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Nazr Mohammed

Oklahoma City Thunder

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Religion or Politics: Pick One!!!

This is a blog on a topic I never thought I would write about: Religion and Politics.

My name is Nazr Tahiru Mohammed. I am a 1st generation AMERICAN born in Chicago to 2 Muslim Ghanaian immigrants. That means I am an African (no Hyphen) American (born in Chicago) Muslim (practicing Islam with no affiliation with the Nation of Islam but I do consider them brothers and sisters) Black Man (English is the only language I speak). I was told by so many people thru social media the last few days to "Go back to your country" that I feel that I needed to clear things up (smh). Home for me usually means Chicago with Kentucky being my 2nd home. Though visiting Ghana for the second time in my life is also in the plans but it's still hard for me to call that home. Being a part of these different communities has shaped me and molded me into the person I am today. It's made me focus on the similarities of various religions instead of their differences. Islam has taught me the importance of faith, prayer, charity, discipline and diversity. And these pillars can be found in most if not all religions.

Growing up in Chicago I had friends who sold drugs, went to Ivy League colleges, committed robberies, became decorated Police Officers, went to prison, became Judges, practiced different religions, were in gangs, drove cabs, worked in sanitation, were CEO's and everything in between. This has always kept me opened minded to the fact that people are capable of great things or horrible things. Sometimes these individuals show a duality of conflicting qualities at the same time. I have felt as if it is up to me to weigh the good and bad then decide if the relationship was worth having. Basketball has blessed me with the opportunity to meet all types of people with different political views, socioeconomic status' and religions. Islam has taught me that every sin weighs the same in God's eyes. That has conditioned me to not overreact in moments of conflict. I try to understand both sides rather than blindly condemn someone as if I'm "holier than thou". That goes for life choices, religion and politics in my book.

As an American, Christianity is ingrained into our society. Most of my friends are Christians, in America Christian holidays are celebrated nationally and I even attended Catholic school when I was younger. As a Muslim in America I realized at an early age that Islam was misunderstood. Whenever I told someone my faith, they usually commented "You're not like most Muslims". Then they'd proceed to ask me about Minister Louis Farrahkan and the Nation of Islam, which I knew nothing about with the exception of what I'd read. So instead of correcting them, I usually tried to change the conversation as quickly as possible. In their mind and not knowing my Ghanaian heritage, it was no way I was any other type of Muslim. Let me clear up that misconception now... Not all Muslims are from the Middle East. We are from all over the world. We come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, there are over 1.6 Billion Muslims in the world and the majority of them live in India and Pakistan- not just the Middle East.

For years I have sat back and read comments from fans, friends and random people that I follow on various social media networks and have been disappointed by their opinions and lack of knowledge in regards to Muslims. However, considering recent events, I was overcome with sadness and broke one of my personal rules of not commenting publicly on my religious views thru social media. There aren't enough keystrokes to properly convey how I feel or give me enough of a platform to inform the person on the other end reading my 140 character post. I prefer to share things that are truly important to me in an environment where I can speak as long as I want and take my time in gathering my thoughts like here in my blog. But after reading the headline, "Former NBA Player Nazr Mohammed Sounds Off on Trump Ban", from an article that was written totally from two of my last Twitter post, I realized that it was unavoidable not to clarify my position. Especially when I wasn't even contacted to elaborate on my post or didn't feel as if I did "sound off". I simply expressed my disappointment about some of the things I read that were posted about the #MuslimBan from people who needed to know that there negative comments included me. After all "I am a Muslim". They might not view me as one of the "Bad Muslims" (whatever that means) but when you make blanket political statements about a group of people, then it includes the innocent who make up the majority of that group as it is in this case.

There is a reason why conversations about religion and politics have always been taboo. I've spent most of my life avoiding these conversations except in comfortable environments and in the company of intelligent and open-minded people. And even when having these conversations, I've always tried to keep the two separate (we can talk politics or religion but not both). Yet for some reason so many people try to combine them. I understand why people feel that they go hand in hand. Religion shapes your views on how life should be lived and your values on what's most important. These views and values sometimes influence your politics but I believe they should remain separate. Politics has always been a dividing factor that focuses on the differences of our political parties. It groups us mostly into 1 of 3 political parties. Grouping us into one of these parties doesn't fully tell the story of what our beliefs are. Since the beginning of time people have used religion and the interpretations of that religion's holy book (Quran, Bible, Torah, etc..) for their personal political views.

That is why when I hear radical religious factions committing terrorist attacks on the citizens of a country, I view it as a political attack disguised by religion in order to gain support and confuse the misinformed.

As far as politics go, I never paid much attention to it until about 2005. My second child was born and I began to worry about the state of our country and what type of world I would leave behind. Until then I'd always thought that I couldn't make a difference. After 2005 I realized that those I elected or didn't elect were in charge of making and implementing policies that affected myself and those I love most. With each passing year since then I began to understand the power of certain political offices and if their values or policies didn't mirror mine then my needs would not be tended to. For example, if it were not for the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) then a close family member would have died recently. Before the ACA, people with certain types of pre-existing health issues like diabetes were uninsurable. President Obama's persistence in having affordable healthcare for all helped my family member be insured for the first time in their forty plus years of life. For the 1st time, I felt as if my vote really mattered. It helped elect a man who believed in some of the same things I believed in. I don't expect my elected officials to align with me on every issue, but I do expect them to do what's best for the masses regardless of faith, economic status and ethnicity. Even with the political and racial climate over the last few years, I still had faith in the growth of our country. In 2008 I felt that the election of President Barack Obama proved my sentiments were correct. Some may disagree with me as far as how much progress was made for African-Americans during his tenure, but I never expected him to be a president solely to push the agenda of Black people, which only make up 13 percent of the population in the U.S. I expected him to do what's right for all Americans. To be honest, he actually overachieved in my eyes considering all the resistance he encountered by Republicans in the House and Senate. Many of these are the same Republicans now asking us to give President Trump a chance to implement his policies. I remain encouraged by the near election of our first female President, Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote and was close to winning the electoral votes if eligible voters who decided not to vote had participated in this election (I actually blame the eligible voter that didn't participate in the election for the predicament we are in now but that's another argument for another day. They had one job smh. Vote!!). During President Obama's presidency I witnessed the racism and disrespect for a man holding the highest office in our democracy but kept my faith in the system. I kept my faith even after the senseless killings of unarmed African-Americans by a small number of police officers around the nation. Not ALL, a small number. I wish this administration could make that distinction regarding Muslims.

When President Trump decided to run for office, I considered him a ruthless businessman and had no problem with him whatsoever. In my mind there was only one type of really successful business person and he fit the description. But during his campaigning, which I thought was a bad joke during the primaries, I began to feel like I was personally being attacked. I followed the debates to learn more about his political views, noticing and believing that he actually had a shot to win the election once he received the Republican nomination. During the debates I noticed that whenever he spoke on minorities his responses had negative undertones about Mexicans, crime in the inner cities committed by African Americans, implementing "Stop and Frisk" and closing our borders to Muslims and Mexicans to name a few. When he spoke his negative rhetoric at his rallies, I felt as if he was encouraging hatred directly at my family as myself. I felt that way because I am an inner city Black kid, I am Muslim, I am the proud son of immigrants. But what hurt the most was seeing fans and some friends support this man knowing that I was in the large group of people he alienated with his comments. It was beginning to get really hard for me to believe that someone who pretended to support me could support a man whose views gave life to people that hated me, believed that my religion preached terrorism, that I was more likely to commit a crime against them or even worse- I didn't belong in this country. I have contemplated closing my social media accounts (especially Facebook) after reading the posts and comments of people I considered friends who supported President Trump. But the more he spoke, I started to feel even more confident about the greatness of our country and the impossibility of someone with those views being elected by the people of this already great nation. I almost became over confident that he couldn't win. I truly believed there was no way that a country that just elected and re-elected its 1 African American President could switch directions so quickly and elect a man that was the complete opposite when it came to the policies of inclusion. Clearly, I was wrong.

Like many of my friends, after the election I began to hope that the businessman in him was trying to get elected at all costs and his agenda, once in office, would be totally different than what he campaigned on. I was hoping that he tricked his supporters in order to do what's right once he made it into the oval office. So I sat back once again to watch and see what he would do when he was finally inaugurated. And in his first 11 days he proved to me once again that his political views, policies and beliefs are entirely different from mine and the platform he ran on in the election was truly his plan for America. He proved this with his appointments of advisors and cabinet members, his executive order basically banning immigrants from certain Muslim countries and Syrian refugees from entering into the U.S., along with his stance on defunding Planned Parenthood. After all that has been done, I am fearful and hopeful. I am fearful from the backlash that we, as Americans will receive from the international community because of the current administration's policies, but I am hopeful because of how it is bringing people together supporting causes bigger than their own.

Despite the negative tweets, I received an greater outpouring of positive support from people across our nation after my Tweet. It was something I never expected. My tweet was just a message to the people who called themselves fans or friends that were supporting a man with policies that was totally against my family, my beliefs and myself. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". I love the fact that people are starting to realize that once again. Americans are peacefully protesting and rallying in a way that I have never seen in my lifetime about any and all types of injustices.

I'm an optimist by nature and I will keep President Trump and those of you who disagree with my religion and political views in my prayers. I still believe in the power and respect that the Presidential Office deserves, even during this presidency. So I will continue my practice of not publicly insulting it but I do plan to voice my opinions of any unfair- current or future policies. I hate that for the first time in my life I began to understand the sentiments of a person who says "You're either with me or against me" type of person. I have always been a person who could handle people having different points of views than me and I'm trying to get back to that. But I can't sit quietly as I have in the past without expressing my disappointment, sadness or anger.

People have been more open about their hidden prejudices because their ability to hide behind their computer screens under untraceable aliases spewing hatred and waiting for reactions. I still won't be arguing with "Eggs"- people with little to no followers on social media who haven't even taken enough time out of their hateful lives to post a profile pic but troll the internet for virtual confrontations smh.

I will try to be more proactive in advocating for those that need my support when wrongs are being done. I'm not a politician or activist but I'm willing to support those that have the best interest of the unjustly wronged. I hope that one day the no longer silent majority can influence those mislead to do what is right. But to be clear, I am completely against the Refugee/Muslim Ban, paying for a Wall on the Mexican/American border, defunding Planned Parenthood and any form of terrorism internationally or domestically by any group using religion to express their politics. I am baffled that we have elected officials that would try to implement policies that are totally the opposite of what America is suppose to stand for. For those who think this ban will 'Make America Safe Again" are delusional. It is not possible to 'Make America Safe or Great Again" when your only agenda is to incite fear and use faulty criteria to ban innocent refugees from countries simply because they don't have large enough business ties to America. This criteria abandons the principles that America was built on:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”- Emma Lazarus, this is an excerpt from a poem which is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. 

Not All Back to Backs Are Created Equally

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports


I've been hearing the chatter lately about the length of the NBA season and how the number of back-to-back games within each season, are too hard on player's bodies. As an 18-year NBA veteran and lifelong fan of the game, this chatter coupled with my experience as a player and fan, gave me the opportunity to explore and share my perspective with you. I hope it helps in bringing greater clarity to the dilemma in addressing player fatigue and productivity while still giving the fans what they want.

Before we get into the heart of this blog, let's get something out of the way... Yes! I’ll say it for you….”NBA players are paid unimaginable amounts of money while being blessed to play a game that they love as their job.” BUT the truth is, they deserve every penny of it. They're entertainers and they are blessed to have chosen a profession that is in high demand. High Demand equals Higher Pay. That goes for any area of skilled or professional labor and the NBA is no different. NBA Basketball is a lucrative business and the owners as well as the players are receiving the financial benefits from it. With gratitude to all the fans that support and love the game, both players and owners live a fruitful lifestyle that pushes them to give love back to the fans through superior effort, dynamic plays and winning seasons. It all goes hand in hand. So again I’ll say, yes the amount of money paid is high but the players earn every penny.

Now that that's out of the way... let's talk back-to-back games in the NBA. Below are my thoughts on:

How it affects the product on the floor – meaning the players and how their bodies are able to produce.

Whether or Not Back-to-Back (B2B’s) need to be changed.

If any changes are made, which changes need to be made.

How it feels to play in a back-to-back set of games.

So let’s begin….

Player Perspective

The last few seasons we have seen a rise in Did Not Play – Rest (DNP-rest) in the NBA. Some fans have been the victims of purchasing tickets to see their favorite player play just to find out he's not going to play that night due to the wear and tear that occurs on his body because of the grueling NBA schedule. Listen, being a fan of the game and being on the other side in the “stands” now, it also pisses me off not having the chance to see certain match-ups during the regular season. But since I have spent over 18 years of my life experiencing the exhaustion of a 82 game NBA season, I understand needing a DNP-rest. When I was playing there was always this sense of accomplishment felt and recognizable grit needed to get thru an 82 game season without missing a game due to injury or fatigue. Seeing that today's athlete is noticeably bigger, stronger, more flexible, faster and privy to all the new science and information out there on recovery and training... It makes you ask the valid question why can't today's athletes handle it while their predecessors did? No one knows the exact answer to this question. However, today's medical staff and technology does support the hypothesis that players are more prone to injury due to lack of the proper rest, recovery and diet while maintaining their intense physical lifestyle. Or playing devils advocate, maybe the new DNP-Rest is a product of teams protecting their investments with the way salaries are increasing. It makes more sense to sacrifice the possibility of a game here and there to increase the chances of having a healthy, recovered and energized player in the latter part of the season and heading into the playoffs. But that's the team and front office perspective.

Looking back I wish I would have sat out a game here and there just to give my body rest. I still can't believe the string of games I played when I had to have an equipment manager tie my shoe because my back was in such bad shape that I physically couldn't touch my shins smh (That was all my bad decisions. We were in the hunt for a playoff position and I didn't want to let my teammates down, so I pushed my body far beyond its breaking point). Given the circumstances, even now, I wouldn't change a thing.  This supports the fact that sometimes players need to be saved from themselves and sat for a DNP-rest by their coaching staff.  With public opinion being that it shows toughness to play through injuries and players wanting to be known as tough, intervention is necessary. But how much and how that’s done is the big question. The truth is that the NBA schedule is grueling and that anything that can be done to put its best product on the floor while giving the fans an unforgettable experience should be looked at and examined.

Options for Eliminating B2B’s

I do realize that it's impossible to eliminate all back-to-backs due to arena availability. One option would be to extend the length of the season by eliminating some preseason games, which though I’m mentioning it, I definitely don't want to see happen. I'm cool with cutting the preseason to 4-5 games but be aware that anything less than that won't give coaches enough time to implement their systems, style of play or get the players in game condition. I think anything less would cause an increase in injuries. Remember, with most professional sports, it takes time to get your body conditioned for the fast pace of a season, specifically the NBA season. There's a huge difference in pace between off-season training and NBA games.

The length of the season is perfect as is. It gave me a good mix of work, preparation for the season and family time for decompression. During the season most players are walking zombies existing in 1 of 3 modes: 1. Game Day Mode, 2. Practice Day Mode or 3. Preparation for the Next Game Mode - which likely is less than 24 hours away.  Another option would be to shorten the length of the season, which most players don't understand also computes to less money. The amount of our TV deal is one of the biggest reasons why salaries continue to rise. NBA games fill hours of programming for networks because fans demand it. The TV networks give their subscribers hours of basketball entertainment. Companies buy commercial slots and ads from networks during those game times and that allows them to pay the NBA billions of dollars for TV rights. This money is eventually put into a pot with other revenue and divided between players and owners. Now take away some expenses - charter flights, hotels, coaches, etc. and there you have it - a soft NBA salary cap that allows players to EARN millions of dollars. So less games means less programming. Less programming means less advertising opportunities for companies and disgruntled TV subscribers. Less advertising dollars equals less money from TV deals. Less money from TV deal means less money for the NBA as a whole and a smaller piece of the pie for the players. So for those players who say they want less games get prepared for a pay cut.

As a player, I hated back-to-backs. There just wasn't enough time to be fully recovered from the night before. I guess that's what makes us professionals or at least what comes with the territory. We had to be able to perform on the biggest stage at the highest level regardless of how good or bad we felt. There were nights when I got dressed for the game and really didn't know how I was going to make it thru the game. Yet, there were other nights when I felt the exact same way and ended up playing a great game. I guess you really never knew what to expect. The crazy part of this duality is that I went through a stretch where I played horrible on the 1st night of back-to-backs and great on the 2nd night. That made absolutely no sense at all to me at the time. I've actually chalked that up to anxiety and looking too far ahead trying to pace myself for both games instead of attacking them one at a time.

I've done a little research on the effect of back-to-back NBA games on a teams wins and losses. What I found out was quite surprising. The truth is that B2B’s have little to no effect on the outcome of the game (winning percentage is a few percentage points lower in B2B's). Past statistics have shown that the road team roughly has a 40 percent chance of winning in NBA games. Most NBA back-to-backs are Road/Road games. Next is home/road, road/home and then there's the almost never home/home back-to-backs. So the real question isn't if it's effecting the outcome of the game. The real question is are the fans seeing the best possible basketball the NBA can offer. The answer to that is "no!" If eliminating B2B’s aren't about wins/losses then the real concern has to be about resting the stars and putting them in position to play healthy in all games. I can definitely understand that because for the most part those are the players that fill the seats.

Back to Back Games % of Occurrence

home/road

32.0

road/home

28.3

road/road

37.2

home/home

2.5

Fans Matter Too!

The NBA is a star driven league with fans coming to see those stars perform. Some fans don't really have teams nowadays. They just have players that they follow because they either really like them or really hate them. Regardless of their like or dislike they pay money to see them play. The schedule has changed the fans ability to know without a doubt whether an injury free player will be suiting up or not. This trickles all the way up to the TV networks. As a fan there is nothing worse than waiting on a marquee matchup between players or teams and your favorite player or key contributor is sitting out due to rest. I hate when the schedule has the home team waiting for the road team that just played in a hard fought overtime game the night before. As players we don't care about an opponent's schedule because at some point we know we will have the short end of the scheduling stick but as a fan I'm pissed when that happens. Statistics show that fans have nothing to worry about when it comes to the stars they come to see play on the 2nd night of back-to-backs when it comes to production. Most of the NBA's elite who fill seats perform at equal to higher levels on the 2nd night of a back-to-back.

Top Player Performances in 2nd Night of B2Bs:

Russell Westbrook averages a triple double

5 Games – 26.6 ppg, 10.8 apg, 11.4 rpg

DeMarcus Cousins: 32 ppg, 14.8 rpg in 4 games

DeMar DeRozan 29.3 ppg in 3 games

Isaiah Thomas 27.8 ppg in 5 games

Kevin Durant 26.5 ppg in 4 games

Steph Curry 25.0 ppg in 4 games

Damian Lillard 25 ppg in 3 games

So the real problem when addressing limiting back-to-backs is really the DNP-Rest that has plagued the league in recent years. An accumulation of DNP-Rest over a season might prevent players from injuries caused by overuse. The body was not designed to do the things athletes do on the court and field these days, especially with the frequency and volume of an NBA season. The only thing that can be done is try to increase the opportunity to recover and put them in the best possible environment to make that happen. After all, the show must go on. It's a blessing to play a game that you love and there are sacrifices you make for that type of living. Despite this dialogue, I want to be clear, I would do it all over again even if we played back-to-back-to-backs every night. I was passionate about being the best player I could be and 99.9% of those in the NBA feel the same. They will do whatever it takes, but at what cost to their physical bodies after their time as a professional is over…but that’s another blog post for another time.

My Personal Experience and Opinion

I have lived through arriving at hotels at 2-3am on the 1st night of a back-to-back. Getting to my room still wide awake from the adrenaline of the game, the long bus ride, the flight, another bus ride to a hotel, waiting on the Bellman to find your bag amongst the 100 bags that teams travel with – is overwhelming just to think about. All happening while I’m starving because the plane food wasn't up to par or to my expectations. I usually wouldn’t fall asleep until 5am after ordering room service and watching a movie to settle down so that I didn’t toss and turn all night. Only to wake up at 11am for a mandatory brunch, film session and treatment. I would be left with enough time to take a short nap then head back to the gym to get prepared for the next game. And this experience of exhaustion is coming from a guy who never averaged over 30 minutes a game. I can only imagine how other players felt and especially those who participated in extracurricular activities (LOL). With that being said, I definitely understand the want for an end to back-to-backs, but I just don't like the alternatives. So, I thought of a few of my own.

2nd Night Back to Backs, 2016-2017 Season thus far

Some Top Team Records:

Spurs 5-1

Clippers 5-0

Some Bottom Team Records:

Pacers 0-4

Bulls 1-3

Blazers 0-3

Other Notable Team Records:

Warriors 3-1

Cavs 1-2 (LeBron DNP Rest in one of them)

Thunder 2-3

Celtics 3-2

Rockets 2-0

Kings 1-3

Raptors 2-1

Since we can't get rid of all back-to-backs because of arena availability issues unless we extend the season, then why don't we just tweak the parameters in which they're allowed. The real problems have always been the road/road B2B’s and the home/road B2B’s. I would love to see more home/home B2B’s which account for only 2.5 percent of all B2B. Not having to travel after a game and getting the opportunity to sleep in your own bed will enable players the opportunity to start the recovery process a lot sooner after games. On most road/home back-to-backs most coaches cancel shoot around and meetings to allow players extra rest. If this practice was continued in a home/home format, then players would have the opportunity to be as rested as possible in these situations. With most 7pm games ending around 9:30m, this gives players from 10pm until about 4pm the next day before they have return to the arena. This also allows about 21 hrs from the end of 1 game to the next. It's not perfect but it will definitely help their performance on the court and give them enough time to hydrate and recover in an environment that is optimal for playing their best given the circumstances. It also evens the playing field in the sense that home teams win close to 60 percent of NBA games. A home team that played the night before vs a fresh road team sounds like a 50/50 chance of winning for both teams and a helluva competitive game (Nazr math lol). Now let's talk about the road/home back-to-back. The road/home back-to-back is a tough one. Statistics tells us that the home team on the 2nd night of a back-to-back coming from the road wins 60 percent of the time. That's a staggering stat and supports my thinking about how important it is to sleep in your own bed and recover in a comfortable environment. So why don't we leave this type of back-to-back alone. Last but not least is the road/road back-to-back... This type of back-to-back is unavoidable when teams take long road trips to play teams in the opposite conference. But I would still like to see road/road back-to-back tweaked to even the playing field and provide a better product for fans. My thoughts on tweaking this is to move the time of games on the 1st night of a back-to-back to late afternoon/early evening games to account for travel times and distances when scheduling. I'm not saying all back-to-backs have to be done my way but those extra few hours do wonders for athletes getting ready to perform. I still expect to see a few of today's traditional back-to-backs on the NBA schedule but using some of these methods might help when scheduling. A rested athlete is a better performer and provides a better product to the fans. The fans are a big reason why we're able to play a game as a means to support our families. So anything we can do to give them better entertainment of our competition is worth looking at.

Back to Back Games Win %

home/road

37.3

road/home

60.5

road/road

32.9

home/home

52.2

I don't want to let coaches completely off the hook either. Coaches need to develop their benches. There are 13 players available each night on their roster. If these players at the end of benches are developed and used then they will be ready and willing when their number is called. Give them a shot and the few back-to-backs that are on the schedule won't be a problem. Then hopefully we won't see any more of those DNP-Rest. This is just my two cents from 18 years of experience.

I Bleed Blue…Period

If you didn’t already know, I bleed (Kentucky) blue. I follow my team all season long, and if I can’t catch a game, I’m on my phone checking the scores to see what my Wildcats are doing. They have really improved over the course of this season, and I’ve been really proud of them all year. They started off pretty strong, but had a little stretch where they weren’t playing as well. Coach Cal did a great job of getting them back to playing some great basketball…and at the right time of year. Plus, the kid Tyler Ulis is having one of those unbelievable, player-of-the-year kinds of seasons. You can tell that he is a great teammate and leader on this team.

So when people ask me who I have winning it all, the answer is simple: my pick is ALWAYS Kentucky. My heart always wins the battle with my head when it comes to who will win the NCAA National Championship. What can I say…I’m a homer. I may be from Chicago, but Lexington will always have a special place in my heart. Truth is, it’s all about playing your best basketball at the right time of year, and I think they are playing great basketball. Seeding and match-ups are important too, but the key is to put together the best six-game stretch of your season. And then you need a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. I’m always rooting for Kentucky to win, so obviously that’s who I’m picking as this year’s champion.

This time of the year is special to me. It's when my basketball juices start flowing. Basketball reaches its highest levels right about now, and it all starts with March Madness. The NBA season is hectic. Thankfully there are games on all day, so my teammates and I absolutely plan to find time to watch and follow our schools. Everyone has filled out their brackets and are waiting to brag about their school or ability to pick winners. It's like our early training to become GM's or coaches. But just like the rest of the fans out there, our brackets are usually busted by the end of the first round lol. We are constantly talking about our teams, and there is definitely some trash talking involved, especially when there are head-to-head match ups between our respective schools. We’re competitive by nature, so we’re always interested to see which of our teammates has the best brackets and whose college teams are still standing. Guys love to hate on my Cats, hoping that we don’t get the chance to win it all…again. But I look at that as a form of respect because we’ve been there so much lol.

When it comes to my own March Madness experiences, they were nothing short of unbelievable. I was fortunate enough to play in three National Championships, two of which we won. I always look back and think about how blessed I am. When our team was watching Selection Sunday, it was more about watching to see what region they’d make us a 1 seed in, as opposed to hoping that we got in like most schools. It was a testament to our hard work, great coaching and talent. But we didn’t take it for granted. We realized that all it took was one game, one slip-up, and the season was over. When you’re at Kentucky, nobody celebrates a Sweet 16 or an Elite 8 victory. We were locked in and focused. It was Championship or nothing. Not to say that it's a bad season if we don't win it all; we just have higher expectations because of our rich tradition. We understood that it took six games to win a Championship, so we were locked in for six games, but approached them one at a time.

In 1996 I won my first NCAA Championship. We had a ton of talent on that team. Maybe one of the best teams of all-time considering how many guys played in the NBA from that roster. Can't believe that was 20 years ago and that I'm still playing smh lol. I learned a lot about what it took to become a champion during my freshman year with that group. I had great veterans ahead of me who taught us young guys about preparation, focus, hard work, the importance of staying ready. They laid the groundwork and taught us what it took to be the best. I didn’t play much, but I had the chance to get out there every now and then to see and feel what championship basketball was all about. It also helped me realize what I had to do if I wanted to win another one and keep our tradition strong.

In the following season in 1997, we had another great year that got us back into the Championship game in Indianapolis at the RCA Dome. University of Minnesota gave us one of our most challenging and physical games in the Final Four that year; so tough of a game that Ron Mercer had full body cramps at the end of the night. His cramps were so bad that we weren't sure he could play in the Championship game a day later. But like a trooper, he played and put us in position to repeat. We didn't win it all that year. That overtime loss to Arizona still haunts me because I felt like we should have won that game. That night, Jason Terry, Miles Simon, Mike Bibby and Michael Dickerson got the best of us. I say we should replay that game today to see who would win now lol.

We got back there my junior year in 1998, and I’ll tell you, that was an extremely tough championship to win. The summer before, Coach Pitino left to coach the Boston Celtics. C.M. Newton hired one of Coach P's former assistants, Tubby Smith, who was coaching in the SEC at Georgia at the time. His system was similar, but his coaching style was different from Coach P. A lot of the talking heads wrote us off. What they didn't understand is that we were a well-coached team with veteran leadership that knew what it took to win. Tubby didn’t know us well, and all we knew about him was that his Georgia teams always came ready to battle. It didn't take long for us to figure each other out and continue playing competitive Kentucky basketball. We had some ups and downs that season. They called us the “Comeback Cats” because we came back and won a bunch of games we probably should have lost. We really dug deep in order to win some of those big games. There was one game during the NCAA Regional Finals in ’98 that stands out the most and really defined our season and how we were destined to win it all. We were down by 17 points with 10 minutes to go against Duke. People thought the game was over, and to be honest, we almost bought into that line of thinking too. Duke had Elton Brand, Roshown McLeod, and Shane Battier, to name a few that eventually played in the NBA. But we never gave up and kept playing as hard as we could. We came back and pulled out a win to advance to the Final Four in San Antonio and eventually win the Championship again. It was incredible.

But when I think back to that 1998 NCAA Championship, I always picture our team carrying Tubby off the floor. That’s the picture that’s engrained in my mind. It was just such a special accomplishment. So many people said we couldn’t do it after Coach P left and appearing in two consecutive Finals. There was so much doubt surrounding our ability to win a championship with a first-year coach. It was an unbelievable feeling to prove all those people wrong and make our fans so happy. I will never forget getting off the plane in Lexington with the fans waiting for us at the airport. They lined the streets from the airport to Rupp Arena pulling over their cars, waving flags and celebrating our homecoming as victors. The bus pulled into Rupp Arena to 20,000 fans going crazy with anticipation of raising another banner to the rafters.

What makes NCAA Championships particularly special is you are just a group of guys fighting for a common goal. You have the backing of the city/state and the school. You’re young; it’s your first time away from home. For us back then, it was all about the love of the game and the hope to accomplish a dream. Our mindset was NCAA Championship first, and NBA second. Once you get to the NBA level, it’s just as hard – if not harder – to win a championship because it’s four rounds of seven-game series. But it’s perceived differently because when you’re in the NBA, people (except your fans) look at it as our jobs as opposed to winning for school pride. The common denominator in an NCAA Championship and NBA Championship locker room is the brotherhood, respect for one another, sacrifice and team 1 mentality.

Of course college players, especially projected first-round picks, have the NBA Draft on their minds. It’s only natural. And if you ask me, playing well during the tournament can skyrocket your NBA Draft stock. It’s your chance for teams to see you in an atmosphere where every moment is so important, every play is huge, one possession can mean the difference between winning and losing. NBA Scouts like to see you play well in that type of high-pressure, win or go home atmosphere. For me personally, I think my performance helped me. Coach Pitino and Tubby always told us this: “When you win it all, everybody reaps the benefit.” We won and I played well in those games, so it put me in a good position for the NBA Draft. NBA teams are looking for high character, talented individuals who work hard, are coachable and put winning first.

This is just the beginning of a lot of basketball excitement…a time when basketball really starts to turn up to another level. From March Madness through to the NBA Playoffs and then the Finals, there’s a lot of excitement around post-season basketball at this time of year. I'm ready for it all!!! I love it, and I live for this type of basketball intensity. Whether you're still playing or a fan at home, I hope you enjoy it because I will.

And of course, I have to leave you with this: GO CATS!!!

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