Inside the Clippers’ final days with Donald Sterling as owner ‘We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans.’

It is not uncommon to see Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer talk hoops before a game. Ballmer typically peppers Rivers with questions about his beloved Clippers as if he is a member of the media. Rivers shares details and typically throws in a joke that makes the fun-loving Ballmer smile.

It is a way different dynamic from what Rivers had with the team’s previous owner, Donald Sterling. Rivers told The Undefeated he has not spoken to his old boss since TMZ released audio on April 26, 2014, of Sterling making racist comments to his then-girlfriend.

“There is no need to,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why or what he was thinking or whatever. … It doesn’t matter to me. It’s already been done and said. I haven’t heard from him. It’s not like I am mad. But why? We don’t need to talk.”

Five years ago, on April 29, 2014, the controversial owner was banned for life by the NBA for his comments in what was one of the strongest penalties in American sports history. He was later forced to sell the team.

At that time, the Clippers were also pursuing an NBA title. They were the No. 3 seed in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs facing an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors team in the first round. The Clippers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 98-96 victory in Oakland on April 24. But two days later, their momentum came to a crashing halt after Sterling’s remarks became public.

News traveled fast within the organization. Game 4 was the following day. How would Rivers & Co. respond to their owner being involved in one of the biggest scandals in sports?

The Undefeated looks back at the franchise’s last days under Sterling, five years later, through the recollections of those who endured it.


‘THEY TOLD ME IT WASN’T A BIG DEAL’

Members of the Los Angeles Clippers listen to the national anthem before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. The Clippers chose not to speak publicly about owner Donald Sterling. Instead, they made a silent protest. The players wore their red Clippers’ warmup shirts inside out to hide the team’s logo.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Sterling has a long history of racist behavior and had been sued on two occasions for allegedly declining to rent apartments to African Americans and Hispanics. He was also sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of age and racial discrimination. There is also a well-known story of the Clippers owner once going into his team’s locker room after a game while players were dressing and telling his friends, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”

Rivers said he first caught wind on April 23, 2014, that Sterling had made some controversial comments but was told by a Clippers executive they “weren’t a big deal.” Rivers alerted his players during a team meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco that the story was expected to come out, but he didn’t have details to offer.

Blake Griffin: “We remember having a meeting and Doc was saying what was happening. When he explained it, I don’t think everyone understood the magnitude of what it was going to be.”

Doc Rivers: “I was misled in that whole thing, and that is a story for the book one day. But I was told there was a story coming out and it wasn’t a big deal beforehand. I had a chance two days before to look at it. But they told me it wasn’t a big deal.”

Ryan Hollins: “Doc said that Sterling said something stupid with racial undertones to a woman, but it was not expected to be that big of a deal as it ended up being.”

Rivers: “I took this job. I knew there was going to be risk. I clearly didn’t know there was going to be that type of risk.”


‘THOSE WORDS HURT, THOSE WORDS PIERCED’

Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers speaks to the press after a game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 24, 2014 in Oakland, California.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

At 10 p.m. PDT on April 24, 2014, TMZ released a recording in which a married Sterling made racial comments to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, criticizing her for putting pictures on social media with well-known African Americans, including former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and then-Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.

TMZ reported that the private taping of Sterling’s racist rant took place on April 9, 2014, after Stiviano posted a picture of her with Johnson on Instagram.

Some of Sterling’s racist audio excerpts released by TMZ included:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”

“You can sleep with [black men]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“I’m just saying, in your lousy f—— Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”

“… Don’t put him [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

A stunned Rivers finally listened to the audio just before it was released.

“One of our PR guys heard it an hour and a half before it came out and he said, ‘Doc, I think you need to see this video,’ ” Rivers said. “And I went to see it and I was incensed. I was pissed. I didn’t really know what to do.”

Rivers quickly called a late-night team meeting at the hotel to talk about the Sterling report. Wearing a Clippers T-shirt, Rivers entered the meeting room, where incensed players were waiting.

Griffin: “We pretty much found out exactly what it was with everyone else.”

Willie Green: “We all got the news at the same time as the reports were coming out. We were shocked to hear it, and we all heard rumors. To hear the actual words that he said were shocking.”

Hollins: “When it came out, I was blindsided. We didn’t know it was going to be like that. We were told that he made some comments that were racially charged, but we didn’t know what they were. I guess the one that struck us was the Magic Johnson stuff, the black guy in the building. When we heard those words, those words hurt. Those words pierced.”

Rivers: “I let them know I was black too. It was funny. They were pissed at everybody, including me. That is one of the things that broke the ice. I said, ‘By the way, guys, my name is Glenn Rivers. I’m from Maywood, Illinois, and I’m black.’

“The other thing I said is I need you to trust me. I will allow you guys to choose what you want me to say, but I need you to trust me and have one voice. If I have learned one thing about racism, and I’ve been through a lot of things with racism, they never want to go after the guy that says this stuff like Sterling. They want to go after the persecuted. Everyone wants to know how the persecuted will respond rather than focusing on the guy that did something.”

Matt Barnes: “What he said was more of a shake-my-head situation than being mad. I thought he finally got caught up with this bum-a– chick no one liked. As far as the racial comments, I’ve heard much worse and have had worse done to me, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I thought he wasn’t the only owner that felt that way. He was just the only one dumb enough to get caught saying it.”

Chris Paul: “I remember meeting as a team and Doc asking us how we wanted to handle it. We agreed that we would have just one voice and let that voice with Doc. I absolutely agreed with that.”

Rivers: “I was so concerned that someone from our team would say something crazy and then they were the story. And that is what we talked about. From DJ [DeAndre Jordan] to Blake, they decided what they wanted to do. They let me be the voice, and that was huge for us because we got through that without any other controversy.”

After the Sterling news broke, Rivers said Sterling and then-Clippers president Andy Roeser were not available. Roeser later took a leave of absence on May 6, 2014, and never returned to the position.

Hollins: “I was in the elevator with the man [Sterling] right after it came out. It was awkward. I shook his hand like normal. To me, the news didn’t change anything for me. We knew. Everyone knew his mindset. Man, that elevator ride took a while. He was fighting someone on the elevator. He didn’t understand. He was like, ‘This is business as usual.’ He was saying he was going to be at [Game 4]. ‘See you tomorrow.’

“To this day, he might not see the severity. He doesn’t see it as racism. For Donald’s mindset, it was like, ‘This is for me and this is for you.’ This is not necessarily that I am better than you. It was like, ‘This is what you do and this is what I do.’ ”

Rivers: “I was by myself. … I had no one to run stuff by. And a lot of people don’t know that [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] texted me saying, ‘This is my private number. Text me every second that you need something.’ That was huge.”


‘PEOPLE WERE CALLING US TO BOYCOTT’

Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers warms up prior to the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Clippers wore their shirts inside out in protest of David Sterling.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers practiced at the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym on the eve of Game 4 on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The venue was the home of former Dons and NBA legend Bill Russell, who faced a lot of racial discrimination while playing for the Boston Celtics.

Rivers told a media horde that Sterling’s racist statements were not going to distract his team. Paul and Griffin also addressed the media. And while Rivers voiced that his players would not be distracted, it was quite the contrary. They were getting so many calls and texts from family and friends that it was impossible for them to block it out.

Paul: “There were a whole lot of people in our ears. Everybody’s phone was going crazy, saying this and saying that. They were telling what you should and shouldn’t do. For us, we were trying to stay together as much as possible. And whatever we did, we wanted to do it together as a team.”

Hollins: “It was so awkward, man. You are trying to focus on the job at hand. Then you have a game to play. There was a lot of energy in different places. It was kind of weird. And honestly, it divided our team. It divided a lot of stuff we were doing. A lot of people got too focused on it. Other people in their mind weren’t too focused on it. And then basketball was there. You’re getting torn in different places, and then your friends and family are saying certain things. But I don’t think we aired it all the right way.”

Griffin: “As far as distractions go, I don’t know if there could have been a bigger thing. Everybody was calling for us to do something. At one point I had to stop answering questions from people I was close to just because it was the playoffs. Doc was always talking to us about keeping your box. You got your family, but everything else goes outside the box. That was crazy because people were calling for us to boycott, and then we had to make a decision.”

There was an uncomfortable buzz in Oracle Arena on April 27, ahead of Game 4. There were rumors that Jordan and Barnes specifically, and perhaps the Clippers as a whole, would boycott the game. Warriors forward Draymond Green also told The Undefeated that he heard the Clippers players considered not playing. The Warriors were in the other locker room awaiting word on what the Clippers were going to do and planned to support them.

Barnes said Rivers left it up to the players to decide whether they wanted to boycott and just asked that they make a uniform decision. Ultimately, the Clippers players determined as a whole that their quest for a title was bigger than Sterling.

Draymond Green: “I remember the awkwardness of the whole time from when it was released to leading to the game. … Everyone seemed antsy. The most important thing was everyone was standing with them. Guys on our team were standing with them. It was a sad situation. Obviously, it didn’t just affect them, although they were playing on the team he owned. It was bigger than that. It was about our culture as a whole. It was crazy.”

Warriors guard Klay Thompson: “I felt bad for those guys. They were in a tough position. … It was definitely a possibility that they boycotted the game, and it would’ve been completely justified.”

Jordan: “I wasn’t going to play. I felt like that was a representation of us. And for me, obviously being a black player, I didn’t want to go out there and represent that. That isn’t what I am about. My teammates, I will keep their names to myself, but they agreed with me on that — and they weren’t all black.

“I wasn’t being negative or anything, but I was standing for something bigger than myself. But ultimately, when you’re a player coming up, you’re not like, ‘Oh, I want to compete for this.’ You want to do it for your teammates. So ultimately, that swayed me to go out there and fight for my guys.”

Griffin: “We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans. It all took care of itself in the end. We took the appropriate stand.”

Willie Green: “The best thing for us to do was play. We had a meeting, we decided to come out, play and represent the city of Los Angeles and each other. We stayed together and tried to win.”

Barnes: “Not playing was briefly discussed, but I think we all came to the realization that we’re never playing for Donald in the first place. … Plus, we felt we had a championship-caliber team that year. … I have zero regrets.”

Hollins: “We could’ve not played. But I didn’t join the league for Donald Sterling. There are so many more racist people; he was just the one that got caught. I play for my family. I play for my city. It was weird. That is how I feed my kids, doing this. If you had a racist boss, you’re not going to participate [in your job]? It was just funny. People were telling me to give up on a couple million dollars, a couple hundred thousand, or whatever it might be, in my career for someone who is racist.”

Paul: “It was weird. It was kind of eerie. There is a part of you that is saying don’t play. Then there is a part that says if you don’t, you can be letting each other down. We are not playing for them. We’re playing for each other. It was different.”

The Clippers looked solemn as they ran out for warm-ups to a sold-out crowd before the game started. Yes, they were going to actually play in the nationally televised game on a Sunday despite the Sterling cloud hovering over the team. The Clippers made a statement when they took off their warm-up jackets with “Clippers” on them and tossed them at midcourt. The players then engaged in warm-ups donning long-sleeved red T-shirts turned inside out so the team nickname would not be seen.

The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front, and the players wore black socks and armbands. The Warriors routed the Clippers, 118-97, in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2.

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers fight for the rebound in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front and the players wore black socks and arm bands in protest of David Sterling.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Griffin: “I just remember the chaos, but with every situation I try to remember something positive. I just remember coming out here taking our warm-ups off and turning them inside out. I remember getting the cheers from the fans here, and at that time that didn’t [usually] happen. It was kind of in the middle of us clashing.”

Hollins: “I don’t know if throwing our shirts off did anything, honestly.”

Paul: “It was easy to say it was hard to play because we got smacked. But I don’t remember too much about that game.”

Hollins: “It was Game 4, and we were better than Golden State then. We were going to come in and take care of business and mess everything up. But they didn’t hold anything back. They let us have it. They had that energy.”

Jordan: “Do I regret playing? No, I don’t regret playing. We got our a– whooped up in Golden State anyway. I am glad I played because those group of guys, they will be connected for life.”


STERLING BANNED BY NBA

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the media about the investigation involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and accusations that he made racist remarks to a girlfriend on April 29, 2014 in New York City. Sterling, a billionaire, will be banned for life in the NBA.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rumors were circulating that Clippers players were considering sitting out of Game 5 on April 29, 2014, in Los Angeles. Players on other teams around the league were considering sitting out as well. NBA sponsors were threatening to leave their partnership with the league. Meanwhile, several current and former NBA players, including former NBA star and then-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, A.C. Green and Norm Nixon took part in a union rally in L.A., ready to respond to word of Sterling’s punishment expected that day.

The pressure was on Adam Silver, who had replaced longtime NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. Silver came down hard on Sterling, announcing the Clippers owner was banned for life from any association with the NBA and the Clippers and was fined an NBA maximum $2.5 million. NBA owners later gave the needed vote to force Sterling to sell the team.

Many of the Clippers players got the news at their practice facility.

Paul: “I remember all those guys going to City Hall and saying something. It was a weird space for us because we were not only the team involved, but we were playing. Doc was trying to not only lock us in on the series and the game but what we were trying to do, and not use that as an out. I remember the first game back. It was unreal. Everybody wore black.”

Griffin: “Adam Silver, through Doc, told us he was going to handle the situation, and he did. We did what we were supposed to do. We were playing for something much bigger than Sterling. It was never our intent.

“We got together and handled it the best way we could have. As a team, you start training camp and go through the pain of the regular season. And you play basketball to get to the playoffs. For us to boycott the playoffs and ultimately lose a playoff series, it wouldn’t have been fair to us. You have to think somewhat selfishly.”

Draymond Green: “I didn’t think anyone was going to play. But once Adam made his announcement, it was so strong that at that point there was no reason for anyone to say anything about the stance.”

Thompson: “Everyone was really happy with how quickly Adam Silver reacted. That was great standing up for all the players on racism, institutionalism and all of that crap. Adam had our back.”

Rivers: “He was the right guy at the right time. My mama always said, ‘You’re right where you are supposed to be.’ That was my mother’s favorite saying. Adam was at the right spot at the right time.”

Hollins: “For Adam Silver, that was his strongest, ‘I’m here.’ Instead of being in the background and shying away from difficult decisions, he made a big decision moving on from Donald.”

The Clippers went on to defeat the Warriors in Game 5 and won the series in seven games. However, their title hopes ended after they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the second round.

On May 29, 2014, former Microsoft chief executive Ballmer won a bidding war for ownership of the Clippers, purchasing the team for a then-NBA record $2 billion.


FIVE YEARS LATER

New Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, right, shares a laugh with head coach Doc Rivers, second from right, Chris Paul, third from right, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, left, while speaking at the Clippers Fan Festival on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in LA.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

No current players are left from the 2013-14 Clippers team. Paul was granted a request to be traded to the Houston Rockets on June 29, 2017. Griffin was re-signed by the Clippers to a five-year, $173 million deal that same summer but was traded to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 29, 2018. Jordan is two teams removed after playing for the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks this season. Willie Green is an assistant coach with the Warriors. Barnes is retired. And Hollins is a television sports analyst for the Clippers and NBA.

After losing to the Clippers in that first-round series in 2014, Golden State has been to the NBA Finals every year since and won three championships. Barnes, who was on the Warriors’ title team in 2017, said, “I knew then they were going to be a problem.”

Rivers, meanwhile, is the last man standing on the Clippers and enjoying perhaps his finest coaching performance this season. The Clippers hope to be a major player in free agency this summer with the ability to sign two major free agents.

On Wednesday night, the Clippers are back in Oracle Arena to play the Warriors during Game 5 of their first-round series.

Jordan: “We had our opportunities. We had six years to us three, J.J. [Redick] and Jamal [Crawford]. We had really good teams, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. That happens after a while. Either you keep it going and believe in it or revamp, which ultimately they decided to do.”

Hollins: “Ballmer has gone all in. Before, Blake, DJ and Chris would get the preferential treatment, the massages, whatever that may be. The 15th man gets that now. The 15th man gets a scouting report, access to training. It’s just on another level. He’s really invested into the squad. It’s not surprising the success that he is having. Even the young guys.”

Rivers: “When I came here, no free agent would say they want to play for the Clippers. Now, every free agent says they want to play in L.A. And they don’t mean the other team [the Lakers], they mean both. To me, that is a big measure of success of where the franchise has become. The next step is getting [free agents] and then winning.”

Today in black history: It’s time for Negro Leagues baseball, opera performance, a professional basketball team forms, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 13

1920 — Negro National League is founded. There was a need for more African-American players in baseball, but the Jim Crow laws that ruled much of the South prevented players from finding teams on which they could play alongside their white counterparts. To allow African-Americans to freely showcase their talents without being banned or ridiculed, Andrew “Rube” Foster, a baseball player and manager, along with other team owners, created eight teams under the Negro National League, which was founded in Kansas City, Missouri.

1893 — Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, simply known as Sissieretta Jones, takes her place on the main stage during a benefit concert held for the World’s Fair Colored Opera Company at Carnegie Hall, making her the first African-American to do so. Jones, a soprano who was often referred to as the “Black Patti” after famous Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, came from humble beginnings in Portsmouth, Virginia, before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, with her family.

1923 — The first black pro basketball team: The Renaissance is founded. Similar to the Negro Leagues, black basketball players desperately searched for a space they could call their own. The New York Renaissance (aka the Rens) was created by Bob Douglas, an athlete and passionate sports promoter who was known as the “father of black basketball.”

1977 — Happy birthday, Randy Moss. Born in Rand, West Virginia, the TV analyst played 14 seasons in the NFL and holds the record for touchdown receptions in a single season (23 in 2007).

2003 — Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal team up to lead the Western Conference All-Stars to a 137-126 win in the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. This big three may be one of the best frontcourts the league will ever see representing the West.

On this date: The greatest All-Star frontcourt ever?

Today in black history: The NAACP is born, so is Bill Russell, we get a black national anthem, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 12

1900 – The Negro national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is performed. To celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was turned into a song that was first performed by a group of 500 students in Jacksonville, Florida. It was later adopted by the NAACP as its official song.

1909 – NAACP is founded. Founded in 1909 in New York City by a group of black and white citizens committed to social justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is one of the nation’s largest civil rights organizations.

1934 – Happy birthday, Bill Russell. William Felton “Bill” Russell is one of the greatest NBA players of all time. He was player-coach of the Boston Celtics in 1968 and 1969. The five-time MVP won more championship rings than any other player. His Celtics won 11 NBA championships and went to 12 Finals during his 13 seasons. From 1959-66, they won eight straight.

1956 – Happy birthday, Arsenio Hall. Hall was the first black late-night talk show host. The Arsenio Hall Show ran from 1989-94.

2001 – Tiger Woods and Marion Jones are celebrated at the ninth ESPYS.

Today in black history: Debi Thomas wins singles, Marcus Garvey imprisoned, and happy birthday, Klay Thompson and Gary Coleman The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 8

1925Marcus Garvey enters federal prison in Atlanta. The Jamaican-born political leader, entrepreneur and orator was known for his leadership within the Pan-African and black nationalist movements. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a movement that encouraged African-Americans to go back to their roots and resettle in Africa. The association grew to include 700 branches in 38 states.

1960 – Boston Celtics center Bill Russell becomes first NBA player to grab 51 rebounds in a game. He won 11 championships during his 13 seasons as a Celtic (1956–1969).

1968 – Actor Gary Coleman is born in Zion, Illinois. As a child he was diagnosed with a congenital kidney disease that stunted his growth. The tallest Coleman got in his lifetime was 4 feet, 8 inches, but his height was perfect for the roles he landed as a child star, beginning with his most memorable character, Arnold Jackson, on the popular sitcom Diff’rent Strokes (1978-86).

1986 – Figure skater Debi Thomas becomes the first African-American to win the women’s singles at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. A month later, Thomas went on to defeat East Germany’s Katarina Witt, becoming the first African-American woman to win the Women’s World Figure Skating Championships.

1990 – Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, one half of the Splash Brothers duo, is born. He goes on to become a three-time NBA champion.

Are the Warriors turning LeBron James into Wilt Chamberlain — big stat lines and heartbreaks? No team in James’ career has tested the limits of his genius like the opponent he’s down 0-2 to right now

It came up Sunday night, while I was watching Game 2 at a bar with two friends. It was right after Stephen Curry’s most video-game-like 3-pointer, the fourth-quarter heave over Kevin Love from roughly 4 feet behind the 3-point line as the shot clock expired.

“Watching LeBron right now …” said my friend Jason, 31, shaking his head at Curry’s exploits, “I wonder if this is what it felt like watching Wilt Chamberlain play the Celtics back in the ‘60s.” Jason works in information technology. “Jerry West, too,” said Marcus. He’s 34 and works in higher education in Louisiana. “They both ran up against Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Red Auerbach and all those guys.” There is a case to be made: LeBron James’ current four-year war with Golden State may be the NBA’s modern-day equivalent.

Chamberlain is the game’s original statistical anomaly, the prophyte of modern-day bulls-in-china-shops like Shaquille O’Neal and James. There’s his 100-point game in March 1962. That same season he averaged a whopping 48.5 minutes per game while putting up 50 points and 25 rebounds a night. Chamberlain, a Philadelphia native, never averaged less than 18 rebounds per game in any season of his career, and he retired averaging 30 points and 23 rebounds per game. He was the game’s all-time leading scorer until he was surpassed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984; Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan also eventually overtook him. Both Dirk Nowitzki and James will pass him early next season.

Chamberlain and Bill Russell met during Russell’s rookie season and Chamberlain’s freshman year at the University of Kansas in 1956-57. They became basketball’s original titan-on-titan rivalry. Chamberlain was the unstoppable force, which Russell has said forced him to think of different defensive schemes each time they competed. Russell and the Celtics were the immovable object in Chamberlain’s path toward NBA immortality.

“We talked about it one time,” Russell said of the lone conversation he had with Chamberlain about the difference in their careers. “[Wilt] said that [Russell having better teammates] was not true. Simply because his teammates had to feed him and I fed my teammates.”

LeBron’s virtuoso 51-8-8 performance that ended in a Game 1 loss felt very Wilt-esque.

From 1959-69, Russell and Chamberlain played against each other in 94 regular-season games. Neither was a particularly great free throw shooter, with Russell’s 54.2 percent nudging out Chamberlain’s 49.3 percent. Chamberlain had the edge in rebounding over Russell, who is widely considered the greatest defensive big man to ever live, 28.2 to 22.9. And Chamberlain more than doubled Russell in points per game, 29.9 to 14.2.

Chamberlain’s teams, however? They won only 37 of the 94 matchups, with the win-loss ratio slightly tighter in the playoffs. Chamberlain, again, held the advantage in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. But it was again Russell who walked away victorious in 29 of those 49 postseason matchups. A final tally: Russell’s Celtics defeated Chamberlain’s Warriors, 76ers and Lakers in 86 of 143 matchups (60 percent). Chamberlain and Russell played each other in eight different playoff series. Russell won seven of those eight series.

This is why watching James this postseason has been particularly astounding. In the first round vs. Indiana, the second round vs. Toronto and the Eastern Conference finals vs. Boston, James’ opponents had the better team. Cleveland just had the best player.

But no team in James’ first-ballot Hall of Fame career has tested the limits of his genius quite like the opponent he’s down 0-2 to right now. His virtuoso 51-8-8 performance that ended in a Game 1 loss felt very Wilt-esque. When Chamberlain snagged a still-record 55 rebounds in November 1960, he did so against Russell and the Celtics. But Wilt did so in a loss.

Although LeBron and the Golden State Warriors haven’t been attached at the hip his entire career in the way Chamberlain was to Russell and the Celtics, the history is peppered with special moments. In December 2012, the Warriors (with a then-rookie Draymond Green) shocked the defending champion Miami Heat at home. A month later, LeBron returned the favor in Oakland, becoming the youngest player to score 20,000 career points in the process.

A year later in January 2014, Steph Curry’s 36 points again led to another South Beach loss for the defending champion Heat. And right before heading into that year’s All-Star break, LeBron outdueled Steph (29 points and seven assists) with his own near triple-double of 36 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and the game-winning 3 in Oakland. It ranks as the first classic duel between the two multiple MVPs — though the Bay Area monster hadn’t yet graduated into its current mutation. After that game, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Curry had an always fascinating battle of “black men attempting to out-compliment the other.”

The past four Junes speak for themselves. The Cavs and Warriors are the only teams to ever play each other for the championship four consecutive times in any major American sport. Golden State has won two of three, invited former MVP Kevin Durant into the fold and, if they take care of business this week, could be returning to Oakland this weekend with their third title in four years — and Curry’s first career Finals MVP award.

The Cavaliers return to Cleveland in a series that should be tied. And beating Golden State four out of the next five games is a pipe dream. It’s James, the best player (like Wilt), against the unquestioned best team in the league for almost the last half decade (like Russell and the Celtics). Difficult takes a day and impossible takes a week. James, in most cases, makes impossible look like a random Tuesday. But the weight of that responsibility became crystal clear in one clip — when LeBron found out the Cavs still had timeouts left at the end of regulation in Game 1.

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Love or loathe LeBron, the exasperation was uncomfortable to watch. He, more than anyone around the league, understands the value of getting any added advantage on the Warriors. They’re a python, smothering teams with ball movement, quick hands on defense and a steady stream of 3s. Every now and then, though, the Warriors will slip up, allowing a team to escape the constriction of their reptilian play. James knew this was the game. The entire world knew it too.

And Cleveland blew it with blunders both beyond their control and well within it. It’s how Chamberlain felt against the Celtics. Four Chamberlain vs. Russell series went to Game 7. Russell and Boston won all four — by a total of nine points. Russell is a perfect 10-0 in Game 7s in his iconic career.

Record-breaking stats mean nothing in the heat of the moment. No player has ever won a title without a team effort.

Role players traditionally play better at home. But if Cleveland is to at least make it a series, LeBron knows just what Russell and Chamberlain knew — that record-breaking stats mean nothing in the heat of the moment. And that no player has ever won a title without a team effort.

On Wednesday night, Cleveland will play like its season hangs in the balance — because it does. And Golden State will enter Quicken Loans Arena knowing it can inflict a body blow that would, effectively, leave LeBron down for the count. So either the Cavaliers make adjustments to their rotations and defensive schemes and find a better clip from 3-point range or the Warriors make it back to the Bay Area, trophy in tow, without having to cancel Saturday brunch plans.

‘Art of a Champion’ exhibit celebrates best playoff sneakers from Nike, Jordan and Converse Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving represented the three brands — and kicks they made iconic

NEW YORK — Back in 2012, a white mouthguard worn by LeBron James throughout one of his first playoff runs as a member of the Miami Heat featured one simple inscription: “XVI.” What those Roman numerals signify, 16, means a lot to the King, and should to every player in the NBA. That’s because 16 wins in the postseason are what it takes to earn the distinction of being called an NBA champion.

On Monday, Nike, Air Jordan and Converse honored the upcoming 2018 playoffs, as well as that coveted number James put on his mouthpiece several years ago as motivation, with the exclusive “Art of a Champion” exhibit at Nike’s New York headquarters in midtown Manhattan. It featured a collection of 16 different pairs of sneakers from the three brands, representing multiple generations of basketball. Each pair — from a revamped version of the black-and-white low-top Converse that Bill Russell sported in Game 7 of the 1962 NBA Finals, to the “Pass the Torch” Air Jordan 1s that celebrate Kawhi Leonard’s winning Finals MVP in 2014 — were put on display below unique portraits of the shoes, crafted by a group of artists.

Other sneakers in the collection included Kobe Bryant’s “Final Seconds” Nike Kobe 1 Protros, Kevin McHale’s “No Easy Buckets” Converse Fastbreak high-tops, Scottie Pippen’s “Trifecta” Nike Air Maestro IIs, Rasheed Wallace’s “Rude Awakening” Nike Air Force 1 High Retros, Maya Moore’s “Rook to Queen” Air Jordan 11 lows, Wes Unseld’s “Intangibles” Converse Star Player Oxes, Moses Malone’s “Fo’ Fi’ Fo” Nike Air Force 1 Low Retros, Kevin Durant’s “Battle Tested” Nike Zoom KD IVs, LeBron James’ “25 Straight” Nike Zoom LeBron Soldier 1s, Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s “The Scoop” Converse Pro Leather mid-tops, Michael Jordan’s “Last Shot” Air Jordan 14s, Ray Allen’s “Locked and Loaded” Air Jordan 28s and “Gold Standard” Nike Air Force 270s. Every pair will be available at retail from April to June.

Before the gallery was unveiled, ESPN’s Cari Champion hosted a panel discussion with Allen, Wallace and Erving, who shared their favorite playoff memories from their careers and the shoes they wore at the time. Allen repped Air Jordan (he’s been signed to the brand since its inception in 1996). Wallace, an Air Force 1 aficionado during his 15-year career in the league, talked Nike. And Dr. J, the O.G. of the bunch, reminisced about the old-school swag of Converse.

“It’s a lot to be said about this shoe, as well as the history of Converse,” said Erving, pointing to the Converse on his feet. “Growing up in the ’50s and ’60, the inspiration came from Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.”

With the reporters, influencers and sneakerheads in attendance, Allen, Erving and Wallace stuck around to detail the experiences they had playing in their signature shoes that the gallery featured. In the middle of the exhibit stood the WNBA’s silver championship trophy and NBA’s gold Larry O’Brien Trophy, which many of the 16 pairs on display helped players obtain.

The top 45 NBA Christmas Day sneakers since 1997 Christmas in the NBA is too epic for some players to wear just one pair of shoes

There aren’t too many joys in this world quite like waking up on Christmas morning, checking under the tree and finding a crisply wrapped box that stores a fresh new pair of sneakers. You know … the ones your mama swore she wouldn’t get you, so you asked Santa, just in case.

On Monday, players hooping as part of the NBA’s loaded schedule of Christmas Day games will experience a similar moment. For them, the sneaker companies with which they’ve inked endorsement deals play a kind of Santa, presenting their brand ambassadors with special edition shoes to celebrate the holiday season. Before games, boxes await at lockers, ready to be laced up and taken for a spin.

From traditional red-and-green colorways to graphics of snowflakes and snowmen to designs incorporating Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, there are truly no limits on holiday kicks design. Shoes have steadily become more and more complex, and more festive, as the ritual continues to grow and spread joy throughout the league. Starting with Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan 13s in 1997 and ending in 2016 with an icy pair of Adidas sported by Derrick Rose, these are the top 45 sneakers worn on every NBA Christmas since 1997.


1997 Michael Jordan in Air Jordan 13

Air Jordan 13

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On Christmas Day 1997, when Michael Jordan wore the white, true red and black edition of then newly released Air Jordan 13, these shoes had yet to take on their true identity. After the May 1998 release of the Spike Lee-directed coming-of-age New York hoops flick He Got Game, which featured Denzel Washington famously donning the kicks under a house arrest ankle bracelet, they came to be eternally known as the “He Got Game” 13s. Jake Shuttlesworth, Washington’s character, would’ve appreciated Jordan’s 24-point performance in a win over the Miami Heat while wearing the shoes.

1998

The NBA experienced its third lockout from July 1, 1998, to Jan. 20, 1999, as the league and its players union negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. As a result, the 1998-99 season was shortened to 50 games, and didn’t begin until Feb. 5, 1999. No Christmas games meant no Christmas heat on players’ feet.

1999 Tim Duncan in Nike Air Flightposite

Tim Duncan

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Future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan spent his first six years in the league lacing up Nikes, and, boy, did he have a lot of dopeness to work with in that era. Duncan wore everything on the court from the Nike Foamposite One to the Total Air Foamposite Max, and of course his Air Max Duncan and Air Max Duncan 2. In 1999, he led the Spurs to victory in the biennial McDonald’s Championship, a now extinct international pro basketball cup, while sporting Nike Air Flightposites. Two months later, he dropped 28 points in them on Christmas. Duncan’s Nike days ended in 2003 when he signed with Adidas, the company with which he’d finish out his career.

2000 Ron Harper in Air Jordan 11 “Concord”Kobe Bryant in the Adidas Crazy 1

Ron Harper

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You could certainly tell that Ron Harper was a former teammate of Jordan’s on Christmas in 2000. In a game against the Portland Trailblazers, Harper, who played with the greatest of all time on the Chicago Bulls from 1995 to 1998, rocked a pair of “Concord” Air Jordan 11s, which first retroed in 2000. Meanwhile, Harper’s young superstar teammate, Kobe Bryant, broke out a silver pair of his signature Adidas Crazy 1, which features a silhouette inspired by an Audi.

Kobe Bryant’s 2010 Nike Zoom Kobe 6s, inspired by the grumpy green Dr. Seuss character, are the greatest Christmas Day sneakers the NBA has ever seen.
2001 Allan Houston in Nike Flightposite III PE

Allan Houston

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A player exclusive (PE) pair of Nike Flightposite IIIs in Knickerbocker white, orange and blue? Santa Claus (or Nike for the nonbelievers) sure did look out for Allan Houston, who dropped a game-high 34 points in a Christmas win over the Toronto Raptors.

2002 Kobe Bryant in Air Jordan 7 PE Mike Bibby in Air Jordan 17

Kobe Bryant and Mike Bibby

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A matchup within a matchup. The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Sacramento Kings in X’s and O’s, and Kobe Bryant vs. Mike Bibby in sneakers. Bryant, a sneaker free agent in 2002 after parting ways with Adidas, wore a pair of white, purple and gold Air Jordan 7 PEs, while Bibby, a member of Team Jordan since 1999, swagged the OG black and metallic silver Air Jordan 17s. Bibby’s Kings beat Bryant’s Lakers, but which player won the clash of kicks?

2003 Tracy McGrady in Adidas T-Mac 3

Tracy McGrady

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A throwback Orlando Magic pin-striped uniform with a pair of striped Adidas T-Mac 3s — some next-level Christmas coordination from Tracy McGrady. In a 41-point afternoon against the Cleveland Cavaliers, McGrady teased the T-Mac 3s, which wouldn’t drop at retail until 2004.

2004 Reggie Miller in Air Jordan 19 “Olympics” Fred Jones in Air Jordan 13 “Wheat”

Reggie Miller

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Another display of yuletide sneaker competition, this time among members of the same team. Reggie Miller clearly took matching his shoes with his Indiana Pacers uniform to heart. Against the Detroit Pistons, he wore a special edition pair of white, metallic gold and midnight navy Air Jordan 19s, while his teammate Fred Jones went super festive and classy with a pair of “Wheat” Air Jordan 13s. Two strong pairs of shoes to have under the tree. Moral of the story: Christmas Day in the NBA is too epic for some players to wear just one pair of shoes.

2005 Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker in Nike Huarache 2K5

Smush Parker

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Why not close out 2005 by wearing Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K5s, the best performance basketball shoe of the year? That’s exactly what Lakers teammates Kwame Brown, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker did in a road matchup against the Miami Heat on Christmas. The trio complemented their dark purple road uniforms with all-black 2K5s.

2006 Dwyane Wade in Converse Wade 1.3

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In June 2006, Dwyane Wade delivered the Miami Heat their first championship in franchise history while rocking his signature Converse sneakers for the entire six-game series that ended with the shooting guard hoisting the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy. Six months later, in a matchup between the Heat and Lakers (the NBA’s only Christmas game of 2006), Wade delivered again with 40 points while still rocking Converse — this time a pair of red and white Wade 1.3s that he debuted in the blowout Christmas day win.

2007 Kobe Bryant in Nike Air Zoom Kobe 3

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Santa Claus must’ve forgotten to pay visits to the six teams that starred in the 2007 Christmas Day games, because the sneaker heat of Christmas past went missing that year. The only shoes of note in ’07? Bryant’s high-top Nike Kobe 3s in Lakers colors. These shoes set the tone for many Christmases to come — absolute fire.

2008 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 4 Christmas iD Dwight Howard in Adidas TS Bounce Commander Superman LeBron James in Nike Zoom LeBron 6 “Chalk”

Kobe Bryant

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This is where all the fun, and Christmas cheer, truly begins. By 2008, the NBA started showcasing a full slate of Christmas Day games. A bigger holiday stage sparked a movement among players and sneaker companies to seize the moment in style with vibrant-colored kicks designed through the lens of specific themes. Bryant wore a personalized edition of his Zoom Kobe 4s, and Nike also presented 100 fans with custom pairs of the shoes. LeBron James debuted his Nike Zoom LeBron 6s, inspired by his chalk-throwing ritual before tipoff of games. And Dwight Howard channeled his alter ego, Superman, in special Adidas TS Bounce Commanders. Bryant, James and Howard became the early adopters of a Christmas tradition that’s still practiced across the league today.

2009 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 5 “Chaos” Dwyane Wade in Air Jordan 1 Alpha Ray Allen in Air Jordan 1 Alpha Christmas PE LeBron James in Nike Air Max LeBron “Xmas” J.R. Smith in Air Jordan 12 “Cherry” Anthony Carter in Nike Blazers

Dwyane Wade

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Christmas “Chaos” for Kobe in his fifth signature Nike shoe. Old school meets new school in the Air Jordan Alphas, worn by longtime Team Jordan member Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade, who left Converse in 2009 to sign with Jordan Brand. Anthony Carter in the Christmas green and red Blazers, and J.R. Smith with a cherry on top in the red-accented “Cherry” Air Jordan 12s.

2010 Kobe Bryant in Nike Kobe 6 “Grinch”

Kobe Bryant

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HOLIDAY HOT TAKE ALERT: Universal Pictures’ The Grinch, released in 2000, is the greatest Christmas movie of all time, and Bryant’s 2010 Nike Zoom Kobe 6s, inspired by the grumpy green Dr. Seuss character, are the greatest Christmas Day sneakers the NBA has ever seen. Neither declaration is up for debate.

2011 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 7 “Christmas” Kevin Durant in the Nike Zoom Kobe 4 LeBron James in Nike LeBron 9 “Christmas”

LeBron James

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Cheetah print for Bryant and copper for Durant? James wasn’t about that noise. He and Nike represented the holiday to the fullest, with classic red and green on his 2011 Christmas Day kicks.

2012 Kobe Bryant in Nike Zoom Kobe 8 Dwyane Wade in Li-Ning Way of Wade (two pairs) Ray Allen in Air Jordan 18 and Air Jordan 20 “Christmas” PEs, Kevin Durant in Nike Zoom KD 5

Dwyane Wade

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In 2012, Miami Heat teammates Allen and Wade had the same idea: Wear one pair of Christmas-themed shoes in the first half, and another pair in the second. Allen pranced up and down the court in two pairs of red-and-green Air Jordan PEs — first in the 18s and then in the 20s. Meanwhile, Wade broke out two shiny pairs of his signature Li-Nings. Moral of the story: Christmas Day in the NBA is too epic for some players to wear just one pair of shoes.

Santa Claus (or Nike for the nonbelievers) sure did look out in 2001 for Allan Houston.
2013 LeBron James in Nike LeBron 11 “Christmas” Dwyane Wade in Li-Ning Way of Wade 2 “Christmas”

Lebron James

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Two shades of Christmas green on the feet of two of the “Heatles.” Teal for James, with red trim and snowflake graphics. Lime green for Wade, with red accent and a speckled pattern resembling the skin of our favorite holiday hater, the Grinch. The question is, did Wade and Li-Ning swagger-jack the Black Mamba and Nike’s iconic “Grinch” Kobe 6s? Regardless, the Grinch is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to Christmas kicks.

2014 LeBron James in Nike LeBron 12 “Christmas Day Akron Birch” Iman Shumpert in Adidas Crazy 2 “Bad Dreams” Klay Thompson in Nike Hyperdunk 2013 PE

Iman Shumpert

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To celebrate 2014’s five Christmas Day games, Adidas unveiled the “Bad Dreams” collection, featuring four sneakers designed in funky colors and patterns, and all highlighted by glow-in-the-dark soles. The best pair? The Crazy 2s, worn by Iman Shumpert in pregame warmups, even though he didn’t suit up for the Knicks’ matchup with the Washington Wizards due to injury. Honorable sneaker design mention: Klay Thompson’s Nike Hyperdunk 2013 PEs, which featured a snowman holding a basketball on the tongue of each shoe.

2015 Stephen Curry in Under Armour Curry 2 “Northern Lights”

Stephen Curry

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Chef Stephen Curry in the “Northern Lights,” boy! Seriously, these colorful concoctions could be worn for any holiday in the calendar year, not just Christmas.

2016 Derrick Rose in Adidas D Rose 7 Christmas PE Klay Thompson in Anta KT2 Christmas PE Lou Williams in PEAK Lightning Christmas PE

Derrick Rose

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*Cue up the Gucci Mane* I’m icy, so m—–f—— snowed up (“Icy,” 2005). Derrick Rose certainly brought both the ice and the snow on his kicks for a Christmas Day game during his lone year with the New York Knicks last season. The way those colors hit the light, you’d swear Rose was hooping on the blacktop in an ice storm, not on the hardwood in the Garden.

2017

Who in the NBA will gift us with this year’s best sneakers? We’ll see what LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Santa have wrapped up and ready to go for a Christmas Day complete with hoops.

A history of Christmas Day game debuts As Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas

 

As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”

For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.

Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”

The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.

Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.

Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?

 

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1956 vs. Philadelphia Warriors (89-82, L)

Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds

Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.

 

Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers

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Christmas 1958 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-97, L)

Line: 12 points

Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.

 

Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors

Christmas 1959 vs. Syracuse Nationals (129-121, W)

Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds

Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.

 

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals

Christmas 1960 vs. Detroit Pistons (126-119, W)

Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists

Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).

 

Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1961 vs. Cincinnati Royals (141-127, W)

Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks

Christmas 1971 vs. Detroit Pistons (120-118, L in OT)

Line: 38 points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.

 

Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Christmas 1971 vs. Pittsburgh Condors (133-126, W) | Christmas 1976 vs. New York Knicks (105-104, W)

Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds

Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.

 

Bernard King, Utah Jazz

Christmas 1979 vs. Denver Nuggets (122-111, W)

Line: 7 points

Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.

 

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1980 vs. New York Knicks (117-108, W)

Line: 28 points

Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.

 

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers

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Christmas 1981 vs. Phoenix Suns (104-101, W)

Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals

Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.

 

Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks

Christmas 1982 vs. Washington Bullets (97-91, W)

Line: 7 points, 2 blocks

Only in his rookie season, Dominique Wilkins, the man known as The Human Highlight Reel, would have far better games than this in his Hall of Fame career. Hey, it happens.

 

Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)

Christmas 1984 vs. Detroit Pistons (109-108, W, Sixers)

Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)

These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.

 

Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Christmas 1985 vs. Boston Celtics (113-104, W 2OT)

Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds

Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1986 vs. New York Knicks (86-85, L)

Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks

Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.

 

Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1990 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-86, W)

Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals

While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.

 

David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1992 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (103-94, W)

Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds

What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.

 

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Christmas 1993 vs. Phoenix Suns (111-91, L)

Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks

Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.

 

Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic

Christmas 1993 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-93, L)

Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)

Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 1994 vs. Denver Nuggets (105-96, L)

Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)

The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.

Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.

 

Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons

Christmas 1996 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-83, L)

Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds

Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1996 vs. Phoenix Suns (108-87, W)

Line: 0 points, 1 rebound

Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1999 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (99-93, L)

Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds

This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Christmas 1999 vs. New York Knicks (101-90, W)

Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.

Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Christmas 2000 vs. Indiana Pacers (103-93, L)

Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds

An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Christmas 2001 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (88-82, L)

Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.

 

Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors

Christmas 2001 vs. New York Knicks (102-94, L)

Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals

By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.

 

Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2002 vs. New Jersey Nets (117-81, L)

Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds

The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Christmas 2003 vs. Sacramento Kings (111-103, W)

Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks

While we’re pretty sure he didn’t bring his patented “work plate” with him to the arena 14 years ago, our favorite German OG, Dirk Nowitzki, feasted on Chris Webber and the Kings.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2003 vs. Orlando Magic (113-101, L in OT)

Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals

Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Christmas 2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (104-102, W in OT)

Line: 29 points, 10 assists

As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.

 

Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 2007 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (89-79, L)

Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.

Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2008 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (92-83, L)

Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)

In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.

 

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)

Christmas 2008 (88-68, Magic W)

Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)

CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.

 

Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Christmas 2009 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (107-96, L)

Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists

Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

Christmas 2010 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (96-80, W)

Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds

Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

 

Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

Christmas 2010 vs. Denver Nuggets (114-106, W)

Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)

Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Christmas 2010 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (109-102, W)

Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists

Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.

 

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2014 vs. Miami Heat (101-91, L)

Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

Christmas 2014 vs. New York Knicks (102-91, W)

Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists

Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.

 

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 2013 vs. Houston Rockets (111-98, L)

Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds

This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.

 

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Christmas 2015 vs. Miami Heat (94-88, L in OT)

Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks

Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Christmas 2016 vs. Boston Celtics (119-114, L)

Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds

With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Christmas 2016 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (112-100, L)

Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds

The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.

John Carlos, John Wooten know Kaepernick’s road is a long one After 50 years of fighting for change, these old warriors are unbowed but tired

Five decades before a backup NFL quarterback used the national anthem to tell America it can do better — enraging a U.S. president and millions of others, suffering the personal and professional consequences — John Carlos did the same.

He was the original.

He paid his dues, put in the time, working for social change for so long that he and Tommie Smith, his teammate on that Olympic podium in Mexico City, became the gold standard of athlete activism. They’re now so revered for their conviction and courage during the bubbling-over racial cauldron of the 1960s that there are statues of them on their college campus at San Jose State.

Carlos is now 72 years old. But he still can’t smell the roses. Or catch barely a sniff of satisfaction for all the work put in. His voice is raspy. He sounds exhausted. He knew it wasn’t over, this centuries-old cage fight for human rights. He just figured there would be more enlightened soldiers by now.

“It’s been a wakeup call for the last 50 f—ing years to let them know,” Carlos says from his home in Atlanta. “Excuse my language.”

“Like I been sayin’ for 50 years, there ain’t no neutrality. You gotta be on one side or the other. This man [President Donald Trump] is pushing them to make a decision, to find out who they really are. It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.”

You don’t want to be a sucka for all eternity.


A group of top African-American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

John Wooten was blocking for Jim Brown in Cleveland and learned a brother needed help: Muhammad Ali was facing charges for refusing to fight the war in Vietnam. Wooten began calling famous black athletes willing to stand with Ali at the Cleveland Summit. From Brown to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they all said, “No problem, we’ll be there.”

He knew it wouldn’t be over in 1967 when he stood behind The Greatest and alongside Bill Russell at that historic conclave of change agents. But 50 years later, Wooten is 80 years old, and there’s no sense of triumph for him either. No sense of finality in his war against inequality.

It’s going on midnight at his home in Arlington, Texas. He’s tired, the words tumbling slowly and deliberately through the receiver.

“It’s obvious to me that nowhere does our president understand the Constitution of this country,” says Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the coaching ranks and front offices of the NFL. “Because those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.”

Wooten has a couple of more thoughts before going to bed, so he can get up and fight tomorrow.

“When does unsportsmanlike conduct come in when men are standing to show this country that they are concerned about the young people being killed across the country? Are the football players and athletes to pretend this doesn’t exist?”


These two athletic icons for human rights know that change comes embarrassingly slowly. Fighting for it is soul-siphoning hard. Discouragement and defeat are just as frequent, if not more frequent, than success and victory. It wears you down and can leave you bitter.

“Listen, man, they are out there all the time,” said Carlos of the racists in our midst. “When they come, they come in numbers. The real sad thing is, they’re more united than we’ve ever been. Even people now, they think these dudes [protesting] hate their country instead of fighting for a better world and saying we can do better. Fifty years after Tommie and me, really, how far have we come?”

“It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.” – John Carlos

Next summer is the golden anniversary of Carlos and Smith bowing their heads, standing on the podium without shoes to symbolize American poverty, and raising their gloved fists. The next day they were expelled from the U.S. team and sent home. For the next 10 years, “my life was hell,” Carlos told Vox last year. He lost much more than money: friends, his marriage. They loved him. But they were scared they, too, would be ostracized.

Ali’s anti-war position was blasphemy to many Americans in 1967. But “we didn’t care about any perceived threats,” Wooten told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past year to mark the summit’s anniversary. “We weren’t concerned because we weren’t going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other, and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all.”

The country forked in thought with some repulsed and others viewing their acts as courageous.

Just like … now.

“Why does it take for [Trump] to make that one statement to make all [players] react now, when they know they should’ve reacted earlier anyway?” Carlos said. “They should have been out there a long time ago to support [Colin] Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. They all should have been rallying around them.

“But Trump done put it on the line now and told them, ‘If you do it, we gon’ spank your a–.’ And that’s a threat. So now it’s on the owners — should they disrespect the will of their players, their human rights?”

Says Wooten: “I hope these players will … show the president and the country the unity felt by all of us who want to see a better, more just world. And that those who feel it is an affront to patriotism will one day see that this act of solidarity is about making America better, not worse.”

Many NFL owners locked arms with their players on Sunday. Some released statements in support of their socially conscious employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith bonded over a common enemy.

“Those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.” – John Wooten

Former Cleveland Browns great John Wooten watches during an NFL football game between the Browns and New York Jets on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/David Richard

Wooten is more measured than Carlos, who is animated, sometimes angry and trying ineffectually to avoid a public scrap with Trump.

“The man is creating so much division in the country,” he continued. “You better get ready for the next Civil War, brother. Not to mention the wall. What can I say, man? If I get out there right now, I’m going to lambaste the man so bad, ’cause I ain’t gonna hold s— back about where his mind his. I don’t want to get into no running battle with this fool.”

Voice rising, Carlos is spiritually back in the ’60s. And, of course, that’s the most wrenching part: Fifty years later, not enough has changed.


Large chunks of our society don’t see black men kneeling for racial justice and a more equitable country. They see people demeaning Arlington National Cemetery’s dead.

Wooten and Carlos know of this historical bait and switch. They refuse to allow #TakeAKnee to be reframed as a referendum on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a protest of police brutality and racism, the often senseless killing of black men by overwhelmingly white law enforcement. That’s it.

“You would think the NFL is a Hollywood show now, the way they promote it on TV, where it’s about family and inclusive and we’re all happy,” Carlos says derisively.

“Until we go into a meeting to find out why this young man isn’t in the NFL now playing. He’s played for several years. He’s gone to the Super Bowl. He’s better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league. Why is it that he’s not playing? But [Goodell] refuses to answer and address that, and the public refuses to demand him to do that. And everybody eats it up and does nothing.”

Carlos is resigned to the fact that most people will never care as much as he does. Wooten is more hopeful, if equally tired. For 50 years, nothing has happened quickly for either of them.

It’s the right fight; it’s just not an easy one. You devote your life to something for that long, you pay a price. People get burned out. It’s deflating.

But the best of them keep going, because they know the alternative. It’s too important, too ingrained in their identities. Today’s players need their wisdom and strength now just as Ali and Smith needed them then.

John Carlos is 72. John Wooten is 80. Their joints throb. They’re tired. And 50 years later, they still live for the fight.