Lang’s World: Deion Sanders is bringing Jackson State into Prime Time

On Saturday afternoon here in Memphis, Jackson State University squared off against Tennessee State University, in this year’s iteration of the Southern Heritage Classic, a matchup of HBCUs that has been held annually in Memphis since 1990. Jackson State won the game going away, 38-16, thanks in large part to 362 passing yards (and 3 TDs) from QB Shedeur Sanders.

Sanders was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, a top-15 ranked pocket passer who won three Texas state titles, and received scholarship offers from everyone from pretty much every big school in the South, from Alabama to UGA to Florida State.

Yet, Shedeur eventually ended up at Jackson State, a school with about 7,000 total students, the size of the student section at some of those other colleges. And he’s leading JSU through a season where they’re garnering more national attention than they’ve ever received before.

And for that, we can thank Deion Sanders. Excuse me, let’s make that Coach Prime.

Now, Deion Sanders is my favorite athlete of all-time. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — I grew up in Atlanta, after all, and for a significant portion of my youth, Deion was the most exciting player on the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons, at the same time. I had Deion posters on my wall, and jerseys from all of his teams. When the Falcons eventually let Deion go and he returned to Atlanta as a member of the 49ers, I went to the game, and was there when Deion got into a slap fight with Andre Rison then eventually picked off a pass, ran the length of the field for a touchdown, and pulled a muscle while dancing in the end zone.

I treasured Deion not just from an athletic standpoint, but from a social perspective as well, as Deion high-stepped into a rapidly changing South and basically forced many Atlantans to examine their positions on a lot of things. As Deion told me many years later, “I was a complex black man. Being the first in years to come out and do it the way I did it. And not only that — my game backed up my name. A lot of people who came out like I did didn’t have the guts to back it up. But my game backed it up. So they [the media] said, ‘Shoot, what can we say about this guy? We gotta attack his character. Because we can’t attack his game. We can’t sit him down and put a microphone in front of his face and not have him articulate his way out of it.’ So I could verbally whup ’em and I could physically whup ’em. So they had to attack my character.”

Deion could be a divisive personality, certainly, but that in many ways forced people to publicly take sides. I was (and remain) proudly and unapologetically a Deion stan. What he did was incredible — playing two professional sports at the same time, and doing it at a high level — and no amount of talking or dancing would ever dissuade me from my belief that Prime Time was one of the GOATs.

A few years later after he left Atlanta, I got to interview Deion Sanders. He was not long removed from his playing days, and was working as a pundit for “The NFL on CBS.” I spent a Sunday at the CBS Studios in Midtown Manhattan, following Deion around and asking him about his life and his career. Because I had studied him so obsessively, I was able to query him on some details that he said nobody had ever asked him about before. He always wore his football gloves unbuckled, for instance, so that the little velcro strap would flutter in the breeze. The NFL threatened to fine him, Deion said, unless he wore them closed. Ever the creative problem solver, Deion got the glove company to make him gloves that had two fasteners, one which he could close, plus an extra strap that would hang open. I still wear my glove hanging open to this day when I play golf, my own little tribute to Deion.

Deion Sanders Hall of Fame

A few weeks after that interview, I was sitting at my desk one day when my work phone rang. I answered, and there on the other end of the line was Prime Time himself, calling to say hello and make sure I had everything I needed for the article I was writing. I’d given Deion my business card, but never in a million years expected him to actually proactively reach out to me. Before long we were calling each other regularly, and when Deion would come to New York City each weekend for his CBS duties, he would touch base. At the time, Deion was heavily involved with the ministry of Bishop TD Jakes, and each time I called him, he answered his cell phone with the words, “Praise the Lord.” Not, “Hello,” or, “Hey,” but always “Praise the Lord.” Eventually, after much negotiating with my fiance, I asked Deion to officiate our upcoming wedding. After brief consideration, he gracefully demurred, noting he wasn’t certified to officiate weddings in the state of Georgia.

Our friendship eventually petered out, although I suspect Deion still has the same cell phone number, since it ended with his longtime jersey number 21. While we stopped communicating, I never stopped rooting for Deion, as he returned to pro football with the Ravens, then pivoted back to being a media personality, then started a sports-centric charter school in Texas. These ventures have been met with varying levels of success, but the common theme whenever Deion is involved with anything is that you get the full Deion experience. The personality, the panache, the style — all that stuff is genuine; that’s who Deion has always been. When Deion was leaving Florida State, he showed up for the NFL combine wearing his finest suit. He told me one of the people working at the combine pulled him aside and said, “Sorry sir, no agents are allowed.”

This has been a bit of a stumbling block at some points in his career, as some managers or coaches felt like Deion valued himself over his teams. And maybe he did. But he also helped two teams get Super Bowl rings and made the NFL Hall of Fame. I think the Falcons probably could have used him for longer than four years.

Almost one year ago, Deion announced that God had called him to become a college football coach, and he was going to become the head man at Jackson State, which hadn’t had a winning season since 2013. They had some growing pains out of the gate last season, but this year, with a full complement of transfers and recruits, are off to a strong 2-0 start.

To me, what Deion is doing is remarkable. It still hasn’t been a full year, but he’s already raised the national profile of Jackson State, and he’s building a program where players who want a chance to get to the next level can get that chance with the mentoring of one of the greatest to ever do it. If you want to learn what it takes to make it in the NFL, would you rather learn from Deion Sanders or, say, Shane Beamer or Josh Heupel?

And unless you’re a fan of a school playing against Jackson State, how can you root against what Deion is doing? Do you not want to see young people have the best chance possible to make their dreams come true?

I have no idea if Deion will make a long-term career out of being a football coach, or if this is just some diversion. His track record doesn’t really seem to suggest an ability to focus on any project for too long — see his rap career, for instance — but even if Deion only lasts a few years at Jackson State, that may be enough. Even though he’s only been there twelve months, Deion Sanders is already pushing Jackson State and the SWAC into the Prime Time.

Lang’s World: College Football Week 1 Winners and Losers

College football is back! And after spending a weekend watching games from coast to coast—and unsuccessfully trying to avoid that ubiquitous Applebee’s commercial—even though it’s still super early, I think we can agree on a few things…

Winner: Memphis

Tiger football fans have had reason to feel a bit of creeping anxiety the last few years. After Mike Norvell took the program to new heights and new Bowls and even got “College Gameday” to come to town, Norvell unceremoniously decamped for Tallahassee and Florida State. New Coach Ryan Silverfield seemed respected within the program, but Norvell was a tough act to follow for anyone.

After fighting through last season’s weird year and losing a bunch of players, Silverfield made the tough call of starting true freshman quarterback Seth Henigan yesterday in the season opener. And it worked! Henigan was efficient and smooth, taking care of the ball and mixing in deep throws.

I know it was just Nicholls (State?), but as season openers go, this seemed like a solid first step, not only for the Tigers, but also for Silverfield, as he continues to try and put his own stamp on this program.

Loser: Clemson

The Georgia Bulldogs really had nothing to gain by opening their season with an out-of-conference match against Clemson. That’s because Georgia, of course, plays an SEC schedule, and depending on which teams you draw from the other side of the Conference, you’re still going to play a gauntlet of quality teams. Even this season, as UGA has turned out to have a relatively easy schedule, the Dawgs still have to play Florida and Auburn, and if they win their half of the conference, they still likely have the mighty Alabama waiting for them in the SEC title game.

Clemson, meanwhile, has a schedule stocked with ACC teams, with a cherry on top at the end of the season with an SEC game against South Carolina, who is currently starting a graduate assistant coach at QB.

If Clemson had opened their season with a win against UGA, they’d have that signature win against a top five team in pocket, which they could point to whenever strength of schedule was invoked.

Alas, UGA managed to eke out a 10-3 win over Clemson on Saturday night, and while UGA was missing a ton of players on the offensive side, the defense was lights out all night. Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei was a stunning drop-off from Trevor Lawrence, finishing 19-for-37 with one interception, which accounted for the lone touchdown scored in the game. Uiagalelei was flummoxed by UGA’s aggressive schemes and not helped by Clemson’s porous o-line, to the point where you wondered if he’d maybe get yanked from the game. (I also wondered if Dr. Pepper would yank him from their national ad campaign; could he be the first NIL casualty?)

So, the Dawgs got the win, and will likely hop up from the fifth spot in the rankings, especially after Oklahoma nearly fumbled away a big lead over Tulane. Clemson will likely run the rest of the table and win the ACC, but will this one loss end up keeping them out of the postseason? It very well might.

Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei getting sacked by the Georgia defense

Loser: Style over Substance

Minnesota coach PJ Fleck has a lot going on. He has his own copyrighted motivational tactics! He wears ties on the field! He burns scented candles in his office! Coach Fleck is fired up and he’s going to make sure that you are fired up as well!

All that stuff was enough to get Minnesota football, which hasn’t really been nationally relevant since Glen Mason was around, in a season opener against Ohio State on prime time national television. And after a promising start to the game, Minnesota gave up 45 points and got thumped right there on national TV.

Meanwhile, on Saturday night down in Atlanta, Georgia Tech opened their season against Northern Illinois. For many years, Tech coach Paul Johnson kept them competitive by running the triple option offense, which wasn’t sexy but worked despite the recruiting disadvantages Tech faced. But alumni gonna alumni, and eventually Johnson was shoved aside for former Temple coach Geoff Collins, who showed up wearing tight t-shirts and promising to Make Tech Great Again. Collins famously (and hilariously) banned red pens in the football facility, not wanting to give their red and black rival Georgia any inroads whatsoever, instituted an Instagram-worthy red carpet walk for the Jackets players, and slapped an aspirational “404” on their merch. But under Collins’s watch, the Jackets have consistently proved branding doesn’t win games. And this weekend, despite being 21-point favorites, the Jackets lost their opener to Northern Illinois.

After last season, Vanderbilt finally parted ways with Coach Derek Mason, who had always managed to produce a win or two out of nowhere for a completely outmanned Vanderbilt team. New coach Clark Lea arrived and talked a big game. He immediately banned numbers from jerseys in practice, saying the players needed to earn recognition. Yesterday, Vandy opened their season by getting absolutely crushed at home against East Tennessee State University, 23-3.

The recurring theme here: You can have all the bells and whistles and hashtags you want, but long-term, there is no sustainable substitute for winning.

Unless you’re Ted Lasso.

Winner: Mayonnaise

I am well aware that there is a loud faction of people out there who are fundamentally opposed to mayonnaise. Why? Well, that’s less clear. Mayonnaise, after all, is essentially just fat whipped into a solid-ish form. Those same folks likely eat butter and oil, I guess they just don’t approve of blenders or mixers? Do these people hate emulsification?

Anyway, that aforementioned Georgia/Clemson opener was sponsored by Duke’s Mayo, which is already beloved in the South. (And speaking as an unbiased expert, Duke’s is undeniably the best-tasting jarred mayonnaise brand). Because Duke’s was such an integral part of the weekend, we saw several fans celebrate the start of college football by binge-eating mayonnaise, straight out of the jar.

As a long-time mayonnaise advocate, I appreciate mayo making its way into the national conversation and being considered on a large platform. But I also must admit, watching people eat mayo straight out of giant jars is pretty gross.

Loser: Ed Orgeron

LSU coach Ed Orgeron had a heckuva run two seasons ago. The long-time assistant (and Louisiana native) inherited the top job in the Bayou, and assembled an all-time team, going undefeated and winning LSU’s first national title in over a decade. Orgeron was a perfect fit for a team that nobody saw coming, with his lineman’s build and a voice that made gravel seem smooth. (Every time I see a close-up of Ed Orgeron’s face during a broadcast, it makes me wonder if the aspect ratio on my TV is messed up.)

But last year, everything fell apart pretty quickly. Sure, it was a weird, COVID-affected season, with multiple players opting out to preserve their NFL status, but LSU followed a 15-0 perfect season with a 5-5 limp through what should have been a victory lap. And while Coach O has talked ad nauseum about how they were a quick fix away from getting things back on track, LSU got trashed in the Rose Bowl by UCLA to open their season. And it wasn’t even really competitive—UCLA moved the ball at will and held LSU to 48 rushing yards.

I picked UCLA in this one because I suspected, despite Coach O’s assertations, LSU wasn’t just a quick fix away from being a top tier team again. Man, did they prove me right.

Ed Orgeron on the sideline in the game against UCLA

Winner: Alabama

We all know Alabama is the mightiest of the mighty in college football. Honestly, what else is left to say about a team that dominates, year after year after year? I’m as speechless as coach Nick Saban, who hasn’t had anything interesting to add to the discourse in years.

I don’t think anyone genuinely believed that Alabama was going to lose their season opener against Miami. Sure, they were debuting a ton of new pieces, especially on offense, along with a new offensive coordinator. But this was Alabama, which has more five stars than the world’s best Uber driver. Couldn’t they just plug and play?

Yes, they could. I picked Miami in this one, thinking Alabama would win easy, but Miami QB D’Eriq King would be talented enough to keep this one within the 19-point spread. I was wrong, very wrong. Alabama plugged and played, and they won going away, coasting down the stretch to a 44-13 victory. Alabama was elite, in every facet of the game. They aren’t exciting, but they’re still great, and unless something drastic happens, I don’t know how they can’t be the favorite to win it all this season. Again.

Grizz Gaming: Accepting the End Game

And then it ends. Just like that.

An entire year of working seven days a week—of scouting, of interviewing, of drafting, of building a team, of making calls, of trying to anticipate problems and confronting them before they fester, of scrimmaging and scrimmaging and scrimmaging and scrimmaging, of watching film, of creating content, of paperwork, of making sure every detail is taken care of, and doing it all while navigating a global pandemic. You’re up to your neck in it, and then it all ends. Just like that.

A few days ago in Dallas, season four of Grizz Gaming came to a disappointing halt with a loss in the NBA 2K League playoffs. Grizz Gaming had our best season in franchise history, finishing with an 18-10 regular season record and as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. But then the rug got yanked out from under us.

Seasons have fixed end points—that’s literally what defines a season. They go from pole to pole, from one randomly selected date to another, but there is an arc to them, and we ride that curve and write our own narrative as best we can. For Grizz Gaming, we entered this season with one goal: Make the playoffs. We’d been close, oh so close, but had never gotten over that hump.

This year, however, we did it. We made the postseason, and we won our first game, then lost games two and three, ending our story. We were close in both of those last two games, down single digits in each contest, but we couldn’t narrow the gaps. What went wrong? Plenty. There isn’t one thing I could point to, and to be blunt, some of that blame belongs at my size thirteen Space Hippies, as well. We all could have been better. Because now it’s over. Just like that.

Vandi and Spartan celebrating

And it hurts, it hurts a lot. I wanted to give my guys a quick talk on the bus ride back to the hotel after our elimination, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get the words out without my voice breaking. I don’t know if people understand is what a grind this league is, both physically and mentally. Sure, we are just playing a video game, but winning in the 2K League requires all five players working in sync, at all times. We did the math the other day and figured we must have logged somewhere around 500 scrimmage games over the last few months. You have to lock in and stay locked in for hours at a time, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. It was right around 100 degrees all week in Dallas, and in the room where we played our games, with dozens of people in there and the TV lights on, it was pushing 90 degrees, with no ventilation. (A power outage minutes into our first game didn’t exactly help, either.)

Right now, as I write this, I am completely drained. I am sitting in my hotel room in Dallas, my sweat-soaked clothes and hat from last night’s game in a pile over in the corner. We are a few hours away from our flight home to Memphis, and I’ve spent the last hour filling out spreadsheets to get my guy’s travel booked from Memphis to their actual homes. They each moved to the 901 for the last six months and gave it their everything. They were willing to sacrifice to be part of a bigger whole, and I will forever love each of them for that. There were people off the virtual court who also put in so much work, from Token helping us get ready for the draft, to Lexi, to Sam and Stef, to Corey, to our web team and our video team. From the top down, the Grizzlies organization has been unbelievably supportive of us. And I have to also say thanks to my wife and son, for being so understanding when I basically disappear each summer.

The last few months have been a blur. There’s so much happening outside of the 2K League world right now that I haven’t even had to time to fully process, from the Braves moving into first place to the start of the college football season to the loss of Charlie Watts. I’m looking forward to having time to do some of the things that I enjoy over the next few weeks.

I’m also looking forward to getting back some pieces of me (shouts to Ashlee Simpson). I’m tired of being too nervous to eat before our games, of having a constant low-grade headache on game days, of the perpetual stress of keeping this train on track, of having my mind so filled with things that need to be done that the thoughts spill over onto the Notes app on my phone, lest they be lost forever. We may have lost in the playoffs, but I have become an undisputed world champion at internalizing anxiety while projecting confidence, although this comes with consequences. (One trick I learned this season was instead of sucking on Ricola during games, Rolaids can be helpful.)

Of course, six months from now I’ll forget all of that and be ready to be back at it. Because at the end of it all, there is no feeling as amazing as winning, and there’s no feeling as awful as losing. We learn to live with the losing so that we can experience those blissful winning moments.

It’s hard to understand it’s over until it’s actually over, and it’s equally difficult to accept that we had a great season while we’re still in the shadow of our season-ending loss. At some point, hopefully soon, we’ll be able to laugh about some of the great times this season produced. Right now, we’re still in pain.

You play and you work and you compete, with everything that you’ve got.

Then it ends. Just like that.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Grizz Gaming: Mission Accomplished, but Plenty of Work Left

As the sun rose on Thursday morning, I rolled over in bed, and the first thing my wife said to me was, “Well, how does it feel?”

She didn’t specify a topic, but I knew what she was talking about: Twelve hours earlier, Grizz Gaming had finished our 2021 season in the NBA 2K League with a 2-0 sweep over Raptors Uprising. The wins locked us into the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and left our record at 18-10 for the regular season. This was our best finish in franchise history, and the first playoff appearance in franchise history.

I felt a range of emotions, but more than anything, it felt validating. We’d been so close for so long, finishing one game out of the playoffs for each of our first three seasons. As I’ve said before, it would make you shake your head and laugh if it wasn’t so ridiculous. But the truth is, at the end of the season it doesn’t matter if you finished one game or one hundred games out of the playoffs—either you’re in or you’re out.

From day one of this season, our goal has been making the playoffs. To be honest, that’s been our goal every season, but it wasn’t until this year that I was willing to say it out loud. Previously, we worked and we fought, sure, but I kept our goals private. This season, I took a page from Oprah: I would try to speak our goal into existence. What else did we have to lose?

So when we started the scouting process heading into this season, each time that our retained players (Vandi and Authentic) and scout (Token) and I spoke to potential draftees, I made clear that it was playoffs or bust.

It helped that I finally felt like I was getting closer to figuring out this 2K League coaching thing. Almost every coach in the League has some kind of history in the 2K community, except for me. So I’ve spent the last four years playing catch-up, learning animations and coverages and badges, while trying to keep us winning games.

But the real reason we won two-thirds of our games this season? We have a great team. It’s simple and obvious, but sometimes the obvious answer is the correct answer. The group of players we have on our roster right now are six great 2K players, who more importantly have all bought into the team concept. They understand the value of sacrifice, of putting team over self. That’s not a lesson I’ve had to teach them, which makes it even more satisfying.

We got off to a 9-1 start to our season, and everything seemed to be trending in the right direction. Then things swung the other way, when we had a stretch against our toughest competition, and to be honest, we stumbled, going 3-8. But we buckled down and fought back, making some adjustments and finding our way forward. And wouldn’t you know it, we managed to win 6 of our last 7 games, on the way to that 18-10 record, and the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The other thing most people will never understand is just how much work is involved. We practice seven days a week, for about five hours per day. That means all summer long, when my son is out of school, I’m at work every day. It would probably be easy for me to set up some scrimmages and let the guys come in and scrim without me, but that doesn’t seem right to me. If they’re going to work, I’m going to be there with them. That sacrifice is what makes us a team, a unit. These guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do, all season long. What more can a coach ask for?

With one mission accomplished, what’s next? Well, now we go to the postseason and look to make some noise there, which we are fully capable of doing. Along the journey of this season, we’ve seen enough to know how to play at our best. We’ve reached our destination. Now it’s just a matter of executing.

And to my wife’s question? It feels good. Pretty, pretty good.

Grizz Gaming: I Still Believe

Have you ever taken a cold shower? I don’t mean this metaphorically–we’ve all stumbled into a surprise from time to time. I’m talking literally: Have you ever intentionally stepped into a spray of freezing cold water?

Last week my wife was due to travel for a few days, leaving my son and I alone for a spell. I got him dropped off at camp, went by the gym and put in some miles on the treadmill, then hustled home to grab a quick shower before Grizz Gaming scrimmages. I turned on the shower to let it warm up, then walked out and undressed and readied a towel. Before stepping in, I stuck a hand in, and was greeted with what felt like ice water. Huh.

Ten minutes later, after checking the water heater pilot light (out) and discovering I couldn’t get it re-lit, I knew it was a problem more complex than I could solve with my rudimentary home improvement skills. I also knew that I couldn’t go to Grizz Gaming practice smelling like I’d just left an actual basketball practice. There was only one option: I would have to take a cold shower.

As I did my best to pre-soap my body, I took a moment to try and convince myself that this was a good thing. I told myself that taking cold showers couldn’t be that bad. People camping and out in nature step into cold waterfalls all the time. Heck, it was (probably?) even good for me, as an anti-inflammatory recovery from my run.

I stepped in. The next few seconds were a blur. There was coldness everywhere, so much coldness, as if I was being subject to a Dementor attack. A high-pitched, involuntary howl erupted from somewhere deep inside my soul. While I fought to find a breath, I swifty scrubbed my hands all over my body, as much to help get the soap off as to try and force blood back into my trembling limbs.

It was horrible. I’m not sure I lasted even 20 seconds during that arctic flash. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was reminded that the prime reason for this shower was fully practical: I needed to wash off the sweat and stank from my workout. I had no choice but to endure it. I needed it.

The last few weeks have felt almost like a cold shower in the middle of the 2K League season. Thus far, Grizz Gaming has played 18 of our 28 regular season games, and we’ve won exactly two-thirds of those games, giving us a record of 12-6. We played two games in a tournament on July 15, but since then we have been off, with our next regular season game coming later this week, on July 30.

Fifteen consecutive days off is a long, luxurious break, at least by 2K League standards. We could have easily taken advantage of this and tried to squeeze in some vacation time. But by the same token, while we were 12-6 overall, we had lost 7 of our last 10 games. Things were not trending the direction we wanted them to trend at this point in the season.

So while did we take consecutive weekend days off, which is rare for us, we otherwise worked just like normal. We met. We talked. We made adjustments. We watched film. We made changes. We scrimmaged. We scrimmaged again. And we scrimmaged again. And we scrimmaged again.

It felt, in many ways, like a blast of cold water. It was a rare chance for a re-set, right in the middle of the hustle of our season. It was, in some ways, strange, and pretty uncomfortable to be out of the rhythm we had established over the first few months of our season.

But before we jumped into it, I told myself it was good for us. It wasn’t fun, to just stay here and work, but it was something we needed to do.

I started this season using the word “Believe,” stolen shamelessly from Ted Lasso, and I was trying to get my guys to buy into each other and the team goals. And it’s worked! But now, we start the final sprint. Three weeks. Ten games. Handle our business, and we can make the playoffs.

There’s only one thing left to do.

Believe. In ourselves. In each other. In this team.

Believe.

Grizz Gaming: Appreciating the Moments

I woke up at 6:30 on Saturday morning, rolled over and grabbed my phone, and, for about the fiftieth time in the last eight hours, watched this video:

What you see there is a view from inside our gaming facility of the last few seconds of our game on Friday night against Magic Gaming. After being down 4 points with a minute left, we fought our way back and stole a win at the buzzer.

I kept rewatching that video because it was one of those moments that we will remember forever. We worked and worked and worked and, in a must-win situation, put ourselves in position to get that W. We were down 4 points with 1:11 left, down 3 with 34 seconds left, then down 1 with 19 ticks remaining. Which is when Follow somehow got a steal from the Magic, and we called our last time out to set up our final play.

We decided to try a pick and roll, hoping to generate a switch by the defense. (Usually teams don’t switch on a simple pick and roll, but in late-game scenarios teams are more likely to switch every action, just to avoid someone springing free unguarded.) The last piece of advice I gave Vandi was to remember that we didn’t want to take the last shot — we were behind and wanted to take the best shot possible; if we left time on the clock, our defense would have to win it for us.

We got the ball inbounds, Authentic came up and set a screen for Vandi, Vandi came off the pick and… to their credit, the Magic played it perfectly. Their center showed just long enough for their lock to get back over to Vandi, and they recovered quickly on the roll, effectively squashing our play.

So that was out the window. But we still had the ball, with 13 seconds left and the clock ticking. Authentic popped back out to screen for Vandi again, to maybe see if the play would work for a second time, and this time the Magic’s defender got caught on the screen, leaving Vandi guarded by the Magic’s center. Vandi saw the mismatch and backed the ball out. Vandi dribbled up near the top of the key, with about five seconds remaining, and as he did, a Magic defender pinched, or came over to help out, and momentarily double-teamed Vandi. This left our shooting guard, Chess, briefly open on the right wing, so Vandi kicked the ball over to him. A Magic defender noticed Chess open and rotated over to defend, and Chess kept the ball moving over to the corner, hitting Spartxn, our power forward, who was standing there wide open with two seconds left on the clock. Spartxn caught the pass and calmly drained the three to put us ahead by two, and give us a 75-73 win.

Those are the facts of the play, a pragmatic description of how things went down. What I love about watching the replay of that video in the room are those seconds of silence. Watching the video, you can hear the tension in the room building to that moment — Authentic nervously warning that there are just four second remaining, my voice counting down the ticking clock. When Chess catches the pass and quickly keeps the ball moving to the corner, you can hear the room go completely silent. That anticipation, that sharp intake of air where everyone is hanging in there to see how our future plays out? That’s the moment, right there. That’s when I felt all nervous and hopeful and anxious and pretty much every emotion you can think of, all rolled into one. That silence was us waiting to see what our future held.

At the same time, I was pretty confident. Yes, it was the first three pointer that Spartxn had attempted all night, which means he hadn’t had much chance to establish a rhythm or groove. But I’ve seen him make that shot literally hundreds of times during practices. I knew he could make it. And if you watch that video, you see my right arm shoot up into the air as the ball gets rotated over to Spartxn, almost like a referee signalling a three attempt is on the way.

As the ball swishes through, you can see Follow and Authentic basically attack Spartxn to celebrate. What you can’t see is me, wildly gesturing that 0.4 was left on the clock and the Magic called their last timeout. I didn’t think that would be enough time to get a shot up, but I wanted to be sure we were back and had the situation covered, just in case something happened.

But nothing happened. The Magic threw a harmless lob pass to nobody, and we inbounded the ball and let the clock expire to escape with that two-point win.

I also like the broadcast angle of the shot, where you can see Follow and AA disappear from in front of their cameras and reappear on Spartxn’s as the shot drops…

You can see the shot and the celebrations. But here’s what you didn’t see from last week: Scrimmages literally all day Monday and Tuesday; Scrimmages Wednesday morning; Film sessions on Wednesday afternoon; Two games on Wednesday night, where we won the first game going away, then let the second game slip away. Scrimmages all day Thursday. More scrims on Friday, then film sessions scouting the Magic. And then two more games to end the week, which ended with, well, if you read this far, you know how it ends.

A season is a narrative, an overarching storyline that will, eventually, tell a full story. But that arc is made up of a lot of small moments, both good and bad. We don’t know yet how this season will end. I do know that it’s rare to have moments where everything clicks and comes together and months of work pays off, and this time it happened in a forum where we were being filmed, and we get to have this clip forever, to hang on to that moment.

For now, if we’re being honest, I’m tired, y’all. We’ve been on this Grizz Gaming grind for months. And it gets tougher each week, as the competition rachets up and as the stakes get higher and higher. The good news is there’s no quit in us. We are going to fight and battle each and every day, whether it’s in practice or a game. We are built for this.

And we can cherish all these small moments, to help carry us along this path.

Grizz Gaming: Making Adjustments

“Dad,” my son began, with all the pathos an 8-year-old could muster, “I’m really going to miss you when you leave.”

“I’m going to miss you, too, man,” I told him.

Both of these statements were absolutely true. With a league-wide bye week for the 2K League, I had the opportunity to decamp to the Florida shore for some much-needed time off, and I had the chance to really concentrate on my family. This was something overdue, but also something that’s hard for me to do during the 2K League season. All week long I’m thinking, thinking. On game days I walk around in my own head, doing my best to seem cordial but really just wanting tip time to arrive.

As someone who values self-awareness, I can admit that during the 2K League season, I can be a pretty awful person to live with. I spend most of my time thinking about Grizz Gaming: our last game; our next game; our practice plans; scheduling; and on and on. We play or practice six days a week, which usually leaves me with maybe one full day to lock in with my family. On the other days, my default reaction is plotting and overthinking. While other families take summer vacations, my family spends the summer watching (and living with) the NBA 2K League.

So even as we drove down to Florida, I sat there in stony silence, until my wife finally asked what had me consumed. I explained that I was thinking about an adjustment I wanted to make to our overall defensive strategy, something that would involve everyone on the team having to adjust and make changes. I sat there in the driver’s seat and weighed the options. How would we implement these changes? Was it worth the lift, which is to say, would we get enough of a boost from the changes to make the work worthwhile?

My wife snapped me out of my reverie by asking what I was thinking about, and I took a few minutes to explain my conundrum, and all the thought processes I was trying to think about and process.

Why mess with something that was working? After all, we were 10-4 heading into our bye week, tied for second place in the Eastern Conference. It was the first time in franchise history that we’d won 10 games, and we still have half of the season still ahead of us.

But coming off the week that was, we knew we needed to improve. We’d played two games against the defending champion Wizards, and lost both matchups. (Game one was 72-50, game two was 73-66.) One night later we squared off against a tough 76ers GC team, and we split the series (won game one 70-61, lost game two 60-55). We were coming off a six-game win streak, and to be honest were probably due for a down game. While our first game against the Wizards wasn’t great, we got better as we went along, and by the time we played Philly I felt like we’d gotten our identity back a bit. The two games against the Sixers were like heavyweight fights, two good defensive teams slugging it out with points at a premium, and it felt comforting to get at least one win out of the four games.

After a week at the beach with my family, and after a few players visited home and their families, I drove back to Memphis and we got right back to work. This week we have two tough divisional matchups, against Charlotte and then Orlando.

We’ve made adjustments. We’ve focused on the little things. Now we just have to do what we do.

Lang Whitaker

Grizz Gaming: Week 4 – Enjoying the Process

I knew things were different with Grizz Gaming this season, when one day last week we swept a scrimmage block against a team that currently has a good record in the 2K League. After the games, while we were dissecting our day’s work, I asked the guys if they could pinpoint what was wrong with the team we had played. Why had we been able to beat a good team rather easily?

“Well, it’s not that they’re bad,” Authentic answered. “It’s that we’re good right now.”

I blinked, as I realized Authentic was correct. This was something I had not even considered as an answer. I’d become so used to analyzing everything, to always looking to improve and get better, that I wasn’t ready to pause and give ourselves a little credit. Grizz Gaming has been playing well, at least right now.

After a disappointing end to the season-opening tournament, we got off to a 9-1 start in the regular season. This is not only the best start in franchise history, but the best start in the 2K League this season. Have we been perfect? Haha, not even close. Have we been the best team in the 2K League? I’d argue that we still have a lot to prove on that front. But have we played well? Yes, yes we have.

Authentic African

To me, last week was a great test of where we stood among all the 2K League teams. We had to play four games against two very good NBA 2K League teams, Knicks Gaming and Blazer5. All four games were hard-fought, with different challenges popping us throughout, from falling into ruts on offense to opposing players getting red-hot to defensive lapses.

But the great thing was that we kept finding ways to overcome those challenges and finish each game on top. We entered the weekend 5-1. We went 4-0. We exited the weekend 9-1.

If we’re being completely honest, I’m rather uncomfortable talking about how well we’ve played this season. As a sports fan, I’ve always been conditioned to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. We all know how traumatic it can be to finally, finally believe in our team and then have that joy yanked out from under us. In order to cope, I’ve long subscribed to the theory that the best option is just to not buy in at all, or at least not until the very last moment. You can’t be sad if you were never happy to begin with.

I remember being at Super Bowl LI in Houston, and ducking into a restroom just after the Falcons jumped ahead to a 28-3 lead. In the hallway outside I could hear Falcons fans celebrating wildly — prematurely, of course — and I clearly recall shaking my head, knowing that it was never over until it was over. (And as we all know now, it wasn’t over.)

Grizz Gaming is ten games into our season, and we’ve played really well. I do not want to discount all the hard work that has gone into this start and getting us into this place. Because it feels great to be in first place! We’ve been challenged ten times and as a team have come together and overcome nine times, which is remarkable.

But the season isn’t even halfway over, and we all recognize that we’ve only scratched the surface of the work that lies ahead. All of the members of Grizz Gaming have been through at least one season in the 2K League. We understand that there will be ups and downs, but what really matters is how we ride out the journey. When we reach adversity, will it be just a speed bump in our path? Or can we process it in the moment and keep it from knocking us completely off course?

So, I’m doing my best to keep everything in perspective. I couldn’t be more proud of the way all six guys on this team have bought in and sacrificed and trusted and believed in each other. It’s been fun to set goals and accomplish those goals. It’s been fun to put in work and be rewarded. And I’ve tried to remind myself to enjoy the process along the way.

One day after turning in a 4-0 weekend, we all came in on Sunday and broke down film together and found another team to get some scrimmages in against. Did I want to spend my Father’s Day away from my son and in our practice facility? Not particularly, but as we all understand, there is no shortcut to putting in the work.

Because the work is what brought us this far. And we aren’t done. We can be better. We can be sharper.

We can grind harder.

Grizz Gaming: Week 2 – A Long Way to Go

Last week, during the middle of a Grizz Gaming scrimmage, I had to walk over to FedExForum to shoot some content. Not ten minutes later, when I strolled back into our practice facility, it was halftime of a scrimmage game, and the guys were scattered throughout the place, mostly sitting quietly. I’ve been doing this 2K League coaching thing long enough now to be able to read the mood in a room. There was a feeling of frustration in the air, and I quickly realized that I was walking into the midst of some sort of disagreement.

This happens more often than you’d think—six people are asked to live and work together, and disputes can occasionally arise. The moment I walked in, Spartxn turned to me, as if to settle whatever the discrepancy was. Were they arguing about a defensive coverage? Was someone missing open shots? Was someone turning the ball over?

“Here he is,” Spartxn began, looking to me. “Lang, let me ask you…”

“Wait, wait!” AuthenticAfrican came hurrying over from the other direction, waving his hands above his head. “You have to give him the background, you can’t just ask him.”

“OK,” Spartxn agreed. Finally, we would get to the bottom of this, and I hoped we could work through it in time for our next game.

As I noticed everyone else looking at me to see how I would react, Spartxn asked, “Who would you consider the greatest actor of all-time?”

So this was what they my guys were arguing about. After I got over my initial surprise, and after I clarified that they were only considering modern actors plus factoring in box office revenues, I volunteered Denzel and Hanks off the top of my head, later adding DiCaprio, DeNiro and maybe even Daniel Day Lewis. We argued, we laughed. And then we got back to playing 2K.

When you’re winning in the 2K League, you can afford to spend a few minutes of valuable practice time on these types of discussions. And right now, Grizz Gaming has been winning—two weeks into the season, we are 5-1, sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference.

It is simultaneously terrific and terrifying. Sure, it feels great to get off to the best start in franchise history. It’s heartening to think about how the work we put in throughout the offseason, all of the scouting and interviewing and trades and grinding the game and scrimming and scrimming and scrimming, has thus far worked out pretty well. We’ve been good offensively, but better defensively, focusing on getting stops and playing our style of basketball.

But being in a good place doesn’t make it all any less stressful. Last Saturday night, we had two games against the Bucks, who were 0-6 coming into the game. It would’ve been easy to just assume we could stroll in and get two victories, but we knew better—you can’t take any team in the 2K League lightly. We prepared the same way we would have gotten ready for a 6-0 team, and I spent all day with a brick in my stomach, nervous for these games.

We didn’t play our best games. Vandi didn’t have the same type of dominant offensive performances he had in Week 1, when he was named the 2K League Player of the Week. But we turned in a balanced game one, with all five players finishing with at least 12 points, lifting us to an 87-66 win. In game two, Spartxn led the way, finishing with 21 points, and Authentic topped his 16 boards in game one with 25 in game two. We got both wins, and went into the bye week on a high.

Still, we know we haven’t really accomplished anything. Despite being in first place in our conference, according to the 2KL website we are the seventh-best team in the League, because we have played a few teams with bad records. According to some other metrics, we’ve been pretty good defensively, which is what I really care about. (Although I still think we have plenty of room to improve on the defensive end.)

I don’t know about the guys, but I needed the bye week. It’s been a grind getting to this point, and there’s a lot of season remaining. Now we have to sustain the production. We’ve seen teams start hot and finish cold, or, like we’ve done the last few seasons, start cold and finish hot. Our job now is just to keep it going. To keep putting in work. To practice every day and find areas where we can improve, both individually and as a team.

It’s been a really fun start.

We just know there’s a long way to go.

Grizz Gaming: Week 1 – Baby Steps

As the Memphis Grizzlies were taking the court in FedExForum for their first home playoff game in four years, just a few yards away, in a darkened room on the fourth floor of the Grizzlies’ admin building, Grizz Gaming was going back to work.

Just 20 hours earlier, we’d walked out of our facility with a 2-0 record, after starting our season with back-to-back wins against Heat Check Gaming (93-52 in Game 1; 66-63 in Game 2). We were feeling good, because for the first time in Grizz Gaming history, we’d won our first two games of the season. It felt nice to not start off at the bottom of a hole, to know that the next month would not have to be spent trying to fight our way back near .500.

(I should probably interject here that as the Grizz Gaming season chugs along, I’m going to try and write weekly—well, nearly weekly—updates here on GrindCityMedia.com. Each 2K League season is so different and unique, and this time around I want to try and tell the story of this Grizz Gaming season as it happens, in real time.)

My favorite part of those victories over Miami was that we posted two great team wins–each Grizz Gaming player was an important, integral part. While our point guard Vandi led the way offensively, averaging 34 points and 11 assists per game, we also hit our open shots, made smart rotations and covered for each other. Our center, AuthenticAfrican, controlled the boards and the paint, Spartxn was his usual smart self, defending in the corners, and Chess and Follow boxed up the Heat backcourt for two games, which is a remarkable achievement in a game as offensively OP as the 2K League build. Even our sixth man, Jrod, contributed without playing, talking to guys during breaks about things he was seeing and adjustments we could make.

And then on Saturday night, right about the time Young Dolph was taking the stage at the Grizzlies rally a few yards from our practice facility, we got back at it against Hawks Talon Gaming. We were locked in early, and we jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead, when suddenly Chess said, “Lang, Lang, um… look…”

I spun around from my vantage point and looked at his screen, which was completely black. “Foul! Someone commit a foul!” I said into my wireless headset, as Follow grabbed an opponent on screen to stop the game.

Now, I am no IT expert. I know some stuff about computers and technology, sure, most of which has been learned on the job the last few years setting up and maintaining a local area network in the Grizz Gaming practice facility. Mostly, I think I’m good at troubleshooting, ruling out wrong answers and narrowing possibilities. But in this case I was literally on the clock. Someone mentioned we only had two timeouts left, which would be a tough way to finish the game if I could manage to get it fixed in time. A trickle of sweat ran down my neck; I felt like I was defusing a ticking bomb.

I could tell that Chess’s screen was powered on, but with no signal coming through I assumed it must’ve been an issue with his CPU—each Playstation 5 that we play on goes through a capture card and computer, mostly for broadcast purposes, but also so we can use Discord to chat and have game sound. We started burning timeouts as I attempted to bypass the capture card, to at least get us to halftime when we could do a restart on the computer.

In my wireless headset, I heard our game admin, Glitch, jump into our voice chat and ask what was going on. And it was right about then that Follow noticed Chess was no longer in the game at all. The screen wasn’t dead—it was the PS5 that had crashed. There actually wasn’t anything I could do, except wait for the PS5 to restart, which it did shortly. And before long we were back at it, our 5-point lead intact.

We ended up winning that game big, 82-51, and then hitting a speed bump in Game 2. After three straight games where we played extremely well, our fourth game was one of those where we just couldn’t get out of our own way. We only converted 9 of our 24 three-point attempts, and despite a season-high 9 turnovers, we still ended up losing by just seven, 68-61.

Which is how we found ourselves at 3-1 after the first week of 2K League games. We had some strong individual performances—Vandi was named the NBA 2K League’s player of the week—but mostly I was happy with the performance of our group as a cohesive unit. The word I’d concentrated on in practice all week was “trust.” Meaning we needed to trust each other, even when it sometimes felt counterintuitive. Basketball can be such an instinctive game–you see someone pop open and feel like you need to cover them, or you see a loose ball and want to chase it. But for Grizz Gaming to be successful, that stuff has to happen within the framework of team play. And if just one player gets off script, it can mess everything up for everyone else.

At the same time, we have to be willing to trust our teammates, that if someone tells us to run to the top of the key, for instance, they are telling us that for the good of the whole, that they will have our backs and be there for us. That’s what a team is all about: trusting and believing.

We took Sunday off, like we normally do, then got right back to work on Monday. This Saturday night we play two against a hungry Bucks Gaming team, and then we get our first bye week of the season.

We’ve taken our first steps, and they felt pretty good.

But we still have plenty of room to improve.