Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion Brittney Reese believes MLK’s dream is alive and well The long jump star says King’s beliefs influenced her a lot in her journey

On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered one of his most powerful and inspirational speeches at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The “I Have a Dream” speech became known as one of his most famous oral addresses in American history.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ ” King said.

The civil rights movement was also a time when athletes were facing equality issues of their own. And King knew sports. He knew sports was and would become a platform in society, lending cultural relevance to race and politics.

And 50 years later, King is still affecting the sports world today, inspiring athletes like Olympic gold medalist (2012) Brittney Reese. A multitalented athlete who played high school basketball in her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, Reese recognizes King knew the significance sports would have on society, although he was never an athlete. The 31-year-old seven-time world champion says his dream is alive.

“I’m in a sport that’s predominantly black, and it just is amazing how we come together as athletes in our sports,” Reese said. “He [King] actually kind of paved the way. And then Muhammed Ali paved the way for us to be able to be in a sport without having any kind of racial tension going on. We still have some bumps in the road and there will be some bad eggs in the basket now and then, but I feel like his dream is still alive and still doing some of the things he preached about in certain sermons.”

In the 1960s, King appeared publicly with Ali at a demonstration for fair housing in Louisville, Kentucky. Track stars such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

These are just a few moments that merge sports and culture that she will never forget.

Reese gained popularity when she began dominating in track and field in high school. The long jump is her area of expertise. It’s a title she wears with pride. She still holds the indoor American record in the long jump with a distance of 7.23 meters.

But through all of her accomplishments, she often recalls the first time she heard of King. It wasn’t in a textbook. It was at home by way of her mentor and grandfather King David Dunomes, who shared stories about the civil rights movement, including the time he traveled to Washington, D.C., to hear King’s speech.

“Growing up, I knew probably a lot more than a lot of other people in my area, but being able to see the effect he’s made across the world, especially for black people, is real remarkable,” Reese said of what she learned about King. “I’m grateful to have a grandfather that was supporting him through those times and was able to walk with him in those times. I got to learn a lot of the insights that most people my age wouldn’t know. He made a big impact in my life.”

Dunomes died suddenly in 2017, which marks one of the hardest times in Reese’s life. But she is an overcomer and keeps all of her memories of her grandfather close to her heart.

Reese is a seven-time USA Track & Field Outdoor Women’s Champion in the long jump, a three-time World Outdoor Champion (2009, 2011, 2013), a three-time World Indoor Champion (2010, 2012, 2016), the current indoor long jump American record holder besides being the 2012 Olympic Games gold medalist and 2016 Olympic Games silver medalist.

She is also the track coach at San Diego Mesa College. Born in Inglewood, California, and raised in Gulfport, Reese began by competing in the high jump and 400-meter dash. She was named Mississippi’s 2004 Gatorade Player of the Year for track and field and enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and played basketball before accepting a track and field scholarship to the University of Mississippi.

As she trains daily for her upcoming indoor long jump competition just one month away, she is raising her 10-year-old son Alex, who she says doesn’t experience a lot of racial tension. However, Reese plans to instill King’s memory in him by teaching the importance of equality.

“He doesn’t see a lot of the racial tension. But I want him to understand that he’s a black kid, and what we went through, and what Dr. Martin Luther King did helped allow him to be able to play with the kids that he likes to play with now. He doesn’t see color, which is something I want to teach him. But I also want him to know his roots and his family … Let him know where he came from and what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, and how he’s able to be around the people that he’s around today.”

Informing Alex of his roots is a priority for Reese. It’s a sentiment she internalized from her great-grandmother Ethel Lee Brooks, who always told her to “know where she came from” and taught her the act of giving back.

“I think that played a significant part in my career and in my life also,” Reese said. “Once I attained the medal [Olympic gold], the first thing I did was come home and show the kids back in Gulfport, Mississippi, what I’ve done. I’ve been blessed and lucky to have a city to be behind me every step of the way. They’ve been behind me my entire life, ever since I was young enough to give a newspaper, they were there.”

To pay homage to Brooks and keep up with King’s ideology of the moral function of education, she launched the B. Reese Scholarship in 2012, which helps one male and one female student annually with upcoming college expenses. In May 2013, the Reese Scholarship was even awarded in Baltimore County Public Schools.

“I want to try to motivate the kids and get them involved in track, and that’s where the scholarship came from — helping other mothers, because there’s a lot of single mothers out there. The scholarships have a lot of funds, but just to help them with books for the first semester or help them get started on their way. And I also have a camp that I like to put on and help show the other kids different drills that they can do to help them be successful in the next part of their life. I think my great-grandmother was the reason that I just got so accustomed to giving back, because her telling me never forget where you came from has always stuck with me.”

She donates turkeys over the holidays and spends a lot of time with the homeless in Gulfport.

“You know, it’s been a tough journey. I’ve had ups and downs, but I’d say one of the better is probably my Olympic medals. That’s been the highlight of my career. Me being able to have that lets them know how hard I worked, and that nothing in life is easy, that you’re going to have to work to get what you want.”

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Mark Blount reinvented himself as a real estate investor From Auntie Anne’s to housing, the former center created a life after basketball

After spending 10 years in the NBA as one of the league’s most dependable centers, Mark Blount retired in 2010 and knew it was time to start making moves.

With Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as his backdrop, Blount opted to spread his wings in two different endeavors: food franchises and real estate.

Blount found a block of property sorely in need of renovation and decided to invest. He participated in rehabbing 14 units, completing the process in about a year.

“I owned quite a bit of real estate in Palm Beach Gardens — seven buildings. I went in there with a friend of mine. We renovated them, all the units there, and brought them back up to, back then it was 2012 code: new bathrooms, new floors, new kitchens and all that stuff,” he said.

Blount then joined the soft-pretzel franchise Auntie Anne’s. He opened two stores in West Palm Beach and one in Jensen Beach, Florida. After building and operating the franchises for four years, he sold the stores to focus on real estate.

“The restaurant business was a learning curve for me, but the real estate is a passion for me,” Blount said.

Blount spends his days researching and meeting with sellers and agencies about new real estate investment opportunities. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and his philanthropic efforts are focused on Palm Beach Gardens, including donating turkeys to those in need throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and contributing to local churches and Toys for Tots.

The Yonkers, New York, native grew up a Knicks fan and was inspired by players such as John Starks and Charles Smith. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted 54th overall in 1997 by the Seattle SuperSonics. Blount spent three seasons in the minor leagues, including the International Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and North American Premier Basketball. He signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Aug. 1, 2000. That season he led the team with 76 blocks, the most by a Celtics rookie since Kevin McHale in 1980–81.

He also played with the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat. He used his toughness on the court to guide his way into the business world.

“That’s why we see a lot of retired guys have a hard time trying to find something that they’re passionate about to do because [they don’t have] the energy and the passion, the focus that needs to be displayed every night. So you’re like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”

How did you cultivate your toughness?

I just had an attitude about everything. And growing up in Yonkers, I had to be tough there. I just approached everything with a straight attitude. I just thought whoever I was going against, it was just a battle.

Mark Blount #15 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New Orleans Hornets on January 11, 2008 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Hornets defeated the Heat 114-88.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Was the NBA a dream of yours?

Yes. Yes, it was. Getting drafted in the second round and then not playing with Seattle, then spending a couple years in the not so minor league, then being able to make it onto summer league team and having Boston sign in to a one-year deal was [the culmination of] my dream, so I didn’t back down. I just kept fighting and kept trying to reach my dream. I spent, I think it was sum of three years in the minors before I made it.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Trying to get to the university and then trying to get to the NBA and then doing those things and then being able to do a couple of businesses, it’s always a fight, always a struggle. There’s always a learning curve. … I’m real patient about what I need to do and learning about it, and once I understand it then I’m able to pursue it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was in Boston … talking to a gentleman about the restaurant, and he’s like, ‘If you’re ever going to do a business, make sure you’re there to run it every day.’ I’ve taken that to heart over the last few years I’ve been in business.

How did you make that switch to franchise owner, and why did you choose Auntie Anne’s?

I was actually in bed with Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon; I ran four restaurants at one time. Don’t ask me why, but I did. I was able to make connections with them and went through the process of learning their business and going through training and learning their sites and seeing if I was going to be a silent investor and have somebody run it for me, which wasn’t going to happen, or run it myself.

I ended up running it myself and was able to be pretty successful. [Of] the four locations that I had, the two of them I ended up closing, but they survived for about three or four years. Then two I sold.

What do you think about the Knicks now?

I’m crying inside. Especially now that Carmelo [Anthony] is gone and seeing, looks like another rebuilding process. So I’m just, I’m a New Yorker, I’m going to die a New Yorker, so that’s the way it goes. But I really hope they’re able to get some luck. They had some young guys step up and maybe a couple trays on the lottery draft, draft lottery picks. Hopefully it’ll happen.

What team should we start to watch after the All-Star Game?

Everybody’s just starting to mention Toronto. They started out on fire, so I knew they were going to be good early in the season. [Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey really understands what he’s doing there.

What advice would you give players who are transitioning from the court?

If you don’t have a passion for anything, maybe take a course, a quick course, in something. But if you don’t have a passion, there’s always different courses you can take, or there’s a lot of good things the NBA Players Association is doing. … Just talk to some of the older guys that played before. Talk to some of the guys who just retired and bounce things off instead of just running into any quick thing, business deals, with anybody.

Venus and Serena Williams: from Compton to the world By changing how the world views black women, they’ve changed everything

It’s really just a makeshift dance floor in a small hotel conference room.

But then a song — some might consider it the Black People’s Party Anthem — drops and everyone falls in line, moving, shaking and, yes, wobbling to the beat of V.I.C.’s 2008 “Wobble,” a song that hasn’t vanished from many black family gatherings, even after a decade. Everyone moves to the beat, celebrating, as if a couple has just jumped a broom.

At the center of this dance-happy moment is Venus Williams. She’s at her most comfortable, dressed in a look from her own athleisure line, EleVen by Venus, and surrounded by family members. For a night, anyway, she gets to just be Venus — instead of “Venus Williams,” who as a burgeoning star tennis player made her Australian Open debut in 1998, playing her baby sister, Serena, in a professional match for the first time at that tournament.

That was the Venus Williams who rocked freshly oiled cornrows adorned with blue and white beads that shook something fierce every time she whacked what became her signature serve return in the direction of Serena Williams, whose own cornrows were bright with green and white beads. This was the Venus Williams who, along with Serena, demonstrated early dominance and took center stage in one of the most stridently white of professional sports. Tennis, a game of rackets and stretched nets, that at times is played in the world’s most stridently white spaces.

But when “Wobble” was on? The revolutionary “Venus Williams” was just Venus — a woman with a mean body roll and a swag surf that dropped so low, gravity was no match for all 6 feet, 1 inch of her very recognizable frame.

Before the holidays, both Venus and her superstar sister sat on a panel to discuss violence in the inner city. A poignant and effective conversation, it reminded everyone at the December 2017 “A Family Affair” that these two beautiful brown women who have both helped change how we consume pop culture — and yes, tennis — aren’t immune to the harsh realities and social justice issues of American “inner” cities.

After all, they both hail from Compton, California — the birthplace of Kendrick Lamar, and the now-gentrifying city that Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre helped make infamous via their provocative supergroup N.W.A. Compton is the city that took the life of their sister, Yetunde Price, who was killed on Sept. 14, 2003, at the age of 31. She was the victim of a drive-by shooting.

But now the Venus Ebony Starr Williams who we all know best is back. And she’s ready to take the place of her rightful throne at the 2018 Australian Open. Serena Williams, a newlywed and new mom to baby Alexis Olympia, is still waiting for what her big return might be. But at the very least — which, certainly is the very most — we get to welcome back half of the duo who helped to change the pop culture game. And Lord, are we ever ready.

Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

In 2015, a hater tweeted that Serena Williams was “built like a man.” It was a tweet heard round the world. That affected us all. It insulted us all. Then Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling shut it down by posting a photo of Serena Williams in a slim-fitting red dress with the text: “She is built like a man. Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

A year earlier, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, called the tennis legends the “Williams brothers” and said, “It’s scary when you really look at them.” Insulting. The ensuing clapback was mighty too. Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and banned for a year, and Serena Williams called him out for being sexist and racist.

That insult penetrated, though. Throughout history, black female bodies have been both sexualized and besmirched. But the Williams sisters, via presence and practice, have turned any negative black woman body image trope on its head. They create and embrace their chiseled, athletic shapes and flaunt their world championship bodies in public arenas, draped in silks and jewels, in the coolest sneakers, in disruptively fashion-forward tennis “whites.” They continue to shock the world.

Both Venus and Serena Williams have challenged traditional global beauty standards — by simply being.

There are some who are afraid of the Williams sisters’ dominance, confidence and beauty. They both have a similar dark brown hue and features that read very the Motherland. They look like so many woman around the world do. Their hairstyles over the years have transformed as ours have — from little-girl cornrows to micro braids to tree braids to sew-ins with wavy tracks to just a simple hot comb and flat iron of natural hair, at times, brushed back into a bun. So much of this black girl beauty used to be hidden. Right now, at this moment, it’s on the cover of Vogue.

But perhaps the most amazing Williams sisters moment came in April 2016 when Serena made a surprise appearance in Beyoncé’s HBO special Lemonade, which itself turned out to be a surprise album. In “Sorry,” we see Serena (to the tune of close to 250 million views) displaying a not-so-secret talent of hers as she dances and twerks alongside the Bey, who is sprawled across a throne, declaring in a casually aggressive way that she, in fact, is not sorry for the ill behavior of an untrustworthy lover. Beyoncé is queen — and Serena is equally regal.

But perhaps the sisters’ biggest contribution to the culture is just by being excellent, and expanding our horizons through their excellence. The Williams sisters represent us. They make us strong.

The Plug, ‘Happy New Year’ (Episode 4): with special guest co-host Mike Golic Jr. Isaiah Thomas’ comeback on deck and the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl recaps

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After taking time off for the holidays, it’s back to business for The Undefeated’s newest podcast, The Plug. Our country cousin Mike Golic Jr. fills in for me this week after being officially reported in the box score as “DNP — SUNBURNS” while having a tad too much fun in Colombia on vacation.

Regardless, as they say in the industry, “the show must go on,” and it absolutely did. The quartet chopped it up on a multitude of topics, including Isaiah Thomas’ long-awaited comeback, the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, one of the most provocative stories in sports right now — UCF’s undefeated season (no pun), and should they have been in the College Football Playoff — this weekend’s slate of opening-round NFL playoff games and the NBA All-Star Game rules changes.

As always, subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app! See you all next week!

Previously: The Plug, ‘Pure Gold’ (Episode 3): Dave East closes out 2017 with one of the year’s best interviews.

The tragic loss of Erica Garner Garner’s own loss of her father made her a woman her family wants remembered as a ‘human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.’

It’s cruelty befitting a Greek tragedy.

A young grief-stricken daughter reluctantly transforms herself into an activist after her father is killed by police during a controversial encounter — a struggle in which the officer chokes the very life from the father, apparently deaf to his repeated gasps of “I can’t breathe.”

Three years pass, the daughter, now an outspoken hero to countless others who have lost loved ones at the hands of police brutality, is a high-profile face for an insistent new police reform movement called Black Lives Matter.

Then, in a twist of fate that mirrors her martyred father’s horrifying demise, the daughter herself is felled by a heart attack brought on by a breath-depriving asthma attack. As if to compound her family’s seemingly endless suffering, the daughter dies during the holidays, Christianity’s celebrated season of miracles, wherein the faithful are offered a path to redemption.

That is the heart-shattering story of Erica Garner. In 2014, the then-23-year-old was thrust into the global spotlight when her father Eric Garner died from an illegal choke hold after resisting arrest by New York police. Eric Garner’s videotaped dying words; “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for the anti-police brutality movement, helping to fuel the Black Lives Matter crusade for police reform.

That 2014 choke hold reopened a wound in the African-American community, one that is not God-given, but rather inflicted by law officers who vow to “serve and protect.” In his 2013 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, theologian James H. Cone writes: “In the ‘lynching era’… white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” Indeed, as Eric Garner’s death proves, there is a crooked and disingenuous through-line between the Crucifixion and the kangaroo-court justice visited upon blacks since the Jim Crow era. Eric Garner’s death, along with those of many other blacks killed in fatal police encounters, was a chilling reminder that state-sanctioned executions are still a frightening component of African-American life.

Into this millenniums-old narrative arrived Erica Garner. The spitting image of her dad, Erica said she even inherited her father’s take-no-guff spirit (“If he had survived what happened to him, he would be out here advocating and doing exactly what I’m doing, if not more,” she once said.) But while she aligned herself with the Black Lives Matter movement, Erica demonstrated a diplomat’s conciliatory grace, carefully framing police brutality as a universal problem that affects everyone. “This is not a black-and-white issue,” she said during a 2014 CNN interview. “This is a national crisis.”

She displayed that same sensibleness when it came to the topic of activism itself. Writing in 2015, Erica urged peace and unity within the police reform movement. “As we activists fight each other, our opposition — from killer cops to corrupt elected officials — upholds this broken system and covers up injustices,” she wrote. “No movement is immune to conflict, but it’s up to every last person on the side of justice to make the decision to move forward together.”

It was Erica’s yin-yang combination of persistence and political savvy that prompted many to post condolences and tributes upon news of her death. Rev. Al Sharpton described her as “a fearless outspoken activist that never stopped fighting for justice for her father,” while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “Though Erica didn’t ask to be an activist, she responded to the personal tragedy of seeing her father die while being arrested in New York City by becoming a leading proponent for criminal justice reform and for an end to police brutality.” Her family commented, “When you report this you remember she was human: mother, daughter, sister, aunt … She only pursued right, no matter what. No one gave her justice.”

Nor, it seems, did destiny give Erica a fair shake. The world had a scant three years to know Erica, yet she shined brightly during her short time on the international stage. Her father’s death was such a cause célèbre that many people would have excused her for simply expressing inchoate rage over her dad’s mistreatment at the hands of police. Yet instead of being consumed by anger, Erica became of an insistent voice of reason during one of the most racially sensitive periods in America’s modern history.

Her entry into activism was a veritable trial by fire, a learn-as-you-go experience. “It was something that happened basically overnight,” Erica recently told New York Magazine. “I started out with protests, small little gatherings outside the post office … and then I traveled to different cities to talk about this issue with local communities and elected officials.”

Spurred by grief and indignation — she said she watched the video of her father’s death “over and over again” — Erica helped organize a 2014 “die-in” at the Staten Island location where her dad was killed. There, she and other protesters lay on the cold pavement, creating a haunting tableau vivant in tribute to the scores of citizens injured or killed during police encounters. She continued to lead a series of weekly marches at that same spot, all conducted after 6 p.m. to increase participation from workaday nine-to-fivers. Erica claimed the New York Police Department attempted to dissuade her and others from marching. “They’ve stopped protesters from coming across the water [to march],” she told NBC News. “They’ve followed me in unmarked cars, and even barricaded the Supreme Court steps so people will think [the march] isn’t happening.”

Erica was applying increasing pressure on one of the world’s most assertive law enforcement agencies, the New York City Police Department, which has been consistently dogged by accusations of institutional racism. Evidence has revealed that blacks and Hispanics make up most of the citizens stopped for street interrogations allowed under the department’s stop-and-frisk policies. Since the 1980s, the department has made international headlines for fatal encounters involving blacks, including Eleanor Bumpers, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and countless more. In 2004, the department acknowledged the existence of an intelligence unit designed to perform surveillance on rappers and others involved in the city’s hip-hop scene. This is the police organization Erica fearlessly challenged during her stint as an activist.

But not only was Erica was courageous, she also demonstrated an impressive knack for diplomacy. In a tremendously polarized nation where taking a stand against police brutality often results in accusations of being “anti-police,” Erica’s agitating for justice was no small risk. To have any hope of earning sympathy from her reflexively unsympathetic critics, she suppressed whatever rage she must have been feeling, opting instead to coolly advocate for due process. And when due process failed her family, she continued to press for justice. “People ask, ‘When will you stop marching?’ ” Erica said. “ ‘What do you want from marching?’ He was my father. I will always march.”

Erica’s cause was taken up by pro athletes, including NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and more. Eric Garner’s dying sighs of “I can’t breathe” became a galvanizing slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement. Before long, Erica was fielding interview requests and speaking invitations from schools, colleges, churches and social justice organizations. She made television appearances, both nationally and in her native New York. After a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved, the Garner family brought a wrongful-death lawsuit against New York City, winning a $5.9 million settlement.

While Erica may have been soft-spoken, she was fiercely independent. When many blacks threw their support behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Erica raised eyebrows for backing Bernie Sanders, citing the Vermont senator’s long-standing civil rights record. At the time of her death, she was in the process of starting a nonprofit to identify and endorse candidates sympathetic to the cause of police reform.

Like Rodney King — himself a police brutality victim who pleaded for peace amid the havoc of the 1992 Los Angeles riots — Erica never sought to become a civil rights lightning rod. She occasionally let her frustration slip, like in 2017 when she voiced her exasperation with the Department of Justice. (“The DOJ literally gathered my family in one place,” she tweeted, “after we have been waiting for answers for 3 years to say they cant answer S—!”). By all appearances, Erica was catapulted into activism by her father’s death, and was carried along by her own grit and a sense of purpose. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I connected with the right people and went from there,” she said.

By and large, Erica wore the mantle she assumed with powerful restraint. Now, the pain many of us felt after viewing her father’s protest-prompting death is magnified by Erica’s own passing. The hurt we experienced after her dad’s killer was let off the hook is now magnified by the knowledge that Erica’s two kids will grow up without their mother.

The daughter who tirelessly sought justice for her slain father has gone to join him in the afterlife, all too soon.

The NBA is the gift that keeps on giving ‘Merry Christmas, everybody!’

On Dec. 25, 1976, George McGinnis made a last-second jumper to lift his Philadelphia 76ers over the New York Knicks. Bill Campbell, the Sixers’ announcer, proclaimed a festive benediction, “Merry Christmas, everybody.”

This day, the 76ers and the Knicks will battle anew, in a noon tipoff, the first of five NBA games that will wrap around the holiday and put a bow on top. The Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles will play the NFL season’s last Monday Night Football game, too. But NBA basketball will dominate the holiday’s pro sports menu.

In the future cultural historians will divine how Christmas became a holiday festooned with NBA basketball.

After all, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which chronicle the birth of Jesus, make no obvious mention of basketball. And the season’s secular gospels — Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — don’t mention basketball, either, though both stories present people flying through the air, as many NBA players will do.

Nevertheless, NBA basketball will be as much of many families’ Christmas stories as watching holiday movie marathons will be in others.

Although NBA basketball is not rooted in the religious or secular Christmas gospels, the sport often reflects the spirit of the holiday.

When the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball struggled with his shooting, three kings, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, sought to shield the young guard from criticism. Later, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, old friends suffering through 25 years of estrangement, reconciled, just as old friends do in holiday movies, just as more real-life estranged friends and family members should this Christmas.

More important, the NBA melds player activism and league philanthropy, maintaining the spirit of Christmas giving all year.

Furthermore, basketball is an ecumenical sport, melding influences from the New York Rens of the 1920s to the Soviet National team of the 1970s. Or put another way, like jazz and hip-hop, at its best, NBA basketball influences the world and learns from the world, too.

Basketball is played in all 50 states and all around the world; it’s equally at home on the playground blacktop or on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Still, today’s NBA, like jazz and hip-hop communities, embraces being rooted in African-American style, rhythms and sensibilities, a charisma exemplified by Cab Calloway, who was born on Christmas Day, and James Brown who died on the holiday.

But when the great NBA teams come together, it’s as if all the players speak the same language: winning and entertaining.

There are some in our great country who seek to ignore the NBA’s lessons of inclusiveness: They seek to circumscribe how we mark the fall and winter holidays. They seek to make “Merry Christmas” the only magic words that open the door to a glittering holiday season.

But America is far too big and richly heterogeneous for that. This day, at Christmas, we’re in the midst of many happy holiday traditions: Hanukkah ended last week. Kwanzaa begins Tuesday.

Still, about 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. But it’s the way the country accommodates (and seeks to benefit from) Christmas and fall and winter holidays, and the people who don’t celebrate them, that helps define America’s greatness.

This day, after the last NBA basketball game has been played between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers, the nation will be stuffed with turkey and hoops.

We can wish one another glad tidings. The words will taste sweet and All-American in our mouths, like apple pie or flan or baklava or ginger ice cream or kugel.

Merry Christmas, everybody. And happy holidays, too.

Cardi B, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane and more dropped a slew of new music in one night Hip-hop must’ve caught the holiday spirit

Maybe it’s because Friday is the last business day before Christmas. Or maybe it’s simply hip-hop caught the holiday spirit. Whatever the reason, Thursday night/Friday morning saw a slew of drops from a who’s who kick-started by Quavo and Travis Scott’s joint project “Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho.” But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

The long-awaited Cardi B second single. If there was any question following the overwhelming success of arguably the single of the year in Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow,” the wait is now over. Featuring 21 Savage, Cardi B returns with the next look into her forthcoming solo album. Complete with Offset mentions galore and a Migos-like flow, expect to hear this at any New Year’s Eve party where hip-hop is played. So, like, 95 percent of them.

A new Gucci Mane album. 2017 was the year Gucci became the pop culture star he seemed destined to be when 2009’s “Wasted” dominated airwaves. “This has been the best year of my life,” he told Zane Lowe earlier this year. And while it may have been for reasons far more than music (a book, new $10 million deal with Atlantic Records and a high-profile wedding), Gucci stayed true to the reason for his season. Guwop and his Tupacian work ethic dropped his third album of ’17 with El Gato: The Human Glacier. Happy holidays, from The Wops, indeed.

Nipsey’s next leg of his “Victory Lap.” If there’s one song I’m anticipating listening to in the whip this weekend, it’s Nipsey Hussle and Swizz Beatz’s new cut, “Been Down.” The Crenshaw OG’s new album, Victory Lap, drops Feb. 16, which coincides with the star of NBA All-Star Weekend in his hometown of Los Angeles.

Lil Wayne’s Dedication 6 preview. Set to drop Christmas Day, Weezy dropped off two sneak peeks last night over Jay-Z’s “Story of OJ.” and 21 Savage’s “Bank Account.” Both are strong offerings from the man who for years had a legit claim to “The Best Rapper Alive,” but it’s the latter where Lil Wayne really flexes. It’s one of the better tracks he’s dropped in quite some time. Maybe 2018 is the year when Tha Carter 5 is released from Cash Money purgatory. Maybe.

The Plug, ‘Pure Gold’ (Episode 3): Dave East closes out 2017 with one of the year’s best interviews From Kevin Durant to Lonzo Ball to Mike Beasley and more, the New York MC tells it all

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Hip-hop artist Dave East joins The Undefeated’s newest podcast, The Plug, for the final episode of 2017. Needless to say, the New York wordsmith does everything but disappoint. No topic is off-limits as the 29-year-old chops it up with Chiney Ogwumike, Justin Tinsley, Kayla Johnson and Tesfaye Negussie on any and everything, including: How and why fatherhood has become the biggest blessing of his life (and approximately when he thinks he’ll allow his daughter to start dating). He also weighs in on:

  • What led to Kevin Durant’s mom nursing him back to health.
  • His biggest lesson learned from prison.
  • Why Lonzo Ball isn’t on his favorite people list.
  • Some stories about Durant, Mike Beasley and more current NBA hoopers that you’re just going to have to hear to believe yourself.
  • His starting five of musicians who can hoop (besides him, of course).

From there, the crew brings in Aaron Dodson to discuss his and Justin’s massive Kobe Bryant epic from this week. Enjoy your holidays and be sure to check for The Plug invading your airwaves all of 2018! Subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app!

Episode 1: The Debut featuring Fabolous and Jadakiss

Episode 2: Empire State of Mind featuring New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis

Reggie ‘Combat Jack’ Ossé dies at 48 The hip-hop podcaster and attorney succumbs to colon cancer

When Reggie Ossé, immortalized in hip-hop culture as “Combat Jack,” announced via Twitter a week before Halloween that he had colon cancer, I knew. I think we all did.

Jack’s soliloquy ultimately was one of his final intimate moments with a culture now so different without his physical presence. It was his way of fighting while simultaneously coming to grips with what we’ll all encounter one day — our own mortality.

My uncle had colon cancer. He died Jan. 2, 1999. His death, in so many ways, is why my winter holidays can never again be truly festive. His last conversation with me, when I was 12, was in a Richmond, Virginia, hospital. “Treat people with respect and watch the universe pay you back in ways you could never imagine. I’m not scared. I’ve passed that point. I’ve lived my purpose.” I can only imagine Ossé having similar feelings.

Jack, I’d imagine, wasn’t scared in his final hours — the product of being a Brooklyn, New York, native. His thoughts were more than likely with his family, his children in particular. Above anything he meant to the culture, nothing mattered more to him than being a father. Jack being gone at 48 has yet to totally sink in. The wound is fresh and still bleeding. These days, to hear people claim they’re “doing it for the culture” is banal. But with Jack, it was authentic. An attorney who in the mid-’90s represented Jay-Z, Dame Dash, Capone-N-Noreaga and others, he also served as the managing editor of The Source. To many, though, especially within the past decade, he’s been the man who helped revolutionize podcasts and hip-hop’s role within them.

The linchpin of the Ossé’s Loud Speakers Network, and co-hosted by the likes of Dallas Penn, Premium Pete and Just Blaze, The Combat Jack Show podcast was more life lessons than mere interviews. They were glimpses into the minds of culture-shifters, narrated by the culture-shifters themselves. With his beautifully produced Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty, Ossé brought narrative storytelling to podcast culture. It’s fair to say, too, part of The Combat Jack Show’s DNA resides in many of today’s most successful podcasts and radio shows such as Rap Radar, N.O.R.E.’s Drink Champs and The Breakfast Club. The same can be said of many young journalists/content producers as well — myself included.

The culture that Ossé helped shift, curate and elevate grieves for him. Liquor meets pavement. Smoke fades to air. Tears are shed. Laughs are had. And stories are swapped on social media, on air and in person. All in homage to a man none of us can ever truly repay. You don’t necessarily quantify “influence” by dollars stacked but rather respect given, and shown. Combat Jack was a rich, rich man.

Cutting the tree and other sweet Christmas traditions define who we are Time passes and season, too, but memories last forever

Earlier this month, our 24-year-old son Marc came home from Maryland to cut down the family Christmas tree, something I started doing when we lived in Connecticut and Marc was a toddler cradled in his aunt’s arms. During my time as a holiday woodcutter, a daunting question hung over the proceedings: Would I pass out before I was able to fell the tree?

But since turning over the tree-cutting duties to my son in 2010, he’s become increasingly efficient. This year, it took him just 24 seconds, about half the time it used to take me just to get down on the ground and start sawing.

After cutting down the tree, we went to the Holiday Tree Farm office to pay for it. Emily, 14 years old, her eyes sparkling, her countenance a parfait of peaches and cream, sweetly took our money in exchange for a cheerful “Merry Christmas.”

Mr. Lawrence, Emily’s grandfather, sat to the teenager’s right and behind a table. He wore a red-and-white cap that advertised his tree farm and a smile. He’d planted his first trees in 1981 or 1982. He began selling his trees in 1989. When we moved to New Jersey in 2007, we began buying trees from the Augusta, New Jersey, farm.


As is the case with other families from around the world, my family’s holiday traditions are rooted in practices that reflect who we are and what we need from the holidays, traditions that change as we do. As a longtime journalist, I like to end our excursions to tree-cutting territory with conversations with Mr. Lawrence.

Back outside, Mr. Lawrence moved with the loping strides of an old cowhand. But he’s a New Jersey boy, a 1957 graduate of Hackensack High School, my son’s alma mater. Mr. Lawrence told one of his workers he’d figured out a new way to tie trees to the customers’ cars. The new tactics were used to tie our tree to our car. Laughter from other families and Christmas music from a tinny sound system danced in the air. Snow fell.

We said goodbye to Mr. Lawrence, an unspoken promise to say hello again next year. We got in our car and pulled away. Christmas music played on the radio, but we didn’t sing.

Back at home, I watched as my wife, son and his great friend Maya, a second daughter, decorated the tree. John Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” from a set of tunes my son had downloaded years ago on our computer. The tunes are cataloged under the tag “tree-cutting music.”

I grew drowsy on the sofa. The Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol played silently on the TV. And I communed with Christmases past, present and future, just as Sim does as Ebenezer Scrooge in the movie.

This Christmas, our daughter Lauren will play host to the family Christmas celebration. In recent months, she has gotten a new job and a new apartment. A new man has entered her life too.

Just yesterday, or so it seems, my father-in-law and I were the men in my daughter’s life. She used to invite me to delicious meals filled with toy food that was marinated with her imagination. Though a vegetarian, Lauren plans to serve a real turkey on Christmas Day. She could serve collard greens and green beans too. And with the expert consultation of her mother, aunt and grandmother, perhaps she will.

Lately, I’ve been imagining my 29-year-old daughter as an old woman, reflecting on the first Christmas where the family celebrated at her place. The reverie makes me smile.

Time passes. The seasons turn. Now becomes yesterday and, if we’re lucky, yesterday becomes precious memories.

Merry Christmas.