The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

LeBron James again shows us his greatness, this time as a father Sports fanaticism shouldn’t blind us to the essence of family, love and fun

There’s a school of thought — well, foolish thought — that black fathers don’t spend enough time with their children, nor do they even care to be involved in the lives of their kids. That way of thinking is, of course, patently false.

In the aftermath of LeBron James playfully throwing down a dunk in his son’s layup line, there’s a similarly silly commentary:

James — a black father — is TOO involved in his kids’ lives.

It’s the kind of senseless debate that happens in the dog days of summer, when folks are clamoring for anything to break up the monotony of daily baseball coverage.

It’s also the kind of debate that happens when people are unable to differentiate between incessant media coverage and father-son time. Ironically enough, it’s the polarizing backlash to stories such as these that will only fuel more of these stories in the future.

I watched James’ son, Bronny, compete at the Nike NYBL Peach Jam in North Augusta, South Carolina, earlier this month. The gym was packed, as expected, and, as the days progressed, became increasingly star-studded.

As impressed as I was with Bronny’s court vision — some things are hereditary, not taught — I was more impressed by the family atmosphere surrounding the team.

There’s the moment where Bronny’s kid brother, Bryce, joins the team in a pregame huddle. Later, there’s a moment where James’ wife, Savannah, and his daughter, Zhuri, practically look like twins as they enjoy the game. Toward the end of the game, Zhuri switches viewpoints — from mom’s lap to atop the shoulders of her grandmother, Gloria.

Zhuri James watches the game at the Nike Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., atop the shoulders of her grandmother, Gloria.

Ken Makin

When you think about the initial two players of this great American story — LeBron and Gloria — and all of the expectations placed specifically on James, it’s remarkable what this family has been able to build.

Beyond that, it’s amazing that James has stayed true to who he is — basically, a big kid. That’s not a slight — it’s the ultimate compliment.

With all of the talk about his business savvy and potential status as the greatest of all time on the basketball floor, James is still in touch with his silly side. That’s what makes his recent “Taco Tuesday” posts so genuine, if not refreshingly quirky.

That’s the attitude that led to James punching a few dunks in the layup line.

If anything, James’ pregame dunks actually take pressure off of Bronny and his teammates. James has a unique perspective on unfair expectations, and if a few pregame dunks put the onus on him and not whether Bronny can live up to the James name, that’s proverbial dirt easily brushed off of his shoulders.

And then, there’s the weight of that name — LeBron James — which James admitted last summer he regretted passing down to Bronny:

“I still regret giving [Bronny] my name because of [basketball expectations],” James said during an episode of The Shop.

“When I was younger, I didn’t have a dad. So my whole thing was like, whenever I have a kid, not only is he going to be a junior, I’m gonna do everything that this man didn’t do.”

Sometimes, we get so caught up in our views of the media and sports fanaticism that we lose the essence of humanity — family, love, fellowship. From November to June, James is a basketball player. He’s spending his offseason not only being a dad, but a father figure. He’s imparting ideals on a group of young men that will impact them whether they play basketball professionally or not. It’s a team-based, loyalty-infused culture that has defined James’ existence — basketball and otherwise.

If you can’t respect that, to quote Jay-Z, your whole perspective is wack.

World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe helps continue Nipsey Hussle’s marathon Charismatic, defiant and independent, the U.S. women’s team is hip-hop

Just hours after the U.S. national team captured its second consecutive Women’s World Cup with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, forward Megan Rapinoe, winner of the Golden Ball for best player in the tournament, took to Instagram quoting Nipsey Hussle’s rallying cry:

“Ain’t really trip on the credit, I just paid all of my dues I just respected the game, now my name all in the news,” Rapinoe wrote. “Trippin’ on all of my moves, quote me on this, got a lot more to prove.”

The caption, from the Victory Lap standout “Hussle & Motivate,” eloquently summarized both the late rapper’s untapped future and the upward battle Rapinoe and her teammates continue to face as female athletes in a society that requires them to play for less than their worth.

The truth of the matter is the U.S. women’s national team is hip-hop. Their swagger? One-of-one. In a matter of weeks, Rapinoe, Alex Morgan & Co. became the international version of the 1980s Miami Hurricanes. They were bullies, lovable antagonists who walked with a bop and played with a peerless cockiness. They ran the score up and bathed in the tears of thin-skinned critics. They toasted their 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals to Crime Mob’s “Rock Yo Hips.” Rapinoe defiantly refused to visit the White House — even before winning the tournament.

Most importantly, though, the U.S. women did so without sacrificing what made them the most dominant soccer team in the world. And they did it understanding the battles for fair treatment that they face at home, which often are relegated to back-page news.

It’s why the lyrics Rapinoe quoted matter. And why it mattered that she was the one quoting them. Rapinoe is a face of social justice in sports, a hero to the LGBTQ community and one-half of sports’ most accomplished power couple, along with WNBA player Sue Bird (who came to her defense after President Donald Trump’s response to Rapinoe’s White House comment).

The World Cup champions are suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for appropriate compensation. The crowd in France was chanting, “Equal pay!” on Sunday after the team’s victory — a reminder of the reality that lay just beyond the euphoric accomplishment. Last week, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that the 2023 Women’s World Cup prize money would double from $30 million to $60 million. In comparison, the men’s prize pool sits at a gaudy $440 million for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. Rapinoe scoffed at the financial insult.

“It’s certainly not fair,” she said during a news conference on July 6. “I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step. I think we’re done with the ‘Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay?’ … Everyone is done with that. … Let’s get to the next point of what’s next, how do we support women’s federation and women’s programs around the world.”

Megan Rapinoe (right) kneels during the national anthem before a match between the United States and the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome on Sept. 18, 2016, in Atlanta. Rapinoe was the first white athlete and first woman to follow the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the anthem.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Rapinoe, too, will always be linked to exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. As the former Super Bowl signal-caller protested systemic oppression against black and brown men and women in America by kneeling for the national anthem in 2016, it was Rapinoe who became both the first white athlete and the first woman to follow his lead.

So when she decided to quote Hussle on Instagram, it felt authentic. Rapinoe saw portions of her marathon in Hussle’s.

Sports were an integral part of Nipsey’s life. He was a regular fixture courtside at Lakers games. (“Courtside Chamberlain throwback match my Rolex,” he flexed on “Blue Laces 2.”) During the final hours of his life, Nipsey was in Anaheim, California, celebrating Texas Tech’s Final Four berth with a family friend. The outpouring of support from athletes such as LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, James Harden and others after his death was massive, including Russell Westbrook’s exultant 20-20-20 triple-double, a nod to Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips.

Like luminaries such as Ice Cube and the late John Singleton, the businessman, philanthropist, activist and rapper affectionately dubbed “Neighborhood Nip,” brought South Central to the world’s doorstep. Hussle preached the value of integrity, and why maintaining it was vital for the upkeep of a (wo)man’s soul.

Rapper Nipsey Hussle attends the first annual YG and Friends Daytime Boogie Basketball Tournament at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 17, 2018.

Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

“It’s crazy to see the shift that’s happening just to raise good people that have a foundation of principle,” he said on Stephen Curry’s 5 Minutes From Home series. “You know, when I drop my daughter off every day, I drill her when I take her to school. … Like, what is integrity? Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. … It seems basic, but I want her to get older and look back on the things I thought were important.”

Rapinoe is just the latest to invoke Hussle’s memory — and the raw emotional wounds of his slaying on March 31. Recently released court documents revealed 515 pages of grand jury testimony, a considerable chunk of which dealt with Hussle’s final moments after he was allegedly ambushed and shot by Eric Holder. His daughter, Emani, recently graduated from elementary school. And BET posthumously honored Hussle with its Humanitarian Award last month.

On Sunday afternoon, YG, one of Hussle’s closest collaborators and friends, posted a picture on Instagram with 2017 NBA MVP Westbrook and a framed image of Hussle’s 2013 project Crenshaw. The caption was as heartbreaking as it was cryptic. “Where you at,” YG pleaded, “I need to talk 2 you foo.”

Another recent reminder of the man is “Perfect Ten,” the title track from DJ and producer Mustard’s new compilation album. It’s Hussle’s second record post-obit, following DJ Khaled’s “Higher,” and a glimpse into the state of mind Hussle was evolving toward. “Stacked every chip on myself, time to collect,” Nipsey boasted. Betting on himself wasn’t just financial literacy. Rather, it’s the spiritual currency Hussle applied to his everyday life. “All money in, just imagine what I gross back.”

The questions he strings together on “Ten” are more internal reflection than external validation. “Where your backbone, n—a, where your code at? / Where your down since day one real bros at? / Where them stories that you tellin’ unfold at? Where your heart, n—a? Where your soul at?”

Hussle knew the location of his soul. There’s honor in loyalty. In the company one keeps, and the morals one lives by. The graphic stories Hussle narrated were born and bred in South Central. They were for his people. But they were meant to be heard, embraced, and they were calls to action for neighborhoods far beyond Slauson and Crenshaw. Clearly, that resonated with Rapinoe.

Megan Rapinoe (second from right) and her U.S. teammates celebrate their 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in France on July 7. Rapinoe won the Golden Ball award given to the best player in the tournament and the Golden Boot as top scorer.

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

“For us, it’s not only leaving our sport in a better place [or] leaving it better for the young girls that will come after, but just in general,” Rapinoe said on Good Morning America in April. “But just inspiring women around the world to stand up for what they believe in.”

Rapinoe’s sentiment sounds familiar because it is. “That’s the only distinguishing quality from me and probably whoever else is going through this, went through this or is gonna go through this,” Hussle lamented in a widely circulated interview with radio personality Big Boy in January 2018. “[It’s] that I ain’t quit … I went through every emotion with trying to pursue what I’m doing. And I think that’s what gon’ separate whoever’s gonna try to go for something is that — you ain’t gonna quit. … You really gonna take the stance of ‘I’m gonna die behind what I’m getting at right here.’ ”

Perhaps that’s what Rapinoe saw in Hussle and what inspired her to bring him along during one of her proudest professional moments. For all of us, the marathon continues.

The ESPYS Collection Portraits of past and present stars set the stage for this year’s awards show, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET


Second-generation pro athletes are becoming a thing It’s not just Steph and Klay, it’s happening in so many sports

Last year, Justify won horse racing’s Triple Crown and retired undefeated. He is a descendant of previous Triple Crown winners, including Seattle Slew, Secretariat and War Admiral. And he is a four-legged reminder of a trend that’s racing through elite pro sports: Justify, like his two-legged counterparts, is a descendant of former stars in his sport.

More and more athletes are entering the family business: sports. If current trends continue, we may see favorite son or daughter categories in The ESPYS or publications that look back on the year in sports.

In April’s NFL draft, Nick Bosa joined his brother, Joey, and father, John, as football players who were first-round draft picks. Earlier this month, Bobby Witt Sr. and Jr. became the first father-and-son duo to be picked among the first three selections in the Major League Baseball draft when Bobby Jr. was selected second overall by the Kansas City Royals. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors have led their team to its fifth consecutive NBA Finals. Both men’s fathers enjoyed long NBA careers.

Now it could be that sports scientists will discover a jump shot gene or pass rushing in the DNA of second-generation athletes. Perhaps the ability to hit major league pitching can be passed down too. Maybe there is something innate and inheritable that has led to multiple generations of Boones in baseball, the Mannings in football and the Unsers in auto racing.

But we know that Nick Bosa, Curry, baseball’s Vlad Guerrero Jr. (son of Hall of Famer Vlad Sr.) and other second-generation athletes had fathers who could show them the ropes in their chosen profession, which is to say that big-time sports, like other endeavors in our country, favor young people whose families can help them succeed and show them how.

At the same time, we see fathers — and it is mainly fathers — who seek to groom their sons or daughters for sports stardom: the Williams sisters in tennis or the Ball brothers in basketball, for example.

During the various pro drafts, we see such fathers give a special look to their drafted children, a look that should be familiar to parents who have attended their kids’ college graduations. It’s a look that says, “This is the end.” It’s a look that says, “This is the beginning.” It’s a look that says, “We did it.”

Of course, as society changes, so do our families: Would-be male sports stars such as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are just two of many men inside and outside of sports who have been nurtured by strong, resourceful and resilient women, especially black women. And the NBA’s LeBron James continues to invent himself as a man, a father and a businessperson while withstanding the scrutiny and sometimes the scorn of the media. And, like legions of others outside of sports, he has done so without his biological father showing the way, a feat comparable to anything the Los Angeles Lakers forward pulls off on the basketball court.

The world of big-time sports appears so seductive and compelling that it is understandable when some fathers want a chance to see if they can endure the spotlight and not melt under its heat.

But fathers and others don’t have to resort to stunts such as catching a baseball in major league stands while holding a child (the stupid guy trick of sports fans) to get our attention. They can use sports and their ups and downs to give our children “the talk.” I’m talking about the one best delivered in a whispered but confident voice after our children lose a game. It is the one where the elders tell the children they can come back from defeat, they can withstand the end of the world and try again and again, that there can be triumph beyond numbers on the scoreboard.

Becoming good at delivering that talk might not land the elders on the sports highlight shows. But it could earn them a vote for most valuable dad, parent or guardian, at least in their households.

Happy Father’s Day.

Before Drake vs. Draymond, there was LeBron and Soulja Boy A hilarious 2008 feud started with DeShawn Stevenson and ended with Jay-Z

Drake, the Toronto native and Raptors fan, has spent the 2019 playoffs blurring the line between superfan and millionaire mascot by giving Raptors coach Nick Nurse massages on the sideline, talking trash to Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and trolling opposing fans with Instagram posts. His prominence as a celebrity “ambassador” is a watershed moment for the intersection of rap music and sports.

While this all seems pretty outrageous, it’s not unprecedented. Just 11 years ago, LeBron James and Jay-Z teamed up to take on … DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy in a bizarre, hilarious feud that’s a time capsule for pop culture in 2008.

After James had terrorized Washington Wizards to the tune of 32.7 points, 6.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs (besides a timely game-winner in Game 3 of the 2006 series), the Wizards needed any advantage they could get if they wanted to overthrow the King. That’s where Stevenson comes in. The shooting guard was in his eighth year by the time the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the third time in the first round, and he decided that getting into James’ head would be his best move.

There was no love lost between LeBron James (right) and DeShawn Stevenson (left) during the Cleveland Cavaliers-Washington Wizards 2008 playoff clash.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After a 101-99 regular-season win on March 13, 2008, Stevenson had this bit of trash talk for James: “He’s overrated. And you can say I said that.”

When the first-round playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Cavs and fifth-seeded Wizards was set, the Stevenson quote came back up. James responded by saying … he wasn’t going to respond. When asked, he said, “With DeShawn Stevenson, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like Jay-Z [responding to a negative comment] made by Soulja Boy. It doesn’t make sense to respond.”

A bit of context: Soulja Boy mastered the burgeoning world of social media by uploading his songs to MySpace and Napster to create a buzz for himself. His hit “Crank That” created an international dance craze and was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in fall 2007. The song was not a lyrical masterpiece: “Yeah, watch me crank that Robocop/ Super fresh, now watch me jock/Jocking on them haters, man.

Jay-Z, on the other hand, was, and still is, maybe the greatest rapper of all time, a lyrical wizard with multiple classic albums and a rap empire at his feet. He and James struck up a kinship in the player’s rookie year, partly because they shared the DNA of being heirs apparent to greatness: Jay-Z following in The Notorious B.I.G.’s footsteps after his death in 1997 and James being the next Michael Jordan after His Airness’ 2003 retirement. (There was also one other detail: Jay-Z was a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets and may or may not have wanted to court a certain all-time great to the team.) Regardless, James’ meaning was clear — he and Jay-Z were elite and Stevenson and Soulja Boy were one-hit wonders.

Stevenson took James’ comment as a chance to add some spice to the playoffs. When the series went back to Washington for Game 3, Soulja Boy was seated behind one of the baskets. (He may not have had the sauce of someone like Drake to get seats near the bench.) Throughout the game, Soulja Boy was waving towels and doing his Crank That dance. Even Washington’s Caron Butler took a moment to do the dance after a foul. Whatever mojo Soulja Boy offered worked that day, as the Wizards won 108-72.

It was a cute story that could have ended there. But Jay-Z must have felt the need to defend his buddy, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display. Jay-Z was in Oakland, California, performing when the James/Stevenson/Soulja Boy fracas was going down, and he played Oakland, California, legend Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” and shouted-out the MC. The crowd erupted, and Jay-Z got the idea to rap over the instrumental.

Soulja Boy (left) strikes his Superman pose before the Washington Wizards’ playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2008. The Wizards won 108-72.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“LeBron was special to him,” Too $hort said in 2017. “And ol’ boy [Stevenson] stepped on LeBron’s toes talking s— and Jay was like, I’m going to shut this down. And he probably saw the moment where the crowd reacted to the song and then that was on his mind.”

So Jay-Z asked Too $hort for the instrumental. “When Jay called, I was like, ‘It will be there in a couple of hours, man.’ I had no idea what he was going to do with it, but I am glad he did.”

The next night, as Wizards players were partying at the D.C. nightclub Love, the DJ debuted a Jay-Z song rapping over Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” instrumental: “Ask my n—- LeBron! We so big we ain’t gotta respond … Who the f— overrated?! If anything they underpaid him. Hatin that’s only gonna make him spend the night out of spite with the chick you’ve been datin’.” Without mentioning Stevenson or Soulja Boy, the intent was clear.

The series went six games, with the overrated James averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. (Stevenson averaged 12.3 points.) Stevenson would eventually find himself on the winning side three years later when his Dallas Mavericks (well, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks) bested James and the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals. While winning a championship is all good, hundreds of players have won rings. However, not many can say they were dissed by Jay-Z in a song. That moment defined Stevenson’s career almost as much as his championship.

Jay-Z (right) had a lot to rap about after DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James (left) overrated.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Warriors aren’t without their own contingent of rap stars who will be waving towels in Oracle Arena come Game 3. From E-40 to Too $hort and even MC Hammer, the Bay Area hip-hop scene is ready to lend support and maybe its own batch of troll-y Instagram posts.

Drake’s relationship with the Warriors seems a bit more amicable than that between the parties involved in the 2008 feud. But as the series progresses and the trash talk ramps up, we may yet see a magical musical moment in this NBA Finals. If it’s anything like Jay-Z’s effort, it could be the stuff of legend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

EPA/WARREN TODA SHUTTERSTOCK OUT

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

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

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

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

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Antoine Fuqua lets Muhammad Ali tell his own story in HBO’s ‘What’s My Name’ Documentary from LeBron’s production company examines the life of The Greatest entirely through boxing

A year before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali published an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story.

Although the former heavyweight champion boxer never got to tell his story on film, a new documentary from HBO Sports comes pretty close. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali is culled from at least 1,000 hours of video and audio footage and focuses on Ali’s boxing career, narrated with his own words. It will air May 14 on HBO.

What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, attended the screening, which took place on the 52nd anniversary of Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. The decision resulted in Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight title, which he later reclaimed two more times.

Fuqua touches upon Ali’s friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxer’s refusal to submit himself for the draft. But everything is presented through the lens of boxing, from one of Ali’s earliest punches — when, as a toddler, he knocked out one of his mother’s teeth — to his last in the ring, when he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Fuqua doesn’t address Ali’s personal relationships, nor the accusations of domestic violence or infidelity that come up in Jonathan Eig’s biography. The film takes its name from an exchange Ali had with opponent Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali was so angry he called Terrell an Uncle Tom and repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?!” at him during their subsequent fight, which Ali won by unanimous decision.

Fuqua is best known for his collaborations with Denzel Washington, including Training Day, The Equalizer and a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. The Pittsburgh native attended West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship and now uses boxing to stay in shape. We talked about his new documentary, Ali’s patriotism and the class divide in sports that are characterized by risk of traumatic brain injury.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.


Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises

What do you think of dictums like “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble”?

That’s just silly, and that’s an ignorant thing to say. Just because someone plays sports or does anything doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I think it’s shortsighted and a very immature way of thinking about an athlete. Athletes have an amazing platform, and a lot of them are highly intelligent people and they can be influential. Most of them have lived on both sides of the tracks, especially African American athletes, so there’s a pretty unique perspective on the world. When you come from not much and you make a lot, that’s a long journey and that’s two different worlds. So a lot of times there’s a very interesting, complex perspective that should be heard.

What were your conversations like with James and Carter about how to make an Ali documentary that would manage to stand out?

They were pretty clear. We all love him. We all love what he stood for, and the man he was. We all agreed to be honest about the journey, his journey. We all eventually came to the conclusion: It has to be from his voice. Ali has to tell his own story; avoid as much talking heads as possible unless it’s him talking. There’s been a lot of documentaries, some well-done documentaries, but there’s never been one where Ali’s telling his entire story. There were things that we discussed that we thought were important, which was ultimately let’s show his greatness, but let’s also show some of his weaknesses.

One of his weaknesses was he was chasing greatness, always. That’s not a weakness, but he was at a place where they just wanted him to stop fighting. But how do you say that to someone like Ali? He has that gene in him, and I think that’s what makes him so amazing. Like the scene when he has the torch in his hand and Parkinson’s is at its worst, he lifts the torch twice. He didn’t have to, he did, the crowd went crazy, he came down, he did it again. Every time I see the movie it makes me smile. I think that ultimately, collectively, we walked away going, ‘What a wonderful life. What an amazing, well-lived life.’

He never loses his charisma.

Never, never. He never blinked. And he stood by his principles. He lost a lot; he paid a heavy price for it. But he seemed cool as ice, always. Even when he was in the ring, leaning against the ropes, taking some beatings at times.

Those are so hard to watch.

Even though you knew the outcome, as we made the doc, there were days where I was sitting there sweating, like, ‘Come on, Ali.’ It was rough, but it was a beautiful journey because I was not disappointed in anything that I saw. We found footage that no one’s seen before. Nothing about his life was disappointing for me. It was all very inspiring, even the low points.

“When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.”

This documentary gives little snippets of his life, but always in relation to boxing. Why did you decide to frame this story this way?

Boxing is the thing that put him on world stage. The boxing is the thing that — when he’s beating the guys and, saying, ‘What’s my name?’ — to me it’s the metaphor of his life. Fighting is the metaphor of Muhammad Ali’s life. It doesn’t matter to dig into how many kids he has and who he’s married to or not married to, because that’s a given. I’d rather his children did a documentary about him. I think that belongs to them, it doesn’t belong to us.

What we need right now more than anything, I think, is leadership in athletes. What is your platform, and what are you going to do with it? He had a platform and he did greatness with it. He showed us how to stand by your principles: When things were wrong, to speak up about it. He showed us what it means to be physically beat down and get back up. I think that sometime that’s more important than getting into the headline gossip, which a lot of people want to get into, which you could do about anybody’s life that lives a full life, but why?

What do you consider to be gossip?

Gossip, some people get interested in who he was with and who he wasn’t with, who he married and who he didn’t marry, what woman he was with. I mean, come on. There’s enough of that. He was a handsome, beautiful, charming man — use your imagination. Women loved him, he loved women. Men wanted to hang around him.

I don’t think Muhammad Ali’s story’s done. Somebody can go and do whatever they want to do. In my dream, I hope Laila and his children will tell a version of him one day, for them. But it should be done by them. My goal was to show the man that I admire, love, and I’m inspired by every day.

One of the things that becomes apparent is how much power white members of the news media, especially Howard Cosell, had to shape the public’s perception of Ali. Whether it’s calling the Nation of Islam a “racist cult” or framing his two wins against Henry Cooper as tragedies. Was this a way to hand that agency back to him from the beginning, and not just once he’s famous?

We all deserve that. We all deserve to have an opportunity to tell our own stories. He’s not with us anymore, so the closest I can get to that is what I’ve done. I was just telling the story through his eyes as we shaped it and gathered the material. When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.

The way this film is structured makes Ali’s decline from Parkinson’s feel like it’s evident much earlier in his life. We associate Parkinson’s with the tremors, but his speech pattern started to slow down in his 30s.

That was intentional to show that journey, because that was another fight. In the end of the documentary, the goal was to show you all the Muhammad Ali fights in the ring, out of the ring, with the military, the government, the loss of Malcolm, his friends, things like that. Being a black man, just because you change your name, the world turns on you because you changed your name, like you don’t have a right to change your name. But also, the internal battles that come from the wars you’re in in the ring: the pounding, the beating, the fighting, the stress.

I’m not a doctor, so who’s to say it was just the punching that led to Parkinson’s? But it certainly, I would imagine, it had a lot to do with it. Then, imagine the stress he was under during that time period. Black people were getting shot down and hung by trees still. He had all the close friends around him getting murdered, like Malcolm, like Martin, Kennedy. His name was as big as theirs, so imagine walking around every day with a target on your back, and as loud as he was. And going against the military.

So the goal was to also find footage where you start to see that, and I’m happy you noticed that. He was in a lot of battles; it wasn’t just the ones in the ring. But he still came out as great, he still affects us, we’re still talking about him. Even when his voice was taken away, one of his biggest attributes, his charm, his voice, his physical abilities were taken away, right? It’s biblical in a way. That’s why at the end, when he lifts the torch twice [at the Atlanta Olympics], I love him even more, because he was still showing us, he was still speaking to us as loud as he always has. That’s ‘I’m still here, man. I’m still the greatest.’

When I went to Jordan and Israel and places like that, I saw T-shirts and stuff with Muhammad Ali around the world every day. His name was known around the world. It’s amazing. How can someone say, ‘Shut up and dribble?’ Is that person’s name known around the world? I don’t think so. Is that person inspiring anybody? I don’t think so. But LeBron James is. Muhammad Ali is.

Photo by Ken Regan © 2019 Muhammad Ali Enterprises

Do you think we can call Muhammad Ali a patriot?

Absolutely. A man goes to the Olympics, wins the gold medal for this country, comes home, goes to a diner just to get a burger, and they tell him, ‘We don’t serve n—–s here.’

And he says, “Well, I don’t eat them!”

The charm, right? And then they’re going to send him over to a country to go kill some people that never did that to him? A war that we didn’t even really know why we were there, to this day. … I’m very patriotic, I love this country, but that’s some bulls—. Let’s call it for what it is, that’s exactly what that was.

What did you think of the concussion crisis within the NFL before you started working on this documentary? Did your thoughts change in any way? Ali says over and over, he doesn’t want anybody to pity him. He was always reiterating how much boxing had given him. But it also eventually took away his voice.

I grew up playing football. My family and friends would go play for the Steelers. [Fuqua’s uncle John “Frenchy” Fuqua was a running back for the Steelers from 1970-76]. I box now every day; I been boxing for 20-something years. What I’m happy about is I think the NFL is taking serious steps, they have been, to try to help prevent damage. It’s a violent sport, there’s only so much you can do, but I think they’ve been handling it really well. The guys get hit, they’re taken out the game and they don’t get to go back in. They get tested right away. I think they seem to be showing great concern in trying to do something about it. But that’s all you can do is do the best you can do, make better helmets, have better protocols. But it’s a very violent sport, and if you ever played or been around, especially guys at that size, on that level, that’s like being hit by a Volkswagen. There’s only so much you can do.

I go to the fights. I’m friends with a lot of fighters. It’s the nature of the sport, to be punched in the head. Punched in the body. I watched the refs, and they do try to stop it as fast as they can if they see someone in trouble — most of the times, not always. But most of the times, everyone seems to be trying to get in there as fast as they can. Those sports are complicated and difficult because they’re violent sports. The nature of the sport is to hit each other.

Why are you so committed to boxing in your own life?

Boxing has a lot of metaphors. Boxing’s a great sport; it’s definitely chess, not checkers. People think it’s just swinging and punching, but that’s not boxing. The whole objective of boxing is get the other opponent to help you kick his a–. You trying to outsmart somebody. It’s not as primitive as people think it is. It’s a great sport to just learn some life skills, to know when to bomb and leave, when to catch your breath, when to stick and move, when to go for broke, how to get back up. And it challenges you on those things, so that’s what I love about it. It’s just you and the other guy. You don’t have help. It’s all about what you’re made of, what you have in you. So it challenges that, when your lungs are burning, your ribs are hurting, guy’s trying to punch you in the eye or jab a bit. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to do this?’

Economic stratification has a huge impact on defining who goes into football and boxing. If you can afford to put your kid into something that doesn’t carry the same risk for potential brain damage, you’re going to do it.

There’s certainly classism. … It’s just opportunity. If you’re poor living in a ghetto — I know when I was — you bounced the ball, you hit a ball with stick. You punched each other or you play football. There was no golf courses that were nearby, there was no lacrosse. There’s no polo.

But some of those sports, you don’t get camaraderie, you don’t learn how to play as a team player, you don’t physically always get challenged the same. There’s plus and minuses to it all. Classism will always be here, and the gladiators will always be the gladiators and some people will always be in the stands. It’s just the fact of life. It’s not going to ever change, ever. If they took away boxing and football … there’ll be another sport.

For some people, like myself, like LeBron, like Ali, Michael Jordan, sports was a way out. I got a scholarship to West Virginia. That was a way out, that was a way of getting out the streets, getting out the ghetto. But also, you love it. It was a place to go that felt safe. It was a place to go to create a family outside of your family, with your teammates. To get that feeling of success, to win, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.