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African Outreach opens Lucas eyes

by: RON HOSKINS, Westview High grad Kara Braxton won the WNBA championship with the Detroit Shock. The backup center averaged 5.8 points and 2.6 rebounds against Sacramento in the finals.

Maurice Lucas has experienced a lot of things during his two decades as a professional basketball player and coach, but few have touched him like his recent visit to South Africa with the NBA's African Outreach program.

The Trail Blazer assistant coach was among 33 NBA coaches and players - including Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash, who was born in South Africa - who visited three cities and spent 10 days providing basketball instruction to more than 100 youths and promoting friendship, healthy living and education.

'Fantastic,' Lucas says of his first visit to the continent. 'Enlightening. I got to see a lot of their culture, and it's a beautiful culture. There are extremes on both sides there of rich and poor. There are some extremely deprived people in the country, but they find a way to survive.'

With little NBA basketball available on TV in South Africa, the sport remains 'a developing piece' of the country's sports culture, Lucas says. 'But there was a real hunger to learn. The kids were unbelievably disciplined, and there's some talent there.'

And after the basketball clinics were over, Lucas was treated to a wildlife safari.

'It was wild,' Lucas says. 'I was with a true bushman (as a guide). He could spot things a lot farther ahead and put us in the right position to see things. You had to keep your hands in the truck, because you don't know what's watching you. We saw white rhinos, which are rare. We had to move our rig up so a pack of about 20, 25 elephants could get by. We saw giraffes and other animals, but the best thing was just getting to see the country's beautiful natural habitat.'

Kara Braxton won't get her championship ring for a while, but she is expecting something fancy.

'I'll bet the coach makes sure it has a little bling to it,' jokes the former Westview High standout, who helped the Detroit Shock beat Sacramento for the WNBA title.

Braxton's coach is the infamous Bill Laimbeer, who isn't the easiest guy to play for.

'If anybody knows him from his time playing in the NBA, he hasn't changed,' Braxton says. 'But I had a tough coach at Westview (Mark Neffendorf), and Andy Landers was pretty tough at Georgia, too. So I'm used to it.'

The 6-6, 190-pound Braxton, 23, was a key reserve for the Shock, who came back to win the final two games of the championship series and oust the Monarchs 3-2.

The second-year center was usually the second player off the bench for Detroit, averaging 4.3 points and 3.4 rebounds in 34 regular-season games. In the playoffs, she averaged 5.0 points and 2.8 rebounds; in the finals, the numbers were 5.8 points and 2.6 boards. And her minutes went from 10.6 in the regular season to 12.8 in the playoffs to 16.2 in the finals.

'I expected more of myself this year,' says Braxton, 23, the seventh pick of the 2005 draft. 'I didn't play as much in the first half of the season, but toward the end I got in more. That's what counts.'

In the critical Game 4 of the finals, Braxton came off the bench to collect eight points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes, hitting 4 of 6 shots from the floor.

'I played pretty well in that game,' says Braxton, whose son, Jelani, will turn 2 in January. 'I just did anything I could to contribute to helping the team win, whether rebounding, scoring or whatever.'

Though she was thrilled when she won the state championship with Westview as a junior in 1999-00, 'you can't compare the two,' Braxton says. 'This was on a way higher level. Both of them were special, but I was ecstatic about (the Shock's championship). To sell out Joe Louis Arena and win the championship in front of all our fans - you couldn't ask for anything better.'

Braxton will play this winter in Europe - she thinks she will begin with a team in Russia - before returning to Detroit for her third WNBA season.

'I'd like to become a starter,' she says. 'Who doesn't want that as a goal? But if not, I'll do whatever I can to get better and help the team win another championship.'

• A new replay screen is good, and it's wonderful that crab cakes (a noted delicacy in hockey circles) will be on the menu this season as the Winter Hawks make a move toward Memorial Coliseum as their primary home.

But no radio game broadcasts? Sorry, those podcasts on the Internet don't work too well as I'm driving in the family hot rod - the time I'm most likely to be tuning into a game. Say it ain't so, Scooter Vrooman. A sorry decision by the team's new ownership.

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