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

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

— Pat Riley


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

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

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

NBAE via Getty Images

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

NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Julius “Dr. J” Erving


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

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

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

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getty Images

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

313 Presents

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

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

Now where are all the black folks?

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


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

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

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

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

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

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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


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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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


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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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

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

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

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

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


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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