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The Lonely Life of a Pro Basketball Player

There are only fifteen spots available on an NBA roster, so for the thousands of college players who wrap up their amateur status each year, that opening — coveted since picking up a basketball as a child — is a slim one.

For most who still follow that burning desire to make a living out of their various basketball skill sets, that means carving an existence overseas, a prospect that, while much more glamorous than in past years, is still a tough life. Yes, Skype and FaceTime have made communication with family members back home easier, but that’s dependent on finding a working (and consistent) WiFi connection. Depending on where you play, language barriers abound, and though the money is better than what the G League (formerly the D League) pays, it’s a never-ending hustle.

Talk with any player who has spent significant time overseas, and the path is a tiring one, which is why this New York Times’ examination of the life and death of Jackson Vroman by David Waldstein is all the more tragic. Vroman had all the tools to eke out a role stateside in the NBA, but an injury permanently derailed his chances to stick in the league. While he was in high demand, playing in six different countries over an eight-year span, the grind grew. Waldstein, who intended to write a piece about Vroman during his playing days, spoke with those close to the forward, who was found dead at the bottom of a friend’s pool in 2015 after ingesting a cocktail of ketamine, GHB and cocaine:

The Toronto encounter would also lead me to to Jackson’s father, Brett, a former center at U.C.L.A. and the one person whose life, in some ways, was just like his son’s. And I would also get to know Brett’s second wife, Pari Habashi, a therapist who loved, nurtured and fretted over Jackson until the day he died.

In April 2015, the three of them attended the 40th anniversary of John Wooden’s last championship team at U.C.L.A., one that Brett played on. Jackson was gaunt, not in playing shape and seemingly overcome with emotions and a growing spirituality. He went to where his stepmom sat, got down on his knees and hugged her.

“I remember he was just tired,” Habashi said. “I knew there was something different then. But he was so loving. He was hanging on Brett and hanging on me and saying, ‘I love you so much.’”

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Remembering Nelson Mandela’s Contribution to Sports

Of all the words that have been spilled about Nelson Mandela over the years, perhaps the most interesting center around his thoughts on and contributions to the arena of sports.

Mandela understood sports to be a powerful unifier, which is why he backed the Springboks, South Africa’s (long reviled) national rugby team, during its surprise run in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And it’s why Mandela was instrumental in helping his country land the 2010 World Cup. Sports can supersede all other differences, perceived or recognized, and in commemoration of Mandela Day, it’s worth revisiting Wright Thompson’s classic 2008 piece (for ESPN the Magazine) which examined what the World Cup meant for South Africa:

As the members of the [Springboks] dressed for the final match, they looked up to find Mandela standing in the locker room. He’d come to offer the support of all of South Africa. Some of the players, including some who’d grown up believing Mandela was a terrorist, were overcome with emotion. During the national anthem, Pienaar bit his lip so hard that blood trickled down his chin. He did not want to cry. And when the locals won, Pienaar looked up to see Mandela walking onto the field in a Springboks jersey—Pienaar’s Springboks jersey. As the president hugged the player, the 65,000 mostly white fans did what actually had been a crime just a few years before: They spoke Mandela’s name in public. Nel-son! Nel-son! Nel-son! Later, people told of seeing hard-line apartheiders standing in front of their televisions and chanting along with the crowd.

A nation had been born.

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Inside ESPN’s ’30 for 30 Podcasts’ Launch

When Jody Avirgan was asked to transform ESPN’s widely-praised 30 for 30 docuseries into a podcast, the producer, who has created podcasts for WNYC and FiveThirtyEight, mused whether the easiest solution might be to convert the documentaries wholesale. That notion quickly faded. “If we are going to uphold the standard and approach journalistically and aesthetically that 30 for 30 films have set, we need to think of these as original audio documentary efforts,” Avirgan told me recently by phone. “It’s not two guys in a room talking sports—it’s reporting original new stories that fit for audio.”

This was Avirgan’s dilemma for 30 for 30 Podcasts, which launched its first season in late June with an exploration of Reebok’s marketing build-up for the 1992 Olympics, a campaign built around decathlon favorites Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Sports is a visual medium. We consume sports live, often on high-definition televisions — and soon, possibly, in VR — and conveying the intensity of a tackle is difficult to translate through audio. That’s why even though we are in the midst of a podcast renaissance, there are few devoted to sports.

“I want to see Barry Sanders break five people’s ankles in a row, I don’t want to hear about it,” explains Avirgan. But buoyed by the docuseries’ success, the podcast has found an active audience: While download data isn’t readily available, the inaugural three episodes of the podcast have been ranked consistently in iTunes’ top five downloads, which include producer Rose Eveleth’s episode on the first all-female trek to the North Pole, and Julia Lowrie Henderson’s episode on the bootleg T-shirt industry that introduced the world to the taunt “Yankees suck!”

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The Silent Prayer That Derailed Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s NBA Career

Despite starting 57 games, throwing 72 touchdowns, and rushing for an additional thirteen TDs, it is likely that Colin Kaepernick will not play in the NFL this upcoming season. The quarterback, who opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers this past spring in the hopes of signing with another team, has been blackballed from the league, a side effect of kneeling during the national anthem last year. Kaepernick became a polarizing figure in the resurgence of athlete activism, and as such, he might have taken his last snap in the NFL.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf has been in Kaepernick’s position, as he explains in an interview with The Undefeated. Twenty years ago, the guard was one of the NBA’s most electric players, a 6-foot-1 do-it-all scorer who quickly filled up a stat sheet with lightning-quick drives to the rim and perimeter jumpers.

But after eight years and nearly 9,000 points, he was gone. Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam just after he became a pro, and midway through the 1996 season he began a campaign of sitting during the national anthem. As he explained to the New York Times, “I just hope that this can be something that will cause people to look into issues more…It has made me realize more how, whether you want to use the word hypocritical or backwards, sometimes we are.”

Following a one-game suspension by the NBA which cost him $32,000, Abdul-Rauf and the league reached a compromise—the guard was allowed to stand and pray with his head bowed during the anthem. But he was soon traded after the season, and would spend just two more years in the NBA before bouncing around several teams overseas. Perhaps Abdul-Rauf was just ahead of his time; the NBA was still dominated by hulking frontcourts that slogged through an offensive possessions, it wasn’t a league styled for Abdul-Rauf’s talents. Combined with his outspoken beliefs, and what seemed to many to be a radical and dangerous worldview, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t even get a try-out with another team once his contract with the Sacramento Kings expired in 1998.

It’s been two decades since Abdul-Rauf faded from the public eye, but with the arrival of the Big3, a three-on-three basketball league launched this summer for aging ex-NBA superstars (e.g. Allen Iverson, Rashadd Lewis), Abdul-Rauf, who suits up for the 3-Headed Monsters, has been rewarded with another platform to speak his mind. “To try to influence people to be socially, racially and politically conscious opposite of what the mainstream wants us to think is unacceptable,” he told the Undefeated. “Athletes are looked at and viewed with much more importance than teachers and professors by far by the youth.”

When a person like Kaepernick or anybody else comes and stands out against anything that is contrary to what image they want you to have as an athlete, then they will make an example of you because they want to discourage other athletes from doing the same thing.

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The Fading Relevance of the NBA Draft

LeBron James first took his talents to South Beach seven years ago, teaming with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to form one of the first ‘super teams’ of the 21st century. During that same time span, the Heat won two titles, thoroughly justifying James’ decision to spurn a Cleveland Cavaliers franchise that was still very much in the midst of self-discovery and instead join a team with the best odds of becoming an NBA champion.

The move did not go unnoticed by other NBA franchises. Since James left Cleveland, the Larry O’Brien trophy has gone to three other teams that have similarly followed the Heat’s lead, including the Golden State Warriors, who this past summer signed Kevin Durant and promptly trounced the James-led Cavaliers. (Following his four years with the Heat, James famously came home and led the Eastern Conference squad to three straight NBA finals.) And we aren’t even including the Boston Celtics, who formed arguably the original super team with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen a decade ago. Forgotten amidst the formation of these power teams is the influence the NBA draft used to have when it came to building title teams.

A quick primer on the draft: The league’s worst teams are allotted the top fifteen slots in each NBA Draft, with the express purpose of landing one of the best players to provide the necessary boost to compete in upcoming seasons. From Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing to Vince Carter, and even LeBron, the draft was integral to the construction of a playoff-caliber squad.

But based the draft which took place last weekend at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the event felt more spectacle than instrumental. There is a trend of teams attempting to clear enough salary cap space to sign enough top players to contend against the Cavaliers or the Warriors, the league’s two top teams. The Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has drafted the second pick for the past three years, dumped its 2015 pick (D’Angelo Russell) for the chance to land Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (who will likely be traded this offseason), while the Minnesota Timberwolves unloaded draft picks and Zach LaVine, one of the NBA’s most athletic players, for Jimmy Butler and a chance to challenge in the Western Conference next season.

Neither of these teams will actually contend in 2018—the finals, barring any unforeseen injuries, will still pit the Warriors versus the Cavaliers. But there is a contend-now mentality that seems to have overtaken the NBA, and as such, the proliferation of teams that believe the only way to win isn’t through development of draft picks but by hoping to craft the next super team-cum-dynasty. Might Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers join the San Antonio Spurs? Could Gordon Hayward reunite with Brad Stevens, his college coach at Butler, in Boston? Which soon-to-be contender will be able to pry Kristaps Porzingis from the Big Apple?

The Oklahoma City Thunder was the last franchise that attempted to build its team from the ground up—Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Durant were all first round picks, and as the team molded around the triumvirate of superstars (with Ibaka as the rim running, glass crashing big every contender requires), the Thunder seemed destined for NBA supremacy. But then Harden and Ibaka were traded, Durant left on his own accord, and just Westbrook, who was recently named the NBA MVP, remains. The Thunder’s experiment was a lesson for other NBA squads—building a contender the old-fashioned way takes a patience that few are willing to endure, and the future of the NBA is bound to be controlled by those teams that can convince enough superstars to join its ranks.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently touched on Minnesota’s moves on draft night and the swirling trends of building a championship-worthy squad:

This is almost refreshingly normal: A rebuilding team hits multiple lotteries, sees it can’t (or shouldn’t) pay all its young studs, and flips a couple of them into something helpful. Almost every dilemma like this highlights how abnormal Golden State is — how much draft skill, good fortune, and once-in-league-history timing luck the Warriors needed to collect four of the league’s 15 best players. That doesn’t happen, ever.

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How Temple of the Dog Pioneered a New Genre of Music Videos in the ’90s

Matt Giles | Longreads | May 2017 | 15 minutes (3,772 words)

Last month, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Introduced by David Letterman, who looked resplendent with his chin-length beard, it was a fitting honor for one of the greatest rock groups of all time. “I feel like maybe we’re about halfway there to deserving an accolade of this kind of stature, but this is very encouraging,” said Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam’s lead singer, as part of his acceptance remarks.

What was left unmentioned by Vedder and his fellow bandmates was the collaboration that directly preceded Pearl Jam’s formation more than 25 years ago in Seattle—a supergroup that enjoyed its own moment in the spotlight last year.

Temple of the Dog only released one album, but after a two-decade hiatus, the group reformed in June and announced a multi-concert tour across the United States. Normally, this wouldn’t have made headlines, but it did because Temple of the Dog was a mix of soon-to-be superstars from Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, including Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, Mike McCready, Chris Cornell, and Vedder (who didn’t tour, but was in the original lineup). These rock gods had never officially toured as Temple of the Dog (there have been a few shows here and there, and every few years a video of Cornell and Vedder jamming out to “Hunger Strike,” the band’s hit single, goes viral), but this tour was the first time the musicians got together as the early-’90s super group. “We’re essentially a baby band,” Ament told Rolling Stone in a recent oral history of the band. “We’re 25 years down the road, but we’ve never toured.”

The tour renewed the attention paid to Temple’s “Hunger Strike” music video. Released three times over the ensuing decades, the video — sparse, loaded with symbolism, and an ode to both the city of Seattle and Andy Wood, the Mother Love Bone singer whose death both launched and inspired Temple’s founding — gained notoriety for helping to foment the wave of the ’90s video genre. You know what they look like: dark colors, set in nature, elderly individuals writing on a chalkboard, anthropomorphism, warped graphics, unconventional camera angles, and more. The TV sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” mocked the style in the 2013 episode, “PS I Love You”; the episode featured the alt-rock backstory of Robin Scherbatsky, whose breakout hit had all the ’90s music video trappings (including extras clad in flannel). Read more…

Good Coffee Shouldn’t Have to Cost More Than $1

A funny thing happened after colonists, disguised as Native Americans, dumped 300-some chests containing tea into the Boston Harbor: The importance of tea—both politically and culturally—in the United States was over, and the people needed something else to drink. That void was filled by coffee, which first arrived in North America courtesy of Captain John Smith, but until the Boston Tea Party, coffee was a niche beverage: just .19 pounds per capita was consumed in 1772.

Following the Revolutionary War, a period in which John Adams wrote of the troubles “wean[ing]” himself off tea, Americans had fallen in love with the coffee bean, drinking 1.41 pounds per capita by 1799, and the infatuation skyrocketed for the next 150 years. Coffee was enjoyed by all classes—Park Avenue socialites and coal miners alike could take their coffee black or with a dash of cream. And as boiling the grounds with water gave way to the percolator and the electric drip coffeemaker, Americans put the pot on more and more often, drinking an astonishing 46 gallons per person a year—a record that will never be topped. Read more…

Is Butter the Future?

In the April issue of Elle magazine, Molly Langmuir questions the societal and dietary norms that preach ‘fat is bad.’ Langmuir spoke with Sally Fallon, who, for two decades, has preached  the health benefits of enjoying animal proteins, organ meats, and raw milk and yogurt (while avoiding all things processed), and reveals that food—like all else—isn’t binary. Enjoying fatty foods doesn’t have to just be a cheat day indulgence.

Raised in Palos Verdes, California, by parents she calls “the original foodies,” Fallon got an English degree at Stanford in 1970 and settled in Washington, DC, with her then husband (they later divorced), who worked in the aerospace industry. “I knew in my bones this low-fat thing was wrong,” she said. But she didn’t have evidence until she read Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, published in 1939 by an intrepid dentist named Weston A. Price, which documented his world travels studying diets and health. His conclusion? Various diseases, cavities, even “personality disturbances,” were rare among groups who ate like their ancestors— lots of meats or seafood, plenty of fat, and, if they ate carbs, whole grains—but rampant among those who’d adopted a modern diet, with heaps of white flour and sugar.

Fallon eventually had four kids and fed them foods like liver and raw milk—she credits this with their continued good health and in 1995 she put Price’s beliefs into practical form in the self-published Nourishing Traditions. At first, Fallon stored the books in her garage and shipped out a few copies a month, but “it started to grow and grow,” she said. Even Atkins blurbed her book, gushing that the first chapter “is so right on target that I feel a little guilty for taking her ideas.” There are now 740,000 copies in print.

Over lunch—a tomato soup into which she’d stirred an entire container of crème fraîche and a dip made from cheese, butter, and cream—she said that at her farm, she does things “the old-fashioned way,” meaning it’s a multispecies realm with pigs that eat the leftover whey, cows that eat the grass, chickens that eat anything they scratch out of the ground, and cats that eat the mice. The living-history–museum vibe carries over into the 150-year-old main house, a precisely decorated three-story affair filled with antique china and Oriental rugs. (There are a few incongruous nods to the present: a swimming pool, a wine fridge.) Fallon does her writing at an enormous antique desk, on which sits a glass paperweight I mistook for a crystal ball. “I don’t see the future,” she said. Then she laughed. “Yes, I do! And it’s butter!”

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The 2017 James Beard Award Winners: A Reading List

The growth of food writing has evolved with the explosion of all the food-watching that accompanied programs like Top Chef and Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and we’re way past the days of Craig Claiborne or Ruth Reichl reveling about an up-and-coming chef in an out-of-the-way corner of a yet-to-be-gentrified-neighborhood somewhere.

The James Beard awards—otherwise known as the Oscars of food—were announced earlier this week, and befitting the honor’s nearly 30-year history, let’s toast sparkling rosé and caviar-topped amuse-bouches to the best food writing published in 2016 (here is the full list of winners).

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The Masterful Storyteller: A David Grann Reading List

David Grann is the ultimate writer’s writer. The reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker has a way of discovering nuggets of an idea (the bare minimum of a pitch), and then, through intrepid and painstaking research, crafting pieces that tend to stick with readers for years.

“Many of the characters are driven by obsession,” Grann once told Nieman Storyboard. “But I’m also interested in what these characters are obsessed with, so it’s not just their obsession, it’s the object of their obsession…I’m looking for multiple elements. On one level, there is a story that is compelling, there are characters that are interesting, but also there are some intellectual stakes.”

For his upcoming book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I., Grann details the murders committed against members of the Osage Nation—which subsequently became the first case investigated by the FBI—and spent more than three years researching and reporting events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. Josh Dean similarly had been interested in writing about the Osage Nation killings, when he was informed by his agent that Grann had, in Dean’s words, “been working on this book quietly for two years.”

Dean told the Longform podcast:

I literally fell out of my chair. I admire David Grann; he is one of the best at this thing. I read his stories voraciously. I know what David Grann is doing…One, I know he is going to do an amazing job. He has a two year head-start. If it hadn’t been him…why would I [write the book]? I went into a shell and drank for six days.

While Killers of the Flower Moon will undoubtedly become a blockbuster hit one day (Imperative Entertainment paid a whopping $5 million for film rights), another of Grann’s works will debut in theaters this week. “The Lost City of Z” came to life as a New Yorker feature in 2005, and according to Grann, it was one of his rare pieces that felt incomplete as a magazine article. “It was the first piece I’d done for The New Yorker where I finished and I said, one, I’m not sick of it, and, two, there are so many more places to go. There were still doors to open,” he told Interview magazine. The article became a book, which was published in 2009, and now a film starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson.

Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a turn-of-the-century English explorer who disappears in a quest to prove the existence of an ancient and influential civilization in the Amazon. In reporting Fawcett’s travels, Grann journeyed to the jungles where Fawcett vanished, as well as plumbed through his diaries and life, turning what had initially been a piece about this lost civilization into an all-encompassing biography—all the better for its adaptation to screen.

It’s impossible to compose a “best of” list for Grann’s writings, so below is a primer for some of his most compelling New Yorker pieces, which includes some of his earlier (and often overlooked) work. Read more…