by Aggrey Sam
I never really went on trips for Labor Day as a kid, but I always have fond memories of it, as I began school later that week. It was the end of my summer, meaning I got my back-to-school gear, went to cookouts and tried to pack as much fun as possible into the three-day weekend. In college, it was straight because I knew I had no class that Monday, which gave me more time to get to know the new, um, talent on campus, or as I did my last year, go out of town. As an adult, I still enjoyed it, just because it was a day off work, but I rarely did anything special, besides eat good or get some kids in the gym. This year was different, as I spent my time, as my man Kev put it, “runnin from Gus like a scared lil bitch.”
Being a relative newcomer to New Orleans (i.e., I wasn’t here for Katrina), when I heard about Hurricane Gustav, I wasn’t sure what to do. To people who aren’t from a hurricane-prone region, that probably sounds dumb as hell, but when several sane people around you (who did experience Katrina) are saying they’re going to weather out the storm, staying put seems a little more logical. In fact, as of a week ago today, it was business as usual in the city. Driving around on Friday night, I saw Bourbon Street was popping, the bars were full and people seemed generally unconcerned. Still, I packed the majority of my stuff, loaded it into the Ford Escape and on early Saturday morning, I filled up the tank and set out for Memphis.
As soon as I got on I-10 (the major interstate in New Orleans), I knew that this thing was real. Sure, a lot of the traffic was because the LSU football season opener (Geaux Tigers!) in Baton Rouge was pushed up to 10 a.m., but a lot of the vehicles on the road contained families with animals, their belongings and people in a general state of evacuation. It took me about two hours to get out of the general vicinity of New Orleans, but once I got on I-55 North, it was smooth sailing to Memphis (with the help of a stop at a Hooters–my first time since hitting the one at the Baltimore Inner Harbor while skipping school in 11th grade–in Jackson, Miss., and a Monster energy drink–I now swear by these in Grenada, Miss.), my final destination. In all, a six-hour trip took me about nine, breaks included.
What makes this relevant to hoops is that I stayed with a friend of mine (shout out to Coach B) who just got a gig on staff with the University of Memphis’ men’s basketball team. He got hired maybe a week before Gustav’s arrival, so it was perfect timing. The next day, I headed out to West Memphis, Ark.–right across the bridge, but don’t confuse it with Memphis proper–to check out a workout at a local Boys and Girls Club. For the uneducated (including myself, until recently), West Memphis ranks up there with Camden, N.J., and Flint, Mich., as smaller (and incredibly poor) cities close to much bigger cities that have consistently produced big-time hoopers throughout the years. From retired pro defensive specialist Michael Cage and all-time college star Keith Lee (who went to Memphis, then called Memphis State) to recent products high-flying Sonny Weems (a second-round pick in this year’s NBA Draft and the college slam-dunk contest winner) and Jason Henry (who I wrote about in the mag a couple years ago and will follow in Weems’ footsteps at Arkansas this year), this underrated hoops hotbed is official.
The workout I watched only had two players participating, a high school freshman and a sophomore. Usually I don’t cover kids that young, but when I get to see them in that type of setting, up close and personal (I’m a gym rat), it’s gotta be documented. The freshman was Jalen Jackson, a 6-4 wing who apparently tore up the AAU circuit in his age group this summer. Jalen has the makings of a star, as he’s already long, fluid, very athletic and is starting to fill out his frame. Once he makes the full-time transition to the perimeter (as you can imagine, he’s been having his way with smaller kids on the inside for a while), I’m sure you’ll hear a lot more about him. Unfortunately, freshmen aren’t allowed to play varsity at West Memphis HS (I believe this is an Arkansas state rule; by the way, the city identifies with Arkansas more than Tennessee, so much that Jalen played for an AAU team out of Little Rock instead of one in nearby Memphis), so keep an eye out for him next summer. The sophomore was Arthur Jackson Jr. (Jalen’s brother, shout out to Arthur “Old Folk”) Jackson Sr.), a 5-11 lefty point guard. While young Arthur doesn’t have his little (big) brother’s size, he’s quick, explosive (they both dunk with ease) and also very long. I hear he’s a terror on the defensive end, as well. The thing that impressed me most about both of these kids was their work ethic, which well serve them well, as they have a good support system around them (shout out to Sam Grier, who educated me a lot about West Memphis, Memphis, basketball in the South and basketball in general) and in a city that supports its athletes (the high school has a new, million-dollar arena), that will go far.
On Labor Day, I was back in the city itself, and you know I had to check out how the best team in the city (including the Grizzlies) was looking. It was the first day of individual workouts for the national runners-up and after losing the top pick in the draft and two other pros, I knew it was gonna be interesting to see how the new squad was looking. The team was split into three groups of 4 players (15 are officially on the team, but new addition CJ Henry–SLAM diarist Xavier’s big brother and Yankees minor-league prospect–is still rehabbing his knee, and freshmen Matt Simpkins and Angel Garcia are waiting to be cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse) for the hour-long sessions, which were preceded by weightlifting by each of the groups.
The first group included a walk-on named Jason (I forget his last name, my apologies), senior guard Chance McGrady (yes, T-Mac’s brother; another walk-on, but he could definitely be playing Division I basketball on a scholarship somewhere), sophomore juco transfer Roburt Sallie and junior point guard Willie Kemp. The second group featured senior wing Antonio Anderson, junior sharpshooter Doneal Mack and freshmen Wesley Witherspoon and Tyreke Evans, last year’s SLAM diary keeper. The final group were all post players: senior Robert Dozier, juniors Shawn Taggart and Pierre Niles, and sophomore Jeff Robinson, who also can play some wing.
With basically an entire new staff (former Pitt assistant Orlando Antigua, ex-Arizona assistant Josh Pastner and holdover John Robic, a longtime Calipari aide from his UMass days)–former assistant Derek Kellogg, who played for Coach Cal in the Marcus Camby era, took the job at UMass, and brought fellow assistant Andy Allison with him–Calipari was extremely vocal at the sessions. I won’t get into too much detail, but the players were put through ballhandling, shooting, transition and finishing drills (and yes, free throws–they shot them between breaks in drills), but what I found interesting was that everything related to Memphis’ signature up-tempo offense. Full speed at all times, no bounce passes on the break (chest passes are preferred, lobs to the rim are recommended; makes sense with all the athletes they have), playing through the contact, intense D, not getting your shot blocked (missing a layup is better, since they always crash the boards; think Joey Dorsey), spacing in the half court and straight-line penetration were all points of emphasis. For all the criticism Cal gets for being more of a recruiter than a coach, I can say now that he’s a hell of a teacher, too. It was the first day, so I didn’t see him go off on anybody–but then again, the players responded well to his instruction and the vets served as de facto asssistants on the floor.
As far as the players, I was very impressed with the returning players, especially Kemp, Anderson, Dozier, Taggart and Niles. Kemp looks like a big-time leader (he kept encouraging Sallie to “go hard”), while Anderson’s improved athleticism stood out, as did Dozier’s precision, Taggart’s intensity and Niles’ body transformation. Niles went from about 350 pounds to 300 this summer (and still has about 20 more to go before the season, which I think he’ll get) and at one point, was singled out by Cal for his stamina, quickness and work ethic. Conversely, Kemp, Dozier and Taggart have all really bulked up, which told me that even without Dorsey, nobody would be pushing them around down low. Meanwhile, out of the newcomers, Evans stood out the most. While ‘Reke still has a ways to go as far as playing full speed all the time (anybody who’s ever seen him play knows he’s a rhythm player, who likes to lull his defenders to sleep), his body looks great (up to 220 pounds, according to my man Lamont Peterson, who trained him in high school and is now on the Memphis staff with him), he seems more explosive athletically, actually made an effort on D and as always, can do just about anything he wants on the offensive end of the court. Sallie, the juco transfer (but only a sophomore, do some research on his saga), seems like he will really contribute, once he fully understands Cal’s concepts, as his athleticism and physical nature fit right in on the Tigers. Witherspoon, might be the team’s most intriguing prospect. At 6-8, he can play a variety of positions and as he physically matures, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with. I didn’t see much of him in high school (one of the few elite prospects in the ’08 class I can say that about), but now I see what all the fuss was about.
Overall, the atmosphere wasn’t what people might expect. Nothing sinister, no bags of cash lying around, no Hollywood stuff. The players went hard, had fun and Cal really helped them improve in one day. He didn’t waste any time, tweaked things each session depending on the personnel and made sure everyone was on the same page. They may not go 40-0 this year, but don’t sleep on Memphis this upcoming season.
My trip back to the N.O. on Wednesday ended up taking 10 hours, mostly because of heavy traffic leaving Memphis (by the way, Beale Street is overrated), through Jackson and especially from around Hammond, La. (about an hour outside of New Orleans), all the way to the city itself. I got back to a city that looked partially deserted, trees strewn all over the place, with few stores open, fewer streetlights and even fewer stoplights. Of course, it was night, so it looked a lot worse. One of the few places open (outside of Bourbon Street) was Lucky’s, a bar on St. Charles Avenue, where I was joined by a man in a Jesus costume and a woman dressed like Satan. That’s when I knew everything was going to be fine. After what the city’s already been through, how couldn’t it be? And that’s how I spent my Gustav Evacuation.