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.

Grizz Gaming: Ups and downs in the 2K League

Let’s start with the good news, which is that Grizz Gaming finished the 2K League’s pre-season The Tipoff tournament as one of the Elite 8 teams. We were in a group where literally nobody picked us to advance, having to play against quality teams in Atlanta and Toronto. Last Friday night, we lost our opener against Atlanta by 9, but bounced back to win game two by 24 points, giving us a hefty point differential advantage over the Hawks. We then beat Raptors Uprising in back-to-back games, first by 1 point, then by 20.

We celebrated, hugging each other and sharing pounds and high fives. The last month of work had paid off with something tangible: We finished our group 3-1, and moved into The Tipoff’s Final 8 as the tournament’s third overall seed, where we would face off against T-Wolves Gaming. It felt great! As I explained to someone recently, those were the moments that make all the work that goes into Grizz Gaming so worthwhile.

And then we ran into a buzzsaw. On Saturday night we squared off against the T-Wolves, and after playing Minnesota even in the first half of game one, the T-Wolves basically thumped us for the next six quarters in a row. It felt like we couldn’t make a shot, we couldn’t get a rebound, we couldn’t string together stops. It was a perfect storm of which we sailed directly into the teeth. As well as we’d played over the first night of games, as consistently as we’d been able to play the type of game we’d wanted to play, it all up and vanished.

When the games ended, we sat in silence for a while, then vented our frustrations a bit, and then eventually the guys trickled out into the humid Memphis Saturday night. I packed up all my stuff, turned off all of the lights in the Grizz Gaming facility, hopped in my Jeep and drove out onto Beale Street, where I was met with standstill traffic. Nature is healing, apparently—it was a Saturday night in downtown Memphis, and it was gridlock. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so I put on D’Angelo’s first album and sat there stewing in my thoughts as I inched my way toward home.

Even though I was listening to D’Angelo, a phrase that’s been bouncing around in my mind the last week or so kept coming to mind. It comes from my favorite rapper of all-time, Andre Benjamin: “You can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.” I’ve sung along to that line from the OutKast song “Ms. Jackson” a million times over the decades, but for some reason that line has hit different recently. It’s such a perfect metaphor for life, for everything. All the planning, all the preparation, all the work—at the end of the day none of it really means very much if you can’t adapt and adjust.

I was disappointed that we’d lost, sure, but as I told the guys, what mattered now would be how we reacted. The loss was over, and we couldn’t get that toothpaste back into the tube. Feeling sorry for ourselves wouldn’t help anything. But we could grow from the experience. We could learn from the situation, and the next time a team plays that way against us, we could be better prepared and have answers that work better than the stuff we tried on Saturday night. Our picnic might get rained on, but we could at least pack some umbrellas and parkas. You know, just in case.

Life isn’t supposed to be easy. If it was, we’d all be happy and rich. (And, probably, bored.) Winning rules, but losing sucks, and for me there’s nothing fun about having to comfort six frustrated young gamers in the immediate aftermath of a loss. But time helps provide perspective, and allows us to find bits of levity. On Saturday morning, before our game, my son found a dime in my car, which he pronounced to be a lucky coin and handed to me, ostensibly to help Grizz Gaming. Just before we tipped on Saturday, I put the dime on Vandi’s desk and told the guys we were going to have a little help from this lucky coin. On Sunday afternoon, after our loss, I sent a note to the group chat: “Hey guys, so it turns out that lucky coin was a bunch of crap.” That helped us laugh, but it didn’t really even ease the pain when the T-Wolves went on to win the entire tournament.

The thing about tournaments is that they’re like beauty pageants—in the grand scheme of things, they don’t really mean anything. Winning some extra money would have been terrific, sure, and it’s always fun to have everyone giving you extra attention, but now we head into this week at 0-0, the same as the rest of the 2K League. Is there some comfort in knowing we belong in the conversation with some of the best teams in the league? Certainly.

But for now, it’s back to work we go. It’s early on Monday morning as I write this, and I’m at my desk about to watch film of our losses and our upcoming opponents. Sometimes it feels like the work never stops.

Which is fine. We are built for the grind.

Grizz Gaming: Season 4 Preview

As we head into Season Four of the NBA 2K League and Grizz Gaming, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching three seasons of 2K League action up close, it’s that you can’t expect the expected. Things change, and usually when you least are least prepared for that change. Maybe the league build gets patched, or someone finds a particularly glitchy build, or, like happened last season, a global pandemic breaks out just days after our players arrive in market.

Last season we tried to be proactive, going all in to trade for an elite center, pairing him with the veterans we brought back from Season Two, and assembling a team we felt would be tough to beat on the big stage, under the lights. And then we couldn’t travel to New York and had to play our games from a series of apartments while using residential internet. Which, as you may assume, wasn’t ideal.

Still, we persevered, we fought, and even after an 0-4 start, battled back to .500 and managed to get to the point where we were in the playoff race down the stretch. We went on to finish one game out of the playoff race.

So, I’ve learned to be patient. To wait. This season, we put together a team that we hoped would be versatile enough to roll with any punches thrown at us. And after our guys quarantined and traveled to Memphis and quarantined again, we finally got our team all together and started scrimmaging. It didn’t go exactly according to plan, of course, but we made do as best as we could, filling time by going to Grizzlies games, playing 2K’s Team Up mode, even busting out some WWE 2K20.

Finally, we were able to start playing the League Build last week, and that’s basically all we’ve done ever since. In years past, I lived and died with every scrimmage. When we won a scrimmage or two, I looked at it as a sign that we were on a sure path to winning a title. When we lost a scrimmage, I felt like we might as well forfeit the rest of our games. What I was missing was the bigger picture, the understanding that one scrim does not make or break our team.

But what we can do, I’ve learned, is focus on the small stuff. Having a group of players who are familiar with each other allowed us to speed through some of the initial growing pains—figuring out lineups and offensive sets and basic coverages and presses. So we’ve been able to use the scrimmages to sweat the really small stuff. How will we handle defending fast breaks? When the clock is running down at the end of the game and we need a bucket, what play do we have that works? Getting granular is a luxury, one that we’ve never really had before.

I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised at how we’ve come together, and I’ve appreciated the little things, like players talking each other up after bad sequences, and even stuff like Spartan showing up to practice on Sunday morning with doughnuts and milk for everyone. There’s a lot of leadership on this team, but there’s also a tacit understanding of what each person’s role is and knowing when to not overstep boundaries. As a coach, I’ve always believed that it’s best to let the players handle stuff internally, and if needed I can weigh in. I haven’t had to do much of that so far this season, which is rewarding in and of itself.

A few weeks ago, I walked in one morning and wrote the word “BELIEVE” on the dry erase board. Was this a motivational ploy I stole from the great Apple TV series “Ted Lasso”? Perhaps. But it doesn’t lessen the impact of the idea. Trust. Believe. And we can go places we’ve never been before.

Now we have to play the games. I don’t know how the season is going to go. Will we reach our goal of making the postseason? I can only hope. There is plenty that we can improve upon, and we have time to get there.

This has been the toughest part for me: Patience. Understanding that time is the ultimate coach, and that all the development and learning we are hoping for can come with time, provided we put in the work. Development, particularly internal development, is something we’ve invested in heavily. It requires dedication and commitment from our players, but they’ve been willing to grind, and grind harder than they’ve ever worked before.

All I ask is that our players believe. In themselves. In each other. In us. Believe.

Lang’s World: What’s the Hurry With Baseball?

I am not that old.

At least that’s what I tell myself, whenever I look in the mirror and spot a new gray hair peeking through my beard, or when I hear a new musical artist and think to myself, “That’s not music!”, or when my son complains about something like poor Wi-Fi connectivity. At heart, I like to think I’m as young as anyone. But I must admit, the more years I put in, the more I crave normalcy, and the less I crave excitement and new experiences. The other night I found myself lying in bed, watching the evening news and reading a book, and I thought, “Uh oh, I’m turning into my parents!”

Perhaps my advancing age shows itself most in my love for Major League Baseball. There is very little that satiates me more at the end of a long day at work than coming home, getting most of my house off to bed, then sitting down, putting my feet up and watching the Atlanta Braves blow a lead in the late innings. (Obviously, I would prefer to watch them not blowing leads, but this is what happens when you elect to move forward without an effective closing reliever.)

I can’t entirely explain why this is such a satisfying time of my day—I’m sure it’s partially because it means my work is mostly done and I can de-engage a bit from the treadmill I’m on all day. But it’s also, I believe, because baseball is involved. I’ve watched baseball for as long as I can remember, specifically the Atlanta Braves. The Braves have basically always been a part of my life, and as such, no matter where I am in the world, no matter how my day is going, there is some comfort in being able to hang out with the Braves for 160-something nights per year. As someone who played baseball from childhood through high school, I understand and appreciate just how hard it is to be great at baseball, and marvel at the ability of athletes like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman, who make it look easy. I love the strategy involved, how every pitch speed and location works in tandem to set up the next pitch. And perhaps most of all, in a world that never seems to stop going 100 miles an hour, I love sitting down with a sport that is deliberate and even, gasp, thoughtful.

The problem for baseball, of course, is that it seems like fewer and fewer people each year agree with me about the sport’s merits. Baseball was once so popular it was known as “America’s Pastime,” but lately seems to have seen its popularity fade, at least nationally. And clearly, the rise in the popularity of other sports, particularly football and basketball, has eroded baseball’s prominence. Even the game’s stars are not nearly as universal as they once were, like back when Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe; I watch every Braves game all season long, but I couldn’t tell you what Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the consensus best player in the game, looks like. I grew up poring over box scores in the morning paper, which I no longer receive, and I spent hours memorizing stats that have more recently been deemed irrelevant. While much has been made of baseball’s recent influx of charismatic younger players, from Acuña to Fernando Tatis to Tim Anderson, I’m not so sure they’re actually moving the needle in any significant way, either: I can’t get my eight-year-old son to watch one at-bat from a Braves game with me, even with engaging players like Acuña or Ozzie Albies playing; meanwhile, he wants every piece of Ja Morant gear that’s available to purchase.

Baseball is clearly trying to make the game more palatable to the masses, speeding up at bats, limiting pitching changes and hoping to shorten extra-inning games by allowing teams to start each half-inning with men on base. But will all these changes make a difference? Will baseball suddenly seem watchable to younger viewers?

Ronald Acuna Jr.

These days baseball can seem, well, hurried. During last night’s Braves/Yankees game, in the top of the 7th with the score tied at 1 and the bases loaded, Braves outfielder Ehire Adrianza faced off against Yankees reliever Chad Green. As they got deeper into the count, both Adrianza and Green continued to step away, playing mind games with each other and ratcheting up the tension. Except home plate umpire Laz Diaz kept clapping his hands together, over and over, telling everyone to hurry up. Did he have somewhere else to be? That was unclear.

I wonder if instead of trying to change the game, maybe baseball should pivot the other way? What if baseball, instead, decided to embrace what it makes it different, to appeal to everyone’s innate desire for a little peace and quiet. In a world where we are all glued to our phones, baseball actually provides time to peruse social media, without missing any action. What is baseball if not an extended meditation, with a couple of exciting moments thrown in along the way?

Perhaps all of this isn’t a surprise. Baseball has spent years unable to get out of its own way, from players striking while the game was wildly popular to nearly arguing themselves out of even having games at all last season. Remember the year the All-Star Game ended in a tie? Baseball is the very definition of a something paralyzed by committee rule. Trying to make everyone happy generally ends up with everyone unhappy.

Baseball became America’s pastime in part because it helped America pass time. Hitting fast-forward on what you’re great at is a very baseball mistake to make. Maybe baseball will pick up a few fans who love starting extra innings with a man on base. But for most of us, I think joyfully hastening one’s own death is something we’d all rather see the sport avoid.

Grizz Gaming Season 4: Grind Harder

Two weeks ago on a Friday morning, about 36 hours before the fourth annual NBA 2K League Draft, I came into the office to button up all of the last-minute details. I made a quick appearance on “Rise & Grind,” the Grind City Media morning show, to talk about the draft; I cleaned up our practice facility and moved boxes; I printed out all the paperwork necessary for draft night just so I’d have hard copies of everything at my fingertips, as a backup. We had four picks (14, 16, 32, 36) in the first two rounds of the draft, and we’d spent months preparing for every eventuality. We were ready to go.


And then I had a panic attack.

Actually, at first I wasn’t sure what was happening. I broke out in a light sweat, and my stomach started rumbling. I felt woozy and tired, and I managed to get to my car and make the drive home. Once inside, I took my temperature, which was 98.7, which was enough to immediately convince me that I had COVID-19 (despite being fully vaccinated against it). My hands got clammy, so I climbed into bed, pulled the covers up to my ears and tried to breathe deeply.

I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew what was happening — this wasn’t my first rodeo with anxiety. Why would I be having a panic attack? Well, because there was a lot riding on the 2K League Draft. We’d spent the last four months assiduously prepping, thanks to our returning players Authentic African and Vandi, as well as our scout, Token. We made our draft boards, ran numerous mock drafts, and after hundreds of hours of discussion, we knew the players we wanted, the players we felt would fit best within our system. We had plans, back-up plans, and even had a trade agreed upon and ready to go in case the guys we wanted were gone by the time we were on the clock.

And then, it was out of our hands. Hopefully our guys would be there when we picked. There was nothing we could do but watch and wait, to let things unfold. Which was just about when my nervous system decided to revolt.

I wanted to write about going through all of that because I want you, my dear reader, to understand the stakes at play here. There are literally millions of dollars of prize money at play, enough money to change the lives of the 2K League players. I wanted to make sure I put the Grizz Gaming team in the best possible situation to be successful. Which caused anxiety.

I also wanted to write about all of that to admit that hey, it happens. As good as I am at putting on a brave face and acting as though I know exactly what I am doing at all times, the truth is, I’m human. I fail. I have flaws. I wrestle with doubts and fears, the same as anyone else, maybe even more than some people—I’ve just become really good at swallowing that anxiety and putting forth a brave face. The flip side? A few times a year, all that stress and anxiety bubbles up into an afternoon like I had last week, which isn’t fun.

Oh, and the draft? Well, after that stress, after all that worrying, it went exactly how we hoped it would go. We guessed that there would be an early run on one position, which is what happened with the shooting guards, and as a result, our highest-rated power forward, Spartxn, fortuitously fell to us at 14. Then the shooting guard who we felt would be a perfect fit for our backcourt, Chess, was there for us at 16. The lockdown defender we prioritized, Follow, somehow got to us at 32. Finally, with 36, we were able to bring back our guy DDouble, who had a great offseason playing Pro-Am, can play multiple positions at a very high level, and keeps the vibes good.

All that stress, all that worry, for nothing. The truth is, I stressed myself out over this draft because I wanted to hit a home run. Grizz Gaming has been through three seasons, and we’ve finished one win out of the playoffs in each of the three seasons. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, it would probably be humorous. But I’m past the point of laughing. We want to make the postseason, by hook or by crook, and thanks to this draft, we feel like we’ve put ourselves in a best possible position to get there. All of us worked hard this offseason, proving that we belong in this league. Now we get to show what happens when you grind harder than you’ve ever grinded before.

A few days after the draft, we gathered on Zoom for our first meeting as a group, and I left the guys with one thought: The seven of us on that call were all going into this season with something to prove. We have each, for various reasons, been overlooked, doubted, mistrusted. This is our chance to prove what we can do. Together. We can individually show our worth, of course, but if we all buy in, and we trust and believe, we can accomplish something amazing as a group, as a team.

Together.

Lang’s World: YOLO All-Stars

It’s a tradition unlike any other: The NBA All-Star teams get announced, and immediately, everyone gets all super-serious.

We MUST have the BEST players on these All-Star teams, or else everyone will get all ANGRY and UPSET! Someone call the Fun Police!!

Somewhere along the way, the message has gotten lost, because we’ve stopped naming “stars” to the All-Star Game, and instead have become obsessed with making sure the “best” players are there.

And look, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing greatness, with highlighting those who put in the work and are able to excel at their craft. But that is why we have All-NBA teams at the end of the season. The All-Star Game is literally a game for the stars. Who wins? Who cares? It’s supposed to be fun, a lark, a breath of fresh air in the middle of a long, tough season, so we can take a collective break, and perhaps have a few moments of joy along the way.

So, with that being said, it’s time, once again, to anoint my YOLO All-Stars. That’s right, these are the guys who embody the spirit of the meme You Only Live Once. Some of these players are standouts for their play on the court, sure, but they are not all superstars. I tried to spread the wealth a bit, selecting worthy players from multiple teams. But I also did not look at stats—these All-Stars are entirely based on reputation, as well as these player’s online personas.

Eastern Conference Starters

Eastern Conference Starters (voted by fans): Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid

The Eastern Conference YOLO Reserves (selected by me)

1. Jimmy Butler

The Heat’s best player has missed a dozen games, but opening a coffee shop last summer in the NBA bubble ensures his spot as a YOLO All-Star.

2. James Harden

He should probably make it just as a player alone, but when you consider all the shenanigans (skipping training camp, showing up thicc), the fact that’s he’s arrived in Brooklyn and been dominant is enough for me to give him a spot.

3. Fred VanVleet

FVV has proven himself to be an integral part of what the Raptors are doing, going from undrafted to scoring 54 points in a game earlier this season. He’s also been one of the more outspoken NBA players when it comes to off-court issues. Let’s reward the man in this weird season for having a career year.

4. LaMelo Ball

OK, I know he can’t really shoot consistently, and his defense has been so bad that his coach literally called him out on it to the media. But he’s fun to watch, and he seems like he’d be a lot of fun to play with. In short, especially when you factor in his backstory, Melo seems like the perfect YOLO All-Star.

5. Zach LaVine

I have a soft spot for dunkers. I grew up with Dominique Wilkins as my favorite player, after all, so for a guy to transform his career and go from a being primarily a dunker to now being an all-around player (and dead-eye scorer), well, you love to see it.

6. Robin Lopez

As I write this, the Wizards are, weirdly, one of the hottest teams in the NBA. And Robin Lopez, with his love for all things Disney and very public hatred of NBA mascots, is one of my favorite people in the League.

7. NBA Top Shot

Instead of a seventh player, let’s name one of the most popular trends of this NBA Season. If you don’t know what NBA Top Shot is, I can’t really explain it here, not in two sentences. But if you know, you know.

Western Conference Starters

Western Conference Starters (voted by fans): Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Nikola Jokic

The Western Conference YOLO Reserves (selected by me)

1. Anthony Edwards

You saw the dunk. Yuta is my dude, but man. There was a split second just as Edwards started to drive where you can see Yuta hesitate. Should I rotate over? Or just let him go? Yuta made the right play. And this is the thanks he got.

2. Damian Lillard

Lillard has clearly had a season probably worthy of a starting slot. But Dame is also a perfect YOLO All-Star, releasing rap albums, in a variety of commercials, hitting huge shots. Dame is fun, as long as you aren’t going against him.

3. Devin Booker

Chris Paul probably has a good case of making the actual All-Star team, but Booker is an explosive scorer, and has that whole Kardashian thing happening. Hey, YOLO.

4. Ja Morant

You didn’t think I would? Come on, this was a no-brainer.

5. Mike Conley

Let’s keep it in Memphis, at least in spirit, where longtime Grizz guard Mike Conley is now running the show for the best team in the NBA, the Utah Jazz. And guess who didn’t make the All-Star team, again, this season? Yep. Now, two of his teammates did make it, and I wouldn’t be shocked if someone pulls out and Conley is named as a replacement. But Conley deserves some respect. And I hope for his sake that this is the season that he finally gets it.

5. Brandon Ingram

I know everyone loves seeing Zion lumber up and down the floor to dunk the ball. But to me, Ingram is the best player on the Pelicans. The versatility in his game makes him invaluable, and I love watching his footwork — he’s so good at getting his shot off without ever wasting a single step.

7. Facundo Campazzo

Who? He’s barely 5-10 and only plays about 15 minutes a game, but Denver’s Argentinian import plays with such craft and style and verve that I love watching him play. Because of plays like this one…

Lang’s World: The Truth About Snow

Those of us living here in Memphis, the brutiful land in the world, woke on Sunday morning to find something of a Winter Wonderland. A dusting of snow had fallen, leaving an ivory frosting on everything outside. It was pretty, adding an air of magic to the frosty air, giving Valentine’s Day a bit of a sparkle from Mother Nature.

It was also a horrible harbinger of what was to come, but we’ll get to that in a second.

There was a time in my life where I would have done anything to be able to play in the snow. Growing up in Atlanta, snow was mostly an idea, an unnatural natural phenomenon that would blow through quickly once every two or three years. We would be lucky to have an inch of snow, just enough to make a handful of snowballs or dig a plastic sled that didn’t really work out from the back of the garage.

I really only recall one “big” snowstorm, which in retrospect was probably about 4 inches of snow. It was enough to shut down school for a few days, and I linked up with some kids from the neighborhood and spent a day playing outside. In between stints in the snow, we would duck into one of our homes to warm up and dry off, then head back out.

Other than that lone day, I don’t recall many fun snow days as a kid. The worst, of course, was when school would be canceled due to ice. It meant no school, which was a W, but at the same time there was no actual snow, so we couldn’t play in the snow or build snowmen.

Then I moved to New York City, and suddenly I was surrounded by snow, so much snow, for at least six months of each year. And unlike back in the South, in New York snow wasn’t really a game changer, it was just more of an inconvenience. Life went on, snow or no snow. Subways could still run, power and phone lines were underground, so for the most part, the city would keep right on keeping on. A foot of snow? Gotcha, see you at work tomorrow!

It was in New York City that I learned to recognize the sounds of snow. It would begin with the quiet that would set in as the snow first started to fall. In a city constantly choked by traffic, it was odd to not hear cars and buses fighting through congestion. Then, as it got dark and the city started to fall asleep, you’d hear the scraping of metal on cement, as garbage trucks were fitted with snow scrapers, and they started shoving the snow into piles alongside the road.

The first time it snowed each winter, it was novel, fun. We would wait for it to settle, then go out and play in the snow, marveling at how lovely everything looked caked in white. Twenty four hours later, the snow had been mostly shoved aside, from in front of buildings and streets, piled into makeshift obstacles at every street crossing. Pedestrians would line up to walk through the gaps in the ice, and after a few days, those piles of ice would turn gray, covered by New York’s finest grime.

Snow plow in Washington DC

Life would proceed this way for months at a time. Once it was finally warm enough to melt the ice, gigantic puddles—the same color as the street!—would accumulate around each crosswalk, making the harrowing crossing more harrowing.

The most crucial thing I learned w/r/t dealing with the snow was the importance of owning a great pair of shoes. I’ve had the same pair of waterproof outdoor boots now for about ten years. They keep my feet dry and provide good traction, which is really all I can ask when the ground is covered with water, in all its various forms.

I dug those shoes back out this weekend, when Memphis was faced with the threat of abundant snow. Five days later, I’m still wearing those shoes, which have kept my feet dry despite several days of messing around outdoors. And the way it’s looking, with temps staying below freezing for the next few days, I’ll be keeping these shoes on tight for the time being.

In New York, I lived in an apartment building, and our super and his staff took care of the snow when it started falling. The other day I noticed my neighbor out shoveling the walk to his home, and it made me realize I should probably be doing the same at my home. So I’ve been shoveling, and making sure the water faucets are dripping, and teaching my son how to not track snow into the house. Since the snow started, we’ve spent a total of about two hours playing in the snow. I’ve spent approximately double that amount of time trying to keep my house warm, which wasn’t apparently built to handle temps that stay this cold for this long.

(To be fair, part of that was my own doing. After months of planning, contractors finally started our kitchen renovation late last week. They got everything cleared out of the kitchen—the microwave, the stove, dishwasher, cabinets, counters—just before the snow came. They also pulled down some drywall and insulation. So, it’s cold.)

Today my son and I went out to sled on the banks of the Mississippi, which was a lot of fun! But after 15 minutes, my son was in tears, saying he had snow in places it didn’t belong, and we had to hustle back home and stand in front of the fireplace to warm up. Was it fun to be outside in the snow for a while? Sure. Was I ready to sit on my deck and fire up my grill? Also, yes. But we’ve still got the snow to deal with. And we will for a while, I’m guessing.

I think everyone can agree that there’s something aesthetically pleasing about snow, the way it gives you a fresh perspective on a landscape you’ve looked at a thousand times before. Just don’t forget that that beauty comes with a price.

Lang’s World: You don’t have to like Tom Brady, but you better respect him

I don’t like Tom Brady.

Not personally, mind you—I’ve never met the man. And while honesty may be the best policy, in this case I am well aware that my honesty will expose me as something of a hater when it comes to Tom Brady. So let’s just get that out of the way here at the start.

Why would I hate one of the most accomplished athletes in the history of team sports? Let’s start with me being a lifelong Atlanta Falcons fan, which probably explains a lot (or everything).

I was actually at Super Bowl LI, when Tom Brady pulled his greatest trick ever, leading the Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons in overtime. I have managed to successfully block most memories from that night out of my mind, but the one moment I do recall clearly was running to the restroom after Tevin Coleman scored at the beginning of the third quarter to push Atlanta’s lead to 28-3. In the concourse outside you could hear Falcons fans deliriously cheering; I was reticent to get too excited. Another older man also wearing a Falcons jersey looked over at me, shrugged and said, “I guess they don’t know how this could end up.”

An hour later, with the score tied, as the two teams walked out for the overtime coin toss, my friend Dave turned to me and said, “There is no way New England is losing this coin toss.” They didn’t. And then they won the game. Because of Tom Brady.


That game became an important chapter in the book of TB12, which is by now stuffed with plenty of other chapters also celebrating Brady’s exploits. He’s won so many times that at this point it’s almost anticlimactic. Even the freakin’ Super Bowl a few days ago was boring, at least if you tuned in hoping for a competitive game. And that’s because Tom Brady is great.

I realize that there’s a difference between disliking someone yet still respecting that person, because even I can admit Tom Brady is an awesome football player. Earlier this week, the 43-year-old QB won his seventh Super Bowl, this time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he completely transformed the organization in less than a year. What Tom Brady did in Tampa is unprecedented and unbelievable, not just by any athlete, but especially by one in his mid-40s. Brady is just 7 years younger than Patrick Mahomes’ FATHER, and he’s still out here winning Super Bowls like it’s as easy as cutting the grass.

Brady’s win in this Super Bowl also had the effect of causing me to re-think the greatness of Bill Belichick. I assume many people reckoned Brady’s success in New England was at least in some part due to the system Belichick had in place. The win with Tampa doesn’t mean this isn’t true, but it at least underlines the value of Brady to that whole enterprise.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

To be honest, it’s hard for me to even think of Brady as an “athlete.” I know he’s in incredible shape and he’s trying to sell people on the TB12 diet, whatever that is, but the way he plays quarterback is almost completely reliant on Brady’s intelligence. The most physical part of his game are those quarterback sneaks in short yardage situations. If Brady had had the Tampa Bay offensive line in the Super Bowl, would Tampa have been able to score 30-plus points? Doubtful. Would Brady have been able to figure out a way to win in spite of that line? You can’t definitively say no, which may be about as big a compliment as you can give him.

You can disrespect Tom Brady all you want, but the man has not left us much wiggle room, has he? At forty-plus he went to a new city and new team, and won a title. Heck, Jordan didn’t even make the playoffs with the Wizards.

So, I don’t have to like Tom Brady. I don’t have to heart his Instagram posts or root for whatever team he’s on or partake in the TB12 diet plan. But even I, a seasoned Brady hater, have to give him respect. Grudgingly, perhaps, but yeah.

Respect due.

Lang’s World: Perfectly Sekou

You saw it on Tuesday afternoon, after news of the death of Sekou Smith found its way onto social media. Within minutes, Sekou Smith was trending on Twitter, with people raving about him, both as a person and a professional. People who had only met him once talked about how Sekou had made them feel like old friends. Colleagues professed the joy Sekou brought to their day whenever they ran into him on the road. It was perfectly Sekou. I could only smile ruefully, watching Sekou get the tributes he deserved, while also recognizing he was not here to receive that praise.

Those who are elite at their jobs make it look easy. Sekou had many traits that made him such a tremendous journalist, which he masked with his ability to make it all seem effortless. Sekou could talk to anyone—I saw him chat up everyone from truck stop waitresses to NBA MVPs—but he also had an ability to listen, to get you to talk to him. He could win your confidence and make you feel comfortable enough to confide in him. He was masterful at garnering information, knowing how much of that he could reveal, and how to be write and speak critically while remaining fair.

It may not have seemed like it, but Sekou was constantly working sources and seeking information. I still remember one year around the trade deadline, while Sekou and I were recording a podcast, and he got a call from an NBA front office member, letting him know about a trade that was about to happen and explaining the team’s thinking, so we could provide context on the air. It may have seemed easy, but there were years of building that friendship and trust before that GM picked up that phone to make that call.

Sekou had an innate ability to get people to trust him, which in turn led to some of his biggest wins as a journalist. He loved to tell the story of when he was working one of his first jobs at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, and someone invited him to a dinner at the home of Ole Miss legend Archie Manning. Sekou charmed the Mannings, of course, and a few days later, Sekou was sitting at his desk when the phone rang: It was Archie Manning, wondering if Sekou would want to announce in his paper that Archie’s youngest son, Eli, was going to sign to play football at Ole Miss. Which was how Sekou ended up with one of the biggest college recruiting scoops of the year—the news literally found him, which was perfectly Sekou.

I was familiar with Sekou’s byline from his time in Indiana, covering the Pacers. But when he and his family moved to Atlanta to cover the Hawks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we connected, and immediately, we connected. Soon after, Sekou and I ran into each other on the road in Miami. One night after a game, he asked me to take him for some Cuban food—my Cuban wife had left me with a cheat sheet. We went to Versailles on Calle Ocho, where we lingered late into the night. The next day I made sure he found his first cup of cafe con leche, sparking what became a bit of an obsession for Sekou.

If there was one thing Sekou was elite at, it was talking. I’m pretty sure that I spent more time talking about the NBA with Sekou than I have with any person, ever. Which is why I think we were such good teammates when he asked me to cohost the Hang Time Podcast: We were just doing what we always did—talking about the NBA—but now we were recording the conversations and letting people listen to us chat away.

And the damn thing caught on. Soon we were getting promoted on “Inside the NBA,” and the great Rick Fox joined as a third member of our quirky crew. (We liked to joke that between the three of us, we had won three NBA championships.) Before long, we embarked on The Hang Time Road Trip, several long jaunts around the country on a huge tour bus with our names printed on the side, which we thought was wild but also secretly kind of awesome. You can say you know someone, but until you live with a person for weeks at a time on a bus, I can promise that you don’t really know them. We traveled around interviewing NBA players and coaches, and in between sat on that bus making fun of each other, trying to sneak videos of each other snoring, telling stories about our kids, and mostly just joking and laughing about life. (I remember once asking Sekou if he wanted to go to church on a Sunday morning, and he said he was a devoted parishioner at “the Church of St. Mattress.”) I heard so much about his wife and her hobbies, his kids and their Smyrna Spartans little league football team, all while Sekou grilled me about my family and my parents and how we were doing.

Sekou Smith, Rick Fox, and Lang Whitaker

This week’s outpouring of love for Sekou was deserved, though I must confess to being mildly amused at some of the descriptions of Sekou as someone who was always in a joyful mood. Because if you really knew Sekou, you knew that he could also occasionally be delightfully cranky, and it was usually hilarious to witness. There was the time, for instance, that Sekou threatened to beat up a cameraman who shoved his way in front of us in a crowded locker room, despite the camera guy having a good 10 inches and 50 pounds on Sekou. Later, when Sekou asked why I hadn’t intervened, I admitted it was because I couldn’t stop laughing.

There was the time Sekou had to file a report card for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team. Sekou had become friendly with then-Hawks coach Mike Woodson, which could have made for a delicate situation. I asked Sekou what he was going to do, and he said he’d discussed it with Woodson, who told him to feel free to write whatever he wanted. So, Sekou wrote that Woodson deserved an F, right there in the newspaper. I always thought it was a credit to both Woodson and Sekou that they remained friends.

There was the time we had Hall of Famer Bill Walton as a guest on our podcast, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Walton just would not stop talking, blowing right past his scheduled out time. It reached the point where Sekou and I were texting each other off-camera, wondering what we were supposed to do. Eventually we had to get our producer to hang up on Walton. Once we reached a stopping point, we belly laughed for about ten minutes.

Sekou Smith on the bus

There was the year Sekou showed up for Hawks media day after spending the offseason committed to exercising, and as a result losing a lot of weight. Hawks forward Josh Smith quietly asked me if Sekou had had his stomach stapled. I immediately told Sekou, of course, and he went and roasted Smoove about his suspiciously perfect new dental work.

There was the year at the All-Star Game when Sekou and I played in a pickup basketball game with a bunch of random celebrities, including the rapper Jadakiss. Sekou volunteered to guard Jadakiss, and for most of the game it was a rather inconsequential matchup. Then, suddenly, Jadakiss caught fire. Like, he was Steph Curry hot. Sekou was sticking with him, but Jadakiss was knocking down shots from everywhere. I suppose we should have sent some help for Sekou, but watching Jadakiss torch him was as hilarious as it was astonishing, so we left him on Jadakiss island. Finally, with the game on the line, Jadakiss drained a game-winning three, then ran to midcourt and kneeled down in Tim Tebow’s signature celebration. You could see Sekou just behind him, shaking his head.

(A few years later, Sekou bumped into Jadakiss at the Atlanta airport, and Jadakiss immediately recognized Sekou and brought up that game. Heck, it was probably the greatest moment of Jadakiss’s sporting life. We were just lucky to witness it up close.)

When Adam Silver released his lovely statement eulogizing Sekou, it reminded me of a night at the All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, which was Commissioner Silver’s first big event since taking over for David Stern. Sekou and I had spent the first few days interviewing dozens of players live on camera, and by Saturday night we were both exhausted. We were going to skip the dunk contest and three-point shootout, but at the last minute Sekou convinced me to walk over to the arena with him. We could just go casual, Sekou argued, not even bringing our laptops, just take in a low-key night and enjoy the events. I threw on a baseball hat and some sweats, and with Sekou similarly informally dressed, we strolled over to the arena. And of course, the moment we walked through the media entrance, we literally bumped into our new boss, Adam Silver, in a beautiful navy suit, with us standing there dressed like a couple of fans. We greeted him feebly, embarrassed, though we were able to laugh about it later.

There were surreal moments, too, like when Phife from A Tribe Called Quest reached out to tell us he was a fan of our podcast and wanted to visit with us in person on our Road Trip. Sekou and I had interviewed pretty much everyone that was to talk to in NBA circles, from Larry Bird to Kevin Durant, from Charles Barkley to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but a founding member of Tribe? Wanting to hang with us? That one blew our minds.

When Ray Allen hit his historic three-pointer at the end of Game 6 during the 2013 NBA Finals, I was sitting next to Sekou. I remember us grabbing each other’s arms as the ball was in the air, spinning toward the rim, just knowing that there was no possible way that shot was going to go in. And then it went in.

There were also so many quieter, thoughtful moments, like last year when Sekou came to visit me in Memphis, and we grabbed breakfast and talked about our lives and growing older. His kids were going off to college, and Sekou talked about wanting to get more involved in the journalism program at his alma mater, Jackson State. Which was perfectly Sekou, always willing to help those who came after him.

A few hours after Sekou passed, I picked up my phone to make a call, and my phone was on the “Favorites” screen, and right there was Sekou’s name and number. It served as a harsh reminded that I would never be able to call him again. But I will also never remove him from my Favorites. My phone is filled with photos of Sekou and me all over the United States—on the Road Trip, at All-Star Weekends, at various NBA Finals. We hit all of these places ostensibly to cover basketball, but we always somehow got into something else, something funny, something meaningful. Sekou was that person in my life with whom I could talk about things that we didn’t really otherwise speak on publicly—politics, race, religion. We never actually lived in the same city, but we shared a similar mental geography. How I loved spending time with him.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, my son asked my wife why my eyes were watering so much. I sat down with my son and I told him the truth: I was crying because I was sad, I was oh so sad. Because my friend was gone.

And I was certain that I would never again meet anyone as special as Sekou Smith.