bbc– A Hall of Fame-bound player who refuses to be vaccinated. A superstar point guard desperate to find a new team. And one of the greatest of all time desperate to prove he’s still got it.
As the NBA celebrates its 75th anniversary, it promises to be a season full of twists and turns.
It’s been three months since the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, defeated the Phoenix Suns and were crowned NBA champions for the first time since 1971.
In doing so, Antetokounmpo, nicknamed ‘The Greek Freak’, silenced many of his critics and was also named the Finals’ Most Valuable Player (MVP).
After a busy off-season which featured some eyebrow-raising trades, the league starts again on Tuesday night (00:30 BST Wednesday).
Here are some of the key factors which could play a part in where the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship trophy ends up next summer.
Is it Championship or bust for the Brooklyn Nets?
Ask most experts and they’ll tell you Brooklyn is the most likely destination for the title. Although that prediction comes with an ‘if’ – if they can get their big three – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden – on the court at the same time.
Before a ball has even been tipped that projected journey has hit a bump in the road.
“In New York City, in order to work in an indoor public space you have to be vaccinated. And Kyrie Irving has taken the stance that he is not going to get vaccinated which would make him ineligible to play games,” explained Chris Carrino, the Nets’ play-by-play announcer.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s a high expectation level to win the championship, but if they don’t win it, it’s not a disaster,” he added.
The Nets were heavily favoured to win the title last year but injuries meant their star-studded trio only played a handful of games together.
Irving’s salary for the upcoming season is $33m (£24m) – so if he remains ineligible to play there is the possibility he could be traded to a state where Covid rules are not as strict as they are in New York.
“I hope that Kyrie, despite how strongly he feels about the vaccination, ultimately decides to get vaccinated because I’d love to see him play basketball this season,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on the eve of the new season.
“This is between Irving and New York City right now. This is not a league issue… but I think it would have been best for everyone if every player were vaccinated.”
If Irving leaves New York a straight swap deal for Philadelphia 76ers point guard Ben Simmons has been touted as a possible solution.
However, the 76ers are thought to be keen on keeping the 25-year-old three-time All-Star.
The Australian is unhappy with his team and initially failed to report to pre-season training, although he’s since joined up with the squad.
LeBron James & friends
Not only has LeBron James spent more than half of his life in the NBA – he’s consistently been one of its best performers. Now aged 36, the big question is how much longer can that last?
The four-time NBA champion missed a chunk of last season because of an ankle injury then returned only for his Los Angeles Lakers to be eliminated in round one of the play-offs.
Often debated alongside Michael Jordan as the game’s GOAT, James will be eager to prove he’s still the main attraction. He’s used his influence to convince long time friend Carmelo Anthony, 37, to join him in L.A.
Also back in the famous purple and gold jersey is Rajon Rondo, 35, who previously played for them in 2018-2020. Key to any hopes the Lakers have is how well nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook, signed from the Washington Wizards, fits into their system.
It’ll be the 32-year-old’s fourth team in three years.
With his all-action displays he’s proven he can be the main man – what James and the Lakers need him to be is a good co-star. A role Westbrook is yet to warm to so far during his 14-year NBA career.
‘The league is Giannis’ for the taking’
It’s no surprise that after winning their first title in 50 years the city of Milwaukee is still on a high following victory in the summer.
It’s thanks largely to Antetokounmpo – who at times can be impossible to guard. At 6ft 11in and 110kg he’s been described as the most dominant force in the league since Shaquille O’Neal.
And if that wasn’t scary enough for the opposition – the 26-year-old hasn’t peaked yet according to those that watch him week in week out.
“I really hope there’s not a sense of being content especially among the players. I’m hoping they come out with that fire and get back to the championship game and win another title,” Nathan Marzion told BBC Sport. The 21-year-old writes for Behind the Bucks website.
“I think Giannis can be more dominant than he was last season. I see him averaging 30 points a game, shooting 70% from the free throw line and improving his jumpers. The league is his for the taking,” Marzion added.
Thanks largely to the acquisition of Kyle Lowry from the Toronto Raptors, the Miami Heat could be this year’s surprise package.
Lowry an NBA champion in 2019 brings the experience and leadership skills that will complement the Heat’s squad of young talented players.
The same could be said for the signing of PJ Tuckerwho, who was part of the Milwaukee Bucks’ title winning team last season. Add to the mix All-Star players Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo and the Heat could have one of the deepest squads in the league.
Lionel Messi wins Ballon d’Or 2021 to claim record seventh trophy
independent– Lionel Messi has won the men’s 2021 Ballon d’Or, and a record seventh trophy, at an awards ceremony in Paris on Monday evening.
Messi, 34, held off the challenge of Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Chelsea’s Jorginho to collect the prize and move two clear in his long-running battle with five-time winner Cristiano Ronaldo, who was among the 30 players shortlisted but did not feature in the top three for the first time in 11 years.
Messi was the favourite to collect the award after winning the Copa America with Argentina earlier this year – his first major international trophy – despite one of his less impressive periods at club level: Barcelona finished third in La Liga and fell in the first knockout round of the Champions League. However, Messi scored two goals as Barca won the Copa del Rey final and he was La Liga’s top goalscorer once more, before switching to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer.
Lewandowski did pick up the consolation prize of the newly formed Striker of the Year award, while the Women’s Ballon d’Or went to Barcelona captain Alexia Putellas.
Further awards went to Gianluigi Donnarumma for the Yashin Trophy of best goalkeeper, to Barcelona midfielder Pedri as the starlet was handed the Kopa Trophy and another new award went to Chelsea for Club of the Year for their on-pitch achievements with both men’s and women’s teams.
Lewandowski can feel hard done by after another stellar year of goalscoring for Bayern Munich saw them retain the Bundesliga title. He scored a record 41 Bundesliga goals in the 2020-21 season and is leading the charts again this season with 14 goals from 13 games, but perhaps suffered at the ballot box from not enjoying more success with his country, Poland, in a year of major international tournaments. The 33-year-old was expected to win his first Ballon d’Or last year but the award was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Jorginho, 29, might also feel he could not have done much more given he won the Champions League with Chelsea and two months later won the European Championship with Italy, playing a key role at the heart of midfield in both sides.
The highest-ranked Premier League-based players after Jorginho included his Chelsea team-mate N’Golo Kante in fifth, Cristiano Ronaldo in sixth and Mohamed Salah in seventh.
Raheem Sterling, 15th, was the highest-ranked English player.
As the early rankings unfolded, Ronaldo posted a social media message claiming France Football’s Pascal Ferre had spoken “lies” about the reasons why the United forward was not at the awards ceremony and that his only ambition was to win more Ballon d’Ors than Messi.
After claiming his award at the end of the ceremony, Messi remarked that Lewandowski had “deserved” the award in 2020 and hoped that France Football awarded it to him retrospectively, after last year’s awards were cancelled due to the pandemic.
Chelsea run riot against Juventus in performance befitting of champions
independent– Roman Abramovich was in London but couldn’t make Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, and he probably missed what he has most wanted during all his time at Chelsea.
This was a display entirely befitting of European champions, where they just motored over one of the continent’s biggest names in magnificent fashion. Even more pleasingly, the first three goals in this 4-0 win over Juventus were scored by different academy products – with the exceptional Reece James standing, or perhaps sprinting, given his energy, above all.
That was what was most ominous for the rest of England, and Europe. Chelsea put in such a performance without Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and with N’Golo Kante having to go off before half-time.
Despite that, there was no disruption to the team’s level. They just kept going, in the way they have been purring of late.
That is another striking element about the team right now. It is remarkable to think they started this season in rather muted fashion: controlling games, yes, but not exactly creating much. They seem to have gone up a level in recent weeks, with the promise of even more to come. This put them top of the group and through to the Champions League last 16, while perhaps illustrating they stand at the top of the competition’s main contenders.
Some of this should be put into the context of Juventus’ own drop-off. This was nowhere near the calculated 1-0 victory over Chelsea as recently as September, let alone the title-winning spell of most of the last decade. Their ongoing rebuild was simply deconstructed.
Massimo Allegri’s side just couldn’t match Chelsea’s intensity. The Italian was getting extremely animated from the game’s start, aghast at the gaps in his team. Thomas Tuchel had evidently learnt a lot from that September setback.
Chelsea had an energy that was missing that day, meaning Juventus on Tuesday evening couldn’t sit back comfortably, let alone break. As early as the first minute, Kante was just cutting through their half to force an opportunity that saw Chilwell miskick from just yards out. It should have been 1-0. They wouldn’t have to wait too long. Juventus were just hoping to make it to half-time, such was the extent of the siege.
The brilliant James almost caught Wojciech Szczesny out with a smart free-kick from wide on 24 minutes, before Trevoh Chalobah fired in from the corner. Chelsea were away.
They also knew they needed to score one more to ensure they had a superior head-to-head against Juventus. So, for the second half, they just upped it some more.
The three-minute spell just after half-time was precisely the type of thrilling whirlwind both Tuchel and his ultimate boss would have idealised. Juventus by then really couldn’t live with them. They were overwhelmed.
That was never clearer than for the clinical nature of James’s strike. With Juventus unable to clear their lines, and the ball bouncing around so invitingly, the wing-back imposed a bit of order and class on the fair. James chested the ball down before arrowing a supreme strike into the far corner of Szczesny’s goal. That made the young England international Chelsea’s top scorer for the season, which says a lot about both his evolution and the multi-angled nature of Tuchel’s attack. That was only emphasised by the different nature of the next goal, mere moments later. He had more to come, and so did Chelsea.
On for Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek slipped the ball through for Callum Hudson-Odoi to finish. It was that kind of night for Chelsea. It was barely a match.
Long before the end, the home crowd were mocking Juventus as much as their former Arsenal goalkeeper, as the oles and waheys came out for so many passes. Chelsea were toying with Juventus by then.
There was still the crescendo to come, a beautifully creative moment to top it off. James swung over a divine David Beckham-like crossfield ball for Hakim Ziyech, who whipped it through for Timo Werner to finish. This Chelsea, remarkably, look like they’re only getting started.
China’s ultramarathon tragedy and the survivors threatened for speaking out
bbc– When Zhang Xiaotao woke up he was in a cave and somebody had lit a fire to keep him warm. He had no idea how he’d got there.
Zhang’s frozen unconscious body had been found by a passing shepherd who’d wrapped him in a quilt and carried him over his shoulders to safety. He was one of the lucky ones.
In May this year, 21 competitors died at an ultra-running event in northern China hit by extreme weather conditions: hail, heavy rain and intense gales caused temperatures to plummet, and nobody seemed prepared for it.
Only a small number felt comfortable talking about what happened – and some have been threatened for doing so.
The sun was out on race day in Baiyin, a former mining area in China’s Gansu province. Some 172 athletes were ready to run 62 miles (100km) through the Yellow River Stone Forest national park.
The organisers were expecting good conditions – they’d had mild weather the previous three years. They had even arranged for some of the competitors’ cold-weather gear to be moved forward along the course so they could pick it up later in the day.
But soon after Zhang arrived at the start line, a cold wind began to blow. Some runners gathered in a nearby gift shop to take shelter, many of them shivering in their short-sleeved tops and shorts.
Zhang started the race well. He was among the quickest to reach the first checkpoint, making light work of the rugged mountain trails. Things started to go badly wrong just before the second checkpoint, some 20km into the course.
“I was halfway up the mountain when hail started to fall,” he later wrote in a post on Chinese social media. “My face was pummelled by ice and my vision was blurred, making it difficult to see the path clearly.”
Still, Zhang went on. He overtook Huang Guanjun, the men’s hearing-impaired marathon winner at China’s 2019 National Paralympic Games, who was struggling badly. He went across to another runner, Wu Panrong, with whom he’d been keeping pace since the start.
Wu was shaking and his voice was trembling as he spoke. Zhang put his arm around him and the pair continued together, but quickly the wind became so strong, and the ground so slippery, that they were forced to separate.
As Zhang continued to ascend, he was overpowered by the wind, with gusts reaching up to 55mph. He’d forced himself up from the ground many times, but now because of the freezing cold he began to lose control of his limbs. The temperature felt like -5C. This time when he fell down he couldn’t get back up.
Thinking fast, Zhang covered himself with an insulation blanket. He took out his GPS tracker, pressed the SOS button, and passed out.
Closer to the back of the field, another runner, who goes by the alias Liuluo Nanfang, was hit by the frozen rain. It felt like bullets against his face.
As he progressed he saw somebody walking towards him, coming down from the top of the mountain. The runner said it was too cold, that he couldn’t stand it and was retiring.
But Nanfang, like Zhang, decided to keep going. The higher he climbed, the stronger the wind and the colder he felt. He saw a few more competitors coming down on his way up the mountain. His whole body was soaking wet, including his shoes and socks.
When he finally did realise he had to stop, he found a relatively sheltered spot and tried to get warm. He took out his insulation blanket, wrapping it around his body. It was instantly blown away by the wind as he’d lost almost all sensation and control in his fingers. He put one in his mouth, holding it for a long time, but it didn’t help.
As Nanfang now started to head back down the mountain, his vision was blurred and he was shaking. He felt very confused but knew he had to persist.
Halfway down he met a member of the rescue team that had been dispatched after the weather turned. He was directed to a wooden hut. Inside, there were at least 10 others who had decided to withdraw before him. About an hour later that number had reached around 50. Some spoke of seeing competitors collapsed by the side of the road, frothing at their mouths.
“When they said this, their eyes were red,” Nanfang later wrote on social media.
Zhang, meanwhile, had been rescued by the shepherd, who’d taken off his wet clothes and wrapped him in a quilt. Inside the cave, he wasn’t alone.
When he came to, about an hour later, there were other runners also taking refuge there, some of whom had also been saved by the shepherd. The group had been waiting for him to wake up so they could descend the mountain together.
At the bottom, medics and armed police were waiting. More than 1,200 rescuers were deployed throughout the night, assisted by thermal-imaging drones and radar detectors, according to state media.
The following morning, authorities confirmed that 21 people died, including Huang, who Zhang overtook, and Wu, the runner he’d kept pace with at the start of the race.
A report later found that organisers failed to take action despite warnings of inclement weather in the run up to the event.
As news of the deaths broke on social media, many people questioned how the tragedy could have happened. Some competitors, such as Zhang and Nanfang, chose to write about their experiences online to help people understand what it was like.
But Zhang’s post, written under the name ‘Brother Tao is running’, disappeared shortly after it was published.
When Caixin – a Beijing-based news website – re-uploaded his testimony, a new post appeared on the account a week later, begging the media and social media users to leave him and his family alone.
It later transpired that Zhang had suspended his account after people questioned his story. Some accused him of showing off for being the sole survivor at the front of the pack, others had sent him death threats.
“We don’t want to be internet celebrities,” he wrote online, adding that the man who saved him had also faced pressure from the media and “other aspects”.
“Our lives need to be quiet,” he wrote. “Please everyone, especially friends in the media, do not disturb me and do not question me.”
The survivors weren’t the only ones to find themselves put under pressure.
One woman, who lost her father in the race, was targeted with social media abuse on Weibo after questioning how her father was “allowed to die”. She was accused of spreading rumours and using “foreign forces” to spread negative stories about China.
Another woman, Huang Yinzhen, whose brother died, was followed by local officials who she claimed were trying to keep relatives from speaking to each other.
“They just prevent us from contacting other family members or reporters, so they keep monitoring us,” she told the New York Times.
In China it’s typical for relatives of those who have died in similar circumstances – where authorities face blame – to have pressure placed on them to remain silent. For the government, social media attention on any possible failings is not welcome.
A month after the race, in June, 27 local officials were punished. The Communist Party secretary of Jingtai County, Li Zuobi, was found dead. He died after falling from the apartment in which he lived. Police ruled out homicide.
The Baiyin marathon is just one of many races in a country that was experiencing a running boom. Its tragic outcome has brought the future of these events into question.
According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), China hosted 40 times more marathons in 2018 than in 2014. The CAA said there were 1,900 “running races” in the country in 2019.
Before Covid hit, many small towns and regions attempted to capitalise on this by hosting events in order to bring more tourism into the area and boost the local economy.
After what happened in Baiyin, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection accused organisers of some of the country’s races of “focusing on economic benefits” while they are “unwilling to invest more in safety”.
With Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics just months away, China has suspended extreme sports such as trail running, ultramarathons and wingsuit flying while it overhauls safety regulations. It is not yet clear when they will restart. There have been reports that not even a chess tournament managed to escape the new measures.
But without events like these, people wishing to get involved, perhaps even future star athletes, are finding themselves frustrated. In some cases, as Outside Magazine points out, athletes could take matters into their own hands, venturing into the mountains without any regulation whatsoever and putting themselves at risk.
Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, wrote on Twitter: “If this incident has removed the top layer of the mass participation pyramid – as seems likely – there’s no telling what effect that would have at the lower levels.
“The long-term effects of this tragic – and avoidable – accident could also be significant.”
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