The top 5 in-your-face moments of Matt Barnes’ 14-year career The explosive forward’s retirement brings the role of NBA ‘bad boy’ close to extinction

The days of the NBA “bad boy” are coming to an end. If you think otherwise, your take on the concept is all wrong. We’re talking about the trash-talking, brawl-beginning, fine-and-suspension-inducing, me-against-the-world mold of player that has flourished in the league for decades. With Matt Barnes’ Instagram-announced retirement (as a player) Monday, only a few are left in the league.

There’s DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins, Draymond Green and perhaps even LeBron James. But even within this diminishing cohort, physical altercations have been replaced with petty wars of attrition. Instead of meeting toe-to-toe on the hardwood, players throw shade at each other via pregame outfits and custom T-shirts and hats. Players defending themselves via photos or in 280 characters or less — sometimes even under the alias of a dummy account (sorry, Kevin Durant). But don’t get it twisted: This new version of warfare is still entertaining. It’s just different.

On Nov. 28, James did earn his first career ejection since joining the league in 2003, but the outburst only cost him a $4,000 fine — chump change compared with what the league has levied on a player like Matt Barnes. In 14 seasons with nine different teams, Barnes accrued a whopping $414,276 in fines and six games of suspension, according to spotrac.com, which compares with James’ career total of $51,000 in fines and zero games of suspensions over 15 seasons and counting.

With Barnes saying farewell to the game, the NBA has lost a bad boy from a long lineage of audacious NBA players, often traced back to the “Bad Boys” era of the late 1980s/early 1990s, Detroit Pistons teams, featuring Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Rick Mahorn. The fraternity of infamous hoopers also includes Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Charles Oakley, Reggie Miller, Vernon Maxwell, Latrell Sprewell, Isaiah Rider, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace, aka the man formerly known as Ron Artest.

Like many of these players, maybe Barnes crossed the line one too many times throughout his career. Or, maybe, he’s just fearless. Here are the top five moments from the now-retired forward’s playing days that embody his bad boy nature while blurring that fine line between craziness and passion for the game.


March 7, 2010 — MATT BARNES vs. KOBE BRYANT

Fine: None

It takes a certain type of man to go at Bryant — and that man has to have a backbone like Barnes. In a March 2010 game between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, less than a year removed from the teams’ matchup in the 2009 NBA Finals, Bryant and Barnes went back and forth all afternoon until their chippy confrontations climaxed in the third quarter, when they came chest-to-chest and the resulting jawing led both players to be whistled for technical fouls. “He’s the man, but s—,” Barnes said of Bryant after the game. “You gotta clean it up or something is gonna happen.” On an inbounds play after the verbal altercation, Barnes faked as if he would throw the ball in Bryant’s face, but the reigning Finals MVP didn’t budge. “I knew he wasn’t going to do s—,” Bryant told reporters after the Lakers’ 96-94 loss. “What would I flinch for?” Barnes came at the Black Mamba, and, technically, he missed. But he came correct, which you gotta respect. (In July 2010, Barnes became a teammate with Bryant after signing as a free agent with the Lakers.)

Dec. 12, 2014 — Matt Barnes vs. the water bottle

Fine: $25,000

In three seasons playing with the Los Angeles Clippers from 2012 to 2015, Barnes received a total of 32 fines, including one for $25,000 after a road matchup with the Washington Wizards in December 2014. After Clippers head coach Doc Rivers pulled his starters with about two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, essentially conceding the game, Barnes returned the sideline, where he kicked a water bottle into the stands before cursing at the home team’s fans. This is one of four $25,000 fines that the NBA issued to Barnes during his tenure as a Clipper, but spoiler alert: It’s far from the highest fine of his career.

May 6, 2015 — Matt Barnes vs. Monja Willis, aka James Harden’s mom

Fine: $52,000 ($50,000 for remark to Monja Willis, $2,000 for technical foul)

OK, sometimes Matt Barnes’ went wayyyyy too far with the trash talk. In the first quarter of Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, James Harden received a hard foul from Barnes, his primary defender. As Harden walked to the free throw line, Barnes intentionally bumped into him, which led a referee to whistle him for a technical foul. The play resulted in a rain of negative chants from Houston fans directed toward Barnes, who responded by reportedly yelling, “Suck my d—, b—-!” to the crowd. On the receiving end of the profane remark was Monja Willis, Harden’s mother, who would later tell TMZ that the Clippers player immediately apologized for the comment. “My older son walked over to him and told him to apologize … and he did,” Willis said. “What he told me was that he would never want to disrespect anyone’s mother because his mother passed from cancer … and that he was sorry. I accept his apology.” Barnes denied making the reported remark, calling it “untrue” and “crazy.” Regardless of what exactly was said, c’mon, Matt. You gotta leave mothers out of it.

March 17, 2016 — Matt barnes vs. John Henson … and the Bucks Locker room

Fine: $32,205 (one-game suspension without pay)

What happens when a referee ejects a player before Barnes has a chance to speak his mind to him? Well, Barnes runs off the court, through the arena’s tunnel and to the opposing team’s locker room, of course. That’s exactly what happened during a March 2016 game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks, when John Henson received his second technical foul of the night and an immediate ejection after the big man’s vicious block on Barnes, who also received a technical foul for his part in the ensuing verbal altercation. Technically, Barnes wasn’t ejected from the game. However, he checked himself out of the contest, left the court to find Henson and reportedly made it all the way to Milwaukee’s locker room before two security guards had to escort him from the arena. The dedication is oddly commendable, but … For his antics, the league slapped Barnes with a huge fine and made him sit out for a game.

Jan. 17, 2016 — Matt Barnes vs. Derek Fisher

Fine: $35,000 (two-game suspension without pay)

“Knicks coach Derek Fisher was attacked in Los Angeles by NBA bad boy Matt Barnes, who drove 95 miles to ‘beat the s–t out of him’ when he found out Fisher was romancing his estranged wife,” reads the opening line of an October 2015 story from the New York Post. The NBA didn’t take action on the matter involving Barnes, Fisher and Gloria Govan until December, when the league suspended the then-Memphis Grizzlies forward for two games without pay. Yet, leading up to a January matchup between Memphis and New York — the first encounter between the player and coach, who were former teammates with the Lakers — Barnes spoke negatively about Fisher, including calling him a “snitch” and saying he doesn’t “talk to snakes.” The negative comments resulted in a $35,000 fine from the league for “condoning violence.” A month later, Barnes’ reputation made it all the way to hip-hop: I just be like, it was my idea to have an open relationship / Now a n—a mad / Now I’m ’bout to drive 90 miles like Matt Barnes to kill … / 30 hours, Kanye West raps on his track “30 hours” from The Life of Pablo. A shout-out like that certainly meant his legacy as an NBA bad boy had been cemented.

Kings’ Garrett Temple and George Hill adopt Sacramento high schools ‘The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems’

SACRAMENTO, California – What do you think about the Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest? How do you handle losing? How do you deal with adversity off the court?

Those were a few of the questions Sacramento Kings forward Garrett Temple fielded during his first day as a student-athlete mentor at Sacramento Charter High School.

“At first, they started asking about basketball,” Temple said before the Kings lost to the Toronto Raptors 102-87 on Sunday. “But then they started asking great questions, life questions. It was a good start. I want everyone to know this is not a one-time thing. This is something I want to continue to grow and I plan on building a relationship with that school and those athletes.”

Temple, who is African-American, said he began thinking about adopting a school during the offseason because of the race issues in America. He ultimately decided that he wanted to become a mentor to student-athletes as well as offer financial assistance to a local high school that primarily included underprivileged kids of color. Sacramento Charter High fit Temple’s criteria.

Sacramento Charter High is a predominantly black school that also includes Latino and mixed-race students. It is in Sacramento’s challenged Oak Park neighborhood, and the school’s alumni includes former NBA star and former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Temple credited Galen Duncan, vice president of the Kings Academy and Professional Development, for doing research that identified Sacramento Charter High as a solid choice. Temple also plans to donate money to the school for computers, which he expects the Kings to match.

“Sacramento High felt like a place that could really use some help. That is why I chose it,” Temple said.

Temple’s town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High on Dec. 6 was the first of several he plans to have with students playing basketball and other winter sports. He plans to attend a boys basketball tournament at the school to show his support and perhaps even talk to some teams individually.

During the first meeting with the Sacramento Charter High kids, Temple mostly answered questions about life off the court. He was impressed that he received strong attendance of about 100 enthusiastic student-athletes.

“With Colin kneeling and other things going on bringing awareness to police brutality of that nature, I thought about things I can do to actually help,” Temple said. “The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems. I read a statistic that said we may be more segregated in schools now than we were in 1954 because of the private schools. All the white kids are going to private schools while the black kids are going to public schools that are very underserved.

“Education is important to me and my family. I wanted to try to help [make a] change.”

Temple said Kings veteran point guard George Hill also decided to choose a local school to mentor after he heard what Temple planned to do for Sacramento Charter High. Temple wasn’t surprised that Hill yearned to get involved, because of his previous charity work.

George Hill (No. 3) of the Sacramento Kings.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

“George is basically a humanitarian,” Temple said. “Every game there is a veteran [military] crew that he talks to and takes a picture with. He went to Haiti right after the earthquake. He is just a great guy.”

Hill’s reasons for participation were similar to Temple’s.

“I have always been big on the community stuff, especially as crazy as the world is today,” Hill said. “More guys of our stature and more guys that are successful need to really try to give back and take some of these young men and women right underneath our wings and just guide them a little bit.”

Hill chose Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High and is scheduled to meet with their student-athletes Monday in the first of what he hopes to be a monthly meeting this season.

Hill said it was important for him to be in a school environment that had black and Latino students because “most of those schools are looked over.” Hill’s fiancée, Samantha Garcia, is Latina, and he is African-American. Racially diverse Encina meets Hill’s criteria as it is 37 percent Latino, 29 percent black, 21 percent white and 6 percent Asian, according School-Ratings. Moreover, 93 percent of Encina’s students are eligible for free lunch.

Hill plans to talk to the students about his challenges growing up in a tough neighborhood in Indianapolis, leadership and working hard to meet their dreams and goals.

“I’m more about being a better person than a better athlete,” Hill said. “I’m going to touch base on helping others. Not judging anyone over the cover of their book. Get to know people, respect others, respect your classmates, your teachers and your peers. Teach the fundamentals and get the love back in the world, because that is something that we are missing.”

Hill and Temple also could offer kids motivation with their far-from-easy roads to the NBA.

Hill starred in college at little-known Division I mid-major Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) , which has made the NCAA tournament just once in school history. Despite scholarship offers from Temple and Indiana, he chose IUPUI to stay close to home with his ailing great-grandfather, Gilbert Edison, who died before getting a chance to see him play. The 10th-year NBA veteran was drafted 26th overall in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Hill said. “Believe. Hard work pays off. I wasn’t one of the nation’s top players coming out of high school. Everything we had to do had to be earned. It wasn’t given to us. With some of this new generation, people give them so much that when they have to go on their own, they are misguided. They don’t know how to work for it.

“I’m trying to touch a different audience saying, ‘You have to work for what you get. Don’t expect nothing. Have fun doing it.’ But at the same time, you being a better person on and off your sports life is the biggest thing that we want them to contribute to.”

Temple grew up in a stable home in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led by his father, Collis, the first African-American to play basketball at Louisiana State University. Garett Temple, however, faced adversity when he went undrafted out of LSU in 2009 while his former teammates Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas were all selected in the first round. Eight years later, Temple is the only one of the four former Tigers still in the NBA.

Temple’s well-traveled basketball career has included four stops in the NBA’s G League, a season playing for Associazione Sportiva Junior Pallacanestro Casale Monferrato in Italy and time with the Kings, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards. The National Basketball Players Association vice president is in the second year of a three-year deal with the Kings.

“I credit a lot of [my success] to my faith in Christ and my ability to withstand things,” Garrett said. “There have been times where I’ve been cut. Things have happened when there has been really no explanation for them. I just trust in the Lord and everything happens for a reason.”

The Kings’ roster includes nine players with two or fewer years of experience in the NBA, including standout rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. Sacramento also has veterans in Temple, Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, who have made it a point to mentor their younger teammates.

Kings rookie guard Frank Mason and injured rookie forward Harry Giles shadowed Temple at his first town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High. Mason and Giles served the student-athletes a dinner that included chicken, jambalaya and greens. They also sat with the student-athletes as Temple addressed them, engaged with them on social media and took pictures. Temple hopes that Mason and Giles can do something similar for a school in the future. Kings rookies Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson are expected to be on hand when Hill makes his first appearance on Monday.

“I was kind of looking at the bigger picture,” Mason said. “Garrett did a great job speaking about the future and the past, being a role model to those kids and telling them what he’s been through. With what we’ve been through at a young age, we just want to help them to not make those mistakes, take advantage of opportunities and work hard every day.”

Said Temple: “Mentoring [teammates] isn’t just on the court. It’s showing them off the court how to impact people.”

Temple’s and Hill’s meetings with the Sacramento high school student-athletes could offer life-changing inspiration. Temple isn’t underestimating the impact it can have on him, too.

“I probably will get more from it than the kids,” Temple said. “It continues to keep you grounded. It humbles you. It reminds you that at one point you were in the same shoes as these kids and had a dream of playing professional basketball. To get here, you need to understand that it’s a blessing and you’re very fortunate.

“But other people don’t have this chance. You have to pour in to the kids that won’t be [in professional sports] that athletics isn’t the only way to make it out.”

Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng gives back to his native Senegal – and then some His foundation and partnership with Matter assists with hospital improvements and he also trains the Senegalese in farming

Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng will never forget seeing a pregnant woman helplessly lying on the floor waiting for medical attention in a severely antiquated hospital in his hometown of Kebeber, Senegal, about 3 1/2 years ago.

It was the same hospital Dieng was born in on Jan. 18, 1990. There was nothing electronic at this hospital. Most beds didn’t have mattresses and patients lay on springs. Babies were warmed in incubators by a light bulb. The odds of getting decent health care were slim.

“I was visiting someone at the hospital and the doctor that was there was the same doctor I saw when I was in Senegal,” Dieng said. “I went to the visiting room to say hi to him and there was a pregnant lady laying on the ground. I asked him what was going on. He said he was waiting for someone to leave a table so she could lay there. I looked at the room and there was only one table there. No beds.

“I asked him if I could take a tour and see what the hospital needs. The building was OK, but the equipment was the issue. I told the doctor to give me a note and tell me everything that he needs. I told him, ‘I’m not going to promise you anything, but I will do my best to help.’ ”

Dieng has done more than his best to help his hometown and Senegal.

The hospital is now updated. There is a new dialysis center with 200 beds. Farming tutoring is offered on his land. There is more on the horizon through his foundation.

Gorgui Dieng #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The NBA veteran is better known in Senegal for what he has done off the court in saving and improving lives than for what he has done on the court in North America. Dieng, 27, is averaging 6.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in his fifth season with the Timberwolves. He started playing basketball when he was 15 and played in college at Louisville.

“He is a celebrity in Senegal in large part because he’s been all over the media there with his foundation and all he is doing to help his people,” said Quenton Marty, president of Minneapolis-based non-profit Matter.

In March 2015, Dieng attended the Timberwolves’ FastBreak Foundation’s annual Taste of the Timberwolves fundraising event. Players and coaches from the team dine on local fare from some of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities at their annual fundraiser. Dieng was quietly trying to find help for his hospital back in Senegal while hanging out with the movers and shakers of Minneapolis.

Dieng received an important introduction to Marty during the event. Marty’s organization, Matter, has a mission to “expand access to health, next door and around the world” with a goal to bring access to health aid to 10 million by 2018. Matter has leveraged Minnesota’s renowned health care and agriculture to aid those in need since 2000 and has distributed more than $550 million in resources around the world.

Not long after the Wolves charity event, Marty and Dieng met for breakfast.

“Gorgui is a guy who came from humble beginnings and I got the sense that he wanted to work with people he could trust that weren’t going to just talk about doing stuff, but we are actually doing stuff,” Marty said. “The one thing I took away was this was a great young guy who wanted to do something to help his people and not just be in the NBA for his own benefit.”

A partnership was born during that breakfast meeting with Matter and Dieng’s budding charity foundation.

They initially began outlining a plan to aid Dieng’s hometown hospital. Matter next shipped medical supplies to Senegal. Through Dieng’s connections, the equipment sent overseas was able to get through customs relatively smoothly after a journey that took about a month. Matter sent beds, furniture and other hospital basics for treatment.

“After that meeting, I went back to the office, pushed pause on everything and said, ‘We’re going to help Gorgui send medical equipment back to this hospital where he was born,’ ” Marty said. “Within about two weeks, we had a 40-foot container on the water sent back to Senegal, where Gorgui was born and raised. That was the beginning of our relationship.”

Said Dieng: “I met with Matter and have been working with them ever since.”

Gorgui Dieng walks through the farm project that was built near the hospital.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

Marty and a contingent from Matter joined Dieng for a site visit to Senegal. Marty has seen struggling hospitals all over the world, but he was shocked by what he saw in Dieng’s hometown, saying the hospital had equipment that was “about 50 years behind the times.” Marty immediately began thinking about what more Matter could do to help through Dieng’s foundation.

“Over the last 20 years, because of the work that I do, I’ve seen a lot of dilapidated hospitals,” Marty said. “This one was among the worst. It was pretty small. I just remember seeing a lot of moms with kids that were sick, but the hospital didn’t have the resources to take care of them. Just walking through with Gorgui was a somber experience knowing that this is where this guy playing in the NBA was born. It was still a place where people didn’t get the treatment they deserved.”

Today, the hospital in Dieng’s hometown is much improved, thanks to Matter and Dieng’s foundation. Another problem in Senegal was a lack of dialysis treatment centers in a country stricken with masses of people with kidney problems. A 200-bed dialysis center was opened in 2016 through Dieng’s foundation and the aid of Matter and other donors. There is also a new neonatal center to help babies. Marty said that there are also Wolves season-ticket holders and Minnesota businesses that are aiding Dieng’s foundation.

In July 2018, Matter will join Dieng again with a contingent of about 20 people going to Senegal to tour his projects.

“It’s a much well-oiled machine now that the Gorgui Dieng Foundation is established,” said Marty, who has made three trips to Senegal. “We now have a whole system of requests that Gorgui is getting to help people. It went from the first container helping one hospital to people all over the country requesting our assistance. Within a couple years, we have a program that will go well into the future to help the whole country.

“The hospitals have been upgraded significantly. Now they are able to serve people with dignity and give them the care they need and should have.”

Dieng said he owns more than 100 acres in Senegal that he uses for farming and it is not uncommon to see him on a tractor or tending to the animals. It also serves as a training ground for local and aspiring farmers.

Goats, lamb, chickens, cows and sheep are raised on Dieng’s land, with employees working the farm. It is difficult to grow fruits and vegetables because the farm has sandy soil on the edge of the Sahara desert. With the aid of Matter, Dieng’s foundation is teaching people how to farm more intelligently and successfully in Senegal. Matter provided the farmers with repurposed equipment from Minnesota farms in 2016. Dieng also has agricultural students working on his farm to gain experience while also aiding them with scholarships.

“Farming is very big in Africa, but people don’t do it the proper way,” Dieng said. “I love farming. Through my foundation, I can train people. I give up my own land so people can practice the proper way to farm. When they finish, they can help their own farm and my foundation can help them with pretty much anything they need. It helped them stabilize their community so people don’t have to go to the city to make money. You can farm where you are, the proper way, get great results and make a way of living.

Gorgui Dieng next to a well that was built to assist in sustainable farming.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

“Things I’m doing right now isn’t just to make money. It’s to stabilize people and keep them in their community. They have the right to go make some money. When they leave the village, or leave the town, no money is going to be there. It will be a dead town. I want them to stay in their town by creating jobs for them.”

Dieng said he truly learned the impact he was making in Senegal when he met a young boy affected by a kidney problem at 12 years old named “Semi.”

Dieng said the young boy and his father decided to go by “faith” to travel to see him at his annual offseason basketball camp after seeing him on television and learning what he was doing medically. The father had previously sold his house and car to get the money needed to pay his son’s expensive medical bills. At the time, Semi could not walk either.

Dieng was able to get Semi enrolled for treatment in his hospital that aids with kidney dialysis, get him transportation for his appointments and food. Semi has improved dramatically since having surgery. The teenage boy can now walk.

“His dad said he never saw Semi do anything with the other kids,” Dieng said. “His son’s only complaint was, ‘Why can’t I go play with the kids?’ His dad was always depressed about it. He wanted to see Semi happy. And after he was doing his treatment, he had surgery at 12 years. After the surgery, he went back home normal. His dad said the first day he saw Semi playing with the kids, he couldn’t believe it. He called me that night praying and all that kind of good stuff.

“Stuff like that makes me happy. Only God can make stuff like that happen. But we helped Semi get into the right situation.”

Despite being Senegal’s most notable NBA player, Marty said, Dieng was not well-known in Senegal when he made his first visit there with him. But with everything Dieng has done, Marty says, he is now a household name.

The fact that NBA games are now easier to see in Senegal also will help his profile. Dieng hosts a four-day youth basketball camp and coaching clinic in Senegal every offseason, and kids can’t attend unless they have high grades. He also plays for Senegal’s national basketball team. It’s not easy for Dieng to walk around Senegal these days without being recognized, but he believes it is important for the children to be able to touch him.

“It’s tough to go outside and walk around. But I like going outside because the kids, they want to see you. I take pictures and talk to them. That can change a life. Why hide or get security? No,” Dieng said.

The court that was built in Dieng’s hometown.

Senegal showed its respect and belief in Dieng by asking him to be its ambassador of tourism last August.

Through a translated statement, Senegal director general of tourism Mouhamadou Bamba Mbow said “the ambition of the agency is to rely on the international notoriety of Senegalese personalities to amplify the radiation of the destination.” Dieng said he filmed a tourism promotional commercial for Senegal after touring “beautiful places in the country I had never seen before.” Senegal’s hope is that Dieng will inspire tourists and businesses to visit Senegal. Dieng was very humbled by the appointment.

“Gorgui doesn’t want to be known as just a basketball player,” said New York Knicks scout Makhtar N’Diaye, a Senegal native and former NBA player. “In my opinion, he’s becoming a brand in Senegal and is an inspiration to the youth. He’s working towards becoming an icon. It’s all about legacy for him.

“Many people have come before him and tried. He came and took it to the next level. The best is yet to come for him.”

Marty says that Matter has about 50 other projects going on as well. Even so, Marty plans on going to Senegal again next year and is excited to see the growth of their medical and farm projects for the fourth straight year. Why? It’s Dieng’s love for his people that keeps Marty making the annual trips.

“He is a really impressive guy,” Marty said. “The thing that stands out to me is he really wants to help his people. He loves basketball, but he sees it as the vehicle to help others. I don’t know where it came from. But he has a sincere desire to help other people. I just really admire that about him.”

Dieng is not satisfied with the medical and farming improvements he has made in Senegal. He plans to open a major hospital in his hometown. He also has grander plans of not just helping Senegal, but aiding Africa at large. With the continued aid of Matter and other donations, Dieng plans to make an impact on the continent from a medical, farming, basketball and educational standpoint.

“The reason God put you in a good situation is to help others,” Dieng said. “I strongly believe that good things happen to good people and things happen for a reason. There is a reason why I am in playing in the NBA and I’m in a good situation today, not just for me and my family. It is to help others, too. That is why I am doing what I am doing right now.

“I’m doing this just to help. I want to be that guy who played in the NBA, makes his money and is gone. I want to have an impact on the community wherever I am at. Whether it is in the States or in China, Senegal, whenever. If you leave somewhere and have an impact, it’s like having a statue in the streets. That’s the way I see things.”

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.