Exclusive Interview With Shaun Livingston

Prior to the Washington Wizards last meeting against the Utah Jazz on March 13th, Shaun Livingston was feeling pretty good about himself and his game.  Against the Orlando Magic, just his eighth game as a Wizard, Livingston scored 18 points and dished out eight assists in just 31 minutes of play.  Coach Flip Saunders made a point after the game, to praise Livingston’s decision-making ability, and just two nights later, he was rewarded with the starting point guard slot.

Unfortunately for Shaun, his first start as a Wizard came against arguably the best point guard in the game, Deron Williams.

Williams not only outplayed Livingston, but he wore out Randy Foye (the previous starting point guard) and Earl Boykins.  Livingston started that game strong, by blocking two of Williams shots, but in the end, Williams was just too strong, too experienced, and too good.  Williams had 17 points, 11 assists and six rebounds.  Livingston finished with six points, three rebounds and zero assists.  The Jazz won that game, 112-89.

Last night, the Jazz were back in town, and once again, they blew out the Wizards, 103-87.  Williams was his usual brilliant self with 20 points and 12 assists, but despite the loss, Livingston played better this time around.  He had 14 points, three assists, and three rebounds, and he showed much more aggression than he had during that March 13th meeting.

After the game, I asked Livingston about his matchup against Williams, what he can learn from a player of that stature, how is health is progressing, and what he does to stay positive despite his team’s 15-game losing streak.

Rashad Mobley: I know how tough it looks from my vantage point, but you’re right there on the court, so tell me what it’s like going up against Deron Williams?
Shaun Livingston: Man, he’s the best point guard in the league.  Hands down.  Maybe not the most valuable one, obviously Steve Nash means a little more to his team.  But you talk about size, skill, the combination of both, I mean he causes the most mismatches for any guard including myself.  Even though I have a few inches on him, I still give up at least 30lbs, so that gives him and advantage going to the hole and drawing a lot of contact.

RM: Even though you’re in the midst of the game, do you learn anything from him?
SL: Definitely. I watch how he controls the tempo.  He does a great job of pushing in transition and creating fast break points.  I mean, you think of Utah, and you think of a slow half-court set team, and they are great at that.  But when he’s pushing the ball and they are running, they are just as good, and he’s hard to guard.  So I definitely watch that, and try to learn.

RM: I noticed a couple of times when you went down to the post, you had some success against him.  Why was that play not called more often?
SL: You know what?  That is partly my fault.  I’m new and all, but that’s part of my responsibility of being a leader.  I have to call my own play if it looks like a match-up is in my favor.  A lot of times, I get in my own head and I don’t want to be that selfish point guard, who is all about his own game.  But I’m sure when I look back at the tape, I’ll kick myself for not trying to take him in the post.  I mean on the Utah side, Deron went to the post as soon as Earl[Boykins] checked into the game for me.  And then even with the big men, they tried to give the ball to [Carlos] Boozer whenever [Andray]Blatche was guarding him, because Boozer has the weight advantage.  So I have to recognize those match-ups.  But again, that’s part of my maturation process you know?  As I get healthier and my knee gets stronger, I can start fine tuning my point guard duties.  But yeah, that play was working, and it’s up to me to call it.

RM: Speaking of injuries, I remember talking to Grant Hill about the recovery process from his injury, and he said that every now and then, he would do something on the court that surprised him, and reminded him of what he could do pre-injury.  He said that’s how he knew he was closer to being 100%.  In the past week, we’ve seen you dunk on Pau Gasol and tonight you threw it down on Carlos Boozer.  Did those plays surprise you and make you say, “Wow I’m back!”

SL: I actually could do plays like that more often, but its more about the opportunity.  When it presents itself, I just have to go for it and stop thinking about it.  Again, like I said before, I get in my own head sometimes.  I need to get in the lane and just dunk it, instead of finger rolling, laying it up and all that.  Going back to Deron Williams again, he drives hard, tries to dunk, and he draws fouls without any hesitation.  I think the more I go hard into the lane, maybe teams will stop jumping and trying to contest me, so I can get some easy baskets[starts to laugh].

RM: Have you allowed yourself to think about what it would be like sharing a backcourt with Gilbert Arenas, now that it looks like he just might be back next year?
SL: Man, that would be great.  I mean Gilbert is known around the league as a scoring guard during his career, and I think if I were running the point, that would free things up for him tremendously.  Then obviously it opens the floor for me a bit as well.  Plus I’m 6’7″, he’s 6’4″, a backcourt like that is a handful on both ends of the floor.  Ok, yeah, I’m getting excited just talking about that[laughs heartily].  But seriously, a whole lot needs to happen for that to be a reality.  I mean I don’t even know if the Wizards are bringing me back next year for sure, so I cant get too carried away.

RM: Do you have any regrets, especially around this time of year, about not going to college when you see all the excitement and hype around March Madness?
SL: Hell, yeah!  I mean I’m happy with my decision to go pro and all that, even with my injury.  But how can you not get caught up in that excitement as a player?  And lets bring it back to Deron once again.  He and Dee[Brown] led Illinois to the NCAA Final, and I bet if you asked Deron about that run, he’d talk about how much he improved as a player because of that.  So most of the time, I’m cool with my decision and all that, but I can’t lie and say I don’t miss experiencing that.

RM: How do you personally keep from getting frustrated about this 15 game losing streak?  I mean, you’re the starting point guard, and its your job to not only run the team, but to keep spirits up too?
SL: Honestly man, when you’ve been through what I’ve been through over the last few years,something like a 15 game losing streak doesn’t phase you.  And I’m not saying I don’t care about the losing because I damn sure do.  But the perspective I keep on this is always positive, because I’ve been in the mind state, when I wasn’t sure I was ever playing basketball again.  So I look at this as a lesson for us to get better this year going into next year and I try to stay positive as possible.  As a point guard, its my job to keep guys going, keep the ball moving and to stay positive too, so that’s what I’ll keep doing.

Gilbert Arenas Avoids Jail Time

Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house, in Washington D.C. Superior Court on Friday afternoon.  Arenas will serve two years of probation, dedicate 400 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine to the Victim of Violent Crimes Fund according to Mike Jones of CSNWashington.

Back on January 15th of this year, Arenas plead guilty to one felony count of violating the District of Columbia’s strict gun law.  He and teammate Javaris Crittenton got into a confrontation, which escalated to the point, where both men brought guns into the Verizon Center locker room.   Crittenton was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation for his role in this incident.   Arenas was suspended indefinitely by Stern on January 6 of this year, and then he and Crittenton both were suspended for the season on January 27th, 2010.

At the time of his suspension, Arenas was in the second year of a six-year, $111 million dollar contract.  Prior to today’s sentence, Team President Ernie Grunfeld said repeatedly, that he wanted Arenas back with the Washington Wizards franchise.   Late Friday afternoon, the team issued the following statement:

“We believe today’s sentencing of Gilbert Arenas can help bring closure to the unfortunate situation that has played out over the last three months.   Gilbert has admitted his mistakes and will now pay his debt to our community.  We are confident that he has learned something significant from the experience and we now look forward to moving on and focusing on building this team into the contender that our outstanding fans deserve.”

As more details emerge, Hoops Addict will definitely keep you posted.

Catching Up With Tyson Chandler

This is the time of year, when the NBA game, takes a major backseat to the monster we call March Madness.  Pro names like Kobe, LeBron, Wade and Carmelo get replaced by college names like Mahan, Wall, Farokhmanesh and Lucious.  Instead of just paying attention to coaches like Larry Brown of the Charlotte Bobcats and Scott Brooks from the Oklahoma City Thunder, we find ourselves wanting to hear what Kansas State’s Frank Martin and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim have to say about their respective teams.  Its not that we’ve given up on the pro game, its just we mentally put it on hold until that Monday night NCAA Championship game.

But last weekend while I watched copious amounts of college basketball, I found myself wondering what goes through the mind of players, who skipped college and never got to play in March Madess.  I wondered if they had any regrets this time of year, and if they secretly wished they could delve into that experience just once.  Then my thought process led me to think about the overall adjustment young players make when they enter the NBA, and how difficult it must be when most of their peers are in the college game.

So with the Charlotte Bobcats coming in town, I thought the perfect person to ask these questions to would be Tyson Chandler.  After a storied high school career,  Chandler eschewed college, and chose to head straight for the NBA, where he was the Bulls number two overall pick in 2001.   He has not dominated in the way you’d expect a number two draft pick to do (career averages of 8.1 points and 8,8 rebounds), but still he has had a decent career.

Before his Charlotte Bobcats took on the Washington Wizards, I asked Chandler if he regretted not being a part of March Madness and the NCAA overall, I asked him about the adjustments he made going from high school to the NBA, and we discussed the effect of new owner, Michael Jordan, on the team.

Rashad Mobley: During this time of year, is there any part of you that wishes you had gone to college, if for no other reason, than to have the March Madness experience?
Tyson Chandler: Nah, not at all.  The stars didn’t align for me like that, and to be honest, I rarely think about it.  Now maybe a little earlier in my career, when I had friends and people I played high school ball with in college.  But to be totally honest with you man, I don’t even know who is in college anymore. I’m just totally disconnected from college ball.

RM:  And how were you so sure that going straight to the NBA was indeed the right path?  What was your thought process?
TC:   You know I thought about college, but I also thought about my future and what was really best for me and my family.  I felt like coming into the NBA would be the best situation for me to learn from the best players in the world, all while getting paid, you know?  I think it has worked out pretty well so far

RM:  Besides not being able to go straight from high school to the NBA anymore, do you think the climate is different now 10 years later, for younger kids entering the NBA?
TC:  Well, I think any time you come into the league, you’re a boy coming into a man’s sport and a man’s game.  You definitely have some adjustments that need to be made because while its fun and all that, this is also the way grown men feed their families.  So you definitely have to make mental and physical adjustments to this game, and that was the case when I came into the league, and its the case today in 2010. 

RM:  What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?
TC:  I think the major adjustment was the level of competition.  In high school, you have one or two really good players who could play in college and maybe the NBA, and the rest are just role players.  When I jumped to the NBA, everyone was good, everyone could dominate, and even the role players could make you look bad on a given night.  So I had to play hard and be mentally prepared every night for every game, and for a much longer period of time.  That was definitely tough for me to sustain.  Then you throw in the travel, locker room chemistry, money issues and it can make your head spin if you ain’t careful.  Plus, once you become a professional athlete, there are definitely some things that change and you gotta understand how to cope with that on and off the court.  So it took me awhile, plus I had high expectations being the number two draft pick.  It was a lot, man.

RM:   I know you’ve had foot and ankle injuries that have kind of held you back this year, but are you feeling a bit more comfortable with this team?
TC:  Definitely. I feel a lot better now that I can finally get out there on the court.  It was definitely tough because I struggled to battle through injuries and surgeries, and not being in the lineup is frustrating, especially when you see the team needs an energy boost on certain nights–that’s my specialty you know?  But now that I’m healthy, life is a lot easier and I can kind put my stamp on this team as we hopefully move towards the playoffs.

RM:  I know to outsiders its a big deal, but for the players in the locker room, is it a big deal that Michael Jordan is now the owner of the franchise?
TC:  Hell yeah its a definite plus.  Look man, when you’re sitting on the sidelines or even while you’re in the game, and you look over and see the greatest player to ever play clapping his hands and encouraging you, that’s a pretty big deal.  Then he gives us pointers, tips and suggestions on how to improve our game.  So all of that, plus his presence, can’t do nothing but help us on a nightly basis

RM:  So is there more pressure?
TC (laughing):  Let’s not call it pressure, let’s call it motivation.

Larry Brown’s Post Game Presser

After last night’s overtime victory against Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats coach, Larry Brown met with the media to discuss his team’s performance, the play of Gerald Wallace, and how much he sympathizes with Flip Saunders.

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In The Scrum With Shaun Livingston

After his 18 point, eight assist performance in a loss to the Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards guard Shaun Livingston took some time to meet with the media. He discussed how he felt about his best performance since his horrific knee injury, why he was able to play so well against the Magic, his approach to the game overall, and the toll the recent schedule has taken on the Wizards.

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Catching Up With Joe Smith

I would venture to say that 95% of all the NBA players I interview, watch and write about are younger than I am.  It’s not something that bothers me, but it is definitely something I notice as I glance at the media guides.  It simply means that I am getting old(er), and I have to be mindful of some of the basketball references I make.

So before I decided to interview Atlanta Hawks forward/center Joe Smith, I did some research on him, and I discovered that we are basically the same age (I’m 35, he’ll be there in July), which left me quite pleased.  When you throw in the fact that I watched Smith take the University of Maryland and the college basketball world by storm in the early 90s, I was even more enthusiastic at the prospect of speaking with him.

Since being drafted first in the 1995 draft, Smith has played for 10 NBA teams, and has amassed career per game averages of 11 points and six rebounds.  The Hawks signed him as a free agent in August of 2009, and although he’s only averaged three points and two rebounds so far, his veteran leadership will almost certainly come in handy come playoff time.  Last season, when Smith was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he played his best during the first round playoff sweep against the Detroit Pistons, when he averaged 11 points and five rebounds.

Prior to his team’s matchup against the Washington Wizards, I caught up with Smith and asked how he’s been able to stay productive in the NBA this long, his impressions of All-Star forward Al Horford, and whether he still follows University of Maryland basketball.

Rashad Mobley:  My editor chatted with Juwan Howard a couple of weeks back, and he talked about how he is able to keep in shape and stay prepared to play even at an advanced age.  You’ve been in the league one less year than he has, so what are you doing to still be in the NBA and productive at age 35?
Joe Smith:  Well, I just do things during the course of the season to kind of maintain and keep my body up for the long haul.  By doing that, I can get better and better and then be fresh down the stretch and in the playoffs.  Its about working hard in the summertime, and maintaining once the season starts.

RM:  What types of things do you do specifically during the course of the season
JS:  Before every game I try to get in the weight room to get my muscles together and all that, and I try to do as much cardio as I can.  That way no matter when I get called to come in the game and take the floor, I’m ready physically.  Even though at this point in my career my game is way more mental than it is physical, I still need weights and cardio to keep me right physically.

RM:  Do you show the young players what you do to keep in shape, so they can possibly play as long you have?
JS:  Well the good thing about the group we have here, they watch what I do from afar, and copy it during the course of the season.  Whenever they do have questions about what I do or what I’ve done during the course of my career to maintain the level I’m at right now, I am always happy to answer.

RM:  How much longer do you see yourself playing?
JS:  You know I really have not put a specific number on it.  My body feels great, I’m still having fun playing the game, I’m having fun with the guys on my team, so I’m going to keep going as long as I possibly can.  As long as there is a team that wants me, I will be in shape and stay ready to contribute.

RM:  This team always seems to be playing with loose with a lot energy.  What is it about this team that allows everyone to play like that night after night?
JS:  Well first of all, we have a lot of guys that believe and trust in each other.   They like to have fun off the court, and we take it on the court, its all business.  We can fight, yell, curse and do whatever on the court, and it rarely spills over into the locker room.  I’ve been on teams where that hasn’t been the case but not here.  And to be a successful team, you gotta be able to do that night in and night out.

RM:  Talk a little about Al Horford.  He’s been more consistent this year, he made the All-Star team, and he just seems to be getting more and more confident.  What have you seen since you’ve been watching him up close and what have you done to help him out?
JS:  He just gets better every year man.  I watched him from afar in the past, and I was impressed.  He has the footwork, the drive, the right attitude and he can still improve as a ball player.  And to be playing with him now, and to see how hard he works on the court, off the court, in the weight room whatever, its fun to be around him and he keeps me feeling young.  Plus like I said, he’s really trying to get better as a player, and I’m trying to help him out as much as I can with the knowledge I’ve gained.

RM:  Let’s talk University of Maryland basketball. Do you still follow the team?
JS:  All the time man, All the time!

RM:  What do you think of Greivis Vasquez and is he a pro prospect?
JS:  I’ve always liked what he brings to the table and I like what they are doing as team.  They are heating up at the right time, and its good to see what they are doing, when no one really gave them a chance this year and its really opened up some eyes.  As far as Vasquez, he’s definitely a player.  He knows the game, he knows what it takes to win, and I can definitely see him in the pros.

RM:  Has Gary Williams ever asked you to speak to the team to motivate them?
JS:  Nah he hasn’t, but if it came up I would have no problem with that.  But he hasn’t asked yet.

RM:  What would you say to the, just out of curiosity, if he did ask you to speak to them before the [NCAA]tournament?
JS:  I would just tell them to keep doing what they’re doing.  There are obviously some improvements that every team needs to show no matter what time of season it is.  But I’d tell them to keep grinding and putting that effort out there to give themselves a chance to win.

James Singleton’s Thankless Job

Midway through the fourth quarter of last night’s game, the Atlanta Hawks were on offense, and they were looking to get the ball in the post.  Forward Josh Smith had position on Washington Wizards forward James Singleton, and he was passionately calling for the ball.  Hawks guard Mike Bibby finally saw that Smith was open, and he threw an entry pass down to him.  Smith took two hard dribbles and attempted to get even closer to the basket, but Singleton was not budging.  Smith then tried to spin, but Singleton beat him to the spot, and quickly closed that avenue to the basket.  Smith was completely flummoxed at that point, and was forced to throw the back out to his teammate Jamal Crawford.

On the very next offensive possession, Smith was once again engaged in a low post battle with Singleton, except this time, he found it a bit more difficult to establish position.  Singleton anticipated the Hawks would again throw the ball in the post, so this time he decided to get in front of Smith.  No matter how much jostling, pushing and shoving Smith attempted, he could not get open long enough to recieve an entry pass.  The Hawks ended up swinging the ball to the other side of the floor and a frustrated Smith just looked at the referee in disbelief.

Both of these plays unfolded in less than ten seconds, and no one patted Singleton on the butt, high fived him, or showed his highlights on Sportscenter later that evening.  But on every team there is dirty work to be done on both ends of the floor, and on the Washington Wizards squad, that is what James Singleton has to do on a nightly basis.

“This team is lacking a certain physical-ness, ” Singleton told me after the Houston Rockets game on Tuesday.  “That’s not a slight to [Andray]Blatche or JaVale[McGee], but I have a little more bulk than they do.  And I’m not getting plays  run for me, so I have to make my mark being physical, and I actually like that.”

During Tuesday night’s matchup against the Rockets, Singleton had the task of trying to guard Luis Scola who had been giving Blatche, McGee and Fabricio Oberto fits in the low post.  There was pushing, shoving, grabbing and kneeing done by both players, but, to his credit, Singleton was able to briefly slow down Scola and get in his head a little. 

Singleton later told me that he had to work the referees a bit while guarding him.

“When I checked in the game, I told the refs that Luis likes to initiate the contact, grab, pull and do whatever, ” Singleton explained to Hoops Addict.  “In that third quarter when you saw us really going at it, the ref called a foul on me and right after I got that foul, I reminded him what I said earlier.  The next time, the ref called an offensive foul, so it worked out.  I earned that one”

On the offensive side of the ball, Singleton does occasionally receive rewards for his hard work on defense.  Against the Rockets, despite having to defend Scola, he found time to score 12 points, while setting screens and fighting for offensive rebounds.  However, against the Hawks, Singleton went scoreless in 18 minutes of play (0-5 from the field), although he did grab six offensive  rebounds (seven total).  And, at one point in the third quarter against the Hawks, despite his hard play all evening, Singleton was still yelled at by Wizards assistant coach Randy Wittman, for not coming to the ball when Shaun Livingston was trapped. 

Still, Singleton knows his job and how he can contribute to this team.

“I play hard every night man, that’s what I do,” Singleton said.  “Some nights I play hard and you can see reflected it on the scoreboard, some nights you can’t see it unless you break down the film later.  But it’ll never be said that I don’t bring it, and that’s all that matters. ”

I asked Singleton where that type of toughness originated from, he was quick on his feet with a retort.

“I played football in high school, so that’s why I like the contact.  I played receiver and quarterback, so this is nothing to me.”

Considering Singleton and the rest of his Wizards teammates are in the midst of playing three games in three nights that is exactly the type of toughness they will need.

Catching Up With Kevin Martin

When the Houston Rockets came to Washington D.C. to play the Wizards last season, the post-game locker room could best be described as chaotic.  Ron Artest was holding court in the back of the locker room, a group of reporters were waiting for Tracy McGrady to come out of the shower so they could interview him, and Yao Ming had the biggest crowd of them all with Chinese media, David Aldridge, Michael Wilbon and a host of others waiting to speak with him.

Last night prior to the Wizards/Rockets matchup the scene in the Rockets locker room was anything but chaotic.  Yao is still with the team, but was out due to injury, and McGrady and Artest have since left the team.   Current players like Aaron Brooks, Trevor Ariza and Chase Budinger watched film and quietly joked with one another, and I was the only journalist/blogger in sight.  I took advantage of this serene atmosphere, and struck up a conversation with newly acquired guard Kevin Martin.

After spending his first five and a half seasons with the Sacramento Kings, Martin was traded to the Houston Rockets on February 18th, as part of a three-team deal that also included the New York Knicks.  Since the trade he has averaged a robust 23.1 points a game, and he’s given them the scoring punch they have lacked since McGrady’s knee injury last season.

I spoke to Martin about adjusting to his new team on and off the court, his keys to getting out of shooting slumps, and the unique bond between point guard and shooting guard.

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Livingston Gets Thrown Into The Fire

There were 45 seconds left in overtime, when Shaun Livingston stepped back on to the Verizon Center floor.  Up until that point, he had only been in the game for a total of two minutes,  which was hardly enough time to gain any sort of momentum.  Yet here he was at a crucial point in the game, expected to execute what should have been a simple play.

After calling his final full timeout, Saunders substituted Livingston into the game, and asked him to inbound the ball. The Wizards had yet to score in the overtime period, and although the Knicks had only scored two points, they were in the lead and time was running out.

The referee handed the ball to Livingston, and instantly he frantically began to look for a  teammate to pass to, but could not find anyone.  Finally, Livingston called a timeout, hoping that Saunders could use one of the two -20 second time outs he had left, but it wasn’t to be.  The referee blew the whistle, turned to face the scorer’s table, and indicated that a five second violation had taken place.

Livingston pleaded his case to no avail, and then found himself right back on the bench, after Saunders asked Mike Harris to check into the game for him.

There were 45 seconds on the clock and the Wizards went on to lose to the New York  Knicks 118-116.

After the game, I asked Livingston about his version of the inbounds play.

“The ref was standing right next to me, and usually when they call a five second its always on the fifth count, after five one-thousand, ”  Livingston recounted as he buttoned up his shirt after the game.  “I called that timeout between the five and the one-thousand but I guess it was too late.  I thought I made it, but he saw it differently.”

I followed up by asking Livingston if he thought his inactivity (he hasn’t played since he was cut by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec 22, 2009) had anything to do with his decision making.

“It very could have and my timing could be a bit off in those instances.  But then again, the last time I got one of those, I had to be in fifth grade, ” Livingston said while laughing.

In his post game press conference, Coach Saunders addressed the difficult situation that Livingston, and the other new players on the team currently face.

“We had to play some guys that really haven’t had a chance to practice with us. And in their first they are in that situation, which isn’t totally fair to those guys.” Saunders said.  “But we really had no choice.”

Earlier in the day, before being thrown into the fire, Livingston signed a 10-day contract with the Wizards.   After the horrific knee injury that occurred while he was with Los Angeles Clippers back in February of 2007, Livingston rehabbed hard for a year and a half to get that knee back into playing shape.  He appeared in four games with the Miami Heat, 18 games with Oklahoma City Thunder, he did a brief stint in the Minnesota Timberwolves training camp and he even spent sime time with the Tulsa 66ers of the D League before arriving the Wizards.

Prior to tonight’s game, Coach Saunders discussed why the Wizards signed Livingston.

“He’s definitely always been able to pass the ball and I think he’s a guy that if he can ever get healthy again, he’s got unbelievable basketball instincts and high IQ, ” Saunders told the media.  “To his credit, he’s fought back to put himself back in a position where he made Oklahoma City, as far as the beginning of the year, and now  he has another opportunity.  Randy Wittman (current Washington Wizards assistant, formerly with the  Timberwolves) had him last year in September.  And seeing him a year ago to where he is now its like 100% difference from where he was.”

I asked Livingston what he had been doing to stay in shape and whether he thought he’d be back in the NBA, once he was cut by Oklahoma City.

“I’ve just been trying to stay in shape as best I can. Nothing replaces that real game experience, but I’ve been shooting and doing cardio and all, ” Livingston told Hoops Addict.  “But the Thunder cut me because they were actually trading for a player (rookie Eric Maynor), so it was a numbers game, but I knew I had proven I could play, so I just stayed patient.”

Since the earlier inbounds play had been so influential in the game, I decided to end my interview, by revisiting that play and his feelings about it.  I asked him if the outcome of that play would tamper his joy about having another chance with this Washington Wizards team.

“Ideally it always feels good to get a win, and I think I could have done more with the opportunity, but hopefully there will be another one.”

Luckily for Shaun Livingston, that next opportunity comes on Sunday, when his Wizards take on the worst team in the NBA:  The New Jersey Nets.

Tough Love For McGee

The first time  JaVale McGee drew the ire of Wizards head coach Flip Saunders on Monday against the Bulls happened early in the first quarter. Brad Miller gave a slight head and ball fake, McGee fell for it, and then watched as Miller went around him.

Saunders emphatically pointed towards the ground and yelled at the second year center: “Stay down, stay down!”

Less than two minutes later, McGee took a shot that was slightly out of his range, and missed everything.  Saunders immediately whipped around and called for James Singleton to check into the game.

McGee slumped his shoulders, barely slapped fives with his teammates, and took a seat on the bench.

When he checked back into the game with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, McGee looked energized.  He got rebounds on both the offensive and defensive ends, and he hit a short jumper to give his team the lead.  But shortly thereafter he picked up a bad foul, got called for an illegal defense technical foul, and then he fell for yet another head fake.

Coach Saunders once again angrily called for Singleton to come in the game, and again McGee walked off the floor.  But before he could get to the bench, Saunders grabbed his arm, then grabbed a white clipboard, and started diagramming a play and talking McGee through it.

I looked at Kyle Weidie from Truth About It, and wondered aloud what Coach Saunders was saying, and he challenged me to ask McGee after the game, so I did.

“Well, first he told me not to keep leaving my feet on defense, and then he said I had to play smarter and show a little more on my screen and rolls, ” the quiet McGee told me in front of his locker.

I asked McGee if he gets frustrated when he’s jerked out of the game like that, and he calmly responded, “Not at all. He’s teaching me what I need to do to be a better player and stay in the lineup. I can’t get mad at that.”

Prior the trades that saw the Wizards trade their former starting front line (Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison) to different teams, McGee was barely getting off the bench.  But since entering the starting lineup four games ago, McGee has averaged 9 points, 6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game in 22 minutes of play.

He’s been wildly inconsistent, but he’s also shown a plethora of energy and a willingness to learn.

“We’ve got a group of guys that have high motors that play with a greater volume of aggression and intensity,” Saunders observed after his team’s 101-95 victory over the Chicago Bulls.   “What’s happened is, the new guys are playing that way and now all of a sudden Andray (Blatche) and JaVale (McGee) and those guys have fallen right into place.”

I asked McGee if he felt his confidence rising as a result of the increased personalized attention from the head coach as well as more playing time.

“Definitely man, definitely,” McGee told me in a rare candid moment. “It was hard sitting on that bench knowing I could get in there and help my team. But now I know I’m going to play and if I mess up I know what to do the next time, so its much better like this.”

The next lesson for McGee? How to guard the combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Wednesday night against Memphis Grizzlies.

Howard’s Season Over Due To A Torn ACL

Almost a week  after making his debut as a Washington Wizard, Josh Howard will now be reduced to the role of spectator.

Team President Ernie Grunfeld announced today that Josh Howard would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.  No timetable was announced for his return.

The injury occurred with 4:23 left in the first quarter, when Howard caught an outlet pass and attempted to make a move to the basket.  He collided with Chicago Bulls guard Ronald “Flip” Murray, and his left knee buckled.  He was helped off the court, and at the time it was diagnosed as simply a sprain.

Howard, along with James Singleton and Quinton Ross, were part of the big trade that sent former Wizards,  Brendan Haywood, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson to the Dallas Mavericks on February 13th.  After coming off the bench in his first game as a Wizard, Howard started at shooting guard during the last three games and averaged 14.5 points and 3.3 rebounds.  He has an $11.8 million team option in his contract, but this injury, as well as the Wizards desire to stay financially flexible, could mean that Howard has played his last minutes as a Washington Wizard.

Newly acquired Al Thornton, started the second half of the game against the Bulls, but there’s been no official word as to who will take his place tomorrow night against the Grizzlies.

Stay tuned to Hoops Addict for more info.

A Man In Transition

It used to be easy for Nick Young to hide.

If he was having a bad game on the court, it was no big deal because Caron Butler, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and even Brendan Haywood were there to pick up the slack.  After the game, if he wanted to dip out of the locker room early, it was no big deal because in his mind, the important players (Butler, Arenas, Jamison and Haywood) were still around to face the media.  And, if you did catch happen to catch Young in the locker room, he could be seen joking around with his best friend on the team, Dominic McGuire. Young would try to answer a question,  then McGuire would say something to make him laugh, and then they’d play off each other.

But a suspension and Ernie Grunfeld’s attempt to get the Washington Wizards under the salary cap directly affected Young’s comfort zone.  Arenas was suspended back in January,  then, last week, Butler and Haywood were sent to Dallas,  Jamison was sent to the Cavaliers, and McGuire was sent to Sacramento.

Just like that, Young went from being comfortable with his role in the Wizards hierarchy to being placed in an unfamiliar situation.  With all the new faces now on the team, he would now be held more accountable for his play on the floor.  Instead of just putting on his clothes and leaving the locker room in a rush, he would now be the person the media went to for a quote.  And he could no longer joke around with McGuire before, after and during interviews.

Friday night, when the Washington Wizards took on the Denver Nuggets, it represented the first game Young played without his “crutches”, and, on the surface, his performance was nothing special.  He wasn’t in the starting lineup, and in the 22 minutes he did play, he scored just scored 12 points.  But a closer examination of his play on and off the court revealed a slight change in the third year player.

Young was diving on the floor for loose balls, he stayed confident even when he missed a shot here and there, and he played tight, fourth quarter defense on Denver guard Chauncey Billups.  With 1:47 left in the fourth quarter, after Billups had just cut the Wizards’ lead to five with a long jumper, he came back down the court and aggressively tried to drive to the basket.  Young stepped in front of Billups, took the charge, then pumped his fist as his teammates cheered.  That play alone robbed the Nuggets of any momentum, and they did not score the rest of the game.  The Wizards won 107-97.

“That was a big (confidence) booster for me,” Young would say after the game. “He’s a smart player, and, you know, he’s a veteran.”

Even Wizards head coach Flip Saunders noticed something different in Young.

“When’s the last time you saw Nick Young diving on the floor for loose balls and stuff?” Saunders asked the media after the game.

When the final buzzer sounded, Young did not just jog back into the locker room, like he had in so many other games.  As Caron Butler would occasionally do after victories, Young took a few minutes to thank and high five some of the fans who were sitting at courtside.

“That was just spontaneous, man. I was just pumped up that we had played so well and beat a great team, and the fans were right there, so I just slapped a few fives,” the smiling Young told Hoops Addict after the game.

The “new” Nick Young was even more apparent once the media came in the locker room.  Nearly every camera and microphone in that Wizards locker room were directly in Young’s face.

Still, he answered every question that came his way, and he even addressed the new attitude in the Wizards locker room.

“Great group of guys, big time players, big time energy players, and when you see guys out there playing hard, you can’t do nothing but join them, ” Young observed.   “So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

After the initial wave of reporters were gone, I asked Young if he spoke to his best friend Dominic McGuire before he was traded. Not only had Young talked to him, but he had some pointed advice for his friend as well.

“Oh, hell yeah, I talked to him. I just told him that he has a new start, he gets to go back home to California, and he has to go out there and play hard,” Young told me.  “Plus, he has family support out there, so he’ll be just fine.”

Right before I left Young’s locker I brought up the charge he took on Billups.

“Yeah, like I said before, that play was for Dominic.  He played hard every night, he got on the floor, he took charges and all of that, you know?” Young said with a rare serious look on his face.  “So, now that he’s gone, I can’t just be known as a shooter, I have to pick up the slack for Dominic and be that hustle player, too.”

As with all transitions, I’m sure there will be times when Young reverts to his old behavior and ways, but on this night, it certainly seemed like he was on the right track.

Hoops Addict Podcast

In this eighth edition of the Hoops Addict Podcast, Rashad and Ryan:

  • Analyze the numerous trades in the NBA last week
  • Rashad talks about his experiences covering last week’s All-Star festivities in Dallas
  • They announce the winner of the Flip Cam contest

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

A Busy Night At The Verizon Center

I knew it was going to be an odd night, when I walked into the media room and saw former Washington Times beat writer, now current Comcast SportsNet writer, Mike Jones.  The Washington Times discontinued their sports section back in January, and I had not seen Jones since then.  I talked about my All-Star experience in Dallas, he talked about how happy he was to be back in the media room, and then we both joked that it seemed to be a slow night in the wonderful world of the Washington Wizards.

Despite our sarcasm, I don’t think either one of us expected things to pick up as briskly as they did.

About 30 minutes after our meeting in the media room, me, Mike and the other Wizards bloggers and beat writers, descended upon center court for Flip Saunders’ pregame press conference.   But right before he was scheduled to start speaking, a member of the Wizards PR staff temporarily whisked Saunders away for about five minutes.

Immediately everyone  suspected that yet another trade involving the Washington Wizards had gone down, but nothing was confirmed and nothing could be proven.

Then, Saunders came back and was asked who would be in his starting lineup.

“Don’t know yet.  More than likely we’ll probably start our young veteran guys that we’ve had.  We’ll put Nick [Young] into the lineup to take Caron’s[Butler] spot and Dray [Blatche] will take the center spot (in place of Haywood),” Saunders said calmly.

When asked if Antawn would be starting, Saunders responded quickly and ominously, “Right now, yes.”

At the conclusion of Saunders’ press conference, I left the court, and made a beeline back to the media room, so that I could enjoy one of their fine pre-game meals.  Yet again, signs that something big was going to happen were all around me.  Instead of the usual group of bloggers and writers, I saw the local television stations from the three major networks, I saw Michael Wilbon, and there were an increased amount of cameras around.  Everyone was glued to their computers and their phones trying to hear what the latest was on Wizards forward Antawn Jamison being traded, and although there rumors on Twitter, Yahoo, and other sites, there was still nothing official.

The first sign that something was definitely about to happen, was when the Wizards finally ran out on the court.  Blatche was there, Young and McGee were there, and newly acquired players Josh Howard, Quinton Ross and James Singleton could also be seen making their way on the court.  But Jamison was nowhere to be found.

I then ran into Kyle (founder of Truth About It) and Chris Miller (from CSN Washington), and they both said that Jamison had been traded, but nothing was official.  I immediately went up to my laptop, and after several erroneous reports, I finally found out the correct details of the trade:

  • The Wizards were to receive Al Thornton from the Los Angeles Clippers, Zydrunas Ilgauskas from the Cleveland Cavaliers, draft rights to Emir Preldzic of Slovenia also from the Cavs and a 2010 first round draft pick.
  • The Cleveland Cavaliers were to get Antawn Jamison from the Wizards and Sebastian Telfair from the Clippers.
  • The Clippers were to receive Drew Gooden.

Not long after this trade was unofficially announced (it has since been made official) Jamison’s name was replaced on the giant scoreboard with JaVale McGee’s and a slight buzz went through the relatively empty crowd.  But the trade was so new, that Jamison’s face and image were not removed from the pre-game video.

Even when the game started, and the new-look Wizards finally took to the court, most of the writers/bloggers were still in the media room getting final details on the trade.  Fans were not really paying attention to the game either, and the entire Verizon Center had a weird vibe to it.  As Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post so eloquently tweeted, “of the four players featured on the 6th St. Verizon Center banner in 2010 (Arenas, Butler, Jamison and Haywood), three are gone and one has been suspended for the year.”

And then, something peculiar started to happen.

Blatche channeled his inner Jamison and scored 33 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. McGee shook off what had been a severely disappointing season, and scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a starting role.  And Mike Miller continued the hot shooting he started prior to the All-Star break and scored 17 points (nine in the fourth quarter, all from three point land). The newly acquired Howard chimed in with 14 points and aggressive defense.  When the clock read 0.0, the Wizards had 108 points and the Minnesota Timberwolves had 99.

The crowd, who acted as if they’d witnessed a funeral in the first quarter, gradually warmed up throughout the game, and by the end, they were on their feet and cheering as if Arenas, Jamison, Butler and Haywood had walked back through that door.

After the game, everyone seemed to be energized by the transformation.

“I’m just happy that I get a chance to make the most of this opportunity and prove that I should be starting,” the low-key McGee said after the game in front of his locker.

“I can’t remember the last time I played 36 minutes and took 22 shots, ” an enthusiastic Blatche said while getting dressed.

“Our younger guys are standing up.  Nick and those guys are different right now,” Coach Saunders said during his post game press conference.   “Whether they are finally realizing that this is a business, or that if you don’t perform at a certain level things can happen no matter who you are and that you have obligations to live up to, those guys have had a different sense of urgency as far as on the court.  They know there’s not a comfort level.”

I can readily admit I was worried about the post game locker room atmosphere prior to getting those quotes.  Jamison, Haywood and to a lesser extent Butler were absolute quote machines.  They took the time to give thoughtful responses to questions, the peppered in a little humor every now and then, and they rarely let their emotions interfere with the post game reactions.

Younger players like Blatche, Young and McGee rarely spoke, and Saunders said, “they used the older players as crutch.”

But on this odd day, everyone contributed, everyone spoke, and it seemed to all fit.  I’m not naive enough to believe that everyday will have this Utopian feel to it, but I’m also not cynical enough to simply dismiss it.   A win is a win. But a win after losing your best players is an even bigger win.

Before I left the locker room, I ran into Josh Howard who was laughing at the crowd around the newly acquired James Singleton.  Howard was laughing with the Wizards PR staff about how Singleton had never had that many cameras and writers around him before.

“Please don’t let this go to his head,” Howard said while laughing hysterically.

I chuckled to myself as I left the locker room, hoping that Howard, his teammates, the writers and even the fans would take heed.

When The Rens Met The Globetrotters

In December 2009, when I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles, he and his producing partner, Deborah Morales, mentioned a documentary they were working on entitled On the Shoulders of Giants. In 2007, Kareem authored a book of the same title, which focused on the impact of the Harlem Renaissance.  Branching from the book, the movie will spotlight the Harlem Rens (short for Renaissance), an all black men’s basketball team that was long on talent, but short on respect and notoriety.

Morales informed me that because I had agreed to do the interview with Kareem, she would allow Hoops Addict to run a banner for the movie and provide readers with an opportunity to ask Kareem questions.  It did not take long for me to agree to the deal.

As it turned out,  I got something even better than a banner:  A trailer for the movie.  I was going to do a brief write up for the movie and put the trailer on the Hoops Addict site, when Morales asked me to hold off a bit.  There was a chapter from the book she wanted me to read. It detailed the events leading up to the time when the Harlem Rens played the Harlem Globetrotters for the first World Championship of professional basketball.

What I read blew me away.

On one side there was the Harlem Globetrotters.  They were an all-black team owned by a white man named Abe Saperstein, who was frustrated by the lack of notoriety his team was getting.  The Globetrotters played 160 games a year in countries like Mexico, France, and England wanting them to play as well.  They were turning a profit despite the Great Depression, and they had the perfect mix of old and new players on their team.

Unfortunately there was a sizable thorn in their side that prevented them from being the Kings on the block—the Harlem Rens, and according to Coach John Wooden, “the greatest team he had ever seen play team basketball.”

Where the Globetrotters would overwhelm their opponents with dazzling play and slapstick antics, the all-black Rens team simply focused on hard-nosed play as their calling card.  Their style was also much more appealing to the African-American community and press during the 1930’s, which further distanced them from the Globetrotters.  They were owned by Bob Douglas, but his road manager, Eric Illidge, was equally vocal.

Saperstein finally got tired of feeling slighted by the Rens, and he challenged Douglas and Illidge to a winner-take-all game. He took out an ad in The Pittsburgh Courier—a pro-Rens paper with strong African-American support—so he was absolutely sure his challenge would be heard.

Illidge quickly responded to the Globetrotters’ challenge, and he called them “Court Clowns,” saying his team would be more than happy to play them.  Furthermore, Illidge said that the Rens would play any time, any place – for no money just to prove a point. The gauntlet was thrown down, and after posturing on both sides the teams would finally meet for the first time in the upcoming World Professional Tournament to be held in Chicago, Illinois in March 1939.

The World Professional tournament featured twelve teams.  Ten of them were white, and the Rens and the Globetrotters rounded out the field.  The mainstream white media refused to even acknowledge the presence of the black teams in their coverage.

To make matters worse, the Rens and the Globetrotters were placed in the same bracket, so that they’d meet in the semifinals at best.  This guaranteed the presence of at least one white team in the finals.

The games held true to form. The Rens and the Globetrotters met in the finals. I could tell you who won and what the score of the game was, but that wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?

During this black history month, take the time to pick up Kareem’s book On the Shoulders of Giants:  My Journey through the Harlem Renaissance and learn more about this game, the Rens and the effect the Harlem Renaissance had on Kareem.

For a sneak peek of the movie based on the book, slated to come out early next year, click here.

Also, if you have questions you’d like to ask Kareem about this story, this book, or the upcoming movie, please email me via rashad@hoopsaddict.com.

Photo courtesy of  Amy Stine Photography and Design.