Features for Bleacher Report:
The LaMelo Show (2.28.18):
The doors swing open. The boy with the floppy blond curls rushes into Prienai Arena. A group of Lithuanian teens, who arrived 60 minutes before tipoff, scurry over to get a closer look, but the boy ignores them. He’s locked in his own world as he spots two stone-faced security guards looking on from just outside the locker room. The boy, sporting a pair of black headphones and a Big Baller Brand sweatsuit, grins while Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s “Finesse (Remix)” blasts in the background. It’s his time. Sixteen-year-old LaMelo Ball clutches an imaginary rock. Dipping his shoulders left, then right, he rushes toward the two security guards and crosses over both men. But a few seconds later, I watch fans abandon LaMelo for the man from whom he gets his smile. Here comes LaVar Ball. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Did One Hit Lead to a 13-year-old’s Suicide? (9.12.18):
More than a thousand people came to James Ransom’s funeral. His parents, Greg and Courtney, and his sisters, Julia and Lillie, were in attendance, each one imbued with a sorrow that crashed like waves. James’ buddies were there; some wore bright yellow sneakers and ties—an homage to James’ love of SpongeBob SquarePants. His elementary and middle school teachers, his football teammates and coaches, his neighbors and other members of the community all came. Row by row, they packed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Mission Viejo, California, full of grief, full of love. “He never knew how many lives he touched,” Lillie says. “He never knew how many people loved him, how many people needed him.” Giant poster boards bearing James’ face were sprinkled throughout the church. Greg made them. He had been too devastated to put them together at first, but Courtney nudged him to do it. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The Rise of the Next Antetokounmpo (7.18.19):
Giannis Antetokounmpo leans against a table at the Bucks practice facility in downtown Milwaukee and watches a boy dribble. The boy’s legs turn into scissors as he slices a basketball between them. A white band that says “God is here” dangles from the boy’s wrist, seeming to further lengthen his 7’2″ wingspan. He is 6’7″ and crafty. Energetic. Probably because he knows Giannis is watching. He yearns to impress Giannis, and Giannis in turn sees in him a younger version of himself. A slimmer version of himself. The boy starts toward the hoop from the three-point line and softly lays the ball in. Too softly. Giannis’ eyes narrow. His shoulders stiffen. There’s a sense of urgency. Always is when he watches 17-year-old Alex Antetokounmpo, his youngest brother, the one he nurtures, protects and mentors, almost like a father would. “I get more nervous going to watch Alex play in a high school game than playing in the Eastern Conference Finals,” Giannis says, his head tilting, tracking the flight of Alex’s next jumper on this June afternoon. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Roberto Aguayo vs. The Yips (5.28.19):
Some nights, Roberto Aguayo would just stare at the wall in his home and cry. Think to himself: What is happening? Stare at his foot: Why aren’t you doing what you’ve always done? Stare at himself in the mirror: Why can’t you do this? The pressure weighed on him. Consumed him. Pressure of missing another kick. Of being drafted in the second round out of Florida State in 2016 after Tampa Bay traded up for him in a stunning move. Of letting everyone down. He was angry. Angry at the fans who called him a “bust” and a “headcase.” Angry at the reporters who’d ask him over and over why he was failing. Angry because the painful reality was that they were all right. He was being paid to do a job that he could not do. He was not delivering. He was not living up to expectations. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Andraya Yearwood Knows She Has the Right to Compete (12.17.18):
There are people who do not want Andraya Yearwood to run. They are bothered by the sight of her. Angered by the thought of her. The black scrunchie on her wrist, the ponytail down her back. The steely stare she offers as coaches, parents and fans hurl insults toward her at track meets, not caring that she’s an earshot away. The vitriol intrudes before races. Afterward. In her Instagram comments. They say she has a “biological advantage.” They say allowing her to run isn’t fair. They do not recognize her as a girl. They insist she is a boy—a boy who shouldn’t compete in the girls division. When Andraya is on the track, about to burst out of the blocks, she doesn’t hear this noise. Doesn’t feel it. She travels somewhere else. “I don’t have to think,” she says. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Nassir Little is Learning the Hard Way (12.20.18):
Nassir Little mixes up a defensive rotation. The freshman is in the wrong spot now. Confused. Frustrated. North Carolina head coach Roy Williams halts practice. “What were you doing?” Williams asks him on this recent afternoon in Chapel Hill. Little doesn’t know the answer. Just doesn’t. He wishes he did. He lifts his chin. Doesn’t hide. Doesn’t give lip. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Where should I be?” He never found himself searching for answers like this in high school. He was so athletic that if he wanted to block a shot, he’d simply stretch his long noodle arms and swat away the ball. If he wanted to steal a ball, he’d simply roll his arms into the passing lane, and magic happened. He never had to read a scouting report, never had to think about how to guard someone. But that’s all he’s doing now: thinking, thinking, thinking. He’s realizing defense isn’t necessarily an effort thing, a wanting-it-bad-enough thing. It’s an angles, timing, precision, position thing. And he’s learning that side of the game for the first time at the highest level of college basketball. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Left in the Wake of the NCAA Bribery Scandal Nightmare (5.13.19):
When the FBI released the findings of its NCAA college basketball fraud and corruption investigations on Sept. 26, 2017, the stated goal was to expose the “dark underbelly of college basketball,” as Joon H. Kim, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said that day. The dark underbelly implicated dozens of individuals: associate head coaches, players, assistant coaches, sneaker executives and parents. Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Arizona’s Sean Miller swallowed up the headlines. Pitino was fired. Miller kept his job. But the main objects of the FBI’s attention were non-household names. Mostly low-level sneaker employees and advisers. Mostly men of color. People like USC associate head coach Tony Bland. He was charged with a felony count of conspiracy to commit bribery. He accepted a $4,100 bribe in exchange for advising USC players to use a sports management agency led by Munish Sood and Christian Dawkins. Tony was known as the West Coast’s premier recruiter, close to leapfrogging to the next major head coaching job. But when he was arrested, Tony’s life was derailed. He lost his childhood dream. Lost the daily pride of working just a few miles away from the rough South Los Angeles neighborhood that raised him. He was not the only man involved to lose something. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Who Gon’ Check the Las Vegas Aces? (7.23.19):
The 6 a.m. flight from Vegas to New York is brutal. But Liz Cambage is trying to make light of it. The 6’8’’ All-Star center from Australia is seated window-side, in emergency row 19, which offers a bit of a relief in terms of leg room. Elbow room is another story. It’s a three-seater. Her teammate JiSu Park, a 6’5’’ center from South Korea, sits two seats over, sticking her white Fila sneakers out into the aisle. A woman with blond hair is sandwiched between the two. When the flight attendant asks if they are comfortable performing emergency-exit duties, Cambage belts out an enthusiastic, “Yasssssss.” It’s the beginning of a four-game road trip. The beginning of a surge that will land them atop the WNBA standings and among the favorites to win the title. That’s where everyone expects the Aces to be as the newest superteam. Head coach Bill Laimbeer, the former Detroit Pistons “Bad Boy” who coached the Detroit Shock to three WNBA titles, has given himself at least three years to lead the Aces to the title. (The team is now in the second year of its relocation from San Antonio.) As the flight takes off, Laimbeer is seated in first class—at 6’11”, still a tight fit—in a plaid blue shirt and black pants, trying to rest his eyes. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The Metamorphosis of Brandon Ingram (10.9.18):
Attack. That’s all Brandon Ingram is thinking. He sees LeBron James dribbling at the top of the key, crossing over, left to right. Ingram approaches James and crouches down into a defensive stance. Tiny Dog versus The King. Yes, Lakers players still call Ingram “Tiny Dog”—”Tiny” because, as a rookie, he was so skinny, so light that he looked like he might blow away in the wind. “Dog” because he isn’t afraid to challenge anyone. Not even LeBron. Tiny Dog bends low, steadying his gaze on The King’s stomach. He swarms him with his gangly arms fully extended. He wants to make him feel his 7’3” wingspan, to make the words scrawled on his arms look close enough to read. It doesn’t matter. LeBron torches him from every spot he chooses. Ingram closes out to play him tightly. He slides his feet quickly. But LeBron hits one shot after another. On offense, Ingram gets solid looks. But his jumpers miss short, and he is unable to fall into a rhythm. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Hate Tyler Herro All You Want, But It’s Hard To Hate His Game (3.20.19):
The Herro family woke up around 9:30 a.m. one morning and saw red—everywhere. Red spray paint on the side yard. Red spray paint on the green grass. Red spray paint on the tree branches, which, for good measure, were also laced with toilet paper. FUCK B.B.N.! GO WISCONSIN! the spray paint read, on that summer day last year. Then there were handwritten letters, routinely delivered to Tyler Herro’s high school, Whitnall of Wisconsin. His coach, Travis Riesop, carefully combed through them. Most were too vile to let Tyler, then a senior, read. One was from a man who said he hoped Herro injured his leg the way Gordon Hayward did—a particularly gruesome fracture. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
So You Think You Know Marcus Smart (2.21.19):
Marcus Smart doesn’t take his eyes off the court. Not once. Seated under the basket, he’s polite—warm, even—in answering questions on this February morning. But a faint scowl lines his face. Not in a rude way. In a how can you stare at a court and not want to tear it up? kind of way. It’s 10 minutes before shootaround. Nine hours until the Celtics play the Cavaliers in Cleveland. But when Smart is near a court, he loses track of time. Loses himself between the lines. Enough talking. He’d fly off his chair right now and chase down a loose ball if he could.Screw his knees. His ankles. His arms. His back. Any ligament or joint in his body, really. If a ball is rolling, Smart is diving. He does it so often in games, you wonder if he popped out of the womb with his arms stuck straight ahead, instinctively ready to chase down a basketball. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Mallory Pugh Is Ready For Her Magic Hour (6.5.19):
Soccer wasn’t a space she had to be perfect in. She didn’t worry about failure. She just saw green—endless green—as she dribbled ahead, faster, faster. No thinking. Just flying. That was nine years ago. She isn’t 12 anymore. She’s 21 and coming to terms with who she is, where she is right now. She’s inked sponsorships with the likes of Nike and Gatorade, but she’s more of an X-factor than superstar on a team that hopes to repeat as champion at the World Cup, which starts this month in France. She’s competing for playing time with veteran forwards like Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. It’s unclear if Pugh will come off the bench. That’s a lot to metabolize. A lot to think about. “There is a piece of her that has had to grow up,” says Sterling Joseph, her strength and conditioning coach. “In previous years, she’d just come in there with her eyes closed and just play, pretty much. And now, it’s different. It’s not like that.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Everyone’s Falling for Ja Morant (2.4.19):
Ja Morant dribbles the ball between his legs, crouching low…lower…so low his gangly arms nearly graze the hardwood. Like a spider stalking its next prey. He approaches Murray State assistant coach Tim Kaine, who has grabbed a ball of his own at center court. Kaine’s turn for a shot at Morant. But they’re not going to go one-on-one. Kaine’s chosen competition? Half-court, back-to-the-basket shots. When Morant reaches Kaine, the two turn around and begin chucking balls over their heads, seeing who can do the near-impossible. The match ends in a draw. And just after it does, Matt McMahon, the team’s head coach, calls for Morant. His turn. McMahon is suddenly a point guard, not the coach. He skips up the court and motions for Morant to cut to the basket. Morant beelines to the free-throw stripe. Flying into the air, he takes a pass from McMahon and flushes the ball down through the hoop. Morant screams. McMahon squeals, practically giddy to be sharing the court with college basketball’s most dynamic player. Even a coach can get caught up in it. That fun. That electricity. That high. Morant makes you believe you’re better than you are. More confident. More dangerous. You hold your follow-through a little bit longer. You puff your chest out a little bit farther. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Through Tragedy and Transfers to the Final Four: Tariq Owens (4.5.19):
Tariq Owens was tall and skinny and uncoordinated but determined. He was 12 years old and a skilled football player, losing maybe two games in four years with his Pop Warner team in Baltimore. But then his legs decided they wanted to be longer. His knees chose to creak in anticipation. His body just shot up and up and up, and soon he woke up at 6 feet. And where do 6-foot middle schoolers go? “Dad,” he said, sitting in the family’s living room. “I want to play basketball.” Renard Owens had been waiting to hear those words since the day his son was born. Growing up, nothing in life had made Renard feel the way he felt on the basketball court: calm and powerful and in love. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Sabrina Ionescu is Always On (1.25.19):
Sabrina Ionescu gets nervous. Too nervous to sleep. Lying in her bed, wrapped in her gray blankets, she’ll try to meditate. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Doesn’t work. She’ll turn over right, then turn over left. Right, left. Right, left. Still nothing. She hardly sleeps during the season. Especially nights before games. The thoughts will just get louder in her head. What if we don’t win? We have to win. What if my shot’s off? How are they going to guard me? 2 a.m. …She’ll replay mistakes she can’t let go of, losses she’s still ticked off about. She’ll try praying, try reading one of her favorite books, Mamba Mentality: How I Play or Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Stephen Curry or Tim Tebow: Through My Eyes.
3 a.m. …She’ll turn on some nonsports TV but end up on SportsCenter. But then, somehow, in the morning, she’ll join her team at shootaround, looking like she slept 10 hours. She’ll be energetic and confident. Ready. Every time. She has to be. She is The Woman Who Does Not Miss. The Triple-Double Queen. Her teammates need her. Follow her. Copy her. If she flinches, they flinch. If she doubts, they doubt. So she can’t show weakness, even when she feels like vomiting in the hours before tipoff and can’t eat anything. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Napheesa Collier Never Gave Up (4.5.19):
“PHEEEESSAA!!!!!!” She’d hear the word bellow out of coach Geno Auriemma at a practice, and she’d know she was about to get called out. Again. Another mistake. And the worst part? She knew he was right. She was playing too deferential. Too timid. Napheesa Collier had a long way to go. But that didn’t mean it didn’t kill the now-senior UConn forward to hear it from the team’s legendary coach. Auriemma knew how to press her buttons. How to mine more out of her. He’d dog her about stretching out of her comfort zone around the hoop, developing a mid-range game. At one practice, he called her selfish when she failed to dive for a loose ball that was rolling out of bounds. And he’d yell these generalizations. “Phee, you don’t ever get a rebound!” “Phee, you never stop the ball!” Collier wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he got under her skin, though. She burned to prove him wrong. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Jalen Green’s Life as a Superstar-In-Waiting (12.13.18):
Jalen Green can’t go to Fashion Fair Mall here in Fresno, California, without fans spotting him. “Is that Jalen Green?!” they scream. He smiles and nods shyly as they rush to his side, looking like ants next to his gangly 6’6″-and-still-growing frame. “Can we get a picture, Jalen?!” Kids at his school, San Joaquin Memorial, take pictures of him even when he’s not looking, thinking he doesn’t see them. But he does. He’s keenly aware of the eyes that are always on him, the arms that are always reaching for him. After a game against nearby Madera High last season, there were so many people grabbing at Green, trying to take photos with him, that school authorities had to escort him out the back door. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Nothing Can Faze Davante Adams (8.23.18):
Davante Adams finally takes a breath, cozying into a chair in his kitchen. It’s Tuesday, and he’s getting married in four days. There are guests to call, boxes to unpack, furniture to re-arrange here in his new home in Danville, California. But his mind quiets as a woman comes over and drapes a towel around his shoulders. Ebonie Hegwood, a longtime family friend, begins braiding his hair. Row by row, she smooths over each strand with a mixture of natural Jamaican beeswax and Eco styling gel. Twisting, tightening, patting, prodding, she works each section with the precision of a surgeon and the warmth of a mother. Tilting his head forward and tucking his chin in, Adams is a kid again. Her hands feel like home in East Palo Alto. Like the way life was long before he signed a four-year, $58 million extension in December to become the Green Bay Packers‘ No. 1 receiver this season. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Unapologetically Liz (8.17.18):
Liz Cambage is in a hurry. The center for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings quickly steps out of the elevator, on the ninth floor, arriving at one of her favorite local restaurants, Mercury Chophouse. She struts to her customary table, the third one on the right, the one with the pea-green cushions. The 6’8″ MVP candidate from Australia has just 40 minutes. She has to leave for a medical appointment to tend to what happened the night before. Cambage was pulled to the ground as Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones’ arm smacked her in the neck. She hit her head on the hardwood and was forced to exit the game. An offensive foul was called on Jones but not a flagrant one, surprising even the broadcasters. “A lot of people are worried, but I’m fine,” Cambage says. “Just a bit of whiplash.” All her life, she has been battered and bruised on the court and told she was too tall, too loud, too much off it. Her critics advise her to keep quiet. Not to fight back. As a female athlete, she was taught to take her lumps and be grateful for each and every one of them, like they were Christmas gifts and not coal. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
There’s Nothing O-Lines Can Do About Aaron Donald (11.19.18):
Helmets, arms and shoulders hinder his vision, but Aaron Donald bulldozes his way through double-team after double-team. It’s the first half of a Week 4 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Donald has yet to sack anyone in this game, or this season. He isn’t worried, though. By the fourth quarter, the All-Pro defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams has had enough. He eyes QB Kirk Cousins and prepares to strike. NFL quarterbacks fear getting sacked by Donald in the same way ordinary people fear getting older: They know it will happen, and they know they can’t do much about it. That doesn’t make it any less terrifying. Not when 6’1″, 280-pound Donald is mowing down 6’4″, 350-pound offensive linemen and anyone else in his way. Take a Rams practice Donald’s rookie year, back in 2014. An offensive lineman hit him after a one-on-one drill, and Donald grabbed the lineman’s facemask and completely ripped it off the helmet. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Inside the WNBA’s Fight for Higher Pay (10.29.18)
Dust sticks to her sneakers. Empty Gatorade bottles and trash line a slippery sideline. The tattered net has one too many loops popping out. At least she has a court, she tells herself. At least there is a broom at the front desk, here in this local gym in Chico, California, to sweep the dust. She’s used to making do, making rundown courts feel like home. Layshia Clarendon, a guard for the Connecticut Sun, moved to the area last offseason to live with her now-wife’s family. The two couldn’t afford their own house yet. Not with Clarendon’s WNBA salary. She wouldn’t disclose what she was making, saying only that it was not a maximum contract ($115,500, plus bonuses, in the WNBA). One report said the six-year WNBA veteran made $91,700 last year. That is far more than she made in her earlier years in the league, when she had to sustain herself on a total of $40,000 to $50,000 a year. It takes some degree of financial freedom to be a professional athlete. More than just being above the poverty line, you need to be able to eat, train, travel, work long hours. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
There’s No Stopping Arike Ogunbowale (11.9.18):
On this October day in South Bend, every pass must be crisp, every cut full speed. Notre Dame’s players sprint up and down, whipping passes faster, faster, faster in this full-court practice drill. Then one player screws up; she tosses an overhead pass that is deflected. Players drop to the floor to hold a 30-second core plank for punishment. Even Muffet McGraw, the 62-year-old Hall of Fame coach, is planking. Teeth clenched, McGraw doesn’t allow her navy sweatpants and light blue polo to graze the floor even for a second. Arike Ogunbowale looks irritated. About-to-take-over-the-game irritated. Arike Mode is thrilling and terrifying, depending on which team you play for. The 5’8” senior All-American cruises down the court and slices her way through three players to finish at the rim. After that, she pretends she’s about to drive in again, but she quickly stops for a pull-up, draining a long two. Her follow-through lingers as she leaves her right hand cupped down. She leans back, bouncing one, two, three times off of her right foot, very much expecting the ball to drop in. Of course she does. She is the most clutch playmaker in women’s college basketball. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
JJ Arcega-Whiteside Is Holding Court (10.18.18)
He plays the position of receiver like he’s playing basketball, not football. His explosion off the snap is deceptive, like he’s crafting a route to the hoop, not showing his highest gear of speed until he’s already past you. At 6’3″, 225 pounds, he fights for a catch like he’s boxing out, establishing position in the post before leaping in the air. And he attacks the open space like it has wronged him, like a rebound is suspended there and he cannot wait for the ball to sail into his palms. JJ Arcega-Whiteside is, as his quarterback at Stanford, K.J. Costello, calls him, “an outlier.” “The way he runs routes, the way he operates,” Costello says, “is just not normal.” Not for football, at least. But for Arcega-Whiteside, playing it any other way would be what defied norms. The senior who’s become a highlight-reel regular and put up video game stats this season (226 yards in one game and eight touchdowns in Stanford’s first six games) maneuvers like a basketball player because that’s what he’s been all his life. Because he comes from a family that discussed offensive rebounds and fade screens and pull-up jump shots over dinner. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Stephen Carr Won’t Be Stopped (9.4.18):
It’s a windy, 65-degree November day, chilly for Los Angeles. Students struggle around USC’s campus in puffer jackets, scarves and boots. Running back Stephen Carr, then a true freshman, walks into the team’s media room in a cardinal and gold Trojans T-shirt, sweatpants and slides. Carr isn’t cold. He hails from the sleepy city of Fontana, about 55 miles east, where the cutting wind threatens to knock you over. Cars shake. Trash cans fly. Street lights sway. This wind doesn’t bother Carr, though. He has withstood things much worse—things that could have swept him up as a child and then a teen. He chose to keep running. So fast that college coaches drooled at the way he flew downfield and then planted one foot and instantly zoomed the opposite direction. His motto was: “Slow feet don’t eat.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Nate Robinson Battles Inner Demons in Quest for NBA Return (6.18.18):
Nate Robinson’s eyes are hooked to the TV. It’s 9 a.m. and he’s too dialed in to sip his special concoction of orange juice mixed with lemonade. Sitting in a booth at the Skillet Diner in Seattle in late May, he’s watching highlights from Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals from the night before: Houston bombing 27 straight attempts from three, Chris Paul sitting out with a hamstring injury. “I’m sorry, I’m playing WOUNDED!” Robinson exclaims, referring to Paul not playing. “They can’t get a bucket, and there’s a bucket-getter right here!” He squeezes an imaginary ball between his palms, tighter and tighter, like it’s the ruby slipper that will magically transport him through the screen and back into the NBA. It would not be the first time Robinson defied time and space. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Christian Coleman is More than the Man who Beat Bolt (8.17.18):
Earlier this year, folks were whispering that Christian Coleman was in line to become the next great American sprinter. They were calling him “The Next Bolt.” In November, he blazed past Usain Bolt at the IAAF World Championships in London, stunningly ending Bolt’s 45-race win streak during the semifinals of the 100 meters and finishing ahead of Bolt (but behind Justin Gatlin) again in the final. Then in February, about two weeks before his 22nd birthday, Coleman became the world record holder in the 60-meter indoor, running a time of 6.34 at the U.S. Indoor Championships in Albuquerque to shatter Maurice Greene’s 20-year-old mark of 6.39. Coleman had already unofficially beaten Greene’s time in January, and he would beat it again in March. It was a stretch of utter domination that forced the world to take notice. Now, only months later, the hype has been replaced with doubt. He hears it all. He’s hurt. He’s a one-trick pony. He’s only a short-sprint, 60 guy. He can’t consistently win the 100 or the 200. Coleman’s run ended with a second-place finish in the 100 at the Prefontaine Classic in late May and a fourth-place finish at the Rome Diamond League meet less than a week later. Worse, he was battling a right hamstring injury during that stretch. It cramped and locked, and it caused all of his momentum to halt. He struggled to hold on to his lead in Oregon as Ronnie Baker pulled away in the final 20 meters. But the recent Rome loss? That was frustrating. And motivating. “It was a wake-up call for me,” Coleman says. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Aly Raisman is Taking Destiny Into Her Own Hands (7.23.18):
Inside Exxcel Gymnastics, young girls crowd around a photo collage, boxing each other out for the best view of their hometown Olympian plastered across the wall. Among the cluster of pictures in this Newton, Massachusetts, gym is an image of 10-year-old Aly Raisman, so determined to hold her position, her little arms holding up the entire weight of her body, while her legs and toes point to the ceiling. Back then, Raisman was not the most skilled. Just strong. She was smaller than everyone and burned to beat everyone, whether it was press handstands or chin-ups. “Can we do a contest?! Can we do a contest?!” she’d exclaim. If she did 20 chin-ups yesterday, she’d pull off 21 the next day, even if it was not a contest. She was seven years old. There are also black-and-white newspaper photos of 22-year-old Raisman, roaring, as she wins gold at the 2016 Olympics, next to headlines like: “Gold Fever!” and “Alexandra the Great!” The young girls who train at the gym had huddled around a television that year, cheering Raisman’s every move in navy T-shirts that said “Team Aly.” The girls see that Raisman was just like them: Poised. Relentless. Driven by dreams bigger than their bodies. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Remember the Name: Azzi Fudd (1.3.19):
When Azzi Fudd catches the ball, she has this look. It starts with her eyebrows. They sink a little lower, point inward to the middle. Her eyes and her lips tighten. You can tell she’s about to attack. “Azzi’s a big con artist,” says Amaziah Diggs, her former coach at Arlington Travel Basketball, a boys eighth-grade team. “She has this million-dollar smile. She’s a big jokester. “But when she gets on the court, she’s a maniac.” The kind of “maniac” every college coach is after. The kind who dropped 41 points in back-to-back games as a freshman last season. The kind who is big, strong and positionless and can defend. The 5’11” sophomore guard has led St. John’s College High School (Washington, D.C.) to a 13-1 record this season and the No. 3 ranking on USA Today‘s Super 25, averaging 28.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, two steals and two blocks while shooting a blistering 55 percent from both the field and three-point range. She has a true jump shot—fluid, textbook, released at its peak—and can score at the rim, from mid-range and outside. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
No. 1 Recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux Large and In Charge of Destiny (6.28.18):
Kayvon Thibodeaux couldn’t help that he sprouted to 6’2″ by age 13. He couldn’t help that he charged through kids in his Pop Warner All-Star Game that year like they were hollow figurines. An ambulance was called when one boy couldn’t get back up. “He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He was just strong,” says his mother, Shawnta Loice. “They couldn’t stop him.” Until referees did. They were so concerned for the other team’s safety that they pulled Thibodeaux out and didn’t allow him to re-enter the game. Thibodeaux, known then as Diesel, weighed 10 pounds when he was born. The toddler would even crawl out of his crib, pour milk into his bottle, sip, then climb back into his crib and sleep, according to his uncle, Isaiah. Thibodeaux grew accustomed to cruel comments as he got older: He’s too big! He’s old! Just look at him! Parents demanded he provide his birth certificate. Kids would exclude him on the playground. He wasn’t a troublemaker, but teachers assumed he was the culprit if something happened in class. He has a red skateboard signed by Tony Hawk, but never learned how to use it because he thought he was too big to ride. What made him an outcast as a middle-schooler now has him the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2019, according to 247Sports. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Unassuming Indiana Basketball Prospect Romeo Langford Just Wants to Play Ball (4.12.18):
Everyone in New Albany has a story about Romeo Langford. Drive a few miles down Charlestown Road in the sleepy Southern Indiana city and listen to the legend growing around the 5-star, 18-year-old prospect. Inside Kroger, a silver-haired man is bent over and unpacking Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Noosa Yoghurt. His eyes widen as I ask about Romeo. “He’s the best we’ve ever had,” Chuck Stroud tells me. Stroud’s been a New Albany High School season-ticket holder for 20 years. “He’s humble. He’s a good kid. And that don’t happen too much anymore.” Romeo smiles and signs autographs for more than 90 minutes after every game, even as his hand grows stiff, even as his slice of pizza turns cold. He takes photos with babies. He visits the sick in hospitals. And every night, he puts on a show. Scoring from anywhere—midrange, from three, at the rim—he is so unstoppable in the open floor that he is considered a “once-in-a-generation” talent by Jim Shannon, his New Albany coach. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Introducing College Basketball’s Breakout Star, Mikal Bridges, the Kawhi Leonard Clone (3.7.18):
They used to call him Noodles. Inspector Go Go Gadget. String Bean. Brittle (short for Brittle Bones). Praying Mantis. Mikal Bridges was so skinny and lanky and his arms were so long—”freakishly long,” Bridges tells me—that his Villanova teammates roasted him with a range of nicknames. The 6’7” swingman was an easy target then: a freshman. A young freshman (17 years old). About 185 pounds. Gangly shoulders, little head (they called him “Pea-head,” too). His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, sympathizes. “My wingspan is the same as World B. Free,” Rivers tells me, referring to the wiry 76ers legend, as we sip tea at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in February. Mikal has a 7’2” wingspan. “He’s always had ridiculous, stupid-long arms.” She laughs, remembering the Noodles days, back when no one was calling her son, now a redshirt junior, a potential 2018 NBA draft lottery pick. When he redshirted his first season to bulk up, he was simply a punching bag to the upperclassmen. “Any chance they got to try to punk him or go at his body or be physical with him, they’d do that,” guard Phil Booth says. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Put Some Respect on Candace Parker’s Name (5.17.18):
She watched the 2011 All-Star Game from her couch, crying and angry, feeling left out. Four years into the league and she hadn’t been healthy enough to play in the event. “I’m going through this for a reason,” she told herself, and would keep telling herself, as injuries lingered and losses stung. Parker exploded for 33 points, 15 boards and four blocks against the Lynx in the 2012 Western Conference Finals but lost the series. Season over. Again. The next season, she played in her first All-Star Game and earned MVP. Then the Sparks fell to the Phoenix Mercury by one point as Brittney Griner sank a series-winning turnaround over her in the Western Conference Semifinals. Parker buried herself in her maroon and gold sheets the next day and didn’t do much for the next few weeks. In 2015, she sat out the first half of the season and then came back to record a league-best 6.3 assists per game, the only non-guard to ever achieve that mark. Last season, she poured in the game-winning layup against the Mercury in the 2017 Western Conference Semifinals despite a sprained ankle but fell to the Lynx in the Finals again. Up, down, up, down. It’s a rhythm all basketball players know and try to control. But the older you get, the more you realize how little control you have. You can do everything right and lose. You can do everything wrong and win. You train your body beyond its limits, but it fails you. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
You Need to Know About Asia Durr (1.31.18):
Asia Durr isn’t blinking. Her No. 9 Louisville Cardinals are facing No. 5 Ohio State. Durr’s brown eyes are frozen, teeth clenched. She doesn’t see anyone. Doesn’t hear anything. In this moment, on this hardwood at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, someone is going to suffer. Scratch that. With the ball in her possession and 30 seconds to strike, an entire team will. Durr jabs hard to the left, then crosses to the right—too quick, too slick—and her defender inevitably bites. Durr pops a step-back three, leaning like she knows it’s good. Of course it is. It’s only the first quarter, but she’s got that look in her eye. Terry Durr, Asia’s father, who is seated directly across from the Louisville bench, recognizes that look immediately. “She’s ready to destroy someone,” Terry says of his daughter. In this moment, she’s someone else. The woman obsessed with SpongeBob SquarePants who taught her poodle, Precious, to howl when the theme song comes on, who loves haunted houses and horror movies but gets so scared she has to sleep with the lights on for the next few days—that girl takes on a different personality. “I call her the Baby-Faced Killa,” says DeQuan Jones, a friend who plays for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G League. “She looks so innocent, but when she steps on the court, she literally will attack you.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Top QB recruit Justin Fields Can’t Wait to Compete with Jake Fromm (1.25.18):
One morning in late December 2017, Justin Fields wakes up, pulls up a chair in his family’s home in Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, and reflects on all that happened the day before. On that red-letter day, the 18-year-old quarterback signed with the University of Georgia, becoming the first No. 1 overall prospect to pick the Bulldogs in the 13 years that ESPN has ranked prospects. Fields wore a tuxedo to his signing ceremony as 100 people filled the auditorium at Harrison High School. But today, he’s wearing a gray Georgia T-shirt, black shorts and a silver wristband that reads “Commit to the G.” A red Georgia flag waves on the front lawn in the 52-degree chill. His dog, Royce, a little black and white Shih Tzu with an endearing overbite, is tugging at Fields’ calf for attention. He’s appropriately dressed in a mini red Bulldogs shirt. But outside his home, outside Kennesaw, few can understand why the 6’3″, 225-pound quarterback with the size, athleticism, arm strength, lights-out quickness and razor-sharp IQ (he also has a 3.9 GPA) would choose Georgia. The program already has a true freshman in Jake Fromm, who led the Bulldogs to the SEC championship and national championship game. “It’s shocking,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The Mad Scientist of the NFL (11.10.17):
“Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.” Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself. Every second is monumental for the first-year head coach. Five minutes later, he dashes off to a meeting, where he will labor over formations and movements and should-have-beens and better-bes. “He’s like a mad scientist,” says Chris Ashkouti, a close friend since seventh grade. McVay has transformed the Rams from a punchline to a contender, from a 4-12 nightmare to a 6-2 first-place standing in the NFC West. He’s revitalized one of the NFL’s worst attacks into the second-highest-scoring offense. And he’s doctored Jared Goff—last year’s No. 1 overall pick, who went 0-7 as a rookie starter—into a quarterback on the rise. But the mad scientist doesn’t want to hear any of that. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
So You Think You Know Lonzo Ball…(10.9.17):
The real Zo is still the 10-year-old boy who understood passing was like double-dutch: all rhythm and all timing. He calculated the precise second to throw the ball from one end of the court so that it soared over the hands of defenders and onto the fingertips of teammates at the other end without touching the ground. The real Zo is a 13-year-old boy whose AAU team trailed by one with 20 seconds left. He drove to the basket, fooling the crowd by passing to his center, wide open underneath the basket, instead of shooting it himself. Clank. Ball’s team retrieved the ball with seven seconds left. “I’m going to give you the ball again,” an unfazed Ball told his visibly dejected center. “Be ready.” Ball whipped the ball to the center again—to the chagrin of over-zealous parents—but this time, the big man delivered the buzzer-beater layup. The real Zo is a 14-year-old freshman challenging a senior for a starting varsity spot at Chino Hills High. “Are you nervous?” whispered John Edgar Jr., another childhood best friend, at tryouts. “Nah,” Ball said. “I’m not nervous at all. What do you mean?” Ball earned the nod. The real Zo is an 18-year-old man elevating a struggling UCLA squad to a No. 2 standing and Sweet 16 appearance in 2016-17, leading the nation in assists. “His strength is his speed,” says Steve Alford, UCLA’s coach. “You can’t catch him.” The real Zo is now 19—and every move he makes must be immaculate. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Doubters and Would-Be Tacklers: Beware of Ronald Jones, USC’s ‘Texas Tesla’ (11.29.17):
USC has the ball, 1st-and-goal at the 2-yard line with fewer than six minutes to go against UCLA. Quarterback Josh Rosen and the Bruins have cut the lead to 21-17. Sam Darnold hands the ball off to Ronald Jones II, the Trojans’ 6-foot, 200-pound tailback, who clutches the ball tight, ducks his head down and pummels his way through much bigger linemen. Even as one would-be tackler grabs him at the knees, Jones grinds his way out of the pile and into the end zone for his second touchdown and what turns out to be the winning score. He finished with 122 rushing yards on 28 carries in the Trojans’ (10-2) 28-23 victory. “You can’t just hit him or knock him down, because he’ll just bounce up and go through you,” said Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, whose team fell victim to a 25-yard Jones burst the previous week. On the play, Jones escaped not one, not two, but three defenders and even carried one on his back for five yards before shedding him for another 15, as if to scream, “WEIGHT ROOM!” So who is Rojo, the tackle-breaking back from McKinney, Texas, who is suddenly rising on NFL draft boards, and whose 16 touchdowns rank seventh nationally and tie for first in the Pac-12? A player who has so much North-South explosion, bringing him to top speed after his first cut, that his teammates call him the Texas Tesla? (READ FULL STORY HERE).
“It’ll be a little different this year”: U.S. Legends Watch 2018 FIFA World Cup Draw With Mixed Feelings (12.1.17):
LOS ANGELES — “What time is it?” Alexi Lalas, U.S. National Soccer Hall of Famer, asks me the question Friday morning, as there are no windows inside the Fox Sports studio in Los Angeles. Plus, it’s pitch-black outside. Lalas woke up at 3 a.m. to facilitate a 12-mile soccer carpool with fellow analyst and L.A. Galaxy legend Landon Donovan plus commentator Rob Stone. The trio arrived before 4. I tell Lalas it’s now 6:30. It’s 30 minutes before the 2018 World Cup Final Draw, which will be broadcast live around dinnertime in Moscow, Russia, the host of the Cup. All 32 qualifying teams are about to be funneled into groups to learn their first-round matchups. “World Cups are where perceptions are changed, both of individual players and teams,” Lalas tells B/R. “Because of the platform and the power of that platform, it almost defines who you are as a person, who you are as a team, who you are as a country.” And the draw itself? “It can decide a lot,” Lalas says “It can really form opinion. It can, to a certain extent, make or break you in terms of who you’re coming up against.” It’s an odd thing to watch the draw live in a country that failed to qualify for the Cup for the first time since 1986. It’s more clinical than emotional, like watching a party on TV without being invited. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
The Real First Family of Hoops (7.20.17):
The Ogwumikes are the type to play next-after-next-after-next-after-next-after-next in pickup, looking bewildered when everyone else in the gym starts taking off their kicks to call it quits. All four Ogwumike women, whose last name means “warrior” in Igbo, one of the national languages of Nigeria, are relentless. “No matter how we feel when we walk on the basketball court, we all have this sense of pride, so we always work hard,” Erica says. Last season, Chiney took a nasty elbow to the mouth. She felt her tooth shake—it fell out the next day—but she kept playing. Only now has she set up an appointment for an implant. Nneka has a three-inch scar on the right side of her body from diving into the scorer’s table while playing for the Polish team CCC Polkowice in the Final Eight of Euroleague in Russia. She hopped right back in the game. Olivia has been whacked in the head as an undersized forward more times than she’d like to remember. Erica is the only Ogwumike to wear a mouth guard, as she boxes out players a head or two taller than she in the paint. “We’ve all had our battle scars,” says Chiney, who is sitting out this season to rehab a left Achilles injury. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
How Mo’ne Davis made her hoop dreams come true: Inside Life after Little League (2.21.17):
Mo’ne Davis calls for the ball. She drains a three, holding her follow-through for a second longer as she and a teammate battle two others for most threes made during a drill. “BOOM!” the boys on the sideline shout. Davis, wearing white and chrome Nike Kobe A.D.s, scurries around the perimeter, releasing shot after shot. “They cheatin’!” Davis hollers, waving her arms and hip-checking one of her opponents. She pops three more in a row. “Oh yeaaaaahhhh,” she says, bouncing up and down, sensing victory. Davis has been knocking down shots at Philadelphia’s Marian Anderson Recreation Center with these same boys—her teammates on the Anderson Monarchs, a youth recreational team—for the past eight years. The center’s gym, with its four rows of brown bleachers, its cream-colored wall tile and its green and white scoreboard, has long been home to the 15-year-old—since before she became an American sensation in 2014 as the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series; before she starred in Spike Lee’s Chevrolet commercial; before she couldn’t walk anywhere without fans approaching her for pictures.(READ FULL STORY HERE).
My Game-Day Style: Austin Rivers (2.14.18):
Even when he was nursing an injured ankle with a protective boot last month, Austin Rivers made sure his ‘fit was on point. “If I’m going to sit, I might as well look good,” he says. Though the boot is no fashion statement, it didn’t deter Rivers from suiting up for a more “grown” look he’s transitioned to. It’s a recent change in his game-day style that resulted in the purchase of 18 tailored suits from designers such as Musika Frere and Gucci. He owned just one last year. “I went all-in,” says Rivers, who returned to action last week. “I went from not having suits to being Mr. Suit.” Gone are the days of dressing like an L.A. guy, or what Rivers calls “the Melrose look” (trendy streetwear with ripped jeans and oversized sweatshirts). “Young boy-type stuff,” the 25-year-old says. Well, those days are almost over. “I have range. Some days I’ll be super professional, and some days I’ll look like a fucking rapper.” He’s also done with the fashion he donned as a teen—oversized threads, headbands and Air Force 1s—referencing the baggy clothing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony wore in the early 2000s. “I wanted to be like the basketball players,” he says. (READ FULL STORY HERE).
BIG3 Thinking Bigger (8.29.17):
“Rick!” Kenyon Martin screamed as he walked in. “You a bad mof–ka, man! Rick a bad mof–ka!” Coach Rick Mahorn, the hustler, the former Detroit Piston “Bad Boy” Martin grew up idolizing as a kid from Saginaw, Michigan, had been the first to enter the press room after his Trilogy squad won the first-ever championship crown for the BIG3, co-founder Ice Cube’s half-court three-on-three basketball league for former NBA players. Mahorn looked exhausted, as his team had clawed back from an 11-point first-half deficit against the Gary Payton-coached 3 Headed Monsters at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday. Mahorn had slowly reached for a chair, smiling once he got settled. He had a look of pride on his face: “What a great game, s–t,” Mahorn said. “Way to end the season on a great game. I’m still mad we ain’t played perfect.” Then came Martin. Mahorn greeted the former Denver Nuggets star with a headlock hug, and K-Mart flashed a wide smile. Al Harrington, who played 16 NBA seasons, chimed in too, turning to Mahorn: “I love my coach, man. I love my coach. Look at him! I love Unk! I looooove him! That’s all I got to say. I love this man, God damn, I love this man.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).
Excellence Defined: UConn Women Make History Again with 91-Game Win Streak (1.15.17):
Connecticut wasn’t satisfied with leading SMU by 24 points at the end of the first quarter, 26 at the end of the half, 35 at the end of the third Saturday afternoon. UConn refused to give an inch until the final buzzer sounded. With the 88-48 win, the top-ranked women’s basketball team ascended into hoops immortality. The 11-time national champion Huskies won their 91st straight game, setting the longest streak for consecutive wins in NCAA Division I history for men or women. But Connecticut has been here before. Having topped John Wooden’s legendary UCLA streak of 88 consecutive wins (1971-74) when it won 90 straight (2008-10), the Huskies have outdone themselves. “So many things that have happened at UConn are just beyond anybody’s expectations, beyond anybody’s imagination,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said on the SportsNet New York broadcast after the historic win. “It’s almost like it’s a fairy tale. It’s the kind of thing you can’t ever plan for or anticipate.” How could two completely different Huskies teams achieve the improbable in just over six years? “That’s definitely something [Auriemma] instills in us while we’re there: never be satisfied with what you’re doing,” Atlanta Dream guard Tiffany Hayes, who helped UConn set the 2008-10 record, told Bleacher Report. “Even if you’re having a good practice, you can always have a great one,” Hayes said. “His thing was, you can’t be perfect, but if you’re chasing perfection, you can catch excellence.” (READ FULL STORY HERE).