By Ben Osborne
Football may have been in the back of my mind throughout the long weekend, but obviously the hoop season is hitting full stride so I was in work mode too, making back-to-back visits to the Garden for matinees.
Sunday was the Super 6 at MSG, an annual tripleheader of top high school teams. Without wanting to step on my man Aggrey “School Daze” Sam’s toes, I figured I’d run down a bit of what I saw. In the interest of stamina, I skipped Sunday’s first game, between two New York teams—Wings Academy and Christ the King. CTK won 74-63, as their dope, diminutive (5-6) point guard, Erving Walker, went for 18 points and six assists. Short of Drexel-bound Jamie Harris I don’t think anyone on Wings is a big-time prospect, but I have to admit it’s a great name for a basketball program.
Game two, which I watch with one eye while my other was eyeing the Bears as they held off the Seahawks, is a college-level affair between American Christian (PA) and South Kent (CT) Prep. What makes it college-level? Well, with both teams being prep schools, the game is played in two 20-minute halves. More noticeable than any rule changes is the talent, which is plentiful.
As many of you probably know, American Christian is led by combo guard Tyreke Evans, generally considered the top junior in the country. Evans is joined by the likes of centers Michael Glover and Keenan Ellis (who used to play with OJ Mayo and Bill Walker in Cincinnati) in a big, tough lineup, while South Kent boasts high-major talents Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Papa Dia, Christian Morris and Isaiah Thomas.
While a Garden crowd that is at best half capacity pays only intermittent attention, Evans lives up to his rep in a big way. Playing all 20 minutes of the first half, Tyreke has 18 points while helping his team to a 57-41 lead at the break (given the amount of points scored and Tyreke’s advanced ability to fill it up maybe I should have referred to the game as “pro-level”).
The Bears win by 3! This prompts a jubilant response from the Chicago folks slowly filling up the seats behind my baseline perch, getting ready for the main event, between Chicago’s Simeon HS and Harlem’s Rice HS.
Meanwhile, American maintains a 10-point lead through much of the second half. Evans can score so easily. I mean, when you have 29 points with 10 minutes left, that’s obvious. But it’s not a quiet 29. It’s a get-the-ball-and-use-a-powerful-handle-and-hangtime 29. And South Kent is not some under-sized high school team. Guys like Bryan-Amaning (signed with Washington), Dia (SMU) and Morris (just a junior) are all huge, and Evans goes right at them. He can also pull up for mid-range jumpers and runners. My enthusiasm is lessened a bit by the fact that Evans seems to have an aversion to using his left hand. Straighten that out, Tyreke, and you can consider me right on your growing bandwagon.
Every timeout down the stretch of this game is accompanied by a Hot 97 DJ blasting hip-hop and lots of Harlem Shakin’ in the crowd. The Chicago fans are amused.
For South Kent Prep, which is cheered on by alum Josh Boone of the New Jersey Nets, the good and bad of PG Thomas pretty much overwhelms all else. A 5-9 senior who will play at U-Dub next season, Thomas has a sweet handle and serious range. He also doesn’t seem to see any difference between a good shot and bad. Thomas will finish with a team-high 28 points, and his talent is real, but I would have liked to see some of the other guys get more chances.
Bryan-Amaning (profiled by yours truly in SLAM 104) in particular seemed ready and willing to contribute more the 12 points he picked up while Thomas fired at will.
The final score is American Christian 110, South Kent 91. Evans gets 33 points and the MVP award.
Jim Jones and Juelz Santana perform between games. Given the fact that Jim seemed more concerned with shooting around on the Garden floor than giving much of a performance, I’ll have to say his song for the day should have been called “Booo-ring.” Of course, as Sam has covered in this space before, all true Giant fans are forever bitter about the way Jones’ brief attempt at making our football team relevant to hip-hop ended.
With the concert over and only one game left, the Garden crowd is down to maybe 5,000. But it’s 5,000 folks that care. The section behind me on the baseline and behind the adjacent Simeon bench is there to see their Wolverines win. Seemingly all dressed in Simeon gear—including some dope t-shirts with action pics of the players ironed on—these ChiTown fans are representing. The non-Chi part of the crowd, including Rice grad and current UConn Huskie Curtis Kelly, may not all be from Harlem—Rice simply doesn’t have a fan base like that—but they are all rooting for the Raiders.
Me? I’m here for professional reasons. Mainly to see Simeon’s Derrick Rose, considered a top-5 player in the Class of ’07 and NBADraft.net’s predicted number-one pick in the ’08 Draft. I’ve seen highlights of Derrick and read a bunch of stories, but never seen him play. In truth, this much anticipation is rarely a good thing, but when I tell a few of the Simeon fans behind me that I’ve never seen him play in person, they hardly temper my excitement. “First time?” One guy exclaims. “Well, you better get some popcorn and enjoy.”
Two other attendees of note—John Calipari and Rick Pitino. Coach Cal is here to watch Rose, who will be his best player next season, and Pitino’s here just being Pitino (though word is he’s been working very hard to lock up Evans from the second game).
Within three minutes of the game, Rice is up 10-2. Simeon may have the national ranking and arguably the best player in the country, but Rice is not fazed in the least. Playing a hustling, scrappy style that hides their relative lack of size, the Raiders scratch and claw in a manner that frustrates Simeon and gives Rice a 29-19 halftime lead.
Rose is way off on offense in the first half, but it’s not like he’s out there lollygagging. On the contrary, the thing that impresses me most about him is how hard he plays, too. At 6-4 and 180 pounds, with long arms and major hops, Rose is a terror on defense. In the first half alone he has three violent blocked shots (one of which is debatably called a goal tend). He’s also a demon on the offensive glass. These characteristics are important because there is a smoothness that is—at least at this point—relatively lacking in Rose’s game. His jumper, for example, needs a lot of work, which is an obvious concern when you’re talking about someone who will be spending so much time on the perimeter as he moves onto college and the NBA.
Simeon battles back throughout the second half, as Rose heats up a little. When Simeon power forward Kevin Johnson knocks down an and-one with less than five minutes to go, the score is tied at 40. Rice, led by junior guard Kemba Walker, stays calm, though, and holds on for a 53-51 win. Rose gets 22 points and the “sportsmanship award,” as well as my respect. The Rice players and fans get to hold their heads high. The Chicago fans, well, at least the Bears won.
After leaving the Garden at 7:30 Sunday night I am back by noon Monday. It’s the Knicks annual Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday matinee. In honor of the great civil rights leader, the Kings are in town. Um, that’s a coincidence. But it sounds good. It’s a bacon game, too, but I couldn’t wait to eat it. I did my brunch at home. But Sam takes part in the MSG brunch, and he’s happy for it.
Game time, and the uber-mediocre Kings take the floor. Think about it: slightly above average players at every position. A crappy bench. A surly coach. And players not exactly known for their charm. In the Eastern Conference that could get you in the playoff chase (just look at the Knicks!). In the West that’ll get you the 14-20 record and calls to rebuild that the Kings trot into this game.
Today the Kings are also short Brad Miller, absent from the team for the always-ominous sounding “personal reasons.” Starting for him is ex-Knick Mo Taylor, who gets the boos he deserves. Ron Artest is in the lineup, too, of course, and he gets a nice applause.
The Knicks, meanwhile, are starting the lineup Isiah planned for all summer: Steph at the 1, Quentin Richardson at the 2, Jared Jeffries at the 3, Channing Frye at the 4 and Eddy Curry at the 5. Considering that puts starter-ability guys Jamal Crawford and David Lee on the bench, I have to admit it’s a solid top 7 (especially in the East!).
It’s a turnover fest early on, with Sam noting this is “truly a day game.” Indeed.
Kings two guard Kevin Martin and his wind-up “jumper” score 12 first-quarter points, giving Sac a 27-23 lead.
My man Quincy Douby from Brooklyn and Rutgers starts the second quarter. In Douby, Francisco Garcia and Ron-Ron, the Kings have three New Yorkers. The Knicks have none. Damn. Makes a fan miss the Mark Jackson/Rod Strickland days.
Renaldo Balkman also gets some burn in the second quarter. In fact, taking advantage of Balkman’s length and hustle, not to mention Lee and Crawford’s similar attributes, the Knicks actually press for a few second-quarter possessions. It works, too, shaking up the Kings and awakening the crowd.
Through 20 minutes, Shareef Abdur-Rahim has 15 points for the Kings and the score is tied at 39. A Frye three pointer at the halftime buzzer gives the Knicks a 49-47 lead.
Halftime is spent stalking Tristan Wilds of The Wire, who is sitting in the fourth row and on a loose list of future celebs to get in SLAM, but “Michael” proves elusive. Oh, well. Sam vows to track him down elsewhere. I do see Mr. Artest, though, which is always exciting.
Steph goes baseline for a sweet up and under. He’s been great of late, and the fans know it, showering him with the warmest applause he’s gotten since his first season as a Knick.
Skinny big man Justin Williams checks in for the Kings. I pride myself in knowing where every dude in the League played college ball, but I have to plead ignorance on this guy. I have never even heard of him. I break out the media guide and learn that he went to high school with Curry before playing at University of Wyoming. He hustles and busts his ass guarding Curry, so who knows? Maybe he can turn a 10-day contract into a guaranteed deal.
On offense, whenever the Kings aren’t disrupted by an out-of-rhythm shot by Bibby or Artest, they alternate between feeding Reef in the post and letting Martin do his thing on the perimeter. And by “his thing” I mean, um, “being Reggie Miller.” The similarities are uncanny. Awkward release. Mad skinny. Light skinned. Runs off picks. And, what really hammers it home today, a propensity for flops. Lots of ’em. Through three, the Martin-led Kings lead 76-75. Between quarters the announcer welcomes back Allan Houston, who is shown on the GardenVision. The crowd, which is filled with kids and has been getting louder all day, responds with a murmur.
Late game drama: Steph hits a three over Bibby to give the Knicks a 90-88 lead. Martin three makes it 94-92, Kings. Corliss Williamson hits a free throw to push it to 95-92. J Creezy, silent for three-plus quarters, hits a runner to cut the lead to one. After an Artest miss Lee makes two FTs: 96-95, Knicks. Despite 99-ish chants of “Dee-fense!” Reef scores in the post: 97-96, Kings. 26 seconds left, 29 lead changes. But there will be only one more. Crawford hits another huge shot to give the Knicks the lead for go, as a Big Nasty offensive foul and another Artest miss end things for the Kings. Final is 102-97, Knicks, who, somehow, are percentage points out of first place in the Atlantic.
Post-game: Kings coach Eric Musselman comes out to face the press, wearing workout clothes and looking like a pissed-off 12 year old. The first question is about the offensive foul called on Williamson for setting a pick out of bounds. “I’m only talking about the game,” Musselman snaps at the questioner. “But that is about the game,” reporter retorts. “Then I didn’t see it,” Musselman says.
He takes four more questions and then cuts off the interview. Thanks, Eric. No wonder people take shots at you.
In the Sac locker room, Ron is mobbed by the New York reporters, but seemingly avoids saying anything inflammatory. I rap with Quincy for a minute, who is rushing out to meet fam—and the Rutgers basketball team—in the stands.
The dry-erase board says “bus tomorrow at 9:45 AM.” Plenty of time for Ron’s CD release party tonight!