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For Charles Barkley, save this prediction: He loves this too much to retire

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One of my favorite assignments as a sports media writer came in 2013 when I rode the C train in New York City with Charles Barkley. The TNT NBA analyst had never ridden on the New York subway before, and some smart Turner Sports PR person came up with the idea to have Barkley take the train from Manhattan to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. “Barkley to Barclays!”

Both the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets were struggling at the time, and as we were on a crowded subway car with New Yorkers excited about seeing the NBA Hall of Famer, Barkley heard a baby crying.

“I’m going to see the Knicks and Nets, so I know exactly how that baby feels,” Barkley joked. The car erupted in laughter. You can watch my very amateur footage of some of the ride here:

Someone who knows him well once told me that Barkley hated to be alone. That line always stayed with me, and I’ve always taken note of the energy he drew from being around people, including in that subway car 10-plus years ago.

I have interviewed Barkley many times, but I don’t want to overstate my insight about him. I don’t know much about his life away from his job. But in all of my interactions with him over more than a dozen years, including once interviewing him in front of nearly 1,000 people at the South By Southwest festival, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him alone. He’s always with someone. If you have never read this story about Barkley and a gentleman named Lin Wang, I think you’ll find it illuminating because it offers insight into Barkley’s desire to be around people.

This is why I don’t think he will leave sports broadcasting.

So, about that. With the conclusion of the NBA Finals on Monday night — a dud of a competitive series and a viewership bust  — the focus for the NBA turns to an official completion of its future media rights deal, along with the NBA Draft. But a significant shock tangentially related to the media rights deals came last week following Game 4 of the NBA Finals when Barkley said he would retire from TV after the 2024-25 season regardless of what happens with Warner Bros. Discovery’s NBA media rights negotiations.

“I ain’t going nowhere other than TNT,” Barkley said on NBA TV. “But I have made the decision myself that, no matter what happens, next year is going to be my last year on television.”

Hearing those words, I traveled back in time. The first time Barkley told me he was considering retiring from broadcasting was in 2012, when he said finishing his contract with Turner Sports would be a struggle. He was 49 years old.

“I love my job,” Barkley said then. “I love the people I work with. And I’m going to try to do things to keep me engaged. But I have four years left on my current deal, and to be honest with you, it’s going to be a struggle for me to make it for the whole four years. I really don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this. I need something more, or something else to do.

“I only thought I would do this for three or four years, but now I have been doing it for 13 years. When I got to my fifth year of broadcasting I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do this a couple of more years.’ But now I’m like, ‘Dude, you have been doing this for 13 years,’ and if I make it to the end of the contract, it will be 17 years. Seventeen years is a long time. It’s a lifetime in broadcasting. I personally have to figure out the next challenge for me.”

NBA on TNT


Charles Barkley, right, on the set with the “NBA on TNT” crew at the 2024 All-Star Game. Their future after next season is uncertain. (Brandon Todd / NBAE via Getty Images)

Fast forward to 2018. The second piece I wrote as a staffer at The Athletic was a long interview with Barkley where he once again placed an end date on his time as a broadcaster.

Deitsch: How many more years do you want to work as a broadcaster?

Barkley: I’m trying to make it to 60 because I still want to be young enough where I can enjoy my life and have fun. That is no disrespect to old people, but I don’t think you are going to be having a lot of fun at 70 or 75. From 60 to 70, I just want to enjoy life.

Deitsch: You have previously told me when we spoke that you were considering quitting broadcasting but you have stuck around. What changed?

Barkley: Well, No. 1, money (laughs). I have a great contract. But I am looking at 60 as the end.

The end did not come at 60. Barkley is now 61. No one I spoke to in sports broadcasting over the weekend, including people who are close to Barkley, believed he would actually retire. One cited his enjoying the spotlight too much. Another said they believed he’d change his mind when someone made it clear how much they wanted him. I spoke to one sports television executive who hires NBA talent who said people who have been in the public spotlight as long as Barkley do not easily give that up. The executive believed Barkley would change his mind. There are also people at WBD who believe something can be worked out with Barkley with or without NBA media rights. TNT put out a statement that kept things open-ended.

“We’re looking forward to another fantastic ‘NBA on TNT’ season and further discussion of our future plans with him,” the statement read.

The NBA season is long and exhausting. The rights deal has been a mess for TNT Sports employees, especially those behind the scenes. WBD CEO David Zaslav, as many have written, has conducted a clinic on how to alienate your potential sports media partner. Barkley sounded tired, to my ears, when he spoke on NBA TV, and he’s clearly been ticked off about the whole process in previous interviews. I don’t think this is a negotiating ploy because he’d have no problem getting paid $15 million to $20 million annually in a future deal. I also think he legitimately meant what he said last week.

But save this prediction: I don’t think it will stick. With rest and a recharge, Barkley will continue on television beyond 2025.

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Marchand: Charles Barkley says he’s retiring, but this story doesn’t feel over

(Top photo of Charles Barkley in 2016: David Dow / NBAE via Getty Images)



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Godzilla x Kong Zero Gravity Fight Was the First Idea For the Movie

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The first entry in the MonsterVerse, 2014’s “Godzilla,” was ultra-serious and dour. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a pretty good movie, but it’s not exactly “fun.” Several movies later, we now have “Godzilla x Kong,” which is super fun. It’s a sharp contrast to what came before, and it shows how a franchise can evolve and change over time. Director Adam Wingard, who also helmed the previous MonsterVerse entry “Godzilla vs. Kong,” seems to understand that audiences don’t want something dramatic with these movies — they want silly monster mayhem. And Wingard and company deliver that, and then some.

The zero gravity fight is the perfect example of this. If you stop and think about it for too long, it doesn’t make much sense. But who cares? Let’s have fun! “The first thing that I thought of when I was coming up with set pieces of this movie: we gotta have an anti-gravity battle,” Wingard says in the “Godzilla x Kong” special features. “I wanted to have the monsters fighting in anti-gravity environment.” Wingard saw this as an opportunity to “do some Showa-era crazy stuff and for Kong to do some wild things you’ve never seen before.”

Producer Alex Garcia adds: “The zero gravity battle in the film was actually the first thing that Adam pitched to us when he had this idea to set more of the film in Hollow Earth and to spend more time specifically in Kong’s POV … In ‘Godzilla vs Kong,’ we established that gravity doesn’t quite function as it does on the surface within Hollow Earth.”

Alessandro Ongaro, visual effects supervisor, states that the zero gravity battle was “probably one of the most complex” scenes to create, and Wingard goes on to say, “It’s such a challenge to find new ways for monsters to fight that you haven’t seen before. The zero gravity gave us license to really bring out a grounded version of the absurdity of the Showa films where Godzilla can fly through the air and dropkick and stuff.”

I don’t know if I’d really call the zero gravity scene “grounded,” but I get where Wingard is coming from. And he sums things up nicely by stating: “At the end of the day we’re here to cut loose and have a lot of fun.” “Fun” is definitely how I’d describe the scene, and the movie as a whole. “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” is now on digital, 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD.



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On air with Alexi Lalas: ‘I don’t care if you like me or you don’t’

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“I’ve worked with Alexi for 10 years,” says Stu Holden, Fox Sports analyst and former United States men’s national team midfielder. “He’s one of the first people that I am asked about. They say: ‘What’s that guy like off-camera?’.”

It is a thought many may share while watching Alexi Lalas, the formerly goatee-bearded U.S. central defender who rose to prominence at the 1994 World Cup, now best known for his tinderbox contributions on American soccer television.

He comes with a significant soccer pedigree, recording almost a century of caps for his country and playing in Italy’s Serie A and Major League Soccer. A signpost of his influencer status came in 2021 when the world governing body, FIFA, undertook a feasibility study as part of a failed attempt to introduce a biennial World Cup. Lalas was invited along to a seminar hosted by former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as part of a cohort that included Brazilians Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, former Denmark and Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and Australia’s Tim Cahill.

On U.S. television, Lalas, 54, a studio analyst for Fox during the European Championship and Copa America this summer, is bold and direct in his opinions. This week, he has already compared the England national team to the Dallas Cowboys, saying the English are as “insufferable as they are talented”.

And over 40 minutes in a Manhattan coffee shop, he is no different. Topics cut across the future of Gregg Berhalter as coach of the U.S. men’s national team (“We’re letting the players off the hook”, he insists), or his “video game” approach to social media. This is a dose of pure, undiluted Lalas. Sitting beside him, ordering a piccolo coffee (“Don’t encourage him,” Lalas says, when I ask what a piccolo involves), is the more reserved Holden, 38, who also packs a punch in his analysis.

I tell Lalas that some people took a deep breath when I mentioned I was due to interview him. He smiles. First and foremost, Lalas says he sees his studio role as “hopefully having an interesting and informative take, and doing it in an entertaining way”.

He stirs. “But I’m in the entertainment business. I am a performer. When you say that, sometimes people cringe. By no means am I saying that I can’t be authentic and genuine. But I recognise the way I say something is as important as what I say.

“When I go on TV, I put on a costume and when that red light goes on, I don’t want people changing the channel. I don’t care if you like me or you don’t. I am as human as I possibly can be with the recognition that, on television, things have to be bigger and bolder.”

Holden interjects: “He’s one of my good friends. People ask me: ‘Does he believe everything he says?’. And I say, ‘We have the same conversations at the bar that we have on air’.

“I’ve learned from Alexi that you have to be interesting in this business to have longevity. Whether that’s the role that he plays, still authentic to who he is and the opinions he carries — but maybe a little bit of juice on there to fire it up — you never want to be in between. You never want to be in the middle of it, where people are just like, ‘Ah, that guy’s fine’. So be on one side, be bold, don’t care about opinions, but be authentic to who you are. And that’s who he is — on and off camera.”

Holden made 25 appearances for the USMNT but a career that included Premier League spells at Sunderland and Bolton Wanderers was cruelly cut short by injury. He and Lalas apply diligence to their output, often meeting with coaches, players or front-office staff the day before the match to explain to viewers what the team is seeking to achieve.


Lalas on the US team at 1994 home World Cup (Photo: Michael Kunkel/Bongarts/Getty Images)

As time passes, they are more distant from a modern locker room but Holden says it’s important “to take people inside the tent”.

“It’s not as common in England,” he adds, “but it is ingrained in American sports television where they will go to NFL practice, sit with the coaches, get exclusive breakdowns of play. Europeans have a hard time understanding this when they come here. Patrick Vieira (when he was manager of New York City FC) didn’t want to meet with us. Frank de Boer (at Atlanta United), too. Often the European or South American coaches are like, ‘Why are you guys in here?’.”

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They believe that being that little bit detached, in terms of age, allows them to come down harder, when appropriate, on those they analyse. I suggest that many within the sports industry police themselves carefully when on television or radio these days, cautious about a public backlash.

“Life’s too short and f*** them,” Lalas says, bluntly.

“Ultimately, I’m talking about soccer. I know we get incredibly passionate and emotional about these things — something I love about sports. I try to be honest and sometimes it comes off in different ways and people perceive it differently. It’s one thing over a keyboard but it’s a very different type of interaction in normal life. There are people that come up to me who disagree with me but we have a cordial, civil and respectful conversation, even if we vehemently disagree about things on and off the soccer field.”

His on-screen character, he says, takes inspiration beyond sports broadcasting. “It is an element of a shock jock, an element of political commentary, an element of late-night television host. And then when it came to actual sports, I grew up in the ESPN age where the hot take was happening, but then I also like Gary Lineker (the former England international striker and long-time presenter of the BBC’s football coverage in the UK).

The way he talks about things, you almost forget that he was a player — and not just a player, but a f***ing great player. When I hear him talk about the game and life, even if I agree or disagree with the way he does it, it makes me forget that he was once this great player because it’s interesting, informative and entertaining in the way he does it. And so I have a lot of respect for what he’s carved out.”

Lineker and Lalas share another thing in common, in that both men appear to be in a love-hate relationship with social media. Lineker’s show Match of the Day, the BBC’s Premier League highlights programme, was plunged into crisis last year after the corporation took a dim view of his political commentary on Twitter, now known as X.

If Lineker is on the centre-left, Lalas appears to be a political antidote, recently announcing on Twitter that he will be attending the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee. Like Lineker, he seems unable to resist being sucked into the vortex of culture war politics. He shared posts recently that appear sympathetic to Donald Trump and is in regular playful combat with his social media detractors. Yet he has already said that he places so much more value on in-person interactions. So why bother with X?

“I’m sure there’s an element of addiction that I will cop to,” he acknowledges. “It’s just the world in which we live. There is an element of ego. But I’m also under no delusions that I’m not solving the world’s problems. Nobody gives a s*** what the hell I have to say about most of this stuff. First off, Twitter is an information machine.”

But it can also be a misinformation machine.

“At times,” he laughs. “It depends on who you ask or where you look. I look at it almost as a video game that I play.

“There’s an element of poking the bear and being provocative that I enjoy. When it comes to things off the field, like politics, there is a cathartic release to being honest, especially in this day and age. There was a time we were all so bold. And now we live at times, unfortunately, in fear of the real backlash that can come from just saying something people disagree with. Whether it’s politics or sports, I don’t want to live in a world like that. Maybe this is just the way I retaliate.

“I’m not saying that it’s smart or prudent, especially if it can be alienating to people. When it comes to separating the sports and the personal, sometimes they blur and sometimes they infect or affect the other side. But I will only live once and I’d rather just be as honest as I possibly can, regardless of whether anybody listens or cares.”

During this summer’s Copa America, with the USMNT looking for signs of substantial progress under Berhalter, Lalas will be as direct as ever. Holden, too, makes clear the expectations.


How to follow Euro 2024 and Copa America on The Athletic


“Passing the group stage is not negotiable,” Holden insists. “If we don’t get out of a group containing Panama and Bolivia, then what are we doing? That becomes the time to make a change.”

Lalas cuts in: “Is it untenable? Maybe from the outside and how we look at it. But ultimately it’s (U.S. Soccer’s technical director) Matt Crocker who will make that decision. And he had the opportunity (Berhalter was reappointed as USMNT coach in June 2023).

“Nobody would have begrudged cleaning house and getting rid of everybody. And yet he (Crocker) didn’t. So something really bad has to happen for U.S. Soccer to make a change.

“But there are a lot of people sitting with their arms folded saying, ‘All right, Gregg, you got a long leash, you got a second opportunity, we need to see something different, we need to see something that makes us believe that come the World Cup 2026, there’s the possibility for the first time ever, that a U.S. men’s national team could win a World Cup.’ And we haven’t had those moments. He needs a statement type of game and statement type of summer to mollify some of that.”

Holden points out the USMNT, who exited the last World Cup in the round of 16 against the Netherlands, had the second-youngest team in Qatar and cites the draw against England, where he says the USMNT went “toe-to-toe”, as evidence of what might be possible.

Lalas says: “We’re letting the players off the hook a bit when we constantly talk about the coach. They have been given every benefit, every resource. Nothing has been spared from an early age. It is fair for us to expect more out of them individually and collectively. They’re no longer teenagers. Some of them play for the best teams and in the best leagues in the world. It’s time to put up or shut up.

“We put a lot of emphasis on coaching — and I’m not saying they can’t have an effect — but this is a players’ game. When that whistle blows, you get to decide what happens and the onus is on you. And if you want it, that’s great. If you don’t, then don’t blame the coach.”

Holden grins: “If the U.S. wins the Copa America, it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever done as a soccer nation on the men’s side — hands down.”

(Top image: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)



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How Gilligan’s Island’s Creator Hilariously Pitched The Show

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In Paula Finn’s 2018 book “Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy,” Finn interviewed producer and writer Dava Savel, who worked on shows like “Will & Grace” and “That’s So Raven,” and Savel recounted a story about how “Gilligan’s Island” came to be:

Here’s a funny story for you about a pilot. I knew Sherwood Schwartz for thirty years, and he once asked me, “You know how I sold Gilligan’s Island?” I said, “How?” He said, “I wrote this song, and I’m on my way to the studio. I stop to get my gas filled, and I say to the gas station guy, ‘Can I sing something to you, and you tell me if you’re gonna watch this show?'” So he sings the whole thing, and the guy says, “That sounds like a good show to me.” Sherwood goes, “That’s what I thought!” So that’s how he sold it.

If that gas station attendant had not been as receptive to Schwartz’s song, who knows what could have happened? Maybe the writer/producer would have tweaked the lyrics at the last minute, altering the chemical perfection of the existing song to such a degree that the “Gilligan’s Island” theme might have never become the perfect earworm we all know. Maybe Schwartz would have gotten dejected at the prospect of a regular TV watcher being disinterested in his idea and scrapped the pitch altogether. The possibilities are endless, but we’re certainly glad things shook out the way they did. Talk about a fateful trip.

To learn the saga of the utterly chaotic, last-minute recording of the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song, be sure to check out our article about that here.



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Rory McIlroy and the U.S. Open he will never escape — even though he tried

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PINEHURST, N.C. — Within seven minutes of Bryson DeChambeau’s ball landing in the cup, the ripping sound of tires skirting on pavement whipped through Pinehurst Resort as Rory McIlroy’s courtesy Lexus SUV pulled out of his 2011 U.S. Open champion parking place and drove away from the day he’ll never escape. He stared into the distance as his agents and caddie spoke around him. No interviews. The 35-year-old Northern Irishman simply tossed his clubs and workout bag into the trunk, slipped into the driver’s seat and threw it into reverse. The U.S. Open ended at 6:38 p.m. At 7:29 p.m., McIlroy’s Gulfstream 5 took off, leaving the Sandhills of North Carolina without his fifth major championship but with the collapse that will define him forever.

Just 90 minutes earlier, McIlroy strutted down the 14th fairway prepared to redefine his career. Ten years without a major. Ten years of pain and close calls, a man who won four majors by the time he was 25 then fell short again and again. And here he was, with five holes remaining at the U.S. Open, leading Bryson DeChambeau and the field by two strokes.

But Rory McIlroy did not win the 2024 U.S. Open.

Three bogeys and a pair of missed three-foot putts later, McIlroy lost it to DeChambeau. It will be remembered far more than any of his four wins.


Chewing a nutrition bar walking off the 14th tee, McIlroy leaned over to peek at the 13th green to his right. McIlroy had a two-shot lead because he had just birdied 13 as DeChambeau — playing in the final group as the 54-hole leader — had bogeyed No. 12. But DeChambeau put his drive safely on the par-4 13th with a putt for eagle, and McIlroy wanted to get a look. DeChambeau ultimately birdied to get back within one.

McIlroy entered Sunday at Pinehurst three shots back of DeChambeau. He was not supposed to win this, but he seemingly went and grabbed it. For 13 holes, we saw the version of McIlroy many pleaded for during the past decade. He looked like a killer, or some version of it. He opened with a birdie on the first hole and birdied Nos. 9, 10, 12 and 13 with lengthy putts. He was winning this major.

But golf is not a sport kind to the premature formation of narratives.

He parred No. 14. Then, he bogeyed the par-3 15th after overshooting the green, but that was acceptable. It was one of the hardest holes of the day, and DeChambeau bogeyed it too.

It was on 16 that the fear kicked in. McIlroy had a simple-seeming par putt from two feet, six inches. And he missed. It wasn’t really close, rounding the left edge. Yet McIlroy remained on a mission to stay calm. The instant it missed, he flattened both his palms to give the “calm down” signal. Yet throughout the Pinehurst No. 2 a familiar sentiment was whispered. Not again.

And no matter how hard he tried to steel himself, McIlroy sent his tee shot on the par-3 17th into the left-side bunker. Credit to him, he hit a beautiful, soft pitch out from the sand and saved par.

But what happened next signaled it might be over far before it truly was.

McIlroy put his putter back into his bag, leaned over to grab his driver and his eyes bulged into a fearful grimace. The game plan was out the window. The thoughts that got him here were gone. He was flying blind.

See, McIlroy had a plan this week. He talked about it nearly every day from Tuesday through Saturday. Boring golf. Disciplined golf. Bogeys will happen, so never get flustered. “Just trying to be super stoic,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “Just trying to be as even-keeled as I possibly can be.” And he was for 71 holes, through it all. His tournament could be defined by how impressive that demeanor was, making the kind of ugly, tough par saves he historically missed.

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U.S. Open analysis: 10 things to know on Bryson DeChambeau’s win

But somewhere between 16 and 18, McIlroy stared into the headlights and wasn’t prepared to look away. He was now a different golfer. His eyes looked like they were playing through each heartbreaking scenario, in turn putting them into fruition. Maybe then, we should have known.

So, for some inexplicable reason, McIlroy pulled out driver. Why, oh why, did he want his driver? The day before, he hit a 3 wood and left himself only a 133-yard wedge shot in. There was no need for extra length on the 449-yard hole. Maybe McIlroy, likely the best driver of the golf ball in recent memory, thought this would be his signature moment. Maybe he was chasing even though he was tied. Either way, McIlroy launched a drive too far left — into Pinehurst’s infamous native area, just in front of a patch of wiregrass. He had no play. He punched out an awkward little roller up to the front of the green. And again, his short game came to play with a nice little chip to three feet, nine inches from the 18th pin.

He missed. Again.

It was as if Bill Buckner let a second ball go through his legs. There is no explanation nor any defense. McIlroy’s short, softly hit putt broke right immediately and rode the right edge of the hole. Rory McIlroy had just bogeyed three of the final four holes to hand away the 2024 U.S. Open, giving Bryson DeChambeau room to earn it with an incredible up and down out of the 18th bunker to par and take the title. If McIlroy made both three-foot putts, he wins the U.S. Open. If he makes one, he goes to a playoff. But he made neither.

McIlroy signed his scorecard in the scoring tent and watched the finish on TV with the slightest, faintest sense of hope. He ate another nutrition bar during DeChambeau’s bunker shot. His hat sat loosely crooked on top of his head for the final putt with hands on his hips. He took one last nervous, sick-to-his-stomach gulp down his throat before the putt fell in. When it did, he turned, looked down, swallowed once more and exited out the door behind him. He gathered his belongings and made his way to the Lexus.

The golfer known for his ability to speak eloquently on all subjects declined to speak to media. There was nothing left to say.


McIlroy’s career began with a collapse. He was just 23 and entered Sunday at the 2011 Masters with a four-shot lead but shot a disastrous 80 to fade away. People will always remember that day, but he won the U.S. Open two months later. It was the first of four majors in as many years. He seemed on pace to chase the greats.

He’s never won a major again.


Rory McIlroy had a two-shot lead with five holes to play Sunday. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

But unlike so many other sports figures who burned bright early only to fade out, McIlroy’s game didn’t dissipate. He’s remained one of the three or four best players in the world for most of these last 10 years. He’s won 26 PGA Tour events. He’s finished top 10 at 21 of the 37 majors since. By most metrics, the past three years have been his best. He just couldn’t win. Most wouldn’t have even called him a choker. First, he just got off to a bad starts and finished hot. Then, the last three years, somebody else grabbed it from him. At the 2022 Open Championship, he shot a perfectly fine Sunday 70. He just couldn’t hit the 50-50 birdies, and Cameron Smith did to shoot a 64 and steal it. At the 2023 U.S. Open, he entered one back of Wyndham Clark. They shot the same Sunday score. He didn’t hand these away.

The 2024 U.S. Open at Pinehurst? Rory McIlroy choked.

McIlroy has made some enemies in his time, and two of the people he’s bumped heads with most are Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson, two players as synonymous for their epic collapses as they are for their eight combined majors. Norman is most famous for his six-shot 1996 Masters disaster. Mickelson famously double-bogeyed the 18th hole at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot to give it to Geoff Ogilvy. Now, McIlroy will live forever with those two men.

There aren’t many comparisons in sports to the path of McIlroy. There aren’t other athletes or team dynasties that won multiple titles immediately, stayed at the top of the sport but became known as chokers at the end of their run. The Patriots won three more titles after the Super Bowl losses to the Giants. The core of the 2004 Yankees was aging, and they won again five years later. Jordan Spieth didn’t give majors away after his third major before the age of 24 — his play declined.

The hardest part with McIlroy is always thinking he might get the next one. He is still that good. He still has a runner-up finish at a major each of the past three years. And there’s this idea that if he keeps putting himself in contention, the cards will eventually fall his way.

But on Sunday, something changed. McIlroy is 35 now, and maybe the muscle memory has faded over the last decade. How to put your entire dreams into something and have it work out. How to prove a narrative wrong or hit the perfect shot with thousands of fans living and dying with every swing.

Rory McIlroy sped off out of the Pinehurst Resort parking lot early Sunday evening not just a man in heartbreak. He drove off as forever the man who missed those two putts.

(Top photo: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)





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The Acolyte Continues George Lucas’ Akira Kurosawa Inspirations

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Leslye Headland also cited a direct reference to “Yojimbo,” Kurosawa’s most western samurai film. Sergio Leone remade it shot-for-shot into the spaghetti western “For A Fistful of Dollars” and its influence is evident in characters like Han Solo and in many other parts of the “Star Wars” universe.

In “Yojimbo,” Kurosawa uses the dust and the wind to tell visual elements of the stories, and the streets of the town Toshiro Mifune’s bodyguard character finds himself in are particularly dusty. As the Jedi track down Mae on Olega after her murder of Jedi Master Torbin, they corner her in a dead end that looks like a color version of the set from “Yojimbo,” replete with a dusty street. Just as Kurosawa uses the wind and dust to key us into the emotions of the storytelling, Headland does the same here while telling a character-focused story about a mastery of the Force.

As Master Sol manipulates the Force and fights with Mae, the dirt and dust goes undisturbed. When Yord joins the fight, everything he does in the Force kicks up a considerable amount of dust. Uncontrolled and unrestrained, Mae causes an explosion of the dirt of the street and uses it to escape. This sort of storytelling comes right from Kurosawa and adds a unique layer that will work only subconsciously on most viewers, but is powerful nonetheless.



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Forty years after drafting Mario Lemieux, the Penguins feel his impact every day

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Eddie Johnston, the general manager who drafted Mario Lemieux 40 years ago this month, had only one concern when he announced the historic selection at the old Montreal Forum — and it wasn’t whether Lemieux would pull a Penguins jersey over his head.

Lemieux did not.

Ironically, Lemieux’s first act with the Penguins was to somewhat distance himself from a franchise he would spend the next four decades personifying, influencing and owning on and off the ice.

“That was his agents, not Mario — he didn’t want to do it,” Johnston said. “Mario and I never talked about it. Not that day. Not to this day.

“I’d done my homework. Now, you hear about generational prospects. No, Mario wasn’t generational. He was once in a lifetime, and not just as a player — as a person.

“We (the Penguins) aren’t here without Mario.”

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NHL 99: Mario Lemieux could ‘do things that nobody else could do’

Perhaps you’ve heard something similar before. For those unfamiliar, consider the circumstances in Pittsburgh preceding Lemieux’s arrival in 1984:

  • The Penguins were nine years removed from bankruptcy.
  • They averaged fewer than 8,500 fans during the 1982-83 season when they finished with only 45 points and a minus-137 goal differential despite a sixth-best 81 power-play goals.
  • They practiced at a suburban high school rink, then one of only a few around Pittsburgh.
  • They had never made it past two rounds of a postseason and were most known for two crushing playoff losses to the New York Islanders — a blown 3-0 series lead in 1975 and a 3-1 third-period lead in an overtime loss in a decisive Game 5 in 1982.
  • Their owner, Edward DeBartolo, Sr., favored selling the franchise to support the more successful, and popular at the time, Pittsburgh Spirit, an indoor soccer team that also played at Civic Arena.

“When I played for the Oilers, we loved coming to Pittsburgh,” Paul Coffey said. “It was a great sports town. There were Steelers shirts and Pirates hats everywhere. All the same colors, that black and gold. We’d play the Penguins, and the games weren’t very competitive, to be honest, and I’d tell the guys after the game when we were having a few pops, ‘Man, if they ever figure out the hockey thing here, this will be a destination.’

“Well, they figured it out. The answer was Mario. I don’t think any player in our game has meant more to a city or franchise.”

That is a big statement, though it comes from a past teammate of Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman — so Coffey, a Hall of Famer like those three, is a qualified expert. And it’s not as though Coffey is alone in that opinion.

Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s most accomplished coach, won one of his nine Stanley Cup championships behind the bench with Lemieux’s Penguins in 1992. The Penguins had won their first title in 1991, and Lemieux, coming off a back surgery in 1990 that diminished his wow-gosh shiftiness and afforded him only two more seasons playing in at least 70 games, had been dubbed the new “Mr. Hockey” by Sports Illustrated after averaging 2.05 points per game en route to consecutive Stanley Cup/Conn Smythe wins.

“That was what people called Gordie Howe,” Bowman said. “To give that to Mario, and he deserved it, was special.”

Arguably, he and the Penguins were at their peak, even with his bad back. He began the 1992-93 season with 39 goals and 104 points in 40 games before missing two months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (now called Hodgkin lymphoma).

He returned after eight weeks of treatment, and virtually no time on the ice, to score 30 goals and 56 points in his final 20 games.

“He wanted Wayne’s (single-season points) record,” said former Penguins great Kevin Stevens, referring to Gretzky’s 215 points. “He was going to wipe it out if you ask anybody on our team.

“If Mario doesn’t get cancer that season, he might have got 100 goals and 230 points. I’m not kidding. And we win the Cup again, and he goes down as the greatest ever — even over Wayne.”

In the decades-old debate of Gretzky or Lemieux, Gretzky wins pretty much everywhere but Montreal and Pittsburgh. It’s Pittsburgh where Lemieux is universally viewed as the greatest, and not because of his three Hart Trophies, six Art Ross Trophies and those two Cup wins.

“He’s Paul Bunyan in Pittsburgh,” Bryan Trottier said. “I mean, the story of Mario has so much that you wouldn’t believe it’s real.

“He was never healthy by the time I got to Pittsburgh (1990). He had the back. He had the cancer. His hips were a mess. He couldn’t tie his own skates. Through all of it, he was still the best player in the league, but it went beyond that with Mario.

“He literally made the Penguins what they’ve become.”

Again, perhaps you’ve heard something similar before. For those unfamiliar, consider the circumstances in Pittsburgh following Lemieux’s Hodgkin’s disease diagnosis in 1993:

  • He played in only 22 games in 1993-94 and sat out the 1994-95 season.
  • He returned to capture another Hart Trophy, his third, and two more Art Ross Trophies, his fifth and sixth, but retired for three-plus seasons after the 1996-97 season.
  • He was not paid the bulk of a then-record contract because of ownership’s financial issues.
  • Amid ownership strife and crippling debt, the Penguins declared bankruptcy a second time and were at risk of being relocated or dissolved in the late 1990s, and Lemieux was their largest owed creditor.

“The Canadiens and Rangers were willing to pay him $25 million to play for them one season,” Johnston said. “He could have done it and made most of his money. But there was no chance. Not Mario.

“The Penguins meant too much to him.”

So, after doing the once-thought impossible by bringing the Penguins even with the Steelers and Pirates in popularity in the early 1990s, Lemieux ended the decade by forming an ownership group to purchase them from bankruptcy. A feel-good story — except that previous ownership had taken renovation money for Civic Arena instead of getting in on the sports facilities legislation that Pennsylvania politicians passed for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia’s teams. Lemieux owned the Penguins, but they remained in a bleak financial situation, especially with Jaromir Jagr’s hefty contract and an unfavorable revenue arrangement at their arena.

“Things weren’t great even after he had control of our team,” said Mike Lange, the longtime voice of the Penguins. “I’ll tell you, if Mario doesn’t come back in 2000, I don’t know if we make it long enough for ‘The Kid’ to arrive however many years later.”

Lange means Sidney Crosby — “Sid the Kid,” whom the Penguins drafted first in 2005. A lot was asked of Crosby, but it was nothing compared to what had been asked of Lemieux.

“Not even close,” said Crosby back in 2016. Crosby played with Lemieux briefly before the latter retired for good in 2005 and spent a couple of seasons living in Lemieux’s guest house.

“I mean, when you think of everything we have here — this (practice) facility, the (current) arena, the expectations — it’s all from what he did for the Penguins. It’s a special thing with Mario and this franchise. I don’t know if people outside of Pittsburgh really appreciate what it is. It’s unique. You just don’t see it very often.”

Michael Farber, who wrote about Lemieux often for Sports Illustrated, cited Babe Ruth with the New York Yankees and Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics as the only comparable athletes to Lemieux in terms of influencing a franchise. Unlike Lemieux, both finished with stints elsewhere — Ruth as a player with the Boston Braves, Russell as a coach/general manager with the Seattle SuperSonics.

Lemieux remains a minority owner of the Penguins.

His ownership group sold to Fenway Sports Group a few years ago, but Lemieux kept a fractional share. He’s not involved in any day-to-day decisions. However, as was evident when he returned for Jagr’s jersey retirement this past February, there is one Penguin who stands above all.

The Penguins carefully planned Lemieux’s participation in Jagr’s jersey retirement ceremony. He did not want to take away from Jagr’s big night. Still, when it came time for Lemieux to be introduced to a sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena that evening, extra time was built in because the Penguins’ game night operations crew anticipated fans would want to give Lemieux a lengthy standing ovation.

They did. They always do.

“Of course they do,” Trottier said. “It’s not just that Mario was a great player for the Pittsburgh fans. It’s that they saw him deal with the health struggles. They see his charity doing work with the local hospitals. They know he saved the team twice.

“And, let’s be honest, the Penguins became the Penguins — high-flying, high-scoring, big stars like Jags and Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin — because of Mario. The identity of the franchise is still based on what he was and did.”


Mario Lemieux waves to the crowd at Jaromir Jagr’s jersey retirement ceremony in February. (Justin Berl / Getty Images)

Forty years after drafting Lemieux, Johnston shared his one concern from that day in the Montreal Forum. He had planned to announce the pick in his native French tongue, but he was nervous his excitement would “mess it up.”

He did not.

“I’d spent so much time telling Mr. DeBartolo how special Mario was. He finally said, ‘Eddie, he’s just one man — no one person can live up to what you’re telling me,’” Johnston said.

“I told him, ‘Just watch. Mario’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to this team. They’ll be talking about him long after we’re gone.’”

They are, and perhaps nobody captured Lemieux’s importance to the Penguins better than Farber.

“Ruth and Russell are pretty good company,” Farber said. “Even if you want to look at just hockey, you get to Wayne, as you always do when you discuss Mario. But Wayne belonged to the sport.

“Mario belongs to the Penguins. And he has since he finally put on that jersey.”

Lemieux did don the Penguins crest a few days after the 1984 NHL Draft. There is a picture of him in it, standing atop Mount Washington, Pittsburgh’s skyline as the background.

Johnston loves that photo.

“Mario, wearing our jersey, our city — that’s all you see, and it’s perfect,” he said.

(Top photo: Allsport / Getty Images)



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Inside Out 2’s Box Office Success Proves Pixar Must Keep Making Original Films

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A recent Bloomberg report cast doubt on Pixar maintaining its status as a place that could birth a true blockbuster original. The report notes that Pixar is going to focus more on sequels, spin-offs, and even reboots of successful franchises such as “The Incredibles” and “Finding Nemo.” When it comes to originals, they will “focus less on autobiographical tales” such as “Luca” or “Turning Red” (both of which were met with widespread acclaim). The studio will “instead develop concepts with clear mass appeal.”

Granted, this report came out before the blockbuster success of “Inside Out 2.” Who knows how or if that will change the current thinking at Disney and Pixar. But what doesn’t change is the cold, simple fact that this movie does not become a blockbuster success unless the first “Inside Out” gets made in 2015. Pete Docter’s film, on paper, does not scream “hit.” And yet, a movie about the internal emotions of a young girl went on to make $858 million worldwide on its way to an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. That original hit set the stage for an even bigger sequel that is now saving theaters from a particularly brutal summer season.

Simply put, if Pixar truly does become more risk-averse and franchise-dependent, the next “Inside Out” is unlikely to make its way out into the world. If we lose out on that, then we don’t get “Inside Out 2.” To get franchises, new ones must be created. Pixar, dating back to the groundbreaking success of “Toy Story” in 1995, has been arguably the best in the business at creating new franchises — period. That shouldn’t end just because Disney had a couple of rough years.

Not to be lost in the conversation about “Inside Out 2” is the success of “Elemental” last year. Even though the Pixar original opened with a seemingly disastrous $29.6 million domestically, it went on to have one of the most improbable runs at the box office in history, finishing with $496.4 million worldwide. That’s proof that original projects still perform well for the studio.



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England start Euro 2024 with a win – but there was that familiar issue of losing control

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Jude Bellingham wasn’t having it. He wasn’t having Serbia forcing their way back into this match and, once it was over, he wasn’t having anyone rain on his or England’s parade.

It was put to him in the post-match news conference that while the first half against Serbia had shown why England are among the favourites to win Euro 2024, the second half had shown the shortcomings that might ultimately be their undoing.

“I don’t really agree with that,” said the 20-year-old, England’s goalscorer in their 1-0 victory in Gelsenkirchen. “The first half shows why we can score goals against any team and the second half shows why we can keep a clean sheet against any team.”

Bellingham said there was “always a negative theme” in terms of public and media reaction to England’s performances — “and sometimes rightly so” — but he preferred to accentuate the positive.

They had to “hold on at times and suffer a little bit” in the second half at the Veltins-Arena, he said, but they had won the game. And “this team is still new”, he added, “gelling together with every game”.

He made some good points. Not so much those about what England had proved by beating Serbia, but certainly those about this being a new squad and about the desperation in some quarters to criticise performances and, in particular, manager Gareth Southgate at every opportunity.


(Christopher Lee – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

It was impressive to see such a young player talking in such forthright terms, determined to challenge and reshape the narrative around his team. He wasn’t going to shrug his shoulders and let journalists talk down his team’s prospects.

But it wasn’t as convincing as his typically assertive performance on the pitch. England played well for half an hour, taking the lead when Bellingham charged into the penalty area and finished off an excellent move with a bullet header from Bukayo Saka’s cross, but their early momentum faded and was never recovered. The second-half performance was passive; Serbia substitute Dusan Tadic said England had “offered themselves to us”.

All of this would be far easier to gloss over if it didn’t seem symptomatic of a long-term trend. There are so many things Southgate has changed for the better over the past seven-and-a-half years, but there are still so many occasions when, having taken charge of a game, his team gradually lose the initiative, retreat and find themselves clinging on unconvincingly.

It happened against Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, away to Spain in the Nations League later that year, Italy in the Euro 2020 final, Italy again in a Euro 2024 qualifier in Naples last year. England still managed to hold on to win two of those games, but not the two that mattered most when the stakes were highest.


(Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

How far do you want to go back? European Championship eliminations at the hands of Iceland in 2016 and Italy in 2012. It happened against the U.S. in their opening game of the 2010 World Cup. It was the theme of their World Cup campaign in Germany in 2006 when they ended up hanging on for a stodgy win over Paraguay in their opening game and had a similar experience against Ecuador in the round of 16 before succumbing to Portugal in the quarter-final here in Gelsenkirchen.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

England’s 58 years of hurt – by the players who lived it

There is a technical issue in terms of the type of midfielders England have had, but it also seems to be part of the national team’s psyche. England lost quarter-finals from winning positions against Portugal at Euro 2004 and Brazil in 2002. First half good, second half not so good — as their then-coach Sven-Goran Eriksson used to say.

England had three shots in the first half-hour last night and then just two (a long-distance effort from Trent Alexander-Arnold and a Harry Kane header that was pushed onto the crossbar) for the rest of the game. They had 71 per cent possession for the first half-hour but then just 44 per cent for the rest of the game. The drop-off wasn’t quite as stark as that qualifying game in Naples last year (when England completed 233 passes in the first half and only 96 in the second), but it was still troubling.

The balance of the midfield was encouraging for the first 30 minutes, with Bellingham the dominant figure all over the pitch, Alexander-Arnold looking short and long with his passing and Declan Rice always moving, always doing the simple things well, always on the scene quickly whenever possession was lost.

But Alexander-Arnold’s influence faded. So did that of Saka, after an excellent first half, and Phil Foden, who was quieter throughout. The balance of the left-hand side, with Kieran Trippier filling in at left-back while Luke Shaw tries to build up his fitness, wasn’t right, but the issues went beyond that. Southgate put it down to a loss of energy among his team — “and that didn’t surprise me,” he said, “because of the lack of 90 minutes that a lot of the players have had recently.”

A team’s opening game of a tournament can often be like that. Being quick out of the blocks matters far less than building momentum as the tournament goes on.

England have done that well under Southgate. The last European Championship, when they looked rather laboured against Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic in the group stage before beating Germany, Ukraine and Denmark en route to that fateful final against Italy, was a case in point.


(Eddie Keogh – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

That is why Bellingham and his team-mates were entitled to enjoy their victory here. “You look across the past few tournaments we’ve had and it’s always crucial to get the first win,” Trippier said afterwards. “It gives us great momentum and belief. It shows the character of the boys. We’ve learned a lot today, but the most important thing is the three points.”

Everyone who spoke afterwards — Southgate, Bellingham, Trippier, Alexander-Arnold, Rice, Kane — mentioned the character and resilience England had shown in the second half. When the pressure was on, they defended well. Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Trippier and Rice all made important interventions, but perhaps the most pleasing performance was that of Marc Guehi, the Crystal Palace centre-back who justified his selection.

Rice called it “a game of two halves” but said that “in the end, I thought it was comfortable”. “We have built this team off clean sheets,” he said. “At the last Euros, we had five out of seven games. We have real defensive solidity and it is about doing it on the night. To win that game tonight was a really good start for us. We just have to use the ball a bit better in the second half when it starts to get tough.”

That always seems to be the big issue for England: retaining control of games rather than allowing initiative and momentum to be lost. Rice spoke about it as if it was something that will be rectified on the training ground over the next few days before they face Denmark in Frankfurt on Thursday.

But sometimes it feels like something in England’s DNA. It is something Southgate and his players, for all the national team’s undoubted progress of recent years, still have to overcome. At least, having started their campaign with a win, they can seek to address it from a position of strength.

(Top photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)



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ILM Is Making Great Animated Movies Again, Including Transformers One

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After “Strange Magic” became a colossal failure, only grossing $13(ish) million on a budget close to $100 million, the future of ILM in animation looked dire. But almost a decade later, they have returned with a vengeance.

First, there’s the recently released Netflix movie “Ultraman: Rising.” Directed by Shannon Tindle and co-directed by John Aoshima, “Rising” is a bold new reimagining of the iconic Japanese tokusatsu hero. The film follows Ken Sato, an egotistical baseball player who takes up the mantle of Ultraman from his father and works to defend Tokyo from kaiju. He has to learn what it truly means to be a hero after he reluctantly adopts a baby kaiju upon defeating her mother, resulting in an emotionally-packed, visually stunning film about parenthood.

Then, later this year, Paramount will release “Transformers One,” the first theatrically released animated movie in the franchise since 1986. Directed by Josh Cooley, the film tells the origin story of Optimus Prime and Megatron as they go from best friends to sworn enemies at a time when Cybertron was at peace. 

Sure, both these movies are based on beloved and very profitable franchises rather than strictly original films. However, they also manage to stand out from the IP-obsessed Hollywood landscape thanks to their unique stories and ILM pushing the boundaries of 3D animation.



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