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Kentucky, Calipari frustrated by season-long struggles

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky All-American forward Oscar Tshiebwe is wondering whether the Wildcats’ walk-ons should play at this point in a frustrating season, just to show some fire.

For college basketball’s reigning player of the year to challenge his talented teammates speaks volumes of the crisis within one of the sport’s most prestigious and successful programs.

“Play the people who are willing to fight, even some walk-ons,” the usually affable senior said after Tuesday night’s 71-68 home loss to South Carolina. “Put the people who try to look cute on offense where they don’t want to play defense, put them on the bench. We’re here to fight and to try to do something.”

Kentucky began the season No. 4 and was favored to win the Southeastern Conference — along with its own usual high expectations of a national championship. At this point, the Wildcats have some work to do to even just get on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The team’s passionate fan base has unleashed hurt and anger on talk shows and social media, even calling for coach John Calipari’s exit. Reports that Texas has reached out to the Hall of Famer for its coaching vacancy have only fueled that once-unthinkable sentiment to the point that one fan was escorted from Rupp Arena on Tuesday night because of a sign that said, “Please go to Texas.”

Yes, it has come to that within Big Blue Nation.

Calipari will earn $8.5 million this season with $53 million remaining on a “lifetime” contract through the 2028-29 season that doesn’t have a buyout. He said this week he has not spoken with Texas, and insisted that he ignores the noise.

But Calipari knows the discontent is there and getting louder with each discouraging defeat.

“And are fans mad? They should be,” he said Tuesday after Kentucky’s 28-game home winning streak was snapped. “We lost at home. We don’t lose at home. We lost at home.”

Calipari also addressed the obvious: a 10-6 Kentucky team that’s 1-3 in the SEC must improve, starting with himself.

The Wildcats are struggling with chemistry and consistency on both ends of the floor. Calipari’s strategy and recruiting are enduring harsh scrutiny. Injuries haven’t helped, though Tshiebwe is averaging 16 points and 13.1 rebounds per game after a preseason procedure on his right knee. Still, a physical Alabama squad limited him to six rebounds and four points in a 78-52 shellacking in which Kentucky’s starters tallied just 27 points against the now-No. 4 Crimson Tide.

ESPN analyst Jay Bilas believes it’s too soon to panic, but noted that the Wildcats must step it up in the second half of the season.

“This is not an X-and-O issue, this is a player issue,” Bilas said in a phone interview. “And the players have to bring more, do more collectively and individually than they’ve done. Some players are going to be more capable of doing more than others. But this isn’t an issue of run a different offense and all of a sudden everything gets better.”

Whatever needs to be done, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart expressed faith in Calipari’s ability to fix it during an interview Friday on Kentucky Sports Radio.

“We’ve battled some injury bugs, we’ve battled some confidence bugs and hopefully we can get those things put behind us,” Barnhart said. “We’ve got 14, 15 games left in the regular season and get where we want to get to postseason and make a run. We’re famous for doing that and Cal’s teams are famous for doing that.”

In a hoops-mad state that expects championships and annual top-three recruiting classes, the problem is that Kentucky hasn’t won an NCAA championship since 2012, made a Final Four since going 38-1 in the 2014-15 season or been a serious national title contender since an overtime loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the Big Dance in 2020, and 9-16 collapse the next year left the Wildcats out altogether.

Tshiebwe’s phenomenal breakout keyed last season’s rebound, but the team was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by No. 15 Saint Peter’s — considered Kentucky’s worst NCAA loss ever.

With the 6-foot-9 Tshiebwe returning, there were, again, high expectations. As of now, Kentucky’s tournament resume lacks a Quad 1 victory after losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga, UCLA, ’Bama and now-No. 20 Missouri by double digits.

This week’s loss to the Gamecocks demonstrated everything Kentucky has done wrong. The Wildcats never led against the SEC’s lowest-rated team, and it took a furious rally to get within a point before missing attempts to tie it up in the final seconds. Afterward, Tshiebwe lamented.

“Some of us coming in are taking things for granted,” he said. “I just tell them, (that) the coaches, they cannot do it for us. They just come out with the game plan with who we are going to depend on and how we are going to play offense.

“We come to Kentucky for a very good reason, we come chasing greatness. And if you come not willing to fight, it’s going to be tough.”

Kentucky’s immediate outlook looks dire with a visit Saturday to No. 5 Tennessee, which won last year’s meeting 76-63 in Knoxville and four of the last six matchups overall. Volunteers coach Rick Barnes nonetheless expects the Wildcats’ best this weekend and beyond with Calipari.

“I’m not sure he’s had his whole team together all year,” Barnes said Thursday. “One thing I do know is his teams always get better and play their best basketball late in the year.”

Then the Wildcats host No. 2 Kansas, the reigning national champions, on Jan. 28 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Jayhawks no doubt will aim to avenge last season’s 80-62 rout at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kentucky also has two meetings against No. 15 Arkansas and a home rematch with the Volunteers.

Considering the Wildcats lost to a South Carolina team that got drilled by 43 at home by Tennessee, they can’t afford to look past any SEC opponent. But right now, the concern is whether the Wildcats can beat one.

“Every game we play is going to be a dogfight with us being Kentucky,” forward Daimion Collins said. “We just have to fight, work hard, rebound and defend. If we do those things we’ll win some games.”

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Source: https://apnews.com/article/college-football-sports-kentucky-wildcats-alabama-crimson-tide-0993dccb8762b2fbb9b13bfb11e580f9

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LeBron’s off-court legacy complements his basketball success

Mya Smiley is a student at the University of Akron thanks to an assist from LeBron James, and she is determined upon graduation to become a social worker that helps foster kids.

Her education and career path would not have been possible, the sophomore says, were it not for a scholarship and counseling that she received from the LeBron James Family Foundation. “He’s life-changing,” Smiley said.

For all his accomplishments on the basketball court — four championships, 19 All-Star Game nominations and an imminent coronation as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — it is James’ ambitious pursuits off-the-court that may ultimately distinguish his legacy from other superstar athletes’.

James co-founded a successful media and entertainment company, bought stakes in storied professional baseball and soccer franchises and, with a big assist from product endorsements, his net worth is estimated to have grown above $1 billion. The off-court achievement that James is most proud of, he says, is working to uplift the lives of people like Smiley in his hometown of Akron.

Many athletes have excelled in one or more of these areas. But few have done all of them as well as James, who is closing in on passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s career scoring record.

“His goal, I believe, is to have 10% of his wealth go to causes and support communities, which is an amazing goal,” said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sports management at George Washington University. “I would say he’s maybe above and beyond others, just on that aspiration alone.”

James is, by any measure, an overwhelming success. And he makes Smiley — one of the many people in Akron who have received financial support from his foundation — believe that she can be a success as well.

“If I did not have the LeBron program, I probably wouldn’t have ever gone to college. I would be living in a not-so-positive environment,” said the 19-year-old Smiley.

“His ability to help people’s futures,” she added, “is what makes LeBron a great person.”

James, who entered the NBA straight after high school in 2003, planned early on to use his talents, fame — and, yes, his growing financial resources — to have on impact on the world beyond basketball.

“Even before I got into the NBA, I knew I wanted to find a way to give back to my community,” said James. Although James bounced from home to home during his childhood, and experienced financial insecurity for many of those years, he also was given enormous support from friends, neighbors and educators.

The LeBron James Family Foundation, founded in 2004, at first gained local attention by giving away bikes and backpacks. Then it began looking at after-school programs, with students scattered across several dozen schools, and eventually created a public school currently serving about 575 third through eighth graders. Today the school includes a family resource center that provides a wide-range of services to parents, including mental health, financial literacy, legal aid and GED courses.

Just down the street from the school, the foundation provides rent-free housing to as many as 16 different families — when needed — and it has plans to build 50 units of affordable housing.

“I couldn’t have guessed how much it would grow,” James said in late January. “But we got here by listening and responding to our community and what they need.”

James has made over $400 million in NBA salary during his time with Cleveland, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers. Another $100 million is on the way in the next 2-1/2 years or so.

James is a pitchman for Nike, GMC, AT&T and many more multinational companies. He owns a piece of the Boston Red Sox and Britain’s Liverpool football club. His entertainment company, SpringHill — named after the modest apartment complex he grew up in — is valued at $725 million and has produced movies for HBO and Netflix.

“He’s been a brilliant example for millions of kids, especially kids with lesser opportunity and haven’t had the same advantages as others,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said in 2018, a sentiment he’s repeated many times since. “They see in this guy somebody who has consistently exhibited excellence in the workplace and gives them a voice and lets them know that you can speak about anything.”

James puts so much focus on giving back to Akron because of the help people there gave to him and his family. “He’s never lost sight of that,” said Michele Campbell, the executive director of James’ foundation. “I think that keeps him grounded.”

Just how down to earth “King James” really was got called into question in 2010. That’s when he went on television to announce that he was leaving Cleveland to play in Miami. Billed as “The Decision” — and broadcast on ESPN — the live event was widely ripped as egotistical. But from James’ perspective, the broadcast raised around $4 million for charity, a fact was largely overlooked.

Just a couple of years later, James would use his star power to help draw attention to a cause bigger than himself.

In the aftermath of the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin — a Black Florida teen who was wearing a hoodie when he was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer — James tweeted a photo of Heat players wearing hoodies and bowing their heads that included the hashtag “WeWantJustice.”

In 2020, James helped lead the “More Than A Vote” movement, which included registration and early-vote drives and stressed the need for people — particularly Black voters — to get to the polls to fight disenfranchisement.

Also in 2020, in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, James was one of the players calling for an end to racial inequality and police brutality.

“Everything I do,” James said late last year, “has to have a purpose.”

James has all the money and all the fame that he ever wanted or needed. His NBA records, including the scoring title, are going to last for a very long time.

As will his off-court endeavors.

“His ability to help others and put others first is what makes him a great person,” Smiley said. “Not the baskets he shot.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Kyrgios pleads guilty to assault, has no conviction recorded

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Nick Kyrgios had suffered severe depression, suicidal ideation and insomnia in the past, a psychologist told a court on Friday when the Australian tennis star pleaded guilty to pushing a former girlfriend to the ground two years ago.

The 2022 Wimbledon runner-up pleaded guilty in the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court to assaulting Chiara Passari during an argument in his hometown of Canberra in January 2021.

Magistrate Jane Campbell didn’t record a conviction against Kyrgios for reasons including that the offense was at the low end of seriousness for a common assault, and was not premeditated.

Campbell described it as an act of “stupidity” and “frustration.”

Kyrgios, who was using crutches following recent surgery on his left knee, didn’t speak to reporters as he left court but issued a statement through a management company.

“I respect today’s ruling and am grateful to the court for dismissing the charges without conviction,” Kyrgios said. “I was not in a good place when this took place and I reacted to a difficult situation in a way I deeply regret. I know it wasn’t OK and I’m sincerely sorry for the hurt I caused.

“Mental health is tough. Life can seem overwhelming. But I’ve found that getting help and working on myself has helped me to feel better and to be better.”

Kyrgios’ psychologist, Sam Borenstein, said in a written report and testimony by phone that Kyrgios had suffered major depressive episodes in the past and had used alcohol and drugs to cope. Kyrgios’ mental health led to impulsive and reckless behavior.

His recent knee injury had resulted in mild to moderate symptoms of depression, but his mental health was improving, Borenstein said.

“He’s doing very well,” Borenstein said. “His mental health has improved significantly.”

Lawyers for Kyrgios had sought to have an assault charge stemming from events two years ago dismissed on mental health grounds but the application was unsuccessful.

Kyrgios had been attempting to leave Passari during an argument at 10 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2021, outside her apartment in the inner-Canberra suburb of Kingston. He called an Uber but Passari stood in the way of him closing the front passenger side door. The driver wouldn’t leave with the door open.

Kyrgios eventually pushed Passari’s shoulders backward with open palms, causing her to fall to the pavement and graze her knee, according to agreed facts read to the court.

Passari signed a police statement alleging the assault 11 months later, after her relationship with Kyrgios had ended.

His current partner, Costeen Hatzi, wrote in a character reference that she had no concerns of violence in her relationship. Hatzi was among Kyrgios’ supporters who sat behind him in court.

Kyrgios, wearing a dark suit and using the crutches for support, first spoke in court when the magistrate asked him if he could stand to enter a plea.

Kyrgios replied: “Yep, no worries, Your Honor,” as he rose to plead guilty.

In February last year, Kyrgios opened up about his performance at the 2019 Australian Open, saying what appeared to be a positive time in his life had been “one of my darkest periods.”

“I was lonely, depressed, negative, abusing alcohol, drugs, pushed away family and friends,” he wrote on Instagram. “I felt as if I couldn’t talk or trust anyone. This was a result of not opening up and refusing to lean on my loved ones and simply just push myself little by little to be positive.”

Kyrgios made further references to his mental health struggles during his runs last year to the final at Wimbledon and the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open.

After ending Daniil Medvedev’s U.S. Open title defense last September to reach the quarterfinals, Kyrgios expressed pride at lifting himself out of “some really tough situations, mentally” and “some really scary places” off the court.

The 27-year-old Kyrgios had a career setback last month when he withdrew from the Australian Open because the knee injury which later required arthroscopic surgery.

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Bengals’ Joe Mixon charged with pointing gun at woman

CINCINNATI (AP) — Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon has been charged in a warrant with pointing a gun at a woman and threatening her, according to court documents.

Mixon faces a misdemeanor charge of aggravated menacing, according to the documents, which were filed Thursday in Hamilton County Municipal Court and obtained by The Associated Press. No attorney is listed for him in court records.

According to the warrant, Mixon pointed the gun at the woman and told her, “You should be popped in the face. I should shoot you, the police (can’t) get me.”

The incident occurred on Jan. 21, the day before the Bengals beat the Buffalo Bills in a divisional-round playoff game.

The 26-year-old Mixon rushed for 814 yards and seven touchdowns this season, his sixth. He also had 60 receptions for 441 yards, both career highs, and two touchdowns.

A second-round draft pick out of Oklahoma in 2017, Mixon has spent his entire career with Cincinnati and rushed for career highs of 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2021.

In 2014, when he was 18, Mixon punched a female Oklahoma student in the face, an attack captured on surveillance video. He was suspended from the football team for a year and entered an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges there is sufficient evidence for a conviction. He received a deferred sentence and was ordered to perform community service and undergo counseling.

The incident hurt his standing in the draft, with several teams saying they passed on him because of concerns about his character.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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