An open letter to Jay-Z Etan Thomas: Jay-Z shouldn’t be canceled, but he does need to answer to his critics

Dear Jay-Z,

Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.

For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.

This doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism.

Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.

In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”

A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”

Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”

As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?

At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.

It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.

Former NBA player Etan Thomas says Jay-Z changed his entire message regarding social justice when he struck a deal with the NFL.

Etan Thomas

Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.

Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?

I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.

I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:

Rapper and entertainer Jay-Z grips a football before the NFL season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sept. 11, 2011.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”

In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.

So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.

That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.

Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would have never been extended to you.

And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”

I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:

“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”

I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.

Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.

I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:

“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”

Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.

With Respect,
Etan Thomas

Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”

Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury wants her audience to feel awkward Her play ‘Fairview’ wrestles with white audiences judging work by people of color

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is a veteran of occupying spaces, from the theater to Yale to America itself, that aren’t necessarily welcoming but still feel like home.

Her play Fairview, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, critiques the white gaze, particularly in theater, where it’s not uncommon to see shows starring, written and directed by black people that are performed for audiences that are older and whiter than the country at large.

Heather Alicia Simms (left) stars as Beverly and Roslyn Ruff (right) is Jasmine in Fairview, playing at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.

Gerry Goodstein

One of the most impressive things about Fairview is its creativity in addressing this strangeness. The first act is about a black family getting ready to fete the family’s matriarch for her birthday. But the show takes a left turn in the second act, when the actors repeat the same lines and scenes from the first act but they’re muted. Instead, the audience hears a running commentary from four white characters who have been watching the play and eventually begin talking about what race they would be if they could choose. In the third act, the white people are visible and insert themselves into the family drama. Havoc ensues, and the whole enterprise is wrapped up with a surprise shift in the power dynamics between the audience and the actors.

A first-generation American, Sibblies Drury, 37, grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, the daughter of Jamaican parents. She studied playwriting at Yale School of Drama after years of traveling to New York with her mother to see plays and musicals as a child.

Her newest work, Marys Seacole, which ended its run at Lincoln Center in April, looked at the Jamaican nurse known as the black Florence Nightingale. But it’s more than a dramatized biography. Sibblies Drury uses the play to examine generations of care work by Jamaican women, how it is undervalued and how race colors that lack of appreciation.

A few days before the show’s opening at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York, where Fairview is running through July 28, Sibblies Drury and I spoke while having tacos and margaritas at a restaurant across the street.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The night that I saw Fairview, people were shell-shocked as they filed out. Is that always the reaction?

Charles Browning (right), who plays Dayton, joins Heather Alicia Simms (left) onstage in Fairview.

Henry Grossman

The audience changes every night. I know that actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience. If a line that normally gets a laugh doesn’t get a laugh, you sort of pause and you feel a little bit like a schmuck for a second.

If people find the first act of the show really funny, generally in the second act of the show the audience is really quiet. And then if people are more quiet in the first act, and less sure of how to interact with that kind of humor, then sometimes they’re much more vocal in the second act. At the end of the show … it’s awkward. And it’s sort of by design.

Sarah Benson, who directed it, and Raja [Feather Kelly], who is the choreographer, talked a lot about whether or not to play music even as the audience is leaving the theater space and how it was really good to let people sit in their awkwardness. … Much of the show is so ugly that letting it be awkward at the end feels appropriate.

Tell me a little bit about watching people watch your work.

I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society.

My first play [We Are Proud to Present] was at Soho Rep seven or eight years ago. The director and I put the audience mostly around the sides of the room so that everyone would watch each other during the show. It was also a show about race in that it was about both white and black people imagining Africa and projecting themselves onto it. And then in trying to talk about Africa, they end up bringing up American racial trauma because it’s really hard to see black and white dynamics and not think about that. Theater people spend a lot of time watching audiences in all shows. But it was nice to let the audience know that that was a part of it just by the staging of it, and not an accident.

I am a little bit obsessed with watching whiteness and blackness. I do think that it was about going to see a lot of plays in my teens, 20s, 30s, and often being the only person of color in an audience and often feeling very visible in that way. And even welcomed in a very ‘So what brought you to the play? We’re so happy to have you,’ on the good end of the spectrum. And then if I ever did anything wrong, if I forgot to turn off my cellphone, I’m feeling very not welcome in that space.

So I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society. It just felt like this weird, dense metaphor.

Has this ever been performed in front of a completely POC [people of color] audience?

No.

It would be a really different experience if it was for all POC because the space would have been granted. For a little while, I thought that it would be impossible to do it without having any white people in the audience. I feel like the whole play would be more joyful maybe? And less uncomfortable. But maybe that’s not true.

What was your experience like at Yale?

Weird. Deeply, like, deeply odd.

Tell us more.

Jackie Sibblies Drury says Roslyn Ruff (pictured) and all the actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience.

Gerry Goodstein

I went to a private school in New Jersey. And I knew what rich people were, so I was, like, there are people at my [high] school that are members of the country club, and that is wealth. And then I got to Yale, and I was like, whoa, whoa. And I thought, I just hadn’t experienced people that had access to literally everything their entire lives.

I remember going to the freshman quad thing and having someone close the door behind them and not let me in because they thought that I was from New Haven and not from Yale, and I was like, what? Why? I just had no understanding of any of that. But I had it a lot easier than a lot of people because I was also a weird theater kid, so I fell in with the weird theater kids, which was helpful.

Seeing people that were actually entitled, like very, very, very entitled, expected everything from the world and expected the world would greet them with open arms and give them whatever they wanted, was helpful. I don’t think that I would be thinking that I could write things that other people would find interesting if I hadn’t been completely drowned in that kind of psychotic self-interest, and so I’m really grateful for that.

Your mom introduced you to theater?

She worked for a supermarket company. When I was in middle school, high school, she was in charge of the frozen food department for this New York-, New Jersey-, Connecticut-based supermarket company, Pathmark. One of the perks was that people that were coming out with a new ice cream brand would be like, ‘Let’s wine and dine you. And we’ll send you to a Broadway show.’ Because she was divorced, she would take me. So I would get to go see Cats and Les Mis and stuff.

It was so awesome. And you get free dinner at some place in Times Square that was fancy. I was really into lobster tails at the time. I was like, ‘What’s the fanciest, most expensive thing I can get on this menu?’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I like them, but you get butter. And they’re expensive. So I’ll have three!’

My mom was always an incredibly avid reader and consumer of culture. It’s funny, in the last 10 years, I’ve dragged her to see all this superweird s— downtown. And I’m like, ‘It’s going to be great, mom. Someone is going to get naked and they’re going to throw their own feces at the back wall of the stage.’ But now she’ll go and see a show on Broadway and she’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, I found it derivative.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes. I’ve made you a theater snob!’

Soho Rep, where Fairview premiered, is so intimate, with just 65 seats, and I imagine that ratchets up the level of discomfort. How do you preserve that in moving to the 299-seat Theatre for a New Audience?

Part of the reason that we wanted to be in this space is that even though it’s bigger, it’s not a 500-seat theater or a 1,000-seat theater. And there is something about the balconies and the acoustics that no one is so far away from the stage or from someone else in the audience. And you can see other audience members from everywhere. I feel like there are some theaters that roll out and it gets very dark in the house, and you feel like the people onstage can’t even hear you if you said anything. We were all interested in still having people feel like they could participate in the events and in the experience of the play, and that they could hear other people in the audience as it was happening.

What’s it like, having a Pulitzer? Have you thought about it much?

No. I mean, only when I’ve changed lines in a rehearsal room. And the actors have been like, ‘You really want to change the lines of the Pulitzer-winning play?!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. Now you need a longer exit line, so we’re going to change.’

I realize I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder in a lot of different ways. And anything that can be seen as validating can also be explained away. As many people as there are like, ‘Wow. The Pulitzers really got it right, so great for you, hurray,’ there are equally as many people that I have, thankfully, not talked to that much that are like, ‘What an off year. The Pulitzers are trying to follow a trend. This is such bulls—, and this is devaluing the Pulitzer.’

And so it’s like, yay? I don’t know. I should be happier about it. I should just be purely happy.

Does your husband ever remind you that you’re great?

He’s actually really good about that. … And then also, ‘I know you won an award and everything, but do you want to do a dish once in a while?’ But I say that with love. He’s incredibly supportive in a lot of ways. Emotional, physical, mental, he’s great. I’m very lucky. Not to be a sap.

Did you talk with your grandmother and mother much about race?

I think that my mom had a very particular experience. She’s Jamaican, but my grandmother is white and eventually married my mother’s father, who was a black man, but they were both Jamaican. So my mom grew up with a very different conception about an interracial relationship, or interracial wasn’t a word that she heard until she came to America. She has never referred to herself as biracial. She’s just a black Jamaican person in her mind. And I think moving near Newark in the early ’70s, when there were race riots happening, it was like America is racist and terrifying. But I think that she didn’t think about race that much before coming to America.

There’s definitely an immigrant filter that you see race through.

For West Indian people, generally, historically, colorism is a huge issue. I feel like my mom was more sensitive to that than she was to race in some ways, and thinking about what it meant to be treated differently from a cousin because she had lighter skin than them or darker skin than them. A lot of her sense of fairness and equality is shade-oriented rather than race-oriented. And in some ways that was really helpful for me growing up in terms of feeling kinship with lots of different minorities.

I feel like my mom was like, ‘Americans were racist. You have to be careful.’ And she’d be like, ‘Jamaicans are sexist. So you have to be careful.’ Not wrong. I just think it’s more complicated.

Richard Wright discovers Joe Louis’ dynamite The author of ‘Native Son’ was strongly influenced by the boxer’s success

In 1941, three giants of African American culture came together to celebrate a king. The tribute, fittingly enough, was a song entitled “King Joe,” sung by Paul Robeson to music composed and performed by Count Basie and his Orchestra. Richard Wright had written the lyrics. Basie, Robeson, and Wright — their names conjure images of foxtrots at the Roseland Ballroom, triumphant performances of Showboat, and the explosive prose of Native Son. The king they lionized was Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world.

On one verse, Wright clearly wrestles with Louis’ legendary silence:

They say Joe don’t talk much, but he talks all the time.

They say Joe don’t talk much, he talks all the time.

Now you can look at Joe, but sure can’t read his mind.

But the novelist had no doubts about the emotions Louis aroused in black communities across the country:

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

Been in Cleveland, St. Louis and Chicago, too.

But the best is Harlem when a Joe Louis fight is through.

By then, Wright had witnessed the cleansing power of Joe Louis — the flood of joy on Chicago’s South Side after he defeated Max Baer in 1935, the electricity inside Yankee Stadium during his 1938 fight with Max Schmeling, the lovefest in Harlem after each important victory. Wright knew the importance of the reign of King Joe.

Richard Wright, circa 1950, sits in his hotel room during the Venice Film Festival. Wright had attended the screening of director Pierre Chenal’s film, Native Son, which was adapted from his novel and starred the author.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wright wrote out of the pain of racism. Born in a Mississippi sharecropper’s shack in 1908, abandoned by his father, and circumscribed by the iron chains of Jim Crow, he had a blinding ambition to tell his story, the universal tale of the “color line” in America with all the anger, hatred, and ache that it encompassed. The publication of Native Son in 1940 made him instantly famous — and notorious. Published by Harper & Brothers and selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club as one of its two main selections, it sold 215,000 copies in two weeks.

Wright’s fame, however paled next to that of Louis. Six years younger than Wright, Louis was also part of the great migration of rural Southern black people to the urban north, in his case from Alabama to Detroit. Handicapped by poverty and a stutter, he was virtually uneducated and painfully shy. Yet in 1941 he was in the midst of a 12-year reign as the undisputed heavyweight champion, at a time when the title was, as Eldridge Cleaver once wrote, “the ultimate focus of masculinity in America.” Along with Joe DiMaggio, he was one of the two most celebrated athletes in the nation, and his fame extended across the oceans. Furthermore, Louis was an inspiration and source of pride for black Americans. Especially for Wright.

Wright embraced Louis as an athlete and a symbol early in the boxer’s career. In his 1940 essay, How ‘Bigger’ Was Born, Wright suggested that Bigger Thomas, his protagonist in Native Son, was a composite of a number of men he had known, frustrated men who confronted the racism in their daily life with violence. They were the only people, Wright wrote in his essay, who defied Jim Crow “and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell” before whites killed them or broke their spirits. But in Louis, Wright witnessed a black man who legally beat down white men in the ring without retribution. The novelist alluded to Louis in Native Son, along with boxers Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong, suggesting that he was a role model for black men. Yet Wright understood that without boxing they may have suffered the same tragic fate as Bigger Thomas.


No one knows exactly when Wright first learned about Louis, but in the mid-1930s they both lived on the South Side of Chicago. The neighborhood’s numbers kingpin, nightclub operator, and sports enthusiast Julian Black was one of Louis’ co-managers, and he arranged for the boxer to move from Detroit to Chicago to train and fight. From the summer of 1934 to the spring of 1935, during Louis’ first year as a professional, he fought two-thirds of his matches in the city. During the same period, Wright became active in politics and began his writing career. He joined the Communist Party, published poetry in leftist journals, and attended various “progressive” writers conferences.

It is difficult to imagine that Wright wouldn’t have read about Louis’ first major bout in New York City, a contest against former heavyweight champion Primo Carnera that took place in June 1935 during the international crisis between Italy and Ethiopia. The 28-year-old Italian fighter was awesome to behold. Sportswriters dubbed him the “Ambling Alp.” In an age when heavyweights were small compared with today, Carnera stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 260 pounds. The 6-foot-2 Louis, only 21 at the time and 196 pounds, knocked him out in six rounds, but not before administering a frightful beating.

Joe Louis scored a decisive technical knockout over Primo Carnera in the sixth round of their bout at the Yankee Stadium in 1935. Here is Louis standing over the bleeding Carnera during one of the three knockdowns in the sixth round.

Getty Images

As he would later demonstrate in Native Son, Wright was keenly aware of how white journalists transformed a powerful black man like Louis into a beast. They transmuted the boxer into a dark, dangerous, primordial creature. Sportswriters compared him with a jungle animal, or, alternatively, a machine. He was a cobra, a panther, or more famously, a Brown Bomber raining death. “Something sly and sinister, and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish a huge hulk that had been Primo Carnera, the giant,” wrote ringside reporter David J. Walsh in the St. Louis Star-Times. Grantland Rice, dean of America’s sportswriters, commented in his report of the match for the New York Sun that Louis moved toward Carnera “as a black panther of the jungle stalks his prey.” Rice especially was struck that Louis’ “expression never changed,” even when the referee raised his hand in victory. He “seems to be the type [of jungle animal] that accepts and inflicts pain without a change of expression,” he wrote.

Judging from his later writings, Wright must have sensed that Louis represented a significant new force. The fighter, Walsh had noted, challenged and defied “the white man’s innate sense of superiority.” The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s leading black newspapers, headlined “HARLEM GOES ‘MAD WITH JOY,’ ” and suggested Louis’ triumph was “its biggest moment since it became the capital of the Negro world.”

Searching the horizon for signs of revolutionary change, Wright latched on to the Louis phenomenon. After the Carnera bout, black Americans could not get enough news about Louis. Newspapers invented his past and speculated about his future. Musicians celebrated his victories in songs. By September 1935, two years before he became heavyweight champion, blues singers had begun to cut records recounting Louis’ fistic deeds. Joe Pullum’s “Joe Louis Is the Man” praised his ring talents as well as noting that he’s “doing things for his mother a young boy should.” Memphis Minnie counseled fans to bet all their money on the “two-fisted fighter” in her joyous paean, “He’s in the Ring (Doin’ the Same Old Thing!).” She sang:

I wouldn’t even pay my house rent.

I wouldn’t buy me nothin’ to eat.

Joe Louis says, ‘Take a chance at me

I’m goin’ to put you on your feet.’

He’s in the ring, doin’ the same old thing.

And in “Joe Louis Blues,” Carl Martin warns all prizefighters “who don’t want to meet defeat … stay off Joe Louis’ beat.”

The early Louis blues songs explode with pride and pleasure, rejoicing in the sheer delight of riding on the Brown Bomber’s bandwagon. As his career progressed, listening to radio broadcasts of his matches became communal experiences for black Americans. Maya Angelou, in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, recalled joining family and friends to listen to his fights in her grandfather’s store in Stamps, Arkansas. She wondered if the announcer knew that he was addressing “all the Negroes around the world who sat sweating and praying, glued to their ‘master’s voice.’ ”

That white voice became excited when Louis’ white opponent pushed him into the corner and whaled away at his body. “My race groaned,” remembered Angelou. “It was all our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. A Black boy whipped and maimed.” It was one’s worst memory and consummate fear. “It might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” If Louis fell, she thought, all the vile racist insults and cutting remarks would be true.

Yet, in almost every case, Louis came off the ropes, moved to the center of the ring, and began to punish his opponent. Once again, he assumed the role of a black Moses, delivering his race, at least for a moment, to the promised land. He was their champion. “A Black boy,” wrote Angelou. “Some Black mother’s son.”


The announcer lifts Joe Louis’ arm in token of his six-round technical knockout over Primo Carnera in their bout at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, June 25, 1935. Louis bears only a slight bruise under his left eye as evidence of the encounter.

Getty Images

Wright’s feelings toward Louis came into sharper literary focus a few months after the boxer slaughtered Carnera. Hazel Rowley’s biography recounts how, after battling through a serious bout of pneumonia during the summer, on the night of Sept. 24, 1935, the struggling writer sat in a bar on the South Side, smoking a cigarette, his ear bent toward the radio. It was almost six years since the stock market crash signaled the coming of the Great Depression. It was a hard time to be black in America. Jobs were in short supply, but lynchings weren’t. The wrongly convicted Scottsboro Boys sat in prison in Alabama, sentenced to die in the electric chair. For Wright, their ordeal symbolized the plight of black men in the country. Don’t step outside of your narrowly proscribed path was the message transmitted from white America to millions of black “citizens.”

Yet, Wright knew, something remarkable was happening, and he wanted to understand what it meant. Louis, who would have had trouble reading Wright’s poetry, once more was making quite a stir. In a ring in the middle of Yankee Stadium, the boxer faced former world heavyweight champion Baer, a heavy-punching, wisecracking slugger. Baer was a talker, always ready to deliver a quip. Louis, said one reporter, “says less than any man in sports history, including Dummy Taylor, the Giant pitcher, who was mute.” Neither man, however, had come to Yankee Stadium to debate.

Joe Louis (left) looks to deliver a right jab on his opponent Max Baer (right) during their bout at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Sept. 24, 1935. Joe Louis would knock out Max Baer in the fourth round of 15.

The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

Wright felt the earth crack that night. Something happened that transcended the punch that knocked out Baer. (After the match, Baer exclaimed he could have gotten up, “but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to watch.”) Some belt holding together Jim Crow laws seemed for a moment to break. Looking around the bar, then stepping out in the street, Wright witnessed it. “Something had popped loose, all right,” he wrote in Joe Louis Uncovers Dynamite. “And it had come from deep down. Out of the darkness it had leaped from its coil. And nobody wanted to say. Blacks and whites were afraid. But it was a sweet fear, at least for blacks. It was a mingling of fear and fulfillment. Something dreaded and yet wanted. A something had popped out of a dark hole, something with a hydra-like head, and it was darting forth its tongue.”

It was Wright’s first published piece of journalism and appeared in New Masses, a Marxist magazine affiliated with the Communist Party USA. Only incidentally was it a form of sports writing. Instead, it explores the revolutionary potential of black Americans. The central metaphor in the article is water. After Louis’ sensational knockout victory, blacks on Chicago’s South Side “poured out of beer taverns, pool rooms, barber shops, rooming houses and dingy flats and flooded the streets.” More than 25,000 “joy-mad” Louis fans “seeped out of doorways, oozed from alleys, trickled out of tenements, and flowed down the street; a fluid mass of joy.”

They formed a wild river of revolutionary potential, praising Louis at the same time as they expressed their resentment against the varied forms of racism that circumscribed and plagued their lives. Louis had unleashed it all. “Four centuries of repression,” Wright observed, “of frustrated hope, of black bitterness, felt even in the bones of the bewildered young, were rising to the surface. Yes, unconsciously they had imputed to the brawny image of Joe Louis all the balked dreams of revenge, all the secretly visualized moments of retaliation …” Without uttering a word or waving a red flag, Louis had become a revolutionary force. “You see, Joe was the consciously-felt symbol. Joe was the concentrated essence of black triumph over white … And what could be sweeter than long-nourished hate vicariously gratified? From the symbol of Joe’s strength they took strength, and in that moment all fear, all obstacles were wiped out, drowned. They stepped out of the mire of hesitation and irresolution and were free! Invincible!”

Joe Louis Discovers Dynamite concludes with the river receding, moving back into its channel, with the people in the streets “flowing back to the beer tavern, the poolroom, the café, the barbershop, the dingy flat.” Still, freedom imagined is freedom embraced. That evening Wright glimpsed the power of Louis, not only as a fighter but as a potential leveler of social norms, an inarticulate prophet to violent, revolutionary change.

The problem with weighing down Louis with the dreams of revenge and aspirations of the advancement of an entire race, of course, was the possibility that he might lose a fight. It happened on June 19, 1936, when the German Schmeling, another former champion, KO’ed him in 12 rounds. Louis’ physical pain that night was black America’s psychic agony. Singer Lena Horne was performing that evening in Cincinnati’s Moonlite Gardens with Noble Sissle’s band. Backstage, during breaks between sets, she listened to the fight. Schmeling had knocked down Louis in the fourth round, and continued to pummel him with right hands round after round. Men in the band were crying. Horne was nearly hysterical, she recalled in her autobiography. For her, Louis “carried so many of our hopes, maybe even dreams of vengeance.”

Horne’s performance suffered. Outraged, her mother said, “Why, you don’t even know the man.” “I don’t care, I don’t care,” Horne cried. “He belongs to all of us.”


Never did Louis belong to so many Americans, black and white, than on June 22, 1938, when he fought a rematch against Schmeling. By then, Hitler’s legions were jackbooting toward another war in Europe and Schmeling was the darling of the Nazi Party. Also that year, Harper & Brothers published Wright’s first book, Uncle Tom’s Children: Four Novellas. Like so many other Americans, the writer was pulled into the frenzy about the match. Dubbed “The Fight of the Century,” it was the major story from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and from London to Berlin to Tokyo.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time, Wright agreed to cover the Yankee Stadium event for both the Daily Worker and New Masses. The writing assignment seemed natural. Not only had he published a superb piece on the Louis-Baer fight in New Masses and had worked for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party was actively promoting his career. “Our new comet,” the party hailed him. Uncle Tom’s Children was translated into Russian and praised in a review in Pravda. In England, a leftist publisher had asked Robeson to write the foreword for the British edition.

/> A general view of the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, on June 22, 1938. Louis won by a knockout in the first round.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

An overwhelming racial pride, rather than a class solidarity, distinguished Wright’s approach to the second Louis-Schmeling match. Many white reporters and columnists adopted the black boxer as a representative of American values — democracy, freedom, equality, fair play — doing battle against the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Wright wanted none of it. Like Horne, he maintained that Louis belonged to the 12 million blacks in America.

Wright’s visit to Louis’ Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, training camp reinforced his feelings. There he discovered “throngs” of black fans “standing around for hours in a state of deep awe waiting for just one glimpse of the champion,” he reported in the Daily Worker. When Louis appeared, “a hush fell on them and they stared.” They knew, as Wright later noted in New Masses, that the Brown Bomber “symbolized the living refutation of the hatred spewed forth daily over the radios, in newspapers, in movies, and in books about their lives … [T]hey have watched a picture of themselves being painted as lazy, stupid, and diseased.” And how could they respond? “[S]o effectively and completely have they been isolated and restricted in vocation that they rarely have had the opportunity to participate in the meaningful processes of America’s national life. Jim Crowed in the army and navy, barred from many trades and professions, excluded from commerce and finance, relegated to menial positions in government, segregated residentially, denied the right of franchise for the most part; in short, forced to live a separate and impoverished life, they were glad for even the meager acceptance of their humanity implied in the championship of Joe Louis.”

Wright left no doubt that Nazi ideology was viler than the American reality, but he also insisted that “reactionary” elements in the United States and Great Britain preached the same racist creed as fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only among black people in America was the support for Louis universal. For them June 22, 1938, held a promise as sweet, in its own way, as emancipation. On that night, Louis promised to settle an old score and exact revenge for his 1936 loss to Schmeling. Wright knew that symbolically Louis’ revenge would be his race’s revenge.

World heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (left) stands over challenger Max Schmeling, who is down for a count of three, as referee Arthur Donovan sends Louis to a neutral corner at Yankee Stadium in New York City on June 22, 1938. Louis retained his title in a technical knockout over Schmeling in 2:04 of the first round of their scheduled 15-round title bout.

AP Photo

The fight ended with explosive suddenness. Louis had predicted that he would finish Schmeling in two rounds. He did it in one. In a mid-round assault, he broke a vertebra in Schmeling’s back, pounded him with crushing rights, and left him looking, Wright wrote in the Daily Worker, like “a soft piece of molasses candy left out in the sun; he drooped over the ropes, his eyes glassy, his chin nestling in a strand of rope, his face blank and senseless and his widely-heralded powerful right arm hanging ironically useless.” As Wright observed, Louis’ “victory was complete, unquestionable, decisive; his blows must have jarred the marrow not only in [Schmeling’s] but in Hitler’s own bones.” Far from being a competitive contest, Louis’ triumph “was an act of revenge, of dominance, of complete mastery.”

The celebrations in Harlem, the communal finale to Louis victory, interested Wright as much as the actual contest. Using his familiar water metaphor, he wrote that the sight of 100,000 black people pouring into the streets was “like the Mississippi River overflowing at flood time.” Their happiness was inexpressible. “With their faces to the night sky, they filled their lungs with air and let out a scream of joy that seemed would never end, and a scream that came from untold reserves of strength.” Accompanying their primal shouts was a cacophony of beating on garbage pails, tin cans, pots, pans, washboards and wooden boxes. Torn scraps of newspapers snowed from upper story windows on long snake-lines of dancing Harlemites while horns blared, whistles shrieked, and sirens wailed.

The parties in Harlem and other black communities across America were political demonstrations. The racket they created was the sound of freedom long denied and deeply desired. The people in the streets “wanted to feel that their expanded feelings were not limited; that the earth was theirs as much as anyone else’s; that they did not have to live by proscription in one corner of it; that they could go where they wanted to and do what they wanted to, eat and live where they wanted to, like others.” That, Wright knew, was the true dynamite of Joe Louis.

Customers at a bar on 135th Street in Harlem raise a jubilant toast after world heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ first-round knockout of Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium.

NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Before Drake vs. Draymond, there was LeBron and Soulja Boy A hilarious 2008 feud started with DeShawn Stevenson and ended with Jay-Z

Drake, the Toronto native and Raptors fan, has spent the 2019 playoffs blurring the line between superfan and millionaire mascot by giving Raptors coach Nick Nurse massages on the sideline, talking trash to Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and trolling opposing fans with Instagram posts. His prominence as a celebrity “ambassador” is a watershed moment for the intersection of rap music and sports.

While this all seems pretty outrageous, it’s not unprecedented. Just 11 years ago, LeBron James and Jay-Z teamed up to take on … DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy in a bizarre, hilarious feud that’s a time capsule for pop culture in 2008.

After James had terrorized Washington Wizards to the tune of 32.7 points, 6.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs (besides a timely game-winner in Game 3 of the 2006 series), the Wizards needed any advantage they could get if they wanted to overthrow the King. That’s where Stevenson comes in. The shooting guard was in his eighth year by the time the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the third time in the first round, and he decided that getting into James’ head would be his best move.

There was no love lost between LeBron James (right) and DeShawn Stevenson (left) during the Cleveland Cavaliers-Washington Wizards 2008 playoff clash.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After a 101-99 regular-season win on March 13, 2008, Stevenson had this bit of trash talk for James: “He’s overrated. And you can say I said that.”

When the first-round playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Cavs and fifth-seeded Wizards was set, the Stevenson quote came back up. James responded by saying … he wasn’t going to respond. When asked, he said, “With DeShawn Stevenson, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like Jay-Z [responding to a negative comment] made by Soulja Boy. It doesn’t make sense to respond.”

A bit of context: Soulja Boy mastered the burgeoning world of social media by uploading his songs to MySpace and Napster to create a buzz for himself. His hit “Crank That” created an international dance craze and was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in fall 2007. The song was not a lyrical masterpiece: “Yeah, watch me crank that Robocop/ Super fresh, now watch me jock/Jocking on them haters, man.

Jay-Z, on the other hand, was, and still is, maybe the greatest rapper of all time, a lyrical wizard with multiple classic albums and a rap empire at his feet. He and James struck up a kinship in the player’s rookie year, partly because they shared the DNA of being heirs apparent to greatness: Jay-Z following in The Notorious B.I.G.’s footsteps after his death in 1997 and James being the next Michael Jordan after His Airness’ 2003 retirement. (There was also one other detail: Jay-Z was a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets and may or may not have wanted to court a certain all-time great to the team.) Regardless, James’ meaning was clear — he and Jay-Z were elite and Stevenson and Soulja Boy were one-hit wonders.

Stevenson took James’ comment as a chance to add some spice to the playoffs. When the series went back to Washington for Game 3, Soulja Boy was seated behind one of the baskets. (He may not have had the sauce of someone like Drake to get seats near the bench.) Throughout the game, Soulja Boy was waving towels and doing his Crank That dance. Even Washington’s Caron Butler took a moment to do the dance after a foul. Whatever mojo Soulja Boy offered worked that day, as the Wizards won 108-72.

It was a cute story that could have ended there. But Jay-Z must have felt the need to defend his buddy, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display. Jay-Z was in Oakland, California, performing when the James/Stevenson/Soulja Boy fracas was going down, and he played Oakland, California, legend Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” and shouted-out the MC. The crowd erupted, and Jay-Z got the idea to rap over the instrumental.

Soulja Boy (left) strikes his Superman pose before the Washington Wizards’ playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2008. The Wizards won 108-72.

Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“LeBron was special to him,” Too $hort said in 2017. “And ol’ boy [Stevenson] stepped on LeBron’s toes talking s— and Jay was like, I’m going to shut this down. And he probably saw the moment where the crowd reacted to the song and then that was on his mind.”

So Jay-Z asked Too $hort for the instrumental. “When Jay called, I was like, ‘It will be there in a couple of hours, man.’ I had no idea what he was going to do with it, but I am glad he did.”

The next night, as Wizards players were partying at the D.C. nightclub Love, the DJ debuted a Jay-Z song rapping over Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” instrumental: “Ask my n—- LeBron! We so big we ain’t gotta respond … Who the f— overrated?! If anything they underpaid him. Hatin that’s only gonna make him spend the night out of spite with the chick you’ve been datin’.” Without mentioning Stevenson or Soulja Boy, the intent was clear.

The series went six games, with the overrated James averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. (Stevenson averaged 12.3 points.) Stevenson would eventually find himself on the winning side three years later when his Dallas Mavericks (well, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks) bested James and the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals. While winning a championship is all good, hundreds of players have won rings. However, not many can say they were dissed by Jay-Z in a song. That moment defined Stevenson’s career almost as much as his championship.

Jay-Z (right) had a lot to rap about after DeShawn Stevenson called LeBron James (left) overrated.

Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Warriors aren’t without their own contingent of rap stars who will be waving towels in Oracle Arena come Game 3. From E-40 to Too $hort and even MC Hammer, the Bay Area hip-hop scene is ready to lend support and maybe its own batch of troll-y Instagram posts.

Drake’s relationship with the Warriors seems a bit more amicable than that between the parties involved in the 2008 feud. But as the series progresses and the trash talk ramps up, we may yet see a magical musical moment in this NBA Finals. If it’s anything like Jay-Z’s effort, it could be the stuff of legend.

John Urschel recounts his journey from the NFL to MIT The former Raven talks about his new memoir, ‘Mind and Matter,’ driving a Versa and why there are so few blacks in higher mathematics

As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.

He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.

Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.

Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Penguin Press

It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?

He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.

In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.

Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write this book?

I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.

What do you hope people take away from it?

I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.

Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?

First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.

Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?

Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.

Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?

There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.

Do you consider yourself a genius?

No.

What is a genius anyway?

I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.

Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?

I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.

“There are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household.”

Do you think college athletes should be paid?

Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.

What do mathematicians do?

What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.

How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?

Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.

Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?

Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.

You’re kidding me. How is that possible?

I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.

Baltimore Ravens offensive guard John Urschel blocks during a game against the New York Jets at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in October 2016.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.

No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?

In what ways do you miss football?

One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.

How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?

Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.

Why are there so few African Americans in math?

You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.

One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?

I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.

A trio of legendary nights with Dwyane Wade as he says good-bye to the NBA Milwaukee, Madison Square Garden, Miami — one of the greatest ever comes to the end of the road

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.

The Miami Heat’s Dwyane Wade talks to the media while holding the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals at American Airlines Arena on June 21.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

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

Marquette head coach Tom Crean talks with Dwyane Wade during the closing minutes of their game with East Carolina, Monday, Dec 30, 2002, at Minges Coliseum in Greenville, N.C.

AP Photo/ Karl DeBlaker

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.

“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.”

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.”

Marquette alumni Dwyane Wade, center, is honored with Dwyane Wade Day during halftime as Marquette takes on Providence for an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Milwaukee.

AP Photo/Darren Hauck

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.


Dwyane Wade signs autographs after his final game at TD Garden April 01, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Heat 110-105.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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.”

“He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.” — New York Knicks head coach David Fizdale

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.”


Dwyane Wade acknowledges the crowd while being honored in the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Fiserv Forum on March 22, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

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.”

“Dwyane made you watch that team.” — Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra

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

Dwyane Wade shoots the winning basket over Trevor Ariza of the New York Knicks on March 15, 2005 at Madison Square Garden. The Heat defeated the Knicks 98-96.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

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.

Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time.

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.

“That boy is the truth!” yelled former Knicks guard Greg Anthony after the game. Fair assessment. And, in light of Paul Pierce claiming his superiority over Wade as a player, a funny one too.


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.

Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey.

“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.

Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude at MSG is gargantuan.

“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.

Dwyane Wade touches center court of Madison Square Garden one final time after the game against the New York Knicks on March 30, 2019.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

“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.”

“This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”

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 looks on during the playing of the national anthem prior to the game between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on April 09, 2019 in Miami.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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!”

Wade’s wearing black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.

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.”

“He can beat Kobe’s 60. Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”

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.

The Miami Heat, led by Dwyane Wade, huddle up prior to the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9, 2019 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a success.

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

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

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

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

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

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mensah-Bonsu represented Great Britain in the 2012 Games.

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

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

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

During his career, he endured many injuries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His advice to current players is to start planning now.

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

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

Queen Latifah: Baller or nah? We checked out whether the ‘Girls Trip’ actress really could ball in high school

From singer Brian McKnight to actress Gabrielle Union to rapper Master P, singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a bimonthly feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this month’s installment, we verified rapper Queen Latifah’s receipts.


Nine years after winning her first state title with Irvington High School, Dana Owens asked everyone to clear out space on the floor so she might ask Seattle SuperSonic Shawn Kemp if he would have this dance with her.

She waved everyone off. She was feeling confident she could handle the NBA All-Star forward all by her lonesome and didn’t need any backup for this one.

Just before halftime of the 1994 MTV Rock N’ Jock B-Ball Jam, Owens, also known as Queen Latifah, called out Kemp and implored him to take her on one-0n-one. Kemp was more than happy to oblige. (Fast-forward to 6:56 through 8:04 in the video above.)

He wiped his hands along his shorts and down his jersey before dribbling the ball between his legs a few times. As Kemp started to make his move toward the basket, Owens pickpocketed the SuperSonic. She took several dribbles toward her basket as the 6-foot-10 forward pursued her. Owens took off from mid-paint and sent up a layup that rattled against the backboard and around the rim before sinking to the bottom of the net.

Triumphant and defiant, Owens lifted her arms in victory, and the crowd, announcers and her teammates erupted into cheers.

“I don’t fear nobody out here! Nobody,” Owens said into the camera.

Said her former high school coach Vinny Smith, who was watching the game: “We saw it. She had the athletic ability, and she could do things like that.”‘

These days, Queen Latifah is gracing the cover of Essence magazine and starring in the new movie Girls Trip, which hit theaters on July 21. She earned an Emmy nomination for her lead actress role in HBO’s Bessie in 2015. All of that, along with her career as a rapper and TV host, comes after the time when she was running wild on the hardcourts and blacktops in New Jersey.

When Smith met Owens as a sophomore transfer in 1985, he already knew she was going to be a key member of his soon-to-be championship team.

After spending her freshman year at a Catholic school, Owens moved on to Irvington, where she was immediately added to a stacked varsity team.

“My first thought of her when she came was, ‘This is going to be a good player,’ ” said Smith, who worked with Owens’ mother, also a teacher at Irvington. “She had two sides: She had a desire … a vision, and she was fun.”

Smith, who coached Irvington’s girls’ basketball team for four years and led it to back-to-back state championships in 1985 and 1986, recalled one game in which Owens’ personality as an entertainer shined through.

The team was playing a game on TV, and the coach called a timeout. The starters took a seat on a bench, and people who weren’t in the game made a semicircle behind Smith. As he was coaching up the starters, Owens heard the song the band was playing in the gym, so she started dancing behind the coach.

She turned around looking at the band and began to dance and sing along with the band, paying the coach’s instruction no mind at all. But while Smith was in the midst of coaching, he wasn’t aware any of this was happening because he had his back to her. It wasn’t until Smith got home that night and saw the game on TV that he realized what was taking place.

“Oh, boy, we had some fun with her,” Smith said as he chuckled. “We just harassed her the next day in practice. We said, ‘We want a replay!’ ”

But that kind of energy often came in handy for the team. If the players were having a hard practice and got stressed out, then Smith would give the team a break, have the girls form a circle and ask Owens to hop in the middle and drop a beat.

“All the way back then, she was outstanding,” Smith said of Owens’ ability to beatbox and perform. “She could sing, she could dance, but she would do that beatbox thing, and we’d all just relax and enjoy it and have a lot of fun and laugh at her and with her. And it just broke our practice for us, and then we went back to work.”

While Owens’ reputation as a jokester preceded her, on the court she was no one to mess around with. Smith often inserted Owens into the rotation as a sophomore to defend the better players on the other team.

“What she did for us all the time was the opposite of what you would think her personality was,” said the retired educator. “She was my enforcer.

“That was her key part of the game. I mean [it] would be unfortunate if I had an opponent that was like maybe getting too many rebounds. I’d call Dana over off the bench, and say, ‘Dana, 23 is getting too many’ … 23 didn’t get any more rebounds after that.

“She was physically tough. She was a strong player. She had a nice shot. She could ball.”

The only problem was Owens was playing behind an upperclassman — the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Tammy Hammond — who would go on to star for USC the season after Cheryl Miller graduated. Hammond finished her career the semester before Lisa Leslie joined the Trojans. Owens described Hammond as her best friend in her biography Queen Latifah.

Smith said Owens helped out in every way she could. She hustled all the time and always did her best to help with team morale. She worked hard, and when she played, she played a lot and she played well.

Queen Latifah, formerly known as Dana Owens (third from top right) with her 1985 championship team.

Courtesy of Vinny Smith, head coach of Irvington girls basketball team

Where Owens needed to improve was in handling the ball, which she wasn’t expected to do a lot of as a forward.

Smith recalled Owens’ junior year, in which the team was playing East Orange in the county championship. The coach put Dana in — Hammond got into foul trouble — during a full-court press, and she came up with three steals in a row. It turned the tide for Irvington, which ran away with the game after that.

“She was a good-size girl — height, weight, shoulder width and strength — who was not overweight,” Smith said. “None of them were overweight, because I ran the hell out of them. None of them was out of shape. They were just ready to play. And she had the athletic ability. So that’s why I did not hesitate to use her as a sophomore or a junior — and much, much more as a junior.”

Of the two championships Irvington won, Smith explained that the first one was the more challenging title because the team had to overcome heartbreak before the beginning of the state tournament.

In the last three seconds of the county championship, Irvington lost the game because of a controversial call, Smith said. But he wouldn’t give the girls a break to feel sorry for themselves, as the team still qualified for the state playoffs. The players were put through rigorous practices to keep them focused on the task at hand and not looking back at what had happened.

“What we did then is that I said, ‘Today is a new day. Today is a new tournament. The state tournament. We start all over. We have six games to win the state champs. Let’s work on that. Now, we may not be good candidates because we lost with three seconds, but we can be the state champ and be better than a team that beat us because we know we are so good together,’ ” he recalled of the pep talk he gave the team as they started practice for their first state championship.

Irvington’s second championship season ended with a 71-61 win over Hightstown in the New Jersey state final.

Our conclusion? She’s legit. Queen Latifah’s receipts get a passing grade from us.