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Home Sport From Kobe to LeBron: Tragedy and Triumph in the N.B.A.

From Kobe to LeBron: Tragedy and Triumph in the N.B.A.

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The longest and possibly saddest year in pro basketball history is almost over. From this world that plays out on hardwood, as with so many other wings of society, there will be few fond farewells to 2020.

The basketball public has been losing and grieving since the first day of January, when David Stern, the N.B.A.’s former longtime commissioner, died at age 77. Soon after, a helicopter headed for a weekend youth tournament with nine aboard, among them Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif. There were no survivors.

Mere weeks later, the country was gripped by the coronavirus. Inside and outside of the sport’s sphere, life did not get easier and, as 2021 dawns, it still hasn’t.

Yet there was some undeniable good along the way, most of all the N.B.A.’s leadership in coping with the coronavirus, and how its players, in tandem with their longtime activist peers from the W.N.B.A., lent many loud and influential voices to a year of profound social reckoning. The N.B.A. was the first major professional sports league to shut down in response to the pandemic, completed its 2019-20 season by engineering an ambitious protective bubble, and amplified the fight for racial justice and equality.

Those were real-world triumphs that will be long-lasting.

So let’s celebrate them. In the final edition of Year 3 for this newsletter, I have singled out a few of the far smaller victories, too, as opposed to rehashing a frequently dispiriting 12 months in detail. For all the natural Year In Review instincts that kick in for all of us every December, I’d rather reach back for some smiles, thin as they might be, than recount all the tumult and tragedy.

Allow me to rewind to All-Star Weekend in Chicago in February, when the much-maligned dunk contest, and a competitive All-Star Game crunchtime enhanced by the use of the Elam scoring system, generated a level of tension and watchability that many skeptics no longer thought possible.

ImageDerrick Jones Jr. won the dunk contest during a revitalized All-Star Weekend in Chicago in February.
Derrick Jones Jr. won the dunk contest during a revitalized All-Star Weekend in Chicago in February.Credit…Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

There were five uplifting Sundays in a row during the mostly lonely (and scary) days of April and May when a basketball documentary about Michael Jordan, “The Last Dance,” delivered the sort of shared experience and sense of community — through sports — that was otherwise unavailable.

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Michael Jordan captivated millions each week this spring with his recollections of his Chicago Bulls glory days.Credit…Jon Roche

The recent sports trading card renaissance extended to basketball, and led to rookie cards from LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo fetching $1.8 million — each — at auction.

The creative forces behind the acclaimed animated series Game of Zones served up one final season that, to my great shock and pride, managed to work in a few lucky sports scribes.

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The seventh season of the animated show “Game of Zones” by Bleacher Report includes characters inspired by Marc Stein, right, and the former N.B.A. star Dwyane Wade, left.Credit…Bleacher Report

And when it comes to something that really matters: Delonte West, the former N.B.A. guard, was back in Maryland to spend Christmas with his family after years of struggling with bipolar disorder and drug use. A video surfaced in late September that appeared to show West, a former Dallas Maverick, homeless in Dallas. That led Mark Cuban, the owner of the Mavericks, to track him down and help West enter a drug rehabilitation facility in Florida.

The dunks and trading cards and M.J. memes, to be clear, were mere footnotes at a time even sports struggled to provide its usual escape, but one suspects we will keep coming back to the bigger headlines from basketball’s intersection with a global health crisis.

“This will go down as the most remembered year in N.B.A. history,” said Jared Dudley, the veteran forward and frequent unofficial team spokesman for the Los Angeles Lakers. “They will be making movies about 2020 for years to come.”

He’s probably right. Tales from the bubble are bound to hold considerable long-term interest, particularly after Dudley’s Lakers emerged from the grand experiment as champions.

Hollywood’s team is back on top for the first time since 2009-10, and the ending did include a surprise element: James and Co. have not been subjected to as much asterisk talk as the curmudgeons among us (like me in April) envisaged.

My original view stemmed to some degree from fears that the N.B.A. postseason would be truncated from its usual four rounds of best-of-seven series, and thus not constitute a representative championship run. Critics could have also seized on the absence of travel, arenas without fans, and how much living and playing at the same address might have benefited the Lakers, so I still wanted to give it some time to see how their 17th championship would be received.

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LeBron James said he has won “the two hardest championships” in N.B.A. history, including the 2019-20 title.Credit…Harry How/Getty Images

The response has been encouraging. Occasional jabs about James and his supposed “Mickey Mouse” ring haven’t really stuck.

Perhaps James went too far the other way with his recent assertion on the “Road Trippin'” podcast that he had won “the two hardest championships” in league history: Cleveland’s comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the 2015-16 N.B.A. finals against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, and the Lakers’ bubble crown. Historians haven’t exactly rushed to endorse those claims, but there is no shortage of appreciation for what the Lakers did overcome during their 95-day bubble stay, cut off from the outside world.

There was a mental toll from essentially living at work. There was isolation. There was an internal conflict to manage, as James and many of his peers would explain, for athletes playing a game and feeding the entertainment industry at a time of so much social unrest in their home communities.

The truth, of course, is that you could slap an asterisk on just about anything that happened in 2020, sports or not, since we strayed so far from normalcy in too many precincts to count. Or did so much change get foisted upon all of us that nothing in 2020 should be sullied by the asterisk treatment?

Maybe we’ll have that figured out by next year’s final newsletter.



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The league’s free agency investigation of the Bucks ruined Milwaukee’s chances of signing Bogdan Bogdanovic, who landed with the Atlanta Hawks.Credit…Brett Davis/Associated Press

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: It is vital that it be explained why this was the “line in the sand” for the N.B.A. There have clearly been other examples of tampering. Why were no draft picks rescinded in those cases? — @Wanediggity from Twitter

Stein: I know Bucks fans are upset, but I don’t think the league’s decision to strip their team of a second-round pick in 2022 in the wake of Milwaukee’s failed attempt to court Bogdan Bogdanovic is such a mystery. For all the league’s shortcomings in policing and curbing tampering, it has been consistent in dishing out penalties when violations were blatant. The violations, in this case, were pretty blatant.

These were not mere rumblings or assumptions about the sort of free-agent conversations that many of us suspect are happening leaguewide before they are supposed to. The league opened an investigation in response to a detailed news report about a five-player deal involving the Bucks and Sacramento Kings that had Bogdanovic, a restricted free agent, landing in Milwaukee — nearly four days before free agency was scheduled to start.

The league took action again on Monday when it fined Daryl Morey, Philadelphia’s new president of basketball operations, $50,000 for a seemingly harmless tweet congratulating James Harden on a statistical milestone he hit when Morey was still his general manager in Houston. It doesn’t matter if the social media post was automated or accidental, as ESPN reported Morey told the league office. The mere fact that Morey publicly “discussed” another team’s player put him in line for a fine.

Bucks fans have asked me: What about all the teams that have tried to recruit Giannis Antetokounmpo behind the scenes? My retort: Do we have proof? If there was a detailed news report in circulation about a specific team doing so — or if text messages Antetokounmpo has reportedly received from players on other teams were turned in to the league — I’m quite sure penalties would be imposed on the offending clubs. But no such evidence has surfaced in the public domain. It’s not that the Bucks are the only ones breaking the rules. Other teams have just been better at hiding it.

Whether or not Milwaukee or Sacramento wanted this stuff to be out there, it got out. Both were operating as if they had a deal even though Bogdanovic insisted he never agreed to anything. The league wasn’t going to let that go.

Even though the league announced in September 2019 that it would institute a new set of anti-tampering regulations to crack down on the practice, there is clearly still much to fix, given how many deals we still saw coalesce in the early hours of free agency on Nov. 20. But the league’s stance on this one, in the words of its general counsel Rick Buchanan, is that Milwaukee had to be sanctioned for “gun-jumping” the start of free agency.

There is plenty of skepticism regarding Commissioner Adam Silver’s claim that the punishment “will act as a clear deterrent” to other teams, since the whole episode technically only cost Milwaukee a future second-round pick. Yet it’s also true that the league’s decision to investigate essentially snuffed out any chance the Bucks had of resurrecting a deal for Bogdanovic — someone, by all accounts, Antetokounmpo badly wanted to play with.

So losing the ability to pursue Bogdanovic was Milwaukee’s real penalty here, while Sacramento wound up losing Bogdanovic without compensation after electing not to match Atlanta’s four-year, $72 million offer sheet. The Kings did not receive any formal penalty from the league office, but they would have acquired a player they coveted from the Bucks (Donte DiVincenzo) had the original sign-and-trade plan been resuscitated.

Q: Any word on the status of Jeremy Lin getting his FIBA Letter of Clearance yet? Many fans want to know! — Tom Gardner

Stein: To catch up those who weren’t following this saga as it played out on Dec. 19, Golden State needed a clearance letter from the Beijing Ducks, Lin’s last team in China, to sign and then immediately release him before 11 p.m. Eastern time that day. That would have allowed the Santa Cruz Warriors to secure Lin’s G League rights.

In part because FIBA’s office is closed on weekends, Golden State couldn’t obtain the letter in time. The rush to get the clearance letter pretty much ended then, because it initially appeared that subsequently obtaining Lin’s G League rights would require some complicated (and more costly) roster gymnastics for the Warriors.

It has since emerged that the Warriors will have a new pathway to steering Lin to their G League affiliate that wasn’t apparent then — provided that the G League goes ahead with a 2020-21 season that will be at least partly played in a bubble environment. The N.B.A. is instituting a rule that will enable N.B.A. parent clubs to recruit players to fill one G League roster spot with an N.B.A. veteran who has at least five years of service time. The Warriors will thus have a mechanism to guarantee that Lin can play with Santa Cruz, their G League affiliate, should he decide to sign with the league.

Neither the Golden State Warriors nor the Santa Cruz Warriors would sign Lin. He would have to sign with the G League first and then be allocated to Santa Cruz via the new rule, which some G League observers are even calling “the Jeremy Lin rule.” Yet there is no frantic need for the clearance letter now with the G League still trying to resolve some outstanding issues and commit to a season.

If Lin decides he wants to go the G League route in hopes that it can boost his chances of an N.B.A. comeback at age 32, and if Santa Cruz is where he wants to play, it will happen.

Q: Knowing James Dolan, do you think that the Knicks want to trade for James Harden? I’m sure Dolan is already tired of the Knicks playing second fiddle to the Nets. — Frank Alecci

Stein: After skipping the opening week of training camp and forcing the league to hit him with an additional four-day quarantine last week, while repeatedly violating the league’s health and safety guidelines in both instances, Harden made his season debut Saturday and promptly uncorked 44 points and 17 assists in Houston’s overtime loss to Portland.

As my Houston Chronicle colleague Jonathan Feigen put it, Harden quickly reminded us that, yes, he is worth the trouble on a lot of levels.

This would be especially true for a Knicks team that doesn’t have anything close to a certifiable franchise player at the moment. I imagine that Harden would hold appeal throughout the organization — not just with Dolan — despite being under contract only for the rest of this season and next season before he has the right to become a free agent in July 2022.

The harsh reality of the Knicks’ current roster, though, is also a problem when it comes to getting into the Harden sweepstakes, since Houston has made it clear that it wants a player like Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons to headline the package it receives for Harden. If there is a combination of Knicks players and draft picks that would entice the Rockets, I don’t see it.


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Kevin Durant (7) and Kyrie Irving (11)Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In one of the better quotes from the season’s opening week, Kyrie Irving said he and his Nets teammate Kevin Durant had “introduced the world to 7-11” with their scoring outbursts in the Nets’ first two games. Irving, of course, was referring to their jersey numbers, not the famed convenience store chain.

The average margin of victory from the league’s five Christmas Day games was a whopping 23.2 points. Only the first game (Miami over New Orleans by 13) and the last one (Clippers over Denver by 13) could be classified as competitive. Not what the N.B.A. was hoping for when it pushed up the start of the season at the behest of the league’s television partners, who badly wanted a Christmas week launch.

There were 107 international players from 41 countries on opening-night rosters, including a record 17 players from Canada and a record-tying 14 African players. It’s the seventh consecutive season that opening-night rosters included at least 100 international players; 113 at the start of the 2016-17 season is the record. France (nine), Australia (eight) and Serbia and Germany (six each) are the countries with the most players after Canada.

K.C. Jones earned enshrinement to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1989, but his coaching resume is perhaps even more H.O.F.-worthy. Jones coached three teams in the N.B.A. across 10 seasons (Washington, Boston and Seattle) and made five trips to the N.B.A. finals in that short span, winning championships with the Celtics in 1983-84 and 1985-86. Jones died on Christmas at the age of 88.

There is a strong argument to be made, as a matter of fairness, that fans should not be in N.B.A. buildings until all 30 teams were allowed by local health regulations to do so, because it is a competitive advantage to have a crowd of any size. Yet it’s worth noting just how varied the maximum crowd sizes are for the six teams currently admitting fans. At the low end: Cleveland (300 fans maximum), New Orleans (750) and Utah (1,500). At the high end: Toronto (3,800 fans maximum in Tampa, Fla.), Orlando (4,000) and Houston (4,500).


Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com.

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