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.

Sundance 2018: Forest Whitaker, Jada Pinkett Smith, Idris Elba brave the snow, push passion projects ‘Sorry To Bother You’ and ‘Yardie’ are ready for the world

PARK CITY, UTAH — Walking the streets of the Sundance Film Festival, you run into some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is one of the many in town pitching a film he helped to produce, Sorry To Bother You, which premiered Saturday night in Park City, and stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews and Danny Glover. The film takes place in Oakland, California: A telemarketer has discovered a magical key to success. Whitaker was seen popping out of an SUV on Main Street, waving at fans as they snapped shots of him.

Navigating the crowds on Park City’s Main Street was the brave Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba, who premiered his directorial debut with Yardie. The film starts in Kingston, Jamaica, in the ’70s and goes to the Hackney area of London in the ’80s, all the while following a man who is out for retribution after his brother’s murder.

At the DirecTV Lodge, folks were watching the NFL playoff games while staying far away from the cold. The cast members of the social media-themed Assassination Nation, which includes Colman Domingo, Anika Noni Rose and Kelvin Harrison Jr., were there and, as they left, they were greeted by fans holding placards, asking for autographs. A line was wrapped around Sundance’s Blackhouse — people were hoping to get into a panel on which Jada Pinkett Smith was speaking and into the subsequent reception hosted by the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation.

Live from Sundance: Tonya Lewis Lee on why she created a ‘Monster’  The producer — and wife of the iconic Spike Lee — has the hottest film the nation’s largest film festival

PARK CITY, UTAH — Tomorrow is a big day for Tonya Lewis Lee and her team: the January 22 premiere of Monster happens at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s one of the most anticipated films in Park City. That makes her nervous — “It’s like [people] haven’t seen the movie yet! How do [they] know?!” — but it most certainly also makes her feel good.

Monster is a film that she’s been hoping to get made for a dozen years. There have been a bunch of starts and stops and finally, here we are. The cast is stellar: Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are all part of the film, and it’s helmed by Anthony Mandler in his directorial debut. Mandler is best known for his frequent video collaborations with with Rihanna, and has also collaborated on video projects with Jay Z, Beyoncé, Usher, and Lana Del Ray, among many others. The script is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers, and was written for the screen by by Hampton University’s own Cole C. Wiley and award-winning playwright Janece Shaffer.

And the film’s concept feels very ripped from today’s headlines.

“Maybe we can change the way kids are locked up. Maybe we can change the over-sentencing of juveniles. We had to stay with it and make it happen.”

“It’s about a 17-year-old black boy who makes one bad decision and is looking at, potentially, his life being thrown away forever,” Lewis Lee says, while sitting in a Park City gallery, one of the many spaces brands have taken over for the duration of the festival. “For me, I have children and I have a boy and when I read the book I was so moved. It’s so creatively written … I fell in love with it.” This was a chance to tell a story that we don’t often see on film.

Monster is an opportunity to contribute a dramatic story about a brown boy coming of age that could impact not only the way people look at brown boys, but potentially our criminal justice system,” says Lee. “Maybe we can change the way kids are locked up. Maybe we can change the over-sentencing of juveniles. We had to stay with it and make it happen.”

This project — her Tonik Productions teamed with John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. and Bron Studios to produce this drama — is in line with the mission-driven work she adores. “And I’m unapologetic about that,” Lewis Lee says. “I am blessed to be in a position to create content and media. I feel a real responsibility to create something that moves the human condition forward in a positive way. I hope in the work that I do, it’s entertaining, but that we’re getting messages out there to impact our world and make it better.”


Toward the back of the gallery space is a makeshift photo studio, and people like director Anthony Hemingway are coming in for portraits. This year, the festival has a record 39 projects that either feature black people as the first, second or third lead, has a black director, black producers or black writers. This is a moment and everyone here is buzzing about it.

“When Spike started making movies…he was like if I’m getting through the door, I’m bringing a whole lot of people with me. And he’s done that. And those people have brought people.”

Lewis Lee, who is married to iconic director Spike Lee, is happy that there’s much to celebrate in Black Hollywood these days. But, she cautions, there’s still so much more work to do. “When Spike started making movies, there weren’t that many people out there doing it. To his credit, he was like if I’m getting through the door, I’m bringing a whole lot of people with me,” she says. “And he’s done that. And those people have brought people. So here we are now in a moment where young people can look to my husband and his colleagues and say, Oh My God! If they can do that, I can do that.” She says that people are seeing now that there is a path.

“I look at people like Issa Rae … going back to Spike, Issa will tell you the ’90s formed who she is…to how she can be here. I look at Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People) — that’s a direct line. In terms of women and black people, we have come a long way. We have a long way to go, but it’s exciting to get our voices out there and tell our stories.”

And the stories are robust. Many of the black projects being shown at Sundance this season tap into racism — however nuanced or overt — and the current political climate. “I think we’re trying to grapple with the issues of our time,” says Lewis Lee, who next is working on a film about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “John Legend said, ‘preparation meets opportunity.’ And we are prepared. And we’re getting a chance to talk about the issues of our time in a really wonderful way.”

Live from Sundance: from ‘Compton’ to ‘Mudbound’ and ‘The Chi’ — actor Jason Mitchell is the next superstar Next up? A ‘Get Out’-like film called ‘Tyrel,’ and he’s in the remake of ‘Superfly’

PARK CITY, UTAH — Come Tuesday morning, Jason Mitchell is hoping that he hears at least two familiar names called when the Academy Award nominations are announced. The Academy Awards — the Oscars — are the biggest honor in Hollywood and Mitchell, who starred in both Detroit and Mudbound, is hopeful that the two women who directed him in each of those films get their due.

You likely know Mitchell’s work from his excellent turn as rap icon Eazy-E in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. Since then, he’s upped the ante by turning in impressive work in 2017’s Mudbound, 2017’s Detroit, and most recently in Showtime’s The Chi. It also was announced last week that he’ll be in the Superfly remake as Eddie; the film that will be directed by Director X and also will star Grown-ish actor Trevor Jackson as Youngblood Priest.

“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of really dope women,” Mitchell says, at the Sundance Film Festival. “And Dee Rees and Kathryn Bigelow are two of those people who are being talked about. It would be good … to see them do their thing [at the Oscars]. It’s not my vision. I just came and did my job — they just told me exactly what to do, and I went over-the-top. [But] I think it would be nice to see women defy something.”

Mitchell is at the festival promoting his latest, Tyrel, a dramatic film about being the only black guy on a dude’s trip the weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and is being called “2018’s answer to Get Out”). It premiered Saturday night to a crowd that included Emmy-winner / The Chi creator Lena Waithe. Mitchell says he’s inspired by the #TimesUp movement and is ready to see the progression for women in the industry take place.

“Women know how to … fight for it,” he says, sitting on a couch in the Grey Goose Lounge off of the city’s Main Street, a space where actors like Jeffrey Wright, Debra Messing and John Cho are milling about. “I would just like for female directors to get what they deserve. Not just directors, females in the business in general. It’d be nice to see them on those stages.”

Sundance previews ‘Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and  The Notorious B.I.G.’  Will it have the same vibe as FX’s award-winning ‘People v. O.J. Simpson’?

PARK CITY, UTAH: Before the start of the panel about Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G — a limited series coming to USA Networks on February 27, a DJ blasted tracks that made both of the legendary rappers household names. More than twenty years after the genre-lifting rappers were killed, people are still celebrating, dancing and rapping along to the music that soundtracked much of the 1990s. “We get to see what we’ve rarely gotten to see, which is the friendship between biggie and Tupac,” said director and executive producer Anthony Hemingway, who shared Emmy victories for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Also on the panel was showrunner Kyle Long, co-producer / music supervisor Lyah Leflore, Josh Duhamel (L.A. to Vegas, Call of Duty WWII) Marcc Rose (Tupac) and Wavyy Jonez (Big).

Before the start of the conversation, guests viewed an amazing never-before-seen trailer. “We get to see them from a young age,” said Hemingway. “We deal with Biggie before he was a celebrity. We get to learn who they were as artists, and get to see their pain.” Actor Duhamel said that his series is done very in the vein of People v. OJ. While in college, he rushed home daily to watch the real-life courtroom drama and because of that, he thought he knew everything about OJ — but was was blown away by the FX because he realized how much he didn’t know. “Even those who grew up on the rappers’ music,” says Duhamel, “and were around during the times of their deaths, will be astounded at all that they discover [in this series].”

John Legend at Sundance: ‘We need to humanize the young people’ ‘Even when they make mistakes,’ he says of the new film, ‘Monster,’ ‘they’re worthy of our grace.’

PARK CITY, UTAH — At a Saturday afternoon panel discussion, Blackhouse Foundation leader Brickson Diamond touted the record 39 black projects being featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Behind him, John Legend, Tonya Lewis Lee and moderator Jason George (Grey’s Anatomy; chair of SAG-AFTRA’s Diversity Advisory Committee) applauded along with the standing-room-only crowd — which included black-ish creator and Girls Trip co-writer Kenya Barris. This was a moment. Never have so many black projects been a part of the film festival.

This specific panel was set to discuss the hotly anticipated film Monster. Based on Walter Dean Myers’ award-winning novel of the same name, the film is about a creatively gifted black teen who is accused of a crime he says he did not commit — and who endures an unrelenting criminal justice system. Lewis Lee and Nikki Silver produced. “We were looking for partners who were invested in social justice issues. … [That] led us to John Legend,” Lewis Lee said of the Grammy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning Legend.

Legend, an executive producer of Monster, said from the stage that the project is in line with a mission close to his heart. “Once I read the script, I was on the edge of my seat,” he said. “I was super into what was happening on the page. I spend a lot of time thinking about mass incarceration, and how we end mass incarceration, in America. We’re the only country in the world that puts our kids in solitary confinement. … We need to humanize the young people. We need to … even when they make mistakes, they’re worthy of our grace, our consideration and our love. We failed to protect them from trauma. This film is about … is a kid allowed to make mistakes? Is a kid allowed to be a kid?

Monster’s ensemble cast includes Kelvin Harrison Jr. (The Birth of A Nation), Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), John David Washington (Ballers), Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty), A$AP Rocky (Dope), Nas (The Get Down) and Tim Blake Nelson (Fantastic Four). Other panelists included director Anthony Mandler, writer Cole Wiley, Silver, Mike Jackson, Aaron L. Gilbert and Kelvin Harrison Jr., the film’s star.

The person behind the Sundance Film Festival’s blackest year ever Brickson Diamond creates spaces for black creatives to thrive at the nation’s largest indie film festival

This time of year, every year for about the past decade, Brickson Diamond is among the most famous names in Park City, Utah. He’s not a filmmaker in the traditional sense, but he sure sees to it that black films and black film creatives are represented, supported and (when a delicious bidding war gets underway) properly feted at the annual Sundance Film Festival.

“I’m just an interloper,” he deadpans. Nah — he’s selling himself way too short.

This year, Diamond, who heads up Blackhouse — the foundation that helps expand opportunities for black content creators in film, television, digital and emerging platforms — is celebrating a major coup: A record 39 black films are being presented at the largest independent film festival in the United States; Sundance was founded in 1978.

“I gotta be honest,” says Diamond, whose actual job is chief operating officer of an independent corporate advisory firm called Big Answers LLC. “I don’t believe there are any more black creators than there used to be, I just think there are more pathways for their voices to be heard. Sundance’s palate, the palate of the festival, and the palate of the audiences have been refined in a way that makes appropriate room for all these stories.”

And the room, thankfully, is now a little bigger.

Diamond’s mission officially kicked off at the festival 11 years ago, but the seed was planted in 2005 when he attended for the first time. He was visiting with some friends from business school — he was the lone black guy in the house — and someone scored a few tickets to a film screening for something called Hustle & Flow.

“My favorite is when black people show up with their luggage like, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but Blackhouse is here, so now I’m here.’ ”

“They were like, ‘Well, Brickson will go and see that!’ I was like, ‘OK, I will …,’ ” he says with a laugh. “It was my first Sundance movie. [The screening] was in a gymnasium … the basketball hoops were kind of pushed on the side. The cast got up and they were crying, all happy, and loving it. You see [other] people running up and down the aisles the whole movie. It turns out they were making offers for the film, and they were doing it before the credits rolled. … Fast-forward and you watch the release, and you watch the Academy Award nominations, and you watch, you know, Three 6 Mafia at the Oscars.” It was a moment.

So Blackhouse was birthed in 2007, and that year there were seven black films at Sundance. “We were real generous: black director, black subject matter or black star lead — so if Danny Glover’s in a movie, we counted it.” It was a starting point. What was missing was programming.

“My favorite is when black people show up with their luggage like, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but Blackhouse is here, so now I’m here.’ And we help [them] understand … how to navigate this world as we push the festival,” Diamond says.

The foundation has since expanded, creating a presence at spaces like the Tribeca Film Festival, the LA Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and AFI Fest. At this year’s Sundance festival, Blackhouse is hosting loads of activities, including programming like a panel on diverse storytelling that features Jada Pinkett Smith, Effie Brown, Poppy Hanks, Radha Blank, Lena Waithe and Christine D’Souza Gelb. There’s a “Women of Color in Hollywood” panel that will be moderated by Angela Rye, as well as a panel that will include producer Tonya Lewis Lee and Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer (and now Hollywood producer) John Legend.

But, of course, most of the focus is on what is coming out of Sundance. And the expectation is that a film like Monster — featuring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas, John David Washington and Jeffrey Wright — is going to be a festival smash. Also on deck: Blindspotting with Daveed Diggs; Skate Kitchen with Jaden Smith; A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night with Omari Hardwick and Meagan Good; Come Sunday with the aforementioned Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor; and Burden with Forest Whitaker and Usher Raymond.

Yet, with as much progression as has happened, there’s still more work to be done. Diamond is ready for more even more diverse representation at the festival, and he’ll also be looking for a spark for the next movement.

“I hope that on the ground at Sundance, we’re not just seeing more black people everywhere, but we see them engaged … right? [And] my Asian-American brothers and sisters, and my LatinX brothers and sisters, and my LGBTQIA brothers and sisters, and my indigenous brothers and sisters, all are repping for each other. We all need a seat at these tables so that … increasingly diverse consumers can be satisfied. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”