Category Archives: Sports

The Athletes Who Felt Seen by Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city”

(Rex Features via AP Images)

Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning second album, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” debuted five years ago last week. For Justin Tinsley at the Undefeated, California athletes, some of whom Lamar referenced in songs like “Black Boy Fly,” reflect on how much the album made them, and other young black men, feel seen.

Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.

Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination withThe Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”

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Widespread Abuse in Kids’ Sports Shows How Institutions Enable Predators

(Getty Images)

Sexual harassment and abuse existed in our institutions long before recent allegations against men in power like Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Roy Price came to light. How do institutions protect and enable these predators, and say things like, “Honestly, it was not on my radar,” when abuse surfaces? This is the question Alexandra Starr tackles in her Harper’s Magazine story examining how the U.S. Olympic Committee inadequately addressed sexual abuse in youth athletics. Institutions like the U.S.O.C. have often turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse until they’re forced to address them in court:

Marci Hamilton — the head of Child U.S.A., an organization that works to prevent child abuse and neglect — travels the country drafting legislation and testifying in statehouses on behalf of sexual assault survivors. She told me that, beyond money for therapy, window provisions help provide victims with recognition from the state that a wrong has occurred. “It is validating,” she said. “It can quiet the voices in their heads telling them they were somehow at fault.” For others reticent to come forward, watching people publicly hold their perpetrator accountable is key.

Hamilton has observed that child abuse at the Catholic Church has generated the most attention, but she finds youth athletics to be no less hazardous. “We have reports of abuse in every possible sports organization — whether peewee or little league or high school,” she said. “The extreme power imbalance between a coach and an athlete — not just an adult and child but a coach and an athlete — creates conditions for keeping secrets. And so long as secrets are kept, the perpetrators are protected.” Lawsuits, she added, “are the only way to force these institutions to disclose what’s in their files.” When SafeSport launched, she wrote that “the U.S.O.C. has moved at a glacial pace,” grappling with allegations of assault over the past fifteen years; “its actions have more often protected problematic coaches than children.” She told me, “What always comes out in the end is that the institution knew more about abuse than just about anybody else. They are also the ones most dedicated to silence.”

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Jemele Hill Was Doing Her Job

(Rich Polk/BET/Getty Images for BET)

The nation’s third-largest state is currently engulfed by 17 separate wildfires, with more than a dozen people dead and additional 100 in the hospital. More than 80 percent of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is still without electricity after Hurricane Maria devastated the island three weeks ago, and more than a third of the island’s population does not have access to drinking water. But the President of the United States, after throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans, is tweeting vindictively about a cable television host he dislikes.

ESPN Sportscenter host Jemele Hill, who Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders previously said should be fired for criticizing the president in a Twitter conversation, has been suspended for two weeks for violating ESPN’s social media guidelines for employees.

ESPN did not say exactly which of Hill’s tweets prompted her suspension, but it appears to stem from several tweets after Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said that players who don’t stand for the national anthem — “disrespects the flag,” in his words — will not be allowed to play.

Before we go any further, here are some things to know about Jerry Jones. Read more…

‘This is the Most Inexplicable Story in Sports of the Last 20 Years’

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 7 minutes (1,769 words)

When Erik Malinowski was wrapping up the proposal for what would eventually become Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in Historyhe happened to spot the latest cover story for the New York Times Magazine and his heart nearly stopped. The feature, written by Bruce Schoenfeld in March 2016, detailed the rise of the Golden State Warriors through the guise of its front office and the team’s devotion to analytics and data, which sounded much like the book Malinowski was trying to pitch.

“I was gutted at first,” says Malinowski, a prolific freelance writer who also hosts one of the most insightful and interesting sports writing newsletters. “I thought [the New York Times Magazine] blew up my spot. The story’s framework was in parallel of what I was proposing with book.” But then he took a step back and realized there was so much more to the rise of the Warriors (which has won two of the last three NBA titles) than could be covered in just one magazine piece. It was proof of concept: “If the New York Times Magazine put a story on the Warriors on the cover, then this is a thing people want to read about.”

One year later, Malinowski’s book is a deep-dive into not only the fraught history of the Warriors’ franchise, a once proud team at the NBA’s founding that had been reduced to a bumbling and mismanaged group of castaways, but also a team that had essentially redefined the NBA. Sure, having a player like Steph Curry, a once-in-a-generation talent with endless range, helped fuel its rise, but Malinowski also details how the Warriors helped to drag basketball into the modern age—and, in the process, transformed into an annual title contender.

I recently spoke with Malinowski about the ordeals of writing his book, whether this type of embedded sports journalism is still possible, and why the Warriors represent not just a shift in playing style but also political and societal awareness. Read more…

Should Youth Football be Banned?

(Jamie Squire/Getty)

Esquire writer Luke O’Neil recalls playing tackle football as a kid, a game where “you can hit so hard that you knock yourself out and wake up confused and distraught on the sideline, seeing yellow.” A new study from Boston University suggests that tackle football is too dangerous for the developing brains of youths from age six to 12, and O’Neil wonders how much damage he did to his still-forming brain.

It was the final game of yet another woeful season for our team against a much larger nearby city. I don’t remember the score, but I know we lost, because we always lost. And yet, even in playing football in futility, knowing you are likely to lose, there are victories to be snatched from defeat. A ferocious tackle. A shuddering block. You can hit people so hard that long after they beat you, they remember you were there …

… The new BU study, which surveyed still-living former players, determined those who began playing at a young age (before 12) showed double the risk of developing behavioral problems like apathy, and triple the risk of getting depression compared to players who started later.

Roughly 1.23 million kids ages 6 to 12 played tackle football in 2015, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a slight increase over the previous year. That age is significant, because a child’s brain has yet to fully develop by then …

… It’s easy to over-diagnose yourself when looking at a list of symptoms, but for as long as I can remember, these things have been a daily part of my life: sensitivity to sound and light, poor memory, ringing in my ears, apathy, and depression. It may not have anything to do with football — people suffer from mental and emotional disorders for all sorts of reasons.

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The Minnesota Lynx are an Ignored Basketball Dynasty

Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore from left, forward Rebekkah Brunson and Renee Montgomery (21) celebrate against the Indiana Fever in the second half of Game 5 of the WNBA basketball finals, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

In early September, the Minnesota Lynx won its 27th game of the 2017 WNBA season, a 14-point thrashing of the Washington Mystics. The win secured the Lynx the top spot in the league’s playoffs—the sixth time the team had grabbed the number one seed in the past seven years—and put the squad in the best position to win its fourth WNBA title.

Fast-forward to the finals, and the Lynx, facing the Los Angeles Sparks (a familiar bete-noire, as the western conference squad defeated the Lynx in the finals last season on a last-second shot), evened the series to one game apiece with a 70-68 win. Since Cheryl Reeve became head coach before the 2010 season, the Lynx has been the most dominant force in women’s hoops, a team that could steam roll opponents even if it was an off game.

But the most interesting about the squad, led by Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, and a supremely dominant Sylvia Fowles (the WNBA’s MVP who grabbed 17 rebounds in Tuesday’s night win), is that no one seems to care. Read more…

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

Shaka (Oakland Royals), Eddie (Oakland Royals), Ridel (Ciudad Havana), and Chris (Oakland Royals) in the dugout in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Ghost Town to Havana Staff Photographer.

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

Jemele Hill. (Rich Polk/BET/Getty Images for BET)

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

Royce White speaks with the media at a press conference on June 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

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

Illustration by J.O. Applegate

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…