Friday, July 27, 2012

UNC's Justin Watts brings the house down at Greater NC Pro-Am

Before tonight's NC Pro-Am games, I struggled with the decision of whether or not I would mention, on this blog, the senseless shootings that took place at Wednesday night's Rucker Park Entertainers Basketball Classic in Harlem, NY, which left five people injured.  After all, sometimes we do describe ourselves as "The Rucker of the South"; but earlier this summer, after this The Herald-Sun story ran, which suggested that this year's NC Pro-Am would somehow be plagued by gang violence, I wanted to stay away from entertaining any negative portrayals of North Carolina's (and the nation's) premier summer league.  So, as long as we can all agree, that here in Durham, NC, inside N.C. Central's McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium, during NC Pro-Am play, absolutely NOTHING has resembled anything CLOSE to the unfortunate events that went down at last night's Rucker incident, then I'm alright.

Aside from that, on a hot and muggy Thursday night, NC Pro-Am definitely lived up to being "The Rucker of the South" for basketball showmanship.  It took less than an hour for the Twitter world to blow up with news and mentions of former UNC guard, Justin Watts' gym-rocking alley-oop dunk.  No one saw it coming.  Watts appeared, in the air, out of nowhere. In slow motion, he looked like a long-jumper, but stretching both arms above his head, signaling like an NFL referee would for a touchdown. Then, he caught the ball and threw it down with both hands, with a defender's arm in his face.  Then, a bunch of people from the stands went berserk and ran onto the court.  And then, Watts gave a slick wink to his NC Pro-Am teammates and his former Tar Heel teammates on the sideline--all equally amazed at his high-flying highlight. It was a shared acknowledgement that the whole gymnasium had just witnessed one of the summer's most "SportsCenter"-worthy plays.  This is "Grown Man Ball".

UNC's P.J. Hairston, Darius Johnson-Odom (L.A. Lakers) and Quincy Miller (Denver Nuggets) came to PLAY!
Watts' dunk nearly overshadowed the presence of Raleigh's Darius Johnson-Odom, who was acquired by the L.A. Lakers in last month's NBA Draft.  The first thing you should know is that our public address announcer, Bill Murphy, doesn't particularly care for the Lakers.   He made this known several times while Johnson-Odom was on the court.  But, the most important thing you should know is that Johnson-Odom put on a one-man dunk clinic which included one-handed windmill slams and muscle dunks. In the upcoming 2012-2013 NBA season, he'll be playing behind L.A. Lakers point-guards Steve Nash and Steve Blake, but neither one of those guys have Johnson-Odom's youth or athleticism.  He worked-out both of those assets on Thursday night, in back-to-back games, and put up 26 points behind N.C. Central's Dominique Sutton's game-high 27 points in the Dreamworks vs. Hendricks of Durham game.  

But perhaps the greatest moment of the night came when UNC's P.J. Hairston went on a blocking, dunking, and shooting-spree; and then playfully taunted some of his regular hecklers (Duke fans).  Hairston gave them the infamous Hulk Hogan, hand-to-the-ear pose before his team (Sheraton Imperial) walked off the court victoriously.   Sometimes families argue with each other, and sometimes they get along, but everyone is gonna leave with some good memories.   Clean competition. NC Pro-Am is built for that.    

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Holy families unite at Tuesday night's Greater NC Pro-Am

UNC's Leslie McDonald, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Rasheed Wallace at Tuesday night's NC Pro-Am
Holy Family University is a private, Division II school in Philadelphia, PA with a student population just a little larger than the capacity of N.C. Central’s McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium.  The HFU Tigers’ basketball team plays in the CACC (Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference)—a conference not known for sending a bunch, if any, players to the NBA ranks.  But if their 6-foot sophomore and Durham native, Rashaad Sneed keeps building on the cheetah-speed point-guard play he unleashed during Tuesday night’s play, he might have a chance to make it to the next level.   However, his true test will come once we see him apply this same energy against either of this summer’s point-guard standouts, former N.C. State floor general, Alex Johnson, or Duke’s Quinn Cook.  

Former UNC stars, Kendall Marshall and John Henson made a surprise visit to Tuesday night’s NC Pro-Am games, taking a break from some of the “rookie hazing” they’ve been experiencing this summer as they make their transition to the NBA.  Of course, Rasheed Wallace was in full character, sitting next to Marshall and Henson, behind the scorer’s table, loudly poking-fun and pointing out that the boys “got tore up” during some recent NBA Summer League games.  In the third game of the evening, Wallace and UNC's P.J. Hairston led their Sheraton Imperial team to a 79-74 win over Banks Law Firm.  Wallace rejected a few at-the-basket shots and rebounded like an angry magnet while Hairston dropped some big 3-pointers and provided a powerful, crowd-pleasing putback dunk.  

Later, Wake Forest’s L.D. Williams showed off his high-jumping game, matched by N.C. Central forward, Dominique Sutton’s air dances.  North Carolina's Henson and Marshall were dressed casually, maybe opting to rest from recent NBA Summer League play, so this night’s lone NBA player was Baylor University standout Quincy Miller.  The Denver Nuggets’ second-round pick wasn’t at his best, but he showed off the swing-man versatility that he'll get to improve on as a strong reserve player for his new team. 

London 2012 Olympian, Andrea Woodson-Smith, and her husband, Jeremy Smith
While Team USA was busy crushing Spain in both of the teams’ final pre-Olympic exhibition game, here at NC Pro-Am, London 2012 Paralympics basketball player and N.C. Central assistant professor, Andrea Woodson-Smith steered her team to a victory in the Wheelchair Bridge to Sports game, playing on the same team as her husband, Jeremy Smith. Clearly, Tuesday's attractions were up to caliber--a packed gymnasium, NBA stars, Olympians, and NC Pro-Am Commissioner, Donyell Bryant's birthday. He couldn't have asked for a better gift.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Some reasons why NC Pro-Am rises above another summer league

The Jordan brand "Rise Above" truck parked outside of  Greater NC Pro-Am
For the past two days, the Jordan brand “Rise Above” truck has been parked outside of McLendon-McDougald Gymnasium, home of the N.C. Central Eagles basketball team and the  Greater NC Pro-Am Summer Basketball League. If you wanted to, you could put your name on a list, put on a pair of borrowed Jordans, and test your vertical leap on a measuring apparatus that’s attached to the end of the truck.  The truck started in Portland, Oregon and has been traveling across the country promoting sneakers and it’s four-part documentary series, “Rise Above”, which tells unique and inspirational stories.  Inside the gym, the stories were centered around Barton College’s Jon Hart nearly tearing down the rim with an endless supply of mean dunks, Duke’s Quinn Cook putting on a dazzling point-guard clinic, and Alex Johnson single-handedly destroying the undefeated, P.J. Hairston-led team, Sheraton Imperial.  All of the in-between action made me glad I wasn’t stuck somewhere watching the NBA’s version of “summer league”.  Here are nine reasons why attending the NC Pro-Am basketball games is much more gratifying. 

1.      It’s the Rucker of the South:  You can sit at home and watch the NBA Summer League games all day and you might catch one or two highlights worthy of recording to your DVR box.  For every game being played at NC Pro-Am, there’s more than a dozen highlights. For every NBA Summer League game there’s a a few dozen yawns.  It’s boring. The Thomas & Mack Center and the COX Pavilion are probably two of the best places this summer to take a nap.  Inside N.C. Central’s McLendon-McDougald gymnasium, on the other hand, there’s so many highlights happening back-to-back, that if you glance at your IPhone for one second, you might miss one of NC Pro-Am’s most unbelievable plays.   

2.     There’s better music at NC Pro-Am.  It’s no secret that a lot of NBA teams have their own well-known, resident DJs for regular-season home games. But during the NBA Summer League, there’s probably an amateur DJ  who got the gig as an internship to earn some summer credits at UNLV.  Or no DJ at all.  This summer, NC Pro-Am has been jamming to the sounds of K97.5’s Wade Banner and Brian Dawson, as well as DJ Bobby Drake and it’s resident DJ Coke.  The music stays on during the games and people actually DANCE in the stands.  The players dance too.  Now, how fun is that? 
3.      SHEED (Rasheed Wallace).  Because nothing is more entertaining than watching four-time NBA All Star and Tarheel legend, Rasheed Wallace run over to the scorer’s table and yell at everyone about how there should be a shot clock and how much the referees suck.  His basketball shoes are gigantic, green and glossy and he refuses to talk to reporters.  He still plays passionately, catches mean alley-oops, and can still hit a three-pointer from anywhere on the court.  There are no SHEEDS in the NBA Summer League.  There are no SHEEDS anywhere on earth, except for at NC Pro-Am. 

4.       Las Vegas is overrated.  Durham has character.  Everyone knows, or at least thinks that Las Vegas is a fun city, but I’ve never met anyone who’s ever actually wanted to live there or stay there for the whole summer.  There might be a lot of distractions here at NC Pro-Am (music, food, women, adorable children) but it’s nothing compared to whatever might be happening in the gambling capitol of the world at the same time as an NBA Summer League game. Why would you attend one of those games when you and your friends could go out on the town and recreate any scene from the movie The Hangover?  Maybe this explains why Las Vegas still doesn’t have a professional sports team.  There are too many other fun things to spend your money on in that city. As the saying goes, “Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” As far as we’re concerned, NBA Summer League basketball can stay there too.  
5.      N. C. Central University—Not since the Jerry Tarkanian era has anyone really wanted to play basketball at UNLV.  Sure, the Runnin’ Rebels handed the Tarheels an early season loss last year, but that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden it’s a basketball haven again.  It definitely doesn’t mean that people are dying to go there like it’s Rupp Arena. The NBA Summer League could have picked better venues.  The point is that a couple of thousand people getting together in the off-season to watch a bunch of talented collegiate and pro basketball players in a gym on the campus of a historically black campus holds more sporting and cultural significance than a bunch of overpaid ballers hoopin’ in the middle of the dessert.  You could consider NC Pro-Am to be a community basketball festival.  Sometimes it’s a party, sometimes it’s a family reunion, but most of the time, it’s a showcase of raw basketball ability in a gymnasium with more history than the Thomas & Mack Center and the COX Pavilion combined.  Plus, there’s a lot of people (including black folks) who admit to never have stepped foot on an HBCU’s campus.  NC Pro-Am brings people of all races to McClendon-McDougald Gymnasium and changes all of that. 

6.      Michael Deloach, J.P. Tokoto, Quinn Cook, Jon Hart, Alex Johnson, P.J. Hairston, Marcus Fisher, Chris Lightner, and Jon Hart.  You might recognize some of those names, but all of those guys have racked up multiple, jaw-dropping plays at this summer’s NC Pro-Am.  Sometimes it’s better to watch up-and-coming college players and under-the-radar hoopers in freakish, streetball mode rather than sit through game-after-game of the stuffy, over-disciplined basketball that the NBA Summer League offers.    

7.     The hecklers.  At NC Pro-Am, fans have the right to yell at, harass and tease (within reason) any player they choose.  For example, this summer there’s been a crew of three or four boisterous Duke fans who sit courtside and make it their duty to try to frustrate UNC’s P.J. Hairston and N.C. State’s C.J. Leslie with whatever trash talk they can come up with.  It’s NC Pro-Am, so of course, Hairston and Leslie take the opportunity to respond with their own trash-talking, but their polished, collegiate game  and competitiveness usually speaks for itself when either of them end up dominating the game.  Everyone has fun and the rivalries continue.  If you tried this at an NBA Summer League game, you might get kicked out or thrown in jail. 

8.     NC Pro-Am is a free event.  Courtside seats at an NBA Summer League game are nearly $150.00.  They even have the nerve to charge “Juniors” $12.  For a summer league game; at UNLV.  This would be like if any one of this area’s universities (UNC, Duke, N.C. State, N.C. Central) charged an admission fee to watch their basketball team shoot around at the YMCA. 

1.      Our P.A. announcer, Bill Murphy.  If you’ve been to an NC Pro-Am game, then you’ve heard Bill’s signature lines like pointing out the “Euro step”, shouting “all out ballin!”, and my favorite, “grown man ball”.  He calls out airballs, bad free-throw shooting and he takes no prisoners.  Along with the players, he’s the life of the party and he stays enthusiastic up until the final buzzer of the last game.  Not that the NBA Summer League would ever hire an in-game announcer, but they’d have to hire Charles Barkley for anyone to care.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Greater NC Pro-Am's Top Ten plays from Tuesday night's action

The good folks over at M2 Productions have provided us with this footage from Tuesday night's NC Pro-Am action.  If you were there, then you saw both NCCU's Dominique Sutton's hyper-athleticism and Duke's Quinn Cook's crossover and shooting exhibition.  At the point guard spot and for a sophomore, Cook has shown a lot of floor leadership this summer, especially when on the same team as future Blue Devil teammates Amile Jefferson and Rodney Hook.  Check out Sutton and Cook; as well as more Pro-Am ballers in the above video.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The high arrival of UNC's J.P. Tokoto at NC Pro-Am

On Thursday afternoon, before another evening of NC Pro-Am ball, I made my weekly haircut visit to Midway Barber shop in Carrboro, NC, which is only a few blocks from UNC’s campus.  Former UNC power forward, Byron Sanders was seated next to me as we both waited for our turn in the barber’s chair.  I knew that my barber—a lifelong Tarheel fan—would be happy to know that I’d be checking out incoming UNC  freshman high-flyer, J.P. Tokoto.  Some folks, including my barber, have already compared the kid to another unbelievable, legendary Tarheel dunker, VinceCarter.  I’d agree that the two share the same athletic ability, but Carter’s lift-off was less majestic.  When Tokoto jumps, it looks like he’s climbing while in mid-air and adjusting his attack in stages, rather than simply elevating.  Depending on what type of dunk he does, he stays in flight with an almost infinite amount of time to shift, double-pump, twist, or spin before throwing the ball down. 

During his years at UNC, Harrison Barnes was given the nickname, “Black Falcon”, but now it seems more appropriate to honor Tokoto with a nickname befitting of a creature that glides through the air.  We’ll see what sort of clever names the UNC students come up with during the basketball season. 

Hopefully it’ll be better than “Black Frenchie”, which is what my barber calls J.P. Tokoto, who’s named after his grandfather,--former Cameroonian soccer player Jean-Pierre Tokoto.   Like many Tarheel fans who were wildly curious about who in the world would come in and fill a roster troubled by the loss of four pivotal players, my barber had already familiarized himself with UNC’s 2012-2013 recruiting class.   Tokoto was high on his radar.  Barbers are notorious for telling tall tales, and on that Thursday afternoon mine tried to convince me that he once saw Vince Carter do a double-between-the-legs dunk.  That probably never happened, but there’s nothing that suggests that Tokoto won’t pull it off sometime soon, maybe even at NC Pro-Am.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Week 2 at NC Pro-Am: New Blue Devils and turkey burgers.

Believe it or not, sometimes there’s way too many distractions in N.C. Central’s McLendon-McDougald gymnasium to focus on the basketball games.  On Tuesday, between K97.5 FM’s radio personalities, Brian Dawson and Wade Banner deejaying, adorable mohawked six-year-old boys dancing to their tunes, delicious yellow cheddar cheese popcorn from Durham’s The Mad Popper, and watching newspaper reporters make bets on which of them could do the impossible and convince Rasheed Wallace to give them an interview, amazing things needed to happen on the court.

The evening opened up with the Wheelchair Bridge to Sports players battling it out in a game that came down to a tie-breaking shot in the last seconds.  Disabled and restricted to wheelchairs, their combined athleticism was just as inspiring as the dozens of amateur, college and pro athletes who would later on exhibit their own breathtaking athleticism, both on foot and in the air. 

So, if NC Pro-Am’s opening night was N.C. State freshman Rodney Purvis’ coming out party, then this Tuesday night’s coming out party belonged to Duke’s Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, and Duke freshmen Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon.  But Jefferson’s stickman agility, Sulaimon’s barking enthusiasm, and Hood’s late baseline three-pointer weren’t enough to stop former NC State guard, Alex Johnson—who, in his second game of the night--spoiled the Duke newcomers’ Pro-Am debut, by following up Hood’s shot, with his own long-range, game-winning three-pointer.  
NBA Rookie of the Year and USA Select Team point-guard Kyrie Irving was scheduled to play Tuesday evening, but had bigger fish to fry out in Las Vegas, crossing-over veteran Team USA players and prepping the team for the upcoming London 2012 Olympics.  Duke’s Quinn Cook filled whatever void Irving’s footwork-absence might have left, showing-off a multiple-spin-move before a fast break layup.  Also, during halftime, Cook spontaneously threw down a 360-degree dunk .  Those that saw it were just as surprised as he was—including fellow Blue Devils, Tyler Thornton and Seth Curry, sitting on the bench in streetwear, hyping-up the guy whose main duty will probably be running next year’s Duke’s offense.

But enough about basketball.  Like I said earlier; there’s too many distractions.  Last year, I found myself making one-too-many trips to the concession stand for Chic-fil-a sandwiches.  I ate one per game.  That’s four chicken sandwiches and an extra five pounds of body fat that I don’t need.  Tuesday night, I discovered that the good folks at the concession stand are selling turkey burgers.  My favorite, ON DECK!  But there’s absolutely no way I can eat four of those.  I’d fall into a coma after the second one. Ain’t nobody got time for that—especially during Pro-Am.