“36 Hours in Vegas” – A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

The ultra intense Rex Walters led the USF Dons to a near upset of BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen’s club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

David Stockton cuts down the nets after Gonzaga's win (photo by Ethan Miller)

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

 

“Celebrating Sarah” – A Fallen Skier Paves the Way For Two NorCal Olympians

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita's right)

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita’s right)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

For the majority of her life, Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke didn’t necessarily know where the sport of skiing was going, she just knew she was pushing it forward, and she did not want it to ever stop. By the time of her death at age 29, Burke had added to the progression of the sport more than any other competitive female skier who ever lived. When South Lake Tahoe’s Maddie Bowman and Carmel’s Brita Sigourney compete in their first Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, they’ll be skiing in a first ever event that Burke pioneered, the Olympic Women’s Skiing Halfpipe.

From the minute Sarah Burke strapped on a pair of skis, she was always intent on taking things to the next level. Riding with the boys, seeking out the most difficult terrain, sending the biggest airs. As she got older and starting competing, she found herself constantly lobbying for the inclusion of more women in events. If there was a sponsored slopestyle event in Colorado or a halfpipe event in Utah, Sarah wanted to make sure there was a contest available for the girls as well.

“When I started (in slopestyle and halfpipe) I was the only girl,” Burke once said. “And it was always a battle, always a fight to be there.”

Using her beaming smile and undeniable aerial talent on skis, Burke slowly but surely integrated women into the mainstream competitive freestyle skiing scene throughout her twenties. She promoted ski camps in order to get other girls to try her sport, and years later would go as far as to coach her direct X Games competitors in the offseason in order to teach them new tricks and progress her sport further. Burke was hooked on the adrenaline rush of skiing down a halfpipe on skis, and she wanted as many other girls to experience it as possible with her.

For Burke, development of a women’s ski halfpipe tour to go along with a nationally televised Winter X Games event was not enough. Inevitably, the end goal was to get her sport into the Olympic Games in Sochi, and she was convinced she could pull it off. True to form, midway through 2011, it was announced that the 2014 Winter Olympics would feature the women’s ski halfpipe event. As the first girl to land a 720, 900, and 1080 in a halfpipe, it was seemingly only a matter of time before Burke would be crowned as the first Olympic gold medalist in a women’s halfpipe.

Tragically, Sarah Burke would never get a chance to appear on the Olympic medal stand she essentially built herself and sing her national anthem. Burke died on January 19, 2012, nine days after crashing during a training run on the Eagle Superpipe in Park City, Utah.

Not long after her death, Sarah’s husband and acclaimed skier Rory Bushfield, spoke in an interview about how Burke passed away doing what she loved to do.

“She was an amazing skier, always pushing herself. She was doing things she didn’t need to do to get a gold medal. She was doing them to push her side of the sport, like she did to get skiing halfpipe into the Olympics. Halfpipe skiing will debut in Sochi and that was her dream all along. She could have easily just won events with her stock run, but instead she was constantly learning new tricks and progressing the sport. And also getting other girls to do the same.”

Two of the women that will compete in the Olympic halfpipe event that Burke pushed so hard for are Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney. Both of which grew up skiing on the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. Bowman learned to ski at Sierra-At-Tahoe, while Sigourney first laid tracks at Alpine Meadows. Both were flying down mountains before the age of five.

Bowman grew up in South Lake Tahoe, a stones throw from the chairlift. The daughter of two professional skiers, Bowman’s parents passed down an uncanny sense of balance and feel for the snow. Ms. Bowman was also an elite gymnast. In the end, it was a perfect recipe to produce a halfpipe skier.

But of course, when Bowman was a youngster, the idea of skiing inside a halfpipe hadn’t really taken hold for women yet, so her earliest years were spent on the alpine downhill racing team. Soon enough, however, Bowman was introduced to the new-age free skiing disciplines such as slopestyle skiing and halfpipe. It wasn’t long before she was hooked.

“I quit racing when I was thirteen,” says Bowman. “It was a little too serious for me, so I switched over and joined the freeride team at Sierra, my home mountain. I kind of fell in love with it. Just skiing with all my friends all day. It was the best. I couldn’t turn that down. I had to keep going.”

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

As a junior at South Lake Tahoe high school, Bowman was starting on her state championship soccer team, as well competing in the Winter X games on ESPN. After earning a silver medal in the 2012 X Games, Bowman has won X Games gold in the halfpipe for the past two years. Now still just 20 years old, the 5 foot 1 inch Bowman has asserted herself as one of the favorites to win Olympic gold in Sochi.

Clipping at the heels of Bowman during these Olympics, with chance to win Gold herself, will be the 24-year-old Brita Sigourney. Unlike her counterpart, Sigourney didn’t get to grow up at the base of her home mountain. Instead, she grew up five hours away in Carmel, CA. This didn’t stop Brita’s dedicated parents from getting their ski-obsessed daughter up to Alpine Meadows virtually every weekend in the winter, regardless of the traffic conditions.

Growing up closer to the beach than the mountains, Sigourney developed into an exceptional water polo player in high school, leading to an offer to play collegiately at UC Davis. So for three years of college, Brita did both. Balancing her time between the pool and the halfpipe. Soon, polo would give way to skiing and by 2011, Sigourney was a silver medalist at the X Games. The following year, she won bronze and this past year she placed 5th at X-Games in the lead up to Sochi.

For the past few years, Sigourney had to battle through a series of harsh injuries. The list includes a microfracture in her knee, broken collarbone, torn ACL, and fractured pelvis. Through all this, she has persevered.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries in my career. And I definitely have to gather a new sort of motivation after every one I think,” said Sigourney. “I actually think I’ve benefited from each one, because it’s given me the time to step back and look at why I ski and how much I love it. Your first day on snow after so long of just rehab and gym time is the best feeling ever. It’s crazy, my mom asks me every day, and I don’t think she fully understands why I ski, because she is so heartbroken every time I get hurt. Probably more than I am.”

Air Bowman sending a pair of Roxy skis into orbit

Air Bowman sending a pair of Roxy skis into orbit

While Sigourney may not be America’s best chance at a gold medal, she is perhaps the most capable of throwing the biggest trick. In the 2012 Winter X Games, Brita became the first woman to land a 1080 in a full women’s halfpipe run.

Of course, the first woman to ever pull off a 1080 was Sarah Burke. If you asked Brita where she learned how to take things a step further and land one in competition, the answer is probably from working with and watching Sarah Burke.

The last qualifying event for the Women’s Ski Halfpipe event in the 2014 Olympics was recently held in Park City, Utah. Almost exactly two years removed from the accident, Bowman and Sigourney found themselves at the top of the same Eagle Superpipe that claimed Burke’s life. Bowman had already qualified, but Sigourney skied that day with her Olympic dreams still in the balance. You could say Sarah Burke had paved a new course toward Olympic dreams. Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney were at the top, ready to realize them.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

“Coming Up The Pipeline” – A’s Prospect Addison Russell Enters Spring Training As the One to Watch

Russell could take over as Oakland's shortstop as early as this year.

Russell could take over as Oakland’s shortstop as early as this year.

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

In four years at Pace High School, just outside of Pensacola, Florida, Addison Russell hit a cool .460 with 37 home runs. Living on the Alabama border, it only made sense that the Auburn Tigers would end up extending a scholarship offer to Russell. And at the time, the 6’0” 195 pound shortstop had full intentions of going to school. The oldest of 4 siblings and the owner of a soft-spoken, humble personality, it made sense that even a talent this large could use a few years of seasoning in the SEC.

This was all before Billy Beane made young Addison his first round selection in the 2012 Draft. For years, Beane has avoided high school players like the plague, deeming an 18-year-old simply too much of a gamble to invest millions in. The last time Beane has selected a high schooler in the first round was 2001 when the A’s took Jeremy Bonderman 26th overall. Before that, you have to date back to 1996 when Eric Chavez was picked in the first round out of high school.

Not only was Beane forced out of his comfort zone by picking someone so young, so early, Billy also had to negotiate with super-agent Scott Boras in order to sign Russell. 2.6 million dollars later, Russell, and his seemingly infinite upside, was property of Oakland.

While Big League scouts have most often compared Russell to current Detroit Tigers infielder Jhonny Peralta, A’s fans could also comfortably compare Russell to the beloved former Oakland Athletic, Miguel Tejada. Blessed with a sturdy, compact build, to go along with exceptional bat speed, foot speed and arm strength, Russell possesses everyting one would need to be a breakout Major League star.

Peralta and Tejada, both eventual steroid offenders, possess(ed) the type of five-tool talent that is so coveted in young position players. By all accounts, Russell has all five tools in his quiver, and to the extent that he is the best prospect the A’s have had in their farm system in recent memory.

Scouts have marveled at the way the ball jumps off Russell's 19-year-old bat

Scouts have marveled at the way the ball jumps off Russell’s 19-year-old bat

In Russell’s first season in the minors last year, the 19-year-old started at shortstop for the Single-A Stockton Ports of the California League. After a slow start, Russell finished the season with 17 home runs, 10 triples, 21 stolen bases and a .275 average. The stat line was good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year in the Cal League, as well as a trip to the All-Star game in New York City to participate in the Futures Game. By year’s end, Russell was on the field with the AAA Sacramento River Cats getting his first taste of professional playoff baseball.

As Russell turns 20 on January 23rd, he heads into his second year of spring training scheduled to start the year playing for the A’s Double-A affiliate in Midland, Texas. There, while he continues to accumulate invaluable professional at-bats, A’s fans will keep a close eye on their prized possession down on the farm.

“At the minimum he’ll be at the Double-A level (in 2014),” A’s general manager Billy Beane recently told CSN Bay Area. “A kid with that kind of talent, once you get to that level, anything can happen from there.”

“He’ll have the opportunity (this spring) in major league camp to assert himself before he gets to the minor leagues,” continued Billy Owens, A’s director of player personnel. “There’s no timetable. People always want to make predictions, but I think his play on the field will dictate predictions.

As you may recall, Oakland’s 2011 first round pick was Sonny Gray out of Vanderbilt. And we all know how that panned out. The rookie turned in a masterful Game 2 performance in last year’s Playoffs, throwing eight scoreless innings and earning himself the starter’s role for the subsequent pivotal Game 5. Granted, Gray was 23 when he took center stage for the A’s, but it is still in the realm of possibility that Beane and manager Bob Melvin would decide to bring up Russell to play shortstop for the A’s by the middle of the summer. Jed Lowrie has proven to be a step slow as a Major League shortstop. And moving Lowrie to second to make room for Russell could turn out wonderfully, assuming Russell continues his rapid development.

Coming off back-to-back playoff seasons, one couldn’t blame Billy Beane for keeping things status-quo. But, when you consider how competitive the AL West has become (most recently with Robinson Cano coming to Seattle) change is constantly necessary for the A’s to stay ahead of their deep pocket competitors. Expect part of that change to come in the form of a once-in-a-decade shortstop, by the name of Addison Russell.

“Addison is a 19-year-old with so much upside, not only talent-wise but his work ethic. His tools are all there,” Bill Richardson, Russell’s former Manager, explains to MLB.com. “Shortstop is such a premium. You get a good shortstop, and when you have that guy, it makes things a lot easier on your club. He might be one of the most talented players in this league. He knows what he wants, and there is no doubt in my mind he will make it. How soon is what it is.”

Feeling right at home inside the A's dugout. (photo by Susan Slusser)

Feeling right at home inside the A’s dugout. (photo by Susan Slusser)

“Opposites Attract in Carolina” – Ken Dorsey and Cam Newton Team Up to Take On 49ers

"Dorsey handing off some West Coast culture to Cam at a recent Panthers' practice." (Photo by Chuck Burton/AP)

Dorsey handing off some West Coast culture to Cam at a recent Panthers’ practice. (Photo by Chuck Burton/AP)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

When the San Francisco 49ers take the field at Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina on Sunday, they won’t have to deal with temperatures hovering at zero and below. Nor will they be up against the savvy and experience of Aaron Rodgers, or the ghosts of Lambeau Field’s past. Instead, the Niners will have to overcome a new challenge all together: the youth and talent of Cam Newton, coupled with the knowledge and quiet competitiveness of their former quarterback turned coach, Ken Dorsey.

If you are of the belief that life often comes around back full circle, well Dorsey versus the 9ers in the Divisional Playoffs is a prime example of said belief. Ever since his days as a prep quarterback/shooting guard at Miramonte High in Orinda, Kenny Dorsey, it seems, has always been destined for a career outside of the Bay Area. On Sunday, Dorsey will be doing his best to send San Francisco’s Faithful home with an upset loss.

No matter how big of numbers he put up on the football field, or how much leadership he showed on the hardwood, schools like Stanford and Cal refused to recruit Dorsey as hard as he probably deserved. Citing his lack of arm strength, average foot speed and overall blase athletic appearance, the Bay Area at large took a collective pass on Dorsey, even while the mighty Miami Hurricanes came offering a scholarship.

Dorsey and the 'Canes after winning the BCS National Championship

Dorsey and the ‘Canes after winning the BCS National Championship

So Dorsey did what anyone in his position would do. He went where he was wanted, and he started winning games. Lots of them. In 40 games as a starter at Miami, Dorsey went 38-2. In 2001, Dorsey led the ‘Canes to an undefeated season, culminating with a BCS National Championship victory over Nebraska. A year later, Dorsey went undefeated again, only to lose to Ohio State in the title game. By the time his college career was all said and done, you wouldn’t be mistaken if you called Ken Dorsey one of the 10 best college Quarterbacks of all-time.

Once Dorsey left Miami for the NFL, the Hurricanes would effectively fall apart. Contrary to popular belief, their elite talent scattered throughout the depth chart at skill positions like receiver and running back would prove to not be enough. It may not have been due to a big, strong arm or blazing speed, but whatever it was, Dorsey knew how to win.

Six rounds passed in the 2003 NFL Draft before Dorsey was finally picked by the San Francisco 49ers (Pick #241). The East Bay kid who grew up idolizing the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young, was now going to be given the chance to wear the Scarlet and Gold and prove himself in front of his hometown fans at the highest level. Unfortunately, things did not work out for Dorsey in the Bay. Surrounded by a group of sub-par skill position players, coupled with an unproven coach and an overall bad team, the three years that Dorsey wore the 49er uniform left much to be desired.  By the end of 2008, Dorsey was out of the league. And after a short stint in the Canadian Football League, Dorsey would be done wearing the pads completely, opting instead for a visor, clipboard and a lanyard with whistle at the end of it.

Eventually, Dorsey’s path would cross with Cam Newton, or as he was so often referred to at Auburn University, $cam Newton. Now in his third season at the helm of the Carolina Panthers, Newton is enjoying his best season yet, leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and home field advantage in the second round of the playoffs. His quarterback coach, new as of this season, is Ken Dorsey. It’s no coincidence that under the steady guidance of Dorsey, Newton is having his winningest season of pro football yet.

Cam enjoyed a larger-than-life existence at Auburn

Cam enjoyed a larger-than-life existence at Auburn

If marriages are best formed when opposites attract, perhaps the same can be said in the relationship between a quarterback and his coach. For in many ways, Cam and Ken couldn’t be more different.

While Dorsey’s high school career went off without much national fanfare, Newton was one of the mostly highly sought after football recruits in the history of the state of Georgia. Nicknamed “The Show” at Westlake High in Atlanta, Newton was hotly recruited by literally every major school in the country, finally settling on Florida where he would serve as Tim Tebow’s backup.

During his college career, Dorsey was the epitome of a team leader who virtually never made a mistake, on the field or off. In contrast, Newton was effectively sent packing to a Junior College in Texas after stealing laptops from Florida classmates and underperforming on the field under coach Urban Meyer. Newton attracted even more negative attention when his father Cecil allegedly sold his sons services to Auburn for upwards of $100,000. Meanwhile, Ken Dorsey’s dad hardly even followed college football, let alone attempted to serve as his son’s  agent.

Despite all of the yin and yang of the Dorsey and Newton relationship, one can surely argue that the one thing these two have in common is what is most important in the NFL: Winning.

Upbringing, hype, physique, and style of play all aside, Ken Dorsey and Cam Newton both flat out know how to win big games. This fact alone surely has Jim Harbaugh’s full attention as he tries to navigate through another road playoff test en route to a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Once an afterthought from the forgettable lean years of 49er history, Ken Dorsey has now popped up back east, ready to try to put an end to the Niners’ Quest for Six. Harbaugh has his own understudy to bring to Sunday’s battle in Colin Kaepernick. And following Cam and Kaep’s pending duel in Carolina, don’t be surprised to see Ken Dorsey receive a firm handshake from Mr. Harbaugh at midfield during the post-game. From one “Quarterback-turned-coach” to another.

Photo by Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

Photo by Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

Section 925 Podcast Episode 34 – 2013-14 NFL Playoffs, NBA…

Cam and CK7 will settle who is the hotter young NFL QB this Sunday at 10am...

Cam and CK7 will settle who is the hotter young NFL QB this Sunday at 10am…

Gotham City native T.J. Powers joins Connor in an undisclosed location in Alta, Utah to discuss the 49ers’ upcoming playoff tilt at Carolina, along with the Warriors’ current 10 game winning streak.

Listen here: http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-01-07T22_14_27-08_00

“Quest For Six” – The 49ers Visit a Frozen Lambeau Field on Wildcard Weekend

Frank "The Bell Cow" Gore will be called upon to carry a heavy load Sunday at Lambeau

Frank “The Bell Cow” Gore will be called upon to carry a heavy load on Sunday at Lambeau

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

Jim Harbaugh thrives on this type of stuff. Lives for it. The feature game on Wildcard Weekend, going on the road to Green Bay, the expected freezing cold temperatures (high of 3 degrees, low of -24), Seattle with homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. Secretly, I think this is exactly how Harbaugh would draw it up if he had the choice. The four game Super Bowl mountain is there to be climbed, and Jim and the Niners are ready and willing to fight their way up it regardless of who or what gets in their way.

Even though the New York Football Giants have recently proven otherwise, conventional wisdom suggests it is extremely difficult to go on the road, in below zero temperatures, before a loud and passionate fanbase, and beat Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Fortunately, the 2013 version of the San Francisco 49ers turns out to be a pretty darn good football team.

Owners of the third best record in the NFL, the 12-4 Niners will be the only road team to be favored this weekend (-3). Riding an impressive six game winning streak to close out the regular season, San Francisco seems to be hitting their stride at exactly the right time. Better yet, SF has had Green Bay’s number as of late, beating the Packers three times in the last 16 months. This includes last year’s 45-31 Divisional Playoff win versus the Pack inside the late Candlestick Park, not to mention this year’s home opener in which Colin Kaepernick had his best game of the season against Green Bay.

Marquez Pope and the Niners came up short at Green Bay in the '96 Playoffs

Marquez Pope and the Niners came up short at Green Bay in the ’96 Playoffs

For better or worse, the sunny California skies of early September in which the Niner offense operated so masterfully under will not be present this Sunday. Far from it. It remains to be seen how the speed of Kap’s passes will be received in the frigid conditions inside Lambeau. No word on whether there’s a “broken finger” prop bet in place for Sunday, but Boldin, Crabtree and Davis will be tasked with the unenviable duty of catching icy bullets from Kap all evening long.

Even coming off a lackluster performance in Arizona last weekend, it is safe to assume Frank Gore will shoulder much of the Niner’s offensive load come Sunday. Facing what is a relatively bad Packers defense, it should come as no surprise if the Niners O-Line is able to open up nice holes for Frank to run through all game long.

From the opening kick, the chess match between Jim Harbaugh and Mike McCarthy should be interesting to watch. Will Green Bay, without an injured Clay Matthews, try to stuff the box and force San Francisco to pass? Or will McCarthy decide to play it straight up, honoring the exploits of SF’s proven aerial attack of Kap, Crabs, VD, and Boldin? How hard headed will Jim Harbaugh be in said chess match? How much will the weather really become a factor?

Colin Kaepernick's legs were too much for Green Bay to handle in last year's Playoffs

Colin Kaepernick’s legs were too much for Green Bay to handle in last year’s Playoffs

On the other side of the ball you have the Lambeau legend in the making that is Aaron Rodgers. Beyond being athletic enough to “make every throw on the field,” Rodgers’ leadership, experience and overall competitiveness is what has kept Niner Faithful awake at night all week long leading up to Sunday. From his days as a high schooler in Chico without a college scholarship offer, to being passed up by San Francisco in the draft, to his years tucked in the shadows of the infamous Brett Favre, Rodgers has always seemed to play with something extra to prove. No matter how often the Niners’ D-Line gets to Rodgers, Number 12 won’t fade. It is almost assured that he will put up a considerable amount of points on the board on Sunday. The question is whether or not Kaepernick and co will be able to consistently counter with points of their own.

It is no secret that the Super Bowl champion often emerges out of Wildcard Weekend. You’d certainly have to like the Niners chances in the Divisional Round, riding what would be a seven game winning streak, playing a team fighting off a week of rust. But first, the Niners must prove to its Faithful that they can go into an icy Lambeau and steal the cheese from one of the most passionate fan bases in the history of sports. The sellout controversy aside, the Packers fans that do show up will be shirtless, inebriated and hungry to defend their frozen turf.

We all remember the two times the Niners have ventured out to Wisconsin to play the Pack in the playoffs. The 1996 contest was a mudbowl featuring Elvis Grbac, Dorsey Levins and Desmond Howard, while the 2001 tilt gave us a steady dose of Brett Favre and Ahman Green. Both resulted in gutwrenching defeats and long plane rides back to the Bay. Sunday will feature Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin and Boobie Dixon, versus the likes of Aaron Rodgrs and Eddie Lacy, and a frozen playing surface. Let the chess match begin, we’ll see if the third time is indeed the charm.

"The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field"

“The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field”

“The Stick” – A Lifelong Niner Fan Takes a Moment to Look Back

"The naked bootleg" (photo by Ezra Shaw)

“The naked bootleg” (photo by Ezra Shaw)

By Josh Hunsucker (@JPhunsucker)

Today is more likely than not the last 49ers game at Candlestick Park (although Seattle and New Orleans losses next week and a backdoor number one seed would be nice). For the past week, it seems as though everyone is providing their memories of the reinforced concrete, wind vortex, traffic deathtrap, bog of a stadium the 49ers (and Giants) played inside of before concussions “existed.” The 49ers did a nice job of listing the Top 10 Candlestick moments and countless other pundits have recapped The Catch, T.O.’s TD catch against Green Bay (I refuse to call it Catch II), and the Vernon Post.

In some ways what I am writing is no different, even though as you will see it is clearly not the same. I was barely alive for The Catch, I still lived in Texas/Oklahoma during Steve Young’s scramble against the Vikes, and I never witnessed anything at Candlestick Park live (football-wise) until after Y2K didn’t happen. So if you were expecting some “classic” moments you probably won’t get them here unless you love Kurt Manwaring and Jeff Garcia.

The first time I remember being at Candlestick was to watch the Giants final home game in 1993 with my buddy JB and the TJB Cat. For those who don’t remember they had a murders row that year: Bonds (his first year in the Bay), Matt Williams, Willie McGeee, and Will “The Thrill” Clark. The final home game at Candlestick that year came before a crucial four game series in L.A. that would determine the Giants’ playoff lives. During the September pennant race the Giants were in a dead heat with the Atlanta Braves. The Giants PA announcer kept giving in-game updates on the Braves game and we were constantly watching the scoreboard to see if the Art Howe led Astros could upset 20-game winner Tommy Glavine. That day, Salomon Torres lasted 2 and 2/3s, gave up two bombs, and left the Giants fans biting their nails in vain as the Braves got the win. The Giants went on to lose 12-1 to the Dodgers on the last game of the season, sealing their fate as the best team of all-time to miss the playoffs (103 wins).

In 2000, I went to my first Niners game at Candlestick. Miramonte High School booster, Orinda legend, and namesake of the Stockholm Store, Jim Stockhom, took me and another player from the football team to the game. That day marked the first and only time I would ever be put in a position that would have violated NCAA regulations, which was awesome in its own right. The Niners, sitting at 2-8 and slogging through a dismal season, met the Chiefs and the most under-utilized Golden Bear in history, Tony Gonzales. It was a 1:05 kickoff, sunny skies, no wind. As we got to our seats at the end of warm-ups and the stadium was buzzing. My eyes immediately locked into Flash-80 and fixed on him as he seemingly floated across the field catching easy- ups. The game itself was ugly. I remember T.O. only having one catch for maybe five or six yards. Jerry didn’t do much either. But El Jefe found a way and Chalie Garner chipped in 100-yards for a Niners 21-7 win.

When you are dating someone, very rarely do you get put into the position where the signs are so clear that you couldn’t miss them. In the infancy of my wife and I’s dating circa 2003, she called me up over the winter break and asked if I wanted to go to the final Niners home game that season against Seattle. The only catch was that I had to double- back from Orinda to Stockton to pick her up. Maybe this is different from some people but in my experience I don’t usually get offered Niners tickets out of the blue from girls that I was kind of dating. Bold move on her part. Although the game wasn’t great, we lost 24-17 and failed to salvage an 8-8 season, I had checked off the “likes and knows football box” for my future game day viewing partner.

I’m going to combo my last two “bonus” moments. Full disclosure, I wasn’t at either of these two events. The 2011-12 season was my favorite season since the 1994-5 Super Bowl year. I loved that team. I had just moved back to California after being gone for almost seven years and the Niners had this upstart coach and low expectations. Somehow, they kept winning these close games that they had always managed to lose during the previous 10-years.

The fourth quarter of the Saints game was one of the most emotionally draining sporting events of my life. Two heavyweights landing haymaker after haymaker with the other refusing to go down. The Alex Smith bootleg run may have been the happiest I have ever been for a Niner only to be spoiled by Darren Sproles crazy catch and run. Any Faithful watching that game is lying if they said that the Niners should have gone for the win on their next drive. I kept yelling at the TV “all we need is a field goal.” Frank chips away a few yards, then Vernon gets loose for almost fifty. The next two plays Frank for six yards and a Smith spike reeked of the classic NFL conservative play calling. Then it happened. Alex Smith dropped back and fired a laser to VD. Great catch, great throw. The Stick is going absolutely nuts at this point, I’m throwing my 1 1/2 year-old son in the air probably doing some irreparable harm to his body. Pandemonium, bedlam, joy, tears, and the feeling like football is finally back.

The next week, after Kyle Williams fumbled the punt(s) and the Giants kicked the game winning field goal (the second punt in OT never bothered me, great play by the Giants, but the first punt hitting his leg was inexcusable) I wasn’t distraught like I usually would be after a huge loss like that. We were back, a new era of Niner football.

And that is where we are now. While Candlestick will always have fond memories it’s time to move on. Tonight at the Stick will be a great send off for the team and the Faithful. Besides, wouldn’t it be better to raise banner number six on opening day at Levi’s Stadium? Here’s to “The Stick”, and all that it’s given us over the years.

“Thank You Master Sergeant Keys” – A Bay Area Mother Reflects on Her Son’s Return From Afghanistan

(via Reuters)

(via Reuters)

Thank you, Master Sergeant Keys. I made a deal with you and you upheld your end of the bargain. I hope I did as well.

Last December, I got the call from my son that he was heading to Afghanistan within six weeks. Our family rallied and within a few hours all of us had plane reservations from Chicago, Portland and San Francisco bound for Raleigh at Christmas. We plan well, we travel light. Ten days later my husband and I flew from San Francisco to Raleigh with a connection in Texas, and that’s when I met you.

When your body inside a flag-draped military casket was boarded into the belly of our aircraft at the Dallas-FortWorth airport, we stood at the airport window and watched. I secretly cursed the gods and the Universe that they would present such folly to a mother about to say good-bye to her son going off to war. We were informed by the gate attendant that after years of military service, you were on your final journey home. She asked us to remain silent until the entire ritual had ended, and we did. Along with all the other travelers headed to Raleigh, I watched the honor guard salute your casket, then lift it onto the conveyor belt as it slowly made its journey into the hold.  Little boys, dressed in their winter coats and mittens, saluted you. Mothers wept. One man leaned his forehead against the window and his tears fell onto the metal floor. The entire gate area was quiet. Even shrill sounds of footsteps from passersby didn’t interrupt the respectful silence.

That’s when I made a deal with you. If I rode on that plane of yours and held your spirit safely, then I was going to hold you responsible for watching over my boy going off to war. It wasn’t a fair trade, I know, but little in life is. And it seemed like you were up for it. Otherwise, the Universe wouldn’t have played such a twisted coincidence card.

My work took a lot less time, but I tell you, it exhausted me. It was only a three hour ride but I concentrated the entire time on your final ride home. I held my palms upward as if to capture whatever spirit or energy of yours might land around me. I ignored the flight attendant’s offer of drinks. I kept my feet planted on the floor and focused on you. I wanted you to know I was there, with you, the whole way home. I wanted your family to know someone was keeping watch and holding the light on your last journey. So I breathed, closed my eyes for much of the ride, prayed and meditated. I kept thoughts of you and your intentions in and around me.

You served two tours in Iraq. The picture on your obituary shows a man wearing a beret. As a little girl I remember a song during the Vietnam war about America’s best wearing the Green Beret. Only last week did I find out you were one. You served long and well, you won medals and you were killed in a free-fall training accident in Arizona. I didn’t know your history then, when I made our deal, but I felt complete faith in you, which is close to what most religions try to teach.

Nineteen minutes ago I received a text from my boy that he had just landed on home soil. His tour is over, he is out of Afghanistan, he is back home. He begins “debriefing” for the next few weeks, which is then followed by R&R.

And I am breathing again. My breath is tingling into parts of my torso I haven’t felt for a long time. When we’re in worry we probably never fully breathe. For the last eleven months I’ve been holding my breath but now, thanks to you, Master Sergeant Keys, my boy is home. That plane ride of ours when I was breathing and holding the space for you on your final journey? I can feel that breath again. I thank you not only with all my heart, but with all the breath that flows. I’ll write your momma and let her know. She lost her heart last December, and mine just burst.

(From the blog, “Emma Tedsen”  http://emmatedsen.wordpress.com/)

Section 925 Podcast Episode 33 – Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League Catcher, Charlie Cutler

Cutler at last year's World Baseball Classic with college teammate Josh Satin

Cutler at last year’s World Baseball Classic with college teammate Josh Satin

Born and bred in the city of San Francisco, the charismatic Charlie Cutler comes on the pod to discuss the Bay Area at large. Currently a veteran catcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Cutler brings the heat on a variety of issues in and around the world of sports and politics. The former Lowell Cardinal and CAL Bear does not disappoint…

Listen Here: http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2013-11-23T12_47_40-08_00

Local Star Jabari Bird Gets Set to Take Flight in Berkeley

(Photo by Kelley L. Cox)

CAL faces Arkansas at the Maui Invitational on Monday at noon on ESPN2 (Photo by Kelley L. Cox)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

The basketball gym at Riverview Park in North Augusta, South Carolina is nothing fancy. It’s the type of sprawling, multi-purpose gym you’ve been to a million times. A place to hold indoor soccer games, summer hoop camps, or a Friday night co-ed volleyball league. It’s your run of the mill suburban rec center that allows weekend warriors to shake off the dust of another long work week and get out and run. This all changes, however, for one week every July. That’s when the best basketball players in the world under the age of 18 descend on North Augusta to compete in the most prestigious AAU tournament there is. They call it the “Peach Jam”.

As you can imagine, for better or worse, Nike has their fingerprints all over the Peach Jam. The flagship tournament marks the culmination of the “Nike Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL)”, which is effectively a group of prestigious AAU basketball tournaments run by Nike designed to highlight the athletes Nike hopes to one day sponsor. In the end, it works out for everyone. Nike puts on the tournaments, players get exposure, and college coaches get to see all the best talent of tomorrow crammed into one gym competing against one another.

Last year’s Peach Jam headliner was undoubtedly Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. Widely considered the best high school player to come along since LeBron James, Wiggins fell one point short in the tournament championship. He lost to Cal’s Jabari Bird.

Playing for the Oakland Soldiers, an AAU team LeBron once played for extensively, Bird found his team down 50-49 with under 10 ticks on the clock. Bird was being guarded by Wiggins on the left wing when the ball came his way. Without hesitation, he rose up and fired off a three with everything on the line. Wiggins couldn’t help but commit a foul. Bird calmly strode to the free throw stripe, in a sweltering South Carolina gym in July, under the watchful eyes of the Mike Krzyzewskis of the world, and calmly drained the game winners.

Sure enough, before Bird could even board his flight back out to Oakland, The North Carolina Tar Heels came calling, Jabari’s dream school.

“My dream school growing up was North Carolina. I wanted to be just like Jordan,” explained Bird in his high school coach’s office. “They came on too late though. I remember right after we won Peach Jam, I’m on my way home, and I get a text from one of their coaches offering me a scholarship. It was kinda crazy. UNC was a school I always watched growing up. But I had to say no. It was too late.”

Indeed, the 6’6” swingman, who’s always made sure to wear number 23, had worked his whole life to receive that text. For someone to offer him a chance to follow MJ’s exact footsteps and play for the Tar Heels of UNC. But Jabari is serious when he says it was too late. The Vallejo, CA native had promised to be a California Bear, and number 23 is a man of his word.

Bird slashing in the 2012 state title game in Sacramento

Bird slashing to the rim in the 2012 state title game in Sacramento.

In order to connect the dots and fully understand where Bird developed his respectful demeanor, his cool confidence and his Jordan-esque smile, it helps to walk the halls of his alma mater, Salesian High School. Located in the heart of Richmond, the private school of 451 students shares a fence with the neighboring Richmond High School located just steps down the road. The quaint Catholic school features manicured lawns at the base of intelligent architecture. Students walk the halls in traditional school uniforms, while the administration is quick with a smile to the rogue stranger passing by. Principal’s Timothy J. Chambers popular slogan is “come and see”, and to be sure, the school’s excellence speaks for itself.

On the day I visited with Jabari, it was the second day of a new school year at Salesian. The back to school hustle and bustle didn’t stop Principal Chambers from corralling me into his office for a chance to discuss the attributes of his latest student done good.

“He was great,” says Chambers with beaming pride. “I can say that without a qualification. He was a leader. In the hallway, in the classroom, wherever he was. His language, his style, he had no pretense to superiority at all.”

It would be hard to blame Bird for having said pretense, considering his presence on campus. The main entrance to the school opens up to the a trophy case featuring the State Championship trophy Jabari won as a Junior in 2012. Down the hall, a conference room is adorned by a blown up photo of Bird in a McDonald’s apron from a photoshoot he did following his selection as a McDonald’s All-American. Yet despite all this pomp and circumstance surrounding the 18 year old, it hasn’t seemed to have gotten to his head.

Bill Mellis, a former team manager for the Cal Bears basketball team during the Jason Kidd era and current Salesian head coach, jumps at the chance to speak fondly of his former player both on and off the court.

“I’ll just say that for someone that was as recognizable and in the limelight, he is very down to earth. He loved his senior class. Not just the basketball players, but all the way down to the teachers. He treated everyone with respect and didn’t walk around like he was better than anyone else. One of his first year’s here, during a spirit week, he came in a full on purple Teletubby costume. He can laugh at himself. He was never above anything.”

If our location for an interview was any indication (cramped in the back corner of Mellis’ “under-construction” basketball office) Jabari’s reputation for humility in the face of humungous hype certainly seems to hold weight. With his never ending legs and Inspector Gadget arms coiled up like an accordion on his old coaches’ couch, Bird is at ease discussing the long arch of his basketball career.

Bird wore #23 during the McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago last year.

Bird wore #23 during the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago last year.

The son of a San Quentin Prison guard, Jabari had his old man around in the afternoons to rebound for him when he was itching to get some shots up in the family’s backyard. That’s because his dad, Carl Bird, worked the graveyard shift, in part to have more time to spend with young Bari. It also didn’t hurt that Carl knew his way around a basketball court himself. A 6’8” forward who led the Cal Bears in scoring twice during the 1970’s, Carl was drafted by the Golden State Warriors and eventually cut out a long career for himself in professional leagues overseas.

“My dad always worked with me in the backyard. It would then go to HORSE, and he would always beat me in HORSE, then it went to one-on-one. I’m a little kid, and he’s like 6’8” 240, a big guy, but he wouldn’t let me win. He wasn’t about letting me win. That definitely helped me with my competitive edge.”

Not only did Jabari benefit from patterning his game after his father, he also remembers becoming infatuated by the Greatest Of All Time, Michael Jordan, at a very young age. It just so happened that the youngster grew up to be the same height as MJ, with a similar body-type and style of play.

“Growing up I just watched Michael Jordan videos all the time. I mean, who didn’t want to be like Mike? I remember watching him in the Finals versus Utah. Just as a little kid next to my mom, imitating his moves on the couch, trying to do whatever he did. I even watched Space Jam all the time. I had all his DVD’s. Everything.”

Inspired by Jordan like so many his age, Bird became consumed with the game of basketball, playing any chance he got. Whether it was an outdoor playground in Vallejo, inside at the Mare Island Sports Center, or at an AAU tournament with the Vallejo Hustlers, Bird was rarely seen during his youth without a basketball under his arm.

When it came time to pick a high school to attend, Bird chose Benicia High. A relatively unknown program, Bird’s reasons for attending Benicia were threefold. The school was relatively close by, all his friends were going there, and the coach was the son of Al Attles. The same Al Attles who drafted Carl Bird onto the Warriors decades earlier. After experiencing a five inch growth spurt the summer leading up to his freshman season, Bird became a breakout player for Benicia averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds playing against guys four years older than him. It wasn’t long before he got his first call from the Oakland Soldiers.

“I remember the Soldiers called me after my freshman year, and I knew who the Soldiers were. Carl Foster called me. I was super nervous at the tryout. When I walked into the tryout I saw all these elite guys like Jabari Brown, Dominic Artis, etc, and I was thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to be here’. I don’t want to say I was star struck. But there was just a lot of talent in the gym, Aaron Gordon, everyone. Initially, I didn’t feel like I belonged there.”

Whether Bird felt he belonged or not, he turned in a great performance at the tryout and was able to make the squad. With an alumni list of players that include LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Chauncey Billups and the like, there was no understating how big of a deal it was for Jabari to become a Soldier. For the next three summers, Bird would tour the United States, stopping off at an array of elite tournaments to play the best talent the team could find. Alongside him the entire way was Aaron Gordon, the current Arizona Wildcat who won California’s Mr. Basketball award twice while at Archbishop Mitty in San Jose.

“I was motivated. On the Soldiers I was never known as ‘that guy’. When people talked about the team I played on, in my age group, it was always about Aaron Gordon. And Aaron is a good friend of mine, but at the same time, I see him as a rival. Any accolade he got, I wanted it too. Being on the same team as him pushed me to work hard because I wanted everything he had. I wanted be seen on the same level as him.”

It was that first summer with the Soldiers that Jabari met point guard Mario Dunn. An electrifying player in his own right, Dunn had just finished his first year at Salesian, and continually sung the praises of the school and the basketball program in front of Bird. Because Bird’s coach at Benicia had recently been let go, Jabari figured why not head over to Salesian and chase down a state championship with his buddy Mario. He eventually achieved just that, but not before being embroiled in an alleged recruiting violation.

In what by all accounts was a mix up in the bureaucratic paperwork of the California high school athletics governing body, it was deemed illegal that Jabri had talked to Mario about Salesian before enrolling in the school. Forced to succom to the “Pre-Enrolment Contact” rule, Bird’s Salesian team had to forgo six of their wins that they earned at the beginning of the season. Coming back from a brief suspension, Bird, Dunn and current Oregon point guard Dominic Artis were able to make it all the way to the Division IV State Championship game only to fall short at Arco Arena. The next year, with Artis gone to a Las Vegas prep school, Bird broke through and brought home the elusive State Championship trophy back to Richmond.

Following his subsequent Peach Jam title over Andrew Wiggins, Bird returned home last summer with the world at his fingertips, literally. Virtually any school in the nation had their doors wide open for Jabari, should he have chosen to walk through. Ultimately, he chose to be a Cal Golden Bear, becoming just the fifth McDonald’s All-American to come to Berkeley, joining the likes of Shareef Abdur Rahim, Leon Powe and Jason Kidd.

“Cal was the first college to offer me a scholarship when I was a freshman at Benicia. Honestly, that meant a lot to me. I came into high school as an unknown player, and as soon as I started putting up numbers, Cal came calling and offered me. After that, Washington and Arizona and other schools started calling. But I was always the type of guy who knew he wanted to stay close to home.”

Aaron Gordon (on Bird's left) is already turning heads at Arizona, while Antioch's Marcus Lee is a freshman at Kentucky

Aaron Gordon (on Bird’s left) is already turning heads at Arizona, while Antioch’s Marcus Lee is a freshman at Kentucky. (photo courtesy of https://www.youtube.com/user/YayAreasFinest2006)

By staying home, Bird became the most heralded Bay Area high school senior to stay local for college since Leon Powe went from Oakland Tech to Cal. Stanford and Cal’s rosters have largely been made up of talent from Southern California as of late, not to mention St. Mary’s looking all the way to Australia to fill out their roster. Last year’s NBA rookie of the year, Damian Lillard from Oakland High, ventured out to Utah to play for Weber State in lieu of staying local. It’s a trend Bird is excited to try to change.

“That is one of my goals. To show kids from the Bay Area following in my footsteps that you don’t necessarily need to go away to play college ball. You can be an All-American, stay close to home, and still accomplish your dreams. Jason Kidd did it, Leon Powe did, I want to do that too.”

While not every superstar from Northern California stays local like Bird, there will be a host of local hoopers doing damage in the PAC-12 this year. Dominic Artis from Salesian will be running the point for Oregon, Aaron Gordon is poised to dominate at Arizona, and Darin Johnson from Sacramento is set to breakout at Washington.

“The PAC-12 should be awesome to watch this year,” says Jason Lincoln, a videographer from the hit YouTube site “Yay Area’s Finest”. “I’ve watched a ton of basketball in the Bay Area over the years, and this is definitely one of the best senior classes I’ve ever seen.”

Lincoln, along with Yay Area’s Finest head honcho Travis Farris, has been filming highlight videos of Bird, his boyhood friend, for as long as he can remember. It’s a passion project that Farris and Lincoln have pushed to become what is now a famed YouTube channel that attracts a cult following of basketball lovers.

“Those guys have been filming me since I was in the ninth grade. I’m all for it and I love supporting it. I think its cool because people say they have all these highlights and want them to get out and Travis and Jason are always there. If you put on a show, YAF is going to put it out.”

Highlight tapes aside, Jabari knows full well that if he expects to send Cal to the Final Four, or find himself on an NBA roster, he has his work cut out for him. Bird’s best attribute is his mid range game. Using his length and smooth athleticism, Bird should have little trouble in college getting off one dribble pull up jumpers and finishing lobs in transition. But there are still some holes in his game that he must fill in order to play at the highest level. Namely defense and ball-handling. Two things Coach Mellis believes Jabari will sure up, so long as he buys into Mike Montgomery’s no nonsense style over in Berkeley.

Coach Bill Mellis flanked by Bird, Mario Dunn, Jermaine Edmonds and Markel Leonard (photo by Dennis Lee)

Coach Bill Mellis flanked by Bird, Mario Dunn, Jermaine Edmonds and Markel Leonard (photo by Dennis Lee)

20 years ago, Bill Mellis shared the huddle with Jason Kidd as the Cal Bears knocked off the two time defending National Champion Duke Blue Devils. He watched the magician that is J Kidd pick apart a seemingly helpless Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill. Duke’s chance at an historic three-peat evaporated, while Cal marched on to the Sweet 16. The Sports Illustrated cover photo from that game is prominently displayed in the Salesian basketball office still to this day.

As I finish talking to Bird and he uncoils from his seat in his coaches’ office, Jabari lets out one of his signature smiles as he discusses his Unit 1 freshman dorm arrangement at Cal. Mellis has walked those dormitory halls a thousand times. Eaten at Top Dog down the street, gone to Memorial Stadium every Saturday. More importantly, he’s seen and heard the Harmon Gym crowd explode with noise and spill over onto Bancroft Avenue after another “You had to be there” performance from Jason Kidd. As Mellis and Bird embraced each other a week before Jabari headed off to college, they both knew. They knew the story of the coming years about to unfold was going to be filled with unexpected twists and turns, gut wrenching defeats and historic victories. They both knew it, and were ready for it to begin. But for now, the two could just smile.

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