Category Archives: Sports

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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There’s No Equality In Baseball

At Bleacher Report, Jessica Luther spends time with the young women of GTB — Girls Travel Baseball. Boys’ teams drop out of tournaments rather than play them and they’re mocked by opposing players and sometimes even parents. But they play because they love the game, even though they know their opportunities right now are limited.

One day, maybe, one of them will return and stand on the field as an MLB player. These girls, however, know what they are up against. The youngest of all the GTB girls is Savannah Strickland, who turned 10 in February. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and like all her teammates, she is the only girl on a local travel team. When asked how long she’s played baseball, she thinks about it and then says, “For as long as I can remember.” Strickland pauses and then asks, “Can I say something else?” Confidently and unprompted, she says, “I will want to play baseball until I’m not allowed to play anymore.”

She’s only ever known baseball, and she already knows one day someone will stop her from playing.

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Roger Federer Isn’t Stopping Any Time Soon

Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon singles title this weekend, and is the oldest man to do so in the Open Era (he turns 36 next month). Federer won the tournament without losing a single set, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down at an age when most professional players retire (also: a special shoutout to Venus Williams, who at 37, was the oldest woman since Martina Navratilova to reach a Wimbledon singles final).

Federer was recently profiled in ESPN Magazine, and discussed how he’s been methodically choosing which tournaments to play to avoid exacerbating old injuries and play his best as long as he can:

The run seems to be helping him ignore expectations — and retirement chatter — as he picks and chooses the tournaments he plays while his younger rivals push through the ATP tour schedule. Thinking about saving energy, going easy on his surgically repaired left knee and extending his playing days as long as he can, Federer recently opted out of the upcoming French Open; clay courts often mean long, grinding matches, and the surface doesn’t favor Federer’s quick game.

“I can just play the tournaments I want to play and enjoy the process,” he says. “If I do show up and play, I love it. When I’m in training, I enjoy being in training. When I’m not in training, if I’m on vacation, I can enjoy that. I’m not in a rush. So I can take a step back and just actually enjoy.”

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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 Resilience of a Middle Distance Runner

At Sports Illustrated, Tim Layden tells the story of middle-distance runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, who discovered in 2009 that she had a very rare form of cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), which is found primarily in the salivary glands and for which there is no standard of care. Then 22, she was on the verge of winning a Big Ten title and about to launch her professional running career. So they removed the tumor and she fought ACC.

“It all marked the beginning of Gabe’s life with cancer, not the end,” writes Layden. Within less than a decade, cancer has come back in different forms — again and again and again. Through it all, Gabe keeps running.

Since that morning in Tempe, cancer had come back three times. First there was thyroid cancer in 2010, just a year after her initial diagnosis. This was an entirely different kind of cancer, which at first confused everybody (but which now seems like a footnote). In the days between those first two cancers, Gabe, now 31, had lived—and run—voraciously. She learned that ACC five-year survival rates are very high (approximately 89%), and she attacked those five years. “Just fit in everything I can,” Gabe says. She procured that extra year of eligibility and took a whopping 10 seconds off her 1,500-meter PR, down to 4:12.06. She finished second at the Big Ten championship, second at the NCAAs and scored a modest pro contract with Brooks. Justin was away at medical school, in Duluth, so she also stayed out a little later, drank a little more beer and a little more red wine, escaping and experiencing a life she’d avoided in her past. “Sometimes those nights ended in tears and drama,” she says, “because I would get emotional about everything.” She had surgery on the thyroid cancer that fall, followed by one treatment with radioactive iodine, and then she bounced back quickly.

The big cancer, ACC, stayed away for seven years, and in that time Gabe carved out a career as a solid professional middle-distance runner. She finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 2012 Olympic trials, ran a personal best in the same event in ‘13 (4:01.48; only 10 American women have ever run faster) and won the indoor 3,000-meter national title in ‘14.

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The Re-Kazakhification of Kazakhstan, On Horseback

In the summer issue of VQR, Will Boast has a fascinating piece on kokpar, a traditional Kazakh sport in which in two teams of men on horseback “compete over a headless, freshly slaughtered goat, wrestling control back and forth in an attempt to score by flinging it into the opponent’s goal.” At the end of the game, the goat is dinner.

While many young Kazakhs would rather watch soccer than kokpar, the state is committed to promoting all things Kazakh after years of Soviet control that saw ethnic Kazakhs become a minority in their own country.

Despite these gestures toward a more global profile, Kazakhstan remains, for many, a huge blank on the map somewhere between Russia and China, essentially a hinterland. (During my visit, one young Kazakh educated in the US briskly summarized the typical Western conception of his country as, “Oil, dictator, Borat.”) In part to remedy its global anonymity, Kazakhstan is in the middle of a quixotic identity-building project, an attempt not only to define itself to the world but to reclaim and remake the past, and thus reckon with the realities of self-determination. After coming dangerously close to disappearing into history, ethnic Kazakhs are once again a majority, today making up about 65 percent of the nation’s population, with ethnic Russians at about 25 percent (the total population is just under 18 million, in a country larger than all of western Europe). A nationwide program of Kazakhification has gradually taken hold—replacing Russian with Kazakh as the language of business and politics, rewriting Soviet-era schoolbooks to include an honest account of Stalin’s brutal policies, and emphasizing the pre-tsarist history of the khanates.

The pre-Russian period has also been employed to provide the foundation of Kazakh cultural identity in the new century. The signifiers of a nomadic past are everywhere, often commodified and romanticized: placards in Almaty’s airport that showcase eagle hunting; documentaries on yurt living on state-run Kazakh TV; yurt-themed restaurants; and, of course, countless totems of the beloved horse—in snacks made of dried mare’s milk, in horse-themed techno on the radio, and in miniature riding crops given away as party favors, to name just a few examples.

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Unsportsmanlike Conduct! The Cathartic (and Expensive) Act of Racket Abuse

With Wimbledon well under way, it’s the perfect time to talk about one of the more shameful aspects of the sport of tennis: unsportsmanlike conduct in the form of racket abuse. Earlier this year at the tournament in Indian Wells, American Ryan Harrison, ranked 41 in the world on the men’s tour, destroyed a total of five tennis rackets after losing to a competitor.

In the New Yorker, Louisa Thomas has a profile of 22-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, ranked 20th in the world, and a reluctant rising star who has beat the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. Kyrgios has been known to sour when matches don’t go well, and joins a long list of players who take out their frustrations on their rackets.

Racquet smashing is the most common means of catharsis. Goran Ivanisevic had to default a 2000 match because he had broken all his racquets. In 2008, Mikhail Youzhny hit himself in the forehead with his racquet so hard that it left a bloody gash. Marat Safin, a two-time slam winner, who was as tormented as he was gifted, has estimated that he smashed seven hundred racquets in his career. He’s said to have played with shards of graphite embedded in his arm.

Almost every player smashes racquets, and all of them rant and mutter. “Tennis is the sport in which you talk to yourself. No athletes talk to themselves like tennis players,” Agassi wrote in his autobiography, “Open.” “Why? Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players—and yet boxers have their corner men and managers.” And, during a match, unlike boxers, tennis players can’t talk to or touch even their opponents, let alone a coach.

The cathartic act comes with consequences: Players are often fined several thousand dollars for racket abuse. At last year’s Wimbledon tournament, Serena Williams was fined $10,000 for repeatedly smashing her racket out of frustration.

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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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