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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My key?

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

The top 15 best Rookie Game performances in NBA All-Star history Kyrie, Kobe, Durant, Westbrook, Wall: The top rising stars (almost) always become superstars

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — before each signed million-dollar max contracts, negotiated their own lines of signature sneakers and reached superstar status, they had one thing in common. All three balled out in the Rising Stars Challenge, which in the past two decades has become the NBA’s marquee event kicking off All-Star Weekend.

In 1994, the league turned its annual Legends Game, which featured a matchup of teams of retired players, into the Rookies Game, a showcase of the NBA’s top first-year talent. By 2000, the game was renamed the Rookie Challenge, with a revamped format that included second-year players — after the 1998-99 lockout season that deprived rookies of the opportunity to play.

The Rookies vs. Sophomores structure lasted until 2012, when the league rebranded the event as the Rising Star Challenge and combined both first- and second-year players on each competing team’s roster through a draft. Now, the challenge matches American players against international players in a Team USA vs. Team World makeup that began in 2015.

Some of the best young players in recent memory have laced ’em up — from Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway in the inaugural 1994 contest to Allen Iverson vs. Kobe Bryant in 1997, and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running together on the Rookie squad in 2004. In the early ’90s, the games were low-scoring affairs of fundamental basketball. But over time, they’ve become artful displays of athleticism and bravado.

As we head into 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, which begins Friday with Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell leading Team USA against Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jamal Murray and Team World, these are the top 15 performances of all time from the event that’s become the All-Star Game before the All-Star Game.


1997 — Kobe Bryant

Stat line: 31 points, eight rebounds in 26 minutes

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

On Feb. 8, 1997, the crowd at Cleveland’s Gund Arena booed when Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, the No. 1 pick of the 1996 NBA draft, was named the MVP of the 1997 Rookie Game over Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, the 13th overall pick of the same draft class. Iverson led the Eastern Conference’s rookie squad to a 96-91 win with 19 points and nine assists, while Bryant propelled the West with a game-high 31 points, which set a Rookie Game record that wouldn’t be broken until 2004. Later that evening, the then-18-year-old Bryant avenged the loss and MVP snub by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the Slam Dunk Contest. And he did it with pop star Brandy, his high school prom date, watching him from the stands. What a way to bounce back.

2003 — Jason Richardson

Stat line: 31 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals in 20 minutes

He was just trying to get the crowd riled up, but he has no class. You don’t do that.” This is what Carlos Boozer, then a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had to say after the 2003 Rookie Challenge, in which Jason Richardson, then in his second year with the Golden State Warriors, went “off the heezy” — that is, he threw the basketball off Boozer’s head — in the waning seconds of the game. “Fans like stuff like that — a little streetball,” said Richardson, who dropped a game-high 31 points to lead the Sophomores to a 132-112 win over the Rookies. Even more disrespectful? Richardson followed up the move taken straight from an AND1 mixtape by draining a 3-pointer in Boozer’s face to seal the game. One of the great unsolved mysteries in NBA history is how Richardson didn’t catch the hands that night.

2004 — Amar’e Stoudemire

Stat line: 36 points, 11 rebounds in 35 minutes

Is Amare Stoudemire a Hall of Famer? He certainly thinks so, but it’s an often-debated question when you look back at the now-retired big man’s 14-year tenure in the NBA. Back in 2004, however, it appeared as if Stoudemire was destined to one day be enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. Just watch the tape from his MVP performance in the 2004 Rookie Challenge. Stoudemire’s 36 points broke Kobe Bryant’s 1997 record (31) for the highest scoring output in the history of the game. He also dropped more points in the game than three surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers: Carmelo Anthony (17), LeBron James (33) and Dwyane Wade (22). Stoudemire’s Sophomores dominated Anthony, James and Wade’s Rookies in a 142-118 win.

2007 — David Lee

Stat line: 30 points, 11 rebounds in 24 minutes

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

David Lee didn’t miss a single shot in the 2007 Rising Stars Challenge, which he finished as the game’s MVP with 30 points on a perfect 14-for-14 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor. Lee and the Sophomores demolished the Rookies, 155-114, even with then-second-year New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul coming off the bench. Moral of the story: Lee is definitely invited to the cookout, where he’d bust your drunk uncle’s butt in some post-meal pickup.

2008 — Daniel Gibson

Stat line: 33 points on 11 made 3-pointers in 22 minutes

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Shooters gon’ shoot, as the saying goes, and that’s exactly what Daniel “Boobie” Gibson of the Cleveland Cavaliers did against a team full of rookies in 2008. Coming off the bench for the Sophomores, Gibson, one of James’ most beloved teammates early in his career, took 20 shots, all of which were 3-pointers, and 11 of them fell through the net to set a record for the game. Gibson’s 33 points earned him distinction as the game’s MVP in a 136-109 win for the Sophomores. Ten years later, Gibson is no longer shooting shots but rather spittin’ bars, having retired from the NBA in 2015 to pursue a rap career. You can catch him nowadays on Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood.

2009 — Kevin Durant

Stat line: 46 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists in 30 minutes, 51 seconds

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In 2009 — with James sitting courtside between Kenny Smith and Kevin Harlan, calling the game — Kevin Durant, then 20 years old and the franchise player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, pieced together the single greatest performance in Rising Star Challenge history, with a record 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting from the field. “He’s been phenomenal. If you add a few more wins to [the Thunder’s] résumé, he’s definitely an All-Star for the Western Conference team,” James said that night before the game. After leading the Sophomores to a 122-116 win over the Rookies during All-Star Weekend in 2009, Durant was selected the following season to play in his first career All-Star Game, which he hasn’t missed since.

2010 — Russell Westbrook

Stat line: 40 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 32:16

Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook did his best Durant impression with a 40-piece in the 2010 Rising Stars game, the year after his then-Thunder teammate Durant dropped an unprecedented 46. Yet Westbrook’s prolific performance, which he delivered after scoring a mere 12 points in the game as a rookie in 2009, wasn’t enough for the Sophomores, who fell to the Rookie team, 140-128, for the first time since 2002. Tyreke Evans might have the MVP hardware from that game on his mantel, but Westbrook straight-up balled out. He was the real MVP, if we’re keeping it 100.

2011 — John Wall

Stat line: 12 points, 22 assists in 28:56

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

No player in the history of this game has come out and tallied more assists than John Wall did at Staples Center back in 2011 during his first season in the league. His fundamental, 22-dime MVP display paced the Rookies to a 148-140 win over a roster of Sophomores that featured Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. Pretty sure even Jesus caught a lob from Wall that night.

2012 — Kyrie Irving

Stat line: 34 points, nine assists in 27:03

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

A then-19-year-old rookie, Kyrie Irving didn’t miss a single 3-pointer in the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge. We repeat — Irving, fresh off of being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft, made all eight shots he took from beyond the arc as part of his 34-point MVP night that helped his team, coached by Charles Barkley, beat Team Shaquille O’Neal in the newly formatted game that mixed rosters with both rookies and sophomores. Irving’s night, however, was just the warm-up.

2013 — Kenneth Faried and Kyrie Irving

Stat lines: Kenneth Faried: 40 points on 18-for-22 from the field, 10 rebounds in 23 minutes; Irving: 32 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds in 26:46

Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated the 2013 game, with an efficient 40-point, 10-rebound outing that ended with him hoisting the MVP trophy. But let us take this moment to pour out a little liquor for Brandon Knight’s ankles, which Kyrie Irving, the 2012 Rising Stars MVP, destroyed on the hardwood at Houston’s Toyota Center. Irving caught Knight not once but twice with saucy combinations of his unrivaled handles. About a month after the game, DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers broke the internet after throwing down a poster dunk on Knight. It was a tough year for the young guard out of the University of Kentucky.

2014 — Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway, Dion Waiters

Stat lines: Andre Drummond: 30 points, 25 rebounds in 28:26; Tim Hardaway: 36 points (7-for-16 from 3-point) in 24:29; Dion Waiters: 31 points (4-for-6 from 3-point) in 21:24

Perhaps the greatest sequence in Rising Stars Challenge history is the back-and-forth battle between New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters in 2014. For seven out of eight straight possessions in the final minutes of the game, Hardaway and Waiters went one-on-one, virtually operating as if there were no other players on the court. Hardaway would hit a 3 and Waiters would answer with one of his own. Hardaway would bring the ball downcourt and pull up, then Waiters would shoot from a little bit deeper. Rinse and repeat. Hardaway finished with 36 points on 7-for-16 shooting from 3, while Waiters scored 31 on a lights-out 10-for-14 from the field, including four 3s. What’s funny is neither player was named the game’s MVP. That honor belonged to Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, who scored 30 points and grabbed 25 rebounds. No defense at all, but what a game.

2017 — Jamal Murray

Stat lines: 36 points (9-for-14 from 3-point), 11 assists in 20:09

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

No player has ever been named the MVP of back-to-back Rising Star Challenges since the game was first played in 1994. Yet this year, sharpshooting second-year Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has a chance to make history, after coming off the bench in 2017 to drop 36 for Team World in a 150-141 win. Can Murray be MVP again? We shall see.

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 top 45 NBA Christmas Day sneakers since 1997 Christmas in the NBA is too epic for some players to wear just one pair of shoes

There aren’t too many joys in this world quite like waking up on Christmas morning, checking under the tree and finding a crisply wrapped box that stores a fresh new pair of sneakers. You know … the ones your mama swore she wouldn’t get you, so you asked Santa, just in case.

On Monday, players hooping as part of the NBA’s loaded schedule of Christmas Day games will experience a similar moment. For them, the sneaker companies with which they’ve inked endorsement deals play a kind of Santa, presenting their brand ambassadors with special edition shoes to celebrate the holiday season. Before games, boxes await at lockers, ready to be laced up and taken for a spin.

From traditional red-and-green colorways to graphics of snowflakes and snowmen to designs incorporating Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, there are truly no limits on holiday kicks design. Shoes have steadily become more and more complex, and more festive, as the ritual continues to grow and spread joy throughout the league. Starting with Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan 13s in 1997 and ending in 2016 with an icy pair of Adidas sported by Derrick Rose, these are the top 45 sneakers worn on every NBA Christmas since 1997.


1997 Michael Jordan in Air Jordan 13

Air Jordan 13

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

On Christmas Day 1997, when Michael Jordan wore the white, true red and black edition of then newly released Air Jordan 13, these shoes had yet to take on their true identity. After the May 1998 release of the Spike Lee-directed coming-of-age New York hoops flick He Got Game, which featured Denzel Washington famously donning the kicks under a house arrest ankle bracelet, they came to be eternally known as the “He Got Game” 13s. Jake Shuttlesworth, Washington’s character, would’ve appreciated Jordan’s 24-point performance in a win over the Miami Heat while wearing the shoes.

1998

The NBA experienced its third lockout from July 1, 1998, to Jan. 20, 1999, as the league and its players union negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. As a result, the 1998-99 season was shortened to 50 games, and didn’t begin until Feb. 5, 1999. No Christmas games meant no Christmas heat on players’ feet.

1999 Tim Duncan in Nike Air Flightposite

Tim Duncan

JIM RUYMEN/AFP/Getty Images

Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan spent his first six years in the league lacing up Nikes, and, boy, did he have a lot of dopeness to work with in that era. Duncan wore everything on the court from the Nike Foamposite One to the Total Air Foamposite Max, and of course his Air Max Duncan and Air Max Duncan 2. In 1999, he led the Spurs to victory in the biennial McDonald’s Championship, a now extinct international pro basketball cup, while sporting Nike Air Flightposites. Two months later, he dropped 28 points in them on Christmas. Duncan’s Nike days ended in 2003 when he signed with Adidas, the company with which he’d finish out his career.

2000 Ron Harper in Air Jordan 11 “Concord”Kobe Bryant in the Adidas Crazy 1

Ron Harper

Jeff Gross /Allsport

You could certainly tell that Ron Harper was a former teammate of Jordan’s on Christmas in 2000. In a game against the Portland Trailblazers, Harper, who played with the greatest of all time on the Chicago Bulls from 1995 to 1998, rocked a pair of “Concord” Air Jordan 11s, which first retroed in 2000. Meanwhile, Harper’s young superstar teammate, Kobe Bryant, broke out a silver pair of his signature Adidas Crazy 1, which features a silhouette inspired by an Audi.

Kobe Bryant’s 2010 Nike Zoom Kobe 6s, inspired by the grumpy green Dr. Seuss character, are the greatest Christmas Day sneakers the NBA has ever seen.
2001 Allan Houston in Nike Flightposite III PE

Allan Houston

Getty Images

A player exclusive (PE) pair of Nike Flightposite IIIs in Knickerbocker white, orange and blue? Santa Claus (or Nike for the nonbelievers) sure did look out for Allan Houston, who dropped a game-high 34 points in a Christmas win over the Toronto Raptors.

2002 Kobe Bryant in Air Jordan 7 PE Mike Bibby in Air Jordan 17

Kobe Bryant and Mike Bibby

Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

A matchup within a matchup. The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Sacramento Kings in X’s and O’s, and Kobe Bryant vs. Mike Bibby in sneakers. Bryant, a sneaker free agent in 2002 after parting ways with Adidas, wore a pair of white, purple and gold Air Jordan 7 PEs, while Bibby, a member of Team Jordan since 1999, swagged the OG black and metallic silver Air Jordan 17s. Bibby’s Kings beat Bryant’s Lakers, but which player won the clash of kicks?

2003 Tracy McGrady in Adidas T-Mac 3

Tracy McGrady

Getty Images

A throwback Orlando Magic pin-striped uniform with a pair of striped Adidas T-Mac 3s — some next-level Christmas coordination from Tracy McGrady. In a 41-point afternoon against the Cleveland Cavaliers, McGrady teased the T-Mac 3s, which wouldn’t drop at retail until 2004.

2004 Reggie Miller in Air Jordan 19 “Olympics” Fred Jones in Air Jordan 13 “Wheat”

Reggie Miller

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Another display of yuletide sneaker competition, this time among members of the same team. Reggie Miller clearly took matching his shoes with his Indiana Pacers uniform to heart. Against the Detroit Pistons, he wore a special edition pair of white, metallic gold and midnight navy Air Jordan 19s, while his teammate Fred Jones went super festive and classy with a pair of “Wheat” Air Jordan 13s. Two strong pairs of shoes to have under the tree. Moral of the story: Christmas Day in the NBA is too epic for some players to wear just one pair of shoes.

2005 Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker in Nike Huarache 2K5

Smush Parker

Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Why not close out 2005 by wearing Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K5s, the best performance basketball shoe of the year? That’s exactly what Lakers teammates Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker did in a road matchup against the Miami Heat on Christmas. The trio complemented their dark purple road uniforms with all-black 2K5s.

2006 Dwyane Wade in Converse Wade 1.3

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

In June 2006, Dwyane Wade delivered the Miami Heat their first championship in franchise history while rocking his signature Converse sneakers for the entire six-game series that ended with the shooting guard hoisting the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy. Six months later, in a matchup between the Heat and Lakers (the NBA’s only Christmas game of 2006), Wade delivered again with 40 points while still rocking Converse — this time a pair of red and white Wade 1.3s that he debuted in the blowout Christmas day win.

2007 Kobe Bryant in Nike Air Zoom Kobe 3

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Santa Claus must’ve forgotten to pay visits to the six teams that starred in the 2007 Christmas Day games, because the sneaker heat of Christmas past went missing that year. The only shoes of note in ’07? Bryant’s high-top Nike Kobe 3s in Lakers colors. These shoes set the tone for many Christmases to come — absolute fire.

2008 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 4 Christmas iD Dwight Howard in Adidas TS Bounce Commander Superman LeBron James in Nike Zoom LeBron 6 “Chalk”

Kobe Bryant

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

This is where all the fun, and Christmas cheer, truly begins. By 2008, the NBA started showcasing a full slate of Christmas Day games. A bigger holiday stage sparked a movement among players and sneaker companies to seize the moment in style with vibrant-colored kicks designed through the lens of specific themes. Bryant wore a personalized edition of his Zoom Kobe 4s, and Nike also presented 100 fans with custom pairs of the shoes. LeBron James debuted his Nike Zoom LeBron 6s, inspired by his chalk-throwing ritual before tipoff of games. And Dwight Howard channeled his alter ego, Superman, in special Adidas TS Bounce Commanders. Bryant, James and Howard became the early adopters of a Christmas tradition that’s still practiced across the league today.

2009 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 5 “Chaos” Dwyane Wade in Air Jordan 1 Alpha Ray Allen in Air Jordan 1 Alpha Christmas PE LeBron James in Nike Air Max LeBron “Xmas” J.R. Smith in Air Jordan 12 “Cherry” Anthony Carter in Nike Blazers

Dwyane Wade

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Christmas “Chaos” for Kobe in his fifth signature Nike shoe. Old school meets new school in the Air Jordan Alphas, worn by longtime Team Jordan member Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade, who left Converse in 2009 to sign with Jordan Brand. Anthony Carter in the Christmas green and red Blazers, and J.R. Smith with a cherry on top in the red-accented “Cherry” Air Jordan 12s.

2010 Kobe Bryant in Nike Kobe 6 “Grinch”

Kobe Bryant

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

HOLIDAY HOT TAKE ALERT: Universal Pictures’ The Grinch, released in 2000, is the greatest Christmas movie of all time, and Bryant’s 2010 Nike Zoom Kobe 6s, inspired by the grumpy green Dr. Seuss character, are the greatest Christmas Day sneakers the NBA has ever seen. Neither declaration is up for debate.

2011 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 7 “Christmas” Kevin Durant in the Nike Zoom Kobe 4 LeBron James in Nike LeBron 9 “Christmas”

LeBron James

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Cheetah print for Bryant and copper for Durant? James wasn’t about that noise. He and Nike represented the holiday to the fullest, with classic red and green on his 2011 Christmas Day kicks.

2012 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 8 Dwyane Wade in Li-Ning Way of Wade (two pairs) Ray Allen in Air Jordan 18 and Air Jordan 20 “Christmas” PEs, Kevin Durant in Nike Zoom KD 5

Dwyane Wade

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

In 2012, Miami Heat teammates Allen and Wade had the same idea: Wear one pair of Christmas-themed shoes in the first half, and another pair in the second. Allen pranced up and down the court in two pairs of red-and-green Air Jordan PEs — first in the 18s and then in the 20s. Meanwhile, Wade broke out two shiny pairs of his signature Li-Nings. Moral of the story: Christmas Day in the NBA is too epic for some players to wear just one pair of shoes.

Santa Claus (or Nike for the nonbelievers) sure did look out in 2001 for Allan Houston.
2013 LeBron James in Nike LeBron 11 “Christmas” Dwyane Wade in Li-Ning Way of Wade 2 “Christmas”

Lebron James

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Two shades of Christmas green on the feet of two of the “Heatles.” Teal for James, with red trim and snowflake graphics. Lime green for Wade, with red accent and a speckled pattern resembling the skin of our favorite holiday hater, the Grinch. The question is, did Wade and Li-Ning swagger-jack the Black Mamba and Nike’s iconic “Grinch” Kobe 6s? Regardless, the Grinch is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to Christmas kicks.

2014 LeBron James in Nike LeBron 12 “Christmas Day Akron Birch” Iman Shumpert in Adidas Crazy 2 “Bad Dreams” Klay Thompson in Nike Hyperdunk 2013 PE

Iman Shumpert

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

To celebrate 2014’s five Christmas Day games, Adidas unveiled the “Bad Dreams” collection, featuring four sneakers designed in funky colors and patterns, and all highlighted by glow-in-the-dark soles. The best pair? The Crazy 2s, worn by Iman Shumpert in pregame warmups, even though he didn’t suit up for the Knicks’ matchup with the Washington Wizards due to injury. Honorable sneaker design mention: Klay Thompson’s Nike Hyperdunk 2013 PEs, which featured a snowman holding a basketball on the tongue of each shoe.

2015 Stephen Curry in Under Armour Curry 2 “Northern Lights”

Stephen Curry

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Chef Stephen Curry in the “Northern Lights,” boy! Seriously, these colorful concoctions could be worn for any holiday in the calendar year, not just Christmas.

2016 Derrick Rose in Adidas D Rose 7 Christmas PE Klay Thompson in Anta KT2 Christmas PE Lou Williams in PEAK Lightning Christmas PE

Derrick Rose

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

*Cue up the Gucci Mane* I’m icy, so m—–f—— snowed up (“Icy,” 2005). Derrick Rose certainly brought both the ice and the snow on his kicks for a Christmas Day game during his lone year with the New York Knicks last season. The way those colors hit the light, you’d swear Rose was hooping on the blacktop in an ice storm, not on the hardwood in the Garden.

2017

Who in the NBA will gift us with this year’s best sneakers? We’ll see what LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Santa have wrapped up and ready to go for a Christmas Day complete with hoops.

A history of Christmas Day game debuts As Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas

 

As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”

For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.

Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”

The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.

Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.

Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?

 

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1956 vs. Philadelphia Warriors (89-82, L)

Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds

Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.

 

Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers

Getty Images

Christmas 1958 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-97, L)

Line: 12 points

Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.

 

Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors

Christmas 1959 vs. Syracuse Nationals (129-121, W)

Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds

Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.

 

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals

Christmas 1960 vs. Detroit Pistons (126-119, W)

Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists

Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).

 

Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1961 vs. Cincinnati Royals (141-127, W)

Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks

Christmas 1971 vs. Detroit Pistons (120-118, L in OT)

Line: 38 points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.

 

Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Christmas 1971 vs. Pittsburgh Condors (133-126, W) | Christmas 1976 vs. New York Knicks (105-104, W)

Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds

Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.

 

Bernard King, Utah Jazz

Christmas 1979 vs. Denver Nuggets (122-111, W)

Line: 7 points

Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.

 

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1980 vs. New York Knicks (117-108, W)

Line: 28 points

Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.

 

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers

Getty Images

Christmas 1981 vs. Phoenix Suns (104-101, W)

Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals

Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.

 

Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks

Christmas 1982 vs. Washington Bullets (97-91, W)

Line: 7 points, 2 blocks

Only in his rookie season, Dominique Wilkins, the man known as The Human Highlight Reel, would have far better games than this in his Hall of Fame career. Hey, it happens.

 

Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)

Christmas 1984 vs. Detroit Pistons (109-108, W, Sixers)

Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)

These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.

 

Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Christmas 1985 vs. Boston Celtics (113-104, W 2OT)

Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds

Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1986 vs. New York Knicks (86-85, L)

Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks

Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.

 

Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1990 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-86, W)

Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals

While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.

 

David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1992 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (103-94, W)

Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds

What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.

 

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Christmas 1993 vs. Phoenix Suns (111-91, L)

Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks

Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.

 

Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic

Christmas 1993 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-93, L)

Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)

Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 1994 vs. Denver Nuggets (105-96, L)

Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)

The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.

Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.

 

Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons

Christmas 1996 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-83, L)

Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds

Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1996 vs. Phoenix Suns (108-87, W)

Line: 0 points, 1 rebound

Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1999 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (99-93, L)

Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds

This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Christmas 1999 vs. New York Knicks (101-90, W)

Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.

Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Christmas 2000 vs. Indiana Pacers (103-93, L)

Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds

An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Christmas 2001 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (88-82, L)

Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.

 

Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors

Christmas 2001 vs. New York Knicks (102-94, L)

Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals

By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.

 

Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2002 vs. New Jersey Nets (117-81, L)

Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds

The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Christmas 2003 vs. Sacramento Kings (111-103, W)

Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks

While we’re pretty sure he didn’t bring his patented “work plate” with him to the arena 14 years ago, our favorite German OG, Dirk Nowitzki, feasted on Chris Webber and the Kings.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2003 vs. Orlando Magic (113-101, L in OT)

Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals

Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Christmas 2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (104-102, W in OT)

Line: 29 points, 10 assists

As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.

 

Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 2007 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (89-79, L)

Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.

Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2008 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (92-83, L)

Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)

In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.

 

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)

Christmas 2008 (88-68, Magic W)

Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)

CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.

 

Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Christmas 2009 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (107-96, L)

Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists

Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

Christmas 2010 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (96-80, W)

Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds

Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

 

Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

Christmas 2010 vs. Denver Nuggets (114-106, W)

Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)

Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Christmas 2010 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (109-102, W)

Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists

Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.

 

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2014 vs. Miami Heat (101-91, L)

Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

Christmas 2014 vs. New York Knicks (102-91, W)

Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists

Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.

 

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 2013 vs. Houston Rockets (111-98, L)

Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds

This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.

 

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Christmas 2015 vs. Miami Heat (94-88, L in OT)

Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks

Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Christmas 2016 vs. Boston Celtics (119-114, L)

Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds

With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Christmas 2016 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (112-100, L)

Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds

The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.

The top 5 in-your-face moments of Matt Barnes’ 14-year career The explosive forward’s retirement brings the role of NBA ‘bad boy’ close to extinction

The days of the NBA “bad boy” are coming to an end. If you think otherwise, your take on the concept is all wrong. We’re talking about the trash-talking, brawl-beginning, fine-and-suspension-inducing, me-against-the-world mold of player that has flourished in the league for decades. With Matt Barnes’ Instagram-announced retirement (as a player) Monday, only a few are left in the league.

There’s DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins, Draymond Green and perhaps even LeBron James. But even within this diminishing cohort, physical altercations have been replaced with petty wars of attrition. Instead of meeting toe-to-toe on the hardwood, players throw shade at each other via pregame outfits and custom T-shirts and hats. Players defending themselves via photos or in 280 characters or less — sometimes even under the alias of a dummy account (sorry, Kevin Durant). But don’t get it twisted: This new version of warfare is still entertaining. It’s just different.

On Nov. 28, James did earn his first career ejection since joining the league in 2003, but the outburst only cost him a $4,000 fine — chump change compared with what the league has levied on a player like Matt Barnes. In 14 seasons with nine different teams, Barnes accrued a whopping $414,276 in fines and six games of suspension, according to spotrac.com, which compares with James’ career total of $51,000 in fines and zero games of suspensions over 15 seasons and counting.

With Barnes saying farewell to the game, the NBA has lost a bad boy from a long lineage of audacious NBA players, often traced back to the “Bad Boys” era of the late 1980s/early 1990s, Detroit Pistons teams, featuring Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Rick Mahorn. The fraternity of infamous hoopers also includes Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Charles Oakley, Reggie Miller, Vernon Maxwell, Latrell Sprewell, Isaiah Rider, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace, aka the man formerly known as Ron Artest.

Like many of these players, maybe Barnes crossed the line one too many times throughout his career. Or, maybe, he’s just fearless. Here are the top five moments from the now-retired forward’s playing days that embody his bad boy nature while blurring that fine line between craziness and passion for the game.


March 7, 2010 — MATT BARNES vs. KOBE BRYANT

Fine: None

It takes a certain type of man to go at Bryant — and that man has to have a backbone like Barnes. In a March 2010 game between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, less than a year removed from the teams’ matchup in the 2009 NBA Finals, Bryant and Barnes went back and forth all afternoon until their chippy confrontations climaxed in the third quarter, when they came chest-to-chest and the resulting jawing led both players to be whistled for technical fouls. “He’s the man, but s—,” Barnes said of Bryant after the game. “You gotta clean it up or something is gonna happen.” On an inbounds play after the verbal altercation, Barnes faked as if he would throw the ball in Bryant’s face, but the reigning Finals MVP didn’t budge. “I knew he wasn’t going to do s—,” Bryant told reporters after the Lakers’ 96-94 loss. “What would I flinch for?” Barnes came at the Black Mamba, and, technically, he missed. But he came correct, which you gotta respect. (In July 2010, Barnes became a teammate with Bryant after signing as a free agent with the Lakers.)

Dec. 12, 2014 — Matt Barnes vs. the water bottle

Fine: $25,000

In three seasons playing with the Los Angeles Clippers from 2012 to 2015, Barnes received a total of 32 fines, including one for $25,000 after a road matchup with the Washington Wizards in December 2014. After Clippers head coach Doc Rivers pulled his starters with about two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, essentially conceding the game, Barnes returned the sideline, where he kicked a water bottle into the stands before cursing at the home team’s fans. This is one of four $25,000 fines that the NBA issued to Barnes during his tenure as a Clipper, but spoiler alert: It’s far from the highest fine of his career.

May 6, 2015 — Matt Barnes vs. Monja Willis, aka James Harden’s mom

Fine: $52,000 ($50,000 for remark to Monja Willis, $2,000 for technical foul)

OK, sometimes Matt Barnes’ went wayyyyy too far with the trash talk. In the first quarter of Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, James Harden received a hard foul from Barnes, his primary defender. As Harden walked to the free throw line, Barnes intentionally bumped into him, which led a referee to whistle him for a technical foul. The play resulted in a rain of negative chants from Houston fans directed toward Barnes, who responded by reportedly yelling, “Suck my d—, b—-!” to the crowd. On the receiving end of the profane remark was Monja Willis, Harden’s mother, who would later tell TMZ that the Clippers player immediately apologized for the comment. “My older son walked over to him and told him to apologize … and he did,” Willis said. “What he told me was that he would never want to disrespect anyone’s mother because his mother passed from cancer … and that he was sorry. I accept his apology.” Barnes denied making the reported remark, calling it “untrue” and “crazy.” Regardless of what exactly was said, c’mon, Matt. You gotta leave mothers out of it.

March 17, 2016 — Matt barnes vs. John Henson … and the Bucks Locker room

Fine: $32,205 (one-game suspension without pay)

What happens when a referee ejects a player before Barnes has a chance to speak his mind to him? Well, Barnes runs off the court, through the arena’s tunnel and to the opposing team’s locker room, of course. That’s exactly what happened during a March 2016 game between the Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks, when John Henson received his second technical foul of the night and an immediate ejection after the big man’s vicious block on Barnes, who also received a technical foul for his part in the ensuing verbal altercation. Technically, Barnes wasn’t ejected from the game. However, he checked himself out of the contest, left the court to find Henson and reportedly made it all the way to Milwaukee’s locker room before two security guards had to escort him from the arena. The dedication is oddly commendable, but … For his antics, the league slapped Barnes with a huge fine and made him sit out for a game.

Jan. 17, 2016 — Matt Barnes vs. Derek Fisher

Fine: $35,000 (two-game suspension without pay)

“Knicks coach Derek Fisher was attacked in Los Angeles by NBA bad boy Matt Barnes, who drove 95 miles to ‘beat the s–t out of him’ when he found out Fisher was romancing his estranged wife,” reads the opening line of an October 2015 story from the New York Post. The NBA didn’t take action on the matter involving Barnes, Fisher and Gloria Govan until December, when the league suspended the then-Memphis Grizzlies forward for two games without pay. Yet, leading up to a January matchup between Memphis and New York — the first encounter between the player and coach, who were former teammates with the Lakers — Barnes spoke negatively about Fisher, including calling him a “snitch” and saying he doesn’t “talk to snakes.” The negative comments resulted in a $35,000 fine from the league for “condoning violence.” A month later, Barnes’ reputation made it all the way to hip-hop: I just be like, it was my idea to have an open relationship / Now a n—a mad / Now I’m ’bout to drive 90 miles like Matt Barnes to kill … / 30 hours, Kanye West raps on his track “30 hours” from The Life of Pablo. A shout-out like that certainly meant his legacy as an NBA bad boy had been cemented.

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.

The Notre Dame vs. Miami rivalry is the most relevant in this monstrous weekend of college football The storied matchup proves the woes of the country are rarely far from the field

Outside of championship rings, the most famous piece of jewelry in sports this year belongs to the University of Miami Hurricanes. “The U” turnover chain — comically huge, made of 10-karat gold and flooded with sapphires — has since the start of the season been momentarily given to defensive players who cause fumbles, recover fumbles or grab interceptions. This new age reward system is, in many ways, a relic of its yester-decade swagger, when The U’s players proclaimed their own greatness and then lived up to it. The team reveled in its bad boy image and intimidated All-Americans even before the coin toss.

On Nov. 4, as the waning seconds ticked off the scoreboard at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, it was clear that “The U” is back. The field was in shambles. They remain undefeated. Alex Rodriguez even wore his own version of the Hurricanes’ turnover chain while cheering Miami on last week — beside his girlfriend, Jennifer Lopez. Its iconic “The U” nickname — bestowed upon the Hurricanes for their rebellious, tyrannical, infectious and infamous dominance over college football in the ’80s and again in the early 2000s — is once again part of the national conversation. Nov. 8’s 28-10 drubbing of ACC foe (and then 13th-ranked) Virginia Tech was a statement win. And as destiny mapped out in its own high-stakes GPS navigation, the Hurricanes now have a chance at revenge against the last team to defeat them and perhaps, historically, their most notorious rival: Notre Dame, which won 30-27 vs. The U on Oct. 29, 2016.


Saturday’s showdown, also at Hard Rock Stadium, is urgent for a litany of reasons. Future Sunday talent resides on both squads — Miami’s star safety and reigning ACC Defensive Back of the Week Jaquan Johnson and Notre Dame’s star running back and long-shot Heisman Trophy hopeful Josh Adams are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Both teams are ranked in the Top 10, meaning very real college playoff implications will be decided before a nationally televised audience. The No. 3 (Notre Dame) vs. No. 7 (Miami) clash is just a third of what will be a monstrous weekend in college football, with No. 1 Georgia taking on No. 10 Auburn and No. 6 TCU squaring off against No. 5 Oklahoma.

Players on both teams are, of course, cognizant of the Miami and Notre Dame lineage. Miami head coach Mark Richt makes it plain: “This is why I came back to my alma mater.” But none of his current players was alive when barely coded lines such as “playing the game the right way” and “Thug U” were a part of the national conversation. “Catholics vs. Convicts,” a T-shirt slogan created by a Notre Dame student and later the title of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, is a phrase firmly supplanted in football lore, describing their October 1988 clash — a titan of a sporting event surpassed only by a chaotically beautiful and controversial fourth quarter. Saturday’s game is important for what it means for the near future of both programs. Yet, the game itself takes a back seat to the hatreds it took to get here.

To understand Miami/Notre Dame is to understand the cultural dichotomies of the ’80s. President Ronald Reagan’s blueprint to “Make America Great Again” divided an already divided country that was neck-deep in recession. Crack cocaine flooded poor neighborhoods , setting off an epidemic that ripped apart black America. Inner-city plight was the backdrop for political campaigning and newscasts thirsty to capitalize on pain (but not the source). Race was still the straw stirring America’s proverbial drink. Sports were a big part of the cocktail.

“[The American public] likes narratives, and narratives are constructed in a lot of ways in sports. Sometimes it’s good guy vs. bad guy. Sometimes it’s black guy vs. white guy,” said University of North Carolina sports history professor Matthew Andrews. “Those … narratives historically have gotten a lot of juice.” Notre Dame and Miami, in many respects, would follow this same blueprint in the decade of Reagan, N.W.A and Showtime. But not before others paved the way first.

No fight, in the ’80s, represented black vs. white more than the June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney clash. “It was a dumb thing to do,” Cooney said later. He vehemently opposed the title of “Great White Hope.” Holmes walked away victorious after a 13th-round stoppage — and later became close friends with Cooney. “I made a lot of money that night,” Cooney told The Washington Times this year, “but the rest was all distasteful.”

The rivalry of the decade, between Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, represented two Americas despite the presence of black and white players on both squads. “People can say all they want about ‘it was just basketball.’ No, it was racial drama. That was part of the allure. Different styles of play, different places. Boston has its racial history. We saw that recently again with the whole Adam Jones incident,” said Andrews. “There was a lot of meaning and narrative in there.” Notre Dame and Miami followed a path already emboldened.


The Notre Dame/Miami matchup is 62 years old; a 14-0 shutout by the Fighting Irish in 1955 marks their first meeting. Notre Dame won 12 of the first 13 matchups, including a 40-15 thrashing at the Mirage Bowl in 1979 in Tokyo. Until the ’80s and the arrival of coach Howard Schnellenberger, Miami was a school with no conference, no tradition and nearly no football team altogether, as the school seriously considered dropping the sport because of funding and lack of overall interest.

Under Schnellenberger, Miami won the 1983 national championship. The arrival of coach Jimmy Johnson, and a 58-7 thrashing of a once-proud Notre Dame in 1985, changed both programs. Johnson represented Miami. A young, handsome, outspoken leader of men who could’ve been a Miami Vice regular, Johnson had players instantly enamored with his coaching style. He cornered a talent-rich region of South Florida, recruited young men from poor neighborhoods and placed them in what seemed the utopian Coral Gables campus. “A lot of my kids come from inner-city backgrounds,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the reasons Miami doesn’t get a lot of respect, because your average football fan might not relate to that.”

The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins.

In Miami/Notre Dame’s 1985 meeting, Johnson refused to take the foot off the gas, though often lost to history is the fact that Johnson played reserves the majority of the fourth quarter and a blocked punt came with only 10 players on the field. The Fighting Irish were in the midst of a coaching change, from beleaguered Gerry Faust to Lou Holtz. Johnson and Miami could not care less. From that moment on, hatred was cultivated. And Miami bathed in it.

As Miami’s program ballooned into a national powerhouse, so did its reputation. They were the bad boys of college football — an image that followed them throughout the decade and beyond. They bullied, trash-talked and ran by and through opponents. Numerous off-field incidents, alleged recruiting violations and rendezvous with law enforcement hung over the program. In January 1987, many members of the team exited a plane in Phoenix wearing Army fatigues — days before playing Penn State in the national championship. They lost 14-10. In a quote still embedded with the program, defensive tackle Jerome Brown notoriously asked, in what was supposed to be a skit, “Did the Japanese sit down and eat dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed it?” This was before the entire team walked out of a dinner catered for Miami and Penn State players. Regardless of their loss to Penn State, 34 players on that 1986 team were drafted. Twenty-eight went on to play in the NFL. By 1988’s meeting between Notre Dame and Miami, the game itself was billed as one of the biggest of the decade: “Catholics vs. Convicts.”


“Notre Dame hasn’t cornered the market on Catholic football players,” then-Miami quarterback Steve Walsh said before the game. Yet, the four Miami quarterbacks who defined the ’80s were all white and Catholic: Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Walsh. At the time, Miami’s entire starting offensive line and tight end Rob Chudzinski were too. Notre Dame ranked fourth in the country and was viewed as the college responsible for producing arguably the most NFL’s most recognizable megastar in San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. The Irish were viewed as the classier squad, the Irish-Catholics who “played the game the right way.”

Meanwhile, the reigning champion Hurricanes rode a 36-game winning streak that spanned three seasons. The U seemingly tallied as many penalty yards as points, yards and wins. The Hurricanes were as explicit as hometown heroes 2 Live Crew and, in their own way, as militant as Public Enemy. Miami football, Mike Tyson, the 1985 Chicago Bears defense and the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons — these four balls of energy ruled during a decade when America struggled to find its footing economically, racially and culturally.

Preceded by a raucous pregame brawl, the Saturday heavens favored Notre Dame in a highly debated 31-30 finish with controversial touchdowns and two-point conversions. Miami and Notre Dame played four consecutive years between 1987 and 1990. Miami lived up to its own hype, capturing national titles in 1987 and 1989 — the latter being Jimmy Johnson’s final request before moving on to the NFL ranks, where he’d soon ignite another generation-defining dynasty in the Dallas Cowboys. Notre Dame, immortalized by its 1988 victory over Miami, capped off its season with a title of its own. After the 1990 season, Miami would join the Big East, putting the rivalry on ice for 20 years. The two institutions have played twice since 2010, with Notre Dame winning both times and owning an overall 17-7 series lead.

The stereotypes of both schools remain. And with Miami’s resurgence has come the revival of the wicked narrative of “The U” being no more than a collection of correctional center All-Americans. Yet, in this decade there has been unfavorable publicity from South Bend to Coral Gables — Notre Dame during the embarrassing Manti Te’o debacle and ugly sexual assault and cheating scandals. The latter forced the university to vacate 21 victories from its 2012-13 seasons, including a 12-0 campaign that propelled the school to a national title matchup versus Alabama. And Miami with its crippling battle with former booster Nevin Shapiro that led to a self-imposed postseason ban and a 2013 ruling of losing nine scholarships after an NCAA investigation. Miami, though, has revamped its image in recent years. The team is a current co-recipient of the American Football Coaches Association Academic Achievement Award, and its No. 3 ranking in the NCAA Community Service Top 25 is the highest in the ACC.

Now, the series shifts to its most important meeting in two and a half decades. National championship dreams and season-altering nightmares await both teams. The U’s chain will glisten under the prime-time lights of South Florida for the second consecutive week. Although Notre Dame’s game plan calls for the chain to be a moot point rather than a star attraction, as it was last week when Miami’s defense forced four Virginia Tech turnovers. It’s a fitting revival of a rivalry to serve center stage during a period of American unrest, as it did 30 years before.

History provides the foundation that gives this 2017 installment something no other game on Saturday’s schedule boasts. Notre Dame vs. Miami isn’t what it once was. And maybe that’s a good thing in some ways. But that doesn’t mean Saturday night can’t be the start of something real and relevant. Again.

The NBA’s second string is refusing to back down to the Cavaliers and Warriors We do some trash-talking on behalf of the Pistons, Magic, Grizzlies and Clippers

Somebody forgot to tell the rest of the NBA that we’re supposed to be waiting for a fourth straight Golden State Warriors-Cleveland Cavaliers Finals.

In the West, the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are rocking rims and raising eyebrows. In the East, the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic are killing, while doormats are giving the Cavs’ new-and-not-improved roster the business. Yeah, we know the Dubs are laying in the cut after a draining preseason trip to China. We know, at some point, LeBron’s gonna LeBron. But a big chunk of the NBA is living by the words of this site’s favorite inspirational author and refusing to be defeated, despite the overwhelming talent and aura of these two historically dominant teams.

As we wait for the whole superteam concept to kick in this season, here’s what we’d like to pretend the NBA’s up-and-comers are tweeting at the Cavs (3-4 record, including four losses to non-playoff teams) and Golden State (5-3):

DETROIT PISTONS, 5-3, Second in Eastern Conference

You like dressing up for 🎃🎃🎃, @Warriors? We ain’t scared.

Get Off Me GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

REAL TALK: First the Pistons came from behind to beat the undefeated Clippers in Los Angeles, then they knocked off the Warriors in Oakland, California. Stephen Curry rode into the arena dressed as Billy the Puppet from the Saw horror films — but the Dubs’ 26 turnovers were the real horror show. The Pistons lost to the young Lakers on Tuesday night, but they are still one of the Association’s biggest surprises.

ORLANDO MAGIC, 5-2, tied for Eastern Conference lead

Yo @NBA: Don’t 😴. We 😱😱😱 this year. Like a game-winning 👌from the dunker @Double0AG:

Game Winner GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

REAL TALK: Orlando’s red-hot offense powered the Magic to a 21-point win over the LeBrons in Cleveland. Aaron Gordon is rising above mere dunks to become a legit Most Improved Player candidate. The Magic could actually make the playoffs for the first time since 2012, when Dwight Howard turned from Superman back into Clark Kent.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES, 5-2, first in the Western Conference

111-101 W vs @Warriors 🤔

98-90 W vs @HoustonRockets 😳

103-89 W vs @HoustonRockets 😈

Nba GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

REAL TALK: What vat of barbecue sauce did Memphis find Jarell Martin in? What about this other starter named James Ennis III? Where has Andrew Harrison been hiding since losing two NCAA titles at Kentucky? It doesn’t matter who plays for the Grizz as long as they have Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS, 4-2, second in the Western Conference

CP Who?

Interview GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

REAL TALK: OK, they got blown out by the Warriors on Monday night in the Dubs’ bounce-back game from the Detroit debacle. But the Clippers are defying predictions of a collapse after the exit of cancerous control freak All-Star point guard Chris Paul. The team belongs to Blake Griffin now. And not only is BG splashing game-winning 3s, he’s back to being THAT Blake Griffin.