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

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

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

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

313 Presents

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

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

Now where are all the black folks?

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


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

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

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

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

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

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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


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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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


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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JoeFreshGoods pays tribute to Walter Payton’s ‘flu game’ with a new line of jerseys The streetwear designer behind the Thank You Obama collection honors the legendary Chicago Bears running back

Go behind the scenes with Fat Tiger Workshop founder JoeFreshGoods, the streetwear designer who created the Thank You Obama collection and a jersey dedicated to famed Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton and his 1977 “flu game,” in his Chicago studio.

LeBron and his Cavs. #HoodieMelo. Beyoncé. How we successfully reclaimed the hoodie. It’s a hoodie nation, and the spirit of Trayvon lives on

Trayvon Martin wanted a snack. So he threw on a gray hoodie and headed out for some Skittles and a sweet tea. Thirty minutes later, Martin was dead, shot down by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The story of race, violence and death immediately dominated headlines. But soon the story became that hoodie. The narrative shifted from the racism that led Zimmerman to follow Martin in the first place to a piece of apparel as justification for killing a black person.

Hoodies, quite frankly, are cool as hell. And there are so many iconic black figures who wore hoodies and made them look badass. Tupac Shakur as Bishop in 1992’s Juice, staring daggers at Omar Epps’ Q in the climactic elevator scene. Raekwon in the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 video for “C.R.E.A.M.” Even now, Odell Beckham Jr. flaunts his hoodie looks on Instagram, and there’s always Beyoncé’s viral hoodie GIF.

But the hoodie also functions beautifully as Grocery Store Run chic. A comfortable hoodie with sweatpants and sneakers is my uniform for late-night milk runs, or dropping the kids off at school. It’s about not letting anyone see me sweat — ironic, considering the warmth of the hoodie. But the hoodie is a way to still look polished and casual while on the run so I don’t shame my momma by going outside in a wrinkled T-shirt. Black men have to keep our respective cools in public no matter what, and the hoodie gives the impression that I’ve got it together even if I don’t. It’s a look that Kanye West has perfected: the calculated image of having just thrown something on while still looking like a billion bucks, all thanks to the hoodie.


“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies … I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” — Geraldo Rivera

On March 23, 2012, just three weeks after Martin was killed, Rivera went on the air and said Martin’s choice to wear a hoodie, and the politics of that choice, was his death sentence. The idea being, of course, that hoodies were associated with criminals. That people of color wearing hoodies were putting themselves in positions to be stereotyped because hoodies were associated with criminal activity because of their function of obscuring the faces of stick-up kids and graffiti artists. And being stereotyped as dangerous meant being followed by volunteer neighborhood watch guys and being killed for looking suspicious.

Of course, the notion of hoodies contributing to Martin’s death is nonsensical. Martin Luther King Jr. was wearing a shirt and tie when he was assassinated. Michael Brown was wearing a T-shirt when he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Emmitt Till. Alton Sterling. Medgar Evers. James Chaney. Laura Nelson. An unending list of black people killed for being black. No hoodies in sight. Hoodies never had anything to do with Trayvon Martin’s death. It was and has always been about the color of the skin the hoodie covered.

The hoodie, for white tech billionaires, represents a cocky nonchalance, indicating they’re not willing to change for anyone.

Want proof? Just look at how the hoodie is perceived by many white tech bros in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg proudly boasts that his closet is full of gray tees and hoodies. And when he ruffled old-school Wall Street investors for wearing his iconic hoodie to pitch sessions for the Facebook initial public offering in May 2012, just three months after Martin was killed, it was a sign that Zuckerberg was sticking to the edgy persona that made him and Facebook popular in the first place.

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30-for-30 Podcast: Hoodies Up
The story of a protest photo taken in 2012 by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat. Reported and hosted by Jody Avirgan.

The Washington Post, at the time, had a strong defense of Zuckerberg’s attire: “Just like its close cousins the gray T-shirt and the sneaker, the hoodie gives Zuckerberg a way to sartorially wink that he doesn’t like to answer to anybody and that he’s not losing his ‘hacker’ street cred.” The hoodie, for white tech billionaires, represents a cocky nonchalance, indicating they’re not willing to change for anyone. A far cry from the terror the hoodies can instill when worn by teenage black kids.

Rivera would later offer a halfhearted apology for his original hoodie comments, but the damage was done. Twitter was just 5 years old when Martin was killed, and black voices on Twitter weren’t yet as sophisticated with regard to shaping narratives. So when Rivera made his remarks, he was able to lead a discussion about exactly what hoodies had to do with how much danger black people were putting themselves in. The hoodie became a symbol of danger for black people who didn’t need any more reasons to put themselves in any danger around racists.

That’s when LeBron James and the Miami Heat stepped in. On March 23, 2012, the four-time NBA MVP gathered his team together for an Instagram photo. The entire roster donned hoodies, heads down, obscuring their faces. The caption read #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice. The statement was monumental. James, by donning the hoodie, showed that he was unafraid to speak up.

Black America has been working to reclaim the hoodie as simply a piece of clothing representative of our culture while also making sure the teenager’s story isn’t lost. On this season of Insecure, Yvonne Orji’s Molly wore a hoodie emblazoned simply with the word “TRAYVON.” During the NBA offseason, Carmelo Anthony was tearing up pickup games in gyms across the country. In the clips, Anthony is making just about every shot, and terrorizing defenders. And he’s wearing a hoodie.

The viral clips gave birth to the moniker #HoodieMelo, the mythology being that his hoodie gives him superpowers — and that he’d be better off wearing it during games. Anthony’s hoodie isn’t an overt political statement, it’s just what he wants to wear on the court. And his lighthearted take shows just how far we’ve come in reclaiming the hoodie.

And of course, the hoodie isn’t just relegated to gyms or to work as a symbol of nonchalance. It’s high fashion. The Wall Street Journal has pieces about the Rise of the High-End Hoodie. GQ offers tutorials on how to dress down suits by wearing hoodies while counting down the 31 best hoodies of a given year. At New York’s Fashion Week, hoodies are on display via Kanye West’s Yeezy Season, Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma, DKNY and more.

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Russell Westbrook wore a Reclaim Vintage “World Tour” yellow hoodie against the Warriors in January. He wore the $98 piece with a white hat, tattered jeans and sneakers. And now Nike has fitted athletes with hoodies to wear while they’re on the bench during games. At any given moment during the course of an NBA game, any number of players can have their hoodies on their heads as they watch from the bench or celebrate with their teammates. To show how far we’ve come with hoodies, the style move was initially pretty innocuous. However, Stephen A. Smith did sound an alarm.

“I don’t know why the hell Nike made these damn uniforms that have hoods attached to it by the way,” he said on the Oct. 24 episode of his radio show. “You got a lot of those white folks in the audience that’s gonna think this is Trayvon Martin being revisited. And I’m not joking about it. The bench is no place for someone to be wearing hoodies.” J.R. Smith wasn’t having any of it.

Nike has fitted athletes with hoodies to wear while they’re on the bench during games.

The problem with Stephen A. Smith’s logic here is that he’s echoing the language of Rivera and the masterful narrative shift that made the Trayvon Martin story about hoodies when it’s really about race in America. And who’s to say it’s a bad thing to remind white America of the black boys and girls in this country killed because of the color of their skin?

It’s hard to fault any black person for wanting to take the hood down at night when he feels endangered. Because in an era where we see people who look like us gunned down almost daily, it makes sense to take every precaution. But the hoodie as justification for death is pure misinformation. Blackness is the issue, always has been. But the hoodie has moved beyond simply being about Trayvon Martin because Trayvon Martin was — and, in spirit, is — far more than the hoodie he wore that night.

Beats By Dre’s global head of marketing talks Dr. Dre, LeBron, Kaepernick and diversity Jason White takes us into his corner of the headphones giant

Jason White defines culture as being ahead of how the rest of the world sees or accepts something and actually being brave enough to put that point of view out into the world.

“Having the courage to be bold enough to try things and put yourself out there is what defines and pushes culture,” White, the global head of marketing at Beats By Dre, explained.

White works in today’s ever-changing culture masterfully. He’s considered to be one of the most reputable corporate quarterbacks in brand awareness, — making sure Beats by Dre is connecting to music, sports and culture and driving relevance and energy on a global scale.

Managing the hustle to the beat of today’s music is the workflow at Beats By Dre. The headphones company, founded by music icons Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Jimmy Iovine, taps into pop culture in a way that moves with it through the storytelling of high-profile athletes and musicians.

White’s background includes the overseeing of the award-winning Straight Outta Compton campaign, along with LeBron James’ “Re-Established” campaign marking his return to Cleveland in 2014. Before Beats, White worked at Wieden + Kennedy to pursue the longtime dream of defining culture through the voice of Nike, where he led the Nike business in China and captained global campaigns for the 2008 Beijing Games, 2010 World Cup, James, Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods. Other clients included Levi’s, Converse, Shanghai Disney Resort and, coincidentally, Beats By Dre.

“For a long time, Omar Johnson [Beats By Dre’s former chief marketing officer] talked to me about coming on board as his No. 2 at Beats, and finally I jumped in [in 2014],” said White. “Getting a bit of the vision into the business was exciting, but then going behind the curtain [as a Beats employee] was 100 times more exhilarating than I could have imagined.”

White, a New Englander and Georgetown grad, spoke with The Undefeated at his Culver City, California, office about the most rewarding and challenging parts of his job, working with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, collaborating with athletes such as James and Colin Kaepernick, and why the importance of diversity cannot and will not be ignored.


What is a typical day for you?

Every day I check in with my leadership team to prioritize short-, medium- and long-term goals that align with our stakeholders. And because we’re a brand that is reactive to culture, it really comes down to what’s on the calendar: Super Bowl, All-Star, Fashion Week, launch of a product, or an artist dropping an album day of. It’s very situational according to the rhythm of culture.

I spent the last two days at Interscope [Records] listening to some of Eminem’s new music, and we were just with French Montana. Having incredible creators like them share their gem with us and then think of how it could connect with one of our athlete’s stories, or how it could be used with what Beats is trying to say about a noise-canceling moment in your life, that’s when it becomes really fun.

What have you learned under the leadership of Dr. Dre, Jimmy Iovine and Luke Wood (president)?

They are so open to discussion. Jimmy and Luke always say, ‘It’s a band. We all have an instrument.’ It’s because they come from music and a world where you rarely do anything by yourself. When you have that mindset, you learn how to share and build ideas and take criticism.

How is it collaborating with athletes?

What our athletes do amazingly well is perform. They trust us to do the same thing and execute a vision that tells their story. It’s the same trust as with their coaches, like with [Tennessee Titans quarterback] Marcus Mariota telling the story of how Hawaii got him to the NFL.

What was the conversation like with LeBron James in telling his story of going back to Cleveland?

It was a very human conversation that was honest and open. LeBron told us, ‘Go to this house. I saw it get bulldozed when I was a kid. Visit this apartment, it was the first time I ever felt safe.’ To trust us with that type of information was very powerful.

Tell me about an athlete who’s come to Beats wanting to put a voice to a cause.

Colin Kaepernick has been incredibly vocal and consistent about the injustice that he sees and the sacrifice he’s willing to make to address that and raise awareness around it. We’ve had conversations about what role we can play and how the brand can be part of his journey.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

I love my job because it’s where creativity and culture blazes ahead. There’s this desire to do something that hasn’t been done before in telling stories and letting the emotion of music fuel a space and change a perspective.

How about the most challenging side of it?

Because we’re working with the most creative people in the world, we have to come to the table prepared to compromise, share and listen. The idea you may bring to the table probably isn’t going to be the same thing you walk out the door with. It’s going to be better, but you have to know and believe that it can be achieved through the dialogue in that journey.

What album will always be a classic to you?

The Low End Theory [second album by A Tribe Called Quest]. My grandmother is from Queens [New York], so I grew up listening to Tribe all of the time.

Tell me about how you got involved with the Marcus Graham Project.

I’ve always had great mentors, so it was important for me to figure out how to give that experience to others and really pay it forward. I remember cold-calling Lincoln Stephens from Ad Age, who is the founder and executive director of the Marcus Graham Project, and saying, ‘I don’t know how or what I can do, but I just want to help.’ Now I’m a board member and deeply involved by either showing up as a mentor or speaking about global marketing and helping them find jobs. The program is incredible and designed to get young, diverse talent into creative careers faster by giving them tools, inspiration, access and exposure.

What is diversity, and why is it important?

Diversity is about having your own point of view, and when you collectively put them together, you get a series of thinkers, makers and doers that all bring something powerful and unique. For far too long, the advertising industry, and to some extent marketing, has not had enough different point of views in the room. It’s about how high is up, and you only get that when that diversity is represented.

What sports did you play growing up? How did it influence the way you lead at work?

In high school I played football and lacrosse, but over the years I competed in soccer, tennis, basketball and swimming too. I carry a football mentality [in the workplace]. It’s all about the team. We win, lose, practice and sweat as a team.

What does it mean when you say, ‘I stand on the shoulder of giants and celebrate the emotion of music’?

[Those giants refer] to Jimmy, Dre and Luke, and on my personal journey it’s my father, my high school football coach, the former CMO of Gatorade Morgan Flatley and Rebecca Van Dyck, who took a chance on me at Wieden + Kennedy to run the Nike business. It’s all of the incredible mentors who have given me opportunities. [The emotion of music] is powerfully special and the reason why we press play and do what we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mario Tama/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

The requests didn’t only come from hoopers.

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

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

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

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

Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SportsCenter’s ‘Gear Up,’ Week 8: Boston College honors 9/11 hero Welles Crowther with ‘Red Bandana’ While San Diego State pays tribute to the team’s biggest fan

In Week 7 of Gear Up — SportsCenter’s weekly segment previewing the best uniforms in college football — The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson breaks down the style combinations of Mississippi, Northern Colorado, Eastern Michigan, Boise State, San Diego State, Virginia and Boston College.

Learn why no jersey in the Ole Miss football program holds more meaning than the No. 38, and see the uniform combination Northern Colorado will break out for the first time. Eastern Michigan celebrates the 30th anniversary of its 1987 California Bowl team, and Boise State shows off the new Nike uniforms the team received this season. The Cavaliers keep Charlottesville, Virginia, close to their hearts with a #HoosTogether patch, while San Diego State honors the team’s biggest fan, Tom Ables, who died earlier this week. And each year, Boston College plays a “Red Bandana” game in tribute to former Eagles lacrosse player Welles Crowther, who lost his life while saving others during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Tune in to SportsCenter A.M. every Saturday morning during the college football season to watch Aaron show off the best uniforms of the week.

Randy Moss talks the making of the ‘Super Freak’ — the NFL’s first signature Air Jordan The legend and his shoe designer recall the early Jordan Brand moments

Randy Moss didn’t always need a football field to put his inhuman speed on display. All he really needed was a treadmill, and a few spectators.

During one workout at a Florida gym back in the early days of his NFL career, the young Minnesota Vikings wide receiver pushed the limit of human athleticism. His training circuit began with a 15- to 20-second treadmill sprint at 15 mph, which Moss and a friend who joined him completed with ease. Next came 17 mph. They both jumped on and, for about 10 seconds, busted out another run.

Then Moss did something crazy: He upped the speed to 19 mph. “F— that, I’m done with this,” one spectator recalls Moss’ friend saying before tapping out. Moss, however, completed the rep and kept going. He cranked the treadmill to an unfathomable 21 mph and prepared to make his move. While holding on to the rails, Moss planted one foot on the machine’s foundation and used his other foot to judge just how fast the belt circulated as he nailed his timing down. The gears in his brain synced with the mechanics of his body.

“He jumps on and whips out 21 mph, just hauling a–,” said the aforementioned spectator, Gentry Humphrey, product director for Jordan Brand at the time. “Just watching him do that, to me, he was a freak of nature … purely a super freak.”

“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael Jordan. But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ” — Randy Moss

Humphrey can’t recall the exact date or time of year that the treadmill incident unfolded before his eyes, but he does know it took place sometime between 1999 and 2000, within the phenom wideout’s first two NFL seasons. During this period, Humphrey spent as much time as he possibly could with Moss while in the process of designing Moss’ first signature shoe: the Air Jordan Super Freak.

“I realized,” said Humphrey, “that Randy was very, very different.”


In 1999, two years after Nike and Michael Jordan came to terms on Jordan Brand, Moss — then 22, and coming off a monster rookie season — became the first football player to sign an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand. “Jordans were a basketball shoe, but when I came into the league, I was still infatuated by Nike shoes and Jordan shoes,” says Moss now. “My first year, I was just pulling Jordans off the rack and lacing them up.” And playing in them.

Remember, by this point in 1999, Michael Jordan had already retired from the NBA for the second time in his career and had shifted his focus to the business world. In his early formation of Team Jordan, His Airness wanted to branch out from creating products solely for basketball, so he signed New York Yankees All-Star shortstop Derek Jeter to represent the brand through baseball and light heavyweight world champion Roy Jones Jr. to represent boxing. For football, Moss was his guy.

Randy Moss of the Minnesota Vikings plays in a preseason game in a pair of Air Jordan Super Freaks.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“I just wanted to pay tribute to Michael,” Moss said. “But at the same time, I looked at the shoes and I was like, ‘Oh, those would look good with my uniform.’ ”

Originally, Jordan Brand’s plan for Moss didn’t include a signature shoe. Instead, he was envisioned as the face of products set to be rolled out as part of a cross-training division. Two factors contributed to a change of plan. First, Humphrey took a look at some of the NFL’s fields and the type of shoes players needed to flourish on them.

“A lot of athletes at the time that were playing on AstroTurf were using basketball shoes,” said Humphrey, who’s now Nike’s vice president of footwear for profile sports. “They were using nubby-bottomed outsoles to really get the traction that they needed on the field. I looked at it as an opportunity to create a new silhouette for training by using that nubby bottom.”

Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe.

The second factor was simple: Randy Moss was too athletic, and too much of a superstar-in-the-making, to not have his own shoe. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Moss gave defenses matchup nightmares. “With 4.25 speed in the 40-yard-dash … an impressive 39-inch vertical leap and huge hands with tentacle-like fingers that rarely drop passes,” is how The Associated PressJim Vertuno put it in 1997. That was the year Moss emerged as a Heisman Trophy finalist at Marshall University with 90 catches for 1,647 yards and a Division I-A single-season record 25 receiving touchdowns. “Nobody,” Ball State coach Bill Lynch said of Moss after he caught five touchdown passes against his team in 1997, “in America can cover him.”

The Minnesota Vikings selected Moss with the No. 21 overall pick in the 1998 draft, and what the franchise quickly realized it got in him was a football player in a basketball player’s body. Before the start of his rookie season in Minnesota, Moss — a two-time basketball Player of the Year at DuPont High School near his hometown of Rand, West Virginia — flirted with the idea of trying out for the Minnesota Timberwolves and eventually playing in both the NFL and NBA. “I don’t think so,” said Vikings president Roger Headrick in June 1998. “Overlapping seasons.”

In his first year of pro football during the 1998-99 season, Moss recorded 69 catches for 1,313 yards (third most in the league behind Green Bay’s Antonio Freeman and Buffalo’s Eric Moulds) while grabbing an NFL rookie-record 17 touchdown passes, earning him a trip to the Pro Bowl and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

“The things that he did on the field, the way he ran past people, the way he caught things,” Humphrey says, “he was like the Michael Jordan at the wide receiver position. I think that was kind of the obvious.”

After that record-setting rookie season, Humphrey and Team Jordan embarked upon the 16- to 18-month development process of Moss’ first shoe, seeking to incorporate every aspect of his life, training habits and style of play into the design. “ ‘All right, Gent! What do we got today?’ ” Humphrey remembers Moss animatedly saying in his Southern accent as he took the wide receiver through initial concepts and updated samples. “It was almost like watching a kid at Christmas … how much fun he had designing his first shoe.”

Moss knew exactly what he wanted to call the shoes he’d soon be donning on the field. “He’s the one that kind of came to us and told us that he had been given the name ‘Super Freak,’ ” Humphrey said. It was a moniker that Moss picked up during his high school days in West Virginia, and one that stuck with him through college and into the NFL.

To personify Moss’ freak-of-nature identity, especially after that otherworldly treadmill workout, Jordan Brand attempted to channel the wide receiver’s blazing speed into the shoe. Moss, in Humphrey’s mind, moved as fast as fire, leading the designer to test a metallic-sheen, flame-retardant material on the Super Freak as a unique play off the patent leather featured on the Air Jordan 11s. Humphrey, who began contributing to Jordan designs in 1990 with the Air Jordan 5, also toyed with a material worn on the uniforms and footwear of race car drivers. But because of bonding issues, neither material made it to final production. After trial and error, Humphrey finally found something with the stability and durability to match the tempo at which Moss moved.

“The great thing about someone who is so frickin’ fast is … we always found ourselves using analogies and inspiration that represented speed to show what Randy was all about,” Humphrey said. “We wanted to provide a product that could ultimately give people a piece of the Randy dream.”

By July 25, 2000, in the brief section of a St. Paul Pioneer Press story published at the start of Minnesota Vikings training camp, the last line read, “Randy Moss debuted his new cleats. The high-topped, black cleats are called the ‘Super Freak.’ They will be commercially available soon.” With the arrival of his first signature shoe, which he wore throughout his 77-catch, 1,437-yard and 15-touchdown 2000-01 season, Moss lived and breathed the “Super Freak” persona that matched his fresh new Air Jordans.

Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss of the NFC runs a pass pattern against the AFC in the 2000 NFL Pro Bowl on Feb. 6, 2000, at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. The NFC defeated the AFC 51-31. (Photo by Martin Morrow/Getty Images)

“I mean, they call me ‘Super Freak,’ ” Moss told a reporter after making a 39-yard game-winning catch in a 31-27 win over the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 22, 2000. “Ain’t nobody out there that can really do it like myself.”


It was Jan. 6, 2001, in an NFC divisional-round playoff matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. For the game, Humphrey designed Moss a custom pair of purple and yellow Air Jordan 11s, with his No. 84 emblazoned on the heel of each shoe. But everywhere Moss turned on the AstroTurf field, a different player was sporting his signature Super Freaks — from his Vikings teammates, most notably veteran wide receiver Cris Carter, to Saints opponents, including wide receivers Joe Horn and Jake Reed, as well as running back/return specialist Chad Morton.

“About eight to nine guys had my Super Freak shoe on,” said Moss. “I’m sitting there thinking like, ‘Wow.’ It was kind of overwhelming to see some of the guys with my shoe.” During an era when Jordan Brand had just begun to expand outside of hoops, Moss had sparked a cultural movement in the NFL that witnessed players taking the field in Jordan cleats on grass and Jordan basketball shoes on AstroTurf.

“He was definitely the right guy for Jordan Brand at the right time,” Humphrey said. Soon, the league witnessed Donovan McNabb, Charles Woodson, Warren Sapp, Marvin Harrison and Michael Vick join the exclusive Air Jordan-rocking football fraternity that Moss founded. Nearly two decades later, that family has grown to include Jamal Adams, Dez Bryant, Corey Coleman, Michael Crabtree, Thomas Davis, Joe Haden, Malik Hooker, Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery, DeShone Kizer, Jalen Ramsey, Jordan Reed, Golden Tate and Earl Thomas as active NFL players endorsed by Jordan Brand.

Yet, Moss still remains in a league of his own as the only football player in history to have his own signature Air Jordans — first with the Super Freak and then with the “Mossified,” released in 2001.

“You still got guys out there wearing Jordans, but it started with me,” Moss said. “I don’t know who it’s going to end with, but I am happy to say that I did start that trend.”

SportsCenter’s ‘Gear Up,’ Week 7: Florida players channel inner Gators with Nike ‘Swamp Green’ alternate Meanwhile, Central Florida reaches for the stars with ‘Space Game’ uniform

In Week 7 of “Gear Up,” SportsCenter’s weekly segment previewing the best uniforms in college football, The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson breaks down the style combinations of Liberty, Campbell, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Florida, James Madison, New Mexico State, Tennessee State, Tulane, Georgia Southern and Central Florida.

Liberty goes all-red, while JMU breaks out the all-white. Campbell represents as the only team in any division of college football with a camel mascot. For Minnesota, Tulane and New Mexico State, it’s all about the helmet. Rocking all-blue, Tennessee State becomes the first historically black college or university to be featured on “Gear Up.” Pittsburgh pays homage to a golden age of football with throwback uniforms while also honoring former Panther and current Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner with a bobblehead. UCF recognizes the school’s connection to the U.S. space exploration program with a “Space Game” uniform. And Florida players become Gators in a “Swamp Green” alternate designed by Nike.

Daily Dose: 10/10/17 Mike Ditka is living in a fantasy world

The last time I was at the White House, it was to hang out at SXSL, President Barack Obama’s innovation conference on the South Lawn. Tuesday, I’ll be there to see the Pittsburgh Penguins meet President Donald Trump. Life changes.

While California has so many perks, the downsides are vicious. Beautiful weather, lovely terrain and generally agreeable people, to a certain extent. But there’s also the ever-present risk of earthquakes and wildfires. Now, in the Northern California wine country, an outbreak of blazes has killed 11 people. Thousands of buildings and acres of property have been damaged since 11 fires started burning. The photos from this disaster are really quite humbling, and officials say it could eventually be the worst in the history of the state.

It always amazes when people expose their own privilege. So when HBO’s Amanda Seales told folks on Twitter that if they’re spending money on Jordans and Nike suits as opposed to a passport that they’re losing, it ruffled some feathers. Why? Because the nonsensical respectability politics that come with this notion that traveling is the only thing that can broaden your horizons are extremely harmful. Not just because how people spend their money is their business, but for very real concerns, otherwise.

You know how people always reference their grandfathers? Typically when bringing up someone with a wildly outdated social view, or a stance that’s so misinformed, you presume they got it from a fake source? Well, Mike Ditka has seemingly become that guy. The old Chicago Bears player, coach and NFL Hall of Famer said in a radio interview that the United States hasn’t seen social oppression in the last 100 years, which is a nice round number to be wrong about on two fronts.

The U.S. men’s national soccer team has another qualifier Tuesday night. Last week, the Americans faced Panama in a game they effectively had to win to keep their chances to get to the next World Cup from being completely distant, and they won. So, in Tuesday night’s tilt against Trinidad and Tobago, the stakes are still high. If they win, they’re in the World Cup. Alas, there’s one problem. The field is absolute garbage. The stadium was flooded by storms, and that’s when all the finger-pointing began. The team isn’t using that as an excuse, though.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Nintendo’s new classic SNES console features a couple of dozen games and is a good enough retro toy for most people to cop and play with on their own, sans adjustments. But some folks always want to take things to the next level, and it turns out that hacking those modules is easier than you might think.

Snack Time: Gilbert Arenas is always involved in some foolishness, and his latest stunt with Mia Khalifa is exactly that. He aired her out over a DM slide, which is so petty and pointless.

Dessert: Here’s the official trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I don’t love it, but it’s just a trailer.

The NFL without Odell There’s no Plan B for replacing one of the most recognizable stars in the world in the league’s biggest media market

It was written all over Odell Beckham Jr.’s face. He didn’t have to say a word. His fractured ankle — suffered in Sunday’s 27-22 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, which dropped a decrepit New York Giants squad to 0-5 on the season — will require surgery. Beckham tallied 97 yards on five catches and one touchdown before going down. In what could be his final 2017 image, the league’s most dynamic talent sat demoralized on the back of a cart in tears.

The NFL has many faces. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling. The owners’ resistance to Kaepernick’s impact. Von Miller’s eccentricity. Ezekiel Elliott’s future. Cam Newton’s drama. The New England Patriots’ dominance. Marshawn Lynch’s silence. But Beckham is the face of fun (“fun” being subjective in this case) in a billion-dollar league with very serious — mental health, domestic violence, First Amendment, chronic traumatic encephalopathy — issues.

The loss of Beckham is a hit stick to the league’s cultural capital. He’s set to cash in more than $10 million in endorsements. Nike can’t be too happy: In May, the company and Beckham came to terms on the richest shoe deal in NFL history — nearly $5 million a year for five years. Beckham’s wardrobe, the football equivalent of Russell Westbrook’s, makes nearly as many headlines as the wind sprints, acrobatic one-hand catches and intricate end zone routines that could moonlight as music videos.

Beckham is the most followed NFL player on Instagram, with more than 9 million followers. For context, Miller, J.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Newton have 1.2 million, 2.8 million, 2.8 million, 3.1 million and 3.9 million followers, respectively.

In a quarterback-driven league where fan loyalty largely resides with the entire team, Beckham is an individual, non-quarterback star (like Randy Moss before him) whose brand is just as much about name on the back of his jersey (fourth overall in 2016 sales) as the team logo on his helmet. Beckham’s social media influence is huge — he’s the most followed NFL player on Instagram with more than 9 million followers. For context, Miller, J.J. Watt, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Newton have 1.2 million, 2.8 million, 2.8 million, 3.1 million and 3.9 million followers, respectively. With 55 percent of all 18- to 29-year-olds in America on Instagram, Beckham’s appeal to the younger crowd separates himself from his peers.

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On his off days, Beckham is a regular fixture at NBA games. He has the respect of LeBron James. Kaepernick, too. He’s won the adoration of Drake (and likely a spare set of keys to his mansion). He even, allegedly, friend-zoned Rihanna. He texts Michael Jordan. He takes selfies with Beyoncé and rubs shoulders with an even more famous Beckham — David. And Beckham’s cleats are always in. He shifts the culture by driving it, which is why his injury affects NFL culture far beyond the Giants’ red zone offense.

The Giants’ season had effectively been in rice for weeks. But the loss of Beckham means the loss of one of football’s most popular ambassadors at a time when America’s most popular sport is in the crosshairs of societal debates that the president weighs in on almost daily. While Beckham’s attitude has long been perceived by some as a character’s most notorious flaw, his impact on the sport is felt leaguewide. “I would be remiss not to acknowledge how engaging and professional Odell [Beckham Jr.] was during the entire week of the Pro Bowl,” NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said in February. “By far and away, he represented the New York Football Giants and the NFL with great poise, congeniality and professionalism.”


Max blasts Giants for OBJ injury

Beckham’s fractured ankle, the same one he injured in a preseason game versus the Cleveland Browns, is likely the bookend to his turbulent 2017. The year, of course, began with Beckham, Victor Cruz and several other Giants partying on a yacht in Miami with Trey Songz.

The January boat party followed a playoff-clinching win over the Washington Redskins, and Beckham was largely blamed for the team’s lackluster postseason exit a week later against the Green Bay Packers — for what it’s worth, and as far as the mood on Twitter, the Giants haven’t won a game since. Then, in July, Beckham, who reached 3,500 yards faster than any receiver in league history, declared he wanted to be not only the league’s highest-paid receiver but the highest paid player, “period.” And just last month during a game versus the Philadelphia Eagles, Beckham critics feverishly salivated at the opportunity to throw him under the bus after a touchdown celebration in which he mimicked a dog urinating in the end zone. Beckham revealed later that the celebration was a response to President Donald Trump’s “son of a b—-” statement. After his second touchdown in that game, to far less fanfare and debate, Beckham raised his fist. Except for Kaepernick and maybe Lynch, there is no more polarizing NFL personality than Beckham. The conversation around him never stops. The goalposts just shift in a league that served up the following just on Sunday:

In a long-planned move, Vice President Mike Pence walked out of the Indianapolis Colts-San Francisco 49ers game as several members of the Niners kneeled during the national anthem. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lashed out after his team’s 35-31 loss to the Packers by saying that any member of the team to “disrespect” the flag would not play. Miami Dolphins offensive line coach Chris Foerster was seen snorting a white substance in a video posted on Facebook by a woman Foerster was confessing his love to. The Tennessee Titans denied Kaepernick a tryout after a hamstring injury to its starting quarterback, Marcus Mariota, opting instead for unsigned journeyman Brandon Weeden. Houston Texans superstar defensive lineman Watt suffered a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg. Meanwhile, after a week of self-inflicted controversy, Carolina Panthers star quarterback Newton pieced together a second consecutive MVP-like performance with 355 yards and three touchdowns versus the Detroit Lions.

In quarterback-driven league and where fan loyalty is to teams, Beckham is the rare individual non-quarterback star (like Randy Moss before him).

And then: “I knew it was bad,” Giants tight end Evan Engram said about Beckham’s injury after the game. “Bad” is an understatement. Beckham’s ankle headlines a decimated Giants receiving corps that had the makings of quite possibly the best in football. Both Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard were ruled out of the second half of Sunday’s game with ankle injuries. Per Adam Schefter, Dwayne Harris’ fractured foot will end his season. Sunday’s setback also destroys Beckham’s quest for a fourth consecutive Pro Bowl and 1,000-yard season and the pipe dream of exorcising the demons of playoffs past. It complicates an already foggy contract situation too. Down their best offensive player, the Giants lose their most marketable face, with two prime-time games still left on the schedule, in a season on pace to go down as one of the worst comedy of errors in team history.

For the NFL, it’s a season in which the biggest headlines come from the sidelines, and the Oval Office. The season isn’t even halfway over and its traffic jam of moral dilemmas, including the saga of Kaepernick’s quest to return, dominate discussion. Which is why the NFL without Beckham is a blow it could ill afford. There’s no Plan B for replacing one of the most recognizable stars in the world in the league’s biggest media market. There’s no way to re-create that cocktail of production, swag and divisiveness that comes from the former LSU standout. The NFL is in a position it’s become all too familiar with in recent years — although Beckham’s injury is, of course, beyond its control — behind the eight ball.

As Beckham was carted off the field Sunday, towel over his head to mask the pain, he again didn’t have to say a word. One of his famous friends already had, fittingly on a song called “Do Not Disturb”: They tell me I need recovery/ Maybe gettin’ back to my regular life will humble me/ I’ll be back in 2018 to give you the summary.