Special Olympics athletes from around the world took on these NBA/WNBA players NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game was some fun-filled competition

For many athletes on the hardwood, clear and concise instructional basketball is key to the fundamentals of the game. And it’s no different for Special Olympic athletes who participate in unified sports.

On Saturday, 12 of these players from all over the world revealed their talents in front of fans at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game in Los Angeles. As part of the NBA’s All-Star community efforts, and joined by NBA and WNBA players and legends, the athletes were divided into two teams (orange and blue) made up of individuals with or without intellectual disabilities.

Showcasing the unifying power of sports since the first game held during the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game creates a diverse and inclusive environment. For more than 40 years, the NBA and Special Olympics have partnered to bring basketball to Special Olympics athletes and events across the globe.

NBA All-Star and Special Olympics Global Ambassador Andre Drummond, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Lakers guard Larry Nance Jr., Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson and legends Dikembe Mutombo and Felipe Lopez participated in a basketball clinic, which took place before the game, and some even played in the game.

Drummond recently shared his struggles in school with bullying and why his support of Special Olympics is so meaningful, in an NBA film.

More than 1.2 million people worldwide take part in Special Olympics Unified Sports competitions.

Team member George Wanjiku of Kenya finished the game with six points. The 6-foot-8 center played on Saturday’s Orange Team and was the highest scorer in the 25-point team finish. The final score was 33-25, won by the Blue Team. Wanjiku was disappointed by the loss but ecstatic, saying the day was one of the “best days of his life.”

George Wanjiku finished the game with six points at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game on Feb. 17 during NBA All-Star Weekend.

NBA Cares

Translated by his coach James Okwiri, Wanjiku said he saw other athletes coming to play basketball and he got interested in playing basketball because of his height and new opportunities outside of his other favorite sport.

Wanjiku is an only child who lost both of his parents at the age of 10. He was raised by his grandmother, and he saved enough money to build a home for her after working at a construction company. Playing with Special Olympics for only four years, Wanjiku enjoys watching movies, traveling and meeting new people. In 2015, he participated in the World Summer Games in Los Angeles and since then, he has gained a lot of respect and admiration in his community.

Okwiri is looking forward to coaching Wanjiku more this year.

About 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way. ESPN has served as the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports since 2013, supporting the growth and expansion of this program that empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to engage through the power of sports.

Special Olympics athlete Jasmine Taylor finished with four points. The Florida native is a huge fan of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

“It was good game,” she said. “I had fun playing.”

Jasmine Taylor (right) played in the 2018 NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game on Feb. 17 during the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.

NBA Cares

Phillipo Howery finished with four points and appreciated playing alongside one of his favorite players, Mutombo.

NBA Special Olympic athlete Phillipo Howery (left) spends time with his favorite NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo one day before playing alongside him at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game on Feb. 17.

“It was pretty hard and crazy, but it was fun,” Howery said.

Howery is from one of the most inclusive high schools in the Arizona, if not all of the U.S. He will compete in the upcoming 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle from July 1-6.

Special Olympics coach Annette Lynch said the athletes were prepared.

“We’re only volunteer coaches. We can only come and volunteer over the weekend. So he only trains once a week,” Okwiri said. “It’s a high-performance situation. In Special Olympics, not always do the high-performing athletes become selected. I could not be more proud of them …”

The players were selected based on an application process, which included video interview submissions that included personal game highlights.

Lynch joined the Special Olympics in 1989.

“I was the first full-time woman in the sports department,” she said. “My background is certainly teaching and coaching, from junior high all the way up through Division I athletics. And I also had a three-year stint as a player on the U.S. team back in the ’60s. I brought together the player aspect, the teacher aspect, and the coaching aspect, and looking to professionalize what these athletes would get and certainly deserve. They deserve the best in coaching.

“Our goal was to showcase their skills, so that people would see what our athletes are capable of. Because they don’t, they many times speculate or they think they know, but they don’t know. We have such a range of ability level, from the superhigh level.”

According to its website, the Special Olympics is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, allowing practices and games to diversify and become more fun than challenging.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


TEAM WORLD

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

TEAM USA

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

*Injured, will not play in game

 

When in doubt, ‘Trust the Process’

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

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

Will Lonzo Ball play?

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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

The dunk contest before the dunk contest

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

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

Can Jamal Murray do it again?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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

Throwback threads

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

Actress Candice Patton opens up on her role as Iris West in ‘The Flash’ The 29-year-old believes it’s important to break from historical roles and seek more diversity

Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming was played by Zendaya. Samuel L. Jackson commanded the role of Nick Fury in The Avengers. In the movie Thor: Ragnarok, Idris Elba is the Asgardian gatekeeper Heimdall. Quvenzhané Wallis starred as the always singing and hopeful foster kid Annie. Brandy Norwood found her happily ever after as Cinderella with Whitney Houston dressed in gold as her fairy godmother. Will Smith protected Earth from aliens as Agent J in Men in Black.

What’s the significant common feature of these actors and their characters? They are all African-Americans playing characters who were originally white in their respective comic or children’s book.

Adding to the list is Candice Patton, who is in her fourth season of The Flash as Iris West. West is white in the DC comic, and her character is the no-fear-no-matter-the-danger, tough-as-nails journalist and longtime best friend of Barry Allen, aka The Flash. They’re married now and she leads S.T.A.R. Labs, the team behind The Flash in stopping crazy meta-human activity in Central City. The series airs on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on The CW.

The Plano, Texas, native began her career in Hollywood with a stint on The Young and the Restless after being chosen in a national college casting search for a guest role. Once Patton graduated from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she moved to Los Angeles to continue her acting career. Her television credits include appearances on Entourage, Castle, Grey’s Anatomy, The Game, CSI: Miami and Heroes, to name a few.

“It’s a huge honor because young people and future generations will remember Iris West as black,” said Patton, 29. “If my casting wasn’t working [for TV], they would have changed it for the film, but they didn’t [and cast Kiersey Clemons, another African-American woman], and that’s a great thing.”

There’s still a long way to go with diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, but celebrating every inch, foot and mile fought to push the glass ceiling higher is just as important as the fight.

While in Washington, D.C., for the “DC in D.C.” pop culture event, Patton spoke with The Undefeated about being a woman of color in Hollywood, how the leading lady on and offscreen has evolved and just how tearing her ACL as a cheerleader jump-started her passion for acting.


What have you learned from playing Iris West?

She is strong, fearless, passionate and emotional. There is strength in vulnerability, and Iris isn’t afraid to show her emotions. She won’t let that defeat her.

How is it both an honor and responsibility playing Iris, who is traditionally white in the comic book?

It’s a huge honor because young people and future generations will remember Iris West as black. They can see themselves as the ingénue. Iris is the love interest of the hero, he’s the one he desires. She’s the leader of the team; she’s the one who rallies everyone together. And that’s a really important role model for young girls and even boys.

#KeepIrisBlack has trended on Twitter. What significance does that have to you?

I got into acting to A) pay my rent and B) live out my dreams … but another part of it became being a voice for so many young women of color. They get to see themselves on-screen [when they watch The Flash]. I craved to see that as a child growing up. It was just never there. All of my heroes were white and blond. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what made it difficult for me as a black girl was that it felt outside of myself, like something over there … something that was so cool but could never happen to me. Even when I was starting out in Hollywood, all of the roles I was going for was the best friend of the pretty white girl. So now for the first time, I’m [metaphorically] the pretty white girl.

What actresses do you look up to?

I remember watching Halle Berry win that Oscar and thinking how an acting career path was possible for me. Her grace, dignity and class are all things I’ve aspired toward. Zoe Saldana has done an amazing job in the diverse roles she has acted in, and that further paves a huge path for women of color too.

Hollywood is recognizing interracial relationships, like that of Iris and Barry on The Flash, and finally normalizing it. Why is that important?

It’s very important because it becomes normal and less fearful for people who haven’t seen interracial couples in their own neighborhoods and communities. People see Iris and Barry and say, “Oh they’re just like us … a normal relationship.” Having diverse storylines in general across film and TV impacts communities and [deep-rooted] mindsets.

Leading women in TV and film have evolved. How would you define what a leading lady is today?

The leading lady is extremely important to the other heroes in the show. We used to see women as the sidekicks, but we’re moving away from that and women are becoming the heroes of their own stories. Iris is stepping into that, especially this season.

[Outside of the screen], we as a culture have a specific way of what we’re used to seeing women as or how we want to see women. But the change is happening because women are now deciding for themselves and we are saying, “No more.” We’re making choices that are going to make people uncomfortable because before it wasn’t the feminine way and it wasn’t acceptable for women [to do that]. But now we are seeing women step up and say, “No more. Thanks for your input, but I decide on what I wear, what profession I’m going to pursue and what I deserve to get paid.”

How did cheerleading play a part in you becoming an actress?

I grew up in Texas, so you either played football, went to the games or was a cheerleader. I enjoyed it a lot, but then tore my ACL. I couldn’t cheer for a while, so I ended up hanging out in the theater club, and the rest is pretty much history.

What insecurities have you overcome?

Fear of being wrong, making mistakes and being the perfect celebrity for people to look up to. I learned that I have to be true to who I am because people will see my sincerity through a mistake that way.

Where does your courage come from?

My mom and dad. My mom always tells me to be as proud as a peacock, and my dad as a now-retired FBI agent would say, “Just because you’re shot doesn’t mean you’re going to die.” I go through trials and tribulations, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. You just have to keep pushing through.

How has being a new dog mom changed your life?

My dog, Zoe, has changed my life and has been a great anxiety relief. She’s given me that sense of responsibility to love something outside of myself. Sometimes, this career can feel so self-absorbed because it’s a lot about you and your character. I just felt like it was about me, me, me, me for way too long. Having Zoe takes me outside of myself, which is great.

What’s your favorite throwback shows?

I grew up idolizing Lucille Ball. I’d watch I Love Lucy every single night. There was something about how she made me feel good and entertained. I just knew that I wanted to do that and be part of being in people’s home every night. Acting was a hobby that turned into my passion.

What emoji do you use the most?

The side-eye one. 👀

What’s your favorite movie-time snack?

Keiynan Lonsdale [who plays my brother Wally/Kid Flash on The Flash] introduced me to adding Maltesers chocolate to a warm bag of popcorn. I don’t even like chocolate, but this snack is on point.

Maya Moore: A Pioneering Spirit The Lynx forward is as fearless and captivating off the court as she is on it

Dear Black Athlete,

Don’t ever forget that you are a citizen—a part of a community

With being an athlete there comes privilege and responsibility—mainly the responsibility to never stop seeking to understand your fellow citizen and neighbor—more importantly, the ones who aren’t exactly like you.

This has been my journey as I’ve stepped into the world of mass incarceration in America and how this phenomenon has unfairly impacted black and brown men and families.

I’ve witnessed double standards and unchecked power in our home of the United States and I’m moved to act.

The American dream of freedom for all of its diverse citizens can only work if we, the people, work it! And as athletes, we know the process to achieving goals better than most.

Don’t be afraid to use your voice to challenge our elected leaders to rise.

But let us also remind ourselves to rise as we step outside of our comfort zone to see people. Really see them.

Be genuine, be thoughtful, be selfless and watch the momentum build as others join in.

We shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.


Jemele Hill sat down with the WNBA star to talk about why she cares so much about doing the right thing.

Jemele Hill: You’ve won championships on every continent but three, is that right?
Maya Moore: Yes, unfortunately.

That’s a nice not so humblebrag. [Laughs] You have four WNBA titles in seven seasons with the Lynx, obviously two college championships. You’ve been to the White House 50 times. [Laughs]
Something like that.

How do you think your success would be viewed if you were a man?
Hmm, if I was—wow. Goodness, I haven’t thought—

Serena Williams, for example, said that if she were a man she’d already be considered the greatest athlete ever.
Our society is still catching up to valuing what we do as females on the athletic field in a way that has as much respect and visibility as what the men have been doing for years. You think about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and some of those pioneers that are allowing LeBron and Steph and Kevin to do the things they’re doing now. So I’m not really ashamed of where I’m at in the history of women’s sports. Years from now, another young woman in my position doing what I’m doing is going to get that type of attention and respect.

You’ve chosen to use your platform and get involved in issues that are kind of tricky and thorny. In July 2016, you, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson chose to have a press conference to discuss the very serious issue of police brutality. What made you decide that was the moment?
It was a hard summer, 2016. We were really hurting in that moment when it was happening in our backyard of Minneapolis; the backyard of Seimone Augustus, who’s from Louisiana, and even the killing of the police down in Texas. It was all happening at the same time. So we just felt like we need to be more humans than athletes right now and to say something.

What was the backlash like?
The backlash wasn’t too crazy. We really tried to be thoughtful about respecting police. But we need everyone to rise. We need our leaders to continue to rise to end what seems preventable.

What was interesting was that Lindsay Whalen was involved. And for people who don’t know, she’s white. [Laughs]
Yes, on some days.

We don’t see a lot of white athletes who are visible when it comes to speaking out about racial issues and certainly not for something like police violence. In your locker room, what are the conversations about race like?
Lindsay loves her teammates. She has relationships with her teammates and attempts to know them. But she’s also a person who is ride or die. She’s down for her people and her family and her teammates.

Not just her, but Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart. There seems to be a different sense of solidarity between white and black athletes in the WNBA. We know you guys don’t make as much as male athletes, so in some respects you have even more to lose because you don’t have as much. So why do you think that level of fearlessness seems to exist among you?
I think there’s a pioneering, fighting kind of a spirit in the female athlete because, you know, we haven’t been raised on “All I have to do is play my sport and I’m going to have everything I want.” We’ve had to do extra and go above and beyond. And I think that builds a certain character in female athletes that gets shown in the best way when it comes to these social justice issues. It’s a natural extension of our experience, fighting for those eyeballs, for views, for attention. It’s the same thing; we’ve seen that cycle. We’ve seen the rhythm of the fight. I think the heart of the female athlete is so huge.

Lindsay Whalen #13, Maya Moore #23, Rebekkah Brunson #32, and Seimone Augustus #33 of the Minnesota Lynx attend a press conference before the game against the Dallas Wings on July 9, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Did it ever cross your mind what you could potentially lose by doing this, be it sponsors, be it fans?
Sure.

And still you proceeded.
I think it was just more about being thoughtful and being honest. That was part of the reason we didn’t have as much fear, because we were just being honest and kind of raw about being a citizen of the United States at that moment.

But we’re in a league that is trying to gain momentum. And so any time you say something that can be controversial, you’re risking losing fans. You’re risking even moving your league back. But at the end of the day, I think that fearlessness is why people love us.

For you, it didn’t just stop at the press conference. You have chosen criminal justice reform and prosecutorial misconduct as the issues that have some meaning for you. Why is that?
About 10 years ago, my extended family that I grew up with in Missouri introduced me to a man who had been wrongfully convicted. And that was kind of the first time I had really thought about prison or people in prison, our prison system. His name is Jonathan Irons. And I was just outraged. I said how in the world does this 16-year-old get this sentencing without any physical evidence? I stepped outside of my middle-class comfort zone that I was raised in to really think, “Oh, if I didn’t have my mom, if I didn’t have my family, if I was a young black man at this time growing up without a lot of money and resources, what would my life be like?”

There seems to be a social and political awakening among a lot of athletes these days. Where do you think that’s coming from?
I really think some of it has to do with exposure, because we have so much access to information. And you’re seeing more athletes understand as they’ve gotten older, maybe, “I was one decision, one family away from being that person. And I’m really not that much different than this person over here, and I need to say something. I need to do something. I have been blessed with so much. I have a platform. I have a voice. I have financial means.” It’s contagious when one person decides to speak up for someone that doesn’t have a voice. I think attacking some of the structural, systematic things in our justice system is the next level of all this momentum.

With all these conversations, do you feel enough attention is being paid to the specific, unique issues that black women face? Because we have the double burden, right? We have race on one side. We have gender on the other. And sometimes those intertwine. I often make the joke that on any given day I’m either told to go write for Cosmo or go back to Africa.
Yes, there’s always going to be a need to equip and empower black women. And I’m so grateful to be standing on the shoulders of so many strong black women who have come before. And some in my family. And I just couldn’t imagine what growing up would be like if I didn’t have them to look to. And the more you see a young black girl get an opportunity, you can see neighborhoods change when you equip and empower young black women.

Obviously with black women, the No. 1 word that comes to mind is strength,
but do you feel like we’re allowed to be vulnerable at all?

That’s a great point, because it’s hard. We have this uncomfortable tension with strength and vulnerability. And we shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.

Maya Moore #23 of the Minnesota Lynx makes a layup in Game One of the 2017 WNBA finals.

Andy King/Getty Images

Is living overseas as a black woman kind of isolating?
Sure. [Laughs] You don’t think about some of the basic things, whether that’s, you know, I’ve got to make sure my hair’s done before I go overseas because it’s going to be three, four months before I’m going to have the hair care I need. Even facial products or just certain foods or conversation you have where there’s kind of that understanding of where you’ve been, where you’re from. At the same time, I love getting to learn and dive into other cultures and finding those connections with other people, with other women.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard this from some fans: They just want Maya Moore to stick to sports. What’s your response to people who maybe don’t want to see you in this other lane?
Surprisingly, and I don’t know if it’s just me because I don’t listen to a lot of people [laughs] outside of the people I’m intentionally trying to be around, but I’ve heard more and more people say, “Maya, thank you. You’re giving us a voice. Like, we need this more.” I’m a person, I’m a citizen and an athlete.

Do you feel as if black athletes should bear a special burden? I hate to use the word “burden,” but “responsibility”? Do black athletes have an increased responsibility to use their platforms to speak out on issues that impact their community?
It shouldn’t be that way that more of the responsibility is on the black athlete, but it’s just part of how it is. Because our ancestors, our family members, our communities have had to deal with hardships and oppression. I feel that responsibility. The more I learn, the more I look back and the more I look around.

How do you want to be remembered as a person?
I just always like to take advantage of opportunities I have to cast life-giving visions. I think that is something I’ve been the beneficiary of with great coaches like Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve on the Lynx right now. You need people to give you beautiful visions to run after. I get opportunities because of my platform to paint visions of “This is how good we can be.” That’s really what’s exciting me now and is going to last throughout my career.

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

Saints DE Cameron Jordan is a beast on the field and off of it The NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee goes above and beyond to help his community

A few days before Cameron Jordan rejected five passes that helped lead his team, the New Orleans Saints, to a 31-9 victory over the New York Jets, he’d visited a high school in the Louisiana area “on the West Bank.”

It’s his Tuesday ritual — going into the community to visit high schools or hospitals, or showing his face and lending a hand to any community event — something he’s faithfully done since his rookie season. Giving of himself to serve or encourage others is a habit Jordan learned from his father, six-time Pro Bowler Steve Jordan, who instilled great values and work ethic in him on and off the field.

Cameron Jordan is now up for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and he is elated about the possibility of ranking No. 1 out of the 32 nominees. The NFL recently announced the nominees for the award, which gives honor to a player who exemplifies the league’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact. Finalists will be announced in January.

Giving back comes naturally to the 28-year-old. Since being drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, he has participated in at least one but sometimes multiple weekly community events as he has evolved into a defensive starter, captain, Pro Bowler and nationally recognized player.

Whether his participation has been team-related or sponsored by a community partner, a teammate or a fan, he’s remained selfless. For the past four years, Jordan has been the face of the Saints Kids Club. He spends several hours during the summer working with kids who take part in the Saints Community Patrol Summer Camps. He also delivers several motivational speeches to youth and high school students.

Each Man of the Year nominee will receive two Super Bowl LII tickets to give away to fans and community heroes. The five current players who have won the award are Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning and Jason Witten. All 2017 nominees, including Jordan, have donned a Man of the Year helmet decal since the announcement was made in early December, and they will sport it through the end of the season in recognition of their accomplishments on and off the field. This tradition will continue for future nominees and winners of the award.

“NFL players are outstanding, generous men of character who give back to their communities,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release.

“Walter Payton represented the very best on and off the field and this year’s Man of the Year nominees exemplify his legacy of philanthropy and leadership. We are proud to support players as they use their platforms to drive positive change.”

In between practice and community events, The Undefeated caught up with Jordan about the driving force behind caring for the community.


What inspires you to donate your time and effort on a weekly basis to the community?

You know, if anything, I give credit to my dad. For as far back as I can remember, he’s always gave back to the surrounding community of Minnesota when he was playing, and Arizona, where we moved to after, where he’s from. He’s made an emphasis in his life just to give back just as much as he’s gotten from life. That’s a lot.

It’s easy to go to the pros and be able to try and give back to the next generation. What’s more motivating is not the fact that I’m doing it because my dad’s doing it, or I’m doing it because there’s some recognition part. If anything, I don’t want any of the recognition for it.

At the end of the day, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a thing that can help a kid, will come back to me.

I’m not saying I’m the foundation — just a brick.

What’s your most meaningful cause to give your time to?

At this point, it’s almost a ritual to go out to a different school every Tuesday. Whether that be for New Orleans, whether that be New Orleans East, or whether that be the West Bank, you go out to as far as Houma and Boutte. It doesn’t really matter. Just the inclusiveness, the inclusivity of being able to show that there’s an NFL player that cares about these kids.

How do you balance being such a prolific football player and contributor to the team, and such a wonderful role model and community member?

I don’t know. That’s a great question because in terms of everything I do, I always want to feel like I can do more. We talk about there’s guys who’ve started a foundation, and as much as I talk about I could start my own foundation, is that also that, if I start my foundation, this is what you sort of have to stick to.

I guess it completely makes my possibilities limitless. … Me and [Saints wide receiver] Mike Thomas are doing this event Friday for the battered women’s shelter, where we’re going to take a whole bunch of families out there. It was basically just coming to each other, like, ‘Hey what can we do?’ This is an event that the Saints have helped people in the past. This is something that we can pick up and make it our own. Just whether that be going to Target and giving out gifts. Whether that be … whatever we can do, whatever we so set our minds to, that’s what we can accomplish.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to see in the community?

Anytime you do a hospital visit, anytime you talk about seeing an intensive care unit. It’s one thing to go and talk to kids, be able to see that life force, that active, vibrant energy in all aspects of life. Then you go around and you turn to a hospital visit. You see kids that are super young, months old to a couple years old, that haven’t even had a fraction of a life that you have. The empathy that you feel toward that family is just that much more genuine.

What’s the best piece of advice your father has ever given you about philanthropy?

He never did it for any recognition as well. It’s just something that you assume upon yourself.

There’s so many moments to be proud of that, as a kid, you just don’t pick up on that. As a man now, I realize how much he did. So it’s just easy enough to assimilate into the role of ‘What can I do for my community?’ As much as I try to say I’m my own man, I was molded by a perfect situation. I had a loving mother. My mom was like … she believes in the golden rule. She believes in Jesus. She believes in showing God’s light through a person.

Then you talk about my dad, who of course believes in always trying to teach the next generation, whether that be my first cousins, or my second cousins, or the random kids from our high school that just look like they may need some help. My dad was always there for that.

For more information on the nominees and the award, visit NFL.com/manoftheyear.

Why these three Dallas Cowboys players decided to get baptized in the team’s pool The exclusive story behind the touching viral video that took the internet by storm

FRISCO, Texas – Three members of the Dallas Cowboys decided to make a move that will forever alter their lives.

They got baptized. And it was videotaped.

But it wasn’t a typical video of a conventional baptism. What created a stir was that all three players got baptized in the Cowboys’ rehabilitation pool at the team’s swanky practice facilities.

Linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Justin March-Lillard, and safety Kavon Frazier had the honor of having the Cowboys’ team chaplain, Pastor Jonathan Evans, baptize them. By all accounts it is believed to be the first baptism at The Star, the Cowboys’ $1.5 billion headquarters and practice facility, which opened last year.

“We spend a lot of our time here [at the practice facilities],” March-Lillard told The Undefeated. “You’re more with the guys here than you are with your own family, so it’s like a family environment.

“We have our team chaplain, who kind of helped change our lives, and we wanted him to be able to have that honor, so we’re honored to have him to be the one who baptized us. This is kind of faith and football for us – it’s a lifestyle – so it all goes together.”

Frazier said about 15 teammates witnessed the baptisms, adding that the moment was surreal.

“For me, I got baptized at a young age, and I was always a believer, but I never really had a real relationship with God until now,” Frazier said. “So that’s why I just wanted to redo that, because now I actually have a relationship with him and I see what he’s doing in my life and I actually truly have faith.

“I think it brought our team a lot closer in that aspect, because we’re so used to seeing them cheering us on the field. But they were actually cheering us on at getting baptized in a whole different aspect of life.”

Running back Alfred Morris was one of the players in the room where the baptisms occurred and was left inspired by what he had just witnessed.

“Scoring touchdowns, making tackles, getting yards – that stuff is awesome and that stuff is temporary,” Morris said. “But making a decision like that, that’s forever, that’s eternal.

“It was huge for me to see that and to be able to witness that and I’m glad I got to, because it was awesome and I’m superexcited for those guys. I even put it on my social media I was so excited for those guys, because it’s a big step in life.”

It was a big step Hitchens was more than willing to take even though the baptisms didn’t occur in a traditional church.

“I was contemplating that I needed a church to go to in order to get baptized,” Hitchens said. “I just didn’t know it was going to end up like that.

“But it’s crazy how God put different people in your life. [Evans] came out of his way to come here on a Tuesday to baptize us, so it was just a blessing. It just happened out of nowhere.”

The video of the baptisms caught the players off guard when it went viral. Evans shared a two-minute clip on his Facebook page and it has been viewed nearly 6 million times.

Upon entering the pool, Evans read from 2 Corinthians 5:17, stating: “Therefore those who are in Christ are a new creation. The old has gone and the new has come.”

The players had no idea that a video of them turning their lives over to God would go viral.

“Going viral, that was God’s plan,” said Frazier, adding he got baptized real early in response to his mom’s demands. “He made it go viral just so we can use our platform in a whole bigger sense than just football.

“It wasn’t supposed to blow up, it just happened. We didn’t do it for the press. We did it to renew our vows with God.”

As word circulated around the Cowboys’ locker room about the baptisms, fullback Keith Smith was enjoying a spiritual awakening and explaining how his three teammates were starting over on life’s journey.

“I feel like those are three guys that are really on the right path, especially spiritually,” Smith said. “I feel like your faith plays a lot into your game, too, so just seeing them take that step is big-time.

“I heard it got a whole bunch of publicity, so it’s always a good thing to spread the word of God.”

March-Lillard, whose father and younger brother both died within the last 13 months, said that it was a no-brainer to get baptized at the Cowboys’ practice facilities. Especially since he’s noticed that some of his teammates have openly gravitated toward the word of God.

“Every Bible study, every conversation about the word of God, they were a part of it,” March-Lillard said. “So it was unique to see them not be afraid to share their beliefs.

“Our church is here, so for us it was kind of like that’s why we got baptized here, because this is our church, this is where we have Bible study.”

By bringing attention to God by getting baptized at The Star, Frazier hopes it will resonate with younger kids across the world. Particularly those kids, he said, who don’t think it’s cool to embrace God.

“They don’t see their friends really worshiping God and really talking about God,” Frazier said. “Even me growing up, I went to a Christian school all my life, but I really wasn’t going around talking about God.

“But now it’s different. Now I actually get it. I think it takes some time and people just have to grow up until they really build that relationship with God, but from this video, hopefully younger people will start learning [about God] a little bit quicker.”

March-Lillard said he gave his life to Christ three years ago. He added that the recent baptism was just icing on the cake for him and his two teammates.

“That was life-changing for us and we wanted to put that on display and to have that visualization about just what it means and how it feels to be reborn,” March-Lillard said. “It was a huge decision for all of us.

“We all backed each other up as well as everyone else in the locker room backed us up. So it was a big decision that we all made together.”

It’s a decision that all three players said they would repeat if they had to do it all over again. And they all strongly believe their baptism was designed to get athletes and people in all walks of life discussing its impact.

“It was amazing just seeing our teammates cheering us on, and it’s just amazing how much it blew up [on social media] and the platform that we can use just by getting baptized at our workplace,” Frazier said. “So now, younger kids might not be so nervous to come out of the closet in their faith.

“They may not think it’s the not-so-cool thing to do. It was all God’s plan to make it go viral.”

Jennifer James turns setbacks into success with plus-size activewear line Active Ego The brand was featured in New York Fashion Week and offers options for the WNBA Dallas Wing’s plus-size fans

When Jennifer James founded the plus-size activewear brand Active Ego, she didn’t know the brand’s continued success would take her all the way to New York Fashion Week and become part of the Dallas Wings. But through dedication, hard work and an unrelenting devotion, it’s reached masses beyond her farthest dreams.

After having her first child in 2013, the Dallas native went into full gym mode to lose her baby weight and noticed a lack of fashionable activewear for plus-size women. James had no formal training or experience in the apparel industry, but she decided to start designing and creating her own durable fashion-forward pieces as a hobby, and the Active Ego brand was born.

In 2016, James was downsized. She worked in the IT business as a business analyst as well as a project manager, implementing electronic health record systems for hospitals and insurance companies.

“I did that, I would say, for a good five to six years before I realized that that just wasn’t a passion of mine,” James said. “So, it wasn’t long after I had my daughter I decided to jump out of the business and pursue the brand.”

The “mompreneur’s” primary mission with Active Ego is to “empower today’s woman to embrace an active and healthy lifestyle, while looking and feeling phenomenal in stylishly flattering apparel.” Since James launched the brand, her line has been showcased at New York Fashion Week, partnered with Neiman Marcus Last Call as its only plus-size activewear brand, and has partnered with the Dallas Wings for the first plus-size WNBA fan apparel collection.


What was your inspiration for starting the brand?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I gained quite a bit of weight. And, I just really wanted to be able to work out and feel great in just activewear, athleisure wear that I felt like was empowering, that was full of color, full of personality. And, when you’re considered plus-size, which is typically a 12 or anything above, your options are very limited. What inspired me is the fact that, here I am, I didn’t feel like I was old. I was still young, and I just wanted to feel that way when I was working out, and didn’t want to have boring colors, such as the whites, a lot of the sports bras are white, gray and black, and just really dull and lifeless. I just really thought that there was really nothing out there in the markets, or any brands dedicated to this underserved margin of women, and so I just kind of stepped out there and did my own thing.

How did you start the process?

I pumped into high gear with just designing and of figuring out different fabrics and things that I felt would look great, even at the size I was, so I could enjoy my fitness experience a lot better. I work with a manufacturing company in Los Angeles to do a lot of my sewing for the different styles that we have. Our designers and everything are in-house here [Dallas], but depending on the number of units, we definitely work with the company in Los Angeles to do all of the sewing and mailing out of the styles.

How many people are part of the Active Ego team?

We have a team of seven here locally, and then of course our production team ranges anywhere between 10 to 15 people.

How many hours are you personally dedicating to the daily operations?

Oh, my gosh! All the hours. It feels like. But, honestly, when you’re going on this whole entrepreneurship journey, most people think you have a product, it’s going to sell a million dollars, put in two years and that’s it. People really don’t like to sit in the process, because it’s long, nothing’s guaranteed, and it’s lots of hours. I just couldn’t even imagine how many hours, so I would tell you that it’s a balance. And, I’m a wife, I’m a mom, and I’m an entrepreneur. So, between that you don’t really have a set amount of hours. There’s been some days where I’m working 16 to 18 hours, and then there’s some where I work a little lighter, eight to 10 hours. It just depends on what needs to get done and just kind of how strong your team is.

How do you balance being an entrepreneur, a mother and a wife?

I don’t think there’s a balance. No one ever told me that. To be honest, it’s all about how flexible you are, it’s not really about balance, I feel, in a lot of areas. When I’m working on my brand, or dealing with the children, I may be missing out on time with my husband, or vice versa. I just have to try not to fail too much in the same area, that’s kind of how I look at it. But, I’m human. I think that balancing is just overrated. You just kind of have to prioritize some things, and you have to sacrifice some things and sometimes you have to be a little selfish. It really is hard when people say balancing, it’s something you have to just know how to switch gears and be flexible, I would say.

How would you describe your method of switching gears and staying flexible?

I sacrifice a lot of sleep in order to get everything done, typically. I make sure that I stay organized, I have a schedule. I call it the ‘Discipline Schedule,’ where I’m just kind of every hour of the day I’m just kind of doing something, gearing towards the goal for the day. Or, if I have to-do lists, like anybody else, that I’m OK not getting through the list for the day, or even some of the time for a week, or even carrying some things over. I make it a point to be mentally, physically, and spiritually in shape.

What’s been the hardest part of your journey thus far?

When you feel like you’re the only person that kind of sees this vision, you’re trying to convince everyone else to kind of get on board, whether that’s people that you’re hiring. I think just believing in what you’re doing is very important to me. I think the hardest part has been, not making the samples, not making the material, but really just getting the message out there, especially with me being in the plus-size world for women. A lot of women do not identify themselves as plus-size, even if they know that they’re plus-size. It’s almost like this category you don’t want to be in. But, what they don’t realize is that’s the norm these days. I question what plus-size really is. So, I think the hardest part for me, but the most enjoyable, is just being able to provide tangible options for these plus-size women, that they feel empowered in, that they feel great in, that they don’t feel ashamed of wearing, and, that actually provide them a secure fit, and a different mindset in a way of thinking.

How did you get to New York Fashion Week?

I believe it was God’s timing. I was let go of the project that I was working on the end of July, and I remember feeling just kind of like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. At the time I had been doing Active Ego just kind of as a hobby on the side for about a year at that time. So, me being let of the project only gave me the opportunity to be 100 percent at what I was doing. And, I felt like I was ready at the time.

I will never forget, I was sitting in Chick-Fil-A, and I was working and eating, and I received an email from Curvy Magazine. And, it had mentioned that they had been following my social media accounts, and they wanted to see if I was open to participating in the New York Fashion Week last year, and to see if I would mind showcasing a few of my items. Well, at this time it was so funny because I wasn’t even at a 100 percent having inventory, so of course I had samples and I had items, but I wasn’t a full functioning machine.

The theme of the show was ‘Body Image,’ so it just worked well with everything. And, so from then on, I think about eight weeks later, I flew up to New York. I was able to showcase my items, speak about my brand, actually, and things have been moving really fast ever since.

Who has been your biggest cheerleader throughout the process?

Let me start by saying, I do have a lot of cheerleaders. There’s been days that I just want to pull my hair out. But, I would say my husband has been my biggest encourager. He’s an entrepreneur himself, and for him to be able to relate and for me being able to talk to him about certain things. Even when I’m feeling down, or things are going great, he really just keeps me humble and keeps things in perspective.

What future goals do you have?

Wow. I have so many I’m trying to tackle at once. But, I will say that just some of the things we have coming up and future goals, just with the brand I want to be just a nationwide brand that’s dedicated to customer service and great styles and great fit, to be honest with you. I want to be the partner of choice for these plus-size, curvy women’s activewear and athleisure wear. I definitely feel like having a brand dedicated specifically to that category of clothing would be amazing.