Get ready to love ‘Watchmen,’ the smartest show on television Regina King shines in a tale propelled by one of America’s greatest shames

In 2015, the photographer Tyler Shields released an image that, in his own words, cost him a book deal.

The photograph, titled Lynching, was part of a series called Historical Fiction. It depicted a black man, who is nude, in its foreground. He is knee-deep in an inky abyss of water, holding fast to a rope entwined around his right arm. On the other end, hanging from a tree, is a hooded Klansman, neck snapped, body limp, his feet inches from the same body of water.

Lynching by Tyler Shields. 2015.

Tyler Shields

Watchmen, which functions as a sequel to the Alan Moore comic book maxiseries of the same name, is a lot like Shields’ Lynching: An arresting, daring, complex work of art about white supremacy that dares to challenge its audience while refusing to traffic in cheap provocation. The new series begins Sunday on HBO at 9 p.m.

Moore’s comic was set in 1985. Series creator Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) fast-forwards the story to present-day America and uses the probing, philosophical nature of the original comic as its inspiration, while taking an unexpected but welcome turn. Moore’s comic explored the nature of superheroism and power itself, how and if vigilantism could co-exist with the established structure of democracy, and what would result if such a world existed.

Watchmen’s true superpower is that the ramifications of every subversion, every appropriation of all that those who cling to white supremacy hold dear, every millisecond of dialogue and imagery, has been deeply considered.

Much like Moore’s original universe, the 2019 Tulsa, of Watchmen is awash in weirdness. In this alternate Tulsa, Oklahoma, Vietnam is a state because the U.S. won the Vietnam War, Watergate never happened, alien squid creatures rain down from the sky at unpredictable intervals. The country is run by President Robert Redford (yes, as in The Way We Were Robert Redford), who has been in office for some 25 years. His treasury secretary is Henry Louis Gates Jr. The Redford administration has enacted reparations for the descendants of the Greenwood Massacre, also known as the Black Wall Street massacre.

Now for a quick side trip to reality: After World War I, Tulsa’s Greenwood district was a bustling haven of black economic activity. A young black man, Dick Rowland, was arrested after he got on an elevator with a white operator named Sarah Page. Page reportedly cried out. When members of the black community came to the Tulsa courthouse to demand justice for Rowland, who was being held by police, a mob of armed white Oklahomans chased the black protesters to Greenwood. On June 1, 1921, they burned and looted the district known as Black Wall Street.

Back to the Tulsa of Watchmen: In 2019, the white residents of Tulsa still harbor resentment toward the black ones. Three years earlier, an organized mob of whites known as the Seventh Kavalry (essentially a new iteration of the Ku Klux Klan) hunted down Tulsa police and killed them because the police were fighting white supremacist terrorism. After the mass murder, the entire police force is nearly wiped out, save for detective Angela Abar (Regina King) and Chief Judd Crawford (Don Johnson). The secret police now wear masks to hide their identities. After three years of peace, trouble begins anew when a Kavalry member shoots and kills the black officer who pulled him over during a traffic stop.

Regina King (second from right) as detective Angela Abar/Miss Night and Tim Blake Nelson (left) as Looking Glass in HBO’s Watchmen.

Mark Hill/HBO

The series takes off when it becomes clear that the Kavalry will not be satisfied with one instance of violence, but instead is gunning for full-on revolution. I’ve seen the first six episodes, and they are startling in their insight and overall brilliance. I can’t say much more about plot details without setting off a minefield of spoilers. However, Watchmen is on par with Get Out as an astute and compelling examination of race and power in America, one committed to exploring the insidious depths of the country’s original sin and what it truly takes to subvert it. It is ambitious, consuming, visually appealing entertainment that is also masterfully dense with historical and sociological observation.

Lindelof and his team of writers (Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, and Carly Wray) has taken on a challenge that has tripped up many a writer and director exploring the idea of racial role reversal and the flip-flopping of power dynamics. It’s an experiment employed with results that run the spectrum from flippant to profound to utterly disastrous, showing up in Wild Wild West, BlacKkKlansman and even Ma.

Watchmen’s true superpower is that the ramifications of every subversion, every appropriation of all that those who cling to white supremacy hold dear, every millisecond of dialogue and imagery, has been deeply considered. Like Daniel Fish’s radical restaging of Oklahoma!, the musical from which Lindelof draws so much inspiration, Watchmen never loses sight of the limits white supremacy exacts on black power, even black power that is afforded the imprimatur of white institutional legitimacy. In Watchmen, that legitimacy comes in the form of a police badge and uniform.

In that way, Watchmen feels appropriate for right now, as works such as Oklahoma!, Slave Play, and the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project continue to prod at the country’s long-held beliefs about race and power, question them, and turn them 180 degrees for full, well overdue examination. In Watchmen, all of the characters are raced, and the show contends with what that means with refreshing consistency — it follows the complications such a decision invites instead of turning its back on that decision when the siren call of narrative convenience beckons.

It is wholly committed to the challenges of being a character-driven work that derives its propulsion from the horrors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and that commitment makes itself evident the more the story unfolds with each episode.

Watchmen isn’t perfect, and if you’re unfamiliar with the comic or the 2009 Zack Snyder adaptation, some of its turns can feel awfully disorienting. But patience is rewarded; a virtuosic sixth episode, directed by Lost alum Stephen Williams, provides the keys for how everything fits together, and it’s impossible to exaggerate what a big, satisfying payoff it delivers. Before then, King delivers a remarkable, rangy performance. The choreography of her fight scenes is punchy, breathtaking and fiercely kinetic. King’s scenes with Jean Smart, who plays an FBI agent named Laurie Blake, practically jump off the screen.

As for further parallels to Shields’ Lynching? They will reveal themselves with time. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s canonically nonwhite Alexander Hamilton: Just you wait.

Friend or Foe: What’s behind Jay-Z’s surprising partnership with the NFL There are a million and one questions about the new alliance. The answers are a combination of money, power and the movement.

It could be just one. Or, more probably, it’s a combination of all four. Jay-Z’s history tells us that the reasons behind the partnership between the NFL and rap’s first billionaire likely revolve around money, power and the movement. And the potential to become the NFL’s first black owner.

For the past decade, the NFL has been at the epicenter of the definitive culture war in sports, from concussions and CTE research to domestic violence, as well as issues of social justice dramatized by exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. For the NFL, the cost-benefit analysis of this arrangement is clear. The league brings in one of the most famous celebrities of the past half-century who has donated time, money and attention to some of the very topics on which the NFL is accused of being tone-deaf. The league needs to recover its cultural cachet, and a big part of that means reaching out to black fans, at least some of whom swore off the game after Kaepernick’s exile.

Wednesday’s news conference at Roc Nation’s New York headquarters grew out of talks that began in January between Jay, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. (Kaepernick and former San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL over their collusion grievances a month later for a reported $10 million.) Roc Nation’s partnership with the NFL is set to include entertainment consultation, which includes helping curate the Super Bowl’s halftime show. But, according to Jay, the kicker was the ability to bolster the league’s Inspire Change program through a variety of avenues, including “Songs of the Season” that will entail inspirational songs from a handful of artists played during television broadcasts and “Beyond the Field,” which will feature voices and perspectives of NFL players on a multitude of topics.

Responding to questions about whether this partnership negates his previous support for Kaepernick, who still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, Jay said that it was about figuring out the next step. “I think we’ve moved past kneeling, and I think it’s time to go into actionable items.”

He continued: “No, I don’t want people to stop protesting at all. Kneeling, I know we’re stuck on it because it’s a real thing, but kneeling is a form of protest. I support protest across the board. … I’m not minimizing that part of it because that has to happen, that’s a necessary part of the process. But now that we all know what’s going on, what are we going to do? How are we going to stop it? Because the kneeling was not about a job, it was about injustice.”

Colin Kaepernick onstage at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on Oct. 11, 2018, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

It’s impossible to say it’s not about money too. Jay’s career is a case study in the pursuit of wealth. Being broke is childish, he quipped on 1997’s “I Love The Dough” alongside The Notorious B.I.G., and I’m quite grown. On “Imaginary Player,” he raps, You beer money, I’m all year money. Two billionaire conglomerates don’t come together without a return on investment. Morally, sure. Hopefully. But financially, absolutely.

The deal gives Jay the power to program annually the most watched concert in the country and one of the last remaining mass-market entertainment experiences of any kind. Roc Nation will co-produce and consult on entertainment presentations, but it boils down to one real production: the Super Bowl halftime show. In a world where the internet has all but eliminated the concept of must-see viewing, the Super Bowl draws hundreds of millions of people to a live broadcast. But it’s also a moment that, especially for black artists, has become a picket line of sorts. A considerable amount of the backlash against Jay thus far has focused on the perceived hypocrisy over his criticism of Travis Scott’s decision to perform at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this year.

Jay said Wednesday that Kaepernick wasn’t the rationale for his criticism of Scott. “My problem is [Travis] had the biggest year to me last year and he’s playing on a stage that had a M on it,” Jay said, referring to Maroon 5, the headline performer. “I didn’t see any reason for him to play second fiddle to anyone that year, and that was my argument.”

And while some are uneasy seeing Jay pictured laughing with Goodell, it’s not exactly the first time Jay’s been before the court of public opinion’s firing squad.

Damon Dash (left) and Jay-Z (right) during Dash’s birthday party on May 4, 2004, at La Bodega in New York.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

From Roc-A-Fella Records’ demise and his split with its CEO, Damon Dash, to activist Harry Belafonte questioning Jay and Beyoncé’s commitment to social responsibility in 2013, Jay continuing his partnership with luxury retailer Barneys after its “shop-and-frisk” practice ignited debates about racial profiling, and criticism of streaming company Tidal — Jay’s longevity isn’t due as much to winning every round as it is to being able to take a punch.

Now, the haymakers are coming from Kaepernick’s supporters. And it seems from Kaepernick himself.

Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa, and brother-in-protest Reid criticized the deal for helping the NFL clean up the mess while Kaepernick can’t get a job in the league, even as he said last week that he was still ready to return. This week, Kaepernick put up an Instagram post commemorating the third anniversary of the start of his fight against systemic oppression. He then took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon thanking Reid for his loyalty from day one as well as the fans who still see Kaepernick as the face of a movement. Life’s irony is oftentimes wickedly poetic. Their fidelity to Kaepernick and the cause he raged against the machine for call to mind one of Jay-Z’s hardest bars from 1996’s “Feelin’ It:” If every n—a in your clique is rich, your clique is rugged / Nobody will fall ’cause everyone will be each other’s crutches.

Jay-Z’s support and praise of Kaepernick is well-documented — he once wore his jersey during a Saturday Night Live performance and dubbed him an “iconic figure” who deserved to have his name mentioned along with Muhammad Ali. Now, Jay has aligned himself with the same institution that has kept the Super Bowl runner-up quarterback off the field since the 2016 season. And in pursuit of the next phase of equality, he’s seemingly alienated the one athlete who brought the conversation into the living rooms of every house in America.

But it pays to remember that discussions similar to the ones now surrounding Jay were held about Kaepernick months ago. Kaepernick, too, aligned himself with a billion-dollar corporation in Nike in a move that drew criticism from some who felt he corporatized his cause. Did Kap, too, sell his legacy for a check? Even Uncle Luke weighed in on the issue. The truth of the matter is that Jay-Z wasn’t required to obtain Kaepernick’s blessing. But for some, Kap’s lack of involvement is a near unforgivable sin because it may have the effect of making his NFL banishment a lifelong sentence.

Jay-Z (left) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (right) attend the launch of the Reform Alliance, a criminal justice reform organization, at Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York City on Jan. 23.

Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

What does success look like in this deal? Bringing more money and quantifiable action toward social justice and educational reform is one metric. A halftime show capable of tapping into the culture and being comfortable with that messaging is too.

But it feels like there’s something else underlying the rollout. Playlists, podcasts and access to players are all opportunities Jay could’ve captured on Tidal. At Wednesday’s announcement, Jay attempted to figure out who a reporter’s question was directed toward, himself or Goodell, by quipping, “I’m not the commissioner yet.” It was a way to lighten the mood while whimsically planting a seed. Connecting the dots, this feels like it could be a path to future ownership in the NFL.

It’s a long game. Attempting to fix the league’s image might be the most uphill battle of Jay-Z’s career — especially while he’s trying to use the platform to benefit his own business interests. It’s capitalistic. It’s selfish. But it’s also a business model that he’s repeatedly used over the last quarter century.

And if it does succeed, he’d become the first black power broker in a league that has acquired a reputation for silencing black voices, not privileging them. Debates will rage on over whether it’s a savvy or snake move by Jay. But any potential buyer of an NFL team has to be someone who at least 24 of the league’s 32 team owners want as a member of one of the most exclusive (yet anything but inclusive) clubs.

How Jay handles the NFL’s inevitable next controversy, whether it be another Stephen Ross public relations debacle or President Donald Trump weaving his way back into league storylines as the 2020 election year approaches, will be interesting to watch. N—as said Hova was over, such dummies / Even if I fail I’ll land on a bunch of money, he rhymed on 2007’s “Success.”

The boast is only partially true now. Jay-Z’s bank account is secure. But his future is now intertwined with a league he blasted just last summer — and seemingly on the opposite side of the aisle from the one player who made this newfound partnership possible. It’s not a stretch to say this could be the most important and daunting blueprint of Jay-Z’s career.

Nike drops limited-edition Colin Kaepernick ‘Icon’ jersey Kaepernick’s name is on a Nike jersey once again and he hasn’t played since 2017

Colin Kaepernick has proven he doesn’t have to be on the roster of a team to dominate every NFL conversation. He also doesn’t have to be in the league to have his own jersey.

On Wednesday — five days after the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and current Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL concerning their collusion grievances against the league — Nike released the limited-edition Kaepernick Icon jersey, which is available on the brand’s website in men’s sizes (small to 3XL) for $150 each.

“We believe Colin Kaepernick is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” a Nike spokesperson told The Undefeated. “The jersey marks Nike’s continued product collaboration with Colin.”

The new apparel arrived almost six months after Nike made Kaepernick the face of a reboot to the company’s iconic Just Do It campaign, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2018. Kaepernick appeared in an ad with the slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

He also narrated a two-minute spot, titled Dream Crazy, which first aired on TV during the NFL regular-season opener between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.

In September, it was originally reported that Nike had no plans to give Kaepernick a signature shoe or extensive clothing line despite being at the forefront of the company’s messaging. However, in late October, Nike dropped the Kaepernick Icon Tee, which went on sale at retail for $50 and sold out within hours. The black long-sleeved shirt with “KAEPERNICK” sprawled across the back was restocked in November and sold out for a second time.

Kaepernick now has his name on the back of a Nike jersey once again, though he hasn’t played a down of pro football since 2017. The quarterback-turned-social activist has gone unsigned by all 32 NFL teams after he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 as a statement against racial injustice in the United States. His stance sparked a leaguewide movement of player protests, which has continued even without Kaepernick on the sidelines of NFL stadiums.

Two days before Super Bowl LIII, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James — one of Nike’s biggest and most impactful athletes — arrived in Oakland, California, for a game against the Golden State Warriors wearing the Kaepernick jersey. He teased a potential release, just like he did last October when he rocked the Kaepernick Icon Tee to a Lakers preseason game three weeks before it debuted.

Now, the jersey — like the overwhelming support of Kaepernick’s cause — is very much so real.

The jersey is nondescript, with black mesh and his last name, No. 7 and Nike swooshes all in white. There’s also a specially designed jock tag featuring two logos — a “K” next to an illustration of Kaepernick’s Afro’d head. Unlike a typical Nike NFL jersey, it notably doesn’t feature the league’s logo at the V of the collar, or a team name/crest on the chest above the front number. Nike’s Kaepernick Icon jersey is also almost identical to the limited-edition #IMWITHKAP jersey that went on sale in September on Kaepernick’s website. Kaepernick announced on Twitter that 20 percent of all proceeds from the sale of the jerseys would go to his Know Your Rights Camp — a free campaign for youths that he founded to raise awareness on higher education, self-empowerment and instruction on how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. Not only did the jersey sell out, it’s been embraced by celebrities and entertainers across the world.

Everyone from Grammy-nominated singers Jhené Aiko and Trey Songz to Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, radio personality Ebro Darden, actor Jesse Williams and renowned civil rights activist Angela Davis have been photographed in the jersey. J. Espinosa, the official in-game DJ for the Oakland Raiders, also wore it when he won a world DJing championship in Taipei. And the night of the Super Bowl, Kaepernick tweeted a picture of John Carlos — another athlete-turned-activist who raised the Black Power salute with fellow American sprinter Tommie Smith at the 1968 Games — in the #IMWITHKAP jersey. “It means the world to me to have the support of John Carlos, an Icon who paved the way for myself and many others to continue to fight systemic oppression,” Kaepernick wrote. “Thank you for your sacrifice for us! ✊🏾.”

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.

In ‘Creed II,’ Michael B. Jordan takes a beating and keeps on ticking With unforgettable roles in ‘Black Panther’ and now ‘Creed,’ he’s the poster boy for 2018

The American patriot and central hero of Creed II has zero interest in making googly eyes at Vladimir Putin.

Director Steven Caple Jr. made his feature debut in 2016 at Sundance with The Land, a story about skateboarders set in Cleveland. In the latest chapter of the Creed franchise, he turns a good ol’ Russian-American showdown into a deceptively fun vehicle for exploring ideas about race, patriotism, leadership and modern American masculinity. The satisfaction it brings hits unexpectedly hard, the work of a story originally written by Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker and then rewritten a couple of times, including by Juel Taylor and star and producer Sylvester Stallone.

Having ascended to heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has little time to enjoy his success before boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) presents him with a challenge he can’t ignore. Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the vengeful son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen, who reprises her turncoat role with delicious, biting iciness), wants to fight Adonis, and he wants to fight him bad. This feud is generational: Ivan killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, in the ring before getting beaten by Rocky Balboa (Stallone). The Dragos, still stinging from Ludmilla’s abandonment, have been wallowing in shame and isolation in Ukraine while plotting their way back to the top.

Despite the resurrection of a familiar rivalry, the Cold War enmity that fueled the subtext of the Rocky movies has given way in Creed II to a more complicated expression of patriotism familiar to many black Americans. Adonis fights for himself, for his community, for his city, for his father’s legacy.

They’re too polite to say it, but it’s clear that his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), see his fight with Drago as a suicide mission. Being black women with two working sets of eyes, they are, of course, right.

Creed hangs on to his belt, not because he beats Viktor but because the Russian has so little integrity that he can’t resist landing one more knockout punch after the final bell. Bianca becomes Adonis’ personal Horace Greeley, pushing the couple and baby she’s baking out of the cold, claustrophobic confines of Philadelphia and toward Los Angeles sunshine, where Adonis can figure out how to mend his bruised ego. She wants to get her burgeoning music career off the ground while she still can. Thompson’s performance reveals that no director has yet come close to capturing the full breadth of her talents. She stuns as an artsy-yet-commanding chanteuse and takes full advantage of the third act to unfurl a soaring, magical presence.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed in Creed II.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

In Drago, Creed is battling not only revenge-seeking Russians but also in-the-flesh white supremacy. Not only is the titanic Viktor Drago bigger, faster and stronger than Creed, he looks like what would result if master-race mad scientists were allowed to manufacture a heavyweight boxer with CRISPR gene editing.

Drago will only agree to a rematch if the fight is held in Russia. Can Creed win when “neutral” has shifted so heavily? Because asking the United Nations to monitor the officiating is not an option, Creed deduces that nothing less than an undisputed TKO will do.

The outcome of Creed II is, of course, wholly predictable. Its appeal lies in how it gets there, charting Creed’s path to redemption through the choking hot air of the California desert. As training montages go, the shift in venue serves Creed II especially well: Caple rewards Jordan’s fans with ample shots of his leading man’s rippling physique as the appropriately named Adonis gears up for the fight of his life.

In Adonis, Caple and executive producer Ryan Coogler have crafted a bridge from a stoic brand of American hypermasculinity, one in which “working class” is immediately coded as white, to a modern one that finds its core in romance and history-making legacy, a point Caple punctuates with a shot of Adonis cradling his daughter, Amara, in his father’s boxing gym as a billboard-sized image of Apollo stands watch in the background. Anger, hunger for revenge and brute strength aren’t enough to vanquish an existential opponent like Viktor Drago. Only focus, endurance and strategic precision will prevail.

Coogler and Caple are the architects of this year’s one-two punch of cinematic black power, with leading man Jordan as the fulcrum. While Coogler used Black Panther to imagine an African utopia untouched by the evils of imperialism, Caple’s latest chapter of the Rocky story projects a vision in which restoring the glory and honor of an imperfect America lies in the hands of a black man.

As Killmonger in Black Panther and Adonis in Creed II, Jordan toggles from an avatar of the lethal efficiency of the American military-industrial complex, molded and calcified by white supremacy, to a symbol of American perseverance, triumph and calculated might on the world stage. These two unforgettable roles have made Jordan the poster boy for 2018.

Adonis Creed may be an American with a world heavyweight title, but in the hands of Coogler and Caple, he belongs to black people first. And the possibilities for what lies ahead are already spinning. Baby Amara is the next generation of the Creed family, and her father has deemed her “a fighter.” Are Coogler, Caple & Co. setting us up for a chapter in which the future is female?

John Boyega adores Lupita Nyong’o and is about ‘Ewoks all day. I hate porgs.’ The ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Star Wars’ star likes his Jay-Z and Kanye — and his grime and afropop

He burst onto the scene in 2015 as Finn, the black storm trooper-turned-hero in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but John Boyega has proved that he won’t be defined by that life-changing role.

He’s since demonstrated his versatility in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit and onstage as lead in an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck in his native London — before bringing Finn back in Star Wars: The Last Jedi last December. Now Boyega is out front in the sequel to 2013 cult classic Pacific Rim, the new Pacific Rim Uprising.

Boyega is part of a large wave of black British actors who have taken over the American box office in recent years. Daniel Kaluuya was nominated for an Oscar for his role in Get Out. David Oyelowo was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in Selma. And Letitia Wright and Kaluuya both starred in Marvel’s Black Panther, which is on pace to become the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time.

“I’m proud,” Boyega said. “We all trained very, very hard to get here, gave up our lives in the U.K. to pursue something better, and in return America gave us that shot. It feels absolutely epic to be a part of this movement right now.”

Boyega’s ambitions don’t end in front of the camera. After filming The Force Awakens, he used his earnings to start a production company called UpperRoom Entertainment Limited, which was launched in January 2016. His company co-produced Pacific Rim Uprising, giving Boyega the first producer credit of his career. It’s safe to say that the shine of the talented upstart isn’t fading anytime soon.

If your character, Jack, in Pacific Rim Uprising played a CD in his Jaeger (the large robots featured in the film), what are you playing?

I’m going to be playing Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s Watch the Throne.

Favorite song off that album?

‘No Church in the Wild.’ It’s a good song, especially for the fighting in Pacific Rim. A bit upbeat.

Your dad is a preacher. Any music that wasn’t allowed in the house growing up?

We listened to all of it. Christians are nuanced. Some people believe you shouldn’t hear any secular music — my dad didn’t believe that. We listened to Michael Jackson growing up. We couldn’t listen to hardcore rap music or anything like that, but can’t lie, we listened to that when we were in school.

Who are your favorite musical artists right now?

I love SZA. She’s fantastic. Kendrick Lamar. I’m loving what Stormzy in the U.K. is doing. I’m loving what Skepta is doing with the fashion and the music. And then homegrown talent: I love Wizkid, I love Davido, Tekno. Those are the Afrobeat stars that I listen to.

On Instagram, you posted that you put Wizkid’s “Daddy Yo” in Pacific Rim Uprising. How important is diversity within those working behind the camera?

What people get to experience are ideas that come out from very different people. We all collaborate to bring together ideas that help move the story forward. With that being said, my background is very unique. Being able to make that kind of decision is cool, and to make that kind of history is cool as well. To put those worlds together and have our lead sci-fi hero enjoying an Afrobeat Nigerian song, it’s something to be proud of.

What aspect of Nigerian culture would you like to see represented more in the U.S.?

A whole bunch of things. It’s hard to see the perspective of the world and not be too concerned with only the portal that you have, which is America … the bubble that America creates. The food is something that I think … could be accepted in the mainstream. On top of that, definitely the music, which has gotten a bit more recognition, which is definitely quite cool. I believe that as human beings, any chance we get to relate with someone different enough, we are actively changing the world in a positive way.

Advice for your 15 year-old self?

Stop eating all those sweets, man. Seriously, you need to stop that (laughs).

How does it feel to be a part of this wave of black British actors taking over American film in recent years?

Myself and Letitia Wright went to the same drama school. I met Daniel Kaluuya at a very young age while he was doing his stage thing. I’ve met various British actors where I have auditioned in the U.K. I’m very, very happy. These are good actors, high-quality actors who are nuanced and are able to do things on-screen that are intriguing, draw the audience in.

I decided my talents were best suited for being in the [soccer] audience, watching.

First concert?

A Grace Jones concert.

Favorite line from Black Panther?

Oh, man. Hmmm. The colonizer line (laughs). That made me crack up. That definitely was my favorite. I have a film club that I go to, [and] Black Panther is the talking topic for the next two weeks. A lot of Michael B. Jordan’s lines come up — so well-written. The stuff he says about enslavement and how it relates to what’s going on today. Those lines are important.

Is it true that you once wanted to be a soccer star?

I didn’t actually want to be a soccer star, I just wanted to try it out to see if my right foot could kick straight. I decided my talents were best suited for being in the [soccer] audience, watching.

Did you have a favorite soccer club growing up?

The family supported Manchester United. My sister got married and she transferred to Arsenal and literally broke the family code. When she did that there wasn’t enough motivation for my dad to stay with MU because I think at the time we had a pretty crap Premier League. And then what happened, my dad became a glory hunter. You asked him what team he’d support, he’d say whatever team wins.

What will you always be a champion of?

Online Star Wars Battlefront.

Any bad habits?

I hardly make my bed when I’m leaving.

Actor or actress you’d most like to work with in the future?

Lupita Nyong’o.

Best advice you’ve received from another actor/actress?

I wouldn’t really call this advice, but talking to Lupita in-depth about the industry, in-depth about the way which we see our roles in this whole movement. I’ve always felt I could call her and speak to her about any challenges I’ve faced. And, for me, hearing her side of the story and hearing not only the perspective but also an insight into how I could be a part of the change.

While you’ve made your name in sci-fi, you’ve also been in films rooted in African-American (Detroit) and Nigerian (Half of a Yellow Sun) history. Any upcoming roles?

Yes, but I’ve got to keep that one to myself.

Ewoks or Porgs?

Ewoks all day. I hate porgs.

What is the ‘State of the Black Athlete’? The cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete, as told in pictures

Athletic success may get you through the door, but be mindful, once you get here: “Stick to sports.”

There has been an unspoken expectation and, more recently, an apparent insistence that athletes’ opinions and passions are to be kept quiet. But the cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete has pushed back on this narrative.

We asked several artists of color to examine and interpret the current “state of the black athlete.” Here’s what they came up with.

Sam Adefé

I often find that no matter the sport, brothers in the game continuously have to prove themselves worthy of the pedestal they are heavily burdened with. I say brother because to me, every black athlete represents someone like myself — a black kid chasing his dreams — finding inspiration in the actions of the people already paving the way.

Represented here is Anthony Joshua’s raised clenched fist after he defeated Wladimir Klitschko. To the many black youths who happened to be watching that day, witnessing that gesture meant more than just a show of celebration. This gesture symbolizes a show of solidarity.

Adrian Brandon

My goal with this illustration is to address the commonalities between black professional athletes and the black victims of police violence — it highlights the incredible amount of responsibility black athletes have and the role sports fans play in the current wave of athlete activism.

The sprinter in the illustration is focused on the finish line, while his shadow represents the young black victims of police brutality, symbolizing the constant fear that all black men and women face in today’s society.

Both the sprinter and his shadow are running away — in the same direction, illustrating the chilling similarities between black professional athletes and the victims we see on the news.

The crowd supporting the runner changes from sports fans (right) to protesters/activists (left). This begs the question, who is the black athlete competing for? How has this wave of black athlete activism changed the mentalities of sports fans?

Brandon Breaux

I wanted to capture black athletes in a contemplative state. These competitors have or have had the ability to reach so many people — it’s a great responsibility, but can also be a great burden.

Athletes, in general, already have to deal with so much: unwanted attention, pressure, rumors, performance anxiety, and even more. Black athletes, have all that on top of feeling as though they aren’t 100 percent accepted in their own country.

Today’s current state of affairs feel special. I think it’s a time where the life of a black athlete/person is so much bigger than the self, and the athletes in my illustration represent the contemplation that comes with it.

Caitlin Cherry

John Urschel, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, retired in 2017 to pursue his studies as a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His retirement came suddenly, just two days after a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found nearly all former NFL players who donated their brains to science had signs of CTE.

It seemed the two were connected.

Urschel knows the all-too-real statistics that injury risk is high and the average NFL player’s career spans between two and five years.

He should inspire the next generation of would-be ballplayers in any professional sport that their studies in college are not supplementary. There is a life after the NFL. I appreciate him as a Renaissance man.

Chase Conley

What Huey P. Newton has taught me is that I have the power to change my condition, and it’s vital that we stand up against the unjust and fight for what we believe in, even if the cost is high. Until these players start worrying about the issues concerning the state of black people in this country and not about their paychecks, they are still a part of the problem. Yes, you may lose your job, but is that job more important than the condition of your people? Young black teenagers being gunned down in the street every other week? We all should have the courage to sacrifice for the greater good.

What would these leagues be without black people anyway?

Emmanuel Mdlalose

I likened the movement of sprinter Allyson Felix to when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Representing Felix overcoming obstacles faced by a black woman, especially in the athletic world — just dominating. I am drawn to her composed personality while being able to be strong-willed at the same time. She really represents the metamorphosis of a butterfly — in all her beauty, swiftness, and, most importantly, freedom.

Kia Dyson

In a time where black bodies are on public display and seemingly viewed to hold no value, I have attempted to find a way to turn tragedies within the black community into works of art.

“Above All Things” represents the ability, and, more importantly, the necessity for women of color to go above and beyond in all we do just to receive fair recognition. The expectations are higher for us.

We don’t have the luxury of mediocrity when it comes to providing, performing or competing. So we use our excellence as a form of protest: a demonstration of strength, acceptance, womanhood and visibility.

Laci Jordan

The state of the black athlete is conflicted.

Athletes grow up simply loving the game. As they grow older, outside factors come into play that can inhibit that love: notoriety, fame, special treatment, money, etc. Players can also become public figures and role models. Black athletes are stuck between these two worlds.

As an athlete, you have the keys to success to take care of yourself and your family, but on the other end, you sacrifice your voice and ability to speak on anything political — you’re told to stick to the game. As a black athlete, you’re expected to enjoy your riches and fame in exchange for your voice, choices and ethics.

Pierre Bennu

This piece references the Afro-futurist interpretation of the slavery project in the Western Hemisphere as a centuries-long genetic experiment, as well as the Sankofa concept of looking backward and seeing the future.

In choosing materials to make up the image, I imagine the middle passage as a thrusting or throwing forward into the future of mass amounts of human capital. With the crown of shards, I seek to reference the toll that many professional sports take on the body and also the regal state of being at peak physical form.

Robert Generette III

The statement on the tape, “PLAY,” not only states a command but also commands attention. I wanted the art to speak to different sides of the argument: players who comply, players wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, and fans for or against athletes’ choices.

In the illustration, a spotlight is placed on an ambiguous African-American athlete who is shirtless, which suggests he’s baring it all. For the athletes who comply with “shut up and play,” the red arrow symbolizes the potential for them to excel or “climb the ladder to success” in their sport. The athlete who complies thrives.

For the athletes wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, the intense stare reflects the absurdity of being told to shut up and play. The athlete has the complex choice of raising one fist (in protest) or raising both fists (in victory). For the fans who are not affected by or disagree with the views of athletes, the sticker across the athlete’s mouth, in their opinion, should become an essential part of the uniform.

I want this illustration to beg the questions: Should you keep quiet and find contempt for living one’s dream? Or should you use your dream as a platform to speak for those whose voices go unheard at the expense of sacrificing one’s dream?

Ronald Wimberly

I asked myself about the political role of the black body within a racist, consumerist paradigm and how that plays out in sports. For this image I thought about how athletes may work through these very same questions through sports. From Muhammad Ali’s name change to the Black Power fists of the 1968 Olympic Games, to Colin Kaepernick’s act of taking a knee — we are given expressions, symbolic abstractions, symbols that challenge us to think. I think this is the most radical act: to be challenged to think, to ask questions. Explaining artwork is a trap.

Formally, the work is a dialogue with the works of Aaron Douglas and Tadanori Yokoo and the movements to which they belong.

Tiffany B. Chanel

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick. In the face of explicit and implicit racism, everyday people rise selflessly to address social injustice. Among these people are African-American athletes, such as the ones in my painting, who use their public platform and their First Amendment right to solidify their purpose as change agents. Their primary goal is to rewrite the narrative of oppressed people and afford them a pathway to upward mobility.

Some may say we have come really far, but have we really? What would you say?

Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion Brittney Reese believes MLK’s dream is alive and well The long jump star says King’s beliefs influenced her a lot in her journey

On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered one of his most powerful and inspirational speeches at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The “I Have a Dream” speech became known as one of his most famous oral addresses in American history.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ ” King said.

The civil rights movement was also a time when athletes were facing equality issues of their own. And King knew sports. He knew sports was and would become a platform in society, lending cultural relevance to race and politics.

And 50 years later, King is still affecting the sports world today, inspiring athletes like Olympic gold medalist (2012) Brittney Reese. A multitalented athlete who played high school basketball in her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, Reese recognizes King knew the significance sports would have on society, although he was never an athlete. The 31-year-old seven-time world champion says his dream is alive.

“I’m in a sport that’s predominantly black, and it just is amazing how we come together as athletes in our sports,” Reese said. “He [King] actually kind of paved the way. And then Muhammed Ali paved the way for us to be able to be in a sport without having any kind of racial tension going on. We still have some bumps in the road and there will be some bad eggs in the basket now and then, but I feel like his dream is still alive and still doing some of the things he preached about in certain sermons.”

In the 1960s, King appeared publicly with Ali at a demonstration for fair housing in Louisville, Kentucky. Track stars such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

These are just a few moments that merge sports and culture that she will never forget.

Reese gained popularity when she began dominating in track and field in high school. The long jump is her area of expertise. It’s a title she wears with pride. She still holds the indoor American record in the long jump with a distance of 7.23 meters.

But through all of her accomplishments, she often recalls the first time she heard of King. It wasn’t in a textbook. It was at home by way of her mentor and grandfather King David Dunomes, who shared stories about the civil rights movement, including the time he traveled to Washington, D.C., to hear King’s speech.

“Growing up, I knew probably a lot more than a lot of other people in my area, but being able to see the effect he’s made across the world, especially for black people, is real remarkable,” Reese said of what she learned about King. “I’m grateful to have a grandfather that was supporting him through those times and was able to walk with him in those times. I got to learn a lot of the insights that most people my age wouldn’t know. He made a big impact in my life.”

Dunomes died suddenly in 2017, which marks one of the hardest times in Reese’s life. But she is an overcomer and keeps all of her memories of her grandfather close to her heart.

Reese is a seven-time USA Track & Field Outdoor Women’s Champion in the long jump, a three-time World Outdoor Champion (2009, 2011, 2013), a three-time World Indoor Champion (2010, 2012, 2016), the current indoor long jump American record holder besides being the 2012 Olympic Games gold medalist and 2016 Olympic Games silver medalist.

She is also the track coach at San Diego Mesa College. Born in Inglewood, California, and raised in Gulfport, Reese began by competing in the high jump and 400-meter dash. She was named Mississippi’s 2004 Gatorade Player of the Year for track and field and enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and played basketball before accepting a track and field scholarship to the University of Mississippi.

As she trains daily for her upcoming indoor long jump competition just one month away, she is raising her 10-year-old son Alex, who she says doesn’t experience a lot of racial tension. However, Reese plans to instill King’s memory in him by teaching the importance of equality.

“He doesn’t see a lot of the racial tension. But I want him to understand that he’s a black kid, and what we went through, and what Dr. Martin Luther King did helped allow him to be able to play with the kids that he likes to play with now. He doesn’t see color, which is something I want to teach him. But I also want him to know his roots and his family … Let him know where he came from and what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, and how he’s able to be around the people that he’s around today.”

Informing Alex of his roots is a priority for Reese. It’s a sentiment she internalized from her great-grandmother Ethel Lee Brooks, who always told her to “know where she came from” and taught her the act of giving back.

“I think that played a significant part in my career and in my life also,” Reese said. “Once I attained the medal [Olympic gold], the first thing I did was come home and show the kids back in Gulfport, Mississippi, what I’ve done. I’ve been blessed and lucky to have a city to be behind me every step of the way. They’ve been behind me my entire life, ever since I was young enough to give a newspaper, they were there.”

To pay homage to Brooks and keep up with King’s ideology of the moral function of education, she launched the B. Reese Scholarship in 2012, which helps one male and one female student annually with upcoming college expenses. In May 2013, the Reese Scholarship was even awarded in Baltimore County Public Schools.

“I want to try to motivate the kids and get them involved in track, and that’s where the scholarship came from — helping other mothers, because there’s a lot of single mothers out there. The scholarships have a lot of funds, but just to help them with books for the first semester or help them get started on their way. And I also have a camp that I like to put on and help show the other kids different drills that they can do to help them be successful in the next part of their life. I think my great-grandmother was the reason that I just got so accustomed to giving back, because her telling me never forget where you came from has always stuck with me.”

She donates turkeys over the holidays and spends a lot of time with the homeless in Gulfport.

“You know, it’s been a tough journey. I’ve had ups and downs, but I’d say one of the better is probably my Olympic medals. That’s been the highlight of my career. Me being able to have that lets them know how hard I worked, and that nothing in life is easy, that you’re going to have to work to get what you want.”

Cam Newton confounds both his fans and his haters — but he’s not so different from the rest of us Award-winning essayist and poet Claudia Rankine explores the Panthers quarterback his brilliance, sullenness, fragility and resilience

Cam Newton is an incredibly talented human being who has a job white Americans see as a white man’s job, and apparently this is vexing to America. Cam Newton is sometimes reduced to his athleticism, as in “an athletic quarterback,” aka black, which is predictably comforting to America. Cam Newton wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, which is a wink to America. Cam Newton likes flashy clothes like NFL legend Joe Namath, which is scandalous to America. Cam Newton is arrogant, and that is outrageous and an oxymoron to America. Cam Newton has a shoe contract with Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, once supported racist Donald Trump, and this is commonplace in America. Cam Newton has a son named Chosen and a daughter named Sovereign-Dior, which seems like freedom to America. Cam Newton is a typical male human holding misogynistic beliefs who says sexist things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” and this reveals something about him but not something about America? Cam Newton believes winning is everything, and that is reassuring to America. Cam Newton celebrates winning by dancing on the field, and that is distasteful to America. But mostly, Cam Newton is a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once. Cam Newton is no Colin Kaepernick, which means he still has a job, America.


The genius of Cam Newton’s father was not to shut down his son’s need for expression and attention but to compartmentalize it. When Cam wanted to be noticed, his father told him to dress up on Fridays. The message communicated was to play the game so you can do what you want one day a week. After his rise to quarterback fame for the Carolina Panthers, people took offense to his celebratory dances; Newton was advised to instead give the ball to a child when he was done. The implication was that he should play on American sentimentality around childhood innocence and all would be fine. Share the moment with the children and you will be able to have your moment, because the win, Cam Newton, was never about you. You are a means to an end that does not include you. Newton incorporated the advice into his celebratory routine.

And yet the one place Newton appears to be the least edited is in his body. Among his gifts is the ability to inhabit his emotions fully. Whether walking out of a news conference to sulk privately after a major loss or when celebrating exuberantly, Cam Newton is simply being himself. And that self is not defined by the scripts that are created in a country governed by anti-black racism: He is not a criminal, though he did steal a laptop in college; nor is he overtly political, though he did once raise his fist in the symbol of black power; nor is he an Uncle Tom, though he does understand how easily he could lose what he has earned, and he recently went on the record defending Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after racism and sexual assault allegations: “When you hear a report about Mr. Richardson, a person that we all, as an organization, have so much respect for and the people who did come out saying certain things about racial slurs, sexual assault … it’s still allegations.”

We Americans have difficulty facing our realities, and when confronted with someone who understands the precariousness of his status due to his identity as a black man, Americans interpret their difficulty with him to be solely his failure. Newton’s latest failure is his continued support of Richardson, which makes me wonder whether he understands that his talent is separate from Richardson.

Newton belongs to a league in which one owner, Houston’s Robert McNair, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” If Newton understands he is being objectified, he has his own agenda within that understanding. Like Michael Jordan, Newton is a company man. He has come to work and to be paid. But Newton’s stance is messier and more flamboyant than Jordan’s. I can’t remember Jordan making untoward statements or dressing that differently from those we might encounter in corporate America.

Though Newton doesn’t overtly protest against company rules, he also refuses to conform entirely to the unspoken rules for the black professional in his dress and occasionally in his actions. In the run of protests that began with Kaepernick taking the knee and then grew into an NFL-wide confusion over whether the protests were against Trump, white supremacy, police violence against blacks, or the owners’ racist statements, Newton raised a fist in honor of black pride but in protest of nothing apparently. He told reporters: “I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with.”

Cam Newton is a human being, and apparently this is troubling to America.

If the silent and beloved GOAT, Jordan, is on one end of the protest spectrum and the outspoken and beloved LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick are on the other end, then Newton lives between these legends with an eye on his owners: “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing. I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton once said. “We get nowhere divided.” Despite all that has transpired in the U.S. since President Obama’s statement “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” Newton still lives by Obama’s edict.

In fact, all of us who are not on the streets protesting but doing our jobs and collecting our pay and health insurance and retirement are in Newton’s lane. The political and corporate structures that govern our lives know how to punish protesters, with “free agent” status, but this other way of being, this pragmatic if flamboyant way of being, where one tries not to bite the hand that feeds, this lane that Newton exemplifies, confounds owners, players and fans alike—even as we remain complicit with his positioning. Most of us sit behind our desks, doing what we do, trying to get paid, while all manner of shit goes down around us. Every single day, with troubling tweets coming out of the Oval Office, should be the day we as Americans risk something for the greater good of our democracy, but the traffic of our lives continues uninterrupted by those taking to the streets in protest of this administration. We didn’t sign up to be activists. And neither did some of the athletes who get paid millions to entertain us.

It is difficult to fault Newton for wanting to hold on to who he is, which includes what he has. Newton’s swagger suggests an independence and freedom we see unleashed on the field, but only on the field. All his millions come at the expense of not pointing out the racism and misogyny that exist inside the culture of his sport and the structure of our country. That’s the price of the ticket. Cam Newton can be Cam Newton as long as he throws touchdowns and keeps winning.

Last year’s encounter with sports writer Jourdan Rodrigue made all the headlines. Newton seemed genuinely surprised that Rodrigue came to a news conference prepared with the correct football terminology: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.” His sexism was apparent. It lives alongside Rodrigue’s own blatant racism (see the reports about her Twitter account). In listening to Newton’s subsequent apology, the part that stands out is the one that points to the lesson he has learned:

“The fact that during this whole process I’ve already lost sponsors and countless fans,” Newton said, “I realize that the joke is really on me.” If we imagine that the security of black stars’ economic status means they can risk disrupting or displeasing the American public, think again. Though he ends his apology with the statement “Don’t be like me. Be better than me,” which is in direct conversation with Jordan’s Gatorade ad “Be Like Mike,” Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.


It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.


Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”


Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”


The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!