Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Billy Donovan know how to jazz up a conversation about basketball A talk about the teamwork in jazz as it relates to hoops

Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant was walking alongside the basketball court at the team’s practice facility when he passed a legendary face from the jazz world oddly hanging out. Bryant turned around on this September day to enthusiastically introduce himself to Branford Marsalis. The three-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist was there to talk about the connection between jazz and basketball with Thunder general manager Sam Presti and head coach Billy Donovan.

“When I talk to people who are in a discipline outside of my discipline, talking to them kind of affirms to me what I know to already be true,” Marsalis said during a phone interview from Warsaw, Poland, after a recent performance. “That was that situation. Billy had a ton of questions. They know what they are doing. I really didn’t have a lot of questions. I just watched. But there was stuff I learned about the building, the organization and ownership being hands off. Just things that really matter.

“It was a great experience for me. I appreciate basketball. I appreciate the skill of it.”

Presti is a longtime jazz fan, while Donovan says he is not familiar with the genre of music. Both, however, have huge respect for superstar brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis, who have combined to win 12 Grammys. Presti said that “nonbasketball learning” is important to the Thunder organization.

Presti and Donovan sat with Branford Marsalis hours before he performed with his quartet at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Mitchell Hall Theatre on Sept. 8. Donovan also had a long conversation with Wynton Marsalis this summer.

The reason? To pick the jazz legends’ minds about teamwork and philosophy in a jazz band as it relates to basketball.

“When I met Branford in person and talked to Wynton on the phone, I was blown away on their mentality in terms of sport, music and society and just how much it’s about making the people around you better,” Donovan said. “In team sports, it’s not necessarily about, ‘Hey, I want to play my music.’ Sometimes you have to listen to other people’s music and how to make the group better by listening. I thought their messaging, background and being basketball fans and sports fans, both were incredible.

“I just loved listening to those guys. Those guys, in their industry, they’re legends. I have not listened to a lot of jazz music, but I know those two names.”

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis (left).

Paul Bergen/Redferns

Presti said he became a fan of jazz as a kid growing up in Boston when he took drum lessons. He was hooked on jazz after his music teacher gave him the album Miles Smiles from legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Presti eventually became a huge fan of the Marsalis family’s influence on jazz, most notably Branford.

“He has been so well-known for so long because of how early he started,” Presti said. “All the different genres he has played within, The [Jazz] Messengers [group] to obviously working with Sting to his solo work. He’s touched so many different facets. From a production standpoint, he’s just been involved in so much music. It’s hard not to collide with something he has not touched.

“Obviously, that family in general has had such a huge influence on music. Not just in terms of their contributions in music themselves but as educators that share their experience and insights. They have a tremendous reach. It’s really interesting to hear them speak about how they interpret the art themselves.”

Branford Marsalis is a huge sports fan who lives and dies with his hometown New Orleans Saints and is optimistic about the New Orleans Pelicans. The former musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Sting was introduced to Presti by a mutual friend after hearing that Presti was a big fan. The two kept in touch, and Branford Marsalis even sent music. Branford Marsalis texted Presti to let him know he was going to be in Oklahoma City on Sept. 8 to teach a master’s class on music at a local college and to perform a concert.

Branford Marsalis next accepted an invitation to hang out with Presti and Donovan at the Thunder’s training facility. The three men, along with other Thunder staff members, sat for about three hours talking jazz and basketball and how the two intertwine. Presti said he learned a lot from Branford Marsalis about how he challenges himself to continually improve as an artist even at his level, how he still learns from the jazz greats, the struggle of jazz artists and what some of the jazz greats were like as musicians and people.

“Music and sports are such a metaphor for so many things in the world,” Presti said. “They both involve having to listen and react and interpret different things. For the conversation in general, I asked him, ‘How do you continue to grow and learn? How do you know what is quality? How do you find that?’ And obviously, the art form itself with Branford and his craft, so much of it is about listening and really hearing what the other people are doing. It’s really fascinating to listen to him talk about that as well as his preparation and the way he has taken his career path. It was a pretty wide-ranging conversation, to be honest. It was interesting to hear him speak about that stuff.

“A couple things stood out to me. With him, the thing that was really cool was his respect and reverence for the people that he grew up listening to. He still listens to those records endlessly and learns from them. And the emphasis he placed on listening and hearing different things from the same recording. I thought that was really because he basically put such an emphasis on going back and listening to those specific artists, the greats, and there is so much knowledge wrapped up in there. The other thing that stuck out to me was never wanting to repeat yourself and stretching yourself to try new things.”

Branford Marsalis said Donovan and Presti asked him a “pile of questions” on alternative types of leadership. Branford Marsalis explained that jazz and basketball were similar since “very few people can do this s— on a very high level.” He also told Donovan and Presti that the evaluation of jazz artists should be the same as NBA free agents by looking beyond the statistics. Donovan also asked Branford Marsalis about finding personnel, adapting to playing in different venues, and more.

“I talked to [Donovan] about the parallels between music and sports in a way that he would have never thought about it because he’s never played music,” Branford Marsalis said. “For better or for worse, a lot of us have played sports. In a jazz band, it’s very similar to basketball because you can have musicians who can really play their instrument really well. But they don’t have an understanding of what their function is to make the group succeed.

“Many times in the history of basketball, you think of players who got [big] free-agent contracts based on their stats when what the s— would really be would be apparent if you were just looking at the person play with the kind of eyesight that you need to have. It’s like little things. I listen to musicians play and I look for little things. I don’t look for the big things. Is the musician that is playing a solo feeding off what the rhythm section is giving him or is he playing some s— that he just worked out? Does he play? Does he balance with the other musicians? Does he play louder than everyone else? Does he play softer? Does he make eye contact? Does he communicate? Can he hear the music?”

Branford Marsalis also was impressed by the Thunder’s development of players while watching some work on their game and play pickup ball during his time at the practice facility in the NBA offseason.

“I said, ‘Let’s talk about the team.’ [Presti] likes his job, so he was excited to talk about it. By that time, Carmelo [Anthony] and Paul George were coming,” Branford Marsalis said. “But we talked more about the philosophy of the team, the facility, the guys who are playing now, who are those guys. They have these development league guys, and those guys are playing with them. And sometimes the Thunder guys will ball with them. There were guys playing and being coached then. I was like, ‘Damn, it was year-round.’ ”

Presti and several staff members went on to attend Branford Marsalis’ concert later that night. While at the concert, Presti picked up more insight on the connection between jazz and basketball.

“It’s not every day that someone like that comes through town,” Presti said. “They were playing in what he felt was a really great acoustic venue. It was a really old auditorium locally. That was pretty cool that he really liked the environment. He also talked about the dynamics of the group. There was a new bass player that evening because someone had a travel issue or maybe was sick. They called a guy in from out of the country. Just watching the interplay, none of us would have picked up on the fact that this was someone relatively new for the evening that may spend a few weeks with him.

“With that knowledge, it was interesting to see it all work, the professionalism and the craft that goes into it. It was a really great experience, and he was really kind to us when he was there. And just to see him onstage where he was at his best was cool to see.”

Donovan was honored to get time with Wynton Marsalis, who is the most decorated jazz legend living today.

The New Orleans native is the only artist to win Grammys for jazz and classical records. Time magazine celebrated Wynton Marsalis as one of America’s 25 most influential people in 1996. The first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for music has sold approximately 7 million copies of his recordings worldwide, has toured every continent except Antarctica and received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2005. Wynton Marsalis also created a series of “I Love This Game” commercials for the NBA during the 1998 NBA season and appeared in the public service announcements for the NBA’s Team Up program.

“Wynton used to always say that jazz is like a fast break,” Branford Marsalis said.

Donovan became “fascinated” with Wynton Marsalis after watching an interview of him talking about jazz having a connection to basketball.

“He talked in the interview about the ability to be unselfish, how to make people around you better,” Donovan said. “It sounded so much like the game of basketball. There is a stylistic freelancing. Guys are playing instruments together and they are improvising. And a lot of times on the court, they have to improvise. So when I saw this interview after my assistant showed it to me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really powerful.’ ”

Last offseason, Thunder assistant coach Billy Schmidt passed Wynton Marsalis’ book, Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, on to Donovan’s coaching staff and the team’s front office. Wynton Marsalis wrote that he hopes the book reached “a new audience with the positive message of America’s greatest music, to show how great musicians demonstrate on the bandstand a mutual respect and trust that can alter your outlook on the world and enrich every aspect of your life — from individual creativity and personal relationships to conducting business and understanding what it means to be American in the most modern sense.”

Donovan, part of that new audience, would later have a phone conversation with Wynton Marsalis about the book.

“It was a really incredible book,” Donovan said. “You have a 50-team piece band. Everybody wants to be soloing. Everybody wants to be out in front. But sometimes the most important guy is the drummer because he is keeping everyone in rhythm and he is the guy in the background. You have to be OK with that egowise. And it was just how you make the group better. The biggest thing he talked about as a musician is you have to be willing to listen.

“In the interview, he told a guy, ‘You play what you want to play, and I’ll play what I want to play.’ And they both played what they wanted to play, and it was awful. Then he said, ‘You start playing and I will listen to what you’re playing and I know I will complement you to what you’re playing.’ And that stuff to me in terms of team sports with basketball really resonated.”

Donovan yearned to speak with Wynton Marsalis after hearing the interview and reading the book. One of the Thunder security guards was able to make it happen in early October thanks to a connection to Wynton Marsalis. Donovan said he sent notes on Wynton Marsalis’ book to him before the phone call.

“We talked for about an hour on the phone,” Donovan said. “We talked about life, jazz bands and what he goes into performing, and every show being completely different. Every game is completely different. Every team is different. And I hope that they can both speak to our team, because it was really powerful.

“And I didn’t know enough about jazz. I didn’t know that jazz was all improvised. I had no idea. He educated me on it and how they have to be a team, how they have to work together and sometimes how guys walk offstage and say, ‘You know what, I was really bad tonight.’ And they play great the next night. Not every player is going to play great every night. There was a lot of correlation and comparisons to be made.”

Wynton Marsalis said what he most recalls about his phone conversation with Donovan was how “very polite” he was, as well as his “focus and graciousness.” Wynton Marsalis, a self-described “midlevel scrub” as a basketball player, also agrees with the connection between jazz and basketball. He said most of Donovan’s questions were centered on refocusing individual goals to align with collective goals and ways to change “a value system so that the sacrificial decisions that undergird group success are as venerated as individual achievements.”

“Both require the different positions or instruments to understand and accept the unique requirements of their specific roles,” Wynton Marsalis said via e-mail. “Both encourage accurate decision-making and graceful execution under the pressure of time. Both have a tradition of transcendent geniuses who change the definition of greatness and a tradition of definitive groups or teams that demonstrate the superiority of collective emotion, intelligence and execution.”

Wynton Marsalis said a key to teamwork in a great band is finding members who believe in “the value of group expression and buy into the philosophy and practices of our group.” He said he evaluates talent by assessing “spiritual depth” at first before assessing desire, knowledge, intelligence, humility, charisma, execution under pressure and collegiality. When all those attributes are combined, Wynton Marsalis believes, a team can be great whether on the stage or the hardwood.

“In jazz, it means someone strives to understand the meaning and philosophies of the music across time and are equally as willing to meticulously repeat the smallest details of a given piece as long as is necessary,” Wynton Marsalis said. “In basketball, it means a person understands the meaning and history of the sport, the game plan from different positions, and is willing to do the most tedious and specific drills and studies every day until they achieve the desired mastery. Finally, the macro-micro type integrates both methods into one practice. Then, you have a lot of trouble beating them. A whole lot.”

DeMarcus Cousins said Trump needs to ‘get his s–t together’ and other news of the week The Week that was Sept. 25- 29

Monday 09.25.17

A Pittsburgh fire chief said he regrets adding Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to his “list of no good N—–s” on his Facebook page and wants to apologize because “This had nothing to do with my Fire Department” and “My fire department should have never been dragged into this.” Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, very on brand in a leather vest and cowboy hat, pulled a (tiny) gun out during a political rally. Donald Trump Jr. posted a map that supposedly showed an overwhelming number of Americans who supported NFL players standing over kneeling with the caption “where else have I seen this???”; the map was county-level results from the 2016 presidential election. A Texas pastor said NFL players “ought to be thanking God” that they live in a country where they don’t have to worry about “being shot in the head for taking a knee.” New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins, who has the most technical fouls in the league since 2010, said Trump “needs to get his s— together.” Former New England Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, a teammate of convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez for two seasons, said after some New England players knelt during the national anthem on Sunday, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot.” Retired college football coach Lou Holtz, who is white, said he doesn’t understand why black athletes demonstrate during the national anthem because “I’ve been unfairly ticketed. I was given a ticket when I didn’t exceed the speed limit, because I was coaching at one school, and the patrol officer graduated from the other.”

Tuesday 09.26.17

Four assistant basketball coaches from Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma State and the University of Southern California — which, combined, make more than $300 million in total revenue across all sports and do not pay players — were arrested on federal corruption charges for taking thousands of dollars in bribes to direct college players to certain sports agents and financial advisers. New York Giants owner John Mara, who continually employed a kicker who abused his wife and didn’t sign Colin Kaepernick because of possible fan protest, said he is

very unhappy” that Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. simulated a dog urinating on the field on Sunday. To make room for more terrible sports and Insecure takes, Twitter will increase its famed 140-character limit to 280. Another person left the Trump administration, and another former member of the administration has hired a lawyer. Professional wrestling legend and Wilt Chamberlain rival Ric Flair estimates that he had sex with 10,000 women: “I wish I hadn’t said that because of my grandkids,” Flair said in an upcoming ESPN documentary.

Wednesday 09.27.17

Longtime adult actor Ron Jeremy doubts Flair had relations with that many women: “It’s very difficult to get numbers like that.” Los Angeles Chargers unofficial mascot Boltman said he risked being beaten “like Rodney King” by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after he refused to remove his mask at last weekend’s home game. A bar in Missouri, a state for which the NAACP has issued a travel advisory for people of color, displayed recently purchased NFL jerseys of Marshawn Lynch and Kaepernick as doormats with the two jerseys spelling out “Lynch Kaepernick.” Another airline was caught violently dragging a customer off one of its airplanes. A Madison, Wisconsin, gyro shop worker was charged with “first-degree reckless endangerment … possession of cocaine with intent to deliver and carrying a concealed weapon” after he shot a man at his place of work when the man tried to run off with $1,300 worth of cocaine without paying for it; “Dude shot me in the back,” the “victim” told police. Taken actor Liam Neeson, two weeks after announcing his retirement from action movies because “Guys, I’m 60-f—ing-five,” said he’s not retiring from the genre and that “I’m going to be doing action movies until they bury me in the ground.” Trump, who was an owner in the USFL, which folded after just three seasons, said the NFL is “going to hell” unless it prohibits players from kneeling during the national anthem. Former action “star” Steven Seagal, currently a resident of Moscow, said demonstrations during the national anthem were both “outrageous” and “disgusting.”

Thursday 09.28.17

Hours after posing an anti-DUI video on Instagram with the hashtag #dontdrinkanddrive, a Los Angeles police officer, under suspicion of driving under the influence, caused a three-car crash that killed three people. Trump, blowing a dog whistle so loud a deaf man could hear it, said NFL owners, some of whom are his “friends,” don’t punish players who kneel during the national anthem because “they are afraid of their players.” During the all-male Presidents Cup tournament, the PGA Tour, still trying to rid its long-held sexist label, held a cook-off among WAGs (wives and girlfriends) of the competitors. Reality TV star Rob Kardashian, per a lawsuit, accused former girlfriend Blac Chyna of smashing his gingerbread house during a December 2016 incident. Just hours after Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson joked that he was glad “that we were with Russell [Athletic]” when the Adidas and college basketball corruption case news broke, Russell Athletic announced it will “transition away from the team uniform business”; Georgia Tech will switch to Adidas in 2018. A Canadian woman who tattooed purple dye into her eyeball may lose her sight in the eye; “I took my eyesight for granted,” the woman said. Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, just piling on at this point, called Trump an “idiot” and a “d—head.” In “it’s about respect for the military” news, the message “go home n—–” was written on the whiteboard of a black cadet at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

Friday 09.29.17

Proving what we already knew, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said teammate Gordon Hayward and coach Brad Stevens “have an unspoken language already.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade said it was not his idea to ride on the back of a banana boat with Gabrielle Union, LeBron James and Chris Paul: “I remember saying, ‘Guys, I didn’t wanna get on there,’ but, you know, peer pressure.” Trump, who aced geography in college, said Puerto Rico is “an island. Surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who recently received a presidential pardon after being convicted for essentially racial profiling Latinos, traveled to California to continue his investigation of former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Former NFL player Chad Johnson, who once legally changed his last name to “Ochocinco” because he thought it was Spanish for “85,” compared the NFL’s “whitewashing” of protests during the national anthem to “a goddamn Ice Bucket Challenge.” Third-graders in the Washington, D.C., area said they don’t like Trump because “ever since he was president a lot of bad things have been happening,” “Trump doesn’t like black people and Hillary Clinton does,” and because “he’s orange.” Another person resigned from the Trump administration.

Will Hurricane Harvey prompt NBA players to replicate 2005 Relief Game? Charity game lifted the spirits of Hurricane Katrina survivors

Then-Detroit Pistons star Chauncey Billups and I were nearly in tears from what we saw in a mammoth space inside the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston in September 2005.

There were hundreds of cots occupied primarily by mothers resting with young children and the elderly. They were displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, stressed and trying to figure out what to do next. Whatever possessions they had left sat next to their makeshift beds. The lines for medical help were long. Portable toilets were up front.

With former NBA player Kenny Smith leading the charge, NBA players, including Billups, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, were there to witness the pain, bring financial aid and offer a smile through a charity basketball game.

“It’s hurtful man, hurtful,” Billups told me at the time for a story in The Denver Post. “The only positive is at least these kids got to smile for a couple minutes.”

Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the United States, causing destruction along the Gulf Coast from Central Florida to Texas and most notably in New Orleans. The August 2005 storm contributed to the deaths of more than 1,200 people and more than $100 billion in property damage. Many people affected by Hurricane Katrina relocated temporarily and then permanently to Houston.

Now Houston is suffering the nightmare that haunted New Orleans 12 years ago. Hurricane Harvey has dumped torrential rain on the city, with ABC News meteorologists forecasting historic rainfall totals of up to 50 inches by Wednesday. Houston has had more than 1,000 calls for rescue, and people were forced to their rooftops.

NBA All-Stars such as James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins have tweeted well-wishes and prayers to the people of Houston and elsewhere in Texas. Paul and Cousins also tweeted information on how to give to those in need through Youcaring.com and the Red Cross. Paul donated $50,000. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander pledged $4 million to the relief effort on Monday and reportedly increased that donation to $10 million on Tuesday.

Chrysa Chin, executive vice president of strategy and development for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), said Monday that the union is “exploring options” to help hurricane victims.

“We’re concerned and want to help,” Chin said.

Perhaps this time they can do it in New Orleans, where locals can certainly relate to the pain. Maybe Cousins and fellow New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis — along with Paul, who is president of the NBPA and a former Hornets star — could host a charity game at the Smoothie King Center in The Big Easy. Or maybe Paul and Harden, both Houston Rockets stars, could host it in Houston when possible. If a charity game and weekend is anything like it was in Houston during the 2005 NBA Players Hurricane Relief Game, it could be one of the most fulfilling moments of their NBA careers. It certainly was one of the most memorable moments for me in 18 seasons of covering the NBA.

Turner Sports NBA analyst and ex-Rockets guard Smith spearheaded putting together the star-studded rosters, the venue and television rights in 30 hours. Participating players each gave a minimum of $10,000. More than $1 million in funds, food and goods were collected before the Toyota Center doors opened in Houston. A crowd of 11,416 included Hurricane Katrina survivors, who were given free tickets in the upper deck, while the lower deck seats were sold for charity. The game included Billups, James, Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, who coached. There was even a brief performance by Kanye West.

“There’s never been a basketball game of more importance,” Smith said at the time.

Anthony cut short a vacation in the Bahamas to play and wore a T-shirt that read, “PRAY.”

“I’m doing this for the cause,” Anthony said.

Before the charity game, emotional NBA players visited several local shelters housing survivors. Then-Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play, donated shoes to the Fishers of Men Christian Church. Former NBA player and New Orleans native Robert Pack was also there. His aunt Debbie Mason was still missing at the time.

Perhaps James best described the emotions the NBA players had that day.

“If you’re not humble, everything we saw today made you put things in perspective,” James said.

It isn’t necessary for the players to do this. But whether it’s a financial donation or an autograph signing or picture taking, that could lessen the pain for a moment.

I’m sure the Hurricane Katrina survivors who went to the charity game or met the players still appreciate the help and smiles they received from the hoop stars 12 years ago. From what I witnessed, those NBA stars gave them great memories during one of the worst times of their lives.

Said then-12-year-old Diamond Hudson of New Orleans: “I wanted to faint when LeBron James kissed me on the forehead. I love every one of these basketball players.”

“It means a lot,” said Ronald Gabriel of Algiers, Louisiana, who landed several NBA player autographs at the time. “It means that they care, mindfully, thoughtfully. It matters.”

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