Streets gives back with Meanstreets

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Streets gives back with Meanstreets

Tai Streets arrived at a crossroads in his life in 2005. One of the most accomplished three-sport athletes in state history, perhaps the best since Centralia's legendary Dike Eddleman in the 1940s, Streets' six-year career in the NFL was over. What direction was he going to take?

Would you believe basketball? He grew up in Matteson and joined coach Ron Newquist's Wolverines, a south suburban AAU team, while he was attending Rich South in Richton Park.

"It was a totally different experience," Streets said. "It was something to do in the summer. I loved competing and I loved playing basketball. We played against the best players in the country. Our goal was to go to the state and national AAU tournaments. The nationals were in New Orleans. I liked basketball more than football at that time."

After transferring to Thornton of Harvey as a senior, he earned All-State recognition while playing on the Wildcats' 1995 team that ousted top-ranked Farragut and Kevin Garnett in the state quarterfinals but lost to Peoria Manual in the state final.

But football punched his ticket to college and the NFL. He was an All-Big Ten receiver at Michigan and caught two touchdown passes in the 1998 Rose Bowl as the Wolverines clinched a share of the national championship. As a senior, he was voted MVP on a team that was quarterbacked by Tom Brady.

Streets played for five years with the San Francisco 49ers as the fourth receiver behind Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes. Released after the 2003 season, he signed with the Detroit Lions. After one season, he retired.

"In 2005, my knees were banged up. I couldn't do it anymore, too much pain," Streets said.

Fortunately, he had laid a foundation for his future in 2001 when he co-founded with best friend Carlton Debose an AAU team known as the Wildcats. He had been persuaded to launch the project by Newquist, who had too many 14-and-under players and was looking for a way to give them more playing time. "Are you interested in coaching? You should pursue this," Newquist told Streets.

They started their program under the Wolverines umbrella. A year later, they decided to go on their own. They changed the name from Wildcats to Meanstreets, not wanting to think it was a Thornton team. Since then, the program, sponsored by Nike, has grown to involve over 250 boys and girls and has earned a national reputation.

"I wanted to give back," Streets said. "I want to help kids from our area become better people and get to college. It's tough for kids from Harvey to go to college. I wanted to show them that there is a way. That's the reason we did it, why we started our program. We're not trying to get anything out of it except a 'Thank you. You helped me to be a better man and to get me to college.' In our first year, 11 of 12 kids went on to get college degrees."

Streets, who also serves as an assistant on coach Troy Jackson's basketball team at Thornton, admits he is thinking about applying for a head coaching position at the high school level. But he doesn't want to give up his involvement with Meanstreets.

At first, he paid for the club's expenses out of his own pocket. Then Nike came on board in 2005. The advantages are obvious. "The Nike logo helps to get kids. They want to play for a Nike team. They pay for equipment and travel. We still have to raise funds but it helps to have Nike behind you," Streets said.

He admits, however, that the association with Nike and competition with other shoe companies "gets messy at times. Travel basketball is crazy, so many programs, so many tournaments," he said.

"People always are badmouthing AAU basketball on TV. Sure, there are slimy people out there. But don't put everyone under the same umbrella. We're not about that. We're about making kids better people. We get kids off the streets. We deal with kids from Harvey, Gary (Indiana) and Chicago who don't have the best opportunities. We help them to get out of their situation. All of us are in it to help kids."

He fights the AAU stigma all the time. A disciplinarian, he won't tolerate kids who don't do their schoolwork or have bad attitudes or lack character. He won't badmouth other programs. His approach is to talk to parents and tell them what he does and how he can improve their child's game and get him to college.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "We produce guys. Many critics say kids who participate in AAU aren't instructed in fundamentals, that coaches just toss the ball on the floor and let the kids run up and down. High school is regimented so they just want to run in the summer, right?

"Well, we try to teach them the proper way of doing things, as in college. We want to get them ready for college. They have to be accountable, be on time, abide by curfews on the road, attend meetings. On the court, we teach the mental part of the game, how to handle certain situations. Why did you do this? This is what you should have done.

"College coaches complain that high school kids aren't prepared, that they lack fundamentals. Our kids are college-ready, more than most programs. They won't be surprised at what happens in college."

Spartans land UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter

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Spartans land UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter

Tom Izzo got some help for his diminished front court Wednesday.

UNLV graduate transfer Ben Carter announced on Twitter that he will be using his final season of NCAA eligibility at Michigan State.

Carter, a 6-foot-9 forward who will be immediately eligible, played his first two seasons of college basketball at Oregon before transferring to UNLV. He sat out the 2014-15 season before averaging 8.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in 22 games for the Runnin' Rebels last season. He made seven starts and averaged 24 minutes a game before a January ACL tear ended his season.

Carter wrote an open letter published on RunRebs.com explaining his decision to transfer away from UNLV, citing the program's recent coaching change, replacing former head coach Dave Rice with Marvin Menzies.

From Carter's letter:

"I’ve dedicated my whole life to being a basketball player, and I only get one more season of college basketball to get it right. I needed a program that could give me an opportunity to achieve my dreams."

...

"When I really thought about it, I realized how I want my college career to end. I want it to end on a ladder. I want to stand on a ladder, cut down a piece of a net and look into the stands and see my father. I want to share that moment with him."

...

"This is not an easy decision, but I truly believe Michigan State is the right decision for me. During this process, I’ve gotten to know and respect Tom Izzo, and playing for one of the most legendary coaches in college basketball history will be one of the greatest experiences of my life. And with everything I’ve been through in my career, I couldn’t pass up the chance to play for a team with real national championship hopes."

Izzo and the Spartans could certainly use some help in the front court after the graduation of Matt Costello, who was an All-Big Ten selection last season, and Deyonta Davis, who is off to the NBA. While Izzo is welcoming in an eye-popping recruiting class, only one of the highly ranked foursome — 6-foot-9 Nick Ward — is a big man.

Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon digs Bryce Harper’s style

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Cubs vs. Nationals: Joe Maddon digs Bryce Harper’s style

PITTSBURGH – Joe Maddon and Bryce Harper are on the same side of baseball’s culture war, even as the Cubs and Washington Nationals appear to be on a collision course toward October.   

The National League’s two best teams so far will face off on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, where Harper will be a focus throughout a four-game series overflowing with storylines.

That’s how Harper wants it, and that’s what Major League Baseball needs now, larger-than-life personalities who aren’t afraid to show some emotions and say what they actually think and try to wake up such a “tired sport.”

Harper’s line to ESPN The Magazine went viral in spring training, and it echoes when Maddon brainstorms another wacky themed road trip, trolls the St. Louis Cardinals and invites zoo animals to Wrigleyville.

So if Harper blasts a home run onto Sheffield Avenue and flips his bat in celebration, Maddon won’t have an issue with the league’s reigning MVP. The smirking Cubs manager knows it when he sees it. 

“It depends on who’s doing the bat-flipping,” Maddon said. “If you’ve played for like two weeks and you’re flipping bats, that’s how you’re going to get yourself hurt.”

Maddon rarely criticizes his own players in front of the media, but he called it a “punk move” last year when Junior Lake almost started a bench-clearing brawl at Marlins Park, flipping his bat, admiring his shot from home plate and shushing Miami’s dugout while rounding third base.   

“I just think when you’re brand new – just understand your place a little bit,” Maddon said. “That’s why I got on Junior that time. There are a lot of things that don’t bother me, (but) that was so obvious to me. He did it right in front of our dugout and he had not been playing that much. That’s why it bummed me out.

“But for the most part, I have no problem with most anything. As long as the guy plays hard, works hard, is sincere about his effort, I’m OK.”

By all accounts, that’s Harper, who’s still only 23 years old and gets similarity scores comparable to these players on his Baseball-Reference page: Frank Robinson; Mickey Mantle; Miguel Cabrera; Mike Trout; Hank Aaron; and Ken Griffey Jr.

“When he first came up, I remember watching him and he stole home on a double steal,” Maddon said. “He just ran the bases really well and hard – that was my first impression of him. I know he can hit. I know he’s got power. I know he’s got all that stuff. But I just liked the way he played.

“I have no problem with a guy enjoying playing the game. He’s got a lot of respect for the game and his place in the game. But any time a guy plays it hard, you always appreciate that. And that’s what I see with him.”

Maddon flashed back to the way Dennis Eckersley used to pump his fist after getting a big out – and his own personal history as a baby boomer raised in the 1960s and 1970s and listening to loud music and partying at his old Lafayette College fraternity house.

That’s what makes Maddon able to relate to Harper’s individual expressions, even though “Baseball’s Chosen One” was born in 1992.

“That’s the thing that we forget,” Maddon said. “That’s what’s so disappointing sometimes, growing up in the era that I did, and then you see people that are quote-unquote ‘in charge,’ and they forgot what it was like when we were a bunch of…goofballs, for lack of a better term.

“You’d like to believe that there’s a certain evolution of thinking as it moves forward. The long hair back in the day, the high stirrups, the tight uniforms, everybody has their own little shtick. So what? So what? It’s just a tendency to forget what it was like when we were growing up sometimes. I promise you I’ve not forgotten.”

Report: Blackhawks sign Gustav Forsling to entry-level contract

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Report: Blackhawks sign Gustav Forsling to entry-level contract

The Blackhawks have reportedly signed defenseman Gustav Forsling to a three-year entry-level contract, according to Johan Svensson of Kvällsposten.

According to the report, Forsling's deal will include a loan clause that allows him to return to Europe for the 2016-17 season if he doesn't crack the Blackhawks' roster out of training camp.

The 19-year-old Swedish defenseman spent the last two seasons with Linkopings HC of the Swedish Hockey League, where he accumulated nine goals and 18 assists in 86 combined games.

He also played a significant role with Sweden in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, registering three goals and five assists in seven games. His eight points led all defensemen in the tournament, and was tied for fourth-most among all skaters.

Forsling was acquired by the Blackhawks in Jan. 2015 from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for defenseman Adam Clendening.

He was a fifth-round pick (No. 126 overall) by the Canucks in the 2014 NHL Draft.