Deitrick Haddon talks LeBron James, Chris Paul, Usher and life in Los Angeles The pastor, actor and gospel recording artist is living his best life

When gospel singer, songwriter and pastor Deitrick Haddon moved to Los Angeles in 2012, NBA All-Star Chris Paul, then a member of the Los Angeles Clippers, was one of the first people he met.

As Haddon was walking into a restaurant, Paul called out to him from his vehicle.

“I heard someone say, ‘Deitrick Haddon?’ and it was Chris Paul. I thought to myself, Chris Paul knows who I am? We started talking, and he told me he listens to my music all the time. He doesn’t keep it a secret that he is a believer,” the Detroit native said. “You may be surprised by who actually listens to gospel music; a lot of athletes listen to gospel music before they go out and play.”

According to Haddon, Paul listens to his breakout single “Sinner’s Prayer,” released in 2002.

“Sinner’s Prayer” also resonated profoundly in Haddon’s own life. After dealing with public scrutiny surrounding his divorce from his first wife, gospel recording artist Damita Haddon, in 2011, he wanted to give up. Instead, he drew even closer to God.

For Haddon, taking on Los Angeles was his best move. He married Dominique McTyer in 2013 and made his small-screen debut that same year in Preachers of L.A., Oxygen’s reality show that followed the lives of six preachers and lasted for two seasons. He became a father of three — Destin, 6; Denver, 3; and Deitrick Jr., just shy of a year old — and started Hill City Church, a nondenominational Christian church in Compton, California.

He also scored his first No. 1 radio single in 2017, “A Billion People” featuring the Hill City Worship Camp, made up of members of his church’s praise and worship team.

Now that the NBA season has started, Haddon has a new basketball team to fan out over in Los Angeles.

“My house is no longer divided,” he said with a laugh. “I am a LeBron James fan to the core, so by default I was a big Cavaliers fan. My wife is a huge Lakers fan. She is a die-hard Kobe Bryant fan. She bleeds purple and gold. We were enemies during every basketball season! We both are supercompetitive and emotional, so in the past there was a real battle in my household.

“This is a great time for my family. My home is united now that LeBron is on the West Coast.”

Haddon, 45, is a preacher’s kid who grew up in Detroit. He was only 10 years old when he knew that, like his father, Bishop Clarence Haddon, he was called to preach.

“I was in my bedroom looking out the window and I heard what I believed was the voice of God speaking to me as loud as I am speaking to you, his audible voice saying, ‘Deitrick, I have called you to ministry and I want you to preach the Gospel and sing the Gospel,’ ” he said.

Haddon was afraid but moved and went to seek counsel from his mother, Joyce.

“I ran to my mother and told her exactly what happened,” Haddon said. “She said, ‘That is God calling you to ministry, Deitrick.’ Before I knew it, I was up preaching. … My mother brought me a robe and a little Bible and set a date, and I was up preaching in front of a whole crowd at a church called Unity Cathedral of Faith [a Full Gospel church on Detroit’s west side]. The church was packed because word had gotten out that little Deitrick Haddon was going to preach.”

Haddon will never forget the day. He sang a song to begin and noticed the crowd’s response.

“Everyone in the church started shouting and running around like I was doing something so spectacular,” he said. “Then, when it came time for me to preach, my mind went blank. I couldn’t remember anything that I had practiced or studied! I don’t even know how I got off of the podium; I think they carried me out of there. After that experience, I dedicated myself to studying even more, learning every Scripture, every Bible story, etc., so that will never happen to me again.”

Haddon intensified his biblical knowledge and eventually began teaching Sunday school. When he was 13 he became minister of music, and at 16 he was youth pastor at Unity Cathedral, preaching every other Sunday and remaining until his young adult years.

After he married Damita in 1996, the two left Detroit and moved to Orlando, Florida, where he became worship leader at Paula and Randy White’s church, Without Walls. The couple later moved to Atlanta to pursue other music projects. By that time he’d already made a name for himself as one of this generation’s most influential gospel singers with his albums Lost and Found and Crossroads.

While in Atlanta, he and Damita divorced, and he moved back to his hometown of Detroit to recover. It was there when he decided Los Angeles could give him a new start and enhance his career.

Haddon received a phone call from music producer Zaytoven and was offered the opportunity to expand his writing into other genres of music. He co-wrote three songs on Usher’s latest album, A.

“Zaytoven is my brother from another mother,” Haddon said. “He has listened to my music and all kinds of gospel music for years. He is the godfather of trap music, but he is also a church musician on Sundays, and during the week he is making hit records for all of your favorite hip-hop artists.”

Haddon said a lot of “secular artists gravitate to church musicians because they get a whole lot of practice every week.”

“Church musicians are some of the best musicians in the world,” he said. “He [Zaytoven] is out there doing it big, and he stays faithful as a church musician at his church. He called me to come in and collaborate with some of the writers on Usher’s latest project.”

When Haddon isn’t writing music or preparing for service at Hill City Church, he is all about basketball and enjoying fatherhood. His wattage intensifies when he speaks of his three young children.

“I live for this,” he said about being on “daddy duty.” “Everything that I do orbits around my family. I am very hands-on. I attend all of the parent conferences, and even grandparents day.”

His parenting skills are patterned from his father, who adopted him as a young child after marrying his mother.

“My dad was a very responsible dad,” Haddon said. “We never wanted for anything. He was very dependable, and our lives were good because of that. He instilled those qualities in me.”

Student-inspired ‘Wings’ Air Jordan 5s take flight — and change lives Chicago high schoolers see their stories, and their artwork, immortalized

Lundyn Bowman couldn’t help but show off the shoes. She passed the box around to her dad, his friends and anyone else who wanted to take a peek inside. And at the sight of a fresh new pair of the “Wings” Air Jordan 5s, embossed with vibrant, hand-drawn illustrations, folks began making offers to buy them from the 12th-grader.

“Everybody kept throwing out prices,” Bowman said. “They kept saying, ‘Yeah … I’ll buy those from you for $500.’ … ‘You don’t know the value of them.’ ”

But she does. The sneakers, which Bowman has worn only once, mean the world to her because she’s one of 19 students from Chicago’s Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy responsible for the drawings that sprawl across the sneakers. “People didn’t believe that I helped design the shoe,” Bowman said of the limited-edition Wings 5s, which dropped in late September for $200 a pair and sold out within minutes on Nike’s SNKRS App. And they have skyrocketed in value, reselling for as much as $450 on the popular sneaker marketplace GOAT.

Courtesy of Jordan Brand

It’s a shoe unlike anything the Jordan Brand has ever produced — and anything sneaker culture has ever seen. The shoes feature wing-patterned side panels and a winged lace toggle, all of which are teal in the light and glow in the dark. But most notable are the multicolored illustrations on each shoe that come together harmoniously to make every pair feel more like a painting you’d put on display than something you’d wear on your feet. The students at Little Black Pearl are the inspiration behind those illustrations.

“I never thought I’d have something I’d drawn on a shoe. When I got home, I didn’t take the shoes off. I couldn’t take the shoes off.” — Laquesha Clemons

“It truly is art,” said David Creech, Jordan Brand’s vice president of design. “There’s a story painted … through the lens of the city of Chicago, the community and Little Black Pearl’s students that no one … could’ve created but them. We were just a canvas; they were the storytellers. They’re the ones that bring the emotion to what this is about.”

The shoe is a tangible representation of Jordan Brand’s Wings program, a community outreach initiative inspired by Michael Jordan’s ongoing commitment to education. Since 2015, the brand has provided more than 225 students, many of whom come from low-income family backgrounds, with full academic college scholarships. And in each of the past three years, Jordan has released a different pair of Wings-inspired sneakers. The first two were crafted solely by the brand’s team of professional designers. In April 2016, there were the Wings Air Jordan 12s, limited to an exclusive release of 12,000 pairs. The shoes resemble the “Playoffs” colorway of the silhouette, but they incorporate gold accents and a sleek graphical wings pattern printed on the insoles and laid beneath the translucent outer soles. A year later, 19,400 pairs of Wings Air Jordan 1s dropped. Distressed leather construction gives the shoes an aged copper finish — and had at least one YouTuber asking his subscribers if they were the best pair of 1s ever.

Yet, of all the Wings sneakers, the new Air Jordan 5s are, without question, the most meaningful. For the first time, students such as Bowman contributed to the design. The idea came from Jordan Brand vice president Howard White, who pushed for this year’s Wings shoe to be completed using the Air Jordan 5 silhouette, which debuted in 1990 and was made famous by the timeless “It’s Gotta Be the Shoes” ads featuring Michael Jordan and Mars Blackmon, the fictional Air Jordan fanatic from Brooklyn, New York, portrayed by Spike Lee.

“The Jordan 5 … everybody recognizes that shoe, no matter where you are on this planet,” said Joshua Muhammad, a senior at the tuition-free Little Black Pearl, which serves 150 students from Chicago communities. “The fact that Jordan put something we did on such an iconic model really stands out. It hasn’t set in all the way.”

Courtesy of Jordan Brand

The illustrations for the Wings 5s came to life in Chicago at the city’s flagship Jordan Brand store on South State Street, where a select cohort of Black Pearl students, as part of the Jordan Designers program, spent Saturdays learning about the apparel and footwear industry. Students received the full product-creation experience. They were split into groups and presented with prompts such as: What does the city of Chicago mean to you? What are your hopes and aspirations for Chicago? How would you like to see Chicago in the future? They were then required to respond to each brief in the form of drawings and pitch the finished products back to brand employees as a way of developing their public speaking skills. The extensive program also includes in-store product placement, writing copy to describe inspiration for designs, and packaging.

Workshops yielded friendly competitions between groups, and some illustrations were chosen to be printed on T-shirts that were sold in the store. Eventually, the 16-week seminar became a yearslong journey for many of Little Black Pearl’s students. The experience became about much more than waking up early on the weekend, making long commutes to the Jordan store and experimenting with markers and colored pencils. Muhammad Holmes says he once had no clue what career path he’d pursue — but now he knows it’s design. Kamaria Grayson admitted she still can’t draw that well, but she discovered the value of product ideation. She’s still several months removed from high school graduation but has already selected her college major: marketing.

“We learned about storytelling. … Basically, nothing Jordan puts out doesn’t have a story behind it,” said Grayson, another senior at Little Black Pearl. In three years, 15 of the school’s students who participated in the designers program have received full, four-year Wings scholarships. The brand already plans to expand the designers program to Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte, North Carolina. But it all began in 2015 with Chicago.

“Everything we make,” Grayson added, “has to have a story behind it that either affects us or affects the people around us.”

To the shock of many of the Little Black Pearl students, the story behind the Wings 5s was theirs. They had no clue that drawings they sketched would one day make it onto a pair of Air Jordans. It wasn’t until a leaked image of the shoe surfaced this summer that the students realized what was happening. Then, during opening week of the NBA regular season, the brand commissioned one of its athletes, newly signed Bulls forward and Chicago native Jabari Parker, with the job of delivering pairs of the shoes to the young designers.

High schooler Muhammad Holmes says he once had no clue what career path he’d pursue — but now he knows it’s design.

“It was a no-brainer. As soon I found out about the project and the opportunity was presented to me, I jumped on it,” said Parker, who made the trip to Little Black Pearl to surprise the students with boxes of Wings 5s. “The shoe is unique because these kids already had artistic minds. From that open-mindedness, they could just let their creative juices flow. That’s what I like so much about the shoe. It’s different. It looks good. And the story behind it makes it more appealing.”

Courtesy of Jordan Brand

Perhaps the best part about the shoe is that no two pairs are the same. The Jordan Brand wanted to ensure that every student’s hard work was reflected in the design. “To execute, we started with a collection of final artwork,” Creech said, “and allowed our [professional] designers to create different variations of the pattern to make each pair one of a kind.”

The moment the students opened up the boxes for the first time, they marveled at the sight of their own pieces of art on an Air Jordan. The pairs feature the same drawings that groups teamed up to create on Saturdays at the Jordan store: from a pair of outstretched hands holding the Chicago skyline to the iconic landmarks of the city, and even phrases such as “More than just a murder capital …”

“The fact that Jordan put something we did on such an iconic model really stands out. It hasn’t set in all the way.”
— Joshua Muhammad

“When I saw shoes, I was just shocked,” said Laquesha Clemons, a 12th-grader. “I never thought I’d have something I’d drawn on a shoe. When I got home, I didn’t take the shoes off. I couldn’t take the shoes off. I was just so excited. I even cried a little bit.”

The Wings Air Jordan 5s tell the story of youthful hope in the city of Chicago, through the eyes and creativity of Bowman, Muhammad, Grayson, Clemons, Nyla Brown, Zion Edwards, Moses Hardwick, Shaquille Holmes, Darian Johnson, Robin Miller, Gabrielle Mitchell, Jayvon Moore, Kareem Riley-Bey, Amia Smith and Ayanna Smith, Blaize Walker, Beyonce Webster, Raymond Wheeler and Erica Young.

“This shoe shines a bright light on Chicago and shows people that it isn’t such a bad place,” Grayson said. “There’s so much talent living in Chicago. And if people would take more chances on kids from here, the outcome would be amazing.”

Cherish tonight — James and Wade are the brotherhood Jay-Z and Biggie never had the freedom to experience LeBron James and Dwyane Wade: a high-profile black male friendship that has tragic precedent

Save for his final home game in Miami next April, Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” farewell tour entered its most emotional stop Monday night in Los Angeles. The three-time NBA champion and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer squared off against his former teammate, best friend and other championship-winning banana boat crew member, LeBron James, for the final time.

It’s been a blessing to watch James and Wade do what they’ve done for the past 16 seasons.

It’s the end of a basketball journey that began at the NBA draft combine in 2003. But now, life is starkly different for the championship-winning half of the banana boat quartet, which also features Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. Wade’s attention to the world after basketball is already in full swing. He missed LeBron’s visit to Miami a few weeks back on paternity leave after the birth of he and wife Gabrielle Union’s daughter, Kaavia James. Whereas LeBron’s basketball career continues to ascend toward the sport’s rarefied air — with the distant possibility he could one day play in a league featuring both his son LeBron James Jr. and Wade’s oldest son, Zaire, who is already involved in the college recruitment process. But Monday night is about them and the endless memories that come with the finality of the moment.

“It’s bitter, and it’s sweet. It’s sweet and sour,” James said after the Lakers’ recent 111-88 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. “The sweet part … is I’ve always loved being on the same floor with my brother. … And the sour part … is that this is our last time sharing the same court.”

Wade’s sentiments exactly. “Having this opportunity with ’Bron, out of everybody in the NBA, he’s the person I’ve loved playing against the most outside of Kobe [Bryant],” he told the Sun Sentinel over the weekend. “Obviously, he’s also one of my good friends, and the history we have as teammates, as well. It definitely means more than just the average last game versus a team or individual.”

There is an added incentive for both former teammates heading into Monday night’s game. James and Wade, who went to four consecutive NBA Finals from 2011-14 and won two together, are 15-15 in 30 career matchups against each other. The winner, for the rest of his life, carries a lifetime of personal bragging rights. More than anything, though, the final James vs. Wade game is an opportunity to witness history in real time — but also to appreciate the last 16 seasons, and what the duo has done to elevate a game they were both expected to, and did, revolutionize.

Their relationship calls to mind another friendship between competitive men who became all-time greats as competitive brothers. It’s one that fate ended early, and one that was recently reintroduced to the spotlight on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” — Jay-Z flipping a lyric from The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef.” Call it returning a favor for the late Brooklyn MC paying homage to Jay-Z 21 years later.

Imagine if Wade never played again after capturing Finals MVP in 2006. Or if LeBron, after the “48 special” he unleashed on the Detroit Pistons in 2007, were no longer in the game. Alternate realities that bring a tidal wave of grief and despair, just at the mere thought.


The success, the worldwide fame, the marriage to Beyoncé, the friendships with Barack Obama and LeBron James, the No. 1 albums, the Grammys — none of it can ever be enough to mute the voice in Jay-Z’s head. That nasal laugh and unperturbed voice that helped make Brooklyn a cultural zenith. Jay-Z will always remember the excitement in Biggie’s voice. The pain, too. The reality is one he’s never been able to escape, and never will: Jay-Z was one of the last people to talk to The Notorious B.I.G.

The music from the VIBE after-party for the Soul Train Awards at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum was loud. “Where you at, playboy?!” Biggie yelled for Jay over the phone.

Not exactly the group chat LeBron and D-Wade use to keep tabs on each other, but a competitive and, at its core, respectful GPS nonetheless.

Only two weeks before the release of his album Life After Death, Biggie wanted Jay with him to celebrate. Not just his success, but theirs. They’d survived New York City during the eras of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Reaganomics and crack cocaine — and had lived to craft graphic street soundtracks of it all. The worst of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry seemed behind them, and the rest of their lives were in front.

At least, that’s the way it should’ve been. Minutes later, Biggie was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. He was 24 years old.

Jay was supposed to be with Biggie in L.A. on March 9 but had other commitments. According to an 1997 interview with MTV, he had, however, planned to fly to Los Angeles the next day to chop it up with B.I.G. The two had known of each other since high school, but it was rarely more than a dap here, a dap there and seeing each other around Brooklyn before Brooklyn was gentrified. And before Marcy Projects became an amusement park.

Hustling on street corners was a part of their lives, while music would elevate them beyond the long arm of the law. B.I.G., of course, found success first with the release of his 1994 landmark Ready To Die. During Biggie’s rise to superstardom, Jay’s rap acumen was growing. DJ Clark Kent constantly told Biggie about this cat from Marcy Projects who was nice. B.I.G., initially, didn’t take the nudge seriously.

“Aight, aight!” Kent recalled Biggie saying on The Juan Epstein Show in 2014. “Yeah, Clark. He’s good.”

Biggie’s walls of resistance began to erode after hearing Jay’s “Dead Presidents” — then an undeniable New York underground smash in the pre-Reasonable Doubt days. “Yo, man,” Big said. “Ya mans is mad nice.” But even then, he still wasn’t ready to give in. This was apparently due to Kent’s insistence that Jay was just as dope as Biggie — a claim, recounted in interviews and documentaries over the past two decades, that agitated Biggie so much that he recorded the second verse of “Who Shot Ya?” as proof to Kent that Jay wasn’t “harder” than him on the mic.

History remembers the record as a line in the sand that divided Biggie and Tupac and watermarked a bicoastal feud — but, according to Kent, “Who Shot Ya?” was Biggie proving to him that no one from Brooklyn could out-rap him, including Jay-Z. The wheels of competition were in full rotation after this. Jay, per Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke, was so inspired by Biggie’s move that, days later, he recorded three songs that would later become benchmarks in his catalog: “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “D’Evils” and “Can I Live.” Not exactly the group chat LeBron and D-Wade use to keep tabs on each other, but a competitive and, at its core, respectful GPS nonetheless.

Competition brought Biggie and Jay closer and closer together, but it was fate that kindled a friendship. B.I.G. heard the “Brooklyn’s Finest” beat and wanted it for himself.

“You always giving this [guy] everything!” Biggie responded. Clark Kent was Biggie’s DJ, but Kent was also in A&R at Atlantic and was trying to sign Jay-Z. If Big couldn’t have the record, as legend has it, he was going to jump on the record. There was initial hesitation about bringing B.I.G. into the studio, not because Jay-Z didn’t want him on there but because doing so meant doing paperwork with Sean “Puffy” Combs — something Kent remembers then-Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash being against.

“If you can make it happen,” Jay said at the studio session, “it’s all good.”

Meanwhile, Biggie waited nearby in a car for Kent’s call to come inside. People in the studio looked at Kent funny, knowing he had set the meeting up. But the meeting between Biggie and Jay produced instant dividends. There had always been respect between the two — and now they were meeting face-to-face again. Chemistry was immediate. They laughed and dapped countless times, and the lyrical Olympics the two entered into became a story for all time. It was also during the session that Biggie saw Jay record his verses off the top of his head.

“You ready?” Jay asked Biggie from the booth.

“I told you,” Kent said to Biggie, “he don’t write no rhymes.”

Jay and Big were always competitors, but now they were friends. By the end of Biggie’s life, there were serious talks of the two doing a joint album — the original Watch The Throne, if you will, and by far one of the most gut-wrenching what-if scenarios in rap history.

The world kept moving, but his world, the world he and Biggie were supposed to take over together, was crumbling.

The two Brooklyn bombers, part of a collective then known as “The Commission,” officially released only three songs: “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “I Love the Dough” on Biggie’s Life After Death and “Young G’s” from Puffy’s No Way Out. They all were, as Kent has explained, inseparable.

It was a fast-break-like excitement that Wade and James would display nearly 20 years later on and off the court. They were two greats who knew they were great — but at the same time had no clue how powerful their voices would be in American pop cultural history. Both knew the climate of rap in the mid-’90s, how dangerous just existing in rap had become. But they couldn’t have thought it’d come to a head in the early morning hours of March 9, 1997. The end wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Seeing Jay tour the world, release meaningful projects at nearly 50 years old, is mind-numbing. Life goes on, and memories take up residency in the past. But pain travels. Jay was emotionally detached after Big’s death. He had been to only two funerals at that point in his life. The world kept moving, but his world, the world he and Biggie were supposed to take over together, was crumbling. “I remember the first time going out … in the car,” Jay-Z said months after Biggie’s murder. “I wasn’t driving. I was just looking out the window. Everybody was moving … and happy. That’s when I got angry.”


What the deal playboy, just rest your soul
I be holding it down yo, still love the dough …

Got the whole world on lock down you know how we flow
Don’t worry about Brooklyn, I continue to flame
Therefore a world with amnesia won’t forget your name
You held it down long enough, let me take those reins …

— Jay-Z “The City Is Mine” (1997)

LeBron and Wade’s head-to-head battles have produced a world of classics, while their time together as teammates, along with fellow future Hall of Famer Chris Bosh, forever reconfigured basketball’s power structure. With Monday night’s final LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade matchup, there’s a completion there that Biggie and Jay-Z were never afforded.

Jay-Z’s verse on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” is proof that as the elder statesman Biggie never got to be, Jay-Z still holds the game hostage, and B.I.G.’s spirit has been an ever-present theme in Jay’s music — often seeming like a kite sent to a fallen friend. Even Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, says Jay honors her son to this present day. Biggie shouted out Jay on 1997’s “What’s Beef,” and 21 years later, the only homage Jay could return to his friend was lyric of his that he flipped. Hahaha, check out this bizarre / Rapping style used by me/ The H-O-V. It’s beautiful and tragic — a reminder of what was, and what should have been.

There’s real pain in that lyric. Not just because the world lost a great artist but also because Shawn Carter lost a friend. The success he’s had was supposed to happen with Biggie alive and well in the arena. Big never had the chance to work with Pharrell or rap over Soul-Sample Kanye beats or rap alongside young legends like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Nor was he given much of a chance to see how fatherhood and the gift of maturity would have changed his approach to music and the world around him.

Wade, the greatest shooting guard not named Jordan or Bryant to ever live, and James — arguably the greatest, period, to ever set foot on an NBA court — likely don’t see themselves as Jay-Z and Biggie. At their apex, though, Wade and James’ chemistry calls to mind the Brooklyn tag team: the respect, the gamesmanship, the joy with which they dominated. Not to mention the unforgettable highlights. It’s been a blessing to watch James and Wade do what they’ve done for the past 16 seasons. There’s no stone unturned or anything they could’ve done differently to make Monday night’s moment any sweeter.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you, ‘Oh, it’s another one of 82 [games].’ Not it’s not. Not for me,” Wade said. “It’s a game where I get to play against not only one of my best friends but one of the game’s greatest players for the last time. I want to win as a team, but I want to savor the opportunities.”

Cherish Monday night. James and Wade are the brotherhood Jay-Z and Biggie never had the freedom to experience. It’s always been more than a game.

Penny Hardaway on the time Michael Jordan wore Air Flight Ones over his own Concord 11s It’s the only time that Jordan wore another player’s shoe in an NBA game

Michael Jordan had a nickname for Anfernee Hardaway — and it wasn’t Penny.

“He called me ‘Kid,’ ” said Hardaway, at 47 the head coach of the University of Memphis men’s basketball team. It’s been 25 years since Hardaway decided to forgo his senior year at the school — where he’d emerged as a consensus first-team All-American, averaging 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.4 steals a game as a junior — to declare for the 1993 NBA draft. The 6-foot-7, silky smooth point guard had game like Magic Johnson’s, but with far more athleticism. He was taken at No. 3 overall by the Golden State Warriors, a pick that was traded to the Orlando Magic on draft night in a blockbuster deal for the top overall selection, Chris Webber.

Alongside a young and dominant big man in Shaquille O’Neal, Hardaway became the floor general of the future in Orlando. But during the 1993-94 season, his first year in the NBA, he never got a chance to lace ’em up against the greatest hooper on the planet. That’s because on Oct. 6, 1993, a month before Hardaway’s rookie debut, Jordan announced his (first) retirement from the game of basketball to mourn the tragic murder of his father, James Jordan, and pursue a major league baseball career. As Jordan grinded in the minors with a bat and cleats, the 22-year-old Hardaway caught his attention on the hardwood.

Michael Jordan wearing Penny Hardaway’s Nike Air Flight Ones during Game 3 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. The game marked the first and only time in Jordan’s career that he wore another player’s shoe.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“Michael expressed to a lot of people that he had the utmost respect for my game,” Hardaway remembered, “ … and kind of deemed me the next kid coming up in the league.” Eventually, the greatest of all time and the prodigy would meet on the huge stage of the 1995 NBA playoffs. That’s when, for the first and only time in an NBA game during his career, Jordan wore another player’s sneakers. They were Hardaway’s — and this is that story.


Jordan wore them on one condition — without Hardaway’s “1 Cent” on the heel tab of each shoe.

It all began during Hardaway’s rookie season, when all you had to do was look at his feet to know that he had the ultimate co-sign from His Airness. Hardaway, who was signed to Nike, asked if the brand would make him custom pairs of Air Jordan 9s. Jordan obliged, which made the Magic point guard one of the first players in the NBA (outside of Jordan himself) to wear player-exclusive (PE) Air Jordans. Remember — it wasn’t until 1997 that Nike officially launched the Jordan Brand, and Jordan hand-picked the first five players to endorse his products. Hardaway received pairs of Jordan 9 PEs, in black and white, accented with Magic blue and his No. 1 stitched on the heel of each shoe.

“I really liked the shoe,” Hardaway said from his team’s practice facility in Memphis, Tennessee, where he still has one of the original pairs of PEs in the attic of his house. “I liked the look. So I’d asked if I could start getting those with my number. It was pretty cool, actually.” Come Hardaway’s second year in the league, he was the face of the Nike Air Flight One, as the brand crafted his first signature shoe, the Air Max Penny 1, which wouldn’t debut until late 1995.

In March of that year, Jordan returned to the NBA after a 17-month retirement to once again play for the Chicago Bulls. Yet by then, there had been two big changes in the culture of the league. First, Jordan had switched from No. 23 to No. 45, which he wore while playing in the minors. And the Bulls were no longer the beast in the East. The Magic, led by the player Jordan knew was next up, emerged as the conference’s top seed heading into the 1995 playoffs.

“How many pairs do you need? Do you need mine?’ It was like, ‘That’s Michael Jordan … wearing MY shoes.’ ”

The fifth-seeded Bulls advanced to face the Magic during the Eastern Conference semifinals that postseason. And Game 1 on May 7, 1995, yielded one of the most iconic sneaker debuts: Jordan broke out the “Concord” Air Jordan 11s — the first shoe in basketball history to incorporate patent leather. The Concords would ultimately become the culture’s grail after they first dropped at retail in November 1995. But Hardaway got his hands on them early.

“I remember asking for a pair right before that series started,” Hardaway said of the Concords, which the Jordan Brand rereleases Saturday — with the No. 45 on the heels for the first time. “I got some and wore them to games throughout the whole series. … I was in awe of how great the shoe looked. The patent leather on there was unreal. It was futuristic, you know? That shoe was phenomenal.”

During his 1993-94 rookie season, Penny Hardaway wore player exclusive editions of the Air Jordan 9 — including in this game between the Orlando Magic and Washington Bullets on Jan. 29, 1994.

Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Hardaway recalls wearing his Concords (which had No. 23 on the heels, not No. 45 like Jordan’s pair) in practice during the series, but he said he never considered rocking them in a game. “It wouldn’t have felt right,” he said. Perhaps that’s because there was some drama surrounding the shoe. After debuting them in Chicago’s 94-91 loss to Orlando in Game 1, Jordan wore the Concords again in Game 2. But this time with his No. 23 jersey, to which he’d returned, likely in response to the shade heard ’round the basketball world — “No. 45 is not No. 23.” — delivered by Orlando’s Nick Anderson in the locker room after the series opener.

“You kind of thought that was gonna happen. We whispered things like, ‘At some point during the playoffs, he’s gonna come out in 23’ — and he did,” Hardaway said. “Nick and I have never talked about his comments. But M.J. doesn’t miss anything. He’ll use anything as motivation. … It was about … ‘This is who I am. I’m not No. 45. That was baseball. Now I’m back to being who I am: No. 23.’ And he had a monster game in Game 2.” Jordan dropped 38 points, with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals and 4 blocks, propelling Chicago to even the series at 1-1.

After two games in the Concords, Jordan was slapped with a $5,000 fine by the NBA for wearing the primarily white shoes, which violated the league’s uniform guidelines by not conforming to his team’s jerseys or footwear. So before Game 3, Jordan had a decision to make. With a primarily black version of the Air Jordan 11 not yet available to him, which sneakers would he wear? Jordan could’ve returned to the Air Jordan 10 or any of his other iconic silhouettes. But instead, Jordan paid homage to the kid — taking the court for Game 3 at Chicago’s United Center in a pair of Hardaway’s Nike Air Flight Ones.

“It was very weird,” Hardaway said.

All you had to do was look at Hardaway’s feet during his rookie season to know he had the ultimate co-sign from His Airness.

The story of Jordan and the Air Flight Ones has often been chronicled — but the tales contrast. Some say he borrowed a pair of Hardaway’s personal shoes. Others detail an agreement between Jordan and Hardaway for the greatest of all time to wear the youngster’s kicks. The question is, how did Jordan actually get a pair of the Air Flight Ones — especially on such short notice?

“He’s Michael Jordan. He was the man. He didn’t ask me for them. He just told Nike to give them to him,” Hardaway said. “He said, ‘Hey, man, give me some of the kid’s shoes.’ I thought, Of course … how many pairs do you need? Do you need mine? It was like, ‘That’s Michael Jordan … wearing MY shoes.’ ”

Jordan apparently wore them on one condition — without Hardaway’s “1 Cent” on the heel tab of each shoe, which he allegedly cut off before playing. Yet to this day, Hardaway can’t confirm that part of the story. “I didn’t notice he cut the 1 Cent tab off,” he said. “I haven’t noticed it’s gone in the older pictures. I just notice the shoe … but maybe he did.”

With Hardaway’s shoes on his feet, Jordan dazzled in Game 3 with a series-high 40 points. And on that night, he made sneaker history in another player’s shoes — which would never happen again in Jordan’s career. It’s a moment Hardaway says he’ll always cherish. “We all know that Michael Jordan is one of the fiercest competitors ever. He’s not gonna wear just anybody’s shoe … he wouldn’t do that for a lot of people,” Hardaway said. “For him to do that for me, it was the ultimate level of respect.”

Black artists get the noms, but not necessarily the trophies at Grammy Awards Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B and their fans shouldn’t get hopes up if Grammys history is any indication

The nominations for the Grammy Awards are in, and there’s historic news: Of the eight nominees for the prestigious album of the year Grammy, six are hip-hop/rhythm and blues.

The nominees are: Invasion of Privacy from Cardi B, By The Way, I Forgive You from Brandi Carlile, Scorpion from Drake, H.E.R. from H.E.R., Beerbongs & Bentleys from Post Malone, Dirty Computer from Janelle Monáe, Golden Hour from Kacey Musgraves, Black Panther: The Album, Music From And Inspired By from “Various Artists,” but truly a Kendrick Lamar-curated project on which he appears a great deal.

Simply not winning these awards would be travesty enough for black artists, but the way the shows are promoted only add to the insult.

Lamar leads all artists with eight nominations with Drake right behind him at seven. Cardi B and H.E.R. each earned five nominations. Social media is already abuzz about the representation of black performers and women of color in the nominations this year.

However, this type of enthusiasm occurs every time nominations come out, and it often gives way to a letdown on awards night. It’s hard to imagine, despite the odds, that this year will be any different, thanks to the Grammy Awards’ decades-long history of shortchanging black acts even as these same artists’ performances are promoted for TV ratings. So yes, while the unprecedented three women of color being nominated for album of the year Friday is causing excitement among their fans and black fans in general, it’s probably best to tempter expectations. Because if the history of this show is any indication, we’re only setting ourselves up for disappointment in February.

And here’s why …

There have been very few cultural moments like the one that happened on April 23, 2016, for the epic music video/HBO movie premiere/album release for Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It marked a singular moment of social media togetherness to and for the consumption of black women full of empowerment, healing, hurt, twirled bats and sexiness. For one hour, the entire music world was captivated by Beyoncé’s work of genius, at one point writing an open letter to her cheating husband (the also megapopular nigh-billionaire Jay-Z, of course) and soothing over the generational scabs America has inflicted on black women all while putting together one of her most complete works of art to date.

As soon as the movie was over and Beyhive (we were all members of the Beyhive that night) flocked to our respective streaming sites of choice to find the album, I sent out a tweet about an article I’d have to write in a few months. “Working on Think Piece #6,” I wrote in reference to all of the fodder for literary thought I got from Lemonade. “Why Adele shouldn’t have won the 2017 Album Of The Year Grammy over Beyoncé.”

Of course, we know what eventually happened. Beyoncé was nominated for nine Grammys related to Lemonade in 2017 and won only two: best music video for “Formation” and best urban contemporary album. Adele, meanwhile, won the big awards, including album of the year — tearfully accepting it while bemoaning the fact that she herself believed Beyoncé should have won: “I can’t possibly accept this award, and I’m very humbled, and I’m very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé.”

No, it didn’t take a supernatural soothsaying ability for me to predict what would happen at the 2017 Grammys. But, as often is the case, history is greatest fortune-teller. And history tells us that black artists get relegated to minor awards and categories reserved for black or “urban” artists while everyone else gets to enjoy the biggest trophies for the night.

Photo by Dan MacMedan/WireImage

The three biggest Grammy Award categories are album, record and song of the year and the black win-loss record in these categories is strikingly abysmal.

Pharrell’s record of the year win with Daft Punk in 2014 for “Get Lucky” and Beyoncé’s 2010 win for song of the year for “Single Ladies” are the only black award winners in any of the three top categories since 2006. There have only been three projects from black artists to win album of the year in the 21st century. Only one of those albums, Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is from black people under the age of 65. The other two being Herbie Hancock’s 2008 award for River: The Joni Letters and Ray Charles’ 2005 album Genius Loves Company. Lauryn Hill is the last black woman to win a Grammy for album of the year for Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999.

When black people do win Grammys, it is in separate-but-equal categories that signify the awards are essentially for black artists. Beyoncé has won 22 Grammys in her career, including as part of Destiny’s Child, and only four of those Grammy Awards don’t have the words “R&B” or “Urban” (or both) in them. She has come away empty-handed on the 21 other nominations that don’t have those words. Neither Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne nor Drake have won any awards outside of the “Rap” category. 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy have never won Grammys in any category.

The award shows owe their popularity, ratings and attention to the black artists who end up with just participation trophies in the end.

Simply not winning these awards would be travesty enough for black artists, but the way the shows are promoted only add to the insult. Every year, black artists, boosted by their high nomination totals, are given prominent performance spots in the show, only to get shut out of the big awards.

In 2018, Lamar was the buzz artist with seven nominations for his DAMN. album. He was marketed ahead of time as the performer to open the Grammys. He stole the show but only won Grammys for rap categories, which was similar to 2016, when he was nominated 11 times and didn’t win anything but rap performances despite another electrifying performance.

Black artists such as Lamar, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and West have either outright led or tied for the most nominations every year since 2012 (Eminem led with 10 in 2011), have been championed for those accomplishments, put on monumental performances under the auspices that this could be their year, only to be ignored when it was time to hand out the major trophies.

The award shows owe their popularity, ratings and attention to the black artists who end up with just participation trophies in the end. And that begs the question: Why do black artists even bother with the Grammys? I’m not the first to ask this question, as some have flirted with boycotting the program for decades. Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff led a boycott of the 1989 Grammys when it was announced that no rap awards would be televised. “You go to school for 12 years,” Smith said at the time. “They give you your diploma, and they deny you that walk down the aisle.”

In 1991, as M.C. Hammer was winning a Grammy for best rap album, Public Enemy was choosing to boycott for the same reasons Smith and Jeff did two years before. In 1999, Jay-Z began a boycott of the awards for DMX’s It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot not getting nominated. In 2014, Macklemore posted a public apology via text message to Lamar for preposterously beating the Compton, California, MC for best rap album.

And finally, a few months ago, Jay-Z seemed to send out a hint that he would be reigniting his disdain to the Grammys: “f— that 0 for 8 s—,” in response to him getting shut out this year. Maybe his statement is the beginning of a sentiment that he nor Beyoncé need the awards. And he’d be absolutely right. Because the truth is evident: Neither black people nor black art needs the Grammys.

Lemonade is a transcendent piece of art that gives black women in particular the type of joy and affirmation that only black art can give them. Her self-titled album from 2013 revolutionized the way artists put out music. Lamar’s first three albums are the type of consciously-aware rap music fans dreamed could top the charts one day.

Jay-Z is one of the greatest songwriters. Ever. West has produced the soundtracks to the 21st century. Have you seen an Essence Festival crowd sing along to Mary J. Blige? Have you seen entire stadiums and clubs explode when Drake’s music comes on? Do you understand 2-Pac and Biggie’s legacies? These artists have impacted the culture, and most specifically black culture, in ways that surpass the validation the Grammys provide.

I understand the desire to be recognized for your art on the same level as counterparts, especially white counterparts. But history tells us that it’s all a waste of time to persuade these voters to give black art its just due. If black people stopped caring about the Grammys, the effect it would have on the legitimacy of the awards would do far more damage than the loss of legitimacy felt from not winning year in and year out. Beyoncé losing out to Adele doesn’t harm Beyoncé’s career. It just makes the Grammys look silly because the black artists and culture that follow them hold the power of public opinion over an increasingly archaic award.

So feel free to be happy that Lamar, Drake or Cardi B have the potential to win a ton of awards in February, or that we may get our first black woman this century to hold up an album of the year award to close the show. But just know that it’s also OK to accept the brilliant art for what it is without giving increasingly meaningless awards the time of day. It deserves your attention less and less after every unjustifiable snub.

Suzan-Lori Parks collects the Steinberg prize for playwriting Anointed by James Baldwin himself, Parks continues to mischievously break boundaries

NEW YORK — Honored for a career of audacious, one-of-a-kind work Monday night, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks thanked her creative writing professor from Mount Holyoke College, the late James Baldwin.

“Suzan-Lori,” Baldwin had written on Parks’ evaluation, “is an astonishing and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.”

“I’ve been working all these years to prove him right because I don’t have the heart to prove him wrong,” Parks told a roomful of theater luminaries who had gathered to see her presented with the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, the second-most prestigious playwriting award after the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, Parks, 55, has already won the Pulitzer. She got it in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog, becoming the first black woman to win the award for playwriting.

“I won a Pulitzer a looong time ago,” Parks told me. “It was 2002. It’s like the Buddhists say: After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Meaning after the great thing happens, what do you do? You go back to your daily work.”

Her acceptance speech was loaded with her trademark mirth — Parks dabbed when she recounted being chosen for Baldwin’s creative writing class. She also recalled how his approval provided more than emotional support. When she first moved to New York as an unknown playwright, there were no reviews of earlier work to send to the press with the announcement of her new work. But she had an endorsement from the nation’s most incisive and elegant writer on race: Baldwin. So the quote from his evaluation of her college work was put in the press packet.

Playwright and honoree Suzan-Lori Parks (left) and her husband, Christian Konopka, perform at the 2018 Steinberg Playwright Awards at Lincoln Center Theater.

Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Steinberg Playwright Awards

Parks’ work, as Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis described it, is “nuts.” Eustis was specifically referring to Parks’ decision in 2002-03 to write 365 plays in 365 days, which the Public later agreed to mount. Some were only a page long; one of Parks’ producers informed me that Parks had decided that for a play to be a play, the production really only needed a door. Besides her stunning, yearlong creative marathon, Parks also has written in the lobby of the Public Theater, even holding workshops with other writers — sort of a playwriting twist on the Marina Abramović work The Artist is Present. It’s as much a performance piece as any of her plays, and she titled the enterprise Watch Me Work.

“Her boundary-breaking is joyous and mischievous,” Eustis said.

In the Newhouse Theater on Monday evening, actors Amari Cheatom, Brandon J. Dirden, Crystal Dickinson and Roslyn Ruff read excerpts from Topdog/Underdog (1999), Getting Mother’s Body (a 2003 novel), The Book of Grace (2010) and Parks’ latest work, White Noise, which will debut at the Public Theater in 2019.

Parks writes black characters who face racism and poverty but also demand joy for themselves. They are equal parts crafty and sentimental, like Billy Beede, the pregnant, 16-year-old heroine of Getting Mother’s Body, Parks’ take on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is told through the eyes of a black Texas family.

Parks opened the evening with a performance. Her husband, Christian Konopka, accompanied her on guitar as she strummed her own and sang a folk tune she’d written for 2015’s Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3). Parks had shed her purple velvet platform sandals, walked up to the center of the stage in bare feet and performed in a black dress with a sheer overlay of purple and yellow pansies. Her locs hung down to her waist. The couple lives in a one-bedroom apartment in New York with their 7-year-old son, who, Parks told the audience, “loves pie.”

The evening was a celebration of artsy black girl brilliance. Parks explained that when she moved to New York, she crashed with Laurie Carlos, the actress who originated the role of Woman in Blue in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Shange was only the second black woman after Lorraine Hansberry to have a work mounted on Broadway.

Honoree Suzan-Lori Parks (left) and Lee Daniels attend the 2018 Steinberg Playwright Awards at Lincoln Center Theater.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Steinberg Playwright Awards

“What impacted me most was Topdog/Underdog,” The Butler director Lee Daniels told me. “That just sent my head spinning.” Topdog/Underdog bubbles with improbable hilarity: Its two main characters are black brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln makes his living as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who will gladly take money from anyone who wants to pretend to shoot him in the head.

Daniels is now collaborating with Parks (who also wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s Girl 6) on a new film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Parks wrote the screenplay, and Daniels is directing.

“It’s been a great working experience,” Daniels said. “I flew out from Los Angeles just to see her get this award because I’m so honored to be working with her.

“As a woman and as a black person, she brings the American experience to the world.”

New film star KiKi Layne of ‘Beale Street’? Yes, we love her In this film, the innocence of black love in some ways counters the criminalization of blackness

As you likely know by now, KiKi Layne turned in a most excellent performance in Barry JenkinsIf Beale Street Could Talk. Folks are in awe of her dramatic delivery as lead character Tish, and even more so considering the fact that this is her first film.

Layne, 26, already has earned her first awards show nomination at the Gotham Awards last month, and surely there are more on the way. Much of what Layne is going through right now feels like what Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o experienced in the wake of her performance in Steve McQueen’s gripping 12 Years A Slave (2013). In Layne, we’re introduced to another young actor who brings emotionally layered context to a part of the black experience in a way that stays with you long after the credits roll.

“I’m just trying to soak it all in and take it one day at a time, because it can get overwhelming,” said the Cincinnati native. “There’s just so many new things happening so fast. … Even when people keep talking about awards season … I’m just like, ‘Well, right now, in this moment, and on today, this is what I’m taking care of.’ ”

Instagram Photo

That game plan appears to be working out nicely. Beale Street, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 book of the same name, is finally out in limited release after much anticipation. The hype is merited — it’s already critically acclaimed, and even though it’s a ’70s story of a black man wrongly accused of a heinous crime, it’s eerily contemporary. Layne landed the role last fall after besting more than 300 women whom Jenkins auditioned for the part. He was blown away by Layne’s reading.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the most experienced actress or least experienced. If you give an audition or performance that shows me the character, then we’re gonna go down the road. And with KiKi, she just had this duality, where she could be very young, innocent,” Jenkins said. “So many of the things in the film she’s experiencing for the first time, and yet [the character] still often speaks, especially in the voice-over, with this voice of a woman, someone who’s evolved because of these experiences.”

Much of the storyline feels like it was written to reflect the headlines that dominate today’s news cycle. It’s one of the reasons the film resonates the way it does — and one of the reasons that, quite frankly, the film is so piercing and just gut-punches moviegoers the way that it does. But what overrides the trauma of being persecuted just for being black is an intensely gorgeous love story of a young black couple. In this film, the innocence of black love in some ways counters the criminalization of blackness.

“The way that James Baldwin is able to think about injustice and issues in the world and in the black community … it’s so special,” said Layne. “But then to see the way that he could talk about love, and that the love isn’t lost even though you see these people going through these really tragic circumstances, that is what stood out to me and made me like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be a part of this film.’ ”


Layne attended performing arts school in Cincinnati, starting when she was 7. She headed to Chicago to attend DePaul University and studied acting there. She had her family’s blessing from early on, and it mattered. “It’s cute to be doing it in elementary and high school,” said Layne, “but when you’re talking about spending thousands of dollars to do it, now hold on!”

Layne paid careful attention to Angela Bassett, Will Smith and, because she was obsessed with Brandy Norwood, Moesha. Seeing a young brown girl live out her performing arts dreams was inspirational. It let her know there might be space for her out there. Representation matters.

“I remember when everything was first happening for Lupita, what it meant to see someone who looked like me doing this on the level that I’d always dreamt of doing it,” Layne said. “And especially coming out and being a romantic lead, playing a character who is loved that much, for a black actress with my complexion doesn’t happen very often. … [As] Barry said at one of our Q&As recently, ‘It’s not lost on us, the power of the image of these two, young, chocolate people loving each other.’ ”

She noted that her hair is out in this film, that she barely has on any makeup in the film. “It’s not lost on me that there are black girls out there that are going to see that, and I hope they recognize that they deserve to be loved that hard.”

And like Nyong’o, she’s being well-received by a fashion world historically unkind to black women — and dark-skinned black women in particular. “That still is definitely something that wows me. Every single time I wear some of these designers, I’m like, ‘What? Do they know who I am? OK, cool.’ It’s not lost on me the lack of images of black women who look like me being in these types of gowns and living in them and living in ourselves.”

And Beale Street isn’t the only project she has on deck. In 2019 comes Native Son, from beloved scribe Richard Wright. It’ll be a modern reimagining of the much-studied novel. That film is done and will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “The thing most important to me,” said Layne, “is just trying to broaden my audience, because definitely Beale Street and Native Son speak to basically the same audience. I want a career that’s filled with variety, all types of roles, because that’s the fun of acting.”

In truth, there’s no real way to prepare for going from obscurity to overnight marvel, but Layne is on top of it. “The thing that I’m getting reminded of by family, friends, supporters, cast members, is that if I wasn’t supposed to be here, then I wouldn’t be here. If God hadn’t blessed me, equipped me with the things that I needed to succeed on this level, then I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “I am where I am prepared to be.”

HBO’s ‘Say Her Name’ has few answers about what happened to Sandra Bland But new documentary gives her a voice, even in death

The mother of Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after being hauled there for back-talking a police officer during a traffic stop, still doesn’t believe her daughter took her own life. In a new documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premieres Monday on HBO, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner follow the Bland family as they attempt to get answers about what happened.

Bland, 28, was starting a new life and career at her alma mater Prairie View A&M when she was pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on July 12, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. Camera footage from the stop shows that Bland was compliant, but apparently insufficiently deferential to Encinia. He arrested her and took her to the Waller County jail, where she was charged with assaulting a law enforcement official.

Three days later, Bland was dead. A state autopsy and an independent autopsy concluded she died by asphyxiation, the result of hanging herself in her cell with a noose made from plastic garbage can liners. The independent coroner, in presenting her findings to the Bland family, surmises that law enforcement was indirectly responsible for Bland’s death — “Someone’s spirit can be broken in a short amount of time,” she said.

Bland’s death highlighted the fact that unjustified police violence, followed by character assassination via media release, is not only experienced by black men and boys.

The circumstances surrounding Bland’s death are still characterized by frustrating uncertainty. A jail employee who was supposed to check on Bland every hour while she was in solitary confinement falsified official reports of his work. He simply didn’t bother to walk down the hall to check that Bland was alive, but marked that he had.

Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith insists that Bland’s death had nothing to do with race. The state trooper who reached into Bland’s car to drag her out of her vehicle, as captured by dashcam and bystander phone camera footage, faced infuriatingly few repercussions. A grand jury indicted Encinia on a perjury charge that was later dismissed after he agreed not to work in law enforcement again. He was fired from his job as a state trooper, and that was it.

A makeshift memorial to Sandra Bland.

Courtesy of HBO

While the filmmakers gesture at broader issues of race and policing in Waller County, a couple of threads would have benefited from further exploration. Waller County is home to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college. A Prairie View resident proclaims that the jurisdiction is overpoliced by five different law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff, state troopers, Prairie View police, and campus police. I wish Davis and Heilbroner had followed up with statistics comparing arrests in Prairie View with the larger, whiter community of Waller County at large.

Similarly, the film mentions that the Hempstead City Council fired Sheriff Smith from his previous job as Hempstead police chief due to complaints of misconduct and racial bias, but doesn’t provide further details. Smith was subsequently elected as county sheriff anyway.

Although Say Her Name leaves gaps in reporting the context of institutionalized racism that ultimately doomed Bland, it successfully communicates that she was a woman who was well aware of racial injustice and had a fierce passion for fighting it. The most compelling, but also heartbreaking, elements of Say Her Name are the Facebook videos Bland recorded on her phone to educate her friends and community about racism. She called them “Sandy Speaks.”

Bland talked about black-on-black crime. She blamed racism on both black and white people, saying both groups needed to make more friends across racial lines. She also cheerfully referred to the black people watching her videos as “kings” and “queens.” She was dedicated to educating herself and others — she recorded one video from the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, radiant with pride and enthusiasm.

“Sandy is gonna speak whenever I see something wrong,” Bland informed her audience. More than anything, the value in Say Her Name lies in its refusal to allow Bland to be silenced, even in death.