Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Catching Up With: Mike Kach, Part II

ZS: What kind of impact did (former Holy Cross guard) Torey Thomas have on you? How did he help propel your game?

MK: Torey Thomas is somebody I have a huge amount of respect for. He was the sole reason I played AAU for the Connecticut Flame. He's somebody that has done amazing things on the court overseas, but more importantly amazing things in the community of White Plains. Just really a solid dude...

As far as from a player's perspective, there's no point guard I would go to battle with more than Torey. He's a crazy competitor, and a point guard that prides himself on making his teammates better around him.

 We had a couple of years with the Flame where Torey and I were just going crazy in the national tournaments. Like I said before, If I'm going to take a point guard on my team--I say it all the time without hesitation--Torey Thomas.

ZS: How intense was the Mahopac/Carmel rivalry in those days? How did your role grow from being an inexperienced freshman to a 1,500+ point scorer against the hiked up Section 1 competition of that era?

MK: The Carmel/Pac rivalry was crazy. Talk about two teams who really hated each other...

I remember for me as a player, I was the leading scorer for a 4-16 team my freshman year. Mahopac went to the County Center that year (2000) and played against Ben Gordon and Mount Vernon. I have always thought Ben to have the smoothest, most effortless game I have ever seen. He elevated like three feet on his jumper.

 I loved his game and loved watching him play. I knew right then I needed to be there at some point in time throughout my high school experience. My senior year (2003), we beat Mahopac pretty good both times we played them. We ended up going to the County Center against White Plains.

In terms of big-time players in high school, just like I said I would take Torey as a point guard on my team, I will also say that I haven't played against anybody as skilled as (JFK Catholic guard) Donnie McGrath. To this day, I know he's an NBA player, somebody I have the utmost respect for.

ZS: What's your experience now training with young players and what habits do you try to instill?

MK: My training with kids is a little different than how I train myself. I work with younger kids so I try to instill in them confidence, perseverance and understanding of the game. They have enough pressure on them from coaches and their parents that I won't add to.

 Don't get me wrong, I'll snap on them if they're not listening or respecting my knowledge of the game. Yet it has always been very important to teach life skills along with basketball skills. Because at the end of the day, all of us won't be Division-I players...But we can all be great people, and nothing has taught me more about life than being a part of the team and playing sports.

ZS: What has your brother John's resiliency and courage in the face of adversity, his survival with meningitis taught you about life?

MK: My brother's resiliency has been integral in my development as a person. 

Every time I get in a situation where I feel things are going to be tough, I think about what he had to go through in order to survive, and I try to push on with whatever I'm doing. 

He's always gotten a kick out of my jumping ability. He couldn't jump over a phone book but he had much better skills than I did. I always say that if you can combine my athleticism with his skills, it would be a wrap...

ZS: How did you initially react when learning of when he was sick?

MK: When he got sick, it was the hardest time in my life. When a doctor is looking you in the eyes saying you have to say goodbye to your hero, to your you're best friend, that's a tough thing for a 14-year-old kid to go through.

 And then after his amputations, after seeing him struggle during the first couple of see him in that dark time was absolutely gut-wrenching. But I always knew that John would change the world not with his hands or his legs, but with his mind and his spirit. And that's exactly what he has done.

ZS: How has the culture changed from the time you were at Carmel to the current day? In which ways has social media shifted a change in today's athlete?

MK: I think social media has had a huge impact...10 years ago today, if you had a good game then it is in the newspapers the next day, end of story. 

If you have a good season and average a lot of points, among the leading scorers in the Section, it will be listed every Sunday, all of that stuff.

Nowadays, kids have access to all different types of immediate information, recruiting websites, etc...Which can do one of a few things...

 It can over-inflate the athlete's idea of how good they really are...

It could make somebody want to do more things on their own for personal recognition, and place less emphasis on a team win. 

Those aspects are definitely the issues with young athletes nowadays. 

However, you're never going to hide true competitors. 

What the internet has also done is spark a fire in people who aren't getting the recognition they deserve. 

And those people will just work that much harder. Shoot a few more jumpers than the others may. Stay in the gym longer. When it comes to athletics, the most important thing is to be a competitor.

 And there's always going to be competitors out there no matter the day and age it is...the cream always rises to the top.

ZS: Is the game still there? Can you still put someone on a poster?

MK: Yeah, I still play. If I'm doing basketball lessons I feel it is in my best interest to continue to play and be somewhat capable. I can still do all the dunks I used to do.

 I can still do the 360s and the wind mills and all that. But now, at 30 years old, it's on a much smaller scale and it hurts a bit more when I land..

But, I definitely continue to try and do all that stuff whenever I can because I know that eventually it won't be there anymore. I know it is a pretty unique thing to be able to do. I still appreciate it.

"Grasshopper" Brandon Simmons' Elev8s Game In Delray Beach

The primary issue Brandon Simmons poses for Elev8 coach Brett Newman one every coach in America would love to have.

For a day. For a week. For a season.

"I can put him (Simmons) anywhere on the floor, so it's hard to keep him in one place  ," said Newman of the versatile, 6-foot-8, 190-pound forward.

Nevada, Florida Atlantic, FAMU, Long Island University, Rice, and several others have expressed interest in the quick-footed Simmons.

"'Grasshopper' is his nickname. He's lightning on his feet. On this team, they play above that level on which their talent capacity shows. That's because they play the right way. Since Day 1, I've said, 'this is not about me or my system.' This is about you guys learning to play the right way."

Newman served in the U.S. Marines, so he knows a thing or two about discipline, brotherhood, and immense sacrifice.

 He's survived the harsh realities and enduring pain of combat.

From Newman's journey, which saw him go from a prominent dual-sport high school athlete in New Mexico (he's lived in 30 different states) to an around-the-clock coach/trainer, there are plenty of life lessons to dispense.

An adept passer at 6-foot-8, Simmons has unfurled a barrage of step-back jumpers and created matchup difficulties, adding on to his Division-I toolbox since arriving at Elev8.

With his length and size, he can sky for rebounds and finish at the rim with relative ease.

With a knack for stepping out and popping the 3-pointer and acclimatizing to the point forward fashion has made "grasshopper" a linchpin in the team's fast-paced attack. With his shot and shot creation off the dribble, he's suddenly drawing post defenders away from the rim.

Newman was once a bullish JUCO guard/forward, leaving a playground legacy on courts such as Memorial Park in rough-and-tumble Compton, Calif. as well the fabled asphalt of Venice Beach. Newman likes to say he was 'Billy Hoyle," Woody Harrelson's hot-shooting, trash talk-spewing character in White Men Can't Jump, before the movie's 1992 release.

Offensively, Newman's approach is far from laissez-faire.

He charts various statistics such as steals, deflections, high-percentage shots, risky passes, and touches on the ball before the shot release.

 He ensures the ball is moving fluidly. Newman despises the one-on-one game, quick with a tongue lashing for anyone too enamored in their own numbers. The slightest speck of flashy over-dribbling, though it was the style with which he once thrived on courts from Kansas to Mexico City, has the potency to draw his ire.

Simmons' squad has the potential to outduel foes with layered depth and balance.

"The biggest, most crucial aspect is this..." explains Newman, a longtime friend of University of Georgia coach Mark Fox.

"The percentage is the one number that outweighs statistics. We look at playing vs. production. You can play, but your product shows who you are."

Elev8 has steadily earned a selfless identity this season. They've had seven games where they've dealt out 21 or more assists as a team. Newman was elated after Elev8 kicked in 20 assists with just one turnover.

Forging a patchwork group into an overall team seemed like an arduous task.

 Many of them were accustomed to being primary scorers and ball handers on their respective high school teams, forced to defer or and surrender individual stats for team shine for the very first time.

The team quickly developed a rapport on and off the court. Buying in, ultimately, would entail making defensive aggression a lifestyle.

Newman said the gelling process was "not at all that difficult."

With the off the ball defensive ferocity and backcourt leadership of Matt Woods, Newman has cashed in on the high-efficiency categories. He preaches them early and often, the southern twang ringing in his players' ears well after the performance.

Woods, who averaged 19PPG has become more adept in all areas--including rebounding and field goal percentage. He's shooting just a thread below 50 percent from the floor, 45.5 percent from beyond the arc.

With skinny arms as long as stickball bats, Simmons' feathery touch and ambidextrous passing has helped him subscribe fully to the Mr. Everything role which Newman laid out for him.

  Simmons averaged 15 points and 10 boards at Teaneck High (N.J.), eventually bolting for the prep scene.

Staying longer in the weight room and working at more repetitions and focusing on shorter increments, Simmons is preparing for the augmented physicality of the ensuing level.

 He passed up JUCO after JUCO, many of them nationally ranked, to enhance his game under Newman and world renowned NBA skill development trainer Ganon Baker.

 Baker, who trains the likes of Lebron James, Chris Paul, and newly-acquired Dallas Maverick Amar'e Stoudemire, has developed an international reputation.

Alongside former Cornell shooting guard Cody Toppert, the two will host NBA pre-draft camp in Delray Beach this summer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Turnback Tuesday: Brady Heslip's Monstrous AAU Run

July 24, 2009:

Grassroots Canada, the herb which yields the basketball seed in the hockey hotbed of Toronto, has enjoyed a scalding July in the NCAA's open evaluation period.

An array of high-major programs are digging into their pockets and paying attention to one of the world's prospect-packed AAU programs, grooming a torrent of homegrown talent like never before.

One-time NBA all-star Jamaal Magliore and former UConn guard Denham Brown are prime examples of area products who have flourished in Grassroots Canada, which has gone from another so-and-so to a veritable Division-I Launchpad.

While Grass-roots came in waves and waves, nobody made the brand name stick like Brady Heslip.

The gym rat nephew of Jay Triano, Heslip's quick-strike 3-point shooting has opened up mega interest.

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," explained Ro Russel, the program founder and Heslip's coach.

"The way he's been shooting the ball, everyone is looking at him."

Heslip morphed into the mad bomber in Cincinnatti, scoring 37 points in the opening matchup.

 Opponents threw a variety of schemes at Heslip, an all-men-aboard clamp down operation.

The frustration of every man who took turns trying to alter his form was visible, notably during Heslip's individual 17-0 spurt.

"He was on fire no matter what they threw at him," Russell said.

"He's really starting to blow up. He's like a Mark Price, Scott Skiles type. He's the last one to leave the gym, always. He'll shoot all day."

Fast forward to March of 2012.

Heslip, in that eyesore highlighter-yellow uniform, gets a momentum jolt on lucky roll on an open 3-pointer.

 Yet "lucky" should never be listed in the same sentence as Heslip, who had a janitor's supply of gym keys and traipsed the sidelines of Raptors games as a youth.

During his hot streak, countless comparisons for the floppy-haired shooter started floating around gyms.

Gerry McNamara. Colin Falls. Steve Kerr. Andy Rautins. Kyle Korver. Steve Novak without the height. (Enter known white 3-point specialist here).

Yet on this particular night, Brady separated himself from his uncle's brand name and announced his own presence with a veritable shot-after-shot clinic.

Proving Russel's effusive praise from three years ago prophetic, Heslip routinely found openings and spotted up.

Game-altering catch-and-stick fireworks wound up decimating Colorado to the tune of 27 points (9-for-12 3FG).

 The Boston College transfer kick-started the annual adrenaline spike for the tournament, as Baylor scored an 80-63 victory over balanced Colorado.

Back to the future.

Playing for the Reno Bighorns in the D-League, Heslip averaged 24.5 points per game.

 And that deadeye shooting, which spurred Canada's blurring bolt into the spotlight, escaping obscurity well before the day of Andrew Wiggins?

It's helped Heslip twice break the D-league record for 3-pointers made in a game. His performances are emblematic of the true sniper role.

After bagging 11 3-pointers in a game, Heslip shot 13-for-20 from beyond the arc in a single game.

In transition, off the dribble, quick catch-and-sticks, you name it.

The same draping coverage, even  to the extent of face-guarding, has done little to change the form or trajectory of his shots.

Heslip is currently in Bosnia, emerging into a 30-Point+ threat for KK Igokea of the Adriatic League.

He's had many comparisons as far his style and make-up go. He's had his fair share of doubters, drawing on about limitations.

At the same time, he's been pigeonholed as strictly an outside shooting specialist.

Heslip's perseverance has turned the critics into crickets, as the superhuman workload has never tailed off.

"What Brady has is what I call a blackout work ethic," said NBA trainer Cody Toppert, who has helped cultivate Heslip's development and focus, pushing him through the wear and tear of innovative one-on-one workouts.

"It's a non-stop, relentless work ethic. In High School, he was doubted. When he went to Baylor, he was doubted. He has a perpetual chip on his shoulder."

Toppert as well as world-renowned NBA skill development trainer Ganon Baker have seen the competitive juices spike with Brady, though his insatiable everyday hunger still hasn't neared a crescendo.

Remember, he's only 24.

He's slayed the odds and thrived in the fiend-like face of adversity much of his career.

Despite his scoring exploits, despite his will to prolong his career professionally, Heslip will not want to hang it up with a clichéd "tried everything within his capabilities" swan story.

"He's one of the best shooters on the planet," Toppert said.

"He's got an NBA skill shooting the ball. He's a better ball handler than people think. He's a better defender than people think. I'm sure he still wakes up with fire in his heart knowing he wants to get to the NBA."

Monday, March 2, 2015

Catching Up With: Mike Kach, Part I

The subject, "Section 1's best dunker of all time" is certainly open to debate.

Yet any true fan of Section 1, one who has stood the test of time that is, understands all discussions are whittled down to Carmel's Mike Kach and White Plains' Ra'Shad James.

You may remember Kach levitating above helpless and awed defenders, finishing in ways only rarified athletes are capable of.

You may recall Kach pulling off extravagant displays of athleticism, handling the high-pressure moments en route to scoring 1,500+ career points during a four-year stay at Carmel High.

Knifing through double teams and gutting out a rash of injuries as a battle-tested senior, the high-rising Kach helped pilot Carmel to its last County Center berth in 2003 (their only other appearance was 1979).

 Kach's soaring dunks and loud finishes evoked gym-wide eruptions across Westchester County, as he cracked the Section's top scoring charts alongside Mount Vernon's Ben Gordon and JFK-Catholic's Donnie McGrath.

Football was his intial labor of love, but playing against top-level AAU competition with pitbull guard Torey Thomas ingrained  new competitive flames and special appeal in him.

Winning over the toughest crowds of adrenaline junkies, turning stern cold stares of defenders into respect and near-visible intimidation, Kach's focus changed.

The Ivy League grad is still teaching the game on the grass-roots level, but most importantly using basketball as a device to help deliver life lessons...

ZS: At UPENN, you were a rare breed as an Ivy League guy with a game predicated on athleticism. How did you find your identity and which were the most memorable aspects of your career?

MK: It was an adjustment at first definitely. A lot of these guys slowed the game down and made quicker guys like me get ahead of ourselves and make mistakes. I definitely had to get used to seeing my man at all times, because the first two month or two I was getting killed with the backdoors.

But in general, it is a huge leap from high school basketball to Division-I college basketball. Athletically I wasn't intimidated by anybody but cerebrally, there was an adjustment. Prior to my back injury (L4 L5 herniation), I fit right in, to the point where I started my first game as a freshman. I think I filled that niche that coach (Fran Dunphy)  was looking for at the time.

ZS: How'd you get the bounce? When did it become clear you could out-jump a significant percentage of the guys you were up against?

My leaping ability was something I was born with. I never worked out my legs prior to college, but I could just jump higher than other people. It came very natural to me. I realized I was on a different level than most people during those time where I began going to Five Star Camps and Eastern Invitational and things like that.

 It was probably around sophomore and junior year when it took off...

I would be at these camps watching other kids do dunks in between our station work. It would be kids fro the Bronx or New York City or top-notch prep schools throughout the country, so initially I was too intimidated to try and dunk with them. I mean there were some kids who were Top-50 in the country, I just didn't feel comfortable being a white kid trying to test these dudes. After the first day I was kind of thinking to myself, "that was kind of whack" and I truly believed that nobody could hang with me in that setting. 

That's not to say I was as good as some of these kids-- they were terrific players. Yet in a dunk contest type of setting that was my world.

The next morning, I came to the gym and people did the same thing. They started dunking and all that...So I called for the rock! 

You could hear people giggling and laughing and expecting me to put down some old man dunk and get no applause. And that to me is the best part--earning people's respect in about three seconds.

It's hard to describe the feeling...So I remember my first dunk and I remember it like it was yesterday.

 I threw it up, a self alley oop, and it was a bad toss. A little bit high. A little bit further from the hoop than I wanted. But it turned out to be perfect because I took off from a little bit deeper than I usually would, and threw down some reverse windmill that I sort of improvised and people just went crazy. And then the rest is history, I pretty much became known as the white kid with bounce, pretty much to this day.

It was always a way for me to earn respect in a setting with people who otherwise wouldn't give me a second look. To me, there has been no better feeling than to have people look at you like you're an alien, like you should not be able to do that. It's an adrenaline rush that I can't describe with words.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Uno En Uno With: Conor McGuiness, Clarkstown South

ZS: How can you put into the words the euphoria of nailing a game-winner at the County Center?  Coming from a basketball family, you've surely been prepared for moments like this. How'd it happen?

CM: It was the best feeling I've had in my life. It was awesome. I was able to create a lot in the first half and then Arlington box-and-oned me pretty much the rest of the second half.

 I knew I was going to be able to create (space) a little bit. I was just thankful I was able to hit the shot and be able to give us the position to play in the championship.

My whole entire life I've thought about hitting game-winners and buzzer-beaters to be honest. You imagine the craziest things when you're shooting around in the backyard as a kid. There is the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown. There's the "and the crowd goes wild!" 

It goes through every kid's head. For it to happen on one of the biggest stages in Section 1 in the County Center...I really don't have any words.

ZS: What's been key to this team's County Center run and thriving the way you have? What's been the difference since the Nyack loss?

CM: Us playing together as a team has really been the difference. It's been a real team effort from that game. We weren't playing cohesively (in the Nyack loss). We weren't playing as a team. We were playing more individually and that is not our identity. We've really hit a big stride right now-- beating Arlington, Fox Lane, and New Rochelle. We just hope it carries into tomorrow (against Mount Vernon).

ZS: The County Center has doubled as a Memorial Park alumni game during championship week. What's it like to see the Rockland County guys from your childhood on this stage, each a centerpiece?

CM: It's a great feeling. It's great to see those guys who I grew up playing with excel with their potential. They've all exceeded expectations. They are now amongst Section 1's elite. They've all worked their butts off for this opportunity. The most gratifying part is that we've all exceeded our potential this year to get to where we are now, playing at the County Center. .

ZS: You and Luke have been playing with/against each other forever...

LM:  We won our fifth grade CYO county championship. We actually lost to Matt Ryan's team (Ann Seton in Shrub Oak) in the state championship.

Luke and I started playing with the third grade CYO team when we were in first grade, we played up early. . He was always the tallest kid. I was always the smallest kid.

ZS: Becoming a scorer and the focal point of defenses throughout the Section, how have you defied lack of height?

CM: I just know I have to be mentally tougher and physically tougher than everyone I've played against.

I take it upon myself to be the toughest kid I can be and the toughest kid on the court. I just try to work my butt off. Not just working on the floor but working in the off-season, even when it's just myself in the gym or in the weight room.

ZS: How have you tuned up in the off-season and readied yourself for a new leadership this season?

CM: I've been fortunate enough to work out with (New City Native and Don Bosco graduate) Paul Jorgenson. He's now a freshman point guard at George Washington. Whenever he's home, every single day I'm working out with him. My Dad, (Joe McGuinness), he's the AD at Albertus Magnus. I pretty much have the key to the gym.

Paul is on another level. Whenever he's doing a drill or going at me one-on-one, I try to emulate myself to be like him.

When we're playing one-on-one, he always pushes me. He takes it to me. He wants me to get better, he's looking out for me, so he knows taking it easy on me simply won't work. It gets me ready because I know what to expect against guys as talented as he is. I know some of the things I can do on Paul from playing against him. I try to pick up on areas where he's not as strong defensively, and really attack that.

ZS: What's the focus heading into tomorrow's championship against (reigning champion) Mount Vernon?

CM: We're going to have to execute our stuff. More importantly, though, we're going have to be really tough. We know how tough and strong those kids are. We're going to have to box out, get rebounds, get every 50-50 ball. We know how important those things are against this team and in a game of this magnitude.

ZS: How have you adapted to a leadership role this season?

CM: I know as a senior and a three-year starting point guard, not only me but all the seniors, we're going to have to step up. We start four seniors and one junior, so we're an experienced team. We've all been through this before, so it makes it that much easier for me and for the rest us.

ZS: What's the support system been like with not only your father but also your brother (former Magnus star) Pat McGuiness?

CM: My brother was the hardest working kid I've ever seen. He was in the gym before school. He was in the gym after school. He's been someone I've looked up to my whole life. My Dad played for Coach K at West Point for two years, then he went to Manhattan. He coached at Wagner, Loyola-Chicago, Mount St. Mary's (N.Y.) where he was the head coach. So, his knowledge of the game is endless. He knows so much and he's taught me at every level, coaching me during the CYO days.

My brother stayed on me. Every single day, I was in the gym with him working my butt off. Even if I was thinking of taking a day off, there was no way he was going to let me.

He'd be making fun of me, calling me "soft." He's changed my mindset so much about how hard you have to work in order to be successful.

ZS: Must have been a bit of a different feeling when Clarkstown South played against Albertus...

CM: (laughs) I guarded him for the first half. I tried not talking to him at all the day before the game. I didn't want to let him in on any of our game plans.

Catching Up With: Jeff Pearlman, Author OF Showtime

ZS: A lot of different, intriguing characters throughout these pages Jeff. Surely made for some enjoyable interviews with plenty of entertainment value. How many sources total and which interviews were most enjoyable?

JP: I interviewed about 300 people for the book, I think. I get confused at times. And there were tons of great people. Loved Jeanie Buss, loved Linda Rambis, Earl Jones, Spencer Haywood.

But my favorite was probably Wes Matthews, the backup point guard. We met at a diner in Bridgeport, Conn., and he was just this feisty, fast-talking, smart, endearing guy who still probably thinks he could drop 40 on the Knicks. Just a joy.

ZS: As you've explained, writing a book is a BEAR. With Magic not talking and Kareem being well, a bit of a curmudgeon and rough around the edges socially, what were the toughest aspects you labored through in this entire process?

JP: The toughest thing really has nothing to do with guys refusing to talk. No, with biographies on teams and decades, the challenge is avoiding repetition.

I don't usually think of these projects as sports books per se (I try to imagine them as human books, but the humans happen to play athletics), but the reality is, you are chronicling these men with the understanding that there are seasons, and the seasons are important. So how do you do that without covering the same material repeatedly? I mean, how often can you write Magic v. Bird, or Kareem skyhooking over the 76ers? So the challenge--and it's hard--is finding interesting stuff from every season.

ZS: So much history with these teams and this era of the NBA. Through which methods do you compile research and get the rich detail of the times beyond the interviews?

JP: Well, I try to find every article ever written on the subject. I buy every book I can that relates to to the team, the players, the city, the time period. I travel to locations, try to get a physical sense of what it was like at that time. Really you dive in, look under every rock, hope you uncover interesting stuff.

ZS: Kurt Rambis or Mark Landsberger, which guy had better situational awareness (off the court that is) and why?

JP: Oh, Rambis. He's very intelligent, very aware. He just didn't care about the wardrobe and stuff like that. He was funny, and knew he was funny.

 Landsberger was just sorta dumb. In an endearing way.

ZS: The journey has been a long one Jeff and from reading your blog it is clear you've evolved. What's been key to growing from a cocky kid at the Tennessean learning the niceties of the trade to penning NYT best sellers? What were some of the adjustments along the way and was there ever an "IT" moment where you really turned a corner and never looked back?

JP: Well, when I arrived in Nashville, I thought I was God's gift to the pen--not realizing that A. I sure as hell wasn't; B. There is no such thing.

That was just a project coming out of college, having been the editor of the student newspaper and wrongly thinking nonsense like that mattered. So I came to Tennessee with unjustified swagger. Or, put it different, I was an insufferable asswipe.

What changed? In 1995, Catherine Mayhew--the features editor--demoted me to the cops beat. She insisted I forget about style and just get shit right. Who, what, where, when, how, why. It changed me in major ways. The other biggie: After cops, they took me away from features desk and gave me the high school wrestling beat. I learned so much in that position.

ZS: Is there a next project in the works and should we expect an encore?

JP: There is.

ZS: Who have been the biggest influences on your career and how have they helped nurture your production?

JP: Shit, so many people. I've been fortunate to know and work with and learn from some true greats. Back at Delaware, on the student newspaper, there was a kid named Greg Orlando. He was a few years older, and just a masterful wordsmith.

I stole so many things from him, really learned about nuance with wording. Also, after my senior year of high school, a guy named Joe Lombardi allowed me to write sports for the Patent Trader, the local weekly out of Cross River, N.Y. Joe showed me so much about covering events, flow, rhythm.

Catherine Mayhew, the features editor in Nashville, was my newspaper mother, and stressed the humility I need. There were tons more.

ZS: Given the personalities and characters in Showtime, would you say this was the most fun you've had with a book?

JP: Nah. A secret: Books are torture. Pure torture. They kill me, drive me to drink, kill me again. They're rewarding and enriching and educational and exciting. But "fun" isn't the right adjective. And, if I were ranking the books for pure fun, I probably go Sweetness No.1.

ZS: There was so much about this team and era that was unique. The cocaine culture of the NBA. The glamor and glitz of Hollywood that followed this team. Spencer Haywood attempting to put a hit out on Paul Westhead.

The promiscuous, bang-and-run lifestyle of the characters. When di it occur to you that this story needs to be brought to life? How did it occur to you that this was a locker room full of wide-ranging personalities whose stories needed to be heard?

JP: Honestly, I think the world could have survived without "Showtime," so I wouldn't say it needed to be told. I'm not one of these writers who thinks what he does is particularly important. It's entertainment; a break from reality; a nostalgic look back, a chance to see behind the curtain. But did anyone need to tell this story? Meh, probably not.

The big names, the location, the owner. I mean, it didn't take a genius to see there was a great sports book here. So I went for it, and I'm thrilled you enjoyed it. Because these things mean so much to me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

After Long Journey, The Price Is Right

In a world where youth basketball's murky underworld of street agents, fake promises, brown paper bag money and back alley deals are far and wide, Eric Price's story is an original.

As an eighth grader, the D.C.-bred Price had already carved his niche as a beast amongst  boys.

Price's advanced skill-set, laced with an arsenal of electric spin moves and sustained flashes of freakish athleticism, enabled him to pull off extraterrestrial finishes.

 The flash and purity of his game had the potency to shut playgrounds down entirely.

 Price's early impact was that of a beyond-his-years YouTube Sensation, well before YouTube.

College coaches across the country jockeyed for a crack at Price, who cut his teeth while subsequently earning shine and generating mega-buzz with the Blue Devils on the AAU circuit.

Playing alongside Ty Lawson, Roy Hibbert, Donte Cunningham, and a star-spangled lineup, Price won three national championships.

 Division-I players were coming off the bench on that memorable squad, grappling for the slightest meaningless spurt of burn.

 Price's early prowess emerged during an unrivaled epoch of D.C. basketball prosperity.

"Eric Price was," said Jeremy Baker, the former Quinnipiac guard and Price's teammate during the Blue Devils years, "one of the most transcendent talents of our time. He could do it all."

An incoming golden boy and all-empowering symbol of DC's grass-roots prestige, Price possessed the clout of Lebron and Felipe Lopez in high school.

Yet with AAU coaches hounding him, middle men plunking down money and bribes, as well as the rising tension between multiple high school and AAU coaches competing for him, there were plenty of potholes along Price's sojourn into young stardom.

 Reneging on an early commitment to John Calipari and Memphis, Price endured a bumpy ride.

The story of Price's rise and fall, however, has as much to do with his environment and a severe lack of proper guidance.

"I had seen it before, and Eric Price was the latest victim of adults trying to use a child," said Walter Ray, the founder and president of EGOS (Education, Goals, Opportunities and Sports), a D.C.-based non-profit geared to help inner-city youth thrive through academics and athletics.

"I felt bad for the kid, because I knew the adults around him did not have his best interest at heart," explained Ray.

 "I knew the nature of the adults around him. They were rotten, then and now. If something ever went wrong, if Eric didn't make it big, they would be gone like the frauds that they were. It was a prime example of adults exploiting a kid in basketball. Different circus, same clowns."

While Price flamed out in a campus-to-camous basketball odyssey, his unique path has created a detour back to his D.C. roots.

He's committed, he said, to helping shape the youth on a workaday basis.

ZS: Your journey is kind of two-fold. On one hand, you were being heaped with lavished praise and anointed as a surefire NBA prospect before you even reached high school. 

You didn't take the path that was envisioned. Yet on the other side, you are doing what you love as a CEO, teacher, and molder of youth. Ultimately, your story can teach life lessons. How do you sum it all up? Did God choose this path for you? Did it all work out for the best?

EP:  That is very true. Two fold is the perfect description. To sum it up, "God always saves his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers." I grew up in the church with a praying grandmother, who is currently attending UDC to obtain a Master's Degree. She is 77.

Resiliency runs deep in my family as well as God. I think it truly happened for the best. I believe God put me in this position because I'm very influential and respected in the DMV area.

ZS: What are some of the pressures you faced? What were the negatives of experiencing too much, too soon? How did the game help you and how did it hurt you?

EP:  Man, that's simple. I simply didn't know what I was doing at the time. I realized now, having talent in anything as an adolescent just makes you grow up faster than your brain can develop or process in actuality what's going on. You do things you see, and mimic them, because your brain is simply unable to differentiate good intentions from bad ones.

In my case, the things I saw and heard for the most part, they didn't come from purity. That's for sure. Honestly, the game didn't hurt me one bit. If anything, I got so much out of basketball including life skills, and a great education. I can relate to my workplace directly with basketball, so it's actually a blessing.

ZS: Through your youth days and with the Blue Devils on the AAU circuit, you redefined the "man-child" term in D.C. and beyond. If you got to pick and choose, what would you want to be remembered for?

EP : I want to be remembered most about my desire to never give up, no matter what people say or try to do to you. To whom much is given, much is expected. I want to be remembered for living by that. The late Stuart Scott always said, "Don't give up, don't ever give up."

That speech in the ESPYS had me in tears because it was like he was in my living room speaking to me.

ZS: You faced adversity beyond the game, beyond the street agents, beyond those guys who are typically more vested in their own best interest in the prodigious young talent they claim to be guiding. How did making it out of the Sursum Corda's projects shape you for life's challenges?

 EP: When I'm asked this question, I always smile. "If you can make it out of the 
Cordas, you can make it anywhere." 

Those are the first words of my autobiography entitled  "Full Court Press: A Young Badketball Players Prodigy Journey." I am a coauthor.

 Susraum Cordas is a mixture of everything good and bad. So for one., it humbles you. Yet it makes you strong to stay humble but grounded. Wanting to get money (hustle) in my case (basketball), a desire to get rewarded (scholarships) in their case money cars and clothes. Susie Corda made
things I experienced in the basketball world, a piece of cake.

ZS: What are some of the dangers and downfalls of the business aspect of AAU?

EP: I think AAU is actually good.

 It's not the system it's the people in it. You get to travel, compete, experience things you may never see otherwise. But it becomes a problem when high school coaches vs. AAU coaches comes into play. They compete for you and are suddenly questioning your loyalty to the programs. That's when it becomes really confusing. Well, at least in my case.

ZS:  What are some situations in which coaches tried to control you or profit off of you?

EP:  I've had coaches personally tell me that if I played AAU and didn't play summer league for my prospective school, that I would never attend Duke. Anybody who knows me knows that I was going to play for Coach K. I went to visit there in the eighth grade.

I also committed to play for John Calipari at the University of Memphis as a high school sophomore.

Coach Cal thought it was odd when I called him months following my verbal commitment to denounce it. My high school coach (Joe Mantegna at Blair Academy in N.J.) said basically if I wanted to play for him next season, I had to de-commit from Memphis because coach Calipari is supposedly "a bad guy."

I still love coach Cal to this day and didn't know he was being hated on.

Yeah, it's that dirty of a game. Coach Cal probably still doesn't know what happened to me and questioned my commitment.

(shakes his head, pauses).

I've also had Nike deliver big trucks of shoes and clothing to my neighborhood. Envelopes of cash, cars, you name it. Those were normal things for the top athletes in the country to have.

ZS: Has all those false promises and manipulation made you less trusting of people?

EP: Funny you say that. Now as an adult, I realize I don't trust people. Sometimes that hurts me because there are some genuine people in my corner that actually care.

ZS: What are some the main points you want to illustrate and teach to young athletes who could face the same situation?

EP: Just to learn to be self-sufficient. You will notice when people start monitoring your success, they will hate. Becoming a CEO and a leader of young men I was conscious that throughout history, leaders are not very well liked.  And I'm willing to accept that.

ZS: What were some of the main issues you dealt with and what could be done to rectify some of the problems?

EP: Like I said before, it's the people not the system. The solution is just to get more qualified people who genuinely love the kids. The ones who want to teach them and not use them for monetary gain. It's a growing epidemic in this nation. That's why I founded PowerSchool.

ZS: What were some of the benefits you received and temptations you dealt with at a young age?

EP: That's simple. I could do, simply, whatever I wanted. Say what I wanted. First class plane tickets. Luxury hotels. Being on the Jay Leno show with Roy Hibbert. Being in Sports Illustrated for kids and more. I could test any Nike shoe I wanted or request it for myself. I even helped out with input to which Nike shoes were hot and not.

ZS: What are some of the main points you deliver and bedrock principles you preach to your students, how do you provide proper guidance after being misled by so many?

EP: Be persistent. Don't feel sorry for yourself because no one else will. Being misled helps you teach children that it can happen. So, I provide them with the necessary tools to be prepared. I'm lucky to have the students and vice versa. And luck is simply when opportunity meets preparation. And they deserve for me to give that to them so that in life, they become naturally lucky.

Have you ever known someone and said, "Man, they are lucky. Something good is always happening to them. It's no coincidence.

ZS: What is the focus of the upcoming book and what exactly is the book about?

EP: Kristin White, who is the author of the best-seller, "The Gap Year," did a great job at tackling deeply-rooted issues beyond the comprehension of me and you. It's a great read. It's gonna be awesome and in my eyes, it has NY Times best seller potential.

ZS: What was your relationship like with Sonny Vaccaro and (Nike representative) Don Crenshaw?

EP: Great with both of them. I went to Sonny's house (in L.A.), got into his pool, met his wife. He invited me there every summer to chill before ABCD camp. What Crenshaw taught me was to be strong with life after basketball.