On this football team, keep your eye out for the trash-talking mom Former Ohio State player leads his family to a flag football championship

Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.

He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.

After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.

Elwanda Thomas (right), Lamaar Thomas’ mother, looks for the end zone as she tries to get around a Wakanda Forever defender.

André Chung for The Undefeated

But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.

At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.

He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running. … Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.” — Elwanda Thomas

After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.

“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”

In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”

Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”

Between games, the team relaxes. Elwanda Thomas (foreground) holds 1-year-old Quinn Dimes, whose mother plays on the team. Lamaar Thomas (left) sits next to his dog, Bentley, with Keena Brooks (center) and Frank Milien (right).

André Chung for The Undefeated

She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.

In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.

After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.

“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.

“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.

Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. You gotta believe in your teammate!”

When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”

“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”

Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.

With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”

The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.

She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”

Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”

During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.

“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.

“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.

Lamaar Thomas and his mother have matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.

“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.

With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.

“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.

“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.

The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.

Inside the Clippers’ final days with Donald Sterling as owner ‘We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans.’

It is not uncommon to see Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer talk hoops before a game. Ballmer typically peppers Rivers with questions about his beloved Clippers as if he is a member of the media. Rivers shares details and typically throws in a joke that makes the fun-loving Ballmer smile.

It is a way different dynamic from what Rivers had with the team’s previous owner, Donald Sterling. Rivers told The Undefeated he has not spoken to his old boss since TMZ released audio on April 26, 2014, of Sterling making racist comments to his then-girlfriend.

“There is no need to,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why or what he was thinking or whatever. … It doesn’t matter to me. It’s already been done and said. I haven’t heard from him. It’s not like I am mad. But why? We don’t need to talk.”

Five years ago, on April 29, 2014, the controversial owner was banned for life by the NBA for his comments in what was one of the strongest penalties in American sports history. He was later forced to sell the team.

At that time, the Clippers were also pursuing an NBA title. They were the No. 3 seed in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs facing an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors team in the first round. The Clippers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 98-96 victory in Oakland on April 24. But two days later, their momentum came to a crashing halt after Sterling’s remarks became public.

News traveled fast within the organization. Game 4 was the following day. How would Rivers & Co. respond to their owner being involved in one of the biggest scandals in sports?

The Undefeated looks back at the franchise’s last days under Sterling, five years later, through the recollections of those who endured it.


‘THEY TOLD ME IT WASN’T A BIG DEAL’

Members of the Los Angeles Clippers listen to the national anthem before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. The Clippers chose not to speak publicly about owner Donald Sterling. Instead, they made a silent protest. The players wore their red Clippers’ warmup shirts inside out to hide the team’s logo.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Sterling has a long history of racist behavior and had been sued on two occasions for allegedly declining to rent apartments to African Americans and Hispanics. He was also sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of age and racial discrimination. There is also a well-known story of the Clippers owner once going into his team’s locker room after a game while players were dressing and telling his friends, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”

Rivers said he first caught wind on April 23, 2014, that Sterling had made some controversial comments but was told by a Clippers executive they “weren’t a big deal.” Rivers alerted his players during a team meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco that the story was expected to come out, but he didn’t have details to offer.

Blake Griffin: “We remember having a meeting and Doc was saying what was happening. When he explained it, I don’t think everyone understood the magnitude of what it was going to be.”

Doc Rivers: “I was misled in that whole thing, and that is a story for the book one day. But I was told there was a story coming out and it wasn’t a big deal beforehand. I had a chance two days before to look at it. But they told me it wasn’t a big deal.”

Ryan Hollins: “Doc said that Sterling said something stupid with racial undertones to a woman, but it was not expected to be that big of a deal as it ended up being.”

Rivers: “I took this job. I knew there was going to be risk. I clearly didn’t know there was going to be that type of risk.”


‘THOSE WORDS HURT, THOSE WORDS PIERCED’

Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers speaks to the press after a game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 24, 2014 in Oakland, California.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

At 10 p.m. PDT on April 24, 2014, TMZ released a recording in which a married Sterling made racial comments to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, criticizing her for putting pictures on social media with well-known African Americans, including former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and then-Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.

TMZ reported that the private taping of Sterling’s racist rant took place on April 9, 2014, after Stiviano posted a picture of her with Johnson on Instagram.

Some of Sterling’s racist audio excerpts released by TMZ included:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”

“You can sleep with [black men]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“I’m just saying, in your lousy f—— Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”

“… Don’t put him [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

A stunned Rivers finally listened to the audio just before it was released.

“One of our PR guys heard it an hour and a half before it came out and he said, ‘Doc, I think you need to see this video,’ ” Rivers said. “And I went to see it and I was incensed. I was pissed. I didn’t really know what to do.”

Rivers quickly called a late-night team meeting at the hotel to talk about the Sterling report. Wearing a Clippers T-shirt, Rivers entered the meeting room, where incensed players were waiting.

Griffin: “We pretty much found out exactly what it was with everyone else.”

Willie Green: “We all got the news at the same time as the reports were coming out. We were shocked to hear it, and we all heard rumors. To hear the actual words that he said were shocking.”

Hollins: “When it came out, I was blindsided. We didn’t know it was going to be like that. We were told that he made some comments that were racially charged, but we didn’t know what they were. I guess the one that struck us was the Magic Johnson stuff, the black guy in the building. When we heard those words, those words hurt. Those words pierced.”

Rivers: “I let them know I was black too. It was funny. They were pissed at everybody, including me. That is one of the things that broke the ice. I said, ‘By the way, guys, my name is Glenn Rivers. I’m from Maywood, Illinois, and I’m black.’

“The other thing I said is I need you to trust me. I will allow you guys to choose what you want me to say, but I need you to trust me and have one voice. If I have learned one thing about racism, and I’ve been through a lot of things with racism, they never want to go after the guy that says this stuff like Sterling. They want to go after the persecuted. Everyone wants to know how the persecuted will respond rather than focusing on the guy that did something.”

Matt Barnes: “What he said was more of a shake-my-head situation than being mad. I thought he finally got caught up with this bum-a– chick no one liked. As far as the racial comments, I’ve heard much worse and have had worse done to me, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I thought he wasn’t the only owner that felt that way. He was just the only one dumb enough to get caught saying it.”

Chris Paul: “I remember meeting as a team and Doc asking us how we wanted to handle it. We agreed that we would have just one voice and let that voice with Doc. I absolutely agreed with that.”

Rivers: “I was so concerned that someone from our team would say something crazy and then they were the story. And that is what we talked about. From DJ [DeAndre Jordan] to Blake, they decided what they wanted to do. They let me be the voice, and that was huge for us because we got through that without any other controversy.”

After the Sterling news broke, Rivers said Sterling and then-Clippers president Andy Roeser were not available. Roeser later took a leave of absence on May 6, 2014, and never returned to the position.

Hollins: “I was in the elevator with the man [Sterling] right after it came out. It was awkward. I shook his hand like normal. To me, the news didn’t change anything for me. We knew. Everyone knew his mindset. Man, that elevator ride took a while. He was fighting someone on the elevator. He didn’t understand. He was like, ‘This is business as usual.’ He was saying he was going to be at [Game 4]. ‘See you tomorrow.’

“To this day, he might not see the severity. He doesn’t see it as racism. For Donald’s mindset, it was like, ‘This is for me and this is for you.’ This is not necessarily that I am better than you. It was like, ‘This is what you do and this is what I do.’ ”

Rivers: “I was by myself. … I had no one to run stuff by. And a lot of people don’t know that [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] texted me saying, ‘This is my private number. Text me every second that you need something.’ That was huge.”


‘PEOPLE WERE CALLING US TO BOYCOTT’

Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers warms up prior to the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Clippers wore their shirts inside out in protest of David Sterling.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers practiced at the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym on the eve of Game 4 on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The venue was the home of former Dons and NBA legend Bill Russell, who faced a lot of racial discrimination while playing for the Boston Celtics.

Rivers told a media horde that Sterling’s racist statements were not going to distract his team. Paul and Griffin also addressed the media. And while Rivers voiced that his players would not be distracted, it was quite the contrary. They were getting so many calls and texts from family and friends that it was impossible for them to block it out.

Paul: “There were a whole lot of people in our ears. Everybody’s phone was going crazy, saying this and saying that. They were telling what you should and shouldn’t do. For us, we were trying to stay together as much as possible. And whatever we did, we wanted to do it together as a team.”

Hollins: “It was so awkward, man. You are trying to focus on the job at hand. Then you have a game to play. There was a lot of energy in different places. It was kind of weird. And honestly, it divided our team. It divided a lot of stuff we were doing. A lot of people got too focused on it. Other people in their mind weren’t too focused on it. And then basketball was there. You’re getting torn in different places, and then your friends and family are saying certain things. But I don’t think we aired it all the right way.”

Griffin: “As far as distractions go, I don’t know if there could have been a bigger thing. Everybody was calling for us to do something. At one point I had to stop answering questions from people I was close to just because it was the playoffs. Doc was always talking to us about keeping your box. You got your family, but everything else goes outside the box. That was crazy because people were calling for us to boycott, and then we had to make a decision.”

There was an uncomfortable buzz in Oracle Arena on April 27, ahead of Game 4. There were rumors that Jordan and Barnes specifically, and perhaps the Clippers as a whole, would boycott the game. Warriors forward Draymond Green also told The Undefeated that he heard the Clippers players considered not playing. The Warriors were in the other locker room awaiting word on what the Clippers were going to do and planned to support them.

Barnes said Rivers left it up to the players to decide whether they wanted to boycott and just asked that they make a uniform decision. Ultimately, the Clippers players determined as a whole that their quest for a title was bigger than Sterling.

Draymond Green: “I remember the awkwardness of the whole time from when it was released to leading to the game. … Everyone seemed antsy. The most important thing was everyone was standing with them. Guys on our team were standing with them. It was a sad situation. Obviously, it didn’t just affect them, although they were playing on the team he owned. It was bigger than that. It was about our culture as a whole. It was crazy.”

Warriors guard Klay Thompson: “I felt bad for those guys. They were in a tough position. … It was definitely a possibility that they boycotted the game, and it would’ve been completely justified.”

Jordan: “I wasn’t going to play. I felt like that was a representation of us. And for me, obviously being a black player, I didn’t want to go out there and represent that. That isn’t what I am about. My teammates, I will keep their names to myself, but they agreed with me on that — and they weren’t all black.

“I wasn’t being negative or anything, but I was standing for something bigger than myself. But ultimately, when you’re a player coming up, you’re not like, ‘Oh, I want to compete for this.’ You want to do it for your teammates. So ultimately, that swayed me to go out there and fight for my guys.”

Griffin: “We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans. It all took care of itself in the end. We took the appropriate stand.”

Willie Green: “The best thing for us to do was play. We had a meeting, we decided to come out, play and represent the city of Los Angeles and each other. We stayed together and tried to win.”

Barnes: “Not playing was briefly discussed, but I think we all came to the realization that we’re never playing for Donald in the first place. … Plus, we felt we had a championship-caliber team that year. … I have zero regrets.”

Hollins: “We could’ve not played. But I didn’t join the league for Donald Sterling. There are so many more racist people; he was just the one that got caught. I play for my family. I play for my city. It was weird. That is how I feed my kids, doing this. If you had a racist boss, you’re not going to participate [in your job]? It was just funny. People were telling me to give up on a couple million dollars, a couple hundred thousand, or whatever it might be, in my career for someone who is racist.”

Paul: “It was weird. It was kind of eerie. There is a part of you that is saying don’t play. Then there is a part that says if you don’t, you can be letting each other down. We are not playing for them. We’re playing for each other. It was different.”

The Clippers looked solemn as they ran out for warm-ups to a sold-out crowd before the game started. Yes, they were going to actually play in the nationally televised game on a Sunday despite the Sterling cloud hovering over the team. The Clippers made a statement when they took off their warm-up jackets with “Clippers” on them and tossed them at midcourt. The players then engaged in warm-ups donning long-sleeved red T-shirts turned inside out so the team nickname would not be seen.

The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front, and the players wore black socks and armbands. The Warriors routed the Clippers, 118-97, in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2.

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers fight for the rebound in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front and the players wore black socks and arm bands in protest of David Sterling.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Griffin: “I just remember the chaos, but with every situation I try to remember something positive. I just remember coming out here taking our warm-ups off and turning them inside out. I remember getting the cheers from the fans here, and at that time that didn’t [usually] happen. It was kind of in the middle of us clashing.”

Hollins: “I don’t know if throwing our shirts off did anything, honestly.”

Paul: “It was easy to say it was hard to play because we got smacked. But I don’t remember too much about that game.”

Hollins: “It was Game 4, and we were better than Golden State then. We were going to come in and take care of business and mess everything up. But they didn’t hold anything back. They let us have it. They had that energy.”

Jordan: “Do I regret playing? No, I don’t regret playing. We got our a– whooped up in Golden State anyway. I am glad I played because those group of guys, they will be connected for life.”


STERLING BANNED BY NBA

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the media about the investigation involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and accusations that he made racist remarks to a girlfriend on April 29, 2014 in New York City. Sterling, a billionaire, will be banned for life in the NBA.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rumors were circulating that Clippers players were considering sitting out of Game 5 on April 29, 2014, in Los Angeles. Players on other teams around the league were considering sitting out as well. NBA sponsors were threatening to leave their partnership with the league. Meanwhile, several current and former NBA players, including former NBA star and then-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, A.C. Green and Norm Nixon took part in a union rally in L.A., ready to respond to word of Sterling’s punishment expected that day.

The pressure was on Adam Silver, who had replaced longtime NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. Silver came down hard on Sterling, announcing the Clippers owner was banned for life from any association with the NBA and the Clippers and was fined an NBA maximum $2.5 million. NBA owners later gave the needed vote to force Sterling to sell the team.

Many of the Clippers players got the news at their practice facility.

Paul: “I remember all those guys going to City Hall and saying something. It was a weird space for us because we were not only the team involved, but we were playing. Doc was trying to not only lock us in on the series and the game but what we were trying to do, and not use that as an out. I remember the first game back. It was unreal. Everybody wore black.”

Griffin: “Adam Silver, through Doc, told us he was going to handle the situation, and he did. We did what we were supposed to do. We were playing for something much bigger than Sterling. It was never our intent.

“We got together and handled it the best way we could have. As a team, you start training camp and go through the pain of the regular season. And you play basketball to get to the playoffs. For us to boycott the playoffs and ultimately lose a playoff series, it wouldn’t have been fair to us. You have to think somewhat selfishly.”

Draymond Green: “I didn’t think anyone was going to play. But once Adam made his announcement, it was so strong that at that point there was no reason for anyone to say anything about the stance.”

Thompson: “Everyone was really happy with how quickly Adam Silver reacted. That was great standing up for all the players on racism, institutionalism and all of that crap. Adam had our back.”

Rivers: “He was the right guy at the right time. My mama always said, ‘You’re right where you are supposed to be.’ That was my mother’s favorite saying. Adam was at the right spot at the right time.”

Hollins: “For Adam Silver, that was his strongest, ‘I’m here.’ Instead of being in the background and shying away from difficult decisions, he made a big decision moving on from Donald.”

The Clippers went on to defeat the Warriors in Game 5 and won the series in seven games. However, their title hopes ended after they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the second round.

On May 29, 2014, former Microsoft chief executive Ballmer won a bidding war for ownership of the Clippers, purchasing the team for a then-NBA record $2 billion.


FIVE YEARS LATER

New Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, right, shares a laugh with head coach Doc Rivers, second from right, Chris Paul, third from right, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, left, while speaking at the Clippers Fan Festival on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in LA.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

No current players are left from the 2013-14 Clippers team. Paul was granted a request to be traded to the Houston Rockets on June 29, 2017. Griffin was re-signed by the Clippers to a five-year, $173 million deal that same summer but was traded to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 29, 2018. Jordan is two teams removed after playing for the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks this season. Willie Green is an assistant coach with the Warriors. Barnes is retired. And Hollins is a television sports analyst for the Clippers and NBA.

After losing to the Clippers in that first-round series in 2014, Golden State has been to the NBA Finals every year since and won three championships. Barnes, who was on the Warriors’ title team in 2017, said, “I knew then they were going to be a problem.”

Rivers, meanwhile, is the last man standing on the Clippers and enjoying perhaps his finest coaching performance this season. The Clippers hope to be a major player in free agency this summer with the ability to sign two major free agents.

On Wednesday night, the Clippers are back in Oracle Arena to play the Warriors during Game 5 of their first-round series.

Jordan: “We had our opportunities. We had six years to us three, J.J. [Redick] and Jamal [Crawford]. We had really good teams, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. That happens after a while. Either you keep it going and believe in it or revamp, which ultimately they decided to do.”

Hollins: “Ballmer has gone all in. Before, Blake, DJ and Chris would get the preferential treatment, the massages, whatever that may be. The 15th man gets that now. The 15th man gets a scouting report, access to training. It’s just on another level. He’s really invested into the squad. It’s not surprising the success that he is having. Even the young guys.”

Rivers: “When I came here, no free agent would say they want to play for the Clippers. Now, every free agent says they want to play in L.A. And they don’t mean the other team [the Lakers], they mean both. To me, that is a big measure of success of where the franchise has become. The next step is getting [free agents] and then winning.”

Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson — on friendship, Clippers days, and Team Jordan Nearly 20 years after the ‘Knuckleheads’ were drafted together, the NBA vets have a hit podcast

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are battling the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of 2019 NBA playoffs — despite being projected before the season to win just 20 games. Expectations weren’t high for the Clippers at the start of the 2000-01 season, either. Back then, on paper, the Clippers were the worst in the NBA.

“Led by the 19-year-old Darius Miles, the Clippers could be one of two things” read the final sentence of a New York Times’ NBA season preview, “one of the league’s most exciting young teams or a maddening bunch of knuckleheads still trying to learn the game.”

In June 2000, the Clippers had drafted Miles, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, out of high school with the No. 3 overall pick. Fifteen selections later, the Clippers took Quentin Richardson, a sophomore swingman from DePaul University. The two shared the same home state — Richardson a native of Chicago, and Miles from the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois. They’d known each other since they were kids. And in Los Angeles, they became “The Knuckleheads” — a duo recognized across the league by their on-court celebration of two taps to the head with balled-up fists.

Michael Jordan looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on?’”

In their only two seasons together with the Clippers, Miles and Richardson emerged as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Jordan handpicked the two phenoms to endorse his brand, and spoiled them with every pair of Air Jordans imaginable. They appeared on magazine covers, and made cameos together in films and on television shows. And both players had the respect of the early-2000s community of hip-hop. “For a minute there, we really were the culture,” Miles wrote in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, published in October 2018 and guest-edited by none other than Richardson.

Now, nearly two decades after being drafted together, Miles and Richardson are the retired NBA veterans with their own podcast. Of course, it’s called Knuckleheads, and just nine episodes in after its February debut, it has a 4.9 rating out of 5 on iTunes.

In the spirit of the podcast — which has produced unfiltered interviews with NBA stars from Allen Iverson and Gary Payton to J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — The Undefeated chopped it up with The Knuckleheads about everything from the night they were drafted, to the sneakers they wore in the league and the journey of their friendship.

Quentin Richardson (left) and Darius Miles (right) attend Players’ Night Out 2018 hosted by The Players’ Tribune on July 17, 2018, in Studio City, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images for The Players' Tribune


How did you two meet?

D-Miles: AAU ball brought us together …

QR: Many years ago.

D-Miles: Q’s AAU coach came down to Southern Illinois …

QR: Larry Butler

D-Miles: … Yeah, Butler was looking for players to play in a ‘spotlight’ he was having. It was the top Illinois players from the state. We’d come down and play in … kinda like a camp … When I came down, that was the first time I saw who Q was … When Larry saw how good I was, he invited me to a tournament and had me play [on his team] two grades above me. He had me playing with Q and them.

QR: Me and D-Miles hit it off from there. Once he began playing AAU with us and would come to Chicago, he would normally stay at my house. He would stay the weekend, and that’s how we got tight.

We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture.”

Fast-forward to the 2000 NBA draft. Was there any idea that you’d both get picked by the Los Angeles Clippers?

D-Miles: We were going through the draft process together. But we never thought it would be a possibility to play on the same team … We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers…I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers. When I ain’t get picked No. 1 or No. 2, the Clippers weren’t gonna pass on me. They picked me anyway, even if I didn’t wanna go there … Q kinda slipped in the draft.

Q: We didn’t think there was an opportunity for us to play together because the projections were so far apart. He was a top-5 projection. I was anywhere from nine to 20. It was a big gap. And neither of us worked out for the Clippers.

D-Miles: After the draft, we hop on a private jet and go to L.A.? I couldn’t have written it no other way.

How did it feel to be together — at 18 and 20 years old — living in Los Angeles?

D-Miles: We didn’t live close to each other…But we was with each other, shittttt, every day probably.

NBA guard Quentin Richardson (right) of the Los Angeles Clippers and his teammate, guard Darius Miles (left) enjoy a pregame joke before challenging the Sacramento Kings at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Kings won, 125-106.

Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

This is always the first question you ask guests on the Knuckleheads podcast. Who was the first player in the league to bust your ass?

D-Miles: The first one to really give me a lot of buckets was Chris Webber. He was jumping hooking my ass to death. I think he had like 35 or 36. I felt like, I at least got 28 or 30 of them points. Seem like he was scoring every time he got the ball on me.

Writer’s note: On Jan. 27, 2001, Sacramento Kings power forward Chris Webber scored a game-high 33 points and 11 rebounds against the Clippers and a 19-year-old D-Miles, who finished the night with a team-high 16 points.

QR: This was early in my rookie year … I think it was in preseason. We’re out in Denver. This was the first time about to go deal with the altitude. The player was Voshon Lenard. You’re like, Who is VoShon Lenard? I knew he could play. I knew he could hoop, but I was being disrespected out there. The first timeout came at six minutes, I came and sat down … matter fact, D-Miles and Keyon [Dooling] was sitting on the bench. They looked at me and just started laughing. My man had the quickest 17 points I’m talking about in the first six minutes, though … Firing my ass up! Giving me post work … hitting 3s … pump fake, one-dribble pullup. He was cooking my ass. And I was dead tired … But I did get him back! He was on the team when I got career-high against the Nuggets on New Year’s Eve [in 2003]. I had 44 on they ass.

“We thought we was Hollywood, boy!”

You two have probably told this story a million times — but how exactly did you two land with the Jordan Brand?

QR: One of the best moments ever. If anybody knows MJ, you know about his Flight School camp for kids. And they would have some epic counselor games … Flight School used to be held at UC-Santa Barbara … two weeks … two sessions. When I went when I was in college, they brought Darius because he was one of the top high school players. We were both counselors. It was our first time going. Fast-forward to after we get drafted by the Clippers, we’re in L.A., which is an hour [by car] from Santa Barbara. When August comes, we’re like, ‘Man, we’re gonna go out there to the Jordan camp …’ because the runs used to be really good … At this point we had no Nike deal, but AND1 was courting us really hard. They had Larry Hughes, and a few guys we looked up to. We were rocking a whole bunch of AND1. After we get through playing pickup, MJ looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on? I thought y’all was Nike guys.’ Me and D-Miles were like, ‘We wanna be Nike guys…but a contract ain’t happened.’ He was like, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Y’all gon’ be with us.’ We didn’t even know quite what that meant.’ Because Jordan Brand wasn’t what it was going to be. He just had the first years of it with Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Michael Finley … Then our agent Jeff Weschler was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, but Michael called up Nike and you guys are gonna be with him on some special team.’ We started getting flooded with the most gear you could imagine. Today they don’t give the same amount of gear they used to give. We got everything they made … Stuff that you wouldn’t wear, stuff that you have to give away because it was so much. We were literally in heaven.

What were favorite Jordans to play in?

D-Miles: Mine were the patent leather 11s … I watched Jordan my whole life, so when we had the opportunity to put them patent leathers on, I was just on superstar status. Nobody else in the league were really wearing these.

QR: We wasn’t those kids that were fortunate enough to have every pair of Jordans. My first pair I ever had came when I played AAU … My pops…the most expensive pair of shoes he was gonna buy me that were cool were Air Force 1s because they were $49.99 back then. My pops didn’t believe in buying Jordans that he knew I’m about to run through in two days … So for us to start getting Jordans? It was out of this world. Coming from Chicago and East St. Louis, being MJ fans, watching everything he did on WGN and public TV — for us, it was a dream. And every kid we knew from our hometowns were like, ‘I can’t believe y’all are on Team Jordan.’ And we could give all our friends, our family, our parents all the Jordan stuff they wanted … That was almost better than money to us at that point.

Do you still have a lot of your old Jordan PEs?

D-Miles: I just have a few. I left and went to Reebok, and I was under Allen Iverson’s line. Most of the Jordans I had, I gave them to these two kids. One was from Texas, and the other was from Memphis. My momma kinda built a rapport with they moms, and they was like me — young kids wearing a size 18 … So they didn’t have no options for shoes. So me and my mom shipped them out, I wanna say 40-50 pairs of shoes apiece. When my mom did it, all three moms were on the phone boo-hoo crying.

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DMiles Cavs Retro PEs 🔥🔥🔥🔥

A post shared by @ qrich on May 2, 2018 at 7:54am PDT

What’s your favorite PE?

QR: Awww, man. That’s hard for me to say … I was fortunate enough to play for teams that weren’t close to the Bulls colors. So a lot of my shoes were different. I think I would have to go with my Clippers, Knicks and Suns PEs … So I probably would go with the Knicks 2s or 5s. But then my favorite pair of shoes to play in — it didn’t really matter which color — were the Retro 13s. I have those is Phoenix and Orlando colors. The Phoenix ones I had different flavors. I had purple and white ones, I had orange and white ones, I had all-black with orange trim. Those 13s, were the most comfortable shoe for me to play in, because they’re wide and I got wide, flat feet.

D-Miles: Mine are the ones I wore in that picture with Udonis Haslem. I was so used to seeing red and white shoes when I was with the Clippers. But I got to the Cavs, it was different colors. When they sent me those bright orange ones, I loved them. You don’t even know.

QR: I’m telling you — the orange did something! They looked superdifferent than any Jordan you’d ever seen. Back then, you’d never seen an orange Jordan.

You two appeared in a commercial for the Air Jordan 17. What comes to mind when you think of that shoot?

D-Miles: Spike Lee. We grew up on Jordan and all the Jordan commercials. When we heard Spike Lee was finna do it, when knew it was a big, big deal.

QR: We thought we was Hollywood, boy!

Writer’s note: The Air Jordan 17, crafted by African-American footwear designer Wilson Smith, drew inspiration from the “improvisational nature of jazz.” The 30-second, Spike Lee-directed spot, featured Miles and Richardson playing maestro on the court, and debuted a special remix the Gang Starr track “Jazz Thing,” which the hip-hop duo originally co-wrote with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

D-Miles: It was an honor. A real, true blessing. Spike is such a legendary director, and it was with Jordan Brand.

“Like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued.”

QR: It was like, ‘We’re about to have our own Jordan commercial … We really have arrived.’ Me and my bro, together, in a commercial … We went to New York to do it. You get there, and it’s like, ‘Spike Lee is shooting it! … Marsssss is shooting it! This is epic.’ We had our own trailers. They got the gear laid out for us. That was the first time I thought, ‘I’m a star … We some stars up in here, boy!’ This was all new to us. Stuff that you dreamed about as a kid. But to actually live it, it was super dope.

D-Miles: Then to hear Spike Lee, when we first met him, say ‘D and Q.’ Like, ‘Oh, he knows us.’

Forward Darius Miles #21 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots the ball during the NBA game against the Boston Celtics at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Celtics defeated the Clippers 105-103.

Andy Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

And you can’t forget the Jump Men cover of Slam Kicks

QR: I have a copy up in my office.

D-Miles: Back then, Kicks was big. There were other magazines that were bigger, but we were just happy to do anything with anybody who wanted to mess with us. We came straight from the streets, so we dressed a certain type of way. Of course, they were giving us drip, we put it on. We weren’t the typical people wearing that gear. We turned the jerseys backwards, do-rags on, hats cocked …

QR: I got a do-rag, with a headband on, hat to the back. I got a pinky ring on! We both got big ass chains on. We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture. That was what was going on. That was part of why people took to us. We were them — kids. We were 18 and 19, playing in a grown man’s league, representing other 18- and 19-year-olds. We dressed like them and did things like they did. We were trying to get into Hollywood clubs. We were too young, couldn’t get in … Literally, we showed up to training camp with Super Soaker guns. Media day, the first day of training camp, and we have those big ass Super Soakers strapped over our shoulders. They looked at us like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ … We were having fun, for real. And the best part about it was we were on this adventure together. Doing things that we never could’ve dreamed of. We got to spend New Year’s at Shaquille O’Neal’s house. And it was crazy. Like a fucking movie. We’re at Shaq’s big ass crib in L.A. To kick it with Shaq and be around him was enough … But Shaq was really rocking with us. He was showing us a good time and embracing us. Like, this is Shaq!

We turned the jerseys backwards, du-rags on, hats cocked …”

Where did that style come from — especially the backwards jerseys?

D-Miles: Kriss Kross started it, but that was just hip-hop culture. We grew up in hip-hop culture. The trend had kinda died down, because Kriss Kross did it in the early ’90s. Nobody was really taking chances, especially during photo shoots, except for Allen Iverson. We were young. Didn’t really care what people thought about us. It’s real traditional when you do photo shoots. They tell you to put your hands on your hips, like you’re a superhero. Put one hand on your hip, hold the ball on the other side. I used to be like, ‘Nah … ’

What was your relationship like with MJ during his last few years in the league?

D-Miles: Once MJ came back to the league [in 2001], we’d already known him for six or seven years, and it was a blessing. I love when I see the picture of me standing on the court next to Michael Jordan. I got that in my house. Those moments, those games we played against him, I’ll cherish them forever. We were on a West Coast team, so we only played him two times a year. But those times we played them those last two seasons? It was a dream come true.

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Me and the GOAT#tbt

A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Oct 25, 2018 at 2:02pm PDT

July 30, 2002: D-Miles, that’s when you got traded from the Clippers to the Cavaliers.

D-Miles: One of the worst days of my life. I ain’t wanna leave, or play with nobody else. I didn’t know how good I had it until I got traded. The crazy thing about it is when I did get traded, I was doing the movie The Perfect Score. I was all the way in Vancouver, when I heard the news like, ‘What?’ It wasn’t a good feeling. But I did understand the move. I loved Andre Miller. He led the league in assists on the worst team in the NBA. So I understand why the Clippers traded for him. But, I wanted to stay.

Writer’s note: The Clippers traded Miles and power forward Harold Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for point guard Andre Miller and shooting guard Bryant Stith.

QR: We were kids. We were having all this fun. And that was the first time it was like, ‘This is a business … This is real … This ain’t a game or haha fun.’ … I love Andre Miller to this day, but I didn’t want that trade to happen. I was upset. I was mad. I was hurt.

We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers … I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers.”

Can you pinpoint an NBA friendship quite like D-Miles and Q since you guys?

D-Miles: A lot of guys didn’t grow up together like we did. We were around each other when we didn’t have money. One of the bonds I do see that’s close to what me and Q got is Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.

QR: They’ve been together for so long on the same team and same journey. And I don’t even count when D-Wade left. Let’s just throw that whole Chicago and Cleveland window out …

D-Miles: When did that happen!?!

QR: UD and D-Wade played their whole 15, 16 year careers together. They came in, got married, had families, brought kids up at the same time, have businesses together. They rebuilt that organization. But I’ve known Darius since he was in seventh grade, and I was in ninth grade. We got drafted together, played together and now 20 years later, we’re doing a podcast because we’re still tight like that.

Quentin Richardson of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks against the Charlotte Hornets at the Staples Center on Jan. 5, 2001.

Robert Mora/NBAE via Getty Images

How’s it feel to be reunited on the Knuckleheads podcast — and why was now the right time for it?

QR: The thing that makes the podcast is so dope, is it happened organically, almost accidentally. I did my story with The Players’ Tribune. He did his story with The Players’ Tribune. A third party was like, ‘Y’all should do something together.’ And D-Miles, he was originally opposed to the whole media thing. He was like, ‘I don’t want no microphones in my face.’ I’m moving into the media space, so I was open to it. We did a trial demo here on my patio, and it was cool.

D-Miles, is it weird being on the other side now — asking the questions instead of answering them?

D-Miles: It’s definitely weird. I’m not sure if I’d do too much more after this. Like Q said, I’m not big on microphones or cameras. I gotta feel comfortable to let my personality go. Kinda like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued. So you kinda got your guard up. With the podcast, I can kinda let go, laugh, joke and not worry.

QR: We’re tryna spark a real conversation. We don’t feel like we’re going to interview this person, that person. We feel like we’re about to see what’s up with this person and that person.

“Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.”

Are there any players you really want to get on the podcast?

D-Miles: Michael Jordan.

QR: That’s the GOAT. That’s our unicorn. But we got a lot of other players already committed that we can’t really share right now. We have some really, really, really big and good names … for season two.

What do you think you two have meant to basketball, and the culture, in the past two decades?

D-Miles: We carved out our space. I think that’s why we get the love and the respect that we get now. It’s overwhelming, and I’m definitely thankful and blessed to even have that. I only played two years with the Clippers, but every time people see me, they associate me with being a Clipper. I think it’s dope.

QR: I’m just superhumbled … I appreciate all the love, respect and support we get, from people who rocked with the Clippers. And we also get a lot of people that talk to us about the fact that we had that little bitty part in Van Wilder. It’s unbelievable to me how many people acknowledge that … To still be able to do stuff with D twenty years later, and they still remember us? People still remember that celebration, and still rock with it. That’s really cool to me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Life After Nipsey: heartbroken Los Angeles tries to keep running Hussle’s marathon Slain Los Angeles rapper laid to rest Thursday at Staples Center

“When you seen so much death you start dealing with Christ / If you ever make it out you give em different advice / Put my truth in this music hope I’m givin’ em light / Just another flawed human trying to get this s— right…”

— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)


LOS ANGELES — Ermias Asghedom was Marcus’ boss at Marathon Clothing, a tech-friendly shop located near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in South Central Los Angeles. Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom, with a team of business partners, owned and operated the store, a neighborhood staple since it opened nearly two years ago. Hussle was shot and killed in front of his store in the afternoon of March 31. A suspect has been apprehended. Hussle’s funeral, to be held at Staples Center — home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings — is set for Thursday, after what is reported to be a 25-mile procession.

Hussle’s “Smart Store” was a definitive moment for South Central. The space was Hussle, a child of cracked concrete, not only giving back but planting deep roots in the community where he was born and raised. The neighborhood came out in droves to the store, as did celebrities such as Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, 21 Savage, Jim Jones and Hussle’s longtime partner, the actress Lauren London. “I remember being shot at by the police in that parking lot,” Hussle said earlier this year. “Getting taken to jail, raided in that parking lot … to actually owning that building.”

Marcus (not his real name), though, is a young man from around the way and was hired shortly after Marathon opened by Hussle’s brother and Marathon co-owner Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom. “Nipsey just set off that vibe,” Marcus said via FaceTime. “You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation. Even me working there, seeing him all the time when he comes through, you’re like, ‘Oh, s—. It’s Nip!’ You can see him every single day and it’s still a shocking surprise.”

The two bonded over financial literacy. Marcus yearned to learn more about investing and stocks. Hussle loved to create a cycle of independence those around him would take pride in. “Lead to the lake if they wanna fish,” he rapped on “Hussle and Motivate” from his Grammy-nominated 2018 Victory Lap (which re-entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 this week. Marcus, like Hussle, wanted his money to make money. “[Our last conversation] was more of a business talk.”

On the afternoon of March 31, Marcus was working in the stockroom. Loud pops rang out. He figured they were from nearby construction sites, but something told him to walk outside and check. Chaos had erupted in the parking lot of Marathon. The pops were actually gunshots. “I just seen him laying there,” Marcus said. “He was still breathing, still fighting, but the conditions were critical. It was blood everywhere, man.” Two other men were also hit.

“Nipsey just set off that vibe … You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation.”

Instead of panicking, Marcus called Samiel Asghedom. Marcus said he attempted to console co-workers and, as he puts it, to “be mentally cool and stable in that situation.” Hussle died a short time later. Two days later, alleged gang member and struggling musician Eric Holder, 29, was charged with his murder, two counts of attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Hussle’s death capped what Los Angeles law enforcement officials are calling a “troubling surge” that included 26 shooting victims and 10 fatalities over a week. The Los Angeles Police Department police chief stated last week that Hussle and Holder knew each other and the “dispute” between the two was a “personal matter.” Tears led to questions. What exactly did Nipsey mean by his last tweet? What was going through his mind in his final moments? His partner, London? His family? Did he know how much his death would shake South Central?

“You get your real random moments [when you think about it]. I think about Nipsey before I go to bed,” Marcus said. “I just been keeping my mind distracted.” While the world mourns Hussle’s death, all it takes is standing in the parking lot of the Fatburger restaurant near Marathon Clothing for a new truth to become clear. Hussle was well on his way to becoming a global star in the entertainment universe. And when he was pronounced dead, Hussle took a piece of South Central Los Angeles with him.


They love me all around the world, my n—a / What’s your problem?

All Get Right” (2013)

Grief’s black cloud is everywhere. Washington, D.C., Miami, San Diego, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Houston. London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fans in these cities have paid respect to Hussle through candlelight vigils. Celebrities are deeply moved, some to tears: Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, LeBron James, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, Issa Rae, Jalen Ramsey, Drake, John Legend, YG, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Odell Beckham Jr. and countless others. Both Hussle’s hometown basketball squads, the Lakers and Clippers, paid homage to him. The Eritrean community (Hussle’s father was born in Eritrea) was hit noticeably hard.

Some fans find solace in Hussle’s music — even as hip-hop struggles to find peace just six months after the soul-shattering death in September of Mac Miller. Hussle’s childhood poems — unearthed by an elementary school classmate, revealing a child with vision and empathy beyond his years — have gone viral. Many think constantly of Lauren London and his children, Emani and Kross, as well. There’s also the too-familiar, agonizing pain of Hussle’s parents, siblings, close friends and others — survivors of gun violence, struggling to make sense of it all.

What has so struck countless people — such as Rep. Karen Bass, who’ll honor Hussle this week on the House Floor — was Hussle’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit. There were his real estate ventures — such as placing a bid on luxury beach hotel Viceroy Santa Monica with partners Dave Gross, DJ Khaled, Luol Deng and others. There’s the community pride via Hussle’s advocacy of Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile open-air museum that pays homage to the black history and art of Crenshaw Boulevard. He was active in community revitalization projects, such as refurbishing and reopening L.A. skating rink World on Wheels.

He also launched Vector90, a coworking space, and Too Big To Fail, a science, technology, engineering and math pad where young boys and girls could obtain professional development skills. Deeply personal for Hussle was eliminating the gap between Silicon Valley and children in his Crenshaw community.

At the base of the fanship is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul. This mindset resonated deeply with fans.

Hussle’s death has shifted pop culture’s needle unlike any since Prince nearly three years ago. Hussle’s homegoing service figures to be the biggest funeral — upward of 12,000 are expected — in Los Angeles since Michael Jackson’s a decade ago.

Staples Center sources say that some of Hussle’s friends will be sending signed National Basketball Association memorabilia. This includes Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game-worn jersey and and sneakers, as well as jerseys from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma and others — all featuring personal handwritten messages to Hussle. At the base of his loyal fanship, which includes these star athletes, is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul.

This mindset resonated deeply with fans: “Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters,” he boasted on “Dedication.” “Taught you how to charge more than what they paid for you n—-s / Own the whole thing for you n—-s / Re-invest, double up then explained for you n—-s” was his truth on “Last Time That I Checc’d.”

“To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

This being Los Angeles, there is no shortage of celebrity deaths. Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS. Hattie McDaniels of breast cancer at 57. Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest, Richard Pryor of multiple sclerosis. Whitney Houston and Ray Charles both died in Beverly Hills, California. Sam Cooke, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Marvin Gaye and The Notorious B.I.G. were all murdered in the city. Tupac Shakur’s spirit eternally looms over the City of Angels, although he died in Las Vegas.

But Hussle is the first musical artist of his stature, native to Los Angeles, to die in such a violent manner. Hussle’s bodyguard, J Roc, retired immediately because he was so overcome with grief and survivor’s remorse. “I would switch places with you any day,” he wrote. “The world need you here … ”

School officials in South Central spoke off the record to say students have been deeply shaken by the tragedy. Who do we look up to now? some ask. Others remain committed to continuing Hussle’s marathon. Others wonder if this endless cycle of violence is the life they’ll always be forced to endure.

“Losing someone like [Hussle] … he was proud to be from here. He was never afraid to represent and say what he’s done in his life — good and bad. It’s tough to swallow that,” says Los Angeles music reporter and photographer Mya “Melody” Singleton. “He was only 33. He was blessed to know what he was put here on this Earth to do. … To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

Making sense of senselessness is an exercise in futility. Hussle’s death gave immediate rise to countless conspiracy theories. And a running sentiment is that Hussle was killed over jealousy and hate. Hussle, a man of both principles and flaws, didn’t always say the right thing at the right time, but did tend to own up to his shortcomings. And when discussing Hussle’s death, in particular in Los Angeles, it’s important to look at and listen to to black women. He gushed over having his grandmother in his final video. His mother, Angelique Smith, shared a poignant message about strength, fearlessness and empathy. Samantha Smith, Npsey’s sister, honored her brother as a real-life “superhero.”

Asia Hampton, 26, visits makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his store The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“I need you, I need you please let me hold you again,” she wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post. “I love you forever, and I will cry forever.”

“I’m feeling heroic but life is a dice game / And they dare you to blow it / You might get a stripe man, but that ain’t gon’ pay for the strollers.” Like so many Hussle lyrics now, this one from 2016’s “Picture Me Rollin’” — about his daughter, Emani — is agonizing to hear: “It’s never enough to console her / Telling, your daddy’s a soldier / She needs you right now in this moment / Not dead on your back pushing roses.” Hussle’s relationship with London was another growing branch on his tree of life. The two first met in person at The Marathon Clothing. London called Hussle her best friend, sanctuary, protector and soul in her first public statement after his murder.

LAPD officer Jonathan Moreno, left, receives a bouquet from Rochelle Trent, 64, to be placed at a makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his business The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“When I think of myself as a black woman, and him as a father, and I think of him having Lauren as his partner, I feel like that has to be one of the worst nightmares that any black woman can go through,” says Singleton. “I think about [his children, Emani and Kross] and what they’re gonna have to endure as they get older. I thought [he and Lauren] were one of the cutest couples. It was so cool to see that they really were each other’s equal. And it’s heartbreaking to see that she has literally become part of a sisterhood that nobody wants to be in.”

The despair is palpable for Los Angeles DJ Iesha Irene. “I knew Nipsey knew this. [But] I just want black men to know we really ride for y’all. Nobody is gonna understand you like us. Nobody is going to love you like we do. Even when you leave this Earth, we still mourn you in death. It makes me sad that the world doesn’t love you as much as I do.”


“Where Nipsey got caught up is where so many other n—as got caught up,” says my Uber driver, Chris. He’s a Watts native. Chris didn’t like when a clearly grieving Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, apparently shouted out Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Crips set after his iconic 20-20-20 (equals 60) triple-double against the Lakers on April 2.

“You can’t have one foot in the game and one foot out. It’s just not how this works. But beyond all that … Nipsey … should be saluted because, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of his music, it’s no denying [he] had a good heart, regardless who he banged with. He was actually doing something positive. That’s more than I can say for a lot … out here. But still, if you from here, you know how they get down. And Russ from here!”

“Here” are the ’hoods of Los Angeles — and there’s a long and complex history of gang culture. Yet on April 5, hundreds of Bloods, Crips and other gang members held a private a ceremony at The Marathon Clothing. Leaders from Compton, Inglewood and Watts met the day before and decided to honor Hussle with a peaceful demonstration.

Instagram Photo

“We having a gang truce and rally so all the different gangs in L.A. can get together and celebrate the life and gift of Nipsey,” said Eugene “Big U” Henley, a 60 who managed Hussle during his career’s early stages. “It’s a lot of people who were calling who said they wanted to get together and come to the vigil and pay respect.”

Most are taking a wait-and-see approach, but there is some hope that Hussle’s death can produce some change moving forward, both within gang culture and in the city and country’s collective mindstate.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from this,” says Irene. “But … I would like to hope that these gangs continue not just talking the talk for the sake of what’s going on right now. I would hope that they continue to promote unity. Beyond that, I hope that the rest of the nation, especially us as black people, [we] take notes from what Nipsey was doing, and what he was trying to do and what he did do, and try and implement that in our daily lives.”


The walk to Hussle’s memorial is nerve-wracking. LAPD officers are blocking off streets but mostly keeping to themselves. The Nation of Islam distributes copies of The Last Call with Hussle on the cover while directing pedestrian and street traffic. But along the way, so many landmarks command attention. There’s the liquor store where part of the “Rap N—as” video was filmed. The ’hood staple, Woody’s Bar-B-Que. The Slauson Donuts where Hussle and London did a portion of their recent, and now painfully immortal, GQ shoot. There’s the sign on a garage door, alongside photos of Muhammad Ali and biblical passages, that says, “LET THE HEALING BEGIN … ”

Racks in the Middle,” the last single Hussle released before his death, now sounds like a self-created eulogy, and it blares from cars. Those walking on the sidewalk rap along with Hussle. Others passionately sing Roddy Rich’s hook. It’s like Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” was 23 years ago — a goodbye first to his slain best friend Stephen “Fatts” Donelson. Then to himself. “We just embrace the only life we know / If it was me, I would tell you, ‘N—a, live your life and grow’ / I’d tell you, ‘Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?’ ” Hussle’s cries kick down the doors of the soul.

Because his voice booms out of every car speaker, the closer The Marathon Clothing becomes, the harder it is to make out which Hussle songs are playing. The black All Money In (his record label) truck still sits in the parking lot, as does (at least as of last week) his black Mercedes GLE 350. In front of the Shell gas station at the corner, locals sell paintings and portraits commemorating Hussle, while music directs mourners to an informal memorial’s line. South Central’s ode to its own royalty.

“I would switch places with you any day … The world need you here …”

The line lengthens as afternoon transitions to dusk. To get to the parking lot and the memorial, mourners must walk through the same alley Holder ran through once he permanently altered the course of Crenshaw’s history. This is walking through trauma to attempt to deal with trauma. Perhaps no better description of life in the ghetto. “Put a circle around Nipsey,” a man says, holding a slab of ribs while waiting in line, tears streaming down his face from behind black sunglasses. “He put a circle around us.”

The number of mourners on the evening of April 6 reaches nearly 500. A potluck of ages, races and ethnicities converge on Hussle’s final living place. Saying goodbye is what brings them all here. Love for Hussle keeps them. African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the overall population to suffer from severe mental health problems. Among these conditions, is post-traumatic stress disorder: black people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Black children are more likely than other children to witness violence. It’s difficult not to think of these hurdles walking around Hussle’s ground zero.

For many, this isn’t their first makeshift memorial. Nor will it be the last. Barriers block off the parking lot where Hussle last stood. That’s part of the moment’s symbolism too. Hussle died on the land he owned. Now the neighborhood tries to piece together how life goes on without him.

Outside what was long ago dubbed by the community as “Nipsey’s Fatburger,” a man and woman console one another through conversation. “You going to the funeral?” she asks. “We have to. We owe that m—–f—– that much.”

“Hell, yeah, I’m going to that m—–f—–,” responds the guy, pulling on a cigarette. “Without a m—–f—ing doubt.”

Similar conversations are heard inside the Fatburger. “It’s a shame Nipsey had to die for the ’hoods to come together like this,” a woman says, eating her fries while looking at the different gang sets and neighborhoods standing in line for food. “I guess … everyone needs a reality check and a starting point. If they come together, and we stay together, at least it feels like Nip didn’t die in vain.” That’s true, yes, but 3420 W. Slauson Ave. is, unfortunately, rap’s newest public tombstone. It follows Koval and Flamingo in Las Vegas and Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard only 7 miles from where Hussle died.

On March 31, the world lost a man, a father, a partner, a visionary and an activist. Los Angeles, in particular South Central, lost a lifeline. Hussle’s creative spirit was lighthouse of prosperity built by a person who refused to give up on blocks many deemed a terror zone. Hustle had the swag and the community activist spirit of Tupac. The spectacular cool and charisma of Biggie Smalls. And the enterprising foresight of Jay-Z. While he surely Slauson’s Malcolm X, make no mistake — Nipsey Hussle was Nipsey Hussle. And one day soon, the corner of Slauson and Crenshaw will bear his name.

“My city won’t ever be the same. I won’t ever be the same,” Irene says. “He was the black American dream. That’s why this hits different. You found yourself in him.”

A trio of legendary nights with Dwyane Wade as he says good-bye to the NBA Milwaukee, Madison Square Garden, Miami — one of the greatest ever comes to the end of the road

Live in the moment. It’s a motto that many preach and few actually practice. But Dwyane Wade isn’t most people. His season-long #OneLastDance is proof: a case study, actually, in gratitude and the importance of being present. Tuesday night, the icon who took his talents to Miami in 2003, where he has played with the Heat for all but 1½ seasons — takes to the court for his final regular-season home game.

There are two ways to view Wade’s career. One is via the sheer audacity of his accomplishments.

He will have scored more than 23,000 points.

He is a 13-time All Star, and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.

Wade is a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist and eight-time All-NBA selection.

That he is a three-time All-Defensive selection could have something to do with the fact that, in terms of guards, Wade is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks.

The Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade talks to the media while holding the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 21.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

All of which provides context for him being a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. Wade is quite simply the greatest shooting guard of all time — not named Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

The second way to appreciate Wade is through the prism of the cultural impact he’s had on professional basketball, and on the world around him. There’s his very public journey of fatherhood — including his recent extended paternity leave. Wade as wielding his voice and platform in this new golden era of player social activism. Married to actor, author, and philanthropist Gabrielle Union he is one-half of a power couple with global influence. Wade’s fashion risks and fashion firsts are indelible. And, of course, there is Wade’s critical role in forming and preserving the 2010-14 Miami Heat — the team that unequivocally changed the look, the feel, the style and bravado of NBA basketball ever after.

But now, after 16 campaigns, it’s over. Wade’s farewell has been the NBA’s finest storyline of the 2018-19 season. “This year has allowed me just to play and be free and not really care,” Wade told me in February. “If I score 22, if I score two — I’m enjoying the process … this journey, that I’m ending … It really allows me to live in the moment and just enjoy it all. Normally as an athlete you don’t get to.”

I joined Wade at three of his last NBA games. On March 22, Miami was at Milwaukee, near where he played college ball. As a player, he stepped on court at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the last time on March 30. And then there was his last game at American Airlines Arena on April 9 against Philadelphia. One last ride.


CHAPTER ONE: THE WARM-UP

Marquette head coach Tom Crean talks with Dwyane Wade during the closing minutes of their game with East Carolina, Monday, Dec 30, 2002, at Minges Coliseum in Greenville, N.C.

AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker

MILWAUKEE — Now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, former Marquette Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean has witnessed the legend of Dwyane Wade several times. There was the 2001 31-point explosion against Tennessee in The Great Alaska Shootout. Then there was the victory two nights later against Indiana. But the moment? The one that put an entire country on notice? That’s Feb. 27, 2003, when Wade, Crean and No. 10 Marquette, on the road, defeated No. 11 Louisville.

“[Dwyane] makes a move in front of our bench,” says Crean. “He starts out on a drive so it’s on the left wing, behind the 3-point line. … He gets a dribble out in front of him, he lifts the guy, does a spin dribble, OK?” Excitement rises in Crean’s voice. “[Wade] spin dribbles, shot fakes, lifts the guy and shoots it off the backboard … basically beat three people to the rim.”

Sportscaster Dick Vitale, per usual, couldn’t contain himself. This was the same year high school phenom LeBron James was a one-man sports news cycle. The year Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse was the college hoops storyline. But now a new name was tossed to the hysteria and into one of the best draft classes in NBA history.

“Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”

And the Miami Heat were anxious to find its next star. “[Everyone in the Heat organization] ended up watching … all of his tournament games to prepare for the draft,” says Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, sitting on the scorers table after shootaround last month. Miami was set to play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks that night. In 2003, Spoelstra was a Heat coaching assistant. “They were super well-coached,” Spoelstra says. “And Dwyane made you watch that team.”

Marquette alumni Dwyane Wade, center, is honored with Dwyane Wade Day during halftime as Marquette takes on Providence for an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Milwaukee.

AP Photo/Darren Hauck

Walk into the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus and the first face you see is Wade’s. A large portrait commemorating the school’s Final Four run, with Wade as its centerpiece, sits beside Marquette legends such as Bo Ellis, Jim Boykin, Maurice Lucas and Dean Meminger. The 3,700-seat arena is quiet in late March, as both the men’s and women’s teams are at the NCAA tournament. Wade’s presence, though, is everywhere.

There is “M Club” Hall of Fame induction in 2009. His place on the Walk of Champions. A large banner pays him homage in the actual gym. Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey. There’s excitement in the air. Wade and the Heat are coming to town — it’s his last time playing in the city that still claims him as its own.


Dwyane Wade signs autographs after his final game at TD Garden April 01, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Heat 110-105.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There’s an upbeat vibe at Fiserv Forum the morning of March 22. The Heat are holding a shootaround as The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s the Same Old Song” bleed into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Maybe it’s a Pat Riley call. He is a child of Motown, after all.

Some players are getting up shots. But Wade’s knees are already iced as he sits courtside behind the basket. Almost directly above him hangs his No. 3 Marquette jersey. He’s having fun talking to the media, and he smiles when the Ja Morant comparisons come up. A day earlier, Morant dropped a triple-double (as Wade did in ’03, and as only eight others have done in the NCAA tournament) in Murray State’s first-round win over, poetically, Marquette. “He’s special for real,” Wade said. “[He] definitely gave me flashbacks.”

“He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.” — New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale

Wade’s eyes glisten when I mention the name Gaulien “Gee” Smith. He’s owner of Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon on Milwaukee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where Wade got his hair cut while in college. Gee, who has cut the hair of more than 200 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, recalls Wade as a soft-spoken, respectful guy whom he held out as special. “I told him [at Skybox Sports Bar across the street],” Gee says, “ ‘Man, I knew you would be great. But I’ma be honest with you, I had no idea you would be who you are today.’ ” Wade beams at the memory.

Udonis Haslem, who entered the NBA in 2003 with Wade, returns to the court and looks over at Wade, whom he considers more than a brother. “This is … the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Haslem. “I’m living through him and his happiness. I’m enjoying all this as a friend. Real friends enjoy seeing their friends happy.”


Dwyane Wade acknowledges the crowd while being honored in the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Fiserv Forum on March 22, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Heat fans have piled into the Bucks’ home arena to watch the Eastern Conference’s top squad play the Heat. The past 20 years of Wade’s basketball life are on people’s chests and backs: Marquette jerseys, Olympic jerseys, Chicago Bulls jerseys, even a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. But overwhelmingly it’s about that Heat No. 3 jersey in all of its hues.

Fans Felix and Linda have made the 80-mile trek from the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the moment. “This is his home! Even though he’s in Miami for now,” Linda says, not even trying to hide her sarcasm. “He’ll always be welcome here.”

“It means a lot to see him in his last game here,” says Felix. “The things he does in the community off the court outweighs what he does on the court. Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”

It’s a common sentiment at Fiserv all night. Midway through the first quarter, during a timeout, highlights of Wade’s March Madness run splash across the JumboTron and elicit a standing ovation. “This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”

When Wade checks in with 4:41 left in the first, an even louder ovation erupts. Wade’s 12 points, though, do little to prevent the inevitable: The Heat — in a royal rumble with Orlando, Brooklyn and Detroit for three of the East’s final three seeds — lose 116-87. But the moment was bigger than the game. Both Milwaukee All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, swapped jerseys with Wade after the game. His who’s who of jersey swappers this year includes LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others.

“He is definitely a mentor, somebody I watch from afar,” Middleton said after the game. “[He’s] one of my favorite players growing up. Still one of my favorite players to this day.”

“Dwyane made you watch that team.” — Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra

In the locker room, Wade sits on a chair with his shirt off and a gold chain around his neck with a throng of reporters around him. “I have no regrets,” he says of his farewell tour. Those who came out to see him don’t have regrets either. Pride is mixed with sorrow. Honor is in bed with sadness.

“I just know,” Linda says, “I’ma miss him.”

Crean, Wade’s coach at Marquette, has a theory about why the star’s connection to the area runs so deep. It’s not about the highlights, or the notoriety both men brought to Marquette in the early 2000s. It’s not even about what they did in the spring of 2003. It’s about the soul of a man.

“He never, ever stopped caring about Marquette or Milwaukee even after [we] left,” Crean says. “It never stopped being his home. It never stopped being his school. … He’s incredibly loyal to his friends, his family, his community. … He gets it.”

PART TWO: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY

Dwyane Wade shoots the winning basket over Trevor Ariza of the New York Knicks on March 15, 2005 at Madison Square Garden. The Heat defeated the Knicks 98-96.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Wade to have his first Madison Square Garden moment. Or, in other words, rip the hearts out of New York Knicks fans. The date was March 15, 2005, and with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the 49-16 Heat were tied at 96 with the 26-35 Knicks.

Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time.

Double-teamed by Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas, Wade (then known as “Flash” in his second NBA season) turned the ball over, giving the Knicks a chance at pulling off the upset. Thomas missed a baseline jumper, allowing Wade to pull down his third and final rebound of the game — thus setting him up for the final shot. Moments later, Wade called for iso far beyond the top of the key. A hard drive left. A vicious step-back jumper. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Heat win 98-96.

“That boy is the truth!” yelled former Knicks guard Greg Anthony after the game. Fair assessment. And, in light of Paul Pierce claiming his superiority over Wade as a player, a funny one too.


The Heat’s shootaround takes place at NYC’s Basketball City. It sits on the East River with a clear view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Some players are getting shots up. Others have side conversations with coaches. The energy is calm and inviting as media types surround Wade. He’s wearing a black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.

Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey.

“Besides playing at home, [Madison Square Garden] is my favorite place to play,” Wade says. “It’s a lot of great arenas in the NBA, but there’s something about MSG that’s … special. … Heat Nation is strong here, so we always have a home crowd kinda feel. It’s the lights. It’s the way the floor is lit. It’s everything.”

Wade is balancing reflection and being in the moment. The night is largely about him — he’s the third-leading active non-Knick scorer at MSG, behind LeBron James and Vince Carter. Yet, for Wade, the night is more about the playoff push. The Heat at the time were still clawing for their postseason lives — and, at press time, still are. Wade is as mild-mannered as they come in the NBA, but it’s clear that questions about Knicks coach and close friend Dave Fizdale’s ability to lead his team out of a perpetual state of rebuilding begins to annoy him. Wade’s professional career began in the Garden at the 2003 NBA draft, but in March 2019 at MSG, he had not retired yet.

Much like in Milwaukee, and at other stops this season, droves of fans arrive in Wade-associated paraphernalia. One such Heat fan, sporting the statement pink Wade jersey, walks around a concourse in full Braveheart mode, high-fiving and hugging any other Heat fan he sees. “Let’s go Heat!” he belts out. “Let’s go Wade!”

Other fans couldn’t let Wade leave New York without saying goodbye.

“I’ve only seen him once,” says New Jersey native and die-hard Wade fan Ahmed Doumani. “I can’t have him retire without seeing him again.”

Celebrities also pile up at MSG for Wade. Tennis great John McEnroe, actor John Turturro, New York Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and Kansas City Chiefs MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes are all in attendance. The most important courtside seat though, as it relates to Wade, is that of his wife, Gabrielle Union.

Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude at MSG is gargantuan.

“It’s so nice to see him appreciate [this final season],” Union said during an in-game interview. “They say give people their flowers while they can still appreciate it, and the NBA has just done a tremendous job [of that].”

Midway through the first, Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude is gargantuan. Hairs rise on the back of necks. Goose bumps have nothing to do with the air conditioning. Fizdale, who spent eight seasons as an assistant and associate head coach in Miami, paid homage to his former player from the Jumbotron and had more to say after the game.

“I’ve learned more from him than he has from me, for sure,” Fizdale said. “When he says he’s your friend, he’s going to be there for you. He’s been there for me every step of the way. He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.”

Every time Wade touched the ball at MSG, the crowd cheered. He received “MVP” chants when he went to the free throw line — perhaps the lone accomplishment not on his career portfolio. The Knicks offense stalled in the second, allowing Miami to push ahead for good. This allowed Knicks fans to focus on what’s really important.

Dwyane Wade touches center court of Madison Square Garden one final time after the game against the New York Knicks on March 30, 2019.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

“Thank you, D-Wade, for whooping our a– one more time!” one fan behind press row yelled. “We’re one step closer to Zion [Williamson]!”

Wade finished with 16 points and seven assists in a 100-92 victory — although the crowd would’ve much rather preferred for it to be 18 points. A called offensive foul on Wade in a missed alley-oop drew the biggest boos of the night — from Heat and Knicks fans. After the game, hundreds of fans stuck around to take in Wade’s final moments in the Garden. New York has never had an issue with telling opponents off. It’s an unforgiving fan base. But if the city respects you, they’ll love you forever.

“Gotta pay respect,” a Knicks fan says, patting his young son on the head, “to one of the GOATs.”

“This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”

Chants of “One more year!” ride shotgun with “D-Wade!” And as a shoeless Wade finally runs off the court, he’s showered with one last ovation. Inside the locker room, Wade, in a pink “Play Make Her” hoodie (a fund launched by the Entertainment Industry Foundation to empower women in the sports industry) is looking forward to summing up the night.

“I’ll be here, I’m sure, a few other times in my life. But as a player … it’s your last time, you just enjoy it,” he says. “The fans staying around after was so cool. You expect that at home, but on the road you don’t expect it.”

As the locker room clears, Wade is smiling. It’s almost over. He taps me on my shoulder. He’s seen me at many of these stops. “See you in the next city, bro.” He takes pictures with two kids — one in a Heat jersey and another in a Knicks jersey. Then he’s off into the New York night, hand in hand with Union, as hundreds of fans wait near the team bus hoping for one last glimpse of a legend.

PART THREE: VICTORY LAP

MIAMI — “Feed him the rock,” the man says, a grin overtaking the real estate of his face. Decked in a white Wade jersey and Miami Heat hat, he takes a couple of pulls from his cigarette and carries on with another guy doing the same. “He can beat Kobe’s 60.Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”

Miami knew this day would come. Erik Spoelstra made a vow to Wade (and to himself) at Wade’s home last summer when he learned this would be the superstar’s final run. “I just wanted to enjoy all these moments and be present. Not think about when it’s over, or next year,” the Heat head coach said. “I wanted to [do] everything we could to make sure it was as he imagined.”

Dwyane Wade looks on during the playing of the national anthem prior to the game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on April 09, 2019 in Miami.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Dwyane Wade’s final home game was the topic around the city all day Tuesday. Miami is fiercely protective of Wade, and for a certain generation of south Florida sports fans, Wade is not just one of the greats. He’s the greatest.

“For really anyone 40 and under, he’s the symbol of sports excellence in Miami,” says columnist and 5ReasonsSports.com podcast host Alphonse Sidney. “We’re too young for the 1972 Dolphins. We were in elementary school or not alive even when [Dan] Marino was elite. We’ve seen two Marlins championships, but we never really had a chance to fawn over those teams because as soon as we won the championship they were gone.” He pauses momentarily. “When it comes to elite athleticism, elite players, superstars who are a symbol of a team and a community, it’s Dwyane Wade and really no one else.”

“Dwyane Wade represents us Miamians in a way no other South Florida sports figure has,” says Maria Cabré, head of operations at J Wakefield Brewing. “He [just] gets it — a balance of humility and ego and forward thinking yet rooted in tradition. [Miami] will always be his home.”

Inside American Airlines Arena is a celebration fit for a king. “L3GACY” shirts are placed on every seat in the arena — which is filled long before tip off. Dwyane Wade highlights run in an unapologetic loop on any and every screen. The entire arena chants for some 10 minutes before tipoff.

We want Wade!

We want Wade!

We want Wade!

There are clips and voiceovers from Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Gabrielle Union. A deafening roar erupts when Pat Riley declares, “This will be Wade County forever!”

Wade’s wearing black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.

On a night defined by emotions and immortalized by beauty, Wade’s oldest son Zaire introduced his father in a moment best described as surreal. “That one almost got me,” Wade quipped in a hallway after the game.

Following roughly 20 minutes of pre-game Wade-themed nostalgia, and a speech from the man of the hour, an actual basketball game took place. Though it was more like glorified scrimmage with the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly content with having the best seat in the house for Wade’s final Florida farewell. Spoelstra said following the game the decision to start Wade was a “no brainer.”

And, fittingly, with Chris and Adrienne Bosh, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Tim Hardaway and more courtside and nearby, the first bucket of the game was a dunk from No. 3. Everything Wade did Tuesday night — scoring, assists, rebounds, waves to the crowd — elicited thundering ovations. Everyone was soaking up the moment, even those in press row.

During timeouts, the video tributes continued. Derek Jeter’s was booed. NBA commissioner Adam Silver saluted Wade, telling him Springfield, Massachusetts was his next stop. As did his mother (Jolinda), father (Dwyane Sr.), sister (Tragil) and nephew (Dahveon). “You’ve given me the biggest gift you could ever give any of your fans,” Gabrielle Union says in hers. “Your heart.” Zaire returned on screen to thank his father for giving him a blueprint for how to live life both on and away from the court. His youngest son Zion, who participated in the Miami Beach Pride march on Sunday, had but one request for his dad. “Don’t lose your last home!” The biggest ovation was reserved for President Barack Obama. Via video he saluted Wade for a career well-played.

“Now, I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” Obama said. “In my case though, I didn’t really have a choice. My knees were shot so I had to give up basketball forever.”

“He can beat Kobe’s 60. Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”

News about Magic Johnson stepping away from the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t derail what was instantly one of the most special nights in South Florida history, and the Detroit Pistons’ comeback victory over Memphis, officially eliminating the Heat from the playoffs, didn’t dampen a parade 16 seasons in the making. A truly special sequence in the fourth quarter soon ignites. The game was already decided. The crowd had already erupted into another “We want Wade!” chant. Then Wade and fellow Miami favorite Udonis Haslem checked into the game together.

Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time. A turnaround fadeaway from nine feet. Then a three pointer that turned the arena on its collective head in euphoria. Then another three pointer. Then a 23-foot step back jumper that prompted his wife Gabrielle Union to slap him on the butt as he ran by. And then three minutes later, another three.

All in all, Dwyane Wade closed out his career with 30 points, including 14 in the final frame. And the 20,153 in attendance managed to squeeze in “Paul Pierce sucks” chant for good measure.

The Miami Heat, led by Dwyane Wade, huddle up prior to the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9, 2019 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

As the clock ran to triple zeros, the moment had finally set in. An era was over. Wade saved his most personal jersey exchanges for last. He swapped jerseys with his entire team. Then Zaire. The most personal swap was with No. 11 Heat jersey with “Hank” on the back. This was a homage to Henry Thomas, D-Wade’s late agent who became far more than just that over the course of his career. Wade credited Thomas, who passed away from neuromuscular disease in 2018, for molding him into the man he became after leaving Marquette.

“Wade County,” Dwyane said to the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the final whistle blew, “I love you.”

Following the final press conference of his career in Miami, Wade, in a red suit and sneakers, holding his daughter, left the building — no shirt under the blazer. Friends and family members follow him as he shows his daughter pictures of himself on the wall. Union soon joins them. This is how Wade wanted it to end. On his own terms celebrating with those he loves most.

It feels like just yesterday that he, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were covering Sports Illustrated with the tagline “The New Era.” And now, Dwyane Wade is no longer in the NBA. Wade valued his career. And he walked out of American Airlines Arena at close to midnight one final time knowing that an entire fanbase, an entire city — and an entire generation — did, as well.

Nike drops limited-edition Colin Kaepernick ‘Icon’ jersey Kaepernick’s name is on a Nike jersey once again and he hasn’t played since 2017

Colin Kaepernick has proven he doesn’t have to be on the roster of a team to dominate every NFL conversation. He also doesn’t have to be in the league to have his own jersey.

On Wednesday — five days after the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and current Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid reached a settlement with the NFL concerning their collusion grievances against the league — Nike released the limited-edition Kaepernick Icon jersey, which is available on the brand’s website in men’s sizes (small to 3XL) for $150 each.

“We believe Colin Kaepernick is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” a Nike spokesperson told The Undefeated. “The jersey marks Nike’s continued product collaboration with Colin.”

The new apparel arrived almost six months after Nike made Kaepernick the face of a reboot to the company’s iconic Just Do It campaign, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2018. Kaepernick appeared in an ad with the slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

He also narrated a two-minute spot, titled Dream Crazy, which first aired on TV during the NFL regular-season opener between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.

In September, it was originally reported that Nike had no plans to give Kaepernick a signature shoe or extensive clothing line despite being at the forefront of the company’s messaging. However, in late October, Nike dropped the Kaepernick Icon Tee, which went on sale at retail for $50 and sold out within hours. The black long-sleeved shirt with “KAEPERNICK” sprawled across the back was restocked in November and sold out for a second time.

Kaepernick now has his name on the back of a Nike jersey once again, though he hasn’t played a down of pro football since 2017. The quarterback-turned-social activist has gone unsigned by all 32 NFL teams after he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 as a statement against racial injustice in the United States. His stance sparked a leaguewide movement of player protests, which has continued even without Kaepernick on the sidelines of NFL stadiums.

Two days before Super Bowl LIII, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James — one of Nike’s biggest and most impactful athletes — arrived in Oakland, California, for a game against the Golden State Warriors wearing the Kaepernick jersey. He teased a potential release, just like he did last October when he rocked the Kaepernick Icon Tee to a Lakers preseason game three weeks before it debuted.

Now, the jersey — like the overwhelming support of Kaepernick’s cause — is very much so real.

The jersey is nondescript, with black mesh and his last name, No. 7 and Nike swooshes all in white. There’s also a specially designed jock tag featuring two logos — a “K” next to an illustration of Kaepernick’s Afro’d head. Unlike a typical Nike NFL jersey, it notably doesn’t feature the league’s logo at the V of the collar, or a team name/crest on the chest above the front number. Nike’s Kaepernick Icon jersey is also almost identical to the limited-edition #IMWITHKAP jersey that went on sale in September on Kaepernick’s website. Kaepernick announced on Twitter that 20 percent of all proceeds from the sale of the jerseys would go to his Know Your Rights Camp — a free campaign for youths that he founded to raise awareness on higher education, self-empowerment and instruction on how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. Not only did the jersey sell out, it’s been embraced by celebrities and entertainers across the world.

Everyone from Grammy-nominated singers Jhené Aiko and Trey Songz to Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, radio personality Ebro Darden, actor Jesse Williams and renowned civil rights activist Angela Davis have been photographed in the jersey. J. Espinosa, the official in-game DJ for the Oakland Raiders, also wore it when he won a world DJing championship in Taipei. And the night of the Super Bowl, Kaepernick tweeted a picture of John Carlos — another athlete-turned-activist who raised the Black Power salute with fellow American sprinter Tommie Smith at the 1968 Games — in the #IMWITHKAP jersey. “It means the world to me to have the support of John Carlos, an Icon who paved the way for myself and many others to continue to fight systemic oppression,” Kaepernick wrote. “Thank you for your sacrifice for us! ✊🏾.”

P.J. Tucker: ‘First debit card I ever had was because of eBay so I could buy shoes’ At NBA All-Star Weekend, the Rockets forward partnered with eBay for charity

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — For Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker, when it comes to shoes, patience is a virtue, and persistence is key. He’s the NBA’s biggest sneakerhead — and it’s not even close. His collection is in the thousands — plural — because he’s always in search of grails and gems in his size 14.

During the 2017-18 NBA season, Tucker spent $200,000 on sneakers, and wore 106 different pairs on the court in 99 games. Throughout the 2018 playoffs alone, he rotated between 22 pairs in 17 games. This season, his sneaker reign has continued in expansive fashion all the way up to the 2019 NBA All-Star break. This weekend, Tucker, along with other sneaker connoisseurs, such as international stylist Aleali May, YouTube/social media influencer Jacques Slade and customizer Kickstradomis, partnered with eBay to sell pairs of sneakers from his collection for charity. He donated a pair of exclusive “friends and family” Nike Air Fear of God 1s, a signed of his first player exclusive (PE) Nike Hyperdunk X, as well as one of his signed NBA jerseys and a basketball signed by the entire Rockets team.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the sneakers and memorabilia will benefit Project Fit, an organization that creates new opportunities for kids to be active, fit and live a healthy lifestyle. eBay also collaborated with Highsnobiety to create a pop-up sneaker gallery called “The Vault,” which featured shoes on display from a wide range of collectors. The Undefeated sat down at The Vault with Tucker, who discussed being the NBA’s “Sneaker King,” how he tracks down pairs, and that time Michael Jordan asked him, “Where’d you get those?”


How useful has eBay been on your sneaker collector journey?

I don’t know anybody that buys more shoes on eBay than me. My college teammate and one of my best friends in life, Royal Ivey, is a big shoe guy. At Texas, he used to always be on eBay. I had no idea what eBay was. He’d get packages. Shoes would just show up … I was like, ‘Oh, my God … ’ And back then, you could really find crazy gems on eBay. I actually went to the bank and got a debit card so I could get an eBay account and buy shoes. My first debit card … was because of eBay, so I could buy shoes.

What’s the best pair of shoes you’ve ever found on eBay?

Ooooohhhhh … now, that’s tough. It’d be something old. I like eBay because I can always find old gems. I spend hours and hours just scrolling on eBay. I found the original Stash Air Force 1 [released in 2003; only 1,000 pairs were made]. Deadstock, everything … with the case, all the bells and whistles. And to find a 13 in those is impossible. But I found them on eBay. That’s probably the most hype I’ve ever been about getting a shoe.

How often are you looking for shoes?

Every day … I’m looking for shoes right now. I just answered a text message from a guy that does a lot of my buying and selling … It never stops, man. It’s 24 hours a day. It’s part of my life. I just love sneakers. It’s just something that I do unconsciously every day.

Whose sneaker collection do you respect the most?

My favorite sneakerhead is DJ Clark Kent — without a doubt. Clark, his influence on sneakers, and how natural it is? From Day One, he’s been one of the avid sneaker guys. I love how he kind of does everything. He does every brand. And he knows the heat … He’s just one of those pioneers.

What’s the weirdest way you’ve ever procured a pair of sneakers?

Yooo … some of these collectors. … are superweird. I remember one guy, he didn’t want to do PayPal … He was like, ‘Only cash.’ And he didn’t want me to know who he was. He showed up with his wife and his daughter and stayed in the car. His wife and daughter got out and brought me the shoes. They made the transaction. He’s the most top-secret guy I’ve ever met in my life.

Do you go pick up shoes yourself?

Yeah … all the time. Even my eBay account is me.

Really … ?

Yeah, it’s pjtucker. People are like, ‘Is this really you, P.J.?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s me, dog … I appreciate it.’

We’re in Charlotte for All-Star. It’s Michael Jordan’s city. In 2016, you shocked M.J. by breaking out a pair of super rare Shawn Marion Air Jordan 5 player exclusives.

Mannnn, it was about the timing of that … A friend of mine who had them — both of them, the black ones and the white ones — contacted me. It was right before we played the Hornets here. It was crazy. It was a no-brainer to be able to wear them then. He was like, ‘Yo, where’d you get those?’ I kind of just gave them the shrug, like, ‘I don’t know.’

P.J. Tucker (left) of the Phoenix Suns goes to the basket wearing a pair of rare Shawn Marion Air Jordan 5 PEs on March 1, 2016, at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

So how exactly did you get them?

A friend of a friend of a friend that knew a friend who had them. I had heard that Shawn didn’t even get them. He was trying to figure out his situation with Nike. To have those, deadstock right there, was crazy. It was a fun experience.

Is there a pair you’ve always wanted but never been able to find?

Yes … The Supreme SB Blazers. I got a bunch of them in a 13 but they fit like an 11.5. But I know there are some 14s out there. I’ve been trying to find them every chance I get. I love that sneaker. I’m still searching for those. … What else? Oh … I’m bugging. The friends and family Amsterdam Parra [it’s speculated that only 200-250 pairs were made]. Those joints are No. 1 on my list. I’ve been trying to get those forever. They’re impossible to find. I found a 12 deadstock. But way too small. I need a 14 in those. Maybe 13, but 14 for sure.

What do you like most about PEs?

Bigger than anything, it’s about the individuality of them. For me having my own now, it’s about picking those colorways surrounding how I’m feeling and what I wanted at the time.

Which players are on your Mount Rushmore of PEs?

Yo, that is a great question … I’m gonna mess you up, because it ain’t gonna be who you think. No. 1 is easy: Ray Allen. No. 2, Derek Anderson. No. 3 … Chris Paul … And then Kobe. There’s nothing like Kobe PEs.

How special is collecting sneakers to you?

It’s bigger than just sneakers. As a kid, I just always worked hard to be able to make my mom happy so she would buy me shoes. It was so much more than the actual shoes. It taught me a lot, too, because I had to take care of my shoes. I wore shoes, took them off and cleaned them. So the next time when I put them on, I was already ready to go. Because I knew I wasn’t getting another pair … you know what I’m saying? Shoes taught me how to be a man, in a way. Growing up, and being an adult, you gotta take care of your stuff.

Do you like being the ‘Sneaker King’ of the NBA?

That’s not something I talk about or push … Because when you look over the years, I wore exclusive PEs when I was in Phoenix … way more than now. I was wearing crazy PEs, and nobody ever knew. Sole Collector would probably post something every once in a while, but not many people knew. It’s just something, my whole life, I’ve always done. Sneaker King? Ahhh, whatever. It’s cool. I just do me, you know?

Stay tuned for another Q&A from The Vault with international stylist Aleali May on her two Air Jordan collaborations, her relationship with Maya Moore and the importance of female sneakerheads.

How exactly did Ray Allen become Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’? Two decades ago in a wild casting that involved everyone from Kobe to Tracy McGrady to Coney Island’s own Stephon Marbury, a star was born

This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.


Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.

That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 filmthe greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen—better than anyone.

An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college, or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which of course requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.

In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the P.S.A.L. (Public Schools Athletic League) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade and McDonald’s All-American, and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during his Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”

He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech, and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ‘96 draft, He Got Game premiered.

On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed onscreen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Stephon, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” says Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player..?”

In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee—born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn—addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Spike said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”

Marbury had a different reason for not [auditioning]. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me…Because I knew the movie was about me.”

The idea for He Got Game came to Spike at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father, who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee fedexed the script to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Denzel, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered the skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.

In Washington, Spike had a bonafide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … Who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’ Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus…it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court…you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”

Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Spike put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen, to Kobe Bryant, to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.

“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury says with an abrupt pause. “ … to play me.”


Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to shit.”

Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it … If he can make it out of here, so can I.

It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are the visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Spike Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Ray Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ‘96 draft—in exchange for Marbury—Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.

“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’” says the now retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took Spike up on his offer, and met with him in New York.

“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”

Meanwhile, Spike was courting players from all over — a perk of being on of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warmups, or during the game, I’d run by Spike, and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie,” says University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part, but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’” Spike ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player “Mance”) and a handful of NBA roleplayers as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player “Sip”), to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit), andand John Wallace (as Lincoln player “Lonnie”), also of the Knicks.

But for Jesus, Spike envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen says. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ‘90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.

According to a Washington Post story published the day the He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie Tracy McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as The Post detailed.

In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.

“I wanna say Allan Houston, too,” McCarty recalls from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’”

Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he says, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”

In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembers, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”

On June 19, 1997, the Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his…He Got Game.”

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no?”

Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ‘fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much…I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well…I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time for do a film.”

So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players — and probably some we’ll never even know about — Spike, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”

“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen says. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”


It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Spike is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.

Allen, then in his final NBA season, as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which wore onscreen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Spike tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.

He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie not just about just hoops, but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Spike responds about the prospect of a followup to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”

A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talk about a sequel,” Allen says. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.” The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and NBA Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to school, or to the NBA.

This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Spike writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttles to life.”

Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on of the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role.” he says. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”

If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he says, as matter-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”

The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, though his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — what no character can.

“I was the first,” Stephon Marbury says, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”

 

How exactly did Ray Allen become Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’? Two decades ago in a wild casting that involved everyone from Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to Coney Island’s own Stephon Marbury, a star was born

This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.


Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.

That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 film, the greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen, better than anyone.

An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.

In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the Public Schools Athletic League (P.S.A.L.) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade magazine and McDonald’s All-American and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney Island, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during son Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”

He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but he accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ’96 draft, He Got Game premiered.

On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed on screen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Marbury, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” said Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player …?”

In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee, born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Lee said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”

Marbury had a different reason for not [auditioning]. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me … Because I knew the movie was about me.”

The idea for He Got Game came to Lee at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee sent the script by FedEx to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Washington, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered his skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.

In Washington, Lee had a bona fide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’s Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus … it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court … you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”

Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Lee put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.

“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury said with an abrupt pause, “… to play me.”


Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to s—.”

Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it. … If he can make it out of here, so can I.

It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ’96 draft (in exchange for Marbury), Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.

“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’ ” said the now-retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took up Lee on his offer and met with him in New York.

“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’ ” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”

Meanwhile, Lee was courting players from all over — a perk of being one of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warm-ups or during the game, I’d run by Spike and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie!” said University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’ ”

Lee ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player Mance) and a handful of NBA role players as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player Sip) to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit) and John Wallace (as Lincoln player Lonnie), also of the Knicks.

But for Jesus, Lee envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen said. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. [Garnett] to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ’90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.

According to a Washington Post story published the day He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as the Post detailed.

In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.

“I wanna say Allan Houston too,” McCarty recalled from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Garnett and Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’ ” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’ ”

Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he said, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”

In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembered, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”

On June 19, 1997, The Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his … He Got Game.”

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no?”

Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ’fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much. … I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well … I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time to do a film.”

So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players, and probably some we’ll never even know about, Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”

“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen said. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”


It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Lee is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.

Allen, then in his final NBA season as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which he wore on screen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Lee tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.

He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie about not just hoops but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Lee responds about the prospect of a follow-up to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”

A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talked about a sequel,” Allen said. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.”

The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to college or to the NBA.

This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Lee writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttlesworth to life.”

Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role,” he said. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”

If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he said, as matter-of-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well. … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”

The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, although his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — which no character can.

“I was the first,” Marbury said, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”