Exploring the intersection of sports and criminal justice reform Maya Moore, Michael Rubin discuss how athletes are effecting change

WASHINGTON — The time for national criminal justice reform is now and the opportunity for athletes to effect that change has never been greater.

That was the primary takeaway from a discussion Tuesday centered on criminal justice reform and sports, held in Washington, D.C. The conversation, hosted by The Undefeated and The Marshall Project, featured WNBA superstar Maya Moore, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin and The Undefeated columnist Clinton Yates.

During a two-hour discussion, the group covered an array of topics ranging from prosecutorial misconduct to the impact of athlete platforms.

Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after being present in the courtroom where his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation. Rubin said the moment changed his life.

“I watched a probation officer recommend a reduced sentence. I watched a district attorney recommend a reduced sentence. Then I watched a judge send him to jail for two to four years for not committing a crime. I was shook to my core,” Rubin said.

In January, Rubin and Mill launched the Reform Alliance along with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Brooklyn Nets co-owner Clara Wu Tsai and rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z. The initiative was started with a mission to overhaul the probation and parole system. The group has a goal of freeing at least 1 million people caught up in the system within the next five years.

During the discussion, Rubin said he believes that Mill would still be in prison today if it weren’t for so many athletes who were front and center pushing for his release. He is channeling that approach for the Reform Alliance, which will aim to leverage the likeness and following of athletes and celebrities to tell the “crazy” stories of everyday citizens.“What we’re going to do with the Reform Alliance is we’re going to have big celebrities, athletes and influencers tell everyday stories,” Rubin said. “We’re trying to find the person you’ve never heard of, find a crazy story and then have people tell the story on social media.”

Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael G. Rubin sits on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Rubin was propelled into criminal justice reform after his close friend, rapper Meek Mill, was sentenced to two to four years in prison when a judge ruled he had violated his probation.

Jeff DiNicola

Rubin’s Alliance Reform partner Jay-Z made waves last month when he signed a multiyear partnership with the NFL to produce its Super Bowl halftime show and amplify the league’s social justice initiatives. Rubin strongly defended Jay-Z’s motives for partnering with the NFL, which have been criticized by some as monetizing a movement largely propelled by Colin Kaepernick’s protests.

“This is a guy who does not care about money, he cares about doing right,” Rubin said about Jay-Z. “The reason he got involved with the NFL is because he felt from the inside he could make a real difference. Anybody who is questioning Jay-Z, they don’t know what he’s about.”

Moore, an example of an athlete attempting to use her platform to enact change in the criminal justice system, shook up basketball when she announced in February that she would sit out the WNBA season. Moore has only spoken publicly on a handful of occasions since her announcement, focusing her year away from basketball on her family and her ministry work. She’s also dedicated much of her time to the criminal case of Jonathan Irons, who has been incarcerated since 1997 after being found guilty of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon and given a 50-year sentence. Moore, who met Irons through her family when she was 18, believes Irons was wrongly convicted.

Moore said the deeper she got into Irons’ case, the more she learned about the infrastructure of the criminal justice system and how it operates, giving her added motivation to educate communities about the problems pertaining to social justice occurring in their neighborhoods.

“Through getting to know Jonathan and his story, the world of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration and racial equality have become so real to me. Part of what I want to do when I tell people about Jonathan’s story is not just look at this story but look at the stories in your community.”

Four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore speaks on a panel discussing the intersection of criminal justice and sports on Sept. 17 at The Google Space in Washington D.C. Moore shook up the basketball world when she announced in February that she would sit out the 2019 WNBA season.

Jeff DiNicola

When asked by a member of the audience to detail why she didn’t play in the WNBA this year, Moore said a large part of her decision was to ensure that she would be available to see Irons’ legal proceedings through. Irons’ evidentiary hearing to potentially reopen his case — which Moore plans to attend, according to a report by The Associated Press — is on Oct. 9 in Missouri. For context, the WNBA playoffs, which began last week, could run as late as Oct. 10.

“It’s extremely hard to be engaged in these issues and be at the top of your craft,” Moore said. “I couldn’t imagine what this year would look like for me if I was fully invested in my team and trying to bring Jonathan home and raise awareness for some of these causes.”

Moore emphasized that Irons’ story is just one of many that require attention and education.

“This is a real-life story. There are more Jonathans out there.”

How Meek Mill opened Sixers owner Mike Rubin’s — and so many others’— eyes to a broken criminal justice system From counted out to counted on: The rapper’s new freedom comes with reality’s nightmare — and a chance to change lives

And why I’m rappin’ like I got somethin’ to prove…

— Meek Mill, 2017’s “1942 Flows


Meek Mill told him. Meek made clear the harsh realities of the criminal justice system. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin only wishes he had believed Meek sooner.

But now of course, Rubin — billionaire entrepreneur and minority owner of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, as well as the Sixers — has entered the pop cultural lexicon because of his close friendship with the Philadelphia MC born Robert Rimeek Williams. The two met while sitting courtside at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City.

But 48 hours before the Sixers’ season officially ended with a 114-112 Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal loss in Boston, Rubin leaned forward over a round table in the Director’s Lounge at Wells Fargo Center. It was an hour before Game 4’s tipoff and VIPs maneuvered, ordering specialty cocktails.

But Mike Rubin is thinking back to conversations he and Meek had about the polarity of their realities. “Meek used to always say to me, ‘There’s two Americas.” I’d be like, ‘Dude, there’s one America.’ He was right,” Rubin says. “I was wrong. There’s America, and then there’s black America. I didn’t agree with him, but he proved to be right.”


Meek Mill’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, who represented Bill Cosby before removing himself from that case, knew something was off when he entered the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Genece E. Brinkley. Everyone was nervous, especially Meek. McMonagle saw six sheriff’s deputies. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

“That told me she’d made her mind up, independent of any argument she was about to hear,” McMonagle says from his 19th-floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. It’s at “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive” neighborhood, essentially an alternate universe away from the North Philly blocks that cultivated Meek. “And obviously once you heard the sentence, it was like a punch in the throat.” On Nov. 6, 2017, Meek Mill was sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on a probation violation. Dirt bike riding (popping wheelies) was involved.

An entire courtroom was in shock. Meek immediately began removing his jewelry. For McMonagle, it was the first time in his 33 years of practicing law that he, the district attorney and the probation department were all on the same page — and the judge refused to accept the will of the parties. The case sparked national headlines and inspired rallies and the hashtag #FREEMEEK, simultaneously providing yet another glimpse into a criminal justice system that had haunted Meek since he was 19 — and the community from which he comes for far longer.

“They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”Meek Mill

During his time in the belly of the beast, Meek became larger than just a cult-y musical icon in his hometown of Philadelphia. He became a local sports Yoda. His 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” had long been revered in hip-hop circles for its energy, fearlessness and unabashedness. So it made sense that the Eagles adopted the record as their theme song en route to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Likewise, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz all visited Meek in prison — as the Sixers made it as close to the NBA Conference finals as they have since Allen Iverson’s apex. James Harden visited Meek as well. Julius Erving, Kevin Hart and several Eagles players showed up at rallies and lent their voices to the cause of securing Meek’s release, and to the larger cause at hand.

But neither money nor celebrity shielded Meek. In many ways, it seemed to make him more of a target. “I would’ve never discussed [the criminal justice system] with my daughter before,” says Mike Rubin, the sincerity in his voice impossible to ignore. “We got in the car and Meek told me a really scary story about how he grew up that I told my daughter last night. She couldn’t believe it. For me, it was eye-opening. Sometimes … you have moments in life that change your perspective.”

Last November changed Rubin’s view of life in America. He says he’s dedicating much of his focus and energy moving forward — and not just with Meek — to addressing what he calls “a completely broken system.”

Meek has been locked up several times before. As he said from the stage in a Tidal One-of-One conversation with Angie Martinez, “I just turned 31; I’ve been on probation since I was 19.”

Some of these arrests were perhaps warranted. But the root of the charges date back to 2007 when a member of Philly’s Narcotics Field Unit claimed Meek sold crack to an informant. Per Meek’s cousins, who were with him at the time, the arrest was abominable. “It was like three cops — two of them had his feet, and one of them had his arms,” Rasson Parker told Rolling Stone this year. “They basically used his head as a battering ram [to break through the door].”

Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Meek met prison’s revolving door in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2016, he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for traveling without permission, forced to wear an ankle monitor, banned from recording music or traveling outside of Philadelphia. Others times he was violated for things like an altercation he got into after refusing to take a picture with a St. Louis airport employee. The charges varied, but there was one constant: Every probation violation he had was brought by Judge Brinkley, who is black. Her interest in him has been consistent.

Once inside, because of his celebrity status, Meek was placed in a mental health ward instead of in the larger general population of the prison. Incarcerated essentially for participating in a fight he didn’t start, and for popping wheelies on city streets, Meek was living beside people who smeared their own feces on walls. Per McMonagle, early on, Meek entered a prison meeting room appearing disheveled. “I thought while I was in there,” Meek told McMonagle, “that I had gone insane and didn’t know it.”

Even with one gold and two platinum albums, Meek remains rap’s quintessential underdog. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. “I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he says en route to his conversation with Martinez. “Anytime people went against me, doubted me or actually offended me, it gave me the energy to go harder and win. I always had that drive growing up.” Meek played basketball growing up — but you can see why sports teams would love his energy.

Meek began his rap career street battling. Berks Street in North Philly was his first stage. From there, he created a steady barrage of mixtapes, starting with 2008’s Flamers. He signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, and to Roc Nation for management a year later, but the last three years of his career in particular have been a roller coaster. There was a high-profile beef with Drake, a high-profile relationship and breakup with Nicki Minaj. And now Meek has emerged — with help from his lawyers, from Mike Rubin and from the community surrounding him — on the other side of his recent prison stint as a new ideogram for the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform.’

Part of the mantra of his critically acclaimed 2017 Wins & Losses album is that growing up in the ghetto teaches you to cherish the wins and learn from the losses. “[It’s] beautiful,” says Meek. “I come from poverty, living without barely anything to my name, to making money and being able to take care of my family and travel the world. … I always reflect back to where I came from and where I’m at now, and it’s not too bad.”

It’s not without its dramas either. Nearly three years have passed since he and Drake experienced their very public falling-out. Meek, during the summer of 2015, held the No. 1 album in the country with Dreams Worth More Than Money. He also essentially accused Drake of not writing his rhymes (which remains a touchy subject in hip-hop circles), and while Drake was dubbed victorious in the virtual squabble thanks in part to his Grammy-nominated battle record “Back To Back,” Meek’s assertion that he didn’t write his own rhymes has been a thorn in Drake’s otherwise invincible side ever since.

“That beef was pretty much a social media thing,” producer Jahlil Beats says from his South Philadelphia studio. Jahlil has worked with Meek on more than 100 songs, and he’s also a co-producer with Rick Ross and Boi-1da of 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, the album that features “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” an opener to the project that became an anthem — in meetings, in the locker room, on the field — for the Eagles. It’s also been on every Philly music lover’s gym playlist and car speakers for the past six years. I’m ridin’ ’round my city with my hand strapped on my toast/ Cause these n— want me dead and I gotta make it back home/ Cause my mama need that bill money/ My son need some milk/ These n— tryna take my life, they f— around, get killed/ You f— around, you f— around, you f— around, get smoked/ Cause these Philly n— I brought with me don’t f— around, no joke, no. Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Maybe that’s the reason Meek’s most high-profile visitor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed up two weeks before his April 24 release. Kraft witnessed the power of the song firsthand at this year’s Super Bowl as the Eagles charged the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And the Boston Globe headline? “Who is rapper Meek Mill and why is Robert Kraft visiting him in prison?”

Asked perhaps because Kraft is one of the most visible team owners in a league at odds with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests for criminal justice reform helped lay groundwork for the activism around Meek’s recent incarceration and present-day activism. Kaepernick has defended Meek, calling him a victim of systemic oppression — a huge example of why the QB took a knee in the first place. In January, from behind bars, Meek donated $10,000 to Youth Services Inc. — an organization committed to servicing at-risk kids, teenagers and their families — as part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Challenge.

A source close to Kraft believes that his prison visit with Meek carried a binary opportunity. One: narrative change. Still suffering from fallout within the team because of his team’s unavoidable tie with President Donald Trump, Kraft may have wanted to demonstrate that he, and hence the Patriots, were in some way committed to the cause of criminal justice reform. Two? To perhaps help a young man he views as a friend. Although he isn’t completely familiar with all the details of Meek’s long, exasperating legal history, Kraft and Meek have social ties that go back at least a few years — as noted in a 2015 Rick Ross Instagram caption as #hoodbillionaire, as well as another this year in which Ross said the Patriots honcho was “signed to MMG.”

Michael Rubin recalls, in particular, a private jet conversation Meek and Kraft had about race, culture and how people treat each other. “Meek was really deep in his thoughts. … [Kraft] was really charged up to go see [Meek],” Rubin says.

“This whole situation is bigger than Meek Mill,” says Jahlil Beats. “We’re fighting for something … fighting for a change … [Kraft] could be [using it as public relations], but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever people will gain from it. I get it, but I don’t think we should even be focused on that type of stuff. Because at the end of the day, it’s bringing the cause to the forefront.”

Jahlil has been working with Meek since his 2009 Flamers 3 mixtape and has produced/co-produced some of his biggest records: “Make ’Em Say,” “Willy Wonka,” “I’ma Boss” with Rick Ross, “Amen” with Drake and “Burn” with Big Sean. Meek’s time in and out of prison has led to Beats pursuing real estate and entrepreneurship opportunities that includes bringing the first DTLR store to his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Loyalty to Meek, though, still drives the producer. “We got about 100 records together. I’m so invested in Meek’s stuff that when he takes a hit, we all take a hit. This dude helped change my life. If he’s not out here doing his thing, and I can’t work with him, then how can we eat?”

Meek has survived public embarrassment on multiple fronts. He checked into rehab to battle Percocet addiction. But for Meek, what timelines dub failures are the opposite. As he told Angie Martinez, “If you follow me, you know I stay with ups and downs.”

Travel restrictions and ultimately prison stints prohibited Meek from marketing the brutally honest 2017 Wins & Losses project in the manner it deserved. But W&L did permeate the 12-month news cycle that is the NBA. The album’s second song, “Heavy Heart,” became the soundtrack many speculated LeBron James used to send subliminal shots toward former teammate Kyrie Irving when news broke that Irving wanted out of Cleveland.

Even Drake was shouting, “Free Meek!” from Australia a week after his former nemesis was sent to prison. Meek’s energy speaks to the fervor of so many young black men and women from similar upbringings. Some escape their harsh conditions. Some become ghosts of the streets. But the underlying pain in Meek’s music is what speaks to a generation — one seen every day in courtrooms, prison visitation cycles and living in sheer fear of law enforcement. There’s comfort experiencing shared pain together. That’s the story of Meek’s music: fervent, pained, real. It’s the story of being black in America, no matter where you’re from.


Meek’s prison-to-courtside odyssey the day he was released? An instantly classic, and unfortunate, hip-hop moment. Questionably imprisoned rapper gets out of prison, is flown by helicopter to Wells Fargo Center to be welcomed as prodigal son at the clinching game of his hometown team’s first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those hood superhero tales that will expand exponentially as years pass — like Tupac flying straight to Los Angeles, in 1995, to begin recording what became his All Eyez On Me. Or Gucci Mane recording his homecoming ode “First Day Out The Feds” on, indeed, his first day out of prison in 2016. However triumphant, it’s part of the grizzliness of rap, and how society views the art and those who specialize in it, that being incarcerated underlines profiles.

But Meek has re-entered a society with new influence. “I’m different,” is what he told Angie Martinez on Wednesday. “We have hashtags and move on. Let’s not move on from this.” Meek’s philanthropic history is well-documented, even in prison. Now he is even more ready and willing to speak out about an issue that has defined his entire adult life. The magnitude of his support hit him while he was still in prison.

“I saw people standing out in the rain for me when they didn’t even know me. [That] changed my life,” he told Martinez. “They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”

Freedom is subjective, especially for Meek. “I ain’t felt free since I was 19,” he said. He’ll continue to fight until he’s completely exonerated. But now it’s more about helping those without the luxury of his celebrity. “If that was me in Starbucks, on probation,” he said with regard to the recent racial profiling controversy in his hometown, “I would have actually been found in technical violation.”

This topic can’t just live in the virtual world, though. For Meek, it can’t just be an internet conversation. It has to be rooted in real-life pain and real-life consequences. It’s that responsibility that weighs heavy on him, but one many believe could be the best revelation for him. “Meek is our sacrifice. His words are like scriptures,” says Boom 103.9’s DJ Amir. He and Meek’s relationship dates back to their teenage years. “He had to be held accountable for those actions even though if he ain’t do it [yet] as a boss your workers are still your liability. I think he understands that now. I think everything’s gonna look good for the future.”

That future is now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Meek in an intense news conference calling for criminal reform. On Tuesday, Meek delivered a ‘powerful’ speech at the Innocence Project gala in New York City. Meanwhile, Rubin promises he and Meek have “some pretty impressive plans” set to be announced in the “not too distant future.”

“There’s America, and then there’s black America.” — 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin

For Meek — and really for race relations moving forward, period — it’s about having the authentic painful conversations. The systematically inflicted pain Meek shares with so many, along with the passion it has birthed, is his story to tell. Through music, especially. The vehicle that’s driven Meek all the way from the back lots of North Philly to present-day stardom. “Some people trying to put me in a box,” he said. “I’m not going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I’m still gonna be Meek Mill. ”

Yet, he knows music can spread a message donations can’t buy. Jahlil Beats is excited to rejoin Meek in the studio. He compares their chemistry to that of DMX and Swizz Beatz in the early 2000s. “His voice is more important than anything,” says Jahlil. “With this album, it has to be about that. Even down to the requests of the production he’s been asking us to do, it’s a lot of big strings and a lot of uplifting vibes. He really has something to say.

Before getting up, he has one more thought. “I know he been through a lot of things, but this is something different. He’s doing interviews, but the music is how he’s really going to get to the people.”

Can the Philadelphia 76ers really get to the Finals, though? Shaq and Penny say yes The Magic did it in ‘95, and the Penny/Shaq era has a lot in common with Philly in 2018

The Philadelphia 76ers, after “trusting” the “process,” have completed their first playoff series victory since 2012. It happened in five games over the Miami Heat, and sharpshooter J.J. Redick led the charge with 27 points. But Tuesday night in Philly was far more than a series victory. It was a moment.

The presence of Meek Mill at courtside (he arrived via helicopter), in his first public appearance since being released from prison hours earlier, added to an already momentous occasion for a franchise on the way up. The rapper’s much-debated sentence stemmed from a probation violation in November of 2017 and made him the newest face of criminal justice reform.

The calls for his freedom rivaled those for Lil’ Boosie and for Gucci Mane in years past. And Meek (Robert Rihmeek Williams) graduated to something of a Philly sports yoda during his time in the belly of the beast. His 2012 “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro)” ignited the Philadelphia Eagles on the way to their first Super Bowl. And the 76ers have long been Meek’s loudest supporters — from Julius “Dr. J” Erving to current players raising awareness to his friendship with Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin.

Kellerman compares Simmons-Embiid to Penny-Shaq

Max Kellerman has not seen a young duo like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid since Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.


Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway (the new head coach at the University of Memphis) fail miserably at containing the pride in their voices. Both recognize Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the most dynamic young point guard and center combo since the mid-1990s, when they turned Orlando into the cultural capital of the brief post-Jordan basketball world.

Both sets of teammates are first and third overall picks — O’Neal and Simmons being the top picks in 1992 and 2016, respectively; Hardaway and Embiid were No. 3 in 1993 and 2014. Penny was originally drafted by the Golden State Warriors and then immediately traded to Orlando for Chris Webber.

“Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” — Penny Hardaway

“When I demanded they bring in Penny,” says Shaq, “I was thinking we were gonna be the new Magic Johnson and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]. I already knew what I wanted because I had a good point guard [Scott Skiles], but he was older. … We’d have to build defensive schemes around him — like when guards posted him up, we had to double. I just got tired of doing all that. I was like, we need to get somebody who can play everybody straight up.”

“It’s great having a star opposite your position because it makes [the game] easier,” says Hardaway. “Joel makes Ben’s game easier and Ben makes Joel’s game easier. Just like Shaq and I. It was poetry in motion.” Through nostalgia-tinted glasses the working relationship seems much longer, but O’Neal and Penny played together for only three seasons in Orlando.

O’Neal sees parts of himself in Embiid, 24, and confidence is near the top of that list. Stylistically, Embiid has drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. But it’s the intangibles that place a smile on Shaq’s face when discussing Embiid. “The way he dominates the game, the way he’s very outspoken,” O’Neal says. “He’s very loved in the community [that drafted him] too.”

Hardaway stops short of saying he sees himself in Simmons, but he does, however, impart some advice to the floor general whose athleticism and floor vision get co-signs from some of the game’s legends. “[To Ben, I’d say] don’t get too ahead of yourself. Always keep that chip on your shoulder. Don’t ever think that you’ve arrived.”

Simmons, 21, follows in the line of big, pass-first point guards like Hardaway and the prototype Magic Johnson (LeBron James, too, if you’re considering him a point guard). Simmons, through five games this postseason, has exhibited poise and fearlessness beyond his years, and the fluidity in his game is very reminiscent of Hardaway. The clearest difference between Simmons and his basketball prophyte is Hardaway’s superior shooting — a skill that this year’s presumptive at least co-Rookie of the Year will attack this offseason.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done.” — Shaq

Much like the Golden State Warriors and the Kevin Durant-, Russell Westbrook- and James Harden-led Oklahoma City Thunder, this current 76er iteration is the 2010s’ newest “young team.” They’re the new cool kids everyone wants to be around. They’re embedded in the cultural discourse, much like Shaq and Penny before them.

Shaq dropped platinum rap albums, kicked it with Biggie Smalls and entered Hollywood while Penny became a marketing deity in part because of his shoes and the immortal “Lil’ Penny” character voiced by Chris Rock. Both Embiid and Simmons have forged a kinship with Meek Mill. Embiid has been knighted basketball’s premier and peerless trash-talker and has the most notable crush on Rihanna since … Drake? And Simmons is dating R&B starlet Tinashe.

With each completed step of the process, Philly’s “Neon Boudeaux” and “Butch McRae” — Shaq and Penny’s characters in 1994’s Blue Chips — continue to add to the cultural kismet Sixer basketball has accumulated since the days of Allen Iverson. O’Neal has been behind that same wheel. In 1995, when they got to the Finals, the Magic were still a very young team, having only been in the league since 1989. Philly, by virtue of several unwatchable, “embarrassing” seasons, played like one. From 2013-16, the Sixers won a total of 47 regular-season games. They won 50 this year alone.

Carrying the weight of an entire organization when you’re technically not old enough to legally rent a car comes with its own war stories. And many are picking Philly to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said Tuesday night that the Sixers “have everything” needed to beat any team in their path. Many peg them as the first Eastern Conference team in nearly 3,000 days that will defeat LeBron James in the postseason — provided The King and his ragtag collection of merry men advance that far. Some are bold enough to predict a 76ers championship parade this summer. James told Simmons four years ago that he could be better than him — if Simmons “[did] the work.”

“The word potential,” Hardaway says, “can be dangerous because it’s saying you have the ability to be something.” The ability to be something and actually becoming the superhero of your wildest dreams are different realities. Shaq and Penny realized their joint potential, even if they didn’t punctuate it completely with a championship that seemed inevitable at their partnership’s peak. Both carry those battle wounds.

“The [biggest] lesson I learned was don’t celebrate until the job is done,” O’Neal says with a faint sigh. O’Neal, Hardaway and the 1995 Orlando Magic hold the distinction of being the last team to defeat a Michael Jordan-led team in the postseason. “I go back to what happened after we beat Mike and [the Chicago Bulls] … we already thought we had won the championship. But Houston, who had won the year before, knew what it took to win, and we didn’t. … As a young guy, you really don’t know what it takes to win a championship.”

Shaq and Penny were swept by the Houston Rockets in the 1995 Finals. A year later, they were swept by Jordan’s Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. And later in the summer of 1996, O’Neal migrated west to begin the next chapter of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers and an uber-confident 18-year-old rookie named Kobe Bryant. Just like that, Orlando dreams turned into nightmares.

But Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons can still put a championship crack in the Liberty Bell. It’s all about moments. Embiid starting in his first All-Star Game is one. Simmons potentially winning Rookie of the Year is another. Tuesday night was big too. But if “trusting the process” is to be taken at face value, then it shouldn’t be about late May or potentially early June. It should just be about the next moment — Game 1 against either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks. The advice for them from their predecessors is as simple as it is complex.

“The only thing I can say to [Ben and Joel] is don’t take this time for granted, like it’s going to happen next year because you’re a young team,” Hardaway says. “Right now, with the run they’re on, they have to be careful of saying, ‘If we don’t win the next round, we’re gonna have next year.’ You gotta do it now.” Through basketball osmosis, that advice has already permeated into Philly’s locker room. Embiid told reporters prior to Game 5 that he believed Philly’s “time is now.”

Shaq and Penny are more personally invested in Simmons and Embiid’s success — they want Philly’s dynamic duo to surpass them. “Hopefully they can stick together and not have any petty problems,” Shaq says. “You know, not worry about who’s getting paid the most.” He pauses. “I think if they stay together…they’re gonna be very hard to beat.”

Meek Mill sat courtside as guest of honor beside fellow Philly native Kevin Hart. The moment was one of the wildest “fresh outta jail” fables since Tupac was released from prison in October 1995, caught a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles and began recording his behemoth album All Eyez On Me the same night. The day began with Meek in a cell and ended with his first live look at the city’s two newest basketball demigods.

Embiid and Simmons combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks. Both, like Meek, continue to etch their names in the city’s cultural history.

Philly sports teams are having their best year yet; Philly music is not The City of Brotherly Love is the newest title town, but native rapper Meek Mill isn’t having the same luck

If you’re a Philly sports fan, this quote from legendary black philosopher Young Jeezy’s 2005 sermon “Get Ya Mind Right,” Minus the bulls—, life’s great, may be extremely relevant to your life right now.

After years of coming up short and outright irrelevant in some sports, Philadelphia is America’s newest title town. The Eagles are the reigning Super Bowl champs and widely regarded as the most socially conscious team in a league that would rather its players be anything but. They also appear to be getting stronger with a slew of offseason moves. The Sixers are riding a 10-game winning streak, Ben Simmons is dating rhythm and blues starlet Tinashe, and, despite a recent injury, All-Star Joel Embiid should be back in time for the playoffs (though that hasn’t stopped him from tweeting Rihanna once again). The Philadelphia Flyers are still in playoff contention as the NHL season winds down. The Phillies are still in the hunt — with only 159 regular season games remaining. And Monday night the Villanova Wildcats captured their second national championship in the past three seasons with a 79-62 victory over Michigan.

On the flip side, all is not well in Philly’s pop culture world. The cold war between Judge Genece Brinkley and Meek Mill wages on. Brinkley recently denied the request to recuse herself from Mill’s case after repeated attempts by his legal team. She then doubled down by killing the request to reconsider his sentencing, calling Mill’s two- to four-year term “absolutely necessary.” Meek, of course, has become a rallying point for the city’s sports teams — especially the Eagles, who rallied (literally and figuratively) around his “Dreams and Nightmares” intro all the way to the city’s first Super Bowl championship, and the Sixers, with Embiid and Sixers minority owner Michael Rubin visiting the rapper in prison.

Such is just the latest chapter in a saga that has transcended hip-hop, becoming a lightning rod around the ongoing criminal justice debate. Mill’s next post-conviction hearing is set for April 16.

James Harden’s new Meek Mill-themed shoes NBA players continue to bring the jailed rapper’s plight to light

As the leading scorer in the NBA, one of the many faces of adidas and en route to perhaps his first MVP trophy, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden is used to having all eyes on him. Come Thursday, though, special attention will be paid to his feet as Harden will be rocking custom-made “Free Meek” shoes. The message, of course, is a homage to rapper Meek Mill who currently sits in the State Correctional Institution in Chester, Pa., following a probation violation from a 2008 gun and drug case. Last month, the Philadelphia MC was sentenced to two-to-four years for after popping wheelies on his dirt bike and an altercation at a St. Louis airport early this year.

The decision immediately sparked outrage not only for Meek’s continuous battles with his own legal entanglement, but the disparities in the criminal justice system as a whole. Hip-hop, through names like Jay Z, Diddy, Nipsey Hussle, Rick Ross and even friend-turned-foe Drake, have come to Meek’s defense expressing their support. But it’s Meek’s draw in the sports world that has been intriguing to watch unfold. Exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick—whose protest have become the defining sports story of his generation—spoke with Meek days before Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, the NBA has made no secret of its affinity towards the 30 year old rapper.

Harden visited Meek in prison on Tuesday, confirming his “spirits were high” and that he hoped the MC would be home by February. If, in fact, Meek is released in time for All Star Weekend in Los Angeles (Feb. 16-18, 2018), he could thank the league personally. Throughout his career, Meek has recorded with ball players. He played an involuntary supporting role in the odd melodrama between LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. And he’s name dropped countless superstars in his music from James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson—the latter of whom he saw as a role model growing up in Philly. “A.I. had the style, he had the charisma, the braids, everything,” he told Complex earlier this year. “He was doing what he wanted on the court. That’s what we live by in Philly: do whatcha want, never let the game change you to the point where you’re not even yourself.”

Harden’s showing of support is only the latest in the NBA’s very vocal support of the imprisoned MC. His hometown Philadelphia 76ers have led the charge. Sixers icon Julius Erving was one of many athletes who attended a rally in the rapper’s name last month. The team’s two superstars-in-training Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons recently posted up at Jay Z’s 4:44 tour stop in Philadelphia donning “Stand With Meek Mill” t-shirts. The move wasn’t just a photo opp either. Simmons frequently makes Meek’s music part of his daily routine through his Instagram Stories. Embiid visited Meek Mill in prison—an experience he succinctly summed up as “scary”—with 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin. Yet, it’s Rubin’s relationship with Meek that is the most documented. They’re a pop culture “odd couple.”

Rubin and Meek met a few years back when both were sitting courtside at an NBA game. The billionaire owner was seated next to his daughter and Meek was with ex-girlfriend Nicki Minaj. “Once he figured out I was one of the owners of the Sixers and some other pretty big, internet companies he started asking me 1,000 business questions,” Rubin said of how their friendship sprouted. “I liked him. I would’ve had the stereotypical view, this guy is a hardcore rapper … I didn’t know who he was or what he did. But once he started telling me about his career I thought he would have an interesting business.”

Since his sentencing, Rubin has made frequent visits to visit Meek in prison. The two have largely talked legal strategy. For Rubin, Meek’s situation is personal. He considers the “Dreams & Nightmares” rapper one of his “closest 10-20 guy friends…someone I really care about.” He hoped Meek would be home for Christmas so he could spend the holiday with his family, but now the hope is that Meek can spend the bulk of 2018 in a recording booth as opposed to a jail cell.