From Larry Bird to Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics have suited up some of the best perimeter shooters in NBA history
I found it.
I found a perfect movie for 4/20. Well, almost.
It’s Space Jam (minus the treacly R. Kelly theme that doesn’t even match the tone of the movie).
But Space Jam is an accidental stoner classic. It’s a kids movie that just happens to be the perfect mix of hilarious, fantastical, riveting and disturbing when watched while one is stoned out of one’s gourd. The stakes revolve around slavery. Slavery! Imagine if its forthcoming sequel took that energy and made it intentional.
If Space Jam 2 possesses the hallmark phantasmagoria of its director, Terence Nance, it ought to leave sober viewers wondering if they’ve accidentally ingested shrooms. It will be smart. It will be subversive. It will be sublimely weird.
Which gives me great hope that besides being a multiple NBA-championship-winning philanthropist who builds schools and produces documentaries that shine a light on those least illuminated, LeBron James could end up producing and starring in the best stoner flick since The Big Lebowski. One without the asterisk that comes with incorporating a warbling paean to flight sung by the man who showed us just what a superhero Gayle King actually is.
LeBron has the range. And we deserve.
This week, I busied myself with a bit of public service journalism. I went on the hunt for the perfect black stoner flick and kept coming up disappointed. Friday’s casual violence doesn’t age so well. How High is similarly distasteful. Half Baked is innocuous silliness. Newlyweeds is a bit uneven. Where is The Dude who dropped out after three semesters at Howard? Where are the black analogues to Abbi and Ilana? Or Harold and Kumar? What’s the hip-hop album/film mashup that accomplishes the trippy satisfaction of Dark Side of Oz?
Maybe they don’t exist yet. They should.
But until that day comes, let’s revisit what makes Space Jam an excellent stoner film.
In Space Jam — which somehow required not one, not two, not three, but FOUR screenwriters — like an epic adaptation of Doctor Faustus, Michael Jordan has retired from basketball and has moved on to baseball. He has a bulldog named Charles. (As in Charles BARK-ley, get it?) At the same time Michael is making this career transition, a group of aliens from a place called Moron Mountain descends upon Cartoon World, which is the home of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil, the Road Runner, Lola Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, the weird rooster with the Southern accent and one elderly white granny. (Among elements that go unexplained: why the male-to-female ratio in Cartoon Land is so screwy.)
The Alien Moron Imperialists look like what might result if a person used CRISPR to splice together the DNA of a cockroach, a toucan and a guinea pig. They’re not that bright, but they have guns. They say things like, “You. All of you are now our prisoners.”
“We’re taking you to our theme park in outer space.”
“Where you will be our slaves and placed on display for the amusement of our paying customers.”
The aliens basically declare that they’re establishing a triangular trade between Moron Mountain, Earth and Cartoon Land, which seems to be located somewhere between the Earth’s crust and mantle, given that Jordan ends up there after he’s shrunken and swallowed into a putting green hole.
The Looney Tunes, faced with an existential crisis and no means to defend themselves (except maybe Elmer’s shotgun, which no one bothers to try shooting), hatch a deal with the aliens.
“Give us a chance to defend ourselves,” they request. With a basketball game.
OK, there is actually some defensible logic here. The aliens are about the size of guinea pigs and the Looney Tunes are … taller. The odds should be in their favor. Still, the only thing lying between Porky, Tasmanian Devil, Lola, Tweety, etc., and ending up like Sarah Baartman is … basketball? That’s a bit of a head-scratcher.
The aliens take the deal, then set about sucking the talent out of a bunch of NBA players for their own use, like hideous, squeaky-voiced precursors to the Armitages of Get Out. (Has Nance thought about casting Allison Williams in Space Jam 2? Because that could be a really nice way to complete this circle.)
So Muggsy Bogues, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing discover that they’ve become instantly terrible at basketball, and they have no idea why. And because “alien body snatchers leeching off black people’s talent so they can win the rights to enslave some other people” doesn’t exactly present itself as an obvious explanation, the rest of the NBA is shook. The other players start wearing gas masks to avoid the mysterious bacterial contagion that’s going around rendering NBA players useless.
The Looney Tunes find themselves facing newly beefed-up Morons who look suspiciously like the sort of big, black, ’roided-up threats that are more a figment of the racist imagination than a real thing. None of the imaginary characters in this film seems to care much about bodily agency — not even their own. Again, we’ve arrived at this point because the only thing standing between the Looney Tunes and slavery is a basketball game. So the Looney Tunes shrink Jordan and suck him down the hole of a putting green when he’s out playing golf with Larry Bird, the publicist of his new baseball team, and Bill Murray.
Can we just take a minute to recognize that Jordan has terrible friends in this movie? Not a one of them tries to save him.
With Jordan firmly ensconced in Looney Tunes Land, Bugs Bunny explains why he and his friends have sucked the greatest basketball player of all time into middle-earth: “You see, these aliens come from outer space and they want to make us slaves in their theme park. Eh, what do we care. They’re little. So then we challenge them to a basketball game. But then they show up and they ain’t so little. They’re HUGE! We need to beat these guys! ’Cause they’re talkin’ slavery! They’re gonna make us do stand-up comedy. The same jokes, every night, for all eternity. We’re gonna be locked up like wild animals and trotted out to perform for a bunch of low-brow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humor-challenged aliens. What I’m trying to say is, WE NEED YOUR HEEEEEEEEEEELP.”
This bit of exposition is accompanied by an image of Bugs Bunny attached to a ball and chain, shucking and jiving against his will across a stage. How did we miss all the racial subtext packed into this movie?
The ’roided-up body snatcher aliens, now known as the Monstars, are not so impressed by Jordan.
“You heard of the Dream Team?” one asks. “Well, we’re the Mean Team.”
And then they proceed to ball up Jordan like he doesn’t have bones, or ligaments, or a spinal cord, and dribble him around a two-dimensional basketball court.
Meanwhile, on the surface of Earth, a doctor is asking Ewing if he’s been experiencing impotence since he lost his talent. This movie is wild.
Anyway, once Jordan’s regained his natural, nonspherical shape, he sends Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to search his house for his lucky Carolina shorts and his shoes, because you can’t play basketball against a team of body-snatching aliens in golf spikes. That would be preposterous.
It turns out there’s a comically evil, cigar-smoking alien fat cat (voiced by Danny DeVito) who is forcing the Morons to steal the essences of black people, play this game against the Looney Tunes and win. (Way to let the Alien Imperialist Morons off the hook, writers. Turns out they were only following orders!)
Even with Jordan on their side, the Tune Squad is awful. But at halftime, down 66-20, all of the Tune Squad gets a hit of a mysterious bottle labeled “Michael’s Secret Stuff.” They start scoring and playing incredible defense to close the gap to 68-66. Jordan informs his teammates his “secret stuff” is actually just water, leading them to believe in themselves.
The game ends with the Tune Squad winning, 78-77. Jordan not only saves the Looney Tunes from slavery, he manages to repossess the talent of Bogues, Ewing and Barkley and return it. The fat cat goes ricocheting into outer space, Jordan goes back to basketball, and then in pipes the comically incongruous “I Believe I Can Fly.”
That’s it. That’s the (nearly) perfect 4/20 movie.
Time to roll another spliff.
1957 – Happy birthday, LeVar Burton. Burton is known for his role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television miniseries Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley. He also had a recurring role in the Star Trek: Next Generation series and movies and was host for more than 20 years of Reading Rainbow.
1958 – Happy birthday, Ice T. Tracy Marrow, better known as Ice T, is mostly celebrated for his rap songs concerning street life and violence. He has been an influential figure for the gangster rap genre. Highly controversial songs such as “Cop Killer” brought him much fame. He also pursued a career in acting, his most noteworthy character being that of a police officer on the show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
1970 – Joe Frazier knocks out Jimmy Ellis. Frazier, a 6-1 favorite, fought Ellis for the heavyweight title in front of more than 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. Ellis was knocked down at the end of the fourth round and trainer Angelo Dundee refused to let him go back out, making Frazier the undisputed heavyweight champion.
1992 – Magic Johnson’s jersey is retired. A tearful Johnson thanked Larry Bird and the fans at the Great Western Forum as his No. 32 jersey was retired by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.
— Pat Riley
Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.
Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.
But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.
Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.
Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.
“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”
Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.
Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.
“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”
— Julius “Dr. J” Erving
Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. “ ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”
Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”
By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.
“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”
Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”
Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”
“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas
Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”
All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”
Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”
But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.
Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”
Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”
Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”
“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”
A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.
The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”
As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.
The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”
“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”
McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”
The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”
“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving
Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.
“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”
The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.
But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”
For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”
Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.
“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”
By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”
Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”
He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.
“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”
Dear Black Athlete,
Don’t ever forget that you are a citizen—a part of a community
With being an athlete there comes privilege and responsibility—mainly the responsibility to never stop seeking to understand your fellow citizen and neighbor—more importantly, the ones who aren’t exactly like you.
This has been my journey as I’ve stepped into the world of mass incarceration in America and how this phenomenon has unfairly impacted black and brown men and families.
I’ve witnessed double standards and unchecked power in our home of the United States and I’m moved to act.
The American dream of freedom for all of its diverse citizens can only work if we, the people, work it! And as athletes, we know the process to achieving goals better than most.
Don’t be afraid to use your voice to challenge our elected leaders to rise.
But let us also remind ourselves to rise as we step outside of our comfort zone to see people. Really see them.
Be genuine, be thoughtful, be selfless and watch the momentum build as others join in.
We shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.
Jemele Hill sat down with the WNBA star to talk about why she cares so much about doing the right thing.
Jemele Hill: You’ve won championships on every continent but three, is that right?
Maya Moore: Yes, unfortunately.
That’s a nice not so humblebrag. [Laughs] You have four WNBA titles in seven seasons with the Lynx, obviously two college championships. You’ve been to the White House 50 times. [Laughs]
Something like that.
How do you think your success would be viewed if you were a man?
Hmm, if I was—wow. Goodness, I haven’t thought—
Serena Williams, for example, said that if she were a man she’d already be considered the greatest athlete ever.
Our society is still catching up to valuing what we do as females on the athletic field in a way that has as much respect and visibility as what the men have been doing for years. You think about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and some of those pioneers that are allowing LeBron and Steph and Kevin to do the things they’re doing now. So I’m not really ashamed of where I’m at in the history of women’s sports. Years from now, another young woman in my position doing what I’m doing is going to get that type of attention and respect.
You’ve chosen to use your platform and get involved in issues that are kind of tricky and thorny. In July 2016, you, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson chose to have a press conference to discuss the very serious issue of police brutality. What made you decide that was the moment?
It was a hard summer, 2016. We were really hurting in that moment when it was happening in our backyard of Minneapolis; the backyard of Seimone Augustus, who’s from Louisiana, and even the killing of the police down in Texas. It was all happening at the same time. So we just felt like we need to be more humans than athletes right now and to say something.
What was the backlash like?
The backlash wasn’t too crazy. We really tried to be thoughtful about respecting police. But we need everyone to rise. We need our leaders to continue to rise to end what seems preventable.
What was interesting was that Lindsay Whalen was involved. And for people who don’t know, she’s white. [Laughs]
Yes, on some days.
We don’t see a lot of white athletes who are visible when it comes to speaking out about racial issues and certainly not for something like police violence. In your locker room, what are the conversations about race like?
Lindsay loves her teammates. She has relationships with her teammates and attempts to know them. But she’s also a person who is ride or die. She’s down for her people and her family and her teammates.
Not just her, but Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart. There seems to be a different sense of solidarity between white and black athletes in the WNBA. We know you guys don’t make as much as male athletes, so in some respects you have even more to lose because you don’t have as much. So why do you think that level of fearlessness seems to exist among you?
I think there’s a pioneering, fighting kind of a spirit in the female athlete because, you know, we haven’t been raised on “All I have to do is play my sport and I’m going to have everything I want.” We’ve had to do extra and go above and beyond. And I think that builds a certain character in female athletes that gets shown in the best way when it comes to these social justice issues. It’s a natural extension of our experience, fighting for those eyeballs, for views, for attention. It’s the same thing; we’ve seen that cycle. We’ve seen the rhythm of the fight. I think the heart of the female athlete is so huge.
Did it ever cross your mind what you could potentially lose by doing this, be it sponsors, be it fans?
And still you proceeded.
I think it was just more about being thoughtful and being honest. That was part of the reason we didn’t have as much fear, because we were just being honest and kind of raw about being a citizen of the United States at that moment.
But we’re in a league that is trying to gain momentum. And so any time you say something that can be controversial, you’re risking losing fans. You’re risking even moving your league back. But at the end of the day, I think that fearlessness is why people love us.
For you, it didn’t just stop at the press conference. You have chosen criminal justice reform and prosecutorial misconduct as the issues that have some meaning for you. Why is that?
About 10 years ago, my extended family that I grew up with in Missouri introduced me to a man who had been wrongfully convicted. And that was kind of the first time I had really thought about prison or people in prison, our prison system. His name is Jonathan Irons. And I was just outraged. I said how in the world does this 16-year-old get this sentencing without any physical evidence? I stepped outside of my middle-class comfort zone that I was raised in to really think, “Oh, if I didn’t have my mom, if I didn’t have my family, if I was a young black man at this time growing up without a lot of money and resources, what would my life be like?”
There seems to be a social and political awakening among a lot of athletes these days. Where do you think that’s coming from?
I really think some of it has to do with exposure, because we have so much access to information. And you’re seeing more athletes understand as they’ve gotten older, maybe, “I was one decision, one family away from being that person. And I’m really not that much different than this person over here, and I need to say something. I need to do something. I have been blessed with so much. I have a platform. I have a voice. I have financial means.” It’s contagious when one person decides to speak up for someone that doesn’t have a voice. I think attacking some of the structural, systematic things in our justice system is the next level of all this momentum.
With all these conversations, do you feel enough attention is being paid to the specific, unique issues that black women face? Because we have the double burden, right? We have race on one side. We have gender on the other. And sometimes those intertwine. I often make the joke that on any given day I’m either told to go write for Cosmo or go back to Africa.
Yes, there’s always going to be a need to equip and empower black women. And I’m so grateful to be standing on the shoulders of so many strong black women who have come before. And some in my family. And I just couldn’t imagine what growing up would be like if I didn’t have them to look to. And the more you see a young black girl get an opportunity, you can see neighborhoods change when you equip and empower young black women.
Obviously with black women, the No. 1 word that comes to mind is strength,
but do you feel like we’re allowed to be vulnerable at all?
That’s a great point, because it’s hard. We have this uncomfortable tension with strength and vulnerability. And we shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.
Is living overseas as a black woman kind of isolating?
Sure. [Laughs] You don’t think about some of the basic things, whether that’s, you know, I’ve got to make sure my hair’s done before I go overseas because it’s going to be three, four months before I’m going to have the hair care I need. Even facial products or just certain foods or conversation you have where there’s kind of that understanding of where you’ve been, where you’re from. At the same time, I love getting to learn and dive into other cultures and finding those connections with other people, with other women.
I’m sure you’ve probably heard this from some fans: They just want Maya Moore to stick to sports. What’s your response to people who maybe don’t want to see you in this other lane?
Surprisingly, and I don’t know if it’s just me because I don’t listen to a lot of people [laughs] outside of the people I’m intentionally trying to be around, but I’ve heard more and more people say, “Maya, thank you. You’re giving us a voice. Like, we need this more.” I’m a person, I’m a citizen and an athlete.
Do you feel as if black athletes should bear a special burden? I hate to use the word “burden,” but “responsibility”? Do black athletes have an increased responsibility to use their platforms to speak out on issues that impact their community?
It shouldn’t be that way that more of the responsibility is on the black athlete, but it’s just part of how it is. Because our ancestors, our family members, our communities have had to deal with hardships and oppression. I feel that responsibility. The more I learn, the more I look back and the more I look around.
How do you want to be remembered as a person?
I just always like to take advantage of opportunities I have to cast life-giving visions. I think that is something I’ve been the beneficiary of with great coaches like Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve on the Lynx right now. You need people to give you beautiful visions to run after. I get opportunities because of my platform to paint visions of “This is how good we can be.” That’s really what’s exciting me now and is going to last throughout my career.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!
As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”
For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.
Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”
The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.
Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.
Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?
Bill Russell, Boston Celtics
Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds
Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.
Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers
Line: 12 points
Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.
Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors
Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds
Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals
Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists
Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).
Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists
In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks
Line: 38 points
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.
Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers
Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds
Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.
Bernard King, Utah Jazz
Line: 7 points
Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
Line: 28 points
Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.
Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals
Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.
Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks
Line: 7 points, 2 blocks
Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)
Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)
These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.
Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks
Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds
Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks
Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.
Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls
Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals
While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.
David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds
What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks
Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.
Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic
Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)
Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics
Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)
The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.
Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.
Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons
Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds
Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 0 points, 1 rebound
Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds
This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.
Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers
Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists
Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.
Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic
Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds
An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.
Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers
Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists
It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.
Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors
Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals
By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds
The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals
Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Line: 29 points, 10 assists
As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.
Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics
Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics
Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)
In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)
Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)
CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.
Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets
Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists
Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds
Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)
Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists
Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists
It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists
Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds
This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks
Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds
With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds
The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.
Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field by Washington State University professor David J. Leonard shines a light on whiteness in sports culture and the ways in which white athletes are characterized compared with black athletes. Leonard wrote an adaptation from his book, released in July, for The Undefeated.
Playing While White: Privilege and Power on and off the Field explores the ways that white athletes are profiled as intelligent leaders, hard workers, underdogs and role models.
Exploring a spectrum of athletes from Tom Brady to Johnny Manziel, several teams, including Wisconsin basketball and the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as extreme sports, NASCAR and lacrosse, I look at the ways whiteness is imagined within America’s sporting cultures.
America’s sporting fields are not postracial promised lands; they are not places where race doesn’t matter because the only thing that counts is whether you can score touchdowns or make buckets. Sports is not the “colorblind mecca” that we are routinely promised each and every weekend.
Sports, like America itself, is a place where race matters. While writing about the NBA, USC professor Todd Boyd makes this clear, writing that sports “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse.”
It is a place where anti-black racism is ubiquitous, from the press box to the coach’s office, from the stands to the White House. It is also a place where the privileges of whiteness are commonplace.
After my book was published, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich highlighted the nature of white privilege, or what it means to be #PlayingWhileWhite inside and outside the sporting arena.
“It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash,” Popovich said during a recent news conference. “You’ve got that kind of a lead, yes, because you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically rare. And they’ve been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”
The power of whiteness can be seen in the celebration of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and countless white athletes as leaders and role models on and off the field. Praised as disciplined, hardworking and humble, while their black peers are consistently depicted as either “ungrateful millionaires” or “natural athletes,” the power of race can be seen in the descriptors afforded different athletes.
To be a white athlete is to be a scrappy and gritty player, whose motor never stops, whose “drive never relents” and whose determination is unmatched. To be a white athlete is to “play the right way,” to be unselfish, to be without ego and to always put winning and team first and foremost. These sorts of racially stratified descriptors are common in the sports media, from coaches and general managers, and from fans alike. As are the consistent attribution of hard work and intelligence to white athletes whose IQs, work ethic and intangibles are the source of constant celebration. To be a white athlete is to be cerebral, a student of the game, a throwback to a different era.
The power of whiteness is equally evident in the trash talk of John Stockton, Larry Bird, Brady and Manziel. Amid widespread nostalgia for greater sportsmanship and respect for the game, whereupon hip-hop and black athletes are blamed for the intrusion of toxic values, the trash-talking of white athletes is either ignored or celebrated as evidence of their passion for the game and competitiveness.
Brady is what #PlayingWhileWhite looks like inside and outside of sports. Despite coming from immense privilege and opportunity, earning a scholarship to the University of Michigan and being drafted into the NFL, Brady has been recast as an underdog, who through hard work, intelligence, dedication and unselfishness has become the league’s greatest quarterback. He’s a winner and a leader. Yet he also is a victim of being underestimated, and of those who “falsely” accused him of cheating. The story of Brady is the story of whiteness, of advantages and systematically produced opportunities.
White privilege is also the celebration of Bill Belichick’s hoodie as African-American youths are seen as criminals and “thugs” for their similar clothing choices. It is “Gronk being Gronk,” while any number of black athletes are denounced as selfish and out of control.
White privilege is the NASCAR CEO endorsing Donald Trump, while its fans historically waved the Confederate flag, all while it threatens consequences to anyone who protests during the national anthem.
White privilege is fights in hockey, among NASCAR pit crews and in baseball being recast as tradition, as fun and as part of the game, while the shoving matches in the NBA prompt national panics.
White privilege is silence about drug use in extreme sports and in those white-dominated collegiate sports amid headlines about NFL and NBA marijuana arrests and a war on drugs waged in black and Latino communities.
To #PlayWhileWhite is to be seen as smart, scrappy, determined and a leader. #PlayingWhileWhite is to win, to be celebrated in victory, redeemed in defeat, lifted up when down and sympathized with by others as a real or imagined victim. It is to be innocent and a repository of excuses for failure. It is being empowered to be silent; it is being seen as a person and not just as an athlete, as a commodity, as someone who dunks or makes spectacular catches. And that privilege is bigger than any contract, any commercial and any award, one that extends beyond the playing field.
Want to feel nostalgic? Great. Better yet, want to feel old? Twenty-five years ago today, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team won Olympic gold. Canonized as “The Dream Team,” the squad curb-stomped an entire world of competition, and its international impact is eternal.
The Dream Team opened the NBA’s door into China — and the world’s love affair with the game of basketball. Their Olympic tuneups weren’t as much games as they were red carpet ceremonies as they laughed, galloped and, in Toni Kukoc’s case, smothered the life out of opponents, beating them by 44.3 points per game — second only to the 53.2-point margin of the 1956 squad anchored by Bill Russell. The Dream Team’s song is one to which the entire world knows the lyrics — thanks to the documentaries, features and books in the quarter-century since their summer excursion. But even a crew with some of the game’s most iconic names — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — isn’t immune to the “what if” game. It makes for a psychedelic voyage into a parallel universe.
What if Team USA had taken gold in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea?
This is, by far, the most important question involving The Dream Team. America winning bronze in the ’88 Games was a watershed moment. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 82-76 in the semifinals (there’s a Russia/America-beating-us-at-our-own-game joke that will not be told right now). Up until 1988, only collegiate players were allowed in Olympic play. That talk soon shifted. “Personally, I would like more of a chance to compete,” Team USA and then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson said. “I’m also an advocate of professionals playing in the Olympics.”
Not everyone was for the change. Bill Wall, executive director of the United States Amateur Basketball Association, touched on philosophical issues: “Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. In Munich, on April 7, 1989, FIBA voted 56-13 to allow pro players to participate.
Many, like Boris Stankovic, FIBA’s secretary general, saw it as Olympic basketball’s “triumphant entry into the 21st century.” Stankovic was a chief proponent of allowing NBA players access, as they were the only professionals barred worldwide. One of its most vocal critics, however, turned out to be the United States Amateur Basketball Association, which took the stance that pro players’ involvement eliminated its opportunity to participate.
So, did America’s bronze medal showing in the ’88 Games lead directly to the introduction of NBA players? Perhaps not 100 percent, but it undeniably aided a process already in motion. Put it this way: If anything defines Big Sean’s Last night I took an L, but tonight I bounce back, it’s Team USA basketball 1988-92. It’s also fair to say that if America had won gold in 1988, the push for NBA stars may never have happened.
NBA players in the Olympics are the norm these days, but in the immediate aftermath of the decision, the desire to play was slightly better than 50-50. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone didn’t hide their excitement. “[I’d] go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” Malone said. But a 1989 poll revealed only 58 percent of NBA players would play if afforded the opportunity. The biggest one to say no? Jordan. Which brings us to the next point …
What if Michael Jordan had stuck to his word and not played in the 1992 Olympics?
Let’s get the elephant out of the room. The Isiah Thomas/Jordan factor was a real issue — a beef with origins in the 1985 All-Star Game, known in hoops circles as the “freeze-out game.” How do we know Jordan didn’t want anything to do with Thomas as a teammate? He said it himself. “That was one of the stipulations put to me [on the team] — that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” he said in a 2012 Dream Team documentary. The Thomas exclusion remains a thrilling subplot of ’90s basketball because of how the selection committee did whatever it had to do to get Jordan while sacrificing Thomas.
The Detroit Pistons’ floor general wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected. The Olympic selection committee began choosing players shortly after the 1991 playoffs ended. It was in those same playoffs that the Pistons, swept by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, infamously walked off the court before time expired in Game 4. Thomas was seen as the linchpin in one of the most infamous examples of pettiness in sports history. But even with Thomas on the outside looking in, Jordan still wasn’t a lock. Peep the timeline:
April 1989 — Jordan says he’s not interested in playing in the Olympics again (he won gold in 1984). The thought of giving up another summer didn’t appeal to him.
May 1991 — In one of the more revealing yet often forgotten interviews of his career, the ’91 MVP once again states his hesitation to Pat Riley. The season was long enough, and adding the Olympics would only shorten recovery time. But he doesn’t slam the casket shut either. “The only reason that I would wanna go is,” he says, only semi-joking, “if we feel that we certainly can’t win with the team we put out there.”
July 30, 1991 — Agent David Falk denies that both of his clients, Jordan and Patrick Ewing, are undecided about what to do the next summer.
Aug. 1, 1991 — Playing in his first competitive golf tournament at the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jordan seemingly deadens any hope of Olympic dreams. “There are a lot of professionals who want to play and, being that there are a lot of professionals that haven’t played — and I’ve played — I don’t mind giving the other guys an opportunity,” he says. “Right now it’s a closed door for me.” For the golf aficionados wondering, he shot an 85 that day.
Aug. 10, 1991 — “I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson says. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it. But so far he hasn’t changed his mind.”
Aug. 25, 1991 — Few remember the attacks on Jordan’s patriotism because of his reluctance to play in the Olympics. Three weeks after his statement about sitting out, Jordan reconsiders, promising to make the decision in a few days but saying it would be his and his alone. “Not one forced on me by what somebody else says or wants,” he said.
Sept. 4, 1991 — Thomas says if he’s not invited to the ’92 Games later that month he will not blame Jordan. “While I cannot speak for Michael,” Thomas says, “I can say that such a feud does not exist.”
Sept. 24, 1991 — The selection committee releases the names of 10 players invited to form the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Ewing, Johnson, Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and, yes, Jordan. Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee over Thomas’ snub, calling the omission “ridiculous.” As for Jordan’s response? “If I had anything to do with the selection, I would’ve selected my mother and my sister. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Riiiight.
March 18, 1992 — By now, Jordan is openly stating he wants to play. But not until the money ceases looking funny. Jordan’s camp was unhappy about marketing rights — in particular, the official Olympic T-shirt that bore semblances of all team members. He had no issue with USA Basketball, a nonprofit organization, making money. He did, however, have beef with the NBA making coin. It was a subtle but undeniable example of what The New York Times at the time called a “deteriorating relationship with the NBA over the issue.” Jordan was adamant that money wasn’t the motivation for holding out. However, “This is a business,” he says. “This is what happens when you let professional players in.”
March 20, 1992 — Turns out that headache lasts only 48 hours. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, confirms that a compromise will be reached, and Jordan will be in Barcelona, Spain, that summer. USA Basketball had secured the face it so desperately coveted. Without Jordan, Team USA likely still wins gold. But it begs the question, is the NBA the global international force it is now if Jordan stayed stateside in the summer of 1992?
What if Shaquille O’Neal had been chosen over Christian Laettner as the Dream Team’s college player?
Love him or hate him — and many did both — Laettner’s star power was undeniable heading into the Summer Games. His resume at Duke was drunk with achievement: back-to-back national championships in ’91 and ’92, a three-time All-American, Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year in ’92. Combine all that with one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history, and Laettner’s stock was sky-high. Surrounded by elite talent that trumped his, it’s beyond understandable why he barely got much tick in the ’92 Games. That said, if you ever want to win a bar bet, ask who averaged the fewest points on the Dream Team. Chances are most will say Laettner (4.8), who went on to have a solid NBA career, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over 13 seasons. The correct answer, though, is Stockton (2.8), as the future Hall of Famer missed the first four games with a broken leg.
But let’s keep it a buck. This is Shaq we’re talking about. In 1992, the feeling was post-up centers would have difficulties in the trapezoid-shaped lane of the international game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s violent to envision what a 20-year-old O’Neal would have done to the likes of Angola or Germany. Seriously, picture this: Johnson leading the break, with Jordan and Pippen on the wings and a young, nimble 20-year-old O’Neal as the trailer:
It’s fun to imagine young O’Neal running fast breaks in Barcelona, because we already know how destructively poetic young O’Neal was running fast breaks in Orlando with Penny Hardaway. O’Neal would later receive his own gold medal at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, but the four-time NBA champion didn’t like his ’92 omission. “I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in 2012. “But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player. Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was.”
What if Dominique Wilkins never ruptured his Achilles?
The Original ATLien was one of the more entertaining and beloved players in the ’80s and into the ’90s. His 47 points in Game 7 in Boston Garden vs. Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988 remains one of the all-time great playoff performances (despite being in a loss). He won two dunk contests, in 1985 and 1990. Even Jordan admits Wilkins was robbed in 1988 when he lost in Chicago. “I probably would’ve given it to [Dominique],” Jordan said years later. “But being that it was on my turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Wilkins is also one of five non-centers in NBA history to average at least 26 points for a decade — the other four being Jerry West, Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James. In layman’s terms, Wilkins was that deal. The issue with Wilkins’ legacy, however, is what plagues Chris Paul today — his teams never advanced past the second round. But by the start of 1992, there seemed to be momentum building for Wilkins to become the 11th professional player to be added to the Dream Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon against the Philadelphia 76ers in January 1992, ending his season and whatever shot he had at making the Olympic squad. At the time of his injury, he was putting up 28.1 points per night.
How the story played out: Portland’s Clyde Drexler was announced as the final NBA player to make the squad in May 1992. Wilkins eventually played on the second iteration of the Dream Team two years later, a dominant squad in its own right. But we’re all left to wonder how differently Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career might have been remembered. What an acrobatic light show the fast break of Johnson, Jordan and “The Human Highlight Reel” would’ve produced in Barcelona! It’s the second time we missed out on a Magic and Dominique tag team — the Los Angeles Lakers had the chance to select Wilkins No. 1 overall in the 1982 draft, opting instead for James Worthy (a selection that worked out extremely well for the Lakers in the ’80s).
What if Magic Johnson had been unable to play?
For context, only 263 days had passed between Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV (Nov. 7, 1991) and Team USA’s first Olympic game (July 26, 1992). In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, America began to emotionally distance itself from Johnson. Advertisers and marketing agencies ceased using him in their campaigns. How sick was he? Would he wither away in front of our eyes? And should he even be allowed to play basketball? The debate became one of the most polarizing of its day.
“If Magic Johnson is prohibited from participating in the Olympics,” a New York Times response to the editor ran in February 1992, “then the accepted risk factor for all sports should be re-evaluated.”
“Americans have always regarded our Olympic athletes as role models for our boys and girls, which Magic is not,” another stated. “Let him use his energies and money setting up a trust fund of a few million dollars to pay the medical bills of the women he may have infected.”
On Feb. 3, 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that athletes with HIV were eligible to participate. Later that same week, Johnson not only participated in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, but he also took home MVP honors with 25 points, nine assists and a spine-tingling 3-pointer that has since transcended sports. Johnson, of course, went on to become one of the faces of The Dream Team and a beloved executive, broadcaster and ambassador of the league.
But what if history were different, and the IOC had ruled differently? Not only would that have been tragically inhumane, but athletes with HIV being ruled ineligible means no Magic Johnson. No Magic Johnson means no Larry Bird and no Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan means no Dream Team. One decision quite literally changed the world.