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Rockets’ Tilman Fertitta says he encourages speaking out on U.S. issues

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Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told CNBC in an interview Tuesday that he “loves” the protests happening in cities across the United States and that he encourages all his employees to speak up about issues like racial injustice.

Fertitta also said he was disappointed that his team “got in trouble” earlier this year for a tweet general manager Daryl Morey made in support of the Hong Kong protestors. He clarified later in the interview that there is a difference between speaking out on domestic and international issues.

“Speaking up on an issue in America and speaking up on an issue somewhere else in the world are two different matters,” Fertitta told CNBC. “In America, we have free speech and we can do whatever we want to do and say whatever we want and not be penalized because of it. That’s why we all love this country so much.”

Though Fertitta emphasized the Rockets “should not be a political organization because we have 60,000 employees and 100 million customers and we don’t all agree,” he said he encourages his employees to share their opinions on issues such as race.

“When it comes to an issue like this in America, you should speak out and say what you want,” he said. “And I encourage all my employees from my basketball team to my restaurants to my hotels and casinos to speak out on this issue, and let’s make this country better that we live in and has been great for so many of us.”

The death of George Floyd has sparked protests across the country. Floyd, who was black, died last week in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. Fertitta called Floyd’s death “inexcusable” and said he understands and agrees with the protests.

“I love the protesting. That’s what makes America great. Remember, we got in trouble early in the year, my team, because we commented about something which was such a disappointment because that’s what makes America great. I just hate that we have to see the coverage of a few negative things, when it’s such a great issue to be protesting about.”

Fertitta, who owns hundreds of restaurants across the country, also said a handful of them have been vandalized during the protests.

“It’s really disappointing because where the protests are happening are in urban areas where a lot of the restaurants and retail were just now opening up again, literally in the last seven days,” Fertitta said. “Obviously, this is going to set us back weeks now. Last night in Houston, where we haven’t had a lot of problems, the roads were desolate, which is really a shame.”

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First teams take the court for practice in NBA bubble

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Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotels and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the #JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor. Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

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Rockets’ James Harden, Russell Westbrook expected to travel to Orlando on own

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Star guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook were among a small group of Houston Rockets players and staffers who did not travel on the team flight to Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, sources told ESPN.

Each member of the group is expected to join the team later at Walt Disney World after traveling on his own.

Coach Mike D’Antoni was on the team flight, although he has yet to receive official word from the NBA that he has been cleared to coach the remainder of the season, sources said. D’Antoni, 69, said earlier this week that his medical screenings did not reveal any issues that would be considered red flags.

The league office informed the National Basketball Coaches Association that nobody would be placed in the high-risk category — meaning they wouldn’t be allowed to coach in the bubble — due to age alone.

The Rockets’ hopes of making a deep playoff run rest largely on Harden and Westbrook, two recent MVPs.

Harden has averaged a league-leading 34.4 points, 6.4 assists and 7.4 rebounds per game this season. Westbrook has averaged 27.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists.

The Athletic first reported that Westbrook and Harden were not on the team flight.

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Zion Willamson’s stepfather allegedly took $400K payment, court filing says

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Zion Williamson‘s stepfather solicited and accepted a $400,000 payment from a marketing agent in October 2018 prior to Williamson’s only season with the Duke Blue Devils, according to a court motion and sworn affidavit filed by his former marketing representative’s attorneys in federal court on Thursday.

Gina Ford’s attorneys say the affidavit and other exhibits show that Williamson was ineligible when he played for the Blue Devils in 2018-19 because his stepfather received impermissible benefits from Slavko Duric, a Canadian marketing agent.

“[W]e obtained newly discovered evidence impacting the issue of whether Zion Williamson was a ‘student-athlete’ that we believe makes it transparently clear, verifiable and indisputable that he was not a ‘student-athlete’ long before there was any communication or contact between Zion Williamson, and/or any third party acting on his behalf, and our clients,” Ford’s attorney, Alvin Pittman, wrote in a letter to Williamson’s attorney on Monday.

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent, and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Williamson’s attorney, Jeffrey Klein, said in a statement to ESPN. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway. This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

Exhibits attached to the motion include an affidavit from Donald Kreiss, a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, who says he engages in fundraising, deal-making and investing. Kreiss said he was introduced to Duric by a third party and agreed to invest in Duric’s company, Maximum Management Group, in exchange for a percentage of the money generated from its exclusive marketing agreement with Williamson.

In the affidavit, Kreiss wrote that after Williamson signed with CAA to handle his marketing opportunities, he and his stepfather, Lee Anderson, agreed to “repay all monies given to his Family in 2018 and pay us seven to ten million dollars.” Kreiss also wrote that Duric had to “‘shred’ any record relating to payment of money and the contract” between Williamson and MMG.

The exhibits included a purported marketing agreement with Maximum Management Group, which was allegedly signed by Williamson and Anderson, on May 2, 2019, and a purported letter of declaration from Dec. 8, 2019, in which Anderson and Williamson agreed to repay $500,000 to Duric before Jan. 7 “for a repayment of a loan rendered by him to our family in October 10, 2018.”

Klein said in a letter to Pittman that a Google search revealed that Duric “purportedly attempted to defraud [Dallas Mavericks player] Luka Doncic … using a scheme in which he forged Doncic’s and his mother’s signatures on a contract.”

“The signatures on the documents you attach are also clearly fraudulent,” Klein wrote in the letter. “The signature on the purported agreement between Maximum Management Group and Mr. Williamson does not match Mr. Williamson’s signature on the Agreement he signed with your clients. And the signatures of Lee Anderson and Mr. Williamson on the Letter of Declaration are also inauthentic, as made clear by the fact that they are highly pixelated in comparison to the remainder of the document, and there is a break in the line beneath the ‘Z’ in Mr. Williamson’s name where the signature was superimposed onto the document.”

Last month, according to the letter, Klein received a letter from a different individual who also might have fallen victim to Mr. Duric’s scam, which contained the same allegations and documents.

“We immediately referred the matter to the appropriate law enforcement officials, and have passed along to them today the new allegations contained in Mr. Kreiss’s declaration,” Klein wrote. “Accordingly, we ask that you advise Mr. Kreiss of our position as to the contents of his sworn declaration. Virtually nothing in Mr. Kreiss’s declaration comes from personal knowledge, and instead consists of hearsay from Mr. Duric, so Mr. Kreiss may be unaware of the nature or extent of Mr. Duric’s scheme.”

Williamson’s attorneys have asked a federal judge in North Carolina to void his marketing agreement with Ford and Prime Sports Marketing, claiming it wasn’t valid because Ford wasn’t a registered agent in the state and the contract didn’t include a warning that was required by a state law designed to protect amateur athletes from unscrupulous agents.

Ford and Prime Sports Marketing sued Williamson and Creative Artists Agency (CAA) for $100 million in state court in Florida for allegedly breaching their marketing agreement and signing with CAA.

Last month, a state appeals court in Florida granted Williamson a full stay of a civil lawsuit brought by Ford, meaning the New Orleans Pelicans star won’t have to answer discovery requests about whether his parents received improper benefits before or while he played one season at Duke, or at least not until after a federal case involving the same issues is resolved.

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