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At Tennessee Titans Games, the Fiercest Tailgaters Are Kurds

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NASHVILLE — The parking lot of Nissan Stadium was mostly empty at 8 on a recent Sunday morning, save for those dedicated few who had shown up early to stake out a spot for the tailgate before the game between the Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills. The fans set up their tents, hung their Titans flags, unpacked their packets of hamburger buns and filled their coolers with ice and beer.

One group, though, was doing things a little differently. These tailgaters had the tents, the hamburgers, the flag and the coolers, but they also set out silver trays of biryani. Their coolers contained cans of orange soda and pouches of Kool-Aid, but no alcohol.

Flying alongside the Titans banner were two more flags — one for America, and one for Kurdistan, the semiautonomous region of the Middle East that most of them fled at a young age.

Here in Nashville, home to about 15,000 Kurdish-Americans, the largest population in the United States, many Kurds have fallen in love with the Titans, and come together by tailgating at home games. But they’re not just casual fans. They’re die-hard devotees.

On this October morning, they had purposefully set up their tents near the Buffalo Bills tailgaters to maximize heckling opportunities. About 30 strong, they booed at anyone who walked by in a Bills jersey, and yelled, “Titan up!” (the team’s cheer) at those wearing Titans gear.

“The Bills fans are intense,” said one of the Kurdish fans, Tabeer Taabur. “Hopefully they go home disappointed.”

He and his fellow fans have been deeply shaken by the bloodshed in northern Syria since the United States began withdrawing troops and ending longtime support for its Kurdish allies there.

“It caught everyone off guard,” Mr. Taabur said. “The Kurds have been the most reliable ally to the United States for centuries. We feel a betrayal.”

Some have been protesting, and lobbying the city government to put pressure on their representatives in Congress to support the Kurds and impose sanctions on Turkey. Mr. Taabur and others just set up a meeting with Representative Jim Cooper, who joined in a recent local Kurdish rally for peace. They’ve been giving media interviews to spread awareness of their countrymen’s plight.

And whether too busy or too worried, they have been showing up for games in smaller numbers. But their enthusiasm for the Titans is largely undimmed. And many non-Kurdish friends have approached them to express support.

Most of these Kurdish-Americans came to Nashville as refugees in the 1990s, escaping the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That same decade, the city welcomed its first professional football team after the Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee; they became the Titans in 1999.

Mr. Taabur, 34, who arrived here at age 10 and recently received his master’s degree in criminal justice at Tennessee State University, remembers the day he became a Titans fan. It was Super Bowl XXXIV, in 2000 — the only time the Titans have ever made the league’s championship game. They lost to the St. Louis Rams, 23-16, falling just one yard short of a touchdown at the end.

Mr. Taabur was watching at home, and though still getting acquainted with the sport, “I literally cried,” he said.

When Ramadhan Sindhi, 25, who works in commercial cleaning, first came to the United States in 1996, his family was placed in low-income housing. During one holiday season, eight Titans players came to his home as part of a charitable initiative.

“We didn’t even know what the holiday was,” he recalled, “but these big football players, I was so inspired by them.”

In Iraq, his older brothers played soccer. But in Nashville, wanting to be just like those Titans players, Mr. Sindhi became quarterback of his high school football team. “The Titans are the biggest thing we have here,” he said.

“There is a misconception that just because we come from a different background, we can’t like the same things other Americans like,” Ms. Kucher added. “But I’ve been in America for so long. It’s hard not to adapt to the culture. Football is a big part of American culture.”

Although the Titans are having a so-so season (four wins and five losses, putting them at the bottom of the A.F.C. South), this group’s passion for the team runs deep. “We just keep imagining that Super Bowl parade,” said Heleen Tovi, 22, an undergraduate at Tennessee State. “Just once in my lifetime.”

Some of them travel to away games, most recently in Atlanta and Denver. But Areen Mohamad-Ali, 22, a nursing student at Lipscomb University, a private Christian liberal-arts school in Nashville, said her biggest fear was moving to another state “and having to be around fans of another team.”

Mr. Taabur said the home-game tailgates have brought out as many as about 85 Kurds. They come decked out in Titans gear, and carry in a flat-screen television to watch the game. Most bring their young children, who are equally fervent. Even some people who aren’t football fans come just to hang out.

They have attracted some notice. “They are my go-tos when I need energy,” said Spenser Fritz, a freelance videographer for the Titans, though a spokeswoman for the team said she and the staff were unfamiliar with the group.

As the game was about to start that afternoon, a few of the Kurdish fans headed into the stadium, but most stayed in the tents. Mr. Taabur’s brother Nechervan Taabur brought chicken kebabs, which were cooked directly over the charcoals on the grill. People passed the skewers around, sliding off chunks of meat and sandwiching them between hamburger buns.

The Titans scored a touchdown, but their next two were canceled by penalties. The Titans kicker Cairo Santos missed four field goals in a row. There was a lot of cursing, in Kurdish and English. To manage the stress, the fans munched on sunflower seeds, a fixture of Kurdish gatherings, Mr. Taabur said.

At every remotely positive moment — a tackle, a completed pass — the group erupted into cheers. The optimism lasted until the final minute. Mr. Taabur jeered at people in the parking lot who were leaving the game early. “Fake fans,” he growled.

No one seemed particularly upset when the game was over, and the Titans had been defeated, 14-7. The group briskly packed up the trays of leftover biryani and coolers of soft drinks.

“Being a Titans fan is like being on a roller coaster,” Ms. Kucher said. “But being the underdog is fun.”

There’s always the next game, she added. And the next tailgate.



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A Grip on Sports: The basketball weekend is off to a great start, highlighted by a monster dunk in Cheney

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A GRIP ON SPORTS • It’s not hard to understand why Gonzaga and Arizona are playing tonight. The two best West Coast (sort of) schools meeting in Tucson is a big deal in college basketball circles. But there was also a big deal out in Cheney last night even if the schools aren’t usually on the radar nationally.

•••••••

• No, Eastern Washington and Multnomah facing off in a nonconference game isn’t usually going to draw the attention of SportsCenter. But it did last night thanks to one play by Spokane’s own, Tanner Groves.

The 6-foot-9 post from Shadle Park High threw down a follow dunk in transition that raised the roof later that evening on the self-proclaimed World-Wide Leader.

As it should have.

Groves dunk, and ensuing old school celebration, had already gone viral on Twitter – the video has been viewed almost 700,000 times. So it’s no surprise the late SportsCenter on ESPN, with Seattle native Kenny Mayne in the anchor chair, picked it as No. 1 in its nightly Top Ten plays list.

It was that good.

So good, in fact, it overpowered everything else from the game, including Eastern’s 146-89 win? Nationally, an afterthought. Mason Peatling’s Big Sky record 54 points – in 24 minutes? Same thing. Former Lewis and Clark High guard Justin Martin’s 34 points and Multnomah’s 21 made 3-pointers? Not even that.

This one was about Groves’ high-flying, vicious dunk.

• Tonight’s game in Tucson may feature a few dunks itself, though probably nothing as emphatic as Groves’.

Maybe though, and it may be to Gonzaga’s favor. After all, the Zags’ inside game is where they should have an edge against the home team.

The Wildcats’ strength?

Arizona features one of the nation’s most electric freshmen guards, one-and-done point Nico Mannion.

The Zags recruited Mannion, from Phoenix, though the 6-3 guard’s final decision reportedly came down to Arizona and Marquette. He has already established himself as one of the top point guards on the West Coast (sort of) in just 11 games.

One caveat, however. In Arizona’s two most-recent games against Power 6 competition (a win over Wake Forest and a loss at Baylor), Mannion was just a combined 6-of-25 shooting and was 1-of-8 beyond the arc.

• If you are wondering why I have already twice written “West Coast (sort of),” it’s simple. I like to nit-pick.

I know Arizona plays in the Pac-12 Conference, which is considered a West Coast conference (as opposed to Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference, with its second capital C). But is Arizona really a West Coast school?

Consider this. Tucson is 407 driving miles from San Diego, basically the closest U.S. city on the Pacific Ocean. That’s a haul. In fact, it’s farther from Tucson to San Diego than it is from Youngstown, Ohio, to the Atlantic Ocean. And no one in their right mind would ever consider Ohio an East Coast state.

If you are wondering, it is 365 air miles from Tucson to San Diego, which puts it roughly the same distance from the ocean as St. Regis, Montana. I don’t think anyone in St. Regis believes they live on the West Coast.

•••

WSU: The Cougars are getting ready for their bowl game in Phoenix, named after a not-so-nutritious snack food. But their practices are anything but junk. In fact, Mike Leach is using the time to see what returning quarterbacks Gunner Cruz and Cammon Cooper can do. Theo Lawson has more in this story. … Theo, along with prep writer Dave Nichols, spoke with Larry Weir yesterday for the Press Box pod. … Former WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has a new job. Theo tells us he has signed on at Virginia Tech. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12, Washington will be ready for the Las Vegas Bowl. … Oregon will have its offensive coordinator in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks won’t have one of their running backs, though. … Utah may be without another defensive back as well in the Alamo Bowl. … USC hopes to pack in the recruits late. … Former EWU assistant coach Zac Hill looks to be headed to Arizona State as offensive coordinator. … In basketball news, Oregon State’s Tres Tinkle is shooting well from distance. … Colorado survived at Colorado State. … USC is officially under investigation by the NCAA. … UCLA heads to Notre Dame in what’s always been a great rivalry. … Arizona State faces Georgia and the Bulldogs’ star, Anthony Edwards.

Gonzaga: Yes, there is a game tonight in Tucson. And yes, Jim Meehan has a preview as well as a look at the key matchup between Mannion and Ryan Woolridge. But there is also a game in the Kennel, with the women hosting Texas Southern. Jim Allen has that preview. … By the way, tonight’s game in Tucson might decide where a Georgetown transfer decides to play next year. … Around the WCC, BYU has a tough matchup with Utah State.

EWU: Ryan Collingwood was at Reese Court yesterday to witness Eastern’s offensive fireworks. They are all contained in this story. … Elsewhere in the Big Sky, there are two Big Sky schools left in the FCS semifinals. Weber State, which lost earlier this season in Missoula, turned the tables in Ogden, winning 17-10 over Montana. The Wildcats will travel to James Madison in one semifinal. … Montana State controlled Austin Peay’s potent offense and won 24-10 in Bozeman. The Bobcats will more than likely be traveling to North Dakota State next weekend.

Preps: Friday nights are always busy in the prep ranks and last night was no exception. We have roundups from GSL boys and GSL girls as well as from the area girls and boys games. … Mt. Spokane’s Tia Allen was named the state’s top volleyball player in the 3A ranks. Dave has that story.

Chiefs: Spokane is headed on the road for a pre-Christmas four-game trip. Dan Thompson has a preview of the Chiefs’ travels, coming, as they do, on the heels of a five-game winning streak.

Seahawks: The margin of error is just about gone. … And guess what? Jadeveon Clowney and Mychal Kendricks won’t play against Carolina.

Mariners: Is a Kyle Seager trade possible?

•••       

• By the way, full disclosure here, I know Tanner Groves and his family well. He played in our Eastern Washington Elite summer program as did his younger brother Jake, a freshman at EWU. But my relationship with the Groves family dates back many years before that. Until later …



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An Arsenal Star Criticized China’s Detention Camps. Fury Soon Followed.

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BEIJING — The German soccer star Mesut Özil is the latest international sports celebrity to be at the center of controversy over China’s hard-line policies, igniting fury among Chinese internet users by denouncing the country’s mass detention of Muslims.

Mr. Özil, who is of Turkish heritage and plays for Arsenal, an English Premier League club, took on one of China’s most sensitive policies with his comments on Friday about Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic minority in Xinjiang, in northwestern China.

The Chinese authorities have held as many as a million Uighurs, and possibly more, in indoctrination camps meant to drastically weaken their commitment to Islam. The internments have drawn international anger and led to legislation in the United States Congress that could impose sanctions on Chinese officials over the detentions, which China says are intended to deter terrorism.

“They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men,” read identical posts on Mr. Özil’s Twitter and Instagram accounts, according to a translation by The Guardian.

“But Muslims are silent,” they read. “Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?”

While some foreign celebrities and companies who have offended Chinese sensitivities in recent years seem to have done so unwittingly, there seems little doubt that Mr. Özil’s remarks were carefully chosen. His reference to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, a name for the region used by advocates of self-rule for Uighurs, made matters worse for many Chinese.

Arsenal quickly tried to distance itself from Mr. Özil’s posts, but the club’s response did not stave off a wave of online anger in China.

“The content posted was entirely Özil’s personal view,” Arsenal said in a statement early Saturday on Weibo, a social media platform that, like Twitter, allows users to share comments. “As a football club, Arsenal always adheres to the principle of keeping out of politics.”

“I argue that we Chinese people should maintain a scornful attitude toward these kinds of people and their games,” he said.





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Warriors believe they’re headed in right direction despite 5-22 record

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SALT LAKE CITY – The Warriors have lost a lot in the last six months. 

The most obvious wound is the gutting of its Hall of Fame roster, and the injuries that crippled it. But perhaps the most essential damage to the team’s evolution is its most recent struggle: Failing to close out games talent used to be able to overcome. 

In its latest effort — a 114-106 loss to the Jazz — the Warriors led for much of the first half before Utah took control in the third quarter. The loss came at a strange time for Golden State as their three All-Stars — Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry — were nursing injured back in California and their prized rookie Eric Paschall was in the locker room due to a hip injury. 

Nonetheless, the league’s worst team left Vivint Smart Home Arena seeing enough progress to believe they’re heading in the right direction, even if the scoreboard says otherwise. 

“There is a lot of good stuff,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted. “But you want that to lead to a win and that’s coming.”

Remnants of Kerr’s positivity showed through the first 24 minutes Friday evening. In the first quarter, they held the Jazz to 39 percent from the field, outscoring Utah 14-8 in the paint. By the end of the first half, they built a 56-49 lead, marked by promising plays from its young core. 

Six minutes into the first quarter, 6-foot-8 big man Omari Spellman pulled down a rebound, went the length of the court, bullying his way for a layup to give Golden State a 20-18 lead. A quarter later, center Marquese Chriss blocked Jazz guard Royce O’Neal at the rim, ran the length of the floor and received a pass for an easy dunk on the other end, pushing Golden State’s lead to 13. 

Following halftime, the Jazz responded by outscoring the Warriors 37-28 in the third quarter. Bojan Bogdanovic scored 10 of his game-high 32 points over the stretch, as Utah made a run that was all-too-familiar to Golden State. 

“They picked up their pace in the third quarter,” Kerr said. “I’m sure they were not happy with their pace in the first half and so they played a great third quarter and put a lot of pressure on us.”

Worse, even after the Warriors briefly took a 104-103 lead with just over two minutes left, the Jazz went on an 11-2 run to close the game, underscoring one of the team’s biggest problems this season. Through 27 games, the Warriors are among the worst teams in the last five minutes of games. During the timeframe, they’re posting a putrid 92.9 offensive rating, with a net rating of -33.6. 

For context, the 2017-18 Warriors — featuring a healthy Curry, Green, Thompson and Kevin Durant — posted a 112.2 offensive rating in clutch situations, finishing third in the league, leaving a mark the current battered Warriors are trying to fulfill.  

“I think we can win a lot more games than we have,” said Chriss. “We’ve been in games that we could win and honestly that we should win. People try to say that our team is down and things like that but we’re competing with teams that have their full roster. This team is full of fighters and teams that want to win.” 

While the team is frustrated, their latest performance comes with a caveat. Clutch performances are built through experience, an attribute the league’s third-youngest team has yet to gain. 

“I remember being in this position earlier in my career where you get the taste of winning, but you don’t really know how to do it, you may just get lucky that night,” said 23-year old guard D’Angelo Russell. “Other teams in the league that are solidified, they find a way to win and those other teams that aren’t supposed to win find a way to lose so I think it comes with growth and experience.”

[RELATED: Burks wants to stay with Warriors]

Late Friday evening, just before he left Salt Lake City for a late-night flight back to the Bay Area, recovering from yet another close loss, Kerr made a declaration for his young team, despite optics of the contrary. 

“I like where we’re heading,” he said. “I really do. I know it might sound crazy because of our record, but I think we’re going to start winning some games. I think we’re getting better.”





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