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After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.

Spurs’ Patty Mills says he’ll donate remaining salary ($1,017,818.54) to fight racism

Spurs guard Patty Mills
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Patty Mills will play in the NBA restart, and the San Antonio guard said Wednesday that the reason why he’s decided to participate is so he can give just over $1 million of his salary to causes in his native Australia devoted to fighting racism.

The exact amount, Mills said, for the Spurs’ eight remaining regular-season, or seeding, games will be $1,017,818.54. He will split that money between three causes – Black Lives Matter Australia, another group that deals with the problem of Blacks dying when in custody, and to the newly formed We Got You campaign that he helped organize to address the issues of racism within Australian sport.

“So, I’m playing in Orlando because I don’t want to leave any money on the table that could be going directly to Black communities,” Mills said.

Mills isn’t the only player that has announced he will be donating his salary for the eight games to charity. Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard revealed earlier this week that he will give the remainder of his salary for the season to a charitable initiative he started called Breathe Again, which was designed to fight hatred and racism.

Mills is the longest currently tenured player on the Spurs.

“He’s a guy that I think everybody looks to for motivation and stuff like that,” Spurs teammate Trey Lyles said Wednesday, not long after Mills made his announcement. “I think along with his actions and his words backing up his actions … he’s definitely been somebody that I think not only the team but the league realizes is a community leader and somebody that’s always caring for other people.”

This is not the first time Mills has tried to shine a light on race-related issues this season.

Mills – an Australian whose mother is Aboriginal and whose father is from the Torres Strait Islands – and the Spurs hosted a celebration of Indigenous people back in January, which he hoped helped educate people on the importance of recognizing the value of other cultures.

“Australia is a great country. America is a great country,” Mills said. “We all have issues and different aspects. But the point of it is, is being able to come together to be able to work together.”

The Spurs leave for the Disney campus near Orlando, Florida on Thursday, when they will be among the final eight arrivals of the 22 teams that will be participating in the NBA restart. The season has been halted by the coronavirus pandemic since March 11.

Mills was to have earned about $12.5 million this season, had the season not been interrupted and some games been canceled because of the pandemic.

NBA coaches preach flexibility as first real practices about to begin

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Practice facilities in the NBA have been open for a couple of months, with one major element missing from them.

No team has had an actual practice yet.

Most of the work that has gone on in those buildings during the NBA’s shutdown has been voluntary, and all of it has been of the individual variety – one player working at one basket with one ball. That changes starting Thursday, when the first handful of teams at the Disney complex will be permitted to have full-fledged practices again.

“Every day will be an adventure, a little bit of, `OK, here’s where we are today, this practice will reflect this, tomorrow’s practice might be totally different,”‘ Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And that’s what makes it interesting. It makes it fun. But it’s a little bit like a training camp. Every year you know you lay out all these grand plans and about the third practice you go, `Ooop, they’re out.”‘

The teams that arrived at Disney on Tuesday, assuming quarantines are completed and other issues haven’t popped up, will likely be permitted to practice sometime Thursday. More teams arrive Wednesday and Thursday, so their first practice sessions, in theory, would be as early as Friday and Saturday respectively.

Teams will be assigned a three-hour window and be able to run practice on a pair of side-by-side courts, with training and weight rooms nearby. Disney staff will clean and disinfect everything after one team leaves, preparing it for the next team to arrive.

“Just like with probably everything the league is doing, I think it’d be wise to have a degree of flexibility sprinkled in with everything that you’re planning, a degree of being able to either back off or turn it up a little bit, either way,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But to be honest with you, that happens a lot even in the normal season. There’s a plan for the first practice and we’ll see how it goes.”

Players haven’t even been allowed to play 1-on-1 yet at team facilities, per the rules of the individual workouts. That all changes at Disney, where teams will be able to practice for about two weeks before a series of three scrimmages begin on July 22.

The season resumes on July 30. Players have said throughout the shutdown that having only three weeks of actual practice to get ready for game action may not be enough – but that’s what the league ultimately decided the schedule would allow.

Most NBA coaches – D’Antoni, Budenholzer, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and more – are going into this believing that plans have to be flexible.

“It’s not going to be a typical training camp where you jump in on Day One and just go full-bore,” Carlisle said. “Our players have done a great job of working on their individual conditioning with individual workouts with the coaches on the floor on a 1-to-1 basis … so I feel really good about where we’re at. But this is a different situation, it’s a different time, it’s a different set of circumstances.”

Toronto, the reigning NBA champion, has been on the road for a couple of weeks already, getting their individual work in at a pre-camp of sorts in Fort Myers, Florida. The Raptors couldn’t get their pre-Disney work in at home because of travel restrictions that would have applied to players coming into Canada from the U.S.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse said his players haven’t dreaded the 1-on-0 work that they’ve been limited to so far, saying his team has approached these weeks with “great professionalism” and that his plans for Disney are fairly loose right now.

“I don’t really know where we’re at,” Nurse said. “I can see individually. I think we look really good. But, what will that translate to when we get back into, you know, calling plays and running defenses and doing some things? … I know that I’m sensing they really want to play basketball.”

The Los Angeles Lakers arrive at Disney on Thursday, and while coach Frank Vogel isn’t looking forward to weeks and potentially months away from his family, he believes the individual workouts have gotten the Western Conference leaders ready.

He said those solo sessions have been designed in large part to get players back into some sort of practice shape, with the hope of being able to hit the ground running when everyone can finally be together again at Disney.

“We just want it to be as high as possible to minimize risk of injury and just further the conditioning along as much as we can,” Vogel said. “So, guys have been able to work pretty diligently the last few days or so. And, you know, we’re looking forward to wrapping this up and getting on that plane.”

Ben Simmons: ‘I’m feeling better than I was at the start of the season’

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Ben Simmons’ back pain threw his postseason status into uncertainty had the NBA season reached its natural conclusion.

Check out Simmons these days on Instagram.

He’s muscular, spry — and throwing down dunks without a wince on his face. The All-Star guard who watched the Philadelphia 76ers from the bench during the final days in March is now healthy, confident and ready to dominate.

“I’m feeling better than I was at the start of the season,” Simmons said Thursday. “I’ve been working since I had the injury, working until now to be prepared for whatever happens and wherever we go. I’m feeling great and been rehabbing this whole time, so I’ve been feeling ready and I’m very comfortable.”

Simmons, the NBA’s leader in steals, had been quiet except for social media posts since the league shut down March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 23-year-old had missed eighth straight games and was receiving daily treatment for nerve issues in his lower back when the season stopped. Simmons said Thursday it was “hard to judge” his readiness for a postseason run in April and beyond. But the extended break gave Simmons — and banged-up All-Star teammate Joel Embiid — enough time to rest, rehab and regroup for when the NBA resumes July 30 at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida.

Simmons’ last game was Feb. 22, when he took such a hard fall in Milwaukee that he was left lying on his back, vomiting from the pain.

He is good to go now and can help the Sixers resume their push to win their first NBA title since 1983.

“I’ll be ready to go,” he said. “I’m feeling good. I put on a lot more muscle. I’m ready to go and get rolling.”

Simmons averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists in 54 games. Entering a season with NBA championship expectations, the Sixers (39-26) were a disappointing sixth in the Eastern Conference and coach Brett Brown’s job status was a hot topic in Philadelphia. Brown, whose contract runs through 2021-22, may have gained some more time to fix the Sixers because of the shutdown. The Sixers had a roster of mismatched parts, injuries and abysmal road record (10-24) that pushed them toward the brink of being a bust.

Philly needed the hiatus as much as any team in the league.

“We’ve beaten the best teams in the league,” Simmons said. “We’re a young, healthy team right now. We’re looking forward to get this opportunity and go all the way.”

And if the Sixers win it all, the title will be unlike any other in league history. They’ll spend three months living in a quasi-bubble at the Disney complex after an entire postseason is played without fans, with most if not all of that time away from friends and family.

“I trust in the NBA and those older vets like ’Bron, like CP3, who are ready to go down there,” Simmons said. “This is our job. I don’t have any problems with people who want to sit out. Everybody’s personal stuff is different. I want to get out there and play. I feel like it’s my responsibility to go down there and represent Philadelphia in the highest way possible. I think this is the right way to do it.”