The bond between Rick Byrd and Casey Alexander crosses rivalry lines

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There may not be a rivalry in all of college basketball more unique than the Battle of the Boulevard, which pits Belmont against Lipscomb, two schools that are located all of 2.7 miles apart on Belmont Boulevard in Nashville, TN.

It dates back to 1953, and over the course of the last 60 years, the two programs have squared off more than 130 times despite the fact that there was a seven-year hiatus in the late-’90s and early-’00s. But to get an idea of just what this rivalry means to Bruin and Bison fans, all you need to know is the story of their matchup on Feb. 17th, 1990.

At the time, Lipscomb was a powerhouse in the NAIA, winning national titles and helping Don Meyer collect 665 of his 923 career wins. In 1989, they were 38-1 heading into the league tournament when an upstart Belmont program, coached by Rick Byrd, upset the Bisons and kept them out of the NAIA national tournament. The following season, with both programs sitting in the top five of the NAIA rankings with a combined record of 27-1, Belmont was asked to move their home game to Memorial Gym on Vanderbilt’s campus because of the demand for tickets.

15,399 fans packed inside Memorial Gym. More than 16,000 tickets were sold. The fire marshall shut the doors, banning ticket holders from entering.

All for a regular season NAIA game.

That attendance number is still a record.

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Casey Alexander was at that game at Memorial Gym. He was a senior in high school, and one of his teammates was already committed to Belmont. They had a game that night, but hopped in a car immediately after the buzzer sounds — still in their uniforms — and caught the final seven minutes of the 124-107 Lipscomb win.

Alexander would eventually commit to Belmont as well. He played for four years, lettering in each season, before becoming a member of Byrd’s staff upon graduation. He became the associate head coach in 2002 and had completed a full two decades as a member of the Belmont program before taking over as head coach at Stetson prior to the 2011-2012 season.

He’s a member of the Belmont Hall of Fame, and even played a pivotal role in what ended up being the most important move as a basketball program.

“Casey played a large role in our move from the NAIA to Division I,” Byrd said by phone on Sunday afternoon, “I’ve said it often that he pulled me and pushed me into that era. We had a good thing, and I was pretty happy coaching from October to March and getting to play golf in the summer. You can’t do that as easily in Division I.”

Outside of Byrd, there is no one that is more Belmont more than Alexander.

So you can imagine the reaction on Sunday when Alexander was officially named the new head coach at Lipscomb.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be home at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “That’s the way that I feel and the way that I’m approaching this mission.”

“He contacted me very early on about the job and said he was interested,” Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s athletic director and a former all-american for the Bisons, said with a laugh. “I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, I don’t know’ as I was thinking about his resume a little bit. I thought this’ll be interesting.”

Steve Wojciechowski played for four seasons at Duke, winning ACC titles and earning accolades like Honorable Mention All-America and National Defensive Player of the Year, before joining the Duke staff two years after graduating. Since then, he’s become the associate head coach, been on staff for two runs to the national title and emerged as a contender to replace Mike Krzyzewski if and when he finally decides to retire.

Now imagine if Wojo was named Roy Williams’ replacement as head coach at North Carolina.

For the folks around Belmont and Lipscomb, that’s the kind of surprise that this hire has elicited.

“[They] were very similar players,” Byrd said. “Casey was an NAIA player, he couldn’t have done at Duke what Wojciechowski did, but their roles as leaders and tough little guards were very, very similar.”

“I’m sure Casey was pretty easy to dislike from the Lipscomb point of view.”

What would college-aged Casey have said had you told him he’d be coaching Lipscomb in 2013?

“I think he would have been as much in shock as most people were when they heard he’s going to be now. It’s just unusual,” Byrd said with a laugh.

And that’s what makes this rivalry so unique. Lipscomb may have hesitated in hiring Alexander — their coaching search went on for 40 days — but they ended up bringing in a guy that was probably the best fit for their program.

It’s inarguable that the Bruins have overshadowed the Bisons in recent years. They’ve been to six NCAA tournaments in the past eight seasons. They won the Atlantic Sun regular season title in five of their last seven years in the league (finishing second the other two) before getting an invitation to the stronger Ohio Valley Conference prior to last season. The Bruins won the OVC last year as well.

Lipscomb? Well, they made the 2006 NIT and lost in the first round.

No one knows the ins-and-outs of Belmont’s blueprint for success like Alexander. In a city where sports are secondary to music and food, college basketball isn’t the most important sport, and there are already two nationally relevant college hoops teams, a mid-major program like Lipscomb needs to think outside the box when making a hire.

That’s precisely what they did.

If you can’t beat ’em and you can’t join ’em, you might as well try to replicate ’em. And in all actuality, the similarity between the two programs is one of the things that attracted Alexander to the job.

“The truth is all that I liked about Belmont is the reason that I wanted to be at Lipscomb,” Alexander said. “They’re very similar. I think we can do the same things. I think I can be myself, I can coach the way that I want and I can coach the kind of people that I want. There aren’t that many places that are like that. It’s a pretty unique environment and it’s the one that I wanted to be in.”

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When Alexander stepped to the podium at his introductory press conference, the first people he recognized and thanked were his family. His wife, his kids, his parents, his in-laws. Everyone. And after thanking his new bosses and recognizing those that gave him this opportunity, Alexander proceeded to thank the man that set him on this career path.

“Outside of those that share [my DNA], there’s not one person anywhere that’s made me more the man I am today than Rick Byrd,” Alexander said, while choking up. Byrd crossed enemy lines to attend and support his former player and assistant coach. There are few coaches in the country that are as universally respected as Byrd is, and one of the reasons for that is his unconditional support for former members of the program. It doesn’t matter why someone wants to leave or where they want to go, Byrd is going to help them follow through.

Even if it means watching one of his protégés take over his program’s biggest rival.

“When I first started talking to him about this job,” Alexander said, “you can imagine it was probably like a lot of you, a lot of raised eyebrows and so forth. But it took one conversation, literally, for him to forget where it was and who it was. Because all he cares about is what’s best for the people that he has worked with.”

The way Alexander tells it, playing Belmont as the coach at Lipscomb will be easier for him than playing Belmont during his first season at Stetson. It was the first basketball season since he was in high school that he wasn’t a member of the Bruins in one form or another, and he had literally recruited every player on the Bruin team.

It’s a tough sell, however; Alexander’s very first game on the Lipscomb sideline will come against Belmont.

For Byrd, having Alexander on the opposite bench will actually make the rivalry more tolerable.

“People that know me know that I haven’t really enjoyed the rivalry,” Byrd said. “It’s hard to enjoy it because it means so much to people on our side and their side.”

“But I really think with Casey there it’s almost going to be easier for me. I like to compete and coach against guys that I think have the kind of class that Casey has. Those are the people I respect. I don’t like to lose to anybody, but I’d much rather lose to folks that I think are going about it in a proper way.”

Byrd can be confident that Alexander will be one of those people.

That’s what he spent 20 years teaching Alexander to do.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Did Nike plagiarize JellyFam, Minnesota freshman Isaiah Washington to sell kid shoes?

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The JellyFam movement started as nothing more than a way for a little New York City point guard to add some flair to his game, a way to stunt on an opponent when you can’t dunk on that opponent, and has grown into something no one, not even Isaiah Washington, could have imagined.

Washington is that little point guard, and a few years ago, he and a couple of his hooping buddies coined the jelly, which, at its root, is essentially nothing more than a finger roll. Where the magic happens is when that finger comes after weaving around an opponent or finishing the layup despite the presence of a shot-blocker at the rim, with a sprinkle of NYC Point God showmanship. Think Kyrie Irving’s layup package if they happened at Rucker Park with an And1 Mixtape crew filming the game:

What JellyFam has turned into is a full-blown, grassroots movement powered by social media.

And while Washington is the face of the movement, it’s not just him. A half-dozen other talented New York hoopers are members of JellyFam, but Washington is the star. He’s a celebrity on the city’s hoops scene, drawing massive crowds wherever he goes and garnering more than 335,000 followers on Instagram despite having just 27 posts on the site. It’s not as if Washington is a sure-fire NBA All-Star, either. He’s a 6-foot-1, 160 pound point guard that doesn’t crack the top 50 on any of the major recruiting services and is headed to Minnesota to play his college ball.

His popularity is tied directly to the movement that he created.

It’s a shame, however, that he cannot profit off of it, not if he wants to remain an amateur that is eligible to play college basketball.

That doesn’t stop corporations from profiting off of what he has created.

Today, Nike released a new colorway for the kid size PG1s, Paul George’s signature shoe, that has been dubbed the ‘JellyFam PG1’. It’s being sold for $90 on their website right now. This is what it looks like:

What you’ll notice, in addition to purple and turquoise colors that are a staple in the JellyFam gear that Washington wears, is the straps. On the right foot, it says “score in bunches”. On the left foot, you’ll see a design that looks like basketballs on a grapevine … or the grape emoji, with basketballs instead of grapes.

Washington and the rest of the members of JellyFam have adopted the grape emoji as their own when posting on social media.

According to a Nike spokesperson, these shoes were “inspired by Paul George’s love for fresh grapes.”

What Nike is doing here is wrong.

They are trying to capitalize on a movement created by athletes that are not allowed to monetize something they built simply because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules. They are stealing the work created by these young men simply because they can. At worst, this is plagiarism.

Washington did not respond to messages from NBC Sports, but on Friday morning he tweeted, “It’s crazy bro they know I can’t so they just take advantage.” That tweet has since been deleted.

If you read this space, you know my feelings on the NCAA and amateurism. It’s wrong and it needs to be changed, but that’s another column for another day that’s been written thousands of times.

This column is much simpler: An international, multibillion-dollar company like Nike is already profiting off of the unpaid labor of amateur athletes.

Stealing their art, their work, their movement to try and sell sneakers to kids for $90 is despicable.

And I’m not sure there’s anything else to add.

Joel Berry II’s touching encounter with grieving fan

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When you are the starting point guard at North Carolina and a preseason All-American coming off of a season where your team won the national title while you won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award, getting recognized in Chapel Hill comes with the territory.

Joel Berry II should expect it when he goes out to eat.

What Berry wasn’t expecting, however, was that simply being recognized could profoundly affect the life of one of his fans.

Berry shared the story with UNC’s in-house media arm, GoHeels.com. He was at breakfast with his girlfriend when he noticed two women eyeballing him. As it turns out, those two women were the mothers of two boys that had been best friends. One of the boys had moved to Oregon and, in February, died in an car accident. His name was Rob McKiver, and Berry was his favorite player on his favorite team.

MORE: Joel Berry II, fake tattoos and a family’s loving gesture

From GoHeels.com:

That’s why Carol Freedman and Myra McVicker sat in their booth that May morning with tears trickling down their cheeks. Freedman ultimately sent Berry a heartfelt email. She relayed the story of the McVicker family and then explained why the two women had been so closely watching Berry. “Your presence that Saturday, that morning when we could have met anywhere, at any other day or time, reaffirms our belief that those loved ones who leave this Earth are still with us if we look and listen,” she wrote. “In death, Rob let his mother know that his love for her is stronger than ever.”

The email deeply touched Berry, who wrote back that same day.

“This is by far the greatest email I have ever received,” Berry wrote. “I got goosebumps reading this letter and had to share it with my mom and dad. When telling my mom, she cried with joy knowing her son had impacted someone in that way. Each morning, I always tell myself, ‘Something good is going to happen today,’ and as I read that email, I said to myself, ‘This is more than something good. This is a life changer and I will always remember this.'”

I wrote about Berry and his family after UNC won the national title. I found him to be a likeable young man and someone who is very easy to root for, unless, of course, you live in Durham.

I guess I’m not the only one that feels that way.

Tommy Hawkins, first black all-american at Notre Dame, dead at 80 years old

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black basketball player to earn All-America honors at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, died Wednesday. He was 80.

Hawkins died in his sleep at home in Malibu, son Kevin told The Associated Press. He had been in good health and had lay down to rest, his oldest son said.

Hawkins graduated from Notre Dame in 1959 after playing three years on the basketball team. He had 1,318 career rebounds for the longest-standing record in Fighting Irish history. He was named to the school’s All-Century team in 2004 and inducted into its Ring of Honor in 2015. He led the Irish to a 44-13 record over his last two seasons, including an Elite Eight berth in the 1958 NCAA Tournament.

“He loved Notre Dame with every fiber of his being,” said Kevin Hawkins, who followed in his father’s footsteps and played basketball for the Irish before graduating in 1981. “He said Notre Dame did so much for him and grew him up to become the man that he would become.”

Hawkins became close with Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, who served from 1952-87. Hesburgh was supportive when Hawkins was dating a white woman from nearby Saint Mary’s College and they were turned away from a South Bend restaurant that wouldn’t allow the interracial couple to dine, Kevin Hawkins said.

“That act led Father Hesburgh to ban Notre Dame (students) from eating there until my father got a public apology,” Kevin Hawkins said by phone from his home in South Bend. “Notre Dame walked the talk when you talk about civil rights. That meant the world to him.”

Kevin Hawkins said his father’s basketball teammate and future NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung led Hawkins back to the restaurant to secure the apology.

Kevin Hawkins said he spoke to his father almost daily and they had recently discussed last weekend’s civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers with the third pick in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played one season in Minnesota before moving with the team to Los Angeles. He went on to play six seasons for the Lakers, averaging 9.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in 454 games.

The 6-foot-5 forward also played for the Cincinnati Royals from 1962-66. Hawkins recorded 6,672 points and 4,607 rebounds in his pro career.

“He was and will always be part of the Lakers family,” team CEO and majority owner Jeanie Buss said. “His baritone voice and easy demeanor made him a favorite of the fans and media, as well as everyone who had the honor of calling him a friend.”

Hawkins’ influence continued beyond his playing days. As a player representative, he had a key role in establishing the first collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union and the NBA.

Born Thomas Jerome Hawkins on Dec. 22, 1936, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he moved to Chicago with his mother and aunt as a child. He starred at the city’s Parker High, now Robeson High, before being recruited by Notre Dame.

Kevin Hawkins recalled his father as a man with interests that ranged from poetry to jazz to sports. He self-published a book of poetry and Hawkins was in the midst of writing a memoir on his basketball career when he died.

“My father was a person who didn’t want to be defined as a jock or an ex-player,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He was an eclectic man. He had stories about everything from Notre Dame to the NBA to broadcasting.”

Hawkins enjoyed friendships with Alabama football coach Bear Bryant; UCLA basketball coach John Wooden; Southern California football coach John McKay; and artist LeRoy Neiman.

“You think about a man who grew up in the projects of Chicago that had done all these things in his life,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He called himself a cosmic functionary. That was his big deal. It made us all cringe, but he just loved it. He was a man of the world and a man of the people.”

Hawkins’ gregarious personality was on full display as master of ceremonies for the John R. Wooden Award presentation for over 30 years before he passed on his MC duties in 2011. He was co-national chairman of the award that honors the nation’s top male and female college basketball players.

Hawkins was hired in 1987 by then-Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley to be vice president of communications and he worked for the team until 2004.

“In life we are fortunate to know many people and Tommy was one person I always looked forward to seeing and being with,” said O’Malley, who sold the team in 1998. “He did an extraordinary job for the Dodgers as vice president, and his friendship will be missed by his family and many admirers.”

The Dodgers had a moment of silence for Hawkins before their game against the White Sox on Wednesday night.

Before joining the Dodgers, Hawkins worked in radio and television in Southern California, including stints with KNBC-TV and KABC radio.

He is survived by his second wife, Layla, and their daughter Neda; his first wife, Dori, and their children Kevin, Karel, Traci and David; seven grandchildren; and a great grandchild.

The family will likely hold a public memorial at a future date, Kevin Hawkins said.

Brad Underwood pokes fun at his version of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’

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On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.

While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.

Underwood was at least able to poke fun at his vocals following his performance.

“I’d rather coach naked than sing in front of 40,000,” Underwood said afterward. “There’s a reason my wife won’t let me sing in church.”

Underwood took over Illinois in mid-March following a one-year stint at Oklahoma State. He had previously led Stephen F. Austin to three NCAA Tournament appearances in as many seasons.

 

AAC plan men’s basketball tourney at new Texas arena in ’20

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The American Athletic Conference will hold its men’s basketball tournament in a new arena in North Texas in 2020.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco announced Wednesday that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth has been selected to host the tournament for three years, starting in March 2020. That is only four months after the facility is scheduled to open.

On the same day of a groundbreaking ceremony for the 14,000-seat arena last April, the NCAA announced that first- and second-round games of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be held there. The NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are scheduled there from 2020-22.

The closest AAC school to the new arena is SMU, with its campus in Dallas about 40 miles away.

Orlando will host the 2018 AAC tournament, which moves to Memphis in 2019.