Kevin Durant on criticism in bolting Team USA: ‘I’ve put in work for my country’

DALLAS — Kevin Durant insists he hasn’t lost any sleep.

Even after the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player was criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash.

“To be honest, I really don’t care,” Durant told reporters after Friday’s shootaround in American Airlines Center. “I slept the same right after I made that decision.”
An eight-year NBA veteran, Durant withdrew from Team USA, citing “mental and physical fatigue.”

KEEP IT MOVING --- Despite being criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash. (Photo by Jim Cowert/AP)

KEEP IT MOVING — Despite being criticized for withdrawing from Team USA before the FIBA World Cup in August, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant on Friday said he wasn’t fazed by the backlash. (Photo by Jim Cowert/AP)

Durant’s decision to leave the team came days after Paul George sustained an open tibia-fibula fracture. The Indiana Pacers star landed awkwardly at the base of a basket stanchion after fouling James Harden during a Las Vegas scrimmage and is expected to miss the entire 2014-15 season.

Durant’s departure followed previous withdrawals by All-Stars Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

Consequently, various media pundits questioned Durant’s timing in leaving the team, going as far as to label the 2010 FIBA World Championship MVP a “quitter.”

“If you attended camp in Las Vegas, and if you called coach (Team USA coach) Mike Krzyzewski to ask for advice on how to be a “leader” when camp resumed in Chicago, and then you blindside Coach K and every other member of the national team, you have “quit,” longtime NBA writer Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com wrote in an August 15 column.

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks on Friday refuted the criticism surrounding his star player, saying Durant’s decision to leave Team USA had “nothing to do with quitting.”

“Well, I haven’t heard anybody call him a quitter,” Brooks said. “Quitting is when you’re not playing, when you fall down and don’t get back up again. And that’s the last thing on Kevin’s mind. Kevin’s going to go down as one of the best players to ever play the game. And he’s obviously very talented and his work ethic is definitely at a high, high level. He goes into every offseason looking to add to his game on both ends (of the floor). “This year is no different. He’s gained some strength through all of the work he’s put in with our group. He’s come back. His attitude has always been great. His leadership skills have improved every year. I think he’s in a good position right now to lead us where we want to get to.”

Still, Durant, who scored 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting in 17 minutes in OKC’s 118-109 preseason win at Dallas Friday night, said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA.

Many, in fact, sensed the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by George’s gruesome injury.

 

While addressing the media on Friday, Durant said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA in August. Many speculated the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by Paul George’s season-ending leg injury during a scrimmage.

While addressing the media on Friday, Durant said he understood why he was criticized for bolting Team USA in August. Many speculated the five-time All-Star left the team, largely because he was affected by Paul George’s season-ending leg injury during a Las Vegas scrimmage. (Photo by C. L. Guy)

“I made the decision based on me, but it makes people uncomfortable,” Durant said. “So I understood and it comes with the whole territory when you do something like that. So I understand that. I try not to let it affect me and I’ll keep pushing. It’s one of those things where if you keep throwing rocks, it’s not going to penetrate because I know what I really do. I’ve put in work for my country.”

Since George’s injury, Durant said he often reaches out to the two-time All-Star, who appears to be recouping comfortably and haven’t ruled out a comeback this year.

During an interview last week, the 24-year-old George told Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth, “It’s very possible that I can play this season.”

“I talk to him all the time,” Durant said of George. “I call in and check on him. He looks like he’s doing extremely well. I saw him the other day walking with the boot. So that’s good to see that his recovery is coming along pretty well.”

As for the criticism that ensued amid a withdrawal from Team USA that “blindsided everyone,” according to Krzyzewski, Durant said that didn’t affect his offseason routine of doing the necessary things to ensure OKC remains a serious contender to compete for a championship.

Last year, the Thunder lost to eventual NBA champion San Antonio in six games in the Western Conference Finals.

“(The offseason) was fun,” Durant, the reigning NBA scoring champion, said. “I worked hard. I enjoyed my summer. That’s really it. I had a lot of off-the-court stuff to do. But what it really boiled down to was the court. I always make time to get out on the court.”

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.

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.

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.

Former East High basketball star Desmond Merriweather defies odds, celebrates his wife

Desmond Merriweather has every reason in the world to celebrate Mother’s Day.

After all, doctors didn’t think he would live to witness his 37th birthday.

LOVE AND BASKETBALL --- Inya Merriweather, the wife of former Memphis East High basketball star Desmond Merriweather, stood by her husband's side after he was diagnosed colon cancer in 2009. Although doctors had given him 24-to-48 hours to live, Desmond said he's alive today, largely because of his wife's strong support. (Photos submitted by Desmond Merriweather)

LOVE AND BASKETBALL — Inga Merriweather, the wife of former Memphis East High basketball star Desmond Merriweather, stood by her husband’s side after he was diagnosed colon cancer in 2009. Although doctors had given him 24-to-48 hours to live, Desmond said he’s alive today, largely because of his wife’s strong support. (Photos submitted by Desmond Merriweather)

Diagnosed with colon cancer toward the end of 2009, Merriweather was confined to a hospital bed in October 2010, fighting for his young life just as hard as he fought to survive the dangerous streets of Binghampton growing up.

He underwent rounds of chemotherapy. He partook in regular radiation sessions. Doctors performed multiple surgeries. Still, it seemed all hope was gone.

For the very first time, Merriweather’s life suddenly was hanging in the balance. Doctors, in fact, announced that he had between 24-to-48 hours to live as his family stood by his side. Just like that, his hospital bed seemed more like his death bed.

But just as he’s done so many times as a rising basketball star at Memphis East High in the early 1990’s, Merriweather manufactured a dramatic comeback for the ages.

“I mean, everything has gotten great since,” Merriweather told MemphiSport Friday morning. “Really, God has gotten control of me. I’ve really never been the one to listen to doctors because they really don’t know. They’re only going by what man says.”

TEAM PENNY --- Fellow Memphian and former NBA star Penny Hardaway served as assistant for the past three seasons to Merriweather, who coaches basketball at Lester Middle School. Hardaway was recently named the head coach at East.

TEAM PENNY — Fellow Memphian and former NBA star Penny Hardaway served as assistant for the past three seasons to Merriweather, who coaches basketball at Lester Middle School. Hardaway was recently named the head coach at East.

Nowadays, it seems whenever he makes routine visits for treatment, Merriweather said doctors are astounded over how his health has progressed in recent years.

“They’re in a state of shock because they pretty much don’t know what to say,” he explained. “I tell them, ‘I know what y’all tell me, but God tells me differently.’ Pretty much, I don’t feel I have cancer in my body. I feel like I felt 10 years ago.”

Among the reasons Merriweather has steadfastly remained in high spirits during his battle with the dreaded disease is that his wife, Inya, has shown strong support since his diagnosis.

Merriweather recently completed his fifth full season as head basketball coach of Lester Middle School, the same institution he attended in the mid-1980s. With his close friend, former NBA star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway serving his as his assistant, Merriweather guided the Lions to their third consecutive state championships this year.

Looking back, Merriweather, a former Lane College basketball player, deemed it essential to pay homage to Inga, whom he said has been his grandest cheerleader on and away from the sideline.

After learning her husband was stricken by cancer nearly five years ago, Inya Merriweather quit her job as a longtime employee of Church Health Center in midtown Memphis to stand by his side.

HUGE TIP-IN — After learning her husband was stricken by cancer nearly five years ago, Inga Merriweather quit her job as a longtime employee of Church Health Center in midtown Memphis to stand by his side.

“To be honest, she’s the most important part of this ordeal,” said Merriweather, who has three children with his wife of nearly five years. “What people don’t know is that she quit her job to be with me in the hospital. She never left my side. I was in the hospital for three years.”

As Merriweather prepares to celebrate Mother’s Day for the 40th time in his life, he said the single most underlying lesson his wife taught him is the significance of “real love.” After all, as Merriweather admits, he’s never been one who fully trust women, particularly during his college days at Lane.

Today, nontheless, he doesn’t shy away from the notion that Inga has given him a newfound outlook on life.

“The biggest lesson is that love is more than the eye can visualize,” Merriweather said. “Love is eternal. She loves me more than I can imagine. She has done so much, just being there pretty much and never complaining not once.”

Which, according to Merriweather, is why he believes he has every reason in the world to celebrate Inga this Mother’s Day, his grandest cheerleader who helped propelled him to a dramatic off-the-court comeback for the ages.

Asked if not for his wife’s tireless support, would he still be alive today, Merriweather said, “I wouldn’t be alive to honest. But she never gave up. That’s why I never gave up. She is the one who did all the ground work. She’s the captain of everything. People are glorifying my story with Penny, but she’s the backbone. She can get the other half of my rib now.”

Especially since he managed to persevere and defy all odds during a time his life hung in the balance.

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

Former Vols basketball star Tony Harris earns degree, gives back to community

 

GOD'S FACILITATOR --- For years, Tony Harris graced Memphis with his basketball prowess, a trend ultimately led to him earning a full fledge scholarship to the University of Tennessee. Today, the former East High star is giving back to the community as founder of the Tony Harris Basketball Academy. (Photo submitted by Tony Harris)

GOD’S FACILITATOR — For years, Tony Harris graced Memphis with his basketball prowess, a trend ultimately led to him earning a full fledge scholarship to the University of Tennessee. Today, the former East High star is giving back to the community as founder of the Tony Harris Basketball Academy. (Photo submitted by Tony Harris)

Tony Harris decided to call it a career after playing professional basketball overseas for approximately seven years.

It didn’t take long for the former University of Tennessee standout to return to Knoxville to complete the final 36 hours of his undergraduate studies.

Harris, a native Memphian, earned his degree in Psychology with a minor in Childcare within six months after his professional career ended.

He has former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl to thank.

Pearl, who recently replaced Tony Barbee as Auburn’s head coach, coached the Vols from 2005-2011 before he was fired in March 2011 for lying to school officials regarding NCAA allegations.

As Harris tells it, Pearl’s contributions to the university far outweighs the NCAA sanctions that ultimately led to his firing. Among the reasons is that during Pearl’s tenure at Tennessee, he established a program in which ex-Vol players could return to campus and finish their degree requirements.

Harris, who starred for the Vols from 1997-2001, deemed it a forgone conclusion to finish school. “Man, it was very relishing,” Harris, in a recent interview, said of finishing his undergraduate requirements.

“I look back at it as a pivotal point in my life. I knew that I couldn’t play basketball the rest of my life. I knew eventually the crowd would stop cheering. I knew getting my degree would open doors for me.”

Harris is grateful to Pearl for helping him exhibit to renewed sense of assertiveness in the classroom.

“Believe it or not, Bruce Pearl played a big part in that,” Harris said. “He created a program where he actually wanted to bring former players back. He reached out to me and I said, ‘I have to do that.’ I definitely sensed a reconnection with him. I really wished I had played for that guy right there because he cared. My hat goes off to him.”

A little more than five years removed having a earned his degree, Harris, a former McDonald’s All-American and Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball who starred at point guard for East High from 1994-97 is now dishing out assists to youngsters who aspire to journey through the basketball ranks much like he did more than a decade ago in this hoops-crazed town.

Harris, 35, is the founder of the Tony Harris Basketball Academy (or THBA), which is currently housed at STAR Academy Charter School in Northeast Memphis where he teaches physical education. According to Harris, THBA was organized to teach youths various fundamentals and mechanics as they prepare for competitive play.

ROCKY TOP TONY --- Harris, a former Mr. Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball starred at point guard for the Vols from 1997-2001 before playing professionally for seven years overseas. (File photo courtesy of UT Athletics)

ROCKY TOP TONY — Harris, a former Mr. Tennessee Class AAA Mr. Basketball starred at point guard for the Vols from 1997-2001 before playing professionally for seven years overseas. (File photo courtesy of UT Athletics)

Also, THBA has its own strength and conditioning coach to teach athletes about speed and agility as well as the importance of staying in shape on the court. In addition, the academy offers after-school tutoring and frequent sessions in which athletes are taught how to become media savvy.

“A lot of kids get in front of the news media and don’t know how to talk,” Harris said.

An organization that is comprised of about 120 individuals, Harris also conducts a midweek Bible study in which he shares with athletes stories that are parrarelled to his life. In return, athletes are encouraged to offer feedback from the messages given.

Earlier this year, Harris was installed as an ordained ministered by his pastor, Stephen Brown, and preached his first sermon just weeks later at Brown’s LOGIC Church in the heart of downtown Memphis.

“About a month before my sermon, I didn’t know what I was going to talk about,” Harris said. “And God told me to talk about where He brought me from. And so when I preached that sermon, I tied those experiences to my own life.”

Besides Pearl, Harris attributes his success on and off the court to fellow Memphian Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a former Memphis Treadwell and MemphisState star.

Drafted with the third overall pick by GoldenState in 1993, Hardaway played 14 seasons in the NBA and made four All-Star appearances before retiring in 2007 following a brief stint with the Miami Heat.

“Man, I just looked at his life and his career and how he came back and impacted the whole (city),” Harris said of Hardaway. “He really inspired me. He’s really had the biggest impact on me. And it helps to have a personal relationship with him. I’ve watch him. And what better guy to have as an example than Penny Hardaway?”

Looking ahead, Harris said his primary focus is to upgrade his staff at THBA, considering he has taken on additional athletes in recent months. Also, plans to build a new facility are in the works while he continues to train athletes at STAR Academy, a project he anticipates will be complete within the next year.

“It was four years ago,” said Harris, explaining his motivation for starting a basketball academy. “I was trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go and God gave me a vision. He said, ‘I want you to start a basketball academy.’ And then I talked to my pastor about it and then he told me to make the vision plain and clear. One thing I wanted to do was reach out to kids and not be restricted to a school.”

Much like Pearl reached out to him.

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

 

Memphis amatuer golfer Kylan Hollingshed leaves town, making much noise in Knoxville

 

ON HIS GAME --- Memphian Kylan Hollingshed decided two years to go to move to Knoxville just so he could broaden his  mechanics on the golf course. It turned out to be the right decision, considering the Knoxville Bearden High standout has positioned himself to land an athletic scholarship. (Photos submitted by Lakesh Graffaree)

ON HIS GAME — Memphian Kylan Hollingshed decided two years to go to move to Knoxville just so he could broaden his mechanics on the golf course. It turned out to be the right decision, considering the Knoxville Bearden High standout has positioned himself to land an athletic scholarship. (Photos submitted by Lakesh Graffaree)

No one has to tell Kylan Hollingshed to embrace new challenges.

He’d be the first to tell you he welcomes them.

Such was the case six years when Hollingshed picked up a golf club for the very first time.

As Hollingshed, a native Memphian, recalls, he sensed golf was something about which he could do in his leisure time. But little did he know, he’d ultimately to gain a deep affection for the sport.

“I picked my first clubs up around the age of 11 with my cousin Philip (Hudson),” Hollingshed told MemphiSport during a recent telephone interview from Knoxville. I wasn’t too interested at the time. As I kept playing, people would tell me I was a natural.”

It wasn’t long afterward that Hollingshed began taking lessons at the Gold Academy Of Memphis from longtime golf instructor Mark Grace.

“Kylan showed up one day for a clinic with a mismatched set of clubs and a big smile,” Grace said. “We regripped a junior club and we worked with that club for a couple months before leaving to spend a summer in Knoxville. When he came back he was some four inches taller and in need of new clubs. In two years, he progressed from digging holes to shooting in the mid-80′s. I was sad that he left when he was just starting to polish his game. Kylan has tremendous potential. Kylan learns very quickly, but what strikes me most is his ability to focus on his task while at the same time bring out the best of those around him.”

That this 18-year-old amateur steadfastly stuck with the sport — particularly when he wasn’t knowledgeable about it — has benefited him mightily in recent years.

Hollingshed is a senior standout for Bearden High, where he has upgraded his mechanics considerably since he enrolled at the Knoxville (Tenn.) area school two years ago.

“Moving to Knoxville was not only to broaden my skills,” Hollingshed explained. “It was also to prepare myself for the future. I would say there is more competition, playing against people who were ten times better, who started young motivated me more. They taught me multiple tricks along the way as well.”

LASTING IMPRESSION --- Bearden golf coach Susanne Huber said Hollingshed has improved considerably in recent years and has done the necessary things to land a scholarship.

LASTING IMPRESSION — Bearden golf coach Susanne Huber said Hollingshed has improved considerably in recent years and has done the necessary things to land a scholarship.

To get a clear understanding of why Hollingshed, a former Arlington High golfer, vacated Memphis for a rather unfamiliar setting, look no further than the conversation he and his mother, Lakesh Graffaree, had following his sophomore year.

Graffaree relocated to Memphis from Killeen, Texas 22 years ago to donate a kidney to her mother, who was hospitalized for renal kidney failure. Also called “renal insufficiency” according to WebMD.com, renal failure is a medical condition in which the kidneys fail to adequately filter waste products from the blood.

According to Graffaree, she sensed that Memphis would be a suitable establishment to live and raise a family, let alone remain closely connected to her ailing mother.

Four years after moving to the Mid-South, she gave birth to Hollingshed. Little did she know, he’d move away three years before he was scheduled to graduate from high school.

For Graffaree, witnessing her son move eight hours away to Eastern Tennessee was tough to stomach.

“I didn’t know how he thought that,” Graffaree said of son’s decision to move to Knoxville. “But some reason, he wanted to go there and play golf.”

Luckily for Hollingshed, it was a risk worth taking.

That’s because not only has Hollingshed become the catalyst of Bearden’s golf team, but with weeks before his graduation, he’s now aiming to acquire an athletic scholarship.

Bearden golf coach Susanne Huber believes he’s worthy of a full-ride scholarship.

“Kylan showed how dedicated he was during his senior year by not giving up,” Huber said. “He struggled to make matches his junior year and his senior year, but things have finally paid off. He qualified in the Top 5 going to a match and he proved to me how much of a competitor he could be. Any school would be lucky to have Kylan representing them on and off the course, and I truly feel that he will continue to support Bearden even after graduation. Kylan has amazing potential to be a great golfer and I know he has the drive.  After knowing him for two years, I feel he will be successful regardless the cost.”

MOTHERLY LOVE --- White Lakesh Graffaree wasn't against her son moving away to Knoxville two years ago, she has supportedly him wholeheartedly since he left Memphis.

MOTHERLY LOVE — Although Lakesh Graffaree wasn’t against her son moving away to Knoxville two years ago, she has supportedly him wholeheartedly since he left Memphis.

Two years removed from seeing her son pack his belongings and move away, Graffaree admits he made the right decision, one that, to his credit, has caused Hollingshed to mature as he enters the young adult stage.

Long before he developed an interest in golf, Hollingshed started his own business, Kidz Car Wash, at the age of eight. In addition, he’s a rising artist and is widely remembered by a number of Memphians for a starting a teddy bear drive, a craft that garnered local headlines during his days at Kate Bond Elementary.

Nowadays, however, it’s safe to assume golf is what Hollingshed — who has aspirations of being a civil engineer — relishes the most, thanks in large part to his dauntless decision to head East for an unfamiliar town.

“I still miss him,” Graffaree said. “I’ve never stop missing him. He’s a very positive person, has an uplifting spirit to be around. He’s a really good kid. He’s awesome to be around.”

Not to mention one who’d be the first to tell you he embraces new challenges.

Andre Johnson is a senior writer 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.

CBHS football star Cameron Cook survives freak neck injury, starts own business

 

COOL, CAM, AND COLLECTIVE --- Cameron Cook had quickly come under the radar among college scouts during his stint as a football player at Christian Brother High School until a freak neck injury ended his career prior to his senior season. Cook is now a well-known graphic designer in the Memphis and surrounding areas. (Photos submitted by Lakina Sidney)

COOL, CAM, AND COLLECTIVE — Cameron Cook had quickly come under the radar among college scouts during his stint as a football player at Christian Brother High School until a freak neck injury ended his career prior to his senior season. Cook is now a well-known graphic designer in the Memphis and surrounding areas. (Photos submitted by Lakina Sidney)

Cameron Cook first began playing competitive football when he was five years old.

Like many of his peers, he had developed a deep admiration for the sport.

So much, in fact, that within the first year after making the transition to prep football for Christian Brothers High, he quickly came under the radar by college scouts.

Maryville College in Tennessee was heavily recruiting him, as was Augustana College in Illinois, Tennessee-Martin, Tusculum University, and Aurora University, among others.

But weeks before the start of his senior season, an unfortunate sequence of events transpired during a scrimmage game.

While making a routine tackle, Cook, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound safety made a routine tackle and landed awkwardly on the surface. He lay motionless on the ground for approximately 20 to 30 minutes before what was a stunned CBHS sideline as trainers tended to him.

“One of the trainers asked if I was okay,” Cook told MemphiSport during a recent interview.

For a while, all seemed well for Cook, who managed to walk off the field unassisted. However, after team doctors draped ice packs over his neck, bad news would ensue. After undergoing an MRI and CAT scan the next day, it was revealed that Cook had broken his neck in three places, news that sent shocks waves throughout the CBHS athletic department, a development that effectively ended his playing career.

For the 18 year-old Cook, who will be graduating next month, the news of his career-ending injury was difficult to stomach for someone who clung to lofty aspirations of playing college football.

STAR WATCH --- Cook's heroics on the field generated an array of interest from areas colleges before his career-ending neck injury.

STAR WATCH — Cook’s heroics on the field generated an array of interest from areas colleges before his career-ending neck injury.

“I didn’t even know my neck was broken at the time,” Cook explained. “I thought it was a stinger. You know how you get a stinger in your arm? So I just stood on the sideline and watched the scrimmage. But I got a little worried. My neck wasn’t supposed to feel like this.”

Said Cook’s mother, Lakina Sidney, regarding his  injury: “It was a mother’s intuition that I knew something was wrong with him. I insisited that they not put him in the game.”

As Cook recalls, he’s fortunate he chose not to resume playing after the unlikely tackle.

“I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” he said. “To me, I think they were trying to say it in a nice way. I think it’s hard for a doctor to tell you that you can’t do something you love. It hurt. I cried. I was like, ‘Why me? What did I do?’ It was my time to shine. I didn’t have to compete for a job. Then I broke my neck before my first game (as a senior). I didn’t even get to set foot under the lights.”

With his football career all but a distant memory, Cook wore a neck brace for roughly five months. Still, after reality had set in, he was determined not to allow his emotions to consume him.

In other words, Cook was a fixture at CBHS’s games, doing everything from inspiring his teammates to assuming the role as he describes as a “player coach” from the sideline.

“I mean, I’ve been with them for four years,” Cook said. “I didn’t want to give up because I broke my neck.”

Lakina Sidney was amazed at how her son, who had huge aspiration of playing college football, overcame the odds and has emerged as a rising entreprenuer as young graphic designer.

Lakina Sidney was amazed at how her son, who had huge aspiration of playing college football, overcame the odds and has emerged as a rising entreprenuer as young graphic designer.

With strong support from his family, teammates, and the CBHS community, Cook managed to come to grips during arguably his most challenging encounter of his young life. Although the possibilty exist he will never play football again, college, according to him, is a foregone conclusion.

“Basically, he was worried that he wasn’t going to play (football) anymore,” said Lakina Sidney, Cook’s mother. “(Doctors) said he should consider playing a less-impact sport. We cried together. But I’ve always instilled in Cameron that what God has for him, it’s for him.”

Sidney’s son will enroll this fall at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and plans to major in Civil Engineering with a minor in Graphic Design. For Cook, he has already proven to have found his niche as flourishing graphic designer, a craft he embraced when he was 10 years old with the help of his uncle, Reggie Sims.

Cook owns ICAM Graphic Designs and is considered one of the most popular high school promoters in Memphis and the surrounding areas.

“My uncle is an artist,” Cook said. “He’s not just a graphic designer. I watched him design things on the computer and I just took it and ran with it, and my skills have gotten much better.”

Luckily for Cook, whom his mother describes a “resilient child,” life, as he knows it, couldn’t be any better for someone who’s destined to have a bright future.

Never mind that his cleats, shoulder pads, and helmet are hung up for good.

Among Cook's projects as a graphic designer was the cover of CBHS's latest yearbook for the Class of 2014.

Among Cook’s projects as a graphic designer was the cover of CBHS’s latest yearbook for the Class of 2014.

“I couldn’t be more proud of how he’s handled the adverse situations on and off the field,” said Patrick Cook, Cameron’s father.

Cameron, meanwhile, admittedly accepts the fact that he has likely played his last competitive football game.

“I think I’m blessed,” Cook said with a smile. “Like I said, I could be dead, sitting in a wheelchair, or paralyzed from the neck down. I wished (the injury) wouldn’t have happened. But it could have been worse.”

Spoken like someone who has embraced the real meaning of life.

Wholeheartedly.

Andre Johnson is a senior writer 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.