A career in sports analytics busts another barrier for African-American women I’m in the game to change it, not to be part of the status quo

I was standing right outside of the team personnel entrance when time seemed to slow down. Was I in the wrong place? What if I dressed wrong? Maybe red lipstick was too bold. I’m 17. How in the world am I even standing here even if it is the wrong place?

After an excruciating wait of what could have been two or 200 minutes, the arena door opened and out walked my mentor Calder Hynes. “Hi, Tiffany? Welcome, let’s get you started for the night!” Before his current stint overseeing public relations for some of the world’s most valuable athletes at Wasserman, Hynes was one of the main points of contact for the then-New Orleans Hornets communications team, and graciously took on the role of educating yet another eager high school student in the art of game-night operations.

I’d wanted to take career day off — goof off after four long years of honors courses, two-a-day volleyball practices, and PE Accelerate (physical education for the competitive overachievers if you were wondering). Instead, I marched over to the event, up to the public relations team and asked if I could shadow for a regular-season night or two in order to get skin in this game that would, though I did not yet know it, be my future.

After a rundown of team responsibilities and introductory small talk, Hynes then handed me an all-access pass to the New Orleans Arena, now Smoothie King Center. “I have you assigned to shadow the guys who will be inputting stats while I attend to our celebrity guest for the night, Will Ferrell. I hope that’s OK?” Hynes directed.

“The guys who input the stats?” What about shadowing Will Ferrell? Why can’t that happen? But rather than the response I was thinking, I simply said; “That’s perfect.” I headed off to assist the Hornets game night stats crew disappointed, but determined to make the best of my time with the stats guys.

Following Hynes into an entryway of an 8-foot-by-10-foot space barely big enough for an area rug, I walked into what I noticed was a closet transformed into a makeshift office by dint of the two desktop computers displaying NBA and team websites, a collection of roster posters of the Honeybees dance team pinned to the wall and two men unlocking their gaze from the monitors to greet me.

The stats crew for game nights was in charge of getting box score updates into the hands of prominent front-office personnel during timeouts and halftime, and manual statistical inputs to the team website after the game.

It wasn’t until I started tagging along with said crew as they were handing out stats sheets during timeouts to Monty Williams, the head coach of the Hornets at the time, and entering the suite of former Hornets president Hugh Weber, for the halftime stats update to help with any last-minute team decisions that I realized the significance of the situation.

Never mind Will Ferrell. I’d discovered that stats were what I wanted to do with my life. I’d found a career … maybe even a calling. I now knew that these stat sheets that revealed everything from player on-court contributions to net efficiency were my golden ticket. With these, I could go anywhere … even to the front office of an NBA team. Analytics, coaching and development personnel.

Who should be the sixth man off the bench? How are players developing over time? Should a trade even be entertained?

Still the doubts persisted. Was I really in the right place? The room housing the stats guys were clearly last-minute resources the team scrambled to find. They looked tired … manually inputting stats until 1 a.m. with an emptied bag of Lay’s potato chips near the computers for a postmidnight snack. I was tired leaving the arena before the end of the game news conference. After all, it was still a school night.

Seven years later, I’m still in stats. Moving on from handing out numbers to crafting intelligent insights from those numbers is now my life as a sports analytics associate for ESPN. It is still the career I want but the “Am I in the right place” doubts have never gone away. Sometimes I feel as if they’ve amplified. I have mentors, supportive colleagues and a challenging and intellectually stimulating job that I know I’m good at and to which I can bring my best self. But I have no role model. I am an accidental standard-bearer for black women in sports statistics. The first woman of color on ESPN’s sports analytics team — the only one crunching numbers among all of statistics and information at ESPN. And the shortage of women who look like me hasn’t changed a whit since that day with the Hornets.

Choosing a career in sports had, in part, grown from my experience playing volleyball, basketball and swimming and my hypercompetitive relationship with my older brother Osby (Oz for short). The day I beat Oz in NCAA Football on PlayStation is a day I will never let him live down. But sports became an obsession after that night with the Hornets and still is. I knew then I didn’t want to be what the sports industry expected of me. I wasn’t going to take a job I didn’t feel fit me because it fit the societal expectations of female-dominated roles in sports.

Analytics would be my path. Damn the comments and consequences.

I was and am constantly asked about what I’ll do if I hit that glass ceiling, the infamous old boys’ club that generations of women have struggled to join. And like generations before me, I ignore the question and focus on the work — work that reveals clearly what I bring to my field and hope it does the trick.

I remember receiving a text earlier in my career. A colleague with significantly fewer qualifications than myself was asking for help on statistical methodology that would be used to evaluate him for an analytics position with one of the few NBA teams that were hiring. It was a job I’d also applied for through a well-acclaimed referral (and had heard nothing back). That silence would then turn into apologies followed up with “you’ll end up somewhere soon.”

If I’d known about the glass ceiling on that night in New Orleans, if I’d known how hard it is for women to break new ground in a field that hasn’t ever included them, I’m not sure I’d be in stats right now. But today, it is my work that combats gender and racial stereotypes when I tell people what I do for a living and it is my work that prepares me for the seemingly choreographed head snaps when I walk into a room full of men.

Analytics is my path and I’m not stepping away from it. With a little bit of luck and a more courage than I’d expected I’d need, I found my way to change the perception of what a woman can do in the sports world.

This respect that women, minorities, and frankly any human being should have in pursuing their purpose comes from running toward the gray. It comes from accepting the norm as merely a long inherited social custom to be considered and then rejected or accepted depending on what works for any individual. I chose rejection. By embracing what cultural differences set me apart from my team, I am able to create and quantify different insights that expand the usefulness of analytics.

Analytics is used mostly to help front offices or journalists to find those undervalued players, those Davidson College-Stephen Currys of the world. But what happens when we use analytics for stories about issues that go far beyond pure sports? The stories that intersect cultural experiences and sports. The very stories that create the tension behind the “stick to sports” label.

Basketball aside, maybe that’s using our metrics to calculate the total quarterback rating (Total QBR) or impact on a team’s football power index (FPI) of Colin Kaepernick vs. well, insert any injured NFL starting quarterback of your choosing. For the record, that would be the Kaepernick ranked 23rd in Total QBR for the 2016 season ahead of seven current starting quarterbacks, including the now-injured Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Either way, analytics should be looked at as a conversation-starter, not ender. And in being just that, it uncovers the rudimentary answers to questions all of us have either had or haven’t thought were relevant, all while trying to strip bias from the equation. This is what I want all individuals to understand about what it is that I do and about what analytics can and will do, prejudices aside.

And yes, there are biases in analytics that I am fully aware of. The bias to strategically exclude racial, gender and educational minorities, or the biased belief that athletes are not bright enough to comprehend these analytical insights. Being that I, ironically, am a target for all four of these prejudices makes me the exception that proves the arguments for and against analytics. I find solace in the coming generations ready and already acting to squash preconceptions of African-Americans, women, athletes, and nonstatisticians. Though it may appear to be but slight progress with me being the lone African-American woman in sports analytics within ESPN, professional leagues – specifically the NBA – and our sports analytics industry as a whole are realizing the significance of not following the norm and following people who look like me.

Shane Battier for the Miami Heat. Aaron Blackshear for the Detroit Pistons. Curry and Andre Iguodala for the Bloomberg Players Technology Summit (the Summit). Rajiv Maheswaran for Second Spectrum. John Scott, Jahkeen Hoke, and John Drazan for 4th Family.

All are “minorities” moving into or helping other minorities move into analytics and data-tech, all while realizing their momentous influence on our industry. But most importantly, they are all building the future of our industry so the next stream of analytics looks like all of us. Specifically, 4th Family and its win in the research competition at our annual conference, what most call the meeting of the nerds – the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using basketball analytics for minorities in underprivileged schooling communities.

Curry and Iguodala are two African-American NBA players in the forefront of investing and all in the battle for startup equity among top venture capitalists interested in the tech right in the Warriors’ backyard, Silicon Valley. Using their own summit to invite other professional athletes to share in their sports tech capitalizing endeavors, my mind can’t help but wander to a player investing in the next startup that revolutionizes the way sports data is managed and how analytical insights are formed.

An investment with professional athletes as primary stakeholders in potential sports tech companies founded on tracking depth perception in arenas and stadiums for holographic experiences that will be used in their team practices. An investment that returns a double bottom line – strengthening on-court or on-field performance and a peek into franchise operations. Now that’s a real key to the city.

My key?

I have accepted my life detour into sports media with open arms, and have complete faith in the handful of women NBA front offices have progressively placed their confidence in. I am an extroverted sister navigating my way in this mostly introverted, analytics industry of men and a few women sprinkled about. I am accepting and learning from role models that do not look like me in order to catalyze change. And that is the exact reason that there is beauty in having no standard. I’m figuring out my own black girl magic.

The making of Kendrick Lamar’s Nike Cortez Kenny II The new sneaker is inspired by the artist’s childhood, his music, and his respect for women

LOS ANGELES — Back in the ’90s, a kid named Kendrick Duckworth fell in love with the Nike Cortez. After getting his first pair at a local swap meet, he’d often rock the kicks as a complement to his trademark swag of tall socks and khaki shorts while frolicking in the streets of his hometown of Compton, California.

About two decades later, that youngster is now known around the world as the Grammy Award-winning Kendrick Lamar. Via a partnership with Nike, Lamar has his own version of the iconic Cortez. During 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend the Cortez Kenny II was presented — the second installment of his own line of the shoe he grew up donning.

“They just classic — something I’ve been wearing since day one,” said Lamar at Nike’s Makers Headquarters, the brand’s creative pop-up space for the. The MC discussed the new shoe in a sit-down conversation with Emily Oberg, the fashion influencer turned creative lead of designer Ronnie Fieg’s New York City-based sneaker and apparel boutique, KITH. “They just always felt comfortable, felt good. It’s a vibe.”

In late January, in the lead-up to the 60th annual Grammys, at which Lamar took home the award for best rap album for his double-platinum masterpiece DAMN., Nike debuted the Cortez Kenny I, a predominantly white shoe that’s highlighted by the outsole of the upper, where the title of the album — DAMN. — is printed.

The new Kenny II, also referred to as the “Kung Fu Kenny,” is red with white and black accent, featuring a lace holder that reads “DON’T TRIP” and the word “Damn” written in Chinese script on the toe box.” ‘Don’t Trip’ — it’s a classic L.A. feel. It’s open context for anything,” Lamar quipped.

Nike, at Kendrick’s request, also threw it back to old days of lacing up shoes with shortened strings. “I just like all my laces to be short like that,” he said. “That’s how we rocked them coming up, when we was in grade school, high school, or just in the city.” In terms of creativity, Lamar compared the process of designing a shoe to the way he approaches crafting an album. And when it came using the Cortez as his canvas — especially while drawing upon his youth in Los Angeles — he didn’t have to search far for inspiration.

“These kids right here …, ” said Lamar, pointing to a group of local children who sat before him on the basketball court at Makers, “that’s inspiration … I was once in a place where I had a lot of dreams and aspirations. Looking at them, and going where they want to go, I can see that vibe. I can see they have a lot of energy … That’s something I can respect.”

Before the official release, Nike and Lamar made sure that women were the first to experience the shoe via seeding — getting product in the hands of influencers early to allow for grassroots promotion. So perhaps the most important aspect of the Cortez Kenny II came through the shoe’s calculated rollout, which sought to quell the myth that in the male-dominated world of footwear women aren’t sneakerheads, too.

“I always felt like women are the original curators of the world as far as creativity. Simple as that,” Lamar said. Hours after the chat with Oberg, he headlined an exclusive show at Makers with an opening lineup of women artists, including Kamaiyah, Sabrina Claudio and H.E.R. “We can go back to creating a life … to some of the greatest ideas of man … all behind a woman. I wanted women to experience [the Cortez Kenny II] the same way I felt it from the beginning when we created it.”

Special Olympics athletes from around the world took on these NBA/WNBA players NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game was some fun-filled competition

For many athletes on the hardwood, clear and concise instructional basketball is key to the fundamentals of the game. And it’s no different for Special Olympic athletes who participate in unified sports.

On Saturday, 12 of these players from all over the world revealed their talents in front of fans at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game in Los Angeles. As part of the NBA’s All-Star community efforts, and joined by NBA and WNBA players and legends, the athletes were divided into two teams (orange and blue) made up of individuals with or without intellectual disabilities.

Showcasing the unifying power of sports since the first game held during the 2012 NBA All-Star Game, the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game creates a diverse and inclusive environment. For more than 40 years, the NBA and Special Olympics have partnered to bring basketball to Special Olympics athletes and events across the globe.

NBA All-Star and Special Olympics Global Ambassador Andre Drummond, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Lakers guard Larry Nance Jr., Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield, Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne, Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson and legends Dikembe Mutombo and Felipe Lopez participated in a basketball clinic, which took place before the game, and some even played in the game.

Drummond recently shared his struggles in school with bullying and why his support of Special Olympics is so meaningful, in an NBA film.

More than 1.2 million people worldwide take part in Special Olympics Unified Sports competitions.

Team member George Wanjiku of Kenya finished the game with six points. The 6-foot-8 center played on Saturday’s Orange Team and was the highest scorer in the 25-point team finish. The final score was 33-25, won by the Blue Team. Wanjiku was disappointed by the loss but ecstatic, saying the day was one of the “best days of his life.”

George Wanjiku finished the game with six points at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game on Feb. 17 during NBA All-Star Weekend.

NBA Cares

Translated by his coach James Okwiri, Wanjiku said he saw other athletes coming to play basketball and he got interested in playing basketball because of his height and new opportunities outside of his other favorite sport.

Wanjiku is an only child who lost both of his parents at the age of 10. He was raised by his grandmother, and he saved enough money to build a home for her after working at a construction company. Playing with Special Olympics for only four years, Wanjiku enjoys watching movies, traveling and meeting new people. In 2015, he participated in the World Summer Games in Los Angeles and since then, he has gained a lot of respect and admiration in his community.

Okwiri is looking forward to coaching Wanjiku more this year.

About 1.4 million people worldwide take part in Unified Sports, breaking down stereotypes about people with intellectual disabilities in a really fun way. ESPN has served as the Global Presenting Sponsor of Special Olympics Unified Sports since 2013, supporting the growth and expansion of this program that empowers individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to engage through the power of sports.

Special Olympics athlete Jasmine Taylor finished with four points. The Florida native is a huge fan of Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James.

“It was good game,” she said. “I had fun playing.”

Jasmine Taylor (right) played in the 2018 NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game on Feb. 17 during the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.

NBA Cares

Phillipo Howery finished with four points and appreciated playing alongside one of his favorite players, Mutombo.

NBA Special Olympic athlete Phillipo Howery (left) spends time with his favorite NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo one day before playing alongside him at the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game on Feb. 17.

“It was pretty hard and crazy, but it was fun,” Howery said.

Howery is from one of the most inclusive high schools in the Arizona, if not all of the U.S. He will compete in the upcoming 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle from July 1-6.

Special Olympics coach Annette Lynch said the athletes were prepared.

“We’re only volunteer coaches. We can only come and volunteer over the weekend. So he only trains once a week,” Okwiri said. “It’s a high-performance situation. In Special Olympics, not always do the high-performing athletes become selected. I could not be more proud of them …”

The players were selected based on an application process, which included video interview submissions that included personal game highlights.

Lynch joined the Special Olympics in 1989.

“I was the first full-time woman in the sports department,” she said. “My background is certainly teaching and coaching, from junior high all the way up through Division I athletics. And I also had a three-year stint as a player on the U.S. team back in the ’60s. I brought together the player aspect, the teacher aspect, and the coaching aspect, and looking to professionalize what these athletes would get and certainly deserve. They deserve the best in coaching.

“Our goal was to showcase their skills, so that people would see what our athletes are capable of. Because they don’t, they many times speculate or they think they know, but they don’t know. We have such a range of ability level, from the superhigh level.”

According to its website, the Special Olympics is dedicated to promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences. Unified Sports joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. In Unified Sports, teams are made up of people of similar age and ability, allowing practices and games to diversify and become more fun than challenging.

Who said Minneapolis isn’t cool? Kevin Garnett on the soul of a Twin City The Timberwolves legend talks Prince, a Janet Jackson lap dance and who he’s rooting for in the Super Bowl

One night in the mid-1990s, Kevin Garnett was hanging out with a few of his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates at South Beach, his favorite Minneapolis nightclub at the time. He saw a legend walking toward him.

The icon pulled Garnett to the side — Prince wanted to have a conversation about basketball. Prince loved the game, and he engaged young Garnett in a conversation. Music blared all around them, but the two men were focused on a shared love for a sport that they both played pretty well.

“We just had a connection right there,” Garnett said. “Sat there the whole night and talked, and I kind of forgot my night. He told us on Fridays that he [did] little minishows just to hear new music he curated. They were never short of eventful. Some of the stuff that he would play, I never heard it come out. The set used to start at 4 in the morning.”

It was the beginning of a friendship. Two giants in Minneapolis — one who towered at 6-foot-11 and would go on to lead the team to eight consecutive playoff appearances, and the other who, with more than 100 million records sold, was one of the best-selling and most influential musicians of all time.

“During the season, I couldn’t go to a lot of them,” Garnett added, laughing at the memory, “but … we had a blast with that, man.”

“I was coming with a raw edge that I wanted the city to embrace. And they embraced it. And I think I matured.” — Kevin Garnett

The experience Garnett had with Prince, and eventually with other greats such as superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, helped shape what Garnett thought of what many considered a stuffy city. When Garnett landed in Minneapolis in 1995, the fifth overall pick and the first NBA player drafted out of high school in 20 years, he wasn’t sure what to expect. For the South Carolina native, the snow was a real concern, even after high school in Chicago. And he’d heard things that gave him pause, including an influx of gang culture.

But he was ready to dive in and make Minneapolis home. The city was known for contributing so much to pop music by way of genre-exemplifying musicians such as Prince, Jam, Lewis, Morris Day and The Time — artists that all soundtracked the ’80s and ’90s and paved the way for rhythm and blues music to reach some of its greatest heights.

What was missing around the time Garnett arrived was a daily feeling of how deeply Minnesota musicians had contributed to pop culture, and changed the world. The world most certainly knew, considering that by the late ’80s the Grammy-winning Jam and Lewis were household names in black families, known for their creative partnership with Janet Jackson, reviving influential singing group New Edition and creating their Flyte Tyme productions, which has worked with everyone from Alexander O’Neal to Mary J. Blige to Michael Jackson.

But locally? There wasn’t even a radio station that consistently played the music the area most famously was responsible for. No urban music radio station was in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s, when hip-hop was rising up the charts and R&B music was ubiquitous? “I was like, Whaaaat,” Garnett said with a laugh.

But change was a-coming.


It’s the city in which Garnett, the Boston Celtics champion, became a superstar, and this weekend it’s hosting the biggest game in professional football. A Super Bowl Live music festival has been going on for a week along Nicollet Mall, and among other funky cultural moments, there was a massive Prince tribute Tuesday. In the past two decades, the city has evolved greatly. When the future first-ballot Hall of Famer landed in Minneapolis, whether he knew it or not, his arrival signaled change. He was ready to win and bring a championship to the Twin Cities. “After making the All-Rookie Second Team during his rookie season,” says the NBA’s site, “Garnett skyrocketed to stardom in his next two seasons with averages of 17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.5 steals.”

The young man who would become a 15-time All-Star had a great jumper, low post moves and an impressive defensive presence. Someone with that size and skill who lacked an awkwardness you might normally find in a big man? Forget about it. And he brought an excitement to the city that needed a good basketball team to root for.

Prince was the Commander-in-Chief of Culture. And Garnett was the Prime Minister of Cool. “I don’t know, in particular, which [parts of] culture I did bring, but I’d definitely say I was part of the wave, and I helped … tried to give it a different taste … with music, sports, a lot of things at the time weren’t being done.” Garnett said he felt a responsibility to the city. “I was coming from a hard background,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be afraid to show emotion. I wasn’t going to be afraid to say, ‘I like this’ or ‘I love this.’ I wasn’t going to be afraid that I didn’t speak correctly, or that my teeth were jacked up, or that my hair needed to be cut. I was coming with a raw-ass edge that I wanted the city to embrace. And they embraced it. And I think I matured.”

By the summer of 1998, Flip Saunders had coached the Timberwolves to the playoffs. Garnett and Stephon Marbury were hailed as two of the NBA’s best emerging talents. Garnett made it to the 1998 NBA All-Star Game, and the playoffs, but his team was ultimately eliminated by the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round.

But there was still reason to celebrate that summer. Per usual, the Target Center, where the Timberwolves ball, was thriving in the offseason with some of the biggest names in music. Perhaps the biggest performer to come through that summer was Jackson, who was in the middle of her Velvet Rope tour.

The concert date was special for Jackson. Minneapolis was like a second home for the pop superstar; it’s where her life became legend. The youngest of the Jackson clan, she’d spent the fall of 1985 in the city at Flyte Tyme working with Jam and Lewis on what would become one of the most influential projects of all time, Control. For 1997’s The Velvet Rope, her sixth studio effort, she’d spent half a year recording in Flyte Tyme’s studio. I was at the show. I’d spent that summer interning in the entertainment section at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and had bought some nosebleed tickets along with a few fellow interns.

One of the most memorable moments was seeing Jackson pull Garnett up on that stage for a lap dance. The audience went wild. Their biggest star athlete was on stage, on the court where he’d spent the past three seasons balling out, with one of the world’s biggest stars.

“Try getting a lap dance by Janet Jackson with your girlfriend watching. You talk about pressure? You talk about control?! I just had to keep it together,” he said with a laugh. It wasn’t all bad. His girlfriend at the time, Brandi Padilla, is the sister-in-law of Jimmy Jam. Garnett and Padilla married in 2004.

Garnett isn’t quite sure where he’ll be this weekend as the world arrives in Minneapolis. But he’ll be celebrating the fact that this city, the one he helped to make cool, is hosting the big game. And in case you’re wondering, he’ll be rooting for the New England Patriots.

“I’ve lived in Boston. I’ve lived in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in L.A. I’m a Southern guy. But Minneapolis is still a big part of my life. I still have a home there, I still live there. It’s still part of me, man. … It was a great part of my life, and a huge part of my progression, so I’ve always thought to give it the proper due and respect. Without Minneapolis, I don’t know where I would be. Real talk.”

Eagles and Meek Mill: It’s a Philly thing and a story of support The incarcerated rapper has helped fuel the team’s first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, while the team has helped boost his spirits

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA – As the iconic theme song from Rocky blasted through loudspeakers late Monday night at the Xcel Energy Center here, the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles took the stage on opening night of Super Bowl week. For this edition of the team, however, rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” would have been a more appropriate musical selection.

The incarcerated Philadelphia native – whose situation typifies problems with sentencing guidelines, criminal justice reform advocates say – has helped fuel the Eagles’ first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, providing the team’s unofficial anthem. And in turn, the Eagles have bolstered Mill’s spirits while he serves his sentence for violating probation stemming from a 2008 gun and drug case.

Mill is still confined to a medium-security prison in Chester, Pennsylvania. But he was with the Eagles in spirit, players said.

“With Meek, man, it’s a Philly vibe,” Eagles rookie wide receiver Rashard Davis said. “Philly is his hometown. That’s where his people reside. We’re just bringing that culture, that hype, to our football field.

“Before each game, Meek is getting us riled up for the game. You can’t help but get riled up. You just feel that energy. And our crowd feels that energy. Just play Meek, get the crowd riled up and just go ball out.”

Interesting formula. So far, it has worked spectacularly.

After earning home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 15-10, in the divisional round. Then in the championship game, the Eagles dismantled the Minnesota Vikings, 38-7.

During pregame warm-ups each week, Lincoln Financial Field has been transformed briefly into a Meek Mill concert venue. The Eagles bounce to the beat – and they definitely put a beatdown on the Vikings. Postgame, the lyrics from the title track of the rapper’s 2012 album filled the locker room, which pleased wideout Torrey Smith.

“Meek is an icon in every NFL locker room,” Smith said. “And he’s definitely an icon to folk like me, who know what it’s like to come from struggle, know what it’s like to grind and just know what it’s like to overcome obstacles. He’s a perfect example of all of that. He’s also a person like me who, while I haven’t committed any crimes myself or fell victim to the [criminal justice] system, I have seen it.

“I’ve seen what can happen. It has affected friends of mine. It has affected my family members. And sentencing like this, what Meek is living with right now, is part of the reason why I was a criminal justice major. Things like this flat-out don’t make sense. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. We’re aware of all of that, what he’s going through is important to us, and we also definitely get energy off of his music.”

Meek Mill derives strength partly from the Eagles’ success.

“It really lifted my spirit to hear the team rally around my songs because that’s why I make music — to inspire others and bring people together,” Mill, 30, said in a statement released to Bleacher Report and NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“The Eagles have also motivated me with the way they’ve overcome tough situations and injuries to succeed this year. I’m so proud of my Eagles for making the Super Bowl and representing the city of Philadelphia. I’m confident my guys are going to beat the [New England] Patriots and bring the Super Bowl trophy to Philly.”

Smith, safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long have championed criminal justice reform. They’re among many current and former professional athletes – NBA superstar James Harden recently visited Meek Mill in prison – who have spoken out about the rapper, who in November was sentenced to two to four years for a probation violation. This week, Meek Mill matched Colin Kaepernick’s $10,000 donation to Youth Services Inc. of Philadelphia, part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Pledge.

“The Meek Mill situation is one that represents the stuff that happens every day when you talk about people being victimized by the criminal justice system,” Jenkins said. “Once you get a record and once you have a rap sheet, it allows the system to really do with you how it sees fit. And oftentimes, that’s a burden that’s carried [disproportionately] by people of color. We’ve seen this repeatedly.

“Because Meek is such a prominent figure, now everybody sees what’s really happening out there. People see this is happening to Americans every day. And unfortunately, he’s still behind bars. But he has a lot of people who are supporting him. His music has been something that this team has rallied around. It’s something that is near and dear to the city of Philadelphia. We’ll continue to support him and ride his music throughout the Super Bowl.”

Have the Eagles moved on from the Rocky theme song for good?

Rocky is always going to be Rocky in Philly. But that’s the older generation,” Davis said. “Meek has brought something new to the table. You always have to pay respect to Rocky. But Meek is important. Especially with what’s going on.”

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!

It’s showtime: The Apollo welcomes the Grammys back to New York Fat Joe, Doug E. Fresh, Elle Varner — Harlem’s iconic theater hosts an artist-studded luncheon

 

One doesn’t just see Harlem, New York. You feel Harlem. You smell Harlem. You vibe with Harlem. From the backseat of a Lyft, you pass the stalwarts of the community — the Duane Reade pharmacies, General Grant Houses, the countless delis — many of which will sell you a delicious “chopped cheese” sandwich — if you’re hip on how to order them. Black Panther promotional posters adorn nearly every bus stop, it seems. Even as the gentrification of the Harlem becomes more and more entrenched, the spirit of Malcolm X lives on in the creative, cultural and social melting pot where he stood as a titan on its street corners, and died as an icon.

There’s not many things more authentically Harlem than West 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard — dubbed “the cultural heartbeat of the city.” And with the Grammys back in New York for the first time since 2003, the iconic Apollo Theater hosted a luncheon in celebration. “When you do something special in New York, you feel the vibration,” said pioneering hip-hop artist Doug E. Fresh said on the red carpet. “I’m glad they decided to do this at the Apollo. It’s Harlem. I am Harlem.”

Also in attendance is five-time Grammy-nominated Fat Joe, Rotimi, current Grammy nominees The Hamiltones, Dapper Dan, the Grammy-nominated Elle Varner and many more. These creative professionals understand the Apollo’s place in black culture, and know about the legends who stood on the stage – not 50 feet from the red carpet. “I wish I would’ve seen Lauryn Hill. They booed her,” said singer and Power cast member Rotimi. “Then 10-15 years later seeing she’s one of the greatest of all time, that’s the ultimate story.”

“Aretha,” Varner said without hesitation about who she wishes she’d seen, live at the Apollo. “Absolutely.”

An Apollo institution himself, Doug E. Fresh flips the script. “Me and Stevie Wonder was here one night. That was crazy!”

The energy was one of reverence. With celebrities and Harlem luminaries scattered through the stage and carpet, the collective perspective was one of privilege and respect. “The best night in the Apollo was when Ice Cube first came here,” Fat Joe said from the stage. “We gotta protect this. This our home.”

 

DJ Jazzy Jeff, The Fresh Prince and a Grammy boycott that set the tone for three more decades of rap — and culture ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ was the first hip-hop song ever nominated for a Grammy

 

It was 1989. The scene: Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. The host: Billy Crystal, who then was starring in films such as Memories of Me and When Harry Met Sally. The event was the 31st Annual Grammy Awards. George H.W. Bush had recently been sworn in as president of the United States, and the Gulf War would soon be looming. In the last year of the 1980s, pop ruled the Billboard charts but hip-hop continued its rise in sales and its impact on culture. Pioneers such as Public Enemy, Heavy D, 2 Live Crew, The Beastie Boys, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Special Ed, 3rd Bass, Boogie Down Productions and more were changing music and the music industry.

That night though: Bobby McFerrin, would-be 10-time Grammy winner, won song of the year and record of the year for “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” The song was McFerrin’s only No. 1 hit and had a layer of controversy attached, as it had been used by the Bush presidential campaign in 1988 without the permission of McFerrin. In protest, McFerrin for years removed the song from his concert set lists. The televised broadcast of the Grammys also featured what would become a legendary performance by Whitney Houston — she sang her “One Moment in Time” against a montage backdrop from Team USA highlights of the ’88 Olympics.

But it’s what didn’t happen during the televised broadcast of the 31st Grammy Awards that made the 1989 event even more memorable. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, aka Jeff Townes and Will Smith, who had been nominated for the first-ever best rap performance Grammy for their hit crossover single “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” were not there to pick up their award. When it had been decided that the only rap award would be announced during the nontelevised portion of the show, hip-hop had its own decisions to make. “We chose to boycott,” Smith said at the time. He called the idea of the afternoon award a “slap in the face. … You go to school for 12 years, they give you your diploma and they deny you that walk down the aisle.”

Besides Jeff and Will, the other first rap Grammy nominees were:

All of these songs had been released one, two or, in the case of “Push It,” even three years before. Hip-hop by 1989 was going through a transformation. The anger was no longer mostly underground but rather more out front. Public Enemy would release its critically acclaimed Fear of a Black Planet in 1990, and the cracks in the foundation of revolutionary supergroup N.W.A. were beginning to show.

DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were in a playful, more mainstream rap lane that included MC Hammer and his diamond 1990 Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” peaked at No. 12 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, but it was the building momentum that DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince saw on one of their first big tours that cemented for the West Philly duo what everyone else was seeing. “We were on the road, so we had no idea how the record was doing on the radio,” Jazzy Jeff said in Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. “I remember one night … Will did the first verse and then did the first line of the second verse, but told the crowd to finish it. And I thought, Oh, no, this could be the biggest disaster in the world! But … 20,000 people finished the verse.”

Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre.

MC Hammer’s massive sales numbers, though, were the exception at the time for hip-hop, not the rule. Rap was still considered a fringe force, fighting not only for its place at the Grammy Awards but also for acceptance as a respected musical genre. It was just that fight and the almost constant controversy surrounding hip-hop that fueled its ascent to being the most popular musical genre in the world.


The news started out great. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) had announced that rap would have its own official category. “The excitement was through the roof,” said Jazzy Jeff. “It was validation for the culture.” But when the news quickly turned bittersweet, Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen of Def Jam Recordings led a boycott of the 1989 Grammys. Joining them were the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff along with Salt-N-Pepa, Public Enemy, Ice-T and others. Def Jam spokesman Bill Adler’s press release said that NARAS was “ghetto-izing” rap. The boycotting group even held a “Boycott the Grammys” party on the night of the broadcast.

The show wasn’t an all-out rap boycott, however. JJ Fad attended, as did Kool Moe Dee, who presented the embattled best rap performance award at the pre-show, saying, “On behalf of all MCs, my co-workers and fellow nominees — Jazzy Jeff, J.J. Fad, Salt-N-Pepa and the boy who’s bad — we personify power and a drug-free mind, and we express ourselves through rhythm and rhyme. So I think it’s time that the whole world knows rap is here to stay.”

The “boy who’s bad” refers to his rival LL Cool J. Years later, Moe Dee told The New York Times that he believed a better strategy than boycotting would have been for all the artists to show up and “make our case in that space where the world was watching.” Except, of course, that world wouldn’t have been watching the nontelevised version of the show.

One person who did agree with the boycott and believed it ultimately helped the duo cement their place in hip-hop was one of the producers of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” Ruffhouse Records founder Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo. “It was important to make that stand,” said Nicolo. “I actually thought it would help them. They weren’t bowing down to the Grammy gods, and people respect you for that.”

Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince perform onstage at Nassau Coliseum on August 12, 1988 in Uniondale, New York.

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Also supporting the boycott was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s A&R representative at the time, “Tokyo Rose,” aka Ann Carli. “I supported the boycott,” recalled Carli. “Jive Records was always very supportive of artists.”

The stance taken by Smith and Townes in 1989 is difficult to imagine now. At the 58th Grammy Awards in 2016, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was nominated for album of the year. And while the album didn’t win, it was a reminder that rap music is no longer a fringe genre but rather the most important and influential music in the world. But for every Kendrick moment, there is another example where what Smith, Townes and others fought for seems to be all but forgotten — like at the 57th Grammy Awards in 2015, where no rap awards were presented on the televised broadcast for the first time in 25 years.

Looking back on the protest in 2016, Jazzy Jeff (at this point with four Grammy nominations and two wins) said he felt that he and Smith (at this point with eight Grammy nominations and four wins) represented the culture well and ultimately had an impact. “We … were very, very young and thrust into a position with the eyes of the world on us,” he said. “And to see somebody like Kendrick … it just makes you proud.”

Not even a Grammy slight could take the shine off “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Its success, and how it sparked the duo’s careers and the meteoric rise of Smith as a Hollywood heavyweight, is stunning. Carli recalled shooting the video for the single, which was done in one 18-hour shoot, and then watching the footage with director Scott Kalvert.

“Holy crap, the camera loves [this kid],” Carli remembers saying. “He’s so incredibly expressive, and he’s selling the story. I called my boss and I said … ‘You know, this kid is going to be a movie star. I think he can be as big as Eddie Murphy.’ ” Carli then proceeded to call Simmons, who managed the duo at the time, to share her feelings about the budding star. Famously, Simmons told Carli that he might be as big as Malcolm-Jamal Warner, but not Eddie Murphy.

Except for Lil Yachty as someone who presents a similar youthful, colorful vibe, Carli doesn’t see many who compare to DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince in today’s current rap climate. “They had a real love and understanding of the genre,” said Carli. “These young rappers don’t seem to have a knowledge and appreciation for the history and the shoulders they’re standing on. … Still to this day, Will is where he is because of his self-confidence, talent and, as Quincy Jones would say, his ‘ass power’… he sticks in the chair until it’s done.”

But as the 60th Grammy Awards approach, the best rap performance award features a class of nominees who each represent something special and also build on the foundation of what DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and their peers did three decades ago:

  • Kendrick Lamar: The collective spirit of the West Coast
  • Jay-Z: A connection to four different decades of rap
  • Migos: The youthful spirit of the genre today
  • Big Sean: The holding of lyrics in high regard
  • Cardi B: A new rap superstar

Maya Moore: A Pioneering Spirit The Lynx forward is as fearless and captivating off the court as she is on it

Dear Black Athlete,

Don’t ever forget that you are a citizen—a part of a community

With being an athlete there comes privilege and responsibility—mainly the responsibility to never stop seeking to understand your fellow citizen and neighbor—more importantly, the ones who aren’t exactly like you.

This has been my journey as I’ve stepped into the world of mass incarceration in America and how this phenomenon has unfairly impacted black and brown men and families.

I’ve witnessed double standards and unchecked power in our home of the United States and I’m moved to act.

The American dream of freedom for all of its diverse citizens can only work if we, the people, work it! And as athletes, we know the process to achieving goals better than most.

Don’t be afraid to use your voice to challenge our elected leaders to rise.

But let us also remind ourselves to rise as we step outside of our comfort zone to see people. Really see them.

Be genuine, be thoughtful, be selfless and watch the momentum build as others join in.

We shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.


Jemele Hill sat down with the WNBA star to talk about why she cares so much about doing the right thing.

Jemele Hill: You’ve won championships on every continent but three, is that right?
Maya Moore: Yes, unfortunately.

That’s a nice not so humblebrag. [Laughs] You have four WNBA titles in seven seasons with the Lynx, obviously two college championships. You’ve been to the White House 50 times. [Laughs]
Something like that.

How do you think your success would be viewed if you were a man?
Hmm, if I was—wow. Goodness, I haven’t thought—

Serena Williams, for example, said that if she were a man she’d already be considered the greatest athlete ever.
Our society is still catching up to valuing what we do as females on the athletic field in a way that has as much respect and visibility as what the men have been doing for years. You think about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and some of those pioneers that are allowing LeBron and Steph and Kevin to do the things they’re doing now. So I’m not really ashamed of where I’m at in the history of women’s sports. Years from now, another young woman in my position doing what I’m doing is going to get that type of attention and respect.

You’ve chosen to use your platform and get involved in issues that are kind of tricky and thorny. In July 2016, you, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson chose to have a press conference to discuss the very serious issue of police brutality. What made you decide that was the moment?
It was a hard summer, 2016. We were really hurting in that moment when it was happening in our backyard of Minneapolis; the backyard of Seimone Augustus, who’s from Louisiana, and even the killing of the police down in Texas. It was all happening at the same time. So we just felt like we need to be more humans than athletes right now and to say something.

What was the backlash like?
The backlash wasn’t too crazy. We really tried to be thoughtful about respecting police. But we need everyone to rise. We need our leaders to continue to rise to end what seems preventable.

What was interesting was that Lindsay Whalen was involved. And for people who don’t know, she’s white. [Laughs]
Yes, on some days.

We don’t see a lot of white athletes who are visible when it comes to speaking out about racial issues and certainly not for something like police violence. In your locker room, what are the conversations about race like?
Lindsay loves her teammates. She has relationships with her teammates and attempts to know them. But she’s also a person who is ride or die. She’s down for her people and her family and her teammates.

Not just her, but Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart. There seems to be a different sense of solidarity between white and black athletes in the WNBA. We know you guys don’t make as much as male athletes, so in some respects you have even more to lose because you don’t have as much. So why do you think that level of fearlessness seems to exist among you?
I think there’s a pioneering, fighting kind of a spirit in the female athlete because, you know, we haven’t been raised on “All I have to do is play my sport and I’m going to have everything I want.” We’ve had to do extra and go above and beyond. And I think that builds a certain character in female athletes that gets shown in the best way when it comes to these social justice issues. It’s a natural extension of our experience, fighting for those eyeballs, for views, for attention. It’s the same thing; we’ve seen that cycle. We’ve seen the rhythm of the fight. I think the heart of the female athlete is so huge.

Lindsay Whalen #13, Maya Moore #23, Rebekkah Brunson #32, and Seimone Augustus #33 of the Minnesota Lynx attend a press conference before the game against the Dallas Wings on July 9, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Did it ever cross your mind what you could potentially lose by doing this, be it sponsors, be it fans?
Sure.

And still you proceeded.
I think it was just more about being thoughtful and being honest. That was part of the reason we didn’t have as much fear, because we were just being honest and kind of raw about being a citizen of the United States at that moment.

But we’re in a league that is trying to gain momentum. And so any time you say something that can be controversial, you’re risking losing fans. You’re risking even moving your league back. But at the end of the day, I think that fearlessness is why people love us.

For you, it didn’t just stop at the press conference. You have chosen criminal justice reform and prosecutorial misconduct as the issues that have some meaning for you. Why is that?
About 10 years ago, my extended family that I grew up with in Missouri introduced me to a man who had been wrongfully convicted. And that was kind of the first time I had really thought about prison or people in prison, our prison system. His name is Jonathan Irons. And I was just outraged. I said how in the world does this 16-year-old get this sentencing without any physical evidence? I stepped outside of my middle-class comfort zone that I was raised in to really think, “Oh, if I didn’t have my mom, if I didn’t have my family, if I was a young black man at this time growing up without a lot of money and resources, what would my life be like?”

There seems to be a social and political awakening among a lot of athletes these days. Where do you think that’s coming from?
I really think some of it has to do with exposure, because we have so much access to information. And you’re seeing more athletes understand as they’ve gotten older, maybe, “I was one decision, one family away from being that person. And I’m really not that much different than this person over here, and I need to say something. I need to do something. I have been blessed with so much. I have a platform. I have a voice. I have financial means.” It’s contagious when one person decides to speak up for someone that doesn’t have a voice. I think attacking some of the structural, systematic things in our justice system is the next level of all this momentum.

With all these conversations, do you feel enough attention is being paid to the specific, unique issues that black women face? Because we have the double burden, right? We have race on one side. We have gender on the other. And sometimes those intertwine. I often make the joke that on any given day I’m either told to go write for Cosmo or go back to Africa.
Yes, there’s always going to be a need to equip and empower black women. And I’m so grateful to be standing on the shoulders of so many strong black women who have come before. And some in my family. And I just couldn’t imagine what growing up would be like if I didn’t have them to look to. And the more you see a young black girl get an opportunity, you can see neighborhoods change when you equip and empower young black women.

Obviously with black women, the No. 1 word that comes to mind is strength,
but do you feel like we’re allowed to be vulnerable at all?

That’s a great point, because it’s hard. We have this uncomfortable tension with strength and vulnerability. And we shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.

Maya Moore #23 of the Minnesota Lynx makes a layup in Game One of the 2017 WNBA finals.

Andy King/Getty Images

Is living overseas as a black woman kind of isolating?
Sure. [Laughs] You don’t think about some of the basic things, whether that’s, you know, I’ve got to make sure my hair’s done before I go overseas because it’s going to be three, four months before I’m going to have the hair care I need. Even facial products or just certain foods or conversation you have where there’s kind of that understanding of where you’ve been, where you’re from. At the same time, I love getting to learn and dive into other cultures and finding those connections with other people, with other women.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard this from some fans: They just want Maya Moore to stick to sports. What’s your response to people who maybe don’t want to see you in this other lane?
Surprisingly, and I don’t know if it’s just me because I don’t listen to a lot of people [laughs] outside of the people I’m intentionally trying to be around, but I’ve heard more and more people say, “Maya, thank you. You’re giving us a voice. Like, we need this more.” I’m a person, I’m a citizen and an athlete.

Do you feel as if black athletes should bear a special burden? I hate to use the word “burden,” but “responsibility”? Do black athletes have an increased responsibility to use their platforms to speak out on issues that impact their community?
It shouldn’t be that way that more of the responsibility is on the black athlete, but it’s just part of how it is. Because our ancestors, our family members, our communities have had to deal with hardships and oppression. I feel that responsibility. The more I learn, the more I look back and the more I look around.

How do you want to be remembered as a person?
I just always like to take advantage of opportunities I have to cast life-giving visions. I think that is something I’ve been the beneficiary of with great coaches like Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve on the Lynx right now. You need people to give you beautiful visions to run after. I get opportunities because of my platform to paint visions of “This is how good we can be.” That’s really what’s exciting me now and is going to last throughout my career.

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

Why Migos’ ‘Stir Fry’ is the perfect song for NBA All-Star Weekend Hip-hop’s Big 3 are pop culture and they’re truly doing it for the culture—of the NBA

Music’s hottest supergroup consists of three MCs known as Quavo, Offset and Takeoff. In the past year, the Migos have a Grammy-nominated No. 1 hit, a Grammy-nominated No. 1 album and their own brand of potato chips. This past November, between group efforts and individual guest appearances on other artists’ songs, the Migos had nine concurrent entries on Billboard’s Hot 100 — also known as the pop singles chart. And Offset is one half of the year’s newest power couple: He’s engaged to the coolest new star of the year, Cardi B.

So, just ask the Migos: There is something alluring about a trio in which each person brings a little something different and they all work together to create poetry in motion. The Migos are a big three.

The power of a “Big 3” in basketball is undeniable, and throughout the course of NBA history we’ve been spoiled by quite a few memorable ones. There’s Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy as the leaders of the “Showtime” Lakers. Chicago’s Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. And then the iconic Boston formation of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. And we can’t forget the straight-outta-video-game Miami Heat trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

In the game of hip-hop, Quavo, an ultimate hook man, runs point. The lyrically gifted Offset is on the wing. And tone-setting ad-libber extraordinaire Takeoff is down in the post. And now, with their talent and influence, the Migos have reached the NBA’s biggest stage.

On Christmas Day, the NBA announced the Migos’ Pharrell-produced “Stir Fry” as the official song of 2018 All-Star Weekend (Feb. 16-18). This ended a long run of forgettable tunes (in 2017, it was Sir Roosevelt’s “Sunday Finest”) selected by the league and TNT, the longtime broadcaster of the midseason classic. The song will serve as the soundtrack for the festivities, hosted this year in Los Angeles. “Stir Fry” is the best song the weekend has yielded since 2012, when Jay-Z and Kanye West, aka The Throne, provided the All-Star Game with its lead-in music via their 2011 megahit “N—as in Paris.”

But “Stir Fry” is an even more worthy theme song for All-Star (and a nice complement to the game’s fresh new pickup-style team-selecting format). It’s almost as if the Migos wrote the song specifically for this moment. Don’t discriminate, ballplayers come in all sizes / Finger roll, post move, or the pick and roll / They mad the way we win, they think we used a cheat code, flows Takeoff in the third verse — a small peek into the hoops knowledge and respect for the game possessed by the entire trio.

Instagram Photo

Aside from the fact that they can actually hoop (especially Quavo), the Migos are a fixture at NBA games, primarily at Philips Arena, where their hometown Atlanta Hawks play. They were swagged out from courtside seats there on Dec. 23, when Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder put up a career-high 33 points after receiving some motivation from the group’s frontman, Quavo. “He told me last night … on the phone … ‘You’ve gotta get 30 points when I’m coming.’ I was motivated, I was focused, I still tried to get the win, but I did it for him,” Schroder said after the game, from which each member of the Migos left with a game-worn jersey off the back of a Hawks player. After an MLK Day matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry presented the sideline-sitting Quavo with the pair of signature Under Armour shoes that he wore in 33 minutes on the court, in response to a midgame request from the rapper to let him have them.

As long as the Migos keep delivering hits, and keep “doing it for the culture” that’s reflected within the makeup of the thriving NBA, they’ll always have a place in a world of basketball that’s obsessed with prolific trios. It’s not a stretch to say that the Migos are probably your favorite hoopers’ favorite rappers.

And on Jan. 26, the group is scheduled to drop Culture II, the highly anticipated follow-up to their 2017 platinum album, Culture, just in time for All-Star Weekend, which tips off three weeks later. We already know what the players will be bumping in their headphones before game time.