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Sky Bring Hoops Championship Buzz Back to Chicago

CHICAGO — It has been more than 23 years since Michael Jordan stole the ball from Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone, drove the length of the court and nailed a jumper to give his Chicago Bulls a 1-point win in Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals. The unforgettable sequence secured the Bulls’ sixth championship and had Chicago fans reveling in a shared moment of pride.

It has been a while since this city’s pro hoops fans have known that feeling, but the W.N.B.A.’s Sky have kept them familiar with high-stakes basketball.

Draped in blue and yellow jerseys Friday night, eager Chicago fans packed into Wintrust Arena to watch the Sky take on the Phoenix Mercury in Game 3 of the W.N.B.A. finals.

The city’s yearning for a championship manifested in the atmosphere. Fans swirled towels above their heads during the Sky’s player introductions. They booed and heckled Mercury players every possession. And they roared and bounced up and down all over the arena with every made Chicago basket. Every. Single. One.

Late in the game, after Chicago was well on its way to an 86-50 victory that would put the Sky one win away from clinching their first championship in franchise history, a Sky fan yelled “better luck next year” at the Mercury players on the court.

By the fourth quarter, both teams had already subbed out their starters. “Sky in four” chants erupted as Chicago’s bench entered, making one reality clear: Chicago is, again, ready for a championship moment.

Game 4 is Sunday in Chicago. The Sky lead the best-of-five series, two games to one.

“I really feel Chicago. I really feel it,” Sky Coach James Wade said after Friday’s game. “The way they came out and supported, you can feel the passion that they have. It just gives us more passion. Hopefully we can see the same things Sunday, and we can all celebrate together.”

Chicago’s ability to rely on its stars’ strengths has the team on the verge of a title. Candace Parker’s vocal leadership on both ends of the floor. Guard Courtney Vandersloot’s skill in finding open teammates and facilitating the offense (she had 10 assists on Friday). And Chicago has increasingly relied on forward Kahleah Copper’s athleticism, the way she blows past defenders and how she takes advantage of one-on-one matchups — skills that have made her one of the most impactful players in the finals.

The sixth-seeded Sky used a dominant team defensive performance and a statement game from Copper to gain potentially series-clinching momentum in Game 3, after upsetting the fifth-seeded Mercury in Game 1 and falling short in overtime in Game 2. They tied a W.N.B.A. finals record for the largest lead at halftime (22), set the record for largest margin of victory in a finals game (36) and held the Mercury to 25.8 percent shooting on the night.

Parker, who is from the Chicago suburb Naperville and signed with the Sky after 13 seasons with the Los Angeles Sparks, had 13 points, 3 assists and 4 rebounds.

Copper scored 20 of her 22 points in the first half as the Sky pulled away early, eliciting deafening roars from the home crowd, which included the Chicago native Chance the Rapper, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver and Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields.

“The one thing that probably doesn’t get talked about as much — her competitiveness,” Wade said of Copper. “That’s what it takes to get to the next level. We used to see it every day, even when she wasn’t playing as much. So it’s no surprise to us because we know what we have in her. Now she’s letting the world know. It’s just who she is.”

Mercury Coach Sandy Brondello said after the game that Phoenix simply could not handle Copper, who was 6 of 10 from the floor.

“We allowed her to sweep and go baseline way too much,” Brondello said. “When she’s shooting it from outside, you’ve got to give up something, don’t you? And she was making it. She had a really good game, and obviously that took the life out of us a little bit.”

The scoring of Phoenix’s Big Three, Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, has kept the team alive in critical games throughout the postseason. They combined for 56 points in the decisive Game 5 of the semifinals against the Las Vegas Aces. Now, even after an unusually poor shooting night against the Sky in Game 3 — they were a combined 10-for-36 from the field — they can be the key to keeping the Mercury’s season alive Sunday.

Teams this postseason, and during most of the regular season, have had few answers for Griner’s dominance under the basket. She is a nightmare one-on-one matchup in the low post, and has gotten better at passing out of double teams to find open teammates on the perimeter.

The Sky crowded Griner early, though, and held her to just 4 points in the second half Friday, for a total of 16 after she had scored a career-playoff high 29 in Game 2.

When she got open looks, “she just missed them,” Brondello said. “They played in her space a little bit more. I think in the second half, you saw she went to the right hook.”

Brondello added later, “She’s still someone we need to get the ball to as much as possible.”

Phoenix last won the league title in 2014, when it defeated the Sky for its third championship in franchise history. This time, both teams have had a difficult path to the finals. The Sky finished the regular season with a 16-16 record, and few pegged them to make the finals. The Mercury limped into the postseason on a three-game losing streak, plagued by injuries.

Could Sunday mark the end of an unlikely playoff run for both teams?

With her head lowered in a postgame news conference and Taurasi sitting to her left, Diggins-Smith summed up what the Mercury have to do to extend the series and send it back to Phoenix.

“Charge it to the game,” Diggins-Smith said, indicating Phoenix’s need to quickly move past Friday’s disappointing performance and refocus.

“We didn’t lose the series tonight.”

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Bob Blitz Held the NFL to Task Over the Rams’ Relocation

In a separate deposition in October 2020, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell was pressed repeatedly on the question at the heart of the lawsuit: Did the N.F.L.’s team owners ignore their own relocation guidelines when they voted to allow the Rams to move? Goodell gave elusive responses on whether the owners had considered each of 12 predetermined factors or if they’d voted merely because a Los Angeles deal was available.

“And I will say it again that I think the ownership was very responsible in considering all of the various factors and really understanding the key issues and ultimately made a decision which is in the best interest of the N.F.L.,” Goodell said, according to a partial transcript of the deposition.

The realization that an answer like that was unlikely to satisfy a jury of Missouri residents, combined with the prospect of several N.F.L. owners being called to testify, made settling the case a more pragmatic option than opening a trial on Jan. 10, just weeks before the Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at SoFi Stadium, the splashy $5 billion venue in Inglewood, Calif., that Kroenke built after moving the team west.

In deciding to settle for $790 million, the N.F.L. closed its responsibility to Blitz and a city that has lost not just the Rams, but also the Cardinals, who left for Arizona after the 1987 season. But the league provided precedent for other scorned cities.

“The host cities may actually begin to gain leverage back,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gambling lawyer who has tracked the case.

For the N.F.L., the agreement ensures that a public rendering won’t happen and keeps private the juicy details of league business contained in the many documents pertaining to the lawsuit. It also ensures that the backbiting between team owners stays in house.

Before the league opted to settle, Kroenke and the other team owners appeared to be at each others’ throats as he, according to multiple news outlets, attempted to free himself of the indemnification agreement that held him liable for legal expenses and potential damages related to relocation litigation.

Now, Kroenke may have to pay for most or all of the settlement.

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China’s Silence on Peng Shuai Shows Limits of Beijing’s Propaganda

When the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault earlier this month, the authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country’s censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.

Beijing seems to be relying on a two-pronged approach of maintaining the silence and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country’s sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for shifting the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations Beijing hopes would just disappear.

On China’s social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors’ meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms. Peng had ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.

These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.

“The central propaganda bureau does not dare go out on its own about a former Standing Committee member,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr. Zhang’s position in the body that holds ultimate power in the party. “It would have to be approved by Xi Jinping.”

“For them, this is not just a propaganda matter, but also an issue of national security,” continued Mr. Deng, who now lives in the United States.

The level of censorship Beijing deployed to shut down discussion of Ms. Peng’s allegation has little precedent, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

To the Chinese authorities, the plan of action for now appears to be one of inaction. On overseas sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and fragmentary. When Beijing-backed journalists have addressed Ms. Peng on overseas social media sites, they have studiously avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations, or their target.

Instead, they have sought to put an end to the questions about Ms. Peng’s whereabouts, releasing photos and videos of the tennis star that seemed designed to show that she was safe despite having disappeared from public life. Ms. Peng also appeared in a live video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee that only raised more concerns.

To some, the apparent stage-managing of Ms. Peng was a reminder of the authorities’ use of forced confessions and other video testimony from detainees for propaganda. In 2019, a state run news service ran a “proof of life” video of Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur folk poet and musician, to quell international concerns that he had died in an internment camp.

When Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was detained by the authorities in 2016, he was forced to speak in a Chinese propaganda video about his so-called crimes. He said in a recent interview that he saw the state media’s gradual release of photos and videos of Ms. Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements mainly to silence her while waiting for the outcry to die down.

“She is obviously under custodial control,” Mr. Dahlin said. “Everything she does will be scripted from beginning to end; she will be told exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile.”

A waiting game has helped Beijing defang attacks from individual critics in the past, be they dissidents or sports stars. When Hao Haidong, a retired Chinese soccer star, called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged records of his career and waited as he faded from memory. Though Ms. Peng brings more international backing, Chinese officials may be betting the social media cycle of shock and anger will eventually dissipate.

For Beijing, the concern is that the blowback could interfere with the upcoming Winter Olympics, which China is hosting.

“They have to placate not just the usual critics in the West, but also decidedly apolitical tennis stars and sporting associations overseas, while at the same time burying all mention of Ms. Peng’s original charge,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”

“It’s no surprise that the propaganda system is floundering,” he said.

In a strange turn, the only recent post about Ms. Peng that remains on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. It calls on Beijing to respect its commitments to combating violence against women. But the seemingly curated comments on the post accused France of meddling in China’s affairs. Along similar lines, some Chinese journalists took to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who expressed concern about Ms. Peng.

“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure? Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside,” Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, wrote on Twitter.

The narrative that Ms. Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been echoed by other state media employees on Twitter. The posts have done little to appease concerns outside China.

“There’s no narrative even to really distract; there’s nothing substantive beyond character attacks on the West and Western media,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added, “This is really the best they’ve been able to come up with.”

Within China, it remains unclear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for “Peng Shuai” spiked to nearly two million on Nov. 3, the day after she posted her accusation, but have since fallen to the tens of thousands. Ms. Peng’s frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 followers since her post — a blip in a country where top celebrities have tens of millions of followers.

Mr. Xiao, the research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. His group has tracked hundreds of keywords, some with only the faintest connection to Ms. Peng, that had been blocked from posts and searches. Only the most sensitive topics — like Xi Jinping, China’s leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 — have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.

In the weeks since, censors have begun to fine-tune their approach. Some broad keywords, like “tennis,” have been restored in searches. Still, Mr. Xiao said, the wide gulf between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to plague attempts to control the topic.

“They know they cannot feel secure. The Great Firewall leaks,” he said, using a term that refers to China’s blocks and filters that keep out foreign social media. “Millions of people jump the wall to read about it.”

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

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Brian Kelly Leaves Notre Dame for LSU

Brian Kelly will leave Notre Dame to become the football coach at Louisiana State, the latest in a series of changes at some of the country’s most storied college football programs.

The news was confirmed Tuesday morning by L.S.U.

The hiring follows the move of Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California. Both shifts surprised the college football world, where coaches do not regularly leave elite programs voluntarily, and created enticing vacancies at the universities Riley and Kelly left behind.

The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 11-1 this year and, if a top team loses, could earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame was ranked sixth in the most recent rankings for the four-team playoff. The new rankings will be released on Tuesday night.

Kelly had seemed like an institution at Notre Dame after 12 years in the top job. He had a national championship game appearance in the 2012 season and a 113-40 overall record. (The wins in the championship game season were later vacated by the N.C.A.A. after a trainer was found to have done coursework for players.) This season, Kelly surpassed Knute Rockne with the most wins as a coach for the university.

As unusual as it is for a head coach with Kelly’s success to leave a program that is still in the playoff hunt, his move could potentially position him to finally win a national championship, something he could not do at Notre Dame. Kelly lacks a top tier bowl victory, with losses in the Fiesta, Cotton and Rose Bowls, along with the national championship game loss.

And Notre Dame, despite Kelly’s elite recruiting (he has produced a top-20 class every season since taking over the head coaching job in 2010), appeared severely outmatched in its recent playoff appearances, losing to Alabama and Clemson by a combined 44 points.

Louisiana has one of the most ripe recruiting grounds in the country. L.S.U. has had a class outside the top 10 only twice since 2010. Kelly will have access to as much talent as he has seen.

L.S.U. won the national championship after the 2019 season, only to fall to 5-5 in 2020. Coach Ed Orgeron announced this would be his last season in October, when his team was 4-3. The Tigers currently stand 6-6. Like his predecessor, Les Miles, he found that not even a national title guaranteed long-term job security in Baton Rouge.

L.S.U. reported that Kelly would be paid $95 million over 10 years, plus incentives, a significant increase from a salary believed to be in the $3 million range at Notre Dame.

“I could not be more excited to join a program with the commitment to excellence, rich traditions, and unrivaled pride and passion,” Kelly said in a statement that L.S.U. released Tuesday morning. He added: “I am fully committed to recruiting, developing, and graduating elite student-athletes, winning championships, and working together with our administration to make Louisiana proud. Our potential is unlimited, and I cannot wait to call Baton Rouge home.”

Scott Woodward, the university’s athletic director, called Kelly “the epitome of a winner.”

Reports had initially linked L.S.U. with Riley, who over the weekend denied he would take the job before he moved to U.S.C. There also had been in-state support for the University of Louisiana coach Billy Napier, but he chose to go to Florida.

Luring Kelly from Notre Dame, though, was an even bigger surprise.

Kelly started his career at Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won two Division II national titles. He then spent three years at Central Michigan and four at Cincinnati, culminating in an undefeated regular season. That landed him the Notre Dame job.

The hiring of Kelly at L.S.U. helps keep the Southeastern Conference at the center of the college football universe: The conference has recently added the powerhouse teams Texas and Oklahoma, and its members Alabama and L.S.U. have won four of the seven national championships in the playoff era.

Another Southeastern Conference team, Georgia, is undefeated and No. 1 in the country this year. It will face Alabama (11-1), third in the playoff rankings, in the conference championship game on Saturday in Atlanta.

Alan Blinder and Alanis Thames contributed reporting.

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