A career in sports analytics busts another barrier for African-American women I’m in the game to change it, not to be part of the status quo

I was standing right outside of the team personnel entrance when time seemed to slow down. Was I in the wrong place? What if I dressed wrong? Maybe red lipstick was too bold. I’m 17. How in the world am I even standing here even if it is the wrong place?

After an excruciating wait of what could have been two or 200 minutes, the arena door opened and out walked my mentor Calder Hynes. “Hi, Tiffany? Welcome, let’s get you started for the night!” Before his current stint overseeing public relations for some of the world’s most valuable athletes at Wasserman, Hynes was one of the main points of contact for the then-New Orleans Hornets communications team, and graciously took on the role of educating yet another eager high school student in the art of game-night operations.

I’d wanted to take career day off — goof off after four long years of honors courses, two-a-day volleyball practices, and PE Accelerate (physical education for the competitive overachievers if you were wondering). Instead, I marched over to the event, up to the public relations team and asked if I could shadow for a regular-season night or two in order to get skin in this game that would, though I did not yet know it, be my future.

After a rundown of team responsibilities and introductory small talk, Hynes then handed me an all-access pass to the New Orleans Arena, now Smoothie King Center. “I have you assigned to shadow the guys who will be inputting stats while I attend to our celebrity guest for the night, Will Ferrell. I hope that’s OK?” Hynes directed.

“The guys who input the stats?” What about shadowing Will Ferrell? Why can’t that happen? But rather than the response I was thinking, I simply said; “That’s perfect.” I headed off to assist the Hornets game night stats crew disappointed, but determined to make the best of my time with the stats guys.

Following Hynes into an entryway of an 8-foot-by-10-foot space barely big enough for an area rug, I walked into what I noticed was a closet transformed into a makeshift office by dint of the two desktop computers displaying NBA and team websites, a collection of roster posters of the Honeybees dance team pinned to the wall and two men unlocking their gaze from the monitors to greet me.

The stats crew for game nights was in charge of getting box score updates into the hands of prominent front-office personnel during timeouts and halftime, and manual statistical inputs to the team website after the game.

It wasn’t until I started tagging along with said crew as they were handing out stats sheets during timeouts to Monty Williams, the head coach of the Hornets at the time, and entering the suite of former Hornets president Hugh Weber, for the halftime stats update to help with any last-minute team decisions that I realized the significance of the situation.

Never mind Will Ferrell. I’d discovered that stats were what I wanted to do with my life. I’d found a career … maybe even a calling. I now knew that these stat sheets that revealed everything from player on-court contributions to net efficiency were my golden ticket. With these, I could go anywhere … even to the front office of an NBA team. Analytics, coaching and development personnel.

Who should be the sixth man off the bench? How are players developing over time? Should a trade even be entertained?

Still the doubts persisted. Was I really in the right place? The room housing the stats guys were clearly last-minute resources the team scrambled to find. They looked tired … manually inputting stats until 1 a.m. with an emptied bag of Lay’s potato chips near the computers for a postmidnight snack. I was tired leaving the arena before the end of the game news conference. After all, it was still a school night.

Seven years later, I’m still in stats. Moving on from handing out numbers to crafting intelligent insights from those numbers is now my life as a sports analytics associate for ESPN. It is still the career I want but the “Am I in the right place” doubts have never gone away. Sometimes I feel as if they’ve amplified. I have mentors, supportive colleagues and a challenging and intellectually stimulating job that I know I’m good at and to which I can bring my best self. But I have no role model. I am an accidental standard-bearer for black women in sports statistics. The first woman of color on ESPN’s sports analytics team — the only one crunching numbers among all of statistics and information at ESPN. And the shortage of women who look like me hasn’t changed a whit since that day with the Hornets.

Choosing a career in sports had, in part, grown from my experience playing volleyball, basketball and swimming and my hypercompetitive relationship with my older brother Osby (Oz for short). The day I beat Oz in NCAA Football on PlayStation is a day I will never let him live down. But sports became an obsession after that night with the Hornets and still is. I knew then I didn’t want to be what the sports industry expected of me. I wasn’t going to take a job I didn’t feel fit me because it fit the societal expectations of female-dominated roles in sports.

Analytics would be my path. Damn the comments and consequences.

I was and am constantly asked about what I’ll do if I hit that glass ceiling, the infamous old boys’ club that generations of women have struggled to join. And like generations before me, I ignore the question and focus on the work — work that reveals clearly what I bring to my field and hope it does the trick.

I remember receiving a text earlier in my career. A colleague with significantly fewer qualifications than myself was asking for help on statistical methodology that would be used to evaluate him for an analytics position with one of the few NBA teams that were hiring. It was a job I’d also applied for through a well-acclaimed referral (and had heard nothing back). That silence would then turn into apologies followed up with “you’ll end up somewhere soon.”

If I’d known about the glass ceiling on that night in New Orleans, if I’d known how hard it is for women to break new ground in a field that hasn’t ever included them, I’m not sure I’d be in stats right now. But today, it is my work that combats gender and racial stereotypes when I tell people what I do for a living and it is my work that prepares me for the seemingly choreographed head snaps when I walk into a room full of men.

Analytics is my path and I’m not stepping away from it. With a little bit of luck and a more courage than I’d expected I’d need, I found my way to change the perception of what a woman can do in the sports world.

This respect that women, minorities, and frankly any human being should have in pursuing their purpose comes from running toward the gray. It comes from accepting the norm as merely a long inherited social custom to be considered and then rejected or accepted depending on what works for any individual. I chose rejection. By embracing what cultural differences set me apart from my team, I am able to create and quantify different insights that expand the usefulness of analytics.

Analytics is used mostly to help front offices or journalists to find those undervalued players, those Davidson College-Stephen Currys of the world. But what happens when we use analytics for stories about issues that go far beyond pure sports? The stories that intersect cultural experiences and sports. The very stories that create the tension behind the “stick to sports” label.

Basketball aside, maybe that’s using our metrics to calculate the total quarterback rating (Total QBR) or impact on a team’s football power index (FPI) of Colin Kaepernick vs. well, insert any injured NFL starting quarterback of your choosing. For the record, that would be the Kaepernick ranked 23rd in Total QBR for the 2016 season ahead of seven current starting quarterbacks, including the now-injured Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Either way, analytics should be looked at as a conversation-starter, not ender. And in being just that, it uncovers the rudimentary answers to questions all of us have either had or haven’t thought were relevant, all while trying to strip bias from the equation. This is what I want all individuals to understand about what it is that I do and about what analytics can and will do, prejudices aside.

And yes, there are biases in analytics that I am fully aware of. The bias to strategically exclude racial, gender and educational minorities, or the biased belief that athletes are not bright enough to comprehend these analytical insights. Being that I, ironically, am a target for all four of these prejudices makes me the exception that proves the arguments for and against analytics. I find solace in the coming generations ready and already acting to squash preconceptions of African-Americans, women, athletes, and nonstatisticians. Though it may appear to be but slight progress with me being the lone African-American woman in sports analytics within ESPN, professional leagues – specifically the NBA – and our sports analytics industry as a whole are realizing the significance of not following the norm and following people who look like me.

Shane Battier for the Miami Heat. Aaron Blackshear for the Detroit Pistons. Curry and Andre Iguodala for the Bloomberg Players Technology Summit (the Summit). Rajiv Maheswaran for Second Spectrum. John Scott, Jahkeen Hoke, and John Drazan for 4th Family.

All are “minorities” moving into or helping other minorities move into analytics and data-tech, all while realizing their momentous influence on our industry. But most importantly, they are all building the future of our industry so the next stream of analytics looks like all of us. Specifically, 4th Family and its win in the research competition at our annual conference, what most call the meeting of the nerds – the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using basketball analytics for minorities in underprivileged schooling communities.

Curry and Iguodala are two African-American NBA players in the forefront of investing and all in the battle for startup equity among top venture capitalists interested in the tech right in the Warriors’ backyard, Silicon Valley. Using their own summit to invite other professional athletes to share in their sports tech capitalizing endeavors, my mind can’t help but wander to a player investing in the next startup that revolutionizes the way sports data is managed and how analytical insights are formed.

An investment with professional athletes as primary stakeholders in potential sports tech companies founded on tracking depth perception in arenas and stadiums for holographic experiences that will be used in their team practices. An investment that returns a double bottom line – strengthening on-court or on-field performance and a peek into franchise operations. Now that’s a real key to the city.

My key?

I have accepted my life detour into sports media with open arms, and have complete faith in the handful of women NBA front offices have progressively placed their confidence in. I am an extroverted sister navigating my way in this mostly introverted, analytics industry of men and a few women sprinkled about. I am accepting and learning from role models that do not look like me in order to catalyze change. And that is the exact reason that there is beauty in having no standard. I’m figuring out my own black girl magic.

‘Black Panther’ magazine covers are missing black photographers Why that matters and 11 who should be considered

The decision by Essence to publish three different covers in honor of the release of Black Panther took the internet by storm over the past 24 hours. That means five major magazines — Time, Essence, Variety, Allure and British GQ — have published cover stories on the highly anticipated film in the past few days. And all five elected not to use a black photographer to handle the representation of the all-black starring cast of Black Panther. Instead, five white men, one white woman and one Asian woman were tasked with creating the pictures, which have immediately gone viral, especially on Black Twitter. (Kwaku Alston did shoot a Black Panther cover for Entertainment Weekly last fall.)

From the Time cover shot of Chadwick Boseman, along with the supplementary photo of him and director Ryan Coogler, which were photographed by the duo Williams+Hirakawa to the Essence covers, which were all photographed by Dennis Leupold, one wonders whether anyone took a hint from Barack and Michelle Obama. The first African-American president and first lady had their images immortalized in the halls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery by African-American artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, the first African-American artists to create presidential portraits for the gallery. In the case of the Obamas, the message behind who created the picture can be just as powerful as who is in them.

Unfortunately, this is far from the first time that magazines have missed an opportunity to make a statement with who they hire to shoot their covers. When Colin Kaepernick graced the cover of GQ magazine in December with photos inside echoing the famous photos of Muhammad Ali shot by African-American Howard Bingham, the work was done by Martin Schoeller, a white man. When you look at three of the largest magazines that write about and reflect African-American culture — Essence, Ebony and GQ — you see the lack of African-American photographers is nothing new. In 2017, between the three magazines, just 4.25 covers were made by a black photographer, and three of them were done by the same person. (The .25 comes about because a photographer shot one photo in a series for a cover image.)

At The Undefeated, we are here to throw you some options of amazing black photographers who could have been the Kehinde to Barack when it came to making a cover image for Black Panther.

Kwaku Alston

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Wayne Lawrence

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Marcus Smith

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Itaysha Jordan

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Jeffery Salter

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Andre D. Wagner

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Kareem Black

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Carrie Mae Weems

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G L Askew II

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Jabari Jacobs

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Shaniqwa Jarvis

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The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley


Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.


“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”


“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas


Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ9WdCunvy8

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”


“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

Philly’s post-Super Bowl ‘celebration’ was really a riot If the crowd were majority black, the world would’ve responded very differently

The United States of America’s attitude toward black people is best described with one word: violence. The coded language used in most public settings about African-Americans is typically slanted so heavily toward describing our basic human nature as aggressive and problematic that many people don’t even realize how ingrained this concept is in society.

It’s why police officers shoot our children when unarmed. It’s why much of America is trained to believe that when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, complete compliance is a reasonable rule of engagement in a so-called civilized society. But the truth is that those tacit regulations really only apply to us.

People carry a broken pole while celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles victory in Super Bowl LII game against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5 in Philadelphia.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Nowhere was this more evident than in Philadelphia this week, when after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, fans of the team rioted and destroyed a decent amount of property, an ugly tradition that quite a few fan bases have taken to participating in over the years. It’s stupid. It’s scary and it’s destructive, but for some reason, that word “riot” rarely makes its way into headlines. Why? Because for white people in America, property damage is considered a reasonable rite of celebration.

“Trayvon Martin had his life taken because a self-appointed mall cop effectively viewed his blackness as a threat. Meanwhile, white boys are turning over cars because the team they root for finally won a Super Bowl.”

Think about how police mobilized in Ferguson, Missouri, when communities marched peacefully to protest their treatment by law enforcement. Authorities showed up with military-grade equipment and ammunition to deal with the problem. The images of tanks rolling through St. Louis County are now forever burned in our brains, a non-subtle reminder that we could pay the ultimate price, at any moment, for insubordination.

“Philadelphia is cleaning up after its late-night street celebrations, where some overzealous fans smashed windows, climbed traffic lights and trashed some convenience stores,” one tweet from the Associated Press read. As if the situation that unfolded in the streets was just a pillow fight gone awry. In reality, large groups of thugs actively destroyed anything they could get their hands on. Department store windows were smashed. An awning of a hotel was destroyed when people decided to climb on top of it. In short, it was chaos. All over a football team.

Why does this matter? Because the language we use to describe our actions as humans is important. Framing is important, and if we’re to consider ourselves to be living in a fair world, you can’t just stand by when things go foul and no one is accountable. And it extends beyond just rowdy postgame antics — it colors almost everything about how we view athletes as well.

When Tom Brady exits a game without the customary postgame handshakes for opponents, the spin is that he’s a dogged competitor who just hates losing. If Cam Newton did that? There’d be no shortage of people lined up to castigate him for being disrespectful.

All these extensions of the “stay in your place” mentality are exactly why people like Colin Kaepernick and Chris Long are doing so much to help better their communities in a public way. It reminds people that, ultimately, none of this is really fair because it was never designed to be. The original sin of this nation is rooted in violence. Even when we aren’t trafficking in that behavior, we’re looked at as though we might.

Seriously, look at this.

Trayvon Martin had his life taken because a self-appointed mall cop effectively viewed his blackness as a threat. He would have been 23 years old this week. Meanwhile, white boys are turning over cars because the team they root for finally won a Super Bowl.

As a black person in the U.S., this is a reality you’re forced to deal with. Everything about your corporeal existence is weaponized. Your voice, your hair, your skin color, the clothes you wear, right on down to the way you walk. The default is violence. It’s an obvious double standard that if you’re not black, you simply cannot understand.

To be fair, this isn’t about painting every fan of the Eagles with a broad brush. Lord knows that the actions of a few idiots do not represent the entirety of a fan base, never mind a city. But at some point, we have to be real with ourselves. Throwing bags of unpaid food products around a convenience store would land most of us in jail, period.

One day, the inherent fear of a black planet that controls our society will fade away. You and I probably won’t be alive to see it, but when it happens, we’ll all be better for it. We don’t want revenge. What we’re looking for is equality. But if our basic behaviors as members of a civilized world are constantly vilified and characterized as harmful and evil, the likelihood of gaining ground in that realm is low.

What we saw in Philadelphia on Sunday night was a riot. This is obvious to everyone who can see. But to protect the double standards that we’ve created for different people based on the color of their skin, we won’t officially call it how it is.

So much for brotherly love, I guess.

Eagles and Meek Mill: It’s a Philly thing and a story of support The incarcerated rapper has helped fuel the team’s first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, while the team has helped boost his spirits

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA – As the iconic theme song from Rocky blasted through loudspeakers late Monday night at the Xcel Energy Center here, the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles took the stage on opening night of Super Bowl week. For this edition of the team, however, rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” would have been a more appropriate musical selection.

The incarcerated Philadelphia native – whose situation typifies problems with sentencing guidelines, criminal justice reform advocates say – has helped fuel the Eagles’ first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, providing the team’s unofficial anthem. And in turn, the Eagles have bolstered Mill’s spirits while he serves his sentence for violating probation stemming from a 2008 gun and drug case.

Mill is still confined to a medium-security prison in Chester, Pennsylvania. But he was with the Eagles in spirit, players said.

“With Meek, man, it’s a Philly vibe,” Eagles rookie wide receiver Rashard Davis said. “Philly is his hometown. That’s where his people reside. We’re just bringing that culture, that hype, to our football field.

“Before each game, Meek is getting us riled up for the game. You can’t help but get riled up. You just feel that energy. And our crowd feels that energy. Just play Meek, get the crowd riled up and just go ball out.”

Interesting formula. So far, it has worked spectacularly.

After earning home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 15-10, in the divisional round. Then in the championship game, the Eagles dismantled the Minnesota Vikings, 38-7.

During pregame warm-ups each week, Lincoln Financial Field has been transformed briefly into a Meek Mill concert venue. The Eagles bounce to the beat – and they definitely put a beatdown on the Vikings. Postgame, the lyrics from the title track of the rapper’s 2012 album filled the locker room, which pleased wideout Torrey Smith.

“Meek is an icon in every NFL locker room,” Smith said. “And he’s definitely an icon to folk like me, who know what it’s like to come from struggle, know what it’s like to grind and just know what it’s like to overcome obstacles. He’s a perfect example of all of that. He’s also a person like me who, while I haven’t committed any crimes myself or fell victim to the [criminal justice] system, I have seen it.

“I’ve seen what can happen. It has affected friends of mine. It has affected my family members. And sentencing like this, what Meek is living with right now, is part of the reason why I was a criminal justice major. Things like this flat-out don’t make sense. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. We’re aware of all of that, what he’s going through is important to us, and we also definitely get energy off of his music.”

Meek Mill derives strength partly from the Eagles’ success.

“It really lifted my spirit to hear the team rally around my songs because that’s why I make music — to inspire others and bring people together,” Mill, 30, said in a statement released to Bleacher Report and NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“The Eagles have also motivated me with the way they’ve overcome tough situations and injuries to succeed this year. I’m so proud of my Eagles for making the Super Bowl and representing the city of Philadelphia. I’m confident my guys are going to beat the [New England] Patriots and bring the Super Bowl trophy to Philly.”

Smith, safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long have championed criminal justice reform. They’re among many current and former professional athletes – NBA superstar James Harden recently visited Meek Mill in prison – who have spoken out about the rapper, who in November was sentenced to two to four years for a probation violation. This week, Meek Mill matched Colin Kaepernick’s $10,000 donation to Youth Services Inc. of Philadelphia, part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Pledge.

“The Meek Mill situation is one that represents the stuff that happens every day when you talk about people being victimized by the criminal justice system,” Jenkins said. “Once you get a record and once you have a rap sheet, it allows the system to really do with you how it sees fit. And oftentimes, that’s a burden that’s carried [disproportionately] by people of color. We’ve seen this repeatedly.

“Because Meek is such a prominent figure, now everybody sees what’s really happening out there. People see this is happening to Americans every day. And unfortunately, he’s still behind bars. But he has a lot of people who are supporting him. His music has been something that this team has rallied around. It’s something that is near and dear to the city of Philadelphia. We’ll continue to support him and ride his music throughout the Super Bowl.”

Have the Eagles moved on from the Rocky theme song for good?

Rocky is always going to be Rocky in Philly. But that’s the older generation,” Davis said. “Meek has brought something new to the table. You always have to pay respect to Rocky. But Meek is important. Especially with what’s going on.”

Ibtihaj Muhammad: A letter to my teammates ‘Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead,’ the U.S. Olympic fencer says

I want them to know the importance of allied voices in movements for freedom and justice. Their silence is deafening. Their choice to be “safe” and sit out of the conversation is as political as taking a knee. Though a white ally may never truly understand what it is like to be black in America, the ally’s voice as an American athlete matters. Allies send a powerful message that equality is everyone’s fight. Sports are unique in their ability to unite people of different shapes and sizes, ethnicities and faiths and varied experiences. Over the course of history, this dynamic has played an important role in shaping cultural discourse. Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead.

Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead.

We stand at a particularly divisive time in American history, where black and brown bodies are still denied basic human rights simply for the color of our skin, and we as athletes must not fear using our voices to fight for justice and an end to bigotry. We each have the power to change the narrative, as leaders in the movement and as allies for our teammates. For guidance, let us look to predecessors like Muhammad Ali and John Carlos, who risked everything. Let us look to allies who have been largely forgotten by history, like Peter Norman, and to modern heroes like Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe and so many women of the WNBA. Today, and every day, we must continue to fight and recommit ourselves to Martin Luther King’s vision and be inspired by his words: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

The story behind how ‘The New Yorker’s’ MLK, Kaepernick and Michael Bennett cover was born NFL protests are ‘civil disobedience in the manner of King,’ says artist

The stunning Jan. 15 New Yorker cover of Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with athlete-activists Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett has elicited a lot of strong responses, including both thunderous praise and biting criticism. We asked the artist Mark Ulriksen, who has been a freelance illustrator for The New Yorker since 1994, to walk us through the making of the cover, and he shared his creative process with us, which included his sketches from conception to completion.

When we asked Ulriksen, who said the players carried out civil disobedience in the manner of King, what inspired him to marry the NFL players’ protest with that of King’s, he answered: “Would King be condoning this? I happen to think he would.”

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

A young black officer tries to bridge the divide between the police and his people

Officer Aundre Wright The Bridge Builder 3 years in uniform

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

One Saturday this fall, as little black boys collided between chalked white lines, officer Aundre Wright mingled comfortably with the crowd at Willie Stargell Field. A swarm of uniformed police patrolled this youth football venue, where the talent and style on the field is challenged by the potential for danger off it.

A woman had been shot in the face outside a game earlier in the season, and Wright wore a bulletproof vest over his blue police uniform. But as he hugged and dapped parents and coaches, everyone recalled a younger Wright wearing the colors of the Garfield Gators or Homewood Bulldogs, ripping across the turf in a blur of speed and aggression.

The 29-year-old went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh before a torn knee ligament derailed his NFL dreams. He wasn’t on duty today, but he came on a mission to “spread love.” Since becoming a police officer three years ago amid the national outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, Wright has waged a personal crusade to bridge the gap between black and blue.

That strained relationship is evident here in the Homewood neighborhood. This is one of the most deadly parts of Pittsburgh, a largely segregated city of 300,000 where blacks make up 20 percent of the population. The police department, which has about 900 officers, did not provide diversity statistics but has been trying to recruit more black officers. Asked about the police, spectators talk about being profiled and cops having bad attitudes for no reason. They mention Leon Ford, an unarmed black man who was paralyzed after being shot by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop. Metal detectors at the field entrance stand vigil to the violent Catch-22 of poor black life across America.

But the people here say Wright isn’t a regular cop — he’s “Dre” from the East Side. They know Dre’s mama. Their son or brother played against Dre the baller. They appreciate how Dre the cop treated their troublemaking cousin. They respect what Dre the man did when a 25-year-old mother of three was shot dead in her car outside the East Hills projects last year.

The murder of Myanne Hayes hurt Wright in a new way. Maybe because his reckoning of the gangster code says women aren’t supposed to be targeted, or because he had seen other men who threatened women walk free. Wright, who was off-duty when he got the news, drove to a Home Depot and bought some signboard and Sharpies. He parked his 2003 Camry on the corner of Wilner and East Hill Drive, not far from where Hayes’ body was found. Wearing civilian clothes, Wright inked out his feelings and placed three signs on his car:

I CARE STOP THE VIOLENCE STOP SHOOTING

He held a fourth sign aloft:

HONK 4 PEACE

Kids getting off school buses stopped to watch the one-man protest. Moms came off their porches with hot chocolate. Every honk from a passing car felt like a chip out of a prison wall. A passer-by put the scene live on Facebook, where 611 people tuned in. Hours passed. Night fell. The December temperature dipped toward freezing.

Wright felt liberated.

“At least somebody knew I cared,” he recalled. “I do think it made a difference. When somebody sees a young black man trying to be positive, everyone gravitates toward that. Even if I reached one person that day and they would think, ‘Maybe I should chill. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot women.’

“Even if it touched that one somebody — that’s all I wanted.”

“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

A wild child

Wright thinks often about his first encounter with police. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother, Charise, told him the story. She was on drugs and nodded off downtown. Three-year-old Dre’s stroller rolled into the street. He was grabbed by a passing cop and placed in foster care.

That inspired his mother to clean up her life for good — Charise became a prison counselor, social worker and devoted mother. Money was tighter than young Dre’s cornrowed hair, and she moved him and his older brother through more than a dozen apartments across Homewood, East Liberty, Garfield and the rest of the city’s black neighborhoods. Nowadays, Pittsburgh feels like a small town to Wright because he can hardly drive a mile in his patrol car without running into a familiar face. Except his father’s. Wright doesn’t know who he is.

Wright was a wild child, full of energy and what he now recognizes as anger. Football was a perfect outlet. He started at age 4 in the all-black City League, which has a different flavor from predominantly white leagues in other parts of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Players sport two differently colored socks, two-toned face masks, and back pads sagging below their jerseys. Outside the lines, there’s gambling, occasional arrests of coaches and, every few years, gunfire. Many parents choose to avoid the danger and play their boys elsewhere, which only increases the City League’s fierce pride.

Despite his small stature — Wright stands 5-foot-8 today — he terrorized other tykes as a runner, receiver and defensive destroyer. People still remember how he stiff-armed a defender into a backflip. “He was a monster,” said Melvin Lewis, a City League coach who grew up with Wright. “Fast, elusive, vicious, smart. Not too many like Dre. He’s something like a ’hood legend.”

That ’hood was no joke. At age 13, Wright saw a friend’s head shattered by a bullet. He was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with firearms numerous times. While a freshman at the Perry Traditional Academy, a public school across town on the North Side, Dre was so poor he wore the same outfit 30 days straight – black thermal crew neck, black Dickies, black Timberlands. His hair stayed in four thick, fuzzy braids. But Dre was also a cutup who made everybody laugh, according to Desmond Brentley, his best friend and quarterback of the football team.

The inseparable Des and Dre followed the ’hood rules for dealing with cops: “You don’t talk to them, you don’t deal with them,” Wright recalled. “When you see them, you leave. If you see them coming in that wagon, you run.”

The pair got pulled over while driving all the time. Wright didn’t consider it harassment — just the normal course of life, like hearing gunfire or getting robbed. Why dwell on the negative when there were touchdowns to score and girls to chase? Plus, he didn’t engage in criminal activity. So if the cops wanted to search him? Go right ahead.

“You’re usually not as upset if you’re not guilty,” Wright said.

He graduated in 2006, spent a year in prep school to raise his abysmal grades and signed to play football for Pitt. He had a promising first season, averaging 21 yards per kickoff return, and his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash tabbed him as an NFL-level talent. But his role was reduced as a sophomore under a new offensive coordinator who liked big receivers. He moved to cornerback in spring practice and tore his ACL trying to toss a 300-pound lineman.

While rehabbing his injury, Wright interned with the Police Department. During a ride-along, his trainer responded to a call about a girl whose bracelet had been snatched. Despite instructions to watch from the car, Wright couldn’t help himself when the suspect was spotted — he jumped out and gave chase.

“As soon as we brought her stuff back,” Wright said, “it was like, I want to do this.”

Wright wasn’t healed enough to play his junior year. Afterward, the coaches said he was no longer in Pitt’s plans. He graduated in May 2011 with a degree in criminal justice, two years of eligibility remaining and an infant son with his college girlfriend. He accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania but left after a month, doubting that IUP could get him to the NFL and in need of money to support his son.

He spent the next year working as a security guard for $8.80 per hour and driving a school bus for $33 per trip. One day, he was assigned to pick up the football team at Perry, his alma mater. Coach Bill Gallagher boarded the bus, looked at his former star player and said, “Dre, what happened?”

“That was pain, right through the heart,” Wright said. He went home and Googled “how to become a police officer.”

Three years later, Wright was patrolling his old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

Showing we’re human

At first, he didn’t know how the ’hood would receive him. Every patrol and call brought a familiar face. Most of the response was positive. But sometimes, making an arrest, he would hear “Uncle Tom this and Uncle Tom that. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t run from it, I try to explain it to them. ‘What else you want me to do? You know I played football, blew my knee out. What am I supposed to do now?’ ”

He realized his mere presence could help defuse tensions: “Let me get in the middle of it so I can bridge the gap in case it turns bad. I want to be able to calm the officer and assure him, and calm the subject.”

Then there were the foot chases.

“When I first got here, for some reason there was a spike in stolen cars. They would jump out and start running,” he said. “It was like a dog and a ball. When they try to run from me, you’re just like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You’re not chasing them to hurt them, you’re just chasing them like a sport.

“You’re running? OK, come on, let’s run!”

Still, each time he put on his uniform, he wondered whether he would make it home. He drew his weapon many times while responding to calls about armed suspects, although he has never pulled the trigger. He began to dream about being forced to shoot someone. Slowly, the dreams turned to nightmares.

After a year and a half on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he wanted more of a sense of normalcy. Wright got an assignment as a community resource officer in a racially and economically mixed group of neighborhoods. He attends community events, mediates neighborhood problems and backs up officers who respond to 911 calls.

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

His main goal is to show that he cares and that he wants to help. That starts with listening, really listening, to what a person has to say. Patience is one of his most useful tools. Another is assistance. That could mean explaining why someone is being arrested and how to bail him out. Other times, just being black and sympathetic helps. If things are already hostile, he might give both cop and citizen an avenue to back down.

“It’s love. Just spread love. Not many police rep it,” he said.

Why him? Wright goes back to the cop who grabbed his stroller out of the street, and how it changed his mother’s life: “You never know who that person is and how you can change their life just off of anything.”

It doesn’t have to get that dramatic for Wright to believe that’s he’s making a difference.

One December morning, Wright parked his cruiser near the blighted corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. Walking past the barbershops and liquor stores, he received the same pounds and daps as at the football game. A toothless drug addict stopped Wright to ask about another cop who’d promised to get her to rehab. Wright pulled the officer’s number up on his phone and texted him. He listened to the addict ramble on for five minutes.

“People ask for me by name over here,” Wright said. “That’s all I need.”

Harassment or normal life?

Asked about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has torn apart America’s most popular sport, Wright stepped into his familiar place in the gap. But this tightrope isn’t so easily navigated with charm and goodwill.

“I commend Kaepernick. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If you feel like you should stand up for something, stand up for it,” Wright said — and then tried to balance the scales. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t know if it’s a legit angle from him. If he feels like he has a purpose, I respect him. It cost him his spot in the league, so I have to respect it.”

Kaepernick started the protests by citing police violence that left “bodies in the street.” That statement doesn’t sit well with Wright, although he won’t come out and say so. Killer cops don’t jibe with Wright’s three years of experience on the Pittsburgh force — there have only been two fatal police killings during that time, both of them of armed black men — or with his life lessons as a law-abiding youngster.

When Wright turns on his flashers, the camera in his police car is recording everything. If he detains or arrests someone, his report needs to include a solid reason for the stop. There may be a few bad apples, Wright says, but they should and will be held accountable.

His friends at the football game may complain about harassment. But Wright thinks back to his experience as a young man joyriding in his hooptie with his best friend Desmond, screaming out the windows at girls and blasting music through their crummy speakers. The way Wright remembers it, there was always some legal reason, however thin, for them to get pulled over. They missed a stop sign, or circled the block five times, or had beads hanging from their rearview mirror that technically could obstruct their vision. The cops were looking for guns, drugs and drunken drivers. None of that applied to them. Getting stopped wasn’t harassment. Just a normal part of life.

Today, Officer Wright asks how police are supposed to keep drugs and guns out of the black community if people object to legal stops. “If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

What about the Freddie Grays, the Tamir Rices — all the times when police have not been held accountable?

“Go to your legislator, representatives, speak out, [tell them] this is outrageous. And if he ain’t do nothing, go over his head.”

Speaking out is what Kaepernick and the NFL players are doing. But the chasm they have opened is so wide even Wright has trouble reaching across it.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”

‘I’m laying you down’

Wright was at his best friend Desmond Brentley’s house one Saturday, watching college football on the television in the kitchen. After high school, Brentley played quarterback at Grambling State and Robert Morris, and he now handles corpses as a city medical examiner. If you see Des and Dre at the same time, “it’s a real bad day for you,” Brentley said.

The childhood friends started talking about the arrest of Michael Bennett. The Seattle Seahawks defensive end had accused Las Vegas police of racial profiling and excessive force. After a report of shots fired, Bennett was tackled and handcuffed. He said the officer put a gun to his head while he was facedown and threatened to “blow my f—ing head off.”

Wright sided with the police. “There’s shots fired, it was a black male, black hoodie. If a black male in a black hoodie comes by, you’re going to put him on the ground — ”

“It wasn’t a black male in a black hoodie, though,” Brentley said. “It was just a casino, shots fired.”

“We don’t know what came on the radio,” Wright responded. “But if that happens, I will put you down. He said he was going to blow his head off. The only reason I think that would be necessary is because you’re running towards the fight and you’ve got to psych yourself up. … It’s going to turn into bolder language.”

“Everything you’re saying, you think that’s right or wrong?” Brentley asked.

Wright stood up.

“If there’s shots fired and somebody runs past, and I’m the fastest dude, I’m laying you down,” he said.

Wright didn’t want to vouch for the specific actions of the officer who arrested Bennett: “I don’t know the angle. I don’t know how far he was away from the shots fired.” What he wanted his childhood friend to understand was the emotion of a cop in that situation, and why he would threaten to kill a suspect.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset,” Wright said. He crouched in a stance, poised to burst off the line of scrimmage. “I had to rev myself up to take you down. You’re not a robot. You’ve got to talk yourself up to it, or it’s not going to happen. At that point, if you’ve got to kill that dude, that’s what you’re saying. That’s going to be the process in your head.”

Brentley, seated at the kitchen counter, asked Wright whether he had seen the video of Bennett’s arrest, when he was facedown and handcuffed. The video looked like excessive force to him.

“It was probably warranted,” Wright replied, still standing.

Later, Brentley said he tries to empathize with Wright’s descriptions of life as a cop.

“I still don’t know,” he said. “I still get scared by the cops, all these years later.”

The nightmare

Every four or five months, the nightmare returns.

Wright’s gun is in his hand. He says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” The suspect ignores his commands. “And you’re screaming, you’re screaming, you’re screaming. And then, you just have to.”

Wright’s bullet hits the suspect.

“And you know at that point, your life is probably over, regardless if you’re right, wrong or indifferent. So it’s a nightmare.”

The nightmare nearly turned real one day last year. Wright was driving alone in his cruiser when a call came over the radio. Officers were pursuing robbery suspects on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood. They were chasing a white Honda Civic with a broken window. The occupants were four black males, armed.

Wright joined the chase. Through East Liberty, up Negley Run Road, around the Hill District. Wright had been driving these streets his whole life. Every turn the suspects made, he knew where it led. Up in Oak Hill, the Honda crashed and the four people in the car jumped out and ran. Once again, the chase was on.

As he sprinted down the street, adrenaline surging, Wright thought about a local officer recently killed while responding to a domestic dispute.

He tripped one suspect, lay him down and kept running. His second target bent over. Wright wondered whether he was about to get shot. “I just dove. Boom. I tackled him.”

The suspect was a teenager, no more than 17. He didn’t have a pistol — just a BB gun.

“Ouch!” the kid said. “You hurt my shoulder!”

Relief flooded through Wright’s body, then heartache and disappointment at another young black life derailed.

At that moment, there was no gap to be bridged, nowhere to spread the love. Just a young cop trying to keep himself and his community alive.