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!!!
It’s official. “I'm back.” I’ve always wanted to say that…like I’m MJ or something LOL. I’m officially back in an NBA jersey, and I could not be more excited for this opportunity.
You may not have noticed that I have been in what I call semi-retirement. And by the way, I’ve been calling it semi-retirement for two reasons. The first is that a 37-year-old professional athlete doesn't really retire; we just transition to our next careers. The second reason being that in pro sports, most of us actually “get retired,” either because the phone is no longer ringing for your services or you're no longer able to accept playing for just any team. As a young player, your only desire is to be in the NBA. As you get older, your desire is to play for certain organizations with certain circumstances, making it a little tougher to find the right fit. Mine was a combination of all of the above. Most of the teams that I had interest in didn't need my services, and I didn't have the desire to go just anywhere. And some teams just didn't want me.
With all that being said – DRUMROLL PLEASE – I am now a proud member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the very team I competed for a Championship with in 2012. I was days away from turning “semi-retirement” into full retirement when I received word from Sam Presti that they had interest in me returning to OKC as a player. That quickly changed the course of my plans and forced me to do some real soul-searching to see if this was something my family and I wanted.
I believe in staying prepared for the opportunities that I think I want, whether they come to fruition or not. You can do no greater disservice to yourself than to secretly want something, but then be unprepared if the opportunity presents itself. I stayed prepared, but when I didn’t foresee any viable opportunities coming my way during “buyout season,” I contemplated shutting down my court workouts and facing the reality that my life as a basketball player was over. I started seriously considering accepting and starting one of my post-career opportunities. I even agreed with Debbie Spander of Wasserman Media Group to represent me if I chose to pursue broadcasting as my next career. But my agent, Michael Higgins, suggested that I give it a few more days to evaluate the landscape.
Like I said, I had a short list of teams that I would undoubtedly come out of semi-retirement for. Of course OKC was on my short list, which consisted mostly of teams I played for in the past. When I spoke to the Thunder, their first question was, “How does your body feel?" Anybody who follows me on social media knows that I’m probably a little addicted to my workouts. I’ve kept up my same training regimen (court work three to five times a week, conditioning, and lifting weights) with my guys at Accelerate Basketball, so I knew I was prepared physically. They happen to train Steph Curry too, so you know my jumper is wet right now LOL! After being a part of two NBA lockouts, I'm the master of staying prepared even when I don't know when my season will start LOL. But the first thing I thought about was my family and whether or not they could handle me being away for the next few months when we were just getting acclimated to a new city and our new schedule (which had me as a big part of it for the first time in my kids’ lives). I knew I needed to talk to them before making a final decision. Regardless, I was shocked, flattered and excited for an opportunity to go into a comfortable situation.
I brought the offer to my wife and kids to see how they felt. My oldest son (10) is an OKC fan, so he was excited. And I better add that he’s a Steph Curry and Jimmy Butler fan too (he’d be mad if I didn’t include that!). My oldest daughter (13) was almost giddy with excitement for me. I'm starting to think they don't love having me around, but I'll save that for another blog down the road LOL. I also have a younger daughter (6), and she was very happy, although I'm not sure she truly grasps time and how long I will be gone. My wife, who knows how much basketball has meant to me, was very supportive. We’ve experienced mid-year trades and things like this before, so we know how to handle it. The only difference now is that the kids are older, and their schedules are a little more hectic with school, sports, practices, tournaments, etc. Now with me not being able to help out with that, more is on my wife’s plate. But we’ll figure it out. Whenever we get a day off, I’ll probably try to fly home, even if I just get to see the family for a few hours. We’ll do a lot of FaceTiming. When their schedule permits, they’ll be flying to OKC. We’ll make it work.
Once I got the green light from my family, it was a fairly easy decision to make, given that I’ve played in OKC before. Plus, I have great relationships throughout the organization, from management to the players (especially guys like KD, Russ, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka). I also played with Royal Ivey, one of the assistant coaches. And since Billy Donovan and I both played for Coach Pitino, I consider us part of the same basketball family. I have a pretty good grasp of this organization, which has always been so great to my family and me. I had such great experiences there, which is what made the decision to go back much easier. From a basketball standpoint, I have a lot of confidence in this team. I have high hopes that this is one of the five or six teams that could compete for a Championship. They have more than enough talent.
This is a winning organization with players who are dedicated to winning and playing basketball the right way. I’m one of Kevin and Russ’s biggest fans. You could argue that Russ is one of the best guards in the NBA. You could argue that Kevin is the best at his position – or even the best player – in the NBA. I like to think of it this way: there are about five or six players in the NBA that can truly claim that they are the best players in the world. And two of those guys are on the Thunder. But even after all that, the deciding factor was the character of the locker room and its stars. Off the court, they are great people; guys that you want to be around. Kevin and Russ epitomize what the stars of this generation are all about…being great players AND great people.
After playing for so many years, I didn’t really need to be informed what my role will be on this team. I kind of know. I bring my experiences and leadership to the table, and I’ll be there to support the guys and the coaching staff. Of course with me being a big guy, I’m going to kind of gravitate to the other big guys and give them whatever tips I can. But I am a basketball player, so whenever I’m needed, I’ll be ready for that. They’re third in the West and having a great season without me. I’m just coming in to do the things that have afforded me the privilege to play in the NBA for 17 years before this…being a good teammate and doing whatever's asked of me to the best of my abilities.
This is also a chance for me to have true closure with the game – as opposed to it just ending – in an environment that I feel is great for me. As I’ve been going through the process of realizing that I was probably never going to play again, I started to appreciate watching Kobe’s farewell tour. I envied Kobe, not for his multiple championships, MVP's, All-Star appearances, career earnings, etc., but because he has the opportunity to say goodbye to the game. That’s closure that most players don’t get. Like I said, most players don’t get to choose when they will end their careers; it gets ended for them.
At the end of last season, I anticipated playing this season. That was my mindset. It didn’t work out that way, so I really didn’t get to experience true closure, knowing that "this is it.” It would have been nice to appreciate my last time in the locker room as a player; my last regular-season game; my last training camp. Now I have the chance to get some of those “last” moments and really soak it in. I think I’m going to be more aware of living in the moment. I won’t save anything, even if that means I’m only going out there for a minute during a blowout. I realize how important it is to leave it all out there on the court, enjoy it and relish in the experience. I’m going in with a “this is it” mindset. There is no next year as far as basketball for me.
To my fans in Chicago: it's a bittersweet moment for me because I was proud to say that my last game was in a Chicago Bulls uniform. You guys and the organization have a special place in my heart because of your support and the fact that "I'm just a kid from Chicago" who got the opportunity to play for the team he grew up loving.
To the fans of OKC: you have been supportive of me for years, even after I left to play in Chicago. I appreciate that and look forward to your continued support. I can't wait to be on the floor representing you one more time.
To my new teammates: I’m ready to give whatever I have in any capacity, mentally and physically. I’m ready to leave it all out there on the court and in that locker room. This is my last go-round, and I’d like to help this team end the season as NBA Champions.
When it comes to the game of basketball, NBA players should be role models for kids and the rest of the basketball world. To let poor free-throw shooters like myself off the hook is not the message we should be sending. The game will constantly evolve as coaches and players find ways to use the rules of the game to benefit them. But at the end of the day, it's about winning at all costs within the rules. The sad part about this evolution of the game is that it's hard to watch.
I’ve given the issue of hack-a-player a lot of thought. First of all, I’m going to call this ‘hack-a-whoever.’ Shaq, DeAndre, Drummond…whoever. It just doesn't seem right calling it by a particular player's name. I don’t like seeing it, but at the same time, I understand it’s a tactic that’s part of today's game. This is not coming from a guy who spent his career knocking down free throws. I like to call myself ‘King Of Splitting Free Throws’ smh. I’ve shot an airball or two from the free-throw line in my day. The worst and most humiliating airball came during the 2012 Playoffs against the Denver Nuggets…which sent me into a two-week tailspin of feeling like every single free throw I shot was going to be another airball. I've shot less than 50 percent a couple seasons. I know how it feels to be at the free-throw line just hoping to hit rim. At one point in my career I was trying to bank it in just to make sure I hit rim. I actually started swishing a few when I did that lol. It’s embarrassing, especially when you know you could shoot 85 out of 100 at the gym any day of the week. So I empathize with the guys that this strategy is being used against. That's exactly why I wanted to write about this topic.
In the past coaches liked having their best free-throw shooters on the floor when games were on the line, so when I wasn’t shooting free throws well, the coach took me out. I hated it, but I understood. I think coaches’ original reason for using the hack-a-whoever was to get dominant players (i.e. Shaq) out of the game in order to have a more favorable matchup. The reason why it’s evolved into the issue that it is today is because today's coaches refuse to take one of their more valuable players out of the game just because of their bad free throw shooting. In the age of statistics and analytics, I'm pretty sure coaches realized that the benefit of leaving these players on the floor outweighed their poor free-throw percentages. From a coach’s perspective, this is a great tactic to have in your bag of tricks. Coaches are able to slow down the game, put a poor free-throw shooter on the line, and limit an opponent from scoring with a running clock…therefore increasing possessions and giving a team an opportunity at victory. In the new three-point age, it gives a team a chance to trade potentially one point (adjusted for a 50 percent free-throw shooter) for opportunities at three points. You really can't blame a coach for trying.
But then you look at it from another perspective: the fan watching from home (which is the category that I fall into these days). Hack-a-whoever is difficult to watch because it disrupts the game. I know fans are probably thinking, ‘Hey, you guys should be able to shoot free throws. You get paid to play basketball and free throws are one of the fundamentals. This should be something that you are good at.’ They're absolutely right, but they've never experienced shooting free throws all alone in front of 20,000 fans and millions at home. From a TV perspective, it prolongs the broadcast and makes the length of games unpredictable to programmers. We have to be conscious of this, especially considering how beneficial and lucrative the new TV deal is to both players and owners.
And then, of course, I thought about this from a player’s perspective. I can’t speak for all players, but for myself, I hated using this tactic because it meant you’re either losing badly or on the verge of a loss. For me, hack-a-whoever was a sign of admitting that you weren't good enough to beat your opponent without putting junk in the game. There's not a pro athlete with pride that wants to admit they can't win with time left in a game.
Contrary to what some may think, I don’t think that the poor free throw shooting by some NBA players has anything to do with practice. The ‘victims’ of hack-a-whoever are probably practicing their free throws as much – if not more – than anyone else in the NBA. I don’t think it’s about technique in some of the worst offenders’ cases, either. Some people like to blame it on having huge hands, but Michael Jordan, Dr. J and Kawhi Leonard immediately dispute that. If you look at DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond, you can see that they don’t have bad technique. It can be tweaked, but I've seen worse techniques go in. I've actually watched both work out before games, and they both have good touch. I honestly believe that if their free-throw percentages go up, it’s going to be real scary for those who have to guard them. Once they welcome going to the line, those two will be even more aggressive and dominant. That's what made Shaq so great…he tried to draw fouls regardless of his percentages. I think he took pride in almost fouling out a whole team lol.
When I was shooting poorly during points in my career, it was more mental than anything. That’s the one part of the game where everything is still and everybody’s eyes are on you. When you’re playing in the flow of the game and you’re moving and your adrenalin is going, shooting a shot becomes more instinctive. There’s less time to get nervous. There were times in my career when my nerves were bad at the line (it was almost like a golfer getting the ‘yips’ when putting), and then there were other points when I wanted to go to the line. I wanted those free points, like when I was playing for the Spurs and shooting 79 percent. The more I played and the more attempts I got, the better my free-throw percentage was in those seasons. Nothing worse than getting to the line once every three to four games.
While I think the rule could stand to see some tweaks, I do not believe we should be getting rid of it altogether. This tactic is only used consistently on about five or six guys in the NBA. If you look at the numbers of who’s affected, considering there are almost 450 players in the league, it’s kind of unfair to change a rule because of such a small group of players. Plus, you can’t just totally take away that tactic for coaches.
But I do understand the Competition Committee and Commissioner Silver’s concern. It’s not just about the players; it’s about the flow of the game and maximizing the fan experience. I get that. Maybe there are some tweaks that could be made. But the tweaks have to benefit coaches, players, fans and the integrity of the game. For example, I wouldn’t mind seeing the NBA implement the “one-and-one” free throw format (like they do in college basketball) in hack-a-whoever situations. I also believe it should be used at any point during the game, even the last two minutes. It forces a player to earn their second free throw. That way coaches can still use it as a strategy to stop the clock or get the ball back and it would take some pressure off the players too. This format also would speed the game up when the hack-a-whoever is used. Another suggestion is not allowing players to foul off the ball when the ball is in the backcourt. It helps the teams victimized by the hack-a-whoever burn 7.9 seconds off the game clock, thus speeding the game up. This is a happy medium to help both teams. Once it passes the half-court line, now you can foul. It could potentially spread the court causing 4-on-4 situations because some teams would rather take a quick shot than let their worst free-throw shooter get fouled.
I’ve heard what various players have said on the issue and have seen many voice their opinion on Twitter, so I’m very interested to see how this plays out. I know that Commissioner Silver and the Competition Committee are made up of very smart people who have the best interest of the game and fans in mind when deciding on critical rule changes. Maybe I can influence the decision with my two cents in some type of way, especially since my perspective is coming from a guy who didn’t shoot free throws well and probably would have been a victim of the hack-a-whoever. If I think it should be left alone, then that should say a lot.
And finally, to the guys who are the victims of this scheme: take it as a compliment. You're either too dominant or your team is dominating your opponent so badly that you have forced them to attack your weakness. This is the equivalent to biting or a nut shot during a clean 1-on-1 fight lol. After all, what else would you expect when winning is on the line?!