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First Cup: Thursday

9/5/2013
  • Robert MacLeod of The Globe and Mail: Masai Ujiri’s priority is to inject life into the terminally ill Toronto Raptors, but his basketball roots will forever run deep in his native Africa. Ujiri, hired in May to be the Raptors’ new general manager, recently returned from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he led a handful of NBA stars, past and present, on a four-day pilgrimage designed to try and grow the game on the vast continent. It was the 12th annual Basketball Without Borders mission into Africa. The NBA’s global development and community outreach program’s aim is to unite young basketball players, promote the sport and encourage positive social change in the areas of education, health and wellness. The NBA has run the program, in collaboration with the sport’s global governing body, FIBA, since 2001, and this summer, similar camps were also staged in Argentina and Portugal. Ujiri, 43, was born in Nigeria, and he overcame incredible odds to become the first African-raised GM of a major North American professional sports team. … “Coming here to Toronto, I want to win, I want to build and grow,” the GM said Wednesday, during an interview in his sunlight-flooded corner office that overlooks Union Station in downtown Toronto. “I also think I’ve been put in this position to give back to the kids of Africa. It is a 100-per-cent obligation for me.”

  • Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman: The students are given a break in November and December, allowed to visit any remaining family or friends across the country. That's when Luke, apparently, was first introduced to his new favorite player. He heard Westbrook's name on the radio, saw a few highlights and decided he liked the Thunder. “It was definitely not something, coming to Rwanda, that I thought I'd have in common with an 18-year-old boy,” Dewey said. “But it just shows that the Thunder is huge. I live in the middle of nowhere. It's crazy that the Thunder is reaching these tiny, tiny areas in the heart of Africa.” The two developed a bond over the next few months, grown through teaching but sparked by that initial basketball connection. So when Betsy's father, Lyle, was coming to visit her in late July, they had an idea. Lyle wanted to bring gifts for the students, and what would they enjoy more than Thunder gear? Through word-of-mouth and Facebook, Lyle, an executive assistant at Bailey Oil in OKC, gathered donations at his work. In all, he packed more than 60 Thunder shirts, to go along with banners, an official team basketball and other memorabilia. Soccer is easily the country's most popular sport, but basketball has recently gained a little steam.

  • Justin Giles of the Deseret News: NBA teams have big decisions to make when it comes to their young guys. Because of the collective bargaining agreement and luxury tax implications, teams must weigh the choices before deciding on player options and if players are worth long-term contracts or not.

    The Utah Jazz have made their decisions, as they will exercise the options on both Alec Burks and Enes Kanter. Does Kanter deserve it? According to Grantland writer Zach Lowe , “Kanter hasn't done quite enough to justify a monster $5.7 million fourth-year option, but that's due to playing time issues; Kanter didn't play in college, and he's been No. 4 in Utah's big-man pecking order. He barely cracked 1,000 minutes last season, much fewer than we'd expect from a No. 3 selection working as a full-time rotation player on a .500 team.” Burks is an interesting combo player who can play both the point guard position as well as shooting guard. With a little more experience, Burks could prove to be a steal when he was picked 12th by the Jazz in the 2011 NBA draft.

  • Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer: Given that green traditionally means go, it's great news for Cavaliers fans when new center Andrew Bynum says his rehabilitation has "all been green.'' In an exclusive interview with The Plain Dealer, his first since the press conference announcing his signing on July 19, Bynum said he's on schedule to return this season and there have been no setbacks since he started working out at the Cleveland Clinic Courts in late July. "I moved here a week after the press conference, I've been here ever since -- day in and day out just working,'' he said, referring to the team's practice facility. "I'm there, focused. I'm doing everything I can do to get back. That's what all this is all about for me right now. I just want to play." … While the team thinks it would be great if he was ready for the start of training camp on Oct. 1, if he doesn't hit that exact date, it doesn't mean he's behind schedule. "It's a fluid process,'' Bynum said.

  • Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic: Healed, cleared, delivered: Channing Frye is yours, Phoenix Suns. After a year away from basketball due to an enlarged heart, the Suns’ deep-shooting big man said he is healthy and was cleared for all activity by doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He began working out and returned with his family to Phoenix. All he awaits now is word from the Suns that their doctors concur. “They told me, ‘No human being is 100 percent healthy. The highest we give is a 98 percent. You are a 98 percent,’ ” Frye said. “They said, ‘We see this all the time.’ I don’t have any fear. I’m not scared to push myself and run and play and get my heart rate up. I’m just waiting on the paperwork. I’m healthy. It’s out of my hands. It’s up to the Suns and what they feel comfortable doing.” … Frye said a virus caused his heart’s enlargement, which shut him down before the Suns went to training camp last year. He said the condensed lockout season of 2012, stress, lack of sleep, coffee and energy drinks were contributors. Even if Frye is cleared, he likely will not be in playing shape when the Suns open their season Oct. 30. He is just beginning to do the off-season work that he normally would have done in May and June because he was restricted to golf, yoga and set-shooting for most of the past year.

  • Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: David Lee got up from his seat, swiveled and lifted just enough of his practice jersey to reveal a newly sculpted six pack of abs. With those moves, the Warriors' power forward affirmed the points he had been trying to make during a just-concluded 15-minute interview: Even after offseason surgery, he said he is in the best shape of his life, and while his team is finally receiving some lofty preseason praise, he isn't resting on those predictions. "We could finish last in the West or we could finish first, but I think we have the ability to be a championship-caliber team," Lee said Wednesday, a day after most of the Warriors reported to voluntary workouts at the team's downtown Oakland facility. "We still have a long way to go, but if you look at where we were three years ago ... and where we are right now, it's very exciting. It comes with a level of responsibility, because now we're going to have a target on our back - rather than being a team that everyone underestimates."

  • Tim Bontemps of the New York Post: Lance Stephenson is impressed with the moves the Nets and Knicks have made this summer, but said he still thinks his Pacers are the team best-suited to challenge the Heat in the East. “I think we’re good,” Stephenson said at a back to school event in Brooklyn Wednesday. “When I’m on the court, and I know when my teammates are on the court, we think we’re better than anybody. “I think we’ve got a good chance to be the number one team [in the East]. We just have to work hard, put it together and do what we need to do to make our team better this year.” After spending his first two years mostly riding the bench for the Pacers, last season Stephenson became one of the NBA’s breakout players. With All-Star Danny Granger spending virtually the whole season on the shelf with knee injuries, Stephenson started 72 games during the regular season and all 19 of Indiana’s playoff games, helping the Pacers push the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

  • Michael Lee of The Washington Post: For a team that has had little success the past five seasons, the Washington Wizards have been an unlikely source for teams looking for front office talent. Mike Wilson, the Wizards’ head of college scouting for the past nine seasons, is the latest to join the exodus from Washington after accepting a player personnel position with the Dallas Mavericks. Already this offseason, Pat Connelly left his position as director of player personnel to become assistant general manager of the Phoenix Suns and former vice president of player personnel Milt Newton was hired as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Former assistant coach Jerry Sichting also left to become the lead assistant with the Suns and assistant athletic trainer Koichi Soto is expected to join the Timberwolves head strength and conditioning coach. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman and their respective staffs are all in the final year of their contracts, but all of the departing individuals have received significant promotions to go elsewhere.

  • Michael Kaskey-Blomain of The Philadelphia Inquirer: It is rare at 25 years old to be considered an elder statesman of anything. Many 25 year olds are just finding their way in the working world, let alone being looked to for leadership. But with six professional seasons under his belt and a roster comprised of fresh faces, that is exactly the position Thaddeus Young finds himself in heading into this season with the Sixers. With much of the Sixers’ roster comprised of rookies and other fringe free agents, Young stands as the team’s longest-tenured and most experienced player. He has seen a handful of coaching changes since the Sixers selected him in the first round of the 2007 draft, as Brett Brown will serve as his fifth head coach in seven seasons. Young has also played under Mo Cheeks, Tony DiLeo, Eddie Jordan and Doug Collins. His role has consistently changed under each coach as well, as he has been both a starter and a reserve, and spent ample time at both forward spots.

  • Michael Grange of Sportsnet.ca: Nearly halfway home, but not even close to being done. That sums up the status of the Canadian men’s national team as they take a brief pause at the FIBA Americas tournament in Caracas, Venezuela. The event has reached the second of three distinct stages. With their blowout win over Uruguay late Tuesday night in a game delayed nine hours due to a power outage, Canada concluded group play with a 3-1 record and advanced from Group A in second place. They now have four games against the top four teams from Group B, beginning with their game at 2 p.m. EDT Thursday against Mexico, followed by contests against host Venezuela, Argentina and Dominican Republic. … After the first four games of the Steve Nash era, these are some of the things we’ve learned about them: 1. Canada has a point guard; 2. Canada has a big man tandem to be reckoned with; 3. Canada is deep; 4. The wing position remains a challenge; 5. The team is becoming a team.

  • Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star: You hear the joy in her rising voice, you see the pain in her tears, you feel the triumph as she clenches her 84-year-old palms together. Arlena Smith is going back. She’s talking about Roger. Sometimes it hurts, hurts her now because it hurt him then. The day he showed up on her doorstop, exiled from the game he cherished, broke with nowhere to turn. The phone calls she’d get from him, crying, tired of the story that wouldn’t die and the questions that wouldn’t stop. Sometimes, though, it’s pure bliss. Before he became the backbone of the ABA’s Indiana Pacers, Roger Brown became her adopted son, a member of the family. Their good-natured barbs during his AAU games in Dayton. She’d call him “gramps” from her spot on the scorer’s table – “Cuz he moved so slow!” After his team won, he’d walk over to her and ask, “So, how’d I do?” with his cocky grin, knowing full well he was the best player on the court. She watched him blossom into a star, one of the best the ABA ever saw. Sunday, after 17 years of waiting, he enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.