The two old rivals will always have one thing in common.
Live in the moment. It’s a motto that many preach and few actually practice. But Dwyane Wade isn’t most people. His season-long #OneLastDance is proof: a case study, actually, in gratitude and the importance of being present. Tuesday night, the icon who took his talents to Miami in 2003, where he has played with the Heat for all but 1½ seasons — takes to the court for his final regular-season home game.
There are two ways to view Wade’s career. One is via the sheer audacity of his accomplishments.
He will have scored more than 23,000 points.
He is a 13-time All Star, and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.
Wade is a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist and eight-time All-NBA selection.
That he is a three-time All-Defensive selection could have something to do with the fact that, in terms of guards, Wade is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks.
All of which provides context for him being a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. Wade is quite simply the greatest shooting guard of all time — not named Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
The second way to appreciate Wade is through the prism of the cultural impact he’s had on professional basketball, and on the world around him. There’s his very public journey of fatherhood — including his recent extended paternity leave. Wade as wielding his voice and platform in this new golden era of player social activism. Married to actor, author, and philanthropist Gabrielle Union he is one-half of a power couple with global influence. Wade’s fashion risks and fashion firsts are indelible. And, of course, there is Wade’s critical role in forming and preserving the 2010-14 Miami Heat — the team that unequivocally changed the look, the feel, the style and bravado of NBA basketball ever after.
But now, after 16 campaigns, it’s over. Wade’s farewell has been the NBA’s finest storyline of the 2018-19 season. “This year has allowed me just to play and be free and not really care,” Wade told me in February. “If I score 22, if I score two — I’m enjoying the process … this journey, that I’m ending … It really allows me to live in the moment and just enjoy it all. Normally as an athlete you don’t get to.”
I joined Wade at three of his last NBA games. On March 22, Miami was at Milwaukee, near where he played college ball. As a player, he stepped on court at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the last time on March 30. And then there was his last game at American Airlines Arena on April 9 against Philadelphia. One last ride.
CHAPTER ONE: THE WARM-UP
MILWAUKEE — Now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, former Marquette Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean has witnessed the legend of Dwyane Wade several times. There was the 2001 31-point explosion against Tennessee in The Great Alaska Shootout. Then there was the victory two nights later against Indiana. But the moment? The one that put an entire country on notice? That’s Feb. 27, 2003, when Wade, Crean and No. 10 Marquette, on the road, defeated No. 11 Louisville.
“[Dwyane] makes a move in front of our bench,” says Crean. “He starts out on a drive so it’s on the left wing, behind the 3-point line. … He gets a dribble out in front of him, he lifts the guy, does a spin dribble, OK?” Excitement rises in Crean’s voice. “[Wade] spin dribbles, shot fakes, lifts the guy and shoots it off the backboard … basically beat three people to the rim.”
Sportscaster Dick Vitale, per usual, couldn’t contain himself. This was the same year high school phenom LeBron James was a one-man sports news cycle. The year Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse was the college hoops storyline. But now a new name was tossed to the hysteria and into one of the best draft classes in NBA history.
And the Miami Heat were anxious to find its next star. “[Everyone in the Heat organization] ended up watching … all of his tournament games to prepare for the draft,” says Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, sitting on the scorers table after shootaround last month. Miami was set to play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks that night. In 2003, Spoelstra was a Heat coaching assistant. “They were super well-coached,” Spoelstra says. “And Dwyane made you watch that team.”
Walk into the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus and the first face you see is Wade’s. A large portrait commemorating the school’s Final Four run, with Wade as its centerpiece, sits beside Marquette legends such as Bo Ellis, Jim Boykin, Maurice Lucas and Dean Meminger. The 3,700-seat arena is quiet in late March, as both the men’s and women’s teams are at the NCAA tournament. Wade’s presence, though, is everywhere.
There is “M Club” Hall of Fame induction in 2009. His place on the Walk of Champions. A large banner pays him homage in the actual gym. Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey. There’s excitement in the air. Wade and the Heat are coming to town — it’s his last time playing in the city that still claims him as its own.
There’s an upbeat vibe at Fiserv Forum the morning of March 22. The Heat are holding a shootaround as The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s the Same Old Song” bleed into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Maybe it’s a Pat Riley call. He is a child of Motown, after all.
Some players are getting up shots. But Wade’s knees are already iced as he sits courtside behind the basket. Almost directly above him hangs his No. 3 Marquette jersey. He’s having fun talking to the media, and he smiles when the Ja Morant comparisons come up. A day earlier, Morant dropped a triple-double (as Wade did in ’03, and as only eight others have done in the NCAA tournament) in Murray State’s first-round win over, poetically, Marquette. “He’s special for real,” Wade said. “[He] definitely gave me flashbacks.”
Wade’s eyes glisten when I mention the name Gaulien “Gee” Smith. He’s owner of Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon on Milwaukee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where Wade got his hair cut while in college. Gee, who has cut the hair of more than 200 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, recalls Wade as a soft-spoken, respectful guy whom he held out as special. “I told him [at Skybox Sports Bar across the street],” Gee says, “ ‘Man, I knew you would be great. But I’ma be honest with you, I had no idea you would be who you are today.’ ” Wade beams at the memory.
Udonis Haslem, who entered the NBA in 2003 with Wade, returns to the court and looks over at Wade, whom he considers more than a brother. “This is … the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Haslem. “I’m living through him and his happiness. I’m enjoying all this as a friend. Real friends enjoy seeing their friends happy.”
Heat fans have piled into the Bucks’ home arena to watch the Eastern Conference’s top squad play the Heat. The past 20 years of Wade’s basketball life are on people’s chests and backs: Marquette jerseys, Olympic jerseys, Chicago Bulls jerseys, even a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. But overwhelmingly it’s about that Heat No. 3 jersey in all of its hues.
Fans Felix and Linda have made the 80-mile trek from the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the moment. “This is his home! Even though he’s in Miami for now,” Linda says, not even trying to hide her sarcasm. “He’ll always be welcome here.”
“It means a lot to see him in his last game here,” says Felix. “The things he does in the community off the court outweighs what he does on the court. Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”
It’s a common sentiment at Fiserv all night. Midway through the first quarter, during a timeout, highlights of Wade’s March Madness run splash across the JumboTron and elicit a standing ovation. “This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”
When Wade checks in with 4:41 left in the first, an even louder ovation erupts. Wade’s 12 points, though, do little to prevent the inevitable: The Heat — in a royal rumble with Orlando, Brooklyn and Detroit for three of the East’s final three seeds — lose 116-87. But the moment was bigger than the game. Both Milwaukee All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, swapped jerseys with Wade after the game. His who’s who of jersey swappers this year includes LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others.
“He is definitely a mentor, somebody I watch from afar,” Middleton said after the game. “[He’s] one of my favorite players growing up. Still one of my favorite players to this day.”
In the locker room, Wade sits on a chair with his shirt off and a gold chain around his neck with a throng of reporters around him. “I have no regrets,” he says of his farewell tour. Those who came out to see him don’t have regrets either. Pride is mixed with sorrow. Honor is in bed with sadness.
“I just know,” Linda says, “I’ma miss him.”
Crean, Wade’s coach at Marquette, has a theory about why the star’s connection to the area runs so deep. It’s not about the highlights, or the notoriety both men brought to Marquette in the early 2000s. It’s not even about what they did in the spring of 2003. It’s about the soul of a man.
“He never, ever stopped caring about Marquette or Milwaukee even after [we] left,” Crean says. “It never stopped being his home. It never stopped being his school. … He’s incredibly loyal to his friends, his family, his community. … He gets it.”
PART TWO: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY
NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Wade to have his first Madison Square Garden moment. Or, in other words, rip the hearts out of New York Knicks fans. The date was March 15, 2005, and with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the 49-16 Heat were tied at 96 with the 26-35 Knicks.
Double-teamed by Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas, Wade (then known as “Flash” in his second NBA season) turned the ball over, giving the Knicks a chance at pulling off the upset. Thomas missed a baseline jumper, allowing Wade to pull down his third and final rebound of the game — thus setting him up for the final shot. Moments later, Wade called for iso far beyond the top of the key. A hard drive left. A vicious step-back jumper. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Heat win 98-96.
The Heat’s shootaround takes place at NYC’s Basketball City. It sits on the East River with a clear view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Some players are getting shots up. Others have side conversations with coaches. The energy is calm and inviting as media types surround Wade. He’s wearing a black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.
“Besides playing at home, [Madison Square Garden] is my favorite place to play,” Wade says. “It’s a lot of great arenas in the NBA, but there’s something about MSG that’s … special. … Heat Nation is strong here, so we always have a home crowd kinda feel. It’s the lights. It’s the way the floor is lit. It’s everything.”
Wade is balancing reflection and being in the moment. The night is largely about him — he’s the third-leading active non-Knick scorer at MSG, behind LeBron James and Vince Carter. Yet, for Wade, the night is more about the playoff push. The Heat at the time were still clawing for their postseason lives — and, at press time, still are. Wade is as mild-mannered as they come in the NBA, but it’s clear that questions about Knicks coach and close friend Dave Fizdale’s ability to lead his team out of a perpetual state of rebuilding begins to annoy him. Wade’s professional career began in the Garden at the 2003 NBA draft, but in March 2019 at MSG, he had not retired yet.
Much like in Milwaukee, and at other stops this season, droves of fans arrive in Wade-associated paraphernalia. One such Heat fan, sporting the statement pink Wade jersey, walks around a concourse in full Braveheart mode, high-fiving and hugging any other Heat fan he sees. “Let’s go Heat!” he belts out. “Let’s go Wade!”
Other fans couldn’t let Wade leave New York without saying goodbye.
“I’ve only seen him once,” says New Jersey native and die-hard Wade fan Ahmed Doumani. “I can’t have him retire without seeing him again.”
Celebrities also pile up at MSG for Wade. Tennis great John McEnroe, actor John Turturro, New York Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and Kansas City Chiefs MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes are all in attendance. The most important courtside seat though, as it relates to Wade, is that of his wife, Gabrielle Union.
“It’s so nice to see him appreciate [this final season],” Union said during an in-game interview. “They say give people their flowers while they can still appreciate it, and the NBA has just done a tremendous job [of that].”
Midway through the first, Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude is gargantuan. Hairs rise on the back of necks. Goose bumps have nothing to do with the air conditioning. Fizdale, who spent eight seasons as an assistant and associate head coach in Miami, paid homage to his former player from the Jumbotron and had more to say after the game.
“I’ve learned more from him than he has from me, for sure,” Fizdale said. “When he says he’s your friend, he’s going to be there for you. He’s been there for me every step of the way. He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.”
Every time Wade touched the ball at MSG, the crowd cheered. He received “MVP” chants when he went to the free throw line — perhaps the lone accomplishment not on his career portfolio. The Knicks offense stalled in the second, allowing Miami to push ahead for good. This allowed Knicks fans to focus on what’s really important.
“Thank you, D-Wade, for whooping our a– one more time!” one fan behind press row yelled. “We’re one step closer to Zion [Williamson]!”
Wade finished with 16 points and seven assists in a 100-92 victory — although the crowd would’ve much rather preferred for it to be 18 points. A called offensive foul on Wade in a missed alley-oop drew the biggest boos of the night — from Heat and Knicks fans. After the game, hundreds of fans stuck around to take in Wade’s final moments in the Garden. New York has never had an issue with telling opponents off. It’s an unforgiving fan base. But if the city respects you, they’ll love you forever.
“Gotta pay respect,” a Knicks fan says, patting his young son on the head, “to one of the GOATs.”
Chants of “One more year!” ride shotgun with “D-Wade!” And as a shoeless Wade finally runs off the court, he’s showered with one last ovation. Inside the locker room, Wade, in a pink “Play Make Her” hoodie (a fund launched by the Entertainment Industry Foundation to empower women in the sports industry) is looking forward to summing up the night.
“I’ll be here, I’m sure, a few other times in my life. But as a player … it’s your last time, you just enjoy it,” he says. “The fans staying around after was so cool. You expect that at home, but on the road you don’t expect it.”
As the locker room clears, Wade is smiling. It’s almost over. He taps me on my shoulder. He’s seen me at many of these stops. “See you in the next city, bro.” He takes pictures with two kids — one in a Heat jersey and another in a Knicks jersey. Then he’s off into the New York night, hand in hand with Union, as hundreds of fans wait near the team bus hoping for one last glimpse of a legend.
PART THREE: VICTORY LAP
MIAMI — “Feed him the rock,” the man says, a grin overtaking the real estate of his face. Decked in a white Wade jersey and Miami Heat hat, he takes a couple of pulls from his cigarette and carries on with another guy doing the same. “He can beat Kobe’s 60.Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”
Miami knew this day would come. Erik Spoelstra made a vow to Wade (and to himself) at Wade’s home last summer when he learned this would be the superstar’s final run. “I just wanted to enjoy all these moments and be present. Not think about when it’s over, or next year,” the Heat head coach said. “I wanted to [do] everything we could to make sure it was as he imagined.”
Dwyane Wade’s final home game was the topic around the city all day Tuesday. Miami is fiercely protective of Wade, and for a certain generation of south Florida sports fans, Wade is not just one of the greats. He’s the greatest.
“For really anyone 40 and under, he’s the symbol of sports excellence in Miami,” says columnist and 5ReasonsSports.com podcast host Alphonse Sidney. “We’re too young for the 1972 Dolphins. We were in elementary school or not alive even when [Dan] Marino was elite. We’ve seen two Marlins championships, but we never really had a chance to fawn over those teams because as soon as we won the championship they were gone.” He pauses momentarily. “When it comes to elite athleticism, elite players, superstars who are a symbol of a team and a community, it’s Dwyane Wade and really no one else.”
“Dwyane Wade represents us Miamians in a way no other South Florida sports figure has,” says Maria Cabré, head of operations at J Wakefield Brewing. “He [just] gets it — a balance of humility and ego and forward thinking yet rooted in tradition. [Miami] will always be his home.”
Inside American Airlines Arena is a celebration fit for a king. “L3GACY” shirts are placed on every seat in the arena — which is filled long before tip off. Dwyane Wade highlights run in an unapologetic loop on any and every screen. The entire arena chants for some 10 minutes before tipoff.
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
There are clips and voiceovers from Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Gabrielle Union. A deafening roar erupts when Pat Riley declares, “This will be Wade County forever!”
On a night defined by emotions and immortalized by beauty, Wade’s oldest son Zaire introduced his father in a moment best described as surreal. “That one almost got me,” Wade quipped in a hallway after the game.
Following roughly 20 minutes of pre-game Wade-themed nostalgia, and a speech from the man of the hour, an actual basketball game took place. Though it was more like glorified scrimmage with the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly content with having the best seat in the house for Wade’s final Florida farewell. Spoelstra said following the game the decision to start Wade was a “no brainer.”
And, fittingly, with Chris and Adrienne Bosh, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Tim Hardaway and more courtside and nearby, the first bucket of the game was a dunk from No. 3. Everything Wade did Tuesday night — scoring, assists, rebounds, waves to the crowd — elicited thundering ovations. Everyone was soaking up the moment, even those in press row.
During timeouts, the video tributes continued. Derek Jeter’s was booed. NBA commissioner Adam Silver saluted Wade, telling him Springfield, Massachusetts was his next stop. As did his mother (Jolinda), father (Dwyane Sr.), sister (Tragil) and nephew (Dahveon). “You’ve given me the biggest gift you could ever give any of your fans,” Gabrielle Union says in hers. “Your heart.” Zaire returned on screen to thank his father for giving him a blueprint for how to live life both on and away from the court. His youngest son Zion, who participated in the Miami Beach Pride march on Sunday, had but one request for his dad. “Don’t lose your last home!” The biggest ovation was reserved for President Barack Obama. Via video he saluted Wade for a career well-played.
“Now, I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” Obama said. “In my case though, I didn’t really have a choice. My knees were shot so I had to give up basketball forever.”
News about Magic Johnson stepping away from the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t derail what was instantly one of the most special nights in South Florida history, and the Detroit Pistons’ comeback victory over Memphis, officially eliminating the Heat from the playoffs, didn’t dampen a parade 16 seasons in the making. A truly special sequence in the fourth quarter soon ignites. The game was already decided. The crowd had already erupted into another “We want Wade!” chant. Then Wade and fellow Miami favorite Udonis Haslem checked into the game together.
Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time. A turnaround fadeaway from nine feet. Then a three pointer that turned the arena on its collective head in euphoria. Then another three pointer. Then a 23-foot step back jumper that prompted his wife Gabrielle Union to slap him on the butt as he ran by. And then three minutes later, another three.
All in all, Dwyane Wade closed out his career with 30 points, including 14 in the final frame. And the 20,153 in attendance managed to squeeze in “Paul Pierce sucks” chant for good measure.
As the clock ran to triple zeros, the moment had finally set in. An era was over. Wade saved his most personal jersey exchanges for last. He swapped jerseys with his entire team. Then Zaire. The most personal swap was with No. 11 Heat jersey with “Hank” on the back. This was a homage to Henry Thomas, D-Wade’s late agent who became far more than just that over the course of his career. Wade credited Thomas, who passed away from neuromuscular disease in 2018, for molding him into the man he became after leaving Marquette.
“Wade County,” Dwyane said to the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the final whistle blew, “I love you.”
Following the final press conference of his career in Miami, Wade, in a red suit and sneakers, holding his daughter, left the building — no shirt under the blazer. Friends and family members follow him as he shows his daughter pictures of himself on the wall. Union soon joins them. This is how Wade wanted it to end. On his own terms celebrating with those he loves most.
It feels like just yesterday that he, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were covering Sports Illustrated with the tagline “The New Era.” And now, Dwyane Wade is no longer in the NBA. Wade valued his career. And he walked out of American Airlines Arena at close to midnight one final time knowing that an entire fanbase, an entire city — and an entire generation — did, as well.
Few stars shined brighter in the Harlem Renaissance firmament than Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. On the surface they seemed to have little in common: She was the folksy anthropologist, novelist and playwright with a down-home style reflecting her Southern roots. He was an urbane poet. But they shared the same literary mission: to capture the black vernacular on page as a means of reflecting the complexity of the black experience. They were fast friends.
Until their beef, which proved unsquashable. Their bond and its fracture is the subject of Yuval Taylor’s new book Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal. Taylor sticks to this particular schism, but it’s hard to read about Hurston and Hughes’ conflict without thinking about other examples of cultural beef, from hip-hop to sports.
The break between Hurston and Hughes is an age-old story, defined by driving ambition, hunger for credit and jealousy. Other parties were very much involved, from Charlotte Osgood Mason, the elderly white New York doyenne who opened her checkbook for and lavished praise upon writers who fed her infatuation with black primitivism (more on this shortly) to Louise Thompson, a typist who grew close to Hughes, much to Hurston’s chagrin. Hurston and Hughes were never romantically involved, but they shared a powerful emotional bond that Hurston guarded fiercely.
More important was what Thompson was typing. Hughes and Hurston had long dreamed of collaborating on a folk play, Mule Bone, which, as Taylor writes, “seemed to draw on all of Zora’s strengths and few of Langston’s.” They worked on the play together and apart and with Thompson. She came to think of it as her play. He came to think of it as his. They each had versions copyrighted. They both sought legal recourse. It was a messy dispute that led to both a creative rupture and a death blow to their friendship. The play itself wasn’t staged until 1991, long after both principals had passed away.
What’s beef? The Notorious B.I.G. answered the question from a hip-hop perspective: “Beef is when you need 2 gats to go to sleep/Beef is when your moms ain’t safe up in the streets/Beef is when I see you/Guaranteed to be in ICU, one more time.”
Notorious B.I.G., of course, knew about beef. His disputes lived on vinyl, where rappers had made sport of dissing each other for years. LL Cool J made his name largely by taking on other rappers: Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T and too many others to count. There may have been genuine animosity in some beefs, but for the most part they were artistic jousts, provoked when someone said something on some stuff, or when one artist committed the sin of biting another’s style.
But by the time Notorious B.I.G. hit his peak, a larger and more serious beef had taken hold. His beloved East Coast hip-hop scene — or at least his label, Bad Boy — was engaged in a protracted verbal war with the West Coast and Tupac Shakur. Tupac and Biggie, like Zora and Langston, had been friends. But this falling-out was different from that bitter literary feud, and even from previous hip-hop beefs. It involved bullets, first when Shakur was shot in New York and blamed Biggie’s crew, then when Tupac was shot and killed in Las Vegas, and finally when Biggie met the same fate the following year in Los Angeles. This was no mere creative dispute. It was a lethal feud that exploded into murder before anyone could really register what was happening.
Beefs may take different shapes and result in different degrees of consequence. But they usually have things in common, including peripheral figures fanning the flames. Think Suge Knight, in Tupac’s corner, and Sean Combs, representing Biggie, and the myriad voices throwing in behind each party. As it turned out, Hurston and Hughes had the same flame-fanner, the meddlesome Mason, whose mission was to cultivate black artists and provide them with money and resources — but only if they did as she wished. That meant conforming to Mason’s view of blacks as gloriously primitive, closer to nature than anyone else and therefore more pure. “Mason’s fondest hope,” Taylor writes, “was to make a difference to the world through a mystical connection to the primitive, which would overwhelm the malign forces of civilization.”
Her nickname was Godmother. “If one split that word into its constituent parts,” Taylor writes, “and joined them with an ampersand, it would describe well how her acolytes regarded her.” Hurston referred to her as “My Mother-God and her “true conceptual mother — not a biological accident.” Accustomed to such devotion, Godmother was also used to getting what she wanted. What she didn’t want was her two star scholars writing a play together. She opened her checkbook for Hughes to write novels and poetry and for Hurston to collect folklore. She saw the playwriting business as an unnecessary distraction from her mission.
Unfortunately for Godmother, Hughes and Hurston really wanted to write their play, and the more Mason objected, the more determined the two writers became. Godmother also sowed competition between the two by signing them to different contracts, allowing Hughes to keep the rights to his work while Hurston had to sign over her folklore to Mason. Godmother even prevented Hurston from showing her research to anyone else without Godmother’s permission.
On the one hand, as Taylor writes, “While Langston was being paid to create, Zora was being paid to collect.” To make matters worse, Hurston wasn’t allowed to keep what she collected. Is there any wonder Hurston envied Hughes’ deal, or that tensions between the two simmered, or that both sought to assert authorship over what was planned as a joint effort?
Third parties aren’t always the prime culprits behind beef. Hughes and Hurston had plenty of ego and hunger for the credit they thought they were due. These are qualities they shared with many of the beefing athletes of today, especially in a sport such as basketball that requires sharing the ball. Not even a team like the Golden State Warriors is immune, although they’re good at publicly patching up conflicts. (Of course they are. They’re good at everything.)
NBA beef tends to be very public, largely because of the league’s popularity and also because the star players are rarely shy. When Kyrie Irving demands a trade because he doesn’t like his role on LeBron James’ team, the world is going to find out.
The defining NBA beef remains the one between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, which effectively broke up the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers of the early ’00s. O’Neal, the big dog, insisted on regular feeding down low. Bryant, the rising star, was a lot more interested in shooting than feeding. You had two superstars with vastly different styles, each convinced that his style was the best way forward. Their hunger for credit was as powerful as any felt by Hurston and Hughes.
They won three straight NBA championships together, sniping much of the way. Eventually O’Neal was traded to Miami, where he won another championship alongside Dwyane Wade. Bryant won two more with the Lakers. After the trade, O’Neal referred to Bryant as a Corvette and to himself as a brick wall. O’Neal at one point tried to cast Lakers coach Phil Jackson in the Godmother role, blaming him for mismanaging the team and the beef.
Unlike Hughes and Hurston, who lawyered up over the fate of their aborted collaboration, or Tupac and Biggie, who ended up dead, Shaq and Kobe, like most sports beefers, played out their battle on the court and in the media. They also de-escalated their feud in subsequent years, with each player taking turns playing the other.
Sports can be an oasis of civilization compared with so many other fields of battle. It’s where beef, for all its sound and fury, can be just another part of the game.
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.
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Introducing the OVO Athletic Centre, the official training facility for the Toronto Raptors. just wanted to add that I am so proud of my brothers and so proud to be from this city I swear this one feels like a high school dream and it’s a blessing to be able to raise up the levels and make the human mind stretch when it comes to thinking about what is possible in your lifetime!! Much love to everyone involved
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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 …
“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 …
“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 …
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 …
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.”
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)
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.
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? 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.
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.
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:
— Arty (@artyficial13) February 13, 2019
“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.”
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.
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.
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.’ ”
Vince Carter’s 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland, California, is etched in NBA history thanks to his instantly iconic performance in the Slam Dunk Contest. In actuality, though, Oakland should have been his second All-Star trip. The 1999 NBA All-Star Game, booked in Philadelphia — on Valentine’s Day, at that — was the most high-profile casualty of an NBA lockout that threatened the entire 1998-99 season.
“That’s where it was supposed to be? In Philadelphia?” Carter says after a January practice in Sacramento, California. Even over the phone there’s genuine shock in his voice. “Wow,” he says. “I [really] had no idea.”
But what if the NBA hadn’t had to cancel the 1999 All-Star Game? What if, in a new, post-Michael Jordan NBA, there had been a huge Philly basketball celebration to help ease the pain of losing basketball’s biggest star?
What if there had been an All-Star Weekend in 1999? You’re in luck. There is.
But first, some backstory.
It’s tough to fault Carter for not recalling. The 1998-99 season is a forgotten, or at least rarely discussed, chapter in NBA history. Owners locked out the players on July 1, and the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. There were “no trades, no player signings, no NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, or contact between players and team representatives.” There was no All-Star Game. Shortly after the 1998 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Famers such as Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, labor negotiations came to a screeching halt as growing profits, and how those profits would be allocated in coming seasons, became the glaring issue.
Team owners, among other things, talked salary cap issues and blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract. “That … changed the landscape,” said former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik after the lockout. “This was the one where owners said something had to be done.” Players talked about the NBA’s swelling revenues, especially from television, and the rookie salary scale, among other things.
Players unfairly shouldered much of the public blame for the lockout, though in fairness, some players didn’t make it easy on themselves from a public relations perspective. While attempting to organize a charity game in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to benefit UNICEF — and NBA players — then-union president Patrick Ewing said pro athletes “make a lot of money, but spend a lot, too.” The gesture of the game did anything but win the fans’ favor back to the players. The Boston Celtics’ Kenny Anderson joked about selling one of his eight cars. And Grant Hill took a temporary hit to his reputation for, in the eyes of many, not taking more of an assertive role during the lockout — and his Sprite commercial with Tim Duncan reportedly angered several players.
By mid-October, the NBA’s preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season had been canceled. “If the [NBA] isn’t back by Christmas,” said Neil Hernberg, then the sports marketing manager of apparel behemoth Pro Player, “we could lose 75 percent of our NBA business.” The effects of the lockout hit the pockets of other business partners as well. “The market is soft,” noted Steve Raab, vice president of marketing for Starter. “Retailers are reducing and canceling orders.”
Networks were forced to revamp programming, and shortly before Christmas, the NBA announced for the first time in its history — and, to date, still the only time since 1951 — that the league would cancel its annual midseason classic. The city of Philadelphia lost out on an estimated $40 million.
“[The lockout] didn’t set me back because I had nothing to be set back from,” says Carter. “I went back to [the University of North Carolina]. I did a semester … and had a chance to work out with Coach [Dean] Smith and the team while I was waiting for the lockout to end.”
The players approved a new deal 179-5 at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, and the league’s Board of Governors unanimously agreed to ratify the compromise. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the owners, but the players did walk away with more money for non-franchise players, and for the superstars. “Did [the players] blink?” then-NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter asked rhetorically. “I guess we both blinked.”
Less than a week after the return of pro basketball back, Jordan retired for a second time.
The announcement wasn’t much of a shock, but the impact was massive and multidimensional. Television networks, which for years profited from Jordan’s magnetism, were forced to adjust to an uncertain new reality. “It’s unique to have been in a partnership with the NBA for eight years, and to have had this fairy dust sprinkled on us,” said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. “Now we have to reintroduce this generation of stars … will we get Babe Ruth tomorrow? No.”
“I’m sad to see him go,” rhythm and blues singer/actress Aaliyah said. “But he’s had an incredible career and we will miss him. … He’s worked hard and he deserves to relax now.”
It’s Valentine’s Day weekend in Philadelphia. In real life, the 1998-99 season is just over a week old. Teams and players are working their way back into a groove.
Instead of the pageantry of an All-Star Game, the 76ers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks. Allen Iverson is his usual self — 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks — helping Philly improve to 4-1 to start the season. He’s the game’s lone bright spot in a 78-70 Sixers victory. Unfortunately, the biggest news to hit the city that weekend is a fire that engulfed South Philly’s St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. And the biggest sports-related news? Wrestlemania XV invading the city in March, headlined by a no-disqualification title match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
But let’s imagine an alternative history
Philadelphia is abuzz with Hollywood’s elite, music’s biggest names and NBA legends — both established and in the making. West Philadelphia’s Will Smith, fresh off “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” and Enemy of the State, is one of the biggest stars on the planet — he’s down front. So is Lauryn Hill — she’s one of the biggest musical artists on the planet. And Iverson? He’s in his third season and already one of the league’s most prolific scorers. But more than that? He reaches and represents a generation fueled by counterculture and soundtracked by hip-hop. While Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos are to some a sign of basketball’s decaying morals, to a younger generation he’s a symbol of defiance, swagger and perseverance.
“It’s unfair, but it’s true,” Iverson told Chris Rock. “People look at the way I dress, who I hang around, [my] jewelry — people try to make me 34 years old and I’m only 24.” People hated Allen Iverson and people loved Allen Iverson. It’s that dichotomy and that polarization that make him the obvious de facto mayor of the 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was.
Also at courtside for the game are hometown heroes such as Mike Schmidt and Moses Malone. There’s plenty of room also for the other stars ruling culture: Denzel Washington, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Winslet. Bill Russell is there, along with Wilt Chamberlain, whose relationship with Philadelphia is both storybook and tragic. The meeting at the 1999 NBA All-Star Game (that never was) would be one of their final times together, as Chamberlain would die eight months later.
Muhammad Ali and Philly’s own Joe Frazier, in the imaginary weekend’s most touching moment, publicly end a bitter feud that had lasted nearly 30 years with vicious taunts from both men. In real life, the two boxing icons squashed their beef at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Places of honor go to Julius Erving, as well as Jordan, whose presence is impossible to avoid given that most fans have yet to accept his second retirement.
Jazzy Jeff is the weekend’s official DJ. Hometown daughter Patti LaBelle performs the national anthem — paying homage to the city’s soulful musical roots with the most soulful rendition since Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The aforementioned Hill, following the August 1998 release of her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is tapped to perform at halftime with a string of hits, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything” and “Lost Ones.” Less than two weeks later, Hill’s place in history is cemented with five Grammys, including album of the year.
Celebrities are a necessary part of All-Star Weekend. As are big-name performers. But the biggest celebrities and performers are the ones voted in by the fans to start the game. Unlike 2019, the teams were still separated by conferences in 1999. Yet, like 2019, the game’s starters will be selected via fan vote. Here are your 1999 NBA All-Stars, for a game that never was — current and future Hall of Famers each one.
G — Allen Iverson | Philadelphia 76ers
The weekend’s point person, if you will. Though if you’re in the mix, you’ll see Bubba Chuck at every party in the city. Iverson’s popping bottles, rocking jewelry bright enough to light up the nightclub and partying to DMX, Jay-Z, Cash Money. You’re probably wondering when he sleeps? It’s All-Star Weekend! No sleep! It’s Philly, and it’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and you know he’s bringing the city out. Iverson did eventually capture All-Star Game MVP in Washington, D.C., in 2001 — also a homecoming of sorts, given his Georgetown roots. So, needless to say, the league’s leader in points per game and minutes per game in the 1998-99 season would’ve put on a show before a crowd that treats him like a demigod to this day.
G — Ray Allen | Milwaukee Bucks
Penny Hardaway really could’ve won a popular vote over Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth, in 1999. Penny started every game in ’98-’99 and led Orlando to the playoffs. But Hardaway’s injury history works against him here and is beginning to paint the picture of what could have been an all-time great NBA career derailed by factors beyond his control. Riding the wave of 1998’s He Got Game, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making gets the nod, and you best believe he’s rocking the HGG 12’s in the process — with Washington, Lee and Jordan all sitting courtside too. Hardaway was a magnificent shooter from the day he entered the league, and in his later years he became a marksman who nailed the 3 that saved the Miami Heat’s dynasty in 2013. But young Ray? Oh, young Ray could do it all. Including put you on a poster.
F — Vince Carter | Toronto Raptors
All the hoopla and hysteria we see around Luka Doncic now? That would’ve been Vince, the eventual Rookie of the Year, 20 seasons ago — had he actually had a real rookie season to lay ruin to. How massive was the Vince hype? Let his cousin and teammate, Tracy McGrady, tell it. “[Carter] lit the league on fire with his athleticism, his spectacular dunks,” he says with a smile you can almost see through the phone. “That momentum carrying into the ’99 All-Star break just would’ve been on fire.” Even in the abbreviated season, Carter’s athletic prowess became the theatrics of legend en route to a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Carter starts as a rookie in the All-Star Game because, why wouldn’t he?
F — Grant Hill | Detroit Pistons
One of the best (and most popular and marketable) stars in the league was set to be leaned on heavily in the post-Jordan era. His ability to do nearly any and everything on the court — Hill averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.9 percent shooting in ’98-’99 — made him an undeniable superstar with crossover appeal. Hill’s marriage to R&B star Tamia, whose brilliant 1998 self-titled album produced the hit “So Into You,” also made the former Duke Blue Devil a star far beyond the court. The sky is the limit for Grant Hill in February 1999. One question no one’s really asking at this point, though. Should we be talking about Hill’s impending summer 2000 free agency? Too early, right? Yeah, you’re right.
C — Alonzo Mourning | Miami Heat
When the center position actually counted in the All-Star Game, here is Mourning. Shaquille O’Neal had long defected to the Western Conference. And Patrick Ewing’s prime years are behind him. Mourning is, without question, the East’s best center on a team many believe will compete for a championship come June. His 20 points and 11 rebounds per night would’ve made him an All-Star in any season — but his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game make getting into Fort Knox easier than getting to the rim when Zo’s in the neighborhood.
Coach: Pat Riley | Miami Heat
With Jordan retired and the Chicago Bulls team a shell of its former self, Pat Riley’s Heat had real-life title aspirations and the squad to do it. Just a hunch, though: They should probably try to avoid the New York Knicks in the first round.
G — Gary Payton | Seattle SuperSonics
With fellow Oakland native and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in Phoenix, there’s competition out west for the starting guard spot, but The Glove gets the nod because he’s still very much the floor general who led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals three years earlier. The Sonics aren’t the dominant force in 1998-99 they were in the mid-’90s, but Payton’s output was still up there with the best point guards in the league: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.2 steals. Plus, Payton’s a showman of the highest order, and being able to mic him up in-game is too much basketball trash-talk nirvana to pass up.
G — Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers
It was pretty much written in stone that from the moment this teenager started his first All-Star Game in New York a year earlier, one of these guard spots would be his every February for the foreseeable future. In️ this alternate reality, Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia — the city he claimed, although it didn’t always reciprocate his love — and puts on an absolute clinic. Not many players have had a higher flair for the dramatic than the perpetually dramatic Bryant. With Ali, Frazier, Hill, Jordan, Will Smith and others at courtside, maybe, just maybe, Bean captures MVP honors in Philadelphia in 1999 — just like he did in 2002.
F — Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves
The Big Ticket, like Bryant, is inked in here for as long as he can put up with Minnesota, largely accomplishing very little during his prime years. By the end of his third season in 1997-98, Garnett had become a one-of-one generational talent. He was a complete freak on the defensive end and was the only player in the league to put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per night. If that wasn’t enough, the now three-time All-Star had no problem talking an opponent’s ear off.
F — Karl Malone | Utah Jazz
Quick question. Don’t use Google, either. And please don’t Ask Jeeves. Who won MVP in 1999? If you guessed Malone, buy yourself a drink. Because of the lockout, his ’99 MVP, won in his 14th year in the league at age 35, is relegated to obscurity, sandwiched as it is between Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 and O’Neal’s virtuoso 2000 campaign. Malone, the game’s future second-all-time leading scorer, gets the fan selection here, but it does come with a caveat. There’s a young phenom in his second season at San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan who will make this spot his very, very soon.
C — Shaquille O’Neal | Los Angeles Lakers
Like Iverson, if you’re in Philly for the 1999 All-Star Weekend that never was, it won’t be easy to miss Shaq. Sure, because of his stature. But more importantly because of his larger-than-life personality. O’Neal’s a megastar not just on the court but with a broad appeal similar to Jordan’s. And with Bryant in Philly too, there was the slight chance O’Neal and Bryant could’ve performed their long since forgotten rap collaboration “3X’s Dope” from O’Neal’s 1998 album Respect at some random party in the city.
Coach: Gregg Popovich | San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, with a young Duncan and a wily vet in David Robinson, seem poised for something special in San Antonio. They might be on to something here.
Bonus: Is the 1999 NBA All-Star Dunk contest the greatest dunk contest that never happened?
Aside from a few special moments — see Cedric Ceballos’ blindfold, Dee Brown’s no-look, Shawn Kemp’s double pump, Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk Dunk or Brent Barry’s jump from the free throw line — the dunk contest lost steam in the ’90s. Bryant, as a rookie, won the contest in 1997. There was no contest at all in 1998 — and no dunk contest in Madison Square Garden spoke volumes. The contest returned in 2000 with a bang. At the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, Steve Francis, McGrady and Carter proved to be human defibrillators, reviving the contest with legendary swag.
Yet, McGrady still wonders what would have happened in Philly at the All-Star Game that never happened. Could the greatest field that never happened … have actually happened in 1999? “You had Kobe in [’97]. Then you got Vince come in. I mean, who knows?” McGrady says. “Kobe probably would’ve entered that Slam Dunk Contest that year with Vince. You just never know.”
Carter agrees, although the missed opportunity doesn’t hurt as much given the light show he and his cousin put on in Oakland. “As far as what could’ve been? Yeah, maybe that year — as far as a dunk contest,” Carter says.
A potential field of Bryant, McGrady and Carter? “Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs!” McGrady exclaims. “It would’ve been crazy!
Carter doesn’t want to play the “what if” game too much, though. But he realizes what those three could have brought to the floor in the 1999 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest that never was. “Kobe and I played with each other in AAU … Tracy and Kobe were good friends. The friendly competition and the mutual respect we had for each other as athletes and dunkers would’ve brought the best out of each and every one of us,” Carter says. “That would’ve been legendary.”
The 2018 NBA draft lottery takes place Tuesday night. It’s a loaded class. And while 15 years ago, the lottery wasn’t the grandiose event it is now, a season of draft positioning (also known as tanking) on the part of some teams made the May 22, 2003, NBA draft lottery must-see TV. What happened that night, in many ways, set in motion the NBA we enjoy today. But what could have been? If a single pingpong ball had gone this way, or a front office decision had gone that way? This is NBA’s equivalent of The Butterfly Effect.
Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke knew it was the kiss of death. Like any other NBA executive in 2003, Kroenke coveted 18-year-old high school demigod LeBron James. And the Nuggets, having gone 17-65 in the 2002-03 season, were very much in play for the man Sports Illustrated famously dubbed “The Chosen One.” The Nuggets won the draft lottery. They landed the No. 1 pick. Except there was a catch. This was the rehearsal that was filmed before the live show.
Kroenke, in Secaucus, New Jersey, was beside himself. There’s no way lightning would strike again, when the draft lottery went live later that night. And while Kroenke stewed in Jersey, LeBron James, Aaron Goodwin — James’ agent from 2003-05 — and a host of family and friends celebrated the impending reality of James’ professional career in a Cleveland Hilton.
“We just waited to officially hear [who got the No. 1 pick] and kept partying,” said Goodwin 15 years later. “LeBron was in another room. I was on the phone. I don’t think there was any tension or worry about where he would go.” James was the belle of the ball. But he wasn’t the only future Hall of Fame name associated with the Class of 2003. Had things gone differently for two of his closest friends, the trophy case for the band of brothers affectionately known as the Banana Boat Crew would look very different.
What if the mock drafts held true, and the Miami Heat passed on Dwyane Wade?
Clippers. Wizards. Warriors. Bulls — these were the teams several mock drafts forecast for Dwyane Wade. Many thought the Heat would select a big man like Central Michigan’s Chris Kaman, or Maciej Lampe of Poland. Wade, despite one of the most memorable March Madness runs ever, was viewed as middle-of-the-pack talent. An undersized two-guard with an inconsistent shot — both assessments that ring true to this day. Very few, outside of Miami, saw the game-changing possibilities Wade would bring. And even fewer saw could foresee that the Marquette star would become the third greatest two of all time (behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant). There’s a Pandora’s box of possibilities — if Wade never lands in the 305.
Where does Shaquille O’Neal eventually land when he’s traded in the summer of 2004 if he doesn’t go to Miami? Where does Derrick Rose go in 2008 assuming the Bulls aren’t around with the No. 1 overall pick? Where does James go in 2010 if Wade’s not in Miami? Does he switch teams in his division, still join Wade and chase Jordan’s ghost while playing under the banners Jordan helped corral in Chicago? Or does he land in New York? Or does he never leave Cleveland in the first place? The questions we’ll never know the answer to are always the most fascinating.
How much differently is Carmelo Anthony’s career viewed if he goes No. 2 to Detroit?
This is, by far, the most-asked question from the 2003 draft. As it stands today, Carmelo Anthony is a future Hall of Famer. He has a national championship to his name and, with just one season at Syracuse is one of the more revered college players of all time. He’s Top 20 all-time in points scored — and the other 19 are all in Springfield or will eventually be. But the shortcomings of his career are unavoidable, and are capped off with a disappointing inaugural season in Oklahoma City. He’s only been to one conference finals (2009) and his era in New York was one filled with internal strife and just three playoff appearances in seven years.
Heading into the ‘03 draft, the top three was basically set in stone. James to Cleveland, Darko Milicic (who had the league captivated with his mysterious potential) to Detroit and Anthony to Denver. For a decade and a half, every basketball fan has wondered once or a million times: What if Joe Dumars and the Pistons went with Anthony instead of Milicic? It’s also one of the great regrets of Anthony‘s, too. “I was a little bit disappointed,” Anthony said. “I really wanted to go to Detroit. You had Chauncey, you had all those guys over there … Detroit, they had something going.”
Anthony around Detroit’s veteran leadership, on top of instantly being the best one-on-one player on the Pistons in 2003-04 makes for an interesting dynamic. Whatever defensive shortcomings he had would’ve been masked by bringing a devastating defensive force like Tayshaun Prince off the bench. The makings of a potential James-Carmelo rivalry, in the same division, would have produced a plethora of 2000s classic games. Not to mention: How would a young Anthony have influenced key series losses such as the 2005 Finals to San Antonio, 2006 Eastern Conference finals to Miami and the landscape-changing 2007 Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland? The Detroit what-ifs of Carmelo’s career remain infinite 15 years later.
How did Otis Thorpe play a role in two of the three biggest drafts in NBA history?
The Houston Rockets second consecutive title in 1995? (Partially) thank Otis Thorpe for that. The veteran power forward was traded by H-Town along with Tracy Murray to the Portland Trail Blazers in return for future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.
Two years later, Thorpe was involved in another trade that, at the time, barely made headlines. Thorpe and Detroit Pistons head coach Doug Collins had a strained relationship during their time together in the mid-’90s. In August 1997, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies traded for the 35-year-old Thorpe, giving up a protected first-round pick between the years 1998 and 2003. The pick came with protections and stipulations. By 2003, the Grizzlies were between a proverbial rock and hard place. The only way they could keep their draft pick is if they somehow landed the No. 1 overall pick.
There’s heartbreak and then there’s having to experience it on national television. The legendary Jerry West joined the Grizzlies in 2002 as the team’s president of basketball operations — meaning he inherited the Thorpe trade. West landed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles the summer of 1996. He was thisclose to drafting James in Memphis, had the pingpong balls fallen in his favor. Look at West’s face when he realizes his franchise missed James by a single pick. If “this is some bulls—” ever had a face, it’s Jerry West on the night of May 22, 2003. “I hate the lottery; I think it’s a terrible thing,” West said in 2013. “And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well.” Can you really blame West for being salty?
On a related note, Thorpe played a role in two of the three most storied drafts in NBA history. He was selected ninth overall in 1984 in a draft that featured Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. And a random 1997 trade featuring Thorpe directly impacted the 2003 draft and so everything that’s happening in pro basketball today.
What if James began his career in the Western Conference?
James in the Eastern Conference — it’s all the basketball he knows. Depending on the decision he makes this summer, it may be all we ever know. But as mentioned, James nearly began out west. Two of the top three picks in the ‘03 draft were from Western Conference squads in Memphis and Denver. Both made the playoffs in James’ rookie year.
How would The King have looked on the Grizzlies or Nuggets 15 years ago? Memphis would’ve paired him with a young Pau Gasol, his future teammates Shane Battier and Mike Miller, Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams. Also, imagine a young James learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis. Goodwin never really anticipated Memphis landing the first pick. “If that would’ve happened, we would’ve turned Memphis into a great market,” sadi Goodwin. “And they’d have at least two championships by now.”
Denver, on the other hand, boasted another future teammate in Chris Andersen, as well as Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Nene with current Houston Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik manning the sidelines.
James battling his way through a Western Conference with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Rockets and Phoenix Suns are heavyweight parallel universe matchups. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is that we would have eventually landed a James vs. Kobe Bryant series — the one matchup a league filled with stars could never make happen on its biggest stages. It’s tough to imagine a series more anticipated, debated and fawned over than a seven-game Western Conference finals featuring its two most polarizing names.
This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.
“Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.
That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 film—the greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen—better than anyone.
An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college, or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which of course requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.
In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the P.S.A.L. (Public Schools Athletic League) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade and McDonald’s All-American, and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during his Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”
He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech, and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ‘96 draft, He Got Game premiered.
On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed onscreen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Stephon, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” says Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player..?”
In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee—born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn—addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Spike said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”
The idea for He Got Game came to Spike at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father, who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee fedexed the script to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Denzel, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered the skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.
In Washington, Spike had a bonafide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … Who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’ Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus…it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court…you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”
Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Spike put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen, to Kobe Bryant, to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.
“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury says with an abrupt pause. “ … to play me.”
Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to shit.”
Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it … If he can make it out of here, so can I.
It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are the visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Spike Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Ray Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ‘96 draft—in exchange for Marbury—Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.
“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’” says the now retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took Spike up on his offer, and met with him in New York.
“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”
Meanwhile, Spike was courting players from all over — a perk of being on of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warmups, or during the game, I’d run by Spike, and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie,” says University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part, but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’” Spike ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player “Mance”) and a handful of NBA roleplayers as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player “Sip”), to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit), andand John Wallace (as Lincoln player “Lonnie”), also of the Knicks.
But for Jesus, Spike envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen says. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ‘90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.
According to a Washington Post story published the day the He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie Tracy McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as The Post detailed.
In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.
“I wanna say Allan Houston, too,” McCarty recalls from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’”
Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he says, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”
In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembers, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”
On June 19, 1997, the Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his…He Got Game.”
Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ‘fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much…I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well…I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time for do a film.”
So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players — and probably some we’ll never even know about — Spike, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.
“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”
“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen says. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”
It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Spike is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.
Allen, then in his final NBA season, as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which wore onscreen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Spike tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.
He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie not just about just hoops, but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Spike responds about the prospect of a followup to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”
A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talk about a sequel,” Allen says. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.” The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and NBA Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to school, or to the NBA.
This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Spike writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttles to life.”
Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on of the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role.” he says. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”
If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he says, as matter-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”
The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, though his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — what no character can.
“I was the first,” Stephon Marbury says, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”