Tabiona • Derrick Favors was swarmed. Kids surrounded him. Questions poured in. All while basketballs bounced around his muscular frame and parents eagerly watched the young Jazz forward stand tall.
For more than an hour Monday, Favors owned this little eastern Utah town, holding center court inside a small gymnasium at an LDS church.
Upcoming Junior Jazz dates
10 a.m. » Duchesne
1:30 p.m. » Price
4 p.m. » Emery County
11 a.m. » Moab
2 p.m. » Monticello
10 a.m. » Green River
2 p.m. » South Sevier
5 p.m. » Mount Pleasant
10 a.m. » Santaquin
2:30 p.m. » Brigham City
Favors was initially scheduled to run a Junior Jazz clinic at Tabiona Public School, a K-12 facility that educates 160 children. The gym was unavailable, though. So the Junior Jazz set up across the street, turning the gym — wood-and-brick walls, two glass goals bolted into the framework, a peaked roof and a performance stage — into Favors’ coming-out party.
The third-year Jazz forward knows, technically, he’s too big for Junior Jazz. He’s started an NBA playoff game. He’s pushing Paul Millsap for a spot in Utah’s starting rotation. And the promising 21-year-old big man is on the verge of breaking through to the next level of his career.
But just weeks after competing with teammate Gordon Hayward as part of the U.S. Olympic select team, practicing against stars such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James before they headed to London for the 2012 Summer Games, Favors didn’t hesitate when the Jazz asked him to spend a week in late July crisscrossing some of the quietest and most remote parts of Utah.
"I just wanted to get out and see more. … It’s me just going around and counseling the kids, so I’ll do it," said Favors, who’ll resume training in late August in Santa Barbara, Calif., then ramp up his conditioning in September for the start of the 2012-13 season.
He added: "I’m getting used to it. People around here are nice and they welcome you. It’s just a great place."
The No. 3 overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft acknowledged Utah is "different" — a world removed from his big-city hometown of Atlanta and Newark, N.J., where he spent the first part of his professional career. But the once-shy Favors is coming into his own as a public personality, and he wanted to learn more about everything from Utah’s unique geography to the overwhelming passion of small-town Jazz fans.
So Favors was in Tabiona early Monday. He ran a series of basketball drills, leading a group of about 60 children and young teenagers in passing and dribbling sessions. He played a hilarious game of 1-on-2 against two kids, blocking shots as soon as they were nervously released and easily flipping the ball into a rim he kept swearing was taller than 10 feet. He took pictures, signed autographs and laughed more in 75 minutes than he normally does during a week inside the Jazz’s locker room. And Favors answered a ton of questions.
Simple ones: His favorite food (barbecue), color (red and black), shoe size (16).
Tougher ones: His best friend in the NBA (no one), toughest player to defend (Kobe Bryant), favorite non-Jazz team (Los Angeles Lakers).
"When I was growing up, I was a huge Kobe fan," Favors said. "Like, Kobe was my favorite player ever."
The pro-Lakers response was the only time Favors fell out of Tabiona’s favor.
To the children already wrapped up in the Junior Jazz program — many wore jerseys with numbers such as 24, 25 and 40, displaying affection for some of Utah’s biggest names — Favors’ appearance had a once-in-a-lifetime feel. Young Jazz players have shown up in basketball-proud Tabiona before. But it’s been a while since anyone with Favors’ stature ducked through a hallway.
For Mike Wagner, Favors’ performance was even better than imagined. Wagner said he’d been promoting the Jazz forward’s showing for weeks. A Tabiona Public School sign highlighted the event, saying the Junior Jazz proudly welcome "Derrick Favors!" in flashing golden lights. But watching Favors up close, as he laughed and joked and toyed with a small but adoring crowd, was summer perfection.
"This brings a lot of excitement, a lot of buzz," said Wagner, bishop of the Tabiona LDS church and a history teacher at the school. "This is a basketball town. When we offer sports in the high school, basketball rules the roost."
Favors ruled Tabiona on Monday.
"I really wanted [all] this my first year. How my first year went, it was kind of crazy," Favors said. "So now I’m just starting to get out, starting to prove myself as a player … just starting to have fun."
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