Toni Harris made history by getting a football scholarship. Now she needs to make tackles. Free safety has already overcome doubters, cancer and family trauma. Playing against men doesn’t faze her.

FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.

Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.

Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.

We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway, left, and defensive backs coach LaQuentin Black, right, both view Toni Harris as a budding talent who has the skills, aptitude and eagerness to develop.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.

“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”

The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.

“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”

Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.

“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”


It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.

“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”

Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.

Facing obstacles is nothing new for Toni Harris. At 4 years old, she was placed in foster care. And in her freshman year in college at Toledo, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.

As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”

With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.

“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”

Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome?” — Toni Harris, on dealing with cancer

“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”

We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.

“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”

Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.

“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”

Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.

But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?

“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”

Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.

“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”

That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.

She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.

“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”

The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.

The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.

But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.

“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”


Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.

Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.

“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”

Central Methodist head coach David Calloway says Harris will be fighting for her position in the defensive backfield with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

Neeta Satam for The Undefeated

In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)

And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.

So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.

Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”

If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?

Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”

Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”

“[Think about] what she’s been through in life. Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help.” — Central Methodist head coach David Calloway

When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”

It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.

But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.

“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”

That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?

“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”

After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.

It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.

New documentary reminds us that even Toni Morrison had to fight off the haters After she won the Nobel Prize, there were still critics who said her focus on black women was too narrow

For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.

The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”

I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.

The new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am showed that Morrison was subjected to the sort of doubt that black women are all too familiar with.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”

Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.

“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed.

Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.

“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)

And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.

“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.

In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men complained when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.

Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.

“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”

Food for thought: Chef Todd Richards says soul food is the equal of haute cuisine He’s working with Ludacris and just won a major Cookbook of the Year award

Chef Todd Richards is on a mission, both inside and outside the kitchen, to ensure that soul food is appreciated as exquisite cuisine.

“Soul food will always be the greatest part of American cuisine,” Richards said. “But we’ll go to someone else’s culture, eat their food and make no complaints. Culturally, we can no longer do that. Our food is the most vibrant part of what we have to do. It’s up to us to command respect for our food.”

The self-taught chef’s debut cookbook/memoir, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Chicken + Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

Eric Vitale

“I wanted to make sure our stories are being told to inspire different generations coming forward,” said Richards, 47. “You have a cuisine that is the backbone to American culture, but you don’t find it in every single neighborhood in every part of the country.”

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: Chicken+Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

“To have an album like Chicken-n-Beer that’s inspirational, generational, and also represents Atlanta gives me great inspiration to go in there and cook the best food because I’m not only representing myself,” Richards said. “I’m representing one of the most successful artists in the world while representing a city that is the mecca of culture. Everyone comes here to understand black culture.”

The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef: Southeast also oversees Richards’ Southern Fried, a restaurant located east of downtown in Krog Street Market. There, he fuses soul food with other global cuisines via items such as collard green pho, hot chicken macaroni and cheese, and a chicken sandwich topped with pimento cheese and chow chow.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves.” — Todd Richards

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s reviewer praised Richards’ Southern Fried as “very delicious, beautifully brined, crispy-skinned and obsession worthy.” Garden & Gun said Richards’ staple offering is “the best hot chicken in Atlanta.”

Richards sees no difference between preparing soul food and fine dining. He prefers to marinate his meats over a span of days. Time and patience, he says, are essential for preparing quality dishes and matching them with comparable price points. Black-owned restaurants, he adds, should never be frugal when selecting food items.

“It changes the narrative of what black food is,” he said. “It’s a technical-driven food that should not be considered as cheap. Why shouldn’t it have the same ransom as duck confit? If you think about technique, they’re absolutely the same.”

Richards moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 1993 and landed a job as a butcher at a Kroger grocery store. He later became a line cook at Blue Ribbon Grill, where he was introduced to his mentor, Four Seasons Hotel executive chef Darryl Evans. Richards did stints at The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain and helped the Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, earn a AAA Five Diamond Award.

Richards then worked at a number of restaurants in the Atlanta area. A contestant on Food Network’s fifth season of Iron Chef America, he says that each job in a restaurant contributes to its long-term success.

“People think being a dishwasher is the worst job in the restaurant,” Richards said. “It’s actually the most important job. They’re in charge of cleanliness and sanitation. If I don’t have a clean pot to cook in or plate to put it on, then the restaurant doesn’t function. What they do is not menial labor.”

Cedric McCroery, the chef de cuisine at One Flew South, said Richards inspired him to look at cooking as a form of storytelling. “Sometimes the story is obvious,” McCroery said via Facebook. “Sometimes it’s meant to be realized in combination of flavor, taste and presentation. That lesson inspired me to refocus.”

Richards’ cookbook/memoir, “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards’ next project is to revamp Anderson’s Old Fashion Bar-B-Q in southwest Atlanta’s Florida Heights community. The effort is rooted in his relationship with his deceased father, who taught him how to prepare barbecue. He is also aiming to reinvigorate black food culture in a community with limited meal options beyond fast food.

“Fine dining is in my brain, but barbecue is in my soul,” he said. “Legacy is probably one of the most important things. Everybody wants it. Every culture has something in every single neighborhood except for us.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves. We cannot make our food cheap. We are people that have had the harshest conditions to grow some things, but it’s the most delicious food.”

Richards refers to his work inside and outside the kitchen as “black excellence” and believes it’s his duty at this stage of his career to empower the next generation of culinary professionals from marginalized communities.

Joshua Lee, Chicken+Beer’s executive chef, attests to Richards’ mentorship. “I really admire his work ethic and his drive to push others,” he said via Facebook. “He’s very dedicated to bringing light to soul food cuisine, very hands-on, and clear-cut when it comes to assuring that everyone understands his vision.”

“Who’s coming after me?” Richards said. “It’s easy for me to show up, but the Joshua Lees and Cedric McCroerys of the world are working with me and following me. I get to affect the minds of a lot more people, take young people and find out what’s really great about them.

“They got it after this. They have to go out and make their own legacies so that the traditions that we forged in this country can continue.”

Raptors superfan Drake is the NBA’s biggest celebrity playoff antagonist — and he won’t stop anytime soon From trolling the Greek Freak to massaging Nick Nurse’s shoulders, Drake has made himself part of the Eastern Conference finals

There are many ways to look at Drake taking home the award for best supporting actor in a (postseason) drama. The great majority of which are true.

Are his courtside antics grating? Sure. Are they corny? Hilariously, yes. Was massaging Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse’s shoulders awkward? Yes, but it likely doesn’t even rank in the top 20 most cringeworthy moments of Drake’s career. Love and despise him, because people do both, his moment with Nurse was a quintessential “Drake going full Drake” moment.

Drake has long been a master at media manipulation and always understands where the camera is. The past week was nothing more than an affirmation. Has he officially taken the mantle as Spike Lee’s heir to most polarizing courtside celebrity? Yes. Drake is the NBA’s most recognizable overzealous superfan.

The Canadian rapper is back in the news for his imprint on the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. First, he helped Gucci Mane live up to his rhymes from “Both” — “I got so many felonies I might can’t never go to Canada/ But Drake said he gon’ pull some strings so let me check my calendar” — as the 1017 Brick Squad impresario, wearing a Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey, took in Game 3 on the wood at Scotiabank Arena. Their 2016 collaboration, not so ironically, was certified three times platinum this week. Then he mocked, taunted and laughed at the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for missing free throws and waved goodbye. On Tuesday during Game 4, he gave Nurse that eye-opening in-game massage, which ignited a firestorm of debates over etiquette and conduct. Drake’s now public enemy No. 1 in the Cream City for simply being, well, Drake. The superfan who acts just like a superfan, only he’s one of the most recognizable people in the world.

The entire shtick is equal parts objectively annoying (to the other team and his critics) and artistically hilarious. It was no surprise to see the series take a turn for the petty Thursday night in Milwaukee. Mallory Edens, the daughter of Bucks’ owner Wes Edens, was seated courtside next to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers wearing a Pusha T t-shirt. The nod to the Virginia MC was a flashback to a year ago when Drake found himself behind the eight ball for the first time in his career with a heated and highly personal beef with Pusha that involved Drake’s son, a rumored adidas deal gone awry and a picture of Drake in blackface. Eden’s wardrobe was a solid response — the franchise’s best rebuttal so far — that was diluted by the Bucks’ 105-99 defeat, which put them one loss away from elimination.

Wearing a Pusha T t-shirt, Mallory Edens attends Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors on May 23, 2019 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

“There’s certainly no place for fans — or whatever Drake is for the Raptors — on the court,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said on a Wednesday conference call. “There’s boundaries and lines for a reason.”

Antetokounmpo’s former European agent carried the same energy. “Imagine a gig & an athlete on VIP seats, right next to the band, stands upon the stage just to show off during the entire game, knowing cameras are on him, occasionally even massaging the singer,” Georgios Dimitropoulos, a senior executive at Octagon, said in a since-deleted tweet. “Security & him both allow it. Never seen anything as disrespectful as this before …”

Drake responded via Instagram through a series of emojis and a live broadcast that showed him liking a comment in support of his actions. And following Toronto’s Game 5 victory, Drake took to his Instagram Stories to poke fun at Budenholzer and the younger Edens, telling the latter, “All is far in war and war and trust me I’ll still get you tickets to OVO Fest.” Anyone familiar with Drake and how he moves understands this is all part of the blueprint. Just as he remained strategically silent about Kanye West’s demands that he dispel rumors of an affair with Kim Kardashian last year, Drake didn’t directly address Budenholzer’s or Dimitropoulos’ comments, allowing the pendulum of media momentum to stay in his court. For now, at least.

Canadian rap artist Drake (R, rear) yells at Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (L, front) after the NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada, 19 May 2019.

EPA/WARREN TODA SHUTTERSTOCK OUT

There are three undeniably important days in the Raptors’ 24 seasons. The first was June 24, 1998, when the team traded No. 4 pick Antawn Jamison to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for the fifth pick, Vince Carter. The second came 20 years later when the Raptors traded Toronto favorite DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard on July 18, 2018. And the third was Sept. 30, 2013, when the Raptors named hometown kid turned superstar rapper Aubrey Drake Graham as their global ambassador. If it sounds ridiculously foolish, it’s only trumped by how ridiculously accurate the job title has since become.

Despite a season of adverse player-fan interactions, many of which had racial undertones, Drake’s courtside antics do little to affect the league or the Raptors negatively. He didn’t violate any sort of NBA policy for his interaction with Nurse. And judging by its past actions, the league isn’t giving Drake a hometown pass.

In 2014, the Raptors were fined $25,000 after Drake made what the league considered a public recruiting pitch to Kevin Durant, who attended his OVO Festival in Toronto. Last year, both the NBA and the Raptors warned Drake about his behavior after a verbal confrontation with then-Cleveland Cavaliers center Kendrick Perkins.

Drake hugs Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 19 in Toronto.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Drake vs. the Bucks is yet another twist in Drake’s interest in sports. The games and the athletes who play them are frequent muses in his music. And being recognized in a Drake song is pop culture gold. “I made it, I made it,” said Stephen Curry, quoting Draymond Green’s excitement over being name-dropped in Drake’s “Summer Sixteen.” “ ‘First All-Star Game and I got into a Drake song.’ ”

The flip side is that the internet will never let Drake live down his air ball — while in the layup line! — during Kentucky’s 2014 Big Blue Madness. Then there’s the Drake curse, which has allegedly affected the likes of Serena Williams, Conor McGregor, the Alabama Crimson Tide, the aforementioned Kentucky and others. Some New York Giants fans blamed him in part for wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s mercurial moods. As coincidence collided with fate, Drake sat courtside at Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals when Kyrie Irving and LeBron James each went for 41 points — and kick-started the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history. But the hex was so deep even Drake believed in the energy as he wore Philadelphia 76ers shorts during Toronto’s Game 7 instant-classic victory earlier this month.

Like Lee, Drake is no stranger to the rush of vitriol against him. He’s also no stranger to inserting himself on to the NBA’s biggest stages. This marks the fourth consecutive postseason where Drake has become a subplot — others might say “antagonist” — during the playoffs. While taunting both Irving and James via, yes, Instagram in 2016, Drake watched his Raptors fall in six games — with James giving Drake an earful in the process. A year later, James not only again led the Cavaliers to victory over the Raptors in the playoffs, he offered to buy Drake margaritas after the game to soften the sting. In 2018, the tide temporarily shifted in Drake’s favor as he trolled John Wall and Kelly Oubre Jr. during Toronto’s first-round series victory over the Washington Wizards. This year, he taunted 76ers superstar center Joel Embiid, mimicking his airplane gesture in this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.

Drake attends Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers on May 7 in Toronto.

Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

All of the taunts, gestures and boisterous sideline dances could come back to haunt Drake should the Raptors fail to win either Game 6 or 7. And a new crop of Drake memes and GIFs will populate the internet. But understanding that Drake isn’t just a famous fanatic is part of the calculus in understanding why he acts the way he does. For starters, Drake’s not just a fan. “Been flowin’ stupid since Vince Carter was on some through the legs, arm in the hoop s—,” he reflected on “Weston Road Flows.” “I got a club in the Raptors arena,” he barked on his “30 for 30 Freestyle,” “Championship celebrations during regular seasons. F— all that rap-to-pay-your-bill s—,” he waxed on the Grammy-nominated “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” “I’m on some Raptors pay my bill s—.” This is a business investment.

His $7,000-per-year, invitation-only Sher Club (named after his maternal grandparents) sits inside Scotiabank Arena. Both Drake and the Raptors are donating millions of dollars to modernize local basketball courts and to Canada Basketball. Part of his “I’m Upset” video, which has nearly 100 million YouTube views, was filmed at center court of Scotiabank. Canada’s The Sports Network said Drake “is one of several factors responsible for legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the league’s primary demographic and many of its players.” Of those players, DeRozan said it was Drake who played the role of amateur therapist and helped him through the shock of being traded. “Just to hear the words that come from him being the person that he is in this world, especially in Toronto,” DeRozan said. And then there’s his overall economic impact on the city. A 2018 Vice News Tonight report concluded Drake is worth $440 million annually to Toronto’s economy, 5% of the city’s $8.8 billion tourism industry, because “he’s helped to rebrand the city. He’s kind of made himself the same as Toronto.”

None of this excuses anything Drake does from his courtside seat. But it gives some insight as to why. He acts the way he does because he’s fully aware of the weight his name holds in the city. He’s involved with the Raptors’ growth both financially and culturally. And he’s now part of the theater that the Eastern Conference finals have become because it’s no longer just about basketball. For some, there’s genuine joy in seeing Drake double down on his antics. For others, there’s pure disdain as they impatiently await his emotional downfall. But everyone feels some type of way. That’s a cultural moment. Drake’s got the sports world in their feelings.

Aux Cord Chronicles XVIII: An obsessive, 57-song playlist of Drake’s sports obsession Aubrey has never been able to stop talking about sports — all of them

LeBron James‍ (and what’s left of) the Los Angeles Lakers stagger into Toronto on Thursday night to take on the Raptors. At this point, the Lakers have more of a realistic chance to land Zion Williamson than to make the playoffs, which takes much of the luster out of what was supposed to be a late-season meeting between two playoff-bound squads. Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam aim to keep Toronto within reach of the Milwaukee Bucks for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. And while it’s the longest of shots, Drake is always a subplot at courtside — although he’d have to jet over from Paris on his off day from his Assassination Vacation European tour to make it happen.

In addition to the fact that he announced today the OVO Athletic Centre, “the official training facility for the Toronto Raptors,” the Scorpion rapper has a multitude of reasons to hop on a Cessna and pull up to Scotiabank Arena. Drake has been the Raptors’ global ambassador since 2013, and he doesn’t pass up many opportunities to see his friend James up close and personal.

Plus, Drake — who is currently sitting on Billboard’s pop singles charts for the 193rd (!) time, for his “Girls Need Love (Remix)” collaboration with Summer Walker — has long been a fountain of sports references and analogies. What we have here is a vault of those Drake sports lyrics. An anthology, if you will. The references span a range of sports, athletes and moments dating back well over a decade. This isn’t all the looks, but the best and the most of them. So grab a drink. Order some food. Spark up. Get comfortable. We’re going to be here for a while.

Below you’ll find 57 songs, in chronological order, dating to 2007’s Comeback Season up to the current day. Some you’ll remember. Some you’ve probably forgotten. And some you may have never known existed. What’s not up for question, though, is the power and legitimacy of Drake’s co-sign. “When your favorite rapper puts your name in a song,” 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant said, “it makes you feel like you made it.”

Going In For Life” (2007)

If Hov is Jordan, I guess I’m cool with Pippen / ’Til I mention that I wanna play a new position / No team playin’, no screen settin’ / Because I wanna win games / Coach, I’m through assistin’ …

Less than two years before he became a household name, Drake’s sights were already set on rap’s pinnacle. And he knew how to get there: He’d have to look Jay-Z in the eyes. The two artists’ on-again, off-again friendly war of words/peacetime admiration has deep roots.

Drake feat. Lil Wayne — “Ignant S—” (2009)

The same n—a I ball with / I fall with/ On some southern drawl s— / Rookie of the Year / ’06, Chris Paul s— …

Chris Paul’s presence is felt throughout So Far Gone. He’s actually on the outro of the Lil Wayne and Santigold-assisted “Unstoppable.” Meanwhile, earlier on Gone, Drake calls his own shot, dubbing himself rap’s best newcomer — just like Paul, the former Wake Forest Demon Deacon, had been a few years beforehand in the NBA.

Say What’s Real” (2009)

And to my city I’m the 2-3 …

Jordan or James — both apply here. Drake wasn’t the first musical artist to put Canada on the map; names such as Kardinal Offishall, Nelly Furtado and Tamia predate Aubrey Graham. That being said, it’s hard to say the notoriety and legacy Drake brings to his own city aren’t similar to the legacy of 23 in Chicago and Cleveland, both of whom are big fans of Toronto’s figurative 23.

The Calm” (2009)

Tryna enjoy myself with Tez in Miami at the game / I just wish he knew how much it really weighed like Dwyane …

The landmark mixtape’s somber standout is the on-wax meeting of Drake and Wade.

“You know,” Dwyane Wade told me last month in Miami, face beaming with pride, “I was on So Far Gone. That was so cool. That’s when I first heard of Drake.” Such is true, the landmark mixtape’s somber standout is the on-wax meeting of Drake and Wade.

Gucci Mane feat. Drake — “Believe It Or Not” (2009)

OK, I’m all about it, all for it / I’m All-Star Team Jordan, small forward / I’m never putting up a shot unless it calls for it / No hesitation so I’m shooting if I draw for it …

Drake knew from the moment So Far Gone propelled him into superstardom he’d have to defend his name against those who thought he didn’t deserve to be there. Little did he know how much though

9AM In Dallas” (2010)

I’m nervous / But I’ma kill it cause they ’bout to let the realest team in / Throwing up in the huddle, n—a, Willie Beamen / But still throwing touchdown passes/ In tortoise frame glasses hoping that someone catch it …

The first installment in Drake’s famed time/location series. Nearing the end of the decade, it’s fascinating to hear some of the anxiety and uncertainty in his lyrics. Who could’ve really predicted all of this?

Drake feat. Alicia Keys — “Fireworks” (2010)

I’m flying back home / For the Heritage Classic …

The first song on Drake’s first studio album, Thank Me Later, is positioned there for a reason. In the first verse of “Fireworks,” he goes into his fear that fame would eventually drive him and Lil Wayne apart. The second verse is about Rihanna. And the third verse focuses on the relationship with his parents and being the product of a divorced household separated by an international border. The Heritage Classic, by the way, began in 2003 and is one of the NHL’s storied outdoor regular-season games — in Canada.

Thank Me Now” (2010)

And that’s around the time / That your idols become your rivals / You make friends with Mike / But gotta A.I. him for your survival / Damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous / ’Cause we wanna be them / And they wanna be us …

One of Drake’s most popular and lasting lines speaks to how the cultures of sports and music have always been intertwined — tip your cap to Master P, who not only opened the door but also brought the marriage mainstream in the 90s. Not a single lie was told.

You Know, You Know” (2010)

Game time b—- I hope you’re proud of us / King James s— watch me throw the powder up …

Tell your girlfriend /That I can pull some f—ing strings / So we’re courtside / When LeBron get a f—ing ring …

Back when Drake and Kanye West were on speaking terms, they created this gem, which came with a duo of powerhouse LeBron references — it’s Drake’s most high-profile athlete friendship.

Nicki Minaj feat. Drake — “Moment 4 Life” (2010)

Young Money the Mafia that’s word to Lil’ Cease / I’m in the Dominican, Big Papi Ortiz …

David Ortiz went from being just another random Red Sox signing in 2003 to getting name-dropped by Drake on a hit single — to one day being inducted at Cooperstown. Not a bad come-up for Big Papi.

Rick Ross feat. Chrisette Michele & Drake “Aston Martin Music” (2010)

Which one of y’all got fleets on your key chains? / The seats for these Heat games?

Drake, who originally played post-hook duties on Rick Ross’ “Aston Martin,” obviously had more to say as OVO’s top dog released his own verse called “Paris Morton Music” — dedicated to a model of the same name whom he ended up making two songs about. By the time the official video dropped, Ross made the executive decision to add Drake’s verse. Smart move. Also, sitting courtside during the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” era was the ultimate flex.

Rick Ross feat. “Made Men” (2011)

I’m in the condo posted watching Miami kill / I might just walk to the arena and watch it for real …

Yes, in case you haven’t caught on to the trend yet, we’re in the Miami Heat era of Drake’s career.

Over My Dead Body” (2011)

Are these people really discussing my career again? / Asking if I’ll be going platinum in a year again / Don’t I got the s— the world wanna hear again? / Don’t Michael Jordan still got his hoop earring in?

This picture, taken in 2011, actually does feature Michael Jordan rocking a hoop earring. There’s your answer(s).

Under ground Kings” (2011)

I swear it’s been two years since somebody asked me who I was / I’m the greatest man / I said that before I knew I was …

You might’ve heard someone say that before. Rest in peace, Muhammad Ali.

The Ride” (2011)

I’m out here messing over the lives of these n—as / That couldn’t fuck with my freshman floater …

There’s an argument to be made that “The Ride” is a top-three Drake song, ever. I am more than willing to have that discussion. Just not on social media.

Drake feat. Tyga & Lil Wayne — “The Motto” (2011)

My team good, we don’t really need a mascot / Tell Tune, “Light one, pass it like a relay” / YMCMB, you n—as more YMCA …

It seems like a lifetime ago, but who remembers the controversy — well, controversies — around the phrase “YOLO” (You Only Live Once)?

Rick Ross feat. French Montana & Drake — “Stay Schemin’” (2012)

Kobe ’bout to lose $150M’s / Kobe my n—a, I hate it had to be him / B—- you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym (B—- you wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym!)

For as popular as this line became — and it was extremely popular around the time that rumors were rampant that Kobe Bryant and his wife were barreling toward divorce — the misogyny in the lines is something Drake grew to regret. Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, was none too pleased, especially as the lyric became a true cultural moment.

“I love when immature kids quote a rapper that has never been friends with Kobe and knows nothing about our relationship,” Vanessa Bryant shot back. “I don’t need to be in the gym. I’m raising our daughters, signing checks and taking care of everything else that pertains to our home life.” She wasn’t done. “I really wish people would stop, think and then realize that they are being sucked into someone’s clear intention to monetize and gain attention off of our family’s heartache. This is real life. I hold down our home life so my husband can focus on his career. It’s a partnership.”

Yikes. Vanessa Bryant’s anger got back to Drake, who apologized via text. The line even temporarily put LeBron James in hot water last year, too.

Tuscan Leather (Nothing Was The Same)” (2013)

Bench players talking like starters / I hate it …

I’ve reached heights that even Dwight Howard couldn’t reach …

The Howard comment is true. Drake and Howard were young superstars at one point, but the two have seen their careers veer in different directions over the past eight years. But the bench players and starters bar? A critique very applicable in so many walks of life. We’ll just leave it at that.

DJ Khaled feat. Drake, Rick Ross & Lil Wayne — “No New Friends” (2013)

H-Town my second home like I’m James Harden / Money counter go *brrr* when you sellin’ out the Garden …

Since we’re on the topic, earlier this season, reigning NBA MVP James Harden dropped a career-high 61 points on the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. The mark tied with Bryant for the most points scored by an opponent vs. the Knicks.

PARTYNEXTDOOR feat. Drake — “Over Here” (2013)

I’m back boy for real / I’m that boy for real / I got hits, n—a / You just a bat boy for real …

This one doesn’t normally get mentioned when Drake’s best guest verses are debated. But it should.

5AM In Toronto” (2013)

Some n—a been here for a couple / Never been here again / I’m on my King James s— / I’m tryin’ to win here again …

A lot has been made of Drake’s supposed sports curse. But here’s one instance where Drake hit the nail on the head in an installment of his time/location series. This song was released in March 2013, and the Heat went on to repeat as NBA champions in a thrilling seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs three months later. As for the aforementioned James, he secured his second consecutive Finals MVP award as well with a 37-point, 12-rebound (and game-icing jumper) virtuoso performance in Game 7.

French Montana feat. Rick Ross, Drake & Lil Wayne — “Pop That” (2013)

OVO, that’s major s— / Toronto with me that’s mayor s— / Gettin’ cheddar packs like KD / OKC, that’s player s— …

It’s 2019, so it’s not a stretch to proclaim this now. **plants flag** You’d be hard-pressed to find many better party anthems of the 2010s.

Furthest Thing” (2013)

I had to Derrick Rose the knee up ’fore I got the re-up …

Drake, like former NBA MVP Rose, had his own very public stint of injuries. The artist embarked on his America’s Most Wanted tour in 2009 with a torn ACL, MCL and LCL. Drake fell and reinjured his leg again at a performance in Camden, New Jersey. The diagnosis from Lil Wayne (who actually does have a song called “Dr. Carter”), saw it happen firsthand: “That n—a really got a bad leg.”

Worst Behavior” (2013)

I’m with my whole set, tennis matches at the crib / I swear I could beat Serena when she playin’ with her left …

Outrageous boasts and hip-hop go together like Nick Cannon and paychecks. But, yeah … no. Sounded good, though. No denying that.

0 to 100 / The Catch Up” (2014)

Been cookin’ with sauce / Chef Curry with the pot, boy / 360 on the wrist, boy / Who the f— them n—as is, boy …

F— all that rap-to-pay-your-bills s— / Yeah, I’m on some Raptors-pay-my-bills s— …

No need for an apology to the wife of an NBA superstar this time around. This is the song that ignited Drake’s short-lived beef (over beats) with Diddy and also gave credence and aura to the nickname “Chef Curry” — which Stephen and Ayesha Curry both parlayed, on and off the court. For context, Ayesha Curry’s already on her third International Smoke restaurant.

Nicki Minaj feat. Chris Brown, Drake & Lil Wayne: “Only” (2014)

Oh, yeah, you the man in the city when the mayor f— with you / The NBA players f— with you / The badass b— doing makeup and hair f— with you …

No shade at all for this next sentence. But Minaj could really use a single like this in 2019.

Draft Day” (2014)

Draft day, Johnny Manziel / Five years later, how am I the man still?

Well, Drake can still attest to being a marquee attraction a half-decade later. Johnny Football? Not so much. Manziel, to whom the song was dedicated (and who is mentioned by 2 Chainz in his new song “NCAA”), was an incredibly hyped NFL rookie at the time. A Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M, Manziel was undeniably one of the most popular, and controversial athletes of his generation. Manziel spiraled out of the NFL after two years with underwhelming play on the field. And just last month, Manziel was kicked out of the Canadian Football League.

10 Bands” (2015)

I get boxes of free Jordans like I played at North Carolina / How much I make off the deal? / How the f— should I know?

In terms of Cocky Drake, consider this one of his best bars to date. You can feel the disgust in his voice.

6 Man” (2015)

Boomin’ out in South Gwinnett like Lou Will / 6 man like Lou Will / Two girls and they get along like I’m … (Louuu) Like I’m Lou Will / I just got the new deal …”

It’s time we put Lou Williams in the conversation of all-time great sixth men, if we haven’t already. But while this line immortalized Williams, the NBA’s new all-time leading scorer off the bench and a rapper himself, he played it cool with his response to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “I hear about it every day. Every single day,” he said. “More players do that than you know. I was just the first person to have it mentioned in a song.” Somehow, that’s not surprising. Like, at all.

6PM In New York” (2015)

Every shot you see them take at me they all contested / Allen Iverson shoe deal / These n—as all in question …

Given all the athletes Drake has referenced over the years, it’s low-key wild that he hasn’t mentioned Iverson more. But both entries on this list (see above) are definitely impressive.

Fetty Wap feat. Drake — “My Way” (Remix) (2015)

They should call me James / ’Cause I’m going hard in this b—- …

What’s true: This was one of the biggest records of that year and a day party mainstay. What’s also true: It’s far more fun to drunkenly recite than it is impressive to just read on the screen.

Meek Mill feat. Drake — “R.I.C.O.” (2015)

OVO, East End, Reps Up, we just might get hit with the R.I.C.O. / Everyone home for the summer, so let’s not do nothing illegal / I go make $50 million then I give some millions to my people / They gon’ go Tony Montana and cop them some Shaq at the free throws …

Drake and Mill’s beef, which started almost immediately after the release of this song in the summer of 2015, dented both careers. But perhaps one of the most innocent bystanders was this song — it never received the video and push it more than deserved.

Charged Up” (2015)

Come live all your dreams out at OVO / We gon’ make sure you get your bread and know the ropes / I get a ring and I bring it home like I’m Cory Joe …

Cory Joe is, of course, Cory Joseph, the Toronto native who won the 2014 NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs and later signed with his hometown Raptors. But when you think about it, this wasn’t the first time a Spur found himself smack-dab in the middle of a high-profile Drake beef.

Back To Back” (2015)

Back to back for the n—as that didn’t get the message / Back to back, like I’m on the cover of Lethal Weapon / Back to back, like I’m Jordan ’96, ’97, whoa!

It was never confirmed whether this video of Jordan dancing (exactly how you’d expect Jordan to dance) to “Back to Back” was real. But it does go to show how deeply the Meek beef permeated pop culture.

Future & Drake — “Big Rings” (2015)

This game is different / You only get one shot when n—as gon foul on you …

With the Meek beef still very much on the minds of everyone, Drake continued to take the reins of the narrative by teaming up with Future for a collaborative album. While Drake’s presence was felt on 10 of the 11 tracks, the lingering effects of his fallout with Meek, and the ghostwriting accusations that haunted him, resonated within Drake’s aggression.

Future & Drake — “Scholarships” (2015)

I’m ballin’ outta control, keep on receiving the scholarships / Mail coming to the house / N—a please watch your mouth / I’m the one without a doubt, yeah / And I rock Kentucky blue on these hoes / Drafted, I’m getting choose by these hoes …

No matter how many No. 1 hits he amasses, Drake still has to redeem himself from this moment while wearing said Kentucky blue.

Future & Drake — “Jumpman” (2015)

I hit the Ginobili with my left hand up like, “Woo!”

Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, f— was you expecting? (woo!) / Chi-Town, Chi-Town Michael Jordan just said text me (woo!)

Jumpman, Jumpman, live on TNT I’m flexing (ooh!) / Jumpman, Jumpman they gave me my own collection (ooh!) … Mutombo with the b—-es, you keep getting rejected (woo!)

If nothing else, there should at least have been a video for this project. Nike could’ve fronted the budget and just made it an informal infomercial.

30 For 30 Freestyle” (2015)

S— is purely for sport, I need a 30 for 30 / Banners are ready in case we need to retire your jersey / I got a club in the Raptors arena / Championship celebrations during …

Peyton and Eli when n—as called me they brother the season start / And I don’t wanna see you end up with nothing / Y’all throw the word “Family” around too much in discussion / Rookie season, I would’ve never thought this was coming / They knees give out and they passing to you all of a sudden / Now you the one getting buckets …

With a title such as this one, there had to be a slew of sports-related lyrics.

Summer Sixteen” (2016)

And I blame my day ones / You know Chubbs like Draymond …

Golden State running practice at my house …

Yes, now we’ve entered the Golden State portion of Drake’s discography. And no one was more appreciative than Draymond Green, who views his mention as a career-defining moment.

Weston Road Flows” (2016)

A lot of people just hit me up when my name is mentioned / Shout out to KD, we relate / We get the same attention / It’s raining money, Oklahoma City Thunder / The most successful rapper 35 and under / I’m assuming everybody’s 35 and under / That’s when I plan to retire, man, it’s already funded …

I used to hit the corner store to get Tahiti Treat / Now the talk at the corner store is I’m TBE / The best ever, don’t ever question, you know better …

Drake gives a nod to Floyd Mayweather Jr. with the TBE nod. But it’s Drake’s Kevin Durant mention that raises the most eyebrows. Perhaps Drake knows something we don’t? He and KD are close, and the impending megastar free agent has long called Drake his favorite rapper. The two-time NBA champion revealed last June that he could realistically, as Drake says of himself, envision himself retiring at 35. “This game, your craft, you have to continue studying,” Durant said. “No matter how much you enjoy it, nobody wants to be in school that long. I know I don’t. At some point, you have to be ready to graduate. Thirty-five, that’s just a number in my mind.”

Still Here” (2016)

I gotta talk to God even though he isn’t near me / Based on what I got, it’s hard to think that he don’t hear me / Hittin’ like that 30 on my jersey, man, I’m gifted …

Conversations with God. Comparing himself to the greatest shooter who ever lived. Drake’s confidence was higher than telephone wires.

Pop Style” (2016)

This was when we received confirmation Drake and the Bryant family were still cool.

MVP, MVP, ’09 all the way to ’16 / Even next season looking like a breeze / Lot of y’all ain’t built for the league …

Drake wasn’t the MVP every year from 2009-16, but he was certainly in the conversation. “Pop Style” also rings off in concerts something serious.

Views” (2016)

Me and Niko used to plot on how to make a change / Now me and Kobe doin’ shots the night before the game / Still drop 40 with liquor in my system …

This was when we received confirmation Drake and the Bryant family were still cool. Drake and Kobe, at least.

YG feat. Drake — “Why You Always Hatin?” (2016)

I’m a star like Moesha’s n—a / Runnin’ up the numbers like Ayesha’s n—a …

A subtle Fredro Starr mention here. And Ayesha Curry’s husband was for sure running up the numbers in 2016. That was the year he become the only unanimous MVP in NBA history. Speaking of Steph …

4PM In Calabasas” (2016)

We established like the Yankees / This whole f—ing game thankless …

OVO, the rap game Bronx Bombers?

OVO, the rap game Bronx Bombers? Drake thought so, even if the industry would never acknowledge it as such. Regardless, “4PM” remains one of Drake’s sharpest cuts, with a tidal wave’s worth of Diddy disses throughout.

Free Smoke” (2017)

I took the team plane from Oracle / Mama never used to cook much / Used to chef KD / Now me and Chef, KD / Bet on shots for 20 G’s …

Drake albums are always a big cultural event from coast to coast. Needless to say, in 2017, this song was anything but a fan favorite in the Cleveland area. Especially in Quicken Loans Arena.

Fake Love” (2017)

Soon as s— gets outta reach / I reach back like 1-3 …

To date, this remains the lone Odell Beckham Jr. reference in Drake’s catalog. And that’s a wild stat, given their very public bromance.

Lil Wayne feat. Drake — “Family Feud” (2017)

Super Bowl goals, I’m at the crib with Puff / He got Kaepernick on the phone / He in a whole different mode …

An oft-forgotten collab between Drake and Lil Wayne. It was also one of the earliest nods to the fact that Drake and Meek were, behind the scenes, putting bad blood behind them even as Meek sat in prison. I need my paper long like “A Milli” verse / Or too long like a sentence from a Philly judge, he rhymed. F— is the point in all the beefin’ when we really blood?

Diplomatic Immunity” (2018)

’Cause n—as started talkin’ to me like I’m slowin’ down / Opinions over statistics, of course …

Like Sanders on the Detroit Lions/ Get a run around and I’ll bury you where they won’t find ya …

This is a hard track Drake dropped at the start of 2018 along with the Grammy-winning “God’s Plan.” Both songs were a welcome change of pace, his first new ones since dropping More Life almost a year earlier. But for as tough as Drake’s “Diplomatic Immunity” is, the above phraseology will always belong to the royal family of Harlem. Not even Drake can overtake that.

Nonstop” (2018)

I just took it left like I’m ambidex’ / B—-, I move through London with the Eurostep (Two) / Got a sneaker deal and I ain’t break a sweat / Catch me ’cause I’m goin’ (Outta there, I’m gone) / How I go from 6 to 23 like I’m LeBron?

Money for revenge, man, that’s hardly an expense / Al Haymon checks off of all of my events / I like all the profit, man, I hardly do percents …

While never confirmed, it is widely speculated that the “revenge” line is confirmation of Pusha T’s suspicion that Drake was offering money for dirt on him. Regardless, “Nonstop” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard’s Hot 100. But it’s unclear how many people who chant the “6 to 23” line understand its real meaning. Drake’s from Toronto, which he calls “the 6.” Drake’s got his own sneaker deal — just like No. 23 for the Lakers.

8 Out of 10” (2018)

Miss makin’ ’em pay / Helipad from Will Smith crib straight to the stage / Three Forum shows, but I played Staples today …

All in a day’s work.

Mob Ties” (2018)

Lead the league in scoring, but man look at my assists …

Lightly similar to Jay-Z’s High school crossover, waved away picks / Music is the same s—, gave away hits from 2000’s “Best of Me” (remix). Somewhere, on the slim chance he’s even aware the line exists, NBA great Nate “Tiny” Archibald is smiling. He was living that same life during the 1972-73 season with the Kansas City-Omaha Kings when he led the league in scoring (34) and assists (11.4). That’s the only time in league history that’s happened.

Sandra’s Rose” (2018)

They don’t have enough to satisfy a real one / Maverick Carter couldn’t even get the deal done …

Louisville hush money for my young gunners / Rick Pitino, I take ’em to strip clubs and casinos …

Just when Rick Pitino maybe thought the Adidas pay-for-play scandal that got him ousted as head coach at Louisville was in the rearview mirror, here comes a mention on the most streamed album of 2018.

Drake feat. Jay-Z — “Talk Up” (2018)

This isn’t that, can’t be ignoring the stats / Based off of that, they gotta run me the max / They gotta run me the max / They gotta double the racks …

In other words, the mindstate of every big-name free agent this spring or summer, from Le’Veon Bell to Kevin Durant to Kyrie Irving and others. Look what knowing your worth did for Bryce Harper: $330 million later, he’s set for life.

Drake feat. Future — “Blue Tint” (2018)

Way this s— set up, I live like Ronaldo / But I never been in Madrid, whoa …

It’s impossible to believe Drake has never been to Madrid, considering he’s toured the world several times over. Not exactly the thing I was expecting to have in common with Drake, but alas.

Lil Baby feat. Drake — “Yes Indeed” (2018)

My cousins are crazy / My cousins like Boogie / Life is amazing / It is what it should be / Been here for 10, but I feel like a rookie …

One of the most popular Instagram captions of the past year. Going back through the list, too, it appears the only Golden State Warrior who hasn’t been name-dropped in a song by Drake is Klay Thompson.

Fire In The Booth” (2018)

El chico, this verse is the explanation for the large ego / $100 mil’ hands free like Ronaldinho …

Click the link to the song. How Charlie Sloth didn’t blow a vein in his neck is both a blessing and scary.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next generation of young stars took notice.


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

Lance King/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lance King/Getty Images

From ‘Dawson’s Creek’ to ‘Buffy’ to ‘Frasier’ to ‘Seinfeld’ — what happened to those lone, ‘token’ black actors? Eight talents tell stories of offensive scripts, stunt people in blackface and the heartbreak — and hope — of portraying Thug No. 2 and the dope dealer’s girlfriend

This is about television in the 1990s but let’s start with a quick, tragic and important trip to 1975.

Happy Days is about to deliver its infamous and most cringe-worthy episode. In “Fonzie’s New Friend,” the leather jacket-clad Fonz meets up with Sticks Downey, a new-to-town wisecracking drummer. The Fonz decides that Sticks, played with seemingly effortless timing by John Bailey, would make a great addition to Richie Cunningham’s band. When Richie asks a young woman on a date to a luau — with Fonzie’s new buddy as the perfect hookup for her friend, the punchline is of course that Sticks is black.

“Why do I get the feeling I was just humiliated?” Sticks deadpans as the studio audience roars with laughter. From there: one-liners about Downey’s lack of basketball prowess, about eating fried chicken and watermelon and yes, a low-key slavery joke. “Sticks was a very offensive character,” said artist Alida Bailey from her Palmdale, California, home. The easygoing stepdaughter of John Bailey wasn’t alive when the episode aired, but she’s seen it many times. “It was so over-the-top,” she said. “But to his credit, my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role even if it was a token one.” He appeared in 1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie, but by the ’80s, John Bailey bolted to the adult film industry, where he went by name Jack Baker. In 1994, he died of bladder cancer due to complications from AIDS.

“My dad got his foot in the door … despite race being an issue,” Alida Bailey said with pride. “But once the roles started to dry up, he could see that there was no equality in Hollywood … What you’re left with are token roles.” Downey was the 1970s. And while ’80s television — a groundbreaking era that launched The Cosby Show, the criminally underrated Frank’s Place, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 227, the 1990s were actually awash in tokenism.

Yes, the adored 1990s. Even with the shows that are seared into our collective DNA: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc, In Living Color, The Arsenio Hall Show, New York Undercover, and Martin — all of these were must-see TV. There was A Different World, Family Matters, Moesha, Sister, Sister, Living Single. Indeed, in the 1990s, the wealth of black representation on television could lull you into thinking — if you turned the channel from Rodney King taking more than 50 blows from Los Angeles Police Department batons — that black lives actually did matter. But almost all of these shows were in varying ways, an extension of segregated America. It’s there in the memories of the stars below: There were “black shows,” and there were “white shows.” If you were a black actor appearing on a white show, you were usually alone.

For some of the most visible black actors coming of age in the 1990s, it’s clear that along with the triumphs came isolation, blatant racial stereotyping and biased casting calls. As for “crossing over” to the mainstream, in the mostly segregated worlds of Seinfeld, Frasier, Melrose Place, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Felicity, V.I.P., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and more, blacks were usually relegated to bit parts or were there for a short time. The Undefeated sat down with eight of these talented women and men. These are their stories. This is history.


PHIL MORRIS, 58

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Iowa City, Iowa

Throwback: Melrose Place, Seinfeld

Currently working on: CBS’ 9JKL

When you live in the same house as a father that created such an incredible legacy — not just for himself and his family, but for an entire race of people — it’s expected that you should do the same. Greg Morris broke down racial barriers on Mission: Impossible. Him, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll [Julia], Bernie Hamilton [Starsky & Hutch], Lloyd Haynes [Room 222] … they opened the door for all of us as black actors on television. I wanted to continue to break down those barriers.

My first acting job was on Star Trek, way back when I was … around 8. I’m talking about the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock. It was stunt-casting episode, so I was in it, my sister Iona was in it, William Shatner’s daughters were in it, and some of the directors’ kids were in it. We were kids who weren’t actors, but we knew when to shut up when the director called “Action!” [Laughs].

“To his credit my father was still hilarious. He could shine in any role, even if it was a token one.”

My earliest adult experiences in the acting world … I stunted my own authenticity because either I was trying to not be my father or trying to live up to his success. But the ’90s kind of opened things up for me. That era allowed for more black images to be seen as intelligent, authoritative, educated, stylish, and beautiful beyond The Cosby Show, which normalized how the world looked at African-American families. I appeared on black shows like 227, The Fresh Prince, and Martin. But I was also able to do series like WIOU [a short-lived CBS news drama], Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other more mainstream, non-ethnic roles. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the experience for black actors.

I remember [around ’95] going out for a role on Melrose Place — one of the hottest shows on television at that time. I had a long history with Aaron Spelling [Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210]. I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Spelling and I’ve gone to dinner with Mr. Darren Star [co-creator of Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and Sex In The City] and I’ve told them, “You need to have more black people on that show than just Vanessa A. Williams.” And they would tell me, “Oh, Phil … it’s all casting … we would bring you in, we would make a role for you in a heartbeat.” I took it as lip service.

A few weeks later, Melrose Place had another role. I told my people to submit me for it. My agents came back and said, “Nah, they’re not going to see you. They want the role to be a white role.” The next time I saw Aaron Spelling, I again told him that I knew I wasn’t going to get the role because I was black. And he said, “Well, I’m only so big. There’s only so much that I can do.” I finally got a role on Melrose Place because I happened to be the right dude.

SEINFELD — “The Finale: Part 1&2” Episode 23 & 24 — Pictured: (l-r) Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles (Photo by )

Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The truth is, you ain’t never going to please everybody, anyway. When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory token role. They told me, straight up, “We want someone that would give us a rendition of Johnnie Cochran.” I remember seeing Michael Dorn [Worf, of the Star Trek franchise] and Ted Lange from The Love Boat and Michael Boatman. We all looked like the Motown Mafia at that audition with our dark suits [Laughs].

“My Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth, or value.”

I’d known Johnnie Cochran most of my whole life. We went to the same barber … Terrell’s Barber Shop in Los Angeles. I’d see Johnnie there almost every Sunday, for years — so I knew this cat way before the O.J. Simpson trial. I had a sense of his rhythm and his thing … that “Uh, huh … You don’t say.” I ended up getting the Seinfeld job, but Johnnie had to sign off on his likeness, which he eventually did. Jackie Chiles was a relief valve for a lot of people who were so frustrated with the O.J. verdict. It gave them a chance to laugh at the proceedings that were sometimes just ridiculous. Personally, I didn’t agree with the O.J. verdict. That’s why Jackie Chiles was so over-the-top. I let them have it.

I saw Johnnie a couple of times after my Seinfeld episodes aired and it was just like an old western movie. I walked into the barbershop and he’s laid back in the chair getting a shave. Everyone was quiet and Johnnie looks at me, laughs and says, “Young man, you are hilarious.”

I don’t know why I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy, because my ambition is very high … I’m developing my own show, centering around me as an ex-soap opera star. I’m just trying to control my journey.


BIANCA LAWSON, 38

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Los Angeles

Throwback: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek

Currently working on: Queen Sugar

When I turned 14, I started Saved By The Bell: The New Class [in 1993]. I’d been staying in New York with my dad, and I ended up coming back to L.A. I was in a store and some guy walked up to us and said, “My wife is a manager. Do you act?” And literally that week I got the role for Saved By The Bell. I wasn’t thinking about if I was the “token black girl” on the show. I was just happy to be working.

Bianca Lawson played Megan Jones in Saved By The Bell: The New Class.

Chris Haston/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I had a recurring role on Sister, Sister and it was so much fun. The UPN writers from that show told me, “Bianca, we’re going to make another series and we are going to write a part just for you.” It was a black sitcom with the legendary Sherman Hemsley called Goode Behavior. I was offered a role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as one of the leads, but I took Good Behavior because the producers had kept their word.

“Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street? That was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones.”

After Goode ended, the Buffy people offered me another part. I thought I was going to be on Buffy longer, but it was only for four episodes. I loved playing Kendra. She was fierce and she was direct. She wasn’t about being liked. She had this mission to accomplish and it wasn’t connected to some guy or some romance.

Bianca Lawson and Alyson Hannigan from season 2 of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.”

I can’t remember how many episodes I was supposed to do on Dawson’s Creek, but there was this thing where my character Nikki, who was a filmmaker, always had to be better than [her white peers]. She even had a discussion with Dawson about this. It was really surreal. The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.

Recently, I was on an airplane and someone left a beautiful note on my seat to say what I meant to them as a black actress on television. I didn’t really think about any of that when I was younger because you’re just doing the work. It was only years later as I got older that I realized seeing a young black woman on Buffy and Dawson’s Creek was empowering to a lot of people.

It’s a feeling that I’m experiencing on an even higher level with Queen Sugar. I feel like I’m part of a new black television era.


VANESSA A. WILLIAMS, 54

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Melrose Place

Currently working on: Vengeance, Days of Our Lives, I Left My Girlfriend for Regina Jones

When I was 6, I wanted to literally know how people got into the TV set [Laughs]. My family is a performing family. My mother was a tap dancer and my grandmother was an accomplished pianist and organist and had played with W.C. Handy, and my auntie sung opera. I started to do singing roles as part of the New York City Opera, and there was a girl there who was also a professional actress. She had an actual manager, which really impressed me. We ended up becoming friends and I got that same manager.

My first big gig was a Bubble Yum commercial with Ralph Macchio [of The Karate Kid] We did a f—ing bubble gum rap [Laughs]. “Yum, so fine, the flavor lasts a long, long time!” It was hilarious … a bunch of white kids and a black girl rapping about gum!

There are two projects that I count as my big break into Hollywood — The Cosby Show and of course New Jack City. As a New York actor, you are trained in theater, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. So I wasn’t intimidated when I got the Melrose Place phone call. This was a big deal because we knew the show was an Aaron Spelling project coming on the heels of Beverly Hills, 90210. I heard that my role as Rhonda was going to be for a Jewish girl, but I won the role. I just thought, Wow, my dreams are coming true.

“I started out as a standup comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg.”

When the L.A. riots happened, there was a story line on Melrose Place dealing with the aftermath. In the script, Rhonda was separating herself from her own community — the black community — and saying things like, “Those people … ” I had a serious talk with Darren, who was very amenable about changing that part of the script.

The cast of the TV series, ‘Melrose Place,’ posing on steps, circa 1993.

Fotos International/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until Melrose Place fired me after doing 33 episodes of season one that I felt the sting of Hollywood. There was positive fan feedback about my character, but I guess the Spelling people did some demographic research and decided that they were going to go into a more backbiting, soap opera direction. I thought the only strike against me was that I was a black actress. It had all to do with the fact that they were going to have people sleeping with each other in the cast — and how would that play for Middle America to see a black girl bed-hopping?

But my Melrose Place experience only strengthened me. I wasn’t going to let no one tell me my worth or value. I kept rolling with roles on such shows as Chicago Hope, Soul Food and [most recently] the Bella Thorne-vehicle Famous In Love on ABC’s Freeform network. One thing about the ’90s is there was a plethora of work for black actors even with all the ups and downs. This was the golden age of black television. We literally built Fox and UPN. That is a known fact.


MARKUS REDMOND, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Philadelphia

Throwback: Doogie Howser, M.D.

Currently working on: Wine & Whimsy, The 6th Degree

I always knew I wanted to be a television actor. I was enamored by John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back Kotter. I thought he was the coolest dude in the history of the world, and my parents laughed at me. They were like, “You know acting is an actual job? Travolta is not just some cool guy … he’s acting.” I was like, “Well, I want that job!” It wasn’t until my family moved from North Philadelphia to Ventura County, about an hour north of Los Angeles, that I got into a high school drama class.

I started taking lessons from acting coach Cliff Osmond, rest in peace. After I’d been in the class long enough, he told me, “I think it’s time for you to meet my wife.” She became my first agent in 1989, and I ended up booking a play called Ten November. One of the casting directors from this new show, Doogie Howser, M.D., Beth Hymson, came to the play. She brought me in for an audition to play Friend No. 2.

So I go to the audition and Friend No. 2 is asking Doogie what it’s like being a doctor. Now I grew up in Ventura with a bunch of surfers, so to me it just seemed natural to be like, “Whoa, dude … You get to see blood and guts?!!! Gnarly, dude!” And I’m a big, black guy, so that didn’t make a whole lot of sense doing a white surfer voice, but Beth and the others got a kick out of it. They told me they’d keep me on their radar. And then the very next audition was for Raymond on Doogie Howser, M.D.

The cast of Doogie Howser, M.D.

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

Early on, I noticed the Doogie script was very surface. My character was written as this tough black guy who’s about to rob a 7-Eleven. Doogie talks him down, he realizes the error of his ways, and Doogie gets to feel good about himself. On the third or fourth day of production, there was a line where Doogie’s mom screams at a cop, “If that animal hurts my son!” She was talking about my character. This became hugely controversial because we had a good number of African-Americans that were extras on set.

The extra that played my mom, she especially took offense to it. I remember production stopped, and when we came back, that “animal” line had been taken out of the script. So there was this slow process of humanizing Raymond on the series.

“I don’t have my own show right now. It’s driving me crazy because my ambition is very high.”

I met a lot of black people while I was on Doogie. They’d be like, “So, wait, you’re on TV?” And I’d say, “I’m on Doogie Howser.” They’d usually respond, “Oh, I don’t watch that show because there ain’t no black people on it.” And that’s the thing. If you segregate yourself, the media will always give those stereotypes to you. If you keep telling the media, “Ghetto, street, rap … that’s all who I am,” the media will respond, just like the universe.

Neil Patrick Harris and Markus Remond on an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.

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When I’d go out for auditions, there was usually a prerequisite of, “Can you black it up? Can you make it blacker … more street?” And that was never me. Honestly, I had more issues with the black directors and producers than the white ones. I’m not a fan of hip-hop. Look at my Spotify and its mostly country. My favorite actors are William Powell, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart. That’s where I get my juice.

After Doogie, I was able to book a series on UPN called Family Rules as the black next-door neighbor. Everybody knew what the UPN acronym really meant: The Underpaid Negro Network. I was the reverse token … the only black person on a mostly white show on UPN. It was canceled after [six] episodes. It had gotten to the point where none of this acting stuff was relevant to me. I was tired of playing Thug No. 4. Like I said, I grew up with surfers, listened to swing music and loved Woody Allen movies. I didn’t fit in.

I think that’s why I embraced writing. I’ve sold some scripts to studios and I did a film that went to Sundance back in ’07 that Whoopi Goldberg and Sharon Stone starred in along with me called If I Had Known I Was A Genius. I never limit myself. Fortunately, today we have great shows portraying black people in a broad light like How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal. Thank God for Shonda Rhimes for saying, “Let me just make great television shows and just put black people in the lead and surround them with everybody.”


KENN MICHAEL, 40

Brinson+Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: The Parent ‘Hood, Freaks and Geeks

Currently working on: Artificial intelligence software project

I loved being in front of the camera. I did Reading Rainbow twice, and one of the producers said to my parents, “He’s really good. This seems like something you guys might want to pursue.” I thank my mom, Lola, for my career, because she put in a lot of work.

The first national spot I booked was a commercial for Bubble Yum in 1990. I was around 12, and the role for that ad was originally not created for a black kid, but a white character named Milo, the Mathematical Genius. I guess white kids were only allowed to be intelligent, but the agent I had was incredible. She was like, “Oh, no. We’re going to send Kenn there because they don’t know what they want. And he can do it.” I nailed it.

I always played the smart kid in a lot of crossover roles. And then I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid. All the auditions were the same, and I was bummed, so around 1992 I was an apprentice director on the film Boomerang, shadowing the Hudlin Brothers. I got the chance to watch Eddie Murphy work. I developed a bit of a rapport with him. Eddie noticed I was a little out of sorts.

Hours later, he asked me to see him on his bus. I was excited! I told him what I was experiencing in the television audition game and he gave me this pep talk, like, “Dude, I know. But you have to keep on trucking. Your excellence will shine no matter what you do.” I ended up getting an actual part in Boomerang.

But then you go from being on a big budget film that showed blacks in a nuanced, positive light, and back to the politics of TV. I remember a meeting I had with Darren Star, who was the head of Aaron Spelling’s development company. I walked into this huge office in Beverly Hills. They were interested in creating a show for me, so Darren walks in, puts his feet up on the table and he says, “You may know some of our series like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place …” He had this very arrogant way about him. So I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen those shows, but I don’t really watch them because I don’t see anybody who looks like me.” [A] phrase you heard a lot back in those days [was] … “Oh, we don’t know how to write for black characters.”

Being on the show The Parent ’Hood was an interesting situation. I was on a black series with Robert Townsend, who was show’s creator and executive producer. There was diversity, and it was great at times, but then my character started to get painted in a corner. He was viewed as this superpositive black male character … smart and into music. I was written off the show. The character they replaced me with was this boy who was written as a troubled, streetwise kid. It wasn’t just the white shows that insisted I play the hoodlum. That was an eye-opener.

“I hit this rut that was typical with being a black actor where the majority of the roles were the street kid, the drug dealer or the bad kid.”

When I did Freaks and Geeks, nobody knew anything about it. Judd Apatow was not a huge name at that point, so for me it was just another audition. I was just happy to be on a show where the writing was really funny. We know that Apatow’s projects are mostly white. In hindsight, yeah, it would have been great … for them to have more characters of color.

I got tired of the politics of auditioning for roles. I’d always been directing my own short films before I got my first official directing gig. I was doing film festivals and some projects on the digital side of filmmaking before anybody was talking about it, because the picture quality wasn’t of quality back then. I was also doing a lot of voiceover work for video games and cartoons. I ended up directing BET’s Let’s Stay Together. That was my multicam, sitcom, directorial thing. It was a lot of fun. Doing voice work for video games has been a lot of fun because you get to play all these crazy characters. I do a really great German accent [Michael is an in-demand video game voice actor. He has appeared in the Saints Row series and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas].

I’ve started this next phase of my journey. I’ve been building a software project that is dealing with sound, healing, and sacred numbers and frequencies. My thing is bringing spirituality, technology, and science together. Artificial intelligence is upon us. We need to make sure that we are imbuing things into A.I. that we would want.


KIM COLES, 56

Born: Brooklyn, New York

Throwback: Living Single, Frasier

Currently working on: Stand-up comedy, speaking engagements (AARP, American Heart Association among others)

I started out as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and Whoopi Goldberg. [In 1987], I auditioned for A Different World, for the role of Jaleesa … the role that Dawnn Lewis eventually got. Dawn and I had been friends since we were 11, so for her to get that was huge. I remember being at an event and meeting Keenan Ivory Wayans. Keenan tells me that he has a television show coming up and that he wanted me to audition. I found out that it was a multicultural sketch comedy show, which had never been done before.

We filmed the pilot for In Living Color in 1989, but somebody had already gotten a hold of the episode! There were bootlegged copies being sold on the streets. There were people who loved the show and others who thought we were too edgy, too black, and hated it. I was only on In Living Color for the first year … it was an incredible experience.

The cast of Living Single. Kim Coles is the to far right.

Deborah Feingold/Corbis via Getty Images

Landing the role of Synclaire on Living Single was massive. It was around 1992, and I’d just left In Living Color. The producers reached out to me and said, “We love you. We want to do a series about black women and their experiences and what they think about life and men.” Living Single was an iconic show with a lot of layers. It wasn’t a stereotypical black sitcom. But it wasn’t hard to notice that networks like Fox and UPN were using black shows just to establish their success. There were black series that were watched by millions on Fox, but apparently they weren’t a part of the network’s vision.

I booked The Geena Davis Show, but they kindly let me walk so I could do an episode of Frasier. Then I booked a second episode, and I have to tell you, the experience was amazing. Kelsey Grammer was beyond kind to me and he loved my Dr. Mary character. I knew that there were no [black people] on Frasier, but I saw that as a challenge.

“That just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called ‘white’ show.”

The response to Dr. Mary was incredible, so we tried to get the Frasier people to do a spinoff. This was at the time Kelsey was about to do Girlfriends, so I knew he had to be open to black women being the lead [of a show]. The writer who wrote my two episodes on Frasier even won a diversity award because before that they didn’t have anyone like me on that show! But the spin-off never happened.

I do some stand-up and I have my own one-woman show. And I do a lot of speaking engagements for AARP and the American Heart Association. I tell my story and I try to inspire, motivate … and I get to be funny. I think there should be more black shows like black-ish. We have Shonda Rhimes, who is putting together these amazing series with these amazing black women at the helm. But I’m not waiting around for Hollywood to call me for jobs. Everything that I’m doing today keeps me fed until I’m able to get that free food. Because that’s the only reason to do a television show … it’s the free food [Laughs].


TANGI MILLER, 47

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: Miami

Throwback: Michael Hayes, Felicity

Currently working on: Nwannem: Sisters

Acting seemed kind of far-fetched. It wasn’t practical. But there was a show called Michael Hayes, which starred David Caruso. It was a detective series, like Miami Vice, and I played a drug dealer’s girlfriend. I was more concerned about my hair than how my peers would perceive me as an actor [laughs].

Thank God I don’t have to worry about that now, because today they have a lot of black hair stylists, but back then that wasn’t the case. So I showed up on set with my hair clean and washed and no makeup. And they would look at me like, “What happened to you?” This one white girl came to me with a pressing comb and she tried to comb my hair in the opposite direction, and I’m like, “No, no, no … the comb goes the other way.”

Cast of the show Felicity.

Getty Images

I don’t think I ever felt like Elena was this lone, token black character when I got the role for Felicity. As a black actress, that just was the reality of the times … you usually were the only black person on a so-called “white” show. When I met J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves, who created the show, I actually thought they were assistants because they were so short and cute [Laughs]. I was talking to them like they were my peers … but they were really cool about it.

“When I went to audition for Jackie Chiles on Seinfeld, I never thought of it as a derogatory, token role.”

What I was really concerned about was wanting Elena to come across as more than just Felicity’s black friend. It was important to me that you saw some of my character’s girlfriends from before she came to college. If you look back at some of the episodes of Felicity, you will see Elena’s backstory with her family and father. Whenever I made those suggestions, the producers actually followed through. I felt supported.

I didn’t realize how lucky we were until Felicity was over. It was an amazing, well-written show. J.J. is a genius. I wanted another meaty character that I could sink my teeth into … that I could be proud of, but I couldn’t find one. That’s one of the reasons why I started producing and making my own movies. Recently, I directed Diva Diaries. I’ve done Hurricane in the Rose Garden, My Girlfriend’s Back, Love … & Other 4 Letter Words. I’ve done like 10 or 12 films, mostly as a producer and actor. I love what I do.


SHAUN BAKER

Brinson + Banks for The Undefeated

Born: New York

Throwback: V.I.P.

Currently working on: Atone, The Zim

The first thing I did when I came out to Los Angeles was House Party, but the first television series I booked was a [1993] sitcom called Where I Live. It was a positive depiction of a young Caribbean family and young African-Americans from Harlem who were supportive of each other. It featured myself, Doug E. Doug and Flex Alexander. We were just starting our careers, and were so excited to be working as young actors. After the second season, when we didn’t get picked up, it was heartbreaking.

I was happy to be a part of Living Single. Kim Coles is incredibly gifted. Everybody from that show from [Queen] Latifah, T.C. Carson, and Kim Fields to Erika Alexander to John Henton were heavy hitters. The role I played, Russell, a West Indian music editor, was interesting, because my family is from Jamaica. I tapped into my own experiences. We were groundbreaking, positive, upwardly mobile, young African-Americans, men and women who were flawed individuals striving for friendship and love.

“The thought of becoming the first black actress on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really occurred to me back then.”

But after that success, all of sudden these popular black series like Roc, In Living Color, Martin, and Living Single were getting canceled. Then you would see all of these white shows like Party of Five and Melrose Place pop up. I don’t know if it was strategic, but it did make us raise an eyebrow and ask, “Well, what happened to all those black shows?”

After Living, I had a meeting with Pamela Anderson for an action comedy called V.I.P. and she was transparent … about a lot of things pertaining to a role she had in mind for me. She told me, “You know why you’re here? You have a following … you have an audience.” Living Single helped me get on V.I.P.

The cast of V.I.P.

V.I.P. [1998-2002] was a huge action comedy series. When you’re minority on such a big show, having a support system is very important. I was very mindful of how I was being portrayed as a black man on V.I.P. But there was a situation that I had to deal with. A lot of times in the stunt world if they don’t think an African-American stunt person is not capable, they will actually [blackface] a non-African American. This would usually be a white person.

We were doing an episode where we were supposed to be circus performers, and they told me they couldn’t find any black circus people, but I knew they just didn’t want to spend the money. So I told them to take me out of the scene if they were going to use a painted-on stunt person. I knew the history of blackface. I understood how serious that was. I went to Pam and the producers and I said, “Not only am I offended, but the NAACP will be in here marching.” They wrote me out of the scene.

But looking back, I still feel fortunate to be part of a special time on television. I’m thankful because just to get one acting role back then was like hitting the lottery. But I had several: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Martin, Living Single, V.I.P. TV is powerful. A lot of times, black people are portrayed as savages. That’s why it’s important to see shows like Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar — that’s how we as artists make a difference.

The top 15 best Rookie Game performances in NBA All-Star history Kyrie, Kobe, Durant, Westbrook, Wall: The top rising stars (almost) always become superstars

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — before each signed million-dollar max contracts, negotiated their own lines of signature sneakers and reached superstar status, they had one thing in common. All three balled out in the Rising Stars Challenge, which in the past two decades has become the NBA’s marquee event kicking off All-Star Weekend.

In 1994, the league turned its annual Legends Game, which featured a matchup of teams of retired players, into the Rookies Game, a showcase of the NBA’s top first-year talent. By 2000, the game was renamed the Rookie Challenge, with a revamped format that included second-year players — after the 1998-99 lockout season that deprived rookies of the opportunity to play.

The Rookies vs. Sophomores structure lasted until 2012, when the league rebranded the event as the Rising Star Challenge and combined both first- and second-year players on each competing team’s roster through a draft. Now, the challenge matches American players against international players in a Team USA vs. Team World makeup that began in 2015.

Some of the best young players in recent memory have laced ’em up — from Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway in the inaugural 1994 contest to Allen Iverson vs. Kobe Bryant in 1997, and Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running together on the Rookie squad in 2004. In the early ’90s, the games were low-scoring affairs of fundamental basketball. But over time, they’ve become artful displays of athleticism and bravado.

As we head into 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend, which begins Friday with Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith Jr. and Donovan Mitchell leading Team USA against Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Jamal Murray and Team World, these are the top 15 performances of all time from the event that’s become the All-Star Game before the All-Star Game.


1997 — Kobe Bryant

Stat line: 31 points, eight rebounds in 26 minutes

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

On Feb. 8, 1997, the crowd at Cleveland’s Gund Arena booed when Philadelphia 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, the No. 1 pick of the 1996 NBA draft, was named the MVP of the 1997 Rookie Game over Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, the 13th overall pick of the same draft class. Iverson led the Eastern Conference’s rookie squad to a 96-91 win with 19 points and nine assists, while Bryant propelled the West with a game-high 31 points, which set a Rookie Game record that wouldn’t be broken until 2004. Later that evening, the then-18-year-old Bryant avenged the loss and MVP snub by becoming the youngest player in NBA history to win the Slam Dunk Contest. And he did it with pop star Brandy, his high school prom date, watching him from the stands. What a way to bounce back.

2003 — Jason Richardson

Stat line: 31 points, 6 rebounds and 5 steals in 20 minutes

He was just trying to get the crowd riled up, but he has no class. You don’t do that.” This is what Carlos Boozer, then a rookie with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had to say after the 2003 Rookie Challenge, in which Jason Richardson, then in his second year with the Golden State Warriors, went “off the heezy” — that is, he threw the basketball off Boozer’s head — in the waning seconds of the game. “Fans like stuff like that — a little streetball,” said Richardson, who dropped a game-high 31 points to lead the Sophomores to a 132-112 win over the Rookies. Even more disrespectful? Richardson followed up the move taken straight from an AND1 mixtape by draining a 3-pointer in Boozer’s face to seal the game. One of the great unsolved mysteries in NBA history is how Richardson didn’t catch the hands that night.

2004 — Amar’e Stoudemire

Stat line: 36 points, 11 rebounds in 35 minutes

Is Amare Stoudemire a Hall of Famer? He certainly thinks so, but it’s an often-debated question when you look back at the now-retired big man’s 14-year tenure in the NBA. Back in 2004, however, it appeared as if Stoudemire was destined to one day be enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. Just watch the tape from his MVP performance in the 2004 Rookie Challenge. Stoudemire’s 36 points broke Kobe Bryant’s 1997 record (31) for the highest scoring output in the history of the game. He also dropped more points in the game than three surefire first-ballot Hall of Famers: Carmelo Anthony (17), LeBron James (33) and Dwyane Wade (22). Stoudemire’s Sophomores dominated Anthony, James and Wade’s Rookies in a 142-118 win.

2007 — David Lee

Stat line: 30 points, 11 rebounds in 24 minutes

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

David Lee didn’t miss a single shot in the 2007 Rising Stars Challenge, which he finished as the game’s MVP with 30 points on a perfect 14-for-14 from the field to go along with 11 rebounds in only 24 minutes on the floor. Lee and the Sophomores demolished the Rookies, 155-114, even with then-second-year New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul coming off the bench. Moral of the story: Lee is definitely invited to the cookout, where he’d bust your drunk uncle’s butt in some post-meal pickup.

2008 — Daniel Gibson

Stat line: 33 points on 11 made 3-pointers in 22 minutes

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Shooters gon’ shoot, as the saying goes, and that’s exactly what Daniel “Boobie” Gibson of the Cleveland Cavaliers did against a team full of rookies in 2008. Coming off the bench for the Sophomores, Gibson, one of James’ most beloved teammates early in his career, took 20 shots, all of which were 3-pointers, and 11 of them fell through the net to set a record for the game. Gibson’s 33 points earned him distinction as the game’s MVP in a 136-109 win for the Sophomores. Ten years later, Gibson is no longer shooting shots but rather spittin’ bars, having retired from the NBA in 2015 to pursue a rap career. You can catch him nowadays on Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood.

2009 — Kevin Durant

Stat line: 46 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists in 30 minutes, 51 seconds

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In 2009 — with James sitting courtside between Kenny Smith and Kevin Harlan, calling the game — Kevin Durant, then 20 years old and the franchise player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, pieced together the single greatest performance in Rising Star Challenge history, with a record 46 points on 17-for-25 shooting from the field. “He’s been phenomenal. If you add a few more wins to [the Thunder’s] résumé, he’s definitely an All-Star for the Western Conference team,” James said that night before the game. After leading the Sophomores to a 122-116 win over the Rookies during All-Star Weekend in 2009, Durant was selected the following season to play in his first career All-Star Game, which he hasn’t missed since.

2010 — Russell Westbrook

Stat line: 40 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 32:16

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Russell Westbrook did his best Durant impression with a 40-piece in the 2010 Rising Stars game, the year after his then-Thunder teammate Durant dropped an unprecedented 46. Yet Westbrook’s prolific performance, which he delivered after scoring a mere 12 points in the game as a rookie in 2009, wasn’t enough for the Sophomores, who fell to the Rookie team, 140-128, for the first time since 2002. Tyreke Evans might have the MVP hardware from that game on his mantel, but Westbrook straight-up balled out. He was the real MVP, if we’re keeping it 100.

2011 — John Wall

Stat line: 12 points, 22 assists in 28:56

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

No player in the history of this game has come out and tallied more assists than John Wall did at Staples Center back in 2011 during his first season in the league. His fundamental, 22-dime MVP display paced the Rookies to a 148-140 win over a roster of Sophomores that featured Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. Pretty sure even Jesus caught a lob from Wall that night.

2012 — Kyrie Irving

Stat line: 34 points, nine assists in 27:03

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A then-19-year-old rookie, Kyrie Irving didn’t miss a single 3-pointer in the 2012 Rising Stars Challenge. We repeat — Irving, fresh off of being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft, made all eight shots he took from beyond the arc as part of his 34-point MVP night that helped his team, coached by Charles Barkley, beat Team Shaquille O’Neal in the newly formatted game that mixed rosters with both rookies and sophomores. Irving’s night, however, was just the warm-up.

2013 — Kenneth Faried and Kyrie Irving

Stat lines: Kenneth Faried: 40 points on 18-for-22 from the field, 10 rebounds in 23 minutes; Irving: 32 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds in 26:46

Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated the 2013 game, with an efficient 40-point, 10-rebound outing that ended with him hoisting the MVP trophy. But let us take this moment to pour out a little liquor for Brandon Knight’s ankles, which Kyrie Irving, the 2012 Rising Stars MVP, destroyed on the hardwood at Houston’s Toyota Center. Irving caught Knight not once but twice with saucy combinations of his unrivaled handles. About a month after the game, DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers broke the internet after throwing down a poster dunk on Knight. It was a tough year for the young guard out of the University of Kentucky.

2014 — Andre Drummond, Tim Hardaway, Dion Waiters

Stat lines: Andre Drummond: 30 points, 25 rebounds in 28:26; Tim Hardaway: 36 points (7-for-16 from 3-point) in 24:29; Dion Waiters: 31 points (4-for-6 from 3-point) in 21:24

Perhaps the greatest sequence in Rising Stars Challenge history is the back-and-forth battle between New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and then-Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters in 2014. For seven out of eight straight possessions in the final minutes of the game, Hardaway and Waiters went one-on-one, virtually operating as if there were no other players on the court. Hardaway would hit a 3 and Waiters would answer with one of his own. Hardaway would bring the ball downcourt and pull up, then Waiters would shoot from a little bit deeper. Rinse and repeat. Hardaway finished with 36 points on 7-for-16 shooting from 3, while Waiters scored 31 on a lights-out 10-for-14 from the field, including four 3s. What’s funny is neither player was named the game’s MVP. That honor belonged to Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond, who scored 30 points and grabbed 25 rebounds. No defense at all, but what a game.

2017 — Jamal Murray

Stat lines: 36 points (9-for-14 from 3-point), 11 assists in 20:09

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

No player has ever been named the MVP of back-to-back Rising Star Challenges since the game was first played in 1994. Yet this year, sharpshooting second-year Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray has a chance to make history, after coming off the bench in 2017 to drop 36 for Team World in a 150-141 win. Can Murray be MVP again? We shall see.