The Philadelphia 76′ers lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers 100-95 on Friday night and obviously are a team searching for an identity. It was good to see a professional effort and as a result one would assume there will be better times in Philly soon enough. The game itself was pretty entertaining as both teams explosively put down a myriad of high flying dunks that seemed to one up the previous. The Cavs were led by LeBron James with 23 points (more on this later), 10 dimes, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. Mo Williams scored 21 on 8-13 shooting and Delonte West hit for 17. Philly was paced by Andre Iguodala’s 30 points, 7 rips, 5 assists. In my opinion, Dre had two of the best dunks I’ve seen this year after LeBron went baseline reverse in the dunk pictured. Elton Brand had 24 and 9 Chucks and Thaddeus Young put in 15. Interviews with Sonny Hill, Austin Carr, Jodi Meeks and J. J. Hickson. LeBron comments on transitioning from #23 to #6, Jrue Holiday on getting up after professional disappointment, Eddie Jordan on game planning LBJ and Mike Brown reflects on how the team would be affected by the injury to Antawn Jamison. LeBron also vehemently stated to another reporter that he would never want to be a head coach in the NBA (he said it was too much pressure….hmm), but GM or ownership is a different story. Again, I hit a lot of players just to give a sense of the NBA mindset. A reader question from Courtney Migliocco is answered from LeBron as well.
It simply hasn’t been the Sixers season. They’ve played in front of sparse crowds and have dealt with drama not driven by their own volition. Sitting at 23-42, going up against the 51-15 Cleveland Cavaliers became a foray of how inspiration affects pride. The sellout crowd of 20,433 wanted a show…and both teams gave it to them.
Obviously most in attendance were at the Wachovia Center to see LeBron James. There were James jerseys throughout the arena and you could actually hear faint chants of MVP during the game. Pre-game, I asked Sixers Head Coach Eddie Jordan how a superior talent like LeBron James affects the game plan:
“Well first of all our transition defense has to be great. He’s one of the best coming out of the back court…finishing at the rim. I like our match up. I think Andre’s done a terrific job with the Carmelo Anthony’s of the world…his match up is all the best players. He’s done a good job for most of the season and we’ll see how it goes tonight. They have a lot of weapons. They have bigs that roll to the basket, they’ve got three point shooting and they have him. Pick ya poison. We don’t want to give up layups.”
The Sixers stayed close most of the game. They shot 53% in the first half as Iguodala and Brand both scored 16 on combined 14-22 shooting. Brand was a workhorse and appears to be healthy after dealing with the frustration of not being 100% and helping this team win. He’s an underrated player and what the fans have to understand is that if ya hurt, ya hurt. Simple as that.
There’s something about going up against the best players in the game that brings out the Doc dervish revisited in Andre Iguodala.
Some of his most athletic plays come against the likes of Kobe and LeBron and last night, he performed…throwing down two dunks that would make Dominique say “oooh”.
After the game, Andre signed autographs for season ticket holders. I had to ask him about one dunk in particular where it looked as if Doc came out of the sky, fell through Sixers future reversed and transformed his 6 into Dre’s 9.
Michael Tillery: On the oop, were you looking down at the rim? It sure as hell seemed like it.
Andre Iguodala: (smiles) I was waiting for Jrue to throw it. I had to hang in the air a little longer.
MT: How did you get up so high? My goodness dude.
Dre: I knew Anderson Varejao was there. He’s a physical cat, so I had to make sure I got up high enough to get out of his way.
The Sixers just couldn’t get that big shot or turnover that would have swayed the game in their favor. With Cleveland leading 98-95 with 1:28 left, the Sixers never scored again. Mike Brown stresses defense and getting after 50/50 balls. The pivotal play was with 20.9 seconds left and the Sixers down two. Jrue Holiday drove baseline, looked for a teammate and after leaving his feet under the basket, he passed the ball directly to Delonte West…who was immediately fouled and subsequently hit two free throws to close scoring. You felt bad for the kid and as he approached half court, he put his head down but was consoled on the spot by Lou Williams. As I walked up to Jrue post game, I could sense the disappointment and I didn’t want to kick him when he’s down so I tried to put the moment in perspective:
MT: This is for the kids Jrue. After you made that pass, you put your head down. Obviously losing the game was not your fault. What would you like to tell kids on how to get back up after what could be deemed a disappointing moment?
Jrue Holiday: Really? I have to say lean on your teammates. They are family to me. I did make a bad play and I put my head down because I knew the right play was there and I felt I should’ve made it.
I would tell kids to keep their head up. Blow it off. It happens. It’s the past. Keep it pushing and move on to the next.
MT: Obviously you are a very talented player and one of the league’s top rookies. Moving forward, does a play like that refine your skills to want to get even better within the team and also individually?
JH: Most definitely. Individually, I want to redeem myself. If I’m in that situation again, I know I’m gonna do better. I’m going to make the right play. The way my teammates were talking to me today, they know I’m going to make the right play too. They have all the trust in me. We’ll grow that way.
Mike Brown has a job on his hands when the Cavs are able to field their entire rotation because his team is so deep. He’s sat LeBron the last few games in Cleveland to give his superstar a well needed rest before the final season push. Covering the Cavs the last few weeks, I gotta sense of how articulate Brown is and what he expects from his team is 100% effort 100% of the time. Shaq is out with a thumb injury until most likely the second round of the playoffs, Leon Powe just returned, new comer Sebastian Telfair is nursing a groin and Antawn Jamison has been out since the second half of the victory against the Spurs with a slight knee injury.
MT: Coach what are you expecting out of your team with Antawn being out?
Mike Brown: We expect to just fight and not quit. Philadelphia has been struggling as of late and we feel if we get the ball from outside to another we have multiple drives and kicks and if we don’t bring the ball to a stand still, we will get some good looks offensively. We just need to make sure defensively we are relying on that end of the floor and in the first half we weren’t. That half was kind of a free-for-all, pick up type game where guys were just running out and getting buckets at will. We picked it up from our end defensively in the second half and Philadelphia did too. It was a low scoring game in the second half. I was impressed with our physical nature in the second half and in our ability to limit their transition buckets.
MT: Iguodala has pretty good games against you when you guys come here.
MB: I don’t know what it is. Maybe he likes playing against us. He does have good games against us and tonight was no different. He did a good job of getting that ball off the glass and getting out in transition. We don’t do a good enough job of slowing that ball down. We don’t load to make that paint look crowded because we know that’s where he’s going to go. He did a nice job of attacking the rim against us. In the second half, we did a little bit better job against him but by then the basket looked the size of the Atlantic to him. He’s a good player.
As mentioned, Mike Brown sat out six days LeBron (he said he was a little winded and slightly off rhythm) just to give him a well needed rest and to make sure the ankle he tweaked against the Nuggets was fully healed. He sure didn’t miss a beat when it counted…
MT: You’ve had six days off. Is there anything you could possibly learn at this stage in your career watching from the bench?
LeBron James: Uh…nah I don’t think so. I try to learn things every day. It’s nothing for me to sit on the bench and learn something that I don’t already know about the game of basketball. If something did happen that I didn’t see before, then that would be great, but in two games I didn’t learn anything (mad laughter).
MT: A reader, Courtney Migliocco, who is a huge fan, wanted to know what’s it going to take for this team to continue to win close games on the road as the season wears on in anticipation of the playoffs?
LBJ: We have to continue to execute offensively. Execution doesn’t mean the ball is going to go in all the time. We executed well at the end of the shot clock and J (Jamario) Moon missed a three in the corner. Defensively we have to close out teams and we did that today.
J.J. Hickson is becoming a fine player as well. He’s young and very gifted athletically. His poise when he does get time on the floor is a testament to his work ethic. He’s averaging around 8 points and 5 rebounds. When we spoke earlier after the Denver game in Cleveland, he was thrust into the center position because of Shaq’s injury in Boston later in the week. He’s learning of himself. I told him after the Spurs game I wanted to do something with him when we got back to Philly because the kid has some serious potential. Before the Denver game, the last time I spoke with him was at the Elite 24 at Rucker Park in 2006. He put up 40 in that game. The movie Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot on the event follows the piece. If you look closely at the end, you’ll see me rockin’ a Barry Bonds Jersey on the court post game.
Some sick Hicksonessss…
MT: People saw the athleticism tonight. Seeing you these last few weeks, I’ve noticed you are gaining comfort within the system despite not knowing how much playing time you’ll receive game by game. Can you talk about getting time, not getting time, getting time and where the comfort comes from now?
J.J. Hickson: It’s all about consistency. I knew my time would come. All I had to do is work hard and be ready to play.
MT: I don’t remember which game, but we talked about you getting the majority of your minutes at the center spot. How’s that been over the course of the last couple of games?
J.J.: It’s been really tough, but I’ve used my athleticism and quickness to outwit bigger players.
MT: These games where you are winning on the road against a team a little down, what challenge presents itself?
J.J.: That’s the challenge. They have nothing to lose so they are coming out with a vengeance. Winning these games on the road is something we have to do as a better NBA team in our path to getting into the playoffs and hopefully winning a championship. That’s what we’ve been doing.
MT: What do you expect out of yourself as your team most likely finishes with the number one seed?
J.J.: Just to help my team whatever kinda way. Whatever Mike Brown or my teammates ask me to do, I’m going to do it.
MT: What are you learning from LeBron?
J.J.: Be great. Whatever you do, do it good. Do everything to the best of your ability.
MT: Were you a different player before you put on the Cavs uniform?
J.J.: Yeah, I think I was. I had to learn how to play off of everyone whereas in college I had the ball in my hand in most situations. It’s been good learning to play without the ball.
MT: Is it great for you to come in…you were highly touted in high school and college coming in. In fact, I watched Gunnin’ for that #1 Spot. We spoke at that game. You were boss with somewhere around 40 points. I checked it out because I’ve followed you and Brandon Jennings the most out of scheduling coincidences. That moment…I’m sure you all knew or highly aspired to become NBA players…was all about who was or who wasn’t getting to the NBA level for whatever reason. Comment on the path from that point in your life.
J.J.: I haven’t been doing anything different. What’s good is that people got to see it. High school and AAU people knew, but not so much everyone else outside of the game. I just took full advantage of it.
MT: What’s the difference between a good player and a guy that’s great enough to get into the NBA?
J.J.: Consistency in your own mindset and what you want to do.
MT: Obviously, a lot of kids are gonna begin to see and emulate your skill set because you are playing well on the team with the best record, what would you say to the kid who has superior talent and drive to just become a better basketball player?
J.J.: Just stay with it. Set small goals for yourself. Of course set big goals but small goals lay the foundation.
MT: Not being specific, but what do kids need to know about properly identifying a concrete work ethic?
J.J.: Go hard in everything. Be consistent. Don’t be ready to work out one day and then the next day don’t work out. Even if you don’t want to do it, you have to stay in the gym and work on getting better every day.
On the other hand, there’s Jodi Meeks professional career hasn’t gotten off to a fast start. Drafted in the second round (41st) by the Milwaukee Bucks out of Kentucky, the talented shooting guard has yet to gain traction here in Philly after being traded with Francisco Elston for Royal Ivey and Primoz Brezec. The man who broke Dan Issel’s long standing University of Kentucky single game scoring record in January of last year…when he pumped in 54 against Tennessee…is simply biding his time and learning the NBA ropes.
MT: Very unusual to see a rookie traded during the season. Of course you probably didn’t anticipate the trade but how did it affect you?
Jodi Meeks: It’s no big deal. It’s part of the business. When the trade happened, I was happy to be here because I knew Philly liked me a lot judging by the draft process last year. I had to take it in stride, be professional and play well here.
MT: You’re known for having great ball skills and a high basketball IQ. Part of your early learning here is just trying to fit into the team dynamic.
JM: Anytime you come into a new situation there’s going to be a learning curve. I try to listen to my teammates, to the coaching staff, to everyone on the team. I’ve been on the team for about three weeks now. I’m trying to get adjusted and contribute when I get the opportunity.
MT: Is the NBA everything you thought it was now that you are here?
JM: Oh yes. No doubt. It’s a dream come true. At the same time, I’m here to work. I want to be a great player in this league. I’m confident in my abilities that I can do that one day. We have 18 games left. Finish out this year, win as many games as we can and next year start off fresh.
MT: Kentucky, your former school, is poised to win a championship.
JM: Definitely. I’m happy for them. They are playing really well and winning a lot. I watch as many games as I can. We play so many games, it’s hard to watch.
MT: Is John Wall under any type of pressure or is he the type of player that gets after it no matter what?
JM: I don’t think there is pressure. He’s just better than everyone else. As long as he stays focused when things he stacked against him, he’ll be able to make that adjustment necessary to as you said get after it.
Running back and forth from the Sixers and Cavaliers locker rooms, respectively, I spotted Philadelphia basketball historian Sonny Hill. The Sonny Hill League celebrated it’s 40th anniversary in 2008. Kobe, ‘Sheed, Aaron McKie, Eddie Jones…the NBA names just go on and on. He’s a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. There is no better source of basketball history in this town and Anthony Gilbert, Ron Glover and I all know we are blessed to have his knowledge and wisdom at relative hand. After the definitive Doc piece…which also alludes to Wilt Chamberlain’s stature as an NBA legend as well as a Philadelphia great shot all over the web, I wanted to get his thoughts on the Big Dipper as the GOAT.
MT: Mr. Hill, I did a couple of radio shows this week. I included Wilt on my Mt. Rushmore of athletes because of what he accomplished over the course of his career. The reason why is because I spoke with you and John Chaney. You both said Wilt with no hesitation. Because the two of you transcend generations of the sport, I have to respect that also without hesitation. Can you elaborate on earlier conversations we’ve had about Wilt being the greatest player of all time?
Sonny Hill: Well I think the best way to describe it is what Oscar Robertson said to me on my radio show. I asked Oscar, “O, the Big O, who is the greatest player that ever played the game?” He said, “Sonny the record book does not lie.” What you have to do is you have to understand who owns the record book. I mean, it’s just incredible. No matter what era you may look at. Younger people may look back and say in that era there weren’t that many tall guys. Bill Russell is considered the greatest defensive player of all time. One season, the Philadelphia Warriors, who Wilt started playing with…now the Golden State Warriors…and the Boston Celtics played each other 19 times. When you look at the things that Wilt was able to accomplish…and then the league said well…you are destroying the league…let’s change the rules. Example: the alley oop pass…well back in the day, Wilt used to be able to catch the ball and guide it into the basket. The NBA put a rule in that prohibited that. So if he were playing today, he would be able to go up and get that shot. It’s hard to describe…people who saw the game back then and when they see the game in black and white…and now you see players that are now in color…and they seem to be much faster and quicker. LeBron James is probably the most imposing physical player we’ve ever had in the history of the NBA at his size, speed, quickness…weight. They only player who could compare to him would be Wilt. Wilt was that kinda athlete. Wilt had the tremendous speed to go along with all the gifts that he had. There’s no question he’s the strongest player that ever played the game, but people never think of how quick and fast he was. He was an athlete besides being a basketball player.
MT: The trade in 1967 (Wilt), the city didn’t get it back in terms of morale until Doc came into town?
SH: That was the end of an era. He was traded back here from the Golden State Warriors. They put together three magnificent seasons. They won one championship. They were the best team in basketball three consecutive years. There were some injuries in the playoffs. One was the year they played the Boston Celtics (’67) and were leading 3-1. Billy Cunningham broke his wrist and wasn’t able to play. They didn’t have the depth and the Celtics came back and won the series 4-3. In Wilt’s case, he was the first player in the NBA to have part of a franchise. They make a big to do about Michael Jordan owning a franchise (Bobcats). You have to understand that in his day, players weren’t allowed to have ownership of a franchise and he was Black? He was a head of his time. When you talk about Wilt, you talk about someone who was so far ahead of his time in terms of what he did in his game. He was always the highest paid player from the day he came into the league to the day he left it. He was the guy who took the league from having no identity to giving it professional credibility. Attendance went up close to 30% his first year.
When you talk about Wilt, you can’t compare players because the things he did were so astronomical that nobody even comes close to him.
Austin Carr is by far one of the most entertaining color analysts in sports. He has his own style and lets it go in the flow of putting the fans hypothetically in the seat right next to him when calling games. He was an incredible scorer at Notre Dame…averaging 34 points and 7 rebounds. The 6’4″ guard was AP and Naismith Player of the year in 1971 and went on to score 15 points a game in a 10 year career…mainly for the Cavs. If you ever get a chance to watch a Cavs game on league pass, make it happen. AC for sure, “throws the hamma down”.
Michael Tillery: AC my book editor lives in Lakewood, OH and since I was out there for three weeks, I covered the Cavs. I gotta chance to listen to you on road games. The great part about it is that I would have rather stayed home and watched the game because of what you do and what you bring. Talk about your personality and how that shines through.
Austin Carr: All I try to do…the way I was taught to do it is basically make the fan feel that we are both watching the game together. Sometime I might add a little extra to it. Some of the stuff I learned on the playground. I try to explain the game as if someone (watching) doesn’t know the game…not try to talk down to you. That’s basically my philosophy. When I first started, Frank Lieber and Joe Tate helped me a lot…even though he was in radio. They always told me you are only as good as your last game. I tried to improve every game.
MT: You were an incredible scorer at Notre Dame. Did you anticipate at any time in your career…college and the NBA…going into broadcast journalism?
AC: No, no. Never never thought I would do it because as Joe Tate would tell you, i was afraid of the camera and the mic when I first started. I always gave you yes no answers but as I went on, Frank Lieber was the one who told me to learn how to treat the camera as if it’s another person. Once I got used to that, it relaxed me and now I just have fun. When you are watching the best player in the world play every night, a lot of good things happen. We have so many good guys that it’s fun to do the game and I just add a little extra playground lingo to it and that’s about it.
MT: You’ve been here a while. You alluded to Cleveland having so many lean years ever since Craig Ehlo (Michael Jordan’s shot) and now you have the get back…the best player arguably on the planet.
AC: This is my 39th year with the team. I came the second year (of the franchise) and I’ve been with them ever since. We’ve had some lean years…I’ve had some lean years with the team. We only won 23 games my first year. It’s been nice to see how…once we got LeBron…and added all the other players…Delonte West…now we have Shaq…Zydrunas went through a lot. There’s been so many things that happened to our franchise. Ask Dan GIlbert the owner…it’s been a good turnaround for the team and being our 40th year, this is our year.
MT: Being a player, you saw the talent level then. The athleticism is better…or more pronounced…but is the game as good as it was then? How would you describe the game?
AC: Well it’s not as physical even though some people will tell you that because of the defensive three second lane. That takes the big man out of the middle. When I played, once you beat the guard you gotta beat the center. You don’t have to do that anymore. When I played you can touch (AC is poking and pushing me, I was cracking up inside)…you can touch a guy. That would help the defender. Now you can’t touch so offenses have become almost like a joke to me because if a guy can’t touch you, how’s he gonna stop you? A guy like Kobe, Dwyane Wade or LeBron James? How are you going to stop him? The game has been legislated a bit to create more scoring and to create more entertainment and that’s the basic difference in the game.
AC’s classic call…
Almost done here. During the game, Anthony, Jake Appleman, Devon Givens and I were sitting in press row and noticed a fan holding up a Knicks jersey despite himself wearing a Cavs jersey and his boy wearing a St. Mary’s jersey. Confusing huh? Well, I had to get a pic and also get some words from the two fans to represent now what is going to be a crazy off season. I personally don’t think LeBron would go to New York because why would he start over? What if no big name free agent wants to join him in Gotham City? What has Mike D’Antoni won coaching so many talented Phoenix teams? Why would LeBron want to go to NY and deal with what would be the most craziest media Knicks frenzy the good side of the Tiger Woods fiasco? Why would he leave great fans and a hometown team with the league’s best record at such a pivotal time in his life? There are many other questions but for now despite having no comment on the matter, rest assured it’s on the tip of every media member’s tongue when LBJ is at the mic.
MT: Why the Knicks jersey? We’re in Philly and you are wearing Cavs gear? What the damn man?
Kerim Sarki: I got the #6 New York Knicks LeBron jersey because next year the Knicks open up cap space to get LeBron and two other stars. Madison Square Garden is the mecca of basketball. He’s coming. His contract is over at the end of this year. He’s going to the Knicks…the number one basketball place in the world.
MT: Why should he go to the Knicks?
KS: Even though they suck right now they will have enough cap room for LeBron, Dwyane Wade and another superstar like Chris Bosh. They’ll already have T-Mac. That’s a championship all-star dream team.
MT: What’s going to happen if LeBron James stays in Cleveland?
KS: (He repeats question) He’s going to stay in Cleveland forever. He’s going no where. Maybe later on when his feet go bad and he begins to suck then maybe he’ll go to the Knicks or another team. He’s in his prime, if he stays in Cleveland then most likely he’ll stay there his entire career.
MT: Maybe I can get an honest answer out of your boy. Why are you wearing a St. Mary’s jersey?
John DiNapoli: Because it’s where it all started. It’s where the legacy began. LeBron James in high school tore it up. Representing the Irish. St. Vincent/St. Mary. We’re representing the King.
MT: What do you think about LeBron changing his number to 6?
JDN: I think it’s a great idea because Jordan is an all time great and it’s outta respect for him so I respect that.
Speaking of the 6 jersey…
The entire three week period I was in Cleveland, I didn’t get the chance to ask LeBron about the number change. I thought it was appropiate he commented on it here, given what Doc means to the city. I’d spoken to him earlier in the season about the switch:
MT: Some people are taking the switch as a slight to history…you know Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson…to name a few…to say how come their number isn’t being retired…
LBJ: MJ had more of an impact than anyone off the court in history. His numbers speak for themselves on the court but what he was able to do off the court also inspired to want to play the game of basketball goes without saying. I think Magic, Bird and Wilt were unbelievable but none of those guys did what MJ did off the court as far as inspiring people to want to be great, wanting to be able to fly, jump and do the things Mike did and be in commercials and things like that.
MT: Do you think that has a lot to do with the digital age…the age we are in now?
LBJ: I think it’s all about timing too. When you have great timing, things work out for you.
MT: Are you happy with the evolution of the game so far?
LBJ: Uh…I mean…it’s uh…I think the ’80′s uh…presented better basketball players. I think early ’90′s also. The game…uh..is still great of course. It’s the greatest league that we have in the world. It’s the greatest sport I feel that we have. I feel like over the last few years…some of the guys…you know…GM’s…or whatever…kinda draft or pick off potential sometimes. That’s why you see some young guys taking four or five years to be able to get minutes or play to the abilities that those GM’s or coaches wanted them to be at. I think back in the ’80′s, if you weren’t four years out of college or you weren’t already twenty five or twenty six old, you wasn’t going to get an opportunity. That’s why the game was so much better.
MT: If you look back in history…Kobe…when I talked to him said he pulls from different players in history. Were there certain players you watched and picked up a move or a shot or something like that.
LBJ: Nah…I never picked any shots up. When you think of a fade-a-way you think of Jordan of course. When you think of a skyhook or a running skyhook across the lane you think of Magic. When you think of passing or a no look pass you think of Magic. There’s no one I took game from. There are a lot of people who inspired my game…MJ being one of them…Penny Hardaway being another…and Grant Hill being another one growing up around that time. There wasn’t anyone’s game that I kinda picked and said I want to add this to my game.
This is what LeBron gave me Friday…
MT: LeBron when I was growing up, I wore #44…Reggie Jackson’s #44…which reminded me and taught me a lot about Hank Aaron. #6 is big in this city. Could you talk about how the potential change to #6 is going to bring awareness to Dr. J?
LBJ: I respect Doc. I respect Bill Russell and all the guys who wore #6 but it’s not because of Dr. J. There’s a lot of personal reasons why I’ve changed to #6. I don’t need to go into it but I’ve worn #6 in the Olympics. I’ve worn #6 when I first started playing as a youngster but, if I can shine a light on Dr. J’s career I’m all for it too but it’s not the main reason why I’m doing it.
Michael Beasely, Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans and J.J. go off in this game. You knew all these kids had a shot despite some being sophomores in high school. Enjoy. It’s a well put together movie. The Gunnin’ for the #1 Spot soundtrack is sickdiculous. You will nod ya head…