Posts Tagged ‘Shaquille O’Neal’

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.’ “

All-Star Appearance A Welcome Accolade For Pelicans’ Superstar Davis

Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is a multifaceted All-Star.

Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is a multifaceted All-Star.

NEW ORLEANS — There should be only so many different ways for one player to make you jump off the sofa.

But there’s Anthony Davis posterizing Joel Freeland of the Trail Blazers with a tomahawk dunk; there’s Davis reaching up and back and nearly to the top of the backboard to get a one-handed throw down on Luis Scola of the Pacers; there he is roaring down the lane with the force and ferocity to make Glen Davis of the Magic hit the deck like a bowling pin at the end of an alley.

Then there’s the defensive end, where Miami’s Chris Bosh seems to have him pinned down on the low block and tries to go up for an easy bucket once, then twice. Both times, Bosh has to eat the ball.  When the Lakers’ Pau Gasol gets an offensive rebound and whirls away from traffic, Davis goes right along, a figure skater in tandem. At the finish of the 360 spin, Davis slaps the ball back with disdain.  And there he is suddenly sprinting way out into the left corner to reach up and slap away a 3-point shot by an utterly shocked Tobias Harris of Orlando.

“How many times have I seen a ‘Wow!’ moment out of A.D.?” ponders teammate Ryan Anderson.  “Let’s see, how many games have we played and how many times have I been out there on the same floor at practice?  Every day he’s doing something that makes me shake my head.”

VIDEO: Brent Barry breaks down Anthony Davis’ game

The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft officially became an NBA All-Star when commissioner Adam Silver tabbed him to replace Kobe Bryant on the Western Conference team.  Davis’ ascension to that elite level of play has been there since opening night this season, when he scored 20 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots against the Pacers.

Except for a period of two weeks in December when he was sidelined by a fractured bone in his left hand, Davis has been everything the Pelicans had hoped. Yet he’s also shown he is a unique player, one no one could have imagined even with the advance hype that he brought out of his one college season at Kentucky.

His most identifying physical mark remains The Brow, which crawls like a single entity over one of his large, curiosity-filled eyes to the other. But at 6-foot-10 with a wingspan of 7-foot-5 1/2,  those long, lethal, larcenous limbs enable him to cover space on the court like a basketball version of the four-armed Hindu god Vishnu.

VIDEO: Davis scores 22 points, grabs 19 boards and blocks seven shots against Orlando

“He knows what he’s doing on offense and he’s a smart, aggressive player on defensive,” said Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown.  “Anthony Davis will shine in the NBA for years and years.  I’m telling you, he’s the truth.” (more…)

All-Star Davis Gives N.O. Added Flavor

VIDEO: Anthony Davis’ top 10 plays

Not that the NBA All-Star Game is ever lacking in fireworks or flash or big names, yet it’s always a bit more fun when there is a hometown connection: Tom Chambers rolling to an MVP award before a jam-packed crowd at the vast Kingdome in Seattle in 1987, Michael Jordan at Chicago Stadium in 1988, Karl Malone and John Stockton working their magic in Salt Lake City in 1993, Kobe Bryant touching base with his Philly roots in 2002.

The 2014 All-Star Game got the spice and flavor of a hot bowl of gumbo when Pelicans’ forward Anthony Davis was named as a replacement for the injured Bryant on the Western Conference roster by new commissioner Adam Silver.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

But it was more than just a case of home-cooking since Davis has been performing at an All-Star level from the beginning of his second NBA season, and was probably the biggest snub by the vote of the coaches when the reserves were originally named.

Davis is averaging 20.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and leads the league with 3.3 blocked shots per game and shooting 51.8 percent from the field. He’s grown in confidence and stature at the offensive end, compiling a greatest hits collection of slam dunks, while also making jaw dropping blocked shots far out on the perimeter as a defensive beast.

In January, Davis blocked 51 blocked shots in 15 games. That was more than the total compiled by three entire NBA teams: Heat (50), Cavaliers (48) and Jazz (48). Through the first 101 games of Davis’s career, he had 233 blocks and 132 steals. The only player since 1985-86 to match those numbers in his first 101 games was Spurs Hall of Famer David Robinson. Davis is also on pace to become the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 1999-2000 to average 20-10-3 for an entire season.

Davis will also take part in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night of All-Star Weekend. He was the No. 1 pick by Team Chris Webber.

“I would love to be an All-Star,” Davis said in a recent conversation. “It would show that the hard work I’ve been putting into my game during the offseason and every day in practice are paying off.

“It would also bring more attention to our team, the entire Pelicans organization and make a statement, I think, that we’ve got a plan to get better and become a contender in the league. I’ve had great support from the city since I’ve joined the team and making the All-Star team would be an extra bit of excitement for everybody in New Orleans during an exciting weekend.”

Goran Dragic and the world of Suns fans will surely feel slighted that Silver didn’t replace Bryant with another guard. Their valid argument will be that the Suns have a winning record and the Pelicans are below .500. But it never hurts to have the flavor of home in an All-Star Game.

Today, At 40, Nash Plays Stubbornly On

VIDEO: Nash’s Top 10 assists (from January, 2013)

Happy 40th, Steve Nash!

And it should be a happy birthday for the NBA’s eldest graybeard (who thankfully shaved his recently) and two-time MVP. He’s back where he belongs — in uniform and on a basketball court.

Nash is scheduled to start for the Los Angeles Lakers tonight at Philadelphia. It will be just his eighth game of the season and second since returning from months of relentless, behind-the-scenes work in pursuit of mending a body he won’t dare let fail him.

In reality, the grueling comeback started many months ago. Halloween Night 2012 in Portland, Nash sustained a small fracture to his left fibula. Aftershocks have haunted him ever since. The road to recovery meandered through doctors offices and training facilities near and far as he shuttled between L.A. and Vancouver for the most thorough possible care. Some wondered if a full recovery was possible; if retirement was inevitable.

The latter, never pondered by Nash, came from those unwise enough to doubt the resolve of this future Hall of Famer.

Steve Nash (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Steve Nash (Noah Graham/NBAE)

“I just want to play,” Nash said in December. “That’s what gets me through every day. I want to play. I still love to play. I still feel like I have the skills to do it and I’d like to end my career on a positive note. Just fighting every day to get that little bit of joy for playing basketball, being one of the guys, running up and down the court and trying to beat somebody.”

When he finally took the court earlier this week, defeating (at least for now) the needling nerve irritation that stemmed from the initial leg fracture, he doled out nine assists to go with seven points in 24 minutes of action. The Lakers lost to the Timberwolves, but it was a win for Nash, who for a night could laugh in the face of the 40 candles he’ll blow out today.

“It’s been a tough road, but tonight there’s a part of me that feels like a kid, like a rookie that got to play in the NBA,” Nash told reporters. “It’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Nash, an eight-time All-Star, has provided basketball fans with dozens upon dozens of pretty cool moments and countless reasons to admire his determination since he became the 15th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. But the past 16 months — since that Halloween night — might be the most inspirational of his career. He’s played in only 57 games since then, and most of those in pain that would sideline many. Yet, when it would have been so easy to walk away, to tip his cap to Father Time, Nash chose to fight.

You want to talk role model? You want to talk work ethic? You want to talk perseverance? You want to talk loyalty?

Talk Nash. At 40.

The 6-foot-3 guard from Victoria, B.C., and Santa Clara University could have simply hung ‘em up. And who would have blamed him? The Lakers are in disarray. The championship vision that took shape with the assemblage of he and Kobe and Pau and Dwight has evaporated.

Nash has earned enough to keep his great, great grandchildren living high. He captained some of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. He beat out Shaquille O’Neal and then LeBron James for consecutive MVP trophies. He is basketball royalty in his home country. His legacy as an all-time great is secure, despite the fact he has never made it to the NBA Finals.

Still, he pushes on, and with any luck, Nash will feel like that kid he described for the rest of this season, and maybe even next (he has one more year left on his contract at $9.7 million). At some point — maybe this season, maybe next — he will have to consider the R-word. He will have to evaluate his body, re-evaluate his desire and come to grips with the decision that every athlete faces.

These past two seasons are not how Nash saw himself going out. Will that drive him to finish this contract, playing a 19th season in 2014-15, matching Jazz Hall of Famer and all-time assist leader John Stockton in seasons and age? Stockton played all 82 games in his final year (2002-03). He turned 41 on March 26 that season. Jason Kidd made it to 40 last March, but by then he was fading fast and, at season’s end, he called it a career with two years left on his deal. Bob Cousy played seven games at age 41 as coach of the Cincinnati Royals, six years after he retired from the Boston Celtics.

That’s it for 40-plus point guards. The demands of the position are so great, so physically and emotionally taxing season after season, that point guards just don’t last that long. Nash knows this. He feels it every day.

But today he will play.

All-Star Voting Reveals How Howard’s Popularity Has Plunged

VIDEO: Dwight Howard dominates in Houston’s win against Boston

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – In 2009, Dwight Howard — not Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James, not Dwyane Wade — became the first player in All-Star fan balloting history to crack 3 million votes.

The affable, smiling and downright dominant Howard — Superman! — was the most popular player in the NBA.

Six years, multiple changes of mind and two teams later, an image-tattered Howard received 653,318 votes. He will surely make his eighth consecutive All-Star team (assuming the Western Conference coaches rightly select him as one of seven reserves). He will not, however, start the game for the first time since his All-Star debut in 2007 when Shaquille O’Neal still ruled the roost in the East with the Miami Heat. These days, O’Neal leads his TNT cohorts in dog-piling the Houston Rockets big man.

Howard’s 2014 vote-total ranked 12th among all players in both conferences. He is no longer the most popular player in the NBA. I’m not even sure if anybody even calls him Superman anymore.

Allow the following to serve as a cautionary tale to the next waffling superstar who toys with a fan base’s mind (hello, Carmelo Anthony):

Here are Howard’s All-Star vote totals and where he finished overall from 2009-14:

Before the remaining Howard-backers break out the sledgehammers and point out a thing or two, there are extenuating circumstances beyond Howard’s control that have contributed to — but cannot be wholly responsible for — his vote totals falling off a cliff.

The most obvious is the league’s obliteration of the “center” position on the All-Star ballot. This is the second consecutive year that centers and forwards are lumped into one “frontcourt” category. Under the old format, Howard would be the starting center by a wide margin. He was a starter last season under the current non-center format, but also Minnesota’s Kevin Love, who overtook Howard during the final fan balloting and will start for the first time, played in only 18 games prior to last year’s All-Star Game due to a broken hand.

Also notable is the West is loaded with on-the-rise, All-Star worthy frontcourt players, and the vote reflects that. Five players this year received more than 600,000 votes compared to three a year ago. There’s also the fact that fan voting overall, for whatever reasons, has dipped the last two years, so naturally, Howard, along with Kobe and LeBron and everybody else, received fewer votes.

Still, Howard’s fall is stunning. His diminishing percentage of total votes the last two years tells the story of how his waffling in Orlando and the perception of him in L.A. last season with the Lakers has emptied his once overflowing bandwagon.

Howard’s 653,318 votes this year account for 10.2 percent of the the total Western Conference “frontcourt” votes (the top 15 vote-getters the NBA releases). Last year his votes accounted for 15.6 percent of the total West “frontcourt votes. In 2009, when he was the overall leading vote-getter, he accounted for 19.6 percent of the Eastern Conference “frontcourt” vote (under the old format I used the top five vote-getters at “center” and the top 10 at “forward”).

Howard’s peak, percentage-wise, was 2012, his emotional, indecisive final year with the Magic. He was coming off a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award and the All-Star Game was played in his home arena in Orlando. His 1.6 million votes accounted for 24.1 percent of the East “frontcourt” vote (again, the top five at “center” and the top 10 at “forward”).

Surely it’s safe to assume that Howard’s 2014 vote totals, the lowest of his career by far, received no help from NBA fans in Orlando and Los Angeles. He’ll probably never get them back.

He still has time to win back the fans he’s obviously lost in other precincts. Only time will tell if he does.

TNT’s “Inside the NBA” crew dissect Dwight Howard’s play this season

All-Star Starting Lineups Tonight on TNT

VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses the latest All-Star voting returns

Will the Eastern Conference again play small ball with a frontcourt lineup that does not include a traditional center?

Could a couple of high-profile wounded warriors limp into the top two places in the Western Conference backcourt?

NBA All-Star 2014Those are the two biggest questions left to answer when the results of fan balloting to choose the starting lineups for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game are announced tonight on TNT (7 p.m. ET).

If the pattern from the previous round of voting holds up, the East will take the floor for the opening tip with a prolific trio of forwards in LeBron James of the Heat, Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks and first-time starter Paul George of the Pacers up front.

James (1,076,063) was the top vote-getter overall when the latest totals were announced on Jan. 9. George (899,671) was second up front for the East and Anthony (702,869) third. In that case, Indiana center Roy Hibbert would be the odd man out. He is the top center in the conference, but was a distant fourth (385,964) in the last front court voting.

The East backcourt appears set with Dwyane Wade of the Heat and Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers holding a commanding lead over Chicago’s injured Derrick Rose and Washington’s John Wall.

In the Western Conference, the race is between the star power of the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Clippers’ Chris Paul, neither of whom will be able to play due to injury, and the Warriors’ rising star Stephen Curry, who has never made an All-Star team. Curry. Bryant (844,538) has led the way at every previous count of the ballots and Curry (677,372) was in second place, but with only a narrow lead over Paul (651,073).

The West frontcourt starters will likely be the same as last season with the Thunder’s Kevin Durant (1,054,209), the Rockets’ Dwight Howard (509,116) and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin (500,964) leading the way.

The starting lineups will be revealed during a special one-hour edition of the Emmy Award-winning pregame show “Inside the NBA”, featuring Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith. The special will air prior to TNT’s exclusive doubleheader featuring the Lakers at the Heat (8 p.m. ET) and the Nuggets at the Blazers (10:30 p.m. ET).

From there it will be up to the the coaches in each conference to fill out their respective rosters with seven reserves each.

The 63rd NBA All-Star Game will be exclusively televised on TNT from New Orleans Arena on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. The All-Star Game, also broadcast live on ESPN Radio, will collectively reach fans in 215 countries and territories in more than 40 languages.

Payton Not Impressed With Today’s NBA

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Gary Payton is a Hall of Famer and one of the best point guards the NBA has ever seen. He’s also one of the most blunt and outspoken players the league has ever seen. So you know things can get interesting when you have GP and live microphones in close proximity.

Payton entered the league at the tail end of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era, played through the Michael Jordan years and kept going until deep into the dynasties of the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-led Lakers and the Tim Duncan-led Spurs. As such, he has a unique perspective on the league and some pointed opinions on the state of the game today.

In short, Payton is not impressed with “basically everything” about the game today. He opened up about it before “Gary Payton Night” at his alma mater, Oregon State. See for yourself (he goes in on the NBA around the 9:28 mark):

VIDEO: Gary Payton goes in on today’s NBA and the flaws he sees in the game

Lakers Visit Kings, Shaq Visits Lakers Past

VIDEO: Shaq talks about joining the ownership group of the Kings

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – His former Lakers teammate can’t help but wonder.

“I would have thought he lost a bet,” Rick Fox said.

His former Lakers coach can’t help but smile.

“Yeah, that’s pretty funny,” Kurt Rambis said.

There is a picture of Shaquille O’Neal in a Kings baseball cap, inside the Kings practice facility, on the September day he was introduced as part-owner of the Kings (long before people in Sacramento caught on to his infiltration as a double agent). The shot was taken in this world and not, has confirmed, some alternate universe, some place of cruel, sick jokes, some bizzaro world where up is down and a hated ex-Laker would become a beloved figure receiving loud ovations in Sleep Train Arena.

Some of the most prominent members of the Laker teams that once rumbled with the Kings, taunted the Kings and performed open-heart surgery on the Kings barehanded and without anesthesia while turning playoff matchups into a cauldron, especially the 2002 Western Conference finals, can’t help but grin. Of all people. Of all teams.

And yet, among the snickers, they offer praise. Between the playful head shakes, they show admiration.

“Back in 2002, 2003, if I saw this, I would have thought there was a joke coming right behind it,” Fox said. “But good for him. How many former players are owners, right? I’m sure he could have, with his network, plugged into a couple other owners and gone a couple other places.”

Said Derek Fisher, another former teammate: “I don’t know about this team, but Shaq’s always been pretty savvy about business opportunities. I was happy for him business wise. But it’s still noteworthy…. In true Shaq form, he’s right away giving it that Shaqramento title and everything. He’s all in.”

With a very small stake – between two and four percent, according to Forbes – but, yes, O’Neal has been prominent locally in the marketing of the new era amid the sale to new majority owner Vivek Ranadive and plans for a downtown arena. He has been at games and done the goofy-Shaq thing on scoreboard videos. And tonight, he is scheduled to attend when the Lakers make their first visit of the season, and the first visit of the O’Neal ownership era, to Sleep Train Arena.

“Strategically, when you think about his relationship with the organization as a player, it ends up, to me, making complete sense that he would go in that direction,” Fox said. “He’s done nothing in his career but endear himself to everyone. His ability to do that, probably this would be one of the remaining cities that would look at him and go, ‘No, we’re not going to jump on the Shaq bandwagon.’ But there he goes. He’s now completely conquered California.”

VIDEO: Shaq looks back on the Kings-Lakers rivarly

Early Xmas: Could Kobe Be Back Friday?


VIDEO: Kobe Bryant talks about his injury comeback

About those fancy wrapped boxes with the pretty ribbons sitting under the tree.

We can all guess that an impatient little kid named Kobe Bryant never paid one bit of attention to those tags that read: Do Not Open ’Til Christmas.

So why should anybody be surprised that Black Mamba Claus might not wait for the long-suspected Dec. 25 national TV showdown against LeBron James and the Heat to come down the chimney for his official return to the court?

According to Ramona Shelburne of the countdown clock for Bryant to make his 2013-14 debut has just speeded up. That’s because Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni says it’s possible that Bryant could be in the lineup to face the Kings Friday night in Sacramento.

“I don’t want to anticipate anything,” D’Antoni said after practice Saturday. “Those are days that he can work and see, re-evaluate how he feels after the three days and then make a decision going forward.

“That doesn’t mean he will play Friday, doesn’t mean he won’t. But that’s the time you just evaluate, and I can’t tell you what type of evaluation that will be.”

But it does mean that Bryant’s recovery from the torn Achilles’ tendon suffered on April 12 could be moving at least slightly ahead of schedule. When the team announced his new two-year, $48.5 million contract extension on Monday, Bryant said that he was still “probably weeks” away from suiting up for the Lakers.

The Lakers held a light workout on Saturday and Bryant took part in all of the drills. After playing the Trail Blazers at home on Sunday night, the team is off until traveling to Sacramento on Friday. How fitting that Bryant could return against the Kings, who now have his old teammate/sparring partner Shaquille O’Neal as a minority owner.

“He’ll be listed pretty soon as ‘day to day,’ ” D’Antoni said. “And everybody knows that’s the way it is. When he’s ready to roll, he’ll go.

“We’ll have three days of practice, and then we’ll know better. We’ll have a better idea.”

Olajuwon The Teacher On Dwight Howard

VIDEO: NBA stars seek out Olajuwon to learn the secrets of post play

Many years before he became mentor to the stars, teaching the fine art of his post moves to the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard (among others), a young Hakeem Olajuwon was a Nigerian student who found answers on the basketball court. “The game was introduced at my school and I learned it from scratch,” Olajuwon said. “I learned about the rules and how to play basketball and I also learned about work ethic, teamwork and communication. Those are tools that are part of a successful life in or out of sports.”

The Hall of Famer was speaking Tuesday from Nigeria, where he was helping to launch a basketball initiative for youth. Even from half a world away, though, Olajuwon was thinking about the struggles of his current pupil, Howard, who he mentored in the offseason after the big man signed a four-year, $88-million free agent contract with the Rockets, Olajuwon’s former team.

“The truth is that I can’t wait to get back to Houston to do more work with Dwight,” said Olajuwon, who left Houston in early October to return to his home in Amman, Jordan and has been keeping track of his pupil on TV. “I wish he was doing a better job.

“Dwight has always been athletic and aggressive and he still is. But when I watch him, what I see are opportunities that he is missing. When he gets the ball, he seems to be taking his time to decide what move to make, where he should go.

“There should not be a delay for Dwight. He must be able to make a faster recognition of the situations and react immediately with a go-to move. You must move right away before the defense has a chance to set up. You must be the one making the first move so that you can force the defender to always be the one reacting.

“I thought we were doing a good job with this when we were working together over the summer and at the start of training camp. But what I see now is that when Dwight gets in competition, he has a tendency to go back to all of his old habits. He’s just doing all of the things that he did before. He needs a reminder.”

Olajuwon plans to return to Houston prior to the NBA All-Star break in February and will remain in Houston through the end of the season and the playoffs.

“Maybe if I am there with him all of the time we can reinforce new habits and make it all feel natural,” Olajuwon said.

Olajuwon, who was a .712 shooter on free throws through his 18-year NBA career, has cringed long distance while watching Howard make a career low .531 from the foul line this season.

“I think this is where a confident routines comes in,” Olajuwon said. “It’s not just putting in hours and hours of work. It’s getting a solid routine and staying with it. With Dwight right now, I think it’s more mental. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Don’t think. Don’t hesitate. Just trust your routine and let it go.

“I won’t say that you can’t ever win a championship as a big man if you don’t shoot free throws well, because Shaq did it four times. But it can be a deciding factor, so you want to fix it.”


Olajuwon, fellow countryman and former NBA player Obinna Ekezie and WNBA champion Swin Cash have joined with the NBA, WNBA, Africare and ExxonMobil to announce the launch of Power Forward, a youth engagement initiative that will use basketball to develop health, leadership and life skills.

The program is being introduced at 10 public and private high schools in Abuja, Nigeria, and will engage 300 students, evenly divided between boys and girls.

Olajuwon, Ekezie and Cash joined 100 youth participants on the court for a series of basketball drills. Basketball is Nigeria’s second-most popular sport with increased interest at the grass-roots level, following the national team’s first-ever qualification for the 2012 Olympics. More than 20 current and former players with Nigerian descent have played in the NBA, more than any other African country.

“When I was growing up, I knew nothing about the NBA,” Olajuwon said. “We couldn’t see games. They weren’t on TV. My goal in playing basketball was to get a scholarship to attend college in America and the rest of my professional career just happened.

“These kids today are from a different generation. They didn’t know me from personal experience. But they did their homework on the Internet. I was surprised to know how much they learned. They are full of energy and enthusiasm and the goal of the Power Forward program is take that energy and channel it into ways that can make productive lives. This is a way that politicians, corporations and educators can unite to get the most out of the next generation.”