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  • Belichick on deflated balls: 'We try to do everything right'

    FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Saying his team "followed every rule to the letter," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick described in detail how his team prepares its footballs on game day and defended his players from chatter that they made it to the Super Bowl by cheating.

    "At no time was there any intent whatsoever to try to compromise the integrity of the game or to gain an advantage," Belichick said in an unscheduled availability on Saturday afternoon, eight days before the Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks for the NFL championship.

    "Quite the opposite: we feel like we followed the rules of the game to the letter," he said. "We try to do everything right. We err on the side of caution. It's been that way now for many years. Anything that's close, we stay as far away from the line as we can."

    Speaking once again with authority on a topic he previously professed ignorance of, Belichick said the team conducted an internal study on the process of getting game balls ready.

    Most of the steps are designed to make them tackier, which has a noticeable effect on how it feels, he said, but the process could also affect the pressure inside the ball, which is harder to tell by touch.

    "I'm not a scientist. I'm not an expert in footballs; I'm not an expert in football measurements," Belichick said. "I'm just telling you what I know."

    The Patriots reached the Super Bowl for the sixth time in Belichick's tenure when they beat the Colts 45-7 in the AFC championship game on Sunday. But later that night, Indianapolis TV station WTHR reported that some of the game balls provided by New England for the use of its offense weren't sufficiently inflated.

    The NFL said its initial investigation confirmed that some of the footballs used in the first half of the conference title game were underinflated. On Thursday, Belichick deferred questions on the game balls to Brady; the quarterback also denied any impropriety.

    Wide receiver Matthew Slater, who also serves as the team's union rep, said Saturday that the players had been instructed by the NFLPA not to comment on the situation.

    But in the slow news off-days before Super Bowl week, the allegations received disproportionate attention - and Twitter hashtags such as "Deflategate" and "Ballghazi" - along with comparisons to the videotaping scandal of 2007, when the Patriots were hit with unprecedented penalties after Belichick was caught recording opposing coaches sending in signals from the sidelines.

    Belichick denied that there is a pattern of rule-breaking, or even of pushing the rules to their limit.

    "It was wrong. We were disciplined for it. That's it. We never did it again. We're never going to do it again," Belichick said of the scandal that came to be known as "Spygate." "And anything else that's close, we're not going to do either."

    A football lifer who only seems happy on the sidelines, if at all, Belichick is known for an absolute attention to detail that prepares his team for every imaginable situation.

    But instead of getting ready for the Super Bowl, he said he has spent far too much time the past week studying the science and learning about "bladders, air gauges, stitching, pressure, game day football preparation, rubdowns and so forth."

    "I'm embarrassed to talk about the amount of time that I've put into this relative to the other important challenge in front of us," he said. "It sounds simple, and I'm not trying to say that we're trying to land a guy on the moon, but there are a lot of things here that are a little hard to get a handle on."

    But Belichick seemed most emotional when he came to the defense of his team. Among the questions he and his players have been asked this week is whether they cheated to get to the Super Bowl.

    Belichick praised his players, who went 12-4 in the regular season, won an 11th division title in 12 years, made a fourth straight trip - and ninth overall - to the conference championship game, and have a chance for a fourth NFL title in his tenure.

    "They're a physically and mentally tough team that works hard, that trains hard, that prepares hard and have met every challenge that I put in front of them," he said.

    "This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season. ... The best team in the postseason, that's what this team is. I know that because I've been with them every day. And I'm proud of this team."

    ---

    Follow Jimmy Golen on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/jgolen .

    ---

    AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL



  • Weber's 108.5-mph blast gives him hardest shot at NHL skills

    COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Not that they did before, but it's official now: No one wants to get in front of Shea Weber's shot.

    The Nashville Predators defenseman fired the hardest shot of 108.5 mph at the NHL All-Stars skills competition on Saturday night, taking advantage of five-time champion Zdeno Chara's absence.

    "I knew I got it," Weber said. "But it's tough. You never know how hard it is until it registers on the gun. But it felt like I got pretty much all I could into it, and (you) just kind of hope for the best."

    Fighting his nerves since he doesn't practice high-velocity shots, Weber missed the entire net on a 101.8-mph drive with his first attempt. That nullified that try.

    Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin - who stole the show at Friday night's draft by pleading to be picked last so he would win a new car - had led the competition with a pair of 101.4-mph drives.

    But then Weber stepped into his final shot to win the event.

    He said it felt strange with the 6-foot-9 Chara - who holds the record of 108.8 mph set in 2012 - not participating.

    "Obviously, he's the guy to beat all the time," Weber said. "He's got the big shot. Honestly, I was nervous because there's some guys out there that can rip it."

    The team captained by Columbus Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno defeated one led by Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews, 25-19. The teams meet in the 60th All-Star game on Sunday.

    A capacity crowd roared with laughter, booed former Columbus players such as New York Rangers star Rick Nash, and gave Weber a standing ovation.

    "We had a blast," Foligno said. "The boys did awesome. I wasn't sure how it was going to go but we got off to a great start."

    The other premier event at the skills competition featured Ryan Johansen of the hometown Blue Jackets winning the breakaway challenge.

    Johansen pulled Blue Jackets trainer Mike Vogt's 7-year-old son, Cole, out of the stands to score a goal to the delight of the crowd. In addition, the center endeared himself to Ohio State fans by pulling off his Blue Jackets sweater to reveal a No. 5 Ohio State football jersey - similar to one worn by injured star quarterback Braxton Miller - on his first shot.

    Johansen also employed a star-laden V-formation to the net on his third and final attempt.

    "On the ice we're out there goofing around, having fun, making each other laugh while showing our moves and skills - things we don't normally do on the ice," Johansen said. "I've really enjoyed meeting these guys off the ice. It's amazing how similar we all are."

    Moments after Johansen and Cole Vogt scored their tandem goal, Philadelphia's Jake Voracek did exactly what Johansen did - except instead of a little boy he grabbed diminutive Calgary rookie Johnny Gaudreau and guided him toward scoring a goal.

    The breakaway event began with St. Louis goalie Brian Elliott turning his back on an opposing player - Blues teammate Vladimir Tarasenko - and then taking a selfie of the two as the puck went into the net. The crowd again roared with laughter.

    Ovechkin, who won the first three of the five times the breakaway has been held, struck out on three baseball swings off high passes from Tarasenko. Patrick Kane, who won in 2012 after donning Clark Kent glasses and a red Superman cape, didn't compete in the breakaway but had the fastest time in accuracy shooting.

    In the fastest skater event, in which players were paired off and raced around the perimeter of the rink against the clock, Team Foligno went 5-0 - winning all four races and pocketing an extra point for Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin posting the fastest time of 13.103 seconds.

    Toronto's Phil Kessel, who was dealt by Team Toews for Tyler Seguin on Friday in a duplicate of a real 2009 deal between Boston and Toronto, surprised many by edging the Dallas Stars star in the first speed pairing of the event.

    In a matchup of Blackhawks teammates, Kane beat Toews by breaking four plates at the corners of a net almost 3 seconds faster - in a time of 13.529 - to push Team Foligno to a 10-1 lead through three events.

    The two close friends shared a laugh later when they met at mid-ice.

    "We're always competitive with each other in all aspects of the game," Toews said. "Tonight, he got the best of me. I had the chance to take it from him, and it just slipped away. It happens."

    ---

    Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP



  • World Cup of Hockey tournament set for 2016

    COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) The World Cup of Hockey is making a long-awaited return in 2016.

    And the NHL intends to host it every four years.

    "We decided that bringing back the World Cup was vitally important," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Saturday during the league's All-Star game weekend festivities.

    "We're going to let this evolve. We believe after giving the event such a good start that we're going to build off it."

    To begin with, the 2016 tournament will feature eight teams with all games played in Toronto.

    The tournament will start Sept. 17 and end with a best-of-three final series, with the last possible date set for Oct. 1.

    The World Cup will overlap training camps, and push back the start of the regular season to the second week of October.

    The players' union is on board as a full partner.

    "We have an opportunity here to build this game, and build this culture and create something that everybody on both sides can be immensely proud of," NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr said. "We view this is a first step, although a very important one."

    The league also announced the Bruins and Canadiens will play in the Winter Classic next year on Jan. 1 at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL's New England Patriots.

    The return of the World Cup was the highlight announcement.

    It will feature a new wrinkle, with two of the teams made up of multinational players. One team will consist of North American-born players 23 and younger. Another will consist of European-born players whose countries aren't represented.

    The other six teams will be Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland. Teams will be split in two divisions.

    The World Cup and its predecessor, the Canada Cup, have been held seven times since 1976 through 2004.

    Bettman foresees holding the World Cup every four years and adding more countries.

    The timing of the 2016 World Cup comes two years before the Winter Olympics will be held in South Korea. The NHL has not yet determined whether it will allow its players to compete in the Pyeongchang Games because of concerns over travel and time differences.

    Bettman said the World Cup announcement "has no bearing on whether we will return to the next Olympics."

    Players are excited about the return of the World Cup.

    Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane recalled watching the U.S. winning the tournament in 1996.

    "We have a lot of pride in playing for our country," Kane said. "Being able to be part of something special as this, especially in a hockey hotbed like Toronto, I think it'll all come together and be a great tournament."

    Canada has won five of the seven tournaments, with Russia winning in 1981.

    The one caveat players had is they don't want the World Cup to be held at the expense of competing at the Olympics, which NHL players have done since the Nagano Games in 1998.

    "Olympics are Olympics," Slovenian-born Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar said. "I don't know if that would be a good trade off."

    The inclusion of two mixed national teams intrigued players.

    Some wondered how Canadians and Americans can set aside their longstanding cross-border rivalry.

    "It definitely would be a little bit uncomfortable," said Calgary Flames rookie Johnny Gaudreau, who is from New Jersey. "But at the same time, it would be a great experience getting to play against guys who have been playing in the NHL for a long time."

    There would be an even larger mix of nationalities on the European All-Star team, which has the potential to feature players from as many as nine countries.

    Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons - the only Latvian currently in the NHL - was stumped by the question of which nation's anthem would be played before games.

    "That is a good question. I didn't even think that far," Girgensons said. "Maybe flip a coin."

    Each team will play three pre-tournament games, including the potential of some being played in Europe. There has also been discussion of having all eight teams play their final pre-tournament games in Buffalo, New York, a two-hour drive from Toronto.

    Bettman provided updates on other topics:

    - The NHL expects billionaire businessman Bill Foley to launch a season-ticket drive next month to determine whether there is enough interest to establish a franchise in Las Vegas.

    - Seattle Mayor Ed Murray met with Bettman last week to discuss the possibility of establishing a team there. Bettman called it "a nice chat," but noted Seattle lacks a feasible facility for an NHL team.

    - The falling Canadian dollar could put a dent into the NHL's salary cap projection of $73 million for next season. Should the loonie stay at its current level of about 80-cents U.S., the cap could drop to $71.7 million.

    - The NHL's other outdoor games next year will feature Minnesota hosting Chicago at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota on Feb. 21, and Colorado hosting Detroit at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, in Denver on Feb. 27.



  • Blazers' Aldridge puts thumb surgery on hold, scores 26

    PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) In a span of just 48 hours, LaMarcus Aldridge resigned himself to thumb surgery, reversed himself and decided to play through the pain, then led the Portland Trail Blazers to victory over the Washington Wizards.

    "He can't sit out. He doesn't want to sit out. He loves this game and figures if he's got something to give, he's going to give," teammate Wesley Matthews said.

    The Blazers surprised many on Saturday when the team announced on Twitter that Aldridge had decided to put off surgery and would play that night against Washington.

    He responded with a team-high 26 points and nine rebounds in a 103-96 win to snap a two-game losing streak.

    He was sore after the game but said he was OK.

    "I'll just play until it's intolerable. Tonight, I thought it was tolerable," he said. "It was hurting a little but it wasn't too much. I'll just keep going until I feel like I'm not playing as good as I can, or I can't take it."

    The 6-foot-11 power forward leads Portland with averages of 23.3 points and 10.2 rebounds. He's one of just three NBA players averaging at least 23 points and 10 rebounds.

    Aldridge had said on Thursday that he needed surgery to repair a ligament in his left thumb and was expected to miss from six to eight weeks.

    He hurt his thumb when his hand came down on the knee of Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins in the second quarter of the Blazers' 98-95 victory on Monday night.

    "You can't say enough," coach Terry Stotts said about Aldridge's return. "That was big time. Not only coming back and playing through the injury but then not favoring it, going hard, not shying away from contact, being aggressive on both ends of the court - I mean, that was big time."

    The injury looked like a big blow to the Blazers, who were already dealing with a depleted front line. Center Robin Lopez is out with a fractured right hand and center Joel Freeland is sidelined with a strained right shoulder.

    Starting small forward Nicolas Batum left Thursday night's 90-89 loss at home to the Boston Celtics after he aggravated a right wrist injury that had been bothering him. Batum did not play against Washington.

    Going into Saturday's victory, Portland had lost five of six games.

    Aldridge said the close loss to the Celtics impacted his decision, and that his doctors told him there was "no harm in giving it a shot." In the past two days he'd been able to move his thumb, which also factored into the decision.

    "My idea now is to play the rest of the season," he said. "But if it gets too much where I can't handle it or I'm not playing at a very good level then I'll stop. But hopefully it goes well for us."

    If he gets through the season, he'll have the surgery in the offseason, he said.

    In his ninth NBA season, all with Portland, Aldridge recently moved into second on the franchise list for both points (11,782) and rebounds (5,095). He trails only Clyde Drexler with 18,050 points and 5,339 rebounds.

    Blazers guard Damian Lillard said he greeted Aldridge with applause when he came into the locker room after his return was announced.

    "I can't even sit here and tell you how big it is just for him to be out there," Lillard said. "Sixty percent, 70 percent LaMarcus Aldridge is better than no LaMarcus at all."

    The Blazers embark on a four-game road trip that starts Monday against the Nets.



  • Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks dies at 83

    Even as the Chicago Cubs lost one game after another, Ernie Banks never lost hope.

    That was the charm of "Mr. Cub."

    Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who always maintained his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite decades of playing on miserable teams, died Friday night. He was 83.

    The Cubs announced Banks' death, but did not provide a cause.

    Banks hit 512 home runs during his 19-year career and was fond of saying, "It's a great day for baseball. Let's play two." In fact, that sunny finish to his famous catchphrase adorns his statue outside Wrigley Field.

    "His joyous outlook will never be forgotten by fans of the Cubs and all those who love baseball," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.

    And on a cold winter night Friday in Chicago, the ballpark marquee carried the sad news for the entire town to see: Ernie Banks. "Mr. Cub." 1931-2015.

    "Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement. "He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I've ever known."

    "Approachable, ever optimistic and kind hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie's life in the days ahead."

    In a statement Saturday, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama expressed their condolences "to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him." The president said Banks became known as much for his optimism and love of the game as his home runs and back-to-back National League MVPs.

    "As a Hall-of-Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago," President Obama said. "He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    "Somewhere, the sun is shining, the air is fresh, his team's behind him, and Mr. Class - "Mr. Cub" - is ready to play two."

    Though he was an 11-time All-Star from 1953-71, Banks never reached the postseason. The Cubs, who haven't won the World Series since 1908, finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons and remain without a pennant since 1945.

    Still, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible, and was selected to baseball's All-Century team in 1999.

    "After hitting his 500th home run, Ernie summed up his feelings by saying: `The riches of the game are in the thrills, not the money."' Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said in a statement. "That was the essence of Ernie Banks. There was no one who adored the Cubs and the city of Chicago more than Ernie."

    Banks' infectious smile and non-stop good humor despite his team's dismal record endeared him to Chicago fans, who voted him the best player in franchise history. One famous admirer, actor Bill Murray, named his son Homer Banks Murray.

    In 2013, Banks was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom - by Obama, a noted White Sox fan,. The award is one of the nation's highest civilian honors.

    "Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago's greatest ambassadors. He loved this city as much as he loved - and lived for - the game of baseball," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. "This year, during every Cubs game, you can bet that No. 14 will be watching over his team. And if we're lucky, it'll be a beautiful day for not just one ballgame, but two."

    Banks' No. 14 was the first number retired by the Cubs, and it hangs on a flag from the left-field foul pole at the old ballpark.

    "I'd like to get to the last game of the World Series at Wrigley Field and hit three homers," he once said. "That was what I always wanted to do."

    But even without an opportunity to play on the October stage, Banks left an indelible mark that still resonates with fans and athletes from all sports.

    "Ernie Banks... We are going to all miss you. (hash)Legend," quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted as he and the Seattle Seahawks were getting ready to defend their Super Bowl title.

    Banks was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues when the Cubs discovered him in 1953, and purchased his contract for $10,000. He made his major league debut at shortstop on Sept. 17 that year, and three days later hit his first home run.

    Tall and thin, Banks didn't look like a typical power hitter. He looked even less so as he stood at the plate, holding his bat high and wiggling it as he waited for pitches. But he had strong wrists and a smooth, quick stroke, and he made hitting balls out of the park look effortless.

    When he switched to a lighter bat before the 1955 season, his power quickly became apparent. He hit 44 homers that season, including three against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 4. His five grand slams that year established a major league record that stood for more than 30 years before Don Mattingly hit six in 1987.

    Banks' best season came in 1958, when he hit .313 with 47 homers and 129 RBIs. Though the Cubs went 72-82 and finished sixth in the National League, Banks edged Willie Mays and Hank Aaron for his first MVP award. He was the first player from a losing team to win the NL MVP.

    Banks won the MVP again in 1959, becoming the first NL player to win it in consecutive years, even though the Cubs had another dismal year. Banks batted .304 with 45 homers and a league-leading 143 RBIs.

    He led the NL in homers again in 1960 with 41, his fourth straight season with 40 or more. His 248 homers from 1955-60 were the most in the majors, topping even Aaron and Mays.

    "Mr Cub. What you have done for the game of baseball the city of Chicago and everyone you have ever touched will never be forgotten. RIP," tweeted Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

    Though Banks didn't break the 40-homer barrier again after 1960, he topped the 100-RBI mark three more times, including 1969, his last full season. Then 38, he hit .253 with 23 home runs and 106 RBIs, and was chosen an All-Star for an 11th time.

    On May 12, 1970, he hit his 500th home run at Wrigley Field, becoming only the eighth player at the time to reach the plateau.

    Banks retired after the 1971 season. He owned most of the Cubs' career slugging records, some of which still stand today.

    Known mostly for his power at the plate, Banks was a solid fielder, too. He is best known as a shortstop, where he won a Gold Glove in 1960, but he switched to first base in 1962. He played 1,259 games at first and 1,125 games at shortstop.

    Born and raised in Dallas, Banks would be bribed to play catch by his father, who always wanted him to be a baseball player. Banks grew to love the game and was a standout in high school, along with participating in football, basketball and track and field.

    He joined a barnstorming Negro Leagues team at 17 and was spotted by Cool Papa Bell, who signed him to the Monarchs in 1950. Banks played one season before going into the Army. He returned to Kansas City after he was discharged, playing one more season before joining the Cubs.

    "He was one of the great crossover baseball players of his day," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. "His personality was a racial bridge builder. He treated all people with dignity and respect. He never stopped reaching out to bridge the racial chasms."



  • NFL says no conclusion yet on Pats' deflated footballs

    FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The NFL said Friday it has interviewed dozens of people and collected physical evidence but has no conclusions yet on how the New England Patriots used underinflated balls in their last game, offering no timetable for resolving the cheating accusations with the Super Bowl nine days away.

    The league said evidence shows the Patriots used underinflated footballs during the first half of the AFC championship game Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

    It issued a statement that the Patriots have pledged full cooperation and have given the league information it requested and made personnel available upon request. Quarterback Tom Brady said Thursday afternoon he had not been contacted at that point.

    The NFL said it began its investigation Sunday night and expects cooperation from other clubs. It hired an investigatory company to help review electronic and video information.

    Patriots owner Robert Kraft said investigators were in Foxborough for three days this week after he received a letter from the league Monday informing him of the probe.

    "We provided access to every full- and part-time employee the league's representatives requested to speak with and produced every communication device that they requested to search," he said. "I very much support the league's desire to conduct a complete investigation."

    The Patriots are preparing to meet the defending champion Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona.

    The league said its conclusions will be quickly shared when reached.

    "Over the past several days, nearly 40 interviews have been conducted, including of Patriots personnel, game officials, and third parties with relevant information and expertise," the statement said.

    NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash and Ted Wells of the law firm of Paul Weiss are leading the probe.

    Wells was the investigator in the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. His report last February detailed widespread harassment in the team's locker room that extended beyond the two players at the center of the probe. It said guard John Jerry and center Mike Pouncey followed Richie Incognito's lead in harassing offensive lineman Jonathan Martin.

    The NFL requires game balls to be inflated to between 12 1/2 and 13 1/2 pounds per square inch.

    It wants to find out why footballs were underinflated during the first half and whether "deliberate action" caused it.

    "We have not made any judgments on these points and will not do so until we have concluded our investigation and considered all of the relevant evidence," the league said.

    The balls were properly inflated for the second half and remained properly inflated after the game, the statement said.

    Colts general manager Ryan Grigson declined to comment.

    "Everything, I'm sure is going to come out in the investigation," he said when asked if the Colts alerted the NFL to the underinflated balls. "It's in the league's hands."

    A former NFL ball boy said it's easy to remove air from a ball discreetly with a small pin that fits in the palm of a hand.

    "This isn't a big deal. Everyone does it because each quarterback likes a different grip," Nader Kawash, a Philadelphia Eagles ball boy from 1996-2000, told The AP. "I'm not saying a ball boy or equipment guy did anything on purpose to cheat. Sometimes the balls are overinflated so it's easy to take some air out on the sideline without the referees noticing. You can use a helmet pin. Players can stand around in a circle. Anybody can do it."

    Brady and coach Bill Belichick said Thursday they had no explanations for how the footballs were underinflated.

    "I didn't alter the ball in any way," said Brady, who said he likes footballs pumped to exactly 12 1/2 pounds per square inch, the lower limit. "I have no knowledge of anything, any wrongdoing."

    Belichick said that before this week, he didn't give air pressure in footballs much thought.

    Softer balls are generally considered easier to throw and catch, and quarterbacks, specialists and equipment managers are known to have very individualized preferences in how footballs are readied for games.

    Under league rules, each team provides balls for use on offense. Referees approve the balls more than 2 hours before game time, then keep the balls until they're turned over to ball handlers provided by home teams just before kickoff.

    "The playing rules are intended to protect the fairness and integrity of our games," the NFL said. "We take seriously claims that those rules have been violated and will fully investigate this matter without compromise or delay."

    Patriots players said they believed Brady and wouldn't let the investigation disrupt their preparations for the Super Bowl.

    "Tom is a big boy," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "He knows how to handle all situations, so he'll handle this with class, like he always does."

    Safety Devin McCourty said the team trusts Brady.

    "We've learned this year that it can be a lot going on outside of this building, but if everything's right inside of this building we give ourselves a chance to win," McCourty said.

    ---

    AP Sports Writer Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

    ---

    AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL



  • Kobe to be re-examined before deciding injury fate

    LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant's torn right rotator cuff will be re-examined Monday before the Los Angeles Lakers decide whether the superstar guard needs potentially season-ending surgery.

    Bryant was examined Friday in Los Angeles after the third-leading scorer in NBA history tore his rotator cuff Wednesday in New Orleans.

    "We know it's a tear, but we don't know to what degree," coach Byron Scott said Friday in San Antonio. "Monday we'll find out if he's going to have surgery or not. That's disappointing in of itself. We know we're going to miss him for a length of time, we just don't know how long yet."

    A completely torn rotator cuff typically requires surgery and several months of rehabilitation, which means Bryant's 19th NBA season could be over. Bryant's previous two seasons also ended early due to injuries.

    A partial tear sometimes can be managed while an athlete continues to play, but the Lakers have declined to specify the severity of Bryant's tear.

    Yet it's clear the 36-year-old Bryant has a major injury for the third straight season, his famously resilient body finally wearing down from the accumulated grind of nearly two decades with the Lakers and numerous long postseason runs.

    He tore his Achilles tendon in April 2013, and he played in just six games last season before breaking a bone near his left knee.

    "He's one of the toughest guys I've ever been around as far as dealing with injuries and things like that, and being able to come back," Scott said after the Lakers' morning shootaround in San Antonio. "Everybody said he was done after the Achilles, and he came back pretty strong. Knowing him the way I know him, I know he doesn't want to go out this way. I think he will rehab it if that's the case, and then we'll wait and see."

    Team physician Steve Lombardo confirmed the initial diagnosis and discussed treatment options with Bryant on Friday. Bryant will be examined again by Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic on Monday, and they'll decide whether Bryant should have surgery.

    Bryant joked about the injury on his Twitter account Friday: "This is what happens when I pass too much!"

    Bryant was injured while throwing down a two-handed dunk in the Lakers' loss to the Pelicans. He traveled home before the Lakers played at San Antonio on Friday night.

    Bryant has sat out eight games in the last month to rest, so the struggling Lakers (12-31) have grown used to playing without their top scorer.

    Bryant felt shoulder pain at the beginning of the season, but hadn't mentioned it lately. The Lakers believe Bryant's torn rotator cuff occurred on the dunk.

    "I said, `Are you all right?"' Scott recalled. "He was like, `Yeah, I'm good, just bothering me a little bit. Once I get warmed up, I'm fine.' After that point, I never thought about it."

    Although the Lakers rested Bryant extensively this season to preserve the wear on his high-mileage body, Scott still laments playing Bryant for too many minutes in early-season games. Bryant has been on a strict 32-minute limit over the past month.

    The Lakers repeatedly have said they're determined to preserve Bryant's health into next season, when he is due to make $25 million. Los Angeles has struggled on the court for two straight seasons, but Bryant remains one of the world's most popular athletes, with his presence essentially guaranteeing a sellout in arenas across North America.

    Bryant is the NBA's highest-paid player at $23.5 million this season.

    ---

    AP freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.



  • Warriors' Thompson scores NBA-record 37 points in quarter

    OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson has set an NBA record for the highest-scoring quarter in league history, getting 37 in the third against the Sacramento Kings.

    The All-Star hopeful made all 13 of his shots, including nine from 3-point range, and both of his free throws in the quarter Friday night.

    Thompson also set the league record for most 3s in a quarter.

    Carmelo Anthony had 33 points in a quarter on Dec. 10, 2008, while with Denver. Joe Johnson made eight 3s in a quarter for Brooklyn in 2013.



  • A redo of a trade, Johansen goes No. 1, Ovie waits and waits

    COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Phil Kessel was once again dealt for Tyler Seguin, Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen was the No. 1 overall pick and superstar Alexander Ovechkin did not get his new car.

    In a wild and comic NHL All-Star draft to set the lineups for Sunday's game, almost nothing went the way anyone might have guessed.

    The highlight of the evening was Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' $10-million-a-year goal-scoring superstar, pleading to be taken last in the 17-round draft. Why? To compensate for the embarrassment of being the player no one wanted, the NHL gives the last player standing a new car.

    At one point during the evening, a TV interviewer approached Ovechkin backstage and he hid behind a white piece of paper on which he had printed: "I want to be last. Need a car."

    Ovechkin, the league's leading goal-scorer last year, came close to getting his wish. He lasted until there were just three players remaining, but then captain Nick Foligno selected him.

    Ovechkin slumped in mock dejection in his chair, looked at the ceiling and sighed loudly. Then he looked into the camera and mouthed one word: "WHY?"

    Foligno watched Ovechkin slowly walk onto the stage before despondently putting on a black Team Foligno jersey.

    "Hey, Ovie, buy a car!" Foligno called out.

    As it turned out, Ovechkin barely missed out on a new set of wheels. The two players who went last - Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nashville rookie Filip Forsberg - each got the keys to a new car in a break from tradition.

    "He wanted the car but it seems like he always gets everything he wants," said Rick Nash, one of the assistants to captain Jonathan Toews. "I think the captains had other plans."

    Foligno and Toews, chosen last week as team captains for the All-Star teams, revisited history by recreating the 2009 deal. In that trade, which greatly affected two Original Six franchises, the Boston Bruins sent Kessel to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a first-round draft pick that would become Seguin.

    Midway through the draft, Foligno and Toews huddled at the back of the stage before Foligno leaned into the microphone and said, "I've always wanted to say this: `I have a trade to announce!"'

    Both Kessel, who has flourished through some up and down years in Toronto, and Seguin, now a Dallas Stars scorer who shares the league lead with Nash with 28 goals, laughed at the irony.

    "Well, fellas, I've been there before," Kessel said with a grin. "I got traded for the same person and I think it worked out OK for everyone."

    Kessel had been grabbed by Team Toews with the second pick - a dramatic difference from the 2011 All-Star draft when he was the last player taken.

    The whole evening began with a surprise pick. Foligno, having a career year for the Blue Jackets, won the "puck flip" to make the first selection. He quickly took his teammate, Johansen, the only player in the league with two points streaks of at least 10 games this season.

    Toews, the Chicago Blackhawks captain, was helped by assistants Nash and Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf. Foligno was aided by Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty.

    After the top two picks, Foligno took Chicago's Duncan Keith and Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar, while Toews picked Nashville's Shea Weber and Philadelphia's Jake Voracek.

    The captains were required to take three goalies within the first 10 rounds and six defensemen by the end of the 15th round.

    There were surprises long before the draft. Thanks to an overwhelming bit of ballot-box stuffing by voters in his homeland, Latvia native Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres was the leading vote-getter with almost 1.6 million votes.

    Some of the league's top players - Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, along with Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky - will miss the game while mending injuries.

    The players will square off for their teams in the skills competition on Saturday night before meeting at Nationwide Arena in the first All-Star game played in Ohio's capital city.

    Ovechkin wasn't talking after the draft, but Foligno said he clearly would have to lift the spirits of the Russian star.

    "It must be something back home in Russia that Honda Accords are hot right now," Foligno laughed. "Who knows what the deal was. But I feel bad. I'm going to have to talk to him. He seems really disappointed he didn't get it."

    ---

    Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP



  • For injury-prone Illini, the next man up is the manager

    CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) The injury situation at Illinois has come to this: Coach John Groce has added team manager Ryan Schmidt to the roster.

    After almost four full seasons of working with towels, water bottles and the stools players sit on during timeouts, the 6-foot senior guard will wear No. 14 on Saturday when Illinois travels to Minnesota (12-8, 1-6 Big Ten).

    "I never really expected to suit up for the orange and blue," said Schmidt, who played high school ball at Bloomington (Ill.) Central Catholic and considers himself a lifelong fan. "My room's decked out in Illini gear."

    Groce said he added Schmidt to make sure Illinois (13-7, 3-4) had enough players to practice and - just in case - enough players for game day.

    "Ryan's a great kid and has been here the entire time I've been here," the third-year coach said. "Obviously played in high school, and was a really good high school player."

    Schmidt said some Division II and III schools showed interest in him but he chose Illinois for academic reasons. He is an accounting major.

    Illinois lost starting point guard Tracy Abrams for the season when he tore an anterior cruciate ligament before the season started. Leading scorer and rebounder Rayvonte Rice broke a hand this month and is out until next month. And this week, guard Aaron Cosby had surgery for a torn retina, an injury that Groce said Friday is improving but won't let him back on the court right away.

    In Wednesday's win over Purdue, Illinois essentially used seven players.

    Enter Schmidt, whose first call with the good news was to his parents.

    "Neither of them believed me," he said. "It took a little bit of explaining."

    Schmidt changed his Twitter profile Friday to read "Former basketball manager & current walk-on."

    A check of the online team roster showed an update, too. There was Schmidt's name tucked in among players who see the floor every game, complete with a one-line bio: "Four-year team manager added to the roster as a walk-on on Jan 23, 2015."

    Schmidt said he will take a crash course in Illinois' playbook, but said some things will not change. He still expects to carry the stools out onto the court during timeouts, he said.

    "That's my specialty," Schmidt said.



  • Mark Cuban: NBA should dump fan voting for All-Star game

    DALLAS (AP) Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested the NBA should do away with fan balloting for the All-Star game, saying the leading total of 1.5 million votes for Golden State's Stephen Curry was so low it was "embarrassing."

    Cuban said Friday the roster should be expanded to 14 players from the current 12. He said coaches or general managers or both should choose the teams.

    The outspoken owner said the low total for Curry was evidence that the "system's broken, absolutely, positively broken."

    "And fans are allowed to vote more than once, right?" Cuban said "That's embarrassing. To think that we couldn't get people to vote enough times. No one even tried to hack it. That's how bored they are."

    Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista led baseball's All-Star fan voting last year with about 5.9 million ballots.

    Cuban said he didn't know how NBA All-Star voting was trending in recent years, and said he favors people voting if the numbers were better because "then the fans have spoken."

    "But when the number of voters isn't enough to even get anybody to notice ... that means basically .01 percent of NBA fans cared enough to vote," Cuban said.

    The NBA said balloting was up 28 percent over last year despite the voting window being almost a month shorter, and the vote was more spread out because every player was eligible for the first time.

    Curry finished about 42,000 votes ahead of LeBron James. The All-Star game is Feb. 15 in New York.



  • 4-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon ending career after '15

    Jeff Gordon, with a nagging back injury, a young family he wanted to spend more time with and a phenom waiting in the wings at Hendrick Motorsports, knew midway through last season that he had one more year in him.

    NASCAR's most charismatic driver, the man behind the wheel of the famed and sometimes feared No. 24, had decided it was time to call it quits on one of the most successful careers in motorsports history. The four-time champion conferred with Rick Hendrick, the only team owner he has had over 23 years of Sprint Cup racing, and settled on a date.

    The 43-year-old Gordon announced Thursday that 2015 will be his final season as a full-time driver, saddening legions of fans, fellow drivers and others who watched him became the face of stock car racing as the sport exploded in popularity a generation ago.

    In an interview with The Associated Press, Gordon said he reached his decision last summer. He had seen other drivers embark on distracting farewell tours, and he didn't want to be that guy. Although he told his crew chief of his decision after narrowly missing out on shot at a fifth championship, it took time to settle on the day to tell the world.

    It started with a conversation with his two young children when they woke up for school. They worried they won't go to the race track anymore, that other kids might think of them differently if their father is not a famous race car driver.

    The conversation with Ella and Leo made the decision a reality for Gordon - and he wept.

    "Ella just stared at me, she'd never seen me cry like that before," Gordon told AP. "After that, I seriously broke down. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and I got so emotional and thought, `How am I going to get through this day?"'

    Gordon said he sobbed during the entire 30-minute drive to Hendrick Motorsports, where he tearfully informed his team and his longtime employees of his decision. Gordon choked back tears yet again during his interview with AP when his mother sent him a text message that he read aloud: "I never knew watching SportsCenter could be so emotional."

    "I'm emotional because I am so proud," Gordon said. "It's all I ever wanted, to be a race car driver. And here I've lived this incredible dream and yet that chapter of my life has been fulfilled and it's now time to go to the next step and the next chapter."

    He made a point to say he didn't use the word "retirement" because he could still drive again after this season.

    Gordon's 92 wins trail only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). His fame reaches far beyond the track and resonates with non-sports fans. He won all the big races, collected four championships in just seven years and had 58 victories before his 30th birthday.

    He was a new breed of driver when he broke into NASCAR's top series, arriving with a sprint car pedigree and talent that made him an immediate contender. The clean-cut kid helped raised NASCAR's corporate image beyond its moonshine roots, making it a legitimate power on Madison Avenue as tens of thousands of new fans flocked to automobile racing in the late 1990s and 2000s.

    "Jeff changed the personality and perception of a race car driver in NASCAR," retired NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds said. "Before he came along, the perception was more about the good old Southeastern boy wearing blue jeans, big belt buckles and boots. But he created a new buzz in our sport because he looked like he stepped off the cover of a GQ magazine."

    Gordon became such a household name that he even hosted "Saturday Night Live" and was name-dropped in a Nelly song. He did it all while dominating at the track as the "Rainbow Warrior," teaming with crew chief Ray Evernham to collect checkered flags at a record pace.

    Gordon, who debuted in the final race of the 1992 season in Atlanta, won championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. He also has three Daytona 500 victories and a record five Brickyard 400 wins. Gordon told AP that his 1994 win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 - NASCAR's first race at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway - was easily the highlight of his career.

    The low point? Intentionally wrecking Clint Bowyer in the closing laps of the 2012 race at Phoenix, where frustrations over a disappointing season got the best of him. Gordon also said a post-race melee with Brad Keselowski last November was in part triggered by his knowledge that perhaps a shot at another championship had slipped away. He was racing for the win when contact with Keselowski effectively ended his title chances. He wound up missing the four-driver championship field by a single point.

    Coming so close didn't change his decision to drive only one more year, though. With an ownership stake at Hendrick, and plans to remain involved with the organization for years to come, Gordon told AP "the timeline was just right."

    Gordon suffered serious issues years ago in his back, specifically his lower spine, and needed anti-inflammatory medication and workouts with a trainer to return to full strength. He drove in pain during a winless 2008 season and briefly contemplated retirement.

    He also wants to focus more on his family life, which has changed dramatically over his career.

    The one-time "Wonder Boy" was a mustachioed young bachelor when he entered NASCAR, and he embarked on a storybook romance with the series' leading model that led to the most high-profile marriage the sport had ever seen. Gordon and the former Brooke Sealey split in 2002. He found happiness and the desire to start a family when he married Ingrid Vandebosch in 2006.

    "I want to be with my kids," he told AP. "I'm seeing them grow up before my eyes and I'm never here."

    Gordon will now take one final victory lap around the circuit with drivers such as reigning Sprint Cup rookie of the year Kyle Larson, who routinely posts childhood photos of himself in Gordon gear.

    "Jeff Gordon is a hero to a lot of kids, and the driver I personally looked up to as a kid," Larson said. "He's a hero of mine."

    Although no replacement for Gordon has been announced, the next driver of the No. 24 will most certainly be reigning Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott. With a full roster of four drivers, Hendrick has been handcuffed in what he can do with the 19-year-old phenom.

    Gordon has won at every track on the Sprint Cup circuit except Kentucky Speedway. His four championships trail only teammate Jimmie Johnson, a six-time champ, for most among active drivers. Petty and Earnhardt each won seven.

    "There's simply no way to quantify Jeff's impact," Hendrick said. "He's one of the biggest sports stars of a generation, and his contributions to the success and growth of NASCAR are unsurpassed. There's been no better ambassador for stock car racing and no greater representation of what a champion should be."

    ---

    AP Sports Writers Dan Gelston and Mark Long contributed to this report.



  • AP Source: Solo's husband driving team vehicle when arrested

    Jerramy Stevens, the husband of U.S. national team goalkeeper Hope Solo, was driving a team vehicle when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence earlier this week, a person familiar with the details of the arrest said Thursday.

    The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they could not discuss the case publicly.

    TMZ first reported the details regarding the vehicle.

    Stevens, a former tight end for the Seattle Seahawks, was pulled over in Manhattan Beach, California, about 1:30 a.m. Monday for driving without headlights. Solo was the only passenger in the car but she was not arrested or detained.

    U.S. Soccer on Wednesday suspended Solo from the national team for 30 days. She will not travel to a pair of exhibition matches next month in Europe.

    Solo was in Southern California for training camp with the team, which is preparing to play in the World Cup starting in June.

    "I think it's best for me to take a break, decompress from the stress of the last several months, and come back mentally and physically ready to positively contribute to the team," Solo said in a statement following her suspension.

    It was the latest off-field trouble for the 33-year-old Olympian. Earlier this month, a judge dismissed two misdemeanor counts of domestic violence against her. The charges stemmed from an altercation with her half-sister and 17-year-old nephew at a party in Washington state last June.

    Solo had pleaded not guilty in that case, and she continued to play for the U.S. team and with her National Women's Soccer League team, the Seattle Reign, while awaiting trial.

    Her last appearance in a match with the national team was in December, when she started in a scoreless draw against Brazil in the championship game of the 2014 International Tournament of Brasilia.

    "During our current national team camp, Hope made a poor decision that has resulted in a negative impact on U.S. Soccer and her teammates," coach Jill Ellis said in a statement Wednesday. "We feel at this time it is best for her to step away from the team."

    Solo will be eligible for reinstatement after the suspension, pending review and approval by U.S. Soccer and Ellis.

    U.S. Soccer did not comment further on the matter.

    The suspension comes at a critical time for the U.S. team. Following the exhibition matches in February, the U.S. team will play in the Algarve Cup in March before opening World Cup play on June 8 against Australia in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

    Stevens was released with a citation to appear in Los Angeles Superior Court on March 19. The couple lives in Kirkland, Washington.



  • AP source: NFL fines Lynch $20,000 for obscene gesture

    NEW YORK (AP) The NFL has fined Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch $20,000 for making an obscene gesture during last Sunday's NFC championship game, a person with knowledge of the fine told The Associated Press on Thursday.

    The league did not specify what the gesture was in the win over Green Bay, but Lynch grabbed his crotch after scoring a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Lynch was fined $11,000 for a similar gesture in Seattle's win over Arizona on Dec. 21.

    The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the fine has not been publicly announced.

    Lynch has a history of drawing fines from the NFL, mostly for not talking to the media as required under his contract. He was fined $50,000 in November for repeated violations of the league's media policy. At that time, the league collected a $50,000 fine that was imposed against Lynch for violations in 2013. That fine from 2013 was held in anticipation of future cooperation from Lynch - cooperation that has not occurred.

    At last January's Super Bowl media day in New Jersey, Lynch spent the session behind a barrier talking with teammates, autographing a football a young fan threw to him, and speaking only to NFL Network's Deion Sanders and to Armed Forces Radio. He ignored many other questions asked from a distance by reporters, and also left for a short while before returning.

    The league and the Seahawks are discussing Lynch's requirements for next Tuesday's media day.

    Lynch also was told before last Sunday's game he could not wear gold shoes because they were a violation of the NFL's on-field dress code, and that he could be ejected from the game if he wore them.

    Lynch's teammate, wide receiver Chris Matthews, also was fined more than $11,000 for making an obscene gesture.

    ---

    AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL



  • AP source: Scherzer, Nationals agree to $210M, 7-year deal

    WASHINGTON (AP) Sure seems as if Max Scherzer and his wife now will be able to afford to buy themselves at least one of those nonstick baking sheets they were hoping to receive as a wedding gift.

    Or even a few million of `em.

    The 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner will become the highest-paid right-handed pitcher in major league history after agreeing to a $210 million, seven-year contract with the Washington Nationals that includes a record $50 million signing bonus.

    A person familiar with the negotiations outlined the terms to The Associated Press on Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the deal hadn't been announced. It creates a formidable rotation for the Nationals - who could try to boost the rest of their roster by trading one of their other starters.

    Washington is now the 4-1 favorite to win the World Series, down from 6-1 odds when the offseason started.

    Scherzer's signing bonus tops the previous high of $30 million for any player, given by the Cubs to pitcher Jon Lester this offseason. Scherzer plans to establish residency in Florida, which would shield his signing bonus from D.C. income tax, the person familiar with the negotiations said.

    The person said the pitcher is scheduled to take a physical Tuesday, one of the steps needed for the deal to be finalized.

    Scherzer, who spent the past five seasons with the Detroit Tigers before becoming a free agent, will receive the money from the Nationals spread out over 14 years, which lowers its present-day value.

    Still, Scherzer did quite well for himself. Indeed, he and his bride - they were married in November 2013 - won't have to depend on their friends to finish filling the requests on their bridal registry at Crate & Barrel, including the pair of $19.95 baking sheets that no one gave them.

    The 30-year-old right-hander's contract is the second-largest for a pitcher, behind only Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw's $215 million, seven-year deal that runs from 2014-20. The previous high for a righty was the $180 million, seven-year agreement from 2013-19 signed by Justin Verlander, another Cy Young Award winner for the Tigers.

    Scherzer turned down an offer from Detroit last March that would have paid him $144 million from 2015-20, an average of $24 million per year.

    The Nationals will lose what would have been the 27th pick in June's amateur draft, while the Tigers will gain an extra pick after the first round.

    All in all, for the Nationals, it's a surprising move to upgrade an already imposing rotation after a relatively quiet offseason for the NL East champions.

    Scherzer was 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 2014, a year after going 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and being voted the best pitcher in the American League. He now joins a club whose starting staff in 2014 included Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister - Scherzer's former teammate with the Tigers - Gio Gonzalez, and Tanner Roark.

    That group already was considered among the best - if not the best - rotation in the majors. The question now is what move could come next for the Nationals, who might pursue a trade.

    Zimmermann went 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA and 182 strikeouts in 199 2-3 innings in 2014, and he threw the first no-hitter in Nationals history on the last day of the regular season. But he can enter free agency after next season.

    Last season, Strasburg was 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA and 242 strikeouts in 215 innings; Fister was 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA; Gonzalez went 10-10 with a 3.57 ERA, and Roark went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA in 198 2-3 innings.

    Gonzalez, third in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2012, is the only left-hander in the bunch.

    ---

    AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.

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    Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich




 
 
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