The Long Rangers

Stephen CurryHow’s this for the next great NBA tag team? One is 6’7” and 207 pounds and the prototypical NBA wing. The other lacks strength, can’t jump and is freakishly skilled. There has never been a backcourt like the Warriors’ Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, two young gunners whose shooting range astounds even themselves.

Writes Chris Ballard, If Thompson is a classic NBA type, Curry is an outlier. While many stars are considered blueprints for the next generation—seven-footers who shoot threes, linebacker-sized point forwards—Curry is a throwback. No GM would scour the college ranks for slight, 6′3″ guards who fit the “Curry model,” because there are none. You could call him a small, scoring, hybrid point guard, but that’s not accurate. What he really is the best long-range shooter in NBA history.”

Both Curry and Thompson are NBA legacies. Dale Curry, father of Stephen, played 16 seasons in the NBA and is the franchise leader in points (9,839) and three-point field goals made (929) for the New Orleans Pelicans‘ (formerly the Charlotte Hornets). Mychal Thompson played 12 seasons in the league and won two titles with the Lakers. Writes Jenkins, Ask the fathers how much of their sons’ success is genetic and how much is due to everything else, and they struggle to answer. Mychal thinks for a while, then settles on 50% genes, 50% other factors. Dell puts it at 25/75: “You can have a great skill set, but if you don’t work to develop it, it won’t get you that far.” Genetics aside, there has never been a pair of teammates like Thompson and Curry. | SI senior writer Chris Ballard


The Nets New Nucleus

Brooklyn NetsWhen 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


This Joint Is Jumpin': Derrick Rose’s New Knee

Derrick RoseA 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


The Post Man Rings Twice

Dwight Howard

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


The Wizard of Kabul

HoopsWhen Tom Gouttierre arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965, coaching basketball was the last thing on his mind. However, the young Peace Corps volunteer who went to teach English wound up transforming a ragtag high school basketball team into a national team with the discipline and skills to beat a foreign power. In this week’s SI, senior writer Chris Ballard (SI_ChrisBallard) tells his extraordinary story.

Asked if he would coach the team by a student, the young traveler was reluctant, considering he was never good at the game himself, but Ballard writes, “Gouttierre was the type of man who believed that enthusiasm conquered all,” and his response was, “You bet! (PAGE 57)

The team didn’t have much talent, but Gouttierre said they had raw energy and a willingness to play. “It was like watching 10 ants at picnic go after one crumb.” (PAGE 57) The coach used the word “tashkeel,” (PAGE 57) which means organization, to motivate the boys to work together in a culture thriving on independence, suspicion and group loyalty.

While the team initially struggled against superior opponents, they continued to improve and became one of the best teams in the country by embracing the concept of tashkeel. Due to their success, Gouttierre expanded his coaching by hosting clinics and teaching other volunteers to coach the game.

He eventually was asked by the Afghanistan Olympic Committee to coach the first Afghan National team since the country received an invitation to play games against other teams from India and Pakistan. Gouttierre formed a team filled with most of his high school players and a few others from the country. To prepare, he incorporated the notorious and sophisticated UCLA zone press made famous by legendary coach John Wooden. Gouttierre wrote a letter to the head coach a year earlier asking for his advice on how to utilize the press. Ballard describes Gouttierre’s reaction to Wooden, who wrote him back:

““Dear Coach,” the letter began. Gouttierre stopped. John Wooden had just called him Coach! … He broke into a shocked grin.” (PAGE 59) With Wooden’s letter came diagrams, drawings and numbered instructions for his zone press and he told Gouttierre, “I really admire what you are doing.” (PAGE 59)

The team prepared for months, but the planned games against India and Pakistan were cancelled and Gouttierre and his team were devastated. Gouttierre left Kabul shortly after in 1967 and eventually ended up in graduate school at Indiana where he focused on Islamic studies and took Arabic and Persian. He later received a Fullbright fellowship and traveled back to Kabul in 1969 when the chance for the Afghan team to play on the national level presented itself once again – this time against the Chinese. He resumed coaching and the skills, discipline and tashkeel that Gouttierre had instilled in his boys during his first visit to Kabul came through again on the court against the tough Chinese opponents.

When the Afghans led 38-19 at the half, Gouttierre told his boys, “Keep running and I promise you they won’t catch up.” (PAGE 61) He was right. The Chinese lost the game and the boys experienced a new type of confidence they hadn’t before.

Gouttierre continued to live and coach basketball in Kabul until 1974, when he accepted a position as dean of the first center for Afghanistan studies in the U.S. at Nebraska-Omaha. Now, at the age of 72, Gouttierre continues to work as the dean of international studies as well as head of the Afghanistan studies program at the university. He says his biggest accomplishment “was taking these different ethnic groups and showing them how important it was to use their skills together.” (PAGE 63)


Wanted: 1.2 Billion Basketball Fans

India BasketballOnly five million of India’s 1.2 billion people play basketball, making it the largest untapped hoops market in the world. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, senior writer Pete Thamel takes an inside look at basketball in India and how the NBA’s plan to penetrate this potentially lucrative market centers on the success of a 7-foot teenager from the Punjab named Satnam Singh Bhamara.

Satnam didn’t play basketball until age nine, when he was already 5’ 9” and was simply told to try the game due to his height. He picked up the game quickly and earned a scholarship at India’s premier basketball academy. He is now playing and going to school on scholarship at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. At age 17, he is a 7’1 ½”, 300-pound basketball prodigy with size 20 sneakers. Thamel writes:

“He can shoot with both hands, he never brings the ball below his waist after a rebound, and he can reliably hit free throws.” (PAGE 68)

Satnam’s father Balbir, also more than seven feet tall, never played basketball since he had to work on the family farm. He tells Thamel: “The things I couldn’t do in my life, I want Satnam to do.” (PAGE 68)

Thamel finds that the NBA shares the lofty ambitions for Satnam that his father has, as league executives envision Satnam becoming an Indian icon and international basketball ambassador, much like Yao Ming did in China a decade ago. Both the NBA and IMG understand the potential of India’s large young population. “It’s the largest untapped basketball market in the world,” says Bobby Sharma, IMG’s senior vice president for global basketball. “If Satnam’s potential gets him to the NBA, that’ll be good for a lot of people—especially Satnam.” (PAGE 69)

Almost half of India’s population is under the age of 24, so marketers and the NBA think now is the time to tap into basketball in India. “I just see it as unlimited in terms of its potential,” says NBA commissioner David Stern. NBA league marketing partners, such as Nike, Adidas and Coca-Cola, have signed up to help grow the game in India. India is “a top priority,” says NBA International president Heidi Ueberroth.

Thamel notes the many challenges to growing basketball in India, from not having adequate facilities to competing against more popular Indian sports like cricket, soccer and field hockey to the lack of a professional league that encourages kids to play and eventually earn some money playing the sport. Officials must also close the talent gap and find players like Satnam in remote areas outside of the cities. As it stands now, Thamel writes that “the Indian National team would struggle in the middling America East Conference.” (PAGE 72)

While he currently projects to be no more than an end-of-rotation NBA banger, his upside in India is enormous and he understands his potential influence. Satnam says: “Even after I retire, I want to make sure there’s a young generation that continues the popularity of basketball in India.” (PAGE 69)

Says Stern: “It doesn’t depend ultimately on whether Satnam Singh is the next Yao Ming…although that would be nice.” (PAGE 70)

Click here to listen to Pete Thamel discuss whether India can develop as a basketball power on the Inside SI Podcast with Richard Deitsch.


Cliff’s Edge

paulChris Paul has made the Clippers not only the hottest team in Los Angeles, but also a threat to win the Western Conference. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Lee Jenkins finds that the Clipper’s floor general has always been a natural leader and role model, both on and off the court.

As a young child Chris was destined to lead others. Paul was class president all throughout Middle School and High School. When he played Pop Warner his coach would put him at middle linebacker so he could instruct the rest of the defense. As a freshman at Wake Forest, Paul gave pregame speeches before the coaches. As a rookie with the Hornets in 2005, Chris was tagging along for captain’s meetings. “Chris was a once-in-a-generation leader,” says former teammate P.J. Brown (PAGE 82).

At 6 feet, Paul is nine inches shorter than the great Magic Johnson, but they carry themselves the same way, taskmasters disguised as cheerleaders. “These are people who have the ability to blend everybody around them together,” says teammate Lamar Odom (PAGE 82).

Paul’s contract expires on July 1, but associates insist he has not discussed signing elsewhere. “I’m here to build something different…I’m going to make this my new family,” says Paul (PAGE 82-83).

Unlike how the reported lack of camaraderie hurts the other NBA team in town, thanks to Paul’s leadership the Clippers rent out movie theaters on the road, go to UCLA games when they’re home and celebrate every birthday with cupcakes on the practice court.

Not only is Paul a tremendous leader, he can be raw and ruthless on the court as well. “He’s a pit bull…with a little man’s complex,” says Clippers guard Willie Green (PAGE 84).

Paul talks the entire game. “I played against John Stockton…That’s what it’s like playing against Chris,” says Thunder point guard Derek Fisher (PAGE 86).


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