Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins supports ‘College Behind Bars,’ a prison documentary The four-part PBS series airs on Nov. 25 and 26 at 9 p.m.

NEW YORK — In between his busy football schedule, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins sat in a room with alumni of the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that allows men and women to work toward college degrees while incarcerated. He listened to the stories of the initiative’s alumni who proved that they would not let the prison system define who they were as human beings.

They walked in as inmates and left prison as college graduates determined to become productive members of society. Their stories are documented in a PBS series, College Behind Bars, airing on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.

On Tuesday, Jenkins greeted a sold-out crowd at the Apollo Theater in New York City for a special screening of College Behind Bars. As a social justice advocate and co-founder of the Players Coalition, an organization composed of NFL players designed to build support, challenge policies and bring awareness to issues that matter most in black communities, Jenkins threw his support behind the film.

The documentary, directed and produced by Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, follows more than a dozen incarcerated men and women over the course of four years and details the setbacks and triumphs faced on their journeys to become college graduates. Throughout the film, which bounces between six New York correctional facilities that support the BPI curriculum, men and women are shown studying subjects ranging from genetics to intermediate Chinese.

College Behind Bars

College Behind Bars airs on Nov. 25 and Nov. 26 on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.

Cody Slusher

“We’ve been conditioned to have an image of what inmates look like when in reality, they are citizens like all of us. We just paint them in this narrative in order to punish them,” Jenkins said before the screening. “But now, I think it is time for us to be more restorative in a way that we deal with incarceration knowing that inevitably, the majority of these people are going to come back in this society.”

There are 51,000 men and 2,400 women incarcerated in New York state, according to the documentary. More than 900 inmates are seeking an education, and 300 are actively enrolled in BPI at a cost of $8,000 per student per year. About 600 alumni have been released from prison and fewer than 4% have gone back, Jenkins told the packed audience.

Besides discussing the costs to taxpayers for education behind bars, the documentary revisits whether prisoners should receive Pell Grants again. Until 1993, incarcerated men and women were eligible for Pell Grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965. But a year later, after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 passed under the Clinton administration, Pell Grant funding was stripped from prisoners hoping to receive a college education while incarcerated.

“I thought I knew a lot about American history, but I was surprised to learn that, for decades, college was commonplace in prisons across America. But with the 1994 crime bill, Congress and the Clinton administration banned Pell Grants for incarcerated people,” said Ken Burns, the film’s executive producer. “Both Republicans and Democrats were on board with this. The vote wasn’t really about saving taxpayer dollars. It was about punishment and denying opportunity. Eliminating Pell Grants for people in prison cut $35 million from the federal budget. That might sound like a lot, but if you consider at the same time, again as part of the 1994 Crime Bill, Congress committed $10 billion to build more prisons — enough money to fund college in prisons for 200 years.”

Now, supporters are pushing for a bipartisan bill known as the Restoring Education and Learning Act to reverse the ban.

“We’re encouraging people to write and hit up their Congress reps to make sure they do that so they can look at initiatives like BPI and see how much success they’re having and how little the cost is compared to their incarceration,” Jenkins said. “If we can keep people out of prison, we need to do whatever we can to make sure that it happens.”

Advocacy has always been a focal point for Jenkins, and besides supporting films such as College Behind Bars, Jenkins has been working on projects of his own through Listen Up Media, a company he founded in 2018. Much like the storytelling in College Behind Bars, Jenkins’ vision for his media company is to change the negative narratives often portrayed through television and film by giving marginalized groups the power to tell their own stories. Recently, Jenkins was the executive producer for the company’s first film, Black Boys, which will debut at the South by Southwest Festival next year.

Jenkins’ work continues on the football field as well, leading the Players Coalition and advocating for change within the NFL. In August, the NFL announced a new partnership with rapper and business mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to help with the league’s live game entertainment, but also to boost social justice awareness.

“Everybody was kind of on alert when Roc Nation comes on board and obviously made news,” Jenkins said. “But one of the things [the Players Coalition] wanted to do was really sit back and see what their intentions were, what their plan was and how they wanted to fit into it. So far, they’ve come in and really want to be a support to and amplify the voices of players. They committed a ton of resources and dollars, not to Players Coalition but to the initiative and really drawing attention and awareness. They do that better than anybody. So, we’ll continue to try to work with them on furthering our initiatives, do some storytelling and really amplify this more than we have been able to already.”

Jenkins expressed his disappointment that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still without a team, but also believes it is up to the players to continue to push the envelope when it comes to social justice issues and the NFL. With the help of Roc Nation and the continuation of serious conversations around the important issues, Jenkins is content with the direction in which things are heading and hopes that players continue to take advantage of letting their voices be heard.

“As long as we have the platform, we need to push it as far as we can. And adding people like Jay-Z and Roc Nation can help us do that,” Jenkins said. “I think the league, while it hasn’t been always smooth sailing, has put up funds, has given a platform and I think while it’s there, we’ll take advantage of it.”

Black quarterbacks are out here changing the game and how we see leadership NFL’s black signal-callers make a way out of no way


The meeting between Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens and Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks a couple of weeks ago, on one level, featured the kind of marquee quarterback matchup for which the NFL is famous.

But on a deeper, historical level it spotlighted two black quarterbacks (rare), each a possible MVP (rarer still) and a eureka moment that crystallized both how America views leadership, and how, week by week, black quarterbacks are changing the face and nature of the role.

With the score tied at 13 late in the third quarter, the Ravens faced fourth-and-2 on the Seahawks 8-yard line and Coach John Harbaugh had sent in the kicking team. But Jackson, 22, his second-year star quarterback, paced the sideline, urging a different call.

“Do you want to go for that?” Harbaugh asked Jackson in a late October video clip that’s been viewed more than 3 million times. “Hell, yeah, coach, let’s go for it!” the quarterback yelled. On the next play, Jackson, took the snap in the shotgun, ran right, juked left and ran up the middle for a touchdown, propelling the Ravens to a 30-16 victory.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country.” — Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

The significance of that moment wasn’t just in how it showcased Jackson’s elite athleticism, field awareness or football intelligence (which was also on full display in the Ravens’ win over the previously undefeated Patriots last weekend). And it wasn’t his preternatural confidence. It was that his authority was given free rein. It was that faith in a young black man inhabiting the quarterback position — which has been synonymous with leadership, and a tacit proxy for white masculinity for the century-long history of the sport — was rewarded and telegraphed around the country.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who in May became the first African American secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in its 173-year history. They’re comfortable and confident enough “to take that extra gear and to do that thing that hasn’t been done before.”

The pace has been glacial, but over the past 50 years, we’ve “beat back the kind of pseudoscientific ways that people used to think about African American intellectual ability” and those associations with black quarterbacks, said historian Julian Hayter, who teaches leadership studies at the University of Richmond. “These dudes are actually out here throwing their way out of scientific racism.”

James “Shack” Harris won three conference championships at Grambling State University, where he played for legendary coach Eddie Robinson. But after refusing to change positions, he wasn’t selected until the eighth round of the 1969 NFL draft. Harris nearly walked away from football before Robinson persuaded him to fight for his rightful place in the league. He went on to become the first black quarterback to start an NFL season opener, start and win a playoff game, play in a Pro Bowl and be named a Pro Bowl MVP.

Harris sees the new prominence of black quarterbacks — this season ties 2013 for the number of starters, and includes the most celebrated players in the league — as a positive development for young African Americans aspiring to do anything. The quarterback “is perhaps the most singular position in all of sports in influence and leadership. And we have more blacks today participating, but I don’t think it’s increased our ability to lead,” Harris said. “We’ve been able to lead since birth.”

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (left) of the Kansas City Chiefs shakes hands with quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) of the Baltimore Ravens after the Chiefs defeated the Ravens 27-24 in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Black quarterbacks were just rarely given the chance.

Hayter defines leadership as “a co-creational process based on role agreement.” In times of crisis human beings have a cognitive need to look to people with particular traits to resolve these crises and “in some ways, sports are controlled crises, right?”

The encoding of quarterbacks as white leaders is an agreement that was birthed with the sport that emerged from mid-19th century Ivy League culture. Quarterbacks call plays that direct other players’ assignments, touch the ball the most and are the most visible players on the field. Even as football migrated South and became more blue-collar, the quarterback position retained that association with intellectualism. The positions of center, inside linebacker and especially quarterback were held out as thinking positions, too complex for black athletes to master.

As 20th century black athletic achievements destroyed racist myths about the physical superiority of white men, and the civil rights movement helped open professional sports to black athletes, white team owners, coaches, media and fans clung to myths of black intellectual inferiority.

“There’s so many stories of black quarterbacks in college who get forced to play wide receiver and defensive backs,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Even Jackson, a Heisman winner, was doubted as a quarterback and criticized for not running a “pro-style” offense, which called for remaining in the pocket and reading coverage, before this standout season finally quieted that noise. Hard to ever imagine a white player with Jackson’s gifts being told to switch positions.

The question became whether black men, who were already leading black churches, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their own communities, “had the capacity to lead white men and white institutions,” Neal said.

That question becomes particularly acute when you take into account the improvisational nature of black culture and how that shapes black leadership, especially in sports.

“Underlying that message really was that not only was the league fearful of the leadership potential of some of these men — and this is of course applicable to corporate America also — but they were fearful of the way that black men could improvise,” said Neal. And that means they could change the game in ways that were not intuitive or immediately replicable for white quarterbacks. (Not so much physically, but culturally, though with constant practice, the two go hand in hand.)

Black improvisation is best understood as a kind of creative problem-solving that stems from the dynamics of black life that often require you make a way out of no way, said Neal. “How do you problem-solve lack of resources? In another context, it’s Big Momma in the kitchen with a small amount of resources and a family of 10 to feed. And how does that get done night after night, week after week, year after year?” Neal asked.

Improvisational leadership gets encoded as “genetic” — as “natural” athleticism in sports — but it’s more specifically political, environmental, economic. And it’s smart. There can’t just be one way to get something done, because that way often ignores black people or works against them. In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened with a permanent exhibit called Making a Way Out of No Way. The off-ramp thinking required to outwit challenges or gain advantage for black people in myriad aspects of American life gets stylized, and celebrated as a bedrock of black culture when it works. And when it works repeatedly, it changes the game — music, politics, science, sports —whatever the game is.

Last year, the reigning NFL MVP, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ no-look pass against the Ravens electrified the league, but it was also a play he’d studied and practiced since college.

People have the tendency to “think that our ability to improvise means that we don’t know how to play by the rules. No, it means we know how to play within them,” said Hayter. Jazz “is not an explosion of the rules, it is understanding the rules of musical theory so well that you can bend them in a way.”

The no-look pass and the stutter-step running of Jackson, and Michael Vick before him are examples of that improvisational leadership, said Bunch. “Improvisation is how black people have historically survived. So of course when they play sports, there’s improvisation. But that’s been held against them.” Especially in football, where improvisation at quarterback has been cast as an inability to process, and make leadership decisions. The traditional model is to step back in the pocket, and take what the defense gives you. But if black people just took what we were given historically, we’d be dead.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts after throwing a touchdown in the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 27 in Atlanta.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Look at Doug Williams. Just look at Patrick Mahomes. The list goes on,” said Hayter. “Look at Russell Wilson. These guys could extend the play in a way that changes our perception about what the [quarterback] position actually is. And I think in some ways that’s what people are reluctant to deal with.”

Consciously or unconsciously, for those wed to white leadership, the nature of quarterback play is perceived as a binary. Either resist adopting the changes, or, like the NBA, cede the league to black players. Rules enacted over the past 15 years to protect the quarterback, including recent changes banning a tackler from landing on the quarterback, make it easier to preserve the hegemony of white quarterbacks “trained to play a particular way,” said Neal. “You had men like a Randall Cunningham and a Warren Moon, obviously Michael Vick, come along,” Neal said, and “you now enact these rules within the game that in fact forces them to play the game in very traditional ways, and doesn’t protect them when they go against that script.”

Neal cites Carolina Panthers quarterback and former MVP Cam Newton, who has used his size and strength to run the ball, as an example. Critics say “he gets hurt because he refuses to play within this particular script, right?” said Neal. But it was that script that required his improvisational leadership in the first place: “I don’t have a great running game, I don’t have the best receivers,” Neal said, channeling Newton. “How do I solve this problem without them? I’m the most gifted athlete on the field. That’s how I solve the problem.

Sports has rarely been about fair and equal competition, “it’s been about perception, it’s been about leadership” and drawing audiences, Bunch said. And when it comes to the racial coding of the quarterback position, it’s about control. “And control is about fear.” One of the best ways to control black people has been to say they’re inferior, “but then you’ve got to put the laws in place to make sure you reinforce” those ideas, he said.

Any black person who has broken through a leadership barrier has to confront white fear that something is being taken from them, said Bunch, and their own fears about being good enough to carry the burdens of the race.

This is why the political activism of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kept him out of the league while playing out differently for other player/protesters. “Leaders are dangerous,” Bunch said. “If they lead down a way that makes people uncomfortable, they’re dangerous.

“The black quarterback is probably the most visible black male figure in America in terms of the number of people who see him play,” Bunch said, and that has a ripple effect as people start to recognize they have skills that transcend race. “But they never really transcend race, right? … You don’t have the freedom to be average. You’ve really got to be stellar or else you don’t get on a field.”

When he’s optimistic, he thinks “every black quarterback who throws a touchdown, who signs an autograph for a kid is really changing the way the world sees black folks.” When he’s pessimistic, he wonders “how many of us have to keep doing what we do” until black leadership is normalized.

Perhaps we’ll get to the point that even the black journeyman quarterback is a regular part of the league, and a face of black leadership. Right now, said Bunch, “we’re still kicking down the barriers.”

Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart The first-year Washington Wizards point guard is still trying to come to grips with losing his close friend seven months later

Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom collected a litany of titles during his short, yet prolific life. Grammy-nominated rapper. Rollin’ 60s Crip. Community activist. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. Lauren London’s soulmate. Emani and Kross’ father.

And Isaiah Thomas’ favorite artist — though their marathon, a bond dating back more than a decade, is far deeper than rap. Tattooed on the Washington Wizards point guard’s left leg are two checkered flags and an all-caps mantra, “I been fighting battles up a steep hill.”

“That’s my life story,” Thomas said shortly after the Wizards’ practice in early October. The two-time All-Star made his season debut Oct. 26 for Washington after recovering from offseason thumb surgery. He posted an impressive 16 points, three rebounds and five assists in 20 minutes in a 124-122 loss in San Antonio.

The lyrics inked on his skin derive from the now self-written eulogy “Racks In The Middle” from Thomas’ close friend turned guardian angel. Hussle was gunned down in front of his South Central Los Angeles-based Marathon clothing store on March 31. Eric Holder, 29, is facing trial in his murder. Thomas also cherishes another Hussle-inspired tat saying “TMC,” short for “The Marathon Continues” on his right shoulder. It’s an adage that defined their friendship, the similar trajectory of their careers and their ability to find strength after immeasurable grief in both of their lives. Thomas losing his sister and Hussle losing a close childhood friend within months of each other in 2017.

“That’s what it was. We had each other to lean on,” Thomas said. “We went through real-life situations that a lot of people can’t relate to.”

Hussle’s murder shook hip-hop to its core and sent emotional shock waves across the pop culture universe. His death particularly resonated in the NBA community, where he held close friendships with players James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams, Stephen Curry, Wilson Chandler, Kyle Kuzma and several more.

“[Ballplayers] come from the same environment. They going through the same struggle. They’re just attacking it through their gifts on the court or on the field,” Hussle said in a 2018 interview. “Likewise, we’ll be in the studio and have the playoffs on mute and go back and watch classic performances. And just be like, ‘Look at the zone they was in.’ We both feed off each other.”

Hussle’s bond with Thomas was uniquely poignant. One built off similar self-made, get-it-out-the-mud, rags to riches orbits. Hussle was a child of South Central Los Angeles’ slums who had risen to the cusp of mainstream stardom at the time of his death. And Thomas from last pick in the 2011 NBA draft to undersized superstar point guard and now veteran aiming to prove that a string of injuries aren’t the final professional chapter of his marathon.

Thomas signed with the Wizards following one season with the Nuggets in July. He did so by paying homage to Hussle via Twitter through lyrics applicable to his journey’s newest chapter. As the Wizards start the season for the first time without John Wall in nearly a decade, Thomas will have an opportunity to play valuable minutes as a floor general. The eight-year veteran has coined this season his “victory lap” — an homage to Hussle’s Grammy-nominated final project. “When [Nipsey] came out with Victory Lap, I wasn’t able to play like I wanted to. I wanna show the world I can play at a high level like before I got injured.”

Hussle will be with Thomas for every game this season both in spirit and in playlist. But Thomas hasn’t yet given himself the emotional real estate to ponder how he’ll react not seeing Hussle courtside at his games for the first time since he entered the league with the Sacramento Kings. Thomas hasn’t let go of Hussle. Out of love and loyalty, he won’t. And out of confusion and pain, he refuses.

“I can’t even explain it. To this day it don’t seem real,” Thomas said, looking at the floor. “A person that positive and that genuine to everybody, anybody, it’s like that shouldn’t happen. They always say, ‘The good die young,’ and it’s really like that.”

Every marathon begins with a first step. In the University of Washington’s locker room in the fall of 2008, each member of the men’s basketball team had a chance to be team DJ. Freshman forward Darnell Gant, a Crenshaw High School graduate, used his opportunity to put on for his South Central brethren. One of Hussle’s earliest hits, the Kriss Kross “Jump”-inspired, but code of the street-driven “Hussle In The House” had recently become the MC’s first introduction to some of his earliest fans outside of Los Angeles.

“I was playing [Nipsey],” said Gant. “Then I remember Isaiah coming up to me in the locker room.”

“Who’s that?” Thomas asked.

“This Nipsey from Crenshaw.”

From there, Gant gladly offered his fellow freshman Thomas an immediate curriculum on Hussle. One of the hardest new acts to emerge out of California since The Game dropped The Documentary in 2005. An artist with a vision for his community wise beyond his years — and whose graphic street narratives of Los Angeles were scribed with John Singleton-like precision. Gant never knew Hussle personally, but his OG’s did. All Gant was doing was paying it forward by putting his teammate onto hometown game. He had no way of knowing an otherwise innocent locker room conversation would help inspire an unbreakable bond.

Isaiah Thomas (second from left) and Nipsey Hussle (center) attend the Nipsey Hussle album release party for Victory Lap at Medusa Lounge on Feb. 25, 2018, in Atlanta.

Photo by Prince Williams/Wireimage

Thomas took his education on Hussle far beyond UW’s training facilities. He devoured every piece of Hussle content he could find on the Internet. Thomas would tirelessly tweet Hussle’s lyrics, attaching the @NipseyHussle handle to make sure the rapper would notice the admiration. Hussle, an avid basketball fan with a respectable game himself, soon began following Thomas. The two swapped messages and months later met for the first time at a February 2009 show at Seattle’s Showbox SoDo while Hussle was on The Game’s “LAX” Tour.

“It was genuine love on both sides. He knew who I was, just from playing basketball. I knew who he was and he was up-and-coming [like me],” Thomas reflected. “He was a real genuine person and his energy just rubbed off on everybody in the room. It was dope from day one.”

Thomas and Hussle’s marathons ran at similar paces. Their progress was mutually inspirational. Thomas earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year during the 2008-09 season. Hussle being featured on the 2010 XXL Freshmen cover alongside future stars J. Cole, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa. Thomas firmly establishing himself as one of the country’s most prolific scorers and named Pac-10 Tournament Most Outstanding Player as a sophomore — and honorable mention All-American as a junior. And Hussle transitioning from his critically acclaimed Bullets Ain’t Got No Names mixtape series into The Marathon and The Marathon Continues.

By the summer of 2011, Thomas and Hussle had grown far beyond celebrity acquaintances. They were friends with a deep respect for the other’s craft and dedication. Days after being drafted by the Kings, Thomas took to Facebook expressing his desire to have Hussle perform at his draft party in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington. Thomas dreamed it, then Hussle real life’d it.

“[Nipsey] did the whole Marathon mixtape,” Thomas said still in awe. “Usually guys do a few songs, then get up out there. He did every song on there. He just showed real genuine love to my city. From that day forward, we would text, we would call. Every time I’m in L.A., I would go by the shop. He’d send me Marathon clothing. We’ve been really close since then.”

Their marathons would continue analogous paths. Hussle’s vision for music, but his growing business empire caused an entire industry to take notice despite the absence of Billboard chart-topping recognition. In 2013, Jay-Z made headlines when he purchased 100 copies of Hussle’s Crenshaw mixtape being sold at $100 per disc. The entire time, both celebrated the other’s win as their own. Thomas would bounce from Sacramento to Phoenix and to Boston — each stop establishing him as a bona fide scoring threat with unassailable heart.

“To see [Isaiah] make his moves in the NBA, go give n—-s hell last season and just run up his value. I look at his career a lot like I look at mine. His trajectory — he proved himself,” Hussle said, expressing his admiration for Thomas. “He made himself valuable. Against a lot of odds. And so I f— with I.T., heavy.”

All marathons present moments of self-doubt. And friendship has a profound way of evolving through tragedy. By 2017, Thomas was one of basketball’s most venomous scorers, averaging 28.9 points. Along the way, he earned the nickname “Mr. Fourth Quarter” for a string of heroic performances throughout the season leading the Celtics to 53 wins. The watershed campaign led to Thomas’ second consecutive All-Star berth. What had been a season-long coronation for Thomas as a true NBA superstar soon gave way to disaster. On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas, Thomas’ younger sister, died in a car accident in Washington state. Thomas, in a heroic performance for the ages, would drop 33 points in a Game 1 loss to the Chicago Bulls a day later. (Boston would win the series in six.) In Thomas’ corner the entire time was a familiar friend. Hussle’s texts messages about looking catastrophe in the face and continuing “run[ing] your race” provided invaluable moments of peace and motivation that Thomas needed.

“He sent a really long text to me just being inspiring to keep going, knowing that life is a marathon,” said Thomas. “He always been that type of friend. It’s always been real genuine love. A marathon is tough. Life is tough. That was probably the biggest thing that I would keep in my heart. Just keep running your race no matter what.”

Five months later, Hussle’s childhood friend and business partner Stephen “Fats” Donelson was murdered while standing outside a marijuana dispensary where he was employed. Donelson’s death hit Hussle extremely hard at a time in his life and career were trending upward toward the release his highly anticipated debut album in Victory Lap. Hussle would later commemorate Fats on the aforementioned “Racks In The Middle.” “Damn I wish my n—- Fats was here/ How you die at 30-something after banging all them years,” Hussle pleaded in 2019’s most chilling verse. “Grammy-nominated, in the sauna shedding tears/ All this money, power, fame and I can’t make you reappear.”

“When Fats died,” Thomas said, “I reached out to him and it was just like, ‘I’m here for you if you need me. I know you got a thousand people in your corner, but if you ever need to talk, you know I’m here.’ ”

Celebrate every victory during a marathon, because the last will never announce itself beforehand. Hussle and Thomas saw a reflection in themselves in the other. The “Blue Laces 2” MC was particularly prideful when his friend made his season debut with the Denver Nuggets on Feb. 13. Thomas smiled when seeing checkered flag emojis, symbolic for Hussle’s marathon edict, appear in his inbox.

“I know he was just about to send me some new music, actually the last time we had talked,” said Thomas.

Days after that conversation, the Nuggets were preparing, coincidentally, to host the Washington Wizards. Thomas was going through pregame routines, taking him away from his phone. By the time he returned, the news had already spread. Nipsey Hussle dead at 33. Thomas sat in a daze. The last thing on his mind was basketball. He didn’t play that night. Almost two years after the worst news of his life following losing his sister, now Thomas had another soul-piercing loss to manage. Nothing felt real.

“I just feel like coming home,” Thomas remembered telling his wife, Kayla, after receiving the news.

Around the same time, Thomas’ former college teammate Gant was getting off work in Los Angeles. The city was already paralyzed with a wicked elixir of fear, anger and depression. The two former teammates swapped messages, Gant more so checking on his friend whom he had introduced to Hussle’s music a decade earlier. He admired from afar how Hussle attended Thomas’ games, often donning Thomas’ jerseys. But now he was concerned about Thomas’ well-being.

“Losing [his sister] Chyna, I knew if he took that hard, he was gonna do the same thing with Nip,” said Gant. “I took it as he lost a family member.”

“That was a really good friend of mine,” Thomas said. “He meant a lot to me. [Nipsey] was like a brother, for sure.”

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Nip Hussle the GREAT! RIP family @nipseyhussle 🏁

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With a new season underway, Thomas is excited for the opportunity in front of him in the nation’s capital. But make no mistake, Thomas is still very much grieving. He will be for quite some time, if not the rest of his life. Thomas’ eyes become glossy at the mention of Hussle’s name. He laughs at the funny memories — he refuses to say what his favorite memory of Hussle courtside is, choosing to keep that between him and his friend. But the weight of the loss visibly sits on his shoulders. How Thomas stares off to a different part of the room. How he fidgets with his hands when speaking. How he remains silent when trying to gather the correct words. Just the thought of Hussle oftentimes dictates his body language.

A natural human reaction to any uncomfortable or painful event in life is to develop tangible steps on how to resolve it. Grief, says Washington-based clinical psychologist Justin S. Hopkins, doesn’t work that way. It ebbs and flows, and trigger points such as birthdays or anniversaries are always looming. “I think it’s hard for people to understand that grief continues in many different forms long after a person is lost,” Hopkins said. “It’s one of those things that you have to continue to manage, process and make meaning of losing someone and how you remember them. And how you continue to love them long after they’re gone.”

Loss has a way of clarifying the magnitude of life. Death, in particular the passing of a close loved one, is incredibly difficult to compartmentalize and move on as if it didn’t happen.

“Disbelief is a really common aspect of grieving,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard to accept that someone you love will continue to have a relationship through your memories, but is no longer here physically. That’s really, really hard to take in. It’s one of those things that takes a lot of time and a lot of processing.”

Thomas continues his marathon with a lifetime of Hussle-curated memories. He’s only gotten emotional once over the past seven months. That was April 11, the day he saw Hussle laid to rest. Being in the Staples Center that day was an emotional juxtaposition for Thomas. Less than a year had passed since he was with Hussle at the same arena as he performed at the 2018 BET Awards. Part of Thomas refuses to accept what he knows is the reality. He snickers at Hussle becoming a meme during last season’s Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets fight that involved Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo — Courtside, goin viral when them punches thrown, Hussle rapped posthumously on Rick Ross’ “Rich N—a Lifestyle.”

“It was funny to see that picture,” Thomas said, chuckling, “because that’s what most dudes in those types of situations has been in [do] … you’re going to pull up your pants and be ready.”

For Thomas, it all goes back to the intersection of Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central. His whole life story was on that block, on that corner, Thomas says. Every time he’d touch down in L.A., Hussle would meet Thomas at his Marathon store. Occasionally, he’d take his sons, James and Jaiden. Thomas says every time, without fail, Hussle and friends would walk him back to his car. Hussle’s message was simple, yet poignant. Be safe out here.

“That’s why I haven’t been there [since], because it’s just like I keep saying. It just doesn’t seem real for him to be taken in front of what he built,” Thomas said. “It would probably be hard for me to go back over that way because that was a real special person to me.”

Thomas hasn’t given much thought to how he’ll react not seeing his friend courtside in Los Angeles, Houston or even welcoming him to Washington this season. Hussle’s absence won’t change the way he plays, but similar to his sister’s death, he finds peace “staying on [my] marathon.” He knows that would be Hussle’s only wish for him. The marathon was the root of their conversations, their friendship and their brotherhood. Staying 10 toes down and never letting a hard time humble them doesn’t stop just because one isn’t physically here anymore. Until they meet again in the next lifetime, Nipsey Hussle is forever in Isaiah Thomas’ heart and on his skin.

“[Nipsey was] probably the realest person I ever met. [He’s] somebody that I would want my kids to be like. Nothing about him was fake.”

Criticism of LeBron James’ China comments are rooted in bogus narratives If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be mentioned

We are shortchanging athletes’ activism by using sound bites to define their legacies.

On Dec. 29, 2015, James stood in front of reporters after his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Denver Nuggets 93-87 and spoke on the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy carrying a toy gun who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. It was a mere 24 hours after a grand jury decided that police officer Timothy Loehmann would not face criminal charges for gunning down Rice.

“To be honest, I haven’t really been on top of this issue. So it’s hard for me to comment. I understand that any lives that [are] lost, what we want more than anything is prayer and the best for the family, for anyone,” James told reporters. “But for me to comment on the situation, I don’t have enough knowledge about it.”

Samaria Rice, the mother of the boy, expressed her disappointment. Even black activists demanded more from James. Black journalists challenged him to say something substantial. But that’s where the outrage stopped — at the feet of black folks who wanted him to use his platform to defend a child who was killed miles from James’ old neighborhood.

How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government? The answer is complicated.

Three years after his comments on Rice, James rattled the internet for what he didn’t say about protests in Hong Kong when a pool of reporters asked him about it on Monday night. “Just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too,” James explained. His refusal to condemn China became a trending topic through the night.

But here’s the dirty little secret: Most of the people outraged at James not taking a definitive stance on China’s handling of protesters in Hong Kong don’t care about the protesters themselves. The outrage isn’t about the plight of the protesters. The performative outrage is creating a new “what aboutism” to hold up next time the athletes speak out about a cause.

If James tweets about a black person being killed by cops, you can bet his silence on China will be brought up. Because silencing black folks is all about false equivalencies and bogus narratives. In short, “you didn’t speak about Hong Kong” is the newfangled “what about Chicago?”

How did we go from James getting a pass for being noncommittal about the killing of a 12-year-old boy to being called a disgrace for his comments on a foreign government?

The answer is complicated. This is about the ways in which society tries to undermine black liberation work by using any means to shift goalposts. There are plenty of people using the NBA’s current public relations dilemma with China as a means to undermine the social justice efforts of black athletes in America. So James’ vague comments on Rice’s death must stand alongside his other works.

Since 2015, he’s become a leading advocate for social justice, calling out President Donald Trump and the NFL while building a school for at-risk kids in Akron, Ohio. He’s not the safe athlete anymore. He’s rubbing people the wrong way. His actions have even prompted Fox News host Laura Ingraham to tell him and other athletes to “stick to sports.”

Now, however, the NBA and China situation is a “gotcha” moment to those who want to silence NBA players. The premise of the criticism is clear: If these athletes won’t stand up for the rights of the citizens of Hong Kong, then they don’t really care about equality and human rights.

It’s a veiled “don’t all lives matter?” form of reshaping the narrative to negate the actions of speaking up for black folks in America. After all, how can they really care about police brutality in America if they don’t care about it in China? See how that narrative manipulation works?

The irony here is that athletes are being encouraged to speak out about oppression in China, but if they were to use that energy to, say, draw a comparison between the way the protesters of Hong Kong are being treated to the way protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were treated, then we’d be back at square one asking them to be silent. We want these athletes to speak out against foreign regimes but not about police abuse of innocent black folks.

How about we try this: Interview an athlete about China, but follow up with something to say about police killing Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson. Then we’ll see how much you want athletes to speak up.

LeBron James missed an opportunity with his comments about China The NBA star used a lot of words to say nothing

LeBron James had more than nine days to study the conflict between China and the NBA and formulate an opinion. What he finally said was disappointing for a man who is “more than an athlete” and built much of his brand on social justice and awareness.

On Oct. 4, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protesters in Hong Kong who say they are seeking to hold China to its promises to protect certain freedoms. China characterizes the protests as rebellion against its sovereignty. Hong Kong has seen increased violence between demonstrators and police during four months of protests sparked by China’s attempt to legalize extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China.

The context for all this is China’s treatment of its own citizens, which according to Human Rights Watch includes “arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance”; persecution of religious communities; censorship of the media and public speech; and the mass detention and torture of Turkic Muslims.

These are all topics that the LeBron James we’ve come to know would care about.

When Morey sent his tweet, James and his Los Angeles Lakers were headed to play two exhibitions in China, which is a $500 million market for the NBA. China also is an essential partner for Nike, which employs James under a $1 billion lifetime contract, and a key market for James’ growing TV and film empire. (The Undefeated is an ESPN platform; ESPN and its parent company Disney have various business relationships in China.)

China responded to Morey’s tweet with the cancellation of both Lakers-Brooklyn Nets broadcasts and several NBA community events, and the suspension of a smartphone company’s NBA sponsorship. Also suspended were the Rockets’ TV broadcasts, its relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association, and its online news and game streaming deals. NBA commissioner Adam Silver tried to mollify China while standing up for the principle of free speech. The response from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV: “We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression. We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.”

On Monday, this is what James told reporters before the Lakers game:

“When I speak about something, I speak about something I’m very knowledgeable about, something I’m very passionate about. I feel like with this particular situation, it was something not only I was not informed enough about, I just felt like it was something that not only myself or my teammates or my organization had enough information to even talk about it at that point in time and we still feel the same way.”

That’s implausible. As if James couldn’t get any historian, diplomat or other China expert on the phone in the nine days since Morey’s tweet. As if there is no Google.

What makes this sadder is that Chinese citizens have no Google. It’s blocked.

James doesn’t need to denounce or boycott China, no more than Walmart, Coca-Cola or the NBA should. We all use Chinese products every day, and that relationship creates more opportunities for change. If James had simply said, “No comment because I do big business in China,” at least that would have been honest. Or he could have courageously affirmed the principle of human rights while expressing respect for China’s people and sovereignty.

Instead, James said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation,” which would be hard for James to judge after just claiming he was not informed himself. (Later Monday night, James tweeted that he was referring to the consequences of Morey’s tweet, not the substance.)

James also said that “social media is not always the proper way to go about things,” which is hypocritical for a man whose primary means of engaging with fans, building his brand and calling out injustice are Instagram and Twitter.

“We all talk about freedom of speech,” James told reporters, “Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself.”

Morey has been silent since deleting his tweet, but he was likely thinking about millions of Hong Kong residents. Morey had nothing to personally gain. James, on the other hand, had his business empire to think about when he implausibly claimed ignorance on all things China. Besides basketball games and shoes, James will be selling his upcoming Space Jam reboot, which could earn nine figures in the nation that James has chosen not to be informed about.

I respect and appreciate James’ activism for social and racial justice, which began in 2012 when he and his Miami Heat teammates tweeted a photo supporting slain teenager Trayvon Martin. In many ways, that photo launched the current resurgence of black athlete activism. Back when Trayvon’s shameful killing gave rise to Black Lives Matter, few top athletes engaged in racial advocacy, fearful that fans would stop watching or buying. James had something to lose when he and his team were photographed in hoodies, but he did what was right. That’s part of what makes his China comments more hypocritical and disappointing.

I’m not one of the critics who want to silence James on racial justice, who want him to “shut up and dribble.” I believe in James’ proclamation that he’s “more than an athlete.” This is his time to be that, to fully inhabit the activist legacy of a Muhammad Ali or an Arthur Ashe. James once had the gumption to call out Donald Trump in a tweet, and the president stayed silent — Trump “did not want it with the King.” Now James is cowed by Xi Jinping? Or maybe he should be leery of the Chinese president ruthless enough to disappear Winnie the Pooh.

James’ voice is so influential, he could help crack the great wall of silence that China has erected against dissent. If James chose to speak on China, how many athletes would follow, as they did after Trayvon? Or do we expect that human rights will never come to China?

On Tuesday, James followed up on his previous comments by basically saying that China is not his problem: “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up. There’s things that happen in my own community in trying to help my kids graduate high school and go off to college; that’s been my main concern the last couple of years with my school [in Akron, Ohio]. Trying to make sure the inner-city kids that grow up in my hometown can have a brighter future and look at me as an inspiration to get out of the hellhole of the inner city.

“We don’t talk about those stories enough. We want to talk about so many other things as well. There’s issues all over the world.”

James’ admirable efforts to educate his hometown’s children have received massive media coverage, including from me. And helping Akron should not prevent him from talking about Chinese issues. Nor should China’s distance from Akron. Based on one of James’ own tweets, he should understand why.

On Jan. 15, 2018, James quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal Letter from Birmingham Jail in a tweet, adding the hashtag #ThankYouMLK50. King wrote that letter in 1963, after being arrested for protesting segregation laws in Birmingham, Alabama. While King was behind bars, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy released a statement calling him an “outsider” engaged in “unwise and untimely” demonstrations.

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states,” King wrote. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Yes, LeBron James is an American, and he admirably addresses American problems. But China makes and buys his shoes, watches his games and movies, puts untold millions in his pockets. China is James’ country too.

The world has become much smaller in the five decades since King wrote his magnificent letter.

The economies of China and America would suffer without each other. A game perfected by black Americans enraptures millions of Chinese. King wrote, “I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.” James can do the same. He still has time to realize that claiming ignorance of repression in a country where he makes millions of dollars contradicts the calls for justice he has championed at more convenient times.

Believe the hype: Sun guard Courtney Williams feeds off dad’s energy Don Williams is a constant presence at WNBA games and in his daughter’s life

Maybe you’ve seen Don Williams at WNBA games.

He’s the man grooving to whatever music the DJ is playing and recruiting other WNBA parents to do the same. He’s the unofficial mascot hyping the crowd from his courtside seat and, at times, an impromptu coach when his team is in a rut.

Most importantly, he’s the proud father of Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams, who has averaged 18.5 points per game during this playoff run. Whenever she scores, he holds an oversize cutout bearing his daughter’s face high above his head for all the crowd to see.

Don Williams, the father of Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams, holds up an oversize cutout bearing his daughter’s likeness as he celebrates during Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA semifinals against the Los Angeles Sparks on Sept. 19 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.

“He has definitely been this way always at all my games, doing the same thing,” Courtney Williams said. “But I love it. I feed off his energy when he’s over there clowning and jumping around and having a good time, then just telling me what I need to do and how I need to do it. It definitely keeps me going while I’m playing.”

Even after the Sun lost 94-81 to the Washington Mystics in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals to go down 2-1 in the series, Don and Courtney’s mother Michele were both in attendance to let their daughter know to keep her head up. That there’s another game to focus on, and they’ll be at that one too.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Kobe breaks down the play of Sun guard Williams

Kobe Bryant analyzes the performance of Connecticut Sun floor general, Courtney Williams, during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Watch the full episode of “Detail” on ESPN+.

For Williams, her father’s energetic spirit and extra antics on the sidelines are nothing new. In the Williams household, that was just Dad being Dad.

It was something that always kept Williams going as she developed her passion for basketball, which started at an early age while she played with other kids in her mother’s recreational league. When Courtney was around 7 years old, her father noticed that her skills were above average. Participating in a league where boys and girls played against each other, Courtney was already beating the boys.

“She’d just dribble that ball,” he said. “Nobody could stop her from scoring. I said, ‘Uh-oh! I got me one!’ ”

From there, Williams spent more time learning the game and falling deeper in love with the sport.

“[Basketball] was our recreational sport,” Don Williams said. “And we ran all the time. We’d run, run, run. I knew the skills were going to come because she had all the genes. Me and her mama had skills. I had no doubt about that. I just had to program her confidence.

“Early on I just thought, What am I going to put inside her head. [My kids] love and respect Daddy. Whatever Daddy says, it’s what it is. So I needed to put in her head that she’s the baddest, she’s the best. Can’t nobody beat her at nothing. Whatever it was, track or basketball, she always had it locked in her head that can’t nobody mess with her or beat her.”

That piece of advice stuck.

“When I was younger, he said, ‘Always be cocky, but be able to back it up,’ ” Williams said. “He told me that when I was little. ‘Don’t let people fool you and tell you that being cocky is a bad thing. Just as long as you back it up, you can do what you want to.’ ”

It was an attitude Williams would carry throughout her career at Charlton County High School in Georgia, where she once scored 42 points in a single game, breaking the school record her mother had set 22 years beforehand. The skills also transferred to her collegiate career at the University of South Florida, where Williams became the only player in USF’s history to compile 2,000 points (2,304), 900 rebounds (931) and 300 assists (318).

When Williams returned home during breaks and holidays, though, Don Williams continued to challenge his daughter. Only this time, Williams was better, faster, stronger.

“We had about a 4-mile run around the neighborhood and I would outrun everybody,” Don Williams said. “I told [Courtney], when she beat me in that run, then she’d be ready. The last time we did it, her second year of college, she made me look bad. That’s when I knew she was ready.”

In 2016, Williams was selected eighth overall in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury before being traded to the Sun two months later. She remains the highest WNBA draft pick in USF program history.

Williams has been making waves with her energy during her four seasons in the league. The 25-year-old was the second-leading scorer on the Sun this season, averaging 13.2 points per game. She also averaged 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.

Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams (center) uses a towel from her father, Don (right), after being hit in the mouth during Game 2 of the 2019 WNBA semifinals against the Los Angeles Sparks. The Sun swept the Sparks to advance to the WNBA Finals against the Washington Mystics.

Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Tuesday night, the Sun will face the Mystics with their season on the line, but they can count on Don Williams grooving to some beats, waving a giant cutout high above his head and giving his daughter the confidence she needs.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

“I know there are a lot of people who don’t have their fathers in their lives,” Williams said, “but I’m blessed to have him and my mom both very present.”

O.J. Simpson’s first months on Twitter show why he’ll never leave the public eye For a man who’s been famous most of his life, and loathed for the last quarter century, abstaining from public notoriety was never an option

Football icon. Movie star. Pitchman. Father. Spousal abuser. Stand-up comedy fodder. Family Guy character. Disgraced author and accused killer. Social media personality is just the latest in a lifetime of hats that O.J. Simpson has donned.

The 72-year-old former tailback now spends his days filter-free at Las Vegas golf courses, restaurants and presumably his place of residence, waxing poetic about the world from his Twitter handle @TheRealOJ32. “If you don’t see it here,” his Twitter bio reads, “I didn’t say it.” His account is unverified, although the disturbing charm in his tagline — “Hey, Twitter world. It’s yours truly.” — essentially serves as his own blue check.

He has more than 912,000 followers. Of the 24 accounts he follows, most are sports-related, such as television networks, his former teams and, ironically, the Heisman Trophy. Simpson also keeps timeline tabs on running backs Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson, Eric Dickerson, Chris Johnson, Jamal Lewis and Terrell Davis.

The Undefeated Roundtable: Justin Tinsley debates O.J. Simpson’s Twitter relevance and advice to Antonio Brown with Lonnae O’Neal and Domonique Foxworth

“I laughed for 20 minutes when I found out O.J. joined Twitter. If you ever wanted to know when it’s time to leave Twitter, this was it,” said comedian Roy Wood Jr. “It’s like when your mom added you on Facebook and you were like, ‘I want to avoid that nonsense.’ ”

Welcomed or not, since Simpson created his account in June, his topics have been on-brand and peculiar: the Democratic presidential debates, fantasy football, free speech, Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon’s holdout, trolling the Miami Dolphins’ front office and more.

Just last week, Simpson filmed himself at a golf course offering wide receiver Antonio Brown legal advice that would’ve been hilarious if it weren’t so sobering. More than 1.6 million people watched him say, “They told me that when you’re in a civil or criminal litigation, and you’re the person they’re coming after, the best thing you can do is say nothing. Be quiet. Essentially shut up.”

Like his critique of Brown, Simpson’s most interactive tweets come when he addresses polarizing sports topics. Especially when he aligns them with his imploding fantasy team that features the recently retired Andrew Luck (and Brown).

“You could have retired an hour and half ago, before I picked you in my fantasy picks. I mean, what did I do? I’ve been a fan of yours. Why would you do this to me? Come out of retirement,” Simpson told Luck on Aug. 24. The Luck tweet received 5.7 million views, 65,582 likes and 15,363 retweets.

Simpson uses Twitter by forgoing 240 characters for his own face. Watching his videos is an experience in moment-by-moment contradiction. He’s still charismatic. He’s as natural in front of the camera now as he was doing NFL sideline coverage or as Detective Nordberg in the Naked Gun comic film series alongside actor Leslie Nielsen. But you’re still reminded of what he’s done and what he’ll always be accused of doing.

His account is unverified — although the disturbing charm in his tagline — “Hey, Twitter world. It’s yours truly.” — essentially serves as his own blue check.

“He’s used Twitter almost exclusively for video content. It tells me a lot about how O.J. conducts himself in the public eye,” said Saida Grundy, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University. “It’s as though he’s auditioning to get back to being a sports commentator. He’s like, ‘This is my second wind, right?’ ”

As history has revealed, with Simpson, what’s seen in public is impossible to discuss without an examination of his personal life. Nearly 24 years have passed since Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995. Eleven years have passed since his conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. In October 2017, he was released from Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center.

Since then, Simpson has lived a tame life. And now it feels like he’s campaigning for reconsideration. As if he wants to make the social media generation question everything written and reported about him since 1994. Did I miss something? This is why he was so beloved?

“I don’t think a network is going to touch him,” said Jaia Thomas, a sports and entertainment lawyer based in Los Angeles. “I do think this is his way of positioning himself to do something else in sports or entertainment, but it’s going to have to be something he self-starts.

“Aside from his criminal activity, we can’t deny the fact that he is a personality. He does have that exuberance to him that can easily attract folks to follow him. Sometimes it just doesn’t take a lot for us to forget someone’s past, or to overlook them, for a 30-second video.”

Wood added: “He knows the game of football, he still might be able to tell you which wide receiver is gonna have a good game, but it ain’t gonna lead to [him] sitting next to Chris Berman and Tom Jackson breaking down games. O.J. needs to lay low.”

As Simpson stutter-steps his way through his curated timeline, it becomes clear that for a man who’s been famous most his life, and loathed for the last quarter century, abstaining from public notoriety was never an option.

Simpson uses Twitter by forgoing 240 characters for his own face. Watching his videos is an experience in moment-by-moment contradiction.

“I don’t think O.J. exists outside of the white public gaze, and he can’t stay away from that adoration,” said Grundy. “And when you have such an unrepentant history of domestic abuse in your private life, you rely upon the public to create the counter to that image. He still needs us to believe he’s the character called O.J. Simpson.”

Simpson didn’t construct this character all by himself, of course. American culture is obsessed with celebrities, and the nature of that obsession has changed since Simpson’s famous trial. The journal Cyberpsychology published a study stating that the thirst toward celebrity culture shifted between 1997 and 2007, credited to the expansion of the internet. In 1997, fame was ranked 15th out of 16 values when studying the sitcoms that 9- to 11-year-olds deemed popular, such as Boy Meets World and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A decade later, in shows such as Hannah Montana and American Idol, fame was the dominant value. Following it were achievement, image, popularity and financial success.

So the ground was already fertile for Simpson to flourish. An award-winning TV series (FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and documentary (ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America) both took his name through the ringer. More than 3.4 million viewers watched the premiere episode of Made In America, proof that the appetite for “The Story of O.J.” is insatiable. And Simpson has no issue satisfying the demand.

“I really do believe this is O.J. watching himself through us. I think he’s addicted to that,” said Grundy. “It’s like his own porn. He exists seeing himself being seen.”

Simpson’s Twitter account gained followers even as the debate around “cancel culture” has heated up — a conversation Simpson has been tied to well before the phrase became a permanent part of the public lexicon. In essence, this is the act of getting someone out of the paint or stripping a celebrity of their cultural cache. The idea has existed for decades, although the practice has come under debate as celebrity transgressions, both past and present, frequently play out on social media.

Criminal accusations against R. Kelly and Bill Cosby, for instance, barely scratched pop culture’s surface for years — until the Surviving R. Kelly docuseries released in January and a joke about the allegations against Cosby from comedian Hannibal Buress helped turn the tables into legal action.

Being canceled via social media doesn’t always equate to professional cancellation, though. Director Woody Allen continues to finance his own projects despite a decades-long allegation of sexually abusing his adopted daughter. Or witness the continued debate around Michael Jackson after the documentary Leaving Neverland detailed Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of two boys. Some believe it’s character assassination of a dead icon. Others grapple with rethinking everything they thought they knew about a man whose music defined multiple generations. “Cancel culture is not really canceling anyone,” said Grundy. “O.J. is not canceled, and he knows that.”

Wood makes a similar point: “O.J. Simpson has been canceled, re-canceled and triple-canceled and he’s just oblivious to it. He doesn’t acknowledge it,” he said. “If you ever wanted proof that you don’t necessarily have to obey cancel culture, it’s O.J.! O.J. just walks right back in like, ‘Nah, no big deal.’ ”

As Simpson continues to experiment with Twitter, what he won’t find is wide-scale empathy — if that’s a treasure he seeks. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever collectively decide to let bygones be bygones for Simpson. That would require that he acknowledge his past. At this point, there are 900,000 reasons that it’s difficult to envision he ever would.

Phoenix Suns star Deandre Ayton’s new Puma shoe pays homage to Bahamas For each pair sold, Puma will donate $25 to assist relief efforts following Hurricane Dorian’s destruction of the Caribbean island

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton has been quite busy the past few months. While working to build on a strong rookie campaign, during which he averaged a double-double (16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds) and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie first team, the 7-foot-1, 250-pound big man has shifted some of his focus off the court.

Ayton hails from the Bahamas, which was recently ravaged by Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that led to a reported death toll of 53 people (and counting), with more than 1,300 people still missing and an estimated $7 billion in damage to the home country of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft.

“Thank you to everyone for reaching out with their prayers and concern. It’s been a rough few days checking in on family and friends back home and thankfully everyone is OK,” Ayton, a native of Nassau, wrote on Instagram on Sept. 6, four days before Hurricane Dorian dissipated. “The damage back home is devastating and my heart goes out to my fellow Bahamians as we deal with the effects of Hurricane Dorian.”

In his Instagram post, Ayton pledged $100,000 to various relief efforts in the wake of the natural disaster and has since received support from the Suns, his teammates, local businesses, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, and now Puma.

In 2018, Ayton signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal as part of the German sportswear company’s return to basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. On Thursday, the brand released the Puma RS-X Deandre, Ayton’s own colorway of the 1980s-inspired silhouette. The lifestyle sneaker, which will be sold exclusively at Champs Sports for $120 a pair, marks Ayton’s first product collaboration with Puma and specifically pays homage to his native country in the design. Puma also announced that for each pair of the RS-X Deandre that is sold, the brand will donate $25 to assist relief efforts in the Bahamas.

Ahead of the shoe’s release, The Undefeated spoke with Ayton about what this moment means to him — and to the Bahamas.


How does it feel to have your first product collaboration with Puma, the RS-X Deandre?

Following Puma and wanting to be a part of Puma for a long time after growing up around the brand and wearing it at a young age, to now have my own personal shoe and design reflecting my signature style, it’s amazing. It’s a dream. It’s everything that somebody who’s in the business and industry would want. It’s a huge milestone.

How exactly did this opportunity come about?

Hard work. I worked my butt off, and with success comes individual accolades. This is one of the accolades that I accomplished.

What was the design process like, and how hands-on were you during it?

It started with the insoles. They’re like the beach. I love the beach, being from the Bahamas. The shoe also represents sand and a shore. Every time I’m in the Bahamas, I just feel free. No worry of nothing. And I have red in the shoe, which is my favorite color.

How do the colors incorporated into the design represent your home country?

There’s aqua blue, which is a part of the flag. That’s the only thing I really want to put in it to make it a magical shoe.

How important is it to you that for each pair of the shoe that’s sold, Puma will donate $25 to assist relief efforts in the Bahamas?

To have the support of a partner like Puma is awesome. I really appreciate everything they continue to do for me. This is just a huge step that they’re taking for me and my team to help out and do as much as we can for Hurricane Dorian relief.

How did you first hear about Hurricane Dorian, and what’s the past month been like for you?

My stepdad lives down there. He goes back and forth and was giving us updates about the weather and telling us to keep an eye on the hurricane. Growing up, we know what a hurricane is capable of. We know what the process of preparing for a hurricane. Sometimes the plan doesn’t go the way you want, unfortunately. So having flashbacks, it was just about sending prayers to all the families back home.

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Thank you to everyone for reaching out with their prayers and concern. It's been a rough few days checking in on family and friends back home and thankfully everyone is ok. The damage back home is devastating and my heart goes out to my fellow Bahamians as we deal with the effects of Hurricane Dorian. My family and I have been working to determine how best to support now and going forward. We’ll be pledging $100K toward various relief efforts while we continue to work through long term support with the NBA Family and my partners. We are also asking Suns fans and those in the Phoenix area to please join us Tuesday, September 10th  where we'll be working with the Suns to collect much needed supplies and donations. More details to come on time and location ASAP. Please give as much or as little as you can. Items to be collected: Toiletries, diapers, baby wipes, first aid kits, cleaning supplies, canned goods, box fans, leather work gloves, hand sanitizer, non-perishable food, water, generators (no clothes) and monetary donations. More info to come for those who can’t come out locally but wish to support. Thank you and blessing 🇧🇸🙏

A post shared by Deandre Ayton (@deandreayton) on Sep 6, 2019 at 12:05pm PDT

What specific memories do you have experiencing hurricanes while growing up in the Bahamas?

I definitely remember Hurricane Katrina. I remember my favorite tamarind tree going down in front of my eyes, and I was singing, ‘Rain, rain, go away’ with my little sister, looking outside the window. I’ve seen the rooftops of certain houses blown off, and certain objects flying in the air while the storm is going. It’s pretty wild. You see trees bending so far until they’re ready to snap. It’s a lot.

What type of support have you received from the NBA following the hurricane?

Last night, my coach, Monty Williams, donated $5,000 to UNICEF’s Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. We did a collab with Ocean 44 [restaurant]. The Suns set that up and got a dinner done. People donated about $47,000 that night, which was a huge blessing. I didn’t know it was going to be that much. To be honest, I didn’t know that many people were gonna come out. It was big. I was speechless seeing the results. And Fry’s Food Stores helped me collect and donate goods. The Valley is really supportive, and I’m just glad to have fans like this have my back.

Have any specific players helped you provide relief?

Kelly Oubre Jr. …. He’s doing a Valley Boyz [clothing line] pop-up shop here in Phoenix, and everything is going to Dorian relief. That’s something big. He surprised me with that one. He didn’t tell me. It gave me goose bumps to see how much love people have for me.

Do you plan on returning to the Bahamas?

Of course I would love to go back. But right now, I’m just focused on the season and doing what I can from here.

Looking back to last year, what made you sign with Puma when you entered the NBA?

Everybody knew what Puma was back home. And me, I wanted to be different. I grew up playing in AAU circuits like the Nike EYBL, and I knew who the superstars were with certain shoe companies. But I just wanted to be different. I wanted to go my own way and try to be the top dog of Puma hoops.

What was your first-ever pair of Pumas?

I can’t remember exactly … but the person who inspired me was Usain Bolt, watching him on TV representing Puma. I think that’s mainly how I got into it. I fell in love from there.

On Instagram, you posted a photo of you giving Usain Bolt a pair of your Pumas — what was that moment like?

You gotta ask me if I was even speaking English when I was talking to him. I was so nervous. I just told him how much he inspired me in terms of collaborating with Puma, and how much of an inspiration he is in terms of his work ethic and how he represents his country from the heart. Everything he does is from the heart, even how athletic and versatile he is.

How big is he in the Caribbean?

You might as well call him the president of the Caribbean. But he’s global. I think he’s like that everywhere he goes, to be honest.

What can the NBA expect from Deandre Ayton in year two?

Improvement. I’ve been in the lab. I can say this, I’ve never been in the gym so much my whole life.

What’s the most notable improvement you’ve made to your game?

Definitely the 3-ball. I’ve worked on it a lot, as well as bringing the ball up and handling the ball around the perimeter. I’m just really trying to take over every possession. Overall, being more dominant every game.

What’s it going to be like walking into Talking Stick Resort Arena this season in your own Pumas?

Man, they just better take a picture. I don’t care what I’m wearing … just take a picture of my feet and I’m good. I’ll just post that. … That’ll be my postgame pic.

Do you think your fellow Bahamians will like the Puma RS-X Deandre?

Most definitely! I didn’t show our flag too much, but I put our aqua blue in there and I put our beaches in there. Nice, clear blue ocean, nice sand. … They better like it!

When Ali met Marciano in a battle of undefeated heavyweights The two champs met for a ‘Super Fight’ put together by a DJ and a computer

On the morning of his 1967 fight against Ernie Terrell in the Houston Astrodome, Muhammad Ali sat in his hotel room watching a film of Rocky Marciano challenging Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight title 15 years earlier. Ali leaned forward, his head cradled in his hands, watching intently until a bloodied and trailing Marciano knocked Walcott out in the 13th round with a short, emphatic right. Then Ali turned to his manager, Angelo Dundee.

“Angelo, the man’s tough,” said Ali, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated. “He’d be hell to fight. I’d wear him at the end of my glove for 10 rounds but he’d still be coming. Meanwhile, I’d be tired — maybe too tired to dance — and Rocky would be throwing punches … that wouldn’t be no fight — that would be a war.”

Marciano was already the heavyweight champ in 1954 when a 12-year-old Ali took up boxing after having his bicycle stolen. At night, the boy would listen to his transistor radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and hear Don Dunphy’s staticky voice from faraway Madison Square Garden, announcing Marciano as the heavyweight champ-eee-on of the world.

“The Super Fight” lobby card between Rocky Marciano (left) and Muhammad Ali (right) was shot in 1969 and released in 1970.

LMPC/Getty Images

In 1969, two years after Ali beat Terrell, the champ found himself in the ring with Marciano in one of the more bizarre fights in the annals of boxing. Ali was 27 years old and 29-0. Marciano was 45 years old and had retired 13 years earlier with a perfect 49-0 record, including 43 wins by knockout — history’s only unbeaten heavyweight champ.

The “Super Fight,” as it was billed, was fake, the concoction of a Miami promoter and disc jockey, Murray Woroner. If computers could help put a man on the moon, why couldn’t they predict the outcome of a match between two unbeaten champions from different eras? Woroner fed the fighters’ statistics into a computer, which spit out a script of different fight scenarios that Ali and Marciano were paid to reenact in a film studio in North Miami. The resulting film was edited and shown in movie theaters across the country and overseas, the outcome kept a closely guarded secret, even to the fighters.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

Marciano had been a quiet conformist during his career, suppressing his anger toward a manager who stole from him and the Mafia that secretly controlled his career, along with most of professional boxing. He had served in the Army during World War II and became a symbol of American might during the Cold War, with a punch his manager compared to the atomic bomb.

Ali and Marciano seemed like polar opposites, the Great White Hope from the ’50s and the Angry Black Man from the ’60s.

At the time, Ali was one of the most hated men in America, not the folk hero he would later become. During his pummeling of Terrell in 1967, he had screamed at him, “What’s my name?” because Terrell had called him by his former “slave name” of Cassius Clay, as did most sportswriters. He hadn’t fought in more than two years and was locked in a battle with the federal government after refusing to fight in Vietnam, famously declaring, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.

If this fight film was made possible by the new age of technology, promoters played up racial and ethnic stereotypes that had always characterized boxing to hype the gate. Newspapers frequently carried stories that Marciano was considering coming out of retirement, including one report shortly after Ali took the title that a wealthy Texan had offered Marciano $4 million ($34 million today) to silence the loudmouthed young champ.

Shortly before Ali and Marciano met in Miami that summer, a federal judge had ordered Ali to serve five years in prison for refusing induction into the U.S. Army. He remained free on appeal, and in desperate need of funds. “I was in the deep freeze part of my exile, and there was no thaw in sight,” he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest.

Marciano, who had let himself go in retirement, had gone back into training, lost 50 pounds and donned a toupee to mask his receding hairline. At 5 feet, 10 inches, he was dwarfed by the 6-foot-3 Ali, who was 20 pounds heavier. But Ali, who hadn’t fought in two years, looked flabbier. (I was able to recreate those sessions by interviewing two people who were there: Peter Marciano, Rocky’s brother, and Ali’s then-wife Belinda, now Khalilah Ali. I also found, in the archives of Sports Illustrated, a lengthy memo from a Time reporter who had interviewed other eyewitnesses at the time of the film’s release.)

A ticket for “The Super Fight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Archive PL/Alamy Stock Photo

Over the course of filming, the two champs sparred more than 70 one-minute rounds. They acknowledged that it was just playacting. They never clinched and seldom went for the head. But sometimes things got real. Ali would flick his lightning-quick jabs in Marciano’s face, prompting him to walk back to his corner muttering, “My God, the kid is so fast.” Ali delighted in flicking Marciano’s toupee off. An angry Marciano trapped Ali in a corner and pounded on his arms, then smashed a right to his solar plexus. “Ooof,” Ali exhaled, sinking to his stool. The taping stopped. Ali refused to continue until the promoter sent a driver to the bank to bring him another $2,000. One night they went out to dinner and ran into comedian Henny Youngman, who came over to their table and joked around. Ali’s arms were so sore that he had trouble lifting the saltshaker.

Staging knockdowns was tricky. Marciano had been knocked down only twice in his career, Ali not at all up to that point. Both had to be coaxed to take a dive for the cameras. During one take, Ali shouted, “Drop the Wop” and hit Marciano, who fell to the canvas, took out his mouthpiece and roared with laughter. When it was Marciano’s turn, he teased a reluctant Ali by parodying him: “The onliest way I can be beat by any man is to knock me out.”

During a break one day, the conversation turned to the country’s racial divide and the riots that had swept the country. They sat on the floor next to the ring, sharing a bag of grapefruit. Ali would tear off a section and pass it to Marciano.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was something we could do, me and you together, a white guy and a black guy?” said Marciano.

They talked about doing a bus tour of inner-city neighborhoods. Ali got excited.

“Imagine, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano, going into the worst areas,” he said. “We could shake up the world, you and me. Would you do it? Would you do it?”

Marciano said he would. He encouraged Ali to hang tough in his fight with the Army. Marciano had a secret about his own struggle with the Army that he never shared with Ali but which I unearthed from old Army records. His patriotic image as a soldier who served in World War II concealed the fact that he and another GI had been court-martialed for robbing and assaulting two British civilians shortly before D-Day. He never deployed to Normandy but instead served two years as a military prisoner.

Marciano had never been comfortable with authority, nor with the mantle of Great White Hope. He forged close relationships with black fighters, including his boyhood idol, Joe Louis. (He cried after knocking out Louis in Madison Square Garden to end Louis’ career and advance his own.) Marciano told Ali about his Italian-American family’s struggles after settling in the shoe factory town of Brockton, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists and laborers, had been arrested on the Brockton trolley and executed in 1927, when Rocky was 3 years old, for a robbery and murder they didn’t commit. Politicians called Italians “a race of pickpockets” and “unfit foreigners.” Congress banned immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

“People fear change,” Marciano told Ali.

The Ali-Marciano bus tour never happened. A few weeks after they parted, on Aug. 31, Marciano climbed into a Cessna in Chicago, bound for Des Moines, Iowa, and a party at a steakhouse owned by the nephew of a mob pal. The plane crashed in a cornfield in Iowa, killing everyone on board. Ali cried when he heard the news.

The following winter, The Super Fight aired in more than 600 theaters across America. Woroner had filmed seven different endings. In the first screening, a bloodied Marciano, trailing on points, knocked out Ali in the 13th round. Later, when the film was shown in Europe, Ali won. The fight looks phony. There are no spectators, just an eerie darkness surrounding the ring, with the sound of piped-in crowd noise. It’s as if the two men have been abducted by aliens and are fighting on a spaceship in outer space.

“He was the onliest one that would’ve given me some trouble,” Ali said shortly after attending Marciano’s wake. Later, Ali said that he felt closer to Marciano during their sparring sessions than he ever did to any other white fighter.

“Our work was phony,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But our friendship became real.”

The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.