Mar 9, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

πŸ‘‹ Good morning! Anybody else see "The Way Back" this weekend? I loved it.

Today's word count: 1,559 words (6 minutes).

1 big thing: πŸ‘‘ LeBron still wears the crown
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

LeBron James led the Lakers to season-defining wins over the NBA-best Bucks and rival Clippers this weekend, all while playing lockdown defense on reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard β€” the two strongest challengers to his throne in recent years.

  • Why it matters: James' statement weekend may have changed the course of the MVP race, which Antetokounmpo β€” who will miss at least two games with a sprained knee β€” has been heavily favored to win for months.
  • The big picture: If James leapfrogs Antetokounmpo in the season's final weeks, he will clinch his fifth league MVP, tying him with Michael Jordan for second all-time behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six).
  • By the numbers: James, who became the third player in NBA history to reach 34,000 points, is on pace to average 25+ points per game for a record 16th season. The next closest are Jordan, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant β€”Β all with 12 such seasons.
  • What to watch: A Lakers-Clippers playoff series β€” which has never happened β€” would be a blessing from the basketball gods. But as yesterday proved, the Lakers would have home-court advantage in all seven games, underscoring the Clippers' need for their own home.

More NBA:

  • Thunder up, Rockets down: Following yet another comeback win, this time against the Celtics, Chris Paul and the "rebuilding" Thunder are now a half-game ahead of the Rockets in the standings. What a year for CP3.
  • πŸŽ₯ Lonzo to Zion: Two ridiculously long alley-oops in the span of about a minute.
2. πŸ“Έ Photos: Women won the weekend

Yesterday was International Women's Day. Hope you told your loved ones you appreciate them.

Photo: Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

HARRISON, N.J. β€” Julie Ertz's header in the 87th minute led the USWNT past Spain, 1-0, in the SheBelieves Cup and extended the Americans' unbeaten streak to 30 games.

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS β€” In what many analysts are calling the greatest fight in women's MMA history, China's Zhang Weili (21-1) defended her strawweight title with a split-decision win over Poland's Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248 (highlights).

  • By the numbers: Their 351 combined significant strikes are third-most thrown in a UFC fight, and Jedrzejczyk's 186 significant strikes are the most ever by a UFC fighter in a loss.
Photo: William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

GREENSBORO, N.C. β€” No. 10 N.C. State beat No. 22 Florida State, 71-66, to win their first ACC Tournament title since 1992.

  • The big picture: This marks the school's first ACC title in football, men's hoops, women's hoops or baseball since 1992 β€” ending three decades of misery for Wolfpack fans.
Bonus: πŸŽ₯ Female athletes on "Axios on HBO"

Screenshot: "Axios on HBO"

Influential female athletes detailed their experience navigating gender and sports in interviews with "Axios on HBO."

  • Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA Players Association: "We don't need to change the game. You have to change how you're presenting it to people so that they can appreciate it for what it is. But I do think that because of the inequality in women's sports, it creates natural businesswomen. It creates natural fighters and natural pioneers."
  • Billie Jean King, a tennis legend: "We have the same wants the guys do. No one has to be an activist. But I think as an athlete we have a unique opportunity and we need to use our platform to make this world a better place. And it's happening now. For some reason, this generation's all hopped up, and I love it."
  • Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, recounted harassment by men over her participation: "I really for a very split second wanted to step off the course. ... And I hadn't even understood anything about the feminist movement up to that point. And suddenly, it just all came down on me. By the time I crossed the finish line, I knew I wanted to be a better athlete and I knew I wanted to create those opportunities."

Go deeper.

3. 😷 Sports without fans
Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. β€” The BNP Paribas Open, which is often referred to as tennis' "fifth Grand Slam," will not be held this month after public health officials declared a public health emergency in the area.

  • Last-minute call: The decision came as a surprise to players, many of whom were already in Indian Wells preparing for the event, which was set to begin today with qualifying matches.
A man prepares to disinfect the court prior to tip-off. Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

BALTIMORE β€” In the first U.S. sports event held without fans due to the coronavirus, Yeshiva University beat Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 102-78, in the D-III men's basketball tournament Friday at Johns Hopkins University.

  • Meet the Maccabees: Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish university in New York City, is enjoying a historic season. The No. 15-ranked Maccabees followed up their win over WPI with another win over Penn State Harrisburg β€” their 29th consecutive victory and the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament wins.
Photo: Daniele Badolato/Juventus FC via Getty Images

TURIN, Italy β€” Playing in an empty stadium, Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus beat Inter Milan, 2-0, to move into first place in Serie A.

  • What they're saying: "It was a surreal environment. You could hear every shout .... It all seemed so out of place for such a huge fixture. But then again, maybe no more out of place than a soccer game in the midst of a deadly outbreak." (Sam Lopresti, SB Nation)
Photo: Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images

OSAKA, Japan β€” The Grand Sumo Tournament was held behind closed doors for the first time since 1945, with ticket sale losses estimated to be in the $10 million range.

Go deeper: Coronavirus disrupts sporting events around the world (Axios)

4. ⚾️ Barry Bonds: "I feel like a ghost"

Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Athletic's Andrew Baggarly caught up with 55-year-old Barry Bonds, who was a guest instructor at the Giants' camp last week.

  • For much of his public life, the controversial slugger ran from his vulnerable moments, but Baggarly discovered a changed Bonds β€” "feeling older, feeling ostracized, feeling less relevant" β€” who was ready to open up.

On his legacy:

  • "I feel like a ghost in a big empty house, just rattling around. ... A death sentence, that's what they've given me. ... My heart, it's broken. Really broken."
  • "I know what I did out there. I know what I accomplished between those lines. It's outside those lines that I would have done some things different."

On today's hitters, who are increasingly being coached to use an uppercut swing, prioritize launch angle and avoid ground balls.

  • "Never in my lifetime would I ever think like that. Never. My dad and Willie [Mays] would kill me. Like they told me, 'Hit the ball in the air and it takes one guy to get you out. Hit one on the ground and you got two chances.'"
  • "But I don't blame these guys. If you can hit .220 and strike out 200 times and hit 25 home runs and someone's going to give you $200 million, man, I'm going to hit .220 and strike out 200 times and I'm getting $200 million."

Keep reading (subscription).

5. πŸ“Š By the numbers

Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

  • ⛳️ Four players under par: Englishman Tyrrell Hatton finished at 4-under 284 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational and claim his first victory on the PGA Tour. Hatton was one of just four players to beat par for the week, the fewest at Bay Hill since 1980.
  • ⚽️ 10 years: Manchester United completed the first season sweep of cross-town rival Manchester City in a decade with a 2-0 win on Sunday that kept them in the hunt for a top-four finish.
  • πŸ† 28 years: With Saturday's 80-62 win over Boston College, Florida State captured its first regular-season conference title in 28 seasons as a member of the ACC.
  • ⏱ 2:08:25: In his marathon debut, Ethiopia's Bayelign Teshager, who turns 20 today, won the 35th Los Angeles Marathon with a time of two hours, eight minutes and 25 seconds.
  • πŸ€ 58-game win streak: Unranked Iowa State stunned No. 2 Baylor, snapping the Lady Bears' 58-game regular-season conference win streak β€” the sixth-longest such streak in D-I history.
  • πŸ’ 9 games: The Flyers beat the Sabres, 3-1, on Saturday to extend their league-best win streak to nine games. They're now tied with the Capitals atop the Metropolitan Division.
6. πŸ“š Good reads

⚾️ Tim Anderson is here to save baseball from itself (Tyler Kepner, NYT)

"The Chicago White Sox shortstop has ruffled some feathers, earned a batting title and become a loud voice in a quiet game. And he's just getting started."

🎾 Bob and Mike Bryan chasing a few more big wins (Bill Dwyre, LA Times)

"Life in duplicate will change in about seven months for the Bryan twins .... They have won 16 major men's doubles titles and 120 pro titles together .... They are identical and inseparable."

🏈 With XFL's BattleHawks, St. Louis gets a chance to avenge loss of the Rams (Brendan Meyer, ESPN)

"Since its inception, St. Louis has led the way for the [XFL], from booming ticket sales to record attendance to social media followers."
7. March 9, 1995: ⚾️ MLB adds Tampa and Phoenix

25 years ago today, MLB awarded expansion franchises to Tampa-St. Petersburg and Phoenix, making the Devil Rays (now the Rays) and the Diamondbacks the 29th and 30th MLB teams.

Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli. Photo: Doug Collier/AFP via Getty Images
  • All-time record: 1686-1876 (.473)
  • Playoff appearances: 5
  • Pennants: 1
  • World Series titles: 0
Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo. Photo: Doug Collier/AFP via Getty Images
  • All-time record: 1763-1801 (.495)
  • Playoff appearances: 6
  • Pennants: 1
  • World Series titles: 1 (2001)
8. The Ocho: πŸ“ 11-year-old Olympian

11-year-old Syrian tennis player, Hend Zaza, is set to become the youngest athlete at the Tokyo Olympics β€” and fifth-youngest Olympian in history β€” after winning a qualification tournament last week.

  • Fun fact: Hend will likely not be the only 11-year-old at the Games, with pro skateboarder Sky Brown β€” who is about five months older β€” expected to compete for Team Great Britain.
9. πŸ€ College hoops trivia

Photo: Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

Five schools earned automatic men's NCAA tournament bids by winning their conference tournaments this weekend: Utah State, Belmont, Winthrop, Bradley and Liberty.

  • Question: Can you name the conference that each team won?
  • Hint: Two start with the letter "M" and two include the word "Valley."

Answer at the bottom.

10. Vote: πŸ“† What's the best sports month?

Click to vote:

  1. January
  2. February
  3. March
  4. April
  5. May
  6. June
  7. July
  8. August
  9. September
  10. October
  11. November
  12. December

Tomorrow's 1 big thing: Reimagining the American sports calendar

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Really hoping this isn't the Rams' new logo" Baker

Trivia answer: Utah State (Mountain West), Belmont (Ohio Valley), Winthrop (Big South), Bradley (Missouri Valley), Liberty (Atlantic Sun)