Posts Tagged ‘Legends Brunch’

Russell’s 80th Highlights Legends Brunch

VIDEO: Bill Russell tribute at the Legends Brunch

NEW ORLEANS – With so much talk leading up to and through the NBA’s 2014 All-Star Weekend about “Mt. Rushmore” candidates of monumental greatness, it was L.A. Clippers guard Chris Paul who gave the fun exercise a little spin. Speaking at the annual Legends Brunch on Sunday in the Great Hall of the city’s sprawling convention center, Paul set up his selection of all-timers as some sort of personal half-court playground game.

“If it’s a 2-on-2 game, it’s going to be me and Bill Russell,” said Paul, still wildly popular in the host city this weekend after spending his first six NBA seasons with the New Orleans franchise. “If it’s 3-on-3, it’s me, Bill Russell and another guy. If it’s 4-on-4…

“One thing for sure, Bill Russell is going to be on my team because all he did was win.”

Eleven NBA championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, to be exact, the most prolific winner in major U.S. team sports. Russell was honored with a special tribute at the Legends Brunch, pegged to his 80th birthday Wednesday. A big cake in the shape of “80″ (green icing, naturally) was wheeled out at the end and the crowd stood to sing “Happy Birthday,” accompanying a trumpet player on the tune.

The five-time NBA MVP and the man for whom the Finals MVP trophy is named was front and center Sunday, feted not just for his birthday but because – as a native of Monroe, La. – he also fit nicely with the Legends tradition of acknowledging great players with connections to the host market. Three others with ties to the Big Easy and Louisiana were celebrated, including future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, who burst on the scene as a freshman at Louisiana State. Three years later in 1992, O’Neal was the league’s No. 1 draft pick; he was named Legend of the Year Sunday.

O’Neal was introduced by new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, a lanky 6-foot-3 who nonetheless found himself scooped up and carried like a small child by the massive O’Neal. The 15-time All-Star, who played for six NBA franchises, stood 7-foot-1 and weighed somewhere in the vicinity of 325 pounds, reminded the audience that he was big even when he was little.

When he first met LSU coach Dale Brown, O’Neal was a 6-foot-9 teenager. The Tigers coach mistook him for a member of the military. “He asked, ‘How long have you been a soldier, son?’ ” O’Neal said. “I said, ‘I’m only 13.’ ” The big man pantomimed Brown in a state of shock: ” ‘What?! Huh?!’ He wanted to hide me from the other coaches.”

Hall of Famer Karl Malone, who grew up in Summerfield, La., and was something of a sleeper pick (No. 13) out of Louisiana Tech in 1985, was presented with the Community Service Award. In a nice touch to connect the NBA’s greats to its budding Legends of tomorrow, Philadelphia’s dynamic rookie Michael Carter-Williams introduced Malone.

“A long, long time from now, I hope to be sitting in the audience,” Carter-Williams said. “You guys have no idea how much this means to me.”

Malone, No. 2 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list (36,928) behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), has been active with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and has traveled to Afghanistan and elsewhere to visit U.S. troops. “This honor is great,” he said of the award. “But it’s not about me. We’re a taking society. I try to be a little more about giving back.”

The third honoree with local roots was a HOF power forward who set the league’s standard for Malone and so many others. Bob Pettit – of Baton Rouge, LSU and the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks – was honored with the Hometown Hero Award.

“I don’t have a lot of sympathy for your 50th birthday,” Pettit told Malone after the former Utah forward introduced him (Malone hit that milestone last summer). “I’ve been retired for 50 years.”

Then, referencing a video clip of his old-school game from the 1950s and ’60s that was shown on multiple screens in the vast ballroom, Pettit poked a little fun at himself. “You saw that hook shot? The first time I shot my hook shot against Boston, Bill Russell caught it,” Pettit said. “I retired that shot after that.”

Now 81, the trim, 6-foot-9 Pettit – Malone called him a “spry young man” – still ranks eighth all-time at 26.4 points per game, third at 16.3 rebounds per game, ninth in minutes (38.8 mpg) and seventh in player efficiency rating (25.3). He was an All-Star in each of his 11 seasons and the game’s MVP three times.

Pettit – also on hand this weekend to remind current players of the 1964 All-Stars’ near-boycott of the showcase game, a tactic to earn their union clout with the owners – won the league MVP award in 1956 and 1959 and finished as low as sixth in the balloting only once. In 1957-58, he averaged 24.6 points and 17.4 rebounds – and scored 50 points in the Game 6 Finals clincher – to help St. Louis beat Boston and win the only NBA title the Celtics didn’t from 1957 through 1966.

And here’s a fascinating what-if: He was two years into his career when the Hawks drafted Russell with the No. 2 pick in the 1956 draft. They traded him that day to the Celtics for eventual Hall of Famers Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley, but still…

Russell sat, nodded and occasionally cackled that famous laugh of his through a steady stream of stories and tributes Sunday. Rev. Jesse Jackson talked about the Celtics star’s career in terms of “knocking down walls and building bridges,” less as a pro athlete than as a civil rights activist marching at the elbow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A panel of other NBA greats – Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler – also shared impressions and tales about Russell. Abdul-Jabbar, for instance, said that through studying Russell’s style of play he realized how it was possible for someone to dominate from the defensive end of the court.

Johnson said he chased Russell in terms of championships won (he fell six short) and now chases him for impact away from the game. And Erving spoke of the friendship the two have had dating back to 1970 or so, when the man later known as Dr. J still was at the University of Massachusetts. At 19, Erving said, “I sat down and talked with him for three or four hours about everything but basketball.” The two eventually stayed at each other’s homes and became golf buddies.

Russell admitted that he never much enjoyed participating in All-Star Games because, in his heart, he only played basketball for the Celtics. But in 1963 in Los Angeles, he invited his father to the game and told him, “We’re going to win and I’m going to win MVP.” The next day, Russell did just that with 19 points and 24 rebounds in a 115-108 East victory.

His father’s reaction? “I didn’t know you were that good.”

“I never talked about basketball with my family,” Russell said. “But my father was my hero. He taught me to be a man by being one.”

And now, when Russell sits in the stands to watch the game’s current elite performers in the All-Star Game? “I hate to admit it,” he said, revving up for another cackle. “My thought is, I can kick his ass.’ “

Olajuwon Honored At Legends Brunch

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HOUSTON
– It was Michael Jordan‘s birthday Sunday – in case you’re the one who hadn’t heard that by now – but it is Hakeem Olajuwon‘s “year.”

Olajuwon, the Hall of Fame center who spent nearly his entire career in the host city for the 2013 All-Star Weekend and led the Rockets to two NBA championships, was honored at the National Basketball Retired Players Association Legends Brunch as its “Legend of the Year.” He didn’t blow out any candles, but he did hear the applause and feel the appreciation of more than 1,000 attendees of the burgeoning event, sponsored by the retired players association now for 14 years.

Oh, and Olajuwon not only was selected No. 1, two spots ahead of Jordan, in the 1984 Draft. He beat him to 50 as well, hitting that milestone on Jan. 21.

The 6-foot-10 native of Lagos, Nigeria, who set standards for grace and footwork among the NBA’s great big men, Olajuwon famously transferred some soccer skills to hardwood when he picked up a basketball at age 15. In an acceptance speech that lasted more than 17 minutes – so much for “The Dream’s” image as a man of few words – he talked of his development under respected coaches such as Guy Lewis at the University of Houston and Bill Fitch and Rudy Tomjanovich with the Rockets.

But he also paid tribute to Ganiyu Otenigbagbe, who essentially discovered and molded his game in secondary skill. “I did not know the rules of basketball,” Olajuwon said Sunday, “but he gave me his job description: ‘Stay in the paint!’ “

The Legends Brunch traditionally honors former NBA players and coaches who worked in, hail from or shared some other connection with the All-Star city each year. The others honored for 2013:

Ambassador of the Year: Yao Ming. Yao’s foundation and his partnership with NBA China has enabled him to “build a bridge” between his homeland and the U.S. The 7-6 native of Shanghai, whose eight-season career was interrupted and cut short by foot and leg injuries, was introduced by current Rockets guard Jeremy Lin.

Humanitarian of the Year: Dikembe Mutombo. The shot intimidator and blocker who spent the last five of his 18 NBA seasons in Houston is renowned for his charitable works, particularly in his native Republic of the Congo. Mutombo credited Olajuwon, who preceded him to the NBA by eight years, with being the “key of our continent.” “You’ve become The Dream for winning championships,” Mutombo said, addressing his friend from the stage, “but you’re a dream for so many African players.”

Hometown Hero Award: Robert Horry. Horry, known as “Big Shot Bob,” was part of the Rockets’ title-winning teams in 1994 and 1995, then won five more rings with the Lakers and the Spurs. In an ironic twist, the former teammate who was supposed to introduce Horry – Sam Cassell, known for his motormouth tendencies on and off the court – needed an assist from TNT announcer and emcee Ernie Johnson because Cassell lost his voice somewhere during All-Star festivities.

Houston Rockets Lifetime Achievement Award: Tomjanovich. A five-time All-Star as a rockets player and coach of the two championship teams, Rudy T joked that when he was drafted in 1971, the NBA ranked fourth in popularity in Houston behind football, baseball and “bull-riding.” “Now the city is hosting its third All-Star Game,” he said.

Pioneer Award: Calvin Murphy. The flamboyant 5-foot-9 Hall of Famer took the stage after a video montage of career highlights was shown on screens in the ballroom, then said, “Boy, I was good.” The point guard from Niagara turned longtime Rockets broadcaster noted the difference in prestige that came with former NBA players no longer being referred to as “Old Timers” but rather “Legends.”

Lifetime Achievement Award: Clyde Drexler. Drexler, a 2004 Hall of Fame enshrinee and member of the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team,” grew up in Houston and gained initial fame teamed with Olajuwon in college on the “Phi Slamma Jamma” University of Houston team in the early 1980s. He returned to the city and to Olajuwon via trade in for the 1995 title run.

Drexler was the guy whose rookie season of 1983-84 in Portland was so promising – he had 10 All-Star appearances in his future – that the Trail Blazers opted to draft Kentucky center Sam Bowie at No. 2 behind Olajuwon, passing on you know who. That means Drexler, for the record, turned 50 last June 22.

A large number of familiar NBA names – from other Hall of Famers to role players – attended the brunch, including 2000 Sixth Man award winner Rodney Rogers. Rogers, 41, required the use of a wheelchair and ventilator after being paralyzed in an all-terrain vehicle accident in December 2012.