The Philadelphia 76ers, and their fans, are still grappling with the aftermath of the team completing one of the worst collapses in the history of a city’s sports landscape that is littered with… well, collapses and disappointments. After earning the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Sixers blew an 18-point second half lead in Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals and followed that up by coughing up a 26-point advantage in Game 5. Their 2-1 series lead became a 3-2 deficit, and instead of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2001, the team was eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in seven games.
Naturally, these circumstances drew the ire of the notoriously tough Philadelphia crowd, with much of the vitriol falling on Ben Simmons, whose offensive play regressed to the point that head coach Doc Rivers was forced to sit the All-Star in key fourth quarter stretches. This play in Game 7 has become a microcosm of the Ben Simmons offensive experience and its effect on the team.
Last Thursday, Sixers guard Danny Green shared some candid thoughts on the Philadelphia crowd. Specifically, he was asked by Philadelphia sportscaster John Clark if he thought the Philly crowd can “have an effect on someone like Ben.”
“For sure,” Green replied. “It has an effect on everybody, and I think that’s something that needs to change in the city. I love our fans, but when things aren’t going well, they can’t turn on you. They need to be riding with us, regardless of how things are going.”
“We’re the No. 1 team in the East, still playing well, and in some games they’ll boo us – that’s part of the culture here, part of their way of showing they love us – but with a guy like Ben, and other guys, I think they need to stick behind them and stick by them as long as they can, until the horn blows.”
The thing is, Sixers fans have stuck behind this team, through brutal disappointments and a borderline ridiculous rebuilding process. They’ve been there through thousands of horns blowing, waiting and waiting for their patience and loyalty to be rewarded. For Sixers fans younger than 40, they’re still waiting. But still they come, game after game, year after year.
Similarly, the fans have been incredibly patient with Simmons. Before this spring’s postseason regression, Sixers fans have supported, defended and encouraged Simmons at every turn. They’ve done this as Simmons showed flashes of the adjustments and improvements he clearly needs to reach his full potential. They’ve done this as they’ve been teased with offseason workout videos of a sweaty Simmons putting up jump shot after jump shot, all with the promise that this would be the season all that work pays off and bears fruit on the court. But that payoff has yet to come, and during these playoffs the regression was painfully obvious, culminating in a complete unwillingness to shoot no matter how close to the basket he was, and a putrid 34.2% postseason free throw percentage. So, forgive them if they’re a bit frustrated.
The rest of Green’s response was littered with phrases that are problematic: “stand by us like we stand by you” and “be on our side when it’s convenient.”
Here’s the thing, Danny. It hasn’t been “convenient” to be on the Sixers’ side in 20 years.
Let’s just look at the recent history of the team. The fan base watched the organization strip itself to the bare bones, trotting out G League lineups in an effort to maximize the opportunity to hit home runs in the draft. Not only did Sixers fans not complain about this nearly unprecedented commitment to not winning in the short term, but they embraced it, supporting both the team on the court and the philosophy as a whole in hopes they would be rewarded with a championship.
Instead, over the last three seasons, they’ve suffered through Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple-doink game-winner in Game 7 of the conference semis in 2019, an embarrassing four-game sweep at the hands of the hated Boston Celtics in the bubble in 2020, and then this year’s epic collapse.
Here’s the crux of the problem. Green has been in Philadelphia for one year. Sixers fans have been here 20, 30, 40, 50 years. They’ve been waiting for an NBA championship since 1983. They’ve been waiting for an NBA Finals appearance since 2001.
Danny Green was born in 1987.
Ultimately, Green was sticking up for his teammate and trying to extract some positivity out of a postseason run that was an unmitigated disaster for the franchise. That’s fine, even admirable. But he failed to consider the lens in which Philly fans are viewing what they just witnessed and how that fits in the 57 years the team has called Philadelphia home. Green was a great addition to the 76ers this season, and his absence after getting injured in Game 3 against the Hawks certainly played a role in what unfolded in the remainder of that series. But he missed the mark on this one.
Photo Credit: Bill Streicher – USA Today Sports Images
Competitive Eater George Chiger’s Road to Coney Island Shares an Unexpected Side Street with the NFL
The first time Ron Heller attended a food challenge event to watch his younger cousin George Chiger compete, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
“My first reaction was to do a one-man wave and cheer,” laughed Heller. “But George was so focused it was almost like I didn’t want to disturb him. I just remember finding that odd. I mean I’m here at what I consider a very competitive sporting event and I was afraid to cheer. So finally I blurted out ‘C’mon George!’ I just couldn’t hold it in.”
The 12-year NFL veteran offensive lineman felt bad for his perceived faux paus.
“When it was over, I apologized for not being the greatest fan in the world because I had no idea what to do,” Heller admitted.
The reality is that Heller, like most people, was unprepared for the crazy, misunderstood world of competitive eating.
Millions tune in every year on the Fourth of July to the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. But it’s more for titillation, entertainment and downright morbid curiosity than for the love of the sport.
In fact, sport is not a word often associated with what professional eaters do.
“I’m not going to lie, I thought this is really neat, but it’s a novelty – a gimmick,” explained the former NFL player and coach. “I’ve never been exposed to competitive eating until several years ago when George first went to Coney Island. My first thought was ‘this is so odd’.”
In one quote, Heller summed up a competitive eater’s most difficult obstacle.
Just watching Nathan’s is like skipping an entire NFL season and only tuning into the Super Bowl to watch Tom Brady defeat a team by three touchdowns. Of course it’s fun to watch but there is no ethos – you get no sense of the world these eaters live and compete in. (And yes, Joey Chestnut is the Tom Brady of the eating world, for those wondering.)
Because behind every Chestnut is a Chiger, grinding out 10-15 eating competitions and challenges every year in hopes of rising in the rankings and claiming various food championship titles as his own, all while living a whole other normal life.
“Joey’s been at the top for years but I’m battling the other 14 top-ranked eaters, to get ahead of them and finish in the top-10 or top-5 – that’s my goal in every competition that I’m in,” said No. 15 ranked Chiger.
If you ask him if competitive eating is a sport, of course he answers yes faster than a reversal of fortune.
“People are surprised to hear we even train,” remarked Chiger. “We do. We have hot dog season, we train three months out of the year, once or twice a week. We try to increase our numbers, our capacity, work on our technique, work on our speed. Hearing that brings people around – understanding that it is a sport, that we are putting time and effort in.”
But what about his cousin, Heller, who played the game of football for more than a decade at the absolute highest level?
“I’ve watched what he goes through before a competition but I still didn’t grasp that this is a game day for him,” admitted Heller. “But then I watched his eyes glass over and it got me all jacked up because it did remind me of the night before a football game.”
Once upon a time, it was the No. 1 ranked eater in Pennsylvania who was watching Heller on game day, even begging him to come to his class for show and tell. But now it’s the elder cousin who looks on with pride.
Heller remembered dialing up Mike Golic Sr., the former ESPN personality who was a college roommate and former teammate with the Philadelphia Eagles. After realizing Golic’s son and current ESPNer Mike Jr. was broadcasting the Hot Dog Eating Contest, Heller had to call his old friend. “I left him a message saying that I heard his son and that he did really well, and Mike called me back and asked which one was my cousin and I said George Chiger and Mike said ‘Oh yeah, my son said he was the best!’ It was a cool moment where I was proud to say I knew George.”
Being a fan might be foreign to the O-lineman but food certainly isn’t. Heller may not be ranked internationally, and his cousin has suggested he not try, but he did put up a solid showing in the one eating challenged he entered.
“It was a hot pepper contest, a sort of sidebar during the chili contest I was cooking in and you had like 10-15 minutes to eat each pepper and then it’s the next round, next pepper. I took like fifth out of 10 people. And then I had a headache for two days.”
They may not eat on the same level, but the cousins share a very similar appreciation for food. Heller’s wife even sent him to BBQ school with Myron Mixon where he learned about competition barbeque and decided to become a judge. He joined the Kansas City Barbeque Society, took a course and became certified. His team, Smokestack BBQ, which usually scores best in beef brisket, is a past champion of the Montana BBQ Cookoff.
From NFL player to NFL coach to certified barbeque judge – Heller’s resume makes him the perfect person to answer competitive eating’s most polarizing question: is it a sport?
“Oh absolutely,” Heller answered vehemently. “There’s training, there’s technique and there’s competition.”
While some leagues are choosing to lean into racial progress and equity, the International Olympics Committee is deciding to ignore the greatest civil rights movement during the last fifty years for the sake of… well, we’re not really sure.
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others sparked international outrage and solidarity, spurring protests against police violence, inequality, and racial discrimination worldwide. The Olympics choosing to willfully ignore these movements in order to proceed with “life as usual” is as callous to the lives lost and oppressed populations still fighting for their humanity as it is tone-deaf to the current moment in which all athletes find themselves.
The IOC Rule 50 guidelines states that “the focus at the Olympic Games must remain on athletes’ performances, sport and the international unity and harmony that the Olympic Movement seeks to advance” and that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Examples of what’s considered a protest include the following items among others:
- Displaying any political messaging, including signs or armbands
- Gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling
- Refusal to follow the Ceremonies protocol
At the end of the statement, the IOC finishes off their All Lives Matter diatribe with a dog-whistle that would make the entire America First caucus proud. “In conclusion,” it reads, “these guidelines have been developed with the aim that each and every one of you can enjoy the experience of the Olympic Games without any divisive disruption.”
It is unfortunate that the Olympics is digging its heels this far into the ground. In the past couple of months, we have witnessed mass murders and hate crimes of people from Asian communities, ongoing destruction in Gaza which resulted in numerous Palestinian lives lost, and the unending loss of Black American lives at the hands of police. Athletes across the country have plenty to stand up for, and even more to fight for. Forcing them to separate their race, ethnicity, culture and communities to perform and compete on behalf of their countries overlooks the plight each competitor will face when they return home.
What vividly stands out in the statement from the IOC is the assertion that proclaiming that Black lives matter, demanding to #StopAsianHate or believing that trans rights are human rights can be considered “divisive disruptions.” Instead of acts of hate and prejudice admonished throughout the world, the IOC decided to punch down towards all of the oppressed, marginalized groups fighting for their lives. It chose to condemn them for resisting at all. When indirectly stating that fighting for equality and humanity for all is considered divisive, the IOC has made its decision on which side to take.
As we further examine the statement from the IOC, we see statements centering neutrality for the sake of peace and harmony.
“As athletes, we are passionate about our sports and achieving our sporting performance goals. For each and every one of us, that passion continues into everyday life, where we advocate for change on issues of great importance to us and our world. That desire to drive change can naturally make it very tempting to use the platform of an appearance at the Olympic Games to make our point.
"However, all of us are here at the Olympic Games because, one day, we dreamt of being an Olympian, and maybe even an Olympic champion. The unique nature of the Olympic Games enables athletes from all over the world to come together in peace and harmony. We believe that the example we set by competing with the world’s best while living in harmony in the Olympic Village is a uniquely positive message to send to an increasingly divided world. This is why it is important, on both a personal and a global level, that we keep the venues, the Olympic Village and the podium neutral and free from any form of political, religious or ethnic demonstrations.
"If we do not, the life’s work of the athletes around us could be tarnished, and the world would quickly no longer be able to look at us competing and living respectfully together, as conflicts drive a wedge between individuals, groups and nations. That is not to say that you should be silent about the issues you care deeply about, and below you will find a list of places where you can express your views at the Olympic Games.”
This word salad is the most elaborate way of saying “I don’t see race” you might ever read. Phrases like “conflicts drive a wedge between individuals” and “neutral and free” highlight the sterile stance that the IOC has decided to take during such a momentous period. We know that silence is not an option when fighting for progress. Even with the approved list of “places where you can express your views,” which includes interviews, team meetings and social media, the powers that be are doing their best to do nothing to stand with persecuted communities. As legendary South African humanitarian Bishop Desmond Tutu once stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Olympics, meet mouse. And no, we don’t appreciate your neutrality.
The IOC is hoping to avoid the legendary moment fueled by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the iconic civil rights activists who raised their fists in solidarity with those fighting for human rights worldwide. They did this with the backdrop of the devastating Vietnam War while the Black Panthers advocated for Black lives stateside. In a recent interview, the now 75-year-old Carlos went as far to state that the Olympics apparently “haven’t learned anything over 53 years”.
While the IOC thinks it can quell athlete activism on the world stage, it would not be surprising to see at least one athlete risk punishment in order to send a message of unity to the members of their community. All things considered, this is just a mere hiccup in the ultimate push for civil rights as this version of the racial justice movement is still in its infancy and only growing stronger. Carlos eloquently stated that “the fight that you’re in is not necessarily a fight for yourself, but the fight is for your offspring.”
The Olympics has shown time and time again that it does not understand this, but the athletes speaking out and protesting for equality definitely do. And they will continue with or without the blessing of the IOC.
Jahmal Williams: full-time husband, father, and activist. Part-time beer drinker. Anti-insurrectionist af.
Photo credit: Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports
Over the course of 2020, boxing saw the emergence of young talent gaining more notoriety. With the pandemic halting sports and its return being tunneled into basic cable television, fans didn’t have to use pay-per-view to see new and exciting fighters. Promotional company Top Rank had a major hand in this, collaborating with ESPN to have championship bouts on the network. Terrence “Bud” Crawford and Vasyl Lomachenko are two of the bigger names who had title fights last year. But there were stars made on the undercard as well. One of those is knockout sensation Edgar Berlanga.
Berlanga is a 23-year-old Brooklyn native. And like another 23-year-old Puerto Rican Brooklyn native, unified lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez, fighting on ESPN has given Berlanga the platform to enhance his star power. He has taken advantage of the eyes watching him as he’s knocked out all 16 of his opponents in the first round. But there are three aspects he possesses that are building blocks to the foundation of a superstar fighter.
Fighters starting their careers undefeated is nothing new. The reasoning on this is based around getting the prospect’s confidence up in the ring while learning the minute details of the sweet science. It’s why early on, bouts are typically scheduled for four or six rounds, gradually increasing the potential total of frames as the fighter gets better. Berlanga has knocked every opponent out in two minutes and 40 seconds or less of ring time. As exciting as it is for viewers, it’s tough to gain experience when the competition isn’t lasting long enough.
To say it another way, he has 16 professional fights and only amassed 16 total rounds. The best part of this, however, is that Berlanga is aware of this. “[I want] rounds,” Berlanga said, as reported by Boxing Scene. “The better competition, the better opposition we fight. I believe we’re going to get those rounds in. We ended 2020 with a bang. 2021 is a big year for us, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Both Berlanga and his camp understand that though he’s been impressive, he still has a long way to go before he is truly ready to fight top tier competition.
With the previous point stated, knocking out every opponent well within three minutes is incredibly amazing. Berlanga is doing the boxing equivalent of winning by lopsided margins and having the outcome decided early. In a sport like boxing where bravado is a positive trait, Berlanga is as confident as they come. It may come off as unfounded arrogance, considering the lack of in-ring experience and questionable quality of competition. But when the lack of experience is the result of his own speedy destruction of stuff competition, that confidence has some merit to it.
Presumably, the opponents get more challenging as boxers move up in rank. And while it’s clear Berlanga isn’t fighting top contenders, he is still putting every opponent on the canvas. Yet because he understands that experience is vital to his growth, his confidence doesn’t seem to have the tarnish of foolish pride. He recognizes that he’s good — really good — but still needs to improve.
The best athletes are supremely confident. His projected skill is trending upwards and it is okay to know it and revel in it. One can’t become champion if they don’t believe it to be more than possible first.
Any fighter who steps in the ring has more than a little courage and heart as a person. Trained fighters of any rank are registered weapons. But there is a special breed of fighters who look to take the will of their opponents. It’s as if victory must come with a physically implemented understanding that boxing may be a sport but these matches are fights. Boxers with that mentality who come to mind are Mike Tyson and the late great Joe Frazier.
Edgar Berlanga is that kind of mean.
“I’m a [expletive] monster!” he roared after his knockout of Lanell Bellows for his then-15th straight first-round KO. Berlanga steps into the ring looking to take the will of his opponents. And as the knockout counter grows, the intimidation factor does as well. It’s to the point that his camp expect future opponents to want more money to fight him. “Fighters are going to want to get paid to fight me now,” Berlanga told the media in a Zoom call in December, as posted by DAZN. “They aren’t going to want to jump in the ring with me for chump change. It happens to the best.”
This idea is confirmed by at least one other fighter, 31-year-old Jesse Hart. Hart (26-3, 21 KOs) says if Berlanga wins his upcoming fight, he’d love to have a bout in June — for the right price. “It’s been talked about,” the Philadelphia native said, as told to Boxing Scene. “As I’ve always said it doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t make dollars. The money has to be right for that fight but I would love to fight that kid.” Even a fighter like Hart, who also said he’d love to “expose” Berlanga, still understands the risk of getting in the ring with such a tactically barbaric opponent, and he’s asking for more compensation to take that risk.
Meanness is often reserved for heavyweight boxers, from the legends like Tyson and Frazier to current stars like Deontay Wilder, despite his recent slippage against WBC and linear champion Tyson Fury. But the smaller fighters can also be that way while blending it with a little more style and flash. The aforementioned Bud Crawford went on a profanity-laced rant on ESPN’s Max on Boxing before his fight with Kell Brook. Berlanga, a super middleweight, hasn’t done anything like that yet, but it is clear he becomes a bully when the bell sounds. Again, knockout artists have been a staple in boxing, especially early in their careers. But the dismantling of opponents with the brute force Berlanga uses is special.
Some boxers try to hit as hard as they can. Berlanga looks like he actually does it.
Ahead of his fight against Demond Nicholson on this Saturday April 24th, whether he continues his first-round knockout streak or not, Edgar Berlanga appears to have the right facets to his fighting persona to blossom into a true superstar of the sport.
A year without ball.
That’s how one of the players at Marc Lillibridge’s pop-up Pro Day in St. Louis earlier this month described his life.
“Due to the pandemic my Pro Day was cancelled,” explained University of Charleston wide receiver Tremaine Ross. “I was not able to show scouts what I am capable of. Coming from a Division II school, exposure and opportunities are limited. I was really counting on my Pro Day to get my name out there to scouts.”
First, it was the East-West Shrine Bowl. Then the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl went down. Followed by a drastically altered 2021 NFL Combine. Finally, individual school Pro Days closed ranks or canceled altogether.
“When I learned my college was not going to have a Pro Day, I reached out to every FBS and FCS school to request permission to participate in their Pro Day,” said Ross’ college teammate, defensive back Jeremy Bell. “I even contacted a small handful of DII programs. Every school either denied my request or did not respond to my email.”
The Senior Bowl and the College Gridiron Showcase managed to survive, thanks to the hard work of their respective staffs but the invite-only format left many small-school players out in the cold.
That just didn’t sit right with Lillibridge.
“When the combine was cancelled, I wanted to give guys a shot to get video and testing numbers to NFL and CFL teams,” explained Lillibridge. “Guys need to be seen. The old adage ‘what have you done for me lately’ applies to players in the last 3-4 drafts. Particularly this year with COVID issues.”
So Lillibridge, a former college football (Iowa State) turned NFL player who has deep roots in the football community both as a former scout and a former agent, got to work. He set up the first annual St. Louis Pro Football Showcase on April 3rd at the Lou Fusz Training Center, sponsored by Inside the League and The Brawl Network.
Any player that signed up would be professionally timed and videotaped in the 40-yard dash, 20-yard shuttle, broad jump, vertical, bench, three-cone and select positional drills with their results signed, sealed and delivered to all NFL and CFL teams.
“Most of the players attending have been recommended by NFL or CFL teams,” acknowledged Lillibridge. “And all teams have requested the numbers.”
Age may be nothing but a number, but a 4.49 40-yard time for a defensive back is something to pay attention to.
“’Bridge’s Pro Day was huge for me because going into my senior year that was one of my goals – to ball out and be able to get a chance at a pro day,” said Kansas Wesleyan defensive back Takota Anderson. “All I wanted was a chance. The one in 2020 was cancelled and so was the one this year. I just really needed to get some official numbers.”
Like Ross, Anderson went a year without ball.
“It didn’t affect my college career as I was able to finish my seasons but it affected my March 2020 pro day, to get in front of some official NFL scouts,” lamented Anderson. “It hasn’t really been positive or negative – it just feels like a standstill. But that’s why I keep grinding and pursuing and taking chances. I’m just hoping for that one opportunity because that’s all I need.”
Anderson wowed when it came to ball skills and recorded a 4.49 in the 40, two things he specifically wanted to showcase to NFL teams.
“I wanted to show them I’m not slow,” expressed Anderson. “That was one thing about being a small school guy and a white guy in general – they consider you slow until you show them you aren’t. I’m not fast but I’m football fast. I play technique sound and I study a lot to be able to get in the right positions to make plays.”
Several players ran sub 4.5 40-yard dashes, including both Ross and Bell who ran a 4.35 and a 4.38, respectively.
“I believe I was able to show NFL teams that I am one of the most athletically gifted corners in this year’s draft,” declared Bell. “If a scout looks at my numbers, I am top-10 of all Pro Days in the 2021 draft class. To be exact, I sit at No. 7 out of 48 Pro Days on record based on the RAS (Relative Athletic Score). My performance in St. Louis demonstrated that I have the speed and agility to play in the NFL.”
The level of skill and drive on the field that morning was impressive to all those in attendance. The hope and sheer determination echoed off the cavernous indoor training facility and the gratitude from the players radiated throughout the field.
“There were a number of players (probably five or six) that did very well during the testing and workout part of the event,” shared Montreal Alouettes director of U.S. scouting Russ Lande. “Now it is my job to track film of them playing football to see if it matches what I saw during the workout to determine if they are players I think have the talent to play professional football.”
Lande, a longtime friend of Lillibridge’s, was eager to bring his 20+ years of experience in the football world to this event. He joined the small group of seasoned staff working that morning while keeping any potential COVID exposure to a minimum.
While the event itself was Lillibridge’s brain child, by the end of the day, everybody involved felt a sort of ownership over the effort. The impact those five hours made on the lives of 27 players was not lost on the staff – even if these young men never made it to the league, having someone believe in them enough to help them have a shot was a validation of all their hard work.
“With Bridge’s connections to the NFL, he gave me and the other players an opportunity that we never would have received,” said Bell. “For me, this opportunity to participate in his Pro Day made everything I was doing, the financial investment and all the sacrifices, worth it.”