Sports journalist Andre Johnson pays homage to his grandmother as she turns 77

 

TWO PERFECT SEVENS --- On Saturday, MemphiSport NBA reporter Andre Johnson's grandmother, Vernice Johnson (center), will celebrate her 77th birthday. She was hired at as an employee at Memphis State the same year the Tigers advanced to the NCAA title game.

TWO PERFECT SEVENS — On Saturday, MemphiSport NBA reporter Andre Johnson’s grandmother, Vernice Johnson (center), will celebrate her 77th birthday. She was hired at as an employee at Memphis State the same year the Tigers advanced to the NCAA title game. Pictured also is Andre’s mother, Betty Pegues. 

COMMENTARY

DALLAS — I was weeks away from relocating to Dallas.

Besides covering the Memphis Grizzlies, I made certain to set aside time for my grandmother, Vernice B. Johnson.

Virtually every week, she’d call to ask if I can accompany her on her customary errands.

Whether it was to the bank, grocery store, or for routine doctor appointments, spending time with grandma undoubtedly was priceless moments about which I savored as I prepared to transition back to the Lone Star state.

In my estimation, arguably the most intriguing moment took place just days before I left Memphis.

While taking grandma for brunch at an East Memphis restaurant, she suddenly struck up a conversation about the best basketball player on the planet.

Never mind that she mistakenly misidentified him.

“Lamar James is playing some good ball,” Grandma said as I drove toward the restaurant displaying a slight grin.

Surely, I knew grandma meant to say LeBron James, the then-reigning back-to-back NBA MVP who was a member of the Miami Heat at the time. But witnessing her shift the dialogue to pro basketball, nonetheless, was a compliment, or sorts.

For starters, I am entering my fourth full season as an NBA writer. Not only that, my grandma — who admittedly never had a fond interest in sports unlike my late grandfather — indirectly reminded me that she had been following my work even while being avid viewer of TBN and the Church Channel, among others.

On Sunday, my grandmother will celebrate her 77th birthday. After our latest conversation, it’s safe to assume this vibrant, enthusiastic woman has hinted that she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“I’ve got a birthday tomorrow,” Grandma said Saturday afternoon during a telephone interview from my native hometown of Memphis.

For me, it will be a day in which even hundreds of miles away in North Texas, I deem it essential to pay homage to a woman who’s had a monumental impact on the lives of countless individuals during the course of her life.

LASTING LEGACY ---Vernice Johnson was married for 51 years to former City of Memphis employee Edward Johnson, Sr. before his death in June 2008.

LASTING LEGACY —Vernice Johnson was married for 51 years to former City of Memphis employee Edward Johnson, Sr. before his death in June 2008.

Take, for instance, how she steadfastly had gone about changing the atmosphere at Memphis State, particularly in the early 1970s during which she was hired in the housekeeping department.

Hired roughly two months before the Tiger basketball team advanced to the 1973 national championship game against UCLA, grandma said her employment at the university came with much discussion, considering Memphis was widely viewed as a segregated city in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s horrific assassination five years prior.

“I remember,” Grandma said. “I sure do. “I tell you, at that time, it was far better than it is now. There weren’t so much killing. Of course, there were racial tensions. When I got there, they said they weren’t hiring any more (blacks). They claimed they weren’t going to hire anyone else.”

Just as she’s done virtually for the past 76 years, however, grandma’s persona was such that it was too appealing to overlook, particularly by those of the opposite race.

“A woman name Rachel Shelton hired me,” Grandma explained shortly after I interrupted her afternoon power nap. “And after she hired me, she let me stay.”

Aside from raising 15 children in the heart of North Memphis, her resilient work ethic consequently gave way to her remaining employed at the university for a little more than 29 years — a tenure that, to her credit, brought about close-knit relationships with faculty members, students, even administrators.

In a nutshell, to many with ties to the school, grandma wasn’t just the dedicated, reliable worker housekeeping needed. She was a beacon of light for practically the entire campus.

FAMILY MILESTONE --- Nearly nine months before his grandmother retired from the University of Memphis, Andre Johnson earned his degree in Journalism from the school in May 2000.

FAMILY MILESTONE — Nearly nine months before his grandmother retired from the University of Memphis, Andre Johnson earned his degree in Journalism from the school in May 2000.

“They said I was very encouraging,” said Grandma, a deaconess at the historic Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ in downtown Memphis. “From the administrators to…I can’t even think of all the folks’ names. There were so many of them. A lot of students and teachers didn’t know what to do. That would go on all day. And by the grace of God, I still got my work done. A lot of them were hurting and going through problems. Some of them went to church with me.”

Because of the colossal impact she exhibited during her days at the university, many weren’t aware that my grandmother had dropped out of high school at the age of 17 in 1954 to land work and help take care of her mother.

Surely, it doesn’t matter 60 years later.

What mattered mostly is that this woman’s temperament has always been such that everyone would hasten to her office adjacent to the university center for wisdom and advice. No doubt, I’ve been one to find my place in such a long line of those who routinely looked to grandma as a life-lesson coach, of sorts, especially during my days as a student at the University of Memphis School of Journalism.

Fortunately for me, she stuck around long enough at the college to witness me become a first-generation college graduate before calling it a career in February 2001.

No one, it seems, wanted to see her go.

Everyone, it seems, only wish she’d come back, come back to an establishment she was responsible for changing for the betterment of college life in the first place.

GOTTA LOVE GRANDMA --- During a recent sports conversation with her grandson, Vernice Johnson referred to LeBron as "Lamar James." (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSport)

GOTTA LOVE GRANDMA — During a recent sports conversation with her grandson, Vernice Johnson referred to LeBron as “Lamar James.” (Photo by Chris Evans/MemphiSportome back to an establishment she’s responsible for changing for the betterment of college life in the first place.

“I get letters from faculty and administrators still,” Grandma said. “I still interact with some of the people there. They didn’t want me to retire. They wanted me to stay. They said since I left, it hadn’t been the same. I was beginning to be tired. I was tired of getting up early. But I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. I never had a problem while I was there.”

Which is to say it is only befitting that as grandma raises the curtain on her 77th birthday, she is to be commended for the assortment of astounding contributions she made to the U of M, let alone to the life of a grandson who managed to graduate within months of her ceremoniously retirement.

“That was truly a joy to have a grandson to follow in my footsteps in some ways,” Grandma said. “It was a great privilege. That was a great impact to me.”

Not as great an impact she’s had on my life and sportswriting career, one that has afforded me to meet and interact several times with Lamar James.

Um, I meant to say LeBron James.

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

Memphian and avid San Antonio Spurs fan praises organization on female coaching hire

DALLAS — At approximately 12:30 p.m. on January 7, Stella Faye Adams walked inside what was an empty FedExForum.

What she witnessed shortly thereafter is something she admittedly will cherish for the rest of her life.

HISTORIC HIRE --- The San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday hired WNBA veteran point guard Becky Hammon as an assistant coach, making her the first, full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff. (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

HISTORIC HIRE — The San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday hired WNBA veteran point guard Becky Hammon as an assistant coach, making her the first, full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff. (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

An avid San Antonio Spurs fan, Adams got to meet future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, whom she deems her “favorite athlete of all time.”

As Adams recalls, meeting Duncan, a 14-time All-Star, for the first time following the team’s shootaround is something she had envisioned for quite some time. A native Memphian who has supported the Grizzlies since their move from Vancouver to Memphis, Adams has had a greater admiration for the Spurs, in large because the team has proven to be what she labels the “model organization of the NBA.”

TRADING PLACES --- Once Hammon, a 16-year veteran point guard, retires from the WNBA at season’s end, she is expected to immediately join Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s staff, working with the longtime San Antonio coach on scouting, game-planning and the day-to-day happenings in practice.

TRADING PLACES — Once Hammon, a 16-year veteran point guard, retires from the WNBA at season’s end, she is expected to immediately join Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s staff, working with the longtime San Antonio coach on scouting, game-planning and the day-to-day happenings in practice.

“When I met Tim Duncan, my favorite player of a time and the Spurs, I felt like I was on top of the world,” Adams told MemphiSport on Wednesday. “I couldn’t wait to show off my pictures. I remember saying to him that it was nice meeting you. Tim said to me that it was nice meeting you also and I couldn’t contain myself. He is such a humble person. I will never forget that moment.”

Adams became an even bigger fan of the NBA world champions when the team on Tuesday announced the hiring of 37-year-old Becky Hammon as an assistant. A veteran point guard for the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars, Hammon has become the first, full-time paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff.

The news of Hammon’s hiring was inspiring to Adams, a special education teacher at Kate Bond Elementary and cheerleading coach at the nearby middle school. According to Adams, Hammon’s unprecedented hiring has provided her and other women with lofty hopes of working their way through the ranks in their respective fields.

“This is definitely a sign of things to come,” Adams after learning of Hammon’s hiring. “You will see more females stepping out and trying something different whether it be in sports or something that is not expected of a female. She has inspired me to think outside the box. I will be exploring options whether it be in administration or in the community making a difference. I am going to use my education and experience to make myself even more marketable.”

A six-time WNBA All-Star, Hammon currently ranks fourth on the league’s all-time assist list. Once the 16-year veteran point guard retires from the WNBA at season’s end, she is expected to immediately join Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s staff, working with the longtime San Antonio coach on scouting, game-planning and the day-to-day happenings in practice.

Like many women — whether sports fans or not — Adams, 42, will be among those tracking Hammon’s every move as she becomes acclimated in her new endeavor, one she believes undoubtedly has grasped the attention of other professional franchises.

TEAM SPURS --- Memphian Stella Faye Adams has been a fan of the San Antonio Spurs since Tim Duncan entered the NBA ranks. Adams, a cheerleading coach for Kate Bond Middle School, met Duncan for the first in January.

TEAM SPURS — Memphian Stella Faye Adams has been a fan of the San Antonio Spurs since Tim Duncan entered the NBA ranks. Adams, a cheerleading coach for Kate Bond Middle School, met Duncan for the first in January.

“I think that the Spurs as an organization is a trendsetter,” said Adams, when asked what was her initial reaction to Hammon’s hiring. “The things that they have done throughout the years makes them stand out. Allowing a female to come into the organization and share her expertise to males shows that it’s about the ability, not what you look like.”

As the Spurs, who open training camp in late September, look to defend their world title this upcoming season, Adams said the organization once again has given her and others a reason to support it, let alone some newfound enthusiasm, particularly with regards to the support and equality of women in corporate America.

“I was excited that they chose a female,” Adams said. “I believe she will bring some skills that will make the veteran players even better as a team. It’s makes me feel like I can step out and do something as unique as this.”

Having gone undrafted as a rookie following an All-American career at Colorado State, Hammon is in her 16th season and with her second WNBA team. She was signed by the New York Liberty in May 1999, enjoying a stellar rookie campaign while backing up starting point guard Teresa Witherspoon. Hammon spent seven seasons with the Liberty before being traded to the San Antonio Stars in April 2007.

En route to winning their fifth world championship in franchise history, the Spurs produced an NBA -best 60-20 record during the regular season and clinched the top seed in the postseason. San Antonio defeated the Miami Heat in five games in the NBA Finals.

ADreColumnndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. A 2000 graduate of the University of Memphis School of Journalism, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division from Dallas, Texas. To reach Johnson, call him at 901-690-6587 or send email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

MSL Podcast: 6.14.14

Lebron slurpee

HOUR 1:

(Segment 1) Kevin Cerrito and Marcus Hunter (IN STUDIO!) get ready for Benedict Arnold’s wedding and recap the week’s biggest stories during the Starting 5.
(Segment 2 & 3) Memphis Flyer writer Kevin Lipe stops by studio to talk James Johnson, Melo, and NBA Finals.

MemphiSport Live

 

HOUR 2:

(Segment 1)  Hang Up & Listen with the winner getting $25 to Elfo’s Restaurant.
(Segment 2) “I Love Memphis” blogger and podcaster Holly Whitfield joins the guys live to talk about inexpensive date ideas that ladies will love.
(Segment 3) Woohoos and Boos.

MemphiSport Live

Kevin Cerrito and Marcus Hunter host MemphiSport Live (MSL) on Sports 56 & 87.7 FM every Saturday from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm. MSL was voted 3rd Best Sports Radio Show in the 2010, 2011 & 2012 Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis poll.

Follow the MSL hosts on Twitter @cerrito @marcus__hunter.

 

MSL Podcast: 6.7.14 ‘Dustin and Maria Show’

IMG951292 (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOUR 1:

(Segment 1) Maria Garay, Dustin Starr, and Marcus Hunter recap the week’s biggest stories during the Starting 5.
(Segment 2) Kevin Cerrito calls in for an early edition of Wohoos and Boos.

HOUR 2:

(Segment 1)  Hang Up & Listen with the winner getting a MSL Prize Pack.
(Segment 2) Dustin and Maria interview the Big Bad Booty Daddy Scott Steiner
(Segment 3) Shenanigans

Kevin Cerrito and Marcus Hunter host MemphiSport Live (MSL) on Sports 56 & 87.7 FM every Saturday from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm. MSL was voted 3rd Best Sports Radio Show in the 2010, 2011 & 2012 Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis poll.

Follow the MSL hosts on Twitter @cerrito @marcus__hunter.

‘We’re a more dynamic team with D-Wade’ LeBron James tells MemphiSport

One week before the end of the regular season, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James spoke about the importance of the team having a healthy Dwyane Wade for the playoffs.

Now we know why.

Wade, an 11-year veteran who missed nine straight games late in the season while nursing a sore left hamstring, hasn’t shown any indications that his health is a concern.

Even after Lance Stephenson’s bold comments last week when the Indiana Pacers’ guard told reporters that Wade’s knee is “messed up” and that he got to be “more aggressiveness and make him run,” Wade hasn’t been anything short of magnificent in the Eastern Conference Finals.

HEATIN' UP --- Dwayne Wade proved in the Miami Heat's Game 2 win against the Indiana Pacers that he isn't fazed by the slew of injuries that sidelined him 28 games during the regular season. Wade scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting to help the Heat even their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Finals series versus the Pacers at one game apiece. (Photos by Michael McCoy/NBAE Getty Images)

HEATIN’ UP — Dwyane Wade proved in the Miami Heat’s Game 2 win against the Indiana Pacers that he isn’t fazed by the slew of injuries that sidelined him 28 games during the regular season. Wade scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting to help the Heat even their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Finals series versus the Pacers at one game apiece. (Photos by Michael McCoy/NBAE Getty Images)

Through the first two games versus Indiana, Wade has been the Heat’s top scorer, averaging 25 points while shooting a career playoff-best .531 percent from the field.

To his credit, the 32-year-old Wade undoubtedly has complemented the play of James during such a critical stretch in the season.

Such was the case in Tuesday’s pivotal Game 2, a game the Heat desperately needed after their sporadic performance in the final’s opener.

Wade, continuing what has been a super-efficient season despite missing 28 games due to an assortment of injuries, scored 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting to help Miami tie the series against the top-seeded Pacers at one game apiece with an 87-83 win. Wade and James combined for 22 of Miami’s 25 fourth-quarter points, including the team’s final 20.

Most importantly, the win allowed the second-seeded Heat to seize home court as the series shift to Miami’s American Airlines Arena for the next two games, starting with Game 3 Saturday night at 7:30 CST.

That Wade — who averaged 19 points per game in 54 regular-season appearances this year — has played a significant role in the Heat’s success of late is exacting what James had been stressing heading into the playoffs.

“It’s very important,” James told MemphiSport during a recent interview, when asked to assess the health of the former Marquette star. “Obviously, he’s one of our Big Three. We’ve won two (consecutive) championships for the most part because our Big Three were on the floor.”

Miami center Chris Bosh who, along with James, joined Wade at South Beach in July 2010, said when healthy, Wade could potentially emerge as the most dangerous player on the floor.

“I mean, he’s our second option,” Bosh said. “When you miss a player like that, you’re going to feel it. And in order for us to be successful, he has to play well. He’s the guy we rely heavily on defense and offense.”

Especially on the offensive end, where Wade has provided the Heat with some much-needed energy, particularly with the game hanging in the balance.

FIERCE TANDEM --- James told MemphiSport during a recent interview that the Heat are a "more dynamic team" with Wade in the lineup. James and Wade combined for 22 of Miami's 25 fourth-quarter points in Tuesday's win at Indiana. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE Getty Images)

FIERCE TANDEM — During a recent interview with MemphiSport, James said the Heat are a “more dynamic team” with Wade in the lineup. James and Wade combined for 22 of Miami’s 25 fourth-quarter points in Tuesday’s win at Indiana. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE Getty Images)

Wade, in fact, was just as impressive in the decisive fourth quarter of Game 2 against the Pacers when he scored 10 points, a display that was highlighted by his reverse two-handed slam off a dish from James in the waning moments that sealed it for the two-time defending champs.

“The way I look at, LeBron James’ presence alone makes most teams a title contender,” ESPN Miami Heat reporter Michael Wallace told MemphiSport Friday in a telephone interview from Miami. “But with Dwyane Wade, he puts them over the top. There’s a reason LeBron James came to join Dwyane in Miami and now we’re starting to see it.”

With the best-of-7 series shifting to Miami and a chance for the Heat to put a stranglehold on the upset-minded Pacers, the biggest question now is whether Wade’s heroics can be sustained.

So much for the dauntless comments about his health.

“It’s not going to be Lance Stephenson bringing out the best in Dwyane Wade,” Wallace said. “It’s Dwyane Wade who’s going to bring out the best in Dwyane Wade. So what we’re seeing is Dwyane Wade at his peak right now.”

A late-season resurgence James and Co. were expecting days before the playoffs began.

“We’re a more dynamic team when (Wade’s) out there,” James said.

Now we know why.

Andre Johnson covers the NBA 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.

Grizzlies reserve Quincy Pondexter hopeful to return if Memphis advances in playoffs

Quincy Pondexter is clinging to hope.

While talking midrange jumper following a shootaround session last week, the Memphis Grizzlies reserve shooting guard appeared unaffected by the stress fracture in his right foot he suffered in a Dec. 9 loss against GoldenState.

Days later, the team announced that Pondexter would miss the remainder of the season.

SET TO RETURN? Grizzlies reserve shooting guard Quincy Pondexter said last week that he could be cleared to play if Memphis makes a deep playoff run. Pondexter has been out since suffering a stress fracture in his right foot in early December. (Photo by Danny Johnston/Getty Images)

SET TO RETURN? Grizzlies reserve shooting guard Quincy Pondexter said last week that he could be cleared to play if Memphis makes a deep playoff run. Pondexter has been out since suffering a stress fracture in his right foot in early December. (Photo by Danny Johnston/Getty Images)

“I’m fine. I just took a couple of joke-around shots,” Pondexter told MemphiSport as the Grizzlies prepared for their regular season finale against the Dallas Mavericks.

Although Pondexter has yet to be cleared by doctors to resume practicing, the former University of Washington star hinted the possibility exists that he could return during Memphis’ playoff stretch.

The No. 7 seed Grizzlies took a two games to one lead in their best-of-7 opening round playoff series Thursday night with a 98-95  overtime win against the No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder in FedExForum. Game 4 is Saturday night at 8:30 CST.

“It depends on how far of a run they make,” Pondexter said, when asked if he could return during the playoffs. “ I could possibly be available. I don’t know yet. I haven’t discussed the time table with doctors.”

If Pondexter is cleared to return, he would add more depth to a bench that has produced quality minutes through two playoff games.

The 26-year-old, Fresno, Calif. native played a pivotal role in Memphis’ dramatic postseason run last year that ended in the Western Conference Finals.

Pondexter appeared in 15 playoff games last year, registering career highs in points (8.9) and minutes played (23.8). In all, he’s appeared in 22 postseason games since he was traded to the Grizzlies from New Orleans in December 2011 for Greivis Vasquez.

Although he has not been cleared to return to action, Pondexter said he’s recouping comfortably and would welcome the opportunity to give it a go if the Grizzlies manage to upset the Thunder.

“It’s feels great,” said Pondexter, when asked about the status of his foot. “I’ve been conditioning a few weeks now. You know, I see a lot of progress. But I’m fine. That’ll be awesome (if cleared to play) because I really want to get out there and play. I’m excited. I’m glad (the Grizzlies) are doing well.”

The past two seasons have been challenging for Pondexter, considering he has battled an assortment of injuries. Prior to his season-ending foot injury, Pondexter was limited to 59 games during the 2012-13 season because of a right MCL sprain.

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

Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger on Durant for league MVP: ‘I don’t care’

Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger wasn’t in mood to talk about Kevin Durant on Thursday, particularly all the hoopla surrounding what has been an MVP season for the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar.

“I don’t care,” said Joerger, when asked if Durant is the frontrunner for league MVP.

NO R-E-S-P-E-C-T --- Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger on Thursday appeared disinterested in discussing Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant's MVP season. When asked if Durant is the frontrunner for the award, the rookie head coach replied, "I don't care." (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

NO R-E-S-P-E-C-T — Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger on Thursday appeared disinterested in discussing Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant’s MVP season. When asked if Durant is the frontrunner for the award, the rookie head coach replied, “I don’t care.” (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Whether Joerger’s remarks will serve as bulletin board material, of sorts, for Durant, the NBA’s most-talked-about player, remains a mystery. Regardless, when the Grizzlies (50-32) square off against the Thunder (59-23) Saturday night at 7:30 CST in Game 1 of their best-of-7 opening round playoff series in Chesapeake Arena, the Memphis rookie head coach is fully aware Memphis will be facing a team that’s destined to atone for last year’s second-round upset.

Last year, the Grizzlies advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in team history after knocking off Oklahoma City four games to one. While Durant was as good as advertised in that series — he averaged 28.8 points and 10.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists through five games — his superb numbers weren’t enough to overpower a deep Grizzlies team, which won four straight after dropping Game 1.

Memphis extended its season, in large part because the Thunder were without All-Star point Russell Westbrook, who missed the remainder of the playoffs after he injured his right knee in Game 2 of OKC’s opening-round playoffs series against the Houston Rockets. Westbrook injured his knee after he collided with Rockets guard Patrick Beverly while attempting a steal.

When the teams meet Saturday in what figures to be an intense, rugged postseason matchup for a third consecutive year, OKC will have Westbrook back in the fold. That, according to Joerger, will provide the second-seeded Thunder with something they missed in last year’s series — another efficient scorer to complement what has been arguably the best year in Durant’s six professional seasons.

“Oh, they’re much better (with Westbrook in the lineup), a much more potent team,” Joerger said. “They’re switching a lot of stuff defensively and they’re very athletic and their defense has gotten better and better.”

Still, despite all of the Durant-for-MVP discussions in recent months, Joerger elected to assume the hands-off approach when given the chance to assess the season of the league’s most explosive player. Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone Miami’s LeBron James of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a streak that came to a halt in an April 8 win at Sacramento.

PURE DOMINANCE ---Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone Miami's LeBron James of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Rueters)

PURE DOMINANCE —Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone Miami’s LeBron James of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Rueters)

When asked if sense Durant will use the MVP award as motivation, or sorts, heading into this series, Joerger once again said, “I don’t care.”

Even if Durant isn’t using his MVP season as inspiration throughout the postseason, last year’s upset to the Grizzlies will almost certainly fuel the fire of the league’s premiere player.

“He’s not going to use the trophy as motivation,” Grizzlies forward Tayshaun Prince said. “He’s going to use us beating them last year as motivation. That has nothing to do with the MVP season. I don’t think that has anything to do with it at all. It’s more so, ‘These guys got us last year.’”

Earlier this season, Durant publicly pinned most of blame on himself for how last year’s playoff series against Memphis unfolded.

“Individually, I took a lot from that series and looked at what I could have done differently,” Durant told MemphiSport prior to a December 11 game against the Grizzlies. “But it was a learning experience for us all not having our point guard for that series and having to adjust on the fly.”

THUNDER STORM --- Despite averaging 28.8 points during last year's playoff series against Memphis, Durant and Co. were eliminated in five games. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

THUNDER STORM — Despite averaging 28.8 points during last year’s playoff series against Memphis, Durant and Co. were eliminated in five games. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

Now with Westbrook back in the lineup, his presence will restrict the seventh-seeded Grizzlies from placing so much emphasis on Durant, who averages an NBA-best 32 points per game.

“The attention is going to be a lot more tougher with Westbrook being in there this time around, so our job is going to be much harder,” said Prince who, along with shooting guard Tony Allen and reserve swingman James Johnson, will likely be assigned to guard Durant. “The success we had on (Durant) last year, we had so many bodies we could throw at him, so many different things we could do, so many different aspects with Westbrook out.”

Which, of course, will make for an entirely different playoff rematch this time around, especially for a Thunder squad in which its featured player will be christened as the NBA’s No. 1 player in any day now, something about which Prince has paid close attention to.

“I don’t think he’s the frontrunner (for league MVP),” Prince said of Durant. “I think he’s already won it. I mean, they have the second best record in the NBA. He played well throughout the whole year. His basketball awareness went up another level as far as rebounding more, finding other guys, dictating the tempo on the floor.

“Every part of his game went up a notch,” Prince continued. I’m not just talking about putting the ball in the basket. I’m talking about other things on the offensive ends. I think that’s what people wanted to see from him this year and he’s done that. I think Kevin has won it pretty handily this year.”

Regardless of who isn’t in the mood to talk about it.

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

Grizzlies rush to LeBron’s defense in his decline to meet with St. Jude patient

Memphis Grizzlies veteran swingman Mike Miller joined the Miami Heat the same year LeBron James bolted Cleveland for South Beach.

FULL PLATE --- Miami Heat superstar LeBron James was heavily criticized after he reportedly declined to meet with St. Children's Research Hospital patient earlier this week. Grizzlies players Zach Randolph and Mike Miller were among those who defended James. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images)

FULL PLATE — Miami Heat superstar LeBron James was heavily criticized after he reportedly declined to meet with a St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient earlier this week. Grizzlies players Zach Randolph and Mike Miller were among those who defended James. (Photos by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images)

Among the things Miller deemed mostly intriguing about James is how he often went out of his way to give back to the community.

“He’s about as giving as I’ve ever seen,” Miller said of James.

 

Which, of course, is why Miller was among those who sensed there was more to James’ decision in declining to meet earlier this week with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient Josh Hardy as reported by Memphis’ WREG News Channel 3.

Hardy was a recipient of St. Jude’s Make A Dream Come True. Among his wishes was to attend Wednesday night’s Heat versus Grizzlies game so he could watch James, his favorite player, in action. However, after a request by WREG through a Heat media relations representative to have James meet with Hardy, the two-time reigning league MVP reportedly declined the inquiry.

Still, Hardy was among the 18,000-plus witnesses in attendance and sat in a luxury suite to watch Memphis outlast the two-time defending champs, 107-102, and keep alive its playoff hopes.

Though Hardy didn’t get to meet James, he was given paraphernalia by the Grizzlies organization and got to meet Quincy Pondexter, his favorite player on the team.

Pondexter, the Grizzlies reserve shooting guard who is sidelined with a season-ending tarsal navicular stress fracture in his right foot he suffered in a December 7 game against Golden State, sat with Hardy during the game and gave him a basketball that was signed by his teammates.

Grizzlies All-Star power forward Zach Randolph was among the players who autographed Hardy’s basketball, although he said he wasn’t aware that James had declined to meet with the St. Jude patient until after shootaround Friday morning.

Memphis played host to the Philadelphia 76ers Friday at 7 p.m. CST.

Randolph, who in November was given NBA’s Community Assist Award in recognition of his charitable efforts and contributions in the community, said James’ decision not to meet with Hardy could have been because of a conflict in his schedule. Wednesday’s game against the Grizzlies was the last on back-to-back nights for the Heat, who hosted the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.

Miller played three seasons with James and said he was a fixture in giving back to  the community.

Miller played three seasons with James and said he was a fixture in giving back to the community.

“LeBron does a lot,” Randolph said. He probably was busy. LeBron is a great guy. You know, he does a lot for the community and for the kids. So that’s (Wednesday’s decline) nothing. He’ll probably fly the kid to meet him.”

Miller, who re-signed with the Grizzlies in July after a six-year absence, also rushed to James’ defense, saying the situation likely was a misunderstanding.

“Knowing LeBron as much as I know I him, I doubt the information even got to him,” Miller said. “He takes all of those requests.”

Asked if he believed because the Heat played on consecutive nights was a factor in James having turned down a request to meet with the patient, Miller said, “I think he would have met with him still. I think with that, it had to do with a situation where he probably didn’t get the information.”

While Randolph and Miller wouldn’t say whether they sensed the controversy surrounding James has been blown out of proportion, both agreed the 10-year veteran and four-time league MVP’s track record is such that he is committed to giving back to underprivileged individuals. “He gets those request a lot,” Miller said. Believe me, when it comes to St. Jude and children and giving back, he’s going to do that.”

That James was labeled a “punk” and “thug” by several WREG viewers was unwarranted, Miller said.

“The bottom line is no one knows anybody,” he said. “Until you get to know somebody, it’s difficult to judge them. I reserve judgment on everybody I know.”

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

LeBron appears ready to pass league MVP crown to OKC superstar Kevin Durant

HEADS UP --- Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night's 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant has been the "most consistent player" this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

HEADS UP — Miami Heat star LeBron James Heat goes up for his second of three first-half dunks in Wednesday night’s 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies. Before the game, James spoke about the MVP race, saying Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has been the “most consistent player” this year. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)

Two world championships. Two NBA Finals MVPs. Two league MVPs.

Surely, the previous two seasons couldn’t have been any better for LeBron James, the NBA’s most celebrated player whom many have labeled the best on the planet.

However, when asked before Wednesday night’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies about this year’s MVP race, James sounded like someone who seemed inclined to deliver a concession speech for the first time in three years.

“I think KD (Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant) has had one heckuva season and if he’s rewarded with the MVP, that’ll be great,” James said. “I mean, it’ll be awesome for him, for his family, whose done a great thing for him. He’s played MVP-type basketball.”

Still, the 29-year-old James, who’s won the award four times in 10 NBA seasons, seemed reluctant to say whether the league’s premiere individual hardware is Durant’s to lose.

“I don’t really get caught up into what people say,” James said. “At the end of the day, they have their own votes and they’ll go from there.”

Heading into the final week of the regular season, it appears all signs point toward Durant being the heavy favorite to possess the league’s MVP award. Through 77 games, Durant undoubtedly has been the NBA’s most efficient player, averaging a league-best 32 points per game. In addition, the seven-year veteran and five-time All-Star is shooting .505 from the field, which is best in the NBA, and shooting .875 from the free throw line, second only to Golden State’s Stephon Curry (.878).

Second only to New York’s Carmelo Anthony in minutes played (38.5), Durant emerged as the leading candidate to dethrone “King James” of back-to-back MVPs when he scored at least 25 points in 41 consecutive games, a streak that came to a halt in Tuesday night’s win at Sacramento. While Durant appeared relieved to witness the streak end, James, meanwhile, was complimentary of Durant’s display in recent months.

Asked if he felt Durant is the frontrunner for MVP, James, the NBA’s third-leading scorer said, “I would say he’s playing the most consistent basketball as far as MVP this year. I mean, he’s put up some great numbers.”

James' game-high 37 points Wednesday weren't enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami's leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

James’ game-high 37 points Wednesday weren’t enough against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, who are fighting for their playoff lives. Miami’s leatest setback dropped it a half game behind Indiana in the East.

 

Indiana’s Paul George, whose Pacers appear to be on a collision course to meet Miami in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, said while the winner of the MVP award is of “no concern” for him, he hinted that James still has a chance to make up ground.

 

 

“It’s up for grab,” George told MemphiSport during a recent interview. “It’s a lot of guys who are doing a great job. (Durant) is having a heckuva year.”

James’ teammate, Heat center Chris Bosh, on the other hand, was rather candid while chiming in on the league MVP race following Miami’s 107-102 loss against the Grizzlies. Bosh, in fact, believes James’ streak of consecutive MVP awards will end in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think so,” said Bosh, when asked if James has a legitimate chance of surpassing Durant in the MVP race. “I think they’ve made up their minds. But you know, no matter what happens, it’s easy for me to say it’s a trophy and you can’t win it every year.”

Although Durant will likely win this year's MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

Although Durant will likely win this year’s MVP award, James said his main focus is winning a third straight title.

What the Heat can accomplish as they prepare to defend back-to-back NBA titles, Bosh said, is use Durant’s likely dethroning of James as motivation, of sorts, once the playoffs commence.

“You can look for anything as motivation for sure,” Bosh said. “When you’re on top, it puts a big X on your back. So it’s not just (motivation) for LeBron, but for everyone.

You know, it’s a unique situation. I don’t know how (winning MVP feels). I never will.”

Regardless of who is named league MVP, James said his primary focus is to help the Heat accomplish the necessary things to ensure the franchise maintain the NBA’s most covenant award for a third consecutive year. In doing so, he said Miami will need a healthy Dwyane Wade back for what figures to be another intense postseason run.

Wade ran sprints on the FedExForum court roughly 90 minutes before Wednesday’s game, but sat out while he continues to recuperate from a strained left hamstring. It was the eighth consecutive game Wade has missed. In all, he has missed 27 outings this year.

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Heat a half game behind Indiana for the top spot in the East.

“It’s very important,” James said of having a healthy Wade in the lineup. “He’s one of Big Three. We’ve won two championships for the most part because we had our Big Three on the floor. When he’s out there, we’re a dynamic team.”

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