The high-flying and unpredictable NBA Rising Stars Challenge in 5 storylines Lonzo Ball, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Smith — Team USA is loaded, but can ‘The Process’ lead Team World to glory?

The NBA Rising Stars Challenge game will certainly deliver swag, poster dunks, a barrage of 3-pointers and bucket after bucket from tipoff to the buzzer. But there are a lot of, shall we say, side narratives as well. For example: Apparently, the impact of an NBA All-Star Game snub can travel across the entire globe, even into the highest levels of government.

Despite a prolific rookie season, and a slew of injured All-Stars who needed replacements, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons won’t be playing on the biggest Sunday of the NBA calendar. The 6-foot-10 Australian phenom didn’t receive a call from commissioner Adam Silver when DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles, or when John Wall announced knee surgery, or when Kevin Love broke his hand, or when Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL. Instead, Paul George, Andre Drummond, Goran Dragic and Kemba Walker all got the nod as ringers.

One of Simmons’ countrymen decided to use the floor of the Australian Parliament to express his feelings.

“I rise today to express my outrage at the exclusion of Australian Ben Simmons from this year’s NBA All-Star Game,” said Tim Watts, a member of the Australian House of Representatives. “In a record-breaking rookie year for the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben is currently averaging nearly 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game. He’s already had five triple-doubles, and, frankly, no one with two brain cells to rub together would want Goran Dragic on their team.” Watts’ remarks went viral, and Simmons commented, “The man has spoken [insert crying emoji],” on a video of the speech posted on Instagram.

Simmons will make the trip to Los Angeles, though, where he’ll put on for Australia in the annual Rising Stars Challenge. Per tradition, only first- and second-year players are eligible to compete, and for the fourth straight year, the game features a matchup between Team USA and Team World. With the best American players in the NBA squaring off against the league’s top talent with international roots, Simmons will rep his Aussie set as one of the leaders of Team World, along with the Cameroon-born Joel Embiid, his Philly teammate and an All-Star starter.

Although Team World claimed a 150-141 win in last year’s game, Team USA enters the 2018 contest with an absolutely loaded roster that includes a trio of Los Angeles Lakers in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, a pair of Boston Celtics in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as well as Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks. Compared with Sunday’s All-Star Game, Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge presents a smaller — albeit almost equally high-flying, ankle-breaking and star-showcasing — spectacle that previews the leaders of the new school in the NBA. Here are five things to watch from the league’s future stars.


TEAM WORLD

  • Bogdan Bogdanovic, G, Sacramento Kings
  • Dillon Brooks, G/F, Memphis Grizzlies
  • Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Buddy Hield, G, Sacramento Kings
  • Lauri Markkanen, F, Chicago Bulls
  • Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets
  • Frank Ntilikina, G, New York Knicks
  • Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers
  • Dario Saric, F, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers

TEAM USA

  • Lonzo Ball, G, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Malcolm Brogdon, G, Milwaukee Bucks*
  • Jaylen Brown, G/F, Boston Celtics
  • John Collins, F/C, Atlanta Hawks
  • Kris Dunn, G, Chicago Bulls
  • Brandon Ingram, F, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Kyle Kuzma, F, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz
  • Dennis Smith Jr., G, Dallas Mavericks
  • Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
  • Taurean Prince, F, Atlanta Hawks

*Injured, will not play in game

 

When in doubt, ‘Trust the Process’

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The game plan for Team World is simple: “Trust the Process.” That’s the creed of the young-and-promising Philadelphia 76ers, who will likely make a playoff appearance for the first time since 2012. “The Process” is also the nickname of Philly’s 7-foot franchise center Embiid, who will start in both the Rising Stars Challenge and his first career All-Star Game. Embiid will be joined on Team World by Simmons and Croatia’s Dario Saric, the runner-up for 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year. In last year’s challenge, Saric recorded 17 points, five rebounds and four assists as a starter for Team World. Expect the entire Sixers trio, who all stand 6-foot-10 or above, to both start and get buckets. That’s a feared three-man offense right there.

Will Lonzo Ball play?

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s been a busy few weeks for the new-wave first family of basketball, also known as the Balls of Chino Hills, California. LaVar Ball has been frequenting sidelines overseas while coaching his two youngest sons — LiAngelo, 19, and LaMelo, 16 — who have both been straight-up ballin’ (all puns intended) in their first year of professional basketball in Lithuania. Meanwhile, Lonzo, the 2017 No. 2 overall pick of his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, is reportedly expecting a child with his longtime girlfriend, Denise Garcia, and trying to make it back onto the court after suffering a left knee sprain on Jan. 13. “I didn’t think it was going to be this serious, to be honest …,” Ball said on Feb. 7. “I thought it was going to be dealt with quicker.” The injury might cost him an appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge, which will be played on his home court at the Staples Center. Fingers crossed he can suit up. The people need Lonzo Ball on the hardwood and LaVar Ball courtside.

The dunk contest before the dunk contest

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Two out of the four contestants who make up the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest will get to warm up their bounce in the Rising Stars Challenge. They’re both rookies and both members of Team USA: Mavericks point guard Smith and Jazz shooting guard Mitchell, who was a late call-up to the dunk competition as a replacement for injured Orlando Magic big man Aaron Gordon. Smith has wild leaping ability and crazy in-air flair, while Mitchell plays at a height above his defenders, frequently breaking out his patented tomahawk jams. This is another reason that Ball needs to play in this game. Lonzo + Donovan + Dennis = endless lob possibilities. We’d be looking up all night long.

Can Jamal Murray do it again?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If Jamal Murray shows up, balls out and is named the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge for the second straight year, Drake has to consider remixing his timeless 2015 diss track “Back to Back” to pay homage to his fellow Canadian. That line from the record in which he spits, Back to back like I’m Jordan, ’96, ’97? How about Back to back like I’m Murray, ’17, ’18? In last year’s game, the Nuggets guard dropped game highs in both points (36) and assists (11). He also shot a whopping 9-for-14 from 3-point land. Oh, yeah, and he did it all after coming off the bench. C’mon, Team World, let the man start this year so he can really eat!

Throwback threads

Both Team USA and Team World will take the court at the Staples Center in vintage get-ups honoring the history of the city’s two NBA franchises. Team USA will rock powder blue and gold uniforms, inspired by the 1940s-’50s Minneapolis Lakers, while Team World will break out an orange-and-black ensemble as a tribute to the Buffalo Braves (now known as the Los Angeles Clippers) of the 1970s. Which is the fresher look? That’s for you to decide. Which squad will emerge from the challenge victorious? On paper, it’s hard to bet against Team USA. But in an All-Star Game, even at the Rising Stars level, you never really know.

On the fifth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city,’ California athletes reflect on the epic ‘Sing About Me’ DeMar DeRozan, Chiney Ogwumike and Arron Afflalo remain emotional about Lamar’s most powerful song

I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo / He was the one to follow.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Black Boy Fly”

Now in his second stint with the Orlando Magic, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, recently of the Sacramento Kings, was one of the key pieces in a 2012 offseason blockbuster: then-superstar center Dwight Howard’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Five years ago, Affalo’s name wasn’t only ringing off in the city internationally known as the home of Walt Disney World — it was also popping off in his hometown of Compton, California.

On Oct. 22, 2012, Afflalo’s fellow Compton native, Kendrick Lamar, had released his much-anticipated second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope). Among big hits songs like “B— Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Poetic Justice” (featuring Drake), “Black Boy Fly” was a bonus record — an homage to hometown heroes whose talents survived the streets of South Central Los Angeles: He was the only leader foreseeing brighter tomorrows / He would live in the gym / We was living in sorrow. Lamar rapped these lyrics, remembering the days when Afflalo was the star of their Centennial High School basketball squad: Total envy of him, he made his dream become a reality/ Actually making it possible to swim/ His way up outta Compton/ With further to accomplish.

Caption: Fan-made video of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Boy Fly.”

Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.

DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors looks on during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 7, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination with The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”

The album’s standout track is an epic bit of storytelling called “Sing About Me. I’m Dying of Thirst.” The song was produced in 2011 by the three-time Grammy-nominated Gabriel “Like” Stevenson of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop trio Pac Div while on Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park tour. “He hit me back in a couple hours like, this is crazy,” Like recalled Kendrick’s text message after hearing his beat. “I’m writing to it right now in a room with lit candles. I’m like, word, that’s tight,” he said, laughing.

An appropriate setting given the haunting chorus: When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down/ My main concern/ Promise that you will sing about me/ Promise that you will sing about me. The overall narrative of the song is all too familiar to Lamar, Afflalo and DeRozan. The three verses emerge from three different perspectives. The rage inflicted on black bodies unite them. The tales of gun violence, societal ignorance of women’s pain, and survivor’s remorse are common in the United States and around the world.

Arron Afflalo #4 of the Orlando Magic handles the ball during a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 9, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

“[Kendrick and I] grew up in the same environment,” Afflalo says. “I didn’t really get a sense of nobody else seeing big things in their life the way I did. It’s fulfilling to know there was another young kid, at the same school, that had the same types of dreams. If not bigger.” Those dreams, though, were cultivated through nightmares.

Dumb n—-s like me never prosper/ Prognosis of a problem child, I’m proud and well-devoted/ This Piru s— been in me forever/ So forever I’ma push it wherever, whenever/ And I love you ’cause you love my brother like you did/ Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/ And if I die before your album drop, I hope… **gunshots**

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

“‘[Sing About Me]’ is the song version of an epic movie,” said Chiney Ogwumike, a rising ESPN broadcaster and forward on the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year is a native of suburban Houston. She was a star sophomore at Stanford University — 200 miles north of Compton — when good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped five Octobers ago.

And she’s right. In many ways, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a remix of Tre Styles’ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) viewpoint in 1991’s landmark Boyz N The Hood—a young black male who grew up in the ‘hood and witnessed its daily joys, pains and fears from the frontline. It’s a comparison Lamar embraced on the song’s second half “Dying of Thirst.” Whereas YG’s 2014’s seminal debut My Krazy Life pinpoints the revolving door of gangbanging and street life seen through Doughboy (Ice Cube).

“The whole purpose … is to describe that lost child that you don’t hear about,” said Ogwumike, focusing on the song’s first verse. Featuring a conversation between Lamar and “a friend” (voiced also by Lamar), following the murder of the friend’s brother, the moment recalls the legendary Either they don’t know Tre and Doughboy conversation following Ricky’s death in Boyz. Twenty years year, Lamar’s friend reasons in the song, America still didn’t know didn’t show or didn’t care what happened in his ‘hood and to his brother.

“It’s crazy, because you never notice it until you’re on the outside, when you’re able to look back at it,”said DeRozan. “I went to a Crip high school [Compton High]. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I talk just like him. I walk just like him. I do this just like him. It’s instilled in you, and you follow those rules in a sense of what comes with it. It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t make it out.”

“But now,” Ogwumike said, “you do hear about this child. Now … because of these protests.”

DeRozan said a lot of people should just sit down and dissect “Sing About Me.” “They should understand what he’s talking about. This is an everyday thing! It’s still going on all over the world. There’s all types of inner cities.”

Instagram Photo

The verse is deeper than rap. It’s what Keisha Ross of the Missouri Psychological Association describes as historical trauma. Life in the ghetto is traumatizing. I’m fortunate you believe in a dream, Kendrick raps from the perspective of his slain friend. This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine. Anger, hatred and aggression, she said, are both self-inflicted and inflicted on members of one’s own group. “A lot of people know Kendrick Lamar for who I am today,” he said in 2013. “[But] for me to think the way I do, I had to come from a dark space.”

“I think of people I grew up with, that love basketball and love music in my community,” said Ogwumike. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like not a lot of people understand this day-to-day. A lot of hoopers come from certain situations where they are — or they know people that have been — affected by violence. It’s ingrained within sports culture. It’s a humbling reminder that you have to play every possession with a purpose. You gotta live your life with a purpose overall because you want people to sing about you when you’re gone.”

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system / These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ’em / See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ’em / Back to where they used to be, then I’ll probably be in the denim / Or a family gene that show women how to be woman / Or better yet, a leader, you need her to learn something / Then you probably need to beat her.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

If the first verse is an example of the suddenness of the loss of black life as it relates to men, the second leans into the harrowing experience of how black women are expunged from society. While it’s tempting to think of it as a 2017 version of Tupac Shakur’s 1991 “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” the verse is actually a continuation of the cautionary tale “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” found on Lamar’s “final warm-up,” 2011’s Section.80. In it, Keisha is a prostitute who is raped and murdered. In “Sing About Me,” her sister (voiced by Lamar) responds, furious that Lamar would use her life for gain. This, too, is based on real life.

“I met her … and she went at me about her sister, Keisha,” Lamar told MTV days after the album’s release, “basically saying she didn’t want her … business out there and if your album do come out, don’t mention me, don’t sing about me.” Keisha’s sister falls down the same path. How could you ever just put her on blast and s—?/ Judging her past and s—?, he raps, Well, it’s completely my future / Her n—a behind me right now asking for a– and s— / And I’ma need that $40 / Even if I gotta f—, suck and swallow.

She doesn’t die in a hail of gunfire. And with beings such as Shaniya Davis, Sandra Bland and the 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as tragic contemporaries, Keisha’s sister, her voice, her pain and the resentment for the only society she knows just fades away. Almost as if she was never here.

Chiney Ogwumike #13 of the Connecticut Sun prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Lynx during a WNBA game on September 4, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

“When you have a man who uses his platform to show how women are independent, but then also face even more adversity than their brothers — it’s everything,” Ogwumike said with a sigh. “That was superpowerful to me, about how she’s trying to make a way for herself in any way possible. But that way may end up being her demise. It needs to be told. It needs to be destigmatized.”

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me / And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me / In a direction to speak on something / That’s realer than the TV screen / By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between/ Her personal life, I was like ‘It need to be told’/ Cursing the life of 20 generations after her soul/ Exactly what would happen if I ain’t continue rappin’/ Or steady being distracted by money, drugs and four-fives …

Kendrick Lamar and DeMar DeRozan are friends. They’re both from Compton. Their high schools are separated by three miles. What links the two creatives isn’t recognizable off the rip — both suffer from survivor’s remorse.

For Lamar, stories of those who never escaped Compton are spirits tattooed on his soul as his career continues to ascend, as his all-time great portfolio has fans including former president Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Compton’s own Serena Williams, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dave Chappelle. These tattooed spirits will never see the birth of the “new Compton” led by Mayor Aja Brown. Why did they have to die while I live? How could God let this happen Did they suffer?

For DeRozan, a three-time All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, success does little to erase the pain of the past. In many ways, it only intensifies. “It’s something I deal with,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends that was with me when I was younger, but I took a different route … Then you get a phone call hearing something happened. You start to say, ‘Damn, if I just would’ve took them with me, or if they would’ve stayed with me, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ”

good kid, m.A.A.d city, a half-decade later, is a form of counseling for DeRozan. It’s way deeper than words over beats. It’s his life on what has become the metaphorical wax. But perhaps more than any lyric from the song, its final lines resonate more than anything as he prepares to enter his ninth season in Toronto — 2,500 miles from the place he first called home: Compton.

Am I worth it, Kendrick ponders. Did I put enough work in?

“That’s everything,” DeMar said. “You get to a point where you start questioning yourself sometimes. People don’t feel my pain, and my passion that I’m putting into it. But in the midst of questioning yourself, you find a new inspiration to keep pushing, and be even greater to get that point across.”

He pauses for a second. “I take that approach in everything that I do.”

Are we entering the end times for the NFL? Professional basketball offers the NFL a blueprint for success: embrace the black culture of the majority of your players

The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.

Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.

This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.


Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.

Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”

Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor. Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.” — Andrew Brandt, director, Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova

Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.

The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.

On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.

What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)

LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”

The NBA, its individual players, and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes to the basket against the Houston Rockets on October 17, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.

Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.

“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”

The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.

The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.

“The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.

The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”

Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.


The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.

“Go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds.” — Howard Bryant

An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.

But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.


The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?

The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”

There was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport.

The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.

Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.

A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.

In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.

“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”

But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.

“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”

Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.

Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”

The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.

Daily Dose: 10/3/17 Atlanta moves to decriminalize marijuana

One day, I’ll get a second win on Around The Horn. Until then, I’ll just keep showing up and giving your mom something to talk about with her friends.

We’ll be talking about what happened Sunday in Las Vegas for a long time. Not just because it was a mass shooting, but because it happened at a country music concert. Because it was in such a high-profile location and because of the number of victims, it will be the subject of scrutiny for some time. As it turns out, the guy who shot all those people had upward of 20 guns in his hotel room, which is scary. Obviously, that’s caught the eye of gun reform advocates. Here’s everything we know so far about the situation.

It’s about to be lit in Atlanta. Not unlike Washington, D.C., the City Council recently voted to decriminalize marijuana. What does this do? A couple of things. No. 1, it frees police officers up from spending all sorts of time busting kids for smoking weed when they can be doing more important police work. Secondly, it doesn’t unnecessarily saddle young people with criminal records for doing something that is ultimately just a leisure activity. It’s a smart move and a good one.

Do you know Rupi Kaur? You might remember her work from a famous image in which she was shown lying on her side, bleeding from between her legs, as evidenced by the stain on her sweatpants. It was a pretty controversial work of art that was removed from a couple of different social media sites. She’s got a new book out called Milk and Honey that promises to be a great work that synthesizes modern sensibilities with the relatively dated job of being a professional poet. Might be time to get your holiday gift guides together.

The baseball playoffs start today. I, for one, am extremely excited about this, for obvious reasons. Reasons 1-19 include: I love baseball. The New York Yankees and the Minnesota Twins play in Yankee Stadium in the wild-card game, which should be an exciting one. Of course, the matchup will feature one Aaron Judge, who simultaneously should be the Rookie of the Year and the MVP of the American League, but that’s a whole other story. For right now, I’ll just point out that he now has the best-selling rookie jersey of all time.

Free Food

Coffee Break: SLAM magazine’s new issue is out, and besides the fact that it has my buddy Shea Serrano’s name on the front, it’s also one of those covers that looks like it could be eventually be super iconic in NBA history. Just look at these names. Anyways, check out the rookies answering rapid-fire questions.

Snack Time: We need to talk about Travis Kelce. We all know how well he can dance, and his dating life has been the subject of much scrutiny. But check him out last night on Monday Night Football. His teammates are the best.

Dessert: In case you were wondering what Kyrie Irving had on his feet for his Celtics debut.

 

Jon Jones tested positive for drugs (again) and other news of the week The Week That Was Aug. 21-25

Monday 08.21.17

The Secret Service has already run out of money to protect President Donald Trump and his family. While the University of Texas removed four Confederate statues from its Austin campus, a dissenting protester claimed that “white supremacy is over because of Obama, pro athletes and Jay-Z.” Comedian Bill Cosby, like a job announcement, tweeted that he is “pleased to announce his new legal team for his criminal retrial.” @daM00N_ blocked the @sun. R&B singer Chris Brown solved racism through the gift of dance. Trump stared directly at the sun. Wile E. Coyote A Texas man was charged with attempting to blow up a Confederate statue. Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, called an Instagram user “adorably out of touch” after the user criticized Linton for posting a photo of her expensive wardrobe while disembarking a U.S. military jet. A Florida man involved in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two weeks ago and who once killed a goat and drank its blood is running for U.S. Senate. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who once referred to nonwhite people as “sub-groups,” posted a photo of a solar eclipse with a superimposed photo of Harambe, who was born in Texas, because King was in Tanzania at the time. Former Trump campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, surprisingly not a member of the current administration, said slavery is “good history.” Boxing legend George Foreman, who voiced support for Hulk Hogan the same day a tape in which the wrestler called a black man a “n—–” was leaked, called LeBron James and Kevin Durant “sore losers” for refusing to visit the White House.

Tuesday 08.22.17

Country musician Kid Rock, while singing a song with the lyrics And I will vow to the shining seas/And celebrate God’s Grace on me, yelled, “F— Colin Kaepernick” to an Iowa State Fair crowd. A former Ku Klux Klan member once indicted by a federal grand jury for threatening to kill Coretta Scott King is taking a temporary leave of absence as a Roman Catholic priest. Ben Carson, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, doesn’t understand how lead-paint reduction works. UFC champion Jon Jones was popped for reportedly using an anabolic steroid one month after tweeting, “Daniel [Cormier] says the only reason I defeated him the first time is because I must have been on steroids, wonder what his excuse will be this time.” Proving definitively that you can’t fix stupid, physicians across the country treated “sprains, strains, lacerations,” fractures and eye damage after Monday’s solar eclipse. The Girl Scouts of the USA and Boy Scouts of America are beefing. The organizer of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville is back from self-exile, telling all the “Commies, conspiracy wackos & nazi optics cucks” to “pucker up.” Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-North Carolina) said the Black Lives Matter movement is “just as engaged in hate” as white supremacist groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis. Despite military drafts being banned in 1973, an Ohio Supreme Court Justice called members of the Cleveland Browns who kneeled for the national anthem “draft dodging millionaire athletes.”

Wednesday 08.23.17

An anonymous NFL executive said quarterbacks “Tom Brady or Philip Rivers would never consider making a stand … while they’re at work” like Kaepernick; Brady once prominently displayed a Make America Great Again hat in his locker. After 18 piglets were saved from a barn fire in England earlier this year, the farmer who owned the litter served them up as sausage to the rescuing firefighters. Less than 12 hours after agreeing to not publicly feud with Arizona’s two senators, Trump tweeted, “I love the Great State of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!” Jon Jones, a white New York game developer and not the black MMA fighter, was inundated with Twitter messages after the announcement of the other Jones’ failed drug test, with one user writing, “Oh s— u just a white dude my bad nig lmao.” A 77-year-old Pennsylvania woman with a hearing impairment was severely beaten by her daughter and granddaughter because the volume of the Pittsburgh Steelers game she was listening to was too high. Disproving the theory that teenagers don’t follow the news, six students at a private Atlanta school were suspended or expelled for playing a drinking game called “Jews vs. Nazis.” Joanie Loves Chachi actor Scott Baio, stretching the definition of “successful,” responded to criticism of Trump by stating, “I don’t give a s— if I ever work again. … I guess I’m just an old, angry, successful white guy who stole everything he has from someone else.” Even the United Nations, which famously played the “my name is Bennett” routine during the Rwandan genocide, is “alarmed by the racist demonstrations” in the U.S.

Thursday 08.24.17

Floyd Mayweather plans to visit the Las Vegas strip club he owns every night before his fight on Saturday. A Twitter user whom Trump retweeted in the morning once posted, “We have enough Jews where I live.” A South Carolina man, seconds after pleading that Confederate statues are not a “symbol of racism,” called a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. “Martin Luther Coon.” The Baltimore Ravens played themselves. A year after Trump tweeted, “Mexico will pay for the wall!” the White House can’t confirm whether Mexico will indeed pay for the wall. Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who got into a fight at a nightclub in 2016, said teams don’t want to sign Kaepernick because of the “chaos that comes along with it.” More baseball players don’t know how to properly scrap. A 21-year-old New York man was arrested after having his driver’s license suspended 81 times. San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, still old, has decided to continue playing basketball. In the ongoing war against Skynet, Apple’s latest phones will use facial recognition to unlock the device. Famed director James “Draw Me Like One of Your French Girls” Cameron said blockbuster film Wonder Woman was “a step backwards” for lead female characters. Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP, said he would still drink actress Scarlett Johansson’s bathwater. The St. Louis Cardinals are feuding with a nonprofit over a stray cat.

Friday 08.25.17

A Washington, D.C.-based agriculture lawyer says Department of Agriculture chief scientist nominee Sam Clovis has “iron testicles.” Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who once said paying college players would make him “do something else, because there’s enough entitlement in this world as it is,” will now make $7.5 million this season. Another team that will not sign Kaepernick said it would “absolutely” sign Kaepernick. UPS’s stock suddenly dropped 500 percent. San Francisco residents, including one named Tuffy Tuffington, plan to leave dog poop in a local park ahead of a planned right-wing rally in the same park. For dangerous investigative work that will surely win it a Pulitzer Prize, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ate at Arby’s. Hall of Fame football player Jim Brown, accused multiple times of domestic abuse, said, “I’m not gonna do anything against the flag and national anthem.” Metta World Peace is back playing basketball … for Master P.

Jay-Z supports Big Baller Brand and says he bought three pairs of the sneakers

“I f— with the vision, fam. Let’s build.”

You know the meme, you know the sentiment and you know you’ve heard it once or twice in your life when you didn’t want to. But LaVar Ball — founder of Big Baller Brand and father of Lonzo Ball, the Los Angeles Lakers’ No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft — never got that co-sign from anyone. At least, not until last weekend.

Jay-Z, onetime leader of Roc-A-Fella Records who is now a stay-at-home dad, co-signed the CEO from Chino Hills, California, during a wide-ranging interview with Rap Radar’s Elliot Wilson for Tidal. (Disclosure: Wilson is married to Danyel Smith, culture lead here at The Undefeated.)

With the waves of Malibu Beach crashing in the background, Wilson, Brian “B.Dot” Miller and Shawn Carter sat down to discuss 4:44 the album, a seminal work for Jay-Z. He talks at length about what he learned about his creative process, the experience of making the “Footnotes” series in which he discussed various portions of the project with other celebrities, and how he decided to market the release overall. It’s regular-season from Wilson, this time with a bigger star than usual.

Then, the convo turned to Ball.

“LaVar Ball, he said, ‘I’m going to start my own company.’ Everybody’s like, ‘You’re just mad at Nike.’ He may go about things wrong, he may have a big mouth. But I bought three pairs. Why did I buy three pairs? That man has a vision of his own. Why wouldn’t I support him? Why wouldn’t I support him? He feels like he can move culture, and his son got a big enough name, and a big enough brand, that they can do it.”

That’s right, Jay-Z is a fan of Ball’s sneaker company. While he doesn’t exactly represent the youth market that Ball usually operates in, it’s still a big co-sign. Jay-Z might be the uncle at the cookout, but that’s exactly who these shoes are for. Or, big ballers, for lack of a better term, of which Jay-Z certainly is one.

Perhaps more important, though, is the notion of legitimacy that Jay-Z addresses regarding how Ball was initially received in his venture. For whatever reason, a lot of the refrain around BBB’s kicks was related to the basics of whether he could even put together a proper shoe. As if Nike is the first to make sneakers that could stand the test of a basketball game.

It seemed like such a strange critique. Did people really believe that because LaVar was a dude they’d never heard of that he couldn’t be resourceful enough to make shoes? It’s not like you have to be from Wakanda to find the materials to construct sneakers. How do you think Nike is making so much money? It sure as heck isn’t on production costs.

“Nike had to start somewhere,” Jay-Z continued. “Why do we get so upset when we, us as a culture, want to start our own s—? That s— is puzzling to me. I sit back like, and I’m like, ‘This makes no sense.’ ” There are obvious parallels to Stephon Marbury’s situation, when he released his sneakers and was widely mocked, even though they sold well.

But then, whether inadvertently or not, Jay-Z brings up a topic that’s both hilarious and fascinating. “They [aren’t] any more terrible than … I’ve seen some bad sneakers from Under Armour,” he said. “I’ve seen some bad Michael Jordan sneakers. Horrible.”

No. 1, Carter himself has some pretty awful sneakers. They sold well enough but were not a smash hit by any measure, and you certainly don’t see anyone outside of the biggest of fans rocking them these days. But that leads me to the next natural thought: What if this co-sign had come earlier? Or what if he’d even been involved himself?

We’d likely be far less critical of Ball as a businessman than we would have Jay-Z. After all, if you’re already rich, it makes sense to charge high prices for your clothes, right? Even if Ball’s shoes weren’t a hit, to think that his point was made and resonated as far as someone like Jay-Z, who actually went as far as to buy multiple pairs, is important.

It means that he’s caught the eye of his market, and succeeded. Or in other words, LaVar wins.

Russell Westbrook leads NBPA Players Voice Awards Oklahoma City guard captures three awards, including best dressed

Russell Westbrook got a dap of appreciation from his NBA peers on Friday.

The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and reigning NBA MVP earned three trophies in the annual National Basketball Players Association Players Voice Awards on Friday: “Most Valuable Player,” “Hardest to Guard” and, no surprise here, “Best Dressed.”

It has been a banner year for Brodie, the fearless fashion maverick who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated‘s “Fashionable 50” in June. Westbrook has become as famous for his daring off-the-court style choices as his jaw-dropping on-court athleticism. Unlike many of the NBA’s taller players, the former UCLA Bruin has used his relatively small frame (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) to wear off-the-rack clothing that is at times adventurous, trendsetting or just plain weird.

Over the years, Westbrook’s high-concept style has even coined a phrase: “Westbrookian.” Ever see an NBA star wearing skinny jeans with an oversized ripped-to-shreds T-shirt before a game? Or colorful sunglasses to a news conference, or bleached denim or capri-length pants with slide sandals? That’s all No. 0. And while other athletes have dared to wear harem pants or a full-length fur coat, only Westbrook can really make it look effortless.

Billed as “the only awards voted on BY the players, FOR the players,” the annual Players Voice Awards are voted on at the end of the regular season.

The winners were announced Friday morning on the NBPA’s Twitter feed in a series of short videos. Hosted by former Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh, the lively clips were tweeted out every five minutes for nearly an hour, with the award categories getting breezy explanatory assists from an All-Star roster of the league’s biggest players.

“The Player You Secretly Wish Was on Your Team” was awarded to LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers captain who also nabbed “Global Impact Player.”

Other awards went to:

  • “Best Rookie” – Malcolm Brogdon, the former Virginia shooting guard who had a standout year with the Milwaukee Bucks.
  • “Best Defender” – Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs forward and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
  • “Most Influential Veteran” – Vince Carter, the 40-year-old shooting guard currently signed with the Sacramento Kings, giving credence to his long-standing “half-man, half amazing” legend within pop culture.
  • “Comeback Player of the Year” and “Best Social Media Follow” – Joel Embiid, the Rihanna-loving, Lavar Ball-hating All-Star and Philadelphia 76ers center.
  • “Clutch Performer” – Isaiah Thomas, who led the Boston Celtics in the postseason despite personal tragedy.
  • “Best Home Court Advantage” – Golden State Warriors and the spirited fans who attend Dubs home games in Oracle Arena.
  • “Best off the Bench” – Lou Williams, the shooting guard who was traded last year from the Houston Rockets to the L.A. Clippers as part of the Chris Paul deal.
  • “Coach You Most Like to Play For” – San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has won this award three years in a row.

The decision to announce award winners via Twitter came from “not wanting to interrupt the NBA’s Awards,” which was televised in June, said Jordan Schlachter, president of National Basketball Players Inc. “We also didn’t want to get caught up in the busy news of free agency, so we pushed it to August.”

Schlachter noted that this year’s winners will receive trophies early in the 2017-18 NBA season during halftime ceremonies at home games around the league.