Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

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Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”


Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”


Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.


Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”


Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”


As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.

A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”

At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.

As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.

One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”

Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.

He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.

Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”

Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.

“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Change, get fired or quit

Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:

“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.

“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”

For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”

He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.

Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.

“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”

There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.

“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.

Life after football

Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.

After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.

Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.

He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Then verses 3 and 4:

For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.

“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.

“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.

“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”

I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.

Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.

“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”

The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”

Is there a downside?

“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”

Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.

“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”

It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.

Black and Blue: A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.

Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.

Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.

A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.

Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.

Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”

When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.

“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”

Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.

When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.

Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.

“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.

“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”

Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”

“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.

Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.

De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.

A scandal in the department

Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.

At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.

It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.

Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.

“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”

There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.

Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.

“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

Engaging the threat

After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.

Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.

A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.

“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”

A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.

Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?

“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”

Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.

Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.

Then Davenport tried one.

Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.

Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?

The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.

The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.

“This might have been my bad day,” he said.

A glimpse inside a high-tech police simulation at the Atlanta PD

The lesson of Jonah

Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.

Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.

Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.

The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.

“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”

The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.

The portrait of an artist: Derek Fordjour dissects race, sports and culture A Morehouse and Harvard grad is telling the world how he feels about life and athletics — via art

Mid-September in Harlem, New York. The wind, sotto voce. Rain is in the forecast but as yet, no tears from the clouds that hover above the neighborhood commonly known as the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance. On the corner of West 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue stands a 13-story charcoal-colored building designed in 2015 by Sir David Frank Adjaye, the Ghanaian-British architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The building not only offers affordable housing, and early education programs, it’s also home to the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling. Just one floor down, though is like entering a previous century. The shift in the atmosphere is due to PARADE, an exhibition of the work of visual artist Derek Fordjour. Fordjour, a Morehouse, Hunter College and Harvard graduate born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, creates installments at the intersection of race, sports, and the “economic, political and psychosocial implications of games.”

Fordjour always knew he was an artist. “I don’t think it was realization,” he said. “I think I was just an artist … all kids are artists. I just started … and I just never stopped. Art is the first language for kids, but [most] of us kind of adapt, or move away from it. I just kind of kept going.”


At Fordjour’s Brooklyn studio, one piece stands out: acrylic, oil pastel, charcoal on newspaper, mounted on a 30-inch by 24-inch canvas. The piece is prideful. It presents the head and shoulders of a black athlete in a striped jersey. The colors peek from behind shadows and strong, textured diamond shapes. The work reeks of the often unsettled place of black athletes in pro sports, a space complicated by fame, money and sometimes false narratives. Fordjour is recipient of the C12 Emerging Artist Award 2017 has had his work featured in exhibitions at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles, New York City’s Sotheby’s S2 Gallery, and Luce Gallery in Turin, Italy.

His interest in dissecting race in sports takes over a large space in his studio, which is in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn. He says he is a Los Angeles Lakers fan, from as far back as the Showtime Lakers/Magic Johnson era. “In sports … there’s a lot of preparation and skill, but there’s also luck,” said Fordjour. “Playing the game in the right place matters. If I were [making art] in some far out, distant city, it wouldn’t have the same resonance as it does in New York. I see those parallels, I see [sports] as … entertainment as well, and these works really are about that.”

“Growing up, I heard in a speech once — ‘If I have to run 10 yards for a first down and you have to run three, it don’t matter how hard I play.’ ”

He says that art and sports occupy similar positions in society — because there’s no utility to either of them. “The outcome of a game,” he said, “or when I complete a piece, it doesn’t really fundamentally change the lives of many people … materially anyway … but it has social value.”

He said that some of what happens when he works is he takes “the story” and then tries to internalize a lot of it. “One of the reasons why … surfaces are really worn the way they are is because coming from Memphis, I grew up getting things that were worn a lot — freshly used. I had a big brother, my parents were immigrants … [so also] seeing our [used] clothes go to Ghana. Those cycles, the things we have worn … is a lot about what [my] surfaces are about.”

Many times, he starts by laying down a base of cardboard. “Then I do a second layer,” he said, “where I actually paint the image, and then I use registration, which is like transparencies, these clear things, to mark where it is. I have these marks that will help me position the image on the top layer, and then I kind of tear through. I will do another image. I can almost tear it and then just pull that middle layer if I wanted, or go all the way back to the bottom layer. They’re really three paintings on top of each other, and then I just kind of tear in between. I don’t even know how I thought of it, I think it just happens. You’re making things … you just keep making them.”


Fordjour’s PARADE installation at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum.

Courtesy of Derek Fordjour

Fordjour’s PARADE opened on July 27 and runs through Jan. 14, 2018, is a bold indicator that art still thrives in Sugar Hill. The installation is backed by carnival music — a nostalgic journey that places visitors back to their own childhoods while giving them a glimpse into Fordjour’s own youthful obsessions. There’s a brick-paved tunnel complete with flashing lights and shiny floors. Lighted archways lead to a kind of fun house, with each step visitors move into a new creative space. Unlike regular parades, where the crowd gathers to view the fun passing by, in PARADE visitors walk through the exhibit and enjoy the pieces.

The walls are lined with newspaper, with masks and statues, serving as the backdrop of pieces representing Fordjour’s Ghanaian heritage.

The walls are lined with newspaper, with masks and statues, serving as the backdrop of pieces representing Fordjour’s Ghanaian heritage. Throughout are what the artist refers to as “works on paper” and the museum describes as ” … his signature and highly textured collages … vignettes, small sculptures, found objects, and interventions.” There is even a small mounted Ferris wheel, a food cart, and a ceiling of blue skies. Sneakers hang from a utility line.

“A touch of urbanity,” Fordjour said. “Certain kind of symbols, monikers, they locate an experience, and I wanted that kind of specificity. There are certain neighborhoods you don’t see that in.”

Near the end of PARADE visitors enter a closet that houses coats, hats, shirts and shoes. It turns out he got them from a museum staffer. They were items she’d had stored after a breakup with an ex.

Fordjour is curious: “But did you go through it?” He believes it’s a becomes kind of a litmus test, particularly for adults, about risk-taking. “Some people turn around,” he said of the people who don’t push through and back, and see what’s there, “and go all the way back out.”

Fordjour uses material that methodically disseminates layers of texture, which intensifies as the pieces hit the surface. The end result? Astonishing, thought-provoking art.

“We want fairness,” he said. “Societal fairness. Growing up, I heard in a speech once — ‘If I have to run 10 yards for a first down and you have to run three, it don’t matter how hard I play.’ Some of my work is about that inequality. That’s what it comes down to. If you look at health care, if you look at the history of housing, if you look at the history of banking, if you look at education, the disparities across all … are a lot greater than we realize. I’m interested in those ideas of fairness.”

Famous Nobodys is a fashion company making moves in the South Bronx Their gear has been worn by Allen Iverson, Chris Rock, DJ Khaled, Carmelo Anthony, others

Remember when fans went nuts when Carmelo Anthony rocked the hybrid New York Yankees and Mets hat at the Mets’ Citi Field stadium last year?

It did really well, according to one of the designers of the hat, Gary Gonzalez.

“I think it made it on every channel on ESPN, and they talked bad about it and it made it better. … The hat sells out every time we put it out,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez and Christian Vazquez run a fashion design and retail company, Famous Nobodys. Vazquez is La La Anthony’s brother and Carmelo Anthony’s brother-in-law. Earlier this week, they unveiled their new line or capsule: the “Ca77 God” collaboration. The store started out as an online hat business but expanded into a clothing company.

Gonzalez has been a designer for 12 years. He has worked with big names such as French Montana and The Game. Vazquez is a creative director for Motives Cosmetics and a public speaker, and he manages La La Anthony’s bookings and appearances.

They partnered with Starter, a premium athletic brand. Together they produced three NBA All-Star jackets, which received 109 million impressions (the number of times there is any interaction with the content) on social media and have been worn by Allen Iverson, Chris Rock, DJ Khaled, Carmelo Anthony, Jadakiss, Kenyon Martin, French Montana and others. Last month, they teamed up again to create the NBA Draft Day jackets.

Gear at the Famous Nobodys store in the South Bronx.

Gonzalez and Vazquez then teamed up with The Compound, a lifestyle branding and marketing company. Together, they produced a line that features the phrase “Ca77 God.” In some religions, the number “7” is a symbolic number. Both Gonzalez and Vazquez think God should be the first entity that one calls on in life.

“In life, no matter whether it’s good or bad or whatever you have going on, that always should be your moment to call God,” said Vazquez.

The Famous Nobodys refers to the owners’ belief that everyone is famous in their own right. The website lists Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner as examples — they are men who rose from obscurity in the Black Lives Matter movement because of their deaths. The storefront opened on April 20, and the symbol depicted on the storefront is a star with a line through it. This is the Nobody symbol, which represents nontraditional paths to achieve success.

For Vazquez, social media is one of these paths. “In this day and age, social media is so powerful, it’s almost like an anti-revolution where you don’t have to go through traditional chains of entertainment to be a star or be a celebrity to be successful to take on that large following,” he said.

Unlike most fashion companies, Famous Nobodys does not release lines according to the season. Within the intimate rectangle-shaped store, they also maintain a 2,500-pound embroidery machine in the back of the shop so they can embroider and then sell their products.

Instead, Vazquez’s strategy is to put out “pieces that are relevant to the time, what’s going on right now with the culture and what the mood of what the climate of the situation is.”

Customers look around at Famous Nobody’s store in the South Bronx

Gonzalez and Vazquez like to work with people who they consider as being “for the culture,” which they define as “what you add to the scene that is already producing greatness.” For example, Gonzalez partnered with Datwon Thomas, editor in chief of Vibe, in 2013 to produce a hat line: Twnty Two.

In January 2015, they all teamed up and created the Nobodys Famous brand, which is now the sister company to Twnty Two. A majority of the hats from Famous Nobodys, like the “Arabic successful” hat and the “Justice or else” hat, were so popular they sold out in less than 24 hours. All of the hats, shirts, camos, jackets and sweatshirts range from $25 to $200.

Working with minorities is a priority for the owners because that’s who they are. Gonzalez is Dominican and Vazquez is Puerto Rican. This is part of the reason they chose to locate the store in Mott Haven, a section of the South Bronx.

According to the last U.S. Census, the South Bronx is made up of mostly black, Latino and Asian communities. Gonzalez grew up in the Bronx, and Vazquez said the New York City borough took care of him when he was going through a low point. Because of these ties, they wanted to add a fashion-centered vibe to a low-income neighborhood that is seeing a rapid increase in rent.

Sinceré Armani came to the “CA77 God” line launch because she likes to stay current on all of the latest fashion brands and believes this brand speaks to artist/rappers. She has worked as a fashion stylist for Nicki Minaj.

“I think the urban world would love it [because] they have dope tag lines on their T-shirts. Its fly, and I think it’s going to take off,” said Armani.

The Famous Nobodys plan to start making book bags, custom hoodies and button-down shirts around September or early October.

For Kenyon Martin, the next chapter includes finding peace in family and BIG3 league The 39-year-old knew finding himself outside of basketball wouldn’t be a problem

On a sunny, 83-degree day in Camden, New Jersey, more than 300 kids were gathered at the North Camden Community Center for a free basketball clinic sponsored in part by the BIG3 basketball league. Cheerleaders from the South Jersey Fire cheer squad pumped up the crowd before groups of children from first to eighth grades took center court, participating in basketball warm-up drills. The older groups, ninth grade and up, did the same on the outside courts.

In front of the community center, a black, unmarked sprinter van carrying former NBA forward/center Kenyon Martin and former NBA guard Andre Owens pulled up to the building. When the two entered, all activities temporarily ceased as a group of participants rushed to surround the ballers. From the looks on their faces, it was plain to see that some kids were unfamiliar with Martin and Owens, who were in their prime before some of them were conceived. On the other hand, there were looks of admiration from the older boys and girls who instantly recognized Martin — he was drafted No. 1 overall by the New Jersey Nets in 2000 and played four seasons for them — before they started toward him for pictures and autographs.

This is Martin’s life post-NBA retirement. Not as grueling as an NBA schedule, but just the right amount of activity to keep him busy. Outside of appearances, Martin finds himself making up for the family time he lost during his 15 hectic seasons in the NBA.

“I got five little ones, and for me, being at home, being able to take my youngest son — who’s into wrestling — to WrestleMania for his birthday means everything,” Martin said. “Going to my daughter’s ballet recitals. All that kind of stuff. That’s what outweighed the NBA for me. Not playing in the league and only [playing in the BIG3] one day a week, it’s an opportunity for me to be there and do things that I missed out on while I was playing and just growing and building as a family. I just want to be their dad, be their father. They didn’t ask to be here. I love them dearly, and I’m going to do my part.”

These days, Martin represents a league that is quickly becoming a favorite among fans of BIG3, the 3-on-3 basketball league created by Ice Cube. Martin serves as captain for team Trilogy, which includes players Al Harrington, Rashad McCants, James White, Dion Glover, Jannero Pargo and is coached by former Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Rick Mahorn.

Kenyon Martin #4 of Trilogy drives to the basket against Reggie Evans #30 of Killer 3s during week one of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Barclays Center on June 25, 2017 in New York City.

Al Bello/Getty Images

According to Martin, Ice Cube contacted him directly to discuss his vision for the league and the mission behind it. It didn’t take long to persuade Martin to take up the offer to join other former players back on the court for competitive games. Before they hung up, Martin was sold.

“[Ice Cube] grew up a Lakers fan, of course, but a lot of us have been a part of people’s living rooms and barbershop talks for the last 20-plus years,” Martin said. “For you not to see those guys play anymore … Ice Cube was giving us the opportunity to continue our careers at a less strenuous pace: playing half-court, playing 3-on-3 and only one game per week.”

‘Basketball wasn’t my life’

Before retirement, Martin was confident in his abilities to continue playing basketball and knew he still had what it took to help a team win, but he decided to make his 15th season his last go-round in the professional realm after noticing how much interest from NBA teams had dwindled. In July 2015, Martin made it official.

“I loved basketball, I loved competing, I loved being out there, but I looked at it as I was going to work and I treated it as such,” Martin said. “But basketball wasn’t my life. Some people don’t know what to do without the game.”

“Teams didn’t have any interest in my services, and that’s a telltale sign,” Martin said. “… Once I got waived, that was my key for me to step away. I’m too prideful to be put in those kinds of situations. I know my abilities and I know what I was still capable of doing, but if can’t nobody else see it and these other teams can’t see it, then I can’t force them to see it. It was time for me to put the NBA in the past.”

Although the decision was easy for Martin, he hadn’t anticipated the rough transition from a professional basketball player to immediately finding a normalized lifestyle that worked for him. One thing Martin knew for sure was that defining himself outside of basketball wouldn’t be a problem. For Martin, basketball was the way he earned a living — it was never his identity.

“I loved basketball, I loved competing, I loved being out there, but I looked at it as I was going to work and I treated it as such,” Martin said. “But basketball wasn’t my life. Some people don’t know what to do without the game. They don’t know where to turn to. From what I grew up and came out of, making it out of high school was a big deal. If you do anything after that, it’s a plus. Where I’m from … no former athletes come back and talk. None of that. I had to learn on the fly. There was no, ‘You can be good at this if you do this.’ For me, it was just making sure I was a productive member of society and not being a burden to nobody. I played basketball, football and baseball growing up. I played all three of them up until high school. I was tall and athletic, so I just decided to stick with it.”

Kenyon Martin #4 of Trilogy and Rashard Lewis #9 of the 3 Headed Monsters walk off of the court together after their game during week two of the BIG3 three on three basketball league at Spectrum Center on July 2, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Yet, catching a glimpse of basketball games still sparked feelings of frustration. The thought of not being able to walk onto an NBA court was emotionally taxing, but Martin prioritized his time by setting aside moments during his day to “soul search” and found ways to center himself through his family.

Out of his five kids — three girls and two boys, ages 16, 14, 12, 3 and 2 — Martin noticed the natural skills his son, Kenyon Martin Jr., possessed in the sport his father chose more than two decades ago. The high school sophomore and eldest of Martin’s kids is already on recruiters’ radar.

“He’s 16 now, and he’s more skillful than I was at his age,” Martin said. “He handles and dribbles the ball better, but I was always athletic and I always played hard. That separated me from a lot of people. And he’s getting there, but he’s just starting to turn a corner where he realizes he has to play harder than everybody all the time. I was successful at what he’s trying to do, which is be a professional basketball player, so all I can do is guide him. I know what it takes to get there. I’m just trying to help him achieve his goals in life. It’s my job and my obligation to give him all the tools and put him in the right situation so he can try to make that happen for himself.”

Giving the fans what they want

When he’s not juggling family and basketball, Martin is spending time finding his next venture.

“I’ve been doing the TV thing. Me and Michael Rapaport have an NBA show [Two Man Weave] we do,” Martin said. “There’s a new coconut water I’m part owner in called Life Recovery; it’s in 7-Eleven now. I have a car service in Los Angeles that we’re trying to expand, but I’m just trying to figure it out. I have a few other things that I’m interested in. Moving forward, I think I’m a hell of a cook — I can get on that grill. I’m a Texan, so I think my barbecue is immaculate. I might do some TV shows for cooking and a few other things. I’m just trying to see what’s gonna stick without being pigeonholed to one thing with basketball. I’m just trying to put some things in a few different hats and see what sticks for me.”

Martin hasn’t been on the court since Week 1 of the BIG3’s schedule because of a pulled hamstring, an injury he’d never suffered throughout his collegiate or professional career, but he will be ready to roll for Week 5 in Chicago. The following stop, July 30 in Dallas, will be a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who grew up in Oak Cliff, an area of South Dallas.

“Dallas is going to be fun,” Martin said. “It’s not my first time playing there, but this is something new to give friends and family the opportunity to play. It’s been a few years, so it gives them an opportunity to get to see me do my thing again on this level with these guys. My mom and my family are all excited.”

There’s more to Jarrius Robertson than superfandom The 15-year-old Jimmy V Perseverance Award recipient is transforming lives through organ donation awareness

In the past year, New Orleans Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson has made more appearances than even he can count.

First there were Saints games, Saints training camps, interviews with players and coaching, where Jarrius’ playcalling often rivaled — and debatably fared better than — that of head coach Sean Payton. Last year, after signing a contract to become a Saint, Jarrius bounced from city to city, appearing everywhere from the Good Morning America studios in New York City to the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans. But no matter where he is, Jarrius never forgets to spread the message that “It Takes Lives to Save Lives” in order to bring awareness to the importance of organ donation.

It was only fitting that the charismatic 15-year-old was chosen to be the recipient of this year’s Jimmy V Perseverance Award at The ESPYS for the strength and courage he has displayed while battling biliary atresia, a rare, chronic liver disease that affects the bile ducts, beginning at infancy.

“It feels good because I get to go down with some of the greatest people, and it’s a big opportunity,” Jarrius said of the award.

The announcement came just two months after Jarrius’ second liver transplant surgery, which has been helping him get back to everyday activities that he was forced to give up because of the illness.

“Recovery is going good because I can do all the things I couldn’t do with my old liver,” Jarrius said. “I’m eating better and playing and going outside.”

The outpouring of love and support Jarrius has received is something his father, Jordy Robertson, is still getting used to. But he is grateful for the opportunities Jarrius has to speak for other kids who are battling chronic illnesses or waiting to receive an organ. There was a time Jordy Robertson wasn’t sure his son would make it past 1 year old.

Jordy Robertson and Jarrius’ mother, Patricia Hoyal, became parents when they were teenagers.

“We were young,” said Jordy Robertson, 34. “We didn’t know nothing. But as a father, I stayed by his side because this was my first kid. I was so excited, not knowing what I was about to be faced with.”

Jarrius, who appeared to be healthy at birth, was diagnosed with biliary atresia at only 4 weeks old. The rare disease affects about 1 out of 18,000 infants and can cause slow weight gain and stunted growth. Jordy Robertson ended up missing most of his senior year just to be by his son’s side.

“The principal gave me a call and said, ‘Hey, if you could pass this test, you can walk with your class and get your high school diploma,’ ” Jordy Robertson said. “I studied hard that week, aced that test, and when they asked if I was ready to walk with my class I said, ‘I don’t want to walk with my class. I have to run to the hospital.’ I got my diploma, and I ran.”

When Jarrius was 1 year old, Jordy Robertson remained hopeful that the liver transplant his son was about to receive would be the cure for his illness. Instead, what was supposed to be a time of celebration turned into Jordy Robertson’s worst nightmare.

Jarrius successfully made it through his first liver transplant. But after surgery, the 1-year-old aspirated, causing fluid to be drawn into his lungs.

“He never made it out of the [operating room],” Jordy Robertson said.

Jarrius was placed in a medically induced coma for a year. A ventilator moved air in and out of the small boy’s lungs, working to breathe for him. Weeks passed before doctors delivered the crushing news to Jordy Robertson that Jarrius’ progression had significantly decreased. There was nothing more the hospital could do for his son.

“As a family, we signed the papers to not revive him,” Jordy Robertson said. “But once they unplugged him from the ventilator, the doctors said, ‘Hey, this kid is breathing.’ They placed the bag on him and rushed him straight into a room and went to work from there. It was a great moment.”

Since then, Jarrius, who stands a little under 4 feet tall and weighs 52 pounds, has undergone 36 surgeries and two liver transplants. Yet, none of his medical emergencies has dampened his spirit.

“His personality, he gets it from being his age and his size and having the heart that he has,” Jordy Robertson said. “He’s got the heart of a lion but the body of a baby. But if there was a war right now, he’d say, ‘Dad, put me on the front line and let me go.’ He’s a brave person with courage and understanding.”

Besides spreading awareness about organ donation and chronic illness, Jarrius has picked up several famous friends, including Saints quarterback Drew Brees, running back Mark Ingram and defensive end Cameron Jordan, all of whom have been on the receiving end of Jarrius’ tough love and advice to better themselves as football players.

“They don’t challenge me because they know around there, I’m the boss,” Jarrius said.

Jarrius met Saints players for the first time in December 2015 during their annual visit to Ochsner Hospital for Children in New Orleans, where he was being treated for gastrointestinal bleeding. Right before Jarrius was set to be discharged, players walked the halls in their plush red and white Santa hats, giving gifts, taking pictures and chatting with the kids.

“I was happy and excited since I’d never met them before,” Jarrius said. “[Saints punter] Thomas Morstead changed our lives,” Jordy Robertson added. “The hospital partners with his foundation, What You Give Will Grow, and this is how we met them. He was the one who offered us tickets to the game where we could be on the sidelines.”

Although Jarrius sometimes faces complications that cause minor setbacks, they aren’t enough to keep him down for long. Most days, just as any other teenage boy, Jarrius prioritizes video games and family fun over rest. Jordy Robertson laughed while partially placing blame on ESPN analyst Randy Moss for Jarrius’ intermittent sleep patterns.

“That kid stays up all night playing [NBA 2K],” Jordy Robertson said. “If we aren’t doing anything and there’s no hospital visits, he’s not getting up until about 3 p.m. … Randy Moss has him like that. Randy will call me at like 11 or 12 o’clock at night and say, ‘Hey, what are the boys doing?’ I’ll go to their room and check, and Randy will say, ‘Tell ’em I’m ready. Tell ’em it’s time to get it on,’ and they’ll play until 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning.”

Moss learned of Jarrius through Annie Apple’s profile of the teen on Sunday NFL Countdown earlier in the season and immediately took a liking to Jarrius’ sprightly personality. The pair finally met in February on the ESPN set at Super Bowl LI in Houston.

“Jarrius was so full of energy. That hit me instantly,” Moss wrote via email. “When I met him, his excitement lit up our stage. I learned more about his condition and it hit close to home, understanding that I’ve got children of my own that could easily be in the same position. I was battling some things personally, but not like Jarrius. He showed me with his energy, laughter and determination to keep fighting no matter what. God answered both our prayers and for that, I love this kid.”

Jordy doesn’t mind the late hours his son keeps, nor the designated parent-turned-publicist position that Jarrius’ overnight fame has made for him. For Jordy Robertson, watching Jarrius have fun and entertain others while spreading awareness will always trump the nights he has spent praying for a miracle for his son, wary of the lurking complications that could strike at any moment.

“I know that my son is like a superhero, he’s saving lives,” Jordy Robertson said. “But I also get to bring to light something I’ve been stressing over, worried about and fighting for 13 years. It’s hard as a father to wake up in the middle of the night to stand over your kid to see if your kid is breathing or even alive. And even crying and praying over your kid in the middle of the night is something that most people in the world may not have to experience. For me, I did it so many nights it became part of me.”

As Jarrius grows and learns to manage his illness, the future remains bright. Besides helping others, Jarrius aspires to become an actor and comedian, and he hopes to meet actor Kevin Hart.

The most important thing Jordy Robertson hopes for his son is that he’ll keep fighting for not only himself but also for other kids who are battling chronic illnesses. He said he’s grateful for those who help Jarrius through donations, and who attend or volunteer for events hosted by Jarrius’ foundation, It Takes Lives to Save Lives.

“As a father, the major accomplishment I want to achieve is to make my son the face of organ donation,” Jordy Robertson said. “The reason I say that is because when you talk about organ donation, you talk about Jarrius Robertson, a kid who has been fighting for 13 years of his life and is finally getting the chance of winning the battle. He’s fighting for a cause that helped save his life that can help save the lives of other kids, too.”

Isiah Warner’s inspirational teaching at LSU never stops pushing STEM careers The 2016 SEC Professor of the Year holds the highest professorial rank in the LSU system

Louisiana State University (LSU) professor Isiah Warner laughed as he recounted the many hats he’s worn throughout his 25 years at the school. Warner serves as vice president for strategic initiatives, Boyd Professor (the highest professorial rank in the LSU system) and Philip W. West Professor of analytical and environmental chemistry and as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor who works to develop, apply and solve fundamental problems through research.

Although Warner battles a murderous schedule, the professor has no plans to slow down. The goal? Helping as many students as he can achieve their goals in a field that chose him long ago. Warner’s dedication to students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has earned him many accolades throughout his career and most recently allowed him to add SEC Professor of the Year to his résumé in 2016 — which is quite the ironic turn for a man who nearly walked away from his calling before his career even began.


Born in Bunkie, Louisiana, a small, one-exit town with a population of less than 5,000, Warner was an audacious child who was eager to learn how the world around him worked. Though he can’t pinpoint when his love for science evolved, Warner does recall a time when his earliest science experiment gave his parents a scare and landed him in the hospital.

“There was just something about science that I always loved,” Warner said. “When I was 2 years old, my parents would use a kerosene lamp to light up the room, and I was curious about this liquid that would light up the room. So I creeped into the cabinet when they forgot to lock it one day and drank some kerosene and ended up in the hospital. I tell everyone that was my first chemistry experiment. But I craved chemistry, and they bought me a chemistry set when I was 11 or 12 years old.”

As Warner grew, so did his passion for science. After graduating from high school, Warner headed to Southern University without any real direction.

“I certainly didn’t have any role models,” Warner said. “In fact, when I went to Southern University to major in chemistry, I was kind of discouraged and I went in to talk to the chair. He said, ‘Mr. Warner, you’ll have a Ph.D. before you’re 30.’ And I said, ‘What’s a Ph.D.?’ I had no idea what that was. You can’t aspire for something if you don’t know what it is. But I knew that I loved science, I loved math, and it was just something inside of me that loved these things.”

Despite having to figure out college on the fly, Warner earned his chemistry degree before working as a technician for a prime contractor with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Over his five years on the job, Warner began to question whether he had entered the right field.

“I hated my job so much so that I thought I was not meant to be a chemist, that I’d obviously picked the wrong field, that I was wrong about my love for chemistry,” Warner said. “In the industry I encountered lots of bias, and that was difficult for me. I wasn’t as confident as I am now, so it was difficult for me to accept. And that was part of the rationale about me thinking that I wasn’t suited for being a chemist, because I wasn’t treated very well. But my wife worked for a psychiatrist, and I went to them and asked them to run an aptitude test on me to see what it is I loved. He ran the test, and it said I was best suited to be a chemist.”

The psychiatrist suggested what would be a simple fix: an advanced degree. Warner took his advice and went on to get his doctorate in analytical chemistry from the University of Washington. There, Warner also discovered how much he enjoyed working with students and others around him.

“I love students, and I spend a lot of time with students,” Warner said. “It is an active way for me to work with students and do things with them outside of the research realm, so I’ve created educational programs and written grants to support students and all of those sorts of things I do through this office.”

His time at LSU has made a notable difference to students, faculty and staff alike. Before his arrival in 1992, according to Warner, there had never been more than three African-Americans in the chemistry graduate program at one time, with only six African-Americans earning doctorates. Since then, the number has increased to more than 80 African-Americans entering the graduate program over the past 10 years and around 30 working toward doctorates in chemistry.

Although the increase in African-American students does coincide with Warner’s arrival, the professor refuses to take full credit for the rising number of students joining the science program.

“Those students don’t just work for me, so it has to work where the entire department is interested in these students and not just me,” Warner said. “I have some good people around me, supporting me, and that helps a lot.”

His devotion to his career, nurturing spirit and investment in the growth and mentorship of students were noted during his nomination for SEC Professor of the Year in April. The award is presented annually to one SEC faculty member whose work ethic, teaching and research have gone above and beyond the call of duty. The honoree is selected by the SEC provosts from among the 14 SEC Faculty Achievement Award recipients.

After the announcement was made, Warner became a hometown hero in Bunkie. On May 17, the mayor declared it Isiah Warner Day, and city officials, residents and old friends gathered at a celebratory reception in Warner’s honor.

“I had never received those types of accolades from my hometown before,” Warner said. “Everyone was there. I brought in about 20 of my students to interact with any students who were there. Students got to see where I was born and raised.”

Although the year has been filled with exciting moments for Warner, the professor knows his work is far from over. Besides his jobs at LSU, Warner also plans to give back to the community and help spark an interest in STEM-related studies in young children. On July 10, Warner will be back in Bunkie helping to host a daylong science event in which 50 students from Avoyelles Parish will experiment with different projects for a hands-on learning experience.

Warner vows to continue to help students in any way he can, but he also encourages them to find others around them who may be suited to guide them throughout their destined career paths.

“Students need to find mentors and find a niche,” Warner said. “I spend a lot of time mentoring young people because there were people there along the way for me who pointed the way for me, and I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for people who pointed the way for me. I try to be there for other people.”

‘The Bachelorette’ is fun again, but still left a lot to be desired Lee vs. Kenny is getting real old real quick

And we’re back!

Sorry about being missing in action with the intellectual hot takes last week, but both of us (Clinton and Tierra, if you didn’t know) were too in our feelings about the drama in Bachelor Universe to really enjoy the show. This week, on The Bachelorette at least, spirits were slightly higher and we’ve got a lot of fun stuff to discuss. But first, because we are smart people who have smart things to say about trash television, we must address the elephant in the room: Lee and Kenny.

Right off the bat, Lee, who is white, resumed his racially coded analysis of Kenny, who is black and who Lee has a real problem with, presumably because he is black. “You have an unrealistic violent aspect about you,” Lee tells Kenny, who decided to approach Lee calmly about Lee’s breach of their friendship and all-around stupidity. Whoooo, Jesus, let’s go. Five minutes in and we’re already stressed. And, spoiler alert, it doesn’t get any better with these two. By the end of the episode, the bloody, “violent” conflict the trailers have been teasing for the past week isn’t resolved — it hasn’t even begun, actually — and we have to wait until Tuesday night to figure out what actually happens on their two-on-one date with Rachel.

So, what’s the payoff for all of this going to be? What do we, Bachelor Nation, have to gain by watching this racially fueled feud between noted bigot Lee and devoted father and possible future Bachelor Kenny? It’s hard to be invested in the show as a whole when there’s this subplot that has the producers’ handprints all over it. The only thing keeping our attention this season is the potential of a huge payoff. There has to be a learning moment. Maybe Rachel will open her eyes to see Lee for what he really is (🐍) and she gives an impassioned speech about the many pitfalls black women encounter when they make themselves vulnerable to the realities of dating, and she calls out all the dudes who collectively are not worth it. Maybe. It’d be great to see such a conversation about race play out on national television.

But, who knows! Until that happens, there are other things we gotta talk about because, fam, this episode was wild. First up, this one-on-one with Jack Stone, who is entirely too weird and needed to go.

Jack looks like Joel Osteen, but perhaps more importantly, he acts like Joel Osteen.

Rachel escaped with her life but couldn’t quite escape his kiss attempt. It was such a wholesome one-on-one, but wholesome doesn’t cut it on this show. Jack went home after a forgettable date, and later on Tickle Monster (what’s that guy’s name again?) and Iggy “Wendy Williams” Rodriguez joined him. Good riddance.

After lackluster appearances all around from the guys, Bryan shines through like a beacon of hope, leaving me (Tierra) swooning on my couch and leaving my boyfriend, Juan, whom I have coerced into watching this episode with me, launching into a string of conspiracy theories about Bryan Bae, none of which I will believe.

Basically he thinks Bryan is fronting on — well, on all fronts. He doesn’t think Bryan is as suave and sexy in real life as he makes himself out to be on the show, and that Bryan is just taking this opportunity to reinvent himself. He’s probably just a huge bore in real life who knows his way around the romantic dictionary.

Personally, I think Juan is a hater, but there may be proof in the pudding:

But back to Lee and Kenny! The producers demand it! It’s clearly freezing during their two-on-one with Rachel, who is bundled to the nines, but Lee isn’t wearing a coat, or even a jacket. He has a hoodie on. This says more about him as a person than anything he’s ever said. Aren’t snakes cold-blooded? Rachel is intelligent, but she’s relying too much on house gossip to get to the bottom of the Lee-Kenny, he-said, he-said drama. Open your eyes, girl!

Unfortunately the show cut off right as it was getting good, but thank the Bachelor Universe gods that we have a two-night special. Who’s going home? It’s a toss-up at this point, which makes me concerned for Rachel’s decision-making skills (as an aside, she usually knows exactly what she wants, which is an aspirational trait). Hold on to your hats, fam.

Clinton Yates contributed to this report.

Pots & pans: Those majestic church hats are the crowns our mothers wear Let’s celebrate all mothers on Mother’s Day, no matter their backgrounds, color, religion or headdress

I‘ve long thought of Mother’s Day as a continuation of Church Hat Season in black houses of worship across America, a national pastime that reaches its peak from Easter through Father’s Day.

The women wear their hats with amazing grace. When they bow their heads to pray and tilt their heads to better receive the Word, their hats flutter as if they were azaleas, roses and tulips with a spring breeze dancing upon their petals.

Oh, I know, black church women haven’t cornered the market on faith, good motherhood or even wearing very big hats stylishly. During Saturday’s Kentucky Derby in Louisville, women also sported fabulous hats, but they were emblematic of living the good life: strawberries and cream, champagne and mint juleps.

Women of many faith traditions, or those whose moral compass isn’t located in a religious text or doctrine, have nevertheless enriched and ennobled the lives of us all.

Furthermore, good mothers come in all colors, shapes and backgrounds. And the world has been blessed by the childless women who have championed monumental change, Joan of Arc to Rosa Parks, the mother of America’s modern-day civil rights movement.

Still, long before Mother’s Day became a national observance in 1914, the black church gave generations of black women a place to be beautiful, a place where black mothers could nurture and protect their children, cradled in the hands of their mighty God, safe under the watchful gaze of wise elders.

Before she died in 1977, my mother had gone from demure colored girl to strong black woman. Her faith guided her journey. Her church illuminated her path.

Just 60 inches tall, she never looked more majestic than when she sat in the pews at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philly on Mother’s Day, her hat angled slightly on her head as if she sought to wink at fate or misfortune.

Like many black mothers, then and now, my mother went to church armed to combat restless children: tissues, hard candy and an arsenal of expressions that said everything from “just a little while longer, baby” to “don’t mess with me, not today.”

Come Sunday, the nation will celebrate its mothers. They can be found everywhere from the homeless shelters deep in the valley to the mansions high on the hill. I’ll think about the current generation of black church mothers. Some will attend Sunday’s services wearing scarves and headdresses. Others will wear church hats, an homage to generations of proud and beautiful black women who went before them. And I’ll think of my mother, an empress of optimism, especially for future generations of black people.

When I was a child, someone was likely to come up to me after Mother’s Day service and say, “Boy, you look just like your mother, bound for good luck.” I’d smile, not fully understanding how lucky I was.

And my mother, radiant in her hat, would take my hand and lead us from church to face the world.

Happy Mother’s Day.

The Harlem Derby puts twist on traditional Kentucky Derby day It’s a blend of fashion and horse racing while honoring the sport’s black jockeys

On a bustling Saturday in Harlem, New York, curious passers-by stopped to acknowledge the crowd gathering outside of the neighborhood’s famed Red Rooster Harlem restaurant. A portion of the sidewalk on Lenox Avenue had become a personal catwalk for patrons attending the Harlem Derby’s 5th Annual Kentucky Derby Gala, Run for the Roses.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The fashion scene, which flowed from inside the restaurant and onto the streets, was reminiscent of one that could be found at nearly every black church across America on Easter Sunday. Men sported snazzy fedoras and straw hats with tailored suits as women showed off every hat from handcrafted fascinators to wide-brimmed cloches, paired with custom Sunday-best threads on a breezy afternoon. The gathering almost felt spiritual.

Renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson, Red Rooster Harlem’s owner, took in the sights around him and smiled.

“This is always fun,” Samuelsson said. “The ladies in Harlem, they don’t need the Derby. They wear hats all the time, every Sunday. But anytime you can celebrate a tradition like this, Harlem will always put its spin on it. And it’s happening right now. It’s awesome to be part of this celebration.”

Outside of the restaurant’s door was a short red carpet that offered the celebrity experience and a photo op. In the corner of the restaurant’s patio, bottles of Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey lined a table where bartenders quickly churned out mint juleps, the popular Derby Day drink. Inside, a live band played near the entrance of the restaurant right next to a large-screen television, where patrons would later gather to watch jockey John Velazquez and crowd favorite Always Dreaming win the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

It’s a sight that Harlem Derby co-founder Rob Owens looks forward to every year. Owens, a native Kentuckian who has lived in Harlem for the past 30 years, wanted to bring the familiar culture of the Kentucky Derby to his neighborhood while also paying homage to the oft-forgotten black jockeys and trainers who dominated professional horse racing as early as 1875. Last year, Owens launched his own line of hats named after famous black jockeys.

Guests celebrate after the running of the Kentucky Derby on the patio of Red Rooster Harlem on May 6, 2017 in Harlem, New York.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

“The forgotten history is just so rich and phenomenal,” Owens said. “The Kentucky Derby is the oldest sporting event in America. We celebrate it every year, and there’s this big to-do about it; however, African-Americans don’t really know the roots and history of it. … The Kentucky Derby is about fashion and style. It’s about music, bourbon and the sport of horse racing. But one thing for our community that’s being left out is that we were the pioneers of it.”

Earlier in the day, The Undefeated hosted a panel to discuss the pertinent history of black jockeys and trainers, as well as the state of horse racing for black people today. The panel, hosted by The Undefeated’s writer-at-large William Rhoden, included Tony Wilson, a horse trainer from Camden, New Jersey, who has won more than 100 races and 10 stakes races; Katherine Mooney, an assistant professor of history at Florida State University; and Rhiannon Walker, an associate editor for The Undefeated. All three panelists spoke at length about the history of horse racing, its young, talented black heroes, their disappearance from the sport and whether horse racing will ever see black dominance again.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

At the first Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys competing were black. Fifteen of the first 28 winners were African-American men, according to a video researched and voiced by Walker about the history of black jockeys.

For now, Owens hopes to continue spreading the word and hidden history through his efforts in Harlem.

“The [Harlem Derby] is growing every year,” Owens said. “Now, there are Derby parties all up and down Lenox Avenue now. I’m glad for that. I want them to spread the history. For us, it’s about substance. It’s a party with a purpose and celebrating America’s first superstar athletes.”