Flip Saunders' absence to treat cancer hurts Minnesota deeply, but the team has the talent to continue its rise out West
POSTED: Sep 14, 2015 8:17 PM ET
As coach Flip Saunders mends, the Timberwolves have an abundance of young talent to build around.
First, many thanks to Sham Sports founder Mark Deeks, Fan Tipper Radu Muntean, ex-NBA All-Star Baron Davis and political guru David Axelrod for four terrific reads as Guest Morning Tippers while I was on vacation. Every year, it's heartening to see how many people from so many different walks of life around the world all fall in love with basketball, and how the game sticks with so many of us over a lifetime.
And that passion begins to manifest itself again in September. That's when players begin trickling back into their towns with teammates and the offseason runs get more serious, and the countdown begins to the start of training camps. There are so many storylines that will command our attention this coming season, from the defending champion Golden State Warriors to the San Antonio Spurs' latest version of the Last Dance, from the Cleveland Cavaliers' next attempt at slaying that city's championship draught to the rebooted Los Angeles Clippers and the unbooted (hopefully) Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City.
But first, I owe Flip Saunders a drink.
In early August, I was in one of Saunders' two offices at the Minnestoa Timberwolves' new practice facility and team headquarters at the Mayo Clinic Square, across the street from Target Center. The Wolves' coach and president of basketball operations had finished giving the grand tour of the $29 million facility, a converted multiplex theater that included a $1 million hydrotherapy pool, a new weight room, a locker room built in the round to help develop team chemistry and courts both for the Wolves and the WNBA's Lynx.
They'd kept one of the movie theaters intact, leaving a 105-seater for team and family movie nights -- and, maybe, for going over game tapes.
"Only if we play good," Saunders said.
Most importantly, the team had gotten the all-in commitment from Mayo, perhaps the world's best-known hospital facility, as a partner with the team. Corporate sponsorship is important to every franchise in every sport, but the Wolves had seen what the Cleveland Clinic's alignment with the Cavaliers produced -- a beautiful practice facility 10 minutes from downtown Cleveland. And, now, in downtown Minneapolis, the Wolves had a similar deal with Mayo. Before, players who needed x-rays or MRIs after practice would have to be driven half an hour to see a doctor. Now, they can walk off the practice floor and go down the hall to see some of the top physicians in the world.
Things were finally, at long last, looking up for the Wolves, after so many contentious and losing seasons.
With Andrew Wiggins just starting to stretch, Zach LaVine coming off of winning the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend, Kevin Garnett agreeing to come back to finish his Hall of Fame career where it started, and Minnesota defying the odds to win the Lottery and take Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns with the first pick in last June's Draft, the Wolves were preparing to take a much-needed leap forward this season.
Trading Kevin Love to Cleveland had turned out to be much more beneficial much quicker for Minnesota than most believed possible, with Wiggins exploding the second half of his rookie season to run away with Kia Rookie of the Year honors. It takes some teams a decade to replace one franchise player with another -- if they do it at all. It took the Wolves one phone call to replace Love's frustration at never having made the playoffs with Wiggins' seemingly unlimited potential.
"The culture change didn't help a year ago with Love saying he wanted to leave," Saunders said last month. "But the one thing about Minnesota people [is] when you say, if you want to leave ... they'll throw you out with the bath water. Basically, what they're saying is, if you want to do that, we'll move on. Because they're very loyal people. So Wiggins, that whole influx of people became, it's moving in the right direction. These guys have a chance to be something special."
Mini Movie: Towns' Draft Night
Take the ride with Karl-Anthony Towns on draft night and see what it's like for the No. 1 pick and what are his first impressions of the Timberwolves?
Before I left, Saunders said he wanted to give me something. He came back with a T-Wolves hat and T-shirt, and a coin. The coin was a play on the challenge coins that are popular among many in the military. This one had the Wolves' logo on the front side, with NEW AGE and MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES encircling the logo, and KEYS TO SUCCESS on the other side, circling the words COMPETE TEAMWORK CONFIDENCE CONDITIONING EXECUTION.
"You have to keep this coin with you," Saunders said. "And when I come to Washington, I'm going to ask you if you have it. And if you don't have it, you have to buy me a drink."
I will happily comply the next time I see him.
Last week, the Wolves disclosed that Saunders was hospitalized and would miss the start of the regular season after complications arose from his chemo treatments for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Former Wolves coach Sam Mitchell, now the team's top assistant coach, was named interim coach in Saunders' absence. General manager Milt Newton will assume more of the team's off-court decision-making role.
Minnesota is still a rebuilding team in what is perhaps pro sports' worst conference in which to be bad -- the NBA's Western. It is still a young team in a sport that frequently devours its young. But the Wolves had some honest to goodness hope going into this season that they could take a big leap, maybe compete for a playoff spot. But they now have to deal with Saunders' absence and hope for his eventual return.
"You keep praying," Towns said Friday night in Springfield, at the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. "Coach is doing a great job of getting better right now. It's just one of those things. Whenever a soldier of yours goes down, you've got to pick it up. We have a great coaching staff, and I know Flip's going to do well, and we'll see him on the sidelines again."
Coach is doing a great job of getting better right now. It's just one of those things. Whenever a soldier of yours goes down, you've got to pick it up. We have a great coaching staff, and I know Flip's going to do well, and we'll see him on the sidelines again.
– Karl-Anthony Towns, on Flip Saunders
It was a punch to the gut for a franchise that had had one of its most sustained stretches of happiness over the last few months, culminating with the Wolves rising from the fourth-best Lottery odds to take Towns No. 1 overall, a potential terror on defense with an expanding offensive repertoire who should be a natural complement to Wiggins and Garnett.
"Wiggins started the momentum," Saunders had said last month. "I said last year, you never would have thought we were a 16-win team, with the amount of positivity and enthusiasm that was generated. Part of that was because we had a lot of rookies playing, a lot of young guys getting time, and they were also showing they had a chance to be pretty good."
Little will likely change on the surface with Mitchell in charge.
Many around the league believed Wolves owner Glen Taylor always wanted to bring back Mitchell, one of the franchise's most beloved players and a former NBA Coach of the Year with Toronto, to coach Minnesota. The circumstances are awful, of course. But Mitchell has 345 games as a coach under his belt, and he spent all of last season working with and on Wiggins.
"The good thing is that I've played in the system, I've used it in Toronto, so I'm very familiar with it," Mitchell told reporters in Minneapolis Friday as he was introduced. "I ran a lot of the things I learned from Flip. Obviously, I have my own little ways of doing things, but that's to be expected and Flip would tell me that. When I took over for him the one game in Toronto [last season], he called me up before the game and said, 'Coach the team.'"
(It will be interesting to see how patient Mitchell is with point guard Ricky Rubio. The Wolves want Rubio to relax at long last, to understand he's no longer thought of as the franchise's savior -- or not even one of the team's top three talents.
But it wasn't Mitchell who gave Rubio a $56 million extension last year -- it was Saunders, wearing his Prez O'Basketball Ops hat.)
You never would have thought we were a 16-win team, with the amount of positivity and enthusiasm that was generated.
– Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders
The book on Wiggins going into last year's Draft was that while he was wildly talented and coachable ("He's 'yes, sir,' 'no, sir,'" Saunders had said), he needed to be pushed. Mitchell majored in pushing during his 13 years as a player, and he spent a lot of last year's training camp with Wiggins. There were ups and downs, but by the second half of the season, Wiggins came on strong.
After three dreadful games just before Christmas, when he totaled 19 points in 92 minutes, Wiggins started figuring it out, scoring 20 or more points in 10 of the next 13 games.
As the Wolves had done with Garnett, they put Wiggins in the paint early, to learn how to score and learn the advantages he'd have over most guys trying to guard him.
"We did the same with Wiggins, to try and get him to be aggressive," Saunders said. "And I looked at him, and you look back and say what impressed you? I'd say, the second half of the season, him and [James] Harden were 1-2 in free-throw attempts. He was aggressive, going to the basket, take hits, get fouled. He started dunking over people."
Top 10 Plays: Timberwolves in 2014-15
Relive the top plays from the Minnesota Timberwolves 2014-15 season!
There were monster games against quality teams: 30 points and 31 points in against Houston, 25 against Memphis, 19 against the Thunder -- when Wiggins got to the foul line 12 times. The team collapsed down the stretch, losing its last 12 games, and the Wolves, of course, were accused of tanking. Yet Wiggins averaged 41.3 minutes per game during the season-ending streak, playing 41, 42, 44, 44 and 38 minutes in the last five games. It was a funny way to try and lose games on purpose; was Minnesota supposed to burn out the 39-year-old KG to prove it was on the level?
Garnett's sundial maxes out at around 23 minutes now, the Wolves figure, and they're going to be judicious with even those minutes next season. It's one of the reasons they brought longtime Pistons physical therapist Arnie Kander out of retirement for next season.
The Wolves wanted to pair their young guys -- Wiggins, LaVine, Rubio and Towns -- with old heads. So they signed Andre Miller to help Rubio (the hope is that the 40-year-old Miller, who, like Rubio, isn't a great shooter and plays on the floor, will help Rubio make the easy pass consistently) and Tayshaun Prince to mentor Wiggins, and gave Garnett a two-year deal to help show Towns the ropes.
Towns showed what the fuss was all about in Vegas at Summer League. He got double-teamed in Minnesota's first game, and by the second game he was finding the open man out of the double effortlessly. The feel for the game was clear. With Towns in town, Nikola Pekovic will return to what he probably should have been all along -- a backup center who will be much more effective playing fewer minutes.
Karl-Anthony Towns' Highlights
Highlights of Karl-Anthony Towns' Summer League debut.
The Wolves also will find time for Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica, who came over from Fenerbahce in Turkey five years after Minnesota took him in the 2010 Draft. They don't blanche at comparisons between the 6-foot-10 Bjelica and Chicago's Nikola Mirotic when it comes to potential NBA impact in his rookie season.
With Bjelica in tow, the odd man out at present appears to be forward Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 Draft who also came to Minnesota in the Love trade. There's not a huge trade market for Bennett, but he's gotten himself into much better shape working with trainer Drew Hanlen, and he was a leader for Canada both in the Pan American Games and in the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament. (The rumor mill will always link the Raptors to the Toronto-born Bennett, as it does with every Canadian-born player.)
But those personnel questions, obviously, take a back seat. Few people are as completely involved in their franchise's every move as Saunders has been. He worked on sponsorships, kibbitzed with the sales staff, came up with the idea of rooms that overlook the practice courts for corporate bigwigs (he saw a similar setup at the University of Michigan). He worked on the team's game night production and a dozen other areas. His fingerprints are all over the franchise.
But it's now Mitchell's time, and team, for the foreseeable future. The coin, and the drink, will be there for Saunders when he comes back.
Could the Draft expand to more than two rounds?
At least a few NBA general managers believe that that is possible in the next few years, as the NBA Development League continues what looks like an inexorable march toward becoming a true minor league, with one NBA D-League team solely affiliated with one NBA team.
The Pacers' purchase of the D-League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants last week increased the number of D-League teams that either own their teams or have so-called "hybrid" affiliations (where the NBA runs the basketball side, while local ownership runs the business/community relations side) to 19. Only 11 NBA teams are currently unaffiliated with a D-League team, and most of them are somewhere down the line for adding one.
And once every NBA team has its own D-League team, the assumption is there will be a need for more players to fill out those rosters -- and the need to expand the Draft by at least a round, maybe two.
"If everybody's going to have a D-League team, that's eight more positions that everybody's going to get," one longtime GM said over the weekend. "Maybe you go to five (rounds) the first year to allow everybody to stock the teams, and then the next year, you go down to four."
A bigger Draft would need the approval of the National Basketball Players' Association, which agreed to reduce the Draft from seven rounds to three in 1988 and to two the following year. The idea was to give more players the freedom to decide where they wanted to try and play as free agents instead of being locked into a team with long-shot hopes of making the roster. (Mavs owner Mark Cuban said last year he supported a bigger Draft so teams could take more players from overseas and have more players to try and develop that were theirs.)
Another general manager proposed that players taken after the second round of an expanded Draft have so-called "two-way" contracts, similar to those used for some players in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. Such contracts pay salaries based on whether the player is in the major leagues or the minors.
But there's nothing imminent, and nothing will happen until there is an actual 30-team D-League with one-to-one team affiliation.
The D-League's evolution over the last decade has been profound. It is far from the repository for rehabbing players and no-hopers it was in its first few years. Development is indeed at the league's core now, with teams like Boston, Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City and San Antonio fully committed to collaboration with their affiliates. At the end of last season, 38 percent of players on NBA rosters had D-League experience. The need to make your own players better has never been more valued, and controlling the means to do so more important.
All-Access: D-League Showcase 2015
A behind the scenes look at the 2015 D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz, CA, capped off by the Bakersfield Jam winning the inaugural Showcase Cup.
With the Pacers buying the Mad Ants, 11 NBA teams remain without a one-to-one or hybrid D-League affiliation: Atlanta, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, the L.A. Clippers, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland, and Washington.
Of those 11, almost all have expressed an interest in getting a D-League franchise in the next few years -- even the Bulls, who have been notorious over the last few years for having almost no interest in making D-League assignments for their young players.
"There's no doubt about it, 30 for 30 is our number one priority," NBA Development League President Malcolm Turner said by phone Sunday.
"With those independent teams, we're in varying stages of expansion discussions," Turner said "No question, it's a process. Several months ago we added Toronto and they'll start next season, and with the Indy purchase of Fort Wayne we'll have all our teams affiliated. For 2016-17 we're focused on adding two and perhaps three teams. Beyond that, while we haven't written anything in stone, expansion and 30 for 30 is definitely in the discussions for us."
Fort Wayne was the last independent team in the D-League, the repository for the NBA teams without a one-to-one affiliation or hybrid arrangement. Those teams could send players from the NBA there via the "flexible assignment" system implemented last season. Under that system, when Fort Wayne had the maximum four NBA players already assigned to its roster, or had two NBA players assigned at the position where the player from the non-affiliated NBA team played, the D-League would try and find a single-affiliate team to take the player. If none of them wanted to take the player, he'd be assigned to a D-League team via lottery.
There's no doubt about it, 30 for 30 is our number one priority.
– NBA Development League President Malcolm Turner
The flex assignment system will continue next season. An NBA team wishing to send a player to the D-League will notify that league's office, and it will seek a willing team to take the player. If there isn't one, the player will be assigned via lottery.
The system was, and is, not foolproof. As an independent team, the Mad Ants didn't have any obligation to play people for a parent team; their main goal was to win games. It is still a business, and making the playoffs is good for business, no matter the league. So even though teams like Toronto sent rookie Bruno Cabolco went to Fort Wayne last season, he saw little time. (The Mad Ants, which won the 2014 title, advanced to the Finals again this year, but were beaten by the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's owned-and-operated affiliate.)
And that's still a potential issue for the non-affiliated teams.
"I think that's one reason why we're in such active conversations with the 11 teams currently," Turner said. "I remember going to see Larry Bird and his team over the Final Four. Some of the issues you raise were at the fore. I think that's one of the things that really accelerated their process. No question of the top teams in terms of NBA assignments, it's no surprise that nine of the 10 (NBA teams) have a D-League team. And eight of the 10 lowest assigning teams didn't have a D-League team, and one of those teams was Indiana."
One general manager of an unaffiliated NBA team said Friday that his team has an unofficial arrangement with an NBA team that owns its D-League team outright.
"You're almost better off having an arrangement with one team," the GM said. "The only thing is they're not using your system. But they weren't using your system in Fort Wayne, either."
The Nets, which had a hybrid agreement with the Springfield Armor for three years before the team was sold and moved to Grand Rapids in 2014 -- where it became the Pistons' D-League team -- hope to have a new D- League team in place that would play in Brooklyn in 2016, and perhaps on Long Island in subsequent years.
"The goal is to have one next year," GM Billy King said Friday. "Not having a team [last season], we didn't use Fort Wayne. We worked with Boston and Maine. The way it worked last year ... we timed it so when we had Markell [Brown], we worked it so we could send him to Maine."
The Hornets have zeroed in on three North Carolina cities -- Greensboro, Fayetteville and Asheville -- for a potential D-League team, and hope to pick one in the next few weeks, along with picking a team president. They would then hope to have a sales staff in place by January, with the goal of starting play in 2016.
Like Toronto with Cabolco, the Hornets sent their 2014 first-round pick, Noah Vonleh, to Fort Wayne last season. He played fewer than 27 minutes in two games. (Vonleh was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers this summer.) Having their own team would alleviate such issues in the future.
"We're moving along well in our process, and we expect to have a team ready to go for the 2016-17 season," Hornets GM Rich Cho said Sunday. "I think it'll be a big advantage. It's not just player development. It'll allow us to dictate how the team is run. We expect there to be a lot of synergy between our team and the D-League team. When you can run the same offense and defense as your D-League team it makes the transition much easier."
As the D-League expands, it will continue to be the NBA's test bed for research and development, Turner said. Player tracking devices to measure heart rate and performance got their start in D-League games, as did adaptation of international goaltending rules, referee headsets (which were used for the first time in Summer League) and coach challenges. They haven't all been adapted by the NBA, but that's the point; the D-League is still the place to try everything.
And it's the place for NBA teams to generate a lot of their next generation of coaches, front office personnel, training and medical staffs and all parts of their organization. A D-League team has become a lot more to the parent NBA teams that have been wise enough to invest their time and money into them, and those that have been left behind are trying to catch up quickly.
"All of these conversations have been team-initiated," Turner said. "It's not like we have to go out and make a pitch."
It's gettin' hot in here. From Simon Allan:
Thoughts on Miami Heat? I think if Hassan Whiteside plays like an All Star or leads the league in blocks and if the Heat stay healthy, they could get to the Finals. Do you agree?
That's a big "if," Simon -- to paraphrase the great Dr. Egon Spengler, that's an "if" 35 feet long, weighing approximately 600 pounds. There's no question, the Heat's projected starting five -- Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, Whiteside -- could be as good as anyone's in the East. But there's no way of knowing with certainty when Bosh will be all the way back from the blood clots that put him out of action last season -- even as he says he's going to be ready for training camp. There's no way of knowing how many games Wade will be able to get through this season, and Miami will also need Deng and Josh McRoberts to return to health.
He doesn't think I'm hearing Jimi. From John Palmer:
Top 10 Plays: Utah Jazz in 2014-15
Relive the top plays from the Utah Jazz 2014-15 season!
Re: Jazz Ranking ... Huh? You say yourself that the Jazz came on late in the season, and they had one of the best post-All Star break records and defenses. Yet you have them ranked second from last based on what? The fact they didn't do much over the summer? Huh? Except for Dante Exum, this is the same core team that pulled off that turn-around after off-loading Enes Kanter. Extrapolating that late season performance out to this season, how can you not think the Jazz will be in the hunt for the 7th or 8th spot in the West? Not sure I follow your rationale.
ICYMI, the Jazz did pick up the 12th pick in the Draft, as well as a couple pro Euro ballers, so they weren't exactly sitting on their hands. Lyles has the potential to become a significant contributor off the bench in the first couple of seasons.
The Jazz never get any love from you journalist/analyst guys.
It does not matter how many years I do the offseason grades -- fans of teams ranked at the bottom despair about how I'm hating on their team. As I wrote at the time, I'm not being critical of Utah's approach. The Jazz are building around their young core of players. That doesn't change the fact that, compared with other teams, Utah didn't make a lot of changes to its roster. It made some, but not a lot. So the ranking wasn't high. But I don't dislike Utah, or think they're doing the wrong thing.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and beverages to bring out to a family of thirsty bears just chilling on a summer day to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!
$3,100,000 -- Donation by the Warriors' Draymond Green to his alma mater, Michigan State, which will go both to the basketball program and to endow a scholarship. It's the largest single donation made by a student athlete in school history.
$15,128.30 -- Restitution agreed to by former NBA player and broadcaster Rex Chapman to an Apple store in Arizona, as part of an agreement with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Chapman pled guilty to four felony counts of theft stemming from a 2014 incident in which Chapman allegedly walked out of the Apple store with merchandise without paying.
90 -- Games missed the last two seasons by Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, who is expected back for training camp after another surgical procedure on his leg in May.
1) Anthony Davis, I'm told, has put on 12 pounds of muscle this summer, without sacrificing any of his quickness or ball-handling skills. Enjoy, rest of Western Conference!
Pelicans Top 10 Plays for 2015
Anthony Davis dominates in the top 10 plays from the Pelicans 2014-15 season.
2) Congrats to our Turner colleague Steve Smith, who was one of three winners of the Mannie Jackson -- Basketball's Human Spirit Award during the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. Smitty's philanthropy at his alma mater Michigan State, donating $2.5 million to fund the Clara Bell Smith Student Athlete Academic Center in honor of his late mother, is well-known around the NBA. But he's also endowed a four-year scholarship for students from his old high school, Pershing, and has established The Steve Smith Charitable Fund, which funds local projects in Atlanta, Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. Talk about paying it forward.
3) This is compelling, must-watch stuff out of The Players' Tribune and WNBA players Swin Cash, Essence Carson and Tanisha Wright.
4) The Wizards will be shooting to add a player of significance next summer, but while they work on that it's likely that they'll finally be able to bring over point guard Tomas Satoransky, their 2012 Draft pick who continues to play well overseas (he finished his first year in Barcelona in the ACB League) and had strong performances the last couple of weeks at EuroBasket for the Czech Republic.
5) This is a whole big bucket of confusing. How does one weave the seemingly disparate three poles of Arabic, Spongebob and the Confederate flag into one low-priced product? And where, exactly, would one sell this and feel at all comfortable at any of said poles?
This has been a horrifying last few weeks, with Darryl Dawkins passing suddenly last month, followed by the devastating news Sunday morning that Moses Malone died. I had just seen Moses on the elliptical in the Marriott hotel in Springfield on Thursday, the day before the Hall of Fame Enshrinement ceremony. It wasn't the first time I'd run into Moses in a hotel gym. Well after his playing days ended, Moses still sweated more than almost any human you'd ever see. He looked trim as ever as he finished what surely was a ridiculously rigorous workout.
Remembering Darryl Dawkins
The NBA family lost a valued member when Darryl Dawkins passed away suddenly on Thursday at the age of 58. Known as much for his powerful game as his creative, offbeat personality, "Chocolate Thunder" became a fan favorite -- and when his career ended, he continued to generously give back to the game through his work in the community. Jared Greenberg looks back on Darryl Dawkins, a player we'll never forget.
The next night, he walked into Symphony Hall for the ceremony with former Rockets teammate Calvin Murphy.
A look back at a Hall of Famer, whose work ethic and relentless pursuit of excellence defined his two decade-long career.
Life is truly fleeting. And so very, very sad in the NBA these days. Besides Dawkins, we've also lost Anthony Mason, Earl Lloyd, Jack Haley, Jerome Kersey, Roy Tarpley, "Hot Rod" Hundley, Roy Marble and Jackson Vroman this year. And now Moses. He was a force on the floor and a great teammate to so many -- starting with my Turner colleague Charles Barkley, who called him "Dad." He was a great champion who made the offensive rebound a work of art, the foundation upon which he built three MVPs and a Finals MVP in 1983, when he got the 76ers over the top. My condolences to his immediate family and to his friends and teammates in his NBA family.
1) This is not the way to force a trade, Markieff Morris.
1A) I suspect Stan Van Gundy picked the Morris brother he wanted, Marcus Morris, when he acquired him from the Suns in July. And I suspect if he wanted Markieff Morris, too, knowing how close the twin brothers are, he would have figured out a way to include him. But if there were one place that would make sense for Markieff, it would be Detroit, with the Pistons' glut at guard (Reggie Jackson, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks and Reggie Bullock), and minutes available up front with Greg Monroe's departure. And of course, Philly always has room and picks galore if it wants to get involved.
2) I'm fine with the Board of Governors changing the playoff rules last week, seeding the teams in each conference according to record instead of automatically putting the division champs in the top four playoff spots. But now that they've done that, they might as well get rid of divisions altogether.
3) I thought everything was great now with the Clippers. No?
4) Devastating loss for top-seeded Canada on Friday night to Venezuela in the semifinals of the FIBA Americas tournament, which cost the Canadian men's team the Olympic berth in Rio for 2016 that They The North have so desperately wanted. But it was also a glorious moment for Venezuela, which hadn't qualified for the Olympics since 1992. Canada will have one last chance to qualify for Rio next summer if it wins one of three qualifying tournaments that will determine the final three teams for the Games.
2015 FIBA Americas Championship Recap
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She had three dollars. Eunice Haywood needed five. Her son Spencer was being recruited to the local high school, and the only pair of sneakers to be had anywhere near their town of Silver City, Miss., was a pair of green canvas sneakers in an army store. The owner of the store told Mrs. Haywood she could have them for the three dollars in her pocket. She'd hear of no such thing. "We are not beggars," she told her five children. She made the owner an offer: she would give him the three dollars, and bring him a pie in a few days.
On the strength of such transactions, working to improve his skills, and the physical strength Spencer developed chopping cotton for hours at a time with his family, came a 6-foot-8 force that got him out of Mississippi, to Detroit and Mexico City, where he starred for the U.S. Olympic team in 1968, in the midst of boycott of the Games by African-American athletes, to the ABA, the NBA and, finally, the United States Supreme Court. It was at the latter that Haywood argued he should be allowed to play in the NBA, even though his college class had not yet graduated, the rule at the time. While he attempted to play for the Seattle SuperSonics, opposing teams would announce Seattle had an "illegal" or "ineligible" player on the floor.
From the Hardcourt to the Supreme Court
Spencer Haywood provided the 1970 legal test case that opened the NBA to undergraduate college players, an effect that is still felt today.
In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Haywood, establishing what was then called the "hardship" rule. Dozens of college and high school players have taken advantage during the last 40-plus years, making hundreds of millions of dollars. Haywood saw almost none of that money, as injuries and an extended bout with substance abuse derailed his career.
He got clean more than 30 years ago, and waited -- in vain, he came to believe -- to get his due for his role in changing the economic landscape for players. He finally got the call this year, from the North American Committee, as a player enshrinee, 32 years after he stopped playing. At 66, having survived prostate cancer as well, Haywood was all smiles in Springfield last week -- happy to talk about his career ("Don't get it twisted -- I could ball," he said), happy to talk about the addiction that ruined his chance to win multiple rings with the Lakers in the early '80s. But it's that stretch from 1968-71 that made him who he was as a player, and as a pioneer.
Me: What was the camaraderie like between the African-American athletes in '68 in Mexico City? Because whatever you thought of what Harry Edwards was doing, a lot of athletes listened to him and stayed away. I would imagine those of you who decided to go caught some hell from people in the black community.
Spencer Haywood: Let me give you an example. I had this gold medal on my neck. I was nervous about coming back to Detroit, because I was thinking that the black community was going to shun me. 'What did you do, why did you do this?' I landed at Metro Airport, and it was amazing, man. All these blacks came out, and white people came out to greet me. I was like, 'Howard Cosell was wrong.' Because he scared the night of the [basketball] finals. He said, 'I don't know how you're going to get back. Blacks are not going to like you.' He was trying to get a rise out of me, and I was like, 'Oh, my God. I hadn't thought about that right now. I'm just trying to win this gold.' So that was a pretty powerful moment, coming back to Detroit at that time. Because we had just went through a terrible race riot, and all of the places that I knew of was destroyed and burned out. And I made my mind up at that time. I said I'm coming back to the University of Detroit. And at that time, Governor [George] Romney invited me to come and have dinner with him at the Governors' Mansion and celebrate my return, but also to see if I wanted to come back to the city of Detroit, because we needed help in the state. So I brought my medal and laid it on the table and signed with the University of Detroit, in hopes that Will Robinson would become the head coach. He was going to be the first black head coach in NCAA history. All of that stuff was on the table. It was just an awesome time.
Me: What was George Foreman, your '68 Olympic teammate, like at that age?
Hall of Fame Inductee: Spencer Haywood
Spencer Haywood enters the Hall of Fame as a pioneer and one great basketball player.
SH: George was incredible. We was just like young boys. He hadn't gotten an edge. We were untouched by all of these things. We were in a compound at the Olympics, and we were just joy and beauty, man. We were glad to be there. The Olympics had chose us to represent America. And we both had a passport! That meant that we were like, we had moved up to that high on the hog. We weren't eating down low; we were high on the hog. It was a beautiful experience. And when we see each other, we almost tear up and we just laugh and embrace each other. The only bad thing is I still use that George Foreman Grill.
Me: Did you ever speak with the guys who decided not to play in '68 and supported Harry Edwards' boycott, like Kareem and Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes?
SH: I talked to them, but they don't see it like that. They don't even like to even discuss it. Kareem says, well, even back then, he said, 'I was just going to help some kids up in Harlem. I didn't really boycott.' And I take him at his word. I said 'Okay, big dog.' But I know it's a boycott. So history, you know, history has its way of weaving through. And I also thanked them, too. Because if they had came to the '68 Olympics, they would never have looked at a freshman to try out and be a member of the Olympic team. As Elvis would say, thank you, thank you very much.
Me: What kept you going through the '70-71 season?
Spencer Haywood Hall of Fame Speech
Spencer Haywood delivers his acceptance speech at the 2015 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony.
SH: Faith. Faith. And also, you've got to remember, at the Supreme Court at that time, Muhammad Ali was there for boxing [trying to regain his boxing license, suspended nationwide after he refused induction into the armed forces in 1967]. Curt Flood was there for baseball [in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of baseball's reserve clause, though free agency was granted to baseball players four years later]. And we had Justice Thurgood Marshall on the bench. So I was looking at it like, I'm a young guy and I had learned so much in my years in Detroit, and had gotten up on all the cases and everything. But to know that if I can make it to the Supreme Court, I would get a fair and just hearing. And sure enough, when I got there, Justice [Byron] White brought up the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, that this case is won on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, because you cannot force a person to wait. That was a tremendous moment when that happened. But I still had issues, because when I got on the floor again, I was wondering how everybody was going to handle it, who was going to be with me, what it was going to be like. The icebreaker for me was when we played Milwaukee the second time. And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- because players did not shake my hand, they did not embrace me -- Kareem came out at midcourt, and grabbed me in a big bear hug, and said, 'Welcome home.' Because he was kind of like a big revolutionary, you know? And then it was on Sports Illustrated and all the magazines, and all of a sudden, all of the players said, 'He's all right.' I had a wonderful time playing the next 20 games. But those first 60 were like, on the court, off the court, injunctions against [him]. At times, I was put out of the gym, and out of the grounds the arena was sitting on.
Me: You'd go sit on the team bus, right?
Spencer Haywood's Career Highlights
Check out these highlights from the 2015 Hall of Fame inductee Spencer Haywood.
SH: No. Sometimes they had an injunction saying you could not sit on the bus, because the bus was on the grounds where the arena sat on. So I had to go stand on the edge, in the snow. Life is deep. So to look at things today, and you say, 'What was your impact?' My impact is this: LeBron James got $100 million more because he got four extra years [as a player] at $25 million. He's got four years on his life in terms as a player. Same thing as Kevin Durant. He was like, 'I didn't get no $100 million.' I said, 'Yeah, but you got $75.' And he said, 'Yeah, but I have to give you a kiss for that.' That's the difference between the players today. They do understand dollars.
Me: We've talked about this many times over the years, and the word I would use, I guess, is frustrated. You seemed frustrated that more modern players didn't know or appreciate the impact of what you'd done. Do you think these younger guys in the league now get it?
SH: Yes. Because of the leadership of LeBron, I think. And the NBA, they don't like to talk about what they did, but I'll tell it. They did a nice doc, six-minute doc. And they had Kobe, Kevin Durant and LeBron James on that doc. And they talk about the importance of what I'd done. And that was the first time that the players ever mentioned my name. And it was about, what I was talking about in that doc was that the mothers of these players -- Shaq's mother gave me an award, LeBron's mother came up and gave me a big old hug. And she said, 'My boy and I, we was running from house to house.' We knew, because of Sonny Vaccaro, he'd told him and Kobe and all those guys, if you can get through high school and survive all of this stuff, Spencer Haywood paved the way for y'all to go and make a living, earn a living for your family. And they knew that. That's been my new group. And Kevin Garnett has been awesome. And you know who has been more awesome than anybody? Charles Barkley.
Spencer Haywood Career Highlights
Check out career highlights from 2015 Hall of Fame Inductee Spencer Haywood.
Me: How so?
SH: Charles Barkley took it upon himself to say on the telecasts what I've done and why it's so important that I be honored by the players. But also, whenever he gets around the young guys, Shaq and all of them, he tells them. He is my guardian angel. And I never thought I'd say that about a guy from Alabama.
Me: I know you were close with the author and self-help guru Wayne Dyer, who just passed away a couple of weeks ago. How did he help you?
SH: Well, when I got to Detroit, being that I had worked in the cotton fields, and in Mississippi -- and the young players should know this -- in Mississippi, you would only go to school for three months out of the year. Because the rest of the time, you had to be in the cotton fields doing the work. So I was lacking in education. Wayne Dyer was my high school guidance counselor, tutor, and mentor. He took me and we spent hours a day on posture, language, reading. My first day in class, I spelled my name with a small 's.' And Wayne said 'we're going to change all of that. You're going to be the best student ever.' He pushed me to the level where I graduated from high school with a B average. I mean, that's like coming from the bottom, in one year, two years, I was right there with everyone else. And Wayne also took me on my first plane trip. When I signed with the University of Tennessee to go to the Southeastern Conference, because I wanted my parents, my mother and family to see me play against the University of Mississippi, we flew together to Tennessee. The first trip in my life on a plane. That was the first Team Haywood. Will Robinson, my [high school] coach and my guardian, my father, set up this team. Wayne Dyer was the academic part of it. James and Ida Bell had a home for me. They adopted me. And Will Robinson was my second father. This was the team. It wasn't about basketball, even though we wanted to win the Class A state championship and wanted to be the best. But it was about the person. They wanted to see the person be better.
"There's a recognition that the lottery is only one aspect of how to build a team. And given the inflow of the new television money next season and the large increase in the cap, ultimately the owners concluded that while we think we need to take a fresh look at the lottery system, let's wait and look at the system holistically once the new money comes in. Because there's always unintended consequences and at least everyone understands the rules of the road right now."
--NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, telling the Boston Globe last week that the league has decided to keep the current Lottery system in place for the foreseeable future.
"I absolutely adored playing this game."
-- Hall of Fame guard Jo Jo White, during the Thursday press conference announcing this year's class of enshrinees. White is the 28th former Celtics player to make the Hall.
"If it was for money, I would have stayed in Europe. I came here to take this chance, and maybe I have a bright future in the NBA. Hopefully I can win my space in here and show what I'm able to do, and so I can stick around for many years."
-- Guard Marcelo Huertas, after officially signing with the Lakers last week. The 32-year-old Brazilian has been one of the best playmakers in Europe for several years, having played his last two seasons for FC Barcelona.
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