How the ‘Black Godfather’ changed baseball legend Hank Aaron’s life Aaron joins Hollywood to toast new Netflix documentary about music executive Clarence Avant

LOS ANGELES — Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs when the death threats started coming.

Thousands of letters, many of them racist, poured in weekly. Those folks didn’t want to see a black man break the record, which had stood since 1935. But there was also a call the superstar got before April 8, 1974, the day that Aaron hit his 715th home run off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing — a call from the Black Godfather.

That call changed everything.

Everything.

Former MLB slugger Hank Aaron (left) and his wife, Billye (standing), attend Netflix’s The Black Godfather premiere at Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles on June 3.

LISA O'CONNOR/AFP/Getty Images

The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business over the past six decades.

Avant, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had a varied career as a manager, the founder of two record labels and an occasional concert organizer and event producer. But his real influence came from advocating for black artists and advising them on how to get paid what they were worth.

Avant, now 88, would in many cases reach out to people he saw making moves and help them make better ones. When he saw what was happening with Aaron, he called then-U.S. Rep. Andrew Young (D-Ga.), whose political career he helped launch, and told him that he’d be calling Aaron to help formulate a plan for endorsements. The deals needed to be in motion before Aaron broke the record, Avant said.

And Avant got it done. How? He walked into the office of the president of Coca-Cola and, without any small talk or pretense, announced that “n—–s drink Coke too.”

The Black Godfather, known as such inside the tightknit music and entertainment fraternity, is music executive Clarence Avant, who quietly became one of the most influential dealmakers in the business during the last six decades.

Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

“He is the godfather,” Aaron, 85, said in an interview with The Undefeated before the Monday night world premiere of The Black Godfather, a Netflix documentary that tells that story and more about how Avant connected people, closed deals and made sure that black creatives and athletes moving on from sports were getting their due. “He’s mine. I love him. He played [a role in] almost 90 percent of my career. He broke down doors to get [me] in to do certain things. I always say I am who I am because of Clarence Avant.”

The film will have a limited release in theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on June 7. The story of Avant and the Coca-Cola deal is one of many shared in the documentary, which was directed by Reginald Hudlin. Monday’s premiere brought out an impressive amount of star power, nearly rivaling those featured in the film itself, which includes former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Also in the documentary are Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, music mogul Sean (Diddy) Combs, Bill Withers, Quincy Jones, Babyface, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and others. Much of the focus of the documentary — which is produced by Avant’s daughter, Nicole, an ambassador to the Bahamas in the Obama administration — is on Avant’s influence in the music industry. But he also made an impact in the political world, fundraising for Clinton and Young and advising them and Obama.

On Monday, Avant gathered with Pharrell, Foxx, Ava DuVernay, Snoop Dogg, Chadwick Boseman, Leonardo DiCaprio and others inside a small theater on Paramount Pictures’ lot to watch a film that felt like a love letter to a man who has been shaping pop culture behind the scenes for decades. (And, in many ways, still is. Several people said in the documentary that they’re distraught at the idea of who they’ll call once Avant is gone.)

Nicole Avant says she’s been thinking of telling her father’s story since she was 8 years old. She remembers the day well; she was at a Dodgers game with dugout seats, gifts from Aaron.

“I was like, ‘How did you do business with Hank Aaron? Why did you do business with Hank Aaron?’ And he told me the story … of how he got him endorsement deals and why it was a big deal at the time. I knew when I left that day, something clicked in my brain and said there’s something different here. These stories need to be told. This is over 40-something years ago,” she said in an interview before the premiere.

“What’s so amazing is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.” — director Reginald Hudlin on Clarence Avant

That understanding that her father’s work transcended what he was doing in music and in Hollywood, and that it was her dad who helped three of the most prominent athletes of all time, made her as an adult want to bring this project to light.

“What’s so amazing,” Hudlin said before the premiere, “is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers.

“He took Jim Brown from being a professional athlete to being an actor. At the time when Hank Aaron is worried about whether someone is going to shoot him on the field if he breaks Babe Ruth’s record, here’s this guy who got him endorsement deals when no one would touch him. With Muhammad Ali, here he is nearing the end of his career, he steps in and makes sure that Muhammad makes a transition into being a personality beyond simply being an athlete. Really important for all three of these great athletes in that really challenging time in their careers. Can you transition? Can you go to that next place? In all three cases, Clarence was there for them.”

How Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier became MLB’s king of custom cleats Fear of Gods, Space Jams, Travis Scotts — Frazier has worn them all and more on the filed to bring some swag to baseball

The night before a game against the Boston Red Sox in mid-April, Clint Frazier might as well have been a kid picking his outfit for the first day of school.

The 24-year-old New York Yankees outfielder wanted to look fresh for the first series of the 2019 Major League Baseball season between the two rival teams. He specifically envisioned pairing Yankees pinstripes with one of his favorite pairs of sneakers, the Nigel Sylvester Air Jordan 1s. But to take the baseball field in basketball shoes, Frazier needed some help. So he sent the Jordans to Anthony Ambrosini, founder and owner of Custom Cleats Inc., who’s been converting basketball and lifestyle sneakers into wearable footwear for grass and turf for 15 years.

“I texted Clint saying I got them,” Ambrosini recalled, “and he said, ‘Can you have them for me for the game tomorrow?’ … I told him, ‘It’s 10 o’clock at night, and I haven’t even started them.’ ” Yet Frazier pleaded, and Ambrosini obliged. He went into his Long Island, New York, shop after hours and added metal spikes to the bottoms of the shoes. By the next day, they’d make it to Yankee Stadium, ready for Frazier to lace up before the game.

In the bottom of the fourth inning of the Yankees’ 8-0 win over the Red Sox on April 16 — when the two teams partook in the league’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day — Frazier launched a 354-foot home run to right-center field, with Robinson’s No. 42 on the back of his uniform and Nigel Sylvester 1s on his feet. It had to be the shoes, right?

“Look good, feel good. Feel good, play good. Play good, get paid good,” said Frazier, paraphrasing the timeless saying from the great Deion Sanders. “I’m trying to do all those.”

That’s certainly been the motto for the Yankees phenom. In the first few months of the season, Frazier has become Major League Baseball’s king of custom cleats. In 39 games, he’s worn 13 different pairs — from Air Jordan 6s to high- and low-top Air Jordan 11s, Nike Fear of Gods and Air Force 1s, as well as multiple models of his most beloved sneaker, the Air Jordan 1. All of his cleats have been converted by Ambrosini, marking a partnership that’s really only just beginning.

“My goal is to have as many pairs of custom cleats as I can over the 162-game season,” said Frazier, who’s batting .270 with 10 home runs and 28 RBIs. “I’m trying to bring a little swagger to baseball.”


With the fifth overall pick in the 2013 MLB first-year player draft, the Cleveland Indians selected the then-18-year-old Frazier out of Loganville High School, near his hometown of Decatur, Georgia. Frazier, who was named the Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year during his senior season, had already committed to play at the University of Georgia. Yet he decided to sign with the Indians and go straight from high school to the big leagues.

Frazier wouldn’t make his MLB debut until July 1, 2017, less than a year after being traded from Cleveland to New York and emerging as the No. 1 prospect in the Yankees organization. He spent his first season in the majors endorsed by Under Armour before Adidas signed him in 2018. Heading into his third MLB season, Frazier was due for a change.

“I dropped my contract with Adidas,” Frazier said, “and told myself I was just gonna go the solo route and convert shoes into cleats.”

Frazier could’ve bought pairs of Air Jordan 11 cleats that debuted in 2018. He also could’ve waited until late March, right before the start of MLB’s regular season, when the Jordan Brand dropped a collection of Air Jordan 1 cleats. But what he truly sought was the liberty to wear whatever he wanted on the field. Frazier was anxious to start commissioning conversions. He just had to find someone capable of transforming any sneaker he imagined into a cleat. In mid-February, three days before Yankees position players were scheduled to report to the team’s spring training facility in Tampa, Florida, he took to Twitter in search of a customizer:

Most of the replies pointed Frazier in the direction of Custom Cleats, and one of his teammates specifically referred him to the company’s owner. Coming off double-heel surgery in 2018, veteran Yankees shortstop Troy Tulowitzki had Ambrosini make him pairs of LeBron James’ signature Nikes that proved to be more comfortable to wear than traditional cleats as he recovered from the injury.

“Troy took those LeBrons to spring training, and I guess Clint saw them,” said Ambrosini, who began making cleats in the early 2000s while playing in the minor leagues within the Montreal Expos organization. The first pair he converted was Kobe Bryant’s Nike Huaraches for his younger brother and Class A teammate, Dominick Ambrosini, a sixth-round draft pick by the Expos in 1999. Now the elder Ambrosini does custom baseball and golf cleats for athletes all across the country, including Chicago Cubs All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, retired seven-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Roger Clemens and future first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Business is booming at Custom Cleats Inc., which boasts 100,000 followers on the company’s Instagram page.

“I got a text from Tulowitzki’s agent,” Ambrosini continued, “letting me know that Clint was gonna give me a call.”

Frazier’s first commission was a pair of “Shadow” Air Jordan 1s that he wanted to wear in spring training. Ambrosini completed the conversion and shipped the shoes down to Florida. Frazier was so excited once they arrived that he sprinted from the mailroom of George M. Steinbrenner Field into the Yankees’ clubhouse to open the package. Ambrosini had passed Frazier’s test. And the focus shifted to what he’d wear during the regular season.

“I don’t think anybody knew how serious I was about trying to make this a real thing,” Frazier said. “I told Anthony, ‘Look, man. This is kind of my vision. I want to make this into something big. I want to continue to send you a bunch of shoes to make into cleats throughout the year.’ ”

Their system is simple: Frazier cops size 10.5s in the dopest kicks he can find and sends them to Ambrosini, who replaces the rubber soles on each pair of shoes with custom-manufactured spiked cleat bottoms. He can turn around a sneaker in less than a day before having it hand-delivered to Yankee Stadium or shipped out to Frazier if the team is on the road.

“We kicked around ideas about shoes we wanted to do. One night, Clint called me from Flight Club,” said Ambrosini of the popular sneaker boutique in New York City’s East Village. “He was on the phone like, ‘Yo, man. What shoes should I get? I’m staring at all these shoes. There’s so many options, I don’t know what to pick.’ I’m like, ‘Just pick something that you love, that’s comfortable and that’s got the colors that you can wear.’ ”

Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees in action against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on April 20. The Yankees defeated the Royals 9-2.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

That’s right: Frazier has to remain compliant with the MLB uniform guidelines. He hasn’t run into any trouble so far, although he’s broken out all different kinds of flavors with his cleats. Frazier made his season debut on April 2 in a pair of “Olympic” Air Jordan 6s. He hit his first home run of the year on the road against the Baltimore Orioles wearing those “Shadow” 1s from spring training. A day later, still at Camden Yards in Baltimore wearing the Shadows, he went deep twice in one game.

“It almost felt like whenever I wore a new pair of cleats, I’d hit a home run,” Frazier said. “That’s why I was breaking out different shoes. I was like, ‘Damn, man. I just hit a home run in all of them.’ ”

His next homer came against the Red Sox in the Nigel Sylvester 1s. Last year, Queens, New York, native and professional BMX rider Nigel Sylvester collaborated with Jordan Brand for his own edition of the Air Jordan 1. Frazier loves that shoe so much that he has two pairs: one that he wears off the field and another that he got converted into cleats. Sylvester had never seen or heard of the flashy, red-haired Yankees outfielder until the night his friend sent him a random direct message: “Yo! I’m at the game and homie is wearing your shoes as cleats.” Sylvester was flattered by the gesture.

“Being a New York City kid, I definitely have a spot in my heart for the Yankees,” Sylvester said. “To see Clint hit a home run and run the bases in my shoe — bro, it was so crazy. Definitely a moment in my career I will never, ever forget. … He’s brought a level of excitement to the game that’s needed. … At the end of the day, he’s being creative, and I always respect creativity, especially on such a big stage.”

The day after the game, Sylvester showed Frazier some love on Instagram, and designer Jerry Lorenzo (the son of former MLB player and manager Jerry Manuel) commented on the post. Similar to Sylvester’s collaboration with the Jordan Brand, Lorenzo, founder of the stylish streetwear label Fear of God, has teamed up with Nike for two collections of his own sneakers. Frazier saw Lorenzo’s comment and slyly replied, “I got something for u on Friday.”

That Friday, April 19, Frazier whipped out a pair of the Nike Air Fear of God Shoot Around. Oh, and the heat didn’t stop there. He’s also worn a collection of Air Jordan 11s in the “Win like ’82,’ ” “Space Jam” and low-top “Navy Snakeskin” colorways. Two weeks before the release of the “Cap and Gown” Air Jordan 13s, Frazier had them on his feet in the batter’s box.

“Clint definitely represents the hypebeast culture as far as style,” Ambrosini said. “That’s what makes him stand out so much. He’s so in tune with the awesomeness of all the sneakers that are out, and he’s not afraid to get out there and wear them. There’s a lot of guys I do conversions for that at first glance you really can’t tell it was a sneaker — it blends in so much with the uniform. … But Clint is finding the coolest shoes. … They’re so sick and they stand out so much that that’s what’s making him stand out too.”

Frazier has even paid homage to a true Yankees legend with pairs of Derek Jeter’s “Re2pect” Air Jordan 1s and low-top Air Jordan 11s. In 1998, shortly after the official launch of the Jordan Brand, Jeter became the first baseball player to be endorsed by Jordan. Now, 11 active players represent the Jordan Brand in Major League Baseball: New York Yankees pitcher Dellin Betances, Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Gio Gonzalez, Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, San Diego Padres infielder Manny Machado, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Taijuan Walker.

Three of Frazier’s teammates are Jordan guys, and 11 of his 13 pairs of custom cleats are Air Jordans. But landing an endorsement deal isn’t necessarily on his mind.

Clint Frazier of the New York Yankees bats during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore on April 4.

Rob Tringali/SportsChrome/Getty Images

“Jordan is my favorite brand,” Frazier said. “I obviously would love to be a part of the brand one day, but I also don’t want to lose my independence or my freedom with the ability to wear whatever cleat I wanna wear.”

Instead, Frazier has modeled his movement after another athlete who’s embraced not having a shoe contract: veteran Houston Rockets forward and NBA sneaker king P.J. Tucker.

“I’m not a huge basketball guy, but I know who P.J. Tucker is from the buzz he’s created because of all the shoes he’s wearing,” Frazier said. “That was kind of my goal, to build off of his platform. In baseball, we don’t have a lot of guys that have done this.”

No shoe deal means Frazier has an expensive hobby — especially if he’s doubling and tripling up on pairs of certain sneakers to wear off the field, during batting practice and in a cleated version during games. Frazier is definitely a sneakerhead, although his collection isn’t as big as you’d think. “I probably have 50 to 60 pairs,” he said. “But that’s gonna continue to grow — I know that. And I know my cleats collection is gonna probably be bigger than my actual shoe collection.”

Inside the Yankees’ clubhouse this season, a few of Frazier’s teammates call him “Canal Street Clint.” It’s a notorious nickname due to the reputation of that area of New York City. Basically, Canal is the mecca of knockoff designer merchandise, a place you go to find cheap Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada and more, albeit fake or counterfeited. Frazier doesn’t shop there, but he earned the moniker because what he plays in aren’t real cleats made for baseball. But they’re real to him, and the people who’ve taken notice: clubhouse attendants from opposing teams who come to his locker asking if they can see a few of his pairs, pitchers and catchers he spots staring at his feet, and even the dudes whose shoes he’s wearing.

“Guys have worn dope a– shoes on the diamond, but the way that Clint’s doing it, it’s kinda crazy,” Sylvester said. “He’s flipping shoes that aren’t meant to be cleats into cleats. Which is so dope.”

Despite the jokes, Frazier plans to keep the customs coming.

“I’m creating a new wave of style in baseball,” he said over the phone from a West Coast road trip in late April, two days after suffering a Grade 2 left ankle sprain with two partially torn ligaments. The injury kept him off the field for 11 games. But when he returned in the second week of May, of course he did so in style.

Frazier debuted five pairs in seven days, including superstar rapper Travis Scott’s “Sail” Nike Air Force 1s and his new Air Jordan 1s, perhaps the most hyped sneaker release of the year. On Twitter, Scott gave Frazier his stamp of approval.

For a game on Mother’s Day, Frazier and Ambrosini teamed up with famed sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache for a pair of custom-painted Air Jordan 1 cleats, featuring his mom’s two cats.

In late May, Ambrosini shared a photo of his latest creation: a pair of suede “Cool Grey” Kaws x Air Jordan 4s, which dropped in March 2017 for $350 but have skyrocketed in value and now resell on GOAT in a size 10.5 for $1,435. The caption on the post read, “Tag someone that might take @kaws to the diamond.” Of course, most people shouted out Frazier, including Houston Astros outfielder Derek Fisher, who commented, “@clintfrazierr might be the only one insane enough.”

And Frazier responded, confirming everyone’s inkling.

“What if i told you those are mine,” Frazier wrote under the comment, “i just haven’t worn them yet?”

The plan: Debut the Kaws 4s at Yankee Stadium when the Red Sox are in town this week. For a four-game series against Boston, it was only right that he broke out a fresh new pair of custom cleats.

But with four months left in the season, the question is, what else does Clint Frazier have in his bag?

“I’ve got some stuff in the works,” he said. “Just keep watching.”

Cardinals QB Kyler Murray might just be Nike’s next NFL superstar athlete Partnership with Nike offers endless marketing possibilities for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft

NEW YORK — Kyler Murray beat one of the best marketing departments in the world to the punch.

Last November, in the thick of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at the University of Oklahoma, the 21-year-old phenom quarterback posted a photo on his social media accounts so recognizable that it didn’t need a caption. Murray re-created Bo Jackson’s iconic 1989 Nike ad down to every detail — the marbled backdrop, flexed muscles, shoulder pads and a wooden baseball bat propped up on strong shoulders.

In a creative way, Murray illustrated the undeniable connection between him and Jackson, two generational dual-sport athletes. Jackson is the only player in history to be named an All-Star in football and baseball, having played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball from 1986 to 1994 (three years before Murray was born). Yet, unlike Jackson, who became the face of Nike’s cross-training division in the late 1980s surrounding the launch of the brand’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, Murray decided to focus on one sport. “The young man from Oklahoma,” Jackson said in January, “should just go with his heart.”

He ultimately chose football despite being selected as an outfielder by the Oakland Athletics with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Murray agreed to a contract with the club that included a reported $4.66 million signing bonus and permission to play football at Oklahoma for one more year. During the 2018 college football season, he started at quarterback in all 14 games for the Sooners, hoisted the Heisman after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and leading the team to the College Football Playoff. A month after declaring for the NFL draft, Murray took to Twitter to announce that he’d be “fully committing” his life and time to being a pro quarterback.

On the eve of the draft, before the Arizona Cardinals selected Murray with the top pick, Nike made it official, signing the dual-threat quarterback from Bedford, Texas, along with 26 players (and counting) as part of the brand’s 2019 class of NFL rookies. At Oklahoma, Murray wore Nike on both the baseball diamond and gridiron, before the school’s football program switched to Jordan Brand uniforms last year. In celebration of the new partnership, Murray rocked a Great Gatsby-themed 1-of-1 pair of Air Jordan 1 lows onstage at the draft, featuring “Nike K1″ on the tongues of each shoe.

“We admire the energy and commitment that Kyler Murray brings to the game on and off the field, and we’re excited to welcome him and the entire rookie class to the Nike family,” a brand spokesperson told The Undefeated. “We feel strongly that their dedication to the game will continue to inspire the next generation of athletes.”

Roughly 40 percent of the players in the NFL are endorsed by the multibillion-dollar sportswear company. And now Nike might just have its next superstar athlete in Murray. Within several hours after the announcement that he’d been signed, Murray appeared in his first Nike commercial — a one-minute spot depicting his journey from playing three sports as a kid to reaching the NFL.

“I think he’ll understand once he gets an opportunity to be on Nike’s campus, all the things that will be afforded to him,” free agent and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters ahead of the draft. “The most important thing I would tell him is, ‘Just go out there and focus on your task at hand with being a professional, and everything else will fall in line for you.’ ”

Suh’s evaluation of the young, highly touted quarterback? “He’s definitely elusive and very athletic,” Suh said. “I haven’t had a chance to truly watch him play. Maybe this year I’ll have an opportunity to hit him.”

Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, another Nike athlete, has watched Murray quite a bit. And the two-time Pro Bowler and 2017 first-team All-Pro selection is already impressed.

“I think he’s gonna be a killer in this league,” Slay told The Undefeated. “I can just see his competitiveness — how he operates, how he carries himself … He’s a baseball guy, so you know he got a strong arm. And the thing about baseball players is they got great vision. To see that little ball, hit that little ball and catch that little ball at a fast pace. How this game is … I think it’s made for him.”

“Honestly, I want to be the best that ever played the game.” — Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray

The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray reminds Slay of two veteran NFL quarterbacks. “He’s a more athletic Drew Brees,” Slay said, “and you can see him as the next Russell Wilson.”

Wilson — who just became the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing a four-year, $140 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks — is also endorsed by Nike. He and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are the only Nike athletes in the NFL to have their own cleats and signature lifestyle shoes. In 2017, after Beckham Jr. signed the richest NFL shoe deal in history, Nike delivered the Special Field Air Force-1 Mid “OBJ.” He also recently teased another signature sneaker that’s on the way. And on the red carpet at the 2018 ESPYS, the Seahawks star debuted his Nike Dangeruss Wilson 1. Maybe Murray will eventually join Beckham and Wilson and get the Nike signature treatment.

“He’s gonna have his own shoe,” Slay said, “sooner or later.”

Until then, the ads will keep coming — only now he has a brand behind him to do them. The marketing possibilities surrounding Murray already seem fruitful, especially if he lives up to the dream he shared in his debut Nike commercial.

“Honestly,” Murray said. “I want to be the best that ever played the game.”

Today in black history: RIP Alex Haley, Bill White named first black MLB announcer and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 10

1964 — By a vote of 290-130, the U.S. House of Representatives passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited any state or local government or public facility from denying access to anyone because of race or ethnic origin. It also provided the U.S. attorney general with the power to bring school desegregation lawsuits. The federal government was allowed to stop giving federal funds to companies or states that discriminated. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964.

1971 — Bill White, the former first baseman and five-time All-Star, is recommended for the New York Yankees’ play-by-play job by broadcast/radio legend Howard Cosell. White became the first African-American broadcaster for a major league team.

1989 — Attorney Ronald Brown becomes the first African-American elected national chairman of the Democratic Party. Five years later, he was named secretary of commerce by President Bill Clinton and served in that role until he was killed, along with 34 other people, in a 1996 plane crash en route to a diplomatic mission in Croatia.

1990 — South African President F.W. de Klerk announces to parliament that Nelson Mandela would be released unconditionally on Feb. 11. The news took many by surprise. Besides Mandela, other activists were also freed. The formation of a democratic South Africa would eventually result from this action.

1992 — Author Alex Haley dies. He was well-known for his novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which traced his family’s lineage to Africa and retells the story of seven American generations.

1997 — O.J. Simpson jury reaches decision on $25 million in punitive damages.

Lynx celebrate WNBA championship with D.C. students Team opts for community service after failing to get White House invite

Cheryl Reeve believes her Minnesota Lynx epitomize what a champion should be. They aren’t just tremendous basketball players, they’re leaders in their communities, whether in Minnesota or the nation’s capital. And that is more important to Reeve and her players than being fêted on the South Lawn of the White House.

The Lynx did not receive an invite to the White House after winning the 2017 WNBA championship. The team, which plays the Washington Mystics on Thursday, came to D.C. a day early to work with Samaritan’s Feet Shoes of Hope to distribute shoes to children from low-income families as part of their championship celebration.

The team arrived Tuesday and distributed shoes and socks from Nike, Jordan Brand and DTLR on Wednesday at Payne Elementary, a school where 30 percent of the students are homeless. Members of the team also hit the blacktops to go over basketball drills with the kids and then returned inside to be celebrated in the school’s auditorium. The Lynx ended the event with a photo op with the 2017 WNBA Finals trophy.

“I want to say thank you to these players for being such amazing athletes, incredible role models and choosing to be here today to show how champions act,” Reeve said as the team stood on the stage to be recognized.

Asked how this post-Finals celebration stacked up with her other experiences, four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore spoke fondly of being invited to the White House under the Barack Obama administration after winning titles in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

But she said spending the afternoon playing basketball and giving out new Jordans to more than 300 elementary school students made this celebration stand out.

“I’m so ridiculously blessed to have so many memories at the White House, so many great ones,” Moore said Wednesday while standing on the blacktop. “This will probably be more unique. We made some great memories with these kids. … We’ll definitely remember this.”

Asked about President Donald Trump’s decision to not invite the Lynx to the White House or whether they would have gone if invited, most of the players said they wanted to focus on the kids and the positivity of Wednesday’s community service.

Trump disinvited the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to the White House this week and rescinded an invitation to the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors last fall. Three leagues with predominantly black workforces — NBA, NFL and WNBA — have been spurned while leagues with majority-white workforces, the NHL and MLB, have been celebrated at the White House.

“Obviously, it does [bother me that the president is targeting black athletes],” Lynx guard Seimone Augustus said. “The NBA, the NFL, they’ve all been very vocal. The players — LeBron [James], Steph [Curry] and all of them — have been doing their job as far as letting people know their stance on the situation. And we’re going to continue to do our part. We’ve been doing this since last year with the anthem, but today just was a day where we felt like it was more important for us as a team, as a unit, to do something way more special than whatever is going on with the chaos of the White House and the invites and all that stuff.”

In July 2016, the Lynx stepped into the social activism spotlight when they came out with black-and-white warm-up shirts that read “Change starts with us. Justice & accountability.” On the backs of the shirts were the phrase “Black Lives Matter”; the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men killed by police; and the Dallas Police Department emblem (five officers were shot to death during a protest after Sterling and Castile were killed).

The Lynx players also linked arms during the national anthem, while the Los Angeles Sparks went to the locker room before Game 1 of the 2017 WNBA Finals.

Asked about the disparity in teams visiting the White House, Reeve said:

“I think it’s a confusing message. I don’t really want to take a deep dive into the diversity piece. I think it’s plain for people to see. And I think for us, we say we’re not going to let anyone steal our joy. At the end of the day, we don’t need the White House to celebrate our championship. This was an incredibly meaningful day and a way to commemorate it and showing how champions act, and what we’re about and what our league is about.”

From Ken Griffey Jr. to the Braves’ Ronald Acuña — is Major League Baseball still not feeling hats to the back? The long battle cry of the backward ballcap

The baseball cap seems innocuous enough. A brimmed hat emblazoned with a team logo for players to wear while on the field for protection from the sun. Simple. But over the past couple of decades, the baseball cap has become a lightning rod. Depending on the direction it is turned, or who wears it, the cap is a stand-in for the sport’s racially contentious past … and present. From legends such as Ken Griffey Jr. to newcomers such as Ronald Acuña, the baseball cap has been as divisive as a Subway Series.

When is a hat not a hat?


Ronald Acuña (center) of the Atlanta Braves in action during the spring training game between the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays at Champion Stadium on March 13 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

Acuña walked into an Atlanta Braves training camp interview on Feb. 15 and left having been asked to make a sartorial change.

The Venezuelan outfielder signed with the Braves in 2014 and honed his skills with various minor league teams, getting ready for the big leagues. He’s dominated, garnering comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. for his play, and his swagger. The buzz around him, and superior performance has led him to be named the top baseball prospect entering the 2018 season and has allowed him the leverage to turn down the Braves’ $30 million offer in the offseason. The Braves and the city of Atlanta are head over heels for Acuña and the possibility of what he can bring to the franchise when he gets called up from the Gwinnett Stripers minor league squad at some point this season.

But first, there was that training camp interview.

Braves manager Brian Snitker called Acuña in to address his cap. Acuña had been wearing his hat tilted to the side, and a little bit off of his head because his thick locs were making it impossible for the cap to fit perfectly. The style balked at tradition.

Tradition. Major League baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, Latin American athletes, and has launched a diversity pipeline initiative to create more executive positions for people of color, but Major League Baseball and its fans seemingly long for the years of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb. When ESPN ranked the top 100 MLB players of all time in 2015, six of the top 10 players had played before integration. CBS’s 2016 list of its top 10 players also features six players from a segregated league. So when baseball fans talk about traditions or years past, they are talking about a time that excluded black athletes. And that’s not the only hard pill to swallow.

They only saw a black man with his hat backward and all of the negative connotations that come with it — disrespect, nonchalance. Code words.

Other baseball traditions and taboos are alienating to black and Latino fans. Players are supposed to respectfully trot around the diamond after home runs, sans backflips or excessive celebrations. The same self-expression in the form of chest-pounding, trash talk and playing to the crowd that has made the NBA hip — and black — isn’t allowed in baseball. Celebratory dances are frowned upon, part of a culture of unwritten rules with a simple message: Fall in line.

For example, in 2013, Yasiel Puig was pulled to the side by opposing Mets players for rubbing their noses in his home run trot. His offense? Taking 32 seconds to round the bases. All of this is code for following traditions set in stone before black and white and Latino athletes played in the same pro league(s), and when fans were segregated in the stands. And part of those baseball customs is making sure players wear their hats straight.

“It’s the look,” Snitker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 2. “You do respect the game and the organization and the team on the front of it [the hat]. I tell these guys, we don’t do things like everybody else. There’s a lot of Hall of Famers who spent a lot of time in this organization. We wear batting practice jerseys, and people don’t put glasses on over the ‘A,’ things like that, out of respect for the Hall of Famers that put a lot into this organization, and all those flags that are hanging.”

With all due respect, Snitker’s point is not only silly but it’s another reminder that baseball is about its archaic traditions —the Braves organization was founded in 1871, for reference — more than its players, and what those players represent. Acuña, by all indication, is a transformative talent who can turn the Braves’ future around — the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2013 and hasn’t won a postseason series since 2001. The organization is concerned about how he wears his hat, even as plenty of white Braves players have worn their hats backward, to the side and every other way besides straight.


The Acuña hat issue isn’t a new thing. It’s been around, most famously since the ’90s, when the aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr. was a young, swaggy outfielder who seemed poised to take over baseball. But his appearance — backward hats and untucked jerseys — flouted baseball tradition, and one of the biggest defenders of old customs was then-Yankees and current Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

“I shouldn’t say this publicly,” Showalter told the New York Times Magazine in 1994. “But a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttail’s hanging out.” Showalter added Barry Bonds to his list of transgressors for having his shirttail untucked at the All-Star game. “To me, that’s a lack of respect for the game.” Respect. Tradition. Coded language.

What people who share Showalter’s views didn’t understand or don’t want to understand is that Griffey, who only actually wore his hat backward for batting practice, wore his hats backward as a tribute to his father, Ken Griffey Sr. When Griffey Jr. wore his dad’s hats, they were too big, so his turned them backward so they’d fit. Then he just kept doing it, into his pro career. There isn’t a bigger sign of respect for tradition than honoring a father who also used to play in the very same MLB that wanted to maintain said customs. But the controversy wasn’t about why Griffey wore his hat backward. Nobody seemed to care. They only saw a black man with his hat backward and all of the negative connotations that come with it — disrespect, nonchalance. Code words.

Griffey wasn’t afraid to hit back at his detractors. “Why should I care about a person from an opposing team?” Griffey said to the Seattle Times a week after Showalter’s quotes surfaced. “I don’t take the game seriously? Why, I do believe [Showalter] was coaching third for the All-Star team when I won the [1992] MVP.”

The criticism obviously stuck with Griffey, so he poked at the MLB one last time. When he received his Hall of Fame hat in 2016 during his acceptance speech, the first thing he did was turn it backward. One more reminder that he did it his way.

So what does this all mean for baseball as a whole? It’s about cultural irrelevance. Baseball’s reliance on homogenized traditions is its own Trojan horse, infiltrating the sport’s psyche and destroying it from the inside. Holding on to archaic practices that erase unique expressions uphold whiteness but close the sport off to audiences from diverse backgrounds. And for black fans, it’s demoralizing to see people who look like us, and express themselves like we do get constantly reprimanded for representing our cultural tics on a national stage. It’s a major reason black audiences are flocking to the NBA and the MLB has as few black players as ever.

Here’s a legendary story about Satchel Paige. During a semi-pro game, before his Negro League debut, Paige’s team was up 1-0 in the ninth inning. His outfielders made three straight errors to load the bases. Paige, fed up with his team and determined to show off his skill, walked around the bases and outfield, demanding that his teammates sit down in the infield. Then the legendary pitcher struck out the next three batters to end the game.

It’s a story that has become part of baseball lore for its brashness, showmanship and drama. And it’s the same type of story that would get someone like Paige punished for his bravado if it happened in 2018. However, that story is part of baseball tradition. It’s a part of black tradition. And baseball needs to embrace these traditions — alternative hat placements and all — or else become a cultural relic instead of regaining its place as America’s pastime.

 

How Big Papi’s ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover captured Boston’s journey from tragedy to triumph Ortiz put on for his city when it was most needed

April 20, 2013, at Fenway Park — it was the most Boston of all days.

Just five days before, two young men had left bombs near the iconic finish line of the Boston Marathon. In those five days, the city had endured the deaths of three people at the blast site, injuries to 264, a controversial “shelter in place” order and a massive manhunt. Later came the deaths of two police officers.

April 20 was the Red Sox’s first home game since all of that. The Sox were sitting on a record of 11-4 before the first day game in a series against the Kansas City Royals, but it was the city that needed a win. The last game the Sox finished at Fenway had been on the day of the bombings. Something positive to hold up after so much chaos. Before the two-hour, 58-minute game commenced, as dozens of uniformed police marched off the field and a gigantic American flag was unfurled in front of the Green Monster, 10-time All-Star David Ortiz spoke into the handheld microphone.

“All right, all right, Boston. The jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox. It says Boston.” That’s what the then-two-time World Series champion said. “We want to thank you, Mayor Menino, Gov. Patrick and the whole Police Department for the great job they did this past week. This is our f—ing city, and nobody gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong, thank you!”

The Red Sox would go on to win that game 4-3. In front of 35,152 people, Ortiz had two hits and an RBI. Big Papi’s comments kicked off what was a turnaround season for the Red Sox. They would go on to win the pennant and the 2013 World Series, making Ortiz a three-time World Series champion.


That day’s win, and the eventual World Series victory at the end of October, brought some joy back to a city that desperately needed to feel normal. And Sports Illustrated needed to illustrate the city’s tribulations for the Nov. 11 cover shot. They needed Big Papi, who was also named MVP of the 2013 World Series. There are many moving parts when it comes to a multiperson photo shoot, let alone a cover shoot. And this one needed police officers too. Officers Javier Pagan and Rachel McGuire were chosen, as well as Detective Kevin McGill because of their appearance, in action, on the April 22, 2013, cover of SI the week of the bombing.

Planning the new cover started immediately after the series was settled in six games. The police officers’ appearance needed to be OK’d with the police commissioner, and access to the ballpark was required. “The photo editor at the time, Brad Smith, called after the Sox won the championship, and they needed to close a cover,” said cover photographer Joe McNally. “You gotta get Fenway Park on board, you gotta get Big Papi on board and the Boston Red Sox and the public relations people — and all of the sudden everything cracked open, and we got a time with Big Papi.”

It wasn’t that it was surprising that he agreed, but that he had time. “At that point,” said McNally, “he was the most famous baseball player on the planet.”

Soon McNally headed to an empty Fenway Park. “It’s always cool to get out on a major league baseball diamond,” he said. “It’s vast, and always just cool to be there when the crowds are not. And Fenway has so much history.”

“It’s vast, and always just cool to be there when the crowds are not. And Fenway has so much history.”

The setup was hectic. “They let me in like two hours before Big Papi would be available,” McNally said.

“I shot four distinct cover possibilities. You can’t go back to SI with just one option.” Obviously. “So I had a backdrop set up under the stands, sort of a studio feel. Then I did three different solutions in the outfield.”

One of the “solutions” in the outfield would be used for the cover. In that shot, Pagan, McGuire and McGill stand in uniform together with Ortiz, who is wearing a black suit and red scarf and holding a bat. The configuration seems a bit odd at first for a story that would be about the importance Ortiz had played in the history of the Boston Red Sox. But McNally said it was the “only way” the picture worked.

“Because Big Papi … he’s not called Big Papi for nothing. He’s a big man,” he told me with a chuckle.

Not only were the sizes of everyone involved a problem, but also there was the issue of the lack of color in everyone’s clothing. “I had to deal with the fact that Big Papi was not in uniform. I wanted him in uniform, and of course he showed up in a Hugo Boss suit and that was it. Thankfully he had the scarf, which gave me a little bit of color to work with,” McNally said. “Because the police officers were in dark blue … I was like, What the hell am I going to do for a little bit of color here? Those are the challenges that go along with the turf.”

While the outfield provided a great backdrop, Fenway is an iconic stadium. Why not shoot toward the Green Monster? “It’s legendary, of course, but it’s kinda faceless too,” McNally told me. Later, he did turn Ortiz toward the nearly 38-foot-tall wall, where the graphic for “Boston Strong” was on display.

“A big Boston Red Sox ‘B’ out there … and underneath it said, ‘STRONG,’ so I wanted that in the picture,” he said. The photo didn’t end up making the cut, but McNally also put the three officers together, with Big Papi to their right, in a studio setting, which was used inside the issue.

The police officers weren’t used to being photographed like Ortiz, but they were good sports about it. “They knew the police commissioner had blessed this, so everything was cool … relaxed,” he said. “All of the sudden, you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s pretty cool for a cop on the beat.”

As for Ortiz, he was in high spirits. “I’d never worked with him before and asked him, ‘Big Papi, how much time I got?’ He said, ‘I’ll give you 20 minutes.’ I was like, ‘All right, all right.’ I fudged it. I kept looking at my watch and being like, ‘We still have 15 minutes left.’ And he was like, ‘No way, man!’ I was saying that, and of course had burned my 20 minutes. He knew I was bulls—-ing him, but he was in a good mood,” McNally said.

And why wouldn’t he be? After a long, hard season, Ortiz had, according to Sports Illustrated, become the first non-Yankees player to win at least three championships with the same club in the past 30 years. “He was the hero,” McNally said, “and the cops represented Boston. It was kind of a big deal.”


Nearly three years later, the cover feels like an anomaly. In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color. He was quietly joined by other football players and Olympic gold medalist Megan Rapinoe, and slowly more and more athletes knelt, held up a fist or locked arms during the national anthem. All in protest of police brutality. While this cover isn’t an exact comparison — working with police during a terror attack versus regular interactions with citizens, which Kaepernick was getting at — it does seem like this cover wouldn’t happen with a black athlete in 2017. This is to say nothing about how the Take A Knee protest has evolved (and gentrified) since President Donald Trump’s outsize reaction to NBA champion Stephen Curry expressing his resistance to simply attending a White House ceremony.

I got a chance to briefly talk with Ortiz in January when he was promoting his new docuseries, Fusion’s Big Papi Needs A Job. The conceit: Ortiz wants to do something new with his retirement and sets out to try a variety of jobs to varying levels of success — and let’s just say Big Papi as a manicurist is a hoot. While he wouldn’t speak to the particular Sports Illustrated cover, Ortiz spoke frequently about the empathy he developed doing a job he didn’t previously understand. “When you don’t know about things, you just fly through. You don’t know,” he said. “I think everybody has different things to do in life, different jobs. Now I give people the credit they deserve.”

Reflecting on that turnaround season was pleasant all around; for McNally, it meant shooting a celebratory cover. “As a photographer for many years, you prepare for disappointment. You just hope Mr. or Mrs. Big Time Athlete is not a Big Time Jerk, which they can be. But Big Papi was great,” he said. “I have to say that was the pleasant outcome. He’s enjoying himself and is massively talented, and he was cool to be around.”

McNally also remembered the “our f—ing city” speech while photographing Ortiz and the three police: “He went out onto the Fenway pitcher’s mound and he was on loudspeakers at the stadium, and he actually said, ‘This is our f—ing city!’ It takes some guts to curse in front of 50,000 people. He’s real.”

Chris Archer: A letter to my parents The Rays ace looks back with gratitude at his childhood home, where he learned to love himself and to embrace the differences in others

The setting is a playground in Clayton, North Carolina, in the early 1990s. We’re playing dodgeball during an outdoor recess in grade school, and I’m on a roll. I nail a kid — as well as any first- or second-grader could — to eliminate him from the game, and, as he walks defeated off the field, he looks back at me and shouts the words that rock me to my core: “I don’t care that you beat me, blackie!”

I stopped dead in my tracks, confused and shaken. To this very day, I vividly remember looking skyward while trying to internalize what he had just said. I asked myself, “Is this really how people see me?”

That was the precise moment that I realized I was black. And by the time I had looked down, I realized that color was now a part of my life that I could not avoid.

Sure, being black was always physically part of my life, but, until that grade school day, I had never seen myself as physically different or faced obstacles despite my slightly darker pigmentation (the result of my white biological mother and my black biological father).

I never knew color because the love my de facto parents — who were technically my white biological grandparents and raised me since birth — enveloped me with was all the unconditional love a child could ever need.

From as young an age as I can remember, my parents Ron and Donna always championed the fact that I, and frankly everybody in the world, was different. My mom was especially proactive and would always say, “Chris, what makes you different is what makes you unique, so embrace that.”

Whether my parents were doing it consciously or subconsciously, they were unquestionably preparing me for obstacles that might arise living in North Carolina in that era.

But, at a young age, I honestly never saw any difference between myself and my parents. And as I got older, even as I began to realize my differences, I was never judgmental of other people’s race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And that was largely because of where and how I was raised.

On our cul-de-sac, we had a Mormon family. Between our house and the Mormon family was a lesbian couple. Directly across the street was a gay male couple.

Sure, that’s a lot of differences on the surface. Yet we didn’t see it that way.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

We hosted group dinners together, went to church together and had family gatherings together. And while I, the only black kid in the neighborhood, didn’t grow up on a street that was racially diverse, I did understand early in life that we are all just people despite whatever our differences may be.

As I grew older and entered my adolescent years, I was fortunate to live a life where I experienced very little racial strife and tension, which can be especially rare growing up in the South.

That’s not to say that racism didn’t exist in my adolescent life, though.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I spent a lot of time with this girl at school and around town. We texted back and forth for a few months, and I eventually mustered the courage to ask her if I could come over to her house to kick it.

The girl was white, and I’ll never forget her response: “My dad said that I’m not allowed to hang out with N-words, or have a boyfriend that is a N-word.”

The way she said it was a little too casual, just like when the grade school dodgeball victim called me “blackie.” And just like that little boy, this girl was unfortunate to have grown up in an environment where someone else shaped her views about race and culture.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

Fortunately, I grew up in an “embrace all” environment that my parents provided me, and participation in youth sports afforded me the opportunity to make friends of all different races. Youth sports also exposed me to a particularly special high school coach, Ron Walker. Ron, who is black, welcomed me and my parents into his family, and their support allowed me to connect with a part of my black heritage and culture that was needed in my life.

You may be asking yourself, “But why was this connection needed?”

The answer:

Even to this day, regardless how welcoming I am of all people, certain people in this world will also see me in a certain light — a biracial man. That’s just a sad reality.

But it’s a reality that doesn’t change my mindset toward people who look at me that way. I embrace being biracial. I enjoy interacting with people of all different beliefs. And I most certainly accept people of different beliefs for who they are — not what they are.

I hold no grudge toward that kid on the grade school playground. And I don’t fault my sophomore year crush for the comment that ended our relationship. They didn’t know what they were saying carried so much hate. They unfortunately grew accustomed to those beliefs in the environment they were raised in, and they were simply regurgitating what their household environment passed on to them.

I just wish they could have grown up in a house and environment like mine. A house where my parents endlessly nurtured me, where they showered me with love, and where, despite my “differences,” showed me and my surrounding environment total acceptance regardless of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And for that, I have three words for my parents:

I love you.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!