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LeBron is LeGone, Giving Way To A Reviled Superteam

With James likely finished as a champion, his influence remains in the form of the Brooklyn Nets, a merger of three corporations who now loom as unpopular NBA title favorites — unless they beat themselves

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As a student of Hollywood and a mogul in progress, LeBron James knows how to squeeze a story line. And his personally calculated script would have been as triumphant as any known to sports: Win two or three titles with the Lakers, produce a summer cinematic hit in “Space Jam 2,” chop it up on his barber-shop show with Jay-Z and other entertainment legends, then play one final season with son Bronny.

Everything We Know About SPACE JAM 2 - Nerdist
Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Eat that, Michael Jordan.

But as an athlete who has played basketball without pause since age nine, and a celebrity who has been in the global blast furnace since 18, James also knows the realities of life. Such as: Humans age, bodies break down, and the hunger to dominate fades to passivity. Those dark sides converged Thursday night in a postseason narrative that spun backwards, not according to plan, and one he’ll have to accept the rest of his waning career.

Without his partner in championship crime, Anthony Davis, who is so brittle that Charles Barkley calls him “Street Clothes,” James again turned to putty in the defining early moments of Game 6. He didn’t attack the basket until the mesmerizing Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns had built a 29-point lead with a three-point barrage. When TNT analyst Grant Hill, hardly known for slicing critiques, zinged James on the broadcast — “He’s just not being aggressive,” he said — you knew this was a crossroads in sports history where a legend’s arrow pointed south. When a comeback failed, and James was eliminated for the first time in the opening round, it was time to perform the autopsy.

He no longer can depend on his health in a game, basketball, where he can’t be pocket-protected by 2,000 pounds of blockers like a certain 43-year-old quarterback. Nor can he win a series by himself, unable to summon fire and purpose among so many Dennis Schroders and Alex Carusos after Davis’ problematic groin gave out in the first quarter. Nor is he America’s darling, dividing the nation with proud but polarizing activism last year, then pissing off even his supporters by not revealing if he has been vaccinated while breaking NBA policy by appearing at a tequila-brand event.

The King’s twilight finally is upon him, summoning the truth. He never was going to one-up Jordan in history, his legacy vacillating to the end between Mount Hoopsmore and intermittent disappointment. And now, with the ouster of the Lakers coming just eight months after they won the Disney Bubble, he’ll limp toward his 37th birthday knowing that better NBA story lines have passed him by in the fast lane.

“I think about the moment we entered the Bubble to today. And it’s been a drain — mentally, spiritually and emotionally draining,” he said. “Every team had to deal with it. May the better man win. The Suns were the better man.”

He exchanged jerseys afterward with Booker, his protege, in what seemed like a passing of a generational torch. But James isn’t ready to give in to the new stars, dynamic as they are. He says he needs to rehab his ankle, which has bothered him for months, and needs for Davis to stay healthy. Both are ambitious goals, but in his mind, he’s still LeBron. Good luck, old man. “I don’t need motivation from anybody in this league. I motivate myself. I’m motivated by my family, my kids,” James said. “We have some young guns in this game — Luka (Doncic), Book, Donovan Mitchell, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum — and those guys are great. But my motivation doesn’t come from them.”

And, no, he won’t play in the Tokyo Olympics. The budding mogul has a movie to sell and a red carpet to walk. “I’m trying to beat the Goon Squad,” he said of his “Space Jam 2” release next month. “I didn’t have success against the Suns, so I’ll focus all my attention on the Goon Squad.” He’d better start attacking the basket, or the Goon Squad will beat him, too.

This as a more compelling story, Booker and the Suns, reduced James to an afterthought. Said Booker, making Kendall Jenner and the desert people proud in a 47-point show: “That’s the way we wanted it. We knew we weren’t going to get where we want to go without going through them. I’ve been working my whole life for this moment. It wasn’t time to shy away from it.”

LeBron is LeGone, exiting stage right while Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden blur past him, realizing he’s no longer in their way. The Nets of Brooklyn borough are the conversation piece of a sports nation now, for better or worse, and don’t laugh when I suggest their second-round duel with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks IS the NBA Finals. With appropriate slack-jawed reverence for Doncic — who channels the shotmaking of Larry Bird, the court command of Magic Johnson, the showmanship of Steph Curry, the muscle of James and the late-game inevitability of Jordan — the Mavericks aren’t ready to win a championship. Nor are the Suns, who have won 44 of their last 58 but still must worry about the injury factor of Chris Paul, whose insurance commercials couldn’t be more fitting. Utah looks best in the West, with their three-point flurries and big man Rudy Gobert anchoring the league’s best remaining defense, but are the Jazz experienced enough to win a title? Philadelphia, in the East, would have posed a legitimate threat to the Nets and Bucks … until Joel Embiid, playing the best ball of his life, succumbed to his latest injury, a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.

76ers star Joel Embiid diagnosed with meniscus tear, will be day-to-da
Courtesy: USA Today Sports

So like it or not — and many do not — the Nets emerge as the epicenter of the playoffs. They are unpopular, almost reviled, because they came together like a corporate merger. Durant, a mobile corporation, left Golden State to prove he can plan his own parade after being treated like a rent-an-outlier. He was joined by Irving, bitter in Boston and moody about life, in a tag team. The third to follow this empowerment pattern, Harden, demanded out of Houston and hopped on the speed train. All three left behind hard feelings and frayed franchises, not healthy for the league, and in this sense, LeBron’s influence remains as he departs. He was the one who created the superteam concept 11 summers ago by uttering the words, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” Among those taking notes during “The Decision” were three young players with militant streaks who eventually sought to control their individual narratives. They don’t care how they’re perceived, which is fortunate for them because few fans can muster a liking for such a premeditated contrivance.

“I don’t even know what that means, villains,” said coach Steve Nash, dutifully defending his guys. “A lot of it is just narratives. People love to talk hoops and barbershop — whatever. It’s not like we did anything illegal. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do, not try to add to our roster, and just sit pat? That’s the idea of this league is to try to put together the best team you can.”

The owner of this once-dismal franchise, Joe Tsai, saw a poll that called the Nets the most hated team in sports. Durant, Irving and Harden seem to embrace the animus, if not ignoring it all together. Said Blake Griffin, a former superstar used to hearing catcalls: “Everybody always wants to have a team to build up but also hate at the same time. There’s always that thing. I don’t know that we pay that much attention to the villain aspect. We don’t take what everybody else is saying to heart. So what’s being said doesn’t bother us.”

Finally on the court together, after a regular season when their injuries looked suspiciously like rest-for-the-playoffs schemes, the Big 3 have a chance to be remembered as the most potent group ever. First the Nets must win a championship, and to hear them, it’s all but a foregone conclusion.

“We just don’t want to take any of this time for granted,” Irving said. “This doesn’t happen too often kind of in our culture, in our history, where three of the best scorers to ever play the game are on one team.”

“I think if us three are on the same page and play well and communicate with the rest of the guys, where to be on both ends of the ball, I take our chances against anybody,” Harden said.

Here’s where the matchup turns delicious, even as a morality play of sorts. Antetokounmpo, too, could have chosen the superteam route, coveted as he was by the Lakers, Heat and Warriors. Instead, he assumed the more difficult challenge of signing his max deal with a small-market team and trying to win an NBA title without a sidekick superstar or two. In that sense, he becomes the widespread rooting interest as the Greek in the heartland angling to take down the New York power players. Durant is smart enough to remind the world of Antetokounmpo’s status in the league, knowing he carries his own burden to win a championship after recent playoff letdowns.

Giannis Antetokounmpo focused on season, not contract situation | NBA.com
Courtesy: Getty Images

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Durant said. “I mean, he’s a two-time MVP and Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, so we’re looking forward to the challenge. He’s long, athletic. He plays hard. He cares about teammates. He cares about winning.”

The rap on Giannis is that he can’t elevate his game, or lift his supporting cast, to a consistent championship level beyond the regular season. Does he want it badly enough? He is issuing no proclamations before this series, which begins Saturday night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but he did take a playful nibble on a question about his routine as a family man. He was asked about his daily routine at home.

“OK, so I wake up. The first thing I do in the morning? I pee,” he said. “After I pee I take a shower. After that? I drink two bottles of water. After that? I go to practice. Prepare mentally to go to practice. Come to practice. Do whatever I got to do. Lift some weights. Shoot some shots. Ask coach, even, what I can do to get better. How can I help the team be better. After that, I just go back to my house. Special time with my son. Put him down for a nap and after that? I watch Netflix for like eight hours. My home has no basketball talk.”

Meanwhile, Durant is either meditating, sparring with strangers on social media or planning his next film project, while Irving is declaring war on the world in general and the media specifically. In that sense, it’s possible only the Nets can beat the Nets, which is where Nash enters the equation. So far, he has managed to steer this monster joyride to the title favorite’s role, not thought possible when Irving said before the season, “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” Nash wasn’t bothered by the comment, knowing he was hired to manage superegos, and Irving eventually acknowledged, “I think I’ve got to take back my comments in terms of a head coach back a few months ago.”

Yet knowing how Durant, Irving and Harden have had turbulent moments in defining career settings — Durant vs. Draymond Green, Irving vs. his Celtics teammates and fans, Harden vs. himself in the playoffs — at what point does Nash have to lay down the law? And will they even listen? Late in a Game 4 rout of Boston in the first round, the Big 3 still hadn’t been pulled. Why risk injuries? “Those guys didn’t want to come out,” Nash said. “So just let them go a few more minutes.”

So far, anyway, there has been no dissension, no arguing about box-score totals, no beefing from Harden about having to play point guard and distribute the ball. Durant makes sure he regularly props up the turbulent Irving, saying this week, “His mind is so different that stuff he brings out is just unexpected — one-legger off the right leg, shooting off the glass, left-handed finishes, ball-handling. He’s a joy to watch and play with.”

Said Irving, finally finding bliss: “Just grateful that we have a chance to be together in the trenches, me and my teammates.”

At some point, though, someone will have to awarded a final shot in a huddle during a tight game. Egos will be tested, especially when Harden is the only one of the three without a title and, startling as it seems, is the third option in clutch situations. Durant makes sure he buffs up Harden, too. “He comes into the gym every day, and it’s just excitement to play basketball,” he said. “The energy is just infectious, and you can tell everybody was drawn to James since the day he got here. His presence was just key for us.” 

Chances are, the championship will be won by a team with limited injury drama. Because of the short, 71-day layoff between the Bubble season and a new regular season, and a compressed 72-game schedule, attrition has been the dominant theme. Embiid, James, Davis, Paul and Doncic all have dealt with playoff setbacks. Durant, Irving and Harden are fresh. Too bad Curry didn’t have a healthy team around him, as a Warriors-Nets Finals would be an all-time combat collision. Too bad we can’t pit the Nets against the sport’s greatest showmen — Doncic and Curry and Booker and Embiid and Damian Lillard and Trea Young, enthralling story lines all.

We just want to see the Nets challenged. Hell, I’ll go so far to say I hope they lose. If they’re going down, the Bucks have the best chance to slay the superteam. Otherwise, I fear more headlines such as this whopper in the New York Times Magazine: “Kevin Durant and (Possibly) the Greatest Basketball Team of All Time.”

Brooklyn Nets: What did we see from Kevin Durant in his debut?
Courtesy: Getty

Jesus. The Jordan vs. LeBron argument has ended, once and for all, and now we’re going to argue Nets vs. the Jordan Bulls? Nets vs. the Showtime Lakers? Nets vs. the Kobe/Shaq Lakers? Nets vs. the Bird Celtics. Nets vs. the Russell Celtics? Or, in the superteam division, Nets vs. the LeBron Heat? And — ready — Durant’s Nets vs. Durant’s Warriors?

Please, someone just beat them.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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