Memories and lessons from the John Wooden Basketball Camp

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wooden007.jpgFive days doing nothing but playing basketball. To me as a skinny little fourth grader growing up in Los Angeles, it sounded like nirvana.

The John Wooden basketball camp. I didn’t expect anything but a week of playing my favorite sport, and it was summer so I certainly didn’t expect to learn anything. That was for school and catechism. I expected to go and just have fun and show off my jump shot, which was way better than any of the other kids in my class. Wooden was going to be impressed.

“What you are as a person is far more important that what you are as a basketball player.”

My parents loaded me and a brand new pair of Pony high tops in the Chevy Nova and off we went to the Cal Lutheran campus in Thousand Oaks. Of course I knew who John Wooden was — he was the coach who didn’t lose. Or at least it seemed that way. Los Angeles loved UCLA basketball and worshiped Wooden. A guy who could have had anything he wanted in Los Angeles but luxuriated in a simple life with his family.

So there we were on the first day of drills, a couple hundred kids in a huge gym, and in walks Coach Wooden. This isn’t like so many camps today, where the name that draws kids to the camp walks in on the last day, gives a speech, shakes some hands, takes his check and moves on. Wooden was there, hands on, every day.

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

We were ready for some basketball. We were ready to play. And he told us to sit down and take off our shoes and socks. What? UCLA legend Marcus Johnson would come to speak to us later and ask if he started the camp with learning how to put on our socks and shoes. He had done it, too. When the UCLA players showed up for the first day of practice, Wooden went through the same thing with his highly recruited players. Learn how to put on your socks and shoes properly so you reduced blisters and foot problems.

Start at the beginning and make sure you get the little things right. It is just one of the many lessons I still carry over to this day from those camps. Things I try to apply to my life now.

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

Two summers I went to the Wooden camp and it remains some of the best memories of my childhood. I remember friends and I playing jokes on each other at meals (leaving to go to the bathroom during breakfast was a big mistake, your food would not be edible upon your return). I remember the session spent going over the Pyramid of Success. I remember the Dallas Cowboys having training camp there at the same time and thinking I didn’t know people could be so big.

I remember Swen Nater speaking to us and halfway through the talk reaching up and grabbing the net with his hands — feet still flat on the floor — and leaning on it like it was a lamppost. At that point, he could have given us the secret to becoming an NBA player, the secret to making our parents feed us ice cream for dinner every night, and we never would have heard it. We were amazed and no words entered our ears.

And I remember the basketball. Lots of basketball. On indoor courts and outdoor ones, against players often better, but holding my own. I remember it was about sportsmanship after every game. I remember spending an hour with one of the young coaches reworking my jumpshot form. For Wooden, it was always about doing things the right way. To this day my form is pretty good. (Note: good form is no predictor of shot accuracy.)

“Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability.”

Years later, while working my way through college waiting tables in Northridge, I worked at a restaurant Wooden used to come in to semi-regularly. We were careful to sit him in a place where other guests would not bother him.

Like most people growing up in Los Angeles, I’m pretty unaffected by famous people. Wooden was different. I went up to him near the end of his meal and said thank you. He asked me about college and what my plans were and how I liked working part time as a high school sports stringer at the Daily News. I refilled his tea. He was the kind of person that when you talked to them you felt like the only person in the room. I’m terrible at that, but I remember that moment and try to be better about it.

Fast forward to this past Thursday night, me pushing to get stories done after Game 1 of the Lakers Celtics. I instinctively told myself, “be quick, don’t hurry.” Maybe my favorite and the most useful Woodenism. Many other ones that are part of the running dialogue in my head. I still think of those lessons.

Like so many people who crossed paths with John Wooden, I went in expecting one thing and came out with lessons that lasted a lifetime. Things that didn’t sink in to a fourth-grader but do to a guy still around the game every day in another capacity. To a guy who is a husband. To a guy who is a father. To a guy who wants to be a better person.

Thank you Coach Wooden. For everything.

Kevin Durant fined $25,000 for telling fan to “shut the f*** up”

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The percentage of players who would like to tell a courtside fan to “shut the f*** up” would be close to 100.

However, there are 25,000 reasons players don’t do that. Kevin Durant found out the hard way. During the Warriors loss in Dallas Monday, Durant was being heckled by fans along the baseline calling him “cupcake” (an old Russell Westbrook insult) and it got under KD’s skin enough that he told the fans to “watch the f****** game and shut the f*** up.”

The league office, it turns out, does not like it’s players talking to fans that way — at least when it’s caught on video — so Durant was fined $25,000 on Tuesday.

Fans taunting players with the hopes of catching a reaction on video is a growing trend in recent years around the NBA, and so far the league’s response to that has been to remind fans around the court they can be removed for what they are saying (with a postcard note on each seat).

Personally, if you choose to engage a player that way during a game, he has the right to fire back and say whatever he wants. If you want to get in the NBA trash talk game, you have to be able to take it, not just dish it. Those are not the ground rules, however, so KD gets a fine.

Only high schoolers who would’ve been consensus draft candidates to receive $125,000 minor-league offer

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The NBA’s minor league’s plan to offer players $125,000 salaries straight out of high school sparked two major questions:

  • Who will receive that offer?
  • Who will take it?

Former NBA player Rod Strickland and former WNBA player Allison Feaster will run the program, and they’re answering the first question.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBA is limiting eligibility for the professional path program to prep players who would be considered consensus candidates for the draft if there were no early entry rule to prohibit them. Feaster will work with a group that includes Strickland and the NBA’s basketball operations and player development staffs to evaluate the potential players.

“It will be elite prospects with a readiness for a professional league,” Feaster told ESPN. “We want to target players who would not be going to a university if it weren’t for the NBA eligibility rule. That’s more or less what’s going to dictate this.”

Feaster expects a “handful” of players to be part of the initial group in the professional path. Feaster and Strickland emphasized that the program will be judicious in choosing those eligible for the pro path opportunity.

For reference, 17 high schoolers were picked in the final two drafts (2004 and 2005) before the NBA implemented its one-and-done rule. So, that suggests about 8-9 players annually will get offered the $125,000 deal.

That still leaves the other question: Who will take it?

Kevin Durant said he wouldn’t have. Shoe companies are still spending the most money, and they’re heavily invested in the visibility of college basketball.

But every prospect’s situation is unique. With Strickland and Feaster in place, we’ll soon see how players receive this new path.

76ers sound caught off guard about Markelle Fultz stepping away

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Markelle Fultz has played in all 17 of the 76ers’ games this season, starting until they traded for Jimmy Butler. A couple weeks ago, Fultz called himself generally healthy.

Then, Fultz’s agent, Raymond Brothers, informed the 76ers the guard wouldn’t play or practice until visiting a specialist Monday. Fultz will miss at least three games – against the Pelicans, Cavaliers and Nets.

76ers coach Brett Brown:

It’s kind of the first real sort of red-flag-type news.

This news about his shoulder, it did catch me off guard. But if it’s that real that he needs to go seek further consultation, then we support him. In my eyes, it’s not complicated. If that’s what it is, then we’ll support him.

76ers general manager Elton Brand:

We thought it was the regular bumps and bruises.

There’s nothing that we saw medically that didn’t allow him to play.

This yet another odd turn in a saga that already included plenty of contentiousness, animosity, rumors and cringe-worthy moments. At this point, it’s hard to be shocked by anything with Fultz.

It’s also hard to take the 76ers seriously when they suggest it seemed like business as usual. Fultz’s shot is disturbingly broken. There is clearly a problem. Maybe letting Fultz play without fretting over the issue was the right course, but how surprised can Philadelphia be that he took a more drastic measure?

Hopefully, the specialist helps Fultz identify and fix this issue.

Bulls’ Denzel Valentine likely to miss entire season

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Bulls wing Denzel Valentine has had a rough go of it.

A lottery pick two years ago, battled ankle injuries during his rookie year and underwent ankle surgery after the season. He stayed mostly healthy last year, but his season still ended early for knee surgery. Then, over the summer, he got torched in the Drew League by Frank “Nitty” Session, who questioned how Valentine was in the NBA:

And now…

Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

Denzel Valentine was originally expected to miss one to two weeks after suffering a sprained ankle on the second day of training camp. One setback led to another, and on Monday the Bulls announced that the third year guard will undergo surgical reconstruction on that left ankle. He’ll miss four to six months, the team announced, effectively ending his season.

The long end of that timeline will keep Valentine sidelined the entire season. The short end would allow him to return late in the year, but with Chicago so dismal, there’s little incentive to rush him back.

Valentine is under contract next season, the final year of his rookie-scale deal. He might need to prove himself to make Nitty’s question still relevant.