Gash Almighty

Early in the spring of 1982, when he was a skinny freshman at North Carolina – before he had enough fans to start his own religion – Michael Jordan was largely unknown outside the state. So when Dallas evangelist Bill Glass was planning a Carolina stop for his prison ministry tour that summer, Jordan was not the guy Glass had in mind when he called Dean Smith looking to line up a basketball player to beef up the act. Jimmy Black. Sam Perkins. That was the kind of name Glass, a former NFL lineman, wanted.  Not available, Smith told him. Previous engagements. Glass couldn’t even get Matt Doherty.

When Smith offered up this unknown freshman, Glass was gracious but dubious. Jordan was certainly better than nothing. But part of the idea behind the Weekend of Champions ministry was to have a big-name athlete take part in the witnessing programs. Aside from their rap sheets, what was to separate Michael Jordan from these men? Without the fame, how would they identify upward?

Then Jordan hit a certain championship-winning shot and when that summer’s ministry rolled through Raleigh Correctional Center, the inmates warmly welcomed him to the yard. And Jordan, decked out in his fresh Team USA warmup, got enthusiastic props for thoroughly schooling a cell-block all-star. Glass was relieved. Those who didn’t receive salvation would at least have something to write home about.

But the Weekend of Champions was about much more than behind-bars basketball. In the past, the tour had featured inspirational athletes like catcher Jim Sundberg and pitched Frank Tanana, as well as men of faith from professional coaching and the world of pro wrestling. This time, before Glass hit ‘em with the Good Word, a martial arts expert from Tennessee named Mike Crain was invited to ratchet up the yard’s emotion. Jordan stuck around to see the show. And when it came time for Crain to do his crowd-pleasing  samurai sword show, he asked for a volunteer.

History gets a little murky after that. Glass remembers that Michael willingly climbed on stage. Crain remembers it differently. See, the sword trick calls for Chain to chop a full-grown watermelon in half while it rests on the volunteer’s stomach. Most everyone who winds up as the fruit platter declines to do so at first, especially after watching Crain, a fully Southerner decked out in an all-white martial arts suit accented with his black belt, slice the air with cold steel for a few minutes.

But Jordan was more skittish than most – and emphatically said “No.” Crain wasn’t fazed. He worked the thrill-hungry crowd of inmates to his advantage, and when he began hinting to Jordan that he wasn’t quite man enough to handle the job of human cutting board, the 19-year-old responded to the challenge the way you’d expect. He climbed the wood platform and laid himself back on the weight-training bench that had been used in an earlier act. And Crain placed the melon on Mike’s belly.

As Crain produced another black sash and began blindfolding himself, a panicky Jordan started to get up. Crain held him down lightly between the produce and the bench. The folks in the yard inched closer to the stage. Crain told Jordan to shield his eyes so that stray rind and see wouldn’t blind him, but MJ’s eyes were already shut tight enough to secure a home.

Crain drew back his sword – and slashed into the juicy green melon. But his blade traveled too far south, and the rail-thin Jordan’s protruding right hip slowed the blow. The watermelon was torn, not severed. The crowd was not hypnotized and drew even closer to the laid-out Jordan.

Down came the blade a second time, and now shards of watermelon went flying into the sky and across the stage. Crain knew from his audience’s reaction that he’d succeeded in dividing the fruit, but he had the queasy feeling that he might have gone too far. This whack was in the right place, but Crain had misjudged the amount of give in Michael’s lean belly. After pulling off his blindfold, he checked to make sure his volunteer was okay. When he and Glass wiped away the juice, Michael spotted a tear in the fabric.

Dude was irate.

“Look watcha did!” he screamed at Crain. The warmus were MJ’s reward from his first international tournament. But the guy who had driven Jordan to the prison was concerned about more than the jersey. He suggest Michael check to see whether he had been wounded by the blade. Still heated about the shirt, Michael wouldn’t look until they were back in the car and the driver insisted. Then they both looked down and spotted a gash near Jordan’s navel. Since he hadn’t felt the wound, Michael was hardly concerned, even after the doctors at a nearby emergency room needed three stitches to close him up. He did harbor a small grudge – but not about the injury. That would heal in days. Warmup gear like this, though, was one of a kind.

After the Jordan snafu, Glass took Crain out of the evangelical rotation. Crain estimates that he’s performed the watermelon trick 1,750 times and has cut 16 people. “That’s not a lot,” Crain jokes. “He’s missed over 70 game-winning shots. Only mine are more costly.”

Michael didn’t speak much about the incident after he returned to his UNC dormitory. His dorm mates thought him such an unlikely candidate to have volunteered for something like this he had to show them the stitches to convince them the story wasn’t a prank. Everyone marveled over this uncharacteristically bizarre thing he’d done. And legend has it that Jordan turned deeply spiritual when he came to realize how close he might have come to becoming prime footage on a Faces of Death video.

So the next time you moan about our obsession with Jordan and the Bulls, remember this: Once upon a time, Michael Jordan was only a rotten rind away from being half the player he is now.

The was an excerpt from EPSN The Magazine’s special edition Michael Jordan Hall Of Fame Collectors Issue. I was lucky enough to be sent an advance copy from an ESPN rep and I’ll have a review up on Hoops Addict in the next few weeks. If you’re  Jordan fan this is a must read. Between stories of samurai’s trying to slice up Jordan, a first hand account from Phil Jackson and epic stories of legendary closed door Dream team scrimmages, there are a ton of exclusive quotes, stories and photos that will have you unable to put this down until you’ve read it cover to cover.

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In The Scrum With Randy Foye

Fresh off his introductory press conference with the Washington Wizards, guard Randy Foye talked to members of the media about his true position, his initial reaction to being traded, his thoughts on Kevin McHale’s influence on his game, and his memorable duel with Dwyane Wade last season.

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Book Review: “Top Of The World”

<br />Despite covering the NBA in-depth with media credentials last season there are still countless aspects of the season I haven’t full grasped. Call it a case of going through my rookie season and some things being a blur, but even after being full submerged in the NBA by talking with countless coaches and players, there are still some stories I still don’t full appreciate or comprehend.

Unfortunately, watching the Boston Celtics magical march from the worst record in the NBA to being crowned NBA Champions is one such story line.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of how special this feat was, it’s just that there are so many bylines that as a journalist based out of Toronto I wasn’t able to fully grasp all of the roster moves, hard work and luck that went into assembling last years NBA Champions.

After reading Peter May’s book “Top of the World” I now have a greater appreciation for all that went into the Celtics Championship season last year.

The book started with a chapter called “Ping-Pong History” with anecdotes about the lucky suit Wyc Grousbeck wore to the NBA Draft Lottery, how close Boston was to dealing Paul Pierce in 2007 for the draft pick which would turn into Chris Paul, how Danny Ainge was one of the few people in the Celtics organization set on building a team around Greg Oden or Kevin Durant, insight into what went through Paul Pierce’s mind when he found out Boston had secured the fifth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and a look at how close Pierce came to being dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The book then shifted into accounts of two pivotal deals Danny Ainge did make: the acquisition of future Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett through some shrewd deals.

I’ll admit that while watching the 2007 NBA Draft at a pub in Toronto I was chuckling that the Raptors divisional rival had dealt for an aging jump shooter coming off surgery on both of his ankles. Little did I know the Allen deal was only a precursor to a much larger deal which would see Garnett dealt to Boston. The Celtics had a deal in place before the draft for Garnett, but the forward rebuked the deal because he didn’t want to turn his back on the state of Minnesota or join another team that lingered near the bottom of the standings.

Cue the Allen deal which helped Garnett and Pierce realize the Celtics were serious about turning things around in Boston.

Until the Allen deal was finalized, neither Pierce nor Garnett felt the Celtics were serious about contending for an NBA Championship. But with Allen in the mix alongside Pierce, it provided Garnett with peace of mind to see that going to Boston wouldn’t result in another season hovering in the bottom third of the standings.

What’s amazing is how close the Allen deal came to stalling. Seattle was holding firm on a package involving Rajon Rondo and it was only at the last moment they relented and agreed to the Celtics package. If this hadn’t gone through I doubt we would have seen Garnett in Boston last season. Instead, Celtics fans would have seen Shawn Marion, Pau Gasol or Jason Kidd. While all three of those players are talented and would have formed a nice trio alongside Pierce and Al Jefferson, I don’t think it would have resulted in a championship for Boston.

While it’s easy to look back at all the move Danny Ainge made and shrug your shoulders and easily dismiss what happened as just another championship, the fact that he was able to turn a team with the worst record in the NBA to it’s champions is utterly remarkable. Reading this book provided me with an opportunity to learn about how some deals almost fell through, why Ainge elected to sign certain players to the roster and how assistant coach Tom Thibodeau almost wasn’t hired because Larry Brown wanted the gig. All of these twists and turns added to my amazement that their championship season unfolded like it did.

Because of this, reading this book was like sitting down to an all-you-can-eat buffet and stuffing myself full of stories, anecdotes and insight into one of the more memorable seasons in the history of the NBA; my only complaint is that it was that my feast only last 235 pages.

Book Review: “Open Your Heart With Basketball”

When I received a copy of “Open Your Heart With Basketball” in the mail to review I shuddered when I saw a basketball with a heart around it on the cover. Who wants to read a book about basketball with a huge heart on the cover? Not this kid. My immediate reaction was dismay that I’d have to read through 100 pages of fluff because I figured that if I wanted a sappy recount of someone’s experience with basketball I could just sit in front of my television for a couple hours and watch “Love & Basketball” instead.

However, once I opened up the book and actually began to read through it I was quickly won over because of the passion Christopher Bibey has for the game despite all of the adversity he has faced in his playing career.

The biggest road block that Bibey faced during his playing career was being diagnosed with cancer during his freshman year of college. Most young men will throw up their hands in frustration and quit when life throws them an obstacle like this but instead Bibey used the life skills that basketball had been teaching him to beat cancer and he used this tough situation to build persistence, determination and devotion in his life. Bibey did a great job of informing readers about the countless road blocks that coaches and life threw at him during his playing career and how instead of getting bitter or quitting he used these events to toughen his resolve and make him a stronger player and a better person.

Throughout this book Bibey did a great job of showing how attributes like persistence, determination and devotion that are learned on the hardwood can transfer to other areas of your life like dealing with getting dumped by the hot girl you’ve been dating, not getting the promotion you want at work or any of the countless hurdles that life can throw your way.

Another reason why I was fan of this book was because Bibey did a great job of addressing the mental aspect of basketball. When I was at university one of my favourite course was Sport Psychology so I was stoked to see that Bibey addressed this topic in a chapter called “Mind and Body.” Far too often fans think that the best athletes make the NBA but they fail to realize that the mental aspect of the game is just as important. In this chapter Bibey did a great job of breaking down some ways that he overcame a lack of physical ability to have a success playing career because of his mental preparation prior to games, he explains the important role visualization had in his training and preparation for games and he did a great job of explaining to readers the struggles he faced getting his body to reawaken following his cancer treatments. I could relate to him being a player that overcame physical limitations so he became symbolic to me of a “basketball underdog” and as I read through his book I couldn’t help but root for him.

Something else I enjoyed while reading reading this book were the quotes from college coaches about what they look for in recruits and their perspective on how the game of basketball has changed their lives. Arizona Wildcats head coach Lute Olson provided the forward for the book and throughout the book there quotes from other college coaches like Bill Lilly from West Virginia Wesleyan, Ron Slaymaker from Emporia State University, Scott Lang from La Roche college and Paul Hogan from New Hampshire Tech. Bibey was able to collect some great insight into how basketball has changed these coaches lives, what they enjoy most about basketball and how they motivate their players.

Besides being a heart warming story because he was able to beat cancer and play NCAA basketball following his fight with cancer, this story is a must read for any teen that loves the game of basketball because it shows that road blocks can be a hidden blessing because they can help you grow as a player and a person if you approach adversity with the right perspective.

Hoops Addict Podcast: Bill Woten Interview

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of reading Bill Woten’s book “Game 7: Inside The NBA’s Ultimate Showdown” and after exchanging some emails with Bill last week he agreed to come onto the Hoops Addict Podcast to discuss his book.

Some of the topics we cover during this interview include:

  • What motivated him to write about all of the Game 7′s that have occurred in the history of the NBA?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
  • What has been the most rewarding part of writing this book?
  • What were some of the struggles that you faced while trying to get this book published?
  • There were two quotes by Rick Fox on Kobe Bryant that explained how Bryant rubbed some teammates the wrong way early in his career and I had Bill talk about these quotes and why he chose to include them in his book.
  • In a chapter called “Duel At The Garden” he talked about Dominique Wilkins being one of the greatest players of his era yet not getting all the credit he deserved because he never won a championship so I asked Bill if he thought that Vince Carter is this generation’s version of Wilkins.
  • As of the 2006 season 96 playoff series were decided by a game seven. So far in the NBA playoffs only the Utah-Houston opening round series has gone seven games so I had Bill talk about if he were to include this series in the next release of your book what he would write about.

Click here to listen to this Hoops Addict Podcast.