Two weeks later, there are still more questions than answers about Phillip Adams

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Robert Lesslie loved playing the bagpipes. He loved practicing medicine, his community, his faith, his wife, Barbara, and their big family. Barbara Lesslie loved her husband, their church, leading bible study, singing hymns and mentoring kids with disabilities at Camp Joy. They each loved their grandchildren, including Adah and Noah, and were proud of the warmth the two kids showed regularly to others. Adah Lesslie loved books, she loved singing, handmade cards and hugs. Noah Lesslie loved physical comedy and horses, so much so that he frequently asked if one day he would be able to ride a horse in heaven, particularly Artax from The NeverEnding Story.

In his memorial service for the Lesslies last week, Rev. Dr. J. Barry Dagenhart said it is important to remember these things as we grieve, because by grieving this way, we make hope a living thing. And, Dagenhart told the audience, hope will be particularly important as we wrestle, in the months and years to come, with the question of why such a terrible thing happened to them, even though it ultimately won’t change the reality of the tragedy.

On April 7, a former NFL football player, Phillip Adams, emerged from the woods behind the Lesslies’ property in Rock Hill with two handguns — a .45-caliber and 9 mm — and opened fire. He shot and killed Robert, 70, Barbara, 69, Adah, 9, and Noah, 5. He also shot and killed two air conditioning repairmen, James Lewis and Robert Shook, both 38, working at the house before Adams fled to another location, where police said Adams shot and killed himself after a standoff. He was 32.

No known motive exists, and the connection between Adams and the Lesslies, if even one existed prior to April 7, remains unknown as well. The police report was expected to shed new light on what happened and why, but added few details when it was released last Friday. A community in which the Lesslies were beloved for their generosity, their charity and their connection to their church, remains shaken. Lesslie was the director of the emergency department at Piedmont Medical Center, Rock Hill’s general hospital, for nearly 15 years, and had founded two urgent care clinics. During his time there, he’d treated many people in Rock Hill, including Adams’ own father.

“They were such peaceful, good people,” said Ralph Norman, a congressman who represents Rock Hill. “[Robert] treated everybody in town at some point. … His wife and my wife were in a singing trio that went over and sang at different functions, and we went skiing and were in the same church for a long time. They were some of our best friends. This is just horrific, unbelievable.”

Adams’ friends and family are also grieving, wrestling with memories of the person they thought they knew, and a reality of the monstrous acts he committed. “I just can’t fathom it,” said Kevin Smith, a three-time Super Bowl-winning cornerback with the Cowboys who was a mentor and friend to Adams during his career. “I don’t know what the situation was, but I just can’t imagine him shooting kids.”

In the absence of answers, people who knew Adams can’t help but contemplate the inevitable question: Was he suffering from some form of psychological illness, perhaps set in motion by collisions and concussions during his football career? His father, Alonzo, gave a brief interview to Charlotte television WCNC-TV after the shooting, indicating as much: “I can say he’s a good kid — he was a good kid, and I think the football messed him up.”

The family has made few public statements since but agreed as part of the autopsy that his brain be sent to Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center for further study. Adams’ sister, Lauren, declined to comment to ESPN until the CTE results are back from BU. “Right now, we’re just trying to grieve and wrap our heads around everything,” she said.

Even that effort likely won’t provide definitive answers. In the last research from BU’s CTE Center, researchers found CTE in the brains of 223 of 266 amateur and pro football players that they studied. But there has never been a link established between CTE and violence.

This much is known about Adams, though: The local standout had always been a quiet introvert who could be hard to track down. Once his football career was over in 2015, he’d done some volunteer coaching at a nearby high school in recent years, and tried starting up a health food shop with a friend. But in the past year to 18 months, family members had a harder and harder time finding and connecting with him.

Adams’ longtime agent, Scott Casterline, said he can’t help but feel a little haunted by a missed call the morning of the shooting, wondering if he could have done something that would have prevented the situation. There is a mixture of guilt and sadness in his voice when he talks. “Phillip’s dad had called me and it went straight to voicemail,” Casterline said. “I didn’t realize it. I guess it was right before all this happened. His tone was normal. It was like ‘Hey Scott, this Alonzo, I’m just trying to touch base with you to talk a little bit about Phillip.’ And it wasn’t alarming or like, ‘Hey man, Phillip is in trouble.’ It was normal, because Phillip was a loner. Even when he played, he was really private. He was hard to reach unless he wanted to talk to his parents, to me, to everybody.”

ADAMS’ PATH to the NFL was, for years, seen as one small part of a football pipeline coming out of Rock Hill, a sleepy, bedroom community 25 miles south of Charlotte that manages to produce an inordinate number of talented football players. Jadeveon Clowney, Stephon Gilmore and Cordarrelle Patterson are among those the city has sent to the NFL in recent years, inspiring one local sports editor to dub the 75,000-population town “Football City, USA,” a moniker that stuck.

Adams wasn’t a star on the level of Clowney, but he was well-known for his athletic prowess. He won a state championship in football and in basketball at Rock Hill High School, and earned a scholarship to South Carolina State. His classmates nicknamed him “Fresh” because he was always so sharply dressed and well-groomed. “His whole family is actually very naturally gifted athletically,” said Lawrence “Snoop” Brown, one of Adams’ high school teammates. “His brother was an all-ACC wrestler. His sister played volleyball and basketball. And Phillip was no different. Always a very good athlete. From the get-go, he has always been super talented.”

Casterline says Adams talked sparingly about his childhood in Rock Hill, but when he did, he usually described it as a happy time in his life. His father, Alonzo, worked as a commercial truck driver who typically limited his work to local routes so he wouldn’t have to spend nights away from his family. Sometimes Phillip, the youngest of three kids, would accompany him on trips. His mother, Phyllis, worked for many years as an educator in the Rock Hill school system until 2009, when she was involved in a serious car accident that left her paralyzed. A community fundraiser brought in more than $15,000 for her after the accident.

Adams was in college at the time, and said it was only after he and his mother prayed together in the hospital that he decided to continue playing football. She was to be part of his motivation to make it to the NFL. “This just makes you appreciate the people in your life,” Adams told a reporter in 2010, discussing his mother’s accident. “It makes you … not worry about material things. It brings you closer to God. That is what it did for me. It helped me out in that aspect. It made me work harder. It can either change you for the worst or the best. Because of my family and the strength that I have, it changed me for the best.”

Adams was a standout cornerback and punt returner at South Carolina State, tying for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference lead in interceptions as a junior and earning first-team all-conference honors as a senior in 2009. But an NFL career was no sure thing. No South Carolina State player had been drafted in a decade. A friend put Adams in touch with Casterline prior to the NFL Draft, and the two clicked in a brief conversation over the phone. Adams moved to Dallas to train, hoping to improve his draft stock, primarily by working with Smith, who was a key member of the Dallas dynasty. “He was just a young, quiet kid, and he wanted all the information,” Smith said. “I used to get on him a little bit. He overworked. It was information overload. He studied it, he dreamed it. It was a long shot coming from South Carolina State, but he had the talent. I told him, ‘Man, you got something.'”

It wasn’t long before Adams and Casterline built a bond that went beyond a professional relationship. “Phillip was like a little brother to me,” Casterline said. “Initially, I put him up in a hotel, but then I said, ‘Why don’t you come over to my house?’ I’ve got a big house. He just started staying with me. We’d go eat and train together. We even took jiu-jitsu together because we took a class and it would be me versus him because we were both beginners. We were both very competitive. Over time, we just became really good friends. I wish I could have foreseen the future. … I just can’t imagine him shooting anybody, especially two kids. That’s just not in his nature.”

Adams was drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, but he managed to make the roster because of a relentless work ethic and willingness to play special teams. But late in the year, in a game against the Rams, Adams suffered a compound ankle fracture on the field, an injury that required emergency surgery and screws inserted into his leg, and it turned his football career into a nomadic existence. For the rest of his time in the NFL, he was a fringe roster player, moving from city to city, barely hanging on from one week to the next with little to no job security. Still, Adams did better than most, scratching out a six-year career that paid him upward of $3.6 million.

The Patriots signed him in 2011, but they ultimately cut him three times in the same season. He spent two full seasons with the Raiders, even cracking the starting lineup for four games over two seasons, but that too came to an unceremonious end because of injuries. It was during his time with the Raiders that he suffered two concussions in a short span. “I remember one of them was really bad,” Casterline said.

Adams had one-year stints with the Jets and Falcons, but he could never move up from being considered a fringe NFL guy. “That does a lot to the psyche of a player,” Casterline said. “Every time he’d get released, I’d pick him up and tell him, ‘Hey, we’ll find your place. Your time will come.’ But he kept bouncing around. I know that frustrated him because he was such a competitor. He wanted to win and be great.”

Smith says he’d travel to Atlanta a couple times a year after Adams signed with the Falcons, mostly just to check in with his friend, and would usually stay with Adams for a weekend. What he saw always perplexed him. “All he would want to do is watch film,” Smith said. “That was it. He had film of every NFL receiver he was going to face the next year, and he’d sit there watching that film all day long. I’d tell him, ‘Phillip, you’re overdoing it. You can’t be working out three times a day. You’re going to ruin your body. You have to preserve your body. The longer you’re in the NFL, it’s about preserving your body and recovery.’ But he was one of those guys who was going to push it to the edge. He was all football.”

After Adams’ contract with the Falcons expired in 2015, the fire that burned inside of him to hang on to an NFL career seemed to wane. He moved back to Rock Hill and started volunteering as a coach at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, SC, telling Casterline he felt like he was important again, that he was making a difference. He told friends he was also trying to be a present father to his young son, even though he and the boy’s mother were no longer involved.

Casterline got a call from the Colts during training camp in 2016, inquiring about Adams’ availability. They wanted to sign him, but they needed an answer immediately. A cornerback had been injured, they liked Adams’ experience and wanted him to fill in, but only if Adams could be on a flight to Indianapolis that night. Casterline couldn’t reach Adams, which wasn’t unusual. Eventually, Adams’ father got in touch with his daughter, and she tracked down her brother at his old high school, putting him on the phone with Casterline. “I said, ‘OK, your sister is going to take you to the airport right now, we’ll send you clothes,'” Casterline said. “And he started hesitating. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. That’s not like Phillip. But I think he had clocked out of the experience of being signed and cut so many times. It wears on a player. He ended up going to the airport after I talked to him, but he got there late and missed the flight. That was it. The Colts moved on. They signed somebody else. I could tell he wasn’t really into it anymore.”

ADAMS’ FRIENDS insist he wasn’t ashamed of the way his NFL career ended, but it also wasn’t a subject he liked discussing. When he decided to open a Rock Hill smoothie shop in 2019, dubbing it “Fresh Life,” he refused to use his past NFL career as part of the marketing. He saw food as medicine, according to Tynetta Moore, a long-time friend who ran the business for Adams. He wanted to provide healthy fruits and vegetables to a predominantly Black part of town that didn’t even have a grocery store.

He had big ideas for the community that didn’t involve football. He talked of starting a podcast about wellness, and a mentorship to teach people a trade, like plumbing. His dream, he told Moore, was to grow his own food eventually. He had visions of her running the store while he spent his days riding a tractor. “He was just wanting to live a very quiet life,” Moore said. “He was not a flashy guy in the first place. If you bring up something about the NFL, he was, ‘I don’t want to talk about that.’ It was like that was off limits to him.”

Adams’ ambitions, however, once again clashed with his reality. Moore says business was slow, and foot traffic was nonexistent. The store ended up closing, Moore says, even before COVID-19 arrived and began devastating small businesses. Outwardly, Adams tried to shrug it off, but friends and family started to notice small changes in his demeanor. “I sensed standoffishness, kind of retreating, but nothing that popped in my mind and thought, ‘Oh, he’s depressed.”’ Moore said.

He became harder and harder to get in touch with. He’d always enjoyed being by himself, but it had progressed recently, worrying his family and friends. He’d been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon in 2016, but that charge was dismissed. According to published reports, in the days leading up to the shootings, Adams had been convicted of driving under suspension and failure to maintain proper insurance.

“He was just doing weird things,” said Aaron Neely, one of Adams’ cousins. “Like, his mind wasn’t right. He was doing weird stuff. Like riding a four-wheeler in the woods at night with no lights on. That’s dangerous. People would talk to him, he’d look at you and not say nothing. All kinds of weird stuff.”

Casterline says Adams called him in the fall of 2020, asking if he could help him find a job. His agent was eager to help. “I said, ‘You move to Texas, I’ll put you to work immediately,'” Casterline said. “He said, ‘No, I can’t leave South Carolina.’ I assumed because of his son.”

Before that, in the fall of 2017, Smith had connected Adams with Paul Scott, a former NFL executive who now owns and runs Benefits Huddle, a small business he runs by himself that helps NFL veterans submit the right paperwork to be approved for disability benefits from the league. It’s a complicated, often frustrating process, and one that Scott knows all too well because he used to work on the other side of the aisle, denying benefit applications on behalf of the NFL. He has grown to be seen as something of an angel in the world of retired NFL players, because he knows how the league thinks and can anticipate the red tape they use to discourage or reject claims.

Adams was interested in applying but didn’t know where to begin. “I think he was looking at applying for the line of duty disability benefit at the time, but with line of duty disability, you have to have your team medical records to support your claim,” Scott said. “He was having a difficult time getting his records from teams.”

Scott called an executive he knew with the Raiders, who said he was busy but promised to get in touch with Adams in a few weeks. Scott exchanged emails with Adams a few weeks later, and Adams said he still hadn’t received his records. Scott told him to keep trying. If he was approved for line of duty disability, which is usually granted only to players who suffered on-field injuries that required surgery (such as Adams’ compound ankle fracture), he’d be eligible to receive at least $4,000 per month. “I assumed that he got the records or whatever,” Scott said. “I don’t like to push these guys. I’m not like a salesman. In my experience, a lot of these guys get annoyed at me if I push them. I’ll remind them one time, and then if they don’t respond, I assume they’ve chosen to do something else or found someone else to help them, whatever.”

At no point, Scott said, did Adams inquire about seeking neurocognitive benefits. He just wanted to know, if he was approved, how long it would be before he started getting a check. “Usually what happens with these guys when they come to me, they’ve already exhausted all of their friends and family business associates,” Scott said. “They don’t want to apply for disability, but this is their last chance. And when they’re strung along like this, they feel kind of desperate. They feel it. When they’re approved, great. Because they usually have some debt to repay people. But when they’re denied, they got no other place to go. And there’s nothing else out there for them because they have to wait a full year before they’re able to reapply.”

When Scott saw the news of the shooting, the name sounded familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. “I looked him up in my contacts and was like, ‘Yup, talked to him before,'” Scott said. “He just never followed through. I needed authorization. If he’d sent back authorization forms that I had sent him and some of the teams had sent him in order to send the records to me, then maybe things would have been easier on the disability end. I don’t know. He may have had someone helping him. I don’t know.”

ON APRIL 7, 2021, the York County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call at 4:46 p.m. from a 80-year-old man reporting a “bad shooting” at his neighbor’s house on Marshall Road. That man said he’d been outside cutting his grass when he heard “about 20” gunshots. He’d just seen someone he suspected was the shooter — a man dressed in a black hoodie — run out of the house carrying something under his arm (police would later include burglary among the charges against Adams). There were at least two people in the yard who’d been shot, he said, and likely more inside.

When officers arrived on the scene, one of the HVAC workers — Shook, a married father of three — was still alive, and conscious, despite wounds that would eventually kill him. Shook told the officers a Black male wearing camouflage pants and a black sweatshirt had emerged from the woods outside the Lesslie house and just started shooting. He went inside, fired more shots, then exited the house and disappeared into the same woods. Shook was rushed to the hospital but died three days later. James Lewis, a single father of three, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police haven’t said how they identified Adams as a suspect. But the officers soon surrounded his parents’ house, just up the road from the Lesslie residence, where he had barricaded himself inside. A standoff that lasted several hours ensued, with police eventually getting Adams to let his mother, Phyllis, come out safely, according to a neighbor. When officers finally entered the house, they found Adams dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. “It’s disheartening hearing people call him a monster,” Moore said. “Don’t get me wrong. Nobody is trying to excuse the acts. It’s just the acts don’t match the person that we know.”

It’s still unclear what kind of relationship, if any, Adams had with Lesslie. Norman gave an interview on April 8, the day after the shooting, in which he said law enforcement officials had told him that Adams had been a patient of Lesslie’s and been upset that Lesslie stopped giving him medication. But law enforcement officials never confirmed that, and Norman has since walked back his initial statement.

On April 15, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye to Phillip Adams at the Robinson Funeral Home. The family held a private service beforehand, welcoming the public to pay their respects after they’d gone home. The parking lot sat mostly empty for an hour before a few mourners trickled in. Kevin Davis, 54, a friend of the family, was one of the first to arrive. “I didn’t really know Phillip,” he said. “I knew the grandmother and father. We were church members.”

Davis said the impact on the community has been tough, particularly for people like him who knew the Lesslie family as well. “It’s just all messed up,” he said. “It’s odd for him just to go into that doctor’s house and do that. It’s really hard. They’re a great family. It’s sad.”

Inside, Adams was laid out in an open casket. A large arrangement of red and white roses was draped on the lower half of the casket. A framed picture of Adams wearing his No. 35 San Francisco 49ers uniform from 2010, was displayed next to the casket. Visitors were not allowed to linger, or sit in the pews. They moved past slowly and went out another side door. “The only one that can make sense of this is the Lord Above,” said a woman directing visitors.

One of Adams’ cousins, who did not want to be identified, quietly spoke to the sentiment of the room, and for so many others who knew Adams. “None of us understand.”

AT THE LESSLIE family memorial, Rev. Dagenhart did not attempt to explain the inexplicable. Instead, he told stories about the Lesslies, about how important their faith was to them. They regularly invited the entire church to their property for picnics. It was Robert Lesslie who encouraged the congregation, even before America’s recent racial unrest, to forge a connection with a Black church in town, Mount Prospect Baptist in Rock Hill.

Every year for the past 20 years, they spent a week volunteering at Camp Joy, a place where teenagers and adults with disabilities retreated for a respite in the North Carolina mountains. Barbara led bible study and Robert served as the camp doctor, but he threw himself into every activity he could: canoeing, horseback riding, playing bagpipes. “They were encouragers,” Dagenhart said. “They would pray with you. They’d try to make a tense situation better.”

So many mourners came to pay their respects to the Lesslies, the service was held at the cavernous West End Baptist Church instead of the First Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, where the Lesslies were members. The building was packed, the parking lot full, an hour before it began. Dagenhart asked the congregation to pray not just for the Lesslies, the Shook and Lewis families, but also for Adams’ family members, a reminder that, hard as it was to understand, they had lost someone as well. He asked the congregation to join him in singing “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” a hymn that was special to the Lesslie Family. It was Adah’s and Noah’s bedtime song.

“Why questions have no answers,” Dagenhart said. “But one question we can pose in which we, as believers, can know. The question is: ‘Do I serve a master that I trust? Do I serve a lord I can trust?’ If the answer is yes, then you can be about the next thing that needs doing. Keep doing the next thing until the day is done, trusting all else, the next day start all over again. Time gives you the peace and strength you need.”

When the memorial ended, the Lesslies’ friends and loved ones slowly gathered their things and began to leave the church. As they packed into vans outside, they all passed a man walking back and forth amongst the crowd, filling the air with the sound of bagpipes.

This story was reported and written by ESPN’s Michael Fletcher, David Newton and Kevin Van Valkenburg.

espnW High School Top 25: Girls' basketball rankings

There’s a new No. 1 team to end the 2020-21 girls’ high school basketball season.

Westlake (GA) ends the year atop the espnW Top 25 after winning GEICO Nationals, defeating Fremont (UT) 64-54 in the semifinal and Paul VI (VA) 70-50 in the championship. South Carolina-bound point guard Raven Johnson, who won the 2021 Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Trophy, had 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the final. Junior Ta’Niya Latson poured in 31 points, while Virginia Tech-bound Brianna Turnage had 11 points and 11 boards.

The previous No. 1 team, Hopkins (MN), had its 78-game winning streak snapped when it lost to Chaska (MN) in the state semifinals on April 7. Minnesota commit Mallory Heyer had 24 points and 13 rebounds, while sophomore Kennedy Sanders had 21 points and six assists and Lehigh signee Kaylee Van Eps contributed 13 points and four assists for Chaska, which followed its upset with a 45-43 win over Rosemount (MN) in the state final.

Grandview High School (CO), which previously held the No. 14 ranking, lost in the Colorado Class 5A state semifinals to Regis Jesuit. But Jesuit ultimately lost in the championship to Valor Christian (CO), which climbed into the top 15 after a 67-42 victory in the final.

Incarnate Word (MO) won the state championship for the seventh time in the past eight complete tournaments thanks to junior Saniah Tyler (15 points) and sophomore Natalie Potts (12 points, 11 rebounds).

Here is the full top 25:

1. Westlake High School (Atlanta, GA), 23-0
2. Paul VI (Chantilly, VA), 11-1
3. Lake Highland Prep (Orlando, FL), 19-1
4. DeSoto High School (DeSoto, TX), 28-2
5. Mt. Notre Dame (Cincinnati, OH), 26-0
6. Chaska High School (Chaska, MN), 18-0
7. Fremont High School (Plain City, UT), 26-1
8. Hopkins High School (Minnetonka, MN), 15-1
9. Bishop McNamara (Forestville, MD), 3-1
10. Montverde Academy (Montverde, FL), 21-2
11. Winston Salem Christian (Winston-Salem, NC), 26-1
12. Cypress Creek High School (Houston, TX), 32-1
13. St. John-Vianney (Holmdel, NJ), 14-0
14. Valor Christian (Highlands Ranch, CO), 17-0
15. St. John’s College High School (Washington, D.C.), 1-1
16. Edison Academy (Detroit, MI), 10-0
17. New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, MD), 14-3
18. Princess Anne (Virginia Beach, VA), 10-0
19. Norman High School (Norman, OK), 18-0
20. Incarnate Word Academy (St. Louis, MO), 29-0
21. Rutgers Prep (Somerset, NJ), 13-0
22. Trenton Catholic (Trenton, NJ), 13-1
23. Newark High School (Newark, OH), 28-2
24. Crown Point High School (Crown Point, IN), 25-1
25. American Heritage High School (Plantation, FL), 25-2

Vanessa Bryant, Kobe estate end run with Nike

With Kobe Bryant’s five-year, post-retirement endorsement extension with Nike having expired this month, Vanessa Bryant and the Kobe Bryant estate elected not to renew the partnership, she confirmed to ESPN in a statement Monday night.

“Kobe’s Nike contract expired on 4/13/21,” Vanessa Bryant, widow of the Lakers legend, told ESPN. “Kobe and Nike have made some of the most beautiful basketball shoes of all time, worn and adored by fans and athletes in all sports across the globe. It seems fitting that more NBA players wear my husband’s product than any other signature shoe.”

According to a source, Bryant and the estate had grown frustrated with Nike limiting the availability of Kobe products during his retirement and after his January 2020 death in a helicopter crash. There was also frustration with the lack of availability of Kobe footwear in kids’ sizes, according to sources.

Nike, sources said, had presented an extension offer that was not in line with expectations of an ongoing “lifetime” structure similar to the Nike Inc. contracts held by both Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

“My hope will always be to allow Kobe’s fans to get and wear his products,” Vanessa Bryant said. “I will continue to fight for that. Kobe’s products sell out in seconds. That says everything.

“I was hoping to forge a lifelong partnership with Nike that reflects my husband’s legacy. We will always do everything we can to honor Kobe and Gigi’s legacies. That will never change.”

It is believed that all future releases of Kobe Bryant-branded footwear and apparel manufactured by Nike will be halted. The Kobe Bryant estate could enter into negotiations with outside brands to form a new partnership.

Vanessa Bryant also confirmed to ESPN that the Kobe Bryant estate owns the rights to both the “Mamba” logo and his signature. The “Sheath” logo often featured on the tongue of Nike’s Kobe sneakers is mutually owned by both sides, according to a source.

“Kobe Bryant was an important part of Nike’s deep connection to consumers,” Nike told ESPN in a statement. “He pushed us and made everyone around him better. Though our contractual relationship has ended, he remains a deeply loved member of the Nike family.”

After scoring 60 points in his final NBA game on April 13, 2016 — dubbed “Mamba Day” by Nike in an extravagant farewell campaign — Bryant had a five-year endorsement extension contract in place that continued the partnership into his retirement.

Before he died, Bryant had explored the notion of creating his own Mamba brand upon the expiration of the existing Nike deal, even meeting in December 2019 with a creative agency that could potentially help design and execute a future product series.

After originally signing with Nike in 2003, Bryant created an impactful partnership with the brand that extended into the remainder of his Hall of Fame career. He headlined sneakers such as the Zoom Huarache 2K4 and 2K5, the industry-shifting Hyperdunk at the 2008 Olympics and 11 signature models under the Nike Kobe series.

With the launch of the Kobe 4, during Bryant’s resurgent 2008-09 championship season with the Los Angeles Lakers, the sneaker design ushered in a new era of low tops around the league. Once worn by just a handful of point guards across all 30 teams, low tops soon were spotted on players at all positions, on every team. Nearly half of the league now wears low-top sneakers in games.

Once he had retired from the NBA, a series of both retro and newly created sneakers were released within the past five years. Bryant coined the term “Protro,” grounded on the insight that he wanted to upgrade his past shoes with modern constructions and technologies — a pro-level, updated retro edition of his past sneakers.

Several of Nike’s top non-signature athletes have made a routine of playing in Kobe sneakers, both out of a love for the performance features and as an ongoing tribute. In recent seasons, Devin Booker, P.J. Tucker, DeMar DeRozan, Buddy Hield, Isaiah Thomas and several others have created their own player-exclusive colorways of Kobe Protro models to continue his sneaker legacy.

The Kobe 1, 4, 5 and 6 were all rereleased through that Protro lens in recent years. During the NBA’s bubble restart of the 2019-20 season, 102 players wore a Kobe-branded sneaker, the most of any player’s sneaker line in the league.

A pair of Lakers guards — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Talen Horton-Tucker — wore Bryant’s signature sneakers Monday night against the Utah Jazz and vowed to continue to do so.

“First of all, I’m going to try to get a couple more pairs before they stop selling them,” said Caldwell-Pope, who added he was “shocked” by the news.

As for Horton-Tucker, who wears Bryant’s sneakers exclusively in games, he used his postgame news conference to make a public plea for the kicks.

“It’s kind of unfortunate but I guess I got to figure something out now,” he said. “I’m putting a call out to everybody right now. Whoever can get me any Kobes, I need them.”

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin contributed to this report.

Steelers give Tomlin 3-year contract extension

PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin wants to be part of the post-Ben Roethlisberger era in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers on Tuesday signed their longtime coach to a three-year contract extension that runs through the 2024 season.

Tomlin is 145-78-1 in 14 years with the Steelers, winning one Super Bowl and going to another. The franchise has reached the playoffs nine times during the 49-year-old coach’s tenure and captured its seventh AFC North title under him in 2020.

“I am extremely grateful for this contract extension and want to thank Art Rooney II and everyone in the organization for the support in my first 14 seasons,” Tomlin said in a statement. “We have a goal of winning the organization’s seventh Super Bowl championship, and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about this upcoming season.”

The Steelers went 12-5 in 2020, winning their first 11 games before stumbling down the stretch, including a blowout loss to Cleveland Browns at home in the first round of the playoffs. The team is in the midst of a mini-overhaul, particularly on offense after two assistants were let go and center Maurkice Pouncey and tight end Vance McDonald retired.

Still, Roethlisberger restructured his contract to lessen his salary cap hit, a move that helped the Steelers free up enough money to persuade wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to return on a one-year deal.

The extension likely means Tomlin will stick around for whatever happens after 39-year-old Roethlisberger retires. There is no succession plan in place for the future Hall of Famer, though Tomlin opting to sign the extension means he intends to be part of the process whenever Roethlisberger calls it quits.

The agreement deepens Pittsburgh’s extraordinary commitment to its head coaches. The Steelers have had just three men in charge since hiring Chuck Noll in 1969: Noll, Bill Cowher and Tomlin. Noll and Cowher are in the Hall of Fame.

Tomlin already is 21st in NFL history in career wins and is one of just two coaches to begin their career with 14 consecutive non-losing seasons.

“Mike is one of the most successful head coaches in the National Football League,” Rooney, the team president, said in a statement. “We are confident in his leadership to continue to lead our team as we work to win another championship.”

The agreement also gives the Steelers some stability heading into the draft. They have the 24th overall selection and have glaring needs on the offensive line and at running back to bolster a ground game that finished last in the NFL in 2020.

They also need to figure out — at some point — what they’re going to do at quarterback. Tomlin and Roethlisberger have formed one of the most successful coach-QB tandems in the league during their long run together, though Tomlin pulled off a remarkable coaching trick in 2019 when the Steelers finished 8-8 despite losing Roethlisberger at halftime of Week 2 with a season-ending right elbow injury.

Tomlin is remarkably popular within the locker room, though the team has been only modestly successful in the postseason since last reaching the Super Bowl a decade ago. The Steelers are 3-6 in the playoffs since 2011 and have advanced past the divisional round just once, falling to New England in the 2016 AFC Championship Game.

Source: Oft-injured TE Reed retiring from NFL

Former Washington Football Team tight end Jordan Reed is retiring from the NFL, a source confirmed Tuesday to ESPN.

Reed, 30, played six seasons with Washington and spent last year with San Francisco, catching 355 passes with 28 touchdowns in a career often slowed by injuries. He played 10 games with the 49ers last season, catching 26 passes.

When healthy, Reed scared opposing defenses because of his quickness to beat one-on-one matchups with linebackers and his size (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) to beat safeties. It’s why, in 2015, Reed caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns and was a key reason Washington won the NFC East. He made his lone Pro Bowl appearance after the following season.

But injuries limited Reed throughout his career, as he never played in more than 14 games in a season and three times played in 10 or fewer. He suffered at least seven documented concussions and dealt with soft-tissue injuries as well as knee and toe issues. Fractures in his big toes led to him needing surgery and affected his game over multiple seasons.

In 2019, Reed looked to have regained his game with a strong training camp. Reed said at the time he felt he was back to his old self, and numerous teammates and coaches agreed.

However, in the third preseason game, Atlanta safety Keanu Neal drilled Reed on a pass that resulted in the tight end having another concussion. Neal was fined $28,075 for the hit. Reed tried to return but never played in a game that season and signed with the 49ers in the offseason.

Reed entered the University of Florida as a quarterback but moved to tight end after one season. He played well enough for Washington to draft him in the third round in 2013.

Reed’s retirement was first reported by NFL Network.

Bayern, PSG reject Super League in favor of UCL

Reigning European champions Bayern Munich and the team they beat in last year’s Champions League final, Paris Saint-Germain, have released statements opposing the creation of a European Super League.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Internazionale and AC Milan are the 12 founding members of a proposed breakaway tournament, which was announced on Sunday.

Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Ogden: Elland Road was empty, but fans’ voices were still heard
– Marcotti: What does Super League mean for European football?

However, after Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, two of the contenders for the 20-team tournament, which will have 15 permanent members and five qualification places, voiced their opposition to its creation, Bayern announced they would not be joining.

“FC Bayern Munchen has a clear stance on the issue of the Super League,” a Bayern statement read.

Bayern president Herbert Hainer added: “Our members and fans reject a Super League. As FC Bayern, it is our wish and our aim that European clubs live the wonderful and emotional competition that is the Champions League, and develop it together with UEFA. FC Bayern says no to the Super League.”

CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge also said: “On behalf of the board, I would like to make it explicitly clear that FC Bayern will not be taking part in the Super League.

“FC Bayern stands in solidarity with the Bundesliga. It always was and is a great pleasure for us to be able to play and represent Germany in the Champions League.

“We all remember fondly our 2020 Champions League victory in Lisbon — you don’t forget such a joyful moment. For FC Bayern, the Champions League is the best club competition in the world.”

PSG have also voiced their disagreement with the creation of the competition.

“Paris Saint-Germain holds the firm belief that football is a game for everyone,” a statement from club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi read. “I have been consistent on this since the very beginning.

“As a football club, we are a family and a community whose fabric is our fans — I believe we shouldn’t forget this. There is a clear need to advance the existing UEFA competition model, presented by UEFA yesterday [Monday] and concluding 24 months of extensive and collaborative consultation across the whole European football landscape.

“We believe that any proposal without the support of UEFA — an organisation that has been working to progress the interests of European football for nearly 70 years — does not resolve the issues currently facing the football community, but is instead driven by self-interest.

“Paris Saint-Germain will continue to work with UEFA, the European Club Association and all stakeholders of the football family – based on the principles of good faith, dignity and respect for all.”

Many of the European Super League clubs suggested in a statement they would continue to participate in their domestic leagues, but all relevant local federations have threatened them with expulsion should the tournament go ahead.

The presidents of UEFA (Aleksander Ceferin) and FIFA (Gianni Infantino) have also heavily criticised the Super League project.

Bucs bring back QB Griffin of viral video fame

TAMPA, Fla. — After re-signing all 22 starters on offense and defense from their Super Bowl LV win, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally have a backup quarterback on their roster for the 2021 season, re-signing Ryan Griffin.

Sources told ESPN that the deal, which the team announced Tuesday, is for one year.

Griffin, 31, will enter his seventh year with the Buccaneers and second backing up future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, whom Griffin infamously whisked away from cameras after the Super Bowl boat parade, a moment that went viral on social media, and something Brady chalked up to “just litTle avoCado tequila.”

Griffin served as the Bucs’ No. 3 quarterback last season behind Blaine Gabbert, who remains unsigned. A source told ESPN that Gabbert is still an option for the team to bring back.

With no pressing needs in the draft aside from depth, the Bucs are also considering drafting a developmental quarterback, should the right one be available.

Griffin has seen action in two regular-season games, both in 2019, completing 2 of 4 passes for 18 yards. He originally entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the New Orleans Saints in 2013 after serving as a four-year starter at Tulane.

Source: Mavericks fire exec in wake of allegation

Dallas Mavericks director of player personnel Tony Ronzone has been fired after the organization learned new information pertaining to a sexual assault allegation made public last summer, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon on Monday.

Sports Illustrated reported in July that a woman said Ronzone had forced himself on her in his Las Vegas hotel room during the NBA’s annual summer league in July 2019. According to the report, the woman said Ronzone forcibly kissed her, groped her, pinned her on a bed and placed her hand on his crotch after he had invited her to his hotel to give her summer league tickets.

Mark Baute, Ronzone’s attorney, told Sports Illustrated via email last summer that the woman’s “claims are meritless.”

The woman first notified the Mavericks of the alleged assault in an email to team owner Mark Cuban in September 2019, leading to an internal investigation overseen by CEO Cynthia Marshall, who was hired by Cuban to change the culture of the organization after a 2018 Sports Illustrated report detailed widespread inappropriate sexual behavior and misogyny in the franchise’s business operations.

Marshall told Sports Illustrated last summer that Ronzone at the time remained in his role with the team because “there was no evidence presented of sexual assault.”

The Mavericks called the Sports Illustrated report a “one-sided, incomplete and sensational form of journalism, with its inaccuracies, mischaracterizations and omissions” in a statement shortly after it was published last summer.

The team also said the formal investigation into the allegation was closed “pending further credible evidence emerging and the zero-tolerance policy remains.”

The Dallas Morning News first reported that Ronzone had been fired.

Guardiola criticizes ESL competition: 'Not a sport'

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has criticised the plan to create a European Super League by insisting the competition “is not a sport.”

City are one of 12 clubs who have signed up to the new tournament, alongside Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus.

Sources: Man City, United players voice ESL worries
– Ogden: Super League idea comes at greatest expense to fans
– Marcotti: What does Super League mean for European football?

Under the plans, the founding members would retain their places regardless of success on the pitch. And while Guardiola admits he needs more details about the proposals, he hit out at the concept during a news conference Tuesday.

“It is not a sport where the relation between effort and success does not exist,” said Guardiola, who revealed he was made aware of the plan “a few hours” before the statement was published Sunday night.

“It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed or it doesn’t matter if you lose. I said many times, I want the best competition. It is not fair when one team fight, fight, fight at the top and cannot be qualified because it is just for a few teams.”



Florentino Perez says Super League teams won’t be expelled from the Champions League or domestic competitions.

Fellow Premier League top-six bosses Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel have also been quizzed about the proposals, and Guardiola says he is “uncomfortable” with managers facing questions on plans that have been devised in board rooms.

The 14 Premier League clubs not among the top six met with The FA on Tuesday to discuss the immediate implications of the Super League proposal.

In a statement, they said: “The 14 clubs at the meeting unanimously and vigorously rejected the plans for the competition.The League will continue to work with key stakeholders including fan groups, Government, UEFA, The FA, EFL, PFA and LMA to protect the best interests of the game and call on those clubs involved in the proposed competition to cease their involvement immediately.”

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, the chairman of the ESL group, publicly addressed the ESL in an interview given in Spain on Monday, and Guardiola has called on City CEO Khaldoon Al Mubarak and owner Sheikh Mansour to do the same.

“I think Ole, Jurgen, Thomas, Mikel [Arteta] and Ryan [Mason], we speak six times a week in a press conference, we can talk everything,” said Guardiola.

“We spoke about virus and COVID and NHS and furlough. I am saying what really I feel but we are not the right people to answer these questions because presidents can talk more clearly about what is the idea for the future and where football is going to go.

“Once we have all the information, I can give you my opinion. It is a statement — no more than that. I would love the president to go all around the world and say what is the reason we took this decision. I support this club and I am part of the club, but also I have my own opinion. For all of us six [managers] it is uncomfortable, we don’t have all the information.”

Chimaev eager after COVID clouded MMA future

Khamzat Chimaev says he is finally on the mend from a very difficult bout with COVID-19 that threatened to end his promising career earlier this year.

Chimaev (9-0) was scheduled to face Leon Edwards in a high-profile UFC bout in January and again in March, but he was forced to withdraw both times because of complications caused by COVID-19. The 26-year-old flew to Las Vegas in February to receive medical treatment, only to abruptly hint at retirement in a social media post on March 1.

In his first interview since that post, Chimaev told ESPN on Monday that he has resumed training and would like to return to competition in August.

“If you are sick, you cannot think about [a] fight,” Chimaev said. “I was thinking, ‘One month, sick. Then still, two months. When am I going to be finished with this s—?’ I’m healthy now, hungry again. I want to get back and smash somebody and make money.”

Chimaev, who was born in Chechnya and lives in Sweden, also revealed he recently underwent surgery in his native Chechnya to address lingering issues. His representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“When I come back to my country, they helped me and did an operation that took some stuff, I don’t know how to explain in English,” Chimaev said. “Now, I feel much better. I can’t wait. I am more than 93 kilos [205 pounds], feeling stronger. I just started to train with my team, and I will find [an opponent] to kill.”

Chimaev also confirmed UFC president Dana White’s statement on March 1 that Chimaev’s condition was worsened by his refusal to stay out of the gym. He admitted that while he was in Las Vegas receiving treatment, he participated in three rounds of grappling sparring during a practice, and that was the night he posted about a possible retirement.

“When I go to sparring, I told [manager Ali Abdelaziz], ‘I’m only going to do pads,’ but this was lying,” Chimaev said. “I jumped in grappling sparring, did three rounds. Feel bad in my chest, I said, ‘Coach, I go out.’ I go home and start to [cough] blood. I was never scared about my life. I’m scared about what my mom is going to do after I die. My mom, my brothers — I was thinking, ‘What are they gonna do after I die?’ I start with this MMA s— because of my family. I want to make some good life with them.”

Shortly after Chimaev’s post, Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a target of U.S. sanctions as a suspected human rights offender, posted his own statement, in which he declared Chimaev would continue to fight for the people of Chechnya. Chimaev confirmed the two spoke but made it clear that he wishes to continue for his own reasons.

“I think it’s [the] right decision,” Chimaev said. “I only did [three fights in the UFC]. I didn’t show who I am. People still talk, ‘Ah, he beat bulls— guys.’ That makes me [feel] inside somewhere — now I have to show these … people who I am and smash everybody, take my belt. I am MMA Mike Tyson. MMA Muhammad Ali. I’m going to show everybody.”

Chimaev is 3-0 in the UFC. He burst onto the scene in mid-2020, picking up two UFC wins in a span of 10 days in July. He followed that with a 17-second knockout of Gerald Meerschaert in September, before his COVID-19 diagnosis.