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Bill Wennington: The “Wenning Touch”

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Ask any serious fan of the Chicago Bulls who Bill Wennington is, and you might get a few different answers, but I guarantee you that none of those answers will be a puzzled reply asking, “Bill who?” hey might tell you that he played an important role in the three consecutive championships enjoyed by the Chicago Bulls mid-90’s dynasty. They might also tell you that he is the radio voice for Chicago fans. They might even tell you that this seven-foot center hails from the Canadian city of Montreal.

While Steve Nash, Jamal Magloire, and the upcoming Juan Mendez are names that fly across conversations about accomplished Canadian basketball players, this nation that loves to celebrate our successes – especially abroad – is widely unaware of this legend in our midst.

It was at the age of 12 that this oddly tall young boy got his start in the game he would grow to love. Bill smiles about that time, and notes, “I was actually a hockey player.” He recalls being at a local swimming pool when Doug Alexander, a Montreal sports journalist, approached him about joining the local youth basketball league.

After discussing it with his mother, he joined the league. As to how he performed, in the new sport, Bill is candid: “I wasn’t good, but I liked it a lot, and it was fun.” He adds to this story, noting, “That’s what I tell kids today. In my first year playing, I was absolutely terrible. I enjoyed playing, it was a lot of fun, and I stuck with it.”

By the age of 14, his skills had drastically improved, leading to a spot on the Quebec junior team. While this led to a deeper involvement in the game, he still was not fully committed to the sport.

“It wasn’t until I moved to New York, I was in high school and Bob Mackillop sat me down and said, ‘Do you want to take this seriously? Do you want to be as good as you can be?’ That’s when it started to become very serious.” It would be in high school that Bill would make his mark. His play actually led him to the McDonald’s All-American high school game of 1981, where he played with Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin, and Patrick Ewing, among others.

His high school success began to open a whole new world for him. He was given the chance to play under the coaching of Jack Donohue for Canada’s National team, while also receiving over 200 university scholarship offers.

During his international play, Wennington recalls a number of life shaping experiences. One particular story he recalls was playing against Russia and being matched with Kovalchenko. “He had to be about 40 years old and I’m about 19 years old. I’m 7 feet tall and he’s 7 foot 5 – it was an eye opening experience.” He cites this time of his life as having altered, for the better, the direction his career in basketball would take. “It was a great help for me mentally, I was getting a lot of pressure situations in some very big games, and you are playing against guys who have taken the sport very seriously.”

At the same time, Canada’s National team was seeing greater international success than the program had previously attained.Eventually, Bill had narrowed down the hundreds of choices to just three: Duke, Virginia, and St. John’s. As to why he came to choose St. John’s, Bill lists a number of reasons, which he summarizes with a fond recollection: “New York was a basketball Mecca at that time.”

After a fourth place Olympic finish in the 1984 games and four years at St. John’s alongside future Golden State Warriors alumni Chris Mullin, Bill would enter the 1985 NBA draft. He would go in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks, as the 16th pick, which places him as the second earliest Canadian selection in the NBA draft – the first being Steve Nash.

Being selected in the first round led to five years in Dallas and one year in Sacramento, before things would take a surprising twist. As a free agent, Bill was facing a choice between a contract with the New York Knicks and the opportunity to play basketball overseas in Italy. With his wife pregnant, and the reality sinking in that he would not be able to play basketball forever, Bill chose the more lucrative offer in Italy.

Having signed a two year contract, this decision to play in Europe would come to reinvigorate his basketball career, and more importantly, his love for the game. “The whole experience was very good because, in the NBA, I wasn’t playing a lot. It had become a job, it was still basketball, it was still fun, but it became more work than fun”. After winning a championship in his second year in Italy, Bill took an offer which was more promising than anyone could have imagined.

He came back to the United States for a two month training camp contract to give starting center Bill Cartwright a rest. In this contract was the slight chance of finding his way into the fibers of the team, a possibility which had him competing with Greg Foster for the same position. “I decided that the best way to make the team was to be a coachable player – to do what the coach asked me,” Bill explains. “In training camp, I was passing the ball, running the offence, setting picks. Greg was shooting the ball every time he got it and he got a lot more points than I did in camp. I’m thinking to myself, ‘this is not good, he’s scoring all of the points’”. While he was worried, his approach worked and he ended up making the team. With a tone of humor and delight in his voice, Bill laughs saying, “somehow I managed to stretch 2 months into 6 years.” On a more serious note, he reflects, “It made me realize that it was the little things that made me make the team. I was being a coachable player, and that kept me around long enough to get a chance to shoot the ball and they got the chance to see what else I could do”

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Having made the Bulls roster, he would embark on what would become a sporting dynasty. Slipping into the memory of it all, Bill testifies, “That team was so good!” He continues, saying, “Obviously we had talented players like Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman. But we also had Phil Jackson as our coach who made everybody understand what their role was, and, that when they played, to execute their role all of the time”.

Bill goes further to suggest that, “Phil really understands the human ego and how to mold everyone for the common goal and was able to keep Michael Jordan on the same level as me, Bill Wennington or Steve Kerr, and also pull us up to his level.”

The result was a domination of the 1995-96 regular season with a record of 72-10, which would lead into a 2nd championship three-peat with a 6 game series defeat of Seattle and back-to-back victories over Utah.
“It’s still one of my best memories in basketball, that first championship,” Bill reminisces. “At the end of the game, being there in the United Center and finally winning a championship, you realize that this is what you’ve been playing for. It’s a great feeling, all of your goals have been realized…I’m getting goosebumps now thinking about it.”

While the accomplishment was great, as well as one that is realized in very few NBA careers, Bill goes on to mention that on “the first day of training camp, Phil is like ‘it’s a new season, what’s done is done, and we’re starting over”.

It was that attitude of the team that Bill also notes as the most valuable experience he gained from playing with Michael Jordan. “In sports and life you find a lot of very talented people. Michael is a very gifted athlete, but what makes him so much better is that he understands he had to work at his gift and his craft. He didn’t rest on his ability, he pushed himself every single day in practice to get better and by him pushing himself, he pushed us. Here you have the best player in basketball working harder than anyone else in practice and in games, and if you don’t keep up, you’re gonna get embarrassed – he would embarrass you in practice!”

On May 26th, 2005, Bill Wennington and Gerald Kazanowski will celebrate their inductions into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame at the award gala to be held at Toronto’s York Event Theatre. For Bill, “It’s surreal, because I’ve just done what I do. I worked hard at my game, tried to be the best possible basketball player that I could be, and I’ve had a lot of fun. To be honoured for having fun, it’s like what did I do?”.

So this little known Canadian legend’s list of accomplishments points out that he is one of the few players who have been able to do what they love and see such great success on so many levels. Due to the fact that the game has given him so much, Bill intends to continue to give to the game by passing on the wealth of knowledge that he has gained to future generations: “If it touches one person and that person realizes that, ‘Hey, I wanna do that’ and they put forth the effort and maybe they’re the next Michael Jordan”, adding a healthy chuckle, “or the next Bill Wennington, to be a part of that…”. Having seen the globe, the ups and downs of the NBA, and enjoying a post-NBA career in a broadcasting position he loves, Bill is assured in the wisdom of his experience that, “whatever you do, if you enjoy doing it, you will be good at it”.
Look out for the upcoming “We Recognize” feature on another Canadian Basketball Hall of Famer, Gerald Kazanowski.

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2016 NBA Finals: Are the Cleveland Cavs done?

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The rumbling noise of a rematch begun as soon as last year’s NBA Finals ended with the Golden State Warriors drinking champagne in the Quicken Loans Arena’s visitors dressing room.

While the whole world focused on down crediting the Warriors, the Cavaliers went to work with the mindset that they were two injuries away from being the defending champions.

LeBron James dominated the Finals in ways that fans had always hoped he would, but never got to see. His average stats line from last year’s finals is 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks in 45.7 minutes. LeBron James was inhuman in that series. He was divine. And, comparisons to Greek gods were more warranting than ever, and more importantly, it was not about his physical attributes anymore, but about his game.

He, for once, had a dominant Finals series that led us to believe if these two teams were healthy Golden State would have no chance.

And, thus begun the new quest to end Cleveland’s title drought. While Golden State opened the season 24-0, 39-4 when Steve Kerr came back on the bench, and finished 73-9, Cleveland was dealing with internal turmoil that spilled out and headlined controversies after controversies.

The lack of respect James showed towards former coach David Blatt, firing Blatt midway through the season despite a 30-11 record and a first seed in the conference, Tyronn Lue’s “shut the f–k up” comments, the comments about maybe playing with ‘Melo and CP3 in the twilight of his career, Kyrie does not distribute the ball, Kevin Love not, really, fitting in, and the most egregious was him training with Wade in Miami. If you want, you can also add the move to unfollow his organization on Twitter.

All of this noise was silenced in the first two rounds of the playoffs mainly due to the weak competition the Cavs faced in Detroit and Atlanta. However, things got a little chaotic when the Raptors mauled Cleveland in games 3 and 4 of the conference finals.

But, in the end it was all covered up with wins. The Cavs downplayed all of those problems, they shuffled aside questions about their chemistry and cohesiveness, but because they were never tested their talents overcame the lack of adversity. But not anymore and this team looks like its quitting, unfairly, on its coach, its superstar, and itself.

So, here we are: Game 3. The single biggest game of LeBron James’ career. The game that will define his legacy. It is a bigger game than Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals. The stakes are through the roof, and if James does not perform and Cleveland loses, they will get swept on Friday night. This is it. LeBron James said so himself.

The problems facing the Cavs are James’ uncharacteristic lack of leadership, and he has not been dominant, and Tyronn Lue’s coaching.

LeBron James’ leadership

This Cavaliers squad is in search of its leader who has dissipated. LeBron James is not playing with the same ardor, determination and grit on both ends of the floor.

A year ago, he was feisty and so were his team, but this year he is lazy and so is his team.

The Cavaliers are a reflection of LeBron James, and as long as he will be an anemic version of himself, the team will play that way and Golden State will win with ease. James has never been questioned for his lack of effort on both ends of the floor, and yet here we are questioning the core of his greatness in the looming hours of what is the defining stage of his legacy.

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It is time for LeBron James to lead his team and as the old expression goes “put up or shut up”. A year ago, James “became the first player to lead both teams in points, rebounds and assists per game in an NBA Finals,” according to ESPN Stats and Information. This year his numbers are there (21, 9 assists, 10 rebounds), but they are not impactful.

He and his team looked like they have been mentally defeated by Golden State in Game 2. They looked ready to go on vacation, and leave Cleveland as soon as possible. We have seen a LeBron James team lose in the Finals before, but they never looked vanquished, and uninterested.

LeBron James needs to take command of this game, and this series. He needs to show his team the way. Get his teammates involved early, have their backs and go for the Warriors’ psychological throat. James has to want to rip the Warriors’ heart out of their chest.

Tyronn Lue’s coaching

The honeymoon with Tyronn Lue has got to end, and people have to hold him accountable for what he has not done in the first two games of the series: coaching.

Tyronn Lue has tried to combat fire with fire. When Golden State has sent its revolutionary small ball lineup, also known as, “the death lineup”, Cleveland responded with its own version (Irving at the 1, J.R. Smith at the 2, Shumpert at the 3, James at the 4, Love at the 5) and was outscored by 46 points. In contrast, the Cavs have been outscored by one point when playing with a big lineup against the death lineup.

According to John McTigue from ESPN Stats and Information, when both squads play with their small ball lineup the Warriors are shooting 66.2 per cent from the field to the Cavs’ 40. To make matters worse the lethal new weapon that carried the Cavs to the NBA Finals, the three point shot, is killing them now. Once again, when both team play small ball, the Warriors shoot 60 per cent from beyond the arc to the Cavs’ 25.

Tyronn Lue needs to watch last year’s finals, and the few good moments from this year’s edition and play big, slow and physical. If the Cavs don’t make these adjustments, they are done.

A year ago, Mozgov became a force to be reckoned with in the paint against the Warriors. He needs to be unleashed against Andrew Bogut, otherwise the Australian big-man will have his way. Even, if Mozgov is a viable option on offense, his impact on defense, his shot-blocking abilities and rebounding prowess can’t be overlooked.

Lue has to bench J.R. Smith. Period. Smith has been a pathetic, moribund shell of himself. Thus far in the series, before Game 3, Smith has played 69 minutes and attempted a disgraceful nine shots, connected on only three occasions as the starting shooting guard.

Bench him. He is wasting a viable roster spot on both ends of the floor.

Game 3 is the single biggest game of LeBron James’ career, and he will have to dominate from tip off to finish for his team to have a chance, otherwise you can kiss the ring good bye.

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Damian Lillard more valuable than Curry

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On Wednesday night, the Portland Trail Blazers will be faced with a daunting task: extending their overachieving season by defeating the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.

Absolutely nothing short of a miraculous performance will save, and extend the Blazers’ season. And, yet the Blazers’ leader is highly capable of delivering such a performance.

Damian Lillard is the kind of conductor who can orchestrate the most harmonious melodies, which leaves the audience in tears of joy as they watch beautiful basketball.

Remember the Warriors’ first game following the All-Star Break? It was in Portland, Oregon when Damian Lillard dropped dimes (sorry couldn’t help it!) all over Chef Curry and company.

Lillard, the undersized point guard, finished with a career-high 51-points to go along with seven assists, six steals, and zero turnovers to lead his Blazers to a dominant, statement-making blowout win of the defending champions Warriors.

Portland won 137-105.

So, yeah Golden State took the regular season series 3-1. And, yes they are most likely to win the 2016 NBA Playoffs series 4-1. But, could Stephen Curry have done what Damian Lillard pulled of? Nah. How about Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Carmelo Anthony? Nope.

The only player who could – and probably – would of done something as special as what Dame did, is LeBron James.

Let’s recap what happened to the Blazers about a year ago in free agency. LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the San Antonio Spurs. Wesley Matthews left for the Dallas Mavericks. Nicolas Batum signed with the Charlotte Hornets. Robin Lopez signed with the New York Knicks.

Those are three starters, and their sixth man. Basically four of their top five players left, and yet Dame, and head coach Terry Stotts, have this team in the second round of the playoffs.

When Mason Plumlee is arguably the best free agent you signed after watching the exodus, you have to wonder what the front office was doing.

You can look at it, analyze, and throw all the numbers you want to coronate Stephen Curry, but none of those will compare to the challenges that faced the ever so underrated Oakland, California point guard.

Damian-Lillard-Portland-Blazers-Looking-Up-NBA

Yes, Curry was a member of the 50-40-90 club, and he led the league in both points per game and steals per game. Yes, the baby-faced assassin killed the Spurs at home, and in Alamo City during the Spurs’ only home loss this season. Yes, I remember the Saturday night instant classic overtime thriller in Oklahoma City and the shot seen around the world to win it. Yes, I remember the blowout of the Cavaliers in Cleveland, and the “hopefully it still smells a little bit like champagne,” comments.

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Yes, Chef Curry was the orchestrator of the greatest regular season in NBA history as his Warriors went 73-9, but I dare every single one of you to show me a Klay Thompson who averaged 22.1 points per game, and a Draymond Green who averaged 14 ppg, 9.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game, on top of being the best defender on the Warriors, and their spiritual and emotional leader.

Some of you will point to Lillard’s new partner in crime, C.J McCollum. McCollum can’t yet be compared because this past season was the first time he played a role in the Blazers’ season. He was drafted in 2013, and prior to this season in which he averaged 20.8 points per game, McCollum averaged just 5.3 points per game in 12 minutes (2013-14), and 6.8 in 15 minutes per game (2014-15). He was Wesley Matthews’ backup.

As of right now, McCollum’s situation is TBD. It is to be determined whether he can be a consistent 20-point scorer for the Blazers, and Lillard’s sidekick.

I don’t want to sound like a “hater” because Curry, and his Warriors deserve all the accolades they receive. They deserve all the praises they obtain. I’m just of the mindset that you can’t overlook players, and coaches who overachieve just because their team has a record that is not quite as good as another team.

This reminds me of the 2013 NFL season when Peyton Manning like Stephen Curry re-wrote the record books on his way to his fifth MVP, while Tom Brady like Damian Lillard took a supporting cast that left everyone screaming “Belichick is jeopardizing Brady’s last years” all the way to the AFC Championship game.

So, while this NBA series is not in the Western Conference final, I can’t help but see the resemblance, and feel bad for Dame and Brady.

Before the season began every pundit, every analyst, and everyone that follows basketball declared the Portland Trail Blazers as a lottery team. And, yet the undersized, underrated superstar point-uard nicknamed Dame kicked open the superstar status door, and declared “sorry for dropping in!”

And delivered a season to remember. Dame you the real MVP.

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LaMarcus Aldridge makes Spurs, not Warriors, team to beat in NBA

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The NBA semifinals are underway, and, so far have been nothing short of sensational. But, of all the great players, teams, and coaches still fighting this post-season one stands out as, clearly thus far, the best player in the NBA.

He is none other than LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs.

The newest free agent signee of the San Antonio Spurs has been on a tear against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In the first game of the series he scored 38 points on 18/23 shooting only to follow it with a 41 points on 15/21 shooting performance. He is the first Spur to have back-to-back 35 + points performances in the playoffs since Tim Duncan in 2003.

At the beginning of the season, Aldridge struggled mightily to find his groove in the Spurs’ system with the nadir coming on January 25th, in the form of a 30-point beat down to the Golden State Warriors. In that nightmarish game, Aldridge scored five points on 2/9 shooting.

Due to the hellish start of his season some people thought his signee was a bit of overrated; however, in a true Spurs fashion he aged well.

From October until mid-January, Aldridge averaged 15.9 points per game on 48.7 per cent from the floor. While this may be a career year for most players, it was well below his anticipated production. And, on top of his lack-of-production – by his standards – the Spurs were about to be dealt a new blow. Tim Duncan would miss some time with right knee soreness. But, Duncan’s soreness turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the new Spur as he found himself.

Between January 23rd and February 18th, Aldridge’s scoring average increased from 15.9 to 20.8 points per game on 54.7 shooting from the floor. And, from February 18th to March 17th, he average 20.2 points per game on 52.6 per cent from the floor.

LaMarcus-Aldridge-Spurs-NBA-Playoffs-Jumper

Since then LaMarcus Aldridge has been firing on all cylinders for the Spurs, and helped them to the greatest regular season in team history. In any year, the 67-15 Spurs would have been, against their will, the talk of the media, but the 73-9 Golden State Warriors and the drama surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers overshadowed them.

Now, as they prepare for Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against their newly archrival Thunder, the most dominant franchise of the past decade has gotten even better.

The former “Big Three”, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, is still intact but a new “Big Three” is emerging with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge as the catalysts, and either Patty Mills or Danny Green as the third member.

One of the big reasons behind Aldridge’s early season struggles is because he plays a very similar style of basketball to Tim Duncan; therefore they were stepping on each other’s toes on offense, and in a way neutralized each other.

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Since coming back from injury, Duncan has gladly accepted his role as a mentor, and passenger on the Spurs bus driven by number two and 12. He has become a secondary scorer on the team, to his and the team’s benefit, and moves to help free-up Aldridge as oppose to score.

Although Aldridge can muscle his way in the restricted area against anybody in the league, his strength lies in his mid-range jump shot. Coincidentally this is Duncan’s strength although Aldridge has much more range than Duncan.

LaMarcus-Aldridge-Spurs-NBA-Playoffs-Jumper-OKC-Thunder

In the first two games of the series against the Thunder, Aldridge has ran a number on Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams with his devastating jumper. The Spurs use pick and roll and screens to free him from his defender.

What makes the Spurs’ signing of LaMarcus Aldridge so deadly is that both the Spurs and Aldridge have become famous over the years for pick and rolls, screens, double-screens, and mid-range jump shots.

LaMarcus Aldridge was destined to be a Spur, and his signature could not have come at a better time.

Thus far in the series, Aldridge has connected on all 11 free throws he attempted, including the three free throws with 13.5 seconds left in the game and his Spurs down by four. The former Trail Blazers scored .783 per cent in game 1 and .714 in game 2.

Billy Donovan, the rookie head coach of the Thunder, has, so far, refused to double-team the Texas alumni or try defending him with Kevin Durant. The main reason that has Billy Donovan reluctant to switch Ibaka and Adams with Durant is Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard is the best player in San Antonio. The Spurs will go as far as he takes them. For all of LaMarcus Aldridge’s greatness, he takes a back seat to Kawhi Leonard.

This season, and most likely for the near future, the Golden State Warriors will hold headlines, breaking news, and magazine covers, but the San Antonio Spurs will respond, in a homegrown fashion, with their play on the court as oppose to the cameras.

Who knows what the future will hold for the franchise based in the Alamo City, but if the present is any sign of things to come Spurs fans are in for a treat, and another 15 years of championship aspirations, and greatness.

Despite the headline-grabbing Warriors (rightfully so!), I believe that the San Antonio Spurs will win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and be crowned World Champions in 2016, and LaMarcus Aldridge will be Finals MVP (if he keeps playing at this level).

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