When Paul Pierce persuaded Kevin Garnett to play for the Nets—and for rookie coach Jason Kidd—it clinched the deal of the summer. Now the clock is already ticking on a group of highly paid but aging stars as they strive to lead the franchise to its first NBA championship and give new meaning to the Beastie Boys’ addage, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Writes Chris Mannix, “Perhaps the most persistent concern is what Garnett, 37, and Pierce, 36, have left, a question that was raised after the Celtics lost in the first round last spring. “Don’t read too much into that,” says then Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “When [Rajon] Rondo went down, we asked them to do too much. They went from trying to mesh into the team to having to carry it again. But Paul can play forever; he never uses his athleticism. And Kevin—as long as you watch his minutes—can still be Kevin Garnett.”
Kidd is as attuned to the modern game and player as any, even though he is lacking in procedural aspects and experience at the helm. Last season he was a veteran player. This season he will be the boss, but not so far removed from his fraternity of brothers in the locker room. “Unlike most first-year coaches, Kidd isn’t expected to develop talent, but rather to make full use of a surplus of it,” writes Mannix. “Kidd understands that on a team loaded with stars, he is potentially its biggest liability. Still, his philosophy will blend the approaches of the men he played for.” | SI senior writer Chris Mannix
A year and a half after he tore his left ACL, 2011 MVP Derrick Rose is back. But will he be as good as new? Rose is one of 12 top NBA players who are attempting to return from knee surgery. Vrentas writes, “According to a 2010 article in the Sports Health journal that tracked the league’s injuries through a 17-year period, no other body part causes more missed games in the NBA than the knee. As players continue to get bigger with each passing season, and as the game has become more acrobatic, their bigger and stronger bodies place a greater strain on the knee as they twist and turn and jump. This applies to ACL injuries as well as tears to the meniscus, the C-shaped piece of cartilage in the knee joint.”
Rose was criticized by fans and media for sitting out last season instead of making a speedy recovery as did Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who returned to play nine months after tearing his left ACL. “NBA players recovering from knee surgeries face unique demands, including an 82-game season,” writes Vrentas. A sustained pace with dozens of sharp, abrupt movements; up to 12 minutes per quarter; and little margin for error in the essential skill of shooting. Returning to the court after knee surgery may take longer in the NBA than in other professional sports, like the NFL.” | SI writer Jenny Vrentas
Class is in session for Dwight Howard in Houston. The topic? Offense. Despite being a seven-time NBA All-Star and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Howard’s inside game is built on power and little else. That could change under the tutelage of the most balletic pair of old-school big men the game has ever seen: Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale. Writes Jenkins, “While Olajuwon methodically expanded his repertoire through 17 seasons in Houston, showcasing his speed with a balletic array of spins and counters, Howard’s routine remained fairly constant, forcing up those baby hooks.”
Olajuwon, who won two NBA titles with the Rockets, believes versatility is the one thing preventing Howard from being great. “You can’t have one move,” Olajuwon says. “It’s like having one outfit. I’m not going to wear the same thing to the party that I do to the gym.”
Howard worked with Olajuwon while he was with Orlando. Soon after Howard signed with the Rockets last July, McHale invited The Dream to once again become part of the team to help coach Howard and several of the team’s other big men, including 7-foot center Omer Asik. “How can we get Dwight better?” McHale asks. “That’s what we talk about. If we did nothing, and he played the way he has his entire career, he’d still be the best big guy in the NBA. But if Hakeem and I can give him a couple more tools, and he can master those, what a complement that would be.” | SI senior writer Lee Jenkins
As he recovers from the ruptured Achilles tendon that will delay the start of his 18th NBA season, Kobe Bryant reflects on how he became his generation’s greatest player in an exclusive interview with senior writer Lee Jenkins in this week’s SI. Jenkins writes, “In an age when athletes aspire to be icons, yet share the burden of success with all their best pals, Bryant looms as perhaps the last alpha dog, half greyhound and half pit bull.” (PAGE 35) Bryant, who makes his 17th appearance on SI’s cover, admits that he has some self-doubt as he comes off a potentially devastating injury at age 35.
“I have self-doubt,” Bryant says. “I have insecurity. I have fear of failure. I have nights when I show up at the arena and I’m like, ‘My back hurts, my feet hurt, my knees hurt. I don’t have it. I just want to chill.’ We all have self-doubt. You don’t deny it, but you also don’t capitulate to it. You embrace it. You rise above it. . . . I don’t know how I’m going to come back from this injury. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be horses—. Then again, maybe I won’t, because no matter what, my belief is that I’m going to figure it out. Maybe not this year or even next year, but I’m going to stay with it until I figure it out.” (PAGE 35)
Bryant has adopted a title for the next chapter of his career. “It’s The Last Chapter,” Bryant says. “The book is going to close. I just haven’t determined how many pages are left.” (PAGE 35)
Bryant also discusses many of the challenges and opportunities that have allowed him to become a better player, including growing up in Italy. “I was lucky to grow up in Italy at a time when basketball in America was getting f—– up with AAU shuffling players through on strength and athleticism,” Bryant says. “I missed all that, and instead I was taught extreme fundamentals: footwork, footwork, footwork, how to create space, how to handle the ball, how to protect the ball, how to shoot the ball.” (PAGE 36)
In the winter of 2001 teammate Rick Fox told Bryant in a players-only meeting that the team wants to feel like Bryant needs them on the court. Bryant responded by saying, “Sometimes I do shoot too much. It’s not because I see you open and don’t want to pass. I don’t see you at all. My mind is built on scoring the ball. That’s a weakness.” (PAGE 37)
After a year feuding with teammate Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant learned that Shaq had been traded to Miami. “I was no longer a 20-year-old with 30-year-olds,” Bryant says. “My teammates were suddenly my peers. I couldn’t be the kid who was trying to demolish everything in his path anymore. My reputation was as this drill sergeant, and I had to make the conversion from on-court assassin to manager.” Bryant says he talked to Michael Jordan many times about how to impart motivation with love. “Getting other people to believe in themselves,” Bryant says, “that’s always been the hardest part.” (PAGE 37)
So how does he see this season playing out? “Maybe I won’t have as much explosion,” Bryant says. “Maybe I’ll be slower. But I have other options. It’s like Floyd Mayweather in the ring. There’s a reason he’s still at the top after all these years. He’s the most fundamentally sound boxer of all time.” (PAGE 39)
He was dismissed from LSU in August 2012 for multiple failed drug tests, arrested for possession of marijuana and had two separate stints in rehab, but there is another side to Arizona Cardinals’ safety Tyrann Mathieu, writes Jim Trotter in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Since being selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2013 draft, the 21-year-old has emerged as a young defensive playmaker capable of turning his once-troubled past into a bright future.
Whether he is on the field or watching film, Mathieu has proved he has the necessary football intelligence needed to make outstanding defensive plays. He is quickly earning recognition from coaches and teammates, especially since he has learned two new positions. “You have to understand how unusual it is, what he’s doing,” says Arizona’s defensive backs coach, Nick Rapone. “Nickel and safety, those are the positions that make all of the adjustment calls. They’re extremely cerebral positions, which is the thing with Tyrann—he’s extremely intelligent. The kid knows he makes a mistake as soon as he makes it, and he doesn’t [repeat it].” (PAGE 43)
In addition to Mathieu’s intelligence, he has also proven himself physically. His quickness mixed with balance keeps him on point during games. “His body balance is off the charts; he’s never out of football position. No matter what he’s doing on the football field, he’s always square-shouldered, his knees bent,” says Rapone. (PAGE 43)
Despite all of the attention surrounding his return to the game and his performance on the field, Mathieu admits it was not only the big plays he missed while he was away; it was also the little things, “like your teammates patting you on the back and getting your coaches’ recognition,” he says. (PAGE 43)
Although proving himself as a crucial component to the Cardinals’ defense, Mathieu’s past and infamous nickname, “Honey Badger,” have built a reputation the NFL rookie doesn’t necessarily embrace. He aspires to become a positive role model moving forward. Something his teammates and Cardinals’ GM Steve Keim see in him.
“When I got to know the young man in the evaluation process, he was a little different than I anticipated,” says Keim. “He had as nice a way about him as any human being, which I didn’t expect –I only really knew what I had read or heard. When you take a gamble with players who have had off-field issues, if they love the game and have a passion for it, a lot of times you can steer them in the right direction.” (PAGE 44)
With support from his team and a goal to become one of the best defensive players on the Cardinals, Mathieu is on his way to building a seemingly successful career in the NFL disproving what many already thought they knew about him. “It means a lot that the guys have accepted me and embraced me,” says Mathieu. “I’m the youngest on the team, and they treat me like the little brother. It’s good to have people still behind me, still encouraging me, still supporting me.” (PAGE 45)
In his new TV role as a commentator for TBS during baseball’s playoffs, Pedro Martinez has shown that he still can colorfully change speeds and bring piercing heat. The future baseball hall of famer sat down with senior writer Tom Verducci for a Q&A in this week’s SI to discuss why he tried TV, his transition away from the game, the return of the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series, beanballs and assorted other topics, including Derek Jeter’s impromptu, face-to-face pitch to become a Yankee.
On television: “I had too much time not doing anything at home,” Martinez says. “It was uncomfortable sitting at home and my wife questioning me, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s also a good opportunity to explore something different, because I really want to expand on what I learned in baseball. Some of the guys, like Kevin Millar, Barry Larkin, Manny Acta, they all know the knowledge in my head about the game and they all thought that as loose as I am, I would be a person that could do this.” (PAGE 47)
On missing the game: “I would get really cranky because I wasn’t going to seven hours to a gym and then to play a game,” Martinez says. “I was just a lazy cat at home.” (PAGE 47)
On moving guys off the plate: “You commit to that pitch,” Martinez says. “You go into that pitch saying, I am making a statement here. If you don’t move back, you’re getting hit.” (PAGE 48)
Martinez tested the free agent market after the 2004 season. The Yankees had him in for a meeting before he signed with the Mets. While talking with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Martinez says, “Jeter walks by. He peeks in and sees me and says, ‘What are you doing here? Oh, Boss, please sign him.’” (PAGE 52)
On who the last person he wants to see in the batter’s box late in a close game: “Jeter,” Martinez says.
Why Jeter? “He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t get excited. He’s cold, like an icebox. You make a good pitch, and it seems like he bloops it all the time. You make a great pitch, and somehow he finds some area on the bat. I don’t know if he’s not strong enough to break the bat or the ball does not hit an area to break it. . . . And if you make a mistake, he will take you deep. It’s impossible to make him change his approach or his demeanor. The program that he has to approach you doesn’t change. He knew I would come after him. And I don’t think Jeter ever thought I would hit him in the head or put him in jeopardy. The most I could do was hit him in the ribs or something like that—and only in retaliation because I have a huge amount of respect for Jeter.” (PAGE 52)
Andrew Wiggins, a 6′ 8″, 200-pound versatile forward from outside Toronto was the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2013 and is widely considered the likely No. 1 pick in the ’14 NBA draft. The once-in-a-generation talent has Kansas fans in a frenzy, but it’s not the first time a first-year Jayhawk has had that effect, writes Luke Winn in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—on newsstands now. Winn compares the arrival of Wiggins, who appears on SI’s cover, to the arrival of former Kansas greats Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning. “The notion of what Andrew Wiggins could be, if he can cultivate a relentlessness to pair with his talent, is why he is being received differently—even at a school that’s won nine straight regular-season Big 12 titles and has two other potential first-rounders in guard Wayne Selden and center Joel Embiid,” writes Winn. “Even in a college town that’s seen this already, twice.” (PAGE 61)
When Wiggins arrived on campus in June, Kansans coach Bill Self told him, “If you handle this right, you could potentially have everything you ever dreamed of and go down as one of the most loved athletes to ever come through this university.” (PAGE 61)
The chase for Chamberlain was college basketball’s first truly national recruiting battle. Winn writes it had everything in the way of subplots: “Racial overtones. Boosters with fat wallets. NBA teams scheming for his draft rights. Spurned rivals, skeptical journalists and relentless NCAA investigators.” (PAGE 63) Chamberlain’s debut was in the annual series between the Kansans freshmen and varsity teams. Wilt led the freshmen to their first win in the 33-year history of the series.
Manning’s arrival in Lawrence meant more to Kansans than Wiggins’s does now, since many believe Wiggins will be a one-and-done player. While Chamberlain’s Jayhawks could not beat North Carolina in the 1957 national championship game, Kansas coach Larry Brown was able to secure Manning’s commitment over the Tar Heels in 1983. At the time Brown proclaimed, “Danny Manning is the most complete young player I have ever seen. He’ll be the best.” (PAGE 62) Manning wound up graduating as the Big Eight’s career leading scorer, and carried the underdog Jayhawks to the ’88 national title.
Wiggins’s recruitment was kept very quiet. That’s because he not only got his athletic prowess from his parents (his father played in the NBA and his mother was a silver medal winning member of Canadian relay teams in the ’84 Olympics), but he also inherited a quiet and humble nature from them. “I wouldn’t really talk to college coaches,” he says of his recruitment process. For a time it was widely assumed he was going to either Florida State or Kentucky. “I was wide open,” Wiggins says, “but no one else was recruiting me.” (PAGE 64) Wiggins, who says he is used to the attention now, describes himself on this Twitter bio as “Just a average kid trying to make it.” “I used to be an average kid, when I put that up,” he insists. “But that . . . was a while ago.” (PAGE 61)
As Wiggins prepares for his debut on Nov. 8 at Allen Fieldhouse, he tries not to think about the weight on his shoulders or next year’s NBA draft. “You’re just not going to get a reaction out of him, with things like the draft,” fellow freshman Wayne Selden says. (PAGE 66)