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Amidst COVID-19, The Last Dance Offers Buzz of the Sporting Event We Needed

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There has been no Master’s Weekend. There is no NCAA Champion. We’re months away from the NBA Playoffs, if there are playoffs. The NFL Draft is having technical difficulties, days before their remote draft. No NHL Playoffs in sightThere has been no Opening Day. April is frequently one of the best months to be a sports fan. Sports fans, off of the high of March Madness, fiend something new every day in April. Every night, April is the first part of the firework-like finale to the sport calendar. You know as it is starting that there are a lot of explosions and highlights coming, and you’ve got some time to enjoy them before the dust is all that’s left.

April 2020, however, has been just dust. 

COVID-19 has taken away live sports for over a month now, and may take them away for many more months to come. 

But, through Netflix and ESPN Films, the sports world spent the last weekend, and may spend the next few weekends, invested as if each weekend was the championship to end all championships. The Last Dance is a documentary that, 22-years later, is revealing the behind the scenes footage surrounding the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. The documentary is outlining the trials and tribulations the Bulls went through as they rounded out their second three-peat in an eight-year window. The film includes in-depth interviews with previously closed off personalities, highlights from historic games from decades ago, and an all-access pass to a time machine into greatness. But none of that is the most interesting thing happening amidst The Last Dance 

The documentary is showing the crazy buzz surrounding sports, pulling everyone together to cheer for the same team, while all of its viewers are sitting on their couch. 

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No Sunday Scaries Tonight 🍿

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It started with celebrities on Thursday and Friday, but fans across the world were laying out what Jordan and Chicago Bulls gear they were going to wear Sunday night. Internationally, fans wore matching black, red, and white in their living rooms as if they were an SEC student section on a Saturday in November. Speaking in the I perspective, I pulled out a Jumpman pair of sweats, a Jordan brand tee-shirt, old Champion Brand #45 jersey, and the “Flu Game” Jordan XII sneakers. When the documentary’s two episodes were over, my mind began racing over what I was going to wear the next weekend (I am thinking to dig up some of the Carolina part of the collection, just to switch it up). 

But why? 

Twitter was reloading Sunday night fast and furiously. Much like an important Sunday Night Football game, commercial breaks didn’t seem long enough to follow folks live-tweeting the event. Screenshots like “Barack Obama: Former Chicago Resident” (he’s had one or two titles since then) or a comparison of Jerry Krause and Mr. Swackhammer (from Space Jam) went viral as if they were the butt fumble. Live Twitter and Instagram shows aired afterward, dissecting the artistry of director Jason Hehir much like they do a star quarterback or NBA All-Star. ESPN spent Monday doing all of their morning and afternoon shows reacting to the documentary from their own network. Fox Sports had former ESPN personalities breaking down the brilliance from their former employer as if it was an instant classic Super Bowl.

But why?

And today, as we relish in the two-episode history of Michael Jordan, behind the scenes folks are eluding to them being the worst two episodes. America in particular is captivated by His Airness and reports are coming out that it only gets better. Similar to Jordan’s career arc (minus that whole Wizards thing), the series starts with tremendous and full of the potential of greatness. If the show follows said arc, the drama leading up to the shot over Byron Russell will have the audience’s collective heart-pounding about whether or not it goes in, even if everyone watching knows it will. Much like Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America did in 2016, the ten hours of television is set to pull in an audience with a captivating drama even if we all know how it ends

But why?

Simply put: That’s the only way Michael Jordan does anything. 

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🐐 🕹

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Tiger Woods came onto the international sports scene in the same period as the Bulls second three-peat. Folks weren’t calling Tiger the next Jack Nicklaus, Tiger was the “Michael Jordan of golf.” Barry Sanders wasn’t the next Walter Payton, Barry was the “Michael Jordan of running the ball.” Jordan became not only mononymous, he became the bar for greatness across everything. Jay-Z, in referring to his own greatness, referenced Michael Jordan from the start of his career (With the third pick, I made the earth sick / MJ, him Jay, fade-away, perfect) throughout the 2010s (I’m liable to Michael, take your pick / Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6). 

No other athlete invokes greatness the same way. That’s not to say there’s been no other athlete comparison (Tiger and Nicklaus do get compared, obviously) or there’s any other rap lyric that compares greatness in sport to greatness in hip hop (“No I already graduated / And you can live through anything if Magic made it” sticks out, but Post Malone made an entire song called “White Iverson”). For whatever reason, Jordan’s name has stood the test of time. 20 years later folks still “want to be like Mike.” 

Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s, and even Hanes all made the persona of Jordan off the floor as big as the laundry list of accolades he earned on it. Perhaps it’s that from the moment he set foot on the NBA hardwood, those accolades piled up so quickly. In 12 full seasons in Chicago, Jordan was an All NBA player 11 times, and an all-defensive player 10. In those 12 seasons, he has only one less MVP award than the all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20. Whatever the reason, the folklore lives on. 22 years after The Last Dance happened, we’re all still watching intently waiting for each and every detail. 

Sports can serve as an escapism from the real world. Houston is hit by a hurricane? Insert an Astros World Series. Following 9/11? A team that’s red, white, and blue named the Patriots wins with the ultimate underdog, a sixth-round pick and backup, quarterback. The year after Katrina? Who could forget Steve Gleason’s blocked punt in a 23-3 route of the undefeated Falcons? 

During the current pandemic, that escape is lost. Sports fans are resorting to classic games from the past, video game competitions, and reruns of sports movies (well, and Tiger King). Unable to escape, the realities of an invisible danger outside is glaring. Teams are monetizing the necessity for masks, and athletes are giving back in donating experiences to the All In Challenge. It’s harder and harder to escape the news, and there is just so much pre NFL or WNBA draft coverage to consume. 

Sports fans of all generations dressed up, sat down, and consumed The Last Dance like it is a sporting event because we all need a sporting event to be fully engulfed by. Sure, Jordan and his Last Dance docuseries would have captured all of our attention in the window after the NBA Finals had 2020 been a completely normal year. Sure, there probably were going to be people “#FlexingFromHome” with Jordan sneakers on in their living rooms binge-watching the series anyways. Sure, there was probably going to be ESPN talking heads the following day breaking it down anyways. 

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Y’all ready? Let’s Dance | #TheLastDance

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But, when it’s this magnitude, it’s clear that this was something people needed. We needed to anticipate what is going to happen or be uncovered. We needed something to live tweet. We needed something to text out friends and loved ones about. 

Frankly, we needed an excuse to change into some (clean) clothes and sit down to watch something live, and together. If those clothes are Bulls Colored, Jordan branded, or from the 1990s, so be it. We needed to be virtually connected in the same way the student section at a college football game is because we needed a thing to cheer on. 

I’ll be in the same seat next week, with even more “team gear” on. I’ve got season tickets, thanks to ESPN. 

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Basketball

Zach LaVine Is The Missing Piece For The Sixers by Chris Allen

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Zach LaVine is a 6’6 catch and shoot lob threat. This 25-year-old two-time slam dunk champion has spent his career trying to make it to the playoffs or keep the Chicago Bulls at 500. In contrast, he’s averaging over 25 points per game since 2019, per basketball reference. LaVine is bound to be an All-Star this year, having career highs in both points and FG shooting percentage. His skill set, and size, might be the missing piece for the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 76ers have themselves projected anywhere from a 2-4 seed coming out of the Eastern Conference. Ben Simmons is the best playmaker and on-ball defender on the team. Joel Embiid is a beast in the post and spreads the floor. Tobias Harris is a solid shooter anywhere on the floor and can create his own shot. Out of the three, the most tradeable player is Harris in exchange for LaVine. Depending on management, you can make LaVine sign an extension or throw in Danny Green and Otto Porter Jr. to offset the salary cap.

How would the 76ers offense and defense schemes work? In theory, depending on matchups, Simmons would play the four on defense for the most part and alternate with LaVine or another guard to play the one. This allows for more explosive offensive firepower surrounding Simmons and still creates space for Embiid to operate in the post or stretch the floor. This open space leaves room for your slashers, Simmons and LaVine.

With all the movement and attention on the central core, spot up, catch and shoot three-point shots will thrive. Matisse Thybulle, Seth Curry, & possibly Porter Jr. offer the Sixers solid shooting on the floor to make this a solid offense. Simmons at the four on defense allows him to turn into the point guard as soon as he gets the rebound hitting LaVine on the fast break for quick transition points.

LaVine can do something that Simmons can’t do, which is the ability to shoot from outside the paint. Whatever position you put them in, they could cover each other’s weaknesses and keep Philadelphia’s offense potent. Philly still has depth with Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey for guards if Simmons and LaVine ran as your forwards.

No one wants LaVine to have career numbers on a struggling team. Simmons and Embiid are rare in their skill set. They could use an independent scorer to take away attention and get a bucket when needed. With LaVine holding the ball more, there’s less talk about where Simmons sits in the offense with his lack of shooting. With the trade deadline coming, it will be interesting to see whether LaVine will stay a Bull or find himself with a contender for a ring.

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Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21

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There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.

Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.

Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.

Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.

Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.

For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.

Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.

If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.

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Stephen Jackson: Journey Man

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Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.

Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.

And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.

Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”

Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)

While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.

In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.

Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.

Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.

In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.

What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.

The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.

However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”

Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.

Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story.  As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.

“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”

But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?

“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”

“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”

“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”

The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.

However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).

Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.

But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.

And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.

If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:

The George Floyd Fund

Black Lives Matter

Bailing Out Protestors

Know Your Rights Camp

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund

Secure The Block

ACLU

Gianna Floyd Fund

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