Our vulnerabilities & fears shouldn’t keep us from being courageous From the Parkland, Florida, teens’ tenacity to Stephen Hawking’s incredible life, bravery comes in many forms

About 30 years ago, I walked across the campus at the University of California, Berkeley (aka Cal), where I worked. It was evening and dark, probably the fall. I heard a whirring sound. A young man shaped like a question mark sat in a wheelchair. He blew into a device that made the wheelchair go. He looked sure of where he was going.

Nevertheless, the young man looked so vulnerable, alone in the darkness, that I feared for him. My mind whirled through all the bad things that could happen to him, alone in the darkness, with no one to help. I wondered if I could help him, if he needed or wanted it.

And then I laughed to myself. Although I was young then, I was just a little more formidable in the darkness than the young man making his way in the wheelchair was. Oh, I could throw a punch, but I hadn’t had a fight since I was 15. I lost badly and retired, defeated. I could run, too, but like my fellow traveler in the wheelchair, if someone wanted to hurt me, he could, especially on a deserted back pathway on a college campus.

It was just that I had trained myself to forget I was as vulnerable as thinking about the young man in the wheelchair ultimately reminded me I was.

After all, I was a young black man from Philly. I’d grown up traveling in darkness, wary yet unafraid. Like the young man in the wheelchair, I went where I needed to go. And like the young man in the wheelchair appeared to, I made my way without the expectation of anyone helping or protecting me.

For a time in my teens, I traveled with an ice pick in one pocket and a copy of the 27th Psalm, which my grandmother had copied in red ink, in another: “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?” After a few days, I ditched the ice pick kept the psalm and took my chances.

Last week, three disparate (but, to my mind, related) events put me back on that deserted path at Cal, pondering darkness and vulnerability. Stephen Hawking died at 76. During his life, the physicist went wherever his brilliant mind took him. He helped us better understand the mysteries of the cosmos while illuminating their majesty and wonder. While enduring Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for decades, he used a wheelchair to put himself on a more equal footing with others. He championed a society that didn’t allow its spirits to become disabled.

In the same week, young Americans across the country, spurred by last month’s mass shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida, swept out of their schools and into the streets to protest gun violence, their spirits unbroken. In the nation’s capital, one protester railed, “The adults have failed us.” I believe the elders’ unwillingness to act more forcefully to quell gun violence is emblematic of a much larger failing: the elders not protecting the futures of our children, the nation’s most precious and vulnerable people.

And just around the corner from my New Jersey home, a black teenage boy passed me on the street. He was going in the direction from whence I had come. He was coming from a direction I knew well. We looked at each other as black males, boys to men, too often do: quickly assessing the level of threat. For a moment, we held each other’s eyes. We both have brown eyes.

He started to smile, faintly and imploringly, as if he wanted me to acknowledge that he was just a kid carrying a backpack.

I smiled, a black man with a gray beard. The young man smiled a little wider. Then he ducked his head the way deer sometimes do.

And we continued on our way before darkness fell.

My Brother’s Keeper Alliance summit in N.J. gives opportunities to more than 1,200 young men of color Barack Obama’s initiative continues its impact on communities nationwide

Former President Barack Obama’s face appeared on the largest JumboTron in the country, which is located in Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils. In the venue, more than 1,200 young men were offered haircuts, shoeshines, tie and blazer fittings and tailoring services for this year’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Pathways to Success: Boys and Young Men of Color Opportunity Summit on Tuesday.

And that’s not all. Nearly 300 boys and young men of color walked away with on-the-spot job offers or a direct pathway to employment as part of MBK Alliance’s participation in the Obama Foundation’s initiative in Newark. Since 2016, the MBK Alliance has hosted three Opportunity Summits in Oakland, California; Detroit; and Memphis, Tennessee, resulting in more than 1,000 job offers.

Nationally, nearly 7 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school, and about 7,000 are in Newark alone. The opportunity summit is designed to “catalyze local youth employment efforts while fortifying youth with the tools they need to overcome barriers and place them on the pathway to success.”

Courtesy of MBK Alliance

Newark was one of the first cities to accept the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge. In partnership with Mayor Ras J. Baraka, Prudential Financial Inc. and the Prudential Center, the daylong summit provided 1,000 young men of color and other underserved youths between the ages of 16 and 29 with interviews with employers for on-the-spot hiring, immediate access to community resources and social services, connection to mentors, an opportunity to discuss solutions to youth violence, and a chance to participate in career preparation and leadership development training.

“We’re excited about the opportunity here in Newark,” said Michael D. Smith, director of MBK Alliance and Youth Opportunity Programs at the Obama Foundation. “The pathway to dissect opportunities from it is bringing all those resources into one place for our boys and young men of color and saying, ‘Here is the road to follow.’ We’re just making the path clear for our young people who too often are marginalized or left out or have trouble finding their way.”

The day kicked off with a morning session in which Baraka, community leaders and executives discussed leadership development and shared inspiring stories, all moderated by The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates. MBK was organized by Baraka in 2016 in response to a national call to action by Obama. The initiative furthers the mayor’s mission to “address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color in Newark.”

Smith identifies with the participants and with the boys and men in the Newark community.

Courtesy of MBK Alliance

“This work is deeply personal for me,” Smith said. “I was one of the kids that we are serving today. I grew up in western Massachusetts to a single mom. Both of my parents were 16 years old when I was born. We grew up in a poor community that was certainly under-resourced, and to a community that could be violent, and to a community where opportunity certainly wasn’t clear.

“And while my family loved me, and poured so much support into me and created pathways for me that allowed me to end up here where I am today, so many of my peers who I started up with didn’t end up in the same place. Too many of them ended up in jails, and too many of them ended up in the grave.”

Tragedy hit close to home for Smith when his half-brother Tory was killed in 2009 at 27 years old.

“We lived down the street from each other,” Smith said. “Spent weekends together. Vacations together. Playing together. And one misstep, he finds himself in a system he couldn’t get himself out of.

“So when I do this work, I see Tory. And I see millions of boys like Tory who are filled with potential and possibilities and filled with God’s love and light, who just need someone to put their arms around them and give them a hand up and protect them and be willing to set them the way when they make a mistake, to give them a second chance. And that’s why we do this work that we do. Because we need Tory. And we need the boys and young men of color like him if this nation is going to be successful and if our communities are going to thrive.”

Dennis Hickerson-Breedon was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, but his passion and work are in Newark. For the MBK Newark Fellow and Opportunity Summit participant, the event was energy-filled.

“I didn’t know what to expect at first,” he said. “It gave me a new sense of purpose, because it’s not about me. It’s not about my fellows. It’s not about the program in general. It’s about us as a collective and mobility.”

Courtesy of MBK Alliance

“I wasn’t a scholar in high school; I had a 1.9 GPA. Because of that, I wasn’t and did not have the criteria to be admitted into certain universities and colleges. I found and stumbled upon Benedict College from a family friend, and that’s where I chose to go. That’s where my career and my life has sprang since then.”

Hickerson-Breedon, 28, finished at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and found his way back to Newark. He recently passed the New York bar and is waiting for admittance in New Jersey.

“I’ve been able to make relationships the last three years and throughout my time being in law school. I made contact with different attorneys, one attorney in particular named Kenyatta Stewart, who is now the corporation counsel for the law department in the city of Newark. He told me that there may be a position that he thinks that I could flourish in, and that was the chief of staff position in the law department for the city of Newark.”

There, Hickerson-Breedon began to cultivate different relationships, which led him to the My Brother’s Keeper Newark Initiative.

“I know that there are a lot of youth in this city that may be of similar circumstances that I was in: a 1.9 GPA or low GPA or single-parent household. No father. My father passed away when I was 10, so I didn’t have the luxury of learning the things that a young man would learn with his father present. That’s why being involved with My Brother’s Keeper was especially important to me. The summit was an opportunity for a lot of these young men to get an opportunity that they would not have been given under any other normal circumstance.”

Hickerson-Breedon hopes the MBK Alliance continues to encourage other young men who are on the rise.

“Not just young men who are, quote unquote, educated,” he said. “There’s a stigma that if you don’t go to college or school that you’re not able to prosper and you’re not educated. Any young, prominent young man in an urban community that has anything to offer to someone else needs to be involved with this initiative. Not only is it important to share the stories of triumph, but we need to show and restore the image of the young black male.”

‘Orange is the New Black’ star Dascha Polanco talks Michael Jordan and her journey as a single mom ‘We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward’

The 35-year-old Orange is the New Black (OITNB) star Dascha Polanco grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was an athlete in high school. But she hit the basketball court last week in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game playing alongside teammates Jamie Foxx, Common, Quavo of Migos and WNBA player Stefanie Dolson.

“I love that there are two women, Katie [Nolan] and Rachel [Nichols], coaching the [NBA All-Star] Celebrity Game,” said the actress who was on Team Clippers, the winning team. “I was very competitive when I used to play softball in school, so I was excited when the opportunity to play [in the Celebrity Game] came up.”

Polanco is best known for her role as Dayanara “Daya” Diaz in the hit Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning Netflix show OITNB. Her first taste of Hollywood was in the independent film, Gimme Shelter, starring opposite Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson. Her big- and small-screen credits include Joy, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, The Perfect Match and The Cobbler to name a few.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she emigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl with her parents and became a citizen in late 2013. Borrowing the words of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, “Ima make it by any means, I got a pocketful of dreams,” Polanco didn’t sit on her dreams just because she was a young single mom living with the help of government assistance. She didn’t let the stereotypes of a label define what she could or couldn’t do. She went back to school to become a nurse at New York City’s Hunter College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then she began working as a hospital administrator at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

While studying nursing, Polanco signed up for acting classes at BIH Studios, where she eventually got signed to a talent agency and later landed OITNB in 2012, which changed her world forever.

The fierce and bold mother of two spoke with The Undefeated about why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time despite her New York team allegiances, how she defies labels and uses fear to tap into an even stronger hustle, what it means to be an Afro-Latina in America and how overcoming insecurities is an everyday job.

Growing up in Brooklyn, are you a die-hard Knicks fan or have you become a Nets fan since they’ve become the Brooklyn Nets (previously the New Jersey Nets)?

I root for all New York teams. I grew up a Knicks fan and have so many memories watching the games with my family. As long as the Nets are the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll cheer for them too.

Who is the GOAT athlete?

Michael Jordan, hands down. And yes, I know I’m a Knicks fan, but MJ all the way. When I worked in the healthcare field, I had Jordan quotes all over my office. He is the epitome of dedication, perseverance and beating the odds. In my son’s room, I even have the poster of MJ with his arms stretched out.

What is your favorite Michael Jordan quote?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” You can relate that quote to any situation in life. When I used to work in the operating room, it took a team of surgeons and nurses to get the job done, [and now as an actress, it takes so many people with different roles to make everything come together].

Where did your motivation come from as a young single mom going back to school to become a nurse, and then later taking acting classes while still working in the health care field?

We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward. I remember living in a shelter and using food stamps and getting treated like a piece of crap every time I went into the city for welfare. That treatment made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, but it also encouraged me to want to have my own and be independent. I could have chosen to do nothing [and accept the stereotypes associated with the labels that were given to me], but I chose to go back to school. No label can define me. I’m Dascha and I am a force.

What’s something you didn’t think you’d have to adjust to as a celebrity?

I never was able to buy things because I wanted to; it was always because I had to. Now I have the choice and can treat myself, but I even struggle with that because I’ve become conditioned to be fearful of losing [what I work for]. But I’ve gotten to the place where I’ve learned to embrace what I deserve.

When you were working at the hospital, why didn’t you tell anyone that you were also filming Orange Is The New Black?

Where I come from, we don’t say the things that we’re working on. [Sometimes] people don’t want to see you grow. When I’m working, I don’t speak about it. I just let it show for itself. All of my life, I’ve gotten negative feedback when I’ve said I wanted to be a singer, actress or a dancer. I’d hear, “Ahh, girl, that’s so hard … I don’t think you’re going to make it doing that.” So I don’t give them the opportunity to put that negative energy into the universe. I don’t have to tell everyone my goals, because at the end of the day, everyone wants to succeed but no one wants to see anyone else succeed. I stay quiet and keep my goals in my control and my protection.

How have you overcome insecurities?

It’s a process that you ideally try to overcome, but you’re always working on it. There are days that I feel ugly and fat, and I have to tell myself to cut it the hell out. I started acknowledging what I’m feeling and exploring why I’m feeling that way. I look back at my experiences growing up and it’s rooted from not feeling like I’m enough. [And in the present day] maybe it’s that I’m around a group of sophisticated people and I feel I don’t talk as proper as them or I’m at a table with models and I’m the only one eating bread. Those insecurities come about when I’m so focused on everything else and I’m not taking the time to be aware of myself. So now I stop, meditate, stop again and go.

Where does your courage come from?

It might be genetic because my mom [who died at 46 years old] was one courageous woman emigrating [from the Dominican Republic], and just her tenacity in every situation. My mom and dad are my heroes and have taught me to take advantage of the now in life.

I recently booked a film that I never thought that I would get. [I can’t say what it is yet.] It’s a small role, but it’s with someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. I was so nervous that even my armpits were sweating. But I took a moment before I went on set and reminded myself, I am here because I deserve to be. You were brought to America by your parents to do whatever your heart wants to pursue, so take this moment to have the power and courage to take advantage of this moment. Fear is just one layer before your breakthrough. Give me a little bit of fear so I can beat it up and come out even stronger.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latina in America?

There’s these labels and terms that we’ve created so people could understand their roots, what they identify with and where they come from. Even though I’m considered Latina, I’m really a Caribbean woman because I have African roots too. I love being a combination of pure melanin and having exaggerations in my body and movement.

But sometimes these labels are just a way of grouping individuals and putting people against each other — where it becomes about exclusivity instead of bringing people together. Growing up, the black community embraced me but not as much as I embraced them. It was always, “You’re not black, you’re Spanish,” but culturally I connected with them. It’s always been that constant battle but a lot of people feel that way. Even without racial differences, not everyone feels like they’re American too.

Tell me about your work with the D.R.E.A.M (Dominican Republic Education and Mentoring) Project?

I always wanted to do something for the youth in my home country, so I fell in love the D.R.E.A.M Project. The organization is kind of like a YMCA where the kids get education and job training. A lot of the kids are orphans and are growing up through hard times.

Together we’ve launched a theater arts program for these children. The talent that comes through these kids out of hardship is just amazing. The kids play instruments and are so good at so young. I knew we had to create a space to feed their talent so it could be used as a way to express themselves [and heal]. D.R.E.A.M Project has created a school [that they’ve named after me] and now these kids get to write their own script and tell their own story through performance.

Taye Diggs is working with us now too. I encourage people to take a trip to the Dominican Republic and share moments with these kids. It’s truly a remarkable experience.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown is free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country Her new work ‘ink’ explores the grace and democracy of African-American social dance

Alvin Ailey used to say that “dance is for everybody.”

Camille A. Brown, the tiny choreographer with big ideas, may be the living embodiment of that legacy. She’s the latest choreographer to marry social dance with concert dance, creating something that’s both sophisticated and familiar, evocative and unmistakably black.

You may know Brown’s work from a video that went viral and was turned into a TED explainer:

She’s an accomplished storyteller who began her career with Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE company and danced for two years with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She did the choreography for the Broadway revival of Once on the Island. And she’s something of a dance evangelist, not just choreographing and performing but often staying for audience Q&A’s postperformance. She wants to make dance accessible.

Brown is now touring her newest work, ink, which she debuted in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012), followed by Black Girl: Linguistic Play (2015). All three examine black identity, stereotypes and authenticity. Her company performed ink at the University of Iowa last week, moved to Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, this weekend and will take the work to St. Paul, Minnesota, in late March.

Brown, 38, grew up dancing in Queens, New York. From the time she was 3, she’d watch Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson videos. Her mother noticed that she was preternaturally good at recreating the Jacksons’ complex choreography and enrolled her in dance classes. Brown loved it. She had a knack for learning dances quickly under Carolyn DeVore. And then puberty — or, rather, the way the adults around her reacted to the changes in her body — momentarily wrecked everything.

“When I got to high school and college, all of the sudden I became aware of what the ideal body was, and I quickly learned that I was not the ideal person,” Brown said during an interview in Washington. “I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that … so people would say, ‘Oh, you’re not going to fit the costume. Oh, you need to lose weight.’ ”

Brown began dieting when she was 16, and by the time she started studying dance in college at North Carolina School for the Arts, she’d become accustomed to getting sent to the school nutritionist. It was like being called to the principal’s office, but for food. She’s since shed 15-20 pounds, but that time and the way she felt about her body had a lasting impact.

“I had teachers that really saw my ability and really helped nurture that, and then I had teachers that just didn’t look at me, or just was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to be a dancer.’ I just really had a struggle with that,” Brown said. “Me being a dancer, it was something that I wanted to achieve, but I didn’t necessarily think that I would be able to achieve it based on the things that I had been hearing about who I was.”

“I had a butt. … When you think of a dancer, you think of someone that’s petite, and I just wasn’t that.”

So after receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from NCSA, Brown joined a dance company where it didn’t matter that she had a butt, or a chest size larger than an A cup: Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn-based EVIDENCE.

“Body image was one of the reasons why I got into choreography, because I don’t know if I was always considered the best or had the perfect body image,” Brown said. “Would I be a choreographer now? I don’t know. I just know how I got here.”

Ink incorporates dancers of various shapes and sizes, using African, modern, hip-hop and social dance to explore black identity and day-to-day life. Brown’s movements explode from her petite, muscled frame (she’s maybe 5 feet tall) to fill the stage. Another dancer in the company, Kendra Dennard, holds your attention as a long, lithe, seductive flirt. There are bald heads and locs, juicy booties and small ones. Brown’s dancers run the gamut.

Brown takes movements that are familiar — the way a black woman might pat her hair as if to say, “I’m feeling myself,” or the act of scrubbing a floor — and folds them into stories about romance and friendship. In ink, Brown is a consummate observer of male body language. Her dancers capture the hesitation that comes with meeting someone for the first time, the way men can outwardly show off and exaggerate themselves while concealing vulnerability and sensitivity. And Brown reveals what it’s like in the intimate, comfortable moments when that mask is dropped.

In a section of the performance called Balance, about the courtship between a man and a woman, Brown said she wanted to use the scene to “debunk patriarchy.” And so the audience sees the male partner following a woman’s lead. The relationship moves at her speed, not his.

“It’s not the romance that we might see in the movies, but it’s romance in the sense that I know what romance is,” Brown said. “I mean, it’s coming from what I see or what I’ve experienced, so in that way it’s what I know love to be.”

What comes through in Brown’s work is a philosophy that social dance is just as significant as its classical cousin, ballet, and that incorporating it on stages like those of the Kennedy Center doesn’t cheapen the work of George Balanchine, whose outsize influence on what’s considered the “ideal” dancer body type continues to loom large. It’s simply a different form of communicating, drawing on another set of traditions and skills, the same way choreographers like Ailey or Twyla Tharp or Katherine Dunham created their own styles too. What’s more, using a variety of bodies to communicate those traditions doesn’t cheapen anything either.

“If you go all the way back to when I was a kid, I’m [told], ‘You’re not the ideal dancer.’ To go from that to actually being at the Kennedy Center under my own name? It’s something that I would have never dreamed of, ever,” Brown said. “It’s really a powerful time, and especially because we’re doing work that is not, by some people, seen as valuable. We live in a very Eurocentric dance world, where ballet or contemporary is seen as the elite movement, and so I’m not doing that. I’m doing modern, and hip-hop, and tap, and African, and social dance. To have this kind of platform, knowing that other people, whoever those other people are, don’t view this as real dance, is tremendous.”

For Brown, a Kennedy Center debut wasn’t just a platform; it was a springboard. She is now free to nae nae and bop and juba around the country, and even the globe.

Singer and actor Rotimi on the difference between him and his ‘Power’ television character Rotimi vs. Dre: ‘I pray for them if they don’t realize that it’s an art. I don’t know what else to do’

“I hate Dre, but this tune by Rotimi is actually a banger.”

I heard Rotimi’s song for the first time yesterday. I had been skipping it ’cause I hate Dre.”

“I really don’t like Rotimi ’cause I don’t like Dre.”

A quick Twitter search including the name of singer and actor Rotimi will reveal a dozen more comments about how torn Power fans are when it comes to distinguishing between singer and actor Rotimi Akinosho, and his character, Andre Coleman (Dre). At the mention of fan conflict, Rotimi laughed it off.

“I pray for them if they don’t realize that it’s an art,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do. I’m just doing my job. If they believe TV is real life, you gotta pray for them.”

Rotimi is not Dre. Dre is not Rotimi. Dre, a handsome, smooth and calculating yet grimy character developed nearly four years ago, is night and day from Rotimi, the smooth crooner whose latest project, Jeep Music, Vol. 1, has captured a different audience with his relatable tunes. But the fun of playing such a different person has taught Rotimi to be more comfortable with his character to reel fans into the storyline.

“I’ve been playing [Dre] for about three years now, so I know who he is,” Rotimi said. “I’ve created a backstory of who he is, how he was as a child, the girlfriends he’s had, why he’s doing X, Y, Z, his daughter. I’ve created a backstory that I’m now comfortable living in. The creator and writer of the show, Courtney Kemp Agboh, she gave me so much freedom that I can finally just live in the character. And that’s what’s happening now.

The 29-year-old does admit that there are only a couple of similarities he shares with his character.

“They’re very similar in terms of ambition. I’m very ambitious and I want to be the best,” Rotimi said. “He wants to be the best. He’s just hungry and I’m hungry. I think that’s the only similarities. Just the hunger for greatness, and that’s what I live every day.”

After perfecting his character for nearly three years on the show, Rotimi has grown accustomed to the reactions.

“This year for me was very polarizing,” he said. “It was music, then acting took over and I feel like people are really confused because I’m really good at both. So being that way, they don’t know what to expect. They don’t know how to truthfully know the difference and I have to accept that because what’s different about Rotimi the person is I’m in this industry, but I’m not of it. I give my craft to them, but it’s like you really believe my part or musically it’s like you really believe what I do. I know that it comes with the territory. Once I signed that contract, I knew my life was now for the people. It’s dope.”

Music was a path that chose Rotimi, born Olurotimi Akinosho, at an early age. As an only child growing up in his Nigerian household in Maplewood, New Jersey, it was possible for Rotimi’s parents to start his musical education at 5 years old. His mother, upon learning he could sing, enrolled him in classes that would help his craft, including learning to play the piano, violin and joining the children’s choir.

“My mom had me singing at weddings at 5 years old. I was a wedding singer. She had me doing that early, and that was my passion. I always listened to Bob Marley as a kid and my mom heard me and it just took off from there for her. My mom did everything that a normal Nigerian woman wouldn’t do. She was my first manager.”

Rotimi and his mother continued to nurture his natural talent and at 15 years old, Rotimi placed first in an amateur night competition at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Rotimi eventually took his talents to Chicago, where he attended Northwestern University and majored in theater. After graduating in 2010, Rotimi remained in Chicago as he figured out his next steps. Singing and songwriting remained his top priorities, but he would need to add a little more to his arsenal.

“After college, I was in Chicago and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I loved music, but I was struggling financially,” Rotimi said. “My manager at the time was like, you really need to just try acting and see how it goes.”

As luck would have it, Rotimi found himself in talks with Hollywood producers and executives who could jump-start his acting career — one being actor, producer and director Kelsey Grammer.

“I went in and it was my first audition that I booked a major role on a TV show called Boss,” Rotimi said. “After booking it, it was kind of like, ‘Whoa. Am I an actor?’ It felt like a natural fit for me. I think it was just my fear of failing. I didn’t want to fail. So, my fear of failing drove me to obsessing over making sure I was doing the right thing. It was natural, but it was the fear of not being good enough that made me want to dedicate my time to this.”

The political drama starring Grammer only lasted two seasons, but gave Rotimi enough experience to take on other roles in projects such as ABC’s short-lived series Betrayal, and movies including Divergent and Deuces, the Netflix originals Imperial Dreams, and Burning Sands before landing a key role on Starz’s hit show Power, one of his most well-known roles to date.

Rotimi’s role as Dre somewhat complements his music career. Although some fans may struggle to differentiate between Rotimi as an actor and what he brings to the table as a musician, he has seen an uptick in the number of fans who are discovering his not-so-secret musical talents with the help of Power.

“It’s been dope because Power puts me on a platform where people actually have eyes and ears to see and listen to what I do,” Rotimi said. “Out of curiosity, they’re like, ‘Oh, he does music? He’s really, actually good at this.’ Power is kind of like a label. It’s like an RCA. It’s like a Jive Records. It puts you on that platform for me where I can show what I do. And I know that my music, when people hear it, they understand it and they get it and they’re like, ‘whoa.’ It’s been good. Negatively, it’s human nature. Some people are like, ‘I don’t know if I should listen to it because it’s Dre.’ But then out of curiosity, they’ll still listen to it and vibe. It’s a beautiful situation and I really thank God for this opportunity.”

The role of Dre has also allowed Rotimi to challenge himself and show more of his personality through “Mr. Sexy Nigerian Buttascotch,” the exaggerated extension, or alter ego, of Rotimi’s Nigerian roots who occasionally appears on the star’s Instagram page.

“He’s always been here,” Rotimi said of the character. “It’s one of those things where I was chilling and I realized I was so afraid of showing my personality as an artist. But when people say show who you are and be true to yourself, that’s something I’ve been doing for years. So, it just felt right one day to just roll the Instagram camera and hit play. Being that it’s been received so much has been really awesome.”

With Rotimi’s career on an upswing, the singer and actor has no plans of slowing down. But greatness, in whatever career path Rotimi has chosen, is what he strives to attain the most.

“I strive for it. I want it, Rotimi said. “I want thousands of people to feel like they have to speak at my funeral. I expect of the world that much. I know what I’m doing is so powerful, and I want people to say he made me feel this way and he did it with a smile.”

Home is where the Holy Land is: Book documents African-American players leaving the U.S. for Israel ‘Alley-Oop to Aliyah’ explores the lives of ballers staying overseas

It’s not unusual for American basketball players to spend part of their careers playing overseas, and Israel has successfully attracted many of these players.

What is it about the Holy Land that makes some African-Americans who play there want to stay? It’s a question that author and sports executive David Goldstein decided to investigate in his latest book, Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African-American Hoopsters in the Holy Land. It’s a labor of love that took a decade for Goldstein to piece together.

Many players are happy to spend a few months learning about new customs and cultures before returning to their friends and families in the United States. Some fall in love with their temporary homes overseas and decide to stay permanently. That’s the case for several African-American players, some of whom were reluctant to move to Israel at first but ended up never returning to America.

The book details the stories of players like Aulcie Perry, a New Jersey native who played college ball at Bethune-Cookman University before he became a standout in Israel. Perry was a bit hesitant when he received an offer in the 1970s to take on a new challenge in a foreign land. But after some consideration, Perry decided to pursue his career and what would ultimately become his new life.

“I felt completely at home as soon as I landed in Israel,” Perry told Goldstein. (After he ended his career in Israel, Perry was convicted on heroin distribution charges in the U.S. in 1987 and sentenced to prison.) Now 67, Perry converted to Judaism and has made Israel his home.

Another story that stuck out to Goldstein was that of Fred Campbell, a former basketball player at Fort Hays State University in Kansas who played in several different countries before landing in Israel in 1992.

“The one player story that I found most emblematic of the whole phenomenon was Fred’s, and I like it for a number of reasons,” Goldstein said. “One, he’s not particularly well-known. He never played for Maccabi Tel Aviv [one of the larger, more popular basketball clubs] or one of these huge teams. He wanted to use basketball to see the world, and he never thought he’d play anywhere twice.

“For literally four years, his agent was trying to get him to play in Israel and he said he had an opportunity for him, and for four years Fred said no because he only knew Israel from violence and conflict and negative things in the news. He didn’t want to go. The agent told him to try it for four days and if you don’t like it, he would fly him back. That was in 1992. He remains in Israel and has lived there for 25 years. He converted to Judaism and got citizenship. He served in the Israel Defense Forces, he got married and raised a son who’s going to serve soon. He’s as passionate of an advocate for Israel as anyone I’ve met and someone who has completely embraced the country. As he says, he doesn’t live in Israel — he lives Israel. To go from not wanting to show up in the first place to making your life there and staying there 25 years later, to me, that’s a perfect example of what I wrote about, and there are tons of stories like these.”

Goldstein’s book had its start in a conversation with a group of elderly women describing their love for some of Israel’s African-American players.

Goldstein, whose mother is Israeli, has visited the country frequently as both a child and an adult. In 2007, during one of his annual summer visits, Goldstein hung out with a few of his grandparents’ friends. The conversation turned to Toronto — where Goldstein is chief operating officer of U Sports, the governing body of university sports in Canada — and the women couldn’t contain their excitement. They associated Canada with one of their sports heroes in Israel: former Toronto Raptors guard Anthony Parker.

“I knew as a basketball fan there was an Israeli pro league in basketball, I knew that it was pretty high-level and that Maccabi Tel Aviv did very well in Europe, but I really didn’t know much beyond that,” Goldstein said. “I said something about being from Toronto, and they just started raving about Anthony Parker, who played for the Raptors at the time but who had played at Maccabi. And they were talking about him in terms of endearment in Yiddish and Hebrew — way more than a fan talking about a player. They loved him. I thought that was the most interesting thing and what got me Googling, and I started unraveling what became a much bigger phenomenon than I ever could’ve imagined.”

Even after the book’s November release, Goldstein is still learning more about his subjects and basketball culture in Israel.

“As I’ve been promoting [the book], I’ve been finding out really interesting things and learning about some of the guys that I didn’t know from all the research,” Goldstein said. “It was a couple of years of researching, and that was both reading what had been written but also doing a ton of interviews. Writing was probably the quickest process. In doing the interviews, you could see some scenes and sort of the structure and chapter breakdown seemed to flow pretty naturally from what players were consistently saying. And then a few months, close to a year, writing a draft. Then there was a long stretch of trying to find a literary agent for a couple years. While I was doing all of that, I was continuing to interview players and continuing to get to know them better. And one of the benefits of that stretch of time was that I got to meet more players and get to know them better than I would’ve had I just got this whole thing done in 24 months.”

This season, there are more than 50 African-American players competing in the first division and about 15 in the second division, and about 10 have retired and stayed in Israel, according to Goldstein. Some of those players have Israeli citizenship, and a small number of current Israeli players are sons of African-American fathers who came to play in Israel and stayed.

The one thing Goldstein hopes resonates with readers is the contributions of African-American players who stay in the country.

“One of the things I really wanted to stress was the contributions these players are making to the country. I’ve mentioned players who have served in the Israel Defense Forces or enlisted in the military, but when these African-American players are there, even in the events of conflict or violence, they tend to stay and not leave the country — even though they are literally a phone call away from being on a plane to anywhere. They’re not obligated to be there. For me, I saw that kinship being pretty extraordinary. They’re staying in there as Israelis and really representing the country. It’s such a huge sign of respect. … I don’t throw around the term ‘hero’ very lightly, but I think that this group of African-American basketball players — by going to Israel, by staying in Israel, by advocating for the country — I think they are very much heroes of the country. Even if it’s not a particularly known player or a former NBA player, they’re heroes of Israel. One of the main things I want to do with this book is make sure that this group of individuals gets the credit they deserve for that.”

A history of Christmas Day game debuts As Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas


As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”

For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.

Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”

The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.

Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.

Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?


Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1956 vs. Philadelphia Warriors (89-82, L)

Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds

Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.


Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers

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Christmas 1958 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-97, L)

Line: 12 points

Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.


Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors

Christmas 1959 vs. Syracuse Nationals (129-121, W)

Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds

Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.


Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals

Christmas 1960 vs. Detroit Pistons (126-119, W)

Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists

Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).


Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1961 vs. Cincinnati Royals (141-127, W)

Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks

Christmas 1971 vs. Detroit Pistons (120-118, L in OT)

Line: 38 points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.


Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Christmas 1971 vs. Pittsburgh Condors (133-126, W) | Christmas 1976 vs. New York Knicks (105-104, W)

Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds

Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.


Bernard King, Utah Jazz

Christmas 1979 vs. Denver Nuggets (122-111, W)

Line: 7 points

Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.


Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1980 vs. New York Knicks (117-108, W)

Line: 28 points

Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.


Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers

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Christmas 1981 vs. Phoenix Suns (104-101, W)

Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals

Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.


Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks

Christmas 1982 vs. Washington Bullets (97-91, W)

Line: 7 points, 2 blocks

Only in his rookie season, Dominique Wilkins, the man known as The Human Highlight Reel, would have far better games than this in his Hall of Fame career. Hey, it happens.


Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)

Christmas 1984 vs. Detroit Pistons (109-108, W, Sixers)

Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)

These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.


Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Christmas 1985 vs. Boston Celtics (113-104, W 2OT)

Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds

Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1986 vs. New York Knicks (86-85, L)

Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks

Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.


Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1990 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-86, W)

Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals

While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.


David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1992 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (103-94, W)

Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds

What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.


Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Christmas 1993 vs. Phoenix Suns (111-91, L)

Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks

Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.


Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic

Christmas 1993 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-93, L)

Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)

Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 1994 vs. Denver Nuggets (105-96, L)

Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)

The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.

Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.


Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons

Christmas 1996 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-83, L)

Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds

Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1996 vs. Phoenix Suns (108-87, W)

Line: 0 points, 1 rebound

Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1999 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (99-93, L)

Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds

This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Christmas 1999 vs. New York Knicks (101-90, W)

Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.

Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Christmas 2000 vs. Indiana Pacers (103-93, L)

Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds

An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Christmas 2001 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (88-82, L)

Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.


Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors

Christmas 2001 vs. New York Knicks (102-94, L)

Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals

By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.


Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2002 vs. New Jersey Nets (117-81, L)

Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds

The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Christmas 2003 vs. Sacramento Kings (111-103, W)

Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks

While we’re pretty sure he didn’t bring his patented “work plate” with him to the arena 14 years ago, our favorite German OG, Dirk Nowitzki, feasted on Chris Webber and the Kings.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2003 vs. Orlando Magic (113-101, L in OT)

Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals

Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Christmas 2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (104-102, W in OT)

Line: 29 points, 10 assists

As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.


Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 2007 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (89-79, L)

Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.

Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2008 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (92-83, L)

Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)

In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.


Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)

Christmas 2008 (88-68, Magic W)

Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)

CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.


Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Christmas 2009 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (107-96, L)

Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists

Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

Christmas 2010 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (96-80, W)

Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds

Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.


Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

Christmas 2010 vs. Denver Nuggets (114-106, W)

Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)

Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Christmas 2010 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (109-102, W)

Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists

Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.


Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2014 vs. Miami Heat (101-91, L)

Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

Christmas 2014 vs. New York Knicks (102-91, W)

Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists

Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.


Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 2013 vs. Houston Rockets (111-98, L)

Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds

This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.


Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Christmas 2015 vs. Miami Heat (94-88, L in OT)

Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks

Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Christmas 2016 vs. Boston Celtics (119-114, L)

Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds

With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.


Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Christmas 2016 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (112-100, L)

Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds

The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.

Cutting the tree and other sweet Christmas traditions define who we are Time passes and season, too, but memories last forever

Earlier this month, our 24-year-old son Marc came home from Maryland to cut down the family Christmas tree, something I started doing when we lived in Connecticut and Marc was a toddler cradled in his aunt’s arms. During my time as a holiday woodcutter, a daunting question hung over the proceedings: Would I pass out before I was able to fell the tree?

But since turning over the tree-cutting duties to my son in 2010, he’s become increasingly efficient. This year, it took him just 24 seconds, about half the time it used to take me just to get down on the ground and start sawing.

After cutting down the tree, we went to the Holiday Tree Farm office to pay for it. Emily, 14 years old, her eyes sparkling, her countenance a parfait of peaches and cream, sweetly took our money in exchange for a cheerful “Merry Christmas.”

Mr. Lawrence, Emily’s grandfather, sat to the teenager’s right and behind a table. He wore a red-and-white cap that advertised his tree farm and a smile. He’d planted his first trees in 1981 or 1982. He began selling his trees in 1989. When we moved to New Jersey in 2007, we began buying trees from the Augusta, New Jersey, farm.


As is the case with other families from around the world, my family’s holiday traditions are rooted in practices that reflect who we are and what we need from the holidays, traditions that change as we do. As a longtime journalist, I like to end our excursions to tree-cutting territory with conversations with Mr. Lawrence.

Back outside, Mr. Lawrence moved with the loping strides of an old cowhand. But he’s a New Jersey boy, a 1957 graduate of Hackensack High School, my son’s alma mater. Mr. Lawrence told one of his workers he’d figured out a new way to tie trees to the customers’ cars. The new tactics were used to tie our tree to our car. Laughter from other families and Christmas music from a tinny sound system danced in the air. Snow fell.

We said goodbye to Mr. Lawrence, an unspoken promise to say hello again next year. We got in our car and pulled away. Christmas music played on the radio, but we didn’t sing.

Back at home, I watched as my wife, son and his great friend Maya, a second daughter, decorated the tree. John Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” from a set of tunes my son had downloaded years ago on our computer. The tunes are cataloged under the tag “tree-cutting music.”

I grew drowsy on the sofa. The Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol played silently on the TV. And I communed with Christmases past, present and future, just as Sim does as Ebenezer Scrooge in the movie.

This Christmas, our daughter Lauren will play host to the family Christmas celebration. In recent months, she has gotten a new job and a new apartment. A new man has entered her life too.

Just yesterday, or so it seems, my father-in-law and I were the men in my daughter’s life. She used to invite me to delicious meals filled with toy food that was marinated with her imagination. Though a vegetarian, Lauren plans to serve a real turkey on Christmas Day. She could serve collard greens and green beans too. And with the expert consultation of her mother, aunt and grandmother, perhaps she will.

Lately, I’ve been imagining my 29-year-old daughter as an old woman, reflecting on the first Christmas where the family celebrated at her place. The reverie makes me smile.

Time passes. The seasons turn. Now becomes yesterday and, if we’re lucky, yesterday becomes precious memories.

Merry Christmas.

Daily Dose: 12/5/17 Willie Taggart heads to FSU

What up, gang? Tuesday was a TV day again, so do check out Around The Horn at 5 p.m. on ESPN.

Rep. John Conyers is going to retire. The Democratic congressman from Michigan, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, said his exit is effective immediately, but he is endorsing his son to fill his seat. It sort of feels like there should be rules against that kind of thing, but, alas, that’s what’s happening. Elsewhere in politics, the GOP is now back to supporting Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, who is accused of having relationships with underage girls over the years. Guess that presidential endorsement was worth something.

If you smoke weed and live in New Jersey, good news! The Garden State is planning on legalizing recreational marijuana, thanks to huge wins by the Dems across the ballot last month. The state is no stranger to tourism, so this could end up being a huge boon for a place that’s suffered all kinds of issues over the years after natural disasters. It’s not going to be easy to get off the ground, but when it does, you can bet this is going to be an extremely popular thing to do.

LaVar Ball continues to be a legend. Look, whether you agree with his decision to pull his son LiAngelo out of UCLA, his public appearances continue to be epic. This morning, he appeared on CNN with Chris Cuomo again, this time with a roaring fireplace behind him at 6 in the morning, looking like he was about to belt out a holiday tune, which he then kind of did. Anyway, Ball wants his son to at least be able to develop as a ballplayer, which UCLA wasn’t letting Gelo do because of his indefinite suspension.

Looks like Florida State is going to have a black head coach. After Jimbo Fisher took off for Texas A&M, leaving that program in a bit of a lurch, they found a guy who’d once coached in Florida before. His name is Willie Taggart, and he’s coming from Oregon. Thing is, so many guys have changed jobs over the past month that who knows what’s a good gig anymore in college football? Basically, everyone is chasing Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban, and it doesn’t appear that anyone else is really in the running.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Have you seen the latest viral online challenge? Most of these are pretty ridiculously boring, but the invisible box challenge is excellent. You know you’ve got a good one when the failures are as good as the people who do it right.

Snack Time: When I was a kid, Mega Man was a great game. But there hasn’t been a version of the Capcom game to come out in eight years. Now they’ve got a new one on deck, and it looks AWESOME.

Dessert: If I’m still breaking it down like this when I’m this old, I’ll have done something right.

What the Ibtihaj Muhammad doll means for African-American Muslim women ‘A black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim’

Barbie has long been a name synonymous with the ideal standard of beauty for many girls growing up in the U.S. Introduced nearly 60 years ago, the doll has been problematic for exactly that same reason for almost as long: facing criticism of being hypersexual, promoting unrealistic body expectations and sorely lacking in diversity.

Perhaps that’s why the announcement Monday from U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad that manufacturer Mattel was releasing its first hijab-wearing, African-American, Muslim Barbie doll in her own image filled me with equal parts pride and wonder.

Bronze medalist Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the United States, unboxed the doll at the Glamour Women of the Year Summit in New York. Clad in a crisp white fencing uniform complete with saber, helmet and white headscarf, the doll is part of Barbie’s Shero collection, which recognizes women “who break boundaries to inspire the next generation of girls,” according to Mattel.

I remember well one of the last Barbie dolls I coveted. Dressed in a canary yellow tee, fuchsia jeans and aqua blue hiking boots, Camp Barbie represented the epitome of cool to my 10-year-old self in 1993. Sporty and chic, her yellow sunglasses complemented her purple backpack-turned-sleeping bag adorned with glow-in-the-dark stars.

Her name was Midge, and she was introduced by Mattel as Barbie’s best friend. Best of all, her strawberry blonde hair changed colors in the sun, or so the box promised.

But in my household, that of a preteen African-American Muslim girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the odds that I would be able to bring her home were slim. The hitch: My mother was adamant about raising her three daughters with a healthy sense of self that included images and toys with hair and skin that resembled ours.

I considered myself a Barbie aficionado, collecting all the black versions of the doll I could get my hands on: from Totally Hair Barbie, whose long, textured strands reached all the way to her heels, to Babysitting Skipper, whose bouncy black curls rivaled those of the three baby dolls she accompanied.

But black Barbie dolls were hard to find — practically nonexistent in neighborhoods outside of majority-black areas, or relegated to a dusty corner even in the stores that did sell them. Still, those dolls often were not the newest and coolest and, crucially for my 10-year-old self, not available with skin that looked like mine.

I may not have appreciated at the time my mother’s push to ensure my dolls looked like me. As an adult, I now get it. It represented one of the few avenues in which she had the power to curate the images her children were seeing and the faces that would help color our imagination.

Even if the commercials of my childhood never explicitly negated my worth, they paraded women with silky brunette, blonde or strawberry blonde hair in their shampoo, makeup and clothing ads. Even if the magazines geared toward my younger self claimed to be for all girls, they rarely featured any who looked like me.

Perhaps that’s why the symbolism of Muhammad’s announcement was not lost on my peers and I who noted, with awe, that the first Muslim, hijab-wearing Barbie is also black.

Her announcement comes at a time in which the erasure of African-American Muslims seems particularly pronounced. A time in which a major black women’s lifestyle magazine released a list of “100 Woke Women” and yet couldn’t seem to find one woke African-American Muslim woman to include among them.

This erasure reinforces the idea that Muslim equals Arab, South Asian, immigrant, anyone other than an athletic, Olympic medal-winning black woman from New Jersey — one with a modest clothing line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers and now a Barbie in her likeness.

The introduction of this doll lends support to the reality that a black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim. A notion driven home by statistics that estimate a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans brought to this country were Muslim.

In a week when one of the most widely shared articles about hijab on my social media feed involved a Tennessee teacher posting Snapchat video of her young student’s headscarf being pulled off, along with captions “pretty hair” and “lol all that hair cover up,” Barbie’s latest edition goes a long way toward reinforcing the notion that beauty can be defined in myriad ways, including with hijab.

Malika Bilal with her 8-year-old niece, Hana.

Courtesy of Malika Bilal

Most of all, Muhammad’s announcement matters because representation matters. It matters to the many girls and young women who’ve messaged me over the five years I’ve co-hosted a daily talk show, as my channel’s first — and only — woman in hijab to do so. Their messages are full of encouragement and a sense of wonderment at being shown that a career path like mine is possible.

And it matters to those around the world who witnessed two black Muslim women in hijab on their television screens as I interviewed Muhammad before an audience of millions of households, days after the New Jersey fencer learned she had qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. Among those watching, there could very well have been a young girl who will now aspire to enter sports, and fencing in particular, because Muhammad placed that dream on her radar. Because beyond the image of a gorgeous hijab-wearing doll, Muhammad’s Barbie is athletic and unapologetically so.

It’s not just young girls who are representation-starved. Grown women like myself, and the many who’ve retweeted, reposted and reblogged the Barbie announcement, are just as excited, not just for the next generation of girls but also for ourselves.

Recently on a visit home to Chicago, my 8-year-old niece insisted upon showing me her new Barbie dolls. In her possession were members of the Fashionista line, featuring Barbie and Ken dolls in various shades of brown and black, and a range of body types — some slim, others thick. A Barbie with an Afro, a Ken with cornrows. Although I’m firmly in my 30s and have long since put away my toys, I couldn’t help but be a little wistful that options like hers did not exist when I was her age.

So when the Ibtihaj Muhammad Shero Barbie goes on sale in 2018, I’ll be ordering one to add to my niece’s collection. But I’m not ashamed to admit that another one just might find a home in my house as well.