Diego Maradona Loved Basketball. Its Stars Loved Him, Too.


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Alex English arrived in Naples in southern Italy in 1991 with one N.B.A. scoring title from a Hall of Fame run with the Denver Nuggets, eight All-Star selections on his resume and a limited understanding of the Italian sporting landscape. He soon learned that his new surroundings were ruled by a 5-foot-5 soccer dynamo whose stature rivaled Michael Jordan’s.

Or maybe even eclipsed it in that part of the world.

Even to a newcomer from the United States, Diego Maradona was omnipresent throughout English’s one-season stint with the now-defunct Societa Sportiva Basket Napoli franchise. It scarcely mattered that Maradona was unable to play for Napoli in 1991-92 because he was serving out the bulk of a 15-month suspension after testing positive for cocaine. English routinely flipped through Italian newspapers he couldn’t really read — and he couldn’t miss the unending stream of Maradona headlines.

The basketball and soccer clubs of Napoli were not at all well-connected like they are at, say, Real Madrid in Spain, where Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks regularly intersected with Real’s soccer stars before making the leap to the N.B.A. The suspension helped scuttle English’s chances of meeting Maradona during the season they could be both referred to as Napoli players.

“I think I got close to him once,” English said.

A lasting impression was made anyway. Maradona’s profile was so substantial that English, in a telephone interview, likened him to the larger-than-life Wilt Chamberlain as much as Jordan. It’s a shame they didn’t meet because Maradona, who died last week at the age of 60, was a huge N.B.A. fan. In a 2019 interview with TyC Sports, Maradona said that he began admiring the San Antonio Spurs from afar even before they employed Manu Ginobili, his fellow Argentine, and kept loving the league long enough to become a Stephen Curry fan.

After Maradona’s death, Magic Johnson shared two photos of himself with Maradona on social media and described meeting him as “one of the thrills of my life.” Such was Maradona’s appreciation for basketball that, on multiple occasions, he described Ginobili as the most accomplished athlete in their country’s history. Such modesty was hardly common from Maradona, but clearly even he was moved by Ginobili’s run in a sport without the same level of reverence soccer holds in Argentina.

The late Kobe Bryant spent much of his youth in Italy while his father, Joe Bryant, who was known as Jellybean, played there professionally. Kobe Bryant crossed paths with Maradona at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and later referred him to his as “my idol.” Maradona described Jordan as his idol, which helped explain the grainy photos of Maradona wearing an oversize version of Jordan’s famed No. 9 Dream Team jersey while he was training for the 1994 World Cup.

That would be the last glimpse of Maradona on his sport’s biggest stage as a player. It predictably featured a dose of his incomparable left-footed magic, as conveyed by a scorching goal against Greece and an unforgettable celebratory scream into the nearest television camera, but was followed swiftly by another inglorious chapter for his lifetime of off-field troubles. After testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, Maradona was kicked out of the tournament.

In any Maradona discussion, there is no escaping the dark side. Drug addiction and health troubles kept him in the headlines worldwide long after he stopped playing. He seemed to be perpetually engulfed by family tumult and, after becoming estranged from his ex-wife Claudia Villafane, was accused of abusing one former girlfriend.

In a 2014 television interview in Argentina, Maradona acknowledged that his drug use kept him from reaching even greater heights.

“Do you know the player I could have been if I hadn’t taken drugs?” Maradona said.

The player Maradona was nonetheless always inspired passionate support in a crowded greatest-of-all-time debate that should be quite relatable to an N.B.A. audience.

Maradona? Or Pele? The Argentine who, even in an 11-on-11 sport, routinely carried underdogs to glory for both club and country? Or the Brazilian who became one of the world’s most famous faces, and an American pioneer with the New York Cosmos, on top of repeated World Cup success?

Taking it further: Can we conclusively say that Maradona tops Lionel Messi as Argentina’s finest soccer export? And further still: Can we even conclusively say that Messi is the modern era’s most worthy G.O.A.T. contender ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo?

As soccer’s pundits wrestle anew with such questions, it is reassuring to see that another global game isn’t any closer to sorting out its hierarchy than us hoop dreamers. Maybe it’s OK that no one in basketball has quite hatched a consensus formula to rank the likes of Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Chamberlain — if we can even agree on those six as the finalists.

Maybe the Yankees’ legend Reggie Jackson had the right read when he spoke to us as James closed in on his fourth championship. Jackson said that just being in the ultimate paragraph of contenders is the ultimate compliment.

Rest assured that Maradona will have permanent residence in that stratosphere.

“I wish I had gotten the chance to know him,” English said. “He had that one-name thing. When you’re that big, like Maradona and Pele, you don’t need a second name.”

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ImageThe Golden State Warriors used a trade exception to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Phoenix Suns.
The Golden State Warriors used a trade exception to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Phoenix Suns.Credit…Kathy Willens/Associated Press

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: Whether or not the Lakers or the Bucks overpaid in their trades for Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday is somewhat subjective. But one thing on this matter from your last newsletter can be said definitively: Davis is one of the five best players in the league. Holiday, for all talents, is not. The Lakers met their goal immediately after acquiring Davis by winning a championship. Even if the Bucks retain Giannis Antetokounmpo and then go on to win the title, it’s unlikely that Holiday will be the missing piece as Davis so clearly was in the Lakers’ championship run in 2020. — Richard Brenner

Stein: No argument from me, Richard, on your sentiment that Davis is the far better player — and, on that basis, can more readily justify the cost.

But the Bucks are just trying to lock in Antetokounmpo before they can even think about winning it all in 2021. Getting Antetokounmpo to bypass free agency and sign a five-year supermax contract extension worth an estimated $230 million would be the Bucks’ championship this season.

So if Holiday’s arrival proves to be enough to help secure Antetokounmpo’s signature, Holiday doesn’t have to be as good as Davis. He will have done his job already.

The immediate worry for Milwaukee is that, as of Tuesday morning, Antetokounmpo had not yet signed the extension. He has until Dec. 21 to do so or he will become an unrestricted free agent in July.

The good news for the Bucks, their fans and all other interested onlookers: The calendar dictates that in three weeks or less we will have a much better idea of where Antetokounmpo stands with everything.

Q: Really that wild? — @monparlor from Twitter

Stein: A few readers on Twitter, like @monparlor, took issue with my recent characterization that the week of transactions before Thanksgiving was as wild as we’ve ever seen in the N.B.A. Another reader, @KnicksMemes, made the assertion that “other off-seasons” have been wilder.

And I agree. Other recent off-seasons, in their totality, have featured more landscape-shaking moves.

Yet I was simply referring to the hyperactive nature of the week in question — really an eight-day stretch from Nov. 15 to Nov. 22. It was madness.

The frenzy started with two trades that rate as blockbusters headlined by Chris Paul and Jrue Holiday. The first three days of free agency produced more than 80 new contract agreements and included two high-profile deals that abruptly vanished in murky circumstances: Bogdan Bogdanovic’s reported sign-and-trade deal with Milwaukee and Dwight Howard’s scuttled return to the Lakers and subsequent signing with Philadelphia.

Don’t forget that the N.B.A. draft was squeezed in amid all that chaos.

If there has been a wilder single week for N.B.A. roster business, I will need some assistance to pinpoint it.

Q: Is it expected that the expiration dates of trade exceptions that teams generated around last season’s trade deadline will be readjusted so they expire around the new trade deadline? — David Weiner (Houston)

Stein: The trade deadline hasn’t been finalized with the union, but the working assumption is that it will land after the All-Star break, as it usually does. The dates of trade exceptions in conjunction with last season’s deadline (Feb. 6) would then be moved into March based on the same mapping rules that the league office has used to adjust other contract-related deadline dates.

As a primer for those not as well versed on trade exceptions as David, they can be created when a team sends out more salary in a trade than it receives. The resulting exception lasts for a year and can be used to take on additional salary in subsequent trades but cannot be combined with other players or traded to other teams as an asset.

Golden State just used a $17.2 million trade exception to acquire Kelly Oubre (and his $14.4 million salary) from the Phoenix Suns after Klay Thompson’s season-ending Achilles’ tendon tear. The Warriors generated the trade exception by packaging a future first-round pick with Andre Iguodala to trade Iguodala into the Memphis Grizzlies’ salary-cap space in July 2019.


Donovan Mitchell has a player option after the fourth season of his new max deal with the Jazz.Credit…Pool photo by Ashley Landis

Zion Williamson has been a member of the New Orleans Pelicans for 17 months since he was drafted on June 20, 2019. He is the longest-tenured player on New Orleans’s completely overhauled roster.

Only four top-level basketball leagues outside of the United States, according to FIBA, brought their 2019-20 seasons to a playoff conclusion in addition to the N.B.A. They were: China, Germany, Israel and Spain.

The Houston Rockets held the draft rights to the Spanish national team stalwart Sergio Llull for more than 11 years before trading Llull’s rights to the Knicks last week. Houston spent more than $2 million to buy a 2009 second-round pick from Denver (No. 34 over all) and used it to select Llull. Houston tried to persuade the Real Madrid guard to make the leap to the N.B.A. but never could.


Five players have signed five-year maximum contracts in free agency thus far. The deals for Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Boston’s Jayson Tatum have a player option after four seasons to become free agents in the summer of 2025. Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox and New Orleans’s Brandon Ingram don’t have options. Ingram’s deal begins this season and runs through 2024-25, while the extensions for Adebayo and Fox begin next season and run through 2025-26.

As an incurable nostalgist, I have to note here for posterity that my career has somehow made it to 35 years and counting. My first job in the industry, writing local high school sports for the twice-weekly Saddleback Valley News in Orange County, Calif., began in December 1985.

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