What Happened to the Kneeling Razorbacks?

A look at the six Razorback basketball players more than a year after their national anthem protest.

On Nov 3, 2016, six female Razorback players locked arms and kneeled as the national anthem played before a home basketball game. “Recently you all know that there’s been a lot of killings from police officers of African-Americans and other minorities,” Razorback Jordan Danberry said afterward. “Me and my teammates took a kneel today during the national anthem to speak for those who are oppressed. As Razorback student-athletes we have a platform to do that.”

The protest came with significant cost. The kneeling Razorbacks and their coaches (specifically former head coach Jimmy Dykes), who publicly supported them, suffered severe public criticism mixed with support. Former athletic director Jeff Long also supported the players’ rights to free speech. Long, too, sustained public heat for that support. This event, and his initial hiring of Dykes, almost certainly played a role—albeit a small one relative to the football program’s struggles—in Long’s firing just last week.

Four of the six protesters ended up quitting the team. At least one has transferred to another program. The classifications below refer to the player as of the 2016-17 school year.

Sophomore Jordan Danberry

The Conway native quit the team within weeks of the protest, and transferred to Mississippi State. Vic Schaefer, said Danberry should be academically eligible and ready to play for MSU against Little Rock on Dec. 10.

Senior Tatiyana Smith

The Plano, TX native quit in November, 2016 due to an undisclosed medical reason. She was on track to earn a criminal justice degree by May 2017.

Sophomore Briunna Freeman

Quit the program by early January, 2017. The UA honored her scholarship through the end of the academic year.  She returned to her home state of Georgia.

Freshmen Kiara Williams and Jailyn Mason

They are the only kneeling Razorbacks still on the team in the first year of new head coach Mike Neighbors.“It hasn’t been a discussion this year,” Neighbors said early this season. “I think that was last year, they’ve all lived through it already, and I don’t think that’s been something that they talk about doing again.”

Williams, an Alexander, AR native, is averaging 7.7 points and 6 rebounds a game for the 2-1 Razorbacks. Mason, a Mason, OH native, averages 9.3 points and 3.7 rebounds.

Redshirt Freshman Yasmeen Ratliff

The Alpharetta, GA native left the program by the end of the season. Interestingly, her father, Theo Ratliff, was an NBA All-Star and the best defensive player in the history of Wyoming basketball. When it comes to college sports protests, there is another, more direct link between the Wyoming Cowboys and Arkansas.

In 1969, Pine Bluff native Ivie Moore became one of The Black 14, a group of Cowboys football players who launched one of the most significant college sports protests of the era. I write more about it in my book on Arkansas heritage, sports and race relations.

Here’s the first page of the Ivie Moore chapter:

Wyoming football

UA Alum Publishes History of African Americans in Arkansas Sports

In African-American Athletes in Arkansas: Muhammad Ali’s Tour, Black Razorbacks & Other Forgotten Stories, alumnus Evin Demirel (BA’05) brings to light a little-known part of Arkansas history.

The journey from his roots in central Arkansas to historian is a bit circular. He went to Central High School in Little Rock, where he said race relations was a common topic discussed in hallways and classrooms. At the U of A, he majored in Classical Studies and taught Latin for a time.

But he got back into doing what he loved most: writing, specifically about public history.

In July, Demirel brought some of his previous essays and features together into African-American Athletes in Arkansas, a 200-page volume he seif-published. Many of the chapters, both previously published and brand new, are about the Razorbacks. “When it comes to sports in Arkansas,” Demirel said, “they are the defining brand, a unifying force for the state.”

He said that on the surface of this unifying force, there seemed to be a total exclusion of African-Americans prior to 1960. “But there were these exceptions to the strict rule of Jim Crow,” he said, “essentially all the time.”

These exceptions, and other important stories about African-
Americans in Arkansas, are often not remembered and little known. “There is a vast disparity in the public records of whites and blacks in Arkansas,” Demirel said.

In his introduction, he says the history of pre-integration African-American communities is vanishing as the people who lived through those times die. To that end, he created heritageofsports.com. One of the site’s purposes is to support an ongoing online project to commemorate people and events relating to sports and race in the South.

He said he wants to inject these “forgotten stories” into the sphere of public history. “I want it to become part of our states history and part of the curriculum at high schools and at the U of A,” he said.

“I don’t see this as the end of something,” he said, “but the start of something.”

The above originally published in the October 2017 issue of Arkansas, an alumni magazine produced by the University of Arkansas.  Delani Bartlette is the author.

Bert Williams: Nolan Richardson’s Friend & Giant of College Basketball History

Former El Paso Bert Williams was in the middle of two of the most important cultural landmark events of the 1960s: the first major city in the South to officially integrate post-Reconstruction, and the first NCAA Championship basketball team to start five black players. About a week ago, this civil rights giant suffered a heart attack and was put into an El Paso area hospital’s cardiac arrest unit, according to my author friend Rus Bradburd. Bradburd is a former UTEP assistant basketball coach who wrote the biography of Razorback coaching legend Nolan Richardson, an El Paso native who alongside Bert Williams’ played a central role in paving the path to Texas Western’s 1966 NCAA title.

Their stories began to intertwine in the late 1950s, when Bert Williams was an El Paso alderman who helped Richardson get into his first college, Eastern Arizona, as a baseball player. After Richardson returned to El Paso, Williams got him to join his fast-pitch softball team, according to Bradburd’s Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson. After one game, Williams convinced Richardson to go with him to a popular local restaurant, the Oasis, despite the 19-year-old Richardson’s protest he wouldn’t be served there.

Williams insisted they enter anyway, given his connections in city government and Richardson’s status as the best athlete at Texas Western, now known as UTEP. Sure enough, the waitress refused to serve them the beer and Coke they ordered. Williams tried to force the issue but failed. He grabbed Richardson by the elbow and headed for the door, then warned the owners “I’ll be back.”

The incident shook Williams up. He immediately began drafting legislation to officially end segregation of El Paso hotels, theaters and restaurants. Williams told Bradburd: “The city was divided by railroad tracks, but the laws were enforced more arbitrarily for Mexican-Americans, and there were places were they could eat without trouble.” But attitudes were not so permissive for blacks. Williams rallied fellow aldermen to his side, revised the wording of the ordinance and got it to pass an initial vote.

“Both El Paso newspapers, the Times and the Herald-Post, published editorials condemning the progress,” Bradburd wrote in Forty Minutes of Hell. “The mayor vetoed the ordinance, but Williams had enough votes to override him. ‘It was just by coincidence that Nolan was there that night at the Oasis,’ says Williams, who was subsequently elected mayor himself. ‘After I witnessed the way he was treated, such a great kid and the star of the college, I knew I had to do something.’

Bert Williams’s heroic act made El Paso the first major city in the Old Confederacy to officially desegregate. Yet Williams’s courage—he ignored numerous threats and enormous pressure—was barely reported nationally and remains nearly forgotten even in El Paso*. [Texas Western coach] Don Haskins took notice though. The town’s new progressive status would have a profound effect on Texas Western’s ability to recruit black athletes,” including Arkansas native Jim Barnes**, who would become the 1964 NBA Draft’s No.1 overall pick.

Don Haskins, son of an Arkansan and Hank Iba protege, had arrived on the UTEP campus in 1961 and would go on to become Richardson’s mentor. Haskins leaned on Richardson, the team’s only black local native, to become the social host for black recruits—given he knew the lay of the land and where to go to avoid unofficial Jim Crow sites. Although Richardson graduated from UTEP in 1963, he would stay around the area and play a big role in helping Haskins’ recruit many of the players who formed the 1966 title team.

Although El Paso itself was now officially integrated, Richardson preferred taking recruits to far more racially tolerant Mexico.

“In Juarez, black men could eat thick steaks, dance with whomever they wanted, and stay out as late as they pleased,” Bradbury wrote. “Heroes from the 1966 team, such as Harry Flournoy, Orsten Artis, Bobby Joe Hill, and Nevil Shed all socialized in Mexico with Richardson and had a lively time. As such, Mexico as well as Bert Williams hold a place in the history of American college basketball; they were largely responsible for the recruitment and comfort of the historic Texas Western team.”

 

*In 2009, the city of El Paso did officially honor Bert Williams.

**To learn more about Jim Barnes’ roots in Newport, make sure to read this segment from Untold stories: Black Sport Heroes Before Integration.

Bill Ingram on Mike Anderson’s Fate at Arkansas: Part 2

The founder of the Arkansas Hawks AAU program wonders if Mike Anderson still has the ears of his players.

 

These days, Bill Ingram’s opinion on the state of the basketball Hogs matters more than ever. Talent-wise, after all, the key to its future lies within Ingram’s Arkansas Hawks AAU program in the form of these five verbal commits to Arkansas:

  • Ethan Henderson (LR Parkview; 4-star via 247Sports, c/o 2018)
  • Justice Hill (LR Christian; Class of 2019)
  • Isaiah Joe (Fort Smith Northside; 3-star via 247Sports; c/o 2018)
  • Reggie Perry (Thomasville, Ga., 4-star via ESPN, c/o 2018)
  • Desi Sills (Jonesboro, 4-star via 247Sports, c/o 2018)

 

But will this class, currently ranked No. 10 in the nation by ESPN,  actually make it to Fayetteville? The question seems apt in light of the last couple of weeks. The Hogs, who had been a lock for the 2017 NCAA Tournament, have tumbled onto the bubble according to college basketball betting lines after suffering three horrendous losses within a four-game stretch to Oklahoma State, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

Ingram, like so many other Hog fans, is concerned with Arkansas’ lack of consistency under the coaching of Mike Anderson and his staff. This is Anderson’s sixth year and the team is stocked with plenty of talented recruits. Yet the team lurches in effort and execution from one night to the next, unable to find a groove of consistent success.  Indeed, Arkansas appears to have regressed from earlier in the season from a defensive intensity standpoint. The players still haven’t developed enough consistent offensive flow and chemistry to prevent momentum-killing droughts.

Ingram recently shared his thoughts on Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly.  Part 1 of their conversation is here. Below are excerpts from Part 2.

Bill Ingram: In actuality the [in-state talent] of these last two or three years, leading up to the next two or three years, it’s at an all time high. It as high as I’ve ever seen it before. And these guys can compete on a national level… And what we expect is we expect to keep our in-state kids home. And I don’t know if we’ve always been like that, so that’s nothing new. We expect to keep our in-state kids home. Our kids have gotten a lot better and we expect them to be a part of that program. And help that program to win games.

And this is the thing that I think bothers me more than anything is: We’re still asking for you to be 3rd or 4th [in the SEC]. We’re thinking if you’re in 3rd of 4th place, and that means you may be good enough to get to the NCAA tournament, and anything that happens from that point. But I want us to get to the point where we’re asking you to be No. 1 or 2. Every year. And now we working on third and fourth. And so, I think the fans have been extremely reasonable.

… I’m still hungry for that No. 1 or No. 2 but we’re accepting No. 3 or No. 4 and we not getting there.

No one is happy and I understand why. And we have to do better in then all our programs. We have to be better on our football program. I mean, we shouldn’t be at this point in our programs because we have a great fan base.

I look at schools like Butler. Man, they got a neighborhood fan base in Indianapolis. Not a statewide fan base, not even the whole city of Indianapolis. But, they got a neighborhood fan base. And they’re consistently ranked in the top 25 and for the last, what you want to say, five, ten years? So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to be a top 25 program every year and competing for SEC championship. I just feel like that.

Bo Mattingly: What do you think is the biggest issue or question that Mike Anderson is facing right now?

Bill Ingram: Well, the biggest question is, I think, what if he’s lost the team? And when you have losses like this to a Missouri team — probably no one on that team could start for Arkansas. And then when you come back and you under a huge amount of pressure, and you perform like that against Vanderbilt. First question that comes to people’s mind is whether you still have the ears of the players and if they’re listening to you?

The above excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity

Todd Day Disappointed He’s Still Not a Hogs Assistant

“I am a little salty that I’m not on the Razorbacks staff.”

Todd Day, the University of Arkansas’ three-time All-American, recently opened up to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about his desire to be an assistant in the Hogs’ basketball program. I spoke to Day right after Mike Anderson was hired as the Hogs’ head basketball coach in 2011, and even then he was excited about the chance of one day soon joining Anderson’s staff.

As an assistant to Nolan Richardson, Anderson had recruited Day out of Memphis in 1988. Day joined fellow stars Oliver Miller and Lee Mayberry to help lead Arkansas to the 1990 Final Four while finishing his career two years later as the program’s all-time leading scorer. At the time I spoke to Day about coaching with Arkansas, he had two years of experience as the head coach of Memphis Academy of Health and Sciences.

Since then, Day’s padded his resume by coaching three more years at Memphis Academy, then coaching his alma mater Memphis Hamilton for a couple years (he won a state championship) and coaching Team Penny on the AAU circuit (where I spoke to him about Malik Monk).

Along the way, Day talked to Mike Anderson at various times about assistant jobs, he told the Democrat-Gazette’s Troy Schulte. The conversations never led anywhere. “I am a little salty that I’m not on the Razorbacks staff,” Day told Schulte. “It’s my school. Those are my guys. Coach A is my guy. I’m not salty at them. I’m just salty at the situation.”

That’s a helluva lotta sodium chloride, folks. I sure hope he’s drinking plenty of fluids with it.

One thing Day doesn’t mention, but may also add salt to the situation, is the fact that Lee Mayberry is on the Razorbacks staff as a “special assistant” to Mike Anderson despite the fact he has less varied coaching experience than Day. Mayberry, a former NBA scout, had coached an AAU team in Tulsa since 2000, but apparently hadn’t coached high school basketball like Day has.

Day’s Coaching Career

  • Arkansas Impact (2008)
  • Memphis Academy of Health and Sciences (2009-2014)
  • Memphis Hamilton High School (2014-2016)
  • Philander Smith (2016-present)

It should be emphasized that Day has always spoken very highly of his friend Mayberry. It’s pure speculation on my part Day may feel a little extra salty he hasn’t been able to carve out a spot on the Razorbacks staff in light of the fact Mayberry has become a special assistant to Anderson. I have never spoken to Day or anybody on the Razorback staff about this.

Day is currently coaching at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. His stepfather, Ted Anderson, advised him to use the NAIA school as a springboard to bigger college positions.

Anderson said he told Day: “Build that program right there, take that from ground zero and take it as high as you can take it. Do it with class and dignity, and you’ll be recognized for it.” For now, Day’s invested in his Philander Smith team, which sits at 9-9. He told Schulte last summer he even turned down an interview for an assistant spot on the staff of Tulane, where his former Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Dunleavy, Sr. now coaches.

Will Day one day get his dream of a Razorback coaching spot?

That’s unknown.

What is known is that any coaching position with the Razorbacks basketball program is, on the whole, losing prestige year by year. That trend was hammered home in a 28-point loss on the road yesterday to a 2-6 conference Oklahoma State team. The Hogs had few excuses. They were playing at full strength health wise and coming off 4 straight SEC wins. They should played better, and with more effort and have been competitive. Instead, they produced a lackluster, sloppy, uncoordinated defensive effort that resulted in the Cowboys repeatedly shredding them from the outside and getting to the basket on open drives seemingly at will.

Whenever Arkansas’ foe has a top-flight point guard, and the game is on a neutral or away court, these eviscerations happen with alarming predictability. They are, in part, the result of poor execution on defensive switching — or, rather, the lack of any plan whatsoever on how to guard perimeter pick and roll action.

That lack of planning is an indictment of the Razorbacks’ coaching staff. If Day one day officially interviews for his dream job, he needs to make his former coach uncomfortable by pointing out the oversights which have hurt the brand of the program he had a hand in building.

 

Home Basketball Attendance for Arkansas In 2015-16

Arkansas’ first 10 home games of the 2015-16 season have seen an average attendance of 6,700 people. That’s about 1/3 capacity of Bud Walton Arena.

First 10 games

Source: HogStats.com

In December, sports radio host John Nabors wrote that the crowds earlier this season haven’t even been as good as in the mediocre John Pelphrey years:

I was the “leader” of the student section in my time at the University of Arkansas. I rocked my Hog headband and a Brandon Dean #13 jersey for every game I could. Most of the seasons where I was a student were pretty average. Minimal success. No postseason. No excitement. Nothing. But we in the Trough built up a pretty good group of kids that showed up and brought hell. The two front rows were filled every game except the ones where most of the kids went home for Winter Break. We were innovative, motivated, and dedicated to giving our team an edge over the opponent. The rest of the Bud Walton Arena spectators fed off of us.

It may not have been as impactful as the mythical mid 1990’s Trough, but by God we did our best.

I thought about all of that during the Evansville game. So when I saw the pathetic excuse for a student section, it infuriated me.

Read the rest of Nabors’ take on Bud Walton’s plummeting attendance at Arkansas Fight.

Mike Irwin on Difference Between Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk Situations

Here’s part two of Arkansas sportscaster Mike Irwin’s jeremiad for the ages against the circumstances Malik Monk’s decision to attend Kentucky instead of Arkansas. He delivered it on The Forum with radio talk host John Nabors, and it didn’t take too long for him to start talking about the last Arkansas prep star to head for Kentucky – Archie Goodwin….

That whole situation didn’t use people like this one did. He didn’t move to some other part of the state. People didn’t get jobs. There wasn’t a guy running an AAU program that was getting favors from everybody to try and keep his AAU thing going. There wasn’t all that stuff… How long did Marcus work with the basketball program? A year?

There wasn’t that with Archie Goodwin. You’re going to come on and take a position with the staff for a year to give you something to do, and give you more credibility at a school that you went to and graduated from, and then at the end of that, you’re going to look all those people in the eye and say, ‘Thanks for all the help, but there was too much pressure.’ I’m sorry. But if you think that people are going to grin about this and go, ‘Oh, well, yeah. Okay. Cool.’

Ronnie Brewer is tweeting out, “Come on, have some class.” Okay, Ronnie. You didn’t do this. Nobody did this to you. Put yourself in Mike Anderson’s position. You’re doing everything within the NCAA rules, because you understand the need and the pressure to get an in-state kid into your program, and you do all these things, and this is what happens? Not only is it an insult that it happened, but he went to the one place that is just unacceptable, which is ‘I’m a one and done.’ Okay. Stand up two years ago and announce that you’re a one and done. Do that. You better move because, look, I know how this stuff works. I’ve seen it.

I had a brother-in-law that was a number one running back in this state 25 years ago. He went to Baylor when Arkansas recruited the fool out of him. And when his NFL career went to crap, he moved back here and tried for three years to work, and he got nothing. And he ended up having to move to Texas. That’s what I told him one day. He was moaning to me about all this stuff. I said, “Go ask Baylor for help. That’s where you went to school.”

John Nabors: That’s’ the thing that I feel like a lot of people overlook and kind of minimize, in a way. There’s truth to be said about going to the University of Arkansas and having that type of defense*, and having the type of protection as your career goes on, because not everybody can make it in the NBA. Not everybody can have that elongated career. A lot of things can happen. Heaven forbid something does happen. When those things happen, look at Greg Childs for instance. He battled injuries. His NFL career is still yet to take off. He’s been going through a lot, but the fact that he is a Razorback, if he came back to the state, people are going to welcome him with open arms.

It always gives you opportunities. I think that’s really what this is about. 

It’s important to note that although what John Nabors is saying here is generally accepted wisdom in Arkansas, there are a significant number of former Razorbacks who do not feel this way. If you’re interested in the topic of life after pro football for star Hogs, make sure you read this in-depth piece I wrote. 

This was the second of a two-part piece. Click here for the first at my more regularly updated blog BestOfArkansasSports.com here.  Never miss a BestOfArkansasSports.com post by signing up below. As a bonus, I’ll send a transcription of a long conversation I had with Ronnie Brewer about the Monks, whom he knows well.

Brandon Allen & Rohan Gaines After Arkansas Lost to Toledo

The following are excerpts from interviews held after the Arkansas football team’s lost 12-16 to Toledo in September, 2015 in Little Rock:

Brandon, you guys were one for five going into the red zone; you got down there; how tough was that? What was going on in the red zone?

Brandon Allen: We were killing ourselves, we felt like we could score. We had a bunch of plays held back. Couldn’t punch it in for the life of us today. Can’t win against anybody if we’re one for five.

On the struggles of the run game:

Allen: We couldn’t get it going. Got to give them credit, they did a good job stopping it, but can’t win one-dimensional. Got to get around the ball, and we couldn’t.

You outgained them by about 200 yards. You gained over 500 yards. Normally you do that you’re going to win. How frustrating was that?

Allen:  Very… Were one for five in the red zone there. You can get all the yards you want but it doesn’t matter if you can’t put it into the end zone.

As a leader of this football team what do you have to do this week to get ready for Texas Tech?

Allen: I know this team. We have our minds right, and this isn’t going to affect the rest of the season. We have a lot of games left. Tomorrow we will watch the film, we’ll move on, and we’ll be ready for Texas Tech. I know this team. There’s no quit. This is one game. We got ten more, a lot of games to play, and the team’s got their mind right, and we’re going to play each and every game like it’s our last one. We’re trying to play them all.

85 yards in penalties. Coach B’s playing clean didn’t get it done today in that area. Any thoughts?

Allen: That killed us. It really did. Any time we had momentum going on offense, you know, we’d get a holding call or something, get held back, and I think we scored a touchdown at the end, holding call called it back; so we’re really killing our momentum with penalties, and can’t win when you’re killing yourself.

On the last drive of the game:

Allen: I felt like we were going to score, and we moved the ball pretty much all day; can’t punch it in, and got all the way down there, give ourselves a chance. Last play, kind of just dropped it; went out in the in zone but there was nobody to throw it to, and kind of stumbled a little bit.

***

What’s the locker room feel like right now?

Rohain Gaines: I feel like we’ve got enough leaders to turn things around. I’ve been down this road before. I’ve been here for a long time and I know it can go one of two ways. I feel like with the leaders that we have on this team it can go up from here.

What’s the key to making it go the right way?

Gaines: You just have to come back and prepare. We have to come back Sunday and work, we got to come back Monday, get some overtime. Got to come back Tuesday, Wednesday practice, Thursday practice, Friday practice, and Saturday play our ball.

What did they do to surprise you guys? They seemed like they had a lot of wide open guys running free to pass to the linebackers.

Gaines: Give all the credit to Tolito. They’ve got some great athletes. They called great plays and they obviously schemed us up.

***

What’s it feel like?

JaMichael Winston:   It’s terrible, it’s a terrible feeling. Unbelievable feeling. Those guys came in here and earned their win and we didn’t today.

What did they do that gave you guys problems?

Winston: There was a lot of scheming up. They schemed us up pretty good. They got on us. You can tell they’ve been working on them for a while.

A lot of the times expect Arkansas playing a team like that to out physical them and it seemed like it was the other way. Were you surprised at how physical they were?

Winston: Yeah, they were pretty physical today. They came out with a lot of energy today and played good football and earned a win.

There’s been times when a loss like this for a big program can affect the next game and the next game. What did coach talk about in that post game about making it just be the one loss and not letting it linger.

Winston: Just having a 1-and-0 mentality and moving on to the next one. Can’t let one bad game affect the next, just got to go on, going on Sunday. Start focusing on Texas Tech and get better.

Winston: What was happening on the third and long because they converted several third and longs.

Winston: They were getting the ball out quick to their guy, that guy  number 40 was doing a good job at catching the ball and getting the first down.

***

Mitch Smothers: We didn’t earn that victory today. We didn’t come out and we didn’t play Arkansas football like we should. We just didn’t come ready to play.

Why did you not?

Smothers: I feel like it starts with me, but it’s just that the preparation we did and just … I just felt like we didn’t come out and did what we should have.

You guys out-gained them by a couple hundred yards. How tough is that to lose a game when you dominated like that statistically?

Smothers: We didn’t play clean enough. We had too many penalties, pre-snap penalties, post-snap penalties that drove us back. You can’t win football games when you have that many penalties.

Given what happened last year, with grounding and pounding people, it looked like this year was set up to be that again. Today, maybe not the rushing numbers you’d like. Same with last week. What do you think’s going on there?

Well, we’re not going to let one game define this whole season. We’ve still got a lot of football left to play. We’re definitely going to work on that.

What’s been the difference, though, in the rushing game, in not getting the yards you guys-

Smothers: These first two opponents, they like to move a lot on us. We just didn’t come ready to move them vertical like we should have. Like I said, we’re going to come … We’ll become better.

When you say they didn’t come ready, are you guys not prepared for this one?

Smothers:        I started to say … I’m just going to go back to what Coach B said. We just didn’t earn it. We didn’t come out and play Arkansas football. That’s all I got to say about that.

Since you guys are one to five scoring in the red zone, what do you think when you’re standing down there?

Smothers:        It’s definitely very frustrating, but then again, it goes back to us up front, me included. We didn’t run the ball like we should have today. That’s the one thing you’ve got to do in the red zone is run the football if you want to win a football games.

Talking with NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala In Istanbul

Despite LeBron's 40 ppg, Iguodala's resistance has been vital to the Warriors' title surge.
Despite LeBron’s nearly 40 ppg, Iguodala’s resistance has been vital to the Warriors’ title surge.

June 16, 2015 UPDATE

FullSizeRender-4

It’s official. Afterward, he discussed becoming the first MVP to not start a single game preceding the Finals: “We all say God has a way for you, a purpose for you, and I accepted it.”

In fall of 2010, fans of the Turkish basketball club Besiktas welcomed through the doors of their home arena the most famous “AI” in American team sports – the one and only Allen Iverson. While Iverson’s tenure in Istanbul only lasted 10 games, his late-career stint abroad generated significant headlines across the world.

Just months before, though, another “AI” sat in the bleachers of Besiktas’ home arena. This AI, Andrew Iguadala, had been teammates with Iverson on the Philadephia 76ers and was forever battling the moniker of, well, “the other AI.” Although a first rate talent, Iguadala was in many fans’ minds a perpetual afterthought, an All-Star without any identifiable All-Star skill or trait beyond sheer hustle, defense and court smarts.

In August 2010, I was in Istanbul to report on the FIBA World Championships and thanks to the help of fellow writers like Brian Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 12.19.05 PMMahoney and Chris Sheridan, I found myself in Besiktas Arena during a Team USA practice to do interviews for the Associated Press and other outlets. After leaving a horde of TV cameramen buzzing around Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, I noticed Iguodala in the stands by himself, reading.

I introduced myself as a writer. He studied me for a second, and soon asked where I was from.
“Arkansas,” I replied. Iguodala’s eyes lit up. “I was going to go there,” he said, and he briefly explained he’d signed a national letter of intent with the Razorbacks before Nolan Richardson was fired and Iguodala decided to go to Arizona instead.

That connection seemed to loosen Iguodala up a bit and I then asked him about the book he was reading. He showed me the cover of “The Alchemist” and told me it was about a young man’s personal journey in search of his “Personal Legend,” and went in to what that meant. Admittedly, it’s pretty mystic but boils down to “something you have always wanted to accomplish.” Like tens of millions of others, it was clear the book’s author Paulo Coehlo had captivated Iguodala with the notion that each of us have a quest, a calling and, in the end, a kind of destiny to fulfill.

***

Fast forward five years and it appears Iguodala may be on the brink of fulfilling his own “Personal Legend.”

In these NBA Finals, the 6’7″ small forward has arguably been the most important player on the court for Golden State. The longtime “other AI” is at last becoming “the AI” despite in the regular season playing off the bench for the first time ad averaging career lows in points, rebounds and assists. Yet in Golden State’s first three games, when the Warriors needed it most, it was Iguodala among all the Warriors who played with the most passion, pace and confidence. Most importantly, he has played the strongest individual defense on LeBron James and that defense has been a big part in James’ breaking down at the end of the last two games.

Iguodala’s significance in the Warriors’ title run was never more explicit than last week when Golden State, which had been heavily favored entering the series according to sportsbook online betting,  fell down 2-1. Searching for a jolt, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr inserted Iguodala as the starter in place of Harrison Barnes. The move has ignited two straight wins and a flood of meme-y Iguodala highlights:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNj-O2hRoGs]

With regular season MVP Steph Curry getting off to an historically bad Finals start, it was Iguodala more than any other Warriors player who stood as the team’s top MVP candidate following Game 4. An NBA Finals MVP for him would be historically notable and precedent-breaking in many ways. Here are a few:

1) Iguodala would be is the first Finals MVP on the same team as a healthy regular season MVP. Yes, Magic Johnson did win it as a rookie in 1980 during the same season his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got MVP honors. But Abdul-Jabbar suffered an injury late in that series against Philadelphia, clearing the path for Johnson – a point guard, mind you – to step in at center with a Game 6 magnum opus that to this day staggers the mind.

2. Iggy would be is the first Finals MVP since Wes Unseld in 1978 to average less than 10 points a game in the regular season. (Even Celtic Cedric Maxwell, who was nicknamed “Cornbread” by Arkansas assistant coach Melvin Watkins, averaged 15 points a game before stealing thunder from a young Larry Bird to win the 1981 Finals MVP)

3. He would be is the first Finals MVP who did not start a single game during the regular season.

4. He would be may be the first Finals MVP who didn’t finish at No. 1 or No. 2 on his team in points, assists, blocks, rebounds and steals during a championships series (Currently, he ranks at No. 3 in all those categories for the Warriors – a testament to his versatility).

In the end, it’s likely the man at the top of a few of those rankings – Steph Curry – will continue to shoot lights out as he did in Game 5 and secure Finals MVP honors if Golden State wins the series. And it’s likely, after a brief turn in the limelight, Iguodala will go back to being an afterthought in the minds of many NBA fans.

But no matter what happens, the Springfield, Ill. native’s series-altering energy, hustle and savvy in these Finals shouldn’t be forgotten.

Years from now, expect his play these last few games to be central to the legend he is building.


Commemorate the Warriors’ historic run with this one-a-kind design:

Golden State celebration
Golden State celebration by The_Sports_Seer
Shop for Golden T-Shirts online at Zazzle.com

Will Hogs Join Duke, Ohio State & Arizona State to Hit Rare “Player of the Year” Trifecta?

ADG_SPT_UA_BBC_UK1_005_r600x400One opposing SEC coach called  Andrew Benintendi the nation’s best college baseball player. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.

In the early 1990s, Arkansas joined the SEC and the conference began awarding a baseball player of the year award to complement already established football and basketball MVP titles. Since then, the conference has soared to lofty heights, becoming arguably the NCAA’s most powerful organization. Much of that has to do with stretches of dominance by Alabama, LSU and Florida in football; Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida in basketball and the likes of LSU (five national titles 1993-2009) and South Carolina in baseball.

Many of these programs have produced multiple players of the years in various sports, yet no one school has yet been able to hit a POY trifecta by having a male player win the ultimate individual honor in each major team sport in one calendar year.

That may soon change.

In 2015, the Razorbacks athletic department has a chance make SEC history by sweeping these honors. The push started earlier this spring with sophomore Bobby Portis winning basketball SEC Player of the Year. Then, on Monday, sophomore Andrew Benintendi was announced as SEC baseball’s player of the year. Benintendi, of course, has helped spearhead the Hogs’ surge from a 1-5 start in SEC play to 18-7 finish including two wins so far in the SEC Tournament. The outfielder from Cincinnati, Ohio leads the nation in slugging percentage (.760) and ranks first in home runs. “He’s probably the best player in college baseball right now,” Tennessee coach Dave Serrano told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bob Holt.

I write more about this unique record in the context of SEC sports and the Razorbacks’ upcoming football season for Sporting Life Arkansas, but here I want to look beyond the SEC.

Specifically,  how many times has a school pulled off this one-year POY trifecta among all major conferences?

Three times – sort of.

Here they are:

1994 Duke

In basketball, Grant Hill secured ACC player of the year and first team All-American honors. But thanks to the Razorbacks, “national champion” was one honor he didn’t grab for the third straight year. Ryan Jackson took home ACC POY honors after setting a single-season school record with 22 home runs. In football, bruising back Robert Baldwin won it after helping lead Duke to its highest national ranking in 23 years.

Baldwin was the last Duke player to win ACC player of the year honors in football, but was the 10th such POY in school history (which is a surprisingly high number to my 33-year-old self. It reflects how un-dominant Florida State once was).

Continue reading Will Hogs Join Duke, Ohio State & Arizona State to Hit Rare “Player of the Year” Trifecta?