LeBron James’ official DJ talks LBJ’s influence on music, the Midwest and more Steph Floss is the unofficial mayor of Cleveland

Cleveland native DJ Steph Floss texts me Wednesday morning that he’s outside my downtown hotel. Steph is a voice of the city, a longtime resident mixshow DJ on Z 107.9 who holds the dual distinction of being the official DJ of both his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and the team’s biggest star, LeBron James. His portfolio includes having spun at events for Jay-Z, Barack Obama, NIKE, Beats by Dre and a who’s who of A-list clientele with residences in cities all across the United States and into Canada. And from 2009-14, he was named Ohio’s Best Club DJ.

It’s hours before the Cavs’ heartbreaking Game 3 loss. A defeat that makes Friday night’s Game 4, a potential closeout game for the Golden State Warriors, all the more sobering. No one knows what to expect this offseason with James’ future with the Cavaliers — not even Floss, one of James’ closest friends. Or if he does, he’s not breaking his poker face.

Floss agreed to show me around his city for the day. It’s game day, so the first stop might just be the most important: the barbershop. En route to Supreme Barber and Salon in Cleveland Heights, Floss opens up about his love of travel. Perspective, he says, is key to developing a true appreciation for the world around you. He’s traveled the world for work, DJ’ing at clubs and stadiums around the world, and for pleasure. The opportunity is a testament to both his own work ethic and the blessings in his life.

“‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake.”

It’s been 15 years since his life as a DJ began on the campus of The Ohio State University on a marketing and operations scholarship. But music and the joy of entertaining crowds are seeds that had been planted far earlier. He credits the movie Juice, both for the late Tupac Shakur’s presence and, in particular, Omar Epps’ role as Q. “He was a young, fly dude. He’s DJ’ing. He got the nice little older babe,” Floss laughs while looking for parking. “He commanding the crowd. He’s cool and he’s out here. I’m like man, you know, I love music as well. Maybe that’s something I could do, but my mother would never buy me the equipment. She was like, ‘You not ’bout to have all that and be loud up in my house!’ ”

We pause that conversation and head into the barbershop. As is the case for most black men, it’s a safe space for Floss. He knows everyone. Everyone knows him. Demaris cuts his hair. Swiss lines me up. The conversations range from the upcoming Cleveland Browns season and the uncanny but fitting buzz in the city about the team and his overhaul of talent this offseason. Then there’s a completely random and hilarious homage to former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach and current NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy. “Jeff wanted all the smoke!” said a patron while discussing Van Gundy’s willingness to throw himself into NBA brawls.

After about an hour, Floss and I leave. The conversation picks back up where we really dive into his come up, how the Cleveland Cavaliers came calling and his kinship with LeBron James.

So how did this Steph Floss story ultimately begin? Where do the roots begin?

When I was in high school, a group of friends of mine, we used to throw parties. We were like 15 years old throwing parties and making good money. We would call ourselves all kinds of stuff, like Platinum Plus. But, you know, we had other people that was part of the collective as well. I wasn’t DJing at the time, but we used to throw the craziest little high school parties. (Floss attended Benedictine High School.) We’d have thousands of people there. It was insane. Me and Rich [Paul, founder of Klutch Sports and LeBron James’ agent], went to the same high school together. That’s how we met each other.

“One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down.”

I love school. I still love learning and I still love education. When I was in school, I was out here. I was in the nightlife and kicking it and partying. Hanging out and having fun. But I was also really into my books as well. Once I went to Ohio State, I said I have this scholarship and I don’t really wanna mess this scholarship so I’m gonna focus on my studies. But I needed to make some money.

I don’t have to pay for school, but I wanna make some money. And I don’t want to work a ‘job’ because I don’t want that to take away from my classes and sleep. I said, you know what? I always wanted to DJ. We had been throwing parties. So I’m just finally teaching myself how to DJ. I get the [equipment] and get busy. I’ve been wanting to DJ since I was like 8 years old.

Floss used money from the refund checks he received while at OSU to buy equipment. For Floss it was all about believing the part so others would too. The easiest way to do that? Release a mixtape. While on summer vacation after his freshman year, Floss built a makeshift studio in his mom’s basement. He set it up like a karaoke bar. The mic hung from the pipes in the ceiling and, as one would expect, the sound quality left much to be desired. “It was one of the best mixtapes I’ve ever done,” he says with a smile.

It was the closest Floss felt, at the time, to being like the DJ Clues, DJ Absoluts and the Funkmaster Flexes of the world, all of whom he cited as inspirations. But his first big moment came on campus after that summer. After his showing at a cookout at OSU’s Hale Black Cultural Center, the ladies of Delta Sigma asked him to DJ their big campus party known as the “Icebreaker.”

“They were like, ‘How much do you charge?’ I was like, ‘Uh, $150?’ ” says Floss. He didn’t know how much to charge because prior to them he had never been paid. “The first party I ever DJ’d was the biggest party at Ohio State. I think I did a decent job despite my equipment kept cutting off because it was overheating. I had my dudes with me. I had them fanning the amp while I’m DJ’ing for the rest of the night. I eventually got everything rolling, and the rest is kinda history.”

We’re pulling up at Beachwood Mall, an upscale shopping center in suburban Cleveland, when we transition to life after Ohio State.

How did the Cavs and LeBron come into the picture?

I was still living in Columbus. I would travel back and forth [to Cleveland] because we had a nightclub called The View that started popping up here. That was one of the dopest nightclubs ever. We had a crew called 8081 that we started doing the parties under. My guy Kelton, my guy Smallz, Meel, Mo, myself, Rich. They hit me up like we got this party Sunday night that we’re about to start doing. I would travel back and forth from Columbus to Cleveland and do the party. The first couple of nights it wasn’t making no money, but I saw something in it and I liked being home. I stuck with it. It ended up being one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Everybody that started off, right now we’re all brothers. Only thing that could make us closer is blood.

So I was doing that party and at the time my guy Mick Boogie was DJ’ing for the Cavs. I was part of his DJ crew, the League Crew. Mick didn’t talk on the mic, but I would talk on the mic when I was DJ’ing so I could host as well. Mick knew that, and he asked me to come host a party for him because his host was MIA or something. I was like, ‘Cool, yeah, I’ll come do that.’ I hosted the party and I kept doing it. As a result, me and Mick got closer and closer and I became part of the League Crew. It was me, Mick, Terry Urban and DJ Fresh.

Mick would do the Cavs games, so some games he’d just take me with him. I just noticed how he would be DJ’ing the games. The kinda music he’d be playing early in the games as opposed to late in the games as opposed to pregame.

It got to a point where these are Cavs games and they’re popping. I was basically coming to these games for free. What I started doing is I started getting to the games early to solidify I’m gonna get there and I would hook Mick’s equipment up. He’d come in and basically just be able to plug and play. I was very familiar with everything. Then Mick decided he wanted to move to New York. During this time, my relationship with ‘Bron became stronger and stronger. The whole crew, really. All of our relationships became stronger. Around this time, we had went to the Finals in 2007. At that point, we had all been around each other for some time. It’s crazy. Mick decided he wanted to move to N.Y. during the playoffs. He was outta there because he had a gig in N.Y. The Cavs needed a DJ for one of the playoff games, and Mick was just like, ‘Can you do it?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I can do it!’

One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down. It’s crazy because I was never nervous or anything like that. The time came for the new season, and it made the most sense [to hire me]. It was a real process to interview and all that.

Obviously, you’re working with the Cavs. LeBron’s LeBron. But how did you all grow to become so close?

Aight, so I met ‘Bron via Rich, but of course if you’re from northeastern Ohio you knew who LeBron James was. But we also had other mutual friends, and I remember they came down [to OSU]. ‘Bron was real cool with Maurice Clarett at the time, and that was my guy at Ohio State. Him and ‘Bron were seen as the next two superstar athlete friends that were gonna [dominate the NFL and NBA]. We met via all of these different channels and became cool. Then everybody just started advancing in their careers.

A lot of times people think since ‘Bron is like my brother, they think he’d be like, ‘That’s my guy, he’s gonna be DJ’ing.’ Nah, it didn’t work like that. ‘Bron is my guy, but I worked my way into it. I don’t get it anywhere near as much now, but at first it was like, ‘You just got that because of ‘Bron.’ I’m like, actually, I was going to Quicken Loans Arena setting up equipment early just to make sure I was in the arena so I could watch the game.

You’ve been doing this for 10 seasons?

This is how I count my years. Well, I was here for two years with ‘Bron. Then ‘Bron was gone four years and I was still here. Now he’s been back four years. So that’s 10. Then I sit back and think like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. It’s been 10 years.’ It’s been a roller coaster. Some super highs and some lows, but we still here and it’s been beautiful.

It’s in and out in Beachwood for Floss. We’re roughly six hours away from tipoff, and he still has to run by his office downtown at Spaces and Co., drop off some used clothes at the Goodwill, get a run in (he’s an avid runner) and grab a bite to eat. But you can’t have a name like ‘Floss’ and not be fresh. He runs into Next, a trendy apparel store with a hilarious sales expert named Trice who, as she dubs it, is “serving looks” all day.

After shopping and talking for nearly an hour, Steph ultimately decided on a deep pink champion hoodie and orange Carrots T-shirt. Trice jokes about pulling up the game tonight and Steph’s after-party at Lago, which overlooks Lake Erie. As we make our way back to Steph’s car, the topic of LeBron comes up. As with James, a notoriously caring person for those he considers his closest friends, Floss speaks highly of the four-time MVP.

He’s achieved success without LeBron. He’s made a name for himself without LeBron. But make no mistake about it, Floss’ appreciation for James’ friendship and the opportunities he’s helped make happen just through remaining true to each other is limitless.

“‘Bron’s put everyone in his crew to be successful without him,” Floss says while throwing his recently purchased items in the trunk. “That’s the best thing about him.”

Is it fair to call you “LeBron James’ official DJ?”

It was at a point when ‘Bron was in Miami. We’d go down to Miami and ‘Bron would be like, ‘You know how crazy it is that you’re the Cavs’ official DJ and my official DJ still?’ We would be joking and laughing about it, but as I’ve gotten older with nightclubs and everything [putting that] on publications and flyers — it’s in my bio and all of that stuff — they’ll send me over a flyer and it’ll be like ‘DJ Steph Floss—official DJ of LeBron James.’ I tell them you gotta take that man’s name off. You gotta put “Cleveland Cavaliers” because that man is the biggest entity in sports. Flat out. A lot of people try to finesse. Regardless how good I am or whatever, people are gonna try to finesse more people to the club or finesse a LeBron James situation at their event via that tagline.

You’re gonna try to make other people believe ‘Bron is coming out when he is not coming out. I’m the one that’s spinning! There’s been times where I popped up in a city and the Cavs have had a game and I had a gig. ‘Bron didn’t even know, and he’ll hit me up like, ‘What spot you at tonight?’ He’ll be like, ‘Cool, I’ll fall through.’ Or he might be like, ‘I’ma just chill.’ The club owner and the promoter’s mentality for a lot of spots are trying to capitalize and put some butts in the seats.

It gives people a false hope that everywhere you are LeBron is gonna be there.

That’s not fair to you. That’s not fair to him. That’s not fair to me. I’m not giving you that false hope! Like I said, in my younger years, yeah you can put that on there. That’s cool. But now I’m like nah, you gotta pay for that. You gots to pay for that!

What makes it so unique about LeBron that he’s so effortlessly entrenched in hip-hop culture?

The fact he’s from northeastern Ohio, as we all are, we’ve always had to pull from different coasts and different eras from music. I honestly think, and no disrespect to anybody else, Midwest DJs, and especially Cleveland DJs, are some of the best in the country. It’s because we’ve never really had a run for real. We’ve had Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but it’s a lot of areas with DJs who’ve had runs. Like Atlanta. They’ve had a crazy run, so their DJs could just play all Atlanta music during the set and they’ll be fine. West Coast, always have a run! New York had a run! Chicago, they’re Midwest, but Chicago had a run. Texas, they’ve had runs. New Orleans too! But we always had to know music from everywhere! If you hear a set from me or another Cleveland DJ, you’re gonna be like, ‘Yo, how do they know this?’ It’s because we have to. We couldn’t rely on just playing Bone all night! Or Ray Cash. You just can’t rely on playing our artists’ music because we never had a run of that magnitude.

Like with ‘Bron, we grew up listening to a lot of West Coast music. Especially those guys in Akron. They had ties with The Bay area, like E-40, Yukmouth, Too Short and people like that. Around here, man, we listen to a lot of West Coast music growing up. I was like the biggest Spice 1 and MC Eiht fan. We used to love that. We also have a huge connection with Texas with our music and their music. Their culture is kinda like us, and we’re kinda like them with the old-school cars and a lot of slang. Then, of course, we’re not far from the East Coast. You’d love the Biggies, the Jay-Zs. I grew up loving Mobb Deep. You would’ve thought I was from Queensbridge: Mobb Deep, Nas, AZ. I listened to everything!

So ‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake. It’s not like I’m just gonna put this song on my IG because this is what’s poppin’. This is what I like. You may like it or you may not, but this is what I’m listening to and this is what I think is poppin’. I think the artists understand that. He really knows his music.

His IG stories are basically the new listening sessions.

It’s an A&R-type situation! You’d be surprised how many people have asked me, ‘Can you get big homie this joint?’ I’m like, ‘That’s awkward, man!’ (laughs) Like I understand it, but it’s like I’ll tell him to listen to it and if he likes it he does what he does with it. It’s been times I’ve told LeBron such and such sent me the album early and I’ll send it over to you. He’ll listen to it and he actually liked the album, but he didn’t put anything up on his story. You can’t use him though. I’m letting you know the man liked the album. It is what it is. That’s what is authentic about him. And he has a good ear.

After a quick bite and a few more errands, we part ways until it’s time to link back up at Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3. As if the crowd needs any more reason for creating a raucous environment, Steph runs through a litany of high-energy hits: Ayo & Teo’s “Rolex,” Jeezy’s “Win,” Diddy’s “Victory,” Lil’ Reese, Rick Ross and Drake’s “Us (Remix)” and the modern-day holy grail of hip-hop motivational sermons in Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro).”

Unfortunately, all the energy in the world, yet another LeBron triple-double and a breakout performance from Rodney Hood wasn’t enough, as Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors inched one step closer to defeating the Cavs for the third time in the past four seasons. With the game ending closer to midnight, Steph lamented the moments missed in the game that could’ve turned Friday night’s Game 4 into a potentially series-tying contest. The night might have been over closer to midnight when the game ended. But for Floss, his night is only halfway done. He’s leaving work to go back to work for an after-party about a mile away.

It’s a grind he’s dedicated his life to since the days of poor-quality mixtapes at Ohio State. Just like LeBron, in his 15th season as well, Floss doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

San Diego Chargers rookie DB Derwin James: ‘It’s time to put on the pads. I’m ready to go’ But what happens when he plays his bestie Jalen Ramsey?

A month before commissioner Roger Goodell called his name on the opening night of 2018 NFL draft, Derwin James already had lofty praise to live up to. When cameras were rolling at Florida State University’s pro day on March 20, Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey delivered the ultimate co-sign of his former college teammate. “Top player in the draft this year,” Ramsey told the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. “Should go No. 1 overall, but you know how things go in the draft. You never know … top 5, top 10, top 15.”

In their final mock drafts, ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both projected James to be taken by Tampa Bay with the seventh pick. But the first 15 NFL teams to draft — the Buccaneers included — passed on the 6-foot-1 ¾-inch, 215-pound freak-of-athlete safety. That was until No. 17, when James fell into the laps of the San Diego Chargers. Despite dropping on the draft board, James is still oozing with confidence and swag. The Undefeated recently caught up with San Diego’s newly minted defensive back about his brand partnership with New Era Cap, his relationship with Ramsey, and why he changes his hairstyle so much.


How does it feel to finally be in the NFL?

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but I’m excited. I’m happy that I got the opportunity to finally live out my dream.

Heading into the draft, what team did you think would take you?

Tampa or San Francisco. After it went past them, I said, ‘OK, maybe I could be going to Green Bay.’ After Green Bay traded back, I thought, ‘I’m going to the Chargers.’

Was it nerve-racking, waiting?

It was crazy. I obviously thought I’d go earlier, but once I put on that New Era hat — that Chargers hat. It was an amazing feeling.

“I loveddddd fitteds, because my head was so big as a kid.”

You partnered with New Era ahead of the draft. Have you always been a hat guy?

Growing up, I was a fitted hat guy. Then they came out with the snapbacks, so I converted. But I loveddddd fitteds, because my head was so big as a kid. It would look weird sometimes when my mom would put other caps on me. We couldn’t ever find the right one to fit my head.

The draft cap is a big part of the experience — where will you keep yours?

My hat and my jersey, both of those I’m hanging on my wall. They’re gonna be in a case. Nobody can get to them.

How did you choose your draft outfit?

My favorite colors are red and black. And I went to Florida State, where our color is garnet. So I thought I’d do something along the garnet and red line. I wanted to be a little flashy. I talked to my suit man, and said, ‘Gimme something nice.’

You grew up in Florida, went to Florida State and will now be playing in San Diego — but what’s the coldest place you’ve ever been?

When I was in Green Bay on my visit, it was like 3 degrees. I was like, ‘Oh, s—!’ They told me it was a nice day — that sometimes it’s below zero. Say what!

Do you have any game day traditions or superstitions?

I’ve got my wristbands that I’ve been wearing since high school, and then I got some in college that I have to have on every game. But, for the most part, I just go with the flow.

“My dream scenario would be me, Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas. Nobody could complete a pass.”

You always post your ever-changing hairstyles on social media — how do you pick them?

I get a lot of feedback from my teammates on that. They say I have more hairstyles than women do. But I just like being different, being my own self. I don’t really try to copy anybody, or be anybody that I’m not. Being diverse and versatile is just the person I am.

Who’s the most famous person following you on social media?

Probably OBJ [Odell Beckham Jr.].

Take us back to the first time you met Jalen Ramsey — and how has your relationship with him grown over the years?

I met him when I was in high school. I’d already committed to Florida State in 2012, and I think he was just getting there. I built a relationship with him on visits, and he told me he … was going to take me under his wing. And then when I got there, he stuck to his word. Our relationship grew over the years, and he’s like my brother.

Where were you heard Jalen call you the best player in this year’s draft — and how did it make you feel?

I was out in Cali training. When he said that, I wasn’t really surprised, but that was a big compliment coming from a guy like him.

Your dreams corps of defensive backs — who would they be?

My dream scenario would be me, Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas. Nobody could complete a pass.

“Now [my number is] 33, so you get Derwin James 2.0. Supercharged.”

Which quarterbacks are you most looking forward to facing this season?

S—, I wanna face all of them. I mean, I haven’t seen a quarterback damn near since October, November. The suit and tie — all of that is out the way. It’s time to put on the pads. I’m ready to go.

You wore No. 3 at FSU. Why No. 33 in San Diego?

Three is my favorite number, so I was thinking for the Chargers, I was just gonna supercharge it! Add another 3. Now it’s 33, so you get Derwin James 2.0. Supercharged.

What’s your favorite tattoo?

My Florida State tattoo … it’s on my left soldier. I got it in 10th grade, and it’s the most meaningful tattoo I have, besides my mom’s name.

Outside of football, who is your favorite athlete?

Floyd Mayweather.

Have you ever met him?

A couple times. He’s a great guy. The media tries to judge him, but he’s really down-to-earth. He’s a winner, he’s a competitor, and he comes from the struggle. One of my favorite people.

In the next five years, what can we expect from Derwin James?

I’m not gonna come in and promise no Super Bowls, but you’ll see a guy that’s gonna work his butt off. I just feel like I’m in a great situation and a great system around a lot of great coaches. The team was already great before I got here. I’m just tryna come in, do my job and hopefully we pull out some ball games together.

Any message to the teams that passed on you?

See you soon.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay teams up with Joe Biden to end domestic violence ‘I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise’

William Gay lives and breathes football. Like most cornerbacks in the NFL, his energy goes into pouring everything onto the field — especially since he’s a part of a playoff-caliber team like the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when game day is over, Gay’s energy goes toward advocating against domestic violence, a subject matter that hits close to home.

The 33-year-old turned the pain he’s been carrying since 1992 into motivation, all in the name of his late mother, Carolyn Hall, who was killed by her boyfriend when he was just 8 years old.

He’s been vocal about his personal journey in the past few years. Now he is partnering with former vice president Joe Biden in an initiative that will address these issues.

Thursday, the Biden Foundation named Gay to its Advisory Council, which focuses on ending sexual assault and violence against women, among other causes.

As an Advisory Council member, Gay joins a prominent group of leaders, experts and advocates who have been selected to serve as ambassadors for the Biden Foundation, guiding strategic partnerships to create societal change.

“I received a letter, and when I saw ‘Joe Biden’ on it, I’m like, ‘OK, this might be a false letter,’ ” Gay told The Undefeated. “But then my agent told me about it and then the NFL also told me about, so then I was like, ‘OK, it’s real.’ His ideas are similar to what I have going on, what my beliefs are, and trying to end domestic violence. I was glad he thought of me. I jumped at the opportunity — not as quick as I wanted to, because I got the invite during the season and I’m 100 percent about football. So I tried to focus in on the playoffs, but I was all excited for the opportunity to be invited on the advisory committee.”

A longtime champion for victims of domestic violence, Gay believes in the Biden Foundation’s commitment to bringing together diverse voices who can uniquely speak to groups that will change the culture.

On Friday, Gay and Biden will link up to discuss their commitment to empowering men and women alike to stop sexual assault on college campuses. The duo will speak at the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values Central 2018 in Indianapolis.

“We have to start engaging in conversations where we hold each other, and ourselves, accountable,” Gay said. “We hope to spur some of those discussions today and keep them going as we work toward a safer tomorrow.”

The Biden Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation established to carry on the former vice president and his wife’s lifelong commitment to public service. Through educational programming and public policy analysis, the foundation works to build a world where all people are equal in dignity and opportunity.

“It’s on all of us to change the culture on our college campuses, in our locker rooms and in our frat houses so that sexual assault is never accepted. We all must stand up and stop inappropriate behavior,” Biden said. “Men must be part of this solution and conversation. William understands what is at stake when we remain silent on abuse. He gets it and is using his platform to work to end domestic and sexual violence. That’s why I am so proud to have him join my foundation’s Advisory Council and partner with us as we work to create a culture where all live free from violence.”

Gay says he is eager to join this platform with Biden.

“This is all I’ve been preaching, for everybody to just come together and realize that this is dangerous,” Gay said. “You can talk about it, you can do something about it. It’s not embarrassing to let someone know or to try to help someone. The more you talk about it, the more you get people comfortable, that’s the first ring of trying to eliminate these problems.”

Gay’s crusade for ending domestic violence has all been in the name of his late mother.

“What drives me is my mother’s story, and this is a way, one, to keep her voice alive; two, just to help someone who is either in their situation or as a child in the same situation, give that encouragement that there are better things out there in the world. As a kid, there’s no like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is over because I don’t have parents.’ And for anyone who is in that violent situation or the sexual assault situation, there are people out there who would help. I don’t think my mom knew people that would help, because this was back in 1992. This is my way of allowing her story to stay alive, her to be alive, and also her story helps someone else.”

After Hall was killed, her boyfriend shot himself. Gay and his three siblings were raised by his grandmother Corine Hall.

“From 8 to about 12-13, I just felt like I was alone, didn’t care,” Gay said. “Even though my grandmother took me and my two brothers in, I just felt like a loner, because when you go to school, you see kids’ parents picking them up, and I didn’t have that opportunity. So I was just against everything.”

Gay says the hardest part of his journey is not having his mother around for major accomplishments.

“I had a loving family. My grandma did what she could to make sure that we felt loved, but it’s just those milestones. The high school graduation, the picking my college, the graduating from college, to getting drafted, going to the Super Bowl and, you know, just all these accolades that I attained and, you know, she wasn’t present. And I know if she was here, she would be front row or even on the stage with me.”

Gay’s uncle was his role model growing up.

“He was just blunt,” Gay said. “He said, ‘If you keep on this path, or being mad at the world, or wanting to being a bad child or thug, or what have you, you’re going to end up dead or in jail. You’re also not going to be able to play football.’ I was 12 years old, but it stuck with me through every journey in my life.”

He said he had a “whole team” of people, including family, teachers and coaches, who took him in.

“[They] saw the potential in me and knew that I needed just a little help to get where I’m going,” Gay said.

Football helped Gay manage his feelings, and he found a safe haven in the sport. It’s been so much a part of his life he doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a football.

“Probably 2, 3 …,” he said. “Football was always in our family. My older brother played, my uncles played. Just sports in general because where we were living, you weren’t staying in the house, you had to go outside. As long as it was hot in Florida, we played football. I officially started loving the game when I was 9 or 10. That was a safe place for me. That was my safe haven for me, even at a young age. I just knew when I went out there, I got away from problems. I didn’t have to think about I don’t have a mom. I’m out here having fun, and I’m competing.”

From this experience with Biden, Gay wants the public to focus on the outcomes and beating the odds of domestic violence than dismal statistics surrounding the subject.

“I always tell people I ain’t big on numbers. I love math, but when it comes down to statistics, I beat those odds, so I don’t even talk about statistics. What I talk about is real-life numbers, examples of people who’d been through it. That’s what I want people to get out. This is not coming from a book. This is coming from a written life, and I just want the realness of it, and that’s what people who are going through it want to see. They don’t want to see, ‘Oh, well, this doctor, he has five different degrees, or this person has eight different degrees and they’re telling me this and that, but they don’t really know what I’m going through.’

“I’ve been through that struggle, still going through that struggle, and I know what it takes to try to rise or take the right path.”

How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.


It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.


Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”


Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”


The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Jeff Green is flourishing as a Cleveland Cavalier He came back from heart surgery to run with Tyronn Lue and The King

To say that Jeff Green has a newfound appreciation for life would be a complete understatement. His outlook has changed almost completely since January 2012, when the 6-foot-9 forward, then a member of the Boston Celtics, underwent open-heart surgery at the age of 25 after a routine physical revealed an aortic aneurysm.

Green sat out for most of the 2011-12 season. But nine months after successful surgery, he returned to play in Boston’s season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 30, 2012. “It’s something that’s true and dear to my heart — the way I battled to get back on the court and still play at a high level,” Green said. “A lot of people counted me out, and didn’t think I’d be able to come back. So I’m truly grateful for the work that I put in.”

Now 31, Green is experiencing another revival. Last summer he signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Cavaliers in an effort to reunite with one of his former coaches, Tyronn Lue, learn from LeBron James, and achieve a career goal: the NBA Finals. Before Cleveland’s 106-99 win over the Washington Wizards on Dec. 17 at the Capital One Arena, where Green played during his three-year career at Georgetown University, he talked about loving his Hoyas (and hating Syracuse). He revealed which rapper (yes, rapper) would play him in a movie. And he opened up about why life, and basketball have become so much more precious.


How often do you get a chance to watch the Hoyas play?

Whenever they play earlier, because most of the time when they play late, it’s on my game day. I’ve seen quite a few games this year.

Where were you when you found out Patrick Ewing was hired as Georgetown’s head coach?

I was probably home in Miami, my house where I stay in the offseason. There were rumors … speculation that he’d get the job. I was hoping he did, to keep it in the Georgetown family. It’s a good move for him. He’s going to put them in the position to get back to glory. It was tough when coach Thompson left, because they lost a lot of recruits. I give it a year or two before they’re back on top.

“The hate for Syracuse will always be there. That will never change.”

Who’s on the Mount Rushmore of Georgetown players?

Man … you got Ewing to start, Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, for sure, Dikembe Mutombo. For me, being a D.C. guy, Victor Page is a guy I’ll recognize because he’s from the area. And myself! Georgetown has some great history, and some great players that came through … David WingateSleepy Floyd!

You’re a member of the Cavs, but Georgetown is your alma mater. So, which team do you hate more — Golden State or Syracuse?

The hate for Syracuse will always be there. That will never change. Some things you can’t control in the NBA, as far as trades and all that. You never know … as far as placement. But there’s hate for Syracuse, because of the history. I have a couple good friends who went to Syracuse — Kris Joseph, Scoop Jardine, Carmelo Anthony, Hakeem Warrick — and it’s always bragging rights when the two teams play.

Why the Cleveland Cavaliers?

For one, what they did in the last couple years, as far as making it to the Finals. That’s something I wanna experience. The opportunity to play alongside LeBron James, to learn, to grow, to better my game — I thought that could help. With T. Lue being the head coach, and he and I having a past, being in Boston together, him knowing how to put me in positions to succeed — I was looking forward to that. I know him very, very well, and he knows me very well. I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to revive my career … and it’s been great so far. I was very blessed, and very thankful when they called.

What’s one thing not many people know about LeBron James that you’ve come to learn since joining the Cavs?

Everybody knows who LeBron is. He’s a hard worker. He goes into practice and puts in the work to be who he is. He’s a big, big joker. He’s a very, very humble human, which people may not [believe] because of the position he’s in. He’s a people person. He clowns a lot, which makes him personable.

“It’s an unspoken competition … there’s a lot of eyes on the Cavs style nowadays.”

Who’s the most stylish player on the Cavs?

Besides myself? [laughs] … that’s a hard one. If I had to pick, I’d either say J.R. Smith or Tristan Thompson. But everybody on the team has their own unique style, everybody loves to dress, and it makes it fun. It’s an unspoken competition … there’s a lot of eyes on the Cavs style nowadays.

Who was your childhood hero, and why?

Not to be cliché, but it’s definitely my dad … my parents. They both worked hard to put myself and my sister in the positions we’re in today. They gave us everything they had, and me and my sister just repay them by doing what we can for them at this point. My dad was definitely one to work multiple jobs, my mom worked multiple jobs, just to make sure we were taken care of. They did it.

Who’s your favorite athlete of all time, and why?

I look up to, obviously, Michael Jordan — somebody who every game gave it his all, played his heart out. Amazing role model, did everything he could to better the game, better himself. Magic Johnson was also someone else I looked up to, because of his style of play, being able to play multiple positions, handle the ball, play the 5, play the 4, play point. Scottie Pippen, the way he was on defense … basically a lot of guys who transitioned the game to the way it’s played now. Guys who were able to play multiple positions and play both ends.

Who’s the toughest player you’ve ever had to guard in your career?

Kobe [Bryant] is definitely at the top. LeBron … we’ve had some battles. Tracy McGrady was a tough one … he could do it all. Carmelo, D-Wade, Tim Duncan … I’ve guarded a lottttt of guys throughout my career who were tough matchups. It’s definitely a long list.

What made you decide to wear the No. 32?

I could sit here and say it’s because of Magic Johnson, but honestly because it was the last jersey in high school that was given out … I never had a favorite number, I was never superstitious when picking a jersey. But No. 32 was something that I had, from sophomore year to senior year. When I got to Georgetown, it was available. I just stuck with it, because it was the only number I knew. There’s no rhyme or reason behind it.

Who was the better MC — Tupac or Biggie, and why?

I’m East Coast, so I’d say Biggie. But both are truly amazing. My catalog of Tupac isn’t that big, but I do have the couple albums that Biggie put out. I probably know more Biggie verses.

If you could pick one actor to play you in a movie, who would it be?

I’m a big Andre 3000 fan. I consider him an actor, even though he’s a rapper. I got compared to him, as far as looks, when I was younger. So I would say 3000, because we resemble each other a little bit — and it used to be hairstyles [laughs].

If you could give your 18-year-0ld self advice, what would you say?

Awww man … that list is long. For one, I would say just have more joy in everything, and to live every day like it’s the last. And I say that because when I was 25, I went through that heart surgery. Before that, you kind of procrastinate a lot as far as your everyday things, as far as talking on the phone, saying, ‘I love you’ to loved ones … saying, ‘I’ll put it off until tomorrow.’ I would definitely tell my 18-year-old self … ‘Tomorrow is never guaranteed.’

Did the experience of having heart surgery rejuvenate your love for basketball?

Of course. It definitely did. That’s not to say I took basketball for granted before, but I also wouldn’t say I gave it everything … After the surgery, I definitely appreciate basketball, life in general, people to a higher degree. Because basketball was almost taken away from me, relationships were almost taken away from me.

What will you always be a champion of?

Life … because of my past, and the things that I overcame. The fight that I had to endure to get back on the court — that’s something that no one can ever take away from me.

America is comfortable with protesting athletes on their screens, but not in their stadiums In the movies and on TV, white players join in and no one demands athletes kneel on their own time

From Curt Flood to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, there’s a long tradition of black athletes standing up for themselves and the rights of others.

Such protests are highly controversial, both with authority figures in sports and with fans: Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the Olympic Village, Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career came to an early end and President Donald Trump called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—-es” and demanded they be fired. Some of those still-employed kneeling players met with NFL owners earlier this week to discuss a path forward.

Yet when America sees protesting athletes in movies and on TV, the dynamic is different from what happens in real life. Really, really different.

In the idealized settings of television and film, just as in real life, the protests come with great cost and risk. Still, when screen athletes stand up for their principles, not only do they win, they’re clearly identified as the “good guys.”

Audiences are comfortable with fictional athletes who stand up to corporate bullies, in part because movies and TV demand character development. Even when fictional players begin as compliant automatons, being told what to do and how to do it, their personal journeys are characterized by growth and self-awareness. There’s an expectation that once athletes discover their power and witness injustice, they will be compelled to act. After all, a bunch of guys looking at a problem and shrugging their shoulders doesn’t make for good drama.

But those expectations don’t translate well to real life, as polling data on NFL player protests has shown.

When fans and political critics demand that players “stick to sports,” they’re saying they want the excitement of games and terrific athletic ability, but they want it divorced from players’ full humanity. They want the action sequences, but no plot or character development. Which is how we get people saying athletes should protest “on their own time” — essentially, after the credits have run and no one’s watching.

In TV and film, once we’ve gotten to know characters as people who have the same emotional needs as we do, it becomes easier to digest the necessity of their protests. Their motivations drive our sympathy. We want them to win.

The racial dynamic is different on-screen as white characters are cast as protest leaders. And these works also communicate why the element of public spectacle is so important: It raises the stakes. Public or near-public showdowns are a key trope in these stories because they’re seen as necessary to achieving the desired results.

Here’s a look at some of the movies and television shows in which athletes stood up to the man(agement):

Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)

Courtesy of Starz

The recently canceled Starz comedy starred Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway and Chris Bauer as Jimmy Flaherty, the owner of Cam’s professional basketball team in Atlanta. The two have a few standoffs, but the disagreement between Cam and Jimmy that carries special resonance these days comes after Flaherty signs a $5 million contract with a firm to put advertising patches on players’ jerseys. The problem is that the company is the second-largest funder of private prisons in the country. Cam, flanked by his lawyer and manager, tells Flaherty he won’t play as long as the patches are on the jerseys. Every great fortune may have a great crime behind it, but this is where he draws the line.

This standoff takes place in the arena, hours before tipoff, and Flaherty, who knows he can’t win without Cam, backs down. This confrontation takes place not in the first season but at the end of the fourth, after we’ve had plenty of episodes to witness how Cam’s activism has been inspired by the suffering he sees around him, and after we know that Cam’s commitment to criminal justice reform is motivated in part by his own father’s imprisonment. Not only that, we know that Cam is generous to a fault. His manager is constantly trying to talk him out of giving away more of his money. If Cam hadn’t taken a stand on the patches, it would seem unnatural given what we’ve learned about the content of his character.

Varsity Blues (1999)

The cast of Varsity Blues.

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I forgive you if the only thing you can remember about this movie is Ali Larter in a whipped-cream bra, but it really did have a bigger message.

James Van Der Beek starred as Jonathan Moxon, a backup quarterback for a Texas high school football team that has won two state titles under coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). But Kilmer is merciless, racist and megalomaniacal — traits the school and community at large are happy to overlook so long as he keeps adding wins to West Canaan High’s record books.

Kilmer uses his star black running back, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), as little more than a mule, repeatedly deploying him for physically taxing runs but never allowing him to score a touchdown. The audience is treated to a bruising up-close-and-personal experience of those hits and the toll they exact on Wendell’s body. They’re gruesome.

Moxon is talented but not nearly as invested in football as his father or his coach are. And he hates Kilmer’s racism and mercenary disregard for the health of his players. Moxon gets tapped to lead the team because first-stringer and all-state quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers a career-ending injury. It’s Kilmer’s fault — he insisted on pumping Harbor full of cortisone and forcing him to play until he was no longer physically able, costing him a college football scholarship.

When Moxon starts calling his own plays, gets Wendell into the end zone and generally pisses off his coach while still winning, Kilmer goes ballistic. He threatens to alter Moxon’s transcripts and derail his plan to attend college on an academic scholarship. But Moxon’s teammates have had enough of Kilmer’s antics, and they mutiny during halftime of the final game of the season. Kilmer’s team will only take the field of the second half without him, and the coach must relent or risk further public humiliation. The team wins the game, and Kilmer is forced to leave West Canaan and football for good.

The Longest Yard (2005)

In this remake of the original 1974 film that starred Burt Reynolds, prison inmates play a football game against a group of racist, sadistic prison guards who are constantly abusing their power.

In the 2005 version, Adam Sandler plays Reynolds’ role of washed-up quarterback Paul Crewe. Crewe isn’t an easy person to root for. Besides point-shaving, Crewe endangers himself and others when he gets drunk and leads police on a high-speed car chase in his girlfriend’s Bentley.

When he gets to prison, the warden, Rudolph Hazen (James Cromwell), forces Crewe to assemble a ragtag team of prisoners to give the guards an easy, confidence-boosting win before their season playing against guards from other prisons begins. The other prisoners sign on because they see an opportunity to give the guards a taste of their own depraved behavior. They’re comically bad at first, but under Crewe’s stewardship, they pull together. They start to develop hope and confidence of their own. Maybe they can really win this thing!

The black prisoners, led by Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews), are loath to join the team until another prisoner, Megget (Nelly), is forced to swallow his dignity and pride. The guards confront Megget in the prison library and repeatedly call him “n—–,” in an attempt to cajole him into a fight. Megget resists the bait but relishes the opportunity to get his revenge on the field.

Once game day arrives, the prisoners are unaware that Hazen has made a deal with Crewe to throw the game. Crewe must comply or face life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, one that resulted in the death of his closest jail friend, Caretaker (Chris Rock).

When the big day arrives, Crewe starts out leading the prisoners in what looks like a rout of the guards. Hazen reminds Crewe what he has to lose, and Crewe begins to throw the game. But he has a crisis of conscience and tells his teammates what’s happening. He decides to try to beat the guards anyway, leading the prisoners to a game-tying touchdown and a two-point conversion to win as the clock runs out.

In both Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the protests are led by charismatic white quarterbacks who have their own grievances but are happy to loop in those of black players as well. Would kneeling be more acceptable if Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had started doing it first, citing the same reasons as Kaepernick? Would Brady and Rodgers be criticized as un-American and unpatriotic, or praised for their compassion and for using their privilege to help minorities? And if the reactions to them would be different from those to Kaepernick or other black players, what does that say?

Both The Longest Yard and Varsity Blues feature unambiguously terrible antagonists in the warden, prison guards and Kilmer. They paint pictures of racists as unsubtle, selfish and uncultivated. They portray bigotry as a problem of individual extremists rather than something that’s endemic to the country. Again, we’re faced with the luxuries afforded by (admittedly uncomplicated) character development. If we don’t know NFL players and owners as well as we know the characters in these movies, how do we judge their actions?

The White Shadow (1978-81)

Ken Howard (right) portrayed high school basketball coach Ken Reeves and Byron Stewart (left) portrayed student and athlete Warren “Cool” Coolidge in the CBS series The White Shadow.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Ken Howard stars as Ken Reeves, a former player for the Chicago Bulls who injured his knee, ending his professional career. One of his college teammates, Jim Willis (Ed Bernard), offers him a job coaching basketball at the dilapidated, majority-black Carver High School in Los Angeles. The team is a band of undisciplined misfits — Reeves has a bad habit of referring to them as “animals.”

Carver’s star player, James Hayward (Thomas Carter), needs a job to care for his mother, who has ulcers, and his siblings because their father is dead. Another player, Curtis Jackson, doesn’t want to face the fact that he has a drinking problem.

Unlike the other examples here, the relationship between Reeves and the team is more symbiotic than purely adversarial. The chief conflict doesn’t hinge on Reeves being a bad person. Rather, Reeves is blindly navigating his new job and everything it entails. He’s in charge of a group of players who talk back and who are skeptical of authority because they’ve learned that no one expects much of them. The state of Carver’s campus — strewn with detritus, missing letters on its signage — communicates to its students that they don’t matter much. And if the students know they don’t matter, how is anyone going to be able to get them to care about school?

Vice principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) acts as interpreter and student advocate in her interactions with Reeves, giving a credible voice to the players’ concerns. She tells Reeves he’s not a “white knight” and won’t be able to swoop in to the school and fix everything in 20 minutes. She’s indignant when Reeves enlists the team to move him into his new apartment on a Saturday for free, telling him the days of slave labor are over. Reeves and Buchanan are working toward the same goal, which is helping the students. But she and the basketball team are teaching a man who probably doesn’t think he’s racist not to behave like one. Created by Bruce Paltrow, The White Shadow offers a more nuanced view of race and racism than The Longest Yard or Varsity Blues. And it also says something about what it takes to be a useful ally.

Eddie (1996)

Whoopi Goldberg (center) starred in Eddie.

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Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a limo dispatcher and devoted New York Knicks fan who wins a public relations contest to coach the floundering team. There’s a twist though: Eddie’s a pretty decent coach. Fans like her.

Eddie becomes more than a novelty act. She quickly discovers there’s more to coaching than calling plays. She’s the team’s chief haranguer, marriage counselor, therapist and mother. Her pestering and rule-setting pays off, and the team starts not only winning but also enjoying basketball again. They lose their arrogance and sense of entitlement once they realize they have a person who cares about them as more than ball-dribbling widgets to be yelled at, traded and cut. She’s a real coach.

Meanwhile, the team’s owner, “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella), a Texas billionaire oil baron, has decided to convert the Knicks’ unbelievable good fortune into profits — by secretly negotiating a move that would send the team to St. Louis.

Eddie, once she gets wind of the plan, stands up to the man whose ego is about as inflated as the 10-gallon Stetson on his head. Burgess sees the Knicks as chess pieces he can move about the country at his pleasure. When he won’t listen to Eddie privately, she takes their disagreement public, revealing Burgess’ plans to a packed house at Madison Square Garden and daring him to censure her for it. After Eddie risks the job she loves and the cushiest salary she’s ever had in her life, it’s not just her team who backs her up. It’s the city of New York.

In Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the athletes in question are not millionaires. The audience doesn’t have to overcome feelings of class resentment to sympathize with them. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when the players in revolt are professionals who make piles and piles of money?

You use an intermediary.

Eddie received terrible reviews when it was released in 1996, but it’s really smart about one thing: It uses Eddie first as a vehicle for criticizing spoiled players. And then, once it’s clear that Eddie is a sports fan, just like the audience, the perspective of who is “good” and “bad” begins to shift. Once we see Eddie and the Knicks players as part of the same team, working toward the same goal of making the NBA playoffs, we’re willing to accept their revolt — which, again, is public — against Wild Bill.

There’s a delicate balance that’s achieved, and there’s a thoughtfulness in positioning Eddie this way. When she stands up to Wild Bill, she’s a fan advocating for other fans. Eddie comes the closest of these shows to placing fans (particularly the ones who have been vocal about wanting athletes to sit down and shut up) on the same side as the pro athletes who make so much more than they do. Even though the movie isn’t directly about race, it illustrates how being rich doesn’t automatically zero out the balance on life’s problems. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if your boss simply sees you as a moneymaking property, and that’s a sentiment any populist can get behind.

Daily Dose: 7/12/17 The MLB All-Star Game was a major success

In case you missed it, I filled in for Bomani Jones from Minneapolis on Tuesday. Of course, it was MLB All-Star Game day, so we talked quite a bit about the Midsummer Classic. Here’s the show: Hour 1, Hour 2, Hour 3.

Donald Trump Jr. thinks he’s slick. Once it became clear that he sat down with someone who claimed to be with the Kremlin, he decided to get out in front of things and drop the emails of correspondence himself. Meanwhile, the Russians are getting tired of constantly seeing themselves on American television. Junior went on Fox News last night to try to explain himself, and that didn’t exactly go very well. His basic defense was “I’m not very good at collusion, so my bad.” His father, the president, was pleased.

Everyone loses when the family feuds. Those were the words of Jay-Z on his most recent album, but it sometimes applies to black media. Take for example the recent case of Dr. Umar Johnson, who made an appearance on Roland Martin’s TV One show. I guess Martin felt like he needed to bring Johnson — who, by the way, I find extremely harmful and ridiculous — to task, but in the process he embarrassed everyone involved. Here’s a fact-check of all the wild claims that were made during this televised shouting match.

When I think of Halloween, I think of … Michael Jackson? Not quite, but I guess if you want to throw Thriller into that mix, then you’ve got pretty much everything you need. I feel like every Oct. 31, MTV or some other channel runs that video on a loop for the night, which makes complete sense. But outside of that? The King of Pop is not particularly ghoulish. However, CBS has created an animated special that will feature his music and a storyline involving his dance moves. This will probably be pretty popular either way.

The MLB All-Star Game was fantastic. The Home Run Derby was a huge hit. There were all sorts of new players in the game, and because it didn’t “count” for anything for the first time since 2003, players got to have fun. Fox also did a great job with the broadcast, allowing Alex Rodriguez to roam the infield between innings to talk to players, and at one point players were mic’d up talking to the broadcast booth while on the field. But the best moment came when Nelson Cruz straight up took a picture with umpire Joe West before an at-bat. So much fun.

Free Food

Coffee Break: You never want to hear the words “iceberg breaks off in Antarctica.” You also never want to hear that in the same sentence as “size of Delaware.” Adding on “maps need to be redrawn” to that means that something has likely gone very wrong. Something has definitely gone wrong.

Snack Time: Don’t ask me how this is possible, but somehow, the people trying to make a live-action version of Aladdin are having trouble finding actors to play the lead roles. Every. Single. Side eye. In. The. World.

Dessert: Sevyn Streeter knows how to party, folks. Take notes for your summer ragers.

That time Michael Jordan left the Bulls, went to baseball’s minors, and chased his childhood dream Where would Jordan be if he’d chosen baseball over hoops? Where would we be?

On a fall night on the South Side of Chicago, the hero of the city, and greatest basketball player on the planet, took the mound of Comiskey Park’s diamond. It was Oct. 5, 1993. Game 1 of Major League Baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays. Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan was the home team’s guest of honor.

Four months before the ALCS, Jordan led the Bulls over the Phoenix Suns in a best-of-seven NBA Finals series to claim their third-consecutive title. The summer of celebration for Jordan, however, was overshadowed by the murder of his father, James Jordan Sr., who was found dead in a South Carolina creek in August 1993. Yet heading into a new NBA season, the expectation remained that Jordan’s dominance on the court would continue — that not even family tragedy could stop His Airness’ reign. So, as the White Sox looked to clinch their first World Series berth in 34 years, who better to launch a chase of history than a man emblematic of fortitude and perseverance?

In front of announced crowd of more than 46,000, Jordan threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch, the ball sailing low and outside of the strike zone framed by White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard then delivered the ballpark wave and a sly smile before taking his seat in the skybox suite owned by Bulls and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.

“The Chicago Bulls have called a press conference for tomorrow morning … and there’s high speculation that Michael Jordan will retire from basketball forever.”

In the seventh inning, the shape of the night — and the landscape of the entire sports world — took an abrupt and unexpected turn: The game’s broadcast cut to on-field reporter Pat O’Brien for a breaking news update. “The Chicago Bulls have called a press conference for tomorrow morning,” O’Brien said, “and there’s high speculation that Michael Jordan will retire from basketball forever.”

The next morning, the Chicago Sun-Times published a story with an official statement from Jordan, while The Denver Post received confirmation of the retirement from Bulls head coach Phil Jackson. Later that day — Oct. 6, 1993 — in a news conference held at the Bulls’ training facility, Jordan officially announced his departure from the game of basketball. “If you ride a roller coaster for nine years, don’t you want to ride something else? That’s the way I feel right now — I want to ride something else.”

Less than a week later, Toronto defeated Chicago, 6-3, in a ALCS-clinching Game 6 at Comiskey. With the loss, the White Sox fell a mere two games shy of winning the pennant and reaching the World Series, though the club’s performance inspired the city with hope for another deep playoff run the following season. Led by 1993 AL MVP Frank Thomas, the White Sox were on a short list of 1994 World Series contenders.

“In ’94, the anticipation was for even more,” said Mark Ruda, an MLB reporter for Chicago’s Daily Herald at the time. “But the White Sox said, ‘Let’s see what can we do. Let’s bring Michael Jordan to spring training to spice things up.’ ”

On Feb. 7, 1994—10 days shy of his 31st birthday — Jordan inked a minor league contract with the White Sox, effectively channeling his newfound freedom into fulfilling a childhood dream of playing Major League Baseball. Upon retiring from basketball, Jordan had informed Reinsdorf of his baseball aspirations. So, the transition was seamless. The White Sox chairman made it happen.

“The Sox didn’t need that crap,” added Ruda, who also served as a Chicago correspondent for Baseball America, a national (and still printed) publication dedicated to identifying the game’s top prospects. On the brink of spring training in 1994, which Jordan was scheduled to attend as one of the newest members of the White Sox, the magazine reached out to Ruda for a potential cover story for its AL Central top prospects issue.

His assignment? “Scouting Air Jordan.”


“This is just a nuts two-page package, in retrospect,” Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel said via phone. He’s perusing a copy of the issue that hit newsstands across the country on Feb. 21, 1994. The issue went public before Sports Illustrated’s infamous March 14, 1994, “Bag It, Michael!” issue — the cover of which, and accompanying story, “Err Jordan,” ticked the greatest of all time off so much that he hasn’t spoken to the magazine since.

Back then, Manuel was a college senior (ironically at Jordan’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), months away from graduation, and two years removed from his first job at Baseball America. He looks back fondly on this unique period in baseball history, when the best hooper in the world ventured to become a major league right fielder.

“I wish I’d gotten to write something this cool,” Manuel said while examining Ruda’s scouting report on page 6, which breaks down Jordan’s baseball skills in five categories — hitting, fielding, throwing, speed and makeup (aka personality and character). The story traces Jordan’s baseball roots back to his days as a pitcher at Laney High School in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, where he led the “junior-varsity team by hitting .433, and later played varsity ball before becoming ineligible for his senior season after playing in the McDonald’s basketball all-star game.”

“At first, Jordan ruled out playing in the minor leagues.”

Jordan quit baseball at the age of 18, just two games into his senior season at Laney, which meant that by the time Jordan, at 31, reported to spring training in February 1994, approximately 13 years separated him from his last official baseball game. So one line from Ruda’s report really stands out, still to this day: “At first, Jordan ruled out playing in the minor leagues.”

“Yeah … that’s what I heard back then,” Ruda said, “ … a rather vainglorious attempt by him to think he could just go right into the major leagues.”

Yet Jordan ultimately wanted to be treated like any other prospect, starting in spring ball in Sarasota, Florida, where he met Cleveland Indians star outfielder Kenny Lofton. Having played four years of college basketball at the University of Arizona, Lofton was Jordan’s archetype in the realm of making a transition from basketball to baseball (opposite of Ruda’s scouting report in the Baseball America issue is a full-page feature, titled “Lofton Shows Jordan the Way”).

The two outfielders immediately connected. Jordan shared with Lofton why he chose to go after a spot in the major leagues at the peak of his NBA supremacy. Despite rumors that his foray into baseball resulted from a secret suspension levied by the NBA for gambling, Jordan maintained that he gained inspiration from his late father, who played semi-pro baseball and frequently had conversations with his son about making the switch.

“Michael told me, ‘Baseball was my first love,’ ” recalled Lofton, a six-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove Award winner and five-time AL stolen base leader in his 17-year MLB career. “He was … this great basketball player, and maybe he felt like he accomplished whatever he needed to accomplish … at the time, like, ‘Lemme try to accomplish my childhood dream.’ But [baseball] players looked at it as: ‘You know what? We understand you’re the greatest basketball player ever, but in baseball, man, you ain’t gonna have no chance.”

Jordan was far from a top prospect, not even listed in Baseball America’s 1994 Chicago White Sox top 10 — but he was Michael Jordan. So, the magazine slotted him in the AL Central cover’s lead photo, which was draped over a thumbnail of the division’s highest-rated prospect — a young Cleveland Indians outfielder named Manny Ramirez, whose 555 career home runs ranks 15th all time in MLB history.

“Michael Jordan could’ve gone to be a curler somewhere and people would’ve been really interested in how he was going to do in curling,” said MLB.com senior writer Jim Callis, a former managing editor of Baseball America. “We were just kind feeding off that.”

(Jordan’s image) was draped over a thumbnail of a young Cleveland Indians outfielder named Manny Ramirez, whose 555 career home runs ranks 15th all time in MLB history.

The cover photo itself, taken by Tom DiPace, is one of few pictures from Jordan’s brief baseball career in which he wore his famed basketball No. 23 on the back of a White Sox uniform (The covers of an April 1994 issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly and May 1994 issue of Sports Cards magazine also feature Jordan in No. 23.) “He was supernice to me, and respectful,” DiPace recalled of shooting Jordan early in spring training for both Baseball America and the Upper Deck trading card company. “He wasn’t acting like Air Jordan. He was trying to fit in as a regular guy.”

On team photo day, before his debut at White Sox spring training, Jordan didn’t pose in No. 23, but rather donned the No. 45, which he sported on the diamond as a kid and took with him in the minors. Ditching the No. 23 was a statement — the beginning of his quest to rebuild Jordan the basketball superstar into Jordan, the baseball prospect.

“I remember thinking like, ‘Wow.’ It’s going to interesting to see how he’s going to try to transform his whole mindset from being the best player ever,” Lofton said, “to go from flying on private jets to playing in the minor leagues — when you’re going to be on a bus.”


When spring training came to a close, the White Sox assigned baseball’s biggest project to the club’s Double-A affiliate Birmingham Barons. And in Alabama, playing in the Southern League under future World Series-winning manager Terry Francona, while making $850 a month with a $16 meal allowance on road trips, Jordan’s baseball education began.

“The Sox gave him every darn chance with that setup. Birmingham, even back then, that was really the launching pad for all the prospects,” Ruda said. “If you were a hot-stuff prospect in the Sox organization, you may have very well made the jump to the bigs from Birmingham.” Yet in 127 career games in the minors, Jordan posted a meager slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) of .202/.289/.266, with 51 RBIs on 88 total hits, including 17 doubles and three home runs.

“He had a .566 OPS [on-base plus slugging] and hit .202. It’s not that impressive, but the guy hadn’t played baseball in 13 years and he went to Double-A,” Callis said. “He drew 51 walks. He didn’t strike out excessively. Were they great numbers? No. But it looked like he had reasonable command of the strike zone. In retrospect, hitting .202, even if it was a soft .202, after that layoff, is impressive when you put it in context.”

The greatest athlete in the world simply couldn’t hit a baseball — or at least not with the same ease he could hit jump shots, drive the lane and dunk a basketball. “You take a guy who had the most impact on the culture, and on basketball of anybody, arguably, ever in sports,” said Manuel, “then you put him in baseball, and as player he had very little impact with the bat.”

Yet Jordan kept grinding in the batting cage, at the plate, and beyond. After his year with the Barons, he traveled out West to play in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit a respectable .252 in 35 games. But as he continued his chase of playing in the majors, basketball found its way back into the mind of the slowly improving right fielder.


The longest players strike in MLB history began Aug. 12, 1994. It led to the cancellation of the final six weeks of the regular season, and entire postseason, including the World Series. Come February 1995, Jordan arrived a week early for spring training, eager to get back to work on the field. But the strike still dragged on, and Jordan had no intention of crossing the picket line or becoming a replacement player if a settlement wasn’t reached. So, he chose another path. On March 2, 1995, he packed his bags and left Florida. Eight days later, he announced his decision to leave baseball. And eight days after that, Jordan released a famous two-word statement, “I’m back,” marking his return to the NBA.

“I was having fun down there playing baseball. And it was an opportunity to prove something.”

“I had no idea of coming back. I don’t think I would have come back if there hadn’t been the baseball strike. They started throwing me into that dispute, something I had nothing to do with,” Jordan wrote in his 2005 best-selling biography Driven From Within. “I was having fun down there playing baseball. And it was an opportunity to prove something. I was getting better all the time. All I needed to get that urge back was to hang around the basketball court for a while.”

It’s difficult to look back Jordan’s nearly 13-month baseball career, which feels like it ended before it began, and not contemplate two big ifs:

First, if not for the 1994 strike, would Jordan really have made it to the majors? Lofton didn’t give Jordan a chance, though Callis believes otherwise. “If there hadn’t been the strike and the lockout, I think we might have seen Michael Jordan in the big leagues,” he said. “Would Michael Jordan have earned it solely on merit? Probably not. But if not for the lockout, and he wasn’t going to cross the picket line, we might have seen Jordan in the big leagues in 1995.”

Secondly, if Jordan began his baseball career earlier in his life, how far could he have gone? The sense was that it was already too late when he retired in 1993 and pursued baseball. For any 30-year-old returning to the game after more than a decade, it’d be an uphill battle, even for an athlete as immortal as Jordan. But maybe his baseball story tells us that the truest “everything happens for season” moment in sports history took place when an 18-year-old Jordan chose basketball over baseball. For a brief moment in 1994, he gave the game he first loved a shot. And in the process, baseball proved that even a small part of Jordan could, athletically, be human.

This was of course until he made the return to basketball, won three more NBA titles, presented the world with performances such as the “Flu Game” and Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, and turned his signature line of basketball sneakers into a billion-dollar brand. The culture needed Michael Jordan on the basketball court, not on a bus.

“I’ll give him credit. I saw a lot of trying. I saw a lot of effort being put forth,” said Ruda. “Had he done it sooner, who knows? But then again, would the world have been denied an all-time great basketball player at the possible expense of maybe an average baseball player? Who knows? But, from what I saw, I don’t think there would’ve been ever been a Michael Jordan statue in front of Comiskey Park. He’s got one in front of the United Center — and it’ll always be there.”

‘The Wire’ — Game Day A play-by-play of that afternoon when a basketball game was more important than the drug game

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language. And some spoilers.

The goal was for the aggression to stay on the blacktop at Baltimore’s neighborhood-famous Cloverdale Courts. Proposition Joe’s Eastside squad was going up against Avon Barksdale’s Westside unit. The losing team would have to throw a party for both crews. And a six-figure dollar amount was on the line. Hell, ’hood reputation was on the line. Tension was high.

Avon clowned Prop Joe. “Ayo, wassup playboy? How come you wearing that suit, B? For real, it’s 85 fucking degrees … and you trying to be like Pat Riley!”

Joe’s retort: “Look the part, be the part, motherfucker!” Yet, the Eastside projects drug dealer hadn’t made any markings on his clipboard. Couldn’t read a playbook if he tried. This is a scene from “Game Day,” the ninth episode of the first season of David Simon’s and Ed Burns’ epic, intense and critically fantastic series The Wire.

In Episode 9, Baltimore detectives were finally able to identify notorious drug kingpin Avon Barksdale. The police knew he existed, but save for a childhood boxing photo, they had no idea what he looked like. Barksdale had evaded law enforcement for years, but they were able to identify him in this episode because he was coaching a neighborhood basketball game. “Game Day” is an essential chapter in The Wire. It sets the rest of the series in motion.

The Wire debuted on HBO on June 2, 2002. It was the same night of a gruff Western Conference finals Game 7 between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings — the Lakers won in overtime, closing out perhaps the wildest series of the decade. A slow-moving, expository, 62-minute pilot episode was no match.

But The Wire ran for five seasons. It succeeded by giving us a deep, 360-degree view of life inside an urban American city — the politicians, the cops, the corner boys, drug kingpins, stickup men, addicts, families of the addicts, dock workers, the local media — and more. The Wire could have been Detroit. Or Oakland. Or Newark. But this series was set in Baltimore — and fans all over the country and around the world were rabid about it.

Baltimore’s illegal activity (for the afternoon of Episode 9) was on a kind of TV timeout. It was Game Day in a city that birthed real-life basketball stars such as Muggsy Bogues, Keith Booth, Reggie Williams and Carmelo Anthony. This is where a high school hoops legend like East Baltimore’s Aquille “The Crimestopper” Carr flourished — and slowed down crime for two hours in Baltimore every time he had a game. The Wire’s Eastside vs. Westside contest, and the drama around it, was one of the most authentic hours in one of the most authentic television series ever to hit the small screen.

Thing is, The Wire never got its propers while it was airing. It never won a single Emmy. And The Wire struggled to maintain an audience during the last three seasons. Yet, if you ask any true-blue fans, they’ll tell you the experience ended far too soon. One more season, they wanted. Just one more.

The show did, after all, introduce Idris Elba, whose sex appeal never overshadowed the treachery of Stringer Bell. The execution of Michael B. Jordan in season one remains one of the most gut-wrenching and heartbreaking scenes ever aired on television. And we got familiar with one of the most dynamic and complex characters ever written for TV, the Robin Hood of the ’hood, Omar, a role seemingly effortlessly executed by Michael K. Williams. Oh, indeed.

Those who wrote it, starred and co-starred in it, directed and produced it — and who love the episode — contribute to this play-by-play. This is the story of “Game Day.”

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during The Wire era.

‘Look the part, be the part.’

Each season of The Wire focused “with sociological precision” on a different aspect of Baltimore’s state of affairs. Season one zeroed in on drug dealers and the police officers who were desperately trying to crack down on them. Consequent seasons centered on life on the docks of the Port of Baltimore, local politics, the local newspaper and the school system. This series didn’t feel fictional. “Game Day” felt like real life — language and all.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

David Simon created a world. He [was] a beat reporter for The Baltimore Sun … so the entire show, the crux of all of it, is so entrenched … in reality.

Sonja Sohn
Detective Kima Greggs

By the time we got to the ninth episode, we knew that this was an authentic show.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

I spent 20 years on the police force. I was engaged in the drug world. I love that world. I love how brave people were. I love the integrity of the corners, and the streets. [On The Wire] we weren’t too keen about ad libbing.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

Ninety percent of the time — when you see me, Hassan Johnson, Michael K. Williams — we’re speaking to the script. David is a very smart writer, a smart guy. He’s a pro-cultural person.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

Simon is the blackest Jewish man I know. … I also appreciated that he never wrote ‘niggers’ or ‘fucking niggers’ in his script.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

The N-word was always written down. [But] sometimes it was thrown in by the actors. The actors felt the moment and did it without it being on the page, but sometimes it was very much on the page.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

[People] were ‘shitbirds’ or ‘hopheads.’ I changed them to ‘niggers’ and ‘fucking niggers’ as often as I could.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

It was the necessary word. I’m not going to lie and pretend. Now, if it’s gratuitous, it’s gratuitous.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

I was like, ‘Well, David, I’m going to let you in on a little something: Black people who play by the rules and follow the guidelines really resent black people who don’t.’ So there’s a lot of anger there. A black cop is not going to call a black kid that he sees selling drugs a ‘shitbird.’ He’s going to call him something really personal, and ugly.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Maybe Ed knew better, or maybe just I’m not remembering right — but my sense of it was if there wasn’t an annual east-west basketball game sponsored by the pre-eminent drug crews, there ought to be.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

[David] Melnick and I, we’re big sports fans. I don’t know if David assigned us this story because he knew that.

Members of the Barksdale Organization sit on the bench while intently watching a basketball game in HBO’s The Wire.

Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Basketball or boxing were the only two things that would have credibly created a moment for east to meet west. Baseball would have been absurd. Football would have been too complicated.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

When we turned in our first draft, [Simon] really brought it more to life. We were just a couple young guys who were like, ‘Man, the basketball stuff is popping, and David’s loving it!’ We were excited.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I definitely praise David Simon … using [basketball] as the backdrop … [that] resonated globally.

Andre Royo
Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins, heroin addict and police informant

[In the episode], you got everybody breaking the drug game to watch this basketball game. I remember games [like that] in [New York]. Lots of people would come to those … on Fourth Street. It rang true.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I didn’t have the money for basketball camp back [in the day]. Camp was like 500 bucks. At the time, my coach was a gentleman who made good money in the streets. He said, ‘Look, Maurice, you want to go to this camp? Every dunk you make, I’ll give you $100.’ I finished the game with about eight dunks, and that’s how I had money for camp. Playing ball … it kept me off the streets, from trying to hustle. We needed something to eat? They’d go buy 20 french fries, 20 hamburgers, 20 chicken sandwiches and bring it back to the court. They’d buy us sneakers, uniforms, books. I’m not proud these guys had to hustle for a living and sell drugs, but I was impressed they didn’t want the same thing for us.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

Basketball in the black culture is very important. It’s looked at almost as a refuge, as a way out. It gave us heroes.

‘Ain’t gon’ be no trouble over no ball.’

In “Game Day,” which originally aired on Aug. 4, 2002, Baltimore’s two biggest drug dealers have their annual streetball game. Simon and Burns say they weren’t aware whether such a game ever existed in Baltimore, but they wanted to have some sort of athletic competition. The rivalry basketball game is pivotal because it introduces new character Proposition Joe (Robert Chew, who died in 2013). Avon Barksdale (Harris) wants to beat Prop Joe’s team so badly that he and Stringer Bell (Elba) recruit a junior college player (Blanding) as a ringer. “Game Day” begins on the court, with Elba and Harris looking down on Blanding playing what looks to be pickup ball. The actual scene was shot at Baltimore’s historically black Coppin State University.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We needed, for purposes of plot, to show that rivalry. We needed it because we were introducing the element of Prop Joe and his crew on the Eastside. We needed to frame that in some intelligent way. And the idea of competition naturally led to, ‘Is there a social function? Or a moment where these different crews would cross-pollinate? We came up with the basketball game.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

David Melnick, who wrote that episode [with me], are just a couple of guys from the ’burbs of Baltimore; there’s nothing hardcore about us at all.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

It would be hard to avoid the extraordinary love affair that urban America has had with the game of basketball. Generations of it. You’d have to be willfully ignorant.

Show Creator David Simon on Capturing the essence of streetball

Footage from HBO

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

All the kids, that was their one ambition, even more so than football, was being a great basketball player. We had a couple guys come out of Baltimore, Skip Wise being one of them, who would have been a great basketball player if he didn’t succumb to drugs.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Everybody in Baltimore knows the painful story of Skip Wise. He didn’t quite escape the street culture.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

There are moments when — in the first year of World War I, in the trench warfare — when Christmas rolled around, Germans and the French and the British went into no man’s land to celebrate that holiday. And then they went back to killing each other. There were moments when you could give me the ball, or the rock or whatever. And you could have that truce.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

I’ve played on basketball courts where gangsters are on the side and got money on it. You just want to play good. I knew what that feeling was like.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

That ringer thing was eye-opening for Melnick and I. We didn’t know that that would even be feasible in that world, that somebody with influence on the street level would connect with the university to try and get a ringer. That blew our minds. That was the first or second beat on that beat sheet. We saw that, and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s the way it works?’

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I grew up in Baltimore City, played everywhere in Baltimore City. Grew up with the real Avon Barksdale’s nephew. He played on my football team in high school.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

I remember that moment where we just sat down and started pounding keys and going, ‘OK, let’s, uh …’ [but] there is no research for that. First of all, the internet — we’re talking early 2000s — was not as far-reaching.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

It seemed kind of strange to me, but David Simon said he had heard about something like that before when he was [at] The Baltimore Sun. I mostly was excited that I was having an episode that I had more than two scenes in. Me and Domenick Lombardozzi referred to it as my Taxi Driver episode, because it’s my favorite movie.

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

We were heavy in that episode.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We were using it so that the detectives could naively try to get eyes on Avon Barksdale, and to try to follow him. We were doing it so we could also show Herc and Carver up on the roof, being forgotten about.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

A layer of the shade [was] pulled back on how these guys are human. These are people. We’re treating them like they’re scum of the earth and they don’t have any rights. But if there’s a common ground like basketball, where two opposing sides can come together and put their differences aside … they mostly want to unify, they don’t want to destroy.

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

It didn’t catch me by surprise because … it’s kind of tradition. It’s very similar to the Rucker, you know? In New York. It all made sense to me.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

[My character had] that revelation of, ‘Oh, these motherfuckers might have feelings.’ They care about shit.

Detectives Herc and Carver watch an annual neighborhood basketball game while they try to identify who Avon Barksdale is.

Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I was home on break from playing basketball overseas, and in South America. A buddy of mine was doing security for The Wire, and the director said, ‘Hey, do you know a guy that can play basketball, and can dunk?’ So I went up to Coppin … and I opened that episode up with Elba and Harris. Sometimes I look back and say, ‘Man, should I have started acting instead of continuing playing basketball in Europe?’ I made $2,500 in three days.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

I love that episode. “Game Day” is one of my favorites. … That’s the one I had the most fun shooting.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

The show was very urban, and gritty, but here we are shooting in a clean and pristine university gymnasium. That crossed grains with this show that we were getting to know. … It was outside of the element of the world that The Wire was [usually] taking place in.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I was overly impressed, even though Dunbar is Eastside and I [in real life] was Westside. So I had a little issue with that at first because, you know, the rivalry’s real!

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

Idris don’t really play basketball, but we still had a lot of fun.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

He didn’t know anything about drug dealing, either, when he started out! Idris instinctively knew the value of a scene. You didn’t have to go to him and say, ‘This is the way things are done.’ There was no need for him to really love basketball.

‘The projects got a ball team?’

Baltimore basketball is serious business — in real life and on television. Detectives Herc and Carver finally figured out that everyone in the streets has suspended all drug trafficking to participate in or watch the basketball game. In a scene leading up to the end of the game, Lt. Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) announces that the drug dealer they’re looking for (Harris’ character) is over at the historic Cloverdale Courts.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

They didn’t actually film that at Cloverdale. That was at Collington Square in East Baltimore.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

There was one issue. That episode was being directed by this French director whose name I can’t remember.

Milcho Manchevski
Director

I was born in Macedonia. I came here for film school and then stayed.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

Milcho turned out to be a very good director. He was a good friend of [former executive producer] Bob Colesberry’s. Bob brought him in, very much admired his work. And there’s a lot to admire.

Milcho Manchevski
Director

It’s the only piece of episodic television I’ve done. I directed five features and wrote all of them. But this one was just so attractive because the writing was great. Colesberry was producing … so I knew it was going to be a creative enterprise.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

He was a feature director who had never done television. In features it’s, ‘Get the writer off the set. We have the script.’ But in television the writers are the producers, so we’re worried about continuity, we’re worried if it will make sense in all [of the] episodes. He wasn’t used to having a writer always on set. If not me, Ed or somebody. We struggled a little bit.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

He was new to TV and just didn’t realize the concept of you can’t reinvent the wheel. You have to learn how to adapt and fall within a frame of what the show is … you have the ability to color it and put your name on it. You can’t come in and completely change it. It caused a lot of tension. Unfortunately, I was the middleman between him and our VP and also the actors.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

After lunch — when you have lunch on the set or whatever, it’s like an hour long and you come back — no director. The director couldn’t be found. So what happened was … Anthony Hemingway … he was second A.D. for The Wire.

Tray Chaney
Malik “Poot” Carr, teen drug dealer

When everyone came back from lunch … Anthony was the man.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I had to rise to the occasion. It was very sensitive, only because the union obligations and all the legalities within that. I wasn’t technically directing, but … I was there for the show and had to step forward to protect the show.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

The basketball thing is obviously an intensely choreographed dynamic. And the A.D. would be influential in terms of placing everybody and … you’re coordinating between the actual athletic narrative within the game, what’s happening, where we’re placing all the extras, where we’re placing our characters among the extras. That was Anthony. And I think, in some respects, it’s where he really began to shine.

Show Creator David Simon on Developing iconic characters

Footage from HBO

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

We had a lot of faith in Anthony. He had been with us, particularly with [co-executive producer] Nina Noble, from the early ’90s. And he was extremely confident.

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

Hemingway was a big part of the show even when he wasn’t directing as a first A.D. He was very influential.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

That day in particular was challenging because we needed crowds. We had open calls on the radio, getting people to come out. We had the turnout that we needed.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

I think the extras were hired right from the neighborhood.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

And it was about 85 degrees. The humidity in Baltimore is ridiculous.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

Insane and intense and crazy. I didn’t technically direct that episode. I had to make it, I had to be the Band-Aid and make the day flow. I was still assistant director. … I had to step in and keep the day flowing … but I didn’t, and will not ever, call myself as the director.

J.D. Williams
Preston “Bodie” Broadus, teen drug dealer

Wood Harris is the star of Above the Rim. … It was a basketball film; it had Tupac [Shakur] in it. It just took me there, like, ‘Wow, now I’m doing a basketball scene with Wood Harris? I must be making some type of progress. …’

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I didn’t even know Idris Elba was from England. He spoke the Baltimore slang and language so much. He was that good.

Tray Chaney
Malik “Poot” Carr, teen drug dealer

I was a fan of J.D. [Williams] from him being on Oz.

“We’re really part of something that was incredible and has become a part of the fabric of television.”Shamit Choksey

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I’m a Tupac fan, and I’m also a Wood Harris fan. I asked while I was sitting there, ‘How was being around ’Pac?’ He said, ‘He’s the ultimate professional, he’s a perfectionist, but he’s a down-to-earth man, just like you and I.’ I was sitting here talking to Wood Harris about Tupac! This is crazy!

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

There was one cross, one vicious move that [Blanding] made from the top of the key. When we saw it we just fell down, we were laughing so hard. It was such a great inside move. You’ve got to remember, we’re only doing this with a few seconds of ball. We’re not filming the whole game … so whatever time we have to devote to actual basketball, you want the footage to feel real. You also want to get the in-your-face ballet of streetball.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

That was scripted, but that’s how I play. The director was like, ‘Listen, don’t shoot the ball.’ [We] said, ‘Well, we just want to play!’ And that’s when we started playing a little bit more physical, and I played my real game and they stopped stripping the ball because they knew an elbow might come behind it. So the first part was scripted, the second part was like half-scripted, and then they made use of us really playing ball.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

I remember seeing that on film and thinking, if you ever went to Collington Square, if you ever went to Cloverdale and watched the best players, that’s the kind of shit where you saw a move like that and it laid everybody out for 30 seconds. Like, ‘Oh shit! What just happened?’ We got one of those on film. I was very proud of us.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

I didn’t have to give them any technical advice. Everyone knew basketball. Everybody who was there was black.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

I thought it was authentic. When we play ball [in real life], you had guys who probably didn’t get along … on the street level, they’re enemies. But on the basketball level, they never brought it to the court. You’d have some shootings sometimes, people would get into a fight, but I’d say 95 percent of the time it was strictly about basketball. It did lower the crime rate in that area where we played — everybody just wanted to watch us play. Everybody wanted to see me dunk because I had like a 45-inch vertical back then.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I was out there trying to find moments … where especially black men can come together and support each other. And put behind us all the negative drama that has been perpetuated over the years, and support one another and love one another. And be able to be in the same place together.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

It was as authentic as I have seen anybody portray the streetball of Baltimore City, where they gettin’ in the referee’s face.

Wood Harris
Avon Barksdale, Westside Baltimore drug dealer

When you see me get up and I’m bantering and checking the referee, that guy was a really good actor — one of my fondest memories of The Wire.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We [wanted to] demonstrate something about Avon Barksdale’s personality when he intimidates the ref on a bad call and then, in the next moment, becomes frustrated that the ref is about to cave. He wants to yell at the ref. He doesn’t want the ref to treat him like the winner because he’s feared. He wants to be right on the merits, and he no longer can be because he’s Avon Barksdale. And he realizes that.

Maurice Blanding
Actual professional player in European leagues, portrayed junior college ringer for the Barksdale Organization

The crowd, that was normal. A summer league in Baltimore will generate a crowd of at least 500 people sometimes. It was just awesome.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

We’re not thinking to ourselves, ‘We’re really making a statement here about basketball in the inner city.’ We were just using found material.

Maybe we won.

Fifteen years later, this series still resonates (and it’s available at HBO NOW). Major urban centers are still dealing with the problems that embattled fictional Baltimore for the duration of this series. The Wire, sadly, feels contemporary.

Anthony Hemingway
First assistant director

I actually get very giddy when I go on different jobs, and I smile real hard when so many people really praise the show. That makes me feel great to be a part of that. That was my start.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

Five years out, when I started to hear, ‘Wait a second, he wrote for The Wire? I love that show.’ … I kind of scratched my head. It wasn’t those that are from that world. It was a white college girl who’d never spent any time in the city who was obsessed with the show.

Ed Burns
Producer, writer and co-creator of The Wire

I don’t think anything’s changed. Now the drugs embrace the white community, the working-class community, particularly. The language might change from rural America to city America, [but] it is the same. And the acting is so damn good.

“I have a problem with the glorification of a drug dealer and America is fascinated with that world. We’re celebrating the very … problem that America has in its ‘hood. But Stringer Bell was no role model. He ruled the people who worked for him through fear.”Idris Elba, 2009

Domenick Lombardozzi
Narcotics Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk

Maybe people weren’t ready for a show like that, or maybe it was just kept in the shadows. It’s like a cult following now.

J.D. Williams
Preston “Bodie” Broadus, teen drug dealer

We blew everybody’s tops off, and they still didn’t give us whatever we deserved. That’s OK because that makes them look stupid. The most important thing is that the people who know, who love it, really love it.

Shamit Choksey
Co-writer, “Game Day”

I didn’t realize how big and iconic the show was when we were in the middle of it. We’re really part of something that was incredible and has become a part of the fabric of television.

Andre Royo
Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins, heroin addict and police informant

We knew what we were doing was real stuff. There was a certain pride and awe every time we got a script because we were like, ‘Are they telling our side or not?’ And we’re really telling this side of the story, and with such fairness, and in such a nonjudgmental way. It just kept us intrigued and happy to be a part of the show.

Sonja Sohn
Detective Kima Greggs

The Wire is timeless. We’ve been living in these conditions for decades now. It’s not a surprise to me that it resonates. Until we address the structural issues that exacerbate the criminal element that exists in underserved black communities, this story will always be relevant.

Tray Chaney
Malik “Poot” Carr, teen drug dealer

I think I can speak for all of us saying we didn’t know that the show was gonna be a part of history like it is now.

David Simon
Creator, executive producer, head writer and showrunner, The Wire

I would prefer to be living in [a] country where The Wire was less relevant 15 years later. I would have much preferred to think of the show as being anachronistic.

Seth Gilliam
Narcotics Detective Ellis Carver

I thought it was gold when we were doing it. I still get a little frothy when people are like, ‘Why did that show go off the air?’ And I’m like, ‘Did you watch it when it was on? Well, that’s why the shit went off the fucking air.’ They were] watching The Sopranos, which was old and tired by that point. The Wire is still the best show in the history of television. And if you reran it right now, it would be better than everything else on TV.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Maurice Blanding: Works at Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Ed Burns: Lives in West Virginia and is working on several television projects.

Tray Chaney: Is a rapper and also stars in Bounce TV’s Saints & Sinners.

Shamit Choksey: Currently working in automotive sports marketing for Kia; also working on a new TV project with his brother.

Seth Gilliam: Co-stars on AMC’s The Walking Dead, is set to co-star in feature film Change in the Air.

Wood Harris: Is set to co-star in feature films Once Upon a Time in Venice (with Bruce Willis and John Goodman) and 9/11 (with Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg).

Anthony Hemingway: Is producing and directing television series including WGN’s Underground and is set to direct the indie film Bury the Lead. He also served as an executive producer and director on ABC’s American Crime and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Domenick Lombardozzi: Is part of the cast of Fox’s Rosewood and will next star in the feature films Frank and Ava (2017) and Hard Powder (2018).

Milcho Manchevski: Recently wrapped the feature film Bikini Moon, which stars Condola Rashad.

Andre Royo: Co-stars on Fox’s Empire and is set to co-star in Amazon Studios’ Beautiful Boy alongside Steve Carell, out in 2018.

David Simon: His next series, The Deuce, is set to premiere on HBO this fall; it features several The Wire alums.

Sonja Sohn: Is currently filming Showtime’s The Chi.

J.D. Williams: Stars in Bounce TV’s Saints & Sinners.