Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

Nipsey Hussle’s Puma legacy lives on with new co-branded collection The capsule collection contains 19 pieces — and 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood ‘Nip’ Foundation

BOSTON — “I still keep his texts.”

Ian Forde, a merchandise manager for the global sportswear company Puma, can’t bring himself to delete his iPhone thread with the late Nipsey Hussle. Every now and then, he’ll pull it up, reread old messages and reminisce about their conversations from the months they spent working together on a co-branded capsule collection between Hussle’s store, The Marathon Clothing, and Puma, which the Los Angeles rapper and community leader joined as a brand ambassador in January 2018.

“It’s not a one-way situation. It’s … more authentic,” Hussle once said in an interview. “It’s more of a realistic partnership outside of just cutting a check and supporting product. It’s a deeper, more dynamic relationship.”

Forde met Hussle for the first time later that year after being assigned to oversee the collection from a design standpoint. During their creative process, he came to know Hussle as a serial texter. Any time he found some inspiration, he’d hit Forde up. And whenever Forde needed some input, he reached out to Hussle, who always messaged back within minutes, often with the praying hands emoji, or the black-and-white checkered flag, which symbolized how Hussle cherished life as a marathon. His partnership with Puma had become part of that journey.

In March, Forde traveled to L.A. to show Hussle and his team the finalized pieces of the Puma x TMC apparel, footwear and accessories. Hussle signed off, marking the official completion of his first collection with a global brand. And before Forde went back to Boston, Hussle made sure to thank him.

“He looked at me and was like, ‘Listen … I really appreciate you helping to shepherd this through,’ ” Forde remembers. “It kind of felt different coming from him. That he was appreciative not in a way that you just say thank you, but in a real man-to-man way. For me, that was the ultimate validation about everything that we had done.”

That was the last time Forde spoke to his colleague and friend. Four days after he left L.A., Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom was shot and killed outside of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue in South Central L.A. He was 33 years old.

Five months after the tragedy, though, Hussle’s partnership with Puma continues. On Monday, TMC took to Instagram to announce a Sept. 5 release of the capsule collection Hussle worked tirelessly to perfect — and Puma saw his vision through.

View this post on Instagram

Our team is proud to announce that our first collaborative capsule with @puma drops on September 5th 2019. Nipsey spearheaded this project from concept to final product over the course of last year, flying to meetings, reviewing samples, bringing in material references he liked, and most importantly ensuring that it reflected his style authentically with no compromise. Each detail from logo placement, fit, colorways, and materials was thoughtfully done. His signature style and DNA can be found in each garment that’s part of this collection from the khaki suit to the tracksuit. This project is very special to our team and we’re handling it with the utmost care to ensure it’s delivered exactly as Nipsey envisioned it. It’s a privilege for us to honor his commitment and carry out this project for people to receive a personally curated collection by Nip Hussle Tha Great.

A post shared by The Marathon Clothing (@themarathonclothing) on Aug 19, 2019 at 5:07pm PDT

“I hoped that it would see the light of day and people would see all the work that went into it … all the attention to detail,” Forde said. “I wanted people to experience what I experienced working with him … We know him for a music angle, but do we know him from a style point of view? This collection speaks to different facets of who he was.”

The 19-piece collection — featuring two colorways of the iconic 1980s Puma California sneaker, a pair of woven khaki jacket and pants suits, a marathon-themed MCS tracksuit and more — was designed using the measurements of Hussle’s body. Every single element of the capsule was created to represent California, the Marathon and, most importantly, Nip Hussle tha Great.

“It’s so representative of what he wore and what he loved about Puma,” says Adam Petrick, Puma’s global director of brand and marketing. “There’s a lot of that energy in it. It’s nice to be able to keep it clean, keep it simple, keep it focused on who he was and how he wanted to tell his story through our product.”

Puma also announced that 100 percent of the net proceeds from the sales of collection will go to the Neighborhood “Nip” Foundation.

“Nip wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” says Chief Johnson, Puma’s senior manager of entertainment and marketing who worked more closely with Hussle daily than anyone from the brand.

A few years ago, Johnson was one of the first people to envision a partnership between Puma and Hussle. Eventually, that idea stuck.


In 2014, when Johnson worked in marketing for California lifestyle company Young & Reckless, he executed his first brand deal with Hussle. Young & Reckless and TMC partnered with Pac Sun for a limited-edition “Crenshaw” collection. Johnson remembers the day of the pop-up shop release, when approximately 1,000 people lined up outside in the pouring rain to cop pieces from the collection, which sold out in a half-hour.

“That’s the moment I realized, ‘Damn. He’s a lot bigger than I thought … he commands attention and people love him.’ He had this infectious attitude and this charisma that he carried himself with. You wanted to be around it,” said Johnson.

In 2017, Johnson began working for Puma and maintained his relationship with Hussle.

“When I came over to Puma, Nip was one of the first people I texted,” Johnson says. “He was like, ‘Yo, you already know. I’m ready.’ I just knew that doing something with him would set us on a path that was gonna be something amazing.”

Hussle also got the co-sign from Emory Jones — a cultural consultant for Puma (who’s also teamed up with the brand for his own collection) and the right-hand man of the legendary rapper and businessman Jay-Z, the founder of Roc Nation who in June 2018 was named the creative director of Puma’s relaunched basketball division. Jay-Z had also been a huge supporter of Hussle for years after famously buying 100 copies of his $100 mixtape Crenshaw back in 2013.

“Emory Jones … actually approached me,” Petrick recalls, “and said, ‘There’s this guy, he’s doing these amazing things. He’s really fantastic as an artist, but it’s also more than just his art. It’s how he works with his community and how he’s really pushing forward with the right energy to make the world a better place.’ … Emory recommended that we talk to Nip and try and figure out if there was a way to work with him. We took our time about it, did it the right way, established a relationship and eventually it was time to have him become a part of the family.”

After about a year of conversations, Hussle made it official — signing his Puma deal live on air during an L.A. radio appearance on Power 106’s The Cruz Show, nearly a month before the release of his Grammy-nominated, and now-classic, debut studio album, Victory Lap. And from the early days of the partnership, Hussle showed undying support to the brand, most notably through his daily wardrobe. Pairing Puma’s iconic T7 tracksuits, which first debuted in 1968, with Clydes and Suede sneakers became a part of Hussle’s go-to swag.

“Honestly, they should rename the T7 tracksuit the ‘Nipsey tracksuit.’ He’s the only person that literally makes a tracksuit look like a tuxedo,” says Johnson, who estimated that Hussle owned at least a dozen white Puma tracksuits alone. “Anytime stuff came in, it was like, ‘That’s Nip’s corner in the office. Fill those boxes up. Send them.’ To the point where … little things I remember like he once said, ‘Keep that box at the office, because I ain’t got no more room.’

“We just made sure he was always dripped out, and didn’t have any void in product. Every time he wore it, man, it felt like something brand-new.”

By late summer 2018, Hussle appeared as the face of his first Puma campaign for the brand’s relaunch of the California sneaker. On Sept. 10, 2018 — Forde knows the exact date from the text message thread that remains in his phone — Hussle and the TMC team arrived at Puma’s Boston headquarters to discuss collaborating for his own co-branded collection. Jones told Hussle to find Forde once he got there. That’s the day their relationship, and the design process of the collection, began.

“He was superattentive. He paid attention to the details … the larger picture. He treated everything like an album or a project, and every item in the collection is almost like a track, right?” Forde said. “There’s the intro, there’s the outro, there’s the party song, there’s the more introspective, reflective song. Everything had a cadence and a rhyme or reason.”

During that first meeting, Hussle played one of his old music videos from the early 2000s. In it, he wore some cutoff khaki shorts with an oversize white tee, and on his feet was a pair of Pumas. That’s really how long Hussle had been rocking with the brand. The throwback outfit inspired the two woven khaki suits created for the collection. And that moment represented how hands-on Hussle proved to be over the next several months.

“At one point with this collection, we’d reached a creative roadblock. I think we were speaking to ourselves and we weren’t really communicating in the right manner,” Forde remembers. “He called me one day and was like, ‘There’s some things I want to work through as a team.’ He’s like, ‘I’m gonna bring the team to Boston.’ …

“Three days later, he came. He stayed here for two days. We worked from 9 to 5. We worked through lunch. Through that, we took him to the material library. He touched fabric. We looked at different executions. We looked at what he was doing, what the brand was doing moving forward, and how he could best encapsulate all those best ideas.”

While Puma worked on the collection, Hussle leveraged his partnership to give back to his community and kids in need, surrounding the brand’s return to basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. He came up with the idea of collaborating with Puma to refurbish and repaint the basketball courts at L.A.’s 59th Street Elementary School, located right around the corner from his grandmother’s house. (59th and 5th Ave, granny house with vanilla wafers, he raps on his Victory Lap track “Dedication.”) Hussle also donated $10,000 to the school on behalf of the brand and TMC.

Last fall when Puma debuted the Clyde Court — the first basketball shoe — Hussle and fellow Californian MC G-Eazy boarded the brand’s private jet and ventured to Las Vegas, where they pulled up to the Puma store and bought every single pair of the sneaker, which they gave to local high school players.

(That wouldn’t be the last time he used the jet. For the music video of his track “Racks in the Middle” — in which he famously spits the line, See my granny on a jet, some s— I’ll never forget / Next day flew to Vegas with my Puma connect — Hussle hit up Johnson about using the plane, which happened to be in L.A., not New York, where it’s typically kept. Johnson made some phone calls, passing the request up Puma’s chain of command, and within a few hours, got him an answer. To this day, Forde cherishes the music video because in it, Hussle is wearing a prototype of the MCS tracksuit they designed for the first Puma x TMC collection.)

In March, Hussle returned to Power 106, and in what ultimately became one of the final recorded interviews of his life, he announced his new deal with Puma for 2019 that would include multiple future co-branded collections, the first of which was set to drop in September.

On March 31, Hussle was killed — the day before his previously scheduled meeting with L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, Jay-Z and members of Roc Nation on combating gang violence in his hometown. The following week, he’d planned on traveling with Johnson to Puma’s global headquarters in Germany to be a part of a brandwide summit for the first time.

“We were gonna be in front of the entire Puma team and talk about this collection, talk about what the future could hold,” Petrick says. “There were so many positive ideas about what we could do down the road. He was so enthusiastic about the brand, and I think that the sky was the limit. To have that happen in that moment was just crushing.”

Johnson still made the trip to Europe to clear his head and represent the man he called his brother. He left early to return to L.A. for Hussle’s funeral on April 11, held at Staples Center before one final victory lap around South Los Angeles with a procession spanning 25 miles. In the ensuing months of Hussle’s death, Petrick confirmed the posthumous continuation of his partnership with Puma while speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival. Billboards and posters teasing his collection soon went up across L.A., featuring “TMC” in white letters and an image of Hussle, head down above praying hands, from his final Puma photo shoot. Johnson remembers that day vividly, with one moment standing out to him. After the shoot wrapped, true to Hussle’s appreciative character, he went around the room and gave everyone on set a hug.

“To this day, it still doesn’t seem real that he’s gone,” Johnson says. Now, it’s only right that he and Puma celebrate Hussle’s legacy with his long-awaited collection. In less than two years as partners, Puma and Nipsey Hussle have become synonymous.

“It’s bittersweet, because you wish he was here to enjoy this moment with the TMC family and Puma,” Johnson says. “But I do believe he’s somewhere smiling down, like ‘Yeah. Y’all did it.’ ”

Courtesy of Puma

Former NFL running back now aims at the racial wealth gap Jason Wright, a McKinsey partner, co-authors new study detailing why black families are financially so far behind whites

Jason Wright always saw himself as more than a football player.

While playing at Northwestern University, the former running back led the local chapter of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. During his seven-year NFL career, he was a union leader who went on to launch a charter school network in Cleveland.

His football career ended in 2011, and Wright, 37, is now a partner with McKinsey & Co. And, no surprise, he sees himself as more than your ordinary management consultant.

Former NFL running back Jason Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap.

McKinsey & Company

Wright, who has an MBA from the University of Chicago, is leveraging his company’s reach and expertise to tackle one of the nation’s most critical problems: the vast wealth gap separating African Americans and whites.

Wright co-authored a report released Tuesday that lays out the broad scope and troubling implications of the racial gap. The typical black family has a net worth of just $17,600, one-tenth of the wealth of the typical white family, which in 2016 had a median net worth of $171,000, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances.

The gap widened significantly in recent decades, and it is showing no signs of closing. The biggest reason is that the typical African American family faces an array of obstacles that often work together to thwart wealth creation.

 

“There is a galvanizing case for change. When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.” — Jason Wright

For one, the report says, two-thirds of black families are concentrated in 16 states where, taken together, the overall economy is weak and educational options lag behind those elsewhere in the country. Most of those states are in the South, where economic opportunity, health care and even access to fast internet service is not always a given.

Meanwhile, black families in relatively prosperous urban areas or states tend to live in low-income neighborhoods where home values typically grow slowly, crippling one of the main sources of wealth creation. In addition, black families are far less likely than whites to own homes. More than 10 years after the Great Recession, the home ownership rate for black families continues to decline; it is down to just over 40%, while more than 73% of white families own homes. As recently as 2004, more than 48% of African American families were homeowners.

Another factor contributing to the gap is that African Americans tend to come from families with scant wealth to begin with, leaving them with little to build on. Just 8% of black families receive an inheritance, for instance, compared with 26% of white families. And when black families do inherit money, they get less: The typical black inheritance is just 35% of the average white inheritance of $236,000, the report said.

The lack of wealth hits hard at black college students. Blacks are much more likely than whites to incur student debt, and when they do, the debt is higher. Too often, it proves to be unpayable. Overall, nearly half of black undergraduate borrowers default on their student loans, some 2.3 times the white default rate, the report said.

Many other African Americans are living outside the nation’s financial mainstream, a troubling fact that impacts their ability to get mortgages, consumer loans or even credit cards. More than 1 in 4 African Americans do not have a credit score, and 17% do not have traditional bank accounts.

On top of all that, black workers typically have unemployment rates that are double the rates of similarly educated whites. Among those that are employed, blacks tend to earn far less than whites, in part because of lower educational levels.

If economic trends continue as they are now, the outlook is bleak for African American workers, who tend to be overrepresented in professions like truck driving, for instance, that face increasing competition from automation, the report said. Meanwhile, fast-growing fields like software programming and artificial intelligence have relatively few African Americans.

It is a gruesome picture but one that Wright believes can be improved. He noted that there were periods in the past when the gap had closed somewhat. He said improving educational opportunities, making consumer credit more widely available, ramping up consumer education and devising economic strategies to uplift lagging regions can all make a substantial difference in closing the wealth gap.

“There is a galvanizing case for change,” Wright said. “When we look specifically at helping black folks across the country, the result is it helps everyone because the entire economy benefits.”

Later this week, a group of more than 200 black executives and leaders will meet in Martha’s Vineyard for McKinsey’s annual Black Economic Forum to discuss the report’s findings. Afterward, Wright plans to lead an effort to turn out a series of follow-up documents going into more detail about approaches for closing the wealth gap.

Wright called the work every bit as exciting as his days playing in the NFL.

“When I played football, one thing I saw was an opportunity to influence on scale,” he said. “What I found at McKinsey is something that I thought I lost when I retired from football, and that’s another platform” to make change on a large scale.

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

The story behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first Nike signature sneaker After sharing a pair of shoes with his brother as a kid, the NBA MVP now has his own — the Nike Zoom Freak 1

ATHENS, Greece — The gym sits on the east side of central Athens in the densely populated suburb of Zografou. Nestled between collections of abundant trees is a set of stairs leading to a ground-level entrance, where a small lobby gives way to the double doors of a basketball court. Behind them is where one of basketball’s best-kept secrets once hooped.

It’s where it all began for a 12-year-old kid by the name of Γιάννης Αντεκουντούμπου.

Long before the world knew him as Giannis Antetokounmpo — the Eurostepping Greek Freak with the 6-foot-11, 242-pound body and mythical athleticism — the reigning NBA MVP played at the home of Filathlitikos Basketball Club.

“He was like a cricket,” says Takis Zivas, head coach of Filathlitikos B.C., Antetokounmpo’s first team. “His legs were immense, but his torso was small in comparison to the rest of the body.” Zivas, a slender man wearing years of coaching under his eyes, still remembers the first time Antetokounmpo came into his gym. “I just hadn’t seen a kid like that before,” he says. “His eyes, they were shining.”

Antetokounmpo learned the game of basketball on the aged hardwood of Filathlitikos’ court, its measurements, particularly in width, more fitting of a small soccer field. The two original hoops that once hung from the gym’s ceiling have been retired and permanently raised to the rafters. A pair of stanchions took their place and now hold baskets with rims slowly beginning to rust. Atop one sideline, a wall of cloudy windows allows the powerful sun to creep inside. In the heart of summer, not even the five towering air-conditioning units mounted throughout the space can overcome the scorching heat after a few trips up and down the floor.

For two years, Antetokounmpo trained here multiple times a day before being selected to join Filathlitikos’ youth team. Zivas drilled the kid at all levels of the club, including with the women’s team, while teaching him to navigate the court as a point guard with speed and discipline. At 14, he began playing with the men’s team. After his two eventual agents came to see the phenom for themselves, they started to spread the gospel of his crazy potential. By the time Antetokounmpo was 17, chairs were lined up against the wall on the near sideline for throngs of NBA scouts, general managers and owners to watch the promising prospect work out.

“The way Giannis would see things from a young age, the way he was so serious about things, the way he perceived … he had a different mentality than everybody else,” says Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Giannis’ older brother and former Filathlitikos teammate. “Like, ‘Listen, I know I’m playing in this gym, but I’m working to be in the NBA … because I know, at some point, I’m gonna be in the NBA. And when I play in the NBA, I’m gonna be ready.’ ”

More than a decade after he walked through the building’s doors for the first time, Antetokounmpo, now an All-NBA forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, returned as the NBA’s newly minted MVP. At the end of June, five days after he was presented with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy and delivered a tearful MVP acceptance speech, Antetokounmpo arrived at his childhood gym in Zografou, walked onto the court and took a seat in a chair too small for him way back then and even smaller for him now.

Leaning between his long legs, he began tying the laces of a new pair of sneakers: orange and navy Nikes, with an interlocking “GA” logo on the tongue and another logo on the heel intertwining No. 34 with the flag of Greece.

They’re called the Nike Zoom Freak 1s — Antetokoumpo’s debut signature sneaker. At 24 years old, he’s the first international basketball player to receive his own Nike shoe. A distinction that isn’t lost upon him.

“I wanted my shoe to basically introduce me and my family to the world,” says Antetokounmpo. The outer midsoles of each sneaker feature the names of his parents: his mother, Veronica, and late father, Charles, who emigrated together from Nigeria to Greece in the early 1990s to provide a better life for their boys. Inscribed on the soles of each shoe’s heel are the names of Antetokounmpo’s four brothers: Francis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex.

“I wanted a good-looking shoe that could tell a story that a kid could relate to,” he continues. “A shoe that could make a kid work hard. A shoe that could make a kid believe in his dream.”

It’s a shoe he never could’ve imagined, in his wildest dreams, calling his own. Not when his story began back in Greece, inside this gym, where the sneakers he laced up didn’t even belong to him.


Giannis Antetokounmpo training in the black/white colorway of his Nike Zoom Freak 1, which released on July 10.

Nike

Initially, it took some persuading to get young Giannis on a basketball court. He dreamed of becoming a soccer player like his father once was back in Nigeria. But Giannis absolutely adored his older brother, Thanasis, and wanted to spend as much time with him as he could. Long story short: “I didn’t choose basketball,” Giannis says. “Thanasis chose basketball.”

The game isn’t the only thing Thanasis introduced to his little brother.

When Thanasis was 17, he signed a pro contract to play with Maroussi in the top division of the Greek Basketball League, and the club blessed him with a few pairs of free sneakers.

Giannis will never forget the day Thanasis returned home with boxes containing prized possessions that had been hard to come by during their childhood. To provide for their family, Charles worked as a handyman and Veronica sold goods on the streets of Athens, often joined by their sons. “Our parents gave us whatever they had, and it got the job done,” Thanasis says. “But we didn’t have a lot of money.”

So basketball shoes, especially new ones, were a luxury.

“I remember … he had a pair of these Kobes,” Giannis says. “Those are the shoes I wanted.” But Thanasis big bro’d Giannis, calling dibs on a coveted red and white pair of Kobe Bryant’s signature Nike Kobe 4s. “Thanasis was like, ‘You can have the ugly pair,’ ” Giannis recalls, “the heavy ones.” Of course, the younger Antetokounmpo brother accepted the sneakers and played in them. But he also plotted a way to get his feet in those Kobes.

When Thanasis fell asleep, or left the shoes at home, Giannis would take them to go practice. He’d make the trek from his family’s home in the Sepolia neighborhood of northwest Athens to the Filathlitikos gym in Zografou. The journey was approximately 4 miles on foot each way, but lacing up the Kobe 4s was worth every step and bit of wrath he’d face from Thanasis when he found out his little brother was wearing his shoes.

“Thanasis used to get mad at me,” Giannis says. “He was like, ‘No, man. Those are my shoes. I love those shoes. Don’t make them dirty. Don’t use them.’ ”

Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) wanted his first Nike signature shoe to tell his family’s story. Here, he’s pictured with his father, Charles and his brothers Thanasis (top), Kostas (right) and Alex (center). All of their names are incorporated into the design of the Nike Zoom Freak 1.

Courtesy of Nike

Their father, Charles, overheard the boys’ exchange and interjected. “My dad came out and was like, ‘That’s your younger brother. You’ve gotta share shoes with him. If he wants to wear them, he can wear them. It’s not like we have a bunch of shoes,’ ” Giannis remembers. “That’s when me and Thanasis started sharing shoes.”

The Antetokounmpo family eventually moved closer to Zografou, where both Giannis and Thanasis played for Filathlitikos. Soon afterward, sharing sneakers, which started out of necessity, became a practice that the two brothers — separated in age by two years, four months and 18 days — perfected. Giannis would play in the shoes first for the club’s under-16 team. After his game ended, he’d give them to Thanasis, who’d wear the already sweaty kicks against fellow 17- and 18-year-olds. When they were playing at different levels, the routine was easy. But Giannis kept growing, and his game kept improving, allowing him the opportunity to start playing up in Thanasis’ age group. Sharing the same sneakers in the same game presented a different challenge. It meant Giannis and Thanasis couldn’t be on the court together.

“I know a lot of people would say, ‘Man, that’s hard.’ But it was actually really fun, to be honest with you,” Thanasis says. “We’d get to play quarter by quarter. If we want a stop, if we need defense … a basket, I sub out, he puts on the shoes, he subs in. … We still beat them, and the other kids are frustrated like, ‘We’re losing to some guys who don’t even have shoes.’ ”

One day back in 2011, Thanasis pulled up to Ministry of Concrete, a sneaker and streetwear boutique in Athens, in search of new kicks for off the court. He’d saved up a little bit of money, and the store’s owner, Alex Segiet, gave him a deal on a pair of high-top Nike Dunks. “I had that one pair of sneakers for three years,” says Thanasis, who speaks gratefully, as if the shoes lasted him an eternity. “I remember he was so fascinated by the shoes,” recalls Segiet, who cherishes that transaction from several years ago for another reason. It was the first time he had ever heard about Giannis.

“Thanasis said he would bring his younger brother, once they got the money, and buy another pair,” Segiet says.

Giannis never made it into the store. He had other ways to search for sneakers.

“I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy … I might be like Kobe, KD, LeBron, all these guys that have their own signature shoe, and play with it in the game.’ I was really, really happy.” — Giannis Antetokounmpo

“There was a period where he was running around to find Jordans,” remembers Zivas. But Giannis would wear anything he could find. And he made most of his inquiries inside Filathlitikos’ gym.

“I was just hunting down shoes from teammates,” he says. “After practice, I’d go up to them and ask, ‘Are you done with those? Do you still want those?’ They were like, ‘C’mon, Giannis … but OK,’ and take them off their feet. ‘You can have them.’ I had great teammates growing up. They took care of me like I was their younger brother. There was a lot of other families and kids out there that had it way worse than me.”

Size didn’t matter to Giannis — especially if someone was gracious enough to give him a pair of shoes. “To this day … I’m so embarrassed by my toes. They’re curled up because … there was a time that I wore shoes two sizes smaller,” he says. “And there were times that I wore way bigger shoes. It was better than wearing a size smaller.”

When Antetokounmpo was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, he owned 10 or 12 pairs of sneakers. But that was about to change. Before his rookie season, he took the one offer he received for a shoe deal. It just so happened to come from the company that made his favorite pair of kicks to hoop in as a kid.

“Nike was the only company that took a chance on me,” he says. “There were other companies that did not care to sign me. … I wasn’t on the list … but people from Nike came in and said, ‘We’re gonna get that guy. We’re gonna take care of him and his family.’ That meant a lot.”

Antetokounmpo’s dozen-pair collection quickly expanded exponentially. “He was so happy,” Thanasis says, “like, ‘Man, I can keep this shoe, I can wear this one, I can switch it up every game …’ I felt like he really loved it.” One or two storage units at his apartment in Milwaukee turned to six or seven, all stacked with boxes of sneakers. “I got, like, 3,000, 4,000 pairs of shoes,” says Antetokounmpo, who in the past year moved into his first house, where he now has a sneaker closet. “And you know what’s the craziest thing? I don’t even wear them. I wear like 10 or 15 of them.”

Something else that hasn’t changed, which he admits with a tiny sense of pride: “I’ve never purchased basketball sneakers, to this day — ever.”


Growing up, Giannis Antetokounmpo shared basketball shoes with his older brother, Thanasis. Now he has his own.

Nike

In late September 2017, Antetokounmpo and his family met Nike at a downtown Milwaukee hotel. Antetokounmpo was coming off a 2016-17 season in which he averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists and dropped 30 points in his first All-Star Game while wearing a pair of Kobe 10s. Nike pitched Antetokounmpo on a contract extension with a presentation focused on him becoming just the 22nd basketball player in company history to receive a signature sneaker — and, even more monumental, Nike Basketball’s first signature athlete born and raised outside of the United States.

Antetokounmpo couldn’t believe it.

“That’s when it hit me. I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy … I might be like Kobe, KD, LeBron, all these guys that have their own signature shoe, and play with it in the game.’ I was really, really happy.” He also couldn’t help but think back to his humble beginnings in Greece. “As a kid, growing up, I never thought, I’m gonna have my own signature shoe. I never wanted to have my own signature shoe. … That wasn’t a goal or dream of mine.”

But he doesn’t question how he arrived at the opportunity.

“I know why,” he says. “I worked my a– off.”

In November 2017, Antetokounmpo re-signed with Nike.

“I had to act like it was a tough decision. There were a lot of other companies that were willing to give me a lot of money, offer me a lot of stuff,” Antetokounmpo says. He turned down pitches from Li-Ning and Adidas (whose courting included sending him an entire truck full of free sneakers). “At the end of the day, I gotta stay loyal to the people who helped me. I wanted to build a brand from what I started. … That’s who I am as a person. Deep down in my heart, I know I made the right decision.”

Weeks after the announcement of a long-term partnership, the 18-month design process of the Zoom Freak 1 began. Antetokounmpo went to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for a brainstorming session with a 15-person product team consisting of designers, engineers, wear testers and specialists in materials, coloring and marketing. He also met Kevin Dodson, Nike’s global vice president of basketball footwear, for the first time.

“The thing that stands out to me was just engagement,” Dodson says. “He was in from the moment we sat down. He was focused. He brought out a notebook to start taking notes in detail, which I’ve never seen before. Just from that moment, we felt comfortable. Like, ‘OK, we have a partner here that wants to give everything he’s got, so we’re gonna give everything we’ve got.’ ”

Antetokounmpo expressed what he hoped for out of his first shoe: reliable traction comparable to what’s found throughout Kyrie Irving’s signature line, the same forefoot feel of the Kobe 10, and the same upper shape and fit as the beloved Kobe 4s he wore as a kid in Greece with Thanasis. He wanted his first shoe to represent home and, most importantly, family.

“We always try to work in really specific details to the athletes,” Dodson says. “We’ll at times as a team go to them and say, ‘Hey, is there anything specific you want us to have on a shoe?’ ”

An early sketch from the 18-month design process of the Nike Zoom Freak 1.

Nike

Antetokounmpo had a phrase in mind, “I Am My Father’s Legacy,” which is incorporated into the traction pattern on the soles of the sneakers in honor of the family patriarch, who died of a heart attack in 2017 at the age of 54, six weeks before Giannis re-signed with Nike.

“I wanted my dad to be remembered. I wanted people to know that he left a legacy behind,” Antetokounmpo says. “The only thing he cared about was his kids. We are his legacy. His legacy lives within us, me and my brothers. We take pride in that. Every shoe I make, that phrase is always gonna be there. It’s not going nowhere. … I know he’s looking from above and really happy with … the way the shoe came out.”

Thanasis, who recently signed a two-year deal with the Bucks to play alongside Giannis, was the last brother to see the final product. He’d spent most of the past two years playing in Greece while Nike worked on the Zoom Freak 1 and went to Milwaukee a few days before Giannis was named MVP.

“I walked in my room and I was like, ‘What kind of shoes are these?’ ” Thanasis says. “It was a different box. I’d never seen it. So I opened it, and I see the shoe. I was so excited because it looked so elegant and comfortable and powerful.”

It was only right that Giannis returned home to Greece to debut his first signature sneaker — in Athens’ ancient building of Zappeion, a circular, open-aired atrium is surrounded by three dozen columns and busts of goddesses. In 1896, the venue hosted the fencing competition of the first modern Olympic Games. More than 120 years later, Nike built out the space to unveil the Zoom Freak 1 and its first three models: a basic black-and-white version; the “Roses” edition, designed in red, white and gold, his father’s three favorite colors; and the orange and navy “All Bros” colorway, which became the first to hit retail on June 28, as a tribute to the strong bond of the “Antetokounbros.”

And, at the specific request of Giannis, the Zoom Freak 1 is reasonably priced at $120 a pair.

“People are waiting for the shoe like gnats,” Segiet says. “That has never, ever, ever happened before in the market. I’m quite sure that wherever it’s being released, at any store in the country, it’s getting sold out immediately. Who wouldn’t like to have a pair in their closet? It’s the shoe of our local hero.”


A photo of Giannis wearing the Kobe 4s that hangs in the lobby of the Filathlitikos’ gym.

Aaron Dodson

Inside Filathlitikos’ gym, behind one basket hangs a massive banner depicting Antetokounmpo gliding for a dunk in his Zoom Freak 1s, overlaid by Nike’s iconic white script: “Fate can start you at the bottom. Dreams can take you to the top.” The image celebrates what might be the greatest week of Antetokounmpo’s life, which began with an MVP trophy and ended with a signature shoe.

“We all dreamed of him having a great career and playing on a high level,” Zivas said. “Today, he’s the motivation for young kids to be involved in basketball, to be happy, and hopefully they’ll be able to achieve things wearing Giannis’ shoes.”

Nike’s banner is positioned next to a few others put up by the club to honor the three Antetokounmpo brothers who’ve reached the NBA: Giannis, Thanasis and Kostas. One day soon, a picture of their youngest brother, Alex, now 17, will join theirs on the wall of Filathlitikos’ court. Four of the “AntetokounBros” — which will take over as the new name of the gym, Zografou mayor Vassilis Thodas announced the day the “All Bros” Nike Zoom Freak 1 dropped.

In the lobby, on a wall right outside the court, hangs a collection of old team portraits. Positioned in the center of a large wooden frame is a grainy photo from the club’s 2010-11 season. A closer look reveals a young yet familiar face, sitting second from the left on the first row of players. A skinny kid wearing a baggy black T-shirt under his red basketball jersey with knees standing taller than those of the teammates on either side of him.

On the feet of the then-16-year-old Giannis are the shoes he used to steal from his older brother Thanasis — the red and white Kobe 4s that helped start his journey from this small gym to basketball’s biggest stage.

In February, Giannis Sharpie’d, “Thanasis Thanks For Sharing,” on a pair of those Kobes that Nike had specially remade for him in his size 16 to wear for the NBA All-Star Game.

“I actually got really emotional. He made me remember,” Thanasis says. “Everybody was asking me, ‘ … Thansasis, you saw what your brother wrote?’ That was our first legit, really nice shoe. I told everybody that.”

Early in his NBA career, Giannis also had a chance to share a pair of shoes.

After Giannis was drafted by the Bucks in 2013, his family came to live with him. Giannis would always take then-12-year-old Alex to basketball practice, like Thanasis used to do with him, and he also did with Kostas. Once, after Alex’s practice, Giannis took notice of another kid leaving the gym.

“Alex at the time was 6-foot. This kid was like 6-6,” Giannis remembers. “He was huge and big. He came out, and I saw his pair of shoes. They were old. I’m not saying they had holes on them, but they weren’t new. They were almost ripped apart.”

“I wanted a good-looking shoe that could tell a story that a kid could relate to. A shoe that could make a kid work hard. A shoe that could make a kid believe in his dream.” — Giannis Antetokounmpo

If anyone could relate to that kid, it was Giannis. He thought about how many times he had to muster the courage to ask someone for sneakers. There was no shame in the hustle, but what was it like to be on the other side of the exchange?

“I told the kid, ‘Next time I come, I’ll make sure I’ll get you some sneakers.’ ”

Sure enough, he fulfilled his promise.

“I had two pairs of shoes. I gave them to him, and he was so, so happy …,” Giannis says. “What people used to do for me, I did it for him. … That was the first time I was in the spot where I could do that.

“A lot of people, you give them stuff and they might … take it for granted. But a lot of kids don’t take it for granted. I didn’t take it for granted.”

Giannis will forever be grateful for the opportunity to wear those Kobes, for what they meant to his journey. He understands how a pair of shoes can help a kid chase a dream.

And now, with his own signature sneaker, he has the chance to pay it forward.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is surrounded by fans as he leaves a basketball court in Athens on June 28. Antetokounmpo was back home in Greece to debut his first sneaker and host a 3-on-3 basketball tournament he sponsors with his brothers.

Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo

Before Drake vs. Draymond, there was LeBron and Soulja Boy A hilarious 2008 feud started with DeShawn Stevenson and ended with Jay-Z

Drake, the Toronto native and Raptors fan, has spent the 2019 playoffs blurring the line between superfan and millionaire mascot by giving Raptors coach Nick Nurse massages on the sideline, talking trash to Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and trolling opposing fans with Instagram posts. His prominence as a celebrity “ambassador” is a watershed moment for the intersection of rap music and sports.

While this all seems pretty outrageous, it’s not unprecedented. Just 11 years ago, LeBron James and Jay-Z teamed up to take on … DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy in a bizarre, hilarious feud that’s a time capsule for pop culture in 2008.

After James had terrorized Washington Wizards to the tune of 32.7 points, 6.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs (besides a timely game-winner in Game 3 of the 2006 series), the Wizards needed any advantage they could get if they wanted to overthrow the King. That’s where Stevenson comes in. The shooting guard was in his eighth year by the time the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the third time in the first round, and he decided that getting into James’ head would be his best move.

There was no love lost between LeBron James (right) and DeShawn Stevenson (left) during the Cleveland Cavaliers-Washington Wizards 2008 playoff clash.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After a 101-99 regular-season win on March 13, 2008, Stevenson had this bit of trash talk for James: “He’s overrated. And you can say I said that.”

When the first-round playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Cavs and fifth-seeded Wizards was set, the Stevenson quote came back up. James responded by saying … he wasn’t going to respond. When asked, he said, “With DeShawn Stevenson, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like Jay-Z [responding to a negative comment] made by Soulja Boy. It doesn’t make sense to respond.”

A bit of context: Soulja Boy mastered the burgeoning world of social media by uploading his songs to MySpace and Napster to create a buzz for himself. His hit “Crank That” created an international dance craze and was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in fall 2007. The song was not a lyrical masterpiece: “Yeah, watch me crank that Robocop/ Super fresh, now watch me jock/Jocking on them haters, man.

Jay-Z, on the other hand, was, and still is, maybe the greatest rapper of all time, a lyrical wizard with multiple classic albums and a rap empire at his feet. He and James struck up a kinship in the player’s rookie year, partly because they shared the DNA of being heirs apparent to greatness: Jay-Z following in The Notorious B.I.G.’s footsteps after his death in 1997 and James being the next Michael Jordan after His Airness’ 2003 retirement. (There was also one other detail: Jay-Z was a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets and may or may not have wanted to court a certain all-time great to the team.) Regardless, James’ meaning was clear — he and Jay-Z were elite and Stevenson and Soulja Boy were one-hit wonders.

Stevenson took James’ comment as a chance to add some spice to the playoffs. When the series went back to Washington for Game 3, Soulja Boy was seated behind one of the baskets. (He may not have had the sauce of someone like Drake to get seats near the bench.) Throughout the game, Soulja Boy was waving towels and doing his Crank That dance. Even Washington’s Caron Butler took a moment to do the dance after a foul. Whatever mojo Soulja Boy offered worked that day, as the Wizards won 108-72.

It was a cute story that could have ended there. But Jay-Z must have felt the need to defend his buddy, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display. Jay-Z was in Oakland, California, performing when the James/Stevenson/Soulja Boy fracas was going down, and he played Oakland, California, legend Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” and shouted-out the MC. The crowd erupted, and Jay-Z got the idea to rap over the instrumental.

Soulja Boy (left) strikes his Superman pose before the Washington Wizards’ playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2008. The Wizards won 108-72.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“LeBron was special to him,” Too $hort said in 2017. “And ol’ boy [Stevenson] stepped on LeBron’s toes talking s— and Jay was like, I’m going to shut this down. And he probably saw the moment where the crowd reacted to the song and then that was on his mind.”

So Jay-Z asked Too $hort for the instrumental. “When Jay called, I was like, ‘It will be there in a couple of hours, man.’ I had no idea what he was going to do with it, but I am glad he did.”

The next night, as Wizards players were partying at the D.C. nightclub Love, the DJ debuted a Jay-Z song rapping over Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” instrumental: “Ask my n—- LeBron! We so big we ain’t gotta respond … Who the f— overrated?! If anything they underpaid him. Hatin that’s only gonna make him spend the night out of spite with the chick you’ve been datin’.” Without mentioning Stevenson or Soulja Boy, the intent was clear.

The series went six games, with the overrated James averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. (Stevenson averaged 12.3 points.) Stevenson would eventually find himself on the winning side three years later when his Dallas Mavericks (well, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks) bested James and the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals. While winning a championship is all good, hundreds of players have won rings. However, not many can say they were dissed by Jay-Z in a song. That moment defined Stevenson’s career almost as much as his championship.

Jay-Z (right) had a lot to rap about after DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James (left) overrated.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Warriors aren’t without their own contingent of rap stars who will be waving towels in Oracle Arena come Game 3. From E-40 to Too $hort and even MC Hammer, the Bay Area hip-hop scene is ready to lend support and maybe its own batch of troll-y Instagram posts.

Drake’s relationship with the Warriors seems a bit more amicable than that between the parties involved in the 2008 feud. But as the series progresses and the trash talk ramps up, we may yet see a magical musical moment in this NBA Finals. If it’s anything like Jay-Z’s effort, it could be the stuff of legend.

Cardinals QB Kyler Murray might just be Nike’s next NFL superstar athlete Partnership with Nike offers endless marketing possibilities for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft

NEW YORK — Kyler Murray beat one of the best marketing departments in the world to the punch.

Last November, in the thick of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at the University of Oklahoma, the 21-year-old phenom quarterback posted a photo on his social media accounts so recognizable that it didn’t need a caption. Murray re-created Bo Jackson’s iconic 1989 Nike ad down to every detail — the marbled backdrop, flexed muscles, shoulder pads and a wooden baseball bat propped up on strong shoulders.

In a creative way, Murray illustrated the undeniable connection between him and Jackson, two generational dual-sport athletes. Jackson is the only player in history to be named an All-Star in football and baseball, having played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball from 1986 to 1994 (three years before Murray was born). Yet, unlike Jackson, who became the face of Nike’s cross-training division in the late 1980s surrounding the launch of the brand’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, Murray decided to focus on one sport. “The young man from Oklahoma,” Jackson said in January, “should just go with his heart.”

He ultimately chose football despite being selected as an outfielder by the Oakland Athletics with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Murray agreed to a contract with the club that included a reported $4.66 million signing bonus and permission to play football at Oklahoma for one more year. During the 2018 college football season, he started at quarterback in all 14 games for the Sooners, hoisted the Heisman after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and leading the team to the College Football Playoff. A month after declaring for the NFL draft, Murray took to Twitter to announce that he’d be “fully committing” his life and time to being a pro quarterback.

On the eve of the draft, before the Arizona Cardinals selected Murray with the top pick, Nike made it official, signing the dual-threat quarterback from Bedford, Texas, along with 26 players (and counting) as part of the brand’s 2019 class of NFL rookies. At Oklahoma, Murray wore Nike on both the baseball diamond and gridiron, before the school’s football program switched to Jordan Brand uniforms last year. In celebration of the new partnership, Murray rocked a Great Gatsby-themed 1-of-1 pair of Air Jordan 1 lows onstage at the draft, featuring “Nike K1″ on the tongues of each shoe.

“We admire the energy and commitment that Kyler Murray brings to the game on and off the field, and we’re excited to welcome him and the entire rookie class to the Nike family,” a brand spokesperson told The Undefeated. “We feel strongly that their dedication to the game will continue to inspire the next generation of athletes.”

Roughly 40 percent of the players in the NFL are endorsed by the multibillion-dollar sportswear company. And now Nike might just have its next superstar athlete in Murray. Within several hours after the announcement that he’d been signed, Murray appeared in his first Nike commercial — a one-minute spot depicting his journey from playing three sports as a kid to reaching the NFL.

“I think he’ll understand once he gets an opportunity to be on Nike’s campus, all the things that will be afforded to him,” free agent and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters ahead of the draft. “The most important thing I would tell him is, ‘Just go out there and focus on your task at hand with being a professional, and everything else will fall in line for you.’ ”

Suh’s evaluation of the young, highly touted quarterback? “He’s definitely elusive and very athletic,” Suh said. “I haven’t had a chance to truly watch him play. Maybe this year I’ll have an opportunity to hit him.”

Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, another Nike athlete, has watched Murray quite a bit. And the two-time Pro Bowler and 2017 first-team All-Pro selection is already impressed.

“I think he’s gonna be a killer in this league,” Slay told The Undefeated. “I can just see his competitiveness — how he operates, how he carries himself … He’s a baseball guy, so you know he got a strong arm. And the thing about baseball players is they got great vision. To see that little ball, hit that little ball and catch that little ball at a fast pace. How this game is … I think it’s made for him.”

“Honestly, I want to be the best that ever played the game.” — Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray

The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray reminds Slay of two veteran NFL quarterbacks. “He’s a more athletic Drew Brees,” Slay said, “and you can see him as the next Russell Wilson.”

Wilson — who just became the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing a four-year, $140 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks — is also endorsed by Nike. He and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are the only Nike athletes in the NFL to have their own cleats and signature lifestyle shoes. In 2017, after Beckham Jr. signed the richest NFL shoe deal in history, Nike delivered the Special Field Air Force-1 Mid “OBJ.” He also recently teased another signature sneaker that’s on the way. And on the red carpet at the 2018 ESPYS, the Seahawks star debuted his Nike Dangeruss Wilson 1. Maybe Murray will eventually join Beckham and Wilson and get the Nike signature treatment.

“He’s gonna have his own shoe,” Slay said, “sooner or later.”

Until then, the ads will keep coming — only now he has a brand behind him to do them. The marketing possibilities surrounding Murray already seem fruitful, especially if he lives up to the dream he shared in his debut Nike commercial.

“Honestly,” Murray said. “I want to be the best that ever played the game.”

Fifteen years ago, Reebok and Adidas wanted him badly — so how exactly did LeBron James end up with Nike? Seven-figure checks were flying and at 18 years old, a young king had to make a huge decision

It was a typical Saturday morning at Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, global headquarters. A spring day in May 2003 so quiet on the billion-dollar brand’s campus that only mild rumblings hinted at the arrival of such an esteemed guest. Yet for months, a cohort of employees, designers and top-level executives had been making preparations fit for a king.

Who was so deserving of the royal treatment? An 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James, whose skill in the game of basketball made his decision to skip college and jump straight to the NBA far too easy. He’d been dubbed “The Chosen One,” and folks were salivating at the best player to grace the hardwood since Michael Jordan.

His long-awaited visit to Nike took place in the lead-up to the 2003 NBA draft lottery. The Cleveland Cavaliers would win the top selection, and effectively earn the right to acquire the local phenom. To sign a young James to his first sneaker deal, Nike had to come correct.

“It was the single-greatest plan I’ve ever seen put together,” said E. Scott Morris, then a senior footwear designer for the Nike Basketball division. The night before James and his camp — including his mother, Gloria James, his best friend, Maverick Carter, and his agent, Aaron Goodwin — stepped foot onto Nike’s campus, Morris got a sneak peek. Countless hours of research went into the presentation. It took hundreds of people to bring it to life.

“It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

What sticks out in Morris’ mind is the setting. At the time, co-founder Phil Knight, then Nike’s CEO, was in process of moving his office from the John McEnroe building to a wing of his own tucked away in the Mia Hamm building. But before he’d even spent a single day behind a desk there, Knight allowed his new working quarters to be dedicated to another purpose: pitching James.

The door of the space — so massive it could’ve been an entryway to Jotunheim — opened to a motion-activated video that flashed the Swoosh, and other personalized welcome messages. On either side of a long corridor stood cases of Nike sneakers made iconic by some of the NBA’s biggest stars — Air Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, Pennys. “You see all these shoes leading down to one case, all the way at the end, in the center,” Morris remembered. “That case had a light over it, and there’s nothing in it. It’s empty, as if to say, ‘Your Superman costume is waiting for you … if you’re ready for it.’ ”

Walk left of the empty case, and there was a conference room, where any and everything that could imaginably be branded LeBron was on display. Towels, shorts, bathrobes, swimwear. “They made this guy underwear,” Morris said. “I didn’t even know we made that.” A reception area housed more custom swag, from basketballs to bags to sunglasses.

And if James needed a snack break, Nike had actual Fruity Pebbles waiting for him — because someone, somehow, found out that was his favorite cereal. “No detail was missed,” said Morris, via phone from Oregon. “Everything they thought he might think, somebody’s job was to make sure it was available for his use, or experience.”

There were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

Walk right of the empty case, and you entered essentially a king’s treasure room. Its marvels included a mini model of James’ 2003 pewter-colored H2 Hummer, and the pelt of lion (think King Joffy Joffer’s shawl in Coming to America). There were also sketches of sneakers crafted by the brand’s top designers — Tinker Hatfield, Aaron Cooper and Eric Avar. It was here that Nike brass — most notably his future brand manager Lynn Merritt — and James’ team discussed product, and the potential of a partnership. “It’s definitely,” said Goodwin, “the greatest presentation I’ve ever seen.”

Weeks later — and 15 years ago this week — on the day of the lottery, Nike and James agreed to the richest initial shoe contract in the history of sports. “A landmark deal,” said Alexandria Boone, James’ former publicist, “one that people will remember.”

That original alliance has since transformed into a lifetime deal worth more than $1 billion. “It’s gotta be,” said Goodwin, “outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.” But back in ‘03, Nike wasn’t the only company after the No. 1 pick.


Reebok, first. Adidas, second. And Nike, third. This is the tactical order in which Goodwin, then James’ agent, scheduled his client’s in-person meetings with the top three sneaker brands during that era of basketball. Before the first pingpong ball was drawn at the lottery, Goodwin wanted a deal finalized.

“We felt like LeBron’s market was not going to be predicated by where he played, but by how he played, and how his brand [would grow],” said Goodwin via mobile. “Whether he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Sacramento Kings, he was going to make a huge difference for whatever [sneaker] company it was.”

LeBron had deep connections to all three of his suitors. On March 26, 2003, he was named the MVP of the annual McDonald’s All-American Game after a 27-point performance while rocking a custom pair of red-and-white “L23J” Reebok Questions, signature sneaker of Allen Iverson. James had worn Pro Models and T-Macs in games for his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron and for his AAU squad, the Oakland Soldiers (yes, for three summers, he traveled all the way to California to play ball). And it was no secret how much he idolized Jordan, the most important athlete in the history of Nike’s brand. “LeBron grew up loving everything Nike did,” said David Bond, then-vice president of U.S. sports for Adidas. “It was easy for them to sign him. It was their game to lose.”

On his first visit to Reebok’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters, James spent the first part of the day listening to a comprehensive pitch and marketing plan. The company’s top designers had been pulled from projects to focus on James, and James only. They cooked up more than 50 logos, and 10 sneaker designs, which Reebok executives presented in the meeting.

“We were trying to demonstrate that we were a brand that was going to pay attention to him,” said Todd Krinsky, then-president of the RBK division, which focused on fusing sports and music via footwear and apparel. “We didn’t have 1,000 NBA players, so it was a big opportunity for him to work with a brand that was really going to prioritize him.”

“It’s gotta be, outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.”

About a month before sitting down with James, Reebok released Jay-Z’s first signature sneaker, the S. Carter. And by October 2003, the company had agreed to a licensing deal with Pharrell Williams, and would drop his signature line of shoes, Ice Creams. Iverson, still in his prime, was the face of Reebok basketball, and the brand was anxiously planning for James, the soon-to-be rookie, to be the face its future. “He was really engaged,” continued Krinsky, now the general manager of Reebok Performance. “We felt pretty good.”

What happened next has become the most lasting legend of James’ sneaker saga.

Reebok chairman and CEO Paul Fireman was a man of theatrics, with a win-at-any-cost mentality. In 1996, he signed Iverson, the top selection in the draft that year, though he’d played in Nike at Georgetown University, and his college coach, John Thompson, served on Nike’s board of directors. Fireman wanted secure another surefire No. 1 pick in James, and was willing to pay more than anyone to do so. He escorted James, his mother Gloria, and Goodwin into a private room, and whipped out a cashier’s check. LeBron could leave with it, Fireman informed said. But there were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

“I was lost for words … looking at a $10 million check,” LeBron James said in 2017 during a conversation with Maverick Carter on UNINTERRUPTED’s Kneading Dough, an interview series focusing on athletes and business.

“I remember getting the check, then giving it to LeBron …,” said Goodwin. “He and his mom looking at it, and his mom’s eyes watering up … It was an emotional time … the reality of this thing that the two of them had lived their life and worked so hard for was actually happening.”

Krinsky can’t forget the contrasting reactions of James and his best friend. “I remember Mav unbuttoning his shirt and getting some air, and I remember LeBron just being stoic,” Krinsky said. “He wasn’t fazed … I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The kid then indeed made a man’s decision. “LeBron understood that he had to give that check back to Paul Fireman,” said Goodwin. “Gloria did not. Gloria wanted to keep that check and walk out. But even with that being offered, we had to see what Adidas had to say, and then finally what Nike had to say.”

“I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The next meeting took James to Malibu, California, where the brand he’d worn on the court for years had rented out a house in which to share its strategy. “I was hired by Adidas to sign LeBron,” said Bond, director of basketball at Nike for most of the 1990s. In 2001, he joined Adidas, and partnered with Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime (and controversial) marketing executive. Vaccaro, who was fired by Nike in 1991, is credited with being instrumental in signing Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to their first sneaker deals.

Together, Bond and Vaccaro spent approximately a year and a half shadowing LBJ the high school star and brainstorming a radical approach to luring him. Bond suspected Nike would tell James he could be the next Michael Jordan. However, using Muhammad Ali as an archetype, Adidas pitched the idea of the young James emerging into more than an athlete (which he’s become), who could represent not just the sport of basketball, but also stand for important social issues. Bond even surmised that if presented comparable monetary offers, James would pick Adidas over Nike based upon the longstanding relationship they’d built.

But the day of — an hour before presentation — Adidas panicked. “We had agreed ahead of time, for the final contract, to offer him $100 million guaranteed, which is about what he ended up signing for,” Bond said. “At the last second, the CEO at the time [Herbert Hainer] got cold feet. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain LeBron would have $100 million worth of impact … We didn’t know what Nike’s final offer would be at that point, but as soon as we slid ours across the table and they saw the number, we knew right then it was over. It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

Following the final meeting in Oregon, negotiations concluded in Akron: all three companies on the eve of the lottery. Adidas was the first to be eliminated from contention, bringing James to the brink of a decision between Nike and Reebok. “Up until the end, I thought we were going with Reebok,” Goodwin said in 2003. According to the Associated Press, the company offered $75 million. But Goodwin says now that Reebok came in far higher (he won’t name precise terms), and in the end, James took less money to join Nike.

“Nike is the right fit and has the right product for me at the right time,” James said in a statement released on May 22, 2003, the day he signed a letter intent. “They are a good company that is committed to supporting me throughout my professional career, on and off the court.” The deal with Nike was worth a reported $90 million — with a $10 million signing bonus. In 1984, Nike had signed Jordan for $2.5 million over five years. In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok for $3 million. In 1996, Iverson signed for 10 years and $50 million with Reebok. In 1997. Adidas signed Bryant for $5 million, and secured a six-year commitment from McGrady for $12 million. Before playing a single second in the NBA, James landed a deal worth more than the initial contracts of five All-Stars, MVPs and league champions combined.

That night — moments after Cleveland was presented with the top pick, and team owner Gordon Gund with a No. 23 LeBron James Cavs jersey — the man of the hour appeared on ABC from a party in Akron. The interview was with in-studio reporter Mike Tirico. LeBron wasted no time repping his new brand, sitting in front of the camera in his outfit of choice: a black Nike Air sweat suit, and white Nike headband.

“He knew he was with Nike, so he just put it on,” Goodwin said. “That’s him. That’s LeBron.”


On July 14, 2003, 2½ weeks after Cleveland drafted him, James and his new team traveled to Boston for a slate of games during the Reebok Pro Summer League. Krinsky sat courtside at the Clark Athletic Center for a matchup between the Cavs and Boston Celtics. During pregame warmups, James broke his layup line routine and approached the brand executive he hadn’t seen in months.

“LeBron says, ‘Listen, man, I just want to tell you that you guys gave a great pitch. It’s nothing personal. In the end, I just went with my heart, and went with what I thought was right for me,’ ” Krinsky remembers the 1½-minute conversation clearly. “S—, this kid is 18 — and he didn’t need to do that. But I really do feel like that’s a reflection of who he is. That’s how he handles business. He’s honest. He’s personal. Outside of the depressing saga of building up, building up, and not getting him, I’ll always remember that story.”

On James’ feet in that moment — a black-and-white pair of Nike Zoom Flight 2K3s. By Oct. 29, 2003, the night of his NBA regular-season debut, he’d be wearing the Nike Air Zoom Generations — the first signature sneaker of his career. Nike had lived up to its promise to LeBron James. And James more than lived up to his implicit promise to Nike. That empty case — and so much more — has been filled.

Janelle Monáe wants you to be happy. And then she wants you to fight. Her new album, ‘Dirty Computer,’ is for women angry that ‘our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power’

Janelle Monáe wants you to fight oppression. And she wants you to do it as part of a gleeful, unapologetic army of self-loving black women.

Hence the synth-heavy, dance-pop vibe of her third studio album, Dirty Computer, which drops today. A 44-minute narrative film that accompanies the album aired Thursday night on BET and MTV. It’s set during a totalitarian regime far enough into the future that everyone drives hover cars and people are simply known as “computers.” When people are deemed “dirty,” when they don’t fit society’s vision for what they should be, their minds are reprogrammed and erased of all the memories that have made them aberrant. The videos Monáe published in the run-up to the film release (Dirty Computer, Pynk, Make Me Feel, Django Jane and I Like That) are all memories this clean regime seeks to delete.

Dirty Computer, and especially “Pynk,” will be remembered as a stunning coming-out for Monáe, who identifies as pansexual. So much popular art that touches on the lives of queer black women is filled with hardship, even when the endings are happy. The words, imagery and circumstances of works like The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, Rent and even Pariah feature women whose lives are demonstrably more difficult because of their queerness.

There’s anxiety in Dirty Computer — after all, their supposed unfitness for society is why the computers are being summoned for memory deletion — but misery doesn’t dominate the narrative. The dirty computers of the world are going to take it over. And when they do, everyone’s gonna be happy about it.

“It was inspired by black girl magic and wanting us to have a piece of work we can look to when we are frustrated, when we are angry, when we are feeling our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power and to the abusers of power,” Monáe said during an interview this week at the New York office of Atlantic Records, where she was curled up on a sofa in a floor-length fuchsia skirt and fitted black sequin jacket. “It was just important for us to come together, as unique beings, and for the world to see us celebrating ourselves individually and collectively.”

Dirty Computer is an unambiguous response to the election of Donald Trump, powered by fury, to be sure. (You try to grab my p—y, this p—y grab you back, she warns on “I Got The Juice.”) But mostly, the album is joyful, reveling in the pleasures of erotic and romantic vulnerability. And it is loudly, happily, delightfully queer.

Monáe has said repeatedly that her choice to wear a “uniform” of black-and-white clothing, usually tuxedos, for her public appearances was a way to honor her working-class parents, who both wore uniforms in their jobs. But Monáe’s restricted wardrobe was also a shield for her life. She had a tendency to, as she says, “self-edit.”

Well, that Janelle Monáe is gone. Dirty Computer is awash in color, and the most important one in her new palette is pink, as evidenced in the video for “Pynk.” That would be the video featuring Monáe dancing in what can only be described as labia pants, a celebration of all things black and sapphic, starring Monáe’s repeat leading lady, actress Tessa Thompson.

“I love that you called them labia pants,” Monáe said. “Some people just say vagina pants, which is fine. Some people call it the flower, which is all cool. I just thought it would be an interesting way to celebrate women. Not all women have labias or vaginas, so you have some women who don’t have them on. I tried to represent as many as I possibly could, but it is so impossible to represent all of us.”


Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, but is now based in Atlanta. That’s where she was discovered by Big Boi and where she’s set up her Wondaland record label. She’s part of a soul sisterhood of strange Southern women that includes Solange, who is from Houston, and Erykah Badu, who is, at least by the limits of our earthly understanding, from Dallas. Their hobohemia is the place to be these days. Both Solange and Badu collaborated with Monáe on her last album, The Electric Lady. The director Alan Ferguson, who is married to Solange, directed several videos for Dirty Computer, including “Make Me Feel,” with its Prince-composed synth riff and clear allusions to “Kiss.” And the more laid-back tracks on Monáe’s foray into the ’80s share a vibe with Solange’s 2012 EP True.

But Monáe’s work also calls to mind another daughter of Houston: Beyoncé. Both women boast exacting tastes when it comes to aesthetics and a dedication to labor that’s evident in their work. But Monáe also had to find a way to let her true self shine through the alter ego and alternate, futuristic universe she’d created. Her perfectionist tendencies were a creative obstruction.

“It’s something that is really getting in the way of me finishing not this project, but all my projects,” she said. “It isn’t a good way of living and being a perfectionist. It’s not fun. It’s not cool to me, actually. I still pay very close attention to detail, but when I stop enjoying the experience and when it starts getting in the way of me being in the present moment and it starts to mentally wear me down, I have got to stop.”

“It was inspired by black girl magic and wanting us to have a piece of work we can look to when we are frustrated, when we are angry, when we are feeling our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power.”

She sounded remarkably similar to Beyoncé speaking about her own perfectionist tendencies in Life Is But a Dream, the singer’s 2013 HBO documentary. The similarities don’t stop there. Both women have dedicated their art to speaking explicitly about racial injustice and celebrating people who find themselves othered in some way.

“When you look on TV, you see the leader of the free world and that whole regime not giving a f— about your family and those who look like you,” Monáe said after a Dirty Computer screening this week. “The color of your skin can just get you escorted out of a Starbucks for having a business meeting. You can be in your own backyard and a police officer mistakes your phone for a gun, and you’re murdered.”

Some may find an obvious point of comparison between Lemonade and Dirty Computer, but a more apt one would be to Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album. It was her first visual narrative project and, like Dirty Computer, Beyoncé’s self-titled album was an announcement of a sexual awakening. It was a celebration that comes with being a woman who’s realized that the rules governing women’s bodies and behavior are a load of hogwash. Dirty Computer, with its visions of dancing labias and celebration of bisexual, polyamorous relationships, does the same.

Beyoncé has created a path for modern black women to be their full public selves without apology, something Monáe acknowledged in an Instagram post about Beychella. “My QUEEN for life,” she wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of Beyoncé in her Nefertiti cape. “Always. And forever. You continuously make me feel so proud to be a Black woman & artist. Last night was EXCEPTIONAL. We must protect you at all costs!”

The two albums also mark both women’s embrace of uttering the F-word aloud. They say it with a naughty deliberateness, delighting in the shock that comes from hearing such a dirty word uttered by women eager to slough off projections of pretty, proper respectability.

“I say ‘f—’ in the album a lot,” Monáe acknowledged. “I know. It’s because I give a f—. I give several f—s about our future.”


With her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (the Chase), Monáe created an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android who was part of a futuristic society, and through three albums led listeners through the world she’d created. Monáe knows how to craft an upbeat hit that makes you want to get off your feet, like “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic.” But the personal nature of Dirty Computer is more evident than in her previous three albums. It begins with an acknowledgment that the country is not living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, something that really came into focus for Monáe after the 2016 presidential election.

But the silver lining is that Monáe decided to stop being polite and start getting real. On “Crazy, Classic, Life” she sings:

I am not America’s nightmare.

I am the American dream.

Just let me live my life.

We don’t need another ruler.

We don’t need another fool.

Monáe debuted Dirty Computer at a screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this week, which was followed by a Q&A with internet celebrity Franchesca Ramsey, and she addressed the difference.

“I feel like for a while I was just writing songs so that they can be helpful to other people, and now I feel like I need them more than ever myself,” she said. “I’m learning to really walk in it and really embrace taking my beauty, even if it makes others uncomfortable — not just going slowly but being like, you gotta do that. You have to walk it. Walk it like I talk it.

On “Django Jane,” Monáe revels, suited up as Jane Bond, in the sort of egocentric posturing we commonly associate with male rappers. She delivers a flow that suggests time spent with her Wondaland label artist Jidenna while giving listeners a moment that recalls the grimy boastfulness of “Bow Down/I Been On.”

Dirty Computer is packed with visual, sonic and thematic influences — including Prince, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Blondie, Black Mirror, Thelma and Louise, Oscar Wilde, even the video for Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” — woven within its joyful call to arms. She’s still Janelle Monáe, just more than she’s ever been before. And her insistence on her American-ness, her continued homages to her working-class roots, her undeniable attraction to killer guitar riffs, make her a Bruce Springsteen for the majority-minority America of the future.

Kobe Bryant is gearing up for the 2018 NBA playoffs ‘I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to give back to the next generation’

When future NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant walked away from the 2018 Academy Awards, he left with an Oscar for his animated feature Dear Basketball. As well as the satisfaction that following his passion had been the right move. There was no such certainty in 2016 when Bryant launched Granity Studios, a multimedia content creation company focused on helping athletes maximize their full potential through creative storytelling.

“Building a studio is no small task,” Bryant said Wednesday afternoon during a media conference call. “My passion is writing, creating, putting beautiful stories together, weaving them in the form of a narrative.”

Now you’ll be able to hear more of the Black Mamba through his new show, Detail, just in time for the 2018 NBA playoffs. The show, written, produced and hosted by Bryant, will feature his insights as he breaks down games throughout the postseason. He gives in-depth observations for games on ESPN and ABC. The first episode will debut Thursday on ESPN+. Through Granity Studios, he created a new 15-episode basketball analysis show “for the next generation.”

“I felt like it’s important for the next generation to learn how to watch film, how to study the game,” Bryant said. “I felt like if this show was around when I was 10 years old, 11 years old, I would have gained so much insight, so much value from it, that by the time I’m 22, 25, my knowledge of the game would be at a much, much higher level than my predecessors. I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to give back to the next generation, try to share and teach some of the things I have learned from some of the great players, great mentors, great coaches that I’ve had.”

Bryant’s career spanned two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom he won five NBA championships and became an 18-time All-Star, among many other equally stellar stats.

On this call, Bryant weighed in on his new endeavor, the NBA playoffs, Ben Simmons, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets, Dirk Nowitzki, playing through injuries and more.


What are your thoughts on Dirk Nowitzki and bigs in the league?

When he first came in the league, he took a lot of 3s. The year they won championships he might have taken half the 3s than when he first came in the league. The idea of having a guy that was 7 feet, 7 feet 1 that could stretch the floor, that was revolutionary. I’m sure it inspired a lot of bigs to be able to say, ‘You know what, I want to be like Dirk Nowitzki.’ Dirk, he was looking at guys like Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, guys like that.

Dirk obviously took it to a different level because of his mobility, the ability to put the ball on the floor and spin. But, by and large, when Dirk won that championship that year, the biggest problem we had with him, that Miami and all the other teams had with him, wasn’t his picking and popping, it was his ability to play at the free throw line and below the free throw line. For him, that was his biggest growth as a player.

How do you see the playoffs shaking out? Who do you think is going to win the championship this year?

I try to stay out of the business of clairvoyancy. I kind of look at the raw picture of what I see in front of me from the execution standpoint. Obviously, a lot of it depends on the health of Golden State. Houston have put themselves in prime position with their length, versatility, their speed, their aggressiveness. They’re a very aggressive team. It’s a more aggressive team than [Mike] D’Antoni has had. Phoenix, they play with a lot of speed, but none of those guys are naturally physical. Houston has some real physical players, man. I like where they’re at.

Cleveland, obviously with LeBron, the shooting they have around him, some of the youth they infused that team with is obviously going to be dangerous. Curious to see what Toronto does. Kyrie going down makes a big difference in the Eastern Conference.

I like Houston and Golden State, pending their health, as being my top two favorites. Like I said, I kind of stay out of the business of predictions.

What is the one thing from an analysis standpoint that you are going to be most interested to see during these playoffs?

I’m just looking at it from the perspective if I was a player, right? If I was Harden in the series, I just played this game, I’m watching the film, what would I be looking at? It’s basically me going back to my old ways of watching film, how I was breaking down series when I was playing. That’s that.

What stories do you think you’re most interested in telling specifically about the Rockets, Chris Paul, James Harden, others on that team?

There aren’t really stories that I’m fascinated with telling in terms of like Chris’ performance in a playoff with Houston, how they’re meshing together, Golden State’s health. I don’t care anything about that.

The only thing I care about, I’m James Harden, we just played Game 1, what do I need to focus on and learn from Game 1 that will help us in Game 2? What could we do better in Game 1? What do we need to look for that our opposition could counter with in Game 2, right? It’s that level of detail that this show is about.

The name ‘Detail’ was pulled for a very specific reason. This is content that might not be for everyone, right? It’s really at the smallest, smallest level of basketball breakdown to try to advance in a series.

Where is your Oscar?

I have it in my house. It’s sitting right next to the Emmy Award we’ve won, as well. I look at them every morning before I go to work.

What inspires you to continue to reinvent yourself and stay on top of everything you decide to do?

I follow my passion, things that I love to do, like writing and storytelling, I enjoy that. I don’t find myself having to remind myself to work hard and push myself to stay on top of things, because I just love doing it. I don’t really look at it so much as reinvention, as my career as a basketball player was over. I loved storytelling, so here I am.

How did you manage your pain level throughout your injuries?

Sometimes you have injuries where you just have to deal with the pain. It’s not going to get any worse, but you have to deal with the pain. When I fractured my finger, there was nothing else that could be done … suck it up and play or sit out and get it fixed right then and there. That’s typically how I handled it.

During this time of year, is it hard for you to watch basketball?

No, not at all. I don’t have a hard time watching it at all. This is where me and Michael [Jordan] differ a lot. Where I was going through the process of retirement, I think people were kind of assuming Michael and I behave the same way from a competitive standpoint.

You hear a lot about a team like the Cavaliers, LeBron James flipping a switch when the playoffs come. In your experience, how do you prepare for that? How difficult is it to go to a new level in the playoffs?

Here is a thing about flipping the switch. Flipping the switch is just another word for you have one team that you’re focusing on, so you can really zero in on that team. That’s all that is. You’re still playing just as hard, you’re doing all the things, but playoffs means, if you have one team to focus on, that means you can study all your regular-season matchups against them, you can learn all the information you need to learn to prepare yourself for this playoff series. That’s flipping the switch.

Then, from the Cleveland standpoint, Cleveland seems to be executing a more democratic style of offense. I did a piece last year or a couple years ago, maybe last year, about the two-kings system that the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing with, LeBron and Kyrie, and contrast that with Golden State’s democracy. If you watch Cleveland play now, they’re starting to play with a more democratic system. See LeBron at the elbow at the top of the key being the Draymond Green of the Cavs, while the other players, whether it’s Jordan Clarkson or Kevin Love, are running corner split games, playing a rip action, doing stuff on the weak side where they’re moving off the ball. That makes them infinitely more dangerous.

What are your impressions of rookie Ben Simmons?

I think Ben played with a really great tempo. The time he’s had to watch the game has helped slow down the game for him. He’s had a chance to really observe the NBA game and be around it, pick it apart. Now that he’s playing, I think the game’s in slow motion for him, which is different than most rookies. He’s had a chance to view it a lot.

From a game perspective, his size gives him a clear advantage, his speed. He also knows how to use it. He knows his spots on the floor, he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He does a great job getting there. He’s been able to dominate and take that city of Philadelphia to a place where it hasn’t been in a very long time.