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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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Who is next Pacers’ coach? Here are five names being mentioned early

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 29:  Head Coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns reacts to a score against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs at the AT&T Center on April 29, 2008 in San Antonio, Texas. The spurs would win the game 92-87 and the series 4-1.   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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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Who wants to be the Pacers next coach for three seasons? Five tops.

In explaining why he let a popular and well-respected coach in Frank Vogel go, Pacers president Larry Bird says he doesn’t think a coach should be with a team more than five years because the voice and message gets stale. You hear that Gregg Popovich, your message is stale. As a side note, no doubt that coaches’ agents heard Bird’s words — they want a place their client can succeed and stay long term, Bird seemed to take part of that equation off the table.

So who is up next in the big chair for the Pacers? Not Kevin McHale, but besides him. The amazing Candace Buckner of the Indy Star had five names she has heard, let’s take a close look at them.

• Mike D’Antoni. Forget the year’s thing, the real reason Frank Vogel is out in Indiana (and about to make another team’s defense much better) is he wouldn’t play small and fast lineups as much as Bird wanted. That will not be an issue with Mike D’Antoni, who is currently under contract as a Sixers assistant. Before you say “his team’s stink on defense” remember that his Suns teams were middle of the pack in defensive rating (back then fans and most media members were just starting to talk about pace and per-possession stats, all they saw was the points allowed per game by the Suns). Yes, his first two seasons with the Knicks and his Lakers teams struggled defensively, and that is certainly not D’Antoni’s focus, but part of the issue with those teams’ defense was the personnel.

I believe D’Antoni can coach a contender in this league, but it comes with the caveat that you have to give him his players to fit with his system. He needs to win his way (he tried to adjust in Los Angeles, but that was a disaster all around). If Bird brings him in, he needs to put together a D’Antoni roster.

• Mark Jackson.
The former Pacers star guard helped develop the talent that is winning championships and setting records in Golden State. And he certainly was willing to play fast while getting them to defend. However he comes with concerns: How involved he was in the details of running the team was questioned by Warriors management, he clashed with multiple assistants, and he created an “us against the world” locker room mentality where “the world” included management. Bird has to be sure this someone he can work with.

• Brian Shaw. His Denver teams played fast — third and fourth fastest in the NBA his two seasons there. Of course, they didn’t defend very well, didn’t execute well, and Shaw struggled to relate to younger players, but they did play fast. The Nuggets let him go to bring in someone they thought could develop a better culture (Mike Malone). His assistant coach resume is impressive (being on Phil Jackson’s staff with the Lakers), did he learn and gro from his first time in the big chair?

• Randy Wittman. This is a head scratcher. Not because the gruff Wittman can’t coach — he knows the game and got his teams to defend — but he prefers to play big and slow, and when forced to go smaller and faster this season in Washington his team struggled. If Bird wants to play fast, Wittman is an odd choice. But if he wants and old-school coach, this is his guy.

• Mike Woodson. Another bit of a head scratcher if Bird wants to play fast, but Woodson’s Hawks teams got better each season he was there. The offenses weren’t creating — remember “iso Joe?” — but his teams defended and played smart ball. He could get the job done; the Pacers would play smart under him.

If I were a betting man, I’d have my money on Pacers’ assistant Nate McMillan, a former NBA head coach and someone comfortable with the Pacers players and organization. It would be a smooth transition, and his teams would play faster.

But is he — or any of these guys — an upgrade over Vogel?

NBA releases names of all players invited to NBA Draft Combine, Ben Simmons not on it

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 15:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils brings the ball up the court against the Georgia Southern Eagles during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 15, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The NBA Draft Combine has become more and more like the NFL’s version: There’s a lot of talk, the top players don’t take part in the drills, the player interviews are what matter most, and at the end of the day most players don’t actually move up or down that much based on the results.

The leading example of this: The NBA released the names of all the players invited to the combine this season, and projected No. `1 pick Ben Simmons of LSU isn’t on there. He has chosen not to attend. Anther top 10 player in Dragan Bender will not be there, but he has a valid reason as his team Maccabi Tel Aviv is still playing. This year more top names than normal will be in attendance, with the most notable absences from people we know will be in the draft being Dejounte Murray and Domantas Sabonis.

One player who will draw a lot of eyeballs is Zhou Qi, the 7’2″ center out of China, who scouts have not seen much up close. He may not participate in scrimmages.

Here is the full list of attendees:

Ron Baker (Wichita State)
Wade Baldwin (Vanderbilt)
Cat Barber (North Carolina State)
Malik Beasley (Florida State)
DeAndre Bembry (St. Joseph’s)
Ben Bentil (Providence)
Jaron Blossomgame (Clemson)
Joel Bolomboy (Weber State)
Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia)
Jaylen Brown (California)
Robert Carter (Maryland)
Marquese Chriss (Washington)
Elgin Cook (Oregon)
Isaiah Cousins (Oklahoma)
Deyonta Davis (Michigan State)
Cheick Diallo (Kansas)
Kris Dunn (Providence)
Henry Ellenson (Marquette)
Perry Ellis (Kansas)
A.J. English (Iona)
Kay Felder (Oakland)
Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida)
Michael Gbinije (Syracuse)
Daniel Hamilton (Connecticut)
A.J. Hammond (Purdue)
Josh Hart (Villanova)
Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)
Buddy Hield (Oklahoma)
Brandon Ingram (Duke)
Demetrius Jackson (Notre Dame)
Justin Jackson (North Carolina)
Brice Johnson (North Carolina)
Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)
Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)
Dedric Lawson (Memphis)
Jake Layman (Maryland)
Marcus Lee (Kentucky)
Caris LeVert (Michigan)
Thon Maker (Orangeville Prep/Athlete Institute)
Patrick McCaw (UNLV)
Isaiah Miles (St. Joseph’s)
Jamal Murray (Kentucky)
Malik Newman (Mississippi State)
Georges Niang (Iowa State)
Chinanu Onuaku (Louisville)
Marcus Paige (North Carolina)
Gary Payton III (Oregon State)
Jakob Poeltl (Utah)
Taurean Prince (Baylor)
Zhou Qi (Xinjiang, China)
Malachi Richardson (Syracuse)
Wayne Selden (Kansas)
Pascal Siakam (New Mexico State)
Diamond Stone (Maryland)
Caleb Swanigan (Purdue)
Melo Trimble (Maryland)
Tyler Ulis (Kentucky)
Jarrod Uthoff (Iowa)
Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)
Isaiah Whitehead (Seton Hall
Troy Williams (Indiana)
Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)
Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV)

Steve Kerr on if Stephen Curry will play Saturday: “Probably not”

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 01:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts on the bench during the second quarter of their game against the Portland Trail Blazers during Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 01, 2016 in Oakland, California.  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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Two days before Golden State heads into Portland for Game 3 of its second-round series, the Warriors practice ended with a relatively intense scrimmage.

Stephen Curry was a bystander.

Well, not exactly, he was working out with a trainer on another court, but he didn’t play in the scrimmage. And he likely will not play on Saturday in Game 3, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, via Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com.

Though Curry’s status has been upgraded from definitely “out” to “probable” for Game 3 against the Trail Blazers on Friday at Moda Center in Portland, it’s more realistic that he’ll return for Game 4 on Monday.

Asked if Curry could be cleared for Game 3, coach Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, “Probably not.”

That fits with the original timeline, which was two weeks.

The Warriors are up 2-0 in the series, and regardless of the outcome on Saturday they will want Curry back on Sunday. If the Trail Blazers win at home this becomes the same scenario Golden State faced against Houston, wanting to make sure the Warriors win one game on the road they bring back the once-and-future MVP to the lineup.

Even if the Warriors win Game 3 and have a 3-0 lead, if they can bring Curry back they need to. With all this time off he’s going to be rusty (he looked it in the one part of Game 4 against Houston he did play) and the Warriors need to make sure he shakes that off before the Conference Finals, when the Warriors will need him at full strength regardless of opponent.

Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” retirement announcement to be made into short animated film

In this photo taken Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant waves good bye to the fans after an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings in his last appearance at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif. Renamed SleepTrain Arena, the facility has been the home of the Kings since it opened in 1988. The Kings won an NBA-best 61 games in the 2001-02 season behind Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, losing to the eventual champion Lakers in Game 7 of the conference finals. The Kings will play their last game at the aging building, Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and begin play next season at the new Golden One Center built in downtown Sacramento. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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What’s next for Kobe Bryant after his retirement tour?

Apparently a little more focus on his retirement tour.

Kobe announced his retirement just after Thanksgiving via a “Dear Basketball” poem on The Players’ Tribune. Now Bryant and his new “storytelling” production company have teamed up with Sports Illustrated to turn that poem into an animated short film. From the press release:

Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated Group and NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s new production company, Kobe Studios, along with Believe Entertainment Group, announced an exclusive multi-platform video production and development project devoted to Dear Basketball, Bryant’s poetic tribute to the game. The collaboration includes the world premiere of Dear Basketball the animated short film on SI.com as well as a series of exclusive SI Films mini documentaries taking viewers behind the scenes of the animation process. Dear Basketball is targeted to premiere in the fall on SI.com….

“Dear Basketball is the perfect tribute to something I’ve loved for so long. Glen and John are two legends in their industries, so to partner with them on the creative process is a dream come true,” said Bryant. “Working with Sports Illustrated on this special project is an amazing opportunity to hopefully inspire fans all over the world.”

I have no idea what a poem about basketball turned into an animated short film is going to look like, but it should be interesting. It’s got to be better than that last Sponge Bob movie.

I guess this is a logical first step for Kobe in this kind of production, playing off his brand and into a topic where he should be very comfortable. I’d sit here and be snarky about it, but we all know we’re going to watch it, right?