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The Nuggets-Lakers series is putting on for Flint, Michigan

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THE NIGHT BEFORE the Denver Nuggets faced the LA Clippers in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, backup guard Monte Morris had another Los Angeles team on his mind. He was on a FaceTime call with childhood friend Kyle Kuzma, whose Los Angeles Lakers had already punched their ticket to the Western Conference finals.

“He was like, ‘Is it gonna be the Nuggets-Lakers matchup?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I feel like we’re going to win,'” Morris, who grew up near Kuzma in Flint, Michigan, told ESPN last week. “And then once it happened, I was like, ‘Yo, this is lit for the city. With the stage we’re going to be on, to put our platform out there and let them know it’s something good that’s happening in the city to give light on Flint.'”

The Nuggets-Lakers series has turned into a moment for Flint, which claims not only Morris and Kuzma, but also Lakers center JaVale McGee and NBA referee Courtney Kirkland, who, in his 20th NBA season, worked his first-ever conference finals game in Game 1.

For the three players, a trip to the NBA Finals is on the line, but so are hometown bragging rights. The winner will play on for a chance to return to Flint this offseason as an NBA champion, but they’ll also get an opportunity to continue to raise awareness about the city’s ongoing water crisis and what it means to be Flint Strong.

MICHIGAN STATE HADN’T been to the Final Four since Magic Johnson led the team to a title in 1979. So when Michigan State All-American Mateen Cleaves returned home to Flint after the Spartans lost to Duke in the Final Four in 1999, he was expecting a celebratory reception.

He was wrong.

“A guy came up to me, and I’m thinking it would be congratulations because [Michigan State] hadn’t been that far since Magic Johnson, and the dude told me, ‘You choked,'” Cleaves said. “Flint wasn’t satisfied with just getting to the Final Four.”

Cleaves used that as motivation to lead the Spartans to a title a year later, teaming up with fellow Flint natives Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson — who were given the nickname “the Flintstones” — to make their city proud.

“In Flint, it takes a lot to gain the respect of the people here,” said Cleaves, who played six seasons in the NBA after being drafted 14th overall in 2000. “Even though you’ve got Monte, Kuz and JaVale, but it’s been pros that have come through here for years, so people have seen you before. In Flint, everybody isn’t going to be like, ‘Oh, man, this is the best thing since sliced bread.’ No. You’re not about to get that, and people are going to hold you highly accountable in Flint.”

That message was echoed by Pamela McGee, the mother of the Lakers’ center and herself a star athlete who won multiple state championships at Flint Northern High School before going on to win NCAA titles at USC, earn a gold medal in the Olympics and play two seasons in the WNBA.

“If you can survive in Flint, you can survive anywhere,” Pamela McGee said. “I always tell people, if they’re coming out of Flint, Detroit, Saginaw, they’re hard workers because it’s a blue-collar town. Just to survive in Flint, you know they’re going to come to work every day and they have another level of resiliency.”

That resiliency has been tested in recent years, as a water crisis has plagued Flint since 2014.

Kuzma, who declined to comment for this story, told ESPN in 2018 that he wants to eventually have the same kind of impact on Flint that LeBron James has had on his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He has reached back to the city through his basketball camps and numerous donations to the downtown YMCA, where he, Morris and Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges all worked on their craft.

“You never know how you can inspire other people,” James said in November. “The fact that I can inspire my teammate, with Kuz doing the things that he’s doing in Flint and the things that he does in the summer when he goes back for his basketball camp and his charity events that he does … I’m not on the ground in Flint, but I definitely always got my thoughts and my prayers to that city on how they can fix it for sure.”

Since Morris has been with Denver, he and his teammates have made multiple visits to Flint to give back to the community, including handing out bottled water to help residents impacted by the water crisis. Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Morris will “run for mayor of Flint” one day.

“They had so many great players that have come out of there,” Malone said last week. “Tough city. I think the one thing about people in Flint is that they use that toughness as a source of pride and a chip on their shoulder.”

That hometown pride runs deep for Flint athletes, including four active NBA players; boxers Claressa Shields, and Anthony and Andre Dirrell; UFC fighter Mike Perry; and NFL players Mark Ingram II (Baltimore Ravens), Brandon Carr (Dallas Cowboys) and Malik Taylor (Green Bay Packers).

“A Flintstone is tough. They’re gritty, they’re passionate about their friends and their loved ones and their city,” Ingram told ESPN. “Nothing’s given, everything is earned.”

Many of those characteristics were instilled in generations of Flint athletes by NBA referee Courtney Kirkland’s father. Grover Kirkland, who died in 2014, coached 28 years at Flint Northwestern High School and won back-to-back state titles in 1984 and 1985. He remains the winningest high school coach in Flint-area history.

“I knew nothing other than basketball coming up. I was born into this,” Courtney Kirkland said. “They went to the state finals the year after I was born. I used to always tell him that I was the key to his success because he was able to turn these programs around after I was around. So I would say, ‘You’ve been successful ever since I’ve been alive, so I’m the key to that.'”

Former All-Pro NFL receiver Andre Rison, who played on those state title teams alongside three-time NBA All-Star Glen Rice and former NBA player Jeff Grayer, said Grover Kirkland “was very integral” in molding the tight bond among athletes in the area.

“We’re all an extension of Grover Kirkland,” Rison said. “We were raised to be professionals.”

MORRIS AND KUZMA have battled for three games so far this series, but have been facing off since they were kids. They first competed on the over-the-door mini hoop at Kuzma’s house, keeping his parents awake with loud thuds.

“That drives you nuts,” Kuzma’s mother, Karri, recalled. “It was so loud. Just playing on that all night long.

“It wasn’t really until they got to college and you could just see it was going to be something more,” she added. “You’ve just always got to support their dreams.”

Morris, 25, told ESPN that he and Kuzma used to talk of eventually reaching the NBA together. Now they’re meeting in a postseason for the first time since 2012, when Morris’ Beecher Buccaneers squad defeated Kuzma’s Burton Bentley team 80-34 in Round 2 of the Michigan Class C boys’ basketball district playoffs. Morris finished with 15 points to Kuzma’s 12.

“Kuz never beat me until we got to the NBA,” Morris said, laughing. “But I never lost to Kuz when we were growing up.”

Since they both entered the league in the 2017 draft — Kuzma the No. 27 pick out of Utah and Morris the No. 51 pick out of Iowa State — Kuzma has a 6-3 edge in their head-to-head meetings, including a 2-1 advantage in the Western Conference Finals.

But it was Morris who earned Michigan’s Mr. Basketball honors over Kuzma when they were both coming out of high school in 2013. He was a big enough star that he nearly lured the Hornets’ Bridges, who ended up earning All-America honors at Michigan State, to join him in Ames at Iowa State.

“For me, when I met Monte, it was kind of like me meeting a LeBron-type, because he was always on the news, winning state championships,” Bridges said. “Monte was big time for me when I met him.”

Now one of the new Flintstones is getting to represent the city on the NBA’s biggest stage. And while Morris will no doubt be upset if the Nuggets’ latest comeback attempt falls short, he would also be happy to see his friend carry on Flint’s legacy.

“We both thank God for this situation to compete, and one of us is going to end up in the Finals,” Morris said, “so we will see.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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