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NBA season preview: News, predictions, rumors and more – The Athletic



Doesn’t it seem as if we were just here? If it feels that way, you’re not imagining things. The Lakers concluded their 2019-20 championship quest on Oct. 11; 71 days later, the Lakers start their title defense against their intra-arena rivals, the LA Clippers.

But if you are under the impression, because of the shortest offseason in NBA history, not much happened, well, here’s where we have your back. (And why don’t you check in on the latest James Harden trade rumors.)

Scores and schedules | The Athletic NBA podcasts
Tracker: Free agency and trades
Vecenie and Hollinger: 2020 NBA Draft analysis| NBA offseason moves for all 30 teams

Luka Doncic has gotten better at basketball every year of his life; is it that outrageous to think he’ll do it again? If he does, Doncic is the narrative favorite to win MVP this season, between his continued ascension as one of the NBA’s two or three best players and the likelihood that his team improves around him too. Will he be the league’s outright best player? Maybe, maybe not. But knowing what we know about this award, he has perhaps the most compelling case to vote for. — Tim Cato

We. Are. Back.

That’s right. The NBA season is back and it’s going to be absolute chaos. The shortened season. The threat of postponing or losing games to the pandemic. The short turnaround from whatever last season was. The 2020-21 NBA season is going to be a mess. Maybe it will be a beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless. Adam Silver and company are hoping for as little chaos as possible with them getting the season schedule back on track and trying to recover as much revenue as possible.

Trying to assess what to expect this season is going to be tough. How will COVID-19 affect the league outside of a bubble? How will teams manage the regular season? Will the truncated schedule and sacrifices when it comes to the league’s policy and execution with a balanced schedule and proper rest end up costing it some important players due to injury? There are a ton of questions as we head into the first week of Power Rankings.

Lakers preview: LeBron vs. Father Time

LeBron James continues to resist the laws of aging. He was the MVP of the Finals and finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the voting for the regular-season award. He’s kept himself in peak physical condition, and statistically, his performance level is virtually indistinguishable from what it was five years ago.

He also will be 36 years old when the next postseason begins, after coming off a short offseason and playing a compressed 72-game schedule. Normally you could probably laugh away any concerns; even if he drops off in the regular season, he’s always been able to dial it back up in the playoffs. Davis’ presence also provides a margin of error, a second star to take on the scoring and shot-creating load on nights James doesn’t have it.

Celtics preview: The tempting exception

Boston sent two second-round picks to generate a $28.5 million trade exception when Hayward left, and the Celtics have to figure out the best way to weaponize it. Astute observers fantasizing about a Celtics dream team will note that a certain Washington Wizards All-Star has a salary that can be accommodated within the exception; alas, it’s unlikely Boston has the asset collection to match what other suitors can put on the table in a Bradley Beal transaction.

A more realistic endgame is that it becomes a multi-pronged asset that Boston uses once at the trade deadline and again after the season. Boston can take on mid-sized salaries from teams looking to cut money, or the Celtics can add their 2021 first (they don’t really need another young player at this point) to up the ante and take in a bigger talent — especially one with multiple years left on his deal.

Mike Vorkunov: Who are the NBA’s best and worst team owners? League insiders vote

There is a lot that goes into winning in the NBA. The players are the stars, deservedly so, and the front-facing part of any organization. The head coach is a genius when his team succeeds and a putz when it loses. The lead basketball ops executives, who goes by many names now, puts it all together.

Then there is the team owner, who lifts the trophy when their franchise wins the title and fires the whole lot when they fail. Amidst the regular churn of the roster, the sidelines, and the front office, the spotlight often avoids them, even if they truly are the loudest voice in the organization.

Every year, the media that covers the NBA brings out its list of the league’s best players, its best coaches, or its top executives. They all matter. So does the owner, who makes the final decision on everything of note and is the only constant in even the most ever-changing team. There are perceptions, of course, of who is bad and who is good. Win-loss records are sometimes just a catch-all, though that’s not all that matters into separating the good from the bad in ownership.

Eric Nehm: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mike Budenholzer dream of big things for Bucks

There is no handbook that shows exactly how to handle your star player signing a supermax extension to remain with your team for the next five years. So, on Tuesday, the Bucks exhaled after holding their breath from the nervousness of a longer-than-expected wait and embraced the celebratory tone set by their coach.

On Wednesday, with those positive vibes still oozing out of the practice facility as Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo spoke to reporters for the first time since the star’s announcement, the organization’s on-court leaders decided to move past celebration and instead contemplate what might seem like an impossible dream in the modern NBA.

“I know there’s probably more attention and more media when guys move and change, but I reflect on the guys who have stayed,” Budenholzer said. “For me, a guy like Tim Duncan, a Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, guys like that, that have stayed in one place and have made it kind of their legacy to win and win championships and win at a high level, wherever it is that they were drafted, whether it be a big market, a small market.”

Danny Leroux: Win projections for the East and West

For analysts, over/under totals are a great way to clarify your thoughts about teams both separately and collectively in terms of overall talent level, coaching, scheme fit, depth/injury risk and so much more. It has become a key part of my preseason work for both the RealGM Radio and Dunc’d On podcasts over the last half-decade, and my success rate is just under 60 percent for the full league and a stronger 70 percent on my more confident predictions. The uncertainty of this season due to the league finding its way through COVID-19, combined with a more compressed schedule, makes predictions more challenging but hopefully still viable at season’s end.

NBA Eastern Conference win total projections: From Bucks to Knicks

Miami Heat

Over/under: 44.5 wins
82-game equivalent: 50.7 wins

This line basically puts the Heat at the same level as their 2019-20 regular season, which may seem strange considering their run to the NBA Finals. But it looks like Miami will save its fastball for the playoffs again by bringing back Meyers Leonard and taking it easy with Goran Dragic. Even so, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro should continue to improve, and they only got 1,000 regular-season minutes from Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder last season, so Iguodala, Maurice Harkless and Avery Bradley are likely a depth upgrade overall. Reaching 51 wins is a lot, but a well-coached team with high-end talent and depth should be able to make it happen. If you are a Heat optimist, try to find favorable title odds because they definitely have the talent to get back to the Finals, especially in a weakened East, and could win it all with better health or at least open up a worthwhile late hedge.

NBA Western Conference win total projections: From Lakers to Warriors

LA Clippers

Over/under: 46.5 wins
82-game equivalent: 53 wins

A real challenge because the Clippers have more than enough talent to win 53 games and played above that pace in 2019-20 even with a slow start. However, a compressed season and superstar that we know will get plenty of nights off make 2020-21 a murkier decision. There may be motivation to rally from last year’s stunning collapse, but the Clippers are filled with veterans who know the postseason matters far more for their legacy, so this could really go either way. I am leaning under, but their conference and especially title odds may produce a better return for those who believe in their talent.

Indeed, the power of national television in the NBA ecosystem is such that the league has rushed back for an opening night in December despite having just ended its season in mid October — an extreme maneuver even if justified. The NBA set a sports record for shortest ever offseason against the protestations of LeBron James because a) Sacrificing Christmas Day games can’t happen and b) They never want to repeat the experience of losing playoff viewership to the NFL ever again.

The NBA’s fancy proprietary software, called “Game Scheduling System” or “the computer” more colloquially, drew up the lion’s share of this national TV schedule. In 2015, GSS officially took over for Matt Winick. These days, Head of NBA Basketball Strategy & Analytics Evan Wasch is the man with authority over the machine. Wasch, who’s increasingly gained a reputation as the league’s big ideas guy, is of a new generation. He’s a data driven former Sloan Conference presenter who helped introduce the All-Star Game Elam Ending.

Whereas Winick had a developed personal touch to his decision-making, Wasch has technological efficiency his side. It was badly needed in this truncated offseason. Somehow, Wasch and company built its first-half schedule over a mere three-week period, a herculean logistical effort when you consider how many competing considerations one must weigh between networks, teams and cities.

Tier 1 | Tier 2 | Tier 3| Tier 4 | Series intro and Tier 5

While a lot of focus has and will continue to be on the “rankings” aspect of the Tiers, the process of going through and winnowing players down to the best of the best is as much the point as is the list itself. It is easy to say in casual conversation, “Oh, Player X is a top 15 player so …” Actually diving in and doing the compare and contrast through the lens of what one thinks wins in the modern NBA and how to best go about constructing a championship-level roster sharpens not just the opinions on each player, but also on the state of the game itself.

The Tiers themselves represent a snapshot in time. Even as I was completing the write-ups for the players in Tier 1, I was thinking about edge cases up and down the list and where I might have over- or underrated certain players as well as what players need to show in this coming season to improve or maintain their current positions.

Evaluating player talent and production in the NBA is constant and never-ending, and the main thing I hope this project has provided is a framework for those discussions using a common set of terms. Let’s do it again in a few months when we have the new information a new season provides.

Are you ready for some rankings?!?

The columns in this cheatsheet are sortable, with the default setting being for 8-cat Roto leagues (8/ROTO). If you play in 9-cat Roto, I suggest making very minor adjustments for the players with low or high turnovers, rather than extreme changes.

The second column is for 9-cat H2H leagues (9/H2H), where you’ll see players like Giannis and Zion move up the rankings, albeit not as much as some might expect.

Danny Leroux’s salary cap analysis

How does the NBA hard cap work? Triggers, headaches, and what’s next

If a team takes any of the actions that triggers the hard cap (which are listed below), they cannot go over that limit for any reason for any amount of time for that entire league year. In normal years, the league year turns over July 1. There are no workarounds and no exceptions, even for historically bad injury luck or temporarily going over the hard cap as part of a sequence of moves that eventually leaves a team under.

While it would make more sense thematically for the hard cap to be at the luxury tax line itself, as the basic idea is to prevent taxpaying teams from adding talent more easily, the CBA gives front offices a little extra wiggle room by having a slightly higher limit for the hard cap, which is called the apron. The apron used to be exactly $6 million above the luxury tax line but now it moves up and down a little with the cap, so it is $6.3 million higher right now.

Here are the numbers for the 2020-21 season:

Salary Cap: $109.14 million
Luxury Tax: $132.627 million
Hard Cap: $138.928 million

NBA Salary Cap: Preliminary team-by-team cap projections summer of 2021

While a lot will change between now and next summer, these team-by-team projections broadly assume their front offices not signing multi-season contracts this offseason unless specifically noted but they work as a rough estimate of what will be out there in the wild Summer of 2021.

Here is how all 30 teams’ books look, grouped by their projected 2021 spending power.

Ball, Fultz, Kuzma and more: Projecting rookie-scale negotiation outcomes

The NBA preseason is an important time for teams to evaluate new additions and see how players look after the offseason, but it is also a pivotal window for extensions. Over the next week, we’ll explore the different extension negotiations going on around the league, broken down by the type of negotiation and the timeline to get deals done.

While some agreements can come during the season, there are a few situations in which players and teams can only agree to terms before the regular season begins. The first group with immediate time pressure is those eligible for rookie-scale extensions, players who are former first-round picks. As these come before their fourth NBA season, the 2017 class is up for negotiation right now. Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox have already agreed to designated rookie extensions, but there has been nothing for the rest of the class.

This college basketball season is weird and unlike any other. We’re in the middle of a pandemic that is ravaging the United States, and it’s led to little eccentricities in the process that teams are still trying to navigate. Chief among those evaluation difficulties? How to actually evaluate the freshmen who have played thus far.

Because of the stop-start nature of the season due to COVID-19 pauses, and the abbreviated preseason and summer players got with their new collegiate programs, it’s hard to get a handle on what is and isn’t fair to say regarding the freshman class across college basketball. Remember: The 2020 recruiting class is regarded as one of the better ones to come across college hoops in the last decade. It’s deep at the top, and it’s strong throughout in terms of depth. And frankly, as scouts, we just haven’t seen quite the level of production we anticipated from those players coming into the year. Is that because they’re just not very good and were overrated at lower levels? Or is it because they haven’t been placed into a high-level situation to succeed? After all, freshmen have gotten less practice time to assimilate with their teammates and less developmental time in the summer than they typically get with coaching staffs or trainers.

(Illustration: Wes McCabe/The Athletic)

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'Frayed nerves': Top Olympic official confronts grief while Canadian athletes fret over Tokyo –



It has been a dizzying 24 hours in the Olympic news cycle, with thousands of athletes, coaches, government officials and reporters trying to sift through what’s fact and what’s fiction.

Are the Games going forward like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists? Or are they being cancelled? 

Inside her Toronto home, Marnie McBean, Canada’s chef de mission for Tokyo, was doing her best to track down information Thursday afternoon about a published report suggesting the Japanese government wants to cancel the Games. Her phone immediately started lighting up. 

“The story was first flagged to me by an athlete. I looked at the article. When you take the time to look at the original article, there was conjecture. It was someone guessing,” McBean told CBC Sports. 

McBean, a three-time Olympic champion rower, went into full information-gathering mode all while trying to calm the nerves of Canadian athletes who were tweeting and texting and phoning, fearful their Olympic dreams were dashed. 

“I wanted to make sure we were getting to athletes before they started going down a rabbit hole of fear, doubt, or sadness.” McBean said. “I knew that we wanted to and needed to get to it quickly because athletes were picking up on this. People are on frayed nerves.”

Hours after the Times of London story, Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker took to Twitter to issue a statement.

The committee “has confidence that the Games can be staged safely and successfully given what has been learned in sport over the last several months and the emphasis the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee have placed on COVID-19 countermeasures,” Shoemaker wrote on Twitter.

McBean said their swift action and proactive approach was crucial during those valuable hours after the initial report.

“I was really proud of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s response to confirm what we knew — that the Games are still very much happening.”

A woman wearing a protective mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near a banner of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Emotional time

It’s been an emotional couple of weeks for McBean, who on Jan. 11 lost her rowing partner and longtime friend, Kathleen Heddle, to cancer. 

Heddle and McBean won Olympic gold medals in 1992 and 1996 in the coxless pair and double sculls respectively. Heddle also earned gold with the women’s eight in 1992.

With all the craziness and unknowns around the Olympics, the postponement, this latest report and a pandemic still forcing most of the world into lockdown, Heddle’s advice has very much been on McBean’s mind. 

“Kathleen Heddle is always with me,” McBean said, beginning to cry. “And she taught me to stay focused on the things that are important and I apply that now.

“And what’s important is that athletes remain focused on what they can do and that they listen to reliable sources. Listen to the people closest to you who you can trust. And that’s what’s important. That’s what I take forward as the chef. And how we’re going to proceed with the next six months.”

The next six months will no doubt be littered with challenges for the IOC and Olympic organizing committee. Polls show Japanese residents overwhelmingly don’t want the Games. 

Only about 50 per cent of the approximately 11,000 Olympic hopeful athletes have qualified for the Games. And on Friday, Japanese health officials reported 108 deaths, a record daily high. The country has yet to start a vaccination program in the country but has a target date of late February. 

Brand-new, low-temperature freezers are seen at warehouse at a freezer supplier on Friday. Some of COVID-19 vaccine must be kept at the ultra-cold temperature of around -70 C. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

‘No Plan B’

Much of the rhetoric and statements issued from the COC, IOC and many other national Olympic committees in the last days have an eerily similar tone to last March, when the decision was made to postpone the Olympics for a year.

The COC made the bold move of being first to declare its athletes would not participate, citing public and athlete safety as the priority. 

IOC president Thomas Bach said then there’s “no Plan B,” meaning in the IOC’s view the Olympics are happening and that the IOC is fully committed to making it happen.  

He uttered those same words Thursday.

“A lot has changed. Everything has changed. I think everyone around the world would say there’s nothing the same in our understanding of the coronavirus,” McBean said. “We know a lot more about management and prevention. We know it’s an airborne virus. There was a lot more fear of unknowns last March. Now we understand the value of 14 days and isolation. We understand the value of masks. We know so much more.”

WATCH | Olympian DeBues-Stafford talks importance of vaccines:

Jacqueline Doorey speaks with Canadian middle distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, how it can affect the Olympics, and whether athletes deserve to cut the line. 5:51

When pressed about those same public and athlete health concerns as things stand now, McBean said it is still the priority. However, she’s unwavering when it comes to whether the Olympics go ahead.

“I am confident. I think international sports federations around the world are doing everything they can to understand the virus,” she said. “Sport at its core is resilient. It’s about figuring things out. They don’t say that’s an Olympic-sized task for nothing. You don’t get to win gold medals easily. You have to figure out an Olympic-sized task.”

That’s what this continues to be. A task so immense many are skeptical it’s going to happen — or why it’s happening in the face of a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world. 

“Our athletes are just as conflicted as everyone because they are Canadians first before they are athletes. And like everyone they are doing their best to stay connected to their passion,” McBean said. 

“That’s what the Olympics have always been. The resilience of the athletes who represent the kid next door. They seem more like us and our communities. I think the Olympics athletes have rallied and have been part of their communities.”

McBean concedes it won’t be like the Games she attended, or the ones Canadians are used to watching. Under normal circumstances there are so many extracurricular activities and parties outside of the competitions. McBean knows that can’t happen this time.

“The Olympics are going to be different,” she said. “There are two parts — the competition and the Games, which is a celebration, and the parties and all the other stuff. The way they’ll happen is because they’ll be paired down to the competitions.”

“We hope to take a team of over 400 Canadian athletes to test themselves against citizens of the world and show the world a little bit of light.”

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Oilers activate forward James Neal off injured reserve –



The Edmonton Oilers activated veteran forward James Neal off injured reserve on Friday ahead of the team’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Neal is expected to make his season debut versus the Leafs.

The 33-year-old started the new NHL season on the COVID-19 list, but was activated off that list on Jan. 15.

The Whitby, Ont., native had 19 goals and 31 points in 55 games for the Oilers last season, 12 of those goals coming on the power play.

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Hank Aaron, baseball's one-time home run king, dies at 86 – CTV News



Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats with stoic dignity during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record and gracefully left his mark as one of baseball’s greatest all-around players, died Friday. He was 86.

The Atlanta Braves, Aaron’s longtime team, said he died peacefully in his sleep. No cause was given.

Aaron made his last public appearance just 2 1/2 weeks ago, when he received the COVID-19 vaccine. He said he wanted to help spread the to Black Americans that the vaccine was safe.

“I don’t have any qualms about it at all, you know. I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” he said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”

“Hammerin’ Hank” set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king.

It was a title he would be hold for more than 33 years, a period in which the Hammer slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.

Aaron’s death follows that of seven other Baseball Hall of Famers in 2020 and two more — Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton — already this year.

“Aaron was beloved by his teammates and by his fans,” said former baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, a longtime friend. “He was a true Hall of Famer in every way. He will be missed throughout the game, and his contributions to the game and his standing in the game will never be forgotten.”

Before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Hall of Famer finished his career with 755, a total surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007 — though many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.

Bonds finished his tarnished career with 762, though Aaron never begrudged someone eclipsing his mark.

His common refrain: More than three decades as the king was long enough. It was time for someone else to hold the record.

No one could take away his legacy.

“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said, summing it up better than anyone.

He wasn’t on hand when Bonds hit No. 756, but he did tape a congratulatory message that was shown on the video board in San Francisco shortly after the new record-holder went deep. While saddened by claims of rampant steroid use in baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aaron never challenged those marks set by players who may have taken pharmaceutical short cuts.

Besides, he always had that April night in 1974.

“Downing was more of a finesse pitcher,” Aaron remembered shortly before the 30th anniversary of the landmark homer. “I guess he was trying to throw me a screwball or something. Whatever it was, I got enough of it.”

Aaron’s journey to that memorable homer was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth’s cherished record of 714, much of it sparked by the fact Ruth was white and Aaron was Black.

“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am Black.”

Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.

“It’s very offensive,” he once said. “They call me `nigger’ and every other bad word you can come up with. You can’t ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for black people in America. It’s something you battle all of your life.”

After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered, almost mythical figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight. He was thrilled when the U.S. elected its first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.

“We’re a different country now,” Clinton said at a 75th birthday celebration for Aaron. “You’ve given us far more than we’ll ever give you.”

Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the Deep South in 1966. He finished his career back in Milwaukee, traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.

While knocking the ball over the fence became his signature accomplishment, the Hammer was hardly a one-dimensional star. In fact, he never hit more than 47 homers in a season (though he did have eight years with at least 40 dingers).

But it can be argued that no one was so good, for so long, at so many facets of the national pastime.

The long ball was only part of his arsenal.

Aaron was a true five-tool star.

He posted 14 seasons with a .300 average — the last of them at age 39 — and claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.

Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics — with undoubtedly racist overtones — mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.

Then there was his work on the base paths. Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963 when became only the third member of the 30-30 club — players who have totalled at least 30 homers and 30 steals in a season.

To that point, the feat had only been accomplished by Ken Williams (1922) and Willie Mays (1956 and ’57).

Six-feet tall and listed at 180 pounds during the prime of his career, Aaron was hardly an imposing player physically. But he was blessed with powerful wrists that made him one of the game’s most feared hitters.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt described Aaron as “an unassuming, easygoing man, a quiet superstar, that a ’70s player like me emulated.”

“He was one of my heroes as a kid, and will always be an icon of the baby boomer generation,” Schmidt said. “In fact, if you weigh all the elements involved and compare the game fairly, his career will never be topped.”

Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team, a liner down the left field line off Cincinnati’s Rawley Eastwick on Oct. 2, 1974. Exactly one month later, he was dealt to the Brewers for outfielder Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander.

The Braves made it clear they no longer wanted Aaron, then 40, returning for another season on the field. They offered him a front office job for $50,000 a year, about $150,000 less than his playing salary.

“Titles?” he said at the time. “Can you spend titles at the grocery store? Executive vice-president, assistant to the executive vice-president, what does it mean if it doesn’t pay good money? I might become a janitor for big money.”

Aaron became a designated hitter with the Brewers, but hardly closed his career with a flourish. He managed just 22 homers over his last two seasons, going out with a .229 average in 1976.

Even so, his career numbers largely stood the test of time.

Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history. He ranks second in at-bats (12,354), third in games played (3,298) and hits (3,771), fourth in runs scored (tied with Ruth at 2,174) and 13th in doubles (624).

“I feel like that home run I hit is just part of what my story is all about,” Aaron said.

While Aaron hit at least 20 homers in 20 consecutive seasons, he was hardly swinging for the fences. He just happened to hit a lot of balls that went over the fence.

Through his career, Aaron averaged just 63 strikeouts a season. He never whiffed 100 times in a year — commonplace for hitters these days — and posted a career on-base percentage of .374.

He was NL MVP in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves beat the New York Yankees in seven games to give Aaron the only World Series title of his career. It also was his lone MVP award, though he finished in the top 10 of the balloting 13 times.

Aaron also was selected for the All-Star Game 21 consecutive years — every season but his first and his last.

His only regret was failing to capture the Triple Crown. Aaron led the NL in homers and RBIs four times each, to go with those two batting crowns. But he never put together all three in the same season, coming closest in 1963 when he led the league in homers (44) and RBIs (130) but finished third in hitting (.319) behind Tommy Davis of the Dodgers with a .326 average.

“Other than that,” Aaron said, “everything else was completed.”

Making his accomplishments even more impressive, Aaron didn’t put up his numbers in an era of gaudy offence and watered-down pitching. He faced Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton on a regular basis.

Still, Aaron never received the attention he deserved until late in his career. He played in only two World Series. He was stuck far from the media spotlight in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Early in Aaron’s career, the press focused on outfielders like Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider, who benefited from playing in the media glare of New York City.

“In my day, sportswriters didn’t respect a baseball player unless you played in New York or Chicago,” Aaron said during a 1999 interview. “If you didn’t come from a big city, it was hard to get noticed.”

He was much more appreciated with the passing of time.

Aaron was elected to Cooperstown in 1982, his first year of eligibility and just nine votes short of being the first unanimous choice ever to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 1999, baseball began honouring its top hitter with the Hank Aaron Award, akin to the Cy Young for pitchers. Three years later, a nationwide vote named Aaron’s No. 715 as the second-most memorable moment in baseball history, eclipsed only by Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played.

Also in 2002, President George W. Bush awarded Aaron the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honour. Bush praised Aaron for overcoming “poverty and racism to become one of the most accomplished baseball players of all time.”

“He might be the greatest player of all time,” said the late Tony Gwynn, a fellow Hall of Famer. “Just look at his numbers. Everybody characterizes him as a home run hitter because he’s held that record so long. But he was a great baserunner, a great defender, a great player period.”

Henry Louis Aaron was born in Mobile, Alabama, on Feb. 5, 1934. He headed a long list of outstanding players who came from that Gulf Coast city — Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey, Billy Williams and Ozzie Smith among them.

Life was hard for African-Americans in the segregated South.

Baseball was a way out.

“You could say that God kind of had his hands on me, directing me on the right path,” Aaron said in a 2018 interview. “I don’t know any other way I would have gotten out of Mobile, Alabama except for baseball.”

Aaron, who initially hit with a cross-handed style, was spotted by the Braves while trying out for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Leagues team. The Giants also were interested — imagine him in same outfield with Mays — but Aaron signed with Milwaukee, spent two seasons in the minors and came up to the Braves in 1954 after Bobby Thomson was injured in spring training.

Aaron’s debut was hardly glowing: he struck out twice and hit into a double play while going 0-for-5. His first homer came before April was done, against Vic Raschi. By season’s end, the rookie had put up promising numbers: 13 homers, 69 RBIs, a .280 average.

Aaron was a full-fledged star by 1957, when he led the Braves to that World Series victory over Mantle’s New York Yankees. The following year, Milwaukee made it back to the Series, only to blow a 3-1 lead and lose to the Yankees in seven games.

Though he played for nearly two more decades, Aaron never came so close to a championship again.

In 1959, the Braves finished in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers for first in the NL, only to lose a best-of-three playoff to the Dodgers for the pennant. Aaron’s only other playoff appearance came in 1969, when the Braves were swept by New York’s Amazin’ Mets in the inaugural NL Championship Series.

His dearth of October appearances was baseball’s loss. In 17 post-season games, Aaron batted .362 (25 of 69) with six homers and 16 RBIs.

In the early 1970s, as the Braves tumbled toward a period of futility that would largely last for two decades, Aaron’s steady, sustained excellence suddenly put him in range of the Bambino.

No. 600 came early in the ’71 season.

No. 700 followed in ’73.

“It was some of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen,” recalled former teammate Dusty Baker, who was watching from the on-deck circle when Aaron hit 715. “The way he set up pitchers, the way he was patient. His concentration level was beyond compare. If he was supposed to hit a ball hard, he didn’t miss it.”

The antithesis of Aaron in more than skin colour, Ruth was a bombastic slugger who once hit 60 homers in a season, many of them towering shots that were worthy of their own word.


The Babe launched the last of his 714 homers in 1935, leaving a career mark that many felt would never be broken — or, if it was, surely by a player capable of spectacular feats, someone such as Mays or Mantle.

However, those two were gone when Aaron came to bat on a chilly April night, facing a left-hander on the downside of his career. Downing walked Aaron the first time up, the bat never leaving his shoulder.

On his way to the plate in the fourth inning, Aaron had a few words for Baker.

“He told me he was tired and he wanted to get it over with right now,” said Baker, who now manages the Houston Astros.

Aaron took ball one in the dirt, then swung at a breaking ball that didn’t break much. He whipped his 34-ounce Louisville Slugger through the strike zone with those powerful wrists. The ball rose higher and higher as the crowd of 53,775 rose to its feet with a collective roar.

Finally, it came down in the Braves bullpen. Despite a mighty leap that left him dangling stop the fence, Dodgers left fielder Bill Buckner never had a chance. Atlanta reliever Tom House made the catch at 9:07 p.m. and swiftly returned the ball to Aaron, who was celebrating at home plate with his teammates and parents.

“I know that was the highlight of my baseball career,” House said three decades later. “I know that’s a bad statement for a pitcher to make. But I got to play a very small part in a very historic moment.”

As Aaron rounded second, two young fans sprinted in from right field, startling No. 44 when they patted him on the back before racing back to the stands in left.

“I guess that will always be a part of me running around the bases,” Aaron said. “I never had anyone run with me before. They were just kids having a good time.”

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully was among those delivering the call on the historic shot.

“There’s a high drive into deep left-centre field,” Scully bellowed. “Bucker goes back to the fence — and it is gone.”

Scully remained silent for nearly 30 seconds as Aaron rounded the bases. Finally, the announcer piped up again.

“What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world,” Scully said, well aware of the cultural significance. “A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. It is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”



This story includes research from the late Ed Shearer, a longtime Atlanta sports writer for The Associated Press who covered Aaron’s 715th homer

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