DimeMag

The NBA’s Wine Obsession Is Opening Up A New World Of Opportunity For Players

The problem when writing about wine and the NBA, a phenomenon that, in 2020, is in the early stages of its big bang and exploding outward at a dizzying speed, is a lot like the conundrum of getting into wine and its whole historic, engulfing and occasionally esoteric universe in the first place — where to start?

Maybe with Damian Lillard’s riesling habit? Or with a former Warriors G-Leaguer turned winemaker in the middle of harvest while wildfires raged across California, licking at the hillsides of Napa? Or with the way players are mixing advocacy and pleasure, bringing needed and progressive perspectives to the wine world?

But for this story, as with wine, it is important to start somewhere. Pick out a detail, a preference, zero in on that and gradually expand from there.

On the other end of the phone CJ McCollum is writing down Canary Islands. I know because he quietly affirms each word as he goes, “Canary Islands. Volcanic Soil. I got it.” We were talking about travel, the aspiration of picking a place to visit for the sole purpose of drinking wine there, in a future when it’s possible to do that, to think of doing that, again. I told him I’d read about the Canary Islands, growers planting vines in volcanic ash and building up semi-circle cairns of dark basalt rock to protect the young growth from pummelling winds off the North Atlantic. McCollum’s own wine, a limited run pinot noir he produced in partnership with Oregon’s Adelsheim Vineyard called McCollum Heritage 91, while grown over 5,500 miles away from the Canaries, shares a deep and crucial characteristic — volcanic soil. The nutrient rich reddish dirt found in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a mix of what is essentially ancient seabed and lava, is what makes it a haven for growing pinot noir and other cool-climate grape varieties. It’s also the kind of unique terroir that made McCollum, a native of Ohio, fall deeply in love with the region when he started playing for Portland.

“Coming here, I had no idea this was a goldmine,” McCollum says, “it was just completely different than anything that I’d been exposed to, from the greenery to the people to the food, to just being exposed to a natural wine region. We don’t have those types of things in Ohio, so I just kind of began to explore.”

McCollum started tasting his way through the region, joining a few vineyards’ wine clubs and familiarizing himself with the terrestrial treasures at his doorstep. “The first wine that I tasted out here was an Oregon pinot, that was Walter Scott,” he recalls. “It was volcanic soil from Bryan Creek and I still remember it to this day because I still love volcanic soil, it’s still my favorite.”

When talking to people who love wine, especially those who produce it, there is a reverential quality to the journey every bottle can take. That’s because there are intimate nods to what went into making it, from what affected the grape growth that season to personal tributes running through the finished product as much as its top notes. McCollum’s first vintage, which sold out in a day, is the same, a full-circle trip back to where he started, “McCollum Heritage 91 is actually volcanic soil, Bryan Creek is one of the locations that we used for the grapes.”

All that from one suggestion — see what I mean about wine and basketball?

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At this point, pandora’s wine cellar has all but burst open and it hardly makes sense to trace the league’s full blown love affair with red, white and rosé back to its origins. But most would settle on a kind of bacchanalian-brained trinity of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade as detailed in ESPN’s Baxter Holmes’ effervescent 2018 feature on the NBA’s love for wine. The story is a gateway sip, a read that’s aged as well as any old-world red considering in the two years since its publication wine has basically become not just the drink of choice for players over 30, but the league at large. Nowhere was this made more evident than in the Orlando bubble.

Of the 20 trucks and vans that brought between 700 – 1,200 packages per day into the NBA’s Disney campus, many of those deliveries were wine. Players contacted their wine brokers and their brokers sent cases, assistants sent individual bottles, and the NBPA player’s union worked directly with Tuscan wine producer, Frescobaldi, to deliver 70 cases of wine from Italy to the bubble.

“We figured if the players can’t make it to Italy, we’d bring Italy to them and into the bubble,” Lamberto Frescobaldi, President of the Frescobaldi Group said.

P.J Tucker often enjoyed rare bottles in his room, once juxtaposing a 1972 Charles Krug cabernet with the remnants of a salad stuck to the sides of a Tupperware on top of his microwave. Chris Paul organized team wine tastings for the Thunder, Boban Marjanovic sent Tobias Harris a Napa cab, Royce O’Neale drank Yao Ming’s wine from a paper cup, wine was the stoic sixth man of the NBA’s season restart.

And with so much of it being sent to hotel rooms already overflowing with workout equipment and provisions for what each player hoped would be a long stay, storage was an issue. Some, like JJ Redick and Josh Hart, had wine fridges big enough to hold up to 24 bottles brought in while others, like McCollum, kept the temperature in his room permanently hovering between 50-60 degrees to keep the 84 bottles of wine at an ideal resting temperature. Living in a makeshift wine cellar for a month a small price to pay for the comforts of home and, for the ability to share the fruits of a different kind of labor with teammates and other players. The bubble was where McCollum Heritage 91 made its debut.

Individual reasons for why wine and the NBA have become so synonymous would likely be as varied as there are varietals, but the career-related commonalities are that it’s a relatively healthy habit, as far as consuming alcohol goes, and a good way to unwind after games. Players recognize that a basketball career is a finite thing, with sleep, nutrition and recovery edging out wilder ways to spend time on the road, and while there might still be occasional nights out during the season, they’ve by and large become team dinners, paired with wine. Even the offseason has become a time more markedly focused on getting wine in. The first celebratory stop the Cavaliers made after taking the title from the Warriors was a gilded visit to Napa, and the summer Jimmy Butler signed with the Heat he was visiting Sassicaia, the vineyard he’s most loyal to, for long enough that Erik Spoelstra, his coach-to-be, rerouted his own European vacation to go and meet Butler in Florence.

There are also plenty of nonprofessional reasons.

Asked why he thinks wine has become not just the drink, but the hobby of choice for so many his contemporaries, Josh Hart blurts, “I don’t know!”

Laughing, he continues, “To me, it’s fun. It gets me a look into the history of the vineyards, and I love history, so that’s why I do it. I think for some guys it’s something that’s nice, having a glass of wine at night, it helps you go to sleep. Obviously it’s not as bad as drinking straight vodka on the rocks or something like that. So I think it’s a combination of a bunch of things. I think guys brought it onto the flight, people tried it and had more an appreciation for it.”

To McCollum, as someone with a foot firmly planted in both the basketball and wine worlds, now as a producer, location plays as much of a role as the lifestyle benefits, “Location, for a lot of players, education and trying to find passions and hobbies that are considered healthy,” he chuckles, “Wine is a socially acceptable drink, as oppose to some other drinks out there, and it’s something you can drink in a more classy manner, with dinner or whatever, and are still able to perform at a high level and function. I think more players have spoken out about their love for wine, you’ve got multiple teams in California, you have us here in Oregon, and we’re just taking advantage of our locations and resources that are at hand.”

McCollum admits that from when he was drafted to now “it’s definitely more prevalent in the NBA, there’s definitely more people who are involved in wine, talk about wine, publicly speak on it, and some players who are actually producing and making their own wine.”

Joe Harden has a unique, completely tactile knowledge of the NBA’s wine boom from both sides of the bottle. Harden grew up on a grape ranch outside of Napa until opting to play basketball at Notre Dame. But the transition from California to Indiana was a tough one and he eventually transferred to UC Davis, into viticulture and enology. After “essentially two full years of biochemistry and premed classes” Harden got into high-end winemaking classes, “which I just immediately fell in love with”. After graduating, he was drafted to the Santa Cruz Warriors, eventually moved to play in Australia, before returning to Napa where he now oversees winemaking at the Nickel & Nickel, the original single variety winery in the Valley.

“I think that wine is such a unique thing that has a sense of time and place,” Harden says from a desk tucked into the corner of a cavernous room filled with wine mixing tanks, “Where say the 2000 vintage of Mouton, there’s only so many bottles left, it kind of creates this need and want for that one time and place vintage. For me, when the Warriors won the last couple years, I would send them magnums of that vintage because they could go back in 20 years and taste the wine that was made that year. It had this time and place sense, so I think that’s one part of what the NBA likes. They like to come visit, too.”

Many players already have a penchant for collecting. Cars, couture and sneakers being some of the most carefully crafted caches. Wine’s built-in limitations — a certain number of bottles per vintage, growing fewer and rarer with time — make it a perfect fit for players already prone to scouring for what’s most precious.

“There are wines to buy for drinking and wines to buy for aging,” says John Kapon, chairman of Acker Merrall & Condit, 200-year-old shop specializing in fine and rare wines, “Accumulating bottles over time and building a great collection is the way to go.”

Acker recently wrapped a first of its kind virtual tasting series with Anthony, Redick, Kevin Love, Paul Pierce and Kyle Kuzma. Each tasting was hosted by Kapon (“I’ve been, unfortunately, a Knicks fan my whole life”) and came together fairly organically, with a few requests going out to players and those that were contacted being completely game to spend an hour drinking, and talking about, wine.

“JJ [Redick] was really into burgundy, and Carmelo [Anthony] was really into Bordeaux, and Paul Pierce said, “Oh, I had this really great Châteauneuf-du-Pape”, he really liked that wine, so we went with Syrah for him. Kevin [Love] was like, he really likes to be surprised with something different that he hasn’t had before, so we went with something esoteric. And Kyle [Kuzma] is into cabernets, so it kind of came about naturally to have different themes with different players.”

For each event Acker would pair four or five bottles of wine, from price points varying between $40 and $400 dollars per bottle, the aim being that it was possible for fans to try or buy what players were recommending even if they couldn’t come by the exact same bottle.

Hart already had an extensive wine collection when he arrived in New Orleans, due to playing alongside Channing Frye and then LeBron on the Lakers, but his signing to the Pelicans coincided with Redick’s, whom he credits with expanding his palate even further.

“When I first got into wine I was drinking American wine, Napa, Sonoma Coast, Alexander Valley, then I got into Bordeaux. I’m big into Bordeaux. And then, probably two or three months ago, I started really getting into Burgundy. I love burgundies. I love cab but burgundy’s kinda making me a bit of a pinot guy,” he pauses, giving a short sigh, “My palate’s definitely changed since I first started drinking wine. There’s some wines that I first started drinking that I’m like, “Yo, this shit is terrible, why was I drinking this? Lord.”

Though he acknowledges he’s still a staunch Oregon pinot drinker, McCollum’s taste in wine is evolving at the same full-tilt speed of his curiosity for it, “My palate is shifting, it’s evolving. My love for other wines is evolving. I started with red and now I’m moving on to whites,” he takes a breath before running through regions, varieties. “You’ve got Chenin blanc, the Vouvrays, you got chardonnays,” he sounds almost in a light reverie, “just continuing to try to try new things. White Burgundy grapes. I’m just being exposed to more and more, and continuing to try to learn as much as possible.”

“There’s so many things that you have to go through to learn about wine,” he continues, “For me, I’ll never learn everything and I’m comfortable with that but I’ll continue to try and expose myself to different avenues of wine to educate myself. To have those long days at the vineyard where I’m in the cage drinking wine and learning more about things, speaking to the people who love wine even more than I do.”

For McCollum and Hart, for deep connoisseurs like Anthony, James or Redick, even leaders in the wine space like Kapon, education in wine remains a necessary constant. For one, it’s an old world, at once ancient in the scheme of human history but expanding ever outwards in its production potential and popularity, with no real tipping point into contraction. It’s the kind of hobby where the more you learn only leads to more you don’t, whether in nuances of soil, weather, agriculture, fermentation, production, marketing, even just drinking.

“You start going through regions, and then you start going to different vineyards and figuring out the process of how it’s made, you just become more curious. There’s so much you don’t know about it and you just try to expose yourself to as much as possible,” McCollum says of the snowball effect he’s felt with wine, “I think as I’ve tasted wines from different vineyards I’ve just always wanted to know more and more and more, and then getting to the point where education was huge. Like, how do I educate myself on the entire business of wine? From the manufacturing side to the actual financial side of wine, and then how do I essentially put out something that I want to call my own? With my own name, my own branding on it.”

When approaching wine as an interest, a hobby, or a business on the micro scale as most players seem to, then basketball and wine really do make the perfect pairing. Players, highly attuned to the nuances of just about every action when its aim is to improve their performance, exist in a constant state of betterment for five to ten to sometimes twenty years. They don’t just want to know broadly why, but specifically, down to every muscle. To become the best at what they do in a field of highly competitive peers doing the same, players grow fluent in the manipulation of time, space and physics, turn into biology and sports medicine experts by osmosis.

During a mid-season trip to Napa, the Cavs volleyed so many probing questions at winemakers that Holmes, writing about the visit, said 4th generation winemaker Carissa Mondavi thought, “No one asks these questions”.

No one but winemakers, who are themselves equally, necessarily obsessive.

“There’s a lot of similarities,” Harden agrees, “Especially for a guy who is inside of tanks, and pulling hoses and like physically making wine, which is what I’m passionate about. Actually getting dirty and getting in there, doing all the fun hard labor stuff.”

“Harvest is our season. Pretty much say goodbye to your wife, cause you’re working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hour days, and it’s nonstop. It’s grueling. It’s a lot of high-pressure. You’re making a lot of decisions that aren’t always easy. This year, we had fire issues,” Harden says, with an athlete’s tendency to take the occasionally scary, overwhelming stuff in stride.

The wildfires that ravaged California in late summer and early fall forced Harden, his team and his family out of the Valley, scorching vines and ruining much of what was spared because of the way the smoke damages grapes. Our initial interview apologetically rescheduled, and as if a wall of fire wasn’t enough, Harden’s wife gave birth during those same, touch and go days.

“Rain issues,” he continues, upbeat, “frost issues in different years. So, there’s always a hurdle. Like in sports, there’s an injury, or something happens outside of the team. So like you’re getting your team together and you gotta get through this harvest and make the best wine possible. And that, for me, is what it’s all about. And getting through each season’s hurdles and overcoming things that don’t necessarily go your way and making sure the whole team is on board and moving in one direction.”

“I think there are a lot of parallels between wine and basketball,” McCollum says, “Absolutely. I think the due diligence you have to do in your craft, in your sport, the preparation. The small things. Working on footwork, working on studying film and breaking things down. Having to anticipate on the basketball court, and you have to do the same thing, from a wine standpoint, you have to plan.”

“There’s a lot of due diligence that goes into trying to put out a wine from a timing standpoint, to a design standpoint, to, depending on how far you’re gong, creating a website, hiring a PR team, developing your label, how do you advance your label going forward? From varietal to varietal. From that point of view to price point, to quantity, to do you raise the price when the quality increases?” McCollum, having just finished his first full cycle from wine production, to bottling, to sales on the eve of his 8th season, is especially clairvoyant when it comes to the details — for both worlds. “There’s so many things that go into it, you have to have foresight. Similar to a sport, to adjust as needed and not be afraid to make changes based on input, from professionals, from customers. There’s a lot that goes into it, same for basketball. You have to be able to adjust in games, to adjust year to year as the sport evolves you have to evolve or you’re left behind.”

Frye, who in his retirement has only become further embedded in Oregon wine culture, recently released the first wines in his partnership with L’Angolo Estate — Chosen Family, a 2018 pinot noir and a 2019 chardonnay — and has talked about the carryover drive that’s compelled him in this second career.

“I was there hand-bottling all 85 cases of pinot,” Frye told Food & Wine, “Did my arm want to fall off? Absolutely. But I have put my love and passion into this and I’m gonna constantly be challenging myself to put something better out every year. As a basketball player, I use my work ethic and my access to wines that other people might not have.”

“You do this so far in advance. It’s not like most things, for wine.” McCollum says of his hands-on approach to production, “I was on the vineyard in 2016, 2017, figuring out my grape situation. Purchasing grapes for 18 varietals that I wasn’t going to put out until 2020. So you kind of pick your amounts, you figure out your cases, you figure out your distribution like how you wanna do it years in advance. So it’s either, did we get enough? Or did we not get enough?”

Ultimately, McCollum went with the decision to produce less, and while he calls selling out so quickly a “good problem to have” it’s also a savvy business decision, driving up demand for his future vintages. Even operating in the niche of a niche market, producing specialty wine in the high end to luxury space, McCollum is uniquely poised to capture a cross-section of markets. NBA fans, Oregon wine collectors and drinkers, other players, the list is at once limited and containing a lot of growth potential. McCollum shares the space now with contemporaries like Frye and Wade, but production, whether as hands on as this or through partnership with winemakers, could soon draw many more NBA players into the world of wine.

“I personally, selfishly, would love to see more people getting into the production side of things,” Harden says, mentioning the potential for hands-on partnerships at his own vineyard with the goal of getting guys involved into the physical part of making wine. “I think that’s a great way to understand wine and winemaking. It might not help you name a couple German towns that make high end white wine, but I think getting your boots on the ground would be a great thing to switch people’s minds from wine not having to be snobby.”

This fluidity between markets and cultural spaces reflects through player’s interest in wine not only from a business perspective, but through a lens of social advocacy. Not to say that was the initial aim of any player pursuing what started as a wine hobby, but it doesn’t take more than a passing glance at the wine world to recognize how overwhelmingly white it is.

“Wine culture is very white. It’s a fact. When you look at it from a cultural standpoint, you’re missing out on so many different cultural influences in America.” Frye told Food & Wine, “When I was growing up as a kid in Phoenix, I didn’t even know wine was a thing. Even as a 30-year-old, I didn’t even know it was possible for me to get into this business. Because for me, as a black guy, I don’t see black guys pouring me wine. I don’t see black guys as winemakers. I don’t see black guys as sommeliers. I don’t see that.”

“There’s that stereotype,” Hart says. “It’s like old, white men. Old white wealthy men, who drink wine.”

Both Frye and Hart are making efforts to restructure the landscape, Frye by virtue of being a leader in the space, creating room and a model for others to follow, and Hart via the Diversity in Wine scholarship program he partnered with Wine Access to create in hopes of encouraging more people of color into the wine industry.

An NBA player who’s using wine as a tool to push for a more progressive and representational way forward is Moe Harkless. Harkless, who started drinking wine in college at team dinners and grew his love for it during his time in Portland, was introduced to Napa’s The Prisoner Wine Company through a friend. Shortly after, the wine label’s parent company, Constellation Brands, announced it would invest over $100 million over the next decade to Black and minority-owned businesses. Harkless saw potential for a partnership between Prisoner and his own social justice initiative, Black Lives Now.

“It was really very organic,” Elisabeth Baron, vice president of marketing for The Prisoner Wine Company told Dime, “Moe had an interest in the brand and approached one of our agency partners. He really wants to merge his love for wine with support of his initiative that really dedicates more focus to supporting black lives and culture, in many aspects.”

The partnership is in it’s early stages but has so far donated $10,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative, of which Prisoner previously committed $1 million to, and Harkless wants to continue to push for justice and police reform through as many avenues as possible.

“We’re really excited about broadening this. We want to do this in a meaningful way. We want to make sure that we walk the talk, that we’re not making a statement and then not really supporting it,” Baron says, adding, “We know that especially in the NBA there’s such a following for fine wine in the league, and there’s so many people there who are so excited about it.”

It’s not to say that there isn’t a place for players who just want to enjoy wine without claiming a larger stake of the wine world, but the work Harkless, Hart, Frye, McCollum (who is currently developing his own plans with Adelshiem in the advocacy and wine space) and Wade are doing will lead to larger conversations and actionable change. In our conversations, Hart and McCollum acknowledged that they have the resources and access where others don’t, so even by sharing information and education they have a hand in turning the exception into the rule. It’s also good business, as Frye confirmed, “I think if we can put people of all different types of color in the fields, in the barrel rooms, in the tasting rooms, everywhere, it is going to bring so many more people to your vineyards to taste your wine.”

Looking at the growth in the past two, let alone five years for wine within the NBA, the balance is rapidly shifting to the NBA’s place within wine. From procurement to production and the trickledown effect that has in the larger market, leaders in the wine industry see the exponential growth as nothing but a positive for them.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Harden says when asked whether he sees a ceiling for the once niche market between basketball and wine, “I think it’s creating this buzz, and this culture, and it seems like guys like LeBron [James], Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, like that kind of generation of guys who these young players look up to are kind of leading this, or on the forefront, so I think that’s going to help build momentum. The more people we have talking about wine the better we’re off.”

NBA fans are consistently thirsty for new ways in which to interact with players, an opportunity Kapon realized with Acker’s “All Stars Uncorked” series. “It was just something that really clicked with us,” he says. “Something to make wine a little more approachable for their fans.”

The destigmatization of wine, of turning it into something accessible to as large of a market as the one surrounding the NBA is a no-brainer. But there’s also the more straightforward point that kept coming up in every conversation about wine, whether with players or producers (or both), which is that wine can just be enjoyable, something to bring people together in a divisive and difficult year.

“There’s no rules to this wine business,” McCollum says happily, “You like what you like, and you drink what you like. Your palate is different from the next person’s palate.”

In developing McCollum Heritage 91 he had three rules: that the wine was good, that people would want to drink it with people they loved, and that it be approachable.

“I think just being comfortable is extremely important,” McCollum says. “Trying to figure out what you like, first and foremost, is it pinot? Is it merlot? Like what do you like? And not being afraid to ask questions and being comfortable in not knowing everything. Like, I still don’t know everything about wine, and I’ve been down this path seven, eight, nine years of continuing to try and taste different things and gain experience.”

“That’s the fun part about it,” Hart says. “You’re trying different things from different countries, from different years. But at the end of the day the thing about wine is it’s based on different individuals personal palate.”

His voice noticeably speeds up, getting excited, “So, you could love Brunellos and I could hate Brunellos,” he’s emphatic, then quickly switches gears. “I could love Barolos. Or you could love Napa and I could hate Napa and I love Bordeaux. So it’s all about your own personal palate. If you talk to people, see the different kinds of wine that there are, but at the end of the day you got to go out there and try some, see what you like, see what you don’t like. It was so cool when I had bottles of wine that are older than me, stuff like that. That’s kind of what it is, you’ve just gotta go out and try a bunch to see what you like and see what style is your kinda style.”

“I was into red for a long, long time,” McCollum recalls, “I was going to tastings and I’d basically say, hold the white wine just give me red. It took me a little while to get comfortable trying new things. For some people it’s gonna be like that. Where you stay in your own lane and you figure out what you like, you get used to that and then you slowly start to explore.”

“I know Dame [Lillard] was drinking riesling for like, two years. I was like, ‘You have to stop drinking riesling and drink something else.’” He laughs, we both do, it’s hard not to picturing McCollum critiquing Lillard on his riesling consumption, he continues, “You know what I mean? I was introducing him to different wines.”

“Maybe you start with a sparkling rosé or some type of rosé,” he offers. “But I think it’s important that you get comfortable first. If it’s just red wine, it’s just red wine. I know my mom likes white wine, I try to get her to drink pinot and eventually work some in but some people just,” his voice softens, “you like what you like. I think that’s completely ok, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to one thing… Finding that balance and getting more comfortable is extremely important, but baby steps. Crawl before you walk.”

What’s clear in the way wine and basketball fit together is that one of the driving factors is the joy found in an outlet so deeply personal. With so many varieties, wine can be anything you want it to be, paired to a place in time as much as to taste. If 2020 was desolation with a tinge of lingering hope, there’s a wine for that, and it probably has a lot of minerality (tastes like rocks). It’s no wonder that so many players are drifting into wine post or mid-careers so fine-tuned and high-octane, it’s a pastime that requires a necessary deceleration. Sports, aside from the occasional artistry involved in playing style, or the universe-stalling grace of a colossal dunk, are not subjective. Wine, everything that goes into it, very much is.

“I could pour my heart and soul into a vintage, and one person tastes it one time and says it’s not very good and the vintage is written off,” Harden told me about the hardest shift he’s felt leaving basketball for wine, “This is such an artsy world, that it’s so different from sports in that sense.”

Which is why wine could be a welcome refuge for so many players, if it isn’t already, as a post-basketball career.

“I would love to one day own my own vineyard, have a national production, a national-scale business,” McCollum pauses, considering it.”That would be like coming full-circle.”

Foot-treading grapes isn’t too far a substitute for footwork, Wade always looks pretty happy to be doing it, and the diversity and inclusion players would add to an industry in need of it only brings a wider, fairer share for equality in a business that impedes itself the longer it stays so economic and racially insular. Whether through education or advocacy, business or enjoyment, basketball is lending to wine what the industry had been in need of, a probing jolt of questioning just as much as a deep appreciation, making the grounds for growth that much richer, as dense as a volcanic soil.

Once he’s finished jotting down the note about the Canaries, McCollum teases, “Just one suggestion, that’s all you’ve got for me?”

But wine’s a journey and cliche as it is, you just have to start somewhere.

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