Former Georgetown basketball player turns passion into acclaimed documentary RaMell Ross takes unique look at black life in Oscar-nominated ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’

If you are inclined to put people in boxes, you should probably stop reading now.

Because RaMell Ross likely won’t fit in any of them.

Such is life for a Division I athlete turned professional European hooper, turned photography student and professor, turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker for his 2018 documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening — the 36-year-old’s first movie, no less.

Ask Ross about inspiration and he’ll offer Allen Iverson “a guy I bowed down to, with deceptive speed and fluidity, like a bird flying amongst trees when he scores in the paint” alongside Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and Tarr’s obscure, visually evocative 2011 film The Turin Horse.

If you watched Georgetown in the early 2000s — the golden days of Mike Sweetney, Jeff Green and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, and coaches Craig Esherick and John Thompson III — you could’ve caught a glimpse of Ross’ 6-foot-6-inch frame on the Hoyas’ bench, or scoring a garbage bucket against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A scene from ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ which is set in Greensboro, Alabama.

RaMell Ross

Or perhaps you saw him ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards on The Daily Show promoting Hale County, with host Trevor Noah calling the film “truly beautiful” and “difficult to capture” while suggesting viewers might be asking, “Do I need to be high?” after watching a clip.

Drugs or not, you likely haven’t seen the film yet a current box-office total of roughly $100,000 suggests fewer than 10,000 folks have.

In a way, Hale County is a simple film: It primarily follows two protagonists, Daniel Collins (who played basketball for Selma University) and Quincy Bryant, and their respective lives and families; IMDB sums it up as “a kaleidoscopic and humanistic view of the Black community in Hale County, Alabama.”

The film is named Hale County because that is where both were raised. Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, is where they both lived during most of the filming.

Ross’ documentary is a 76-minute distillation of more than 1,300 hours of film, and seemingly about everything (from the humanist perspective) and nothing (from a traditional Hollywood vantage point).

It is a deeply visual, abstract and immersive experience, a collection of images, moments and life shot over five years in Alabama’s portion of the Black Belt, a fertile region in the South that was historically developed for cotton plantations.

Years into Ross’ journey making Hale County, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes, herself an institution in the socially conscious documentary and film world, came on board as producers.

But long before that, it was another “producer” that had an instructive role in the production and preproduction process both for the film, and in Ross’ life that shaped Hale County into what it would eventually become.

That would be the game of basketball.

“I can’t imagine I would have been able to do the film without my sports background,” Ross said.

Act I: A basketball dream

Ross was a late bloomer who only started playing hoops seriously at age 13. His career began to bloom his junior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. A scholarship offer came that same year, and a journey to play in A.I.’s wake at Georgetown followed.

So did Ross’ primal artistic instincts once he got to college, for better or worse.

“Coaches would always tell me to stop dribbling so much,” Ross said of his career. “To me, it wasn’t being fancy. It was like a bird fluttering in the wind, enjoying the free fall before grabbing the food, something more instinctually grace-oriented.

“One of my problems at Georgetown was that I was as much, if not more, interested in doing AND1 moves than I was in scoring. I realized later on I was more interested in the art of the sport, and less of the rest.

“But I also wanted to go to the NBA. It was the only career, the only dream that I had.”

Ross’ life as a Hoya got off to a rocky start after he broke his foot in the summer before his sophomore season — and broke the same foot yet again as the season was about to tip off, essentially dashing those NBA dreams entirely.

“I was ready to start, and it was a devastating realization that led to a deep depression,” he said. “I stayed in my room for two weeks and didn’t do anything. Because, what am I without basketball? What am I without the dream to go to the league?

“If I was on this Earth to go to the NBA, and it didn’t happen, what else am I missing about the world? And what else am I taking for granted about the natural order of things?”

The wheels of change started to turn, pushing him toward the arts but basketball wasn’t done with him yet, or vice versa.

Act II: A filmmaker’s beginnings

Two years after Georgetown, Ross found himself playing for Belfast Star of the Sea, eventually leading the Irish League in scoring.

His bonkers ESPN TrueHoop blog post from 2007 offers a “story from Mars” and a glimpse of the country’s chaos, which Ross experienced in full working as a regional photographer for PeacePlayers International, a community-building nongovernmental organization that brings basketball to war-torn regions, from Gaza to South Africa to Cyprus.

In 2007, one of Ross’ PeacePlayers co-workers, David Cullen, was awarded with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at The ESPYS for using basketball to promote peace and understanding between Protestant and Catholic children amid Northern Ireland’s violent decades-long conflict.

ESPN sent a photographer to Belfast to take pictures of Cullen, and the photog happened to cross paths with Ross — a random moment that sparked something greater.

“He told me you have a really, really good eye,” Ross said. “It was the first time anyone complimented my work. And when I went back to D.C., I started freelancing right away.”

With that, Ross’ second off-the-court act began in concert. Days, weeks and months of shooting soon followed.

In 2009, he moved to Hale County to work at Selma University’s YouthBuild program as a career counselor and high school basketball coach. There, Ross’ NBA dream was seemingly nothing more than a memory. But the game remained, his basketball eye now focused behind a lens.

“This idea of being the point guard, surveying the floor and trying to make all of these decisions, in the context of all these different usages of times and bodies, it’s very much like using the camera,” Ross said. “I was using it as a tool, very much the way you’d use the basketball.

“You’re not thinking about the shot, you’re just looking. And it’s all tied to extreme patience.”

Act III: The imagery of ‘Hale County’

Patience, in some ways, is also required when viewing Hale County itself.

All of which makes the thought-provoking sportscentric imagery Ross weaved into the film more of a revelation.

The film loosely centers on Daniel and Quincy. Along the way, there are still shots, and tracking shots, and time-lapses, with every angle, perspective and point of view mixed in for good measure.

“That’s why there are so many different styles of shot: Every shot is literally responding to the moment,” Ross said. “Filmmakers often preconceive what they need to get: ‘I need a wide, I need a close, cut between these things.’ ”

Indeed, each moment of Hale County offers something unique from a stylistic, storytelling and sporting perspective.

There are shots that last only a few seconds, such as the breathtaking image of a decaying hoop against a starry night. Or the juxtaposition of water dripping on concrete, first falling off Daniel while dribbling a basketball, followed by raindrops hitting the ground from a storm in the same fashion.

There are shots that capture moments rich with subtext that last more than a few minutes too. Such as watching Quincy’s toddler son, Kyrie, running back and forth (and back and forth again) in their living room for what feels like an eternity.

Or Kyrie eventually getting his hair stuck on a little kid’s hoop in the same living room. Is there something Ross is suggesting, given that the viewer watches Kyrie struggle to get unstuck but doesn’t untangle his hair from the hoop, only for the film to move on to its next shot?

“Hell, yeah,” Ross said.

Or perhaps the film’s tensest and most memorable scene: a three-minute, wide-angle still shot of Selma University’s locker room, an entire team gathered around a couch, waiting to take the court and offering up possibly every emotion on the human spectrum.

“To me in that moment, it just required that,” Ross said. “ ‘Whoa, look at this. This is wide frame.’ And I just left it. But footage from other locker room scenes, it’s nothing like that.

“You’re meta in the moment. You’re not worried about certain things, because intuition says you’ve done it so many times. You’re functioning on a different level.”

Indeed, Hale County operates on its own level, especially as a sports documentary. Latent meaning or direct explanations behind Ross’ message are always many counties away.

“It’s complicated,” Ross coyly offered when discussion turned to the film’s portrayal of sports. See the film for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Prologue: 1,000 shots, from beginning to end

Long before a random ESPN photographer unwittingly set off his artistic fuse, Ross credits his early days of practice — yes, we talkin’ bout practice — that cultivated an intensive filming process, something shooters of both types can learn from.

“Working out and thinking, all right, in one year, I’ll be able to do this,” Ross said of the basketball and filmmaking parallels. “The payoff is something that comes far down the line for individual discipline in the moment.

“That’s kind of how I saw the film: ‘I’m going to shoot for a week. Hopefully after the week, I’ll have one or two good shots. But I know that after a month, I’ll have six or seven, and then the next month, 14.’ It all adds up to something later down the line. It’s not about the moment; it’s just about discipline with the idea. This is what I’m doing.”

As a result, Ross’ future is full: He’s still living in Hale County when he’s not teaching photography at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And he’ll also be traveling back to Durham, North Carolina, soon — this time trading out the early 2000’s Cameron Crazies for curating the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place there April 4-7.

But perhaps none of that would be possible without his first basketball blueprint, one Ross can trace all the way back to Lake Braddock and his freshman coach, Robert Barrow, a high school teammate of Grant Hill’s.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to work on your ballhandling for an hour a day with no rim in sight and do these extremely repetitive drills, building up your muscles,’ ” Ross said. “And you’re going to do this exactly, not deviating at all. Just doing this.

“In college, it was making 1,000 shots a day with my father. Then bring them all together. Devoting yourself. Practicing actual devotion and belief, that what you’re doing now is perhaps painful, and still finding the joy in it.”

In the wake of Ross’ devotion, joy and insistence on following his instincts across the country and world, Hale County, a film you most certainly cannot put into a box, was eventually born.

And thank God, we all have the game of basketball to thank for that.

A look back at ‘Above the Rim’ on its 25th anniversary Tupac in trouble, Georgetown hoops on the rise, a sports film rises to cult classic

Marlon Wayans can still smell the thick aroma of Tupac Shakur’s marathon marijuana sessions. Wayans and Shakur, both performing arts high school products, had become quick friends while Shakur was filming 1992’s Juice alongside Wayans’ friends Omar Epps and Mitch Marchand.

By 1993, it was Wayans working with Shakur on the street basketball coming-of-age film Above the Rim, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday. Shakur was the sinister and charming drug dealer Birdie, who was trying to monopolize a local streetball tournament. Wayans played Bugaloo, a round-the-way kid who was often the target of Birdie’s vicious verbal taunts.

“ ‘Above the Rim’ is the most true, ball-playing cinematic movie.” — Leon

Shakur and Wayans shared a two-bedroom trailer on set. They made each other laugh. They talked about themselves as young black creatives in a world that often sought their talents but not the soul behind them. And the two got high together — in a way.

“’Pac smoked a lot of weed,” said Wayans. “[He] would roll like nine blunts … he’d be listening to beats.” Wayans chuckles at the memory. “I’d catch the biggest contact.”

One day, Shakur refused to step out of his Rucker Park trailer. Director Jeff Pollack was confused. Everyone was ready, cameras in place. All they needed was the enigmatic Shakur. “Kick the doors off the Range Rover!” Shakur yelled as he emerged. “Real n—as don’t have doors on Range Rovers!” Shakur wanted the doors off so he could just jump out and directly into his lines.

“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, ’Pac’s a little high,’ ’’ said Wayans, laughing. “I don’t think ’Pac knew how much that would cost production.” Shakur eventually came down off his high. And the doors stayed on the Range.




Above the Rim was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance. A month before the film hit theaters, Nick Nolte, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway starred in Blue Chips. Later that year came Hoop Dreams, the masterful Steve James documentary. Lodged midway was Above the Rim.

Each of the three films offers a perspective of basketball as more than a game. Blue Chips focuses on the lucrative and slimy underbelly of big-business college athletics (and art imitates life a quarter-century later). Hoop Dreams is an exposé of the beautiful yet heartbreaking physical and emotional investment of the sport. Above the Rim uses New York City basketball as the entry point into the deeper story of two brothers and their tie to a young hoops phenom attempting to leave the same Harlem streets that divided them.

Set and filmed mostly in Harlem, the film was written by Barry Michael Cooper and directed by Pollack and also features Leon (Colors, The Five Heartbeats, Cool Runnings, Waiting to Exhale) as Tommy “Shep” Shepard, Shakur’s older brother and former basketball star. Martin (White Men Can’t Jump, Scream 2, Any Given Sunday) portrays Kyle Lee Watson, a high school basketball star hellbent on attending Georgetown.

Tonya Pinkins (Beat Street, All My Children) portrayed Kyle’s mother, Mailika. She hasn’t forgotten what the role meant for her career: “Probably the most I’ve ever been paid for a film,” she said. “The cast was phenomenal. It was really a party, and I was kind of the only … woman with lines in the movie.” And making his film debut was Wood Harris (Remember The Titans, The Wire, Paid In Full, Creed and Creed II) as Motaw — Wee-Bey to Birdie’s Avon Barksdale.

Bernie Mac (Def Comedy Jam, Mo’ Money) is Flip, a local junkie responsible for the movie’s most prophetic and eerie line, especially given how many key figures from the film have since died (Shakur, Mac, Pollack and David Bailey). “They can’t erase what we were, man,” Flip says to Shep toward the beginning of the film.

Marlon Wayans, who played Bugaloo in the movie, on Tupac: “Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel.”

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Above the Rim, too, entered the culture during that 1986-97 era when films such as House Party, New Jack City, Malcolm X, Boomerang, Juice, Menace II Society and others had already stitched themselves into the fabric of the ’90s black cultural explosion. Those movies did so with black directors calling the shots. Above the Rim was brought to life by Benny Medina and Pollack, who had already struck gold with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at the time roughly halfway through its iconic run.

Above the Rim was different, though. “It was … without a doubt a story of the inner city,” said Leon, who at the time was fresh off his powerhouse role as J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats. In Above the Rim as Shep, he returns to Harlem after falling on hard times. Leon is biased about the film’s cult status, and proud of it. “[Above the Rim is the] most true ball-playing cinematic movie,” he said.

Leon is humbled and entertained by the internet’s reaction to Shep, in corduroy pants, dropping 40 second-half points in the movie’s championship climax. “There’s just been so many memes people send me … it’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. And the level of on-set hoops competition, as he remembers, was electric. Many of the film’s ballplayers were just that: ballplayers.

“It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.” — Leon

In real life, Martin starred as a guard on New York University’s Division III squad in the late ’80s. He was a first-team All-Association selection in 1988-89 and was the Howard Cann Award recipient that same season as MVP. Leon, who grew up hooping in the Bronx, New York, attended California’s Loyola Marymount University on a basketball scholarship (guard) before focusing on acting.

It was while playing professional basketball in Rome and filming 1993’s Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow (in Rome as well) that Leon was approached about starring in Above the Rim. The role was first offered to Leon’s friend (and fellow heartthrob) Denzel Washington, who had just starred as Malcolm X in the iconic Spike Lee biopic. “Don’t know why it was,” Leon says when trying to recall why Washington decided against the role. “Don’t care.”

People in Hollywood knew Leon could hoop, but word-of-mouth was only a down payment on respect. “Everyone could really ball. … Everyone had all-everything in their city credentials,” Leon said. “We’d scrimmage at NYU. All the top players from the [Elite Basketball Circuit] and the Rucker, everybody was down there trying to get down. It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.”


Georgetown University doesn’t have any scenes in Above the Rim. Nor does the school make or break the plot. Yet the Washington, D.C., campus’s role in the movie is important, and seamless. Pollack (who died in 2013 at the age of 54) and Medina, as writers, had already managed to weave Georgetown into the narrative of a 1992 Fresh Prince episode. And it’s Georgetown’s role in the story of black America that gave the film authenticity.

Maybe it was because Georgetown had a successful black coach manning its sidelines in John Thompson. Maybe it was because Thompson did so during the decade in which hip-hop started to grow up, and crack cocaine was blowing up during and after the days of President Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it was the type of players Thompson recruited — and the fearlessness they played with.

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown (seen here with Allen Iverson and coach John Thompson in 1994) did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“We didn’t apologize for who we were. We didn’t ask permission to be who we were,” Thompson said earlier this month. “Then there was the rap explosion, and people started wearing Georgetown-style gear because they were so moved. Once we started seeing the Georgetown gear in TV and movies, there was definitely more of a sense that we had arrived.”

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Georgetown represented for us,” said Wayans. “It made college look cool to young black kids. That team … it made us go, ‘Yo, I wanna wear that blue and gray.’ … For kids that grew up … in the ’hood … it became cool to be smart and educated.”

Wayans, who attended Howard University from 1990-92, said, “It absolutely [made Georgetown feel like a historically black university].” And it was Allen Iverson’s impending arrival that thrilled all parties involved with the film.

Iverson’s role in basketball lore is one-of-one, and by 1994, his image was, in many ways, as controversial as Shakur’s. To one segment of America, Iverson was a goon, a two-sport local superstar who deserved to have his future stripped away after a 1993 bowling alley brawl. Iverson’s 1993 trial and eventual conviction remains a benchmark of racial divisiveness in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yet, to a whole other segment, Iverson held superhuman characteristics. He was a larger-than-life counterculture rebel who remained true to himself at all costs — in tats, do-rags and baggy jeans. Iverson, a free man in March 1994 after being granted conditional clemency by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was an unspoken factor in Above the Rim’s authenticity. Iverson’s story is loosely tied to that of Kyle Lee Watson.

“[Iverson] was big,” Leon said. “Having a … prominent black coach who we know would take a chance on a player [like character Kyle Lee Watson] and give him a scholarship, much the way [Thompson] did with Allen Iverson, it just made sense.”

Wayans agrees. “Allen Iverson represents the concrete and the hardwood. [Even then], he made you believe that even though you was groomed and raised in the streets, you could still amount to something great, and not let go of your culture.”

But if Iverson’s legacy is in unanimous good standing with the Above the Rim community, the reviews of the film were anything but. While Above the Rim has risen to cult status in the quarter-century since its release, many at the time blasted the film for hackneyed dialogue and situations. The Washington Post dubbed it a “stultifying cliché of a movie” that “doesn’t get anywhere near the rim.” Variety said the movie was composed of enough clichés to fill an NBA stat sheet. Roger Ebert felt similarly but praised the film’s ingenuity in character development.

But if there was praise that was near universal, it was for Shakur. “As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn,” an Entertainment Weekly critic wrote in 1994. “The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.”


Shakur entered a particular read-through of Above the Rim’s script in typical Tupac Shakur fashion. Loud. Bodacious. Arrogant. Leon appreciated the spectacle.

Every actor and actress has his or her own way of mentally preparing for a role. This was Tupac’s. He walked right up to Leon, his estranged brother in the film, and bowed his head. “You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats,” Shakur said. “That’s my movie.”

Above the Rim marks a transitional period in Shakur’s life. His rising fame ran concurrent with controversy. Vice President Dan Quayle called for his 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, to be removed from shelves, claiming its lyrics incited the murder of a Texas state trooper. And in 1993 alone, Shakur released Strictly 4 My N—A.Z., a profound sophomore effort headlined by the singles “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” and starred with Janet Jackson, Regina King and Joe Torry in Poetic Justice.

Duane Martin and Leon Robinson were two of the stars in this film that was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

But also in 1993, Shakur was charged with felonious assault at a concert at Michigan State University. He fought director Allen Hughes on the set of Spice 1’s “Trigga Gots No Heart” video and was later sentenced on battery charges.

By the time Above the Rim’s production was underway, Shakur’s legal dramas only intensified. In November 1993, he was charged with shooting two off-duty suburban Atlanta policemen. Those charges were eventually dropped. But shortly before Thanksgiving, Shakur, along with two associates, was charged with sexual assault of a woman in a New York City Parker Meridien hotel room. The case remains an indelible stain on his career, and Shakur, until the day he died less than three years later, maintained his innocence, even as he served much of 1995 in prison for the crime.

Shakur’s legal proceedings were a constant backdrop during the filming of Above the Rim, the stress of which took its toll on the cast. “It affected all of us, you know? We had to change the shooting schedule and delay production,” Leon said. “This stuff was all going on at the same time, and it could be a bit of a distraction.”

“He was great,” Martin said of working with Shakur, “when he wasn’t in trouble.”

“It must be hard for [Pollack] to have his main character in jail and you have to shoot tomorrow,” Shakur told MTV News. “But they never let me feel that.”

In a landmark 1995 VIBE prison interview, Tupac talked about hanging around with hardened street players who showed him the baller life that New York City had to offer. Two in particular were Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant and James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond — both of whom Shakur would later implicate, respectively, in the sexual assault case levied against him and the attempt on his life in 1994 at New York City’s Quad Studios.

“I would often have conversations with him about some elements around him, but I wasn’t abreast of it all because I wasn’t there every time he was getting in trouble,” said Wayans. “I’d just say, ‘Yo, you have the power to make different decisions, watch out for this, watch out for that … You have to dodge traps. You can’t run into them.’ ’Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel. Sometimes the thing that is your superpower is also your flaw.”

“You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats. That’s my movie.” — Tupac Shakur

Pinkins only had one day of working with Shakur, but his confidence impressed her. “We sat and talked [for a long while],” said Pinkins. “Everyone was so excited and hype, but he was just mellow … cool, and articulate. He was funny too. Someone who made you think he was already at that level of international phenomenon.”

Shakur rarely got much sleep while filming Above the Rim. He’d leave set once the day was over, go to the studio to record and come back to set the next morning primed and ready. “[Shakur] was as dedicated as I was. He was on point,” Leon said. “He had to be because so much of my acting was done silently with my eyes.”

Shakur was Above the Rim’s emotionally charged ultralight beam. His smile could light up a room, and his rage could clear one. Shakur, Rolling Stone lamented shortly after the film’s release, “steals the show.” His portrayal of Birdie was a “gleaming portrait of seductive evil.”

Shakur’s presence in the film is a beautiful reminder of what was. Wayans can still hear his own mother warning him. “ ‘Baby…’ ” Wayans re-enacts her, “I want you to be safe. [Shakur’s] a wonderful kid. I can see the talent in him. But you be careful of the elements around him.”

Above the Rim was filmed on a budget of approximately $3.5 million. In its opening weekend in March 1994, the film recouped that sum, amassing $3.7 million — and $16.1 million overall. It lives on in the conversation of best ’hood movies and one of the definitive sports movies of its era. Above the Rim lives on via streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

‘Black Duke’ takes flight After decades of resistance, black America embraces Blue Devils basketball

Once upon a time in college basketball, black fans had a special sort of hate for Duke.

This season is different. The Blue Devils are so good in the ‘hood, Jay-Z came to watch them play … in Pittsburgh. LeBron James witnessed the Zion Williamson mixtape in Charlottesville, Virginia. After every game, the internet is flooded with highlights of Williamson and Duke’s three other one-and-about-to-be-dones. The program has come so far from its so-called “Uncle Tom” days, Sacramento Kings rookie and recent Duke star Marvin Bagley III just laced the newest J. Cole beat with raps such as way back I was hated but they love me now.

And all that’s not even counting when Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley, Spike Lee and former President Barack Obama came to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rivalry game with North Carolina.

Black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. In 2017, 12 percent of black college basketball enthusiasts identified as Duke fans, compared with 8 percent of all college basketball fans. So far this season, 24 percent of the audience for Duke games on ESPN is black, compared with 21 percent for all games.


How did Duke go from ashy to classy? From supposedly privileged punks who vanquished iconic black teams to having a hairstyle named after the 2015 championship squad? From featuring white stars who fizzled in the pros to Zion running through competition like a midnight locomotive?

Like everything pertaining to Duke basketball, it starts with coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K changed with the times, gradually embracing the concept of recruiting players who would be at Duke for only a few months before jumping to the NBA. His credibility grew when he started coaching Olympic teams and building relationships with legends such as James and Kobe Bryant. The turning point was Duke’s 2015 title team, featuring three one-and-dones and the “Duke Starting Five” haircut trend.

Now Duke is an apex competitor, ready for the next “Nike check coming out the projects.” The freshmen Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones draw huge TV ratings. Duke has black fans like this dude, straight photobombing ESPN in Louisville’s arena after Duke came back from a 23-point deficit in the second half:

“I do think the success of the program, having a series of one-and-done players now, Coach K being fully embraced by the stars of the NBA with the Olympics, a confluence of things have contributed to changing that narrative,” said Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer and former Duke star who was unfairly saddled with much of the black community’s dislike of his team.

“It’s kind of funny why people didn’t like us back in the day. It’s even funnier now that people are big fans because of the haircut,” Hill continued.

“But the fact that Duke is now sort of embraced is interesting.”


Jay-Z laughs during the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Duke Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center on January 22, 2019 in Pittsburgh.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Duke hired Krzyzewski from West Point in 1980, two years after losing the NCAA championship game to Kentucky. In 1982, Krzyzewski brought in Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson and Jay Bilas. In 1986, that group and freshman Danny Ferry went to the championship game, which they lost to Louisville.

In that era, black America’s team was Georgetown, led by pioneering coach John Thompson. He took the Hoyas to three Final Fours, winning the 1984 national championship and the hearts of black folks with an attitude of uncompromising blackness.

Like Georgetown, Duke was an expensive, academically elite private school. Unlike Georgetown, Duke featured a high proportion of white stars, including Alarie, Ferry and, in the 1988-89 season, a bratty freshman named Christian Laettner. In the 1989 NCAA tournament, with Ferry and Laettner leading the way, Duke beat a Georgetown team featuring a young Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to secure a spot in the Final Four. Thompson never got that close to a championship again.

The next two seasons, two players arrived who would put Duke over the top and set the Duke image for years to come. Point guard Bobby Hurley fit one type of Duke stereotype: scrappy, not overly talented, and white. Hill fit another: He was the privileged son of a former NFL star and a corporate executive, and black.

“In the ’80s, it was almost the more struggle you came from, the blacker you were,” Hill said.

Another factor contributing to black fans’ past disdain for Duke was that the team’s best white players — Alarie, Ferry, Hurley, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers — often had mediocre NBA careers. Laettner, the best white Duke player, whose arrogance and frat-boy looks inspired hate in whites and blacks alike, made one All-Star appearance and averaged 12.8 points per game over his 13-year career. J.J. Redick, twice the National Player of the Year at Duke, has a career average of 12.8 points per game in his 13th NBA season.

Laettner and Hurley got destroyed in the 1990 NCAA championship game, losing 103-73 to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led by gold-toothed forward Larry Johnson. But in the 1991 Final Four, with Hill as a freshman, Duke took down undefeated UNLV, then went on to win Krzyzewski’s first title.

The following year, Laettner, Hill and Hurley smashed another set of black icons, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five freshmen, to capture a second straight championship.

“You had this idea about the kind of black players Coach K recruited,” said Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department. “Kind of a cut-and-dried, clean-cut type of black player … a lot seemed to be mixed-race. When it came to color, they were often light-skinned. It seemed like he had a pattern.”

Neal hated Duke basketball for years, even after he became a professor there in 2004. “What framed my view of Duke was when they played UNLV and it was portrayed as these great student-athletes versus the thugs,” he said, then added: “Laettner didn’t help.”

The Fab Five, who injected hip-hop style and attitude into college basketball, were viewed as the antithesis of Duke. Michigan’s Jalen Rose crystallized those feelings in his Fab Five documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

That was a false label — Rose’s teammate Chris Webber was a middle-class kid, for example, and Krzyzewski recruited Webber hard — but it resonated.

“I said what people had been thinking for 30 years,” Rose, now an ESPN analyst, said in an interview.

Kyrie Irving (left), during his one-and-done year at Duke, gets second-half instructions from coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) against Michigan State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 1, 2010.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty Images

But with two championships, Duke could now recruit with anyone in the country. The Blue Devils won a third title in 2001 with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Their fourth title, in 2010, featured Nolan Smith and white players such as Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Jon Scheyer.

Black stars such as Hill, Williams and Boozer probably would have been one-and-done in today’s game. As the college basketball landscape shifted, Corey Maggette left Duke after one season. Elton Brand left after two and became an NBA All-Star.

Then came Kyrie Irving, whose spectacular 11-game Duke career in 2010-11 set the program on a new course. Irving went first in the NBA draft, won Rookie of the Year, is a perennial All-Star and became an NBA champion in 2016.

The next generation of young stars took notice.


From left to right: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Justise Winslow of the Duke Blue Devils wait for player introductions before their game against the Miami Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13, 2015.

Lance King/Getty Images

The Black Duke turning point came in 2015: the championship team featuring freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and senior Quinn Cook.

“My freshman year, it was different,” Cook said. “Me and Amile Jefferson talk about it all the time. Warming up, it’d be like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber playing in the arena. And by my senior year, they were playing like Lil Durk and Shy Glizzy and Chief Keef and Meek Mill.”

Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” became the soundtrack to their championship run. The idea came from assistant coach Jeff Capel, the former Duke player whose jersey was spotted on Tupac Shakur back in the day.

“We play team basketball. Coach has a military background. We take charges. We get hype after little plays,” Cook said. “I think in the basketball community, it just looks like — I don’t want to say ‘corny,’ it’s just different. But coach lets you add your flair to it, add your little swagger, your team swagger.

“If we buy in and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on the court and in the classroom, coach lets us be us.”

When Cook arrived on campus, he was surprised to find out that several teammates had tattoos. They wore sweatsuits on the road, not suits and ties. Krzyzewski was a Beyoncé fan and had a picture with Jay-Z on his phone. After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2014 tournament, Cook started growing his hair out to show his complete focus on basketball. Then the entire team said no clippers would touch their hair until they lost. That took 14 games. They left the tops of their ’dos long and shaped up the bottoms. By the time they won the 2015 tournament, the Duke haircut had trended nationally.

In 2016, Brandon Ingram wore that haircut in his one-and-done Duke season. Then came Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Bagley. Next up is Williamson, one of the most electrifying college athletes ever and the obvious first choice in the 2019 NBA draft. Barrett is projected to be picked second, Reddish fourth and Jones later in the first round.

Today, “I just think Duke has a look to it,” Cook said. “If you look at the guys in the NBA, I don’t want to say it’s never been cool to go to Duke, but Duke is everywhere now.”

Said Rose: “Now, Coach K is recruiting the player. Before, they were recruiting the program. Before, Coach K wouldn’t even necessarily want four of the top 10 players because he wanted guys who he could mold them and culture them and bring them into the system. Just because you’re a top-flight player, that doesn’t mean you fit into what we’re trying to do.”

“Now, he fits Duke to the top-flight player.”


The roots of Black Duke run much deeper than Zion, Kyrie or Coach K.

In 1892, Trinity College relocated to Durham, North Carolina, with the generous assistance of a local tobacco baron named Washington Duke. That same year, Duke’s barber in Durham, an enterprising black man named John Merrick, expressed an interest in learning about real estate. Duke helped Merrick buy the barbershop, which he expanded into a chain of barbershops. Under Washington Duke’s tutelage, Merrick made more real estate purchases, which became Durham’s “Black Wall Street” district of businesses and homes owned by African-Americans.

Washington Duke also advised Merrick as he co-founded two pioneering black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Co. and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. After Duke’s death, his son James Duke gave millions to Trinity College, which was renamed after the Duke patriarch in 1924. Duke family money also endowed historically black universities such as North Carolina Central and Johnson C. Smith, plus what once was the black hospital in Durham.

“There’s a reason I like Duke that’s deeper than basketball,” said rap producer and longtime Duke fan 9th Wonder, who also is a professor at Duke, Harvard and his alma mater, North Carolina Central. “The Dukes went on record saying we cannot empower black people without teaching them economic empowerment.”

Duke went on a building spree with its new endowment. The architect for many of the campus buildings still in use today, including Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a black man named Julian Abele.

This history casts a different light on the perception of Duke as a “white” school — especially since we now know that Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838 to ensure its survival.

“When I talk to my friends and start pulling all this history up, it’s a hard reality for them to face,” 9th Wonder said. “They’re like, ‘The black person in me should have been rooting for Duke all along.’ ”

Outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University as snow falls from Winter Storm Diego on December 9, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Lance King/Getty Images

The 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was What if the lockout never happened?

Vince Carter’s 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland, California, is etched in NBA history thanks to his instantly iconic performance in the Slam Dunk Contest. In actuality, though, Oakland should have been his second All-Star trip. The 1999 NBA All-Star Game, booked in Philadelphia — on Valentine’s Day, at that — was the most high-profile casualty of an NBA lockout that threatened the entire 1998-99 season.

“That’s where it was supposed to be? In Philadelphia?” Carter says after a January practice in Sacramento, California. Even over the phone there’s genuine shock in his voice. “Wow,” he says. “I [really] had no idea.”

But what if the NBA hadn’t had to cancel the 1999 All-Star Game? What if, in a new, post-Michael Jordan NBA, there had been a huge Philly basketball celebration to help ease the pain of losing basketball’s biggest star?

What if there had been an All-Star Weekend in 1999? You’re in luck. There is.

But first, some backstory.


Noren Trotman/NBAE/Getty Images

It’s tough to fault Carter for not recalling. The 1998-99 season is a forgotten, or at least rarely discussed, chapter in NBA history. Owners locked out the players on July 1, and the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. There were “no trades, no player signings, no NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, or contact between players and team representatives.” There was no All-Star Game. Shortly after the 1998 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Famers such as Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, labor negotiations came to a screeching halt as growing profits, and how those profits would be allocated in coming seasons, became the glaring issue.

Team owners, among other things, talked salary cap issues and blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract. “That … changed the landscape,” said former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik after the lockout. “This was the one where owners said something had to be done.” Players talked about the NBA’s swelling revenues, especially from television, and the rookie salary scale, among other things.

Players unfairly shouldered much of the public blame for the lockout, though in fairness, some players didn’t make it easy on themselves from a public relations perspective. While attempting to organize a charity game in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to benefit UNICEF — and NBA players — then-union president Patrick Ewing said pro athletes “make a lot of money, but spend a lot, too.” The gesture of the game did anything but win the fans’ favor back to the players. The Boston Celtics’ Kenny Anderson joked about selling one of his eight cars. And Grant Hill took a temporary hit to his reputation for, in the eyes of many, not taking more of an assertive role during the lockout — and his Sprite commercial with Tim Duncan reportedly angered several players.

By mid-October, the NBA’s preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season had been canceled. “If the [NBA] isn’t back by Christmas,” said Neil Hernberg, then the sports marketing manager of apparel behemoth Pro Player, “we could lose 75 percent of our NBA business.” The effects of the lockout hit the pockets of other business partners as well. “The market is soft,” noted Steve Raab, vice president of marketing for Starter. “Retailers are reducing and canceling orders.”

Networks were forced to revamp programming, and shortly before Christmas, the NBA announced for the first time in its history — and, to date, still the only time since 1951 — that the league would cancel its annual midseason classic. The city of Philadelphia lost out on an estimated $40 million.

“[The lockout] didn’t set me back because I had nothing to be set back from,” says Carter. “I went back to [the University of North Carolina]. I did a semester … and had a chance to work out with Coach [Dean] Smith and the team while I was waiting for the lockout to end.”

The players approved a new deal 179-5 at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, and the league’s Board of Governors unanimously agreed to ratify the compromise. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the owners, but the players did walk away with more money for non-franchise players, and for the superstars. “Did [the players] blink?” then-NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter asked rhetorically. “I guess we both blinked.”

JOHN ZICH/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a week after the return of pro basketball back, Jordan retired for a second time.

The announcement wasn’t much of a shock, but the impact was massive and multidimensional. Television networks, which for years profited from Jordan’s magnetism, were forced to adjust to an uncertain new reality. “It’s unique to have been in a partnership with the NBA for eight years, and to have had this fairy dust sprinkled on us,” said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. “Now we have to reintroduce this generation of stars … will we get Babe Ruth tomorrow? No.”

“I’m sad to see him go,” rhythm and blues singer/actress Aaliyah said. “But he’s had an incredible career and we will miss him. … He’s worked hard and he deserves to relax now.”


It’s Valentine’s Day weekend in Philadelphia. In real life, the 1998-99 season is just over a week old. Teams and players are working their way back into a groove.

Instead of the pageantry of an All-Star Game, the 76ers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks. Allen Iverson is his usual self — 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks — helping Philly improve to 4-1 to start the season. He’s the game’s lone bright spot in a 78-70 Sixers victory. Unfortunately, the biggest news to hit the city that weekend is a fire that engulfed South Philly’s St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. And the biggest sports-related news? Wrestlemania XV invading the city in March, headlined by a no-disqualification title match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.

But let’s imagine an alternative history

Philadelphia is abuzz with Hollywood’s elite, music’s biggest names and NBA legends — both established and in the making. West Philadelphia’s Will Smith, fresh off “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” and Enemy of the State, is one of the biggest stars on the planet — he’s down front. So is Lauryn Hill — she’s one of the biggest musical artists on the planet. And Iverson? He’s in his third season and already one of the league’s most prolific scorers. But more than that? He reaches and represents a generation fueled by counterculture and soundtracked by hip-hop. While Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos are to some a sign of basketball’s decaying morals, to a younger generation he’s a symbol of defiance, swagger and perseverance.

“It’s unfair, but it’s true,” Iverson told Chris Rock. “People look at the way I dress, who I hang around, [my] jewelry — people try to make me 34 years old and I’m only 24.” People hated Allen Iverson and people loved Allen Iverson. It’s that dichotomy and that polarization that make him the obvious de facto mayor of the 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was.

Team owners, among other things, blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract.

Also at courtside for the game are hometown heroes such as Mike Schmidt and Moses Malone. There’s plenty of room also for the other stars ruling culture: Denzel Washington, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Winslet. Bill Russell is there, along with Wilt Chamberlain, whose relationship with Philadelphia is both storybook and tragic. The meeting at the 1999 NBA All-Star Game (that never was) would be one of their final times together, as Chamberlain would die eight months later.

Muhammad Ali and Philly’s own Joe Frazier, in the imaginary weekend’s most touching moment, publicly end a bitter feud that had lasted nearly 30 years with vicious taunts from both men. In real life, the two boxing icons squashed their beef at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Places of honor go to Julius Erving, as well as Jordan, whose presence is impossible to avoid given that most fans have yet to accept his second retirement.

Jazzy Jeff is the weekend’s official DJ. Hometown daughter Patti LaBelle performs the national anthem — paying homage to the city’s soulful musical roots with the most soulful rendition since Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The aforementioned Hill, following the August 1998 release of her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is tapped to perform at halftime with a string of hits, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything” and “Lost Ones.” Less than two weeks later, Hill’s place in history is cemented with five Grammys, including album of the year.

Celebrities are a necessary part of All-Star Weekend. As are big-name performers. But the biggest celebrities and performers are the ones voted in by the fans to start the game. Unlike 2019, the teams were still separated by conferences in 1999. Yet, like 2019, the game’s starters will be selected via fan vote. Here are your 1999 NBA All-Stars, for a game that never was — current and future Hall of Famers each one.

Eastern Conference

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G — Allen Iverson | Philadelphia 76ers

The weekend’s point person, if you will. Though if you’re in the mix, you’ll see Bubba Chuck at every party in the city. Iverson’s popping bottles, rocking jewelry bright enough to light up the nightclub and partying to DMX, Jay-Z, Cash Money. You’re probably wondering when he sleeps? It’s All-Star Weekend! No sleep! It’s Philly, and it’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and you know he’s bringing the city out. Iverson did eventually capture All-Star Game MVP in Washington, D.C., in 2001 — also a homecoming of sorts, given his Georgetown roots. So, needless to say, the league’s leader in points per game and minutes per game in the 1998-99 season would’ve put on a show before a crowd that treats him like a demigod to this day.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

G — Ray Allen | Milwaukee Bucks

Penny Hardaway really could’ve won a popular vote over Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth, in 1999. Penny started every game in ’98-’99 and led Orlando to the playoffs. But Hardaway’s injury history works against him here and is beginning to paint the picture of what could have been an all-time great NBA career derailed by factors beyond his control. Riding the wave of 1998’s He Got Game, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making gets the nod, and you best believe he’s rocking the HGG 12’s in the process — with Washington, Lee and Jordan all sitting courtside too. Hardaway was a magnificent shooter from the day he entered the league, and in his later years he became a marksman who nailed the 3 that saved the Miami Heat’s dynasty in 2013. But young Ray? Oh, young Ray could do it all. Including put you on a poster.

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

F — Vince Carter | Toronto Raptors

All the hoopla and hysteria we see around Luka Doncic now? That would’ve been Vince, the eventual Rookie of the Year, 20 seasons ago — had he actually had a real rookie season to lay ruin to. How massive was the Vince hype? Let his cousin and teammate, Tracy McGrady, tell it. “[Carter] lit the league on fire with his athleticism, his spectacular dunks,” he says with a smile you can almost see through the phone. “That momentum carrying into the ’99 All-Star break just would’ve been on fire.” Even in the abbreviated season, Carter’s athletic prowess became the theatrics of legend en route to a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Carter starts as a rookie in the All-Star Game because, why wouldn’t he?

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

F — Grant Hill | Detroit Pistons

One of the best (and most popular and marketable) stars in the league was set to be leaned on heavily in the post-Jordan era. His ability to do nearly any and everything on the court — Hill averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.9 percent shooting in ’98-’99 — made him an undeniable superstar with crossover appeal. Hill’s marriage to R&B star Tamia, whose brilliant 1998 self-titled album produced the hit “So Into You,” also made the former Duke Blue Devil a star far beyond the court. The sky is the limit for Grant Hill in February 1999. One question no one’s really asking at this point, though. Should we be talking about Hill’s impending summer 2000 free agency? Too early, right? Yeah, you’re right.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

C — Alonzo Mourning | Miami Heat

When the center position actually counted in the All-Star Game, here is Mourning. Shaquille O’Neal had long defected to the Western Conference. And Patrick Ewing’s prime years are behind him. Mourning is, without question, the East’s best center on a team many believe will compete for a championship come June. His 20 points and 11 rebounds per night would’ve made him an All-Star in any season — but his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game make getting into Fort Knox easier than getting to the rim when Zo’s in the neighborhood.

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Coach: Pat Riley | Miami Heat

With Jordan retired and the Chicago Bulls team a shell of its former self, Pat Riley’s Heat had real-life title aspirations and the squad to do it. Just a hunch, though: They should probably try to avoid the New York Knicks in the first round.

Western Conference

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

G — Gary Payton | Seattle SuperSonics

With fellow Oakland native and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in Phoenix, there’s competition out west for the starting guard spot, but The Glove gets the nod because he’s still very much the floor general who led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals three years earlier. The Sonics aren’t the dominant force in 1998-99 they were in the mid-’90s, but Payton’s output was still up there with the best point guards in the league: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.2 steals. Plus, Payton’s a showman of the highest order, and being able to mic him up in-game is too much basketball trash-talk nirvana to pass up.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

G — Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers

It was pretty much written in stone that from the moment this teenager started his first All-Star Game in New York a year earlier, one of these guard spots would be his every February for the foreseeable future. In️ this alternate reality, Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia — the city he claimed, although it didn’t always reciprocate his love — and puts on an absolute clinic. Not many players have had a higher flair for the dramatic than the perpetually dramatic Bryant. With Ali, Frazier, Hill, Jordan, Will Smith and others at courtside, maybe, just maybe, Bean captures MVP honors in Philadelphia in 1999 — just like he did in 2002.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

F — Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves

The Big Ticket, like Bryant, is inked in here for as long as he can put up with Minnesota, largely accomplishing very little during his prime years. By the end of his third season in 1997-98, Garnett had become a one-of-one generational talent. He was a complete freak on the defensive end and was the only player in the league to put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per night. If that wasn’t enough, the now three-time All-Star had no problem talking an opponent’s ear off.

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F — Karl Malone | Utah Jazz

Quick question. Don’t use Google, either. And please don’t Ask Jeeves. Who won MVP in 1999? If you guessed Malone, buy yourself a drink. Because of the lockout, his ’99 MVP, won in his 14th year in the league at age 35, is relegated to obscurity, sandwiched as it is between Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 and O’Neal’s virtuoso 2000 campaign. Malone, the game’s future second-all-time leading scorer, gets the fan selection here, but it does come with a caveat. There’s a young phenom in his second season at San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan who will make this spot his very, very soon.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

C — Shaquille O’Neal | Los Angeles Lakers

Like Iverson, if you’re in Philly for the 1999 All-Star Weekend that never was, it won’t be easy to miss Shaq. Sure, because of his stature. But more importantly because of his larger-than-life personality. O’Neal’s a megastar not just on the court but with a broad appeal similar to Jordan’s. And with Bryant in Philly too, there was the slight chance O’Neal and Bryant could’ve performed their long since forgotten rap collaboration “3X’s Dope” from O’Neal’s 1998 album Respect at some random party in the city.

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Coach: Gregg Popovich | San Antonio Spurs

Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, with a young Duncan and a wily vet in David Robinson, seem poised for something special in San Antonio. They might be on to something here.


Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Bonus: Is the 1999 NBA All-Star Dunk contest the greatest dunk contest that never happened?

Aside from a few special moments — see Cedric Ceballos’ blindfold, Dee Brown’s no-look, Shawn Kemp’s double pump, Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk Dunk or Brent Barry’s jump from the free throw line — the dunk contest lost steam in the ’90s. Bryant, as a rookie, won the contest in 1997. There was no contest at all in 1998 — and no dunk contest in Madison Square Garden spoke volumes. The contest returned in 2000 with a bang. At the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, Steve Francis, McGrady and Carter proved to be human defibrillators, reviving the contest with legendary swag.

“Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs! It would’ve been crazy!” — Tracy McGrady

Yet, McGrady still wonders what would have happened in Philly at the All-Star Game that never happened. Could the greatest field that never happened … have actually happened in 1999? “You had Kobe in [’97]. Then you got Vince come in. I mean, who knows?” McGrady says. “Kobe probably would’ve entered that Slam Dunk Contest that year with Vince. You just never know.”

Carter agrees, although the missed opportunity doesn’t hurt as much given the light show he and his cousin put on in Oakland. “As far as what could’ve been? Yeah, maybe that year — as far as a dunk contest,” Carter says.

A potential field of Bryant, McGrady and Carter? “Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs!” McGrady exclaims. “It would’ve been crazy!

Carter doesn’t want to play the “what if” game too much, though. But he realizes what those three could have brought to the floor in the 1999 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest that never was. “Kobe and I played with each other in AAU … Tracy and Kobe were good friends. The friendly competition and the mutual respect we had for each other as athletes and dunkers would’ve brought the best out of each and every one of us,” Carter says. “That would’ve been legendary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Above the rim: Best fictional starting 5s in the history of film + TV A completely impossible yet intriguing list of matchups only feasible in a basketball fantasyland

Who would win in a one-on-one between Michael Jordan and LeBron James? Could these Golden State Warriors beat the 72-10 Chicago Bulls? How many more titles could Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant have won if they actually liked each other? What if injuries never robbed the careers of Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Brandon Roy and Derrick Rose? There’s nothing quite like nostalgia. And when it comes to nostalgia in basketball, friendships are tested, battle lines are drawn and some of the hottest takes known to man fly off without a moment’s notice.

With the NBA playoffs set to take flight this weekend, we’ve decided to bring another completely impossible yet intriguing matchup only feasible in a basketball fantasy land.

The best to ever do it on television, vs. on film. We kept this to purely fictional players. NBA players in TV or film roles were not eligible, because what fun would that be? For example, no Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) from He Got Game, no Grandmama (Larry Johnson) from Family Matters or Neon Boudeaux and Butch McRae (O’Neal and Hardaway) from Blue Chips. Don’t trip, though, because there’s a melody of skill, charisma and enough comedy to give you flashbacks to the days of MTV Rock N’ Jock. This is a mini-draft equipped with a starting five, a sixth player and head coach. We’ll then let you decide who’d win this fictional Finals. Our own Justin Tinsley has television and Aaron Dodson has movies.

Those are the rules. We good? Good. Now let’s get to it …

TELEVISION

“Will Smith” (Will Smith)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Scouting Report: We’re always left to wonder what would’ve become of the Will character had he landed the Georgetown scholarship, completing the most feared college backcourt ensemble in history with Allen Iverson, Victor Page and Kyle Lee Watson. Smith’s a big combo guard who can score at will (pun intended). There are very few holes in The Fresh Prince’s game — except for one. Several general managers have expressed concern for his decision-making in crunch time, evident in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Courting Disaster” (season one, episode 11) and My Brother’s Keeper (season two, episode 15). Is he the cold-blooded killer you need in the game’s tightest moments? Even with that, The Prince is a franchise-caliber talent.

Steve Urkel (Jaleel White)

Family Matters

Scouting Report: In the “Grandmama” episode — season five, episode seven — Eddie Winslow dumped Urkel to play with The Spider, which allowed Urkel to call in reinforcements with Larry Johnson as “Grandmama.” To Eddie’s credit, Spider was nice. But we’re not making the same mistake, as The Nerd’s game is both technically sound and visually appealing.

Brandi (Kyla Pratt)

Smart Guy

Scouting Report: The year 1998 was a rather definitive one for Kyla Pratt, basketballwise. Not only did she play a young Monica Wright in Love & Basketball, giving young Quincy McCall the business on the court, but months later in “She Got Game” — season three, episode one of Smart Guy — she did the same thing, minus TJ (Tahj Mowry) pushing her into the bushes. “Brandi,” after some persuading, joins TJ’s squad, instantly transforming the team and supplanting TJ as the squad’s best player. Instant offense. Instant culture change. Instant winner with a chip on her shoulder.

Mark Cooper (Mark Curry)

Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper

Scouting Report: The Mr. Cooper character has two things working for him that no one else on this squad does. One, he’s a former NBA player (for his hometown Golden State Warriors). And two, he brings a certain maturity level this team is going to need if we’re hoping to make any sort of noise.

Kevin Hart

Real Husbands of Hollywood

Scouting Report: Technically, Kevin wasn’t a hooper on Real Husbands of Hollywood. But as a four-time NBA Celebrity All-Star Game MVP (and co-star of a hilarious basketball game with Chris Brown), he’s my ringer. We’re going to be running a small-ball lineup much of the time, so we’re going to need as many ball handlers, shooters and comedians as possible. Basically, call it The Annexation of Puerto Rico 2.0.

Sixth man: Martin Payne (Martin Lawrence)

Martin

Scouting Report: He’s an undersized 2-guard whose confidence is nothing short of irrational. But that’s fine. Payne is a defibrillator jolt of energy off the bench. He’s never met a shot he didn’t like. He doesn’t mind mixing it and jawing with the competition. And since he’s the classic definition of a streaky shooter, you take the good with the bad. He’s basically J.R. Smith with Gary Payton’s mentality. The only question mark to his game is where his head’s at before tipoff. If he and Gina — or worse, he and Pam — got into an argument beforehand (which is like saying “if water is wet”) he can easily shoot you out of a game as quickly as he can hit three miracle buckets in a row.

Coach: Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris)

The Wire

Scouting Report: This squad is going to need a no-nonsense general on the sidelines who can occasionally verbally decapitate a referee who misses a call — as seen in the brilliant “Game Day” episode from season one. The reports are true, though. I nearly went with Prop Joe, whose commitment to being the dope-game Pat Riley wearing a suit in Baltimore heat was only superseded by the iconic line “Look the part, be the part, m—-f—–!” But then that’d mean Joe’s nephew, “Cheese” (Method Man), would be somewhere near the team. And I can’t have Cheese near my squad. Nope. No how. No way.

FILM

Calvin Cambridge (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss)

Like Mike

Scouting Report: There’s one rule for my squad: no team sneakers. Every player has the free rein to break out whatever heat they so choose, especially the young god Calvin Cambridge. He’ll be wearing a pair of white and Carolina blue Nike Blazers, which used to belong to Michael Jordan when he was a kid, giving him the ability to ball out like the greatest of all time. The kicks even allow Calvin — at a modest 4 feet 8 inches — to dunk the ball (in Like Mike, he won the 2002 NBA Slam Dunk Contest). Who needs a point guard with fundamentals when you’ve got one with shoes that have magical powers zapped into them by lightning?

Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan)

Love & Basketball

Scouting Report: Sorry, Quincy McCall, but you didn’t make the team. That’s because his childhood sweetheart, Monica Wright, was without a doubt a better hooper in 2000’s Love & Basketball, one of the most iconic black films of all time. Remember the movie’s timeless line? “All’s fair in love and basketball.” Well, what isn’t there to love about Monica’s game? She’s an athletic point guard who plays with a whole lotta swag. Just look at her No. 32 jersey, which she wears in honor of her favorite player, Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson. Her character also earned a starting job at USC as a freshman, won a championship overseas and became one of the WNBA’s first players. We need that pedigree in our backcourt.

Kyle Lee Watson (Duane Martin)

Above the Rim

Scouting Report: Yup, we’re employing a three-guard offense — and we’re running it through the sharpshooting Kyle Lee Watson. The at-times hotheaded baller made it out of the ’hood of Harlem, New York, and all the way to the Hilltop in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University, where he played in the 1990s for what was once known as black America’s basketball team, under John Thompson Jr., the first African-American head coach to win an NCAA title. We just gotta hope that when he gets the rock, he spreads his fingers and puts some rotation on his jumper.

Clarence Withers, aka Coffee Black (Andre 3000)

Semi-Pro

Scouting Report: Back in 1976, during an ABA game between the San Antonio Spurs and Flint Tropics, the first alley-oop in basketball history was recorded. “A very unusual series of moves just made the ball go in,” play-by-play announcer Dick Pepperfield uttered in awe that day. On the receiving end of the pass from the top of the key by Jackie Moon? None other than Clarence Withers (aka Coffee Black, aka Downtown “Funky Stuff” Malone, aka Sugar Dunkerton, aka “Jumping” Johnny Johnson), who’s listed at only 5 feet, 10 inches but has supreme bounce to go along with his picked-out Afro. Between Coffee Black and Calvin Cambridge, we might as well refer to the movie team from here on out as the new Lob City.

Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs)

Cooley High

Scouting Report: *Cues up G.C. Cameron’s original rendition of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”* Long before the real-life deaths of star hoopers Benji Wilson and Len Bias, the basketball world lost a great one in Richard “Cochise” Morris, from the 1975 film Cooley High. Cochise received a scholarship to play at the historically black Grambling State University but was killed before he could graduate from high school. Let’s just say that his tragic death never happened, making him a valuable addition to our roster.

Sixth Man: Antoine Tyler (Kadeem Hardison)

The Sixth Man

Scouting Report: We’ve got skill, athleticism and, most importantly, a higher being on our side. There’s no better sixth man for our squad than Antoine Tyler, who in the 1997 film The Sixth Man helped lead his younger brother Kenny Tyler (Marlon Wayans) and the Washington Huskies basketball team to an NCAA championship as a guardian angel after suffering a heart attack on the court and dying. At the end of the movie, Antoine ascended to heaven to ball for God’s team, but hopefully he’ll return to help us out.

Coach: Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson)

Coach Carter

Scouting Report: If there’s one man who wouldn’t back down to the street savant-turned-basketball coach known as Avon Barksdale, it’s Ken Carter. Inspired by a real person, and depicted by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2005 film of the same name, Coach Carter barred his entire team (which was undefeated, mind you) from playing in games because his players were failing classes. The community turned against Carter, who nearly lost his job, when what he wanted was for every player to go to college, even if basketball was a casualty. Win or lose, Coach Carter would probably have Avon doing suicides and pushups, out of principle alone.

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.