‘Orange is the New Black’ star Dascha Polanco talks Michael Jordan and her journey as a single mom ‘We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward’

The 35-year-old Orange is the New Black (OITNB) star Dascha Polanco grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was an athlete in high school. But she hit the basketball court last week in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game playing alongside teammates Jamie Foxx, Common, Quavo of Migos and WNBA player Stefanie Dolson.

“I love that there are two women, Katie [Nolan] and Rachel [Nichols], coaching the [NBA All-Star] Celebrity Game,” said the actress who was on Team Clippers, the winning team. “I was very competitive when I used to play softball in school, so I was excited when the opportunity to play [in the Celebrity Game] came up.”

Polanco is best known for her role as Dayanara “Daya” Diaz in the hit Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning Netflix show OITNB. Her first taste of Hollywood was in the independent film, Gimme Shelter, starring opposite Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson. Her big- and small-screen credits include Joy, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, The Perfect Match and The Cobbler to name a few.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she emigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl with her parents and became a citizen in late 2013. Borrowing the words of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, “Ima make it by any means, I got a pocketful of dreams,” Polanco didn’t sit on her dreams just because she was a young single mom living with the help of government assistance. She didn’t let the stereotypes of a label define what she could or couldn’t do. She went back to school to become a nurse at New York City’s Hunter College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then she began working as a hospital administrator at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

While studying nursing, Polanco signed up for acting classes at BIH Studios, where she eventually got signed to a talent agency and later landed OITNB in 2012, which changed her world forever.

The fierce and bold mother of two spoke with The Undefeated about why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time despite her New York team allegiances, how she defies labels and uses fear to tap into an even stronger hustle, what it means to be an Afro-Latina in America and how overcoming insecurities is an everyday job.


Growing up in Brooklyn, are you a die-hard Knicks fan or have you become a Nets fan since they’ve become the Brooklyn Nets (previously the New Jersey Nets)?

I root for all New York teams. I grew up a Knicks fan and have so many memories watching the games with my family. As long as the Nets are the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll cheer for them too.

Who is the GOAT athlete?

Michael Jordan, hands down. And yes, I know I’m a Knicks fan, but MJ all the way. When I worked in the healthcare field, I had Jordan quotes all over my office. He is the epitome of dedication, perseverance and beating the odds. In my son’s room, I even have the poster of MJ with his arms stretched out.

What is your favorite Michael Jordan quote?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” You can relate that quote to any situation in life. When I used to work in the operating room, it took a team of surgeons and nurses to get the job done, [and now as an actress, it takes so many people with different roles to make everything come together].

Where did your motivation come from as a young single mom going back to school to become a nurse, and then later taking acting classes while still working in the health care field?

We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward. I remember living in a shelter and using food stamps and getting treated like a piece of crap every time I went into the city for welfare. That treatment made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, but it also encouraged me to want to have my own and be independent. I could have chosen to do nothing [and accept the stereotypes associated with the labels that were given to me], but I chose to go back to school. No label can define me. I’m Dascha and I am a force.

What’s something you didn’t think you’d have to adjust to as a celebrity?

I never was able to buy things because I wanted to; it was always because I had to. Now I have the choice and can treat myself, but I even struggle with that because I’ve become conditioned to be fearful of losing [what I work for]. But I’ve gotten to the place where I’ve learned to embrace what I deserve.

When you were working at the hospital, why didn’t you tell anyone that you were also filming Orange Is The New Black?

Where I come from, we don’t say the things that we’re working on. [Sometimes] people don’t want to see you grow. When I’m working, I don’t speak about it. I just let it show for itself. All of my life, I’ve gotten negative feedback when I’ve said I wanted to be a singer, actress or a dancer. I’d hear, “Ahh, girl, that’s so hard … I don’t think you’re going to make it doing that.” So I don’t give them the opportunity to put that negative energy into the universe. I don’t have to tell everyone my goals, because at the end of the day, everyone wants to succeed but no one wants to see anyone else succeed. I stay quiet and keep my goals in my control and my protection.

How have you overcome insecurities?

It’s a process that you ideally try to overcome, but you’re always working on it. There are days that I feel ugly and fat, and I have to tell myself to cut it the hell out. I started acknowledging what I’m feeling and exploring why I’m feeling that way. I look back at my experiences growing up and it’s rooted from not feeling like I’m enough. [And in the present day] maybe it’s that I’m around a group of sophisticated people and I feel I don’t talk as proper as them or I’m at a table with models and I’m the only one eating bread. Those insecurities come about when I’m so focused on everything else and I’m not taking the time to be aware of myself. So now I stop, meditate, stop again and go.

Where does your courage come from?

It might be genetic because my mom [who died at 46 years old] was one courageous woman emigrating [from the Dominican Republic], and just her tenacity in every situation. My mom and dad are my heroes and have taught me to take advantage of the now in life.

I recently booked a film that I never thought that I would get. [I can’t say what it is yet.] It’s a small role, but it’s with someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. I was so nervous that even my armpits were sweating. But I took a moment before I went on set and reminded myself, I am here because I deserve to be. You were brought to America by your parents to do whatever your heart wants to pursue, so take this moment to have the power and courage to take advantage of this moment. Fear is just one layer before your breakthrough. Give me a little bit of fear so I can beat it up and come out even stronger.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latina in America?

There’s these labels and terms that we’ve created so people could understand their roots, what they identify with and where they come from. Even though I’m considered Latina, I’m really a Caribbean woman because I have African roots too. I love being a combination of pure melanin and having exaggerations in my body and movement.

But sometimes these labels are just a way of grouping individuals and putting people against each other — where it becomes about exclusivity instead of bringing people together. Growing up, the black community embraced me but not as much as I embraced them. It was always, “You’re not black, you’re Spanish,” but culturally I connected with them. It’s always been that constant battle but a lot of people feel that way. Even without racial differences, not everyone feels like they’re American too.

Tell me about your work with the D.R.E.A.M (Dominican Republic Education and Mentoring) Project?

I always wanted to do something for the youth in my home country, so I fell in love the D.R.E.A.M Project. The organization is kind of like a YMCA where the kids get education and job training. A lot of the kids are orphans and are growing up through hard times.

Together we’ve launched a theater arts program for these children. The talent that comes through these kids out of hardship is just amazing. The kids play instruments and are so good at so young. I knew we had to create a space to feed their talent so it could be used as a way to express themselves [and heal]. D.R.E.A.M Project has created a school [that they’ve named after me] and now these kids get to write their own script and tell their own story through performance.

Taye Diggs is working with us now too. I encourage people to take a trip to the Dominican Republic and share moments with these kids. It’s truly a remarkable experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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


1997 — Kobe Bryant

Stat line: 31 points, eight rebounds in 26 minutes

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

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

2003 — Jason Richardson

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

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

2004 — Amar’e Stoudemire

Stat line: 36 points, 11 rebounds in 35 minutes

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

2007 — David Lee

Stat line: 30 points, 11 rebounds in 24 minutes

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

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

2008 — Daniel Gibson

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

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

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

2009 — Kevin Durant

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

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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

2010 — Russell Westbrook

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

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

2011 — John Wall

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

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

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

2012 — Kyrie Irving

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

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

2013 — Kenneth Faried and Kyrie Irving

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

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

2014 — Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway, Dion Waiters

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

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

2017 — Jamal Murray

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

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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

New York Knicks visit balcony where King was shot Front office, players and coaches call the moment ‘chilling’

Martin Luther King Jr. was staying in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on that dismal day of April 4, 1968. He was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room at the place now known as the National Civil Rights Museum.

The day King was killed, the New York Knicks’ front-office power trio of president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and vice president of player development and G League operations Craig Robinson were all in elementary school. But they each have a vivid memory of the sense of loss the world experienced.

Perry, a Detroit native, was only 5 years old.

“I just know that there was sadness in my household. I can remember that. At that young age, it was this deep sadness,” he said.

Mills was 8 years old, but he recalls the sense of loss and his parents and grandmother being in “shock.”

Robinson, the brother of former first lady Michelle Obama, was about 5 years old. He remembers the sadness, but it also was the first time he was introduced to the word “assassination.”

“I also remember it was the first time I had a discussion with my parents about death that wasn’t caused by illness or old age,” he said. “I remember that very clearly because you heard the word ‘assassinated’ and you were like, ‘What does that mean?’ And everybody was sad. It was like the whole neighborhood was sad. It was one of those things, one that you can remember a dark cloud. I don’t remember much, but I remember a dark cloud.”

For the first time, the three men visited the museum with their team, coaching staff and other members of the Knicks organization last week.

And they all got to stand on that balcony where King lost his life while in Memphis advocating for the black struggle.

Private team tours are not new to the museum, established in 1991. But this year, player and team attendance for these tours has increased.

As the world approaches the 50th anniversary of King’s death, known as MLK50, teams are taking the opportunity to treat the private tours as a bonding experience, reflecting on the legacy of King and the civil rights movement.

For Mills, being able to spend time at the museum ahead of the 2018 commemoration was special.

“We had the opportunity, actually, to go out on the balcony, so to end up out there was just incredible. It was very captivating and interesting,” Mills said.

Robinson said that the visit was far more emotional than he’d imagined because it is the location of King’s death and because of the players’ reactions.

“These young guys didn’t grow up thinking about it the way we did, and this was a first event for a lot of the guys,” Robinson said. “And even the guys who had been there before, it had been remodeled and new, and it was interesting talking to them and seeing the disappointment in the way things were. So that was emotional for me, as well, seeing their reaction.”

Mills said Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was showing his teammates photos he’d taken on his phone a day after the visit.

“He was talking about how important it was for Walt Frazier, who was a very sort of introspective guy who doesn’t talk that much, to hear him talk about his experiences as a team and how they used to go and sit at counters and get arrested,” Mills said.

Walt Frazier and Courtney Lee at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Tom Zweibel

Frazier, a Hall of Famer who played for the Knicks from 1967-77, is the team’s color commentator.

“For our players to hear one of the legendary Knick players talk about those experiences from a personal level, I think that’s what we’re here to do, to try to get these guys connected and understand where they fit. I thought that was a very emotional moment as part of the experience,” Mills added.

Perry called the visit a tremendous learning experience.

“It was a great time for reflection about all the things that had happened in history. And when you leave there, it does really, really give me more of a sense of purpose about trying to do better and serve people.”

The mission of the National Civil Rights Museum is to chronicle key episodes of the American civil rights movement, examine today’s global civil and human rights issues, provoke thoughtful debate and serve as a catalyst for positive change, according to its website. It holds 264 exhibits, including historic collections and interactive pieces.

Knicks forward and team captain Lance Thomas has visited the museum three times, but it was his first time with the Knicks team.

“I think it was amazing, especially for us coming around this time of year,” Thomas said. “It was very powerful. A lot of people know who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but they don’t really know the story of the things that he was a part of and the things that he stood for, and we were very lucky to be able to have that tour and to have that team experience. We saw people locking into reading a lot of the descriptions on the wall. … I think we’ve come a long way, and it’s an unbelievable testament to thriving and pushing for things that you believe in. I feel like if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive, he would be proud of the progress that has been made.”

Knicks guard Courtney Lee frequented the museum during his two-season stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. This was his fifth visit.

“It’s always good to go back,” Lee said. “Especially with a different group of guys, with all the foreigners we have on our team, it was some of their first time going. So just seeing their reaction once they learned about how this country was built and the sacrifices that a lot of people made for us to live in equality — their reactions were priceless, pretty much. I can speak volumes to how Martin Luther King helped us out.”

Team veteran Jarrett Jack first visited the Civil Rights Museum when he was 15 years old.

“We had AAU nationals here in Memphis. My mom and dad are both from Louisiana, so they are familiar with the struggles and the rigors of what Dr. King and what men and women were fighting for so long,” Jack said. “They made it a point to take us even at a young age when we probably didn’t appreciate it. They would make us understand the history and kind of turn it into, instead of a basketball fun activity for us, but more of an experience. So this was probably my third time. They allowed us to go out on the balcony, which is where Dr. King had his last moments, and that was kind of chilling just to stand in the spot where he fell.”

The 34-year-old said he understands that although King is usually celebrated once a year, his legacy, his teachings and his many speeches live on daily.

“When you think about it, he’s been dead 50 years. … Five decades. … Half a century, which is a very short time for us to do things like play in the NBA or make whatever you want to do possible,” Jack said.

Visiting the museum was important to Perry because it aligns with the organization’s vision of making sure players are well-rounded.

“Basketball is something that they do as a job, but it doesn’t define them totally as people, and that’s what we want, those guys to really be well-rounded. When they’re done playing basketball, there’s a lot of life hopefully for them. Giving them a chance to experience things like what they experienced [at the museum] can go a long way,” Perry said.

For Robinson, the museum introduces some history that is not traditionally taught in schools.

The Knicks and their management team visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Tom Zweibel

“We have some foreign players on our team, and I was mentioning to Frank Ntilikina about the wall that has a lot of the black history heroes on,” said Robinson, who was Mills’ teammate at Princeton. “And I was explaining to him how, even for me, I knew who Harriet Tubman was, and I knew who Sojourner Truth was or Frederick Douglass or Dred Scott. But there were like 16 other people there who I’d never heard of. And I was just remarking at how little we get in African-American history growing up in schools. And now it’s more because you have a month now. When we were in school, you didn’t have a month. You had those encyclopedias that were beige, that every black family had, and you would flip through. But [Ntilikina] said, ‘You know, I never had any African history.’ He grew up in Belgium, family is Rwandan, and so here I am like, ‘Man, I didn’t have this,’ and then he tells me he didn’t have anything. Just watching him, that was eye-opening for me.”

The intersection of race, sports and culture exists, and the Knicks’ front office wants to encourage a climate that welcomes conversations around topics that may intrigue players.

“I try to make myself available to talk about all that stuff when they want to talk about it,” Robinson said. “I try not to be sort of editorial with my comments because, first of all, we have a professional relationship, so I don’t want my feelings to be their feelings. But secondly, of course, with my history and my familial relations, I sort of try and keep church and state separate, but whenever they want to talk about something political, I’m always right there to talk about it. And you would probably be surprised by the number of times we talk about that stuff. We have quite a few players who like to engage in what’s going on in the world today.”

Mills agreed with Robinson, saying that the three of them are always open to “answering questions, giving a perspective and letting guys have an opportunity to frame what they’re experiencing and give them some perspective.”

Perry said their doors are always open for issues beyond the players’ profession.

“That’s just how I was raised to be as a person,” he said. “I think one of the broader lessons and the type of culture that we want to have here when you start talking about sports and how it intertwines with society is unification, and that’s what we’re about.”

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Mark Blount reinvented himself as a real estate investor From Auntie Anne’s to housing, the former center created a life after basketball


After spending 10 years in the NBA as one of the league’s most dependable centers, Mark Blount retired in 2010 and knew it was time to start making moves.

With Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as his backdrop, Blount opted to spread his wings in two different endeavors: food franchises and real estate.

Blount found a block of property sorely in need of renovation and decided to invest. He participated in rehabbing 14 units, completing the process in about a year.

“I owned quite a bit of real estate in Palm Beach Gardens — seven buildings. I went in there with a friend of mine. We renovated them, all the units there, and brought them back up to, back then it was 2012 code: new bathrooms, new floors, new kitchens and all that stuff,” he said.

Blount then joined the soft-pretzel franchise Auntie Anne’s. He opened two stores in West Palm Beach and one in Jensen Beach, Florida. After building and operating the franchises for four years, he sold the stores to focus on real estate.

“The restaurant business was a learning curve for me, but the real estate is a passion for me,” Blount said.

Blount spends his days researching and meeting with sellers and agencies about new real estate investment opportunities. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and his philanthropic efforts are focused on Palm Beach Gardens, including donating turkeys to those in need throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and contributing to local churches and Toys for Tots.

The Yonkers, New York, native grew up a Knicks fan and was inspired by players such as John Starks and Charles Smith. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted 54th overall in 1997 by the Seattle SuperSonics. Blount spent three seasons in the minor leagues, including the International Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and North American Premier Basketball. He signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Aug. 1, 2000. That season he led the team with 76 blocks, the most by a Celtics rookie since Kevin McHale in 1980–81.

He also played with the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat. He used his toughness on the court to guide his way into the business world.

“That’s why we see a lot of retired guys have a hard time trying to find something that they’re passionate about to do because [they don’t have] the energy and the passion, the focus that needs to be displayed every night. So you’re like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”


How did you cultivate your toughness?

I just had an attitude about everything. And growing up in Yonkers, I had to be tough there. I just approached everything with a straight attitude. I just thought whoever I was going against, it was just a battle.

Mark Blount #15 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New Orleans Hornets on January 11, 2008 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Hornets defeated the Heat 114-88.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Was the NBA a dream of yours?

Yes. Yes, it was. Getting drafted in the second round and then not playing with Seattle, then spending a couple years in the not so minor league, then being able to make it onto summer league team and having Boston sign in to a one-year deal was [the culmination of] my dream, so I didn’t back down. I just kept fighting and kept trying to reach my dream. I spent, I think it was sum of three years in the minors before I made it.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Trying to get to the university and then trying to get to the NBA and then doing those things and then being able to do a couple of businesses, it’s always a fight, always a struggle. There’s always a learning curve. … I’m real patient about what I need to do and learning about it, and once I understand it then I’m able to pursue it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was in Boston … talking to a gentleman about the restaurant, and he’s like, ‘If you’re ever going to do a business, make sure you’re there to run it every day.’ I’ve taken that to heart over the last few years I’ve been in business.

How did you make that switch to franchise owner, and why did you choose Auntie Anne’s?

I was actually in bed with Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon; I ran four restaurants at one time. Don’t ask me why, but I did. I was able to make connections with them and went through the process of learning their business and going through training and learning their sites and seeing if I was going to be a silent investor and have somebody run it for me, which wasn’t going to happen, or run it myself.

I ended up running it myself and was able to be pretty successful. [Of] the four locations that I had, the two of them I ended up closing, but they survived for about three or four years. Then two I sold.

What do you think about the Knicks now?

I’m crying inside. Especially now that Carmelo [Anthony] is gone and seeing, looks like another rebuilding process. So I’m just, I’m a New Yorker, I’m going to die a New Yorker, so that’s the way it goes. But I really hope they’re able to get some luck. They had some young guys step up and maybe a couple trays on the lottery draft, draft lottery picks. Hopefully it’ll happen.

What team should we start to watch after the All-Star Game?

Everybody’s just starting to mention Toronto. They started out on fire, so I knew they were going to be good early in the season. [Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey really understands what he’s doing there.

What advice would you give players who are transitioning from the court?

If you don’t have a passion for anything, maybe take a course, a quick course, in something. But if you don’t have a passion, there’s always different courses you can take, or there’s a lot of good things the NBA Players Association is doing. … Just talk to some of the older guys that played before. Talk to some of the guys who just retired and bounce things off instead of just running into any quick thing, business deals, with anybody.

A look back at Latrell Sprewell’s very angry ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover The image was after the P.J. Carlesimo incident and at the tightest possible intersection of sports and race — not in a good way

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Latrell Sprewell? His 35-point performance at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks facing elimination in the 1999 NBA Finals? Him dunking on Jaren Jackson in the third quarter of that game?

Maybe it was his return to the Garden for the first time in more than a decade, last year, as a “friend” of Knicks owner James Dolan, not a foe. Perhaps it’s this recent Priceline commercial, supposedly a display of Sprewell’s sense of humor — at his own expense.

Or is it a moment obscured from the public’s eyes: Sprewell choking then-Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice, leaving the gym and returning, apparently to attack Carlesimo again?


Or is what you recall the aftermath, when the 24th pick in the 1992 NBA draft became a pariah? His name and likeness became synonymous with violence. The Warriors voided the then-three-time All-Star’s contract, and the NBA, a season removed from celebrating its 50th birthday, suspended him for a year after the episode escalated into an avalanche of bad press that the league did not need one month into the pivotal 1997-98 season. Several stars — Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen among them — were injured, Michael Jordan was all but certainly retiring, and a lockout was looming.

Then, in addition, the Milwaukee-born, Flint, Michigan-raised Sprewell, one of the NBA’s rising (albeit reluctant) stars, was labeled persona non grata. He’d admittedly committed an act of violence against his coach. It was an act that seemed to confirm every absurd fear about the rise of the overpaid, petulant, violent (and *gasp* black) athlete. It was the problem with sports, to let sportswriters and fans alike tell it. And although Sprewell acknowledged that his actions were inexcusable — “I don’t condone what I did,” he told The New York Times in 1998 — he took issue with how he was portrayed. This was epitomized by the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Dec. 15, 1997, issue.

“It’s always a picture of me looking mad or being aggressive,” he said during a news conference one week after the incident, for which he was initially suspended 10 games without pay. “I never saw pictures of myself where I had a smile on my face. It was always negative.”

The enigmatic Sprewell was easy to cast as the villain. The former University of Alabama and Three Rivers Community College standout was an aggressive slasher and defender. His appearance was menacing — to people who associated cornrows with criminal activity. And Spree had previously fought teammates. He absolutely considered himself a fighter, but only in self-defense.

“I don’t get upset unless somebody’s doing something to me or to my family, disrespecting me to where I just can’t tolerate it,” Sprewell told Time in 2000. That’s how he viewed the altercation with Carlesimo.

The choking itself, said to have happened in practice during an argument about Sprewell’s effort (“Put a little mustard on those passes,” Carlesimo reportedly told him), triggered revealing discourse, in the pre-social-media era, about the very often uncomfortable intersection of race and sports.


Sports Illustrated flew into the eye of the storm and made a valiant effort to unpack the situations. And while the story itself excellently contextualized the NBA’s head-on collision with race, the image — Sprewell, in mid-scream — chosen for the Dec. 15, 1997, issue’s cover was provocative for the wrong reasons. Sports Illustrated was the de facto bible of sports at the time, in an era before breaking news spread via Woj Bombs and trending topics. A time when writers discussed stories with editors via phone calls — not yet in Google Hangouts, or Slack.

Phil Taylor doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about what transpired between Sprewell and Carlesimo, but as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, he called his editors to discuss how they planned to cover it. “This was a huge story … right in my backyard, and as lead NBA writer, I knew I was going to be writing something lengthy,” said Taylor, now a contributing writer for The Athletic. “I’ve often thought that if it happened now, we would have obviously been able to put something out on Twitter and everyone would have just written stories immediately. But I remember thinking that [as a weekly publication] we were not going to be able to get an immediate story out there.”

“One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too.”

The Sprewell-Carlesimo incident took place on a Monday — the worst-case scenario for the magazine, which was finalized for the mass printing on Sundays. Back then, hundreds of thousands of issues would be sent to subscribers and would be available on newsstands on the Wednesday/Thursday of the following week. Local outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle were already on top of the story. That extra time, though, did allow Sports Illustrated to fine-tune its coverage, and Taylor ended up writing two of the three stories: a look at who Sprewell was and an essay about race and the NBA.

“We knew that by the time the story came out, the story might have advanced beyond what we knew at the time we were writing,” Taylor said. “So we wanted to come up with something to better put this into context, and that’s where we started talking about the issue of race in the NBA and what the Sprewell incident had to do with that.”

In a break from covers that featured full-bleed photography, a particularly incisive excerpt from Taylor’s essay was featured — white type on a black background:

“Latrell Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach’s windpipe will surely remember Sprewell’s experience before he acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA’s future, issues of power and money and — most dangerous of all — race … ”

Placing that much text on the cover of a magazine was rare for SI. “The editors liked what I wrote, and I think it was our managing editor Bill Colson … thought it was so strong that we should put those words on the cover.”

Part of Taylor’s satisfaction came from his belief that the cover would differ from what had quickly become a typical characterization of Sprewell as angry. Until he saw it, that is.

“My words … but they added that picture of Sprewell, and that was disappointing to me,” said Taylor, who didn’t see the cover until the issue came out. “One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too. But maybe that would have been inflammatory as well, because then you would have had a black man screaming at a white man. That sort of anger could be interpreted as racial, but … would have at least been more fair.”

It was unfair to Sprewell because although what he did was undeniably wrong, Carlesimo was far from … docile. He was notoriously hard on his players, and notoriously unpopular for it. “We’ve been face-to-face on many occasions,” Rod Strickland, who played for Carlesimo while with the Portland Trail Blazers, told the Baltimore Sun.

“I’ve often thought, that if it happened now, we would have … put something out on Twitter, and everyone would have just written stories immediately.”

“I played under him, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Tracy Murray, who began his career with Portland, added.

After the Warriors hired Carlesimo in 1997, he was the focal point of their “No More Mr. Nice Guy” campaign, appearing on billboards with his coaching staff dressed like a team of FBI agents. Carlesimo was depicted as an enforcer; he was celebrated for an approach that alienated players and, more importantly, never translated into success in the NBA.

“P.J. was a guy who stirred it up, and was as bellicose and belligerent as Sprewell was,” Taylor said. But Carlesimo had a vastly different relationship with the media, Taylor added. He was very cooperative and affable and would ask about the reporters’ well-being. He’d remember their first names. That charm likely played a factor in Carlesimo receiving more favorable coverage than Sprewell, who was tight-lipped with the press.

Imagery is as important to a story’s narrative as reporting or analysis. A March 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Charles Barkley in shackles. It drew criticism from Sports Illustrated staffers, readers and Barkley’s friend and colleague Kenny Smith alike. Golfweek’s infamous Tiger Woods “noose” cover, from January 2008, got its editor and vice president fired. LeBron James’ historic moment as the first black man to grace the cover of Vogue that spring was sullied by the black man-as-savage beast stereotype it projected. According to Taylor, the media routinely overlooks the reverberations of such editorial decisions.

“The media in general has always, and definitely at that time, underestimated the power of the images of black athletes,” said Taylor. “I don’t think the implications of putting an angry Sprewell out there occurred to them. I’m not even sure the implications of putting Barkley in chains occurred to them — until the backlash came.”

Taylor noted that no black editors were involved with the Sprewell story. “I might have been the only black writer or editor at that time,” he added. The magazine could have placed an expressionless Sprewell on the cover, and it would’ve been just as captivating. That’s how great the treatment is, and how powerful Taylor’s words are. But the cover — and all of the more incendiary examples that preceded it, and will surely continue to follow — represent a more hazardous issue: a failure on the part of many media professionals to grasp the complexity of stereotypes and the way they’re bound to black identity, and how all of that affects the way black people are viewed and treated.

Still, though, Taylor gives Sports Illustrated’s editors credit for deciding to explore the NBA’s racial undercurrent. After discussing the atmosphere with them, he said, Colson asked if the magazine should write about it. Taylor was stunned, as that was “edgy” for Sports Illustrated — and really for any mainstream sports publication of that era.

“They were willing to take on a controversial issue, although they kind of regressed on it … by choosing the picture they chose,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done that.”

Sprewell survived his figurative public stoning and continued his career with the Knicks and then Minnesota Timberwolves. The clothing and footwear company AND1 even branded him “The American Dream” upon his return to the NBA in 1999 — the last time the Knicks made the Finals. The events of December 1997 never impeded Sprewell’s career, but it ended abruptly in 2005 after he claimed he couldn’t feed his family on the three-year, $21 million deal the Timberwolves offered him. That Priceline commercial, where he pokes fun at his mistakes, is poignant considering the headlines that have emerged since his retirement.

Despite Sprewell’s success after the incident, he remains symbolic of poor decisions and explosive anger. Regardless of Sports Illustrated’s intentions, that’s all their cover screams about him too.

Nike unveils City Edition uniforms for 26 NBA teams The question is, which team has the swaggiest look?

All four editions of Nike’s NBA uniforms have officially dropped. First came the home and away uniforms, which the company, in its first year as the league’s official apparel provider, dubbed the Association and Icon editions. Then came the Statement uniforms, designed with the bravado and swag required for big games and rivalry matchups. On Wednesday, for 26 of the NBA’s 30 teams, Nike released its City Edition uniforms, geared toward honoring “the fans — those who, 41 times a year, take pilgrimage at their local arena, and whose passions help define each respective team’s identity,” according to a press release. “The Nike NBA City Edition uniforms represent insights and emotion from the court to the upper deck to the cities’ streets, in pursuit of a unique way to capture each team and its city in a way that respects the past and present of the clubs while also positioning them for the future.” The Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors will unveil their City Edition uniforms for the 2017-18 season at a later date, according to Nike.

Designs range from paying homage to the 50-year anniversary of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, Tennessee, to the incorporation of snakeskin and camo prints and the use of the iconic “PHILA” script to mimic the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Which team has the best look? That’s for you, the fans within each respective city, to decide (people are voting for what’s hot and what’s not at The Undefeated’s Instagram stories). Here are the 26 uniforms:


Atlanta Hawks

Boston Celtics

Brooklyn Nets

Charlotte Hornets

Chicago Bulls

Cleveland Cavaliers

Dallas Mavericks

Denver Nuggets

Detroit Pistons

golden state warriors

 

Indiana Pacers

Los Angeles Clippers

Los Angeles Lakers

Memphis Grizzlies

Milwaukee Bucks

Minnesota Timberwolves

New Orleans Pelicans

 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Orlando Magic

Philadelphia 76ers

Phoenix Suns

Portland Trail blazers

Sacramento Kings

San Antonio Spurs

Utah Jazz

Washington Wizards

The NBA is the gift that keeps on giving ‘Merry Christmas, everybody!’

On Dec. 25, 1976, George McGinnis made a last-second jumper to lift his Philadelphia 76ers over the New York Knicks. Bill Campbell, the Sixers’ announcer, proclaimed a festive benediction, “Merry Christmas, everybody.”

This day, the 76ers and the Knicks will battle anew, in a noon tipoff, the first of five NBA games that will wrap around the holiday and put a bow on top. The Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles will play the NFL season’s last Monday Night Football game, too. But NBA basketball will dominate the holiday’s pro sports menu.

In the future cultural historians will divine how Christmas became a holiday festooned with NBA basketball.

After all, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which chronicle the birth of Jesus, make no obvious mention of basketball. And the season’s secular gospels — Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — don’t mention basketball, either, though both stories present people flying through the air, as many NBA players will do.

Nevertheless, NBA basketball will be as much of many families’ Christmas stories as watching holiday movie marathons will be in others.

Although NBA basketball is not rooted in the religious or secular Christmas gospels, the sport often reflects the spirit of the holiday.

When the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball struggled with his shooting, three kings, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, sought to shield the young guard from criticism. Later, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, old friends suffering through 25 years of estrangement, reconciled, just as old friends do in holiday movies, just as more real-life estranged friends and family members should this Christmas.

More important, the NBA melds player activism and league philanthropy, maintaining the spirit of Christmas giving all year.

Furthermore, basketball is an ecumenical sport, melding influences from the New York Rens of the 1920s to the Soviet National team of the 1970s. Or put another way, like jazz and hip-hop, at its best, NBA basketball influences the world and learns from the world, too.

Basketball is played in all 50 states and all around the world; it’s equally at home on the playground blacktop or on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Still, today’s NBA, like jazz and hip-hop communities, embraces being rooted in African-American style, rhythms and sensibilities, a charisma exemplified by Cab Calloway, who was born on Christmas Day, and James Brown who died on the holiday.

But when the great NBA teams come together, it’s as if all the players speak the same language: winning and entertaining.

There are some in our great country who seek to ignore the NBA’s lessons of inclusiveness: They seek to circumscribe how we mark the fall and winter holidays. They seek to make “Merry Christmas” the only magic words that open the door to a glittering holiday season.

But America is far too big and richly heterogeneous for that. This day, at Christmas, we’re in the midst of many happy holiday traditions: Hanukkah ended last week. Kwanzaa begins Tuesday.

Still, about 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. But it’s the way the country accommodates (and seeks to benefit from) Christmas and fall and winter holidays, and the people who don’t celebrate them, that helps define America’s greatness.

This day, after the last NBA basketball game has been played between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers, the nation will be stuffed with turkey and hoops.

We can wish one another glad tidings. The words will taste sweet and All-American in our mouths, like apple pie or flan or baklava or ginger ice cream or kugel.

Merry Christmas, everybody. And happy holidays, too.

The Compound is compounding culture A spot where art, hip-hop and the NBA collide

Hip-hop has always been a culture of many melding ingredients — The Lyricist, The DJ, The B-Boy and The Graffiti Artist — all pieces of a movement created in the ’70s. And as much as the culture has changed, so have its components. They have grown and blossomed and blurred the lines with many other genres.

Enter DJ Set Free, the Bronx, New York-born, Queens, New York- and Philly-raised DJ who was signed to the infamous Tommy Boy Records in 1997 as a member of a group named Deadly Snakes. He was also one of the label’s beat makers. One short year later, he was working for AND1 as its director of entertainment marketing. One day while watching a VHS tape of Rafer Alston playing at Rucker Park, he turned down the sound as he normally did and started mixing some records when he suddenly had an epiphany. Later that year, The And1 Mixtape Vol. 1. was released.

A copy of the And 1 mixtape series next to Jarrett Jack of the New York Knicks and DJ Set Free at The Compound.
Credit: David “Dee” Delgado

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

The groundbreaking streetball series mixing hip-hop with ostentatious displays of skill became the blueprint for future NBA players such as Jarrett Jack, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Durant and countless others. Jack remembers pooling his money with a friend to buy one of the Volumes and watching it every day after school and practicing and mimicking the moves he saw on the VHS tape. After working on six of the 10 volumes and inspiring a generation of future basketball players, the marketing executive moved on to his next creation, The Compound, a studio, incubator and creative space for his marketing firm, The Oval Co.

An overall view of the inside of The Compound

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of “compound” is to put together (parts) so as to form a whole: Combine compound ingredients. In 2007, when Free was consulting and collaborating with companies such as EA Sports, Universal Records and Nike’s LeBron 5 and 6 sneakers, he starting calling his music studio The Compound. He also started to incorporate action figures, art and video games into his work — the methodology was to build a playground for creativity across multiple artistic genres. “Music studios are boring, nothing stimulating to look at, just plain walls, soundboards and big equipment. In photography studios, all you have are lights and white backgrounds. Why not have a place that intrigues and stimulates with art, visuals, and sounds?” he said.

Instagram Photo

The Compound was originally located in Southwest Philadelphia, but three years later, Free and his wife Liza decided that a relocation to New York was the best choice for their growing endeavor. They choose the South Bronx as The Compound’s new home. Free believed it was symbolic to bring his studio and his interpretation of the genre’s evolution and growth to the birthplace of hip-hop. Walking into The Compound is like a Hypebeast’s dream come true: a wall full of Kaws toys, along with the KAWS x Air Jordan 4 sneakers, basketball jerseys signed by Allen Iverson, Shumpert, John Starks and an Akai MPC 3000 production center signed by The Alchemist, 88-Keys, Prince Paul, DJ Green Lantern and others, are just a few of the gems you see at first glance.

An Akai MPC 3000 signed by some of the best DJs in the industry.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

One of the oldest sayings in hip-hop is that “rappers want to be ballers and ballers want to be rappers.” Ask Free his most memorable memory in The Compound and he’ll say, “Hands down, it was one night when Brooklyn rapper Sandman, Yasiin Bey [Mos Def] and Iman Shumpert and me were just hanging out. I was playing with some beats and a cypher broke out. First Sandman went in the booth and dropped a hot verse. Not to be outdone, Yasiin Bey went next and set fire to the mic. Next then went Shumpert, and no one expected much, and he proved everyone wrong. He went on to hold his own with two veteran lyricists and earn their respect on the mic.”

When asked about his next big thing, Free just grinned and said that 2018 is the 20th anniversary of the AND1 mixtapes and something game-changing is in the works.

Jim Jones in the recording booth at The Compound.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

DJ Set Free with Jarrett Jack of the New York Knicks at The Compound going through some of the footage from the And 1 series.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Skate board decks by Supreme, Kith, Wu-tang and other labels. Medicom Toy Kubric Beatles “Can’t Buy Me Love” 1000% set with the Pharrell Williams x Adidas Tennis sneakers.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Jim Jones looks does his customary pull ups at The Compound.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Instagram Photo

Iman Shumpert autographed jersey dedicated to The Compound.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

DJ Set Free with Jarrett Jack of the New York Knicks talking about the And 1 Mixtape series.
Credit: David “Dee” Delgado

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

A wall dedicated to the And1 mix-tape series that DJ Set Free created.

David "Dee" Delgado for The Undefeated

Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

 

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

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

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

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


1997 Michael Jordan in Air Jordan 13

Air Jordan 13

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

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

1998

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

1999 Tim Duncan in Nike Air Flightposite

Tim Duncan

JIM RUYMEN/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

Ron Harper

Jeff Gross /Allsport

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

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

Allan Houston

Getty Images

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

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

Kobe Bryant and Mike Bibby

Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

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

2003 Tracy McGrady in Adidas T-Mac 3

Tracy McGrady

Getty Images

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

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

Reggie Miller

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

Smush Parker

Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

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

2006 Dwyane Wade in Converse Wade 1.3

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

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

2007 Kobe Bryant in Nike Air Zoom Kobe 3

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

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

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

Kobe Bryant

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

Dwyane Wade

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

2010 Kobe Bryant in Nike Kobe 6 “Grinch”

Kobe Bryant

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

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

LeBron James

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

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

Dwyane Wade

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

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

Lebron James

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

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

Iman Shumpert

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

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

Stephen Curry

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

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

Derrick Rose

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

2017

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