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Ex-NBA guard JR Smith makes golf debut with North Carolina A&T

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BURLINGTON, N.C. — JR Smith couldn’t help but feel anxious.

Sure, he had spent 16 years playing in the NBA, making millions and winning two world championships in packed arenas at the highest level of a global sport. But he had never been in the situation like he was Monday: lining up tee shots as a 36-year-old freshman walk-on playing his first college golf tournament for North Carolina A&T at Elon’s Phoenix Invitational.

“I was nervous, I was,” said Smith, who shot a 12-over-par 83 in Round 1 and then a 7-over 78 in Round 2. “I didn’t really know what to expect.”

That’s easy to understand considering how massive of a change it represents for Smith. Exactly one year earlier, to the day, he was a shirtless part of an on-court celebration with LeBron James after the Los Angeles Lakers had just closed out an NBA title run in the Florida pandemic bubble.

Smith had since been drawn to the Greensboro school because of his interest in attending a Historically Black College or University, which follows a push by the NBA and its players to support HBCU traditions and culture in this year’s All-Star Game in Atlanta.

On Monday, Smith’s pride came from representing a HBCU for the first time as an Aggies golfer at the two-day event at Alamance Country Club.

“We’re such a small part of the percentage of the country, let alone the budgeting system,” Smith said with a laugh. “Because I see everybody else has got vans and all this other stuff. But it’s great. It’s great to represent them. It’s great for the school to get the recognition because they deserve it, and my fellow classmates.

“That’s what I’m most excited about: to be able to come back to campus and my teammates have their head held high with a victory coming from a tournament is what we look for.”

It’s a college experience almost two decades delayed for Smith, who was originally slated to play basketball at North Carolina before jumping from the preps to the NBA to become a first-round pick in 2004.

“I was pretty pleased with him,” Aggies coach Richard Watkins said. “He made some mistakes, did some things you will do if you’re not used to competing. Just going out and playing recreational golf with your buddies is a whole lot different than competition.

“That first 18 was just to get his feet wet. Then he buckled down, and I was really pleased with what he did that second 18, because education doesn’t come cheap. And I think he learned some lessons out there today.”

Smith’s presence in a blue A&T hoodie and white pants drew a mini-gallery ranging between 15 and 30 curious onlookers following him around the course. Eli Ehrbar couldn’t pass up the chance to be part of that.

The 21-year-old is a native of Cleveland, where Smith helped the James-led Cavaliers to the 2016 world championship. The Elon senior said it felt like a bit of good fortune that Smith qualified for his first college tournament so close.

“When I saw he qualified, I was like, ‘I have to come,'” said Ehrbar, wearing a burgundy Cavaliers hoodie. “I think that was kind of the feeling with me and a couple of my friends. We were like, this is a world-class athlete, a world-champion NBA player. Especially being from Cleveland, it just hits a little home differently.”

Smith seemed relaxed enough through numerous holes. When one tee shot hit a tree and landed in the fairway, Smith was quick to quip that he called the bank shot. He gave a playful “beep, beep” as his cart, driven by Temple golfer Joey Morganti, made its way through the onlookers on the cart path.

And when an excited 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever named “Lucky” started barking from a nearby home’s front yard during one of Smith’s shots, Smith stopped and shouted from across the green: “What’s your name?”

Smith said he wanted to be just another competitor at the tournament, though he understood the extra attention that came with his debut.

“More than anything, it’s just being able to go out there and compete as one of the guys, just another name, and get my [butt] kicked,” Smith said. “It was actually a very humbling feeling. Again, I’m ready to go to that range to work on it. I had fun, but I don’t like losing.”

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L.A. County wants Vanessa Bryant, others to undergo psych exams to determine distress levels from photo leaks

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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County is seeking to compel psychiatric evaluations for Kobe Bryant’s widow and others to determine if they truly suffered emotional distress after first responders took and shared graphic photos from the site of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed the basketball star, his teenage daughter and seven others, court documents say.

Vanessa Bryant, whose federal lawsuit against the county alleges invasion of privacy, has claimed in court papers that she has experienced “severe emotional distress” that has compounded the trauma of losing her husband and 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Kobe Bryant and the others were killed Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter they were aboard, on their way to a girls basketball tournament, crashed in the hills west of Los Angeles amid foggy weather. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the wreck.

Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit contends first responders, including firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, shared photographs of Kobe Bryant’s body with a bartender and passed around “gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches.” The Los Angeles Times first reported that a sheriff’s department internal investigation found deputies shared photos of victims’ remains.

None of the first responders were directly involved in the investigation of the crash or had any legitimate purpose in taking or passing around the grisly photos, the suit contends. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year approved legislation prompted by the helicopter crash that makes it a crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime.

“Ms. Bryant feels ill at the thought of strangers gawking at images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online,” court documents say.

Attorneys for Los Angeles County want the court to order Bryant and other family members of the people who were killed in the crash, including children, to undergo psychiatric evaluations as independent medical examinations. The lawyers propose that the evaluations be audio- and video-recorded and last eight hours for adults and four to six hours for children.

The county contends that while the families “have undoubtedly suffered severe distress and trauma from the crash and resulting loss of their loved ones, their distress was not caused by (the first responders) or any accident site photos that were never publicly disseminated.”

LA County attorneys wrote in court papers that such psychiatric examinations are “necessary to evaluate the nature and extent” of the families’ alleged injuries.

Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys, in filings submitted Friday, said the county is resorting to “scorched-earth discovery tactics” designed to bully her and the family members of other victims into “abandoning their pursuit of accountability.”

Attorneys for Los Angeles County, in a statement Monday to The Associated Press, said the county has “great sympathy” for Bryant’s losses.

“It’s horrific, the worst imaginable,” they said in the statement. “But she sued the County for something that didn’t happen. There’s been no public disclosure of crash site photos, none. So we see this case as a money grab and are doing what’s necessary to defend our client.”

Attorneys for Bryant declined to immediately comment on Monday afternoon.

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted vaccine mandate, says Kyrie Irving’s status is issue with New York City

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Monday he would have “preferred” that the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association come to an agreement on a vaccine mandate, in part to avoid it becoming an “adversarial” issue for the league’s players, as it has for Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving.

“I won’t try to speak for [the NBPA], other than the view that some players had, I think — including maybe some players who are vaccinated — that it should be an individual choice among the players,” Silver said during his annual preseason news conference, which was conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would have preferred that ultimately that the players’ association agreed to mandatory vaccinations. The officials union agreed to mandatory vaccinations, despite opposition from some of their members. But ultimately, I think we could have avoided a lot of the adversarial nature of these issues for our players. It’s not so much with the league. I think that gets confused in some cases.”

“This is between Irving and New York City right now,” he continued. “This is not a league issue … but I think it would have been best for everyone if every player were vaccinated.”

Irving is the lone NBA player who, as of Monday, is unable to play this season because of a vaccine mandate. New York City enacted a mandate last month that requires anyone going to a public gym, such as Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, to get at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. San Francisco passed a similar law that went into effect last week but that required individuals to be fully vaccinated.

While Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins eventually got vaccinated, clearing him to play, and the New York Knicks are fully vaccinated, Irving is the lone Nets player who has decided not to get the vaccine, and therefore, he is ineligible to play games at either Barclays Center or Madison Square Garden. It’s a decision that, if he sticks with it for the entire season, could cost him close to $20 million.

Visiting players, however, are exempt from the law, meaning that Irving is the only one who is unable to play as a result. Silver said he has heard nothing about the possibility of the vaccine mandate in New York being eased at any point this season.

When asked if it is “fair” that Irving is unable to play while other unvaccinated players — including Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal — are able to play without issue, Silver said that the framing of the question was off.

“I’m not sure if fair is the right way to approach it because there’s nothing fair about this virus,” Silver said. “It’s indiscriminate in terms of who it impacts, and I think it’s perfectly appropriate that New York and other cities have passed laws that require people who both work and visit arenas to be vaccinated. That seems to be a responsible public health decision made by those locales, and those are the circumstances in which the Nets find themselves operating.

“I accept that. I think that we understand as a league we have to play the cards that are dealt, just in the same way there are variations from market to market. I know there are players in some markets who would prefer that their local governments pass ordinances requiring that all the fans be vaccinated who are in the buildings with them.”

“We’ll see how it plays out,” he added. “I mean, frankly, I hope that Kyrie sort of — despite how strongly he feels about the vaccination — ultimately decides to get vaccinated, because I’d love to see him play basketball this season, and I’d love to see the Brooklyn Nets have their full complement of players on the floor.”

Irving’s decision not to get vaccinated in addition to comments made by Beal and others about the vaccine have caused plenty of commentary on social media and elsewhere, which prompted Silver to be asked if that was something he was concerned about.

Silver said he was and that he has always encouraged players to speak their minds on issues they believe in. But, he said, he doesn’t believe that someone’s personal opinions automatically become their rights, and he pointed to Irving’s situation as an example.

“… I think that gets lost sometimes, that having an opinion about whether to get vaccinated is different than your right to play NBA basketball,” Silver said. “We’re seeing that, for example, in the New York market right now, when there’s a conflict with a player’s point of view and the local law, and the local law is going to trump that player’s point of view.

“I’ve always tried to ensure that players feel comfortable using this platform that the league affords them. I don’t mean literally the league. Just by being a famous NBA player, that they use it responsibly, that they educate themselves on points of view, but they also are respected in return.”

“I hope that to the extent that players continue to express points of view on a variety of topics that those points of view are respected,” Silver continued. “Again, that doesn’t mean that either the league will necessarily agree with them or fans will, but that fans will respect them for doing that, as long as it doesn’t cross certain lines of vulgarity or hate speech … there’s obviously some other categories where people shouldn’t go as representatives of this league.”

• Silver said the NBA’s investigation into possible tampering by the Chicago Bulls in their sign-and-trade deal with the New Orleans Pelicans for Lonzo Ball and the Miami Heat in their sign-and-trade deal with the Toronto Raptors for Kyle Lowry was “ongoing.” He declined to give a timeline for when that investigation would be completed.

“From a league standpoint, we’re just trying to create a level playing field,” Silver said. “We tried to reset two years ago and make that absolutely clear to our teams, that going forward, to the extent we could, we would be strictly enforcing these rules, and that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”

• On the topic of expansion, Silver said he has yet to set foot in Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, the renovated former Key Arena and the home of the NHL’s expansion team, the Seattle Kraken. He added that expansion isn’t something the league will pursue until it gets fully onto the other side of the pandemic.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that at some point we’ll take a very serious look at potential expansion,” Silver said, “and as I’ve said before, Seattle is one of those cities that we have our eye on. We had great success there in the past, and the fact now that they have a state-of-the-art arena back on line only increases their prospects. But it’s premature to get more specific than that.”

• Silver said it is “unclear” whether the NBA will return to state-run CCTV in China this season. The NBA has not had any games aired on it since Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong two years ago this month.

• Silver once again said that he is a proponent of adding a midseason tournament to the NBA schedule but that the most work will have to be done not just in creating the format but in persuading the players it is a worthwhile endeavor.

“But we have a fair amount of work still to do on it and a lot of convincing to do,” he said. “I know that for some of the players I’ve talked to directly, they have trouble, I think, envisioning the benefit of another form of competition when they’re so focused on the Larry O’Brien Trophy and don’t necessarily see us being able to create a new tradition.

“My response to that, especially having been with the league now for so long, is that these things take time. I think we’re in a position where we should be taking a long-term view looking at those changes in society around us and looking at — and it’s a responsibility of the league office to look out into the future on these things.”

• Silver said he is “optimistic” that the NBA All-Star Game slated for February in Cleveland will be able to be celebrated in something close to a normal fashion this season, as the league works to come out of the other side of the pandemic. The league is announcing its 75th anniversary team across both ESPN and TNT over the next few days, beginning Tuesday night on TNT.

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Lakers’ LeBron James adamant limiting workload won’t shield body from injury

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — LeBron James does not buy that monitoring his minutes will have any effect on his health as the Los Angeles Lakers are about to start their new season this week.

“I don’t play the game thinking about injuries,” James said Monday, ahead of L.A.’s regular-season opener against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. “And I also feel worse when I play low minutes.”

In what has become a near annual ritual for the 19-year veteran, James — already sixth on the all-time minutes played list — flatly rejected the notion that limiting his playing time can shield his body from potential harm.

The fact is that even though James logged a career-low 33.4 minutes per game last season, he still suffered a severe high ankle sprain that caused him to miss 26 games and derailed a potential MVP campaign.

While James played on the right ankle in all six games of the Lakers’ first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns, he averaged just 23.3 points on 47.4% shooting, 8.0 assists and 7.2 rebounds, performing below his usual postseason standard.

James, who will turn 37 in December, said his injury dragged on well into the offseason.

“It took a while,” he said. “I didn’t do much basketball stuff for probably the first two months of the summer, which is very rare for me, because my ankle wasn’t responding how I would like it to respond.

“And the best thing about the summertime was I had time. I had time to just really get ready when my ankle was ready to go. I was always training, just wasn’t on the basketball court much. Always doing other stuff, training, pushing, seeing if I could do other stuff with my ankle, and until I got to a point where I didn’t feel any sharp pains anymore, and my flexibility was back to where it was before. That’s when I knew I could get back on the floor.”

Lakers coach Frank Vogel said he plans to abide by a scripted rotation that would keep James on the court in the range of 34 to 36 minutes per game.

Vogel also explained what James meant about feeling better the more minutes he plays.

“Actually in some ways if he stays over there [on the bench] too long and he gets cold, it’s worse for him to get back in there [on the court],” Vogel said. “Especially since he’s been playing this type of rotation for so long.”

Beyond that, Vogel does not have a rigid plan to manage James’ workload as he embarks on what he hopes will be the 11th trip to the NBA Finals of his stellar career.

“Obviously, it’s probably don’t want to have him play 82 games,” Vogel said. “But we’re not going to pre-script X amount of nights off. We’re going to take it as it comes throughout the year.”

For James, coming off the only first-round exit of his career, there is no hangover from last season’s disappointing title defense.

“It’s definitely a completely clean slate,” he said. “And honestly, last year was such a fast-twitch season for us coming off the bubble. And injuries derailed anything that we wanted to do. So it’s a great opportunity for us to kind of just rinse our hands and have a clean slate, and get ready to start building.”

Building with a hope to secure his fifth ring — which would be the first for new Lakers Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and a record-setting 18th for the franchise, breaking a tie for most in league history with the rival Boston Celtics.

“Just motivated to have an opportunity to win a championship,” James said. “That’s why I play the game. It’s one of the greatest, shortest feelings that you have. You win a championship and everything that you put into that year, it just hits you all at once. And literally, a couple of hours later, it’s like, ‘It’s over.’

“And the whole time, you’re just trying to figure out how to get that moment again. Seriously. That’s part of motivation still, just always trying to get that feeling.”

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