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Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.
Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.
But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.
Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.
“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”
Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.
“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”
Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.
“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”
Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.
While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.
Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.
With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.
Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.
“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”
Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.
Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”
Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.
George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.
Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.
A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.
“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”
Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.
“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”
The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.
James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.
“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”
One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”
Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.
“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”
In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.
Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.
“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”
Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.
“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”
In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.
“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.
His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.
Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.
Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.
Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.
“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”
This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.
The idea popped into Bria Janelle’s head in an unlikely place, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.
“I was in the shower one day and thought to myself, ‘WNBA Kicks,’ ” recalled Janelle, a former Division II college basketball player turned professional entertainment emcee and in-arena host. She envisioned a platform that, for some reason, had never been created — one dedicated to women, the WNBA and sneakers.
“People say out of frustration comes creation,” said Janelle, a native of Snellville, Georgia, which is about 35 minutes east of Atlanta. “I’ve always had an interest in shoes and the whole aspect of seeing what different outlets have done with sneakers. But I realized it was so saturated on the male side, and NBA side, of sneakers. I’m like, ‘Everybody is doing the same exact thing … how can I do something so far-fetched, so different that no one is even thinking about?’ ”
An injury ended Janelle’s playing career after three years at Mars Hill University in North Carolina, leading her to transfer to Georgia Southern University, where she graduated in 2011 with a degree in radio and television broadcasting. On-air campus appearances led to opportunities in Atlanta radio, and eventually a career. Over the past several years, Janelle has toured as emcee with WWE, worked with the Atlanta Hawks on a monthly web show and served as a host for the McDonald’s All American Game. Success in the field provided Janelle the means to grow her sneaker collection, which now checks in at about 130 pairs. Eventually, she wanted to find a way to represent a subculture of people like her: female sneakerheads.
Janelle was inspired by the WNBA’s biggest sneakerhead, Tamera “Ty” Young, who in 2008 became the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Dream franchise. Young, who now plays for the Las Vegas Aces but keeps her primary residence in Atlanta, has a massive sneaker collection that exceeds 600 pairs, even though she’s never had an endorsement deal with a sportswear brand.
“Ty Young being in Atlanta for years, you peep her at different events and it was like, ‘Yo, I’ve never seen her double up on a pair of sneakers,’ ” Janelle said. In the lead-up to the 2018 WNBA season, she ran into Young and told her she had something in the works. Janelle also hit up one of her close friends in the league, Alex Bentley, a member of the Connecticut Sun at the time who was playing overseas during the WNBA’s offseason.
“I never forget. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning in Russia and I said, ‘Hey, I got an idea. What do you think about this?’ ” Janelle recalled of her conversation with Bentley, who now plays for the Dream. “She said, ‘That’s dope. No one’s covered the WNBA’s sneaker culture. … Go for it. You’ve got my support.’ ”
But to make this thing work, Janelle needed help. So she reached out to Melani Carter, a sports producer who shared a similar frustration about the lack of WNBA coverage, having spent four years working at Turner Sports on NBA TV and NBA League Pass. The two friends remember meeting at a restaurant one night in Atlanta and talking for hours.
“As we started strategizing, I was saying, ‘This could be a segue into really showcasing women in another light,’ ” said Carter, who’s been collecting shoes since the early 2000s. “And what better way to start … than with sneaker culture?”
In February 2018, Janelle and Carter co-founded @WNBAKicks. And for the past year, the platform’s Instagram and Twitter accounts have served as the authoritative voice of sneakers in the WNBA despite not being officially affiliated with the league. Original video, interviews and, most notably, exclusive photos and videos of shoes players are copping and lacing up on and off the court — WNBA Kicks offers all this and more.
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A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 21, 2019 at 4:55pm PDT
“We’ve never really had anything like WNBA Kicks,” said Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, a 17-year veteran and three-time league champion, in April at the 2019 WNBA draft. “Yeah, the WNBA page can post our shoes, but sometimes you need people on the outside, different voices, to show people what’s what. To have this separate page that’s completely independent, showing the sneakers that we wear and really our personalities, it’s crucial.”
WNBA Kicks has amassed more than 20,000 followers on Instagram and another 2,300 on Twitter. It’s an operation that quickly transformed into a legit media outlet after establishing a network of contributors in WNBA markets across the country and expanding its staff to include a head of marketing and digital strategist. Now, the start of the 2019 WNBA season brings the launch of wnbakicks.com, marking the next chapter for a platform that’s evolved from the unique vision of its two co-founders.
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A post shared by WNBA Kicks (@wnbakicks) on May 23, 2019 at 8:11am PDT
“WNBA Kicks has become that safe haven for WNBA players,” Janelle said. “We told them, ‘Trust us to tell your story and show how dope you are, and we won’t steer you wrong.’ … It’s not about athletic ability, sexuality or the themes you always see talked about surrounding the WNBA. It’s about the fact that these players have sneaker collections just as good as some of the guys, if not better. And here’s a platform — just for them.”
What makes WNBA Kicks so authentic is players in the league support the platform 100% by providing daily content.
“Whenever they need a photo of my shoes, I’m always open to sending it to them,” said Phoenix Mercury guard Essence Carson. “The check-ins, they’re great, especially when a lot of players are gone and playing abroad in the offseason. It’s a good way to keep the fans’ attention and have them interact with the players.”
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Oh this how you coming @pr3pe! Essence Carson on the #WNBAKicks check-in with a Mercury inspired Kobe A.D. Exodus PE! We see you #WNBAKicks #NBAKicks #Nike #Jordans #Kyrie #KobeBryant #Sneakerhead #Basketball #NBA #WNBA #KOTD @kobebryant
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When Young uploads a picture of the sneakers she’s wearing to her Instagram Stories, she often tags @WNBAKicks. Janelle will then reach out for the original image to post on the page. Sometimes, Young even sends photos to the account via direct message so the platform can exclusively share the latest shoes she’s picked up.
“The cool thing is you have players taking pictures and videos of their own shoes or their teammates’ shoes to post on that page,” said retired WNBA Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. “It’s not like they’re always posting themselves. The players are doing it for WNBA Kicks. I think that’s a really, really cool thing. It’s a partnership in a way.”
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Sneaker culture in the WNBA has evolved quite a bit since Lobo played in the league from 1997 to 2003 and received her own signature shoe from Reebok, called The Lobo, during her rookie season.
“The only sneakers that were really covered back then were the Nike Air Swoopes, because Cheryl Swoopes was the first woman to have a signature shoe. That was a really big deal,” Lobo said. “In my generation, they didn’t even make women’s basketball sneakers. You figured out which men’s size you wore, because they didn’t even have them in women’s sizes. Sneakers in the WNBA weren’t really a thing. For the most part, everybody in the league wore the same style of shoe.”
The landscape has also changed since Carson and Young entered the WNBA more than a decade ago after being taken back-to-back with the seventh and eighth overall picks, respectively, in the 2008 draft. At the time, the WNBA was sponsored by Adidas, and strict uniform guidelines required players to wear league-approved shoes that were either predominantly white or black. Two years later in 2010, Instagram was founded as a social network that fostered creativity and expression while helping people transform into their own brands. And in the realm of style and fashion, Instagram became a place where both men and women could put on a display of their passion for sneakers.
“In previous years, women weren’t really looked at as sneakerheads,” Carson said. “But over the course of time, in the sneaker community, you’ve seen that change. As women move forward, so does the WNBA, because we’re women first and basketball players second. And now we have the platform to showcase that we can push sneaker culture even further.”
There’s a new era in the WNBA of players wearing whatever sneakers they want, whenever they want, due in large part to the emergence of WNBA Kicks in 2018.
“Last year, because of WNBA Kicks, people wanted to have more heat for games,” Young said. “They wanted to get that notoriety on social media. Like, ‘Oh, look what shoes she’s wearing!’ It made people who weren’t sneakerheads before want to bring out exclusive shoes or stuff that was more cool to show out. It became a popular trend, something to do.”
“The most unique thing we’ve did is attract the brands to the players,” Carter said. “So if brands said, ‘We don’t know if she has a following … we don’t know if she could help sell a product,’ we were showing them that they can. … It’s really about more than just sneakers.”
Janelle recalls a conversation she and Carter had with a sportswear company (the identity of which they chose not to disclose) in which they learned that the brand had sent out more pairs of sneakers to WNBA players last season than it did in the past 10 years. “Players were requesting shoes,” Janelle said, “because they wanted to be on the page.”
In the early days of the platform, Janelle and Carter wanted to ensure they acknowledged the players in the league with the hottest shoes. So last May, WNBA Kicks dropped its 2018 “Top 10 Sneakerheads List.”
“We really didn’t think it was going to be controversial,” Carter said. “It was more so like, ‘Let’s get this out there. Let’s let people know we’re here.’ When we released the list, people were like, ‘I didn’t make it? How am I No. 10? How am I No. 8? Why is she No. 1?’ Some players were mad. This was league news at this point. So it was like, ‘OK. This has to be our staple.’ That Top 10 list was the point that we can say the players really started paying attention, and the fans did too.”
The full list:
10. Monique Currie, Washington Mystics (now retired)
9. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
8. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
7. Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun (now of the Atlanta Dream)
6. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm
5. Erica Wheeler, Indiana Fever
4. Seimone Augustus, Minnesota Lynx
3. Epiphanny Prince, New York Liberty
2. Cappie Pondexter, Los Angeles Sparks/Indiana Fever (now retired)
1. Tamera Young, Las Vegas Aces
“When it got to No. 1, a lot of people didn’t expect it to be me,” Young said. “People didn’t know at the time how many kicks I had or how much I was into this. But it was a great feeling to know that something I’ve always loved I got notoriety for — even without having a shoe deal. I did this on my own. This is a hobby. I love sneakers. And I’ve always been that way, even since I was a little girl. I’m not just a collector. I wear all my kicks. So I thought it was superdope.”
Will she defend her crown in 2019?
“Of course. Not much has really changed. People have been showing all of their sneakers, but I don’t think anybody is topping me,” said Young, who in 2018, for the first time in her career, was posted on mainstream sneaker platforms such as @brkicks and @slamkicks. “WNBA Kicks started bringing different attention to us. I’ve never been a signed athlete, so people didn’t even know the type of heat I had.”
Hoping to capitalize on the trend of viral online challenges, the platform launched the #WNBAKicksChallenge, which encouraged players, broadcasters, coaches, fans and others to take a video showing off their collections, then dare others to do the same. The Minnesota Lynx’s Seimone Augustus, Indiana Fever’s Erica Wheeler, Chicago Sky’s Diamond DeShields and more active players partook, while retired WNBA stars such as Lobo, Tina Thompson, Dawn Staley and Lisa Leslie also got involved. ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe even did the challenge and showed off her favorite pair of sneakers, which were given to her by WNBA sisters Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike when Rowe was first diagnosed with cancer.
— Lisa Leslie (@LisaLeslie) December 1, 2018
“WNBA Kicks is showing we got sneakers like P.J. Tucker, James Harden or Kyrie Irving,” said Seattle Storm guard Shavonte Zellous. “To showcase what we have is a blessing, so everybody can stop putting us in a box and expand their brains a little bit.”
WNBA Kicks has even put the NBA on notice. Tucker, Harden and their Houston Rockets teammate Chris Paul have all been interviewed by the platform, and Irving has reposted one of its videos to his Instagram. Future NBA Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade posted a picture of Young after she became the first WNBA player to wear a pair of his signature Li-Ning Way of Wades, ending the caption with @wnbakicks.
“We randomly saw the page, and it was verified,” Carter said. “I was tryna figure out who made it, and if it was an independent site like ours.”
That’s right — @WNBAKicks launched nine months before @NBAKicks. “A coincidence? I don’t know,” Janelle said. “The NBA has been around for so long. We started WNBA Kicks, then NBA Kicks pops up. It was like, ‘All right, well, somebody’s paying attention.’ ”
Yet, Janelle and Carter truly knew they had created something special when Lobo showed WNBA Kicks some love live on air during the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game.
— #WNBAKicks (@WNBAKicks) July 30, 2018
“I’d been following them for a while and really enjoyed their content,” Lobo said. “In a production meeting, we said we were gonna come out of a commercial break and show some of the players’ shoes … so I knew I was gonna give them a shout. It feels to me that they’re the ones leading the charge in terms of exposing the fans to what the WNBA women are wearing. It seemed fair and only right that we let people know about them.”
So, heading into season two, what’s next for WNBA Kicks? The strategy seems to revolve around the platform’s newly launched website.
“Being a social media page is only going to get you so far,” Janelle said. “For us, the dot-com is what everyone respects. It was about wanting to have that next level. We wanted to be able to explain that we’re not just a fan page. We’re a full-fledged, running site.”
WNBA sneakerheads such as Young and Wheeler hope to see a stronger backing of the platform from the league.
“I don’t think the WNBA shines a light on WNBA Kicks as much as they should. I don’t think they give them enough credit,” Wheeler said. “WNBA Kicks knows what they’re doing. They’re up to date, they’re with the times. And they’re with us as players.”
WNBA Kicks has come a long way since Janelle paired those two words.
“To this day, I tell Bria, ‘Keep this going,’ ” Zellous said. “It’s really helping us … and it’s crazy because it’s kicks that are helping people get in tune with our league.”
Yet, if there’s one thing that the two co-founders of WNBA Kicks have never seemed to lose sight of, it’s that the platform is about much more than sneakers.
“Our whole purpose is to leave the league better than we found it,” Janelle said. “If we do our part, then we’re on the right track. How do we get more fans into seats? How do we get arenas full? If sneakers is the way, or at least a starting point, I think we can feel like we did something right.”
Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
Right now, the Los Angeles Clippers are battling the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of 2019 NBA playoffs — despite being projected before the season to win just 20 games. Expectations weren’t high for the Clippers at the start of the 2000-01 season, either. Back then, on paper, the Clippers were the worst in the NBA.
“Led by the 19-year-old Darius Miles, the Clippers could be one of two things” read the final sentence of a New York Times’ NBA season preview, “one of the league’s most exciting young teams or a maddening bunch of knuckleheads still trying to learn the game.”
In June 2000, the Clippers had drafted Miles, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, out of high school with the No. 3 overall pick. Fifteen selections later, the Clippers took Quentin Richardson, a sophomore swingman from DePaul University. The two shared the same home state — Richardson a native of Chicago, and Miles from the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois. They’d known each other since they were kids. And in Los Angeles, they became “The Knuckleheads” — a duo recognized across the league by their on-court celebration of two taps to the head with balled-up fists.
In their only two seasons together with the Clippers, Miles and Richardson emerged as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Jordan handpicked the two phenoms to endorse his brand, and spoiled them with every pair of Air Jordans imaginable. They appeared on magazine covers, and made cameos together in films and on television shows. And both players had the respect of the early-2000s community of hip-hop. “For a minute there, we really were the culture,” Miles wrote in a first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, published in October 2018 and guest-edited by none other than Richardson.
Now, nearly two decades after being drafted together, Miles and Richardson are the retired NBA veterans with their own podcast. Of course, it’s called Knuckleheads, and just nine episodes in after its February debut, it has a 4.9 rating out of 5 on iTunes.
In the spirit of the podcast — which has produced unfiltered interviews with NBA stars from Allen Iverson and Gary Payton to J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — The Undefeated chopped it up with The Knuckleheads about everything from the night they were drafted, to the sneakers they wore in the league and the journey of their friendship.
How did you two meet?
D-Miles: AAU ball brought us together …
QR: Many years ago.
D-Miles: Q’s AAU coach came down to Southern Illinois …
QR: Larry Butler …
D-Miles: … Yeah, Butler was looking for players to play in a ‘spotlight’ he was having. It was the top Illinois players from the state. We’d come down and play in … kinda like a camp … When I came down, that was the first time I saw who Q was … When Larry saw how good I was, he invited me to a tournament and had me play [on his team] two grades above me. He had me playing with Q and them.
QR: Me and D-Miles hit it off from there. Once he began playing AAU with us and would come to Chicago, he would normally stay at my house. He would stay the weekend, and that’s how we got tight.
Fast-forward to the 2000 NBA draft. Was there any idea that you’d both get picked by the Los Angeles Clippers?
D-Miles: We were going through the draft process together. But we never thought it would be a possibility to play on the same team … We didn’t even want to go to the Clippers…I don’t think anybody wanted to play for the Clippers. When I ain’t get picked No. 1 or No. 2, the Clippers weren’t gonna pass on me. They picked me anyway, even if I didn’t wanna go there … Q kinda slipped in the draft.
Q: We didn’t think there was an opportunity for us to play together because the projections were so far apart. He was a top-5 projection. I was anywhere from nine to 20. It was a big gap. And neither of us worked out for the Clippers.
D-Miles: After the draft, we hop on a private jet and go to L.A.? I couldn’t have written it no other way.
How did it feel to be together — at 18 and 20 years old — living in Los Angeles?
D-Miles: We didn’t live close to each other…But we was with each other, shittttt, every day probably.
This is always the first question you ask guests on the Knuckleheads podcast. Who was the first player in the league to bust your ass?
D-Miles: The first one to really give me a lot of buckets was Chris Webber. He was jumping hooking my ass to death. I think he had like 35 or 36. I felt like, I at least got 28 or 30 of them points. Seem like he was scoring every time he got the ball on me.
Writer’s note: On Jan. 27, 2001, Sacramento Kings power forward Chris Webber scored a game-high 33 points and 11 rebounds against the Clippers and a 19-year-old D-Miles, who finished the night with a team-high 16 points.
QR: This was early in my rookie year … I think it was in preseason. We’re out in Denver. This was the first time about to go deal with the altitude. The player was Voshon Lenard. You’re like, Who is VoShon Lenard? I knew he could play. I knew he could hoop, but I was being disrespected out there. The first timeout came at six minutes, I came and sat down … matter fact, D-Miles and Keyon [Dooling] was sitting on the bench. They looked at me and just started laughing. My man had the quickest 17 points I’m talking about in the first six minutes, though … Firing my ass up! Giving me post work … hitting 3s … pump fake, one-dribble pullup. He was cooking my ass. And I was dead tired … But I did get him back! He was on the team when I got career-high against the Nuggets on New Year’s Eve [in 2003]. I had 44 on they ass.
You two have probably told this story a million times — but how exactly did you two land with the Jordan Brand?
QR: One of the best moments ever. If anybody knows MJ, you know about his Flight School camp for kids. And they would have some epic counselor games … Flight School used to be held at UC-Santa Barbara … two weeks … two sessions. When I went when I was in college, they brought Darius because he was one of the top high school players. We were both counselors. It was our first time going. Fast-forward to after we get drafted by the Clippers, we’re in L.A., which is an hour [by car] from Santa Barbara. When August comes, we’re like, ‘Man, we’re gonna go out there to the Jordan camp …’ because the runs used to be really good … At this point we had no Nike deal, but AND1 was courting us really hard. They had Larry Hughes, and a few guys we looked up to. We were rocking a whole bunch of AND1. After we get through playing pickup, MJ looked at us like … ‘Why y’all got all this AND1 stuff on? I thought y’all was Nike guys.’ Me and D-Miles were like, ‘We wanna be Nike guys…but a contract ain’t happened.’ He was like, ‘Don’t even worry about it. Y’all gon’ be with us.’ We didn’t even know quite what that meant.’ Because Jordan Brand wasn’t what it was going to be. He just had the first years of it with Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Michael Finley … Then our agent Jeff Weschler was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, but Michael called up Nike and you guys are gonna be with him on some special team.’ We started getting flooded with the most gear you could imagine. Today they don’t give the same amount of gear they used to give. We got everything they made … Stuff that you wouldn’t wear, stuff that you have to give away because it was so much. We were literally in heaven.
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A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Apr 13, 2019 at 6:46pm PDT
What were favorite Jordans to play in?
D-Miles: Mine were the patent leather 11s … I watched Jordan my whole life, so when we had the opportunity to put them patent leathers on, I was just on superstar status. Nobody else in the league were really wearing these.
QR: We wasn’t those kids that were fortunate enough to have every pair of Jordans. My first pair I ever had came when I played AAU … My pops…the most expensive pair of shoes he was gonna buy me that were cool were Air Force 1s because they were $49.99 back then. My pops didn’t believe in buying Jordans that he knew I’m about to run through in two days … So for us to start getting Jordans? It was out of this world. Coming from Chicago and East St. Louis, being MJ fans, watching everything he did on WGN and public TV — for us, it was a dream. And every kid we knew from our hometowns were like, ‘I can’t believe y’all are on Team Jordan.’ And we could give all our friends, our family, our parents all the Jordan stuff they wanted … That was almost better than money to us at that point.
Do you still have a lot of your old Jordan PEs?
D-Miles: I just have a few. I left and went to Reebok, and I was under Allen Iverson’s line. Most of the Jordans I had, I gave them to these two kids. One was from Texas, and the other was from Memphis. My momma kinda built a rapport with they moms, and they was like me — young kids wearing a size 18 … So they didn’t have no options for shoes. So me and my mom shipped them out, I wanna say 40-50 pairs of shoes apiece. When my mom did it, all three moms were on the phone boo-hoo crying.
What’s your favorite PE?
QR: Awww, man. That’s hard for me to say … I was fortunate enough to play for teams that weren’t close to the Bulls colors. So a lot of my shoes were different. I think I would have to go with my Clippers, Knicks and Suns PEs … So I probably would go with the Knicks 2s or 5s. But then my favorite pair of shoes to play in — it didn’t really matter which color — were the Retro 13s. I have those is Phoenix and Orlando colors. The Phoenix ones I had different flavors. I had purple and white ones, I had orange and white ones, I had all-black with orange trim. Those 13s, were the most comfortable shoe for me to play in, because they’re wide and I got wide, flat feet.
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D-Miles: Mine are the ones I wore in that picture with Udonis Haslem. I was so used to seeing red and white shoes when I was with the Clippers. But I got to the Cavs, it was different colors. When they sent me those bright orange ones, I loved them. You don’t even know.
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A post shared by Darius Miles (@blackking.21) on Apr 2, 2019 at 6:18pm PDT
QR: I’m telling you — the orange did something! They looked superdifferent than any Jordan you’d ever seen. Back then, you’d never seen an orange Jordan.
You two appeared in a commercial for the Air Jordan 17. What comes to mind when you think of that shoot?
D-Miles: Spike Lee. We grew up on Jordan and all the Jordan commercials. When we heard Spike Lee was finna do it, when knew it was a big, big deal.
QR: We thought we was Hollywood, boy!
Writer’s note: The Air Jordan 17, crafted by African-American footwear designer Wilson Smith, drew inspiration from the “improvisational nature of jazz.” The 30-second, Spike Lee-directed spot, featured Miles and Richardson playing maestro on the court, and debuted a special remix the Gang Starr track “Jazz Thing,” which the hip-hop duo originally co-wrote with saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
D-Miles: It was an honor. A real, true blessing. Spike is such a legendary director, and it was with Jordan Brand.
QR: It was like, ‘We’re about to have our own Jordan commercial … We really have arrived.’ Me and my bro, together, in a commercial … We went to New York to do it. You get there, and it’s like, ‘Spike Lee is shooting it! … Marsssss is shooting it! This is epic.’ We had our own trailers. They got the gear laid out for us. That was the first time I thought, ‘I’m a star … We some stars up in here, boy!’ This was all new to us. Stuff that you dreamed about as a kid. But to actually live it, it was super dope.
D-Miles: Then to hear Spike Lee, when we first met him, say ‘D and Q.’ Like, ‘Oh, he knows us.’
And you can’t forget the Jump Men cover of Slam Kicks …
QR: I have a copy up in my office.
D-Miles: Back then, Kicks was big. There were other magazines that were bigger, but we were just happy to do anything with anybody who wanted to mess with us. We came straight from the streets, so we dressed a certain type of way. Of course, they were giving us drip, we put it on. We weren’t the typical people wearing that gear. We turned the jerseys backwards, do-rags on, hats cocked …
QR: I got a do-rag, with a headband on, hat to the back. I got a pinky ring on! We both got big ass chains on. We were Allen Iverson’s babies. We were A.I.’s lil bros. That was the culture. That was what was going on. That was part of why people took to us. We were them — kids. We were 18 and 19, playing in a grown man’s league, representing other 18- and 19-year-olds. We dressed like them and did things like they did. We were trying to get into Hollywood clubs. We were too young, couldn’t get in … Literally, we showed up to training camp with Super Soaker guns. Media day, the first day of training camp, and we have those big ass Super Soakers strapped over our shoulders. They looked at us like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ … We were having fun, for real. And the best part about it was we were on this adventure together. Doing things that we never could’ve dreamed of. We got to spend New Year’s at Shaquille O’Neal’s house. And it was crazy. Like a fucking movie. We’re at Shaq’s big ass crib in L.A. To kick it with Shaq and be around him was enough … But Shaq was really rocking with us. He was showing us a good time and embracing us. Like, this is Shaq!
Where did that style come from — especially the backwards jerseys?
D-Miles: Kriss Kross started it, but that was just hip-hop culture. We grew up in hip-hop culture. The trend had kinda died down, because Kriss Kross did it in the early ’90s. Nobody was really taking chances, especially during photo shoots, except for Allen Iverson. We were young. Didn’t really care what people thought about us. It’s real traditional when you do photo shoots. They tell you to put your hands on your hips, like you’re a superhero. Put one hand on your hip, hold the ball on the other side. I used to be like, ‘Nah … ’
What was your relationship like with MJ during his last few years in the league?
D-Miles: Once MJ came back to the league [in 2001], we’d already known him for six or seven years, and it was a blessing. I love when I see the picture of me standing on the court next to Michael Jordan. I got that in my house. Those moments, those games we played against him, I’ll cherish them forever. We were on a West Coast team, so we only played him two times a year. But those times we played them those last two seasons? It was a dream come true.
July 30, 2002: D-Miles, that’s when you got traded from the Clippers to the Cavaliers.
D-Miles: One of the worst days of my life. I ain’t wanna leave, or play with nobody else. I didn’t know how good I had it until I got traded. The crazy thing about it is when I did get traded, I was doing the movie The Perfect Score. I was all the way in Vancouver, when I heard the news like, ‘What?’ It wasn’t a good feeling. But I did understand the move. I loved Andre Miller. He led the league in assists on the worst team in the NBA. So I understand why the Clippers traded for him. But, I wanted to stay.
Writer’s note: The Clippers traded Miles and power forward Harold Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for point guard Andre Miller and shooting guard Bryant Stith.
QR: We were kids. We were having all this fun. And that was the first time it was like, ‘This is a business … This is real … This ain’t a game or haha fun.’ … I love Andre Miller to this day, but I didn’t want that trade to happen. I was upset. I was mad. I was hurt.
Can you pinpoint an NBA friendship quite like D-Miles and Q since you guys?
D-Miles: A lot of guys didn’t grow up together like we did. We were around each other when we didn’t have money. One of the bonds I do see that’s close to what me and Q got is Udonis Haslem and D-Wade. They’ve played so long together that they got that brotherly love like me and Q got. They changed that culture in Miami.
QR: They’ve been together for so long on the same team and same journey. And I don’t even count when D-Wade left. Let’s just throw that whole Chicago and Cleveland window out …
D-Miles: When did that happen!?!
QR: UD and D-Wade played their whole 15, 16 year careers together. They came in, got married, had families, brought kids up at the same time, have businesses together. They rebuilt that organization. But I’ve known Darius since he was in seventh grade, and I was in ninth grade. We got drafted together, played together and now 20 years later, we’re doing a podcast because we’re still tight like that.
How’s it feel to be reunited on the Knuckleheads podcast — and why was now the right time for it?
QR: The thing that makes the podcast is so dope, is it happened organically, almost accidentally. I did my story with The Players’ Tribune. He did his story with The Players’ Tribune. A third party was like, ‘Y’all should do something together.’ And D-Miles, he was originally opposed to the whole media thing. He was like, ‘I don’t want no microphones in my face.’ I’m moving into the media space, so I was open to it. We did a trial demo here on my patio, and it was cool.
D-Miles, is it weird being on the other side now — asking the questions instead of answering them?
D-Miles: It’s definitely weird. I’m not sure if I’d do too much more after this. Like Q said, I’m not big on microphones or cameras. I gotta feel comfortable to let my personality go. Kinda like how you see NBA players now. It’s hard for them to let themselves go, because they don’t want nobody to take what they say the wrong way, or their actions be misconstrued. So you kinda got your guard up. With the podcast, I can kinda let go, laugh, joke and not worry.
QR: We’re tryna spark a real conversation. We don’t feel like we’re going to interview this person, that person. We feel like we’re about to see what’s up with this person and that person.
Are there any players you really want to get on the podcast?
D-Miles: Michael Jordan.
QR: That’s the GOAT. That’s our unicorn. But we got a lot of other players already committed that we can’t really share right now. We have some really, really, really big and good names … for season two.
What do you think you two have meant to basketball, and the culture, in the past two decades?
D-Miles: We carved out our space. I think that’s why we get the love and the respect that we get now. It’s overwhelming, and I’m definitely thankful and blessed to even have that. I only played two years with the Clippers, but every time people see me, they associate me with being a Clipper. I think it’s dope.
QR: I’m just superhumbled … I appreciate all the love, respect and support we get, from people who rocked with the Clippers. And we also get a lot of people that talk to us about the fact that we had that little bitty part in Van Wilder. It’s unbelievable to me how many people acknowledge that … To still be able to do stuff with D twenty years later, and they still remember us? People still remember that celebration, and still rock with it. That’s really cool to me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.