Making It Look Easy
‘Baby Shaq’ crowned for the second time at Red Bull’s King of the Rock.
by Marcus Thompson / @gswscribe
Afterward, Hugh Jones—known to the streetball world as Baby Shaq—declared his road to a second straight Red Bull King of the Rock title was “easy.” His celebratory swag, however, reeked of empty machismo and, in a sense, diminished his accomplishment. He walked off Alcatraz Island on Saturday as the champion of the world’s premiere one-on-one tournament. He scored $20,000 cash for his coffers. And there was nothing easy about it.
It was grueling. It was gutsy. It was gangsta.
Even Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, hosting the third annual event at America’s most historic prison, was impressed.
“It’s not easy,” Rondo said. “One-on-one, in these type of conditions, it’s a grind. It takes a lot of strength. You’ve got to be physically and mentally tough. It’s a great competition.”
It certainly didn’t look easy. As the final seconds ticked away in the championship, Baby Shaq, 32, clutched the ball as if his seed’s future depended on it, all the while proclaiming, “It’s over.” And when his 13-12 victory in the finals over Lukas Kraus of the Czech Republic was official, he ripped off his jersey and hoodie and declared he was done. You didn’t get the sense that he coasted. It looked and sounded more like he survived a round with Jon “Bones” Jones.
In reality, this 64-man tournament, basketball’s version of a decathlon, solidified the legacy of Baby Shaq in streetball lore. The DC native—whose game more resembles a young Charles Barkley—built his reputation as an unstoppable force on the blacktop because of his combination of explosive athleticism, grown-man strength and skill.
But after this autumn night in San Francisco, no doubt remained about his heart, his resolve. On a landmark where only the strong survived, Jones overcame a ton of odds to be the last man standing.
Baby Shaq’s first obstacle were the conditions. To call it cold that night would be like saying Halle Berry is pretty. It wasn’t Fargo, but it was that special San Francisco brick. A moist chill intensified by a breeze off the Bay that slapped you like a bag of frozen peas. And with the grimey look of Alcatraz’s rec yard, it looked cold, too. It was enough to have Izeah “Clutch” Bowman, a Los Angeles native and the 2010 champion, all but making out with the heat lamps before his first game.
Like many players, Baby Shaq donned a sweatsuit under his jersey. And he even had a hoodie under that, along with his trademark do-rag.
But the weather didn’t just make the environment uncomfortable. The wind practically eliminated any hope for consistent outside shooting. And warm bodies inhaling that cold air can do a number on your stamina. That’s a serious factor in one-on-one, and you could tell the way players were doubled over after each five-minute match.
Another obstacle in his way, one he bore alone, was expectation.
“I wasn’t worried about anyone else but him,” said Dock Ellis, a Los Angeles native who played college ball at Bakersfield.
Baby Shaq was the No. 2 seed in the tournament, but he was the heavy favorite. It seemed everyone, from Warriors rookie forward Harrison Barnes to DJ Sal Masekela to the hundreds of fans wrapped in fleece blankets, the house money was on Baby Shaq. Literally.
After winning, Jones revealed that he needed that $20,000 prize so he can put some money down on a house for his family.
“This puts us on easy street for a little bit,” Baby Shaq said.
Easy street was not his path to the 60-pound steel trophy. He didn’t have a problem the first two rounds, dispensing little energy while dispatching of Houston-native Kendrick Cornelius and Serbian Nebojsa Boskovic.
But Dock Ellis was a different story. For the first time in the tournament, Baby Shaq had to work as Ellis had more size and enough athleticism to compete on the defensive end. And Jones’ rest-on-defense pattern was taking its toll as Ellis seemed to have little trouble scoring. An upset was in the making. But Jones, a master at using his 6-3, 240-pound frame, eventually wore down Ellis. Forced to hang on for dear life, Ellis was disqualified after reaching the five-foul limit.
This was his Baby Shaq’s blueprint for the tournament. Pound. Pound. Pound. It was like watching carpaccio being made, with Baby Shaq’s shoulders being the mallet tenderizing the chests of his opponents.
“I couldn’t pick him apart as much as I wanted to,” Giyoh Shey, the No. 62 seed who made it all the way to the final four. “He’s built for this kind of game. I can’t really explain it. You’ve got to get out there and play him. I was one of those people talking about ‘I think I can take him down.’ I’m a believer now.”
Baby Shaq’s strategy was obvious. He didn’t expend much energy on defense. He simply relied on used his renowned leaping ability to rebound whenever his opponent missed. Then he went to work.
He used his slippery handle to get to his spots on the court. Then, he used his strength and low center of gravity to set up his post moves. He used impressive touch and a clear understanding of angles and how to use the glass to convert seemingly every tough layup. When he didn’t, he flashed his quick leaping ability to tip it in.
No jumpers. None of the crazy dunks and fancy moves he was known for on the AND 1 Mixtape Tour. Quite the opposite. More simple, fundamental, methodical.
It got him past North Carolina’s Ajanaku Olushala and onto the final four. It got him past Shey—a fluid, explosive athlete who made a name for himself with his play and a $1,000 by winning the dunk contest—and into the final.
Visibly winded, Baby Shaq looked vulnerable as the entire crowd descended upon one court. Kraus, spurred by a large contingent of international players and fans, had emerged as the lovable underdog. A crafty 6-7 shot-maker, Kraus had earned the support of the crowd with his refusal to lose and propensity for pulling off some clever move. Then, he called out Jones.
“Where is Baby Shaq?” he said after advancing to final. “Let’s play now.”
After what had to feel like a 15-second break, Kraus had his wish. And Baby Shaq, who appeared every bit vulnerable as he grasped for his third wind, had a little extra motivation.
He needed it. Now, the crowd was cheering for his opponent. And he was facing a different kind of player. Not the athletes he’d knocked off on the way, but a tough, helter-skelterish player in Kraus, who with his national team had played against the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and wasn’t the least bit scared of Baby Shaq.
In the end, Baby Shaq’s power and cleverness inside was too much. Perhaps it was obscured by the scrapping, the staring, the jawing between the two players. Perhaps it was lost in the frenzied crowd sensing the finish line to a three-hour endurance test. Perhaps it was outshined by his somewhat unsportsmanlike banter. But Baby Shaq pulled off something special Saturday night.
It wasn’t easy. But that’s what made it so respectable.