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Southside Baller

So I was at a Talib Kweli show at the Museum of Natural History last weekend, and I bumped into an old buddy that I studied abroad with in Paris back in 2003-04. He was a former collegiate athlete who played soccer at Morehouse College, and his story was the first feature I ever put together. Set partly against the backdrop of Paris, the piece never made it into print. Feeling a wave of nostalgia, I decided to dig into the vault and pull out the story. It’s both a window into the life of an interesting guy as well as a case study of my formative years.

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Khalil Um’rani sits in his eighth-floor bedroom, which overlooks the sprawling east side of Paris. A storm is moving in, the jet-black clouds inching closer to the outskirts of the city. However, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris the sun is shining bright.

“More rain out in the banlieue,” Um’rani observes. He huffs. “Whatever, I just go and play soccer, then get the hell out.”

While the thirty-minute trip he takes out to the suburbs of Paris every week may not be a long journey, it is indeed a voyage to a different world. But then again, Um’rani is a voyager. One who happens to be pretty good at a game more global than even Um’rani himself.

 

He grew up on the Southside of Chicago with a passion. He looks like a soccer player, tall and lean, his features sleek. The contrast between his dark skin and light eyes gives off an air of competitiveness. His friends were athletes too, but while they were practicing cross-over dribbles and touchdown-jigs, Um’rani was traveling two hours out to the suburbs of Chicago to play club soccer.

“My friends didn’t even understand where I was coming back from,” Um’rani remembers. “And they definitely didn’t understand what I was doing with these weird white boys.”

Even he may not have been able to answer that question, but Um’rani knew one thing: he wanted to play soccer. Ever since seeing it on television and wishing he had a goal in his backyard, soccer was it for Um’rani. So he went to the only school on the Southside, Hyde Park Elementary, which offered the sport. He was the best. He then tried his hand at youth soccer, scoring 20 goals in an eight-game season. Undisputed.

Club soccer seemed to be the best venue for this talented young player. But that meant dedication, time, and money. And that was just for his parents, Rashad and Deborah.

“Soccer was what he took to,” his father recalls. “It was kind of an oddball hobby, but it was what he wanted to do.”

Um’rani knows that his parents had to make sacrifices in order for him to play, especially when he decided to go out for the city’s most elite club team, the Chicago Magic. Um’rani joined the team in sixth-grade, and continued right through high school. Spending an average of six hours per-day dedicated solely to club soccer, Um’rani honed his self-proclaimed “fast and gritty skills” into a package worthy of competing at the next level.

Sure, he played high school too, starting and scoring 19 goals as a freshman for St. Ignatius College Prep. But in terms of significance, high school soccer was a distant second to club.

“Club soccer is a year-round event,” Um’rani says. “Kids are dropping two, three grand a year to play. All the coaches are professional, and, as opposed to high school, you don’t have to watch your teammates smoking weed before games.”

On the club, it was all business: kids who wanted to be there, kids who wanted to be discovered. Whenever college coaches came to Chicago, they came to see the Magic.

“Recruiting is all in the club leagues,” Um’rani explains. “It doesn’t matter if you score forty goals in a school season, you’re not going to get the looks.”

Um’rani started to get the looks junior year in high school, after the Magic joined forces with Chicago’s other major club, the Sockers, and won Nationals in Florida. A little more than a year later he was headed to Atlanta to play Division II soccer at Morehouse College.

It was there that Um’rani learned valuable lessons. They were not, however, lessons that he wanted to learn. He knew something was wrong when he red-shirted his freshman year, but still appeared in a few games under the names of active players. The team finished 16-3, but because Morehouse is an independent school, it did not receive a bid to the Division II tournament.

The following season, two players left school early to turn pro.

“We won like two games that year,” he recalls. “And we would be taking these long road trips to Alabama, Tennessee, just to get blown out the water. I had never lost like that before. It really makes you feel powerless.”

While Um’rani felt at a loss, he had no idea of what was to come. The previous coach of the team, Dr. Augustine Konneh, had been fired the year before Um’rani arrived amid allegations that he had used ineligible players. The scandal came to a head after Um’rani’s sophomore campaign.

“The NCAA discovered that this guy wasn’t just using ineligible players, he was bringing kids off the streets of Atlanta to play,” Um’rani says.

What resulted was a one-year suspension of the Morehouse program and a student-athlete beginning to appreciate firsthand the flaws of collegiate sports.

“After all this I was just thinking screw-Morehouse soccer,” Um’rani says. “It was evident that soccer and Morehouse were not going in the same direction.”

It was time, Um’rani resolved, to take his own life in a different direction. Having already attended the University of the Antilles in Martinique between his freshman and sophomore year, where he had taken a French culture class, Um’rani decided to study abroad in Paris.

He entered a complete French-immersion program at Paris’s most distinguished University, La Sorbonne. It was in his own quartier, or neighborhood, however, that he made some buddies.

“These kids were as baffled as my boys at home when I told them that soccer was my game,” Um’rani chuckles. “They figured I played le base-ball or le football americain.

They were even more astounded when they saw what this kid from “Sheecago” could do on the field. And he wasn’t even playing his normal position.

“The first time our team, East Paris, assembled for practice the captain came up to me and asked me what I play,” Um’rani recounts. “I told him the best I could that I score the ball. He responded, ‘d’accord, tu peut jouer la défense’. So it was then that I became a defender.”

Um’rani embraced his new role, on a new team, in a new city. From then on every Friday night he would lace up his cleats, and defend like he had never imagined.

His coach, Thomas Jousset, admired Um’rani’s ability to adapt to new situations.

“Khalil became accustomed to our team and style of play very quickly. One must have lots of courage and ability to do something like that,” Jousset believes. “He is very valuable to our team.”

While the evolution of his soccer career had gone hand in hand with the concept of meeting change head on, playing in a foreign league ultimately exposed Um’rani to new cultural experiences that even he couldn’t have fathomed. He remembers playing one of his first games out in the suburbs of Paris. “Our team had lost two in a row, so the guys were already on edge,” Um’rani recalls. “Around the 20th minute of the first half, our libero, or last defender, missed a tackle and the other team scored an easy goal.

“Needless to say everyone was pissed off, but I was astounded to watch as this one kid on my team goes up to the kid who had missed the tackle, and punches him in the face.”

Apparently Um’rani wasn’t the only baffled observer on the field, as one of the few fans hesitantly approached Um’rani with a simple question: Where are you guys from? Um’rani answered that they were from the east side of Paris. The man nodded, remaining puzzled. Does this kind of thing happen often in Paris?

Paris is very segregated,” Um’rani explains. “People from the suburbs don’t understand the city.”

 

 

Back in his room Um’rani prepares for his next game, watching as the threatening storm clouds hang over the périphérie of Paris. He’s ready to play, but if the game is called, he won’t be discouraged. For Um’rani, soccer is pleasure these days. Granted, the fierce, competitive fire still burns inside him, but his days of doing battle are over.

Now, he is looking toward the future. And for this economics major that has one eye on Wall Street and the other on international markets, the future looks bright. And his father, who didn’t always understand his son’s passion for soccer, believes that it furnished him with solid foundations.

“Overall the soccer was beneficial,” his father says. “But at this point in his life he’s on another level.”

When Um’rani returns from Paris he will head straight to New York, where he is going to intern this summer at a major investment-banking firm.

As for soccer, Um’rani knows it will always be a part of his life. He will forever be a fan of the game he grew up loving, and he hopes that someday he will help cement the sport in his own backyard.

I would like to start an inner city soccer club,” he explains. “That way kids like me who want to play soccer competitively can do so without having to drive two hours every day after school to get a game.”

For this voyager, it would be fitting that his journey ends where it began: on the Southside, with a passion. Except this time it could be an entire generation that benefits from that passion. And why not? Khalil Um’rani already did the hard part as a kid: he challenged and defeated the status quo.

 

 

 

17 for Them … and One for Us

One day long after Russell and the Cooz and Hondo have joined Red, Reggie and D.J. upstairs, one day when Bird too is talked about in the past tense and TD Banknorth Garden is referred to as “the old house”, I’ll look back on this day. Maybe I’ll be bouncing a grandkid on my lap. Maybe I’ll be perched on a park bench talking to anyone who’ll listen. But I’ll have a story. A story worth telling. One worth hearing. And I’ll recount it as if it were yesterday…

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If one non-defensive play in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals typified the champs it came in the second quarter with the Celtics leading 32-29. Paul Pierce drove and missed a four-footer; Glen Davis grabbed the rebound and went back up with authority but missed. Pierce beat everyone to the ensuing board and after gaining control of the ball kicked it out to Eddie House for a corner trey, which he struck off the back of the iron. James Posey hustled after the long board, hauled it in and threw it back up top for a reset. He went on to assume his place in the left corner, and on cue, received the ball on a crisp rotation from House and buried a three.

All told it was a 34-second possession for the Celtics, a possession that not only defined their stranglehold on the ’08 Finals but underscored what had been the m.o. of the champs from the word go: An undying total team commitment to hustle. From Player 1 (Pierce) to Player 6 (Posey) to Player 11 (Big Baby) — on coach Doc Rivers’ very loosely interpreted depth chart — the focus and dedication was there from the beginning and was highlighted by one microcosmic play that effectively marked the end. The 35-29 spread that resulted from that play would prove to be the closest the Lakers would ever get in what became the most lopsided clinching game in NBA Finals history.

The Lakers as a team were overmatched, which in light of Game 6 was an understatement. And while it would be difficult to find anyone who would dispute that Pierce was the best player in the series (he was the unanimous MVP on all nine ballots), you need look no further than the end of Game 5 for confirmation of said fact. A day after mounting the greatest comeback in Finals history the Celtics had staged yet another furious rally in the fourth quarter of Game 5, cutting a 14-point LA lead to two in the final minute. Much of the damage had been inflicted by Pierce, who through his trademark herky-jerky drives was getting to the basket with such consistency and ease that he had the entire Lakers team on its heels — literally.

As Paul crossed midcourt, ball in hand with the Celtics trailing 97-95, Kobe Bryant — the best player to lace em up since the best of all-time hung em up — waited in his defensive stance. When Pierce went to make his move Kobe darted behind him and back-tapped the ball away from a stunned Pierce. Lamar Odom scooped up the loose ball and threw a lob to Kobe — whose momentum had carried him into the backcourt — and Bryant threw down a two-handed slam that unofficially sent the series back to Boston for Game 6.

Dig a little deeper and you might be perplexed. For Kobe to make such a calculated gamble (back taps are successful about 25 percent of the time and fatal the other 75 percent because failed ones turn into five-on-four situations) with the lead meant only one thing: He knew he couldn’t stop Pierce.

Kobe couldn’t handle the Truth blowing by him for a game-tying or series-clinching bucket on his floor, in his town.

So he gambled (something, by the way, one Michael Jordan only did recreationally off the court). And while the gamble paid off (think going all in preflop in Texas Hold’Em with a pair of twos), Kobe showed his hand. He, the three-time champ and league MVP, needed one man-em-up defensive stand to seal the game and send the Lakers back to Beantown. But he chose not to man up Pierce, who had already dropped 38 in his house and was sniffing 40, 41, and most significantly, 17. Instead he resorted to a playground maneuver reserved for crafty old guys whose knees no longer permit them to get into a crouch and shuffle their feet.

That was the moment I knew it was over, even if it was actually the moment when we found out it was not. But it didn’t matter because Kobe had already given up. Not on his teammates, he had pretty much given up on them after Game 2. By virtue of that desperation play in a non-desperation situation Kobe essentially made it known he had come as far as he could, that there was a player in green who wanted it more than he did and could back it up on the court. And there wasn’t anything the MVP could do about it except roll the dice.

Of course Paul’s performance in itself was MVP-worthy. But it was validated by the best player in the world when he simply yielded to a colleague performing at a higher level. I never thought I’d view a turnover as a watershed moment in defining the greatness of someone I considered to be one of my heroes, but 40 years from now I’ll remember Game 5 of the ’08 Finals as the night Paul Pierce lost the game yet still owned LA.

I’ll also recall the Posey trey in Game 6, how on that 34-second possession the Celtics threw the final knockout blows by refusing to cede the ball, the game, the opportunity. The series ended then and there. The party began while the game turned into an up and down affair with one team playing its best ball in 22 years and another looking a lot like the Washington Generals. Like all vacations, the one that spanned the last two and a half quarters of the 2008 season didn’t last long enough.

Celtics 131

Lakers 92

I wasn’t ready for any of it. The score, the green confetti, the chills. But then I watched them react to it, and the crowd in turn to them, and it started to make sense. Nobody was prepared for it. For about an hour after the Celtics won their 17th championship the Garden was an uncensored window into the reactive mechanisms of a delirious team and its loyal followers.

First Pierce — apparently forgetting what sport he was playing — snuck up behind Doc Rivers and emptied a Gatorade cooler over the head of the (genuinely) surprised coach. The result was a few gallons of fruit punch splashing onto a parquet historically known to be covered in cigar ashes in similar moments. That prompted play-by-play guy Mike Breen to let us know that we’d be having “one more timeout.”

Let’s not forget about the crowd, which likely became the first fan contingent to get a “Dee-fense” chant going during the Larry O’Brien trophy presentation. These folks have always known the game of basketball, and when Doc Rivers responded to a question about how the whole thing got started by saying “defense”, they knew it was an appropriate final laudatory chorus for the champs.

Then there was Kevin Garnett. KG. The literal beating heart of the champs. On the verge of collapsing and nearly in convulsions while being propped up by Leon Powe, who assured him, “I got you, I got you”, Garnett had transformed into a half paralyzed, blissful wreck of a man.

When Michele Tafoya pulled him aside — with confetti already starting to dot the floor — and asked him what it meant to finally be an NBA champion, KG was speechless. He stood still for a few seconds, intense as ever, trying to harness millions of thoughts and emotions, before rearing back and bellowing “Anything’s possible!!! Anything’s possibllllllllllllle!!!”. By the time he gathered himself he was foaming at the mouth and letting out an exuberant and passionate train of thought, half screaming, half whimpering, wholly fulfilling.

As soon as he finished he found his mentor waiting for him a few hardwood squares away. Bill Russell embraced Garnett, the greatest champion to ever compete in athletics and one of the most emotionally drained champions you’ll ever see.

One-to-seventeen, they were all accounted for in that embrace.

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By the time I’m on that park bench or at a birthday party in outer space for my 10-year old grandkid the Celtics may very well have won another 17 titles. Or perhaps not. Maybe they’ll go into a 22-year drought beginning with the 2037 season. Scores more or zero more, I’ll remember only one like it was yesterday. That’s number 17. The one that connected the old generation to the new. The one that gave life to the tradition after years upon years of retold stories of unseen glories.

Thanks to the 2008 Celtics, one day that job — the duty of adding a personalized link to the most storied basketball chain for the benefit of a younger and possibly less fortunate Green generation — will finally be mine.

 

 

 

 

It’s a Tough Road in the Finals

Just when it seemed like Lakers-Celtics would be the revival act for David Stern’s league, old friend (as in: seedy scumbag) Tim Donaghy had to resurface and cast a dark shadow over the whole shebang. Donaghy — from whatever hole he’s in awaiting sentencing for fixing NBA games — issued a statement before Game 3 of the Finals, alleging that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals between LA and Sacramento was handed to the Lakers by corrupt officials via an inordinate free throw discrepancy at the end of the game (LA shot 27 free throws in an unequivocally fishy fourth quarter).

This came, of course, after the Celtics took Game 2 from LA at least partly because of a 38-10 advantage in free throw attempts, and before the tables were turned in Game 3, when the Lakers prevailed after being awarded 12 more freebies than Boston.

The ensuing tempest had the talking heads crying foul and the conspiracy theorists filling up their think tank with pointed skepticism. I’m not about to dispute them; some shady stuff has gone down in the NBA playoffs over the last five-plus years and there’s at least one guy who has tainted the entire game. The problem may or may not be systemic. But let’s be realistic. Donaghy is a weak and desperate man. And while at this point it’s nearly impossible to determine the validity of his claims, they are irrelevant to the matter at hand. The Celtics and Lakers were the two best teams in the NBA this year and are playing for the title. There is no fix.

Although I must say I’ve never seen anything like Game 2. It’s really quite simple: The Lakers got no calls; the Celtics got them all. From afar the disparity could be construed as illegitimate, when in fact it was merely a product of contrasting styles of play, and more significantly, the environment.

Lots has been written over the years (particularly by ESPN’s Sportsguy) about how crowds can adversely affect the outcomes of NBA playoff games. That when 18,000 people are united in cause and armed with mighty vocal cords they can succeed in fueling the home team, fazing the opponent and at times, freezing the refs. As an under-25 Celtics fan, this was one of the many truths I held to be self-evident, but never experienced.

Well, after an almost unfathomable act of generosity by my friend’s parents — yes, a ticket to Game 2 of Lakers-Celtics — I was given the opportunity to taste it for myself (and from row 12 no less). Now I may still be a relative newbie in the grand scheme of the sports spectrum, but over the years I’ve found ways to attend sporting events of great magnitude: Yanks-Sox in the 1999 and 2003 ALCS, LSU-Auburn with BCS title implications in 2007, and Game 6 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals, to name a few.

None of them matched the vibe inside the Garden on Sunday night. From the second the lights went down and the lineups were introduced the place became a force unto itself. With 18,000-plus unified, the building felt like it was taking on a life of its own. There was always a sustained level of clamor. It would subside slightly when the Celtics had the ball and rise to spine-tingling crescendos when the Lakers did.

Moreover, watching the wide-eyed Los Angeles subs get eaten alive by the fierce, ball-hawking Celtics bench was like an intravenous shot of adrenaline into a mass of fans whose blood was already boiling. Leon Powe (21 points off the bench) had a lot to do with it as he emerged from the Celtics bench-by-committee and immediately started taking passes in the post and making strong, often bullish yet agile moves into the heart of the soft interior defense of the Lakers. Led by Powe, the Celtics dared LA to match them physically, and LA succumbed.

Everyone in the stands, in turn, time and again rose up with such wild fervor that nothing could be done to curb what was taking place on the parquet below. That a single man with a whistle could foil the unrelenting will of the faithful and tame the swarming Celtics was pure malarkey. The way they played in the second and third quarter and the way the crowd rabidly pulsated throughout it all made it next to impossible for the refs to impact the game. They could’ve swapped their whistles for paintball guns and still wouldn’t have had a chance of halting play when the Celtics were being perhaps a tad overly aggressive. The arena simply wouldn’t allow it.

A series of Powe throw-downs at the end of the third quarter had me believing that if the old Garden was still sitting next door it would’ve crumbled after being rocked by the tremors emanating from the new house. So you’re telling me that in this environment, a wrist-slap on an ensuing Lakers possession was going to be identified and whistled by a referee? I think not.

Now is that the way it’s supposed to be? Probably not. Crowds — while an integral aspect of the game — should not be able to sway the outcome and render the officials mere bystanders. But time was, that’s how it went down; that’s one of the reasons why the Boston Garden and LA Forum produced nearly half of all NBA titles. That sense of intimacy, of a stake in the action, that’s what has made basketball the unique professional sport from a fan perspective.

Unfortunately that which has given basketball its identity — the ability of a crowd to rise up and become a greater force than the men policing the game — is now threatening the game itself. And it’s all because of (hopefully) a single “rogue” (Stern’s word) official. Let’s get something straight: Calling fouls in basketball is, and has always been, purely subjective. Bodies clash and hands check on every possession of every game. It is the job of the referees to control the chaos.

There’s a monumental difference between refs getting swept up in the moment and attempting to dictate it for personal gain. During the heyday of the league, the former used to happen with great frequency. At this juncture we can only hope that Donaghy’s claims are those of a soulless and desperate man, that some semblance of the game’s integrity can ultimately be preserved.

What we can’t allow to happen is for the abhorrent transgressions of one to sully what remains a riveting throwback series between the two franchises that made the game what it is today. I finally experienced what I’d only previously known through lore, and nothing about what I watched was dirty. What it was was a singular and momentous two and half hours when fans and team together waged battle against an old adversary. That was always basketball at its finest. To hell with one man destroying what many far greater men worked so hard to build.

The Time Has Come for Pride

I don’t remember Magic’s sky hook. Was probably watching Sesame Street when Bird stole the ball. Definitely would’ve rather been fed than seen McHale clothesline Rambis.

Hello, I’m a 25-year-old Celtics fan. There are many others like me.

Forgive us, but this is quite a new experience.

For us, Celtic Pride is mythic. Sure, we feel it — strongly in fact. It’s odd, really. We’ve heard the stories; gripping first-person narratives of triumph and glory, of heart and soul. We’ve seen the legends in the flesh, maybe even had the chance to pick their brains in a restaurant or listen to them give a speech at the conclusion of basketball camp. We’ve watched the games–on ESPN Classic, on YouTube, on box set–and seen for ourselves how it all went down way back when.

We know who won, who scored, who coached, who called it, what the untold side stories were, what the stakes were, where the celebrations took place, when the foundation was laid, how the legacy was built, how it was sustained, and why everyone who’s not us will forever be green — with envy, that is.

Because of the tradition, the pride, we have three dimensions and 360 degrees of Celtic-history.

But it’s not real. It’s the greatest house of cards ever constructed. The most thoroughly and flawlessly conceived fairy tale.

Might as well call it the basketball Matrix because we’ve been plugged into it our entire lives: An alternate hoops universe strictly for our minds. It’s there to keep us proud, to prevent us from associating the Celtics during our youth with the Celtics. And through the passion and dedication of those around us, we have been made to believe that it is reality.

But it is not.

Reality for us is Reggie Lewis breaking our heart after discovering too late that his own was too weak. Reality for us is Dino Radja and Eric Montross as “the future”. Reality for us is M.L. Carr and 15 wins. Reality for us is Rick Pitino, the Kentucky Wildcats and a certain “door”. Reality for us is not-Tim Duncan.

Reality for us is 11 stab wounds.

So here we stand today, in the midst of a new reality. One that needs not be defined and substantiated by the past, only enhanced by it.

Today, that horrible September night seven and half years ago–when we almost lost Paul Pierce–seems long ago. And while it was so nearly the end, only in hindsight can we now see that it was in fact just the beginning.

We went from wondering if the first superstar to don the green since Reggie would ever play ball again, to watching him become the only Celtic to start all 82 games in the 2001-02 season. We were awestruck when he rained 46 points on Allen Iverson and the 76ers in the first deciding playoff game of his career. And we became believers when he singlehandedly led the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history against the Nets in Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals.

The Celtics bowed out at home in Game 6 that year, the deepest they had advanced in the playoffs since 1988. I was tucked away in the upper deck of the Fleet Center (“The Jungle”) that day, but I remember seeing perfectly the smile that beamed on Paul’s face when we stood as one for him after the final buzzer. I recall how the past year flashed before my eyes.

All of it had come so close to never happening.

The entire arena felt how he was thinking the same thing. I’m pretty sure it was that moment when Paul Pierce realized he’d never wear another uniform again and we all realized that one day his number would be hoisted up into those rafters—the Celtic pantheon—rightfully alongside all the great ones.

That was the day the journey really began, we just didn’t know at the time.

I did know it was the proudest moment I’d ever had as a Celtics fan because the pride I felt was 100 percent genuine and solely my own. It was also the most unique moment I’d ever had as a sports fan because it had nothing to do with winning or losing.

Seven-plus years later, it finally does. It would have never been possible without Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but their addition and the subsequent return of the Celtics has at last given three dimensions and 360 degrees to what we now know officially began in 2002: the Paul Pierce era of the Boston Celtics.

Now, together, they are four wins from putting the finishing touch on that era and giving a new generation of fans their own stories to pass on. Four wins from sealing two legacies that needed the Celtics as desperately as the Celtics needed them. Four wins against the only team with which we have unsettled business.

Four wins from a restoration: The time has come for pride.

BEAT LA!