Aug 24, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Happy Monday. Yesterday would have been Kobe Bryant's 42nd birthday. Nike made an incredible short film in his honor, Diana Taurasi scored a season-high 34 with "Bryant" on her back, and we have a small tribute below.

Today's word count: 2,198 words (8 minutes).

1 big thing: 🏀 Luka Dončić is spectacular

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Luka Dončić capped off a 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist performance with a buzzer-beating three-pointer to lift the Mavericks past the Clippers, 135-133 (OT), and tie the series at two games apiece.

Why it matters: Dončić is destined for a rare level of greatness, and given how much he's already accomplished — both in the NBA and abroad — his trajectory is unlike anything we've ever seen in basketball.

  • Someday in the distant future, we'll probably look back on Sunday as the first of many iconic playoff moments in Dončić's Hall of Fame career.
  • But for now, we'd be wise to stay in the moment — and to fully appreciate the unique experience of watching a once-in-a-lifetime player emerge in a once-in-a-lifetime bubble.

What they're saying: "What are we witnessing!" former NBA player Channing Frye tweeted, perfectly encapsulating the giddiness I feel watching Luka play basketball with the shock I feel after remembering he's the age of most college juniors.

  • A 21-year-old isn't supposed to record a 43-point triple-double in a must-win playoff game against a title favorite, especially when his team's second-best player (Kristaps Porzingis) is sidelined.
  • A playoff debutant isn't supposed to bury a game-winning, contested step-back three-pointer while nursing a severely sprained ankle.
  • A kid from Slovenia who didn't watch many NBA games growing up because "it was like 3 a.m. in my country and I had to go to school in the morning," isn't supposed to be this good, this fast. Nobody is.

More NBA: This league!

  • Donovan Mitchell scored 51 points to lead the Jazz past the Nuggets, 129-127. He's now averaging 39.5 points in the series (scored 57 in Game 1). Absurd.
  • Jamal Murray had 50 points in the loss (Nuggets playoff record), marking the first time in postseason history that opposing players each scored 45+ points.
  • LeBron James passed Tim Duncan for second-place on the all-time playoff wins list (158). The only player with more? Former Laker Derek Fisher (161).
  • Celtics sweep 76ers: Is "The Process" over in Philly? Could Joel Embiid (and/or Ben Simmons) be on the move this offseason? We'll go deeper tomorrow.
  • Raptors sweep Nets: Nick Nurse was named Coach of the Year on Saturday and is now 20-8 in the postseason. Well-deserved. Don't sleep on Toronto...

📆 Today's slate: Bucks (up 2-1) vs. Magic, 1:30pm ET; Rockets (up 2-1) vs. Thunder, 4pm; Pacers (down 3-0) vs. Heat, 6:30pm; Lakers (up 2-1) vs. Trail Blazers, 9pm.

2. 🏈 The state(s) of high school football
Note: Dates reflect when games start, not practices. Data: MaxPreps; Graphic: Naema Ahmed/Axios

High school football has already kicked off in thousands of towns across America, and more will join them soon. Elsewhere, entire regions of the country have postponed the season, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

  • The state of play: Seven states have begun playing games, and 10 more are set to do so by the end of the week.
  • Another 17 states are scheduled to kick off in September or October, while 16 states — plus Washington, D.C. — have moved the season to the spring.

How it works: Though states have the autonomy to make these decisions for themselves, they do so with guidance from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which "is in touch on a daily basis with state associations," executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff tells Axios.

"The NFHS is by design different from the NCAA. We do as much as we can at a national level to provide leadership, guidance and resources, but we don't make decisions on a state by state basis that they're required to follow.
"Every state association has its own sports medicine advisory committee, as well as departments of education and health agencies that help inform school superintendents. ... From a national level down to a school-based level, there are a ton of people involved in the process."
— Dr. Karissa Niehoff

Latest news:

  • Crossing state lines: Brett Kuczynski, a senior trying to earn a scholarship, moved with his mom from Illinois to their vacation home in Florida so he could play this season. His story is not unique, as countless college hopefuls criss-cross the nation looking for states still slated to play this fall.
  • Players sitting out: Ohio State commits DE Jack Sawyer (nation's No. 1 recruit) and CB Jordan Hancock (No. 99) have both decided not to play their senior seasons. Sawyer hopes to enroll early and play this spring while Hancock is limiting social interactions for his high-risk parents.
  • Fans ignoring guidelines: In Utah, an athletic director stopped last Thursday's game until fans put on masks and abided by social distancing requirements; in Alabama, multiple games went ahead with packed crowds and hardly a mask in sight.
3. ⛳️ From caddie to major champion in a month

Photo: Richard Heathcote/R&A via Getty Images

Three weeks ago, Germany's Sophia Popov was caddying for her friend on the LPGA Tour. On Sunday, she won the Women's British Open.

"It's incredible that golf allows for these things to happen. ... I pretty much had the week of my life."
— Popov

Why it matters: Popov, who was ranked No. 304 in the world entering the week, joins 2003 Open Championship winner Ben Curtis as the only players to win a major while ranked outside the top 300.

  • The winner's check of $675,000 is more than six times Popov's entire career earnings before Sunday.

The backdrop: Popov only qualified for the Women's Open via a top-10 finish two weeks ago at the Marathon Classic, which she only played in after the tournament couldn't fill the field due to the pandemic.

  • The 28-year-old, who played college golf at USC, was competing on the Arizona-based Cactus Tour as recently as May and didn't even have LPGA status before this weekend.

The bottom line: Her story is already incredible enough. But for Popov to win the way that she did — entering Sunday with the lead, with all the pressure that comes with that, and never blinking — is truly remarkable.

🎥 Watch: Popov's final putt (Twitter)

4. ⚽️ Bayern crowned Champions of Europe

Photo: Michael Regan/UEFA via Getty Images

Bayern Munich won the Champions League for a sixth time, beating PSG, 1-0, on a header goal from PSG youth academy graduate Kingsley Coman.

  • Bayern is the first club in Champions League history to go undefeated (11-0) en route to lifting the trophy.
  • The German giant has now gone 30 straight matches without suffering a loss (29 wins, one draw).

Man of the match: Coman was born and raised in the suburbs, or "banlieues," of Paris — perhaps the world's most fertile breeding ground for soccer talent — and joined PSG's youth academy as a child.

  • He debuted for the senior team at age 16, the youngest player ever to do so. But he grew frustrated at the lack of opportunities and left for Juventus in 2014, before finding his way to Bayern.
  • "Now he has returned to haunt the club that made him," writes NYT's Rory Smith. "To vanquish it when it was in sight of its goal."

The other side: "PSG has not failed, not really, not in the long term. Its presence here was success," writes Smith.

  • "A decade since its Gulf money arrived, it can breathe the same rarefied air as the old elite. That, in the context of what Qatar wants from its investment, is almost the same as the Champions League trophy. Almost."
5. 📊 By the numbers
Courtesy: NHL
  • 🏒 3 winners this century: Only three Stanley Cup winners from this century (Avalanche, Lightning, Bruins) are still alive, so five of the eight remaining teams have a chance to end a 20+ year title drought. Weekend scoreboard.
  • 🏈 77 false positives: The NFL had a coronavirus scare on Sunday when 77 league employees returned positive tests. But when all 77 individuals were retested by the lab, all came back negative, per ESPN's Kevin Seifert. "It was a good fire drill for our coaches ... and everyone," said Bills GM Brandon Beane.
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
  • 🏁 2-time winner: Japan's Takuma Sato earned his second Indianapolis 500 championship on Sunday, holding off Scott Dixon at an empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • 🏒 89-46-16: The Capitals fired coach Todd Reirden on Sunday after two straight seasons of first-round playoff disappointment. Reirden, 49, finished with an 89-46-16 regular-season record but never won a playoff series.
Photo: Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour via Getty Images
  • ⛳️ 30-under par: Dustin Johnson pulled off a stunning 11-shot win at the Northern Trust to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking. He's the third player in PGA Tour history to finish 30-under or better. His four rounds: 67-60-64-63.
  • 🏈 23 months: Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas was released by the Ravens on Sunday, marking the second time in 23 months that his stint with an NFL team ended in controversy.
6. ⚾️ MLB snapshot: L.A. on top, Bryce is back

Jake Cronenworth (R) celebrates with teammates. Photo: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

🏆 Rookie spotlight: The Rookie of the Year races are heating up, but they're mostly lacking the players who were expected to contend when the season began, Jeff writes.

  • NL: Gavin Lux (Dodgers) and Carter Kieboom (Nationals) were the preseason favorites, but Lux hasn't been called up and Kieboom has been unremarkable. Instead, Padres 2B Jake Cronenworth — the latest member of Slam Diego to clear the bases — is running away with the award.
  • AL: Luis Robert (White Sox) is as dynamic as advertised, but Kyle Lewis (Mariners) holds the edge in nearly every category. Indians reliever James Karinchak is a not-so-distant third (0.61 ERA and a silly 52.8% strikeout rate).

📊 Power rankings: The Dodgers have finally begun fully flexing their formidable muscles, edging the still-excellent A's out of the top spot on the strength of a +71 run differential (32 better than any other team).

  • 1. Dodgers (22-8), 2. Athletics (20-9), 3. Rays (19-10), 4. Yankees (16-9), 5. Twins (19-10), 6. Indians (17-11), 7. Braves (16-12), 8. White Sox (17-12), 9. Padres (18-12), 10. Astros (15-13)
  • 11. Cubs (17-10), 12. Cardinals (9-8), 13. Marlins (11-11), 14. Rockies (13-15), 15. Blue Jays (13-13), 16. Orioles (14-14), 17. Reds (11-15), 18. Brewers (11-15), 19. Mets (12-14), 20. Nationals (11-14)
  • 21. Phillies (10-14), 22. Diamondbacks (13-16), 23. Rangers (10-17), 24. Giants (14-16), 25. Royals (11-17), 26. Red Sox (9-20), 27. Tigers (11-15), 28. Angels (9-20), 29. Mariners (11-19), 30. Pirates (7-17)

👍 Three up:

  • Bryce is back: Harper is leading the NL in OBP, SLG, OPS and OPS+. The last time he did that? 2015, when he unanimously won MVP.
  • Female viewership: MLB's TV ratings are on the rise, with young adults and women driving the bulk of the increase, per The Athletic (subscription).
  • South Side sluggers: From Aug. 16 to Aug. 22, Chicago mashed 27 HR — the most ever in a seven-game span. They also won all seven games.

👎 Three down:

  • Strasburg is done: The reigning World Series MVP will undergo season-ending surgery to repair the carpal tunnel neuritis that limited him to just five ineffective innings in 2020.
  • Philly bullpen curse: After Phillies' relievers compiled the worst ERA in MLB history to start the year, they traded for Boston's excellent Brandon Workman. In his first outing, he earned his first loss and blown save of the year.
  • Bring in the robots: This was called a ball.

Weekly awards tracker: Brandon Lowe, TB (AL MVP); Shane Bieber, CLE (AL Cy Young); Fernando Tatís, Jr., SD (NL MVP); Trevor Bauer, CIN (NL Cy Young)

7. Aug. 24, 2008: 🏀 The Redeem Team wins gold

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

12 years ago today, Kobe Bryant and the "Redeem Team" beat Spain, 118-107, to win gold at the Beijing Olympics.

The backdrop: The U.S. was coming off disappointing bronze medals at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championship. The mystique of the Dream Team was gone — erased by the generation of international talent it had inspired.

The roster: Bryant was a global phenomenon and the captain of the team, having just won NBA MVP at age 29. Surrounding him was a group of young players that have since changed the face of basketball, led by 23-year-old LeBron James.

  • PG: Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Deron Williams
  • SG: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Michael Redd
  • SF: LeBron James, Tayshaun Prince
  • PF: Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer
  • C: Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard
"You've seen 'The Last Dance' when everybody ran up on Jordan when he was in Paris? That's how it was for Kobe in China. ... It was all about Kobe."
Dwyane Wade, who's producing a "Redeem Team" documentary

The final: After winning their first seven games by an average of 30 points, the Redeem Team was locked in a tight one in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal game when Rudy Fernandez's three-pointer pulled Spain within 91-89.

"That was the most pressure I've ever felt in international competition, and in that timeout, Kobe ... said, 'We got it.' We didn't even run a play. [Kobe] made a couple plays … and all of a sudden we won."
— Mike Krzyzewski, head coach

The big picture: Bryant and the Lakers proceeded to win back-to-back NBA titles, and the U.S. won another gold medal in London four years later. But what the Redeem Team did in 2008 remains the standard, and returned a sense of pride to USA Basketball, largely because of Bryant.

"[Kobe's] first day of practice when that team got together that summer, he set the tone. The ball was up in the air, it hit the floor, and he dove for a loose ball, and there it was. That was the beginning."
Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball chairman

Go deeper:

8. The Ocho: 🇲🇽 Mexican wrestling gets creative
Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

With gyms and arenas closed, Mexican wrestlers have created the "Chinampaluchas," a Lucha Libre show in a ring built on a "chinampa" (land in the middle of a lake).

Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Wrestlers travel to the venue in canoes and take part in fights, which are broadcast on social media with a $1 fee for fans.

9. 🎥 Weekend's top plays

Kingsley Coman's title-winning goal. Photo: Julian Finney/UEFA via Getty Images

  2. ⚾️ Yaz!
  3. 🥊 Povetkin stuns Whyte
  4. 🏒 MacKinnon's a monster
  5. ⚾️ Brinson robs Soto
  6. ⚽️ Coman's header
  7. 🏏 Cricket catch
  8. ⚾️ Tatís runs it down
  9. ⚾️ Take a bow, Tony
  10. ⚽️ What a strike

Watch all 10.

Bonus: 🏟 Stadium trivia

The interior of SoFi Stadium before the Rams scrimmage on Saturday. Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

When SoFi Stadium (Los Angeles) and Allegiant Stadium (Las Vegas) open this fall, they will be the fifth and sixth NFL stadiums to open since 2010.

  • Question: Can you name the other four stadiums?
  • Hint: They were built in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2017.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Oscar De La Hoya celebrates after defeating Julio César Chávez in 1998. Photo: John Gurzinski/AFP via Getty Images

Israel O. (Washington, D.C.) writes:

"Like many Mexican immigrant families living in Queens, my Dad worked long hours. For a few years, he worked double shifts as a dishwasher. Spending time with him was a rare treat.
"Every once in a while, he'd splurge and pay to watch the Julio César Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya fights. Seeing them box was a source of tremendous pride for our family.
"Because the fights started late, it was hard for my 10-year-old self to stay awake. But I was determined to spend time with my Dad. I'd pretend to know the intricacies and strategy of the sport while cheering for our Mexican gladiators.
"For a few hours during each fight, I could see my Dad relax and forget about his lousy pay, long hours and the uncertainty about making it in a new country.
"I may not have understood all of this at the time, but it means everything to me now, and I'll forever treasure those memories of watching boxing together."

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email.

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "What a weekend" Baker

Trivia answer: MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (2010); Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (2014); U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (2016); Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (2017)