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The Sports Report: Sports great Rafer Johnson dies at 86

Rafer Johnson
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

Scott Wilson on the death of Rafer Johnson: Forever a civic booster in the metropolis where he lived, Rafer Johnson died Wednesday at his home in Sherman Oaks. The Olympian’s death was confirmed by his family. He was 86.

The son of Texas farmworkers who moved to California when he was young, Johnson rose to become the World’s Greatest Athlete, the unofficial title bestowed on the winner of the Olympic decathlon at a time when track and field stars received the adulation that today is bestowed on the best of the NFL and NBA.

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At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Johnson was the U.S. team’s flag bearer, the first Black American so honored. His decathlon battle that year with C.K. Yang — his training partner at UCLA — ranks among the classic moments of Olympics history.

In an eventful life, Johnson broke racial barriers, played an unexpected role in the international relations of the Cold War and immersed himself in the turbulent politics of the 1960s. To help disabled children, Johnson co-founded the California Special Olympics in 1969 and served as its president for 10 years.

In contrast to the anything-to-win attitudes often found in sports today, the deeply religious Johnson was always a vocal advocate for fair play and good sportsmanship. He eschewed drugs and alcohol and, in track races, refused even to try to anticipate the starter’s gun, believing that it was a form of cheating.

“It seems funny to say winning is not all-important — I always want to win, and no one likes to lose,” he once said. “But when you start out on the field, everyone is equal. That is the important idea.”

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UCLA community remembers Rafer Johnson, ‘the greatest of all Bruins’

Appreciating Rafer Johnson as more than a great athlete, but a great man

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LAKERS

Dan Woike on the Lakers: LeBron James has agreed to a two-year contract extension with the Lakers, keeping him with the team through the 2022-23 season, Klutch Sports agent Rich Paul said.

The deal is worth $85 million.

It could be a hint as to what Paul’s other marquee client, Anthony Davis, plans to do with the Lakers. Davis, who became an unrestricted free agent when he opted out of the final year of his contract, is expected to re-sign with the Lakers, though the mechanics of his deal haven’t yet been finalized.

James, who turns 36 at the end of December, is coming off his fourth NBA championship, leading the Lakers to glory in the NBA bubble where he was named NBA Finals most valuable player.

In the postseason, he averaged 27.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game.

James could have entered free agency following the upcoming season had he exercised a player option. Now, he won’t hit the market until after his 19th season in the league.

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The Clippers and the Lakers were on a collision course to meet in the Western Conference finals before the Clippers severely stumbled in the playoffs. Now, the two teams will share the court again — at Staples Center — to open the 2020-21 season.

The NBA announced its first week of nationally televised games Tuesday, highlighted by the Lakers and the Clippers meeting at 7 p.m. PST on opening night, Dec. 22, and the Lakers and the Mavericks on Christmas Day. The Clippers will cap Christmas night with a rematch in Denver, which overcame a 3-1 playoff series deficit to advance past the Clippers to the conference finals.

The first half of the NBA schedule is expected to be released sometime this week.

The Golden State Warriors will kick off the 2020-21 season in Brooklyn at 4 p.m. PST, with Kevin Durant playing against his former team before the action moves to Staples Center. Both opening-night games will be on TNT.

DODGERS

Jorge Castillo on the Dodgers: Major League Baseball’s non-tender deadline, usually an overlooked date on the industry’s offseason calendar, was met with heightened anticipation Wednesday.

The 30 teams were expected to decline to offer contracts to an unprecedented number of arbitration-eligible players after sustaining significant economic losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Those players would then become free agents, flooding an already depressed market. The industry consensus was that offseason moves wouldn’t commence until the dust settled after 5 p.m.

Approximately 60 players were non-tendered, barely eclipsing last year’s mark of 56, though several players around the majors agreed to contracts before the deadline to avoid the possibility of being let go.

The Dodgers didn’t contribute to the number. Instead, they acquired former All-Star closer Corey Knebel from the Milwaukee Brewers for a player to be named or cash, agreed to a one-year, $1-million contract with reliever Scott Alexander to avoid arbitration and tendered contracts to their remaining six arbitration-eligible players: Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, Austin Barnes and Dylan Floro.

Knebel, 29, was one of the best relievers in the majors in 2017 when he posted a 1.78 earned-run average in a league-leading 76 appearances. His performance, however, dipped in 2018 and he underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2019, forcing him to miss the entire season.

The right-hander gave up nine runs and 15 hits, including four home runs, in 13 1/3 innings across 15 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

ANGELS

Maria Torres on the Angels: As they cleared space for improvements to their bullpen, the Angels also spent part of Wednesday’s contract-tendering deadline manufacturing a trade that will fill the vacancy created by the departure of Gold Glove-winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons. New general manager Perry Minasian dealt two minor league pitchers for veteran infielder José Iglesias.

Iglesias, 31 next month, has saved 13 runs on defense since 2015, ninth-most among all MLB shortstops. The figure is nowhere near as impressive as Simmons’ majorleague-best 123 defensive runs saved in that time frame but it is promising. It’s two runs better than that produced by Marcus Semien, the former Oakland Athletics shortstop who has been a Gold Glove finalist two of the last three seasons.

“We feel like we’ve added an impact defender,” said Minasian of his first major roster move since being named the Angels’ general manager Nov. 12.

Iglesias hit well in the shortened 2020 season, batting .373 with 17 doubles and three homers over 39 games. He hit .288 with a .724 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the previous season, when he a played a career-high 146 games with the Cincinnati Reds.

The Angels on Wednesday also decided against offering arbitration to a group that included former closer Hansel Robles. Robles was projected to earn roughly $4 million through the arbitration process.

One year after assembling a breakout season that led to a $2.45-million raise, Robles’ 2020 ended after 18 appearances with a horrific 10.26 ERA, a spiked walk rate and diminished velocity. The Angels believed Robles’ difficulties stemmed from an inability to get his adrenaline pumping in empty ballparks.

Robles’ plummet stood in sharp contrast to the success of Mike Mayers, a fellow waiver claim who quickly earned the trust of manager Joe Maddon. The right-hander finished with two saves in four chances, a team-best 2.10 ERA and a strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of 12.9, highest among Angels pitchers.

Mayers was tendered a contract for next season alongside two-way star Shohei Ohtani; starters Andrew Heaney and Dylan Bundy; relievers Noé Ramirez and Felix Peña; and catcher Max Stassi. Hard-throwing right-hander Keynan Middleton, swing-man Matt Andriese, left-hander Hoby Milner and reliever Justin Anderson, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, were not tendered contracts.

THIS DATE IN SPORTS

1943 — Notre Dame quarterback Angelo Bertelli wins the Heisman Trophy.

1946 — Army halfback Glenn Davis is named the Heisman Trophy winner.

1950 — Tom Fears of the Los Angeles Rams has 18 receptions against Green Bay.

1950 — Cloyce Box of the Detroit Lions has 302 yards receiving and scores four touchdowns against the Baltimore Colts.

1956 — Wilt Chamberlain scores 52 points in his collegiate debut with Kansas.

1957 — Texas A&M halfback John David Crow is named the Heisman Trophy winner.

1972 — Bobby Howfield of the New York Jets kicks six field goals against New Orleans.

1973 — Dick Anderson of the Miami Dolphins intercepts four passes, returning two for touchdowns, against Pittsburgh.

1979 — USC halfback Charles White is named the Heisman Trophy winner.

1982 — Tommy Hearns wins the WBC welterweight title with a 15-round decision over Wilfred Benitez in New Orleans.

1994 — Sixth-ranked Florida beats undefeated and third-ranked Alabama 24-23 in the first SEC Championship game played in Atlanta.

1999 — Marshall beats Western Michigan 34-30 on the last play of the MAC Championship game. Down 30-27 with four seconds left in the game, Chad Pennington throws his 100th career touchdown pass to Eric Pinkerton as time expires to give the Thundedring Herd their third consecutive MAC title.

2000 — The 200-yard rushing games by Mike Anderson, Corey Dillon, Warrick Dunn and Curtis Martin mark the first time in NFL history that four runners have 200 yards on the same day. Its never happened three times in a single day. Anderson rushes for an NFL rookie record 251 yards and four touchdowns in Denver’s 38-23 victory over New Orleans.

2004 — Bode Miller wins his fourth race of the season in the downhill at Beaver Creek, Colo., and Daron Rahlves is second to give the United States its first 1-2 finish on the World Cup circuit. The last time U.S. men went 1-2 in any elite international race was 1984, when Phil Mahre won the Olympic slalom in Sarajevo and twin brother Steve took the silver medal.

2005 — USC wins its 34th consecutive game and 16th straight against a ranked opponent, beating No. 11 UCLA 66-19. The 16 victories against Associated Press ranked teams is one better than Oklahoma, which won 15 from 1973-76.

2014 — The Philadelphia 76ers avoid tying the record for the worst start to a season in NBA history, ending their 0-17 skid with an 85-77 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

2015 — Aaron Rodgers throws a 61-yard touchdown pass to Richard Rodgers with no time left to give the Green Bay Packers a 27-23 comeback victory over the Detroit Lions. Detroit went ahead 17-0 after its first three drives and capped the opening possession of the third quarter with a field goal to go ahead 20-0.

2017 — Tom Brady continues his career-long dominance of the Buffalo Bills completing 21 of 30 for 258 yards and an interception in New England’s 23-3 victory. He improves to 27-3 against Buffalo and breaks Brett Favre’s record for wins by a quarterback against any one opponent.

And finally

Heisman Tour 2012 - USC’s Charles White. Watch it here.

Until next time...

That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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