The high-flying and unpredictable NBA Rising Stars Challenge in 5 storylines Lonzo Ball, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Smith — Team USA is loaded, but can ‘The Process’ lead Team World to glory?

The NBA Rising Stars Challenge game will certainly deliver swag, poster dunks, a barrage of 3-pointers and bucket after bucket from tipoff to the buzzer. But there are a lot of, shall we say, side narratives as well. For example: Apparently, the impact of an NBA All-Star Game snub can travel across the entire globe, even into the highest levels of government.

Despite a prolific rookie season, and a slew of injured All-Stars who needed replacements, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons won’t be playing on the biggest Sunday of the NBA calendar. The 6-foot-10 Australian phenom didn’t receive a call from commissioner Adam Silver when DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles, or when John Wall announced knee surgery, or when Kevin Love broke his hand, or when Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL. Instead, Paul George, Andre Drummond, Goran Dragic and Kemba Walker all got the nod as ringers.

One of Simmons’ countrymen decided to use the floor of the Australian Parliament to express his feelings.

“I rise today to express my outrage at the exclusion of Australian Ben Simmons from this year’s NBA All-Star Game,” said Tim Watts, a member of the Australian House of Representatives. “In a record-breaking rookie year for the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben is currently averaging nearly 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game. He’s already had five triple-doubles, and, frankly, no one with two brain cells to rub together would want Goran Dragic on their team.” Watts’ remarks went viral, and Simmons commented, “The man has spoken [insert crying emoji],” on a video of the speech posted on Instagram.

Simmons will make the trip to Los Angeles, though, where he’ll put on for Australia in the annual Rising Stars Challenge. Per tradition, only first- and second-year players are eligible to compete, and for the fourth straight year, the game features a matchup between Team USA and Team World. With the best American players in the NBA squaring off against the league’s top talent with international roots, Simmons will rep his Aussie set as one of the leaders of Team World, along with the Cameroon-born Joel Embiid, his Philly teammate and an All-Star starter.

Although Team World claimed a 150-141 win in last year’s game, Team USA enters the 2018 contest with an absolutely loaded roster that includes a trio of Los Angeles Lakers in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, a pair of Boston Celtics in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as well as Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks. Compared with Sunday’s All-Star Game, Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge presents a smaller — albeit almost equally high-flying, ankle-breaking and star-showcasing — spectacle that previews the leaders of the new school in the NBA. Here are five things to watch from the league’s future stars.


TEAM WORLD

  • Bogdan Bogdanovic, G, Sacramento Kings
  • Dillon Brooks, G/F, Memphis Grizzlies
  • Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Buddy Hield, G, Sacramento Kings
  • Lauri Markkanen, F, Chicago Bulls
  • Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets
  • Frank Ntilikina, G, New York Knicks
  • Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers
  • Dario Saric, F, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers

TEAM USA

  • Lonzo Ball, G, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Malcolm Brogdon, G, Milwaukee Bucks*
  • Jaylen Brown, G/F, Boston Celtics
  • John Collins, F/C, Atlanta Hawks
  • Kris Dunn, G, Chicago Bulls
  • Brandon Ingram, F, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Kyle Kuzma, F, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz
  • Dennis Smith Jr., G, Dallas Mavericks
  • Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
  • Taurean Prince, F, Atlanta Hawks

*Injured, will not play in game

 

When in doubt, ‘Trust the Process’

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The game plan for Team World is simple: “Trust the Process.” That’s the creed of the young-and-promising Philadelphia 76ers, who will likely make a playoff appearance for the first time since 2012. “The Process” is also the nickname of Philly’s 7-foot franchise center Embiid, who will start in both the Rising Stars Challenge and his first career All-Star Game. Embiid will be joined on Team World by Simmons and Croatia’s Dario Saric, the runner-up for 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year. In last year’s challenge, Saric recorded 17 points, five rebounds and four assists as a starter for Team World. Expect the entire Sixers trio, who all stand 6-foot-10 or above, to both start and get buckets. That’s a feared three-man offense right there.

Will Lonzo Ball play?

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s been a busy few weeks for the new-wave first family of basketball, also known as the Balls of Chino Hills, California. LaVar Ball has been frequenting sidelines overseas while coaching his two youngest sons — LiAngelo, 19, and LaMelo, 16 — who have both been straight-up ballin’ (all puns intended) in their first year of professional basketball in Lithuania. Meanwhile, Lonzo, the 2017 No. 2 overall pick of his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, is reportedly expecting a child with his longtime girlfriend, Denise Garcia, and trying to make it back onto the court after suffering a left knee sprain on Jan. 13. “I didn’t think it was going to be this serious, to be honest …,” Ball said on Feb. 7. “I thought it was going to be dealt with quicker.” The injury might cost him an appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge, which will be played on his home court at the Staples Center. Fingers crossed he can suit up. The people need Lonzo Ball on the hardwood and LaVar Ball courtside.

The dunk contest before the dunk contest

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Two out of the four contestants who make up the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest will get to warm up their bounce in the Rising Stars Challenge. They’re both rookies and both members of Team USA: Mavericks point guard Smith and Jazz shooting guard Mitchell, who was a late call-up to the dunk competition as a replacement for injured Orlando Magic big man Aaron Gordon. Smith has wild leaping ability and crazy in-air flair, while Mitchell plays at a height above his defenders, frequently breaking out his patented tomahawk jams. This is another reason that Ball needs to play in this game. Lonzo + Donovan + Dennis = endless lob possibilities. We’d be looking up all night long.

Can Jamal Murray do it again?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If Jamal Murray shows up, balls out and is named the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge for the second straight year, Drake has to consider remixing his timeless 2015 diss track “Back to Back” to pay homage to his fellow Canadian. That line from the record in which he spits, Back to back like I’m Jordan, ’96, ’97? How about Back to back like I’m Murray, ’17, ’18? In last year’s game, the Nuggets guard dropped game highs in both points (36) and assists (11). He also shot a whopping 9-for-14 from 3-point land. Oh, yeah, and he did it all after coming off the bench. C’mon, Team World, let the man start this year so he can really eat!

Throwback threads

Both Team USA and Team World will take the court at the Staples Center in vintage get-ups honoring the history of the city’s two NBA franchises. Team USA will rock powder blue and gold uniforms, inspired by the 1940s-’50s Minneapolis Lakers, while Team World will break out an orange-and-black ensemble as a tribute to the Buffalo Braves (now known as the Los Angeles Clippers) of the 1970s. Which is the fresher look? That’s for you to decide. Which squad will emerge from the challenge victorious? On paper, it’s hard to bet against Team USA. But in an All-Star Game, even at the Rising Stars level, you never really know.

Soccer pro Amobi Okugo remains dedicated to helping pro athletes manage money Okugo turned his frugal tendencies into the website A Frugal Life — a treasure trove of tips on how to play sports and not go broke

As a 15-year-old rising soccer star, Amobi Okugo had all the tools necessary to impress any coach. The midfielder’s speed, quickness and tenacity made an immediate impression on John Hackworth, who at the time oversaw America’s pool of under-17 national players, all with dreams of representing the red, white and blue.

Something else about Okugo caught the young coach’s eye.

“He was a young man at that time — full of ambition,” Hackworth recalled with a laugh. “But I will tell you right off the bat that he was as frugal then as he is now, if not more so. He would get a pretty good teasing from his teammates for how he spent his money and how he didn’t. I’ve teased him for a long time for being flat-out cheap. But he had no problem with it, whether the teasing was from me, his best friends or his teammates. He would never apologize for it; that’s just who Amobi is.”

And still is.

Now 26 and having played eight professional seasons in Major League Soccer, Okugo has grown from teenager to a seasoned veteran whose sights and ambitions are about life beyond professional sports.

“I’ve always been pretty frugal growing up,” said Okugo, a product of Nigerian parents. “I’m not sure if it’s my Nigerian blood or what. I remember getting free Nike gear from youth national team camps and returning them to get cash or telling my mom to pack me extra chicken wings and selling them at lunch at school.”

fru•gal: sparing or economical with regard to money or food.

Synonyms: thrifty, economical, careful, cautious, prudent, unwasteful,
sparing, scrimping, meager, scanty, scant, paltry …

Frugal and creative.

While Okugo had penny-pinching ways from his youth, the midfielder-turned-defender had a complete mindset shift after watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke, which told tales of former millionaire athletes losing and squandering their earnings in spectacular fashion, oftentimes ending up broke.

Broke was a big eye-opener for me because it really went into detail about how easy it is for athletes to go broke,” said Okugo of the 2012 film, which featured the likes of Curt Schilling, Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison and Cliff Floyd speaking openly about the challenges of managing their money. “It wasn’t until I saw the documentary and saw the accounts of players I personally watched on TV detailing their experiences when it hit me. What caught my eye the most was how avoidable it was for athletes to not go broke but because of perception and lack of preparation, some athletes felt it necessary to spend.”

The film prompted Okugo to take account of his own financial life, and in August 2016 he launched A Frugal Athlete, a website that publishes news and shares advice and viewpoints that he hopes will help athletes take control of their finances. Co-founded with his younger brother, Akachi, and his best friend Kyle Odister, both former college basketball players, the site combines financial tidbits, media analysis and useful consumer-friendly news.

“When I originally launched A Frugal Athlete, my goal was to highlight different athletes who are prudent financially — not superstars like the LeBron James and Tom Bradys of the world who will never have to worry about money in comparison,” said Okugo, who played soccer his freshman year at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California, before joining the U-17 residency national team program as a sophomore. “I also wanted to increase financial literacy for athletes as a whole, because that is a major issue as well.”

Still a relatively new league, MLS has only 28 players with salaries at or over the $1 million mark. League contracts, according to the players’ union, are more typically in the five and six digits, starting just above $50,000 and topping out around $7 million. Okugo’s 2017 compensation with his last MLS team, Portland, was just over $190,000 in salary and incentives, according to Okugo.

When he was drafted by the Philadelphia Union in 2010 — coincidentally at the urging of Hackworth — who was then an assistant, he hardly thought about money, but thanks to good parents, he knew sports was a window to financial security but likely a small one.

“Amobi was 19 when he moved to Philly,” remembered Hackworth, who eventually became the Union’s head coach in 2012 and played a key early role in Okugo’s development through 2014. “He moved in with Danny Mwanga, who was our No. 1 draft pick, and they both talked about making decent money for being young kids, but they had to figure out a way to manage it. Mwanga had that mindset too. But right away, [Okugo] was like, ‘Coach — I’m getting my degree. I don’t care how I do it, I’m going to get it.’ ”

Okugo had completed only one year of college at UCLA before being drafted; his parents, he said, were adamant about him completing his degree, and he still had aspirations of a career in sports management. After years of offseason studies, Okugo scored his best goal to date — earning his undergraduate degree in organizational leadership from the University of Louisville last December.

Okugo’s frugal ways, and his platform, have caught on in the league, and among other pros. Bilal Duckett, a former MLS player who now plays for the Charlotte Independence of the United Soccer League, a prominent Division II league, understands all too well the importance of thinking beyond your playing days. At 29, Duckett is one of the Independence’s more senior players. And, even though he served as captain the past two seasons — and he just re-signed for one more campaign — Duckett knows his post-soccer life is likely just around the bend.

“I’ve seen players trying to live like basketball and football players — we don’t make that kind of money,” said Duckett, a 2011 Notre Dame grad who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration. “My background is in IT, and my web consultation company, Duck Digital, is a really important part of my ‘next step’ process,” continued Duckett, who builds and maintains websites when he’s not man-marking speedy forwards and has also championed a project called Tackling Consent, an initiative developed by soccer players to end sexual violence before it starts. “I think Amobi’s platform is brilliant. In my experience, there are far more conversations in the locker room about flippant spending than financial responsibility and frugality.”

Having made the rounds in MLS — playing for Philadelphia, Orlando, Sporting Kansas City and most recently Portland — Okugo is actively staying in shape and shopping his services for a team, domestic or international. But if that call doesn’t come, it’ll hardly be the end of the world.

“I would probably apply to graduate school and continue to grow A Frugal Athlete where it could generate revenue,” he said. “Depending on best fit, I would like to go for a dual MBA-JD degree.”

Hackworth chuckled when he recalled Okugo’s frugal ways from their time together in Philadelphia, particularly on road trips. “When we would travel, the team would book group tickets and the athletes don’t usually get credit for their miles. It was a ritual: Every time Amobi went to the airport, he would insist on getting his miles. He would spend 20 minutes at the counter, and come hell or high water, he was gonna get his miles. Somehow he found a way to get them.”

That’s why they call him the frugal athlete.

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson bring ‘2 Dope Queens’ to HBO The popular podcast is now a four-part comedy special

The first thing you realize while watching the 2 Dope Queens HBO special is that Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, the aforementioned dope queens, would be perfect at hosting the Golden Globes.

In a television adaptation of their popular 4-year-old WNYC podcast, Williams and Robinson display a familiar, wisecracking comedy that made Tina Fey and Amy Poehler so enjoyable for the three years they hosted Hollywood’s annual alcohol-soaked tribute to arbitrary awards. It’s the magnetism that comes from watching two girlfriends hold court and have a good time while wishing you were cool enough to join the party.

Now, under the direction of comic Tig Notaro (a recent guest on the podcast), 2 Dope Queens has been turned into a series of four one-hour comedy specials. The first one airs at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 2. Each episode is a variety show built around a theme: blerds, New York, hair (because: black) and “hot peen” (because: alive). In each one, Williams and Robinson kick it for a bit, introduce a comic who does a stand-up set, then interview their celebrity guests before closing with another comic.

Robinson’s been performing stand-up comedy for 10 years and also solo-hosts another WNYC interview podcast called Sooo Many White Dudes, in which her guests are mostly anything but. Williams is best known as a former Daily Show correspondent (her old boss, Jon Stewart, makes an appearance on 2 Dope Queens), and lately she’s been throwing herself into acting. She recently released her second film with writer/director Jim Strouse, and the pair are working on a comedy series for Showtime.

Should they get the call (Dear Golden Globes producers, have some sense and enlist these two already), Robinson’s already thought of the celebrities she’d like to participate in their comedy bits. Oprah (“Because she’s amazing and delightful and she’s truly funny and she has a great personality”), former President Barack Obama (“He would be like, ‘Are you asking me to do a bit for the Golden Globes? I’m like, busy.’ ”) and Jack Nicholson (“I know you’re like semi-retired, but would you do something completely nuts with me? I think he would be like, ‘Sure.’ ”).

Robinson, 33, and Williams, 28, weren’t close friends when they originally began hosting the 2 Dope Queens podcast. Listeners witnessed their chemistry develop in real time as they’ve attended Billy Joel concerts and AfroPunk together. The result is a duo who shimmy and yaaaaaaaaasssssss their affirmations to each other and everyone they interview. In the case of the specials, that includes Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black), Sarah Jessica Parker (Divorce) and Stewart.

“Minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative.”

“We were becoming friends as we were working together,” Robinson said by phone recently. “Like any sort of intimate relationship, we’ve learned what works for us, what doesn’t. It’s a really cool process to balance the friendship with working together.”

Both had some advice for new residents of New York, with Williams sounding like Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw giving a clinic to singletons.

“You’re not finding the peen-age? Just walk outside and do exactly what it is that you want to do and go explore your interests,” she said by phone. “Like, go to a SZA concert or a pottery class. … Just go do that and I think you’ll run into some hot sausage.”

Robinson, on the other hand, admitted to being more in the camp of the blind leading the blind.

“If I knew [where to find it], I wouldn’t talk about it as much as I do,” Robinson said. “I’m lucky that I have a boyfriend and I’m off the streets, because I was truly a nightmare. I’m not good at flirting. I think it’s good to travel in packs with your lady friends. You need that line of defense.”

Robinson and Williams curated an eclectic collection of guest comedians for their HBO specials, some of whom, like Michelle Buteau and Aparna Nancherla, may be familiar if you watched Wyatt Cenac’s Night Train series for the now-defunct streaming service Seeso. And like Night Train, 2 Dope Queens relies heavily, and deliberately, on minority comics. Other guests include Baron Vaughn, Sheng Wang and Naomi Ekperigin. Amy Aniobi, a writer and producer on Insecure, served as executive producer.

“We always try to make sure we have stand-up, storytellers or celebrity guests that are … a woman or a person of color or a member of the LGBT community,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, minorities and people of color, we’re usually supporting characters in other people’s narratives, and so we try to give people a platform to be the star of their own narrative. It’s inherently built into the show.”

The specials, which were shot in Brooklyn, New York’s, Kings Theatre, are set against the backdrop of a typical New York rooftop, complete with string lights, a grill and crates that double as seating. Both women said that working with Notaro, who recently wrote and starred in the Amazon series One Mississippi, was pivotal to the show’s success.

“Even when women are the stars of their comedy specials, they still have men directing them,” Robinson said. “I really wanted to have a woman directing ours. … I learned so much from her. She’s a great leader. There’s no drama. She comes in, she does the work and she makes it really fun. Every time we had a meeting, my stomach would be hurting because she’d be making me laugh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The history will take care of itself.

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

From Chicago to the Congo, Nate Fluellen is sharing his experiences in the Urban Movie Channel’s new travel series The travel vlogger and HBCU grad is living his wildest dreams

When Nathan Fluellen’s international economics professor at Tennessee State University (TSU) challenged him to travel to more places than him, he accepted. Professor Galen Hull had visited more than 80 places around the country, and that concept intrigued Fluellen.

The ideology was not new to him. He grew up in a household where his mother embarked upon mission trips abroad, and his cousins spent time working and living overseas.

“She had been in Brazil four or five times, South Africa, Italy and Egypt,” Fluellen said.

So he set out to travel the world, documenting his experiences and branding himself as World Wide Nate.

Now he has landed a 13-episode reality travel show on the Urban Movie Channel (UMC). In World Wide Nate: African Adventures, a crew follows the Chicago native as he hikes the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s mountains, cruises the world’s largest lava lake, rappels alongside a 600-foot-tall waterfall in Lesotho and treks through the Rwandan jungle alongside silverback gorillas and more.

“Me, a kid from the South Side of Chicago, was walking in the footsteps of my ancestors seeing the same majestic mountain ridges. I was speechless,” Fluellen says in the first episode, with more new shows to return in the spring.

Fluellen’s exploits include food, culture and fun, and he offers viewers the opportunity to experience Africa through his charm and adventures.

According to his website, in March 2016 he became one of the first sponsored U.S. tourists to visit Cuba in more than 50 years. His adventures have been sponsored by Chase Bank, Marriott, Time, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Ford and Lincoln Motors, Essence.com, Ebony.com, Mensfitness.com, AOL.com and the South African Tourism Board. He is a three-time winner of LAWebfest’s most outstanding series and series host.

After graduating from historically black TSU in 2004 with a degree in economics, Fluellen decided to take his first trip, recalling the challenge from his professor. He set his sights on Barcelona, Spain.

“It’s the city that’s romanticized about, and just being a Michael Jordan fan growing up, and the Barcelona Olympics, it was exciting,” he said. “I’m an adventurous person. I’ve always been an explorer. Prior to me going, I had started taking Spanish classes at the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute. I met new people from all over the world, and other professional athletes. I’m meeting them and they’re just happy to see another black person. It was an eye-opening experience. I felt like I was finally living my dream of being an international man of leisure.”

Fluellen’s vision initially was to write a book capturing his travel experiences. He thought he would create a book that would include the push of a button to play a video — but then came the iPad, he explained.

So the 36-year-old opted for an online blog experience and started chronicling his journey on MySpace when the social media forum was most popular.

“I would just write, ‘Day One, this is what I did, from sunrise to sunset,’ and people would just read it and be like, ‘Oh, that was tight. That was dope.’ So I had bought a better camera, a digital camera, then I bought a camcorder, then bought a better camcorder, and I started recording my videos and taught myself how to edit on Final Cut Express.”

A friend from college who had a knack for editing videos reached out to Fluellen, and they founded his webisodes. Fluellen’s cousin introduced him to the digital director at Ebony, who hired him as a travel editor on a gig that took him to the Bahamas to cover the 2006 Miss Universe pageant. This is when his journey took off in the paid space.

“It was superfun, and that’s when I met other travel people and learned about press trips,” he said. “I was just really learning the game, as far as how people are making it into a career, and this is like my passion.”

Fluellen said the hardest part of his journey was lack of financing.

“It’s like when people ask you, ‘Pick something that you love so much that if you didn’t get paid, you’d do it every day,’ ” he said. “There’s been days I ain’t get paid, and I’m still doing it. There wasn’t always a lot of money in the industry. And then it was like the cat-and-mouse game, where they understood the value but then they kind of wanted to see how much experience you had, to see if they wanted to pay you your value or not. And then now, people understand the value of video content.”

The most interesting place Fluellen has visited is Rwanda.

“It was so clean, and the people were just so brown and chocolate. And the landscape was so green and lush. Rwanda was unique.”

Living in Los Angeles, he also has a passion for health and fitness. He trains six days a week and participates in boxing, body weight and core exercises.

“I’ve always played basketball growing up. I played a little football, did some track, some high jumps. I took weight training classes and always kept my ear to the fitness and the importance of diet [at TSU].

He does boxing training, yoga, surfing and rock climbing and includes eating a balanced meal as a core principle of fitness. His clean diet includes foods high in protein and low in carbs. He’s incorporated this lifestyle into his travels, sharing his Train Hard Thursday workouts and cheat day meals on Fried Chicken Friday with his social media followers.

“I have to have a cheat day,” Fluellen said. “I eat pretty healthy. I’ll usually cook some salmon, kale and some asparagus, avocado and tomato. I’ll eat that all during the week.”

Giving back is also at the top of Fluellen’s list of priorities. He joined RakLife, an organization that uses random acts of kindness as a mantra to help the less fortunate around the world on a recent trip to Paje, Zanzibar, where they helped feed 300 elderly citizens. He is also interested in starting a scholarship fund at his alma mater that will send students abroad to study in Colombia.

A history of Christmas Day game debuts As Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas

 

As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”

For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.

Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”

The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.

Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.

Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?

 

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1956 vs. Philadelphia Warriors (89-82, L)

Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds

Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.

 

Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers

Getty Images

Christmas 1958 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-97, L)

Line: 12 points

Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.

 

Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors

Christmas 1959 vs. Syracuse Nationals (129-121, W)

Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds

Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.

 

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals

Christmas 1960 vs. Detroit Pistons (126-119, W)

Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists

Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).

 

Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1961 vs. Cincinnati Royals (141-127, W)

Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks

Christmas 1971 vs. Detroit Pistons (120-118, L in OT)

Line: 38 points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.

 

Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Christmas 1971 vs. Pittsburgh Condors (133-126, W) | Christmas 1976 vs. New York Knicks (105-104, W)

Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds

Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.

 

Bernard King, Utah Jazz

Christmas 1979 vs. Denver Nuggets (122-111, W)

Line: 7 points

Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.

 

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1980 vs. New York Knicks (117-108, W)

Line: 28 points

Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.

 

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers

Getty Images

Christmas 1981 vs. Phoenix Suns (104-101, W)

Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals

Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.

 

Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks

Christmas 1982 vs. Washington Bullets (97-91, W)

Line: 7 points, 2 blocks

Only in his rookie season, Dominique Wilkins, the man known as The Human Highlight Reel, would have far better games than this in his Hall of Fame career. Hey, it happens.

 

Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)

Christmas 1984 vs. Detroit Pistons (109-108, W, Sixers)

Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)

These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.

 

Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Christmas 1985 vs. Boston Celtics (113-104, W 2OT)

Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds

Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1986 vs. New York Knicks (86-85, L)

Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks

Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.

 

Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1990 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-86, W)

Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals

While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.

 

David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1992 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (103-94, W)

Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds

What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.

 

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Christmas 1993 vs. Phoenix Suns (111-91, L)

Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks

Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.

 

Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic

Christmas 1993 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-93, L)

Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)

Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 1994 vs. Denver Nuggets (105-96, L)

Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)

The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.

Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.

 

Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons

Christmas 1996 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-83, L)

Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds

Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1996 vs. Phoenix Suns (108-87, W)

Line: 0 points, 1 rebound

Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1999 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (99-93, L)

Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds

This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Christmas 1999 vs. New York Knicks (101-90, W)

Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.

Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Christmas 2000 vs. Indiana Pacers (103-93, L)

Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds

An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Christmas 2001 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (88-82, L)

Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.

 

Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors

Christmas 2001 vs. New York Knicks (102-94, L)

Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals

By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.

 

Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2002 vs. New Jersey Nets (117-81, L)

Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds

The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Christmas 2003 vs. Sacramento Kings (111-103, W)

Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks

While we’re pretty sure he didn’t bring his patented “work plate” with him to the arena 14 years ago, our favorite German OG, Dirk Nowitzki, feasted on Chris Webber and the Kings.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2003 vs. Orlando Magic (113-101, L in OT)

Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals

Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Christmas 2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (104-102, W in OT)

Line: 29 points, 10 assists

As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.

 

Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 2007 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (89-79, L)

Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.

Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2008 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (92-83, L)

Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)

In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.

 

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)

Christmas 2008 (88-68, Magic W)

Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)

CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.

 

Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Christmas 2009 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (107-96, L)

Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists

Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

Christmas 2010 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (96-80, W)

Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds

Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

 

Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

Christmas 2010 vs. Denver Nuggets (114-106, W)

Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)

Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Christmas 2010 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (109-102, W)

Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists

Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.

 

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2014 vs. Miami Heat (101-91, L)

Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

Christmas 2014 vs. New York Knicks (102-91, W)

Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists

Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.

 

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 2013 vs. Houston Rockets (111-98, L)

Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds

This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.

 

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Christmas 2015 vs. Miami Heat (94-88, L in OT)

Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks

Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Christmas 2016 vs. Boston Celtics (119-114, L)

Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds

With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Christmas 2016 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (112-100, L)

Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds

The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.

Figure Skating in Detroit is aiming to change the color of the sport This girls-only program uses figure skating to build self-esteem and academic achievement

Asked recently which event she was more excited about — the 2018 Winter Olympics or the recently released Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya — 13-year-old figure skater Kendyll Martin quickly said the Olympics. After all, she hadn’t even been born when Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at Cobo Arena and wasn’t familiar with arguably the most dramatic moment in figure skating history.

Her dad, Carl Martin, chuckled. He remembered it, but he and his family are focused on how figure skating can be more widely available in communities of color.

Kendyll was introduced to the sport in kindergarten through a program at her private school. But she is more the exception than the rule. Many black girls, in Detroit and elsewhere, have not been exposed to the sport or its benefits.

Figure Skating in Detroit (FSD) is aiming to change this. The girls-only program is an offshoot of New York’s Figure Skating in Harlem, which uses figure skating to develop leadership skills, self-esteem and academic achievement.

Kendyll’s mother, Robin Martin, learned of FSD on the news and took Kendyll to a free workshop. Kendyll, who had stopped skating because her school’s program had been dismantled, was excited to have an opportunity to get back on the ice. Her parents were pleased with the program’s focus on skating, education and leadership.

Applicants are required to be Detroit residents and undergo an interview. Geneva Williams, director of Figure Skating in Detroit, uses the interview to determine the quality most important to her and the program: commitment.

In exchange for the time commitment — roughly two hours per day, four days a week — and maintaining at least a B average in school, the girls receive ice skates, uniforms, mentoring and on-ice instruction. Parents are asked to participate as well. Williams doesn’t just want them to provide transportation and fees, she wants them to attend some of the workshops.

The cost to the family is about $250, which covers instructor’s fees, costumes and equipment, and skates. Anyone who can’t swing that amount is asked to pay what they can. The Michigan Women’s Foundation, individual donors and other local foundations subsidize most of the program’s expenses. Williams’ goal is to get 300 girls to join by the end of 2018.

“I was impressed and excited that they offered skates,” said Robin Martin, although Kendyll hasn’t taken advantage of this yet. She still uses skates that were purchased before she joined FSD. Robin added that the cost to join the yearlong program is equivalent to what she would have paid for one or two private lessons.

She’s right. The cost of figure skating can be can be stifling, and it is likely part of the reason there aren’t more black figure skaters. A new pair of figure skates can start at $500. Add coaching costs, ice time and outfits and the tab can jump to $10,000 just for a low-level skater. This is steep for most families, let alone those living in Detroit, where the median household income is just above $26,000.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, 52 girls travel to Jack Adams Arena in northwest Detroit to skate. They range in age from 6 to 15, and Williams suspects most have never practiced the sport before.

“They are learning wiggles and basic skills,” reported Kendyll. More advanced skaters, like herself, work on spins and jumps. Her favorite is the loop jump and the scratch spin.

The girls are divided into four groups based on skill level. Besides on-ice instruction, they receive off-ice training in ballet, jazz, choreography and expression.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the girls are separated by age and participate in a program called I Can Excel (ICE).

“I take classes like financial literacy, life skills, STEM and dance,” said Kendyll. Nutrition and tutoring are also offered on these days.

Barb Reichert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Figure Skating Association, likes all of it. “I admire how Figure Skating in Detroit puts a laser focus on education and then provides the support to be successful in the classroom and beyond,” she said by email.

Gary Miron, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at Western Michigan University, is also excited about the program.

“Kids engaged in extracurricular activities tend to perform better than kids who don’t,” he said. Students who compete in gymnastics, cross-country and track tend to have high GPAs, he said, and figure skating would probably fit into this group of sports tied to high academic performance.

Williams added that understanding the physics of figure skating can help girls understand physics generally. It is these connections between sports and science that fortify her belief in the program.

Another benefit for the participants is the backing of Olympian Meryl Davis. The 2014 ice dancing Olympic champion is not competing in Pyeongchang, but she has been promoting both programs in Harlem and Detroit. She visits and gives skating tips to the girls from time to time.

Kendyll has met Davis a few times, and the encounters leave her somewhere between dazzled and intrigued. Still, she’s not interested in pursuing ice dance. Instead, Kendyll hopes to learn more complex jumps and spins so she can compete. FSD does not train girls for competition, so she’d have to join or partner with a figure skating club to do so.

Williams is not opposed to helping the girls compete, but right now she’s trying to secure funding and participants to ensure the longevity of the program. And Figure Skating in Detroit may be just as helpful to its lead organizer as it is to the girls who enroll. Williams was caring for her sick husband when she first heard about the program. When he died, Williams needed to grieve and find something she was passionate about professionally and emotionally. Though she is not a figure skater, FSD has helped spark the next iteration of her career.

The Detroit area attracts some of the most elite skaters and coaches in the world. This has been true since the 1960s, a long time before Little Caesars Arena was scheduled to host the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in 2019.

But while black folks make up most of the Motor City’s population, only a small fraction appear to be members of the figure skating clubs around the region. The United States Figure Skating Association, the national governing body for the sport, does not track the race of competitors. Pictures from ice shows and competitions are the best evidence that black skaters exist.

All of this — the population, the number of skating rinks in the city, the figure skating talent, the need — is why Figure Skating in Harlem chose Detroit as an expansion city for the program last November.

Many minorities still don’t participate in clinical trials, but changing the narrative can save lives Researchers and patients can join forces to change the perception and the numbers

ESPN’s 2017 V Week runs through Dec. 8. During the fundraiser for cancer research, The Undefeated is telling stories about early detection, clinical trial studies and research in minority communities. ESPN hopes to raise funds and awareness about the important cause championed by our friend, coach Jim Valvano. One hundred percent of all cash donations go directly to cancer research. Donate here today.


Fact: According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, African-Americans make up about 5 percent of clinical trial participants and Latino Americans constitute 1 percent. As a result, treatments become biased toward whites’ reaction to drugs.

African-Americans are diagnosed with more advanced cancer, and death rates are higher. One way to help combat the issue is to have more people of color participate in clinical trials. But overcoming historical stigma is a big deal for minority populations and is likely one of the most common factors driving the low participation numbers.

For the black community, the clinical trials are reminders of the often negative intersection of ethics, race and medicine that has led to distrust. It is rooted in a history of exploitation of, and experimentation on, African-Americans that ranges from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study to a 19th-century doctor experimenting with gynecological treatments on enslaved women without anesthetics.

No one wants to feel like a big experiment, especially when they’re already sick and trying to fight a disease such as cancer, even if the medical research can lead to better outcomes.

Now more than ever, with the high death rates among black men and women, it’s time to change the narrative. Here are some ways to get the ball rolling:

First, clinicians can go into minority communities and contact community leaders, especially those who may have knowledge of clinical trials. They do exist. Many are even cancer survivors. They can also partner with churches and other agencies in the community, whose opinions are valued.

Next, clinicians can work on a plan to help minority communities gain trust in the health care system. Meanwhile, patients can search for a physician who can be trusted, one who is willing to explain the health care system to them. Another way is to garner the expertise of a health coach, an occupation that’s on the rise in many communities. Health coaches are trained to act as hands-on liaisons between patients and their plan of care. They are found to be more engaged with patients and can often build the trust and compassion between patients and doctors.

Finally, clinicians can lean on public relations professionals to increase communications between them and the community. Clinical trial enrollment barriers include the lack of proper access to health information services, socioeconomic patterns, social perceptions, time spent on travel to office visits and clinics, health literacy and drug side effects (there are many clinical trials that do not involve drug treatments at all). Clinicians and researchers could use help from trained professionals with disseminating studies into cancer communities, especially in communities of color. Cancer research terminology is often not translated for the lay public’s consumption, which is an immediate turnoff for even the most educated. Communication efforts to the public seem distant. Many patients have even expressed that researchers and clinicians should consider eliminating the term “clinical trials” altogether and use wording that is more patient-friendly and not pegged to a history of traumatic events.

In a 2014 article, Janet Stemwedel, associate professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, who studies ethics and scientific processes, was asked what steps have been taken by clinicians to dispel concerns of minority populations and she replied, “I can’t think of any positive trust-earning step that was taken, off the top of my head.”

Despite the low efforts, or those that haven’t properly traveled from the peer base to the community base, dollars from places such as the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund, formed by The V Foundation and family members representing Stuart Scott, have pitched in to help. This fund is dedicated to help minority researchers fight cancer in minority communities. It continues to advance Scott’s fight against cancer and assist some of the most vulnerable and disproportionately affected communities battling the disease.

Scott himself participated in a clinical trial study. He believed attitudes, beliefs and perceptions can change the thought pattern.

“Our father got seven years after he was diagnosed with cancer, and that is seven years we may not have had,” his oldest daughter, Taelor Scott, told The Undefeated.

Dr. Edward Kim, a lung cancer expert clinician, chairman of Solid Tumor Oncology and Investigational Therapeutics at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a recipient of the Stuart Scott Memorial Cancer Research Fund, conducts a clinical trial on blood markers dealing with lung cancer.

“I think it’s still something that health care professionals, different support groups and education need to occur so that folks can understand what the opportunities are, and what’s the benefit for them,” he said. “I’m not saying that everybody should be on clinical trials, and every clinical trial can be a little different, but it is a way where we make progress. We can’t get a new drug unless we have a clinical trial. That’s what leads us to the next study, and the next study. I’m a strong advocate for people to be on clinical trials. I feel like we need more clinical trials out there. You find the right biomarker and identify the patient that’s going to benefit, that drug works really well.”

There are organizations that host clinical trial outreach campaigns and programs such as the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health, which can be a great resource for patients.

Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng gives back to his native Senegal – and then some His foundation and partnership with Matter assists with hospital improvements and he also trains the Senegalese in farming

Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng will never forget seeing a pregnant woman helplessly lying on the floor waiting for medical attention in a severely antiquated hospital in his hometown of Kebeber, Senegal, about 3 1/2 years ago.

It was the same hospital Dieng was born in on Jan. 18, 1990. There was nothing electronic at this hospital. Most beds didn’t have mattresses and patients lay on springs. Babies were warmed in incubators by a light bulb. The odds of getting decent health care were slim.

“I was visiting someone at the hospital and the doctor that was there was the same doctor I saw when I was in Senegal,” Dieng said. “I went to the visiting room to say hi to him and there was a pregnant lady laying on the ground. I asked him what was going on. He said he was waiting for someone to leave a table so she could lay there. I looked at the room and there was only one table there. No beds.

“I asked him if I could take a tour and see what the hospital needs. The building was OK, but the equipment was the issue. I told the doctor to give me a note and tell me everything that he needs. I told him, ‘I’m not going to promise you anything, but I will do my best to help.’ ”

Dieng has done more than his best to help his hometown and Senegal.

The hospital is now updated. There is a new dialysis center with 200 beds. Farming tutoring is offered on his land. There is more on the horizon through his foundation.

Gorgui Dieng #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves controls the ball against the Denver Nuggets.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The NBA veteran is better known in Senegal for what he has done off the court in saving and improving lives than for what he has done on the court in North America. Dieng, 27, is averaging 6.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in his fifth season with the Timberwolves. He started playing basketball when he was 15 and played in college at Louisville.

“He is a celebrity in Senegal in large part because he’s been all over the media there with his foundation and all he is doing to help his people,” said Quenton Marty, president of Minneapolis-based non-profit Matter.

In March 2015, Dieng attended the Timberwolves’ FastBreak Foundation’s annual Taste of the Timberwolves fundraising event. Players and coaches from the team dine on local fare from some of the best restaurants in the Twin Cities at their annual fundraiser. Dieng was quietly trying to find help for his hospital back in Senegal while hanging out with the movers and shakers of Minneapolis.

Dieng received an important introduction to Marty during the event. Marty’s organization, Matter, has a mission to “expand access to health, next door and around the world” with a goal to bring access to health aid to 10 million by 2018. Matter has leveraged Minnesota’s renowned health care and agriculture to aid those in need since 2000 and has distributed more than $550 million in resources around the world.

Not long after the Wolves charity event, Marty and Dieng met for breakfast.

“Gorgui is a guy who came from humble beginnings and I got the sense that he wanted to work with people he could trust that weren’t going to just talk about doing stuff, but we are actually doing stuff,” Marty said. “The one thing I took away was this was a great young guy who wanted to do something to help his people and not just be in the NBA for his own benefit.”

A partnership was born during that breakfast meeting with Matter and Dieng’s budding charity foundation.

They initially began outlining a plan to aid Dieng’s hometown hospital. Matter next shipped medical supplies to Senegal. Through Dieng’s connections, the equipment sent overseas was able to get through customs relatively smoothly after a journey that took about a month. Matter sent beds, furniture and other hospital basics for treatment.

“After that meeting, I went back to the office, pushed pause on everything and said, ‘We’re going to help Gorgui send medical equipment back to this hospital where he was born,’ ” Marty said. “Within about two weeks, we had a 40-foot container on the water sent back to Senegal, where Gorgui was born and raised. That was the beginning of our relationship.”

Said Dieng: “I met with Matter and have been working with them ever since.”

Gorgui Dieng walks through the farm project that was built near the hospital.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

Marty and a contingent from Matter joined Dieng for a site visit to Senegal. Marty has seen struggling hospitals all over the world, but he was shocked by what he saw in Dieng’s hometown, saying the hospital had equipment that was “about 50 years behind the times.” Marty immediately began thinking about what more Matter could do to help through Dieng’s foundation.

“Over the last 20 years, because of the work that I do, I’ve seen a lot of dilapidated hospitals,” Marty said. “This one was among the worst. It was pretty small. I just remember seeing a lot of moms with kids that were sick, but the hospital didn’t have the resources to take care of them. Just walking through with Gorgui was a somber experience knowing that this is where this guy playing in the NBA was born. It was still a place where people didn’t get the treatment they deserved.”

Today, the hospital in Dieng’s hometown is much improved, thanks to Matter and Dieng’s foundation. Another problem in Senegal was a lack of dialysis treatment centers in a country stricken with masses of people with kidney problems. A 200-bed dialysis center was opened in 2016 through Dieng’s foundation and the aid of Matter and other donors. There is also a new neonatal center to help babies. Marty said that there are also Wolves season-ticket holders and Minnesota businesses that are aiding Dieng’s foundation.

In July 2018, Matter will join Dieng again with a contingent of about 20 people going to Senegal to tour his projects.

“It’s a much well-oiled machine now that the Gorgui Dieng Foundation is established,” said Marty, who has made three trips to Senegal. “We now have a whole system of requests that Gorgui is getting to help people. It went from the first container helping one hospital to people all over the country requesting our assistance. Within a couple years, we have a program that will go well into the future to help the whole country.

“The hospitals have been upgraded significantly. Now they are able to serve people with dignity and give them the care they need and should have.”

Dieng said he owns more than 100 acres in Senegal that he uses for farming and it is not uncommon to see him on a tractor or tending to the animals. It also serves as a training ground for local and aspiring farmers.

Goats, lamb, chickens, cows and sheep are raised on Dieng’s land, with employees working the farm. It is difficult to grow fruits and vegetables because the farm has sandy soil on the edge of the Sahara desert. With the aid of Matter, Dieng’s foundation is teaching people how to farm more intelligently and successfully in Senegal. Matter provided the farmers with repurposed equipment from Minnesota farms in 2016. Dieng also has agricultural students working on his farm to gain experience while also aiding them with scholarships.

“Farming is very big in Africa, but people don’t do it the proper way,” Dieng said. “I love farming. Through my foundation, I can train people. I give up my own land so people can practice the proper way to farm. When they finish, they can help their own farm and my foundation can help them with pretty much anything they need. It helped them stabilize their community so people don’t have to go to the city to make money. You can farm where you are, the proper way, get great results and make a way of living.

Gorgui Dieng next to a well that was built to assist in sustainable farming.

Courtesy of Gorgui Dieng

“Things I’m doing right now isn’t just to make money. It’s to stabilize people and keep them in their community. They have the right to go make some money. When they leave the village, or leave the town, no money is going to be there. It will be a dead town. I want them to stay in their town by creating jobs for them.”

Dieng said he truly learned the impact he was making in Senegal when he met a young boy affected by a kidney problem at 12 years old named “Semi.”

Dieng said the young boy and his father decided to go by “faith” to travel to see him at his annual offseason basketball camp after seeing him on television and learning what he was doing medically. The father had previously sold his house and car to get the money needed to pay his son’s expensive medical bills. At the time, Semi could not walk either.

Dieng was able to get Semi enrolled for treatment in his hospital that aids with kidney dialysis, get him transportation for his appointments and food. Semi has improved dramatically since having surgery. The teenage boy can now walk.

“His dad said he never saw Semi do anything with the other kids,” Dieng said. “His son’s only complaint was, ‘Why can’t I go play with the kids?’ His dad was always depressed about it. He wanted to see Semi happy. And after he was doing his treatment, he had surgery at 12 years. After the surgery, he went back home normal. His dad said the first day he saw Semi playing with the kids, he couldn’t believe it. He called me that night praying and all that kind of good stuff.

“Stuff like that makes me happy. Only God can make stuff like that happen. But we helped Semi get into the right situation.”

Despite being Senegal’s most notable NBA player, Marty said, Dieng was not well-known in Senegal when he made his first visit there with him. But with everything Dieng has done, Marty says, he is now a household name.

The fact that NBA games are now easier to see in Senegal also will help his profile. Dieng hosts a four-day youth basketball camp and coaching clinic in Senegal every offseason, and kids can’t attend unless they have high grades. He also plays for Senegal’s national basketball team. It’s not easy for Dieng to walk around Senegal these days without being recognized, but he believes it is important for the children to be able to touch him.

“It’s tough to go outside and walk around. But I like going outside because the kids, they want to see you. I take pictures and talk to them. That can change a life. Why hide or get security? No,” Dieng said.

The court that was built in Dieng’s hometown.

Senegal showed its respect and belief in Dieng by asking him to be its ambassador of tourism last August.

Through a translated statement, Senegal director general of tourism Mouhamadou Bamba Mbow said “the ambition of the agency is to rely on the international notoriety of Senegalese personalities to amplify the radiation of the destination.” Dieng said he filmed a tourism promotional commercial for Senegal after touring “beautiful places in the country I had never seen before.” Senegal’s hope is that Dieng will inspire tourists and businesses to visit Senegal. Dieng was very humbled by the appointment.

“Gorgui doesn’t want to be known as just a basketball player,” said New York Knicks scout Makhtar N’Diaye, a Senegal native and former NBA player. “In my opinion, he’s becoming a brand in Senegal and is an inspiration to the youth. He’s working towards becoming an icon. It’s all about legacy for him.

“Many people have come before him and tried. He came and took it to the next level. The best is yet to come for him.”

Marty says that Matter has about 50 other projects going on as well. Even so, Marty plans on going to Senegal again next year and is excited to see the growth of their medical and farm projects for the fourth straight year. Why? It’s Dieng’s love for his people that keeps Marty making the annual trips.

“He is a really impressive guy,” Marty said. “The thing that stands out to me is he really wants to help his people. He loves basketball, but he sees it as the vehicle to help others. I don’t know where it came from. But he has a sincere desire to help other people. I just really admire that about him.”

Dieng is not satisfied with the medical and farming improvements he has made in Senegal. He plans to open a major hospital in his hometown. He also has grander plans of not just helping Senegal, but aiding Africa at large. With the continued aid of Matter and other donations, Dieng plans to make an impact on the continent from a medical, farming, basketball and educational standpoint.

“The reason God put you in a good situation is to help others,” Dieng said. “I strongly believe that good things happen to good people and things happen for a reason. There is a reason why I am in playing in the NBA and I’m in a good situation today, not just for me and my family. It is to help others, too. That is why I am doing what I am doing right now.

“I’m doing this just to help. I want to be that guy who played in the NBA, makes his money and is gone. I want to have an impact on the community wherever I am at. Whether it is in the States or in China, Senegal, whenever. If you leave somewhere and have an impact, it’s like having a statue in the streets. That’s the way I see things.”

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.