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


This Week’s Sports Illustrated Cover Story: Exclusive Interview with Kobe Bryant

43COVv23_1PromoAs 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)


Tristan Thompson Makes a Right Turn

Tristan ThompsonTired of his mediocre shooting, Cavs forward Tristan Thompson has left his left behind, writes Lee Jenkins in this week’s SI. Thompson, a 6’ 9” 227-pound power forward, nearly averaged a double double last season but has made just 32.9% of his jump shots in his two years in the NBA.

Jenkins notes that Larry Bird would famously add one element to his game each summer, and subsequent generations have followed suit. To improve his game, Thompson decided to learn how to shoot this summer with his right hand rather than the left hand he shot with since he starting playing hoops at age 12 growing up in suburban Toronto. Exaggerating a bit, Thompson tells Jenkins that “I became a whole new person.” (PAGE 58)

So how did Thompson decide to make the change? Last November, Cavs reserve guard Jeremy Pargo challenged Thompson to a shooting contest with their off hands. After Thompson easily won, Pargo told him, “You should do this all the time. You look better. You look more natural. You’ll always be a solid player, but you could be an All-Star.” (PAGE 58) A few months later Thompson asked ball boys to videotape him launching 100 shots with each hand, and they discovered he made more with his right. “A lot of people stick with what they know because they’re insecure about putting something new out there and getting embarrassed,” Thompson says. “I don’t want to sit here in 12 years and think, What if I made that change? Could I have been one of the best power forwards in the league? Could our team have taken a leap?” (PAGE 58)

When Thompson approached Cleveland GM Chris Grant late last season about his idea to switch hands, Grant asked him to toss a ball across the practice court with his right hand. “It was like John Elway,” Grant recalls. (PAGE 58) Jenkins writes that Thompson has always thrown with his right hand, but gripped pens and swung golf clubs lefthanded. He just assumed shooting was like writing when he first played basketball at age 12.

He started with the basics and learned “how to hold the ball, tuck the elbow, make the 90-degree angle with my arm, follow through with my wrist.” (PAGE 57) But switching a shooting hand requires revamped footwork, learning to jump, pivot and reverse pivot with a new foot too. That’s why the Cavs hired shooting coach Dave Love to assist Thompson with his transition. Thompson debuted his new shot playing for the Canadian national team in the FIBA Americas Championship in Veneuela last month. While his footwork still needs work, he made 78.7% of his 47 free throw attempts. (He made 60.8% last season in the NBA)

“I don’t know a lot of people who would do this when they’re in the NBA—I can’t even think of kids who have done it—but Tristan is driven to be the best he can, and he wasn’t going to do that lefthanded,” says Jay Triano, coach of the Canadian national team and a Blazers assistant. “There were glitches in his shot. You could afford to foul him and know he’d only make one of two. Now he’s a real threat. You can’t hit him. He will make the points count. His free throws look perfect.” (PAGE 60)


Pirates Star Andrew McCutchen on Cover of This Week’s Sports Illustrated

37COVv18_PIR_PromoTo a generation of Pittsburgh fans, September has always been about school, football and the irrelevance of the Pirates. But with the franchise’s 20-season losing streak ending last night, senior writer Lee Jenkins says in this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED,  on newsstands now, that a reawakened baseball town is asking: Are yinz ready for October? Pirates’ All-Star centerfielder and MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen is featured on a regional cover of this week’s SI. His first SI cover appearance marks the second time this season the Pirates have been featured on the cover.

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, the son of former Pirates pitcher Tom Walker, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Gibsonia and is part of what locals call the Lost Generation – anyone born in Pittsburgh after 1984. “It was the Steelers, the Penguins, Pitt, Penn State—and then the Pirates,” he says. “Going to the ballpark was never an activity for a group of friends. It was lost.” (PAGE 61)

Jenkins takes readers through the heart of Pittsburgh and its diverse fans, all of whom are ready for fall baseball. “Meaningful baseball after Labor Day,” says local pastor Scott Stevens. “That’s all I ever really wanted.” (PAGE 59) Linda McGary, whose family has had season tickets since the 1940s, will finally count all the way down to a winning season. Seeing her playoff invoice made her “realize that we’re getting close.” (PAGE 60) Jim Coen’s sports merchandise store once carried no Pirates jerseys—and no one complained. Now the Bucs and the Steelers split his sales 50-50.

“The Pirates were something you never thought about,” says Ike Taylor, a Steelers cornerback since 2003. “You never paid any attention to them. Now I go home at night and I watch the Pirates on TV. I’m on the bandwagon. I’ll tell you what I want to see: middle of October, us in a game at Heinz Field, them in a playoff game next door.” (PAGE 61)

Since 2008 the Pirates have spent more money on the draft than any other team, and after some growing pains, the Pirates’ investment, says Jenkins, has paid off. In 2010 the Bucs lost 105 games, 90 in ’11, and last season they were a respectable 79–83. TV ratings jumped 20% last year; this year they’re up another 15%; and the Pirates are on pace for the second-highest attendance in club history.

Jenkins caught up with former Pirate Sid Bream, who is best known for his years as an Atlanta Braves first baseman and the player who scored the winning run for the Braves in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS against the Pirates. That year was not only the last time the Pirates made the playoffs, it was also their last winning season. “The agent for 20 years of losing,” says Bream, who lives just outside Pittsburgh, about his score. “I want more than anyone for them to break the Bream Curse. I pray that they’re the ones celebrating this time.” (PAGE 58)


This Week’s Sports Illustrated Introduces The MMQB’s New Featured Columnist—All-Pro Seattle Cornerback Richard Sherman

31COVv21_PromoflatOn Monday SPORTS ILLUSTRATED launched The MMQB (TheMMQB.com), a new, digital franchise led by award-winning SI senior writer Peter King that is devoted to NFL coverage. This week’s SI, on newsstands now, introduces one of The MMQB’s new featured columnists—Seattle All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman. The Seahawks’ voluble star, who appears on his first SI cover, is profiled by senior writer Lee Jenkins. Sherman’s first TheMMQB.com column is also featured in this week’s SI.

“I’m excited about getting a player’s view of the game out in the media,” writes Sherman. “Hopefully it will give you an unfiltered look into my life, my team and the lives of all NFL players.” Read Sherman’s entire column here.

Jenkins chronicles Sherman’s rise from growing up as a shy, skinny kid in Compton, Calif., to a confidant motormouth who was selected in the fifth round by Seattle in the 2011 draft (a slight that still motivates him today). Jenkins says, “He is the rare player who has provoked the ire of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, who has taunted Tom Brady, who has been punched by an opponent while congratulating him on a good game.” (PAGE 48)

In just two NFL seasons Sherman has 12 interceptions—but he has also labeled Harbaugh a “bully,” called Falcons receiver Roddy White “an easy matchup”, urged Darrelle Revis on Twitter to “Get ya picks up!” and after a win over the Patriots last October, retweeted a picture of himself yapping at Brady, along with the caption, “U MAD, BRO?” “I used to tell him to quiet down,” says Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. “Then I saw the results.” (PAGE 48)

Sherman now headlines one of the best defenses in the NFL and has become the face—and voice—of the NFL’s fiercest rivalry between his Seahawks and the defending NFC Champion 49ers, who happen to be coached by Jim Harbaugh, Sherman’s coach at Stanford. “I’m not the type to let a sleeping giant lie,” Sherman says. “I wake up the giant, slap him around, make him mad and beat him to the ground. I talk a big game because I carry a big stick.” (PAGE 48)

On why he chose to attend Stanford over local favorite USC (coached at the time by his current coach Pete Carroll): “I wanted to make a statement,” says Sherman, who finished second in his high school class with a 4.2 GPA. “It was weird. It didn’t sound right. But I had to prove it was possible: Compton to Stanford.” (PAGE 50)

Sherman says his verbose ways are all part of a plan. “It’s part of a greater scheme to get some eyes, to grow the market, to grow Seattle,” he says. “Now people are paying attention, and they’ll probably be disappointed this year because I will be a lot more reserved.” (PAGE 52)


Sports Illustrated Exclusive Cover Story: LeBron James on His MJ Moment and Why This Road to the Ring Was Twice As Tough

27COVv15LeBron James thought winning his first title would be the most difficult thing he’d ever do. He was wrong. Miami’s repeat—which took every ounce of energy from the best player alive—was even harder, says senior writer Lee Jenkins in an exclusive cover story for this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, on newsstands now. James, who appears on his 20th SI cover, reflects on how difficult the road to his second title was and describes his Game 7 jump shot that put the Heat up by four with 28 seconds left as his “MJ moment.”

“I know it wasn’t the magnitude of MJ hitting that shot in ’98, but I definitely thought about him,” says James, whose game-high 37 points in Miami’s 95— 88 Game 7 win helped earn him a second consecutive Finals MVP. “It was an MJ moment,” Then, after a pause, “It was an LJ moment.” (PAGE 60)

It could’ve been the shot that never happened. James reveals he was reluctant to shoot because of his struggles outside the paint in the first six games of the finals. Before Game 7, Heat coaches pleaded with him to shoot more. They showed James video of the San Antonio defense leaving him alone near the free throw line and emphasized his sterling percentages in that area this season. James’s 20 outside shots in Game 7 were the most since he joined the Heat. “Even the best have self-doubt at times when what they’re doing isn’t working,” James says. “You need a reminder.” (PAGE 60)

Jenkins writes that for three weeks during the NBA playoffs, James barely ate and rarely slept more than two hours. He was anxious before games and wired after. After almost every playoff game he required treatment from a Heat trainer and off days were spent either doing Pilates or hitting the heavy bag at the gym. “I was trying reverse psychology,” James says, “so my body wouldn’t think it was tired.” (PAGE 58)

James was able to ignore his pain while competing for a title, but he felt different on the morning after Miami’s Game 7 win. “I felt all these nicks and bruises and little injuries I didn’t know I had,” James says. “My back, my hamstring, my ankle, both my elbows, they were all aching. I guess I just didn’t pay attention to them.” Says Heat forward Shane Battier, “He is strong and he’s fast and he can jump, but what separates him is how far he goes. It’s preternatural. He is telling his body, Here’s the deal: You’re not allowed to break down.” (PAGE 60)

Battier also credits James’s leadership with helping the Heat succeed this year. After the first win of Miami’s 27-game winning streak in the regular season, James insisted that the team stay an extra night in Toronto for a team Super Bowl party. “We were always close, but that took it to another level,” says Battier. “I believe that night was the impetus for the streak.” (PAGE 62)

Whether or not the Heat wins a third straight title next year, James has one more year until he can opt out of his contract. He says his decision will be handled in a more understated way than the one in 2010. “I’m a totally different person on the court, off the court and everywhere in between,” he says. “I know it will come up, but it’s not going to come up until it’s at that point.” (PAGE 62)


There’s Hope, By George

Paul GThere is little denying the progress third-year forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers has made this season. Despite the Pacers losing their leading scorer, George’s mentor and friend Danny Granger, they have found themselves battling the defending champion Miami Heat in the NBA conference finals. In this week’s SI, senior writer Lee Jenkins profiles George and how his continuous commitment to improvement on both sides of the ball has his team standing a chance against the Heat.

George, a Palmdale, California native, has flown relatively under the radar considering his prodigy build, 6’9 with a seven-foot wing span and a vertical that has the NBA’s finest checking over their shoulders. After attending San Jose State in order to stay closer to home and being drafted 10th overall in the 2010 NBA draft, George has slowly established himself as an all star caliber player. But after a disappointing exit in last year’s playoffs, George found himself “embarrassed. He saw the room for growth,” recalls Brian Shaw, assistant coach for the Pacers (PAGE 38).

George spent the off season working on his ball handling skills with dribbling guru Jerry Powell, his post-ups with former NBA player Don MacLean and his stroke with Shaw. This season George, who made his first all-star team, led the Pacers in minutes (37.6 per game), points (17.4) and steals (1.8) and the Pacers relentless devotion to man-to-man defense has opponents feeling stifled. Lebron James tallied his lowest point total of the year in a meeting with George earlier this season and in another meeting James turned the ball over seven times, a tie for his most all year.

“We’re the only team to beat Miami two out of three times this year,” (PAGE 42) reminds a club house official.

George’s constant longing for improvement has the Indiana Pacers chasing the NBA Finals. “I don’t even know anymore where his ceiling is,” (PAGE 42) says team President Donnie Walsh.


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