by Michael Tillery
The Sixers have won three straight after losing three. The OKC game (110-85) was a game they should have won and they took care of business. Since the game wasn’t really a focus, I wanted to give you a look into some of the personalities within the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room as this young team in transition (1-9 record heading into tonight) looks to make its mark in not only the city, but the League. I also get five minutes with Assistant General Manager Troy Weaver to get a sense of the team’s pulse. There’s also some quick Sixers quotes at the end.
Leading off, I had to get with the reigning ROY to see what was going on with him. The Sixers pretty much locked him up–he definitely was the defensive focus–but even in defeat the player I call Smooth Jazz was very eloquent when speaking to the media.
SLAM: Kevin, are you happy with your career so far?
Kevin Durant: It’s alright. I wish we could win more games…that would be good. Other than that, I think I’m getting better.
SLAM: The last time I spoke with you was in Madison Square Garden at the Jordan Classic. Ironically, you and Thaddeus Young were MVPs of your respective teams sitting side by side in the press conference. Was your vision of the NBA different than what you assumed it would be, and what would you say about Thad’s current run of nice games?
KD: It’s still a long ways to go to what I was thinking. The goals I set for myself, I just have to continue to work hard to reach them. So far, everything is playing out the way I wanted it to.
Thad and I played in three All-Star games together. The Class of 2006 is doing some things. Thad is a good friend of mine. I’m glad I got the chance to play with him and also against him as well.
SLAM: You seem to be almost able to do whatever you want on the floor. What’s it going to take for you to become that top-notch super star we all know you want to be?
KD: I just got to continue to be the player I am. I always work hard on my game. I think with time, being that superstar like you said will come. If I continue to listen to my coaches and the veteran guys–guys that help me up, I think I can be that player in no time.
SLAM: In your down time, how do you get away from it? How do you chill?
KD: My family is out there in Oklahoma with me, so that’s even better. We just chill, go to the movies, play video games, something small like that. I’m never away from it. I’m always at the gym. I’m always watching tape. I can say I’m never completely away from the game…just maybe a couple of hours out of the day.
SLAM: Who is working with you? Do any retired players reach out because they’ve noticed your talent just to say hi?
KD: I been fortunate to talk to George Gervin. He was in Seattle to see us play and I had lunch with him the next day. That was a great experience for me in talking with a player that I try to develop my game after. I watch tape to see how good he was. I picked his brain a little bit. It was fun.
SLAM: Did you have that poster in your house? The Nike Iceman poster (http://farm1.static.flickr.com/178/438964603_65129cbffb.jpg)? Not the Tim Duncan one, but the real one (Media laughs. Hey, I wasn’t joking).
KD: Nah I didn’t. I went up to Nike because I wanted one. Now that you said something, I’m going to go get it.
SLAM: Did he reach out because of similarities in your game or did you reach out to him? Who else?
KD: I think the NBA does a great job of connecting the former players with the current players. I guess they saw the similarity in our game. It was phenomenal for me. He was a player that did everything on the floor. He’s a Hall of Famer so talking to him for a couple of hours was good. I talk to guys who are going to be Hall of Famers like Carmelo, LeBron, Kobe, guys like that. Because I’m so young, I watched tapes on the guys in the League now 10 years ago.
SLAM: You and Mike Beasley still talk a lot?
KD: Yeah we do. We grew up together and consider each other brothers so any advice I could give to try and help him out, I try to do.
Russell Westbrook was all over the floor making a pseudo Dwyane Wade commercial. He tried to bang it on everyone and the Sixers weren’t having it. I counted eight times he was on the floor and every time he got up a little slower. He did get a nice breakaway that reminded the crowd of one of Iguodala’s throw downs. I give it to the kid. He kept trying and trying. There’s something to be said for that. He has sick spring.
SLAM: Russell, I saw somewhere that you didn’t dunk until you were a senior in high school?
Russell Westbrook: Yeah, my senior year. I didn’t grow until my senior year.
SLAM: Could you already get up?
RW: Not really. I just kept working out and it finally came at once.
SLAM: So you never dunked the ball in a high school game?
RW: Not until the end of the year.
SLAM: Do you remember that game?
RW: Oh yeah. It was against a rival school at home.
SLAM: I know the crowd had to go crazy. The moment after, did you realize you could accomplish anything?
RW: Oh yeah. That was a good day. It’s gone a long way to shape who I am now on the floor.
SLAM: Obviously–or at least if something unforeseen happens–I won’t talk to you before February. Do you want to be in the Slam Dunk contest? Dunking in front of the world?
RW: Oh yeah. Hopefully I can get enough dunks to be considered. That’s a dream. It will show a lot of hard work has paid off in the end.
SLAM: UCLA, what does it mean?
RW: It means a lot for me personally.
SLAM: I know Coach Wooden has been sick, but did he speak to the team on occasion? How about the all time greats?
RW: Yeah when he was feeling good, he would talk to us pre-game. The greats would also do the same. They would also come out to the barbecues we had.
SLAM: Where are you more comfortable, the one or the two?
RW: The one.
SLAM: How’s the transition been?
RW: It’s been fine. It’s been cool. I’ve been playing the one since high school but the NBA is a different type of level so it’s just a speed, strength and talent adjustment.
SLAM: First moment on the floor.
RW: I felt good, but I remember being tired the first few times up the floor. Besides that I was really juiced. It was a real tight moment.
Next up was Assistant General Manager Troy Weaver. He’s one of the rising stars in the front office ranks. For those who don’t know, Troy is the man credited for recruiting Carmelo Anthony to Syracuse for that one year National Championship run.
SLAM: Troy, how’s your relationship with General Manager and Executive VP, Sam Presti?
Troy Weaver: It’s been nice. He comes from a great organization in the Spurs. He was able to see firsthand how it was to build a winner and experience winning. He has a wealth of information and knowledge. I’ve been able to work with him and gather some of that myself and help this team move forward. I was at Utah and hopefully through the collaboration of those two franchises, hopefully push forward at Oklahoma City.
SLAM: Day to day operations. What would your typical day entail from start to finish?
TW: Shoot to the office and make sure everybody is healthy. Make sure everybody is organized for practice. After that just doing administrative things…responding to emails…responsibilities with players…whatever the league is handing down…reading stories on guys…checking players box scores…doing draft research.
SLAM: From an administrative end, talk about the transition from Seattle to Oklahoma City.
TW: Just making sure everyone got to OKC physically. Getting the actual building in order so we have somewhere to practice and work out of so we could do our job and also the players.
SLAM: Building a young team in terms of challenges, advantages and disadvantages.
TW: You have to be patient and that’s a challenge with young players in any pro sport. No one wants to be patient and watch young guys develop. Most teams want to go for the quick fix. The biggest challenge is catching the players on the highs and making sure we are there for them on the lows. As long as the guys are moving forward, I see it all as a positive.
The negative is the losing. You don’t want that to seep in and start to develop a losing mentality. You can see these guys fight every night. That’s a good way to build a team because there is individual commitment involved for the betterment of the organization.
SLAM: A good indicator is seeing how the guys interact in the lay up line. Your team seems to be very loose and having fun. That’s good to see.
Your path through basketball. Played in college one year. Where did you see it going subsequently?
TW: Well, I always knew I wanted to be a coach-even when I was in high school. I love coaching and working with young people. I knew I wasn’t going to be a pro, so just turned my energies into coaching local boys and girls clubs. It took off after that and ended up coaching at the University of Pittsburgh. Had a great ride at Pittsburgh. Then I went to Syracuse which landed me here in the NBA by way of Utah. I’m very fortunate to be working with the right people and also be on the right track.
SLAM: What is your goal?
TW: To be a general manager. I want to see if the experiences and ideas I have can mesh with a staff, a team on the floor and see if it will work. I like team building. That would be an awesome challenge for me.
SLAM: There are thousands of assistant coaches. How do you get noticed?
TW: I always believe you will get noticed by doing a good job wherever you are. A lot of guys like to politic and go out and meet everybody. I just believe the job I have is the best job. If I can do the best job there, that will open up other doors. I wanted to be the best coach I could at Syracuse, New Mexico and Pittsburgh. That afforded me some other opportunities.
SLAM: Carmelo Anthony. How did you find him?
TW: I had some friends back in Baltimore that coached him at a young age telling me about him. Then when I was at New Mexico, I recruited a kid that was at the same high school but a couple of years older. I was able to see him from ninth grade on. When I moved over to Syracuse, he was the primary focus. It was good having people in the DC area that could help.
SLAM: What was so special about him early on? Was it his talent, strength or size?
TW: Early on it was just his basketball talent. He wasn’t that big and strong when I first saw him, but he had a great court presence. He had a great way of playing with his teammates and raising the level of his and his teammate’s play that I thought really made him a special player.
SLAM: What is DC’s signature?
TW: DC’s signature is guys for the most part who are looking to play the game the right way. When you look at the great players from DC, they’ve been guys who can do a lot of different things. You have three guys in the Hall of Fame: Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and Adrian Dantley. Those guys were well-rounded players. If you get a guy from that area, for the most part, he’ll look to do a lot of things. Look at the young guys we have here: Jeff Green and Kevin Durant. They are well-rounded players. Some areas might have great athletes, some might have great ball handlers, but in DC you have guys who can play a complete game.
Before games, I try to do as much research as I can on a team and their players to make the interview process a little more comfortable. With Desmond Mason, I found out he has a love of art. I also got to tell you he has one of the most beautiful wives in the League, but that’s beside the point, right?
SLAM: Dez, what’s up with art and where do you want to go with it?
Desmond Mason: I’ve been doing art since junior high school. I was a studio art major in college. It was just something I loved to do. I collect art. I paint. We’ve working on our fifth charity art show. They’ve been very successful.
SLAM: Do you exhibit across the country or wherever you are playing?
DM: Well, we are doing something in N.Y. with NBATV the next time we go back up there, but I sell it to people all around the country. I haven’t had any exhibits around the country, but the charity shows are getting pretty big. We have friends that come in from all across the country and we donate the proceeds to charity.
SLAM: Where can fans find your work?
DM: Right now I’m in the process of separating basketball from art, so I’m trying to put together a strictly art website with my collection to sell online. I’m building relationships and experience to gain more knowledge and become a better businessman.
SLAM: Where do you want to go with this? Is it all about selling it? Is it about changing culture?
DM: Good question. It’s not just about selling art. When I lived in Seattle for two years, I would go to the Cancer Research Center and teach kids art. I constantly talk about how art is dying in our schools today. That needs to be revamped. It’s being slowly pushed out of the school system. Whether it be music, painting, sculpting. Things like that.
I do a lot of things, but where I want to take it is something that has always been very personal. It’s been just recently where I’ve expressed it to the general public. I’m not 100 percent sure of where I want to take it.
SLAM: For the art majors or fans out there, what are the tools you use?
DM: I had to learn how to use everything being I was a studio art major. I was studying to be an art teacher so…I started with ceramics. I had to take sculpting classes for pottery, design, watercolors, acrylic, charcoal, pencil. I basically do everything.
SLAM: Those out there struggling with gaining confidence in their talent, what would you say to help and propagate a measure of development?
DM: The first thing I would say is practice their craft. The one thing I’ve learned is that when I’m away for extended periods of time, I kind of lose my feel for it. I try to do a little something every day. Take classes or something within the community that pertains to art. I would definitely get involved in that. There is always some place in the community where good people want to make sure kids are expressing themselves–their artistic ability. Stay focused. Learn about the history of art and, most importantly, practice your craft.”
SLAM: When’s the site going to be up?
DM: Hopefully by the beginning of the year. I’ll have everything on the site and all the proceeds go to charity. It’s just to express myself outside of basketball.
We all know about his basketball pedigree but the one thing that struck me about Damien Wilkins was how he stresses a priority on loyalty. I’ve read a few times where loyalty somehow entered the conversation. I thought it would be good to get it straight form him. Loyalty seems to be lost in today’s society. People would jump on their Momma’s back–stepping on her face–just to eat.
Damien Wilkens: Tough question, but I’m glad you asked it. You have to have the back of people who have yours. What’s going to happen when you need something from somebody that you’ve messed over? You got to stay true to who you are not matter what and help that person no matter what they are going through because they would do it for you. It’s just doing what’s right. Why would you want to stand by yourself?
SLAM: Where do love and loyalty coincide with one another?
DW: They both belong at the top side by side with one another. Love is loyalty and loyalty is love. I guess it’s how you interpret it. I try to be loyal to friends, family, teammates and those who have watched out for me. Everyone may not be that way or think that way, but that’s how I want to be.
Jeff Green put up 21 points on the Sixers on 10-15 shooting. He got off early and scored 15 in the first half. Obviously the Sixers defensive focus was on Kevin Durant, but to see Green hitting open jumpers consistently from range. He is definitely working on his game.
SLAM: Jeff was this something consistent or just this game?
Jeff Green: I was just hitting shots. It’s taking what the defense gives you. Shots were falling. My teammates were looking for me. I was trying to be aggressive and help my team win. I’ve getting very comfortable. I just shoot the ball and hopefully it goes in.
SLAM: Covering players you see certain attributes that obviously helped them get into the league. With you, I see strength in wanting to win. You seem to do what it takes. It’s a hunger. Was this something you picked up at Georgetown or beforehand?
JG: Before that. I’ve always wanted to win. I never like losing. We are trying to turn this around here. Because no one on this team wants to continue to lose. It’s going to take some time, but we are going to pull it together. We are going to practice Monday and hopefully get off to a new start. I had fun at Georgetown. Making it to the Final Four my third year. It was a heckuva ride. I tried to get better each year and hopefully it’s something that will carry on here. We will put in a proper work ethic to make our team better.
Moses Malone hardly speaks but, if given the chance talk about the 1983 World Champion Sixers, he glows. Smiling and staring off in a distance thinking back to a time where he was collecting opponent caroms, toying with the opposition by playing tap with himself, or heaving one of his signature outlet passes to Julius Erving, Mo Cheeks, Bobby Jones and Andrew Toney. Before the game, one of the most ferocious offensive forces the game has ever seen gave us a few words on the Spectrum–which is in its last days.
Favorite moment in the Spectrum:
Moses Malone: Winning the championship (technically won in L.A.). Back in ’83 it was great man. I loved coming to the Spectrum. It was a place where I think we used to get a little rain coming through the rooftop (Media laughs). I really enjoyed the small locker rooms. You had 12 guys in there really tight and only three or four shower heads.
Legendary Philly journalist Phil Jasner asks Mo if he ever played on a team with that much talent:
Mose Malone: No. That’s why I made my decision back in ’83 to come here. They had great individual guys.
Dr. J., Andrew Toney, Maurice (Sixers Head Coach Mo Cheeks), Bobby Jones. I was happy to be here to win a championship with Doc. Everybody knows Doc was the man.
I asked Mo if he sees anybody in the League with his top-notch combination of scoring and rebounding who plays with his tenacity. Mo would play tap with himself just to put him in a better position to score. He was an amazing offensive rebounder. In my lifetime, there has been no one better.
MM: I don’t know. You have a lot of players who can rebound. It all depends. Dwight Howard is a great rebounder. You have a lot of guys that can rebound and play hard.
It would be remiss to not speak on the confidence Maurice Speights has shown the last few games. He’s put up a few games of 9 and 8 or something similar. He’s coming off the bench early on a loaded roster. Late in the game, he threw this sick no-look pass that would have hit me in the face if his teammate missed it. You know how you jump when a dog lunges your way from behind a gate or when a baseball hits a backstop? Well that was me, and the Houston scout sitting next to me clowned me the rest of the game for it. Hey, the dish was sick Magic reminiscent. Speights is a true rookie. He’s wide eyed and loving the media attention-in a good way–shown him in recent games. Mo doesn’t like to talk too much about him because he wants him to stay focused, but he has to be encouraged by his progress.
SLAM: What you are throwing no look passes now? It would have hit me right in the face bruh.
Maurice Speights: For real?
SLAM: Good to see your confidence rising.
MS: I have to, I’m just trying to be like Thad Young.
Thad is that dude. You should have seen the smile on his face as if he parents were bragging on him. This is a good group of young kids Mo has here. He and Ed Stefanski definitely are building something good for the future. It’s also a learning experience for me personally because there’s a fine line of going overboard with young players, but this team has the right mixture of young intelligence and maturity.
SLAM: Getting some minutes. Your coach is showing a lot of confidence in you.
MS: I just want to go out there and play hard and get my timing down. I want to provide energy and do whatever it takes to help this team win.
Speaking of Thaddeus Young, it’s crazy that he is the leading scorer on the team (16.3). He’s hovered around 20-25 points the last couple of games being in the right position to score, rebound or hit teammates in their spots. After playing most of the season at the four last year, he’s killing guys at the three. Think of Stacey Augmon of UNLV fame with an offensive game
I asked his coach earlier if he was shocked at Thad’s recent play.
Mo Cheeks: I don’t know if I’m shocked. He’s just been doing it. He had a lull for a couple of games where he wasn’t doing what we require. Now you are seeing just who Thad is. He gets 25 the other night and 23 in this game. We don’t run any plays for him. He just gets them off of offensive rebounds or broken plays around the rim. That’s just the way Thad plays. He runs the floor every time down so we’ve become accustomed to the way Thad is. He’s just a recipient of a lot of broken plays. He runs the floor and plays hard.
SLAM: Thad, you are ballin’ lately. What’s goin’ on?
TY: I’ve just been out there focusing, Mike. Playing D.
SLAM: I was just talking to your boy Kevin about you and he had some nice things to say. It’s crazy standing before you and him in my first press conference at MSG and seeing you now doing big things in the pros a mere two years later. What can you add about Kevin and his talent?
TY: “He’s definitely a great player. That’s all we were talking about in the scouting report was keeping him off the glass and keeping him from scoring. We had to do whatever we had to do to keep him from getting off. Jeff Green got off, but we were really focused on keeping Kevin off. He’s one of those players where if he gets going, he will cook you the whole night. We wanted to be physical and try to make him work for everything. He’s 6’10″ playing the two. How you like that? He’s one of my good friends and we’ve been talking a lot, so that’s a good thing.”
As we talk Thad motions to one of the ball boys to get Kevin to sign some of his kicks–like a little kid excited to get an autograph.
SLAM: I said something to your coach in the presser about he was shocked by your consistent play of late. He was saying they don’t run plays for you.
TY: I was just telling somebody else that I just go out there and play. When I’m around the ball somehow always ends up in my hands. I like to be around the ball a lot. I want to take decent shot.
SLAM: What’s going to happen when they do begin to run plays for you because you are consistently showing up in the opposing team’s scouting report? You going to be able to handle that?
TY: I don’t think they’ll be any pressure at all. That just means a lot of guys are going be keying on me and I have to make plays for the other scorers on the team.
SLAM: What does it say that you already are showing up in scouting reports because of your recent 20-point binge?
TY: That’s crazy, somebody told me that. Whether it’s 20 points or no points, I just have to be ready. We have a great team and a lot of guys who can get off. We have a lot of 20-point guys on the team. It’s all about defense here. If we play defense we will be successful.
Willie Green is a player who has willingly taken a back seat so this team gets the next level. He was here when the Sixers were among the NBA elite, and I notice something different in his persona this season. He’s athletic enough to get his shot off even after coming back from a devastating knee injury and can play a variety of position on the floor depending on Cheeks’ defensive scheme at the time. He’s stuck around because he plays within the team dynamic at the expense of stacking stats. You can tell dude is straight from the D with his accent. He played at the University of Detroit.
SLAM: You know there’s this stat where the Sixers play somewhere around .800 ball when you score 17-plus points. Why do you think that is?
Willie Green: I couldn’t even tell you. I didn’t know until you brought it to my attention (Great…sigh. That’s all I’m going hear is that I’m the jinx). It’s good to know.
SLAM: I see a different look to you this year. It’s one of focused determination. You have developed an assassin personality on the floor. Also, are you talking to the young cats?
WG: Oh yeah. Definitely. When the team is lagging a little bit. I’m letting it be heard on the bench or in practice. It takes more than me. We all have to be vocal and try to get these wins. As far as my play, I have to be aggressive. I know what we were able to do last year even though we were counted out. I want to get back there man. It starts now. Every game is important. My role is to come in and bring energy and way, what, how I can.
I wanted to know if Cheeks was able to have a modicum of comfort after winning the last three after losing three. The Sixers seem to be all about feast or famine. All but two of the 10 games have been decided by double digits. You can start to feel the team get back into the up tempo style that was so successful last season by playing solid D and creating turnovers.
SLAM: Mo, I know as a coach you are never satisfied, but are you beginning to see something that makes you just a little more comfortable on the floor?
Mo Cheeks: We pushed the ball. I liked our defense in the second half. The early part of the game wasn’t as good as I would have liked, but our attention to detail was good. The second half, I have no complaints.