Which superstars and teams will be in the NBA bubble? That debate is heating up

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  • Joined ESPN in 2017

The final, fleeting fight for 30 teams to resume the NBA’s season is raging through these last days of indecision. Hours of commissioner Adam Silver’s time are being spent engaging owners and high-level executives who are making the case for how the league should march into the summer’s playoffs, including those desiring the entire league to descend upon Orlando, Florida.

Some want a wide-open playoffs, a knockout round to give those teams who are among the worst a way to punch up into the play-in for the eighth seed. Some want every market — New York and Chicago included — invited into the fans’ consciousness. And some are fearful of delivering the competitive disadvantage of a nine-month hiatus prior to the 2020-21 season to young, rebuilding franchises.

From all angles and agendas, there are appeals underway to Silver. The idea of 30 teams returning for the resumption of the season in Orlando has lost momentum, but it still has a significant lobby.

The Atlanta Hawks have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference and the third-youngest roster. As a franchise, they’re chasing the chance to grow a young roster besieged with injuries and suspension — and buoyed by a February deadline trade for center Clint Capela — by getting back onto the floor.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association have discussed a model of 30 teams returning to reach a target goal of 72 regular-season games, sources said. The Hawks, who had 10 players participate in voluntary workouts on Memorial Day, are the league’s closest to that total with 67 games played this season.

“Our guys are excited about the opportunity to get back to it,” Travis Schlenk, the Hawks’ president of basketball operations and general manager, told ESPN. “It has importance for us. We’re a young team, and because of injuries and some other things this season, we didn’t get to see them all together.

“Clint says he’s feeling better, and there’s a possibility that we can get him back on the court. Practicing and playing five games would be valuable to us.”

Cleveland is eager to play too. Another young roster, another franchise that needs to show improvement of its younger players. Detroit wants to get back to training camp and play games. New Orleans. Portland. Charlotte. Washington. Outside the playoff picture, there’s enthusiasm to play.

As everyone expected, of course, there isn’t unanimity on these issues. When the NBA and NBPA canvass teams at the bottom of the standings, they also hear ambivalence. Not one owner or GM is explicitly telling anyone they don’t want to play this season. Even so, there are enough players on enough bad teams who’ve shared the idea that they don’t see the value in several weeks of camp and quarantines to play five to eight regular-season games with no playoff potential.

Some lottery teams have also made it clear via back channels to the league that if their players are decidedly so-so on returning, there will be no showdown. Translated: If you need to keep us out, we’ll gladly keep our favorable lottery position. See you next season.

Privately, Silver has been considering the idea that there are plenty of sensible reasons to pare down the roster of teams in Orlando. First, there’s safety. Fewer teams, fewer people to contract or spread the coronavirus — and less bad basketball. Even elite teams will be sloppy upon return, so what about the others?

There will be a lot more Damion Lee and Alen Smailagic than Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. In a normal year, no one would care about the Golden State Warriors playing out the final string of games in obscurity with young players. This time? It would represent the unveiling of the NBA’s return, and it would be precisely what the NBA doesn’t want: a bad television spectacle.

If anyone tells you the NBA knows exactly what it’s going to do, they’re probably ahead of themselves. This is still an open discussion, and there will be more debate on Thursday’s GM call with the league and Friday’s board of governors call. It’s possible the league could bring a recommendation to the owners on Friday, but that’s still uncertain. The NBA believes it has time to deliberate and discuss the matter. In fact, there’s a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.

In the end, the NBA will come to the NBPA with a couple of detailed scenarios, recommending one. They’ll do so after hundreds of hours of talks with union officials and players, a full download of data about the union’s preferences.

The league’s GM survey included a pool play option featuring somewhere between the 16 current playoff teams and the full body of 30 NBA teams, sources said. Teams would be divided into a certain number of groups and face each member of their group the same amount of times. (The total number of pool games has not yet been specified.) All of these would likely be branded as playoff games.

Based on the final standings within each group, eight teams would advance out of pool play into a bracket meant to mimic the league’s normal postseason structure, sources told ESPN’s Zach Lowe.

Several current postseason teams were not initially enthusiastic about that proposal, sources told Lowe. A slump in group play could result in what is currently a solid playoff team — even one slated for home-court advantage in the first round of a normal postseason — failing to advance into the eight-team tournament, while a present-day lottery team might get hot and make the final eight.

No one wants a product that embarrasses the NBA. Appealing to players only on a sense of duty for the league’s greater good isn’t going to work. Free agency is already fraught with peril this year — and probably longer.

Some agents are hinting to GMs: Clients who’ve had good seasons on the way into free agency don’t want to risk undoing that success in a return. Those on contenders will have a hard time explaining why they’re not playing — and virtually every one of them is too competitive and committed to sit out.

On mediocre and bad teams? Well, you’d have some players ducking out of a return — especially if it’s just six to eight games. That has to be a significant part of the consideration for Silver.

There’s so much to examine, and so many factors that could leave teams feeling unfairly treated. The West’s No. 8 seed, Memphis, had its toughest stretch of games left this season. Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento are within 3.5 games of Memphis in the standings. Portland — with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins possibly returning — and New Orleans — with a well-conditioned Zion Williamson — could be dangerous challengers in a play-in scenario.

Another factor in the wishy-washy nature of how unconvinced players on non-playoff teams could react to getting called back for a resumption: “It isn’t like guys can run off to Vegas or Europe on vacation if we don’t play,” one Eastern Conference GM said. “There’s a level of boredom that makes guys more willing to play right now too.”

There are still a number of ideas under discussion, including this one: bringing back the four Western Conference teams on the playoff bubble for play-in purposes, but none in the Eastern Conference, sources said.

“Over the weekend, you’re getting a sense the league is starting to realize: Less is more,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference executive told ESPN.

When the NBA feared losing the season completely in March, it was easier for owners, executives and players to hear Silver preparing everyone for how frustrated and aggrieved they might be once these choices are made. As everything moves closer to a return, it’s clearer that’ll be the case.

“If we don’t show up, we lose more money,” one starter on a non-playoff team told ESPN. “We are already in the hole. And what message does it send to the public, the teams, the players that we are OK with 10 to 14 teams not playing? We already have a competition problem in the league.

“My thing is, play 30 teams for as many games as possible for the money or go straight to the playoffs.”

Adam Silver hears them all. And wherever he lands on the issue, whatever model he suggests to the owners and union that makes the most sense for all, the commissioner always did suspect how it would end: hard decisions leaving hurt feelings. This is a small part of the pandemic’s price to the NBA.

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Road map to sports: How the big leagues are navigating a return

This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Malika Andrews, Kyle Bonagura, Jeff Carlisle, Heather Dinich, Dan Graziano, Tom Hamilton, Baxter Holmes, Emily Kaplan, Zach Lowe, Jeff Passan, Marc Raimondi, Kevin Seifert, Ramona Shelburne, Mechelle Voepel and Brian Windhorst.

A SKELETON STAFF of about 150 gathered inside the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, Georgia, for the Professional Bull Riders two-day Gwinnett Invitational. It was March 15 — just days after the NBA and NHL suspended their seasons indefinitely and hours after the NCAA canceled the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. Still, cowboys from around the country would compete before a television-only and digital streaming audience in one of the last professional sporting events to be held in the United States before the PBR, too, shut down.

But just 4½ weeks later, the PBR announced it would hold a for-TV-only event April 25-26 at Lazy E Arena and Ranch located on 167 fenced acres near Guthrie, Oklahoma. Just like at the Gwinnett Invitational, no fans would be present. One of the last sports to close would become one of the first to return.

“That’s when the phone started ringing,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason says.

On the line were executives from more than 15 sports leagues, including NASCAR, the Indian Premier League (IPL), CONCACAF, La Liga, the WTA and the NBA. The UFC, whose April 18 event had been canceled after execs from broadcast partner ESPN asked UFC president Dana White to “stand down,” called too. It was looking for information to help make good on White’s declaration that the UFC would be “the first sport back.”

Each league had the same fundamental questions:

How are you opening back up? What are your policies and procedures? How do you handle testing? Staffing? And what documents did you provide to various local and state officials to receive approval?

With insight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PBR created a 29-page “return to competition” plan, which the city of Guthrie, Logan County and the Oklahoma governor’s office all signed off on.

People would be organized into groups of 10 or fewer and they wouldn’t have contact with other groups. Anyone entering the arena would be screened, responding to a CDC questionnaire while having their temperature checked. Anyone with symptoms would be isolated. Everyone would be required to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from anyone else.

Gleason was more than happy to share the 29-page document with anyone who asked.

“We want to see all sports back,” Gleason says, “not just bull riding.”

On a recent NBA board of governors call, David Weiss, the NBA’s senior vice president of player matters, highlighted scientific developments, everything from nasal swabs and saliva testing to antiviral cocktails, before bringing owners up to speed on the landscape across various sports — MLB, golf, UFC, soccer. The tests they’ve used or will use, target start dates, regulatory issues. The many how-to manuals like the PBR’s.

“The aim must not be to ‘guarantee the 100% safety of all participants’, since this is likely to prove impossible,” reads one such memo, this from the Deutsche Fußball Liga’s Sports Medicine Special Match Operations Task Force. “The idea is to ensure a medically justifiable risk based on the significance of football (in societal, socio-political and economic terms) and on the development of the pandemic.”

Two months in, the landscape has shifted, from fear of one positive test shutting down a season to the gradual acceptance of risk. Leagues are moving from concerns over public perception due to the sheer volume of tests they’ll require to the hopeful development of processes and guidelines. Experts in medicine, epidemiology and virology are helping commissioners approach this unprecedented crisis, and leagues are carefully studying their counterparts — both foreign and domestic — to determine how to implement strategies of their own.

There has been an allure to returning first and fast during the coronavirus pandemic. Amid a dehydrated landscape exists the potential for sky-high television ratings and much-needed revenue, but also the very real risk of failure — of starting too soon and stumbling. The memos and proposals, however, have signaled the slow trickle of returns. PBR has hosted two events since its late April competition. The UFC completed three cards in one week. NASCAR carried out a 400-mile race at Darlington on Sunday and another race on Wednesday. The Bundesliga returned over the weekend after just 10 days of training. Golf and boxing have dates scheduled.

The climb back to sports normalcy is “not going to be easy,” says Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general and one of two key advisers to the NBA during the pandemic. “There is no clear national plan on how to open up safely. So many businesses and schools and sports teams are trying to figure this out on their own.”

And the paths they’re attempting to follow are still being charted.

MLB

OVER THE PAST two months, as Major League Baseball has grappled with a present stuck in neutral and a future in question, officials from the league have consulted with state and federal officials for countless hours trying to create a road map with no compass. Rob Manfred, MLB’s commissioner, spends much of his day on the phone and video chats, lobbying politicians and whipping support for baseball’s return, always cognizant that the most powerful man in the world is one tap away on his iPhone screen

“If the commissioner needs to talk with the president,” a White House official said, “he calls him right up.”

Manfred is no different from other league heads, exhorted by President Trump to bring sports back. And yet he’s in a clear position to do so, with his league ever on the cusp of a season that has not begun — and won’t until its power brokers navigate the byzantine landscape wrought by the coronavirus. What the sport once took for granted — the seemingly simple act of putting on a baseball game — now necessitates multifarious plans, contingency plans and contingency plans for the contingency plans. It is an exercise in fragility.

From the moment it shut down spring training March 13, MLB has coped with circumstances not faced by its brethren. The NBA and NHL had played more than 80% of their regular seasons. The NFL was four months from training camps opening. MLB’s opening day was less than two weeks away.

As the spread of the coronavirus shut down the nation, MLB scrambled to hammer out a deal with the MLB Players Association on March 27 that negated the players’ ability to sue for salaries in the case of a lost season — the cost: $170 million guaranteed and full service time for the players — and began the process of trying to avoid that doomsday scenario.

It has proved tricky, with logistical issues scuttling some options and financial fears stymieing others. MLB landed on its current plan, to open in as many home stadiums as possible as soon as July, aware that it’s rife with potential pitfalls and might never get off the ground at all.

Inside the commissioner’s office, staffers divvied up responsibility over the foundational elements of any return: testing, safety protocols, stadium operations, scheduling, player relations, rules and economics. They have fielded calls from teams panicked over worsening financial situations. They have sought the guidance of Dr. Ali Khan, a longtime CDC official who’s among the most experienced in the country at dealing with pandemics. And now they find themselves in a most uncomfortable position: close enough to baseball that optimism is palpable; far enough away that any number of issues could wreck a comeback.

The latest step came in the form of a comprehensive 67-page draft that endeavored to cover the breadth of health-and-safety issues each league will face as it attempts to return. MLB sent the document to the union Friday, and while players gawked at some of its propositions — the suggestion that players not shower after games drew the ire of many — they understood its intent. For baseball, or any sport, to return will necessitate a withdrawal from many of the comforts to which players have grown accustomed. The life they’ve known won’t be the life they live.

The day-to-day details are negotiable and the gap bridgeable. Proving more difficult is the ability to find détente on financial issues. Owners want players to take a pay cut on top of one mandated by the March agreement, which states players be given a prorated salary depending on the number of games played. Players continue to hold firm, confident that the language guaranteeing them a pro rata share is unassailable. Talks, accordingly, have grown tense. Neither side has made an official proposal. Even if they agree on a deal that covers money and health, MLB needs federal, state and local officials to rubber-stamp play in home cities, a charge complicated by the varying rates of infection and presence of the coronavirus.

And then, if baseball can wrangle those significant challenges, comes the unknown: How do teams travel regularly — and travel safely — around the country during a pandemic?

There will be controversy, and there will be fear, and there will be risk, because all three are part and parcel with the return of sports. None of those is stopping baseball, not yet at least. Damn the torpedoes, baseball is saying. Damn the torpedoes, and play ball.

MORE: How MLB is navigating the pandemic to return to the field

Soccer

IT TOOK A 51-page plan to restart Bundesliga. The DFL’s task force, headed by Dr. Tim Meyer, the German national team doctor and medical director of the Institute of Sports and Preventive Medicine at Saarland University, received approval from German chancellor Angela Merkel on May 6. Two days later teams were in a seven-day quarantine ahead of the league’s return.

Players are tested twice a week and, if they return a positive result, are placed into 14-day isolation. Games have a strict limit on personnel — a total of 322 people are allowed in and around the stadium. Everyone except on-field players and officials wears a mask, there are no mascots, players are advised to celebrate with ankle or elbow taps and asked not to spit.

This all played out against a backdrop of empty stands — an eerie experience given German football’s fan culture. But the fans did stay away, and the five-player substitution rule — an increase from the previous three, implemented in a bid to avoid injuries after a long layoff — did not cause the game to lose momentum.

Leagues the world over are keeping a close eye on Germany to see whether its meticulously detailed model will be successful or a crushing failure. France, Scotland, Belgium and the Netherlands have all canceled their seasons, but other leagues are taking tentative steps toward resumption.

The Premier League has “Project Restart,” its own plan for a hopeful reboot. On Monday, the league announced clubs could train in small groups, and on Tuesday, the results of testing were released: Six of the 748 players and staff members reported testing positive for the coronavirus and would self-isolate for seven days. To restart, the Premier League will need approval from the league, the clubs, the government and Public Health England.

In Spain, the ministry of health must give the green light — and La Liga is optimistic it may get a mid-June return. Its medical adviser is La Liga CEO Javier Tebas’ brother, Pablo Tebas Medrano, who is the leading expert on virology at the University of Pennsylvania.

For Serie A in Italy, clubs have been cleared to train in groups but still don’t know if the league will be given permission to resume. Sources say the government will call for the league to be canceled if a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. Serie A was the first league in Europe to suffer disruption due to the coronavirus, and with Bergamo having been devastated by the outbreak, any return to action will be tense. The Italian FA penciled in June 14 as the date, with a desire to complete the 2019-20 season by Aug. 20, but this is all still subject to government approval.

The situation is less certain in North America. Major League Soccer has given the green light to voluntary, individual workouts, but with stay-at-home orders varying across the country, not all teams have been able to get started. But MLS has been actively mapping out what a return to play would look like. At present, the league is considering a leaguewide, 26-team “mini-tournament” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, which would consist of group stage games followed by a knockout stage.

Both the league and players want the games to count for something, but whether any matches will is currently unclear.

MLS’ return-to-play effort is being led by chief medical officer Dr. Margot Putukian, who is also the director of athletic medicine and head team physician at Princeton University. But according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the league has also engaged Medical Advance Services, which advises clients on global health, infectious diseases, pandemic response and clinical medicine. Like other sport leagues, MLS and its medical advisers have been in contact with the CDC to determine best practices.

The MLS Players Association has been pushing back on some aspects of MLS’ proposal, though. The MLSPA has been consulting with Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an epidemiologist, and sources say players are concerned about leaving spouses and children behind, as well as what would happen if someone in the MLS “bubble” tests positive for COVID-19. These concerns are consistently echoed throughout players’ associations across sports. And according to multiple sources, those issues have yet to be resolved for MLS.

MORE: Man United’s finances amid coronavirus — a warning sign

NBA

IT WAS THE evening of March 11. Dr. Vivek Murthy was home in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Alice, and the two were engaged in the usual evening chaos of trying to feed their two kids, ages 3 and 2. Normally, the TV isn’t on at dinner, but the former U.S. surgeon general was closely following the pandemic, so it was. Then, the news hit: The NBA was suspending its season. Murthy turned to Alice. The two didn’t say a word. But, in his mind, Murthy was considering the gravity of the moment.

The NBA has principally consulted with two experts throughout the pandemic: Murthy and Dr. David Ho, director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University. Senior vice president of player matters David Weiss has spearheaded the NBA’s return-to-play logistics planning.

Concerns of testing capacity and perception in the initial weeks have shifted to issues of protocol — the league’s position has been to closely watch other sports return to action, learn from what has gone well and adapt that information to suit its needs.

Murthy has spoken to league leaders and team owners, and, informally, to others across sports who confidentially contact him. The questions are all of the same ilk: When can fans return to games? How should they respond if someone tests positive? How often should they test athletes or staffers? How should they safely keep distance between staffers and players?

No sites have been chosen yet for play, though Las Vegas and Walt Disney World are considered front-runners. And while many NBA practice facilities are open for individual workouts, not all of them are. So does every team return to its own market to practice, or can some in closed markets send players to Orlando or another “bubble”-like site to practice?

Those questions remain, but the answers all revolve around the idea of risk tolerance.

“Look, there is a nonzero risk to players that being infected with COVID-19 could lead to major complications,” Murthy says. “It depends obviously on their health and preexisting conditions. The goal here is not to be alarmist and say that this is definitely going to have severe adverse effects on any NBA player who gets infected. That’s not the case. You know, most NBA players are young and healthy and the statistics say most of them would, would ultimately be OK.”

As discussions progress between the league office and the players, it’s even more important to understand what is viable and what is available in finishing the season. The NBA and the players’ association have formed a joint committee to study return-to-play plans. In addition to the league office, it includes health experts, Chris Paul, Dwight Powell, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum and Russell Westbrook, though sources say NBA commissioner Adam Silver and some players have had similar discussions informally for weeks.

In any conversations with league leaders, Murthy says he acknowledges that, yes, concerns about their season being on hold — financial or otherwise — are not insignificant. ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote that a cancellation of the season could result in the loss of $2 billion of basketball-related income. Murthy has been outlining obstacles and encouraging teams to be in lockstep with public authorities. He describes how financial losses are painful but to reopen too haphazardly and then shut down soon after could create even more long-term financial losses.

Which brings him back to the night the NBA shut down. Silver’s decision, Murthy says, was a “signal to people that something profound about our way of life is about to change.”

Murthy considers reopening to be, in some ways, an even more powerful signal.

“For some people throughout the world of sports, there may be a temptation to move quickly here, recognizing that there may be opportunity to be one of the early [sports] that returns,” Murthy says. “But I think this can’t be a simple business decision to get viewership and market share. This has to be looked at as a broader decision that has wide support implications for public health.”

Silver, he says, gets that. And though the most pressing concern is the resumption of the 2019-20 season, acting too quickly puts future seasons in jeopardy. “The [collective bargaining agreement],” Silver told players on a conference call last week, “was not built to handle pandemics.”

MORE: When will the NBA return? Updates amid the suspension

WNBA

THE WNBA WAS scheduled to start its 24th season on May 15. Instead, on that day, commissioner Cathy Engelbert was detailing scenarios that could get the league to a potential start in 2020. Like many at home, she is eager to return to some semblance of normalcy.

“I even miss my commute into the city,” Engelbert said. She has been working from home in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, instead of at the NBA/WNBA headquarters in Manhattan. Her home is also where she announced the first-round picks during April’s WNBA draft telecast.

The WNBA normally has a 34-game regular season, followed by single-elimination first- and second-round playoff games, and then best-of-five series for the semifinals and finals. Because of the monthlong break that was scheduled for the Olympics, the 2020 WNBA season wasn’t set to end until mid-October. Engelbert said the league doesn’t have any last-possible-start dates in mind, though several players compete overseas in the winter months. However, that, too, is uncertain because of the pandemic.

“It may be too late to play our full season at some point; we’re probably going to come up on that by early July,” Engelbert said. “But as we look at some of the more realistic scenarios of the number of games we could get in with a competitive playoff structure, you could get later in the summer as a start time. And you could go to different formats. I think our players are open to that as well.”

Engelbert also announced that the WNBA will begin paying players on time June 1, but that means rosters must be trimmed to the regulation 12 by May 26, without the benefit of training camps.

The WNBA is sharing expert information with the NBA, according to Engelbert, and has remained focused foremost on player health and safety. And, of course, it is developing its own plans, which sources say would likely include a shortened season.

As with the NBA, it’s probably safest and easiest for the WNBA to play at a single site as opposed to traveling between home cities. Las Vegas, where the Aces played host to the WNBA All-Star Game last summer and already have MGM as a key sponsor, is among several destinations that have been discussed, sources said. In the latest round of collective bargaining negotiations, players fought hard for increased child care benefits, and that has been at the forefront of discussions for any “single-site” concept as well.

NHL

IN THE FIRST week of March, the NHL held its annual general managers meetings at the Boca Beach Club in Boca Raton, Florida. Commissioner Gary Bettman boasted that the NHL was healthier than ever. Bettman said the salary cap could rise to as much as $88.2 million next season — a significant uptick from the current ceiling of $81.5 million — as the league got ready to introduce puck and player tracking in the 2020 playoffs (a yearslong initiative) and welcome its 32nd team, Seattle, in 2021.

The coronavirus was bubbling on the league’s radar, but at the GM meetings, NHL leaders were only beginning to explore contingency plans, and cautioned that talk of postponing or even canceling games was premature. “I think it’s very unlikely — knock on wood, I’m hopeful — that we would progress to a stage where we have to consider something that dramatic,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said on March 2.

Ten days later, the NHL paused its season and quickly retained Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease of Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital in New York, as a consultant. Farber chats with Bettman and Daly regularly, and provides his expert opinion to the league’s board of governors on conference calls. Players were told on March 16 that they could return to their home countries, as the league understood it would be a long road back. Some 17% of NHL players are currently outside of North America.

The NHL is projected to lose $1.2 billion if it can’t resume the season or complete the playoffs, so the financial pressure is real. The league could recoup about half of that money if it completes the season — and the NHL is getting strong encouragement from its U.S. TV partner, NBC, as broadcast windows in July and August are open because the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. But the NHL knows it can return only if it gets the OK from local governments and health officials.

As much as the money matters — and really, that’s what is driving the urgency to return — the league is cautious of overstepping boundaries and the public backlash around that. For example, the NHL advised teams not to privately procure tests for players, especially asymptomatic ones, and to follow guidance from local health authorities. As Bettman said last week, “We certainly can’t be jumping the line in front of medical needs.”

On calls, the board of governors has asked Farber about issues ranging from the likeliness an infection could spread within a team to the health measures needed to resume play. Farber has stressed that point-of-care testing units would be essential once they are widely available. Farber also believes reducing travel will be critical upon return, which explains why the NHL has been considering a plan to pick up play this summer in two to four “hub” cities. The league is acutely aware that getting fans back in arenas is going to be a challenge, as is a potential second wave of the virus this fall — Bettman has warned that next season could start as late as December.

The NHL has been working collaboratively with the NHLPA (their relationship, through this, has been quite strong). The NHLPA retained its own expert, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician and scientist based in Toronto, but also has relied on the voices of players. For example, when the NHL presented a “bubble” concept, it received pushback from several veterans, who said they would agree to be sequestered for months at a hotel only if members of their families could come too. The NHL is expected to accommodate that. Bettman is absorbing input from all parties — his team owners, of course, but also health experts, government officials, media executives, GMs and players — but ultimately, the timing of the league’s return to the ice will come down to him.

MORE: NHL’s coronavirus pause — keys to play resuming

NFL

THE 2020 NFL DRAFT was supposed to be a decadent, over-the-top event where players would arrive by boat and walk a red carpet constructed on top of the Bellagio fountains. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL elected to move ahead with the draft as scheduled, but pivoted to a virtual event.

If team executives — like Saints general manager Mickey Loomis — were in favor of delaying the draft, they were told not to say so publicly. In a memo sent to NFL chief executives, club presidents, general managers and head coaches on March 26, commissioner Roger Goodell wrote that he didn’t want them to express any public opinions about the direction of the draft.

“Public discussion of issues relating to the Draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action,” the memo read.

That sentiment has recurred as the NFL tries to operate under the guise of business as usual. Outwardly, league executives have refused to entertain questions about COVID-19 contingencies. Unlike leagues that came to a screeching halt midseason and have been scrambling to get up and running, the NFL has leaned into having the luxury of time.

While other sports leagues have sent out trial balloons and formed contingency plans for their contingency plans, the NFL has publicly marched to the beat of optimism. It even unveiled the 2020-2021 schedule, with the first game set to be played on Sept. 10.

But before that can happen, practice facilities must open. On May 6, the NFL sent out a memo instructing each team to put together a specific, market-based plan on reopening by May 15. In the memo, Goodell again warned teams about “uninformed commentary that speculates on how individual clubs or the league will address a range of hypothetical contingencies,” reiterating that it “serves no constructive purpose and instead confuses our fans and business partners.”

The NFL Players Association has formed a COVID-19 task force chaired by Dr. Thom Mayer, who has been the NFLPA’s medical director for decades. Mayer says the group is composed of scientists from Harvard, Duke, the National Academy of Medicine and personnel from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s office.

“While we have more time than baseball and other leagues, it’s certainly not an unlimited amount of time,” Mayer told ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe.

Meanwhile, the league has been consulting with doctors from the Infection Control Education for Major Sports — a group it has worked with for six years. In an interview with ESPN, Dr. Christopher Hostler, one of the epidemiologists consulted, said his job consists of delivering information to league executives and trainers and doctors from 32 teams. But the data, he says, is “very well accepted” by the league. Hostler declined to say what specific advice he is providing, citing a confidentiality agreement.

In consultation with the ICEMS, however, the league sent a five-page memo to teams detailing the best practices to implement when opening their facilities.

In the memo, which has been reviewed by ESPN, teams are instructed to form an Infection Response Team with a local physician, a club infection control officer, the team’s head athletic trainer, the team’s chief security officer, a mental health clinician, a facility manager and a human resources director.

“We fully well expect that we will have positive cases that arise,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said on Tuesday. “Because we think that this disease will remain endemic in society, it shouldn’t be a surprise that new positive cases arise. Our challenge is to identify them as quickly as possible and prevent spread to any other participants.”

If anyone on a team starts to experience COVID-19 symptoms, the memo says, the infection control officer is the designated first point of contact. The memo also urges clubs to ensure that individuals are 6 feet apart when possible, mandates face coverings for all employees, and asks people to take their temperature prior to going to the facility.

Goodell gave teams permission to begin opening facilities — in a limited way — beginning on May 19, so long as it doesn’t conflict with local government guidelines.

Still, Dr. Deverick Anderson — one of the consultants for the NFL — tells ESPN there are no scenarios in the foreseeable future that do not involve some level of risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“There is no such thing as a zero-risk scenario inside or outside sports and that has always been a really important part of the messaging we are trying to provide when discussing this issue with teams,” Anderson says. “We are not here to eliminate risk; we are here to try and reduce risk.”

MORE: The best home setups during the virtual NFL draft

NCAA

BIG TEN COMMISSIONER Kevin Warren first heard of the coronavirus through a casual conversation with his good friend Dr. Selwyn M. Vickers, the dean of the UAB School of Medicine. The two talk and pray together once a week, and in early February, Vickers cautioned his friend, “it’s something you need to make sure you keep your eyes on.”

Warren, who had been on the job for all of a month after leaving his position as COO of the Minnesota Vikings, heeded the advice and began reading about the virus. By March 7, he had formed a 14-member task force on emerging infectious diseases chaired by Nebraska’s Dr. Chris Kratochvil and comprised of a representative from every other Big Ten school. Warren says he has been meeting with his task force once a week for an hour since March.

“I didn’t know what extent this would get to,” Warren says.

Nobody did, and two months later, the most powerful people in college sports acknowledge they still don’t know what lies ahead.

On Wednesday, the NCAA’s Division I council voted to allow student-athletes in football and basketball to return to campus for voluntary workouts as early as June 1, but that doesn’t mean everyone will. Some conferences are making collective decisions, while others are allowing individual schools to determine whether it’s safe to allow student-athletes to return.

While there is still no timetable for practices and games to resume, NCAA president Mark Emmert has made it clear that state officials, health experts and university presidents will determine when college sports return — not the NCAA or even the conferences themselves.

“These are localized decisions,” Emmert says. “Local campuses have to decide are we opening up and are we bringing students back to play sports. The NCAA doesn’t mandate that, nor should it. The schools themselves have to make those choices.”

The NCAA’s own coronavirus advisory panel, led by Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, was announced on March 3. The group includes a former U.S. surgeon general, two individuals who work with the CDC, a former NYPD detective who ran counterterrorism investigations and headed security for the U.S. Open, and Dr. Amesh Adalja, whose specialties include “infectious diseases, pandemic preparedness and biosecurity.”

While the tentative Aug. 29 kickoffs for college football loom — with more unknowns and hypotheticals than answers — the NCAA and conference commissioners have taken different approaches in whom they are leaning on in the scientific community to help guide their decision-making processes. Much like the Big Ten, the ACC and SEC each formed a group of medical experts from their respective campuses, but the Big 12 has hired a group based out of Duke University Hospital called Infection Control Education for Major Sports, which also works with the NFL.

“We’re not really asking them to make return-to-campus decisions. We’re asking them to help us apply best practices to how do you sanitize locker rooms, how do you sanitize weight rooms and how do you start up a testing program and what kinds of things do you do with temperature monitoring?” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “It will be governor offices and public health officials that make decisions on when it’s time to come back. In the meantime, what we’re trying to do is have people advise us on what the best practices are to take care of things once we’re back.”

Some of that advice is coming from the professional levels. The Power 5 commissioners recently had a call with the NFL’s Goodell, and are hoping to glean some insight from the league as it takes the lead in navigating football through the pandemic.

“They’re ahead of us in terms of developing protocols as to how they can bring players back, and how they would test,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “They have to deal with different state regulations just like we may have to deal with that, but from a medical standpoint, I think we can certainly learn from them as they move into their training camps and playing games because their cycle is ahead of ours.”

Lacking a clear time frame — and acknowledging the reality that it will be different all over the country — conferences are preparing for various scenarios.

Despite several factors working against an on-time start for the season, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is optimistic it can happen based on discussions with the Pac-12’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee and university leadership.

“Our intention is not only that the season starts on time, that we play a full season and that includes nonconference games,” Scott says. “That includes bowls, the postseason. So college football has to work together on this if that’s all going to happen. We’re working on scenarios with our peer conferences, and they range from our intention at the moment, which is to start on time and play a full season, but we’ll look at the possibility of a delayed start or compressed schedule. We’ll look at everything, but we’re in the process of narrowing what the realistic options are and what we’ll all agree are options.”

Even with the optimism, Scott says he can’t rule out the one scenario everyone associated with the sport wants to avoid: no season at all.

“Certainly, it’s something that is contemplated as a possibility, but I think it’s highly unlikely from what I know today,” Scott says. “We know a lot more now than we did four weeks ago. I’m careful not to predict what could happen, but that’s a possibility.”

MORE: NCAA reopening plans, cancellations and recruiting updates

UFC

DANA WHITE STOOD in front of the Octagon at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas on April 9. The UFC president had just announced that the promotion’s event scheduled for April 18 had been canceled. But White, hands in his pockets, made a vow.

“We will be the first sport back,” White said in an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto.

Exactly one month to the day, UFC 249 was held in an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. President Donald Trump, a longtime friend of White’s, praised the UFC for bringing sports back in a video that aired on the broadcast.

The UFC drew up a 20-page health-and-safety document — put together by a team led by promotion chief medical consultant Dr. Jeff Davidson — and sent it to the Florida State Boxing Commission and local authorities last month. The protocols included COVID-19 testing as soon as fighters, their corners and other personnel arrived at the host hotel and self-isolation until the results from the swab tests came back. White says more than 1,200 tests, including ones for antibodies, were done in total over the course of the week.

It was an exhaustive set of policies on paper, and White described the execution as “super successful.” But some things slipped through the cracks. Fighter Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and two of his corners tested positive for COVID-19 the day before UFC 249. Souza was pulled from his fight, removed from the hotel and asked to self-isolate off premises.

Souza, however, had been in contact with others before the results came back. A video was posted on social media showing him and fellow fighter Fabricio Werdum next to each other. And Souza, wearing a mask and gloves, fist-bumped White at the weigh-ins earlier that morning.

In its plan, the UFC said interviews would not be conducted inside the Octagon. But from the very first fight, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan went back on that, interviewing athletes in the Octagon without a mask.

The UFC has said its COVID plan is fluid and reports from Jacksonville have been that procedures ran more smoothly as the eight days progressed. But what these protocols don’t currently include is a strict “bubble.” Fighters and other personnel were not tested before they arrived and not tested again after the event. The social distancing between arrival and the return of test results was spotty. Some coaches and corners who had fighters on more than one card were not tested again for COVID-19.

While Florida let the UFC run those three cards the way the promotion saw fit, that won’t necessarily be the case when other states reopen.

“Even with the best intentions and the best plans put together you can still have some degree of risk,” California State Athletic Commission executive officer Andy Foster said on a virtual stakeholder meeting May 11.

White is hoping for an event May 30 and another big card June 6 in Las Vegas, plus the July debut of Fight Island for international fighters to compete until they can get work visas to the United States.

But huge questions remain. Even the most aggressive league and commissioner in sports still has hoops to jump through and health concerns to navigate.

“I think what you see now is now you see all the other sports leagues talking about, ‘We’re going, we’re going, we’re going, we’re going,'” White says. “Somebody had to get out and be first.”

MORE: Behind the scenes at UFC 249: 32 fights, one wild ride

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100 days to college football? The biggest questions as the sport looks to return

In a normal year, Thursday would be a day of celebration. College football returns in 100 days! It would be a time to debate Trevor Lawrence vs. Justin Fields, to ask whether Oregon offensive lineman Penei Sewell is actually the game’s best player and to wonder what Lane Kiffin will do when he faces off against Nick Saban.

But given the coronavirus pandemic, the questions today are different. When will players be allowed back on campus? What kind of environments await them when they return? And what kind of season will they play?

We spoke to dozens of key decision-makers, including school presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and medical experts to get the latest information in a rapidly changing world. Expect a lot more answers over the next couple of weeks, as pro sports attempt comebacks, politicians open up their states and universities make plans for the fall semester.

But with 100 days to go until the scheduled kickoff on Aug. 29, here’s where things stand:

When will players return to campus?

Gordon Gee has logged nearly 39 years as a university president, including six terms at schools with FBS programs. He loves football, and his commentary on the sport is almost as famous as his bow tie.

Last week, Gee, who’s in his second stint as West Virginia’s president, delivered another memorable line about football.

Speaking at a town hall event organized by WOWK-TV, Gee said he believes the 2020 season will take place, despite the ongoing pandemic.

“Even if I have to suit up,” said Gee, 76. “I’ve got my ankles taped. I’m ready to go in.”

Gee’s quip reflects a growing optimism among presidents at FBS schools that their campuses soon will reopen and games will be played in the fall. Auburn president Jay Gogue, in a message to incoming freshmen last week, said, “We’re going to have football this fall.” Presidents at Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere have said they expect a season, even if it needs to be modified.

Despite the optimism, the uncertainty hasn’t disappeared. Last week, the chancellor of the California State University system announced that CSU schools would remain primarily in a virtual learning model for the fall academic term. Three FBS programs — San Diego State, Fresno State and San Jose State — are in the CSU system, and their ability to play a season when campuses are essentially empty is unknown.

Most decision-makers oppose having football players on campus if other students stay home.

“I would be shocked if we played football and we weren’t open for in-person classes,” Northwestern president Morton Schapiro said.

Added ACC commissioner John Swofford: “That’s a foreign thought to most of us.”

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, however, said that as long as athletes are enrolled and taking classes, even online, they could still compete if their school chooses to do so. Several commissioners are discussing the impact of hybrid academic models — some in-person classes, some online — that would likely clear the way for athletic competitions.

“If there are some students on campus but not the entire student body, our league would absolutely be inclined to play,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said.

Most university leaders seem focused on when and how, not if, campuses will reopen. They note improvements in testing and are formulating protocols for reintegrating the student body, including the possibility of isolation and quarantine.

As schools try to solve these problems, the timeline for decisions draws closer.

On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council voted to lift its moratorium on on-campus activities for football and basketball effective June 1. SEC presidents and chancellors will vote Friday on whether schools can reopen their athletic facilities for voluntary workouts as early as June 1. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, meanwhile, called a rush to open by June 1 “ridiculous.” Bowlsby, the commissioner of Riley’s league, said on Wednesday that the Big 12 needs to be “up and running” by mid-July in order to start the season on time. The Big Ten presidents and chancellors meet June 7.

“June 1, in everybody’s mind, is a critical date,” TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati said. “It puts you five, six weeks out from potentially returning to campus under that six-week [practice] plan everyone is talking about. … Early June is when you’ve got to have a plan, I think, and you’ve got to be going full steam ahead on it, subject to change and having some flexibility built in there. But at that point, the countdown is officially on because you’re less than 90 days to kickoff.”

Some officials preach patience with decisions about formal activities, including practices. There will be social distancing rules in locker rooms and training areas, frequent sanitization of facilities and other measures to limit outbreaks. The University of Florida’s medical staff has told Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin it would prefer to have athletes return in phases rather than all at once.

Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer noted that even when a return date is set, athletes returning to campus would need to be tested for COVID-19 and possibly quarantined before beginning activities.

“I’ve been there as a coach, but to me, the decision really comes down to the professionals in the medical field,” said Fulmer, a Hall of Fame coach for the Vols from 1992 to 2008.

“This is bigger than a few practices. As long as we all have the same opportunity to practice and work out the same number of days, in the end it’s not going to matter as long as you have time to get the kids in shape. And I think we’ll be able to do that as long as we get them back on campus by the middle of June or first of July.”

A head team physician for a Power 5 program told ESPN he was worried about being too hasty with making a decision.

“The world has to reengage,” the physician said, “but bringing back 130 participants [from] a football team in the next week or so, when we still have nearly three months before the season opener, if the season opens Sept. 1, isn’t smart. I don’t see the value in that.” — Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg

What will things look like when players return?

While officials continue to figure out when and how college football players will be able to safely return to campus, everyone is going to have to get accustomed to a new normal. From weight rooms to practice fields to dining halls, things will be different. And, upon arrival, coronavirus testing will be key.

“First, when they get here, they’re quarantined for 48 hours, and then tested,” Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos said. “If there’s a positive, there’s a dorm provided to quarantine them, and then [take] all the precautions in regards to where they are training, what they are doing, how they are doing, how they get access to our food and our nutrition piece. All very well thought out. All superbly managed with the safety and well-being of those young people uppermost in our thinking.”

One SEC coach told ESPN this week that his athletic department’s plan for players returning to campus, which remains a work in progress, includes testing all players when they come back and keeping them quarantined until the results are known.

The first month would include only strength and conditioning, with coaches dividing players into perhaps 10 to 15 pods. The pods would be determined by the players’ living arrangements; roommates in apartments and players living in the same dorms would be placed in pods together to mitigate the potential spread of the coronavirus.

Workouts would begin at about 7 a.m. and wouldn’t end until around 6 p.m., as the groups rotated through the weight room each day. Players would enter through the same entrance in the football building, where medical staff would take their temperatures. Players would be required to practice social distancing in the weight room, and staff would sanitize the room after every workout before the next group arrived.

Players wouldn’t be allowed to shower in the locker room. They would be required to turn in their used clothing the next day to be washed by staff.

The coaching staff would continue to have virtual meetings with position groups, and no meetings would be conducted inside the football facility through at least June.

The SEC coach said the first month of workouts would not include passing drills and other activities that would require a ball or other equipment. During a live Twitter interview Friday, NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline referenced the NCAA medical panel’s guidelines for the first two phases of returning to play, which would each last two weeks.

“We recommend that shared balls not be a part of phase 1 and phase 2,” Hainline said. “There certainly is that possibility — perhaps even a probability — that the virus can be transmitted by a shared ball.”

The SEC coach stressed that the first month of workouts was strictly voluntarily, and players did not have to return to campus if they weren’t comfortable doing so. He said SEC programs were hoping to build to NFL-type organized team activities in July, but there wasn’t currently a plan in place to do so.

“Eventually, we’re going to have to get in the huddle and meeting rooms,” the SEC coach said. “We don’t have many answers for how that is going to happen right now.”

The SEC team doctors are scheduled to speak with athletic directors on Thursday, and then SEC presidents and chancellors will make the final call on Friday, when they vote on whether to allow athletes back on campus June 1 or push that date back to mid-June or the first of July.

“There’s a theory out there that we need to wait until everybody can do it,” Florida’s Stricklin said. “There’s another theory that if you have some states opening up gyms, would kids be safer in environments controlled by the schools? It’s pretty easy to understand all the different sides of this issue whether you agree or not.

“We all want to do what’s right for the kids and do what is as fair as possible.”

One Power 5 head team physician told ESPN he’s in favor of bringing players back to campus in smaller groups and not all at once.

“It makes no sense that some coaches are worried about bringing back players on June 1,” the team physician said. “A lot of that is coaches getting ahead of themselves and thinking they’ve got to have them back to train and to control them. Why not wait and see what we learn over the next few months and shoot for July 1?

“I’m more interested in when they do come back that there’s a plan to effectively assess their COVID-19 status and have adequate ability to test and get those results back and then have a plan outlined on how they go about their day. All we can control is when they’re in the facility. We can’t control after hours.”

For fans, college football’s return could mean watching the games on television, at least early on. In some cases, stadiums might mandate certain restrictions, such as how many people could be in the stands, where they would sit and that those who choose to come to games be required to wear masks.

Those are all scenarios that will need to be taken into account before adding an even more complicated variable: What liability do schools have to provide a safe environment for fans? And, again, that landscape is unclear.

“I know whenever I go to a baseball game, you turn over the ticket and it says, ‘If you get hit by a foul ball, that’s on you,” said Schapiro. “I also know that whenever someone gets hit by a foul ball and, God forbid, gets hurt, there’s a big financial settlement. I guess accepting a ticket, what it says on the back, is that legally binding?”

Perhaps the most surreal scenario would be games played without any fans, to which one Power 5 coach told ESPN: “College football without fans is like having a wedding ceremony with no bride.”

Even then, a stadium without fans would hardly be empty.

According to one SEC administrator, when you count players and coaching staffs from both teams, game officials, medical personnel, equipment managers and other staff members, there could still be more than 500 people in the stadium for a game.

And the financial hit for teams playing games without fans would be massive.

Texas A&M, for example, generated around $85 million last year in ticket sales and donations tied to those tickets, according to athletic director Ross Bjork. And when you factor in all game-day revenue, including concessions and sponsorships, that figure was a little more than $100 million. The Aggies’ total football revenue for the year, including SEC revenue sharing and television money, was about $140 million.

Stricklin said Florida’s ticket sales and donations associated with tickets produce around $56 million. And like most other SEC schools, Florida generates about 85% of its entire athletic department budget through football.

Stricklin winces at the thought of football games without any fans, and he’s not alone.

“College football is a reflection of society,” Stricklin said. “Sports in general is a reflection of society, and because of that, where we end up is probably going to be driven by how comfortable people are going to be in the next couple of months going to restaurants, going to bars and going to churches as states start opening back up.

“This week, they may not be very comfortable. In three weeks, they may be more comfortable. Two months from now, it may be old hat again, in which case that’s going to bode well for college football. But if people in July are still cautious about doing these things, then it’s going to be a different story.” — Chris Low and Mark Schlabach

What will the 2020 schedule look like?

As college administrators, athletic directors and coaches ponder a 2020 season unlike any in recent memory, questions that once seemed unthinkable are now at the forefront. What if the SEC is ready to play but the Pac-12 isn’t? What if only 12 of the ACC’s 14 teams are ready to play?

Unlike the NFL, NBA or other professional sports, college football lacks a single governing body that can make one-size-fits-all decisions. The NCAA has been clear that it doesn’t want that role, deferring to conferences and local authorities. FBS football consists of 130 school presidents in 43 states, plus 10 conferences (and independents), not to mention countless municipalities where the extent of the virus could be different within state lines.

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi, for one, has been studying the latest data on the spread of the coronavirus, hoping for signs that the worst is over. In Pittsburgh, the news has been encouraging. Cases are down; deaths have slowed. But while Pittsburgh’s response during the lockdown has yielded promising results, there’s a different scene east down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“Western Pennsylvania is in great shape but Eastern Pennsylvania, it’s still a nightmare,” Narduzzi said last week. “They’re in some rough shape there, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

(According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, as of Wednesday evening, Philadelphia County had 16,340 cases, or 1,032 per 100,000 residents. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, had 1,641 cases, or 135 per 100,000 residents.)

“It could be different in any part of the country,” said Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner. “We all like to have that elusive level playing field, but the virus will decide that.”

South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner said while conferences ideally would be aligned about the season, regional realities could make a normal, national season difficult to pull off. The SEC, whose 14 teams are clustered in a region where most states already have relaxed restrictions, seemingly could move ahead with a season even if other leagues are unsure.

“If you’re clear in certain parts of the country and others aren’t,” Tanner said, “do you think they’re not going to play?”

Regional differences also apply within certain leagues. ACC campuses line the East Coast and go as far west as Louisville, Kentucky. While Clemson and Virginia Tech are relatively isolated, the ACC also has teams in major cities like Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh and Miami.

“We are a country, but we’re vastly different regions,” Miami coach Manny Diaz said. “When we get on the other side of the curve and we start to make a plan for how to come out of it, there could be vastly different guidelines [from] one state to another state. So that will be the interesting part. There will have to be some leveling of the playing field so everyone can at least come back at the same time.”

A uniform return date would be ideal but might not be possible. Coaches and medical experts say players need at least six weeks to prepare for competition, but that window might begin at a vastly different time in Alabama than it does in California.

“I can’t imagine that right now we’re all going to open at the same time,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “If the SEC, for example, opens up a month earlier than the Big Ten, and the Big Ten is able to open up and 12 of the 14 schools, if two schools can’t open, I don’t see a conference — any conference — penalizing 80% or 75% of the schools because 25% of them can’t open.”

And that’s when questions arise about how an uneven playing field affects the playoff chase.

“Let’s say 36 [states] say we can go, hypothetically pick a date — July 15,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. “Those other states say, ‘No, we’re not going,’ and five of those schools — half of your conference can go. What if Alabama, Nick Saban, can start practice and LSU can’t? You think that’s gonna work for your national champion?”

For the record, Schapiro, the Northwestern president and chair of the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors, says he doesn’t foresee a situation where the league plays without all of its members.

But even if most schools and leagues are prepared to play, the unknowns surrounding the virus and how it spreads or spikes could make scheduling a nightmare. Even if teams play only conference opponents or don’t leave their regions, some might play 12 games, while others play eight.

“Let’s just say TCU is playing Iowa State or Oklahoma is playing Texas, and one of the schools is unable to play but the other school has multiple tests that have popped up positive, or has a concern about traveling or whatever reason and can’t play the game,” Donati said. “Is it a forfeit? Does the team that didn’t test positive, do they win the game? … Those are all going to be real things because inevitably, these are going to pop up.”

“I think we will be very, very lucky to start on Labor Day weekend and get through a football season without disruptions,” Bowlsby added. “And we will be very lucky to get through the postseason and the basketball season without disruptions. We’re gonna have a new normal, and we’re gonna have to have an idea of how we’re gonna deal with these things.”

College administrators are determined to figured it out, and all options are on the table for how it will be structured. Could the Pac-12 and Mountain West combine to try to fill out one schedule? Would the northern half of the ACC play a handful of games, while the southern schools get in a full slate? Could Georgia and Georgia Tech play a home-and-home series?

“We all want to play 12 games and have a perfect scenario where everybody can play the schedule as is, but we’re smart enough to know that may not happen,” said Blake Anderson, head coach at Arkansas State. “There’s so many unknowns about what’s going to happen when we get people back in small areas. Is there going to be a spike? We have to be realistic enough to know there’s going to be some adjustments. … How early will you know? Could it be the week of [the game] that you quarantine? We’re going to have to be smart and flexible.” — David M. Hale and Adam Rittenberg

ESPN reporters Kyle Bonagura, Sam Khan Jr. and Tom VanHaaren contributed to this report.

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The all-time starting five for every NBA Eastern Conference team

What if Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen could’ve played alongside prime Derrick Rose? How many titles would the Celtics have won if Larry Bird and Bill Russell were on the same team? Imagine LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach to team up not only with Dwyane Wade, but Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning too.

We asked our NBA writers to come up with an all-time starting five for every current NBA franchise, along with one additional blast from the past. Only a player’s contributions during his time with that franchise were considered (so, no, Jordan isn’t on the Wizards’ list).

In this era of “positionless” basketball, traditional positions don’t matter quite as much as they used to, so we allowed some flexibility in choosing a lineup — but you won’t see teams with four centers or three point guards. The idea was to dive into each team’s history and create a group that could at least potentially share the floor together.

Over the next two days, we’ll roll out the lineups, starting with the Eastern Conference.


Atlanta Hawks

G: Lou Hudson
G: Cliff Hagan
F: Dominique Wilkins
F: Bob Pettit
C: Al Horford

Because we are including Atlanta’s prior history in St. Louis, this was one of the most straightforward lists in the league. Hudson was a six-time All-Star who averaged over 20 points per game seven times. Hagan was a 6-foot-4 forward in his era who, for the purposes of this list, is going to play as a guard.

The forward spots provide plenty of scoring. Wilkins is the franchise’s leader in points, and both he and Pettit averaged 26.4 points per game for their Hawks careers. Pettit also chipped in 16 rebounds per game, and he paired with Hagan on one of the two teams that were able to prevent Bill Russell from winning a championship during his career.

Horford made four All-Star teams during his nine years with the Hawks, and his versatility helped Atlanta return to respectability.

— Tim Bontemps

Boston Celtics

G: Bob Cousy
G: John Havlicek
F: Paul Pierce
F: Larry Bird
C: Bill Russell

With the depth and breadth of history the Celtics have accrued over the past 70-plus seasons, there are plenty of candidates to be in their all-time starting five. That said, coming up with this list was simpler than expected.

The backcourt is led by Cousy, the NBA’s original great guard who made 12 All-NBA teams and won six championships. He’s joined by Havlicek, a Swiss Army knife in human form who fits perfectly on this team as its shooting guard. The frontcourt has two equally obvious choices: Russell, the greatest winner in the history of the sport, and Bird, a three-time MVP.

The one difficult decision was at the remaining spot, where there were two deserving choices: Kevin McHale and Pierce. In the end, Pierce’s Finals MVP helps him earn the nod.

— Bontemps

Brooklyn Nets

G: Jason Kidd
G: Vince Carter
F: Julius Erving
F: Buck Williams
C: Brook Lopez

Kidd, Erving, Williams and Lopez are four of the top five in career win shares for the Nets. Lopez is also the franchise’s leading scorer, having edged Williams by four points in his final game with the team.

Carter might not have been able to get the Nets to the Finals during his tenure, but he does have the third-highest scoring average in team history, behind Rick Barry (who played two seasons with the ABA’s Nets) and Erving. Selecting Carter over Drazen Petrovic was the toughest call. Petrovic — one of only six players in the team’s history whose number is retired — was on his way to joining the NBA’s elite before dying in a car accident at 28.

— Malika Andrews

Charlotte Hornets

G: Kemba Walker
G: Dell Curry
F: Glen Rice
F: Larry Johnson
C: Alonzo Mourning

(NOTE: The NBA considers the original Charlotte Hornets and the renamed Hornets — formerly the Charlotte Bobcats — to be one franchise.)

In 1992, Charlotte’s expansion franchise had a healthy Larry Johnson — the Hornets’ first All-Star — and rookie Mourning, who sunk Boston with a series-clinching game winner to give the Hornets their first playoff series victory in 1993.

But Johnson’s back injury and some internal drama eventually led Charlotte’s star tandem to break up and later become heated rivals during the Knicks-Heat battles. Charlotte has won 50 or more games only three times. But Rice, whom the Hornets got from Miami in the Mourning trade, was the best player on the teams that won 50 games in back-to-back seasons, averaging 26.8 points in 1996-97.

As sweet a marksman as Rice was, Curry is the franchise’s greatest shooter. He and Muggsy Bogues played a significant role in starting the franchise as expansion draft picks, and Curry averaged double figures in points in nine of his 10 seasons in Charlotte.

Walker may now be in Boston, but he left Charlotte as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and a three-time All-Star.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

Chicago Bulls

G: Derrick Rose
G: Michael Jordan
F: Scottie Pippen
F: Dennis Rodman
C: Artis Gilmore

Jordan and Pippen led the Bulls to six NBA titles, with rebounding machine Rodman joining the legendary duo for the second three-peat.

Gilmore was a four-time All-Star during his Chicago tenure, with an all-league Afro to match his 7-2 frame.

Rose is Chi-Town’s own. Born and raised in the Englewood area on Chicago’s South Side, the shy kid became the youngest MVP in NBA history at 22 years old. Both Jordan and Rose were elite athletes with a cult following to match their rare skill set and would be electrifying to watch in a Windy City backcourt.

— Eric Woodyard

Cleveland Cavaliers

G: Mark Price
G: Kyrie Irving
F: LeBron James
F: Larry Nance
C: Brad Daugherty

You start with James, the greatest player in franchise history and the recipient of the Finals MVP the one and only time the Cavaliers won the championship. You add Irving, who joined him in winning the title by hitting the greatest shot in franchise history in the final minute of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Now you look for roster balance.

Price shot 40.9% from 3 during his Cavs career with 7.2 assists per game, and Nance was a high-flying, shot-blocking menace. Price, Nance and Brad Daugherty might have made more noise in the postseason if they didn’t play in the Michael Jordan era.

Center was a tough choice. Tristan Thompson has played his entire career in Cleveland and won a chip, and two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas is the franchise leader in blocks. Daugherty, a five-time All-Star, gets the nod for his combination of skill level and mobility for a big man.

— Dave McMenamin

Detroit Pistons

G: Isiah Thomas
G: Joe Dumars
F: Grant Hill
F: Ben Wallace
C: Bob Lanier

Rarely are sports teams able to take on the identity of a city, but when the Pistons are at their best, they’re a reflection of Detroit’s gritty reputation.

Thomas and Dumars were the star backcourt of the Bad Boys squads that won titles in 1989 and 1990. “Big Ben” Wallace was the defensive leader during the “Deee-troit Basketball” era, when the Pistons ended the Shaq/Kobe Lakers era in the 2004 Finals. All of those guys were stars in their own right, with a plethora of talent around them to play team basketball.

Hill might not have been a fan favorite in Detroit after he left for Orlando, but there was no denying his superstar status while in a Pistons uniform. He put up 9,393 points, 3,417 boards and 2,720 assists in his first six seasons, a feat matched only by Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson.

— Woodyard

Indiana Pacers

G: Freddie Lewis
G: Reggie Miller
F: Roger Brown
F: George McGinnis
C: Mel Daniels

ABA fans will be thrilled to see this Pacers team, with four of the five selections coming from the ABA edition of the franchise, which won three championships and featured several Hall of Famers. Three of them — Brown, McGinnis and Daniels — form Indiana’s frontcourt.

Lewis edged out Paul George for the second spot in Indiana’s backcourt. That was the toughest decision to make, but Lewis — who was the ABA playoffs MVP in 1972, made three All-Star teams and was a key member of all three title teams — did enough to edge out George.

The “other” player on the list is only the greatest player in franchise history: Reggie Miller. Not much thought was needed for that one.

— Bontemps

Miami Heat

G: Tim Hardaway
G: Dwyane Wade
F: LeBron James
F: Alonzo Mourning
C: Shaquille O’Neal

Pat Riley built today’s Heat culture on Mourning’s intensity and strength and Hardaway’s grit and talent. The duo led Miami to five consecutive postseasons, including the 1997 Eastern Conference finals.

In 2003, Riley drafted Wade, the best and most important player in franchise history. He and O’Neal — who arrived in Miami a year after Wade — delivered the franchise’s first title. Wade, a 13-time All-Star, then helped amass Miami’s superteam with LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

James arrived in South Beach with enormous expectations and his tenure lasted just four seasons. But his Heat legacy is cemented by four consecutive NBA Finals trips, with back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, lifting the franchise to another level.

— Youngmisuk

Milwaukee Bucks

G: Oscar Robertson
G: Sidney Moncrief
G: Ray Allen
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The golden era of the Bucks franchise took place in the early 1970s with Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson running the show. Milwaukee hasn’t won a title since that 66-win, 1970-71 squad brought one back to town. Now, there’s a new era underway with Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, leading the team back to relevance. Those three picks were no-brainers.

Moncrief (in the 1980s) and Allen (in the ’90s and 2000s) were perennial All-Stars who led their respective teams deep into the playoffs. Although Marques Johnson hasn’t reached the Hall of Fame, it was tough leaving him out of this lineup, but a tough decision had to be made.

— Woodyard

New York Knicks

G: Walt Frazier
G: Earl Monroe
F: Carmelo Anthony
F: Willis Reed
C: Patrick Ewing

The only position that is really up for debate here is Anthony at small forward. During his time in the Empire State, Anthony averaged 24.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, so he gets the nod.

As for the locks, Frazier was one of the best at his position, earning six All-NBA nods and seven first-team All-Defense selections. Monroe changed his game to fit Frazier after coming over from Baltimore and helped the Knicks earn their second title in 1973.

Reed will forever be remembered for his gutty Game 7 performance in the 1970 Finals and remains the only Knick to win league MVP honors. And although Ewing is remembered for having never won a championship, he put a team on his back, was selected to 11 All-Star teams and was a member of the Olympic Dream Team.

— Andrews

Orlando Magic

G: Anfernee Hardaway
G: Nick Anderson
F: Tracy McGrady
F: Dwight Howard
C: Shaquille O’Neal

This team can do it on both ends. Good luck trying to score inside against O’Neal and Howard. Both McGrady and O’Neal won scoring titles in a Magic uniform, giving this team offensive firepower. Jameer Nelson is the longest-tenured point guard in team history, but Hardaway played at a different level when he was healthy. People forget just how talented he was both during and after the Shaq era, before the injuries piled up.

As for the final spot, Vince Carter had a few nice years in Orlando, but Anderson is the pick here. His career is defined by those missed free throws in the ’95 Finals, but it shouldn’t be. Longtime Magic fans remember him as a great defender and a player who hit some huge clutch shots over the years. He belongs on this list.

— Nick Friedell

Philadelphia 76ers

G: Allen Iverson
G: Hal Greer
F: Julius Erving
F: Charles Barkley
C: Wilt Chamberlain

Few teams will have a set of names more star-studded than this one. Each player made at least 10 All-Star teams. Four of them won MVP awards, and three of them won championships.

The backcourt features Iverson — because, really, how could it not? — and Greer, who made seven All-NBA teams and was one of the best guards in the 1960s. The forwards? Well, those were easy: Erving, who inspired a generation of players with his high-flying abilities, helped the Sixers win their last title in 1983; and Barkley was a dominant force for the Sixers in the late 1980s and early ’90s before being traded to Phoenix.

Moses Malone was the league MVP during the ’83 championship season, and Dolph Schayes had a long, impressive career with the Syracuse Nationals. But who else could play center on this team but Wilt?

— Bontemps

Toronto Raptors

G: Kyle Lowry
G: DeMar DeRozan
G: Vince Carter
F: Kawhi Leonard
C: Chris Bosh

Lowry is the greatest player in the history of the franchise, having both resurrected it and his career after being traded to Toronto in 2012. DeRozan is Toronto’s all-time leading scorer and is beloved by the team’s fan base.

For a long time, Carter was reviled in Toronto for how he left the franchise in 2004. But there’s no question that he had an indelible impact on the Raptors. Leonard’s championship exploits in his lone season with the franchise were enough to merit his inclusion on this list. Before long, he’ll be passed by Pascal Siakam, but that day hasn’t arrived yet.

Bosh played seven years in Toronto, with five consecutive All-Star berths. His production with the Raptors is unquestioned, and there isn’t anyone who could come close to pushing him for this spot.

— Bontemps

Washington Wizards

G: John Wall
G: Earl Monroe
F: Gus Johnson
F: Elvin Hayes
C: Wes Unseld

Hayes and Unseld are the greatest Bullets, a Hall of Fame frontcourt combo that reached three NBA Finals, delivering D.C. its lone championship in 1978.

Johnson was one of the first power forwards to play above the rim. And while Monroe is often thought of as a Knick, “The Pearl” spent his first four seasons with the Baltimore Bullets, dazzling fans and opponents with his playground moves and posting averages of 24.3, 25.8, 23.4 and 21.4 points per game. Monroe, Unseld and Johnson led the Bullets to their first Finals appearance in 1971.

Bradley Beal is emerging into a force, a healthy Phil Chenier was one of the franchise’s best and Gilbert Arenas brought fireworks (good and bad) to D.C. But Wall has been a Wizard for a decade and is the team’s all-time assists and steals leader.

— Youngmisuk

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How KBO superfan ‘Santa Grandfather’ became one of the only people on the planet attending live baseball games

    Previously a Staff Writer at Bleacher Report
    Cornell University graduate

The 10-minute walk to Sajik Stadium is a lot quieter these days.

Typically, whether it’s Sajik Stadium in Busan or Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, Kerry Maher, an American from Waycross, Georgia, gets stopped by his fellow fans at Korea Baseball Organization games, where he’s known by three different nicknames: “Santa Grandfather,” “Lotte Grandfather” and “KFC Grandfather.” Last year on Lotte Giants Opening Day, Maher was approached by more than 200 fans asking for a selfie. Sometimes kids ask their parents whether Maher is the real Santa Claus.

“I don’t know where they got ‘KFC Grandfather,'” Maher says. “I guess it’s the white beard.”

Thanks in part to that beard, Maher is far and away the most recognizable KBO superfan in South Korea. He has become so well known, the Lotte Giants added him to the payroll before this season to help foreign-born players acclimate to the country. And with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down sports across the world, he’s now among the few fans on the planet still able to attend live professional sporting events, one of a select group of people allowed into KBO ballparks.

During a Giants game last Wednesday at a nearly empty Sajik Stadium — located in the seaside city of Busan, a three-hour bullet train ride south from Seoul — Maher can clearly hear the chatter in the dugout, the gunshot slaps of the catcher’s mitt and every player’s grunt, a surreal experience for a fan who has averaged around 120 Lotte Giants games, home and away, the past five seasons. Even coaches from the opposing team come over, as usual, and greet Maher in the stands during batting practice.

“I’m just sitting there by myself, and the players recognize me from the field,” Maher says. “They usually wave and say hello. It’s a weird experience.”

But while the players and coaches notice him, it’s the first time in years, Maher says, that he has attended a Korean baseball game and a fellow fan hasn’t asked him for a photo.

South Korean society is in the midst of a slow restart, with social distancing regulations loosening, businesses reopening, city traffic returning and the country’s baseball league springing into action. It has caught the world’s attention — something Maher has been regularly reminded of by the texts he receives from his friends watching the games in the United States on ESPN. But the road back has been bumpy, with a recent outbreak stemming from a Seoul nightclub leading to fears of a second wave, and forcing the government to postpone its plans to open schools for the first time in two months. If one KBO player tests positive, the league will shut down for three weeks.

Since the KBO kicked off its season earlier this month, Maher still occasionally runs into fans outside Sajik Stadium. For years, Maher had never refused a photo request.

Recently, though, he’s added one rule.

“If they don’t have a mask,” Maher says, “I say no.”

“HE’S LIKE A superhero over there. I mean, everybody knows Kerry’s seat right in front of the stage,” says Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Lindblom, the 2019 KBO MVP who spent five seasons in the league, including 2015 through 2017 with the Lotte Giants. “He might’ve been more famous than some of the players, to be honest with you. I’d get a little jealous at times that people would want pictures with Kerry instead of me.”

The recognition sometimes happens internationally, like when Maher visited his twin brother, Kevin, the former director of the State Department’s Office of Japan Affairs, in Washington, D.C. At the Lincoln Memorial, a group of six South Korean tourists slowly approached Maher to ask him a question.

“Can we take a picture with you? You’re the Lotte guy,” they said.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Kevin asked his brother. “What is happening?”

The journey to South Korean baseball celebrity started in August 2008, when Maher moved to Ulsan to teach elementary school. After pursuing a career in Hollywood, with IMDb listing his credits in movies such as “The Road to Wellville,” starring Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick, Maher settled into his job as a lecturer at the University of South Carolina, where he taught public speaking to students, including Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield and Brewers first baseman Justin Smoak. When his 84-year-old stepfather, for whom he was the sole caregiver, died, Maher decided to take the leap and move to South Korea.

“When he passed away, I was just free,” Maher says.

Three years after moving to the country, Maher started teaching at Youngsan University, a small college in the city of Yansan, a 45-minute ride from Busan. It was on a school field trip when Maher first got a taste of Korean baseball. When he walked up the concourse to his seat, he felt an energy in the crowd he’d never felt at Major League Baseball games. KBO games feature cheers for every player, singing and dancing, cheerleaders and passionate fans.

“I’ve always said that MLB is like opera,” Maher says. “KBO is like rock-and-roll.”

In the early days of his fandom, Maher wore a San Francisco Giants jersey to games because the Lotte Giants simply didn’t sell a fan uniform in his size. Maher once noted to an interviewer that he would need the jersey of Jun-seok Choi, a KBO slugger known for his large frame (6-foot-2, 286 pounds) and majestic bat flips, to find a Lotte Giants uniform that actually fit. When news got around to the team that the American fan who resembled Santa Claus needed a jersey, the Giants called Maher onto the field after a game and gave him one of Choi’s.

“That kind of started everything,” Maher says.

It wasn’t long before Maher was building his class schedule around his daily moped and bus ride to Busan to watch the Giants play. Then came the trips for Giants road games, something the players noticed.

“You go on the road, especially like when he would come to Seoul, Lotte has such a huge following that you walk in, it doesn’t matter,” Lindblom says. “Kerry is always sitting right here.”

One night, the Lotte Giants TV broadcast singled out Maher, noting that “the professor” was at the game once again, and joking with the television audience by asking how Maher even finds time to teach classes given his avid Giants fandom.

Soon, KBO fans could hardly ignore the fact that a guy who looked like Santa kept showing up to Lotte Giants games. Fan interest in photos started increasing. Another American fan who regularly attends KBO games eventually created a custom Lotte Giants jersey that reads, “I am not Kerry professor” because he kept getting stopped for photos.

“You see a lot of Westerners go to the games, and they mug for the camera and wear costumes and things trying to be on TV,” Maher says. “But honestly, I never did that. I just tried to be a fan. I never was mugging for the camera or trying to be famous. It just happened.”

Sung Min Kim, a former writer for FanGraphs and The Athletic who now works for the Giants, took notice of Maher’s unusual passion for the team. Kim, before he joined Lotte’s front office, began spending time with Maher when he’d go to games. Whenever he and Maher would chat, whether they were inside or outside the stadium, Kim always noticed a line of around 10 to 30 people waiting to get a photo with the Lotte Grandfather.

“Obviously, it is always unusual to see someone who’s not Korean who’s really into Korean baseball,” Kim says. “Not only that he doesn’t really look Korean, obviously, but also, I mean, he really stands out just because of how he looks. He’s got a big beard. He’s a really big guy. It also happens that the Lotte Giants have a really, really big die-hard fan base. So it just all comes together for him to be a local celebrity and a culture here in Sajik.”

Maher got to know Lindblom after he approached the pitcher on Opening Day in Lindblom’s first year with the Giants. “I hadn’t heard English in I don’t know how long, and it was Kerry,” Lindblom says. “Right then and there, we immediately struck up a friendship.”

The two picked up a routine of eating at a small fried chicken restaurant just a few alleys away from Sajik Stadium. After home games, Lindblom would meet Maher, already sitting at a table. As Maher partook in chimaek, a popular Korean late-night activity and restaurant subculture in which friends gather after work specifically to eat Korean-style fried chicken and drink beer (known in Korean as maekju, hence the portmanteau chimaek), he would chat with Lindblom about everything from baseball to family to religion to the cultural transition for an American in South Korea.

“We joke around KBO baseball saying that during the season you don’t get to pick your friends,” Lindblom says. “In Korea, you only have two friends on your team that are American and that you can talk to. Kerry had been there, had been in Busan so long, he was a huge help showing us restaurants around Sajik. So just having him as somebody that we could talk with, ask about different things, just somebody that wasn’t connected with the team, was a huge help.”

But Maher’s fortunes flipped when he turned 65 last year, pushed into mandatory retirement by the university. Suddenly without a work visa, Maher faced the prospect of being forced to return to the United States and leave behind the Lotte Giants community. Last August, as he mulled over his future, Maher and his friends took a trip to watch baseball in Seoul, where he ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee after slipping on a rock.

The injury extended Maher’s stay in Korea, allowing him extra time to figure out his work visa situation. Lindblom, playing in Seoul for the Doosan Bears in 2019, lived a block and a half away from the hospital and visited his friend. Maher explained his pending departure from the country if he could not find another job. With a reporter there to interview a visibly upset Maher, Lindblom took the opportunity to speak about his friend’s cultural impact on Korean baseball.

“When this is your life now, and then all of a sudden you have to come back to the U.S. where you haven’t been in however long he was there for, it’s like, what do you do?” Lindblom says. “He was going to have to leave, just up and leave and be severed from his life.”

As Maher’s story circulated through the Korean press, the passionate fan reaction caught the attention of newly minted Lotte Giants general manager Min-kyu Sung, a former minor league player and scout for the Chicago Cubs, hired in September. Sung called Maher in the hospital and asked what the team could do to help keep the Santa Grandfather in Korea. Maher told Sung he would do anything the team needed if they offered him a job. Sung promptly named Maher the team’s foreign player manager, responsible for helping overseas stars adjust to Korean culture.

“Lotte, knowing that they were going to lose one of their biggest fans, stepped up,” Lindblom says. “It shows you how important the culture is to the people in Korean baseball in general.”

Before receiving the job offer, Maher had nothing but time to dwell on his future while sitting in the hospital, wondering whether he’d be able to stay in South Korea. With his future in his adopted home secure, Maher could focus on his recovery, with nearly six weeks required in a leg cast. When he was finally healthy enough to leave the hospital, now armed with a new official capacity with his favorite team, Maher’s reality as the country’s most recognizable sports fan came rushing back.

“When I left, all the nurses got together and wanted pictures,” Maher says. “And the doctor.”

THE CORONAVIRUS HAS scarred Maher’s first full season with the Giants, but the 65-year-old continues his work with Lotte’s foreign-born players — Dixon Machado, a Venezuelan, and Americans Dan Straily and Adrian Sampson. Following an embarrassing season in which the Giants finished with the league’s worst record and the highest payroll, Lotte cleared house and brought in Sung and his MLB experience to run the club, as well as people such as Kim and Maher.

“I was kind of out of luck,” Maher says. “Sung Min-kyu saved my life.”

As part of his major responsibilities, Maher put together a 90-page presentation with Kim, introducing the players to Korea, the KBO, Korean culture and the language. Players such as Lindblom say that getting acclimated to a completely different culture represents 90% of the challenge for most foreign players. Kim has noticed that the foreign players are already taking to the manual, specifically pointing to Straily’s exceptional politeness to the Korean umpires, a sign of respect to authority figures in the country’s baseball culture.

As he watches the United States struggle to contain the coronavirus outbreak, Maher says he feels proud to be living in Korea.

“When I talk to my friends in the States, I tell them how wonderful not only just the country is, the health care system, the way they handled the coronavirus, and then the fact that they were able to start playing baseball before any other country in the world,” Maher says. “It’s a sense of pride that I’m affiliated with Korea and I’m affiliated with the Lotte Giants.”

In nearby Taiwan, they’ve just recently begun to allow a limited number of fans into ballparks, with restrictions.

When asked what kept him in South Korea for all of these years, visiting America every few years, Maher takes a moment to ponder the question.

“I’ve never been married. I don’t have a family, except for my brothers in the States,” Maher says. “When I was in the hospital with my knee, I was amazed how many people came. I realized how many really good friends I had. They brought me food, and they really helped me out. So it was really touching. At first it was fellow teachers and things, but with the Lotte fans, I honestly say my Lotte family. That’s one of the reasons I stayed. The relationships I had with not only Lotte fans, but Koreans in general.”

Lindblom, now back at home in America watching KBO games with his son, misses the passion of Korean fans, the ballpark atmosphere, and the nights spent with Maher eating fried chicken after games. “A lot of the people have talked about how Korean baseball is its own little subset of culture. Within that community, there’s these larger-than-life figures that nobody else would even think of, like why is this guy that looks like Santa Claus so famous? He’s just a superfan. He loves Lotte, he loves Korean baseball, and fans all over the country know about him.

“The fans make the league special,” Lindblom says. “And to think about those superfans like Kerry, that’s what Korean baseball is.”

The texts keep coming from Maher’s friends in America, who tell him how much they wish they could watch baseball in person instead of being cooped up at home. As he sits alone in the empty stadium, Maher — still a superfan but now a Giants employee, too — can’t help but feel gracious about how a serendipitous series of events led him to this seat during an unprecedented international pandemic.

“It’s just really a strange feeling to come home and say, ‘Well, I’m one of the few people that gets to watch baseball in the world.’ I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to not go,” Maher says. “I’m not that noble.”

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Inside the Hail Mary that almost kept the ‘Last Dance’ Bulls together

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com
  • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News

NEARLY 22 YEARS have passed since Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf took one last shot at keeping the team together, but he remembers the meeting like it was yesterday.

“I remember the date,” Reinsdorf said. “It was July the 3rd in 1998.”

The Bulls had won their third straight NBA title and sixth in eight years less than a month earlier. All season long, the team had been playing with a sense of finality, knowing, as viewers saw in ESPN’s 10-part docuseries “The Last Dance,” that the 1997-98 season would almost certainly be their last together.

But Reinsdorf felt he had to try to resurrect things, for the team’s sake, as much as for history.

So a few days into what would become a protracted NBA lockout, he scheduled a meeting with Michael Jordan to pitch him on one more last dance.

“Don’t say anything now,” Reinsdorf told Jordan. “We’re in a lockout. We don’t know how long this lockout is going to go. Let’s get to the end, and maybe I can talk Phil [Jackson] back into it. Maybe after … maybe he’ll change his mind. So don’t say anything.”

MORE: How five weeks of ‘The Last Dance’ changed the way we think of Michael Jordan

Jordan reaffirmed that he wouldn’t play for anyone but Jackson, but he agreed to Reinsdorf’s request not to make any final decisions until the owner could make one last run at the coach.

It was a Hail Mary, but not as far-fetched a plan as it seemed. The season before, Reinsdorf had pulled off a similar resurrection — vetoing a trade that would’ve sent Scottie Pippen to the Boston Celtics for two draft picks (general manager Jerry Krause would’ve taken Ron Mercer and Tracy McGrady) and flying to Montana just before training camp to convince Jackson to sign a one-year deal.

Maybe the extra downtime created by the lockout would heal the wounds gashed open in the conflicts among Krause, Jackson and the players during the season.

Maybe Jordan could convince the perennially underpaid Pippen to come back on a one-year deal.

Maybe Jackson would like the idea of going for a four-peat, in a strike-shortened season.

It was certainly worth a try. But this time Jackson’s answer was different.

“I asked Phil to come back,” Reinsdorf said. “And he says, ‘No, it’s time.’ That was the expression he used, ‘It’s time.'”

Too much blood had been spilled in the war with Krause. Too many goodbyes had already been said. As we saw in the final episode of the docuseries, Jackson had even taken the team through a ritual he had learned from his wife, June, a hospice nurse, who told him how families she worked with would write down their final messages to each other, put them in a coffee can and burn them so those words would never be spoken again.

Jackson had moved on. The team had moved on. It was time.

In recent correspondence, Jackson politely declined to revisit the ending of the Bulls dynasty. The 1998 Bulls had become a family, he explained, and he would like to remember them as they were, without assigning blame for their breakup or playing out hypotheticals.

But it’s impossible not to wonder: Did it really have to be the last dance?

REINSDORF KNOWS THE question is coming. By now, he can sense when someone is going to ask him why the Bulls broke up or if he wishes he had done something different to stop it.

He has watched each episode of “The Last Dance” at least twice, wondering if something would reveal itself in retrospect.

But he always ends up back at the same place.

“The thing nobody wants to remember,” Reinsdorf said, “during lockout, Michael was screwing around with a cigar cutter, and he cut his finger. He couldn’t have played that year. He had to have surgery on the finger, so even if we could’ve brought everybody back, it wouldn’t have made any sense.”

Jordan contends that he wouldn’t have been messing around with the cigar cutter (at a golf tournament in January) if Reinsdorf had already secured a commitment from Jackson to come back.

But even so, Reinsdorf doesn’t think it would have made much difference.

“The fact is, it’s pretty obvious in 1998 that Michael carried this team,” he said. “These guys were gassed. He could not have come back because of the cut finger. But even if he could’ve come back, the other players [Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Jud Buechler, Dennis Rodman] were going to get offers that were way in excess of what they were worth.

“I know in Episode 10, [Jordan] says, ‘They all would’ve come back for one year.’ But there’s not a chance in the world that Scottie Pippen would’ve come back on a one-year contract when he knew he could get a much bigger contract someplace else.”

Pippen ended up getting a five-year, $67.2 million offer from the Houston Rockets in January 1999 (consummated by a sign-and-trade with the Bulls).

Theoretically, the Bulls could have retained Pippen and their other free agents, as the NBA didn’t have a punitive luxury tax at the time. But Reinsdorf and Krause felt matching that contract for Pippen was simply out of the question for a player who already had suffered several major injuries during his time with the Bulls, and for a team that already had the highest payroll in the league, at $61.6 million, in 1998, when the salary cap was just $26.9 million.

Those are the factual reasons Reinsdorf felt, and still feels, like keeping that Bulls team together for another season was impossible.

But just as important, if not more so, are the spiritual reasons.

More than once, Reinsdorf said he went to Jackson and Krause and tried to get them to mend the rift that had developed between them and spread viciously throughout the team.

“I would tell Jerry, ‘Get over it, get over it already.'” Reinsdorf said. “But Jerry was a lover scorned. He was so proud of the fact that he had found Phil [in the Continental Basketball Association] and he turned out to be a brilliant coach. Then when he felt that Phil turned on him, he was not going to like Phil again.”

How had Jackson turned on Krause?

“He thought that Phil could’ve stopped Michael and Scottie from being so adversarial,” Reinsdorf said. “Phil could’ve stepped in, he could’ve stopped it, and it really bothered Jerry.”

Of course, Krause could have mended fences with Jordan and Pippen on his own. Or simply made an effort not to antagonize the situation by publicly acknowledging trade conversations involving Pippen and giving hostile comments about Jackson or the infamous “organizations win championships” line.

“When he made that comment, ‘Phil goes 82-0, he’s not coming back,'” Reinsdorf said he admonished Krause. “I told him that was ridiculous, he had no business saying it. He realized it. But he couldn’t walk it back.”

More like “wouldn’t” walk it back.

“I didn’t choose anybody,” Reinsdorf said. “I went to Phil and said, ‘This is a mismatch, you against Krause. Why don’t you back off? Why don’t you get the players to back off?’

“I told Krause, ‘Take Phil for what he is. We’re winning. We’re winning, so forget about it; the important thing is the winning. You don’t have to like each other.’

“I didn’t get through to either of them.”

That choice — not to make a choice between Krause and Jackson — is perhaps the only thing that could have changed the course of history, because the two men never reconciled.

“Years later, when Phil was coaching the Lakers and they were coming to Phoenix, I’d have lunch with him,” Reinsdorf said. “At one of those lunches, he said, ‘I’d really like to bury the hatchet with Jerry,’ and he asked me to be the middleman.”

Reinsdorf reached out to Krause, and, “Jerry said, no, he wouldn’t do it.”

IT IS STILL hard for everyone involved to digest why things ended as they did. But it usually goes that way when a good thing ends.

Only a few teams in NBA history have been able to weather the sustained pressure and intensity of consecutive championship runs, let alone the modern complication of the luxury tax, which was designed to level the playing field and break superteams apart.

The Golden State Warriors petered out after five straight trips to the NBA Finals, collapsing from a series of devastating injuries and collective exhaustion.

Jackson’s Lakers lost in five games to the Detroit Pistons in 2004 as they went for a fourth title in five years, and Los Angeles was swept in the conference semifinals by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 as it went for a three-peat.

The 2010s Miami Heat featuring Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh broke up after winning “not five, not six, not seven” titles, as James had hoped, but just two in four years.

Perhaps Jackson was right when he turned down Reinsdorf’s offer of another last dance, saying, “It’s time.”

In his book “Eleven Rings,” Jackson wrote simply, “I took comfort in the knowledge that letting go is a necessary, if sometimes heart-wrenching, gateway to genuine transformation.”

Reinsdorf still wishes the Bulls could have gone for one more title, but he said he also is now at peace with how things ended. As he has watched and relived the glory years of the Bulls dynasty throughout the 10-episode series, the resounding emotion he has felt is appreciation, not regret.

“Can there be any doubt that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time?” he said. “I mean, I don’t want to hear anybody ever again ask about Michael versus LeBron.

“There has never ever been anybody even close to Michael Jordan.”

MORE: How five weeks of ‘The Last Dance’ changed the way we think of Michael Jordan

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The immensity of MLB’s plan to return through a daunting health-and-safety protocol

    ESPN MLB insider
    Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

What’s most striking about Major League Baseball’s 67-page health-and-safety protocol outlining an attempt to return amid the coronavirus pandemic isn’t its little, snicker-worthy details — that players won’t be able to take Ubers and can’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder for the national anthem and, gulp, will be discouraged from postgame showers. It isn’t the granularity of the plan, all the way down to the color-coded diagrams showing exactly where personnel should stand and sit in the dugout.

It’s the immensity of it all, the right-there-on-paper, brass-tacks accounting of what it looks like to bring back a professional sport in the middle of a global pandemic. It is a logistical clamber, a moonshot requiring the buy-in of parties with multivariate endgames. Over the next four weeks, or six weeks, or however long MLB and the MLB Players Association remain committed to making a 2020 season happen, they will be forced to reckon with the same reality upending the rest of the world: that change, no matter how colossal — and uncomfortable — is necessary.

And make no mistake: The change in this proposal is, like its word count and ambition, Brobdingnagian. This is baseball like we’ve never seen. This, or some bargained evolution of it, is what it takes to have a chance at garnering the support of the broad coalition necessary for any sport to return: the backing of federal, state and local governments; the rubber stamp of local health officials; the buy-in of fans; and the collaboration of players.

Those players will get their say first after receiving the memo, which was obtained by ESPN, on Friday night. They will dive into its minutiae, consider its offerings and determine its palatability. They will do what all of us do now every day: measure what once was and what undeniably is.

The scale that weighs practical and achievable, realistic and optimistic, is hopelessly out of balance, complicating further what’s already a mind-bending matter. For baseball to come back as COVID-19 scrambles the world will take a cocktail of risk, cunning and hubris that, when compounded, could be Molotovin.

It’s not impossible, not by any means. It’s not, as the protocol illustrates, going to be easy, either.

Here is what a day in the life of a baseball player could look like in 2020.

Wake up. Grab the thermometer issued to every player in MLB and take your temperature. Just make sure to do it before eating, drinking or exercising. Then take it again. If it’s over 100 degrees, self-isolate, call the team physician and get ready to take a rapid-response COVID-19 test.

If not, you can go to the stadium. If you’re on the road, it can be on any of the six bus trips to the ballpark instead of the typical early-or-late options. Don’t forget to open the windows. If you’re at home, go to the entrance that can be used only by 101 specifically designated people. Put on a mask. Walk into the stadium. Maybe even be in uniform already. Get your temperature taken again. If it’s still below 100, you’re allowed in the restricted areas: the field, the training room, the weight room, the clubhouse. Or perhaps the auxiliary clubhouse, because social distancing is important, and 6 feet will separate lockers, and locker rooms just aren’t big enough to handle that many people and that much space between them, so the team needs to build another.

Might be your day for a coronavirus test, since there will be a few a week, so get that saliva ready. Also could be the monthly blood test for coronavirus antibodies. Since you can’t use hot tubs, cold tubs, saunas, steam rooms or cryotherapy, there’s no excuse not to get to the 4:30 hitters’ meeting on time. Just check whether it’s on the iPad or outside. Indoor, in-person meetings don’t exist anymore.

At least you can take off the mask on the field. You’ll be out there plenty. It may look a little odd. No water or sports-drink jugs in the dugout. No sunflower seeds or dip. Remember? You can’t spit. Or high-five. Or dap. Or hug.

It’s game time. There’s no lineup card exchange. They were sent via app. The manager is standing along the railing. He’s not allowed to be on the steps. Other coaches are spread out — 6 feet from one another, of course. The rest of the bench is sparsely populated. Only players likely to enter the game can be in the dugout. The rest are in the stands. The closest you can sit to anyone is with four empty seats between you and two empty rows behind you.

When the pitcher needs some grip, he’d better not lick his fingers. He has a personal rosin bag for that. The hitter who needs some tack has his own pine tar rag, too. When a hitter whacks a single to left field and gets on first base, he should skip the small talk. Socializing and fraternizing are forbidden before, during and after the game. Same with fighting. So don’t be too nice to opponents, but don’t be too mean, either.

Oh, and that ball that went into left. Get rid of it. If it’s in play and touched by multiple players, it’s no longer good. Because cleanliness is paramount. If you’re playing, you’re supposed to wash your hands or sanitize them every half-inning. Bullpen phone gets used? Disinfect it. Dugout phone rings? Disinfect it.

The game ends. There’s no buffet, so the clubhouse attendant grabs you a pre-packaged meal. Don’t bother with a cash tip. They take Venmo and PayPal, thanks. Want to eat with teammates? Social-distancing rules still apply. You could wait until you get back to the hotel and hit the private dining area or order room service. Don’t even think of going out to dinner. You’re not allowed to leave the hotel without approval — period. So go back to your room, which looks the same as it did when you left — housekeeping isn’t allowed to enter — and call it a day.

Every edict in the last eight paragraphs is explicitly detailed in MLB’s protocol document. It essentially rewrites the laws of baseball to exist during the coronavirus. Nothing in the memo is entirely unacceptable — fine, the no-shower thing is pretty gross — and nobody ever will mistake playing baseball for working in a grocery store or on the front lines of containment efforts or stepping into a nursing home.

That didn’t lessen the visceral reaction the document prompted Saturday. The week had been defined by a fight about money. The owners say they will lose it if they play games at home stadiums in front of no fans, and the players say they want the prorated salaries they believe a late-March agreement guarantees them, and figuring out how to split up billions of dollars was supposed to be the difficult part.

After looking at bullet points from the document, one player asked, “Are we really going to be in spring training June 10?” Which was a fair question because a little more than three weeks separate baseball from that day, and team officials themselves were skeptical about their ability to execute the plans between now and then.

At the same time, the parties begrudgingly admitted that a document of such thoroughness is crucial to the game’s return. It is, above all, a nod to public health officials, who do not have the same incentive as politicians to reopen baseball. Their lone charge is to keep citizens safe, and if baseball’s return endangers that — or merely threatens to — it is far easier to say no and never know whether it would than say yes and learn the hard way that it did.

The details, then, matter, and they are accordingly pedantic. Employees are split into three groups. Tier 1 comprises on-field personnel: up to 50 players, a manager, eight coaches, two bullpen catchers, two athletic trainers, two physicians and one strength and conditioning coach. The team can designate as many as 35 people in Tier 2, a grab bag of baseball operations sorts deemed essential. These 101 people are the only ones in every organization allowed to travel. That’s upward of 3,000 people being tested a week at SMRTL, a Utah drug-testing lab that baseball paid to be converted into a COVID-testing facility. Among those individuals and their family members, SMRTL may process 10,000 tests a week and another untold number for local healthcare workers in each of MLB’s 26 metropolitan areas, whom the league pledged to test for free in its protocol.

Testing would start before spring training with an intake screening. At any point in the season, a positive test would prompt a quarantine of at least seven days — a period with which commissioner Rob Manfred declared himself comfortable to CNN but is half the length of the typically accepted 14 days. The team and local health officials would start contact-tracing efforts and rapid-test those who had been near the infected person. To return, a player would require two negative coronavirus tests, zero symptoms and the consent of team medical personnel.

Plans of action make up most of the protocol. There is one on how to handle symptomatic individuals and another outlining the emergency action plan each team must submit in case a COVID-positive individual shows up to a stadium. There are specifics on testing family members and endeavoring to protect any so-called high-risk individuals, whose age and medical history leave them more susceptible to COVID complications. There are details of Draconian measures for isolating road teams.

“MLB will not formally restrict the activities of Covered Individuals when they are away from work,” the protocol said, “but will expect the members of each team to ensure that they all act responsibly. The careless actions of a single member of the team places the entire team [and their families] at risk, and teams should agree on their own off-field code of conduct for themselves and their family members to minimize the risk to the team.”

In other words, don’t go to a crowded bar. Or act nonchalant about personal hygiene. Be responsible, disciplined — as safe as safe can get when you’re taking flights and gathering large groups of people and engaging in behavior that, compared to the homebound existence most players are living today, brings an element of risk.

The teams, the document says without saying, will hold up their ends of the bargain. Can the players?

For much of Saturday, the rhetoric among the MLBPA rank-and-file registered as a mélange of intrigue, confusion and realism. Players who had communicated with some of the highest-ranking player officials at the union came into the weekend expecting the sorts of rules MLB suggested but still reeled at reading them in print and hearing them spoken aloud.

The shower decree fired up a number of players. Its language — “Showering in Club facilities should be discouraged” — certainly could be softened as the MLBPA and team executives begin to give feedback to the league in the coming days. And one leader, in a conversation with ESPN, made reference to the 2016 labor deal in which some players believe the union prioritized creature comforts, including extra seating on spring-training buses, over economics: “I really hope no showers doesn’t become the new second seat on the bus.”

There are countless ways for the 2020 season to go sideways, and while the players arguing in favor of personal hygiene does not seem to be one of them, the coming week could bring essential discussion about the protocol and the answers it’s missing.

Like, what happens if a player tests positive on the road? The protocol leaves it up to teams and their emergency action plans, but as one general manager said Saturday: “Do I put him on a plane? Do I drive to get him myself? I’d rather have a detailed answer for that question than some of the things [MLB] focused on.”

Or: Can teams really overhaul their stadiums by adding extra rooms for overflow personnel within weeks?

And: The protocol grants high-risk individuals the option to not play or work this season. What about non-high-risk personnel? Does their exclusion in the document mean the league would consider them obligated to play — or at least to play if they want to get paid?

Plus: Just because some personnel deemed Tier 3 — cleaning crews, groundskeepers — don’t come into contact with players, does that preclude them from undergoing testing similar to Tiers 1 and 2? Because as the protocol stands, they would not undergo the same level of testing.

Quite popular among the players was: Will MLB really enforce this? It’s a question with deeper implications. Clearly the league did not mail in the protocol. Though its thoroughness gave some a feeling of sophistry, the document laid out a relatively elaborate plan. If a player fist-bumps a teammate, will he be fined? Further, while the protocol says, “MLB will strictly enforce compliance” using “monitoring,” “audits” and “monthly certification,” it does not list penalties for teams running afoul of the rules.

It gets back to that tenuous balance among practical and achievable, realistic and optimistic. What’s reasonable? What’s right? How much leeway is there actually? Is any leeway too much?

If all of this serves as a shock to the system of these negotiations, that may not be the worst thing. The ugliness of the first week is done, and by now the league and players should recognize that a season dies without action. As much as the protocol resembles baseball dystopia — the diagrams illustrating where to position oneself in the dugout and stands brought a dose of this-really-is-real to the proceedings — the sides ultimately are aligned on the broad strokes of health and safety.

No one on either side wants a baseball player or coach or manager to test positive for COVID-19. But it’s almost certainly going to happen, and when it does, there needs to be confidence in the system. There are plenty of words devoted to the three phases of spring training and how baseball is going to start. There is not one about what happens in the event of a COVID outbreak inside of a clubhouse and how MLB will handle it.

What the protocol offers, as much as anything, is a simulacrum of America. Across the country, as reopenings start and stop and stall, public officials are walking this very same tightrope, where language, intent and policy attempt to intersect in harmonious fashion. The skepticism inside the game about MLB’s plan is scarcely different than those who have turned a pandemic into a referendum.

It’s not quite as binary in baseball, though. Were it a simple choice — my side vs. your side — there would never be labor peace. But both also have a future together to consider — a future that looks markedly worse without baseball in 2020. Which makes the protocol, for whatever flaws and foibles it may have, a consequential document.

Because if there is baseball this year — if the money is a blip and the protocol a step forward and the showers a-flowin’ — those who made it happen will have earned it.

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Too young to know the GOAT: How today’s NBA players learned to love Jordan

    Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.

    Follow him on Twitter »  Ohm’s chat archive »

MICHAEL JORDAN WAS walking back to his chair in the Washington Wizards locker room when assistant coach Patrick Ewing introduced him to a new fan.

It was March 1, 2003, and 6-year-old Jalen Brunson was in town with his father, Rick, who was playing for the Chicago Bulls. Jalen, who collected NBA jerseys at every arena, was proudly wearing his new, white Wizards No. 23 when the legend himself asked the kid if he wanted it autographed.

“No,” Jalen replied. “You’ll mess it up.”

As the Wizards players erupted with laughter, Ewing marched out of the locker room and yelled down the hall to Rick, his former New York Knicks teammate, about what had just happened. The most unstoppable player of that generation — and perhaps any — had been soundly rejected by a first-grader.

This season, 14 NBA players on opening-night rosters were born after Jan. 1, 2000. As Jordan’s six championships with the Bulls become more of a distant memory, the next generation’s exposure to him has almost been exclusively through grainy video on the internet or classic games aired on TV.

ESPN’s documentary “The Last Dance” is providing a comprehensive look at a man considered by many to be the greatest ever, the player every kid wanted an autograph from — except maybe one.

“He didn’t know the magnitude of who he was talking to,” Rick Brunson said of his son, who is now a point guard for the Dallas Mavericks. “He was like, ‘Nah, you can’t sign this.’

“Basically, he looked at [Jordan] like, ‘Who the f— are you?'”

MORE: “The Last Dance” updates

ON THE WEDNESDAY before the first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” Jalen Brunson came across a trailer for the documentary that led him down a Jordan rabbit hole.

Soon, the 23-year-old guard was on YouTube, watching a 12-minute video of Jordan, wearing No. 45, dropping 55 on the Knicks in just the fifth game of his comeback in March 1995.

Afterward, Brunson called his dad with a burning question.

“Why they got John Starks guarding him?” he asked.

Rick Brunson, a 10-year NBA veteran, got a good chuckle and had to explain to his son — who was born in 1996, the year before Starks won the Sixth Man Award — that the former Knicks guard had been a second-team All-NBA defender.

“I said, ‘Listen, man, John Starks guarded all the best players,'” said Rick, who coached Camden High School in New Jersey last season. “And John would lock people up. He just couldn’t lock this guy up. Jalen said, ‘[Jordan] just makes it look so easy.’ I said, ‘He shot 50% from the floor. Fifty!'”

Jalen Brunson is one of many players today who have heard an older friend, family member or high school coach wax poetic about “the flu game” or the six championships without facing an NBA Finals Game 7.

Inevitably, these players often turn to the internet as their Jordan encyclopedia.

“All I know about Michael Jordan is through YouTube videos and the stories from old heads,” said former Vanderbilt star Aaron Nesmith, who was born in 1999 and is projected as a top-15 pick in the 2020 NBA draft. “I was actually arguing with my high school coach the other day [over] why Michael Jordan is the GOAT.

“For my generation, LeBron [James] is the GOAT. And he was arguing that Michael Jordan is the clear-cut GOAT — there is no ifs, ands or buts.”

YouTube has not only informed a new generation about Jordan, it’s also serving as an educational tool for some developing prospects.

Nesmith said he was in awe of how Jordan effortlessly found holes in the Portland Trail Blazers’ defense and elevated on his pull-up jumpers. “He rose up over the defender and killed them,” Nesmith said after his high school coach told him to watch Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals.

For a generation accustomed to watching basketball in crystal-clear high definition, adjusting their eyes to fuzzy and distorted Jordan highlights is like their parents watching black-and-white footage of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell.

“They’re not HD, sometimes you can’t really see what’s going on. It’s not good picture,” Nesmith said. “So you’re like, ‘Eh, I’ll just flip to something else.'”

For some, seeing final scores in the low 80s or the Detroit Pistons repeatedly grabbing and decking Jordan might feel like prehistoric basketball.

“The one thing I do see a lot, I see that game winner he hit at UNC,” said Cole Anthony, a 19-year-old North Carolina point guard who is projected as a top-15 prospect in the upcoming NBA draft. “I don’t [normally] look at things like this, [but] I’m looking at the court and there’s no 3-point line.

“I’m looking at that and I’m like, ‘Man, that had to be a while ago.'”

THIRTY YEARS AFTER Jordan celebrated his game winner over Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of a first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyle Guy jumped as high as he could while pumping his fist as the final seconds ticked off in Virginia’s national championship win over Texas Tech.

It was a celebration the 2019 Final Four Most Outstanding Player had seen a hundred times, even in his sleep. When Guy was 6, he received a “Michael Jordan to the Max” documentary DVD that he wore out.

“I used to have to always fall asleep with something on,” said Guy, now a Sacramento Kings rookie. “So that was usually a go-to.”

During his senior year at Lawrence Central High School in Indiana, Guy used his two study hall periods a day to dissect clips of Jordan, paying close attention to Jordan’s game winners and patented fadeaway.

“I definitely learned [the post-up fadeaway] from Mike,” said Guy, who was born in 1997, just a few months before Jordan began his final season with the Bulls.

“I still work on it in my workouts,” the 6-foot-3 guard added. “I just don’t get to use it very often because everyone is bigger than me.”

Onyeka Okongwu, who left USC after one season and is projected as a top-10 prospect in the draft, remembers not appreciating Jordan’s talents — until Okongwu was older and more skilled at basketball. Like many young players, Okongwu’s first choice as GOAT is LeBron James.

“When I was about 8 years old, I am watching LeBron play on TV at my friend’s house, and I was like, ‘Wow, LeBron is the best player ever,'” Okongwu said. “And my friend’s dad was like, ‘You must not have seen Michael Jordan.’

“I’m like, ‘Who’s Michael Jordan?'”

Okongwu was instructed to look up the Bulls legend online.

“I was initially like, ‘That’s not better than LeBron,'” said Okongwu, who was born in 2000. “As I got older, I realized back then the NBA was tougher, more physical, a lot of fights were going around. There’s handchecking and he was still doing the same thing.

“I was like, ‘Wow, Michael Jordan is really elite.'”

One thing these younger NBA players — and those on the verge of entering the league — agree on is that it’s nearly impossible to be a hardcore basketball player and not know anything about Jordan.

“Any kid coming up through high school, they’re going to have to watch Michael Jordan clips if they’re serious about basketball,” Nesmith said. “And I think that is not going to fade for generations.”

WHEN DEVONTE’ GRAHAM’s draft rights were acquired by the Charlotte Hornets in 2018, it wasn’t a question of whether the kid from Raleigh, North Carolina, knew of the Bulls legend, it was the realization that he now answered to him.

“One of my friends was like, ‘Yo, Michael Jordan is your owner,'” said Graham, who grew up hearing tales of the state’s greatest basketball product.

“We started celebrating that even more than me getting drafted.”

On one of his first days in the Hornets facility, the rookie nearly froze when he ran into Jordan, who bought controlling interest in the Charlotte franchise in 2010.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, s—,'” Graham said. “[Jordan] said my name and shook my hand. He said, ‘What’s up?’ He told me to cut my hair.

“I was hyped. I was real starstruck.”

That awe formally collided with his occupation the next year, seven games into the 2019-20 season. The Hornets were taking on the Indiana Pacers at home. Late in the game, Graham had an opportunity to take his defender one-on-one but passed, resulting in an empty possession. Jordan, sitting near the Charlotte bench, pulled Graham to the side during a break.

“He told me, ‘Hey, don’t pass the ball,'” Graham said. “‘At the end of the shot clock, you got the ball in your hands, you got to make the play.'”

The second-year guard scored the final seven points for Charlotte to claim 35 points and six assists in an overtime win.

“That right there really inspired me,” Graham said. “If he believes in me like that, I have to have that same energy for myself.”

ONE OF THE first memories of Jordan that comes to mind for Cole Anthony is from the third grade, when someone told him that his father and Jordan nearly fought.

Cole was only 3 when Jordan retired for good as a member of the Wizards. So he never got to watch his father, 11-year NBA veteran Greg Anthony, play in one of the many Bulls-Knicks rivalry games as a New York point guard during the ’90s. And unlike the Brunsons, Greg and Cole Anthony did not often talk about Jordan.

“Really? My dad?” Cole asked at the time, incredulous when told his father got into a scuffle with Jordan. “Word?”

Anthony immediately went to YouTube and soon discovered what many young basketball players have unearthed by typing “Michael Jordan” into a search bar.

“I mean, the moral of the story is: He was busting my dad’s ass,” Anthony said.

“It was a lot of Jordan kind of busting the Knicks’ ass. … Excuse my French.”

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Why virtual reality is still a pipe dream for the NHL

    Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis believes sports are a “communal resource.” Even as the coronavirus pandemic shutters arenas and postpones games and creates a murky uncertainty about the future of sports, Leonsis believes the community will have access to that resource again.

“I’m not buying, in any way, that we won’t be able to eat in restaurants before a game at Capital One Arena and all be together,” he said recently, during a web chat with The Economic Club of Washington. “It’s just a matter of what time frame that has to happen in.”

Until it happens, Leonsis suggested an alternative means for fans who aren’t in the arena to experience the game: “Maybe it’s through virtual reality.”

Virtual reality and the NHL are like that couple that talks about engagement for a decade but never gets around to ring shopping. I remember back in 2015 when the league tested a 360-degree virtual reality experience at its Stadium Series game between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings at Levi’s Stadium. Cameras were mounted on the glass, filming HD images. The results were encouraging, providing a panoramic view of some recorded on-ice action. One test even allowed fans to go from watching a play in the stands to floating above the goalie and the goal line. It was pretty cool.

The expectations coming out of that experiment were nothing short of VR eventually changing the way fans watch the game, perhaps even solving the most vexing riddle for the NHL on television: How to transfer the unparalleled joys of watching hockey in an arena to someone’s rec room. With VR, it’s not only about capturing the speed and scope of live hockey, but also recreating that personal experience for the fan.

“There’s going to be a technology soon where you’re going to be sitting at home and pick where you want to watch the game. You could be sitting at home and still watch it from your seat,” said John Collins, then the league’s COO, at the time. “That was the thing that was pretty cool about it: It was a live experience.”

That was five years ago.

Surely, virtual reality is ready to bridge the fan experience from the couch to the arena during a global pandemic, right?

“So many people have thrown that out there,” San Jose Sharks president Jonathan Becher told me last month. “I’m sorry to say it, but the tech’s not there.”

Sigh.

This has been the story of VR for my entire life: The virtual promise, followed by the underwhelming reality.

It was the story when I wore clunky headsets at Six Flags during the summer, spending $5 to “ride” a virtual coaster. It was the story when 1990s movies like “Hackers” and “Disclosure” ineptly incorporated VR into their plots — remember a digitized Michael Douglas looking for a file in a virtual palace, and it taking about 25 times longer than using a laptop? It was the story with Nintendo’s “Virtual Boy.” It was the story with Batman: Arkham VR.

It was the story when we asked if VR was a bust in 2016 and when it was a “promise unfulfilled” in 2019 and in The New York Times this week, when author Kevin Roose lamented that “every time, I’ve found myself excited by the promise of futuristic VR and disappointed by the inevitable letdown of experiencing the actual limited systems” –before extolling the potential of the next generation of VR hardware.

Roose’s story asks why, in this time of social distancing, VR hasn’t had its moment. Sales of Oculus Quest and PlayStation VR have been brisk, as their limited quantities were snatched up. But as an immersive alternative to … well, “life as we knew it,” there’s no strapping on a headset and feeling like you’re at the Winter Classic.

Which has to be frustrating for the NHL. VR demos have made more appearances at the All-Star Game in the past five years than Alex Ovechkin has. As the league contemplates how to turn empty arena games into must-see television spectacles, virtually transporting fans into those barren stands to watch playoff action would have been a game-changer. Especially when we’re not sure if fans will be back in arenas for the start of the 2020-21 season, either.

“It’s great in theory, focusing in on the social aspect — that you can be watching with your dad or a friend, virtually next to each other,” a source that’s worked on the NHL’s VR ventures told me last week. “But unless the camera tech and compression technology gets better, it would be a very hard lift to have VR be the primary broadcast.”

Problem No. 1: The current VR cameras do not zoom, making a live stream of games a staid experience. Problem No. 2: Stitching together multiple camera feeds in real time — or even a day later — would be a significant task. That’s to say nothing of the file sizes for VR, which are still elephantine, especially since the tech involves an array of HD cameras rather than just one.

“Over time, it may become a reality,” said the source, “but it’s certainly no short-term solution.”

Oh well. Maybe next pandemic.

Jersey Fouls

Some preemptive measures for the eventual return to arenas:

Look, after waiting an hour to enter the building through one designated entrance, getting a temperature check, making our way to our socially distanced seat and cheering for our favorite team through a mask … if we see you skipping around the concourse in a COVID-19 Jersey Foul, I can assure you that you will not leave the arena wearing that jersey.

Top three jerseys I want back in the NHL

The Colorado Avalanche are reportedly ready to bring back the Quebec Nordiques’ classic sweaters to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s relocation. And really, what better way to celebrate than to remind an entire swath of a province of that time a perennial loser abandoned them right before a run of 10 straight playoff appearances and two Stanley Cup championships?

But that got us thinking about other out-of-circulation jerseys we’d like to see make their comebacks in the NHL:

1. New York Rangers: “Liberty Head”

As an Original Six team, I’ve always believed the Rangers were better than their diagonal text sweaters, which look like a temporary jersey they wore until the actual logo was finished. The “Liberty Head” arrived in 1996 and was worn on and off through 2007.

It’s basically perfect, from the gorgeous dark blue to the aggressive spikes on the crown of New York’s most iconic woman outside of Cardi B. It’s big. It’s bold. It’s befitting a team from Manhattan. Sure, it’s a jersey most closely associated with a period of post-Cup failure and big-budget flops, but what’s New York City if not a place for second acts?

2. Buffalo Sabres: “Buffaslug”

As long as we’re taking sweaters out of mothballs for anniversaries, 2021 marks the 15th anniversary of the infamous “Buffaslug,” on which the Sabres poured salt in 2010. You remember all the detractors: It’s an “angry cashew” or “terrible hairpiece” or “embarrassing, even for Buffalo.” Has time treated them better? Well, they’re clearly not the worst Sabres sweaters of the past 20 years, thanks to that truly terrible 2013 golden alternate jersey. Maybe bring it back for just one night, to see what Jack Eichel looks like in one?

(For what it’s worth, the “Slug” has been in the news lately. Please recall it was originally inspired by the San Diego Chargers’ logo. The Chargers’ flattened new logo, and the L.A. Rams’ new look have gotten “Buffaslug” comparisons.)

3. Edmonton Oilers: McFarlane Jerseys

I once asked comics artist Todd McFarlane about the backlash to these jerseys, which he designed and the team wore from 2001 to ’07 — and he said he wasn’t aware of any. “If somebody doesn’t like something, I don’t get hung up on it, because we don’t live in a penal colony,” he said.

His goal was to create a homage to the Oilers while also making it look cool enough for people outside of Edmonton to buy it, mostly by not putting “Edmonton” or “Oilers” on the logo. (This was his rationale, not mine.)

I loved these jerseys, even if the logo looks like a loogie hocked by Doctor Doom. I think they’d sell more than a few of them with “McDavid 97” on the back. Or maybe I’m just a big fan of Image Comics and still play with my McFarlane Toys. One of the two.

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We could have talked to Kevin Bieksa for 10 hours on the podcast this week. Great stories and observations, from the Sedins to the 2011 Cup Final to TikTok stardom. Plus, AHL president Dave Andrews joined us to discuss the league’s canceled season. We also talk NHL season restart and more. Listen, subscribe and review here!

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Dave Andrews

Andrews has served his league, and this sport, for 26 years as AHL president. He’s stepping down in June, with Scott Howson taking over. It’s such a bummer that he won’t hand out the Calder Cup at the end of his last season, but he’s working hard behind the scenes to make sure the AHL is set up well for a return to the ice in 2020-21. One of the most well-regarded executives in the game, and for good reason. Godspeed.

Loser: “Hockey culture”

Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull lamented that “the fun is gone” in a discussion with Sportsnet’s “Hockey Central” on Friday about Brendan Leipsic’s sexist and misogynistic comments in a leaked group chat that got him released by the Washington Capitals.

“We did the same things, we said the same things, but there was no way to get caught. We can go out after games, we can go to strip clubs, we can go to bars, and we could do whatever we wanted, and it would all be hearsay. There’s no hearsay anymore. It’ll be on an iPhone,” he said.

For the record, Hull called Leipsic and his cohorts “idiots that should have known better, because that can happen.” So there’s that. He also lamented that pro athletes can’t go out after games in the same manner they used to because of the pervasive nature of modern technology, social media and invasive fans. That’s fair. But Hull then created a false dichotomy, which is that players bring their Xboxes on the road because they can’t go out anymore. “It’s so sad, but it’s the nature of the game: Do you want to go out with everyone’s cellphone on you, or do you want to make sure you don’t get in trouble?” he said.

How about this: Guys in their 20s bond over video games and can also leave for some velvet-roped-off bar if they so desire. Crazy, right?

But the biggest problem with Hull’s comments were the ultimate context, which is that “the fun is gone” because you never know when “the fun” might leak into public discourse. Look, if “the fun” is sexist or misogynistic or homophobic, and that gets out, the players not only have to answer for it but could lose their spots because if it. That’s not how it was with “the fun” back in Hull’s day, but thankfully this antiseptic sunshine lighting up the toxic sludge of hockey culture will eventually make the sport “fun” for more people, from a variety of demographics, who don’t find any of this stuff “fun” but more causes for why the sport seems repellant to them.

Winner: Washington Capitals

The swiftness of their rebuke of Leipsic’s leaked Instagram messages was commendable, as was their decision to release him. Rather than praise the move, many questioned whether they would have done the same for a better player. It’s a worthy hypothetical, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are more grunts like Leipsic on rosters and in the minors than stars like Alex Ovechkin, and this example serves all of them notice to be better.

Loser: The “good old days”

Globe & Mail columnist Cathal Kelly’s piece on the Leipsic situation traffics in the worst kind of “Canadian exceptionalism” stereotypes.

It’s an impressive feat to cram explanations for hockey’s growth, demographic, marketing, personality and cultural problems into one paragraph, and then summarily ignore their consequences.

Winner: Blackhawks and Rangers

The NHL is currently focused on a 24-team playoff in a season restart, which would expand the postseason to include the Rangers (.564 points percentage) and Blackhawks (.514) and their nationwide fan bases that would have nothing else better to do than watch them compete in the NHL postseason. Unless, of course, the NHL does something bonkers and adopts that “divisional” playoff format that’s been discussed, where the Sabres (.493) and Ducks (.472) are seeded in play-in series instead.

Loser: Minnesota Wild

According to Michael Russo of The Athletic, the NHL has informed the Minnesota Wild that there is likely “zero chance” that their top prospect Kirill Kaprizov will be permitted to make his NHL debut this summer if the 2019-20 season resumes. “But when the NHL suspended this season March 12, the league instructed teams that no contracts for draft picks or college, junior and European free agents could be signed with a start date of this current season” he wrote.

Why he can’t jump into an extended postseason and have a Cale Makar-like impact for Minnesota is just baffling.

Puck headlines

  • Sidney Crosby on a 24-team playoff: “I’d prefer that. There’s so many factors, right. The safety of players is No. 1, and if you’re able to establish that then you want to keep the integrity of what the playoffs have been for a long, long time. It’s difficult to win the Stanley Cup, and you want to win it the right way and that’s four best four-out-of-seven series, so that’s how we know it. In a time like this, we’re all open to ideas and formats and things like that, but you hope we can keep that.”

  • Pavel Datsyuk wants to keep playing. Alas, it appears that would be in the KHL.

  • Good chat with NHL content boss Steve Mayer, including whether we could see a documentary like “The Last Dance” on Alex Ovechkin in 20 years

  • What if the Philadelphia Flyers hadn’t cut ties with Eric Lindros after the 2000-01 season? “With Lindros back in the fold, instead of wasting away with Mark Messier and the Rangers, we could have a line of Lindros, Simon Gagne, and Mark Recchi. You could also put Jeremy Roenick or John LeClair with him as well. You would have one of the most dominant lines in hockey.”

  • The St. Louis Blues president and CEO of business operations thinks his city should be a hub arena for the restart. “There will be some [markets] that would be more difficult to play in based on the level of the virus. So yes, we have shown interest and have provided the league with different scenarios and insights around our buildings and how and why we think we’d be a fantastic hub city in the event that that happens.”

  • In case you missed it, this incendiary report by The Victory Press on the NWHL’s problems with facilities and general treatment of players burned up the web this week. “There was no bathroom. Once you had your skates and equipment on, you couldn’t access the lobby bathrooms. So a lot of players, including myself, we had to pee in a trashcan before practice, once you had your equipment on, because there was just no way you could get to a toilet.”

  • Switzerland has announced a 350 million Swiss franc ($362 million) rescue package for its professional soccer and ice hockey leagues, but insists the money should not be used to pay wages to high-earning players.

  • Can EA Sports’ NHL 20 increase your hockey IQ?

  • The first openly gay male hockey player believes that the NHL is hypocritical to condemn Brendan Leipsic without changing its culture. “It would be very easy to take a fringe player, cancel him, and then go, ‘See, we don’t tolerate that,’ and then not do any of the work to actually evolve the culture and educate players at the NHL level and grassroots up to actually shift it so players aren’t using these words in conversations amongst each other, in locker rooms, in group chats, or anywhere.”

Hockey tl;dr

  • Diving face-first into the mystery of Jamie Benn, the Stars’ unknowable captain.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

  • Chris Peters’s ranking of the top 100 draft prospects, and there’s actually a goalie who could go in the top 10!

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Michael Jordan also dominated the NBA on defense

  • Award-winning columnist and author
  • Recipient of Basketball Hall of Fame Curt Gowdy Media Award
  • Joined ESPNBoston.com in 2010

IF THERE’S ONE thing that “The Last Dance” has demonstrated, it’s that Michael Jordan was nearly impossible to guard. But nearly as impossible was trying to score when Jordan was guarding you.

“He’s the best superstar defender in the history of the game,” LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers says. As a player, Rivers often experienced the misfortune of trying to bring the ball up the floor with Jordan tracking him end line to end line.

Usually, “imposing his will” referred to Jordan’s gravity-defying dunks or artistic layups in traffic. But it also applies to the countless times he jumped passing lanes, blocked shots of 7-footers or merely saddled up so far into the grill of perimeter shooters that they could literally smell his sweat. Jordan is the only player since 1973-74 (when steals and blocks were first recorded) to submit 200 steals and 100 blocks in two different seasons. Scottie Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only other players to reach that milestone once.

“In my mind, Michael was actually a defensive player who also happened to be an exceptionally talented offensive player,” says B.J. Armstrong, his former Bulls teammate. “In many ways, he knew the game on that side of the ball better. The way he moved, anticipated and invented ways to score based off what he saw on the defensive end … he never cheated the process.”

Jordan’s defensive acumen was apparent in real time; he was selected first team All-Defense on nine occasions, tied with Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant for most ever. And during the Bulls’ three-year title run featuring Jordan, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Chicago led the league in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Bulls were perpetually on a seek-and-destroy defensive mission, aiming not just to disrupt their opponents’ offensive sets but to ultimately leave them in disarray.

And no one relished that assignment more than Jordan.

“I’ve always thought players who talk trash defensively are far more devastating than the scorers who say stuff,” Rivers says. “Michael would say, ‘I know what you want to do, you’re not going right at all today.’ And for me, that was tough, because I was always going right.”

Jordan fastidiously studied the offensive sets of opponents and committed them to memory. He expected his teammates to do the same. Missing a shot was acceptable, but if you missed a defensive assignment, you would incur the wrath of His Airness.

“All anyone wants to talk about with the Bulls is the triangle. And that’s fine, I have nothing against that,” says Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who played against Jordan in the 1992 NBA Finals with the Portland Trail Blazers and again the following year with the Phoenix Suns. “But it was the defense that made Chicago special. We could not score against them in the last five minutes of Game 6 [in 1993].

“Charles Barkley was the MVP of the league that year and Michael just loved the challenge of shutting him down. It was personal. He was going to make sure that no one could ever think they were in his category. Not Charles, not Clyde [Drexler], not anyone.”

JORDAN DIDN’T MAKE his first All-Defense team until the 1987-88 season, his fourth year in the league. He led the league in steals and was 14th in blocks — the only guard in the top 40 that season.

“He got me a couple of times,” says former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing. “The thing about him and Scottie was they were big enough, strong enough and athletic enough to challenge a guy like me. Michael could take that initial bump. Most guys couldn’t or didn’t want to absorb the contact. He didn’t care.”

Jordan habitually was knocked to the floor by the team he loathed most, the Detroit Pistons, who punctured his title dreams for three consecutive seasons with a physical, defensive-oriented style. But in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, Jordan turned the tables on the Bad Boys.

In that series, Detroit averaged just 0.79 points per play with Jordan as the primary defender, and shot just 35%, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. Jordan relentlessly tracked guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, pickpocketing them in the backcourt or springing out of his low defensive stance with catlike quickness to flood their passing lanes.

“Michael had very quick hands,” Rivers says. “And he was very smart in how he used them. The more athletic and dominant you are, the less people give you credit for your intelligence. It’s funny, [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson], neither of them was a super athlete, so we gave them all this credit for their brains. Well, Michael was just as clever.

“That, combined with his athleticism, made him a suffocating defender. You’re bringing the ball up thinking, ‘Man, is this guy even going to let me get over half court?’ It was unbearable.”

In 1992, Ainge finished the season with Portland. Jordan was in town as a member of the Dream Team to play exhibition games in the Tournament of the Americas. The two hit the links for 36 holes the morning of Team USA’s first game against Cuba. When they were finished, Ainge hustled to drop the league MVP at the hotel so Jordan could quickly shower and join the Olympic team on the bus.

“I get to the game,” Ainge says, “and I’m beat. The sun was really hot that day. I’m sitting there watching Michael, and he was just unbelievable. He was picking up guys full court on every possession for the entire 30 minutes he played. I couldn’t believe how much energy he had.

“We played golf the next day, too, and I asked him, ‘Why were you playing so hard in an exhibition game?’ And he told me, ‘I don’t want anyone thinking they belong on the court with me.'”

IN HIS FINAL season with the Bulls, Jordan’s ability to alter a game defensively was still on display at 35 years old. He finished fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Dikembe Mutombo, Payton and David Robinson — 10 years after his first and only DPOY award.

Antoine Walker experienced his forcefulness on opening night of the 1997-98 season. The Celtics forward was en route to a 31-point night with Jason Caffey and Scott Burrell drawing the assignment for much of the game. An exasperated Jordan, who missed 16 of his 23 shots in that game, waved off his teammates and guarded Walker for the final minutes.

“He told me he was going to shut me down,” Walker says, “but it was too late. We won the game. We were celebrating in the hallway afterwards and Michael saw me. He said, ‘You’ll never beat us again.’

“And we didn’t.”

After sweeping the New Jersey Nets in the opening round of the 1998 playoffs, the Bulls beat Charlotte in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but Hornets coach Dave Cowens made an adjustment. Cowens knew the triangle provided Jordan and Pippen post-ups 6 to 7 feet from the basket, which both players favored, so he put bruising power forward Anthony Mason, his best post defender, on Jordan. This required Jordan to track Mason defensively in transition.

“Our rotations got so crazy that our guard, David Wesley, was guarding [7-foot center] Luc Longley under the basket — and they still wouldn’t throw him the ball,” Cowens says now.

The other adjustment the Hornets made was to position sharpshooters Glen Rice and Dell Curry on the same side of the floor offensively, so Pippen and Jordan would skew to that side to guard them. That left the Hornets the other half of the floor to run pick-and-roll without interference from the Bulls’ defensive stars. Charlotte stunned Chicago in Game 2, 78-76.

“Michael knew exactly what we were doing,” says Armstrong, who was a reserve on that Hornets team. “So when I checked in during Game 3, he immediately said, ‘I’ll take him.’ Now, I wasn’t one of our primary offensive threats, but Jordan understood we were trying to keep him away from the ball. What better way to keep track of the ball than guarding the guy with the ball?

“I’m pretty sure he made that adjustment himself. The guy’s attention to detail was impeccable. People were wondering, ‘Why is Jordan guarding the backup point guard on this team?’ Because those are the little differences between winning and losing.”

The Hornets didn’t win another game in the series.

The Bulls advanced to play the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, triggering sour memories for point guard Mark Jackson, who previously had battled Chicago while he was a member of the Knicks. Jackson warned his Pacers teammates about Jordan’s uncommon defensive resolve.

“You’d beat him with a move,” Jackson says, “and before you know it, he was right back there in front of you. His recovery skills were exceptional.”

The Bulls put Pippen on Jackson to prevent him from posting up. Jordan matched up with, among others, Reggie Miller, an assignment he once complained was like “chicken-fighting with a woman” because of Miller’s slender frame. Miller, a legendary trash-talker, objected, dishing barbs of his own.

“I think Reggie got under Michael’s skin,” Jackson says. “Reggie had great respect for Michael, but he wasn’t afraid. Michael’s saying, ‘I’m going to lock you up,’ but we countered with, ‘It’s not just you and Reggie. It’s you, Reggie and the 100 picks we’re going to set for him.'” Miller rejoiced when his famous “push-off” game-winning jumper over Jordan fell through in Game 4, but Jordan and the Bulls had the final say, holding Miller to just one shot in the fourth quarter of the series-deciding Game 7.

“Their defense,” Pacers coach Larry Bird said in the immediate aftermath of the loss, “is relentless.”

MICHAEL JORDAN HYPERBOLE is at an all-time high as “The Last Dance” nears its conclusion, and one favorite mantra is that No. 23 never took a play off on either end. Ainge says that’s not entirely accurate.

“When he was averaging 38 a game, and even later, when he ‘slowed down’ to 30 a game, Michael was still talented enough, savvy enough and prepared enough not to exert too much energy defensively,” Ainge says. “I liken it to a five-speed car. He could play in third gear and be better than most. And, when he shifted into that fifth gear, which he did at the end of games, he was Scottie-like.”

In June 1998, as Jordan’s career in Chicago dwindled to its final days, he challenged his teammates to close out their “last dance” by dominating the game on the defensive end. Chicago’s opponent, the Utah Jazz, led the NBA in offensive efficiency during the regular season (110.9 points per 100 possession), but was held to just 94.3 in those 1998 Finals. If you combine the 1997 and 1998 Finals, the Jazz failed to score 90 points in 11 of the 12 games they played.

Jordan ended his career with the Bulls in poetic fashion: nailing the game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the Finals, his shooting motion frozen in time. It’s an unforgettable image, but what people often fail to remember is how the Bulls first got possession.

Seconds earlier, John Stockton had dumped the ball into Karl Malone in the post. Rodman was denying him on the left side when Jordan burst from behind on the right, swatting the ball free and taking off up the court to make history — again.

That’s right. Jordan’s most iconic moment was the result of his defense.

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