The top 25 blackest sports moments of 2017 If you don’t understand why these moments are important, you might need more black friends

Black Friday. The day when people decide that the only way they can make themselves feel better about whatever they just went through with their families on Thanksgiving is with a whole lot of retail therapy. It’s the unofficial kickoff of the holiday shopping season, and according to the National Retail Federation, Americans are expected to spend an average of $967.13 each before the end of the year. That adds up to a cool $682 billion.

But forget all that. We black. So we’ll take this opportunity to reclaim our time and get back to using ham-handed puns for the culture. A point of clarification: There are a variety of items on this list. Some are groundbreaking accomplishments. Others are moments that made us laugh. A few are things that we might actually regret.

By the by, we’re doing this bad boy college football style. If you don’t understand why these moments are important, you might need more black friends.

Receiving votes

• Mississippi State’s Morgan William beats UConn with a buzzer-beater that shocked the college basketball world. Three years earlier, her stepfather, whom she called her dad, had passed away. He taught her how to ball.

• Bubba Wallace becomes the first black NASCAR Cup Series driver since Bill Lester in 2006. No, Bubba is not his given name. It’s Darrell. Insert your own conclusions as to why he needed a nickname at all.

No. 25: The Gonzalez twins bounce on UNLV

Instagram Photo

If you’ve somehow missed the Instagram megastars Dylan and Dakota Gonzalez, who transferred to Vegas from Kansas, where have you been? They’re the ones who Drake once showed up at a Pepperdine gym to see play. That aside, they make music. And it’s very good. So instead of battling over their final seasons of eligibility with the NCAA, who’d been hating from the get-go about the entire situation regarding their recording careers, they went pro. In singing. Don’t worry, grandma, they had already graduated anyways.

No. 24: Trey Songz tries his hand at NFL analysis

You might recall that after beating Washington’s NFL team, the New York Football Giants had a playoff game the next week against the Green Bay Packers. The Giants’ secondary didn’t look great, so Trigga Trey (who is a Skins fan, btw) decided to weigh in with the classic tweet: “DB’s weren’t on the yacht. Just a lil FYI.”

First of all, “just a lil fyi” is A-level Auntie Shade on full display as a matter of course, but let’s get back to that picture. OBJ is wearing fur-lined Timbs on a boat. Enough said.

No. 23: Cardale stunts on the haters

Remember when then-Ohio State Buckeye Cardale Jones basically intonated that he didn’t care about school? Or at least, that’s what y’all thought? Well, the current Los Angeles Chargers quarterback graduated this year, and none of you all can take that from him. *kisses fingers* Beautiful.

No. 22: Allen IVERSON returns to crush the Confederacy

We all remember the 2001 NBA Finals when Bubbachuck banged a trey in Tyronn Lue’s face, leading Lue to fall down, followed by Iverson giving him the stepover heard ’round the world. But to think to resurrect that for a toppled Confederate statue is nothing short of brilliant. I was legitimately moved.

No. 21: You ‘gon learn today, son

There are so many things going on in this video. It’s bunch ball kids hoops, which means that traveling and double dribble are not enforced, because kids just don’t get those rules early on. But you know what is enforced? Basket integrity. What you’re not gonna do is score on your own hoop. Now, mind you, this dude is already doing a lot for this level of coaching.

He’s wearing a tie for reasons that cannot be explained. He’s screaming his head off and waving his hands like it’s the NCAA tournament; and that’s before the kid takes off the wrong way with the rock. What happens next is a lesson that child will never, ever forget: the day his coach put him on his butt with a rejection so vicious that the grown man considered jumping to do it. Seriously, watch it again. Homey was ready to elevate.

No. 20: Bring. It. On.

I don’t follow cheerleading. All I know is that whenever I see these young folks flipping all over the place, it’s typically big, predominantly white institutions where the teams are used to being on TV, etc. Whatever. The ladies (and gentleman) of Savannah State University became the first historically black college or university to win the event, which began in 1997. My favorite part? They didn’t know that until after they took the crown.

No. 19: Nigel Hayes fights back

The Wisconsin hoopster wasn’t just playing in the NCAA tournament in March, he was also taking on the system in federal court over the concept of amateurism. He started off the season by saying, “We deserve to be paid,” still somehow a relatively controversial stance in the year of our Lord 2017. That aside, he had previously broken out the protest sign at ESPN GameDay with his Venmo account listed on it. By making noise in this year’s tournament, his cause got a lot more shine. He donated the money from the stunt to charity, so stop hating.

No. 18: The real Black Barbie

U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was honored with her very own Barbie doll this year, complete with its own hijab. It’s not just about her having her own thing, it’s about what she said at the Glamour Women of the Year Summit. “There is so much focus on Muslim women in hijab, and oppression and being docile. This is flipping this entire bigoted narrative on its head,” she said, according to The New York Times.

No. 17: Oakley being Oakley

The former Knicks great did something that many fans of the team have been wanting to do for years. He popped off in front of the team owner and got a borderline face mush in while he did it. Of course, he also got dragged out of Madison Square Garden in cuffs, which is not a good look. Clearly, this was foul on many levels, but the fact that he was willing to take the whole team to court over the matter makes things that much funnier.

No. 16: The check cleared

Remember when Sloane Stephens won the US Open, and when they showed her the check, her whole situation changed? Yeah, that will happen when someone drops a couple million bucks on you. Playing tennis is great and all, but yeesh. That’s big money. And when she finally put out her official trophy photos, if you will, the caption was absolutely priceless.

No. 15: Chance and migos shooting hoops

For a certain generation, the photo of Jesse Jackson and Marvin Gaye playing hoops is a classic like none other. Two people otherwise known for different things out here hooping it up like any other Saturday. It’s almost uncanny how very similar these two photos are, in terms of subjects and style. My favorite part about it, though, clearly, is Offset. His mind is elsewhere but very focused.

No. 14: Black girl magic

If you don’t know who Carla Williams is, you should. She’s the University of Virginia’s new athletic director, the first black woman to hold the position at a Power 5 school. Considering what else has gone down in Charlottesville — and by that I mean white supremacists rallying and people ending up dead — this is a step in a direction we can all look forward to.

No. 13: Mike Jones. Who? MIKE JONES.

There are some phone numbers you’ll just never forget. 281-330-8004. You might recall that when Jimmy Butler went from the Chicago Bulls to the Minnesota Timberwolves, things got a bit awkward. So, in true “come see me” mode, he straight-up gave out his phone number during his introductory news conference in Minneapolis. Clearly, he’s changed his number since then. But if you’re looking for a way to ditch a lot of people in your life, this is a hilarious way to set up a legit “new phone, who dis” excuse.

No. 12: That’s Dr. Rolle to you, sir

Myron Rolle had a surefire NFL career ahead of him. But league execs got wind that he might not be all the way into the game, and his draft stock fell. Mind you, he was a freaking Rhodes scholar — it’s not like he wanted to become some traveling magician. Anyways, he decided to leave the NFL to become a doctor. This year he graduated from medical school. Maybe one day he can find a way to prevent concussions in football. No, seriously, he’s a neurosurgery resident.

No. 11: Field of Dreams

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Gift Ngoepe finally broke through to the bigs this season, he became the first African-born player to do so in the history of major league baseball. And this wasn’t some “born in Africa, but really grew up in New Jersey” situation. Homeboy went to high school in Johannesburg. To top it off, he got a hit in his first MLB at-bat, which is statistically still an amazing feat on its own too.

No. 10: I said what I said

Kyle Lowry is a great dad and a fun dude, and he don’t play when it comes to his words. So when President Donald Trump put a ban on people from other countries who practice Islam from trying to set foot in this country, quite a few people spoke up. And this particular moment wasn’t just about the fact that he spoke up and cussed on the mic. It’s about the fact that when the oh-so-polite Canadian media asked him if he wanted to clean up his language, he broke them off.

No. 9: The real MVP

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

In 1999, when the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup, Brandi Chastain got a large bulk of the shine for hitting the penalty kick that sealed it. Many forget, however, that Briana Scurry made a save beforehand that made all that possible. She had an illustrious career overall, but eventually her life was nearly ruined by the effects of concussions. This year, she was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame, becoming the first black woman to earn that honor.

No. 8: She stayed as long as she wanted

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Claire Smith is not only a pioneer as a black woman, she’s the first woman, period, who ever covered a major league baseball beat full time. The old story is that the Padres’ Steve Garvey, when Smith was routinely exiled by other players in MLB locker rooms, once stuck up for her, sticking around and publicly letting it be known, so she could get her job done. All these years later, Smith, now an ESPN employee, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the top honor for a baseball writer, this year during Hall of Fame weekend.

No. 7: He’s still gotten fined a couple times, tho

Marshawn Lynch is an American legend. He’s the first entry of our “people who just had tremendous years in blackness,” so they’ll get one entry with multiple examples of such. First of all, homeboy was eating chicken wings while he walked out on the field at a preseason game. And his reality show, as shown above, is the realest thing ever. Lastly, him dancing on the sideline for Oakland during a game is such a great moment.

No. 6: Let him celebrate

Look. I know he works for a rival network. But Shannon Sharpe is the man. His discussion about the situation in the NFL regarding pregame protests has been nothing short of incredible. But let’s be clear. We know why he’s on this list. His completely out-of-the-blue viral moment regarding Black & Milds and Cognac, with a side of Hennessy thrown in, has an outside argument for the medal stand on this list, if we’re being honest. Also, shouts to DJ Suede for this banger.

No. 5: Farewell, Mr. President

With President Barack Obama leaving office, there were quite a few moments that many people will treasure, but there were a couple of teams that definitely valued the fact that they were going to get to see 44 one more time before he left the White House. One was the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, whose lovely artistic tweet expressed exactly how much it meant to him. But the most vicious move came from Dexter Fowler, who brought Obama a pair of custom Jordan brand sneakers as a gift. What a boss.

No. 4: UndefEATED. Never lost.

It’s almost impossible to overstate how big of a year this has been for the Ball family in general. Beyond Lonzo getting drafted No. 2 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, the family launching a reality show, LaMelo getting his own signature shoe (and dropping an actual N-bomb during a WWE broadcast), the Big Baller Brand has actually been pretty successful, if their pop-up shops are any indication. But they took a knock when LiAngelo and his teammates were put under house arrest for a shoplifting incident in China.

But LaVar, being the man that he is, managed to flip that situation into an all-out verbal brawl with President Trump that landed Ball on CNN. What a marketing genius.

No. 3: Ante up

Look, when I first decided to make this list, I was going to put Aqib Talib at the top. I’m not even joking. When he decided that he was going to snatch Michael Crabtree’s chain on an NFL football field, I decided right then and there that this list needed to happen in whole. That said, the incident itself was amazing.

He didn’t even get penalized, because what’s a ref going to call? Chain snatching is a violation in the streets, not on the field. I’m sure there are still people who viewed this as a harmless prank, but the level of disrespect here is so high. And Aqib is a very active member of not only the hands community but also the toolie community, which means that people don’t want that action. Crabtree had no chance.

No. 2: She’s the G.O.A.T.

Once again, in any other year, and perhaps even in this one, in a singular sense, my favorite athlete of all time would be atop these rankings. Serena Williams has had an incredible year. She won her 10th Grand Slam since turning 30. She showed up randomly to a tennis court to hit balls with a couple of bros who were completely awestruck. She then appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, revealing that she was pregnant when she won the Australian Open earlier in the year.

The baby has now joined us, and Alexis Olympia is adorbs, clearly. Serena is so awesome. Oh, yeah, and her wedding was completely bananas.

No. 1: Colin Kaepernick

There was no responsible way around saying that Colin Kaepernick’s had the blackest year in sports. His actions regarding the national anthem in football have set off a flurry of activity so huge that every person in America has an opinion about his actions. On that strength alone, you’d have to say his protest was effective. I don’t care about the interior chalk talk of whether or not police are actually less racist. That’s not Kap’s job to fix.

Demonstrations. Jerry Jones nearly losing his mind. The president going completely haywire at a speaking event. Hockey players, 8-year-olds, cheerleaders, high schoolers, basketball players and, yo, German soccer players all found their way to make a statement.

Oh yeah, GQ named him the Citizen of the Year. Even Tomi Lahren understands why.

 

Ric Flair and black fandom in wrestling The ‘Nature Boy’ is one man in a long, complex history for professional wrestling

About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.

And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.

“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”

Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.

“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”

Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?

Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.

“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”

In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.

But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?

There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.

“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”

Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.

Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.

But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.

For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.

“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”

Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.

This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.

“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”

For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.

“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”

While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.

In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.

But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.

And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.

Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.

Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?

There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.

Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.

“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”

Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”

Fats Domino and the death of rock As another ‘Rockstar’ goes on to that heavenly venue, is the genre dead?

Fats Domino, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 1986 inaugural class, a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, died Oct. 24 at his home in suburban New Orleans. He was 89. Just as Domino helped push swing music to the margins of cultural relevance in the 1950s, so does Domino’s death mark a complete torch-passing from the rock- and rhythm and blues-loving baby boomers to the rap-loving Gen Xers and millennials. It’s impossible to overlook the musical frame of Domino’s life.

It would be the grossest of understatements to say Fats Domino was ahead of his time. Decades before Big Pun, Notorious B.I.G. and Rick Ross boasted of their luxuriant meatiness, Antoine “Fats” Domino had been there and done that. Indeed, Domino’s first single was a hard-rocking track entitled “The Fat Man,” in which the singer crowed about his scale-crushing weight. Domino’s single was recorded in 1949, six years before Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley codified a new musical sound called rock ’n’ roll.

A recent Nielsen Music report revealed that hip-hop/R&B has surpassed rock in online streaming and sales to become the nation’s most popular musical style. Combine that with the recent deaths of rock titans Chuck Berry, Tom Petty and founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, Steely Dan, Soundgarden and Linkin Park, and it can seem like Domino’s death serves as a eulogy for rock itself, a solemn epitaph for the music that defined a huge and authority-questioning generation of the past century.

While Domino inspired the Beatles and Neil Young, the singer himself rarely, if ever, raised his own voice. Much like the pioneering black actor Robert Guillaume, who also died Oct. 24 at 89, Domino most often let his work speak for itself. Just as Guillaume enjoyed the distinction of being the first African-American performer to win an Emmy Award for best actor in a comedy series, Domino had the distinction of being the first rock artist of any consequence: “Well, I wouldn’t want to say that I started it [rock ’n’ roll],” Domino said, “but I don’t remember anyone else before me playing that kind of stuff.”

Domino’s death serves as a eulogy for rock itself.

Though Domino lacked Little Richard’s wantonness and Chuck Berry’s poetic aplomb, the piano-playing singer demonstrated world-beating clout. After a string of R&B hits on Imperial Records, Domino finally broke through to Billboard’s pop charts in 1955 with “Ain’t That A Shame.” Co-written by Domino and his frequent composing partner, Dave Bartholomew, the single bore all the hallmarks of Domino’s subsequent hits — emotionally vulnerable songs performed to the spare yet powerful accompaniment of guitar, bass, drums and small horn section. Together, Domino and Bartholomew would chart a string of hits, including “I’m In Love Again,” “I’m Walkin’ ” and “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Some Day.”

From 1950 to 1963, Domino placed 63 hits on Billboard’s U.S. pop charts and 59 songs on the R&B charts. His biggest success was “Blueberry Hill,” a tune composed in 1940 by Vincent Rose, Al Lewis and Larry Stock. Previously recorded by popular artists including Gene Autry, Kay Kyser and Louis Armstrong, Domino’s simple arrangement and woebegone vocal delivery transformed the shopworn tune into a strolling, rock ’n’ roll standard. Domino’s version topped the R&B chart for nearly two months, peaking at No. 2 on the Top 40. Within a year of its release, the single had sold more than 5 million copies worldwide, establishing Domino as one of rock’s crossover artists.

By the end of rock’s 1950s golden age, Domino’s record sales had surpassed those of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly combined. And although Presley sold more records, the so-called “King of Rock ’n’ Roll” always acknowledged his debt to Domino. Paul McCartney has said that the Beatles’ hit “Lady Madonna” was influenced by his New Orleans hero.

Domino’s triplet piano style, in which three notes are sounded per beat, inspired a wealth of pop ballads, from Percy Faith’s 1960 ‘‘Theme From A Summer Place,” to Otis Redding’s 1962 ‘‘These Arms of Mine,” and Sly & the Family Stone’s 1969 “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” Original Domino compositions such as 1955’s “I Hear You Knocking ” and “Ain’t That A Shame” would become hits for Billy Haley & His Comets, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty, Dave Edmunds and others.

Born Feb. 26, 1928, Domino was raised in New Orleans’ 9th Ward, the region that served as his home base for most of his life. It was only after 2005’s catastrophic Hurricane Katrina that he would leave the region for new digs in the New Orleans suburbs. “I traveled the world for about 50 years,” Domino told USA Today. “I love a lot of places and I’ve been to lots of places, but I just don’t care to leave home.”

Decades before Big Pun, Notorious B.I.G. and Rick Ross boasted of their luxuriant meatiness, Antoine “Fats” Domino had been there and done that.

After learning music fundamentals from a relative, Domino was good enough in his teens to perform in a popular New Orleans group led by bassist Billy Diamond. It was Diamond who nicknamed Domino “Fats,” lending Domino a jolly, Falstaffian image that contrasted sharply with his skinnier contemporaries. In his 2007 book Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock ’n’ Roll, author Rick Coleman describes the neuron-tickling impact of “The Fat Man,” Domino’s 1950 debut single. “There was a touch of blues braggadocio, though bragging about being fat was hardly the stuff of ego … (the single) contained radically puzzling and pulsating sounds — the raucous musical cadence, emotion, and distortion that would echo through popular music for the rest of the century as ‘rock ’n’ roll.’ ”

Now, well into a new century, it appears that the music Domino helped invent is being put out to pasture. Today, the upper echelons of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart brim with rap and R&B tracks. So far, Kendrick Lamar has the best-received album of the year.

Yet, even as we bid rock ’n’ roll and Antoine Domino adieu, The Fat Man’s large-living iconography haunts contemporary culture. As of this writing, the top tune in the U.S. is a decadent track by rappers Post Malone and 21 Savage — it has close to 75 million views.

Ironically, the song is titled “Rockstar.”

Chuck D, B-Real and Tim Morello’s Prophets of Rage arrive just in time to front the musical resistance The rap-rock supergroup is ready to meet all challenges

Chuck D was adamant. The legendary Public Enemy rapper had consented to a phone interview to discuss his latest project, the rap/rock supergroup Prophets of Rage featuring members of Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine. But no sooner had the interview begun than Chuck firmly stated that he would only discuss his new group. Presumably, that meant no questions about Public Enemy’s new album, Nothing is Quick in the Desert, nor the recent lawsuit filed against Public Enemy by the group’s iconic hype man, Flavor Flav.

“Right now, my head is propped up trying to remember these words for the next gig,” Chuck D explained from his Boston hotel room, where Prophets of Rage were set to perform at the Paradise Rock Club. “That’s my hardest obstacle right now. Not writing, not recording, but remembering the new songs that I wrote.”

But the tension eased to the point that Chuck D revealed a surprisingly self-deprecating sense of humor, like when the rapper admitted to enjoying splitting interview duties with bandmate Tom Morello. (“Backing him up on interviews allows me to be funny and dumb sometimes, which is good,” he said, laughing.) During another point in the interview, Chuck D got excited confessing his unabashed love for Dollar General stores. “I’m in there all the time!” he exclaimed. “It’s the only place people can come in and get bags and bags of s— for $20. You can’t pass up the deals!”

With superherolike timeliness, Prophets of Rage seemed to arrive just in time to front the musical resistance.

Such humorous asides are in contrast to the recriminations featured on Prophets of Rage, the self-titled album by the band Chuck D recently co-founded with Cypress Hill rapper B-Real, Public Enemy turntablist DJ Lord, and Rage Against the Machine’s Morello (guitar), Tim Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums). Slated for a Sept. 15 release, the album distills the best of its members’ respective bands, with Morello’s steely guitar riffs hearkening back to the late ’70s heyday of classic rock. Whether rapping about homelessness (“Living on the 110”), marijuana legalization (“Legalize Me”) or President Donald Trump administration (“Hail to the Chief”), Chuck D and B-Real’s vocals lend authentic hip-hop gravitas to the proceedings.

While Prophets of Rage sounds effortless and unforced, Chuck D suggests he and his bandmates feel big-time pressure to deliver. “On paper, this band looks like a no-brainer … so the biggest thing is being able to live up to that,” he said. “We had some mountains to climb performancewise and recordingwise, and it was our goal and obligation to climb those mountains.”


According to Newtonian physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That would be a scientific way of explaining the dramatic emergence of Prophets of Rage, a band named after a classic Public Enemy song. In keeping with the revolutionary legacies of their original bands, Prophets of Rage answered the Trump campaign by staging guerrilla performances outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The band then heralded its arrival with a five-song EP entitled The Party’s Over, featuring rocked-up covers of songs by the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and more. With superherolike timeliness, Prophets of Rage seemed to arrive just in time to front the musical resistance.

But alas, Chuck D is a reluctant caped crusader. “You don’t wish for the world to be f—ed up just so you can be a great band,” said the Hall of Fame MC. “We travel the world to reflect the world’s issues, and to see if we can tie it all together in a concise story. Instead of this belief that a problem has got to be in the United States for you to [care], we say, ‘Here are problems in Sierra Leone or Myanmar that you should also be aware of and have concerns about.’ And if somebody doesn’t get it in Arkansas, or lower Manhattan, or Los Angeles, you say, ‘I’m trying to give you some education, if you give a f—.’ ”

To get that message across, Chuck D knew Prophets of Rage had to compose compelling original songs that rivaled their past works. Toward that goal, he, Morello and B-Real teamed with producer Brendan O’Brien and put noses to the grindstone. The funk-inflected rock songs that eventually materialized forced Chuck to rethink his place within the band. Ultimately, the rapper elected to take a back-seat role, providing counterpoint to predominant rapper B-Real, much in the way that Flavor Flav counterpoints Chuck D in Public Enemy.

“You don’t wish for the world to be f—ed up just so you can be a great band.” — Chuck D

“When B-Real came into the picture, it clicked for me,” Chuck said. “I knew my role wouldn’t be as somebody upfront, but rather as somebody that’s kind of in the shadows. I relished the opportunity to do something different.”

The Prophets’ ideological agenda was articulated on the song “Unf— the World,” wherein the band urges listeners to agitate for positive social and political change (Stand up and rise like the tide/ … no fear, bear witness!). The song title was created by guitarist Morello, whose unflagging faith in grass-roots activism has earned him a reputation as one of rock’s most outspoken and knowledgeable musicians. “Tom has this clear belief that the world won’t fix itself,” Chuck D said. “You’ve got to get up to make these changes.”

Like bandmate Morello, Chuck D has made social uplift a lifelong goal. The rapper surfaced 30 years ago with Public Enemy’s game-changing debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. A veritable explosion of automated rhythm, artful sampling and taunting rhyme, the album poised Chuck D as agitator-in-chief, his clarion voice penetrating the musical bombast like a civil defense siren. Subsequent albums — most notably 1988’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet — found the group making good on its initial potential. Public Enemy’s increasingly Afrocentric, conspiratorial stance was illustrated in the band’s stark logo: a black man caught in the crosshairs of a gun’s telescopic sights.

Today, Public Enemy is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the group’s first three albums rank among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It remains to be seen whether Prophets of Rage will be received as warmly as Chuck D’s past work, but for now the rapper just seems proud to have made a recording that meets his discerning standards.

“I don’t go into the making of any record saying, ‘This record is gonna be what it’s gonna be,’ ” Chuck D said. “I know that when I made It Takes a Nation … with my guys, we knew nothing was like it. So that was our advantage. With [Prophets of Rage], I know there hasn’t been a lineup this significant in its combination of rap, rock and turntablism. … So this record is a reflection of the challenge that we experienced in getting together and pulling it off. I think we met that challenge.”

Chuck D, B-Real and Tom Morello’s Prophets of Rage arrive just in time to front the musical resistance The rap-rock supergroup is ready to meet all challenges

Chuck D was adamant. The legendary Public Enemy rapper had consented to a phone interview to discuss his latest project, the rap/rock supergroup Prophets of Rage featuring members of Cypress Hill and Rage Against the Machine. But no sooner had the interview begun than Chuck firmly stated that he would only discuss his new group. Presumably, that meant no questions about Public Enemy’s new album, Nothing is Quick in the Desert, nor the recent lawsuit filed against Public Enemy by the group’s iconic hype man, Flavor Flav.

“Right now, my head is propped up trying to remember these words for the next gig,” Chuck D explained from his Boston hotel room, where Prophets of Rage were set to perform at the Paradise Rock Club. “That’s my hardest obstacle right now. Not writing, not recording, but remembering the new songs that I wrote.”

But the tension eased to the point that Chuck D revealed a surprisingly self-deprecating sense of humor, like when the rapper admitted to enjoying splitting interview duties with bandmate Tom Morello. (“Backing him up on interviews allows me to be funny and dumb sometimes, which is good,” he said, laughing.) During another point in the interview, Chuck D got excited confessing his unabashed love for Dollar General stores. “I’m in there all the time!” he exclaimed. “It’s the only place people can come in and get bags and bags of s— for $20. You can’t pass up the deals!”

With superherolike timeliness, Prophets of Rage seemed to arrive just in time to front the musical resistance.

Such humorous asides are in contrast to the recriminations featured on Prophets of Rage, the self-titled album by the band Chuck D recently co-founded with Cypress Hill rapper B-Real, Public Enemy turntablist DJ Lord, and Rage Against the Machine’s Morello (guitar), Tim Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums). Slated for a Sept. 15 release, the album distills the best of its members’ respective bands, with Morello’s steely guitar riffs hearkening back to the late ’70s heyday of classic rock. Whether rapping about homelessness (“Living on the 110”), marijuana legalization (“Legalize Me”) or President Donald Trump administration (“Hail to the Chief”), Chuck D and B-Real’s vocals lend authentic hip-hop gravitas to the proceedings.

While Prophets of Rage sounds effortless and unforced, Chuck D suggests he and his bandmates feel big-time pressure to deliver. “On paper, this band looks like a no-brainer … so the biggest thing is being able to live up to that,” he said. “We had some mountains to climb performancewise and recordingwise, and it was our goal and obligation to climb those mountains.”


According to Newtonian physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That would be a scientific way of explaining the dramatic emergence of Prophets of Rage, a band named after a classic Public Enemy song. In keeping with the revolutionary legacies of their original bands, Prophets of Rage answered the Trump campaign by staging guerrilla performances outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The band then heralded its arrival with a five-song EP entitled The Party’s Over, featuring rocked-up covers of songs by the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and more. With superherolike timeliness, Prophets of Rage seemed to arrive just in time to front the musical resistance.

But alas, Chuck D is a reluctant caped crusader. “You don’t wish for the world to be f—ed up just so you can be a great band,” said the Hall of Fame MC. “We travel the world to reflect the world’s issues, and to see if we can tie it all together in a concise story. Instead of this belief that a problem has got to be in the United States for you to [care], we say, ‘Here are problems in Sierra Leone or Myanmar that you should also be aware of and have concerns about.’ And if somebody doesn’t get it in Arkansas, or lower Manhattan, or Los Angeles, you say, ‘I’m trying to give you some education, if you give a f—.’ ”

To get that message across, Chuck D knew Prophets of Rage had to compose compelling original songs that rivaled their past works. Toward that goal, he, Morello and B-Real teamed with producer Brendan O’Brien and put noses to the grindstone. The funk-inflected rock songs that eventually materialized forced Chuck to rethink his place within the band. Ultimately, the rapper elected to take a back-seat role, providing counterpoint to predominant rapper B-Real, much in the way that Flavor Flav counterpoints Chuck D in Public Enemy.

“You don’t wish for the world to be f—ed up just so you can be a great band.” — Chuck D

“When B-Real came into the picture, it clicked for me,” Chuck said. “I knew my role wouldn’t be as somebody upfront, but rather as somebody that’s kind of in the shadows. I relished the opportunity to do something different.”

The Prophets’ ideological agenda was articulated on the song “Unf— the World,” wherein the band urges listeners to agitate for positive social and political change (Stand up and rise like the tide/ … no fear, bear witness!). The song title was created by guitarist Morello, whose unflagging faith in grass-roots activism has earned him a reputation as one of rock’s most outspoken and knowledgeable musicians. “Tom has this clear belief that the world won’t fix itself,” Chuck D said. “You’ve got to get up to make these changes.”

Like bandmate Morello, Chuck D has made social uplift a lifelong goal. The rapper surfaced 30 years ago with Public Enemy’s game-changing debut album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. A veritable explosion of automated rhythm, artful sampling and taunting rhyme, the album poised Chuck D as agitator-in-chief, his clarion voice penetrating the musical bombast like a civil defense siren. Subsequent albums — most notably 1988’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet — found the group making good on its initial potential. Public Enemy’s increasingly Afrocentric, conspiratorial stance was illustrated in the band’s stark logo: a black man caught in the crosshairs of a gun’s telescopic sights.

Today, Public Enemy is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the group’s first three albums rank among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It remains to be seen whether Prophets of Rage will be received as warmly as Chuck D’s past work, but for now the rapper just seems proud to have made a recording that meets his discerning standards.

“I don’t go into the making of any record saying, ‘This record is gonna be what it’s gonna be,’ ” Chuck D said. “I know that when I made It Takes a Nation … with my guys, we knew nothing was like it. So that was our advantage. With [Prophets of Rage], I know there hasn’t been a lineup this significant in its combination of rap, rock and turntablism. … So this record is a reflection of the challenge that we experienced in getting together and pulling it off. I think we met that challenge.”

Beyoncé, Kevin Hart and others on a growing list of athletes and celebrities supporting hurricane relief efforts Many celebs are raising funds or lending a hand

NBA All-Stars, NFL players, MLB standouts and celebrities continue to publicly show their support for those affected by Tropical Storm Harvey, which continues to pummel the Houston area, displacing residents. While many have escaped the rising floodwaters and pouring rain, others are still seeking refuge.

President Barack Obama, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kelly Rowland, Chris Paul, James Harden, Eva Longoria, Drake, DeMarcus Cousins and other celebrities have tweeted their support, pledges and prayers to the people of Houston and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, many are going beyond social media to donate money and time. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander donated $10 million to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, which was started by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“Our hearts are heavy seeing the devastation that so many of our friends, family and neighbors are experiencing,” the team said in a statement.

Comedian and actor Kevin Hart took to Instagram with a call to action urging others to pledge funds.

“This is a serious matter,” Hart said in the video. “I’m going to lead the charge and step it up in this way.”

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Hart said he was donating $25,000 and beckoned for other stars such as Beyoncé, The Rock, Justin Timberlake and others to join in and spread the word.

Houston native and music superstar Beyoncé is giving back to her hometown. She released a statement to the Houston Chronicle saying, “My heart goes out to my hometown, Houston, and I remain in constant prayer for those affected and for the rescuers who have been so brave and determined to do so much to help.”

Beyoncé added, “I am working closely with my team at BeyGood as well as my pastor [Rudy Rasmus at St. John’s in downtown Houston] to implement a plan to help as many as we can.”

Established in 2013, the BeyGood organization does philanthropic work worldwide.

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Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt started a fundraiser Sunday to help the people of Houston.

“That’s our city,” he said in a video. “There’s going to be a lot we need to do to help rebuild.”

He originally set a goal of $200,000. After that goal was reached, he raised the stakes to $500,000. Paul’s $50,000 donation pushed the total collected by the fundraiser to $500,000. The total increased to $1 million by Monday night, prompting Watt to raise the fundraiser’s goal to $1.5 million. To date, that goal has been reached and the new goal is $2 million.

“I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like to see people come together for a common cause,” Watt said.

Singer Carl Thomas posted a video on Instagram with a message that says, “This is happening now.” He is seen in the video on a boat assisting in the evacuation process.

“I’m evacuating right now. I’ve got my dogs with me. Y’all pray for Houston. I’m not really worried; ultimately I know that whatever happens, it’s gonna be all right. It’s gonna be all right.”

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ESPN Video Player

Nicki Minaj and DJ Khaled responded with $25,000 pledges. Chris Brown pledged $100,000 and took the time to express skepticism about donating to Red Cross, while rapper T.I. lent his support.

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Instagram Photo

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The Houston Astros ownership group pledged to donate $4 million to the relief efforts. The Texans and owner Bob McNair donated $1 million to the United Way of Greater Houston Flood Relief Fund. The NFL Foundation said it would match the $1 million donation, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his family pledged to match all funds donated to the Red Cross in support of Harvey flood relief up to $1 million.

Major League Baseball also contributed to the cause, joining with the players association to donate $1 million to the Red Cross and relief organizations chosen by the players.

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter, who is from the Houston area, said in a tweet that he will donate $10,000 to relief efforts for each home run he hits for the rest of the season.

Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, a native of the Houston area, told ESPN’s Josina Anderson he will donate $25,000 to relief efforts and an additional $5,000 for each sack he makes this season.

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Instagram Photo

Instagram Photo

MusiCares, a four-star charity established by the Recording Academy, started a relief fund to support members of the music community affected by the recent devastation of Harvey. The organization offers confidential preventive, recovery and emergency programs to address musicians’ financial, medical and personal health issues.

Assistance includes basic living expenses such as shelter, food, utilities and transportation; medical expenses, including doctor and hospital bills and medications; clothing; instrument and recording equipment replacement; relocation costs; home repairs; debris removal; and more.

“Now is a time when we must come together and take care of those who need help, as we are only just beginning to understand how life-altering Hurricane Harvey will be for its victims and their communities,” Neil Portnow, president/CEO of the Recording Academy and MusiCares, said in a statement. “It’s important that we step up and support the creative community, and take action to provide immediate assistance to members of our music family.”

Professional wrestler Booker T’s raw life An orphan, a dropout, a felon – and now a famous, married father running for mayor of Houston

They came out bug-eyed and angry, just like the promoter had instructed. Real-life brothers in a phony sport, mean-mugging in lavender tuxedo jackets, bow ties and shades.

“Ebony Experience!” the announcer boomed.

Just like the pro wrestling gods of their youth — Ron Simmons, Junkyard Dog and all those thickly muscled black men who used to enrage fans at ringside — Booker and Lash Huffman ticked off the crowd that night, too.

The 300 or so fans in the mostly empty Sportatorium, a dilapidated Dallas bandbox built in 1934, bent their torsos over the railing as the fledgling tag team made their way to the ring. They contorted their faces and screamed every racial epithet they could think of for a black man.

“C—!”

“N—–!”

“Go back to Africa, you f—– j——s!”

Booker wanted to jump the barrier and throw haymakers. Lash, six years older, laughed, camouflaging his anger. These bigots “are everyday stuff in America to us,” he told himself, widening the ring ropes for his little brother to slip through.

It was 1992, less than three years after Lash had told Booker he needed to come up with $3,000 to attend a pro wrestling school in Houston. And now, for $100 each, they had a tryout with the Global Wrestling Federation. The script called for them to go out as heels (villains) against two beefcakes called Brute Forcz. They would then emerge as faces (good guys), aiming to win the crowd’s affection by the end of the match. If the Huffmans were entertaining, they’d get more work.

But when the promoter told them, “You have to make the guys you’re working with look good,” Lash shook his head and pulled his brother aside.

“It looks like the fix is in,” he said. “Let’s just go out there and make these guys look better than they’ve ever looked in their life.”

They played the heels to the hilt at first, scowling and grunting as the N-bombs cascaded from the stands. But then Booker began quarterbacking the match. “OK, throw me into the ropes,” he whispered to one of his opponents as the match was going on. “Now duck.”

Incredibly, the crowd began to turn. “Same dude that just called us all that awful s— is now going crazy for us,” Booker said.

When it ended, Booker went to the middle of the ring and began break dancing, ending with his shoulders on the mat and his legs twirling in the air, a move the ringside announcer christened “The Spinaroonie.”

Within a week, Ebony Experience was the Sportatorium’s main attraction. The Huffman brothers — Booker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Lash standing 6-5 and pushing 290 — a quarter-ton of bicep-flexin’, smack-talkin’ black ’tude, were packing all 4,500 seats.

After that night, the racist bile from one man’s mouth or an entire crowd wouldn’t faze Booker, because he came to understand an unsettling truth: The same people who N-bombed him were paying his rent, and some of them went on to become his most ardent fans. If he had to smell America’s bad breath, so what? It was the price of acceptance and ascendance in the squared-circle world, a world so much grander and greater than he had known before.


Twelve years later: Another arena, this one on Long Island, New York, another white opponent who needed to look good. Paul Michael Levesque, a stringy-haired behemoth known as Triple H, eyeballed Booker up and down within inches of his face, as if he had bought his opponent at auction.

By this time, Huffman, wrestling under the name Booker T, was no newbie. Propelled by a charismatic personality, the Spinaroonie and a trademark catchphrase purloined from the 1979 film The Warriors — “Can you dig it, sucka?” — he was one of the most popular figures on the pro circuit. That’s why it was so disturbing when, weeks before Triple H and Booker were to face off for the heavyweight championship at Wrestlemania XIX in Seattle, Levesque went to sinister places to sell the card.

“Somebody like you … doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Levesque told Booker at an event in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, pausing between sneers for effect. “People like you don’t deserve it.”

People like you?

“You’re here to be an entertainer. … Go ahead, Book, why don’t ya entertain? Do a little dance for me, Book. Why don’t you give me one of them Spinaroonies? Come on, don’t be embarrassed. That’s your job, to make people like me laugh. You’re very good at it — with your nappy hair and your ‘suckas.’ ”

The payoff had to be revenge, right? Black good guy over white meanie? When faces absorb such abuse from heels, the story is supposed to end with the face getting vindication via pin — or something that felt like the karma gods had spoken.

In the match itself, Booker T nailed his routine, breaking out an arsenal of dropkicks and clotheslines. At one point, he flipped 360 degrees off one of the turnbuckles and landed perfectly flat, next to Triple H’s head, which he elbowed. It was a feat as skillful as anything Greg Louganis ever managed off a 3-meter diving platform.

When both men collapsed in exhaustion at the end, the crowd was waving handmade, pro-Booker T placards. But as Triple H feebly laid an arm on Booker T’s chest, the “referee” counted the face out instead of the heel.

Crestfallen adults and children could be seen in the crowd. These people had bought in. They were sure of the outcome, knowing it would be as sweet for Booker T. as for them.

And then … nothing. No silver lining.

Not that night.

“I found out about a week before the match that that’s how it was going to go down,” Huffman, 52, says now. “I had to make the crowd feel a certain way about a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth beating a guy who pretty much worked his way up from the trenches. I didn’t question it, argue it. I knew everyone wanted me to win. But I just went along with what they wanted.

“It was easier that way. If I didn’t go along, where would I really be now? Could I have done the things I’ve done, overcome the things I’ve overcome?”


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

There are no victims here, only volunteers. This is a story about a professional wrestler who used an artificial sport to build a real life.

It’s about a kid who dropped out of high school before becoming a convicted felon, and the big brother who refused to let “Junior” throw his life away. He found a career and his second wife in the ring. And after vanquishing multiple fictional foes, he now wants to take on education and homelessness as the next mayor of Houston.

Booker T’s loss to Triple H that night crushed many fans because, perhaps more than anyone else in the wrestling business, his reality was so integrated with his ring character that it often was hard to distinguish between the man and the actor.

He grew up orphaned and poor. He caught no breaks early, got in his own way later and somehow still found a path to prosperity in a profession that mirrors and magnifies the best and worst in its heels, faces and audience.

His career blew up nearly 20 years ago after a seemingly innocuous visit with wrestler Diamond Dallas Page to a juvenile detention center. He debated that day whether to tell his actual life story or stick to clichés about hard work and keeping your head on straight. But when he noticed that some of the hard-knock kids were rolling their eyes at Page’s motivational speech, Huffman went all-in. He told those kids everything, down to the day he got out of prison.

Some teared up. Others sat there, wide-eyed. When he finished, they stood and applauded. Page was so moved he told Huffman he needed to tell his story through his character, that his odyssey was much better than anything wrestling’s scriptwriters could come up with.

“It’s funny, you know, they love to say how wrestling is so fake and made-up,” Lash Huffman said. “And the irony of the whole thing is, the best thing about my brother is his honesty. Junior is so honest.”

Booker T inside of the ring at his gym, Reality of Wrestling.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The more his story was told, the more the lines blurred. Was this real or entertainment? Sport or theater? Is the scripted racism damaging or satire? Do the heels and faces of pro wrestling reflect the world, or are they a caricature of it?

In the end, those are false dichotomies: The answer is always yes.

It is sport and theater. It reflects society and is a caricature of it. The racism is harmless and hurtful.

Pro wrestling is entertainment and real — especially for a boy who lost his mom young.


Danny, Carolyn, Lula Gayle, Billie Jean, Donald, Lash, Bonita and the baby, Booker: Rosa Huffman had eight children by three different men. And every member of the family watched pro wrestling, including a 4-foot-6 grandmother who had an old mattress put in her backyard for her grandchildren to practice flapjack pins.

Booker’s father, said to be a serious man and a good provider, ran moonshine, gambled and worked legitimately at the local pool hall in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Booker Jr. was just 10 months old when his father went to retrieve a block of ice for the pool hall and dropped dead of a stroke. He was 59.

Rosa Huffman couldn’t bear staying in Louisiana after her husband’s death. She moved the family to Houston, where she worked as a nurse and supported all eight children by herself.

But when she was just 49, Rosa fell through the ceiling onto her back and neck while trying to fix the kitchen fan. She kept telling her panicked children she would be OK. And she was, for a few months. But a second surgery to remove fluid from her spine left her in a coma.

After several weeks, she was taken off life support. Booker, 13, and Bonita, 16, lost the only responsible adult in their lives. The older siblings tried to play guardians for a while, but many were running the streets, bringing home drug people and others who left Booker and Bonita so afraid to go to sleep at night that they wedged a chair against the bedroom door handle. Lash, the third youngest, couldn’t take the madness. He moved to a friend’s house without telling his youngest siblings.

Soon, the chaos of their siblings’ lives scared Booker and Bonita into moving back into their mother’s crumbling apartment by themselves. When the water was shut off for lack of payment, they schlepped 5-gallon buckets to a service station up the street, filled them with water and lugged them back, the skin of both palms bloodied by the metal handles. Bonita says she and her brother used the water for drinking, bathing, dishwashing and “filling up the toilet so it would flush.”

“Lot of days we just ate one meal at school and went hungry at home,” Bonita recalled. “No social worker even knew we were there. I could see my brother upset about a lot of things at that point. He was angry.”

Booker took out his meager station in life on other neighborhood kids. Bonita never remembered her brother losing a fight. “He wasn’t a bully or anything like that. He just never backed down,” she said. “That was something I loved about him: You don’t run, you face it head-on.”

Booker T holds an old photo of himself and his brother Lash.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

At 17, he impregnated a 15-year-old girl, who kept the baby even though her high school beau stopped answering his phone when she called. Still, Booker got a job at Fiesta Mart to help support their boy and began lifting steaks and whatever else he could manage. He was fired soon after — not for stealing, but for trying to impersonate his sister Billie Jean, calling his manager in a comically high-pitched voice to say, “My brother isn’t feeling well and won’t be in today.”

Booker dropped out of school. Bonita had moved to Dallas for work, and none of his uncles or aunts wanted him staying with them. Every reservoir of familial goodwill had dried up, except for one.

He’d barely had a relationship with Lash in the four years since their mother had died. But Booker swallowed his pride and moved into the Willow Creek Apartments with his older brother, who told him he could stay if he got a job.

So working a mile and a half away, he began dropping frozen fries into hot oil, assembling burgers with cheese and filling cups of soft-serve ice cream. He didn’t exactly rock that red shirt and black cap. But with no diploma and a newborn son, Booker was happy to have a job at Wendy’s.


A few months later, he was transferred to a different Wendy’s across town, which meant he had to catch one bus, wait 30 minutes and transfer to another one to get to work each day. In no time, the job went from a needed employment opportunity to a dead-end gig.

Billie Jean hooked him up with her boyfriend, a prominent marijuana dealer, who routinely had pounds of cannabis on his dining room table. Booker began slinging $5 and $10 bags of marijuana on the side, often smoking most of his profit.

He saw less and less of Lash at home, falling in with a crew that included his childhood friend, Wendell Sylvester, and Zackery Claybourne, a streetwise brother who had been to prison for robbery. They began carousing the club scene, wearing matching Adidas suits and coming up with nicknames for themselves: Booker was Nature Boy (after wrestler Ric Flair), Zack was Z-Boy and Wendell became Mr. Big Stuff.

Booker and Zack both worked at the Gulfgate Mall Wendy’s off Telethon Road, where their manager kept riding them about overcooked fries, undercooked burgers and the need to scrub the rings of caked-on chili off the pots. Eventually, Zack quit and Booker was fired for not showing up.

One night as they all smoked up Booker’s sales, someone threw out an insane idea: “Why don’t we get some guns and rob Wendy’s?” It kept coming up over the next few weeks until they decided on the most wacked notion of all. Zack and Booker each had a few uniforms.

Let’s rob Wendy’s with our uniforms on.

Decades later, it’s still one of the city’s most brazen string of robberies. Pretty quickly, they stopped concealing their faces with stocking caps, walking into a restaurant with .38-caliber pistols and their work uniforms, often behind legitimate employees taking the trash out at closing time. Booker would wait outside in his aunt’s car.

Soon, the crime was less a rush than getting home in time to watch the local news — “Wendy’s Bandits Strike Again” at 11:01 p.m. Over the first three months of 1987, Booker and his friends had robbed 12 Wendy’s, stealing between $400 and $4,000 each time. In what would be their last holdup, Booker went into the restaurant with Zack and Wendell, pistols drawn.

Houston police issued a reward of $5,000 for information that would lead to their arrest. The ads began playing on a local “CrimeStoppers” segment, and one of the interested viewers was Zack’s girlfriend.

On what became his last day of freedom, Booker met Zack at McGregor Park, smoked and sold weed, and headed home around dusk. As he neared the front door of the unit he shared with Lash, he sensed an eerie quiet.

Police officers in SWAT gear had him on the ground and cuffed in seconds. Booker feigned ignorance at first, but he was picked from a police lineup by witnesses who remembered him from the night he went into the Wendy’s for the robbery.

Within months, Booker, Zack and Wendell were in separate 6-by-8-foot cells at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville – Walls Unit. Named for its brick facade, Walls Unit was where all convicted felons were processed through the state’s penal system. It also housed the state’s execution chamber.

Huffman recalled something his mother once told him: “Junior, you know right from wrong. There’s no gray area in between. If you don’t stop, you’ll end up dead or in jail.”

At 22 years old, he was 1 for 2.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Good behavior allowed Booker to serve just 19 months of consecutive five-year sentences for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Sylvester, by contrast, said he served 9½ years of a 22-year sentence.

Though Booker’s lying killed much of the trust Lash had in him, Lash knew his younger brother wasn’t a career criminal. He told Booker, “I’ll help you get back on your feet. But whatever you do — sweeping floors, washing dishes, digging ditches — you gotta pay your dues and walk a straight line.”

He got a job at American Mini Storage, completing his parole and getting custody of his son, Brandon, 6, who had been turned over to child protective services because his mother was unable to care for him. A part of him missed his old life: the partying, the chaos, the sense he could go buck wild at any moment. But that world couldn’t compare with microwaving Ramen noodles, adding chicken, cheese and crumbled-up crackers, and sharing dinner with his son.

As a lark one afternoon in 1989, Lash went by a small wrestling school in Houston owned by Ivan Putski, the bodybuilder/wrestler whose duels with the Iron Sheik and Jesse Ventura fueled the sport in the 1970s and ’80s. He simply then said to Booker, “Let’s start rasslin’.”

Booker thought he was joking at first, but Lash kept going. “Man, we’ve been fans for so long, and we both need something more in our lives. We’ve both got size, we’re athletic and we’ve got personality off the f— charts!”

Lash said it would cost $3,000, and Booker sulked. He didn’t have that kind of money anymore. But his boss at the storage company, Bruce Gasarch, gave Booker a $3,000 bonus and told him to make him proud.


“Cowboy” Scott Casey, a former World Wrestling Federation star, mentored Booker at Putski’s school. He also came up with his first character at the time the Gulf War had begun: “G.I. Bro, America’s greatest hero.”

Lash was given the character name “Stevie Ray,” and within two years they were on their way to Dallas and the Sportatorium for their first tag team match. Booker wrestled on the Texas Independent Circuit for two more years and kept the job at the storage company until Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling signed him for $70,000. Booker left for Atlanta and a life he’d dreamed about as a kid.

“It was an escape for me,” he said. “I had been in prison. I had lost my parents at a young age. I had no high school diploma.

“I finally found something that I really did very, very well. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m better than everybody else at this.’ I’m serious. It was like that. I knew I was better than everybody else. I had done theater and been a drum major for a while in high school. Then when I found wrestling, it was like déjà vu. Like, ‘Man, I’ve done this before in another life.’ ”

In 2000, wrestling’s once-dominant organization, World Championship Wrestling, was in a no-holds-barred battle royal with its rising competitor, the World Wrestling Federation. The WCW decided to pit its world heavyweight champion Jeff Jarrett against Booker T at the end of the season’s tour in Daytona Beach, Florida, in a card titled “Bash at the Beach.”

For the first time in his solo career, it was decided Booker T would emerge with the belt — the exact one (sans a few missing gemstones) that his childhood hero, Flair, had once worn. But in a bizarre turn of events, Hulk Hogan went off script. He had creative control written into his contract. And on the evening of the event, he told the WCW brass he wanted to be champion.

A poster of Booker T wearing the WCW World Championship belt inside of his home gym.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Organizers were furious. But they created a storyline where Jarrett lay down in the ring with the belt at his side. Hogan, looking equally angry, circled the ring with a microphone and called the WCW a “bulls— organization” before half-heartedly climbing atop Jarrett. The referee counted to three for the pin and the lights went down. This was all part of the show, but it was followed by an unusual turn: WCW head writer Vince Russo coming to the ring and launching into a five-minute tirade aimed at Hogan, calling the wrestling legend a “god damn politician,” among other epithets.

Later in the evening, Booker T’s music began playing and everything restarted. Jarrett came out as if he was still champion, and he and Booker T performed the heel-face dance to perfection. For the first time in his individual ring career, Booker T was a heavyweight champion of the world.

No pro wrestler actually wins his title in the ring, of course. The decision is made backstage or weeks before by company presidents and scriptwriters. But once the belt is bestowed on you, it means your employer believes you are ready to be its most important ambassador. WCW believed an African-American with a backstory better than any they could write would sell. And Booker T sold.

Although promoters often wanted him to play a stereotype, he made a conscious decision to try for crossover appeal. He refused suggestions that his walk-up music be gangsta rap. He enunciated all his words. The only from-the-’hood line he used was his trademark slogan, “Can you dig it, sucka?”

“If I was wrestling a white guy and he was a good guy, they would cheer for him and boo me if I was a stereotypical black guy,” he said. “But me not being the stereotypical black guy, I can get away with it and be cheered just as much as him.

“They were cheering for Booker T — not the black guy coming out from the curtain.”

It wasn’t exactly “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” But for many people in the crowd, he seemed like a good guy with a remarkable backstory, and they were happy to cheer for this black man.

Booker realized how famous he had become one night in 1995 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He was eating a steak dinner when an older gentleman interrupted him. “Are you Booker T? My kids love you. You mind if I take a picture with you?”

Booker did a double take. Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons knows who I am?

“You know why the fans were sad [about the Triple H loss]?” he said. “Because I touched them. And that doesn’t happen very often in this business, where someone of color can make them feel that way. I always worked on emotion. On telling my real story. My goal was to make them cry.”

A year after he was made champion, the WCW was taken over by the WWF and rechristened World Wrestling Entertainment. Huffman signed on. More than a decade after Putski’s wrestling school, he was now contractually obligated to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

It’s been 14 years since his Wrestlemania loss to Triple H. You want Huffman to be angry, resentful even, that McMahon and his writers wouldn’t let his character win that night.

He’s not.

“I never lost a wink of sleep over that,” he said. “Let all the fans know because they ask me about it all the time. They wanted Booker T to win the title more than I wanted to win myself.”

Triple H, he said, “was just playing his part, however f—– up that part looked.” At the time, Triple H denied any bigotry on his part, saying, “Why would anybody think I am a racist? Did I ever mention the word ‘black’?

Asked for comment, a WWE spokesman responded with this statement: “WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide. Just like other TV shows and movies, our entertainment programming features fictional characters who play the role of protagonists and antagonists. Over the years, WWE storytelling has evolved along with the social landscape, and today WWE offers family-friendly, PG-rated programming.”

“They used me and I used them — that’s how I looked at it,” Huffman says now. “I was never down with being the stereotypical brother, and I made sure of that as my career went on.

“But at some point, you also realize white guys invented the sport and still control it. If you want to work, you gotta play by their rules and sometimes be who they want you to be.”

Perhaps that’s how you last in an entertainment genre that routinely traffics in ugly stereotypes about African-Americans.

One in which Rowdy Roddy Piper once pretended to feed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, saying he would “whip him like a slave.” And Ventura used to refer to black wrestler Koko B. Ware (James Ware) as “Buckwheat.” Kamala (Jim Harris) was billed as an almost-mute African savage. Tony Atlas was remade into Saba Simba, replete with shield, spear, headdress and a cringe-inducing “tribal” dance.

When Lash and Booker came to the WCW in 1993, their storyline called for them to play two convicts, won in a card game by cigar-chomping, seersucker-wearing manager/plantation owner Col. Robert Parker. At some of their first shows, the Huffmans dressed in prison jumpsuits and leg shackles because that’s what their white bosses thought would sell. Naming a modern tag team composed of two African-Americans Cryme Tyme seems almost benign in comparison.

Moralizing about it, expecting cultural enrichment and organic diversity is like expecting NASCAR fans to lower those LDL numbers. It’s the world of the Tonga Kid, the Mad Hungarian and an Asian-American man with perfect diction called Mr. Fugi, who practiced speaking broken English. Every minority is crudely stereotyped in the squared circle.

“Understand the only thing that has ever been real for me with wrestling is the entertainment and the performance in front of the crowd,” Huffman said. “In the end, it was all a show. … If it was real, I would have been one-time heavyweight champion because I would have beat up everybody.”

Late in his career, as a heel named King Booker, Huffman won the now-retired WWE World Heavyweight Championship, a belt the company created in 2002 for its Smackdown and Raw brands. But since the WWE’s origin in 1963, through 50 champions and more than 130 belt changes, no African-American has won its highest-profile title, the WWE World Championship. John Cena had 13 title reigns. Triple H had nine. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is Samoan and whose father is African-Canadian) held the title nine times.

“It’s still the one title that no [African-American] has ever won,” Booker said as we ate lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, a few hundred yards from his Reality of Wrestling training gym. (He has another facility an hour south of town where wrestling shows are taped for TV, and he also promotes boxing and MMA cards.)

“Why I never won it? Look, it’s their company. It’s almost like, I went to play a pickup game at the park. The one kid who’s got the basketball, he may be an OK player but maybe not the best player. But he’s on the team. It’s his ball. If I’m not a big person about that, I’m going home.”

It’s worth noting that Booker still works for WWE, where Levesque is now an executive vice president, as an announcer on Monday Night Raw. Booker never slammed the WWE for its decades of race-baiting. But then, how could he when he never objected to playing his part in the wincing black-white bits?

He played Triple H’s victim during that racially loaded promo. A few years later, he and Sharmell, his stage partner and real-life wife, conveniently stood off to the side as McMahon called John Cena “my n—–.” (“Tell me … he didn’t just say that?” Booker responds in what he acknowledges is one of his worst acting jobs. “I got so much grief for that from the black community. Part of the show.”) One time, he used the N-word himself while talking about Hulk Hogan during a promo, although he later acknowledged it was a mistake.

He retired as a full-time wrestler in 2012 and officially in 2016. With distance comes perspective.

“Look at these poor cats, New Day,” he said, referring to a current black tag team, a three-person outfit allowed to keep the two-man title under the “Freebird rule.” (Because why wouldn’t you have three black men following a rule named for three whites who once showed up for a match at Comiskey Park in Chicago with their faces painted as Confederate flags?)

“They’re the new token black guys,” Huffman said. “It’s as racist as it’s always been, most black wrestlers still being put in the back seat. I just never spent too much energy on it, other than not getting my total just due as being a champion, which I deserved.

“I woulda been a great champion, great ambassador. I know I would have.”

Does he get to play both sides of this fence? On his way up, Booker permitted wrestling to use his race. Now that it’s over, he gets reflective.

Was he genuinely hurt by his profession’s racism or not? Again, it’s a false choice.

He cared and he didn’t care. He didn’t care what sold the product. But he did care that he had to play by rules that kept him in the box labeled “Black Guys.”


“I look forward to having a dialogue with the voters of Houston, and if I am so privileged to serve, I will fight for them as hard as I have fought for myself and my family over the last 30 years,

— Booker T. Huffman’s Twitter account, December 2016

“You’re a mess,” Booker says to his 6-year-old son, Kendrick.

“You’re a mess, Dad,” Kendrick says back.

“Yeah, Daddy, you’re a mess,” echoes his twin sister, Kennedy.

Booker never really retired from wrestling. He just went into business as a suburban father. His pectorals and arms are still Royal Rumble-ready. He does 400 pushups each morning, not out of vanity as much as to ensure a 52-year-old father of young twins remains on this side of the soil as long as possible. (Brandon, now 33, had his own trouble with the law growing up. He lives in Houston and works in marketing.)

Booker T speaks on the phone while his twins, Kennedy and Kendrick, play on his shoulders.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The felony conviction from 30 years ago still follows him. When he began traveling for wrestling shows internationally, Booker was frequently questioned by immigration agents. He had trouble at first getting a liquor license for his venue that hosts wrestling shows and boxing cards. And he needs a pardon from the governor before he can legally be a candidate on the November 2019 ballot.

“The paperwork is already in,” Booker said. His three personal references: Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, Triple H’s wife and the chief brand officer of WWE; Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite who persuaded the U.S. government to train and arm the Afghan mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet war on U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s behalf; and Gasarch, his former boss who lent him the money for wrestling school.

Incumbent Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, was a longtime member of the Texas Legislature before winning the mayor’s office in 2016 on his third attempt. Booker has yet to declare a political party, but he’s serious about his campaign. He’s hired an aide and an adviser to help formulate a platform.

Houston’s growing homeless problem, inspiring the city’s youth and fixing its educational system are his first priorities.

“You’ve got to go to the young people and look at it from their perspective,” he said. “We’ve heard forever, ‘Respect your elders,’ and it’s made us help little old ladies across the street and pay attention to our senior citizens. But I’ve never heard one time, throughout my 52 years, someone say, ‘Respect your young people.’

“We’ve got these classrooms of 40 kids, and it’s so disruptive the kids can’t learn anything. My mother-in-law works in the school district. She sees it daily. Something needs to be done about that. I’m not against public schooling, but I feel like the money that’s going into public schools needs to be appropriated properly.”

No Houston media outlet has taken the town’s temperature over the 2019 election, so it’s hard to say whether Booker’s candidacy will be received well. But he says with conviction, “I think I can win. I’ll get the young vote, the millennial vote.

“Sylvester Turner, Harvard [Law School] grad. He’s a very smart guy. But it’s not about him. It’s about my legacy, how many people I can help while I’m on this earth. Thing about it is, if I win I win, and if I lose I win. It’s not about just winning. It’s about getting off my couch and doing something.”

Maybe 20 years ago, the idea of a pro wrestler becoming mayor of a major American city might have been politically fraught. But we are in the post-Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger world now. A reality show host is our nation’s president. Why would we think Booker T can’t win? He’s already completed an apprenticeship of what it takes to move the masses in America.

“I pretty much made some dirt when I was a kid and made sure I got a big broom as an adult so I could sweep it,” he said, laughing. “I’m still sweeping to clean it up.”

Almost exactly 30 years after his robbery conviction, he still has nightmares of that swarm of police in riot gear. Strangely, there is also gratitude for those 19 months in prison, a reminder of the 336 months of freedom that followed.

A few years ago, he was contracted to give a speech to a group of wealthy Houston residents and wondered what he could say to motivate millionaires. “They’re already rich.”

He decided to tell the story of the Wendy’s Bandits feeling young and invincible before their fall. They gave him a standing ovation, unaware that Booker had a surprise for them.

“I want to introduce you to Wendell,” he said, pointing to a man immaculately dressed in fine Italian wool like many of the others in the room.

Booker had run into Sylvester at a gas station. He had no job, hadn’t shaved in weeks and looked hungry. Booker got him cleaned up and asked if he would accompany him to the speech.

Sylvester, who says he’s been straight since he got out of prison in 1995, now works as a driver for a trucking company. Although Booker says he wanted to keep helping him, the two men have since lost touch.

We want a world of bright lines. Heels and faces. But that’s not real life. It’s not the wrestling world, either. Both are messy. Complicated. Good and bad are mixed together, and both can be profitable for anyone willing to play their part.

Can you dig it, sucka?

‘Ballers’ recap: Spencer’s still on Vegas time — and Ricky is unraveling Does The Rock always have to save everybody?

SEASON THREE, EPISODE FOUR | “RIDE OR DIE” | AUG. 13

In the world of hip-hop, no vehicle is more coveted nowadays than a Bentley truck. It seems every rapper imaginable has rhymed about copping one (or has actually copped one) — from Future, to Migos, to Rae Sremmurd to Young Thug and Travi$ Scott. 2 Chainz even has an entire song dedicated to the SUV.

Yet in the world of Ballers, which HBO just renewed for a fourth season, a Bentley truck means almost nothing to a G like Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). While stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to a crucial meeting with Las Vegas hotel tycoon Wayne Hastings Jr. (Steve Guttenberg) about moving an NFL team to the gambling capital of the world, Spencer shifts a gear to park and straight-up abandons the truck on the highway. He’s convinced that the fastest way for him and Joe Krutel (Rob Corddry) to get to Wayne before he jets out of town is on foot.

The reason that the two financial advisers are running so late for the “biggest meeting of our lives,” as Spencer says, is that one of their clients, Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Vernon Littlefield (Donovan W. Carter), is on the verge of one of the worst fates an NFL player can endure. After Vernon fails to divest of the marijuana industry at the request of his team, the Cowboys owner (Christopher McDonald), aka the “Boss Man,” tells Joe he intends to cut Vernon.

The brash plan leaves Spencer with no choice but to pick up the pieces, like he always has to do, and sneak up on the Cowboys’ owner while he’s vacationing in Miami. Spencer not only gets the threat of Vernon’s release rescinded but also persuades the Boss Man to support Anderson Sport Management’s efforts to collaborate with Wayne in relocating the Oakland Raiders to Vegas.

Spencer shifts a gear and straight-up abandons the Bentley truck on the highway.

Spencer and Joe make it to Wayne just in time to relay the good news and save the partnership. But if there’s one thing true on Ballers, it’s that Spencer’s problems are always only temporarily fixed.

The life of one of Spencer’s premier clients, New England Patriots wide receiver Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), is unraveling faster than the real-life Miami Dolphins passed on Colin Kaepernick. Ricky has a child on the way, although his future child’s mom, Amber, is packing up to leave Miami (and her irresponsible boyfriend) behind. Meanwhile, Ricky’s new Patriots teammates Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski have all been practicing without him, leaving the job of scheduling training sessions to his fun-loving pothead best friend, TTD (Carl McDowell).

After an awful workout with a high school kid, the only quarterback TTD can find to throw on such short notice, Ricky storms off the field and returns home — or, to what he thinks is home. The absentminded Ricky rolls up in a house that belongs not to him but to a white family. So, after receiving a tap on the shoulder from the son of the house’s owners, Ricky out of shock delivers a right hook to the kid’s face.

“I know who you are, a–h—. You’re not going to get away with this,” the bloody-nosed kid tells Ricky.

His response? “TTD, call Spencer,” Ricky says into his cellphone.

That’s always the go-to reaction when something goes wrong: to call Spencer. The question is, whom can Spencer turn to for help?

Jazmyn Simon is planning her real-life wedding to Dulé Hill, and loves hanging with her ‘brothers’ on HBO’s ‘Ballers’ But she still has time for political arguments, electric cars and breaking stereotypes

Enjoying a successful career? Check. Engaged to the man of her dreams? Check. Living her best life? Double check. Though the year has been a whirlwind for actress Jazmyn Simon, it’s one the 36-year-old co-star of the hit HBO series Ballers would not trade for the world. With the third season of Ballers underway, Simon is looking forward to showing viewers a different side of her character, Julie Greane, who has played the role of a supportive wife to Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), an ex-NFL player who struggles to find his identity off the football field.

“The first two seasons, [Julie] was really just Charles’ backbone, trying to help him decide what he’s supposed to do … and that definitely goes on in season three too,” Simon says of her character. “But this season, she kind of steps out on her own. You see her go to work for the first time, which is very important for me. [It’s] one thing to be a wife and another thing to be a mother, but it’s a whole other thing to be a wife, mother and have your own things. She’s a doctor, and many people don’t realize she’s a doctor because she never went to work.”

Life can get a bit hectic in Hollywood, but that doesn’t stop Simon from making time for the important things, including binge-watching her favorite shows, winning political arguments, and being engaged to and planning her wedding with fellow Ballers star Dulé Hill.

What’s your favorite part about playing Julie Greane?

I got to break a stereotype. It’s always good for a black woman to be able to break a stereotype. When you think of a football player’s wife, you automatically think of negative stuff, and you don’t really think that this is just a doctor who loves her husband and supports him no matter what he does. And that is the thing that I’m most proud of and most excited about, what the writers have done and what I’ve been able to do with this character.

What was one of the craziest moments you’ve had on set?

We had this one party scene last season and it was Ricky’s (John David Washington) birthday. They only showed a little of it, but I tell you, when you get all of us together, the whole cast and a whole bunch of people at a pool party, it gets weird. It’s a lot of shenanigans that go on when all of us are together in a party scene. Working with a bunch of guys is fun in general, but things get wild when all of us are together.

“I was telling them it was so fun to be out with my brothers, and Dulé was like, ‘So we’re clear, I’m not your brother.’ And now … he’s my fiancé.”

Are there any actors you’re closest to? Or are they all just treated like brothers?

Well, I’m engaged to one of them, so that one is definitely not my brother. It’s funny because 3 1/2 years ago when we first started shooting, I went out with all the guys … just a bunch of us. I was telling them it was so fun to be out with my brothers, and Dulé was like, ‘Just so we’re clear, I’m not your brother.’ And now 3 1/2 years later, he’s my fiancé. I love him. He’s the best. I’m the closest with Donovan Carter, who plays Vernon Littlefield. Me and Donovan are like siblings.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I very rarely get starstruck. I get excited. President Obama was the most starstruck I had been. He and Michelle Obama were everything. That meeting was just everything to me. I will tell you the first table read that I had for Ballers, the very first one after I booked it, they sat me directly across from Dwayne [Johnson], and the entire time I was in that table read my knees would not stop shaking. I kept thinking, ‘That is The Rock. Oh, my gosh.’ Like, come on. I still have to pinch myself and say, ‘Girl, you have Dwayne’s phone number. That’s The Rock. If you need to talk to him, you can just call.’ I was starstruck that day, and my blood pressure was probably very high. The awe has definitely worn off in 3 1/2 years just because I know him and I love him. He’s definitely a brother to me.

If you weren’t acting, what would you be doing?

Trying to act. My first job out of college was at HBO, so if I wasn’t on an HBO show, I’d probably be an executive at HBO. I was a sales assistant in the Chicago office. Full circle. Life is good in that way.

“So if you see me riding around town with my falcon doors, just say, ‘What’s up?’ “

Julie has great fashion sense, and I’m sure Jazmyn does, too. What’s your current fashion obsession?

Shout-out to Tiffany, our costume designer, because Julie’s clothes are always on point. And Jazmyn’s clothes are not as cool as Julie’s. I do like a nice pair of jeans though. I will spend some dollars on a pair of jeans. I’ll put on jeans with a white T-shirt and an expensive purse and call it a day. Jazmyn likes fashion, but she’s not wearing Alexander McQueen to cook dinner like Julie is. Julie is the baller. Jazmyn is on Ballers. See the difference there?

What’s the last show you binge-watched?

Oh my gosh. I have a couple. The Handmaid’s Tale was the bomb, but it wouldn’t let me binge it because Hulu is mean. They only made it once a week. Over Christmas break, I rewatched every episode of Game of Thrones because that is my all-time favorite. I can just watch Game of Thrones right now. But I’ve also been bingeing Sense8 and The Leftovers right now.

What will you always be the champ of?

Political arguments. I will always win a political argument. Always. Don’t come for me, because I feel like I’m Anderson Cooper. I know the most.

What is the worst purchase you ever made?

I’m gonna tell you the truth. I was in Vancouver shooting something and me, trying to be a baller, I was like, ‘I need some new sunglasses.’ So I bought these Christian Dior metallic, reflective sunglasses and they were like $700. And when I tell you those shades are in the bottom of my purse somewhere … I can’t wear those in real life. And every time I think about it, I get mad because I’m like, that $700 could’ve gone on something else. They’re in a purse somewhere in my closet.

And best purchase?

The most baller purchase I’m about to make is this Tesla X. I cannot wait. I’m ordering it in October, so hopefully I’ll have it in November. So if you see me riding around town with my falcon doors, just say, ‘What’s up?’

“Julie is the baller. Jazmyn is on Ballers. See the difference there?”

What are you looking forward to achieving in the rest of 2017?

Girl, I’m planning my wedding! I’m planning the wedding of my dreams so hopefully, after all this planning, I will achieve the perfect wedding. I love work, but love is so much better. Love is the best. I’m also auditioning for a movie, so hopefully I’ll book that too. Everybody put good vibes out there.

If you could go to dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?

Beyoncé. I just need to know how she named the twins Rumi and Sir. And I have a question: Is it Sir Carter Carter or just Sir Carter? These are the questions I need to go to dinner with Beyoncé to ask her. Let’s put that out there. I’ll have a seat for her [at the wedding].

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t forget who you are. Every day before I left my house — I lived with my grandmother until I was of age to move out on my own, and every day before I left, she said, ‘Don’t forget who you are.’ When you’re 10 years old you really don’t understand that, and when you’re 15 years old you don’t really understand that. But today, I understand that more than ever because I’m in a town full of actors and full of Hollywood executives, and this business is not for the faint of heart. And if you let people, they will take you out of yourself. They’ll make you something that you are not. So every day, before I leave the house, I say, ‘Do not forget who you are,’ and it keeps me humble, grounded and accountable for the decisions I make every day.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.