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Blazers’ Meyers Leonard Talks Expectations

Meyers Leonard talks to Basketball Insiders about his game and the difficulty of meeting high expectations.

Oliver Maroney

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Realizing your true potential in the NBA is an extremely difficult task. Nowadays, players are drafted at 19 or 20 years old and oftentimes are expected to perform at a high level right away. Even so, the pressure from fans, media and others can be overwhelming at a young age, especially when you are falling short of expectations. Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard has realized this and is starting to focus on what’s really important.

“I’ve realized I can’t try to please everyone anymore,” Leonard told Basketball Insiders. “For whatever reason, I’m very polarizing. A lot of times, people either really like me or they really don’t. I can say true down to my roots that it’s frustrating for me because I want everyone to like me, that’s just the guy I am. I’m a people-pleaser and it’s frustrating.”

Leonard’s father, James, passed away when Leonard was six years old. That left his mother to raise Meyers and his brother by herself. They moved from house to house, enduring power and water shut-offs, living on what they could afford (which was close to nothing). Leonard’s mother, Tracie, was victimized with crippling back pain that left her housebound after her husband’s death. In the second grade, Leonard would find a surrogate family to help him in a time of need. Brian Siler, an insurance agent in Robinson, Illinois, knew of the family’s situation and became Leonard’s surrogate father.

From there, Leonard became a top-ranked prospect in high-school basketball. A five-star player who was recruited by many schools, Leonard decided to stay close to home and attend the University of Illinois. Playing two seasons at Illinois, Leonard achieved some of the highest honors, such as becoming an All Big-10 honorable mention in his sophomore season. After his second season at Illinois, Leonard declared for the 2012 NBA Draft.

“With the 11th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers select Meyers Leonard out of the University of Illinois.”

Those were the words that would take Leonard from a small-town prospect to an NBA player. Leonard was 20 years old at that time. The expectations were high for Leonard. Fans saw this skilled, 20-year old seven-footer who was selected in the lottery and believed he had the potential to be a franchise cornerstone. But everything takes time. Unfortunately, fans typically can be impatient when it comes to the development process and that’s where things can become difficult for the players.

The Blazers drafted Leonard because of his potential; it wasn’t necessarily going to be a “plug-and-play” situation. In his rookie year, Leonard would sit behind LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson, playing about 17 minutes per game. The next two seasons would be much of the same.

However, this past offseason, Leonard had a big decision to make. He was offered a $40 million contract extension with the Blazers, but he opted to decline the offer to test free agency at the end of the 2015-16 campaign.  As Portland had lost four of five starters, he considered himself a front-runner for a starting position. It looked like a smart play, as the Blazers had cap space and Leonard looked to be healthy. But because of injuries and an unexpectedly good start for the team, he would lose his chance. Leonard would eventually be shut down in March of last season, as he would undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.

By that point, it looked like Leonard may go elsewhere since he’d declined the extension and still hadn’t fully tapped into that potential everyone spoke of when he was drafted.

“It was a complete nightmare last year,” Leonard said. “Last year was the hardest year of my life, not even close. I lied to my entire family the whole year. I told them I was okay. I wasn’t. I came from nothing and I turned down $40 million.”

Despite turning down the big contract, Leonard remained with the Blazers. Now at age 24, Leonard did a lot of reflecting last offseason. Coming into media day, he was outspoken about his summer and just how grateful he was to be back in Portland.

“It’s insane, man,” Leonard said about his changes in the offseason. “I feel so much more comfortable out there. I didn’t play at the end of the year. I didn’t even get to train this summer and I didn’t get to play this summer. I just feel so much better out there. I know now that I’m no longer a defensive liability at all. I’m feeling better at the rim, I’m feeling better at my rebounding. Offensively, I feel like I’m doing more. Rather than just shooting, I can cut to the rim. I’m just feeling comfortable and confident. I know that I can be a very effective player and someone that can help this team win.”

He seemed relieved that he could be honest about the situation and finally turn to the next chapter in his life.

Beyond just how he feels, Leonard looks like he’s added some muscle and gained some agility. His ability to hit the three-point shot while being a seven-footer gives him an extreme advantage over many NBA big men. This is just one aspect of his overall game, which he is continuing to improve.

“It’s coming, I can feel it,” Leonard said regarding reaching his potential.

But it’s not just basketball that Leonard feels revitalized in, it’s his life. He has multiple journals where he logs what he’s thankful for and why. He’s managed to ignore the negativity and the critics while getting back to his roots.

“I don’t have time for people who are negative,” Leonard said. “My wife knows that. The number one thing I hate about anything is negativity. That has become something that’s had less and less an effect on me. It is what it is. I just wish everyone would like me, but I know that’s just not going to be the case. I feel that I’ve improved drastically since I’ve gotten here and I’ll continue to improve. [Reaching my potential], it’s coming. I said that this summer. I know that I can be a very effective player. I have to continue to have the right mindset, the right approach to every single game and continue to battle to show people what I’m capable of doing.”

Leonard’s attitude and perspective are refreshing and he genuinely seems happy with where he’s at. However, he did state that he is concerned about the world and what’s happening in the country as far as social injustice.

“It’s really, really bad what’s going on in our country, and it’s sad too,” Leonard told Basketball Insiders. “I feel blessed that my mother and my surrounding family who took care of me growing up raised me to love everyone no matter who they are: tall, short, white, black, religious and political views. Everyone’s going to have an opinion about something in life and a lot of times people disagree on things. That’s just the way it is and I can’t comprehend all the hatred and just everything that’s going on. I don’t know enough of the facts about everything that’s going on in the world, but it’s sad what the world is right now. There is a lot of great people in this world. Particularly for us [in the U.S.], we’re very blessed. I know in my position it’s very easy for me to say, ‘Wow, I’m so blessed. I’m not on the streets or homeless.’ But there are so many people in the world working like crazy for so much less money. We’re all just so blessed and I just wish everyone loved each other.”

This season, the Blazers need Leonard to be effective more than ever. They sit at 11-10 on the season, which is not where they expected to be. They went out and added veteran leadership in Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli while retaining all their key contributors who were free agents like C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Leonard. Essentially, the Blazers brought back everyone in hopes of building on their success from last season. But it hasn’t worked out as they’d planned yet.

“It’s been up and down obviously,” Leonard said. “That’s the easy answer. It’s just little things here and there. I’m a big time believer in watching film and understanding film. Sometimes it might be a big that didn’t box out or sometimes it might be a guard that didn’t get the ball enough on a pick-and-roll. Maybe we as a group didn’t talk in defensive transition or we didn’t execute on the offensive end. There’s just one little thing on every play by an individual, but it all adds up when you’re at a game. So it’s not like our foundation defensively has changed. It’s proven. We’ve shown that it works. Just something like a missed box out or a missed dunk contest—there’s something every play – not every play, but a lot of the plays.

“It’s just something small that ends up adding up over the game, which adds up over a road trip, which adds up for the entire season so far. That’s why we show flashes where people are like, ‘Holy crap. Why can’t they be like this all the time?’ It’s just turning a notch up on our mental focus because our effort is there, it really is. Every now and then, we don’t get a runback in defensive transition or something happens, but mainly it’s just something little here and there. Once we shore it up and continue to build chemistry, we’re going to be just fine.”

So far, Leonard is averaging six points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game. But statistics don’t show everything with Leonard. His ability to spread the floor for a team with many traditional big men is unique and something the Blazers can utilize.

“I feel that I have the ability to affect the game statistically and outside of statistics,” Leonard said. “I really feel that I have a major effect offensively, even if it doesn’t show up in a stat book, because teams’ bigs struggle to guard me at the three-point line. A lot of people talk about, ‘Well if they started switching pick-and-rolls could you go to the block and score?’ Yeah, I’m working on that. But we have [Damian Lillard] and C.J. My thought process is either space the floor or try and get a rebound because they (Dame and C.J.) can score on every big in the NBA. So that’s the mismatch. Some people say, ‘Oh they will just switch the pick-and-rolls on you.’ Okay great, then watch Dame and C.J. go to work. I feel like the effect of how easy the game flows on the offensive end when I’m out there is noticeable.

“Defensively, I feel like I am much improved. The game is way slower on the defensive end of the court. I could care less about statistics, but they want me to rebound out of my area, they want me to go after more. Sometimes I get boxed out and I could go get it or I could let the ball drop and let the guard grab it. I do need to be more assertive. Like I’ve said, I need to be aggressive, assert myself and make my presence more known on the floor. Truthfully, all I care about is winning. So if I have a guy that I need to keep off the glass and someone else gets [the rebound], then we’re fine and I’m good with that.”

Leonard isn’t selfish, upset or complaining about his role. He’s fitting in with this team and understands that he can give this team more. His new video ‘Built To Rise‘ really captures what he’s gone through and shows some of the hardships he’s overcome.

Sometimes fans forget that basketball players are also human beings. In the social media age, we have more access to players and with that, they see more negativity than ever. That’s especially true if they’re not living up to collective expectations. In the case of Leonard, he’s been called all sorts of names and has been criticized in many ways. He’s had many obstacles to overcome. But he’s found a way to block it out, leading to his most comfortable season yet – both on and off the court.

 

Oliver Maroney is an NBA writer for Basketball Insiders. He is based in Portland and covers the league as a whole.

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G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts

David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.

Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.

Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.

With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.

1. Christian Wood

Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.

His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.

2. Jameel Warney

Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.

With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.

3. Melo Trimble

After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.

He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.

4. Joel Bolomboy

Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.

At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.

5. Jeremy Evans

Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.

With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.

Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.

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NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs

On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.

Dennis Chambers

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At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.

And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.

Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.

While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.

Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.

Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.

Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.

It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.

That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.

Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.

Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.

Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.

The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.

Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.

While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.

Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.

Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.

Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.

Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.

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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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