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Saturday Sports: Brittney Griner returns to the court; NFL great Jim Brown's legacy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Brittney Griner back on the court. LeBron James and the Lakers on the ropes. And an NFL legend, Jim Brown, dies at the age of 87. Michele Steele of ESPN joins us. Michele, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELE STEELE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And you are there in Los Angeles and were there last night when WNBA tipped off. All eyes were on Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury, after 10 months being detained in Russia. The LA Sparks defeated the Mercury 94-71, but Brittney Griner led her team in scoring with 18 points. What was it like to be there?

STEELE: Yeah, the Mercury didn't get the win, but it was a victory, I think, for Brittney Griner for sure to be there considering where she was less than a year ago. You know, I saw something that I don't see very often, an opposing player getting a standing ovation...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...And loud cheers as soon as she walked onto the court. And for her first bucket, the crowd was into it. Kamala Harris, the vice president, was a bit of a surprise guest on the court as well. She praised the players for their advocacy in working to get Griner home. And you know, Scott, we're not too far away from Hollywood here in downtown LA, so lots of stars out there tonight - yesterday night - excuse me with the time - Magic Johnson, Pau Gasol, a former Laker, Billie Jean King, comedian Leslie Jones.

And one thing I want to mention, you know, I was speaking to her teammate Diana Taurasi last night, and she said something very interesting to me. I asked her how she thinks BG is sort of handling all this mentally because she's been through something that nobody in sports has been through. And she told me in kind of a deadpan way, if anyone is built for Russian prison, it's BG. She had a tough time growing up, and she's really resilient. And that's what you saw from her after the game. She was smiling. She was quick to joke, and she was, you know, circumspect, I think, in a way that is really remarkable just months after her release.

SIMON: Oh, God bless. Same venue tonight - the LA Lakers face the Denver Nuggets, game three of the NBA Western Conference finals. The Nuggets lead 2-0. Every time the Lakers lose two games in a row, people go, is LeBron running out of steam? Then he has a way of building it back up, doesn't he?

STEELE: Yeah, sure. You know, it's funny, Scott. In any other business, LeBron James would not be considered an old man. But in pro sports, he's 38. He's getting up there. And you're right. A Grizzlies player called him old a few weeks ago, and LeBron responded by eliminating the Memphis Grizzlies from the playoffs. But there's no denying from what we've seen in the first two games of this Denver series, he's just not looking as physically dominant as he used to be.

SIMON: Yeah, he missed 19 in a row three-pointers, I believe, right?

STEELE: Yeah. Not looking as durable as he used to be either. Now, you mentioned it. He plays tonight here in Los Angeles, Game 3 against the Nuggets. He did tweak his ankle this week, but he says he's going to suit up. He's going to play. He's really tough. This series is really tough, and Denver has one of the best players in the NBA, Nikola Jokic from Serbia.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: Now, the Lakers did eliminate the Warriors in the last round, so don't count them out yet, but, you know, it's going to be a critical Game 3 tonight.

SIMON: Finally, Jim Brown died at the age of 87 - Cleveland Browns, in many ways defined the position of running back, a legend on the field, a civil rights activist, but also accused of violence against women. How do you see his legacy?

STEELE: On the field, unequivocally one of the greatest collegiate players of all time. Many say maybe the best NFL player of all time, retiring at the height of his career in the '60s to pursue acting and a civil rights activist. He was the one who set up the Cleveland Summit, that famous picture with Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and some of the most famous Black athletes of the time to show support for Muhammad Ali, who was not fighting in the Vietnam War. But you mentioned it. He was dogged by allegations over five decades of his life that he abused various women in his life. Now, he has denied those accusations. But, Scott, they have doubtless marred his legacy, which is complicated. He is getting praised. He is revered, though, by many of his peers, by many other athletes, as well as former President Barack Obama. Did many good things, but it is complicated.

SIMON: Michele Steele of ESPN, thanks so much. Talk to you soon.

STEELE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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