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Don’t ‘vilify’ Gregg Popovich, Becky Hammon for standing during anthem

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Wearing Black Lives Matter shirts, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and assistant coach Becky Hammon opted to stand while players and coaches on the Spurs and Sacramento Kings kneeled during the national anthem Friday night.

Popovich, who has long spoken out against racial injustice, explained he preferred to keep his decision to stand “to myself” and that “everybody has to make a personal decision.”

Popovich’s star guard DeMar DeRozan said people should not “vilify” either Popovich or Hammon for standing.

“With Pop and Becky standing, I have no thoughts [contrary to] belief in them that is all out of genuine, out of a positive side of their heart,” DeRozan said after finishing with 27 points and 10 assists in the Spurs’ 129-120 win over the Kings in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “Same way we kneel. Don’t take away nothing from those guys.

“You know Pop speaks out. When it comes to Becky, she’s been [on the] front line, fighting for equality since I’ve been a fan of hers playing in the WNBA. So everybody has their own right of making a statement and you can’t vilify nobody for not doing what the other group is doing. I’m all for it.”

Popovich, who is also the head coach of the USA men’s basketball team, graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1970 with a degree in Soviet studies. He played at Air Force and served his five-year military commitment upon graduation.

“I prefer to keep that to myself,” Popovich politely said when asked about his decision to stand during the anthem. “Everybody has to make a personal decision. The league has been great about that. Everybody has the freedom to react any way that they want. For whatever reasons that I have, I reacted the way I wanted to.”

Before the game, Popovich said that it was up to each player and coach to decide whatever they wanted to do during the anthem. But he also made it clear that all of the teams in Orlando intend to maintain the momentum of the protests against social injustice and systemic racism in a variety of ways.

Popovich has spoken out countless times against racism and the history of mistreatment of Blacks in America.

“Considering what’s going on in our country with race, it’s always been our national sin and it’s always been something that has never been faced as well as it should have been,” Popovich said on Friday afternoon prior to the game. “And with the events that we’ve all witnessed in this last year, it’s just logical and wise to keep that momentum going … because it is a national embarrassment. It keeps us from being the country that we should be or the country that was promised to everyone.

“And nothing could be more poignant than to have all of the teams here all committed to making statements and letting it be known that this has got to change and not just a little bit.”

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Kobe Bryant’s legacy is all over the NBA floor

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In the 1980s, Michael Jordan launched a stylistic revolution in pro basketball. While not the first great wing player in the sport, Jordan was the first one to absolutely dominate the association.

His epic battles versus the Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz weren’t just battles for the Larry O’Brien Trophy — they were battles for the future direction of the sport. MJ won, allowing jump-shooting perimeter players to take over the NBA.

In 1992, at the apex of Jordanmania in America, Gatorade launched a legendary ad campaign that challenged every young hooper to “Be Like Mike.” Out of the millions who tried, only one ever even came close. That was Kobe Bryant, who made his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers a few years later. Bryant successfully extended the stylistic revolution Jordan started in the ’80s and ’90s deep into the 2000s. The torch was passed.

Bryant has left multiple important legacies since his death a year ago, but the imprint he left on the look and feel of modern pro basketball is among the most lasting.

Jordan and Bryant shared a rare friendship and a number of tactical similarities that will forever link the two all-time greats. Their back-to-back careers also reshaped basketball greatness at the highest levels. After a generation of young players grew up idolizing MJ, the next crop fell for Bryant.

Both players transcended typical sports dominance by pairing their championships, their MVP awards and their scoring titles with aesthetic magnificence. These guys didn’t just dominate the best league on the planet, they also made that domination look cool as hell. The bold fadeaways, the tongue-hanging, the confident showmanship — all of that was impossible to ignore as the league’s up-and-coming stars developed their own styles.

By owning both the standings and SportsCenter, the tandem wrestled control of the NBA away from plodding big players and handed it over to versatile, shot-creating wings. They made pro hoops faster, wide open and, most of all, they made it more beautiful.

In the 25 years leading up to Jordan’s rookie year, games were won and lost in the crowded trenches, as the NBA handed out its MVP award to centers 21 times. In the past 25 years, that has happened just once.

Today’s NBA is controlled more by the exact kinds of perimeter skills and all-around versatility that epitomized Bryant’s game. That’s no accident. Just as Bryant grew up watching MJ, Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Klay Thompson and Paul George all grew up in Southern California watching Bryant win titles and humiliate opponents on a regular basis.

Many of these stars used Bryant’s success as their own road map to the NBA.

Entering the 2011 NBA draft, DraftExpress pegged San Diego State’s Leonard as the best wing in the class but flagged a few major issues with his game, namely his shooting.

Leonard was selected with the No. 15 pick by the Indiana Pacers before being traded to the San Antonio Spurs. Nobody doubted Leonard’s competitive spirit, his defense or his work ethic, yet the numbers didn’t lie — his jumper needed a lot of improvement.

Leonard and the Spurs had only a week together before a 161-day NBA lockout outlawed any contact between players and coaches. Chip Engelland, the Spurs’ renowned shooting coach, hatched a plan. After studying Leonard’s mechanics, he pulled a few images of Bryant to show Leonard, who converted fewer than 30% of his 3s in college in part because of his awkward overhead shooting release.

Engelland had always admired Bryant’s form, and so did his star pupil. Despite the fact that the Spurs and Lakers were engaged in a decade-long battle for control of the Western Conference, Engelland and Leonard used their superstar rival as a template for what would become one of the most impressive player development arcs in the modern NBA. (Full disclosure: Engelland and I worked together on the Spurs from 2016 to 2018.)

The shooting coach pointed out Bryant’s impeccable elbow placement, how he always got his arm underneath the ball, and challenged the rookie to mimic Bryant’s form as much as possible during the lockout months.

“[Bryant] was very aware of shooting technique,” Engelland told ESPN, recalling a conversation he and Bryant once had about shooting form. “Some people’s baseball swing, they just swing, while others are really aware of their swing. He was really aware of technique.”

Engelland and Leonard made rapid progress — in part because of Leonard’s immense talent and drive, but in part because they had identified a perfect model that both respected.

Defenders could easily affect Leonard’s shot when he was a rookie. One key step in Leonard’s development involved a slight increase in his release point.

“One summer he raised his release point, and that was a big thing; after that, I don’t know who gets his shot now,” Engelland said. “It’s Kobe-esque in that way. It’s hard to get to because he tilts when he leans back in his fadeaway. It’s very hard to block.”

Leonard has now become both a two-time Finals MVP and one of the most versatile scoring wings in the game. Poetically, he took home the first Kia NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award in 2020. And Leonard’s biggest shot ever — which lifted the Raptors past the Sixers in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals — was pure Mamba. Leonard made it impossible to block, even for a superstar giant such as Joel Embiid.

“Your vision of Kobe isn’t typically an upright jump shot, it’s a tilted form, and Kawhi’s shot in Toronto exemplifies the ultimate tilt,” Engelland said. “That was a heck of a fallaway.”

Just like Jordan and Bryant had slayed their own share of centers and power forwards over their careers, this generation of new stars inspired by Bryant continues the trend. Centers are more replaceable than ever. Two-way scoring wings are vital.

Engelland noted that the similarities between Bryant and Leonard don’t end with mechanics.

“They both put in thousands of reps,” he said. “First you get the technique, then you do the reps, and that builds the confidence. Controlling that ball with technique and the reps behind it builds the confidence to take those big shots. It’s a great combo.”

That brings us to one other way we see Bryant’s legacy in today’s game: immense superstar pressure in crunch time. The Hall of Famer attempted 2,028 clutch-time shots — defined as a shot when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. That is the most of any players over the past 25 seasons. Including the playoffs, Bryant attempted 89 go-ahead shots inside the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or OT — the most by any player over the same span.

A few years ago, Chris Paul recalled how one of Bryant’s iconic game winners — his elbow jumper vs. the Phoenix Suns in the 2006 playoffs — stuck with him.

“Kobe never even looked at the rim,” Paul said. “It’s like he was getting to a spot. Looking at that play, it’s like there was an ‘X’ somewhere on the court and Kobe was like, ‘Once I get to it, I’m like, boom.'”

That approach went on to influence one of Paul’s own memorable moments: his unbelievable Game 7 winner against the Spurs in the first round of the 2015 playoffs — perhaps Paul’s finest shot ever. Even the Point God knew when it was time to do it himself.

Late in his career, Bryant embraced a mentor role for dozens of younger players, including Leonard. He advised them about basketball and business. He worked out with players in the offseason, challenging them to practice harder, prepare better, respect their bodies and consider their mental approach.

Those lessons will be all over the court Wednesday night when Kobe’s Lakers visit the Philadelphia 76ers, and that legacy of the Mamba Mentality isn’t going anywhere.



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Houston Rockets’ John Wall, Washington Wizards’ Russell Westbrook resume trash talk, get T’d up in first meeting since trade

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John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the pair of point guards with maximum salaries swapped for each other just before training camps opened, stood near the free throw line midway through the fourth quarter and barked at each other Tuesday night at the Toyota Center.

Wall, who readily acknowledged that his adrenaline was pumping hard in his first game against the Washington Wizards after spending the previous decade with the franchise, had the upper hand and apparently wanted to make sure Westbrook heard about it.

Wall had just accounted for all of the Rockets’ points during a critical 9-2 run — getting two buckets, sinking two free throws and dishing for a 3 in the key spurt, giving Houston a double-digit lead in what turned into a 107-88 win. The heated exchange of words that prompted double technical fouls to be called — “just basic basketball trash talk,” Wall said — happened after Wall stumbled on a Westbrook drive that resulted in a foul with 5:16 remaining.

“That’s what two competitive guys do,” said Wall, who had nine of his 24 points in the fourth quarter of the Rockets’ third consecutive victory. “Russ been kicking my ass for years. This is only my third win against Russ, I think, since I’ve been in the league. So that means that he’s a hell of a talent.

“I know he’s going through injuries, same as I was, and we’re just trying to keep getting better, trying to lead our teams. But (it was) just two competitive guys trash talking. This ain’t the first time we trash talked before, and we know how good that he can be.”

Westbrook, whose career record in meetings with Wall dropped to 11-3 with the loss, didn’t take such a diplomatic approach when asked about the on-court discussion.

“Now listen, I don’t start talking s—,” Westbrook said. “I defend myself because I don’t just allow people to say just anything, especially when I know the facts as it pertains to anybody on the court playing against (me). So, I think (Wall and DeMarcus Cousins) just started talking s— because they just started to win, started winning at that time. So, you know, it’s cool, though. We play them again.”

Westbrook downplayed the meaning of his return to Houston, which had only one player in the starting lineup that was his teammate last season. He spent only one season with the Rockets before requesting a trade.

“I don’t like losing to anybody,” said Westbrook, who had 19 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers in the loss, his second game back after recovering from a quadriceps strain.

The Wizards, however, have lost a lot this season. Washington, which is still missing several players after several games were postponed due to COVID-19 cases, is 3-10 overall and 1-8 in games that Westbrook has played.

On the other hand, this was a game that Wall was looking forward to since the Wizards traded him along with a protected future first-round pick to the Rockets for Westbrook. He has admitted several times that he felt slighted that the Wizards didn’t give him a chance to continue his career in Washington after coming back from heel and Achilles tendon injuries that sidelined Wall for two years.

“I just feel like the organization thought I was done, no matter how much hard work I put in over the summer,” Wall said during a postgame interview on the Rockets’ television broadcast. “They came and watched me. I thought they thought I was done. That’s why I came out here and did what I did.”

Wall had 15 points and four assists in the first half, highlighted by him going coast to coast before going behind his back in the lane and finishing with his left hand in traffic. Wall, who was on a minutes restriction in his second game back after a five-game absence due to a sore knee, struggled in the third quarter, missing all four of his shots from the floor and committing two turnovers. But he closed out the Wizards in the fourth, when Wall combined with Victor Oladipo to score 19 of Houston’s 32 points in the new backcourt partners’ first game together.

“I’ve known this guy (Wall) for a long time,” said Cousins, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds. “I’ve seen his approach to big games and games that have some type of importance to him. I’ve seen him perform every time at a high level, so I didn’t expect anything less.”

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NBA reporter and analyst Sekou Smith dies at 48 due to COVID-19

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Sekou Smith, a longtime NBA reporter and television analyst, died Tuesday after a battle with COVID-19. He was 48.

A native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Smith went to college at Jackson State in Mississippi before starting his career at the city’s Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He then went on to become a fixture in the NBA universe — first as a beat writer covering the Indiana Pacers for the Indianapolis Star and the Atlanta Hawks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, before joining Turner Sports in 2009.

For more than a decade, Smith starred across all platforms for Turner, serving as an analyst for NBA TV, a writer for NBA.com and a host of the Hang Time Podcast.

Smith is survived by his wife, Heather, and their three children: Gabriel, Rielly and Cameron.

“We are all heartbroken over Sekou’s tragic passing. His commitment to journalism and the basketball community was immense and we will miss his warm, engaging personality,” Turner Sports said in a statement. “He was beloved by his Turner Sports and NBA friends and colleagues. Our deepest condolences are with his family and loved ones.”

Smith was universally beloved within the basketball world, both for the work he produced in his nearly two decades covering the sport and, more importantly, for being a kind and decent person, one with an ever-present smile and a wonderful laugh. Those virtues, and many others, were reinforced in the outpouring of messages on social media in the wake of the news of his death.

In addition to his colleagues across the journalism industry, the tributes came from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, as well as Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and New Orleans Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy.

“The NBA mourns the passing of Sekou Smith, a beloved member of the NBA family,” Silver said in a statement. “Sekou was one of the most affable and dedicated reporters in the NBA and a terrific friend to so many across the league. He covered the game for more than two decades, including the past 11 years with Turner Sports, where he showed his full range of skills as an engaging television analyst, podcast host and writer. Sekou’s love of basketball was clear to everyone who knew him and it always shined through in his work. Our heartfelt condolences go to his wife, Heather, and their children, Gabriel, Rielly and Cameron.”

Both Kerr and Van Gundy spent time working with Smith at Turner Sports, and took time to recognize his death after their respective teams practiced Tuesday.

“I just heard the news about Sekou Smith and I am just devastated,” Kerr said. “I know I speak for our entire organization, just crushing news today. Sekou has been a part of the NBA family for a long time.

“I just want to express our organization’s condolences to Sekou’s family.”

“It just hit hard,” said Van Gundy, who worked with Smith at Turner Sports before taking the Pelicans job prior to this season. Van Gundy said he learned the news shortly before practice began.

“I think for all of us, this COVID thing has been painful, to say the least. But when you lose somebody that you know, and that you admire and respect, and who is young.

“I mean, he might not be young by some of your guys’ standards, but young by my standards, it’s just really, really hard. This thing is so scary and has brought so much grief to so many people. … Today is one those days. There’s a lot of people in Atlanta today grieving a great man in Sekou.”

NBA players past and present also offered their condolences on his death, including Phoenix Suns star Chris Paul and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade.

Smith, a passionate fan of the Michigan Wolverines, mentored countless colleagues in the business as a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He also was one of a handful of journalists who spent time inside the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, to cover last season’s playoffs, including the NBA Finals.

Both the NABJ and the Pro Basketball Writers Association issued statements honoring his life and legacy, as did the Pacers and Hawks, the two teams he covered as a beat writer.

“The passing of Sekou Smith due to COVID-19 complications hits so many members of the NABJ Sports family extremely hard,” the NABJ said in a statement. “He was more than a colleague; he was a friend and brother to us, and so many others.

“Our deepest prayers go out to his wife, Heather, and their children.

“Our members are devastated by the passing of our beloved friend and trusted colleague Sekou Smith,” the Pro Basketball Writers Association said in a statement. “He was a kind, caring person and a tremendous journalist. We love you, Sekou. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and his co-workers at Turner Sports.”

No one, however, summed up Smith better, and more succinctly, than Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce after his team beat the LA Clippers in Smith’s adopted hometown of Atlanta on Tuesday night.

“As genuine of a person as there is in the industry,” Pierce said.



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