Six-year-old Storee Elle Walton had a goal: The Memphis, Tennessee-born first-grader wanted to cover a black college football game. So much so that at the age of just 3, she would ask her mother, Tanyel, a Tennessee State University alumna, if she could take pictures with her phone at games.
On Sept. 14, Storee took photos and captured special moments of the 30th annual Southern Heritage Classic football game and halftime show in Memphis.
She first attempted her goal at last year’s event, but the game had its first cancellation because of bad weather, including lightning.
“Last year, I was sad,” Storee said.
But this year was a game-changer.
Storee no longer needed to use her mother’s iPhone. She was on the field among a gang of other photographers covering the game, shooting with her Nikon camera purchased by her grandfather, professional photographer Thurman Hobson. Storee, working her way up and down the sidelines — accompanied by Hobson, whom she calls her “grandman” — did not go unnoticed.
Every few minutes, from working media to cheerleaders, Storee was asked to take photographs.
“Photography makes me happy, and doing everything my grandman teaches me to do is so much fun,” Storee said. “The band was my favorite part. All of the people were nice, and other photographers took pictures of me.”
Her stage for the Southern Heritage Classic was the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, where Jackson State defeated Tennessee State 49-44. Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South band emerged as the fan favorite during the much-anticipated halftime show.
The crowd of more than 48,000 and the 90-degree Memphis heat weren’t obstacles for Storee, who took more than 600 photos. Storee and her parents are building her new Instagram page to highlight her work.
Storee’s first experience with a camera was at the hand of Hobson, when she was only 1 year old. Four years later she took pictures at her church, and she earned her first payment of $25 after photographing a father and son during service.
“Legacy is important in family. I’m blessed to be able to help transfer a skill set I’ve been using over 50 years to my granddaughter and see her take an interest in providing a form of creative expression for others,” Hobson said. “I love watching her enjoy and experience photography, especially during historical events.”
FAYETTE, Mo. — Perhaps you’ve heard of Antoinette “Toni” Harris. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old became what is believed to be the first woman to accept a scholarship to play football at a four-year college — not as a kicker, as other women have done — but as a position player.
Harris, a free safety, signed with Central Methodist University, a school with 1,000 undergraduates that plays in Division I of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). She’s arrived on campus three weeks ahead of camp to get extra time with the strength and conditioning coach. And, like everyone else on the team, she’s hoping to see some playing time when the season starts on Aug. 31.
Fayette is a dot on the map between St. Louis and Kansas City, a four-block town surrounded by cornfields and soybean farms. On a sweltering Sunday morning in July, the women at Savory Bakery are serving coffee and tea as the radio pipes in The Platters singing “The Magic Touch,” a song that hasn’t seen the Billboard charts since 1956.
We’re two blocks from town, in the center of Central Methodist’s campus, with Harris, head coach David Calloway and defensive backs coach LaQuentin “Q” Black in Calloway’s office on the second floor of Brannock Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Harris’ hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a “Women are Dope” T-shirt and has a diamond stud in her left nostril. She stands only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but her 165-pound frame is rock-solid.
She didn’t play for her high school varsity team and only sparingly during two years of junior college. Her demeanor isn’t that of a sports star but of a wide-eyed college student. But Toni Harris is famous.
“There have been so many women — I can’t even count, like over probably 100 or 200 — that contact me every day, whether in middle school, high school or getting ready to go to college, that want to play [football] at the next level,” she says. “They say I’m an inspiration and ask if I have any tips on how they can become better football players. I tell them to just keep pushing and working hard, and just never give up believing in yourself.”
The world discovered Harris over the course of 60 seconds on Feb. 3. During Super Bowl LIII, Toyota debuted a commercial featuring her and her quest to play football. Tens of millions of viewers saw Harris running, training, lifting weights and driving a Toyota.
“They’ve said a lot of things about Toni Harris,” intones narrator Jim Nantz. “They said she was too small. They said she was too slow. Too weak. They said she’d never get to the next level. Never inspire a new generation. Never get a football scholarship. Yeah, people have made a lot of assumptions about Toni.”
Harris then looks into the camera and delivers the closing line, the one she proudly says she wrote herself, the one that sums up her remarkable journey.
“I’ve never been a big fan of assumptions.”
It would have been easy to write off the young Harris when she was growing up on the west side of Detroit. Placed in foster care at the age of 4, she ended up in three different homes by the age of 15.
“You don’t really see anything wrong with it until you’re older,” she says. “I wanted to see my mother and I wanted to know who my father was. But I was always one of those kids who was very optimistic. I had my faith and believed in a lot of things that were positive.”
Harris met her biological father, Sam Clora, four years ago. He is now a part of her life, as are her nine biological siblings (five sisters and four brothers). But her birth mother, Donyale Harris, with whom she always maintained a relationship, died in a car accident this past spring.
One of Harris’ obstacles was simply getting onto a football field. She became infatuated with the sport when was 5 years old, watching her older cousin Demetrius and the Westside Steelers win the national Police Athletic League (PAL) championship.
As Harris remembers it, what she saw on the field that day was a happy, teary-eyed family. “After that, I kind of fell in love with the game of football and never put the ball down.”
With no PAL team willing to accept her, she picked up the game on her own, watching others and playing in neighborhood pickup games. She finally talked her way onto the junior varsity squad at Redford Union High School in suburban Detroit. She was the only girl on the team and played wide receiver and cornerback. (She was also a cheerleader, which is, ironically, how she suffered her worst athletic injury, a bruised knee.) But in the midst of transitioning to senior varsity, she was booted from the team.
“The athletic director [Mike Humitz, who passed away in January] told me he didn’t want to let me play,” Harris recalled. “He said, basically, football was a man’s sport and I shouldn’t be out there. And he was being really sarcastic. He was like, ‘So what’s your next sport? Boys’ basketball? Men’s wrestling?’ ”
Actually, Harris did have a plan: playing in college. She enrolled at the University of Toledo intending to walk onto the team. But fate dealt her another blow. In her freshman year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“The chemo was really hard to handle because my body went from 170 pounds to 90 pounds,” she says. “The chemo was worse than the cancer was. Because of the radiation I had lost the back of my hair and my body was very weak, and most of the time I wasn’t able to go to school. At first, I was gonna stop playing football, but then I was like, you know, if I can beat this, then what else can I overcome? And so just after the chemotherapy, that’s when I decided to go back to football and try to gain back my weight.”
We can’t help but ask how she absorbs these gut punches. She’s taken so many.
“I think God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I feel as though I’m one of God’s stronger soldiers,” Harris says. “So I feel like I can overcome anything that’s thrown my way.”
Harris enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach, California, south of Los Angeles. There, she was thwarted in her efforts to play football when head coach Nick Mitchell turned her down.
“She tried out for the team [as a wide receiver and defensive back], but didn’t make it,” Mitchell said in a phone call with The Undefeated. “I didn’t think she was ready for the collegiate level. It had nothing to do with her being female.”
Harris then tried women’s soccer, but it didn’t scratch her itch for football. So she signed up at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) while still enrolled at Golden West and pursued (and ultimately earned) two associate’s degrees simultaneously: one in social and behavioral sciences, the other in criminal justice. At ELAC, she badgered head football coach Bobby Godinez to put her on the team. And, eventually, he caved.
But Harris didn’t just want a uniform, she wanted to play. After everything she’d already been hit with, how much harder could she get slammed on the field?
“She wouldn’t accept no as an answer,” Godinez says on the phone with The Undefeated. “[But] my ‘no’ was out of fear. Having a daughter myself, I was nervous about what the repercussions could be. You have injuries at a high, high level in this sport. But I did tell her that if she sticks around and she proves that she belongs, things could change.”
Harris never missed practice, never missed a meeting, never missed the weight room.
“She was very, very persistent with her goals, and she wouldn’t give up,” Godinez says. “And when it came down to it, her teammates were the ones who said, ‘This girl belongs here.’ ”
That moment came in Week 2 of her first season. As Godinez recalls, “A defensive lineman approached me and said, ‘Coach, give her a jersey, she deserves it.’ ” Harris rarely got on the field that season but still got a scholarship offer from Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas. She elected to stay at ELAC, and as a sophomore she played in three games, in which she broke up a pass and made three tackles, including one for a 24-yard loss.
She put those highlights on video and sent them off to four-year programs in the hopes of catching a coach’s eye.
“I don’t even know how many schools [I sent to],” Harris says. “Probably over 200.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Harris’ highlight video went out right before the Super Bowl and the Toyota commercial. Suddenly, the media was championing the young woman who was challenging stereotypes and defying assumptions. Radio hosts talked about her. Good Morning America and The Today Show featured her in prime guest spots.
The gamble to stay at ELAC had paid off. Now she had scholarship offers from five more colleges — one a Division II school in the NCAA, the others in NAIA.
But only one of those coaches impressed her: Calloway at Central Methodist. He’d been there before the hoopla, emailing her, phoning her, recruiting her. And he’d always been straight with her.
“He wasn’t one of those coaches who was promising you things,” Harris says. “I think what attracted me to this school, to this coach, was him telling me, ‘You’re gonna have to work for your spot.’ ”
Calloway was a four-year starter at Langston University in Oklahoma, graduating in 1997, and has spent 21 years coaching at the collegiate level. At Central Methodist, he faces an uphill battle. Since he took over as head coach in 2016, the Eagles have gone 8-24. But judging from all of the thank-you notes from former players and students pinned to his corkboard, Calloway is a patient and supportive coach who has generated a reservoir of goodwill.
Calloway leans back in his swivel chair and we ask the obvious question: How did it feel to make history? We’re surprised to hear Calloway say he figured some other female athlete had already done it.
“[Making history] never crossed my radar,” Calloway says. “I assumed somebody had already kicked or something.”
In fact, several women have kicked for four-year schools since Liz Heaston did so for Willamette University in 1997, becoming the first woman ever to score in a college football game. Others include Ashley Martin at Jacksonville State, Katie Hnida at Colorado and New Mexico, and April Goss at Kent State. But not one received a scholarship to a four-year school at the Division II level or higher until 2018, when Rebecca Longo signed to kick for Adams State in Colorado. (Shelby Osborne, a defensive back, signed with Campbellsville University in Kentucky in 2014, but she was not initially on scholarship.)
And now Harris is “the first female incoming student to receive a football scholarship as a position player,” says Jennifer Saab, director of communications at the NAIA.
So if Calloway didn’t intend to make history, why did he recruit Harris? He said he sees his role as giving young people opportunities, not just to play football but to graduate. He views Harris as a budding talent, one with skill, an aptitude for the game and an eagerness to develop.
Coach Q agrees. “Her feet are really good and she’s quick out of her breaks,” he says. “When you’re bringing someone on in the [defensive] back end, you want someone that you feel can lead and take charge, and I haven’t seen anything different from her. We’ll see if she’s coachable once we get her on the football field and in the meeting rooms, but so far, so good.”
If Harris takes the field this season, isn’t she bound to run into guys, big guys, who don’t think she belongs there?
Calloway doesn’t seem concerned.
“[Think about] what she’s been through in life,” he says. “Football’s probably not gonna be that tough when all is said and done. Having beat cancer at a young age, and then growing up in foster homes and then maintaining a great attitude through all of it, I think that’s gonna help. That’s what I [see] from a character standpoint. When she puts her mind to things, she can get stuff accomplished.”
Harris has what it takes to withstand any pushback on the playing field, Calloway says. “You read on social media, ‘I will run her over,’ ” he says. “She’s not gonna just sit there and let you run her over. She has more sense than that. She understands she’s on the field with 21 other guys. We’re putting her in position to make proper tackles.”
When the hits come, Harris is convinced she’ll be ready. “I don’t feel like it’s out of the norm for me to be playing with men,” she says. “I mean, [former NFL wide receiver] Trindon Holliday was 135 pounds and 5-6, and I’m much bigger. … Football is about being mentally strong. Are you mentally ready when somebody catches a pass on you? Are you mentally ready to get over that and go to the next play?”
It remains to be seen whether Harris will be on the field against Clarke University on Aug. 31. Calloway makes it clear that she’ll be fighting for her position with a three-year starter and another junior college transfer.
But, as Harris has demonstrated before, competition only feeds her drive.
“I don’t expect anything to be easy,” she says. “It’s never going to get easier. If anything, it’s going to get harder every day.”
That’s probably true, especially if she follows her dream to play in the NFL. If she doesn’t make it to the pros, would she consider playing in one of the women’s semipro or amateur leagues around the country?
“If they made a women’s NFL, then yes,” she says. “I know people play recreationally, but I want to get paid to play just like anybody else. I want a career. So if they don’t plan on putting in a WNFL then I’ll be seeking other things and other ways to make money.”
After meeting Harris, we try not to assume she’ll do it all — take the field on opening day, intercept a pass. And we try not to fantasize that one day she’ll live her dream and put on an NFL uniform.
It’s not easy, because she’s so easy to root for.
The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.
And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.
Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.
The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”
Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”
Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.
One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.
Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”
Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.
“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”
Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.
In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.
This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.
As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.
If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.
This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.
When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.
“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.
“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”
— bomani (@bomani_jones) August 7, 2019
Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.
Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).
Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.
Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.
Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.
There is no prescribed order for looking at these portraits of ESPY winners. No uniformity of theme to frame the athletes’ prodigious talents. No particular silhouette that conveys the significance of their achievements.
You might scroll through the images for long minutes before you find the entry point. It’s a truth about sports we hold to be self-evident — not all men and women are created equal.
Premier athletic accomplishment exists as a kind of off-ramp from normal human experience, and we are moved by the simple fact of it. Scrolling through this collection of photos, some from more than a decade ago, of some of the athletes honored, we try to establish a connection with people who do a thing that puts distance between themselves and the rest of the world. We are looking for something that gives us a way in.
A 2001 close-up of Shaquille O’Neal, fingers splayed, covering/not covering his face, invites us near. It plays with the idea that the Basketball Hall of Famer might have tried to hide something of himself if life had ever tempted him with the option. Instead, physiology became destiny, and one of the NBA’s most dominant players ever exercised his outsize personality, ambition and smarts to carry that 7-foot frame off the court and into the rest of his life.
Mia Hamm, of the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team, plays soccer on a field of young girls in Washington, D.C., or turns her face to the sun, and reminds us of that singular American moment decades ago when she and her teammates nationalized young women’s athletic joy.
At times, it feels impossible to separate the athletes from the racial context in which they occur. A portrait of Venus Williams — serene, simple, lovely — feels like the best photo you’ve ever seen of her, which requires some sleight of mind because it’s not a shot of her dominating on the tennis court while helping redefine the sport. But it does show Venus Ebony Starr Williams, breaker of serves, first of her name, outside the context of what are often racist, tiresome feels about her face and body, and that alone feels beautiful.
Mostly, the images represent athletes in the existential act of asserting themselves over, but not limited to, the sports they’ve reimagined and changed. In 2006, a young LeBron James standing in a cavernous hallway with his legs hip-width apart doesn’t telegraph who he will become so much as clarify what he brought with him into the room. It’s a certainty about the space he took up in the world long before he reached beyond basketball to build schools, produce documentaries and marshal the culture.
In many of the photos, especially the older ones, we have the subjects at a disadvantage. We begin with the end in mind. We already know their stories, so now we look for the proof of their narratives.
Who else sees Shuri, “Wakanda Forever,” in a photo of a laughing Sheryl Swoopes, the first player signed by the WNBA and a three-time MVP? Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, worked different magic in different arenas a generation before the teen tech genius in Black Panther. But she helped create and hold open the lane for black girls who wanted to be something that had never been before. These shots of Swoopes demand that you see her for who she is, even as she changed. It was all still pioneering work.
We can’t always see who they are, or were, in these photos that fix some of the world’s greatest sports figures at specific instances in time. We bring to this watch party the beliefs we already had. But we keep looking anyway, keep trying to take whatever they have to give. It is our way of trying to connect with those people fated to represent something that lies beyond the ordinary human grasp. We scour the images again and again, those of us on the outside, looking for clues.
Written by Lonnae O’Neal
At a certain point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every suburban girl in America was interested in soccer, and that was most certainly due to the influence of Mia Hamm and her teammates on the U.S. national team.
She was called the most marketable female athlete of her generation, appearing on Wheaties boxes and in commercials opposite Michael Jordan. Even two years into retirement, as Hamm was when this photograph was taken, she remained an avatar for focused, joyful, ambitious girlhood. She wasn’t just good at one part of soccer, she was great at all of it: dribbling, striking, creating opportunities for her teammates to score and rallying them at low points. Hamm carved a path to exceptionalism in a team sport and, in doing so, was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year for five straight seasons.
England had the Spice Girls. America had Hamm, Abby Wambach and Brandi Chastain. It must have been difficult to finally walk away from all of that at age 32, and it’s evident here. Hamm is crouched to tie her shoelace and appears, like many athletes shortly after they retire, as if she could jump back into her sport for just one more Women’s World Cup, just one more Olympic run.
It takes the viewer a minute to realize the only thing missing is shin guards. Like the All-American good girl she came to exemplify, Hamm, of course, is prepared. She’s making sure her laces don’t get caught in her cleats. A jaunty ponytail secures her hair. Perhaps this is a scrimmage or a clinic. No matter. The habits that build a champion are hard to shake.
The eyes are the table of contents to the soul’s story. For LeBron James, that story has been shaped for nearly 20 years by many voices, from fans to critics to the media and sponsors. But it’s been lived, every second of every day, by only one man.
Given the great American success story that followed, we sometimes overlook the young LeBron. But we all witnessed the debates over whether a teenage demigod dubbed “The Chosen One” a year before his senior prom was truly the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. We heard the barbershop banter about whether the Akron Hammer would dominate a league of grown men. Everyone had an opinion about King James. The last person it seemed to faze, though, was the one with the most to lose.
“Pressure been following me my whole life,” an 18-year-old James said after the 2003 NBA draft lottery, three years before this photograph was made.
Since his first professional game in Sacramento later that year, organized chaos has followed James like his own shadow. Which makes looking at this LeBron surreal. It’s a cue that youth, even for someone like James, is fleeting, even as we carry our emotional connection to it for the rest of our lives. No one knew the serious young man in this picture would evolve into the leader, activist, business tycoon and philanthropic force seen now. Some believed in the hype. Others didn’t. Even fewer believed he’d actually surpass the unrealistic expectations. Nothing about LeBron’s story has ever been normal.
Shaquille O’Neal’s hand could devour the average person’s head. He’d do it with a smile and his baritone laugh, of course. But there’s a deeper lesson in this 2001 photograph in which O’Neal obscures half of his own face. One that proves truer and truer as the years pass and his exploits in the NBA devolve into hand-me-down stories. Shaq’s still a pop culture dynamo and an MVP candidate for every room he steps into. But it’s getting harder and harder to see what once was. And to recognize that there was a time when maybe we, and even Shaq himself, treated the moment like a luxury rather than the gift it truly was.
Basketball may never see the second coming of Black Superman. He was a 7-foot tour de force who will likely remain the lone athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, MVP and NBA Finals MVP and release a platinum rap album. Good luck capturing that lightning in a bottle twice. In terms of the most dominant basketball player, Shaq is in the top two. Except he’s not No. 2. Like Shaq’s face here, we may see glimpses of his game again in others. There will be new athletes who blend Hollywood, the league and hip-hop. But never quite like The Diesel.
History may repeat itself. Halley’s Comet may come around every 75 years. But don’t expect to see anyone like Shaquille O’Neal again.
This is the body of the greatest swimmer of all time. It is not armored with muscle. It is not awesome. It looks naked, and a bit vulnerable. It looks quite human.
Michael Phelps delivered inhuman performances at four Olympics, collecting more medals than any athlete in any sport: 23 gold, three silver and two bronze. His eight golds in 2008 are the greatest haul in any single games. Three years after his retirement, he still holds three individual and three relay world records.
What’s not obvious in this photograph is the unique body construction that was the engine of Phelps’ dominance: long arms with double-jointed elbows, long torso attached to shorter legs, huge feet made flipper-like by flexible ankles. Most of that is hidden here. So we must look at Phelps, the human being.
Phelps grew up with a burning hole in his heart, left by his father after his parents’ divorce. Winning in the water filled the hole, and so did alcohol, but they always drained away to expose Phelps’ trauma. At age 19, two months after winning six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2009, after his eight-gold triumph in Beijing, he was photographed smoking marijuana and suspended from competition.
A second DUI arrest in 2014 pushed Phelps into intensive therapy, where he reclaimed control of his life and rebuilt a relationship with his father. That propelled him into his final Olympics, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where he sealed his legacy with his final five gold medals.
This is the human fragility of Michael Phelps. It makes him look even more awesome.
Time is loyal only to its own clock. For Albert Pujols, now 39, his best playing days are in the rearview mirror. But in this 2006 portrait, the slugger once known as “The Machine” is eyeing the future and what it could possibly hold. Pujols would capture his first of two World Series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals that year. Even then, the Dominican superstar was fielding All Time comparisons.
Yet, then as now, the same question hangs in the air. What’s next? Before the start of the 2019 season, Pujols had said he intends to complete his contract, which ends in 2021. In this photo, Pujols bothers not with the camera but rather what the camera can’t see. The same holds true now. Cooperstown? Absolutely — he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, currently sixth all-time in career homers and fifth in RBIs. More time to focus on his diverse charitable efforts? “That’s part of the responsibility God has given me,” he said during his Anaheim Angels introduction in 2011. “Not just to perform on the field, but to give back off the field.”
Whatever’s next for Pujols is truly his pitch to make. But while he’s still manning first base for the Angels, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. He’s one of the greatest baseball players ever. We should never take a gift like that for granted.
She knew. Sheryl Swoopes knew who she was and what she could do.
We did not. When the WNBA launched in 1997, many of us who respected and valued women’s basketball didn’t know how good these women really were. We certainly didn’t know that Sheryl Denise Swoopes, born in 1971 in the West Texas town of Brownfield, was one of the greatest basketball players to ever step on a court.
Look into Swoopes’ eyes and you can see the experience of being slighted, plus the peace of being unbothered by the injustice. There is the calmness of knowing that she may miss a shot, but her scoring ability can never be stopped. Her gnarled knuckles testify to collecting thousands of steals, deflections, loose balls and rebounds. The discoloration on her right foot speaks to the thousands of court miles needed to secure this knowledge of self.
Such confidence comes from scoring 47 points in the 1993 NCAA championship game, setting a record that still stands for most points scored by any woman or man on college basketball’s biggest stage. It comes from suiting up for the Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth, then leading the team to the first of four straight WNBA championships. From having a son with her high school sweetheart, coming out as gay, enduring a breakup with her partner, then marrying another man. From winning three Olympic gold medals. From being the first woman to have her own Nike shoe.
Sheryl Swoopes knew. Now we do too.
Seeing Mike Trout look away from the camera neatly encapsulates the conundrum surrounding the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. Is it unfair or is it a precious gift that one of the most dominant athletes on the planet, and the recipient of the richest contract in American team sports history, is also one of its most unrecognizable? How should we understand the bizarre path to immortality the game’s best player trots?
Since his first full campaign in 2012, Trout has been named Rookie of the Year, finished in the top four of MVP voting every season and won the award twice, made the All-Star team seven times and earned All-Star Game MVP honors twice. There’s talk that he’s already the best baseball player ever. But the scrunched eyebrows on Trout’s face mirror the concern of fans emotionally invested in a career that has barely registered in much of the country. Baseball’s waning status in American culture is a complicating factor, of course. But so is the fact that the Angels have had only one postseason appearance during Trout’s tenure. Will team success ever align with individual sovereignty?
Only 27, with presumably hundreds of games to play and millions of dollars to be paid before he is immortalized in Cooperstown, there is still time for Trout and the Angels to break out. In the meantime, we see this stoic expression on an all-time dominating presence who is frustratingly unknown.
There’s a line in George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum that states, “God created black people and black people created style.” Serena Williams was 24 when she sat for this portrait, and still in the early stages of articulating her personal style. But harbingers of what was to come — multiple covers of glossies such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar — peek through.
The frame is nearly overtaken by hair and lip gloss, and Williams gazes out hopefully, as if eyeing the future. But there’s also evidence of the conflict that has remained with Williams since she and her older sister Venus grabbed the tennis world as teens and shook it. Williams has long felt pressure to assert her femininity, especially as her skill, her physique and her boiling competitiveness made her a frequent target of sexist attacks. Accused of being mannish, Williams appears here as soft, romantic and sporting the sort of hair that every black girl who’s ever made a trip to the beauty supply store recognizes as “Wet ’N’ Wavy.”
Later, the “Wet ’N’ Wavy” locks would give way to billowing natural curls and more assertive declarations about gender and race-based inequities. Still, the raw ingredients were already present. Williams appeared as herself in the Memphis Bleek music video for “Do My…” in 2000, which not only took female athletic ability seriously but also treated it as something cool and desirable. “Throw a hand in the air if it’s the year of the woman,” Bleek instructs.
In this moment six years later, there’s a quietude about Williams. Her mouth is closed. She’s not wielding a racket or dripping with sweat, or selling a watch, or shoes, or athletic wear. Instead, Williams has continued forging ahead, making every year the year of the woman rather than settling for just one.
Venus Williams has never been known as especially talkative, so it makes sense that here she appears placid, almost sphinxlike, with a calm, understated regality. Her younger sister, Serena, issues fashion declarations that make her queenliness literal, but Venus, the first Williams sister to experience worldwide fame for her racket-based talents, is more reserved.
One of the most fascinating things about Venus and Serena Williams has been how they coexist on and off the court — they once shared a Palm Beach house together, and both are fierce, focused competitors. Their matches are fraught with an uncomfortable tension, so much so that the best thing about them tends to be their conclusions. Venus appears outwardly better at coping with loss, especially when it comes at the hands of her younger sister. She has learned to exhibit the gracious nobility of an older sibling, all the while knowing who is coming behind her.
In 2006, the year this photograph was taken, Williams wrote a letter to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club lobbying for the organization to award equal prize money to male and female Wimbledon competitors. The language was firm, its message unmistakable: “I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players,” she wrote. In 2007, Wimbledon announced a policy of gender parity in its prize money. A year after that, Venus beat Serena on Centre Court to take England’s Grand Slam title.
How fitting, then, to see her seated upon a throne of damask upholstery, secure, pleased and smiling into the distance, as if she knows what is to come.
Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.
Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.
“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”
Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.
For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.
“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”
Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.
“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”
The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.
The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.
But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.
“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”
“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”
With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.
“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”
Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.
The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.
Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.
“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”
The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.
A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.
“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.
“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”
In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”
The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.
“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”
Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”
Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.
“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”
Live in the moment. It’s a motto that many preach and few actually practice. But Dwyane Wade isn’t most people. His season-long #OneLastDance is proof: a case study, actually, in gratitude and the importance of being present. Tuesday night, the icon who took his talents to Miami in 2003, where he has played with the Heat for all but 1½ seasons — takes to the court for his final regular-season home game.
There are two ways to view Wade’s career. One is via the sheer audacity of his accomplishments.
He will have scored more than 23,000 points.
He is a 13-time All Star, and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.
Wade is a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist and eight-time All-NBA selection.
That he is a three-time All-Defensive selection could have something to do with the fact that, in terms of guards, Wade is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks.
All of which provides context for him being a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. Wade is quite simply the greatest shooting guard of all time — not named Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
The second way to appreciate Wade is through the prism of the cultural impact he’s had on professional basketball, and on the world around him. There’s his very public journey of fatherhood — including his recent extended paternity leave. Wade as wielding his voice and platform in this new golden era of player social activism. Married to actor, author, and philanthropist Gabrielle Union he is one-half of a power couple with global influence. Wade’s fashion risks and fashion firsts are indelible. And, of course, there is Wade’s critical role in forming and preserving the 2010-14 Miami Heat — the team that unequivocally changed the look, the feel, the style and bravado of NBA basketball ever after.
But now, after 16 campaigns, it’s over. Wade’s farewell has been the NBA’s finest storyline of the 2018-19 season. “This year has allowed me just to play and be free and not really care,” Wade told me in February. “If I score 22, if I score two — I’m enjoying the process … this journey, that I’m ending … It really allows me to live in the moment and just enjoy it all. Normally as an athlete you don’t get to.”
I joined Wade at three of his last NBA games. On March 22, Miami was at Milwaukee, near where he played college ball. As a player, he stepped on court at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the last time on March 30. And then there was his last game at American Airlines Arena on April 9 against Philadelphia. One last ride.
CHAPTER ONE: THE WARM-UP
MILWAUKEE — Now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, former Marquette Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean has witnessed the legend of Dwyane Wade several times. There was the 2001 31-point explosion against Tennessee in The Great Alaska Shootout. Then there was the victory two nights later against Indiana. But the moment? The one that put an entire country on notice? That’s Feb. 27, 2003, when Wade, Crean and No. 10 Marquette, on the road, defeated No. 11 Louisville.
“[Dwyane] makes a move in front of our bench,” says Crean. “He starts out on a drive so it’s on the left wing, behind the 3-point line. … He gets a dribble out in front of him, he lifts the guy, does a spin dribble, OK?” Excitement rises in Crean’s voice. “[Wade] spin dribbles, shot fakes, lifts the guy and shoots it off the backboard … basically beat three people to the rim.”
Sportscaster Dick Vitale, per usual, couldn’t contain himself. This was the same year high school phenom LeBron James was a one-man sports news cycle. The year Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse was the college hoops storyline. But now a new name was tossed to the hysteria and into one of the best draft classes in NBA history.
And the Miami Heat were anxious to find its next star. “[Everyone in the Heat organization] ended up watching … all of his tournament games to prepare for the draft,” says Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, sitting on the scorers table after shootaround last month. Miami was set to play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks that night. In 2003, Spoelstra was a Heat coaching assistant. “They were super well-coached,” Spoelstra says. “And Dwyane made you watch that team.”
Walk into the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus and the first face you see is Wade’s. A large portrait commemorating the school’s Final Four run, with Wade as its centerpiece, sits beside Marquette legends such as Bo Ellis, Jim Boykin, Maurice Lucas and Dean Meminger. The 3,700-seat arena is quiet in late March, as both the men’s and women’s teams are at the NCAA tournament. Wade’s presence, though, is everywhere.
There is “M Club” Hall of Fame induction in 2009. His place on the Walk of Champions. A large banner pays him homage in the actual gym. Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey. There’s excitement in the air. Wade and the Heat are coming to town — it’s his last time playing in the city that still claims him as its own.
There’s an upbeat vibe at Fiserv Forum the morning of March 22. The Heat are holding a shootaround as The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s the Same Old Song” bleed into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Maybe it’s a Pat Riley call. He is a child of Motown, after all.
Some players are getting up shots. But Wade’s knees are already iced as he sits courtside behind the basket. Almost directly above him hangs his No. 3 Marquette jersey. He’s having fun talking to the media, and he smiles when the Ja Morant comparisons come up. A day earlier, Morant dropped a triple-double (as Wade did in ’03, and as only eight others have done in the NCAA tournament) in Murray State’s first-round win over, poetically, Marquette. “He’s special for real,” Wade said. “[He] definitely gave me flashbacks.”
Wade’s eyes glisten when I mention the name Gaulien “Gee” Smith. He’s owner of Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon on Milwaukee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where Wade got his hair cut while in college. Gee, who has cut the hair of more than 200 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, recalls Wade as a soft-spoken, respectful guy whom he held out as special. “I told him [at Skybox Sports Bar across the street],” Gee says, “ ‘Man, I knew you would be great. But I’ma be honest with you, I had no idea you would be who you are today.’ ” Wade beams at the memory.
Udonis Haslem, who entered the NBA in 2003 with Wade, returns to the court and looks over at Wade, whom he considers more than a brother. “This is … the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Haslem. “I’m living through him and his happiness. I’m enjoying all this as a friend. Real friends enjoy seeing their friends happy.”
Heat fans have piled into the Bucks’ home arena to watch the Eastern Conference’s top squad play the Heat. The past 20 years of Wade’s basketball life are on people’s chests and backs: Marquette jerseys, Olympic jerseys, Chicago Bulls jerseys, even a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. But overwhelmingly it’s about that Heat No. 3 jersey in all of its hues.
Fans Felix and Linda have made the 80-mile trek from the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the moment. “This is his home! Even though he’s in Miami for now,” Linda says, not even trying to hide her sarcasm. “He’ll always be welcome here.”
“It means a lot to see him in his last game here,” says Felix. “The things he does in the community off the court outweighs what he does on the court. Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”
It’s a common sentiment at Fiserv all night. Midway through the first quarter, during a timeout, highlights of Wade’s March Madness run splash across the JumboTron and elicit a standing ovation. “This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”
When Wade checks in with 4:41 left in the first, an even louder ovation erupts. Wade’s 12 points, though, do little to prevent the inevitable: The Heat — in a royal rumble with Orlando, Brooklyn and Detroit for three of the East’s final three seeds — lose 116-87. But the moment was bigger than the game. Both Milwaukee All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, swapped jerseys with Wade after the game. His who’s who of jersey swappers this year includes LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others.
“He is definitely a mentor, somebody I watch from afar,” Middleton said after the game. “[He’s] one of my favorite players growing up. Still one of my favorite players to this day.”
In the locker room, Wade sits on a chair with his shirt off and a gold chain around his neck with a throng of reporters around him. “I have no regrets,” he says of his farewell tour. Those who came out to see him don’t have regrets either. Pride is mixed with sorrow. Honor is in bed with sadness.
“I just know,” Linda says, “I’ma miss him.”
Crean, Wade’s coach at Marquette, has a theory about why the star’s connection to the area runs so deep. It’s not about the highlights, or the notoriety both men brought to Marquette in the early 2000s. It’s not even about what they did in the spring of 2003. It’s about the soul of a man.
“He never, ever stopped caring about Marquette or Milwaukee even after [we] left,” Crean says. “It never stopped being his home. It never stopped being his school. … He’s incredibly loyal to his friends, his family, his community. … He gets it.”
PART TWO: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY
NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Wade to have his first Madison Square Garden moment. Or, in other words, rip the hearts out of New York Knicks fans. The date was March 15, 2005, and with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the 49-16 Heat were tied at 96 with the 26-35 Knicks.
Double-teamed by Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas, Wade (then known as “Flash” in his second NBA season) turned the ball over, giving the Knicks a chance at pulling off the upset. Thomas missed a baseline jumper, allowing Wade to pull down his third and final rebound of the game — thus setting him up for the final shot. Moments later, Wade called for iso far beyond the top of the key. A hard drive left. A vicious step-back jumper. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Heat win 98-96.
The Heat’s shootaround takes place at NYC’s Basketball City. It sits on the East River with a clear view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Some players are getting shots up. Others have side conversations with coaches. The energy is calm and inviting as media types surround Wade. He’s wearing a black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.
“Besides playing at home, [Madison Square Garden] is my favorite place to play,” Wade says. “It’s a lot of great arenas in the NBA, but there’s something about MSG that’s … special. … Heat Nation is strong here, so we always have a home crowd kinda feel. It’s the lights. It’s the way the floor is lit. It’s everything.”
Wade is balancing reflection and being in the moment. The night is largely about him — he’s the third-leading active non-Knick scorer at MSG, behind LeBron James and Vince Carter. Yet, for Wade, the night is more about the playoff push. The Heat at the time were still clawing for their postseason lives — and, at press time, still are. Wade is as mild-mannered as they come in the NBA, but it’s clear that questions about Knicks coach and close friend Dave Fizdale’s ability to lead his team out of a perpetual state of rebuilding begins to annoy him. Wade’s professional career began in the Garden at the 2003 NBA draft, but in March 2019 at MSG, he had not retired yet.
Much like in Milwaukee, and at other stops this season, droves of fans arrive in Wade-associated paraphernalia. One such Heat fan, sporting the statement pink Wade jersey, walks around a concourse in full Braveheart mode, high-fiving and hugging any other Heat fan he sees. “Let’s go Heat!” he belts out. “Let’s go Wade!”
Other fans couldn’t let Wade leave New York without saying goodbye.
“I’ve only seen him once,” says New Jersey native and die-hard Wade fan Ahmed Doumani. “I can’t have him retire without seeing him again.”
Celebrities also pile up at MSG for Wade. Tennis great John McEnroe, actor John Turturro, New York Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and Kansas City Chiefs MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes are all in attendance. The most important courtside seat though, as it relates to Wade, is that of his wife, Gabrielle Union.
“It’s so nice to see him appreciate [this final season],” Union said during an in-game interview. “They say give people their flowers while they can still appreciate it, and the NBA has just done a tremendous job [of that].”
Midway through the first, Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude is gargantuan. Hairs rise on the back of necks. Goose bumps have nothing to do with the air conditioning. Fizdale, who spent eight seasons as an assistant and associate head coach in Miami, paid homage to his former player from the Jumbotron and had more to say after the game.
“I’ve learned more from him than he has from me, for sure,” Fizdale said. “When he says he’s your friend, he’s going to be there for you. He’s been there for me every step of the way. He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.”
Every time Wade touched the ball at MSG, the crowd cheered. He received “MVP” chants when he went to the free throw line — perhaps the lone accomplishment not on his career portfolio. The Knicks offense stalled in the second, allowing Miami to push ahead for good. This allowed Knicks fans to focus on what’s really important.
“Thank you, D-Wade, for whooping our a– one more time!” one fan behind press row yelled. “We’re one step closer to Zion [Williamson]!”
Wade finished with 16 points and seven assists in a 100-92 victory — although the crowd would’ve much rather preferred for it to be 18 points. A called offensive foul on Wade in a missed alley-oop drew the biggest boos of the night — from Heat and Knicks fans. After the game, hundreds of fans stuck around to take in Wade’s final moments in the Garden. New York has never had an issue with telling opponents off. It’s an unforgiving fan base. But if the city respects you, they’ll love you forever.
“Gotta pay respect,” a Knicks fan says, patting his young son on the head, “to one of the GOATs.”
Chants of “One more year!” ride shotgun with “D-Wade!” And as a shoeless Wade finally runs off the court, he’s showered with one last ovation. Inside the locker room, Wade, in a pink “Play Make Her” hoodie (a fund launched by the Entertainment Industry Foundation to empower women in the sports industry) is looking forward to summing up the night.
“I’ll be here, I’m sure, a few other times in my life. But as a player … it’s your last time, you just enjoy it,” he says. “The fans staying around after was so cool. You expect that at home, but on the road you don’t expect it.”
As the locker room clears, Wade is smiling. It’s almost over. He taps me on my shoulder. He’s seen me at many of these stops. “See you in the next city, bro.” He takes pictures with two kids — one in a Heat jersey and another in a Knicks jersey. Then he’s off into the New York night, hand in hand with Union, as hundreds of fans wait near the team bus hoping for one last glimpse of a legend.
PART THREE: VICTORY LAP
MIAMI — “Feed him the rock,” the man says, a grin overtaking the real estate of his face. Decked in a white Wade jersey and Miami Heat hat, he takes a couple of pulls from his cigarette and carries on with another guy doing the same. “He can beat Kobe’s 60.Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”
Miami knew this day would come. Erik Spoelstra made a vow to Wade (and to himself) at Wade’s home last summer when he learned this would be the superstar’s final run. “I just wanted to enjoy all these moments and be present. Not think about when it’s over, or next year,” the Heat head coach said. “I wanted to [do] everything we could to make sure it was as he imagined.”
Dwyane Wade’s final home game was the topic around the city all day Tuesday. Miami is fiercely protective of Wade, and for a certain generation of south Florida sports fans, Wade is not just one of the greats. He’s the greatest.
“For really anyone 40 and under, he’s the symbol of sports excellence in Miami,” says columnist and 5ReasonsSports.com podcast host Alphonse Sidney. “We’re too young for the 1972 Dolphins. We were in elementary school or not alive even when [Dan] Marino was elite. We’ve seen two Marlins championships, but we never really had a chance to fawn over those teams because as soon as we won the championship they were gone.” He pauses momentarily. “When it comes to elite athleticism, elite players, superstars who are a symbol of a team and a community, it’s Dwyane Wade and really no one else.”
“Dwyane Wade represents us Miamians in a way no other South Florida sports figure has,” says Maria Cabré, head of operations at J Wakefield Brewing. “He [just] gets it — a balance of humility and ego and forward thinking yet rooted in tradition. [Miami] will always be his home.”
Inside American Airlines Arena is a celebration fit for a king. “L3GACY” shirts are placed on every seat in the arena — which is filled long before tip off. Dwyane Wade highlights run in an unapologetic loop on any and every screen. The entire arena chants for some 10 minutes before tipoff.
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
There are clips and voiceovers from Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Gabrielle Union. A deafening roar erupts when Pat Riley declares, “This will be Wade County forever!”
On a night defined by emotions and immortalized by beauty, Wade’s oldest son Zaire introduced his father in a moment best described as surreal. “That one almost got me,” Wade quipped in a hallway after the game.
Following roughly 20 minutes of pre-game Wade-themed nostalgia, and a speech from the man of the hour, an actual basketball game took place. Though it was more like glorified scrimmage with the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly content with having the best seat in the house for Wade’s final Florida farewell. Spoelstra said following the game the decision to start Wade was a “no brainer.”
And, fittingly, with Chris and Adrienne Bosh, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Tim Hardaway and more courtside and nearby, the first bucket of the game was a dunk from No. 3. Everything Wade did Tuesday night — scoring, assists, rebounds, waves to the crowd — elicited thundering ovations. Everyone was soaking up the moment, even those in press row.
During timeouts, the video tributes continued. Derek Jeter’s was booed. NBA commissioner Adam Silver saluted Wade, telling him Springfield, Massachusetts was his next stop. As did his mother (Jolinda), father (Dwyane Sr.), sister (Tragil) and nephew (Dahveon). “You’ve given me the biggest gift you could ever give any of your fans,” Gabrielle Union says in hers. “Your heart.” Zaire returned on screen to thank his father for giving him a blueprint for how to live life both on and away from the court. His youngest son Zion, who participated in the Miami Beach Pride march on Sunday, had but one request for his dad. “Don’t lose your last home!” The biggest ovation was reserved for President Barack Obama. Via video he saluted Wade for a career well-played.
“Now, I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” Obama said. “In my case though, I didn’t really have a choice. My knees were shot so I had to give up basketball forever.”
News about Magic Johnson stepping away from the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t derail what was instantly one of the most special nights in South Florida history, and the Detroit Pistons’ comeback victory over Memphis, officially eliminating the Heat from the playoffs, didn’t dampen a parade 16 seasons in the making. A truly special sequence in the fourth quarter soon ignites. The game was already decided. The crowd had already erupted into another “We want Wade!” chant. Then Wade and fellow Miami favorite Udonis Haslem checked into the game together.
Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time. A turnaround fadeaway from nine feet. Then a three pointer that turned the arena on its collective head in euphoria. Then another three pointer. Then a 23-foot step back jumper that prompted his wife Gabrielle Union to slap him on the butt as he ran by. And then three minutes later, another three.
All in all, Dwyane Wade closed out his career with 30 points, including 14 in the final frame. And the 20,153 in attendance managed to squeeze in “Paul Pierce sucks” chant for good measure.
As the clock ran to triple zeros, the moment had finally set in. An era was over. Wade saved his most personal jersey exchanges for last. He swapped jerseys with his entire team. Then Zaire. The most personal swap was with No. 11 Heat jersey with “Hank” on the back. This was a homage to Henry Thomas, D-Wade’s late agent who became far more than just that over the course of his career. Wade credited Thomas, who passed away from neuromuscular disease in 2018, for molding him into the man he became after leaving Marquette.
“Wade County,” Dwyane said to the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the final whistle blew, “I love you.”
Following the final press conference of his career in Miami, Wade, in a red suit and sneakers, holding his daughter, left the building — no shirt under the blazer. Friends and family members follow him as he shows his daughter pictures of himself on the wall. Union soon joins them. This is how Wade wanted it to end. On his own terms celebrating with those he loves most.
It feels like just yesterday that he, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were covering Sports Illustrated with the tagline “The New Era.” And now, Dwyane Wade is no longer in the NBA. Wade valued his career. And he walked out of American Airlines Arena at close to midnight one final time knowing that an entire fanbase, an entire city — and an entire generation — did, as well.
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.”
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.”
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.