Baby Shaq Powers His Way To Red Bull King of the Rock Title

It was the greatest 8-to-6 basketball game you’ll ever see.

Andre Emmett, formerly of the Memphis Grizzlies and Bobby Knight‘s Texas Tech program (where he is the all-time leading scorer), was going 1-on-1 with Vili Morton, a relative unknown who played college ball at California-Riverside and now manages basketball training programs at 24 Hour Fitness gyms in the Bay Area. On paper it shouldn’t have been close.

And yet at the end of their furious display of power dunks, post-ups, pick-pockets and pro moves — completed in less time than it takes to cook a grilled cheese sandwich — the crowd was invested, and the man with the most points on the scoreboard was declared the loser.

Emmett was up 8-6 late in overtime when he committed his fifth foul and was disqualified. I tried to get his post-game reaction, and he basically told me to get lost.

That’s how it was at the 2011 Red Bull King of the Rock tournament final: Unpredictable, unforgiving, often unbridled, sometimes even unprecedented.

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a.k.a. “The Rock,” was the setting on Saturday night as 64 players came from all corners of the world to the infamous island in the San Francisco Bay to compete in the 1-on-1 single-elimination tournament. At stake was a $10,000 prize for the last man standing, a ring and a trophy, plus bragging rights as the best 1-on-1 ballplayer on Earth who isn’t facing a labor lockout.

With a five-minute time limit for each game and four courts being used simultaneously, the field was quickly cut from 64 believers to 16 survivors, and eventually down to the final four.

In one semifinal, Hugh Jones, a.k.a. “Baby Shaq” from AND 1 Mixtape Tour fame, defeated Brian Centella, a gym teacher from Chicago. In the other semifinal, NBA D-League signee Lance Perique played through a groin injury suffered in his final-eight matchup — “I took two Advil and wrapped it up,” Perique shrugged in his Creole accent — to get past 6-7 New Mexico alum Michael McCowan.

And so the championship game would pit Baby Shaq, the Washington, D.C. bruiser who had already turned five guys into burgers and fries with his physical low-post style, against a man who was nursing a fresh injury to a sensitive area. Underdog stories are great, but that didn’t stop me from texting a friend in the crowd before the final: “This is gonna be Animal Planet.”

It was.

Perique, a smooth 6-6 wing who played collegiately at Georgia State and was picked up by the Idaho Stampede for the upcoming D-League season, kept himself in the game early with some three-point bombs and even had a brief lead.

But inevitability soon set in, as Baby Shaq continually backed Perique down to within two feet of the rim. Layup, layup, layup, layup. On the rare miss, an offensive rebound and another layup.

For those who knew of Baby Shaq’s AND 1 resume and were expecting a razzle-dazzle showcase, this was not their night. Jones played less like an entertainer and more like his namesake; using his strength and leverage to get his 6-3, 230-pound body to the bucket and score as efficiently as possible.

“I’m 31 years old. Losing is not an option for me,” Jones said after his 18-9 win. “I ain’t got no choice but to win. I came out here, traveled all this way, to come get this money.”

I was later told that Baby Shaq had been seen in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in downtown San Francisco on Saturday afternoon, sitting alone and staring straight ahead for at least an hour. His focus was as menacing as his game.

Jones wasn’t the only man on a mission. The line he repeated a few times— “I came too far to lose” — could have been the slogan for every player on Alcatraz Island. They had earned their spots in the final 64 via qualifying tournaments held in 21 U.S. cities and 12 foreign countries: China, Lithuania, Serbia, Slovenia, France, Spain, Turkey, Israel, Romania, Ukraine, Germany and Canada. This was a business trip for all involved.

Sheldon Bailey (profiled in Dime #60 for his acting work in commercials and as a body double for the likes of LeBron James) qualified in Los Angeles and flew in from Lebanon to play in the King of the Rock finals before hopping another flight to Dubai to report to his professional team.

“I love the international flair,” said Bailey, who was eliminated in the round of eight. “The environment is crazy with the music, the crowd, you’ve got (announcers) Sal Masekela and Bobbito Garcia, just the whole production out here. I mean, it’s a freakin’ prison in the background! It’s crazy out here. I love it.”

Tyrone “Redz” Hill is a Philadelphia playground veteran whom Dime readers may also remember from his success in numerous 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 tournaments that have been featured in the magazine and on Hill played in two KOTR qualifiers this year, losing in Philly before earning his spot in D.C.

“You know how I do. I’ll travel city to city,” said Redz. “This is 1-on-1, baby. I don’t have my boys to play with me, don’t have no one to pass it to, so it’s just like ‘Give me the ball.’ Philly style, that’s all.”

Redz upset last year’s Red Bull KOTR runner-up Gary Smith in the first round (“He’s the runner-down now,” Redz laughed) before losing to Centella in the second round. Smith did at least salvage something out of the trip by winning $500 in the KOTR dunk contest. But last year’s champion, Izeah “Clutch” Bowman from L.A., left empty-handed after losing to Dalane Finley from Virginia in a round-of-16 thriller.

After he’d made quick work of his first-round opponent, Baby Shaq stood on the baseline of his court and chatted with Rajon Rondo, the NBA superstar who is the face of the KOTR tournament. Not far from that same spot, Rondo presented Baby Shaq with the title trophy and championship ring.

“We were actually talking about Kentucky,” said Jones of that earlier conversation. “He was in school there with my daughter’s mother. My daughter’s birthday is today, and his daughter’s birthday is today. I guess with us talking, everything came full circle.”

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