NBA PM: Will Stars Bolt for the Eastern Conference?
When the Chicago Bulls held their free agency meeting with Carmelo Anthony last July, part of the franchise’s pitch focused on the Eastern Conference being wide open and how the star-studded Bulls could be a perennial contender in that landscape. They wanted to stress to Anthony that playing in the NBA Finals year after year could be a reality with Chicago’s talented roster and relative lack of competition, whereas making an annual title run would be much more difficult if he joined one of the Western Conference teams pursuing him.
Anthony, of course, re-signed with the New York Knicks. Then, the Cleveland Cavaliers added LeBron James and Kevin Love to become the clear-cut frontrunner in the East. Still, it remains true that the Eastern path to the Finals has significantly fewer obstacles than the Western route.
Players recognize this too, so don’t be surprised to see a number of middle-to-upper-tier players move from the West to the East through free agency or trades in the near future. Other things will obviously factor into players’ decisions too – such as the money, city, weather, playing time and much more. But all things being equal, East teams may be more attractive given how insanely competitive the West has become.
A number of players and agents who spoke to Basketball Insiders on condition of anonymity admitted as much.
“Players will consider going to the East, for sure,” one Western Conference player told Basketball Insiders. “The East is down right now and the West is a dogfight. The seventh- or eighth-seeded team in the West could possibly make the Eastern Conference Finals with how things are now.”
“It wouldn’t be a bad idea [to join an East team],” added another NBA player. “I’m pretty sure Kevin Durant is going to start it off and go home to [the Washington Wizards in] D.C.”
That’s obviously just speculation about Durant (although it is a popular theory these days), but it’s easy to see why any player might want out of the West.
Five teams in the conference won 55 or more games this season (the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs), whereas only one East team (the Atlanta Hawks) accomplished that feat.
In the East, two teams made the playoffs with a losing record (the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets), while a 45-win team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) missed the postseason in the West. If the eighth-seeded Nets were in the West, their 38-44 record would’ve ranked 12th (or, in other words, fifth-worst in the conference).
For much of the season, the Cavaliers were expected to win the Eastern Conference and face little resistance along the way. That’s exactly what happened, as Cleveland swept two of their three East opponents and lost just two games before advancing to the NBA Finals. Oh, and they did this with Kevin Love out for the postseason, Kyrie Irving sidelined for some games and playing through pain in others, and LeBron James hobbling around the court as well. That sums up the East’s ineptitude.
By the way, Cleveland was the second seed in the East with their 53-29 record, but they would’ve been the seventh seed and faced the Rockets in the opening round if they played in the brutal West.
The analytics website numberFire uses the metric “nERD” to measure team performance based on statistical analysis. nERD assigns teams a rating on a scale of 0-100, with 50 being the league average. This season, West teams had an average nERD of 53.90 compared to 46.24 for East teams. Looking at just the playoff teams, the West’s top eight had an average nERD of 64.39 compared to 54.46 for the East’s postseason squads. In 13 of the last 14 years, the West has had a higher average team nERD than the East (with 2009 being the lone exception).
And the head-to-head numbers aren’t pretty either. Western Conference teams went 263-187 in games against Eastern Conference teams this year. This is the 15th time in the last 16 seasons (and the sixth consecutive year) that the West has had the better head-to-head record versus the East, according to Cleveland.com.
There’s also the fact that the West has many more stars. Yes, the East has LeBron James, who’s arguably the best player on the planet, as well as John Wall, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Derrick Rose (when healthy) and Dwyane Wade (although he’s clearly declining) among others. But take a look at this year’s NBA end-of-season awards and it’s pretty clear which conference has more star power.
In the voting for the Most Valuable Player award, 10 of the 11 vote-getters played in the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson. The lone exception was LeBron James.
In the voting for the three All-NBA teams, 12 of the 15 players selected were from the West: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. The only East players were LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Pau Gasol.
In voting for Defensive Player of the Year honors, the top eight vote-getters were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tony Allen and Tim Duncan. There wasn’t a single East player who received a first-place vote.
In the voting for the two All-Defensive teams, eight of the 10 players honored were from the West: Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan, Tony Allen, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Andrew Bogut and Tim Duncan. Jimmy Butler and John Wall were the lone East players who were honored.
This doesn’t even include other West household names such as Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Damian Lillard and Dirk Nowitzki among others. And let’s not forget that the West’s pool of stars may continue expanding in a few years, as 2014-15 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins continues to develop and Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor could join the conference since the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Lakers have the top two picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The difficult road to a championship is an understandable reason for a player to switch conferences, but the number of stars could influence that decision too. It’s harder for a player to build their brand or earn individual accolades (which often trigger contract bonuses) when they’re surrounded by so many star-caliber players. One agent who has prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft is privately hoping his clients don’t end up out West for this very reason.
“Players absolutely want to be in the East,” said one NBA agent who asked to remain anonymous. “[The conference disparity] affects the All-Star teams too. I want my kids in this year’s draft to get selected by Eastern Conference teams.”
Also, with the NBA’s salary cap set to rise significantly next summer due to the new television rights deal, just about every team will have substantial cap space. That means players will have plenty of options to team up in the East if that’s where they’d like to go. Some star players have already casually discussed the possibility of forming a new super-team together once the cap rises, according to league sources, and it’s possible that squad could decide to assemble in the East for strategic reasons.
Even though we could see some notable players cross the country in the near future, don’t expect a mass exodus from the West. As one player noted, that wouldn’t solve anything.
“I could see players leaving the West, but not if too many stars to go the East,” said the player, who has played in both conferences. “If too many stars switch, then the East is really tough and you have the same problem. Personally, though, I believe the top 16 teams should be in the playoffs instead of going by conferences.”
This idea to ignore the conferences and just allow the teams with the best records into the postseason has been discussed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and it seems that he’s strongly considering it.
“Ultimately we want to see your best teams in the playoffs,” Silver recently said to Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area. “And there is an unbalance and a certain unfairness. There is a proposal… where the division winners would all automatically go into the playoffs and then you’d seed the next 10 best teams. I think that’s the kind of proposal we need to look at. There are travel issues, of course, but in this day and age every team of course has their own plane, travels charter. I don’t think the discussion should end there. And as I’ve said, my first year I was studying a lot of these issues and year two is time to take action. It’s something I’m going to look at closely with the competition committee. I do think it’s an area where we need to make a change.”
It’s worth noting that not all agents believe quality players will start fleeing Western Conference teams due to the competition from both teams and individuals. This agent feels that, in most cases, players are much more concerned about themselves when they’re weighing their free agency options (and several other league sources echoed this sentiment as well).
“I think players will always go where they can personally benefit the most,” said one NBA agent, who spoke off the record. “They’ll focus on what’s best financially first, and then on basketball second. Even if the money is equal, I think they’d go to the team where they can play the most. I think money and playing time will always impact a player’s decision more than whether they’re in the East or West. The one exception is the veteran who has money and is chasing a ring; I could see him favoring East teams.”
One executive pointed out that we may not see players make the switch from the West to the East until LeBron James retires. James has now been to five straight NBA Finals, so while there are fewer contenders at the top of the East, getting past James is very difficult (just ask the Bulls).
At the end of the day, factors like the money, city, market size, playing time, weather, management, teammate relationships and lack of state income tax will always impact a player’s move.
However, it’s possible that a team’s conference could play a role (even if it’s just a slight one) in the decision-making process going forward. Just as the Bulls brought it up in their pitch to Anthony, teams that are looking for any possible edge in recruiting will certainly include this among other things as they attempt to land free agents.
Brungardt, BAM Changing The Game In Accurate Athletic Assessment
Spencer Davies speaks with strength and conditioning specialist Brett Brungardt about co-founding Basic Athletic Measurement and its role in the NBA Draft Combine.
As the NBA’s postseason continues and the crowning of a champion in the Finals draws nearer, the rest of the league’s attention is set on June 20, the date of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Last Tuesday in Chicago, the results of the draft lottery determined the first-round order of the top selections in the field. Over the next three days, attention shifted to the annual NBA Draft Combine.
You didn’t see Zion Williamson’s or RJ Barrett risk injury or hurt their chances by participating. Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, Coby White and Cam Reddish all spoke to the media and met with teams, but they didn’t actually do anything physical. You rarely see any of those premier prospects do so.
The purpose of the NBA Combine is to help boost the draft stock of professional hopefuls that aren’t pegged at the top of their class. It’s the place where some late first-rounders turn into mid-first-rounders. Where once-thought-of undrafted players move up into potential draftee status through athletic testing and live scrimmages in front of executives, agents and coaches.
Every year, there’s always a “winner” at the NBA Combine, and sometimes there are multiple that benefit come draft time. We’ll find that out in about a month.
Whoever that may be, though, will have to thank Brett Brungardt.
Boasting over 25 years of experience—notably as a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Washington and with the Dallas Mavericks—Brungardt is responsible for the co-founding of Basic Athletic Measurement (BAM), a standardized athletic testing organization that has essentially been the straw that stirs the drink at the NBA Combine since the company’s inception in 2008.
Brungardt hatched the idea of BAM based on conversations with head coaches over his time as a strength and conditioning assistant. He’d field questions about 40-yard sprint times and vertical jump measurements, and then would refer to spreadsheets with recorded year-by-year results to answer them.
Unfortunately, almost all the time, Brungardt’s numbers didn’t match up with the staff’s findings—so he brainstormed.
“In the back of my mind I kept thinking there’s gotta be a way to have reliable and valid information in a linear component that’s looking at athletes through time that we can trust,” Brungardt told Basketball Insiders at Quest Multisport in Chicago. “We were the original fake news, to be quite honest.
“On the back of that, we decided to come up with a standardized way of assessing athletes and looking at what we call our performance parameters, and then put that in the equation of making sure we’re creating a well-balanced, healthy athlete through some…they really are quite simple tests, but what we’ve added to make it more reliable is the technology. So we’re looking at a lot of data points. Not necessarily the end results become important, but it’s all the significant data points between the start and finish.”
Brungardt put in the work to travel across the world, scouring through New Zealand and Australia to find the perfect technology that would best help drive his brainchild. Doing his due diligence, he agreed to partner with Fusion Sport, a global leader in human performance software.
And so, along with Martin Haase, his co-founder who had an extensive background in software and statistics to help on the organizing end of things, Brungardt launched BAM.
For the past 11 years, BAM has taken a combination of advanced technological equipment and data collection to record times and scores—labeled BAMScores—for standardized tests specific to certain drills.
“It’s like an SAT for younger people,” Brungardt said.
At the NBA Combine, BAM administers five different tests, all of which are incorporated into BAMScore:
– Pro Three-Quarter Court Sprint: Determines acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance.
– Lane Agility: Tests movement patterns in all four directions around the lane and measures the ability to make quick changes of direction while moving at speed.
– Reaction Shuttle: Evaluates ability to show how quick and effective decisions are made and actions initiated. The brief interval of time it takes to react to an external stimulus.
– Vertical Jump: Demonstrates ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible vertical displacement.
– Approach Jump: Athlete starts within 15 feet of the Vertec. It is a running start vertical jump. Measurement is similar to vertical jump, but also includes the athlete’s ability to coordinate and incorporate strength and power with reach.
The process of executing such tests is quite fascinating. According to an interview Brungardt did with Access Athletes, the participants register online ahead of the events and are given an identification tag with their Fusion ID technology. They are then re-registered with their tags verified through video. During the actual tests, an electronic wristband is worn to monitor player movement.
And just in case of the rarity where the software doesn’t reflect the correct outcome, Brungardt utilizes three backups (a video, handheld PDA and a CPU backing up the system).
Once an athlete finishes a test –or is done with the full amount of testing—the timing system downloads the results into BAM’s database where all of the information is stored. From there, the times and BAMScore reports can be shared to whoever requests them.
“For basketball, it’s the biggest standardized database in the world because we’ve been doing it for such a long time and standardized this process with the technology,” Brungardt said. “There are databases out there with hand time, which is highly unreliable, and mixtures of such, but all of ours are an apple-to-apple comparison.”
Physically and athletically speaking, these tests tell us everything we need to know. As for measuring greatness at the professional level, that’s the tough part.
“To use this as a talent identification process, [no]. There’s a lot of things that go on in basketball,” Brungardt said. “Larry Bird probably would not have been a great combine tester. But if you’re looking at a specific role for a player, someone that’s gonna fill a spot, that’s gonna play a role because there’s only one basketball out there, then you may have certain metrics that you deem are meaningful.
“We acquire the data. The brains in the NBA then put their secret sauce together from this data to see what they want to utilize out of that component. There’s great athletes and they’re fun to watch. It’s fun to watch the movement patterns, see how they do. Because it’s becoming more ingrained in the culture of basketball, but it’s still not like other sports where these parameters are instilled in junior high age and kids are performing them. So some of this is new to these athletes.”
Testing well is just one piece of the puzzle. Although it’s not his area of expertise, Brungardt has a general idea of how prospective talent is evaluated by basketball scouts and front office executives.
“There’s a performance box. And if they’re outside that box, probably no matter what their skill set is, it may be very difficult for them to perform at this level because the guys are so athletic,” Brungardt said. “You could be the greatest shooter in the world, but if you can’t create the space or get your shot off fast enough, then they’re gonna get to you and they’re gonna change your world.
“So you have to be athletic enough to create space to move so then you also then can’t be a certain liability. So there’s an athletic box they look at, and then they start to move down to skill pattern. That’s still the priority.”
BAM isn’t just limited to basketball, by the way. The organization does testing in 17 sports in total, with BAMScores compiled for each so that the numbers can be compared across.
For example, Jordan Bone earned the highest BAMScore at the 2019 NBA Combine in Chicago with a total of 2401 points. Put that next to Troy Apke’s impressive showing at the 2018 NFL Combine (unofficial BAMScore of 2379—they can’t authenticate the measures) and you can infer that both are extremely athletic people.
Bone and Apke’s BAMScores fall into the “professional” range of the organization’s scale. Contrasting with the U.S. Men’s National Cricket Team tryouts in April 2018, their player’s top BAMScore was 1957, a figure that ranks in the “varsity” category, three levels below the range those two fell into.
“Some sports have certain parameters that they’re better at because of adaptations and skills that go on in that sport than others,” Brungardt said. “But it doesn’t mean that other sports can’t look at those and become better at those performance parameters.”
Brungardt’s past experiences in basketball coaching played a significant part in making his vision come to life. With Brett’s innovation and the assistance of Haase, BAM has become the standard bearer of accurate athletic assessment.
“We established: ‘These tests are helpful for this sport,'” Brungardt said “Stopwatches just are not the most reliable way in the world to do it. When you start looking at more transcription and every time you touch data humanly, things happen that make it inaccurate.
“For me, it’s about physical development. I wanted to test an athlete, then I trained them and then I wanted to re-test them in a reliable fashion to see if what I was doing in the weight room was improving him on those components. And those were the goals.”
And while Brungardt is proud of the presence BAM has, he understands that upgrading should always be on their mind.
“Anytime you have more data on a test, it becomes more valid. It’s testing when it purports to test and that’s what validity is,” Brungardt said. “The technology is better. It always gets better.
“It’s about right now, we feel it’s really good. We’re always looking to improve things, but there’s always the human component because you have proctors. There’s lots of things we try to make as consistent as possible, but here what we’re doing, everything that we touch, pretty good!”
NBA Daily: Tacko Fall Out To Prove He’s More Than Tall
Most of the attention centered around Tacko Fall stems from his height, but after an impressive combine outing, he’s out to prove that there’s so much more to him.
Tacko Fall was one of the many participants who attended the NBA Draft Combine this past week in Chicago.
By so doing, the combine retrieved all of his official measurements as a player such as his height, weight, and wingspan among others. After the combine was over, Fall had the following measurements.
Height (without shoes): 7’5 ¼’’
Height (with shoes): 7’7″
Weight: 289 pounds
Wingspan: 8’2 ¼’’
Standing Reach: 10’2 ½”
Vertical Leap: 26.5″
Those measurements set many records at the combine. So, in case you didn’t know it before, growing has never exactly been an issue for Tacko Fall. Even though the findings that measured how freakishly tall Fall is shocked the masses, none of them really fazed the man himself as long as that meant he wasn’t going to grow anymore.
“I kind of already knew so I wasn’t really surprised,” Fall said. “I don’t think I’m going to keep growing. I think it’s just going to stay there. Hopefully. We’ll see.”
Fall’s physical advantages made him look like a man among boys in his four years at the University of Central Florida. The Senegal native averaged 2.4 blocks and 7.7 rebounds – in only 23 minutes per game – and put up a scorching field goal percentage of 74 percent over the four-year span of his college career. Basically, Fall’s good stats mainly come from his unrivaled length.
During his time at the combine, Fall believes that sticking to his guns and not doing things out of his comfort zone made him look good to spectators.
“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Fall said. “I’m holding my own. I’m not going out there doing anything out of character. I’m staying true to myself. I’m playing hard. I’m talking. I’m running hard. I’m doing everything that I need to do.”
Despite his towering presence, Fall is not expected to be a high selection in this year’s NBA Draft, if he is selected at all. Not many mock drafts at the time being list his name among those who will be taken, and the ones that do have him among one the last selections in the draft.
Some of his primary critiques as a player include his low assist-to-turnover ratio and his faulty shooting mechanics. The biggest one of them all is his lack of mobility. Being as tall as he is would make it hard for anyone to move around well enough to compete with NBA offenses that rely more on quickness and spacing now than it did on mass.
The concerns surrounding Tacko’s mobility were made loud and clear to him. That’s why he believed he had something to prove to the skeptics at the combine.
“For people my size that’s the biggest thing that they’re looking for,” Fall said. “‘Can he move?’ ‘Can he keep up with the game?’ ‘Can he run the floor?’ ‘Can he step out and guard?’ I feel like I have the ability to do those things. So, coming in here and having the opportunity to play against great competition and showing my abilities have been a great blessing for me.”
Before the combine, Fall’s stock benefited from his final performance as a college basketball player. Tacko and the ninth-seeded Knights fought the first-seeded Blue Devils until the very end but ultimately lost 77-76. Fall had much to do with UCF’s near-upset over Duke, putting up 15 points, six rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes before fouling out.
That game did a lot for Tacko’s belief in himself as a player leading to the combine. Putting up that kind of stat line against one of the best college basketball programs with three top-10 prospects with so much on the line had to make him feel good about his chances. He said as much following his performance at the combine.
“That was definitely one of the best games in my college basketball career,” Fall said. “It helps build confidence. You go toe-to-toe with those people. You think, ‘Wow I can really do this.’ All you have to do is keep working and working and keep proving that you can step out there and compete every night.”
For some prospects, the NBA Combine is nothing more than just a formality. In fact, multiple prospects for this upcoming draft – including RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, and consensus No. 1 pick Zion Williamson – decided to skip out on it. For prospects who are on the bubble like Tacko, it’s a rare opportunity to show that there’s more to them than what they showed in college.
Fall recognized the importance of the occasion and voiced his appreciation for the chance he had to show everyone who attended what he can bring to a basketball court.
“It’s been a great experience,” Fall said. “I’m blessed to be here. I worked really hard. I thank God I’m in this position. I just got to take advantage of it.”
Tacko’s efforts impressed scouts and media members alike. There have been rumblings that his play at the combine has further increased his stock in the NBA Draft. Even with all the work he’s put in and the ambition he has to make it to the biggest stage, Fall is soaking it all in.
“I’m enjoying it because not a lot of people get the opportunity to come here,” Fall said. “I’ve worked really hard and God put me in this position. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA
After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.
The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.
Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.
Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.
“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”
Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.
“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”
Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.
At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.
“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”
Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.
“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”