What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.

Miss Jamaica, Davina Bennett, makes lemonade out of lemons The beauty queen made getting second runner-up to Miss Universe a win — Afro and all

Miss Jamaica emerged from a field of 92 contestants, rocking a #BlackGirlMagic ’fro, to be second runner-up in the 2017 Miss Universe pageant. Davina Bennett talks to The Undefeated’s Mark W. Wright about her ascension.


When I stood there next to Miss South Africa and Miss Colombia — as one of the last three of 92 contestants in the Miss Universe pageant, with the very real possibility of being crowned Miss Universe 2017 — of course I was nervous, but it was hardly as traumatic an experience as I’ve had. (Miss South Africa 2017, Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, was crowned Miss Universe.)

It was the scariest moment of my life. Two gunmen came out of nowhere. I was thrown to the ground — we were all faced down, execution style, while they took all our belongings … holding the gun by our heads and cursing at us. And, you know, in that moment in time, I can tell you that I didn’t believe I was going to live to see another day. I was really just praying that my family would be all right and cope with what seemed inevitable.

After the robbers had taken our belongings — money, equipment — they told us to just get up and run. They were just standing there, and we got even more scared. The thought that came into my mind was, ‘OK, they’re probably going to shoot us from behind.’ We did as we were told and just ran. They had taken all that we had, but you know what, we had life. It really was a traumatizing situation, but I can say today, nine months later, that it was really another steppingstone for me to realize that I have a purpose and I am here to do greater things.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

That night of the Miss Universe pageant, I was really just hoping for the best. I knew I’d done my best, and I’d said everything from my heart. I didn’t have doubt — nerves, yes. But not doubt. When Steve Harvey called my name first, I was a little bit disappointed at first, but seeing the reaction from the crowd — and hearing chants of, ‘Jamaica! Jamaica!’ — I felt like a winner. My fellow contestants came to me with hugs and good wishes. Coming back home to Jamaica, of course, was the icing on the cake.

Davina “Miss Jamaica” Bennett: ‘I must do something bigger with my life’

Even though I’m 21, I’ve had quite a number of challenges in my life to get to this point, but I believe it’s all prepared me for the now. In 2015, I had gone to London twice and to New York once, going from agency to agency, looking to get signed. At one point, I’d gone to probably between 15 to 20 agencies. And every agency would say I’m not quite what they’re looking for, or I’m not tall enough. It was always something. After the third time going to London … I just said, ‘You know what, maybe this is not for me.’ And, shortly after the London trip, I lost my grandma as well. So I gave up completely. And that’s how I partnered with Caribbean Sway Modeling Agency here in Jamaica as a director and modeling coach to train the girls and share my experiences with them, to help them maximize their true potential.

In that process of helping those models, I was blessed to work with Britney Barnes, a deaf model, which then became my inspiration to start the Davina Bennett Foundation for the Deaf.

I think back to that robbery and how I almost lost my life. I had my moment of depression after that time, but … I lived, and I must do something bigger with my life.

Growing up, I was loved. I was always teacher’s pet, yes, but I was never the girl who stood out, or was outspoken. I would be in the back of the room because I was very shy and reserved. … I was really that girl on the back bench [in the classroom] looking at the girls on front benches and saying, ‘I wish I could be them.’

So public speaking wasn’t my strong point, and speaking is a big part of the Miss Universe pageant. Having gone through that experience, it’s now something I’m not so afraid to take on. I don’t think I would say I’ve conquered it because there’s so much more to learn, but I’ve gotten a little bit more comfortable.

Miss Jamaica 2017 Davina Bennett

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

To be very honest, this is more than I expected, the impact this Miss Universe experience has had on me, and on people. I was surprised and shocked, even the day after, with social media and the reaction to me. I’m still in awe. I’m getting so many messages, so many people telling me how I’m a great representation of Jamaica and girls everywhere. I’m really just grateful that everyone has accepted how I carried myself on the international stage.

It does get overwhelming sometimes, but nothing in life is easy, and you really have to fight for what you want. I have always been a fighter; there’s always challenges, but I try to overcome and have a strong mindset about how you deal with the problem and find solutions.

I’m a winner. Yes, I heard the rumblings on social that I could never be crowned Miss Universe because of my hair, or because I’m Jamaican. I heard all of that — and saw the #MissJamaicaShouldHaveWon hashtag on social media. But I wasn’t really listening to all of that; my message is simple: ‘Despite race or ethnicity or whatever your background, anybody can win.’

I returned home to Jamaica, getting off the plane to shouts of ‘Jamaica! Jamaica!’ It was a beautiful celebration. There was a huge adrenaline rush to just conquer anything that came my way. I was always the bridesmaid — always finishing second, and third, or not even being picked — until the Miss Universe competition. Now I can finally say, ‘Oh, my goodness — I’ve finally won.’

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

NBA glamour is all about courtside From Rihanna to Jay Z; Beyoncé to Drake, sitting on the wood is its own red carpet

Rihanna just walked in front of me,” Jeff Van Gundy yelled during the first quarter of Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals. He completely skipped over the vicious dunk LeBron James had just unleashed on JaVale McGee. “Are you kidding me?!”

Fellow commentators Mike Breen and Mark Jackson chided their longtime colleague, but Van Gundy’s brief moment of distraction was warranted — she’s one of the biggest pop stars and beautiful people in the world. But it wasn’t just Rihanna sitting courtside in the Oracle Arena in East Oakland, California. Maybe it’s the trilogy effect, but this may just be the most star-laden NBA Finals ever. Aside from Rihanna, Jay Z, Kevin Hart, Marshawn Lynch, Power’s Omari Hardwick and Bay Area legends Too $hort, Raphael Saadiq and E-40 were all in attendance — either courtside or a few rows back.

Yet, it was Rihanna, from her plush digs — on the announcers’ side just a few seats away from Jay Z — who made worldwide headlines by matching wits with Kevin Durant. The Grammy winner and 2014 NBA MVP locked eyes on more than one occasion as Rihanna used her multimillion-dollar voice to chastise Durant. Rihanna came up short, though. KD dropped 38 points in a Game 1 blowout victory.


Celebrities and sporting events, to quote the great Tracy “Hustle Man” Morgan, “go back like spinal cords and car seats.”

As Muhammad Ali’s fights were makeshift Met Galas for actors, actresses, musicians and hustlers, at 2015’s Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao bout, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Don Cheadle, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Antoine Fuqua and more piled in to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. But what makes the professional basketball courtside experience different is that the attendee is sitting right on top of the game. Courtside is more intimate than ringside: One’s feet are literally on the field of play. Jay Z refers to himself in 2009’s “Empire State of Mind”: Sitting courtside / Knicks and Nets give me high fives / N—-, I be Spiked out, I can trip a referee.

This is far from Shawn Carter’s first courtside homage. On Cam’ron’s 2002 anthem, “Welcome To New York City,” Jay boasts: I ain’t hard to find/ You can catch me front and center / At the Knick game, big chain in all my splendor/ Next to Spike if you pan left to right/ I own Madison Square / Catch me at the fight. It makes sense that both these lyrical moments nod at the world’s most famous Knicks fan — and courtside royalty — director Spike Lee. It’s Lee — Rihanna’s courtside prophyte in a sense — who stars in basketball’s most well-known courtside beef. He and Reggie Miller’s infamous back-and-forth during the 1994 Game 5 of the Knicks vs. Pacers Eastern Conference finals was defined by Miller’s 25-point fourth quarter and capped off with Miller’s choking gesture to Lee. The tense moment is immortal, iconic NBA playoff lore.

For the Los Angeles Lakers, courtside culture can be dated to the legendary actress Doris Day, better known as “the Neil Armstrong of Lakers’ celebrities.” Day, the biggest female box office star of the late ’50s and early ’60s, opened the courtside door at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Fellow A-listers such as Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau followed her in to watch future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor lead the Lakers to multiple Finals appearances. The move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles made the Lakers the NBA’s first West Coast squad in 1960 — a move directly influenced by Lakers owner Bob Short noticing the financial gold mine the Dodgers found in L.A. following their move from Brooklyn, New York, two years earlier.

The appearance of celebrities courtside exploded in the era of the Magic Johnson-led “Showtime” Lakers. Johnson embodied 1980s Hollywood — the flashy play, the good looks and, of course, that 2,000-watt smile. Comedian Arsenio Hall was a regular at the Forum, as was singer Dionne Warwick, Michael J. Fox, Ted Danson, Jimmy Goldstein and, most famous of them all, Jack Nicholson. These were kings and queens of that era’s show business realm.

“If you’re an A-level person, and we know the fans are going to go bananas when your picture goes up on the scoreboard, then there’s a value having you there,” Barry Watkins has said. He’s the Madison Square Garden Co.’s executive vice president and chief communications officer. He’s the plug when it comes to courtside seats at the Garden. “It’s a big part of the brand. Win or lose, it’s one of the reasons people come to the games.” Entertainers want to be entertained, too. Plus, basketball and Hollywood were meant to be significant others off the rip: talent, egos, competition, drama, controversy, animosities and, all playing out under the bright, bright lights.

According to Shawn “Pecas” Costner, vice president of player relations at Roc Nation Sports, the continued charm of courtside seats has largely to do with the popularity and influence of hip-hop culture. “The flyest thing you can do at a basketball game — besides play in the game — is sit courtside,” he said from his New York City office.

And this is not solely due to the glamour and bravado associated with rap. Pecas believes that these days, the courtside thing is just as much about the hard-knock journeys associated with the music’s biggest stars. Pecas came to Roc Nation Sports in 2014, following 18 years in the music business, most notably as executive vice president at Def Jam Recordings. The Bronx, New York. native, who grew up with Big Pun, Lord Tariq and Jennifer Lopez, earned his stripes in several capacities at V2, Elektra and Arista Records before joining Def Jam in 2005. “When we were kids,” he said, “and used to go see the Knicks play the Bulls on Christmas Day, we were in the 300 section. You had to bring your binoculars to watch. You always wanted to see who was the one or two black guys sitting courtside because at that time, it was only one or two.”

While not quite a regular courtside fixture, Pecas has his share of memories. He and his longtime colleague Mike Kyser, president of black music at Atlantic Records, sat courtside for rookie game and dunk and 3-point contests at the 2012 All-Star Weekend in Orlando, Florida. Pecas would normally give his tickets away to artists in town for the big game on Sunday, but as destiny would have it, not as many came that year, and Pecas and Kyser received floor seat assignments for the actual All-Star contest. “You’re like, ‘Oh s—!’” he said, his voice getting higher as he takes a trip down memory lane. “ ‘Am I courtside for the NBA All-Star Game?’ You gotta make sure the outfit is right just in case. Make sure you wear the right sneakers.”

The game itself was one of the more entertaining All-Star Games in recent memory, the highlight being a LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant scoring barrage. Pecas and friends documented the memories on social media with the hashtags such as #OnTheWood, and #Woody Harrelson. In Pecas’ office hangs framed photo of himself in the New York Daily News. He looks on as Kevin Durant — now a Roc Nation client — flushes home a dunk with James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love looking on.

As for this year’s NBA Finals, Pecas said he can’t even begin to predict the number of celebrities who’ll be sitting courtside for however long the Warriors and Cavaliers do business. The possibilities are limitless because the NBA is more committed to its fans both domestically and abroad than any other American sports entity. While cries of superteams killing the product cause constant debates at social media and on sports talk shows, the NBA celebrated its third consecutive record-breaking year of fan attendance. And the NBA certainly loves the social status of having some of the world’s biggest celebrities taking in the game mere feet away from some of the world’s most popular athletes. The photos below showcase some of those personalities, from yesteryear to the present.

Pecas said it’s difficult to describe the feeling of sitting courtside, but he gives it a try: “Sitting courtside is like flying private for the first time,” he said. “You never wanna go back.”

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Jay Z and Kevin Hart share a laugh at Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Time heals all wounds, so one can only hope they’re sharing a laugh about the time the comedian once spilled an entire bottle of pineapple juice on Jay Z and his wife, Beyoncé, in a nightclub.

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That’s Rihanna at Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals probably yelling at Kevin Durant. Given her history with the Warriors these past few seasons, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction she gets the next time she has a concert in Oakland, California, or San Francisco. (Spoiler: She’ll still sell out the arena and be welcomed like a queen because her fan base really doesn’t care about her sports preferences.)

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Never, ever doubt Spike Lee’s loyalty to his New York Knicks. Here’s the famed director in January 2013 at London’s O2 Arena for a regular season game between the Knicks and Detroit Pistons. This won’t happen — but if the Knicks win an NBA title within the next 15-20 years, Lee needs to be the first person to hoist the trophy. That’s the least we can do after the powers that be robbed him (and Denzel Washington) of an Oscar for Malcolm X.

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While I did get to attend Dave Chappelle’s famous Juke Joint party this year in New Orleans, I’m greedy. This is the same reaction I have every time I think of the Chris Rock/Chappelle superset they did in The Big Easy in late March. In reality, it’s Rock gesturing at Will Smith at Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

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On the bright side, Mary J. Blige got a chance to see Kobe Bryant drop 50 points on Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the 2006 opening round quarterfinals. On a not-so-bright side, it’s almost as if you can see the inevitable written on her face — the Los Angeles Lakers blowing a 3-1 series lead and Bryant having the most controversial game of his career in Game 7.

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Sean “Diddy” Combs and Snoop Dogg: Pictured at Game 6 of the 2010 Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, neither knew the series would shift that night when center Kendrick Perkins went down with a knee injury. There’s also no confirmation if the two spoke of their appearance on The Steve Harvey Show as they attempted to quell the simmering East Coast-West Coast tensions 13 years earlier.

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At this point, the New York Knicks need whatever residual prayers are left over from Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act series.

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LeBron James and Drake: There’s no rapper currently who enjoys the perks of sitting courtside more than Drake. Perhaps paying respects in The 6, that’s LeBron James taking a drink from Kevin Hart and giving it to the Toronto Raptors ambassador during the 2016 All-Star Game in Toronto.

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Everyone wanted hottest ticket in America in the fall of 2010 to see the Miami Heat’s new “big three” of Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Including the greatest of all time herself, Serena Jameka Williams.

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Jack Nicholson and Michael Jordan: The Joker and The Cold Blooded Killer post up at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles on Feb. 28, 1999, for a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. The night featured six Hall of Famers (Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Rodman and MJ, himself, courtside). Seven including future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.

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Stuart Scott, Samuel L. Jackson and Allen Iverson — In one of the cooler sports pictures out there, we’ve got three legends. One in Samuel L. Jackson who, if he doesn’t by now, should have a trademark on the word “m—–f—–.” Two, we have Allen Ezail Iverson, 2016 Hall of Fame inductee and NBA living legend. And three, Stuart Scott doing what he always did best. R.I.Booyah, Stu. We still miss you.

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Murder Inc.’s two genius creative seen here in 2002 at a Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors game. That year — ironically the one before 50 Cent became global sensation — was a good one for the label. Ja Rule and Ashanti’s “Always On Time” and “Down 4 U” both made Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 Singles.

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Here we have Diana Ross at a Knicks and Charlotte Hornets playoff game with her sons. Fun fact: Ross’ No. 1 smash single “Touch Me In The Morning” was released on the same day the New York Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the 1973 NBA Finals — a series that would give the storied franchise its last NBA title.

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Barry Obama’s love of hoops is one of the most relatable and endearing parts of his legacy. He even had a court put in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Here’s the 44th president sitting courtside at an October 2015 game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Obama’s hometown Chicago Bulls.

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John Legend, Benny The Bull, and Chrissy Teigen — Life was all good for the Bulls in 2011. Derrick Rose was a superstar en route to an MVP season. They were the top seed in the East. And Benny The Bull had model Chrissy Teigen sit on his lap while future husband John Legend snaps a picture.

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YG and Nipsey Hussle: When they’re not making anti-President Donald Trump anthems, two of L.A.’s finest young guns can be found supporting the hometown squad. This was also the game that birthed one of the funnier basketball memes of the season, too.

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Supporting her husband, Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union takes in the festivities of Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. The Miami Heat would, of course, go on to win that game and repeat as NBA champions. But not without its share of drama.

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Jay Z and Beyoncé Sure, the Cleveland Cavaliers fell down 0-2 to the Warriors last year and won four of the last five. But that was last year before a 7-foot pterodactyl with range out of the gym joined the squad. If you’re Cleveland, it’s time to call in the secret weapon: Beyoncé. She look like she’s ready to give birth at any moment to the twins (if we’re lucky, they’re named Bad and Boujee Carter). But LeBron James always plays superhuman — and he’s going to have to play super, super, superhuman to beat the Seal Team 6 Warriors. That only happens if The Queen is courtside.

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Will Smith and Jada Pinkett — One of America’s longtime premier black power couples is no stranger to the courtside life. Here, the two TV stars turned movie stars share a smooch. The No. 1 all-time Will and Jada courtside story? Three days following the release of what became The Fresh Prince’s most commercially successful album in Big Willie Style and a month before their wedding, the couple attended the Sixers/Lakers game on Nov. 28, 1997. The matchup featured a pair of Hall of Famers dueling it out in Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, who came off the bench. But more importantly, the couple got up close and personal with Jerry Stackhouse and Eddie Jones, who crashed into them.

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Wanda Durant and Marshawn Lynch — In the past year, Oakland, California, has welcomed Kevin Durant — and by proxy his mother, Wanda Durant — and its favorite football son, Marshawn Lynch, back to The Town’s fold. Both pictured here at Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals. While it wouldn’t be surprising if the Golden State Warriors held on to win two more games, the more fascinating plot twist is if they let Lynch party with them during a potential championship parade. Mic Lynch and Draymond Green up and show it on pay-per-view.

Daily Dose: 5/11/17 Steve Harvey does not have time for your nonsense

Wednesday night was a very depressing one for D.C. sports fans. The Capitals lost Game 7 to the Penguins and the Wizards got blown out by the Celtics, but the Nationals did get a walk-off. Consolation, but not the one I wanted.

Another day, another Confederate statue removed. This time it was Jefferson Davis, whom you might remember for his work as the president of said states. In the discussion about how to properly handle our sordid past, I stand firmly in the “tear it all down” camp, so all this nonsense about preserving history is lost on me. This is the second time New Orleans has done this, and once again it brought out protests and Confederate flags, which is obviously terrifying. Two down, who knows how many to go.

The impression I get from the president is often a sad one. A guy who had everything he wanted, but let ego get the best of him, went after the highest office in the land, only to actually get it and then find out the cruelest irony of human existence: Fantasy is often better than reality. Now, as the guy living alone in the White House, he just wanders around forcing people to be by his side while he tries to impress them with his vast knowledge of basic technologies like DVR. This story about Trump’s after-hours lifestyle in D.C. is fascinating.

Speaking of guys running one-man operations, there’s Steve Harvey. He’s a busy guy, you see? He hosts a morning radio show. He hosts all sorts of television programs, not the least of which is Family Feud, the greatest American television game show of all time. He’s also had his own daily syndicated television show, which is now moving to Los Angeles after five years in Chicago. And as it turns out, Harvey doesn’t particularly enjoy the company of others in the work environment. Check this out.

It’s impossible to overstate how much war affects people. In the case of a civil one, which is influenced by all sorts of outside actors, it’s particularly complicated. So for athletes in these nations, representing their country is difficult. And in some scenarios, it’s a legitimate life-or-death decision. Do you stand to wear the flag of a politician or leader you don’t respect? Or do you play because it’s your heart’s will and you can perhaps bring some joy to your otherwise struggling nation? In Syria, it’s the toughest question of all.

Free Food

Coffee Break: There are certain relationships that are stalwarts in the community. Barack and Michelle. Jay and Bey. Offset and Cardi B. Pillars of love and upstanding partnerships. One such was Cellino & Barnes, who created the greatest law firm jingle of all time. Now, Cellino is suing Barnes. I am crestfallen.

Snack Time: I love sushi. I also love sneakers. But sneakers made out of sushi are a bit much for me. But hey, if food art is your thing, check out this collection from a guy who’s really into kicks and raw fish.

Dessert: Here’s a nice song for a rainy spring day.

Being a black Power Ranger New actor RJ Cyler joins the elite and small club of black superheroes

RJ Cyler is the new Blue Power Ranger. Not the Black one.

Well, he is the black one. But his costume is blue.

He was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. “Duval County,” Cyler said emphatically of the big port city. He spent most of his adolescence dancing, skating and playing a lot of video games. A DJ since he was 16, Cyler also played drums for and sang in his church choir. Though he admitted he can’t sing all that well. “I think,” he said, “they were only doing it because they felt like that was the Christian thing to do.” He also grew up watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, favoring the Red and the Blue Rangers because those were his favorite colors. “I’m not,” said Cyler, “a confused gang member or nothing like that.”

What is he? A part of a growing list of young black male actors breaking out in Hollywood — John Boyega (Star Wars), Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), Corey Hawkins (24: Legacy) and Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta). He also joins the ranks of Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as blacks starring in big-budget superhero franchises that gross billions of dollars.

For Cyler, that’s Power Rangers (Lionsgate), a 21st-century reimagining of the original series that debuted on Fox Children’s Network in 1993 and aired each weekday afternoon and on Saturday mornings. The show’s initial characters, Zack, the Black Ranger; Billy, the Blue Ranger; Trini, the Yellow Ranger; Kimberly, the Pink Ranger; and Jason, the Red Ranger, will all be returning.

Last Halloween, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving dressed up as a milly-rocking Red Ranger.

During the height of the show’s popularity, if any of those original five cast members even went out in public for dinner, dozens of fans would line up for an autograph, sometimes ignoring other arguably more famous stars at the same restaurant. The Power Rangers would regularly outdraw Santa Claus at shopping malls. The Los Angeles Times once referred to Rangers mania as “the pre-adolescents’ equivalent of the Beatles.”

That impact lives on: Lil Wayne named a track from his 2012 mixtape Dedication 4, “Green Ranger,” referring to the show’s most popular character. Professional wrestler Austin Watson, who performs in WWE as Xavier Woods, has long incorporated Power Rangers into his character, even starring as the Black Ranger in a fan fiction YouTube series.

Last Halloween, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving dressed up as a milly-rocking Red Ranger. And in 2015, famed film director Joseph Kahn released a critically acclaimed fan film that envisioned the Power Rangers as dark, brooding mercenaries, a la Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. There’s also the someone’s-drunk-uncle-on-the-highway Blue Ranger who took over the internet last year.

When they’ve met the Power Rangers, even grown men have cried.


Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was created in 1993 by former music producer Haim Saban. The Godzilla-like, low-budget series about five teenagers being given intergalactic and prehistoric superpowers quickly became one of the most successful children’s television shows of the 1990s. Saban, who also produced the highly successful animated X-Men series, had his Power Rangers idea rejected by almost every major network before Fox greenlit the show in the summer of 1993.

The cast from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (from left to right): Amy Jo Johnson, Thuy Trang, Austin St. John, Walter Jones and David Yost.

Alamy

Then-Fox Children’s Network president Margaret Loesch, who was responsible for putting the show on the network, was told by the head of Fox Broadcasting to shelve the project before it even aired because it would be a “disaster.” But within months of the show’s September 1993 premiere, it was the highest-rated children’s show in America.

The most recent season of Power Rangers averages a respectable 1.5 million viewers a week, but during its first and second seasons, the show averaged 4.8 million and 6.9 million viewers a day, respectively. During its peak, five martial-arts-practicing teenagers were regularly battling the likes of Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake and Maury Povich. And at one point, Power Rangers was drawing more TV households than Oprah Winfrey. With a mixture of cartoonlike explosions and monsters, plus teenage superheroes whom the targeted audience could relate to and aspire to be, Power Rangers unearthed the secret formula to capturing the attention of candy-riddled children.

While the show’s strongest viewership was among boys age 8-11 racing home from school to watch each episode, it was No. 1 among 2- to 11-year-olds, scoring a whopping 40 share within a month of its premiere episode. Alongside Bobby’s World, Tiny Toon Adventures, X-Men, Batman: The Animated Series and Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, Power Rangers made the now-defunct Fox Kids the most-watched channel for children’s programming in the early 1990s. A children’s research executive estimated at the time that 26 million kids were watching Fox programming in 1994, not including the millions of children watching across 40-plus other countries.

The show spawned two movies — 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie and 1997’s Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie. They grossed more than $70 million combined. And according to the Los Angeles Times, 1 million videocassettes of the series were sold over a two-week span in December 1993. Power Rangers was the No. 1 boys brand in the world from 1993-97, responsible for more than $5 billion in product sales for Saban and his production company. Saban Entertainment made an estimated $1 billion in U.S. sales based off Rangers paraphernalia within its first 15 months alone, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fox executives estimated that the total rose to $2 billion when including worldwide sales.


Tall, wiry and as baby-faced as a high school freshman, Cyler, 22, has played a teenager on numerous occasions, including in the new Power Rangers. An admitted “weirdo” who will rock a bucket hat and taco-adorned dress shirt one day and a gold grill and tie-dye T-shirt the next, he’s also a fan of Star Wars, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, and considers the Isley Brothers his favorite musical act of all time.

Growing up, he was the water boy for his middle school’s basketball team. “It was because,” he said, “I wasn’t good enough to be on the basketball team.” At Jacksonville’s Englewood High School (which boasts such distinguished alumni as the Washington Nationals’ Daniel Murphy and Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst), he was named sophomore class president. “I was definitely Theater-Band Geek/Straight-Up Boss Subgroup C [in high school],” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2015.

“At one point, Power Rangers was drawing more TV households than Oprah Winfrey.”

Cyler knew he wanted to be an actor at 16. “I used to watch the Disney Channel,” he said, “like it was a drug.” He needed to be in a career that allowed him to express his creativity, and when he heard a commercial about an acting camp in Los Angeles, he went, excelled, and the next thing he knew he had a one-way ticket out of Jacksonville, which he compared to a war battlefield. “If I wouldn’t have moved out of Jacksonville when I did, nine times out of 10 I would be in jail or dead, and that’s not just being a stereotypical thing, it’s just in my city, it’s not a place where you can just be like, ‘Oh, yeah, do this, do that.’ No, people die in my city every single day.”

In 2013, the family totally committed to his dream when his parents cashed in their retirement savings so the then-17-year-old and his mom could move to Los Angeles. After about a year of just him and his mother Katina living on the West Coast, Cyler’s “papa,” Ronald, sold the family’s home in Jacksonville and drove to California to join them. But shortly after Ronald arrived, life, said Cyler, “kicked me in my nuts.” For three months, the family was homeless. They lived out of their Toyota Highlander and at a Motel 6. The family’s faith kept them whole. “If God brought us to this place, [there was] a reason for it, so we can’t question that,” said Cyler. “We just got to remember that we gon’ make it through.”

The family got back on its feet after Cyler nabbed a role in the award-winning indie teen drama, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. “I lost my mind,” said Cyler said about booking the movie. “I just screamed … at the end of the day, God is too damn good.”

RJ Cyler attends a fan event at Y100 on March 6 in Miramar, Florida.

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for Saban's Power Rangers

Which makes Cyler a busy man these days. HBO’s raunchy comedy Vice Principals premiered last summer, and the second and final season is set to air this year. In it, he plays the foul-mouthed teenage son of no-nonsense character Dr. Belinda Brown. The series premiere of the Jim Carrey-produced Showtime sitcom I’m Dying Up Here debuts in June — Cyler co-stars. And he will star alongside Brad Pitt in Netflix’s Afghanistan war satire War Machine in May. In December 2016, it was reported that Cyler will star in a “modern retelling” of Cyrano de Bergerac called Sierra Burgess Is A Loser.

That busy schedule leaves no time even for a girlfriend. “Oh, hell, no. My last — oh, Jesus Christ! My last relationship showed me why I just need to chill.” Although, now that he is more visible than ever, he has a twinkle in his eye for singer and former Disney star Zendaya. “Ever since she’s been on TV, she’s always had a really cool, cute vibe. And now that she’s growing up, she’s just bossy lady-ing it up. That vibe is like 10 times worse, and I’m like, ‘Yassssss, queen, yasssss.’ ” Zendaya, though, can’t hold a candle to actress and country music star Reba McEntire. “Reba is one fine country woman to me.”

Cyler, like many, was excited to hear about Power Rangers coming back to theaters, and about a year after the studio’s announcement, he was asked to audition. In the middle of filming War Machine, Cyler sent in his audition tape. He was soon offered the part by director Dean Israelite. “I lost my mind,” said Cyler. “I was like, ‘Hell, yeah! I’m in.’ ”


In the nearly 25-year history of Power Rangers, there have been more than 100 actors and actresses who’ve donned the show’s patented multicolored spandex suits and helmets. Of that total, 16 are black, though there was no shortage of representation on-screen. David Yost, who starred on the series from 1993-96, came out as gay in 2010. And one of the biggest headlines to emerge in the run-up to the new film is that there’s a gay character in Power Rangers: “the first big-budget superhero movie to feature an LGBT protagonist.” From the show’s inception there was a concerted effort “to avoid racial and sexual stereotyping,” Loesch, the former Fox executive, told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. (An African-American playing the Black Ranger and a Vietnamese-American playing the Yellow Ranger on the original show, though, was a coincidence.) “For a change, female characters are as vital as the males. They’re superheroes, and little girls don’t have that too often,” Loesch added.

The women performed their own stunts and went toe-to-toe with their male counterparts, leading to young girls to make up more than 40 percent of the show’s audience after its first season. The TV show appealed to a diverse audience, and dodging stereotypes in the new film, Ludi Lin, who is Asian, is a shirtless male hunk who also raps. “The fact that it was a diverse cast,” said Walter Jones, the original Black Ranger, Zack Taylor, “it gave everybody a possibility of being that hero.”

Per Adilifu Nama’s 2011 Super Black American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, other than Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the Batman television series (1967), Avery Brooks in A Man Called Hawk (1989) and Carl Lumbly in M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-95), there was little to no representation of African-Americans as superheroic. While the 1990s was a golden age of black television — The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and Living Single, and more — it did lack black characters, such as a Superman or Batman, saving the world. Black comic book heroes such as Luke Cage, Falcon and Green Lantern premiered in the 1960s and 1970s, but the Black Ranger, as a part of the culture-defining television series, became the default hero for black kids growing up in the 1990s.

From left to right: Roger Velasco, Catherine Sutherland, Selwyn Ward, Tracy Lynn Cruz and Blake Foster from Power Rangers Turbo.

Alamy

Blacks have donned every costume color on the show. In 2015, then-21-year-old Camille Hyde became the first black actress to play the Pink Ranger. Every season has a character who plays the leader role — normally the Red Ranger — and black characters have held that position three times — Jessica Jones and Empire actor Eka Darville starred as the Red Ranger in 2009. Though none has been a black woman.


Walter Emanuel Jones heard about an audition for a new kids superhero show between auditions for Star Search. Jones was trying to break into show business as an actor, singer and dancer, and Saban Entertainment was looking for a suave, hip individual who could do two of the three for its upcoming children’s show. For the Detroit native, this was an opportunity to showcase his various talents, overcome a rough childhood in the Motor City, and play a black crime fighter. Jones, a former college roommate of Jamie Foxx, beat out thousands of others to play Zack Taylor on the first season of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

With his signature hairstyles — the hi-top fade, and later on, twists — as well as smooth dance moves and unmitigated swagger (he once dapped up the show’s robotic sidekick, Alpha 5), Jones embodied early-’90s hip-hop music, style and fashion. He even created his own form of martial arts called Hip Hop Kido — the only character in the history of the show to do so — which mixed b-boy breakdancing and Jackie Chan-inspired tae kwon do.

“It’s literally a kids movie, it’s a show. Shut up. God, Everything isn’t about race.”

Jones, when he went home to Detroit, saw firsthand the effect his casting had on little boys and girls across the country. “Listen, I grew up here,” he would tell students at his former schools. “I grew up in a single-family household with a mom who couldn’t always pay the bills … I didn’t know what my direction was going to be right away, but I found an opportunity and I took advantage of it, and I’m able to succeed. If I can do it, you can do it.”

He remembers one incident during the show’s pilot episode in which he was told to constantly say, in a stereotypical fashion,“What’s up?” when entering a scene. “They wanted me to say [it] like 25 times: What’s up, what’s up … whazzup, whazzup, what’s up, what’s up. This whole crazy thing, and I was like, ‘Can I not say what’s up that many times? It’s a bit excessive.’ ”

Actor Walter Jones attends the Third Annual Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Nov. 1, 2014, in Los Angeles.

Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Jones left the show at the height of its popularity in November 1994 over contractual issues, but unlike most former Power Rangers actors, he has carved out a nearly 30-year career, working as both a film and voice actor. “I’m proof that kids from underprivileged areas have what it takes to achieve whatever they want,” Jones told PR Newswire in 1994. “If they put their minds to it.”

The 16 actors who’ve taken on these roles — not including two who had recurring roles during seasons two and three — have unfairly been tasked with representing the millions of young black kids who’ve watched Power Rangers over the past two decades. Some readily accept that duty, recognizing the importance of black faces on television, while others are more colorblind, focusing on the broader impact the show has had on all young children.

John Mark Loudermilk, who was a part of the 2013-14 “Megaforce” seasons, and identifies as “Hispanic plus white slash half black,” was the franchise’s most recent black male character. As a child he gravitated to the Black Ranger, and once on the show, referred to himself as the “brown Billy,” in reference to the original white character. The 25-year-old, who was adopted by white parents when he was 2 weeks old, has never paid much to attention race. “Being the token brown guy, if you will, I never really thought about that,” said Loudermilk. “I don’t really look at people as a color. I see people for who they are in their heart.”

Keith Robinson, who appeared on the show in 2000 as part of “Lightspeed Rescue,” didn’t watch the show as a teenager, but once he moved to Los Angeles, he took an acting class and the first role he read for was one on Power Rangers. He played comic relief Joel Rawlings, who also happened to be a cowboy. “It was unique that they did make him a black cowboy,” he said. “Which was [something] you … see hardly ever on TV.”

Robinson, who’s since appeared in 2006’s Dreamgirls and 2007’s This Christmas, filled a void simply by existing. Representation, he realized, matters, even on a campy show about fighting poorly contrived monsters like the Pineoctopus. “You see a lot of young black boys who say, ‘Hey, there’s somebody who looks like me. I can be a superhero. and be positive.’ ”

Karan Ashley was the first black woman to play a Power Ranger, appearing in seasons 2 and 3 as Yellow Ranger Aisha Campbell. She also starred in the franchise’s first feature-length film, 1995’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie. Ashley was once in the all-girl singing group Krush, who appeared on the soundtrack for 1992’s Mo’ Money. She’s also had guest roles on Kenan and Kel, The Steve Harvey Show and One on One.

The stars of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

“I loved my character, obviously. I was the Black girl,” Ashley told the Los Angeles Sentinel in 2015. “They let me get braids — they let me be the Black girl. For me, it was such an important thing to be a positive role model for young Black girls because I felt like we had never had that on TV, especially that young.”

Nakia Burrise replaced Ashley in 1996 to become the show’s second black female character, spending two seasons playing Tanya Sloan, the Yellow Ranger. Like Ashley, Burrise also starred in a movie — 1997’s Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.

The California native studied theater at UCLA, alongside former Grey’s Anatomy actor Cress Williams, and was cast in the fourth season of Power Rangers during her junior year. After leaving the show in 1997, Burrise has since appeared on Smart Guy, Moesha and various television commercials.

And she, too, directly saw the impact of her face being transmitted to millions of little black kids every day. “Power Rangers gave children and adults alike the feeling that you can do anything. ‘Oh, my gosh, I see someone on television that looks just like me and is saving the world.’ It gave them the opportunity to look up to someone.” Aside from representation for African-Americans, Burrise said, the show was also meaningful for the millions of impressionable youths tuning in as well. “There were a lot of elements to the show that really helped with bullying, self-image, making right choices in life,” she said.

“People come up to [me] all the time,” said Burrisse, “and tell me how Power Rangers or my character saved their life.”


The character Billy Cranston was the nerdy, awkward outcast of show who was always picked on by bullies, and was normally the butt of everyone’s jokes. Unlike the other well-trained members of the Power Rangers group, Billy didn’t originally know any martial arts, and was less undaunted when it came to facing raspy-voiced antagonist Rita Repulsa and her gang of Putty Patrollers. Despite those limitations, Billy was the most intelligent citizen of fictitious Angel Grove, California, most notably creating the group’s wrist communicators — the precursor to wearable technology like the Apple Watch.

Yost was nowhere near as intelligent as his character. “The writers would write these ridiculous lines with all these big words, and I had no idea what my character was saying, so I’d have to go into my dressing room and break out the dictionary.” And, as is the case for many bespectacled youths navigating adolescence, no child wanted to be the Blue Ranger. “Sorry, but our 8-year-old a—s really weren’t down with the one mega geek on the squad,” Black Nerd Problems’ Ja-Quan Greene wrote last year. But that all may change with a black man taking over.

“I used to watch the Disney Channel,” RJ Tyler said, “like it was a drug.”

Like Jones before him, Cyler brings a coolness to his character that was perhaps absent with Yost. The new Billy has traits of the old — dresses like a high school science teacher, gets picked on a lot — but he also brings in bits of Cyler. From his deadpan humor (“That’s a strong a– hologram”) to his facial reactions, all the way to his fresh shape-up, Cyler could make kids want to be the black Power Ranger, even while wearing blue. “I think he’s going to be a little bit more humorous than my Billy was, maybe,” Yost joked. The character is also on the spectrum in the new movie.

But for Cyler, color — whether referring to race or the hue of his costume — never crossed his mind when considering the movie. Heading into the audition process, he knew would be reading for the part of the Blue Ranger, believing that Billy’s persona — quirky and geeky — matched up perfectly with his. “This just sounds like me when I was 13.”

From left: Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Dacre Montgomery, Ludi Lin and Becky G in a scene from Power Rangers.

Kimberly French/Lionsgate via AP

During casting, there were no ethnicities designated for any of the starring roles, so he wasn’t limited to just going out for the Black Ranger because of who played the part almost 25 years ago. “Power Rangers had no business being something that was looked at as, ‘Oh, they’re doing this for racial reasons.’ It’s literally a kids movie, it’s a show. Shut up. God, Everything isn’t about race,” he said. “It’s just annoying when people read into stuff too much. It’s just like, ‘Oh, crap, there’s no way in hell that the black dude could be the smart dude?’ You guys are serious right now? It’s the dumbest s— I’ve ever heard of.”

Ever since nabbing the part, Cyler has been asked by just about everyone why he isn’t playing the Black Ranger. For those who grew up on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, nostalgia won’t allow them to accept a Zack who isn’t black, a Kimberly who isn’t a Valley Girl in distress or a Billy without blond hair and glasses. As much as the world evolves and demographics change and societal norms are broken, humans are still creatures of the past, comfortable only when things stay the same. But for Cyler, the young man who broke into Hollywood just two years ago, and whose future is as bright as the metallic armor he wears, the answer is rather simple for him.

“Bro … I’m a Power Ranger, period.”

‘Burning Sands’ shows pledging and heinous abuse — but not much brotherhood The film is a necessary but flawed act of tough love

Burning Sands is an act of bravery.

Gerard McMurray, making his directorial debut, is a member of one of the most popular — and boisterous — of the nine black fraternities and sororities, Omega Psi Phi. The organization is home to such notable figures as Langston Hughes, Steve Harvey, Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jesse Jr., Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan. Omega, like the other frats, is known for brotherhood, service and activism. And it’s especially known for stomping in combat boots whenever George Clinton’s 1982 “Atomic Dog” blasts from speakers. But this movie isn’t about Omega Psi Phi. It’s about black Greek life as a whole, for better or worse. And mostly worse.

McMurray’s drama, Burning Sands, is about pledging a black fraternity and it’ll be a hot topic from the moment it hits Netflix servers on March 10. Because, much like the pledging process itself — when it’s done the right way — Burning Sands, shot in 18 days on a limited budget, is an exercise in tough love. Using graphic, even chilling imagery, the film has a simple message: stop hazing.


Five young men are pledging “Lambda Phi” fraternity at the fictional Frederick Douglass University. Burning Sands was actually filmed in and around Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia, and the movie takes place over a week — “Hell Week” — or the most strenuous hazing portion of the pledging process.

In the film’s first scene, Zurich (Trevor Jackson) and his five “line brothers” (one of whom quits at the end of this scene) are jogging in place in a forest. Suddenly, Zurich has to do push-ups while a hazer — an older member of the fraternity — viciously kicks him in the ribs. It’s a brutal scene.

Soon, the five pledgees — students with diverse backgrounds and personalities ranging from nerdy to aggressive — find their grades are suffering. Their relationships suffer. Perhaps it’s because they’re beat to bloody hell for the duration of the movie, including another brutal scene in which pledges are taken to a barn to get punched in their ribs, hit across their feet with coat hangers and forced to eat dog food. Jackson, though, sees the film as a balanced look at black college life. “The movie isn’t pro or against the choices the kids make,” he said. “I take away perseverance from the movie. I take away unity. It’s a balanced movie.”

Pledges are taken to a barn to get punched in their ribs, hit with coat hangers across their feet and forced to eat dog food.

McMurray, who was a producer on 2013’s acclaimed Fruitvale Station, is going to face backlash from members of the Divine Nine, young and old, who believe he’s betraying closely held black Greek life secrets and painting a negative picture of the pledging process. But he’s trying to preserve black Greek organizations by preventing the consequences associated with hazing. “This movie puts a mirror up,” said McMurray via phone. “It questions, Why are we hazing? We need these organizations, and hazing is threatening them.”

Black Greek life is a cornerstone of the African-American college — and professional — experience. For some black college students, especially those at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), deciding on and pledging a fraternity or sorority is almost as important as figuring out a major. Black Greek-letter organizations represent community, college education and a network of professionals united by common bonds, and attacks on them are usually met with fierce resistance. And any attack on them perpetrated by a black person — especially one who is a member of one of these organizations, is most often seen as an act of betrayal.

It’s a bit of an exaggeration to make this point, but Burning Sands could, in theory, do for black Greek life what Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle did to save lives by exposing the dangerous conditions of laborers in America’s meat-packing industry. The movie could do what Frederick Douglass’ autobiography did for slavery, revealing the horrors of institution. At the very least, Burning Sands may cause members of the Divine Nine to rethink their policies on hazing — which is actually very strict, and denounces any form of hazing.

The thing is, when this anti-hazing policy was enacted in 1990, some chapters began going “underground” with violent pledge practices. As a result, hazing became more violent and also unsupervised by the usual graduate members and regional officials. There’s even a culture of shame surrounding people who weren’t hazed, as they’re called “paper” and often seen as being less deserving of membership if they weren’t at least paddled — but there’s no way to truly justify the practice’s continuance.

McMurray wants organizations to challenge the status quo, and challenge traditions, And while he wants to save lives, he said, his film is not personal. “This,” he said, “is not my biopic. This is not my life story. I love my fraternity, and I want to see it to continue to be great.”


“People who haven’t seen the whole movie have passed judgment,” McMurray said. “Burning Sands is a tale of brotherhood. It’s not an indictment of fraternities and sororities.” McMurray is, quite frankly, being too optimistic. The entire act of pledging a black fraternity or sorority is a demonstration of secrecy. No one knows who’s part of an incoming line of members until a big reveal, or a “probate,” and nobody is to know what happens during the pledging process.

Hazing is commonplace in Greek life — as it is in with some marching bands (black and otherwise) and some athletic teams (black and otherwise). But most who have gone through the process speak about what they went through in vague, nonincriminating terms. Burning Sands removes the shroud of secrecy, exposing abuse.


In 2010, Prairie View A&M University disbanded the Phi Beta Sigma chapter after attempting to cover up the group’s involvement in the death of 20-year-old Donnie Wade Jr. Wade suffered from acute exertional rhabdomyolysis, a rare disease in which strenuous activity results in sudden death. Instead of calling an ambulance, the pledges drove Wade to a hospital 30 miles away. He was dead on arrival. The tragedy is alluded to in Burning Sands.

The members of my fraternity who pledged me made sure I had an enlightening experience. For me, the pledging process was about learning more about Phi Beta Sigma, getting to know my line brother and forming a lifetime bond with him and gaining a deeply profound appreciation for the organization I’d be a part of for the rest of my life. I was also 19 and young enough to drive 20 miles north at any time of night. When I talk to friends in other organizations and even to members of my own, they talk about endless violence and fear. For them, Burning Sands may ring truer. A general and very nonscientific consensus around the pledging process is: I don’t regret it, but I wouldn’t do it again. No matter what anyone’s personal experience is, we should all be able to agree to end hazing.

Burning Sands is the most in-depth look at black Greek life in cinema. It has an important, if didactic, message that could save black fraternities and sororities. I just wish Gerard McMurray had shown more of the beauty that these organizations represent. Flaws and all.

Daily Dose: 2/27/17 All Oscars, all the time

The Morning Roast was a fun one this week, even though your boy was low on energy. Here’s Sunday’s show and, remember, if you subscribe and leave a review, you’ll be in on the ground floor of awesome. Or something.

Steve Harvey wins the day. After the scene that was at the end of the Oscars on Sunday night, he’s 100 percent vindicated for whatever happened at that Miss Universe contest. But more importantly: HOW. DOES. THIS. HAPPEN!?! So many things had to go wrong. But that final part, where Warren Beatty didn’t feel compelled to speak up and Faye Dunaway just read the big words on the card? That’s how institutionalized power works. Neither one of them had the wits to do the right thing and just say: Hey, there’s a mistake. Total debacle all around, alas.

Moonlight, however, won the night. Mahershala Ali took home the award for best supporting actor and was extremely eloquent and gracious in his speech. His wife just had a baby, so he got up there and commended her on how well she’s handled everything, considering she was pregnant during awards season. Also, the pictures that came out of the red carpet and the weekend were great. The kids from the movie were having a blast the entire time, which they deserved. Ali was the first Muslim actor to win that award.

As for the rest of the night, there was a lot. Let’s run down the list. People Magazine‘s editorial director actually said “Hidden Fences” and caught insta-shade from Robin Roberts. Halle Berry broke out a new wig and it was promptly snatched by Twitter. Taraji P. Henson was slaying, too. Host Jimmy Kimmel tried to trick a bunch of people into making fools of themselves, then they stole the show. Viola Davis gave us the best acceptance speech we’ve seen since her last one. Oh, and the Oscars put up a picture of someone who is very much alive during the “In Memoriam” segment.

Ezra Edelman is now an Oscar winner. I say that with much joy, because I was lucky enough to meet him and talk with him after his documentary O.J.: Made In America aired on national television. It deservedly won the best documentary feature award and when Ezra got on stage, he made it clear why he made the film at all. I’ve said this before, but what’s wild is that O.J. Simpson still might get out of prison and live his life on the outside for some time. I wonder what this third chapter will bring.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The film that won for best documentary short is one called The White Helmets, which is about the Syria Civil Defense, a group that works to rescue people from rubble following air strikes. One sad development is that the cinematographer of the film never made it to Hollywood. The Syrian government interfered.

Snack Time: Another really awkward moment came when Jimmy Kimmel picked up Sunny Pawar from Lion in some attempt to recreate something out of The Lion King. Luckily, Pawar saved it. And his shoes were super dope.

Dessert: You know it was lit when The New York Times aired an actual TV ad during the show. Here it is.