Over All-Star break, the NBA is on the ground doing good work in Los Angeles Community efforts to impact youth and families in L.A.

This year’s All-Star Weekend is a family affair for the NBA, which will be spreading a message of unity, hope, solidarity and change in its host city of Los Angeles. From Thursday through Sunday, the league is sending more than 3,000 volunteers into the City of Angels with more than 30 outreach programs and events.

“It’s the most important time of the year, when you can get everybody together,” said Todd Jacobson, the NBA’s senior vice president of social responsibility. “Obviously, NBA All-Star is a celebration, but the ability for us to utilize it as a platform to give back, to use a sport that brings people together, is just incredible. For years, really, the primary program or highlight for us has been our NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, which takes place on Friday. We have more than 1,500 volunteers coming out. We’ll be building a playground, we’ll be packing more than 240,000 pounds of food with a food bank, packing supplies and needs for Baby2Baby, which helps provide essentials for families in need. And it just continues to be such a great platform to tip off the weekend.”

Events will include the NBA All-Star Fit Celebration, the 11th annual NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service, Jr. NBA Day, the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game and Building Bridges Through Basketball, among many more.

NBA Cares, the league’s global social responsibility program, will host service projects, basketball clinics and games, and fitness and nutritional activities.

“We tipped it off in 2008. We’ve built more than 90 places now where kids and families can live, learn or play during our NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service,” Jacobson said. “So it’s just a special way to bring people together and celebrate the game and really use it as a point for inclusion and making sure that we are having the largest impact possible.”

The league’s NBA Voices initiative addresses social injustice and bridges divides in communities.

“From an NBA Voices perspective, which is a platform we launched on MLK Day, we’ve had close to 300 events and activities that have taken place over the course of the better of about 18 months now,” Jacobson said. “It actually tipped off here in Los Angeles when Carmelo Anthony helped lead the efforts working with the USA Basketball men’s and women’s Olympic teams. So it’s really terrific to be back here and continuing to have that dialogue, and really helping and utilizing our position to help bring people together.”

This year, through NBA Voices, the league will rally Los Angeles youths, community leaders, law enforcement, and NBA and WNBA players and executives for an in-depth conversation about today’s social climate.

Jr. NBA, the league’s youth basketball participation program, is set to engage more than 2,000 youths in basketball clinics and competitions. The Jr. NBA is focused on helping grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents. The program offers a free curriculum covering all levels of the game that includes more than 250 instructional videos featuring NBA and WNBA players.

“I think the most important thing we can do is we just want to be part of the community, working with our teams that do so much during the year, the Clippers and the Lakers and all the community partners that we’ve worked with,” Jacobson said.

Here is this year’s schedule of events:


NBA Cares All-Star Community Events:

  • Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Visit (Thursday):
    • Members of the NBA family will visit the hospital and enjoy games and crafts with young patients and their families.
  • NBA All-Star FIT Celebration (Thursday):
    • The NBA, Kaiser Permanente and After-School All-Stars will unveil a newly refurbished fitness center at Alliance Gertz-Ressler/Richard Merkin 6-12 Complex. NBA and WNBA players and legends will join students in fitness and nutritional activities focused on the total health of mind, body and spirit.
  • Community Conversation (Thursday):
    • In partnership with Brotherhood Crusade and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association will bring together local youths, law enforcement and community leaders for a discussion addressing the challenges facing their community and ways to build trust.
  • NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service (Friday):
    • Current and former NBA and WNBA players, coaches, partners and celebrities will lead three service projects with support from Nike, SAP and State Farm. In partnership with KaBOOM!, members of the NBA family will construct a student-designed playground at Jefferson Elementary School. Other volunteers will join Baby2Baby to package donations for children living in poverty. At the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, packed donations will go to local seniors in need.
  • NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game (Saturday):
    • NBA and WNBA players and legends will join 12 Special Olympics athletes from Los Angeles and around the world for a clinic and demonstration game at the Los Angeles Convention Center (LACC).
  • Building Bridges Through Basketball (Saturday):
  • Hoops For Troops (Thursday-Sunday):
    • The NBA will partner with the USO and Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors to host special experiences for military service members, their families and the families of fallen service members at NBA All-Star’s marquee events, including a visit to the Bob Hope USO Center.
  • Make-A-Wish (Thursday-Sunday):
    • The NBA will grant the wishes of eight Make-A-Wish kids with critical illnesses in Los Angeles. The kids and their families will enjoy several days of fun events and life-changing experiences, including meet-and-greets with NBA All-Stars, State Farm All-Star Saturday Night participants, and NBA and WNBA legends.

Jr. NBA schedule:

Events will include clinics, tournaments and educational sessions that teach the values and fundamentals of the game. All events and clinics will take place at LACC on courts provided by SnapSports.

  • NBA Day (Friday):
    • In partnership with Under Armour, more than 1,500 local youths will participate in a series of basketball clinics alongside NBA All-Stars and Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars players.
  • Gatorade Jr. NBA All-Star Invitational (Saturday-Sunday):
    • Sixteen boys and girls middle school basketball teams, which advanced from preliminary tournaments in January, will play in the Gatorade Jr. NBA All-Star Invitational single-elimination quarterfinal and semifinal rounds on Saturday and the championship games on Sunday.
  • NBA Skills Challenge (Saturday-Sunday):
    • More than 500 participants will compete for a chance to advance to the national finals of the Jr. NBA Skills Challenge, which will be held in New York in June. The Jr. NBA Skills Challenge is a national competition that provides boys and girls ages 9-13 the opportunity to showcase fundamental skills through dribbling, shooting and rebounding competitions.
  • NBA Coaches Forum (Sunday):
    • In partnership with Positive Coaching Alliance, A Call to Men, Athlete Ally and the Human Rights Campaign, the Jr. NBA will host a coaches forum to educate and support nearly 100 local coaches in developing young athletes of character. NBA and WNBA legends will discuss teamwork, diversity and inclusion.
  • NBA Clinic for LAPD and LAFD First Responders (Sunday):
    • In partnership with the LAPD and Los Angeles Fire Department, the Jr. NBA will host a Jr. NBA basketball clinic for first responders and their families at LACC. NBA legends will join participants for on-court skills and drills.

The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley


Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.


“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”


“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas


Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ9WdCunvy8

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”


“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

Who is the best Black Marvel character?

Who is the best Black Marvel character?

1 Black Panther

16 Nick Fury

7 Monica Rambeau

10 Cloak

3 Luke Cage

14 Shuri

5 War Machine

12 Moon Girl

Storm 2

Bishop 15

Blade 8

Misty Knight 9

Miles Morales 4

Doctor Voodoo 13

Sam Wilson 6

Riri Williams 11

UPDATED: FEB. 12 | 7:45 A.M.

UPDATED: FEB. 12 | 7:45 A.M.

The Competition

(top, left to right) Black Panther, Storm, Luke Cage, Miles Morales, War Machine, Sam Wilson, Monica Rambeau, Blade, Misty Knight, Cloak, Riri Williams, Moon Girl, Doctor Voodoo, Shuri, Bishop, Nick Fury

The heavens have opened, the choirs are singing and clapping, and the parade of happy black and brown faces is making its way from the cookout to the movie theater. It’s practically the modern-day version of The Wiz’s “Everybody Rejoice” out there.

What’s the cause for all of this celebration? Well, after waiting for what’s felt like eons and obsessing over every new teaser, trailer and GIF we could find, the release of Marvel’s Black Panther is finally here.

In preparation for what could be the blackest and nerdiest moment in the history of blacks and nerds, we got to thinking in the particular way that nerds do. Among the pantheon of black comic book characters, who could beat who in a fight? Instead of deciding for ourselves, we’re going to let you, the fans, decide in our Who is the best Black Marvel character? bracket. For the sake of staying on theme with Black Panther, all 16 of the bracket’s entrants come from the Marvel Universe and were seeded using a system based on their popularity, fighting abilities and prevalence in both comic books and film/television.

The power is yours from now through Thursday. Cast your vote on each round of matchups to help decide the ultimate Marvel bracket winner.

Biographies Ordered by seed

Black Panther (1)

Height:
6’0”
Weight:
200 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #52 (1996)
Powers:
Unarmed combat; vibranium-laced suit; catlike reflexes and senses
Backstory:
T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, is both Marvel’s first black superhero and the first American comic book hero of African descent. Black Panther, who predates the Black Panther Party, battled the Ku Klux Klan in 1975’s The Panther vs. the Klan.

Storm (2)

Height:
5’11”
Weight:
127 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975)
Powers:
Manipulation of weather; wind-assisted flight; skilled lock-breaking
Backstory:
Ororo Munroe, a descendant of African royalty and part-time leader of fabled group the X-Men, evolved from homeless thief to commander of weather and, through her marriage to Black Panther, the queen of Wakanda.

Luke Cage (3)

Height:
6’6”
Weight:
425 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Hero for Hire #1 (1972)
Powers:
Superhuman strength, unbreakable skin, expedited healing
Backstory:
Born Carl Lucas in Harlem, New York, Cage was arrested after police found planted heroin in his apartment. While in prison, Cage was the test subject of a botched cell regeneration science experiment that led to him accidentally being given enhanced strength and nearly impenetrable skin.

Miles Morales (4)

Height:
5’8”
Weight:
160 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Ultimate Fallout #4 (2011)
Powers:
Spider-senses; wall-crawling; super strength; web-shooters
Backstory:
Brooklyn-born Miles Morales, a 13-year-old child of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, assumed the mantle of Spider-Man in 2011 after being bitten by a radioactive spider and after the “death” of the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker.

War Machine (5)

Height:
6’1”
Weight:
210 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Iron Man #118 (1979)
Powers:
Iron Man armor, cybernetic limbs, unparalleled piloting skills
Backstory:
James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a U.S. Marine, is a close friend of Tony Stark’s — otherwise known as Iron Man. While Stark recovers from alcoholism, Rhodes takes on the Iron Man name before eventually being given a suit of armor of his own, named the War Machine.

Sam Wilson (6)

Height:
6’2”
Weight:
240 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Captain America #117 (1969)
Powers:
Telepathy; wing-assisted flight
Backstory:
Wilson, better known as the Falcon, regularly fought alongside Steve Rogers/Captain America to combat crime in New York City. Wilson took over the Captain America role on more than one occasion: once when Rogers was “killed” and the other when Rogers was aged to that of an elderly man.

Monica Rambeau (7)

Height:
5’10”
Weight:
130 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982)
Powers:
Exceptional gun skills, electromagnetic transformation, light-speed flight
Backstory:
A former New Orleans law enforcement lieutenant, Rambeau took over the Captain Marvel (also a Brie Larson-helmed movie slated for 2019) mantle in 1982’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, becoming the first woman and (only) African-American to use the Captain Marvel moniker.

Blade (8)

Height:
6’2”
Weight:
215 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Tomb of Dracula Vol. 1 #10 (1973)
Powers:
Ageless; superhuman strength and stamina; martial arts expertise
Backstory:
The London-born Eric Brooks is the son of a woman who, during childbirth, was bitten by a vampire, thus passing on the abilities and strengths of vampires with few of the weaknesses. Blade turned to fighting other vampires and the undead after the death of his close friend, musician Jamal Afari.

Misty Knight (9)

Height:
5’9”
Weight:
136 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Marvel Team-Up #1 (1972)
Powers:
Bionic arm; outstanding markswoman; skilled martial artist
Backstory:
Mercedes “Misty” Knight is a former member of the New York Police Department who, while trying to dispose of a bomb before it detonated, had her right arm amputated after the explosion. Through Tony Stark, Knight was given a new, bionic arm, which she used to fight crime with partner Colleen Wing.

Cloak (10)

Height:
5’9”
Weight:
155 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #64 (1982)
Powers:
Manipulation of darkness; teleportation; life force absorbance
Backstory:
Tyrone Johnson, a South Boston native who fled to New York City after the police-involved shooting death of a close friend, was, along with female friend Tandy Bowen, aka Dagger, injected with a synthetic drug, giving him the appearance of a shadowy darkness.

Riri Williams (11)

Height:
5’2”
Weight:
100 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2 #7 (2016)
Powers:
Iron Man armor; advanced intelligence
Backstory:
Williams grew up in Chicago, where, at a young age, she was determined to be a supergenius, allowing her to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at just 15 years old. In her spare time, Williams created her own version of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor using material she could find. Eventually, Williams took over for Stark, becoming the Ironheart.

Moon Girl (12)

Height:
3’9”
Weight:
48 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1 (2016)
Powers:
Advanced intelligence; able to swap consciousness with Devil Dinosaur; enhanced strength
Backstory:
Lunella Lafayette, a 9-year-old elementary school student from Manhattan, is given the disparaging nickname “Moon Girl” by her classmates after a debate with her schoolteacher. Lafayette shares a bond with Tyrannosaurus rex-like mutant Devil Dinosaur.

Doctor Voodoo (13)

Height:
6’0”
Weight:
220 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Strange Tales #169 (1973)
Powers:
Control of fire; command over animals
Backstory:
Jericho Drumm, a Haitian who eventually immigrated to the United States, gained the powers of Doctor Voodoo, a powerful 17th-century lord, after the death of his brother, Daniel. A voodoo teacher fused the spirits of Jericho and Daniel, leading Doctor Voodoo to use his powers to help others, including Spider-Man and Black Panther.

Shuri (14)

Height:
5’9”
Weight:
150 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Black Panther Vol. 4 #2 (2005)
Powers:
Vibranium claws; transmorphic; skin that turns to stone
Backstory:
The younger sister of T’Challa, Shuri is the heiress to the Wakandan throne. During 2009’s Black Panther Vol. 5, a trained fighter like her older brother, took over as the Black Panther while T’Challa recovered from critical injuries suffered in a plane crash.

Bishop (15)

Height:
6’6”
Weight:
275 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Uncanny X-Men #282 (1991)
Powers:
Energy absorption; exceptional marksman; energy-fused blaster
Backstory:
Lucas Bishop was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a “alternate future timeline” where virtually all of the X-Men have been destroyed. Along with his sister, Shard, Bishop joins a ragtag group of mutants named the Xavier Security Enforcers (X.S.E), who work to create harmony between mutants and humans.

Nick Fury (16)

Height:
6’1”
Weight:
221 lbs.
First Marvel Appearance:
Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (1963)
Powers:
Decelerated aging; Special Forces training; black belt in taekwondo
Backstory:
The original character of Nicholas Joseph Fury was a white World War II hero and leader of superhero intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., but comic book duo Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch turned him into a Samuel L. Jackson lookalike in 2002’s The Ultimates’ limited run.

Sweet 16 Voting Ends Today at 6 p.m. EST

Matchup 1/8 Black Panther vs. Nick Fury

The likely favorite going into this historic first matchup would likely be T’Challa, king of Wakanda and the hero known far and wide as the Black Panther. Because of his prestigious titles, he has access to more resources than anyone can properly measure as ruler of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world. He just so happens to also have superhuman strength, speed and agility. Combining these with his superior intellect and money makes him a near-perfect superhero.

Not that T’Challa’s opponent this round should be taken lightly, though. Nick Fury may not be royalty, but he is the commander of an army all his own as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., a worldwide spy agency that protects the world from domestic, international and alien threats. Fury may not have the ability to run as fast as a car or jump from one skyscraper to the next, but he can likely find a soldier or two under his command who can and will gladly do it for him.

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Matchup 2/8 Storm vs. Bishop

This matchup pits two characters most commonly associated with X-Men titles against each other, as Storm faces Bishop.

Storm, aka Ororo Munroe, is considered by many to be a goddess. The child of an African priestess and an American journalist, Storm inherited an ability to control the weather, including the ability to wield lightning, bring down heavy rains and whip up winds to hurricane-level speeds. With the use of her own ingenuity and understanding of weather patterns, Storm has used these skills to become one of the most powerful members of any group she’s been a part of — X-Men or no.

While a hit from a quick bolt of lightning would be enough to leave most of Storm’s opponents incapacitated, if not worse, Bishop has a clear advantage: the ability to absorb and disseminate energy. Does that include lightning? We’ll have to wait and see.

It also doesn’t hurt that he was born 80 years in the future into a world where the X-Men are no more and most mutants live in concentration camps. His experiences in this postapocalyptic world, knowledge of warfare and ability to produce energy blasts could work in his favor as he battles his former teacher.

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Matchup 3/8 Luke Cage vs. Shuri

Despite what the rankings suggest, this matchup is extremely close on paper. Luke Cage is a household name after appearing in multiple Netflix’s Marvel television series, including his very own. It wasn’t hard in this day and age for fans to gravitate toward a hero who’s literally a bulletproof black man with super strength. He gives pretty much anyone a tough time in a fight because he’s basically a walking, talking tank. But his opponent in this round has a few tricks for him.

If you think T’Challa is something serious, wait until you find out about his sister, Shuri. Shuri was already just as capable as her brother as a fighter, technological genius and ruler (if not more so.) She even filled in as Black Panther for a brief period. But Shuri’s gotten a serious upgrade recently in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run after returning from an alternate realm called the Djalia. She now has the ability to turn herself into stone and a giant flock of crows whenever she pleases. So she could potentially make herself as hard as stone and hit Luke with weapons made from one of the hardest substances on the planet AT THE SAME TIME.

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Matchup 4/8 Miles Morales vs. Doctor Voodoo

This bout brings science and mysticism to blows. Miles Morales, much like his predecessor, Peter Parker, developed superpowers after being bitten by a scientifically modified spider. He has the same powers as Parker, including super strength, the ability to stick to walls and that trusty “spider-sense” that warns him of danger. But as the new and improved Spider-Man, Morales also has a venom blast that can shock and paralyze opponents and the ability to camouflage himself into invisibility.

Doctor Voodoo, formerly known as Brother Voodoo, may have what it takes to give Miles a run for his money, though. Jericho Drumm can possibly equalize most of Miles’ abilities with his manipulation of smoke and fire to both hinder his vision and prevent him from getting close enough for a finishing blow. There’s also that whole spiritual possession thing he can do for an unpredictable X-factor.

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Matchup 5/8 War Machine vs. Moon Girl

War Machine got a lot of flak for basically being Tony Stark’s sidekick who only got his start with Iron Man’s glorified hand-me-downs. This isn’t untrue, but it’s not completely fair to forget that these “hand-me-downs” are composed of some of the most advanced and capable weapons on the planet created by one of the world’s most genius geniuses. In other words, James “Rhodey” Rhodes is a walking arsenal with enough artillery to take out a medium-sized army on his own. Only questions are (1) Is he willing to use all firepower against a preteen? and (2) Will they work against a dinosaur?

These are questions Lunella Lafayette, aka Moon Girl, and her partner Devil Dinosaur are going to find the answers to in this matchup. While War Machine utilizes technology from one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, Lunella owns one of the greatest minds the world has ever known and a dinosaur she can move that mind into thanks to her inhuman DNA. Brawn, meet a highly superior intellect. Brain, meet a prehistoric killing machine.

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Matchup 6/8 Sam Wilson vs. Riri Williams

This matchup is likely to be the first time many readers are introduced to Riri Williams, the heir apparent to Tony Stark’s Iron Man technology after Rhodey’s passing and Tony being taken out of the picture for a while. Williams may be new to her role in the world of superheroes, but she’s definitely capable of holding her own.

Having a suit of armor is one thing. But having the genius-level intellect to use it and a built-in artificial intelligence based on Tony Stark himself could be just enough to give her an edge.

On the other hand, Sam Wilson is a seasoned veteran in the ways of superheroes and even spent a couple of years serving as the Captain America while Steve Rogers was out of commission. This battle is likely to take place in the sky, as both have no problem with flight, which could be costly for Riri given Sam’s ability to mentally connect with birds. The numbers could stack up against her in a matter of minutes if she isn’t careful.

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Matchup 7/8 Monica Rambeau vs. Cloak

This may be the battle we don’t deserve this soon. But we’re not going to complain because the idea of someone who can manipulate light and energy, Monica Rambeau, fighting someone who can control darkness, Cloak, is always welcome.

Monica Rambeau is a [constantly slept-on] hero who has a list of abilities longer than the Celtics’ win streak to start the 2017-18 season. She’s got your superhero basics like flight and super speed, but she also comes with the unique abilities to absorb, duplicate and fire energy and to make herself both invisible and intangible. Good luck trying to hit something you can’t see or, you know, hit.

Part of Monica’s abilities are a result of her connections to an alternate universe, which may work in the favor of her opponent, Cloak, who also gets his powers from a similar circumstance. Because of his connection to the Dark Dimension, Cloak can teleport, make himself intangible and completely flood his environment with darkness. Honestly, this matchup could end up in a stalemate and it would be entirely understandable.

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Matchup 8/8 Blade vs. Misty Knight

We have Ms. Mercedes “Misty” Knight versus the daywalker. One is a human-vampire hybrid who seemingly has the best assets from both worlds: super strength, an increased healing factor and the ability to live freely in the sunlight. The other is a skilled detective with a bionic arm.

Both are trained martial artists with the ability to land devastating blows because of their enhancements, whether they be vampiric or cybernetic. Comic book fans are more than likely familiar with Blade’s combat work (in other words, his tendency to hit professional wrestling moves and bring on Mortal Kombat fatalities with ease). But they may be surprised to know that Misty Knight is honestly just as capable as fan favorites like Black Widow, if not more so, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat and the use of weaponry.

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King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.


Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

Angela Bassett is a queen in ‘Black Panther’ — and Hollywood ‘I’m grounded in where I came from — where we all come from — and what we all possess within us’

At the Hollywood premiere of Black Panther, when Angela Bassett came out, applause erupted and nearly everyone inside of the Dolby Theatre jumped to their feet as she shimmied across the stage in a sunshine-yellow fringed Naeem Khan jumpsuit.

The queen — our queen — had arrived. Bassett was crowned the grand dame of black Hollywood 25 years ago after turning in a magnificent performance as the legendary Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, a role for which she rightly earned an Oscar nomination. And quite frankly, she’s nailed every other role we’ve seen her in — The Jacksons: An American Dream, Malcolm X, Panther, Waiting to Exhale, Akeelah and the Bee, Notorious, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Rosa Parks Story, Mr. 3000, Close to the Enemy, Chi-Raq — and so many more.

Bassett, at 59, is one of the film community’s most regal actors, and now she portrays Queen Ramonda, the mother of Marvel’s Black Panther. Bassett is also holding it down weekly on Fox’s recently renewed 9-1-1 as Athena Grant, a Los Angeles Police Department patrol sergeant. And she’s got more projects — such as the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War and Mission Impossible: Fallout — on the way. We talk with one of the best working actors in all of Hollywood.


What’s up with you trying to dominate the small screen and the big screen at the same damn time?!

Just a fortunate accident! And I will take that any year, any day. I knew everyone would talk about Black Panther, so it’s built in. Those fans, they’re loyal and they’ve been waiting forever for this day, for T’Challa, for Black Panther to dominate, to come on the scene. 9-1-1, it’s just a faith wall. I didn’t know what it would be, or how it would connect, but it’s thrilling that those things have dovetailed. It’s nothing that I’ve planned. It’s really just me going about the work, because you don’t know how it’s going to ultimately connect with an audience, so you just have to enjoy the process, be drawn to the script, to the character, to the folks that you’ll be working with. It’s long days and nights. It takes time away from family if you have one. Having kids and a family, you can feel a bit guilty being away. So you just got to love what you do, so that translates to them, that hopefully they see the passion I have for what I do. And hopefully they’ll discover their own passion. That’s how I get through it.

What’s Love Got to Do With It was a big moment, but the role-calls weren’t so immediate after the Oscar nomination. It feels like you have choices now. At this point in your career, what keeps you hungry?

I still enjoy what I do. I still love it. I still appreciate finding, working with, discovering new voices and younger talents. All of that keeps it fresh and vital for me.

What made you want to do another television series?

The storyline is fascinating, titillating, tantalizing. Just a little different from what we think we know, from what we think we’ve seen before.

“The last time I felt that proud was the making of Malcolm X.”

Did you have to transform yourself physically for 9-1-1?

You have to because they give me a police uniform, but they taper it to make it look good! I wasn’t asked to, but personally I felt like the role had the potential to be physically demanding. I don’t want to be that stereotypical cop with the doughnuts!

Both roles are so important in their own right. To see a black woman who is a police officer, who is going through an upheaval in her life while saving the day. And then to have a woman who is the mother of the man who is saving the world — two very important moments happening, and you’re at the center of both of them.

It’s a very powerful image to have a black woman highlighted in a real way, on both large screen and small screen. I recognize that, and always do. It’s a moment where everything comes to bear. My passion, my career, my interests, my history, and the image. I’m always very conscious of … how it comes across. But I don’t know if I [should say] that, because that’s just too righteous. I just want to do good work. I just want to continue working and just continue putting out a good product.

What is the key to your consistency?

I think maybe it’s training? It’s … a gift, and training. And gratitude. Never taking it for granted. Never just showing up thinking: That’s enough. Being willing and wanting to put in whatever work is required, whatever’s necessary.

How do you hope that these roles — individually, and maybe together — fit into the legacy you’ve already established?

I hope that it will just continue to build on it — it’s not the end. That I’m still somewhere in the middle of it! But I hope that we’ll continue that whenever you hear that I’m going to be in something — be part of a project — that it will be one of quality and substance. And maybe if you look, there’s a message of some sort, some positivity in there somewhere. That’s not saying that every character must be sterling and beyond reproach, but there is a message of hope and resilience … there at its core.

How do you process what everyone else sees? When we talk about this regalness that you embody and bring to not only a role, but just in your being?

Your going through all that just put a knot in my stomach! I appreciate it. That’s how I process: I appreciate it, because it is positive. And I understand the way women of color have been viewed, or thought of — our position. So I appreciate it greatly. But I am that girl that grew up in the projects of St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m grounded in where I came from — where we all come from — and what we all possess within us. I just remain humble about it. And appreciative of it. And just keep going, and keep loving. Because I love where I’m from, I love my community, and I think that comes across. I hope that comes across. I’m a real colored girl.

I spent some time on the Black Panther set. It was one of the most authentically black and coolest set visits I’ve ever been on. What was it like for you actually shooting?

It was so fulfilling and uplifting. It was a point of deep, deep pride in what we were doing. The story. How we’re doing it. The professionalism of the creative individuals. From directing the set, to acting, the crew. It was black. And the last time I felt that proud was during the making of Malcolm X. We all had this immense pride as we came to work every day, just waiting to throw down the way we know we can do. And doing it with such style. In Black Panther, we had a big scene on a mountaintop, over the falls, and hundreds of black extras just dressed in the African regalia and garb, and drums just playing while we’re waiting for the big setup. And we can’t help but move and sway and shout. It was so connected to where our ancestors are from. It was amazing. Once those drums started, not knowing each other’s names, it was just such a familiarity. It was powerful.

“I am that girl that grew up in the projects of St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m grounded in where I came from — where we all come from — and what we all possess within us.”

You’ve been part of our collective consciousness since 1991 with Boyz n the Hood. How have you stayed atop the Hollywood wave?

Stay up. Stay up about yourself, about your gift, about what you have to offer, about what you have to bring to the table. Stay positive about that, because the careers, they end and they chill. They’re hot and they’re warm. They cool off a bit, they stay warm. And they can always break and be hot again. But stay ready, stay engaged and stay enthused. Hold on to that, because a lot about life can test you.

This is a milestone year for you. What would make this a successful 2018?

The Black Panther busting expectations, surpassing expectations. Mission: Impossible coming out, doing well. And 9-1-1 being successful. I’m hoping that wave continues to swell. Some directing in there, so I’m not too busy acting. A little bit of that, and just always back to the family, you know? Watching these kids grow up and thrive.

You took your children to their first premiere — and it was Black Panther. Why did you pick that project for them to see?

Well, you know, it’s — the black kids and the black mama. It’s a beautiful world. It’s … so powerful. It’s … such an event. There’s such enthusiasm about this story. Our story and our image. And not as supporting players. The hero. Heroic. I wanted them to see that. I’m always trying to put them in situations where they can be proud of everyone, but especially proud of themselves.

Philly’s post-Super Bowl ‘celebration’ was really a riot If the crowd were majority black, the world would’ve responded very differently

The United States of America’s attitude toward black people is best described with one word: violence. The coded language used in most public settings about African-Americans is typically slanted so heavily toward describing our basic human nature as aggressive and problematic that many people don’t even realize how ingrained this concept is in society.

It’s why police officers shoot our children when unarmed. It’s why much of America is trained to believe that when it comes to dealing with law enforcement, complete compliance is a reasonable rule of engagement in a so-called civilized society. But the truth is that those tacit regulations really only apply to us.

People carry a broken pole while celebrating the Philadelphia Eagles victory in Super Bowl LII game against the New England Patriots on Feb. 5 in Philadelphia.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

Nowhere was this more evident than in Philadelphia this week, when after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, fans of the team rioted and destroyed a decent amount of property, an ugly tradition that quite a few fan bases have taken to participating in over the years. It’s stupid. It’s scary and it’s destructive, but for some reason, that word “riot” rarely makes its way into headlines. Why? Because for white people in America, property damage is considered a reasonable rite of celebration.

“Trayvon Martin had his life taken because a self-appointed mall cop effectively viewed his blackness as a threat. Meanwhile, white boys are turning over cars because the team they root for finally won a Super Bowl.”

Think about how police mobilized in Ferguson, Missouri, when communities marched peacefully to protest their treatment by law enforcement. Authorities showed up with military-grade equipment and ammunition to deal with the problem. The images of tanks rolling through St. Louis County are now forever burned in our brains, a non-subtle reminder that we could pay the ultimate price, at any moment, for insubordination.

“Philadelphia is cleaning up after its late-night street celebrations, where some overzealous fans smashed windows, climbed traffic lights and trashed some convenience stores,” one tweet from the Associated Press read. As if the situation that unfolded in the streets was just a pillow fight gone awry. In reality, large groups of thugs actively destroyed anything they could get their hands on. Department store windows were smashed. An awning of a hotel was destroyed when people decided to climb on top of it. In short, it was chaos. All over a football team.

Why does this matter? Because the language we use to describe our actions as humans is important. Framing is important, and if we’re to consider ourselves to be living in a fair world, you can’t just stand by when things go foul and no one is accountable. And it extends beyond just rowdy postgame antics — it colors almost everything about how we view athletes as well.

When Tom Brady exits a game without the customary postgame handshakes for opponents, the spin is that he’s a dogged competitor who just hates losing. If Cam Newton did that? There’d be no shortage of people lined up to castigate him for being disrespectful.

All these extensions of the “stay in your place” mentality are exactly why people like Colin Kaepernick and Chris Long are doing so much to help better their communities in a public way. It reminds people that, ultimately, none of this is really fair because it was never designed to be. The original sin of this nation is rooted in violence. Even when we aren’t trafficking in that behavior, we’re looked at as though we might.

Seriously, look at this.

Trayvon Martin had his life taken because a self-appointed mall cop effectively viewed his blackness as a threat. He would have been 23 years old this week. Meanwhile, white boys are turning over cars because the team they root for finally won a Super Bowl.

As a black person in the U.S., this is a reality you’re forced to deal with. Everything about your corporeal existence is weaponized. Your voice, your hair, your skin color, the clothes you wear, right on down to the way you walk. The default is violence. It’s an obvious double standard that if you’re not black, you simply cannot understand.

To be fair, this isn’t about painting every fan of the Eagles with a broad brush. Lord knows that the actions of a few idiots do not represent the entirety of a fan base, never mind a city. But at some point, we have to be real with ourselves. Throwing bags of unpaid food products around a convenience store would land most of us in jail, period.

One day, the inherent fear of a black planet that controls our society will fade away. You and I probably won’t be alive to see it, but when it happens, we’ll all be better for it. We don’t want revenge. What we’re looking for is equality. But if our basic behaviors as members of a civilized world are constantly vilified and characterized as harmful and evil, the likelihood of gaining ground in that realm is low.

What we saw in Philadelphia on Sunday night was a riot. This is obvious to everyone who can see. But to protect the double standards that we’ve created for different people based on the color of their skin, we won’t officially call it how it is.

So much for brotherly love, I guess.

The Harlem Honeys and Bears want everybody in the pool All-black synchronized swimming team is breaking the stereotypes of African-Americans and swimming

On a Monday afternoon in Harlem, New York, Luther Gales emerges from a locker room beside the swimming pool at the Hansborough Recreation Center dressed in black swim trunks. A member of the Harlem Honeys and Bears synchronized swim team, Gales, 77, stands at the edge of the pool, stretches his red swim cap over his head and jumps into the deep end to swim some warm-up laps.

The all-black senior synchronized swim team has been around since 1979. Today, the 24 active members range in age from 58 to 95 and compete in city and state competitions every year. The team meets three days a week to practice its routines, including its signature pyramid performed to “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis Papathanassiou.

No matter their age, disability or challenge, coach and choreographer Oliver Footé makes sure there is a formation each member can participate in. The recreation center has a pool lift for those who cannot use the stairs. Some members say they feel the freest in the water, no longer needing their wheelchair, cane or walkers. Footé will create different segments for members with disabilities, showcasing their strengths. Swimming helps build muscular and cardiovascular strength and is a great exercise for seniors because it presents little risk of injury, is low-impact and improves flexibility.

Gales, a retired housing police officer and a former Marine, is at the pool about five days a week. When not practicing with the Honeys and Bears, Gales, along with other members of the team, spends afternoons teaching young swimmers for free. Gales wants to break the stereotype that black people can’t swim and wants to integrate swimming into black recreational culture, he said.

According to research from the USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African-Americans don’t know how to swim. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that black children drown at 5.5 times the rate of other children. Formal swim lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning significantly.

Rasheedah Ali (left) and Luther Gales prepare for the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice on June 26, 2017, in the Hansborough Recreation Center. Both Ali and Gales are longtime members of the all-black synchronized swim team that practices in Harlem, New York.

Luther Gales puts his goggles on at the edge of the pool before the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center. Gales recently competed in the national Senior Olympics and came home with three ribbons.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears warm up before practice. Some team members need extra assistance to get into the swimming pool, like Rasheedah Ali, who uses a pool lift to get into the water.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation.

Luther Gales underwater before practice on July 14, 2017, in a pose he calls “black Jesus.”

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation.

Luther Gales practices the backstroke during practice on July 14, 2017, at the Hansborough Recreation Center. The team practices three times a week for one hour.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation on July 14, 2017.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears reminisce together while out to brunch on June 28, 2017.

LeRoi Whethers and Luther Gales laugh at a joke after practice.

Luther Gales shows LeRoi Whethers his numerous trophies and awards at his townhouse. The awards range from the 1979-1987 police Olympics and include multiple sports such as cycling, triathlons, running and swimming.

Luther Gales descends the stairs of his home to head to youth swim practice on June 27, 2017. Gales was born and raised in Harlem. He started teaching youths to swim by teaching his own kids. “My children were the hardest ones to teach,” he recalled.

Luther Gales walks to the Hansborough Recreation Center to help reach youth swim practice. He has been teaching the youths for more than a decade. He said he believes “kids compete against themselves and the clock, so they have to be resilient. … The clock takes no prisoners.”

Alandra Luna, 8, (left) and Justine Hill, 10, see who can hold their breath longer during their youth swim practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center on June 27, 2017. The youths practice one to two times a week for an hour, learning from members of the senior synchronized swim team, the Harlem Honeys and Bears.

Luther Gales corrects a girl’s diving form during practice on June 27, 2017. Gales said, “When they leave me, they have all four skills and will have the tools to go to another team. They might not be the best swimmer, but they will have a concept of all four strokes.”

Luther Gales looks out at his youth team practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center. Gales said, “Teaching the youth is rewarding, especially seeing a child with no skills become an accomplished swimmer — it’s great.”

Cam Newton confounds both his fans and his haters — but he’s not so different from the rest of us Award-winning essayist and poet Claudia Rankine explores the Panthers quarterback his brilliance, sullenness, fragility and resilience

Cam Newton is an incredibly talented human being who has a job white Americans see as a white man’s job, and apparently this is vexing to America. Cam Newton is sometimes reduced to his athleticism, as in “an athletic quarterback,” aka black, which is predictably comforting to America. Cam Newton wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, which is a wink to America. Cam Newton likes flashy clothes like NFL legend Joe Namath, which is scandalous to America. Cam Newton is arrogant, and that is outrageous and an oxymoron to America. Cam Newton has a shoe contract with Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, once supported racist Donald Trump, and this is commonplace in America. Cam Newton has a son named Chosen and a daughter named Sovereign-Dior, which seems like freedom to America. Cam Newton is a typical male human holding misogynistic beliefs who says sexist things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” and this reveals something about him but not something about America? Cam Newton believes winning is everything, and that is reassuring to America. Cam Newton celebrates winning by dancing on the field, and that is distasteful to America. But mostly, Cam Newton is a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once. Cam Newton is no Colin Kaepernick, which means he still has a job, America.


The genius of Cam Newton’s father was not to shut down his son’s need for expression and attention but to compartmentalize it. When Cam wanted to be noticed, his father told him to dress up on Fridays. The message communicated was to play the game so you can do what you want one day a week. After his rise to quarterback fame for the Carolina Panthers, people took offense to his celebratory dances; Newton was advised to instead give the ball to a child when he was done. The implication was that he should play on American sentimentality around childhood innocence and all would be fine. Share the moment with the children and you will be able to have your moment, because the win, Cam Newton, was never about you. You are a means to an end that does not include you. Newton incorporated the advice into his celebratory routine.

And yet the one place Newton appears to be the least edited is in his body. Among his gifts is the ability to inhabit his emotions fully. Whether walking out of a news conference to sulk privately after a major loss or when celebrating exuberantly, Cam Newton is simply being himself. And that self is not defined by the scripts that are created in a country governed by anti-black racism: He is not a criminal, though he did steal a laptop in college; nor is he overtly political, though he did once raise his fist in the symbol of black power; nor is he an Uncle Tom, though he does understand how easily he could lose what he has earned, and he recently went on the record defending Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after racism and sexual assault allegations: “When you hear a report about Mr. Richardson, a person that we all, as an organization, have so much respect for and the people who did come out saying certain things about racial slurs, sexual assault … it’s still allegations.”

We Americans have difficulty facing our realities, and when confronted with someone who understands the precariousness of his status due to his identity as a black man, Americans interpret their difficulty with him to be solely his failure. Newton’s latest failure is his continued support of Richardson, which makes me wonder whether he understands that his talent is separate from Richardson.

Newton belongs to a league in which one owner, Houston’s Robert McNair, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” If Newton understands he is being objectified, he has his own agenda within that understanding. Like Michael Jordan, Newton is a company man. He has come to work and to be paid. But Newton’s stance is messier and more flamboyant than Jordan’s. I can’t remember Jordan making untoward statements or dressing that differently from those we might encounter in corporate America.

Though Newton doesn’t overtly protest against company rules, he also refuses to conform entirely to the unspoken rules for the black professional in his dress and occasionally in his actions. In the run of protests that began with Kaepernick taking the knee and then grew into an NFL-wide confusion over whether the protests were against Trump, white supremacy, police violence against blacks, or the owners’ racist statements, Newton raised a fist in honor of black pride but in protest of nothing apparently. He told reporters: “I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with.”

Cam Newton is a human being, and apparently this is troubling to America.

If the silent and beloved GOAT, Jordan, is on one end of the protest spectrum and the outspoken and beloved LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick are on the other end, then Newton lives between these legends with an eye on his owners: “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing. I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton once said. “We get nowhere divided.” Despite all that has transpired in the U.S. since President Obama’s statement “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” Newton still lives by Obama’s edict.

In fact, all of us who are not on the streets protesting but doing our jobs and collecting our pay and health insurance and retirement are in Newton’s lane. The political and corporate structures that govern our lives know how to punish protesters, with “free agent” status, but this other way of being, this pragmatic if flamboyant way of being, where one tries not to bite the hand that feeds, this lane that Newton exemplifies, confounds owners, players and fans alike—even as we remain complicit with his positioning. Most of us sit behind our desks, doing what we do, trying to get paid, while all manner of shit goes down around us. Every single day, with troubling tweets coming out of the Oval Office, should be the day we as Americans risk something for the greater good of our democracy, but the traffic of our lives continues uninterrupted by those taking to the streets in protest of this administration. We didn’t sign up to be activists. And neither did some of the athletes who get paid millions to entertain us.

It is difficult to fault Newton for wanting to hold on to who he is, which includes what he has. Newton’s swagger suggests an independence and freedom we see unleashed on the field, but only on the field. All his millions come at the expense of not pointing out the racism and misogyny that exist inside the culture of his sport and the structure of our country. That’s the price of the ticket. Cam Newton can be Cam Newton as long as he throws touchdowns and keeps winning.

Last year’s encounter with sports writer Jourdan Rodrigue made all the headlines. Newton seemed genuinely surprised that Rodrigue came to a news conference prepared with the correct football terminology: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.” His sexism was apparent. It lives alongside Rodrigue’s own blatant racism (see the reports about her Twitter account). In listening to Newton’s subsequent apology, the part that stands out is the one that points to the lesson he has learned:

“The fact that during this whole process I’ve already lost sponsors and countless fans,” Newton said, “I realize that the joke is really on me.” If we imagine that the security of black stars’ economic status means they can risk disrupting or displeasing the American public, think again. Though he ends his apology with the statement “Don’t be like me. Be better than me,” which is in direct conversation with Jordan’s Gatorade ad “Be Like Mike,” Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.


It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.


Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”


Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”


The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Kevin Durant: A letter to my neighborhood The NBA Finals MVP reflects on growing up, giving back and the pleasures of going home

I hail from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, a predominantly African-American town of about 5,000 people just east of Washington, D.C., that certainly has had its share of struggles. If I could talk to myself when I was a young man growing up there, I would say that having tunnel vision when you’re passionate about something is a gift and a curse. While I knew how bad my surroundings were, and how tough it is to make it out, I had a laser focus on achieving what was necessary to leave my community. I didn’t want to abandon my hometown, but there was always something going on: police brutality, poverty, crime. In order to get out of this mess, I ultimately had to turn a blind eye to what was going on. I had to ignore it. And I felt like basketball was the only way I could get out of that wreckage.

Looking back at my childhood, I wish I would have just opened my eyes. I lived in a 95 percent black neighborhood with 80 percent of us living in poverty. But I didn’t really have the maturity or the voice to get involved back then. Today, I realize that my achievements are rare for somebody from my neighborhood. Today, I know that I can give a lot of hope to people who feel like they don’t have a way out. While I have regrets that I didn’t realize this earlier, today I can make amends to my community by providing hope and joy to people who come from where I come from and that struggle the way I struggled. Now I am aware of the problems.

When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids.

I am in an unusual place—I feel like I’m living two lives, one as an NBA player and another as a black man from an impoverished neighborhood.

After winning an NBA championship, I was in the optimal position to help inspire my hometown. I brought the trophy back last August and saw that the people in my neighborhood were happy about it. It meant everything to me that the people of Seat Pleasant showed up for my championship parade, especially because it was on a weekday in the middle of the day. Usually, people have to work and go provide for their families. I thought about my mom’s struggle and how she could have never shown up to that celebration back in the day. Seeing my community’s reaction to my success proves that if we’re put in good positions by being given the necessary help and resources, we can flourish.

There’s just so many loving, caring and amazing people in Seat Pleasant. But it’s difficult to sustain the foundation of happiness in our souls when our surroundings bring out ugliness. When we’re given the gift of a great environment where people care for us and support us, it is our duty to give it back. We need to invest in our own communities. Invest in our kids. I believe communities will blossom and our country as a whole will be better because of it.

There are many great people who are trying to fight their way out of the struggle. For people like me who come from that struggle, it’s relatively easy to give money back or say how much we care. It’s a tough job, however, for us to really put our feet on the ground and put our imprint on those communities. But it is not an unattainable ideal.

Sadly, back home there is little progress. People are stuck in the same cycle every day, surviving minute by minute. I have been blessed to see the other side. Once given financial freedom, the world opens up. Your eyes open up. Every community needs resources, and those resources give people opportunities to do things they are passionate about and get their minds focused in the right direction. It has a trickle-down effect: a better household, a better community and a better future for our kids.

If I could give some advice to the youth of Seat Pleasant, it would be to find something that you love and do it as if your life depends on it. It sounds cliché, but it’s really that simple. If you put your mind to it, have faith and seek support, all with the foundation of a strong work ethic, the world will open for you. And once the world is open for you, then the conversations with close friends and family about how we can effect further progress in our communities will come from your own fulfillment, joy and freedom. So try to find your passion every day. See what the world has for you.

Love,

Kevin Durant from Seat Pleasant

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!