NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Ujiri leads the charge in Africa — Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is at the forefront of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders initiative in Africa. It’s more than just an obligation from the Ujiri, it’s a passion project years in the making. Our very own Shaun Powell is on the ground in Johannesburg and captured the essence of Ujiri’s mission to serve as an ambassador for the game, and sports in general, on his native continent:
For anyone who might ask why the general manager of the Toronto Raptors is spending his summer threatening to go hoarse half a world away, well, you must know this about Masai Ujiri. When he’s in charge of an NBA franchise, he’s in his element, because his peers find him very astute and a few years ago voted him the game’s top executive. But when he’s developing basketball and teaching life skills to children and young adults in Africa, he’s in his homeland and his own skin, and there is no greater reward or satisfaction or privilege. When and if he wins his first NBA title, that might pull equal to this.
He was in Senegal last week, holding basketball clinics through his foundation, Giants of Africa. Next up: Stops in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and also Nigeria, his birthplace. He’ll spend three weeks on this side of the Atlantic with the hope of discovering the next Dikembe Mutombo from these clinics, but would gladly settle for the next surgeon.
This weekend is unique and special because here on Saturday the NBA will stage an exhibition game for the first time in Africa, and the participating NBA players and coaches are warming up by serving as clinic counselors.
One is Chris Paul, and the cheers he gets from campers are the loudest, but even an eight-time All-Star knows he’s not the star of the home team, not on this soil.
Ujiri ricochets from one group of campers to another like a blind bumblebee, carrying an air horn that blows when one session ends and another begins. After five non-stop hours of this he is asked if he’s tired, and no, he’s just amused at the question. Who gets tired from doing their passion?
“I look at these kids and they remind me of me of when I was a young kid,” he says. “I see me through them. All they need is a chance.”
It all runs with precision at this clinic, how the students are disciplined and determined, how their enthusiasm rubs off on the NBA players and coaches, how Ujiri’s vision seems so … right. As Ujiri gave pointers, a Hall of Famer who’s also the pioneer of African basketball stood off to the side, shaking his head, astonished at the spectacle and the man in charge.
“Masai has a lot of passion for this, and helping Africa year after year speaks about the person he is,” says Hakeem Olajuwon. “He is a prince. That’s what he is.”
No. 2: Veteran point guard Miller joins Timberwolves — Kevin Garnett won’t be the only “old head” in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ locker room this season. He’ll have some company in the form of veteran point guard Andre Miller, who agreed to a one-year deal to join the renaissance KG, Flip Saunders and Ricky Rubio are trying to engineer with one of the league’s youngest rosters. Miller’s role is more than just that of an adviser, though, writes Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune:
It was less than two weeks ago that Flip Saunders, Wolves president of basketball operations, said his team might be in the market for a veteran point guard.
He has arrived.
A source confirmed a report that Wolves had come to an agreement on a one-year contract with veteran Andre Miller, who visited the Wolves on Wednesday.
It marks an evolution in Saunders’ thinking. Immediately after moving up to draft former Apple Valley star Tyus Jones late in the first round of the draft, Saunders sounded like he might be happy with Jones as Ricky Rubio’s backup. But the fact that Rubio is coming off ankle surgery and Jones is a rookie ultimately changed Saunders’ mind.
“You don’t want to put the pressure on the young guys so much,” Saunders said two weeks ago. “Hey, listen, we’re always looking to upgrade. It could happen.”
And it did. Miller, 39, is nearing the end of a long career, but his experience should help both Rubio and Jones while giving the Wolves some peace of mind. Originally drafted with the eighth overall pick in the 1999 draft by Cleveland, the 6-2 Miller has averaged 12.8 points and 6.7 assists over 16 seasons while playing for seven teams. Last season between 81 games in Sacramento and Washington, Miller averaged 4.4 points and 3.5 assists per game.
No. 3: Matthews: Trail Blazers ‘never made an offer’: — There is no need for an autopsy on Wes Matthews‘ exit from Portland via free agency. He’s a Dallas Maverick now and apparently for good reason. Matthews told Jason Quick of the Oregonian that the Trail Blazers never made an offer to keep him, allowing the injured free agent to take the offer from the Mavericks and move on after being an integral part of the operation in Rip City.:
He had hoped he could return to the city that had embraced him, to the team with players he considered brothers, to the franchise where he grew into one of the NBA’s most well-rounded and respected shooting guards.
But in the end, after five seasons, the feeling was not mutual. He was greeted with silence. No phone call. No text messages. The Blazers never made an offer.
“I was pissed off,” Matthews said. “I felt disrespected.”
He believed he was a viable option for teams, even as he continued to rehabilitate a ruptured left Achilles tendon suffered in March. In the days leading up to free agency, Matthews’ camp released video to ESPN showing him jogging in place, utilizing lateral movement and shooting jumpers. He was, he wanted the league to know, ahead of the eight-month recovery time estimated by doctors.
A story also leaked that Matthews expected negotiations to start at $15 million a season, or almost $8 million more than he made last year.
It was a ghastly number for the Blazers, even though they could technically afford him. Paul Allen is the richest owner in sports, but after a lost era during which he paid more than a combined $100 million to Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, only to see their knee injuries become chronic, Allen was wary of paying top dollar to a player coming off a serious injury.
The only chance the Blazers would pursue Matthews, top executive Neil Olshey later explained, was if free agent LaMarcus Aldridge chose to return, maintaining Portland as a playoff-caliber team. When Aldridge chose San Antonio, the Blazers decided to rebuild. Paying big money to a 29-year-old shooting guard coming off major surgery didn’t make long-term sense.
“I was angry,” Matthews said, “but I also realize that this is a business.”
He figured there would be trying times, with harsh realities, after he suffered his injury during the third quarter of a March 5 game against Dallas. Achilles injuries not only test one’s body, they challenge the mind.
He didn’t expect one challenge to come from the team to which he gave so much of his heart, so much of his sweat. Portland’s silence meant he was losing the greatest comfort of his career: a stable starting lineup, an adoring fan base and a rising profile.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Chuck Hayes is headed back to Houston on a partially guaranteed one-year deal … Tyus Jones, the hometown kid, is leading the summer caravan for the Minnesota Timberwolves … A couple of Trail Blazers are going a bit Hollywood this summer … Amir Johnson was convinced Celtics fans would love him before he joined the team …