Baltimore Raven Ronnie Stanley on being half-Tongan, crushing on Rihanna — and Krispy Kreme The starting left tackle also loves to win arguments with his quarterback, Joe Flacco

The day after the Baltimore Ravens’ crucial Monday Night Football win over the Houston Texans, Ronnie Stanley is still celebrating. For Baltimore’s starting left tackle, the victory and following off day calls for a snack.

“I got some Krispy Kreme,” says Stanley via mobile, and fresh out of line. “I played well, so I thought I deserved some doughnuts.” What did he order? “A little assorted half-dozen. Probably won’t eat them all, but just a few to pick from. Chocolate and original glazed.”

The 6-foot-6, 320-pounder needed some fuel after grinding through the matchup against the Texans, in which he suffered an apparent knee injury that he feared could be a torn ACL. Yet Stanley checked out fine with trainers on the sideline before returning to the field to do his job: protect quarterback Joe Flacco. His prowess is the reason the Ravens selected Stanley with the sixth overall pick in 2016. At Notre Dame, he was a consensus 2015 All-American. When the 23-year-old isn’t guarding Flacco’s blind side, he’s trying to prove a point to his quarterback, embracing his half-Tongan/half-African-American heritage or crushing on @badgalriri — Rihanna. Maybe one day she’ll notice him on the field.

What’s the most painful injury you’ve sustained in your life?

You know those souped-up golf carts that are meant for outdoors and hunting? I was in an accident on one of those and ended up breaking my arm and my right ankle. I could’ve died. That was the most painful experience I’ve had in my life. That was freshman year in high school.

What’s one thing you always do before a big game?

One thing I’m always doing is making sure I’ve done everything I can. I’ve warmed up. I’ve gotten as much direction as I can. I kind of overprepare.

What’s the most unique thing about your quarterback, Joe Flacco, that not many people know?

He’s a hilarious, superoutspoken guy with a ton of opinions … nothing really weird, but if there’s something that could be a gray area, or you’re going back and forth, he’ll always have an opinion. That’s the same with me, so we’ll always be trying to be the right person in the conversation. We both love trying to prove the other wrong.

What’s your most vivid memory from the day you got drafted?

Walking out on the stage, seeing all those people and holding up that jersey for the first time in front of the crowd. Just it all settling in. Everything you’d dreamed of since you were a kid, and it finally happening in one moment.

What was your first major purchase after being drafted?

I didn’t even purchase it, I’m leasing it, but I guess you could say my car. It’s a BMW. It was originally white, but I got it wrapped in this dark matte gray.

If not for the NFL, what career path would you be on right now?

Probably something entrepreneurial, having to do with a technology startup, along the lines of innovation.

In November, did you bet with any of your Ravens teammates that Notre Dame would beat Miami?

I didn’t bet anyone at first, but I was having a good feeling about it the day of the game. Our D-tackle Brandon Williams, an hour and a half before the game, was trying to set something up with me. We ended up betting, and I ended up losing.

“I always get some type of tweet, or some message, from not just Tongan fans but Polynesian fans in general.”

If you could meet any athlete, dead or alive, who would it be?

I’d want it to be someone I could gain some wisdom from, not just someone who was good at their sport. … I’d probably say Muhammad Ali, back in his day. I met him when I was a kid, actually. He was in Las Vegas because his grandson, who’s a lot younger than I am, played at my high school. I never got to talk to Muhammad like that because he was a lot older, so to be able to talk him when he was younger, and be able to have a full conversation … he had a lot of insight.

If you could take one celebrity on a date, who would it be and why?

Oh, gosh … I’d go with Rihanna. … She does her own thing … and is supersuccessful.

What’s your favorite platform for social media, and why?

Twitter, for sure, because the content is hilarious. You can’t find funny s— like that on any other social media.

How did you come up with the Instagram handle @megatronnie?

When I made my IG, I was sitting there thinking, ‘OK, I want something to go with my name.’ So I said, ‘What ends with ‘-ron’?’ so that I could finish it off with Ronnie. I was just making up all these names in my head, and I came up with ‘Megatronnie.’

Who’s the most famous person following you on IG/snap/Twitter?

Jerome Boateng is pretty famous, I guess. He follows me. We’re actually pretty good friends.

What’s one thing about yourself that others might consider embarrassing?

Just the way I act in general … the things I say.

What’s one place in the world you’ve never been that you’re dying to visit?

Dubai.

When in your life did you realize you’re half-Tongan, and what does your Tongan heritage mean to you?

I knew I was half-Tongan when I was pretty young. My parents did a really good job of introducing me, my little brother and my little sister to the culture. We went to a lot of family reunions with our Tongan side of the family. To be around them a lot as kids definitely normalized the heritage for us.

Do you get a lot of love from Tongan NFL fans?

For sure. I always get some type of tweet, or some message, from not just Tongan fans but Polynesian fans in general. It’s such a small group of people compared to other races in America. To see someone of that ethnicity playing football … they all support us because there’s only a handful of us.

You have a huge tattoo inspired by your Tongan heritage — what made you get it?

I always thought tribal tattoos were amazing. Just the detail, the pattern, the art, the symmetry. What I got was actually done by Haloti Ngata’s little brother. … In the middle, I have a big dove that’s on my grandma’s tombstone. I also have my mom’s name written in Tongan within the design. The rest of it is all traditional Tongan freehand. … It took like 13 hours, and I did it in one session.

Where does your courage come from?

My parents always telling me to stand up for myself and to do what I know is right. They were always reaffirming, ‘You’re no less than anyone else … so don’t let people walk over you.’ That definitely made me a lot more courageous being out in the world by myself.

What will you always be the champion of?

The people.

‘The Real’s’ Jeannie Mai is raising awareness of human trafficking in new film The talk show host is executive producer of ‘Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking’

According to the Department of Homeland Security, every year millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, generating billions of dollars in profit, making it second only to drug trafficking in transactional crime.

These shocking statistics came as a surprise to Jeannie Mai, co-host of daytime TV show The Real, when she began raising awareness around this epidemic, in which only 2 percent of victims make it out alive.

Mai partnered with filmmaker Sadhvi Siddhali Shree as the executive producer for a powerful and raw documentary entitled Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking. With raw images of life on the streets, heart-pounding rescues and gut-wrenching personal stories, the documentary offers hope and empowerment, with hopes to engage others in a movement to end modern-day slavery and abuse on a global scale.

“It’s all about being woke to what’s happening in the world,” Mai said. “The word ‘trafficking’ is weird in itself and was invented just a few years ago to describe the selling and trading of human beings because we didn’t understand exactly what it was. It started off as sex slavery then modern-day slavery, and now it’s trafficking.”

Mai hopes to create awareness that leads to action. She spoke with The Undefeated about the documentary, as well as about working on The Real, the secret behind her positivity and how she defines success.


What’s the nature of Stopping Traffic: The Movement to End Sex Trafficking?

This film is gritty and, honestly, painful to watch, but it’s real. It will help people understand how human trafficking takes place 360 degrees around us. You’ll feel a calling to contribute to the movement after watching it.

What motivated you to get involved with the film?

It’s been my dream to put together a piece of art that would describe what human trafficking looks like. I joined forces with [Sadhvi] Siddhali [Shree], a beautiful woman, monk, Army veteran and powerful filmmaker. I fell in love with her passion, and we both had the same fervor to educate the world and get people more socially conscious about the brevity of trafficking.

What was your first experience becoming more hands-on with learning about sex trafficking?

I went to Thailand with an organization called NightLight and lived in a brothel for about three weeks. That’s where I really saw the darkness of these women’s lives. They’re trapped and voiceless, and their families are being used as pawns.

[It inspired another documentary I’m working on,] Along the Line, where we shot in Vietnam, Sa Pa, Thailand, to speak with three traffic survivors who shared what it was like to be enslaved, used, abused and manipulated, and how their lives are now as heroines. It’ll come out by early 2019.

What triggered the need to learn more about sex trafficking?

I didn’t know what it was until about eight years ago, when it happened to a family friend in Vietnam. Her uncle had sold her to a brothel as a sex slave to pay off the family debt. I was angry, disgusted and confused. I did research, made phone calls, spoke with government officials and then learned that this situation happens to millions of people every day. She is OK now.

Switching gears, what can we expect for the live airing of season four of The Real?

It’s going to be a fun season with more giveaways, money and amazing, heartfelt stories that’s going to teach you how to love yourself better. Loni [Love], Tamera [Mowry-Housley], Adrienne [Houghton] and I are able to remind women every day that they are valuable and worthy. All of us ladies on the show are a work in progress. We constantly share our hiccups, and we’re transparent about it.

What have you learned from your co-hosts?

First off, I’ve learned to love brown liquor because of Loni. Tam-Tam [Tamera] has taught me the power of poise. She is so poised in every situation of life. Adrienne teaches me about hopeless romantic love, and I’m just like, ‘Let’s get some Netflix and Cheetos.’

What’s the secret behind your positivity?

It’s from turning L’s [losses] into W’s [wins]. Like anyone else, I’ve gone through my own losses, whether that’s relationships, setbacks or insecurities. But when I look back, I really appreciate those experiences because being on the ground taught me how not to only get up, but to stand up and strut.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

There’s always going to be someone who won’t believe in your worth. Don’t let that person be you.

As a TV style expert, what got you into fashion?

I love fashion; it’s my armor. Fashion allows me to tell you my story before I get myself together to tell you. That’s what’s so powerful about it. Style is having that swag from the way you walk, talk, laugh, move your hands, type of vernacular you use. All of that comes together and you are a dope fashion piece, even if you only have a shirt and jeans on.

What’s your advice to women who don’t feel pretty?

Own your pretty, boo! It can be as simple as that you have a great smile or amazing ankles. Whatever it is, find it and highlight what that beautiful part is and dress the rest up. It starts there, and then from the ground up, boom, you bloom.

Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer Founder of new anti-racism center at American University sees impact of policy, culture on black athletes

It’s a Wednesday night at a bookstore in a well-off part of Washington, D.C., and every seat is taken. More than 100 people spill into the aisles or crowd the stacks past the philosophy and cookbook sections to hear Ibram X. Kendi talk about the racist ideas that founded the nation. About how racial progress is always followed by new and more sophisticated racist progress. And, especially, about the deeply held beliefs that most Americans, including black people and liberal whites, woke up with this morning that they don’t even know are racist and wrong.

For instance, “Black neighborhoods are not more dangerous than white neighborhoods and neither are black people,” Kendi tells the crowd. Layers of racist ideas account for why we think so.

Last year, the 35-year-old scholar became the youngest person to win the National Book Award for nonfiction in 30 years for Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

And this year, his moment continues. He’s just moved to Washington, where he is launching the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University next week. He’s a historian of racism at a time when our public conversation is fixed on it, when successive presidents have triggered the tribal apprehensions of our Mason-Dixon lines, and when the threat of shoot-you-down, run-you-over racial violence feels as close at hand as the peril to the republic from fake facts and revisionist history. This convergence of circumstances keeps him perpetually on book tour.

Ibram Kendi, right, addresses the audience as Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who was the presenter for the event, stands by.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A diverse group made up a standing-room-only audience during Dr. Ibram Kendi’s recent book promotion event at Politics and Prose.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With the breadth of his scholarship and expanse of his reach, Kendi has been compared to the famed late historian John Hope Franklin, except he wears his locs long and his edges laid. He used to fantasize about a career in the NBA — or, at the very least, on SportsCenter. He’ll hit you back on Twitter.

Just so you know, black people are not inherently better athletes than white people, Kendi says. We only think so because “black people have not only been rendered inferior to white people, they’ve been rendered like animals,” and thus physically superior creatures. It’s an old racist idea that helped justify African-Americans’ suitability for backbreaking labor and medical experiments and the theft of their children. “When we embrace this as part of our identity,” Kendi says, “we don’t understand.” He wants to correct our misunderstandings.

Education, love and exemplary black people will not deliver America from racism, Kendi says. Racist ideas grow out of discriminatory policies, he argues, not the other way around. And if his new center can help identify and dismantle those policies in the U.S. and around the world, he believes we can start to eliminate racism. At least that’s the goal.

As the evening wears on in the crowded bookstore, people line up at microphones to question, challenge or offer up hosannas to this young scholar, who, in many ways, is just getting started.


Ibram Kendi is the new founding director of The Anti-Racist and Policy Center at American University. He is a leading thinker on race and his 2016 book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” won the National Book Award.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi apologizes for the spare office space he shares with a colleague inside American University’s School of International Service. The walls are bare, and his name has not yet made it outside the door. He’s still unpacking from the move to D.C. with his wife, Sadiqa, a pediatric emergency room physician at Children’s National Health Center, and their 1-year-old daughter, Imani. It’s an ambitiously busy life.

Besides being the founding director of the research center, he’s teaching history and international relations as part of a joint appointment that brought him from the University of Florida, where he was a professor of African-American history.

He’s learning the city, and working on priorities for the center — part think tank, policy shop and incubator for anti-racism strategies — which formally launches next fall. It joins dozens of other customized centers of racial research. One of the earliest and most notable, the W.E.B Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University, rose to prominence under the leadership of Henry Louis Gates Jr. This year, “year zero,” is to raise funds and recruit researchers, faculty and students.

The goal is to identify inequalities, identify the policies that create and maintain those inequalities, and propose correctives in six areas: criminal justice, education, economics, health, environment and politics. Kendi also hopes to create an online library of anti-racist thinking. He’s still considering initial projects.

But when he talks about racism, he is not still puzzling out his ideas. Kendi has spent thousands of hours reading thousands of documents, including “some of the most horrific things that have ever been said about black people,” to uncover the origins of racist thought. His words are distilled, precise, authoritative. His voice never rises. He is, temperamentally, an antidote to the heat of the subject matter and the hyperbole of the times.

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,” Kendi said. “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped from the Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.” Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

The self-interest: The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope.

The racist idea: Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized.

“We can understand this very simply with slavery. I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric, that they need to be enslaved, or that they are so childlike that they need to be enslaved.”

Kendi boils racist ideas down to an irreducible core: Any idea that suggests one racial group is superior or inferior to another group in any way is a racist idea, he says, and there are two types. Segregationist ideas contend racial groups are created unequal. Assimilationist ideas, as Kendi defines them, argue that both discrimination and problematic black people are to blame for inequalities.

“The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest.”

Americans who don’t carry tiki torches react viscerally to segregationist ideas like those on display at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one young counter-protester dead. Assimilationist ideas are more subtle, seductive and coded.

“You can be someone who has no intention to be racist,” who believes in and fights for equality, “but because you’re conditioned in a world that is racist and a country that is structured in anti-black racism, you yourself can perpetuate those ideas,” says Kendi. No matter what color you are.

Anti-racist ideas hold that racial groups are equal. That the only thing inferior about black people is their opportunities. “The only thing wrong with black people is that we think there is something wrong with black people,” a line that Kendi uses like a mantra.

The Blue Lives Matter (the problem is violent black people) Black Lives Matter (the problem is the criminal justice system, poor training and police bias) and All Lives Matter (the problem is police and black people) arguments are extensions of the same, three-way debate (segregationist, anti-racist and assimilationist) that Americans have been having since the founding of the country.

“We’ve been taught American history as a steady march of racial progress,” but it’s always been a dual march of racial and racist progress, which we see from Charlottesville to “their Trump Tower,” Kendi says.

This is the jump-off Kendi uses to frame the most roiling issues of the day. But before he could build that frame, he first had to deal with his own racism.


Ibram Kendi

André Chung for The Undefeated

Kendi was born Ibram H. Rogers in Jamaica, Queens, New York, to parents who’d been student activists and were inspired by black liberation theology. He grew up playing basketball and still is an ardent New York Knicks fan.

The family moved to Manassas, Virginia, where Kendi attended Stonewall Jackson High School (named for the Confederate general) and dreamed of a career on the hardwood. The slim, 6-foot-1 former guard says he specialized in the no-look pass. “I consider the beautiful pass the most beautiful part of the game of basketball,” he says.

Sweet passing aside, his basketball aspirations were irrevocably dashed his sophomore year when he failed to make the junior varsity team. “I was so crushed,” Kendi says.

He studied journalism at Florida A&M University and initially wanted to be a broadcaster or a sportswriter. But after internships at The Mobile Register and The Atlanta Journal Constitution, he began to shift his career focus. He wound up getting a doctorate in African-American studies from Temple University. His first book, on the black student protest movement in the ’60s and ’70s, was published in 2012. He began researching Stamped from the Beginning the following year.

That’s when he started to re-examine some of his most deeply held beliefs about race. “I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself,” says Kendi. “I had to come to grips with … some of the things that I imagined and thought,” about black people “and one of the first and most obvious ones was the idea that black neighborhoods are more dangerous than white neighborhoods, which is a very popular idea.”

The highest instances of violent crime correspond with high unemployment and poverty, and that holds true across racial lines, Kendi found. Most white poverty, unemployment and thus violent crimes occur in rural areas, while for blacks those ills are more concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods. If impoverished white communities “had five times more people, then that community would have five times, presumably, more violent crime.”

“I was born into a world of racist ideas, many of which I had consumed myself.”

Another racist idea: “I believed that black children were achieving at a lower level than white children. And I believed in the existence of an achievement gap,” says Kendi. Standardized tests prioritize reading and writing as measures of verbal proficiency, as opposed to the wider ability to articulate. And they test subject areas where black schools are vastly underresourced.

“I certainly am somebody who advocates equalizing the resources of school and creating a situation in which we actually live up to our pronouncements that we live in a meritorious society,” says Kendi. “But even if these schools persist in being resourced unequally, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the students in the schools with lesser resources are intellectually inferior to the students with better resources.” He reaches into history to illustrate his point: Just because slaves’ lives were circumscribed, they faced more adversity and they dealt with more violence, that doesn’t mean enslaved people were inferior to people who were free.

A “more lighthearted area” he had to confront was his ideas about dating black women. “Black women were angry, they didn’t know what they want, they’re difficult,” he’d heard. “And from my standpoint, those are some of the things that I said when I was having some difficulties in dating.” When we have negative experiences with individuals, “we often say there’s a problem with that black group,” without realizing those are racist ideas.

Now, he’s a poster child for black love. He and his telegenic wife met on Match.com and debuted their new last name Kendi (“loved one” in the Kenyan language of Meru) at their 2013 wedding in Jamaica, which was featured in Essence magazine.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, calls Kendi part of a vanguard of young black historians, which includes Treva Lindsey at Ohio State and Brittney Cooper of Rutgers, who are transforming the field. Part of what makes him right for the moment is his ability to speak to millennials, who have access to lots of information but can’t always decipher what is good or bad. “What he has written is an accessible history of black folks,” said Neal. In terms of a book for general readers “that covers such a wide historical period, the only thing I can think about in terms of comparison is John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.”

Kendi’s book resonates like the 2015 National Book Award winner, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, said Neal. “Ta-Nehisi’s was kind of an emotional analysis of what this moment is. Kendi’s was to bring that kind of energy, except to do it in a historical context. I think it’s important to be able to talk about the history of these racist ideas, the impact they’ve had on black people and black life.”

With regard to the most front-and-center issue in sports today, athletes and activism, Kendi says it’s important to remember that the athlete/activists of the 1960s — Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Tommie Smith — all spoke out in the context of the Black Power movement, which is “precisely what’s happening now” with Colin Kaepernick and others who were inspired by Black Lives Matter. “We look for athletes to generate movements, when historically athletes have been good at being athletes, which is precisely what they should be good at, and we should be looking to activists to generate movements.” There will then be those athletes who use their platforms to support those movements and ideologies.

Kendi says that while the numbers of black players on the fields, courts and arenas have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, it’s been harder to make shifts at other positions.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sports writers, like the executives.” If those groups “are lily-white, then [a sport] is simply not diverse.”

This kind of analysis gives Kendi cachet beyond the ivory tower and makes him popular with students, Neal said. Young people see Kendi with his locs and his ability to communicate in a vernacular they know and that expands their thinking about the possibilities for their own lives. They’ll say, “This is somebody I can imagine being somewhere down the line,” said Neal.

“We should determine diversity in sports, just like outside of sports, not by the transient players but by the people who are permanent, like the owners, like the coaches, like the sportswriters, like the executives.”

Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University and one of those responsible for bringing Kendi to the university, cites Washington as an organic place to do anti-racist work. “To make real lasting change, change that lasts beyond changes of administrations and flips from one party to the next, you really need to reach out to people who are making more fundamental policy on the ground, in the agencies and throughout the government,” he said.

Starr calls Kendi’s vision to use researchers from around the country an approach that mirrors what happens in the sciences. “He’s got a very expansive vision of the center, and we really think this is a center that’s not just the usual, relatively small, one-person shop,” he said.

He calls Stamped from the Beginning the kind of book scholars write in their 50s and 60s. But Kendi’s impact will transcend the written words, Starr said. Especially since American has struggled with racist incidents recently.

In May, bananas were found hanging from nooses at three locations on the American University campus. This followed racist social media messages and a banana thrown into a black student’s dorm in the past few years.

For students of color and “all students, being able to look to someone like Ibram Kendi, who is a model of intelligent scholarship and activism informed by deep contextual and historical understanding,” is powerful, said Starr. He’s got “a fire to make a difference in the world that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in another scholar, frankly.”


Ibram Kendi greets fans at Politics and Prose after discussing his book.

André Chung for The Undefeated

At the bookstore, the questions, and disquisitions posing as questions, continue as the crowd grapples with, or pushes back against, Kendi’s ideas about race and America.

“I think that the issue is that the Africans and the Europeans really can’t mix,” one person steps to the mic to say.

Across the room, another questioner says, “Gentiles are underrepresented on Wall Street. White males are underrepresented in the NBA. At what point does the assimilation shift into something where other factors come into play?”

“All right now, tell it like it is,” says E. Veronica Pace, a genealogist who steps to the microphone and identifies herself as a student of Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. She asks about the book’s title, which was taken from a speech in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis called racial inequality “stamped from the beginning.”

Finally, the talk is over and people form a line that stretches toward the door to have him sign their books. “If we are all mindful about this and put our hearts and souls into it, we can turn this ship around,” says James Kilgore, whose wife is in the line. He’s says he’s waiting to see what Kendi is going to do.

For starters, he’s working on another book, a memoir entitled How to be An Anti-Racist. “Racist ideas become almost like a drug. Once you hear them and become hooked, you need more in order to sustain the way you see the world, right?” Kendi says. “I was hooked for a long time,” and now “I’m trying to relieve other people.”

And he’s focused on launching the center he’d like to help change the world. The former sports reporter reaches for a metaphor. It’s a rare moment where his equanimity seems to falter, just for a bit, perhaps from the weight of the task at hand. “I’m on the court and I’ve suited up. Now the game is about to start and I have to be ready to perform,” Kendi says. “And to win.”

LL Cool J talks hoops, giving back and being a Kennedy Center honoree ‘Wherever I go, hip-hop goes. When I stand there, I’m standing there for the culture.’

LL Cool J is often mentioned as one of hip-hop’s young pioneers who burst onto the scene years ago and remains a relevant staple in culture. His head-bumping beats, charismatic concrete rhymes, and swagger of a Kangol bucket hat and heavy gold chains introduced hip-hop in a way that can never be ignored, only used as a blueprint.

His first single in 1987, “I Need a Beat,” put the music label Def Jam on the map. Thirteen albums later, at 49 years old, rap’s first sex symbol will be the Kennedy Center’s youngest honoree since Stevie Wonder and the only hip-hop honoree in the center’s 40-year history. It’s no coincidence that the Grammy Award winner hosted the Grammy Awards five consecutive years from 2012-16. And then there’s acting. He’s starred in several hit films and shows, which landed him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last year.

August 2017 marks the 13th year that the Queens, New York, native is holding his annual Jump & Ball community camp in his hometown. The summer camp is free, and hundreds of kids participate in competitive basketball as well as double Dutch, chess, kickball and handball.

At Daniel O’Connell Playground in Hollis, Queens, LL spoke with The Undefeated about his commitment to giving back to his hometown, how Michael Jordan’s dominance in the game corrupted his New York Knicks fandom, his report card on Magic Johnson’s leadership at the Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, hip-hop and fashion.

Using a line from his ’90s hit “Mama Said Knock You Out”: Don’t call it a comeback; I’ve been here for years. With more than 30 years in the game, LL Cool J is not slowing down one bit.


What started Jump & Ball, and what keeps it going as it celebrates its 13th year?

I know from growing up in this neighborhood [Southeast Queens] that there’s nothing to do. My grandmother always told me that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, so when you don’t have anything to do, you’re on the corner [selling drugs]. I wanted to give the kids in the community something to look forward to. There were a lot of hustlers out here when I was growing up. They weren’t doing everything right, but they would throw ball tournaments. And for us as kids, we were like, ‘Wow, we’re having fun.’ I wanted to do it the right way and pay it forward, back to the kids.

For 12 years, I was just throwing basketball tournaments and letting the kids play ball. But we have kids looking up to players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, so I felt this year going forward that I needed to introduce them to a little more structure where they could learn skills and how to play competitively.

How would you describe Queens, New York? What does it mean to you?

For me, it’s home sweet home, but it’s something different to everyone. If you came out here and got your chain snatched, it might not mean the same thing to you that it means to me (laughs). But I love being here; it’s a family. I just want to keep doing the right thing for them and keep it going.

Are you still a recovering New York Knicks fan?

I’m a loyal New Yorker, but I’m going to keep it absolute 100 with you: Michael Jordan ruined everything for [all other players for me]. I was trying to be a Knicks fan, but MJ was killing the game. But, yes, I’m a Knicks fan first. I love my man [Charles] Oakley and Anthony Mason. Antoine Mason, Anthony’s son, is an unbelievable player too. I’m in Los Angeles, but I’ll never be a transplant. That’s never going to happen! The idea that I’ll be in L.A. and become a pure L.A. guy is ridiculous. I’m New York all the way.

How do you feel your friend Magic Johnson is doing as the new Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations?

That’s my great friend, I love him, and I’m just so happy for him. I believe in what Magic is doing with the Lakers. He has the right formula and understands the players and life after basketball. Look at me, it’s like I’m doing recruiting for the Lakers (laughs). Lonzo [Ball] is going to be incredible. His father is hilarious; shoutout to the entire Ball family.

You’ve been a huge supporter of the BIG3 tournament. What drove that fandom?

It was a genius idea by [Ice] Cube. I love to watch Al Harrington, DeShawn Stevenson and all these guys go out there and play. It’s going to keep getting better and better. Players can go from Jump & Ball, then a Division I or II college, maybe the NBA afterwards and then the BIG3 league. The BIG3 is a perfect complement to the NBA for the players that get out but still want to hoop. It’s crazy dope.

LL Cool J spins a basketball during week four of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Wells Fargo Center on July 16, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Rob Carr/BIG3/Getty Images

Is hip-hop evolving or do you feel it’s losing heart?

[You have to first ask yourself,] ‘Lost heart to who?’ If you’re a 35-year-old and you grew up listening to one thing and now you have a 15-year-old listening to another thing, then maybe it lost heart to you in that sense. But from an artist to fan connection, it hasn’t lost any heart. I feel the connection is as strong as ever. I’m always going to love the culture of hip-hop and be a believer of its original foundation. I’ll forever be LL Cool J The Original, but at the same time, I don’t have a problem with new music. There are a lot of great artists out here … but there’s always going to be someone putting out some garbage [music], whether it’s 1987 or 2077.

How does it feel to be the first hip-hop artist to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors?

I would have never imagined it in my wildest dreams. Wherever I go, hip-hop goes. When I stand there, I’m standing there for the culture. I’m not standing there necessarily with or against the powers that be. I’m standing there for the hip-hop culture.

You recently did a photo shoot with [fashion designer] Marc Jacobs and Salt-N-Pepa for the fashion issue cover of InStyle Magazine. What inspires your style?

My style is inspired by where I’m at right now [Queens]. I just have the resources to maybe get every piece instead of just one now. I can wear what I have on right now for a magazine cover or if I was at Mr. Chow’s [restaurant]; it would look fancy. But here in Queens, it looks regular. I didn’t forget where I came from. I dress, talk and walk the same. I’m just growing and making my dreams come true.

Daily Dose: 7/14/17 Beyonce releases photograph of Sir and Rumi

All right, kiddos. It’s been quite the week here in Minneapolis. The X Games got underway Thursday night, but Friday is the first full day and I’ll be taking over The Undefeated Instagram page for the afternoon. This should be ridiculous.

Someone in our newsroom is actively hating on Beyoncé. “Does her photographer always have to be someone out of Alice in Wonderland? Sorry. Not supposed to troll the Queen. Forget I said that,” were the words of one writer who will go unnamed. Some of these jokes and memes are just plain hilarious though. Look at that photo. These children are going to grow up to be the most widely watched children on earth since Princess Diana’s boys were small. We can’t wait. Sir and Rumi are their names, in case you forgot. Also, watch this.

We officially have a start date for Bachelor In Paradise. Let’s be clear: This season is already wrought with controversy, and I do not feel good about this component at all. That being said, it’s important to note that this show is the best in the franchise, and it’s not even particularly close. But for us die-hard BIP fans, we’re going to have our ethics tested because after the consent dispute scenario, a major premise of the show as basically promoting rape culture is being questioned. That said, set your calendars and clocks for Aug. 14, kiddos.

If you were on your way to a job interview, would you stop to save someone’s life? What if you were living in a halfway house and had less than $5 to your name? That’s what Aaron Tucker, an ex-prisoner in Connecticut, did the other day when he was up first thing in the morning to interview as a busboy at a local barbecue spot. You know what, most of you out there would have just kept it moving and maybe called the cops. He missed the interview, but the community has reached out to help and job offers are coming in. GOOD.

Speaking of jobs, the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders might be hiring. I say “might be” because with this new stadium they have to build in the desert, it’s obviously going to take bodies to do it. But in what I can only call a stroke of cynic genius, someone posted a hoax “pre-recruitment meetings” sign-up publicly that drew hundreds of people to an otherwise routine Las Vegas Stadium Authority meeting. In short, bringing the very people who need these gigs to the feet of those who will eventually decide who gives them. Mean, but brilliant.

Free Food

Coffee Break: This Conor McGregor/Floyd Mayweather promo tour has finally gotten good, now that they’ve decided to step up their disses toward each other. But now McGregor has brought 50 Cent into the situation, which is probably not a very smart move whatsoever. Curtis Jackson replied to him — on late night TV, no less.

Snack Time: We’ve all been waiting around for Vic Mensa’s new album, and we finally got something to rock with. His new song called “Wings” features Pharrell and Saul Williams. I love this song.

Dessert: I can’t think of anything better to send us into a weekend than two fighting pancake shops.

Maryland politician heads giant county government while caring for his wife who has Alzheimer’s Rushern Baker, of Prince George’s County, Maryland, is part of a growing trend of male caregivers

Rushern Baker is county executive in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb that is the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation.

Originally elected in 2010, Baker is halfway through his second four-year term and just announced that he is a Democratic candidate for governor. He oversees a budget of $3.1 billion in a county with a population of 900,000, which makes it the second-largest county in the state.

During his time in office, crime is down 55 percent and he has attracted $12 billion in economic development and 55,000 jobs, according to his spokesman. But today, during an interview in the community room of a busy Wegman’s supermarket near the county seat, Baker is not here to talk about his economic and political achievements. He’s here to talk about his wife, his family and how he does what he does every day.

Baker is the primary caregiver for his wife of 30 years, Christa Beverly, 57, a former attorney who has suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease since 2010. That disease affects 5 million people in the United States.

“I had to pick up from one of the most devastating things in life and move on,” said Baker, 58. “But you continue to live your life. You don’t stop.”

Historically, women have been primary caregivers in families affected by long-term health issues. As a result, their careers, salaries and lifestyles suffered.

But a new report from AARP says that men are increasingly stepping into the role, now representing 40 percent of the nation’s caregivers. Baker sees that trend in his own neighborhood in Cheverly, Maryland, where three neighbors are primary caregivers for their wives, all with Alzheimer’s.

“I realized that there are a number of men who are caring for their wives and parents,” he said. “So, there’s quite a number of us out there.”

Jean Accius, caregiving expert at the AARP Public Policy Institute and author of the report Breaking Stereotypes: Spotlight on Male Family Caregivers, said there are 40 million caregivers in the U.S. “The majority are women,” he said. “Over time we noticed that 4 out of 10, or 16 million, were male: husbands taking care of wives or partners, sons taking care of mothers. They are doing work and not recognized for work.”

The trend is fueled by a population that is aging as people live longer, he said. “Ten thousand people each day are turning 65. Family sizes are changing. There are more women in the labor force. All those things coming together facilitating the number of men doing this work.”

In another high-profile case of early-onset Alzheimer’s, restaurateur, television host lifestyle guru B. Smith said two years ago that she was suffering from the disease at 64 and was shutting down the last of her restaurants. Dan Gasby, her husband of 24 years, is caring for her. Their memoir, Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer’s, was published last year.

Accius said that despite the stress, male caregivers are generally reluctant to talk openly about it. The report was an attempt to change that. “The amount of work they are doing in addition to a full-time job and juggling working and caregiving is amazing,” he said. “It is a balancing act. It’s something to see the number of men giving injections and helping with tube feeding.”

Baker begins each day at 5:30 to 6 a.m., “so I can get her dressed. She can’t do anything. She can’t dress herself, go to the bathroom or feed herself.

“Then I set out her medication for the day,” he said. “If it’s going to be a long day, I get her medicine ready for the evening.” He gets to work by 9:30 or 10 a.m. “That’s the normal day, six days a week.”

On Fridays and Sundays, he tries to arrange his schedule so he can take her out, maybe to the park or the National Harbor. And on Sundays, there is church. Which leads us to his biggest regret.

“For a long time, I wouldn’t take my wife to church,” he said. “She would fall asleep, she would drool. I didn’t want people to see her in that condition.”

He changed that philosophy after a few years. “When I went [back] to church, it was one of the best experiences. I felt bad that for two years I did not take her.”

Rushern and Crista Baker at the Red and Gold Senior Gala on December 16, 2014

Courtesy of Mike Yourishin

He still talks to her and looks for reactions in her eyes. On good days, she recognizes people.

“Everything that she did, we will do,” he said. “When her sorority sisters met in Atlanta for a line reunion, we drove to Atlanta. When they come [to the Washington, D.C., area] she will host a brunch.” They come to the house and greet her and talk to her as they did before she was stricken with Alzheimer’s, he said.


The family first noticed something was wrong in 2008. Christa, or Cis as he calls her, a Howard University graduate with a law degree from the College of William & Mary, had just left her job at the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund and was about to begin a search for a new job. Baker was on a business trip when their oldest daughter, Aja, called. On a trip to her parents’ home in Richmond, Virginia, where she grew up, Christa was lost. She was around the corner from her parents’ home but couldn’t figure out how to get there. There had been other “little things” before, such as forgetting things and losing her keys and glasses.

He tried to talk his wife into seeing a doctor, but she refused. There were several other episodes of her forgetting things or getting lost. She got lost while picking up her youngest daughter, Quinci, from high school, a school all their children attended and where they had driven for eight years. Still, she refused to see a doctor.

Finally, Baker talked to a doctor friend and figured out a way to get her in, under the guise of a medical appointment for him. In the exam room, the doctor also suggested that she test Christa while she was there. She agreed. She passed the brain scan, but the doctor said something was “not quite right” and she should have regular tests.

In February 2010, when she was about to turn 50, Baker took Christa in for a routine exam with a neurologist. The doctor asked her questions. She remembered her children’s names but couldn’t answer a number of simple questions, like the age of the children. Frustrated, she began to cry and looked at him for help with the answers. The diagnosis was early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“When he told us, she was mad and said, ‘I’ll never see this guy again,’ ” Baker said. “But by the time we got in the car, she had forgotten all about the incident. And that started our journey.”

The reason his memory is so vivid, he said, is that after two unsuccessful attempts, he was in the middle of his third campaign for county executive. He considered quitting.

“After the neurology exam, I went to my wife’s primary care physician and said I don’t know if I should run,” Baker said. “He said, ‘I don’t know if you can not run. If you don’t run, she will know something was wrong.’ ” His wife, by then, was an integral part of his campaigns and was well-known in the county.


Today, she can only walk a few steps, so she uses a wheelchair. She doesn’t have the ability to speak or eat through her mouth. “But as far as recognizing people, she has moments when she knows who folks are. She looks great. But a few months ago they had to put a [tracheotomy tube] in to help her breathe.”

“Every day has its challenges,” Baker said. After being in the hospital for three months, she was able to go to their son Rushern IV’s wedding and understand that their youngest daughter, Quinci, graduated from college.

Quinci was 15 when her mother was diagnosed and was a major help in those first two years, Baker said. She is now 22, and she and Aja, 25, recently moved out of the family home, reluctantly, to their own apartment. They are not far away, but he wanted them to establish their own lives.

Rushern Baker gets a tattoo done in his wife’s honor his daughter looks on.

Rushern Baker’s tattoo in honor of his wife, Crista and her battle with early onset Alzheimers.

“They are still there for me if I have a meeting [in the evening],” he said. “I was training for a marathon, and they were there for me.”

His role as caregiver has certainly made him more aware of the challenges facing other caregivers, especially those who work for the county. He has become active in Alzheimer’s groups: Us Against Alzheimer’s, an advocacy group, and the Alzheimer’s Association, which promotes research into the disease. There is now a chapter of the association in Prince George’s County. He and all three children went on a local radio show to raise money for Alzheimer’s research and agreed to get tattoos if they raised $6,000. They did. (Baker’s tattoo of his wife’s initials along with the Alzheimer’s Association symbol is on his right forearm.)

Home care is always an issue, he said. It has to be someone you can trust, because “my wife can’t speak.” One of the nurses who cares for his wife left for another job. “I had to take off a week to find someone.”

It was overwhelming, especially in the beginning, Baker said. “When I took over the county, all of the issues … I was basically building a government from scratch, and it was not easy.” He sometimes had to work until 3 a.m. He was gaining weight.

Finally, his predecessor, Wayne Curry, gave him some advice. “He said you’ve got to do something else. He pushed him to do the things he loved — reading, running and tennis — to relieve the stress. He started running in the mornings three days a week with county police cadets. He started carrying a book to read.

It still can be overwhelming at times, especially in a job as demanding as his. “You need something to relieve the stress and you need others to help, or you will get sick yourself, and then you can’t care for your loved one,” he said.

His biggest lesson: “Seek and accept help. Don’t try to do it yourself. You need support. Don’t be embarrassed to accept help.”

Another lesson: “Be open and honest with your family, especially your children. I tried to shelter my daughter. Looking back, it was wrong.”

The last thing: “Accept the fact that every day is the new normal.” That means when his son, Rushern IV, was getting married, he needed to get his wife there in her wheelchair and then figure out how long they would need to be outside during the ceremony and proceedings.

“You start to put things into perspective,” he said. “I had to pick up from one of the most devastating things in my life and move on.”