Nike brings World Basketball Festival to Chicago

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CHICAGO — Nike and USA Basketball descended on the city of Chicago this week, and partnered to put on its World Basketball Festival event that was created to celebrate and honor the global passion for the game. The two previous versions took place in New York in 2010 and Washington D.C. in 2012, but Chicago’s city-wide, deep-rooted passion for the game seems to be the most appropriate stop to date.

The folks at Nike and Jordan Brand wanted to give a group of media members an overview of just how influential basketball has been to those in this city, and after a day spent visiting historic sites related to the game and speaking to some of the legends associated with it, it’s clear that basketball is incredibly important to all of the individual communities that make up one of the country’s largest cities.

Our day began with an introductory speech from Scoop Jackson — a well-known journalist, but also a Chicago basketball historian whose enthusiasm for the game and what it means to this city is evident from the very first words he speaks. Jackson tells us about legendary players like Billy Harris, the name at the top of everyone’s list anytime the topic of Chicago’s greatest playground legend is ever approached. He explains how no matter the age or skill level, people can be found all over the city playing the game and discussing the area’s most influential players.

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He points out the wide variety of players from the area who made it to the NBA, all of whom don’t necessarily do one thing great, but have mastered multiple aspects of the game in order to compete anywhere while growing up in the city. Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Shawn Marion and Tony Allen are a few examples he gave, and of course there are more recent entries like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and incoming rookie Jabari Parker. He tells us stories of Michael Jordan flying in to compete on the city’s playgrounds to scratch that competitive itch, both while he was still in the league and for years after he retired. Finally, he implores us to talk to as many people around town that we can to verify that what he’s saying is the truth — something we’d get a chance to do anyway, but that wasn’t at all necessary given the intensity and excitement with which he conveyed his words.

“Basketball is Chicago’s export to the world,” Jackson has said. “I’ve compared it to Hip Hop in New York, technology coming out of Seattle, the auto industry in Detroit, food from New Orleans. This is what we do.”

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Our bus pulled up to Simeon Career Academy, a high school on the South Side of Chicago that is a large facility, but unassuming when you consider the level of basketball talent that has been produced there over the years. There’s Bucks rookie Jabari Parker and Bulls superstar Derrick Rose most recently, but others like Nick Anderson and Benji Wilson (whose tragic story was chronicled in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary) speak to just how rich the school’s history is.

We walked into the gym that doesn’t have air conditioning, and made our way to the bleachers. In came Sonny Parker — Jabari’s father, and a former NBA player who was born and raised in Chicago. He spoke about growing up in the city, and how the South Side has changed. Back in the day, he said, it was understood that athletes could walk through bad neighborhoods with a free pass, and that if something was about to go down, they would be given a warning so they could get away unscathed. He doesn’t believe that’s the case anymore, but also doesn’t feel like the neighborhood is nearly as bad as the media reports make it seem.

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He talked about Michael Jordan, and how he had a “Love of the Game” clause in his contract that allowed him to play anytime, anywhere — even on the playgrounds of Chicago. Jabari, he said, has the freedom to do the same. Parker told us how players from different areas play the game differently — for example, on the West side, he said, they’re a little more aggressive because of a shortage of bigs. Intensity is used to make up for that size advantage with players from that part of town, but those differences speak to what Scoop Jackson told us, which is that players had to be able to play a variety of different ways and hone a broad range of skills if they wanted to be able to dominate in all parts of the city.

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The day wrapped up with a trip to the 63rd Street Beach House, home base for all of the World Basketball Festival’s activities. We stopped by some outdoor basketball courts across the street, where clinics were being conducted for children from all parts of the city. We got some time to speak with Anthony Harris, who currently plays professionally in the D-League but more importantly for our purposes, is the son of Billy Harris, Chicago’s most legendary basketball player.

Anthony didn’t get to see his father play in his prime, of course, but said the man could still shoot the lights out, even in his older years. Scoop Jackson told us about how he was researching Billy, and walked all over the city on a daily basis trying to find one person — just one — who would say they ever saw Billy play a bad game. He gave up after three months. Anthony echoed that sentiment, and said he heard ridiculous stories — like his father grabbing a jump ball at one end of the court, and immediately shooting from there and draining what would have been an incredibly long shot. Anthony had trouble believing it, but said multiple people who claim to have been there swear that it happened.

Anthony talked about growing up in Chicago and leaving the house early in the morning to play an entire day’s worth of basketball, sometimes going from court to court in search of the city’s best players.

“If I went to your court, I was coming for you,” Anthony said.

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We wrapped things up by walking over to the Beach House, where there is a Nike Basketball museum of sorts set up that has some incredible artifacts — like the LeBron James MVP Puppet that was a part of one of the company’s more popular campaigns in recent years.

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There will be games held there all weekend — pro-am and three on three tournaments, FIBA skills competitions and appearances by members of the USA Basketball team. But more than anything, it’s simply a celebration of the game of basketball, and one that the city of Chicago seems uniquely positioned to appreciate.

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Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.

Blazers passing impressive as they push first-half lead to double digits (VIDEO)

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Back home, the Portland Trail Blazers looked far more comfortable.

Feeding off the energy of a loud crowd at the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers stretched out to a first-half lead thanks to a level of impressive ball movement and energy we have not seen from them all series. Check it out.

This may go down as the Myers Leonard game, he had 13 points in the first half.

Portland stretched their lead to as much as 18 and was up by 13 at the half. I wouldn’t call that comfortable because, well, Golden State, but it’s the best the Blazers have played all series.

Rockets will not bring defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik back next season

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Before the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 112.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions), 25th in the NBA.

After the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 105.3, second best in the NBA. In the playoffs, the Rockets had a 107.3 defensive rating despite six games against the Warriors.

There are multiple reasons for that change, but a key one: The Rockets backed up the Brinks truck and brought assistant coach and defensive specialist Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement to help fix the problems.

Bzdelik will not be back with the team next season, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Technically Bzdelik was fired, although that is not an accurate description of really what happened here. This was not because of poor job performance, it was a question of if he really wanted to be there, and the Rockets wanted someone all-in. Understandably. This is a Houston team still on the cusp of a title, just one that has run headlong into the Warriors dynasty in recent years. A dynasty that likely will look a lot different next year, opening the door in the West. The Rockets want to push through that door.

That said, replacing Bzdelik will not be easy.

It’s one of a number of challenging choices for the Rockets this summer.