Wizards G League affiliate general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu keeps basketball dreams alive NBA veteran oversees daily operations for Capital City Go-Go

When the NBA’s newest G League expansion team needed a guy to run things, they turned to the perfect person for the job — an experienced journeyman with the right kind of basketball savvy.

“I had no business background,” said Pops Mensah-Bonsu, the new general manager of the Capital City Go-Go. “I had planned to go to business school before working in a front office, but the opportunity came before I had the chance.”

The George Washington University standout earned a degree in psychology and played with 18 NBA, G League and international teams combined during his professional career. By most standards, he is perhaps, one of the most successful players to retire from the G League, averaging 26.6 points when he was on what he refers to as his “high horse.”

“I’ve sat in the same seats as two-way players, assigned players and G League contracted players, so I use my experiences to help guys along with their journeys,” said the 35-year-old Mensah-Bonsu.

The team is the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate, named for go-go music, a hard fusion of blues, rhythm and blues, and funk that’s part of Washington, D.C.’s, bustling musical culture. Everything about the team fits the appeal of the local fan. And for Mensah-Bonsu, he’d already made Washington his home and quickly immersed himself in the city’s diverse climate.

When he got the call from the Wizards to gauge his interest for the general manager position, he was an NBA scout with the San Antonio Spurs, a job he’d been in for about a year. The very next day he flew home to interview with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

It was a success.

As general manager, he oversees the daily operations of the Go-Go while engaging in long- and short-term strategic planning.

“I always make sure to check in with players and make sure everything is going smoothly and morale is high,” he said. “As a leader, they feed off of my energy, so regardless of if I’m having a good or bad day, I come into that office with a smile on my face. I always make sure they receive my positive energy. After practice, I catch up with the head coach and see how he feels. I’m always thinking ahead of how I can help make this team better.”

If there’s anyone who can relate to G League players and their grind, it’s Mensah-Bonsu. He’s suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. At times, he suits up for practices if Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian needs him.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Christian. “He brings that physicality that you need. Intensity rate goes up instantly when he’s on the court. He’s able to touch so many different people because he’s had so many walks of life and experiences. He’s able to connect with people in a way that I’ve never really seen.”

General manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu (center) and head coach Jarell Christian (left) of the Capital City Go-Go participate in an NBA G-League clinic at Charles Hart Middle School on Aug. 8, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Although he’s not far removed from his playing days, Mensah-Bonsu misses the hardwood.

“I miss it every morning I get up, every time I watch a game and every time I watch practice,” he said. “There’s a void that I always feel I need to fill. I’m a realist. I understand that my impact is now going to be on this side of the game. But when I’m on the court, I forget it and go back to player mode.”

The difference between the NBA and the G League is the salaries, Mensah-Bonsu said.

“They make a lot more money in the NBA and their CBA [collective bargaining agreement] is much more comprehensive,” he said. “But to the core, it is very similar, just at a larger scale. It’s still managing people and putting a team together.”

In the team’s first season, Mensah-Bonsu soon realized success in the league is measured through development across the board, but mainly with the development of players.

“We are here to help the players become the best they can be on and off the court,” said the first-time general manager.

The Go-Go finished their first season 25-25. It’s only the second time an expansion team finished .500 or better in the G League’s last 10 seasons.

It was his longtime dream to be part of a team’s front office. And when he needs guidance in his position, he has countless mentors, including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Amadou Gallo Fall, vice president and managing director of NBA Africa, to lean on.

“I’m indebted to them for always being willing to help me on this side of the game,” said Mensah-Bonsu.

He even plans to collaborate with Gallo Fall and the Basketball Africa League. “It’s a great opportunity to give African players to live out their dreams and play basketball. Every summer I try to be involved in the [Basketball Without Borders] camp in Africa; I started doing camps with NBA Ghana every year. My goal is one day to have a team in Ghana.”

Twenty years ago, if anyone had asked Mensah-Bonsu what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered an Olympian in track and field. Why? He had a natural “you can’t teach that” sort of talent when it came to the sport.

Mensah-Bonsu was raised by low-income Ghanaian parents whose main goal was for their children to have greater opportunities than themselves. He moved from his London home to the United States at 16 years old without his parents and attended The Hun School of Princeton. He became a two-time New Jersey state champion in the high jump and excelled on the basketball court in high school.

It was evident that he had game while playing junior basketball for the Hackney White Heat of the English Basketball League. But to take it to another level, Mensah-Bonsu knew that going to a prep school in the U.S. would help elevate his game and increase his visibility.

He had that same joy and mindset when he transferred in his senior year to St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey, where he averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds a game.

Mensah-Bonsu made a name for himself when he got to George Washington University. He helped lead the Colonials to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2005 and 2006). It was the first time in 50 years the program was ranked No. 10 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/ESPN Top 25 polls.

After helping his team beat Michigan State and Maryland on consecutive nights in his junior year, Mensah-Bonsu noticed NBA scouts attending his practices. It was then that he knew he had NBA potential.

He went undrafted in 2006 but worked his way into a spot on the Mavericks after summer league. That season he appeared in 12 games, averaging 2.4 points per game. He spent multiple stints with the Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA Development League. In July 2007, Mensah-Bonsu rejoined the Mavericks for summer league but was later waived. He signed a one-year deal with Benetton Treviso of the Lega Basket Serie A in September 2007, then with CB Granada of Spain in May 2008 to appear in the team’s final game. In August 2008, he signed with Joventut Badalona for one year.

“For me, my mindset was I do not intend to be here long,” he said.

Mensah-Bonsu represented Great Britain in the 2012 Games.

“I don’t think there is a bigger moment for an athlete than walking out in the opening ceremony and it was 10 minutes away from where I walked the streets of London. I remember my brother took a picture of my parents wearing my Olympic jersey.”

Pops Mensah-Bonsu (left) celebrates making a 3-pointer in the men’s basketball preliminary round match between Great Britain and Brazil on Day 4 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Basketball Arena on July 31, 2012, in London.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During his career, he endured many injuries.

“I had 10 surgeries,” he said. “Six on the knee, elbow, shoulder, eye and nose. I say my right side is my bionic side. I wouldn’t say I have recovered. I still feel pain. When I walked up the stairs and I feel some pain, it’s a reminder that it was all worth it because I’m walking up the stairs to my office as a general manager.”

In 2015, his professional playing days ended abruptly after he received a two-year ban due to a doping violation while playing in Greece. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 euros. Mensah-Bonsu was taking Adderall prescribed for a medical condition.

“I’ve played in the NBA, I’ve played in the NCAA, I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve played in high-level Europe, and I had never failed a drug test in my life,” he said. “When that happened, it ended my career. I was still fighting to clear my name because I didn’t want that be a dark cloud over my career or the way it ended.”

After retiring that same year, he became regional representative and international liaison for the National Basketball Players Association. He said that while there he received a phone call that would finally help clear the violation. According to Mensah-Bonsu, his agent told him that an appellate committee of the Greek courts researched and found out that Adderall wasn’t a performance-enhancing drug.

Off the court, he indulges in his family and four children and his love for fashion. He even graced the runway during New York Fashion Week in September 2016.

“Fashion has always been a big part of who I am,” he said. “I remember getting a text asking if I wanted to walk for Studio One Eighty Nine, an Accra-based line by Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson, in New York Fashion Week’s show. I was like, ‘You literally made my life.’ I was the only nonmodel at the show, and people wanted to know who I was.”

Mensah-Bonsu says he could’ve been more proactive in preparing for life after basketball, but it’s the relationships he built that have allowed him to gain success as a general manager.

“I always tell people your character is determined by how you treat people who can’t do anything for you,” he said. “I always was open to engaging with people that I came across. People remember your character and their interactions.”

His advice to current players is to start planning now.

“It’s always a good idea to think about life after basketball and lay a foundation,” he said. “Sometimes basketball isn’t fair to us. I love the game, it did a lot for me, but my career ended before I wanted it to, and such is life.”

In Mensah-Bonsu’s mind, his journey to the NBA didn’t start or finish under the most ideal of circumstances. However, his path to front-office status has earned him the opportunity to oversee a franchise and a group of hungry players.

A look back at ‘Above the Rim’ on its 25th anniversary Tupac in trouble, Georgetown hoops on the rise, a sports film rises to cult classic

Marlon Wayans can still smell the thick aroma of Tupac Shakur’s marathon marijuana sessions. Wayans and Shakur, both performing arts high school products, had become quick friends while Shakur was filming 1992’s Juice alongside Wayans’ friends Omar Epps and Mitch Marchand.

By 1993, it was Wayans working with Shakur on the street basketball coming-of-age film Above the Rim, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday. Shakur was the sinister and charming drug dealer Birdie, who was trying to monopolize a local streetball tournament. Wayans played Bugaloo, a round-the-way kid who was often the target of Birdie’s vicious verbal taunts.

“ ‘Above the Rim’ is the most true, ball-playing cinematic movie.” — Leon

Shakur and Wayans shared a two-bedroom trailer on set. They made each other laugh. They talked about themselves as young black creatives in a world that often sought their talents but not the soul behind them. And the two got high together — in a way.

“’Pac smoked a lot of weed,” said Wayans. “[He] would roll like nine blunts … he’d be listening to beats.” Wayans chuckles at the memory. “I’d catch the biggest contact.”

One day, Shakur refused to step out of his Rucker Park trailer. Director Jeff Pollack was confused. Everyone was ready, cameras in place. All they needed was the enigmatic Shakur. “Kick the doors off the Range Rover!” Shakur yelled as he emerged. “Real n—as don’t have doors on Range Rovers!” Shakur wanted the doors off so he could just jump out and directly into his lines.

“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, ’Pac’s a little high,’ ’’ said Wayans, laughing. “I don’t think ’Pac knew how much that would cost production.” Shakur eventually came down off his high. And the doors stayed on the Range.




Above the Rim was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance. A month before the film hit theaters, Nick Nolte, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway starred in Blue Chips. Later that year came Hoop Dreams, the masterful Steve James documentary. Lodged midway was Above the Rim.

Each of the three films offers a perspective of basketball as more than a game. Blue Chips focuses on the lucrative and slimy underbelly of big-business college athletics (and art imitates life a quarter-century later). Hoop Dreams is an exposé of the beautiful yet heartbreaking physical and emotional investment of the sport. Above the Rim uses New York City basketball as the entry point into the deeper story of two brothers and their tie to a young hoops phenom attempting to leave the same Harlem streets that divided them.

Set and filmed mostly in Harlem, the film was written by Barry Michael Cooper and directed by Pollack and also features Leon (Colors, The Five Heartbeats, Cool Runnings, Waiting to Exhale) as Tommy “Shep” Shepard, Shakur’s older brother and former basketball star. Martin (White Men Can’t Jump, Scream 2, Any Given Sunday) portrays Kyle Lee Watson, a high school basketball star hellbent on attending Georgetown.

Tonya Pinkins (Beat Street, All My Children) portrayed Kyle’s mother, Mailika. She hasn’t forgotten what the role meant for her career: “Probably the most I’ve ever been paid for a film,” she said. “The cast was phenomenal. It was really a party, and I was kind of the only … woman with lines in the movie.” And making his film debut was Wood Harris (Remember The Titans, The Wire, Paid In Full, Creed and Creed II) as Motaw — Wee-Bey to Birdie’s Avon Barksdale.

Bernie Mac (Def Comedy Jam, Mo’ Money) is Flip, a local junkie responsible for the movie’s most prophetic and eerie line, especially given how many key figures from the film have since died (Shakur, Mac, Pollack and David Bailey). “They can’t erase what we were, man,” Flip says to Shep toward the beginning of the film.

Marlon Wayans, who played Bugaloo in the movie, on Tupac: “Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel.”

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Above the Rim, too, entered the culture during that 1986-97 era when films such as House Party, New Jack City, Malcolm X, Boomerang, Juice, Menace II Society and others had already stitched themselves into the fabric of the ’90s black cultural explosion. Those movies did so with black directors calling the shots. Above the Rim was brought to life by Benny Medina and Pollack, who had already struck gold with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at the time roughly halfway through its iconic run.

Above the Rim was different, though. “It was … without a doubt a story of the inner city,” said Leon, who at the time was fresh off his powerhouse role as J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats. In Above the Rim as Shep, he returns to Harlem after falling on hard times. Leon is biased about the film’s cult status, and proud of it. “[Above the Rim is the] most true ball-playing cinematic movie,” he said.

Leon is humbled and entertained by the internet’s reaction to Shep, in corduroy pants, dropping 40 second-half points in the movie’s championship climax. “There’s just been so many memes people send me … it’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. And the level of on-set hoops competition, as he remembers, was electric. Many of the film’s ballplayers were just that: ballplayers.

“It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.” — Leon

In real life, Martin starred as a guard on New York University’s Division III squad in the late ’80s. He was a first-team All-Association selection in 1988-89 and was the Howard Cann Award recipient that same season as MVP. Leon, who grew up hooping in the Bronx, New York, attended California’s Loyola Marymount University on a basketball scholarship (guard) before focusing on acting.

It was while playing professional basketball in Rome and filming 1993’s Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow (in Rome as well) that Leon was approached about starring in Above the Rim. The role was first offered to Leon’s friend (and fellow heartthrob) Denzel Washington, who had just starred as Malcolm X in the iconic Spike Lee biopic. “Don’t know why it was,” Leon says when trying to recall why Washington decided against the role. “Don’t care.”

People in Hollywood knew Leon could hoop, but word-of-mouth was only a down payment on respect. “Everyone could really ball. … Everyone had all-everything in their city credentials,” Leon said. “We’d scrimmage at NYU. All the top players from the [Elite Basketball Circuit] and the Rucker, everybody was down there trying to get down. It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.”


Georgetown University doesn’t have any scenes in Above the Rim. Nor does the school make or break the plot. Yet the Washington, D.C., campus’s role in the movie is important, and seamless. Pollack (who died in 2013 at the age of 54) and Medina, as writers, had already managed to weave Georgetown into the narrative of a 1992 Fresh Prince episode. And it’s Georgetown’s role in the story of black America that gave the film authenticity.

Maybe it was because Georgetown had a successful black coach manning its sidelines in John Thompson. Maybe it was because Thompson did so during the decade in which hip-hop started to grow up, and crack cocaine was blowing up during and after the days of President Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it was the type of players Thompson recruited — and the fearlessness they played with.

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown (seen here with Allen Iverson and coach John Thompson in 1994) did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“We didn’t apologize for who we were. We didn’t ask permission to be who we were,” Thompson said earlier this month. “Then there was the rap explosion, and people started wearing Georgetown-style gear because they were so moved. Once we started seeing the Georgetown gear in TV and movies, there was definitely more of a sense that we had arrived.”

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Georgetown represented for us,” said Wayans. “It made college look cool to young black kids. That team … it made us go, ‘Yo, I wanna wear that blue and gray.’ … For kids that grew up … in the ’hood … it became cool to be smart and educated.”

Wayans, who attended Howard University from 1990-92, said, “It absolutely [made Georgetown feel like a historically black university].” And it was Allen Iverson’s impending arrival that thrilled all parties involved with the film.

Iverson’s role in basketball lore is one-of-one, and by 1994, his image was, in many ways, as controversial as Shakur’s. To one segment of America, Iverson was a goon, a two-sport local superstar who deserved to have his future stripped away after a 1993 bowling alley brawl. Iverson’s 1993 trial and eventual conviction remains a benchmark of racial divisiveness in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yet, to a whole other segment, Iverson held superhuman characteristics. He was a larger-than-life counterculture rebel who remained true to himself at all costs — in tats, do-rags and baggy jeans. Iverson, a free man in March 1994 after being granted conditional clemency by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was an unspoken factor in Above the Rim’s authenticity. Iverson’s story is loosely tied to that of Kyle Lee Watson.

“[Iverson] was big,” Leon said. “Having a … prominent black coach who we know would take a chance on a player [like character Kyle Lee Watson] and give him a scholarship, much the way [Thompson] did with Allen Iverson, it just made sense.”

Wayans agrees. “Allen Iverson represents the concrete and the hardwood. [Even then], he made you believe that even though you was groomed and raised in the streets, you could still amount to something great, and not let go of your culture.”

But if Iverson’s legacy is in unanimous good standing with the Above the Rim community, the reviews of the film were anything but. While Above the Rim has risen to cult status in the quarter-century since its release, many at the time blasted the film for hackneyed dialogue and situations. The Washington Post dubbed it a “stultifying cliché of a movie” that “doesn’t get anywhere near the rim.” Variety said the movie was composed of enough clichés to fill an NBA stat sheet. Roger Ebert felt similarly but praised the film’s ingenuity in character development.

But if there was praise that was near universal, it was for Shakur. “As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn,” an Entertainment Weekly critic wrote in 1994. “The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.”


Shakur entered a particular read-through of Above the Rim’s script in typical Tupac Shakur fashion. Loud. Bodacious. Arrogant. Leon appreciated the spectacle.

Every actor and actress has his or her own way of mentally preparing for a role. This was Tupac’s. He walked right up to Leon, his estranged brother in the film, and bowed his head. “You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats,” Shakur said. “That’s my movie.”

Above the Rim marks a transitional period in Shakur’s life. His rising fame ran concurrent with controversy. Vice President Dan Quayle called for his 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, to be removed from shelves, claiming its lyrics incited the murder of a Texas state trooper. And in 1993 alone, Shakur released Strictly 4 My N—A.Z., a profound sophomore effort headlined by the singles “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” and starred with Janet Jackson, Regina King and Joe Torry in Poetic Justice.

Duane Martin and Leon Robinson were two of the stars in this film that was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

But also in 1993, Shakur was charged with felonious assault at a concert at Michigan State University. He fought director Allen Hughes on the set of Spice 1’s “Trigga Gots No Heart” video and was later sentenced on battery charges.

By the time Above the Rim’s production was underway, Shakur’s legal dramas only intensified. In November 1993, he was charged with shooting two off-duty suburban Atlanta policemen. Those charges were eventually dropped. But shortly before Thanksgiving, Shakur, along with two associates, was charged with sexual assault of a woman in a New York City Parker Meridien hotel room. The case remains an indelible stain on his career, and Shakur, until the day he died less than three years later, maintained his innocence, even as he served much of 1995 in prison for the crime.

Shakur’s legal proceedings were a constant backdrop during the filming of Above the Rim, the stress of which took its toll on the cast. “It affected all of us, you know? We had to change the shooting schedule and delay production,” Leon said. “This stuff was all going on at the same time, and it could be a bit of a distraction.”

“He was great,” Martin said of working with Shakur, “when he wasn’t in trouble.”

“It must be hard for [Pollack] to have his main character in jail and you have to shoot tomorrow,” Shakur told MTV News. “But they never let me feel that.”

In a landmark 1995 VIBE prison interview, Tupac talked about hanging around with hardened street players who showed him the baller life that New York City had to offer. Two in particular were Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant and James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond — both of whom Shakur would later implicate, respectively, in the sexual assault case levied against him and the attempt on his life in 1994 at New York City’s Quad Studios.

“I would often have conversations with him about some elements around him, but I wasn’t abreast of it all because I wasn’t there every time he was getting in trouble,” said Wayans. “I’d just say, ‘Yo, you have the power to make different decisions, watch out for this, watch out for that … You have to dodge traps. You can’t run into them.’ ’Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel. Sometimes the thing that is your superpower is also your flaw.”

“You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats. That’s my movie.” — Tupac Shakur

Pinkins only had one day of working with Shakur, but his confidence impressed her. “We sat and talked [for a long while],” said Pinkins. “Everyone was so excited and hype, but he was just mellow … cool, and articulate. He was funny too. Someone who made you think he was already at that level of international phenomenon.”

Shakur rarely got much sleep while filming Above the Rim. He’d leave set once the day was over, go to the studio to record and come back to set the next morning primed and ready. “[Shakur] was as dedicated as I was. He was on point,” Leon said. “He had to be because so much of my acting was done silently with my eyes.”

Shakur was Above the Rim’s emotionally charged ultralight beam. His smile could light up a room, and his rage could clear one. Shakur, Rolling Stone lamented shortly after the film’s release, “steals the show.” His portrayal of Birdie was a “gleaming portrait of seductive evil.”

Shakur’s presence in the film is a beautiful reminder of what was. Wayans can still hear his own mother warning him. “ ‘Baby…’ ” Wayans re-enacts her, “I want you to be safe. [Shakur’s] a wonderful kid. I can see the talent in him. But you be careful of the elements around him.”

Above the Rim was filmed on a budget of approximately $3.5 million. In its opening weekend in March 1994, the film recouped that sum, amassing $3.7 million — and $16.1 million overall. It lives on in the conversation of best ’hood movies and one of the definitive sports movies of its era. Above the Rim lives on via streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

‘Black Duke’ takes flight After decades of resistance, black America embraces Blue Devils basketball

Once upon a time in college basketball, black fans had a special sort of hate for Duke.

This season is different. The Blue Devils are so good in the ‘hood, Jay-Z came to watch them play … in Pittsburgh. LeBron James witnessed the Zion Williamson mixtape in Charlottesville, Virginia. After every game, the internet is flooded with highlights of Williamson and Duke’s three other one-and-about-to-be-dones. The program has come so far from its so-called “Uncle Tom” days, Sacramento Kings rookie and recent Duke star Marvin Bagley III just laced the newest J. Cole beat with raps such as way back I was hated but they love me now.

And all that’s not even counting when Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley, Spike Lee and former President Barack Obama came to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rivalry game with North Carolina.

Black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. In 2017, 12 percent of black college basketball enthusiasts identified as Duke fans, compared with 8 percent of all college basketball fans. So far this season, 24 percent of the audience for Duke games on ESPN is black, compared with 21 percent for all games.


How did Duke go from ashy to classy? From supposedly privileged punks who vanquished iconic black teams to having a hairstyle named after the 2015 championship squad? From featuring white stars who fizzled in the pros to Zion running through competition like a midnight locomotive?

Like everything pertaining to Duke basketball, it starts with coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K changed with the times, gradually embracing the concept of recruiting players who would be at Duke for only a few months before jumping to the NBA. His credibility grew when he started coaching Olympic teams and building relationships with legends such as James and Kobe Bryant. The turning point was Duke’s 2015 title team, featuring three one-and-dones and the “Duke Starting Five” haircut trend.

Now Duke is an apex competitor, ready for the next “Nike check coming out the projects.” The freshmen Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones draw huge TV ratings. Duke has black fans like this dude, straight photobombing ESPN in Louisville’s arena after Duke came back from a 23-point deficit in the second half:

“I do think the success of the program, having a series of one-and-done players now, Coach K being fully embraced by the stars of the NBA with the Olympics, a confluence of things have contributed to changing that narrative,” said Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer and former Duke star who was unfairly saddled with much of the black community’s dislike of his team.

“It’s kind of funny why people didn’t like us back in the day. It’s even funnier now that people are big fans because of the haircut,” Hill continued.

“But the fact that Duke is now sort of embraced is interesting.”


Jay-Z laughs during the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Duke Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center on January 22, 2019 in Pittsburgh.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Duke hired Krzyzewski from West Point in 1980, two years after losing the NCAA championship game to Kentucky. In 1982, Krzyzewski brought in Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson and Jay Bilas. In 1986, that group and freshman Danny Ferry went to the championship game, which they lost to Louisville.

In that era, black America’s team was Georgetown, led by pioneering coach John Thompson. He took the Hoyas to three Final Fours, winning the 1984 national championship and the hearts of black folks with an attitude of uncompromising blackness.

Like Georgetown, Duke was an expensive, academically elite private school. Unlike Georgetown, Duke featured a high proportion of white stars, including Alarie, Ferry and, in the 1988-89 season, a bratty freshman named Christian Laettner. In the 1989 NCAA tournament, with Ferry and Laettner leading the way, Duke beat a Georgetown team featuring a young Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to secure a spot in the Final Four. Thompson never got that close to a championship again.

The next two seasons, two players arrived who would put Duke over the top and set the Duke image for years to come. Point guard Bobby Hurley fit one type of Duke stereotype: scrappy, not overly talented, and white. Hill fit another: He was the privileged son of a former NFL star and a corporate executive, and black.

“In the ’80s, it was almost the more struggle you came from, the blacker you were,” Hill said.

Another factor contributing to black fans’ past disdain for Duke was that the team’s best white players — Alarie, Ferry, Hurley, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers — often had mediocre NBA careers. Laettner, the best white Duke player, whose arrogance and frat-boy looks inspired hate in whites and blacks alike, made one All-Star appearance and averaged 12.8 points per game over his 13-year career. J.J. Redick, twice the National Player of the Year at Duke, has a career average of 12.8 points per game in his 13th NBA season.

Laettner and Hurley got destroyed in the 1990 NCAA championship game, losing 103-73 to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led by gold-toothed forward Larry Johnson. But in the 1991 Final Four, with Hill as a freshman, Duke took down undefeated UNLV, then went on to win Krzyzewski’s first title.

The following year, Laettner, Hill and Hurley smashed another set of black icons, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five freshmen, to capture a second straight championship.

“You had this idea about the kind of black players Coach K recruited,” said Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department. “Kind of a cut-and-dried, clean-cut type of black player … a lot seemed to be mixed-race. When it came to color, they were often light-skinned. It seemed like he had a pattern.”

Neal hated Duke basketball for years, even after he became a professor there in 2004. “What framed my view of Duke was when they played UNLV and it was portrayed as these great student-athletes versus the thugs,” he said, then added: “Laettner didn’t help.”

The Fab Five, who injected hip-hop style and attitude into college basketball, were viewed as the antithesis of Duke. Michigan’s Jalen Rose crystallized those feelings in his Fab Five documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

That was a false label — Rose’s teammate Chris Webber was a middle-class kid, for example, and Krzyzewski recruited Webber hard — but it resonated.

“I said what people had been thinking for 30 years,” Rose, now an ESPN analyst, said in an interview.

Kyrie Irving (left), during his one-and-done year at Duke, gets second-half instructions from coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) against Michigan State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 1, 2010.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty Images

But with two championships, Duke could now recruit with anyone in the country. The Blue Devils won a third title in 2001 with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Their fourth title, in 2010, featured Nolan Smith and white players such as Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Jon Scheyer.

Black stars such as Hill, Williams and Boozer probably would have been one-and-done in today’s game. As the college basketball landscape shifted, Corey Maggette left Duke after one season. Elton Brand left after two and became an NBA All-Star.

Then came Kyrie Irving, whose spectacular 11-game Duke career in 2010-11 set the program on a new course. Irving went first in the NBA draft, won Rookie of the Year, is a perennial All-Star and became an NBA champion in 2016.

The next generation of young stars took notice.


From left to right: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Justise Winslow of the Duke Blue Devils wait for player introductions before their game against the Miami Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13, 2015.

Lance King/Getty Images

The Black Duke turning point came in 2015: the championship team featuring freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and senior Quinn Cook.

“My freshman year, it was different,” Cook said. “Me and Amile Jefferson talk about it all the time. Warming up, it’d be like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber playing in the arena. And by my senior year, they were playing like Lil Durk and Shy Glizzy and Chief Keef and Meek Mill.”

Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” became the soundtrack to their championship run. The idea came from assistant coach Jeff Capel, the former Duke player whose jersey was spotted on Tupac Shakur back in the day.

“We play team basketball. Coach has a military background. We take charges. We get hype after little plays,” Cook said. “I think in the basketball community, it just looks like — I don’t want to say ‘corny,’ it’s just different. But coach lets you add your flair to it, add your little swagger, your team swagger.

“If we buy in and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on the court and in the classroom, coach lets us be us.”

When Cook arrived on campus, he was surprised to find out that several teammates had tattoos. They wore sweatsuits on the road, not suits and ties. Krzyzewski was a Beyoncé fan and had a picture with Jay-Z on his phone. After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2014 tournament, Cook started growing his hair out to show his complete focus on basketball. Then the entire team said no clippers would touch their hair until they lost. That took 14 games. They left the tops of their ’dos long and shaped up the bottoms. By the time they won the 2015 tournament, the Duke haircut had trended nationally.

In 2016, Brandon Ingram wore that haircut in his one-and-done Duke season. Then came Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Bagley. Next up is Williamson, one of the most electrifying college athletes ever and the obvious first choice in the 2019 NBA draft. Barrett is projected to be picked second, Reddish fourth and Jones later in the first round.

Today, “I just think Duke has a look to it,” Cook said. “If you look at the guys in the NBA, I don’t want to say it’s never been cool to go to Duke, but Duke is everywhere now.”

Said Rose: “Now, Coach K is recruiting the player. Before, they were recruiting the program. Before, Coach K wouldn’t even necessarily want four of the top 10 players because he wanted guys who he could mold them and culture them and bring them into the system. Just because you’re a top-flight player, that doesn’t mean you fit into what we’re trying to do.”

“Now, he fits Duke to the top-flight player.”


The roots of Black Duke run much deeper than Zion, Kyrie or Coach K.

In 1892, Trinity College relocated to Durham, North Carolina, with the generous assistance of a local tobacco baron named Washington Duke. That same year, Duke’s barber in Durham, an enterprising black man named John Merrick, expressed an interest in learning about real estate. Duke helped Merrick buy the barbershop, which he expanded into a chain of barbershops. Under Washington Duke’s tutelage, Merrick made more real estate purchases, which became Durham’s “Black Wall Street” district of businesses and homes owned by African-Americans.

Washington Duke also advised Merrick as he co-founded two pioneering black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Co. and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. After Duke’s death, his son James Duke gave millions to Trinity College, which was renamed after the Duke patriarch in 1924. Duke family money also endowed historically black universities such as North Carolina Central and Johnson C. Smith, plus what once was the black hospital in Durham.

“There’s a reason I like Duke that’s deeper than basketball,” said rap producer and longtime Duke fan 9th Wonder, who also is a professor at Duke, Harvard and his alma mater, North Carolina Central. “The Dukes went on record saying we cannot empower black people without teaching them economic empowerment.”

Duke went on a building spree with its new endowment. The architect for many of the campus buildings still in use today, including Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a black man named Julian Abele.

This history casts a different light on the perception of Duke as a “white” school — especially since we now know that Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838 to ensure its survival.

“When I talk to my friends and start pulling all this history up, it’s a hard reality for them to face,” 9th Wonder said. “They’re like, ‘The black person in me should have been rooting for Duke all along.’ ”

Outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University as snow falls from Winter Storm Diego on December 9, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Lance King/Getty Images

On the 25th anniversary of  Snoop Dogg’s ‘Doggystyle’ — a look back at his life and times  A hip-hop prodigy, in a pop culture maelstrom — on trial for murder

Big Boy is a connector. “You need to speak to Dogg?” That’s what the Los Angeles-based syndicated radio personality asks when the topic of 1993’s Doggystyle comes up. “I mean I can help you … I’m with him right now.”

Before you even get a chance to respond, he’s already calling Snoop, born Calvin Broadus Jr., to the phone. “Aight bet,” Snoop Dogg says in the background. “Gimme a second!” It’s the week before Snoop’s long deserved victory lap around the City of Angels. This conversation was a week before the Hollywood Walk of Fame honor — Snoop got his star — that featured a massive crowd of fans, family and friends such as Dr. Dre. Pharrell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jimmy Kimmel and more. A week before a weeklong celebration for the quarter-century anniversary of his first album that solidified Death Row as cultural tour de force.

“I want to thank me for believing in me,” he’ll say at his Walk of Fame ceremony. “I want to thank me for trying to do more right than wrong. I want to thank me for just being me at all times. Snoop Dogg, you a bad m—–f—–.” A unique kind of humility, indeed, but from a man who paid the cost to be his own boss — a well-deserved moment of indulgence.

Snoop carries himself like a man well aware of his resume, but he’s not vain about it. There are the 16 solo albums, five collaborative albums, four soundtracks, and singles that span five presidential administrations. There are the 53 million albums sold worldwide. Thanks to Tupac Shakur, who persuaded Snoop to pursue it, Snoop’s acting career includes more than 50 roles in movies and television.

“We can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person.”

As for his entrepreneurship career in the marijuana industry — appropriate doesn’t even begin to describe that venture. Snoop Dogg, for all intents and purposes, is the greatest success story in rap history. In a manner similar to Jay-Z, he is the American dream. Snoop survived rap’s bloodiest era, and now, approaching 50, he’s a living legend. A living legend who nearly lost it all before it truly began.

Doggystyle (Death Row/Interscope), is Snoop Dogg’s debut album — it turns 25 years old Friday. After a jaw-dropping appearance on the title single of the 1992 soundtrack to Deep Cover, Snoop’s avant-garde first album functions as a coming-of-age project that landed between the 1992 Los Angeles riots and the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson trial. Snoop’s first album also coincided with murder trial in which he was a defendant.

Broadus, at the age of 24, was acquitted in February 1996 (along with bodyguard McKinley “Malik” Lee), of first- and second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of a gang member Philip Woldemariam at a Los Angeles-area park. As the jury was deadlocked on remaining voluntary manslaughter charges, a mistrial was declared. MTV broadcast the reading of the verdict, after which Snoop Dogg rolled off in a Rolls-Royce with a driver. Snoop and Lee had maintained that the victim had been perceived as a mortal threat. The case nearly derailed one of the most unique and impactful careers in American music history.


At this point, Snoop Dogg, 47, has been famous longer than he hasn’t. The pop culture personality has done everything from smoke herb on White House grounds (according to Snoop), to becoming besties with Martha Stewart. Their Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party was described in 2017 as “the cultural exchange America needs.” Over two seasons guests included Seth Rogen, RuPaul, Rick Ross, and Kelis, and more. And as the meme goes: One Of These Is a Convicted Felon. With each year, Snoop’s guardianship of hip-hop becomes more and more massive. And in a genre that has lost its brightest stars for heartbreaking and sometimes violent reasons, Snoop’s presence is a gift. And he’s quite cognizant of how differently his life could’ve gone.

Snoop’s standout feature on Anderson .Paak’s new “Anywhere” features Snoop reminiscing on the days before fame. I didn’t have a dollar, but a n—a had a dream / Whippin’ over the stove and a n—a gotta eat / Threw my raps in the garbage, f— being an emcee, he raps. Thank the Lord for Nate Dogg and thank God for Warren G / Funny how time flies when you’re high as me.

“I think about … the fun that I had. The age … I was at,” he says now. He was 22 when Doggystyle hit the streets. “Just being innocent, and honest. Not really hoping for success. I wasn’t even wishing for success.” He pauses. Almost as if the past 30 years of his life are playing in fast-forward. “I was just hoping to be on.”

In the fall and winter of 1993, Janet Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. President Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his first year in office. Police began investigating Michael Jackson for child abuse. Allen Iverson was sentenced to five years in prison. Tupac Shakur was charged with shooting two off-duty police officers in Atlanta in October, and sexual assault a month later. Whitney Houston was on The Bodyguard World Tour. Jurassic Park was king of the box office while Menace II Society was film royalty of the ‘hood. Michael Jordan’s retirement coincided with the onset of the Shaq and Penny era in Orlando, Florida.

For Jemele Hill, then a freshman at Michigan State University, hip-hop was not only blowing up the Billboard charts but was the foundation of local party scenes. The impending arrival of Snoop Dogg’s debut was the axis around which hip-hop revolved. He was featured on the 1993 cover of VIBE’s first official issue, the look a culmination of a two-year meteoric rise. Snoop’s 1991 appearance on “Deep Cover” from the soundtrack of the same name, was a fire starter. His appearance a year later on Dr. Dre’s genre-shifting The Chronic caused some to dub Doggystyle, in the moment, “the most anticipated rap album of all time.”

“For months, that was the album — when everybody got together, in the dorm room or kicking it in somebody’s crib — that we were listening to. [It’s a reminder of] the lightness that hip-hop could bring into your life.”

The album sold more than 800,000 copies in its first week, making it, at the time, the fastest-selling rap debut. Black kids loved him. White kids wanted to be him. A heavy dose of Dr. Dre’s production and Snoop’s syrupy smooth flow proved, once again, to be an undeniable supernova — even as rap sheets ran concurrent with rap hits. This was gangsta rap, but with a new vibe. Snoop, long affiliated with the Crips, talked that street talk. He was authentic, yet relatable.

“ ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.” — Snoop Dogg

Los Angeles in particular, devoured the album. Compton, Inglewood, Watts, and of course Long Beach — where ’64 Impalas bounced, where people gathered, Snoop was the soundtrack. “The anticipation in L.A. ran high and it was real,” says Big Boy. “Everywhere you went, there was something coming out of somebody’s speakers from [that album]. When we just saw ‘What’s My Name’ and Dogg on top of the VIP in Long Beach — that was our moment.”

He brought listeners live and direct to his home ‘hoods of Long Beach that gave him the ammunition for songs like “Tha Shiznit” and “Serial Killa.” “What Snoop provides the rap world in that cadence, delivery and flow seems to have had a very lasting influence,” says University of Virginia professor of hip-hop A.D. Carson. “But because no one has been able to duplicate it, he still occupies that same space [to this day].” Chart-topping singles such as “Gin & Juice” and “What’s My Name” and the video were MTV darlings.

Twenty-five years later, Doggystyle, to Snoop, remains defined by two records, “Lodi Dodi,” a homage to Slick Rick, and “Doggy Dogg World” featuring his favorite 1970s group, The Dramatics.

The blaxploitation era and the superheroes it birthed are a part of Snoop’s DNA. “To be able to have a session with The Dramatics,” he says, still in awe a quarter century later, “and then to be able to incorporate them into the movement [Death Row] was on — that, to me, is a look that says, OK. The visual for ‘Doggy Dogg World’ was a moment in time. A star-studded event dripping in black charisma.”

The video included features from Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas, and Rudy Ray Moore, Fred Berry, and Ron O’Neal. Snoop’s close friend and longtime collaborator Ricky Harris, who died in 2016, was also in the video. “This,” Snoop boasted last year, “was like my Harlem Nights.

As for “Lodi Dodi”? Snoop idolizes Slick Rick. It’s an homage, and is quick to point out that the song is first example of a rapper remaking a song and not being labeled a “biter.” “[Rick] was somebody I really, really looked up to. It’s like Kobe [Bryant] and [Michael] Jordan,” he says. “When you’re able to play against him, and he gives you a few pointers, and you end up becoming just as good as him.”


Doggystyle ended a historic year in music with 1.2 million copies sold in its first two weeks on the shelves. By December, he was outselling the rest of the top five albums in the country combined.

“Ain’t nobody bigger than me but Michael Jackson,” Snoop said shortly after the album’s release. But criticism of gangsta rap, was prevalent, even before Snoop’s debut, rightfully centered on its depiction of women. And Doggystyle was features more than 60 references to “b—–s” and the cover drew the ire of critics nationwide. By the fall and winter of 1993, Snoop was accused of the “beastializing [of] women.”

“It’s sickening to see that any African-American, male or female, would hold the human dignity of African-American women in the form that is presented [in the album cover],” said C. Delores Tucker, a frequent opponent of hip-hop. “We are now looking to the distributors, financiers and producers of [Doggystyle] …We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.”

Rap, Snoop in particular found, an ally in U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters. “While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop,” she said in 1994. “It’s part of the culture. These songs merely mimic and exaggerate what the artists have learned about who we are [as a society]. And while it is unacceptable to refer to any person in derogatory terms, I believe rappers are being used as scapegoats here.”

“We are going to use the powers we have to withhold our dollars where our dignity is not respected.” — C. Delores Tucker

As critics sought to paint him as the new king of misogyny, Snoop went on the defense. “It’s not personal at all,” he lamented in ’93. “When women come up to me and they see me on the street and say, ‘How you doin’, Snoop Dogg? How you doin’, baby?’ I don’t say, ‘Hey, b—-. How you doing?’ I don’t come at them like that.”

Doggystyle is the linchpin for issues that still rage on. Misogyny is very real. For Hill, it’s a complex issue. “Most women have always had a love-hate relationship with hip-hop,” says Hill, who says that Dr. Dre’s 1992 “B—-es Ain’t S—” is among her favorite songs. “We’re not ignorant to what some of these lyrics have meant.” It’s a case by case basis for Hill, who remembers the very real discussions about Doggystyle that were happening while women and men were partying to it every day. “I don’t take it personally, though there is a part of me that does wish they could be better in this area. But I’ve also heard many [rappers] explain that they rap this because they are talking about personal experiences.”

Yet even more than the moral critique about the album, it was Snoop’s real life that drove the conversation. The first-degree murder charge was the case that they gave him. Woldemariam, a reputed gang member had reportedly threatened Snoop before at a video shoot and had also been in an argument with Snoop and Lee earlier on the day of the shooting. Gang ties were reported to be at the center of the dispute. With a warrant out for his arrest, Snoop still joined George Clinton and Dr. Dre in presenting the best R&B video award at the 1993 MTV VMAs.

Snoop Dogg/Calvin Broadus reacts to not-guilty verdict in Los Angeles Superior Court on Feb. 21, 1993. Judge Paul Flynn declared a mistrial on his involuntary manslaughter charges after the jury was found deadlocked, but the jury did clear the rapper of an accessory after-the-fact conspiracy charge. Broadus was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder charges.

MIKE NELSON/AFP/Getty Images

He turned himself in shortly after. The case slowed Snoop’s victory lap, while it concurrently create mass hysteria for its release. Gangbanging was a way life in Southern California. Snoop was a child of this reality. Newsweek’s contentious cover, which featured Snoop tattooed with the question “When is rap 2 violent?” may have well been part of the project’s official rollout.

As Snoop’s celebrity transformed him from Dr. Dre’s understudy to bona fide megastar, he faced life in prison. Death Row Records was living up to its name. Those closest to Snoop even saw how the situation took its toll on him. “During that time, everybody was down with everything that was going on,” Warren G says via phone. “But we just stayed down with him. Ride or die.”

With rap’s crown came repeated attacks. “It’s truly a sad statement about our society that an alleged murderer can end up serving as a role model for our kids,” said Bob DeMoss, youth culture specialist for the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Christian media watchdog group Focus on the Family.

Snoop was stressed. “Black people are sayin’, ‘F— it, you’ve got this much power. You could be tryin’ to say: ‘Don’t do drugs, and, hey, stop this,’ ” Snoop said in 1994. “But Martin Luther King tried that s—. It didn’t work.”

And as the trial came to an end, the prosecution tired of the defense painting the victim Woldemariam as a crazed gangbanger who was the aggressor in his own slaying. The defense claimed the prosecution used Snoop’s celebrity as its motivation more than his actual involvement. Details emerged supporting Snoop’s self-defense claim when one of victim’s friends admitted to hiding Woldemariam’s gun after the shooting. Even after he was acquitted, drama still followed him. He and newly signed Death Row labelmate Shakur’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” once again turned drama into unimaginable success. But by March 1996, Dr. Dre had left the label. Six months later Shakur was murdered in Las Vegas. And Knight, in less than a year, was back in prison on a probation violation for his role in a fight the night Shakur was shot.

“While I find some of the language offensive and hard on the ears, I didn’t first hear the words whore and b—- from Snoop.” — Maxine Waters

What little room Snoop had to truly celebrate Doggystyle was depleted. Staying alive was more important for Snoop, who purchased a bulletproof van following the murder of Biggie Smalls. “The way that we can mythologize him — we can create this picture of him as always being Snoop the rapper without considering Calvin the person,” says Carson. “I can’t imagine that [part of his life] being anything other than a nightmare for him. It’s something … heavy to sort through.”

With Doggystyle in the rearview mirror, Death Row’s very public and tragic downfall and his own career at a professional crossroads, Snoop’s next moves set in motion a new arc. “He was a totally changed person,” says Warren G. “It was a reality check that this stuff can be taken away at any given moment, so you gotta get yourself together … That’s when he started to grow and morph into … a man. He realized none of this stuff is worth [losing] your family [over].”

“That’s the American dream …Well, ain’t it?” — “Bathtub

There is no career like Snoop Dogg’s. American gangster to American icon, if you’re looking for a tagline. He’s been a Rastafarian, a pimp, the quarterback of his own stage play and chart-topping gospel artist. He’s Grandpa Snoop and Uncle Snoop to an entire generation who grew up on Uncle Phil. “There’s nothing everyman about the way he lived his life and the way he came up,” Hill says with a laugh, “but yet he is the dude in rap you wanna go get a beer with. But I guess in his case … get high with.”

It’s true. It’s not a stretch to say that Snoop has played a tangential role in America’s slow, but gradual acceptance of marijuana. On TV, he’s everything from dedicated youth football coach to LeBron James’ big homie. He’s persuaded an entire country to “Smile” on Lil Duval’s huge hit while directing his political aggression toward President Donald Trump via song and, in a patented Snoop way, “grassroots activism.”

Even “gangsta s—” evolves. Making music for Long Beach. Making music that reflected the lifestyles, good and bad, that he grew up in. Monday’s Hollywood Walk of Fame immortalized him in a long overdue ceremony. But for Snoop, a tour de force who has seemingly accomplished — and survived — everything, hip-hop has to offer, it’s not about what he missed. It’s about the celebration he never truly got to enjoy in his early 20s. Until now. “I was too busy trying to enjoy my life and trying to make sure I was going to be free [to enjoy Doggstyle],” Snoop says. You can almost hear the grin spread across his face. “So maybe I’ll enjoy it this year on its 25th.”

‘Evidence of Innocence’ on TV One tells the stories of the wrongfully convicted Almost half of exonerated prisoners are African-American

Lisa Roberts was always high-energy and athletic. Growing up in Boston and Palatka, Florida, she played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She then joined the Army, where she trained as a mechanic, hooped and played flag football and softball. She weighed just 123 pounds, but she later got into powerlifting.

“I was an itty-bitty thing,” she says now, “but I was strong.”

That was long ago, before Roberts left the service, fell into what authorities called a volatile love triangle and ended up pleading guilty to a murder she did not commit. She was locked up for 12 years before new analysis of DNA evidence raised doubts about whether she had actually strangled her girlfriend, and a federal judge found that her lawyer had offered ineffective counsel. She was released from an Oregon prison in 2014.

The story of Roberts’ imprisonment and the work she has done to rebuild her life is featured in a new documentary series, Evidence of Innocence, premiering June 4 on TV One. The show, hosted by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, casts a revealing light on one of the grossest injustices regularly produced by the nation’s flawed criminal justice system: the incarceration of the innocent.

“I call it ‘killing softly’ when you have these prosecutors who knowingly, spitefully, illegally, immorally send poor, majority black and brown people to prison for crimes they know, or should have known, they did not commit,” Crump said.

The innocent are sent to jail in alarming numbers. In the past three decades, 2,215 prisoners have been exonerated after going to prison, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a collaboration between the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools and the University of California, Irvine. Crump suspects that figure captures only a fraction of the problem.

On average, those proved to have been wrongfully convicted served nearly nine years before being freed. Forty-six percent of prisoners who were later exonerated were black, the registry said, although African-Americans make up just 12 percent of the nation’s population and 37 percent of the prison population.

In recent years, Crump has become one of the nation’s best-known civil rights attorneys, as he has worked on cases that helped ignite the Black Lives Matter movement and brought new scrutiny of the criminal justice system. His clients have included the families of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida; Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed in a confrontation with a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed by police in Cleveland while holding a toy gun; and Corey Jones, the cousin of former NFL star Anquan Boldin who was killed by a plainclothes officer while he was waiting for a tow truck to pick up his disabled car in South Florida.

“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty. Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent.”

“I always knew that the criminal justice system was terribly unfair and discriminatory, but until you get into the trenches and see how inherently racist and discriminatory the system is, you can’t even fathom it,” Crump said.

When it comes to incarcerating the innocent, the bias is not always obvious. It often lurks in law enforcement’s assumptions about the lifestyles of their targets or the neighborhoods they live in, the shortcuts authorities take to jail those they believe are guilty, or the inadequacy of legal representation for the poor.

Lisa Roberts spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2014 after new DNA evidence raised doubts about her guilt.

Courtesy of William Teesdale and Tricia Leishman

In Roberts’ case, police gathered what from some angles appeared to be compelling evidence against her. She was arrested on Aug. 16, 2002, nearly three months after the naked body of her lover, 25-year-old Jerri Williams, was found dumped in a Portland park.

Prosecutors said Williams, who had a history of drug use and prostitution, was the victim of a love triangle involving Roberts and another woman with whom Roberts had lived for years. They also pointed to witnesses who said that Roberts had a history of violence and had seen her punch, choke and threaten people.

As the case approached trial in 2004, prosecutors told the defense that an analysis of cellphone tower records placed Roberts near the park where Williams’ body was found on the morning of the murder. Her lawyer had hired an expert to do a separate cellphone tower analysis, but it was never completed.

While Roberts had maintained her innocence and said she had never been arrested before, the prosecution’s cell tower analysis was enough to make her accept a plea bargain. If she had gone to trial, she could have received a life sentence. Instead, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a 15-year term.

“When you get arrested, they say you are innocent until proven guilty,” Roberts said. “Well, I was guilty trying to prove myself innocent. And there was no daggone way. So I took the plea bargain because I couldn’t see myself doing life.”

Two years after her guilty plea, she began a series of appeals. By 2008, her new lawyers had received DNA laboratory reports that cast doubt on Roberts’ guilt but weren’t conclusive. Later DNA testing on semen found in Williams’ body turned up two male profiles, including one of a man who was known to have badgered Williams to work for him as a prostitute. Then, crucially, a re-examination of the cellphone records concluded that the tower data was incapable of pinpointing Roberts’ location.

It wasn’t until 2014, after Roberts had served the lion’s share of her sentence, that a federal judge vacated her guilty plea. She was released from prison on May 28, 2014, and prosecutors dropped charges against her five days later.

“It didn’t feel like victory, but at least I have my freedom and my life,” said Roberts, who is now 53 and works at a commercial laundry in Portland. She relaxes by hiking, running and bike riding. “At least I don’t have any metal doors slamming behind me.”

Roberts let out a deep belly laugh when asked whether she received compensation from the state for her wrongful incarceration. “Excuse my language, but hell, no,” she said.

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.

Prosecutors, not just police, can also play a part in the abuse of black lives The exclusion of black jurors changes the game

 

Various players, during last weekend’s slew of NFL games, reignited the protest efforts against racial injustice. Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, for instance, sat on the bench during the national anthem and raised his black-gloved fist after sacking San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer. Before the game, his brother Reshaud led a Black Lives Matter rally through the streets of Seattle’s International District, chanting, “Black lives are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”

Now close your eyes and imagine what they demonstrated against. What scenes invade your mind? Most will picture episodes like what Bennett described as happening to him in Las Vegas — an officer forcing him to the ground, his nose smelling pavement, his ears filled with threats and a handgun aimed at his head — a scared and innocent black man fearing death was looming.

We generally finger cops and incidents like Bennett’s as the reason many people of color distrust the criminal justice system while ignoring a potentially far guiltier culprit — the prosecutor. With considerable authority in the legal system, many prosecutors have the ability to trample upon the constitutional rights of black criminal defendants. This malfeasance can reveal itself in a variety of ways, but one is when prosecutors deliberately make juries as white as possible.

Just last July, Washington state’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a black criminal defendant after the prosecutor prevented the only potential black juror from serving on the jury. California’s Supreme Court in June overturned the convictions of three Latino criminal defendants, ruling that the prosecutor discriminated against prospective Latino jurors.

When players protest the national anthem, also envision this: Right now, at least one person of color, almost certainly many, in fact, is seated in the criminal defendant’s chair in a courtroom somewhere in America. That person will gaze over at the jury box and spot few if any nonwhite faces because the prosecutor wanted it that way.

Batson v. Kentucky

The prosecutor and defense attorney have “peremptory challenges,” the right to strike a potential juror from serving on a criminal jury without giving a reason. Each side winnows down the jury pool through these challenges until, in most jurisdictions, 12 jurors and four alternates are seated. Many prosecutors habitually exploit this tool by striking people of color based on race, resulting in disproportionately white juries.

This happened in the early 1980s, when James Kirkland Batson of Louisville, Kentucky, stood accused of second-degree burglary and receiving stolen goods. During jury selection, the prosecutor struck all four black potential jurors and all-white jury convicted Batson.

In 1986, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This decision barred prosecutors from considering race when striking jurors, declaring unconstitutional a practice that had lasted more than a century.

Defense attorneys can now initiate a “Batson challenge.” This process generally begins after a prosecutor strikes two or more nonwhite people, often raising the eyebrows of defense attorneys, who can then argue they notice a racial pattern and tender supporting reasons. The judge, if convinced the defense has advanced a substantive initial case, will ask the prosecutor for race-neutral reasons for each reason to strike. If the prosecutor fails to convince the judge that race played no role, the judge will find a Batson violation.

The viability for the Batson decision to curtail this scourge hinged on whether discriminating prosecutors would be impeded by the requirement to proffer race-neutral explanations. Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Batson decision argued they could easily concoct reasons that courts would be “ill-equipped to second-guess. …” The Batson challenge, to Marshall, would falter because it “cannot prevent clever lawyers from using peremptory challenges to strike potential jurors based upon impermissible rationales as long as they pretend to use other, permissible bases.” This would mean that only “flagrant” abuses would be punished. Marshall concluded that “only by banning preemptories entirely can such discrimination be ended.”

Three decades of evidence validate Marshall’s pessimism.

 

Widespread Prosecutorial Jury Discrimination

A report from the Equal Justice Initiative, a racial justice organization in Montgomery, Alabama, exposes how prosecutors freely articulate discriminatory statements in open court. In a Louisiana case, for example, a prosecutor disclosed that he struck a juror for being a “single black male with no children.” One Alabama prosecutor struck black prospective jurors “because he wanted to avoid an all-black jury and asserted in other cases that he struck African-Americans because he wanted to ensure other jurors, who happened to be white, served on the jury.” A Georgia prosecutor challenged a juror “because he was black and had a son in an interracial marriage.”

Courts, in these cases, sided with the defendant. These are the blatant occurrences that Marshall figured courts could prevent. When prosecutors behave more cleverly, judges, as Marshall predicted, poorly guard black rights.

Judges routinely allow prosecutors to strike black prospective jurors because they have “low intelligence,” a “lack of education,” children out of wedlock, live in a “high crime area,” are unemployed, or rely on government assistance programs such as food stamps. A South Carolina court allowed a prosecutor to strike a black man because he “shucked and jived” as he walked. One prosecutor struck a prospective juror for “look[ing] like a drug dealer.” A Louisiana court condoned the rationale. An Arkansas judge allowed a prosecutor to rely on a hunch that a black woman would be “unfavorable to the state” even without the prosecutor ever questioning her to find out.

Zooming out from these details reveals a dispiriting tableau — rampant prosecutorial jury discrimination.

Barbara O’Brien and Catherine M. Grosso, two Michigan State law professors, examined at least one jury trial for each inmate on North Carolina’s death row as of July 1, 2010. Their study examined “strike decisions” for more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 proceedings to discover how prosecutors used peremptory challenges in capital cases. Their data was clear — prosecutors were far more likely to strike potential black jurors.

Across all the proceedings, “prosecutors struck 52.6 percent of eligible black venire members, compared to only 25.7 percent of all other eligible venire members.” These disparities worsened in cases with black defendants. There, prosecutors struck 60 percent of black potential jurors versus 23.1 percent for all other races. “In every analysis that we performed,” O’Brien and Grosso recapped, “race was a significant factor in prosecutorial decisions to exercise peremptory challenges in jury selection in these capital proceedings.”

When asked what their research reveals about America writ large, O’Brien and Grosso responded by email, “from all the evidence we have seen — both experimental work and analysis of strike decisions in real-life trials — there’s nothing unique about North Carolina: Race is a huge factor in the decision to exercise peremptory strikes everywhere.”

Take the Peremptory Challenge Away from Prosecutors

The true number of defendants who have languished in prisons or died there after being convicted by a discriminatorily composed jury would likely startle even the most well-informed, although the exact total will forever elude us.

Society can best address this by pursuing the prophetic wisdom of Marshall: Strip the peremptory challenge from prosecutors, a power they persistently mishandle.

Take the former Montgomery County, Alabama, district attorney, for example. Her office had at least 13 of its convictions reversed for Batson abuses. She, nonetheless, held her job 21 years before stepping down in 2014. She kept enjoying re-election, and voters likely did not know or care she was habitually violating the rights of black criminal defendants.

Her victims, like that of any prosecutor who denied defendants their constitutional right to an impartially selected jury, suffered no police abuse that an onlooker recorded and posted online for the world to witness. But when black athletes conduct their national anthem protests, we should also keep in mind the image of the purposefully constructed all-white jury that could determine their guilt or innocence.

Motown mastermind behind ‘Dancing in the Street’ recalls the 1967 Detroit riots – when black folks took to the streets Writer William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson remembers the pain, the glory, the commitment to creativity — and to changing the world

It was time for a change.

Motown was becoming bigger than music. The label was challenging the segregated whiteness of American pop with songs such as 1961’s “Shop Around” from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, which was the label’s first million-seller. And “Please Mr. Postman,” from the Marvelettes, was Motown’s first No. 1 pop hit in that same year. Yet, by the time the middle of the decade arrived, Motown — with recordings such as Martha and the Vandellas’ hit 1964 anthem “Dancing in the Street” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s politically direct 1967 “Why I Oppose The Vietnam War” (recorded on Motown’s Black Forum label) — was dipping its collective toe into the creation of socially conscious works.

This label, based in Detroit’s midtown area, was of course the brainchild of young Berry Gordy, a former featherweight boxer with a dozen wins on record. In 1959 he launched Tamla Records, which was incorporated a year later as Motown Record Corp. He did this with an $800 loan he’d collected from family. Motown’s records were addictive, a pop culture phenomenon: gospel-inflected vocals draped over infectious, energetic beats, and most often telling stories of good folks having good times, good love gone bad, or pining away for some unrequited love. It was the kind of music that soundtracked rent parties and backyard barbecues — and eventually, after much behind-the-scenes prodding, stridently white spaces such as The Ed Sullivan Show. But the sound shifted. It had to. Too much was going on — right in the label’s neighborhood.

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Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform live on stage. (Echoes/Redferns)

Unrest broke out in Detroit on Sunday morning July 23, 1967, and lasted through July 27. Although “the insurrection was the culmination of decades of institutional racism and entrenched segregation,” the sparking incident was when a police squad raided a “blind pig” (an unlicensed bar) near the intersection of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue on Detroit’s West Side, about a half-mile from Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. offices and studios. Confrontations between the Detroit Police Department and the city’s black citizens resulted in one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States.

A new Kathryn Bigelow film, Detroit, starring Anthony Mackie, John Boyega and John Krasinski, is set to premiere Aug. 4. It brings to the screen the bone-chilling Algiers Motel incident: during the Detroit Riots, at the motel, three black men were killed and nine others were beaten by law enforcement. Overall, the civil unrest known as the 1967 Detroit Riot (and alternatively as the Detroit Rebellion of 1967, and the 12th Street Riot), left 43 dead. The Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard and the U.S. Army were called in. One thousand, one hundred and eighty-nine people were injured. There were more than 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

A city, forever changed.

Motown, which formally moved to Los Angeles in June 1972, was still in Detroit in 1967. It was a wildly successful company; at the time, it was the country’s most successful black-owned business. By the end of 1966, Motown was home to more than 450 employees. The label owes much of its early success to songwriter and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson, the company’s first director of artists & repertoire.

Stevenson was in the background but stood next to Gordy and Robinson and played a huge part in recruiting and nurturing the talents of icons such as Martha Reeves, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye. He assembled “the best-kept secret in pop music,” Motown’s legendary in-studio band, the Funk Brothers. Stevenson also wrote approximately 500 songs during the course of his Motown career.

Songwriter and producer William “Mickey” Stevenson at New York’s Verve Records on March 16, 1967. (PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Some of his bigger hits include the Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789” and Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” both from 1962, and Gaye and Kim Weston’s classic 1966 “It Takes Two.” He co-wrote Martha and the Vandellas’ fun 1964 “Dancing in the Street,” his most successful track for the label and one that functioned as a “radical anthem” during the civil rights movement. There’ll be laughing, singing, and music swinging / Dancing in the street / Philadelphia, P.A. / Baltimore and D.C. now. / Can’t forget the Motor City.

Yes, the Motor City’s discontent was a tipping point for the music of Motown. As the label sailed into the 1970s, the music became compellingly and deliberately politicized: There was Gaye’s 1971 pitch-perfect “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” The Temptations’ 1971 “Ball of Confusion” and Stevie Wonder’s 1973 “Living For The City,” among many others.

“We represented a social environment that was changing,” The Supremes’ Mary Wilson said in 2009. “The experience we had known being black was not being bona fide citizens, not being able to drink out of the same water fountains, playing to segregated audiences. When that started to fall away, and you saw that music was one of the components that was helping it fall away, that’s when it really felt like we were doing something significant.”

Stevenson, now 80, reflects on how that era, as painful as it was, shifted the Motown sound and was an authentic soundtrack to a changing America.

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In the aftermath of the 1967 Detroit riots, members of the National Guard patrol neighborhoods. (Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

What was it like being black in 1967 Detroit? Before the end of that July?

For me and my brothers — and I mean Smokey, and the Temptations, and the Four Tops — it was a proud thing. We were proud. ‘I’m black and I’m proud!’ We meant that. And we knew it was just a matter of time. We were doing wonderful things, and we were doing it around the clock. Listen — the work we were doing was not a job. It was a joy. We could do it ’round the clock, and that is pride. It was love.

Do you remember where you were, physically, when you first heard about Detroit heating up?

Yes. I was in Detroit, and I was at home. I had friends with me — Jewish friends. We were there at my place, and when it was taking off, my first thought was to make sure [they didn’t] leave my house. My house was in the city, right in the middle of the riots. My house was on Courtland and, like, Dexter. That’s where it all kind of happened, right in that area.

Detroit burning, July 24, 1967. (AP Photo)

And you didn’t want your friends to leave?

I didn’t want [them] to get killed. [They] would have been in danger trying to get to the airport. It wouldn’t have happened.

As a black Detroiter, I imagine that you were empathetic to some of the issues …

Yeah. Well, it was working itself up for a while. We’d come out of one riot much earlier, when I was a kid. I could see this coming back again. It was an uncomfortable situation … you had to watch yourself. Motown was out on West Grand Boulevard, which was a pretty good street. And even there, at a certain point, like 12th Street, moving in that direction — Dexter, Linwood, like going deeper, where I would say the ghetto was, you had problems. It was building itself up. I didn’t know it would break into a riot, but it was building itself up where we had to watch it. All of us.

What was happening at the label in July of 1967?

I was A&R director of Motown. We just had to stay busy, doing the best we could. We didn’t take time to deal with the problem of the city. We had enough problems dealing with the manufacturing and producing of product, to go out. We were always in a fight somewhere, in some place. Moving black product on white radio, that was not a walk in the park. You understand what I’m saying? We were in position — we had to stay in position at all times.

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A month after the Detroit uprising, what began as a demonstration turned into something else. It was Aug. 21, 1967, and the Michigan State Police intervened. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

My understanding is that Martha Reeves was on stage at the Fox Theater, in the midst of a Motown Revue, when they got word the riots were still happening near the Tiger Stadium?

If she was there, I was there. Because she was one of my favorite, talented artists — and of course my biggest song, ‘Dancing in the Street.’ I’m sure the idea was for her to keep everybody calm, because that’s the way we operated, period. It was not like, ‘Should we do it?’ That’s an automatic thought. We had this kind of thing come up in New York, and Philadelphia, and Washington. And so, it was always when things got out of hand, we would have to say to the audience, ‘Look, let’s stay under control.’ Nothing unusual for us to make that happen.

Your acts often performed in places where black and white concertgoers couldn’t lawfully integrate. What was Motown’s biggest role within the civil rights movement?

[Singing] our songs to both black and white audiences. We made it a point to insist that everybody had a chance to hear our songs. We didn’t look at it as black music. We looked at it as music. When Motown artists came on, we made everybody get involved, because if you didn’t, you were adding to segregation. You’ve got to look at it like this: Our whole staff was mixed at Motown. Our sales department was mixed. Our marketing department was mixed. We forced an issue. If you’re with us, you’re with us, or you’re not with us. Let’s build as one unit. We were very proud to push that button. Sometimes we got challenged.

How so?

Some of our trips. I remember getting stopped in the car and the police made me get out and sing. You either put up a fight and get your head blown off, or you sing. Which one you want to do? If I sing now, I’ll be able to sing later. If I stand and fight, there’s no telling where I’ll be. You got it? I can name that with a few artists. I know Smokey had problems with that. It’s not like it was an easy time. We had to deal with it, but we had made up in our minds, we gonna make this thing work. I tell everybody — I don’t want to overtalk this thing — but I tell everybody, ‘This is God’s work.’ We were just instruments at that time. We took on great stands because we had no other way to think.

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Detroit, July 1967. (Lee Balterman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

How did you and Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson talk about the creative direction of Motown, after the riots?

When the riot was on, nobody could get to the studio. Remember, we were on a main street, so we’d have had a huge problem. When it calmed down … we went to the studio. And when we went in — fortunately we didn’t have broken windows and none of that kind of craziness — we went in going to work. We went in trying to figure out, what’s the next best songs we need to get out? What sessions can we pull together now? I know that sounds odd, but we were a machine. We worked like a machine, not like individuals. ‘What happened to you? Anything happen to you? Are you all right?’ No. We didn’t get into that. If you’re standing there, you’re all right. Go to work.

Were you inspired by the uprisings to think about the socially conscious music that Motown started making, going into the 1970s?

Not so much the riots. We were inspired by the workings and the help of Dr. King and people like that. Our job was, in our heads, to let it be known that we’ve got to back this up, be behind it, care about one another. Take a stand. When we put out the album, [featuring] King, on our label [Black Forum] … we were into that kind of thinking. We thought that if we didn’t work together to fight this thing, it was not going to go away. So we did it with music, with artists — and backed financially as much as we could.

When did you notice that a tide was changing socially and culturally? When did you notice that perhaps the music you all were creating was helping black folks be seen in a way that we weren’t seen before, and kind of being able to exist in a way we weren’t able to before?

Certain spaces and certain places we couldn’t get in or get on, or be on that show, or whatever — all of a sudden, we started getting calls, ‘Come do this show.’ It took people like Dick Clark and others who broke that barrier. ‘If I put this Motown act on, I could have the hottest show on TV.’ He was absolutely right. They had all white artists. No blacks. Clark was a huge gambler, and he really believed in the music. I got to give it to him. He made it a point and took a risk. He stood his ground and became the hottest thing on television. Then there were people like Ed Sullivan who refused to let us come on and sing a whole song. If he brought you on, it was only for him to say a few words right at the end of his show. You know what I mean? And we changed that theory. We made him put on The Supremes, and do two songs, and talk to them.

Unspecified, circa 1970: Martha and the Vandellas with Dick Clark. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Supremes, (from left to right) Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, pose with host Ed Sullivan onstage at The Ed Sullivan Show in New York on Dec. 20, 1969. (CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Left, circa 1970: Martha and the Vandellas with Dick Clark. Right, The Supremes, (from left to right) Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, pose with host Ed Sullivan onstage at The Ed Sullivan Show in New York on Dec. 20, 1969. (Left, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Right, CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

Motown music is the music that changed the world. It also helped to heal a nation while it was suffering through yet another one of its horrific racial ruptures. Why do you think this particular music helped?

I believe in my heart, and quite a few of us do — Smokey, we talk about this all the time – Motown was God’s game plan, and we all bought into it. That whole sound happened at a time when our country was at its worst. And the love of the music … reached everybody. This music’s got so much love, and so much caring in it. Those moments … while you’re listening … all that hatred, all that dislike for one another, was no longer there. That changed the world. Not only here in America, in London, all over the place. That had to come from a source bigger than you and I. I’ve heard men say to me that the time when Motown was going on, and the riots and stuff was going on — ‘Man, I used to get in the van, pull the cover over my head, and listen to Motown music. When I heard those words, that was incredible for my heart. It took me to a wonderful place.’ That’s exactly what the music was for. It lasted for 60 years. It’s still lasting.

What do independence and freedom mean to black college students? It’s about music, fireworks and discussion of America and our so-called independence

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but conversations about freedom and independence don’t get old … especially among black college students.

Webster’s Dictionary says freedom is the power to act without restraint, while it defines independence as not requiring or relying on others. How do students feel about the two?

America’s birthday seems to be inextricably tied with fireworks, barbecues and feuds over its significance. Some students simply describe the federal holiday as a day off work. Others joined Chance the Rapper in calling it Malia Obama Day.

When asked about music that inspired or made them think of independence, students spoke highly of songs that encourage economic independence, social justice and hope for black folks:

  • “The Story of O.J.” by Jay-Z
  • “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
  • “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway
  • “Revolution” by Arrested Development
  • “The Conquering Lion” by Lauryn Hill
  • “Change” by J. Cole
  • “Glory” by John Legend and Common
  • “16 Shots” by Vic Mensa
  • “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
  • “F.U.B.U.” by Solange Knowles
  • “Where Do We Go” by Solange Knowles
  • “Candles in the Sun” by Miguel
  • “They Don’t Really Care About Us” by Michael Jackson
  • “Wake Up Everybody” by Teddy Pendergrass

These songs come out of different generations and genres, but the common chord they share is one of unity, equality and perseverance. The beats are so good and the messages are so timeless, this playlist could stay on repeat any day of the week.

Besides music, some college students can point to individuals who are advancing the black community and America at large.

“I think everyone in opposition to the president is actually making America great; Auntie Maxine and Auntie Kamala, I see you!” said Arielle Wallace, 21, a senior at Hampton University.

“Ethnic and social diversity makes America great,” said Demetrius Smith, 36, an alumnus of Morehouse College. “Those outside of the dominant culture hold America accountable to its ideals, which results in slow yet continuous advancement of American society.”

“The charitable donations that Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation have made to the OKC and L.A. communities has taken another approach other than usual athletes by focusing on education and family service programs while encouraging youth to believe in themselves and ultimately ask, ‘Why not?’ of any situation,” said Jordan Frank, 21, a senior at Clark Atlanta University.

Jenise Williams, 20, a senior at the University of Michigan, sees Independence Day as a time to be with family.

“The Fourth of July is just about me coming together with my friends and family despite all of the craziness of America and the world in general.”

Michigan State sophomore Andrei Nichols questions whether the celebration is premature for people of color.

“For some Americans, it is a time to celebrate freedom that was said to have been granted,” said Nichols, 19. “However, as a black man in America, [I don’t think] freedom was ever granted to people of color. But, hey, what do I know?”

Celebrating America’s independence from British rule may happen once a year, but the fight for individual and collective freedom never stops.