LeBron’s chess moves, Westbrook vs. Embiid: The 8 NBA All-Star storylines to follow Will Quavo be Celebrity Game MVP? Will Ric Flair be courtside?

Professional sports’ premier soap opera is the NBA, and it invades Charlotte, North Carolina, this weekend for its 68th All-Star Game. But narrowing things to just the game is a disservice to the infinite dramatic possibilities of the weekend: Thursday through Sunday is an amalgamation of the NBA and pop culture so thorough that no other major American sports league could ever hope to measure up. What makes the NBA the melodramatic provocateur it is are the dramas. Some are obvious. Some aren’t. Some are, at best, are truly just pipe dreams. The following eight stories could spice up an already very hot weekend.


One: The All-Star method to LeBron’s All-Star madness

For LeBron James, this year’s All-Star draft was a riveting moment in a career filled with them. As fate, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s draft strategy would have it, James’ gang is chock-full of soon-to-be free agents — and Anthony Davis, who, unless you’ve been living under a rock the last two weeks or so, you’ve heard has requested a trade — preferably to Los Angeles. While the Lakers came up short in the Davis sweepstakes, Los Angeles, and in particular James and agent Rich Paul, received backlash for what many, including LaVar Ball, dubbed as destroying whatever chemistry the Lakers had left. An improbable Rajon Rondo game-winner in Boston has temporarily quelled critics, but a 23-point dump trucking in Philly brought L.A. back to earth and staring in the face of what will be a race to eighth after the All Star break — if they hope to make the playoffs. So best believe James is using All-Star Weekend for business far beyond just the next few weeks of this season. One would be safe to bet a lot of general managers around the league are none too happy about James’ public chess moves.

Bonus: Just like Dwyane Wade, we’re all looking forward to that final lob he tosses up to James. A fitting swan song to one of the game’s all-time great friendships.

Two: Westbrook and Embiid: reunited — and it doesn’t feel so good

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By far the funniest moment of the entire All-Star draft was the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Team Giannis and Ben Simmons to Team LeBron. On the surface, it’s James getting his fellow Klutch brethren in Simmons. But the trade really matters for one reason — and one reason only. Westbrook and Joel Embiid, two of the NBA’s most beloved personalities, are now forced to be teammates.

But, Westbrook and Embiid aren’t fond of each other. At all. The drama began in December 2017 during a triple overtime instant classic between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. When the Sixers and Thunder squared off, Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams and Westbrook — after each fouled out. Oklahoma City ultimately won, leaving Westbrook to return the favor by waving at Embiid. Fast-forward to last month: In another Thunder win, Embiid landed on Westbrook following a blocked shot attempt. Embiid said it wasn’t on purpose. Westbrook believed otherwise. When asked if the two were cool off the court, Westbrook kept it funky. “F— no.” When asked what the issue between the two was, Embiid’s was sarcastic. “I don’t why he was so mad. I have no idea,” the Sixers superstar said. “But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.” Seeing these two on the court at the same time should be absolute comedy. Will they play nice? Or will they freeze each other out? We won’t have to wait long to see them square off again as opponents, though. The Sixers travel to Oklahoma City on Feb. 28, where they hope to get a win versus the Thunder for the first time in 11 years.

Three: Ric Flair, Charlotte’s (Un]official Ambassador

To be the man, you gotta [honor the man at All-Star Weekend]…

OK, so that’s not exactly how the quote goes, but the truth remains the same. Of all the celebrities linked to Charlotte, there is but one who sits at the mountaintop. In a perfect world, Richard Morgan Fliehr, known to the world as Ric Flair, would be front and center at All-Star Weekend festivities. Flair’s wild life has been documented most recently with the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 Nature Boy. There will be many black music stars and fans in town for All-Star, most notably Meek Mill and J. Cole, who are headlining the official halftime show, and hip-hop loves Flair. Think 2012’s “We Ball” with Dom Kennedy and Kendrick Lamar. Think of 2018’s Offset, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Ric Flair Drip” the video that actually starred the former world champion. There’s a possibility Offset could be in town — Charlotte’s just a stone’s throw from Atlanta — and a reunion of sorts could take place. Nevertheless, Flair is a prime candidate for unofficial All-Star Weekend ambassador. Hope he’ll rock a “Free 21 Savage” shirt.

There’s also this: So much of Flair’s DNA is visible in current NBA All-Stars. James’ obsession for the dramatic is as must-see-TV as Flair. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s threat from 3 is as crippling as Flair’s figure-four leg-lock. Westbrook’s fashion sense — need more be said? Also Flair is an undeniable fan favorite on a lifetime victory lap akin to Dwayne Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. Charlotte shouldn’t just want Flair courtside for Sunday’s game. Charlotte needs Flair courtside for Sunday’s game.

Four: Can Quavo go back-to-back into the Celebrity Game record books?

Quavo, reigning Celebrity Game MVP, looks to join Terrell Owens and Kevin Hart as the only players to be named most valuable more than once. Hart, like Young Jeezy and trapping, won it four years in a row. Take away the actual professional basketball players (Ray Allen, A’ja Wilson, Jay Williams), and look at this year’s rosters. Famous Los has already set his sights on the crown, but Quavo will again be the best hooper on the court. Huncho’s silky lefty game is only enhanced by his ability to finish at the rim and get to the free throw line at will — a la James Harden. Also: former Carolina Panthers/future Hall of Fame wide receiver (and one of the all-time great trash talkers in any sport) Steve Smith is on the opposing squad. A Smith-Quavo back-and-forth could be the closest iteration of Harden vs. Draymond Green at All-Star.

Five: Stephen Curry’s Homecoming

The two-time MVP will be a huge part in this weekend’s festivities given his deep and direct ties to the Queen City. His father, Dell, was a sharpshooter for the Charlotte Hornets for 10 seasons. And while Stephen Curry was born in Akron, Ohio (making it one of the most unexpected birthplaces of basketball royalty), Charlotte is where Curry grew up. He attended high school in Charlotte. And because no big-time schools thought much of him, Curry attended Davidson College, about 30 minutes away from downtown Charlotte — and put the school on the basketball map with unparalleled March Madness performances a decade ago. He returns to the city he calls home as the greatest shooter of all time, nearly a surefire lock to obliterate Allen’s all-time 3-point record and future Hall of Famer with three championships (and counting) to his name. Curry and younger brother Seth are both in the 3-point contest, and Curry’s presence in Sunday’s big game has the running narrative of MVP.

Six: Bombs Over Charlotte: A 3-point contest for the ages

There’s reigning champion Devin Booker. There are the aforementioned Curry brothers. Damian Lillard is made for moments like these. Buddy Hield, Joe Harris and Danny Green can all catch fire at a moment’s notice. Khris Middleton, who almost assuredly will have teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo courtside cheering him on. All-Star starter Kemba Walker has home court advantage. And there wouldn’t be an angry person in the world if Nowitzki walked away with the crown. The point being is this: There is no wrong selection here. Just enjoy the light show.

Seven: Happy birthday, Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan turns 56 on Feb. 17, the day of the All-Star Game, and expect the greatest to ever do it to be treated like the royalty he is all weekend long. Jordan’s been waiting for this weekend since 2017, when Charlotte was originally supposed to host the midseason pilgrimage, but due to the discriminatory HB2, known as the “bathroom bill,” Charlotte’s look was postponed. But this year? Here are three Jordan dream scenarios in no particular order:

  1. Similar to James Davis above, I, too, receive an ultra exclusive invite to whatever Saturday night party Jordan is hosting. Bringing my own cigars, Mike and I chop it up about a variety of topics. About how I found the address to his fan club in an old Sports Illustrated Kids. About how I think his “Flu Game” is really his “Hangover Game” — which is no knock on him. It’s actually more impressive.
  2. Someone snaps a picture of Jordan and Bill “I don’t play defense” Murray. While Jordan did most of the work versus the Monstars in Space Jam, let the record show Murray has the most important assist in world history. It’s high time we acknowledge Murray for the hero he is.
  3. Like last year, the game comes down to its final possession. And James, with Jordan courtside, takes the final shot …

Eight: Charlotte ‘Going Bad’ on ’em anyway?

For anyone not familiar with All-Star Weekend, it’s a continuous barrage of parties, sponsored events and open bars. There is, of course, a vital need for music at these events. And if there’s one song most likely to become the unofficial anthem of the weekend, it’s Meek Mill and Drake’s “Going Bad” which officially dropped last week. Sitting at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of Feb. 9, don’t be surprised if it jumps a few slots with an expected All-Star push. Meek is of course one of the two headliners for Sunday’s All-Star Game, along with home state titan J. Cole. Meek will also serve as the MC of pregame introductions with his and Drake’s hit likely playing some role in the moment. It’s a nice setup too, for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the nation’s oldest historically black college conference. The organization has held its annual basketball tournament in the Queen City since 2004. Because of its residency in Charlotte (which ends next year and is headed to Baltimore in 2021), the city is an annual mecca for celebrities such as 21 Savage, Cardi B, Odell Beckham Jr., Rick Ross, Bria Myles, Lil Wayne, DC Young Fly and more. Last year’s CIAA tournament netted north of $50 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. This year’s tournament kicks off Feb. 26.

San Diego Chargers rookie DB Derwin James: ‘It’s time to put on the pads. I’m ready to go’ But what happens when he plays his bestie Jalen Ramsey?

A month before commissioner Roger Goodell called his name on the opening night of 2018 NFL draft, Derwin James already had lofty praise to live up to. When cameras were rolling at Florida State University’s pro day on March 20, Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey delivered the ultimate co-sign of his former college teammate. “Top player in the draft this year,” Ramsey told the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. “Should go No. 1 overall, but you know how things go in the draft. You never know … top 5, top 10, top 15.”

In their final mock drafts, ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both projected James to be taken by Tampa Bay with the seventh pick. But the first 15 NFL teams to draft — the Buccaneers included — passed on the 6-foot-1 ¾-inch, 215-pound freak-of-athlete safety. That was until No. 17, when James fell into the laps of the San Diego Chargers. Despite dropping on the draft board, James is still oozing with confidence and swag. The Undefeated recently caught up with San Diego’s newly minted defensive back about his brand partnership with New Era Cap, his relationship with Ramsey, and why he changes his hairstyle so much.


How does it feel to finally be in the NFL?

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but I’m excited. I’m happy that I got the opportunity to finally live out my dream.

Heading into the draft, what team did you think would take you?

Tampa or San Francisco. After it went past them, I said, ‘OK, maybe I could be going to Green Bay.’ After Green Bay traded back, I thought, ‘I’m going to the Chargers.’

Was it nerve-racking, waiting?

It was crazy. I obviously thought I’d go earlier, but once I put on that New Era hat — that Chargers hat. It was an amazing feeling.

“I loveddddd fitteds, because my head was so big as a kid.”

You partnered with New Era ahead of the draft. Have you always been a hat guy?

Growing up, I was a fitted hat guy. Then they came out with the snapbacks, so I converted. But I loveddddd fitteds, because my head was so big as a kid. It would look weird sometimes when my mom would put other caps on me. We couldn’t ever find the right one to fit my head.

The draft cap is a big part of the experience — where will you keep yours?

My hat and my jersey, both of those I’m hanging on my wall. They’re gonna be in a case. Nobody can get to them.

How did you choose your draft outfit?

My favorite colors are red and black. And I went to Florida State, where our color is garnet. So I thought I’d do something along the garnet and red line. I wanted to be a little flashy. I talked to my suit man, and said, ‘Gimme something nice.’

You grew up in Florida, went to Florida State and will now be playing in San Diego — but what’s the coldest place you’ve ever been?

When I was in Green Bay on my visit, it was like 3 degrees. I was like, ‘Oh, s—!’ They told me it was a nice day — that sometimes it’s below zero. Say what!

Do you have any game day traditions or superstitions?

I’ve got my wristbands that I’ve been wearing since high school, and then I got some in college that I have to have on every game. But, for the most part, I just go with the flow.

“My dream scenario would be me, Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas. Nobody could complete a pass.”

You always post your ever-changing hairstyles on social media — how do you pick them?

I get a lot of feedback from my teammates on that. They say I have more hairstyles than women do. But I just like being different, being my own self. I don’t really try to copy anybody, or be anybody that I’m not. Being diverse and versatile is just the person I am.

Who’s the most famous person following you on social media?

Probably OBJ [Odell Beckham Jr.].

Take us back to the first time you met Jalen Ramsey — and how has your relationship with him grown over the years?

I met him when I was in high school. I’d already committed to Florida State in 2012, and I think he was just getting there. I built a relationship with him on visits, and he told me he … was going to take me under his wing. And then when I got there, he stuck to his word. Our relationship grew over the years, and he’s like my brother.

Where were you heard Jalen call you the best player in this year’s draft — and how did it make you feel?

I was out in Cali training. When he said that, I wasn’t really surprised, but that was a big compliment coming from a guy like him.

Your dreams corps of defensive backs — who would they be?

My dream scenario would be me, Casey Hayward, Jalen Ramsey, Landon Collins and Earl Thomas. Nobody could complete a pass.

“Now [my number is] 33, so you get Derwin James 2.0. Supercharged.”

Which quarterbacks are you most looking forward to facing this season?

S—, I wanna face all of them. I mean, I haven’t seen a quarterback damn near since October, November. The suit and tie — all of that is out the way. It’s time to put on the pads. I’m ready to go.

You wore No. 3 at FSU. Why No. 33 in San Diego?

Three is my favorite number, so I was thinking for the Chargers, I was just gonna supercharge it! Add another 3. Now it’s 33, so you get Derwin James 2.0. Supercharged.

What’s your favorite tattoo?

My Florida State tattoo … it’s on my left soldier. I got it in 10th grade, and it’s the most meaningful tattoo I have, besides my mom’s name.

Outside of football, who is your favorite athlete?

Floyd Mayweather.

Have you ever met him?

A couple times. He’s a great guy. The media tries to judge him, but he’s really down-to-earth. He’s a winner, he’s a competitor, and he comes from the struggle. One of my favorite people.

In the next five years, what can we expect from Derwin James?

I’m not gonna come in and promise no Super Bowls, but you’ll see a guy that’s gonna work his butt off. I just feel like I’m in a great situation and a great system around a lot of great coaches. The team was already great before I got here. I’m just tryna come in, do my job and hopefully we pull out some ball games together.

Any message to the teams that passed on you?

See you soon.

‘The Plug’ podcast: ‘The Madness Begins’ feat. Jenisha Watts (episode 14) All things March Madness, Odell Beckham Jr., LeBron Sr. playing with LeBron Jr., and more

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Thanks to Mother Nature making sure we felt the effects of winter one last time before spring, we had a delayed recording this week.

It’s no worries, though. The show was still lit. Jenisha Watts, an editor with espnW, joins Terrika, Kayla and me (and later Tes) to talk about Ryan Coogler’s letter to Ava DuVernay, Cam Newton and much more. From there, the crew chops it up on Odell Beckham Jr.’s recent video controversy, whether or not LeBron James Sr. will actually stay in the NBA long enough to play with LeBron Jr., the validity of Tiger Woods’ latest impressive showing and, of course, all things March Madness.

We’re back on our regular schedule next week — provided it doesn’t snow another 10 inches again next week, of course. Rain, sleet, ice, snow or heat wave, you can always subscribe to The Plug via the ESPN App. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

The top 24 sneaker sightings of 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend Style, swag, originality, and strong statements — who’s the All-Star sneaker MVP?

LOS ANGELES — The hottest stars on the planet, from the worlds of basketball, entertainment and fashion, descended upon the City of Angels for the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. And they brought the hottest shoes they could get on their feet. The festivities of the weekend — from pop-ups from the biggest brands in the sneaker industry to spontaneous concerts to the celebrity all-star games, the actual NBA All-Star Game, and even the lead-up practices — was a cultural explosion when it came to sneakers. These are the top 24 (shout-out to the greatest No. 24 in L.A. history, Kobe Bryant) pairs we saw at All-Star Weekend, along with the stars who made them shine.


LeBron James

LeBron James was named the MVP of the All-Star Game, and we’re also declaring him sneaker MVP of the weekend. Heading into practice before the game, he debuted a low-top version of his Nike LeBron 15, as well as a red, white and blue player exclusive (PE) edition of his first signature sneaker, the Nike Air Zoom Generation. On Instagram he broke out another Air Zoom Generation PE — this one designed with black pony hair and a glow-in-the-dark sole. His pregame All-Star shoes were a custom pair of “More Than An Athlete” Air Force 1s — a nod to the recent critical comments about the world’s greatest basketball player from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham. And last but not least, on the court at Staples Center during the All-Star Game, he rocked a regal pair of Nike x KITH LeBron 15 PEs, featuring rose and vine stitching and gold embellishment fit for a king. God bless Nike, KITH and James for delivering all this heat.

Migos’ Quavo

Quavo took home the trophy as MVP of the NBA’s Celebrity All-Star Game after balling out in not one, but two pairs of custom kicks. With the help of Finish Line, and famed sneaker artist Dan “Mache” Gamache, the rapper a part of the hip-hop trio Migos wore Nike LeBron 15s and Under Armour Curry 4s, both of which were inspired by the supergroup’s No. 1 album Culture II. We caught up with Mache, who discussed his process of bringing the specially designed “Culture Brons” and “Huncho Currys” to life.

Justin Bieber

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From afar, it looked like pop star Justin Bieber was wearing a pair of Off-White Air Jordan 1s while running up and down the court in the Celebrity All-Star Game. But actually, he donned the Fear of God All-Star Pack, crafted by L.A.-based designer Jerry Lorenzo (the son of former Major League Baseball player and coach Jerry Manuel).

Odell Beckham Jr.

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Customization was a theme of the weekend, especially for Nike. And one of the brand’s biggest athletes, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., couldn’t leave L.A. without getting in the lab and getting his custom on. The end product? A red pair of OBJ Air Force 1s, which he swagged with a red and white Supreme x Louis Vuitton shoulder bag on the sidelines during the All-Star Game.

Kanye West

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Kanye West made a surprise appearance at Adidas’ #747WarehouseSt in his “Blush” Yeezy Desert Rat 500s. The shoes were also available at the event to the public in limited quantities through a raffle. Shout-out to everyone who got a pair.

Xbox

It’s been the year of the Air Jordan 3, and Xbox is riding the wave. On Feb. 16, the video gaming brand announced that three limited-edition consoles — inspired by the “Black Cement,” “Free Throw Line,” and “Tinker Hatfield” 3s — will be given away to three fans through a Twitter sweepstakes taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 21.

Kendrick Lamar

Grammy Award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar took the stage at Nike’s Makers Headquarters on Feb. 17 in his newly dropped Cortez Kenny IIs. An iconic L.A. shoe for an iconic L.A. native.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, DeMar DeRozan

Nike x UNDEFEATED have the collaboration of the year so far, with the Zoom Kobe 1 Protros that were released to the public in a camouflage colorway at an exclusive pop-up in L.A. during the weekend. Toronto Raptors star, and Compton, California, native DeMar DeRozan wore a mismatched pair of the Protros — one green camo shoe and one PE red camo shoe — during the All-Star Game. We also saw pairs of PEs from Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks during the Celebrity All-Star Game, and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns during the 3-point shootout.

Usher

Yes, that is Usher wearing a pair of Air Jordan 5s, signed by Tinker Hatfield, the greatest designer in the history of sneakers.

Damian Lillard

Portland Trailblazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard is endorsed by Adidas and is a huge fan of the Japanese streetwear brand BAPE. So this weekend, he brought us the BAPE-inspired Adidas Dame 4 in camo, red and black. Simply beautiful.

Kyrie Irving

There have been reports for quite some time that Nike and Kyrie Irving would be coming out with a new and affordable basketball shoe separate from his signature line. It appears to have arrived. On the practice court before the All-Star Game, Irving broke out the unnamed sneakers, which honor the Boston Celtics with the words “Boston” and “Pride” featured on the outsoles, as well as the years of Boston’s championships on the laces. Look for this shoe to eventually drop at rumored retail price of about $80.

Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade poses with the raffle winner of the new limited-edition All-Star Way of Wade 6 shoe, Moments during a private NBA All-Stars event Feb. 17.

Courtesy of Li-Ning

One pair of Dwyane Wade’s Li-Ning All-Star Way of Wade 6s, which were unveiled and presented to fans in limited-edition fashion through a raffle on Feb. 17, went to this little girl. What a moment.

Snoop Dogg’s West Team beats 2 Chainz’s East in Adidas Celebrity Game ‘We all think we supposed to be in the league … just like all #NBA players think they supposed to be rappers.’

LOS ANGELES — At the intersection of hoops and hip-hop, one thing has always been the case. “We all think we supposed to be in the league,” the legendary MC Snoop Dogg professes, “just like all NBA players think they supposed to be rappers.”

So the godfather of West Coast rap approached Adidas about creating a special event for 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend. And at #747WarehouseSt — the brand’s two-day All-Star experience, which mixes fashion, sport and music — his vision came to life, via the first annual East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop celebrity game. The two teams featured only artists, and were coached by none other than Snoop and Atlanta hip-hop star 2 Chainz.

“My roster was based sheerly off the way artists walked. If you’re onstage going back and forth, there’s a sort of athleticism to it.”

“What happened was, I was sitting back at home watching the [official] celebrity game, trying to figure out a way to put something together … where we could have a good time, and it was only rappers,” said Snoop at news conference before Friday’s game — which he pulled up to an hour late with his fellow coach 2 Chainz, who came with a lit blunt in hand as well as his 4-year-old French Bulldog, Trappy Doo. “So I hit my nephew 2 Chainz up, and told him what I was thinking. He came in with a few ideas, and we matched these ideas together.”

Snoop’s roster boasted the likes of David Banner, Chris Brown, K Camp, Chevy Woods, and himself, of course, while 2 Chainz rolled with a squad that included Trinidad James, Young M.A., Wale and Lil Dicky. Originally listed as a player for the East squad, Quavo of the Migos pulled out at the last minute to take his talents to the NBA’s official Celebrity All-Star Game, during which he dazzled the crowd with an MVP performance.

“My roster was based sheerly off the way artists walked. If you’re onstage going back and forth, there’s a sort of athleticism to it,” said 2 Chainz, who served as strictly the coach of the East, having broke his leg last July. Snoop’s general manager skills followed a more traditional scouting approach. “A lot of the people on my team, I played with him, or I’ve played against them, in [other] celebrity games,” he said. “I’m just a fan of rappers that love the ball.”

The rappers-turned-hoopers took to the multicolored court, named after Pharrell, in custom Adidas jerseys that all appropriately featured the word “Rapper” on the back. Actor/comedian Michael Rapaport and rapper Fat Joe served as the AND1 Mixtape-inspired on-court commentators of the contest, from which Snoop’s West team emerged victorious. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. even made an appearance on the court. He’s a Nike-endorsed athlete, but on this afternoon, he couldn’t resist experiencing this cultural moment, brought to the people by Adidas.

Famous Los aims to take his brand of sports comedy to even greater heights The Instagram star is a tiny bit in his feelings about not being invited to play in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

If ball is, indeed, life, it’s clearly also comedy. Former Division II basketball player Carlos “Famous Los” Sanford has blown up as a commentator/performer thanks to his relentless stream of social videos that have earned him the title “da funny sports analyst.”

The method to Los’ madness? He blends sports highlights with his unique potluck of sarcasm and barbershop-like relatability. Where a normal sportscaster might simply narrate a highlight, Los brings his blacktop personality. For example, there’s the funny one about having to stop a pickup game in order to get a friend who doesn’t have a membership into the gym. With over a million followers on Instagram — some of whom include Odell Beckham Jr., Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Ezekiel Elliott and Stephen Curry — Los’ brand of wit and hoops knowledge is clearly infectious.

The Durham, North Carolina, native — who played at Lincoln Memorial with fellow sports funnyman Brandon “BDotADot” Armstrong and then Union College — now resides in Los Angeles and has plans to expand his portfolio in 2018. Fresh off an appearance on NBA TV, Los opens up about his own hoops dreams, his Netflix recommendations and why the topic of this year’s Celebrity Game during All-Star Weekend is a sore topic.

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Describe your college basketball career. Did you think about the pros? And how did playing turn into what you’re doing now?

My life growing up, it was nothing but basketball. It’s levels. I did the first level, and then I got to college. The transformation to college really set me back. I scored a lot of points in high school. Then I came to college … and, of course, you have to play in other people’s systems. So I stopped shooting and I just passed a lot. I guess it wasn’t effective … so I didn’t play a lot. I transferred to my other school [Union College]. I played there, but when I hurt my knee again, that’s when I stopped. … After a while, I just started making videos.

Were you always kinda known as the comedian on the team?

Always! Always a jokester. I was on the same team with BDot. We both always kept the team rolling.

Did y’all ever get in trouble?

We were always in trouble — but we won a lot, so it didn’t matter.

Who was your childhood hero?

Hmmmm. I have no idea, but I only look at the basketball players. Either Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant.

What are you looking forward to achieving the most in 2018?

Well, I was just on TV last night. Can I still say that? I guess so. Yeah, just more TV appearances. [I’m] trying to get in a movie. More work outside of just me. More work in the culture.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Be consistent.

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Favorite throwback TV show?

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!

What’s the last show you binge-watched?

(Laughs) Dude, everything. Lemme think. What was that show I just watched? Oh, 13 Reasons Why. And this show [on Netflix] called Glitch. All I do is sit here and watch movies. I binge-watch everything.

What’s your favorite karaoke song?

(Laughs) I don’t do no karaoke. But I’m always down to have a good time, though.

Last concert you went to?

Drake. Out here at The Forum [during Drake and Future’s Summer Sixteen Tour].

When was the moment you realized what you’re doing is catching on and making waves in the culture?

When I realized I had all the NBA players loving what I did. I just had to figure out how I could make money from it.

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How did your friendship with Odell Beckham Jr. begin?

He just tweeted me telling me I’m funny. I hit him back, and from there it was all good. He’s good peoples.

Have you ever had a player come to you and say, ‘I don’t like what you said about me’?

If I’ve done it, it might have been in a funny way. But nah, it’s never been anybody actually mad at me.

Is there anyone that’s a fan of you that you were starstruck by?

Ummm … **long pause** … no. I’m a star (laughs). But Kobe, Drake and Magic Johnson? Them three? I would be starstruck. All the way.

What streaming services do you use on your phone?

I use Apple Music.

Two or three songs you’ve recently downloaded?

Aight, you got Jaden Smith’s “Hope.” That’s just different. I’m just getting on that. Quavo and Travis Scott’s “Saint Laurent Mask.” And more by them boys: Migos’ “Violation.” Yessir!

What’s a place you want to visit that you’ve never been before?

The Bahamas. I still ain’t been there, and I don’t even know how.

State your case for being in this year’s Celebrity Game during All-Star Weekend, especially since it’s in L.A.

Well, I’m not in it so far and I don’t know why. I wanna be in it. I’m mad about that. I’m in my feelings about that.

What would the near 28-year-old Los tell his 15-year-old self?

There’s gonna be a lot of obstacles in front of you, but don’t let them stop you. Keep going. Push through any door that’s closing.

We don’t know who’s on the teams yet, but if you had to pick an early All-Star Game MVP, who are you going with?

I need my boy Steph [Curry] to get it! Steph need to do it!

What will you always be a champion of?

Winning. I’m a winner.

Kamara for the culture He grew up with the Migos, wears nose rings and a grill in games and is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year — but who really is Alvin Kamara?

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.


NEW ORLEANS — At the kitchen table of his split-level downtown condo, a hop and skip from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alvin Kamara scrolls through the video call log in one of his two iPhones. “I can FaceTime him right now,” he says. “He’ll probably pick up.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and four hours have passed since the New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, to clinch the franchise’s first playoff appearance in four seasons. For Kamara, the Saints’ 22-year-old running back and the NFL’s runaway favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, the moment calls for some reminiscing about the journey.

Back to when he was juggling Division I offers and chasing league dreams. Back to when he was dominating on high school football fields in and around his hometown of Norcross, Georgia. After games, three of his childhood friends who aspired to be big-time rappers would show up at local clubs. “They’d come in with 100 people, perform and walk out,” Kamara remembers. “Just tryna make it.”

A music executive everyone calls “Coach K” is the man who gave the trio a chance, and to Kamara, Kevin “Coach K” Lee is his uncle. Coach K — who has managed the careers of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and who is credited by The New York Times as taking Southern U.S. black culture global — is about keeping family close, and keeping it winning.

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Kamara is the first and only athlete to be represented by Solid Foundation, a sports management division of Coach K’s Quality Control record label. And with a strong and close-knit support system, Kamara, a Pro Bowler and seven-time league Player of the Week, has revitalized the culture of the Saints, the city of New Orleans — and perhaps, in a tough year, of the NFL itself.

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff, aka the No. 1 hit-making, Grammy Award-nominated Migos. “It’s dope to see the growth,” Kamara says. “Seeing them come up from nothing.” In 2017, the Migos emerged as the world’s most influential rap group, perhaps the best since OutKast.

“I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

“I was talking to Qua yesterday,” Kamara says before tapping on Quavo’s contact to initiate another FaceTime. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m proud of you. You just been ballin’. I remember when shit was bad and you stayed true to it.’ ”

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True indeed. In his first season in the NFL, Kamara has averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch, more than any player in league history (minimum of 200 touches). Not since Gale Sayers in 1965 has a rookie scored five rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns in a single season — until Kamara. And Kamara’s ballsy, fake-kneel, 106-yard kick return for a touchdown in the regular-season finale is the longest play in Saints franchise history.

No other NFL player in the league is doing quite what he’s doing, and no other player looks quite like him either. In addition to wearing his hair in twists, he rocks two nose rings and a shiny gold grill in his mouth — on the field. And off of it, Kamara has plenty of gold around his neck, Louis Vuitton on his wrists and Alexander Wang on his feet. In a season polarized by protests, and missing star New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Kamara brought swag to the NFL. He might even mean as much to the culture as the Migos right now.

Nine long rings on the call to Quavo, and no answer.

“I don’t know what he doing,” Kamara says. “He might call back.”


The recruitment of Alvin Kamara resulted in offers from just about every powerhouse college football program. On national signing day in 2013, with his mother, Adama, and Coach K beside him, Kamara decided to roll with the Alabama Crimson Tide, the school that once sent him 105 letters in a single day. He made the announcement during a crowded news conference at Norcross High School.

“Of all the kids I’ve ever recruited, I probably got closer to him and his family than any kid,” says Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, the former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator who secured Kamara’s commitment. “I don’t know why. He took a liking to me, I took a liking to him. We respected each other.” The two keep in touch via text and FaceTime. Kamara ends those calls with, “Love you.”

Kamara was poised for playing time despite a loaded depth chart — future NFL backs Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — at his position. But a knee injury requiring surgery forced him to redshirt. “Alvin got put down with the scout team,” Smart says. “I can remember Nick Saban having to kick him out of practice: Hey, if you’re not gonna run the ball with the scout team, get out of here. Alvin didn’t like the idea of that, and I think he’d be the first to admit he didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. He ended up saying, at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara called Coach K to help him pack up his dorm room, and his uncle dropped everything he was doing — the Migos were just months from releasing their breakthrough hit, “Versace” — to be there. “Don’t even look back,” said Coach K. “We good. Whatever the next move is, we’re gonna execute it. We just gonna be A1.”

But on Feb. 13, 2014, at 19 years old, Kamara was arrested in Norcross for driving with a suspended license. “I’m sitting in the back of a cop car, like, What the f— am I doing?” He had enough pocket money to bail himself out, but police made him wait hours in a cell for his mother to come get him. “That was my sign,” he says. “Things had caught up to me.”

Kamara decided to stop dodging calls from Hutchinson Community College and boarded a plane to Kansas. He says he essentially “disappeared” for a year into his version of Last Chance U. It took one super productive, conference-offensive-player-of-the-year season — 1,469 total yards of offense and 21 touchdowns in only nine games — to make him a five-star junior college prospect. Kamara returned to the SEC, this time to Tennessee. “AK is a good dude,” says Hutchinson recruiting coordinator Thaddeus Brown. “He just had to figure it all out.”

And those high school homies? They’re now known around the world by their rap names — Quavo, Offset and Takeoff.

It may have helped that somewhere along the road from Tuscaloosa to Knoxville, Kamara embraced who he is, especially with regard to his personal style. His middle school classmates had called him, as Kamara puts it, “weird as f—.” But ever since, he’d run from himself. It was time to return.

It started with a stud in his left nostril that he’d always wanted. When Kamara noticed too many others with their noses pierced, he one-upped them with a septum piercing. At Tennessee, he began wearing both, and, instead of the usual plastic mouthguard, he wore a grill during games. Kamara: “I was just like, ‘Bruh, I’m about to be me.’ It’s gonna be real hard for y’all to make me not be me.”


“He’s so unassuming,” says David Raymond, Kamara’s day-to-day manager. “If you just see him on the street, you wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s a running back.’ ”

At the 2016 NFL scouting combine, Kamara, who had declared early, topped higher-profile running backs — Dalvin Cook now of the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers — in both the vertical leap (39.5 inches) and broad jump (10 feet, 11 inches). He ran a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. Yet his history at ’Bama, coupled with his arrest, and even his choice to leave Tennessee early, made some skeptical. “You see the gold teeth,” says Raymond, “and the nose rings, but you don’t see the young man.”

Alvin Kamara runs the 40-yard dash during the 2017 NFL combine.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara notched a 24 on the Wonderlic. It was the highest score posted by any Division I running back prospect. And Kamara says that while he was training in Miami with former Hurricanes strength coach Andreu Swasey, he “never took one m—–f—— practice Wonderlic. I don’t know if people look at me and think, ‘He just plays football.’ I can chop it up on anything you want to talk about — from football … fashion … current news … history. We can do all that. I don’t just play football. I’m Alvin. Alvin Kamara. I happen to play football.”

Kamara’s stylish singularity, he feels, caused him in many cases to be condescended to, and in other cases to be racially pigeonholed. Kamara chooses not to reveal the name of an NFL owner who talked to him through a sneer. “You like fashion,” the man said. “Your friends are rappers. You got the look. You got the nose rings. You look like you could probably do something else … like you don’t need football.”

Kamara pondered: Just because I know some people? I’ve not made one song. If I wanted to be a rapper, I would’ve been doing that a long time ago. After the interview, the team’s running backs coach approached Kamara and confirmed what the prospect already suspected: The owner didn’t believe Kamara “loved football.” And that it was unlikely Kamara would be listed on the team’s big board come draft night. The interaction begged questions: Does a person have to “need” football in order to love it and play at the highest level? And can one love football and possess a full identity outside of it?

“He didn’t handle it well. We didn’t handle it well. One thing led to another and he ended up saying at the end of the semester, ‘I’m gonna transfer.’ ”

Kamara says at least three other teams tossed up similar red flags. “If somebody feels a certain way about the way I carry myself, or the way I dress, the way I talk, I don’t know what to tell you … because I don’t hate nobody. But if you don’t like me? I’mma keep it moving.”


Kamara’s flair may have been lost on some owners and front-office executives, but not on JR Duperrier, a sports marketing manager for Adidas. He had gone to the combine to sign former Michigan star Jabrill Peppers. When he got to Indianapolis, he found Kamara.

“My first impression of Alvin,” says Duperrier, “was he’s kinda swaggy.He looked like he could dress a lil’ bit, and I could dig it.” Duperrier is quite fashion-forward himself, having been named by BET as one of the 25 most influential people in sneakers last October. “Given a platform, Alvin can excel. He’s his own person. He doesn’t follow what other people do.”

Adidas announced the signing of Kamara on Twitter, 17 minutes after the New Orleans Saints selected him in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 67th overall pick (63 spots behind Fournette, 59 behind McCaffrey, 26 behind Cook and 19 behind Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon). For Kamara, his pre-draft gathering was a blur. Just a simple chat with head coach Sean Payton and running backs coach Joel Thomas. “They weren’t pressing me,” Kamara says matter-of-factly. Something about the Saints just felt right. When he reported to the team’s training facility for the first time, he noticed it again.

Saints running back Alvin Kamara jumps over Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Maybe it was how defensive end Cam Jordan, a three-time Pro Bowler, greeted him for the first time. “This man got a nose ring! You f—ing millennials!” And the first time he met Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer knew about Kamara’s skills, and recognized the potential. “ ‘I wanna work with you,’ ” Kamara recalls Brees saying. “ ‘Let’s grow together.’ ” Brees and Kamara have found common ground and channeled it into a rejuvenated winning culture in New Orleans.

“He always seems like he’s having fun,” says Brees, “and he definitely has a swagger to him. He fits in great with our locker room.” Throughout his first months in that locker room, Kamara won the rookie Halloween costume contest. He treated his offensive line to surprise rib meals in their lockers for helping him win FedEx Ground Player of the Week. And he sat on a throne of Airheads, a candy partnership Kamara had in his sights on since the draft. He always carries a pack of the taffy with him, offering some to anyone who crosses his path.

Most notably, Kamara has established a playing and personal relationship with the veteran of the backfield, Mark Ingram. The rookie has become what New Orleans calls the “zoom” to Ingram’s “boom” in games, after which the pair conduct hilariously informative postgame interviews together in front of their adjacent lockers. This season, they became the first running back duo in NFL history to each record 1,500 yards from scrimmage.

“This guy has so much on his plate,” says Ingram, “where he has to line up, how many different ways we wanna get him the ball. It says a lot about him as a professional. He deserves all of the success that’s coming his way.” Ingram calls Kamara not just a special player but also a special human being. “Offensive Rookie of the Year … we got it.”

Alvin Kamara (right) and Mark Ingram talk during a game against the Atlanta Falcons.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

And contrary to popular belief, which Kamara dispels any chance he gets, there’s no animosity between him and Adrian Peterson, whom the Saints traded to the Arizona Cardinals before Week 6, just as Kamara’s stock began rising exponentially. The rookie soaked up as much knowledge as he could from the future Hall of Famer. “Keep playing,” Peterson told Kamara once in practice. “Keep being you.”

He took the advice to heart: 1,554 total yards from scrimmage through 16 regular-season games. He also owns the highest yards-per-carry average (6.1) for any first-year rusher in the Super Bowl era (minimum of 100 carries) and broke a 36-year-old franchise record for most touchdowns by a rookie, with 14. Simply put, Kamara got all he could ever ask for in his first NFL team. Because the Saints let Alvin be Alvin.


It’s a party in Suite 354 at the Superdome — jam-packed with Kamara’s people. “I just got here,” says Coach K, fresh off a private jet to see his nephew play. “All he had to do is play ball when he got here. Be young. Bring the swag. Do his thing.” Quality Control co-founder Pierre “Pee” Thomas is there, along with David Raymond and Duperrier. New Orleans rapper Young Greatness is rocking a custom Alvin Kamara hoodie, created by the designer/stylist Tvenchy, who’s responsible for many of the rookie’s day-to-day outfits and is in the suite vibing as well.

It’s hard to miss the boisterous Tonee, who played high school football with Kamara before becoming Atlanta singer 6lack’s official DJ. Or JAT, a friend from Tennessee who runs her own hair business. Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson even pops in. Along with his mother (who watched from home, although she hates to see her son take hits on-screen, or in person), this is Kamara’s foundation. “I kind of try to block it out when I’m playing because it’s distracting, but at the same time … my friends are here, so you wanna do good,” Kamara says later. “Not only for me, but for them.”

Alvin Kamara celebrates with fans after scoring a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

After the playoff-clinching win that Kamara finishes with a solid 21 touches for 162 yards, he and the crew partake in his season-long tradition. They make the 1.1-mile journey from the stadium exit back to his apartment — on foot. Along the way, he’s stopped every five steps by curious Saints fans, wondering, Is that really Alvin Kamara? Yes, it’s him. And he’ll take a picture with anyone who asks. “If I sign an autograph, somebody will be like, ‘Put Rookie of the Year,’ ” he says. “Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? Of course. … You can only do it once. But I can’t put it until I win it.”

“All he had to do is play ball. Be young. Bring the swag. And do his thing.”

Hours after the walk home, New Orleans is abnormally quiet, save for the few packed restaurants. A Kamara and Quavo FaceTime happens, as the Migos’ genius sits in a glowing Atlanta studio and chops it up about jewelry and such — “Show me the ice!” he says — with the NFL’s most explosive offensive weapon. After the call, not even the star rookie running back of the Saints can secure a last-minute reservation downtown on the night before Christmas.

So it’s into his black Audi S7 V8T and on to a chicken wing joint on the outskirts of the city, where he’s perhaps even more heralded as he places a food order fit for an army. It’s apparent that the stone-faced cashier sort of recognizes him, though she can’t fully put her finger on the exact identity of the nose-ringed, beanie-wearing figure before her.

“We need that Super Bowl!!!” a middle-aged man shouts.

“Off rip. I got you,” Kamara responds with a dap. “A hunnid.”

A moment of clarity overcomes the cashier, who looks at her customer with a warm smile. “Alvin Kamara?” she says. “I thought that was you.”

‘My Cause My Cleats’: The top 24 Week 13 customs — and why players wore them Reppin’ everything from the American Cancer Society to the Trayvon Martin Foundation to Kaepernick

Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.

Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.

“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”

Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.


Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign

Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers

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Cause: Fender Music Foundation

Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.

Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: National League of POW/MIA Families

A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Cause: American Cancer Society

Designer: Kickasso

Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Instagram Photo

Cause: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)

Designer: Corey Pane

Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers

Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital

Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs

Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers

Cause: Anti-bullying

Designer: SolesBySir

Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings

Cause: American Heart Association

Designer: Mache Customs

DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: Brotherhood Crusade

Designer: SolesBySir

Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles

Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition

Designer: Sixth-grade class at Jubilee School, Illustrative Cre8ions

Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina

Designer: Bizon Customs

Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins

Instagram Photo

Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation

Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints

Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.

Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans

Instagram Photo

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: SolesBySir

Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers

Instagram Photo

Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers

Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp

Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII

A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions

Cause: Leukemia patients

Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Cause: Autism

Designer: The Hulfish Project

Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Instagram Photo

Cause: Torrey Smith Family Fund, Show Your Soft Side, Players Coalition, NO More Campaign

Designer: Kreative Custom Kicks, Dez Customz

Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants

Cause: Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles

Designer: Kickasso

Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts

Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation

Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope

Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans

Cause: Habitat for Humanity

Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike

Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

Cause: Why Not You Foundation

Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai

 

Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers

Instagram Photo

Cause: CeaseFirePA

Designer: SR Customs

The message to NFL players: Dance for us, but don’t kneel Demonizing black protest while allowing black celebration has a deep historical context

This NFL season, the usual game-day messaging of beer and sneaker ads and uplifting videos about community or military service has been augmented by a special kind of cultural telegraph.

Sent from white NFL owners and fans to black NFL players, it goes like this:

You can Milly Rock, Juju on that Beat or fake play pingpong in the end zone. (STOP) But we can’t abide you kneeling on the sidelines. (STOP) Dance to your heart’s content, but you best not raise a fist in protest. (STOP)

It’s a historically layered message about what’s allowable, laudable or even tolerable for black men to do with their bodies. It’s an adjudication centered in the white gaze, projected onto black limbs, televised to millions of eyes. Politicians, business leaders and NFL leadership have reached peak freak-out about players tackling racism and police brutality during the national anthem. But even as a divided populace watches football on a hair trigger, the league has newly relaxed its rules about touchdown celebrations.

Every pressurized system needs a release. Cue Mr. Bojangles.

Or can talented players simply be allowed to celebrate athletic achievement and the joy of expression, like any free people, without the echoes of white supremacy? I’m asking for the culture.


White fear of the black male body is part of the subtext of the rage over the NFL protests (and actually any form of black protest). That fear, stemming from perceptions of black lawlessness and criminality, can also be understood as a projection of white rage.

The angst and anger over the protests during the national anthem, which began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently ticked up dramatically. President Donald Trump cursed NFL players who protested and called for them to be fired. Houston Texans owner Robert McNair said, “We can’t have inmates running the prison” during a meeting of NFL owners and league executives. TV viewership was down 7.5 percent through the season’s first six weeks compared with the same period last year, and every week brings tension, threats of boycotts and boos directed at players and teams who do anything other than stand and salute.

But end zone dances and celebrations have ticked up dramatically too. Highlights of the most creative are ranked weekly on websites and social media. “We know that you love the spontaneous displays of emotion that come after a spectacular touchdown. And players have told us they want more freedom to be able to express themselves and celebrate their athletic achievements,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in an open letter to fans earlier this year.

That position is new.

Last year, Newsweek reported that players had been fined 18 times for excessive celebrations through 14 weeks, more than 2.5 times the fines issued for all of 2015 and part of a leaguewide crackdown. This included Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose professional-grade twerking in the Washington end zone, along with other pelvis-intensive dances, cost him nearly $60,000. Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King danced with an official’s penalty flag after the opposing team was called for roughing the kicker, costing him more than $12,000. And when then-New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz danced a salsa and teammate Odell Beckham Jr. pretended to take pictures, that choreography cost them more than $12,000 each.

In an explanatory video last year, Dean Blandino, then senior vice president of officiating for the NFL, said there were long-standing rules against excessive demonstrations (which earned it the “No Fun League” nickname) but penalties were up because “it’s been a point of emphasis.” Hugs and salutes were fine, he said, as were limited dancing and going to the ground in prayer (presumably unless it involved praying for police to stop shooting black people).

In the offseason, however, the league changed course to allow group choreography, props and rolling on the ground. This year has witnessed the Peter Piper dance and an homage to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on Monday Night Football. There’s been faux bench-pressing and fake home run hitting.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now,” Brown enthused in a preseason tweet. Along with other players, Brown (who last year finished in the top five on Dancing with the Stars) previewed possible dance moves on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon at the beginning of the season. He helped tout the new dance rules in a Pepsi commercial.

Both freedom of expression in black protest, which has been demonized, and freedom of expression in black dance — which, this year at least, is more OK — have complex and often contradictory messaging. But it all relates to questions of power and control of the black-body politic.

“We’re allowed to celebrate now.” — Antonio Brown

Former NFL Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson has experienced those attempts at control firsthand. In 1996, Johnson was a New York Jets rookie wide receiver when he scored his first NFL touchdown. He ripped off his helmet, spiked the football and started dancing. Teammates joined in celebration and tackled him to the ground. Former quarterback Joe Theismann, then an ESPN analyst, called him a jerk.

Though Johnson never went in for celebration dances after that — he threw balls in the stands until the fines got prohibitive, then just handed the ball to kids in the front row — it wasn’t because of Theismann’s criticism.

“I looked at it as this is a white dude that don’t like a black man doing something totally different than what the narrative is supposed to be, which is you’re supposed to play football and be quiet and be happy,” he said.

A segment of fans will always think celebrations are wrong, Johnson said. “They just think that showboating is basically like clowning.” It takes their mind to “if you celebrate, you’re disrespectful, because they want to control what you do. Part of controlling what you do is, ‘We prefer him to do this versus that.’ ”

When white players perform celebration rituals, they are understood differently, said Johnson. The quarterback position “is dominated by mainly white dudes with the pumping of the fist and the screaming out loud and guys shouting to the air when they throw a touchdown,” Johnson said. Fans and analysts say, “Oh, look at Tom Brady … he’s exuberant. He’s passionate about that throw to [Rob] Gronkowski. You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s celebrating.

The nature of the guys who often take the ball into the end zone contributes to the creativity of the dances, Johnson points out. Wide receivers have to be fast, and speed is its own form of beauty. Receivers are “isolated. They’re the furthest position on offense, detached from their teammates,” said Johnson. They touch the ball less often than running backs and quarterbacks, so when they do get their hands on it, they want to make it count. Plus, “we happen to be, you know, sports car guys. We ain’t no big old truck dude. We ain’t no lineman. You look in the car lot, they’re going to have Bentleys, Ferraris, they’re going to have all that.”

Johnson likes dances being choreographed and creative but with limits on sexual suggestiveness, or implied violence such as throat-slashing. He believes that dances are allowed while protests are contested because of money. “When it starts to affect the bottom line, they’re like, ‘Oh, no, man. We’ve got to put a stop to this.’ ” He believes in criminal justice reform. “But I also understand Jerry Jones [Dallas Cowboys owner, who threatened to bench players last month who he said “disrespect the flag”] because I, too, am a business owner, so I understand when you start messing with my money. … ”


Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, sees the players’ dance moves — the boasting, mimicry and pantomime, the circle formation, the use of props — as definitive hallmarks of the African-American dance aesthetic.

Dancing and singing were one of the few areas where the dominant white culture allowed the enslaved freedom of expression. Then, of course, blacks got stereotyped as always dancing and singing, said Reece. This contributes to the multiple gazes operating on the field when it comes to football dances.

In one political moment, it’s showboating, overly stylized, expressing individualism at the expense of sportsmanship. (And, as a popular Key and Peele skit suggests, no touchdown dance is complete without at least three pelvic thrusts.)

In another political moment, dance is safe and entertaining — something white folks have historically enjoyed watching happy blacks do. In turn, that sight line evokes minstrel show dancing and “cooning” for white audiences.

The dances “can be spectacle, depending on the arena that it’s in, but the roots of it are quite meaningful and quite rooted in a cultural tradition,” said Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Battle, who says he doesn’t do the latest dances, “the Dougie, or whatever,” sees football players expressing grace, athleticism and even their inner child as they move their bodies to punctuate their joy. But black dance has always been a contested cultural signifier. NFL dances are about rejecting old strictures and reclaiming personal expression. It’s the idea “that you dance in spite of how you’re being perceived because you know the inherent joy in that.” Or, Just because it’s a stereotype, I’m not going to stop eating fried chicken at the company picnic.

The dances are meant to push buttons, Battle said. It’s meant for “the naysayers or the ones that would be threatened. It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened because I’m that damned good!”

Black social dancing has always been an extension of dances that came to the Americas with the enslaved, said Kyle Abraham, artistic director of the Abraham.In.Motion dance company and a MacArthur Fellow. “The ways the pelvis is used in the dancing, the way it’s much more grounded, can evoke fear to some but can deliver power to others.”

As for black dance being loaded with shade, Abraham references the cake walk. It was an elaborate, high-stepping prance that began before the Civil War and mocked the high society pretensions of whites and slaveholders, subversively, on the low, to their faces, as they clapped along.

“It’s meant to say, well, you should be threatened, because I’m that damned good!”

“There is always a possibility that there is a game being played within a game and that we are actually in control,” said Abraham. “Look at me, I’m entertaining you. Are you entertained? Am I what you want me to be, while at the same time I’m making you notice.”

The handcuffs are off and players are going to want to step up their moves, especially in an age where they can go viral. “Maybe part of this illusion in this modern-day cake walk is that you actually think you have ownership over who I am and how I will be presented … but in actuality, I have full ownership of who I am and how I choose to speak and move and dance. And when I will make those extra 10 yards!” Abraham said.

Damion Thomas, curator of sports for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, remembers watching the Houston Oilers’ Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, an NFL dancing pioneer who became legendary for his flapping-leg touchdown celebration in the late 1970s and 1980s. Thomas calls Hall of Fame cornerback Deion “Primetime” Sanders, who in the 1990s helped usher in the modern celebrity football player era, his all-time favorite player and dancer and points out that his signature, flashy stiff-arm and high steps mimic movements from Detroit ballroom dancing.

He notes that white players, such as the Jets’ Mark Gastineau and his sack dance, historically have been part of the creative NFL culture. Today, white players have been involved in some fan favorites, including a game of duck, duck goose. Travis Kelce, tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, is a serial end zone dancer and originator of Week 9’s potato sack race, one of the season’s best group celebrations.

Although both dancing and protest have gotten attention this year, Thomas contends they occupy separate spaces. Players let you know when they are protesting, he said, and they reserve political acts for certain moments in a prescribed space while keeping the end zone as a “part of the field they are not engaging with social issues.” The exception: “When Odell Beckham Jr. scored a touchdown, went on all fours and raised his leg like he was a dog — and then later said that was in relationship to Donald Trump.”

Reece, the music and performing arts curator, sees multiple narratives “being enacted as we struggle with trying to get beyond the lens of the way that people look at us, and interpret us and define us.”

These will continue to play out as fans struggle, as football players struggle, as the nation struggles with this political moment and the long, complicated history of the black body politic.