Aug 18, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,683 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: ⚽️ Finding meaning without fans

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Neymar will play arguably the most important soccer match of his life today — in an empty stadium in Lisbon, Portugal.

  • Millions will watch on TV as the 28-year-old megastar tries to send PSG past RB Leipzig and into the club's first Champions League final, rewriting his narrative and adding to his legacy in the process.
  • But no fans will be in attendance — a surreal environment for the kind of game that Neymar, and all athletes, dream about as children.

Why it matters: Whether it's the Champions League semifinals, the NBA/NHL Finals, the World Series or the Super Bowl, career-defining moments are going to look a lot different for the foreseeable future.

  • The iconic performances that inspire documentaries will still be broadcast in real-time and preserved forever on video and in photos.
  • But the absence of fans changes how they're ultimately remembered.

The backdrop: When Neymar left Barcelona in 2017 and signed a record-breaking deal with PSG, the plan was to step out of Lionel Messi's shadow, win a Ballon d'Or, and be recognized as the best player in the world.

  • That hasn't happened. Since arriving in Paris, not only has Neymar not won a Ballon d'Or, he's faded from contention.
  • "[T]here is a sense that, when we look back on Neymar's career, we will see the flash, the glamour, the extravagance, and little or nothing more: all style, no substance; a generational talent not quite fulfilled," NYT's Rory Smith wrote back in February.
  • A Champions League title would help change the narrative and alter the trajectory of the Brazilian's still-young career.

The bottom line: Greatness in sports is determined largely by context. The roar of the crowd, the energy in the building — it sets the stage for mere humans to become immortal.

  • Without fans in the stands, some of that magic is lost. And, whether you're an athlete competing or a fan watching from home, meaning is harder to find.

Watch today: PSG vs. RB Leipzig (3pm ET, CBS All Access)

2. 🏀 NBA playoffs: Mitchell, Dončić make history

Jamal Murray celebrates with Nikola Jokić. Photo: Ashley Landis/Getty Images

The first game of the NBA bubble playoffs between the Nuggets and the Jazz was wildly entertaining. Despite Donovan Mitchell's historic performance, Jamal Murray (36 pts) and Denver prevailed, 135-125 (OT).

  • Star of the game: Mitchell scored 57 points, the third-highest mark in NBA playoff history, trailing only Michael Jordan (63) and Elgin Baylor (61). He also had nine rebounds and seven assists.
  • #BubbleLife: Murray ran into Mitchell on-campus after the game. The NBA bubble really is the world's greatest AAU tournament.

Elsewhere:

  • Clippers 118, Mavericks 110: Dončić (42-6-9) became the first NBA player to score 40 points in his playoff debut, but Kawhi Leonard (29 pts) and Paul George (27 pts) were too much for Dallas, who missed Kristaps Porziņģis (questionable ejection) down the stretch.
  • Celtics 109, Sixers 101: Monday marked the first time in NBA playoff history that four players under the age of 25 scored 30+ points on the same day: Mitchell, Murray, Dončić and Boston's Jayson Tatum (32 pts, 13 reb).
  • Raptors 134, Nets 110: Fred VanVleet (30 pts, 11 ast) is the first player in Raptors history with 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game. He also finished one three-pointer shy of tying Vince Carter's franchise postseason record of nine.

Today's games (all on TNT):

  • 1:30pm ET: Magic at Bucks
  • 4pm: Heat at Pacers
  • 6:30pm: Thunder at Rockets
  • 9pm: Trail Blazers at Lakers
3. 🏒 NHL playoffs: B's storm back; Blues win again

Jake DeBrusk's goal slips through James Remier's legs. Photo: Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Bruins scored four unanswered goals in a 6:51 span during the third period to beat the Hurricanes, 4-3, and take a commanding 3-1 series lead.

  • Star of the game: Jake DeBrusk scored two of those third-period goals, finally busting out of an offensive slump that saw him score just twice in his previous 20 games.
  • Latest test results: For the third straight week, the NHL reported zero positive COVID-19 test results. 5,640 tests were administered last week to players, coaches and others in the bubble, per the league.

Elsewhere:

  • Blues 3, Canucks 1: The defending champs have won two straight games after dropping their first five in the bubble. Series tied 2-2.
  • Lightning 2, Blue Jackets 1: Tampa Bay has yet to score a power-play goal this series (0-for-9), but they have Columbus on the brink nonetheless. TB leads 3-1.
  • Avalanche 7, Coyotes 1: Complete and utter domination by Colorado, who had 15 more shots on goal and 32 more shot attempts than Arizona. COL leads 3-1.

Today's games (all on NBCSN):

  • 3pm ET: Flyers at Canadiens (PHI leads 2-1)
  • 5:30pm: Flames at Stars (Series tied 2-2)
  • 8pm: Capitals at Islanders (NYI leads 3-0)
  • 10:30pm: Blackhawks at Golden Knights (VGK leads 3-1)
4. 🏀 WNBA snapshot: Stewart, Storm out front
Data: WNBA; Table: Axios Visuals

The WNBA season has reached its midway point, with every team either 10 or 11 games through this year's shortened, 22-game campaign, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

First half superlatives:

  • MVP — Breanna Stewart (SEA): The 2018 MVP missed all of last season (Achilles), but she's back, scoring at will and leading the league's best team.
  • ROY — Chennedy Carter (ATL): The No. 4 pick is a walking bucket (seventh in scoring at 17 ppg). But she'll miss two weeks with an ankle injury, meaning No. 16 pick Crystal Dangerfield (MIN) could slide in and become the lowest draft pick to ever win (previous low: No. 7 pick Tracy Reid in 1998).
  • Best team — Seattle Storm: Despite being without coach Dan Hughes (opted out for health reasons), the 2018 champs have won eight straight games behind Stewart and legendary PG Sue Bird.
  • Most disappointing team — Washington Mystics: The defending champs began the year 3-0, but have since dropped seven straight. They desperately miss reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne, who opted out for health reasons.
  • Biggest bummer — Sabrina Ionescu's injury: The most hyped rookie in WNBA history delivered a 33-7-7 masterpiece in just her second game. One game later, she badly sprained her ankle, likely ending her season.

Tonight's games:

  • 7pm ET: Fever at Sun (CBSSN)
  • 9pm: Aces at Sky (ESPN2)
  • 10pm: Liberty at Storm

Go deeper: WNBA power rankings (ESPN)

5. 📊 By the numbers
Screenshot: @WashingtonNFL (Twitter)
  • 🏈 1st Black president: The Washington Football Team has made former player Jason Wright, 38, the first Black president in NFL history — and the league's youngest current president. Wright spent the last seven years as a partner at McKinsey, rebuilding companies in peril. Sounds like a good fit.
  • 🏀 84 days: The college basketball season is slated to begin in 84 days, but the NCAA is already saying it's prepared to shift the Nov. 10 start date due to coronavirus concerns. A decision is expected next month.
  • ⚾️ 2 brothers: Corey Seager (Dodgers SS) and Kyle Seager (Mariners 3B) both homered in Monday's game at Dodger Stadium, marking the first time in nearly 20 years that two brothers went yard in the same game.
  • 🥊 14 titles: UFC star Jon Jones is vacating his light heavyweight title — a belt he's held a record 14 times. "It's officially up for grabs," said Jones, 33, who doesn't appear to be retiring but rather taking a hiatus before trying to move up to heavyweight.
  • 🏎 156 podiums: British F1 superstar Lewis Hamilton won the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday, passing Michael Schumacher on the all-time podiums list with his 156th top-three finish. Next up: He's three shy of Schumacher's all-time wins record (91).
Photo: Alejandro Garcia/Pool via Getty Images
6. 📸 Photos 'round the world
Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

MONACO, Monaco — Uganda's Joshua Cheptegei on Friday set a new 5,000-meter world record (12:35:36), breaking the 16-year-old mark by two seconds.

Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Here we have a lightning storm above Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which simultaneously hosted the NBA and MLS this summer. Can't wait for the "30 for 30." What if I told you...

Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

MEGEVE, France — If cycling keeps producing this much gorgeous photography, I may have to turn Axios Sports into a cycling newsletter.

Photo: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA — Did you know that there's a Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana? And that it was opened by a man who served as the Phillie Phanatic for more than 15 years? This is why you read this newsletter, right? For mascot facts?

7. Aug. 18, 1973: ⚾️ Hammerin' Hank makes history
Hank Aaron in 1954. Photo: Sporting News via Getty Images

47 years ago today, Hank Aaron recorded his 1,378th extra-base hit, passing Stan Musial for No. 1 on the all-time list — a spot he still holds.

Top 10:

  1. Aaron (1,477 extra-base hits)
  2. Barry Bonds (1,440)
  3. Musial (1,377)
  4. Babe Ruth (1,356)
  5. Albert Pujols (1,337)
  6. Willie Mays (1,323)
  7. Alex Rodriguez (1,275)
  8. Ken Griffey Jr. (1,192)
  9. David Ortiz (1,192)
  10. Rafael Palmeiro (1,192)

The backdrop: It's always fun adding context to historic events, so here's what was happening in the U.S. in '73, when "Hammerin' Hank" passed "Stan the Man."

  • A week before Aaron's blast, Bronx emcee DJ Kool Herc invented hip-hop.
  • The Watergate scandal was reaching a fever pitch, and President Nixon's impeachment proceedings would begin in October.
  • Earlier that year, CBS sold the Yankees to the late George Steinbrenner for $10 million. His family still owns the team, now valued at a cool $5 billion.

🎥 Watch: Hank Aaron career highlights (YouTube)

8. The Ocho: 🎯 Bhutanese archery
Courtesy: Raúl Vilchis for The New York Times

Archery is the national pastime of Bhutan, and for a group of expats living in New York, the pandemic temporarily halted their tradition of gathering in the woods of New Jersey to partake in a monthly ceremonial game.

  • For context: Bhutan is a tiny, Buddhist-majority nation in southern Asia with a population of ~750,000. There are about 24,000 Bhutanese living in the U.S., many in New York, and a couple dozen make the weekly trek to New Jersey.
Courtesy: Raúl Vilchis for The New York Times

How it works: The participants don traditional robes (called gho) and pour an offering of beer to Buddha before breaking into teams of 12.

  • Games involve back-and-forth volleys of arrows towards targets that are 475-feet apart, with players taking four shots per round (two at one target, walk to retrieve, then two back at the other target).
  • By the end of the day-long competition, each participant will have walked roughly 11 miles.
"We are all Buddhist, so it is not competitive. We come to see each other, meet new friends, and bring the community together."
— Thukten Jamtsho, 43, one of the competitors

Go deeper: These Uber drivers are stressed. Archery soothes them. (NYT)

9. 🎥 Highlights: Monday's top plays
Giphy
  1. 🏒 All Hail, Cale
  2. ⚾️ What a grab
  3. ⚾️ Velazquez takes flight
  4. 🏀 Donovan's double-pump
  5. 🏀 Lowry from the pocket
Bonus: 🏈 NFL trivia

Cam Newton during training camp on Monday. Photo: Steven Senne-Pool/Getty Images

New Patriots QB Cam Newton is one of three former SEC players to win the AP NFL MVP award this century.

  • Question: Can you name the other two?
  • Hint: Different positions.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Jessica and her grandmother. Photo: Jessica P.

Jessica P. (Seattle) writes:

"My grandmother taught me to score baseball games. Born in 1918 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she emigrated to Brooklyn as a little girl, where she became a Dodgers fan.
"She told me she was scoring a game over the radio when she went into labor with her eldest child. After the Dodgers broke her heart by moving to Los Angeles, she moved to the Bay Area and became a Giants fan.
"All of her kids became baseball fans, too, in turn passing that love on to my generation.
"We'd gather every October for family birthdays, with playoff baseball as the constant. Being scattered in different cities, we root for different teams, but it's all thanks to her.
"And every time a well-meaning (but sexist) fan at the ballpark expresses surprise that I'm scoring the game, it gives me great pleasure to be able to say, 'Yes, I am scoring the game — my grandmother taught me how.'
"The photo above is when she met my first child, and the photo below is that same baby scoring the game herself. The legacy continues!"
Jessica's daughter scoring a Mariners game. Photo: Jessica P.

✍️ 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 "LeBron ain't losing on Taco Tuesday" Baker

Trivia answer: Peyton Manning (Tennessee) and Shaun Alexander (Alabama)