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How Year 2 of LeBron and the Lakers was a title roller coaster

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published on July 30, 2020 and has since been updated to reflect the Lakers winning the NBA championship.

STANDING ACROSS FROM each other at center court, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James shook hands.

The 2016 NBA All-Star Game was the first and only international All-Star Game in NBA history. And with Bryant participating for the last time in his career, he shared a playful message with the officials surrounding them.

“When I leave,” Bryant said, pumping James’ arm with a sturdy grip during the ceremonial captains meeting, “he’s the elder statesman.”

Three years after that moment in Toronto, and halfway around the world, Bryant’s words seemed prescient as James — now the face of the Los Angeles Lakersaddressed the players congregated in a Ritz-Carlton ballroom in Shanghai.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had tweeted and then deleted his support of protesters in Hong Kong just days earlier. As the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets arrived in China, confusion and uncertainty spread across the players and staffers. James was embarking on his 17th season, and some of the players there were still in diapers when he entered the league. Both in stature and seniority, James was leaned upon as a guiding voice.

It didn’t make sense, James reasoned, for the players to speak to the nearly 200 reporters assembled in the hotel lobby several floors below when Morey and NBA commissioner Adam Silver had yet to do so.

“What he was most vocal about was,” a source familiar with the meeting told ESPN, “‘How can you ask us to do media when you yourselves are not?'”

Events were canceled. Promotional appearances — some lucrative opportunities, worth upward of seven figures for some players — were scrapped. Sightseeing was out. Team practices and media sessions were nixed too.

That left the Lakers with a ton of time and nowhere to go.

The Lakers had executed a blockbuster trade in the offseason to acquire Anthony Davis, turning over their roster in addition to hiring a new coaching staff, and the suddenly wide-open schedule allowed for bonding opportunities. The Ritz-Carlton is connected to the Shanghai International Finance Center, which features a high-end mall and a Morton’s steakhouse. With the entire team in attendance, dinners at Morton’s lasted for hours. If it wasn’t a meal, it was a shopping trip to the mall or a group workout in the hotel gym.

“It was interesting,” a team source said. “They were in a bubble. They started the season in a bubble, and they’re going to end it in a bubble.”

Over a nine-month span, the Lakers were mired in an international situation, dealt with daily life, death and a pandemic. The Lakers were on the road in New York City the day of former NBA commissioner David Stern’s memorial at Radio City Music Hall. They had to figure out as a franchise how to carry on after the unexpected death of Bryant. And as the season came to a halt in March, the Lakers were coming off a weekend in which they beat both the presumptive Eastern and Western Conference favorites in the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers.

After a failure to launch in the first year with James, the Lakers rose to the top of the Western Conference as one of the title favorites in Year 2. What happened in the time between those bubbles was unlike any other in franchise history.


COACHING THE LAKERS for Frank Vogel meant taking the job only after the organization couldn’t land its first two choices. It meant Jason Kidd getting assigned to the coaching staff by the front office. And it meant Lea Thompson from “Back to the Future,” one of Vogel’s favorite movies, asking for a selfie. On his first flight to Los Angeles after being named head coach, Vogel was delighted to converse with the actress but was floored by the request for a photo.

“I would have never, never in a million years thought … I would’ve thought it would be the other way around,” Vogel says.

It was an intersection with celebrity that the newly minted Lakers coach never really considered. After all, the Jersey Shore native’s biggest brush with Hollywood to that point was as a 10-year-old brushing his teeth with a basketball spinning on the end of his toothbrush as a guest on “Late Night with David Letterman.”

“For me it was just, they were the cool team out West,” Vogel says. “I didn’t really leave the East Coast, I didn’t travel much as a kid or anything like that. So, it was like a foreign country thinking about California. And they just had palm trees and sunshine, just had a flair to them that was celebrity like, you know? And the way their team played represented that. It was a show on the basketball court, it wasn’t just a sporting event.”

That show followed the Lakers wherever they went in 2019-20.

After a 101-96 win in Atlanta on Dec. 15, the scene was a spectacle. James and Davis took off their jerseys while still on the court to give to rapper Boosie Badazz, who was sitting courtside.

“Game jerseys, b—-!” Boosie said on Instagram, displaying the haul on social media after leaving the game that night.

Back inside State Farm Arena, the visitors locker room was packed. Former Lakers forward Lamar Odom waited by the door to get a moment with his old team. There were so many reporters surrounding James’ locker that they couldn’t hear one another’s questions, causing James to be asked twice about the play where he threw a between-the-legs pass to a trailing Dwight Howard for a dunk. “We already got that one,” James politely replied.

The Lakers were 24-3, but Vogel was listless, unimpressed by the marginal win over one of the league’s doormats.

“We have to tighten some screws,” he said to reporters afterward.

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1:38

Dave McMenamin examines the additions and losses to the Lakers’ roster throughout the NBA’s hiatus as LeBron James & Co. look to restart their quest for a title.

  • Dec. 16: JoAnn Buss, mother of Lakers’ governor Jeanie Buss, dies after a long-term illness.

  • Dec. 17: Davis misses loss in Indiana because of ankle sprain.

  • Dec. 19: Bucks beat Lakers, the first consecutive losses of season.

  • Dec. 22: James misses first game of season, Lakers lose to Nuggets.

  • Dec. 25: Clippers defeat Lakers for fourth straight loss.

  • Dec. 28: James plays through groin injury as Lakers win in Portland.


AS THE 16TH most populous city of the 28 NBA metropolises, Portland, Oregon, doesn’t have the same bounty of luxury hotels as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

So when the Lakers rolled through town in late December with James and Davis combining their superstar power with one of the most recognizable brands in sports, fans fiending for a glimpse of the latest iteration of the Lake Show didn’t have to dig too hard before descending on The Nines.

Located on the edge of Pioneer Courthouse Square, the hotel — whose 331 rooms take up the top nine floors of the Meier & Frank Building — has become a preferred outpost for former Lakers coach Phil Jackson and remains a staple on the team’s annual travel itinerary.

Enjoying a renaissance season, the team was the hottest it had been in years. Throngs of hoopheads braved the winter cold, huddling by The Nines’ main entrance to catch a glimpse of the then-No. 1 seed in the West.

With the thoroughfare in front of the hotel already congested by Portland’s light-rail line and the fans providing an extra obstacle for the team buses to make the mile and a half trip to Moda Center, the Lakers called an audible. Rather than leave out the front, the Lakers headed down the service elevators, through the hotel kitchen and out a street-level auxiliary exit.

“It’s something I haven’t experienced for a while,” says veteran Jared Dudley, remembering his time on the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns for comparison.

For starting guard Avery Bradley, seeing the hysteria up close reminded him of grainy black-and-white footage from the 1960s.

“We felt like the Beatles,” Bradley says.



AS A TRAINING camp invitee for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 and a late-season addition of the New Orleans Pelicans in 2016, Quinn Cook was already acquainted with James and Davis when he joined the Lakers for the 2019-20 season.

Those connections were a part of his career, but his relationship with one of the Lakers’ all-time greats in Bryant was something different.

“I grew up wanting to be just like him,” he says. “Idolizing him. I took pride in being the biggest Kobe fan ever.”

Cook’s Lakers fandom was passed on from his dad, Ted, who died when Quinn was 14. Lakers fans quickly embraced Cook after he shared a photo as a teenager wearing a white Bryant uniform surrounded by dozens of Lakers jerseys, shirts, jackets and hats. When the Lakers retired Bryant’s Nos. 8 and 24 in December 2017 when L.A. hosted the Golden State Warriors, Cook watched as a member of the opposing team.

“Just to see [not just] the love that obviously the Lakers show him, but just the basketball world. Like the entire world,” Cook says. “I remember, like, the world stopped that day when they retired both his jerseys.”

He had the same feeling when Bryant attended Lakers games in November and December. “Everybody would watch the game and then, just watch Kobe,” Cook says. “Even the players. I caught myself … I hit a shot and I wanted to see if Kobe was looking at me.”

The Lakers heard of Bryant’s death while flying back to L.A. The night before, James had passed Bryant for No. 3 on the all-time scoring list during a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Bryant’s hometown.

“The entire week, week and a half leading up to that, we just saw Bron and Kobe highlights,” Cook says. “And Bron just speaking on how great Kobe is and how much he means to him and how much Kobe gives to him. And we were celebrating him. And obviously for Bron to pass Kobe, it wasn’t a Bron vs. Kobe thing — it was Bron and Kobe. And they’re both Lakers.”

Cook stepped off the plane at LAX in his Nike Zoom Kobe 4 Protros, in the same black and white “Del Sol” colorway that Bryant wore to the Lakers’ championship parade in 2009. They were an intentional choice. “I was wearing Kobes that whole East Coast trip,” he said.

From there, Cook didn’t know what to do. “I really wasn’t thinking,” he says. “I was just heartbroken.” He called his mom and his sister. He called his girlfriend. He called one of his college buddies, Jack Davis, who lives in L.A. and works in entertainment.

Davis drove to El Segundo, California, to meet Cook at the Lakers’ practice facility. They shared Kobe stories for an hour, and Cook, seeing on social media that fans were congregating at L.A. Live across the street from Staples Center to mourn, got the urge to go.

“Any time I thought of the Staples Center, I thought of Kobe Bryant,” he says. “And so I just wanted to go down there and just pay my respects.”

Cook borrowed a Bryant jersey from his friend Davis — a blue, scripted, throwback No. 8 jersey — and headed downtown.

“I just went into, really, just fan mode,” Cook says. “Just boy mode.”

Cook blended in with the sea of purple-and-gold grievers, and broke into tears as he stared at the black-and-white image of Kobe and Gigi displayed on the outdoor video monitor. Even though he was surrounded by strangers, he felt comforted.

“Fans were great,” Cook says. “It’s not like they were surprised to see me, really. They just patted me on the back. They gave me my space. They let me be. And it was good to be around that kind of love for that little moment.”

In the days that followed, Cook found other ways to honor his idol. He changed his uniform from No. 2, the number Gigi wore in her prep leagues, to No. 28, to celebrate both father and daughter. Teammate Bradley didn’t get a chance to make it to the gathering downtown, so Cook took Bradley to the impromptu memorial set up in El Segundo by Lakers vice president of facility operations, Lisa Estrada.

There were candles, flowers, basketballs, sneakers, jerseys and other mementos left in honor. And there were long white billboards set up for fans to write messages in remembrance of Bryant.

Cook picked up a pen.

“I love and miss you so much already!” he wrote. “You were the greatest basketball player ever and an even greater father. Kobe and Gigi will live through the entire world forever. My hero and idol Kobe Bean Bryant!! Love, your biggest fan, Quinn Cook.”



THE MAIN ATTRACTION is always LeBron and AD.

Davis, eight years James’ junior, toiled the first seven years of his career in New Orleans, yearning to win big on a grander stage. James, well into his back nine, wanted a final flourish in Los Angeles to cap a stellar career.

Davis readily took his cues from James, eager to fill in as his running mate — a situation a few others chafed at over the years.

“You know, I used to be so upset and so, like, down, when we lose a game,” Davis says. “And he’d be like, ‘I done lost in-season series to several teams. But when the playoffs comes, it’s different.’ … For a guy who’s done it year after year after year after year, eight times in a row [in the NBA Finals] … if he’s not worrying, then I’m like, ‘All right, we’re fine.’

“But once he starts getting a little upset, it’s like, ‘All right, we know it’s something that we need to fix.'”

Though Davis has been willing to take advice, he hasn’t shied from giving James the business at times. “I mess with him,” Davis says. “I’m like, ‘You getting old, man.’ Earlier this year, he had a dunk on a break, and it was like something so simple. And I told him, ‘Man, that’s a three.’

“And so when he did the same [dunk] that Kobe did, he came to me after the game and said, ‘Yeah, that was an 8.5, wasn’t it?'”

Confused by the number, Davis needed to be reminded of the needle he gave James months before.

“‘I’m not old yet,'” Davis says, paraphrasing James’ quip.

Sharing the story gave Davis a satisfied smile.

“I’m doing my job motivating him,” he says.



LAKERS ASSISTANT COACH Phil Handy has a distinctive entry into the “Battle for L.A.” that became a marquee matchup, with the league scheduling Lakers-Clippers on two of its premium calendar spots: opening night and Christmas Day.

He was an assistant in Cleveland under Tyronn Lue, whom the Lakers spurned during contract negotiations last summer by pulling their offer and eventually hiring Vogel — someone whom Lue had suggested to L.A.’s brass when discussing his potential coaching staff, sources say. Lue then joined Doc Rivers’ bench down the hallway at Staples Center.

Handy coached Leonard with the Raptors, giving him a relationship with the biggest acquisition in Clippers franchise history.

The Clippers won the opener by 10, with Leonard outscoring James 30-18. They won on Christmas too, roaring back from a 15-point third-quarter deficit to win by five.

On March 8, days before the NBA would shut down, the Lakers put a tally on the board, beating the Clippers 112-103. James and Davis played Leonard and Paul George to a draw, both duos scoring 58 points, but Bradley put the Lakers over the top with a season-high 24 points.

“Me personally, I felt like we shot ourselves in the foot,” Handy says, looking back at the season series. “Look, the Clippers are a good team, man. They’ve got unbelievable talent. But I don’t feel that … I felt that, again, we shot ourselves in the foot in those first two games, and we should have won both of them.”

By the time March rolled around, both teams had established two things: They were championship contenders, and they liked pushing each other’s buttons.

“Me and T-Lue, we used to talk junk to each other during the timeouts across the floor,” Handy says. “Mess with each other. Or Kawhi would come down in front of our bench during a timeout or something, and I’d talk about his shoes. Just all of those things. I think those things are all part of the game and you try to gain an advantage wherever you can.”

The gamesmanship extended off the court.

This season, a massive black-and-white Clippers billboard was plastered on a building adjacent to the 405 South/105 West freeway interchange near the Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center in El Segundo.

It’s the interchange James takes from his Brentwood home to punch the clock, along with many other Lakers players, coaches and staffers. The billboard, updated throughout the year, housed the Clippers’ new “L.A. Our Way” marketing slogans: “Streetlights over Spotlights,” “Driven over Given,” “Squad over Self.”

The intent was not lost on the Lakers. In a passing moment of pettiness, a Lakers staffer suggested the team hoard advertising space on buildings within eyesight of the Clippers’ billboard campaign and simply print the franchise’s 16 championship banners. No slogan. No tagline. Simply a reminder of their tangible accomplishments for the other team to stew on.


VOGEL WAS TOO close to the stand.

“Frank, if you could just step back a little bit, away from the mics, that would be great,” a Lakers spokesperson said.

It was Wednesday afternoon, March 11. The Lakers were trying to toe the line between normalcy and the new world created by COVID-19.

Vogel assumed his regular spot by the entrance to the court at the team’s practice facility and readied himself for the questions sure to come with a scope far greater than basketball.

Reporters placed their recording devices on a black rolling tray table — the kind you’d see carting around an overhead projector in a high school science classroom — and a Lakers staffer rolled the tray close to Vogel.

It was an effort, however nominal, to maintain some measure of safety.

The night before, Davis joked about the virus, mentioning a clip had gone viral of him appearing to lick his hand before celebrating with Bradley during a big win over the Clippers the previous weekend.

“Everybody was playing and goofing around and calling us the ‘Corona Boys’ because I licked my hand, but I didn’t. When we were out there, I never licked my fingers because I thought about that actually before I did it,” Davis said. “I actually thought about it and I was like, ‘Don’t do it.’ So I kind of, like, mimicked it … I’m cleaner than that.”

By Wednesday, speaking to reporters from the cordoned off corner of the practice facility, Davis’ tone had changed completely.

“You see people dying, and more and more people are getting affected by the virus. So that’s real for me,” Davis said. “People are losing their lives.”



MORE THAN A month into the shelter-in-place order in Los Angeles, Flea emerged from the water with basketball on his mind.

Following a morning surf at the foot of his Malibu estate, the bassist posed a question to Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmate Anthony Kiedis.

“Man, wait, would the Lakers be in the first round against, like, Portland right now?” Flea asked the front man.

At the time of the NBA’s hiatus, the Portland Trail Blazers were 3½ games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the West, but were anticipating the return of big man Jusuf Nurkic. Given full health for the stretch run, the Blazers could have caught the Grizzlies, and Flea, a Lakers season-ticket holder since 1997, fantasized about the postseason.

“Different players on Portland, we’d find reasons to hate them,” he says, imagining his mindset with the Lakers back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. “Just all this stuff, like, worrying about if Anthony Davis’ shoulder is OK. Like this whole thing, it just left this massive void. This massive hole in my life, like, this thing that’s so fun to be excited about. …

“It just left this massive hole in my life, and I miss it. I miss everything about it.”

Flea was courtside the last time the Lakers played on March 10 — a 104-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets when Davis missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.

“It was sort of like a hangover-after-a-victorious-weekend game,” Flea says, not letting the result mar what was a renaissance season.

“I just really felt this connection that they like each other. There’s this great Dwight Howard redemption story. There’s these solid players like Danny Green and the fun of Alex Caruso really making it as an NBA player and looking like he works at H&R Block. There’s this really cool, fun team that like each other and support each other. And they’re winning. And then we have this weekend right at the end of the season where we back-to-back beat the Bucks and the Clippers.

“And it’s just the most exciting thing ever and then, boom, hoopus interruptus. The COVID virus hits.”

While he can dismiss the outcome of the Nets game, he can’t shake the circumstances around it. Four Nets players — including Kevin Durant — and two unnamed Lakers players, tested positive for the coronavirus in the weeks that followed.

He took basic precautions that night, which feel almost pointless in retrospect.

“I was going to the bathroom and washing my hands all the time and telling my wife not to hug people like she always does,” Flea says.

Meanwhile, he saw Nets players interact with fans in the front row. He saw his 80-year-old buddy, NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein, congregating in the arena alongside 18,997 potential carriers.

“Looking back,” Flea says, “I was like, ‘Jeez, the coronavirus was flying all over the place!'”

He misses his Lakers. And, with the resumption of the season uncertain in mid-April, Flea can only imagine what it would be like for James to miss out on a chance at another ring.

“He could have won a championship this year and that would have been — for him to win it with three different teams and being like the leading guy — it would be amazing for him,” Flea says.

“And I wanted that for him. I knew how great he was, but to watch him closely the way that I did all season, it’s just, God, you can’t help but pull for the guy.”



IT HAD BEEN 132 days since anyone outside of the Lakers’ organization had seen the team on the court together.

“1-2-3, Mamba!” they bellowed in unison as they broke from a pre-practice huddle on July 21.

Historically, this is the time on the calendar when James visits his vacation home in Cabo San Lucas. But now, the season is set to resume in what will be the longest road trip of his career.

“Every year is going to have some things that you have to adjust to that you may not be ready for,” James said, sporting a bushy beard as he stared into a flat-screen monitor just outside the court in The Arena.

“Everyone keeps asking, ‘How is the bubble?’ or, ‘How is it going?’ and I just say, ‘It’s 2020.’ Nothing is normal in 2020. Nothing seems as is, and who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was.”

The Lakers ended their first full practice in months on a makeshift court, sitting atop the Western Conference standings with an opportunity to contend for a title that was so tenuous just weeks prior. Nine months have passed since the Lakers first found themselves in a makeshift bubble in Shanghai.

As players lingered on the court, James went about his post-workout cool-down routine: sitting on a purple exercise ball as he chatted with Davis, fulfilling his media obligations, then peeling off his No. 6 practice jersey for an ice bag to be affixed to his lower back before sipping from a gallon jug of water mixed with Ladder hydration supplements as he exits the gym. The stop to the season threw off his meticulous training regimen, but there was little indication of rust as team activities resumed.

“Pretty consistent,” a team source says of James’ fitness post-hiatus. “Leaned up just a tad, but pretty even.”

Signs of his 17 years in the league — the most recent carrying more consequence than 12 months are equipped to hold — is represented on his face. That bushy beard is splashed with flecks of gray and two patches of white on either side where his jawline meets below the ears.

It’s a look fitting for the elder statesman.


  • July 30: The NBA resumes regular season play, with 22 of the league’s 30 teams invited to Orlando to play in eight seeding games before the playoffs.

  • Aug. 24: The Lakers wear Black Mamba jerseys on Kobe Bryant Day with a new commemorative patch for Gianna Bryant.

  • Aug. 25: Giannis Antetokounmpo wins 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year; Anthony Davis finishes second in the voting.

  • Aug. 26: The Bucks boycott their game with the Orlando Magic as a protest in response to the shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back by Kenosha police officers. The league suspends play until Friday, Aug. 28.

  • Aug. 29: The Lakers defeat the Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs in five games.

  • Sep. 4: Rajon Rondo returns to the lineup for Game 1 after fracturing his thumb in July and suffering from back spasms.

  • Sep. 8: LeBron James passes former Laker Derek Fisher for the most wins by a player in NBA playoff history.

  • Sep. 12: The Lakers defeat the Rockets in the second round of the playoffs in five games.

  • Sep. 16: Kyle Kuzma says the Lakers were ‘never focused‘ on the Clippers, a day after the Clippers lost in Game 7 to the Nuggets in the conference semifinals.

  • Sep. 18: Giannis Antetokounmpo wins his second consecutive MVP award; LeBron James finishes second in the voting.

  • Sep. 20: Anthony Davis sinks a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer to give the Lakers a 2-0 series lead.

  • Sep. 26: The Lakers defeat the Nuggets in the conference finals in five games.

  • Oct. 11: The Lakers defeat the Miami Heat to win the franchise’s 17th NBA championship. It is LeBron James’ fourth title.

MORE: How the Lakers wasted Year 1 of LeBron

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Sports

Daniel Cormier: This is the Khabib Nurmagomedov I know

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Editor’s note: Some content has been edited for clarity and brevity.

More than anything, Khabib Nurmagomedov and I are friends.

I’ve watched this guy grow from a young, Russian kid who didn’t speak English to a global superstar.

He came with a dream, not much money. American Kickboxing Academy teammate Shawn Bunch picked him up at the airport, took him to McDonald’s and fed him because he was hungry. And then he took him to the gym.

Khabib was undefeated at the time (18-0) and we would talk to him a little bit, because he couldn’t really speak much English. You saw how intent on getting better he was. You watch the kid, and then you see Luke Rockhold showing him something. And then Cain Velasquez would be showing him something. And then I would be showing him something. Everybody drew to him because he was different, like a kid who wanted to learn and was going to do whatever you told him. He never questioned anything.

Even today as the global superstar that he is, you’re a coach, he will not question anything you tell him to do. He will not question the way you tell him to do it. He’s a sponge for knowledge. I just remember him always being in there, trying to learn and everybody being drawn to him because of that real key part of his personality that made him want to learn.

One thing that I used to always enjoy, was before he was called “The Eagle of Dagestan,” he wasn’t just “The Eagle,” and he fought in the UFC, and he somehow copied the audio of Bruce Buffer introducing him, so he would just play that all the time. Go up to the locker room, and you’d hear “Eagle of Dagestan, Nurmagomedov,” and that was some of the first English the dude learned, was how to repeat Bruce introducing him in the Octagon.

‘Brother, I’m going to be world champion’

You know what he told me one time, years ago, “Brother, I’m going to be world champion, and I’m going to fight for $10 million every fight.” I promise you. Years ago, and we all go, “No chance.” Because nobody was making $10 million at the time. And I’m sure right now Khabib is fighting as the world champion at 28-0 for $10 million, straight.

He sure doesn’t need the money, but he told me that, because he said it was going to change. He was going to be so big that things would change. And now, it has happened. He has done all the stuff he said he would do.

Living in Dagestan, he doesn’t need much. It doesn’t cost much over there. We sent some kids to wrestle there in January, and Khabib paid for their hotels. He took care of them, because they were my little wrestlers. Hotels weren’t very expensive. He doesn’t need much, he does it because he loves it.

I think a lot of stuff about his background is very guarded, and it’s guarded purposely. He’s a guy who’s a bit of a mystery, and I think part of the intrigue to him is the mystery. So I’m not going to blow the top off that.

If I’m going to share anything, I think about his father, Abdulmanap, and the intensity his dad lived with. I could only imagine little Khabib growing up as that kid in that house. When I was light heavyweight champ of the world, one day I was cutting weight, Khabib’s dad jumped on me to grapple with me and the dude was actually trying to win. He was wrestling, trying to win. Just an intense man, very knowledgeable man. I know that he raised Khabib pretty hard.

‘I’m so nervous, I’ve never done an English interview’

Around 2015, 2016, Khabib came to Fox to do an interview. And I was doing “UFC Tonight,” and I was like, ”You can do it. Just try it.” He was like, “I’m so nervous, I’ve never done an English interview.” I thought he did well, but I remember, he would talk, but he would only talk s—. It was like all he did was talk trash, because we made fun of him all the time. We made fun of him for his little widow’s peak, we used to call him Eddie Munster. And he hated it. And he just learned to talk trash back. And now, that’s all he does is talk s— the whole time.

There have been times when Khabib was short on training partners, and I’ll go in there and spar him, light, I’m not going hard. I’m just kind of working, but honestly, you can’t go as light with Khabib as you’d want. He’s not the normal 155-pounder. He’s big and he’s strong. He can wrestle, so you kind of have to give him a little bit more than you would generally give a little guy, but that’s what makes him so special. He can be standing across the Octagon from me, and that’s when I was the heavyweight champion of the world, and I would go in there and spar with him a little and that dude had no fear. I kind of have to give up a little bit more than I would normally give a little dude, because this dude’s actually trying to win. He’s like his dad.

He grapples so much, it’s wild. He grapples more than anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s getting better at controlling, which is absurd, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy better at top control in my life. He’s better at chasing the finishes once he gets on top, because for a while, he was just beating up guys. He wasn’t finishing them as much as he wanted to. But now he’s getting finishes. All that control that Khabib does with his legs now, it wasn’t like that before. He was a wrestling guy, like me, and we were trying to control everything with our arms and squeezing, and over the years he developed the ability to control with his legs, and it completely changed the game.

Knocking down Conor McGregor, and eyeing Georges St-Pierre

Khabib takes a lot of pride in the fact he knocked down Conor McGregor. It was supposed to be the wrestler vs. the striker, and for him to be the one who scored the knockdown, was a big deal for him.

He doesn’t really say Conor’s name, though. I don’t ever think I’ve ever heard him say Conor’s name. It’s always ‘this guy.’ which I think tells you how he feels about him. And I try to trick him into saying it. He won’t do it.

I don’t think he’ll be around very much longer. I think you have to take it in right now. Obviously, he doesn’t need to fight. I’m sure he has enough money, living in Dagestan, for the rest of his life. I think he’ll fight for maybe a year or two, max. And then move on, spend time with his family. I know he does not like whenever he comes to camp because he misses his kids and his wife.

“I went into the locker room before he fought Conor and I couldn’t believe the stillness of the room. The room wasn’t filled with nervous energy. We walked in there, me and my son, and he started wrestling with my son, before the match.”

Daniel Cormier

I think part of Khabib going away sooner rather than later, is part of the reason why we all love him so much. It’s that he understands that as long as he’s champion, his teammate Islam Makhachev can’t be. And he feels like Islam is the champ if he’s not fighting. Even if it’s for that, to give Islam that, he won’t be that long.

And it’s going to suck. It’s going to be a terrible day for all of us at AKA when Khabib walks away, because he brings a different vibe to the gym, a different feel. And he always has. Not just as the champion now. When he was a kid who didn’t know anything, everybody liked Khabib, because he just brought something different to our gym. He was like our Russian little brother who had a ton of potential. Now he’s our Russian little brother who’s a global superstar.

When he’s done, I think it will be over. I think you’ll see him on social media occasionally. But I think he’ll be gone. I don’t know if he’s one of those guys who loves fame. Some guys love fame. Maybe he will. I think he’ll be around with his teammates. But I don’t know if he’ll be a guy you see him randomly.

He loves the competition. He loves the ability to go out there and do something special, leave people talking. I think fight week, to him, means getting in there and being able to do something. I don’t know about all the interviews, and everything that leads up to it, but he has gotten really good at it.

I went into the locker room before he fought Conor and I couldn’t believe the stillness of the room. The room wasn’t filled with nervous energy. It wasn’t like I walked into a room with people so nervous because a guy was getting walked out to lose. It was still. We walked in there, me and my son, and he started wrestling with my son, before the match. I think he lives for those moments, to go out there and compete.

GSP will be the one he leaves on. If Khabib ever gets scheduled to fight GSP, know that will probably be the last time you see him. Because I know how much he respects him. He respects Georges, and wants to fight Georges for all the right reasons.

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World Series ‘travel day’ roundtable: Everything we learned in Games 1 and 2

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It’s a travel day in the 2020 World Series … just without any travel.

The Series — tied at 1 — is staying in Arlington, Texas, but the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays have 24 hours to catch their breath before Game 3 on Friday.

While they do, ESPN baseball writers Sam Miller and David Schoenfield answer some key questions so far this Fall Classic.


What has stood out to you most over the first two games of this World Series?

Sam Miller: How much deeper the Rays’ lineup looks when Brandon Lowe and Joey Wendle aren’t helpless. Tampa Bay got through three playoff rounds behind good pitching and Randy Arozarena, but every inning seemed to start with slumping Rays hitters making two quick outs. Lowe, their best regular-season hitter/worst postseason hitter, broke out with two homers in Game 2. Wendle, in a similar slide, hit one oppo-rocket for a sac fly and pulled a double so hard that Mookie Betts took a bad route at it. Austin Meadows and Yandy Diaz each hit his hardest ball this postseason in Game 2, and Manuel Margot is showing that he might have actually turned into a star sometime in mid-August. The Kershaws and Buehlers of the world might still shut this lineup down, but the Rays should scare the rest of the Dodgers’ staff.

David Schoenfield: That maybe this isn’t going to be the low-scoring, grind-it-out, home runs-or-die series that we expected. With scores of 8-3 and 6-4, we’ve seen a little more offense than perhaps anticipated given the two pitching staffs. Also, that second-guessing in the World Series will forever remain a fun parlor game. Did Kevin Cash leave Tyler Glasnow in too long in Game 1? Did the Dodgers outthink themselves with a bullpen game in Game 2? Why does Dustin May not strike out more batters given his fastball? What is with all these “contact” plays by the runner on third base this postseason? OK, it worked for Mookie Betts on Tuesday, but it has failed several other times. Are 28-man rosters too many players? (Yes.) Are you tired off bullpen games? (Yes.) Is Corey Seager locked in right now? (Yes.) Do Dodgers fans want to see Joe Kelly in a close game? (No.)

What do the Dodgers need to do to win the series from here?

Miller: It sounds like the worst kind of cliche, but they just need to do what they do. The Dodgers are (no offense, Tampa Bay!) the better team here, and even in two split games it has showed: The Dodgers have 50 points of OBP on Tampa Bay so far in this series and 80 points of slugging. The regular-season Dodgers were only the 11th team in modern history with a winning percentage over .700, and so far in the postseason, against other postseason teams, they have the run differential of a .700 team. If they don’t make any gaffes and they just [serious cliche voice] play like they’re capable of playing, they’re going to win every seven-game series that isn’t beset by weirdness.

Schoenfield: Picking up where Sam left off, keep working those counts. They made Tyler Glasnow throw 112 pitches in just 4⅓ innings. Blake Snell was great in Game 2 through four innings, but in the end they drew four walks off him and knocked him out after 4⅔ innings. They’ve seen Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks now and the more they see of them, the better they will adjust. As good as the Tampa Bay pen is, Cash doesn’t really want to go too deep, and with three games in three days, reliever fatigue becomes a potential issue.

What do the Rays need to do to win the series from here?

Miller: Get Nick Anderson right. Anderson was the best reliever in baseball for the year prior to this month, and the Rays use him so aggressively that it’d be easy to see him being named MVP of this series. But arguably his four worst outings of the year — OK, probably four of his worst five — have come in his past four appearances. His rightness obviously carries extra importance, because he comes into the biggest moment of every close game. He doesn’t have the freedom to fail just a little bit. But beyond the direct impact his pitches have, the Rays’ trust in him sets the rest of the pitching plan. If you’re counting to 27 outs and you don’t have Anderson for four to seven of them, that has ramifications for Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, for Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo, for the whole story the Rays are trying to tell.

Schoenfield: Sam took my suggestion. Indeed, the dirty little secret for the Rays is that Anderson hasn’t actually been that good in the postseason. He has now been scored on in five straight appearances and in six of his eight games in the playoffs. After averaging 14.3 K’s per nine innings in his limited action in the regular season, he has only eight in 13 postseason innings. Anyway, let’s go with this: Ride Charlie Morton. Given Anderson’s struggles, it’s important that Morton shuts down the Dodgers in Game 3 … and then again in Game 7 if the series goes the distance. Morton is riding a streak of five straight postseason starts dating to 2019 where he has given up one earned run or fewer (including his past two). His longest outing in this stretch has been just 5⅔ innings, but if he gives up one run in five innings, the Rays will be in a great position.

Who is the MVP of the series through two games?

Miller: Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw took control of this series for the Dodgers on the fourth batter of the first game, when — with two on and one out — he got Hunter Renfroe on a checked swing for a huge strikeout. He then retired 16 of the next 17 batters as the Dodgers’ offense chewed through three Tampa Bay pitchers to first take a small lead and then build a big one. No, they couldn’t keep control of the series after Kershaw left, and we go into the first “travel” day tied. But nobody looms over the rest of this series quite so much as Kershaw, the pitcher Tampa Bay couldn’t hit, lined up for a Game 5 start and a probable Game 7 (if necessary) relief appearance.

Schoenfield: Kershaw is in the best shape to win it for the entire series since he’s now guaranteed a start in Game 5 since the Rays avoided the sweep. It’s hard for a pitcher to win MVP honors though. If it’s close — like Steve Pearce and David Price in 2018 — it seems as if the hitter usually wins. We’ve had 21 MVPs since 2000 (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling shared it in 2001), but pitchers have won only six.

What have you noticed the most about the neutral site, limited fans World Series so far?

Miller: I haven’t noticed their presence very much, to be honest. I certainly haven’t noticed fans affecting the game the way 40,000 delirious partisans can. Maybe it’s different for the players in the middle of it, but if there’s a spectrum that ranges from “empty” to “full and Octobery,” it has felt closer to empty.

Schoenfield: Now, this wouldn’t have been a problem with a regular Tampa Bay-Los Angeles World Series since both are warm-weather cities and the Rays play indoors, but it has been nice that the entire postseason has been played in warm-weather locations — the way baseball is supposed to be played. No winter jackets. No heaters in the dugouts. No turtlenecks or ski masks. Am I advocating for a permanent warm-weather World Series? Well, it’s supposed to snow in Minneapolis on Thursday with a high of 35.

How will a travel day off — without travel — impact the rest of this series?

Miller: Probably a lot less than we would have guessed 36 hours ago! The break (and the break between Games 5 and 6) will let the Dodgers use Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin in relief during the games “in” Tampa Bay, which seemed important except that neither of them has looked very good lately. None of either team’s high-leverage relievers are gassed, thanks to the blowout Tuesday. I guess the day gives Tampa Bay a chance to reset its bullpen after Anderson’s and Fairbanks’ extended outings Wednesday, but neither threw that many pitches. Uh … it gives Kevin Kiermaier‘s wrist another day to get healthy, if that’s still a factor? Dave? Got something better?

Schoenfield: More time for the Dodgers to outthink themselves? I kid! I kid! The Dodgers will definitely make all the right choices in their pitching decisions, just like in the 2017 World Series and 2018 World Series and … OK, here’s the deal. They can play the next three games straight with Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and then Kershaw going. I think Dave Roberts has finally decided on who his top relievers are: Blake Treinen, Brusdar Graterol, Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen from the right side and then maybe Victor Gonzalez and Jake McGee from the left side. Trouble is, he had all those righties available in Game 2 (only Baez pitched in Game 1), yet he used the struggling May and then Joe Kelly and those two combined to give up four runs (he got away with using Alex Wood, the worst pitcher on the staff). This is the World Series. It’s not time to save your best relievers for only when you’re ahead. It’s important to hold down the fort at all times and … oh, wait, you were asking about the “travel” day, not the Dodgers’ bullpen. My bad.

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2020 NBA free agency and trades: Latest buzz, news and reports

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The 2020 NBA free-agent class won’t have the star power of last season — when nearly half the league became available — but plenty of big names are set to hit the market. Even more could be offered in trade talks.

Will back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sign a five-year extension with the Milwaukee Bucks? What is the market for Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet? Is Anthony Davis a lock to return to the champion Los Angeles Lakers?

Keep it here for the latest news, buzz and analysis throughout the free agency and trade season.

MORE: Trade Machine | Full FA list | More on free agency/trades

Oct. 21 updates

3 p.m. ET: During the introduction of new Indiana Pacers head coach Nate Bjorkgren, team president Kevin Pritchard discussed the biggest offseason question remaining for the franchise: the future of two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo, who can become an unrestricted free agent after next season.

“[Oladipo] feels good about the team. He’s talked to me about how he thinks this team can be very good,” Pritchard said. “We hear a lot of things, but until it comes to me, I don’t really worry about that.”

Oladipo is entering the final year of four-year, $85 million deal.

Marks: Next steps for the Pacers


11:34 a.m. ET: The Minnesota Timberwolves, who don’t yet see a clear choice for their No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, are closely evaluating all situations, including trade scenarios, before coming up with a set plan on draft night, ESPN’s Eric Woodyard reports.

“For us, we typically study the draft from 1 to whatever number we feel like is a draftable player,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said. “And we’ll evaluate those guys for trade scenarios, trade back, trade out, for undrafted free-agent opportunities, for minor league opportunities, so we really beat up the draft board as much as can all the way up until the draft.”

Minnesota also holds the 17th and 33rd picks in the Nov. 18 draft.

MORE: Everything to know for the 2020 draft

Oct. 12 update

2:18 a.m. ET: Following the Los Angeles Lakers’ title-clinching win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Anthony Davis addressed his impending free agency.

“I had a great time in L.A. this first year. This has been nothing but joy, nothing but amazement. Over the next couple of months, we’ll figure it out. I mean, I’m not 100 percent sure, but that’s why my agent [Rich Paul] is who he is, and we’ll discuss it and figure it out,” Davis said.

Davis is expected to opt out of his $28.8 million contract for 2020-21 and could receive $32.7 million next season if the salary cap stays at $109.1 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.

Marks: How the Lakers get back to the Finals

Must-reads: NBA offseason

Watch these four teams during trade season

With the trade market to reopen soon, NBA Insider Kevin Pelton examines what’s next for Brooklyn, Golden State, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia.

5-on-5: Debating the biggest storylines for the 2020 offseason

What New Orleans will do and where Chris Paul and Fred VanVleet play next season are among the topics we’re watching right now.

Biggest decisions for all 30 teams

NBA Front Office Insider Bobby Marks runs though all 30 teams with breakdowns on big-picture priorities, draft assets, potential moves, cap-space possibilities and team needs.

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