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Reviewing the Air Jordan XX9, after testing the shoes at Michael Jordan’s house

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Jordan Brand touted ground-breaking performance and innovative design when the company unveiled the latest version of its flagship basketball shoe back in April, and now that we’re less than a month away from the release of the Air Jordan XX9, it was time to see if the company kept its promise.

A group of media members were invited to Chicago recently to get a first look at the shoes in person and test them on the court — but this was no ordinary wear test experience.

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THE EXPERIENCE

We were told to dress for basketball in the base layers that were provided the night before, even though we would be outfitted in additional gear once we arrived to the court. After breakfast at Wishbone, a spot in Chicago’s West Loop frequented by Michael Jordan in his playing days and one which came personally recommended by the brand’s namesake, we were loaded onto a minibus to be transported to what turned out to be a very special location.

The ride of more than 40 minutes out of town didn’t seem suspicious, considering that Jordan Brand’s open run they hosted in New Orleans during All-Star weekend was a similar distance from the town’s center. Once we exited the freeway and took a couple of turns into a residential area, however, things began to fall into place — especially once we came to our stop.

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We had arrived at Michael Jordan’s house.

Jordan no longer lives here, and his former home is currently on the market; he spends his time these days in Charlotte in an ownership role with the Hornets. But the sprawling estate still has many of his personalized touches — including a regulation-sized indoor basketball gym where the day’s festivities would take place.

As we walked down the long and winding pathway, we passed the main home and were ushered into a guest house. Once inside, two quick right turns landed us into a locker room space that was specifically created for our special event.

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Once everyone was in uniform, it was time to head into Jordan’s personal gym, where he spent so many hours perfecting his game. It was left untouched by the folks handling the event, because as one staffer quipped, “you don’t paint the Sistine Chapel.”

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THE SHOE 

The Jordan XX9 had big shoes to fill, so to speak, because it was going to be extremely difficult to improve upon the performance provided by the Jordan XX8. The company introduced its Flight Plate technology into the sole of the shoe, and by almost all accounts, the XX8 and XX8 SE were routinely reviewed as some of the best basketball shoes to play in over the past 18 months.

The Flight Plate returned for the XX9, but was rotated and adjusted slightly in hopes of providing even better overall cushioning in the forefoot of the shoe. And, a “tendril” was added to bridge the front and the back of the sole to provide what the company hoped would be a smoother heel-to-toe transition. You can see the differences here, with the XX8 on the left and the XX9 on the right.

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The adjustments to the Flight Plate gave the shoe a different feel than its predecessor, but that was only a minor tweak from the previous iteration. The real change in the XX9 is the woven upper, which feels more like a snug slipper than it does a traditional sneaker.

“The performance-woven upper delivers superior abrasion resistance, along with an entirely new look on the outside of the shoe,” the company described at April’s unveiling. “The structure and fit of the shoe are engineered through Flight Web tunnels, and strategic panels of stiffer and softer flex to enhance natural motion. The absence of numerous layers and adhesion technologies creates an incredibly comfortable, sock-like interior lining with superior breathability.”

Michael Jordan and the shoe’s designer, Tinker Hatfield, discussed the woven upper at April’s event, while explaining its significance and the way it affects performance.

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THE REVIEW

My initial impressions of the Jordan XX9 haven’t changed much since the first couple of games I played in them, even though I’ve tested them out many times since.

I originally thought my normal size might have been too small when I first put them on, and actually checked to see if a half-size up was available. It wasn’t, and that was fine, because it didn’t take more than a few minutes for the upper to stretch a bit, to the point where it was extremely comfortable and didn’t feel like there was anything there at all.

The word “sock” was thrown around a lot that day to describe the feel of the upper, but after discussing it with others at the event, we agreed that term simply doesn’t do it justice. The fabric is firm enough to provide support when you need it, but doesn’t feel too tight or constricting, and it’s undoubtedly the shoe’s key feature.

As previously mentioned, the Flight Plate has changed a bit in the XX9, and for those who enjoyed the feel of the extreme level of forefoot bounce in the XX8, it’s worth noting that in the newest model, that has been downgraded a bit, and is much more subtle. There isn’t a greatly noticeable difference once you begin playing in them from a performance standpoint, but you will notice it when first putting the shoes on, which may be viewed as a negative by some.

While the Flight Plate was the game-changer in the previous version, the fact that it’s now combined with this woven upper is what will keep players reaching for this shoe time and again when heading to the court. There are obviously tons of factors that go into declaring which shoe is the best to play in, and ultimately, it comes down to a player’s individual game, body type, and personal preference. But it’s tough to envision anyone playing in the Jordan XX9 and coming away with anything other than positive overall thoughts.

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Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.

Drake congratulated LeBron James in hallway after game

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Drake is a Toronto native and a huge Raptors’ fan. He’s officially the team’s “global ambassador,” although nobody knows what that actually means.

Drake is also tight with LeBron James.

As LeBron is running down the hall to get to the locker room and celebrate making a sixth straight trip to the Finals Drake stops him to congratulate him. And Drake is one of the handful of guys LeBron will stop and talk to.

Nothing wrong with this, either. Drake has walked a line the whole series — he’s a Raptors fan, he’s trolled LeBron and Kyrie Irving on social media after Toronto wins, but he’s close with Cleveland’s players and has been seen in the Cavaliers locker room plenty the past few seasons.

Some fan bases (we’re looking at you, Philly) would flip out over this kind of divided loyalty, but not Canadians who will just forgive and move on.

LeBron James leads Cavaliers back to Finals doing it his way

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LeBron James is the first NBA star of the social media age, and with that has come a volume of criticism that the greats before him — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan — never had to deal with.

Even these playoffs, there have been chattering voices knocking LeBron for how he worked more to set up teammates — particularly Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — more than seeking out his own shot. Some people have always wanted him to be more Jordan, when he was always more Magic. Or Oscar Robertson.

And this playoff he knew that he could carry his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals through a diluted East, but if he wanted a ring he was going to need those other players to be confident, ready, and believing in the team.

You could see that all come together for LeBron James in Game 6. He attacked early and set a tone, then got everyone involved on his way to 33 points and 11 assists in what became a 113-87 win sending Cleveland back to the NBA Finals.

“I just had to bring my game,” James said in his on-court postgame interview on ESPN. “I had to bring my game, I had to be in attack mode from the beginning, trust my shot, and once my shot start going I can get my teammates involved and they was able to carry me down the stretch.”

LeBron James was getting to the rim with those attacks, check out his shot chart:

LeBron shot chart

LeBron also keyed the fourth-quarter 22-7 run that put away the game.

“There is only one LeBron James, and he makes a difference on any team he plays on, and he’s proven that,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said postgame. “It’s six Finals (in a row for LeBron), to compare him to our team — and I love our players, I wouldn’t trade any of our players — but you put him on any team and he’s a difference maker.”

LeBron’s critics will not be silenced. The man has made six straight finals, a feat not accomplished by anyone since a few legendary Celtics of the 1950s-60s (Bill Russell’s teams). It speaks to LeBron’s focus, skill, durability, and ability to lead teams.

Critics will point to LeBron being 2-4 in the Finals. That misses the point — making it to six straight is an amazing accomplishment, and LeBron did it his way. Not trying to be MJ or Magic or Oscar, just being LeBron James.

We should savor watching this guy play while we still can.