The Disney Dreamers Academy gets a dose of life-changing Day two was a moment of self-discovery for the kids

ORLANDO, Fla. — When 17-year-old Chloe Russell’s eyes met those of 41-year-old motivational speaker Jonathan Sprinkles, she felt an instant connection. Standing atop a stage, Sprinkles captivates the student athlete. She could relate, especially his testimony of watching his father deal with cancer.

Like Sprinkles, Russell is watching her father — the same man who was her basketball and volleyball coach for years, along with her mother — deal with the disease.

“Mr. Jonathan Sprinkles, his speech was amazing,” Russell said. “It hit a lot of points related to my life. I actually have a dad that’s at home battling cancer. He really touched my soul with his experience of having a father that passed away to the disease.”

Disney Dreamer Chloe Russell

Kelley Evans/The Undefeated

Russell is part of the group of 100 participants in the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. And on Friday, she and her fellow Dreamers were part of an experience that included tips for life transformation all centered on the theme of the four-day-long event: “Be100.”

“I heard about the Dreamers Academy through my mom,” Russell said. “My mom encouraged me to sign up.”

The 16-year-old is a senior at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. She overcame an ACL injury and harbors a passion for social justice as a member of her school’s Undoing Racism team. A volleyball and basketball player and track athlete, Russell is a 4A volleyball state champion. She plans to major in health sciences and minoring in Spanish, with aspirations to become a doctor of osteopathic medicine with her own practice.

“I think the whole Disney Dreamers is just an awesome experience. This is such a great opportunity. I’m super grateful and ready to Be100,” Russell said.

“My ACL injury changed my life the most out of almost any other experience because I tore it my freshman year, playing basketball trying to save a ball that went out of bounds,” Russell said. “That forced me to look towards other alternatives, such as diversity initiatives and social justice. I’m huge on that aspect. The ACL tear and recovery was a real setback for me, and I went through the strenuous recovery and I got the opportunity to compete for a state champion title my junior year for volleyball. It made me change my path toward not playing basketball anymore and focus on volleyball.”

For Sprinkles, pouring himself into the support of others is more than a full-time passion and commitment. He’s championed the session for the Dreamers for 10 of the 11 years that Disney Dreamers Academy has existed.

“It does replenish me,” Sprinkles told The Undefeated. “Talking to them, sharing with them, seeing their look in their eyes. I got to see something that you didn’t. I get to look in their eyes and see the lights come on, and when it all comes together it’s something special because they now see, ‘You know what, I deserve this. I do have a place at the table.’ And when you see that, that’s the payment. To me this means I get to do for them what was done for me, which is have somebody speak into my life and show me that I can do it.

“The fact that I get to be a voice and I have the honor worth having them believe me, that’s a privilege. It something I look forward to every single year because it’s just something different here. The fact that I get to be a part of it, I’m winning. I feel undefeated myself.”

One by one, at the conclusion of Sprinkles’ interactive discussion, the Dreamers voiced their takeaways from his speech.

“Never tell your life story from the perspective of the victim.”

“I am enough.”

“The more you say it, the truer it becomes.”

“Doubt unlocks determination, but pain unlocks your life.”

“Instead of trying to have likes, be a light.”

“That place in which you were hurt the most reveals the people you have been called to help the most.”

“Find a way to rise above it, find a way out.”

Sprinkles, standing in amazement, told the students that they summed up everything better than he could.

Hudson Osborne was also motivated by Sprinkles’ address. On day two of the event, Osborne feels he’s in the right place at the right time.

“I was online going through programs I wanted to do so I wouldn’t be stuck in school all the time, and I found Disney Dreamers,” Osborne said. “It’s an amazing experience. I was always told I was a good writer, but I never believed it. So for it to really come to life like this is showing me that I can really do a lot with just my writing. I can really achieve that I never really thought that I could see.”

The 15-year-old is a ninth grader at San Lorenzo High in California.

“I play on the football and basketball team. I enjoy speech and debate, also criminal justice,” he said.

As part of his admissions packet, Osborne wrote that “my dreams are to one day become the Secretary of Defense for the United States government and with much more hard work and dedication become President of the United States.”

Those big dreams are in line with the mission of the Disney Dreamers Academy, and day two for the Dreamers is more than in the books — it’s part of students’ newly transformed minds.

Disney, Steve Harvey and ‘Essence’ magazine continue to help students achieve big dreams The Disney Dreamers Academy kicks off with a new class of 100

ORLANDO, Fla. — From “curing cancer” to “becoming a pilot” to “overcoming fears,” every child has dreams. And with the help of Walt Disney World Resort, Steve Harvey and Essence magazine, many of them also have a platform to help them achieve those dreams.

On Thursday, 100 high school students, ages 13 to 19, from all over the country found themselves experiencing a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World for the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy. Eleven years strong, the weekend is more than games and roller coasters, as Dreamers go through a series of power-packed workshops that give students the tools they need to reach their full potential.

Since 2008, 1,000 Dreamers have done this work. The students are selected from thousands of applicants who answer a series of essay questions about their personal stories and dreams for the future. Per tradition, the weekend kicked off with a parade at the Magic Kingdom, followed by welcoming remarks from Tracey D. Powell, Disney Dreamers Academy’s executive champion and Walt Disney World’s vice president of Deluxe Resorts; author and talk show host Steve Harvey; award-winning gospel artist Yolanda Adams; Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine; and George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort; Mickey Mouse; and Disney Dreamers Academy alums. The experience ends Sunday with a commencement ceremony.

With a new #Be100 theme, Walt Disney World Resort is continuing its ongoing commitment to inspiring teens at a critical time in their development by providing a space to empower and encourage the Dreamers to relentlessly pursue their dreams.

(Top-bottom, left-right) Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Steve Harvey, Tracey D. Powell, executive champion for Disney Dreamers Academy, and Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine, star in a special parade Thursday at Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The parade signals the beginning of the 11th annual Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. The event, taking place March 8-11 at Walt Disney World Resort, is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students from across the United States.

Courtesy of Todd Anderson

“When I was a dreamer I had a couple of questions,” Disney Dreamers Academy alum Princeton Parker said Thursday evening as he addressed the 100 Dreamers, parents, chaperones and invited guests during the welcome ceremony. “A lot of those questions were centered around ‘what if?’ ”

Parker — a minister and University of Southern California graduate, among his many accomplishments — learned through the program how to overcome his fear. He also attributed his success to the academy, which he said changed his mindset.

“If you decide to Be100, your destiny will respond,” he said.

According to its website, Disney Dreamers Academy aims to “inspire students through immersive and inspirational guest speakers; introduce a world of possibilities in a variety of interactive career sessions, ranging from animation, journalism, entertainment and entrepreneurship to culinary arts, medicine and zoology; and prepare students for the future through developing skills such as networking and interviewing.”

Kalogridis voiced his thoughts about the academy and shared his favorite times at Disney.

“Long before there is a happily ever after, there has to be a once upon a time,” Kalogridis said as he welcomed the new Dreamers. “We at Disney are glad that you’re enjoying your time with us,” he said. “We are thrilled that Disney Academy is entering into its second decade.”

Powell said the academy is challenging the planners on how to build success from the past 10 years.

“It’s our commitment to dream even bigger on how we can empower you,” she said to the Dreamers. “It’s a personal commitment to excellence.”

The impressive résumés of students landed them the opportunity of a lifetime. Dreamers and their parents and/or chaperones all have different itineraries throughout the weekend, which gives the students a sense of independence. Dreamers will engage in a wide variety of experiences while working alongside some of today’s top celebrities, community and industry leaders and dedicated Disney cast members. Celebrity panels include educator Steve Perry; motivational speaker Alex Ellis; retired NFL great Emmitt Smith; artist, producer and songwriter Ne-Yo; actor and singer Jussie Smollett; actress Ruth Carter; actors Miles Brown and Marsai Martin (black-ish); and sisters China, Sierra and Lauryn McClain of the girl group McClain.

Walt Disney World Resort hopes students “leave prepared to be a role model for others as they believe in the power of their dreams and make a positive difference in their communities and the world.”

How LeBron James plays when his most famous fans are at the game Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Diddy, Rihanna and Drake all bring out a very different LBJ

So we’re courtside when LeBron get a f— ring/ Yeah, I bet I be there / I be there.

Drake, from his 2010 “You Know, You Know

A man of his word, Drake was in fact present in 2013 at Miami’s American Airlines Arena when LeBron James captured his second ring with the Heat, beating the San Antonio Spurs in a dramatic Game 7. Whether Drake was actually there with someone else’s girlfriend, as the song alludes, is a discussion for another time. But the line is powerful because sitting courtside for a LeBron game, especially a championship game, is as big a status symbol as there is in all of sports. How does he do, though, as a player when Drake and other big stars are courtside?

Does the je ne sais quoi of being courtside, so central to the allure of the NBA, affect James’ stat line? Actually, it kind of does. This is relevant because the league flaunts courtside culture — especially during the Cavaliers’ annual two-night Hollywood extravaganza. It kicks off in a few hours with the Clippers playing host, and then on Sunday with Lonzo Ball and the Lakers (both part of a six-game road swing). With both games televised and taking place at Staples Center, where he captured his third All-Star Game MVP last month, chances are more than a handful of stars will be courtside for The King’s annual Tinseltown pilgrimage.

LeBron’s love for music and music’s love for him is a well-documented two-way street. But how does ’Bron hold up when his most famous musical fans are in attendance? By cross-referencing photo archives and box scores, what we have here is a very unofficial representation of LeBron’s performances when Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Diddy, Rihanna, Drake and Usher (and their combined 62 Grammys) pull up on him at his places of business. It’s good to be The King. And apparently, it’s just as good to watch him — up close and personal.


Rapper Jay-Z and Beyonce look over at LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Research conducted on 17 games from April 14, 2004, to June 16, 2016

LeBron’s record: 11-6 (.647)

LeBron’s averages: 31.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.9 steals (52.3 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors (June 16, 2016) — 41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks on 59.3 FG% (W)

Beyoncé and Jay-Z attend a lot of games together, but it was more revealing to break the stats down separately — especially as Jay-Z attended some of his games solo. The 11-6 record is slightly misleading, as five of those six losses came early in LeBron’s career. LeBron has actually won nine of his last 10 games with Blue, Sir and Rumi’s mom courtside. There’s the 49-point masterpiece he unleashed on Brooklyn in the conference semifinals that she witnessed firsthand, husband by her side, on May 12, 2014 (only hours after footage was released of the now-infamous elevator scene). There was the royal meeting seven months later when she and Jay-Z again visited the Barclays Center to watch ’Bron (who’d returned to Cleveland earlier that summer), along with Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, nearby. And the aforementioned decisive Game 6 win over the Warriors in the 2016 Finals.

All jokes and tinfoil hat conspiracies aside, one thing’s for sure and two things for certain. The King, at least as the past decade has shown, nearly always puts on a show and walks away victorious when The Queen is nearby. Rumors of an On The Run 2 tour with Beyoncé and Jay surfaced this week. Just judging by the Cavs’ erratic play pretty much all season long (aside from an early winning streak), ’Bron might want to persuade the couple to hold off on the running until the summer.


LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shakes hands with Jay-Z during the game against the Brooklyn Nets on December 8, 2014 at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Research conducted on 30 games from November 5, 2003, to June 1, 2017

LeBron’s record: 19-11 (.621)

LeBron’s averages: 30.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals (49.2 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors (June 16, 2016) — 41 points, 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks on 59.3 FG% (W)

JAY-Z is the celebrity who has been linked to LeBron James for the longest length of time. The two are so close Jigga once recorded a diss song on ‘Bron’s behalf—aimed at DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy during a 2008 playoff series versus the Washington Wizards. We first learned of their friendship when James visited (but never played at) Rucker Park in 2003 as a guest of Jay’s Reebok-sponsored team at the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC). The championship game against Fat Joe’s Terror Squad team actually never happened due to a blackout in New York City. The infamous moment became fodder for the 2004 smash record “Lean Back.” Dating back even further, an 18-year-old pre-draft LeBron allowed ESPN’s The Life into his Hummer as he rapped, word for word, JAY-Z’s “The Ruler’s Back.” Jay-Z also attended LeBron’s first home opener in November 2003, a loss against fellow rookie Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets.

In his 2001 Blueprint manifesto “Breathe Easy” Jay-Z raps that he [led] the league in at least six statistical categories / best flow, most consistent, realest stories, most charisma / I set the most trends and my interviews are hotter … Holla! A decade and a half later, add a likely seventh: Most LeBron Games Attended by an MC. As with LeBron when Beyoncé attends, the majority of the losses Jay-Z witnessed came early in James’ career, as he lost five of the first seven. But since the start of the 2008-09 season, LeBron is 12-2 in 14 games with Jay nearby. And Jay-Z has been on hand for several LeBron classics, including two 50-point games at Madison Square Garden and a mammoth 37-14-12 triple-double in Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals (a series LeBron and the Cavs lost in six). Interestingly enough, both Jay-Z and Bey were at Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals on the road against the Boston Celtics. That was the last game that James won as a member of the Cavaliers until his return in 2014.


LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat speaks with Recording Artist Sean P. Diddy Combs prior to the New York Knicks , Miami heat game on December 6, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Research conducted on six games from Feb. 4, 2009, to June 12, 2017

LeBron’s record: 4-2 (.666)

LeBron’s averages: 32.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks (54.4 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Feb. 4, 2009 @ New York Knicks — 52 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists on 51.5 FG% (W)

If I were a once-a-century basketball player with a flair for the dramatic, it’s difficult to imagine a celebrity more fun before whom to put on a light show than Sean Combs. Barack and Michelle Obama, maybe? Maybe. Diddy has never not been on the pop cultural scene since he became a household name in the early ’90s jump-starting artists like Jodeci and Mary J. Blige (and, of course, The Notorious B.I.G. — who was tragically murdered 21 years ago today). So it seems odd the Bad Boy Records founder hasn’t been to more LeBron games.

Although King James lost the last two games that Diddy attended, LeBron absolutely puts on a show in front of the man who invented the remix. Yes, it’s the smallest sample size, but James averages the most points in front of Puffy, a man no stranger to putting numbers on the board himself. Diddy was in attendance on James’ legendary night in Madison Square Garden nine years ago, only 48 hours after Kobe Bryant’s 61-point masterpiece, when The King set one of the gaudiest stat lines of his career: 52 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists. But really, the whole evening was only a subplot for the real story: One of the all-time great memes was born that night — and even if by proxy, we have LeBron to thank.


Rihanna watches as LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers plays against the Golden State Warriors during Game One of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 4, 2015 in Oakland, California.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Research conducted on nine games from Jan. 16, 2010, to June 1, 2017

LeBron’s record: 4-5 (.444)

LeBron’s averages: 30.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 0.9 steals (52.9 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 1 of 2013 opening round vs. Milwaukee Bucks (April 21, 2013) — 27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists on 81.8 FG% (W)

I went back and verified these numbers at least five times. The math just wasn’t adding up. And, to be honest, it’s still not. For one, Rihanna, the most famous King James celebrity superfan on the planet, had to have sat courtside at more than nine games. Then again, it’s not like Rihanna’s work ethic doesn’t put her on the same plateau as James — so maybe it’s due to scheduling conflicts? There’s no way The Bad Girl sports a sub-.500 LeBron record. But that’s what the archives reveal.

The last two games she attended were the Game 1s of the 2015 and 2017 Finals. The former was an Oakland thriller soured by Kyrie Irving’s series-ending knee injury. The latter was also in the Bay, but new to the scene was a (near) 7-foot pterodactyl named Kevin Durant — with whom RiRi engaged in some in-game banter. The 2017 battle has also since become known as “The Jeff Van Gundy Goes Rogue” game, thanks to Rihanna. She missed the 2016 Finals preparing for the international leg of her ANTI tour. Photo archives show she hasn’t attended a Cavs game this season, although she may be saving her mojo to right the wrongs of playoffs past. She has, however, name-dropped The King in her and N.E.R.D.’s recent “Lemon”: The truck behind me got arms / Yeah, longer than LeBron. So, yes, the support very much remains.


Drake talks to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during an NBA game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on November 25, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Research conducted on 18 games from Oct. 28, 2009, to Jan. 11, 2018

LeBron’s record: 12-6 (.666)

LeBron’s averages: 30.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals (50.7 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 5 of 2016 NBA Finals @ Golden State Warriors (June 13, 2016) — 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks on 53.3 FG%

They’ve partied together, worked together and made music together. Aubrey Drake Graham and LeBron James have been connected ever since Graham released the genre-bending 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. Since then, Ebony and half-Ivory are lightning rods in a pop culture universe in which both are kings of their crafts. Given Drake’s love of basketball, and the seemingly endless LeBron mentions in his catalog, 18 games feels like a lowball, although Drake has been courtside for two games that altered the narrative of James’ career: the aforementioned 37 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7 vs. the Spurs in 2013 and the robust 41-16-7-3-3 he unleashed on the Warriors in Game 5 of the 2016 Finals, a win that sparked the greatest comeback in NBA history.

Drake and LeBron have fun at each other’s expense in the moment. During the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Drake openly mocked the Cavs via Instagram. Of course, the trolling proved short-lived, and to be quite honest, Drizzy probably should have left ’Bron alone. By the end, all that was left was LeBron taunting Drake during a game and the Cavs advancing to their second consecutive Finals. Fast-forward a year later, after a Cavs sweep of the Raptors, James asked Drake where the margarita move was afterward. The Cavs and Raptors have played only once this season, a 34-point blowout by Toronto, and Aubrey was there to see the drubbing. The two squads square off again in Cleveland on March 21. Only “God’s Plan” knows whether the Toronto rapper/singer/actor will bring More Life to the seasonal rematch with his courtside presence.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson hugs LeBron James at a basketball game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on March 4, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Research conducted on seven games from February 15, 2007, to March 19, 2017

LeBron’s record: 6-1 (.857)

LeBron’s averages: 30.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.7 steals (55.4 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: January 17, 2013: Heat @ Lakers — 39 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, three steals on 68.0 FG% (W)

You’d think Nicholson—the West Coast equivalent of Spike Lee at Madison Square Garden —would be at every game, but alas. And here’s the thing, if you’re a faithful Lakers fan making preparations for The Great LeBron Chase of Summer 2018, you absolutely need Jack. Of everyone on this list, LeBron has the highest winning and field goal percentages in front of Nicholson. I’m pretty sure a call from him would work better than engaging in billboard warfare with Cleveland and Philadelphia.


LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates in front of musician Usher in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics during the 2010 NBA Playoffs on May 1, 2010 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Research conducted on 28 games from March 8, 2005, to June 7, 2017

LeBron’s record: 15-13 (.536)

LeBron’s averages: 28.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.7 steals (43.7 FG%)

LeBron’s biggest game: Game 7 of 2016 NBA Finals @ Golden State Warriors (June 19, 2016) — 27 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks on 37.5 FG%

By organization hierarchy, Usher has technically been LeBron’s boss for nearly a decade. The man who gave the world the greatest back-to-back album rollout in R&B history with 2001’s 8701 and then his magnum opus, 2004’s Confessions, became a minority owner of the Cavaliers in 2005. Usher’s been present for a handful of dynamic LeBron performances: 47 points against Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat in 2006; the infamous “crab dribble” game in Washington that same year; the game-winning 3 against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals; and the signature defensive play of ’Bron’s lifetime, aka “LeBlock” in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.

Unexplainably true, though, is LeBron’s field goal percentage with Usher courtside. It’s way lower in comparison to the other five. At 43.7 percent, the next closest is with Jay-Z present, at 49.2 percent. However many times I looked at the games, stats and factors involved (road games, playoffs, defensive matchups, etc.) there’s no other reason than the fact someone had to be the odd A-lister out — though Raymond is the only one on this list who can say they won a ring with LeBron.

Ava DuVernay on the importance of images, having a voice — and why she flipped the script in ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ ‘There was no black woman I could call to say, “How does this go?” Because she doesn’t exist.’

“I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32,” says Ava DuVernay. “So you finally get to pick up a camera and do these things and it’s like, ‘Wow. I get to say something. I get to make something, and people will pay money to sit down and see and consume,’ and it becomes a part of the culture.”

DuVernay is making a statement — and if you’ve been paying attention for the past eight years or so, you’ll know that she has been making a statement. Film enthusiasts finally got put on to her brilliance in 2012 when her indie film Middle of Nowhere was a Sundance delight and captured the directing award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2012 festival. In that film, she took viewers on a journey of self-discovery, wrapped in a very important story about incarceration — and love. That film was a follow-up to her first indie classic, I Will Follow.

What would this indie-directing darling do next? Tell the story of tennis superstar Venus Williams and her fight for pay equity by way of 2013’s “rousingVenus Vs. (ESPN). DuVernay expertly guided viewers through Williams’ 2005-07 battle for gender-equal prize money at Wimbledon.

The documentary helped establish what DuVernay would give us moving forward. She wants to work on things that say something, and things that mean something. And she’s doing it again with A Wrinkle In Time, which opens in theaters on Friday.

“I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. [The films] go beyond box office, they go beyond reviews.”

“I put my blood into these films,” Duvernay says in a recent interview with The Undefeated. “This is what I do. I’m not a workaholic, I just love this. I think workaholics are like chain-smoking, chained to their death. Yes, I work all the time, but I love it … and I don’t want to be frivolous with that, and I don’t want it to lose meaning. I want it to be worth my time and my energy and my effort. My name is on this.”

And what a name. In a relatively short time, DuVernay has established herself as a visionary director, a big name in Hollywood who delivers nuanced projects that inspire academic conversations. She rightly earned an Oscar nomination in 2017 for her 13th documentary (Netflix), which examined America’s prison system and how it exposes our country’s history of racial inequality. The top prize ultimately went to Ezra Edelman for his “O.J.: Made in America.” But DuVernay was victorious in the best way possible.

That moment gave her a bigger voice in culture overall. Often, she sparks much-needed social media conversations, and the work that she creates is often central to those conversations. The global headlines she grabbed when the Los Angeles Times reported that her adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time would make her the first woman of color in history to direct a movie with a $100 million budget were massive. “When I was making this film,” says DuVernay, “as a black woman and I was handed this budget by Disney, there was no one that I could call. There was no black woman I could call to say, ‘How does this go?’ Because she doesn’t exist.”

And her poignant reply back to the news at the time was so Ava. “Not the first [black woman] capable of doing so,” she tweeted. “Not by a long shot.”

DuVernay just believes that it’s incredibly important that we’re having all kinds of people rendering images that focus and concern women and people of color. “You know, 92 percent of the directors that are making the top films people see in theaters … are Caucasian male directors,” she says. “Only 8 percent of the films that you consume are made by women or people of color, or women of color. And that is a percentage that is untenable as it is unacceptable, and yet it’s what we have accepted as an audience, as a culture and as a society for decades.”

She reminds us how powerful film is. “They were draining pools when kids with HIV got in pools,” she says. “It wasn’t CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports that changed that. It wasn’t politicians that changed that. It was a story that changed that — it was Philadelphia, that film. It was Angels in America. … It was film that started to help people. It was images [that] people watched … that made them think. These images mean something … and to be able to be a black woman director and be in charge of budgets of this size, render images … about a black girl?”

DuVernay pauses — because, whew. In A Wrinkle In Time, she changed the young protagonist from a young white teen to a young teen of color. In the film, Meg Murry, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 fantasy novel, is the daughter of two scientists, a black mom played by British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw and a white dad played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

DuVernay presented her vision to Disney, that her dream was that Meg was a young black girl, and they bought in. Asking for that change — a very big, important and remarkable change at that — was courageous. But DuVernay said she approached asking the studio about that as if she had nothing to lose.

“It’s kind of like living in the Hollywood Shuffle, where the mother always told him, ‘You can go out and audition, but you can also have a job at the post office. You can always fall back on the post office.’ Independent film is my post office.” She says she feels like she can walk into any meeting and ask for what she wants, because if they say no, she can go make something else. “I don’t feel like I live and breathe all of [this] … Academy Awards … studio approvals. None of that stuff is my heart’s desire.”

She said she has this take on things because she started being a filmmaker when she was in her early 30s. “Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s made three films. I look at that and I think I started late. My story’s not just race and gender. It’s age. … Beautiful women filmmakers have made films, but it’s been a challenge for them to have certain resources and support. So it just makes me feel like, ask for what you want. … They’re probably going to say no, but you can still ask and you can still push, and if their answer’s no, you say yes to yourself in a different way.”

It’s a good thing she asked.

There’s an important moment in A Wrinkle In Time where Calvin (Levi Miller) turns to Meg (Storm Reid) and tells her that he likes her hair, which at the time is in its natural, curly state.

“These images don’t exist. People told me early on, ‘This book is unadaptable, this is a very hard book, it’s unadaptable.’ I said, ‘You know what? [Let’s] make Storm Reid fly as a little girl, and boys can see that.’ [Real] Caucasian boys seeing a Caucasian boy on screen say [to a young black girl], ‘I like your hair. You are beautiful with that natural hair, and I will follow you.’ Those are the kinds of things that if some of these boys that I deal with out here in Hollywood, in these boardrooms and on these sets, had seen that when they were young, maybe I’d be treated differently when I walk in the door,” DuVernay says. “When I have the opportunity to do it, I say, ‘I’m going to take this big swing. This is important to me, to just … put this stuff out into the world, and I’m happy to be in this place. Some people think it’s a risky endeavor, but I’m happy. They go beyond box office. They go beyond reviews.”

And it goes beyond black and white — she makes sure of that. Originally from Compton, California, right on the edge of Lynwood, DuVernay talks about how culturally rich her neighborhood was: black, Latino and Filipino. “Me and my friends would put our hands next to each other, and we were all the same shade of brown,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who don’t see themselves.”

One of DuVernay’s stars is actor/creator Mindy Kaling, who first gained notoriety as Kelly Kapoor of NBC’s classic The Office. “Mindy said to me yesterday, and it really got me … ‘I was a chubby Indian girl with glasses who loved sci-fi, but sci-fi never loved me back. I could never, ever find myself on screen …’

“Girls will see this, [and] if I had seen a brown girl doing these things, I would say, ‘Oh, it loves me back!’ It’s an emotional thing. That’s why I did it, [and] that’s why I chose to do this.”

But here’s the good news — because there is good news. DuVernay is actively working to ensure that the headlines she’s grabbing now — especially the ones proclaiming her to be the first black woman this, or the first woman of color that — won’t be wasted.

DuVernay, after all, doesn’t just walk through a door — she holds it open. And she builds a new door — a new house, even — to make sure that other people can come in. In 2010 she founded ARRAY, a grass-roots film distribution collective that focuses on projects by people of color and women. And amid the promo tour for A Wrinkle In Time, she announced that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are launching a diversity initiative that will fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people from underserved communities.

“I will be there for whoever’s next,” she says, “because they’re coming. They’re coming. I feel proud that I can call them and that they can call me. That I’ll be able to talk to them about everything I experienced. … We can’t be safe in our boxes. That’s how we don’t move. We have too many freedom fighters and too many sisters that have gotten out there and gone into the darkness. Harriet Tubman had it in her front yard, and she said, ‘There’s something else out there, right?’ Not to compare myself, but you know what I mean? Rosa Parks. Or Amelia Boynton. All of these women who said, you know, ‘I don’t know how this goes, but I’m going to walk over there and see how it is — over there.’ ”

She mentions Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Ron Howard. “These men … have been able to make film after film after film,” she says. “Some work, some don’t. They got another one, another one, another one. Women don’t get that. Black directors don’t get that. And black women directors surely don’t get it.

“So the idea that you can say, ‘I want to be Spielberg, I want to be able to move [between] genres,’ go from E.T. to Schindler’s List to The BFG to The Post … make intimate character dramas and historical dramas. But to also make fantasy? Is that possible for us? It remains to be seen, but we have to try. And so, I try.”

Kobe Bryant: Oscar nomination is proof I can do ‘something other than dribble and shoot’ On the eve of the Academy Awards, Bryant talks how basketball helps him in Hollywood and what’s next

This, quite literally, is a whole new game. But trust that Kobe Bryant is ready to suit up for this next chapter. One of the NBA’s biggest stars officially left the game on April 13, 2016, five months after he announced his retirement from professional basketball on Nov. 29, 2015, via a poem that he wrote called Dear Basketball. Bryant was nominated for an Oscar (best short, animated), becoming the first former professional athlete to ever get such a nod, after he set his retirement poem to animation with illustrator Glen Keane, who is best known for his work at Walt Disney Animation Studios for feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

On the eve of Bryant’s first Oscar moment, we sit in his Orange County, California, offices — storyboards are hidden in the back, but there’s a wall of portraits for all to see. He points at a Michael Jackson portrait. “My first mentor,” he said.

Books about animation and film production are stacked on bookshelves. And the small group of people working for Granity Studios are buzzing at their desks nearby. This is Hollywood Kobe Bryant. And you should get used to him because he’s going to be here for a while.

Here are 14 nuggets from our conversation, and some outtakes as well.

1. On writing.

“I always enjoyed writing. I had a really great teacher … who taught me the art of storytelling and writing and composition. When I came to the league, I kept writing, kept practicing. When I got injured and we were making a news film — that’s when it kicked in for me. I found enjoyment in writing that film, and writing each chapter … what should we do next? That’s what really kicked it off.”

2. On creativity.

“I love the art of creating. It’s like putting together a puzzle.”

3. Why Dear Basketball is an animated film.

“Once I wrote the story … it called for animation. … Games where you play great games, where you play terribly, days where you’re training, you feel unstoppable, and days when you feel like [you’re] not going to get through it. It had to be hand-drawn animation because of the imperfections that come along with [all] that because … as a viewer you can feel the soul of … Glen Keane as he’s animating. You can feel the texture of it. Twenty-four frames per second. No step skipped.”

4. On what being nominated for an Oscar feels like.

“I’ve always been told that as basketball players the expectation is that you play. This is all you know. This is all you do. Don’t think about handling finances. Don’t think about going into business. Don’t think that you want to be a writer — that’s cute. I got that a lot. What do you want to do when you retire? ‘Well, I want to be a storyteller.’ That’s cute. This is … a form of validation for people to look and say, ‘OK, he really can do something other than dribble and shoot.’ ”

5. On what types of projects he’s gravitating toward …

“They all center around sports. How do we take sports and tell beautiful tales, beautiful stories that connect to human nature? If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does. But what separates music from sports is that sports is something that unites people, something people do together.”

6. On what he’s working on for ESPN …

“[Detail] is the first show. The original concept came from, how can I help the next generation of elite basketball players? What information can I pass along, from what I learned from some of the most brilliant basketball minds? A thing that came to mind, aside from going out on the court and actually working with them, is how to study the game. … It’s a very intricate look into how to study the game.”

7. On Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah’s been a really big mentor. When I … had the original idea of starting a company, a studio, she was the first person I reached out to. And she was gracious enough to give me about an hour on the phone and tell me how she built Harpo Productions from its start to where it is today. She’s been absolutely amazing.”

If you look at sports as a whole, it connects people worldwide, on a global scale. Much like music does.

8. On Shonda Rhimes.

“Shonda [Rhimes] was gracious enough to open up her doors for us to … spend the day in Shondaland, the sets of How to Get Away With Murder, and actually sit in on a table read for Scandal. She’s been great to talk to over the phone as well. I actually picked her brain — we were at the White House waiting in line to take a picture with President Obama and the first lady, and she was standing in front of me. And I was like, ‘Excuse me, Shonda, I have a couple questions … OK, so, when you write a script, like, where do you start? Do you start with plot first or character first?’ And then we just started talking. I said, ‘So when you write, how much room do you leave for the actors to be able to kind of make the characters their own?’ The relationship started from there.”

9. On helping make Hollywood more diverse.

“I’m looking at this industry, the animation industry, the writing industry, novelists … and I’m seeing a serious lack in gender diversity. And I want to make sure that we bring the opportunities to children to express themselves, even if they don’t ever want to grow up to be writers.”

10. On what he gets from Hollywood that he never got from basketball.

“The ability to make sure things are as good as we believe they can be before we release it. Basketball, you don’t get that chance. You practice all you want, but when the lights come up, if you play like an idiot, you look like an idiot. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t say, ‘Cut! Take two!’ In Hollywood, we can sit around as a team and nitpick plot, nitpick character and shots and movement of the story, and go over it and over it and over it again and again and again until we feel like it’s where we need it to be.”

11. On how filmmaking makes him feel …

“I love it. I do. I love it. I’ve been really fortunate to love basketball as much as I have, but I love storytelling every bit as much as I love basketball.”

12. On applying his life as a former NBA star to that of a budding filmmaker …

“Trust. That’s been the thing that was the hardest for me to deal with as an athlete — trusting the guys around me. Trusting that they’ll do the work, trusting that they’ll make the right play when it matters most. That was the hardest thing for me to deal with as an athlete, and because I went through that progression as an athlete, it’s a lot easier for me to do that as a creative.”

13. On working with Ava DuVernay …

“Our studio … is a part of the … fund that she’s championing, along with the city of Los Angeles. We’ll have plenty of internships here. That’s the best way to learn as well. You can sit down in the class all you want, but the best way to learn is to actually have interns come in and put boots on the ground and get to it. Actually give them responsibilities, actually give them assignments that lead to the execution of ideas.”

14. On where he’ll put his Oscar if he wins one this weekend …

“I’ll probably sleep with it! When I was a kid, the first time my parents bought me an official, leather NBA basketball, I slept with it for about a week. So it will be [wife] Vanessa, [third daughter] Bianka, me, Oscar. That will be our sleeping arrangement.”

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance summit in N.J. gives opportunities to more than 1,200 young men of color Barack Obama’s initiative continues its impact on communities nationwide

Former President Barack Obama’s face appeared on the largest JumboTron in the country, which is located in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils. In the venue, more than 1,200 young men were offered haircuts, shoeshines, tie and blazer fittings and tailoring services for this year’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Pathways to Success: Boys and Young Men of Color Opportunity Summit on Tuesday.

And that’s not all. Nearly 300 boys and young men of color walked away with on-the-spot job offers or a direct pathway to employment as part of MBK Alliance’s participation in the Obama Foundation’s initiative in Newark. Since 2016, the MBK Alliance has hosted three Opportunity Summits in Oakland, California; Detroit; and Memphis, Tennessee, resulting in more than 1,000 job offers.

Nationally, nearly 7 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school, and about 7,000 are in Newark alone. The opportunity summit is designed to “catalyze local youth employment efforts while fortifying youth with the tools they need to overcome barriers and place them on the pathway to success.”

Courtesy of MBK Alliance

Newark was one of the first cities to accept the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. In partnership with Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Prudential Financial Inc. and the Prudential Center, the daylong summit provided 1,000 young men of color and other underserved youths between the ages of 16 and 29 with interviews with employers for on-the-spot hiring, immediate access to community resources and social services, connection to mentors, an opportunity to discuss solutions to youth violence, and a chance to participate in career preparation and leadership development training.

“We’re excited about the opportunity here in Newark,” said Michael D. Smith, director of MBK Alliance and Youth Opportunity Programs at the Obama Foundation. “The pathway to dissect opportunities from it is bringing all those resources into one place for our boys and young men of color and saying, ‘Here is the road to follow.’ We’re just making the path clear for our young people who too often are marginalized or left out or have trouble finding their way.”

The day kicked off with a morning session in which Baraka, community leaders and executives discussed leadership development and shared inspiring stories, all moderated by The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates. MBK was organized by Baraka in 2016 in response to a national call to action by Obama. The initiative furthers the mayor’s mission to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color in Newark.”

Smith identifies with the participants and with the boys and men in the Newark community.

Courtesy of MBK Alliance

“This work is deeply personal for me,” Smith said. “I was one of the kids that we are serving today. I grew up in western Massachusetts to a single mom. Both of my parents were 16 years old when I was born. We grew up in a poor community that was certainly under-resourced, and to a community that could be violent, and to a community where opportunity certainly wasn’t clear.

“And while my family loved me, and poured so much support into me and created pathways for me that allowed me to end up here where I am today, so many of my peers who I started up with didn’t end up in the same place. Too many of them ended up in jails, and too many of them ended up in the grave.”

Tragedy hit close to home for Smith when his half-brother Tory was killed in 2009 at 27 years old.

“We lived down the street from each other,” Smith said. “Spent weekends together. Vacations together. Playing together. And one misstep, he finds himself in a system he couldn’t get himself out of.

“So when I do this work, I see Tory. And I see millions of boys like Tory who are filled with potential and possibilities and filled with God’s love and light, who just need someone to put their arms around them and give them a hand up and protect them and be willing to set them the way when they make a mistake, to give them a second chance. And that’s why we do this work that we do. Because we need Tory. And we need the boys and young men of color like him if this nation is going to be successful and if our communities are going to thrive.”

Dennis Hickerson-Breedon was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, but his passion and work are in Newark. For the MBK Newark Fellow and Opportunity Summit participant, the event was energy-filled.

“I didn’t know what to expect at first,” he said. “It gave me a new sense of purpose, because it’s not about me. It’s not about my fellows. It’s not about the program in general. It’s about us as a collective and mobility.”

Courtesy of MBK Alliance

“I wasn’t a scholar in high school; I had a 1.9 GPA. Because of that, I wasn’t and did not have the criteria to be admitted into certain universities and colleges. I found and stumbled upon Benedict College from a family friend, and that’s where I chose to go. That’s where my career and my life has sprang since then.”

Hickerson-Breedon, 28, finished at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and found his way back to Newark. He recently passed the New York bar and is waiting for admittance in New Jersey.

“I’ve been able to make relationships the last three years and throughout my time being in law school. I made contact with different attorneys, one attorney in particular named Kenyatta Stewart, who is now the corporation counsel for the law department in the city of Newark. He told me that there may be a position that he thinks that I could flourish in, and that was the chief of staff position in the law department for the city of Newark.”

There, Hickerson-Breedon began to cultivate different relationships, which led him to the My Brother’s Keeper Newark Initiative.

“I know that there are a lot of youth in this city that may be of similar circumstances that I was in: a 1.9 GPA or low GPA or single-parent household. No father. My father passed away when I was 10, so I didn’t have the luxury of learning the things that a young man would learn with his father present. That’s why being involved with My Brother’s Keeper was especially important to me. The summit was an opportunity for a lot of these young men to get an opportunity that they would not have been given under any other normal circumstance.”

Hickerson-Breedon hopes the MBK Alliance continues to encourage other young men who are on the rise.

“Not just young men who are, quote unquote, educated,” he said. “There’s a stigma that if you don’t go to college or school that you’re not able to prosper and you’re not educated. Any young, prominent young man in an urban community that has anything to offer to someone else needs to be involved with this initiative. Not only is it important to share the stories of triumph, but we need to show and restore the image of the young black male.”

‘Essence’ celebrates black women at annual pre-Oscar gala Tiffany Haddish, Danai Gurira, Lena Waithe and Tessa Thompson all honored


Just about everyone in the space at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel was patting away tears.

The General — our general — was in the middle of delivering an impassioned speech about beauty and about how, despite having physical attributes that run contrary to traditional American beauty standards, as a child she was embraced by a majestic-looking woman 31 years ago with long flowing braids who cupped her face in her hands and told her she was beautiful.

And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. That woman, said actor Danai Gurira — whom the world now is coming to know as General Okoye from Marvel’s Black Panther — was Susan Taylor, the legendary editor who ran Essence magazine for many years.

It was appropriate that Gurira was honored by the magazine at its 11th annual event that always happens the week of the Academy Awards. The luncheon is preamble to the big event, and in many ways is as significant as the Academy Awards themselves. It was the place where Lupita Nyong’o delivered a powerful speech about being a dark-skinned little girl in 2014 — days before she would go on to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsy in 12 Years A Slave — a speech that had everyone in the room that year nodding their heads in understanding, regardless of the actual hue of their skin.

Tiffany Haddish speaks onstage during the 2018 Essence Black Women in Hollywood Oscars Luncheon at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on March 1 in Beverly Hills, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence

This event is a safe space. And it’s a place where black women are celebrated by the communities that cultivate them, inspire them and uplift them even when the rest of the industry doesn’t know to do any of those things. It’s a place where before Gurira even launched into her beautiful, tear-inspiring speech, she led everyone into the Stevie Wonder version of the “Happy Birthday” song for Nyong’o, who turned 35 this week.

This year, the event also honored Tessa Thompson — who talked about how awful she felt about the advantages lighter-skinned women in this industry have, and how she loved existing in a time where diverse representations of black womanliness was ever-present.

“She told me that my broad features and my brown skin looked beautiful when classmates did their best to convince me otherwise. She went to a beauty supply store with me, where she bought an eco relaxer, which we were prepared to apply together,” Thompson said of her mother, who is of Mexican descent, while the crowd laughed. “But she was proud and patient when I decided I wanted to keep my then-crusty, crunchy, over-gelled curls because she realized that being the fullest expression of yourself is an act of bravery. She wanted me to be brave and because of her, I aim to be.”

Tiffany Haddish brought laughter and levity despite talking about having been a foster child and a homeless adult. Lena Waithe talked about being a gay black woman from the South Side of Chicago who grew up loving the Wizard of Oz because of a scene where the Good Witch tells the munchkins to “come out,” a refrain Waithe repeated while asking others in the room — in the industry — to embrace who they are regardless of fear. “They were forced to hide in hopes that one day we wouldn’t have to and now look at us, still hiding. Being a gay black female is not a revolutionary act,” Waithe said, talking about the black LGBT community that came before her. “Being proud to be a gay black female is.” And, of course, Gurira also talked about the power that Black Panther is having on young kids.

“Sometimes I forget what it was like to be that young, to struggle in your own skin that much,” she said. “To grapple with a world system that was clearly not made with us in mind. To be unsure of your place in this realm, of how you will ever find it or how you will ever like yourself, let alone love yourself.”

Each of the afternoon’s honorees were presented by someone remarkable: Gurira was honored by Nyong’o, Thompson was honored by Janelle Monae, Waithe was honored by Justin Simien and Angela Bassett and Haddish was honored by Lil Rel Howery. The event was hosted by Yvonne Orji and will air on OWN on Saturday at 10 p.m.

Allyson Felix boosts the YMCA and talks about making her fifth Olympic team America’s best woman in track and field grew up at the Y in Crenshaw

Allyson Felix spoke recently to students at the YMCA where she played as a child in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. But she wasn’t there to discuss fitness or her path to Olympic gold.

“What we’re actually going to be doing is a really cool science experiment,” the champion sprinter told students gathered after school.

Felix’s appearance was part of the YMCA’s new campaign to raise awareness about community services fostering youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. The programs include diabetes prevention, providing teens with mentors and resources to improve their college readiness and promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The Crenshaw Y students built small balloon-powered vehicles with Felix, attempting to propel their creations faster than the approximately 10 meters per second that Felix covered in her best 100-meter time of 10.89 seconds.

Some of the vehicles didn’t budge. Others burst forward, although perhaps not as quickly as Felix. But the experiment was in keeping with the YMCA’s mission to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking, to get students comfortable with failure and to urge young people to envision themselves in STEM careers.

“A lot of people see the Y as just a gym and a place to swim for their kids, or for after-school programs,” Felix, who graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in elementary education, told The Undefeated. “But they don’t really see how it does affect the community and even how the programs are tailored to what communities they are in.”

The YMCA is the nation’s largest provider of child care and serves 22 million people of all ages at 2,700 locations. Felix grew up at the Crenshaw Y, where she loved to play basketball. “Rebounding was the best part of my game. Before everyone caught up to me heightwise, I used to be one of the tallest,” said the 5-foot-6 athlete.

Felix has competed in four Olympics and won six gold medals, more than any other woman in track and field, and nine total Olympic medals, tied with Merlene Ottey of Jamaica for the most track and field medals. Felix helped set the 4×100 relay world record of 40.82 seconds at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Now 32 years old, she is determined to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games. She hopes to qualify for the 400, where she was denied gold in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games when Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas dived at the tape. To qualify at her favorite distance, the 200, would be an added bonus.

“My biggest goal is to be able to make the team,” Felix said. “It would be a really great way to kind of end my career at the Olympics, to be able to make a fifth Olympic team, you know? You couldn’t really ask for more than that.”

James Harden’s fresh new Adidas colorway recalls his beloved junior high school years Rapper Nipsey Hussle takes L.A. pride in the Audubon Middle School alum and leading MVP candidate

At Adidas’ 747 Warehouse St. event during 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson caught up with Los Angeles Sparks two-time MVP Candace Parker and six-time All-Star James Harden of the Houston Rockets. This two-part series will highlight the connection both players have to Adidas.

LOS ANGELES — In the streets of Los Angeles, there’s nothing but love and respect for James Harden. Just ask Nipsey Hussle, one of the city’s most respected rappers.

Fresh off the stage at the Hollywood Palladium, where he’d performed tracks from his recently dropped Victory Lap, Hussle bumped into Harden, the face of the Houston Rockets franchise and front-runner for this year’s Maurice Podoloff Trophy, presented annually to the league’s most valuable player. The random run-in turned into an impromptu family reunion for Hussle, who hails from the Crenshaw area, and Harden, who’s from nearby Compton. The way the two chopped it up, you would’ve thought they were cousins.

“The n—a that broke the NBA record for the highest m—–f—ing contract ever went to Audubon!” said Hussle to a swarm of paparazzi, with his arm draped around the hooper’s shoulder. The MC referenced the richest contract extension in NBA history: a four-year, $228 million deal that Harden signed last summer. But Audubon?

“Y’all don’t know what that is!” Harden joked to the people behind the flashing cameras. For him, though, that word means a lot. Audubon Middle School, in Hussle’s ’hood of Crenshaw, is one of the NBA superstar’s alma maters. So when Harden returned home to L.A. for All-Star Weekend, during which he dropped his new signature Adidas sneaker, it was only right that he paid homage to the school where it all began.

As a starter in the All-Star Game, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard took the hardwood at the Staples Center wearing his Adidas Harden Vol. 2s in the “Vision” colorway, a design inspired by Audubon’s school colors but remixed to incorporate different shades of green and a glitched palm tree pattern. The shoe dropped exclusively at Adidas’ All-Star Weekend pop-up, about 8 miles from his old middle school.

The day after bonding with Hussle over Audubon, Harden made an appearance at the Adidas event, where folks awaited the moment they’d be graced by the presence of what was billed as a “special guest.” As Harden stepped foot on a basketball court primarily populated by kids from the city’s neighboring communities, the crowd went nuts — rushing from the bleachers and circling him, prompting the DJ to drop Playboi Carti’s 2017 smash hit “Magnolia” — and of course the Snapchat videos started rolling.

The track and atmosphere commenced a Milly Rock battle between Harden and a few of his fellow L.A. natives, as he swayed back and forth in a fresh pair of his new kicks, which are engineered with FORGEFIBER and full-length BOOST technology tailored to his one-of-a-kind footwork and ability to change direction on the court.

“As a kid, you always want your own shoe,” Harden told The Undefeated in the scrum. “I’ve got my Vol. 2s now, so it’s an unbelievable feeling, especially when you’ve got the support behind you.”

Instagram Photo

In this moment, Harden donned the burgundy “Ignite” colorway of the Vol. 2s, but the crowd favorite was certainly the vibrant “Vision” look, worn by countless children who surrounded him. The salmon-tinted “California Dreamin’” colorway also debuted during All-Star Weekend.

“Man … Audubon is where I learned to love the game of basketball. On the playgrounds …,” Harden said of the shoe before he was overcome by loud bellows of “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” He finally embraced the chants by waving his hand for more and letting out a powerful roar. Back to the middle school-inspired shoe: “It’s where I fell in love with the game, and I just took it from there.”

After leaving Audubon, Harden attended Artesia High School in Lakewood, California, where he emerged as a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American. He starred at Arizona State University for two seasons before the Oklahoma City Thunder selected him with the third overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Since 2012, when a trade sent him from Oklahoma City to Houston, he’s become a six-time NBA All-Star and three-time first-team All-NBA selection, and for the past three seasons he’s been knocking on the door of becoming an NBA MVP. In 2015, Harden’s personal brand became so big that Adidas lured him away from an endorsement deal with Nike by offering a 13-year, $200 million contract.

“Adidas is everything. You see the waves that we’re creating. It’s not just basketball — it’s a lifestyle,” said Harden at 747 Warehouse St. Later that night, 21-time Grammy Award winner Kanye West, the brand’s highest-profile endorser, popped up at the event to perform. (Also of note: Since the All-Star break, it’s been reported that Adidas is “far along in negotiations” with rapper Drake, who currently has a deal with Jordan Brand.) “Adidas is changing the culture,” Harden continued. “Just taking over.”

Less than three years after committing to the brand, Harden is already one of the faces of Adidas Basketball, now in his second signature shoe. As for whether this one, the Harden Vol. 2, will help him capture the elusive MVP award?

“Easy,” Harden said with a smile. “Easy.”

Not too bad for an L.A. kid from Audubon.