in critical moments, so a Final Four performance carries some weight. But, again, the sense I’m getting is after the top 5, it’s pretty much a crap shoot. Teams might be looking to trade out of the first round to acquire players already in the league and others will prefer to collect second-rounders with the hopes a diamond emerges from the rough.”
by Marcel Mutoni
You could list any number of reasons why Dwight won’t get his hands on the League’s highest individual honor this season, and none of them would be as brilliant as the one his assistant coach, Patrick Ewing, provided when asked for his opinion on the award.
Perhaps getting it confused with the Dunk Contest, Ewing seems convinced that Howard’s physical appearance is working against him in the MVP voters’ minds. From Florida Today:
Patrick Ewing has a theory on why Orlando Magic do-it-all center Dwight Howard isn’t mentioned as a leading MVP candidate: He’s a big man.
“I think it’s because he plays the center position,” said Ewing, a Hall of Fame center with the New York Knicks and now a Magic assistant coach. “You guys look for that flash and dash. All the other guys who are in the race are all small guys. He’s a big guy who should be in there.”
Despite getting a record 3,150,181 votes to lead this season’s All-Star team, the Magic feel Howard has been getting an MVP snub. “He’s having an outstanding year,” Ewing said. “He should be definitely in the MVP race. Nobody’s really talking about him. He should be right up there with Kobe, LeBron and Wade.”
Of course, it goes without saying that throughout NBA history, big men have more or less dominated the award. Nice try, Pat.
Anyway, some midget from Cleveland is going up against the gigantic Howard tonight in Orlando, something you might want to tune in for.