Natasha Hastings runs down the obstacles of being a pregnant Olympic hopeful 400-meter relay medalist hopes to go to Tokyo after she has her first child

As soon as Natasha Hastings, 32, learned she was pregnant, she began to wonder.

She pondered all the fraught physiological and cultural questions that undergird the modern motherhood industrial complex: How would her body change? Would her fiancé share equally in the work of round-the-clock baby care? What happens when she returns to her career — and would she even have a career to return to?

But she also had some custom asks: Would she ever run a quarter-mile in 52 seconds or less, again, and if so, how soon? What support would it take for her to make it to the Olympics one last time? And, crucially, would sponsors stick by her as she tries to make the trip?

Early this month, Hastings, a gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, revealed on Instagram that she was 5½ months pregnant. She also announced her intention to return to world-class competition, saying, “I’m going to go to Tokyo! Win a couple more medals!”

Instagram Photo

Questions about balancing pregnancy and world-class athletics aren’t new. At the 1960 Rome Games, sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals 16 months after having a baby, although few knew it. But Hastings is part of a new visibility and debate about the physical capabilities of female athletes after motherhood, and what systems and protection — health, economic, child care — they need around them. They are conversations we’ve rarely had, around questions we’ve hardly asked.

Hastings has been running professionally for 12 years. But now, as she pursues her dream of sport and family, she’s about to cover new ground.


When she found out that she and her fiancé, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, were expecting, Hastings remembers thinking, My God, what’s happening? She saw the excitement in his face, and he saw the dismay in hers. Yes, she wanted a baby, eventually. But she was just back from a knee injury, training for her outdoor season and hoping to compete in this year’s World Championships. They were planning to marry next year and, fingers crossed, she would qualify for the Olympics. For someone who’d been in communion with her body since she began running competitively at 10, the timing felt all wrong.

Natasha Hastings of the United States competes in the women’s 4×400-meter relay heats during Day 9 of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at the London Stadium.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“Track is my life, you know,” Hastings said. “My job relies on my physical abilities.” Everything she’s planned for the next phase of her life — building her 400M Diva cosmetic and beauty line, and her Natasha Hastings Foundation to advocate for women and girls in sports — was predicated on exiting track on her own terms. “I’m not the first woman who has thought about family versus career,” Hastings said. “But I don’t know any man who has to make that choice, you know?”

Hastings was worried her family might be disappointed in the timing. And she was especially worried about her sponsors, particularly Under Armour, which she’s been with since 2012.

“I took a while to share with my sponsors for fear of, just, I don’t know what this looks like, I don’t know how they’re going to take this.” She didn’t know “if I’d have a job at all. Or I shouldn’t say a job, but financial support to continue to train and go after the Olympics.”

While Under Armour continued to sponsor Hastings, her fears were understandable.

Middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a six-time USA Outdoor champion, competed in the 800-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In a Mother’s Day editorial in The New York Times, Montaño wrote that female athletes are often forced into physically dangerous choices because companies such as Nike, which sponsored her, can suspend their contracts and health insurance when they get pregnant.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms.” — Natasha Hastings

Athletes are always vulnerable to risk and injury that is often heightened during pregnancy. And they largely don’t get maternity leave. Some sports have responded to the challenges.

When Orlando Pride star Sydney Leroux posted pictures of her training while five months pregnant in March, her Twitter mentions included people worried about the health of her baby. But teammates and other female athletes rushed to offer their support.

Two members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in 1999 had children. The 2015 U.S. World Cup team had three mothers, and a culture of inclusion has taken root in the sport, including paid maternity leave. Moms have been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and have a portion of their salaries and medical expenses covered through the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

A bobblehead of Phoenix Mercury All-Star DeWanna Bonner features her holding her twin baby girls.

But non-team sports often seem to think female athletes don’t, or at least shouldn’t, get pregnant at all.

The message from the culture has been that female athletes should retire to have children, said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at Penn State University.

“So we haven’t had a lot of cases that have been able to be visible role models, modeling what it looks like to be working moms within sports,” she said. Her own earliest memory of an athlete mother was fictional: Sanaa Lathan’s character in the 2000 movie Love & Basketball. But she calls this new era of visibility a chance to engage in granular conversations about child care, what breastfeeding looks like when you’re also pushing your body athletically and how to bring abdominal muscles and hips back to world-class form.

Davis cites Serena Williams, who almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., via emergency cesarean section in 2017. Her story highlighted the WTA’s lack of maternity leave policies. And her well-documented struggles, both emotional and physical, to return to competition opened a new front in motherhood conversations worldwide.

From left to right: U.S. women’s 4×400-meter relay team members Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix celebrate their gold medals on the podium during athletics competitions at the Summer Olympics inside Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

In track, Hastings is familiar with the history of sprinter Marion Jones, who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics after giving birth the year before. (She was also banned from the sport for two years and had her Olympic medals stripped after charges of doping.)

Sprinter Allyson Felix, whose six Olympic gold medals include the 2016 4×400-meter relay on a team that included Hastings, struggled with complications during her pregnancy last year and had to have an emergency C-section. Her daughter was hospitalized for a month, Felix testified at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis in maternal mortality. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.

Like Hastings, Felix is also hoping to compete in Tokyo.

Along with Under Armour, Hastings’ sponsors — which include the New York Athletic Club, as well as cosmetic and feminine care products companies — congratulated her on her pregnancy and continued their sponsorship.

Hastings feels “blessed. … If there’s anything that can speak for me, it’s that I have been a resilient person and athlete and my back has been against the wall several times.” That resilience helped her get past her failure to make the 2012 Olympic team. It helped her overcome a hamstring pull before the 2016 Olympic trials. She’s relying on it now, including for all the difficult conversations about pregnancy that she wasn’t prepared for.


In deciding on child care post-baby, Hastings says she and her fiancé have had some pointed exchanges. Hastings is thinking about how she will balance the needs of an infant with her own need for speed. She can’t run if she doesn’t sleep. And in discussing her options with other women, including hiring a nanny, she’s found these mommy conversations can get thorny quick.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms,” said Hastings. She’s finding her instinct to rely on their wisdom difficult to square with her own world-class ambitions. “I mean this with respect and honor, and I know that they’re coming from a good place and I know that I’m also, I am coming from a place of the unknown, right? But then there’s also this space of what I do that is unknown for them.” So there’s a disconnect “even in the conversation of a nanny, you know? It’s almost like, well, you’re less of a mom for having a nanny.”

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities.

She’s always had to curate the people around her and the voices she allows in her space. “I’m in a small population of the world that thinks that what I go out and do every day is possible. I’ve lived up to a standard that to most is impossible without having a child in there, right?” Her career has always been hard. “I’m no fool to what I’m going up against,” she said. “I’m going up against probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to face in this sport.” But if she dwells on that, her race is already lost.

Hastings is trying to keep her second-most important athletic instrument — her spirit, her willpower, her determination to completely dust the women running next to her — honed and ready.

As to her body, she’s trusting her longtime coach to help with that. It’s been an adjustment for him as well.


Darryl Woodson of Training Ground Elite in Round Rock, Texas, has been working with Hastings for more than seven years. He’s never coached a pregnant athlete before, so this is new space for him as well.

When Hastings told him she wanted to get back to the Olympics, Woodson said, she was focused on whether things would change between them — if he would start to take her less seriously as an athlete.

He became disciplined about keeping their same routines early on.

Elite coaching is physical, he said, but it is also about keeping athletes in their right mind. “There’s a psychological situation for a person where they’re always feeling like, uh-oh, you’re giving up on me,” Woodson said. When athletes are injured, or have some other physical limitation, “if you make them more aware of it then it starts to bother them, and if you treat them normally then they get through it a lot better.”

Natasha Hastings celebrates winning the gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

As her pregnancy progressed, they made adjustments for her schedule and how Hastings was feeling. He takes cues from her, but he said her dedication to the work hasn’t wavered.

“I’m not a prenatal coach,” he said. She’s in consultation with her doctors, who say her body will let her know how much she can handle. “And that’s when we stop. Obviously, I have altered some of her workouts” to make sure they’re not overly demanding.

Typically, she’d be in the outdoor season now. She’d be doing flat-out runs over 400 meters to build strength and endurance and doing other anaerobic work. At six months pregnant, she’s not doing that, or weight training, running stairs or jumping hurdles.

She’s continuing to do 150-meter sprints. Normally, she would run it at about 16 or 17 seconds. She’s four or five seconds slower now, and she can get frustrated that she’s not hitting her pre-pregnancy marks.

“That’s where the pick-me-up comes from me, where it’s like, ‘Let’s look at the circumstances,’ ” Woodson said. “The numbers matter nothing at all if we’re not stopping training so that your body doesn’t need to get reintroduced to this next time.”

She’s actually working harder because she’s carrying more. Woodson is sensitive about using words such as weight. If she keeps her body trained, her times will rebound when she’s no longer pregnant.

“My job is to modify the program and get the same results or better and not put her under the same psychological stress,” Woodson said. His job is to listen and give her the best shot at what she says she wants. The baby is due in July, and he’s hoping she returns as soon as September but no later than October.

“We don’t know what we can and will be able to do. We just know psychologically, emotionally and spiritually what we want to do,” Woodson said. “We’ll keep pushing the same way as we always have been.”


On the track and off, Hastings wants to be a role model. Davis said it matters that she’s a black woman doing this work. This is not only because of the recent spotlight on black maternal health but also because “the tropes about black women’s femininity and sexuality within athletics have been so tied to ideas of their bodies.” Pregnancy pushes back at larger stereotypes about what is feminine, and what sport does to femininity.

“I didn’t get to this level by thinking it was impossible,” Hastings said. “I had to know and believe that it was possible, and that came with having a plan, putting the plan in place, being able to adjust here and there when you have to.” And that’s what she’s still doing.

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities. She’s doing it for her athletic dreams of speed and glory. For her entrepreneurial dreams of reward and influence. For her dreams of black family and baby love. She focuses on that as she circles the track, chasing the person she’s always striving to be.

DJ Khaled’s ‘Higher’ is a heartbreaking victory lap for Nipsey Hussle ‘Almost like church,’ the song is part history lesson, part manifesto

Back in March, a smirk flashed across Nipsey Hussle’s face. Pictures of him and DJ Khaled in the studio had surfaced on social media. The two had known each other for some time, even joining an investment group last year in an attempt to purchase the luxury Viceroy Santa Monica hotel. But how would a collaboration between the two sound, he was asked on Power 106’s The Cruz Show.

“It’s crazy,” Hussle said. “It’s like a real album favorite, you know what I’m saying? It’s one of them ones I think you gon’ appreciate the album for.”

Three weeks later, Hussle would be gunned down in front of his Marathon Clothing store near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in Los Angeles. Hussle’s death reverberated worldwide. Former President Barack Obama wrote a letter read to mourners at his funeral, a massive gathering held at the Staples Center in his hometown of Los Angeles. In the month and a half since Hussle’s death, he has become almost a religious figure in hip-hop. He was a man who stayed, in his words, “10 toes down” to the community that he not only represented and believed in, but also invested time, money and, most importantly, his soul in.

That was the background when a flood of new music and projects invaded streaming services on May 17, including Megan Thee Stallion’s Fever, Tyler, The Creator’s IGOR and Chance the Rapper’s “GRoCERIES.” Yet another project, Khaled’s Father of Asahd, carried with it a sense of wistfulness. Not just because the typically loquacious Miami-based DJ adopted a reserved approach for the album’s rollout. But also because it includes a cut called “Higher,” a collaboration with himself, singer John Legend and Hussle — the first new work from the rapper since his death.

Khaled announced a day before the album came out that Hussle’s death had changed the energy behind the album. “Higher” “reminds us that vibrating on a higher level was the essence of Nipsey’s soul,” Khaled wrote in a statement posted on Instagram. All of the song’s revenue, he said, would go to Hussle’s children, Emani and Kross.

Before his death, Hussle stressed the record and the visual’s importance. It wasn’t intended to be a No. 1 record. But “Higher” would undoubtedly resonate in a way no Khaled record had before. “It almost sounds like church,” he said.

With Hussle decked in a fitted blue satin shirt and pants, his angelic aura in the visual for “Higher” is no coincidence. Though not as morbid as Tupac Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” video — like “Higher,” the last one Shakur filmed before his death — it is part history lesson and part manifesto.

“My granny had 13 pregnancies and has two kids. She had 11 miscarriages from my uncle to my mom,” Hussle revealed earlier this year. “She was just telling me, ‘Imagine if I would have gave up on my 10th miscarriage, my ninth miscarriage.’ … I never thought about it. I wouldn’t be here. You can never repay your mom, your granny, with material s—. You gotta repay them with standing up in life, being something they could be proud of.”

Even through the pain his grandmother endured, he was a product of her faith. Her relentlessness. Her pride. Her love. “My granny 88, she had my uncle and them/ A miscarriage back-to-back every year for like 10,” Hussle raps on “Higher.” “Pregnant with my moms, doctor told her it was slim / Was bed rode for nine months, but gave birth in the end.”

A sense of peace amid chaos looms over “Higher.” It is apt, too, considering the concern expressed by Hussle’s team on the day of the video shoot at an Inglewood parking structure in late March. Security was added to prevent an attack on Hussle, TMZ reported. Whatever tumultuous energy surrounded him that day, Hussle appeared to handle it with street-savvy grace.

DJ Khaled reveals the official cover for his new album Father of Asahd while visiting Extra at the Levi’s Store Times Square on May 15 in New York City.

Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

Maturity isn’t necessarily a product of age. Instead, maturity evolves through life experiences and how a person chooses to grow. Careening through his parents’ love story into his own with actress Lauren London, he says on “Higher”:

“Pops turned 60, he proud what we done / In one generation, he came from Africa young / He said he met my moms at the Century Club / Los Angeles love kinda like Hussle and Boog / Mani turned 10, Kross turned 2 / Startin’ to see this life s— from a bird’s view.”

That evolving sophistication, akin to what happened with Biggie Smalls, is a painful musical “what if” he leaves behind.

“[Nipsey and I] used to talk. We gotta go. We don’t know if we gon’ go at 80, 60, 30 or 20. But the one thing is to make sure when you go, you go the right way,” Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom, Hussle’s older brother, said, fighting back tears at the funeral last month. “You stand up for what you believe in.”

The edict the Asghedom brothers lived by is at the heart of both the song and the video for “Higher.” From the obvious gospel influences to Legend’s mammoth presence and the video’s references — the 25-second mark symbolizes the gates of South Central heaven in the form of his partners in the street opening up as Hussle, back turned, stares at a bright beam of light — the song feels Hussle’s entrance into the same heavenly ghetto his idol Shakur once eulogized.

“South Central state of mind, high crime rate / Homicide, hate, gang banging’ll get you all day” — Hussle forecast the environment he grew up around and died attempting to shift the narrative it carried. But not before the song’s hardest-hitting and most painful bar: “And look at my fate.” Unless other tracks are tucked away, those are the last words we’ll ever see Hussle spit in a music video. It’s inspiring, yet chilling. Stirring, yet macabre. “Higher” is a fitting connection to a life whose spirit will loom over hip-hop, the home turf that now bears his name and a promise he made only months earlier.

“I’d just like to have laid the blueprint down that other people could follow that come from similar situations,” Hussle said of how he wanted to be remembered. “Elevated my team, my family, myself and inspired [others]. [That] would be the most important thing looking back 10 years from now.”

“Lookin’ back at my life make my heart race / Dance with the devil and test our faith, he waxes. I was thinkin’ chess moves but it was God’s grace.” “Higher” feels like the soundtrack that accompanied Hussle into the afterlife.

“Higher” is a beautiful reminder of who Hussle was as a man and artist, and also a tragic reminder of the reality he leaves behind. The first release from a deceased artist, in particular one slain in the manner Hussle was, is always a unique experience. There’s a human desire to have one last conversation with a loved one who has died. In the days after Hussle’s death, his music streams increased by nearly 2,000 percent. But moving forward, this is the new normal. We watch Nipsey while Nipsey presides over the marathon he mandated continues even without him.

In ‘See You Yesterday,’ time travelers can’t escape the ugly present New Spike Lee production brings Black Lives Matter to the science fair

Not even scientific genius has the power to outrun unscrupulous police.

That’s the macabre but justifiable takeaway from See You Yesterday, the debut feature film from director Stefon Bristol, streaming Friday on Netflix.

Two science-loving best friends, Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian J. Thomas (Danté Crichlow), are on a mission to turn back time. The two built a nifty set of personalized time machines that fit in their backpacks and will suck them through a wormhole, where they’ve got roughly 10 minutes to course-correct their lives before heading back to the present.

Danté Crichlow (left) and Eden Duncan-Smith (right) play Claudette “CJ” Walker and Sebastian J. Thomas, who are on a mission to turn back time in hopes of saving a life.

Courtesy of Netlfix

Co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, See You Yesterday at first appears to be a fun science fiction ride that happens to be about two West Indian kids obsessed with physics. Michael J. Fox makes a cameo as their science teacher. When she’s not tinkering with her time-traveling jetpack, CJ plunges into books such as Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. CJ and Sebastian live in East Flatbush, the heart of West Indian Brooklyn, New York, and they face questions about their relationship status from nosy grandparents who admonish them in accented English to please stop making things go boom in the garage.

But everything explodes when CJ sees her older brother Calvin (Astro) shot and killed by police for a bodega robbery he didn’t commit. Just like that, the stakes of time travel immediately ratchet from something that could win Sebastian and CJ the Westinghouse Award to a way to save a life — if only they can figure out how to properly wield their newfound power.

And so See You Yesterday takes a hard, grief-stricken turn, one that feels especially odd given the overall lighthearted tone Bristol chooses to tell the story. But thematically, it aligns with the “Replay” episode of Jordan Peele’s reimagining of The Twilight Zone, in which a mother played by Sanaa Lathan keeps trying to prevent her son from being killed by a bloodthirsty Virginia state trooper with the aid of a magic camcorder that rewinds life with the touch of button.

When black men and boys are targeted by police, it is their mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts and cousins who are left to pick up their broken bits of their grief and make something of it. Or, in these two cases, try to prevent their deaths from happening in the first place.

In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) shows signs of post-traumatic stress disorder after she witnesses her friend get fatally shot by a police officer. In See You Yesterday and “Replay,” that trauma takes on an even more tortuous edge. Not only do the women see their loved ones killed, they’re convinced that they can prevent it from happening, and so they try, over and over and over.

As CJ, Duncan-Smith gives a note-perfect performance, as do Thomas and Astro. But no matter the inspired cinematography or considered, authentic performances, these stories carry a weight of inevitability as they suck every particle of hope out of the air.

An unshakable fatalism blows through both “Replay” and See You Yesterday. The male characters eventually surrender to fate, leaving the anguished women who love them tilting at windmills to revive what is gone.

I don’t fault Bristol or Peele for refusing to make work that would make them seem like Pollyannas. Rather, it’s a shame that black innocence has been decimated so completely that even a film about earnest, time-traveling teens cannot outrun the weight of impending death and injustice at the hands of the state.

‘The Sun Is Also a Star’ can’t figure out which world to represent Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton are beautiful together, but the plot isn’t so pretty

After seeing film adaptations of two Nicola Yoon novels, first Everything, Everything and now The Sun Is Also a Star, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s Yoon or the writers adapting her novels who think teenagers are idiots.

Both films rely on obvious, contrived obstacles to give their teen protagonists something to overcome. In 2017’s Everything, Everything, an overprotective mother invents an illness to keep her daughter, played by Amandla Stenberg, confined to the walls of their home, lest she step outside and die. In The Sun Is Also a Star, which opens Friday, a deportation order threatens to separate Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel Bae (Charles Melton), but not before they spend a day gallivanting around New York and falling in love.

Yara Shahidi (left) and Charles Melton (right) have chemistry on screen, but it’s difficult for the audience to invest in their characters’ story.

Atsushi Nishijima

In The Sun Is Also a Star, the president is the unnamed villain whose immigration policy is behind the deportation order that puts a deadline on Natasha and Daniel’s new relationship. When Natasha meets Daniel, she’s in pursuit of a miracle (or at least a court order) that will postpone or cancel the deportation order for her family.

Jamaican-born Natasha is a science-worshipping high school junior and love skeptic who quotes Carl Sagan. But she speaks with an American accent, and like many children of immigrant parents, she handles her family’s interactions with the government. What’s odd is that her parents speak perfect English, which means the language barrier that often forces immigrant kids to become translators simply doesn’t exist. But somehow Natasha is best equipped to handle the maze of legal documents and strange, seemingly illogical requests that make navigating the U.S. immigration, citizenship and naturalization process a nightmare for many. This would maybe make more sense if Natasha were, say, a legal savant, but she’s into astronomy.

Then there’s Daniel, the dutiful younger son who is determined to attend Dartmouth, become a doctor and not disappoint his Korean immigrant parents the way his less ambitious, tattooed older brother already has. Daniel’s a romantic who loves writing poetry, and after saving Natasha from getting hit by a car, he’s convinced he’s found the perfect girl to proselytize about the magic of love.

There are two problems:
1. Natasha’s family is being deported in 24 hours.
2. Natasha is, for most of the movie, stubbornly resistant to revealing this piece of information to Daniel.

The second problem is especially frustrating, given that so much of the does-she-like-me-or-not angst that Daniel experiences could be alleviated with … a conversation.

After their car crash meet-cute and a few lucky coincidences, Natasha and Daniel spend the day together, hopping from Caffe Reggio in Greenwich Village to Daniel’s parents’ beauty supply store in Harlem, to a planetarium, to a karaoke bar, before falling asleep in a park overnight and then dashing back to the attorney whom Natasha has persuaded to take on her family’s case.

Director Ry Russo-Young gives the story of two children of immigrants falling in love a gorgeous look, with hopeful sweeps across the New York skyline. Her flashbacks to the story of how Natasha’s parents met, or a brief explainer of how Koreans came to dominate the black hair care and wig market, provide delicious visual treats that segue away from the main story. Shahidi and Melton are charming and utterly watchable together. They’re both absurdly attractive and skilled actors, but whatever magic exists between them is limited by Tracy Oliver’s script.

Complete investment in Natasha and Daniel is hampered by a cheesiness that prompted repeated laughs from the audience at my screening during moments that were supposed to be solemn or romantic. Daniel’s sexy rendition of “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells netted nervous titters alongside full-on guffaws. So did another moment, when Daniel exclaims to Natasha, “The universe wants us to be together!”

With so much cruelty directly impacting the Kingsley family, the naivete of both characters, but especially Daniel, comes across as tone-deaf. These kids were raised in New York in the wake of 9/11, in an America that can’t seem to do anything to stem school shootings. It doesn’t hurt the story to acknowledge how that influences the way Natasha and Daniel experience the world. Instead, The Sun Is Also a Star goes back and forth between using the cruelty of modern America as a backdrop and then expecting its audience to pivot to forgetting about it entirely, which makes it impossible to fully invest in either aspect of the story. Instead of recalling the psychedelic longing of first love, The Sun Is Also a Star inflicts something more like whiplash.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

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.

Zion in Atlanta would be a win for the culture The Hawks landing the No. 1 pick is a long shot. But Williamson would be a good match with the young, disruptive culture of The A.

Don’t try to tease Atlanta with a good time. It is, after all, the city that birthed the phrase “turn up.” Whose residents bear the name of a genre-shifting rap album (ATLiens). Where the nightlife has long been the script of urban legends. Come Tuesday evening, the city will await the results of the most important non-Powerball sweepstakes in recent memory: the NBA draft lottery — or, as it’s otherwise known, the right to draft Zion Williamson.

Landing Williamson is a long shot. (The Atlanta Hawks have a 10.5 percent chance of acquiring the top pick, good for fifth behind New York, Phoenix, Cleveland and Chicago.) That hasn’t stopped ATLiens from wishing upon a lemon pepper wet wing, of course. But Williamson and Atlanta differ from, say, LeBron James and Cleveland because Atlanta doesn’t need Williamson to reroute the city’s future. Atlanta is the best cultural destination for Williamson because this majority-black metropolis is already the mecca for black excellence, a modern-day mashup of the Harlem Renaissance and Sweet Home Chicago.

“Cleveland had their moment with LeBron. New York’s always had [the hoopla]. But it’s Atlanta’s time. We’re welcoming of new, young and talented people,” said Larry Luk, a Hawks enthusiast and head of brand at Localeur, a crowd-sourced recommendation platform for travelers. “Zion Williamson fits that mold.”

Williamson’s pedigree is public knowledge. He was a high school cheat code whose mixtapes gave him a Lil Wayne-like aura. His one season at Duke University only added to the anticipation and debate surrounding his future. He was the talk of the town at this year’s NBA All-Star Weekend. He’s been compared to James in terms of hype and to Charles Barkley, Blake Griffin and Larry Johnson as far as body type and athleticism. By season’s end, Williamson became only the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award, given to the country’s best player, and the third freshman in the last 20 seasons, along with Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, to amass 500 points, 50 blocks and 50-plus steals. Williamson’s every step (and shoe explosion) is a modern-day Truman Show.

For decades, New York was the most important place for America’s black culture, the site of the Harlem Renaissance, home court to both Malcolm X and Dapper Dan and the birthplace of hip-hop. But from Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement to its rise to the apex of hip-hop’s leaderboard in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “The A” has reached a cultural zenith. LaFace Records, which introduced household names such as TLC, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Ciara, Outkast and others, helped craft the sounds of both rap and rhythm and blues not in New York or Los Angeles. Andre 3000’s proclamation, “The South got something to say!” at the 1995 Source Awards is widely accepted as the most prophetic statement in rap history. Freaknik, the Atlanta-based spring break phenomenon, became black America’s most fabled party.

“It’s funny answering [why Williamson fits culturally],” said longtime Hawks fan and Atlanta hip-hop historian Maurice Garland, “because Atlanta’s culture is already pretty solid.”

Tory Edwards is an Atlanta-based filmmaker whose credits include work on Selma, Being Mary Jane, the Raw Report street DVDs and the 2014 documentary ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game. He’s also one-fourth of 404-derived civic and content collective Atlanta Influences Everything. He says bringing Williamson to Atlanta makes sense for one symbiotic reason: The city has always had one constant in its pursuit of cultural dominance — disruption.

“Just like Atlanta, who he is and what he represents is disruption,” Edwards said. Williamson is “something fresh and aggressive, and I believe Atlanta is going through its own renaissance.”

The city’s music scene reads like a list of high school superlatives: The aforementioned Ciara, Outkast, Dupri, Usher and TLC, plus Dungeon Family, Monica, T.I., Gucci Mane, Childish Gambino, Travis Porter, The-Dream, Goodie Mob, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, 21 Savage, Pastor Troy, Ludacris, Future, Young Jeezy, Young Thug, 2 Chainz, Migos and countless others.

The film industry, in almost a reverse gold rush, has planted flags in Atlanta. ATL, which starred natives T.I. and Big Boi as well as Lauren London, was a 2006 coming-of-age-in-Atlanta film that used one of its storied landmarks, the Cascade Skating Rink, to establish its local legitimacy nationwide. In 2016, more feature films were shot in Georgia than in California — Time magazine dubbed Atlanta Hollywood’s “Southern campus.” More recently, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, in just two seasons, is already a generationally important series. Its nightlife scene, spearheaded by strip clubs such as Magic City and Blue Flame, has given the metropolis an independent identity.

Zion Williamson drives in for a dunk against St. John’s during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 91-61.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

But beyond that, and perhaps what Edwards sees as a natural fit for the Southern-born Williamson, is its youthful energy. From black painters such as Fahamu Pecou to Orchestra Noir (which held court at Cardi B’s baby shower), an active and aggressive arts scene not only lives in Atlanta, it’s thriving.

“I think Atlanta just continues to disrupt culture and influence the world,” Edwards said. “I think Zion is a perfect match.”

“From an art and fashion standpoint, we haven’t really had a guy in town that had a signature sneaker that anyone cared about wearing since [Deion Sanders’ Nike Air Diamond Turfs],” said Luk. “Zion’s signature shoe in Atlanta would be worn by everyone if he was a Hawk, including myself.”

With a 1,000-watt smile and a forthcoming sneaker deal that’s expected to shatter anything before it, Williamson is already his own economy. And if there’s one city that appreciates the black dollar, it’s Atlanta.

“What I’ve noticed is a lot of young black entrepreneurs budding in Atlanta,” said ATL-based blogger and Spelman alumna Jameelah Johnson. “There’s so many ideas and so many young people. It’s the colleges that are here, like Spelman, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta,” as well as Georgia State and Georgia Tech. “It’s just amazing how much talent and knowledge there is for young people.”

Andre 3000 (left) and Big Boi (right) of Outkast perform onstage at the ONE Musicfest on Sept. 10, 2016, in Atlanta.

Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rooting for Atlanta sports teams hasn’t been the easiest job in the world. The city is still haunted by the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss in 2017. (Seriously, don’t say, “28-3” in many places. It’s still too soon.) In the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins, “The Human Highlight Film,” was one of the most exciting players in the NBA. But the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1958, when it was based in St. Louis. In the ’90s, Deion Sanders and Andre Rison made the Falcons the hottest ticket in town (although the team finally advanced to its first Super Bowl in 1999 with Jamal Anderson and Terance Mathis). The Braves had a majority-black infield and outfield in the ’90s that was hugely popular in Atlanta’s black community.

The city has been brutally criticized for its sports apathy. But that narrative is being rewritten by the new MLS franchise with its attendance numbers north of 70,000, recruitment of fans of color and a commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity. Last year, Atlanta United FC captured the city’s first professional title since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.

Even the slim chance of the Hawks landing the top spot in June’s draft is building Hawks fervor. “This city is dying for a superstar,” said DJ X-Rated, who works at several spots, including Allure, Magic City and XS.

“If Zion were to come to the Hawks, that would probably be the biggest thing since Dominique as far as a real star is here. Not just a good player, but a person that has real star power,” Garland agreed. “To a degree, Trae Young is that right now. This is the most I’ve ever seen Hawks basketball talked about in a long time, and we didn’t even win a damn thing.”

John Collins (left) and Trae Young (right) of the Atlanta Hawks shake hands after a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at State Farm Arena in Atlanta on Feb. 27.

Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Hawks finished this season 29-53, a five-win improvement over last year’s campaign. Young, a Rookie of the Year finalist, and second-year forward John Collins are already one of the league’s more exciting tandems, with both averaging nearly 20 points per game for the season. Kevin Huerter, who also just completed his rookie season, shot 38 percent from 3-point range — and won the respect of the recently retired Dwyane Wade.

A different energy pumped through the veins of State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta this season. Part of it had to do with the commitment to providing a different experience, with restaurants such as the city’s famed J.R. Crickets, a courtside bar and even Killer Mike’s barbershop. At the base of the excitement, though, was the product on the court.

“It’s like, ‘Oh … we got [one of] the leading scorers from college last year on the team [in Young]. It was exciting things happening,” said Garland.

“When [the Hawks] started clicking at the end of the season, it got crazy. They would lose games, but it wasn’t like they were really losing. You could see what they were putting out there,” said Johnson. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this team could actually do something. And they’re still young.’ So to see something like that is just inspiring.”

From left to right: Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles from Atlanta.

Matthias Clamer/FX

In an Atlanta version of utopia, Young leads fast breaks for years to come with Huerter sprinting to the corner, Collins flanked on one wing and Williamson on the other. “How do you defend that?” Johnson said with a laugh. “No, seriously, where do you go?”

The answer to that last question for Atlanta fans is easy: to the game. Not since James in 2003 has there been a player with more intoxicating potential and every-household marketability. Williamson is the first high school megastar of the Instagram era to surpass the unrealistic level of expectations — at least so far. College basketball ratings were up 15 percent this season on ESPN and 30 percent for Duke, in large part because of Williamson. Jay-Z, James and former President Barack Obama were all seated courtside within a month of each other to see the show in person.

“He’s the first athlete to really grow up like that in the social media spotlight from a young’un. If you’re on Instagram, you were like, at one point, ‘Who’s this dude dunking on all these little white kids, man?!’ ” said Garland. “Even rappers that may not even be big sports fans, they know who dude is. This is the dude Drake was riding hard for.”

Even those just marginally attracted to the pageantry will be tuning in Tuesday night. It’s not a matter of getting too excited before an inevitable letdown. With potentially two top-10 picks this year, Atlanta is in perhaps the best win-win scenario in the lottery. But the ultimate prize is No. 1 — Williamson’s jersey number and the draft position. “If [Williamson] comes here, everybody is gonna come,” says Edwards. “The city’s coming up.”

Still, it’s not as if Atlanta needs Zion Williamson to establish itself. And it’s not as if the Hawks need Zion Williamson either. ATLiens acknowledge what he can do for them. But they also know what the city, the culture and the creativity here can do for Williamson.

“Atlanta is the perfect breeding place for young talent,” Johnson said. “You just have people here trying to start new things. It’s the perfect place for someone like [Williamson] to come and to start his career.”

An oversized backboard and basketball hoop are seen on a billboard in front of the Atlanta City skyline during practice prior to the NCAA Men’s Final Four at the Georgia Dome on April 5, 2013 in Atlanta.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Dancer and choreographer Shamel Pitts returns home to Brooklyn with ‘Black Velvet’ Former member of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company now performs his own work

Before Shamel Pitts began studying dance, first at LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts and The Ailey School, then as a bachelor of fine arts candidate at Juilliard, he was a little boy growing up in the Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

At 21, Pitts got one of his first glimpses into the world of international dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. There, he was introduced to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, where Pitts would spend a significant chunk of his professional career.

From 2009 to 2016, Pitts lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and danced for Batsheva, a company led for years by choreographer Ohad Naharin, who developed a movement language called Gaga. Gaga is a form of modern dance rooted in anti-classical Israeli tradition. It’s not folk dancing, and it’s not popular dance, but it is meant to be accessible to a wide range of bodies and abilities. To see Batsheva perform Gaga is a cultlike experience. It transfixes with its slow, undulating movements and seduces its audience with its mystery, beauty and just straight-up strangeness. You don’t really watch Gaga so much as you submit to being plunged into it for a time.

“It unlocked and unleashed and opened up things that I didn’t even know were closed, just the essence of why I dance and my passion for dance, and how would dance reconnect to our pleasure and our passion to move, and how we listen to our bodies before we tell it what to do,” Pitts, now 34, said of Gaga. “It’s something about those kind of teachings. While I was at school, it was transformative for me. Something about education environments, sometimes it becomes very practical and you kind of miss out on the essential.”

Pitts first experienced Batsheva at BAM, then later danced there as a member of the company. This week, he returns for a series of performances with his creative collaborator, the Brazilian-born performance artist Mirelle Martins. They will dance BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, the second in Pitts’ trilogy of non-narrative works (BLACK BOX: Little Black Book of RED, BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes, and BLACK HOLE: Trilogy and Triathlon). The language of Gaga is foundational to Pitts’ work, but, with Martins, he has built upon it to fashion his own dialect.

BLACK VELVET: Architectures and Archetypes Performance Trailer from Shamel on Vimeo.

Pitts describes BLACK VELVET as a theatrical meditation on transcending the boundaries of gender, race, love, friendship and identity. It’s performed in a space that’s lighted only with projections designed by graphic designer and video artist Lucca Del Carlo. He and Martins, who is also black, move as two sparsely clad, androgynous beings in light that turns them into a sinewy, rippling pair.

“Part of my idea and interest in using only projector in all of my works actually … is that there’s something about this object and the potential of this instrument, this lighting, to create something that is incredibly cinematic,” Pitts said. “You can feel almost like watching a hologram, but watching something that is really past and present and future change in the matter of moments, and seconds, in front of you.”

Perhaps what’s most astounding about BLACK VELVET is Martins, who began training to dance professionally with Pitts at age 28. They first met in 2013, and then Pitts moved to Brazil to teach Gaga in 2016. Martins and Pitts premiered BLACK VELVET in Brazil later that year and have been touring it internationally ever since. Pitts and Martins are the only two dancers in the 50-minute work. They move with such fluid intensity and purpose that witnessing BLACK VELVET almost feels like an intrusion, as if you are watching two people so connected to each other that they’ve managed to make the world around them cease to exist.

Shamel Pitts and Mirelle Martins dance Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes.

Rebecca Stella

“I really wanted to create a work with her that was about us meeting each other and taking care of each other and listening to each other and celebrating each other and empowering each other in a performance,” Pitts said. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we definitely, from the very beginning, felt a strong bond between us. We really listened to this pulling to this kind of connection. I don’t know if it’s ancestral or if it’s in the future, but we really felt there was some strong connection between us. We listened to it, and then we came together. … Since then, we’ve kept fueling the fire … so now, we’re very, very, very close. She’s like a soul mate.”

When I reached Pitts this week, he was sitting in the backyard of his family’s Bed-Stuy home, with birds chirping in the background, reflecting on the circular journey his career has taken. He’s moved back to Brooklyn and continues to teach Gaga, and he works as an instructor at Harvard and Juilliard too.

“To come to BAM and bring my own work, as a Brooklyn artist, it really feels like a homecoming to me, and I’m really sort of immensely excited,” Pitts said. “It just feels really like a dream realized, this moment. I remember, as I saw all of these performances that really inspired my past as an artist, I also realized that I haven’t seen Brooklyn artists at Brooklyn Academy of Music.”

Phillip Youmans becomes first black director to win at Tribeca with his feature debut, ‘Burning Cane’ Teenage whiz kid is about to finish his freshman year at NYU

For months, 19-year-old Phillip Youmans had to hold fast to what he called “the best-kept secret” of his life. His first feature film, Burning Cane, which he wrote, shot, directed and edited himself, was accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, making him the youngest director ever to have an entry there.

In March, when this year’s lineup was announced, the New York University freshman could finally exhale. Now, the stomach butterflies associated with great news have returned anew: Last week, Youmans won the Founders Award, the festival’s top prize for narrative film. He is the first black director to win the prize. Youmans also won the prize for best cinematography in a U.S. narrative feature film. And Wendell Pierce, who co-produced the film and stars as Reverend Tillman, took honors for best actor in a U.S. narrative feature film. Both Ava DuVernay and Black List creator Franklin Leonard tweeted their admiration.

“Everything has changed,” Youmans said when I reached him by phone Monday. “Now it feels like we actually have a trajectory. It feels like there are so many opportunities. … Production companies now wanna work with me. It’s crazy!”

Youmans made the film at age 17 with the goal of commenting on the strictures of religious fundamentalism and the ways men blame their internal faults on outside forces — in this case, the devil. It was a way to voice his discomfort with the beliefs held by members of his own family who harbor transphobic or homophobic attitudes.

“I grew up in the [Baptist] church,” Youmans said. “There’s so many things about the doctrine that I disagree with, and because of that I had to separate, but I’m not antagonizing or demonizing the church. … I still love my family despite our differences, but there are some things I just can’t come to terms with.”

Burning Cane director Phillip Youmans

Bijan Gouri/Denizen Pictures

Youmans grew up in New Orleans and first picked up a camera when he was 13. He attended the city’s high school for creative arts and became interested in filmmaking after acting in small roles in projects filming around New Orleans (Sex Ed, For A Dark Skin Girl and American Hero).

When he worked on American Hero, “I saw a bigger budget set in action and I saw the crews interacting with each other,” Youmans said. “There was so much going on behind the camera that became so clear to me. That was part of the catalyst for me to go behind the camera.”

He started to make short films and experiment.

Burning Cane drops its audience into the cane fields of rural Louisiana, following the life of Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) as she tries, to no avail, to cure her dog Jojo of mange. There are two violent, no-account drunks in Helen’s life: her son, Daniel (Dominique McClellan), and her pastor, Reverend Tillman.

That the Southern gothic aesthetic of Burning Cane recalls Benh Zeitlin’s work in Beasts of the Southern Wild is no accident — Zeitlin was a co-producer on the film. After the release of Beasts, Youmans contacted the director via Instagram.

After making a short based on the same concept, Youmans started an Indiegogo campaign to expand Burning Cane to a feature-length film. He combined that money with savings and family contributions to fund the film. Pierce, who has had roles on The Wire, Suits and Treme, agreed to take the role as Reverend Tillman based on the script. Youmans was too embarrassed by his attempts at short films to share them with the veteran actor.

“Even though they’re all older than me, none of them imposed any sort of hierarchy or pecking order,” Youmans said of his actors. “None of them were talking down to me because I was younger. The camera is a great equalizer with people on a set — usually, if it’s a respectful set. … I think they respected the vigor that I had.”

Burning Cane is clearly literate in the style of Charles Burnett, and the spare way Youmans lights his characters brings to mind the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Youmans also cited Barry Jenkins and Paul Thomas Anderson as inspirations. Youmans is the latest in a line of talented black NYU directors to make waves early in their career; Pariah and Mudbound director Dee Rees is another.

NYU students have to leave the dorms for the summer by May 13, Youmans said, so he’ll be moving to a Brooklyn apartment, where he’ll continue to work on projects already in motion, including a couple of new films with Stay Human and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste, who also graduated from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. One is a short documentary that will accompany a release of the band’s recent concerts at the Village Vanguard. Youmans is also fine-tuning the script on his next narrative project, which will focus on the Black Panther Party in 1970s New Orleans.