Pay-per-views, Reddit rabbit holes — and a semi-ridiculous new TBS show: battle rap is back — if it ever left The gloves-off battles are sweaty, verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces

On Dec. 9, dozens of rap fans crowded into a tiny, undisclosed location to watch a night full of rap battles — including a battle between Rum Nitty and Iron Solomon, who stole the show in what may go down as the most exciting battle of the year — as MCs traded mostly pre-written bars, insulting each other for three timed rounds. The event, called Smack Vol. 1, was held by the top battle rap league in the country, URL — for Ultimate Rap League. The fact that there were only dozens of fans in attendance is a misleading representation of battle rap’s popularity.

The small venue for Vol. 1 was by design — an attempt by URL to take the event to its roots of intimate crowds. But in actuality, battle rap events draw hundreds of fans, while thousands stream them live on pay-per-view before watching the battles on YouTube by the millions. Battle rap is a simmering subculture. It dominates Reddit threads, message boards and YouTube — and it’s going mainstream.

Iron Solomon vs. Rum Nitty

For instance, Drop The Mic. The Tuesday night TBS show is a spinoff of the rap battle segments from James Corden’s Late Late Show in which he battled celebrities like Kevin Hart and Anne Hathaway. Celebrities like the stars of Big Bang Theory lob rhymed insults at each other. The Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett recently battled Vanessa Hudgens — to the tune of almost 1.4 million views. Hosted by Hailey Baldwin and Wu Tang rap legend Method Man, the show employs artists from the battle scene to help contenders craft lyrics and presentation. Drop The Mic is a gentrified but entertaining look at a battle scene that has been bubbling under the surface of mainstream American pop culture for decades.


The godfather of the modern-day battle rap scene is Troy “Smack” Mitchell. He’s an enterprising Queens, New York, native who set out to document New York rap culture in the early 2000s by recording guerrilla-style interviews of rappers. “I had access to a lot of MCs … because I was in the streets and knew a lot of people,” says Mitchell. “I really grinded … waited for artists outside of clubs. It just blew up from there.” He released the interviews and exclusive freestyles on his Smack DVD series, which features early looks at rappers like Kanye West, Cam’ron and Beanie Sigel. The series was hugely popular in the pre-internet era. And at the end of each DVD was a rap battle.

Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers.

“We came up doing the battles as kids,” says Smack. The rap battles on the Smack DVDs took place on street corners, barbershops and clothing stores. MCs surrounded by dozens of spectators. The rappers had prepared “rounds” of timed raps directed at their opponents. No beats played, and if there was a stumble, slip-up or stutter, the rapper’s round was over.

Shells and Jae Millz

Mychal Watts/WireImage for KSA Publicity

The competitions were intense and legendary, and they helped rappers like Murda Mook and Jae Millz get signed to Ruff Ryders and Young Money. Smack brought battles to living rooms, even though the competitions have been part of hip-hop lore since the genre’s inception.

Here’s your history lesson: Rappers have always tested their mettle against one another. Big Daddy Kane used to roam the Big Apple streets challenging the best rappers. Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes infamously rapped against each other in high school. And a young rapper named Biggie Smalls made his name taking on all comers in freestyle competitions.

Eminem in 8 Mile which was one of the first time mainstream America got a glimpse into battle raps.

Universal Pictures

But it was Eminem’s 2002 8 Mile, in which he battled to famous rap beats like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones,” that introduced battle rap to the mainstream. The battles in 8 Mile were fictionalized takes on the real-life Scribble Jam battles that Eminem participated in during the late ’90s — and which got him noticed by Dr. Dre in the first place. By 2003, rappers E. Ness and Jae Millz were battling on MTV’s Making The Band. MTV also had a show called “Fight Klub,” and BET’s 106 & Park had a popular Freestyle Friday segment from 2001 to 2013.

Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness.

Battle rap found a new level of popularity via YouTube, and it shed light on leagues that had formed around the world. The two front-runners were Grind Time — the popular, now-defunct league that started in Florida and expanded to Los Angeles — and Smack’s own Ultimate Rap League that sprouted from his DVD series. Today, Smack battles sell out venues like New York’s Irving Plaza and the Highline Ballroom, and fans pay upward of $100 to attend.

The leagues book the battles. The rappers spend weeks preparing rhymes catered specifically to their opponents. The rappers take the stage, flanked by entourages, and perform alternating timed rounds anywhere from two to five minutes. The battles are verbal MMA fights, with rappers getting directly in each other’s faces.

While most of the rounds are pre-written, some rappers open their rounds with freestyled rebuttals to what their opponent just rapped, flipping insults in their own favor. Battlers never know what’s coming, or how personal an insult can get. When it’s a rapper’s turn to listen to his or her opponent, “defense” is employed, which is essentially how someone reacts to the person rapping — standing stone-faced, shaking a head to show disapproval or mumbling sarcastic reactions. It’s a human chess match — mentally taxing. Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“You know who your opponent is ahead of time so you can do research,” Smack said. “Did they get played? Did they get beat up? You can expose them.” Battles have gotten personal and tense, but it’s accepted, especially since the rappers are celebrities within the culture. They are revered within the battle scene but largely lead regular lives. While the most famous battlers like Loaded Lux and Murda Mook can live off of battles, making music and bookings, most battlers have day jobs. And, yes, the day jobs are function as ammo for insults. Nothing is off-limits.

Really. Dumbfoundead and Conceited once spent their whole battle exchanging short jokes and racist Asian stereotypes. Rone went viral for a whole round about Big T’s obesity. Rappers have exposed opponents for cheating on their fiancées and poked fun at dead relatives or whether rappers’ dads turned state’s witness. Despite that, you could count on one hand how many battles have turned physical.

Courtesy of Underground Rap League

“It’s very much like a boxing match,” says Kyle “Avocado” Gray, who has filmed and directed battles for Grind Time and URL, adding a cinematic touch to battles broadcast live on pay-per-view. “These two people get into a ring. They have to have a thick skin. They have to be ready for people to say anything, and not be fazed by it. It almost brings them closer in the end, for having been through that battle together.”

Because fans are so invested in the battles — they reach such a fever pitch — battle rap culture has become a community of message board commenters and YouTubers. Battles often refer to earlier battles and online happenings online that may sound like a totally foreign language to the novice. However, catching the references is part of what makes fans feel rewarded for their dedication.

Competitors physically train for battles and usually end up sweaty and dehydrated by the end of each contest.

“The culture is super incestual,” Gray remarked. “The art in general isn’t that welcoming to an untrained ear.” But that’s what YouTube rabbit holes are for. And celebrities are happy to join in on the fun, even if that means getting called out midround. James Harden has attended — and Kevin Durant once stood on stage, right next to Smack himself, in breathing distance of the battlers. Drake and Diddy have co-hosted, with Diddy famously putting up $10,000 of his own money midbattle to see who would win between T-Rex and Aye Verb.

There are now leagues in every corner of the globe. In addition to URL, there’s King Of The Dot (KOTD) out of Canada, England’s Don’t Flop, Atlanta’s Bullpen Battle League and all-woman Queen Of The Ring in New York. Battle rap is as popular as ever, with landmark moments happening at a breakneck pace. This year alone saw KOTD bring in Russian battle rapper Oxxxymiron, whose massive following garners tens of millions of YouTube views per battle, to Los Angeles for the most viewed battle in North American history — and counting.

And Drop The Mic does utilize writing talent of competitors from the scene like Rone and Hollow Da Don. And the satire Bodied, about battle rap, is making a splash in independent movie festivals and should see wide release in 2018. There’s also the permanent roles of rappers like Charlie Clips and Hitman Holla on Nick Cannon’s improv show Wild N’ Out.

The rapid expansion of battle rap culture is what made Smack want to take things back to the basics with Dec. 9th’s Vol. 1 event. “I didn’t want the battle culture to lose its identity,” he says. “We wanted to take it back to the essence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your first major purchase after being drafted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dubai.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does your courage come from?

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

What will you always be the champion of?

The people.

‘My Cause My Cleats’: The top 24 Week 13 customs — and why players wore them Reppin’ everything from the American Cancer Society to the Trayvon Martin Foundation to Kaepernick

Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.

Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.

“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”

Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.


Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign

Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Fender Music Foundation

Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.

Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: National League of POW/MIA Families

A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Cause: American Cancer Society

Designer: Kickasso

Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Instagram Photo

Cause: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Designer: Corey Pane

Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers

Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital

Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs

Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers

Cause: Anti-bullying

Designer: SolesBySir

Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Cause: American Heart Association

Designer: Mache Customs

DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Brotherhood Crusade

Designer: SolesBySir

Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles

Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition

Designer: Sixth-grade class at Jubilee School, Illustrative Cre8ions

Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina

Designer: Bizon Customs

Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins

Instagram Photo

Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints

Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.

Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans

Instagram Photo

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: SolesBySir

Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII

A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

Cause: Leukemia patients

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: Autism

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Instagram Photo

Cause: Torrey Smith Family Fund, Show Your Soft Side, Players Coalition, NO More Campaign

Designer: Kreative Custom Kicks, Dez Customz

Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants

Cause: Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles

Designer: Kickasso

Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation

Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope

Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans

Cause: Habitat for Humanity

Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike

Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: Why Not You Foundation

Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai

 

Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

Instagram Photo

Cause: CeaseFirePA

Designer: SR Customs

Rishard Matthews brings Colin Kaepernick back to football Miami artist Marcus Rivero on how Matthews’ custom ‘My Cause My Cleats’ were created

On Sunday at Nissan Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee, Colin Kaepernick will once again grace the field of an NFL stadium and take a knee in protest of social injustice in the United States. Now, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback won’t be there physically for the divisional matchup between the AFC South’s Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans. He’s not listed on either team’s roster, having gone unsigned by every squad in the NFL since March 3. But Kaepernick will be present. An image of him kneeling, with his fluffed Afro taking the shape of a Black Power fist, is painted on the custom-designed cleats that Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews will don against Houston.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

It’s Week 13 in the NFL, marking the return of the league’s “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which began in 2016. The leaguewide initiative allows players to bypass uniform guidelines and wear customized cleats in support of a charitable cause of their choice. For his cleats, Matthews, a close friend and former college teammate of Kaepernick’s at the University of Nevada, honors his friend’s youth awareness campaign, the Know Your Rights camp.

“I dont have a foundation, so I have chosen to support my brother @kaepernick7 foundation @yourrightscamp for #MyCauseMyCleats,” Matthews wrote on Instagram, where he debuted the cleats on Wednesday. “He has paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring true everyday issues to light. Please follow the page & go to the website to learn more. We Should ALL Know Our Rights & Be Able to Express Them Freely.”

Instagram Photo

The cleats were designed by Miami artist Marcus Rivero, aka SolesBySir, who’s been customizing shoes for football players for the past five years, with an NFL clientele that includes Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, DeSean Jackson, Terrell Suggs, Jalen Ramsey and more. Before Matthews takes the field against the Texans, The Undefeated caught up with Rivero, who detailed the design process of the shoes, from the wide receiver’s mind to the artist’s final brushstroke.


How did the idea for Matthews’ Kaepernick cleats come about?

Rishard and I have been working together all season. Our first pair was very calm because it was Rishard’s first time doing customs. As the weeks progressed, a lot of current events were coming up and he wanted to take stances. With My Cause My Cleats coming about, he basically told me … ‘I want to stand with Kaep.’ There’s been a bond there since the beginning. I was like, ‘OK …’ We went back and forth, and believe it or not, this was a hard design to do.

What made it hard to execute?

We didn’t know whether we wanted to color the cleats. Whether we wanted to do all-black, all-white, gold. Rishard thought about it, slept on it. And last minute, he said, ‘You know what? Let’s just keep it simple, black and white.’ So my job as an artist is just basically to take what people give you — so, with Rishard, black and white — and make it a loud message, which is difficult. If you’re working with neon green, neon yellow, you can play to your advantage. But when you’re working with black and white, which is the standard color for all cleats issued, it’s hard.

I told Rishard he needs 100 yards and at least a touchdown. Because that’s what the shoes deserve.

What was Rishard truly looking for?

The first thing I said was, ‘Rishard, I want to go one and one. Let’s make each cleat not look like the other.’ He loved the idea. He sent me over the logos of the Know Your Rights Camp, so I put it on both outsides of the shoe. On the inside of his right shoe, it says ‘Know Your’ and on the opposite shoe, it says, ‘Rights Camp.’ So if you put your heels together, and open them up like a V, somebody in front of you can read the opposite of what you’re reading.

I still wanted to add something. He goes, ‘Let’s put Kaep’s name, and some sort of logo.’ We kept bouncing ideas back and forth. One was a fist, like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I just did a cleat for DeSean Jackson with a brotherhood-type theme, and we used a fist. So I really didn’t want to do it again. I wanted to stand on our own on this. Literally, Rishard and I are FaceTiming. And sure enough we’re Googling images, and then the idea hit us, like, ‘Oh, let’s do Kaepernick on a knee and use his Afro as a fist.’

Instagram Photo

Was it hard to draw the image of Kaepernick kneeling with his Afro as a fist?

It wasn’t so much. I have a Microsoft Surface Pro that I use to make designs. Then I turn them into a stencil, which helps me out. Unfortunately, I can’t hand-draw every letter. We have to do a lot stencilling so that I can lay down the stencil, spray and then peel it off, just timingwise. With the Surface Pro that I’ve been using, it’s generally been like a walk in the park for me. The Kaepernick logo has a lot of detail, but at the same time it doesn’t. It’s very simple. It’s a cool logo.

The idea hit us, like, ‘Oh, let’s do Kaepernick on a knee and use his Afro as a fist.’

How long did it take you to complete the cleats — and what was Rishard’s reaction when he saw the finished product?

I spent about six or seven hours on them because those cleats were both navy blue and that Tennessee light blue to begin with. Sure enough, I did it, and he falls in love with them. Then he says, ‘I’m gonna send him to Kaep.’ He sends them to Kaep, and Kaep loved them. He sent him the fire emoji, which is the same response I got from Rishard when I sent him the photos.

Is this the first time you’ve customized a pair of cleats in honor of Kaepernick, or his stance?

Yes and no. Rishard has been focusing on the equality theme on his cleats this season, and that was due in part to his friendship with Kaepernick, dating back to Nevada. Rishard is an interesting mix in the bunch because his brother died in the line of duty, and he comes from a military family. So he’s kind of a hybrid — because a lot of people believe Kaepernick disrespected the military. Rishard stands on both sides, but he believes there’s a huge injustice in the world, and he just wants everyone to be equal. … But as far as putting the name ‘Kaepernick’ or putting him kneeling on something, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. I’ve done other political shoes that athletes have wanted. The thing is, as an artist, my job is not to show my political stance, my job is to make sure my clients are happy. If they want to put Kaepernick on their shoes, that’s what I’m here to do. Everybody has a right to do what they want.

How important do you think the My Cause My Cleats initiative is in the NFL?

I’m biased as heck, but I’ll be the first one to tell you I think it’s amazing. I started doing this five years ago … and back then it was frowned upon. Back then, tons of my guys were getting fined. There were so many silly rules, and now it’s changed. … Last year, My Cause My Cleats went great, but not a lot of guys knew about it, so not a lot of guys did it. When the league opened it up again, it showed they were happy with it. It brought a lot of positivity. It raised a crap ton of money because 99 percent of these shoes — for example, Rishard’s will be one pair of them — they’ll go up on the auction block. All of the money that the shoes generate goes to the fund of whatever they stood for. It’s a win-win. Cool shoes. Athletes get them. Fans get their hands on them afterward. And all this money goes to a whole bunch of great causes. It’s making the league fun again.

Kaep loved them. He sent Rishard the fire emoji, which is the same response I got from Rishard when I sent him the photos.

How many pairs of My Cause My Cleats did you design for Week 13?

Last year I did about 105 pairs. This year, we’re at about 250 to 280 pairs, and that’s just me. I found out from the NFL on Wednesday that supposedly between 800 to 850 guys signed up for this My Cause My Cleats this year, so I literally almost did 40 percent of the cleats. It’s frickin’ bananas to me. And by the time the season’s over, I’ll have done at least 800 to 1,000 pairs, leaguewide.

Instagram Photo

Just how important are Rishard’s cleats right now?

It’s been a crazy year when it’s come to the protests, and I’ve heard both sides of the story. I work with a lot of players who have knelt or not gone out for the national anthem, and I work with a lot of players who come out and stand for it. It’s a touchy subject … but Rishard was able to touch on it in a way so this gets the attention it deserves — but at the same time not negatively bring attention to it. We need to find a happy medium. Both sides of the line need to come together, figure it out and get it moving in the right direction.

I think these shoes brought more attention to Rishard Matthews. I told him, the only problem he has now is with all the attention these shoes got, if he doesn’t have a 100-yard game and a touchdown, then they’re not doing what they should be doing. So all the pressure is back on Rishard right now. I told him he needs 100 yards and at least a touchdown. Because that’s what the shoes deserve.

‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ — and the poster that sold it Remembering The Champ’s historic comeback

 

In the darkest night part of morning they came 60,000 strong — to watch undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman take on challenger Muhammad Ali. It was another time. The 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire, is now the Stade Tata Raphaël in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and The Rumble in the Jungle, as it was known, was scheduled to begin at 4 a.m. local time on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1974. This was so the match originally titled From Slave Ship to Championship would air live on closed-circuit television in U.S. theaters at 10 p.m. EST.

From backstage, journalist Norman Mailer described the scene. Although his entourage was somber, Ali appeared relaxed as he addressed himself in a mellifluous tone: “I been up and I been down. You know, I been around. It must be dark when you get knocked out. Why, I’ve never been knocked out. I’ve been knocked down, but never out.”

Ali was about to prove, once again, why he was the greatest of all time. Ever since the boxing commission stripped the champ of his title and suspended his boxing license for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War, Ali had been on a mission to reclaim all that had been stolen from him. Ali fought the law — and won, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he was vindicated in June 1971.

“No one had heard the word ‘Zaire.’ ”

Boxing license back, Ali took on then-world champion Joe Frazier in The Fight of the Century in March 1971. It was the first time that two undefeated heavyweights had battled in a title fight. They went the full 15. Frazier won by unanimous decision, handing Ali his first loss.

By 1974, George Foreman held the title. Undefeated, Foreman had more than 35 knockouts under his belt, and at 25, seemed an unstoppable force, but Ali, seven years his senior, never lost heart.

On most fight posters, the location was not a visual part of the story. Whether held in Las Vegas, Chicago or Miami, the location was simply a matter of logistical information. But with The Rumble in the Jungle, Africa was a central character. “No one had heard the word ‘Zaire,’ ” recalled sports photographer Neil Leifer. “If you want to put your country on the map — what a way to do it. If you wanted the world to know who you were, get the most popular black man on earth to promote it. It was probably a good business move for Mobutu.” Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was noted for his cruelty and for being a master of terror on a grand scale, died in exile in 1997.

Set against a blazing yellow background, black and white photographs of Foreman and Ali floated above the continent of Africa, silhouetted in verdant green, perfectly matching the colors of the flag of Zaire. The poster had gone through slight modifications after Foreman cut his right eye during training, pushing back the date of the match, and it ran in both English and French. The French version of the fight poster included the words Un cadeau du President Mobutu au peuple Zaïrois et un honneur pour l’homme noir: “A gift from President Mobutu to the people of Zaire and an honor for the black man.”


Leifer, a boy wonder who began his professional career in 1958 at the age of 16, produced arguably the most famous photograph of Ali on earth: the image of him standing above Sonny Liston after throwing “the phantom punch” that sent the challenger to the mat during the first round of the 1965 world heavyweight title fight.

A photographer, like a boxer, has to be fully prepared for the fight, to be in peak condition and determined to make history. With more than 200 magazine covers and 17 books to his name, Leifer’s most recent book, The Fight (Taschen) is a triumph of book publishing. Limited to just 1,974 copies, the book features photographs by Leifer and Howard L. Bingham, Ali’s best friend, who died in 2016.

Using abridged copy from Mailer’s 1975 The Fight as its departure point, the Taschen volume follows Ali’s path through Zaire, crafting a comeback that blew people away. The book comes inside a slipcase that is modeled after the fight poster, using the same colors and design concept. “An image has to stop you — otherwise you will walk right by it,” said Leifer. “A cover is a poster — and if you take a second look at it, you might want to look inside. That yellow just jumps out at you … you can see it from half a block away.” But it’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement and the African independence movements.

It’s the image of Ali and Foreman floating over the continent that invoked the Pan-African sentiment that had resurfaced in the wake of the civil rights movement.

The story belongs to the champion. This is increasingly clear when paging through The Fight. The Rumble in the Jungle was Ali’s return to glory. Unlike Foreman, whose strengths did not translate outside the ring, Ali took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, never meeting a camera or a reporter he did not like.

As Mailer reported, after shaking hands, Ali told Foreman, “You have heard of me since you were young. You’ve been following me since you were a little boy. Now, you must meet me, your master!” Foreman blinked.

The bell rang, and 30 seconds into the fight, Foreman had Ali on the ropes. They sparred, landing blows. It was an intense round, but people feared Ali would not be able to sustain that level of aggression. They weren’t wrong. Somewhere in the second round, Ali switched it up: rope-a-dope.

Ali hung back against the ropes, inviting Foreman to charge, then ducked, bobbed, weaved and blocked the champ’s fists of fury. Everyone was stunned. “What Muhammad did was so unusual, I honestly didn’t know when he would win,” Leifer recalled. “Any sensible person said, ‘What is he, out of his mind? He’s letting himself get hit.’ Foreman was an incredible puncher. You had to assume that at some point he’s going to break through Ali’s defense … but it didn’t happen that way.”

By the eighth round, Foreman was spent and Ali was prepared, landing several hooks followed by a five-punch combination that sent the champ sputtering to the ground. Mailer reported, “Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position … he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. His mind was held with magnets as high as his championship and his body was seeking the ground. He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news … ”

Determined to rouse himself, Foreman made it back on his feet after a count of 10, but he was finished. With two seconds remaining in the round, referee Zack Clayton stopped the fight. Ali had won the title back. Then he fainted.

Soon after the fight, the sky broke open and the rains came pouring down. The rainy season had been two weeks late, and the torrents flooded the stadium, drenching the batteries until the generators gave out. Half of the Telex machines shut down, and pictures and words could no longer get out — but they didn’t need to. Ali lived up to the poster — and did what he came to do as the whole world watched.

‘Mudbound’ is an American classic. Will that be enough to sway anti-Netflix Oscar voters? A heart-wrenching and masterfully executed look at the legacy of Jim Crow

I can’t wait to see how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handles Mudbound.

Within the academy, there’s an institutional aversion to Netflix, the streaming giant that’s upended how we see movies, much to the chagrin of traditional distributors and movie theater exhibitors. But if ever there was a Netflix film that deserves to break through the bias, it’s Mudbound, a heart-wrenching, masterfully executed period epic from director Dee Rees.

Mudbound, which opens Nov. 17, takes the idea of two Americas popularized in the early 1960s by Michael Harrington and pivots from his thesis of a country divided by class to explore the way poor Americans of The Other America are divided by race. Based on the 2008 novel by Hillary Jordan, the film follows two families in the lead-up to World War II: the Jacksons, who are black, and the McAllans, who are white. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on the McAllans’ land, and both have sons who end up fighting for their country.

It’s almost Shakespearean, except unlike the Capulets and Montagues, the Jacksons and McAllans need each other, even if they don’t see themselves as the same. That goes double for Pappy McAllan, the family’s racist, sexist patriarch played with expert precision by Jonathan Banks. Pappy’s an irascible vestige of the Confederacy who is short on tact and long on grievances with everything around him, from the black people contributing to his family’s livelihood, to his daughter-in-law, Laura (Carey Mulligan). While the McAllans may not have much — in fact, they have so little that Pappy sleeps in a lean-to — the Jacksons have even less.

Still, if there’s anything like a great equalizer, it’s military service, and both the Jacksons and the McAllans experience anguish as sons Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) and Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) head off to kill Germans. Mary J. Blige gives a stunning performance as Ronsel’s mother, Florence. Her emotions, especially in front of Pappy’s daughter-in-law Laura (Carey Mulligan), his favored son, Henry (Jason Clarke), and other white people, are layered and controlled, rendering Blige nearly unrecognizable. It was nearly 45 minutes into the film before I realized why Florence felt so familiar — she’s played by the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.

Florence is worried about her son and how the family will manage to break even in his absence, especially after her husband, Hap (Rob Morgan), suffers a gruesome injury. Laura worries about her brother-in-law Jamie, who is everything his father can’t stand: cultured, charming and not remotely cut out for farm work. Before he shipped off to Europe he even dabbled in acting. While Pappy may seem indifferent to his son’s fate, Laura insisted on moving a piano into their dirt-floor shack and sees Jamie as more than just a cosmopolitan nuisance.

It’s Laura and Florence who find a way to bridge the racial divide, if only because it’s key to their continued existence. Farming in the Mississippi Delta is backbreaking, frustrating, never-ending work, especially without the luxuries of electricity or indoor plumbing.

Rees also leaves her stamp on the Mudbound script, which she co-wrote with Virgil Williams, weaving in some thematic continuity from her stint as the writer/director of the HBO biopic Bessie. There’s a line in Bessie in which the famed blues singer from the early 20th century explains the difference between Northern and Southern racism. Northern whites, she says, don’t mind if you get big as long as you don’t get too close. And Southern whites don’t mind if you get close so long as you don’t get too big.

Once Ronsel returns from commanding a tank in Belgium, it becomes clear that he’s way too big for his white countrymen in Mississippi, and they’re itching to take him down a peg.


Hollywood’s anti-Netflix bias, the one that likely killed the Oscar chances of Beasts of No Nation in 2016, has scared off some independent filmmakers who want their films to have a shot during awards season. When a bidding war erupted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016 for Birth of a Nation, for instance, Netflix had the highest offer. But director Nate Parker went with Fox Searchlight, betting that the company and the film would be better received when it came to award campaigning.

Mudbound highlights how much the motion picture academy needs to get over its Netflix snobbery. Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects. Its best recent films have boasted directors of color: 13th (Ava DuVernay), Okja (Bong Joon-ho), Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and now Mudbound. Minority directors do not often have the luxury of dismissing generous offers from Netflix. So when the members of the academy turn up their noses at the company, they’re also dismissing some of the best work Hollywood has to offer. If Mudbound is ignored during awards season because the academy and other industry groups can’t get over their aversion to Netflix’s business model, it will only reflect poorly on them. Mudbound is just that good.

Netflix is one of the few studios consistently offering opportunities to minority directors to do ambitious, unconventional projects.

Rees directs Mudbound with a confidence often anathema to mainstream film. She trusts her audience to follow her around narrative blind corners. And so, as Mudbound unfolds, it inspires engagement and curiosity. Every small choice Rees makes is a deliberate one with immense payoff. There are no extravagances, no unexplained moments that could have been done away with in the edit bay. (That’s why I’m revealing so little of the plot. It’s best if you come to it cold.)

If there’s a downside to Mudbound, it’s that most audiences will experience it from the comfort of their couches, or on their laptop or tablet screens. This is a film ideally experienced on the biggest screen possible. A theatrical audio system allows for a full appreciation of Damian Volpe and Pud Cusack’s chillingly immersive sound design, which captures the misery of a midsummer driving rain on the Gulf Coast and the thick, squelching morass of waterlogged Mississippi Delta silt loam.

On the other hand, Netflix, which boasts more than 50 million American subscribers, offers ample opportunity for almost anyone to witness a magnificent work of art — one that brings us face-to-face with the massive cruelties and savage inequalities of Jim Crow and forces us to reckon with its legacies. Here’s hoping the academy sees it the same way.

Ava DuVernay, John Legend and Marley Dias among Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards honorees ‘Smithsonian’ magazine announces sixth annual awards ceremony and a new festival

Director Ava DuVernay continues to make strides in content creation, and her creativity keeps manifesting into star power. DuVernay — along with other phenomenal creators, including singer John Legend and 12-year-old author Marley Dias — is part of a group of distinguished guests being honored at Smithsonian magazine’s sixth annual American Ingenuity Awards on Nov. 29.

Award recipients were announced last week and span eight categories: technology, performing arts, visual arts, life sciences, physical sciences, history, social progress and youth.

DuVernay, director of the movie Selma and the television show Queen Sugar, is being honored for visual arts. Singer, songwriter and activist Legend is being honored for performing arts. Dias, creator of #1000BlackGirlBooks, is being honored for youth. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, received the award for social progress for introducing the character Julia — the first Muppet with autism.

Presenters at the awards ceremony will include iconic composer and music producer Quincy Jones and famed saxophonist Branford Marsalis. The winners will be commemorated in the December edition of Smithsonian magazine.

“This year’s American Ingenuity Awards honorees are revolutionizing American culture,” said Smithsonian editor-in-chief Michael Caruso. “Since their launch, the awards have always recognized the cutting edge of American achievement. It’s no accident that the winners of our physical sciences award last year, the LIGO team, just won the Nobel Prize in physics.”

As part of the awards announcement, Smithsonian magazine also announced the launch of its Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival. Starting on Nov. 15 and continuing through early December, the series of events featuring this year’s American Ingenuity recipients will include discussions with DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo about the new black Hollywood; Legend on what he considers his best album, Darkness and Light, and his recent accomplishments; and a discussion with Jones about his career in music. The festival will also house a re-creation of Duke Ellington’s second Sacred Concert in commemoration of its 50th anniversary by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

“The success of the awards program has led to a major expansion this year, the creation of the Smithsonian Ingenuity Festival,” Caruso said. “The festival will bring to life the spirit of innovation at many of our great Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., and in New York.”

Smithsonian museums hosting events include the Arts and Industries Building; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York; National Museum of American History; National Air and Space Museum; National Museum of Natural History; and National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Most of the events are free, and some require a reservation.

Daily Dose: 10/27/17 Kellogg’s Corn Pops facing heat for cereal box

All right, y’all, almost to the weekend. I was on Around the Horn on Thursday, breaking records, and Friday afternoon I’ll be on Outside The Lines at 1 p.m. on ESPN. After that, I’ll bring things home on #TheRightTime on ESPN Radio.

Let’s quickly review the American judicial system. When police officers shoot and kill innocent black people, not only do they often get to walk free, but their acts are deleted from their records, allowing them to never face consequences for their recklessness. Now, shifting gears to those who ARE put in jail, their existence is privatized and then celebrated by the president of the United States of America. Literally. Not to mention, some of the officers are plainly stealing from people who are victims of natural disasters. Awesome.

The fate of the Bad Boys franchise is tricky. For years, we’ve been told a third installment of the classic Martin Lawrence and Will Smith movie is forthcoming, with various reboots and relaunches having petered out for various reasons. If you recall, in the second film, Gabrielle Union’s character shows up as Lawrence’s kid sister, who ends up in a romantic relationship with Smith. Now, it appears that Union might be getting her own spin-off, via a TV show, which is actually a way better idea than a third movie, to be honest.

Hip-hop in schools is nothing new. Teachers these days are using the culture in many different ways to educate and enlighten the children of America, but some efforts are better than others. It’s one thing for a couple of songs to help kids learn the Pythagorean theorem, it’s another to have your entire school repped by one of the more vicious raps you’ve ever heard in your life. And this video titled Excellence First is NOTHING BUT FIRE, KIDDOS. Straight bars. Check it out.

I don’t eat Kellogg’s Corn Pops. Ever since I was a child, they never held my interest and just seemed mad boring as a food source in a field crowded with so many more sugar-loaded options. Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, the list goes on. But in all honesty, I was more of a Chex and Crispix guy. Anyway, a new controversy is afoot for Pops because of a cereal box cover. There’s a belief that this is racist, even if not by design — which is, of course, always how it happens.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The fascination with The Notorious B.I.G.’s life will probably not end as long as I’m alive, but the stories that keep coming out of his life are fascinating and sometimes scary. Like this tale about him pulling a gun on Lil’ Kim over the fact that she couldn’t do a verse, after he allegedly slept with her sister.

Snack Time: It looks like the Brooklyn Nets are for sale, again. This time, Joseph Tsai, who runs Alibaba, is now taking over a good part of the team. Minority ownership!

Dessert: We’re wishing Gordon Hayward well, and this video of his daughters doing their best to help is adorbs.

How Michael Jordan’s original starting five — from Ray Allen to Michael Finley — became Team Jordan’s first stars Before Russ, Kawhi, Melo, CP3 and Jimmy Buckets, Jordan Brand got its start with All-Stars and future champions

Oct. 15, 1996, will forever be ingrained in Ray Allen’s memory. It was the night he met Michael Jordan for the first time. A young player like Allen viewed Jordan as a god in a league that had already deemed him the greatest of all time. As Jordan chased his fifth NBA title that year, he brought with him a $33 million contract, the richest in team sports history. Off the court, Jordan had brought in millions of dollars for Nike through the sale of his signature Air Jordans, the single most important line of sneakers to hit the market. Yet, as Jordan began looking toward life after basketball, he needed the help of Allen, and others, to continue to make his mark on the business world and the culture.

A 21-year-old rookie, and four months removed from being selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA draft, Allen entered a matchup between his Milwaukee Bucks and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls at the United Center. He’d face his hero, the man from the posters Allen hung on his wall as a kid, in an exhibition game. “I’m intimidated,” recalled the future Hall of Famer, now 42, “because I’m not supposed to be in this moment. I’m supposed to be on the other side, watching and cheering for him. I’m like, ‘You know how many times I rooted for him to destroy whoever was on the other end of the floor? Now I gotta beat him? Now I gotta stop him?’ Now I’m this kid in this position … thinking, ‘Is this situation, this moment, too big for me?’ ”

Before tipoff, Allen and Jordan walked out onto the hardwood, met at half court and shook hands. “ ‘What’s up, Ray?’ Welcome to the NBA,’ ” Allen remembers Jordan saying. “I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

Jordan actually knew Allen quite well. He was the one who’d decided which shoes the rookie wore on his feet that night — and for most of his NBA career. Months before this pregame moment, Allen backed “out of a deal with FILA,” he said, to sign with Nike. The company planned on giving Jordan his own brand and imagined Allen as the young face of a fresh new line of products. So, in his first encounter with Jordan, Allen took the court in Team Jordan Jumpman Pros — the first sneakers designed outside of the Bulls superstar’s signature Air Jordan line.

“I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

“I was the one guy in the league who had Brand Jordans on my feet,” Allen said of his rookie season. “But I didn’t know how connected and linked in M.J. was with what was going on … if it was the company, or if he was making all the decisions. Not yet did I understand what the Brand Jordan meant, or what it was.”

M.J. had in fact selected Allen to be the first player to endorse Jordan Brand, which wouldn’t officially launch until September 1997. His Airness, however, imagined a whole squad of ambassadors representing his brand in the NBA. As a reflection of his own skills, style and swag, he wanted to build “Team Jordan” — and every team needs a starting five.


In 1997, before playing a single minute in the NBA, Derek Anderson traveled to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, ready to be pitched a potential endorsement deal. “I had no idea who I was meeting,” he says now. “I thought I was meeting with Nike itself, because I didn’t know anything about the Jordan Brand.” He finally got to a boardroom, “ … and there’s Michael Jordan. He says, ‘Hey, D.A., how’s it going?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Michael Jordan actually knows who I am.’ ”

His Airness sat before the now-retired NCAA and NBA champion Anderson, having done his research on the 22-year-old prospect. Anderson played only 19 games during his senior year at the University of Kentucky before tearing the ACL in his right knee, so Jordan asked about the progress he’d made in his recovery, and Anderson informed him that he could, once again, throw down windmill dunks. The conversation soon turned into an offer from Jordan that Anderson couldn’t refuse.

Derek Anderson (right) of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 3, 1997, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

“The way I worked hard, and how I fought back from the adversity of my injury, he really appreciated that, and wanted me to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” said Anderson, who the Cleveland Cavaliers took with the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft. “I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.” Anderson had previously met with Converse but turned down the opportunities discussed there. He also canceled the rest of his scheduled visits with other shoe companies.

Eddie Jones, then a third-year shooting guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, found himself up for endorsement renegotiation with Nike after rolling with the sneaker giant for the first few years of his NBA career. In hopes of luring the 1997 All-Star (the first of three such honors) who played in the glamorous Hollywood market, Reebok, Adidas, FILA and PUMA all went after Jones. Yet the bidding war came to a screeching halt once Jordan came calling.

“When the best player on the planet, the best player to have a basketball in his hand, really wants you to be a part of something, I mean, you jump onboard,” said Jones, now retired and living in Florida.

Allen’s All-Star Milwaukee Bucks teammate Vin Baker also joined the mix (Baker struggled with alcohol over the course of his All-NBA and Olympic gold medal-winning career, but now sober, he coached this summer at a Massachusetts summer camp). Michael Finley of the Dallas Mavericks began hearing rumors swirling around the league about a master plan that Nike and Jordan had cooking.

“My agent called me,” Finley remembered, “and said, ‘Michael Jordan and his reps are starting their own Jordan Brand and want to know if you want to be a part of it.’ I was like, ‘C’mon, man. That’s a no-brainer. Of course.’ To have M.J. pick you as one of the originals, that’s an honor. It was just us five … our own little fraternity.” (These days, Finley, an assistant vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks, is something of a film producer.)

“The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them.”

Jordan, the alpha and omega of the basketball universe at the time, had handpicked and created an eclectic group of players in his own image to put on for the new brand. “The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them. In our mind, Michael was the greatest at what he did, and he was great because he did so many things really well,” said former Jordan Brand product director Gentry Humphrey, now vice president of Nike Golf footwear. “And while you may never find that one guy that has the complete package, you can find a little bit of some of those things in several athletes.”

A pure shooter in Allen, a high-flying, acrobatic athlete in Anderson, a Swiss army knife guard in Jones, a skilled stretch four in Baker, and a versatile swingman in Finley — together, they formed Team Jordan.

“Everyone brought something different, but everyone brought something from him. Everything from us was an entity of M.J.,” Derek Anderson said. “It’s almost like we were his kids. Like every kid has genes from his parents, we were a genetic build of him.”


On Sept. 9, 1997, Nike officially announced the launch of the Jordan Brand.

“A sub-brand of NIKE, Inc. the JORDAN brand is a pure, authentic basketball brand of premium, high-performance basketball footwear and apparel inspired by the performance legacy, vision and direct involvement of Michael Jordan,” reads the third paragraph of Nike’s press release from this historic day. “The brand will carry the Jumpman logo and will be packaged together to make its retail debut on November 1 for the Holiday ’97 season.”

Never before in the history of sports had a player, not to mention an African-American one, “entered into a solo venture on such a sweeping scale,” according to a Chicago Tribune report published the day the brand debuted in 1997.

“I have been involved in the design of everything I have worn from Nike since we began our relationship in 1984,” Jordan said at the introductory news conference in New York. “The launch of the Jordan Brand is simply an extension of that process.”

The Air Jordan logo is displayed at a Jordan promotional event July 31, 2001, in Harlem, New York.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than a decade had passed since Nike signed Jordan before his prolific rookie season and released his first signature sneaker, the timeless Air Jordan 1.

“I always felt like Jordan was its own brand, and I approached it that way,” said iconic Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, who believed the move that catapulted Jordan into his own stratosphere of the sportswear industry was long overdue. “Jordan’s shoes were as advanced as possible for the best player in the world, but also were a little more sophisticated and with … nicer materials,” continued Hatfield, who’s crafted some of Jordan’s most legendary shoes, starting with the Air Jordan 3s that dropped in 1988.

“I placed Jordan on a pedestal in my own mind, like it was its own separate brand. I was actually the one who thought up the Jordan Brand in the first place,” Hatfield makes clear, “and tried to pitch that numerous times over the years and didn’t get anywhere with it, until it finally did happen. I’m glad it did.”

Nike celebrated the momentous occasion with a huge launch party at NikeTown in New York. The guest list was loaded with stars from all walks of the culture. NBA Inside Stuff host Ahmad Rashad emceed the event, attended by everyone from Sheryl Swoopes, Kym Hampton and Dawn Staley, to rhythm and blues singer Kenny Lattimore, musical groups BLACKStreet and A Tribe Called Quest, and actors Kadeem Hardison and Damon Wayans. “It was like All-Star, Grammys and Emmys all mixed up into one,” Finley remembered.

From day one, everyone wanted a piece of Jordan Brand, which analysts projected to generate more than $300 million in worldwide revenue in the fiscal year 1998 (the Air Jordan line alone raked in $70 million in sales for Nike in fiscal 1997). On Nov. 1, 1997, the Air Jordan 13s, the first shoe under the Jordan Brand umbrella, were released at $150 a pair. The brand’s first Team Jordan sneakers, the Jumpman Pro Quicks and Jumpman Pro Strongs, wouldn’t hit until May 1998. Until then, Jordan entrusted only Allen, Anderson, Jones, Baker and Finley to wear them on the court, and to promote Jordan Brand in its inaugural NBA season.

“The brand was big before I even knew it,” Derek Anderson said. “It took off that way.”


At the end of the NBA calendar, when the season finally ends, players partake in the annual ritual of cleaning out their lockers at their home arenas. During his first season with Team Jordan, after the playoffs ended with Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, Jones recalls arriving at The Forum in Los Angeles a little late.

By the time he got there, boxes of his Jordans were missing. And the ones that were left? Jones’ teammates were already calling dibs — and mustering up the courage to see if they could get Jones to come up off of his shoes. “I swear, every guy that wore a size 13, size 14, they were like, ‘Eddie, man, I gotta have these. I didn’t want to take them without you knowing, but can I have them?’ ” said Jones, one of two members of the original team to ever get his own signature Jordans: 1999’s Jumpman Quick 6 and 2000’s Jumpman Swift 6. The brand also gave Baker the Jumpman Vindicate in 1999. “I gave them so many sneakers that day, it was crazy. I had no sneakers by the time I left.”

To get a pair of even Jumpman sneakers in the early days of the brand, you had to go through one of the members of Team Jordan. “As original endorsees of the brand, we had exclusive rights to shoes that [other players] didn’t have, and shoes before they hit the market,” Finley said. “We had the ups on guys who considered themselves sneakerheads in the league, whether it was teammates or opponents. Even referees commented on my shoes at the jump ball.”

Eddie Jones (second from right) of the Los Angeles Lakers passes against the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals played on May 22, 1998, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

This was the era before the brand diversified its color palette, so most Air Jordans released in a combination of red, black and white, the team colors of the Chicago Bulls. Yet, for Team Jordan’s Jumpman sneakers, the brand blessed its ambassadors with pairs in their own team colors. Lakers purple and gold for Jones; Cavs sky blue for Anderson and Mavs royal blue for Finley; Bucks purple and green for Allen; and white and black Pro Strongs, with SuperSonics green, red and yellow accent, for Baker, who was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle a few weeks after the brand launched.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one.”

“Most people were like, ‘I want THAT color right there.’ I had colors that were against what was normal in the market, and what people would see in shoe stores anywhere in America. It created a fervor for wanting those shoes,” Allen said. “The ball kid used to come in the locker room almost every game and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so wanted to know if you could send him your shoes.’ ”

The requests didn’t only come from hoopers.

“Fat Joe literally chased me down from the time I started. That dude, he would be on my heels for shoes,” Anderson said of the Terror Squad rapper from the Bronx, New York (who in 2016 opened up his own sneaker store, which was greenlit by Michael Jordan).

Jones has his own stories: “I remember Usher asking for some sneakers!”

When they weren’t rocking exclusive Jumpmans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Team Jordan members could be seen on the court in custom, player exclusive (PE) Air Jordans, especially after Jordan retired for the second time in 1999 and not many players were wearing his retros on the court. Jones, who landed with the Miami Heat in 2000 after a trade, received red and black Air Jordan 13s with “E. Jones” inscribed across the tongue.

Ray Allen (right) of the Boston Celtics dribbles down the court wearing a pair of green and gold Air Jordan 11s on Dec. 31, 2010, at the TD Garden in Boston.

Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Anderson loved playing in low tops, so he persuaded Jordan and the brand to make him low Air Jordan 11 Space Jams and Concords. Finley’s PE Air Jordan 16s, with “FIN 4” on the lace cover, became such a go-to shoe in his arsenal that players across the league thought they were his own signature Jordans. Baker also wore PE 16s, as well as PE Air Jordan 9s with his No. 42 on the heel. Allen’s extensive collection of PEs could fill a museum. His favorites? The green, white and gold, and red, white and gold Air Jordan 11s that the brand presented him to honor his two career NBA championships in 2008 with the Boston Celtics and 2013 with the Miami Heat.

“I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.”

Nowadays, there’s of course a new Team Jordan, featuring Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook, who all get the PE Air Jordan treatment like their predecessors. In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s opener to the 2017-18 NBA season, Westbrook took the floor in a pair of PE Air Jordan 32s, a little more than a month after signing a 10-year extension with Jordan Brand. The reigning NBA MVP struck the most lucrative deal in the company’s history on Sept. 13, almost 20 years to the day that Nike hosted the event to announce the launch of the Jordan Brand.

Westbrook is the new face of the now billion-dollar brand’s Team Jordan, which all began with Michael Jordan’s first pick in 1996, Ray Allen.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one,” said Allen. “For me, long term, it ended up being one of the best decisions I made in my career.”

The other original members would say the same. All five took a leap of faith when Jordan asked them to be a part of his vision. And the rest is history.

“We were young kids who admired M.J. so much. He was our mentor, and was putting this thing together,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be big, only because it was him. Whatever he does, it kind of works out … it’s always big. And everybody wanted to wear Jordans.”

The NBA rookie style quiz Forget your jump shots, newbie. It’s time to get your design game on.

.cls-1fill:#231f20Undefeated_HorizLogo_LThe NBA rookie style quiz Forget your jump shots, newbie. It’s time to get your design game on.

Whether you’re a rookie or a vet, a day-one fan, or someone who watches whatever NBA game is on in the background, you’re living the dream — the new season of professional basketball is here. And so is that undeniable NBA swag: pro hoopsmen have turned the stroll from the parking lot to the locker room into a runway as influential as any in New York, Paris, or Milan. And postgame looks? Those outfits make more statements than perturbed power forwards. But don’t worry. Upping your own style is not nearly as hard as you might think. Just follow this chart before you shoot your shot.

Complex flowchart detailing the various paths one could take in the search for his NBA style muse

You are Studied Elegance

You are Mr. Classic

You are All-American

You are Rock’n Baller

You are Iconoclast

Style Icon
Future Candidate
Designer Soulmates

Share your result:

Do you need to look good?


Go on with your pleated khaki self

What’s your restaurant vibe?


Your bag is …



If you were rebuilding your personal brand, you’d prefer to be …


Last night was rough. You want to hide your face with …


This isn’t the WWE

Your dream pet would be …


Your ideal jeans are …



You posterized Westbrook, celebrate on …


Your worst nightmare has come true. You have this on your face …



Your favorite head accessory is …



Your bae?



What’s on your wrist?


Your vacation hot spot is …



Guilty pleasure on your playlist would be …



Your fave shirt pattern is …


You represent …



Zendaya is …


Stop. Really. We can’t help you.

Your shorts are …



Your fave footwear is …


Shoulder pads are back, and you are …



Rocking pads that would also work in the NFL.

Do you care what people say about your style?


On every playlist?


All-Star Break. Your drink of choice is …



Your favorite shirt is a …



Hi, Jaden Smith.

James … Bond or Baldwin?


You’re presenting an award; you choose a …



If we are picturing you rolling, you’re in a …


My leather is a …


When you stream, it’s …


Fave hue?


Your style is Studied Elegance

Style Icon
LeBron James, Dwayne Wade
Future Candidate
Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks)
Designer Soulmates
Balmain, Dolce & Gabbana, Tom Ford

NBA fashion royalty. Everything they wear, from red carpet to street style, is impeccable and often custom. No one just wakes up this level. It takes years of experimentation, confidence and a very good stylist to get here. The easiest way to start? Go bespoke.

Your style is Mr. Classic

Style Icon
Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant
Future Candidate
De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings)
Designer Soulmates
Giorgio Armani, Hermes, Louis Vuitton

Classic styling doesn’t have to mean you’re a square. You can jazz it up without tiptoeing into edgy. Cuff links, a pocket square, a bold watch or a scarf can illustrate your personality.

Your style is All-American

Style Icon
Chris Paul, Stephen Curry
Future Candidate
Lonzo Ball (Los Angeles Lakers)
Designer Soulmates
Tommy Hilfiger, Dsquared2, Junya Watanabe

European styling (read: tight) is never going to be for everyone. If you want to look good and be comfortable, here’s the only thing you need to know. Your top or your bottom can be loose. NEVER. BOTH.

Your style is Rock’n Baller

Style Icon
Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith
Future Candidate
Zach Collins (Portland Trail Blazers)
Designer Soulmates
Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Raf Simons

If you exhale swagger, don’t know why all clothes aren’t black, and dream of a second act as a multimedia mogul, this is you. Immediate must-have: biker jacket.

Your style is Iconoclast

Style Icon
Russell Westbrook, Nick Young
Future Candidate
Markelle Fultz (Philadelphia 76ers)
Designer Soulmates
Gucci, Haider Ackermann, Balenciaga

This is not fashion for people who skulk out of news conferences. For you, fashion needs to be an expression of just how exceptional you are or it’s pointless. If you’re worried about Twitter making fun of you, remember this: Nobody ever became fashion royalty without a stop here.

Share your style on


See all other styles






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