Executive chef Yaschica Higgenbotham making noise in Mid-South, heartland regions

Hig1DALLAS — In case you don’t know her, allow Yaschica Higgenbotham to introduce herself.

For starters, Higgenbotham — nicknamed “Coko” — is a 33-year-old native of Amite, Louisiana.

A 2001 graduate of Amite High, Higgenbotham is a few years removed from having enrolled at Delgado Community College in New Orleans and two years removed from having graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary in Dallas.

RISING CHEF STAR --- A little more than a month removed from having been thrust in the executive chef plateau, Yaschica Higgenbotham’s astounding cooking repertoire has given way to her becoming a household name at the popular Orion Café and Grill in nearby Rockwall, Texas. As the restaurant’s executive chef, Higgenbotham --- widely known as “Chef Antwan” --- is afforded the opportunity to customarily put her immense culinary talents on display, a long-waited dream that, to her credit, further sums up why vacating the small town of Amite, Louisiana for a much larger city was a foregone conclusion all along. (Photo submitted by Y. Higgenbotham)

RISING CHEF STAR — A little more than a month removed from having been thrust in the executive chef plateau, Yaschica Higgenbotham’s astounding cooking repertoire has given way to her becoming a household name at the popular Orion Café and Grill in nearby Rockwall, Texas. As the restaurant’s executive chef, Higgenbotham — widely known as “Chef Antwan” — is afforded the opportunity to customarily put her immense culinary talents on display, a long-waited dream that, to her credit, further sums up why vacating the small town of Amite, Louisiana for a much larger city was a foregone conclusion all along. (Photo submitted by Y. Higgenbotham)

A first-generation college graduate, Higgenbotham didn’t just earn a college degree, she mastered school in flying colors, having registered a cumulative grade point average of 3.26.

Add to the fact that the vibrant, progressive Higgenbotham is an accomplished bass guitar player, an avid painter, and often finds pleasure in preparing delectable meals for friends, and it’s no wonder she has become a fixture in her brief time as a member of West Irving Church of God In Christ.

“I really began to truly believe that Dallas was a part of God’s plan when He started to put great people in my path,” Higgenbotham told longtime journalist Andre Johnson during a recent exclusive interview. “I like my church family. They get on my nerves just like my church family back home, but I wouldn’t trade them at all. They embraced me with loving arms and they believed in me.”

In assessing her brief time in the Lone Star State, Higgenbotham doesn’t shy away from the notion that she’s in the right establishment, at the ideal time during what undoubtedly has become a rather dazzling transition in her young life.

In a nutshell, while many who watched her grow up in a rural Louisiana town sensed that relocating to a massive city wasn’t in her best interest, Higgenbotham admittedly knew full well she had arrived at a pivotal point in her life where she had to refrain from watching things happen, but rather she had to begin to make things happen.

Did she ever.

“I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey here in Dallas,” Higgenbotham said.

Given the commendable strides she has made in recent years, it’s safe to assume there’s no turning back now.

Higgenbotham undoubtedly loves Dallas and Dallas loves her back.

“Dallas is where I believed in me,” said Higgenbotham, displaying a smile that was virtually nonexistent upon her move here. “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey here in Dallas. Dallas is where I became a woman. Dallas is where my faith has grown in God. Dallas is where I began to believe in myself. Dallas is where my culinary career began. Dallas is where I began to love Yaschica Higgenbotham. I don’t know what my future holds here in Dallas. But whatever it is, I will always put God first.”

Hig4It is, by all accounts, because of her devout faith, coupled with her solid support system that Higgenbotham not only mastered culinary school, but she’s without question starting to flourish as a thriving professional chef in the process.

A little more than a month removed from having been thrust in the executive chef plateau, Higgenbotham’s astounding cooking repertoire has given way to her becoming a household name at the popular Orion Café and Grill in nearby Rockwall, Texas.

As the restaurant’s executive chef, Higgenbotham — widely known as “Chef Coko Antwan” — is afforded the opportunity to customarily put her immense culinary talents on display, a long-waited dream that, to her credit, further sums up why vacating the small town of Amite for a much larger city was a foregone conclusion all along.

So much for the constant fear she routinely harbored upon her move to Dallas.

“Wow…what a leap of faith,” said Higgenbotham, appearing rather in awe of her rapid success since coming to Texas. “When I moved to here, I knew no one. I prayed and ask God to show me where to go and He gave me Dallas.”

Surely, life for Higgenbotham had its share of hardships and obstacles. But for a woman who was taught as a child to cling to unwavering faith, Higgenbotham’s life today is such that she has gone to great lengths to clear every hurdle that has come her way.

Look out, Texas. There’s no stopping her now.

“It has been a journey of ups and downs,” Higgenbotham said. “Some days I thought I wasn’t going to make it here. But I was so determined to fight the good fight of faith. I knew that going back to Amite was not an option for me. I was determined to break every generational curse that had attached itself to my life and to my destiny. I was just crazy enough to believe that God didn’t send me here to leave me.”Hig2

Her rise to success, she said, has come full circle, in large part because of the continuous guidance of her mother, Vanessa Higgenbotham, her grandmother, Mary White, and her godmother, Annie Sudduth.

“But there is one person who have taught me a lot since I’ve been here in Dallas,” Higgenbotham, whose long-term goal is to erect her own restaurant and food truck before she turns 40, acknowledges. “Her name is Retta Mitchell. No…I don’t want to start naming names. But I have to say she’s been my (biggest) supporter here in Dallas. Retta has taught me how to find the bright side of everything I go through in life. I truly thank God for Retta J.”

Now that she’s steadily becoming acclimated to the Dallas and its surrounding areas, the possibility exist that Higgenbotham’s skills as a professional chef will ultimately give way to catering opportunities, a trend that, given her continuous success, she’d welcome wholeheartedly.

Hands down.

CHASING GREATNESS --- A 2001 graduate of Amite High, Higgenbotham is a few years removed from having enrolled at Delgado Community College in New Orleans and two years removed from having graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary in Dallas.  A first-generation college graduate, Higgenbotham didn’t just earned a college degree, she mastered in school in flying colors, having registered a cumulative grade point average of I graduated with a 3.26.

CHASING GREATNESS — A 2001 graduate of Amite High, Higgenbotham is a few years removed from having enrolled at Delgado Community College in New Orleans and two years removed from having graduated from Le Cordon Bleu Culinary in Dallas.
A first-generation college graduate, Higgenbotham didn’t just earned a college degree, she mastered in school in flying colors, having registered a cumulative grade point average of I graduated with a 3.26.

“I love to experiment with different flavors and texture,” said Higgenbotham, “but most all, I love to plate my creation. I love to entertain and watch the face of the people when they take that first taste. It puts a smile on my face to see people enjoy great food. As a woman in this field, you have to know your stuff. If not, the male chefs will kill you. I had to fight so hard to get where I am now. God is good. I just know that this is the next step to my very own (venture). I love it.”

Not only that, Higgenbotham has come to love Dallas and Dallas has shown it loves her back.

There you have it, a thorough introduction.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are an author, musician, model, entrepreneur, athlete, or pastor/minister who is seeking exposure and would like to share your story with an in-depth news feature, call Reporter Andre Johnson at 901-690-6587 or Facebook message him under “Andre T. Johnson” for details.

AndreAndre 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, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Golden State’s Andre Iguodala dished out notable assist in shout out to NBA chaplains

COMMENTARY

AndreDALLAS — For a sportswriter who has covered the NBA for the past five years, among the trends that never generate headlines is when players meet with the chaplains as part of their pregame rituals.

Because of the constant traveling and customary back-to-backs that make up an 82-game regular season, players rarely get to partake in worship inside of an actual edifice.

Besides, as NBA veteran Tayshaun Price told me during a 2013 interview regarding this subject, meeting with chaplains on game days provides players with the spiritual guidance and wisdom they need which, as a result, will enable them to keep life in its proper perspective.

So how commendable that in the wake of the Golden State Warriors’ Game 6 NBA Finals win Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers that gave them their first world championship in 40 years, Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala during a live postgame interview deemed it necessary to thank the chaplains across the league for their dedicated pastoral service they rendered generously to him and his teammates.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED --- Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry and MVP Andre Iguodala celebrate after their team defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 to win the 2015 NBA Finals on June 16, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Warriors took the best-of-seven series four games to two over the Cavaliers to claim their first title since 1975. (Photo by Timothy Clary/Getty Images)

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED — Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry and MVP Andre Iguodala celebrate after their team defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 to win the 2015 NBA Finals on June 16, 2015 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. The Warriors took the best-of-seven series four games to two over the Cavaliers to claim their first title since 1975. (Photo by Timothy Clary/Getty Images)

“I want to thank all the chaplains across the NBA for helping us out every single night,” Iguodala said after he became the first non-regular season starter in NBA history to be named the Finals Most Valuable Player.

HEART OF GOLD --- Iguodala during a live postgame interview deemed it necessary to thank the chaplains across the league for their dedicated pastoral service they rendered generously to him and his teammates.  ““I want to thank all the chaplains across the NBA for helping us out every single night,” Iguodala said after he became the first non-regular season starter in NBA history to be named the Finals Most Valuable Player. (Photo by David Liam/Getty Images)

HEART OF GOLD — Iguodala during a live postgame interview deemed it necessary to thank the chaplains across the league for their dedicated pastoral service they rendered generously to him and his teammates.
““I want to thank all the chaplains across the NBA for helping us out every single night,” Iguodala said after he became the first non-regular season starter in NBA history to be named the Finals Most Valuable Player.
(Photo by David Liam/Getty Images)

Consequently, Iguodala’s rare acknowledgement to the NBA’s men of the cloth brought tears to the eyes of longtime Memphis Grizzlies chaplain Donald Johnson.

Johnson, in telephone interview from Memphis on Wednesday, said he befriended Iguodala when he played for the Philadelphia 76ers from 2004-2012. Both, Johnson acknowledged, had often communicated via text messaging during the Warriors’ playoff run and, after their championship-clinching win, Johnson wasted little time reaching to his friend.

“I texted him (Tuesday) night and told him, ‘Congratulations on the championship’ and ‘job well done,’” Johnson, the pastor of Memphis’ historic Oak Grove Missionary Church, said. “I told some people he was going to be the Most Valuable Player not because he is a great player, but because he’s a man of God.”

PLAYERS' PASTOR --- Donald Johnson, the longtime Grizzlies chaplain, spoke with such eloquence in December 2012 on how essential it is that Iguodala and his teammates become dedicated daily to partaking in prayer and reading God's word because, according to Johnson, "they both go hand in hand."  As the brief session was about to culminate, Johnson prayed for Iguodala, asking God to grant him favor and to release supernatural blessings upon the All-Star who, after Tuesday night's game, had wrapped up his 11th NBA season.

PLAYERS’ PASTOR — Donald Johnson, the longtime Grizzlies chaplain, spoke with such eloquence in December 2012 on how essential it is that Iguodala and his teammates become dedicated daily to partaking in prayer and reading God’s word because, according to Johnson, “they both go hand in hand.”
As the brief session was about to culminate, Johnson prayed for Iguodala, asking God to grant him favor and to release supernatural blessings upon the All-Star who, after Tuesday night’s game, had wrapped up his 11th NBA season.

According to www.sportschaplaincy.org, sports chaplains have been fixtures to the sports community, having existed since the early mid-20th century. Also, the presence of sports chaplains have grown considerably over the past two decades, the website states, and the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have well established Christian sports chaplaincy ministries.

Since I began covering the NBA, I’ve witnessed array of players meet with Johnson roughly 90 minutes before tipoff in a designated room adjacent to FedExForum’s media hospitality area. Players from Mike Miller, Jeremy Lin, Dwight Howard, Stephen Curry, to the entire Oklahoma City Thunder team.

Heck, I even recall last season when Houston Rockets point guard James Harden shoved me out of the way in the FedExForum tunnel after a pregame shoot around session so he could meet Johnson in time for to hear a mini-sermon.

Ironically, I actually sat in on Iguodala’s pregame session with Johnson the day after Christmas in 2012, during which Iguodala was in a contract season with 76ers.

I recall like yesterday how Johnson spoke with such eloquence on how essential it is that Iguodala and his teammates become dedicated daily to partaking in prayer and reading God’s word because, according to Johnson, “they both go hand in hand.”

As the brief session was about to culminate, Johnson prayed for Iguodala, asking God to grant him favor and to release supernatural blessings upon the All-Star who, after Tuesday night’s game, had wrapped up his 11th NBA season.

Fortunately for Iguodala, it’s safe to assume that God has modernized his career unlike never before, considering he was thrust atop the basketball world, hoisting the covenant Larry O’Brien hardware while simultaneously bearing an unlikely Finals MVP trophy.

Nevermind that Iguodala wasn’t deposited in the starting lineup until Game 5. But give him credit for being the only player capable of containing LeBron James, the Cavs’ self-proclaimed “best player in the world.”

After the Warriors’ historic season had come to a ceremonious end, after they emphatically had proven that their 67-win regular season wasn’t a fluke, Iguodala, whose primary role — at least for this season — was to fill in nicely whenever Klay Thompson took a breather, paid homage not just to his Creator, but to those who are responsible for dishing out the assists and tip-ins only a few seem to recognize.

Fortunately for Iguodala, it’s safe to assume that God has modernized his career unlike never before, considering he was thrust atop the basketball world, hoisting the covenant Larry O'Brien hardware while simultaneously bearing an unlikely Finals MVP trophy.  Nevermind that Iguodala wasn’t deposited in the starting lineup until Game 5. But give him credit for being the only player capable of containing LeBron James, the Cavs’ self-proclaimed “best player in the world.”  (Photo by Timothy Clay/Getty Images)

Fortunately for Iguodala, it’s safe to assume that God has modernized his career unlike never before, considering he was thrust atop the basketball world, hoisting the covenant Larry O’Brien hardware while simultaneously bearing an unlikely Finals MVP trophy.
Nevermind that Iguodala wasn’t deposited in the starting lineup until Game 5. But give him credit for being the only player capable of containing LeBron James, the Cavs’ self-proclaimed “best player in the world.”
(Photo by Timothy Clay/Getty Images)

Those much-needed spiritual assists and tip-ins that will empower them daily to keep life in its proper perspective.

“That really did touched my heart,” said Johnson, explaining his reaction to Iguodala’s postgame shout out to chaplains. “I was really humbled by that and I texted him and said, ‘Brother, thank you. I can’t lie to you. A tear began to dwell in my eye. It’s great to get the recognition.”

A newsworthy subject that surely had been long overdue for generating headlines.

Andre 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, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Despite birth of baby, Okla. prep RB Orrin Walker drawing interests from colleges

CAMBREE'S FINEST --- According to Ardmore (Okla.) High's star running back Orrin Walker, days after the recent birth of his daughter, he was peppered with an assortment of questions --- questions from whether he plans to finish high school to whether he will continue playing football beyond what has been a remarkable prep career for the talented for the 5-foot-7, 150-pound running back. Today, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Kansas State, Michigan, Penn State, Navy, Southern Arkansas, Northern Arizona, Southwestern Oklahoma State, Oklahoma Baptist, Tulsa, North Texas, and the University of Texas all have expressed interest in him. (Photos courtesy of Ardmore Athletics)

CAMBREE’S FINEST — According to Ardmore (Okla.) High’s star running back Orrin Walker, days after the recent birth of his daughter, he was peppered with an assortment of questions — questions from whether he plans to finish high school to whether he will continue playing football beyond what has been a remarkable prep career for the talented for the 5-foot-7, 150-pound running back. Today, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Kansas State, Michigan, Penn State, Navy, Southern Arkansas, Northern Arizona, Southwestern Oklahoma State, Oklahoma Baptist, Tulsa, North Texas, and the University of Texas all have expressed interest in him. (Photos courtesy of Ardmore Athletics)

Orrin Walker Jr. has a forthright message to those who deemed it necessary to doubt him.

“I have come too far now to turn around,” Walker, a junior running back for Ardmore (Okla.) High said during a recent interview.

Armed with what various recruiting analysts say is a wealth of blazing speed and resilience, Walker is alluding to the backlash he took after the birth of his daughter, Cambree, who was born September 16, 2014.

According to Walker, days after the birth of his daughter, he was peppered with an assortment of questions — questions from whether he plans to finish high school to whether he will continue playing football beyond what has been a remarkable prep career for the talented 5-foot-7, 150-pound running back.

“Alot of people thought that I would start slacking and some even thought I would quit (football),” Walker said. “But I have been able to maintain going to school, working two jobs, playing football, and taking care of my daughter.”

HUGE INSPIRATION --- Like Orrin’s mother, Ardmore head coach Doug Wendel also contends that his star running back hasn’t missed a beat since the birth of Cambree. If nothing Cambree has become his grandest cheerleader.

HUGE INSPIRATION — Like Orrin’s mother, Ardmore head coach Doug Wendel also contends that his star running back hasn’t missed a beat since the birth of Cambree. If nothing Cambree has become his grandest cheerleader.

And in the wake of what undoubtedly has been a brutally hectic year for this football standout, his solid play on Friday nights has given way to a slew of major colleges inquiring about his services once his high school stint concludes.

According to Walker, Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Kansas State, Michigan, Penn State, Navy, Southern Arkansas, Northern Arizona, Southwestern Oklahoma State, Oklahoma Baptist, Tulsa, North Texas, and the University of Texas all have expressed interest in him.

To get a thorough understanding of why the recruiting process for Walker — known to many as “OJ” — has been nothing short of impressive, look no further than the remarkable numbers he registered this past season.

In leading Ardmore to a 12-2 finish that included a Oklahoma District 1-5A championship and lengthy postseason run, Walker amassed 1,462 yards rushing on just 102 carries and scored a team-best rushing 17 touchdowns. In addition, he had eight receptions for 147 yards and two scores and was just as efficient on special teams, where he generated 377 yards (47.1 average yards per kickoff) on just eight returns and three scores.

So much for the negative backlash he witnessed upon the birth of his child.

“I know OJ has already spoken on this subject, but when I first learned that my son was going to be a father, I was crushed,” said Orrin’s mother, Anquanett Walker. “Different things began to run through my mind, but I never thought at any time that it would stop him from reaching the goals he had set as a child. Today our precious Cambree is (six) months old and I believe that she has added inspiration and motivation to his life.”

PURE TALENT --- In leading Ardmore to a 12-2 finish that included a District 1-5A championship and lengthy postseason run, Walker amassed 1,462 yards rushing on just 102 carries and scored a team-best rushing 17 touchdowns.

PURE TALENT — In leading Ardmore to a 12-2 finish that included a District 1-5A championship and lengthy postseason run, Walker amassed 1,462 yards rushing on just 102 carries and scored a team-best rushing 17 touchdowns.

Like Orrin’s mother, Ardmore head coach Doug Wendel also contends that his star running back hasn’t missed a beat since the birth of Cambree. If nothing Cambree has become his grandest cheerleader.

And vice versa.

“OJ has a tremendous upside,” Wendel said. “He continues to improve in his overall body strength. His speed is exceptional. His drive is second to none.”

Conversely, Wendel said there are a few mechanics Orrin must fine tune as he look prepares for what figures to be a record-setting senior season. Scouts and recruiters will get another glimpse of his Orrin when he attends a number of camps and combines this summer.

“One area that he has improved the most is in his leadership ability,” Wendel said. “He has the skills to make the people around him better. OJ will excel his senior season and at the next level.”

Something about which Cambree, his biggest — but smallest — fan will savor.

“Cambree have been big part of my motivation to continue to go forward,” Orrin said.

A forthright message those who deemed it necessary to doubt this true talent ought to take into account as well.

DrePicAndre 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.

Former Packer Cletidus Hunt says Cowboys to endure ‘chilly experience’ in Green Bay

DALLAS — Cletidus Hunt on Wednesday took a moment to reminisce on his first visit to Green Bay.

As the former Memphis Whitehaven High star and Packers defensive tackle tells it, such a recollection still brings him to chills.

Literally.

According to Hunt, he and former University of Memphis cornerback Mike McKenzie were a few weeks removed from having been drafted by the Packers in April 1999. What they discovered within minutes after emerging from the plane at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport was the frigid weather Hunt described as “downright painful.”

'ICE BOWL 2015' --- According to former Memphis Whitehaven High and Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Cletius Hunt, the Dallas Cowboys are almost certain to have a "chilly experience" when they arrive to Green Bay, Wisconsin for this weekend for Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game against the Packers at historic Lambeau Field. (Getty Images photos)

‘ICE BOWL 2015′ — According to former Memphis Whitehaven High and Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt, the Dallas Cowboys are almost certain to have a “chilly experience” when they arrive to Green Bay, Wisconsin for this weekend for Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game against the Packers at historic Lambeau Field. (Getty Images photos)

“Both of us flew up there together,” Hunt explained. “And when we got off that plane, it was so cold to the point where it gives you a culture shock. And when you play your first game, you’re sitting there trying to figure out how to get it done because it’s so cold.”

As far as Hunt is concerned, the streaking Dallas Cowboys (13-4) are almost certain to witness a similar brutally cold feeling when they fly into Green Bay, Wisconsin this weekend for Sunday’s 12:05 p.m. CST NFC Divisional playoff game against the Packers (12-4) at Lambeau Field.

The overachieving Cowboys, winners of five consecutive games, have become the NFL’s hottest road team this season, having manufactured an unlikely 8-0 mark. Green Bay, on the other hand, won each of its eight home games during the regular season — trends that figure to make for one intriguing matchup when these teams square off on the frozen tundra.

One thing’s for certain: Something’s got to give in this win-or-go-home slugfest between two of the NFL’s most storied franchises, who are facing each other in a postseason game in Green Bay for the first time since the famous -15 degrees NFL Championship Game dubbed “The Ice Bowl” in 1967.

“I had some Dallas Cowboys (fans) tell me (Dallas quarterback) Tony Romo is from Wisconsin,” Hunt said. “But I told them he hasn’t been up there. He’s been in Dallas. When they first get there, they’re not stepping on the terminal because the airport is small. They’re stepping on the runway when they step off the plane. When you come to Green Bay and wake up for a 12 o’clock game and feel how cold it is in the hallway of your hotel, that’ll give you an indication of how cold it is on game day. That’s the thing I love about Green Bay. They’re going to make sure the guests have a chilly experience.”

COWBOY UP --- Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, the NFL's leading rusher, will need another impressive outing in Sunday's frigid temperatures against the Green Bay if Dallas is to have a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

COWBOY UP — Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, will need another impressive outing in Sunday’s frigid temperatures against the Green Bay if Dallas is to have a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

A 30 percent chance of snow is expected in Green Bay Saturday afternoon with the high reaching 30 degrees. The forecast at the time of Sunday’s kickoff is expected to be partly sunny with a high of around 19 degrees.

Advantage, Packers?

“If you factor in the weather, there will be a disadvantage for Dallas,” said Hunt, adding he’s surprised the Cowboys didn’t travel to Green Bay earlier this week. “A lot of guys haven’t been in bad weather like that. When I played, there were young guys who had never seen snow, and when it snowed in Green Bay, they were fascinated by it. And when it got really cold, they were to tap out. They were ready to (get traded).”

Having played 85 games in seven seasons for the Packers, Hunt, 39, said that while he enjoyed his tenure in Green Bay — he admittedly left his Wisconsin home unlocked in the offseason while in Memphis — there were times he often found it difficult becoming acclimated to the frequent subzero temperatures for which the city is customarily known.

“The football is going to be hard. The ground is going to be extra hard,” Hunt said. “But we’ve got some extra (gear) up there. Green Bay is always prepared because that’s the backyard. That’s the home team. If you don’t know how to prepare for it, it won’t work for you. Guys don’t even want to go out there during warm-ups. But the thing about it, they’ll try to play through it. But that 12th man is on that field…that snowman on the field.”

Although Dallas is accustomed to playing in much warmer climates than the one it will witness against the Packers, Hunt believes the Cowboys can stage an upset if DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher, proves to be his usual reliable self. Dallas averages 147.1 rushing yards per game, second only to Seattle (172.6).

In addition, the Cowboys are seventh the league in total offense, averaging 29.2 points per game. Green Bay, meanwhile, is sixth in the league in total offense, having registered 30.4 points per game.

COLD MEMORIES --- Having played 85 games in seven seasons for the Packers, Hunt said there were times he often found it difficult becoming acclimated to the frequent subzero temperatures Green Bay is customarily known for.

COLD MEMORIES — Having played 85 games in seven seasons for the Packers, Hunt said there were times he often found it difficult becoming acclimated to the frequent subzero temperatures Green Bay is customarily known for.

Among the keys for the Packers, who enter Sunday’s game off a first-round bye and have proven to be difficult to contain at hostile Lambeau Field, is putting pressure on Romo early and often, taking away Dallas’ potent rushing attack, and witnessing quarterback Aaron Rodgers continue to dissect the opposing secondary.

“He’s done some impressive things all season,” Hunt said of Rodgers. “And then to go 8-0 and throw not one interception, those are some really impressive stats. And he’s still battling injuries. That leg is still bothering him, but he’s had some time off.”

Still, while there has been much hoopla surrounding the Cowboys’ undefeated streak on the road and the Packers’ unblemished mark at home, the winner of Sunday’s game likely will be the team that proves it’s capable of conquering what undoubtedly will be a brutally freezing encounter on the frozen tundra.

“Get on your knees, pray, and buckle your (expletive),” said Hunt, “because it’s going to be a hell of a ride.”

A ride that, in Hunt’s estimation, could very well bring back memories of what transpired when the Cowboys and Packers last met for a postseason game in Green Bay.

“It’s going to be a repeat of the Ice Bowl,” Hunt said. “Ice Bowl 2015 is about to take place.”

Only this time, there will be a light heat wave, one that is expected to rise 13 degrees below the freezing mark.

Literally.

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

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley: ‘Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance’

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Mike Conley, Jr. entered the NBA ranks in 2007, he was widely viewed as an unproven rookie and the son of Olympic gold and silver medalist triple jumper Mike Conley, Sr. Now in his seventh professional season for the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley, the longest-tenured player on the roster, has emerged as arguably the most underappreciated point guard in the NBA. No doubt, the 27-year-old Conley is the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that boasts the league’s best record and is a legitimate contender to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this year. During a recent exclusive interview with MemphiSport NBA Southwest Division reporter Andre Johnson, Conley spoke about the lofty expectations for this year’s team as well as assessed what has been a stellar career for the native of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Here are 11 questions for No. 11.

BOLD CONFESSION --- Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn't shy away from the notion that he's aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

BOLD CONFESSION — Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn’t shy away from the notion that he’s aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis’ second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

ANDRE: A lot has been said about the organization drafting Memphian Jarnell Stokes back in June. What’s so special about his presence on the team?
MIKE: Jarnell’s done a great job for us since Day 1. He has brought energy to our team. You know, he’s a hard-nosed worker and he wants to get better. He has two great big men to learn from in Marc (Gasol) and Zach (Randolph) and even Kosta (Koufos) and Jon (Leuer). You know, those guys have a wealth of experience and can help Jarnell. I think he’s done a great job with the minutes he’s been given. He really hasn’t been able to show much out there as he wants to. But for the most part, in his short time, he’s done a great job, knowing the plays, where to be on the floor, being in the right spots and capitalizing off that.

ANDRE: Zach Randolph decided in the offseason to return to the organization. There were many speculations as to whether he might move on, but he’s back in a Grizzlies uniform. In your estimation, how special is it having Zach back?
MIKE: It is huge. He’s the head of this ship, man. He always will be. He’s made this team what it is today. So without him, we wouldn’t be here. With him, we’re like family, so it’s awesome to have him back.

ANDRE: Did the Grizzlies get better in the offseason?
MIKE: I thought we did get better in the offseason. And not only because of (the acquisition) Vince Carter and the rookies, but a lot of guys have added a little bit more to their game. So we’re looking forward to a lot of guys stepping up and taking on different roles. They’ll have more on their plate, so hopefully that’ll improve our team and give us a chance to make a deep run.

ANDRE: Much had been said about your constant progress last year, particularly before the All-Star break. In fact, there were a lot of national media prognosticators who sensed you should have gotten serious consideration to represent the West in the All-Star Game. But because the West is so deep at that position with the Chris Pauls and Damian Lillards of the world, you weren’t selected. Do you feel at this stage in your career you’re getting the respect you deserve?
MIKE: Um…slowly. You know, it’s a journey, man. It’s been a journey for me just trying to get better every year and getting attention by adding more to my game and proving that I can play. So I think people are starting to understand my style of play and I just want to keep getting better and not worry about whether people will respect me or not. I just want to go out there and play the best basketball I can.

HUGE IMPACT --- A majority of Conley's seven NBA seasons has been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets' coach in July.

HUGE IMPACT — A majority of Conley’s seven NBA seasons have been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets’ coach in July.

ANDRE: Obviously, this team would like to finish in the top three or top four in the Western Conference standings heading into the postseason. But what are your personal expectations in this, your seventh NBA season?
MIKE: I want to be a better leader. I want to be a better leader for this team, want to be someone everybody can count on. Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance. You know, everyone wants to be an All-Star. But I’m beyond that. I just want to win. If we win, I think we’ll get the attention we deserve.

ANDRE: Now, of course, (Grizzlies head coach Dave) Joerger is back after much reshuffling in the front office in the offseason. Describe your relationship with your coach.
MIKE: It was good that Dave came back because we didn’t need a new rotation of coaches coming in. We need that stability. He’s been here pretty much my entire career and just to have him here as the head coach two years in a row will be great. After his first season, he’s going to be much better.

ANDRE: Speaking of head coaches, Lionel (former Grizzlies coach Hollins) has resurfaced in the head-coaching ranks in the league. Of course, a lot of people felt he should have landed a head coaching job last year. Lionel was very, very big on you, particularly when people said negative things about your style of play. How happy were you when he resurfaced in the NBA?
MIKE: I was very happy for him. I texted him, called him and congratulated him. It was well-deserved, man. He’s a great coach. I know they (Brooklyn Nets) got a good one and he’s looking forward to that opportunity and he’s going to make the best of it.

ANDRE: In terms of NBA point guards, you’ve made a name for yourself. Clearly, your stock has risen and people are now starting to respect your overall body of work. But who are among of the NBA point guards Mike Conley likes to watch?
MIKE: Who Mike Conley likes to watch? Well, I like to watch the ones on all 32 teams.

ANDRE: Of course, I can’t let you off the hook that easily, Mike. Tell me. Who do you like to watch the most?
MIKE: Well, every team has a great point guard. You have athletic points like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. You have some smaller points…Isaiah Thomas is a good one and plays well. Eric Bledsoe is another good one. So you have a lot of good ones. But I can tell you it’s tough to play against them. It’s not too much to watch them. But I have to deal with them on the court.

ANDRE: Is there any player on the team you hang out with on a regular basis?
MIKE: I pretty much hang out with all of them. We try to do as much together as we can. But Marc is probably the closet one I’m with.

ANDRE: Do you expect to be more vocal this year as the Grizzlies’ floor general?
MIKE: I do. I figured I’ve earned the respect to do that, just coming out and being assertive and more vocal because they believe in me running the show.

ANDRE: Here’s a bonus question, Mike. Of course, you’re an Ohio State man after having played two seasons for the Buckeyes. This is seemingly a down year for Michigan football. But I’ve got to ask you this as these schools prepare to meet in a few weeks. Ohio State or Michigan?
MIKE: Ohio State, man.

DrePicAndre 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.

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 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.

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

Former 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.