Posted Jan 18 2010 11:14AM
Covering sports is a great way to make a living. But there are days, weeks even, when it isn't a barrel of laughs.
Consider baseball, whose on-field renaissance keeps getting plowed over by the latest steroid confession, the latest being Mark McGwire's weepy, orchestrated admissions, leaving writers trying to ascertain what was legitimate remorse and what was self-serving pablum.
The NFL has a pending labor storm on the horizon, with the possibility of a work stoppage in 2011 looming. (So, too, does the NBA.) There's always domestic violence and, occasionally, cartoon violence, the fallout of which we've dealt with in Washington the last couple of weeks.
Then, there came a calamity that crossed over into the sports world, one to which no human is adequately equipped to respond: an earthquake of devastating power and destruction which killed tens of thousands in Haiti, the home of the 76ers' center, Samuel Dalembert. Sammy D has always been a quirkly player, but his philanthropic side has never been challenged, and it was never in greater need and demand than this week, when he asked for the NBA's help for his stricken country. Sometimes, you feel like anything you give is like a rock being thrown into a great canyon. How could it possibly do any real good?
So it was a genuine joy to spend some minutes this week with a kid with a great story, a great smile and a great name, who had a great first week on the job and hit a great shot Thursday night to beat a great player and his great team.
The young man is Sundiata "Yata" Gaines, and if you've at all been paying attention, he's the 23-year-old NBA Development League callup for Utah who hit the game-winning 3-pointer last Thursday to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers -- on the last day of his 10-day contract.
"I knew they kept you here for some reason," joked Ronnie Brewer afterward. But of course, there was a back story, which indicates, again, how some teams seem to always be "lucky" and find guys like Gaines, while others don't.
Gaines first got onto the radar of Utah's general manager, Kevin O'Connor, in 2008, when he led the University of Georgia to an improbable Southeastern Conference Tournament championship. That was the year a tornado struck the Georgia Dome during the Mississippi State-Alabama quarterifinal game and postponed Georgia's quarterfinal game with Kentucky to the following day. That meant Gaines and the Bulldogs had to win two games in one day just to make the tournament final, after winning just four conference games during the regular season.
Gaines simply recalled his days playing AAU ball, and Georgia beat both Kentucky and Mississippi State, becoming the first team in more than 40 years to win two tournament games in the same day. The Bulldogs then completed their incredible run by beating Arkansas in the final, and Gaines was named tournament MVP.
"It was definitely a confidence booster," Gaines said. "At the time, as long as we didn't play Tennessee, I felt like we had a great chance to win it. And we didn't play them. We played Arkansas, and I knew we had a great chance of beating them. Me and my teammates, I just wanted to build confidence in my teammates, and they all followed my lead ... I just had confidence in myself."
But despite finishing his Georgia career first in school history in steals, second in assists and ninth in points, Gaines didn't get drafted after his senior season. NBA scouts weren't sure about his jumper, so Gaines went to Europe to work on it, playing for NGC Cantu in Italy last season, where he averaged 13 points in just under 32 minutes per game.
"For me, at first I didn't really want to go," he said. "But it was a great opportunity for me. I played a lot of minutes at the point guard position, which I started playing in college. I never was a true point guard growing up, so I had to learn the position. I'm still learning now. The professional game, how to pick and roll, how to play different defensive schemes. I mean, that helped me out so much."
Cantu wanted to keep him, but Gaines hadn't given up on the NBA yet, and after he spent the summer in camps with the Knicks, Mavericks and Hawks, he went the NBA Development League route after being taken 15th overall in the first round of the draft by the Idaho Stampede.
"I was shocked he was there," said Idaho's first-year coach, Bob MacKinnon, by telephone Sunday. "I'm from back east, and I had known about him back to when he was at Archbishop Malloy (High School, in New York). I knew he was a very good player and had people from Malloy talk very highly of him."
The NBA D-League operates at cross purposes. Guys have to improve their games to get a look from NBA teams, but that very act of improving often comes at the expense of team cohesion and chemistry. It's a delicate act that can throw a lot of teams off balance. Gaines needed to work on his defense off the ball, staying focused -- something he's had problems with during his career -- as well as continuing to develop his point guard skills. At 6-foot-1, he wasn't going to get very far as a shooting guard.
"He wants to get better, and that's what our league is all about," MacKinnon said. "He was like a sponge. He would come in and ask questions, what he needed to work on, what his deficiencies were, and then he'd come in and work on them. He was one of those guys that, when you're saying something, you wonder who's really listening, and he was the first guy to go out there and work on them ... on the ball, he's very good, stays in front, and although he's small, he's strong. He improved every day at it and just kept getting better and better. That's what people in the league told me they needed to see him do, and he was doing it."
Even though Gaines didn't start for the Stampede, which is the affiliate for the Nuggets and Blazers (guard Patty Mills, Portland's second-round pick, is on the roster, along with recently released Cavs guard Coby Karl), he still led Idaho at 23.9 points per game (fourth overall in the D-League), 6.9 assists and 2.3 steals (both third in the league). And Gaines didn't complain about coming off the bench.
"We play more a possession game than a minutes game," MacKinnon said. "He told me, 'Coach, it doesn't matter if I start or not,' which is a great thing to hear from a guy. If you do get called up to the NBA, it's not like you're getting called up to start. They do want to see if you can come off the bench. Last year, when I was at Colorado, and we won the championship, I had Sonny Weems sent to me by the Nuggets. He came off the bench and he was fine with it, and now he's doing the same thing for the Raptors."
O'Connor went up in early January to see a game between the Jazz's D-League affiliate, the Utah Flash, and Idaho. Everyone assumed that O'Connor was there to see Dontell Jefferson, his own guard prospect who's been tearing up the league, before bringing him back to Salt Lake City, where the Jazz were dealing with injuries to backup point guard Ronnie Price. (Utah's point guard depth took a hit when the Jazz essentially gave away first-round pick Eric Maynor to Oklahoma City last month in a deal for injured forward Matt Harpring, who is unofficially retired. The move saved Utah more than $8 million in potential luxury tax payments this year.)
But O'Connor had a different callup in mind.
On Jan. 5, Utah's Dave Fredman, the team's longtime scout and former GM of the Flash, went up to Idaho to get a player. Gaines didn't know it was going to be him. There was barely time to say goodbye ("We're happy for you," MacKinnon says, "but we don't want to see you back again").
"Once he said my name, I mean, it was the best thing that ever happened to me," Gaines said. "This is what I've dreamed about since I was four years old, playing in the NBA, developing and being a superstar in the NBA. When I got the opportunity I was just happy to be here."
Gaines didn't have long to get used to being in the big league; when Deron Williams injured his wrist and Price's shoulder tendinitis flared up, Gaines was thrown in quickly, playing 21 minutes for Utah against Memphis. Things calmed down a little the next three games when Williams came back, and Gaines finally had his first real practice with the team last Wednesday, which gave him an opportunity to show if he really had picked up the playbook as quickly as he'd claimed.
The next evening, Gaines was thrust into the spotlight again, when Williams aggravated the sprain early in the fourth quarter against Cleveland. There was Gaines, feeding Carlos Boozer for an and-one; there was Gaines, completing his own three-point play to help Utah build a 12 point fourth-quarter lead. But there also was Gaines, being harrassed into a couple of turnovers by Mo Williams' tough fullcourt D as the period went on. Sloan brought back Price for the stretch run, with Utah up 12, but no one was prepared for what happened next.
LeBron went insane, scoring 16 points in less than four minutes: 3-pointer, three-point play, three-point play, free throw, 3-pointer off an offensive rebound following a miss of his second free throw, ridiculous 28-foot 3-pointer with 40 seconds left, giving Cleveland a seemingly insurmountable lead. But Sloan started fouling, the Cavs missed just enough to keep Utah alive, Kyle Korver made an amazing shot from behind the basket, and the Jazz got the ball down two with five seconds left.
Utah was supposed to run a double screen for Korver, but Cleveland saw it coming and jumped it, leaving Korver with two options: 1) force up a shot over a double-team, or 2) move the ball. So he swung it to Price, whose options weren't much better, and Price swung it to Gaines, about 26 feet out on the right wing. Cleveland's Anthony Parker got a hand in Gaines' face, but Gaines knows how to score: only Kenny Anderson and Kenny Smith scored more at Malloy than he did.
Swish. And bedlam. His teammates, led by Boozer, he of the $68 million free-agent deal and the uncertain future, rushed the court to tackle him. Gaines wound up standing on the scorer's table, gesturing to the delirious crowd.
"I was so excited, I found myself trying to jump," Sloan said.
It was Gaines's first NBA 3-pointer.
"I was watching it," MacKinnon said. "When he made that shot, I got about six text messages from his teammates. I knew if the ball got to him, he was going to shoot it, because he's a confident guy. It made the hair on my arms stand up."
Even the Cavaliers' response was appropriate. There was no "Aww, isn't that cute?" in the Cavs' locker room. Cleveland's fighting for a championship this season and for James' future this summer, and anything that deters from that mission, even for one night, is no laughing matter. The Cavs were ticked off. James, who almost never shows any true anger in public, was brusque and snapped headphones on after a brief session with the press, wheeling his bag behind him with a don't-mess-with-me-now look on his face.
I loved it.
These guys play to win, not for the money -- well, not just for the money.
All it did, though, was earn Gaines another 10 days. There really is no guarantee he'll be around the rest of the season, though it's very unlikely he wouldn't be. But even if that happens, no one can take away Jan. 14, 2010, and what Sundiata Gaines, named after an ancient king of Mali, did to LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
"The crazy thing about it is, I was sitting on the bench, and I just dreamed about it happening," he said. "I said I knew Ronnie was going to have the ball, and he was going to pass it to me, and I was going to catch it, and I was going to win the game."
The whole night -- the fight of the Jazz, the briliance of James, the way Sloan and the Jazz honored the game by playing it until the very last second, Gaines' miracle -- made me remember what it was that drew me to the NBA all those years ago, and what's kept me around all these years, and what makes all the travel and time away from loved ones worth it, and why I love the game so.
Fifty years ago today, an almost-accident almost changed the NBA's future, horribly so.
On Jan. 18, 1960, the DC-3 plane carrying the Minneapolis Lakers' basketball team made a crash landing in a cornfield in Carroll, Iowa, after the plane had lost almost all power en route from St. Louis to Minneapolis and got lost in a blinding snowstorm.
The plane contained future Hall of Fame forward Elgin Baylor, then in his rookie season with the Lakers, and guards "Hot Rod" Hundley -- who later went on to a distinguished career behind the microphone as the radio and TV voice of the Utah Jazz --and Bob "Slick" Leonard, who became a terrific coach for the Indiana Pacers and is on the team's radio broadcasting crew. (Jerry West was a year away from joining the Lakers, for their first season in Los Angeles.)
The team had lost a game to the Hawks in St. Louis and was flying back home when the trouble began.
"We were playing cards, and then the lights went out, and it got cold," Baylor told me on the 40th anniversary. "And for a while, the pilot didn't say anything. And finally everybody wanted to know what was going on, and he said the only thing that was working was the generator. (Not) the instrument panel, nothing. They couldn't see anything."
After several harrowing minutes, the pilots were able to get low enough to see that the only place they could ditch the plane was in a cornfield. (They were lucky that the bad weather had prevented the farmer from pulling up the corn stalks, which slowed the plane down enough to come to a safe stop. Another 75 yards ahead was a huge ravine, into which the plane almost certainly would have fallen and crashed if not for the corn.)
I bring up the anniversary for two reasons. One, my NBA.com colleague, Steve Aschburner, has a great column this week which details Leonard's recollections of the landing. And, two, I got word this week that there is a home movie of the crashed plane taken by a Carroll resident the morning after the landing, as well as film of the now-fixed plane leaving the cornfield.
Lisa Christensen, whose grandfather, H.T. Hall, took the original 8 mm film, informed me that the city of Carroll is holding a 50th anniversary "celebration" of the incident tonight that will feature the plane's co-pilot, Harold Gifford (here is a link to a long radio interview with Gifford talking about that night that Lisa provided). And if you want to see the film -- which Lisa and her husband, Eric, converted from the VHS tape her grandfather made of the 8 mm film into a DVD -- you can see it this week on NBA TV.
(Last week's ranking in brackets)
1) L.A. Lakers  (31-9): Made up for Clippers' win a week ago with 40-point beatdown of crosstown rivals Friday.
2) Cleveland  (31-11): Mike Brown has dialed up the right combos all season.
3) Atlanta  (26-13): Hawks overtake slumping Magic for first in Southeast.
4) Boston  (27-11): I'd be worried about Pierce's and Garnett's knees, except Glenn Rivers says they're fine, and he's a doctor.
5) Dallas  (26-14): Amazing stat from the Dallas Morning News' Eddie Sefko: Mavs have trailed by at least 10 points in 22 games this season.
6) Denver  (26-14): Shoot you out, shoot you in, shoot you back out.
7) San Antonio  (24-15): Ginobili starting to get his legs back.
8) Portland  (25-16): Beat Orlando without Roy Friday. There's nothing left to say about the job Nate McMillan is doing this season.
9) Utah [NR] (23-18): Jerry Sloan throwing the kids into the deep water.
10) Orlando  (26-14): Magic has gone past a funk into "truly concerning" territory.
11) Phoenix  (24-17): If the Suns keep going south, expect the Stoudemire trade talk to explode.
12) Houston  (22-18): Rockets grumbling about defensive slippage.
13) Oklahoma City  (22-18): Durant is the new Predator.
14) Toronto  (21-20): Raptors need Turkoglu to get himself going in second half of season.
15) Miami  (20-19): Offense has improved with Skip running the show.
Charlotte (3-0): Home wins over three Western Conference playoff teams: Houston, San Antonio and Phoenix, by an average of better than 16 points per game. Quietly, the Bobcats have become one of the toughest teams to play at home, with a 17-4 mark, and loudly, Larry Brown has them playing defense, leading the league in points allowed. Gerald Wallace is making an All-Star push. Only a lousy road record keeps Charlotte from being a potential real factor in the East.
Sacramento (0-3): The Kings got Kevin Martin back, but didn't put up much of a fight in losses to Orlando and Eastern doormats Philadelphia and Washington. The week's only good news is, for the 495th time, the city and the NBA's negotiators announced a new arena proposal.
Has it been 10 years since Bobby Phills passed away?
Yes, it has.
If you're of a certain age, you may not remember Bobby Phills, who was one of the league's true good guys, sort of like a 6-foot-6 Derek Fisher -- a straight-up, no-nonsense fellow who garnered the respect of teammates and opponents.
Phills was the captain of one of the last incarnations of the Charlotte Hornets, a defensive demon who played for the great Ben Jobe at Southern University and made himself into a solid NBA two guard, one who could score (he was one of the league's better 3-point shooters for a time) but was most proficient at locking folks up.
But on Jan. 12, 2000, the 30-year-old Phills died in an automobile accident near where the team practiced and played, the old Charlotte Coliseum. He was driving way too fast on Tyvola Road, spun into oncoming traffic and struck another car. Even though he was wearing his seatbelt, Phills died at the scene of massive internal injuries, leaving behind a wife and two children.
The accident was made all the more hurtful for the team because Phills' best friend, guard David Wesley, saw the accident in his rear view mirror. The two men were driving back from practice, both going too fast, but Phills lost control and Wesley did not. It was a shattering loss for the Hornets, who never really could replace Phills on the court or in the locker room.
His widow, Kendall Phills, runs a philanthrophic foundation in her late husband's name and has remained in the Charlotte area with her children, Trey and Kerstie. Wesley, who finished a 14-year NBA career with Cleveland in 2007, has moved to Texas with his family and is looking to get into coaching after spending the 2008-09 season at his alma mater, Baylor, as student manager while he completed his undergraduate degree work. Kendall Phills and Wesley were, and remain, good friends. I did a story on the two on the one-year anniversary of Bobby Phills' death, and was amazed that Kendall Phills never was angry with Wesley or held him responsible for her husband's fatal accident.
"Sometimes, I'm walking through the house, and I'll look at a picture of Bobby, and I'll go 'Bobby!,'" she said in 2001. "Because he's supposed to be here, with me and my family. So that's the hard part. And that's the times I get angry. But I'm not angry at God. And I'm definitely not angry at David Wesley."
There's a great story in the Charlotte Observer this weekend by Scott Fowler that recaps the last 10 years in the lives of the Phills and Wesley families, and shows how they've all managed to cope with their grief and loss and try to make something positive out of something so tragic. It's terrific. Take 15 minutes, sit down, and read it.
As always, send your comments, questions and snark to email@example.com.
It's known as "facial" profiling. From Andrea Cavalli:
I wanted to know what do you think about the NBA players getting labeled as "thugs" whenever someone gets in trouble. Other sports (i.e. football ... just today a player got arrested for trying to choke his wife) have much more troublemakers than the NBA does (and not just because they have more players). Yet it's NBA players who are considered the worst. I find it unfair and annoying. Baseball and hockey have way more brawls than the NBA does (and way worse)...
As an NBA fan it's frustrating to look at the over-the-top reaction many sports columnists who hate NBA basketball have (besides, why do they write about the NBA if they hate it so much? Why not stick to those sports they actually enjoy?). Arenas and Crittenton got in trouble? Fine. Let's write countless articles about ALL NBA players being criminals, thugs, scary-looking, resembling inmates etc (those are some of the things I have seen in the wake of Arenas' gun incident). As if other players were responsible for Arenas and Crittenton actions. Blame those two players, not everyone else. For instance, are you telling me Kevin Durant is a criminal because of Arenas' actions? How silly is that? Do those people know anything about the NBA?
You don't hear me disagreeing with you, do you, Andrea?
Why are you looking at me like that? From Toni Brody:
I am a SF native who grew up a Warriors fan (now live in DC and gave up on the Warriors in the late 90s and have been a rabid Spurs fan ever since); the Warriors, for all their dysfunction, never made Arenas the "face of the franchise" as the Wizards did (granted, it was always clear he wanted out of the organization). He was a head case with the Warriors as he was with the Wizards; the Wizards just labelled him "goofy" or "quirky" to help sell him to their fans (enabled by the media that let them get away w/it). As Tim Duncan said in your interview with him, that personality would NEVER last (would never have been drafted or signed) in the Spurs' locker room (although I wonder how Jackson lasted there two seasons).
I feel sorry for Arenas to an extent as his behavior (and he may have some form of mental illness) was overlooked and, perhaps, encouraged. He never understood the limits of how far he could go before he crossed the line.
A lot of folks are taking the media to task for not being harder on Arenas and calling him out for his antics. I'm guilty. I admit it. I was taken in by Arenas' game, his charm and his refreshing approach. Perhaps I should have stood up and tsk-tsked him at All-Star in 2007 when Gilbert, during a timeout in the fourth quarter, joined the trampoline team and dunked off the trampoline. Maybe I should have ripped him when he said he could never even think of yelling at his teammates, because he was a big kid and who would take him seriously in that role? But I'm not going to apologize for liking the young man, immensely. Still do. And I hope he can get back on the court soon, whether in Washington or somewhere else, because I don't think he has a lot else in his life besides the game.
LeBron James (35 ppg, 7 rpg, 7 apg, .571 FG, .758 FT): As focused, and as dominant, as I've ever seen him in the closing minutes against Utah Thursday -- and as angry afterward. You see this guy dancing and singing with his teammates on the sidelines sometimes, but don't you ever, ever think he doesn't want to win.
Kobe Bryant (18.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, .577 FG, .778 FT): Playing possum, as Phil Jackson says, or truly injured? That back looked pretty jacked up against the Spurs.
Dirk Nowitzki (23.7 ppg, 8 rpg, 2.7 apg, .527 FG, .846 FT): Passes the 20,000-point plateau, and becomes the first European player to do so. When Nowitzki started playing basketball seriously in the mid-90s, Vlade Divac and the late Drazen Petrovic were the standard bearers for European players in the NBA. The Diggler is the new yardstick.
Tim Duncan (19.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 bpg, .600 FG, .444 FT): Healthy scratch on the second night of a back to back, against Oklahoma City on Wednesday. Coach Gregg Popovich says he'll do that more often the second half of the season to keep Duncan fresher for the postseason; the Spurs have nine sets of back-to-backs remaining.
Brandon Roy (1 game: 22 points, 1 rebound, 4 assists, 3 steals, 7-10 FG, 7-7 FT): Makes his MVP watch debut even though he was limited with a hamstring pull that kept him out of Friday's game against Orlando. But Roy has been the key to Portland's incredible run through its slew of injuries and illnesses. As good a clutch performer as there is in the game.
Dropped out: Dwight Howard
12 -- Consecutive victories by the Hornets over the Clippers after Wednesday's 108-94 win, a streak dating back to Jan. 8, 2007.
36 -- Points needed by Tim Duncan for 20,000 in his career, a mark reached by Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki against the Lakers Wednesday. Nowitzki became the 34th player in league history to reach the plateau.
600 -- Career NBA coaching victories for Washington's Flip Saunders after the Wizards' win over Sacramento Saturday. He became the 22nd coach to reach the plateau.
1) Sam Dalembert, leading the NBA's response to the earthquake in Haiti. What makes it even more touching is that Dalembert is not new to the cause of his homeland; he has been back several times over the years, helping UNICEF and other organizations that try to help that impoverished country. He did a public service announcement the night of the earthquake and has been tirelessly doing media ever since, while also still playing for the 76ers.
2) Jamal Crawford, just like it was in the park in Seattle, Friday night. Pretty amazing last 10 seconds from the Hawks in stealing one from the Suns.
3) Vinny Del Negro, who made a smart move getting Derrick Rose off the ball more by putting Kirk Hinrich in the starting lineup. Freed from having to get everyone else going, Rose has gotten himself going after a slow, injury-plagued start.
4) That was a good 66-minute effort Wednesday, Clippers and Rockets.
5) Prayers for Isiah Thomas, who lost his mother, Mary, the matriarch of the Thomas family, last week at the age of 86. It is safe to say that Isiah would never have made it out of the south side of Chicago if not for his mother, who stared down gang members that wanted to "recruit" her son as they had his older brothers with nothing but her own fierce will. And a shotgun. I saw and chatted with Mary Thomas a few times in the early 90s when her son's Pistons were about to conquer the NBA world, and if you want to know why Isiah Thomas became the best little man ever to play the game, you didn't need more than a few seconds in her presence.
7) Manu Ginobili, magician.
8) Jim Caldwell, vindicated. The Colts' head coach was heavily criticized from outside (and, reportedly, inside) the locker room for opting not to go for the perfect regular season by resting his starters in the last two games when Indy was 14-0. Now, the Colts are rested, refreshed and one game away from the Super Bowl. They will not take Peyton Manning out in the third quarter next week against the Jets, I'm certain.
1) The almost certain end of Agent Zero in Washington. Sad.
2) Pretty poor effort against the Brandon Roy-less Blazers on Friday, Orlando. Pretty poor effort most of this month, Orlando. What is going on down there?
3) Whatever it is -- Donald Sterling's bad karma, as Phil Jackson tweaked last week, or something else -- that ended Blake Griffin's rookie season before it began, with a knee injury that didn't get better quickly enough.
4) Homerism run amok. To the local broadcasters doing NBA games (not all of you, and especially not you, Joel Meyers in L.A., who isn't afraid to criticize the home team): we get it. You want your team to win. But you ruin so many games with your whining and complaining about every other call, and how refs "shouldn't make that call at this point in the game," which is part of why the league has such a perception problem with its officials in the first place.
5) Rush Limbaugh, jerk. I don't care what your politics are, and Lord knows you don't care about mine, nor would I try to make mine a part of this column. You come here to read about basketball. But Limbaugh's assertion that we shouldn't give money to Haiti when it's been hit with one of the worst natural catastrophes in history because of some ridiculous argument about taxes is one of the meanest things I've ever heard a human being utter. One time, when the late Tom Snyder hosted the Tomorrow talk show on NBC, he interviewed some white supremacist, who spent 15 minutes or so spitting out his hate rhetoric. At the end, Snyder looked at him and said, "It has not been my pleasure having you on tonight." Precisely.
6) Utah's retro green. Sorry, just never going to go for it.
7) I know I should know who Snookie is and why she's important. I do not.
8) The NFL playoffs, 2010. El Busto, as Dan Issel might have said.
I'll have whatever Sundiata Gaines is having.
--Former Jazz and current NBA Development League (Springfield Armor) guard Morris Almond (@FreeMoAlmond), approx. 2 a.m., Friday, minutes after Gaines' incredible game-winner against Cleveland.
This week's Mr. Fifteen is Memphis Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi, the first player from Iran to play in the NBA. The 7-foot-2, 24-year-old has played in just 12 games this season, totalling eight points in 48 total minutes behind starter Marc Gasol and Memphis's first-round pick, Hasheem Thabeet. It's not what Haddadi had hoped to do this season, after helping put Iran basketball on the map in international competition the past few years. His 31-point effort in the title game of the 2007 FIBA Asia Championships led Iran to victory over Lebanon and qualified Iran for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the first time in 60 years Iran played in the Games (the country didn't field teams from 1952 to 1988 and didn't qualify in four tries from 1992 to 2004).
Last summer, Haddadi again starred for Iran, leading his country to victory in the Asia Championships, a tournament in which Haddadi was named Most Valuable Player after Iran defeated a Yao Ming-less China in the title game. That victory qualified Iran for this year's World Championships in Turkey, and a first-round draw with the U.S. men's team. He has turned down good offers to play overseas to continue his dream of being in the NBA.
Haddadi made news earlier this season when a pregame photograph was taken of him shaking hands with the Kings' Omri Casspi, the first Israeli-born player to make the NBA. But Haddadi wants to make his mark on the court and not get caught up in the world's events that have made Iran and the United States political enemies, facing one another as potential adversaries in war instead of in sports.
Me: How do you stay prepared when you're not sure you're going to play?
Hamed Haddadi: It happens to me all the time, they don't play me, but I'm ready for play. It's hard. It's hard, because you don't know if you'll play for 10 games in a row. They put you in the game and your conditioning is not good, and you can't play. But sometimes that happens. I must be ready. I must be ready for the game, playing. If they give me some time, I use it for good, not bad. If they should give me a chance, very good. I try my best. I try my best to help the team in practice or in games. I try.
Me: Do you look at practice as your games?
HH: Yeah. The problem is we don't have the chance in practice, too. In practice, if they give me time, I try my best. I'm going to play in practice. I'm going to show myself, you know? It's OK. I'm happy, I'm very happy we win, we win these games. My teammates play awesome. Awesome. I'm very happy with it. I'm not worried about it, I don't play. I want to play. But now we win, we win these games. It's normal I don't play.
Me: What do you learn playing against Marc Gasol in practice?
HH: Before the game, in the warmup, we play one-on-one with Marc. He is smart. He's really, really smart. He can shoot, his hook shot is very good, his discipline is very good. His foot (speed), the leg is so fast. It's hard to stop him. It's hard to stop him. He's played better than last year, I think. We shot together, and last year was not good enough. His play is up now this season. Play very good now. Last year he can't block shot. This season, blocks two or three a game. One night he has six blocked shots. Awesome.
Me: Did you show him anything about the art of shot blocking?
HH: No. He learns himself, you know? He's smart. Now he can jump. He can play basketball. He played professionally in Spain, and Olympic Games, and went in the Europe league, EuroChampionship. Now he's NBA.
Me: What was the experience like for you when Iran won the Asia championship?
HH: My teammates, we have good team. My teammates, we play like six years together. We know how to share the pass, share the basketball. If you don't pass the basketball, you find the open man. We don't play selfish. I really appreciate my teammates back home in Iran. We have everything. We have point guard. We have one shooter, we have everything good, and the five is me. With our play, with our team, it was very good for us.
Me: For you personally, what did that give you in terms of confidence?
HH: I don't understand this word ... what is confidence?
Me: Did you feel after that, that you could play against anybody?
HH: Oh, yeah. Before we play, like 2007, we play most of the teams, like Serbia, like Argentina. We play Olympic Games (Iran lost all five of its games in Beijing), all the big teams. The team in Asia Games, Asia teams is not good enough. But you have China. China's big, too. You have joining up, you have some international players, different countries. Lebanon and Qatar. But I'm very happy for the next summer, we play big, big teams. U.S., same group. I think this is chance for me.
Me: What has that team done for basketball in Iran?
HH: We touch everything. Five years ago, we don't have chance to go to Asia Games. We lost all games in Asia. But now we're going to World Championships. We go to Olympic Games. We've got two championships in a row. This is our goal. Now we want to play good. We want to play good in World Championships. We don't (think we'll) win. We try to win. We try to win. I think we'll have a couple of wins, one or two. I promise that ... back home we didn't have anything. We had one court and we all play, all the teams, we practice there, they play there. Now it's much better.
Me: But soccer's still bigger?
HH: Soccer's bigger. You don't win enough, and the people back home is not happy with soccer. But they're happy for basketball and volleyball. We make them very happy, you know? Very happy, our people back home.
Me: Are you going to be like Yao was for China, in terms of getting even more people interested in the sport?
HH: China, first is basketball, I think. The paper, the TV, I think they're don't looking for us, for basketball players. Just soccer. Because the people are thinking about soccer. Don't pay attention for basketball. But now, is better. Maybe a couple, three years, I'll be same as Yao. If I play in NBA. If I don't play, nobody sees.
Me: So it's important that you play?
HH: Now they leave a message on my fan page -- why you don't play? Why ask your coach why you don't play? I said, it's OK, we win, we win this game now. It's OK. I'm not happy, but I'm happy we win this game. I must play to be the same as Yao.
Me: Is there one thing that is the biggest misconception about your country?
HH: Nobody knows my country. Now is better. Now is better. But last year, I come here, my teammates ask me questions. Do I have a car? Do I have suit, or shoes? I said yeah, I have shoes. We have shoes. The (wrong) thing on us is, do you have camel? You don't have any shoes. We drive camel, not cars. No. Iran is big country, is huge country. I love my country. We have beautiful things. We have something to do. Now it's better.
Me: What was your feeling when you shook hands with Casspi?
HH: Just play basketball. I don't talk about ... what's the name?
HH: Politics. My English ... last year, I couldn't ... I'm sorry. But I don't think about politics. I want just to play my basketball, you know? He's a basketball player, and basketball players, you just say hi. You don't talk about politics or anything.
Me: You're a sportsman?
HH: Yeah, I'm a sportsman. I don't want to continue thinking about politics. No.
Me: Do you think you'll stay here through your contract (Haddadi is signed with Memphis through 2011) or will you go back to Europe if you can't play here?
HH: If my contract is finished and I find a contract, I say. It's my dream, in the NBA. If not, I go. My agent, he talks to all teams. I don't know. I have one more year on contract. It's long, it's long. NBA is long season. We have 40 games left, maybe we go playoff. I hope, I wish for playoffs. And we have one more year. I have chance to play maybe next season.
"Gilbert used extremely poor judgment and is ultimately responsible for his own actions."
--Excerpt from Washington Wizards statement, after Gilbert Arenas pleaded guilty to one count of felony gun possession in D.C. Superior Court Friday.
"The Celtics are a veteran team. They have a great coach and he's been coaching. We have a fairly new coach, a fairly new system. So it doesn't even compare. The Celtics and the Nets, it just doesn't compare in all honesty. You can't compare the two."
--Nets guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, speaking the unvarnished truth about the gulf between the Boston and New Jersey franchises at the moment to the Newark Star-Ledger.
"I saw everyone getting up and you start thinking of bombs and tornadoes, snipers. You don't know what's going on."
--Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo, telling the Los Angeles Times his reaction when FedEx Forum was evacuated for 17 minutes last Tuesday during the Memphis-Clippers game after a water main break in the building led to flooding and to a fire alarm going off.
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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