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Nike brings World Basketball Festival to Chicago

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CHICAGO — Nike and USA Basketball descended on the city of Chicago this week, and partnered to put on its World Basketball Festival event that was created to celebrate and honor the global passion for the game. The two previous versions took place in New York in 2010 and Washington D.C. in 2012, but Chicago’s city-wide, deep-rooted passion for the game seems to be the most appropriate stop to date.

The folks at Nike and Jordan Brand wanted to give a group of media members an overview of just how influential basketball has been to those in this city, and after a day spent visiting historic sites related to the game and speaking to some of the legends associated with it, it’s clear that basketball is incredibly important to all of the individual communities that make up one of the country’s largest cities.

Our day began with an introductory speech from Scoop Jackson — a well-known journalist, but also a Chicago basketball historian whose enthusiasm for the game and what it means to this city is evident from the very first words he speaks. Jackson tells us about legendary players like Billy Harris, the name at the top of everyone’s list anytime the topic of Chicago’s greatest playground legend is ever approached. He explains how no matter the age or skill level, people can be found all over the city playing the game and discussing the area’s most influential players.

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He points out the wide variety of players from the area who made it to the NBA, all of whom don’t necessarily do one thing great, but have mastered multiple aspects of the game in order to compete anywhere while growing up in the city. Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Shawn Marion and Tony Allen are a few examples he gave, and of course there are more recent entries like Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and incoming rookie Jabari Parker. He tells us stories of Michael Jordan flying in to compete on the city’s playgrounds to scratch that competitive itch, both while he was still in the league and for years after he retired. Finally, he implores us to talk to as many people around town that we can to verify that what he’s saying is the truth — something we’d get a chance to do anyway, but that wasn’t at all necessary given the intensity and excitement with which he conveyed his words.

“Basketball is Chicago’s export to the world,” Jackson has said. “I’ve compared it to Hip Hop in New York, technology coming out of Seattle, the auto industry in Detroit, food from New Orleans. This is what we do.”

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Our bus pulled up to Simeon Career Academy, a high school on the South Side of Chicago that is a large facility, but unassuming when you consider the level of basketball talent that has been produced there over the years. There’s Bucks rookie Jabari Parker and Bulls superstar Derrick Rose most recently, but others like Nick Anderson and Benji Wilson (whose tragic story was chronicled in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary) speak to just how rich the school’s history is.

We walked into the gym that doesn’t have air conditioning, and made our way to the bleachers. In came Sonny Parker — Jabari’s father, and a former NBA player who was born and raised in Chicago. He spoke about growing up in the city, and how the South Side has changed. Back in the day, he said, it was understood that athletes could walk through bad neighborhoods with a free pass, and that if something was about to go down, they would be given a warning so they could get away unscathed. He doesn’t believe that’s the case anymore, but also doesn’t feel like the neighborhood is nearly as bad as the media reports make it seem.

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He talked about Michael Jordan, and how he had a “Love of the Game” clause in his contract that allowed him to play anytime, anywhere — even on the playgrounds of Chicago. Jabari, he said, has the freedom to do the same. Parker told us how players from different areas play the game differently — for example, on the West side, he said, they’re a little more aggressive because of a shortage of bigs. Intensity is used to make up for that size advantage with players from that part of town, but those differences speak to what Scoop Jackson told us, which is that players had to be able to play a variety of different ways and hone a broad range of skills if they wanted to be able to dominate in all parts of the city.

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The day wrapped up with a trip to the 63rd Street Beach House, home base for all of the World Basketball Festival’s activities. We stopped by some outdoor basketball courts across the street, where clinics were being conducted for children from all parts of the city. We got some time to speak with Anthony Harris, who currently plays professionally in the D-League but more importantly for our purposes, is the son of Billy Harris, Chicago’s most legendary basketball player.

Anthony didn’t get to see his father play in his prime, of course, but said the man could still shoot the lights out, even in his older years. Scoop Jackson told us about how he was researching Billy, and walked all over the city on a daily basis trying to find one person — just one — who would say they ever saw Billy play a bad game. He gave up after three months. Anthony echoed that sentiment, and said he heard ridiculous stories — like his father grabbing a jump ball at one end of the court, and immediately shooting from there and draining what would have been an incredibly long shot. Anthony had trouble believing it, but said multiple people who claim to have been there swear that it happened.

Anthony talked about growing up in Chicago and leaving the house early in the morning to play an entire day’s worth of basketball, sometimes going from court to court in search of the city’s best players.

“If I went to your court, I was coming for you,” Anthony said.

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We wrapped things up by walking over to the Beach House, where there is a Nike Basketball museum of sorts set up that has some incredible artifacts — like the LeBron James MVP Puppet that was a part of one of the company’s more popular campaigns in recent years.

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There will be games held there all weekend — pro-am and three on three tournaments, FIBA skills competitions and appearances by members of the USA Basketball team. But more than anything, it’s simply a celebration of the game of basketball, and one that the city of Chicago seems uniquely positioned to appreciate.

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Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) reacts against the Atlanta Hawks in the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.

Larry Bird on Frank Vogel’s future with Pacers: “I don’t know what’s going to happen”

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24:  Team President Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers looks on against the Miami Heat during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 24, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Larry Bird wanted the Pacers to play smaller and faster this season. The Pacers started the season doing that, but they weren’t defending consistently and not winning enough (dropping 7-of-11 through one stretch in December), so coach Frank Vogel started to play bigger and slower. It worked well enough for the Pacers to make the playoffs and go seven games deep in the first round against the Raptors.

Team president Larry Bird isn’t happy — he doesn’t like that Vogel changed the team’s style. For that reason, it’s unclear if Vogel — whose contract is up — will be back with the Pacers next season. Here is what Bird told Greg Doyle of the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird said Monday he hasn’t decided whether to bring back coach Frank Vogel for a seventh season, telling IndyStar: “It’s no secret — I want us to score more points…

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bird said….

“Frank’s a great guy. He’s going to be fine no matter what happens. If he’s back, he’ll be fine here. If he’s not, he’s not. We’ll see.”

If Vogel were allowed to walk away, a host of other teams would line up to pay him. Houston would be an interesting fit (although that franchise reportedly has its sights set on Jeff Van Gundy).

Here’s the question Bird and team owner Herb Simon need to answer: If not Vogel, who do you have that’s better? Think about the coaches still on the market, who is better than Vogel?

Vogel gets his teams to defend like few other coaches in the league (the Pacers were third in the league in defensive rating this season with a largely overhauled roster), and that is the foundation of any winning team. Force an “offensive coordinator” assistant on Vogel if you want, but to give up one of the better young coaches in the NBA would be a mistake by the Pacers.

And if you want to play smaller and faster, get — and in the case of Solomon Hill try to keep — players who fit that style. Right now the Pacers roster is not constructed to be great that way.

Hornets future unclear with 4 starters becoming free agents

MIAMI, FL - MAY 01: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets takes the floor during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on May 1, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – The Charlotte Hornets have a major decision ahead of them this offseason – keep the core group from a team that tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference or revamp the roster by adding new pieces.

With four starters set to become free agents and only seven players under contract next season, the Hornets have the flexibility to make major changes if they so choose.

Coach Steve Clifford said Monday he’d prefer to coach the same group again, but acknowledged it might be difficult to re-sign everyone given the NBA salary cap.

Much of the Hornets future could be predicated on what happens with unrestricted free agent Nicolas Batum, whom Clifford acknowledged will be the team’s No. 1 priority in free agency. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points along with 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the Hornets during the regular season, although his production was limited in the postseason due to a foot injury. The Hornets lost in seven games to the Miami Heat on Sunday.

Batum could command a max contract this offseason due to the increase in the NBA salary cap. And while it is debatable if he’s worth that much, Clifford knows he’s a valuable cog in the starting lineup.

When asked if he wants to return next year, Batum said, “Why not?,” saying this past season was one of the most enjoyable of his eight-year NBA career. He liked the freedom Clifford gave him and the idea of being one of first two options on offense.

“I want to talk to (the Hornets) first, for sure,” Batum said of free agency. “July 1 will be a crazy day, but will Charlotte be my first call? Yes.”

However, Batum indicated he only wants to return if the Hornets make an effort to bring back the nucleus of this year’s team.

He said the chemistry of this year’s Hornets team was outstanding, on and off the court.

Along with Batum, three others starters – Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson – are also unrestricted free agents. Backup Jeremy Lin is almost certainly going to opt out of the final year of his contract given he has outperformed the $2 million salary he’s set to make in 2016-17.

“If you asked me would I be interested in coming back, there’s no question in my mind – it’s a resounding yes,” Lin said. “I would be very interested in coming back.”

Lee, Williams and Jefferson also indicated their desire to return to the Hornets as well, but it remains unclear if general manager Rich Cho can – or even wants to – bring everyone back for another run at the playoffs or if he’ll look in a different direction to upgrade.

Cho is expected to meet with the media later this week.

“I feel like any time, especially in pro sports, when you keep a group of guys together for three or four years, whatever the case may be, you can do some really good things,” Williams said.

A look at what the Hornets face this offseason:

BIGGEST NEED: Rebounding. The Hornets rebounded well in the regular season, but Clifford said the team’s struggles on the glass in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat was a big reason it was ousted from the playoffs.

GOOD NEWS: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed all but seven games due to shoulder injuries, is expected back next season. The former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft is considered the team’s top defensive player.

BAD NEWS: By virtue of making the playoffs, the Hornets don’t have a lottery pick and may not have a chance to find the dominant offensive player that Clifford so desperately covets in the draft.

TOUGH ENDING: Kemba Walker said while losing to Miami in Game 7 was disappointing, the season is “one to be proud of.” Walked add, “At one point we were 17-20 and then we finished the season with 48 wins. I don’t think anybody expected that. Nobody even thought we would make the playoffs, so for us to force a Game 7 against a really good team like Miami.”

ZELLER AT CENTER: The Hornets plan to stick with Cody Zeller at center next season – instead of power forward – but Clifford said he still wants the 7-footer to work on his outside shot.