July 08,2021

By Ben Nuckols 

Associated Press

 

The biographical blurbs about competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee include a litany of other interests, from sports to musical instruments to science competitions to Indian classical dance.

Scripps’ motivation for sharing those hobbies and passions is clear: It sends the message that the spellers are normal kids, not robotic middle-schoolers with a monomaniacal devotion to memorizing the dictionary.

But even among the more well-rounded spellers who will compete Thursday in the ESPN-televised national finals, Zaila Avant-garde stands out.

The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, has earned more recognition for her athletic prowess than her achievements in spelling.

She is a basketball prodigy who has appeared in a commercial with Stephen Curry and owns three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.

She has more than 12,000 Instagram followers — where videos of her dazzling skills have won praise from musician Michael Franti, among others — and she hopes to attend Harvard, play in the WNBA and possibly coach one day in the NBA, if she doesn’t go to work for NASA.

Competitive spelling came relatively late in life, starting at age 12.

“Basketball, I’m not just playing it. I’m really trying to go somewhere with it. Basketball is what I do,” Zaila said. “Spelling is really a side thing I do. It’s like a little hors d’ouevre. But basketball’s like the main dish.”

Don’t be mistaken: Zaila brings the same competitive fire to spelling that she shows on court. She won last year’s Kaplan-Hexco Online Spelling Bee — one of several bees that emerged during the pandemic after Scripps canceled last year — and used the $10,000 first prize to pay for study materials and $130-an-hour sessions with a private tutor, 2015 Scripps runner-up Cole Shafer-Ray.

The time commitment required to master roots, language patterns and definitions is what keeps many top spellers from seriously pursuing sports or other activities. But Zaila, who is home-schooled, claims to have it figured out.

“For spelling, I usually try to do about 13,000 words (per day), and that usually takes about seven hours or so,” she said. “We don’t let it go way too overboard, of course. I’ve got school and basketball to do.”

Seven hours a day isn’t going overboard?

“I have my suspicions. I don’t know. I have some suspicions that maybe it’s a bit less than what some spellers do,” she said.

Whether all that preparation leads to a trophy and $50,000 in cash and prizes will be determined Thursday night when Zaila faces 10 other spellers for the only in-person portion of this year’s pandemic-altered bee. Normally staged at a convention center outside Washington, the bee was moved to an ESPN campus in Florida, with attendance strictly limited and masking and distancing protocols in place.

“This is an entirely different experience. The structure of the bee is different, the location is different, so I’m really excited to see what this bee has in store,” said 14-year-old Ashrita Gandhari of Ashburn, Virginia, competing for the fourth time.

Zaila — whose father changed her last name to Avant-garde in honor of jazz musician John Coltrane — would chart a new career path for spellers if her hoop dreams come true. She could also make spelling history of a different sort, by becoming the first Black American champion. The only previous Black winner of the bee was also the only international winner: Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica in 1998.

Zaila said she hopes to inspire other African-Americans who might not understand the appeal of spelling or can’t afford to pursue it.

“Maybe they don’t have the money to pay $600 for a spelling program, they don’t have access to that,” Zaila said. “With tutors and stuff, they charge, like, murder rates.”

The bee has been rightly celebrated as a showcase for students of color — a speller of South Asian descent has been the champion or co-champion of every bee since 2008 — but Zaila is not the first speller to point out issues with economic diversity.

Indian-Americans are the wealthiest U.S. ethnic group, according to Census data, and Indian professionals who immigrate to the U.S. have access to a network of bees and other academic competitions targeting their community.

J. Michael Durnil, the bee’s new executive director, said he hopes to make more resources available to spellers who can’t access elite-level training.

“It’s really important to me that a student anywhere in the country or a parent or a sponsor watches the bee on (Thursday) and says, ‘I see myself there, I want to be there and there is a clear pathway to try to get there,’” Durnil said.

Category: Sports

July 01,2021

By Amanda Scurlock

Sports Writer

 

Recently, three NBA head coaching jobs went to African Americans. Jason Kidd is to lead the Dallas Mavericks, Ime Udoka will coach the Boston Celtics and Chauncey Billups will be at the helm of the Portland Trailblazers.

This shows how the NBA is attempting to resolve their racial disparities in a predominantly Black league.

At the end of the regular season this year, seven out of 30 NBA teams had Black head coaches. In the NBA, 74.8 percent of the players identify as Black and 81.9 percent consider themselves as people of color. In 2019, 18.1 percent of NBA players identify as White.

Kidd had two stints with the Mavericks as a player, 1994-1996 and from 2008-2012. He helped the franchise win their only championship during the 2010-2011 season. That was the last season the Mavs won a Playoffs series.

Kidd brings five years of coaching experience with him to Dallas after coaching the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks.

He spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, helping them win the 2020 NBA Championship.

“Dallas has meant so much to me as a player and I want to thank Mark Cuban for the opportunity to return as a head coach,” Kidd said. “I am excited to get to work with this young, hungry and incredibly talented team and to continue to build a winning legacy for the Mavericks organization.”

Billups spent 17 years playing for the NBA and was the 2004 Finals MVP, helping the Detroit Pistons win a championship. Also known as “Mr. Big Shot,” Billups competed for two stints with both the Denver Nuggets and the Pistons. Billups played for five other teams, including the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks.

“Our two best players are guards like [Billups]. He can relate to them,” said Blazer’s president of basketball operations Neil Olshay. “He’s got a presence to hold guys accountable.”

During his introductory press conference, Billups noted how the Trailblazers must focus on defense to be more competitive.

 

 

“It’s a unique franchise I played against for so long,” he said. “I’m happy to be on the other side with these great fans and also happy to be a part of Rip City and the sponsors.”

Udoka spent the last nine seasons being an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, and Brooklyn Nets. As a player in the NBA, he played for five different teams, including the Lakers, Spurs, and Trailblazers. Udoka is the first NBA head coach of African origin; his father, Vitalis Udoka, is a Nigeria native. 

Udoka is the long-time spouse of Nia Long, an actress who starred in several movies and TV shows, including “Friday,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Boyz n the Hood,” and “The Best Man.”

The Celtics front office praised Udoka for his work ethic, his empathy and care for players, and his ability to teach. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens called him an “authentic super-person.”

“He has a great basketball acumen, he’s got a great understanding,” Stevens said. “It’s his authenticity, his ability to be tough and yet very warm … that really stood out as separating him throughout this process.”

Udoka has already spoken with several players and called Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum “foundational young pillars.” Udoka desires to have “more team basketball,” after pointing out that the Celtics were 27th in the league in assists this past season.

“I’m all about the players in the organization and having that unity and selflessness with our organization,” Udoka said. “We’ll have a defensive mentality going in and I’d like to try to bring the dog out in guys and we got some young dogs here.”

Category: Sports

July 01,2021

By Schuyler Dixon

Associated Press

 

The NCAA Board of Directors approved one of the biggest changes in the history of college athletics Wednesday, clearing the way for nearly a half-million athletes to start earning money based on their fame and celebrity without fear of endangering their eligibility or putting their school in jeopardy of violating amateurism rules that have stood for decades.

The decision, expected for months as state after state passed laws intended to render NCAA rules moot on the topic, came on the eve of the market opening Thursday for athletes in a dozen states, including giants like Texas and Florida.

“This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said.

The move effectively suspends NCAA restrictions on payments to athletes for things such as sponsorship deals, online endorsements and personal appearances. it applies to all three divisions or some 460,000 athletes.

The NCAA will also allow athletes to enter into agreements with agents, though all athletes are expected to keep their school informed of any and all NIL arrangements. The NCAA said schools are responsible “for determining whether those activities are consistent with state law.”

Anticipating the change, many schools already have plans in place, with some weaving NIL education into for-credit coursework.

Within hours after the NCAA announcement, a handful announced policies or updated plans on the topic, including Pitt and Indiana, which said Hoosier athletes “can be contacted directly in a variety of ways to arrange or discuss potential NIL agreements.” Stanford said much of its “NIL support” would be available for all students, not just Cardinal athletes.

Compliance officers at the NCAA’s more than 1,100 schools will be busy.

Athletes must report NIL arrangements to their schools and there are limits on what they can do. Florida and Texas, for example, bar athletes from endorsing gambling and many schools have specific guidance about using – or not using — their logos or uniforms during NIL work. Kentucky warned its athletes that NIL compensation could affect need-based financial aid.

NCAA rules go back to its founding in 1906, though enforcement of infractions didn’t pick up steam until the 1950s. The idea of money flowing to athletes has generally been opposed by the organization with exceptions and opposition both growing in recent years as athletes and former athletes have started to win in court. The NCAA’s historic model of amateurism is changing.

The NCAA had hoped to have broader NIL rules in place months ago, but that process bogged down, as did efforts on Capitol Hill to have Congress pass a law addressing the issue. Emmert said the NCAA will continue to push for a federal law to “provide clarity on a national level.”

The NCAA was forced to seek a temporary solution rather than have athletes in some states eligible for compensation while others were not. More than 10 states have laws set to go into effect Thursday that would have undercut or simply declared inert existing NCAA rules regarding NIL earnings.

Without NCAA action, athletes in some states could be making money without putting their college eligibility in jeopardy while their counterparts in other states could be in danger of breaking NCAA rules.

The NCAA’s stopgap measure comes less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the association in a case involving education-related benefits. That 9-0 ruling is expected to impact issues related to compensation for athletes.

While the NCAA has been fighting court battles and debating rules for compensation for years, the sudden pivot is jarring, if not perfectly clear on how it will affect recruiting and competitive balance.

For now, the NCAA has largely left the issue in the hands of more than 1,100 member schools.

“The current environment — both legal and legislative — prevents us from providing a more permanent solution and the level of detail student-athletes deserve,” Emmert said.

In a letter to member schools last week, Emmert stressed the high court still puts authority to govern college sports in the hands of the association. However, he warned schools that “existing and new rules are subject to antitrust analysis and we should expect continued litigation., particularly in the area of ‘play for pay.’”

The NCAA said the temporary policy addresses “play for pay” and the continued ban on improper inducements tied to choosing a school.

“The new policy preserves the fact college sports are not pay-for-play,” said Division II Presidents Council chair Sandra Jordan, chancellor at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. “It also reinforces key principles of fairness and integrity across the NCAA and maintains rules prohibiting improper recruiting inducements.”

Category: Sports

June 24, 2021

Associated Press

 

Kobe Bryant’s widow has agreed to settle a lawsuit against the pilot and owners of the helicopter that crashed last year, killing the NBA star, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Vanessa Bryant, her children and relatives of other victims filed a settlement agreement notice Tuesday with a federal judge in Los Angeles but terms of the confidential deal weren’t disclosed.

If approved by the court, the settlement — first announced by KABC-TV — would end a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit filed against the estate of the pilot and the owner and operator of the helicopter that crashed into a hillside on Jan. 26, 2020.

Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.

Pilot Ara Zobayan climbed sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.

The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in February that blamed pilot error for the crash. The NTSB said a series of poor decisions led Zobayan to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging.

The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc. for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.

The settlement agreement would end legal action against Zobayan’s estate, Island Express Helicopters Inc. and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp. The suit alleged the companies didn’t properly train or supervise Zobayan and that the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.

Island Express Helicopters has denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” it couldn’t control. It countersued two Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”

The settlement agreement wouldn’t include the countersuit against the federal government.

Category: Sports

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