Before you clap back at H&M ad boy’s mother, understand that context matters Her world is a little different from yours

As a kid growing up in Jamaica, the only sport I ever played — at recess, in the house, in the neighborhood — was futbol. You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t destined to be the next Pelé, the Brazilian star who brought the South American country its first World Cup title in 1958 when he was all of 17. Futbol, in my world, was really the only sport worth watching and playing, with all due respect to cricket.

But when a packed Eastern Airlines flight touched down at Washington National Airport on May 7, 1982, American football entered my world. I became a fast Redskins fan, growing to admire the quiet but effective leadership style of coach Joe Gibbs; the bruising running of John Riggins; even the team’s brash, single-bar-helmet-wearing quarterback Joe Theismann. So big a “Riggo” fan, I asked my middle school soccer coach to assign me his jersey number: 44.

I remember watching a Monday Night Football telecast on Sept. 5, 1983, where legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell said of Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett: “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?”

The response to Cosell’s description of the 5-foot-7, 178-pound wide receiver was quick, even in our pre-social media world. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, then president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, denounced Cosell’s comment as racist and demanded a public apology.

But Cosell refused to do so, citing his past support for black athletes, Muhammad Ali being the biggest, and stated that “little monkey” was a term of endearment he had used in the past for not just black athletes but also for diminutive athletes of all shades, white included. (Cosell is on record having used the term 11 years before in describing Mike Adamle, a white journeyman running back who played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Chicago Bears.)

Cosell, then 64 years old, admitted to calling his own grandson a little monkey; he’d leave the Monday Night Football booth after that 1983 season, citing his waning interest in professional football.

This week I harkened back to that moment in time when the pictures of an African-American boy, Liam, in an H&M ad wearing a hoodie with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” inscribed on it broke Twitter.

The response on social was fast and furious. Manchester United and Belgian national soccer star Romelu Lukaku, LeBron James, Diddy, The Weeknd and many more were among the big names to slam H&M, calling for shoppers to boycott the Swedish clothing company.

When Cosell said, “That little monkey gets loose, doesn’t he?” my 13-year-old self missed it. Completely. I don’t remember my parents discussing it in the house in the days that followed. But this much I’m sure of: Even if my parents had heard the comment, I doubt there’d have been an outcry for Cosell’s dismissal from his job. Why? As West Indians, raised in the Caribbean and educated in the U.K., our sensibilities toward issues of race, racism and social activism were far different from 1983 America’s.

It matters not that Cosell used the term in reference to a white player. It doesn’t matter that he used it toward his own family. The bottom line is there are people who were offended when he used it in reference to an African-American player; therefore, he should have apologized for it and never done it again.

Why? Because he used the term out of context, and context matters.

So I understand that Liam’s mom didn’t grow up here and is Nigerian-Swedish and is not tuned in to the many nuances of being woke in America. So … she don’t get it, but it doesn’t matter — because there are people who were offended. In American context, the sweatshirt was out of context and that reference is offensive. So H&M should apologize, which it did, and never do it again. Ever.

Know this: What happened to that kid in the H&M ad could never have happened to my sons — not if I am breathing, anyway, and certainly not if I’d been on that photo shoot. No doubt, my reaction to the ad was no different from yours; I share the outrage, particularly at such a time in America where subtle and not-so-subtle racism in all its forms, from intentional and murderous to intentional and microaggressive, has dominated our lives, from the athletic field to the White House.

When the mother of 5-year-old Liam ranted on social that America’s reaction to the image was “unnecessary,” I suspected she might not be African-American. (Turns out, Terry Mango moved to Sweden from Nigeria.)

In a series of Facebook posts, Mango urged critics, including high-profile musicians and sports stars, to “get over it” and to “stop crying wolf.”

She wrote: “Am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modelled… stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here… get over it [sic]. … ‘Not coz am choosing not to but because it’s not my way of thinking sorry [sic].’ ” In a separate post, she added: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.”

That last point is probably Mango’s best, and only, good one. Growing up in Jamaica, we all spoke different versions of the patois dialect — and that included Chinese-Jamaicans, white Jamaican and Indian-Jamaicans and various combinations thereof. Our issue in Jamaica is not one of race, it’s of class. We had, and still have, a class problem.

Mango’s reaction tells me that this simply wasn’t her reality growing up; the American reaction irked her, maybe even surprised her too.

I have two black sons, ages 16 and 13 (and a daughter too). The world they live in scares the bejesus out of me; I worry about them walking home from school or, God forbid, driving my car without fear of being randomly harassed by police, who are supposed to protect them. Those are the fears that sparked this “quick” reaction, and Mango, I suspect, doesn’t understand that because that is not her reality. For those reasons alone, the national reaction cannot be deemed a small deal.

As you’d imagine and may have seen, Mango has taken more than a few hits on social, and for her comments, perhaps it’s well-deserved. She won’t have to defend herself to me. But I do hope that when the dust settles, she will look at this episode as a teachable moment — for herself and for young Liam, because the world in her head is not the world little Liam will live in.

Roy Jones Jr.’s next chapter is about sharing his boxing skills, his final fight and passion for life As he prepares, he’s teaching others as one of Star Vizn’s featured athletes

It was his speed. It was his footwork. His mesmerizing moves.

Watching Roy Jones Jr. in the boxing ring during his prime was like watching a well-crafted dance battle. In each of his bouts, Jones came out with a fight plan that would invite opponents into his world time and time again — a world where he won so much that he made history.

Jones is a six-time world champion whose career spans four weight classes (middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight). The elite boxer, rapper and commentator is the only boxer in history to start his professional career as a light middleweight and move up to win a heavyweight title. He won the silver medal in the light middleweight division at the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Jones has the combination of Sugar Ray Leonard’s handwork and Muhammad Ali’s passion. In a career that includes him soaring from obscurity to glittering fandom, his razzle-dazzle in the ring thrust him into the spotlight. Not that one needs to tell the Pensacola, Florida, native about the contributions he’s made to the boxing world. He knows his resume.

Jones also has a surprisingly prolific rap career, with one of his famed songs titled “Ya’ll Must’ve Forgot.”

Now he’s sharing his skills with the world. He has partnered with Star Vizn to offer a first-class experience in his boxing world.

Star Vizn is an online training platform where youths, adults, athletes, future entrepreneurs and aspiring entertainers can learn how to become better at their craft through an app. The platform allows anyone to gain exclusive, behind-the-scenes training from some of the biggest names in their industries on both iOS and Android.

The monthly subscription service is dedicated to users of all ages. Jones lends his expertise, joining other former professional athletes such as Jerry Rice, Robert Horry, Dominique Wilkins, Melissa Gorga and Cameron Mathison.

Focusing on fitness and sports training techniques, Star Vizn offers workouts ranging from as little as five minutes to a grueling 50 minutes as well as personal audio training. Jones’ 12-week training camp includes cardio, total body strength and endurance workouts through his legendary boxing and self-defense techniques and interval fitness training.

Jones applauds Star Vizn for introducing the platform, which was not widely available during his prime.

“You get to learn who I am through this app,” Jones told The Undefeated. “We didn’t have that when I was coming up. We didn’t have that in my prime. You feel me? If we would have, I’d have been watching Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan every day, along with a little bit of Barry Sanders.”

Roy Jones Jr.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Jones, recently wrapping up his media tour in the ABC Studios in New York City, mic’d himself. He knew which camera to face. He recited rap lyrics during sound check and said he is always prepared. He didn’t need any direction.

Jones said Star Vizn gives him the opportunity to regain some of the time he lost not being part of social media. Collaborating with Star Vizn is important because to the boxer it’s a conduit to give back the things he learned during his journey.

“The things that God blessed me to be able to learn and accomplish, I can now share all my experiences with the world if you want to learn or if you want to know or if you want to be shared with,” Jones said. “It’s very beautiful for me because it’s an opportunity to give back yet to also strengthen the core of amateur boxing and professional boxing, because they saw what I did with my career, where I can show you how I did that now.

“God blessed me to be able to do so many remarkable things with my career and during my career that stays relevant because they are the best highlights on YouTube. We all get to benefit from the fact that people can go back on social media now, look at it and share it, and they share my videos all the time because nobody has more intriguing yet exciting videos of boxing than does Roy Jones Jr. You ain’t gotta go back and look at one fight; you can go back and it’s a whole collage. It’s songs, videos of true stuff that I did in fights that nobody else did. So that’s what kept me relevant. When people say they want to look at boxing, you want to see boxing, you want to see fighting with excitement to it. You’ll go watch probably two or three people: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr.”

Jones’ music even got noticed in the 1990s era when hip-hop connoisseurs appreciated elements of music that described real-life situations. His music was often a testimony of the portrayal of his life, except he said he didn’t smoke or drink.

“Once I learned how to box and I got my steps down pat, I used to go in my mirror at nighttime and I was practicing stuff. I put my music on,” Jones said.

He said that his most memorable fight was against James Toney on Nov. 18, 1994.

“At that time, I was trying to get to be the man and James Toney was the man,” Jones said. “He was knocking out all comers, he was beating pretty much everybody with the exception of Dave Tiberi, and he was a bully. He was a mean bully that really could fight, so it was no weaknesses in him. He had the attitude, he had the personality, he had everything. He had the skills, he had the power. He had everything. So when you look at him, you’re like, ‘Wow, how’s somebody gonna beat him?’ But I didn’t look at him that way. I looked at him like, ‘Ha, how’s he gonna last with me?’ And that’s what I did to him.”

The hardest part of Jones’ journey has been ending his time as a fighter.

“At the end of the journey, when you finally get everything that you want and you try to tap into that hunger or that drive or that motivation or that anger that you used to have … very difficult to get it because when you do everything you want to do, what’s left?”

Jones’ idol was the legendary Ali.

“Without him I would be nothing, because he set a standard and a bar for me that I had to follow suit with because he was the reason I started boxing,” Jones said. “Without him I’m nothing, because I wouldn’t know where to start without seeing him fight.”

Jones often thinks about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but he’s not too concerned about his own brain trauma although he has been taking blows since he was 10.

“It is something that you have to worry about,” Jones said. “I always have been concerned about it to a degree, but yet I knew I wasn’t wrapped too tight to start with, so it can’t mess me up much more than I already am. But I thank God that I’m still capable of handling myself, speaking to where people can understand what I say. Knowing how to slow down and be a commentator and do things in a way that or in a manner that people can comprehend exactly what I’m trying to say.”

He believes in causes such as fighting the Libyan slave trade and welcomes other athletes’ voices to shed light on social causes of interest.

“You’re gonna stand up for it when you first see it happening so that you can hope to bring enough attention to it to get it stopped before it does hit home,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. I’m here because I want to do the Star Vizn thing and ready to promote Star Vizn but I’m not afraid to speak out for what I believe in, and anytime that I have an issue or they have an issue, everybody’s entitled to what they want to do. We have freedom of speech in the United States of America, so you think something’s wrong with something or you think something needs to be adjusted with something, then you have a right to go stand up for it. Everybody don’t have to do it. It’s not an obligation of yours, but you’ve got a right to do whatever the hell you want to do. So if you want to go stand up for that, you have the right to go stand up for that.”

Jones lives a healthy lifestyle. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday he wakes up at 5:15 a.m. to play basketball at 6.

“Sometimes I go back to sleep. Sometimes I go home and eat breakfast and go to work in my yard, however it goes. But about 1 or 2, I train my fighters. Then most of the time about 4, I go back to the basketball gym and dominate the kids, and I come back home at about 8 o’clock at night. I train my fighters for a second time. Then I’m in the bed. And it’s a hectic week and a hectic day, but that’s how I live.”

He still maintains a healthy diet. When training he does not eat red meat, sweets, dairy or bread.

“I got myself in shape, went out to L.A. for the filming, got my mind right, went back to my old self. I put on my boxing uniform, got my workout uniform, got my mind into workout mode. Start thinking about what I did when I fight, what I do, how I see boxing on a whole, how I see the technique of boxing, and we went to work.”

Jones is also preparing to leave the ring. He announced that his farewell fight in the cruiserweight division will take place Feb. 8 in his hometown of Pensacola. Although his opponent has not been determined, he is set to headline the Island Fights 46 card that will include a mixture of boxing and MMA matches.

The 48-year-old (turning 49 on Jan. 16) in his prime was untouchable until his 2004 bout with Antonio Tarver.

Jones has won 11 of his past 12 fights, with his most recent on Feb. 17 last year when he knocked out Bobby Gunn in the eighth round in Wilmington, Delaware. The win was Jones’ third in a row against low-level opposition.

These days he begins his morning with an early basketball game with a few youth in the Pensacola area. Yet he remains one of the most viewed boxers on YouTube, and he is well-aware of the stardom younger generations of people still let him bask in — and he intends to keep it.

Venus and Serena Williams: from Compton to the world By changing how the world views black women, they’ve changed everything

It’s really just a makeshift dance floor in a small hotel conference room.

But then a song — some might consider it the Black People’s Party Anthem — drops and everyone falls in line, moving, shaking and, yes, wobbling to the beat of V.I.C.’s 2008 “Wobble,” a song that hasn’t vanished from many black family gatherings, even after a decade. Everyone moves to the beat, celebrating, as if a couple has just jumped a broom.

At the center of this dance-happy moment is Venus Williams. She’s at her most comfortable, dressed in a look from her own athleisure line, EleVen by Venus, and surrounded by family members. For a night, anyway, she gets to just be Venus — instead of “Venus Williams,” who as a burgeoning star tennis player made her Australian Open debut in 1998, playing her baby sister, Serena, in a professional match for the first time at that tournament.

That was the Venus Williams who rocked freshly oiled cornrows adorned with blue and white beads that shook something fierce every time she whacked what became her signature serve return in the direction of Serena Williams, whose own cornrows were bright with green and white beads. This was the Venus Williams who, along with Serena, demonstrated early dominance and took center stage in one of the most stridently white of professional sports. Tennis, a game of rackets and stretched nets, that at times is played in the world’s most stridently white spaces.

But when “Wobble” was on? The revolutionary “Venus Williams” was just Venus — a woman with a mean body roll and a swag surf that dropped so low, gravity was no match for all 6 feet, 1 inch of her very recognizable frame.


Before the holidays, both Venus and her superstar sister sat on a panel to discuss violence in the inner city. A poignant and effective conversation, it reminded everyone at the December 2017 “A Family Affair” that these two beautiful brown women who have both helped change how we consume pop culture — and yes, tennis — aren’t immune to the harsh realities and social justice issues of American “inner” cities.

After all, they both hail from Compton, California — the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, and the now-gentrifying city that Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre helped make infamous via their provocative supergroup N.W.A. Compton is the city that took the life of their sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at the age of 31. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting.

But now the Venus Ebony Starr Williams who we all know best is back. And she’s ready to take the place of her rightful throne at the 2018 Australian Open. Serena Williams, a newlywed and new mom to baby Alexis Olympia, is still waiting for what her big return might be. But at the very least — which, certainly is the very most — we get to welcome back half of the duo who helped to change the pop culture game. And Lord, are we ever ready.


Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

In 2015, a hater tweeted that Serena Williams was “built like a man.” It was a tweet heard round the world. That affected us all. It insulted us all. Then Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling shut it down by posting a photo of Serena Williams in a slim-fitting red dress with the text: “She is built like a man. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

A year earlier, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, called the tennis legends the “Williams brothers” and said, “It’s scary when you really look at them.” Insulting. The ensuing clapback was mighty too. Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned for a year, and Serena Williams called him out for being sexist and racist.

That insult penetrated, though. Throughout history, black female bodies have been both sexualized and besmirched. But the Williams sisters, via presence and practice, have turned any negative black woman body image trope on its head. They create and embrace their chiseled, athletic shapes and flaunt their world championship bodies in public arenas, draped in silks and jewels, in the coolest sneakers, in disruptively fashion-forward tennis “whites.” They continue to shock the world.

Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

There are some who are afraid of the Williams sisters’ dominance, confidence and beauty. They both have a similar dark brown hue and features that read very the Motherland. They look like so many woman around the world do. Their hairstyles over the years have transformed as ours have — from little-girl cornrows to micro braids to tree braids to sew-ins with wavy tracks to just a simple hot comb and flat iron of natural hair, at times, brushed back into a bun. So much of this black girl beauty used to be hidden. Right now, at this moment, it’s on the cover of Vogue.

But perhaps the most amazing Williams sisters moment came in April 2016 when Serena made a surprise appearance in Beyoncé’s HBO special Lemonade, which itself turned out to be a surprise album. In “Sorry,” we see Serena (to the tune of close to 250 million views) displaying a not-so-secret talent of hers as she dances and twerks alongside the Bey, who is sprawled across a throne, declaring in a casually aggressive way that she, in fact, is not sorry for the ill behavior of an untrustworthy lover. Beyoncé is queen — and Serena is equally regal.

But perhaps the sisters’ biggest contribution to the culture is just by being excellent, and expanding our horizons through their excellence. The Williams sisters represent us. They make us strong.

The Emmy-winning Jackée Harry brings everybody up to speed The legendary performer on everything from ‘Game of Thrones’ to a ‘Sister, Sister’ reboot

Jackée Harry was glowing. She was at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Sept. 20, 1987, and Bruce Willis presented her with the Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy role, making her the first African-American woman to receive the honor. She won for her role as Sandra Clark on the #BlackGirlMagic standard-setting sitcom 227 (1985-90), beating out Justine Bateman (Family Ties), Julia Duffy (Newhart), Estelle Getty (The Golden Girls) and Rhea Perlman (Cheers). You also certainly remember her as Lisa Landry, the adoptive mother of two long-lost twins named Tia and Tamera, from the timeless Sister, Sister (1994-99).

Harry is still glowing — more than 30 years and countless film and TV appearances later. The woman admired and known to many as Ms. Jackée (who’s superinteractive with her fans on Twitter) makes an illustrious return to the small screen on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) as part of the Tyler Perry-created series The Paynes, a spinoff of Perry’s former TBS comedy House of Payne (2006-12). Before the new show’s Jan. 16 premiere, the free-spirited Ms. Jackée previewed her role as JoAnn Payne, confirms a Sister, Sister reboot and details, between infectious laughs, her love for HBO’s Game of Thrones.


How did you get involved with The Paynes?

Tyler Perry said he’d work with me eventually. He called one Sunday … and he said come on down. … It was really that simple, but it took years. I waited years because I’ve always wanted to work with him.

In your mind, what’s the biggest difference between the spinoff and the original show?

Curtis and Ella, they retire and move to Florida. They come down and begin a whole new TV family. Ella [Cassi Davis] is still an activist and involved in the community and Curtis [LaVan Davis] is still a fool. You get to see more of the two of them. It’s funny. They were funny on the House of Payne, but this is their show now.

How would describe your character, JoAnn Payne?

I play Curtis’ first cousin. I’m a crook, but I also am helpful. I’m working up a new scam. We’re sort of like Lucy and Ethel, me and Cassi. We’re always doing schemes. But she knows how to handle Curtis. I’m standing here with her now, looking at her! Ms. Cassi Davis!

Everyone is wondering — is a Sister, Sister reboot actually in the works?

Oh, yeah. We’re planning to do one. I just spoke to Tia and Tamera. They’re busy working on it right now so we can do it for y’all. Everybody is asking for it, and we’re ready to do it.

Are you recognized more for Sandra Clark from 227 or Lisa Landry from Sister, Sister?

Sandra Clark, because the show is on OWN right now. They’ve been playing it every weekend, all weekend long.

What do you remember most from the night you won your Emmy?

Nothing. I don’t remember a thing because I didn’t expect to win. I’ll be honest, I thought I’d just be nominated one time and that was it. But I won the first time out.

What’s your favorite current TV show?

Game of Thrones is my favorite. I love it. Dragons and you know what!

Who’s your favorite Game of Thrones character?

Emilia Clarke’s character, Daenerys. Her and her dragons. I actually love all the women on the show. The little sister, Arya, and Sansa. They’re all fabulous.

Are there any young actors or actresses that stick out to you nowadays that you’d like to work with?

Regina King, of course. She’s my favorite. Zendaya. She’s just phenomenal. … Yara Shahidi. I did work with them, but when they were little kids. Now they’re all grown up, so I’d like to work with them again.

If you could have dinner with one actor or actress, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

Bette Davis [laughs]. Uh huh. I wanna hear All About Eve! I would love to because she’s in one of my favorite movies. Or even an Alan Rickman. He’s my favorite villain. I would love to have dinner with him. I think I’ve seen Die Hard about 600 times.

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

Show up, be on time and know your lines.

What would be your go-to karaoke song, and why?

Boyz II Men, “End of the Road,” because I could get the best harmony with it. I do that at Taco Tuesdays!

What’s one thing you’d like to accomplish in 2018?

To evolve as a person … become kinder and more empathetic … and try not to be as much of a diva!

What will you always be a champion of?

Education. Forever. That’s my No. 1 thing. Formal or informal. Books, computers, however you get it, but it’s gotta be done so we can keep up. Because if we don’t teach these kids, there will be no tomorrow for them.

‘Black Panther’ ticket presale is breaking all of the records It’s even beating ‘Captain America: Civil War’

It’s just as lit, and just as record-breaking, as so many always knew it would be. According to Deadline: “After tickets went on sale Monday night, Black Panther is already outstripping Captain America: Civil War as Fandango’s best-selling MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] title in the first 24 hours of presales. Captain America: Civil War kicked off the opening of summer 2016 during the first weekend of May with $179M.” Oh. Yes. We are really coming down to the wire. Director Ryan Coogler is starting to talk about his Panther influences (among them 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2010’s A Prophet), and there’s the amazing Kendrick Lamar video/film trailer. Soon we’ll all know the answer to the question “You’re telling me the king of a Third World country runs around in a bulletproof catsuit?” Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Lupita Nyong’o, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis and Danai Gurira, opens Feb. 16.

The legendary ‘XXL’ Jay-Z, LeBron James, Kanye West and Foxy Brown cover It helped launch then-Def Jam honcho Shawn Carter as a ‘business, man’

By 2005, in the post-The Black Album era, Jay-Z was almost two years into a retirement from releasing solo albums. Kanye West was soon to erase any doubts about a sophomore slump with his second studio album, Late Registration. LeBron James had delivered on the prep hype: He finished his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists. The best was yet to come for all three, as they stood together on the August 2005 cover of XXL, alongside Foxy Brown, who was signed to Def Jam Records at the time and preparing an album titled Black Roses.

Shot by Clay Patrick McBride (whose website opens with a look from the shoot), it was a gatefold cover, and the fold featured Freeway, Memphis Bleek, Young Gunz, Teairra Marie, Peedi Peedi and DJ Clue. Incoming Island/Def Jam CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, in one of his first moves, had hired Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter as president of the historic Def Jam Records, and under that umbrella came the relaunch of Jay-Z’s R0c-A-Fella Records — without co-founder Damon Dash. The 2004 split between Jay-Z and Dash was the No. 1 topic in hip-hop. And as for James, he was not signed to any label, but he appeared on the magazine as a symbol of his close relationship with Carter and of Carter’s reach to the world of professional athletes with Roc Nation Sports.

The cover idea was President Carter’s cabinet, and the XXL cover captured a moment in time before Jay-Z, West and James, all household names in 2005, were catapulted into another stratosphere of social impact, cultural influence and financial success. More than a decade later, Jay-Z is one of the most successful creative entrepreneurs, West is arguably the most influential cultural figure on this globe, and James, in his 15th NBA season, is still the best basketball player in the world.


In 1996, music journalist Andrea Duncan-Mao was throwing a party. Among the invitees were Jay-Z, Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. At the tiny New York City Bar, they told anyone within earshot about a record label they co-founded called Roc-A-Fella Records and about Reasonable Doubt, an album from Jay-Z. Drinks flowed late into the evening. “It was fun,” said Duncan-Mao, who profiled Young Gunz for the XXL cover story. “Dame was a visionary … really good at his job. But I think he started to really enjoy the fame, power and the lifestyle.”

By 2005, XXL was the pre-eminent hip-hop publication, and the monthly competition with The Source and other magazines meant battles for landing the most influential images and stories was intense. “The covers were everything,” said Elliott Wilson, who was editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2008. “I was being judged by how many units these magazines sold. I used to stress over the numbers. I [always] had [handy] printouts of what every XXL, The Source and VIBE sold.”

With Jay-Z transitioning into an executive role, and his recent break-up with Dash, Wilson knew who he could turn to for a splash. “Whenever there was a drought,” Wilson said, “Jay was always relevant.” The cover would serve two purposes: to bump up sales numbers on the newsstands and to have the No. 1 name in hip-hop tell his side of the Roc-A-Fella breakup.

Dash had already had his opportunity. In June 2005, Wilson and his team had put Dash and the rapper Cam’ron on XXL’s cover with the tagline Jay-Z Can’t Knock These Harlem Boys’ hustle, a callback to a classic Jay-Z song. Dash had started his own Damon Dash Music Group. Among the statements Dash made to XXL: “I don’t understand what’s going on with Jay.” So it was time to reach out to Jay-Z for the other side of the story. “You knew things weren’t good,” said Wilson. “but you couldn’t actually see it coming. … They were such a symbol of brotherhood.”

For Wilson, who joined XXL after working as music editor at The Source, and at College Music Journal, the hip-hop magazine wars were a real thing. Wilson joined XXL with a goal of outselling The Source at the newsstands within a year. It took him until 2003, and by 2005, Wilson was aiming to cement XXL’s reputation as the go-to music publication.

Jay-Z agreed to appear on the cover of the August 2005 issue and even suggested to Wilson his vision of a cover concept. Jay-Z wanted to do a presidential cover to reflect his new role at Def Jam. The photo shoot took place at New York City’s Chelsea Piers inside a mock Oval Office, and while all this was going on, team XXL included a teaser for the Jay-Z cover in the July 2005 issue: The last page in the magazine featured a Roc-A-Fella chain displayed prominently. The tagline was The Chain Remains — Wilson drew inspiration from Naughty By Nature’s 1995 “Chain Remains,” from Poverty’s Paradise.

When Wilson listened to Jay-Z’s guest verse on West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone Remix” there’s the line: The chain remains, the gang’s intact … but the XXL presidential cover actually reflected a more popular line from “Diamonds”: I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. Jay-Z, West and James were in very businesslike black suits, and Foxy Brown was in a sleek black dress. Because of Jay-Z’s ownership stake with the Brooklyn Nets, an early version of the cover included Vince Carter and Jason Kidd — instead of James. “I was thankful Vince and Jason didn’t make the [final] cut,” said Wilson. “I knew LeBron … would be a big deal.” It would be a few more years until Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, but Jay-Z was making himself an unofficial black president on the cover of a magazine.

In the one-on-one interview with XXL features editor David Bry, Jay-Z addressed his split with Dash, saying, “I’m not in the business to talk about guys I did business with — I want you to print all this — been real tight with, for over 10 years. But since there’s so much out there, so much has been said, I will say this one thing: I’ma just ask people in the world to put themselves in my shoes. However the situation happened, whether we outgrew the situation or what have you, it was time for me to seek a new deal in the situation.” Shawn Carter was speaking to Bry. The beloved Bry, an author and hip-hop scholar, recently died of brain cancer.

Jay-Z stepped away from his role as president and CEO of Def Jam in 2007. During his tenure, artists such as Young Jeezy and Rick Ross had huge successes. West, Rihanna and Ne-Yo became global stars. At the same time, projects involving Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and the Young Gunz sputtered. Artists such as LL Cool J spoke out in frustration. Jay-Z also came out of “retirement” and released Kingdom Come in 2006, to mixed reviews. Questions were raised about whether Carter was focused as a music executive, and whether there were creative conflicts of interest.

Music journalist Amy Linden profiled Memphis Bleek for that presidential issue. “Sometimes I wonder whether having an artist as the head of the label is a good thing or bad thing,” said Linden. “On one hand … artists recognize art in other people. On the other, you can wonder [whether] an artist is going to worry about someone competing with him.”

Wilson has fond memories of the presidential cover, in particular an inside shot: Jay-Z and West re-created an iconic Robert Kennedy-John F. Kennedy shot. “I did a lot of great covers,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, this cover doesn’t always get mentioned. It definitely deserves its rightful place. … It marked the beginning of Jay-Z moving on to the next stage of his life.”

More than a decade later, the impact of the split between Jay-Z and Dash still resonates. Then-senior editor Anslem Samuel Rocque, now managing director at Complex, who profiled Freeway in the issue, believes the breakup was inevitable. “I don’t think Jay would be where he is now if he continued to be a big fish in a small pond,” Rocque said. “He couldn’t keep rolling with [the] same folks. I don’t want to diminish anyone … but they were holding him back. In retrospect, it was what he had to do.”

As for Wilson, who went on to become co-founder of the popular hip-hop site and podcast Rap Radar and now works as an editorial director of culture and content for Tidal, there is one regret about the presidential cover. “No disrespect to Foxy, but as good as a career as she’s had, she’s not the cultural icon that Jay-Z, Kanye and LeBron are,” Wilson said. “When I look back … I’m like, holy s—, I had Jay-Z, Kanye and LeBron. If I had Rihanna, it would have been one of the greatest magazine covers of all time.”

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.

‘Atlanta,’ the weirdest, blackest show on TV, finally gets a return date Television Critics diary: The second installment, called ‘Robbin’ Season,’ was inspired by Tiny Toons

PASADENA, California — The weirdest, blackest show on television is finally coming back for its second season March 1 with 11 new episodes.

And in true, wonderful Atlanta form, nothing is quite what it appears to be on the surface. At least, that’s what it sounds like. None of us here at the Television Critics Association press tour can be quite sure because we haven’t actually seen season two yet. We’ve just heard creator Donald Glover and the cast, along with director Hiro Murai, talk about it.

From what Glover would tell us at Friday’s panel discussion, it sounds as if Atlanta may end up being something like a limited series, but reusing the same characters each year. This season is called Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, referring to the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when folks, regardless of whether they’ve got much money or not, will buy the nicest gifts they can afford. And then, if they live in the trap, they’ll get jacked. Hence the name.

“We didn’t want to come at the second season in terms of how do we beat last season, rather how do we make this another season of a show I want to watch,” Glover said.

Robbin’ Season is centered on themes of economic and social mobility and what happens when you’re suddenly able to leave the trap.

Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

“You can’t be famous and be a drug dealer,” explained Brian Tyree Henry, who plays rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles.

It’s a common theme in the lives of America’s most visible rich black celebrities (rappers and ballers), which is why it comes up in shows such as Survivor’s Remorse, which was also set in Atlanta, or tons of songs. (See: Jones, Mike, for what has to be the most concise summation of this change: Back then hoes didn’t want me/Now I’m hot they all on me.)

Donald Glover and his brother, Stephen, who is a writer on the show, said the second installation of Atlanta was inspired by Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation. Several writers tried to ask for hints about the plot, and the Glovers giggled as they steered the conversation back to Tiny Toons. The room at TCA is mostly (but not exclusively) white, and I think they got a kick out of screwing with white people knowing there would be no negative consequences for it. (I mean, really, how often do any of us get to do that?) Basically, they said, all the separate bits of the 1992 Warner Bros. video are great and can be consumed on their own but work even better as a whole.

The Glovers did talk honestly about what it’s like to suddenly discover that you’re successful and famous. So did Zazie Beetz, the actress who plays Van and is also starring as Domino in the Deadpool sequel. She can’t go to AfroPunk without getting mobbed, she said. Henry realized the same when he tried to go to Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta on a whim.

“Nope! Can’t do that s— anymore,” Henry said.

Hiro Murai, Stephen Glover, Paul Simms, Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Donald Glover said the specificity of those discoveries opened his eyes to just how much black identity is tied to lack of resources. Paper Boi’s journey this season is influenced by the one in his and Beetz’s and Henry’s lives because they’re honestly trying to figure it out themselves. After all, Glover had a hit album in Awaken, My Love! and had to postpone work on Atlanta’s second season to play Lando Calrissian in the new Star Wars franchise. The Atlanta crew is using the show to work through their own stuff.

It’s not all serious, though. The other side of being famous is that people give you cool stuff for free, and Henry walked out in a notable pair of sneakers. His right shoe read “BREATHE” and the left read “WALK.” Mostly, Henry said, he was wearing them because they were free, but also because he has a habit of looking down when he walks instead of straight ahead. They’re a reminder to himself to be comfortable with who he is.

Kamara for the culture He grew up with the Migos, wears nose rings and a grill in games and is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year — but who really is Alvin Kamara?

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.


NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.

Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”

A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.

Instagram Photo

Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.

“I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”

Instagram Photo

True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.

No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.

Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.

“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”


The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.

“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”

Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”

But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”

Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.

It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.

It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”


“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”

At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”

Alvin Kamara runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL combine.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”

Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?

“He didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. One thing led to another and he ended up saying at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”


Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.

“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy.He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”

Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara jumps over Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.

“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.

Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”

Alvin Kamara (right) and Mark Ingram talk during a game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”

He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.


It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.

It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”

Alvin Kamara celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”

“All he had to do is play ball. Be young. Bring the swag. And do his thing.”

Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.

So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.

“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”

A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”

A look back at Latrell Sprewell’s very angry ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover The image was after the P.J. Carlesimo incident and at the tightest possible intersection of sports and race — not in a good way

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Latrell Sprewell? His 35-point performance at Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks facing elimination in the 1999 NBA Finals? Him dunking on Jaren Jackson in the third quarter of that game?

Maybe it was his return to the Garden for the first time in more than a decade, last year, as a “friend” of Knicks owner James Dolan, not a foe. Perhaps it’s this recent Priceline commercial, supposedly a display of Sprewell’s sense of humor — at his own expense.

Or is it a moment obscured from the public’s eyes: Sprewell choking then-Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice, leaving the gym and returning, apparently to attack Carlesimo again?


Or is what you recall the aftermath, when the 24th pick in the 1992 NBA draft became a pariah? His name and likeness became synonymous with violence. The Warriors voided the then-three-time All-Star’s contract, and the NBA, a season removed from celebrating its 50th birthday, suspended him for a year after the episode escalated into an avalanche of bad press that the league did not need one month into the pivotal 1997-98 season. Several stars — Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen among them — were injured, Michael Jordan was all but certainly retiring, and a lockout was looming.

Then, in addition, the Milwaukee-born, Flint, Michigan-raised Sprewell, one of the NBA’s rising (albeit reluctant) stars, was labeled persona non grata. He’d admittedly committed an act of violence against his coach. It was an act that seemed to confirm every absurd fear about the rise of the overpaid, petulant, violent (and *gasp* black) athlete. It was the problem with sports, to let sportswriters and fans alike tell it. And although Sprewell acknowledged that his actions were inexcusable — “I don’t condone what I did,” he told The New York Times in 1998 — he took issue with how he was portrayed. This was epitomized by the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Dec. 15, 1997, issue.

“It’s always a picture of me looking mad or being aggressive,” he said during a news conference one week after the incident, for which he was initially suspended 10 games without pay. “I never saw pictures of myself where I had a smile on my face. It was always negative.”

The enigmatic Sprewell was easy to cast as the villain. The former University of Alabama and Three Rivers Community College standout was an aggressive slasher and defender. His appearance was menacing — to people who associated cornrows with criminal activity. And Spree had previously fought teammates. He absolutely considered himself a fighter, but only in self-defense.

“I don’t get upset unless somebody’s doing something to me or to my family, disrespecting me to where I just can’t tolerate it,” Sprewell told Time in 2000. That’s how he viewed the altercation with Carlesimo.

The choking itself, said to have happened in practice during an argument about Sprewell’s effort (“Put a little mustard on those passes,” Carlesimo reportedly told him), triggered revealing discourse, in the pre-social-media era, about the very often uncomfortable intersection of race and sports.


Sports Illustrated flew into the eye of the storm and made a valiant effort to unpack the situations. And while the story itself excellently contextualized the NBA’s head-on collision with race, the image — Sprewell, in mid-scream — chosen for the Dec. 15, 1997, issue’s cover was provocative for the wrong reasons. Sports Illustrated was the de facto bible of sports at the time, in an era before breaking news spread via Woj Bombs and trending topics. A time when writers discussed stories with editors via phone calls — not yet in Google Hangouts, or Slack.

Phil Taylor doesn’t remember exactly how he heard about what transpired between Sprewell and Carlesimo, but as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, he called his editors to discuss how they planned to cover it. “This was a huge story … right in my backyard, and as lead NBA writer, I knew I was going to be writing something lengthy,” said Taylor, now a contributing writer for The Athletic. “I’ve often thought that if it happened now, we would have obviously been able to put something out on Twitter and everyone would have just written stories immediately. But I remember thinking that [as a weekly publication] we were not going to be able to get an immediate story out there.”

“One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too.”

The Sprewell-Carlesimo incident took place on a Monday — the worst-case scenario for the magazine, which was finalized for the mass printing on Sundays. Back then, hundreds of thousands of issues would be sent to subscribers and would be available on newsstands on the Wednesday/Thursday of the following week. Local outlets such as the San Francisco Chronicle were already on top of the story. That extra time, though, did allow Sports Illustrated to fine-tune its coverage, and Taylor ended up writing two of the three stories: a look at who Sprewell was and an essay about race and the NBA.

“We knew that by the time the story came out, the story might have advanced beyond what we knew at the time we were writing,” Taylor said. “So we wanted to come up with something to better put this into context, and that’s where we started talking about the issue of race in the NBA and what the Sprewell incident had to do with that.”

In a break from covers that featured full-bleed photography, a particularly incisive excerpt from Taylor’s essay was featured — white type on a black background:

“Latrell Sprewell has been publicly castigated and vilified, and any player who gets a similar urge to manually alter his coach’s windpipe will surely remember Sprewell’s experience before he acts on that impulse. Problem solved. But the Sprewell incident raises other issues that could pose threats to the NBA’s future, issues of power and money and — most dangerous of all — race … ”

Placing that much text on the cover of a magazine was rare for SI. “The editors liked what I wrote, and I think it was our managing editor Bill Colson … thought it was so strong that we should put those words on the cover.”

Part of Taylor’s satisfaction came from his belief that the cover would differ from what had quickly become a typical characterization of Sprewell as angry. Until he saw it, that is.

“My words … but they added that picture of Sprewell, and that was disappointing to me,” said Taylor, who didn’t see the cover until the issue came out. “One of my first thoughts was, at least put P.J. on there looking angry too. But maybe that would have been inflammatory as well, because then you would have had a black man screaming at a white man. That sort of anger could be interpreted as racial, but … would have at least been more fair.”

It was unfair to Sprewell because although what he did was undeniably wrong, Carlesimo was far from … docile. He was notoriously hard on his players, and notoriously unpopular for it. “We’ve been face-to-face on many occasions,” Rod Strickland, who played for Carlesimo while with the Portland Trail Blazers, told the Baltimore Sun.

“I’ve often thought, that if it happened now, we would have … put something out on Twitter, and everyone would have just written stories immediately.”

“I played under him, so it doesn’t surprise me,” Tracy Murray, who began his career with Portland, added.

After the Warriors hired Carlesimo in 1997, he was the focal point of their “No More Mr. Nice Guy” campaign, appearing on billboards with his coaching staff dressed like a team of FBI agents. Carlesimo was depicted as an enforcer; he was celebrated for an approach that alienated players and, more importantly, never translated into success in the NBA.

“P.J. was a guy who stirred it up, and was as bellicose and belligerent as Sprewell was,” Taylor said. But Carlesimo had a vastly different relationship with the media, Taylor added. He was very cooperative and affable and would ask about the reporters’ well-being. He’d remember their first names. That charm likely played a factor in Carlesimo receiving more favorable coverage than Sprewell, who was tight-lipped with the press.

Imagery is as important to a story’s narrative as reporting or analysis. A March 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated featured Charles Barkley in shackles. It drew criticism from Sports Illustrated staffers, readers and Barkley’s friend and colleague Kenny Smith alike. Golfweek’s infamous Tiger Woods “noose” cover, from January 2008, got its editor and vice president fired. LeBron James’ historic moment as the first black man to grace the cover of Vogue that spring was sullied by the black man-as-savage beast stereotype it projected. According to Taylor, the media routinely overlooks the reverberations of such editorial decisions.

“The media in general has always, and definitely at that time, underestimated the power of the images of black athletes,” said Taylor. “I don’t think the implications of putting an angry Sprewell out there occurred to them. I’m not even sure the implications of putting Barkley in chains occurred to them — until the backlash came.”

Taylor noted that no black editors were involved with the Sprewell story. “I might have been the only black writer or editor at that time,” he added. The magazine could have placed an expressionless Sprewell on the cover, and it would’ve been just as captivating. That’s how great the treatment is, and how powerful Taylor’s words are. But the cover — and all of the more incendiary examples that preceded it, and will surely continue to follow — represent a more hazardous issue: a failure on the part of many media professionals to grasp the complexity of stereotypes and the way they’re bound to black identity, and how all of that affects the way black people are viewed and treated.

Still, though, Taylor gives Sports Illustrated’s editors credit for deciding to explore the NBA’s racial undercurrent. After discussing the atmosphere with them, he said, Colson asked if the magazine should write about it. Taylor was stunned, as that was “edgy” for Sports Illustrated — and really for any mainstream sports publication of that era.

“They were willing to take on a controversial issue, although they kind of regressed on it … by choosing the picture they chose,” he said. “I wish they hadn’t done that.”

Sprewell survived his figurative public stoning and continued his career with the Knicks and then Minnesota Timberwolves. The clothing and footwear company AND1 even branded him “The American Dream” upon his return to the NBA in 1999 — the last time the Knicks made the Finals. The events of December 1997 never impeded Sprewell’s career, but it ended abruptly in 2005 after he claimed he couldn’t feed his family on the three-year, $21 million deal the Timberwolves offered him. That Priceline commercial, where he pokes fun at his mistakes, is poignant considering the headlines that have emerged since his retirement.

Despite Sprewell’s success after the incident, he remains symbolic of poor decisions and explosive anger. Regardless of Sports Illustrated’s intentions, that’s all their cover screams about him too.