He showed them pictures from 2008, 2010 and 2012. He told the assembled players at the team dinner in Las Vegas last Sunday night: All of the people in these pictures, all these gold medal winners, they all started here, where you are. If you want to be like them, you have to be here. He told them about the DVDs he sent to each player when it was all over, all the memories and relationships they could carry with them for a lifetime.
“We wanted to go out and practice right there,” Memphis guard Mike Conley said.
That is exactly what Mike Krzyzewski wanted to hear.
The buy-in is complete.
There are, this morning, very few U.S.-born basketball players under 30 of any import who have not been, over the last 10 years, part of USA Basketball at some level — in the under 16 through 19 programs, the Pan American or World University Games, the Nike Hoops Summit or the World Championships or Olympic teams.
That it is now a given that almost every player wants to be a part of these programs, that everyone will happily give up their summers for no pay, or commit for at least four years of service, is one of the most incredible attitudinal turnarounds brought about in recent years in sports. It is certainly a credit to Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach from Duke that was hired in 2005, and to USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, the architect of the American basketball renaissance.
“It really is the way it should be, you know?,” Krzyzewski, the ex-Army coach, said last week. “And so I’m really happy about that. But it’s taken the commitment of everybody at USA Basketball, our staff, Jerry.
“But you know what? Even more so, it’s taken the commitment of our players who have played. All those guys — Kobe [Bryant], and LeBron [James], Carmelo [Anthony], and whatever. They’ve served multiple times. And they got better, as we all did — not just they did. We got better. Our country got better. And you should not be an idiot and look at this and say ‘I shouldn’t do that.’ You should want to do it. And that’s a good thing. In other words, our country now respects USA Basketball. The world respects USA Basketball. And we have to keep that going.”
A decade ago, USA Basketball was headed toward its nadir, having been humiliated on its own soil with a sixth-place finish at the World Championships in Indianapolis in 2002, but not yet having experienced the embarrassment of getting smoked by Puerto Rico and Argentina at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
But in the nine years since Athens, the U.S. mens program has again become the world’s best, winning gold medals in Beijing in the 2008 Olympics, the 2010 World Championships in Turkey (which will be rebranded next year as the FIBA World Cup of Basketball) and the 2012 Olympics in London. The U.S. men are defending champions in all four junior programs: the under 16s, 17s, 18s and 19s.
(The U.S. women’s program has been even more dominant at all levels in basketball than the men during the last decade-plus. U.S. women’s teams have won five straight Olympic gold medals, dating to 1996, the 2010 World Championship, five straight Under 19 gold medals — the latest coming Sunday afternoon in a 61-28 trouncing of France in Lithuania — five straight Under 18 titles, back to back Under 17 golds and three straight Under 16 golds.)
It is as if USA Basketball has become a really exclusive, hot nightclub to which everyone desperately wants entrée. Only one of 30 players invited to the Vegas camp last week — Pacers guard George Hill — declined the invitation, and that was so he could host a youth basketball camp in Texas.
The USA Basketball camp concluded Thursday with a scrimmage, at which Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving starred. But the process was just as big a presence as the players.
“You see guys like LeBron, and KD [Kevin Durant], Carmelo, the guys that are the face of the NBA,” Pacers forward Paul George said during the week. “They’ve gone through the same route, and they came out successful because of it. They’ve gotten better through this. I think everybody is just committed to getting better this summer.”
George is 23. He was 11 when the U.S. team was embarrassed in Indy, and like most 11 year olds, probably had other, better things to do in 2002 than lament the demise of USA Basketball. Many of George’s peers that are now taking their place among the game’s elite are in the same age range. So all they’ve known since puberty is that the NBA’s best players play in international competition.
“When you have the best players, the most elite players, all teaming up to play, those are guys you look up to,” Pistons forward Greg Monroe said.
“It’s something you want to be a part of. Those guys won, in Beijing, that was, what, ’08 now? Guys were just entering college. Some guys were still in high school. So you’re still watching those players. You still look up to them. That’s something you want to do. That’s a big part of it. You have to tip your hat to Colangelo, Coach K, and the players for changing how people feel about playing for USA Basketball.”
When he got the job in 2005, Colangelo got carte blanche to do whatever he had to do to get things back on track. It didn’t happen all at once; many people forget now that Krzyzewski’s first team, the 2006 world championship squad, finished third in Japan, losing to Greece in the semifinals (the “1″ in Coach K’s 62-1 record in international play since taking over) — a loss made more embarrassing by the fact that neither Krzyzewski nor his players knew the names of the Greek players who had just shredded their defense for 40 minutes.
“We all had to get better,” Krzyzewski says today. He did. And so did the players.
Colangelo put in an infrastructure where none had previously existed. Gone were the squabbling selection committees that had chosen previous international teams, the college guys trying to keep their turf against the pro guys. Colangelo made all the invites for the first teams, convincing the younger players like James and Anthony that it would be worth it for them to play.
“When you come out and say you want to change a culture, that’s a strong statement,” Colangelo said last week. “When you say you need to show the world, the basketball community, respect, that’s another strong statement. But once our guys started to buy in — and it took some leadership on the part of the players — other guys started buying in. And once they got acclimated to who we were, the infrastructure, and they knew we would take care of them along the way, then it was just a matter of people continuing to come.”
Colangelo viewed USA Basketball as another expansion team, just like the ones he was on the ground floor with in Chicago and Phoenix and with baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. His first season with the D’Backs, he wanted to go slow, build through the draft, develop a contender.
That first season, 1998, Arizona went 65-97 and Colangelo lost half of his season ticket base.
Forget patience, Colangelo said. He went out and got Randy Johnson (1999) and Curt Schilling (2000). In 2001, the Diamondbacks won the World Series.
Fixing USA Basketball wasn’t nearly as simple.
First and foremost, Colangelo had to repair the biggest schism — with Nike, the apparel colossus.
Nike had watched in horror in 2004 as James, in whom the company had already invested millions, couldn’t get off Larry Brown’s bench in Athens. Whether or not James, then 19 and coming off his rookie season in the NBA, was immature at that time, or hard to get along with, wasn’t the point. He was the future of basketball, and the NBA. He was Nike’s guy. And Nike wasn’t going anywhere.
“The Nike relationship with the NBA had fallen apart,” Colangelo said. “But I had a lot of relationships there myself. Phil Knight was a partner of mine in the baseball team in Arizona. I’ve known Phil Knight for so many years. Coach [George] Raveling [currently Nike’s Director of International Basketball], dear friend of mine for many, many years. So the relationships were there. And it was a matter of re-establishing a relationship. But I wanted to make it clear to them, this wasn’t an NBA deal. This was USA Basketball. This is our own entity and brand. And that kind of opened the door.”
Colangelo picked Krzyzewski as the team’s coach in 2005, bypassing NBA coaches. Even though Coach K was already in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2001 after his third national championship at Duke, and was universally regarded as the finest coach in the college game, there were grumbles about his getting the job. It did not hurt his candidacy that Krzyzewski also had a strong relationship with Nike.
Colangelo had to have three things. He had to have Nike as a primary sponsor. He had to have control over the selection process. And he had to have the financial resources to do what he needed to do. It wasn’t an easy sell with Nike, but ultimately, the company committed to a three-year deal.
Colangelo knew if he got his foot in the door with Nike again, there was money to be made with them down the road. He was right. In the prior four-year period before the 2004 Games, USA Basketball raised just $9 million, with the NBA backfilling the costs.
By 2008, when Colangelo was named chair of USAB’s Board, the organization raised $33 million in four years. And USAB raised another $35 million between ’08 and ’12. There is now a small cushion available after USAB invests in its Under programs, the World University Games and other youth programs.
By 2012, according to Forbes, USA Basketball had a who’s who of corporate sponsors, including 24 Hour Fitness, American Express, Burger King, Cisco, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, Gatorade, Jeep, Las Vegas Events, MetroPCS and Right Guard. But Nike was the gateway company.
“We put together some really good partnerships,” Colangelo said Sunday. “We have some heavyweights. And we have some pending that are new. Nike has stepped up not only for this quad, but they’ve extended through two other quads, going all the way to ’24.
“Here’s the key. I set out to create our own brand. And we’ve done that.”
Having Nike on board was also a carrot for convincing players to come aboard. Whatever you think of the behemoth’s business practices, the pattern was clear: Once a guy signed with Nike, watch and car deals and all the rest soon followed.
“Jerry was able to use Nike as leverage to get more sponsors,” a longtime basketball insider noted. “Now, he’s got everybody up to Tiffany involved in it. He was able to bring in a lot of new sponsors.”
As a result, USAB is now its own entity, working in relative concert with the NCAA and the NBA, which helps keep USAB’s overhead down.
Nike also gave USAB better access to Bryant and James, though Coach K already had a very strong relationship with Bryant, who would have gone to Duke in 1996 if he hadn’t turned pro — and who wanted Krzyzewski to get the Lakers job in 2004 before Coach K decided to return to college.
Like Magic and Bird a generation before, Bryant and James were the two key guys. If they committed, all the others that mattered would say yes as well. The respect young players had for Kobe’s game and work ethic was almost universal, and having James’ all-around passing and scoring ability was going to be crucial in upcoming international rotations.
So Colangelo and Krzyzewski reached out. Instead of telling Bryant and James how things would be, they asked for their advice. It was going to be a partnership, not a top-down structure. And Bryant and James, with Dwyane Wade, Jason Kidd and Anthony, all came aboard for 2008 in Beijing. Winning there validated Krzyzewski’s coaching of and his communication skills with the pro players, and quieted what surely would have been a firestorm had he not piloted the team to the gold medal.
On a team where Bryant practiced hard on his own but didn’t necessarily hang out with the group, and Wade may have been the best player game in and game out, James made his presence felt.
“Very quietly, LBJ was the leader,” said a source with first-hand knowledge of the team’s inner workings. “He always brought Kobe and others back to the group. He let J-Kidd and others [lead] out front, but he set the tempo every day and made sure to keep everyone together when it counted.”
After the invitation-only ’08 team, Colangelo wanted to create a pipeline, a rotating group of players that would spend eight to 10 years playing for the United States in international events. Ideally, they’d start in the under-19 competitions, and work their way up to the senior events. At the least, though, the elite players would have to commit to a full four-year rotation, with at least one World Cup and one Olympics.
Now, USA Basketball has a rotation of the country’s best players from which to choose. Colangelo and Krzyzewski are loathe to break the players up into categories, but essentially, that’s what is in place.
“A” listers like James, Bryant, Anthony, Paul and Durant, who’ve already been in one or more rotations, are free to pick and choose when they want to play. (No one expected James to play in Spain in ’14; Colangelo said early in the week that would be the case.) James and Bryant have already been in the program for more than a decade, and their commitment gives them a certain amount of autonomy.
Of course, no one can predict the future, but I’d be surprised if James doesn’t play in Rio, last week’s Yahoo! report notwithstanding. The expectation — hope? — among USAB is that the ’14 team will be Durant’s, just as Durant led the 2010 World Championship team that won the gold in Turkey. (Along those lines, the Cavaliers’ Irving will have to be dead not to make the World Cup team as well.)
Durant is the key, the pivot from the Bryant-James era to the future. His insatiable basketball appetite seemingly having no boundaries, he can play as long as he wants.
Other still-young players like the Warriors’ Stephen Curry, Minnesota’s Kevin Love and the Bulls’ Derrick Rose (all members of the 2010 world championship team), the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden (both on the 2012 Olympic team) and Irving are the likely spine of the next two to three senior teams. The ideal turnover is five or six new guys per event to go with five or six holdovers from the previous team. That way, there is always new blood coming in, with a core group that has played together.
“When you get that invitation, and you see what the senior team was able to do in the Olympics, and the World Championships, we want to be a part of that. It seems like it’s so much fun. It’s a great experience,” said Conley, who’s been on several international U.S. teams since 2005.
“I think everybody has much respect for each other, but you can tell everybody’s like, ‘Man, I want to see what I can do against this guy, I want to see what I can do against that guy,’” Conley said. “It’s the greatest thing. You can’t get a run like this, anytime — not even in the regular season.”
Davis, also on the 2012 London team, is expected to ultimately replace Tyson Chandler as one of the team’s primary bigs, along with Blake Griffin (who surely would have been in London had he not torn knee ligaments last summer during USA Basketball workouts) and, presumably, Dwight Howard, who was on the ’08 Beijing team, but was not especially close to anyone.
“I think it’s just something special,” Davis said.
“You see a lot of guys, ‘I have a gold. I play on the Olympic team. I represent the USA.’ A lot of guys want to represent the USA, and it’s a big deal for a lot of guys. I know it’s a big deal for me. And I’m pretty sure the guys feel the same way … you always want to add to your resume. Putting the Olympic team on there is a big plus. To go out there and represent your country, only 12 to 15 guys can do that.”
The line behind them is long.
The under-19 team that won the gold medal in the Czech Republic earlier this month featured Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart (a collegiate invite to the Vegas camp, along with Creighton’s Doug McDermott), Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon and high schoolers Aaron Gordon, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor, the 6-foot-10 Chicago center who is expected to be the next great dominant big man in the game.
The Under 19s played up tempo, trying to replicate the advantages of quickness and depth that remain the U.S. teams’ biggest edges over the rest of the world.
As with the senior team, USAB wants continuity in the junior team coaching staffs. Florida’s Billy Donovan, assisted by Gonzaga’s Mark Few and VCU’s Shaka Smart, coached the Under 18s to gold in Brazil, then graduated with many of those players to the Under 19s this year.
The Vegas camp was for younger pro players, most of whom have little to no chance of making the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympic teams. But coming to Vegas puts them in the pipeline.
That was behind the re-inviting of Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins — who, to put it charitably, got off on the wrong foot with Colangelo last year — to this year’s USAB camp. With a second shot, Cousins didn’t do anything to hurt himself last week. (It helped that several members of the Kings’ new management group, led by majority owner Vivek Ranadive, showed up in Vegas to give Cousins moral support.)
“A guy who’s 23, or 22 here, at 26, he’s going to be a different player,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, we want them treated like USA Basketball players, ’cause they are. We haven’t set a quota of how many guys there will be. I think Jerry has said from the beginning the best way, and it’s been a good formula for us — to have a fluid pool of players. There are no replacements, there are no cuts. When the guys are committed, they’re treated well, and we can draw upon them depending on life experiences. Contract, family, health, all of those things have a bearing. It’s worked out well. We’re not going to change it.”
Colangelo said he had a “Plan B” (almost certainly Clippers coach Doc Rivers) if Krzyzewski had gone through with his plans to retire from coaching USA Basketball after the 2012 Olympics in London. (You know how I feel about Gregg Popovich and his fitness for the head coach position. This is not the time for that discussion.)
But Colangelo says now that two and a half weeks after the Summer Games, he saw Krzyzewski at the Hall of Fame induction in Springfield, and sensed Coach K had reservations about retiring.
“That said to me, ‘Stay away, give him time, let him do his thing this year at Duke, and at the appropriate time, we’ll get together,’” Colangelo said. “We stayed in communication, obviously, but I never talked about it. We talked about his [Duke] team, we talked about players. And when it was time, as it has been the case in the past, we usually work things out.”
Krzyzewski, now 66, wasn’t sure how much longer he’d even coach at Duke. But he was rejuvenated when he got back to Durham. And the pull of the national team, the pride of continuing to serve, again proved irresistible. He will be the coach as long as he wants to be.
“It’s not just what you see out here,” said Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau, working his first senior team rotation as an assistant coach, along with Hornets Coach Monty Williams. Thibodeau and Williams replaced Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni and former Blazers coach Nate McMillan as Krzyzewski’s NBA assistants; Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, who’s been on Krzyzewski’s staff since Beijing in ’08, is on for another rotation through Rio in ’16.
“It’s all the meetings and planning that he does,” Thibodeau continued. “His leadership. His communication. I think that he and Jerry Colangelo have set the tone. I think Jim Boeheim’s a great resource. You look at all the games these guys have won, and of course, Monty being here, it’s a great situation for me.”
Thibodeau is one of the NBA’s most notorious grinders, who puts everything into the Bulls. He is single. He has no children. If he has any hobbies, they are unknown to the general public. But he didn’t hesitate to answer Krzyzewski’s call to give up a big chunk of this summer, as well as the next couple of summers.
“When they ask you, it would be very difficult to say no,” Thibodeau said. “It’s such a great opportunity, for our country, for a great coach … I know how our players and our league feel about this. It’s important to them.”
The U.S. team might still have its advantages over the rest of the world, but that is always subject to change. Next year’s Cup is going to be especially difficult to play in Spain, currently ranked second in the world behind the Americans. Spain will have a healthy Ricky Rubio (he missed London recovering from his ACL tear) to go with Marc and Pau Gasol, the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka, Dallas’ Jose Calderon, Portland’s Victor Claver and former NBA vets Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez.
Russia has risen to third in the world, behind the Nets’ Andrei Kirilenko, Nuggets’ center Timofey Mozgov, guard Alexey Shved (Minnesota) and swingman Sergey Karasev (the Cavaliers’ rookie). Argentina, with its aging core of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and Pablo Prigioni, has probably seen its best days in international competition, but it’s still going to be a tough out.
China and Canada may be a few years away from being medal threats, but they’re both coming on very, very strong. China is ninth in the world, its highest ranking ever, and Canada has a base around which to build in the near future of Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Nicholson (Orlando) and point guard Jamal Murray, a 16-year-old wunderkind who has already dominated in international competition, scoring 24 points in the Jordan International game in Brooklyn last April.
The whole world is watching. And waiting. The work of a decade will be back on the brink a year from now.
“We’re number one in the world, and the pipeline is full,” Colangelo said. “Now, I don’t say that lightly. I say that with a sense of responsibility. Now, we have to stay there.”
Let’s be honest. A lot of the basketball at the Vegas Summer League, like the Orlando Summer League, and like any summer league, is stultifying.
But then comes a guy like Ian Clark, from Belmont University, and his play reminds you that there is still the possibility for surprise and joy. Las Vegas is built for people like Ian Clark — even though he doesn’t gamble.
Clark’s star turn with the Warriors, who won the Summer League title over Phoenix last Monday, led to the unheralded guard from Belmont getting a two-year contract Wednesday from the Jazz. Before the month began, Clark was much more likely to spend next season playing overseas. But after a very good stint with Miami’s team in Orlando, and his 33-point explosion in the championship game against Phoenix, which brought him the game’s MVP award, Clark has a new future.
Maybe it’s because they’re both skinny and 6-foot-3, and wear the same number (21), but Clark reminds me of Sleepy Floyd, the former Warriors’ guard and Georgetown standout in the mid-’80s, who famously scored 29 points in the fourth quarter of a Golden State playoff win over the Lakers in 1987.
On Sunday night, after his crazy week, Clark finally arrived in Utah and had dinner with Jazz Coach Tyrone Corbin.
“We had a great night,” Clark said by phone from Salt Lake City late Sunday. “We talked about everything, me coming in, and just freeing my mind, with the mindset of coming in and competing for minutes. He talked about wanting to play me at both positions, a combo guard position, and to come in ready to work, and to compete.”
There’s obviously no guarantee that Clark will stick with the Jazz. But at least he has a chance. The recent success of players from small schools, with patron saint Stephen Curry (Davidson) leading the way, has opened up the door.
“Guys like C.J. McCollum, and the year before that, Damian Lillard, showed that guys that come from small schools can play basketball,” Clark had said earlier in the week. “That’s kind of the mindset that I have, that if you work, and if you can play, they’ll find you.”
Belmont had that old saying posted in its locker room: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.” Clark, who was a heralded recruit for Belmont Coach Rick Byrd, learned that lesson at Belmont.
“He’s a quiet kid,” Byrd said on Saturday. “He’s got great parents. He has a strong faith. He has things in pretty good priority. I mean, this is pretty important to him. He wants badly to play, and certainly in the NBA. But I don’t think it’s all or nothing. He’s got his degree. He’s got things in perspective pretty good. I hope the way we ran our program was helpful with that.”
It is a credit to Clark, and a condemnation of supposed Draft “experts” such as myself (another reason I detest the pre-Draft process), that he could be the Co-Player of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference, and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, and lead his Belmont team to a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and finish third in the country in 3-point percentage, and have almost nothing written about him. I mean, nothing.
No scout or general manager or coach mentioned his name a single time to me over dozens of hours of conversations before the Draft about guard prospects. Nor did I do enough research—which should have been simple, in retrospect—to uncover him.
As far as I can tell, this guy was one of the only people who thought Clark had diamond in the rough potential. Score one for advanced numbers. Of course, as the NBA is populated with analytics people these days, the fact that no team drafted Clark means there are limitations to even their vision.
Clark did have pre-Draft workouts with eight teams after playing in the Portsmouth Invitation Tournament in March: Boston, Chicago, Golden State, Houston, the Clippers, Milwaukee, Phoenix and Portland. But he didn’t have any anticipation that any of them would take him.
“You can hear, ‘Oh, maybe you can get in the second round,’” Clark said Monday night, after hitting seven threes against the Suns. “But I really wasn’t worried about it.”
Clark insists that, unlike so many other undrafted players, he watched the Draft unfold with no anxiety. He had no expectation that he would be taken, despite averaging 18.2 points per game as a senior — less than half a point fewer than Michigan’s Trey Burke, who went seventh overall, and Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who went ninth.
“It was fun, to see some of my friends that I’ve kind of met over the course of this journey get drafted,” he said. “I’m happy for them. Like I said, I really wasn’t expecting it. I knew that my calling card would be coming here, coming to summer league and kind of showing what I could do.”
Byrd, who’s been Belmont’s coach for 28 years, fielded some pre-Draft calls about his school’s all-time leading scorer. But not that many. It was Byrd’s first time dealing with a player good enough to have a chance at the NBA.
“There certainly wasn’t an avalanche of calls,” Byrd said. “There wasn’t a whole bunch. During the season, I probably had as many calls about our point guard, Kerron Johnson, as I did about Ian.”
Clark had starred locally in high school in Memphis, but fell—naturally—under the radar of the city’s bigger school, the University of Memphis. By the time new Memphis Coach Josh Pastner got the job and got to town in 2009, Clark had already committed to Belmont, a Christian school three hours east, in Nashville, with a little more than 6,600 students.
“He came to us already as a terrific kid, with great parents,” Byrd said. “That’s the folks who deserve the credit for who Ian is. He’s extremely well-liked on campus, and he is extremely humble about what he’s accomplished … all things being equal, guys are going to like having Ian on the team. He’s always going to be team first.”
Clark battled Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan — who was taken in the second round by the Rockets — throughout the season for Belmont, which has established itself under Byrd as a mid-major power the last few years. Clark and Canaan shared the regular season MVP, but Clark’s Bears beat Canaan’s Racers for their eighth NCAA berth in the last 10 seasons, spanning stints in the Atlantic Sun and OVC.
“We have a lot of pride. I care about those guys,” Clark said. “We’re family oriented. We had one goal and one mindset, [which] was to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, win that conference championship, especially with the move to the OVC after coming from the A Sun. We were a little undersized this year, but we got it done.”
Byrd ran a “four out one” offense at Belmont, but says Clark didn’t get a lot of his points off of spot up shots.
“I would say he got more points out of a fast break or a motion than he did out of sets or quick hitters for him,” Byrd said. “If we were running a play, if we set up to run a play, they were going to be all up in Ian. You’d have to execute it super for him to get a good look. But if we were in an early offense and the ball screen [defender] wasn’t in a position to help, that’s how he got a lot of his points. That’s to his credit, too. We could have lined it up and gotten him seven or eight more points a game. His percentages wouldn’t have been good, but his numbers would have been better.”
Belmont has yet to have that breakthrough win in the NCAA Tournament that other mid-majors like Gonzaga, Butler and George Mason had that put them on the map. That may have contributed to Clark’s relative anonymity as well.
“Our guys had great respect for him and their program,” said Bob Hoffman, the head coach at Belmont’s old Atlantic Sun rival, Mercer.
“He was such a great competitor,” Hoffman said. “It was something we always looked forward to, to play their teams and him specifically, because they would give you all they had. He wasn’t a trash talking guy. He just did it with his game. It was almost out of his nature, out of his demeanor, how he could be such an assassin. But he would light you up, just like that first half of the championship game.”
Clark was strong for the Heat while in Orlando, averaging 16.4 points per game. The Warriors were quite worried that his good play there would discourage him from making the journey to Vegas; it’s something that happens often in the summer after a good showing. But Clark doubled down on himself and came west.
He wasn’t as consistent in Vegas. But when it counted most, in the title game, he was electric. His Warriors teammates continually yelled at him, “let it fly.” He did.
“I didn’t know who he was,” one veteran Warriors player acknowledged afterward.
Clark said Sunday that he first heard the Jazz were a potential spot for him early during the Summer League. That’s a heck of a secret to keep to yourself while you’re trying to win a job offer. But he didn’t know it would come to fruition. He got the news from agent Bill Duffy Wednesday morning.
“Duff called me first when I was in the barber shop,” Clark said Sunday night. “He had told me that we talked to Utah. I told him to call me when things were happening. He left me a message, and I didn’t even listen to it; I just called him back. I was ecstatic. I was at a loss for words. Because I really didn’t expect to have it happen that fast. He had said something might happen at the end of the week.”
The first call, of course, was to his parents,
“My mom was, of course, emotional. I called my dad, too, and he was excited. I called my brother, too. It was just hard work, and consistency. Of course, my agents had a lot to do with it. They helped me so much. They put me in good position in both summer leagues, to try and show people what I could do. I think I did my best to show that.”
He also had to get in touch with the sixth-grade boys’ team he coaches in Nashville.
“I talked to some of their parents, and they told me congrats,” he said. “It’s great to do that. Down the line I want to coach. I got into after my junior year, and I didn’t know I’d like it as much as I did. We’re a pretty good team in Nashville.”
Clark will have to get stronger in the pros. He is a good defender, but still gets moved on occasion by stronger opposing guards. He improved his in-between game dramatically his senior season at Belmont, getting much better at teardrop floaters and pullups off one or two dribbles. And he will have to play a lot of point guard, which means he’ll have to continue working on his ballhandling and decision making.
“It was something I felt I needed to work on in the offseason after my junior year,” Clark said. “We had been so fortunate to be talented that year. We went 30-5 and we had guys subbing out every five minutes. There was no need to do anything team wise outside of what you were asked to do. We lost two good big guys and a senior point guard. I was coming back and I had to do better, especially as a senior, and coming off of two conference championships. You wanted to come back with another.”
And he can, always, still let it fly.
NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT …
How close is the NBA to having a test for Human Growth Hormone?
Last week’s decision by Major League Baseball to suspend Milwaukee Brewers’ star outfielder Ryan Braun for the rest of the season in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal only focused attention further on how relatively helpless all sports leagues are when it comes to drug testing. The cheaters are always, always ahead of the cops.
MLB suspended Braun without pay last Monday after saying in a statement that he had violated the league’s drug policy. Braun, who had steadfastly denied using performance enhancing drugs for more than a year after an initial positive drug test of his was overturned on a technicality in October, 2011, acknowledged last week that he “made some mistakes” and apologized to fans in Milwaukee, without specifically admitting drug use.
A baseball source told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the evidence against Braun was “so overwhelming” that he had to accept the 65-game ban or face a much longer suspension.
The issue gained additional traction when a former employee of Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic in Florida, told ESPN’s Outside the Lines that players from other sports, including the NBA, were also among the company’s clients. The company’s practices were initially exposed by a Miami New Times story last spring, leading to an investigation by MLB. Additional suspensions, including the likely suspension of Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, could be handed down this week.
The NBA did not respond to requests for comment over the weekend on the allegations made by the former employee about NBA players being involved with Biogenesis.
While the NFL and its NFL Players Association are slowly moving toward a test for HGH, two years after that sport’s owners locked out its players, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association are still discussing the parameters for a potential test, as they agreed to do at the end of the 2011 lockout.
After the NBA Board of Governors’ meeting in Las Vegas earlier this month, Commissioner David Stern said he hoped that a new HGH test could be in place in time for the start of next season.
“Let me just say that our Players Association has been very good in their work with us on all of these things,” Stern said. “Right now, they’re a little bit hamstrung because they’re searching for an executive director. It’s more difficult to make decisions. But we’re optimistic that whatever — we have a great program. Don’t get me wrong.”
Officials with the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) have differed with Stern’s assessment in the past, saying that the NBA has holes in its testing program, including the lack of an HGH test. WADA tests Olympic athletes for HGH, and its protocols have been adopted by MLB.
But while many (not all) steroids aren’t necessarily conducive for NBA players, who don’t require the strength and power of NFL players, there would be obvious benefits for injured NBA players, like any injured athletes, to take HGH, given its supposed impact on recuperative powers. Lance Armstrong wasn’t doping so he could take on 300-pound linemen; he was doping so he could go up another mountain the following day after climbing a mountain the day before.
The Magic’s Hedo Turkoglu got a 20-game suspension earlier this year for testing positive for methenolone, a steroid preferred by bodybuilders because it helps them put on weight quickly. Turkoglu said that he took medication for an injured shoulder while in Turkey that he thought would help him recover faster, but he says he didn’t know the substance contained the banned drug.
Methenolone is one of dozens of performance enhancing drugs and/or masking agents banned by the NBA. (The league also tests for elevated testosterone levels in players.) Other banned drugs include amphetamines (including methamphetamine and MDMA, along with others), cocaine, LSD, opiates (heroin, codeine and morphine), PCP, marijuana and diuretics. (Despite yes votes in the 2012 election that legalized marijuana use in Washington state and Colorado, the NBA still considers marijuana use by its players as a violation of the substance program.)
The NBA’s program calls for four random in-season tests and two out-of-season tests, none of which is supposed to be disclosed in advance. If the league or Players Association suspects a player is using, possesses or is distributing drugs, either can inform the program’s independent expert. If the independent expert concurs that reasonable cause exists, he or she can test the player without notice up to four times in six weeks.
Under the terms of the 2012 agreement between the NBA and the NBPA, players who test positive for steroids or performance-enhancing drugs (or SPED, as it’s known) receive a 20-game ban for a first offense, 45 games for a second offense and a minimum two-year ban for a third offense. NBA players’ test samples are split into “A” and “B” samples. If the “A” sample tests positive, the player can request the “B” sample be tested at a different facility.
But HGH is still out there.
Veteran guard Jerry Stackhouse, who was elected first vice president of the NBPA in February, said by telephone Sunday night that the union is still in the information gathering stage. A three-person panel agreed upon by both the league and union was empowered after the lockout to try and determine whether there was an effective HGH blood test and, if so, what the testing procedures would be. That panel is still working through the various issues, Stackhouse said.
“One league has already adapted it, and we’ll be on par with the other leagues,” Stackhouse said. “Right now, there’s just more information that we need to know. I don’t think anything needs to be rushed at this point. Guys don’t have a problem getting tested. We give blood in our physicals every year. But over the course of a season, what kind of effects will that have on players? There’s just more information we want. I think we’ll eventually get there, but it’s just going to take a little more time.”
Complicating matters is the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport in March of this year, a three-member panel which overturned a three-year ban imposed by the International Skiing Federation against an Estonian cross-country skier, Andrus Veerpalu, for testing positive for HGH in 2011.
While the CAS ruled that the HGH test itself used by the skiing federation on Veerpalu was reliable and based on “scientifically correct assumptions and methods,” the CAS said that the skiing federation didn’t meet the applicable standard of proof — specifically, the basic standards by which a group of athletes in a given sport are collectively judged, so that there is a baseline past which one would test positive for an illegal substance.
These standards, known in the testing culture as “decision limits,” should, in theory, limit the number of false positive tests on athletes, and are reached after a population study of a sport’s athletes is taken, with norms established based on the testing.
“In conclusion,” the CAS finding read, “the Panel noted that there were many factors in this case which tend to indicate that Andrus Veerpalu did in fact himself administer exogenous hGH, but that, for the reason that procedural flaws have been found in the statistical side of the WADA studies establishing the decision limits [their emphasis], the violation of the FIS Anti-doping Rules cannot be upheld on appeal. Therefore, the ban imposed by the decision of the FIS Doping Panel has been overturned by the Panel.”
Both the NFLPA and NBPA have resisted incorporating decision limits into HGH testing for their sports. Each makes the argument that its athletes may have, because of the demands of their sport, differing and specific hormone profiles than may be found in other sports, and thus can’t fall under the “normal” criteria of other athletes tested by WADA.
“The issues have been complicated as a result of the CAS ruling, where nobody knows what the various levels are, and experts in the field have different views about the effectiveness of the HGH testing,” acting NBPA Executive Director Ron Klempner said over the weekend.
“…[T]he panel is working, and they also have the same population studies [issues] as the NFL has. In light of the different muscle mass, the different characteristics, the levels may be different.”
The NFLPA finally agreed last week to allow its players to take part in a population study as a precursor to an HGH test, informing its players to be prepared to give blood samples during training camps. But, as The Monday Morning Quarterback’s David Epstein wrote on SI.com last week, if NFL players are using HGH in large numbers, the baseline that could come up when they are tested might be so high for HGH that no player subsequently tested could fail.
In addition, limiting testing for players not under suspicion of using performance enhancers to six tests a year makes it impossible to develop so-called “biological passports,” as are used by cycling and which have cut dramatically into use of PEDs in that community. The year-round testing can find spikes in an athlete’s blood work that are consistent with drug use. Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, in congress with WADA, plans to have biological passport testing for its players up and running by next year’s World Cup.
Getting players in any U.S. team sport to agree to year-round testing, though, will be an extremely heavy lift.
Players will be updated at next month’s union meeting, but the union is steadfast in its belief that all of the outstanding issues are still secondary to the panel’s findings and fact gathering. Asked if the league was putting pressure on the players to agree to HGH testing, Klempner said, “they certainly would like the process to move faster. But they are sensitive to the realities, which is that it’s a complicated issue.”
Said Stackhouse: “We don’t want guys to have an advantage because they use drugs. We want to know. At the same time we have to know more and we’re working toward that.”
ADDENDUM: The NBPA also pushed back strongly Sunday against a Fox Sports report that it was down to four finalists for the Executive Director job, which opened up after the union fired Billy Hunter in February. Hunter has sued the union’s president, Derek Fisher, and Fisher’s assistant, Jamie Wior, in a California court, for defamation and breach of contract; Fisher and Wior have denied the charges and sought a change of venue.
The union fired Hunter in a unanimous vote during All-Star Weekend, after a rupture between Hunter and Fisher became public. Hunter came under fire for employing family members in the union and did business with companies that employed other family members. A report issued by the union was sharply critical of his business practices.
The online report Sunday said that former NBA executive Stu Jackson, Hall of Fame player and former union president Isiah Thomas, former NBA executive and Madison Square Garden president Steve Mills and Charlotte Bobcats President Fred Whitfield were the four finalists for the job.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” a union source said Sunday night. “There’s been no process where there have been any candidates vetted, much less those four. I don’t think there’s been any process or any decision. That’s completely fictional.”
Stackhouse, the union’s first vice president, echoed the denial.
“The process is moving,” he said. “But we haven’t narrowed anything down to any four candidates. These are some of the names that are popping up out there more than others, and we recognize that. But the process of getting a search firm hasn’t even been completed yet. We are looking at two search firms. The HR piece is huge for us, getting to the league what we thought needed to change.”
More union members want to grow its influence beyond just being the collective bargaining unit for the players. New union officials such as the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala have said it’s time to work more with the league to grow the financial pie. It is a model used by the late NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw, who had a close relationship with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagilabue.
“We want to hear their direction,” he said. “What goals do you have for us if we make you the ED? What will you do the first 90 days? What do you see in two years? In five years, what do you see for us? We know we have to continue to grow the game from our side.”
… AND NOBODY ASKED YOU, EITHER
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. From Poul Steenbeek:
I have spent the last two weeks enjoying the Tour de France. And with that comes the inevitable speculation on who uses doping and who doesn’t. I never really hear anything about doping in (NBA) basketball. Why is that? NBA players are exceptionally strong and athletic (even the least athletic players would run circles around us mortals on a hardwood floor). I like to imagine that all of that is pure talent and training, but that is also what I would love to be able to think about cycling. Does the NBA have control systems in place to check the players for performance enhancing drugs? And most important, can I keep the idea that I am loving a clean sport?
Of course there are drug users in the NBA, Poul (see above). There is not a sane, honest person who covers any sport who believes his or her sport is 100 percent clean. I am neither insane nor dishonest, so I don’t believe the NBA is 100 percent clean. We know it isn’t: Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo each got 10-game suspensions in recent years under the old drug policy for violating the league’s drug policy on steroids (Lewis maintained it was an honest mistake), and Hedo Turkoglu (again, above) got 20 games for a first offense under the new policy bargained between the league and union during the 2011 lockout. Having said all that, I do believe the performance enhancement problem is less severe in the NBA than in the NFL or Major League Baseball. But that’s just a belief. What is frightening is I don’t know what I don’t know.
Get your popcorn ready. Put it in Vinnie. From Tobin:
I think the proper comparison for McCollum, the Blazers and the “Isiah Thomas Pistons” is Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson, not Dumars. (Did the phrase “instant offense” get coined because of Vinnie?) McCollum (in my opinion) will thrive more if he comes off the bench as a shooter (chucker?). I’m not convinced he has the size, demeanor or the game to be “like” Dumars (who I place so high in the NBA spectrum that I find it close to sacrilegious to compare him to any player).
Fair comment, Tobin — though I don’t think C.J. can ever be as physical a player as Vinnie, who bulled his way into the lane with those big shoulders he had, creating separation. But C.J. will have to have a great career to equal Joe’s, that’s for sure.
Ties with suits: yes. With wins, not so much. From Luke Duffy:
In response to the tennis team who won 34 games, Arsenal football club went 49 games unbeaten in 2003-2004, stretching across two seasons, there are 38 league games a season, surely this beats the Lakers record in a professional sport?
As with everything these days, Luke, it’s not that I didn’t trust you, but I had to look it up. And, according to Arsenal’s own website, while Arsenal didn’t lose a game over that 49-game stretch you mentioned, the streak wasn’t 49 straight wins — it was 36 wins and 13 ties. That is not meant in any way to disparage the incredible accomplishment you cite, only to provide some context. Many will nonetheless view it as an “unbeaten” streak, which it is. I would humbly suggest, though, that that is a little different from winning “x” number of games in a row.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and a better nom de sexe than Carlos Danger to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently intelligent, thought-provoking, funny or snarky, we just might publish it! And, for the record, my computer generated alias is Alfonso Verboten.
BY THE NUMBERS
20 — Years since Reggie Lewis, the Celtics’ 27-year-old All-Star and future face of the franchise, collapsed and died during a workout in Boston. One of the saddest things I’ve ever had to cover. Reggie was such a cool guy and he was just getting comfortable being the man on a team that was transitioning from the Bird era to his. God, he was quiet, but he was a great, great player. A great tribute here by Jackie MacMullan, who got some incredible quotes from Michael Jordan about how Lewis got in his head.
$2,500 — Per game amount that NBA players, including the Grizzlies’, pay in “professional privilege tax” when they play at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, up to a maximum of $7,500 per year. NBA and NHL players, including the Nashville Predators, are subject to the Tennessee state as part of a 2009 bill passed by the state legislature, which players in the two sports are now trying to have repealed.
$87,256,735 — Brooklyn’s new projected luxury tax payments for the summer of 2014, after signing free agent swingman Alan Anderson to a two-year deal last week. This is how insane The Prokhorov is at the moment: by adding Anderson — a good player; this is not a criticism of his ability — at about $960,000 for next season, the Nets will have to spend about $4.3 million in additional tax. The Nets now have 15 contracts on the books for next season, at an approximate team salary of $102,223,102. (To calculate the luxury tax, I got smart and used the great Larry Coon’s tax calculator spreadsheet, with the equally great Mark Deeds’ Sham Sports providing salaries, including a trade kicker that will bump up Jason Terry’s salary next season up a bit, and the fully guaranteed $12 million plus that Kevin Garnett will receive.) Total expenditure (for now) for the Nets, including salaries and luxury taxes for next season: $189,479,837. By way of comparison, the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., where the Nets played from 1981 through 2010, cost $85 million to build.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) How could you not like the Pacers getting Luis Scola from Phoenix for Gerald Green, Mason Plumlee and a future first, if you’re a Pacers fan and you’re looking for Indy to make a run at unseating the Heat next season? Green and Plumlee weren’t going to crack the rotation, Scola (even if diminishing) is an upgrade over Tyler Hansbrough offensively and gives Indy a bigger, more productive body to use behind David West.
2) Nate Robinson, showing how to use six seconds creatively.
3) The Suns will clearly struggle for wins next season, but GM Ryan McDonough is methodically making the roster younger and more athletic, and Jeff Hornacek looked quite capable of adjusting and motivating during summer league (and, yes, it was just summer league). Getting another pick in the Scola deal (see above) can’t hurt a team that’s going to sink or swim by how it drafts the next few years.
4) Best of luck, Kenny Anderson. That takes a lot of guts.
5) Very cool. And thank you for your service, sir.
6) And: I think I’ve got a winner for the Guest Tipper column to be written while I’m on vacation. I have to stew on it for a couple more days. But the winner will be announced next week. Thank you all so much for your submissions. They were great reading.
NOT FEELIN’ …
1) Still think $80 million, the max that John Wall can receive from the Wizards, is a bit too high. As I wrote during the season, something in the $70 million range — $14 million per for five years!! — is more than enough for a point guard who showed great things for about half a season last year, but whose team still was just a hair under .500 squad despite that great play. It’s not “hating” to say that, in my view, Wall is not yet the equivalent of Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams and Chris Paul — the point guards who have gotten max deals. Wall’s really good, with a chance to be great. But he isn’t great yet. And not-great players shouldn’t get max deals.
2) I love taking the train to New York, and I would love to see Pennsylvania Station refurbished. But the notion of a Madison Square Garden that’s not on the corner of 33rd and 8th is something that would be hard to get used to.
3) Hope everything is still on line for the Warriors’ new building to open by 2017 in San Francisco — not because I want the Warriors to leave Oakland, but because uncertainty about an arena is never good for any franchise. Joe Lacob still seems to think that’s the likely outcome despite murmurs to the contrary.
4) RIP, Dennis Farina. He was one of the great character actors of his time. He was in “Midnight Run,” one of my favorite films, for only about five minutes or so total, but his incredibly colorful (and NSFW, so I can’t post excerpts) turn as Jimmy Serrano stole the show (“I’m gonna blowtorch the two of you”).
5) You want to know why the Redskins aren’t going to play Robert Griffin III in the exhibition season? Exhibit A: the Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin. Exhibit B: The Ravens’ Dennis Pitta. Exhibit C: Denver center Dan Koppen. Most teams haven’t even started hitting in full pads, and three key guys are already out for the season with injuries. Professional football, even played among teammates, ain’t no joke.