By James P. Hill
You're a basketball star who's achieved excellence on the playgrounds, in high school, and in college. Now you are a month away from possibly living your childhood dream: being drafted by the NBA. You find yourself shooting the jumper, running cuts, slam-dunking, and playing defense inside a closed gym in Memphis while being critiqued by the Grizzlies president of basketball operations Jerry West. Also along the sidelines are head coach Sidney Lowe, Chuck Daly, Dick Versace, and a staff of scouts.
Why is this workout so intense, so nerve-wracking? Simple. This time it's about showcasing your game to the NBA, and your fate is bouncing with the basketball. If the Grizzlies are impressed, you could be on your way to The Pyramid as the number four pick in the NBA lottery.
"This is exactly how I envisioned it -- just getting up a lot of shots, going through a series of drills, to show different abilities and all you can do," said Lonnie Baxter, a 6'8", 250-pound forward from Maryland.
For players like Baxter, Jared Jeffries (Indiana), Jason Jennings (Arkansas State), and Dajuan Wagner, these workouts are the ultimate job interviews. For Mid-South native Jason Jennings (7', 250 pounds), landing a spot on the Grizzlies' roster would be an ideal situation. "Being just an hour from my hometown, if I were able to play here, it would draw a lot of fan support from Arkansas, Jonesboro, and the area," Jennings said. "I think it would be beneficial for the whole community around here, but you never know. You have to see how things go."
Another aspect of these workouts includes the mental challenge of staying focused -- playing solid basketball with a possible career at stake. "You just have to come out here with a good mindset and really be focused on what you're doing," said Baxter.
Grizzlies director of player personnel, Tony Barone, is conducting the workouts, and he's excited about how players are responding. "I've been really impressed with the intensity level of the guys who have come in," he said. "This is a taxing deal for these guys because they're in a foreign environment. They really don't know what to expect, and there is a lot of pressure on them."
The Grizzlies have their eye on several underclassmen. Jared Jeffries, the 6'10", 240-pound sophomore forward from Indiana, appeared stronger than his stature would indicate. Jeffries averaged 15 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per contest in the challenging Big Ten Conference. Many believe Jeffries improved his chances of being a higher draft pick by leading the Hoosiers to the NCAA Final Four. Jeffries appeared competitive, confident, and motivated. "I see myself just playing," he said. "If they have me come in and want me to play this position, I'll play that. It just depends on what they want me to do."
Finally, freshman phenom Dajuan Wagner, the 6'3" guard from Memphis, was also very impressive, according to Grizzlies head coach Sidney Lowe. "He had a very nice workout," Lowe said. "And he showed some of the skills that we thought he had. Once he got loose, he stroked it. You can see the athleticism, the talent there. He's going to be a very good player in this league."
For Wagner, playing for the Grizzlies would be a perfect fit. "I will be excited about any team," he said. "But you know I would love to play in Memphis."
By Ron Martin
The time is at hand for Conference USA to think outside the box. The king is naked. His subjects have to come to the realization that change is in order. Big change.
Conference USA needs to show the door to non-football-playing members St. Louis, Charlotte, Marquette, and DePaul. It needs to decide what its philosophy is and present it to its members and the sporting world at large.
Soon after returning from the recent C-USA meetings in Destin, Florida, University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson listened to my ideas without laughing. Regarding the deletion of the non-football schools, he said, "It's something we've got to look at, because we're too big. That's what the Mountain West did when they broke away from the WAC. It makes it cleaner, gives us a better image, and is easier to manage. We're a mixture of urban and rural schools. We need to know what we want to be."
Johnson agreed that there is a perception that the conference doesn't have a philosophy -- and that the perception may be true. "We need to decide what we want to be," he said. "We've grown so fast, it's hard to keep up."
The potential realignment of basketball divisions brings other issues to the forefront. There are too many teams (15) and too many institutions putting their own interest above the league's. "We need to think of what is best for the league, and I think we're coming to that, but we're not there yet," Johnson said.
Basketball realignment is not the only situation facing C-USA. Eleven schools participate in football, creating much the same problem as in basketball. The numbers just don't work if a championship playoff is in the future. ABC television has already allotted a time slot for the C-USA championship but not under its current format.
One glamour name was bandied around as a possible new member in Destin: Notre Dame. "[The athletic directors] put together a wish list, so why not wish for the best," Johnson said. "It's worth pursuing and there have been informal talks, but realistically, there's probably not much chance of it happening."
Bringing Notre Dame into the fold would be a plus, but not a panacea. Conference USA needs strong leadership. Commissioner Mike Slive's ability to lead the league from its birth to a viable association is commendable. But, unfortunately, it's becoming more of an association than a league. His power seems to be that of a negotiator more than a leader. While that may be the fault of the members, it's a situation that has to change. Collegiate athletics is a dog-eat-dog world. Consider the SEC as a reference point.
Can Slive take the conference to the next level? When the presidents of the member schools meet next month, it's an issue that must be addressed before other issues can even be considered.
Flyers As you read this, the Southeastern Conference is concluding its meetings in Destin. Questions that need to be answered: Will the power struggle end soon and the search for a replacement for retiring commissioner Roy Kramer begin? Will the reason for Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat's apparent rush for power be revealed?
Commitments from Nick Price and David Toms make this year's FedEx St. Jude Classic field one of the best in the tourney's history.
Ramblings Rashaad Carruth decided not to pay his way onto the U of M basketball team, thank you ... Just thought I'd ask: Will the downtown homeless be forced to find new homes during fight week for appearance's sake? ... If collegiate soccer players can play for professional teams and keep their eligibility if they aren't paid, then why can't other student-athletes? ... The irony of the week: Run Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat's name in a computer spell-check and the word "cheat" pops up. Yet it's Khayat who is aggressively trying to stem the cheating tide with his proposal for an SEC police force. He's swimming upstream.