Features for Bleacher Report:
The LaMelo Show (2.28.18):
The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins while Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse (Remix)” blasts in the background. It’s his time. Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men. But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball. Puffing out his chest, LaVar shimmies left to right in a navy suit and light-blue pocket square. He’s energized by the eyes set on him. Three cameramen from the family’s Facebook reality show Ball in the Family follow nearly his every move. Now, it’s his time. “Bet you didn’t think I could look this good, huh?” LaVar screams in delight at Virginijus Seskus, Melo’s coach. Seskus laughs, nervously. He doesn’t speak English. It’s January 23, and tonight LaVar will join the bench as assistant coach for Prienai-Birstonas Vytautas, the low-level, last-place, professional team Melo and his 19-year-old brother, LiAngelo, play for. The opponent? Alytaus Dzukija, a team that could pass for a Division III squad. I watch LaVar smile as he takes selfies with fans, parading around like he did when he watched his eldest son, Lonzo, courtside when the Lakers visited Madison Square Garden. Except here there is no Jumbotron or tunnel or VIP lounge or concession stand. Just creaky hardwood and worn, gray seats. Only 1,500 of them. This gym, here in Prienai, Lithuania, a tiny town in the Baltic region of Northern Europe, sits next to a tall, snowy smokestack and an abandoned road. It’s where Melo has become the youngest American pro. It’s the perfect setting for the debut of a father with no collegiate or professional coaching experience, only AAU. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Introducing College Basketball’s Breakout Star, Mikal Bridges, the Kawhi Leonard Clone (3.7.18):
They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis. Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—”freakishly long,” Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6’7” swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him “Pea-head,” too). His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, sympathizes. “My wingspan is the same as World B. Free,” Rivers tells me, referring to the wiry 76ers legend, as we sip tea at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in February. Mikal has a 7’2” wingspan. “He’s always had ridiculous, stupid-long arms.” She laughs, remembering the Noodles days, back when no one was calling her son, now a redshirt junior, a potential 2018 NBA draft lottery pick. When he redshirted his first season to bulk up, he was simply a punching bag to the upperclassmen. “Any chance they got to try to punk him or go at his body or be physical with him, they’d do that,” guard Phil Booth says. Bridges’ No. 1 nemesis? Josh Hart. “I kicked his ass,” Hart, now with the Lakers, tells me. Once, Hart cut in front of Bridges. Bridges couldn’t catch up, so he grabbed at Hart’s ribs. Hart grabbed back and threw him. “Like four or five feet,” says Hart, who easily scored inside while the rookie flew out of bounds. His teammates challenged him because they knew what he could do with those long arms: sneak in the passing lanes for steals as well as block shots at their highest peaks. Villanova coach Jay Wright needed those arms to not just deflect but disrupt. He needed Bridges, an animal lover (and onetime aspiring veterinarian) who still calls his grandmother to pray before every road game, to be a little more mean. If he found himself in a trap, he’d pivot backward, afraid of contact. If he had the ball on a breakaway, he’d softly lay the ball in rather than hammer it home for a dunk. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
You Need to Know About Asia Durr (1.31.18):
Asia Durr isn’t blinking. Her No. 9 Louisville Cardinals are facing No. 5 Ohio State. Durr’s brown eyes are frozen, teeth clenched. She doesn’t see anyone. Doesn’t hear anything. In this moment, on this hardwood at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, someone is going to suffer. Scratch that. With the ball in her possession and 30 seconds to strike, an entire team will. Durr jabs hard to the left, then crosses to the right—too quick, too slick—and her defender inevitably bites. Durr pops a step-back three, leaning like she knows it’s good. Of course it is. It’s only the first quarter, but she’s got that look in her eye. Terry Durr, Asia’s father, who is seated directly across from the Louisville bench, recognizes that look immediately. “She’s ready to destroy someone,” Terry says of his daughter. In this moment, she’s someone else. The woman obsessed with SpongeBob SquarePants who taught her poodle, Precious, to howl when the theme song comes on, who loves haunted houses and horror movies but gets so scared she has to sleep with the lights on for the next few days—that girl takes on a different personality. “I call her the Baby-Faced Killa,” says DeQuan Jones, a friend who plays for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League. “She looks so innocent, but when she steps on the court, she literally will attack you.” No one’s safe. When she was the nation’s No. 1 recruit at Atlanta’s St. Pius X Catholic High, Durr dropped 44 against Jonesboro (Jonesboro, GA) and 49 against Redan (Stone Mountain, GA). With 45 seconds remaining against Redan, she spun past one defender in the backcourt and two more at midcourt before going behind the back of another at the elbow, sinking the and-1 layup despite getting smacked inside. During her second meeting with Redan, she dropped 53. “Just cold-blooded,” says Kyle Snipes, St. Pius’ head coach. “No regard for human life.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Top QB recruit Justin Fields Can’t Wait to Compete with Jake Fromm (1.25.18):
One morning in late December 2017, Justin Fields wakes up, pulls up a chair in his family’s home in Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, and reflects on all that happened the day before. On that red-letter day, the 18-year-old quarterback signed with the University of Georgia, becoming the first No. 1 overall prospect to pick the Bulldogs in the 13 years that ESPN has ranked prospects. Fields wore a tuxedo to his signing ceremony as 100 people filled the auditorium at Harrison High School. But today, he’s wearing a gray Georgia T-shirt, black shorts and a silver wristband that reads “Commit to the G.” A red Georgia flag waves on the front lawn in the 52-degree chill. His dog, Royce, a little black and white Shih Tzu with an endearing overbite, is tugging at Fields’ calf for attention. He’s appropriately dressed in a mini red Bulldogs shirt. But outside his home, outside Kennesaw, few can understand why the 6’3″, 225-pound quarterback with the size, athleticism, arm strength, lights-out quickness and razor-sharp IQ (he also has a 3.9 GPA) would choose Georgia. The program already has a true freshman in Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the SEC championship and national championship game. “It’s shocking,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. It’s shocking because Simmons says Fields could have had a much better chance of starting from day one at Florida under Dan Mullen, Texas A&M under Jimbo Fisher or even Florida State under Willie Taggart. “For him to turn all that down,” Simmons says, “is as confident, and I guess I’d say maybe as gutsy, of a decision as I remember seeing at the QB position.” Maybe to outsiders. But to Fields? The decision was as natural as a trip to the Waffle House (he goes after every game and orders a chocolate-chip waffle). It just felt right. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The Mad Scientist of the NFL (11.10.17):
“Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself. Every second is monumental for the first-year head coach. Five minutes later, he dashes off to a meeting, where he will labor over formations and movements and should-have-beens and better-bes. “He’s like a mad scientist,” says Chris Ashkouti, a close friend since seventh grade. McVay has transformed the Rams from a punchline to a contender, from a 4-12 nightmare to a 6-2 first-place standing in the NFC West. He’s revitalized one of the NFL’s worst attacks into the second-highest-scoring offense. And he’s doctored Jared Goff—last year’s No. 1 overall pick, who went 0-7 as a rookie starter—into a quarterback on the rise. But the mad scientist doesn’t want to hear any of that. Not with eight games left in the regular season. McVay may be young: born in 1986, three years before the Rams’ last winning season in L.A.; younger than current Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 35, and center John Sullivan, 32; so young that Wade Phillips, his 70-year-old defensive coordinator, tweeted that the Rams have “the only staff with DC on Medicare and HC in Daycare.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
So You Think You Know Lonzo Ball…(10.9.17):
The real Zo is still the 10-year-old boy who understood passing was like double-dutch: all rhythm and all timing. He calculated the precise second to throw the ball from one end of the court so that it soared over the hands of defenders and onto the fingertips of teammates at the other end without touching the ground. The real Zo is a 13-year-old boy whose AAU team trailed by one with 20 seconds left. He drove to the basket, fooling the crowd by passing to his center, wide open underneath the basket, instead of shooting it himself. Clank. Ball’s team retrieved the ball with seven seconds left. “I’m going to give you the ball again,” an unfazed Ball told his visibly dejected center. “Be ready.” Ball whipped the ball to the center again—to the chagrin of over-zealous parents—but this time, the big man delivered the buzzer-beater layup. The real Zo is a 14-year-old freshman challenging a senior for a starting varsity spot at Chino Hills High. “Are you nervous?” whispered John Edgar Jr., another childhood best friend, at tryouts. “Nah,” Ball said. “I’m not nervous at all. What do you mean?” Ball earned the nod. The real Zo is an 18-year-old man elevating a struggling UCLA squad to a No. 2 standing and Sweet 16 appearance in 2016-17, leading the nation in assists. “His strength is his speed,” says Steve Alford, UCLA’s coach. “You can’t catch him.” The real Zo is now 19—and every move he makes must be immaculate. He has to end his workouts with a swish, once sinking 20 three-pointers but refusing to leave until the net finally surrendered to the 21st. If he’s writing a rap verse and doesn’t like a line, he’ll crumple up the paper, throw it in the trash and start over. He’s a night-crawler. An owl. A bat. He might doze off for four, five hours, but that’s usually only during the day. There are too many step-back jumpers to release, too many sprints to complete, before dawn. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Doubters and Would-Be Tacklers: Beware of Ronald Jones, USC’s ‘Texas Tesla’ (11.29.17):
USC has the ball, 1st-and-goal at the 2-yard line with fewer than six minutes to go against UCLA. Quarterback Josh Rosen and the Bruins have cut the lead to 21-17. Sam Darnold hands the ball off to Ronald Jones II, the Trojans’ 6-foot, 200-pound tailback, who clutches the ball tight, ducks his head down and pummels his way through much bigger linemen. Even as one would-be tackler grabs him at the knees, Jones grinds his way out of the pile and into the end zone for his second touchdown and what turns out to be the winning score. He finished with 122 rushing yards on 28 carries in the Trojans’ (10-2) 28-23 victory. “You can’t just hit him or knock him down, because he’ll just bounce up and go through you,” said Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, whose team fell victim to a 25-yard Jones burst the previous week. On the play, Jones escaped not one, not two, but three defenders and even carried one on his back for five yards before shedding him for another 15, as if to scream, “WEIGHT ROOM!” So who is Rojo, the tackle-breaking back from McKinney, Texas, who is suddenly rising on NFL draft boards, and whose 16 touchdowns rank seventh nationally and tie for first in the Pac-12? A player who has so much North-South explosion, bringing him to top speed after his first cut, that his teammates call him the Texas Tesla? “A nightmare for defensive coordinators to prepare for,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “A special player who is right up there with the best running backs in the nation.” “He’s got horse legs,” said Stephen Carr, another Trojans back. “It’s going to take a couple of body shots to take him down.” “He’s got great potential,” said an NFC scout. “He’s what you want: dynamic.” “Once he sees a hole and he hits it,” teammate Aca’Cedric Ware said, “there’s no catching him.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
“It’ll be a little different this year”: U.S. Legends Watch 2018 FIFA World Cup Draw With Mixed Feelings (12.1.17):
LOS ANGELES — “What time is it?” Alexi Lalas, U.S. National Soccer Hall of Famer, asks me the question Friday morning, as there are no windows inside the Fox Sports studio in Los Angeles. Plus, it’s pitch-black outside. Lalas woke up at 3 a.m. to facilitate a 12-mile soccer carpool with fellow analyst and L.A. Galaxy legend Landon Donovan plus commentator Rob Stone. The trio arrived before 4. I tell Lalas it’s now 6:30. It’s 30 minutes before the 2018 World Cup Final Draw, which will be broadcast live around dinnertime in Moscow, Russia, the host of the Cup. All 32 qualifying teams are about to be funneled into groups to learn their first-round matchups. “World Cups are where perceptions are changed, both of individual players and teams,” Lalas tells B/R. “Because of the platform and the power of that platform, it almost defines who you are as a person, who you are as a team, who you are as a country.” And the draw itself? “It can decide a lot,” Lalas says “It can really form opinion. It can, to a certain extent, make or break you in terms of who you’re coming up against.” It’s an odd thing to watch the draw live in a country that failed to qualify for the Cup for the first time since 1986. It’s more clinical than emotional, like watching a party on TV without being invited. The 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of qualifying still stings. Making it to the World Cup is something the U.S. has taken for granted at times, Lalas says. “It’s disingenuous to say that it doesn’t matter or it doesn’t hurt,” says Lalas, looking toward the opposite end of the studio, which features a mini soccer field. U.S. soccer fans can only imagine that he and Donovan could exchange their loafers for cleats and somehow change what happened (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The Real First Family of Hoops (7.20.17):
The Ogwumikes are the type to play next-after-next-after-next-after-next-after-next in pickup, looking bewildered when everyone else in the gym starts taking off their kicks to call it quits. All four Ogwumike women, whose last name means “warrior” in Igbo, one of the national languages of Nigeria, are relentless. “No matter how we feel when we walk on the basketball court, we all have this sense of pride, so we always work hard,” Erica says. Last season, Chiney took a nasty elbow to the mouth. She felt her tooth shake—it fell out the next day—but she kept playing. Only now has she set up an appointment for an implant. Nneka has a three-inch scar on the right side of her body from diving into the scorer’s table while playing for the Polish team CCC Polkowice in the Final Eight of Euroleague in Russia. She hopped right back in the game. Olivia has been whacked in the head as an undersized forward more times than she’d like to remember. Erica is the only Ogwumike to wear a mouth guard, as she boxes out players a head or two taller than she in the paint. “We’ve all had our battle scars,” says Chiney, who is sitting out this season to rehab a left Achilles injury. Don’t try any of them. Come for one and the other three will come for you. “Nneka was willing to throw down for me,” Chiney says. She remembers when Nneka almost beat up someone in high school for making fun of her for delivering lunch announcements in Cy-Fair High School’s cafeteria with the tenor of a State of the Union address (she was the president of the student council). And if you foul Chiney nowadays, the Hurricane will thunder the next time you face L.A. “Nneka will use up her four fouls,” Chiney says. But as young girls, Nneka and Chiney ran from competition. Actually, it was just Chiney, who at nine years old, hid in the bathroom during their first AAU practice while Nneka, 11, grudgingly endured the two-hour ordeal. “She was brave,” Chiney says. Nneka disagrees. She didn’t have a choice; one sister had to show face. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
How Mo’ne Davis made her hoop dreams come true: Inside Life after Little League (2.21.17):
Mo’ne Davis calls for the ball. She drains a three, holding her follow-through for a second longer as she and a teammate battle two others for most threes made during a drill. “BOOM!” the boys on the sideline shout. Davis, wearing white and chrome Nike Kobe A.D.s, scurries around the perimeter, releasing shot after shot. “They cheatin’!” Davis hollers, waving her arms and hip-checking one of her opponents. She pops three more in a row. “Oh yeaaaaahhhh,” she says, bouncing up and down, sensing victory. Davis has been knocking down shots at Philadelphia’s Marian Anderson Recreation Center with these same boys—her teammates on the Anderson Monarchs, a youth recreational team—for the past eight years. The center’s gym, with its four rows of brown bleachers, its cream-colored wall tile and its green and white scoreboard, has long been home to the 15-year-old—since before she became an American sensation in 2014 as the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series; before she starred in Spike Lee’s Chevrolet commercial; before she couldn’t walk anywhere without fans approaching her for pictures.(READ FULL STORY HERE).
My Game-Day Style: Austin Rivers (2.14.18):
Even when he was nursing an injured ankle with a protective boot last month, Austin Rivers made sure his ‘fit was on point. “If I’m going to sit, I might as well look good,” he says. Though the boot is no fashion statement, it didn’t deter Rivers from suiting up for a more “grown” look he’s transitioned to. It’s a recent change in his game-day style that resulted in the purchase of 18 tailored suits from designers such as Musika Frere and Gucci. He owned just one last year. “I went all-in,” says Rivers, who returned to action last week. “I went from not having suits to being Mr. Suit.” Gone are the days of dressing like an L.A. guy, or what Rivers calls “the Melrose look” (trendy streetwear with ripped jeans and oversized sweatshirts). “Young boy-type stuff,” the 25-year-old says. Well, those days are almost over. “I have range. Some days I’ll be super professional, and some days I’ll look like a fucking rapper.” He’s also done with the fashion he donned as a teen—oversized threads, headbands and Air Force 1s—referencing the baggy clothing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony wore in the early 2000s. “I wanted to be like the basketball players,” he says. Now, Rivers is one, with a confidence level and basketball lineage that make him polarizing among opponents and fans. He’ll always be coach Doc Rivers’ son, but he’s his own man now. In hoops and in style. “You’re never going to please everybody. I go into the locker room and guys will be like, ‘What do you got on?'” he says while giving B/R Mag a tour of his closet in his Pacific Palisades, California, home. “I’ll be like: ‘This is how I dress. What do you got on?'” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
BIG3 Thinking Bigger (8.29.17):
“Rick!” Kenyon Martin screamed as he walked in. “You a bad mof–ka, man! Rick a bad mof–ka!” Coach Rick Mahorn, the hustler, the former Detroit Piston “Bad Boy” Martin grew up idolizing as a kid from Saginaw, Michigan, had been the first to enter the press room after his Trilogy squad won the first-ever championship crown for the BIG3, co-founder Ice Cube’s half-court three-on-three basketball league for former NBA players. Mahorn looked exhausted, as his team had clawed back from an 11-point first-half deficit against the Gary Payton-coached 3 Headed Monsters at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday. Mahorn had slowly reached for a chair, smiling once he got settled. He had a look of pride on his face: “What a great game, s–t,” Mahorn said. “Way to end the season on a great game. I’m still mad we ain’t played perfect.” Then came Martin. Mahorn greeted the former Denver Nuggets star with a headlock hug, and K-Mart flashed a wide smile. Al Harrington, who played 16 NBA seasons, chimed in too, turning to Mahorn: “I love my coach, man. I love my coach. Look at him! I love Unk! I looooove him! That’s all I got to say. I love this man, God damn, I love this man.” Mahorn, Martin, Harrington and the rest of Trilogy—Rashad McCants, Dion Glover and James “Flight” White, the BIG3 Defensive Player of the Year—looked content back in their element, jerseys sweated-through, back at a presser with microphones in front of them, with reporters asking three-part questions, with an urge to get out the next day and dominate again. Squeezed tight together on the podium, they shared the familiar, euphoric feeling that can only come from being part of a team—a feeling the BIG3 brought back. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Excellence Defined: UConn Women Make History Again with 91-Game Win Streak (1.15.17):
Connecticut wasn’t satisfied with leading SMU by 24 points at the end of the first quarter, 26 at the end of the half, 35 at the end of the third Saturday afternoon. UConn refused to give an inch until the final buzzer sounded. With the 88-48 win, the top-ranked women’s basketball team ascended into hoops immortality. The 11-time national champion Huskies won their 91st straight game, setting the longest streak for consecutive wins in NCAA Division I history for men or women. But Connecticut has been here before. Having topped John Wooden’s legendary UCLA streak of 88 consecutive wins (1971-74) when it won 90 straight (2008-10), the Huskies have outdone themselves. “So many things that have happened at UConn are just beyond anybody’s expectations, beyond anybody’s imagination,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said on the SportsNet New York broadcast after the historic win. “It’s almost like it’s a fairy tale. It’s the kind of thing you can’t ever plan for or anticipate.” How could two completely different Huskies teams achieve the improbable in just over six years? “That’s definitely something [Auriemma] instills in us while we’re there: never be satisfied with what you’re doing,” Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes, who helped UConn set the 2008-10 record, told Bleacher Report. “Even if you’re having a good practice, you can always have a great one,” Hayes said. “His thing was, you can’t be perfect, but if you’re chasing perfection, you can catch excellence.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).