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.

Rhyme by rhyme, a street cop slings his story

Patrol Officer Quincy Iverson The Man on the street 26 years in uniform (retired)

“I get that hate from both sides I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”“I get that hate from both sides, I can’t do no good. Too black for the badge, too blue for the hood.”

Black and Blue: A rap soundtrack for a young thug’s journey to the police force

When the lieutenant knocked on the door for the background check, Quincy Iverson was blasting N.W.A. through his stereo speakers and drinking his second 40-ounce of the day. He was four months out of the Army, a newlywed, working as a Sears carpet cleaner and in need of a better job. Iverson let the white cop in and turned down the music.

Three decades later, Iverson still isn’t sure how he got hired by the Akron Police Department. He had a juvenile record from teenage stunts like stealing from the mall. He flunked eighth grade after a house fire forced him to relocate to a hostile neighborhood and fight his way home most days. At 5-foot-5½, he worried about meeting the height requirement. He dreamed of becoming a famous rapper, not a cop. “But the grace of God, some way, somehow, they hired me,” Iverson said.

Before retiring in September, Iverson, 50, spent 26 years as a patrol officer on the same hardscrabble streets where he grew up, got married and raised his own three children. Akron’s population of 198,000 is 30 percent black and has been declining since tire manufacturers such as Goodyear and Firestone began moving factories elsewhere. The poverty rate (26 percent) and murders (30 in 2016) are rising. The police force of 450 officers is about 20 percent black. Despite Akron’s problems, Iverson reps his city as hard as native son LeBron James has. He can hardly walk a block without someone giving him some dap or a hug — and he’s not going anywhere.

Iverson spent his entire police career on the frontlines, riding in a patrol car, responding to trouble of all kinds. He’s grateful he never had to fire his weapon, although he was shot at several times. He’s arrested more young brothers than he can remember, including some who thanked him years later. Iverson often felt tugged in opposite directions by his loyalty to the black community and his responsibility to his job. It’s the same mix of emotions he felt over the police killing of Tamir Rice, 40 miles up the road in Cleveland. He was saddened by another black life snuffed out, and disagreed with how the white officer rushed up to 12-year-old Tamir in his patrol car, rather than checking out the situation more carefully. But Iverson also knew that if the only information he received on a call was black male with a handgun, and that suspect made one wrong move, “the kid probably would have got it. He reaches, I don’t have a split second to say, ‘Hopefully this gun ain’t real.’ How Scarface say, you only got a minute to pray and a second to die? It’s a bad get-down, bruh, either way.”

Rap has always been Iverson’s oxygen. He started performing in junior high school and was inspired by lyrical pioneers such as the Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Rakim, LL Cool J and Big Daddy Kane. His crew gained some local fame, but a rapper in Akron before the internet, and more than a decade before Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony put Ohio on the hip-hop map, had little chance of going national. And Iverson’s day job didn’t help matters, once N.W.A. F’d tha Police and rap became dominated by those who broke the law, not enforced it. Iverson concealed his identity behind a rap name, the Copley Road Bully, that combined his neighborhood and his childhood misbehavior, and he never stopped writing lyrics, making beats and recording songs.

The Undefeated asked Iverson to describe, through his music, his career on the police force. And we followed him with cameras through Akron’s streets, from his favorite breakfast diner to the family gathering spot of his sister’s house, to document Iverson’s story of being “too black for the badge, too blue for the ’hood.”

Daily Dose: 12/11/17 NYC avoids terrorist attack

What’s up, kiddos? Hope your weekends went well. I’m coming to you live from Florida, where I’m at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings. It’s quite the experience, to say the least. We’ll see if any real news happens.

New York is again under attack. Happening at an-ever alarming clip, another attempted terrorist incident hit the city on Monday, this time near Times Square. Someone tried to detonate an explosive device inside the subway, which instantly caused a massive panic, understandably. The thing about New York is that ever since 9/11 you’ve sort of always got to assume you could potentially be in a dangerous situation. But then again, you’ve also got to live your life, so it is what it is. Thankfully, only a few people were hurt.

Hannibal Buress is a very funny dude. He’s also good because his regular-guy appeal is something that draws a whole lot of fans. When he first broke Bill Cosby off about his rapey ways, it resonated with a lot of people because of Buress’ casual delivery. So when I heard that he was arrested in Miami during Art Basel, I assumed it would be a case of mistaken identity. Instead, it was just a case of police being jerks because a famous person was drunk and doing too much.

The president’s job is a pretty intense one. He’s responsible for public policy for one of the most powerful nations in the world and therefore must always be on point to handle pressing issues. Meetings with important advisers, large decision-making sessions, etc. Surely he’s constantly studying documents and statistics, doing what he can to make the world a better place. Right? Nope, homey is basically sitting around watching television and drinking Diet Cokes nonstop. His eating habits are legit gross for someone who has a choice in the matter.

Speaking of baseball, being here in Orlando has been an experience. All sorts of characters are milling around, trying to get closer to players, execs or whoever wants to act like they’ve got some inside skinny on baseball news. It’s quite a scene. A perfect example of this kind of thing just happened Sunday. Someone paid over $100K for the original scouting report of Derek Jeter. Why on earth anyone would want that to begin with, never mind pay a healthy yearly salary for it, is beyond me.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve been hesitant to write about the story of Daniel Shaver because it’s so scary. You’ve seen it by now. A man begging for his life in front of an officer who is literally toying with a person suspected of carrying a gun. In the end, he kills him. He also ends up walking free. The whole thing is truly despicable.

Snack Time: J Dilla never has and probably never will get enough credit for his work in hip-hop. Dude is a legend whom we lost way too early. Check out this mini-doc about him and his MPC.

Dessert: The Pentagon ain’t playing. Even if the president is talking trash.

Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

When my mom died, the 76ers and Patti LaBelle helped get me through the holidays Her death at age 53 from dementia left me looking for solace

“That was what one person could do for another, fix him up — sew up the problem, make him all right again. …”— Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, explaining why she wants to be a physician.


My mother died on the 12th of December, 1977: early onset dementia. She was 53. Bit by bit, she lost herself. Toward the end, she didn’t know who I was. She called me “that man.” And I didn’t know who I was either. All my life, I’d been Ruth Rivers’ son, a card-carrying mama’s boy. But to my mother, I was just some strange man who wouldn’t let her run out of the house and into the street to who knows where.

Tuesday, I’ll reflect upon her proud and resilient life. Tuesday, I’ll look back at Mom’s death and the misery that led up to it. Tuesday, I’ll remember the time that, in a soft and beseeching voice, I told my mother that even if she didn’t know who I was, I loved her just the same. And Mom reached out and kissed my hand, giving me the strength to face another day.

But Tuesday, I’ll also think of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 1976-78 seasons. Led by future Hall of Fame forwards Julius (Dr. J) Erving and George McGinnis, the 76ers presented a dazzling group of players but a flawed team plagued by spotty outside shooting and defense. Consequently, the constellation of Philly stars was dimmed by playoff losses both years, including in the 1977 NBA Finals to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Still, I was riveted by every moment.

At home, I watched or listened to all their games. I read all the 76er stories in all the Philly newspapers. And sometimes, when I could steal away, I went to the games in person, a crucial respite from going through life holding my breath.

Rooting for that team in those two NBA seasons helped me get through the months that led up to my mother’s death and the months that followed it.

Tuesday, I’ll think of Patti LaBelle, and how, for a few hours in 1977, I placed my mother’s troubles and my anguish on the stage at Philly’s Academy of Music, when Patti sang “You are My Friend” and I swooped and soared with her majestic vocal.

Many people are bolstered by friends, family and faith in bad times. But for others, it’s the entertainers and athletes who help us survive challenging times.

Forty years ago, Patti and the 76ers helped pull me through. Today, everyone from Beyoncé to the Houston Rockets help salve the wounds of countless others.

The nation’s great athletes and entertainers earn a lot of money, at least for a time. But they enrich our society in ways that can go far beyond wins and losses, hit recordings and sold-out arenas.

Sometimes, the right play in the big game or the right note in the big concert stops people living besieged lives from slipping into darkness.

Sometimes, the athletes and entertainers, Dr. J to Patti LaBelle, fix us up, make things right again, if only for a thrilling moment.

If only we could find the words to tell our stars how much they can mean to us. If only they knew.

Daily Dose: 12/8/17 John Lewis will not attend civil rights museum opening

What’s up, gang? The week’s finally coming to an end, and it’s been a doozy on the news front. This is going to be a serious weekend of self-care for quite a few of us. Also, it’s snowing across a lot of America, so that’s fun too.

I used to work in local news. It’s a cutthroat business that involves sometimes covering the most mundane of topics that just might interest a small pocket of people. But there are some staples in the industry that never change. Car accidents, store openings and, of course, house fires. That’s where we catch up with Rhoda Young. She’s apparently a citizen reporter in Norfolk, Virginia. And when she came upon one such blaze, she covered it the way she knows how. This is genuinely the best fire coverage you’re going to see all year.

So, not only is Roy Moore allegedly a sexual miscreant, he’s also apparently a racist. The guy running for Senate in Alabama has had numerous women go public with the fact that he tried to or did date them when he was an adult and they were in high school. He was banned from a local shopping mall back in the day for this. His campaign has been a pretty slimy one, and now it’s come to light that he’s got some pretty wild views on slavery. Views like, America was better when we had it.

John Lewis is not here for the nonsense. The civil rights icon and Georgia congressman is not planning on attending the opening of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi, because President Donald Trump will be there. I can’t imagine how Lewis feels about this in his heart of hearts. He worked his whole life to make sure that black folks have had the same rights as the rest of America, and here comes this guy trying to swoop in late — in Jackson, of all places. That’s got to hurt.

Shohei Ohtani is yet to set foot in a big-league batter’s box, but his presence is already making waves around the majors. If you don’t know who he is, he’s a two-way guy who some scouts think could both pitch and play the field if any franchise would let him. That’s unlikely, as the novelty of said deal would probably not be worth the risk from an injury/wear-and-tear standpoint, but it still could prove to be an interesting situation. Anyway, the negotiations for his bidding have been hotly intense, and MLB is definitely watching closely.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve never been to Boston. Not because I’ve avoided it for any particular reason, but I’m also in no rush to go. Haven’t ever really heard anything good about it, whatsoever, particularly when it comes to black folks. Now, the Boston Globe is taking a look at racism in the city.

Snack Time: If you ever find yourself in a situation with an armed robber and you could keep your composure the way this dude working at Walgreens did, then more power to you. Icy.

Dessert: Need new music? Big Sean and Metro Boomin got you covered.

Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

Full Track

Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”


Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”


Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.


Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”


Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”


As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.

Daily Dose: 12/7/17 Finally, justice in the killing of an unarmed black person

What’s up, kiddos. We’re just a couple of weeks from the big day if you celebrate Christmas, which means that you’re getting down to the wire if gifts are of importance to you. Check out this site for the baseball fan in your life.

Michael Slager is going to prison, which in itself is news. The former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black motorist back in 2015 will serve 20 years in prison, which is incredible. Why? Because typically when this happens, the officer goes free, if charges are even brought. In some cases, the officer doesn’t even get fired and in the worst case, the officer even gets the matter scrubbed from his or her record. But, Slager was convicted and a video of the matter from a bystander definitely played a huge part. Justice.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has resigned. The comedian-turned-politician who’s been accused of sexual misconduct by various women stood before Congress today and offered a speech that didn’t feel particularly apologetic. He basically said that every woman who came forward was lying and the only reason he was stepping down is because his reputation has been ruined and thus he could no longer be an effective lawmaker. Dudes gonna dude, I guess. He definitely made sure to mention President Donald Trump and Senate hopeful Roy Moore on the way out, though.

Every year, Sports Illustrated puts out a swimsuit issue. Its existence has been the source of much controversy over the years, mainly over the concept of its existence at all. But it’s also been the launching pad for quite a few models who have gone on to superstardom. Tyra Banks is one who comes to mind. But in general, we don’t always see a whole ton of women of color in those spaces. So, on a recent trip overseas, one sorority decided to do something about that. Presenting: Melanin Illustrated.

I’m not sure what LaVar Ball is doing anymore. When it came to his son Lonzo, he did his best to make him as well-known as possible, a situation that led to him being drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. But with younger sons LiAngelo and LaMelo, things have gone awry, to be very honest. Gelo got caught stealing overseas. Melo stopped going to high school. Now, he’s signed them both to an agent, with the purpose of getting them to play on the same team. I’m not sure I understand why he’s so obsessed with this notion.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Ummm … apparently the United States is borderline considering not playing in the next Winter Games, for reasons that are loosely valid, politically. It feels extra weird that the White House would imply that we won’t play, considering what just happened to Russia, but hopefully this doesn’t come to fruition.

Snack Time: This NBA 2K eSports League is going to be awesome. Especially now that teams are unveiling their own facilities to field squads. The Sacramento Kings are the latest to join the bunch.

Dessert: Roland Martin’s TV One morning show was canceled. Definite bummer.

Sim Life with ‘NBA LIVE 18’: How will the Cavaliers look vs. the Celtics and Warriors when Isaiah Thomas returns? The game before the game … It’s a split decision for the LeBron James gang with IT in the lineup

LeBron James says he’s already visualized how Isaiah Thomas will fit in with the Cleveland Cavaliers when he returns from injury by playing video games. Since we’re all about that Sim Life, let’s do King James one better and see how Cleveland does against Golden State and Boston with all rosters injury-free (except for Gordon Hayward, since he is expected to miss the rest of the season). Of course, we’re turning to our good friends at EA Sports to let NBA LIVE 18 give us the answers. Let the fun begin.

CAVS AT WARRIORS (Dec. 25, 3 P.M. EST, ABC)

You can never count out the heart of a champion. Despite trailing for most of the game, the Warriors rallied from 12 down to force overtime and Stephen Curry hit the game-winning bucket over Thomas as Golden State took the Finals rematch, 106-105.

Thomas’ impact was felt more on defense, as he helped hold Curry to 9-of-24 shooting, but the Baby-faced Assassin got the W.

Box score

Kevin Durant led the Dubs with 29.

LeBron was so icy, but not in a good way.

Kevin Love did his best to have the King’s back.

CAVS AT CELTICS (JAN. 3, 8 P.M. EST, ESPN)

Kyrie Irving’s new squad fell to the James gang by three in the first meeting this season, so let’s see how this one goes when Thomas is added to the mix.

LeBron set the tone early and often, activating “Freight Train James” mode in scoring a team-high 30 points in the first half. Tristan Thompson came up big in the end, as his dunk with 11.7 seconds left allowed the Cavs to take it 104-102.

Kyrie had a chance to play hero but failed to hit the game winner.

LeBron scored 18 of his 30 in the first half.

Thomas looked right at home in his return to the Garden, hitting four 3s.

Box score

This is what happens when a black cop calls out racism in her own department

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

Black and Blue: Meet San Francisco PD’s Lt. Yulanda Williams

On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.

Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.

Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.

Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.

“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.

As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.

“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.

“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”

No more than a toehold

San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.

Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.

Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.

This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.

Williams speaks with a young man who approached her on the streets of San Francisco.

After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.

“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.

The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.

Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.

Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.

On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.

Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.

Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.

Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.

A horrifying exchange

“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.

Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.

The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?

To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.

His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

Blurred lines

When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.

The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.

Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.

In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”

The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.

“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”

The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.

But its primary function is to defend cops.

From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”

“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”

But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.

Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.

The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.

“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.

“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”

Worried about her safety

The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.

“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”

She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.

“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”

As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.

In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.

In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.

“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”

In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.

But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.

After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”

On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.

Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.

A new lieutenant at last

On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.

Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.

“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.

People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.

“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.

“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”

Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.

There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.