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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Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.

Report: Klay Thompson could be interested in Clippers if Warriors don’t max him

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Most everyone has expected that Klay Thompson will return to the Golden State Warriors next season. That seemed even more of a lock after Thompson tore his ACL, which might scare off outside teams.

Thompson is certainly a max-level player, and the Warriors will need to decide whether they are going to offer him that contract this summer. It’s not clear whether Thompson would be willing to take a discount, or if he’s finally ready to cash out in a big way.

Golden State will have a hard time keeping their core intact as everyone continues to get more expensive. Finding some leeway with Thompson’s contract has been seen as one way for the Warriors to at least limit their luxury tax bill.

But according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there are other teams interested in giving Thompson a hefty sum if the Warriors decline to offer him a max deal.

Via ESPN’s “Woj & Lowe” special:

“The one team that I think — my information is — he would be very open to going down to sit down with are the Clippers. And if they have a chance to sell Kawhi Leonard with Klay Thompson, certainly that’s an appealing sell for any free agent.”

It seems unreasonable that the Warriors would not try to max both Thompson and Kevin Durant. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe said as much during their special.

But we have seen made promises to spend in the past, and often that decision has been reversed. Golden State might end up choosing a handful of their core players to keep, and either Durant or Thompson could be left looking elsewhere.

There will be plenty of suitors for either of these guys, and both are still max-level players despite their catastrophic injuries. Whether both, one, or neither will be in San Francisco next year is the question heading into July 1.

Danny Green on fans trying to delegitimize Raptors title in light of Warriors injuries: ‘We don’t care’

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The Toronto Raptors are your 2019 NBA champions. For some folks, this title comes with a caveat thanks to injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Many fans feel as though there should be some kind of asterisk next to their championship in the record books.

This is, frankly, is sour grapes at best and patently insane at worst.

What-ifs are some of the more fun things to contemplate in a league like the NBA, but reality is inescapable. What has come to pass is the truth, and in front of our very eyes we saw the Golden State Warriors go down in six games to Toronto. And should have been five.

Raptors guard at Danny Green shares the same sentiment, saying is much too the New York Times Marc Stein in his newsletter this week. When asked about the prospect of adding an asterisk to the Raptors championship in light of Golden State’s injuries, Green disagreed.

Via NYT:

In a phone interview Monday night, Toronto’s Danny Green forcefully scoffed at the asterisk question before I could even finish the sentence. “We don’t care,” Green said. “Doesn’t matter to us.”

Should I be surprised that this is an actual conversation happening between NBA fans in 2019? Probably not. I’ve been around for too long. But here I am, and the incessant idiocy of excuses remains ever-present.

Now, if only we knew with this kind of certainty where Kawhi Leonard was going to sign this summer.