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#ThrowbackThursday: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Plays his Last Regular Season Game

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April 23rd, 1989 marked the last regular-season game for one of the greatest players the league has ever seen. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ended a 20 year, hall of fame career with a 10 point effort in a win over the Seattle SuperSonics. Abdul-Jabbar averaged just over ten points in just under 23 minutes per game that season, both of which were his career lows. His 4.5 rebounds per game that season was almost a quarter of his career-high, and his last season was the only one he shot below 50% from the field. By this point, the Captain was a more apt nickname than the Tower from Power (his high school in New York City). His biggest impact was in the Lakers’ team culture.

That impact was felt. The Lakers swept the entire Western Conference Playoff bracket before falling to the younger Bad Boy pistons for a second consecutive year.

This week, the nation’s basketball fans are on a high because after a month without sports, The Last Dance is documenting Michael Jordan’s final season as a Chicago Bull. The trials and tribulations are set up from the end of the season before, and continued until Jordan evaded Byron Russell for the last shot in Utah. Reliving the greatest player of all time has sports fans on the edge of their seats, even if the outcome was decided nearly 20 years ago.

There is, however, a not so distant timeline in which The Last Dance is a documentary about Kareem and the end of the Showtime Lakers. Assuming the goal is to document the final season of the greatest player ever, Kareem’s resume is as strong as anyone’s. After his final game on April 23rd, 1989, Kareem held the records for the most games played by a single player, and he still holds the record for the most points, most field goals made, and most minutes played ever. He has an NBA record six NBA MVPs, had six championships, nineteen All-Star appearances, fifteen-time member of the All NBA team, and eleven-time member of the NBA All-Defensive team. For reference, Jordan only played thirteen seasons with the Bulls, and two of those were shortened (one by injury, one by him showing up late from baseball).

Many cite the “Jordan Rules” as evidence of Jordan’s greatness. The Jordan Rules were created by the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons as a way to slow down Michael Jordan. They ran double teams at him and physically contested every shot he took. Whatever it took to make the shot difficult, even if illegal, the Pistons did it. They also attacked him as a defender, physically backing him into the post and roughing him up. Once Jordan figured out how to beat Detroit and the Jordan Rules, he went on to win six championships in his next six full seasons. It appeared as if the Jordan Rules, and his own baseball career, were the only things that could keep him from winning.

But while those physical contests left their mark on Jordan and the NBA, they didn’t alter the actual rules of the game. Jordan, battered and bruised as he was, got to shoot a lot of free throws as a result of the harsh fouls.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was so dominant they changed the actual rules. When Kareem was in college, they had to outlaw the dunk. At UCLA, Kareem (then Lew Alcindor) had scored 33 points and 21 rebounds per game in the freshman league (freshmen were not allowed to play Varsity NCAA athletics in the 1960s). In the following three years, the first three college players were not allowed to dunk, Kareem averaged 26 and 15. He found his touch and finesse in the skyhook, a weapon that he used on the majority of his 15, 837 made field goals in the NBA. The NCAA had kept him from dunking, and somehow made him more dominant.

Part of what makes The Last Dance a documentary about Jordan as the greatest of all time and not Kareem is in fact how it ended. Jordan finished his career on a game-winner to break Utah’s heart for a second consecutive year, cementing a second consecutive three-peat (and yes, we are moving on like the Wizards years did not happen). Kareem’s strength was his longevity, and how great he was for two decades. Kareem was the first team All NBA center at age 38. He went on to win two more championships after that. But, when he retired, he wasn’t on top. He walked off the floor while the Bad Boy Pistons celebrated their first title on it.

Jordan’s The Last Dance is the sporting event we need right now. But a big part of why it is myth lived in reality is because it ends well. Spoiler Alert: Jordan makes the steal, then the shot. The Bulls win.

Not to drudge up a “Kareem or Jordan?” debate, but it is worth thinking about what would Kareem’s film have been if they were celebrating in 1989. A title that year would’ve been Abdul-Jabbar’s 7th, and ended in a three-peat of his own. Abdul-Jabbar had no individual rival in the second half of his career, but a ring in 1989 would’ve given Los Angeles the edge over their historic rival Boston Celtics in the 1980s.

Kareem’s career did not have The Last Dance, but in fairness it was a long show with plenty of hits. For much of his career, folks used coded language like calling him “angry” or “a bad guy,” “aloof” and “free-spirited.” Truthfully, Kareem was kind, gentle, and deep thinking. Perhaps it was genuine, maybe it was from learning these lessons, but Jordan was sure to come appear “angry,” “aloof,” or as “a bad guy.” While it’s easy to look back at Abdul-Jabbar as a celebrity who was in movies like Airplane, or as someone who had profound thoughts on the state of the world, that mostly comes from hindsight. As with any social activist, it is easier to look back on them fondly than it was to be a fan of them in the moment.

April 23rd, 1989, marked the end of an illustrious career for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Even the longest concerts come to a close. Not every show ends in a last dance. Some acts end with firework-esque finale, others end well after last call even if everyone’s gone home. The way a show ends may be the way we remember it, but that doesn’t define the show at all. And sometimes, even after the last call, the last song is worth a dance.

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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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#ThrowbackThursday: Game 6 Klay

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Games in an NBA playoff series are interesting in how there seems to be something notable about each one. Game 1 is important because you’ve got to have a good start. The home teams need to protect, the visitor needs to split. Game 2? Well, you can’t go down 0-2. And if you’re up 1-0? You’ve got a chance to “take care of business” in Game 2. Game 3 comes with a change of scenery. The new home team needs to get that one. The now-visitor? If you’re up 2-0, you can put the nail in the coffin. Tied 1-1? Well, you have to get homecourt advantage back… and down 0-2? See up 2-0, then flip the script. Game 4 can literally be the last game in the series, or can be the vital chance to tie it up. Every game 5, you’re either looking at a team with a chance to win the whole series right then, or someone ready to split the tie. And we’ve all seen the ESPN stats about the winner of Game 5 in a 2-2 series…

And Game 7? Best two words in sports. It’s all the marbles, the entire series comes down to the final moments.

Game 6 gets kind of left behind. It’s inherently an elimination game for one team. It also is set in a different arena than Game 5 was or than Game 7 will be. And, if you can win a series in 4 or 5 games, you dominated it. If it goes 7 games? It was a close, or a competitive, or a great series. If it goes 6? Eh.

Game 6 gets left behind, it’s undervalued. Some of the best and most necessary performances in NBA history happened in Game 6 to allow for the Game 7s, or to cover up the blunder in Game 5.

One of those happened four years ago today: Game 6, 2016 Western Conference Finals. The performer: Klay Thompson.

Much like the underappreciated Game 6, Klay Thompson is synonymous with being the second or third fiddle. Klay has had some of his most historic playoff performances in Game 6s the last few seasons, as poetic as that may be. Last season, he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to seal the Warriors fate. Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals a few weeks earlier? Klay had 21 in the first half to keep the game close while Steph Curry went scoreless, and hit the dagger three with 36.1 seconds to go to move past their rival Rockets in Houston. In 2018? Klay went 9-14 from the 3-point line in Game 6, racked up 35 points to avoid elimination survive Game 6 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals over the Rockets, who had a 3-2 lead and appeared to have figured the Warriors out.

But this connection started in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. After a record 73-9 regular season, the Golden State Warriors were on the ropes. They were down 3-1 in the series to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State won Game 5 at home to stay afloat, but had to travel to the Sooner State for a must-win Game 6.

Curry needed that second fiddle now more than ever. The two-headed monster in Oklahoma City necessitated multiple superstars to perform like superstars for Golden State to have a chance. Insert: quiet quirky Klay Thompson. It wasn’t that surprising. Thompson was the second-highest scorer on the team that historic season, was also on the All-NBA team and All-Star team. He hit 276 three-pointers that season… the most by anyone not name Steph Curry in NBA history to that point.

But the 11-18 three-point shooting barrage Thompson provided was more valuable than the 41 points Klay scored. Every time Oklahoma City’s crowd began to roar, Klay silenced it. He made them covered, he made them off screens, he made them on the fast break, he made them early, he made them late. It was as unconscious of a shooting performance in a playoff game as there’s ever been. His 10th three, to set the NBA playoff record, was off-balanced, covered, and with his heels at the midcourt logo. The 11th? Over the outstretched Kevin Durant, to give the Warriors the lead, with just over a minute and a half to go.

“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point… I guess you could say I was born for it.”

Thompson was born to be Game 6. Game 6 is Klay Thompson, just like Thompson is Game 6.

After his 2018 performance Curry and Durant, both Warriors at that point, shared a laugh when asked to compare Klay’s repeat Western Conference Finals Game 6 performance.

“I think we both blocked that whole year from our memory,” Curry answered.

The Warriors went on to win Game 7 in 2016’s Western Conference Finals, at home, and move on to the NBA Finals. Durant and Oklahoma City blew the 3-1 lead. A couple of weeks later, Curry and the Warriors would do the same to LeBron James and the Cavs.

Had Klay had even simply had an above-average game in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, all of NBA history could have been different. Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder likely win the series that night. Klay’s 11th three made it 104-101, and only free throws were made for either team after that. If Oklahoma went back to the NBA Finals for the second time in four seasons, they may have had the experience needed to knock off LeBron James and Cleveland. After all, they did jump out 3-1 on the Warriors… who jumped out 3-1 on the Cavs. Clearly it wouldn’t have been inconceivable or impossible for the Thunder to win four out of seven games against Cleveland. If Durant and the Thunder win a title in 2016, does he sign with the Warriors, a team he just beat 4-2, that offseason? Does he even leave? Sure Kawhi just did it last season, but before Kawhi it was hard to imagine a superstar leaving less than a month after winning an NBA title.

And say the Thunder didn’t beat the Cavs. Sure, that makes it easier for Durant to feel comfortable about leaving the Thunder… But after hypothetically beating the Warriors 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals, is that where he thinks he has the best chance? San Antonio also took Oklahoma city to six games in this hypothetical, and Toronto had just taken Cleveland to six games as well. Regular season aside, wouldn’t those teams look like title contenders and favorites with Durant in town?

Who knows how the ball bounces is Klay Thompson even goes off for a thrilling nine made three-pointers. Who knows what happens that night, or in the coming weeks, or in the months after? The summer of 2016 forever changed the NBA, and who knows how much of that change never happens if Klay Thompson doesn’t catch fire on May 28th.

Truthfully that can all be set aside today. Game 6 Klay is a thing. Klay Thompson is the selfless superstar that can take over the moment without having his number called. He’s the same flamethrower that can score 60 points on 11 dribbles, only holding the ball 90 seconds, in less than three quarters of game action. He’s the NBA All-Star that has one supreme offensive skill, but is an unquestioned Hall of Famer. He’s the quiet voice in the huddle, but the reason Mike Breen emphatically exclaims “BANG!” throughout the last five NBA post-seasons.

He’s always been thought of as far from the Warrior’s MVP, but his injury and absence may have cost them a three-peat last summer.

Thompson doesn’t say much, but you cannot tell the story of the last decade in basketball history without saying Klay Thompson’s name many times. His skill set is both complimentary and suffocating. There is not a “superstar” or “alpha” in the NBA that Klay wouldn’t be a perfect fit for. He doesn’t require a lot of time with the ball in his hands, but his presence requires the defense’s attention for the entire forty-eight minutes. He guards the other teams star backcourt player to let Steph Curry or Kevin Durant focus on carrying the offensive workload, but was always running off screens to be their freed up safety valve.

It’s not that Thompson went under-appreciated in the last half-a-decade of Warrior dominance. It’s not that his quirks off the floor weren’t praised, or his stunts in China well documented. It’s that it may be impossible to ever really credit Thompson enough. Four years ago today, his performance will forever be written and appreciated in NBA history. It kept the Warriors alive against Durant and the Thunder, it led to the defeat of Durant and his exodus from Oklahoma City, and it led to the rematch with Cleveland in the Finals, setting up the most historic NBA Finals of a generation.

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