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UPCOMING EVENTS

NBA’S Cruel Reality: A Shooting Trumps A Doncic Party

We have borrowed from Europe to make better automobiles, snazzier fashion and fruitier wine. So, we certainly can channel The Luka Doncic Experience to create a cooler NBA. His bullrush into the American sports consciousness has been as necessary as it is invigorating, allowing this distressed league to embrace an element — pause, cheer, revel — beyond an infectious disease and ongoing racial injustice horrors.

That element would be basketball. Remember the joy of ball?

It’s still difficult for LeBron James and the league’s players to embrace love for their game when hatred contaminates the world. In the country’s latest social fail, a 29-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back several times from point-blank range by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis., as Blake tried to enter his SUV in broad daylight with three of his children inside. Two NBA players, including playoff breakout star Donovan Mitchell, were so incensed by the shooting that they expressed regret the NBA relaunched its season in the Disney World Bubble.

They want justice, not basketball, to be the national priority.

They certainly aren’t wrong.

Milwaukee Bucks: George Hill talks NBA's return amid variety of issues

“We can’t do anything. First of all, we shouldn’t have came to this damn place, to be honest,’’ said George Hill of the Milwaukee Bucks, a franchise based 40 miles north of the shooting scene. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are. … We’re down here playing in the Bubble to do these things for social justice and all that, and to see it all still going on and we’re just playing the game like it’s nothing — it’s just a really messed-up situation right now.’’

As for the Bucks’ wavering title chances, Hill isn’t concerned: “Until the world gets their s—- together, I guess we’re not going to get our stuff together. Watching that stuff in Wisconsin really breaks my heart.’’     Tweeted Mitchell, who has led the Utah Jazz to a contender’s role in the Western Conference with prolific scoring outbursts: “F THE GAMES AND PLAYOFFS!!! THIS IS SICK AND IS A REAL PROBLEM WE DEMAND JUSTICE! ITS CRAZY I DONT HAVE ANY WORDS BUT WTF MAN! THIS IS WHY WE DONT FEEL SAFE!!!!

After watching the graphic footage in Kenosha, including fires burning into the night, James barely could control his anger. Any excitement about a dominant performance by the Lakers on Kobe Bryant Day — 8/24, the two numbers he wore during his legendary career — was blunted by the Blake shooting. He barely cared his team is up 3-1 over Portland in the first-round series. “I can’t even enjoy a playoff win right now, which is the sad part,’’ James said. “People get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified. Because you don’t know. You have no idea. You have no idea how that cop that day left the house. You don’t know if he woke up on the good side of the bed. You don’t know if he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t know if he had an argument at home with a significant other, if one of his kids said something crazy to him and he left the house steaming. Or maybe he just left the house saying today is going to be the end for one of these black people. That’s what it feels like.’’

The league knows it can’t separate the insignificance of games from another racial tragedy. An exodus of players from Orlando remains possible in that the postseason, still in the first round, won’t produce a champion at least early October. For now, the players are trying to do their jobs and maintain focus while obeying a schedule in a restrictive environment. In that context, Doncic’s breathtaking performances — including his game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer Sunday — provide at least a temporary escape from the cruel realities of Black America, the ceaseless pain.

Black people in America are scared,' says LeBron James after Jacob ...

Said James: “If you’re sitting here telling me that there was no way to subdue that gentleman or detain him before the firing of guns, then you’re sitting here and you’re lying to not only me, but you’re lying to every African American, every Black person in the community because we see it over and over and over. If you watch the video, there was multiple moments where if they wanted to, they could’ve tackled him. They could’ve grabbed him. Why does it always have to get to a point where we see the guns firing? His family is there, the kids are there, it’s in broad daylight. … It’s just, quite frankly, it’s just f—ked up in our community.’’

Yet only hours before, James was tweeting his admiration for Doncic like many NBA players, imitating announcer Mike Breen’s call of the final shot. “Sheesh. That’s ridiculous,’’ wrote Steph Curry, master of the dramatic.

Doncic has that effect on people. He is conjuring a brand of style and telepathy not previously seen in the sport, a hybrid already evolutionary before his 22nd birthday. How does one who’s built like a running back, thick and wide-shouldered at 230 pounds, operate with such finesse and dazzle, maneuvering and forcing through big-boy defenses and ignoring attempts to bruise and bait him? Why does he anticipate plays before everyone else on the court, as if dabbling in extrasensory perception or electronic sign-stealing? It’s cliche to call him a savant — the description is used for many when he is one of a kind — and rather than liken him to a particular legend, it’s more apt to compare his passing skills and vision to Larry Bird, his court awareness to James, his handle to Jason Kidd, his near-the-logo shooting range to Damian Lillard and his flair to Curry. Let’s avoid Michael Jordan analogies, please, but Doncic does wear his sneakers.

He also has the perfect nickname for a closer: The Don.

“He sees the game in 6G, not 5G — another level beyond what most people see,’’ said Rick Carlisle, who truly might be coaching the first wireless superstar with the Dallas Mavericks.

Luka Doncic | 2019-20 Season Highlights | NBA.com

Forget the dictum that even a phenom must learn to fail in the playoffs before he prevails. Doncic already has blasted through that wall with what Carlisle suggests was “maybe the greatest game played by a second-year player … a game from another planet.’’ The Mavericks can lose their first-round series against a title favorite, the Los Angeles Clippers, and The Don already has foot-printed an epic NBA memory: 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists in Game 4, daggered by his artful step-back trey, joining Jordan — unavoidable, I guess — as the only players to nail win-or-lose shots to cap 40-point playoff performances. Jordan’s effort is known as The Shot.     The Don? He gave us The Hit … on Kobe Bryant’s birthday, no less.

“I was just trying to make it,’’ said Doncic, still humble as a hoops world stirs. “I can’t explain the emotions I had, not only when the ball goes in but when I see the whole team running toward me. That was something special. One of the best feelings I’ve ever had. Just something special.’’     Does he realize the magnitude of it all? “My feelings are not here right now,’’ he said. “I’ll think about it and let you know next time.”

Next time could be next game, for all we know. In a league historically defined by stylish, dominant personalities, Doncic arrives as a well-timed, unique conversation piece amid the fatigue of COVID-19 and the searing emotions of Black Lives Matter protests. He is not from Ohio, New York, California or anywhere in the U.S. Nor is he part of an African-American sector that comprises about 80 percent of NBA players. He hails from Slovenia, best known for mountains and forests and rivers, and he learned the game as a coach’s son. He’s hardly the first Europrodigy to crash the NBA scene, as he grew up watching Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and the Brothers Gasol. But unlike past decades, when international hype often exceeded production and occasionally led to a Darko Milicic flop, Doncic soon will inherit a post-LeBron era when he and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak, are the league’s dominant players.

It’s not a stretch right now, given James’ self-mocked balding head and the inconsistent patterns of Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers, that Doncic is emerging as the world’s best all-around player. It’s a refreshing, urgent breakout for a league facing a fraught financial future, including a TV ratings plunge that President Trump and his supporters attribute to an overemphasis on racial equality and Black Lives Matter crusades. No doubt segments of America are weary of sports activism, from James and Curry to prominent coaches such as Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr. Yet James, Hill, Mitchell and other players and coaches had every right to vent publicly about the Kenosha shooting.

Khris Middleton Postgame Interview - Game 4 | Bucks vs Raptors ...

“At the end of the day, it’s up to our lawmakers, it’s up to our police department to stop shooting us. It’s that simple,’’ said the Bucks’ Khris Middleton. “They’re there to provide safety. There’s different ways to de-escalate situations than shooting someone, especially when running away or in the back.”

“It’s just sickening. It’s heartless,’’ Hill said. “It’s a f—ed-up situation. You’re supposed to look at the police to protect and serve. Now, it’s looked at harass or shoot.’’

Said Miami forward Bam Adebayo, after the Heat swept the Indiana Pacers: “Just seeing that video, it’s ridiculous. Someone has to be held accountable.’’

“Getting swept is tough, but at the end of the day, nobody’s dead,’’ said the Pacers’ Victor Oladipo. “People are dying. This is not OK.’’

In the larger vein of social justice, Doncic has earned the praise of his league brethren in more ways than one. During a Game 3 exchange, the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell referred to Doncic as a “bitch ass white boy.’’ This could have been an explosive situation for NBA commissioner Adam Silver … except Doncic defused it by hugging Harrell and shaking his hand before Game 4, explaining to the media, “Sometimes you say things you don’t want to say. He apologized. So no problem.’’

Said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, marveling at Doncic’ poise during the flap: “`Luka, I guess, was shocked that he needed to reach out.’’

It’s possible no single gift from heaven can help the NBA, or America, at this stage of the racial quagmire. Having the Luka Doncic Experience is comforting, but neither his breakthrough nor Mamba’s Day can save the league from what ails a nation.

Jay Mariotti
Jay Mariottihttps://barrettmedia.com
Jay Mariotti, called ``the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.

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