Wizards

Timberwolves mourn passing of biggest fan

Timberwolves mourn passing of biggest fan

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Mike Stephenson couldn't talk and still managed to get himself suspended from Minnesota Timberwolves practice for saying too much.

He couldn't walk and still managed to crawl out of his wheelchair to wipe up a wet spot he noticed on the court before anyone else could get there.

He couldn't shoot and still managed to leave a lasting impact on the organization that took him in and treated him as one of the guys.

Stephenson was born with cerebral palsy and died earlier this week after the latest in a long line of bouts with pneumonia, leaving Timberwolves past and present to mourn one of the team's biggest fans, and biggest inspirations. He was 42.

``He was so good for the players and the rest of us,'' former coach and executive Flip Saunders said. ``They all make a lot of money and are kind of on a different level. But Mike helped them get a better understanding that there's other things, bigger things, that make the world go round.''

Stephenson was born in the small town of Spring Valley, about two hours south of the Minneapolis. Cerebral palsy rendered him unable to talk and sentenced him to life in a wheelchair.

``When he was born the doctors told us he was severely mentally retarded and we should just put him in a home and forget about him,'' his mother Barb Stephenson said.

Barb and Randy Stephenson didn't do that and their son grew up to earn a bachelor's degree in political science from Southwest State University before moving to the big city and latching on with the Timberwolves.

A passionate sports fan, Stephenson started showing up to Timberwolves games regularly near the turn of the century. He had an elaborate electronic board mounted on his wheelchair that would allow him to hit certain buttons, which would prompt a computerized voice to say sentences he constructed. Never bashful, he once chased down former Wolves executive Kevin McHale at a Twins game and asked for his email.

Saunders would see Stephenson scooting around Target Center and struck up a conversation. Stephenson asked to come to practice, using that gregariousness he got from his father.

``I'll talk to a wall if it will listen,'' Randy Stephenson said.

Saunders started allowing Stephenson to come and watch practice, a privilege granted to very few. It came back to bite him later when Stephenson called into local sports talk radio station KFAN to break the news that the injured Wally Szczerbiak was practicing and likely to play in an upcoming game. Saunders barred him from practice for a week.

``Loose lips sink ships,'' McHale playfully chided him once. But all was clearly forgiven because Stephenson even appeared in the team's official photo in 2002-03.

Sam Mitchell could always hear Mike coming before he saw him. The hum of Stephenson's motorized wheelchair or his howl of excitement always getting the forward's attention for some basketball talk.

``I looked at Mike as an able-bodied person,'' Mitchell said. ``He got around differently than me, communicated differently than me. But he didn't let his disability become a disability. Why should I treat him that way? People would always tell me how nice it was for us to spend time with him. I felt honored that Mike took time out to spend time with us. I felt like he was doing us a favor.''

He had a sports blog and a Twitter account and would pepper reporters with sharp, insightful questions about how players fit into the system, who was on the trade block and how much patience owner Glen Taylor would have with the coach on the job at the time.

``He studied up on things,'' Saunders said. ``He knew a lot about the game, about our players. He couldn't accept that he had a disability.''

That's how he was raised, to be as independent as possible. And his enthusiasm was infectious.

``He led a good life,'' Randy said. ``A lot of people felt sorry for them when they met him but he didn't want any sympathy. He just wanted to be friends.''

Stephenson overcame cerebral palsy, overcame almost any obstacle put in front of his wheelchair. But he couldn't overcome the pneumonia that returned regularly thanks to his insistence on eating by mouth rather than through a tube. His doctors warned him that eating that way could cause food to aspirate in his lungs and bring on pneumonia. But Mike just loved food too much, and eating was another activity that made him just like everyone else.

The bouts got more difficult as time went on, the latest coming on Dec. 14. It caused him to vomit, which is extremely dangerous for someone in his condition. By Monday doctors told them ``a decision had to be made,'' Randy said.

Rather than endure it any longer, Randy said Mike decided to enter hospice care and say goodbye.

``I hesitated,'' Randy said. ``But Mike just kept shaking his head yes. He knew what was going to happen.''

A funeral was scheduled for Saturday in Elkton and he will be laid to rest in Dexter, where his parents live. The Timberwolves planned to honor him during their game on Wednesday against McHale's Houston Rockets.

One thing is for sure, the kid his parents were told to leave behind won't be forgotten anytime soon.

``Mike was a true fan,'' Mitchell said. ``He loved the players and he loved the Timberwolves. Through the good times and bad times, he was always right there in the tunnel.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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Bradley Beal’s outrageous outing vs. Hornets highlights both good and scary for Wizards

Bradley Beal’s outrageous outing vs. Hornets highlights both good and scary for Wizards

All-Star Bradley Beal returned from the break Friday night with an All-NBA performance.

The Wizards still lost 123-110 at Charlotte.

Within those two sentences there's hope and fear for this season and beyond.

Beal destroyed the Hornets for a season-high 46 points. His work over 42 minutes included high-level efficiency – 16 of 25 from the field, sank all 10 of his free throws plus seven assists and one turnover – and powerful moments. 

Beal scored 26 points in the second half, including 10 of Washington’s 23 in the final period. The Hornets knew where to focus their defensive effort. Washington’s leading scorer couldn’t have cared less and turned in arguably his best all-around game of the season.

When viewing a Wizards team going forward this season and especially next year for however long the injured John Wall sits, performances like this from Beal offer hope. Add starter-worthy help this summer, let Beal’s vibe lead the way and perhaps the team isn’t climbing uphill from the start next campaign.

Finding steady assistance now is the dilemma. If the Wizards intend on bringing back many of the current pieces, that dilemma could linger.

The non-Beal’s made only 10 more baskets than Beal and finished 26 of 72 (36.1 percent) from the field. Their collective assist-to-turnover numbers (17-12) explain some unsteady moments, especially during the second quarter when Charlotte rallied after Washington led 38-27. They tried. They just didn’t offer enough as Washington lost for the eighth time in 11 games.

Washington insisted veteran forward and 2019 unrestricted free agent Trevor Ariza remains in its plans beyond this season. That’s understandable based on Ariza’s historically strong two-way play even if his age (33) and possible contract demands (earned $15 million this season) offer potential downside.

The Wizards haven’t received the full-throated version since the trade with the Suns sent Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to Phoenix. Ariza had 10 points on 4 of 13 shooting (2 of 7 from deep) against the Hornets. Usually a viable perimeter threat, Ariza entered Friday shooting 31.9 percent on 3-pointers. Oubre, a consistent clank during his four-year career, is hitting 32.4 percent from beyond the arc. 

Ariza’s addition offers more than just scoring, and some aspects are not easily quantifiable. Some numbers that attempt that feat are not in love. Ariza’s PER (13.1) trails Oubre’s (16). 

Chasson Randle and Wesley Johnson are not Washington’s most curious backup guard tandem this decade. They might be close, however. Other contenders usually played behind Beal and Wall, thus limiting the downside.

Johnson missed all five of his field goal attempts against the Hornets, while Randle played a basic 13 minutes. The Wizards' bench was outscored 38-21.

Head coach Scott Brooks resorted to a big lineup with Beal as the lone guard. This maneuver worked easier with Otto Porter or, at least defensively, Oubre on the court. Neither lives here anymore.

Bobby Portis and Thomas Bryant offer Brooks two energetic interior options. With their size, mobility and shooting range, they seem like a viable pairing. For a team battered on the boards all season, using Bryant and Portis together conceivably boosts Washington’s rebounding chances. 

Brooks skipped using them together much before this game. Their defensive struggles against Charlotte showed why. Washington was outrebounded 53-43 all the same.

This team looks nothing like the one Brooks coached during his first two seasons. Only Beal, Tomas Satoransky and Ian Mahinmi played for the team that came within one game of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. 

Ideally, Brooks’ patchwork lineup generates needed momentum while a playoff berth remains in reach. Washington (24-35), now a season-worst 11 games under .500, fell four games back of Detroit for the eighth and final playoff berth. 

Conceivably, this core returns next season. Washington opened salary cap space by trading Porter’s hefty contract. Keeping Ariza, Jeff Green, Satoransky, Portis and Bryant eats up much of that space. Growth from 2018 first round pick Troy Brown and the arrival of a player with a 2019 first round selection increases the upside. The hope for a turnaround comes from those that faced Charlotte Friday night.   

The non-Beal’s can do more now. Asking extra from Beal is outrageous, even if the shooting guard suggests that’s possible.

“I wish I could pinpoint on one thing,” Beal told reporters postgame when asked how this team finds a winning path. “But I just have to elevate my play, that’s all I know I can do is elevate my play and my leadership to do whatever it takes.”

That Beal believes more is possible is why he’s a keeper. None of us should doubt him considering the strides made during his second All-Star season. His determined approach is the kind found with contenders.

Even two-time All-Stars need help. Beal’s teammates must provide some quickly to keep hope alive this season as the organization ponders plans for the next one.

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The Capitals are looking for a rare sweep of the Buffalo Sabres

The Capitals are looking for a rare sweep of the Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres do not rank high among the Capitals’ most hated rivals, but when you look back at the history of these two teams, Washington has struggled against the Sabres more than you may think.

In the Caps’ first two seasons they faced Buffalo 10 times. Washington lost nine of those games and tied one. In fact, the Caps managed only two wins total in their first 32 meetings.

Even when Washington advanced past their initial struggles as a franchise, success against Buffalo has been hard to come by. In their 43 seasons as a team, the Caps have only managed to sweep the season series with the Sabres three times in 1988-89, 2012-13, 2016-17.

On Saturday, however, the Caps can make it four.

Buffalo visited Washington twice in December with the Caps winning each game. On Saturday, Washington heads to Buffalo for their final meeting of the season. (1 p.m., NBC Sports Washington).

Games notes

Hagelin debut

Carl Hagelin will make his Capitals debut Saturday.  He suited up for the first time with his new team on Friday after getting trade by the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He practice on the fourth line with Nic Dowd at center and Chandler Stephenson on the wing.

The newly acquired Nick Jensen will not be available for the game.

End of the road

Saturday’s game will be the sixth and final game of a season-long six-game road trip. Washington has already earned three wins guaranteeing them at least a .500 finish. A win Saturday will give them four out of six and turn a respectable road trip into a very good one.

Watching the standings

With two points, Washington can pull even with the New York Islanders. The Caps have 75 points while the Islanders sit in first place with 77. New York has a game in hand on Washington and they play later Saturday night, so a tie in the standings on Saturday afternoon could prove to be short-lived.

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