Nigeria’s Joe Uchebo Finally Realizing Hoops Dream After Rocky 7-Year Journey

Joe Uchebo called his mom in Nigeria in despair. It was the summer of 2012, and he was despondent over the state of his right knee and what it meant for his basketball career. He had been in America for five years, and not only was he nowhere near his goal of playing at the Division I level, but he feared he might never play again at any level.

Uchebo, once a heavily recruited high school player, was a rising sophomore in junior college and recovering from microfracture surgery, from which returning is notoriously difficult. He wondered whether his move to the United States to play basketball  in 2007 and the five years he spent working on his game were all going to turn out to be a waste of time.

“I felt like my dream is going down,” he says. He poured his fears out to his mom. She promised to pray for him and told him not to worry, that the injury was not the end of his career but a valley for him to climb out of.

Two and a half years later, his dream has new life.


 

It’s a bitingly cold November afternoon as Uchebo and I drive to his apartment near the Pitt campus. Uchebo, now a junior center for the Panthers, has agreed to cook for me his Nigerian fish stew that is famous among his coaches, friends and teammates. He tells me his kitchen is small, so we’re going to grab the ingredients and utensils and go to one of his teammate’s apartments to cook.

I think he’s being modest about the kitchen … and then I see it. It is maybe six feet long and three feet wide. Uchebo stands 6’10″ and weighs 245 and he barely fits in it by himself. There is no way we both could stand in there, let alone cook.

He cooked often in junior college, too, and he cooks when he visits his host family and friends in his “home” state of North Carolina, and always for the same reasons: The smell, the taste, the trips to the African grocery store to buy the ingredients, all transport him to Enugu, Nigeria, to his beloved mother’s kitchen.

And in his roller coaster seven years in the United States, he has sometimes wished he could return there.

Uchebo lost 40 pounds in his first year in America, in part because he didn’t like American food and in part because he says he wasn’t getting enough of it at his boarding school. He bounced to four high schools in four years. And just when he finally seized control of his basketball career in his freshman year of junior college, he blew out his knee and didn’t play for two years.

But he saw smidgens of playing time last year at Pitt as he worked his way back to health. And after a strong run in summer play and solid stretch of exhibition performances this year, Uchebo, 22, again looks like the player who drew attention from Kentucky, Florida and North Carolina State as a high school recruit. After nibbling on success in big-time college basketball, he wants to feast on it.

 


 

Uchebo was 6’9″ and 15 years old and playing soccer in Nigeria when the basketball coach at his school saw him and asked, why isn’t that kid playing basketball? With his size and length, he certainly looked like a basketball player. He couldn’t even dribble at first, and he laughs when he talks about watching other kids bounce the ball between their legs and behind their backs when he could hardly manage bouncing it up and down. He liked the game, though, and as he progressed by practicing at a local park and playing in tournaments, he added rebounding and solid passing to his impressive size and the good footwork he brought from soccer.

Uchebo drew the attention of American coaches scouting for talent. They convinced him to move to the United States to pursue basketball as a means to an education and maybe a career. He arrived in Atlanta in the fall of 2007, and as he stepped outside the airport, cold he never knew existed sliced him in half. Or as he put it: “It was super cold. Freezing. I never felt that cold before in my life. Freezing. Like, I’m freezing. Oh, my god. Freezing.”

Everything was harder than he thought it would be. Uchebo felt like an outsider as he didn’t like the food and struggled to communicate. “He could maybe speak 10 words,” says Jim Caddell, who became his host father. “He could not communicate with us or anyone in English besides thank you, hello.”

Uchebo met a player from Ghana named Bawa Muniru, who became like a big brother and mentor to him. Be patient, Muniru told him, things will get better. And they did, albeit gradually.

College basketball recruiting can be difficult for kids who grew up in the United States. For Uchebo, it proved baffling. “Not knowing the whole system, not knowing left or right, who do you want to trust, what you have to do, that’s the kind of thing that messed me up,” he says.

Still, Uchebo emerged as a consensus top 100 player as he played on high school and AAU teams and picked up the games intricacies to go along with his size and natural ability. He committed to N.C. State, but that fell through—he didn’t qualify because he hadn’t taken the proper classes in high school.

He was disappointed, of course, and by the time he graduated from Word of God Academy in Raleigh, N.C, in 2011 he faced a crossroads. Try to find another D-I school? Settle for D-II? Or start over at a junior college and try to work his way back to D-I?

He enrolled in Chipola College, a junior college in Florida’s panhandle. “Even though I didn’t make it to D-I, I still got one more chance. All it’s going to take is hard work. I have to do it,” he says.

 


 

Uchebo fills the doorway that leads into his tiny kitchen. He wears a crucifix around his neck and a rosary ring on his left pinkie, which reminds him to pray. As he grabs a spatula and pot, I look around his one-room apartment. His bed, TV, dozens of pairs of shoes and a prayer altar upon which sit bottles of holy water fill the space. He has room enough to eat, sleep, pray and study, and that’s it. He likes it that way because there are no distractions.

He hands me a stack of photos two inches thick. I thumb through pictures of his late father, mom, three brothers and sister. His mom and sister live in Nigeria. His brothers live in Europe, where two of them play professional soccer. One played for the Nigerian World Cup team last summer.

Uchebo sorts through his spices, which he buys in bulk and stores in Gatorade bottles. He pushes aside the nutmeg, which he grinds himself. He opens his freezer and grabs two trout.

“Do you like peppers?” he asks me. “They’re hot.”

I say yes, so he grabs two orange ones.

We drive to teammate Tyrone Haughton’s apartment. “Clean up when you’re done,” he tells Uchebo.

Uchebo agrees.

“No, I mean all of it,” Haughton teases, waving his arm across the apartment, “the whole thing.”


 

Chipola College has one of the best basketball programs in one of the best junior college conferences in the country, and Uchebo thrived there. He bought a portable two-burner stovetop and used it to cook stew, goat and other dishes in his dorm for his teammates, recreating the meal-as-a-communal-event atmosphere that is part of Nigerian culture.

He progressed on the court, too.“He was a walking double-double,” said Jake Headrick, Uchebo’s head coach at Chipola. As a freshman in 2011-12, he averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds a game, which again made him a sought-after D-I recruit.

But in early January, Uchebo knocked knees with an opponent. He limped through a few games before being shut down.The surgery and the desperate call to his mom followed six months later.

Over the next year, there was little improvement. Chipola doesn’t have a medical staff like a big school, and because Uchebo’s physical therapy appointments required a two-hour round trip and he had to find a ride to each one, he often missed sessions. He didn’t play in the 2012-13 season.

“I thought my basketball (career) might be over,” he says.

Then he caught a break.

On April 3, 2013, Pitt center Steven Adams declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. That left Pitt coach Jamie Dixon short on big men late in the recruiting cycle.

Assistant coach Bill Barton had seen Uchebo play in high school and liked what he saw. Pitt coaches watched Uchebo’s game tape from Chipola and liked that, too. Along with his rebounding, passing and footwork, they saw good interior defense. But Uchebo was still hurt. “He was not even close to what he was on tape,” Dixon says.

Pitt was in enough of a bind to keep recruiting him. They flew him to Pittsburgh, showed him the city’s churches and took him to Mass. They talked up their medical facilities. Uchebo liked Barton, his main recruiter. And he bonded with Dixon because they are both Catholics.

Uchebo could barely run or jump.

Dixon signed him anyway.


 

Uchebo chops off the trouts’ heads, whacks off their tails and slices off their fins. Holding the knife in his right hand and the fish in his left, he saws each fish into pieces, gritting his teeth when feeling the cold of the fish. He adds the fish—bones still in, scales still on—to the pot, which already simmers with the peppers and spices.

He sings to himself.

He washes rice and puts a pot of it on a second burner. He talks to himself, ticking off the ingredients on his fingers. He realizes he forgot two, so we leave the rice and stew cooking and run out to get two red onions and a can of sardines. Soon they join the pot.

Now all Uchebo has to do is wait for the ingredients to come together.

His basketball career is in the exact same condition.


 

 

Uchebo called his mom before Pitt’s home game against Maryland last January, as he does before every game so she can pray for him. She told him to kneel. She asked God to keep his knee healthy and to give Pitt a win that day.

Pitt blew out Maryland, and as the clock wound down, Dixon emptied his bench. Joe, he said, get in there.

For Uchebo, sitting at the end of the bench, the moment he had been waiting for had arrived. Seven years after he moved to the United States, his dream of playing D-I basketball had finally, mercifully, unbelievably come true.

The only problem was he didn’t know it.

He wasn’t expecting to play, so he wasn’t paying attention and didn’t hear Dixon summon him.

“Joe!” his teammates yelled. “Joe! Joe!”

Snapped out of his reverie, he ripped off his warm-ups like they were on fire. He picked up a rebound that night, and he scored his first field goal of the season five days later. Both times, the Oakland Zoo, Pitt’s student section, screamed its delight.

Last summer, Uchebo called his mom after his brother scored in a friendly for the Nigerian soccer team against Scotland. His sister said she couldn’t come to the phone because she was running around the house, hooting and hollering in celebration.

She had been approximately that happy when Uchebo told her he had scored his first points for Pitt.

To Uchebo, her joy sounded beautiful.


 

In those brief appearances last season—nine games, totaling 23 minutes, four points, seven rebounds—Uchebo hobbled up and down the court, his knee still nowhere near healthy. Nobody thought he’d be capable of starting at center for Pitt this year.

Meager as those few games were, they gave him a taste of the big time. So he added fire to his game. He pushed himself in rehab, fighting through the pain that once held him back. “No cheating, no cutting, no halfway done,” he says. “I have to do it. This is my chance to prove everybody wrong.”

When summer practice opened, Uchebo looked transformed. He became more vocal and aggressive in practice. Before he could barely dunk. Now he wants to dunk everything. “If you had seen (him) a year ago,” Dixon says, and then he stops and looks at me. “You wouldn’t be writing the story, put it that way.”

But like the stew without the onions and sardines, Uchebo is an incomplete dish. He’s fine in a half-court setting. But he can’t run up and down the court for a full game because his knee isn’t 100 percent.

That makes it tough for Pitt coaches to assess how good Uchebo can be or how big of a role he’ll play this year. Early results are tantalizing. He averaged 7.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in a four-game tournament in the Bahamas in August. He started the early season games but was used sparingly. He nearly pulled off a double-double (12 points, nine rebounds) in just 14 minutes against Duquesne earlier this month. Dixon expects him to provide key defense and rebounding in the middle against the big men of the ACC.

The improved health and encouraging play so far has fueled Uchebo’s confidence. “If my knee was OK, there’s no doubt I’d be here dominating every day,” he says. “I don’t think anybody’s going to stop me on the post.”

Assuming Uchebo continues to progress, Barton says Uchebo’s interior defense and rebounding would allow him to play pro ball somewhere. But that’s as much of a prediction as anyone can offer.

A clue about Uchebo’s future in basketball might come from his schoolwork.

When he enrolled at Chipola, the school asked him to take remedial English and writing. He blanched, but Caddell talked him into it. That turned out to be huge.

“I can remember him being on the bus. Some guys would be goofing off. Joe would be trying to study,” says Headrick, the Chipola coach who is now an assistant at Samford University. “He wasn’t big on wasting time, if that makes sense. If somebody was distracting him, he was quick to let them know. Hey, I’m trying to do this, leave me alone. With him being 6’10″ and 250 pounds, they weren’t messing with him anymore, I can tell you that.”

Now Uchebo has been on the ACC Academic Honor Roll, will graduate from Pitt this month with a degree in social sciences and plans to start graduate studies in January.


 

Uchebo towers over the stove, working two burners at once. He checks the rice … not ready yet. He spoons a drop of stew onto the palm of his left hand and brings it to his mouth. He rolls it around on his tongue, savors it for a second, mulls its quality … then dumps more salt into the pot.

A few minutes later he declares the meal ready. He plops a heaping pile of it onto a plate. It’s enough to feed a small family. “Is that enough?” he asks me. Then he piles stew with huge chunks of fish on top of the rice. “Do you want more fish?” he asks.

Roughly two hours after this cooking expedition started, we dig in. I ask Uchebo why he goes to all this time and effort to cook Nigerian food. He says the food creates a bridge that spans nearly 6,000 miles, all the way back to his home in Enugu. Also: he thinks it tastes far better than American food. The smile on his face as he eats shows he believes it is worth it.

Will his basketball career prove worthy of all the time and effort he has put in? The answer to that question is already yes, no matter what happens next. “My knee is getting fine. They’re taking good care of me,” he says. “I’m enjoying myself like I should. I feel like I’m an American.”

And his stew is delicious.

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King’s Court: Kentucky’s Undefeated Dream May Be Within Reach This Season

INDIANAPOLIS—A year ago, they were crying in the locker room.

Ranked No. 1 in both polls, the Kentucky Wildcats had looked overwhelmed and disjointed in a 78-74 loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic. The postgame tears, though, stemmed from something deeper than the setback against the Spartans in the third game of the year.

“They were crushed,” Calipari told B/R a few months later, “that they weren’t going to go 40-0.”

Far-fetched as it seemed, that was the buzz about Kentucky entering last season. Fans wore “40-0″ shirts around campus while radio hosts and Internet trolls bantered ad nauseam about the possibility of an undefeated season. Though not intentional, Calipari fueled the discussion when he talked about his goal of finishing a season with a spotless record.

“But I never talked about it being with this (the 2013-14) team,” Calipari said then. “I said I’d like to do it one day. I knew it wouldn’t happen with this team. Still, I should’ve done more to shield the players from all that stuff, all that talk.

“I learned my lesson. I’ll never let that happen again.”

Funny, but one year later, Kentucky finds itself in largely the same position. Only this time, the hoopla about a potential 40-0 season actually seems legit. And try as he may, Calipari—college sports’ ultimate spin doctor—can’t do anything to stop it.

It’s his own fault, really.

So dominant, driven and downright dirty is the team Calipari has assembled that, after Tuesday’s 72-40 victory over Kansas, it was impossible not to entertain the thought of the 2014-15 Wildcats finishing the year without a blemish.

“John should go 45-0 with that talent,” SMU coach Larry Brown, one of Calipari’s mentors, told USA Today. Painful as it must’ve have been, Kansas coach Bill Self admitted as much, too.

“I don’t think it’s crazy to think that,” Self said on his radio show. “We’ve never played a team that has that many good players. They have 10 NBA guys.”

Indeed, Kansas appeared absolutely shell-shocked in Tuesday’s loss, not only by Kentucky’s depth and talent, but by its speed, athleticism, size and length. The loss was the worst of the Self era and the fourth-worst in school history.

And remember, Kansas is the country’s fifth-ranked team, not some Big 12 also-ran.

“We kind of bum-rushed them a little bit,” Calipari said. “Every time they looked, there were more tanks coming over the hill, more substitutes and reinforcements. It kind of gets to you a little bit. I think that’s what happened.”

So if Kansas can’t compete with Kentucky, who on the Wildcats’ schedule can.

North Carolina seems like the obvious answer, but that game on Dec. 13 is in Lexington. The SEC is rarely very strong, but this year it appears particularly dismal, with Florida the only other ranked squad. LSU has talent but lacks depth, structure and cohesion. Arkansas may be good enough to pose a threat if the Wildcats are having an off-night. But aside from those games, things could be really ugly.

In other words, if Kentucky is going to lose, it may not be until the NCAA tournament. And if it happens then, it probably wouldn’t be until the Eight Eight or Final Four, when the Wildcats would face a relatively-high seed like Duke, Arizona, Gonzaga or Wisconsin.

“Right now, they’re so much ahead of where other people are,” Self told reporters after Kansas’ loss to Kentucky. “But they’re going to go somewhere and run into someone that’s going to play great. Someone is going to have a good game against them. Teams do get better over the course of the season.

“But [Kentucky] will get better, too.”

And that, friends, is why those 40-0 shirts may come in handy after all.

 

Report Card

A’s

Briante Weber: The VCU guard—and the nation’s top defender—had nine steals Tuesday against Toledo. Nine steals.

Wisconsin: In almost any other year, the Badgers would be the country’s No. 1 team. Not sure if Bo Ryan has ever had a squad this good.

Tekele Cotton: The Wichita State senior had the dunk of the year last spring. Judging by this nasty jam against Memphis, he Shockers’ elder statesman hasn’t lost a step.

B’s

Tom Izzo: Despite losing Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling from last year’s squad—not to mention the offseason departure of projected starter Kenny Kaminski—Izzo had his team of newcomers and former role players ready to go Tuesday against a Duke squad that had a major talent advantage. Most folks assumed the Blue Devils would win in a blowout, but the contest was closer than the 81-71 score indicated. Credit Izzo for that.

Transfers: Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga), Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez (Miami), Trevor Lacey (North Carolina State) and Bryce Dejean-Jones (Iowa State) have all had big moments thus far.

Myles Turner: Even though he was a consensus top-five recruit, it seemed it may take the Texas center a bit longer to adjust to the college game than some of his highly-touted classmates. Turner, though, has been excellent thus far with 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks.   

C’s

Champions Classic: Can we make this awesome event even better by turning it into a tournament? How great would it have been to see Duke and Kentucky play Wednesday night?

Delon Wright: Last season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year needed to have a big game for Utah to win at No. 16 San Diego State. Instead he scored just seven points on two-of-13 shooting while committing three turnovers as the Utes lost 53-49.

Auburn: Considering the returning talent and potential impact newcomers, I thought the Tigers would’ve looked a little better in Bruce Pearl’s first few games. Instead they had to rally to beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee at home before getting curb-stomped by 31 points at Colorado.

D’s

New York tournaments: There are four events in the Big Apple this week, but none of them do much for the excite-o-meter. Check out the fields for the 2K Sports Classic, the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, the Legends Classic and the NIT Season Tipoff and tell me what you think.

Andy Kennedy: The Ole Miss coach should wear a burglar mask on the sidelines. He’s stealing money. Kennedy, who led the Rebels to just one NCAA tournament berth in his first nine years, kicked off season No. 10 with a home loss to Charleston Southern.

Kansas freshmen: Kelly Oubre can hardly get on the court, Cliff Alexander is having trouble learning the playbook and Svi Mykhailiuk is shooting 14.3 percent from three-point range.

F’s

LSU and Florida State: LSU has three high-level players in Jordan Mickey, Josh Gray and Jarrell Martin. But the Tigers needed overtime to defeat a Texas Tech squad that could very well go 0-18 in the Big 12. Even worse, the game was in Baton Rouge. A few days earlier they gave up 82 points in a TKTK over Gardner Webb. That’s just inexcusable, fellas. You’re too talented for that.

SEC: LSU’s mediocrity isn’t good for a league that has struggled to rebuild its basketball reputation the past few years. Kentucky and Florida are the only ranked teams. Arkansas and Texas A&M—and, OK, LSU—have the potential to be pesky. But other than that there just isn’t much there.

Markus Kennedy: This grade should look familiar to SMU’s second-leading returning scorer, who is ineligible for the fall semester because of academic issues. I know SMU has higher standards than some schools, but with all of the tutoring and extra help available, there’s no excuse for damaging your program by flunking off the team.

 

Thoughts From Press Row

1. One of the most impressive things about Duke thus far is the bond that’s developed between freshman guards Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook.

It would’ve been easy for Cook, a senior, to develop a bad attitude after Jones took over the starting point guard spot he’s held for the past two seasons. Instead, Cook handled the situation with class, embraced his move to shooting guard and turned a potentially sticky situation into something positive. That says a lot about Cook’s character.

“He’s given me confidence by telling me to believe in myself, because he knows what I can do on the court,” Jones said after Tuesday’s 81-71 win over Michigan State. “He’s welcomed me with open arms and it’s been really easy to adjust.”

Fittingly, Cook scored a game-high 19 points against the Spartans.

2. Multiple times during the offseason, my Bleacher Report colleague, C.J. Moore, tried to convince me that UC-Santa Barbara senior Alan Williams belonged on one of our preseason All-American teams. Admittedly, I was a bit leery.

Not anymore.

After watching Williams score 22 points, grab 13 rebounds and block four shots against Kansas—in Allen Fieldhouse, no less—I’m convinced the guy is legit.

3. Along with 17 points, Nebraska small forward Shavon Shields is averaging team-highs in rebounds (7.5) and assists (3.0). He’s clearly a top-flight player, which makes you wonder why schools didn’t try to sign Shields and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein as a package deal. Cauley-Stein, you may remember, lived with Shields and his family during his final two years of high school.

“No one was ever smart enough to figure out that that might be a good idea,” said Shavon’s father, Will, a former standout lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs. “A school would be licking their chops right now if they had both of them on the same team.”

4. Enjoyed talking hoops with ESPN analyst and former Duke star Jay Williams as we waited for our flight at the Indianapolis Airport Wednesday morning. The biggest topic: who is the second-best team in the Big Ten? Neither one of us had an answer that we felt particularly good about. Jay mentioned Iowa, although I’m not positive that was his definitive choice. I’m going with Ohio State…for now.

 

Starting Five

Let’s take a look at coaches who could replace Donnie Tyndall at Tennessee if, of course, he loses his job following an NCAA investigation into potential violations that occurred under his watch at Southern Miss:

• Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech: Personality, charisma and southern charm. Williams has it all. And, oh, he’s a darn good coach, too. I can’t think of a better fit. It’s hard to imagine him leaving the Hokies after one season—and I’m not saying he would—but this would be a job he covets. He’d be expensive, though, and Tennessee may not be willing to pay his price.

• Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: If I were power ranking coaches—meaning I’d be basing my selections not on overall resume, but on who the best coaches are at the moment—Marshall would be in my top five. Much like Williams, I’m not sure Tennessee would fork over the $3 million it would take to make him consider it.

• Scott Drew, Baylor: Few coaches in the country work as hard in recruiting as Drew and his staff, and it’s paid off on the court. Along with orchestrating what was arguably the top rebuilding job in college basketball history, Drew’s in-game coaching has improved immensely.

• Richard Pitino, Minnesota: The 32-year old with Hall of Fame bloodlines led the Gophers to the NIT title in his first season. This would be a great hire if the Volunteers were turned down by some of their top targets.

• Bruce Pearl, Auburn: Hell, why not?

 

A Dozen Words On My Top 12 Teams

1. Kentucky: Could this be one of the greatest teams in college basketball history?

2. Wisconsin: Coaching, experience and two NBA players make Badgers Big Ten’s best team.

3. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs’ three wins have come by an average of 38 points.

4. Duke: Blue Devils will be the nation’s second-best team by mid-January.

5. North Carolina: Marcus Paige isn’t shooting it well (38.9 percent) but that will change.

6. Arizona: Wildcats will be on another level once freshman Stanley Johnson takes off.

7. Wichita State: Baker, Cotton and VanVleet are studs, but others need to step up

8. Louisville: Montrezl Harrell (22.5 points) is nation’s best big man behind Jahlil Okafor.

9. Texas: Rick Barnes’ squad may be the country’s deepest team not named Kentucky.

10. Virginia: The Cavaliers won’t repeat as ACC champs, but they’re still darn good.

11. Iowa State: Georges Niang and the Cyclones treated upstart Georgia State like a pinata.

12. Kansas: Jayhawks are still my pick to win an 11th straight Big 12 title.

 

On My Radar

Johnathan Motley, Baylor forward: Even after losing Isaiah Austin, Brady Heslip and Cory Jefferson, I expect the Bears to be an NCAA tournament team thanks to the presence of Motley, a 6’9” redshirt freshman who had 17 points in Tuesday’s 69-65 win at South Carolina.

Chris Jans, Bowling Green head coach: The “Shocker swagger” that Jans developed in his seven years as a Wichita State assistant has apparently rubbed off onto his players. Bowling Green is off to a 2-0 start—beating Drake on the road and Wright State at home—after going 12-20 last season under Louis Orr. The Falcons haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1968.

North Carolina State’s backcourt: Anthony “Cat” Barber and Trevor Lacey have combined to average 39 points and eight assists in the Wolfpack’s first two games. Mix in battle-tested junior guard/forward Ralston Turner (15.5 points) and it appears N.C. State will be anything but an easy-out in the ACC.

 

Rapid Fire Thoughts

• Craves attention: Jim Calhoun

• Hates attention: Rick Barnes, Texas head coach

• Freshman we aren’t talking enough about: Rashad Vaughn, UNLV

• Freshman we’re talking too much about (for now): Kelly Oubre, Kansas

• Surging: Shannon Scott, Ohio State

• Struggling: Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke

• Not ready to give up on: Tom Crean, Indiana head coach

• Losing confidence in: Steve Lavin, St. John’s head coach

• Better than you think: UCLA

• Vastly Improved But Still Not Very Good: TCU

• Uh-oh: Clemson and Florida State (tie)

 

Press Room Chatter

Arenas You Wouldn’t Think Would Rock, But Do

• Pinnacle Bank Arena, Nebraska

• Moody Coliseum, SMU

• Bramlage Coliseum, Kansas State

• Coors Events Center, Colorado

Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, Utah State

 

Top Five Wing Sauce Flavors Other Than Original Buffalo (in no particular order)

• Spicy Garlic, Mac’s Sports Pub in Kansas City

• Lemon Pepper, D.D. Peckers in Charlotte

• Buffalo-Teriyaki (char-buffed), Oscar’s Pizza & Sports Grille in Omaha

• Seasoned Blend, Kegler’s Sports Bar and Lounge in Morgantown

• Peanut Butter and Jelly, Wing Bucket in Dallas (yes, I’m serious)

 

Things That Annoy Me When Traveling

• Singing flight attendants (Yes, Martha from Southwest, I’m talking about you)

• Standing in the middle of a moving walkway, the ultimate in laziness

• Whistling while standing next to me at a urinal

• Loud cell phone talkers, especially while waiting in line on the runway

• People who buy stinky meals at the food court and then eat them on the plane

 

Pit Stops

’37 Steakhouse, Kansas City: Sorry, 801 Chophouse. I’ve got a new favorite spot to get my carnivore on. Located in Harrah’s Casino, ’37 Steakhouse has a menu that seems tailor-made for a guy like me. I mean, I had pizza and wings as an appetizer. If you know anything about me, you can probably picture how pleasing this was? As much as I enjoyed the flatbread and fowl, the real MVP of the pre-steak chowdown was the candied bacon. Oh. My. Gosh. Candied-Effin’-Bacon. Literally one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. I’ve actually had dreams about it.

Am I OK, doc?

My main course—the Prime Kansas City Strip (16 oz.)—was one of the best hunks of cow I’ve had in years, and that includes all of the places I’ve been in Vegas (although N9NE Steakhouse at the Palm’s is a close second). Secretly, though, I was jealous of my friend, who went with the chef-recommended bone-in rib eye. It was so big he didn’t know whether to eat it or use it as a Ping-Pong paddle.

If you live in Kansas City, get to ’37 Steakhouse pronto. And feel free to invite me. I’ll pay for the tip.

 

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR .

 

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Cody Zeller Tweets That Seeing Kentucky Fans Take Over Indianapolis “Feels Like A Bad Dream”

Former Indiana star Cody Zeller is back in his home state for Wednesday night’s game between his Charlotte Hornets and the Indiana Pacers. Unfortunately, this homecoming isn’t quite what Zeller probably expected. Kentucky plays Kansas at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight, and Zeller is distraught over the number of Wildcats fans that are currently inhabiting his state.

I feel like I’m having a bad dream. I’m back in Indiana for one night and just my luck there are Kentucky fans everywhere downtown!
— Cody Zeller (@CodyZeller) November 18, 2014

Zeller’s been out of college for a little while now, but clearly he still has animosity towards rival Kentucky. Now if only the two schools could agree on restarting that great basketball series…

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Kevin Garnett’s Retirement Dream: ‘I Want To Buy The Timberwolves’

The way Kevin Garnett is playing for the Brooklyn Nets this season, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be retiring anytime soon.
But when he does call it quits, The Big Ticket says he wants to return to his NBA roots and own the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“I want to buy the Timberwolves,” Garnett told Yahoo! Sports on Thursday. “Put a group together and perhaps some day try to buy the team. That’s what I want.”
Garnett, now 38, was drafted by Minnesota in 1995 and spent 12 seasons there, helping the Timberwolves reach the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons before a trade sent him to the Boston Celtics during the summer of 2007. The T-Wolves have failed to make the playoffs in every year since Garnett’s departure.
Forbes estimates that the team is worth $430 million, despite its lack of success, and that price is expected to increase after the NBA’s new television deals come into play. Still, Garnett wants to make an effort to buy the Timberwolves.
“That is the one that has my interest,” Gar

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Kevin Durant Injury Opens Door for Russell Westbrook to Realize MVP Dream

Only Russell Westbrook knows what he put on his to-do list for the season other than get engaged to longtime girlfriend Nina Earl, but at least some familiar with the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard believe he included being named MVP.   

Some contend that was among his objectives even before teammate and reigning MVP Kevin Durant was expected to miss six weeks or more of the season with a fracture in his right foot. Now that Earl is in the fold and Durant is on the mend, being recognized as the most valuable player in the league simply moves to the top of the list.   

Does that shock you? Have you seen Westbrook dress? Do you think reaching beyond what anyone would expect is somehow out of character?

“This is his chance to show he can carry a team and that he’s the heartbeat of that team,” said one rival executive. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’m sure that’s how he is looking at it.”

Thanks to Durant’s durability, it’s his first chance. Durant has missed a total of 16 regular-season games over seven NBA seasons, only six since Westbrook became an All-Star and all of two in the last three seasons.

If he returns after eight weeks, he’d miss the first 19 games. League sources believe the Thunder will be cautious bringing Durant back, which could keep him out until a Christmas rematch of the 2014 Western Conference Finals with the San Antonio Spurs. Either way, it will be close to the stretch Durant went without Westbrook—an ironman in his own rightlast season to establish himself as the early favorite to win last year’s MVP award.

Thunder sources have long contended that the great misnomer about Westbrook is that he is competing with Durant and bent on subverting his authority and stardom. They point to how Durant has won four scoring titles and a league MVP trophy and say that if Westbrook really were a hindrance or disruption, none of that would’ve been possible.

Too much, they say, is made of the glimpses of Westbrook barking at Durant after a miscue or miscommunication and not enough of the times when Westbrook is yelling “Stick it in their face, KD!” or exhorting the crowd to support Durant when he’s missed a couple of shots.

All that said, no one disputes that Westbrook wants to be regarded on the same superstar plane as Durant and that he seethes over the fact that he is not. If he wishes Durant as much success as he can achieve, he also wishes the same for himself.

The loss of Westbrook to torn knee cartilage in the first round of the playoffs two years ago underscored, perhaps for the first time, his importance to the Thunder; with him, they were in the NBA Finals (2011-12) and the conference finals (2013-14). Without him, they bowed out quietly in the second round in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies.

That silenced a lot of the critics who viewed Westbrook as holding back Durant in particular and the Thunder in general. When Durant and the Thunder went on a tear during the regular season while Westbrook had a recurrence of his knee issuesthe team going 14-2 in one stretch and Durant scoring 30-plus in 12 consecutive gamesit not only launched Durant’s MVP campaign but renewed the murmurs that Westbrook was a bad fit.

A Thunder source, however, insists that, one, the team couldn’t have possibly maintained that winning pace and, two, that its collective quality effort should not be attributed to Westbrook’s absence but merely a collective realization they all would have to do more without him.

Whether you buy that or not, Westbrook seeks to be viewed as far more than merely an asset; he wants to be considered Durant’s equal. To do that, Westbrook knows the Thunder have to enjoy the same degree of success to start without Durant than they had without him.

Former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, who once had to integrate Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, believes the key to Westbrook achieving that will be efficiency more than expanded productivity.

“I do think Russell can take over games at the end, but teams are going to load up on him,” Del Negro said. “I would look at his field-goal percentage more than his total points. How many shots does it take to get his average? If OKC can control their turnovers, they have enough firepower with Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and Westbrook to win games without Durant.”

The case for Westbrook being on the same level as Durant, or arguably even better, has been his versatility, particularly for a point guard. While he never has come close to leading the league in assists, he has consistently been in the top 10 and prior to last season led all point guards in rebounding three years running.

Nothing would change the analytical view of Westbrook more, though, than an improved assist-to-turnover ratio, which is just under 2-to-1 for his career. Durant’s is far worse—1.08-to-1—and only rose to 1.56-to-1 as an MVP, but in not being tagged as a point guard, that doesn’t draw nearly as much attention as it does with Westbrook.

“They’ll be a better team after figuring out ways to win in the fourth quarter without KD,” Del Negro said.

If Westbrook is integral to that improvement, he’ll be viewed in a different light, for sure. Durant’s injury, greeted initially as dour news, actually could prove to be a setback that leads to a spring forward. Both for Westbrook and the Thunder. The pressure, though, is on him more than anyone else. If his postseason performancesand his aforementioned to-do listare any indication, he’d have it no other way.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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The 1 Player Who Could Torpedo the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Dream Season

The Cleveland Cavaliers will open the 2014-15 NBA season with high expectations after adding LeBron James and Kevin Love to a talented young crop of players. Who could be the one key guy that could unsettle head coach David Blatt’s team as it searches for chemistry?

Ethan Skolnick joins Stephen Nelson to give his take on the Cavs in the video above.

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Dream Team, Barcelona Games continue to impact NBA

Birthplace of global hoops: NBA still riding momentum of Dream Team, 1992 Barcelona Games

      
 

 

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Dream Team II: The U.S. Team That Time Forgot

Twenty years ago, the NBA was coming off the first full season without Michael Jordan. After riding a decade-plus Micheal-Magic-Larry ascension, the league was suddenly depicted by some as having lost its positive momentum, as captured by this memorable Sports Illustrated cover with the headline, “Why the NHL’s Hot and the NBA’s Not.”

That season featured a trudging playoffs that were most memorable for Reggie Miller blistering the Knicks (with Spike Lee sitting courtside) and the NBA Finals being interrupted by the O.J. Simpson car chase. The league was by no means floundering or in peril, but it was definitely in transition.

With that backdrop, the NBA and USA Basketball faced the task of sending a team to Toronto to play in the FIBA World Championships. The team—which USA Basketball marketed as Dream Team II—had the added pressure of following up the original Dream Team, one of the most iconic collections of talent in sports history.

The roster featured perennial All-Stars, young cats at the beginning of Hall of Fame careers and vets nearing the end of theirs. They were a brash bunch that won the gold easily (the fiercest competition, as one might imagine, came during practice—specifically Pacific Rim-type battles between the squad’s young big men) but battled apathy and some backlash from the public back home.

Bleacher Report reached out to the principal members of that team and others who spent time around it to get their recollections of that experience. What follows are their memories, as told to Vincent Thomas.


Titles, teams and ages found in the parentheses identify each individual at the time of the tournament.

The NBA and USA Basketball decided early on to field a roster with a mix of vets and young up-and-comers. They also didn’t want to have any returnees from the original Dream Team.

Dream Team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton.

Dream Team II: Derrick Coleman, Joe Dumars, Kevin Johnson, Larry Johnson, Shawn Kemp, Dan Majerle, Reggie Miller, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, Mark Price, Steve Smith and Dominique Wilkins.

JIM TOOLEY (Director of men’s national team): We had a committee made up primarily of NBA general managers and some former players. So [in the summer of 1993], we all met in La Jolla, California, and started talking about team needs. We didn’t have a pool of players back then like we do now—not much continuity, which we know now is big.

We knew there were some players like Isiah Thomas and Joe [Dumars] and Dominique [Wilkins] that weren’t able to be a part of the 1992 Dream Team, so we wanted to invite them. Then we talked about how to fill out the rest of the roster with a mix of generations and skill sets. We had kind of identified who we wanted. There weren’t many heated discussions at all.

MARK PRICE (Cleveland Cavaliers, point guard, 30): Yeah, I mean, without a tryout process, there wasn’t the option of beating someone out on the court like we have now. With it being handpicked, I definitely felt like I deserved to be on the team.

ALONZO MOURNING (Charlotte Hornets, center, 24): I thought I should have been the college player on the ’92 team, truthfully. I mean, Christian Laettner was a good player, but I felt like I actually could have made an impact on that Olympic team. But when it came to Dream Team II, I was just coming off a dream rookie season where I hit that series-winner against the Celtics, and I knew this team was going to have some younger guys. So, yeah, I was expecting to get invited.

REGGIE MILLER (Indiana Pacers, zone buster, 28): I definitely felt like I belonged. I was just coming off that playoff run against the Knicks. The Pacers were entering our stage of being consistent contenders, the All-Star berths were about to pick up for me…I was entering my wheelhouse.

DOMINIQUE WILKINS (Boston Celtics, forward, 34): I would have been on the original Dream Team, I’m sure of it. But I was dealing with Achilles problems around then. So they invited me on Dream Team II to be the vet, one of the statesmen with Joe. They put together a hell of a team. We knew going in that we were gonna beat everyone by 20—at least. Let me tell you: That Dream Team II could play with any of the other Dream Teams.

Due to a few injuries (Thomas, Tim Hardaway) and some late replacements, the final 12-man roster had it all.

Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal were the young interior beasts. Derrick Coleman was a do-it-all big man who could get you with a turnaround from the block or rain lefty three-pointers. Larry Johnson was at the height of his post-UNLV “Grandmama” powers, his generation’s Charles Barkley.

All foreign big men were helpless against Shawn Kemp’s freakish athleticism. Kevin Johnson and Mark Price manned the point. Miller and Dan Majerle were zone busters. Steve Smith was a young, big guard in the Magic Johnson mold, and ‘Nique and Dumars were the steady-hand old guard.

ROD THORN (NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations and part of the team selection committee): From the NBA’s perspective, there wasn’t a concern about them being called the “Dream Team II.” While everyone witnessed the Dream Team’s dominance in Barcelona, the rest of the world in 1994, from a competitive standpoint, still had some catching up to do, and the pressure was minimal on the USA team. The coaching staff had a lot of flexibility with varying lineup combinations based on the competition.

Speaking of the coaching staff, despite higher profile candidates with championship pedigrees (like Pat Riley or Phil Jackson), Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson got the call.

TOOLEY: We certainly looked at other candidates, but Nellie sort of rose to the surface. He was an animated guy, a creative guy. His son, Donnie, had been coaching with the Lithuanian national team. It was pretty clear he was the guy.

DON NELSON (coach): I really don’t know why they chose me, to tell you the truth. But I do know I always wanted to coach a U.S. national team. I didn’t really have any conversations with [the league or USA Basketball] in advance of them choosing me. But, heck, it was an honor.

A year prior to his selection, Nelson had won the 1992 Coach of the Year award. His ’93 Golden State squad didn’t fare too well, dealing with injuries to four of its five best players. It bounced back, winning 50 games in the ’94 season.

A hallmark of those Warriors squads was that they played what would become known as “Nellie Ball,” a blitzkrieg version of basketball that eschewed true centers and big men in favor of highly skilled perimeter players (Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Sarunas Marciulionis, Latrell Sprewell, Billy Owens, etc.)—a progenitor of today’s “small ball.”

They were unique in the early ’90s, a period dominated by slugfest squads such as the New York Knicks. The irony is that heading into international competition, Nellie wouldn’t have much use for “Nellie Ball”—no need to trot out a KJ-Price-Miller-Dumars-Wilkins lineup to throw his competition off guard.

MILLER: Nellie was known for doing a lot of switching and coming out with these bastard lineups. But he didn’t have to use all those freaky lineups because now he actually had traditional players at their positions, and it freed him up coach in a more traditional sense. He had penetrators, he had shooters, he all kinds of big men. [Dream Team II] was probably Nellie coaching as his truest self.

NELSON: I didn’t have any roster input. It’s not like now where Mike [Krzyzewski] and Jerry [Colangelo] collaborate. I just took the guys they gave me. And, well, they were all really, really good. I had the best guards in the tournament, the best shooters in the tournament—and definitely the best big men.


The World Championships, especially to the European teams, have always been considered more important than the Olympics. Such is not the case for American players or public.

So without the public spectacle that is the Olympics and with international competition still years away from gaining any real significance for the American players, the highlight of the tournament for almost all the Team USA players involved were the practices.

KEVIN JOHNSON (Phoenix Suns, point guard, 28): The battles in practice were part of what made the experience so incredible. … I certainly enjoyed the international competition but may have enjoyed the day-in, day-out battles against my teammates even more.

MILLER: Our practices were the ultimate pickup games. I mean, they were officiated and structured, but it’s in terms of you going against guys at the top of each position. One of the guys I always looked up to and always had problems guarding and being guarded by was Joe. I picked his brain. You were picking everyone’s brains because you knew you had to play these guys the next seasons—I was looking for tells.

PRICE: Reggie, Dan and I did have some epic shooting battles after practice.

MILLER: The international three was nothing for us. We’d just keep on taking steps back to see who had the ultimate range.

PRICE: By the time we were finished, we’d be at half court. Those guys were bigger than me, so they had an advantage.

MILLER: If we’re being honest, in terms of range, it was Dan. But if we’re going range and accuracy, well…yours truly.

WILKINS: We all went at it in the practices, but let me tell you, Shaq and Zo had some of the most intense big-man battles I had ever seen.

NELSON: Those two were still young, and I mean, they just went at it. And I’d add Derrick to those battles, too. They’d be banging and really going after each other. It was like this in every practice. Battles you could only dream of seeing.

MOURNING: We never really played each other in college, but we always had that rivalry of being the two best young centers of our generation. We were drafted together. He was picked first, me second. The NBA kind of highlighted every game we played. He won Rookie of the Year, I was runner-up even though I felt like we should have shared the honor with me getting my team into the playoffs. So, yeah, everyone there was trying to prove something in those practices. And with me and Shaq, when practice started, boy, we’d butt heads like some bulls.

We were all alpha males. You were carving out space, saying, “This is my territory.”

NELSON: And we can’t forget Shawn. That’s actually one of the things we focused on in practice. All my small players were really good and could make shots. But I knew the competition’s big men couldn’t keep up with our bigs, so I wanted to make the power forward the “runner.” Kemp was the best at doing that—running the lane and making plays. He was the most important player to starting our fast break and putting pressure on the transition defense. That really opened everything else up.

The squad opened the tournament against Spain. But unlike the current Spain roster that features the Gasol brothers, Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka, Victor Claver and at least three other players who spent time in the NBA, Spain’s ’94 team featured zero. Yet behind Jordi Villacampa’s 28 points, Spain clawed back in the second half, and when the buzzer sounded, Dream Team II had only won by 15.

NELSON: You’d have thought we lost the game based on how upset the media was. Well, we learned our lesson with the expectations; we better win by 25.

The next game, Team USA beat China 132-77, and the cakewalk was on. Price and Miller shot a combined 10-of-12 from long range in a 130-74 route over Australia. Miller hit up Puerto Rico for 26 first-half points on eight treys. After halftime, Shaq went for 25. Team USA won by 51.

By the time Team USA met Russia (which had upset the Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja-led Croatian squad) in the finals, the team was clicking. It shot 72 percent in the first half and never looked back.

NELSON: Shaq was our leader. He set the tone. He kept everyone committed, but loose, too. His Shaq Fu stuff was out then, and he always had jokes. But it was playful in the right way because when the games started, boy, was he dominant. And I also always had the issue of minutes when dealing with a team that talented, and he even helped in that way by volunteering to come off the bench some games. He really made my job easier.

MILLER: A lot of those European teams played zone. And with Big Shaq out there and Zo and D.C. and Grandmama wreaking havoc down low and KJ penetrating and everything else…I was wide-open all tournament, and man, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

PRICE: I don’t really recall a lot of the games. So many of them were over by halftime.

Even though Dream Team II dominated competition as expected, it couldn’t escape the shadow of the original squad. What was clear is that some of the younger players had approached the tournament less beholden to the ambassador mission of the original Dream Team.

Zo was reared by John Thompson’s “Hoya Paranoia”; L.J. was the dominant personality on a mean, counterculture UNLV championship squad that paved the way for a lot of the ethos exhibited in teams like Michigan’s Fab Five. Two members of the Fab Five (Jalen Rose and Chris Webber) grew up in Detroit getting a lot of their bravado from players a couple of years their senior like Coleman and Steve Smith.

What resulted was some of the introductory glimpses into a cultural aesthetic that would define the late ’90s and early ’00s NBA: snarling after rebounds and dunks, hanging on the rims for punctuation (Kemp infamously grabbed his crotch after one dunk, something he had done many times before in NBA games but seemed untoward in the diplomatic context of international play), chest-bumping, trash-talking.

It was a new breed, and the public and media perception of the squad fell along cultural, but more specifically, generational, lines. This new generation of NBA players coincided with hip-hop’s increasing impression on American culture (the list of classic, culturally defining albums released in 1994 is legend), and folks were startled and none too complimentary.

For instance, as a postscript for Sports Illustrated, Phil Taylor wrote, “This year’s Dream Teamers were constantly compared with their predecessors and found wanting, not because they couldn’t match the originals’ 43.8 average margin of victory but because they could not duplicate their mystique. Where the first Dream Team had an aura, the second had mostly attitude.”

The Advertiser (a daily in Adelaide, South Australia) ran a piece with the headline, “Dreamers a Nightmare for Opponents and Fans,” which contained this character summation: “Their talent and ability is unquestioned. But so far, at least half the players are on the record raving about the team’s invincibility, their overwhelming arrogance suggesting the world is not only about to see the best in basketball but also the worst of the Ugly American syndrome.”

MILLER: Nellie allowed us to be our own individual selves. If guys were a little brash, a little cocky, well, hey, we’re representing the best country in the world— I want the soldiers to be a little brash.

WILKINS: The change had begun. For most of my career, there was a certain type of celebration that we wouldn’t get into, the popping your jerseys after dunks and all that, and I think the younger guys got into a little too much of that.

TOOLEY: We—USA Basketball—were the ones that decided to dub the new team “Dream Team II.” Whereas the first time, it was media that gave the original team that nickname. And we kind of put the second team in an unfair position.

I don’t think they liked being compared, to be honest. So much of the original team was about ambassadorship, and the new team just couldn’t live up to it. Some of the younger guys didn’t quite understand etiquette. We’d be up 20, and guys were showing out after dunks. I remember Nellie telling the guys, “Come on, act like you’ve been there before.”

NELSON: That was an issue. Some of our guys wanted to show off a little too much. I’m from old school, and I didn’t want that. We had several conversations to curtail it. Shawn and I had a talk after that one celebration of his. A few guys still wanted to show off a little bit.

WILKINS: Joe and I had to talk to the guys and say, “OK, let’s tone it down. Let’s be respectful.” The young guys, they were just a little too amped, I guess. [Laughs]

SHAUN POWELL (Newsday, NBA reporter covering the team in Toronto): I don’t like to use the word “cultural” because that has so many connotations. What exactly does that mean? I like to use the word “generational” because I know what that implies. And there was a generational shift around then.

There was no rookie scale, so a lot of the young players would be untested but already making more than vets. ESPN really started showing a lot of highlights back then; so the dunking and chest-bumping and self-promotion was becoming more of a thing. I think that was even the year that a magazine like Slam became popular. The younger players were definitely more into showboating.

None of these guys did anything wrong off the court. There was no international incident. Nothing of the sort. But, look, no one even knew what the World Championships were. It was basketball in August, there was no Olympic medal at stake. For a lot of these guys, it was about promoting their own profile.

MOURNING: There were a lot of eyes on us, man. They wanted to see what we were gonna do and how we would represent our country. We were younger, yeah, and somewhat immature. But, hey, we were out there having fun. That was just the way we did it.

Some of people said some of the antics were classless, that we should have held back. But when I’m out there screaming after rebounds and dunks—those are primal noises. It’s no disrespect. When I would flex after a block…that’s me enjoying the game. That’s a release.

Yeah, we could have held back. But the bottom line is we won, we won big, and we enjoyed ourselves.

PRICE: I think we never really got the respect for how good we were as a basketball team. When you follow a team full of legends, no matter what, you probably won’t get your just due. That’s probably my biggest beef because we were really good.

POWELL: Everything about that team was kind of destined to fail. Not in hard-line sense, but in comparisons with the original. It was marketed completely wrong by NBA and USA Basketball. They should have retired that “Dream Team” term with Magic, Michael and Larry. But the powers that be were so swept up with the success of the original that they tried to push terminology that this was a superteam. It was wrong from very beginning—before the first dribble or shot.

If the Beatles are the opening act, how do you follow that? How do you follow up Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder. You can play and sing the best notes of your career, and you’ll still get booed off the stage.

After Dream Team II’s gold-medal run, Bob Ryan wrote in The Boston Globe: “The basic theme of the Dream Team I experience was ‘Beat Me, Whip Me, Take My Picture.’ The basic theme of the Dream Team II experience was ‘Beat Me, Whip Me—If You’re Man Enough To Do It.’”

Russian point guard Sergei Bazarevich told Newsday after the gold-medal loss that he could see a team dethroning the USA in 10 years.

“Everybody is scared to play them the first time,” he said. “Eventually, there will not be as big a gap.”

In Ryan’s Globe column, Kevin Johnson, who was tasked with staying in front of Bazarevich, the quick Russian guard, was quoted as predicting a possible USA loss by “as early as 2000. The competition is getting better and better. By playing against us, they have benefited so much. They see how we do it, and they go back and work on things. They ask, ‘How can we get better?’ and they do something about it. This whole experience is great for them.”

Well, we know now how things progressed. The 1996 Olympic team—a team then-USA Basketball President C.M. Newton said he wanted “with character, not characters” perhaps in backlash to Dream Team II— bum-rushed the competition again.

1998 was the summer of the NBA lockout, so it didn’t feature any of the league’s players. By 2000, the world had indeed began to catch up, with the U.S. barely beating Lithuania (85-83) in the semifinal and then narrowly (for them) beating France, 85-75.

In 2002, with many stars turning down invites and others injured, the U.S. finished sixth on its home soil in Indianapolis. It took the NBA and USA Basketball—led by Colangelo, Coach K and recommitted players—six years to reassert world dominance.

Meanwhile, in the timeline of Dream Teams and Redeem Teams and whatnot, the 1994 squad is sometimes overlooked. What do the players remember?

WILKINS: One of the best teams ever assembled.

MOURNING: I played on the 2000 Olympic team, too, and ’94 was better. An amazing team.

NELSON: It was probably the top experience that I had as a coach. To stand up there and see your flag raised is a special thing.

JOHNSON: What I took away from the experience as a whole was how special it is to represent your country on the international stage. I know that my teammates all felt that way, too. It was a very special feeling to get that gold medal around your neck.

And another important thing I took away was that it was much easier to have Shaq on your team than as your opponent.

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USA not quite Dream Team in Barcelona now

Spain’s stars now have the big presence in Barcelona, but Team USA appreciates the history.

      
 

 

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We Remember: 22nd Anniversary of the Dream Team Winning the Gold Medal

Twenty-two years ago today, the Dream Team completed its domination of the 1992 Summer Olympics by beating Croatia in the gold-medal game.

Michael Jordan dropped 22 points and six other players scored in double figures in a 117-85 victory.

The Dream Team, which was the first Olympic team to use NBA players, still remains the greatest basketball team to ever take the court. The team went 8-0 in the tournament, with an average margin of victory of 43.8 points.

Although Jordan gets all of the attention, it was Charles Barkley who was the team’s leading scorer.

Here are the players on the team who were eventually inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Jordan, Barkley, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson and John Stockton.

After the Dream Team’s dominance, every great United States Olympic team is compared to the greatest team in basketball history.

[NBA, YouTube]

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