Category Archives: Sports

From Ghost Town to Havana: Two Teams, Two Countries, One Game

Rick Paulas | Longreads | September 2017 | 7 minutes (1,856 words)

Unless you’re a fictional character boldly leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper in a stretch leotard, origin stories are fickle, slippery narratives, particularly when it comes to artistic endeavors. Maybe the idea came while you were taking a bath, but why’d you get into that bath? What were you thinking just before the eureka moment? How’d you get to those thoughts?

So, when I asked San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker Eugene Corr why he took nine youth baseball players from an impoverished section of West Oakland to Cuba back in 2010, I knew I’d get a distilled version of reality. In Corr’s documentary about the trip, Ghost Town to Havana, he mentions his own fractured relationship with his father, a former youth baseball instructor, so I figured that’d fit in somewhere. Along with the magic of the bat-and-ball sport that binds together the capitalist and socialist countries that have 103 miles of sea between them.

But what I didn’t expect was that the whole trip happened because Corr got mad at George W. Bush.

Eugene Corr in Havana. Photo credit: Ghost Town to Havana Staff Photographer.

“I still think the Iraq War was a historic mistake,” Corr says, over coffee near his Berkeley home. “So much that’s gone wrong with the world seems to stem from that. I was so angry about that, I did three things. I bought a headstone for my grandmother’s grave in a cemetery in Richmond, I started a screenwriting program at San Quentin, and I went to Cuba.” Read more…

Jemele Hill Knows What You Really Want to Call Her

Are you a sports fanatic? It’s okay. Neither am I. Truly the only thing I know about ESPN is it’s a channel featuring 24 hours of sport shows complete with CNN-like graphics that swirl in and out and flash like an Atlantic City tableau (that, and nine out of ten men you meet have ESPN push notifications on their phones which make more alarming sounds than Amber alerts for lost children).

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The NBA’s Great Positionless Shift

By now, it is evident that the NBA is undergoing a significant evolution when it comes to lineup formations. Gone are the days of hulking centers and long two-point field goals. The game has become more refined, more dependent on perimeter offense and spacing, and more prone to players who are multi-skilled and versatile.

This is an NBA tailor-made for Royce White’s skillset. As Sam Riches details in his latest piece for Longreads, White drew comparisons ranging from Charles Barkley to LeBron James during his lone collegiate season at Iowa State; his passing acumen, when coupled with his basketball IQ and inherent touch, transformed White into a nearly indefensible player:

White, who stands 6’8” and weighs 270 pounds, moves with a lumbering fluidity, a grace that belies his size. He dribbles the ball like a guard, with hands that measure nearly a foot in width. He clears space with his frame, sometimes backing down his opponents from beyond the three point line, and then flicks passes to teammates at impossible angles. He rips rebounds from the sky and then floats the ball back into the basket with a feathery touch.

However, White isn’t perfect: The forward also suffers from generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the NBA—like many professional sports leagues—has long been ill-equipped to meet the demands that come with mental illness. Larry Sanders, fresh off signing a four-year, $44 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013, walked away from the league as a consequence of repeated bouts with anxiety and depression, and sports psychology is transforming into a burgeoning field for high-level athletes.

Though the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement now has a mental health clause, there wasn’t a safety net in place when White was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2012, which is why the forward is currently the MVP of the National Basketball League of Canada rather than an All-Star in the NBA.

In late July, he announces that he’s returning to [the] London [Lightning]. “Why wouldn’t I just play in London?” he says, when asked about this decision. “We won the championship for christ’s sake. We made history. Why would I leave defending my title? Why would I leave where I’m a champion at? To go where? Not only do I not know if I’m going to get a fair shot, I don’t know what the team I’m going to is going to do, what their priorities are, if winning is important.

This past season, Nikola Jokic, a 6-foot-10 Serbian forward for the Denver Nuggets, enjoyed a breakout season thanks to a skillset that mirrors White’s, wowing both crowds and fellow teammates with his passing touch and vision. Jokic, like White, anticipates the action several plays ahead, and has a deft touch to thread slight openings in the defense while also finding openings at the exact moment (and he can score in bunches).

The success of players like Jokic and Draymond Green (selected the same draft as White) have changed how general managers and NBA executives construct the lineups—the word “tweener” is no longer an NBA draft death knell—and it is within this environment that White should have shined. Lineups are no longer viewed within the rigid confines of positions, and players—like White, Green, Jokic, and many others—who can fill multiple spots on the floor are highly coveted.

White’s success north of the border is commendable, but his talent is too good for a mere cup of Gatorade in the NBA:

Asked about White’s ability on the basketball court, [Matt] Abdelmassih draws in a deep breath. “He’s so talented,” he exhales. “So talented. I wish that the experience he had in the NBA turned out to be better because I think he belongs in the NBA, he’s talented enough to be in the NBA, but at the end of the day I don’t know if he’ll have that opportunity again because I think that bridge has been burnt one too many times.”

Near the end of our conversation Abdelmassih asks if I’ve had a chance to talk to anyone in the NBA about White. I tell him that I’ve been trying, but every call and email has gone unreturned.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah. That’s what I figured.”

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How the NBA Failed Royce White

Sam Riches | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,650 words)

 

Bound by professional obligation, the announcer is feigning impartiality but a wobble in his lilt, a slip of exasperation, gives him away.

“He’s stolen the ball and here he comes again.”

It’s March, 2012, the third round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, and Royce White is running free.

He barrels up court, body wide and strong. He sprints past other players bound for the NBA, including Anthony Davis, who will soon enter the world’s top league as a transcendent number one pick, a uniquely defensive wunderkind that is representative of a shift in the way the game is played; positionless and facilitative and full-throttled.

White moves past him, over him, through him.

White, who stands 6’8” and weighs 270 pounds, moves with a lumbering fluidity, a grace that belies his size. He dribbles the ball like a guard, with hands that measure nearly a foot in width. He clears space with his frame, sometimes backing down his opponents from beyond the three point line, and then flicks passes to teammates at impossible angles. He rips rebounds from the sky and then floats the ball back into the basket with a feathery touch.

It is rare sight, to see a man that large that nimble, a combination of sheer force and astonishing agility and fortuitous genetics, but it is not rare for White. It is what he knows. He moves confidently, with purpose, with intention.

After the game, Kentucky’s head coach, John Calipari, a coach who has graduated 45 college players to the NBA, will say, “Royce is Charles Barkley.” It’s a comparison that comes up often, which is fitting since both players are anomalies, at once bullish and lithe, able to snatch rebounds from other gripping hands and then ignite a fast break with equal ease. But there are other comparisons. Jim Calhoun, one of the greatest college coaches of all time, says, “He’s got some Kevin McHale stuff inside.” One of Iowa State’s then assistant coaches, Matt Abdelmassih, goes a step further. “It’s unfair to Royce,” he tells Sports Illustrated, “but LeBron is the one guy you can compare him to.”

The NBA scouting reports are jotted with similar praise. “Legitimate playmaker.” “Big time rebounder.” “Crafty low-post scorer.” “NBA ready body.” His college coach, Fred Hoiberg, now coaching the Chicago Bulls, will say, “There are just so many things that he does. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player like him.”

White is about to announce his own opinion on the matter. Davis swats at him, tries to slow him down, to knock him off his path, but it doesn’t work. White launches into the air, dunks the ball through the hoop and then bellows his own proclamation.

“I’M THE BEST PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY.”

At that moment, it’s hard to argue with him. In his lone season at Iowa State, White is the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. He also led the team back into the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years. In this game, he has thoroughly outplayed the future number one NBA draft pick.

Back on steady ground, White thumps his chest. He screams. He makes sure he will be heard, and here lies the problem.

Royce White has something to say. Read more…

What Happens When You Dope Like Maria Sharapova

When Maria Sharapova won her first round U.S. Open match against the world’s No. 2 ranked female player, Simona Halep, she dropped her tennis racket and sunk to her knees in disbelief. Commentators Chris Evert and Mary Joe Fernández remarked that the match, which clocked in at two hours and 44 minutes, looked like it could have been the women’s final. When ESPN asked what Sharapova had learned from the match, she told them, “That behind this black dress with Swarovski crystals, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”

It was Sharapova’s first Grand Slam match in 19 months, the majority of which was spent serving a 15-month ban for violating anti-doping rules. The drug Sharapova tested positive for was meldonium, a heart drug that can assist in improving endurance and recovery. Caitlin Thompson was curious whether taking the drug could improve her tennis game while she competed in recreational tournaments, and she reported about the experience for Deadspin:

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Serena Williams on Returning to Tennis and Embracing ‘Power’

Serena Williams is planning on returning to the Australian Open next year to defend her grand slam title a mere three months after she gives birth. “It’s the most outrageous plan,” she told Vogue’s Rob Haskell from her home in Florida.

Williams has also learned to embrace what it means to be a powerful player on the tennis court:

Power—it’s a word that has clung with a sometimes unsavory vigor to Williams over the years, perhaps as a dismissal of her prodigious technical skill or, worse, as a proxy for her race. And it’s a word she has only recently come to embrace. “I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the idea of power,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles. In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win. Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty. So now on the court I want people to think that I’m powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different.”

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Family Band

Ben Rothenberg | Racquet and Longreads | August 2017 | 9 minutes (2,122 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by tennis writer Ben Rothenberg and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

To hear Alexander Zverev Sr. tell it, the tale of how his younger, golden-haired son began to play tennis has the simplicity of a fairy tale involving the Three Bears.

“It was all natural for Sascha,” he said. “Mama played, Papa played, brother played. And so, he started to play.”

While the Williams sisters have made family reunions in the finals of Grand Slams feel normal, multiple branches of a family tree breaking through to the top of the sport remains a rare phenomenon. This is particularly so in the men’s game, where brothers have rarely shared space in the top 200 together over the past decade. But in a sport that demands individualism, the Zverevs have managed to become the archetypal tennis family, a story line that’s become increasingly prominent in professional tennis, where the various methods of grooming top players are hotly debated.

Spanning generations and cultures, the Zverevs travel the tour together as four: father Alexander Sr., 57; mother Irina, 50; older brother Mischa, 29; and younger brother Alexander Jr., called Sascha, 20. The group is completed by Lövik, a toy poodle who does not play tennis himself but seems to enjoy the sport.

Under the guidance of their parents, both Mischa and Sascha became world-class juniors and now top 30 ATP players. Their biggest successes yet came in early 2017: Mischa reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating top-seeded Andy Murray, and Sascha made his top 10 debut after winning the Italian Open, the first Masters title for a player his age in a decade.

The younger Zverevs had their courses charted by parents who also achieved tennis success—though by different metrics, as Soviet athletes were rarely able to compete outside the U.S.S.R. during what would’ve been the heydays of their careers.

Family friend Olga Morozova at Wimbledon, 1970. (Photo by Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Olga Morozova was wary that the elder Zverevs might downplay their pedigrees. Morozova—perhaps the best-known player of the Soviet era, reaching the French Open and Wimbledon finals in 1974—had ostensibly joined our table in the players’ garden at the Italian Open to be a translator for Alexander Sr. and Irina as needed, but she quickly turned into a booster instead.

“This gentleman in front of you was one of the best tennis players in the Soviet Union, and I think he was unlucky not to be here and doing it here,” she said of Alexander Sr. “And that lady, Irina, was on the national team. I have to start, because sometimes they don’t know how to say it about themselves, but they both are very good tennis players. And that’s why their sons are playing so well, because they have very good knowledge about tennis.” Read more…

There’s No Overtime In This Game

Georgia Cloepfil is only in her mid-twenties, but she is already contemplating the end of her soccer career. The opportunities — and pay — just aren’t there for most women, and the body can only take so much. In her essay at n+1, “Beat the Clock,” she contemplates a life dedicated to a sport that can’t reciprocate.

At times I really am overwhelmed with unmitigated gratitude. Ambition, negotiation, tough-minded feminism—these give way to moments of childish joy. Professional soccer had never been more than a private dream, a subconscious curiosity. Now I get paid to do something I have loved since I was 4 years old. Other than my family, is there anything else I have loved so unconditionally, for so long?

I hobble around the kitchen, searching for a remedy for my constant foot pain and my sore knee. I am home over the holidays for a three-month offseason. “Life is long, Georgia,” says my 60-year-old mother. She is coaxing me to retire, to move on to a pursuit that won’t disintegrate my body with such persistent logic. I want to cry. My soccer life feels so short. Because it is so short.

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The Fallacy of the Olympics

The Olympics have a problem. Countries that have bid and won the “honor” of hosting the games are finding it increasingly difficult to manage the after effects — from rampant growth to financial demands — that accompany inviting the world for a late summer visit every four years.

The last host city that substantially profited from hosting the Olympics was Los Angeles, which “earned” $93 million some thirty-plus years ago when it hosted the 1984 games. The southern California event set the template for Barcelona and Atlanta, two cities that re-envisioned their respective downtowns and central hubs thanks to the Olympics, but in the years since, it has been increasingly more difficult for host countries to justify pursuing the games, leaving too many empty and unusable stadiums in the wake.

Take Brazil. A thriving economy and a commitment to athletic excellence led Brazil to target landing the 2016 games, but the subsequent combination of a recession and various scandals have left the South American country — the first ever to land the Olympics — in tatters. Wayne Drehs and Mariana Lajolo of Doubletruck, ESPN.com’s longform vertical, explored what has happened to Brazil just one year after the Olympics left Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and its other cities:

The opening ceremony in Brazil’s famed Maracanã was the most watched in Olympic history. More than 2.5 billion people from around the globe tuned in as 11,000 athletes marched on the stadium floor holding a cartridge of soil and a seed from a native Brazilian tree. The athletes placed the cartridges into mirrored towers. Olympic organizers called the procession “Seeds of Hope,” explaining the containers would be planted as part of an Athlete’s Forest in the Deodoro neighborhood of Rio.

But now, just over a year later, there is perhaps no greater example of the Rio Games’ complicated legacy. The seedlings sit in planting pots under a sheer black canopy on a farm 100 kilometers from Rio. Prior to last week, Marcelo de Carvalho Silva, the director of Biovert, the company responsible for the seeds, hadn’t heard from Olympic organizers in months. He had no idea what the plans were for the seeds, but he painstakingly watched over them for free, knowing what it would mean for his company — and the country — if something happened to them.

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Where In the World is O.J. Mayo?

It has been more than a year since O.J. Mayo, thought at one point to be the second coming of LeBron James, was “dismissed and disqualified” from the NBA for 24 months after he violated the league’s anti-drug policy.

Mayo wasn’t a once-in-a-generation talent, but he was pretty close; the guard had the speed, physicality, and athletic creativity that even other elite athletes lacked, and when he was drafted out of USC as the third overall pick in the 2008 draft, the thought was Mayo was destined for a myriad of future All-Star games. Those prognostications never materialized, and in light of the NBA’s ruling, Mayo has taken a step back from the game.

According to Ryan Jones of the Bleacher Report, who first profiled Mayo for Slam as a dominant high schooler at Huntington (WV) High School, Mayo has essentially disappeared:

 The basketball world doesn’t know what’s going on with Mayo, nor is it particularly interested in trying to find out. With his present a mystery and his basketball future in serious doubt, his past was the one thing it seemed possible to understand.

It’s not that Mayo has kept a low public profile — he has separated himself from both the basketball world and his own circle, or at least those whom Jones tried to contact to see how Mayo has spent his time away from the NBA. What’s bizarre about Jones’ feature is that Mayo was in the prime of his career at the time of his suspension, nearing 30 and, though recovering from injuries, still a valuable contributor for the Milwaukee Bucks. That he would incur the suspension is in itself shocking — only one other player in the past decade (Chris “Birdman” Andersen) suffered the same punishment — but to then completely disappear is a more shocking matter.

We’re no longer talking about a child, of course. O.J. Mayo will be 30 in November. He will have earned about $45 million in eight NBA seasons. At this point, there is no measure by which he is not an adult, responsible for his choices, good and bad. The stakes now go beyond trivialities like academic eligibility and mere reputation. This is about his career. His life.

Thinking about all this brought me back to something Mayo said 10 years ago, on that summer afternoon in Los Angeles. “What’s the average time you live on earth—like 60, 65 years?” he asked. “Basketball’s gonna take up half of it. I’d like to be successful in the other half, too.”

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