My Take On: Why Durant Made the High IQ Move to Warriors

Although only 27, Durant is quickly running out of time to win an NBA championship.

My Take On: Why Durant Made the High IQ Move to the Warriors

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Kevin Durant appears to be saying ‘Hold that thought, Golden State. I’ll be right there.’/Photo Credit: thesource.com

By Ron Thomas

Look at the self-transplanted Kevin Durant, and he still almost has the baby face he had when he entered the NBA after his freshman year at the University of Texas. It’s easy to think, “Why would he leave the team he loves, the Oklahoma City Thunder, when he’s only 27? He’s got plenty of time to win many championships.”

But Durant knows the undeniable truth. At 27, he’s quickly running out of time to win even his first NBA title. If I were him, that would have been the main reason I left the Thunder behind on Monday in my haste to become a Golden State Warrior.

Athletes live under a different work lifespan clock than normal human beings like us. When we enter the workforce, we can usually safely assume that we’ve got 40+ years to accomplish our goals and rise to the top of our professions. But a pro athlete’s career runs like a clock with a spring that’s been wound up too tightly. Instead of going “tick … tock … tick … tock” it goes “ticktockticktock” until their career ends far too abruptly no matter how long it lasts.

Time Marches Faster for Youngest Pros

It’s true that Durant is “only” 27, but previous one-and-done college players like him can wear out a lot quicker than the San Antonio Spurs’ “Old Man Riverwalk” Tim Duncan, who played four years at Wake Forest. Duncan was 21 years, 6 months old when he played his first pro game in 1997; at that age, Durant was deep into his third season, had played in 238 NBA games and had racked up 8,500 playing minutes.

Durant no longer was playing a 35-game college schedule against players he often could physically dominate. Instead, he was enduring the NBA’s annual 82-game grind against fellow pros who could outdo him pound-for-pound and muscle-for-muscle, even if a talent mismatch still existed.

Talking about high school players who were eager to move directly from high school into the pros, I once heard former NBA guard Rod Strickland caution them that NBA frontcourt players possess “man strength” that a high schooler can’t possibly comprehend. Even though this isn’t the era of Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason wrestling opponents to the mat – oops, the floor – the sheer physical nature of pro basketball can chop years off a player’s career.

And every NBA player knows he’s just one awkward landing from going from star to tragic figure, which Indiana’s Paul George almost did two years ago after a gruesome fall nearly ruined his right leg.

 

Stephen Curry’s drive-and-dish skills will leave Kevin Durant as open as a 24-hour store./Photo Credit: Richard Scuteri/Associated Press

The Westbrook Dilemma

So after nine ringless seasons, I think Durant should be in a hurry to win a title, and here’s why he was wise to leave OKC to pursue it.

He had already come oh so close with the Thunder, losing the 2012 Finals to Miami 4-1 and last month blowing the seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead over the Warriors. If not then, when will the Thunder ever win the crown?

Moreover, their future lies in the hands of point guard Russell Westbrook. He arguably ranks among the NBA Top 5 players in the NBA, and he’s so talented and powerful that he can sometimes bend a game to his will.

But, he’s a high-scoring point guard, not a pure playmaker, and at clutch time in playoff games that championship teams must win, his decision-making and ballhandling have been flawed at crucial moments.

Warriors Lift Durant’s Burden

The Warriors’ Stephen Curry also is a high-scoring point guard whose overly fancy ballhandling hurts his team at times. But overall, he’s a more generous, more instinctive passer than Westbrook, which is enhanced by the Warriors’ quick-pass attack that keeps everyone involved.

With Curry sinking his ridiculous 3-pointers, dabbling in the paint and running the offense surrounded by hellacious shooters Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the highly efficient Andre Iguodala, Durant will be living the easy life.

He may get fewer shots, but so many more will be unchallenged shots than with OKC that Durant’s shooting percentage and maybe his scoring average will go up, and the pressure on him should plummet.

Did He Abandon Ship?

Durant has taken some heat for signing with the team that broke his heart in the Western Conference finals, especially from ESPN’s barb-throwing commentator Stephen A. Smith.

“I just view it as him jumping on the bandwagon and I think it’s the weakest move I’ve ever seen by a superstar,” Smith said.

I think the opposite. It was one of the smartest moves a superstar could make. Durant already has won one league MVP award, been 1st team All-NBA team six times, won five consecutive scoring titles, played in seven straight All-Star games and, according to NBA Reference, has been paid about $88 million. He’s even made his much-loved mother a familiar face at courtside to TV viewers.

All that’s left is winning a championship. He just took the best step possible to ensure that it happens before he runs out of time.

My Take On: Young Muhammad Ali, the Champ at His Best

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Muhammad Ali lands a left hook to the jaw of Cleveland Williams/fightsaga.com

By Ron Thomas

Amid all of the reverence shown after Muhammad Ali’s death for the principled stands he took against racism, oppression and the Vietnam War, we should not forget the foundation for it all – his remarkable athletic talent.

Before the federal government prevented him from displaying it from the ages of 25 to 28, when he should have been at his physical peak, Ali’s mastery of boxing left him with the heavyweight crown after he knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964 while still maintaining the unblemished face of a newborn.

Ali’s artistry in the ring was most evident before his suspension in 1970. No one can better describe him than the opponents he befuddled, Ali’s support team and reporters who covered his fights. Their words were recorded in Thomas Hauser’s book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” that provided the quotes that follow unless they are attributed otherwise.

Born to be a Boxer

Young Ali:Associated Press

Young Ali/Associated Press

“If God sat down to create the perfect body for a fighter, anatomically and physiologically, he’d have created Ali,” said his doctor, Ferdie Pacheco. “Every test I did on him was a fine line of perfect. His blood pressure and pulse were like a snake. His speed and reflexes were unbelievable. His face was rounded, with no sharp edges to cut; and on top of that, his skin was tough. . . . His peripheral vision was incredible. … In the gym, he’d work with Luis Rodriguez, who was the fastest welterweight in the world; and Luis, who was like lightning, couldn’t hit him.”

Experts agree that Cleveland Williams, called “The Big Cat,” was victimized by Ali’s most perfect performance, a merciful knockout on Nov. 14,1966. Williams had been a crushing puncher until, like so many black men throughout history, he was shot by an officer and needed four surgeries to recover. Boxing writer Jerry Izenberg said Ali felt uneasy about fighting the diminished Williams, so Izenberg told him, “If you want to do this guy a favor, knock him out as soon as you can.”

You can see the entire eight-minute fight on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rI6pZDJOVc

Ali Was Never Better

In the second round, Ali hit him with four piston-like jabs and Williams’ head kept snapping back like he was a bobblehead doll. Ali softened him up with hooks and crosses, and then knocked him down for the first time with a one-two combination that Ali threw while moving backwards! Meanwhile, Williams seldom even threw a punch. He looked mesmerized.

Things just got more confusing as the champ debuted his soon-to-be-famous “Ali Shuffle.” After four knockdowns, the fight was stopped in the third round with Williams bloody and dazed and Ali’s face unmarked.

“That night,” said Ali’s foil, TV commentator Howard Cosell, “he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived.”

The end comes for Cleveland Williams:Neil Leifer

The end is near for Cleveland Williams/Neil Leifer

Trying to Define Greatness

Ali’s last fight before his suspension was a seventh-round technical knockout of Zora Folley on March 22, 1967. By then, the challenger was 34 and past his prime, yet he thought that even the greatest past champions couldn’t beat Ali. Three weeks later, Folley explained why in a Sports Illustrated article by Morton Sharnik.

“The right hands Ali hit me with just had no business landing, but they did,” Folley said. “They came from nowhere. Many times he was in the wrong position but he hit me anyway. Blatt! And the punch connected. I’ve never seen anyone who could do that. The knockdown punch was so fast that I never saw it. He has lots of snap, and when the punches land they dizzy your head; they fuzz up your mind. …

“He’s smart. The trickiest fighter I’ve seen. … There’s just no way to train yourself for what he does: the moves, the speed, the punches, and the way he changes style every time you think you got him figured.”

Shadowboxing with Joe Louis

However, for many years Ali fought against the shadow he could not outpunch, outquick or outtalk – former heavyweight king Joe Louis, nicknamed the Brown Bomber for his 54 knockouts. As a counterpoint to the first black heavyweight champ, the brash Jack Johnson, Louis was trained to project the exact opposite personality. There would be no trash talking, boasting or women chasing from Louis – at least not in public – and some critics never forgave Ali’s contrasting boldness.

Ali couldn't get away from the Brown Bomber:Afflictor

The world will never know what would have happened if Ali had met Joe Louis in the ring/Afflictor

Especially at the start of Ali’s career, Louis’ shadow must have spoiled thousands of family dinners as old-timers like my dad, who was born in 1899, argued the merits of humble hero Joe against the protests of their black-and-proud sons, like me, and daughters who were enamored with Ali.

But Ali’s detractors, including Louis, always had the rejoinder that he “couldn’t take a punch” from the Brown Bomber without folding in half like a piece of stationery. It took Ali slowing down to reachable speed for him to disprove that theory by welcoming George Foreman’s devastating body shots and surviving Joe Frazier’s punches that hit with the force of a wrecking ball during “The Thrilla in Manila.”

 

Paying the Price

The Thrilla in Manila left its marks on Ali and Frazier:lankaview.com

The Thrilla in Manila left many marks on Ali and Frazier/lankaview.com

After that fight, Pacheco recalled, “Ali was badly beaten up. There were welts and bruises all over his body, and huge hematomas over both hips – collections of blood where Frazier had hit the hip sockets. His face was puffy. He wasn’t disoriented, but he was as exhausted as a man can be to the point where he could barely talk. Later, he said that fight was the closest thing to death he knew of. And he was right.”

Frazier knew it, too, yet it was he whose face was so battered and swollen that trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight after the 14th round. Hauser’s book quoted writer Mark Kram’s article in the Oct. 13, 1975, Sports Illustrated that described Frazier lying in bed recovering after his and Ali’s epic war in the ring.

“Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city,” Frazier said. “Lawdy, lawdy, he’s a great champion.”

My Take On: Draymond Green, Who Needs to Add A Little Bill Bradley to His Game

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Draymond Green and LeBron James engage in verbal jousting during the NBA Finals./Foxsports.com

By Ron Thomas

When the NBA records show why LeBron James was the MVP of the 2016 Finals, his stats should be written this way: 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, 2.3 blocks per game, plus 1 incredibly successful baiting of Warriors star Draymond Green.

That last statistic is most important of all because Green’s subsequent suspension gave the Cleveland Cavaliers the blast of oxygen they needed to win the city’s first pro championship in 52 years.

Although Golden State had taken a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 lead by winning Game 4, James won the gamesmanship contest that evening after arm-wrestling Green to the floor. By stepping over – not around – Green, James threw down the bait, and Green swallowed all of it.

No One Matters Except for Green

He got up, struck James’ groin, lightly shoved the superstar from behind and called him the B word, proving that he was no pushover. But he also proved to be tragically gullible. The next day, the NBA handed Green a flagrant 1 foul that, added to his previous flagrant fouls in the playoffs, automatically resulted in a one-game suspension.

Whether his actions deserved a flagrant foul is irrelevant. James said he wasn’t aware of the looming suspension; whether that’s true is irrelevant. Many Warriors fans believe the NBA conspired against Draymond in hopes of extending the series; that’s irrelevant, too.

The only thing that’s relevant is that Green knew he was on the cusp of a suspension yet his pride fell into James’ trap, and the results were disastrous.

Former Knicks Star’s Viewpoint

When former New York Knicks star Bill Bradley starred for Princeton in the 1960s, author John McPhee wrote a book about him entitled “A Sense of Where You Are.” In a March 29, 2015, New York Times article by Marc Tracy, Bradley gave that title meaning, one that Green should remember the next time his manhood feels threatened.

“You have a sense of where you are in life,” Bradley said. “You don’t get carried away. You know who you are. You understand the environment, the context in which you’re living, and you make decisions upon the centeredness.”

Green hadn’t grasped that yet.

Bill Bradley turns the corner on Mr. Logo, Jerry West/NBA.com/jpeg.

Bill Bradley turns the corner on Mr. Logo, Jerry West/NBA.com

 

Nothing to Prove

After Game 4, the Cavs must have been gasping for hope. No NBA Finals team had EVER overcome a 3-1 deficit, and the Warriors had crushed Cleveland by an average of 20 points in those wins. Mentally, the Cavs must have been fried, even scorched, and resigned to defeat. Then Green’s suspension resuscitated them, James and Kyrie Irving capitalized with their twin 41-point performances in Game 5 as Green watched in street clothes, and eventually the Warriors’ title hopes were destroyed.

Green’s über-ego made it all happen. When James stepped over him, he should have just walked away. There’s no one on his team, no one in the NBA, and no one who follows basketball who didn’t already know that he’s a bonafide, fearless baller. Hopefully, he’s learned that there are times when he shouldn’t try to reinforce something that’s indisputable.

The 26-year-old Green, like Cam Newton during his press conference after Super Bowl 50, was a victim of his youthfulness. Unfortunately for pro athletes, the mistakes that mature us all often are made in front of millions of people plus the ever-growing professional and social media. That makes their need for perspective more urgent than ever, but there’s still hope for Green.

As Bill Bradley said, “You’re also always working on who you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ron's Take On: Briana Scurry

My Take On: Briana Scurry, Greatest African-American Soccer Player Ever

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Image caption: Briana Scurry, the goalkeeper on championship Women’s World Cup and Olympic teams, celebrated receiving her Pioneer Award  with Morehouse student Keion Grissom and co-host Ron Thomas on August 7 at the 2015 National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Minneapolis. 

By Ron Thomas

(The following is the introduction I read before presenting Scurry with her award from the NABJ Sports Task Force.)

The pitch has been Briana Scurry’s home since she started playing soccer on a boys’ team because there was no girls team. She was 12 in Dayton, Minnesota, and the coach made her goaltender to keep her out of harm’s way. Wrong concept.

Describing goaltending, she said, “The best analogy was one I heard when a pilot was doing a speech and said flying is absolutely hours and hours of monotony, coupled with instances of sheer terror.”

The shot stops here

The ball is away from a goaltender almost the entire game, “Then 21 people are trying to crash into your space,” Briana said. “It’s very difficult because of the pace, and people’s intuition is to avoid objects, people and knees coming at you, but as goaltender you have to go TO that stuff.”

Her daring led Briana to become the most successful African-American soccer player in history and to be named on U.S. Women’s Soccer’s all-time best team after participating in 133 victories (including 71 shutouts), only 12 losses and 14 ties.

Briana Scurry

The coming out that wasn’t

She also made social history in 1999 when Briana became one of the first high-profile athletes to come out publicly as a gay person. You don’t remember that? There’s a reason why.

Just as Abby Wambach ran to the stands to kiss her wife after America’s World Cup victory last month, Briana ran to her girlfriend after winning the 1999 championship in which she made a title-saving save. “But,” Briana recalled, “ABC cut away when they realized I was kissing another woman. So, that was my coming out.”

Fact is, Briana has never hidden being gay and speaks out frequently on diversity and LGBT issues.

Career-ending concussion

Her career ended in 2010 when an opponent accidentally kneed her in the side of the head. She completed the first half of the game, walked to the bench leaning to one side, and never played again.

The blow gave her a concussion that, according to Sports Illustrated, afflicted her with three years of severe headaches that made it very difficult for her to concentrate, socialize, write, walk or do soccer commentary. “After a while I started to get depressed,” she told SI. “My brain chemistry had changed. … My mind was broken.”

Her life was put back on track after neurologist Kevin Crutchfield figured out that a nerve that went from the spine to her neck to the back of her head had become intertwined with a muscle. A 2013 surgery removed the nerve, ended the headaches and started her path toward normalcy she’s still striving to achieve.

Protecting the future of women’s soccer

Especially because girls playing soccer are unusually susceptible to concussions, Briana has become an outspoken advocate for concussion awareness and criticizes soccer federations that underplay the problem.

She asked, “Can we please do something before parents think, like football, that soccer’s too dangerous?”

Soccer needs someone to save itself from ridicule. Who could be better for that task than Briana Scurry? For all that you’ve contributed to your sport and to our enjoyment, please come get your Pioneer Award.

Ron's Take On: Tony Olivia

My Take On: Tony Oliva, Baseball Star Who Owes His Career to Fidel Castro

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Image caption: To honor his great career and his retired No. 6 jersey, the Minnesota Twins dedicated this statue to Tony Oliva in 2011 at Gate 6 at Target Field. 

By Ron Thomas

(The following is the introduction I read before presenting Oliva with a Pioneer Award from the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force on August 7.)

If not for Fidel Castro, Tony Oliva probably would not be one of our honorees today.

One of the great hitters of the last half-century, Oliva was raised in rural Cuba, where baseball is revered. He played only on Sundays, and he learned how to hit as his brother pitched to him.

“I told him any time you strike me out you get a nickel, and he had to work hard to strike me out,” Tony said.

In 1959, Castro overthrew the dictatorial Cuban government. The next year, the Washington Senators signed Tony to a contract before moving to the Twin Cities, and in January of 1961, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Using his brother’s documents to leave, Tony (whose real first name is Pedro Jr.) was allowed to fly first to Mexico and then to the States for a tryout with 21 other Cuban players. They were the last baseball players to leave Cuba without defecting.

The lucky break that made a career

At spring training in Fernandina Beach, Florida, Tony was cut presumably because of poor fielding, but he believes racism was the real reason. Only two minor-league teams were left in spring training when the Cubans had arrived. The Erie, Pa., team had already chosen one black player, and the other team from Florida didn’t want any, so Tony was supposed to be sent home. But because of the Castro-U.S. feud, there were no boat or plane rides to Cuba.

A minor-league manager named Phil Howser got a rave report on Tony so he paid Tony’s expenses until Howser found a team that would take him in Wytheville, Virginia. There he hit .410, and a stellar career was born.

Unlike many of today’s hitters who will get a three-ball count and then settle for a walk, Tony stayed aggressive at the plate. Regardless of the count, if a pitcher threw what he calls “a Cuban sandwich,” Tony tried to crush it.

Instant star

He made history by leading the American League in batting in his first two full major-league seasons, hitting .323 in 1964 and .321 in 1965. Despite a serious mid-career injury that resulted in eight surgeries and a replacement of his right knee, from 1962-76 Tony batted .304 with 220 home runs, 947 RBIs, 8 straight All-Star Game appearances and five finishes among the top 10 vote-getters for the MVP award.

Last year, Tony was deeply disappointed when he missed being selected for the Hall of Fame by one vote. But this year brought him joy when President Obama re-opened U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.

“Hopefully, more people will enjoy a chance to enjoy Cuba and see for themselves what kind of people Cuban people are – very nice, very friendly,” Tony said. “I have five brothers and sisters and I go back every year.

“Now I have two countries. I live 55 years in the United States and 21 in Cuba. I am very proud of both countries.”

Tony, please come to the podium for being one of the most lethal hitters of our time.

Morehouse's Ron Thomas, Jeffrey Washington '10, Jayson Overby and Thomas Scott '13 surround 2015 Pioneer Award winner Tony Oliva

Image caption: Tony Oliva with (L-R) me, Morehouse graduate Jeffrey Washington ’10, current Maroon Tiger Editor-in-Chief Jayson Overby and Thomas Scott ’13

Ron's Take On: Bill McMoore

My Take On: Bill McMoore, Always Looking Out for His Brothers and Sisters

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Image caption: Bill McMoore carried a menacing right hand when he entered the ring, just waiting for a jaw to be exposed. This falling San Jose State boxer felt McMoore’s power in their 1951 match. 

By Ron Thomas

(The following is the introduction I read before presenting Bill McMoore with a Pioneer Award from the National Association of Black Journalists Sports Task Force on August 7, 2015. Mr. McMoore died peacefully at the age of 90 on June 6, 2016.)

When Bill McMoore graduated from the University of Minnesota, Harry Truman was president, “I Love Lucy” had not debuted on TV yet, and the NBA still was playing without a shot clock.

It was 1951, and if Bill wanted to view the university’s black representation on the football and boxing teams, and in the Education Department, all he needed was a mirror. In all three cases, he was the entire brotherhood. Yet, he persevered.

As a boxer, succeeding was a breeze because his coach was so supportive. “He was more of a father-like coach, so I didn’t feel discriminated against,” McMoore, now 89, recalled. “Ray Chisholm was a very nice guy.”

McMoore responded to his support by becoming the No. 2-ranked lightheavyweight in NCAA rankings, back when boxing was a sanctioned sport.

“I had a good right hand,” Bill said. “You had to worry about that…. Straight right hand to the chops.”

However, McMoore seldom played in a football game. He believes that he was discriminated against, but he refused to quit the team. “That was just ingrained in me,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up in anything.”

A One-Man Employment Agency

Bill began his teaching career in 1958 at Minnesota South High from where he graduated, and in the early 1980s he became the district’s director of health, physical education and athletics. He used that authority to add color to the sidelines, including giving Sports Task Force member Charles Hallman his first coaching job.

Charles was teaching young kids basketball one day when a parent complimented him and asked if he coached high school ball. When Charles said no, the parent said he knew someone who could hire him. A few days later, Bill called and asked for his resume.

“I didn’t know he was the AD,” Charles recalled. “I just thought he was somebody working for the schools. I didn’t know he was THE MAN.”

That was in 1984, and soon Charles was an assistant coach. Today, he’s still coaching in Minneapolis schools and so are both of his sons – all part of McMoore’s legacy.

images-1

But Bill is most proud of how hard he fought to get women hired as coaches. “If a man could find benefits from coaching in sports, why shouldn’t women?” he said.

Bill retired from the school district in 1989 and became director of community relations for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, where he started an internship for minorities by recruiting from HBCUs. One of his finds was Terrell Battle from Winston-Salem State, who now is General Manager of Lifetime Fitness in Minneapolis.

So Bill, please come to the podium to accept our award for being a black pioneer in so many ways for so many people for so long.