Tag Archives: basketball

How the NBA Failed Royce White

Sam Riches | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,650 words)

 

Bound by professional obligation, the announcer is feigning impartiality but a wobble in his lilt, a slip of exasperation, gives him away.

“He’s stolen the ball and here he comes again.”

It’s March, 2012, the third round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, and Royce White is running free.

He barrels up court, body wide and strong. He sprints past other players bound for the NBA, including Anthony Davis, who will soon enter the world’s top league as a transcendent number one pick, a uniquely defensive wunderkind that is representative of a shift in the way the game is played; positionless and facilitative and full-throttled.

White moves past him, over him, through him.

White, who stands 6’8” and weighs 270 pounds, moves with a lumbering fluidity, a grace that belies his size. He dribbles the ball like a guard, with hands that measure nearly a foot in width. He clears space with his frame, sometimes backing down his opponents from beyond the three point line, and then flicks passes to teammates at impossible angles. He rips rebounds from the sky and then floats the ball back into the basket with a feathery touch.

It is rare sight, to see a man that large that nimble, a combination of sheer force and astonishing agility and fortuitous genetics, but it is not rare for White. It is what he knows. He moves confidently, with purpose, with intention.

After the game, Kentucky’s head coach, John Calipari, a coach who has graduated 45 college players to the NBA, will say, “Royce is Charles Barkley.” It’s a comparison that comes up often, which is fitting since both players are anomalies, at once bullish and lithe, able to snatch rebounds from other gripping hands and then ignite a fast break with equal ease. But there are other comparisons. Jim Calhoun, one of the greatest college coaches of all time, says, “He’s got some Kevin McHale stuff inside.” One of Iowa State’s then assistant coaches, Matt Abdelmassih, goes a step further. “It’s unfair to Royce,” he tells Sports Illustrated, “but LeBron is the one guy you can compare him to.”

The NBA scouting reports are jotted with similar praise. “Legitimate playmaker.” “Big time rebounder.” “Crafty low-post scorer.” “NBA ready body.” His college coach, Fred Hoiberg, now coaching the Chicago Bulls, will say, “There are just so many things that he does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player like him.”

White is about to announce his own opinion on the matter. Davis swats at him, tries to slow him down, to knock him off his path, but it doesn’t work. White launches into the air, dunks the ball through the hoop and then bellows his own proclamation.

“I’M THE BEST PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY.”

At that moment, it’s hard to argue with him. In his lone season at Iowa State, White is the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. He also led the team back into the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years. In this game, he has thoroughly outplayed the future number one NBA draft pick.

Back on steady ground, White thumps his chest. He screams. He makes sure he will be heard, and here lies the problem.

Royce White has something to say. Read more…

Overseas Elite: The Team Dominating the Single-Elimination, Winner-Take-All Basketball Tournament

Jonathan Mugar’s idea was simple: create a single-elimination, winner-take-all basketball tournament full of ex-college stars and pros. The Basketball Tournament—or, more simply, TBT—would take place every summer and, much like March Madness, only a select few could enter, determined by popular demand and an at-large selection process.

When TBT first launched in 2014, a team made up of former Notre Dame basketball players took the title, and the squad won $500,000, but the competition was seen largely as a niche event: perfect for the summer months to ease the doldrums of choosing between golf and baseball for your sports viewing pleasure. In the years since, though, TBT has exploded, adding 32 more teams (for a total of 64) to the field and upping the prize money to a whopping $2 million, attracting better athletes and enhancing the competitive spirit.

It’s within this chasm that Overseas Elite began its dynasty. An easy team to root for—Overseas Elite is stocked with Big East favorites including former St. John’s players (like DJ Kennedy) and Pittsburgh-area stars (DeAndre Kane)—the squad has won the past two TBT titles, racking up $4 million in the process and carving a path to the 2017 TBT finals (versus the Carmelo Anthony-coached Challenge ALS, which airs Thursday night on ESPN, challenging the NFL Network’s first preseason game).

Each of the half-dozen of so Overseas Elite players all have careers playing international ball, so it’s somewhat shocking that a team of such disparate players can come together for three straight years and make a mockery of the competition.

So what has helped Overseas Elite achieve this level of dominance? The team is built much like the modern NBA—that is, chock full of positionless players all capable of driving the lane and finishing at the rim or scorching the nets from deep. During the win against Boeheim’s Army in the TBT semifinals, Overseas Elite connected on nearly 50 percent of its threes, led by Errick McCollum II’s five three-pointers. During his time as a member of the Red Storm, Kennedy wasn’t known for his passing capabilities, but the big has evolved into a point-forward as a three-time Overseas Elite member (handing out 19 assist over five games).

By mimicking the tweaks already embedded in the modern NBA—offensive spacing, perimeter shooting, and lineups stacked with multi-versatile players—Overseas Elite has essentially become the Golden State Warriors of The Basketball Tournament. Back in 2014, when TBT was still very much a cool idea rather than a proven concept, Grantland’s Zach Lowe outlined the uniqueness of such a competition:

Picking the teams is the fun part. Any group of between seven and 10 players can apply for one of the 32 spots on TBT’s website (launching today). Every team has to have a “general manager” who selects the players, manages the team, and recruits “fans” through the website. Every “fan” must fill out a simple form to become official, and any team wishing to make the 32-team field must recruit at least 100 such fans — and likely thousands more. The 24 teams with the most fans will earn automatic bids into the 32-team field. The tournament organizers will choose the remaining eight teams, provided they’ve all met a baseline of 100 enlisted fans. That allows the tournament to make sure a high-profile team can make the field even if it somehow fails to pile up enough fans to crack the top 24.

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The Lonely Life of a Pro Basketball Player

There are only fifteen spots available on an NBA roster, so for the thousands of college players who wrap up their amateur status each year, that opening — coveted since picking up a basketball as a child — is a slim one.

For most who still follow that burning desire to make a living out of their various basketball skill sets, that means carving an existence overseas, a prospect that, while much more glamorous than in past years, is still a tough life. Yes, Skype and FaceTime have made communication with family members back home easier, but that’s dependent on finding a working (and consistent) WiFi connection. Depending on where you play, language barriers abound, and though the money is better than what the G League (formerly the D League) pays, it’s a never-ending hustle.

Talk with any player who has spent significant time overseas, and the path is a tiring one, which is why this New York Times’ examination of the life and death of Jackson Vroman by David Waldstein is all the more tragic. Vroman had all the tools to eke out a role stateside in the NBA, but an injury permanently derailed his chances to stick in the league. While he was in high demand, playing in six different countries over an eight-year span, the grind grew. Waldstein, who intended to write a piece about Vroman during his playing days, spoke with those close to the forward, who was found dead at the bottom of a friend’s pool in 2015 after ingesting a cocktail of ketamine, GHB and cocaine:

The Toronto encounter would also lead me to to Jackson’s father, Brett, a former center at U.C.L.A. and the one person whose life, in some ways, was just like his son’s. And I would also get to know Brett’s second wife, Pari Habashi, a therapist who loved, nurtured and fretted over Jackson until the day he died.

In April 2015, the three of them attended the 40th anniversary of John Wooden’s last championship team at U.C.L.A., one that Brett played on. Jackson was gaunt, not in playing shape and seemingly overcome with emotions and a growing spirituality. He went to where his stepmom sat, got down on his knees and hugged her.

“I remember he was just tired,” Habashi said. “I knew there was something different then. But he was so loving. He was hanging on Brett and hanging on me and saying, ‘I love you so much.’”

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The Silent Prayer That Derailed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s NBA Career

Despite starting 57 games, throwing 72 touchdowns, and rushing for an additional thirteen TDs, it is likely that Colin Kaepernick will not play in the NFL this upcoming season. The quarterback, who opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers this past spring in the hopes of signing with another team, has been blackballed from the league, a side effect of kneeling during the national anthem last year. Kaepernick became a polarizing figure in the resurgence of athlete activism, and as such, he might have taken his last snap in the NFL.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has been in Kaepernick’s position, as he explains in an interview with The Undefeated. Twenty years ago, the guard was one of the NBA’s most electric players, a 6-foot-1 do-it-all scorer who quickly filled up a stat sheet with lightning-quick drives to the rim and perimeter jumpers.

But after eight years and nearly 9,000 points, he was gone. Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam just after he became a pro, and midway through the 1996 season he began a campaign of sitting during the national anthem. As he explained to the New York Times, “I just hope that this can be something that will cause people to look into issues more…It has made me realize more how, whether you want to use the word hypocritical or backwards, sometimes we are.”

Following a one-game suspension by the NBA which cost him $32,000, Abdul-Rauf and the league reached a compromise—the guard was allowed to stand and pray with his head bowed during the anthem. But he was soon traded after the season, and would spend just two more years in the NBA before bouncing around several teams overseas. Perhaps Abdul-Rauf was just ahead of his time; the NBA was still dominated by hulking frontcourts that slogged through an offensive possessions, it wasn’t a league styled for Abdul-Rauf’s talents. Combined with his outspoken beliefs, and what seemed to many to be a radical and dangerous worldview, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t even get a try-out with another team once his contract with the Sacramento Kings expired in 1998.

It’s been two decades since Abdul-Rauf faded from the public eye, but with the arrival of the Big3, a three-on-three basketball league launched this summer for aging ex-NBA superstars (e.g. Allen Iverson, Rashadd Lewis), Abdul-Rauf, who suits up for the 3-Headed Monsters, has been rewarded with another platform to speak his mind. “To try to influence people to be socially, racially and politically conscious opposite of what the mainstream wants us to think is unacceptable,” he told the Undefeated. “Athletes are looked at and viewed with much more importance than teachers and professors by far by the youth.”

When a person like Kaepernick or anybody else comes and stands out against anything that is contrary to what image they want you to have as an athlete, then they will make an example of you because they want to discourage other athletes from doing the same thing.

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The Fading Relevance of the NBA Draft

LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach seven years ago, teaming with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form one of the first ‘super teams’ of the 21st century. During that same time span, the Heat won two titles, thoroughly justifying James’ decision to spurn a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that was still very much in the midst of self-discovery and instead join a team with the best odds of becoming an NBA champion.

The move did not go unnoticed by other NBA franchises. Since James left Cleveland, the Larry O’Brien trophy has gone to three other teams that have similarly followed the Heat’s lead, including the Golden State Warriors, who this past summer signed Kevin Durant and promptly trounced the James-led Cavaliers. (Following his four years with the Heat, James famously came home and led the Eastern Conference squad to three straight NBA finals.) And we aren’t even including the Boston Celtics, who formed arguably the original super team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen a decade ago. Forgotten amidst the formation of these power teams is the influence the NBA draft used to have when it came to building title teams.

A quick primer on the draft: The league’s worst teams are allotted the top fifteen slots in each NBA Draft, with the express purpose of landing one of the best players to provide the necessary boost to compete in upcoming seasons. From Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing to Vince Carter, and even LeBron, the draft was integral to the construction of a playoff-caliber squad.

But based the draft which took place last weekend at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the event felt more spectacle than instrumental. There is a trend of teams attempting to clear enough salary cap space to sign enough top players to contend against the Cavaliers or the Warriors, the league’s two top teams. The Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has drafted the second pick for the past three years, dumped its 2015 pick (D’Angelo Russell) for the chance to land Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (who will likely be traded this offseason), while the Minnesota Timberwolves unloaded draft picks and Zach LaVine, one of the NBA’s most athletic players, for Jimmy Butler and a chance to challenge in the Western Conference next season.

Neither of these teams will actually contend in 2018—the finals, barring any unforeseen injuries, will still pit the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. But there is a contend-now mentality that seems to have overtaken the NBA, and as such, the proliferation of teams that believe the only way to win isn’t through development of draft picks but by hoping to craft the next super team-cum-dynasty. Might Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers join the San Antonio Spurs? Could Gordon Hayward reunite with Brad Stevens, his college coach at Butler, in Boston? Which soon-to-be contender will be able to pry Kristaps Porzingis from the Big Apple?

The Oklahoma City Thunder was the last franchise that attempted to build its team from the ground up—Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Durant were all first round picks, and as the team molded around the triumvirate of superstars (with Ibaka as the rim running, glass crashing big every contender requires), the Thunder seemed destined for NBA supremacy. But then Harden and Ibaka were traded, Durant left on his own accord, and just Westbrook, who was recently named the NBA MVP, remains. The Thunder’s experiment was a lesson for other NBA squads—building a contender the old-fashioned way takes a patience that few are willing to endure, and the future of the NBA is bound to be controlled by those teams that can convince enough superstars to join its ranks.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently touched on Minnesota’s moves on draft night and the swirling trends of building a championship-worthy squad:

This is almost refreshingly normal: A rebuilding team hits multiple lotteries, sees it can’t (or shouldn’t) pay all its young studs, and flips a couple of them into something helpful. Almost every dilemma like this highlights how abnormal Golden State is — how much draft skill, good fortune, and once-in-league-history timing luck the Warriors needed to collect four of the league’s 15 best players. That doesn’t happen, ever.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly: The NBA’s Secret Addiction

At ESPN, Baxter Holmes reports on how the lowly peanut butter and jelly sandwich fueled the 2007-08 Boston Celtics to an NBA title, becoming the sweet and salty stuff of superstitious sport legend that has spread like an addiction across the league.

But as the Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics steamrolled to a 66-win season and an NBA title, the secret to their success, so cleverly disguised between two pieces of white bread, was eventually leaked.

At the time, Doo notes, the Celtics not only didn’t provide lavish pregame spreads, they didn’t offer much food at all. But he soon found himself slapping together 20 PB&J’s about three hours before every tip-off, the finished products placed in bags and labeled with Sharpie in a secret code: “S” for strawberry, “G” for grape, “C” for crunchy. Of vital import: Garnett was an “S” man, and woe unto he who did not deliver him two S’s before every game. “If Kevin didn’t get his routine down, he’d be pissed,” Doo says. “Even if he didn’t eat them, he needed them to be there.”

The Trail Blazers offer 20 crustless, halved PB&J’s pregame — 10 of them toasted, a mandate ever since an opposing arena prepared them as such and Blazers guard Damian Lillard approved. They’re composed of organic fixings, save for white bread, which Portland’s assistant performance coach Ben Kenyon notes is a high-glycemic carb that easily digests to provide a quick energy jolt. Typically, all 20 vanish well before tip-off; sometimes the Blazers double their order.

The Rockets make sure the PB&J is available in their kitchen at all times, in all varieties — white and wheat bread, toasted, untoasted, Smucker’s strawberry and grape, Jif creamy and chunky — and offer 12 to 15 sandwiches pregame, with PB&J reinforcements provided at halftime and on postgame flights.

The Bucks might boast the NBA’s most elaborate PB&J operation: a pregame buffet featuring smooth, crunchy and almond butters, an assortment of jellies (raspberry, strawberry, grape, blueberry, apricot), three breads from a local bakery (white, wheat and gluten-free) and Nutella. The team scarfs 20 to 30 PB&J’s per game and travels with the ingredients, which rookies prepare on the plane and in visiting locker rooms.

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Mixing Business and Family in the LA Lakers Empire

LA lakers jersey, number 24

Janie Buss said she thinks her older brothers are looking to cash out. Together, the six Buss children inherited 66 percent of the Lakers via four trusts established by Dr. Buss and his first wife, JoAnn. According to court documents, the trusts state that four of the six Buss children would have to agree to a sale of their interests in the Lakers. That’s further complicated, because a percentage of the Buss family shares are in JoAnn’s name and cannot be sold until her death.

“The way the trust is set up, it’s last man standing,” Janie says. “If I die tomorrow, my kids benefit a little bit but they don’t get everything I’m entitled to. As we all go down, it’s all going to end up in Joey and Jesse’s hands because they’re the youngest.”

She says she understands why Johnny, age 60 with two young kids, would want to cash out and leave more to his own children. She’s had the same thought. But ultimately, she wants to follow her father’s wishes because, “I am living life better than I ever thought I could live, and it’s all because of my dad’s hard work.”

At ESPNRamona Shelburne tells the complex family drama between the LA Lakers’s president and other stakeholders, which include her siblings. The business dealings off the court are an American story about power, money, and the disciplined stamina necessary to run a successful business.

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Northwestern Is Poised to Compete in March Madness for the First Time in History

It’s become one of the most well-known sports trivia questions: Name the five college basketball programs that existed in 1938 (when the NCAA tournament was first held) to have never danced in March Madness. By this Sunday, though, that number will likely drop to four. Northwestern, the only high-major school of the group (which includes William & Mary, St. Francis NY, Army, and The Citadel), currently has a 21-10 record, and is coming off the greatest win in the team’s history: tied with Michigan in the final seconds of a Big Ten game last week, Dererk Pardon snagged a full-court desperation pass right under the basket and laid the ball in, giving the Wildcats the win and essentially punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament (though Northwestern lost on Sunday to Purdue, the team is currently a 9-seed in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology). Read more…

Taking the Long View on Sports Reporting: Our College Pick

It’s been almost a month since the UConn Huskies won both NCAA basketball titles, but the pangs of withdrawal are evident on certain basketball-crazed campuses around the country. Without a good game, we turn instead to a good story. Cal Poly beat Texas Southern to secure a spot in the tournament and lost in the first round to Wichita State. It was Cal Poly’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, much thanks to forward Chris Eversley. In his profile of Eversley, writer J.J. Jenkins laces a narrative between the unlikely journey of the team and the personal triumph of one player. This is not a particularly unusual angle for a Cinderella sports story. But as a longtime sportswriter for Cal Poly’s Mustang News, Jenkins can write with the deep familiarity that comes with covering a team over time.

Eversley’s Ascent

J.J. Jenkins | Mustang News | April 2, 2014 | 18 minutes (4,389 words)

Why Owning an NBA Team is Like Having a House on the Best Beach in the World

Last year the Milwaukee Bucks were purchased by two hedge-fund billionaires for $550 million. In a piece for Grantland, Bill Simmons tried to nail down what exactly drives the super rich to acquire NBA teams, a purchase that—at least by the numbers—is often a pretty lousy investment.

Simmons concluded that for many owners, exclusivity and prestige outweigh straight number crunching: “You can’t rationally assess the ‘value’ of anything when ego is involved. What’s the value of sitting courtside as everyone watches YOUR team?” Apparently over a half a billion dollars, even for a losing, small-market team. After all, according to Simmons, “plenty of rich people can buy a plane or an island, but only 30 of them can say they own an NBA franchise.” It’s about supply and demand. As long as the supply in question remains incredibly limited, the super rich will remain drawn to what Simmons billed as “the world’s most exclusive club.” Here’s how he broke it down:

If you pretend the NBA is an exclusive beach on Turks and Caicos, it makes more sense. Let’s say it’s the single best beach in the world, and it can only hold 30 houses. Let’s say some of the houses are bigger and prettier than others, only all of them have the same gorgeous ocean view. And let’s say all 30 owners feel strongly that their investments will keep improving, barring a collapsed stock market or an unforeseen weather catastrophe, of course. Does it really matter if you bought one of the ugliest houses on that beach? Don’t you just want to crack the 30? You can always knock the house down and build a better one … right?

That’s the National Basketball Association in 2014. Who wants to be on the hottest beach? What will you pay? How bad do you want it? Get one of those 30 houses and you can invite your friends down for the weekend, show them around, make them drinks and eventually head out to your deck. And you can look out and watch the sun slowly setting, and you can hear the water splash, and you can hear your friends tell you, “I love the view, it’s spectacular.” Because right now, it is.

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