Simeon Booker’s life and legacy cannot be overstated ‘Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker’

The life of Simeon Booker was celebrated Monday at Washington National Cathedral, a beautiful memorial service for an extraordinary journalist. Mr. Booker — and I feel compelled to call him mister — was a capital pioneer, admired by everyone who knew that he played a role in helping to better this nation.

In 1952, he became the first black reporter to work at The Washington Post. “He integrated a whole industry,” said Don Graham, former publisher of the Post whose dad, Philip, was the only white newspaper leader in America who would give Mr. Booker a chance. But that was just one milestone. Simeon Booker went on to brilliantly chronicle the civil rights movement as a reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines, covering protests and murders and otherwise bringing bright light to the struggle for freedom and equality. He smoked Kent cigarettes and wore bow ties. He became famous for his reporting on Emmett Till’s 1955 murder and trial, and it was Mr. Booker’s Jet that published the provocative photos of the 14-year-old’s mutilated body in an open casket.

Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker. Thank him as an exemplar of the brave black journalists who confronted danger and evaded it while unearthing essential stories in the segregated Deep South of the 1950s and ’60s. A bunch of us came to the National Cathedral just to be there for him, to salute what he meant and to hug each other. Jeff Ballou, Bryan Monroe, Mike Fletcher, Wes Lowery, Courtland Milloy, Paul Delaney, Sarah Glover, Betty Anne Williams, Fred Sweets, Bernie Shaw, Reggie Stuart. Just to name a few. We all owe him something.

Congressman John Lewis, who knows too much about danger, said of Mr. Booker at the memorial service: “He never shied away, ran away from a story.” Lewis saw him during the 1961 Freedom Rides. Saw him in Selma, Alabama. Saw him everywhere. “He did the hard, necessary work to get the story,” Lewis said, noting that without Simeon Booker “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

Back in Mr. Booker’s heyday, Lewis noted, black reporters could be beaten just for holding a camera and a pen. They sometimes wore disguises, dressed as sharecroppers to blend in. They were intrepid and fearless. Today, we have journalists enraged just because they were trolled on Twitter. Mr. Booker died at age 99, cheered for the magnificent life he led and the example he set. I don’t think he was worried about trolls.

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

A letter of gratitude to Stuart Scott Scott was beacon of light for the athletes he covered and the North Star for aspiring black sports reporters

“See,” my Uncle John said in the summer of 1998. He pointed toward the television in his Washington, D.C., apartment. “That’s gonna be you one day.” A fluorescent light from his fish tank dimly lit the apartment. My uncle and I were up watching Stuart Scott on SportsCenter. Scott talked about sports the way we talked about sports. Scott wasn’t just relatable. He was us. My uncle said, “I’m gonna be watching you do that.”

I loved the way Uncle John approached life. The way he interacted with people and made them feel comfortable. He never came off lame, or corny. My parents had divorced when I was 2, and John treated me like a son. This was when I had no memory of my biological father and didn’t care to know who he was.


John and I loved sports. He was a Washington fan, and I was a diehard Cowboys fan. The last conversation we ever had was about just that. We both loved Michael Jordan, Shaq and Penny, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. But SportsCenter was our drug of choice. We loved the infectiousness of Linda Cohn; same for Dan Patrick’s and Kenny Mayne’s dry humor. But our favorite combo was Rich Eisen and Stu Scott.

I played basketball as a kid, and my uncle and I decided early on that going pro wasn’t my calling. I was 9, and I purposely moved in the chair so the barber would take a plug out, forcing him to shave my head. Talk about taking “be like Mike” to the extreme — I also purposely got myself sick hoping to mimic Michael Jordan’s “flu game.” My mom was rightfully pissed. She yelled at me — and said I looked more like a light bulb than Jordan. “She’s right,” Uncle John said with a laugh. “Let’s be more like Stu than Mike. That’s our route.”

Me and my Uncle John (circa Sept. 1998).

Courtesy of Justin Tinsley

Uncle John died of colon cancer on Jan. 2, 1999. We were in what used to be known as MCV Campus Hospital at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. It’s unclear how the room was cleared of everyone except for him and me. John alternated between looking out the window and looking at me. It was as if he had prepared his entire life to deliver his own eulogy. I couldn’t talk, for fear of crying. That winter morning remains the single most important moment of my life. I felt childhood end, and adulthood arrive. John knew death waited around the corner: the cruel reality of dying at the age of 42. He seemed at peace. With life. With death. With everything. But he made me make a promise.

“I’m still going to watch you on SportsCenter one day,” he said. “Make sure you keep your promise.”


July 19, 2017, would have been Stuart Scott’s 52nd birthday. He should be here hosting SportsCenter. He should be here presenting teams with their championship trophies. He should be here making JAY-Z 4:44 references on SportsCenter, because that’s who Stuart Orlando Scott was. In the way that Marvin Gaye’s 1970 What’s Going On changed the direction of Motown, in the way Eddie Murphy altered the scope of comedy, in the way Gwen Ifill brought so much authenticity and excellence to her journalism, Stu was just that for ESPN, and for sports media, period. The way he spoke was the way so many athletes wanted and want to be spoken about: with unparalleled charisma and respect.

More importantly, he should still be here as a daily presence for his two daughters, Taelor and Sydni — although, even in death, he remains just that. He should be here congratulating Leah Still, who received the Jimmy V Perseverance Award a year after Stuart did. It’s been three years since most of us last saw Scott, who was transformed into an icon by his landmark and emotionally charged speech at the 2014 ESPYS, when he was honored for his inspiring fight against cancer.

It’s impossible to forget Stu. He brought swagger and rebelliousness to sports broadcasting — and he had more catchphrases than Ric Flair and The Rock. He came up in the same era as did cultural bibles VIBE and The Source, and in the vein of those magazines, Scott helped inject the culture, the cockiness and confidence we loved and cherished, into mainstream consciousness. It didn’t matter if America wasn’t ready for what he had to say and how he had to say it. His generation and the one following, mine, were ready to be heard. In our own voices. In our own skin. Stu did this on television, where the idea of diversity — not only in skin color, but also in train of thought — is ever more complex and necessary.

Scott died Jan. 4, 2015. The very next day I moved to Los Angeles to start my career with ESPN.

And it is absolutely impossible to forget Scott at the ESPN campuses, where his pictures remain on the walls — and even on the set of Jemele Hill and Michael Smith’s The Six, the 6 p.m. SportsCenter with deep roots in Scott’s meteoric rise and impact on the company. It’s impossible to forget about Scott at ESPN, because no one would dare.


Scott died Jan. 4, 2015. The very next day I moved to Los Angeles to start my career with ESPN. The night before I was to get on the first one-way flight of my life, my mother — the same one who told me I looked like a light bulb with a bald head — sat me down. “You may not realize it for years down the line,” she said at our kitchen table, “but this means something. You’ve looked up to this man your entire life. You’ve talked about ESPN your entire life. … It’s destiny.”

Working at The Undefeated, in the year since its launch, has been the most incredible experience of my life. My first television experience was when I went on SportsCenter to talk with Linda Cohn about O.J. Simpson. This type of stuff just doesn’t happen. These blessings are the gifts I fantasized about when watching Stu was as much a part of my routine as was brushing my teeth. I prayed for this while watching my ceiling fan twirl, while begging God for a chance to do something impactful with my life.

But if there are regrets? There’s the fact that The Undefeated never had the chance to work with Stu. There’s the fact that I never got a chance to buy him a beer, and tell him how his tweets to me after the Super Bowl in 2013 meant more than he could have ever realized. I never got the chance to chop it up with him about sports, music and his journey. Or tell him he was as important in the lives of myself and my Uncle John as Jackie Robinson was to generations before.

Or that when I had no memory of an actual biological father, nor any desire to acknowledge his existence, Scott helped to solidify my most critical bond with an older man. Had it not been for Stu being Stu that day in the summer of 1998 — and my uncle, growing more ill by the hour, pointing at his TV, predicting my life’s course and giving me a North Star — there’s no telling where I’d be right now. Not writing this, for damn sure.

‘True Blood’s’ Nelsan Ellis, dead at 39, was a unique and undeniable talent He made Lafayette Reynolds an important character rarely seen on screen

Hooker, you left way too soon.

I imagine that’s what True Blood’s Lafayette Reynolds would say about the untimely death of Nelsan Ellis, the actor who created him. Ellis, a 2004 Juilliard graduate, died of heart failure at age 39, his manager said Saturday.

On True Blood, which aired on HBO from 2008 to 2014, Ellis brought to life one of the most important depictions of queerness on television, in a series that bubbled with crazy camp improbabilities. His short-order cook who moonlighted as a drug and vampire blood dealer was enticing and bawdy, femme and butch, learned and country AF. He was open and unapologetic about his love of sex and the male form while living in the tiny fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana — the type of place where it’s not necessarily safe to be gay, or black, and certainly not both at the same time.

Nelsan Ellis portraying character, Lafayette Reynolds in the show HBO show “True Blood.”

HBO

As Lafayette, Ellis expanded the country’s collective imagination of what a queer black man could look, sound and act like, starting just months before California passed Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, and years before President Barack Obama announced an “evolution” in his thinking about gay rights. And for queer black people, he was a reflection of a truth rarely seen on screens big or small, especially after the Logo series Noah’s Arc went off the air in 2006.

“Important” often implies that something is the cultural equivalent of kale: fiber-packed, nutritious, but not exactly fun. For example, Red Tails is arguably an “important” film because it’s about the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s also … not very good.

But in Ellis’ hands, Lafayette would deliver acerbic quips with the expert raise of an eyebrow, succinctly summarizing the pitfalls of patriarchy without making your eyes glaze over. He could just as easily spread his glossed lips into a smile and flutter his fake eyelashes as he could hem up a delinquent customer in a full nelson, a quality that made him eminently GIF-able.

Lafayette existed before Dan Savage launched his It Gets Better project in 2010, a nonprofit aimed at stopping queer kids from committing suicide when their adolescent years seem interminably, hopelessly miserable. And that’s significant. Certainly, it’s important for a suicidal teen to know that life improves as you get older and get away from people and attitudes that fill your life with hate. But Lafayette provided a different, necessary sort of queer hero, shaped in part by the gender-bending provocations of New Orleans sissy bounce queens Big Freedia and Katey Red, a boi that you couldn’t just push around.

My favorite scene of Ellis’ is also one of his most famous. It’s from episode five of the first season of True Blood, when a customer at Merlotte’s, the restaurant where Lafayette works, sends his burger back to the kitchen because, he tells his waitress, he doesn’t want a burger with “AIDS.”

Lafayette, fully and perfectly made up despite sweating over a hot stove, pulls his earrings off and comes swaggering out of the kitchen, head wrapped in his glittery take on Louisiana’s famous tignons. His body is a mass of gender-nonconforming contradictions: From the neck up, he’s practically coquettish, but he’s wearing a tank top that shows off his toned biceps, black Timbs and camo shorts that hang off his butt, held just so by a belt perhaps best described as ghetto fabulous.

Lafayette delivers a read in his signature Louisiana drawl, informed by Ellis’ childhood spent growing up in Bessemer, Alabama: “’Scuse me,” he says. “Who ordered the hamburger wit’ AIDS?”

“I ordered a hamburger deluxe,” the customer responds.

“In this restaurant, a hamburger deluxe come wit’ french fries, lettuce, tomato, mayo — AND AIDS,” Lafayette says, raising his voice. “DO ANYBODY GOT A PROBLEM WIT’ DAT?”

“Yeah,” says the customer. “I’m an American. I got a say in who makes my food.”

“Well, baby, it’s too late for that,” Lafayette retorts. “F—-ts been breeding your cows, raising your chickens, even brewing your beer long before I walked my sexy a– up in this m—–f—–. Everything on yo’ gotdamn table got AIDS.”

Lafayette’s altercation with the customer gets physical. “B—-, you come in my house, YOU GON’ EAT MY FOOD THE WAY I F—ING MAKE IT!” he bellows. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?”

And just as swiftly, his temper recedes. “Tip your waitress,” he says before sauntering back to the kitchen, every set of eyes in the restaurant on him.

It wasn’t just that Lafayette was a self-affirming queen who didn’t take no mess. He was country and proud of it, providing the sort of regional stamp on queerness that would later set Moonlight apart because it was so steeped in the specifics of Miami and, furthermore, the Pork and Beans of the Liberty Square housing projects. It’s part of what makes Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) such a memorable part of The Wire — his gayness isn’t the defining feature of his character. He’s gay in a way that feels unique to the projects of Baltimore. Similarly, Williams added a regional flair to his depiction of Leonard Pine, one half of the Texas duo Hap and Leonard. Those characters — Moonlight’s Black, Lafayette, Omar and Leonard — offer a counterweight to prevailing tropes of queerness that’s white, polite, well-off, neatly domesticated, sexless and almost always cosmopolitan. When it first aired in 2005, Noah’s Arc in many ways felt like a black response to the overwhelming whiteness of Showtime’s American adaptation of Queer as Folk, another landmark show that challenged what it meant to see gay men on television. Noah’s Arc centered on a group of middle-class gay black men living in Los Angeles. It was a way to say, “Hey, black people live in gentrified gayborhoods and drink cosmopolitans and battle HIV stigma too.”

But characters like Leonard and Lafayette offer depictions of men who are able to make space for themselves in the places they call home, without having to move out of one’s oppressively small hometown.

Nelsan Ellis portraying character, Lafayette Reynolds in the show HBO show “True Blood.”

HBO

And although he’ll long be remembered for Lafayette, Ellis was more than just one character. In his too-brief career, Ellis exhibited a rare elasticity and was famously circumspect about his sexuality. Ellis’ interpretation of Lafayette was so memorable that of course he’d seem right at home as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, which he was. Still, Ellis managed to erase all traces of his breakout character in Get On Up, in which he played singer-songwriter and James Brown collaborator Bobby Byrd, and in The Butler, where he played Martin Luther King Jr. By the time he inhabited Mack Burns, a writer obsessed with free jazz in a straight interracial relationship in the 2017 film Little Boxes, Lafayette was nowhere to be found.

Indeed, Ellis found it insulting when entertainment professionals seemed to overlook his Juilliard bona fides by assuming that he wasn’t a character actor.

“I can’t just get upset with regular folk because all they see is the character. But when the industry can’t tell the difference, I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s a little closed-minded,’ ” Ellis told Vibe in a 2010 interview. “… When white people play a character, people expect it to be a character. But black people — we can’t just be character actors, we have to [really] be the things we’re hired for, which is what offends me. I don’t answer that question — ‘Are you gay or not?’ — when it comes down to industry people. But if it’s a regular person asking me, that just says that maybe I’m doing a good job. But when a casting director or an agent asks me that question, it takes on a deeper thing that says, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this unless you are that.’ ”

Ellis wasn’t alone in that regard. Nine years after the last episode of The Wire aired, Williams is still insisting in interviews that he’s more than just Omar Little, despite a litany of roles, gay and straight, since Omar debuted.

During his short life and career, Ellis opened our eyes to new possibilities: You can be queer and country and happy. You can be black and a character actor. You can, in short, contain multitudes. What a shame that Ellis won’t be around to show us more.

Daily Dose: 6/20/19 Kamala Harris has the heat for your cookout jam

I’m in New York this week for the podcast, meaning the show has literally been taken on the road. Turns out the summer is going to be PRETTY eventful, so get ready for that, kiddos. Got this content creation battleship officially moving.

Sen. Kamala Harris does it for the culture. After her recent string of star turns in Senate committee hearings, her internet stardom has risen back to fame, putting the junior California senator from Oakland on a lot more people’s radar. Now she’s dropping a mixtape. Seriously. She just released a playlist to honor African-American Music Appreciation Month on Spotify. And she ain’t playing around, either. This thing is a banger that’ll have the dad rap crowd and your aunties moving at the cookout.

Fads are fun. I would consider myself a fad person. Not like I need to buy every single thing that people like in these streets, but I certainly have an appreciation for anything that can carve its way into the cultural consciousness for a small period of time. But every now and again, something comes along that completely passes you by. For me, that’s fidget spinners. I’ve seen them on TV. I’ve seen them made fun of, but in real life? I have yet to run into one in the wild. I guess I need some kids. Alas, they’re already over. Oh, well.

The homey Chance can’t lose. Between his fire music, active political involvement and tremendous magazine covers, my man is doing a lot and doing it well. Now, he’s got another commercial for the streets, this time for Twitter. Every time I see this guy do something new, I think about how he basically jump-started all this by getting suspended from school. Even when they try to hold us down over some nonsense, we can find a way to make the best of life. Lil Chano is the best.

Tiger Woods needs help. After his latest incident, in which police officers caught him sleeping behind the wheel after a night out at his restaurant, it became clear his issues had to do with a lot more than golf. Ever since that fateful Thanksgiving Day in 2009 when his whole world fell apart, it’s been one thing after another, with a solid season on the course mixed in. Now he’s telling the world that he’s enlisting the aid of a professional, which from the sound of it, is something that would have benefited him quite some time ago. Good luck, Eldrick.

Free Food

Coffee Break: It’s the season of people doing studies to confirm things that people of color have been telling you for years. In the latest episode, a new study informs us that black and Latino drivers are more likely to be cited and arrested during traffic stops than white people. You don’t say! Thanks for clearing that one up, guys.

Snack Time: Reason No. 2 of the millions why I’m terrified of surgery is that I’ll accidentally get the wrong thing operated on, changing my life for the worst. This story is particularly, well, nuts.

Dessert: This is a fun game. #FirstGifComesUpForYourName

 

Greg Marius married hoops and hip-hop to revive the Rucker summer league His Entertainers Basketball Classic in Harlem changed the streetball game

Something felt different as I came up the stairs from the 155th Street subway station in Harlem that Monday in 2001. Beneath the midafternoon July sun, the line outside Holcombe Rucker Park stretched down the block behind blue police sawhorse barriers. The crowd was mostly teens and grown men, dipped in standard summer street attire: icy white T-shirts, do-rags, cornrows, baggy jeans and shorts, fitted baseball caps. Security guards in bright orange Rocawear shirts patted down everyone seeking a seat. No weapons, no cameras. Those were the house rules at the world’s most famous streetball tournament, the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC).

It was the EBC’s 20th anniversary season, and I had been spending four nights a week roaming the sidelines for a magazine partnership with Greg Marius, the EBC’s founder/commissioner. I knew that Marius, who died of cancer last week at age 59, loved putting on a show for his native Harlem — and that the former rapper yearned to have an impact beyond his neighborhood. The smile on Marius’ wide, brown face when he advised me to get to the park early meant this day would be truly special.

I noticed that the first two teams warming up were not part of the regular rotation. There were no city legends such as Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston, Adrian “Whole Lotta Game” Walton, Larry “Bone Collector” Williams, Kareem “Best Kept Secret” Reid, or Malloy “Future” Neysmith. Also absent were NBA stars from that summer such as Ron Artest, Mark Jackson, Cuttino Mobley, Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson. The teams on the court were young, with more white players than usual. They looked out of place. This was Uptown, where local celebrities Al Cisco and Keith Slob did the Harlem Shake. Where famed announcers Hannibal, Boobie Smooth, and the duo of Duke Tango and Al Cash rocked the mic. The crowd came out to see their local heroes. Who were these schoolboys?

Suddenly, a convoy of black vehicles pulled into a restricted area near the handball courts, bringing the game to a sudden halt. Murmurs ran through the metal bleachers. Police and the Secret Service spread through the park. In walked former President Bill Clinton, who had recently opened an office on 125th Street. A collective gasp echoed through the crowd.

Clinton, just a few months out of office, made his way into the VIP section flanked by then-NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver. NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, a Brooklynite and EBC legend, joined the trio. Marius stood next to the scorer’s table, wearing his Cheshire cat smile as if it were just another day at the park. Like Biggie Smalls said, you never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.

All because of Marius’ signature blend of hoops, hip-hop and Harlem hustle.

The son of a community activist mother and hospital chemist father, Marius was raised in a brownstone in the revered Strivers’ Row neighborhood. His first act was as Greg G, a rapper in the early ’80s group the Disco Four. Recording in the early days of rap on wax, the Disco Four were true ghetto superstars. Marius co-wrote singles such as “Move to the Groove” and “Do It, Do It” on Enjoy Records and “We’re at the Party” on Profile. His writing credits continued as a part of Rooftop Records, which was the early home of artists such as Kool Moe Dee and a young Harlem prodigy named Teddy Riley.

Entertainer’s Basketball Classic CEO Greg Marius attends the Launch of the new Reebok Question Mid EBC & A5 with Cam’ron and Jadakiss at Rucker Park on August 4, 2016 in New York City.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Reebok

Marius also was a hooper. About 6-foot-5 and solidly built, Marius said he was on the team at St. John’s University during his time as a student there. The EBC was born when the Disco Four, live on the airwaves of WHBI during the legendary Mr. Magic’s radio show, challenged the rival Crash Crew to a game.

The EBC followed a trail blazed by Holcombe Rucker, a city parks worker who invented the concept of summer youth basketball leagues in 1946. Holcombe Rucker’s men’s tournament drew world-class talent to various NYC parks from the ’50s through the ’70s, then fell into decline. In 1987, Marius moved his EBC to a court that the city had recently named Rucker Park, in the shadow of the Polo Grounds housing projects at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. Those early years were lean for Marius and his partner, a street dude known only as Gusto, who used to run Harlem’s legendary Rooftop nightclub. EBC went nearly 10 years with no sponsors, surviving on loans and skimpy entry fees. Long before YouTube highlights, Marius and Gusto sold VHS tapes from their Entertainers Store on 153rd Street.

Then the rap industry blew up in the 1990s, and EBC began landing five-figure team sponsorships from record labels such as Cold Chillin’, Def Jam and Uptown. Having your name on a Rucker squad bestowed clout in a rap industry that was often synonymous with the streets. And no one can gloss over the fact that EBC exploded along with the crack game. For all of the mainstream polish that would come in later years, the tournament has always been a place for drug dealers and stickup kids — and their rap game cousins — to floss. Yet Marius and Gusto kept it safe, as one of the tournament’s missions was to provide a haven for local youths during the hot summer months.

As the ’90s progressed, rappers went from doing shows at clubs to selling out stadium tours. Yesterday’s street dude was remixed as a hip-hop entrepreneur. Everybody seemed to have a record label and/or clothing line. Marius, meanwhile, had EBC at Rucker Park. Making it magical every summer was his full-time job. Each year, the tournament kept getting better and names kept getting bigger. Vince Carter. Allen Iverson. Kobe Bryant. His EBC helped record companies break new artists and records. Corporations realized that his tournament was the key to breaking into the coveted urban marketplace. That street/corporate balance was the power of the EBC.

I met Marius as he was cracking the mainstream in a major way. In the winter of 2000, my partner Jesse Washington, now a senior writer for The Undefeated, and I sat down with Marius at Londel’s restaurant and pitched him a magazine that would document all things related to his tournament. This is before the internet explosion, back when two-way pagers were cutting-edge tech. Think about it, we told him: EBC the Magazine.

Marius silently looked at a picture of himself on the inside cover of the prototype we had made. I could see him calculating the angles. Marius knew the streets had never seen anything like this. He enjoyed making his next move even better than the last one. This could be a power move for both his brand and himself.

Still, Marius was often leery of outsiders, myself included, who approached him with bright ideas on how to partner up and turn a profit. If he didn’t know you, or couldn’t associate you with someone he knew from around the way, then you weren’t in his scope. Marius had to be a wily individual to survive the sharks in the streets all those years. Harlem was his world, yet he yearned for what he had built to be recognized on a bigger stage. Other city tournaments were on the come up, poaching his players and crowds, wooing his sponsors. But none of those other tournaments had a magazine.

Interacting with Marius over the summer of 2001, I came to view him as a hard character to truly peg. At his core he was a good dude, raised by good parents in a good neighborhood. This background stood in stark contrast to the shadowy characters and cutthroat street environments that surrounded his adult life. Doing business with Marius was tricky. Because he was getting checks from so many different places, I never knew when his other hustles would bump up against our magazine. “Hype it up, but keep it separate” is one of his most memorable quotes to me.

The Rucker Park court stayed hot that summer. After Clinton stopped by, Shaquille O’Neal made a cameo after winning the NBA title. Street legends and NBA stars mixed it up game after game. I even found my way onto a team in the women’s division thanks to rapper and EBC team owner Fat Joe. My game wasn’t at its peak, but I managed to knock down a couple of jumpers, grab some steals and rebounds, and even earned the nickname “The Editor,” aka “The Magazine,” from announcer Al Cash.

With Marius at the helm, the EBC not only stayed relevant for 30 years but also revived the Rucker name and spread it across the globe. Marius was able to navigate among the illest of street dudes and still receive Secret Service clearance to host a president in Harlem. Greg’s Harlem.

The basketball world will always know the Rucker. Harlem will never forget Greg Marius.

The hilarious and self-aware glory of Charlie Murphy Comedian, actor, screenwriter — and yes, Eddie Murphy’s older brother — was a funnyman in his own right

Charlie Murphy, the straight, no-chaser funnyman who died Wednesday afternoon at the age of 57 after a private battle with leukemia, pulled off the seemingly impossible. Indeed, the older brother of Eddie Murphy, a once-in-a-generation comedian and record-breaking film star, would not have been blamed if he rode the red leather tails of his sibling’s career.

Yet, Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories sketches were central to Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central gem: The tales of a coke-fueled, slap-happy Rick James and Prince the hoops god serving pancakes to his vanquished and confused foes are eternal. Murphy also became a successful touring comedian. “It’s been a riot,” he told me during a 2013 interview when asked about his move to stand-up.

Of course, Murphy, who flashed his trademark toothy grin as if he were in on the joke, was not oblivious. He’d heard the whispers: that he was piggybacking off Chappelle, as well as his brother. “All the people that have been wondering if I could pull this off, and wondering if it was real,” he said, “that’s human nature.”

Charles Quinton Murphy was a very self-aware person. “I’m not going to make a fool of myself,” he said, “or besmirch my brother’s legacy. Before I started doing stand-up, I knew I had what it takes to develop an act. I went to clubs with not many people there and I just worked on it, man.” That’s the legacy of Charlie Murphy: hard work. Which is why it’s not surprising that there has been an outpouring of heartfelt tributes.

“We just lost one of the funniest most real brothers of all time. Charlie Murphy RIP,” posted Chris Rock, who recruited Murphy to portray the all-too-gangsta Gusto for 1993’s cult comedy classic CB4. Fellow comedian D.L. Hughley glowed about Murphy: “After every gig, he rushed home to be with his kids. He died with gigs on the books.” Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee, who cast Murphy in some of his most acclaimed work — including 1990’s Mo Better Blues, posted on Instagram: “My Late Brother-The Very Funny Charlie Murphy … Rest In Power.” And actress Gabrielle Union praised him as a “kind, sweet, funny man.” Murphy’s wife, Tisha Taylor Murphy, died of cervical cancer in 2009. He is survived by his three children.


The irony, of course, is that early on the acid-tongued, Brooklyn-born maverick wanted no part of the entertainment business. He seemed content with having served in the U.S. Navy as a boiler technician and just trying to figure things out. Even after Eddie became the biggest comedian and movie star on the planet, Charlie, who was honorably discharged in 1983, took on a more supportive and protective role in Eddie’s legendary entourage. He was security. But Charlie was watching and learning.

You could see the progression. A bit role in 1989’s Harlem Nights led to parts in The Players Club (1998) and Roll Bounce (2005). Sure, he mostly played the hated bully, but he did it with a knowing wink. By the time he became a featured player on Chappelle’s Show, his deft and thoroughly engaging ability as a storyteller was on full display.

“I’m not going to make a fool of myself. Or besmirch my brother’s legacy.”

Eddie’s big brother was now more than just a member of a Hollywood clique.

“Let me put it like this,” he explained to The A.V. Club back in 2010 of his newfound celebrity. “I’m at the Four Seasons Maui, and yesterday I was with Joe Rogan. We were standing by the pool, and the waitress came over and she said, ‘We’re getting these paparazzi in the bushes right now filming you guys. We’re going to get them out of here.’ And I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve made it.’ ”

But Murphy — who co-wrote the screenplay for Eddie Murphy’s 2007 Norbit, which grossed $159 million — liked to prove to himself and his peers that he could thrive without a net on the often brutal stand-up circuit. Although his 2010 Comedy Central special I Will Not Apologize was uneven, he continued to perfect his craft. The jokes and timing got sharper. The gigs became more diverse and interesting … and bigger. There was voiceover work for The Boondocks and 2012’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was a recurring role on Cartoon Network’s criminally underrated Black Jesus. At the time of his death, Murphy was part of the all-star The Comedy Get Down tour, which also featured George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, Eddie Griffin and Hughley. It was a powerful affirmation that the stand-up he’d worked on so consistently was ready for prime time.

Comedian Charlie Murphy performs during his appearance at The Ice House Comedy Club on December 4, 2013 in Pasadena, California.

Michael Schwartz/WireImage

“A comedian’s job is so dangerous,” he said in 2012. And then two days before his death he tweeted, “Release the past to rest as deeply as possible.” Yes, Charlie Murphy could have been just Eddie’s big brother. But where was the glory in that?