Nike brings Giannis Antetokounmpo’s favorite film to life with ‘Coming to America’-inspired sneaker ‘It’s a nod to Giannis’ background — his true journey’

At the beginning of the 18-month design process of NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first sneaker — the Zoom Freak 1 — Nike’s product team wanted to get to know its newest signature basketball athlete as well as possible. So, during an initial brainstorming session at the brand’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, in the fall of 2017, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar was peppered with every question imaginable, from, What’s your favorite food? to What’s your favorite movie?

“Giannis said his favorite movie was the ‘Prince Akeem movie’ … and we were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” recalled Kevin Dodson, Nike’s global vice president of basketball footwear. Eventually, Dodson and his team figured out what the native of Athens, Greece, meant. “We’re like, ‘Oh … Coming to America.‘ He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what you call it here. We don’t call it that. We call it the Prince Akeem movie.’ It kind of inspired us, honestly, on a bigger narrative that was about his journey coming to America.”

Nearly two years later, Antetokounmpo’s favorite movie has come to life on his own shoe. Nike Basketball delivers its first international signature athlete a Coming to America-inspired Zoom Freak 1, “embellished with animal print and rich gold accents to mimic the royal garb worn by Prince Akeem upon his formal entrance to the U.S.,” according to a Nike news release. The brand officially collaborated with Paramount Pictures for the release of the sneaker that hit retail on Friday for $120 a pair, along with an apparel collection that features a hat, track jacket, T-shirt and shorts.

As part of the rollout of the shoe, Nike also swapped out America star Eddie Murphy for Antetokounmpo in a recreation of one of the original posters for the movie, which debuted in theaters on June 29, 1988, the day after the 1988 NBA draft. Halfway across the world three years later in 1991, Antetokounmpo’s parents, Charles and Veronica, emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria, to Athens, where he was born in 1994, and raised along with his brothers.

Though the Antetokounmpo family couldn’t afford certain luxuries like cable, Antetokounmpo and his brothers discovered Coming to America during their childhood and fell in love with the film. It tells the story of Prince Akeem Joffer (Murphy), heir to the throne of the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda, who travels to Queens, New York, with his loyal servant and best friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) hoping to find true love with a woman who could be his queen. In a weird way, there are some parallels between the journeys of both the fictional Prince Akeem and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

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In 2013, Antetokounmpo traveled to Brooklyn, New York, with his older brother Thansasis, hoping to be drafted into the NBA. And similar to Prince Akeem — who in Coming to America ultimately falls in love with and marries Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) — Antetokounmpo got his happy ending. He was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Since then, he’s evolved into a three-time All-Star, the 2019 league MVP, and now has a signature sneaker — with a special edition dedicated to his favorite movie.

“It’s a nod to Giannis’ background — his true journey,” Dodson said.

Nike has also teased additional models of Coming to America-themed Zoom Freak 1s, including a “Soul Glo” colorway. (Fun fact: The Jheri curl worn in the movie by Eriq La Salle’s character Darryl Jenks, as well as the fictional Soul Glo franchise was directly inspired by then-Los Angeles Clippers forward and current Oklahoma City Thunder announcer Michael Cage.) Different flavors of Coming to America Zoom Freak 1s should drop before the arrival of the long-awaited sequel to the movie. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that the Coming to America sequel is, in fact, happening, with a scheduled release date of Aug. 7, 2020.

The question is, will Antetokounmpo make a cameo in the new movie. Perhaps as Prince Giannis from a kingdom in Nigeria. At the very least, Prince Akeem and Semmi should definitely rock pairs of Zoom Freak 1s. Make it happen, Paramount. Do it for the culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Matthias Clamer/FX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle’s Puma partnership was strong and authentic He repped the iconic brand as an accomplishment for his city and its people


Nipsey Hussle wears Puma gear while hosting a party at Gold Room in Atlanta on April 7, 2018.

Prince Williams/WireImage

“See my granny on a jet, some s— I’ll never forget / Next day we flew to Vegas, with my Puma connects”

Nipsey Hussle, “Racks in the Middle” (feat. Roddy Ricch & Hit-Boy)


On Christmas Day 2017, Nipsey Hussle pulled up to Staples Center in style. For a game between his beloved hometown Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 6-foot-3-inch Hussle broke out a throwback Magic Johnson jersey that he paired with some fresh Puma Suedes in a Lakers purple colorway, with gold stripes and white laces. As he watched the game from courtside with partner Lauren London, cameras snapped photos of his kicks.

“It’s more of a realistic partnership outside of just cutting a check and supporting product. It’s a deeper, more dynamic relationship.” — Nipsey Hussle

Yet Hussle wasn’t just showing off a new pair of shoes. He was actually teasing a major move that he and Puma had been working on for the new year. In mid-January 2018, the West Coast MC arrived at L.A.’s Power 106 for an appearance on The Cruz Show. And with him, he brought a stack of paper and a pen. Before the interview began, Hussle had something huge to share.

“We announcing our partnership with Puma,” he said live on air. “It’s a big situation. We’re gonna be doing co-branding products with my company, The Marathon Clothing. Obviously, I’m gonna be an endorser of the brand … and, you know, it’s gonna be multilayered. So big shout-out to Puma! … I’m ’bout to ink this paperwork right now. Let me put my signature on here … don’t show the amount!”

The deal represented a strategy and willingness on the part of Puma to put on for the culture by embracing the most respected figures in music and entertainment. Hussle joined fellow brand ambassadors such as Rihanna, The Weeknd, Big Sean, Meek Mill and Jay-Z (who became the creative director of Puma basketball in June 2018). But truly, nobody repped Puma quite like Hussle. It was apparent how much pride he took in being a part of the iconic brand that had become a staple of lifestyle footwear and apparel.

Puma sweatsuits and sneakers became as essential to Hussle’s everyday swag as his straight-back braids, picked-out beard and body mural of tattoos.

Puma sweatsuits and sneakers became as essential to Hussle’s everyday swag as his straight-back braids, picked-out beard and body mural of tattoos. He rocked Puma during shows, on private jets and, of course, in photo shoots for the brand’s ads. But most importantly to Hussle, the partnership led to collaboration within the community he so tirelessly sought to positively impact. With his Puma partners, Hussle designed and sold special-edition Puma products, from T-shirts and hoodies to pairs of Clydes, at his The Marathon Clothing store on Slauson Avenue in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles. It was outside of this store that Hussle was shot and killed on March 31 at the age of 33.

As the community of L.A. and the worlds of music and sports mourned the death of the man born Ermias Asghedom and known as Nipsey Hussle tha Great, so did Puma.

“We’re extremely saddened by the passing of Nipsey Hussle,” the Puma brand said in a statement. “Beyond being a part of the Puma family, Nipsey was a talented musician, father, entrepreneur, community leader and inspiration to us all.”

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Unlike some celebrity endorsers, Hussle had a genuine connection with Puma. The artist often made that known. “It’s not a one-way situation,” Hussle told brand consultant Ray Polanco Jr. during 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. “It’s … more authentic. … It’s more of a realistic partnership outside of just cutting a check and supporting product. It’s a deeper, more dynamic relationship.”

Hussle noted that the shoe wouldn’t be personally branded. Instead, it would represent his store, and by extension his city and its people.

Hussle’s deal with Puma came at a very pivotal time in his life and career. A month after signing with the brand, he delivered his first and only studio album: the long-awaited, Grammy-nominated and now classic Victory Lap, which dropped during NBA All-Star Weekend last year in his city of Los Angeles. On his Instagram throughout 2018, Hussle primarily posted about three things. He encouraged folks to cop his album, promoted Marathon Clothing and showed Puma love that the brand always reciprocated. Hussle also became the face of multiple brand campaigns, including one for a collab on a collection with COOGI and another for the relaunch of the 1980s-era Puma California. “An L.A. classic,” the ad on display at Foot Locker read, “reborn on Nipsey Hussle.”

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THE MARATHON X PUMA 🏁

A post shared by Nipsey Hussle (@nipseyhussle) on Jun 7, 2018 at 11:09am PDT

In October 2018, Hussle collaborated with Puma to refurbish and vividly repaint the basketball courts at 59th Street Elementary School, as well as donate $10,000 on behalf of the brand and The Marathon Clothing store, where Puma Clydes with “TMC” featured on the tongues first went on sale last summer.

“The various programs he founded and led in his neighborhood of Crenshaw will have a lasting impact on generations to come,” Puma continued in its statement after Hussle’s death. “He will be deeply missed, and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones.”


When DeMarcus Cousins returned to the court in January, nearly a year after rupturing his Achilles tendon, the four-time NBA All-Star played his first game back with the Golden State Warriors wearing a Nipsey Hussle-inspired player exclusive that included the phrase “The Marathon Continues” on the midsoles. The following day, Puma threw a party for Hussle to celebrate his 2019 Grammy nomination. The brand even commissioned sneaker customizer Mache to create 36 pairs of special Puma RS-X Trophies that Hussle could give to the people who helped the album come to life. The event was hosted almost a year to the day that Hussle signed with the brand.

That fruitful first year of partnership paved the way for even stronger commitment from Puma to the rapper turned brand ambassador, which he revealed (again on Power 106) in what is now one of his final recorded interviews, this time on the L.A. Leakers program. Hussle announced a new deal for 2019 that would yield multiple co-branded collections with The Marathon Clothing, the first of which was scheduled to drop this fall and include apparel, accessories and a sneaker. But Hussle also noted that the shoe wouldn’t be personally branded. Instead, it would represent his store, and by extension his city and its people.

“It won’t be no Nipsey Hussle Puma shoe,” he said. “It’ll be a Marathon Puma shoe.”

Hopefully, this marathon of a partnership continues. We need that collection, and that sneaker, in memory of the late, great Nipsey Hussle — one of the realest, ever.

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.

Black graduates celebrate for ourselves, our families and the culture, so leave us alone Our celebrations are ones of hope, release and immeasurable joy that sometimes can’t be contained

May 20, 2018, will be enshrined in my memory.

That’s the day I, along with more than 400 of my Morehouse brothers, start the rest of our lives. Families will cry, laugh, celebrate and everything in between. All the late nights, epic battles with financial aid and seemingly spiteful teachers have led to the very moment that our names are called. In the very brief interval of time it takes to walk across the graduation stage and shake hands with whoever is presiding, I expect to see strolls, hops, re-enactments of iconic memes and much more.

It’s a very brief yet monumental moment that belongs solely to the student.

Or at least it should.

For a number of black students who graduated from the University of Florida on May 7, this special moment was taken from them. After being assigned the job of “monitoring the flow of graduates,” a university faculty member took it upon himself to forcibly remove 21 primarily black graduates mid-celebration. White graduates, on the other hand, were permitted to do all sorts of gymnastics.

I was appalled. My heart immediately dropped because I knew how much preparation went into each celebration. The level of thought that college graduates have given to that moment is immeasurable.

For most of the class of 2018, graduation has been marked on our calendars for years. We’ve planned our outfits, decorated our caps and taken hundreds of graduation photos. The thought of receiving a diploma has been replayed thousands of times from the minute we stepped on campus; the celebration is just the cherry on top.

There’s a line in Jay Electronica’s “We Made It (Freestyle)” where he raps,

But they can’t relate to our struggle, my n—a
We came up from slavery
.

Based solely on the faculty member’s behavior, it’s evident that he lacked the empathy necessary to understand.

The celebration represents a battle cry, one designed to announce your presence to the world. In a society that has grown accustomed to seeing black men fail, graduating from a four-year college shows an unparalleled resiliency that runs deep within our veins.

We weren’t supposed to be here. For well over 300 years, my ancestors were brought here in chains against their will. They’ve survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Yet, the ramifications of racism can still be felt today, as evidenced by the 24 percent disparity between the graduation rates of blacks and whites.

Each graduate provides a sense of hope — specifically that our community is one step closer to achieving some level of racial equality, wealth and power. A diploma allows black students to remove a layer of the stigma that has been attached to us since birth. The celebration walk is a moment of release.

I appreciate the University of Florida president’s apology for the inappropriately aggressive treatment of the graduates, but it won’t erase the memory of being shoved offstage. My advice? Set a time limit. By no means is that unreasonable; thousands of students, regardless of race or gender, deserve to have their moment to shine. Consider giving a signal, not a shove, if students are taking too long.