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Editorial

The NBA in Trump’s America

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It’s been a month already. Can you believe it? On November 8, we were crowded around our TV sets, collectively trying to make sense out of what was happening.


The congregation of hate, the acceptance of widespread bigotry, the disappointment of losing — how do you make sense of all that? Even a month later, I still get the familiar wave of nausea when I think about something new that Donald Trump could break. The man has the nuclear codes. He has power over the largest military in the world. He’s selecting one or more members of the Supreme Court — the decisive votes on abortion, voting rights, and health care.

It’s overwhelming, what this result means; what it means for minorities, for global relationships, for anyone who already felt “less than”. For every bit of news on Trump’s inner circle, for every tweet that attacks the freedom of press, there’s another reason to remember and plan for the worst. A President so woefully ignorant and under-qualified is impossible to imagine, and that makes for a lot of sleepless nights.

This result affects everyone, and our empathy opens first to minority groups who have watched the floodgates open for demonstrations of hate. In my life, I never thought I would see a weekly New York Times article called “This Week in Hate” — but here we are. These are the times we live in.

That empathy we feel is obviously not directed to the NBA community, and it shouldn’t be. The NBA is very low on the totem pole of “groups that will be affected by a Donald Trump presidency”. This being a basketball site, though, it’s worth noting that the sport will be affected. A Trump administration’s reach doesn’t have boundaries.

There’s a few ways the NBA will be affected, not the least of which being the ball lifer status of outgoing President Barack Obama.

He was ours.

Obama embraced the NBA, and it embraced him back. Forty years deep as a player and fan, he was publicly invested in the game, and we saw it with regularity. He ribbed the Warriors in the Rose Garden after they gave up the 3-1 lead, reminding Americans that their Finals loss meant the 1995-96 Bulls were the best team ever. He watched a Michigan State-North Carolina game from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. He’s had ESPN come into the Oval Office, just to parade his (terrible) March Madness bracket. Hell, Barry’s even out there getting challenges to play from Kendrick Lamar.

To put it simply, Barack Obama was ours; he was a President who put basketball before football, the favourite of many leaders for its military culture. He ditched the posh tennis courts and put up two cloth-netted hoops at the White House. He used them too — just never in shorts. His absence alone, regardless of the replacement, will change the NBA’s relationship with the White House.

Of course, that replacement isn’t anybody. It’s Donald Trump. In response, NBA players, coaches, and general managers have expressed disappointment and downright condemnation at the hateful bigotry that Trump has promoted and refused to silence.

Apr 1, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy during the second half of the game against the Charlotte Hornets at Time Warner Cable Arena. Hornets won 102-78. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Sam Sharpe – USA TODAY Sports

Sharp reaction from the NBA family

“We just elected an openly brazen misogynist leader,” said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who’s become a powerful voice of reason in the NBA landscape. “And we should keep our mouths shut and realize that we need to be learning from the rest of the world, because we don’t got anything to teach anybody.”

Learning about reason has been central for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri. He has a wonderful track record of supporting peace and prosperity as the face of the Giants of Africa program, which gives young African basketball talent the opportunity to realize their NBA dreams. Ujiri has met and spoken with Nelson Mandela as well — celebrating him this week in Toronto on the anniversary of his death.

“Racism is barbaric. Making fun of people, what they do and who they are and taking advantage of people is not who we should be,” said Ujiri in a recent interview with ESPN’s The Undefeated. “I feel strongly that we give a platform and see what that presents, and then maybe we can make judgment from there. But to me, all that stuff wasn’t America. Everybody knows that, that is not America.”

These great presences in the NBA are speaking their mind, protesting in their own way. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is another. “It’s tough when you want there to be respect and dignity, and there hasn’t been any,” said Kerr in November. “And then you walk into a room with your daughter and your wife, who’ve basically been insulted by (Trump’s) comments, and they’re distraught.”

the_nba_in_trumps_america

The marginalized

Women weren’t the only group that felt marginalized during Trump’s campaign. Anyone outside the expansive category of “white man” has reason to be nervous these days — and that includes those in the NBA family.  

Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims would have huge ramifications on the basketball community. The President-Elect famously could not name a single Muslim-American sports hero in July — not Muhammad Ali, not Kareem — and probably has no care for the several Muslims playing in the NBA today. They include Al-Farouq Aminu, Dennis Schroder, Dion Waiters, Shabazz Muhammad, Kenneth Faried, and more. Would Trump deport these players? It’s hard to imagine, but we got this far without thought to reason.

There’s also the fact that 75 percent of NBA players are black. Trump’s idea of extending his hand to this community has been limited to “what have you got to lose?”, likening the concept of inner cities to black communities in vaguely masked racism. Oh, and he also pointed out “his African-American over here” at campaign stops.

Many NBA players are selflessly committed to helping the communities that raised them. While they are not the impoverished, I’d expect that their silent protest will be to redouble efforts to help the helpless.

They will find other ways to fight back. Three NBA teams have already removed Trump hotels from their road trips. Stars like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade have already condemned police brutality, a concept dismissed by Trump’s base. There’s even a question as to whether championship teams will visit the White House, whether invited or not.

Those visits are the closest the NBA gets to the White House, and will likely be the most visible difference between a level-headed President like Obama and an unhinged one like Trump. We will remember Obama reminding Magic of the ‘91 Finals, or Iman Shumpert’s wonderment at a podium, or actually playing pickup with members of the 2012 Miami Heat.

Under Trump, we can’t expect any of that. The NBA is not the first group we should be thinking of when we consider how life is about to change — but change it will, and we have to accept that.

John is a sports writer hailing from the flat part of Canada. He's an editor and podcast host at SB Nation's Raptors HQ, with other sports work published in The Classical. As a freelance reporter, he's covered sports at every level in Winnipeg: from the NHL's Jets and CFL's Blue Bombers, to CIS basketball and hockey at both major universities. In his spare time, John writes too seriously about music and posts good-to-okay photography on Instagram.

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Editorial

If Usher Could Dunk: A “Songs For You” EP Review

Victor Oladipo put out an R&B EP this week and it is insane. We gotta talk about this.

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Art by Andrew Hamilton

Victor Oladipo is a very talented young man. The Indiana Pacers shooting guard is good for 15 points a game, has a name worth at least 21 points in Scrabble (depending on placement, it could rack up 63 or more), and has the booming singing voice of an absolute angel.

Victor first hinted at this secondary talent during the 2015 All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest—coming out of the tunnel dressed like a member of The Rat Pack and singing Sinatra’s “New York, New York” with a mixture of Usher’s swagger, Seal’s crystal-clear tone, and the lack of singing-related shame that only actual singers or tenured locker-room crooners show. He then ditched the suit and eventually threw down a 540-reverse dunk on his third attempt (haters will say it was closer to a 360, but the perfect 50 the judges gave him nullifies that babble).

After eventually losing to Zach LaVine in 2015’s contest, Vic’s vocal talent has gone nearly as unnoticed as the fact that Indiana has decided that they’re okay with Oladipo being their No. 1 star moving forward.

That is, until this past summer.

In August 2017, he dropped his first ever single, “Song For You,” which straight up sounded like John Legend sang a song written by a horned up 12-year-old. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater but V.O. (that’s the name he’s releasing music under—like Bart Simpson’s “Bartman” moniker) did not prove to be the second coming of Marvin Gaye with his leadoff ballad: “She said it wasn’t her first rodeo, so I took her shopping on Rodeo; Beamer, Benz, or Bentley—she wasn’t impressed—so I had to show her that S on my chest.” Yeeeesh … Maybe that dunk was only a 360.

I remained hopeful though—his vocal ability must outshine his songwriting at some point, right? We found out the answer to that question when V.O. released his debut EP, “Songs For You,” earlier this month.

Okay, the bad news is that the songwriting does not get better. It’s very sophomoric and just unbearable throughout the whole EP. I’ll give V.O. the benefit of the doubt—he plays basketball professionally year-round (fortunately for his musical career, he won’t have to worry about scheduling conflicts during the playoffs for at least a couple seasons) and he is only 25. Even an NBA player who has spent his formative years as a handsome millionaire celebrity hasn’t really lived enough to warrant seven full-ass ballads and only one 2 Chainz feature.

Thankfully, though, for V.O., there is some very solid tracks that may salvage the project. The lyrically disastrous “Unfollow” (it boasts lyrics like: “Too much time alone, it’s too dangerous When I ain’t got shit to do but look for the girl with the cool butt”) is a real dumb song about Vic having sex with treacherous NBA fans and feeling some type of way about it. Regardless, it’s got a solid hook and cool drums—it’s like an Usher song from his “I cheat on girls, but I’m sorry about it” phase. The best Usher phase, probably.

The next track, too—it’s called “One Day” and I’m not even trying to understand what it’s about, but I could dance in the rain to it like I’m a living Ne-Yo music video, and that’s my personal standard of excellence for modern R&B music.

Again, another song called “Still Want You” is such a bop that you will absolutely ignore the fact that Oladipo is singing about like 10 different things, and at some points nothing at all. I do not know who produced these tracks for Vic, but he owes them at least two tips of his un-ironic fedora.

We do need to discuss how wack the track with 2 Chainz is. As a white millennial, a 2 Chainz feature makes me freak out like how Greg Kinnear makes my mom freak out, and Victor Oladipo absolutely squandered an opportunity to have a goddamn hit single with Tity Boi. The song starts off sounding like knockoff Frank Ocean—Store Brand Frank Ocean—or Fredrick Lakely or something like that. Then Vic comes on singing “Wave yo’ flags, you don’t want no smoke, ‘cause everything you got still won’t come close. I came into this world with my back against the ropes, so watch this foot work, it’s the Rope-A-Dope.”

My guy, is this a WeDay commercial? Is this a charity thing? Did you write this song just so high schools would finally have one family-friendly 2 Chainz verse to play at pep rallies? I’m confused. After Victor is done his singing, 2 Chainz finally comes in and spits THE LAZIEST VERSE OF ALL TIME! I was sick listening to it for the first time—whatever cheque Vic cut 2 Chainz, it obviously wasn’t enough to make the former Duffel Bag boy care about this song even a goddamn little bit. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still a decent verse, because 2 Chainz is a consummate professional and feature verses are his bread and butter—but I could practically hear my guy falling asleep in the booth.

My closing thoughts on this project are this: Keep trying, V.O. I’m a 22-year-old, straight white man who does not have an opinion you should value—but at the same time, your EP is sorta cheeks dude! Pay your life-saving producers well, hire some songwriters and next time you release something it better have at least four Lance Stephenson verses in it—he’s the undisputed best MC in the NBA (don’t come at me in the comments talking about Damian Lillard if you listen to J. Cole) and he’s on your goddamn team!

I’m gonna have to rate this album now, I guess, right? Okay … I give this EP 2.5 2016–2017-Russell-Westbrook-drive-and-kicks-that-resulted-in-bricked-three-pointers out of 5.  No wait … I give this EP 5 sleepy “TWOOOOO CHAAAAAAIIIINS!” adlibs out of 10.

This EP is a 5/10. The fun production and the pure vocal ability that Victor Oladipo possesses drags the project across the finish line. Check out the tracks “Unfollowed” and “Still Want You” for fun bouncy R&B, and the track “Rope-A-Dope” to hear 2 Chainz take a paid nap.

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Editorial

Phil Jackson’s Prison of Beliefs Has Ruined the Knicks

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I used to bow my head and pray at the altar of Phil Jackson. I bent my knees and rested them to pew kneelers, turning on old video of the Lakers and Bulls.

I watched the impossible come to life — the hubris of Michael Jordan reduced as he was born again, passing and trusting his teammates in 1990 on his way to six championships. I’ve seen water turn to wine, an ineffectual Shaquille O’Neal go from spotlight fiend to mature superstar in 2000. Even Kobe Bryant, whose Mamba mentality only ever fit within the confines of a mirror, learned to believe in basketball as a team sport.

Nobody can take away Phil Jackson’s 11 championships, nor would we try to. In his approach to coaching, Jackson was a revolutionary. He didn’t just create his own religion, he led a crusade of converted players. The Zen Master taught the power of visualization to his players. He led athletes in meditation before that was a feature on our Fitbit. He made basketball uncomfortable for his stars — challenging them openly, often in the media, to be better teammates and lift up their brothers.

Jackson’s belief system guided him in his best years, and the NBA is better for it. Today, though, there are murmurs in the church halls. Since becoming President of Basketball Operation of the Knicks in 2014, he’s tried to assert his history into a team unwilling to listen. Blame it on the distance between president and player, on his apathetic approach, or whatever you want — Phil Jackson has failed the Knicks so far in delivering what he promised. Now more than ever, that’s become apparent.

This month has been a mess in New York. It began with Derrick Rose’s disappearance in mid-January. Unbeknownst to anyone with the Knicks — from upper management down to friends like Joakim Noah — Rose disappeared ahead of a matchup with the Pelicans. While he returned the next day, Jackson was mysteriously invisible to cameras during the issue. Instead, it was Jeff Hornacek and the players left to contend with the media’s prodding, with understandably vague answers.

Is Jackson solely responsible for addressing the Rose situation? Definitely not, but the man in charge of basketball operations is partially responsible for the actions of his players. It would’ve been nice to see his face at some point.

In fact, we haven’t seen much of Phil at all this season. We’ve heard about him, especially in his connection to banana boat goings-on. A few months after brewing in the LeBron James “posse” controversy, he’s been in regular meetings over the future of Carmelo Anthony. LeBron himself has recently said he wants Anthony on the Cavaliers by any means necessary, even if it means dumping a better fit in Kevin Love.

Jackson has not fallen victim to this pressure yet, but word is that Anthony is being strongly shopped ahead of this season’s trade deadline. The limiting factor, of course, is the no-trade clause that Phil so generously handed Anthony upon his signing with the Knicks.

And that’s so perfectly Phil, isn’t it? For all the public humiliation he has his players endure, he works his butt off to make them happy. When Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith were unhappy in New York, he gave them a soft landing spot in Cleveland. When other teams were unwilling to give him a chance, he handed Joakim Noah $72 million dollars. He’s sat idly by while Derrick Rose says weird stuff, like the infamous “superteam” quote from this off-season.

Phil Jackson cares about his players. He’s just making bad decisions in support of them, while still dousing the team in his Zen stylings. His two coaches, Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek, are both players from his era of coaching and men willing to run the dated Triangle offense. This in itself is very problematic in the modern NBA — where triangles have turned to trapezoids as four guys stand around the arc awaiting a three-point shot. Yet, in Madison Square Garden, the fans watch as Rose and Anthony toss up mid-range jump shots while their unicorn in Kristaps Porzingis stands alone.

For the Knicks to dig out from where they are now, they need to separate themselves from Phil Jackson’s prison of beliefs. Their own church can take bits and pieces from Jackson, sure; the respect for players and a mutual line of communication would go a long way. To be great, though, they need to leave the dated prayers behind — the Triangle, the idea of Zen, and the coaching lineage.

The Knicks will only win when they embrace the new NBA, which encourages freedom of thought, not imprisoning faith.

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Editorial

Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s Jason Bourne

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He wakes up in a cold sweat, on a tropical island as the ocean waves pound the beach outside his hut.

The man is lost in thought; his green tank top soaked in perspiration as the regrets of his life weigh him slowly. His joints creek and his back aches as he makes way to the bathroom; he glances at the mirror for a moment, barely able to look.

This is Larry Bird—the man who cast away Kawhi Leonard.

1

The organization knew exactly what they were looking; R. C. Buford standing at the back of a humid gym on the outstretches of Tijuana. He observed the hardwood diligently as the navy men in the bleachers roared for a corn rowed saint. The young man fit a profile: athletic, cerebral, and malleable.

His past would sometimes fire the synapses like battery acid on a wire—he remembers bits and pieces. Blindfolded. Thrown in the trunk of a car. Led to the Alamo bunker before the draft. Buford and shot doctor Chip Engelland teaching him the corner three in an empty gym. He was versed in being a Spur and everything that entailed.

This is not a drill soldier.

The young man’s final exam was killing an hombre somewhere around Puerto Escondido on the western rim of Mexico. Streams of blood permeated his dreams. Surfers found his body floating on the Pacific tide, exit wounds and all; it’s a miracle the sharks hadn’t caught wind.

Leonard went in survival mode; a rogue soldier living on instinct.

Like Bourne he had a natural gift for anticipation. It’s just wrong. The guy. The car he’s driving. What he’s wearing. It’s just wrong. Leonard would see plays before they happen. Stealing balls. Blocking shots. Reading the body language of his opponent.

I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.

Leonard became a master of blending in; traveling across the hemisphere with a suitcase of cash, passport, and his 1997 Chevy Tahoe.

Everything about him was efficiency. Modest clothes. No entourage. A haircut from an era long gone by. He cultivated a knack for languages; learning from agents hailing form Argentina, France, and Italy.

Both assassins mastered the art of stasis –the complete conservation of energy.

…Then striking with fury.

Bourne used it best at the Customs House in Naples. Sitting silently under armed watch.

Lunging to his feet. Punch. Punch. Two unconscious men on the ground.

Kawhi uses stasis even more often. Watch him before a game: hands on his knees, not moving a muscle. Sweat dripping as he awaits what may come. You’ll see the same every free throw, just motionless until motion is needed.

Defensively, it’s his anchor.

He quietly probes the man in front of him, lulling him into a false sense of control. Lunge. Yank. Leonard suddenly heading down court for a dunk; his opponent not clear what just happened.

Bourne would use whatever he had available to defend himself: a pen, a rolled up magazine, an old shotgun. Kawhi would use his gangly paws and length. There was no glory in what they did. Bourne would kill a man, and wash off the blood.

There was no sentimental Hollywood music, no action star machismo, no smiling for the camera. For Kawhi, the audience didn’t even exist. He put the ball in the basket and trotted downcourt as if he were alone.

Silence is the umbilical cord that ties them together. Bourne stayed mute as a way to keep off the radar, yet masking that he didn’t know who he was. There was loneliness. A horror. An awful truth their fathers had both been murdered.

His mind is broken.

Bourne had no natural allies, yet CIA leader Pamela Landy slowly became his friend. She believed he was being set up; that the agency was corrupt. Landy called the Russian interior minister and saved his life. She told him who he really was.

Kawhi developed that type of bond with Popovich, an Air Force man who was gruff on the surface and morally strong.  There was a moment that marked their kinship. Heading into a timeout, Pop walked up and gently put his fist into Kawhi’s chest over and over and over again. Leonard was the future of his franchise, and he would never lead him astray.

Of course it was Marie who balanced out Bourne. The German gypsy with auburn hair was talkative, jovial, worldly, and eccentric. All things he was not. When Marie was sniped by a Russian agent with a bullet meant for Bourne, he did something he had never done before: he went on the offensive.

2

Kawhi Leonard’s soul mate was always Tim Duncan.

Timmy was an islander with an I’ve seen it all laissez-faire life. He was sarcastic. A jokester. He talked non-stop on the court. His defensive prowess around the rim allowed Kawhi the latitude to roam and play free safety and become the ultimate NBA cornerback. Duncan was the calming hand on the back of Kawhi’s head.

How could I forget about you? You’re the only person I know.

That all ended in Oklahoma City when Timmy put his finger in the air and left the game for good; super free agent Kevin Durant had put a hit out on Kawhi, and ended up taking out Duncan instead.

Bourne took a train into Moscow alone, bloody, limping; screeching a cab through pouring rain with the KGB and the Russian police in pursuit. He found his man, the one who took Marie. Putting his gun to his head, yet sparring his life.

Look at this. Look at what they made you give.

Kawhi is not the man we once knew; he’s now alone down by the border.

Both agents will use technology; Bourne with his cell phones, surveillance scopes, and high speed driving. Kawhi engaged in analytics, statistics, and biometrics.

Leonard learned to control the flow of the game off the dribble with better handles. Patience. Working the pick and roll. Creating his own shot. Launching a nouveau pull up jumper from behind the arc. Defenses will gravitate towards him, and he’ll find the open Spur.

Kawhi’s vocal chords are opening up. Talking on the bench. On the court. Even to the press. The elusive 50-40-90 club is not out of question, nor is a League MVP and a pardon from the agency.

Nonetheless, there will always be demons.

Cold sweats. Ocean waves. The world is still a dangerous place, and for that, they must always run.

Kawhi pulls out a crumpled photo out from his pocket. His face is still, as a single tear rolls down his cheek to the ground below. It’s a photo of him and Tim Duncan.

He’s off to Oakland to find a sniper; Kawhi’s gotta promise to keep.

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