All Ball Sports: Pandemic Olympics, LeBron as super hero, Clippers’ Curse

by Paul Teetor

[Editor’s note: After the posting of this story, Beach volleyball Olympian Taylor Crabb, of Redondo Beach, withdrew from competition because of testing positive for COVID-19. See “Olympian Taylor Crabb makes gold medal sacrifice play.”]

For the moment, we can be grateful that none of our beach volleyball Olympians – Alix Klineman, April Ross, Sarah Sponcil, Kelly Claes, Phil Dalhausser, Nick Lucena, Taylor Crabb and Jake Gibb – have tested positive. Nor has Mira Costa grad Olympic cyclist Gavin Hoover.

Teen tennis star Coco Gauff has been less fortunate. She has tested positive for Covid-19 and will not be able to play in the Tokyo Olympic Games, which start this Friday, July 23.

The 17-year-old rising star has become one of the biggest draws on the tennis tour over the last two years, ever since she won four rounds at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old, marking her as a sure-fire future superstar. Now ranked 25th in the world, she has repeatedly said her dream was to represent America at the Olympics. But that dream has been denied because some anonymous Olympic fat cats – excuse me, Olympic bureaucrats – couldn’t wait any longer for their money train to roll into the station.

Her forced absence figures to be a precursor to what are quickly becoming known as the Pandemic Olympics. Already, NBA stars Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards and Zach Lavine of the Chicago Bulls, as well as two alternates on the American gymnastics team, have also had to drop out after testing positive. 

And that’s just on the American Olympic team. Similar patterns are emerging with almost every team from every country.

Currently, as of Thursday night, over 90 people associated with the Olympics – athletes or support staff – have tested positive for Covid-19 and are now in quarantine.

No wonder 80 percent of the Japanese population wanted the Games canceled. Japan is experiencing its fourth wave of the pandemic and has only a 20 percent vaccination rate. 

They’re gambling with the lives and, potentially, the life-long health of young athletes dedicated to fitness and excellence.

The 2020 Olympics were reluctantly postponed for a year because not even the greedy, all-powerful International Olympic Committee had the tone-deafness to try to stage a major, once-every-four-years event in the middle of a global pandemic.

But that’s not stopping them now, one year later. Apparently, nothing could stop them at this late date. Not even the belated emergence of the twice-as-deadly Delta variant that is feasting on those who, for whatever crazy, ill-informed reasons, have chosen not to get vaccinated. 

And guess what? There is no requirement that Olympic athletes – or their support staff – be fully vaccinated before they can compete or participate in the games. 

Why this hell-or-high-water approach to what should be a glorious, unifying event?

It’s all about the Benjamins.

The billions of dollars in global broadcast rights fund most of the IOC’s bloated budget, which keeps thousands of execs and administrative staffers in highly paid, do-little jobs. Every time you turn on the TV or open your iPad to watch the games, you are inadvertently helping to fund the IOC.

This is a developing story that figures to affect more and more of the tens of thousands of athletes, support staff and media folks crowding into a city that has declared a state of emergency.

Let’s hope and pray the Pandemic Olympics doesn’t morph into the Super Spreader Olympics.  

LeBron learns a valuable lesson

Wannabe Hollywood mogul LeBron James learned the most important showbiz lesson of all this weekend: forget about what the carping critics say about your big, expensive, massively hyped $150 million film. What really matters is the audience’s opinion, the subsequent word-of-mouth and most important of all: the box office totals.

Bottom line: all the film critics who bothered to review “Space Jam: the New Legacy” hated it. But the public, young and old, loved it and made it the top-grossing film of the weekend with $32 million in box office receipts, far surpassing “Black Widow” in second place.

The critical reception was so harsh that the Lakers star felt compelled to issue a defensive-but-gloating tweet Saturday afternoon after the initial box office reports were in. 

“Hi Haters” he tweeted over a screen-shot of him and Bugs Bunny, with the news underneath that Space Jam had crushed the equally-hyped Black Widow at the box office.

LeBron’s uncharacteristically defensive and hostile tweet was understandable.

The reviews across the cultural spectrum from the right-wing New York Post to the left-leaning Los Angeles Times were uniformly disdainful, even contemptuous, of the long-awaited follow-up to Michael Jordan’s 1996 hit “Space Jam.” 

The original film was a live-action/animation hybrid that put Jordan on an outer-space basketball court with Bugs Bunny and a bunch of other Warner Brothers cartoon characters. It became a $250 million worldwide hit and sparked plans for a sequel that took 25 years and LeBron’s active participation at all levels in front of and behind the camera to bring the project to fruition.

Maybe he should have concentrated his energies on basketball, instead. Since he came to the Lakers, he missed the playoffs altogether in his first year, won a title in his second year, and lost in the first round of the playoffs in his third year. At this rate and given his inevitable aging process, bringing the Lakers another title would be a major shock.

In the NY Post, Johnny Oleksinski’s review was headlined “Space Jam is an Abomination.” Nothing subtle about that. His scornful summary: “In the pantheon of mis-guided sequels and reboots, “A New Legacy” is right up there with “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” and “Little Fockers.”

The down-market Post is not known for its arts coverage or the artistic seriousness of its critics. But the up-scale LA Times is, and lead film critic Justin Chang is known for his thoughtful, serious cinematic reviews. His pun-filled review was headlined “Dunking on a Terrible Sequel.” The subhead proclaimed: “Space Jam: A New Legacy is a witless torrent of references that has no defense.”

When the review jumped to an inside page, the headline continued with the derogatory hoops references: “The Space Jam sequel takes its Shot. Air Ball.”  

Nothing subtle about that either.

The problem, according to both reviews, is two-fold. First, the story of a young baller who grows up in Ohio and has to play a climactic game is trite, cliched and hackneyed beyond belief.

Second, and even more annoying, are the relentless references to other Warner Brothers-owned properties like Casablanca, Mad Max, Harry Potter, Austin Powers, The Matrix and Batman.

Chang makes a similar complaint in his review, and his summary is even more disdainful: “At no point does the movie’s raid on the Warner Brothers vault appear to have been motivated by a desire to do something genuinely clever or inspired with these properties. The movie is just a big, empty declaration of corporate dominance, a whirling CGI tornado that – like a much stupider Tasmanian Devil – ingests, barely processes and then promptly regurgitates everything in its path. It’s Upchuck Jones.”

Ouch!

But in the digital age, where everyone is a critic and everyone has a platform, the critical contempt doesn’t matter.

LeBron will be laughing all the way to the bank.                              

Clippers Curse is back    

If you listened closely, beyond the high-pitched wailing and loud gnashing of teeth by Clippers fans this week, you could hear the collective lament: here we go again.

Just two weeks after the long-lived Clippers Curse had seemingly been buried once and for all when the star-crossed team reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever, it came roaring back to life with the crushing news that Kawhi Leonard had surgery for a partial anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee and would most likely miss all of next season.

The doctors who performed the surgery estimated it would require a 9–12-month rehab and recovery. It was easy to do the math: at best, the team’s superstar would be coming back at the end of the next regular season or early in the playoffs – assuming the Clippers even make the playoffs without him. 

At worst, he wouldn’t put on a Clippers uniform again until the start of the 2022-23 season – assuming he’s still a Clipper at that point.

The awful news was devastating for Clippers fans on so many levels: physical, emotional and spiritual.

It all started with a seemingly minor collision with Utah’s Joe Ingles late in game 4 of the Clipper’s 4-2 second round series victory over the Jazz that catapulted them to the WCF. They were both running downcourt next to each other when Ingles veered into Leonard, knocking him off-stride. Leonard went down, clutched his knee and immediately left the game. 

Although he sat out the last 4 minutes of that win by the Clippers, he was not treated by medical staff as he sat watching on the bench.  After the game he said he was fine and would be good to go.

OK, sounds good.

But he wasn’t good to go, and his status was listed as “questionable” or “out — knee” for each of the team’s next 8 games – the final 2 wins over Utah and the 6-game, 4-2 loss to Phoenix in the WCF.

Still, there was no hint from the team that there was any kind of long-term issue until the surgery was announced Wednesday night.

Losing him for an entire season is just the start of the slow-motion nightmare scenario unfolding here for Clippers fans. The complications are endless and endlessly tricky.

First of all, he signed a three-year contract with the Clippers in the summer of 2019. But the third year – at a salary of $36 million — is a player option. In other words, he could become an unrestricted free agent next month and sign with any team he wants.

Leonard, who speaks very little to the press and doesn’t say anything even when he does, had made only one comment on his plans prior to the injury. He said that, assuming he is healthy, opting out made the most business sense because it would enable him to make more than $36 million per year from whatever team he signs with, including the Clippers. “But that doesn’t mean I’m staying or going,” he added.

Of course, by simply declaring that he was happy here and intended to stay with the Clippers he could have prevented a ton of angst by the team and its fans. But that’s not the Kawhi way.

Now, however, he is not healthy.  So, at first glance what makes the most sense is for him to opt in for next season, collect $36 million from the Clippers while he rehabs his knee, and then enter the open market as a healthy, unrestricted free agent next summer.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Kawhi, who turned 30 on June 29, is one of that very rare and highly coveted species in the NBA: a player so good that he can create shots for others just as easily as he can create shots for himself. He is definitely a top-10 player and arguably a top-5 player. He was having his best-ever playoffs when he was hurt, averaging 30 points a game and shooting over 50 percent. Every team that wants to contend for a title has to have at least one of those types of players.

Both teams currently fighting it out in the riveting NBA Finals have at least one. Phoenix has two in point guard Chris Paul and shooting guard Devin Booker, while Milwaukee has one in do-it-all forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. His wingman, small forward Khris Middleton, is more of a pure shooter than a shot creator, but there are nights, like game 4 Wednesday night when he scored 42 points, when he also fits that profile.

Two years ago Kevin Durant was in a similar situation as Kawhi is now. He had torn his Achilles tendon in a playoff game while with the Golden State Warriors. Going into that summer, he was an unrestricted free agent who decided to test the waters and see what his market value was even though he would have to sit out a full year while he rehabbed.

The Brooklyn Nets stepped up, offered him a full maximum contract, and signed him to play alongside his buddy, Kyrie Irving – after they paid him $44 million to rehab his Achilles tendon for a full year.

Now Durant is a slightly better player than Kawhi, taller and a better shooter, but Kawhi is the better defender – the best two-way player in the league. So they are roughly comparable, which means Kawhi could just as easily attract a full maximum contract offer – four years for $176 million – from any number of teams, including the Clippers, even though he will have to miss a full year.

Then there is the issue of the Clippers medical staff. Kawhi has a history of relying more on his own trainers and medical people than on his team’s staff, which is one of the main reasons he forced his way out of San Antonio three years ago. He didn’t like or trust the staff there.

Now, already, there are rumblings that he is not happy with the Clippers medical staff and blames them somehow for his injury – even though the Clips allowed him to sit out any game he wanted to, under the guise of “load management.” If he does leave, that discontent will again be one of the main reasons.

In addition, there is the issue of who he wants to play with as his wingman. Before he would sign with the Clippers two years ago, he gave owner Steve Ballmer a list of players he wanted to play with and said he would only sign with them if they acquired at least one of those players. It was the first time any player had ever done something like that, so blatantly exercising their leverage to dictate front office moves. LeBron has done it too, but a little more subtly and less publicly.

Paul George was on Kawhi’s list, and the Clippers sacrificed all their near-term future assets – in the form of 5 first round draft picks, plus rookie star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, already on his way to All-Star status – to pry George away from Oklahoma City.

Now sources close to Leonard say that Miami’s Jimmy Butler, a hard-nosed forward known for tough defense and clutch offensive play, was also on Kawhi’s list – and that Kawhi is again flirting with the idea of playing with Butler. Miami President Pat Riley is a wheeler-dealer known for attracting star free agents by throwing down his five championship rings on a table and asking the player if they would like to win one of their own.

Kawhi already has a championship ring from the one year he spent in Toronto and led the Raptors to the title, but there is no doubt he would be severely tempted by the idea of playing with Butler and for Riley and his hand-picked coach, Eric Spoelstra.

While the odds and common sense still say Kawhi will stay right here in his home base of SoCal with the Clippers — after all, he recently bought a $17 million mansion in Pacific Palisades — there are enough variables in play that once the NBA free agent period opens on August 2 his decision will be the top NBA story until he stays or goes.     

The Clippers have no other option than to do everything they can to convince Kawhi to stay — for the short-term or the long-term. They’ve got too much invested to walk away now. But Clippers fans need to remember one thing about the enigmatic Kawhi:  anything can – and probably will – happen with this guy.

The other thing they need to remember: someone is going to give Kawhi a full max contract despite his injury. They better hope and pray it’s the Clippers.

Or the Clippers Curse will never go away.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER               

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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