Westbrook does his part while teammates do their best


We’re all role players.

Some are smaller than others. Others enjoy more fame and acclaim. Some are taken for granted; some get more credit than merited.

But in the end, a role is a role. The MVP-candidate or end-of-the-bench cheerleader. The company clerk or the CEO.  The school principal or school custodian. Each has a job and can be graded on individual performance.

I mention this in reference to Russell Westbrook, who took offense to a question after Oklahoma City’s loss Sunday against Houston. A reporter asked Thunder center Steven Adams, essentially, why the team struggles so much when Westbrook heads to the bench and if the Rockets seem reinvigorated when he departs.

For context, Houston had just won a 113-109 affair in which Westbrook had 35 points, 14 points and 14 rebounds. During 39 minutes with him on the court, the Thunder was plus-14. During the nine minutes – nine minutes! – that Westbrook rested, the Thunder was minus-18.

Through four games in the series, OKC is plus-3 with him and minus-40 without him.

“I don’t want nobody trying to split us up.” Westbrook said before Adams could answer the question. “We are one team. We’re in this together. Don’t try to make us go against each other. I don’t want to hear that. We playing as a team and that’s all that matters.”

That’s an admirable response, I suppose, good-hearted and well-intentioned. Westbrook is rejecting the “me and my guys” style of leadership employed masterfully by LeBron James and comically by Paul George.

But the response was a bit naïve and disingenuous, too.

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Washington Wizards’ victory in whistlefest was hard to enjoy


There was a concert Wednesday night at Verizon Center. Unfortunately, it starred The Three Whistlers instead of The Three Tenors.

The Wizards and Hawks tried to play Game 2 of their first-round playoff series between chirps. The rest of their time was spent complaining about the referees’ choppy performance.

Here’s what the contest — a 109-101 Wizards victory — felt like in a nutshell:

Washington on offense. Tweet! Hawks throw up their hands in disbelief. Atlanta on offense. Tweet! Wizards’ mouths hit the floor in amazement.

To keep things from becoming too routine, each team reacted with exasperation whenever it wanted to hear a blast but didn’t.

No one was happy. Not the players, not the coaches and not the fans. Count me among that number, too. It was a brutal experience, where virtually every stoppage led to cringes and every non-call was treated like a capital offense.

“It’s tough and we can’t do anything about it,” Wizards guard John Wall said of the flow, after scoring 32 points to match the playoff-career high he notched in Game 1. “All we can do is go out there and compete. The referees are trying to do the best they can.

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Seahawks’ Michael Bennett is woke and staying woke


A Seattle Seahawks defensive end, No. 72, was surrounded by a small gathering at Busboys & Poets on 14th Street last week. His size made him stand out in the theater room, a few minutes before the doors opened and 200 folks piled in for “Silenced No More: Michael Bennett on Activism and Pro Sports.”

“I’m here because a bunch of friends locally asked me to come and speak about some things I’ve been doing,” Bennett told me. “They want me to talk about what athletes have been doing and what’s going in America right now.”

Star athletes typically don’t interrupt their offseason to catch a flight and speak at a lecture. Jet off for a commercial shoot? Sure. Fly away for a vacation? Absolutely. Hop a plane for business opportunities. Yes.

But Bennett, a Super Bowl champ and two-time Pro Bowler, is far from your ordinary athlete. He puts his family and community – local, national and international – ahead of his industry. That makes speaking out on conditions and current events only natural for him.

“I have kids,” he told me. “I want them to look back and say, ‘Daddy was a part of change. He just didn’t sit back and play sports. He really tried to help people.’ That’s my main goal.”

Of course, that makes him a controversial figure to those who are uncomfortable when athletes step outside the lines and speak about issues like human rights and social justice.

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Wizards in unusual position, begin playoff journey with a win


When your team hasn’t hosted a first-round playoff opener in 38 years, whatever happens is bound to feel strange. It could administer a blowout, be on the receiving end or fall somewhere in between. Reasonable expectations are fluid and possible outcomes are all over the board.

We’re still wrapping our heads around the fact that Washington is a bona fide contenders. So, it wasn’t far-fetched to believe they might fall flat Sunday afternoon against Atlanta. The way history works in these parts, optimism is a rare commodity and typically goes unrewarded.

Would we get the Wizards team that won 43 games since Dec. 5 (behind only Golden State and San Antonio), or the team that limped to a 7-9 record down the stretch? Would Markieff Morris (no postseason experience) and Otto Porter (three postseason games) be up to the challenge, or would they shrink under the magnitude of playoff basketball? Would the Hawks steal the opener and homecourt advantage, or would the Washington live up to its seeding en route to the second round?

The situation was dicey in the first half. But in the end, the Wizards let everyone know it’s OK to believe, at least for Game 1. A heavy dose of John Wall and liberal sprinkles of Morris were the perfect recipe for a 114-107 victory and series lead.

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Transfers only a problem when players make a move


When coaches complain that something is “not good for college basketball,” chances are great that the source of irritation is good for college basketball players.

Funny how that works, no?

Imagine that your son, nephew, brother or cousin is a super-talented freshman with “NBA lottery” stamped on his game. He’s smart, mature and well-balanced for an 18-year-old. You wouldn’t worry that a one-and-done season makes life harder for the coach and dampens the team’s outlook next year.

You would celebrate the fact that Junior positioned himself to sign an eight-figure contract that pays him more in two years than you’d make in three lifetimes. That’s great news for him and the family.

Here’s a scenario that doesn’t involve the NBA draft:

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NFL and Las Vegas are two of a kind after arm-wrestling nonsense


Only the NFL is obtuse enough to celebrate putting a franchise in Las Vegas and criticize players for attending an arm wrestling tournament there.

That’s like your company setting up shop in a new town and complaining that the locale has a negative influence on employees and the product.

In case you missed it, the league isn’t pleased with the Pro Football Arm Wrestling Championship that was held at the MGM Grand last week. More than 30 current and former players reportedly attended, including Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and retired halfback Marshawn Lynch. NFL Network reported Monday that fines are forthcoming.

The made-for-TV event concluded on Sunday and is scheduled to air May 27-28 on CBS, with the championship round broadcast the following weekend. A portion of the prize money is supposed to be donated to charities of the players’ choice.

Star players. Major network. Prime Vegas venue. Sounds like a winning combination that would be hard to miss. But the league officials said they were clueless until the event began. And they weren’t happy.

“Had we been asked in advance if this was acceptable, we would have indicated that it was in direct violation of the gambling policy,” Joe Lockhart, NFL vice president of communications told USA Today. “No one sought pre-approval.”

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NCAA, NBA did it for bathrooms, so do it for ballots


North Carolina has been released from the penalty box.

After repealing the controversial “bathroom bill” last week and replacing it with a compromise measure, the state was rewarded by the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference. Events that were pulled due to the anti-LGBT nature of House Bill 2 can return.

The ACC voted to put North Carolina back in the running for conference events last week and the NCAA followed suit Tuesday, announcing that the state will be considered for championship events in the 2018-22 cycle.

“We are actively determining site selections, and this new law has minimally achieved a situation where we believe NCAA championships may be conducted in a non-discriminatory environment,” the statement read. “If we find that our expectations of a discrimination-free environment are not met, we will not hesitate to take necessary action at any time.

“The board remains concerned that some may perceive North Carolina’s moratorium against affording opportunities for communities to extend basic civil rights as a signal that discriminatory behavior is permitted and acceptable, which is inconsistent with the NCAA Bylaws.”

Economic pressure by the NCCA and other entities paid off. The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was played in New Orleans, instead of Charlotte as originally planned. PayPal canceled an operations center that represented a $3.6 million investment and would’ve created 400 jobs. More than 120 companies signed a letter protesting the law while scores of entertainers and conventions canceled bookings. Several governors and mayors banned non-essential government travel to North Carolina.

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Better if Ewing got NBA job and Hoyas got college coach but oh well


There are reasons to question Georgetown’s handling of its opening for a men’s basketball coach. The latest head-scratcher arose Monday afternoon:

The school needed a search firm to end up with Patrick Ewing?

Korn Ferry should return a portion of the Hoyas’ fee for a hometown discount.

From the moment Ewing’s name was floated as a replacement for John Thompson III, I rooted against this hiring. Not that I harbor ill will toward Ewing, the Hoya great who enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with my beloved New York Knicks. On the contrary, I wish Ewing all the best.

The same is true of my hope for the Hoyas, who forged a special place in the hearts and minds of my contemporaries and me during the 1980s. Big John Thompson’s teams instilled in us a sense of pride and achievement that transcended athletics. They formed a cultural force as much as a hoops powerhouse, from their dominance in the polls to their kente-inspired uniforms.

So it’s my desire that Ewing becomes a great coach who leads the Hoyas back to national prominence. It’s certainly possible given how hard he works; we never know until after the fact.

But my preference for Ewing was him landing his first coaching job in the NBA, where he toiled as an assistant for 15 years. And my preference for the Hoyas was them hiring a successful, well-established coach to leave the Thompson era in the past – where it belongs.

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John Wall & Washington Wizards cooking up something good


The Washington Wizards have presented us with so many delightful and tantalizing developments this season, deciding where to dive in is difficult. Like a scrumptious plate of paella, something delicious awaits no matter where you stick your fork.

You could start with the meat, John Wall, who’d be a bona fide MVP candidate if not for the stupendous performances from James Harden and Russell Westbrook. You might choose the seafood, Bradley Beal, whose good health has kept him on the court and justified his max contract in the new NBA economy.

You could begin with the rice, Scott Brooks, who in his first year as coach provided a foundation to withstand a 2-8 start. You can opt for the sausage, Otto Porter, who worked and worked on his broke jumper to become one of the league’s top 3-point shooters.

You might commence with the mussels, Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris, who provide the physical presence to bother opponents on both ends of the court. Or you could start with a vegetable, the re-shaped and re-energized bench, that’s gone from glaring weakness to solid component faster than you can swallow.

The Wizards have become a veritable smorgasbord and the feast has just begun.

We’re unaccustomed to feeling this good about the Wizards, who have made fans sick to their stomachs for most of the last 38 years. Until Tuesday, that’s how long it had been since Washington won a division title. The team broke the drought and celebrated by dousing Brooks with water after beating the Los Angeles Lakers.

The feat is more symbolic than significant, considering how it has no bearing on playoff seeding. Neither does 50 wins, the next milestone on Washington’s agenda. Entering Wednesday’s contest against the L.A. Clippers, the Wizards needed to at least split their final eight games to reach the mark.

“(The division title) is a great accomplishment,” Wall told reporters Tuesday. “It’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time so it’s something to cherish. It’s great for coach to get it in his first year. But we have bigger goals and our minds set on bigger things.”

This season makes the third in four years that the Wizards have reached the playoffs. But the current vibe is drastically different than the feeling in 2013-14 and 2014-15 when Washington was middle-of-the-pack and pulled off shocking first-round upsets against the Bulls and Raptors, respectively.

These Wizards are viewed as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference, with starters and reserves to challenge the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the current top-seed Boston Celtics and the nemeses in Toronto and Atlanta. Washington won’t sneak up on anyone this year, not with the Eastern Conference’s best record since Dec. 1 and the NBA’s third-best record since Jan. 1.

And not with Wall making a case as the East’s best point guard, peaking as the playoffs approach.

Half of Wall’s top six scoring games this season occurred in March. He set his career-high in assists (20) this month and also registered two of his best four shooting percentages. Against the Lakers Tuesday he had 34 points and 14 assists, the fifth time this campaign he has eclipsed 30 and 10.

Only two other players average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game (Harden and Westbrook). No one besides those three averages at least 10 assists per game. Walls is posting career highs in scoring (23.2 points) and field-goal percentage (.450.) On two-point attempts, he’s connecting at a .483 clip, due in no small measure to his finishing ability after breakneck drives to the basket.

“I’m having a career year with numbers, scoring-wise, but the way I’m playing has been like this the last couple of years,” he told reporters. “We’re just winning and in the race for a Top 3-seed in the East. That makes a big difference. You get more recognition when your team is winning.”

Who’s a better point guard in the East? Don’t form your lips to say Isiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving or Kyle Lowry, especially if you count both ends of the floor. None of them can defend like Wall, who has more steals than them as well as more rebounds and assists. You can see his eyes light up whenever one of them tries to guard him.

There’s no stopping Wall right now and the Wizards are hard to slow. They haven’t experienced a three-game skid since dropping to 2-8 on Nov. 16. From that point forward, Washington has enjoyed eight winning streaks of three-or-more games, including five-in-a-row and seven-in-a-row.

Brooks saw similar tears with Oklahoma City when Westbrook and Kevin Durant led the Thunder deep into the playoffs. He knows it can happen here. He also knows there’s no guarantee that this carries over to next season.

“It can change with a trade,” he told NBA.com. “It can change with injuries. You have to focus on what you do this year, because every season has its own story. We have a chance to do something special.”

And tasty.

U.S. women’s team deserves better treatment from USA Hockey


A photo made the rounds on social media last week and left a trail of scorched cyberspace. It showed more than two dozen men around a large conference table on Capitol Hill. With nary a woman in sight, they debated healthcare issues that included …

Maternity leave and birth control.

I can’t help thinking that the same preponderance of testosterone existed during another recent debate involving the fairer sex. Only a bunch of cavemen would believe that recruiting scabs was a good response to the U.S. women’s hockey team complaints about unfair treatment.

Yeah, that was a great idea. Right up there with vapor-trail pucks and the XFL.

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