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In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.
However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.
“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”
Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.
Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.
Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.
In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.
Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.
Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.
If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.
Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.
City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.
Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.
In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.
Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.
The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.
Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.
Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.
The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?
“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”
Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.
Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.
LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”
Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.
Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”
When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”
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Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”
Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.
Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.
Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.
It can’t be flippant. It can’t be casual, and it can’t be all about the white people.
Two of off-Broadway’s most unconventional playwrights opened shows this season that feature black characters voluntarily engaging in situations that require them to be enslaved: Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play and Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise.
If one were to compile a list of Things Black People Do Not Care to Resurrect, the institution of slavery would be at the top by unanimous decision. The instinct to reach for pitchforks is understandable, but hold off for a moment. If having modern black characters enter into slavery or recreations of it is going to be a thing, it might be best to establish some guidelines. Not rules, which only invite themselves to be broken, but some best practices.
Slave Play enjoyed a much buzzed-about run at New York Theatre Workshop (Madonna came!) before it closed in January. The plot revolves around three black characters, all in interracial relationships, who invite their white partners to a Virginia plantation for something called Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy. The couples have reached psychosexual impasses in their relationships, and they are all seeking a way back to having good, enjoyable sex. Harris, the creator of this scenario, is a 30-year-old graduate student at Yale School of Drama.
White Noise is the product of a 55-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner and is running at the Public Theater through May 5. In it, Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist who asks his white friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), to buy him for a period of 40 days and 40 nights for $89,000, the amount it will take to pay off his credit card and student loan debt. Each man is in a relationship: Leo is with a white woman named Dawn (Zoë Winters) and Ralph has a black girlfriend named Misha (Sheria Irving).
Both plays follow white characters as they submit to the seduction of white supremacy and finally admit that they’re not necessarily the Good White People they believe themselves to be.
The imagery required by such a thought experiment is deeply disturbing, of course. That’s the point.
Slave Play includes a scene in which a black woman named Kaneisha is ordered to eat fruit off the ground at the behest of her white overseer/boyfriend. In White Noise, Leo is placed upon a desk that functions as an auction block while wearing an iron collar designed to snag on trees and branches and break the wearer’s neck should he or she run away. Ralph forces him to wear a T-shirt that reads “SLAVE.”
The night I saw White Noise, there were audible gasps of horror when Diggs-as-Leo entered the stage with the collar around his neck. It wasn’t just the presence of an iron torture device that inspired such reaction. It was Leo’s body language. His shoulders slumped. The light had disappeared from his eyes. He was enveloped in a cloud of shame and resignation. In that moment, I could not see Leo. I could only see Daveed Diggs, and it was beyond awful.
I wanted to vomit.
Forget plausible. In what world, imagined or otherwise, was this level of degradation useful, much less defensible?
I couldn’t be fully present for the remainder of the show. Instead, I started wondering how Diggs was managing to play this role for eight performances a week. I checked my phone to see how much more of Leo’s enslavement we’d have to endure. I squirmed in my seat and I seethed, waiting for the play to end.
Is it even possible to suspend disbelief to accept “modern black person voluntarily enters slavery” as a plausible (if absurd) plot point? How do we determine where the proverbial line is?
Its location depends upon a number of factors. It’s helpful to think about the use of slavery in storytelling the way we do with other topics that audiences can find repellent, such as sexual violence.
In recent years, plenty of critics have written about the way sexual assault is deployed in film and television, especially because both mediums are dominated by male writers and directors and much of the sexual violence that happens to female characters happens without much thought, or as motivation for the vengeful actions of another male character. It’s gratuitous.
In 2016, there was a tense exchange between HBO’s head of programming and members of the Television Critics Association, who were challenging the network’s reliance on rape as a plot device in The Night Of and Westworld. In 2015, after a disturbing episode of Game of Thrones aired in which Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was raped by her husband on their wedding night, Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg offered some clarity on how to think about the way sexual violence is deployed in storytelling. “I think it’s important to preserve the distinction between saying that something simply isn’t for me and drawing a more definitive conclusion that something is a poor artistic choice,” she wrote. “You can assert the former, but you have to argue the latter, using the text and the language of the artistic form at hand.”
So when it comes to Slave Play and White Noise, which are both risky, wire-walking productions, how do we know when the choice to have black characters willingly enter enslavement is simply personally distasteful and when it’s a poor artistic choice?
Well, it can’t be flippant. And it can’t be casual.
The first two points are easy enough to understand. The likelihood that a show will be terrible if it treats the choice to become a slave with the same consideration that one might give to forgoing flossing is 99.9 percent. It’s not an exact comparison, but see: the uproar when Russell Simmons released a “Harriet Tubman sex tape” under the auspices of parody. There are ways to make excellent jokes about the most repugnant of topics (hello, The Producers!), but it’s not easy.
In White Noise, Leo, an insomniac, has a contract drawn up that lays out the terms of the enslaved engagement after he’s attacked by police while walking in his neighborhood one night. Leo comes out of the incident with a badly bruised face, a broken tooth and a desire for one of his oldest friends to own him. As Leo puts it:
“Back in the day, a guy like me would be walking wherever and he’d get stopped by the Law, some law enforcement individual, and there would be a ‘Whose n—– are you, n—–?’ moment and the guy like me would be like, ‘I belong to Master So-And-So,’ and the Law would be like, ‘Oh, if you’re Master So-And-So’s property, then you’re cool with us, so go ahead on with your black self’ and a guy like me would go on,” Leo explains. “ ’Cause he was owned by somebody. ’Cause the brother was the property of the man. He was safe ’cause he was a slave.”
Both White Noise and Slave Play are deeply considered works, not intellectual clickbait. Slave Play especially understands the need for an off-ramp if audiences are to follow its characters to such a dark place. It even includes a safe word: “Starbucks!” Furthermore, Slave Play is based in a real kink that exists in the world of bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism. It’s strange, but it’s not unthinkable.
The journey to urban plantation life in White Noise feels a little more undercooked. Black men get harassed and beaten up by the police with such frequency in this country that black parents prepare their children for it. Using a violent encounter with police as Leo’s motivation does seem rather flippant or, at the very least, not all that well-considered. It certainly invites a question: Given how often these interactions take place, why aren’t other desperate black men offering themselves up for further abuse and unpaid labor? The answer is obvious, and the idea collapses in on itself before we’re halfway through the play.
The third guideline for putting voluntary slavery on stage — it can’t be all about the white people — is the trickiest.
Parks recently participated in a discussion about White Noise in New York with Oskar Eustis, the show’s director and the artistic director of the Public Theater, and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. Parks said she has a rule for her approach to writing characters: “Everyone gets to ride the bus. … No one gets thrown under the bus.”
Parks added: “I love each of these characters, and I understand each of their points of view.”
I wanted to scream. When the person on the bus is a rapist, or a slave owner, or a Nazi, and an enthusiastic one at that, it’s OK to throw them under the damn bus. It is possible to write a play about race and racism that manages to successfully keep all its characters aboard the bus without capitulating to whiteness (The Niceties is an example), but it’s not as straightforward as understanding the white ones.
If only White Noise reflected the love that Parks proclaims for each of her characters. Of the four main roles, Ralph, the sole white man, is the most clearly developed, to a stunning degree. His motivations are the most clearly articulated, and his grievances genuine. Parks sends him down a rabbit hole of white supremacy so deep that by Day 28 of his jaunt into slave ownership Ralph joins a “White Club” and then brags to his White Club friends that he has his own personal slave. Ralph’s storyline cuts off the development of all the other characters in White Noise.
I had a better understanding of the show’s weaknesses after I heard Eustis say he wanted to keep the audience on Ralph’s side for as long as possible. Again, I found myself stifling the urge to scream.
Why!?! Why is there a need to keep the audience on Ralph’s side at all? Everything, from the Constitution (as playwright and actress Heidi Schreck thoughtfully illustrates in What the Constitution Means to Me) to the Supreme Court to virtually every instrument of power in the history of this country is on Ralph’s side. To quote Peggy Olson in Mad Men: “You have everything, and so much of it.”
To conduct a successful thought experiment about a black person volunteering for slavery, it’s paramount to acknowledge this imbalance and to resist the deep gravitational pull of white narcissism, which devours injustice toward black people and spits out white injury. (Ralph finds that slaveholding soothes his wounded ego after he’s passed over for a tenured professorship in favor of a person of color.)
It’s a stage version of “All Lives Matter”: What starts out as a story about how white supremacy affects a black person (Leo) becomes subsumed by talk about how white people feel and how they’re being victimized. There’s no room to center the voice of the person who the terrible thing actually happened to. And that’s not enough to justify the humiliation of trotting out some lost brotha, who doesn’t feel remotely believable, in an iron collar.
Parks concludes White Noise with Leo the insomniac shouting, “I’m awake. I’m awake.” But she never establishes how he managed to be asleep for so long in the first place.
Lest you think this sort of well-intentioned clumsiness is unique to stories about American racism, I assure you it is not. In her 2018 film When Hands Touch, writer-director Amma Asante somehow managed to All Lives Matter the Holocaust with a story in which a black German girl falls in love with an actual Nazi.
By contrast, even though the white characters of Slave Play cannot get past their own solipsism, the play itself does. The black characters go on their own journeys and come to their own realizations independently. And there’s a deeper truth within Slave Play, which is that sometimes nothing, not even placing oneself in the role of a slave owner, will get white people to wake the hell up. Sometimes you just have to take the L and let them go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
This essay includes spoilers.
After seeing Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us, I wondered if the director had created it as a warning to himself to resist the siren comforts of wealth, fame and his own id after the smashing reception he received for last year’s Get Out. Forget the voiceless and pay the price, Us seems to be croaking at its audience.
Allow me to explain: Us is about a middle-class black family, the Wilsons, who go on vacation to California only to find themselves at the center of a revenge plot 30 years in the making. The father, Gabe (Winston Duke), is a big, corny teddy bear of a man who is overcome by an almost pathological need to keep up with the family frenemies, the Tylers. The Tylers, who are white, have a nicer car, a bigger boat and a more modern, better-equipped vacation house. Gabe, much to the chagrin of his wife, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), wants to go to the beach to hang out with Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and compare boat notes. Adelaide wants to stay home and read instead of making small talk while Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) sips her mommy juice. It turns out Adelaide’s nervousness is about way more than hanging out with a bickering white couple and their bratty twin daughters.
The Wilsons are soon visited by a family that is a twisted mirror of their own: a husband, a wife and two children, all clad in red jumpsuits and tan leather driving gloves on their right hands. Each of them is equipped with sharp brass shears that are useful for stabbing people and cutting the heads off of rabbits.
It turns out everyone, including the Tylers, have these red-clad doppelgängers, who refer to themselves as “shadows.” The shadows live underground, tethered to the whims of their sun-basking counterparts. They are a permaclass of the unseen, unheard and unacknowledged, and none of them has the ability to speak — except Red, who communicates with a creaking, disturbed hollowness, as if an animal had chewed halfway through her vocal cords. When Adelaide enjoys a Christmas of gifts, merriment and a hearty dinner, her shadow is forced to dine on raw rabbit. When Adelaide gets married, has sex and gives birth to two children, so too does Red. The shadows are crude copies of humans who experience pain, torture, madness and imprisonment from all the things that give their doubles pleasure.
Sick of their fate, the shadows emerge to conduct a massive, blood-soaked untethering. There are harbingers of disaster everywhere in the film that all point to the same Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
Us is a jagged allegory for the pitfalls of capitalism and the resentment that mounts when we pretend those whose labor we exploit for our happiness do not exist. As social commentary, it’s not as razor-sharp as Get Out. But it still feels like an exceptional accomplishment, mainly because Peele created a role that is a worthy showcase of Nyong’o’s talent. In Us, Nyong’o is the unforgettable two-faced queen come to warn us of what will happen when we keep our own brethren out of sight and out of mind. She makes Red’s movements just as studied, precise and creepy as her voice. It is a virtuosic performance and wickedly fun. You get the sense that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Bette Davis would hate Nyong’o if she were her awards season competition, before perhaps warming to her with grudging respect.
Peele has been explicit that Us is not a film about race, and yet it pulls off something that feels transcendent, both because of the unstudied blackness of its cast and because of Peele’s commitment to smartening up a genre typically defined by gore, monsters, cheap scares, or all of the above. In the history of the Oscars, only six horror films (The Exorcist, Jaws, Black Swan, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense and Get Out) have been nominated for best picture.
In both Get Out and Us, Peele builds on a tradition of black horror as social commentary and pushback against white stereotypes of blackness that extends as far back as Duane Jones’ turn as Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ben, who is actually the hero of the film, ends up getting shot and tossed on a funeral pyre when white rescuers assume he’s an enemy. This, after he’s spent the movie saving a bunch of white people from marauding ghouls looking to eat live flesh.
Peele delights in playing with tropes and subverting them. In Get Out, the black protagonist actually gets to live. In Us, the white family is deemed inessential to the plot and gets offed by the second act. In Us, the clue to Adelaide’s status as a misfit lay in her inability to snap on beat to a rapper’s ode to the communal consumption of a dimebag. Later in the movie, that same song gets reinvented with heavy, spooky, sonorous strings, courtesy of composer Michael Abels, who also scored Get Out. He simultaneously celebrates the genre and critiques it. Peele offers something for everyone: winks and Easter eggs for fanboys who consume movies as though they’re video games to be figured out, highbrow allegory for those who need more than an imaginary monster to keep them up at night, and now a fantastically twisted antihero played by an Academy Award-winning queen.
Furthermore, he broadens appreciation for the genre. Peele managed to get Oprah Winfrey (who is on record as someone who avoids scary movies) and plenty of others who are horror-averse to not only sit through Get Out but marvel at it and then see it again. He’ll likely accomplish something similar with Us. Both are too zeitgeisty to miss.
In the context of horror history, in which films such as King Kong, The Spider and The Creature from the Black Lagoon used monsters as stand-ins for black people, Peele’s success feels like a multilayered triumph. It wasn’t that long ago that a thoughtful horror film by a black director was pooh-poohed by studio executives for being too ambitious. When Bill Gunn released Ganja & Hess in 1973, in which the need for blood functioned as a metaphor for drug addiction, it was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival. But American film executives were so turned off that it was recut and released as the hackneyed Blood Couple. If you wanted to see Ganja & Hess, it was nearly impossible. The Museum of Modern Art possesses the print.
Almost 50 years later, Peele is getting the recognition that bypassed directors such as Gunn, and he is slashing his own path through Hollywood with remakes of The Twilight Zone and Candyman. He’s said repeatedly that Us is about how we are our own worst enemies. Maybe Peele is also thinking about how to avoid becoming his.
Cleveland native DJ Steph Floss texts me Wednesday morning that he’s outside my downtown hotel. Steph is a voice of the city, a longtime resident mixshow DJ on Z 107.9 who holds the dual distinction of being the official DJ of both his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and the team’s biggest star, LeBron James. His portfolio includes having spun at events for Jay-Z, Barack Obama, NIKE, Beats by Dre and a who’s who of A-list clientele with residences in cities all across the United States and into Canada. And from 2009-14, he was named Ohio’s Best Club DJ.
It’s hours before the Cavs’ heartbreaking Game 3 loss. A defeat that makes Friday night’s Game 4, a potential closeout game for the Golden State Warriors, all the more sobering. No one knows what to expect this offseason with James’ future with the Cavaliers — not even Floss, one of James’ closest friends. Or if he does, he’s not breaking his poker face.
Floss agreed to show me around his city for the day. It’s game day, so the first stop might just be the most important: the barbershop. En route to Supreme Barber and Salon in Cleveland Heights, Floss opens up about his love of travel. Perspective, he says, is key to developing a true appreciation for the world around you. He’s traveled the world for work, DJ’ing at clubs and stadiums around the world, and for pleasure. The opportunity is a testament to both his own work ethic and the blessings in his life.
It’s been 15 years since his life as a DJ began on the campus of The Ohio State University on a marketing and operations scholarship. But music and the joy of entertaining crowds are seeds that had been planted far earlier. He credits the movie Juice, both for the late Tupac Shakur’s presence and, in particular, Omar Epps’ role as Q. “He was a young, fly dude. He’s DJ’ing. He got the nice little older babe,” Floss laughs while looking for parking. “He commanding the crowd. He’s cool and he’s out here. I’m like man, you know, I love music as well. Maybe that’s something I could do, but my mother would never buy me the equipment. She was like, ‘You not ’bout to have all that and be loud up in my house!’ ”
We pause that conversation and head into the barbershop. As is the case for most black men, it’s a safe space for Floss. He knows everyone. Everyone knows him. Demaris cuts his hair. Swiss lines me up. The conversations range from the upcoming Cleveland Browns season and the uncanny but fitting buzz in the city about the team and his overhaul of talent this offseason. Then there’s a completely random and hilarious homage to former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach and current NBA commentator Jeff Van Gundy. “Jeff wanted all the smoke!” said a patron while discussing Van Gundy’s willingness to throw himself into NBA brawls.
After about an hour, Floss and I leave. The conversation picks back up where we really dive into his come up, how the Cleveland Cavaliers came calling and his kinship with LeBron James.
So how did this Steph Floss story ultimately begin? Where do the roots begin?
When I was in high school, a group of friends of mine, we used to throw parties. We were like 15 years old throwing parties and making good money. We would call ourselves all kinds of stuff, like Platinum Plus. But, you know, we had other people that was part of the collective as well. I wasn’t DJing at the time, but we used to throw the craziest little high school parties. (Floss attended Benedictine High School.) We’d have thousands of people there. It was insane. Me and Rich [Paul, founder of Klutch Sports and LeBron James’ agent], went to the same high school together. That’s how we met each other.
I love school. I still love learning and I still love education. When I was in school, I was out here. I was in the nightlife and kicking it and partying. Hanging out and having fun. But I was also really into my books as well. Once I went to Ohio State, I said I have this scholarship and I don’t really wanna mess this scholarship so I’m gonna focus on my studies. But I needed to make some money.
I don’t have to pay for school, but I wanna make some money. And I don’t want to work a ‘job’ because I don’t want that to take away from my classes and sleep. I said, you know what? I always wanted to DJ. We had been throwing parties. So I’m just finally teaching myself how to DJ. I get the [equipment] and get busy. I’ve been wanting to DJ since I was like 8 years old.
Floss used money from the refund checks he received while at OSU to buy equipment. For Floss it was all about believing the part so others would too. The easiest way to do that? Release a mixtape. While on summer vacation after his freshman year, Floss built a makeshift studio in his mom’s basement. He set it up like a karaoke bar. The mic hung from the pipes in the ceiling and, as one would expect, the sound quality left much to be desired. “It was one of the best mixtapes I’ve ever done,” he says with a smile.
It was the closest Floss felt, at the time, to being like the DJ Clues, DJ Absoluts and the Funkmaster Flexes of the world, all of whom he cited as inspirations. But his first big moment came on campus after that summer. After his showing at a cookout at OSU’s Hale Black Cultural Center, the ladies of Delta Sigma asked him to DJ their big campus party known as the “Icebreaker.”
“They were like, ‘How much do you charge?’ I was like, ‘Uh, $150?’ ” says Floss. He didn’t know how much to charge because prior to them he had never been paid. “The first party I ever DJ’d was the biggest party at Ohio State. I think I did a decent job despite my equipment kept cutting off because it was overheating. I had my dudes with me. I had them fanning the amp while I’m DJ’ing for the rest of the night. I eventually got everything rolling, and the rest is kinda history.”
We’re pulling up at Beachwood Mall, an upscale shopping center in suburban Cleveland, when we transition to life after Ohio State.
How did the Cavs and LeBron come into the picture?
I was still living in Columbus. I would travel back and forth [to Cleveland] because we had a nightclub called The View that started popping up here. That was one of the dopest nightclubs ever. We had a crew called 8081 that we started doing the parties under. My guy Kelton, my guy Smallz, Meel, Mo, myself, Rich. They hit me up like we got this party Sunday night that we’re about to start doing. I would travel back and forth from Columbus to Cleveland and do the party. The first couple of nights it wasn’t making no money, but I saw something in it and I liked being home. I stuck with it. It ended up being one of the best decisions that I’ve made. Everybody that started off, right now we’re all brothers. Only thing that could make us closer is blood.
So I was doing that party and at the time my guy Mick Boogie was DJ’ing for the Cavs. I was part of his DJ crew, the League Crew. Mick didn’t talk on the mic, but I would talk on the mic when I was DJ’ing so I could host as well. Mick knew that, and he asked me to come host a party for him because his host was MIA or something. I was like, ‘Cool, yeah, I’ll come do that.’ I hosted the party and I kept doing it. As a result, me and Mick got closer and closer and I became part of the League Crew. It was me, Mick, Terry Urban and DJ Fresh.
Mick would do the Cavs games, so some games he’d just take me with him. I just noticed how he would be DJ’ing the games. The kinda music he’d be playing early in the games as opposed to late in the games as opposed to pregame.
It got to a point where these are Cavs games and they’re popping. I was basically coming to these games for free. What I started doing is I started getting to the games early to solidify I’m gonna get there and I would hook Mick’s equipment up. He’d come in and basically just be able to plug and play. I was very familiar with everything. Then Mick decided he wanted to move to New York. During this time, my relationship with ‘Bron became stronger and stronger. The whole crew, really. All of our relationships became stronger. Around this time, we had went to the Finals in 2007. At that point, we had all been around each other for some time. It’s crazy. Mick decided he wanted to move to N.Y. during the playoffs. He was outta there because he had a gig in N.Y. The Cavs needed a DJ for one of the playoff games, and Mick was just like, ‘Can you do it?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I can do it!’
One of the first times I’ve ever DJ’d in the Q was a Cavs playoff game. It was like an Eastern Conference finals game. It was some wild game! I held it down. It’s crazy because I was never nervous or anything like that. The time came for the new season, and it made the most sense [to hire me]. It was a real process to interview and all that.
Obviously, you’re working with the Cavs. LeBron’s LeBron. But how did you all grow to become so close?
Aight, so I met ‘Bron via Rich, but of course if you’re from northeastern Ohio you knew who LeBron James was. But we also had other mutual friends, and I remember they came down [to OSU]. ‘Bron was real cool with Maurice Clarett at the time, and that was my guy at Ohio State. Him and ‘Bron were seen as the next two superstar athlete friends that were gonna [dominate the NFL and NBA]. We met via all of these different channels and became cool. Then everybody just started advancing in their careers.
A lot of times people think since ‘Bron is like my brother, they think he’d be like, ‘That’s my guy, he’s gonna be DJ’ing.’ Nah, it didn’t work like that. ‘Bron is my guy, but I worked my way into it. I don’t get it anywhere near as much now, but at first it was like, ‘You just got that because of ‘Bron.’ I’m like, actually, I was going to Quicken Loans Arena setting up equipment early just to make sure I was in the arena so I could watch the game.
You’ve been doing this for 10 seasons?
This is how I count my years. Well, I was here for two years with ‘Bron. Then ‘Bron was gone four years and I was still here. Now he’s been back four years. So that’s 10. Then I sit back and think like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. It’s been 10 years.’ It’s been a roller coaster. Some super highs and some lows, but we still here and it’s been beautiful.
It’s in and out in Beachwood for Floss. We’re roughly six hours away from tipoff, and he still has to run by his office downtown at Spaces and Co., drop off some used clothes at the Goodwill, get a run in (he’s an avid runner) and grab a bite to eat. But you can’t have a name like ‘Floss’ and not be fresh. He runs into Next, a trendy apparel store with a hilarious sales expert named Trice who, as she dubs it, is “serving looks” all day.
After shopping and talking for nearly an hour, Steph ultimately decided on a deep pink champion hoodie and orange Carrots T-shirt. Trice jokes about pulling up the game tonight and Steph’s after-party at Lago, which overlooks Lake Erie. As we make our way back to Steph’s car, the topic of LeBron comes up. As with James, a notoriously caring person for those he considers his closest friends, Floss speaks highly of the four-time MVP.
He’s achieved success without LeBron. He’s made a name for himself without LeBron. But make no mistake about it, Floss’ appreciation for James’ friendship and the opportunities he’s helped make happen just through remaining true to each other is limitless.
“‘Bron’s put everyone in his crew to be successful without him,” Floss says while throwing his recently purchased items in the trunk. “That’s the best thing about him.”
Is it fair to call you “LeBron James’ official DJ?”
It was at a point when ‘Bron was in Miami. We’d go down to Miami and ‘Bron would be like, ‘You know how crazy it is that you’re the Cavs’ official DJ and my official DJ still?’ We would be joking and laughing about it, but as I’ve gotten older with nightclubs and everything [putting that] on publications and flyers — it’s in my bio and all of that stuff — they’ll send me over a flyer and it’ll be like ‘DJ Steph Floss—official DJ of LeBron James.’ I tell them you gotta take that man’s name off. You gotta put “Cleveland Cavaliers” because that man is the biggest entity in sports. Flat out. A lot of people try to finesse. Regardless how good I am or whatever, people are gonna try to finesse more people to the club or finesse a LeBron James situation at their event via that tagline.
You’re gonna try to make other people believe ‘Bron is coming out when he is not coming out. I’m the one that’s spinning! There’s been times where I popped up in a city and the Cavs have had a game and I had a gig. ‘Bron didn’t even know, and he’ll hit me up like, ‘What spot you at tonight?’ He’ll be like, ‘Cool, I’ll fall through.’ Or he might be like, ‘I’ma just chill.’ The club owner and the promoter’s mentality for a lot of spots are trying to capitalize and put some butts in the seats.
It gives people a false hope that everywhere you are LeBron is gonna be there.
That’s not fair to you. That’s not fair to him. That’s not fair to me. I’m not giving you that false hope! Like I said, in my younger years, yeah you can put that on there. That’s cool. But now I’m like nah, you gotta pay for that. You gots to pay for that!
What makes it so unique about LeBron that he’s so effortlessly entrenched in hip-hop culture?
The fact he’s from northeastern Ohio, as we all are, we’ve always had to pull from different coasts and different eras from music. I honestly think, and no disrespect to anybody else, Midwest DJs, and especially Cleveland DJs, are some of the best in the country. It’s because we’ve never really had a run for real. We’ve had Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, but it’s a lot of areas with DJs who’ve had runs. Like Atlanta. They’ve had a crazy run, so their DJs could just play all Atlanta music during the set and they’ll be fine. West Coast, always have a run! New York had a run! Chicago, they’re Midwest, but Chicago had a run. Texas, they’ve had runs. New Orleans too! But we always had to know music from everywhere! If you hear a set from me or another Cleveland DJ, you’re gonna be like, ‘Yo, how do they know this?’ It’s because we have to. We couldn’t rely on just playing Bone all night! Or Ray Cash. You just can’t rely on playing our artists’ music because we never had a run of that magnitude.
Like with ‘Bron, we grew up listening to a lot of West Coast music. Especially those guys in Akron. They had ties with The Bay area, like E-40, Yukmouth, Too Short and people like that. Around here, man, we listen to a lot of West Coast music growing up. I was like the biggest Spice 1 and MC Eiht fan. We used to love that. We also have a huge connection with Texas with our music and their music. Their culture is kinda like us, and we’re kinda like them with the old-school cars and a lot of slang. Then, of course, we’re not far from the East Coast. You’d love the Biggies, the Jay-Zs. I grew up loving Mobb Deep. You would’ve thought I was from Queensbridge: Mobb Deep, Nas, AZ. I listened to everything!
So ‘Bron’s authenticity comes from the fact he really knows and loves music. It’s not fake. It’s not like I’m just gonna put this song on my IG because this is what’s poppin’. This is what I like. You may like it or you may not, but this is what I’m listening to and this is what I think is poppin’. I think the artists understand that. He really knows his music.
His IG stories are basically the new listening sessions.
It’s an A&R-type situation! You’d be surprised how many people have asked me, ‘Can you get big homie this joint?’ I’m like, ‘That’s awkward, man!’ (laughs) Like I understand it, but it’s like I’ll tell him to listen to it and if he likes it he does what he does with it. It’s been times I’ve told LeBron such and such sent me the album early and I’ll send it over to you. He’ll listen to it and he actually liked the album, but he didn’t put anything up on his story. You can’t use him though. I’m letting you know the man liked the album. It is what it is. That’s what is authentic about him. And he has a good ear.
After a quick bite and a few more errands, we part ways until it’s time to link back up at Quicken Loans Arena for Game 3. As if the crowd needs any more reason for creating a raucous environment, Steph runs through a litany of high-energy hits: Ayo & Teo’s “Rolex,” Jeezy’s “Win,” Diddy’s “Victory,” Lil’ Reese, Rick Ross and Drake’s “Us (Remix)” and the modern-day holy grail of hip-hop motivational sermons in Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro).”
Unfortunately, all the energy in the world, yet another LeBron triple-double and a breakout performance from Rodney Hood wasn’t enough, as Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors inched one step closer to defeating the Cavs for the third time in the past four seasons. With the game ending closer to midnight, Steph lamented the moments missed in the game that could’ve turned Friday night’s Game 4 into a potentially series-tying contest. The night might have been over closer to midnight when the game ended. But for Floss, his night is only halfway done. He’s leaving work to go back to work for an after-party about a mile away.
It’s a grind he’s dedicated his life to since the days of poor-quality mixtapes at Ohio State. Just like LeBron, in his 15th season as well, Floss doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
ORLANDO, Florida — Moviegoers are fascinated by the fictional African nation of Wakanda, home to Marvel Comics’ superhero Black Panther. Just a little over a month ago, the comic book phenom burst onto the big screen, with Black Panther raking in more than $1 billion and is now inspiring a deeper dive into the film, including a look at the costuming of actors Chadwick Boseman, Angela Bassett and Lupita Nyong’o and others. Not that close attention is new to Ruth Carter, the woman behind the looks.
When the Oscar-nominated costume designer arrived on the campus of Hampton University in 1982, she did not realize she’d depart with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. Starting out as an education major and switching gears as many students do, she now boasts a career of more than 40 films, including Amistad, Malcolm X, Do The Right Thing, School Daze and plethora of others.
“I started out in education,” she said. “I come from a legacy of teachers and I wanted to be a special ed teacher and then halfway through college I changed my major to theater arts. And my mom said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do the news.’ And I thought no, I’m going to do costumes. When I came out and I was doing backstage work in the theaters, my mom said, ‘You went four years to college to do laundry,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still on my path, mom.’ ”
Carter was as an intern at the Santa Fe Opera in Springfield, Massachusetts, until moving to Los Angeles in 1986 and meeting director Spike Lee.
“Once I got to Los Angeles I met Spike Lee and he was telling me ways that I could get a career and get experience in film by going to some of the big colleges in Los Angeles like USC and UCLA and signing up for film thesis projects,” Carter said. “So that’s kind of what I did … She’s Gotta Have It, when I saw that, I was like, ‘what, it’s one girl walking through Brooklyn, who can’t do that.’ It’s a medium I had to learn. It’s a huge medium …”
Carter’s advice to children is to keep dreaming and dream big. She spoke to 100 students at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy in Orlando last week.
“I think it’s important for Dreamers to know that you can be successful and it starts with your dream,” she said. “And it starts that dreaming just makes everything blossom into the rest of your life. I don’t want them to dream as if they are going to be something in the future. I want to dream about who they are right now and empower themselves with that dream.”
She also spent time with parents and guardians at a private event withalongside ABC’s The View co-host Sunny Hostin and Mikki Taylor of Essence magazine.
“My mom was curious about what the heck it was I had done with my life and my education, but she was patient with me,” Carter said. “So my advice to parents is to be patient. Your kids are going to find their path, they’re going to blaze their trail. Do not do the helicopter mom thing.”
Carter’s journey includes the designing of costumes for Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Four Brothers, Sparkle (2012), The Butler, Selma and Being Mary Jane.
“The hardest part of my journey is management,” Carter said. “I think that I’ve got the costume design thing. I can do that. I can dress almost anybody. But I have to bring artists into my group, into my team and to tap into their minds. So the management part of the creativity is really the hardest and I think once they understand what you want, they flourish. But it’s not until you get to that part does it work.”
Kevin Hart’s health is no laughing matter. So much of his comedy is rooted in self-deprecation about his own physicality: he’s a 5-foot-4-inch man who makes you laugh even before he says a word. Especially if he’s paired up with a hulk of a man like say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — the two of them together usually translate into cinematic gold. Sony’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, released on Dec. 20, 2017, has now “earned $377 million in North America, and has topped $904 million globally … [Jumanji] is now Sony’s second-biggest global grosser of all time, between Spider-Man 3 ($890m in 2007) and Skyfall ($1.1 billion),” according to Forbes.
Two years ago, Hart broke ground as the first comedian to partner with a major footwear and apparel company on a cross-trainer. Armed with a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike, his Hustle Harts are meant to inspire; he wants to help people find their inner athlete — everyday folks who didn’t think they had it in them. Just like him, at one point.
Now, Hart is one of the fittest men in Hollywood, sharing his journey via his social media outlets, including an impressive New York City marathon finish in four hours, five minutes, six seconds back in November — and, ahem, he bested former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber. Bragging rights for years.
Hart figures he’ll do a few more marathons before it’s all said and done. It’ll help him keep up his breakneck schedule: a new digital series, Cold As Balls, more films, production deals and of course, a rigorous stand-up comedy touring schedule is on deck. Because the last thing he wants to ever do again is fall asleep on stage (more on that, later). We talk.
You’re coming off of Jumanji, one of the most successful films of last year, and you’re getting ready to get back on the road. Why is it so important for you to continue to stay out there?
I’m a comedian first. This is my craft, what I started as. And I built this big thing, and this big thing opened up a door to get me to another big thing. But if I forget about this first big thing, these doors could start to close. So, I’m very adamant about staying on course. Stand-up is not only what I love, but … it’s what the world needs. People love to laugh.
You’re also an athlete — not sure if people really understand that. You run marathons, you have a shoe endorsement deal. How do you use and channel that competitiveness into this world of Hollywood?
Here’s the beauty of it: You get one life. And that one life, you got a choice to make. Do I want to live this life to the fullest and do I want to maximize my full potential while I’m on this earth? If I do, what does that entail, what does that mean? What am I going to do? That means I’m going to put absolutely all of my energy into my craft. I’m going to put it into becoming the best possible man that I can be. If I do that correctly, when it’s all said and done, and I look back at it, the story of who I am should be an amazing story.
The story of your life?
What can I accomplish along the way? That’s how I look at it. So, when you’re talking about partnerships, when you’re talking about my career — you’re talking about goals. You’re talking about the athletic side — all of it fits within the story of Kevin Hart. That’s all I want. I want my kids to be able to go back and look at that and go, “Man, dad was cool.” That’s it.
You’ve been grinding it out for a long time and at a certain point, it’s easy to lose that hunger, but you’ve never lost it. It’s only increased. How is that?
I don’t do anything halfway. I don’t want to sign on a for a moment. I don’t need a check. That’s not what I’m here for. I want to be a part of something special. I want to build something. I want to do something that hasn’t been done. That’s how I take on everything. The day you lose that hunger, is the day it closes, and somebody comes up that has it. It’s not guaranteed that I sit in the seat I’m in, or that I’m going to be here forever. The day that you get comfortable and you expect things to stay the way they are is the day they change. I stay hungry as if I have nothing.
Let me tell you what looks really uncomfortable: Cold as Balls. Where the hell and why the hell did that concept come up?
The endgame, when it’s all said and done for me, is going to be a talk show. When my knees hurt, and my arches are bad … I’m just going to have to sit still. And I think being a talk show host of some kind, being able to have the conversations with the people that I want to talk to … it’s something I know will be good. So, Cold As Balls is a way for me to tiptoe in that just to see how it would be … The questions I’m asking may make [my guests] uncomfortable — may not — but the personality ultimately drives the conversation. And that’s why you’ve been seeing a lot of funny interviews. They’re coming out really, really good. I’m happy.
You didn’t play in the celebrity game at NBA All-Star this year, but there was a moment where the thing people thought about Kevin Hart wasn’t athlete. Initially when you started playing in NBA Celebrity games people were probably like, “Oh. The funny guy who’s short is going to play in the basketball game.” And then of course, you dominated.
Damn right I did!
But you actually train — who is Kevin Hart the athlete?
Kevin Hart the athlete is a guy that just fell in love with the idea of giving myself a long time to live. When I looked at it, I lost some family members. I lost friends to just simple health issues. From severe heart attacks to strokes. High blood pressure that’s gotten crazy to where it’s flipped a person’s life upside down, to where that person can’t even maneuver the way they want to maneuver. When you look at the effect that just not taking care of yourself can have on you as a person. These are things that I think you don’t believe until you get hit with it. There was a point in time when I was younger [and] you couldn’t tell me that drinking and driving was as bad as everybody said it was … but I got a DUI at one point, and I said, “Oh, my God! Oh s—! I could have died. I could have hurt somebody.” The reality hit … So, I decided to choose a healthy road. That person that you’re defining as an athlete is really a person that’s just trying to stay healthy. I put a large demand on my body. You know, 14, 15 hours a day consistently. If I’m not taking care of myself, there’s no way that I can do that at a high level. It’s impossible.
Was there a point where you started shifting? Was it like five years ago?
There was a point that I was on stage — this is a true story — I fell asleep on stage one time. Nobody noticed. It’s a real story. I was literally performing, and like, you know, I’m up every day, but I’m drinking, I’m eating fast food, everything. And there was a moment we’re on stage, and I stopped, and in the middle of a joke, I fell asleep. It was like a good 30 seconds. And I woke up and I was like, “Yeah, man.” And I got right back to the set. And I was like, “Oh s—!” I just. I didn’t pass out. I really just fell asleep.” I was like, “What the f—?” I remember being so in shock at that moment, and then I remember I went and I looked at my data, and I was like, I’ve been eating cheeseburgers and cheesesteaks and fries all day, and I get on stage, I’m giving like a half of a show. It’s like I’m sluggish, farting all on stage. Come on, Kevin. What are you doing, Kevin? Have you ever had that conversation, you had to really talk to yourself?
I’m having it right now!
Listen, I really was in the mirror and I was like, “Kevin, what the — come on, man. Look at you, Kevin.” And I really had a moment where I was like, “Nah. This isn’t, it can’t be like this.” Not if I’m supposed to give these people a show at a very high level every night. Not if I got to be on set and I’m supposed to be acting at a very high level every single day. Not if people are depending on me every single day. I got to make sure that I’m doing it to the best of my ability. And I don’t want people to think that when they read this that that means that should be your thing, too. I think that when I say that, it’s also a heavy mental thing. So, for anybody out there, this is you understanding that, “Hey, you know what? Let me make sure that I’m taking care of me.” There’s different levels to taking care of yourself. I’m a little extreme with it. That doesn’t mean everybody else should be extreme. There’s levels, but I think when you have that mentality, when you’re aware, you’re OK. Just don’t not be aware. That’s my piece of advice to any and everybody. Because when it smacks you, and then you go, “Oh, oh, what? Huh? I got to lose my foot?” People really don’t understand that’s how fast the reality is. It’s not a, “Oh, you get a warning.” It’s like ‘Heart attack! Oh, s—! I almost died!”
That’s very real.
I saw it firsthand. So that’s where the athlete, that’s where the healthy guy, that’s where the running the marathons comes from. And then there’s a piece of wanting to achieve greatness in there, too. Do you know the percentage of people in the world that have run a marathon? This is going to blow your mind.
Hit me with it.
It’s under 5 percent of the world.
So out of how many billion people, under 5 percent have actually ran a marathon. I want to be in that 5 percent … the marathon, I’m going to try to do five.
Chasing personal greatness is part of the Kevin Hart story.
This is all a part of the story. The goal is while I’m on tour, I’m trying for a marathon, I’m going to be filming a movie at the same time. So, the goal is to consistently keep it up, and then I think I run the marathon in October. So, that would be checked off the list. I don’t want to fall asleep on stage.
What has to happen in 2018 for you to say, that you outdid yourself this year?
I’m already trying to lay out 2019. The tour goes into 2019. It has to be the biggest tour ever in comedy … what’s my total number of specials that I want to do? George Carlin did 10. I’m on No. 6. I’ve got work to do. When it’s all said and done, what’s my catalog going to look like? What’s my movie catalog going to look like? Am I going to do more dramas? More animation? I’m producing stuff now. My company is part of me, with studios, it doesn’t stop. It literally just continues to grow and grow. Just a little Energizer Bunny.
As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”
For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.
Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”
The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.
Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.
Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?
Bill Russell, Boston Celtics
Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds
Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.
Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers
Line: 12 points
Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.
Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors
Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds
Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals
Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists
Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).
Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists
In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks
Line: 38 points
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.
Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers
Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds
Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.
Bernard King, Utah Jazz
Line: 7 points
Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
Line: 28 points
Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.
Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals
Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.
Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks
Line: 7 points, 2 blocks
Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)
Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)
These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.
Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks
Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds
Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks
Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.
Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls
Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals
While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.
David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds
What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks
Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.
Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic
Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)
Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics
Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)
The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.
Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.
Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons
Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds
Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 0 points, 1 rebound
Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds
This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.
Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers
Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists
Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.
Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic
Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds
An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.
Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers
Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists
It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.
Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors
Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals
By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds
The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals
Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Line: 29 points, 10 assists
As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.
Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics
Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics
Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)
In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)
Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)
CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.
Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets
Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists
Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds
Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)
Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists
Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists
It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists
Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds
This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks
Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds
With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds
The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.
About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.
And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.
“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”
Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.
“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”
Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?
Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.
“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”
In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.
But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?
There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.
“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”
Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.
Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.
But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.
For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.
“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”
Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.
This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.
“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”
For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.
“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”
While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.
In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.
But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.
And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.
Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.
Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?
There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.
Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.
“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”
Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”