A$AP Rocky case shows the discomfort of fighting for freedom Wanting black folks free means freeing even those we disagree with

Grammy-nominated Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky (real name Rakim Athelaston Mayers) has spent the past three weeks in a Swedish jail. He was arrested on July 3 after a now-viral video allegedly showed the MC and his entourage beating up two men. In the multiple videos of the incident to hit the internet — Rocky himself released two to tell his side of the story — the two alleged victims are seen following Rocky and his crew, refusing to leave them alone, before the attack transpired. But cooler heads did not prevail, and Rocky’s crew is seen punching and kicking the two men. Rocky himself tosses one man, sending him flying before he crashes down on the street.

Rapper A$AP Rocky speaks at the 2019 SXSW Festival Featured Session: Using Design “Differently” to Make a Difference on March 11 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

While Rocky’s video did garner him some sympathy — he is, after all, seen trying to defuse the situation before any blows land — it hasn’t gotten him out of jail. Now, Rocky’s arrest and impending July 30 trial have become the focal point of an international debate over prison reform, race and politics, a debate that has involved everyone from Rocky’s rap peers to fans bombarding trending Twitter hashtags with demands for his release to Kim Kardashian and even President Donald Trump. All of this is intersecting with Rocky’s past comments and the realization that freedom for all also means freedom for people we don’t always agree with or even like.

One reason so many rallied behind Rocky was that he was held in jail for weeks before even being charged with a crime. One of the touchstones of prison reform, in America especially, is that in America alone there are more than half a million people in jail, mostly minorities, who have yet to be charged. They’re in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to pay for bail. The most infamous example is Kalief Browder, the New York teenager who was jailed in Rikers Island for three years in a minor theft case because he couldn’t make bail. He was the victim of brutal violence and spent two years in solitary confinement. After being released, he committed suicide in 2015 and is the focus of a Jay-Z documentary.

Additionally, sources told TMZ that Rocky was being held in abhorrent conditions in Sweden — unclean rooms with feces on the walls, he was eating only an apple a day and sleeping on a yoga mat — and we have the makings of a human rights story that shows how incarcerated people are treated across the world. The widespread support for Rocky, however, has waned in the past few days, as an old interview of his surfaced in which he disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and said he’d rather talk about fashion than liberating black folks:

Demonstrators hold aloft a symbolic coffin bearing Kalief Browder’s name as they rally near the gate of City Hall in New York on Feb. 23, 2016. About a dozen prison reform activists demanded the closing of the long-controversial Rikers Island Corrections facility, where Browder was held.

Photo by Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

“So every time something happens because I’m black I gotta stand up? What the f— am I? Al Sharpton? I’m A$AP Rocky. I did not sign up to be no political activist. I wanna talk about my … lean, my best friend dying, the girls that come in and out of my life, the jiggy fashion that I wear, my new inspirations in drugs! I don’t wanna talk about … Ferguson … because I don’t live over there! I live in f—ing SoHo and Beverly Hills. I can’t relate.”

For many, this was quite the karmic treat. A man who didn’t believe in the most prominent black liberation movement of his lifetime is suddenly in need of help from the activists he would have continued to ignore had he not been incarcerated. And while the schadenfreude is quite delicious to some, that shouldn’t mean that anyone should feel less obligated to find justice for the rapper if they believe he is truly being mistreated. Wanting black folks free means freeing even those black folks we disagree with — even black folks who don’t care about extending that freedom to the rest of us. A$AP Rocky deserves the same revolutionary acts of liberation and kindness we extend to any other incarcerated people, regardless of his stupid comments on activism.

Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served.

Rocky’s situation has been further complicated in recent days by newly converted social justice activist Kardashian lobbying for Trump to get involved. Trump responded by tweeting out support for Rocky, directing aggressive tweets toward the Swedish prime minister and stating that “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States.”

So to recap, we have a man in jail who has expressed ambivalence about black liberation movements being supported by a woman who has made a career mining black culture for her own gain and who asked for help from a president who went on a racist outburst just last week demanding that four Democratic congresswomen go back to the countries they “came from.” The rest of us have been handed a cocktail of race, entertainment and politics in which we’re left wondering whether the enemies of our enemies are really our friends and which side is right here.

In the end, there should be only one winner: justice. Despite A$AP Rocky’s dispiriting comments and his strange bedfellows, he should be treated fairly and justice should be served. Because so often, our black and brown brothers and sisters are denied their rights. Of course, if we can extend the resources of Kardashian and the president to get one black man free, then it should be no problem to find the same justice for the Kalief Browders of the world. Then we can really talk about what liberation looks like.

Westbrook, Harden, D-Wade and more pay tribute to Nipsey Hussle through sneakers The slain rapper’s funeral is set for April 11 at Staples Center

A week has passed since Ermias Asghedom — aka the Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle — was shot and killed in the parking lot outside of his clothing store in Los Angeles. He was 33. The painful loss of Hussle, whose legacy transcends music, has resonated with many, and that’s because he was also an entrepreneur, a community leader, a loving partner, a father and much more. Notably, condolences have come from the NBA community, which had embraced Hussle as an avid fan and courtside stalwart.

“So so SAD man!! DAMN man this hurt,” tweeted LeBron James, minutes after Hussle’s death was reported on March 31. Days later, the King pulled up to Staples Center (where a memorial service will be held for Hussle on Thursday) repping Nip before the Lakers faced the Golden State Warriors in their first home game following the tragedy. James wore a T-shirt featuring the cover illustration from Nipsey’s 2013 compilation albums, Nip Hussle the Great Vols. 1 & 2.

James was far from the first in the NBA to pay his respects. Across the league, a collection of players, and even a coach turned to their sneakers and other team paraphernalia to honor Hussle with handwritten messages, lyrics from his songs and custom art. Whether created with a Sharpie, or paint, shoes became the go-to form of expressing sympathy. Here are 14 NBA sneaker tributes spotted last week.


Montrezl Harrell & Lou WIlliams

The sneakers worn by Montrezl Harrell of the Los Angeles Clippers featuring a tribute to rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was killed in a shooting outside his clothing store in Los Angeles on March 31. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Hours after Hussle was killed, the Los Angeles Clippers had a game at Staples Center against the Memphis Grizzlies. Fourth-year Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell wanted to ensure that the organization — one of two NBA franchises, along with the Lakers, that play in Nip’s hometown of L.A. — acknowledged him in the arena on the night his life ended. He reached out to team officials and requested a video tribute that played at both the start and end of the evening. Harrell also asked for a custom jersey to be made with “HUSSLE” printed on the back overtop of his No. 5. During the game, Harrell wore a pair of Reebok Questions on which he wrote, “R.I.P. Nipsey — 8/15/85-3/31/19.” Clippers sixth man Lou Williams also penned “Money Making NIP” on his pair of Peak Streetball Masters. “For [Hussle’s] life to be taken, basically where he was born and raised, it’s tough,” Harrell told reporters after the game. “It’s a sad day, man.”

Kawhi Leonard

The sneakers worn by Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors before a game against the Orlando Magic on April 1 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Ron Turenne/NBAE Via Getty Images

Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

In December 2017, about a month before he became a brand ambassador for Puma, Hussle appeared in a Foot Locker x Jordan Brand commercial alongside 2014 NBA champion and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The day after Nip’s death, Leonard honored his fellow L.A. native on a pair of his New Balance OMN1s by adding “IP” after the brand’s block “N” logo to spell Nip. On the midsole of his left shoe, the Toronto Raptors All-Star forward also included “All Money In” — the name of Hussle’s record label, and the shortened version of his mantra, “All Money In, No Money Out.”

Dwyane Wade

The sneakers worn by Dwyane Wade with a message commemorating rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed on March 31, before a game between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on April 1 in Boston. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On his final night playing the Celtics at Boston’s TD Garden, the soon-to-be-retired Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade wrote “Nipsey Hussle — Rest in Heaven” with a Sharpie on the left shoe of a pair of his Li-Ning Way of Wade 7s. Wade intentionally wore blue and yellow sneakers to represent the colors of Crenshaw High School, located in the neighborhood where Hussle grew up and endlessly repped in through his music and clothing line.

Whether created with a Sharpie, or paint, shoes became the go-to form of expressing sympathy.

Russell Westbrook

The sneakers worn by Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 2 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Before every game no matter what, Russell Westbrook writes the initials of his childhood friend and high school teammate Khelcey Barrs III, who died during a pickup game in 2004 at the age of 16. Westbrook recently lost another friend in Hussle, who helped the star Oklahoma City point guard and his Why Not? Foundation give back to the community in their hometown of Los Angeles on Thanksgiving in 2016. (There’s also a photo of Westbrook and Hussle embracing on the court at Staples Center during 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend in L.A.) Ahead of a game against the Lakers on April 2 — Westbrook’s first time playing since Hussle was killed — he neatly jotted “NH Nip” next to “KB3” on his pair of Pokemon-inspired player exclusive (PE) Why Not Zer0.2s. Westbrook rapped the words from Hussle’s 2018 track “Grinding All My Life” on the bench before taking the court and having himself a historic night with 20 points, 21 assists and 20 rebounds. He became only the second player in NBA history, and first since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, to put up a 20-20-20 stat line. And of course, Westbrook dedicated the performance to one person. “That wasn’t for me,” he said after the game. “That was for Nipsey, man.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

The sneakers worn by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 2 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Westbrook wasn’t the only player to commemorate Hussle on a pair of shoes at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena two days after his death. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also wrote “Rest Easy Nipsey” on his Nike KD 11s.

Danny Green

The sneakers worn by Danny Green of the Toronto Raptors during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on April 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Both Nip and Toronto Raptors guard Danny Green were ambassadors for the German sportswear brand Puma. So it was only right that Green used a black pair of Puma Clyde Courts as a canvas to pay tribute to “Ermias Asghedom,” which he wrote under “R.I.P” on the outside of his left shoe for a game against the Brooklyn Nets. Green also penned Hussle’s full name on the other shoe in Tigrinya — the official language of Eritrea — as a nod to the late rapper’s African roots.

DeMar DeRozan

The sneakers worn by DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs during a game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 2 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

The sneakers worn by DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs during a game against the Denver Nuggets on April 3 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Back-to-back games for the San Antonio Spurs allowed four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, to honor Nip twice. And he did so fittingly with editions of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s signature Nikes. For a game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 2, DeRozan wrote “Crenshaw” on a pair of Kobe 11s before taking the court the next night vs. the Nuggets with “RIP NIP VICTORY LAP” scribed on a pair of Kobe 4 Protros. DeRozan showed the utmost respect to his fallen L.A. brother, who often expressed how much he loved the NBA star’s game.

Isaiah Thomas

In April 2017, while playing for the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas wrote messages on a pair of Nike Kobe A.Ds to grieve the horrific loss of his sister Chyna, who was killed in a one-car accident at the age of 22. “When I got the news yesterday before the game it reminded me when I got the news about my sister,” Thomas wrote in an Instagram post after Hussle was killed. Now a member of the Denver Nuggets, Thomas was a huge fan of the West Coast rapper, who shared a mutual admiration for the 5-foot-9-inch point guard. Just last year, Bleacher Report detailed how the careers of both Thomas and Hussle took off around the same time. Similar to how he remembered his sister on the court two years ago, Thomas paid tribute to Nip on his Nike Kobe 4 Protros during Denver’s April 2 game against the Spurs (the same night DeRozan inked up the same shoes). It’s also worth noting that Thomas’ last five Instagram posts have all been dedicated to Hussle.

Irv Roland

Irv Roland, a player development coach for the Houston Rockets, and the personal trainer of reigning NBA MVP James Harden, commissioned sneaker artist Cory Bailey, aka Sierato, to craft a custom pair of Nipsey Hussle-themed Adidas Harden Vol. 3s. Roland wore them when the Rockets played the Clippers in L.A. on April 3. Here’s a dope video in which Sierato shows his process of painting the shoe that feature two hand-drawn portraits of Nip:

D.J. Wilson

The sneakers worn by D.J. Wilson of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 4 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Heroes get remembered, but like second-year Milwaukee Bucks forward D.J. Wilson wrote on the side of his Nike Kobe A.Ds before an April 4 game against the Philadelphia 76ers — “Legends neva Die!!!” He also added “Long Live Nip” and “TMC,” which stands “The Marathon Continues,” Hussle’s oft-used motto and the name of a mixtape he dropped in 2011.

Sterling Brown

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“Rest up, Nip.” 🏁

A post shared by SLAM x KICKS (@slamkicks) on Apr 4, 2019 at 6:54pm PDT

Another Nipsey Hussle tribute by another Puma athlete. This time it came on the brand’s latest basketball sneaker — named the Uproar Spectra — which Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown helped debut on NBA hardwood in the lead-up to the April 12 release. “Rest up Nip,” Sterling Brown wrote on one shoe. “Salute.”

Jordan Bell

Sierato followed up the pair he did for Roland with a custom job on some Nike PG 2.5s for Golden State Warriors forward Jordan Bell. Nip would’ve loved that blue.

Spencer Dinwiddie

The sneakers worn by Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets during a game against the Indiana Pacers on April 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Spencer Dinwiddie collaborated with Troy Cole, an artist known in the sneaker world as Kickasso, for a custom pair of the Brooklyn Nets sixth man’s own brand of K8IROS shoes, which were painted beautifully with illustrations of Hussle. Dinwiddie is a part of the long list of NBA players who hail from Los Angeles. So when he shared photos of the shoes on social media, he made his connection to both the city and Nip known. “Fun fact,” Dinwiddie wrote in an Instagram post. “We went to the same grade school 🙏🏾.”

James Harden

The sneakers worn by James Harden of the Houston Rockets during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 3 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

No NBA player shared a bond with Hussle quite like Houston Rockets star James Harden. Back in October 2016, when he returned to his hometown for a matchup with the Lakers at Staples, Hussle came through to support, wearing a pair of Harden’s first signature sneakers to the game. Less than two years later, on the night Harden was named the 2018 NBA MVP, Hussle joined him to celebrate, taking Instagram videos with the man of the hour and his new trophy. They both deemed each other L.A. legends, so when the news of Nip’s death reached Harden, he was devastated. “It doesn’t seem real,” said Harden after the Rockets played the Clippers in L.A. on April 3. That night, he wore a gold pair of his Harden Vol. 3s, on which he wrote a few Nip-inspired messages, including the word “Prolific,” a reference to opening of the 2018 track “Victory Lap” — I’m prolific, so gifted / I’m the type that’s gon’ go get it. Harden rapped the line in the tunnel of the arena before taking the floor and dropping a game-high 31 points. During a postgame interview, one reporter asked Harden about his Instagram post from the previous day that featured a photo of him and Hussle with the caption, “BRO!!!! Where did you go?? We had some s— we was working on!!!! Please don’t leave. ON GOD imma make sure I finish what we started.” What did Harden mean? What exactly were they working on together? “You’ll see,” he responded.

Much hated-on LeBron James is living his ‘Kingdom Come’ season Can he bring his own ‘American Gangster’ to the Lakers?

Hours before the Los Angeles Lakers’ thrilling 129-128 road victory on Feb. 7 over the Boston Celtics, the last bright spot of the Lakers’ season, LeBron James brooded. Though title aspirations were faint, his team was then 27-27 and in playoff contention.

“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” James told Masslive.com after a shootaround at Boston’s TD Garden. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. … Even though I love the process of everything I go through, to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to come for championships … there’s nothing I’m chasing, or that I feel I need to end my career on.”

The truth is James is a basketball anomaly who has always challenged basketball’s conventional wisdom.

James’ mood that night, and the Lakers’ season as a whole, brings to mind Jay-Z’s ninth album, and the idea that James is living through his Kingdom Come season. Grand hype met with mammoth disappointment, Kingdom was highly anticipated. Released in 2006, the project was Jay-Z’s post-retirement album, and his career’s worst.

“First game back,” Jay-Z said in 2013, ranking the project dead last in his discography. “Don’t shoot me.”

Jay-Z then, like James now, was already a legend with credentials for Hall of Fame status. But there were expectations that came with Jay-Z rhyming and painting pictures into mics. A standard of excellence that James is familiar with.

View this post on Instagram

………..‼‼‼👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on Mar 24, 2019 at 12:43pm PDT

Fast-forward a month and a half and the Lakers, currently 11th in the Western Conference, are officially eliminated from the playoffs. Suspensions, questionable offseason (and in-season) moves. Injuries, trade rumors and actual trades, Brandon Ingram’s health scare and Lonzo Ball’s family controversy — all these pieces matter when discussing what went wrong with a season that began with pageantry that vowed everything but a Lakers championship parade.

So for a Lakers fan base that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2013, summer vacations starting in spring are, painfully, business as usual. Before the season, realistic projections had the Lakers winning 50 games, James capturing MVP for the fifth time and the team eventually falling to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.

But now James is preparing to start the longest offseason he’s had since 2005, when the world looked different — Apple didn’t even have an iPhone, Zion Williamson hadn’t started elementary school and YouTube wasn’t yet a verb. James also finds himself in a familiar situation: on the receiving end of mountains of criticism.

A litany of critiques, observations and charges have emerged or re-emerged this season: James sat away from his teammates during a road loss to the New York Knicks. Growing up in a single-parent household is why he’s a bad leader and teammate. James killed the Lakers’ chemistry. LeBron has a dysfunction fetish. Los Angeles doesn’t love him. His defense has been worse than court-appointed attorneys. James is a coach killer, and not only is Lakers skipper Luke Walton next on his hit list — but James is supposedly the reason Doc Rivers squashed rumors that he wanted to coach the Lakers next. And: The Lakers should look into trading James this offseason.

There are even questions such as: Does James even still care about basketball? Did he really sit out a game against the Warriors because he was in the studio with 2 Chainz the night before? How do you get swept by the Knicks?

This is just the media. NBA fans are talking as well.


I say this reluctantly / ’Cause I do struggle/ As you can see / I can’t leave / So I do love you … — The Prelude

The texts in the group chat rang out back-to-back. To back. To back. Four of us, 30ish black male friends living in big cities who have been arguing about sports and life for more than a decade.

“The playoffs are LeBron-free for the first time in 14 years. And for the first time in seven or eight years, I’m interested in the playoffs.”

“Oh yeah … [LeBron] killed the game for me. Most definitely.”

“… his move to the West and missing the playoffs shows just how overrated he is. As if the 3-6 Finals record wasn’t enough.”

“Great individual player. But overrated as a winner, big time.”

Modern day Wilt [Chamberlain], b.”

And for good measure:

“His claim to fame has been dragging teams w/ limited talent to great heights. So what happened in LA? All I heard from Bron Bron last night after the game was excuses.”

“My prayers have been answered … LeBron won’t be part of the postseason and I can watch w/ renewed interest.”

When James wins, it’s never enough. When he loses, there’s always a community cherishing his downfall.

Much of this, from both fans and the media, has been tucked in the chamber for years. But James isn’t solely to blame for this lost Lakers season. All chips on the table, his 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 51 percent field goal shooting still confirm him as a weapon of mass destruction on offense (although his 66 percent free throw shooting is well below his career average of 73.4).

And this performance has occurred after a groin injury that sidelined him for 18 games — and ultimately derailed the season. James’ physical therapist said the injury should have cost him most of the season.

After Sunday’s win over the Sacramento Kings, the reality of missing the playoffs called for perspective.

“I would never cheat myself,” James said in a Yoda-like tone after his 81st career triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), against Sacramento. “I know we’re out the playoff race, but if I’m on the court, I’m going to play how I play, and I play to win. So I will never cheat the game.”

But when you’re the best player in the world, and your team misses the playoffs in train wreck fashion, there’s not much to do other than fall on your sword. “Obviously,” James said last week, “I made a ton of mistakes. I wasn’t as good as I’m accustomed to being. I was pretty s—-y.”

Countless reasons exist why James encounters the level of criticism he does. A man of extreme extremes, his highs are incredibly high — à la the 2013 and 2016 NBA Finals. His lows are embarrassingly low — the 2011 Finals, and this season.

The energy that has surrounded him from the moment he burst onto the national scene almost 20 years ago has always been wild. There’s no way a phenom dubbed Michael Jordan’s heir apparent before graduating from high school gets middle-of-the-road coverage. He was pegged to redirect the sport and the culture around when he was getting investigated for driving a Hummer and dominating pros as a junior in high school.

Yet, how dare he be mentioned alongside Jordan, some say. Even worse, how dare he openly covet the GOAT title over Jordan? The truth is James is a basketball anomaly who has always challenged basketball’s conventional wisdom. When he wins, it’s never enough. When he loses, there’s always a community cherishing his downfall.


I ain’t talking bout the 2-3 / Mami in the zone like the homie two-three / Jordan or James, makes no difference/ We all ballin’ the same … Show Me What You Got

In 2006, Jay-Z returned to rap with his first full solo album since The Black Album. It was culture’s most anticipated spectacle — much like James’ Hollywood arrival 12 years later. The three-year hiatus was a long break between solo projects, and the album arrived two days before Thanksgiving. Kingdom Come, however, felt like a lump of coal.

Jay-Z’s unbridled confidence hadn’t wavered, though, as he displayed on “Trouble” and on the album’s best number, “The Prelude.” But the album, akin to James’ inaugural campaign in Tinseltown, was panned as disjointed and anticlimactic — even as it sold more than 1.5 million copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop album chart and, in retrospect, may not have been as critically wack as it seemed at the time.

Just a few days ago, on March 24, James took to Instagram, after a disjointed and anticlimactic season, with a message — perhaps because, in his mind, next season has already begun. “Believe me!” he exclaimed. “Promise #LakerNation the spell won’t last much longer! I swear. The marathon continues.”

So now the Lakers’ 2019-20 season begins. It has to. And if there is one last mission for James to accomplish, it’s to reverse the current narrative just like he did after the backlash over 2010’s “The Decision.” If this season was his Kingdom Come, then next season is James’ own American Gangsterthe Jay-Z album that even he dubbed “black superhero music” on the lead single “Roc Boys,” and which won near universal acclaim.

Maybe, just maybe, all this drama will have been worth it. Even with nothing to prove, Jay-Z had something to prove. And LeBron James, love or hate him, is cut from the same cloth.

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.

From small-screen ‘Grown-ish’ to the silver screen’s ‘Superfly,’ this is Trevor Jackson’s year But not long ago, ‘I was going to quit acting. I didn’t want to do it anymore.’

First, there was a breakout television series, followed by two movies and the release of a brand-new album. For singer and actor Trevor Jackson, there couldn’t be a better year.

Jackson, 21, is best known for his roles as Zurich in Burning Sands, Aaron Jackson in Freeform’s Grown-ish and Youngblood Priest in the remake of the 1972 black cult classic SuperFly, which hits theaters Wednesday. This isn’t too shabby for someone who thought of walking away from acting before his role in the television drama series American Crime.

“I was going to quit acting before American Crime because I was trying to focus on my music,” Jackson said. “I didn’t want to do it anymore. My mom was just like, ‘Go,’ and I went and fell in love with it again. Everybody who was on set — Tim Hutton, Andre 3000, Regina King — I was awestruck and inspired by these people. It kind of made me fall back in love with the process.”

His role in SuperFly deepened his passion for acting.

“Priest was a character that was interesting,” Jackson said. “I was trying to find the person that I was afraid of but I also thought was extremely cool. The experience was amazing. I think the coolest thing was working with such amazing people. You got Joel Silver, who has done so many classic films. Director X is a legendary director, and all the actors. They’re all so good at their jobs. It was a blessing to be doing what I love around people that I love.”

Music remains a passion. Jackson signed with his first record label at 15 and released his latest LP, Rough Drafts, Pt. 1, in March. He hopes to continue acting and singing for as long as he can.

“I want to continue balancing,” Jackson said. “I can’t live without either. Even when I was shooting Grown-ish, I recorded most of this album. We would get off around 7 and I’d come home and record. They’ve both saved me. When I wasn’t working, acting and wasn’t getting hired, I was doing music. Whenever one wasn’t happening, the other one was always there. They’re both very close to my heart.”

What was one of the craziest moments you’ve had on set?

I think the craziest moment was when I made Halle [Bailey] cry on set of Grown-ish. She’s vegan and we had tacos. There were beef tacos, chicken tacos and vegan tacos. She was eating a vegan taco, and I’m like, ‘Oh, you know that’s the wrong meat. They had the wrong names on the tacos.’ She started crying. Everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Trevor. You’re such an a-hole!’ I’m like, ‘I’m sorry! I was just kidding.’ My job is big brother on set. My job is to torture them.

When did you feel like you made it in the industry?

I don’t think I can ever have that moment because I’m always trying to outdo myself. I don’t look to the left or right of me to see if I’ve made it or not. I always kind of look inward. I feel like I’ll never feel like that.

Have you ever been starstruck?

Perfect time to ask me this. I freaking met Tom Hardy at CinemaCon. He and Denzel [Washington] are like my top two favorite actors of all time. I met him, I yelled at him. It was me and Jason [Mitchell]; he loves him too. He was having a conversation, and we came up behind him and were like, ‘Dude we’re sorry but we freaking love you. You’re a legend.’ I’m pretty sure he was wondering who we were, but we took like three pictures. Then I met Matthew McConaughey on the plane and I was like what’s happening with my life? He took my clothes off the plane and asked whose bag it was, then carried my bag off the plane. I can always say Matthew McConaughey carried my luggage. I met Will Ferrell too. These are all people I admire and love totally and am inspired by daily. That was too much.

If you weren’t acting or singing, what would you be doing?

I’d be surfing. I’d probably be a pro surfer, skateboarder or playing basketball. That’s how my life is. If I wake up one day and I want to pursue that, that’s what I’ll do. I always try to follow what God puts in my heart to do or achieve, and I don’t stop until I do that. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was younger. That dream kind of died, but it can come back around.

What’s the last show you binge-watched?

Ozark. It’s probably one of the greatest shows I ever watched.

Which pro athlete would you never want to trade places with?

The ones that I don’t know their names.

What’s your current fashion obsession?

I love silk shirts. They don’t have to be real silk, as long as they look silky and feel silky. They can be 10 bucks. If they look right and feel right, I’ll wear it.

What songs are at the top of your playlists these days?

There’s a song called ‘Tequila’ by Dan + Shay and another called ‘The Long Way Around’ [by Brett Eldredge]. These are all country songs. I love country. It’s my favorite kind of music.

What is the most embarrassing music you have to admit you listen to?

I’m not gonna lie, when Hannah Montana first came out, I was an advocate. I loved it!

What are you looking forward to achieving this year?

I want SuperFly to do very, very well. I want the album to do well, and hopefully a great season two of Grown-ish. And I want to start filming another movie by the end of the year, whatever it may be.

If you could go to dinner with one person, dead or alive, who would it be?

I can only pick one? I have more than one, and it would be Prince and Michael Jackson. If I had three, I’d put Martin Luther King Jr. in there.

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

Keep God first and all things will be added unto you.

LeBron James’ Game 1 outfit and accessories cost more than $45,000 A piece-by-piece breakdown of the head-turning look the Cavs star wore to the NBA Finals series opener

OAKLAND, California — If you haven’t seen the outfit by now, you either live under a rock or don’t have a Twitter account. Because, before Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, LeBron James broke the internet when he pulled up to Oracle Arena in style.

The leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers sported a tailored suit from New York designer Thom Browne. But the look he pieced together was far from what’s traditionally seen in the tunnels of pro basketball arenas. Instead of wearing slacks, James strolled through the Bay Area breeze in fitted shorts, which matched his charcoal jacket that he complemented with a white shirt and dark tie.

James brought the shorts suit to life, and even NBA commissioner Adam Silver took notice. “I’m behind a podium, so you can’t see mine,” Silver joked of the shorts before the game. “You know, LeBron defines fashion. If LeBron is wearing shorts, it must be in.”

Unlike Silver, Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue didn’t find the humor in fielding questions about what his star player breaks out of his closet. “No comment,” Lue said of the ensemble that could’ve landed James in the rock band AC/DC.

During the 2018 playoffs, the Cavaliers have been no strangers to donning suits. James gifted each one of his fellow players a collection of three suits as a way to create postseason continuity among the team — especially during road games. According to a report from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin during the Eastern Conference finals, each suit, and all its accoutrements (shirt, sweater, boots, etc.), cost approximately $5,700. But before he graced the court in the Finals for the first time, the King, of course, had to swag out a little harder than the rest of his squad.

Down to his socks and shades, here’s a breakdown of the complete outfit James rocked into Game 1 — and the price that each piece of the look cost the King.


Suit, tie and handkerchief — $2,590

Oxford shirt — $330

Backstrap shorts — $940

Socks — $90

Wingtip Boots — $1,290

Alligator Bag — $41,000

Jacques Marie Mage Molino Frames — $525

Powerbeats wireless headphones — $199.95

Grand total: $46,964.95. Moral of the story: Not all of us have pockets as deep as LeBron James’.

How Meek Mill opened Sixers owner Mike Rubin’s — and so many others’— eyes to a broken criminal justice system From counted out to counted on: The rapper’s new freedom comes with reality’s nightmare — and a chance to change lives

And why I’m rappin’ like I got somethin’ to prove…

— Meek Mill, 2017’s “1942 Flows


Meek Mill told him. Meek made clear the harsh realities of the criminal justice system. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin only wishes he had believed Meek sooner.

But now of course, Rubin — billionaire entrepreneur and minority owner of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, as well as the Sixers — has entered the pop cultural lexicon because of his close friendship with the Philadelphia MC born Robert Rimeek Williams. The two met while sitting courtside at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City.

But 48 hours before the Sixers’ season officially ended with a 114-112 Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal loss in Boston, Rubin leaned forward over a round table in the Director’s Lounge at Wells Fargo Center. It was an hour before Game 4’s tipoff and VIPs maneuvered, ordering specialty cocktails.

But Mike Rubin is thinking back to conversations he and Meek had about the polarity of their realities. “Meek used to always say to me, ‘There’s two Americas.” I’d be like, ‘Dude, there’s one America.’ He was right,” Rubin says. “I was wrong. There’s America, and then there’s black America. I didn’t agree with him, but he proved to be right.”


Meek Mill’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, who represented Bill Cosby before removing himself from that case, knew something was off when he entered the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Genece E. Brinkley. Everyone was nervous, especially Meek. McMonagle saw six sheriff’s deputies. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

“That told me she’d made her mind up, independent of any argument she was about to hear,” McMonagle says from his 19th-floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. It’s at “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive” neighborhood, essentially an alternate universe away from the North Philly blocks that cultivated Meek. “And obviously once you heard the sentence, it was like a punch in the throat.” On Nov. 6, 2017, Meek Mill was sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on a probation violation. Dirt bike riding (popping wheelies) was involved.

An entire courtroom was in shock. Meek immediately began removing his jewelry. For McMonagle, it was the first time in his 33 years of practicing law that he, the district attorney and the probation department were all on the same page — and the judge refused to accept the will of the parties. The case sparked national headlines and inspired rallies and the hashtag #FREEMEEK, simultaneously providing yet another glimpse into a criminal justice system that had haunted Meek since he was 19 — and the community from which he comes for far longer.

“They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”Meek Mill

During his time in the belly of the beast, Meek became larger than just a cult-y musical icon in his hometown of Philadelphia. He became a local sports Yoda. His 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” had long been revered in hip-hop circles for its energy, fearlessness and unabashedness. So it made sense that the Eagles adopted the record as their theme song en route to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Likewise, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz all visited Meek in prison — as the Sixers made it as close to the NBA Conference finals as they have since Allen Iverson’s apex. James Harden visited Meek as well. Julius Erving, Kevin Hart and several Eagles players showed up at rallies and lent their voices to the cause of securing Meek’s release, and to the larger cause at hand.

But neither money nor celebrity shielded Meek. In many ways, it seemed to make him more of a target. “I would’ve never discussed [the criminal justice system] with my daughter before,” says Mike Rubin, the sincerity in his voice impossible to ignore. “We got in the car and Meek told me a really scary story about how he grew up that I told my daughter last night. She couldn’t believe it. For me, it was eye-opening. Sometimes … you have moments in life that change your perspective.”

Last November changed Rubin’s view of life in America. He says he’s dedicating much of his focus and energy moving forward — and not just with Meek — to addressing what he calls “a completely broken system.”

Meek has been locked up several times before. As he said from the stage in a Tidal One-of-One conversation with Angie Martinez, “I just turned 31; I’ve been on probation since I was 19.”

Some of these arrests were perhaps warranted. But the root of the charges date back to 2007 when a member of Philly’s Narcotics Field Unit claimed Meek sold crack to an informant. Per Meek’s cousins, who were with him at the time, the arrest was abominable. “It was like three cops — two of them had his feet, and one of them had his arms,” Rasson Parker told Rolling Stone this year. “They basically used his head as a battering ram [to break through the door].”

Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Meek met prison’s revolving door in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2016, he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for traveling without permission, forced to wear an ankle monitor, banned from recording music or traveling outside of Philadelphia. Others times he was violated for things like an altercation he got into after refusing to take a picture with a St. Louis airport employee. The charges varied, but there was one constant: Every probation violation he had was brought by Judge Brinkley, who is black. Her interest in him has been consistent.

Once inside, because of his celebrity status, Meek was placed in a mental health ward instead of in the larger general population of the prison. Incarcerated essentially for participating in a fight he didn’t start, and for popping wheelies on city streets, Meek was living beside people who smeared their own feces on walls. Per McMonagle, early on, Meek entered a prison meeting room appearing disheveled. “I thought while I was in there,” Meek told McMonagle, “that I had gone insane and didn’t know it.”

Even with one gold and two platinum albums, Meek remains rap’s quintessential underdog. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. “I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he says en route to his conversation with Martinez. “Anytime people went against me, doubted me or actually offended me, it gave me the energy to go harder and win. I always had that drive growing up.” Meek played basketball growing up — but you can see why sports teams would love his energy.

Meek began his rap career street battling. Berks Street in North Philly was his first stage. From there, he created a steady barrage of mixtapes, starting with 2008’s Flamers. He signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, and to Roc Nation for management a year later, but the last three years of his career in particular have been a roller coaster. There was a high-profile beef with Drake, a high-profile relationship and breakup with Nicki Minaj. And now Meek has emerged — with help from his lawyers, from Mike Rubin and from the community surrounding him — on the other side of his recent prison stint as a new ideogram for the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform.’

Part of the mantra of his critically acclaimed 2017 Wins & Losses album is that growing up in the ghetto teaches you to cherish the wins and learn from the losses. “[It’s] beautiful,” says Meek. “I come from poverty, living without barely anything to my name, to making money and being able to take care of my family and travel the world. … I always reflect back to where I came from and where I’m at now, and it’s not too bad.”

It’s not without its dramas either. Nearly three years have passed since he and Drake experienced their very public falling-out. Meek, during the summer of 2015, held the No. 1 album in the country with Dreams Worth More Than Money. He also essentially accused Drake of not writing his rhymes (which remains a touchy subject in hip-hop circles), and while Drake was dubbed victorious in the virtual squabble thanks in part to his Grammy-nominated battle record “Back To Back,” Meek’s assertion that he didn’t write his own rhymes has been a thorn in Drake’s otherwise invincible side ever since.

“That beef was pretty much a social media thing,” producer Jahlil Beats says from his South Philadelphia studio. Jahlil has worked with Meek on more than 100 songs, and he’s also a co-producer with Rick Ross and Boi-1da of 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, the album that features “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” an opener to the project that became an anthem — in meetings, in the locker room, on the field — for the Eagles. It’s also been on every Philly music lover’s gym playlist and car speakers for the past six years. I’m ridin’ ’round my city with my hand strapped on my toast/ Cause these n— want me dead and I gotta make it back home/ Cause my mama need that bill money/ My son need some milk/ These n— tryna take my life, they f— around, get killed/ You f— around, you f— around, you f— around, get smoked/ Cause these Philly n— I brought with me don’t f— around, no joke, no. Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Maybe that’s the reason Meek’s most high-profile visitor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed up two weeks before his April 24 release. Kraft witnessed the power of the song firsthand at this year’s Super Bowl as the Eagles charged the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And the Boston Globe headline? “Who is rapper Meek Mill and why is Robert Kraft visiting him in prison?”

Asked perhaps because Kraft is one of the most visible team owners in a league at odds with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests for criminal justice reform helped lay groundwork for the activism around Meek’s recent incarceration and present-day activism. Kaepernick has defended Meek, calling him a victim of systemic oppression — a huge example of why the QB took a knee in the first place. In January, from behind bars, Meek donated $10,000 to Youth Services Inc. — an organization committed to servicing at-risk kids, teenagers and their families — as part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Challenge.

A source close to Kraft believes that his prison visit with Meek carried a binary opportunity. One: narrative change. Still suffering from fallout within the team because of his team’s unavoidable tie with President Donald Trump, Kraft may have wanted to demonstrate that he, and hence the Patriots, were in some way committed to the cause of criminal justice reform. Two? To perhaps help a young man he views as a friend. Although he isn’t completely familiar with all the details of Meek’s long, exasperating legal history, Kraft and Meek have social ties that go back at least a few years — as noted in a 2015 Rick Ross Instagram caption as #hoodbillionaire, as well as another this year in which Ross said the Patriots honcho was “signed to MMG.”

Michael Rubin recalls, in particular, a private jet conversation Meek and Kraft had about race, culture and how people treat each other. “Meek was really deep in his thoughts. … [Kraft] was really charged up to go see [Meek],” Rubin says.

“This whole situation is bigger than Meek Mill,” says Jahlil Beats. “We’re fighting for something … fighting for a change … [Kraft] could be [using it as public relations], but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever people will gain from it. I get it, but I don’t think we should even be focused on that type of stuff. Because at the end of the day, it’s bringing the cause to the forefront.”

Jahlil has been working with Meek since his 2009 Flamers 3 mixtape and has produced/co-produced some of his biggest records: “Make ’Em Say,” “Willy Wonka,” “I’ma Boss” with Rick Ross, “Amen” with Drake and “Burn” with Big Sean. Meek’s time in and out of prison has led to Beats pursuing real estate and entrepreneurship opportunities that includes bringing the first DTLR store to his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Loyalty to Meek, though, still drives the producer. “We got about 100 records together. I’m so invested in Meek’s stuff that when he takes a hit, we all take a hit. This dude helped change my life. If he’s not out here doing his thing, and I can’t work with him, then how can we eat?”

Meek has survived public embarrassment on multiple fronts. He checked into rehab to battle Percocet addiction. But for Meek, what timelines dub failures are the opposite. As he told Angie Martinez, “If you follow me, you know I stay with ups and downs.”

Travel restrictions and ultimately prison stints prohibited Meek from marketing the brutally honest 2017 Wins & Losses project in the manner it deserved. But W&L did permeate the 12-month news cycle that is the NBA. The album’s second song, “Heavy Heart,” became the soundtrack many speculated LeBron James used to send subliminal shots toward former teammate Kyrie Irving when news broke that Irving wanted out of Cleveland.

Even Drake was shouting, “Free Meek!” from Australia a week after his former nemesis was sent to prison. Meek’s energy speaks to the fervor of so many young black men and women from similar upbringings. Some escape their harsh conditions. Some become ghosts of the streets. But the underlying pain in Meek’s music is what speaks to a generation — one seen every day in courtrooms, prison visitation cycles and living in sheer fear of law enforcement. There’s comfort experiencing shared pain together. That’s the story of Meek’s music: fervent, pained, real. It’s the story of being black in America, no matter where you’re from.


Meek’s prison-to-courtside odyssey the day he was released? An instantly classic, and unfortunate, hip-hop moment. Questionably imprisoned rapper gets out of prison, is flown by helicopter to Wells Fargo Center to be welcomed as prodigal son at the clinching game of his hometown team’s first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those hood superhero tales that will expand exponentially as years pass — like Tupac flying straight to Los Angeles, in 1995, to begin recording what became his All Eyez On Me. Or Gucci Mane recording his homecoming ode “First Day Out The Feds” on, indeed, his first day out of prison in 2016. However triumphant, it’s part of the grizzliness of rap, and how society views the art and those who specialize in it, that being incarcerated underlines profiles.

But Meek has re-entered a society with new influence. “I’m different,” is what he told Angie Martinez on Wednesday. “We have hashtags and move on. Let’s not move on from this.” Meek’s philanthropic history is well-documented, even in prison. Now he is even more ready and willing to speak out about an issue that has defined his entire adult life. The magnitude of his support hit him while he was still in prison.

“I saw people standing out in the rain for me when they didn’t even know me. [That] changed my life,” he told Martinez. “They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”

Freedom is subjective, especially for Meek. “I ain’t felt free since I was 19,” he said. He’ll continue to fight until he’s completely exonerated. But now it’s more about helping those without the luxury of his celebrity. “If that was me in Starbucks, on probation,” he said with regard to the recent racial profiling controversy in his hometown, “I would have actually been found in technical violation.”

This topic can’t just live in the virtual world, though. For Meek, it can’t just be an internet conversation. It has to be rooted in real-life pain and real-life consequences. It’s that responsibility that weighs heavy on him, but one many believe could be the best revelation for him. “Meek is our sacrifice. His words are like scriptures,” says Boom 103.9’s DJ Amir. He and Meek’s relationship dates back to their teenage years. “He had to be held accountable for those actions even though if he ain’t do it [yet] as a boss your workers are still your liability. I think he understands that now. I think everything’s gonna look good for the future.”

That future is now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Meek in an intense news conference calling for criminal reform. On Tuesday, Meek delivered a ‘powerful’ speech at the Innocence Project gala in New York City. Meanwhile, Rubin promises he and Meek have “some pretty impressive plans” set to be announced in the “not too distant future.”

“There’s America, and then there’s black America.” — 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin

For Meek — and really for race relations moving forward, period — it’s about having the authentic painful conversations. The systematically inflicted pain Meek shares with so many, along with the passion it has birthed, is his story to tell. Through music, especially. The vehicle that’s driven Meek all the way from the back lots of North Philly to present-day stardom. “Some people trying to put me in a box,” he said. “I’m not going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I’m still gonna be Meek Mill. ”

Yet, he knows music can spread a message donations can’t buy. Jahlil Beats is excited to rejoin Meek in the studio. He compares their chemistry to that of DMX and Swizz Beatz in the early 2000s. “His voice is more important than anything,” says Jahlil. “With this album, it has to be about that. Even down to the requests of the production he’s been asking us to do, it’s a lot of big strings and a lot of uplifting vibes. He really has something to say.

Before getting up, he has one more thought. “I know he been through a lot of things, but this is something different. He’s doing interviews, but the music is how he’s really going to get to the people.”

The ‘He Got Game’ Air Jordan 13s starred in Spike Lee’s film — and became one of the most famous ever In a freakishly authentic bit of product placement, Ray Allen and Denzel Washington gave the Jordan Brand’s first shoe a backstory

This is the first of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The film, directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, hit theaters on May 1, 1998.

His IMDb page features nearly two dozen television and film credits. His résumé boasts a master of fine arts and expertise in classical acting, with 25 stage appearances, including Broadway. But in airports, on trains, pretty much whenever he travels, Avery Glymph is still recognized for a 30-second scene from his decades-old film debut.

In 1997, Glymph received a call from his agent about an audition. It was something called He Got Game, written and to be directed by Spike Lee. The project would star Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, the father of the No. 1 high school basketball recruit in the nation, Jesus Shuttlesworth, who would be portrayed by the then-NBA youngster Ray Allen. Glymph originally read for the part of Sip, one of Jesus’ teammates at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York.

“I remember going in and doing the scene,” said Glymph, now 44. “It was going well, and then at the end … Spike was kind of mulling it over, and his last question was, ‘You play ball, man?’ Kind of like, ‘Listen, do you really play ball?’ ”

Lee decided to go in a different direction, casting Travis Best, then a member of the Indiana Pacers, as Sip. But he still wanted Glymph in the film. So he gave him the role of an unnamed sneaker clerk who shares a brief, yet very much so important on-screen moment with Washington.

Jake Shuttlesworth has been released from prison and is desperate for some fresh footwear. Glymph’s character sells him a pair of new Air Jordan 13s. When the scene was shot, during the summer of the 1997 NBA Finals, when the Chicago Bulls won their fifth title in seven years, not even Michael Jordan had worn the unreleased sneakers in a game.

“I’d never seen a pair of shoes that hadn’t come out yet,” Glymph said. “I was all about Jordans, and to have those shoes in my hands, knowing I was like the first person to hold them, was kind of cool.” Back then, they were just the latest installment of Jordan’s signature line of sneakers. Twenty years later, they’re widely regarded as the He Got Game Air Jordan 13s. This is how the film, with the help of Lee, Washington, Allen — and don’t forget Glymph — solidified the shoe as one of the most recognizable in the sneaker culture pantheon.


On Halloween Night 1997, the Chicago Bulls’ season opener, Jordan broke out the Air Jordan 13s at the Fleet Center court in Boston. It’s a primarily white shoe, featuring a black midsole, toe box and tongue, with red accent. The Bulls fell to the Celtics, 92-85, but Jordan dazzled in his new kicks, with a team-high 30 points, six rebounds and four assists.

It was the debut shoe of the Jordan Brand, officially launched in September 1997, as an unprecedented partnership between Nike and one of the company’s star athletes. After signing an endorsement deal with Nike in 1984 — and becoming the greatest player of all time, with the most revered line of signature footwear on the planet — Jordan’s own brand was projected to yield more than $225 million in sales in the first year alone.

Hyped as “the lightest Air Jordan ever made,” the 13 became the first sneaker in Nike’s history to be designed on a computer, using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator on an Apple Macintosh. “This shoe … wasn’t like anything before it. It was really quite a departure,” legendary Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield told The Undefeated in January 2017. “Sometimes, shoes are more evolutionary. They’re a little bit like the previous one. This one wasn’t like anything before it. Of course, that makes the sales … and marketing people nervous, but Michael wasn’t nervous at all. He felt like this design, though it was really different, was going to be successful for him as a player, but also in the marketplace.”

Nobody had the 13. But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe, and I don’t have it?’ ” — Ray Allen

The Air Jordan 13 wasn’t available to the public until the 1997 holiday season. But, of course, Lee got his hands on a pair of the shoes long before then. They’d already made their way into He Got Game, which had wrapped principal photography days before Jordan and the Bulls faced the Celtics. Spike finessed early samples of the shoes for Allen and Washington to wear on camera based on a relationship with Nike and Jordan that dated to 1988, when he first appeared alongside Jordan in an iconic series of TV and print ads as Mars Blackmon, the Air Jordan-loving character he played in his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It.

Even Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the first NBA players to be endorsed by Jordan Brand, was surprised by Lee’s sneaker pull. One of the perks of being a part of the original Team Jordan (along with Michael Finley, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones and Vin Baker) was exclusive pairs of Jordans before they hit the market. But when Allen arrived in Brooklyn for production of He Got Game, there was no size 13 box of the newest shoe awaiting him.

Nobody had the 13,” Allen told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters in early April. “But Spike had it. And Denzel had it. So I’m like, ‘How in the hell did you get the shoe, and I don’t have it?’ ”

Glymph remembers the day he shot his only scene, and there they were. “When he brought out the shoes, Spike gave them to me, and gave me a little reading of how he wanted me to present them,” he said. “He pulled out these shiny new shoes and said, ‘These are the new Jordans.‘ ”

They rehearsed the sequence a few times before the camera started rolling. “I was doing the scene really well … I thought,” Glymph said. “Then Spike gave me direction … ‘Avery, you’re too happy.’ I toned it down a bit, and you can kind of see me playing it more cool.” But his nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Washington improvised. “The last time we did it,” Glymph continued, “Denzel actually holds up the shoe, to give it a nice little closeup. That was his professionalism … knowing what needed to be in the shot.”

The scene made the final cut of the film, which premiered on May 1, 1998. By then, the Bulls had reached the NBA postseason, and Jordan was sporting two different versions of the Air Jordan 13 — the “Playoffs” and “Bred” colorways. In June, he’d hit the winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to claim his sixth and final NBA championship of his career. But his heroics came in a pair of Air Jordan 14s. Save a game-winner against the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 13, 1998, Jordan doesn’t have a signature moment in the “Black Toe” Air Jordan 13s.

But He Got Game made the kicks eternal. In spring 1998, the New York Daily News reported that Jordan took it upon himself to push back the Wednesday release date of one of the shoe’s models when he received word that kids were skipping school to cop pairs, which were sold at retail for $149.99. That’s how popular the 13s were then — and they remain so now. Jordan Brand brought back a retro version of the sneaker worn in He Got Game in a countdown pack (along with the Air Jordan 10) in 2008, and in 2013 for $170. The shoes will return for the third time in August for $190, in honor of the film’s anniversary.

“Every time I see these,” said Nick Young, one of the NBA’s biggest sneakerheads, while holding 2013 retros during an interview, “I think about Jesus and Denzel.”

His nerves continued to get the best of him, making him forget to give the shoes as much camera time as the director requested. So Denzel Washington improvised.

Allen finally got his pair. He wears them in the last scene, as Jesus sits in his college dorm room and reads a letter Jake sends from prison. “Your great-grandfather used to always tell me, ‘You keep trying on shoes, and sooner or later you gonna find a pair that fits you,’ ” Washington recites, staring into the camera. The line is appropriate — because the Air Jordan 13s fit perfectly in He Got Game.

“It was great product placement,” Allen said. “Because when the movie came out, everybody’s like, ‘Yo, Jesus got the new Js on his feet.’ ”

The Miami Heat’s Derric Franklin is the first black leader in the very new history of the NBA 2K League With players Hotshot, MaJes7ic and 24K DropOff, has the guy in the violet Afro created the best big three since D-Wade, LeBron and Bosh?

Four years ago, when Derric Franklin returned from Afghanistan, where he’d been deployed by the U.S. Army, he picked up NBA 2K15 and began playing the game with a virtually created avatar. The only thing is, he didn’t know to change the avatar’s name, “Russ Snow,” or its physical appearance, a 7-foot-3 center with a massive purple Afro. But he let it rock, even as he became more well-versed in the game, and people took notice.

By 2016, he began operating under the persona “Famous Enough” as a way to embrace talented players whom the game cultivates worldwide. “ I wanted to let them know,” he said, “that they were famous enough to get the credit they deserve.” Via YouTube videos and a strong Twitter presence, Franklin became a fixture in the 2K community as “Famous” — a source of news and an evaluator of skill. But even as his profile expanded, Franklin continued to channel his inner Russ Snow. He dons a purple ’fro at every 2K event — and this one? It’s his biggest yet.


NEW YORK — It’s an uncharacteristically dreary spring morning in Manhattan, and Derric Franklin pulls up at Madison Square Garden earlier than most. In the sea of suits that begin to fill the arena, he stands out: button-down shirt, gray cardigan, dark blue jeans and freshly unboxed Game Royal Air Jordan 1s. The crown jewel of his ’fit is a custom Afro wig, dyed a faint violet and picked out in all its glory.

“This is me,” he says after climbing an MSG escalator that leads him to the lobby of the Hulu Theater. The ’fro is a trademark of Franklin’s swag in the NBA 2K community. And among tastemakers surrounding the most revered basketball video game in gaming history (and its most popular mode, the 5-on-5 Pro-Am gameplay), the 6-foot-4 Famous is something of a Don Corleone. Famous knows everyone — including players, streamers and league creators — and everyone knows Famous. This realm is his element, and in his element he commands the utmost respect.

“Today is the day,” he continued. “I had to tell myself, ‘Oh, s—, this is real.’ ” It’s April 4, 2018, and the draft of the inaugural season of the NBA 2K League has finally arrived. Professional gaming squads from 17 of the NBA’s 30 teams are gearing up to select from a crop of the best players on the planet. Beginning in May, the season will consist of weekly matchups and monthly showcases, all leading to the postseason in late August.

Miami Heat Check Gaming coach Derric “Famous” Franklin climbs the stairs to the war room during the first ever NBA2K League Draft on April 4, 2018 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

For those a part of this world, this moment has been a long time coming. Back in February 2017, the NBA announced a partnership with Take-Two Interactive, 2K’s publisher, to bring the league to life. Since then, the latest installment of the series, NBA 2K18, became 2017’s top-selling sports video game, despite being released in mid-September, and is ranked behind only Call of Duty: World War II in national sales. The game is a multicultural phenomenon, and it just got bigger.

“He got a lot of us to make Twitters. … He was just good for the community. We always played 2K, but there was no meaning to it. Derric came in and brought that.”

“From the NBA’s standpoint, this is our fourth league,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver says in a packed news conference. “Of course we have the NBA, the WNBA and the G League, and now this is the fourth league in our family — and that’s exactly as we’re treating it: one more professional league.”

Famous is running on the fumes of a mere three hours of sleep, though he doubts that anyone else in the building has studied the field of talent — which went from 72,000 gamers to 250 to a final pool of 102 — more than he has. As team operations coordinator (basically, general manager and coach) of the Miami Heat’s squad, he’s had full control of Heat Check Gaming’s draft strategy since he joined the organization in February.

The hire came after initial talks with Sacramento’s Kings Guard Gaming, Portland’s Blaze5 Gaming and Washington’s Wizards District Gaming. For some reason, he went 0-for-3 in each of those interviews. “It’s definitely something that isn’t going to be forgotten,” he says of the teams that passed on him. Of the 17 teams in the first season of the league, Franklin is the only black leader.

HotShot, MaJes7ic and 24K Dropoff are Miami’s best big three since D-Wade, LeBron and Bosh.

“We didn’t set out and say, ‘Hey, we wanna hire an African-American coordinator,’ ” said Michael McCullough, the Miami Heat’s chief marketing officer, who is also black. “But when we met Famous, and learned about his background and what he can bring to us, it was a no-brainer. … He understood that the bulk of the gamers in NBA 2K are African-American and Hispanic … so we felt like he was able to bring that diversity to life and be different than some of the other teams.”

After the draft, the six players whom Famous selects will put in two weeks’ notice at former day jobs and uproot their lives. They’ll sign contracts, which include medical insurance and retirement plans, with the Miami Heat organization, worth more money ($35,000 for the first-round pick and $32,000 for players taken afterward) than what the NBA’s G League players make. Heat Check gamers will then move into new apartments in Coral Gables, Florida, where the team’s gaming room is on its own level. And for the next five months, they’ll compete for a $1 million prize pool, spread out over three in-season tournaments and the playoffs, with one goal in mind: a championship.

Derric “Famous” Franklin meets with – and – before the start of the draft. during the first ever NBA2K League Draft on April 4, 2018 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY. (Brent Lewis/The Undefeated)

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

T-minus one hour till the first team goes on the clock, and Famous spots and daps up Ivan Curtiss and Toijuin Fairley, co-founders of the popular MPBA2K league who were hired by Milwaukee’s Bucks Gaming as draft analysts. Together, the three influencers are the only black representatives from the 2K community calling the shots at the draft (Christopher Toussaint serves as a players manager for Orlando’s Magic Gaming, and Hall of Famer/Sacramento Kings co-owner Shaquille O’Neal was named general manager of Kings Guard Gaming but didn’t make the trip to New York). But even Curtiss and Fairley look up to Famous’ position. “He’s built solid relationships with thousands of players, from unknown to known, and knows what he’s talking about,” said Curtiss, whom Famous reached out to share the news of landing the Miami gig. “He’s our only competition.”

Famous embraces the pressure of being the head of a franchise and architect of a roster that needs six MyPlayers: a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center and sixth man. And his confidence is oozing. “I’m gonna control the draft,” he said. “Things are gonna go the way I want. No other way.” Imagine this is the game itself for Famous. He grabs the rebound off the glass and leads the break up the floor. Now, it’s just time to score.


Heat Check Gaming’s war room is a cramped dressing room, deep in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Inside, Famous sits at his bulky Dell Alienware laptop, scrolling up and down a color-coated Excel spreadsheet that he spent countless hours perfecting. Ever since the 2K League finalized the very multicultural-appearing group of draft-eligible prospects, many who are attending the event in New York wearing new suits purchased on the league’s dime, Famous went through scenario after scenario, simulating selections.

Derric “Famous” Franklin goes through his draft order before the round begins.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Although 2K is a point guard’s game, the league’s altered game mode (or “build,” as it’s called by gamers) allows for big men to thrive. So for weeks, the head of Heat Check focused his energy on taking a center with the team’s first pick at No. 7 overall. “I’m 99.9 percent sure,” Famous said over the phone from Miami, about a week before the draft, “that nobody else has this mindset.”

At 1:33 p.m., Silver calls the name of Artreyo Boyd, an e-point guard from Cleveland known as “Dimez,” as the No. 1 overall pick of Dallas’ Mavs Gaming. That’s right, the commissioner who announced Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz as top picks in the NBA sticks around to welcome the first player to be taken in the 2K League. That’s how real this thing is. “It’s a blessing, man. I’ve worked so hard,” Boyd says onstage. “I’ve been playing for a very long time.” Before Dimez became arguably the best 2K player in the world, with a massive multiplatform following, Famous encouraged him to expand his skill set and brand outside of GroupMe conversations with fellow players by marketing himself in relevant ways.

“He got a lot of us to make Twitters,” says Dimez, who has nearly 30,000 followers/subscribers between Twitter, Twitch and YouTube. “He was just good for the community. We always played 2K, but there was no meaning to it. He came in and brought that. I respect Famous.”

With Dimez off the board, the league’s first draft has officially begun. Famous doesn’t watch but simply listens to the 50-inch TV mounted above him as Boston’s Celtics Crossover Gaming and Utah’s Jazz Gaming make their decisions. And just as he prophesied, the top three teams take a point guard. By the seventh slot, no one has sniffed out Famous’ strategy, so he gets his guy: Juan Gonzalez, aka “Hotshot,” a Miami native who’s “definitely in the conversation for the best center of the game,” said draft commentator/league analyst Jamie “Dirk” Diaz Ruiz. Meanwhile, Heat Check’s top choice collects his draft cap and walks onstage to pose in front of flashing cameras with league managing director Brendan Donohue.

“Derric understood that the bulk of the gamers in NBA 2K are African-American and Hispanic. … We felt like he was able to bring that diversity to life, and be different than some of the other teams.”

“It’s such an honor,” says Gonzalez, his hands still shaking after a circuit of interviews, “that it doesn’t feel real. I wanted to go to the Heat. I wanted to play for my hometown team.” The vibe is nearly identical to what any real NBA player experiences after being drafted. Flashing cameras and nonstop interviews. Congratulatory handshakes and salutes from every direction. Brewing trash talk between fellow picks — who would fire up the game right then and there to go at it on the sticks.

Heat Check Gaming’s first draft pick Juan Gonzalez aka ÒHotshotÓ calls his mother after being drafted while coach Derric “Framous” Franklin waits to welcome him during the first ever NBA2K League Draft on April 4, 2018 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Famous claps after picking up MaJes7ic during the second round of the NBA2K League Draft.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Famous appears and interrupts Gonzalez with a huge hug. “After the pick, I cried,” he says to Hotshot, who’s still beaming. The brief moment ends with Famous jogging back to his post, where he’s cracked open a fruit tray to fuel him through the next five picks. Next to his computer is the phone he uses to call in his selections to a league representative when it’s Heat Check’s turn to draft. Early on, he establishes a streamlined system for himself: pick up the phone, hit redial and say a name. No time wasted — that’s how certain he is of his choices. There’s quite a bit of time, though, until he must make another decision. A snake-style drafting format means Heat Check must wait 11 picks before its second selection. And as Donohue announces name after name, there’s one that, shockingly, remains uncalled.

Stanley Lebron (yes, that’s his real last name), known on 2K as MaJes7ic (pronounced Majestic), would’ve been the top-ranked shooting guard in the draft class but qualified as a point guard at the combine. Hotshot notices Lebron continuing to fall, pulls out his iPhone and dials Famous. “TAKE MAJES7IC!” he blurts out before his coach hangs up on him. Famous already knew what to do. With the No. 28 overall pick at the end of the second round, Heat Check lands the talented combo guard.

“This guy should’ve went in the first round,” says Famous, standing next to Lebron. “When he got there, I was, like, there’s no way I could pass on him.” Of the eight pre-draft interviews he conducted with gamers, Famous hadn’t even bothered wasting MaJes7ic’s time because it just didn’t seem feasible for him to still be there so deep in the draft. He continues raving about the second-round pick to members of the Heat staff: communications manager Lorenzo Butler, marketing manager Clara Stroude-Vazquez, videographer Edwin Jean and senior director of interactive media Lauren Cochran. They’re a dedicated crew who all made the trip up from Miami.

“I’m Dominican,” Lebron says with a smile. He’ll fit right in. The shooter hails from Queens, New York — but the Heat is his favorite NBA squad.


Basil Rose, the man from Montreal known in these NBA 2K streets as “24K DropOff,” looks deep into a SportsCenter camera and doesn’t hesitate. “Just like Lonzo Ball knew he was going to the Lakers, I knew I was going to the Heat.”

Famous had planned on taking a power forward in the third round, and the versatile DeMar Butler, who can essentially play every position on the floor under the gamer tag “OGDeedz,” sat atop his list. But Utah’s Jazz Gaming snagged OGDeedz four picks before Heat Check was in position. “Once Deedz was gone,” Rose said, “I could’ve just walked up before the three minutes on the draft clock started. I already knew.”

Derric “Famous” Franklin greets Basil “24k Dropoff” Rose after drafting him during the first ever NBA2K League Draft.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Don’t get it twisted, though. 24K DropOff is no compromise for Heat Check. Famous interviewed him before the draft and placed Rose’s name high on his board. Of 72,000 players who participated in the combine, Rose emerged as the only one to average a triple-double (17 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists). Hotshot, MaJes7ic and 24K DropOff are Miami’s best big three since D-Wade, LeBron and Bosh. And DropOff is certainly the alpha of the bunch — outspoken and super wavy, as they say north of the U.S. border. As for how he feels about playing for the league’s only black coordinator?

“You go on a TV or reality show — for example, I like Big Brother — and you’re only going to see one black guy, one black girl. Everybody else is gonna be white,” said Rose, who’s half-Jamaican and half-Nova Scotian. He left Canada for the first time in his life to attend the draft in New York. “It’s how the world works, but Famous is going to succeed. We just had a black president. … Well, you guys did, not me.”


Stop it, Famous … just stop it.

These are the whispers in the room, but as the draft rages on, he keeps splashing jumpers with his selections.

In the fourth round, he takes “sharpshooterlos,” a skilled small forward from Reading, Pennsylvania. “I thought Miami was the last place on Earth I was gonna land,” said Carlos Zayas-Diaz. “But, man, this is a dream come true. I got the best team in the league.” The fifth round yields a shooting guard in “Jalen03303” Jones, who didn’t make the trip to the Big Apple from his hometown of Bossier City, Louisiana.

Famous makes one last call in the sixth round. This time, it’s for Rahmel Wilkins, another shooting guard, who calls himself “HyPeR iS Pro” on 2K. “I was just watching the picks unfold in front of me,” he says, “and I was the final piece.”

Derric “Famous” Franklin walks back to the war room after the third round of the first ever NBA2K League Draft on April 4, 2018 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

The new faces of Heat Check Gaming gather in the first two rows of the theater’s auditorium for their first team meeting. “We’re gonna run, we’re gonna score a lot of points and we’re gonna play tough defense,” says Famous, while his players listen intently as their fearless leader delivers an Any Given Sunday moment.

“We’re gonna go win a championship,” he continues, “because I feel like we got the best team.” Famous adds a little more weight to the statement.

“Easily.”