Kenan Thompson hosts NHL Awards show that doesn’t shy away from inclusion From the opening monologue to the Willie O’Ree Award winner, it was a big night for hockey

LAS VEGAS — When news was first announced that Kenan Thompson would be hosting the 2019 NHL Awards, it seemed a little too good to be true. The man whom one recent publication surprisingly called “underrated” would be coming to the stage to entertain the hockey world, something he’d been doing since he first appeared in The Mighty Ducks movie trilogy, a series that for many people is their lone avenue into or reference point to the sport, quite frankly.

There was a part of me that was hoping this event could serve as a yet another milestone moment that breaks down the psychological barrier that many still have between blackness and pucks. And while this night wasn’t exactly that from a comedy standpoint, there were a few moments that helped the cause overall.

The monologue was effective, but didn’t stray too far into deep water.

“Welcome to the 2019 NHL Awards. I will be your host this evening and, for the last time, no, I am not one of the Subbans.

“My name is Keenan Thompson. You might recognize me from SNL, All That, Kenan and Kel. … But, let’s be real! You don’t. This is a hockey room. So you only know me as the kid from The Mighty Ducks 2 and 3!”

“You know, I can’t really decide if my favorite player is Ryan Reaves or … I don’t know. Man, I don’t know, maybe even Malcolm Subban, you know, from the Golden Knights. I just … Hey, I don’t know. I feel a strong connection to the two of them. I don’t really know what it is. I can’t put my, can’t put my finger on it.”

See, that’s funny because Ryan Reaves and Malcolm Subban are both black and both play in Las Vegas. I’m still sort of wondering where that joke would have gone had those roster spots not been what they were, but who cares. Point is, that was about the extent of Thompson’s routine about being black in the hockey world, which in truth, is all that was needed because the realities are certainly still harsh enough to not make light of the subject.

Throughout the night, the league highlighted the nominees for the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, given to “an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society.” It’s named after the NHL’s first black player, Willie O’Ree, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year.

Willie O’Ree arrives at the 2019 NHL Awards at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on June 19 in Las Vegas.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

By sprinkling in vignettes of the nominees’ stories, the theme stayed top of mind during the broadcast that this is an enduring battle. So between Thompson appearing as Steve Harvey, LaVar Ball, Charles Barkley and some weird mad scientist character with white hair, you couldn’t lose track of the fact that diversity existed beyond Thompson’s well-known Saturday Night Live go-tos.

There was Anthony Benavides, who runs the Clark Park Coalition, which launched a youth hockey program in Detroit for black and Latino kids, after rebuilding an outdoor rink with the help of his community. Another nominee was Tammi Lynch, the mother of a hockey player, whose teammate, who is black, was racially taunted during a recent game. She didn’t just fight back, she formed an entire movement called Players Against Hate, which aims to educate everyone about racism on the ice.

The inclusionary theme wasn’t just about black folks. Robin Lehner talked at length about his battles with mental health. Laila Anderson, the St. Louis Blues superfan who is battling a life-threatening immune disease, was featured in the cold open with Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski. And Carey Price stole the show when he surprised a young fan on stage, whom he’d met before, following the death of his mother.

Not to be forgotten was the unveiling of the new NHL 20 cover, which features the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. Matthews’ mother is Mexican, and one of his earliest coaches helped found Mexico’s national ice hockey program. There are rumors that the EA Sports game might even have an SAP option, which is tremendous.

“It’s the way they’re growing the game and, you know, different markets, different countries, and just encouraging everybody all over the world to play hockey,” Matthews said. “I hope it’s not my voice that’s going over it, because my Spanish isn’t very good. But I think that’s awesome.”

But the big winner of the night was Rico Phillips, who took home the Willie O’Ree Award. A firefighter in Flint, Michigan, he started playing hockey in high school. Then his journey took him to the world of refereeing. Now, with the Flint Inner City Youth Hockey Program, Phillips is doing everything he can to give back to the community that built him and he works in today.

“Yes, so when we first started the program, there was certainly a need. There is lack of cultural diversity in hockey all across North America, but specifically in Flint. And as I would look out as a referee, I would see that lack of diversity,” Phillips said Wednesday night, sitting in Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino with his award by his side. “And so when we put it together, I had to get with local community leaders, especially the business community, to be able to provide the funds and the equipment for the kids, because we knew we had to have this absolutely free.”

It isn’t just about getting kids out to play for all the obvious reasons that’s helpful. It’s about an exchange between communities that oftentimes goes beyond the ice, which is essentially the whole point.

“One of the best things about our program is the volunteers themselves. We host eight different high school hockey teams who come in on different weeks and adopt the program. So there are built-in on-ice instructors,” Phillips explained. “What’s great about that is these kids, the high school kids come from the suburbs and rural areas, and then they come into the inner city to work with our kids. And this complete cultural breakdown that happens to where they all become one and it’s magic to see. I didn’t know it was gonna be that way, but that is one of the magic parts to our program, is that it’s really community-connected.”

Afterward, Phillips flashed pics with various hockey players, including P.K. Subban — who, by the way, covered NHL 19, becoming the video game’s second consecutive spokesperson of color — and other greats. Earlier in the day, the NHL also approved the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to a Latino owner, California billionaire Alex Meruelo. One is topical, one is deep-rooted.

So while the NHL and hockey as a whole are doing their best to put people with brown faces in outward-facing positions, some who are in them know just how tricky that can be in a real-life application. Hockey is only as inaccessible as anyone makes it seem, although the structural problems do create obstacles.

“There isn’t that gap that people think,” Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goalie who is currently an analyst for the NHL Network, said after the show. “Hockey players and NHL players don’t live on Pluto. I feel like the game is a people game. It’s a family game, it’s a community game. … It’s nice to have them recognized. Community leaders need to be recognized.”

Thursday in Las Vegas, many were. But the scars of the realities of racism don’t go away just because a few trophies are handed out. Those rewards just serve as a reminder of the many things that not only the game has to overcome, but everyone else does too.

From left to right: P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators is revealed as the cover athlete for EA Sports’ NHL 19 by Steve Campbell and Ryan Russell, known as Olly Postanin and Jacob Ardown from On the Bench, during the 2018 NHL Awards presented by Hulu at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 20 in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“In the ’80s, it was a running joke. I was the only black guy on that team. In the whole, everywhere. All right? And I had to absorb that and laugh it off and joke with them,” Phillips recalled. “Otherwise I would have been sad and mad and all those other things. My mother taught me, ‘Well, that is their regular, it’s not yours. Change their minds about who you are. And that’s all that matters.’

“And as a result of that, over time, the cultural things have changed. Now, when I became a young official, the N-bomb got cast right at me. My first season, I was 17 years old. So to think I’d be sitting here today after that dude called me that. Gold, man. Gold.”

Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon: ‘My life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people.’ The third-year guard discusses his efforts to bring clean water to East Africa

Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon played a big role in the team’s Game 2 win on Friday night with 14 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds off the bench.

But after the game he was more excited about a larger contribution.

On the set with TNT’s Inside the NBA crew, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley made a surprise $45,000 donation to Brogdon’s Hoops2O initiative, which raises funds to build water wells in East Africa. With Barkley’s contribution, Hoops2O has now raised $274,200 in less than a year.

“It’s extremely generous of [Barkley],” Brogdon told The Undefeated. “Not only does his donation significantly help my cause and thousands of people get access to clean water, but his interest creates a buzz that will magnify the addition that this initiative will get.”

Brogdon spearheaded the launch of Hoops2O on Oct. 29, 2018. Atlanta Hawks guard Justin Anderson, Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris, Los Angeles Clippers guard Garrett Temple and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Anthony Tolliver were named as part of Brogdon’s “Starting Five” in the Hoops2O Ballin’ for Buckets campaign. Hoops2O was born under the umbrella of the Waterboys initiative started by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who got 29 players to commit funding after his foundation debuted in 2015. All the money raised through Hoops2O goes toward the building of solar-powered deep borehole wells in East African communities.

“What Malcolm and the Starting Five have accomplished since October is impressive,” said Long. “They set a lofty goal to bring Waterboys to the NBA and raise over a quarter of a million dollars in the first season. … Their involvement means that we will reach our shared goal of providing water to 1 million people that much faster.”

This offseason, Brogdon, Anderson and Harris are slated to go to Tanzania for a Hoops2O project.

“Hoops2O is an amazing initiative that Malcolm brought me into,” said Temple, who plans to make a Hoops2O trip to Africa next year. “When he asked me to be a part of the Starting Five, I jumped at the chance. Water is easily one of the most vital components of life. It feels good to be able to provide that to an area that really needs it.”

Malcolm Brogdon during a trip to Tanzania in July 2018.

Clay Cook Photography and Chris Long Foundation

Brogdon’s initial goal of raising $225,000 for Hoops2O this season has already been surpassed. Three wells are under construction, two more will begin construction next month and another pair will begin construction in the coming months. Each well provides fresh water for more than 13,000 people in each East African community. Waterboys and Hoops2O have combined to fund 61 wells in Tanzania and Kenya.

“I feel like it’s my calling and my passion in life,” said Brogdon. During a trip to Malawi at the age of 14 with his grandparents, he learned that many Africans do not have clean water. “I’ve always viewed it as my dream and something that I love to do. I view it as a tool, something I can gain resources, gain access, money and all these things that can influence and empower other peoples’ lives. Clean water is the way I wanted to go, and Africa is the place I am starting.

“I am very happy with where I am now and the work that is getting done.”

Brogdon, 26, went to Tanzania last offseason in his first efforts to learn about the need for water wells in East Africa. In July, the Atlanta native will fly into Kilimanjaro before he goes to visit wells that have been built as well as sites under consideration. The former University of Virginia star also plans on visiting several elementary schools that are in need of water.

Brogdon said he was heartbroken and further inspired to create Hoops2O after visiting elementary schools in Arusha, Tanzania, last year.

“They brought buckets from home to get water for themselves and their classmates. And there was a little river behind the school,” Brogdon said. “And behind the river there were shantytowns where people lived very poorly. They were littering into the river, and you could see all the drainage, all the trash, dirt and all types of stuff. Everything was running through the river. Ten or 12 feet up the river you could see a line of sewage going across it. All the water was filtering through it, so you knew all the water was bad.

“You could see the kids getting water with their buckets, drinking it and then handing it to their classmates. And after a while after they get to their teens, you can see their teeth rotting and decaying because … the water was so contaminated. It was so unbearable to see. There is so much we take for granted here in the States.”

Brogdon and the Bucks will play Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on Sunday. They are now two wins away from Milwaukee’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1974. No matter the outcome, Brogdon is already viewed as a champion in East Africa.

“They see me as a humanitarian. I’m so big that people wonder and ask if I play basketball. But it is not like people over there are following the NBA really hard,” Brogdon said. “Their worries are bigger than basketball. It’s clean water. It’s living. It’s necessities that they’re looking for. Not celebrities. …

“Basketball is my job, I love it. It’s the dream. But honestly, my life passion is not basketball. It’s helping people and using my resources that I have gotten from basketball.”

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

By accident, ‘Space Jam’ is a nearly perfect stoner movie #MuteRKelly and ‘Space Jam’ becomes an ideal movie for 4/20

I found it.

I found a perfect movie for 4/20. Well, almost.

It’s Space Jam (minus the treacly R. Kelly theme that doesn’t even match the tone of the movie).

But Space Jam is an accidental stoner classic. It’s a kids movie that just happens to be the perfect mix of hilarious, fantastical, riveting and disturbing when watched while one is stoned out of one’s gourd. The stakes revolve around slavery. Slavery! Imagine if its forthcoming sequel took that energy and made it intentional.

If Space Jam 2 possesses the hallmark phantasmagoria of its director, Terence Nance, it ought to leave sober viewers wondering if they’ve accidentally ingested shrooms. It will be smart. It will be subversive. It will be sublimely weird.

Which gives me great hope that besides being a multiple NBA-championship-winning philanthropist who builds schools and produces documentaries that shine a light on those least illuminated, LeBron James could end up producing and starring in the best stoner flick since The Big Lebowski. One without the asterisk that comes with incorporating a warbling paean to flight sung by the man who showed us just what a superhero Gayle King actually is.

LeBron has the range. And we deserve.

This week, I busied myself with a bit of public service journalism. I went on the hunt for the perfect black stoner flick and kept coming up disappointed. Friday’s casual violence doesn’t age so well. How High is similarly distasteful. Half Baked is innocuous silliness. Newlyweeds is a bit uneven. Where is The Dude who dropped out after three semesters at Howard? Where are the black analogues to Abbi and Ilana? Or Harold and Kumar? What’s the hip-hop album/film mashup that accomplishes the trippy satisfaction of Dark Side of Oz?

Maybe they don’t exist yet. They should.

But until that day comes, let’s revisit what makes Space Jam an excellent stoner film.


In Space Jam — which somehow required not one, not two, not three, but FOUR screenwriters — like an epic adaptation of Doctor Faustus, Michael Jordan has retired from basketball and has moved on to baseball. He has a bulldog named Charles. (As in Charles BARK-ley, get it?) At the same time Michael is making this career transition, a group of aliens from a place called Moron Mountain descends upon Cartoon World, which is the home of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner, Lola Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, the weird rooster with the Southern accent and one elderly white granny. (Among elements that go unexplained: why the male-to-female ratio in Cartoon Land is so screwy.)

The Alien Moron Imperialists look like what might result if a person used CRISPR to splice together the DNA of a cockroach, a toucan and a guinea pig. They’re not that bright, but they have guns. They say things like, “You. All of you are now our prisoners.”

“We’re taking you to our theme park in outer space.”

“No food.”

“Where you will be our slaves and placed on display for the amusement of our paying customers.”

The aliens basically declare that they’re establishing a triangular trade between Moron Mountain, Earth and Cartoon Land, which seems to be located somewhere between the Earth’s crust and mantle, given that Jordan ends up there after he’s shrunken and swallowed into a putting green hole.

The Looney Tunes, faced with an existential crisis and no means to defend themselves (except maybe Elmer’s shotgun, which no one bothers to try shooting), hatch a deal with the aliens.

“Give us a chance to defend ourselves,” they request. With a basketball game.

OK, there is actually some defensible logic here. The aliens are about the size of guinea pigs and the Looney Tunes are … taller. The odds should be in their favor. Still, the only thing lying between Porky, Tasmanian Devil, Lola, Tweety, etc., and ending up like Sarah Baartman is … basketball? That’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls poses with a cutout of Bugs Bunny at a news conference in New York on June 20, 1995.

AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

The aliens take the deal, then set about sucking the talent out of a bunch of NBA players for their own use, like hideous, squeaky-voiced precursors to the Armitages of Get Out. (Has Nance thought about casting Allison Williams in Space Jam 2? Because that could be a really nice way to complete this circle.)

So Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing discover that they’ve become instantly terrible at basketball, and they have no idea why. And because “alien body snatchers leeching off black people’s talent so they can win the rights to enslave some other people” doesn’t exactly present itself as an obvious explanation, the rest of the NBA is shook. The other players start wearing gas masks to avoid the mysterious bacterial contagion that’s going around rendering NBA players useless.

The Looney Tunes find themselves facing newly beefed-up Morons who look suspiciously like the sort of big, black, ’roided-up threats that are more a figment of the racist imagination than a real thing. None of the imaginary characters in this film seems to care much about bodily agency — not even their own. Again, we’ve arrived at this point because the only thing standing between the Looney Tunes and slavery is a basketball game. So the Looney Tunes shrink Jordan and suck him down the hole of a putting green when he’s out playing golf with Larry Bird, the publicist of his new baseball team, and Bill Murray.

Can we just take a minute to recognize that Jordan has terrible friends in this movie? Not a one of them tries to save him.

With Jordan firmly ensconced in Looney Tunes Land, Bugs Bunny explains why he and his friends have sucked the greatest basketball player of all time into middle-earth: “You see, these aliens come from outer space and they want to make us slaves in their theme park. Eh, what do we care. They’re little. So then we challenge them to a basketball game. But then they show up and they ain’t so little. They’re HUGE! We need to beat these guys! ’Cause they’re talkin’ slavery! They’re gonna make us do stand-up comedy. The same jokes, every night, for all eternity. We’re gonna be locked up like wild animals and trotted out to perform for a bunch of low-brow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humor-challenged aliens. What I’m trying to say is, WE NEED YOUR HEEEEEEEEEEELP.”

This bit of exposition is accompanied by an image of Bugs Bunny attached to a ball and chain, shucking and jiving against his will across a stage. How did we miss all the racial subtext packed into this movie?

The ’roided-up body snatcher aliens, now known as the Monstars, are not so impressed by Jordan.

“You heard of the Dream Team?” one asks. “Well, we’re the Mean Team.”

And then they proceed to ball up Jordan like he doesn’t have bones, or ligaments, or a spinal cord, and dribble him around a two-dimensional basketball court.

Meanwhile, on the surface of Earth, a doctor is asking Ewing if he’s been experiencing impotence since he lost his talent. This movie is wild.

The 2-D stars of Space Jam.

Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Anyway, once Jordan’s regained his natural, nonspherical shape, he sends Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to search his house for his lucky Carolina shorts and his shoes, because you can’t play basketball against a team of body-snatching aliens in golf spikes. That would be preposterous.

It turns out there’s a comically evil, cigar-smoking alien fat cat (voiced by Danny DeVito) who is forcing the Morons to steal the essences of black people, play this game against the Looney Tunes and win. (Way to let the Alien Imperialist Morons off the hook, writers. Turns out they were only following orders!)

Even with Jordan on their side, the Tune Squad is awful. But at halftime, down 66-20, all of the Tune Squad gets a hit of a mysterious bottle labeled “Michael’s Secret Stuff.” They start scoring and playing incredible defense to close the gap to 68-66. Jordan informs his teammates his “secret stuff” is actually just water, leading them to believe in themselves.

The game ends with the Tune Squad winning, 78-77. Jordan not only saves the Looney Tunes from slavery, he manages to repossess the talent of Bogues, Ewing and Barkley and return it. The fat cat goes ricocheting into outer space, Jordan goes back to basketball, and then in pipes the comically incongruous “I Believe I Can Fly.”

That’s it. That’s the (nearly) perfect 4/20 movie.

Time to roll another spliff.

Today in black history: Happy birthday, Charles Barkley and Sidney Poitier, first black umpire certified, RIP Frederick Douglass, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 20

1895 — Abolitionist Frederick Douglass dies in the District of Columbia. The famous abolitionist, lecturer, orator and writer died in his Anacostia Heights, Washington, D.C., home at 78.

1927 — Happy birthday, Sidney Poitier. Born in Miami, Poitier became the first African-American to win an Academy Award in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).

1936 — John Hope dies at 67. Hope was the first black president of Morehouse College (1906) and Atlanta University, the first graduate school for blacks (1929). Hope was also a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

1937 — Nancy Wilson is born. Wilson won Grammys for best rhythm and blues recording for “How Glad I Am” and best jazz vocal album prizes for R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) in 2004 and Turned to Blue in 2006. In 2002, the singer won a George Foster Peabody Award for her NPR radio show, Jazz Profiles. She died in 2018.

1951 — Emmett Ashford becomes the certified first black umpire in organized baseball.

1963 — Happy birthday, Charles Barkley. At the conclusion of his 16-year NBA career, Barkley was one of four players in league history with at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone. Barkley is now a TNT NBA analyst.

1976 — Muhammad Ali knocks out Belgian boxer Jean-Pierre Coopman in five rounds in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in a fight sometimes referred to by fans as a “glorified sparring session.”

Hakeem Olajuwon’s five most impressive Ramadan performances The Hall of Famer played Jordan, Barkley, Robinson and Ewing while fasting, but how did he fare?

When sunset strikes, all around the world Muslims are dunking samosas in chutney like Giannis Antetokounmpo posterizing Aron Baynes. In fact, during this year’s holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, fasts are being broken and thirst quenched just in time for the Splash Brothers to tantalize us with how wet they are.

Despite the challenge of fasting this year during some of the longest days of summer, Ramadan continues to be a festive time for Muslims who sacrifice their appetites in hopes of becoming closer to the divine. Just as Stephen Curry battles through a knee injury to achieve his ultimate goal of another NBA championship, so too are Muslims pushing through this trying month.

For many Muslim fans of the NBA, Ramadan is also a reminder of when their two worlds collided in the shape of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. In the mid-1990s, Muslims in America were misunderstood in much the same way they are today, conflated in popular imagination with terrorists rather than seen as ordinary American citizens. But then Olajuwon challenged himself to observe fasts while playing during the month of Ramadan and raised awareness of another aspect of what a Muslim could be. He wasn’t just The Dream. To many Muslim-Americans, he was the epitome of the American Dream.

Olajuwon told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears last year, “As for fasting, it is a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play. Through Allah’s mercy, I always felt stronger and more energetic during Ramadan.”

Even his former teammates marveled at Olajuwon’s ability to play during the month. “There are 48 minutes to a game and for you to play 42 minutes of that 48 and not even be able to take a sip of water, that is just phenomenal,” Robert Horry once said.

But the story of Olajuwon’s greatness during Ramadan may not be so simple. A closer look through the archives of the Houston Chronicle shows that Olajuwon’s observance of Ramadan evolved during his time in the league.

During Ramadan in March 1992, Olajuwon was sidelined while being “embroiled in hostilities with the Rockets.” Things got so bad between the team and their star player that season, he at one point demanded a trade. At the time, Olajuwon was not fasting on game days, so he was grateful for the opportunity to complete his fasts despite being suspended from the team:

“They have suspended me, so I’m not making any money.

“But fasting is priceless.”

Islam’s lunar calendar means Ramadan shifts up about 11 days every year. This year it takes place through May and June, whereas when Olajuwon played the holy month took place between March (early on in his career) and November (by the end of his career). When Olajuwon began fasting for Ramadan during the 1993 season, he told reporters, “I cannot do it on game days. So what I have to do is make up for the days I miss after the season.”

Olajuwon’s decision to not fast during game days early in his career was not an abdication of his religious responsibility, as Muslims who are traveling, as Olajuwon often was, can choose to make up their fasts at a later time.

But Olajuwon’s perspective on fasting shifted after a conversation with fellow Muslim NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Olajuwon recalled the conversation with Abdul-Rauf to the Chronicle’s Michael Murphy: “We were discussing one day the excitement and the motivation to go all the way,” Olajuwon said. “When you are on the road, you are allowed to make it up. But to go all the way instead of delaying it to make it up [is exciting].”

So, beginning in February 1995, Olajuwon began fasting during game days. Incredibly, he was named NBA Player of the Month that month. He also fasted on game days during the holy month in 1996 and 1997. Olajuwon missed Ramadan in 1998 while recovering from knee surgery, and the lockout-shortened season in 1999 did not have any games during Ramadan. In 1999, Olajuwon did not return to the Rockets’ lineup until after Ramadan ended because of an injury.

In 2000, Olajuwon was playing significantly fewer minutes than in his prime, but he did fast during his last season with the Rockets. He also observed Ramadan the following year while playing limited minutes with the Toronto Raptors.

But not all of Olajuwon’s performances while fasting were created equal. Most of the games in which Olajuwon observed the fast tipped off after sunset, when he was allowed to break the fast. Which meant that at least during the game, he could drink water and have a light snack if necessary. With less food in his body, he claimed, he would experience less back pain. And rather than spending the day leading up to road games ordering room service, Olajuwon felt lighter and more energetic after a small snack to break the fast before tipoff of those night games. He once told the Los Angeles Times that other NBA stars should try it. “If they only knew,” he says, “they would be fasting.” Last summer, Celtics star Jaylen Brown, who “declined to share what religion he identifies with,” seemed to take his advice.

Spiritually centered, and sufficiently nourished, Olajuwon feasted on opposing teams at night after breaking his fast during the three Ramadans he observed between 1995-97. For example, after his first game-day fast on Feb. 2, 1995, Olajuwon dropped 41 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. On Jan. 30, 1997, Olajuwon tallied 48 points and 10 rebounds while playing 46 minutes in a close loss to the Denver Nuggets. When asked about how fasting on game days affected his performance, Olajuwon told the Houston Chronicle near the end of Ramadan in 1995: “But really, it doesn’t affect me except on day games.”

That wasn’t modesty. Indeed, his most impressive Ramadan performances were the handful of times he had to play in nationally televised games on Sunday afternoons while fasting. Playing against Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and David Robinson already posed enough of a challenge, but Olajuwon went head-to-head against his generation’s greatest players without even the opportunity to hydrate until hours after the final buzzer.

Olajuwon was not superhuman while battling the league’s best under these conditions, going 2-3 in the five Sunday afternoon games he played while fasting in his prime. But his resilience and determination did show millions of fans, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, just how super a human could be.

’94-’95 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 72 15
Minutes 39.6 39.7
Points 27.8 29
Rebounds 10.8 10
Assists 3.5 3.9
Steals 1.8 1.7
Blocks 3.4 3.3
’95-’96 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 72 13
Minutes 38.8 40.5
Points 26.9 26.1
Rebounds 10.9 9.7
Assists 3.6 2.8
Steals 1.6 1.1
Blocks 2.9 2.8
’96-’97 stats Regular season Ramadan
Games played 78 14
Minutes 36.6 37.3
Points 23.2 25.4
Rebounds 9.2 8.3
Assists 3.0 3.4
Steals 1.5 2.1
Blocks 2.2 2.1

*LeBron James led the NBA in minutes per game in 2017-2018, averaging 36.9 minutes per game

Hakeem’s top five Ramadan performances

We ranked Olajuwon’s greatest performances while fasting in his prime. Whether it was bad luck or divine intervention, four of the five matchups came against future Hall of Famers. He put up some monster stat lines, but also suffered humbling defeats. I mean, he took an L to Rony Seikaly.

Getty Images; AP

No. 5: Rockets @ Magic (L, 90-103)
Feb. 2, 1997

Hakeem Olajuwon: 33 mins, 17 pts, 8 rebs, 4 asts, 3 blks; Rony Seikaly: 39 mins, 29 pts, 7 rebs, 1 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk

Olajuwon’s final game in which he fasted during his prime is definitely one he’d like to forget. Opposing center Seikaly was so dominant, he had the Chronicle’s Eddie Sefkoe writing: “If you didn’t know better, you would have sworn the Orlando Magic had Shaquille O’Neal again.” Seikaly, who is better known these days as a house music DJ than a basketball player, outscored Olajuwon by a dozen points. Although the Rockets were without an injured Barkley, they still expected better against a middle-of-the-road Orlando team that was dealing with injuries of its own.

If it’s any consolation, Seikaly would later refer to Olajuwon as his toughest matchup in the league: “He would shake you around and you were all shook up.”

As embarrassing as this loss was, a week later it was just a footnote in Olajuwon’s amazing career. On Sunday, Feb. 9, Olajuwon celebrated the Eid holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, at the All-Star Game in Cleveland, where at halftime he was officially named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 4: Rockets @ Spurs (L, 79-93)
Feb. 18, 1996

Hakeem Olajuwon: 40 mins, 18 pts, 10 rebs, 2 asts, 1 stl, 7 blks; David Robinson: 42 mins, 25 pts, 12 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls, 7 blks

A Rockets loss during Ramadan meant endless speculation as to how Olajuwon’s insistence on fasting affected his play and the team’s performance. After blowing a 15-point lead late in the third quarter against David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in a nationally televised game on a Sunday afternoon, Clyde Drexler said after the game: “We all played like we had been fasting.”

Olajuwon led the Rockets with 18 points, along with 10 rebounds and 7 blocks in 40 minutes of playing time without so much as a sip of water. Robinson matched his seven blocks and added 25 points and 12 rebounds to give his team the edge.

After the game, the Chronicle’s Dale Robertson wrote that “to deny Ramadan depletes his strength and endurance is to ignore the obvious.” The next day, on the second game of a back-to-back, after playing 40 minutes while fasting on Sunday, Olajuwon broke his fast on the final day of Ramadan and laced up to battle the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. He played 46 minutes and scored 40 points, including the first six points of overtime, to lead his team to a victory.

Jed Jacobsohn/ALLSPORT

No. 3: Rockets @ Knicks (L, 117-122)
Feb. 19, 1995

Hakeem Olajuwon: 43 mins, 27 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 3 stls, 4 blks; Patrick Ewing: 39 mins, 31 pts, 9 rebs, 5 asts, 2 stls

After losing to the Rockets in the NBA Finals in 1994, the New York Knicks were hungry for revenge. Olajuwon, on the other hand, was just hungry. During a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game in Madison Square Garden, Olajuwon lost the battle against Patrick Ewing. Despite being on the court for 43 minutes and contributing 23 points, Olajuwon was no match for Ewing, who scored 31. After the game, Olajuwon lamented: “I couldn’t challenge a lot of the shots. I had a burning in my chest all day from not being able to drink and didn’t play the kind of game that would allow us to win.”

Although Olajuwon admitted that fasting during daytime games can have a debilitating effect on his performance, he also stated: “I feel like the sacrifices I’m making now will make me stronger mentally when there is much more on the line.”

Maybe it is no coincidence, then, that the Rockets capped off this season with their second NBA championship in a row.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

No. 2: Rockets @ Suns (W, 124-100)
Feb. 5, 1995

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 28 pts, 11 rebs, 3 asts, 3 blks; Charles Barkley: 41 mins, 24 pts, 11 rebs, 7 asts, 2 stls

Olajuwon began fasting on game days during Ramadan in 1995. After breaking his second fast of Ramadan, Olajuwon played his first game of the holy month and dropped 41 points on Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in a rout. He followed that game with a nationally televised showdown on Sunday afternoon against Barkley and the red-hot Phoenix Suns. Playing one of the NBA’s best teams, Olajuwon could not drink during the game, but that didn’t stop him. He led the Rockets with 28 points and 11 rebounds in 39 minutes. And despite Barkley’s 24 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, the Suns were no match for the Rockets.

Olajuwon followed up this performance with a third straight win, earning him NBA Player of the Week honors. An incredible feat for a player adjusting to fasting on game days for the first time.

Getty Images

No. 1: Rockets vs. Bulls (W, 102-86)
Jan. 19, 1997

Hakeem Olajuwon: 39 mins, 32 pts, 16 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls, 5 blks; Michael Jordan: 43 mins, 26 pts, 14 rebs, 5 asts, 1 stl, 1 blk

On the second day of Ramadan in 1997, Olajuwon and the Rockets visited the Bulls in Chicago and got blown out in a night game against Michael Jordan and the defending NBA champions. Despite posting 29 points and 8 rebounds, no other Rocket scored in double digits, and the team then set its sights on a rematch between the last two NBA champions that was going to be nationally televised in the afternoon on Jan. 19. With Olajuwon fasting, you couldn’t blame many for thinking that Jordan was going to feast on the Rockets. Despite being without Barkley, the Rockets responded. Olajuwon played 39 minutes and led his team with 32 points and 16 rebounds. Although Jordan had 26 points and 14 rebounds, he could not find his shooting rhythm, and the Bulls collapsed after the Rockets went on a 19-0 run in the fourth quarter.

After the game, Rudy Tomjanovich said, “If this doesn’t quiet down the questions about it [Ramadan], I don’t know what will.”

What if LeBron’s career had started in the Western Conference? Or if the Miami Heat passed on Wade? These and other mind-bending what-ifs, 15 years after the 2003 NBA draft lottery

The 2018 NBA draft lottery takes place Tuesday night. It’s a loaded class. And while 15 years ago, the lottery wasn’t the grandiose event it is now, a season of draft positioning (also known as tanking) on the part of some teams made the May 22, 2003, NBA draft lottery must-see TV. What happened that night, in many ways, set in motion the NBA we enjoy today. But what could have been? If a single pingpong ball had gone this way, or a front office decision had gone that way? This is NBA’s equivalent of The Butterfly Effect.

Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke knew it was the kiss of death. Like any other NBA executive in 2003, Kroenke coveted 18-year-old high school demigod LeBron James. And the Nuggets, having gone 17-65 in the 2002-03 season, were very much in play for the man Sports Illustrated famously dubbed “The Chosen One.” The Nuggets won the draft lottery. They landed the No. 1 pick. Except there was a catch. This was the rehearsal that was filmed before the live show.

Kroenke, in Secaucus, New Jersey, was beside himself. There’s no way lightning would strike again, when the draft lottery went live later that night. And while Kroenke stewed in Jersey, LeBron James, Aaron Goodwin — James’ agent from 2003-05 — and a host of family and friends celebrated the impending reality of James’ professional career in a Cleveland Hilton.

Imagine a young LeBron learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis.

“We just waited to officially hear [who got the No. 1 pick] and kept partying,” said Goodwin 15 years later. “LeBron was in another room. I was on the phone. I don’t think there was any tension or worry about where he would go.” James was the belle of the ball. But he wasn’t the only future Hall of Fame name associated with the Class of 2003. Had things gone differently for two of his closest friends, the trophy case for the band of brothers affectionately known as the Banana Boat Crew would look very different.


What if the mock drafts held true, and the Miami Heat passed on Dwyane Wade?

Clippers. Wizards. Warriors. Bulls — these were the teams several mock drafts forecast for Dwyane Wade. Many thought the Heat would select a big man like Central Michigan’s Chris Kaman, or Maciej Lampe of Poland. Wade, despite one of the most memorable March Madness runs ever, was viewed as middle-of-the-pack talent. An undersized two-guard with an inconsistent shot — both assessments that ring true to this day. Very few, outside of Miami, saw the game-changing possibilities Wade would bring. And even fewer saw could foresee that the Marquette star would become the third greatest two of all time (behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant). There’s a Pandora’s box of possibilities — if Wade never lands in the 305.

Where does Shaquille O’Neal eventually land when he’s traded in the summer of 2004 if he doesn’t go to Miami? Where does Derrick Rose go in 2008 assuming the Bulls aren’t around with the No. 1 overall pick? Where does James go in 2010 if Wade’s not in Miami? Does he switch teams in his division, still join Wade and chase Jordan’s ghost while playing under the banners Jordan helped corral in Chicago? Or does he land in New York? Or does he never leave Cleveland in the first place? The questions we’ll never know the answer to are always the most fascinating.

How much differently is Carmelo Anthony’s career viewed if he goes No. 2 to Detroit?

This is, by far, the most-asked question from the 2003 draft. As it stands today, Carmelo Anthony is a future Hall of Famer. He has a national championship to his name and, with just one season at Syracuse is one of the more revered college players of all time. He’s Top 20 all-time in points scored — and the other 19 are all in Springfield or will eventually be. But the shortcomings of his career are unavoidable, and are capped off with a disappointing inaugural season in Oklahoma City. He’s only been to one conference finals (2009) and his era in New York was one filled with internal strife and just three playoff appearances in seven years.

Heading into the ‘03 draft, the top three was basically set in stone. James to Cleveland, Darko Milicic (who had the league captivated with his mysterious potential) to Detroit and Anthony to Denver. For a decade and a half, every basketball fan has wondered once or a million times: What if Joe Dumars and the Pistons went with Anthony instead of Milicic? It’s also one of the great regrets of Anthony‘s, too. “I was a little bit disappointed,” Anthony said. “I really wanted to go to Detroit. You had Chauncey, you had all those guys over there … Detroit, they had something going.”

A random 1997 trade featuring Otis Thorpe trade directly impacted the 2003 draft and where its most valuable piece landed.

Anthony around Detroit’s veteran leadership, on top of instantly being the best one-on-one player on the Pistons in 2003-04 makes for an interesting dynamic. Whatever defensive shortcomings he had would’ve been masked by bringing a devastating defensive force like Tayshaun Prince off the bench. The makings of a potential James-Carmelo rivalry, in the same division, would have produced a plethora of 2000s classic games. Not to mention: How would a young Anthony have influenced key series losses such as the 2005 Finals to San Antonio, 2006 Eastern Conference finals to Miami and the landscape-changing 2007 Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland? The Detroit what-ifs of Carmelo’s career remain infinite 15 years later.

How did Otis Thorpe play a role in two of the three biggest drafts in NBA history?

The Houston Rockets second consecutive title in 1995? (Partially) thank Otis Thorpe for that. The veteran power forward was traded by H-Town along with Tracy Murray to the Portland Trail Blazers in return for future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.

Two years later, Thorpe was involved in another trade that, at the time, barely made headlines. Thorpe and Detroit Pistons head coach Doug Collins had a strained relationship during their time together in the mid-’90s. In August 1997, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies traded for the 35-year-old Thorpe, giving up a protected first-round pick between the years 1998 and 2003. The pick came with protections and stipulations. By 2003, the Grizzlies were between a proverbial rock and hard place. The only way they could keep their draft pick is if they somehow landed the No. 1 overall pick.

There’s heartbreak and then there’s having to experience it on national television. The legendary Jerry West joined the Grizzlies in 2002 as the team’s president of basketball operations — meaning he inherited the Thorpe trade. West landed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles the summer of 1996. He was thisclose to drafting James in Memphis, had the pingpong balls fallen in his favor. Look at West’s face when he realizes his franchise missed James by a single pick. If “this is some bulls—” ever had a face, it’s Jerry West on the night of May 22, 2003. “I hate the lottery; I think it’s a terrible thing,” West said in 2013. “And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well.” Can you really blame West for being salty?

On a related note, Thorpe played a role in two of the three most storied drafts in NBA history. He was selected ninth overall in 1984 in a draft that featured Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. And a random 1997 trade featuring Thorpe directly impacted the 2003 draft and so everything that’s happening in pro basketball today.

What if James began his career in the Western Conference?

James in the Eastern Conference — it’s all the basketball he knows. Depending on the decision he makes this summer, it may be all we ever know. But as mentioned, James nearly began out west. Two of the top three picks in the ‘03 draft were from Western Conference squads in Memphis and Denver. Both made the playoffs in James’ rookie year.

Can you really blame Jerry West for being salty?

How would The King have looked on the Grizzlies or Nuggets 15 years ago? Memphis would’ve paired him with a young Pau Gasol, his future teammates Shane Battier and Mike Miller, Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams. Also, imagine a young James learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis. Goodwin never really anticipated Memphis landing the first pick. “If that would’ve happened, we would’ve turned Memphis into a great market,” sadi Goodwin. “And they’d have at least two championships by now.”

Denver, on the other hand, boasted another future teammate in Chris Andersen, as well as Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Nene with current Houston Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik manning the sidelines.

James battling his way through a Western Conference with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Rockets and Phoenix Suns are heavyweight parallel universe matchups. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is that we would have eventually landed a James vs. Kobe Bryant series — the one matchup a league filled with stars could never make happen on its biggest stages. It’s tough to imagine a series more anticipated, debated and fawned over than a seven-game Western Conference finals featuring its two most polarizing names.

Can the Philadelphia 76ers really get to the Finals, though? Shaq and Penny say yes The Magic did it in ‘95, and the Penny/Shaq era has a lot in common with Philly in 2018

The Philadelphia 76ers, after “trusting” the “process,” have completed their first playoff series victory since 2012. It happened in five games over the Miami Heat, and sharpshooter J.J. Redick led the charge with 27 points. But Tuesday night in Philly was far more than a series victory. It was a moment.

The presence of Meek Mill at courtside (he arrived via helicopter), in his first public appearance since being released from prison hours earlier, added to an already momentous occasion for a franchise on the way up. The rapper’s much-debated sentence stemmed from a probation violation in November of 2017 and made him the newest face of criminal justice reform.

The calls for his freedom rivaled those for Lil’ Boosie and for Gucci Mane in years past. And Meek (Robert Rihmeek Williams) graduated to something of a Philly sports yoda during his time in the belly of the beast. His 2012 “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” ignited the Philadelphia Eagles on the way to their first Super Bowl. And the 76ers have long been Meek’s loudest supporters — from Julius “Dr. J” Erving to current players raising awareness to his friendship with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin.

Kellerman compares Simmons-Embiid to Penny-Shaq

Max Kellerman has not seen a young duo like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid since Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.


Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (the new head coach at the University of Memphis) fail miserably at containing the pride in their voices. Both recognize Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the most dynamic young point guard and center combo since the mid-1990s, when they turned Orlando into the cultural capital of the brief post-Jordan basketball world.

Both sets of teammates are first and third overall picks — O’Neal and Simmons being the top picks in 1992 and 2016, respectively; Hardaway and Embiid were No. 3 in 1993 and 2014. Penny was originally drafted by the Golden State Warriors and then immediately traded to Orlando for Chris Webber.

“Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” — Penny Hardaway

“When I demanded they bring in Penny,” says Shaq, “I was thinking we were gonna be the new Magic Johnson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I already knew what I wanted because I had a good point guard [Scott Skiles], but he was older. … We’d have to build defensive schemes around him — like when guards posted him up, we had to double. I just got tired of doing all that. I was like, we need to get somebody who can play everybody straight up.”

“It’s great having a star opposite your position because it makes [the game] easier,” says Hardaway. “Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” Through nostalgia-tinted glasses the working relationship seems much longer, but O’Neal and Penny played together for only three seasons in Orlando.

O’Neal sees parts of himself in Embiid, 24, and confidence is near the top of that list. Stylistically, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. But it’s the intangibles that place a smile on Shaq’s face when discussing Embiid. “The way he dominates the game, the way he’s very outspoken,” O’Neal says. “He’s very loved in the community [that drafted him] too.”

Hardaway stops short of saying he sees himself in Simmons, but he does, however, impart some advice to the floor general whose athleticism and floor vision get co-signs from some of the game’s legends. “[To Ben, I’d say] don’t get too ahead of yourself. Always keep that chip on your shoulder. Don’t ever think that you’ve arrived.”

Simmons, 21, follows in the line of big, pass-first point guards like Hardaway and the prototype Magic Johnson (LeBron James, too, if you’re considering him a point guard). Simmons, through five games this postseason, has exhibited poise and fearlessness beyond his years, and the fluidity in his game is very reminiscent of Hardaway. The clearest difference between Simmons and his basketball prophyte is Hardaway’s superior shooting — a skill that this year’s presumptive at least co-Rookie of the Year will attack this offseason.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done.” — Shaq

Much like the Golden State Warriors and the Kevin Durant-, Russell Westbrook- and James Harden-led Oklahoma City Thunder, this current 76er iteration is the 2010s’ newest “young team.” They’re the new cool kids everyone wants to be around. They’re embedded in the cultural discourse, much like Shaq and Penny before them.

Shaq dropped platinum rap albums, kicked it with Biggie Smalls and entered Hollywood while Penny became a marketing deity in part because of his shoes and the immortal “Lil’ Penny” character voiced by Chris Rock. Both Embiid and Simmons have forged a kinship with Meek Mill. Embiid has been knighted basketball’s premier and peerless trash-talker and has the most notable crush on Rihanna since … Drake? And Simmons is dating R&B starlet Tinashe.

With each completed step of the process, Philly’s “Neon Boudeaux” and “Butch McRae” — Shaq and Penny’s characters in 1994’s Blue Chips — continue to add to the cultural kismet Sixer basketball has accumulated since the days of Allen Iverson. O’Neal has been behind that same wheel. In 1995, when they got to the Finals, the Magic were still a very young team, having only been in the league since 1989. Philly, by virtue of several unwatchable, “embarrassing” seasons, played like one. From 2013-16, the Sixers won a total of 47 regular-season games. They won 50 this year alone.

Carrying the weight of an entire organization when you’re technically not old enough to legally rent a car comes with its own war stories. And many are picking Philly to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said Tuesday night that the Sixers “have everything” needed to beat any team in their path. Many peg them as the first Eastern Conference team in nearly 3,000 days that will defeat LeBron James in the postseason — provided The King and his ragtag collection of merry men advance that far. Some are bold enough to predict a 76ers championship parade this summer. James told Simmons four years ago that he could be better than him — if Simmons “[did] the work.”

“The word potential,” Hardaway says, “can be dangerous because it’s saying you have the ability to be something.” The ability to be something and actually becoming the superhero of your wildest dreams are different realities. Shaq and Penny realized their joint potential, even if they didn’t punctuate it completely with a championship that seemed inevitable at their partnership’s peak. Both carry those battle wounds.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done,” O’Neal says with a faint sigh. O’Neal, Hardaway and the 1995 Orlando Magic hold the distinction of being the last team to defeat a Michael Jordan-led team in the postseason. “I go back to what happened after we beat Mike and [the Chicago Bulls] … we already thought we had won the championship. But Houston, who had won the year before, knew what it took to win, and we didn’t. … As a young guy, you really don’t know what it takes to win a championship.”

Shaq and Penny were swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 Finals. A year later, they were swept by Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. And later in the summer of 1996, O’Neal migrated west to begin the next chapter of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and an uber-confident 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant. Just like that, Orlando dreams turned into nightmares.

But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can still put a championship crack in the Liberty Bell. It’s all about moments. Embiid starting in his first All-Star Game is one. Simmons potentially winning Rookie of the Year is another. Tuesday night was big too. But if “trusting the process” is to be taken at face value, then it shouldn’t be about late May or potentially early June. It should just be about the next moment — Game 1 against either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks. The advice for them from their predecessors is as simple as it is complex.

“The only thing I can say to [Ben and Joel] is don’t take this time for granted, like it’s going to happen next year because you’re a young team,” Hardaway says. “Right now, with the run they’re on, they have to be careful of saying, ‘If we don’t win the next round, we’re gonna have next year.’ You gotta do it now.” Through basketball osmosis, that advice has already permeated into Philly’s locker room. Embiid told reporters prior to Game 5 that he believed Philly’s “time is now.”

Shaq and Penny are more personally invested in Simmons and Embiid’s success — they want Philly’s dynamic duo to surpass them. “Hopefully they can stick together and not have any petty problems,” Shaq says. “You know, not worry about who’s getting paid the most.” He pauses. “I think if they stay together…they’re gonna be very hard to beat.”

Meek Mill sat courtside as guest of honor beside fellow Philly native Kevin Hart. The moment was one of the wildest “fresh outta jail” fables since Tupac was released from prison in October 1995, caught a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles and began recording his behemoth album All Eyez On Me the same night. The day began with Meek in a cell and ended with his first live look at the city’s two newest basketball demigods.

Embiid and Simmons combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks. Both, like Meek, continue to etch their names in the city’s cultural history.

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Elliot Perry on leaving basketball, collecting art and living in Memphis His grandfather participated in the famous sanitation workers’ strike in 1968

Memphis, Tennessee, native and 6-foot point guard Elliot Perry was Memphis State University basketball coach Larry Finch’s first recruit. He started every game during his collegiate career (1987-91), leading the program to two NCAA tournament appearances and a second-round berth in 1987.

That was more than three decades ago.

Now, Perry is director of player support for the Memphis Grizzlies, a title he’s held with the team since 2014. His responsibilities include helping players prepare for life outside of basketball — an area in which he’s found much success. He also advises the team on community-based efforts in Memphis.

Perry played for seven teams over his 10-year NBA career. Known as “Socks” because of the high footwear he wore during his collegiate and NBA careers, he retired from the NBA in 2002, closing his career out with his hometown Memphis Grizzlies on a 10-day contract. He later worked a year with the National Basketball Players Association.

“I really loved that job,” Perry said. “I was always a player rep on each team that I was on, so it was just a natural transition when I retired to go work with the NBA players association. Then I got recruited back to Memphis.”

Perry is part of the minority ownership group for the Grizzlies, along with singer Justin Timberlake, Ashley Manning (wife of Peyton Manning), Penny Hardaway and others.

“I’ve been working here about 11 years now, going on 12 years, and loved every minute of it,” he said. “Also, doing the radio with the Grizzlies.”

Perry holds a degree in marketing. He was selected in the second round (37th overall) of the 1991 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, he founded the annual SOCKS Banquet (Supporting Our Community and Kids) to provide financial support to organizations committed to helping Memphis-area youth and also serves as a board member of Teach for America.

An avid art collector, Perry focuses on modern and contemporary works by African-American artists and artists of African descent.

Perry spoke with The Undefeated about his grandfather, who was part of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, art, philanthropy and basketball.


Do you miss the hardwood?

Yes, you always miss it. Now I realize I can’t get out there and play, but you always miss it, and you miss it for a few reasons, I think. Obviously, being in the locker room and being a part of something bigger than yourself, but more importantly it’s the relationships that you build and being able to compete at a high level. Probably, every young kid in the country that’s playing basketball aspires to be in the NBA, and for me I was fortunate enough that by God’s grace and mercy, and the little bit of talent I had and the work ethic I had, I brought to my job every day, I was able to play 10 years.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s been the hardest part of transitioning from the court into the professional space?

I think the hardest part, probably for any player, is they’ve been playing basketball and being on a schedule and having an agenda and knowing exactly what to do for the majority of their life, really, and so the hard part of transitioning is a lot of players just don’t have the skill set. Whether it’s doing whatever they need to do in an office setting or if you’re going to do radio, if you’re going to do TV. I think the NBA players association has done a really good job of trying to help guys transition now. That wasn’t what was happening when I was playing.

I think one of the things that players miss out on is the ability to network while they have opportunities and doors open for them. While I was playing, I was always happy to go meet with people, to speak with kids, to speak with other people.

How did you and your wife get into art collecting?

Back in the summer of ’96, Charles Barkley took a group of us over to Japan and we played three exhibition games. And the who’s who, from Gary Payton to Clyde Drexler to Alonzo Mourning, we had a really, really good crew of guys. Anyway, I was on a plane with Darrell Walker, who was a former NBA player who was coaching at the time in Washington. He started talking to me about art … about how he has started to collect art over the past eight to 10 years, and who got him started was Bernard King. And the more we talked, the more I listened, and just started reading a little bit.

When the season started that year, Darrell would always call and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re in New York, go by this gallery or this museum.’ He would always send me books. The more I read, the more interested I got in artists, artists’ lives, their trajectory, the work that they were making, the conversations they were having around their work and why they were making work. I decided, maybe the year after that, to purchase my first piece. Then it just snowballed. I really got addicted to it. For me, the mission, and for my wife and I, this collection that we’ve been able to amass is a lot of just preservation of history and culture too.

Do you remember your first purchase?

A print by an artist named Paul Goodnight. The title of it was Tennessee T Taster.

Tennessee T Taster by artist Paul Goodnight.

www.thecollectionshop.com

Do you still have it?

Oh, yeah, absolutely still have it. No doubt about it.

Do you sell a lot of the art you collect?

No, we’re not in it for just pure money reasons. Out of the years that I’ve been collecting, that’s over 20 years or so, I’ve probably sold five pieces out of our collection. This has been a kind of labor of love and passion, and we started collecting a lot of old-school artists when we initially started doing it, but in 2004 we did a 180 and really just started collecting young, living, contemporary artists. That’s really been a much better journey in terms of being able to communicate with artists, being able to talk to artists about our mission and why we collect work, and then we’ve been able to visit their studios and hear their work and hear why they make their work.

What made you decide to return to Memphis?

It’s probably like anything else, you always can come home, but I just think that Memphis is an authentic place, this community for me personally. I was born to a 15-year-old mom; my father died a month after I was born. My family has always rallied around me. My mentor, Michael Toney, rallied around me and taught me so much, exposed me to so much at an early age and also challenged me. My high school coach poured a lot into me, and then when I signed with Memphis State at the time, Coach Finch poured a tremendous amount of his time into me and really started to help me shape why I was a leader and how I could be more of a leader in my community.

I feel obligated to give back to my community with the most precious gift that God has given me, and that’s my time.

Tell me about your grandfather’s relationship with the sanitation workers strike in 1968?

Most people know Ernest Withers’ photograph, when all of the men are holding the ‘I Am A Man’ sign and there’s a gentleman that’s walking right in the front of the camera, and he doesn’t have a sign yet, but he looks directly into the camera and the guy that’s looking into the camera is my grandfather. He worked for the city of Memphis at the sewage and drainage department. He wasn’t a sanitation worker, but he worked for the city; they wore the same uniforms.

I remember after Dr. King got killed when I was probably about 6 years old. In honor of Dr. King’s death, my grandfather used to march every year and I used to march with him as a kid. He had a fifth-grade or sixth-grade education. A lot of these injustices that we were fighting for were for his kids, and for his grandkids to be able to sit in a quality seat, around education, to be able to get equal pay, to be able to use whatever water fountain, or to be able to live in whatever community they wanted to live in.

How do you balance family, work and art collecting?

I asked my grandmother this question after I graduated college and started playing in the NBA a little bit and I wasn’t married, but just starting to have bills and do all of those things. And then when I had my daughter, obviously my grandmother was a lot older, just raising one kid is tough in itself. My grandmother and grandfather had nine kids: eight girls and one boy. And I can clearly remember asking her, ‘How did you do it? It’s impossible.’ One thing she told me was that, ‘We didn’t think about it, we just did.’

I don’t think about it, I just do. That’s what I say about balancing it all, is I just do.

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

It’s from mentor Michael Toney. When I was young, growing up in North Memphis, you see so many things. You’re growing up in poverty, so many distractions, and when he started mentoring me and he was exposing to some things, he was helping me try to gain my confidence in myself. And I can remember one time when I was struggling, he took me to a mirror, he said, ‘You see a little boy looking back at you?’ He said, ‘Everything in life that happens to you, that little boy is going to tell you. He’s going to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to compete again, he’s going to be the first person to tell you I can’t do it, he’s going to be the first person to tell you if you can do it. Other people are just going to reinforce that.’

The top 15 best Rookie Game performances in NBA All-Star history Kyrie, Kobe, Durant, Westbrook, Wall: The top rising stars (almost) always become superstars

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — before each signed million-dollar max contracts, negotiated their own lines of signature sneakers and reached superstar status, they had one thing in common. All three balled out in the Rising Stars Challenge, which in the past two decades has become the NBA’s marquee event kicking off All-Star Weekend.

In 1994, the league turned its annual Legends Game, which featured a matchup of teams of retired players, into the Rookies Game, a showcase of the NBA’s top first-year talent. By 2000, the game was renamed the Rookie Challenge, with a revamped format that included second-year players — after the 1998-99 lockout season that deprived rookies of the opportunity to play.

The Rookies vs. Sophomores structure lasted until 2012, when the league rebranded the event as the Rising Star Challenge and combined both first- and second-year players on each competing team’s roster through a draft. Now, the challenge matches American players against international players in a Team USA vs. Team World makeup that began in 2015.

Some of the best young players in recent memory have laced ’em up — from Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway in the inaugural 1994 contest to Allen Iverson vs. Kobe Bryant in 1997, and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running together on the Rookie squad in 2004. In the early ’90s, the games were low-scoring affairs of fundamental basketball. But over time, they’ve become artful displays of athleticism and bravado.

As we head into 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, which begins Friday with Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell leading Team USA against Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jamal Murray and Team World, these are the top 15 performances of all time from the event that’s become the All-Star Game before the All-Star Game.


1997 — Kobe Bryant

Stat line: 31 points, eight rebounds in 26 minutes

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

On Feb. 8, 1997, the crowd at Cleveland’s Gund Arena booed when Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, the No. 1 pick of the 1996 NBA draft, was named the MVP of the 1997 Rookie Game over Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, the 13th overall pick of the same draft class. Iverson led the Eastern Conference’s rookie squad to a 96-91 win with 19 points and nine assists, while Bryant propelled the West with a game-high 31 points, which set a Rookie Game record that wouldn’t be broken until 2004. Later that evening, the then-18-year-old Bryant avenged the loss and MVP snub by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the Slam Dunk Contest. And he did it with pop star Brandy, his high school prom date, watching him from the stands. What a way to bounce back.

2003 — Jason Richardson

Stat line: 31 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals in 20 minutes

He was just trying to get the crowd riled up, but he has no class. You don’t do that.” This is what Carlos Boozer, then a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had to say after the 2003 Rookie Challenge, in which Jason Richardson, then in his second year with the Golden State Warriors, went “off the heezy” — that is, he threw the basketball off Boozer’s head — in the waning seconds of the game. “Fans like stuff like that — a little streetball,” said Richardson, who dropped a game-high 31 points to lead the Sophomores to a 132-112 win over the Rookies. Even more disrespectful? Richardson followed up the move taken straight from an AND1 mixtape by draining a 3-pointer in Boozer’s face to seal the game. One of the great unsolved mysteries in NBA history is how Richardson didn’t catch the hands that night.

2004 — Amar’e Stoudemire

Stat line: 36 points, 11 rebounds in 35 minutes

Is Amare Stoudemire a Hall of Famer? He certainly thinks so, but it’s an often-debated question when you look back at the now-retired big man’s 14-year tenure in the NBA. Back in 2004, however, it appeared as if Stoudemire was destined to one day be enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. Just watch the tape from his MVP performance in the 2004 Rookie Challenge. Stoudemire’s 36 points broke Kobe Bryant’s 1997 record (31) for the highest scoring output in the history of the game. He also dropped more points in the game than three surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers: Carmelo Anthony (17), LeBron James (33) and Dwyane Wade (22). Stoudemire’s Sophomores dominated Anthony, James and Wade’s Rookies in a 142-118 win.

2007 — David Lee

Stat line: 30 points, 11 rebounds in 24 minutes

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

David Lee didn’t miss a single shot in the 2007 Rising Stars Challenge, which he finished as the game’s MVP with 30 points on a perfect 14-for-14 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor. Lee and the Sophomores demolished the Rookies, 155-114, even with then-second-year New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul coming off the bench. Moral of the story: Lee is definitely invited to the cookout, where he’d bust your drunk uncle’s butt in some post-meal pickup.

2008 — Daniel Gibson

Stat line: 33 points on 11 made 3-pointers in 22 minutes

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Shooters gon’ shoot, as the saying goes, and that’s exactly what Daniel “Boobie” Gibson of the Cleveland Cavaliers did against a team full of rookies in 2008. Coming off the bench for the Sophomores, Gibson, one of James’ most beloved teammates early in his career, took 20 shots, all of which were 3-pointers, and 11 of them fell through the net to set a record for the game. Gibson’s 33 points earned him distinction as the game’s MVP in a 136-109 win for the Sophomores. Ten years later, Gibson is no longer shooting shots but rather spittin’ bars, having retired from the NBA in 2015 to pursue a rap career. You can catch him nowadays on Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood.

2009 — Kevin Durant

Stat line: 46 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists in 30 minutes, 51 seconds

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In 2009 — with James sitting courtside between Kenny Smith and Kevin Harlan, calling the game — Kevin Durant, then 20 years old and the franchise player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, pieced together the single greatest performance in Rising Star Challenge history, with a record 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting from the field. “He’s been phenomenal. If you add a few more wins to [the Thunder’s] résumé, he’s definitely an All-Star for the Western Conference team,” James said that night before the game. After leading the Sophomores to a 122-116 win over the Rookies during All-Star Weekend in 2009, Durant was selected the following season to play in his first career All-Star Game, which he hasn’t missed since.

2010 — Russell Westbrook

Stat line: 40 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 32:16

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Russell Westbrook did his best Durant impression with a 40-piece in the 2010 Rising Stars game, the year after his then-Thunder teammate Durant dropped an unprecedented 46. Yet Westbrook’s prolific performance, which he delivered after scoring a mere 12 points in the game as a rookie in 2009, wasn’t enough for the Sophomores, who fell to the Rookie team, 140-128, for the first time since 2002. Tyreke Evans might have the MVP hardware from that game on his mantel, but Westbrook straight-up balled out. He was the real MVP, if we’re keeping it 100.

2011 — John Wall

Stat line: 12 points, 22 assists in 28:56

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

No player in the history of this game has come out and tallied more assists than John Wall did at Staples Center back in 2011 during his first season in the league. His fundamental, 22-dime MVP display paced the Rookies to a 148-140 win over a roster of Sophomores that featured Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. Pretty sure even Jesus caught a lob from Wall that night.

2012 — Kyrie Irving

Stat line: 34 points, nine assists in 27:03

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A then-19-year-old rookie, Kyrie Irving didn’t miss a single 3-pointer in the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge. We repeat — Irving, fresh off of being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft, made all eight shots he took from beyond the arc as part of his 34-point MVP night that helped his team, coached by Charles Barkley, beat Team Shaquille O’Neal in the newly formatted game that mixed rosters with both rookies and sophomores. Irving’s night, however, was just the warm-up.

2013 — Kenneth Faried and Kyrie Irving

Stat lines: Kenneth Faried: 40 points on 18-for-22 from the field, 10 rebounds in 23 minutes; Irving: 32 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds in 26:46

Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated the 2013 game, with an efficient 40-point, 10-rebound outing that ended with him hoisting the MVP trophy. But let us take this moment to pour out a little liquor for Brandon Knight’s ankles, which Kyrie Irving, the 2012 Rising Stars MVP, destroyed on the hardwood at Houston’s Toyota Center. Irving caught Knight not once but twice with saucy combinations of his unrivaled handles. About a month after the game, DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers broke the internet after throwing down a poster dunk on Knight. It was a tough year for the young guard out of the University of Kentucky.

2014 — Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway, Dion Waiters

Stat lines: Andre Drummond: 30 points, 25 rebounds in 28:26; Tim Hardaway: 36 points (7-for-16 from 3-point) in 24:29; Dion Waiters: 31 points (4-for-6 from 3-point) in 21:24

Perhaps the greatest sequence in Rising Stars Challenge history is the back-and-forth battle between New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters in 2014. For seven out of eight straight possessions in the final minutes of the game, Hardaway and Waiters went one-on-one, virtually operating as if there were no other players on the court. Hardaway would hit a 3 and Waiters would answer with one of his own. Hardaway would bring the ball downcourt and pull up, then Waiters would shoot from a little bit deeper. Rinse and repeat. Hardaway finished with 36 points on 7-for-16 shooting from 3, while Waiters scored 31 on a lights-out 10-for-14 from the field, including four 3s. What’s funny is neither player was named the game’s MVP. That honor belonged to Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, who scored 30 points and grabbed 25 rebounds. No defense at all, but what a game.

2017 — Jamal Murray

Stat lines: 36 points (9-for-14 from 3-point), 11 assists in 20:09

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No player has ever been named the MVP of back-to-back Rising Star Challenges since the game was first played in 1994. Yet this year, sharpshooting second-year Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has a chance to make history, after coming off the bench in 2017 to drop 36 for Team World in a 150-141 win. Can Murray be MVP again? We shall see.