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Masai Ujiri devoted time to girls basketball with Giants of Africa tour

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TORONTO (AP) Masai Ujiri could see it in the proud posture and wide smiles of the young female players.

The Toronto Raptors president was in Somalia last week for the last stop on his annual Giants of Africa tour.

“We have to preach equality on the continent and all over the world,” Ujiri told The Canadian Press. “There’s as much talent in girls as there is in boys. They have to be given the opportunity, too. At the end of the day, you see them walking taller, which was very important for us to continue on this journey.”

Ujiri has barely paused since the Raptors won the NBA championship in June. There was free agency and the departure of superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Much of his time has been devoted to Giants of Africa, his passion project since 2003. The tour added Somalia and South Sudan to the schedule this summer, two countries still staggering from civil wars.

Islamic extremism in Somalia had forbidden females to watch sports let alone participate in them. The sight of young girls shooting hoops and kicking balls is unusual. The resurgence of female athletes has been in itself a symbol of defiance.

The 50 girls at the Giants of Africa camp in Mogadishu played in hijabs. It was held at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, which is co-run by Ilwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian. Her father, Elman Ali Ahmen, was assassinated in 1996. He was a renowned peace activist responsible for a campaign to rehabilitate young soldiers through education.

Elman has introduced sports to girls and women at the center as a way to empower them.

“Basketball has been a breath of fresh air there,” Ujiri said. “It’s about what sports can bring you: happiness, peace, bringing people together, working together. For us, that was our message.”

Sitting in his office at an otherwise quiet OVO Athletic Centre this week, the 49-year-old executive reflected on his tour, which also included trips to Morocco, Mali, Cameroon and Tanzania.

Arriving as the reigning NBA champions took the tour to a new level.

“That was awesome, just to show that at least we can do it … we can believe in ourselves to do this,” Ujiri said. “I love it that Pascal (Siakam) and Serge (Ibaka, a Congolese native) played brilliant roles for us in this championship. Kids can see that.”

But he also wants the youngsters to know it’s not only the players who can achieve “something big.”

He listed Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors’ director of global scouting from South Africa; Raptors assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, who is Congolese; Jama Mahlalela, the Swazi-Canadian head coach of Raptors 905, an NBA G League team; and Raptors assistant Eric Khoury, who’s Egyptian.

Ujiri is an English-born Nigerian. When the Raptors won the Larry O’Brien Trophy, he became the first African to lead a franchise to a major North American title. He took the trophy home to Zaria, Nigeria.

“We as Africans have to go back and do more,” Ujiri said. “I have to continue to do more and more, to create more opportunity. It’s very important that we tell the story and create the narrative there rather than somebody else create it for us.”

Ujiri said the tour was a chance to “recharge” before jumping back into his seventh season at the helm. Toronto opens at Scotiabank Arena on Oct. 22 when a championship banner will be raised and rings presented.

Ujiri says the NBA crown stands beside his work in Africa.

“These people have an incredible passion for life,” he said. “It’s joy for me, and an obligation. I feel so good doing it every year.”

Kings forward Harrison Barnes tests positive for coronavirus

Kings forward Harrison Barnes
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The Kings have been hit especially hard by coronavirus.

Buddy Hield, Jabari Parker and Alex Len all tested positive. Richaun Holmes is quarantined after violating the NBA’s bubble protocols at Disney World.

And now Harrison Barnes reveals he was diagnosed with coronavirus.

Harrison Barnes:

Presumably, Barnes was among the 19 players the NBA announced tested positive for coronavirus in July in home markets.

“Primarily asymptomatic” is a strange assessment. Does Barnes mean he’s mildly symptomatic?

The Kings already faced an uphill climb for making the playoffs. At best, several of their players are falling behind in training. At worst, Sacramento will have its rotation depleted when games begin.

Hopefully, Barnes recovers and joins the team as he hopes. He has a personal stake in it. Even during the lengthy hiatus, Barnes stuck with his pledge not to shave or cut his hair until the Kings reach .500 (or, as he amended it, make the playoffs) or the season ends.

Report: Pacers star Victor Oladipo’s remaining salary in dispute

Pacers star Victor Oladipo
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Among the continuing 22 NBA teams, players not playing in the resumption at Disney World essentially fall into two categories:

Pacers star Victor Oladipo lands in the gray area.

Oladipo, who returned from a year-long absence shortly before the season got suspended in March, said he was sitting out due to elevated risk of injury during a quick buildup. But he also traveled with the team to Orlando and is even practicing so well, Indiana is reportedly becoming increasingly optimistic he’ll play.

Is Oladipo healthy enough to play?

At stake for Oladipo:

  • $2,763,158 if the Pacers get swept in the first round
  • $2,993,421 if they play exactly five playoff games
  • $3,223,684 if they play six or more playoff games

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The union believes Oladipo, who went to Orlando with the Pacers and then cleared quarantine so he could practice, should be paid his remaining salary, sources said.

The league, largely in an effort to set a precedent in case other players who are deemed healthy want to leave Orlando and no longer play, believes Oladipo has opted out and should not be paid, sources said. His public comments about feeling healthy has only solidified the league’s position on the matter, sources said.

The Pacers support Oladipo’s decision and are willing to pay him the salary whether he plays or not, sources said.

Presumably, if Oladipo plays, he’ll get paid like anyone else playing in the resumption. This controversy lingers only if Oladipo doesn’t play.

It’s unsurprising the Pacers don’t want to pick this fight with their star player, especially as he approaches 2021 free agency. Trying to avoid alienating their own players but not necessarily eager to pay for services not rendered, teams collectively want the league to handle these issues.

If teams had ample discretion, the Wizards might have said Davis Bertans – who chose to sit out – had some lingering injury. NBA players are rarely perfectly healthy. There’s always some physical issue to point to. Bertans will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and they want to re-sign him. What an easy way to build goodwill – and maybe even get a discount on Bertans’ next contract.

Obviously, the league doesn’t want those type of shenanigans. That’s why on outside rulings on players’ health can be important.

Oladipo might not be the only borderline case:

Oladipo’s situation might take care of itself if he decides to play. But the league might inquire more deeply into other situations.

Report: Rockets star James Harden ‘feeling fine,’ might travel with Russell Westbrook

Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook
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When Russell Westbrook revealed he had coronavirus, speculation immediately turned to the Rockets’ other star who also didn’t travel with the team to Disney World.

James Harden is “feeling fine,” working out and might travel with Westbrook to Orlando, according to Shams Charania of Stadium:

Was Harden also diagnosed with coronavirus? Is he just waiting for his friend before entering the restrictive bubble? Is there another issue?

These questions beget even more questions.

If both players have coronavirus, they won’t necessarily recover on the same day. Would the first to get cleared wait for the other? Or is traveling together just an idea in case it works out?

If Harden is fully healthy and just waiting for Westbrook, how do their teammates inside the bubble feel about that? Those already at Disney World are spending more time away from friends and family in less-than-ideal conditions.

If there’s another issue… who knows?

The lack of transparency around the situation only invites rumors and guesses.

At least it’s good news that Harden feels fine.

Bucks GM not worried about other players recruiting Giannis Antetokounmpo inside bubble

Giannis Antetokounmpo
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Already reports are leaking out of the NBA restart bubble of players from different teams mingling, talking, hanging out together some. There will inevitably be some tampering (which goes on between players whether they are in the quarantine bubble or not).

All eyes are on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is eligible for a supermax extension this summer, one the Bucks are going to offer him the minute they can (how much that is worth will depend on where the salary cap lands). Most people around the league expect he signs the deal, but if not rumors will fly. In the bubble, some players may try to plant the “come play with us” seed in his head.

Buck GM Jon Horst said he can’t worry about that. Via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“Zero [worries]. We can only control what we can control. If it’s considered tampering or recruiting or whatever it is, in our league people talk, people are connected, people have relationships,” said Bucks GM Jon Horst. “At the end of the day, I have full confidence in my personal relationship, our league’s relationship, our coach’s relationship, his teammate’s relationship with Giannis in what we’re doing and what we’re about.

“I think that separated us and we’re going to continue to be above that and not worry about that. We can only worry about what we can control, to be the best that we can, to have the best organization of support and success as possible, and that’s really where our energy and our focus is. Also, just as a funny kind of side note, I think that technically violates the social distancing rules and I think everyone is getting tracked for that, so I think we’ll be OK that way as well.”

I’m not sure how much players are sticking to the social distancing rules — they don’t have to wear the proximity alarms that team staff, media, and others do — but it doesn’t matter.

What happens in the playoffs could impact Antetokounmpo’s decision, but in the end he is expected to stay with the Bucks — they can offer the most money, they are a contending team, and Milwaukee is the only home he has known in the United States. It’s where his family is, where his child lives. That said, Antetokounmpo has played this close to the vest, not talking about his intentions.

That said, he knows what he wants. Nobody is going to say anything in the bubble to sway Antetokounmpo’s mind.