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.

It’s almost Christmas: the 11 best black holiday films ever — and ranked From Queen Latifah to Ice Cube to Gabrielle Union and Fat Albert — it’s time to dig in

After Big Mama and Big Daddy clear the table of fried turkey, mac ’n’ cheese, collards, potato salad and more — and after the last football game ends — it’s time to head to the movies with a slice of pie. But instead of vegging out to watch marathons of delicious reality shows (you know you’ll do that on another day this holiday season!), fire up the On Demand, your fave streaming service or the Blu-ray and check out every one of these holiday favorites.

11. The Last Holiday (2006)

Not one of my favorite Queen Latifah film moments, but when this bad boy comes on cable, it’s hard to change the channel. The Queen is a sweet store assistant named Georgia who thinks she’s dying — so she cashes it all in to take a super grand vacation before she kicks the bucket. She may not be dying, though! And it turns out her super secret crush (played by LL Cool J) likes her back! #BlackLove

 

10. The Perfect Holiday (2007)

Some of your faves star in this little-seen (but it’s not too late!) holiday flick. Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut, Charlie Murphy and Terrence Howard all appear in this romantic comedy — and it’s narrated by Queen Latifah. Chestnut is an aspiring songwriter, and Union is a divorced woman with three kids and is in desperate need of a good word from a good man. In the end, will everything be beautiful? Surely. And what more could you want on Christmas?!

 

9. This Christmas (2007)

The official holiday track for black households everywhere is Donny Hathaway’s most excellent 1970 “This Christmas,” so it’s fitting that we get a holiday film about all of the obstacles that a typical family has to overcome. Also: The cast in this one is STACKED. Delroy Lindo, Idris Elba, Loretta Devine, singer Chris Brown, Columbus Short, Regina King, Sharon Leal, Lauren London and Mekhi Phifer all have roles.

 

8. Black Nativity (2013)

Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) directs this feature film based on a Langston Hughes play. The big cast includes Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, Tyrese, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Nas. Yet the film didn’t perform well at the box office. Maybe it should get another look this holiday season?

 

7. Almost Christmas (2016)

Storyteller David E. Talbert gives us a story centered on a patriarch (Danny Glover) who is mourning the recent death of his wife and trying to keep the rest of his family together. Another star-studded cast helps bring this family holiday tale to life: Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Oscar winner Mo’Nique, Nicole Ari Parker, Keri Hilson, Jessie Usher, Omar Epps and Romany Malco.

 

6. The Kid Who Loved Christmas (1990)

This is Sammy Davis Jr.’s last screen performance — and he only appears briefly. But this is a sweet, poignant story about young Reggie (Trent Cameron), an orphan who is juuuuuuust about to be adopted by a jazz musician (Michael Warren) and his wife (Vanessa Williams). Tragically, right as the adoption is almost done, Williams dies in a car accident and a social worker (Esther Rolle) doesn’t approve of the adoption. Grab your Kleenex.

 

5. Fat Albert’s Christmas Special (1977)

All the ’70s kids, and those younger ones with cool parents, grew up watching this animated series that was created by He Who Shall Not Be Named. This was a half-hour, animated prime-time TV special that saw the kids staging a production of a Nativity pageant in their junkyard clubhouse.

 

4. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000)

VH1 isn’t only good for a soapy reality TV series; it’s also gifted us with a remake of the Dickens classic starring an ego-driven singer portrayed by Vanessa Williams (as Ebony Scrooge!) who needs the type of check you cannot cash at the bank. TLC’s Chili also appears.

 

3. the best Man Holiday (2013)

If you don’t break down in tears toward the end of this film, you are not human. And you have no soul. Morris Chestnut’s Lance Sullivan is on the precipice of retiring from the NFL while also battling grief due to his severely ill wife, Mia (Monica Calhoun). The reunion of college friends — Harper (Taye Diggs), Robyn (Sanaa Lathan), Jordan (Nia Long), Chestnut, Calhoun, Julian (Harold Perrineau), Candace (Regina Hall), Quentin (Terrence Howard) and Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) — assembles some of the most gifted young working black actors out there. And the “Can You Stand the Rain” scene is forever.

 

2. The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

Denzel Washington is an angel in this beautiful family comedy directed by Penny Marshall. It’s a remake of 1947’s Bishop’s Wife — and this time it’s set in a poor New York City neighborhood. A Baptist preacher (Courtney B. Vance) is trying to get his parish out of financial trouble. Whitney Houston and that voice shine in this story, which earned her and Loretta Devine NAACP Image Awards.

 

1. Friday After Next (2002)

Damn you, Ice Cube! For making us wait all these years for another Friday movie. In the interim, we have this gem, which gives us more cousin Day Day comedy from Mike Epps. This Friday, Santa Claus is the neighborhood’s biggest bully — Rickey Smiley — as he robs Craig (Cube) and Day Day on Christmas Eve, getting away with presents and the rent money. The film feels like what most of our holidays are like: trifling relatives, lots of love and laughter and, if we’re lucky, a pink limousine to save the day. Much foolishness ensues, especially from Katt Williams, who is ridiculous as Money Mike.

 

Are we entering the end times for the NFL? Professional basketball offers the NFL a blueprint for success: embrace the black culture of the majority of your players

The National Football League, the American sport that comes closest to resembling a religion, has its end times in sight: the year 2021. “The likelihood,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in August, “of either a strike, or a lockout is in ’21 a virtual certainty.”

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them.

Every religious text has mention of the end times. In just the past 30 years, we’ve survived Halley’s comet, Y2K, the end of the Mayan calendar and the rapture that was supposed to happen in September. But nothing lasts forever. The NFL has survived lockouts and strikes before and has seemed like Teflon for the past decade with sky-high broadcast ratings, massive revenues and an annual American holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. But the league has serious competition for American pastime status from the National Basketball Association.

This may seem far-fetched now, while the NFL’s television ratings lead the NBA’s by a wide margin (although numbers were down last season, and some wonder whether television ratings, in a streaming world, matter as much as they used to). And the NBA doesn’t have anything close to dominating a whole day in America like the Super Bowl. But the NBA, which is as popular as ever in this social media era, continues to embrace an important fact about American culture: Black culture and black people determine cool. Cool resists linear structures. If the NFL wants to maintain its dominance, it needs to embrace black culture or get left behind. Just like baseball.


Let’s be clear: The 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was the league’s most watched Finals since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls played the Utah Jazz in 1998. But the average 20.4 million viewers who tuned into each game is equal to the average viewership for a single Sunday Night Football game in 2016. And the NFL is still an unmitigated cash cow, with a net worth of more than $13 billion, dwarfing the NBA’s $6 billion figure. The average NFL franchise is worth $2.5 billion. Worth of the average NBA franchise: $1.36 billion, a 3.5-fold increase over the past five years. Over at Major League Baseball, the average team is worth $1.54 billion, but 50 percent of viewers are 55 or older, up from 41 percent in 2010. And in its defense, the MLB can still captivate the country when it has historic World Series matchups like last year’s battle between Cinderellas in the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. And they almost doubled back with a monster championship series between the Yankees and Dodgers if the former hadn’t lost to the Houston Astros. ESPN data shows the average age of baseball viewers at 53. The average age is 47 for the NFL, and it’s rising. The average age is 37 for the NBA, and it seems to be staying there. Baseball’s television ratings continue to trend downward.

Howard Bryant, ESPN senior writer and author of Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston, summarizes the NFL’s stance in relation to the NBA and MLB: “Post-ABA merger,” he says, “basketball has done by far the best job of adapting to the people who play the sport, baseball the worst. The NFL has been in between, leaning towards a bad job.”

Why might the NFL be on its way to becoming MLB? Because the NFL is looking at a 2021 season that may not even be played. Because the NFL’s ostensibly mainstream stars — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning — who have dominated the past decade, are getting old. And many kids are being steered away from playing the game in its tackle form. “Participation has dropped,” Mark Murphy said in January. He’s president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at USA Football. “There’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all.” In a recent (nonrandom) study of NFL players, 110 out of 111 brains examined showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

But the NFL could spiral mostly because, perhaps more than at any other time in pro football history, the league is at a crossroads when it comes to race. League news right now leads with racial conflict. Players are protesting. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners are somewhere between demanding and begging them not to. And in the middle, fans fight over whose boycott of the NFL is actually having an impact on the ratings, if any at all.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor. Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.” — Andrew Brandt, director, Moorad Center for Sports Law at Villanova

Free agent Colin Kaepernick, to bring attention to systemic racism and police brutality, opted on Aug. 14, 2016, not to stand for the national anthem. This has placed the NFL at the center of a discussion about race and sports. Kaepernick’s protest has spread around the world, from European soccer games to Midwestern high school football games. By most accounts, the NFL has botched the handling of the protests. A year later, Kaepernick isn’t in the league despite evidence of him being good enough to start on some teams, and he could surely be a backup.

The reason the anti-protest backlash has become so impactful for the black community is because there’s an understanding of what the fervor about protests is really about—silence. There are contradictions in just about every sentiment of outrage about the protests. Just look at the viral image of an NFL fan wearing a “I stand for the National Anthem” shirt while sitting on a flag. And at the fact that the NFL didn’t even start requiring players to stand for the Anthem until 2009—after the Department of Defense paid the league $5.4 million for “paid patriotism.” And at the fact the NFL actually violates flag codes in some of their representations of patriotism. Jerry Jones himself sat during the anthem at his first Cowboys game, in 1989. And Donald Trump’s finger-pointing at players (and owners) doesn’t erase the fact he insulted John McCain for being a prisoner of war and has lied about calling Gold Star military families who lost soldiers in battle this year. The anger over protests isn’t about patriotism, it’s about silencing black athletes. Steps the NFL may or may not make to quell protests will be seen as an endorsement of that silence.

On Oct. 15, Kaepernick filed a formal grievance against the NFL alleging collusion by team owners. “I think he should be on a roster right now, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers said in August. “I think because of his protests, he’s not.” Jay-Z rocks a custom Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live, and his actual jersey leads the 49ers’ sales, even though he hasn’t taken a snap for them this season. Kaepernick’s likeness rules the streets. All the while, Kaep rarely speaks, instead continuing his push to donate a million dollars of his own money to various charities across the country, volunteering to donate backpacks to students and suits to parolees. Without so much as a news conference, Kaepernick is part of a daily news cycle, thanks to a massive social media following that watches his every move.

What Kaepernick is learning is something NBA players have known for years: Their social media channels are the best ways to get their points across. So when NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent out a memo reinforcing the rule that players had to stand for the anthem, NBA players (J.R. Smith notwithstanding) mostly took it in stride. That’s because they understand their social impact reaches further than the average NFL player’s. (Odell Beckham Jr., with 9 million Instagram followers, has the most by far of any NFL player.)

LeBron James, who has 39 million Twitter followers and 33 million Instagram followers, expressed that much in a news conference after he called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter: “My voice … is more important than my knee. What I say should hit home for a lot of people [to] know where I stand. I don’t believe I have to get on my knee to further what I’m talking about.”

The NBA, its individual players, and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes to the basket against the Houston Rockets on October 17, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

And that’s where the NBA dominates the NFL: at social media, where everything is happening. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, NBA teams have an average of more than 7 million followers, while NFL franchises average 4.6 million. Even during the NFL’s last season, there were more hashtags on Twitter dedicated to the NBA. In 2016, Forbes ranked the top athletes on social media: Four of the top 10 players were from the NBA, and the rest were international soccer stars. NFL players didn’t crack the top 10. The NBA social media connection allows players to enter lives and households in new and intimate ways.

Another major reason for the NBA’s ability to lap the NFL in social media is the NFL’s draconian rules about sharing videos online. Last October, the league sent out a memo barring teams from posting clips or GIFs of games. Teams that did so would be fined up to $100,000. While teams such as the Atlanta Falcons use clips from Madden video games to “show” highlights every Sunday, the NFL’s hard line limits many teams’ ability to deeply connect with fans where they are — which is, so much of the time, on their phones.

“The NBA is the more progressive league when it comes to digital,” said Jaryd Wilson, digital content manager for the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks have become an online darling thanks to creative Twitter posts and engagement with fans online. “In-game highlights are our highest digital performers and our most engaging types of content.”

The NFL’s limits on social media, and teams’ subsequent mockery of the decision, exposes a blind spot about American culture. African-Americans dominate what’s trendy on social media, and if “Black Twitter” determines that something is viral, it often becomes an American cultural phenomenon. Think of phrases such as “lit” and “on fleek” or crazes like the mannequin challenge — these began in blackness. On any given week, a new black-centered sensation, such as the NSFW #ForTheD challenge that dominated social media last month, takes over the country.

The NFL had that viral moment with Cam Newton doing his signature dabbing celebration in 2015, but he was as chastised for it as he was celebrated. Letters were written to newspapers about his “pelvic thrusts,” and Newton’s “arrogance” became the center of the story. And after a humbling Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, Newton seemed put in his place. Instead of embracing him, the NFL demonstrated that it didn’t understand what moves the needle in American culture. It cut down one of its viral superstars — something the NBA just doesn’t do.

“The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

“Diversity is very important to us,” said the Hawks’ Wilson. “We know our demographic, and our audience, and it is about keeping up with those trends. We always think about how can we tap into diverse communities while trying to push ourselves forward.” It affects the Hawks’ bottom line significantly. The organization has taken things a step further by offering a full-on embrace of Atlanta music: acts such as T.I., Gucci Mane and Big Boi perform at halftimes throughout the season, which has resulted in increased ticket sales and price inflation every time a concert is announced. The Hawks’ Philips Arena is even now home to rapper Killer Mike’s Swag barbershop.

The NBA understands that rock is no longer the dominant genre of music. Last year’s Finals marketing soundtrack featured songs from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. while the NFL featured the return of Hank Williams Jr. — who was dropped from ESPN’s Monday Night Football six years ago for likening President Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. And while the NBA features a list of rap stars and rhythm and blues singers during All-Star Weekend festivities, this year the Super Bowl will feature Justin Timberlake, whose last, 2004 Super Bowl performance featured him pulling off a piece of Janet Jackson’s clothing, exposing her breast. Whether or not the move was planned, it went awry, and Jackson caught the backlash as Timberlake’s career flourished. These kinds of things resonate, and the NFL’s de facto pardoning of Timberlake is another reminder to the black consumer that the league doesn’t cherish their concerns the way the NBA so often does.

“The NBA has caught up or passed the NFL on the cool factor,” said Andrew Brandt, director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at the Villanova University and host of The Business Of Sports podcast. “Whether that translates on the revenue side, that’s hard to know.”

Yet, even as black America is ravaged by socioeconomic disparities, a 2015 Nielsen study explains that we’ve reached a tipping point with regard to black economic influence. “Today’s American mainstream is rapidly changing, and that change can be attributed in part to the growth and activities of African-Americans in the marketplace. Social media and the internet have become go-to communications platforms for African-American stories and content.” The study goes on to state that black consumer power is growing at unprecedented levels, reaching $1.2 trillion in 2015, a 275 percent increase from 1990. So the appeal to the black consumer is about more than just what’s “cool.” It’s about a consumer base that is increasingly vital.


The NBA season kicked off last Tuesday with a display of the chokehold professional basketball has on compelling storylines. LeBron James faced off against his former teammate and passive-aggressive foe Kyrie Irving. The Warriors lost a buzzer-beater to the newly constructed Houston Rockets that now boast Chris Paul — all while a Klay Thompson doppelgänger was the social media joke of the night. But the NBA’s offseason was almost as entertaining, full of memed stories and social media buzz, from the petty feud between Irving and James to Thompson’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-like adventures in China, Hoodie ’Melo and Kevin Durant’s bizarre Twitter dramas. The NBA, its individual players and fan community have used social media to become a 12-month sport.

Meanwhile, the NFL is years-deep into a seemingly never-ending barrage of Spygate, Bountygate and Deflategate. There was the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. Accusations about covering up CTE analysis. All of this, though, seemed only to slightly dent the NFL’s impenetrable shield: People seemed to have accepted the judge and jury status of Goodell, the misogyny and abusive history of too many players who continue to play despite domestic abuse cases, and folks kind of knew that playing football was damaging to athletes in the long term. But Kaepernick’s protest and its fallout illuminated a sharp and deep conflict within the NFL—and among its fans—that many weren’t expecting.

“Go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds.” — Howard Bryant

An Oct. 11 study by The New York Times makes clear that the NFL is now one of the “most divisive” brands in America. The league doesn’t have to choose between its black players and white audience, but it does have to find a middle ground between black players and fans, and its white fans, a dilemma unique to the National Football League. The NFL is the only major male American sport that has mostly black players and a mostly white audience. The NFL is 67 percent black, but its audience is measured at 77 percent white. And although the league is two-thirds black, its top stars are white. In 2015, seven of the NFL’s nine top endorsement earners were white. Since then, black athletes such as Cam Newton and Odell Beckham Jr. have stormed the top ranks, but endorsements largely focus on quarterbacks. The New York Giants are the only team in the NFL that has never started a black quarterback. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, there were six black starting quarterbacks as of Week 7.

But by the time of the 2021 labor negotiations, the aforementioned Brady/Brees/Rodgers/Manning quadrumvirate will be out of the league. Andrew Luck, Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota are the quarterbacks most poised to be the league’s next torchbearers, and with them are Russell Wilson, Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. So what happens when the faces of the league are as black as the rest of the players? How the NFL reacts will determine the future of the sport. Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have both been at the same racial crossroads. One league offers the NFL a blueprint for success, and the other a cautionary tale.


The NBA has had multiple eras in which it has had to realign based on demographics and its top stars. In 1979, three years after the NBA merged with the ABA, the league had a nearly identical demographic makeup as the NFL. Seventy-five percent of the NBA’s players were black, up from 60 percent a decade before, and only two of the league’s top 20 scorers were white. At the same time, 75 percent of the audience was white. Attendance was down, as were ratings, to the tune of a 26 percent decrease against the previous season. A 1979 Sports Illustrated article titled There’s An Ill Wind Blowing For The NBA laid out the question plainly: Is the NBA too black?

The article examined the feeling among fans and some owners that black athletes were “undisciplined,” “overpaid” and played “playground basketball” — all dog whistles. An unnamed executive was quoted: “The question is, are they [the black players] promotable? People see them dissipating their money, playing without discipline. How can you sell a black sport to a white public?”

There was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport.

The NBA answered that question two ways. One, David Stern became commissioner in 1984. “Stern said, ‘I’m just going to put the best people on the floor,’ and he said the same thing for the front office,” said Richard Lapchick, founder/director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sports (TIDES). “The NBA has been significantly ahead of other leagues in diversity since the ’80s, and excitement has grown since.”

The league also lucked up by being able to lean into its racial divide with a ready-made rivalry between the bombastic and very black Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Stern, to his credit, embraced the clash, marketing the rivalry and letting the racial subtext become one of the main storylines. The league rode that popularity through the ’80s and ’90s with respectable black stars like Michael Jordan who didn’t upset the American status quo. Jordan was, in many ways, the perfect black athlete for corporate America. He stayed out of politics, seemed nonthreatening, and was a money machine.

Then came the NBA’s next racial crossroads: Allen Iverson. AI, the anti-Jordan, had cornrows, tattoos, jewelry — and he just did it his way. Iverson tested the limits of Stern’s acceptance of black culture. Iverson was from the ’hood, had been embroiled in a nasty fight before going to college, and didn’t bother cleaning up his language. While the NBA struggled with Iverson’s imaging, Reebok embraced his persona, tying their AI shoe to urban culture. They called it The Answer, and it was a monumental success.

A generation of athletes looked up to Iverson. And as those players mimicked his style, the NBA cracked down. In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for the NBA, making players drop the baggy clothes and dress business casual. LeBron James, just entering his third year, was amenable to the change: “No it’s not a big deal, not to me.” The usually reserved Tim Duncan had stronger thoughts: “I think it’s a load of crap.” Of course now NBA players are the most style-forward athletes in the world. Every night is a runway show.

In 2014, when a tape of the Clippers’ then-owner Donald Sterling uttering racial slurs leaked online, new commissioner Silver was quick and decisive, issuing a lifetime ban. It was the only viable option. The fans were ready for Sterling (who had a long history of animus toward African-Americans) to go, and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry had planned on walking out during a game if Sterling kept his status. There could be no wiggle room. In fairness, the NBA had to work out many of its racial battles before the era of social media. So while the league’s virtual expulsion of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the mid-’90s was just as despicable as what’s happening to Kaepernick, the league didn’t have to fight those issues in real time on social media, like the NFL does now.

“There’s a cottage industry in predicting and hoping for some sort of downfall in the NFL due to concussions, or domestic violence or whatever the latest crisis people seem to make of it,” said Brandt. “I kind of smile when I hear that, because we’ve been talking about that for a long time and NFL continues to grow financially.”

But it’s important to remember that there was a time when it seemed impossible for major league baseball to fall out of favor as the leading American sport. There are numerous reasons for baseball’s dwindling cultural impact: steroid scandals, strikes and shrinking attention spans. However, it’s undeniable that baseball’s lack of connection with America as a whole is directly tied to its refusal to embrace black culture.

“You go back to Ken Griffey Jr. wearing his hat backwards in batting practice and they all lost their minds,” said ESPN’s Bryant. “It was the greatest threat to the integrity of the game because the best player in the game, who all the young people loved and wanted to emulate, was doing something cool, and they shot it down. That was baseball’s last opportunity to catch people and be hip to Madison Avenue, because drugs ruined the game for the next 25 years.”

Baseball’s tacit insistence upon “tradition” and unspoken rules are all too often coded language for a refusal to accept cultural norms that aren’t firmly white American. Bat flips and celebrations are seen as being anti-baseball when they’re really bits of culture inserted by nonwhite athletes. In 2015, Chris Rock landed a scalding indictment of baseball’s popularity during a video for HBO’s Real Sports.

Calling himself an “endangered species, a black baseball fan,” Rock insists that baseball’s focus on its history, a history that excluded African-Americans for the first half of the 20th century, is a turnoff for black fans who aren’t into a time when only white players were allowed to play. And Rock suggests that baseball will fall further away from mainstream popularity as long as it continues to ignore the black fan and players. “Maybe if baseball can get a little hipper, a little cooler and just a little more black, the future can change,” he said in the monologue. “But until then, blacks and baseball just ain’t a good match anymore. Blacks don’t seem to care, but baseball should be terrified.”

The NFL may be gaining an understanding of its need to let black players express themselves to their fans. The league has loosened up the penalties for touchdown celebrations, which has so often been a vibrant space for black player expression and trash talk on the field. Now, players can celebrate while using the football as a prop, celebrate as a team and celebrate on the ground, which were previously 15-yard penalties. And the ESPN Twitter account promoted a Week 5 Packers vs. Cowboys game with a video of battle rappers DNA and K-Shine rhyming about their favorite teams at a barbershop. It’s a start, and a sign that the NFL is inching toward some of the cool points that the NBA snatched. But with Kaepernick still unemployed, the league, stuck in its ways, continues to scramble without a sophisticated strategy or uniform approach in place.

Doomsdays. Humanity has always been obsessed with them. But the NFL is at a crossroads at a time when black culture is simultaneously as powerful, relevant and under attack as at any point in American history. What side of that history is the NFL going to stand — or kneel — on? The almighty National Football League has decisions to make, and so do its players and fans.

Daily Dose: 10/17/17 The NBA is back, kiddos

Today’s another television day, but a special one. The NBA returns Tuesday night, so Around The Horn should be a fun one today. Tune in at 5 p.m. on ESPN if you want to see me break out my fall wardrobe.

Hip-hop is vital lifeblood in America. Today, its creation and existence are being celebrated at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and if you want to follow that, make sure to hit up the hashtag #hiphophistory. But for as much as it might be the driving force in my life, what it has created has certainly taken away from other things. In the pop culture sphere, from a musical standpoint, the evolution of the rap game basically put rhythm and blues music under. Not just because of popularity. Because of the music itself.

Colin Kaepernick just might have himself a case. Why? Because the president of the United States of America loves to tweet. It sounds complicated, but in short, because of the collective bargaining agreement, Kap’s lawyers could argue that because Trump has such an influence over the league, he deserves damages. This is fascinating because if it does end up that he wins money for not being signed, it’ll be because the very guy who thinks he should have gotten “fired” (FIRED!) did a little too much.

By all accounts, this should be Kevin Durant’s year. He’s the NBA Finals MVP. He’s an NBA champion. It’s his second year with his new squad. Of course, if you looked at his new sneakers, you’d think he still had something to prove, but for the most part, he’s just the man. Whether or not he’s the best player in the NBA at this point is almost immaterial. The other thing he’s expanding is his empire. While we think of LeBron James as the business mogul, KD has things he likes off the court too. Here’s a great, long read about it.

Cooler heads have prevailed regarding the national anthem. At NCAA Division III Albright College, three players were dismissed from the football team for kneeling during the national anthem. To be clear, it technically happened because there was some sort of agreement between the captain’s council not to do this and they violated it. But it’s also an example of people at small schools taking themselves WAAY too seriously in general. Those three players have now been invited back to the squad.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Speaking of the NBA, the athletes deal with a lot of nonsense. Because everyone thinks they can play basketball, dudes in the association get challenged more than others. Sure enough, some YouTuber thought going one-on-one against the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown was a good idea. He was very wrong.

Snack Time: Some of you might not know this, but Lil Jon isn’t all about just getting crunk for no reason. He’s recently started a primary school in Ghana, which seems like a fulfilling effort.

Dessert: If you’re really into Mac computers, get this candle. Also, it got an update recently too.

Bernie Mac, his ‘Mr. 3000,’ and black baseball’s field of dreams On what would have been his 60th birthday, Mac is remembered for his love of all of Chicago’s games

Mitch Rosen walks into an elegantly furnished condo in Chicago’s South Loop. He doesn’t know what to expect. It’s the spring of 2008, and the longtime program director of influential local sports radio station 670 The Score is about to make a pitch.

Just a day earlier, Rosen had asked a friend for a contact for Bernie Mac, the beloved stand-up comedian, television icon (Fox’s The Bernie Mac Show, 2001-06) and big-screen scene-stealer (Friday, The Players Club and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy). In 2004, Mac co-starred with Angela Bassett (as an ESPN reporter) in Mr. 3000, a film about a retired Milwaukee Brewer Stan Ross, who comes back to major league baseball to go for 3,000 hits. Even before Mac’s star-making 1994 national television debut on the first iteration of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, Mac had taken the baton from Robin Harris (who died in 1990 at age 36) as the Windy City’s funniest homegrown talent.

It was well-known around Chicago that Mac, a chest-beating, born-and-raised South Sider, was a hard-core White Sox fan. “I always knew Bernie to be around the Sox’s ballpark,” said Rosen. “He’d rent a suite at [then U.S. Cellular Field] for a number of games. I knew he would be fun to have on the postgame show.”

When Rosen made the call, Mac’s daughter, Je’Niece McCullough, answered. “Hold on, please,” she said. Seconds later, a booming voice jumped on the line. “Mitch, this is Bernie. What are you doing tomorrow afternoon? Here’s my address. Come see me.” During their one-hour meeting, Rosen discovered that not only was Mac an unapologetic homer, he was also an animated listener of sports talk radio. Imagine the multimillionaire calling in to passionately debate why a random utility player on the Sox deserved more at-bats.

“Chicago was a different place in the late ’60s and ’70s. This was before the era of Michael Jordan. There was a Little League team in damn near every neighborhood. Bernie was a product of those times.”

“And he was a huge fan of Ozzie [Guillen],” Rosen said, referring to the outspoken White Sox shortstop and Gold Glover who in 2005 managed the team to World Series glory. “We left it at, ‘Hey, let’s follow up in a few weeks and see where the season goes.’ At the time I remember he had an oxygen tank … so it was obvious something was wrong. He told me he was doing a movie out west in California. But we never got the chance to do his segment because he became really sick.”

Mac’s creative work was often deeply rooted in sports fandom. He portrayed a homeless man in 1994’s Above The Rim. In Pride, the 2007 Jim Ellis biopic, Mac scored a role as assistant coach of the first all-black swimming team. The actor detailed his love of competitive sports during a 2007 ESPN SportsNation chat. “I wish I started playing golf earlier,” said the 6-foot-3 Mac, who possessed the frame of a tight end. “But I played baseball, basketball, football, volleyball, and I boxed. In high school,” he repeated wistfully, “I played baseball.”

On Aug. 9, 2008, Bernard Jeffrey McCullough died at the age of 50. He’d been secretly battling a rare immune disease called sarcoidosis. Today he would have been 60 years old.


Bernie Mac sings “Take me out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch of game six of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois.

Elsa/Getty Images

Bernie Mac made it out of the notorious Englewood neighborhood of Chicago to become one of the most successful comedians of the post-Eddie Murphy era. The onetime janitor, school bus driver and fast-food manager decided that comedy would be his family’s ticket out of the ’hood. During the day, Mac told jokes on the L train, where he often pulled in as much as $400 daily.

At night, he delivered those same routines in front of notoriously tough audiences — when he was even allowed to get onstage. It was only after winning a top prize of $3,000 at 1990’s Miller Genuine Draft Comedy Search that he decided to pursue stand-up full time. His popular Emmy- and Peabody-winning television series The Bernie Mac Show was a layered revelation that went beyond usual laugh-track-fueled sitcom high jinks.

Mac got to live out his high school dream of becoming a professional ballplayer when he starred in the family-friendly Mr. 3000. His comically arrogant character, Ross, finds out that because of a clerical error, he’d retired three hits shy of one of baseball’s most hallowed benchmarks. Only 31 real players are in the 3,000-hit club. Adrian Beltre is the most recently crowned member; Barry Bonds just missed the cut. Albert Pujols is currently closest, with 2,825 hits. Other players in the 3,000 community include Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ichiro Suzuki, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, George Brett and Derek Jeter. Quite the list.

The film is fun, but it’s Mr. 3000’s on-field scenes, shot at New Orleans’ Zephyr Field and the Brewers’ Miller Park, that jump off the screen like a love letter to the emotional highs and lows of baseball and its idiosyncratic rituals. “Bernie and I would always talk about the MLB player that didn’t know when to retire,” said Charles Stone III, director of Mr. 3000, Paid In Full and the upcoming basketball comedy Uncle Drew, which features the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, as well as Lisa Leslie, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. “We even joked about doing an entire documentary about athletes who didn’t know when to walk away. It was obvious Bernie had a real passion for sports.”

Michael Wilbon, a Chicago native and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, made a cameo appearance in Mr. 3000. He first met Mac in 2001, at a Chicago Bulls game. They bonded. “We both grew up watching the Bears’ Gale Sayers and Walter Payton, the Cubs’ Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, and the White Sox’s [Walt] ‘No Neck’ Williams,” Wilbon said. “Chicago was a different place in the late ’60s and ’70s. This was before the era of Michael Jordan. There was a Little League team in damn near every neighborhood. Bernie was a product of those times.”

Which is one of the reasons that, when Mac was asked by the Chicago Cubs to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field, just months after wrapping Mr. 3000, it was a surreal moment. The prominent Chicago White Sox fan is forever connected to the infamous “Bartman” Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series in which the North Siders suffered a monumental collapse. Some Cubs fans even blamed Mac for purposefully jinxing the team when, instead of singing, “Root, root, root for the Cubbies,” he sang, “Root, root, root for the champions!” Mac admitted to Wilbon that he grew up hating the Sox’s crosstown rivals.

Bernie Mac sings a “black version” of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.”

“This is how you came up as a South Sider,” Wilbon said. “You hated the Cubs because back in the days they were not very hospitable to people that looked like my father. Bernie and I come from that tradition. But a lot of those great black Cubs players like Ernie Banks lived on the South Side with us, so while he didn’t always root for the Cubs, Bernie was a civic person. He didn’t actively root against them. When it came to the [playoffs], he rooted for all teams that had Chicago on their chest.”

Mac of course understood the historical significance of Mr. 3000’s lead character being African-American. Jackie Robinson’s peerless legacy is rich with immortals such as Roy Campanella, Mays, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., as well as current stars like Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Addison Russell. But African-American participation in professional baseball over the decades has steadily declined.

At its height in 1981, professional baseball boasted a robust 18.7 percentage of black players. Today that figure is 7.7 percent, according to MLB. “Blacks no longer being a huge part of baseball is something we’d always talk about,” said Chicago-based SportsCenter analyst Scoop Jackson. When Mac was cutting his teeth at local nightclubs such as All Jokes Aside in the early ’90s, the two would often discuss their mutual admiration for the underrated 1976 Negro Leagues baseball film The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.

“We both loved that film,” said Jackson. “How important Bingo Long was … you had James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor speaking on the importance of the Negro League. It wasn’t just black history … it was baseball history. I know what a film like Mr. 3000 was rooted in.”

And there’s even more to the legacy of Bernie Mac the sportsman. Mac frequently sent messages to Kenny Williams, then the White Sox’s general manager (now the team’s executive vice president), imploring him to improve the staff’s pitching. Mac also grew up idolizing aforementioned legendary Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente. Mac’s standing as the quintessential sports guy was so high that even before he was starring in films alongside the Oscar-winning likes of George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Billy Bob Thornton, he was given the unofficial title of 13th Man by the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls during their historic six-title ’90s run.

The Bulls adopted Mac’s signature “Who You With?!!!” catchphrase as their championship battle cry. “When Bernie came into the locker room, that’s all Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the others would scream,” Jackson said. “That meant a lot to Bernie personally. He never really left Chicago, or his love of its teams. … Bernie was a true sports fan.”

Five new TV shows worth watching this fall Last year’s bonanza of blackness hasn’t repeated itself, but you should still plug these shows into your DVR

What’s new in TV this season? Worth checking out? Honestly, the pickings this fall are slimmer than last year’s bonanza of blackness. Both The Carmichael Show and Pitch have been canceled. Atlanta’s second season was delayed so creator and star Donald Glover could go be Lando Calrissian, and Insecure became the most celebrated and discussed show — of the summer.

Empire, black-ish and ABC’s Shondaland lineup have been around long enough that they’ve morphed into reliable fall standards: This Is Us, though still young in television years, has clearly captured the country’s imagination — along with its appetite for Kleenex. And the OWN juggernaut and prestige drama Queen Sugar returns this week for the second half of its second season. We’ll finally get to see those episodes directed by Julie Dash!

[‘Queen Sugar’s’ second season explores a fraught mix of family and historical legacy]

So what’s left? Allow me to walk you through the best of the rest.

Big Mouth (Netflix)

Netflix’s oddball animated show about puberty is currently streaming. It features Jordan Peele as the ghost of Duke Ellington (he lives in one of the character’s attics) and Maya Rudolph as a hormone monstress. Yes, she’s a hairy, horny, imaginary monstress who puts bad ideas in the head of a 12-year-old girl named Diane.

Big Mouth follows the lives of a group of 12-year-olds navigating the hellacious road map of wet dreams, peer pressure, unfortunately timed boners, first periods and, yes, hormone monsters. Big Mouth also contains its share of meta TV and Hollywood jokes — there’s a shocking stinger about director Bryan Singer that I didn’t see coming — but mainly it really gets just how awkward, fraught, miserable — and, in hindsight, quite funny — puberty can be. It is not a show for 12-year-olds, but it is fun for anyone who felt like a mess as their hormones went bonkers for several years.

The Good Place (NBC)

If it feels like all of your favorite smart internet people are talking about The Good Place on Twitter, it’s because they are.

The Good Place, which recently began its second season on NBC, is a sitcom about ethics and philosophy — yes, the stuff Immanuel Kant spent so much time noodling in his brain about. It’s smart, funny, fresh, inventive and quite good at anticipating the questions viewers will form in their own minds. It’s also like The Good Wife in that it excels at finding ways to circumvent and poke fun at profanity restrictions on prime-time network television (and The Undefeated). You can’t curse in The Good Place, and so “f—” has been replaced by “fork.”

The show stars Ted Danson as Michael, the architect of what he hopes will be The Worst Place in the Afterlife. His grand plans for reinventing hell — or The Bad Place, as it’s known — keep getting upended by his wards, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason are all dead and have been sentenced to spend eternity in The Bad Place, though they don’t know it. They think they’re in The Good Place, although they all (except for Tahani) have a sneaking suspicion that they’re not supposed to be there.

By the end of season one, Eleanor, Tahani, Chidi and Jason have figured out that they’re in The Bad Place and that Michael is using them to experiment with a new form of torture. Rather than subjecting folks to lakes of fire — you know, your run-of-the-mill hellish unpleasantries — he’s created an elaborate scheme of psychological torture and gaslighting, mostly by making an environment that’s supposedly perfect a bit of a drag. To Michael, hell is the suburbs.

Now that we’re at season two, there’s just one problem with Michael’s scheme: Eleanor, Chidi, Jason and Tahani keep figuring out what he’s doing and Michael constantly has to erase their memories so he can start over with his experiment. Being middle management in hell is tough, man. Michael’s problems just keep compounding: Even though Eleanor and Chidi are deliberately mismatched as soul mates, Eleanor’s begun to fall for him anyway. Even Jason, the dumbest of the bunch, has independently figured out what Michael’s up to. There’s also a very helpful android named Janet (D’Arcy Carden). Every time Michael has to wipe the memories of Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani and Jason, he has to reboot Janet too.

There’s a lot to like about The Good Place, from its critique of our conceptions of utopia to its interrogation of what it means to be truly “good” or “bad.” The show follows four characters who are kind of terrible, but not genocidal maniac terrible. They’re terrible in an everyday, narcissistic, common sort of way — and they’re capable of change.

The Good Place also works in diversity in a way that doesn’t feel forced or like an afterthought, or as though it came from a network on a cookie-seeking mission. It just feels natural. Anagonye is one of the few African characters on television. (While both Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji are kids of African immigrants in real life, their ethnicity hasn’t come up in Insecure.) There’s such a dearth of characters who are Africans living in America, which is why I was disappointed to hear that HBO would not be developing the K’naan Warsame pilot Mogadishu, Minnesota.

Loosely Exactly Nicole (Facebook)

After garnering less-than-impressive ratings in its first season as an MTV comedy, Loosely Exactly Nicole, starring Nicole Byer, has moved to Facebook for its second season.

Given the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm, there’s obviously still an audience for shows about people who are awful and also unaware of (or maybe simply don’t care about) their awfulness, and the comedy that ensues as a result.

[The temerity to be terrible]

Byer is quietly daring in that the Nicole of Loosely Exactly Nicole is sexual, nervy and self-obsessed in a way that’s generally reserved for Beckys. Like Gabourey Sidibe’s Empire character (actually named Becky), Nicole hooks up with cute guys (white guys, at that). She’s not consumed with hatred of her body or her hair or her blackness, and she’s not an irritated government employee in the way that fat, dark-skinned black women often show up on television.

I want to see success for Byer, for Yvette Nicole Brown, for Retta, for Amber Riley, for Leslie Jones and for all the funny black women who don’t necessarily look like Yara Shahidi or Tracee Ellis Ross but are still bawdy, dangerous and funny. What’s more, their youth and sexuality deserve acknowledgment, and I don’t just mean in the predatory, Leslie-Jones-is-obsessed-with-Colin-Jost sort of way either.

That’s part of the reason that the summer show Claws was such a hit. In many ways, Niecy Nash is a precursor for a lot of these younger women. It’s taken years for her talents to be acknowledged, although playing Nurse Didi in Getting On may have been what it took for her to be taken seriously — she was nominated for Emmys twice for the role. Octavia Spencer is a terrific comic actress (see: Spencer as Harriet Tubman in Drunk History). There’s no doubt her career has blossomed since The Help, but I hate seeing her typecast as dowdy, matronly figures, and the more women like Byer insist on playing otherwise, the more that will hopefully change.

The Mayor (ABC)

From creator Jeremy Bronson and executive producer Daveed Diggs, The Mayor (which debuts Tuesday on ABC) stars Brandon Micheal Hall as Courtney Rose, a rapper who just wants to get some shine — so he decides to run for mayor of his hometown of Fort Grey, California. And, as you might have guessed from the title, he wins. So now you’ve got a person with zero experience or qualifications, who really just wanted a bit more fame, in public service as the head of the executive branch of a city.

I know — impossible to imagine something like that happening, right?

The Mayor reminds me of the 2003 Chris Rock movie Head of State, in which Rock stars as alderman Mays Gilliam, who is engaged in a long-shot bid for president (mostly for the publicity) with Bernie Mac as his take-no-prisoners, blackity-black hype man and brother. Head of State found comedy in the process of running for office, and the movie ends just as the awesome, weighty reality of being president is falling on Gilliam’s shoulders.

The premise of The Mayor is certainly interesting, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t necessarily make me excited about where the show will go once Courtney has to actually start governing. It’s hard to avoid cynicism there, but maybe as the mayor, Courtney will grow into something a little more like Leslie Knope. Otherwise, there’s a scenario that’s so serious, there’s little to laugh at. Yvette Nicole Brown, who was such a treasure in Community, stars as Dina Rose, Courtney’s mother. It’s a bit of a waste to see Brown, who in real life is young and vivacious in the role of churchy, kinda sexless (though quite funny) mom. Which again, says something about the type of woman Hollywood sees as plausibly forkable.

White Famous (Showtime)

White Famous, the new comedy from creator Tom Kapinos starring former Saturday Night Live actor Jay Pharoah, joins the ranks of shows that expose, comment on and make fun of the artifice of Hollywood, such as BoJack Horseman, Episodes and Entourage.

In terms of the callouts that raise eyebrows for torching real-life relationships, White Famous, which premieres Oct. 15 on Showtime, does not disappoint. Pharoah plays an up-and-coming comic named Floyd Mooney who’s a bona fide star with black people but still gets mistaken for a restaurant valet by white Hollywood producers. Within the first 15 minutes of the show, Pharaoh has already thrown two symbolic middle fingers at director, producer and vocal Bill Cosby critic Judd Apatow.

It’s a tricky jump. Mooney has a meeting with the thinly veiled Apatow character named Jason Gold (Steve Zissis), who is directing a movie about an imaginary attorney who was the first woman Cosby assaulted. Gold wants Mooney to play the woman, a la Eddie Murphy or Tyler Perry. Mooney tells Gold that focusing solely on Cosby’s lechery is racist, although he makes the unfortunate misstep of downplaying the accusations against Cosby of drugging and sexual assault from more than 50 women.

[Why the hot black bodies on ‘Insecure’ are more revolutionary than you think]

White Famous engages in a practice I find annoying about premium cable shows: It treats naked women as mostly silent pets that can be sent to another room when their nude bodies are no longer useful to a scene. Sometimes that works as a reflection of the actual sexism that pervades Hollywood and makes pretty women disposable. For example, there’s a scene in which Mooney and Gold walk in on Jamie Foxx going to town on some unnamed woman in his trailer, and he just keeps going while continuing to hold a conversation. But sometimes, like the moment we’re introduced to a clothed Gold sleeping next to a naked woman, it’s not saying much of anything except, “Hey, I too have the power to put naked women on TV for no reason except to show boobs and butt.”

How novel.

Despite its sexist deficiencies, White Famous is still engaging. It confronts race and success in Hollywood head-on, raising questions about when and why artists end up compromising their own principles.

MAC Cosmetics to honor Aaliyah with new collection 16 years after death This is the third posthumous release the cosmetic giant has announced in five years

Two years after a petition from fans calling on MAC Cosmetics to honor late singer Aaliyah, the company is making dreams come true and giving the rhythm and blues songstress a collection of her own.

Although few details were released about the collection line in the initial announcement, the popular cosmetic manufacturer was sure to credit the fans for making the line possible and said that the MAC Aaliyah collection will be available for purchase next summer.

“Aaliyah is truly one in a million — an unstoppable icon whose groundbreaking work in R&B music and film inspires us all,” the company posted to social media. “Today we join her countless fans in celebrating her with the announcement of the MAC Aaliyah collection. You made it happen!”

Instagram Photo

Aaliyah became a household name as a teenager with the release of her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number in 1994. The singer continued to work her way up the ranks and progress with the help of hip-hop greats such as Missy Elliott and Jay-Z, legendary music producer Timbaland and entertainment mogul Damon Dash, whom she dated until her death. On Aug. 25, 2001, the 22-year-old-singer’s reign as the princess of R&B came to a tragic end after the small twin-engine Cessna carrying her and her film crew crashed shortly after takeoff in the Bahamas. There were no survivors.

Aaliyah’s final self-titled studio album, released July 2001, shot to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart a month after her death.

The petition, created by fan Jennifer Risinger of California, urged MAC to “reintroduce Aaliyah’s legacy to the world” through a limited-edition collection. Risinger also stated that writer and film director Rashad Haughton, the singer’s brother, gave the idea his seal of approval.

“Aaliyah stands for MAC’s mission of ‘All ages, All races, All sexes,’ ” Risinger wrote. “She was a risk taker, innovator, edgy, street but sweet, and R&B’s princess. She continues to influence today’s mainstream artists. People around the world still love and celebrate her life and music every year.” By the end of its run, the petition was signed by 26,218 supporters.

This is the third posthumous collection from the company within the past five years.

Last fall, the cosmetics giant released its MAC Selena collection in honor of Tejano music singer Selena Quintanilla, who was shot and killed by the president of her fan club in 1995. The collection, complete with three lipsticks, a lip gloss, five eye shadows, a blush and bronzer compact, a makeup brush, liquid liner and mascara, sold out online just hours after its release. In 2012, late model and beauty icon Marilyn Monroe’s collection of signature red lipsticks, liquid liners and eye shadows was released just in time for the holidays.

Posthumous releases aren’t the only ones MAC has in store for fans seeking a variety of palettes.

Just days before the Aaliyah announcement, rapper Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to announce her second MAC collection, which features two new nude lipsticks that will sell for $18 each next month.

Actress Taraji P. Henson has also teamed with MAC for her Viva Glam Taraji P. Henson collection, which offers a matte fuchsia lipstick ($17.50) and shimmery fuchsia lip gloss ($17).