Ten years after Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ — and mine Yeezy and a whole generation meet real life and wonder ‘what it all really mean?‘

A cloud of marijuana smoke hovered in the apartment. It was early September 2007. Some of us lay on the floor. Some on the couch. Some at the kitchen table that had been used to roll the seven or eight jays. None of us said much. Per the rules of that summer’s “listening sessions,” no one spoke over the music. In this case, Kanye West’s new LP, Graduation, was the reason for the cypher.

Over that summer, these sessions had become a fixture. Thanks primarily to Lil Wayne’s run of mixtapes (it felt like they dropped every week), there was always a reason. But this session was different. On a day leading up to the start of our senior year at Hampton University, West spoke into existence our own existence.

Up to that moment, his music had always held collegiate and coming-of-age allusions, starting with 2004’s The College Dropout and Late Registration the following year. Often forgotten in the grand scheme of his catalog, West’s May 2007 Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape featured “Us Placers” featuring Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco (aka the short-lived supergroup Child Rebel Soldiers), “C.O.L.O.U.R.S.” featuring Fonzworth Bentley, Wayne and UGK, and my introduction to a rapper named Big Sean on “Getcha Some.” Graduation arrived when we were all about 21 years old — adults by age, but kids with so much life and the hurdles that came with it in front of us.

Kanye West spoke into existence our own existence.

At that time, it seemed West spoke for our entire generation. On Sept. 2, 2005, with New Orleans crippled by Hurricane Katrina, close to 2,000 people dead and even more displaced, West stood next to comedian Michael Myers and famously declared that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” He spoke for us and to us. Several students who evacuated from New Orleans-based historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Xavier and Dillard transferred to Hampton. We read the reports. We watched CNN in horror, like the rest of the country. The anger we felt about seeing (mostly) black people referred to as “refugees” in their own city while their entire lives were submerged underwater left us enraged. Even when it’s a natural disaster, it’s somehow still our fault. West’s angst reflected our own.

Kanye West performs on stage at the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium on July 1, 2007 in London, England.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

He was confident — or arrogant, depending on the crowd — but inquisitive about himself and a world moving at warp speed. West seemed poised to carry rap into the next decade and beyond. And his music spoke louder than even he did. These were the pre-Tidal, pre-Apple Music, pre-Spotify US days. New albums leaked online roughly 10 to 14 days early, and it felt like blank CDs were single-handedly keeping places like Circuit City open. The summer-long wait for Graduation was an event itself, and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” were the summer’s anthems.

With senior year washing ashore, and us thinking the world lay at our fingertips, hearing West’s defiant proclamations — Man, it’s so hard not to act reckless — were more a way of life than a hot single. Plus, we all knew Yeezy was good for a cohesive, intricate and beautifully sequenced album.

So when the word traveled, via text, Facebook and word-of-mouth, that the album had leaked, we all knew what to do.

Each person bring a pre-rolled jay — something to drink, too, and a stash for one more if the vibe called for it. (Spoiler: The vibe always called for one more.) None of the seven of us, roughly an even mixture of guys and girls who just loved chiefing and good music, believed we were doing anything illegal. We were college kids getting high and listening to great music — an American tradition if there ever was one.


You ever wonder what it all really mean?/ You wonder if you’ll ever find your dreams? — “I Wonder

In retrospect? We probably looked like the HBCU version of the cutaway scenes on That 70’s Show. Via nonverbal communication, we vibed out. I can’t forget what it felt like hearing “Good Life” for the first time. The Michael Jackson “P.Y.T.” sample is classic Kanye. But T-Pain’s outro — Is this good life better than the life I lived? / When I thought that I was gonna go crazy / And now my grandmamma/ Ain’t the only girl callin’ me baby — now that was a moment.

Rapper Kanye West performs onstage during the Hot 97 Summer Jam presented by Boost Mobile at Giants Stadium June 3, 2007 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Roger Kisby/Getty Images

“Flashing Lights” felt more like a movie than a song, and the hook from “Everything I Am” (Everything I’m not made me everything I am) became away messages on AOL Instant Messenger — they seemed like the world’s first tweets (Twitter technically existed then). And, in the moment, we didn’t know what to think about West’s ode to Jay-Z, “Big Brother.” We couldn’t see the joy of “Otis” yet. We couldn’t see how friendships sometimes go.

We ran West’s third effort back two or three times that night. The number of jays in rotation is lost to history, but the discussions following were incredible: Where does this place Kanye in terms of the game’s current greats? What is Kanye’s ceiling? And, of course, is anyone trying to order food? The Graduation listening session, at an off-campus apartment with smoke billowing from the screen door balcony, ranks as one of the most innocent moments of my entire college experience. We understood the magnitude of the senior year ahead of us, but what a time to be alive — just being there, in the moment.

That kind of innocence also applied to West. None of us, including West, knew it then, but life would forever change after that album. Most of us in that room graduated the following May and entered the “real world” just as the economy was diving into the worst pit since the Great Depression. Two months after Graduation’s release, West lost his combination best friend/mother, Donda West, who died as a result of complications from cosmetic surgery.

Donda West and Kanye West

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

By April 2008, Kanye West and then-fiancée Alexis Phifer called off their engagement. West secluded himself as he prepared for his celebrated Glow In The Dark Tour (with Lupe Fiasco opening, and N.E.R.D. and Rihanna on the bill as well). Within months, West lost the first woman he ever loved and had broken up with the one who was by his side when it happened.

The summer-long wait for Graduation was an event itself, and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and “Stronger” were the summer’s anthems.

By 2009 he was running up on stage interrupting Taylor Swift and then escaping to Hawaii. So now what? It’s a question we both had to face. A question that would haunt us both. Where West fled to the islands to create new music, I fled to Georgetown University. Not necessarily because I wanted to go back to school, but it provided an escape and a way for me to think I wasn’t just wasting my time working dead-end jobs in the restaurant and retail industries. In college, it’s customary to think “graduation, job.” That’s embedded in your head since high school, if not earlier. But by ’09, the economy had completely tanked. Some of us had jobs, more of us didn’t. A lot of us were living at our parents’ homes, humbled by bedrooms we grew up in. Applying for jobs was no more than uploading resumes into a digital Bermuda Triangle: CVs were never heard from again. About the only positive from that year was the Obama family in the White House.

By 2012, the Obamas had returned for an encore. West held his first ready-to-wear show, married Kim Kardashian in Florence, Italy (as featured on special episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians), and captured Grammys with Jay-Z for 2011’s “N—as in Paris,” which sold 5 million copies alone. The recession apparently ended in late 2009. Some of us moved to new cities to chase original dreams. Some did OK. More were left wondering when and how the sleepless nights, rejection letters and no callbacks would be worth the heartbreaks.

Kanye West attends the Louise Goldin fashion show during MADE Fashion Week Spring 2014 at Milk Studios on September 7, 2013 in New York City.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

And West’s celebrity increased. As he continued to search for peace in his, we searched for our own. At what point is sacrifice for a dream worth the pain? And at what costs do dreams become real? Life after Graduation, figuratively and literally, came with no road map.


Kanye West in 2017 is of course different from the one who created his own Graduation 10 years ago Monday. We all lose our innocence — it’s what happens if you’re blessed to live long enough.

West has a son and a daughter now (and another baby girl on the way carried by a surrogate) and is married to a mob. With Yeezy, he doubled down his dream of being a fashion innovator and changed for the better the fortunes of Adidas. West and Jay-Z aren’t on speaking terms in part because of West’s unpredictability. West’s life has become progressively more discombobulated: Paparazzi rants. Calling out Jay-Z at his shows. Blasting Wiz Khalifa in Twitter rants. Shaming ex-girlfriend Amber Rose. Supporting Trump. The hospitalization. But the three albums that follow Graduation — 808s & Heartbreaks, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne — still get burn.

The few from that original Graduation-day cypher who I keep in touch with have gone on to find some sort of peace in life, even in these times. We remain connected to Graduation because it helped define us with its unabashed confidence and unfiltered vulnerability. That’s what West represented perhaps more than any artist at that time. Volatile, charming and impulsive, he was rap’s most astute mama’s boy — and its most massively sensitive Gemini since Tupac Shakur. West’s waves not only topped charts and made headlines but also stirred emotions on a deeply personal level.

I know people wouldn’t usually rap this/ But I got the facts to back this / Just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets / Man, killing’s some wack s—/ Oh, I forgot, ’cept when n—as is rappin’ / Do you know what it feel like when people is passin’?

We laugh about the cypher during Hampton homecoming weekends. But we also talk about how it doesn’t seem like West has found any peace. I don’t know. But I do know his mother was an integral part of the making of his first three albums — of the “old Kanye” he rapped about on last year’s entertaining, uneven The Life of Pablo. According to bereavement expert Phyllis R. Silverman, we lose not only the person who has died but also a relationship and the sense of self that existed in that relationship. It could be that West is searching for a sound that no longer exists because a large part of the inspiration for that sound no longer exists.

We remain connected to Graduation because it helped define us with its unabashed confidence and unfiltered vulnerability.

A couple of months ago, around the time West was seen chopping it up with Donald Trump, I had a conversation with a homey from that Graduation cypher. “I can’t believe this n—- is rocking blond hair now. … I wasted good weed on this dude,” he told me. “But I really believe this all boils down to his mom’s passing. He never took the time to cry, it seems.”

I mostly remember Graduation as the last album Donda West heard. The closest West’s come to addressing the effects of his mother’s death, and his burden living with it, came on 2015’s “Only One” — the meaning of his birth name. I can’t help but hear Graduation songs in “Only One.” If for no other reason than the 2007 Kanye could have never believed he’d have to make that song.

Positioned as an open letter to Kanye and Kim’s daughter, North, from her grandmother Donda, the record is a very specific emotional canvas of the pain Kanye carries. I talked to God about you/ He said he sent you an angel / And look at all that he gave you, Kanye sings. You asked for one and you got two / You know I never left you / ’Cause every road that leads to heaven’s right inside you. Playing the record back, with North sitting on his lap, Kanye couldn’t recall singing the words. He came to the conclusion that the words didn’t come from him, but through him. “My mom was singing to me,” he said, “and through me, to my daughter.”

It’s this burden, and this pursuit of peace, that Kanye Omari West has been living with since Graduation. In 2015, he said his biggest sacrifice was his mom. “If I had never moved to L.A., she’d be alive,” he told the U.K. music magazine Q. “I don’t want to go far into it because it will bring me to tears.”

That’s what Graduation means. It’s not just the album itself and some of the greatest songs he’s ever recorded that live on there, and how we were higher than telephone wires that late summer night. It’s not just how Graduation accurately reflected a period when so many of us believed we had life under control — and then we didn’t. Life happens. We found out the hard way, after graduation. Kanye, too, found out after Graduation.

Serena Williams, with or without a baby, has always been a ‘real woman’ She used photos from her pregnancy to fight the ugly criticism she’s faced throughout her career

The Vanity Fair cover was #shotsfired.

I remember gasping upon seeing it. Serena Williams’ pregnant belly had popped, and there it was, along with the rest of her — glamorous, wind-swept, nearly nude, elegantly trolling us with a glance back to August 1991.

First thought: This b—- betta WERK.

Second thought: Eat your heart out, Demi.

On Friday, the 35-year-old Williams gave birth to her first child, a girl, at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. She entered the hospital Wednesday, claimed an entire floor of the maternity wing and was induced Thursday evening. She and her fiancé, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, 34, have been engaged since December 2016. The birth of the Williams-Ohanian baby marks the culmination of several months of famous-mommy-to-be hullabaloo for America’s greatest living athlete. Said hullabaloo allowed us to re-engage with all our worries, anxieties, hostilities, unsolicited opinions and concern-trolling about Williams and that magnificent body of hers that will never allow her the luxury of being a shrinking violet, even if she wanted to be one.

Instagram Photo

Fortunately for us, Williams was more than happy to publicly exult in her knocked-up condition, gifting audiences with glossy, high-profile photo shoots in Vanity Fair, Vogue and Stellar, the magazine of Australia’s Daily Telegraph. There was the #squadgoals baby shower that doubled as a sock hop, an appearance with Ohanian at the Metropolitan Museum Gala in a silky, jewel-toned gown that breezily skimmed her swollen belly, and plenty of Instagram pics showing off her tummy’s transformation. This was how Williams, tennis player extraordinaire, fashion maven and certified friend of Anna Wintour, was going to publicly perform her pregnancy: with aplomb. In the course of an unexpected pregnancy, Williams stumbled upon an opportunity not just to express herself but to once again reassert and broaden definitions of beauty.

It was refreshing to see her so nakedly happy and maybe, just maybe, enjoying the opportunity to tweak some of her rivals and twirl on her haters. After all, Williams just so happened to “accidentally” share the news of her pregnancy with a photo on SnapChat the same day as her rival Maria Sharapova’s birthday.

For as long as she’s been in the public eye, Williams has been asserting her femininity because for just as long, it’s been under attack. Williams is well-aware of her public image and the critiques of it. And while she’s come to a level of comfort and acceptance with herself, she’s also bristled for years over the conversation about her physique and her athleticism. So for her, a pregnancy was more than a chance to welcome a new life into the world. It was an opportunity to assert, once and for all, something that should be obvious: that, yes, Serena Williams is indeed a “real woman.”


It doesn’t take a gender studies major to understand that the standard of femininity that exists for American women is centered on whiteness. And not just any kind of whiteness, but a delicate, blond, thin, toned-but-never-overly-muscular, WASP-y whiteness. Lady lumps are welcome, as long as they don’t protrude so much as to give the impression of cheapness or signal a tawdry lack of control over one’s body or eating habits.

It’s a rigid standard that, despite our recognition of it, has continued to hold firm. And so, even though Williams is in a class of her own as a tennis player, Sharapova nets more in endorsement deals because she’s more “marketable.” This despite her 15-month suspension for using a banned drug.

Which brings us to Vanity Fair.

Courtesy of Vanity Fair

When Moore appeared on its cover in 1991, nude, pregnant and head turned just so as she stared into the middle distance, it was a pivotal moment in the way our society thought about women’s bodies and pregnancy. Being visibly pregnant was — well, it was a really obvious indication that a woman had had sex. For decades, pregnant celebrities were expected to make themselves scarce as they carried, and here was Moore, flaunting her fecundity all over the newsstands. It marked the moment that pregnancy, at least for celebrities, could be a publicity asset. It could be sexy and daring and provocative, and you didn’t have to cover it up in a series of unflattering muumuus a la Princess Diana — if you were white.

In 2013, Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings posed for ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue.” She did two shoots, both nude: one while pregnant and one postpartum, cradling her sleeping baby against her body. Moore basically opened the door for images like those to exist and not be a big deal.

But there was a double standard for black celebrities. Twenty-six years after Moore’s momentous cover, Williams and Vanity Fair took a shot at that double standard by overtly referencing it. Williams’ pose wasn’t an exact replica — it was a little more defiant. The hand bra, as the pose came to be known, was the same, but Williams had her free hand cocked on her hip. In contrast to Moore’s relatively short locks, Williams was Lady Godiva, staring head-on into a wind machine out of frame. She’s completely in profile, rather than facing the camera. And she’s not quite naked. Instead, she’s wearing a belly chain over a thong matched to her complexion.

But more than anything, like Moore, she was hugely, roundly, unmistakably pregnant. For Williams, pregnancy provided a way to announce and assert her femininity, something she’s been doing over the whole of her career.

In an August interview with Stellar, Williams told the magazine, “I am about to be a real woman now, you know? It’s going to be something incredibly impressive to go through.”

It seemed like an innocuous quote, especially if you were familiar with the attacks that Williams has endured for decades about her looks. But some didn’t see it that way, and slammed Williams. “Didn’t know I had to have a baby to be a “real woman”..thanks for letting me know,” sniped one Twitter user.


Williams shares an unfortunate sisterhood with Michelle Obama. They’re both high-profile black women who have been repeatedly subjected to racist, sexist insults suggesting that they’re not real women, or that they’re not even human. Both have withstood barbs about their bodies simply because they don’t conform to WASP beauty standards.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, The Washington Post ran an interview with a Donald Trump supporter in western Pennsylvania who believed Obama “could be a man.” It’s a rumor that’s followed Obama since she entered the national spotlight, and it continues even though she’s returned to her role as a private citizen.

Opponents insulted Obama by calling her “Moochelle” and insisting she was overweight. A West Virginia official was suspended from her job after posting on Facebook, “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an ape in heels.”

Because of her muscular physique, her aggressive style of play and her blackness, Williams has weathered similar accusations. Williams couldn’t even escape “misogynoiristic” comments from professional journalists. In 2009, Jason Whitlock, then a columnist for Fox Sports, called Williams lazy and fat, compared her to a horse and accused her of “grazing at her stall between matches.”

When Williams won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year designation in 2015, she had to face the fact that a number of sports fans were angry that she took the honor over American Pharoah, a horse — which, being, you know, equine, was not a sportsperson.

Williams accepted the honor with a bold, sexy photo shoot for the SI cover. She donned a black lace leotard and patent leather stiletto heels and posed on a throne, one leg draped suggestively over the arm of the chair. She confronts the viewer head-on, staring straight into the camera. If there was a thought bubble above her head, I swear it’d say, “You come at the Queen, you best not miss.”

We don’t have to guess about her thoughts on the Vanity Fair cover. “Being black and being on the cover was really important to me,” Williams told Vogue in August. “The success of one woman should be the inspiration to another, and I’m always trying to inspire and motivate the black girls out there. I’m not a model. I’m not the girl next door. But I’m not hiding. Actually, I look like a lot of women out there. The American woman is many women, and I think it’s important to speak to American women at a time when they need encouragement.”


Her father, Richard, anticipated the animus that Serena and her sister Venus would face as they ascended to tennis’s biggest professional spotlights. He famously trained his daughters on the public courts of Compton, California, and paid people to shout racist, sexist invectives at them to make them as tough mentally as they were physically. It’s become part of the lore of the rise of the Williams sisters.

When she yells at game officials, it serves as confirmation for those who see Williams as unrefined. When she first expressed a serious interest in fashion and developed a line called Aneres, many a male sportswriter dismissed it as frivolous and unimportant because it wasn’t related to tennis. When she decided to go to beauty school to become a certified nail technician (she even once gave Oprah Winfrey a pedicure) it was easy to wave off the move as a lark.

Williams has managed to do what she wants, regardless of public reaction, whether it’s sporting a black catsuit that leaves little to the imagination or launching a fashion line for HSN and presenting it at New York Fashion Week. When she joined Beyoncé in the “Sorry” video for Lemonade, she was the epitome of “thick thighs save lives.”

Instagram Photo

But that doesn’t mean the insults haven’t gotten to her. Because there’s no way to train yourself to tune out hate, not when it’s so loud and so personal.

“I don’t touch a weight, because I’m already super fit and super cut, and if I even look at weights, I get bigger,” Williams told The New York Times in 2015. “For years I’ve only done Thera-Bands and things like that, because that’s kind of how I felt. But then I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”

Just last year, Williams told The Guardian that she’s criticized for being “too muscly and too masculine, and then a week later too racy and too sexy.”

It’s easy to understand how pregnancy and motherhood could hold an outsize importance for Williams in her journey to loving, accepting and understanding herself as a woman in the body that she lives in. And it’s ironic that the life event that led her to exhibit such control over her public image is one that also requires ceding a bit of it, or sometimes a lot, to a tiny human gestating in utero.

If giving birth gives her a measure of comfort she wouldn’t otherwise have, no one should begrudge her. But Serena Williams, baby or no, has always been a real woman.

‘Crown Heights’ — a story of wrongful conviction that plays it too safe Stories of black men victimized by the prison system have their tropes, but the characters here don’t feel real

Six years into a 21-year stay in a New York state prison, Colin Warner, the lead character of the new film Crown Heights, is writing a letter.

“Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here,” he writes. “But I don’t have that comfort.”

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights uses a 2005 This American Life episode as the basis for its story, charting Warner’s path from freedom to state-sanctioned captivity to freedom once again. The real-life story is harrowing: Brooklyn, New York, police badgered witnesses into falsely fingering Warner for a crime he didn’t commit, and prosecutors used the alternative facts squeezed from those compromised teenage witnesses to send an innocent man to prison for second-degree murder. Once there, he ended up spending more time behind bars than the man who actually committed the crime.

Transposed to a feature-length film, however, Warner’s story loses its gasp-worthy qualities. The film just isn’t biting enough to make Warner a mascot for the race-based injustice that pervades the American criminal justice system.

Instead, it’s a series of prison tropes held together with flashbacks and news clips of American presidents espousing how tough they are on crime. We see Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to comprehend the loss of agency over his own body as he’s checked into prison, and how he discovers every friendly gesture from a fellow prisoner carries a price. Crown Heights follows Warner’s life from the day he was arrested in 1980 until the day he’s finally released but does little to advance the narrative that black men are systematically victimized by mass incarceration.

Perhaps that’s because Warner, who is West Indian, doesn’t connect his plight with that of American-born black men. If that’s the case, Crown Heights doesn’t effectively communicate that point, and the clearest indication that it’s trying to is the one line from Warner’s letter about prisoners knowing that they put themselves upstate.

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner and Natalie Paul as Antoinette in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

We see Warner enter a relationship with a woman, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), whom he eventually marries while imprisoned. But lost are the details that would illustrate how their relationship went from platonic to sexual. Why does Antoinette like Colin so much? What does she feel about him, aside from anguish and pity about his imprisonment? It’s almost impossible to say, because we don’t see it. What’s missing are the small, intimate events of daily life that can slow a film down but are necessary for viewers to connect with its characters.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, husband of actress Kerry Washington, co-stars as Carl King, Warner’s friend who never stops working to exonerate him. We see King’s wife get frustrated that King is dedicating so many resources to freeing his friend that he stops paying attention to his own family. But it’s tough to get a sense of how all of these figures are coping with their lots. In the course of making too many safe choices, Crown Heights ends up not saying much at all.

As with previous roles in Short Term 12 and Get Out, much of what Stanfield brings to the screen he communicates through his eyes. Stanfield’s presence introduces a sense of calm and introspection when everything around him is clearly unstable, but Asomugha doesn’t provide enough of a contrast for Stanfield’s quiet suffering.

The story of Colin Warner is a tale of someone’s humanity being disregarded and discarded. Yet Crown Heights fails to push past that initial hook to communicate much else. The inclusion of Clinton, Bush and Reagan is a start, but Ruskin fails to connect their tough-on-crime policies to Warner’s life. In the film’s last political interlude, when the audience has been primed to expect to see the face of George H. W. Bush, Ruskin uses footage of New York Gov. George Pataki instead. This decision only muddles the message. Are these powerful white men responsible for Warner’s imprisonment, or are they mile markers for the time he’s served? Or both?

There are few conclusions to draw from the film aside from “wrongful imprisonment is bad” — and, well, that should be obvious. It’s a shame that beyond that, Crown Heights doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

Will Hurricane Harvey prompt NBA players to replicate 2005 Relief Game? Charity game lifted the spirits of Hurricane Katrina survivors

Then-Detroit Pistons star Chauncey Billups and I were nearly in tears from what we saw in a mammoth space inside the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston in September 2005.

There were hundreds of cots occupied primarily by mothers resting with young children and the elderly. They were displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, stressed and trying to figure out what to do next. Whatever possessions they had left sat next to their makeshift beds. The lines for medical help were long. Portable toilets were up front.

With former NBA player Kenny Smith leading the charge, NBA players, including Billups, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, were there to witness the pain, bring financial aid and offer a smile through a charity basketball game.

“It’s hurtful man, hurtful,” Billups told me at the time for a story in The Denver Post. “The only positive is at least these kids got to smile for a couple minutes.”

Hurricane Katrina was one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the United States, causing destruction along the Gulf Coast from Central Florida to Texas and most notably in New Orleans. The August 2005 storm contributed to the deaths of more than 1,200 people and more than $100 billion in property damage. Many people affected by Hurricane Katrina relocated temporarily and then permanently to Houston.

Now Houston is suffering the nightmare that haunted New Orleans 12 years ago. Hurricane Harvey has dumped torrential rain on the city, with ABC News meteorologists forecasting historic rainfall totals of up to 50 inches by Wednesday. Houston has had more than 1,000 calls for rescue, and people were forced to their rooftops.

NBA All-Stars such as James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins have tweeted well-wishes and prayers to the people of Houston and elsewhere in Texas. Paul and Cousins also tweeted information on how to give to those in need through Youcaring.com and the Red Cross. Paul donated $50,000. Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander pledged $4 million to the relief effort on Monday and reportedly increased that donation to $10 million on Tuesday.

Chrysa Chin, executive vice president of strategy and development for the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), said Monday that the union is “exploring options” to help hurricane victims.

“We’re concerned and want to help,” Chin said.

Perhaps this time they can do it in New Orleans, where locals can certainly relate to the pain. Maybe Cousins and fellow New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis — along with Paul, who is president of the NBPA and a former Hornets star — could host a charity game at the Smoothie King Center in The Big Easy. Or maybe Paul and Harden, both Houston Rockets stars, could host it in Houston when possible. If a charity game and weekend is anything like it was in Houston during the 2005 NBA Players Hurricane Relief Game, it could be one of the most fulfilling moments of their NBA careers. It certainly was one of the most memorable moments for me in 18 seasons of covering the NBA.

Turner Sports NBA analyst and ex-Rockets guard Smith spearheaded putting together the star-studded rosters, the venue and television rights in 30 hours. Participating players each gave a minimum of $10,000. More than $1 million in funds, food and goods were collected before the Toyota Center doors opened in Houston. A crowd of 11,416 included Hurricane Katrina survivors, who were given free tickets in the upper deck, while the lower deck seats were sold for charity. The game included Billups, James, Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, who coached. There was even a brief performance by Kanye West.

“There’s never been a basketball game of more importance,” Smith said at the time.

Anthony cut short a vacation in the Bahamas to play and wore a T-shirt that read, “PRAY.”

“I’m doing this for the cause,” Anthony said.

Before the charity game, emotional NBA players visited several local shelters housing survivors. Then-Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin, who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play, donated shoes to the Fishers of Men Christian Church. Former NBA player and New Orleans native Robert Pack was also there. His aunt Debbie Mason was still missing at the time.

Perhaps James best described the emotions the NBA players had that day.

“If you’re not humble, everything we saw today made you put things in perspective,” James said.

It isn’t necessary for the players to do this. But whether it’s a financial donation or an autograph signing or picture taking, that could lessen the pain for a moment.

I’m sure the Hurricane Katrina survivors who went to the charity game or met the players still appreciate the help and smiles they received from the hoop stars 12 years ago. From what I witnessed, those NBA stars gave them great memories during one of the worst times of their lives.

Said then-12-year-old Diamond Hudson of New Orleans: “I wanted to faint when LeBron James kissed me on the forehead. I love every one of these basketball players.”

“It means a lot,” said Ronald Gabriel of Algiers, Louisiana, who landed several NBA player autographs at the time. “It means that they care, mindfully, thoughtfully. It matters.”