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What the NBA can learn from China’s attempt to restart basketball during the coronavirus pandemic



The NBA is going to need to build a bubble.

The top challenge facing the league is creating a safe environment for players, coaches, referees, support staff and technical operators. An environment that, in the early stages of resuming the season, might not include fans. It might not include travel. It might not even include an arena.

Along with much of the sports world, the NBA has been watching the Chinese Basketball Association. There is optimism in China. There is progress. But the CBA’s struggles to build a coronavirus-safe space to finish out the season foreshadows how difficult resuming play for the NBA will be when the COVID-19 pandemic slows enough to consider such measures.

Chinese players and coaches have been in limbo since Jan. 24, when the CBA shut down during the scheduled Lunar New Year break. Discussions about bringing the league back began as early as mid-February. But the uncertainty about the spread of the coronavirus has clouded the ability to effectively strategize the restart.

The season was supposed to resume the first week of April, then it moved to April 15. Now the CBA restart has been delayed to late April or early May, sources said. That could mean a layoff of more than three months since the league shuttered.

Teams called foreign players back this past week — more than a dozen Americans, including Jeremy Lin and Lance Stephenson, have returned — and had them enter quarantine for 14 days to ensure that they are healthy and cleared to play in time for a training camp.

The CBA has watched as basketball leagues in Japan and South Korea have attempted returns and canceled them. The CBA knows the eyes of the sporting world are on it and is cognizant of the stakes if there’s a setback, sources said.

The Chinese government is also concerned about a coronavirus resurgence and announced plans to close the borders to foreign nationals starting March 28 after a new set of cases was detected from foreigners arriving in the country.

The CBA hasn’t formally announced a plan, but multiple sources said that what has been drawn up includes clustering teams in one or two cities and playing one another in a round-robin format in empty arenas over several weeks. There are 16 games left for each of the 20 teams in the league. The goal has been to play out the remaining schedule in full before moving on to the playoffs, with the hope that fans could eventually be admitted.

The CBA has discussed playing in Dongguan, a city in the warmer southern region that hasn’t seen the same volume of cases as other areas. Another option has been Qingdao, a coastal city in northeast China that typically receives many travelers from nearby Japan and South Korea and has developed effective quarantine strategies. Teams would live and play in a constantly monitored environment, with players’ temperatures checked several times a day.

If the plan were to unfold without incident, it could be a strategy the NBA considers among other options. Ideally, NBA teams would be able to train in their facilities and play in their arenas. But in the near term, that might be impossible, especially with escalating health concerns gripping the nation. The NBA could look at venues in a centralized location, perhaps playing in non-NBA cities.

Various ideas have been floated by players and executives. One is to consider using a sprawling casino property in Las Vegas, where everything could be held under one roof. Others have suggested playing in the Bahamas, where a ballroom could be converted into a playing court specifically for broadcast. There has even been talk of taking over a college campus in the Midwest, where reported cases of COVID-19 are lower for the moment.

Whatever the location, it would be a place where teams could sleep, train, eat and, hopefully, be kept healthy enough to have confidence in resuming play — maybe not to finish out the season but to at least get restarted.

But as the repeated false starts and delays in Asia have shown, this is a massive challenge. When the idea of being quarantined in a hotel with other teams to resume play was presented on the Road Trippin’ podcast this week, LeBron James said, “I ain’t going for that s—. I’m not going for that.”

He also reiterated that he didn’t want to play without fans in the building but would do so if that’s what it took to get back to the floor. Such concessions may be necessary if James wants a shot at playing for a championship this year.

There’s no handbook on how to handle a global pandemic for sports leagues. This week, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban speculated that the league could be playing again by mid-May.

But in China, projections for return dates have come and gone many times. It turns out bubble-building can be hard.

ESPN DAILY: Pro basketball’s return to China

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Sources — Pistons starting search for GM to work with Ed Stefanski



The Detroit Pistons are opening a search to hire a general manager to work with senior advisor Ed Stefanski, sources tell ESPN.

Detroit plans to begin contacting potential candidates to start an interview process this week, sources said.

Stefanski will be working with Pistons and Palace Sports Vice Chairman Arn Tellem on the process to hire a GM, sources said.

The new GM will work closely with Stefanski and coach Dwane Casey on personnel matters. Stefanski and Casey were hired in 2018.

The Pistons are 20-46 this season and have started to move toward a rebuild, with former All-Star forward Blake Griffin lost for the season because of knee surgery.

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George Hill is spending the NBA hiatus on his 850-acre ranch with zebras, kangaroos and wildebeest



IT’S STILL DARK when George Hill drives up the dirt road.

It is 5:30 a.m., and Hill parks his Dodge pickup, trudges over to a small hut perched 12 feet above the ground, climbs the ladder and settles in to watch the sunrise.

Wearing Wrangler jeans and a hoodie emblazoned with the Milwaukee Bucks logo, Hill whips out his phone to play Sudoku as he waits.

Between games, he scans the land for the silhouettes of his animals — kangaroos, wildebeests, donkeys, elk, antelope and six zebras, among others.

“I am mainly on African safari stuff,” he says.

Hill, 34 and envisioning life after basketball, is pouring his time away from the court into learning more about animal care, overseeing projects — expanding a lake and building a “barndominium” are currently underway — and watching over his vast, 850-acre ranch and its exotic residents.

In August 2017, he purchased the massive plot of land here in Texas Hill Country, a 35-minute drive north of his family’s offseason home in San Antonio. Over time, the property has been bulldozed, sculpted and preened into a sprawling ranch.

Normally an offseason retreat, the ranch has become a getaway during the league’s coronavirus suspension. Soon after the announcement that games would be put on hold on March 11, Hill, his wife, Samantha, and their 4-year-old son, Zayden, and 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, flew to Texas from Milwaukee.

“I just think it’s cool for my kids to see,” Hill says. “And for them to have something different. Everyone has a dog or a cat. … I just choose other animals.”

MORE: The bubble blueprint, and how the NBA could finish 2019-20

FALLOW DEER WERE the first animals Hill introduced on his land. Then he added sables — 500-pound brown-and-white antelope that are native to Africa. Now, he has dozens of different animal species.

Hill owns scimitar oryx — tan-and-white creatures that also are in the antelope family, with curved, pointy horns and big bellies. He has Arabian oryx and red lechwe. There are New Zealand red stag, kudu and ostrich, too.

Hill bought the majority of his animals three years ago, but in early May, he added another zebra to his herd. “For my birthday,” Hill says.

Hill says he purchases his animals from Texas-based licensed specialty breeders. According to Lonesome Bull Ranch — an exotic wildlife breeder in Corpus Christi — zebras run anywhere from $3,950 to $5,750. The most expensive animals on Hill’s property are the female sable antelope and kudu, which cost $20,000 to $25,000 apiece. He only keeps herbivores that can nibble on the grass, roots and shrubs.

Just a few have names. A baby zebra born last summer is named Suki after the Bucks’ strength and conditioning coach, Suki Hobson, who visited the ranch days after it was born. Zayden named one of the kangaroos “Hoppy.”

“He was a country boy even back in his Indiana days. I knew it was a matter of time before he found somewhere he could disappear to.”

CJ Miles, on George Hill

But most of the animals, Hill says, will never come into contact with humans. A few of his deer were bottle-fed from birth, so they will occasionally allow Hill, his kids and the ranch hands to pet them on the nose or feed them snacks. “[The white-tailed deer] really love peanuts,” he says.

Plus, the animals have plenty of room to roam. Hill’s 850-acre ranch is massive, dwarfing the land areas of the biggest zoos in the country: The Texas Zoo in Victoria — 130 miles southwest of Hill Country — is 106 acres, the Bronx Zoo is 265 acres and the Minnesota Zoo is 485 acres.

“Most of [the animals have] been out there relaxing and reproducing,” Hill says.

Hill tries not to insert himself into his animals’ lives, but if they appear to be ill or have a limp, he or someone on his staff will intervene. Two years ago, Hill noticed one of his elk wasn’t eating. Over the course of a week, the elk got progressively skinnier, until Hill called a neighbor, who is a vet.

“I thought he was going to die,” Hill says. “But my neighbor came over and gave him two shots of antibiotics, and he’s super healthy now. He’s back, huge as ever.”

In Texas, owning exotic animals such as zebras and kangaroos is legal. Texas residents, according to the state health and safety codes, need a permit for “dangerous wild animals,” such as lions, tigers, cougars, leopards and cheetahs, among others.

The Texas Animal Health Commission, in an email to ESPN, explained that there are only regulations for moving zebras into Texas from another state, requiring the zebras to have a certificate of veterinary inspection and a permit.

His zebras, his other animals and the ranch they inhabit are part of Hill’s master plan.

He had wanted a place like this for years. When Hill played for the Indiana Pacers in the mid-2010s, he would talk to friend and teammate C.J. Miles about his dream.

“He was a country boy even back in his Indiana days. I knew it was a matter of time before he found somewhere he could disappear to,” Miles says.

But even Miles was surprised to hear the variety of Hill’s animal collection.

“[Having] kangaroos is actually insane to me,” Miles says. “I’m afraid of them.”

BEFORE THE ZEBRAS and kangaroos, there was a horse named Ropey.

When Hill was a teenager in Indianapolis, his father purchased two pintos that were brothers. Hill named one of the horses “Ropey” after the rope that was slung around the horn of his saddle.

“We used to ride through the neighborhood,” he says.

Hill’s father, who loved horses, had bought a modest plot of land near Wes Montgomery Park.

“He never had [a horse] or really seen people from the hood that had horses,” Hill says of his father. “So he wanted to step outside the box.”

“I feel like there is so much negative s— going in the world, man. So, I always try to think positive. Like, man, this is just preparing myself for retirement.”

George Hill

Hill would go to the barn, sling a pad and saddle over Ropey’s back and ride him to his neighborhood down the road. In Indianapolis, a 20-minute drive sees a quaint downtown give way to cornfields and farmland.

“A little pocket of a town [will have] a country feel to it and then get right back to the city,” says Miles, who spent three years with the Pacers. “People think it’s one or the other — it’s not.”

Still, Hill and Ropey stood out among the single-story houses that lined 34th Street.

During summers, Hill would ride Ropey to Washington Park to play basketball. He would stuff plastic, gallon-sized jugs of water into the side bags that draped over Ropey’s withers. When Hill got to the park, he would pour the water into a bucket, tie Ropey’s lead to a tree and play pickup on the outdoor court.

Hill never worried about someone snatching his horse while he ran up and down the court. Most people, Hill recalls, knew his family. His peers never seemed daunted, either.

“It was just like, ‘Damn. This motherf—er has a horse,'” Hill says.

HILL WANTS TO be clear: He is an experienced hunter, but the animals on his ranch are not for hunting.

“The only thing I hunt on my land is wild hogs and coyotes, because they cause so many problems,” Hill says. The hogs, he says, can burrow under the fences and eat the corn and grass meant for his animals, while coyotes can climb in and kill his baby deer.

Hill started hunting after being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 2008, when he got to know season-ticket holders Will and Gloria Drash. They became so close that Hill affectionately refers to them as his “adopted grandparents.”

Will Drash taught Hill to shoot on a trip to the couple’s 150-acre west Texas ranch during the All-Star break of Hill’s rookie season.

“I instructed my husband: ‘You do not give George the most powerful rifle out there because I don’t want him throwing his shoulder out,” Gloria Drash says. “And then we aren’t able to go to the games because [Gregg] Popovich is going to get on our case.

“Of course, they didn’t listen to my instructions.”

Since then, Hill has chased bigger, more expensive game. During offseasons, he has traveled to Alaska to hunt grizzly bears and Canada to hunt elk. He has shot pheasants with Bucks’ vice president Alex Lasry. Three years ago, Hill posted a video on Instagram of him shooting wild hogs during a guided helicopter hunt.

And while Hill explains the efforts he takes to be a responsible hunter — hiring experts and guides to identify which animals are aging and approved to kill, purchasing appropriate hunting permits and harvesting the animal’s meat so that his kills are functional — his social media followers have varied reactions to his hunting-related posts.

Mixed into the congratulatory comments — “nice kill brother” and “glad to see some hunting content back on your page” — are people calling him “cruel,” “disgusting” and telling him to “shoot baskets not animals.”

“I don’t really pay that no attention,” Hill says. “Most people that always have something against hunting are the same ones that go out to a restaurant to eat a steak or order a burger. So I always say, if you really see all those animals [get] to your plate, you’d probably think differently about hunters.

“If you’re hunting just to kill s—, you have a problem.”

BY 7 A.M., the ranch is bustling.

Social distancing has always been the norm for Hill and his 16 ranch hands.

“You’re already 100 acres from another person. Everything you do, you have to take an ATV or truck,” says Hill, who has continued to employ his staff throughout the pandemic, as the Department of Homeland Security deemed farmworkers as essential.

Four people are clearing weeds and mending fences. Four are working on expanding a lake for Hill, an avid fisherman. Four are building a three-bedroom home called the “barndominium,” one of the projects Hill is most excited about. On this day, the porch on the upper level is nearing completion, with installation complete on dozens of lights dotting the ceiling.

Eventually, this is where Hill wants to retire. “You are starting to see how it will all come together,” he says.

Four other employees are in charge of the animals, making sure the feeders and water troughs are full and the animals are healthy.

Hill is taking in all the knowledge he can.

“I am just going from job to job, talking to them, asking them if I can help do things so I can learn,” Hill says.

Hill aims to be back with his family by 2 p.m. to play with his kids — and return to real life.

Virus concerns — Samantha’s 85-year-old grandmother had COVID-19 and has recovered — have forced Hill to tell teammates who wanted to stop by the ranch in the offseason that plans might be off; and there is the realization that he was supposed to be in the middle of a playoff run with the Bucks.

“I feel like there is so much negative s— going in the world, man,” Hill says. “So, I always try to think positive. Like, man, this is just preparing myself for retirement.”

For now, the ranch and the exotic species he helps care for remain Hill’s refuge. One day, he hopes to pass it down to his children.

“If this is what retirement looks like,” Hill says, “this is better than I thought.”

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Coronavirus quarantine beard is alive and well with LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers and other athletes



Be honest — your personal grooming habits have deteriorated during the coronavirus pandemic, right?

You probably don’t shower as often. Heck, you might not even get freshly dressed every day. It’s OK — we’ve all let our standards slip, in one way or another.

But let’s look at the bright side. The quarantine beard is alive and well in the sports world. Some sports stars have decided to stop shaving and, well, the results are simply glorious.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was already a hero to the facial hair appreciation society — and only endeared himself more so this week:

LeBron James has already gone through a few stages of his beard. It was a bit unruly before James’ wife gave him a trim.

“Psychologically, it can be a sort of declaration of fortitude and heartiness,” Christopher Oldstone-Moore told Wired. He studies gender and hair at Wright State University and wrote a book about the history of facial hair.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘I’m tough. I can withstand adversity.'”

So, Fitzpatrick and other athletes are doing what a lot of men are doing to get through the pandemic.

In an ironic turn, while this would normally be prime playoff beard season, a few hockey players have shaved off their beards.

Then there’s Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who shaved — and maybe shouldn’t have.

Roethlisberger, who missed most of the 2019 NFL season with an elbow injury, had been growing his beard before COVID-19 forced the closure of barber shops and hair salons.

“I’m not going to shave or cut my hair until I can throw a football again,” a then-clean-shaven Roethlisberger said earlier in the year. “Throw it to one of my teammates, a legit NFL pass.”

And Roethlisberger got quite shaggy before being able to complete that pass.

The problem was that the barbershop where Roethlisberger went for the haircut and shave should not have been open, according to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s phased reopening plan.

Maybe that can be a lesson for other athletes growing wild facial hair at home: Just keep growing.

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