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Q&A: Larry Sanders Explains Break from NBA

Larry Sanders tells Alex Kennedy why he decided to leave the Bucks, if he’ll consider an NBA comeback and more.

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Former NBA center Larry Sanders is one of the most misunderstood athletes in professional sports.

LarrySandersInside3When he decided to leave the NBA at 26 years old, agreeing to a buyout that left the bulk of his recently-signed $44 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks on the table, most people couldn’t comprehend his decision. Yes, he took a personal leave of absence after being suspended twice for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program, but why would a very talented player walk away from the NBA and all of the perks that come with that lifestyle? Fans were equally confused and disappointed, as Sanders had become an exciting, up-and-coming center in Milwaukee.

Sanders had averaged 7.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks with a 7.1 block percentage over the course of his five-year career. His breakout campaign was the 2012-13 season, when he averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 27.3 minutes while shooting 50.9 percent from field. That season, his averages per-100-possessios were 18.2 points, 17.6 rebounds and 5.3 blocks. At one point, he led the league in limiting opponents’ shooting percentage at the rim, so it was a no-brainer for Milwaukee to invest in him in August of 2013.

Then, he surprised everyone and decided he needed a break from the NBA lifestyle.

Well, Basketball Insiders recently caught up with the 27-year-old Sanders to discuss why he decided to leave the Bucks, why an NBA comeback isn’t out of the question, what off-court endeavors he’s been pursuing and much more in this wide-ranging, exclusive interview.

Basketball Insiders: Making the decision to walk away from the NBA couldn’t have been easy. You left a lot of money on the table and that was your career at that point. I know you’ve always had other interests, but how hard was that decision to make and how long did you grapple with it?

Larry Sanders: “Because I started playing basketball late, I had other interests before that. I love basketball and the competition and the comradery and all of that. But, at the same time, I feel like basketball took a lot away from me too. It limited me in a lot of ways. And I’ve been an artist my whole life. I loved drawing. I wanted to be an oceanographer. I’ve skateboarded for the majority of my life. I always had this artistic and rebellious way about me, and it clashed with the NBA culture. It really did. I got to the point where I realized that the NBA is a machine. It’s going to keep running, with or without you. If it can keep running without Allen Iverson – Allen Iverson! – then it’s definitely not worried about me. I knew that, and I also knew they really didn’t have the time to get to know me, to understand me and who I am. And look, I totally understand that. I get that. But I just felt like I had to put myself in a better position in life, to feel more fulfilled. At the end of the day, I’m left with myself, my loved ones and the life I made. I wanted to be someone who was proud of their story. It was always about staying true to myself. I didn’t want to lose myself and who I was for anything. No amount of money. Nothing.”

Basketball Insiders: How much do you miss basketball? You mentioned that you love the game and once you’re in that culture, it’s hard to just completely remove yourself from it. Do you watch games and still play at all?

Larry Sanders: “Oh, I do miss it. I have season tickets for the Los Angeles Lakers and I love watching and dissecting the game. I mean, I love this game. I really do. I love to play it, and I do still play a lot here in L.A. But there were some things about it, some situations, that I didn’t love. But I feel like I’m in a much better place right now and I’m equipped to be able to put myself in that situation again.”

Basketball Insiders: That’s great to hear, because your well-being was my biggest concern. When you walked away, you made comments about working on yourself as a person and needing time to sort things out since you were dealing with anxiety and depression. How are you doing?

Larry Sanders: “It’s been going great, man. I think that’s just the process of life. I had to take that time for my development, to develop into the type of man that I need to be. That time [to work on yourself] isn’t really given to us, but there’s a lot of value in making some time for yourself and I hope other people can find the time to do that too. Some people never do that or can’t do that, and that just saddens me. Stepping out of the NBA schedule and doing that was good for me, I’m very happy now.

“And I’m happy for everyone still in the NBA having success. I see what’s about to happen with the salary cap rising, and I’m so happy because those guys deserve it. For what they do out there, risking their bodies, they deserve it. I risked my body; I got my orbital [bones] blown out and temporarily lost my eyesight. Because those guys are taking a risk every time they step on the court, I’m glad they’re going to get some more money for what they’re doing.”

Basketball Insiders: You mentioned you’re in a better place, which leads to the big question that everyone is asking. Do you see yourself making an NBA comeback anytime soon?

Larry Sanders: “I could see myself coming back to the NBA and… I mean, I’ll just leave it at that. I can’t say too much. (laughs) I can see myself coming back there.”

Basketball Insiders: Your name gets mentioned in rumors whenever a team needs a big man or is looking to make a free agency signing. Have teams been calling you or your camp to express interest?

Larry Sanders: “I’ll say this: I understand who I am as a player and I know what I can bring to any team. Now that I’ve gotten the chance to watch a lot of basketball, I just know what I would do on that court. Even from an effort standpoint, I know I can [play harder than a lot of players]. With the kind of player that I am, I just don’t see a team that couldn’t use my services. But I will say, I think it would have to be a very good fit for the both of us. And I think it goes outside of what’s happening on the court – there has to be a connection there. Maybe I’m asking for too much. (laughs) But I just won’t go back to the situation I was in before.” Editors Note: Larry agreed to play with VCU’s alumni team in The Basketball Tournament, which has a $2 million prize and will be broadcast on ESPN.

Basketball Insiders: In the meantime, you’ve started an art management company where you work with a variety of artists and put out some of your own work (including a rap track called Black Mercedes). What made you decide to start that and how is it going?

Larry Sanders: “It’s been going well. It started because when I was an artist, I didn’t have much creative freedom or creative nourishment. I felt kind of trapped and I wanted to create a place where I could give other artists the resources they need and where they don’t have to feel trapped. I didn’t want them to feel limited by anything. And there are artists who don’t even own their art, and I felt like that was a huge problem. I wanted our artists to own their art, be able to display it freely and choose exactly what they wanted to do with their work. It was a shift [away from basketball], but it was just a calling for me, honestly. It’s been going great. I’ve been working with some artists for the last eight months, developing them, shooting videos for them and providing space for them. This is my first time doing this, so it’s been a great learning experience. I have the right intentions, and now I’m learning about the structure and all of that. Now, we’re at the point with the company where we have a photographer, business partners, artists and me. We’ve had artists come through our system and end up in a better situation, which is great. That’s what we want. That’s all I want for them. A lot of these people are starving artists – some are living out of their cars – and we’re not asking anything from them. We just want to use our resources to help them and I want to put my name by them to co-sign them. It’s just awesome and it’s a great, great feeling to see these guys flourish. It’s like I’m freeing myself doing this.”

Basketball Insiders: Speaking of freedom, I’ve always said that the life of an NBA player is more difficult than outsiders see. There are a lot of sacrifices – from the rigorous schedule, to the loneliness since you’re away from your loved ones, to all of the rules, to the physical and mental exhaustion. Yes, NBA players make a ton of money, but there are a lot of difficult things to deal with too. Do you think there are misconceptions about the NBA lifestyle and that people don’t fully understand what it’s like?

Larry Sanders: “Yeah, but as long as those people are seeing it from the outside looking in, there will always be misconceptions. It’s like filtering something through a net, you’re never going to get the real thing, the raw thing. It’s hard to understand unless you’re there actually experiencing it. But life is life. A great friend of mine told me a great phrase: ‘The top isn’t that bright and the bottom isn’t that dark.’ I do think that people are starting to understand that NBA players are people too. They can step back and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a normal guy.’ People forget that because of certain depictions. And a lot of them are choices that we didn’t get to make. I don’t think humans get to make many choices in society. I was born only 27 years ago so I’m still developing and trying to grow, but it seems like people don’t have too many choices when it comes to the world around them. I think I directly experienced that. I was everything that everyone thought I was, but I was also none of it at the same time. Everyone tries to put you in categories and label you and, honestly, dumb you down.

“I stepped into the basketball culture later than most people. I started playing organized basketball when I was 15 or 16 years old. That’s when I really started to experience the whole culture of basketball, and I fell in love with it. I loved playing the game and having a team, but it was also such a shock. AAU was a huge shock. I only played one year of AAU, but it was a huge shock seeing the manipulation and what players had become accustomed to because those things had just become the norm. They allowed these crazy things into their lives, but me, who was almost stepping into adulthood, was like, ‘No, this doesn’t feel good.’ That was a challenge.

“Then everything happened so fast. I had no aspirations of playing in college, but in that one year in AAU I broke out, so suddenly a bunch of mid-major schools are looking at me. I chose VCU because it was an arts school – they were like 16th in the nation at the time when it came to their arts program and engineering and what not. Then, from there, I started to make leaps and bounds because I had a great coach in Anthony Grant, who was excellent for my development. Then things kept moving fast. I was seventh or eighth in the nation in blocks in my freshman year. Then, in my sophomore year, I had Eric Maynor with me and he’s one of the best teammates that I ever had. I always viewed him as a teammate and basically a coach too. I think anyone who has ever played with him can say that about Eric. He was there in Oklahoma City in the beginning when it was Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and if you talk to those guys right now, they’ll tell you how significant he was to that team. Man, I love Eric. He kept us in the gym, he kept us working hard and he’s just a different kind of person. So he pushed me and made me better. Then I was drafted by Milwaukee and had Scott Skiles in my life, and everyone knows he’s a hard-nosed coach, but he got me so disciplined on defense. He turned me into a defensive animal! And it was because he didn’t let me make mistakes, because I got screamed at for every mistake I made! (laughs) I may not have responded well to all of the personal stuff, but if you had a system and a certain way of doing things, I was all about it. ‘Let’s do it!’ And if I’m doing something wrong, I want to know! He would let me know, so I was blessed to have him. Then I had Larry Drew, and then I had Jason Kidd.

“I always had great people around me throughout my basketball career. I was truly blessed because they were all so significant and each one helped me take the next step up and get better. Every year, there was a such a significant person that would become part of my life and help me so much. I still talk to Anthony Grant, who is now in Oklahoma City as an assistant. I still talk to Shaka Smart. These are my friends and have helped me in life just as much as basketball. It’s just awesome to have those people around me and I’m very thankful for that.”

To reach out to Larry, send him a message on Twitter (@LarrySanders).

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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