Apr 20, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Welcome back! Hope you had a wonderful weekend. Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,862 words (7 minutes)

1 big thing: 🏀 Michael Jordan, reborn
Michael Jordan. Photo: Wen Roberts/NBAE/Getty Images

"The Last Dance" premiered on ESPN last night, marking the first time in nearly two months that individual families — and the sports world as whole — sat down to watch something together.

Why it matters: In addition to entertaining millions of self-quarantined fans, the 10-part documentary will give ESPN a tentpole event to build its programming around, while providing sportswriters and other content creators (i.e. all of social media) with fresh source material during these sports-less times.

"There's going to be an entire new crop of memes, GIFs and vernacular from this MJ doc. When everyone watches content together, it births a new lexicon online."

My thoughts after two episodes:

  • Would never happen today: The idea of an owner letting a GM break up a dynasty that just won three straight championships — which ultimately led to the best player in history retiring early — seems impossible and would never happen in today's NBA where superstars wield far more power.
  • 63-point game: If you had to pinpoint the exact moment when the basketball world realized MJ was different, it was probably the 1986 playoff game against the Celtics, when a 23-year-old Jordan scored 63 points on 41 shots (zero threes) the day after playing golf with Danny Ainge. Fun fact: 34 years ago today.
  • So many interviews: From Patrick Ewing breaking down Jordan's game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA title game to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton sit-downs, the sheer numbers of interviews was astounding.
  • God bless Alan and his project: "Sirius" by The Alan Parsons Project has reigned for more than three decades as the undisputed champion of jock jams. Hearing it last night alongside footage of the Bulls taking the floor gave me goosebumps. Always will.

The big picture: "The Last Dance" — and more specifically, Michael Jordan — is the perfect vehicle to remind us what sports can provide, what athletes can symbolize, and what we lose when athletic competition is ripped away from us.

  • For the last two months, sports media has focused heavily on the business of sports — leagues, franchises, networks — because of the unprecedented impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the industry.
  • But what we all truly love about sports are not the institutions that have been built up around them, but rather the ideals and stories that sit at their center: Winning at all costs. Chasing greatness. Writing a legacy. Coming together as a team. Waking up early to put in extra work. Destiny.

The bottom line: As a culture, we love well-crafted narratives, larger-than-life characters and iconic moments. Sports are the most prolific source of all three, and the first two episodes of "The Last Dance" made that abundantly clear.

Bonus: 💵 The 1997-98 Bulls' payroll
Bulls GM Jerry Krause (left) and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images

Heading into the 1997-98 season, Michael Jordan publicly said the Bulls should get to defend their title until they lose it and that he wouldn't play for any coach other than Phil Jackson.

  • But ownership didn't listen (to Michael Jordan!) and the front office told the team that the 1997-98 campaign would be their last one together. Why? Money, of course.

By the numbers: The Bulls had the NBA's highest payroll at $61.3 million, which was $7.4 million more than the second-place New York Knicks and $32.8 million more than their Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

  • $33.1 million: MJ's one-year, $33.1 million contract was more than the average team payroll that year and remained the NBA's highest single-season salary until LeBron James and Stephen Curry both surpassed it in 2017. The only other player earning more than $20 million in 1997-98 was Patrick Ewing ($20.5 million) and the next closest player was Horace Grant ($14.2 million).
  • 122nd in the NBA: Despite being one of the NBA's premier talents, Scottie Pippen's $2.6 million salary made him the 122nd-highest paid player in the league (the 122nd-highest paid player this season is/was André Roberson).

Head-to-head: Here's how the 1997-98 Bulls payroll compares to the 2018-19 Warriors payroll, the year before both dynasties broke up.

Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images

1997-98 Chicago Bulls: $61.3 million payroll

  • Michael Jordan: $33.1M
  • Toni Kukoč: $4.6M
  • Ron Harper: $4.6M
  • Dennis Rodman: $4.5M
  • Luc Longley: $3.2M
  • Scottie Pippen: $2.8M
  • Bill Wennington: $1.8M
  • Scott Burrell: $1.4M
  • Randy Brown: $1.3M
  • Robert Parish: $1.2M
  • Jason Caffey: $850k
  • Steve Kerr: $750k
  • Keith Booth: $600k
  • Jud Buechler: $500k
  • Joe Kleine: $272k
Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

2018-19 Golden State Warriors: $146.3 million payroll

  • Stephen Curry: $37.4M
  • Kevin Durant: $30M
  • Klay Thompson: $19M
  • Draymond Green: $17.5M
  • Andre Iguodala: $16M
  • Shaun Livingston: $8.3M
  • DeMarcus Cousins: $5.3M
  • Jonas Jerebko: $2.2M
  • Jacob Evans: $1.6M
  • Kevon Looney: $1.6M
  • Quinn Cook: $1.5M
  • Damian Jones: $1.5M
  • Jordan Bell: $1.4M
  • Alfonzo McKinnie: $1.3M
  • Jason Thompson: $898k
  • Andrew Bogut: $487k
2. 🏟 Second wave looms large over sports

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Amid the uncertainty surrounding the return of sports and the constant updates from leagues about when play might resume, don't lose sight of the most important factor of all: a second wave is almost certainly coming, writes Axios' Jeff Tracy.

Driving the news: Based on league statements, more sporting events than ever are temporarily scheduled for the fall, which could result in the most action-packed sports calendar imaginable.

  • Yes, but: As much as we'd love to believe a sports wonderland awaits us in the fall, experts warn that the second wave of this virus will likely hit right in the heart of that season.

Background: We need only look back 100 years, to the influenza pandemic of 1918, for the exact playbook of how this could occur.

  • When infections decreased over the summer months, it seemed safe to host large gatherings like the World Series and various parades celebrating the end of World War I. But right around that time, the virus came back with a vengeance.

What they're saying: "Second waves are inevitable in pandemics when you don't have a vaccine," Carlos Del Rio, who chaired the panel that guided the NCAA to shutting down sports this spring, told WSJ (subscription).

  • "Any disease when you have an epidemic, when you loosen up prevention, you'll have a second wave."

The state of play: This last point bears out the paradoxical nature surrounding our current predicament. Whether due to social distancing efforts or summer weather, infection rates will eventually go down. But this early in the pandemic's cycle, that reality might act as a false positive of sorts.

The big picture: Ultimately, one of the hardest things to cope with right now is the uncertainty of when it will end, which makes plans to restart leagues nebulous at best.

"The answer is none of us know at this point what the situation is going to be like in the fall."
— Anthony Fauci

The bottom line: The coronavirus doesn't care when sports come back.

3. ⚽️ The world's biggest soccer stadium

Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

The world's biggest soccer stadium is being built in Guangzhou, China, at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion, with construction having started on Thursday.

  • Design: "Lotus flower"
  • Capacity: 100,000 seats, making it bigger than Barcelona's Camp Nou (99,000) and London's Wembley Stadium (90,000).
  • Team: Guangzhou Evergrande, winners of eight of the last nine Chinese Super League titles and the most valuable Chinese soccer club, per Forbes.
4. 📊 By the numbers
Bella Alarie. Screenshot: @DallasWings (Twitter)
  • 👨‍👧 Third father-daughter combo: Princeton's Bella Alarie was the No. 5 pick in Friday's WNBA draft. Her father Mark, who played at Duke, was the No. 18 pick in the 1986 NBA draft. The Alaries are the third father-daughter combo to achieve that feat, joining Karl Malone (No. 13 pick, 1985) and Cheryl Ford (No. 3 pick, 2003), and Dee Brown (No. 19 pick, 1990) and Lexi Brown (No. 9 pick, 2018).
  • 🏈 14 top-200 players: Since the seven-round format was adopted in 1994, the most players taken from one school in a single draft is 14 (Ohio State in 2004). This year, LSU has 16 combine invites and 14 of Scout Inc.'s top 200 players. "A potentially historic class from the Tigers," tweeted ESPN's Field Yates.
  • 🎓 2.3 GPA: Due to COVID-19, the NCAA is waiving the standardized test score requirement for incoming D-I and D-II freshmen athletes for the 2020-21 school year. In order to be eligible, D-I athletes will need a combined 2.3 GPA in the 10 NCAA-approved core courses, while D-II athletes will need a 2.2 GPA.
5. 🤷‍♂️ The randomness of "essential" businesses

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Landscaping companies, gun storesgolf courses, live wrestling matches: Businesses considered "essential" in one state aren't designated the same way in others, write Axios' Marisa Fernandez and Courtenay Brown.

  • Why it matters: A patchwork of coronavirus-era policies is causing confusion — plus envy and resentment — across the country, with calls for clearer federal guidelines about what should and shouldn't remain open.
  • Between the lines: The inconsistencies have created opportunity for businesses, which are flexing lobbying muscle to convince governors to deem them essential.
  • What to watch: "Essential" isn't going away — indeed, its definition could prove even more contentious as states and local areas begin the process of opening back up. The businesses considered most important by governors will return to work first, which means that states will have to add more guidelines and gradations.
6. April 20, 1912: 🏟 First game at Fenway
Fenway Park in 1946. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

108 years ago today, Fenway Park officially opened for business, with the Boston Red Sox beating the New York Highlanders (later, the Yankees) 7-6 in 11 innings.

  • Why it matters: Fenway still stands today, making it the oldest active ballpark.
  • Fun fact: The Chicago Cubs played their first game at Wrigley Field four years later to the day, and they beat the Cincinnati Reds ... 7-6 in 11 innings.

The backdrop: As we covered last week, Fenway was the Platonic ideal of the jewel box ballpark — borne out of necessity as baseball's popularity outgrew the rickety wooden stadiums of the previous 40–50 years.

  • In 1911, Red Sox owner John Taylor, a real estate magnate, sold himself a piece of land in The Fens — a small area in Boston's Back Bay — to build a stadium.
  • Construction was finished in less than a year, and Fenway Park was opened on the same small, strange plot of land that once overlooked a used car lot (the Green Monster was built to protect those cars) and now casts a shadow over the famous, giant Citgo sign.

The bottom line: Fenway's age and beauty are simultaneously at odds with each other and inextricably enmeshed. While some poor fan might sit in the bleachers and curse his horribly obscured view, another might simply smile and say to herself, "Isn't baseball great?"

7. 📚 Good reads
Magnus Carlsen, the world's best chess player. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The quarantine chess tournament that could change the game forever (David Hill, The Ringer)

"After the FIDE Candidates tournament was postponed due to the coronavirus, world champion Magnus Carlsen decided to take things into his own hands. His version of chess could speed the game up permanently."

💔 It was the hottest basketball sectional. Then attendees started dying of coronavirus (Kyle Neddenriep, IndyStar)

"It was the hottest ticket in the state of Indiana for high school basketball. ... But on that night of March 6, there were five people in the gym who later died after testing positive for coronavirus. There's no way to know if they contracted it at Lawrence Central. But families are left to mourn."

🇺🇸 Missing Boston, and a bus ride, on marathon day (Matthew Futterman, NYT)

"Everyone who has run the Boston Marathon has a favorite moment. ... Me? I love the bus ride to the start line. It's what I will be missing most on Monday, when 30,000 other runners and I were supposed to be massing behind Hopkinton High School, waiting to start the granddaddy of all marathons."
8. The Ocho: 🎾 Rooftop tennis
Source: ATP Tour (Twitter)

Rooftop tennis in Lugaria, Italy — the original source of pesto!

Meanwhile, one floor down...

9. 🏀 NBA trivia
Michael Jordan holds up the NBA Finals MVP trophy on June 14, 1998. Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Jordan won twice as many NBA Finals MVP awards (six) as anyone else.

  • Question: Who are the only other four players with three NBA Finals MVPs?
  • Hint: They all have an "N" somewhere in their name.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Courtesy: Alyssa S.

Alyssa S. (Parsippany, N.J.) writes:

"In 2018, my husband and I made the spontaneous decision to head to Boston from New York for the Red Sox World Series parade. The streets were lined with people on a crisp October morning. It was Halloween, but that holiday fell second to Parade Day.
"As the parade ended, we decided to head to the Bleacher Bar near Fenway for some lunch and drinks. Best. Decision. Ever. A chance encounter between my husband and a police officer in the bathroom led us to one of our most memorable sports moments.
"The officer told him that the Duck Boats carrying the Red Sox would be pulling up shortly to finish off the parade. As we stood on Lansdowne Street, television crews and photographers began to congregate, and we started walking down the street.
"First we bumped into Alex Cora, who opened his arms for what could only be described as a 'bear hug.' A little further down, David Price was wrapping up an interview, and I patiently waited to ask for a picture. He grabbed my hand and had me running down the street to find Brock Holt to join in (attached is the resulting photo).
"Where was my husband during all this you might ask? He was running behind us — in complete awe over what was happening. These athletes, who we idolize and watch on TV every night — they were just as excited to celebrate with us as we were with them."

✍️ Submit your story: What's your fondest sports memory? Could be anything! Reply to this email letting me know. We'll be telling your stories all month.

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Inject this song into my veins" Baker

Trivia answer: Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, LeBron James