Mid-South-area gymnast Caela Flake making her presence felt across the nation

Flake2As far as Caela Flake is concerned, no one has to give her a pep talk on what it means to persevere through life’s toughest of obstacles.

By and large, this 17-year-old Arlington High gymnast had learned the significance of weathering what she described as seemingly insurmountable challenges a little more than two years ago.

For instance, Caela’s father, Derek Flake, was the breadwinner of their family and, along with his wife, Sherita, had done a masterful job of seeing that their children lived comfortably in their Northeast Shelby County home and made wise decisions.

Unfortunately for Caela, her father’s job was eliminated in December 2012, news that ultimately gave way to assortment of challenges for the rising young gymnast.

For starters, Caela, unlike in previous years, wasn’t able to train consistently for nearly a two-year stretch because of the financial adversities that had plagued her family during the time. But just as she had done in the various competitions in gymnasiums throughout the country, she deemed it necessary to, as she tells it, “make lemonade out of lemons.”

“I trained at home on my balance beam that my great grandmother bought me for my ninth birthday and I did some bar drills on the floor bar that my parents bought me,” Caela told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “I conditioned by running outside, stretching at home, and doing other exercises at home.”

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITIES --- According to Sherita Flake, her daughter, Caela Flake, first gained an admiration for gymnastics when she was six years old at the recommendation of her dance teacher, who said Caela had routinely become bored in dance class and, instead, began tumbling around on the canvas.  “We sought the best training she could get,” Sherita said. “We tried to make sure she was exposed to the best coaching possible.” To the Flake’s credit, “the best” is what they ultimately acquired, considering they sent their daughter to Maryland to train with former Olympian Dominique Dawes, Caela’s grandest mentor. (Photos submitted by S. Flake)

GOLDEN OPPORTUNITIES — According to Sherita Flake, her daughter, Caela Flake, first gained an admiration for gymnastics when she was six years old at the recommendation of her dance teacher, who said Caela had routinely become bored in dance class and, instead, began tumbling around on the canvas.
“We sought the best training she could get,” Sherita said. “We tried to make sure she was exposed to the best coaching possible.”
To the Flake’s credit, “the best” is what they ultimately acquired, considering they sent their daughter to Maryland to train with former Olympian Dominique Dawes, Caela’s grandest mentor. (Photos submitted by S. Flake)

That’s not all this vibrant, think-outside-the-box athlete had done to upgrade her mechanics.

“I even made a vault table out of the couch,” Caela explained. “I was determined not to lose skills. When my parents could finally afford to send me back to gymnastics, I had not lost that many skills. Therefore, the colleges would be gaining an athlete who knows how to train independently in under ideal circumstances.”

ALL NOT LOST --- “I trained at home on my balance beam that my great grandmother bought me for my ninth birthday and I did some bar drills on the floor bar that my parents bought me,” Caela told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “I conditioned by running outside, stretching at home, and doing other exercises at home.  That’s not all this vibrant, innovative athlete had done to upgrade her mechanics. “I even made a vault table out of the couch,” Caela explained. “I was determined not to lose skills. When my parents could finally afford to send me back to gymnastics, I had not lost that many skills. Therefore, the colleges would be gaining an athlete who knows how to train independently in under ideal circumstances.”

ALL NOT LOST — “I trained at home on my balance beam that my great grandmother bought me for my ninth birthday and I did some bar drills on the floor bar that my parents bought me,” Caela told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “I conditioned by running outside, stretching at home, and doing other exercises at home.
That’s not all this vibrant, innovative athlete had done to upgrade her mechanics.
“I even made a vault table out of the couch,” Caela explained. “I was determined not to lose skills. When my parents could finally afford to send me back to gymnastics, I had not lost that many skills. Therefore, the colleges would be gaining an athlete who knows how to train independently in under ideal circumstances.”

Now a junior campaign at Arlington, Caela doesn’t shy away from the notion that because she has trained just as intensely as many of her peers on the gymnastics circuit, she is destined to fulfill her dream of earning an athletic scholarship in the sport.

“I would like (college recruiters) to know that I am one of the most determined and dedicated kids they’ll ever meet,” Caela said. “I believe that whichever school I go to, I’ll make a good name for the school athletically and academically.”

To get a thorough understanding of why Caela is primed to seize a full-ride scholarship, look no further than how she’s going about emerging as one of the Mid-South finest young gymnast, who was christened the 2012 state champion in Tennessee after placing first in bars competition for the entire season?

According to Sherita Flake, her daughter first gained an admiration for gymnastics when she was six years old at the recommendation of her dance teacher, who said Caela had routinely become bored in dance class and, instead, began tumbling around on the canvas.
“We sought the best training she could get,” Sherita said. “We tried to make sure she was exposed to the best coaching possible.”

To the Flake’s credit, “the best” is what they ultimately acquired, considering they sent their daughter to Maryland to train with former Olympian Dominique Dawes, Caela’s grandest mentor.

The now-retired Dawes is widely remembered for being the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics and the first black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. She is also one of only three female American gymnasts, along with Muriel Grossfeld and Linda Metheny-Mulvihill, to compete in three Olympics and was part of three Olympic medal-winning teams: Barcelona 1992 (bronze), Atlanta 1996 (gold), and Sydney 2000 (bronze).

Besides training with Dawes, Caela has met renowned Romanian gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi and has competed in various venues across the country, most notably Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Texas, and California.  In addition, this rising gymnast has participated in gymnastics camps at the University of Kentucky and the University of Alabama.

Besides training with Dawes, Caela has met renowned Romanian gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi and has competed in various venues across the country, most notably Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Texas, and California.
In addition, this rising gymnast has participated in gymnastics camps at the University of Kentucky and the University of Alabama.

Besides training with Dawes, Caela has met renowned Romanian gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi and has competed in various venues across the country, most notably Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Texas, and California.

In addition, this rising gymnast has participated in gymnastics camps at the University of Kentucky and the University of Alabama.

“We were on vacation in California and she met a coach and got him to open the gym for her so she could work out,” said Sherita, assessing her daughter’s intense work ethic on the circuit.

BRIGHT FUTURE --- “I believe that these were signs from God that gymnastics is the sport for me because I am one in a million,” Caela said. I believe that whichever (college) I go to, God will help me blossom and carry me through and allow me to be a blessing wherever I go.”

BRIGHT FUTURE — “I believe that these were signs from God that gymnastics is the sport for me because I am one in a million,” Caela said. I believe that whichever (college) I go to, God will help me blossom and carry me through and allow me to be a blessing wherever I go.”

Not bad for a thriving athlete, who was born three weeks premature and was diagnosed with what doctors described as severe strabismus, a condition in which the eyes are not properly aligned with each other. Because of her unfavorable vision, she was delayed talking, walking, siting up alone, and crawling, among other things, her mother recalled.

“When she was six months old, we found out that her vision was bad and she began wearing glasses,” Sherita said. She had to go to physical therapy and occupational therapy. At that point, her doctors told us that she would be quirky walking and doing things that required gross motor skills. They also told us that she would not be able to run, tumble, or skip. We prayed about it and she has fully overcome that battle. Gymnastics is proof. Her gymnastics victories are proof.”

All of which is why Caela has learn the significance of what it means to persevere.

“I believe that these were signs from God that gymnastics is the sport for me because I am one in a million,” Caela said. I believe that whichever (college) I go to, God will help me blossom and carry me through and allow me to be a blessing wherever I go.”

That’s because she learned a valuable life lesson long ago — the lesson on how to make lemonade out of lemons.

DreAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Former prep baseball standout Kali Payton III thriving as a motivational speaker

KaliLike a number of his peers, Kali Payton III would be the first to tell you he has endured his share of hardships and turmoil.

For starters, Payton was raised in what he describes as one of America’s most dangerous, poverty-stricken establishments, the John DeShields housing projects in East St, Louis, Illinois.

And, as a youngster — eight years old to be exact — he and his family wound up on the wrong side of some horrific news when word spread that his father was murdered.

Fast forward to a few years later, Payton still found himself having to weather an assortment of tumultuous encounters — occurrences that given how much this vibrant 33-year-old ex-military veteran has flourished in recent years, is valid proof why he has steadfastly taken on a newfound disposition on life.

“I have failed in business nine times and lost two homes to foreclosure. I celebrated my 21st birthday in Afghanistan in 2002,” said Payton, an Air Force veteran, said during a recent interview.

Fortunately for Payton, a former East St. Louis High baseball standout, his slew of obstacles are what ultimately inspired him to assume yet another venture, one that undoubtedly will enhance and aid others to maximize their potential.

A resident of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Payton is a Motivational Speaker and Life/Business Coach for Kali Is Speaking, an endeavor that has benefited him mightily, considering he has emerged as a fixture in various establishments across the country.

To his credit, Payton has spoken and his put his motivational skills on display in places such as his native home state of Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida, among others — a list that figures to expand in the foreseeable future.

A former East St. Louis All-Star catcher who wore former Major Leaguer Mike Piazza’s jersey number, Payton acknowledges that his competitive drive through baseball essentially fueled his desire to become a motivational speaker and life coach.

Among the reasons is that in spite of the array of curve balls life has often dealt him, he says that isn’t a reason for individuals — especially those from downtrodden communities like him — to live beneath their privileges.

“I had raw talent as a power hitter,” Payton explains. “But as the competition increased, my effectiveness decreased. I just couldn’t figure out why. Then my high school coach, Mr. Brown, taught me that I didn’t need to lead the team in home runs but in RBI’s. I batted clean up, so it was my job to make enough contact to make sure other players advance and either score or get in position to score.

“What I do in my business today is the exact same thing,” Payton continued. “I use my life experiences to help others advance or position themselves to reach their destinations. What I love most is knowing that I was chosen to impact the lives of others in a positive way. It blows my mind each time I think about it.”

Arguably Payton’s single, most underlying objective as a motivational speaker and life coach is to empower others to connect with their life’s work — or their purpose, of sorts — a life-changing attribute that was instilled in him by his godfather, Lee Coleman II.

“He inspired me to live out my full potential and serve humanity with my whole heart,” Payton said.

Fortunately for Payton, he’s savoring the purpose for which he was created, considering his latest endeavor is starting to come full circle, thus embraced by countless individuals in the Fayetteville area and other portions of the country.

Among the reasons is that Payton conducts a weekly class at nearby Jesus Peace Ministries in Fayetteville, which is an economic empowerment session for people who aspire to become entrepreneurs.

As for his itinerary, he is scheduled to teach youths on how to overcome the fear of public speaking as part of a Spring Break camp that is scheduled for April 6-10.

Given the success he has enjoyed in recent years, it’s safe to assume that Payton has adjusted comfortably as a motivational speaker and life coach, in large part because he has functioned in such a commendable role for two years. Aside from that, he has been an accomplished licensed minster for nearly nine years, an accolade that has contributed greatly to his latest endeavor.

In other words, Payton doesn’t shy away from the notion that he welcomes putting his skills on display before sizable crowds. Given the adversities he has managed to conquer during his life, he’d be the first to admit that he was built to handle such work.

“I just don’t believe any person should live a life that they are not happy with,” Payton said. “We are all created for the same thing…to serve humanity. Serve with our gifts, talents, and abilities with the sole purpose of gaining resources that will expand our platform. Ultimately, we must press repeat and do it all over again…a simple reason of why we all exist.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on Kali Is Speaking or to contact him for a speaking engagement, check out Kali Payton III at:

www.regeneratemypurpose.com

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson also covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Dallas-area dual-sport athlete Demonte Greene thriving with help of dad

HUGE ASSIST --- To get a thoroughly understanding of why Lamont Green partakes in customary pregame rituals while preparing to witness his son play the game he’s come to embrace, look no further than the strides little Demonte has made in his brief time on the amateur hoops circuit.  For starters, Demonte played integral role in helping propel the Dallas NorthStars 10-and-under AAU squad to a recent championship. While assuming the shooting guard position, Demonte has gone to great lengths to demonstrate why good sportsmanship and fine-tuning his fundamentals are essential with regards to flourishing as a young athlete.  (Photos submitted by L. Greene)

HUGE ASSIST — To get a thoroughly understanding of why Lamont Green partakes in customary pregame rituals while preparing to witness his son play the game he’s come to embrace, look no further than the strides little Demonte has made in his brief time on the amateur hoops circuit.
For starters, Demonte played integral role in helping propel the Dallas NorthStars 10-and-under AAU squad to a recent championship. While assuming the shooting guard position, Demonte has gone to great lengths to demonstrate why good sportsmanship and fine-tuning his fundamentals are essential with regards to flourishing as a young athlete. (Photos submitted by L. Greene)

DALLAS — Oftentimes, Lamont Greene admittedly has to listen to music while preparing to watch his son, 10-year-old amateur basketball player, Demonte Greene, in action.

That’s not all he does.

“Well game day usually consists of breakfast, music to get the mind right while getting dressed, and prepared for the game with a small prayer too bless the game, and a moment of silence to regroup and focus on the task at hand,” Lamont Greene said during a recent interview.

To get a thoroughly understanding of why Lamont Green partakes in customary pregame rituals while preparing to witness his son play the game he’s come to embrace, look no further than the strides little Demonte has made in his brief time on the amateur hoops circuit.

A student at nearby Birdie Alexander Elementary, Demonte says his favorite basketball player is LeBron James while his top football player of Dez Bryant. According this thriving, vibrant athlete, it is the continuous success of these two professional athletes that essentially has fueled his desire to broaden his horizon as a youth athlete.

A student at nearby Birdie Alexander Elementary, Demonte says his favorite basketball player is LeBron James while his top football player of Dez Bryant. According this thriving, vibrant athlete, it is the continuous success of these two professional athletes that essentially has fueled his desire to broaden his horizon as a youth athlete.

For starters, Demonte played integral role in helping propel the Dallas NorthStars 10-and-under AAU squad to a recent championship. While assuming the shooting guard position, Demonte has gone to great lengths to demonstrate why good sportsmanship and fine-tuning his fundamentals are essential with regards to flourishing as a young athlete.

A dual-sport athlete that is.

Two-time NBA champion and four-time league MVP LeBron James is Demonte's favorite basketball player.

Two-time NBA champion and four-time league MVP LeBron James is Demonte’s favorite basketball player.

“I’m so thrilled that Monte has be playing with (the NorthStars) for couple years now,” Lamont said. “That’s why their team is so special. The play football together as well. They are all on the same team, winning the championships in both basketball and football.”

A student at nearby Birdie Alexander Elementary, Demonte says his favorite basketball player is LeBron James while his top football player of Dez Bryant. According this thriving, vibrant athlete, it is the continuous success of these two professional athletes that essentially has fueled his desire to broaden his horizon as a youth athlete.

“He tells me all the time to do things right the first time all the time,” said, Demonte, when asked what is the most advice given him by his father. “He tells me that, ‘If you live like that eventually it becomes natural to you.”

Demonte relishes the fact that when he suits up for competition, his father is a few yards away in the stands cheering him on, steadfastly proving yet again that he undoubtedly is his grandest supporter.

“My dad comes to every game and pushes me to get better,” Demonte said. “He makes me workout on my own time, makes me take part in all type of drills.”

Like his father, Demonte also acknowledges that among the reasons he’s enjoying success as a rising accomplished athlete is that his coaches have done the necessary strategies to ensure he and his teammates demonstrate solid sportsmanship, let alone a resilient work ethic as a unit whether on the hardwood or gridiron.

Dallas Cowboys star wide receiver Dez Bryant is Demonte's No. 1 football player.

Dallas Cowboys star wide receiver Dez Bryant is Demonte’s No. 1 football player.

“Coach West and Coach Delone are great coaches and motivators,” Lamont said. “They bring the best out of Monte.”

As for the pivotal life lessons he routinely instills in his son, well, such trends undoubtedly begin in the home, Lamonte said.

“Life lessons…well I teach him to be a man, be respectful, honest, a man of God, be a leader, develop good work, and develop study habits,” Lamonte said. “That means grades first and student athlete second. There’s plenty of room to grow being so young and talented. He also has a great family base and support to keep his head right mentally and spiritually.”

All of which of course, is why his beloved father look forward to his customary pregame rituals on game day for little Demonte.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson also covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Shavarick James to college coaches: ‘I don’t know what slacking looks like’

OAK CLIFF, Texas — Shavarick James was rather forthright when asked recently how he will spend his summer.

FIGHTING CHANCE --- Former Dallas Triple A Academy swingman Shavarick James (black uniform) believes despite seeing his minutes reduced significantly in recent years, he can provide vailiant contributions at the collegiate level. James plans to enroll at Midwestern State this fall. (Photos courtesy of Triple A Academy Athletics)

FIGHTING CHANCE — Former Dallas Triple A Academy swingman Shavarick James (black uniform) believes despite seeing his minutes reduced significantly in recent years, he can provide vailiant contributions at the collegiate level. James plans to enroll at Midwestern State this fall. (Photos courtesy of Triple A Academy Athletics)

“This summer, I plan to work even harder than my previous summers combined,” James told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “I plan on making my weaknesses my strengths and my strengths even more strong.”

To get a clear understanding of why James — a 17-year-old Dallas-area basketball standout who recently graduated from nearby Triple A Academy — pledges to upgrade his mechanics on the court, look no further than the sequence of events that transpired in the recent years. 

For starters, the Fort-Worth, Texas native, whose hoops prowess soared to immense heights years ago while on the AAU circuit for the Dallas-area Southwest Elite team, his skills went virtually unnoticed by college scouts, in large part because he was a member of an up-and-coming charter school program.

WATCH SHAVA JAMES IN ACTION VIA YOUTUBE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKR0iHvU-RA&feature=youtube_gdata_player

 

Although he witnessed a significant decrease in minutes, the 6-foot-3 swingman admittedly clung to lofty aspirations of playing at the collegiate level alongside fellow Triple A teammate Frank Hollis.

Said Craig Roberts, James’ AAU coach on his progress in recent years: “Shava is an athletic 6-foot-4 wing who has a knockdown jumper and isn’t afraid to drive the lane. He defends very well on the perimeter. Although he needs to get stronger, his best basketball is ahead of him.”

As James tells it, he and Hollis — a combo guard one of the Stallions’ best defenders — often spoke about the idea of playing college ball at the same institution. They will have their chance in the coming months, considering James and Hollis have planned to enroll at Midwestern State in Wichita Falls, Texas.

RESILIENT 'SHAVA' --- James, who has been playing competitive basketball since he was three years old, has been a force on the Dallas-area AAU circuit in recent years.

RESILIENT ‘SHAVA’ — James, who has been playing competitive basketball since he was three years old, has been a force on the Dallas-area AAU circuit in recent years.

While the possibility exists that both players could earn scholarships at MWSU, one thing has already been determined: Hollis and James have agreed that is all else fails, they are destined to lobby for roster spots as walk-ons.

“(The MWSU coaching staff) would be getting someone who doesn’t know what slacking looks like,” said James when asked what he could offer a college program. “I would be a suitable fit because I am 100 percent for the team. I learned that when you are for your team, not only does that allow you to become a better player, but a better man. And, in the end, that’s the ultimate goal.”

James spent his first year at nearby Hampton Prep, where he was a force on the junior varsity squad before ultimately earning significant minutes on the varsity team. To his credit, he demonstrated time and again to be among the team’s most efficient reserves, having averaged around 10 points per game.

Unfortunately for James, his saw a substantial reduction in action, particularly after he transferred to Triple. Still, his contributions off the bench helped propel the Stallions to their first ever state championship last year.
Last year, James played sparingly and average around eight points per outing for a Triple A that finished with a 21-8 mark.

FULL SUPPORT --- Shava's mother, Ericka Hudson, has supported him wholeheartedly since he first began playing competitive basketball.

FULL SUPPORT — Shava’s mother, Ericka Hudson, has supported him wholeheartedly since he first began playing competitive basketball.

Among his key strengths as a speedy swingman is his ability to rebound, penetrate to the basket, and create his own shot, attributes he hopes will draw rave reviews from Midwestern State coaching staff this fall.
In a nutshell, James doesn’t shy away from the notion that among his key objectives is to compete for a roster spot once he sets foot on campus this fall.

“Over the years, Shavarick has shown a genuine true love and compassion for the sport,” said Ericka Hudson, Shavarick’s mother. “He has certainly gained knowledge over the past years and is able to apply that knowledge to the sport and the game. He is definitely worthy of a chance to prove himself. He has the dedication and drive it takes to make it. I believe he is committed to himself and the sport. He is determined to prove himself to anyone that gives him the opportunity.”

Among the reasons James said he has steadfastly remained focused on playing basketball at the collegiate ranks is that his mother has supported him continously ever since he first began playing competitively at the age of three.

“My mother is a big part of my support system,” James said. “She has come to a majority of y games. She even came to (Las) Vegas last summer to watch me play.”

A trend James hopes will continue once he enters college in the coming months. 

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Braircrest standout Rashad Muhammad patterning his game after Bo Jackson

Rashad Muhammad is only 15 years old.

Still, his young age doesn’t prevent him from studying the game of football.

'RAGING' RASHAD --- Briarcrest Christian School running back Rashad Muhammad emerged as one of the area's finest rusher despite a a year in which the sophomore endured an early-season knee injury. With two season left in his high school career, Muhammad has already drawn rave reviews from college scouts. (Photos by Steve Austell)

RISING STAR — Briarcrest Christian School running back Rashad Muhammad emerged as one of the area’s finest rusher despite a a year in which the sophomore endured an early-season knee injury. With two season left in his high school career, Muhammad has already drawn rave reviews from college scouts. (Photos by Steve Austell)

Muhammad, who plays running back for Briarcrest Christian School, admittedly spends a lot of time studying the likes of former NFL greats Emmitt Smith, Herschel Walker, and Bo Jackson.

No one appears more intriguing than Jackson who, according to Muhammad, is the best rusher to ever play the game.

“Bo Jackson is my all-time favorite player,” Muhammad told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “He was an all-around player. He can play all sorts of sports.”

Jackson, a former Auburn star and the 1985 Heisman Trophy winner, was a force on the gridiron, which ultimately gave way to a solid professional career. Nowadays, Muhammad is clinging to lofty aspirations of making a name for himself in the backfield much like Jackson did in the 1980s.

To his credit, Muhammad has quickly blossomed into one of the top rushers in the Shelby-Metro area in his brief time as a starter for Briarcrest. In helping the Saints to a postseason berth this past season, Muhammad emerged as a the team’s featured back during a year in which he finished as the team’s top rusher.

Through 10 starts, Muhammad showed no signs of rust as a first-year starter, having produced 745 yards on 54 carries and 10 touchdowns for a Briarcrest team that advanced to the playoffs despite a losing record (4-8).

Credit Muhammad for the Saints’ late-season surge, in large part because the speedy, durable back showed that despite his lack of experience on the varsity roster, he could manufacture impressive numbers against the area’s best defensive units.

WATCH RASHAD IN ACTION VIA VIDEO:

“I don’t want to be known as an average player,” Muhammad said. “I want to be known as a great player, a great student average.”

If nothing else, Muhammad appeared destined to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in his first full season as a starter before a knee injury weeks into the season reduced his effectiveness. Muhammad injured his right knee during a Week 4 28-27 loss at Germantown. After undergoing an MRI the following day, doctors discovered that an in-grown bone was chipped, an injury they said needed to heal on its own.

As a result, the Briarcrest coaching staff kept its featured back out of action for two weeks for precautionary reasons. Consequently, the Saints dropped their next two games, a sequence Muhammad sensed would have played out much differently if not for his early-season injury.

RAISING THE BAR --- Muhammad said among his goals for next seasons to to rush for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.

RAISING THE BAR — Muhammad said among his goals for next season is to rush for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.

 

“I wanted to play because I didn’t want to sit on the sideline,” Muhammad said of being sidelined. “But I had to cheer my team on. Looking back, I probably would have been more careful in what I was doing (before the injury).”

While Muhammad recouped comfortably from his knee injury, the Saints used him sparingly in the lineup the rest of the regular season. Still, he managed to register impressive numbers which, fortunately for him, have already generated interest from multiple colleges.

Currently, Muhammad has garnered letters from Duke, Cincinnati, Georgia, Memphis, Colorado, and Ole Miss, among others, according to his father, Clarance Muhammad.

And, with a summer itinerary that includes appearances at a host of camps and combines — one of which is Auburn — the possibility exists that Rashad will receive more feedback from colleges heading into what figures to be an intriguing junior season. In addition, Rashad is scheduled to participate in a month-long tour in June in that will include visiting eight major Division 1 colleges.

“Rashad Muhammad is an exceptional young man with tremendous football ability,” said Major Wright, who coached Rashad the previous two seasons at Briarcrest. “His progress from his freshman season to his sophomore season was a testament to the amount of works he puts into it. He also places heavy emphasis on his academics. He will be a heavy contributor to the Briarcrest football team over the next two seasons.”

Arguably the biggest reason Rashad is expected to witness his production increase next season is that he worked intensely this offseason to upgrade his mechanics, a trend that, according to him, has inspired him to set what he describes as an “attainable feat” during the 2014 season.

“I had set some goals for myself,” Rashad said. “I want to get 2,000 yards (next season). I figured 1,000 is for average person. So I plan to get 2,000 and 20 touchdowns. (My coaches) are hoping for big things for me this upcoming season.”

As Clarence Muhammad tells it, the sky’s the limit for his son, whom he said handled the maturation process well, particularly after his early-season injury.

“Rashad embodies exactly what every coach covets and that’s hard work and respect,” Clarance Muhammad said. “Also, he’s blessed to be in a two-parent home with support for his God-given athletic ability. He’s tough. He’s coachable, and he has had exposure, meaning he has seen the world from both sets of eyes, white and black. He desires success for himself.”

Much like Bo Jackson did in the mid-1980s.

Not bad for a talented 15-year-old.

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Cottonwood (Ala.) QB Cory Gill drawing interest from Vols, other SEC schools

'HIGH COTTON' --- Cottonwood (Ala.) High quarterback Cory Gill enjoyed a memorable junior season that resulted in him becoming the top passer in the state. His performance didn't go unnoticed by scouts, including those at the University of Tennessee. (Photos courtesy of Cottonwood Athletics)

‘HIGH COTTON’ — Cottonwood (Ala.) High quarterback Cory Gill enjoyed a memorable junior season that resulted in him becoming the top passer in the state. His performance didn’t go unnoticed by scouts, including those at the University of Tennessee. (Photos courtesy of Cottonwood Athletics)

Following an efficient junior campaign, Cory Gill is about to partake in what will be a busy summer.

Among the reasons is that the Cottonwood (Ala.) High quarterback is scheduled to attend a number of camps and combines, most notably the University of Tennessee camp in the coming weeks.

To his credit, Gill’s stock on the recruiting circuit has steadily progressed in recent years, primarily because he has evolved into the centerpiece of the Bears’ potent offense.

For starters, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Gill was the catalyst of coach Toby Greene’s Cottonwood team that recovered from a midseason three-game winless streak and clinched a trip to the Alabama Class 2A playoffs. In engineering the Bears to a 6-5 finish, Gill demonstrated why college scouts have taken notice of his keen ability to manage an offense.

The two-year starter, for instance, enjoyed a masterful junior season, generating a career-best 2,574 passing on 183 of 325 attempts (which was best among Alabama quarterbacks) while throwing 27 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

AERIAL ATTACK --- Gill passed for more than 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns last year for a Cottonwood team that advanced to the Alabama Class 2A playoffs.

AERIAL ATTACK — Gill (No. 6) passed for more than 2,000 yards and 27 touchdowns last year for a Cottonwood team that advanced to the Alabama Class 2A playoffs.

Add to the fact that he has proven he’s capable of extending plays with 211 yards rushing on 47 carries through 11 games, and it’s no wonder why the senior campaign of his resilient passer figures to be a memorable one.

In other words, as Gill goes, so does the Bears.

“I feel like I played pretty good this past season but there are some things I need to work on in order to improve my game and to get ready for the next level,” Gill told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “I led the Wiregrass in passing yards.”

Gill, a multi-sport athlete, also starred on the mound for Cottonwood's baseball team.

Gill, a multi-sport athlete, also starred on the mound for Cottonwood’s baseball team.

Fortunately for the 17-year-old Gill — a speedy, durable passer who worked intensely last summer to upgrade his mechanics — various recruiters have monitored closely his performance under center.

So far, Gill has garnered interest from Auburn, Southern Miss, Samford, South Alabama, Alabama State, West Alabama, Florida, Florida International, Troy, Western Kentucky, Appalachian State, Jacksonville State, and Furman, among others.

Such an impressive list is expected to expand as his senior season looms, considering Gill — who also starred in basketball and baseball for Cottonwood — is scheduled to attend an array of camps and combines this summer, including the Southern Elite Top 150 Mississippi Combine.

According to Gill, the knowledge he will acquire this summer will enable him to pick up where he left off after a productive junior season.

“The mechanics that I need to work on in order to be a better quarterback would be my footwork, my ability to extend the play, and my ability to read the defense,” Gill said. “Spring practices this year went pretty good! The whole team gave it their all every chance it got. I feel good about this team. We all have a good mind set and we’re looking to be state champs.”

That the Bears will return the nucleus of a team that showed signs of things to come during the season’s latter stages, many of the Cottonwood faithful believe an elusive state championship isn’t unrealistic goal.

At least not with Gill orchestrating the offense.

“He has been as good a leader for us and we expect the same (next year),” Cottonwood assistant coach Joshua Allen said. “I explained to him often that he needs to be remembered and that people don’t remember losers. We expect Cory to be the motivator, leader by example, and the face of a (team) that has put in the overtime to become the best. He is a smart, humbled, disciplined young man that has a bright future and will be successful in life because he wants to be.”

On and off the field.

A trend various recruiters have taken notice of.

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Quarterback instructor Joe Dickinson having huge impact on Mid-South-area players

JOE COOL --- Joe Dicksinson, who served as an assistant to former Oklahoma legendary coach Barry Switzer in the mid-1980s, has trained a number of Mid-South-area quarterbacks during a football coaching career that spans nearly 30 years. (Photos submitted by Joe Dickinson0

JOE COOL — Joe Dickinson, who served as an assistant to former Oklahoma legendary coach Barry Switzer in the mid-1980s, has trained a number of Mid-South-area quarterbacks during a football coaching career that spans nearly 30 years. (Photos submitted by Joe Dickinson0

For Joe Dickinson, New Year’s Day essentially is a time of reflection.

Among the reasons is that he has the luxury of watching a number of the nation’s premiere quarterbacks, many of whom he trained intensely long before they entered the collegiate ranks.

“You’re just happy that you can give something back to the game,” Dickinson told MemphiSport during a recent telephone interview from Jacksonville, Fla. “It makes you feel very proud obviously. It makes you feel you’re still apart of the game. I stay in touch with a lot of them.”

Having served as quarterbacks coach for several high-profile coaches during his well-publicized tenure on the sideline, Dickinson is currently the lead quarterback instructor and cam director for DeBartolo Sports University, a position he’s held since 2007. Dickinson frequently conducts quarterback camps and private training nationwide. And, since 2007, more than 1,100 quarterbacks have been trained by Dickinson, ranging from amateur to professional levels.

Since joining DeBartolo Sports, Dickinson, 57, has had a profound impact on a plethora of up-and-coming quarterbacks, many of whom ultimately signed National Letters of Intent with major Division 1 programs.

This year was no exception for Dickinson, a quarterback coaching guru whom many have labeled the mastermind behind having trained an assortment of America’s most sought-after passers for the Class of 2014.

So far, at least seven high school quarterbacks who trained under Dickinson at DeBartolo Sports have inked with major colleges: David Cromwell (Alabama), Rafe Peavey (Arkansas), Landon Root (Northern Illinois), Travis Smith (Wake Forest), Collin Feller (Miami, Fla.), Tristian Threatt (Harvard), and Alexander Diamont (Indiana).

His Class of 2015 quarterbacks appears promising, considering Shawnee (Okla.) High highly-touted prospect John Jacobs III last week made a verbal commitment to play at East Carolina University next fall.

So how to explain the continuous success of Dickinson who, according to former San Francisco 49er offensive lineman Randy Cross, has had a major impact of how today’s collegiate game is played?

MID-SOUTH PRESENCE --- Since joining DeBartolo Sports in 2007, Dickinson has trained more than 1,100 quarterbacks, several of whom have ties to the Mid-South.

MID-SOUTH PRESENCE — Since joining DeBartolo Sports in 2007, Dickinson has trained more than 1,100 quarterbacks, several of whom have ties to the Mid-South.

For starters, Dickinson, a Wayne, Okla. native, has enjoyed a career in which he has been afforded opportunities to work alongside college football finest coaches, most notably former Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl-winning coach Barry Switzer. Dickinson served as a graduate assistant to Swizter from 1983-85 during which he helped the Sooners to the 1985 national title.

“I’m a big fan of the way Joe coaches and handles quarterbacks,” said Cross, whose son, Brendan, trained under Dickinson before playing quarterback for Wake Forest. “There are people who have PR firms and all sorts of sponsors and stuff for quarterbacks. But the way Joe does it, he has invented the new way to throw. He knows it from a fundamental standpoint, from a mechanical standpoint.”

Not only that, Cross, who starred for the 49ers and won three Super Bowls between 1976-1988, said Dickinson’s contributions are still impacting the way the college game is played today, although he doesn’t remotely assist college coaches.

“College football coaches are recruiters,” Cross said. “They don’t have time to coach guys up. So they need guys like Joe Dickinson. He can help with footwork. He can help with throwing. He can help with film study, especially for young players who must know how defenses are set up. I think his insight is unique.”

Prior to joining the DeBartolo Sports staff, Dickinson enjoyed a prosperous collegiate coaching career that spanned nearly three decades.

From 1986-1989, for instance, Dickinson was the running backs coach at the University of Tulsa before assuming an offensive coordinator position at Marshall University in 1990. Consequently, he took his play-calling skills to nearby Northern Illinois, where he served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 1991-95, a stint that allowed him to oversee the nation’s leading rusher, LeShon Johnson, who amassed 1,976 yards on 327 carries while finishing 6th in the Heisman Trophy voting.

In addition, Dickinson moved back to his native Oklahoma in 1996 during which he assumed a second stint with the Sooners’ coaching staff. He started as the running backs coach from 1996-97 before being promoted to offensive coordinator for the 1998 season. To his credit, Dickinson helped the Sooners to their best finish since 1995, but would leave the program four seasons later after the arrival of OU’s current coach, Bob Stoops.

Dickinson later accepted a running backs coaching position at Tulane before assuming a joining staff at Central Oklahoma from 2003-2006.

Having devoted a majority of his life to helping enhance the lives of athletes, Dickinson admittedly has never grown tired of his craft as arguably one of the best quarterback coaching minds in the game.

“I’ve played (football) in high school and college and I’ve always wanted to coach,” Dickinson said. “I’ve never thought of it as a job. It’s a great sport. It’s allowed me to do a lot for kids. It’s the best sport that teaches how the lessons of how life is.”

Something by which Dickinson, one of football’s brightest minds, relishes quite often.

Especially when he’s watching the annual New Year’s Day bowl games.

Andre Johnson, a senior writer for MemphiSport, is a regular contributor for Bleacher Report. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Former Dallas Cowboy great Nate Newton to speak at historic West Irving COGIC

DALLAS — In December 1986, Andrew Jackson, Jr. relocated from Memphis to the Dallas area, where he took over as pastor of West Irving Church of God In Christ.

An avid Dallas Cowboy fan, Jackson has had the luxury of crossing paths with a number of former NFL players, several of whom have visited his church.

MINISTER OF OFFENSE --- Nate Newton's 14-year NFL career includes 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys that were highlighted by three Super Bowls victories. Newton, 52, will be the keynote speaker Friday night during a men's conference hosted by West Irving COGIC. (Getty Images File Photo)

MINISTER OF OFFENSE — Nate Newton’s 14-year NFL career includes 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys that were highlighted by three Super Bowls victories. Newton, 52, will be the keynote speaker Friday night during a men’s conference hosted by West Irving COGIC. (Getty Images File Photos)

Come Friday, another former NFL great will make his way to West Irving.

Nate Newton, who played 14 NFL seasons as an offensive lineman, including a 12-year stint with the Cowboys, will be the keynote speaker for West Irving’s annual Men’s Conference. Accompanied by the theme, “A Man After God’s Own Heart,” the event will begin Friday at 7 p.m. at 4011 Conflans Road in Irving and will culminate with a Financial Literacy Workshop Saturday at 8 a.m.

The two-day conference is free and open to the public.

A third-generation preacher, Jackson first met Newton in 2006 while in Miami with his son to attend the FedEx Orange Bowl. The two have since established a solid rapport, in large part because Jackson followed Newton when he played for the Cowboys from 1986-1998.

“I got personally acquainted with him during the Orange Bowl,” Jackson said of Newton. “He was one of the best (linemen) in the NFL.”

Newton, considered one of the best offensive linemen in Cowboy franchise history, enjoyed consecutive Pro Bowl appreances in 1995 and 1996.

Newton, considered one of the best offensive linemen in Cowboys franchise history, enjoyed six Pro Bowl appearances during his NFL career.

Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Redskins in 1983, Newton was released by the team hours after he was involved in a serious car accident. Still, the Orlando, Fla. native enjoyed a stellar professional career that was highlighted by three Super Bowl titles and six Pro Bowl selections, including five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1994 to 1998.

Prior to joining Dallas, Newton played one season with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the now-defunct United States Football League (USFL).

Following a lengthy stint with the Cowboys, Newton, a former Florida A&M star, played one year with the Carolina Panthers before calling it a career following the 1999 season.

According to Jackson, that the 52-year-old Newton will share his life experiences during West Irving’s men conference is indicative of how he managed to persevere, particularly when he went undrafted and was released by the Redskins 31 years ago.

“Nate has a testimony of restoration, which is a great example of how Christ can restore you even after we falter in life,” Jackson said. “With so many of our youth going through challenges in life with peer pressure, Nate’s testimony can serve as a reminder to young people to stay focused on their goals and don’t get distracted by the temptations of the devil.”

Andre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist. 

Pastor with Memphis ties plays Kevin Durant’s speech before his congregation

IRVING, Texas — Kevin Durant’s emotional speech last week during a new conference in which the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player not only impacted the sports world, but it also has left a favorable impression among various religious organizations.

CLUTCH SPEECH --- After being named the NBA's Most Valuable Player for the first in his career, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar caught the sports world by storm with an emotional speech in which he labeled his mother, Wanda Pratt, as the "real MVP." (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE Getty Images)

CLUTCH SPEECH — After being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the first in his career, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar caught the sports world by storm with an emotional speech in which he labeled his mother, Wanda Pratt, as the “real MVP.” (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE Getty Images)

Such was the case Sunday morning when longtime West Irving Church of God In Christ senior pastor Andrew Jackson, Jr., played a portion of Durant’s 20-minute speech throughout the sanctuary’s loudspeakers as his congregation tuned in with intentness during its Mother Day’s service.

According to Jackson, Durant’s tribute to his mother, Wanda Pratt, during a tear-jerking, demonstrative speech was a vital reminder of the tireless contributions, particularly in homes run by single African-American women.

 

Andrew Jackson, Sr. and his wife, Sandra, moved in 1986 from Memphis to the Dallas area, where Jackson has since been pastoring West Irving Church of God In Christ. (Photo submitted by West Irving COGIC)

Andrew Jackson, Sr. and his wife, Sandra, in 1986 moved from Memphis to the Dallas area, where Jackson has since been pastoring West Irving Church of God In Christ. (Photo submitted by West Irving COGIC)

“Basically, in this society where we having so many homes being led by women, I think it’s important that they receive encouragement and support for what they do,” Jackson, who relocated to the Dallas area from Memphis in December 1986, told MemphiSport. “Raising boys and raising girls…the father may be missing in the home and all of that pressure and responsibility fall on the single mother. And to read Kevin’s Durant’s story and to hear of his story, his mother was his motivation. She encouraged and she pushed him even when they were told they were not going to make it.”

Pratt, the mother of four, gave birth to Durant when she was 21 years old. The Washington, D. C. native has since emerged as arguably the most-celebrated player in the NBA.

This year, Durant was a unanimous choice for league MVP after leading the NBA with 32 points per game, becoming the first player to win both the scoring title and MVP award in the same year since Allen Iverson did it in 2000-2001.

Durant scored a game-high 40 points in Game 4 of the Thunder’s best-of-7 playoff series Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers. But that weren’t enough as the Clippers erased a 22-point first half deficit to even the series at two games apiece with a 101-99 win.

Game 5 is Tuesday night at 8:30 CST in OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Durant all but solidified the NBA’s highest individual achievement award when he registered at least 25 points for 41 consecutive games, a stretch that prompted Miami’s LeBron James to hint that his two-year run as league MVP was nearing an end.

KING DETHRONED --- Durant amassed 119 of the possible 125 first-place votes in ending Miami Heat superstar LeBron James' two-year league MVP run. (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE Getty Images)

KING DETHRONED — Durant amassed 119 of the possible 125 first-place votes in ending Miami Heat superstar LeBron James’ two-year league MVP run. (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE Getty Images)

“I would say he’s playing the most consistent basketball as far as MVP this year,” James told MemphiSport during an April 9 interview. “I mean, he’s put up some great numbers.”

Durant’s remarkable display ultimately led him generating 119 of the possible 125 first-place votes. James, a four-time league MVP, amassed the remaining six first-place votes.

During his acceptance speech, a tearful Durant expressed thanks to his mother for looking out for him and his siblings, labeling her “the real MVP.” His tribute was replayed Sunday throughout West Irving’s sanctuary, one Jackson acknowledged was paralleled to the sermon he gave to his congregation: “What Kind Of Woman Am I?”

Jackson, the son of longtime Memphis-area pastor Andrew Jackson, Sr., told the 300-plus worshippers five things a virtuous woman should do, one of which is to influence the community.

“She’s going to the PTA meetings, she’s talking to the principal, she’s there making herself known,” Jackson told his congregation. “She influences the community in a way that it is positive.”

In addition, Jackson said he believes Durant’s speech is just what the NBA needed amid the controversy surrounding embattled Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling’s recorded racial remarks, recently released by TMZ, sent shock waves throughout the sports world and black community, thus leading to his lifetime ban from the NBA.

“I think (Durant’s) speech saved the NBA,” Jackson said. “I think his speech really put a huge impact on the NBA because first of all, the NBA is made up of 80 percents minorities. And for him to have that wherewithal of what his mother did for him, that was really about African-American boys. It’s a great sport that many people enjoy and I just think that Kevin Durant sealed the deal.”

Also, Jackson said that while Durant’s detailed tribute to his mother is prevalent to the issues within the black community, he hopes other preachers will share his speech with their congregation.

“It’s out of the box,” Jackson said. “It’s certainly speaks to our society when most homes in the African-American community are being led by single mothers.”

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Spurs star Tim Duncan on retiring from NBA: ‘I’m going to play it day by day’

Tim Duncan fielded the question as if he expected it.

 

STILL AIMING HIGH --- San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan hasn't shown any signs of a slowing down during an NBA career that spans 16-plus seasons. The 37-year-old Duncan said Tuesday he isn't sure when he will call it a career with a Spurs team that is destined to return to the NBA Finals this year. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

STILL AIMING HIGH — San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan hasn’t shown any signs of a slowing down during an NBA career that spans 16-plus seasons. The 37-year-old Duncan said Tuesday he isn’t sure when he will call it a career with a Spurs team that is destined to return to the NBA Finals this year. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“I’m going to play it day by day,” the San Antonio Spurs superstar said following Tuesday’s shootaround in FedExForum, when asked how much longer he plans to play professional basketball. “I don’t know what the end of the year will bring. I don’t know what next year will bring. But I’m going to enjoy every game out there, knowing that it’s coming to an end.”

While the 37-year-old Duncan hasn’t shied away from discussing his NBA future, he appears to be in the best shape of a Hall-of-Fame career that spans 16-plus seasons. Duncan, to his credit, was the catalyst last year of a San Antonio team that came within seconds of capturing its fifth world championship since the 14-time All-Star was drafted No. 1 overall by the Spurs out of Wake Forest in 1997.

Having averaged the most minutes (30.1) in three years, Duncan registered 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.7 blocks per game last year in helping the Spurs to the NBA Finals, where they lost in the decisive Game 7 to the Miami Heat. Add to the fact that Duncan shot an impressive 50.2 percent from the field and a career-best 81.7 percent from the free throw line, and it’s no wonder a number of his peers contend that the 6-foot-11, Saint Croix, U. S. Virgin Island native hasn’t shown any indications he’s ready to call it quits.

“Man, how can you tell a guy to hang it up that’s averaging 17 and 10…18 and 10?” Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph said of Duncan. “Tim can play until he’s 44 if he wants to. He’s one of the greatest of all time, hands down, period. He’s the type of guy you look up to and pattern your game after because he’s not a super athletic guy. He’s not a high-flyer. He plays off skills.”

During the Spurs’ remarkable postseason run last year, Duncan certainly performed as if he was in his prime. Displaying such poise and resilience that enabled him to evolve into one of the NBA’s premiere power forwards, Duncan witnessed his numbers soar significantly during the season’s latter stages as he logged 20.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per contest for a San Antonio team that swept the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals. He was especially dominant during the NBA Finals much like when he engineered the Spurs to four NBA titles during an eight-year stretch between 1999 and 2007.

No doubt, he was the biggest reason San Antonio was seconds away from dethroning the Heat, particularly with his epic Game 6 performance, when he went on a tear by scoring 30 points and 17 rebounds, although the upset-minded Spurs sputtered in the waning seconds.

“We had another opportunity (in Game 7) to win it,” said Duncan, recalling his mindset after the Spurs had squandered a five-point lead over the game’s final 28 seconds. “That’s all that mattered at that point. We didn’t want to talk about what we had given away or what position we were in. We had another opportunity. We just came up short. But honestly, we gave it our all and we’re happy with that.”

If there were questions swirling as to whether Duncan’s effectiveness had been reduced for an NBA veteran, he silenced

Grizzlies All-Star Zach Randolph (right) was highly complentary of Duncan following Tuesday's shootaround. Randolph said the 14-time All-Star is not only one of the best players to ever play the game, but he's one after whom he patterns his game. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Grizzlies All-Star Zach Randolph (right) was highly complementary of Duncan following Tuesday’s shootaround. Randolph said the 14-time All-Star is not only one of the best players to ever play the game, but he’s one after whom he patterns his game. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

an array of critics last year, particularly when it mattered most — on the NBA’s grandest stage.

“Tim will play as long as he thinks he’s helpful to the team,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has coached Duncan since he entered the NBA. “You know, that’s what he said to me. He really enjoys the competitiveness. He enjoys being around the guys. He likes the challenges. He really takes care of himself well. You know, he watches what he puts in his body as you can see just looking at him. As long as he feels he can help this team, he’ll be playing. If he feels he can’t do that, he’ll be the first guy to walk off the court.”

Duncan, just as he’s done on numerous occasions during his illustrious career, aided San Antonio mightily Tuesday night. He scored a 13 of his team-high 24 points (10 points better than his season average) in the second half for the Spurs, who outlasted the Grizzlies, 110-108, in overtime, despite squandering a 16-point second-half lead.

Whether the two-time NBA MVP will walk away from the game for good at season’s end is anybody’s guess. As Duncan tells it, however, his primary focus is not on how much longer his 230-pound frame can hold up with his 38th birthday just three months away, but rather he’s concentrating on savoring what’s left of an NBA career that will culminate with him being christened a Hall of Famer.

Asked how he would like his legacy to be remembered if he retires after this season, Duncan once again fielded the question as if he expected it.

“My legacy will write itself,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I think of it. I’m just going to go out and play every night and see what happens from there.”

Judging by his display Tuesday night for a Spurs squad that boasts the NBA’s third-best record, it’s safe to assume Duncan still has gas in that 37-year-old tank.

More than people realize.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA for MemphiSport. To reach Johnson, email him at andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.