Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. It has a problem with black men. The move to regulate agents looks like yet another effort to police black mobility and freedom

The NCAA doesn’t have a Rich Paul problem. The problem is that its structure is designed to regulate the freedom of athletes to turn pro in primarily black sports but not in white ones.

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Earlier this week, the NCAA implemented what was immediately labeled the “Rich Paul Rule,” after the man who represents NBA players LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, John Wall, Ben Simmons and 2019 first-round draft picks Darius Garland and Darius Bazley. The new regulations require that agents interested in representing players who are considering declaring for the NBA draft now must have a bachelor’s degree, be certified with the National Basketball Players Association for at least three years and take a comprehensive in-person exam at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Paul, who never attended college, is one of many agents affected by this rule — but unquestionably the most prominent.

The NCAA’s move was instantly lambasted as hypocritical and vindictive. “The world is so afraid of ground breakers.…This is beyond sad & major B.S.,” tweeted comedian Kevin Hart. James, Paul’s biggest client, longtime friend and confidant, could only laugh at the NCAA’s energy, saying, “Nothing will stop this movement and culture over here.”

Chris Rock explained the context for the NCAA mandate years ago. “We’re only 10% of the population,” he said on 2004’s Never Scared. “We’re 90% of the Final Four!”

Only basketball must adhere to the new NCAA mandate. The actual text doesn’t mention race. Nevertheless, the writing is not just written on the wall, it’s been carved. It’s a “race-neutral” rule that isn’t race-neutral. This comes with historical precedence that the NCAA knows all too well.

One of the worst-kept secrets in sports is how top-tier college football and basketball programs directly benefited from desegregation. Before integration, the vast majority of top black athletes had no choice but to attend historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Once the larger and richer predominantly white schools began to integrate, HBCUs couldn’t compete. But there’s been a parallel development too: The graduation rates for black athletes at top sports programs remain consistently and embarrassingly low.

Agent Rich Paul (right), seen here with LeBron James (left), is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, found that, overall, black male athletes graduate at higher percentages than black males who are not involved in sports. But that’s not true for the NCAA’s wealthiest leagues: the Power 5 of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.

“The [NCAA] has claimed in television commercials that black male student-athletes at Division I institutions graduate rates are higher than black men in the general student body,” the report says. “This is true across the entire division, but not for the five conferences whose member institutions routinely win football and basketball championships, play in multimillion-dollar bowl games and the annual basketball championship tournament, and produce the largest share of Heisman Trophy winners.”

And an entity that now preaches the importance of college graduation for agents doesn’t have the same righteous energy for black athletes at its most lucrative institutions.

Black men made up 2.4% of the Power 5 student population but 55% and 56%, respectively, of its football and basketball teams. Of those numbers, 55% of black male athletes graduated in under six years, compared with 60% of black men in the overall undergraduate population and 76% of all college graduates.

“Over the past two years, 40% of these universities have actually had black male student-athlete graduation rates that have declined,” Harper said. “We’re supposed to be getting better, but actually 40% of these places have gotten worse.”

Meanwhile, the debate over paying college athletes is sharply divided by race. Most whites are against “pay to play,” while most blacks strongly support it because the current system exploits a largely black athletic base.

In the NBA, the sport is still primarily black. (The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that during the 2015-16 season, 81.7% of NBA players were people of color and 74.3% were black.) But black athletes have significant power and influence over everything from where they play to who coaches them to the structure of their contracts.

This shifting power dynamic is beginning earlier and earlier too. Bazley skipped college last year to become a million-dollar intern with New Balance. R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, both touted as 2020 lottery picks, are taking their talents to Australia for a year before declaring for the NBA draft. Hampton has already inked a shoe deal with Li-Ning.

As Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, the new rule’s standard doesn’t apply to college hockey players or baseball players, who can be drafted out of high school but can choose to attend college if their draft placement doesn’t appeal to them.

If this wasn’t about a young black man who achieved his success out of the mud and then empowered other black men to recognize their worth in spite of an organization that has for years manipulated their talents for the organization’s gain, if this wasn’t about yet another American institution attempting to police black mobility and freedom, then it’s difficult to see what the actual reasoning is.

This brings the discussion back to Paul and James. It’s often been said there is a Jay-Z lyric for any situation in life. Perhaps the most fitting here is a bar from Jay’s 2001 album The Blueprint, which entered the Library of Congress in March: All I need is the love of my crew / The whole industry can hate me, I thugged my way through, he pledged on “All I Need.” In essence, this has been the motto for Paul, James and the two other members of their inner circle, Maverick Carter and Randy Mims.

When James cut ties to agent Aaron Goodwin in 2005, eyebrows raised and many said that the young basketball phenom had risked his career before it truly tipped off. At the time, it was easy to understand why, given that Goodwin had helped the 2003 No. 1 overall draft pick obtain a bevy of endorsements, including Bubblicious chewing gum, Upper Deck trading cards, Sprite, Powerade and, most gaudy of them all, a seven-year, $90 million shoe deal with Nike. Few believed in James’ vision when he turned to three of his childhood friends to chart the course of his career on and off the court.

“James’ switcheroo a youthful mistake,” the Chicago Sun-Times wrote.

“I will promise you really ugly things will happen,” said former NFL player turned financial adviser Jim Corbett. “This is a big mistake, a bad decision that is going to cost LeBron.”

Which leads us to another Jay lyric, this one from 2009’s “Already Home”: And as for the critics, tell me I don’t get it / Everybody can tell you how to do it, they never did it. Thanks to the friends he entrusted with his career nearly 15 years ago, James is not only the most powerful player in basketball history but also a player in Hollywood, fashion, education and politics.

Money and power elicit respect, as elucidated by Kimberly Jones. But they also open the door for fear and angst. President Donald Trump took shots at LeBron on Twitter last August after the launch of his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, saying it was hard to make “LeBron look smart” and weighed in on the NBA’s most contested debate, saying he preferred Michael Jordan over James — which Jordan quickly rebuffed. The two were labeled “mob bosses” by an unnamed Western Conference general manager last season after public attempts to move Anthony Davis to the Lakers (a move that eventually happened).

From left to right: Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Rich Paul, Ben Simmons and Miles Bridges attend the Klutch 2019 All Star Weekend Dinner Presented by Remy Martin and hosted by Klutch Sports Group at 5Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Feb. 16.

Photo by Dominique Oliveto/Getty Images for Klutch Sports Group 2019 All Star Weekend

Rich Paul is a threat. To the status quo. To the hierarchy of power. And to the image of an industry that is still dominated by white males and has long exercised fiscal and moral authority over black athletes.

Basketball altered its rules to make it harder for three players who made the game look too easy (i.e., they dominated the white players too much): Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Maybe the NCAA didn’t implement this rule with Paul as its sole motivation. Just like maybe the NCAA wouldn’t be so open to criticism if it made the education of players a higher priority.

Unfortunately, the NCAA addressed a perceived problem while never addressing its own. Sometimes sports really is a reflection of life.

New documentary reminds us that even Toni Morrison had to fight off the haters After she won the Nobel Prize, there were still critics who said her focus on black women was too narrow

For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.

The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”

I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.

The new documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am showed that Morrison was subjected to the sort of doubt that black women are all too familiar with.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”

Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.

“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed.

Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.

“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”

It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)

And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.

“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.

In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.

The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men complained when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993.

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.

“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.

Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.

“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”

On this football team, keep your eye out for the trash-talking mom Former Ohio State player leads his family to a flag football championship

Lamaar Thomas has been a football star since he first put on pads as a little boy. Even then, the 65-pound running back dreamed of making it to the NFL. By high school, his star was blazing.

He was the Maryland state champion in the 55- and 100-meter dashes, was an All-American wide receiver and got 31 Division I scholarship offers.

After two years at Ohio State, he transferred to the University of New Mexico, where a coach promised more playing time. While there, he set a school record in the 60 meters and won a conference championship in the 100.

Elwanda Thomas (right), Lamaar Thomas’ mother, looks for the end zone as she tries to get around a Wakanda Forever defender.

André Chung for The Undefeated

But in his next football season, he broke a bone in his back and then his foot and played in only four games. In his final season, the coach who’d recruited him was fired, the offense changed and his college career, which once held so much promise, came to an anticlimactic close. After a tryout with the Denver Broncos, he wound up on the practice squad (and activated for two games) with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked out with other teams and considered Arena football before returning to the Washington area and becoming a personal trainer.

At 23, one football door had closed for him. But there was another one, and it had been open his whole life. He grabbed a flag and met his family on the field. “Getting into flag football was just like I was kind of born into it,” Thomas, now 29, said.

He and his brother, Desmond, 27, grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, watching his parents play the game. His dad, Sean Thomas, who’d played baseball and football in high school and basketball for Shaw University, started an all-women’s team with his mom, Elwanda, two decades ago. Football, especially flag football, was a family affair.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running. … Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.” — Elwanda Thomas

After college, Thomas helped his dad coach his mom’s team. Other men’s and coed flag football teams knew who he was, knew he’d played pro, and begged Thomas to play for them. But he wanted to play the game he loved with the people he loved most.

“They want me but they don’t want to play with my brother, or maybe they don’t want my mom, or they don’t want my girlfriend, or they don’t want my friend,” Thomas said. And where’s the joy in that? “I’m mostly out here playing because I’m just having fun with them. I’m not playing because I want to score a bunch of touchdowns. I’ve already done that stuff.”

In 2015, he started his own coed flag football team, Ballers Gon’ Ball. The BGB Family team featured his mother; his girlfriend, Asherah; his brother; and a cousin, Darren Cutchin, who everybody calls Cuz. It includes his best friends and their close friends. There are nearly two dozen people on the roster, about half of whom show up for any given game, and the team plays on Saturdays and Tuesdays, January through October. In the past four years, they’ve won some prize money and, in January, the Flag Football World Championship Tour’s national championship in Orlando, Florida. But everybody in BGB Family will say, for real, they’re just looking for a way to stay in the game. Together.

“I’m 51 years old and I’m still running,” Elwanda Thomas said. “There have been times where all of us have been on the field together: mom, dad and the two boys. I’m like, it’s a family thing out here. Not all people can say they’ve physically gotten on the football field and played with their kids.”

Elwanda, a technician for Verizon, said her husband, a carrier for FedEx, talked her into playing 30 years ago. She’s a small woman, barely 5 feet, 4 inches, and a size 2 back then. The first time she played, she got elbowed by defenders and bruised. “I can’t get hit anymore, I’m going to have to figure this blocking thing out,” she told herself. Her husband began teaching her the nuances of the game: how to rush, how to pull the flags and not be fooled by fakes. “I’m a very competitive person. Very, very competitive. So it was like, ‘No, I can’t let you beat me at this. I have to figure out my game plan.’ ”

Between games, the team relaxes. Elwanda Thomas (foreground) holds 1-year-old Quinn Dimes, whose mother plays on the team. Lamaar Thomas (left) sits next to his dog, Bentley, with Keena Brooks (center) and Frank Milien (right).

André Chung for The Undefeated

She had Lamaar young, and when other parents were in the stands watching their kids at football practice, she and Sean Thomas would run steps, or the track, or play catch. “I actually could beat Lamaar in track until he was probably about 12,” Elwanda brags. She stopped racing him after that because she didn’t want him to have an edge in their trash-talk game.

In 8-on-8 coed flag football, the rules require teams to have at least three women on the field. If a woman scores, it counts for 9 points as opposed to only 6 with men. On a field in Burtonsville, Maryland, in mid-May, BGB was leading a team called Wakanda Forever and looking for a chance to run their signature play — Hide the Mom.

After Thomas completed a long pass, he immediately ran his team downfield.

“HTM! HTM!” he called out, and players raced into position. With one exception, the women lined up in the middle, near the ball. The men spread out, and Elwanda Thomas lingered near the sideline chatting with a ref. A defender demanded to know whether she was in bounds.

“It’s not my job to count for you, boo,” Elwanda Thomas told her.

Thomas ended up going to another receiver, and his momma got vocal. “I still got the HTM in me!” she yelled. You gotta believe in your teammate!”

When Elwanda Thomas dropped a low pass several plays later, Thomas yelled, “I can’t catch it for you!”

“Glad I wasn’t in the middle of that,” said Sean Thomas, watching from the sidelines. “They are the most competitive against each other.”

Lamaar and Elwanda Thomas trash-talk a few more minutes, just a mother and son trying to work out the kinks in their marquee move.

With Hide The Mom, the idea is to draw attention to the middle of the field, where almost all the women line up. “And meanwhile, my mom will be standing on the sideline because she’s the least likely person for guys my age to be trying to check,” Thomas said. These guys are watching the younger women who used to play basketball or run track. “My mom, nobody pays attention to her because she’s my mom, and she’s 51,” he said. He tosses the ball to her, “she’ll catch it, and normally it’s an easy run for her into the end zone for a touchdown.”

The team introduced the play last year as a novelty when shoulder, knee and Achilles injuries kept Elwanda Thomas near the sidelines. But it yields points — 56 in 14 games since April. After they get over the sting of being beaten by a middle-aged, trash-talking suburban mom, opposing defenses usually appreciate the play and Elwanda Thomas has gotten into her role, say teammates. She’ll make conversation with the ref or spectators on the sideline before suddenly turning to catch the ball.

Thomas’ girlfriend, Asherah El, 33, was a high school hurdler who now works in human resources for a government contractor. She cited their team chemistry as the best part of playing. “We hang out after the game, we hang out before the game,” El said.

She loves playing with instead of just cheering on her boyfriend. And she loves that Elwanda is still out there doing her thing. When Elwanda Thomas scores, the other team is like, “What the heck just happened? Everybody is in always in confusion. How did we let that person go, or how did she catch the ball? People always underestimate her.”

Darren Cutchin (“Cuz”) is a real estate agent and youth basketball coach. For Lamaar Thomas to play with his mom is special, Cuz says. “You won a national championship with your mom. And your girlfriend. You got your dad on the sidelines coaching you up.”

During the second half of the Wakanda Forever game, a player BGB is calling Spider-Man — he’s really rocking a great deal of red and blue — is bugging them.

“I got the lady,” Spider-Man called out, signaling he was covering Elwanda Thomas.

“He keeps calling me the lady, ‘I got the lady,’ and I’m about to get mad,” she says.

Lamaar Thomas and his mother have matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart.

André Chung for The Undefeated

With less than a minute left in the game, Spider-Man and a BGB player exchange words, and Elwanda Thomas interjects.

“I’m a mom!” she taunts him. “I know why you talking that way. Just let your game talk for you, baby,” she tells him. BGB scores, and she brags that her head game is prime.

With the game over, Lamaar Thomas reminds everyone to get their jerseys and talks logistics for their next game. He and his mother resume their sparring about that incomplete pass.

“That would have been perfect if you would have caught it,” Thomas tells his mother.

“If it would have been thrown correctly, I would have caught it!” she insists.

The two put their wrists together to show off matching half-heart tattoos. “I love you,” her half-heart says. “I know,” reads his half-heart. Arguing about sports always brought them closer. Playing together keeps them closer still. Thomas, Elwanda, Sean and the rest of the team part ways but make plans to meet up again Tuesday, as friends and family, football players, balling out together.

Matthew Cherry moved from the practice squad in the NFL to first string in Hollywood His second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ ‘Red Line’

The fact that Matthew Cherry was a wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens is the least most interesting thing about him.

He was a star at the University of Akron, where he still holds the school record for most yards on punt returns in a season, with 305 in 2003, the same year he was named second-team All-Mid-American Conference.

But Cherry gave up the game in 2007. He walked away from the Ravens, his final team, with a $30,000 pretax settlement for a shoulder injury after being placed on injured reserve.

His professional career lasted about three seasons — some of it on practice squads, some of it on a roster. It was time for a pivot.

The settlement money helped him move to Los Angeles, where he was just another kid from the Midwest trying to make a go at this Hollywood dream.

He worked at it hard. For 12 solid years, including a stint of unemployment that sent him back home to Chicago to live with mom and dad.

And finally, his grind paid off — and then some. Cherry is now a TV director, an executive at Jordan Peele’s highly successful Monkeypaw Productions, helping to bring some of Ava DuVernay’s vision to life on CBS’ new limited series Red Line and working on an animated short in partnership with Sony Pictures Animation. He also is directing in ABC’s new series Whiskey Cavalier.

None of this came easy. Not when he set up fundraising accounts to finance his first feature film. Not when his mother died suddenly of an aneurysm — after telling him the previous night how proud she was seeing him begin to fulfill his dreams.

For a long time, that’s exactly what they were — dreams.

“I really didn’t even tell people I played ball,” he says now, sitting behind his desk at Peele’s Monkeypaw production compound in the Hollywood Hills. “I look at it how athletes are received when they break into music. People always roll their eyes like, ‘Ah, Kobe’s trying to do an album,’ or ‘Shaq is trying to do a project,’ or I remember specifically Allen Iverson, when he tried to drop an album. Athletes are always looked at weirdly when they try to do something outside of what they’ve been known for, and I was always conscious of that. …

“It helped that I really wasn’t a big name when I was in the NFL either. It made it easier just to be like: ‘Matthew. P.A. [Production assistant] I want to learn this from scratch.’ … Because people will have a perception of you, for whatever reason. In my experience, people assume that former pro athletes aren’t hard workers. Or we just want stuff handed to us, and we’re not willing to put in the work and grind for it.”


Matthew Cherry played briefly for the Baltimore Ravens.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Cherry grew up on Chicago’s North Side, and the first sport that caught his eye was baseball. He wasn’t a standout athlete, but his dad was a big Chicago Cubs fan, so he stuck with it. His earliest memory of the sport? It was horrible. He couldn’t remember which hand his mitt went on.

But there was always a lesson to be learned.

“I saw very quickly, if you put the time in and you practice, you can get better at it,” he said.

He also was growing. Rapidly. He decided to try football. Although his parents were middle-class, there weren’t enough resources for travel teams. But with practice, he became good enough to catch the eye of the coaches at a private Jesuit school in the northern suburbs, Loyola Academy in Wilmette.

“I very much felt like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Cherry said of his high school experience. “Just being this kid that’s actually from Chicago, a black kid, [and] at the time, it was not diverse at all. I remember my graduating class, we had five black kids in a class of 500.”

In fall 1999, he headed off to Akron, Ohio, and by his senior year he was an All-MAC candidate. Maybe this pipe dream of playing in the NFL — something he never thought seriously about before, as football was merely the means to getting a scholarship — could come to fruition?


He wasn’t drafted. And life in the NFL didn’t look like it looked in the movies, that’s for sure. He was on the practice squad most of his rookie year, until the Cincinnati Bengals signed him to the active roster for the last two games of the 2004 season.

Cherry started thinking of a different plan in 2005. A friend from college called him before training camp of his second season. Cherry had studied broadcasting in college and had worked in campus radio as a music director and on-air personality. He interned at a Cleveland radio station.

“One of my guys that I worked with on the Cleveland radio station, he was like, ‘Man, I’m going to L.A. for the BET Awards. Will and Jada are hosting. We’re doing a live remote there. I don’t know what you’re doing, but we’ll let you kick it with us if you want to come out,’ ” he recalled.

“He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.” — Angela Nissel

“In the back of my mind I was already starting to think about what my Plan B was going to be. Because my rookie year, I got cut and placed on practice squad, and that was really the first time I’d ever dealt with a situation like that, where I felt like I was good enough. But because of some of the politics around coming in as an undrafted player, sometimes if you’re not in the right situation, regardless of how well you do, you’re not gonna get a shot,” he said.

Arriving in Los Angeles, “I just remember my mind being blown. The weather. The mountains. The palm trees — but also how the entire city was just based off entertainment. It was all coffee shops, people in there writing scripts. The print/copy place, they’re talking about a discount for headshots and script printing. I was like, ‘This entire city revolves around this industry. That’s crazy.’ I just remember coming back from that experience just being really inspired. And I met this person who knew this other person who knew this other person who had been part of this program called Streetlights … a nonprofit organization that basically helps men and women of color get jobs as production assistants.”

Fast-forward to year three as a professional football player and Cherry is playing for the Baltimore Ravens after stints in NFL Europe with Hamburg and in the Canadian Football League. He had lived in nine cities and three countries in that three-year span.

He’d had enough. And he was ready to see what Hollywood was about. So he got into the production program, and his first job was working on Mara Brock Akil’s comedy series Girlfriends. On his off weeks, he worked on her spinoff series The Game, about a newly minted NFL player navigating his rookie year with his college sweetheart.

He was earning $300-$400 a week. It was low. But he loved it. This was his film school. He got to see how TV directors such as Debbie Allen, Sheldon Epps and Salim Akil worked, used camera equipment, set up shoots.

His next gig was on NBC’s sci-fi drama Heroes, but this time he took some extracurricular initiative: asking if he could use the camera equipment on off days to shoot music videos. He’d scour MySpace and reach out to rhythm and blues artists, offering to direct their music videos free of charge if they could make it out to L.A. He’d come up with the concept and he’d have the equipment — he just wanted a chance to tell a story. He got his first credit in 2008 directing a video for R&B artist Terry Dexter.

His side hustle served him well. He ultimately directed music videos for Michelle Williams featuring Beyoncé & Kelly Rowland, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred the Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Chloe x Halle.

Which brings us to now. Cherry has hit the place that he’s worked nonstop for since he arrived in 2007. He’s a creative executive at Monkeypaw. An executive producer on the award-winning BlacKkKlansman and a producer on The Last O.G. for TBS, where he just directed his first episode of TV.

“I thought he was going to be a stereotypical, kind of misogynist-without-recognizing-it, football guy,” said Angela Nissel, the co-executive producer of The Last O.G. “I remember the first time he was on set. Sometimes when you bring things up and there are a lot of guys, sometimes they tend not to hear you. He was the first one to say, ‘Wow, Ang, I hadn’t thought of that perspective. I’m glad we have a woman on set.’ He listens. I don’t know if that comes from being coached, but he listens. And that’s very rare for a man in this industry.”

Cherry’s second stint as a TV director airs Sunday on CBS’ Red Line, an eight-episode limited series about three Chicago families forced by tragedy to think about how race and racial biases affect their lives. The series is executive produced by DuVernay, who encouraged Cherry to write and direct a film about his experience in the NFL years ago. The result was The Last Fall, which aired on BET in 2012 after having its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving an award for best screenplay at the American Black Film Festival.


Matthew Cherry (left) with Tracy Morgan (right) on the set of The Last O.G.

Courtesy Matthew A. Cherry

Now, as he thinks about that decade-plus of struggle, Cherry can smile. He met Peele in the midst of the successful run of Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out. Peele liked a tweet Cherry tagged him in, started following Cherry and later sent him a direct message and asked to meet him. That was 2017, right after Peele announced his first-look overall production deal with Universal and Cherry thought maybe he’d be asked to direct a small-budget film. Instead, Peele wanted to hire him. Peele shared with him in that meeting that he was creating a space where he could continue what he did with Get Out: tell stories that have a social message and use genres such as horror, sci-fi and thrillers to make films and TV that are fun and commercially viable.

One of those projects is TBS’s The Last O.G., which stars comedian Tracy Morgan as a newly released felon who is trying to acclimate himself to society, get to know the twins he never knew he fathered and adjust to the new whitewashed affluence of his old Brooklyn neighborhood. The series also stars Cedric the Entertainer and Tiffany Haddish.

“Jordan really has given me that boost. When I first started working here, I was always looking at it like, man, what are the opportunities for directing? Maybe I can do some shows here and try to get that first opportunity. And The Last O.G. was always on my mind … just really fell in love with that show. The heart that it has, seeing Tracy in a way you’ve never seen him before,” Cherry said.

And for what it’s worth, we’ve never seen Cherry like this before either. He’s in the zone. And there doesn’t appear to be a slowdown anytime soon.

“It just literally felt like all these 10-plus years of being in L.A. and struggling, and living out of my car at some point, all these things you would do just to stay in L.A., stay in the game … if you could just stay here long enough, you might be able to make it,” he said.

He did that as a high school football player trying to get a college scholarship. He found it when he was struggling in the NFL and knew he needed to pivot.

And now, he’s figured it out in Hollywood. That early life lesson was key.

“It really is an athlete thing,” he said. “I would even go back further to that first time I picked up a baseball glove and put it on the wrong hand. Being able to see progress is something as an athlete that’s probably been the most important thing. Knowing that if you work hard enough, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll get your shot.

“And then when you get your shot, you gotta take it. Or you have to go back to the bench. And that’s just always been a thing that’s been with me. I never felt like I had any opportunities that were just given to me. I’ve always had to create my own opportunity or give my own look or try to figure it out myself. And I just think, luckily it’s worked so far. And I think that’s the biggest thing about being an athlete, is being able to set a goal and knowing if you work hard enough, you can reach that goal for sure.”

LeBron James stares down Michael Jordan’s scoring record at a crazy time in his career The victory coincides with James potentially missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years

The old barber, “Georgia,” is fed up. Around the Northern Virginia barbershop, a friendly argument about money has turned into a heated discussion about respect. It feels as if a fight might erupt.

Georgia is never the loudest man in the shop, though he’ll talk your head off — if he likes you. The man’s tongue is slicker than a can of motor oil, too. On the day in question, anger is building inside Georgia, evident by the way he snatches blades from his clippers. Then he says something I’ll never forget. “How can I really care about this wedding,” he says, “when the church is on fire?”

“It was like meeting God for the first time. That’s what I felt like as a 16-year-old kid when I met MJ.” — LeBron James

It’s one of those classic, old-black-men phrases. No clue from where it originates. Maybe on the farms of Mississippi, or the jazz-filled speakeasies of Harlem. But it makes absolute sense the moment it leaves Georgia’s nicotine-stained lips. Can celebration coincide with chaos? Georgia has no idea he could be easily be talking about LeBron James. More specifically, James’ pursuit of Michael Jordan’s receipts, and the blazing situation of the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers.


Sometime between Tuesday night and Saturday — when the Lakers play three must-win home games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, and the Boston Celtics — James will pass Jordan for fourth all time in scoring with his 32,293rd point. History will be made. And with it perhaps a brief moment of joy and serenity in James’ season of chaos.

James is already looking back at Jordan in other scoring areas. Two years ago, he overtook Jordan in playoff points. And James also looks back at Jordan in consecutive double-digit scoring games. Only two players have surpassed Jordan in career points: Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the game’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, never surpassed Jordan, because in the NBA space-time continuum, he’s never had to.

This particular mark is deeply personal for James’ generation. It’s a generation born in the ’80s and who came of age in ’90s at the height of Jordan’s reign of dominance over not just basketball, but pop culture as a whole. This is personal —

  • for the kids who grew up eating Wheaties and drinking Gatorade — because Mike did so.
  • for the kids who wore sweat bands on their wrists, or their elbows or on their knees — because Mike did.
  • for the kids who really believed Air Jordans would make you fly — because they did for Mike (and who took that addiction into adulthood).
  • for the kids who did play ball and stuck their tongue out — because Mike did.
  • for the kids who both enjoyed and agonized running with “Player 99” in NBA Live ’95 — because Mike wouldn’t allow his likeness in video games.
  • for the kids whose favorite channel growing up was WGN — because you knew Mike and the Bulls would always be there even, if you weren’t a Chicago native.

LeBron James celebrates after he hits a 3-pointer to pass Michael Jordan in career playoff scoring during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on May 25, 2017, at TD Garden in Boston.

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

A classic marketing campaign suggested people “Be Like Mike” not “Better Than Mike,” and meeting Jordan, “was godly,” James said earlier this season. “It was like meeting God for the first time. That’s what I felt like as a 16-year-old kid when I met MJ.” So imagine how a 10-year-old LeBron felt about Mike. Imagine how he felt as a high school freshman. Imagine how robbed he felt as he entered the league only months after Jordan retired for good in 2003.

Yet, James is the rare talent who grew up not only to make a name for himself in the culture of basketball but to be the unicorn who looks Jordan in the eye. This week, James will surpass Jordan on the scoring list. It’s one of the most relevant individual titles in all of sports — in the rarefied air of career home runs in baseball, and career grand slams in tennis.

The James-Jordan debate is the debate. It dominates sports talk radio, podcasts, and television sports talk shows. The arguments — who is the greatest of all time, aka “the GOAT?” — takes over movies, barbershops and beauty salons, bars and churches, dinner tables and courtrooms. Ivy League debates have gotten heated as well. Yet even as James prepares to rise even higher in the annals of basketball immortality, the honor coincides with the hysteria of James potentially missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

In the 70 days since Christmas Day, when James injured his groin, which caused him to miss a month of action, the Lakers have won only nine games. They haven’t won back-to-back games in more than six weeks.

On March 2, the Lakers suffered an embarrassing loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns. James had 27 points, nine rebounds and 16 assists, but did miss a pair of late free throws. So continued a trend of pathetic losses to some of the league’s most inept teams: New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers. Without James, the Lakers fell from fourth in the Western Conference to ninth. The chronology of this chaos is already loud in the public vernacular.


James and New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis have been tight for a good while. The two met for a postgame dinner days before Christmas that sent league officials into a tizzy that included a charge of tampering. “People get caught up in bunches, sometimes when they wish you can control what they say, but they can’t control me at all,” James said then of the allegations levied against him. “And I play by the rules.” But it wasn’t until Davis made his trade demand public in late January that the Lakers drama took center stage.

On a weekend that was supposed to feature the NFL and the Super Bowl as the unrivaled sports story in America, a supposed megatrade between the Lakers and Pelicans dominated headlines. It was a trade that involved parts, if not all, of the Lakers young core including Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, who is currently playing his best basketball of the season — and several veterans. James and longtime agent and close friend Rich Paul (who also represents Davis via Klutch Sports Group) were seen as the ringleaders in this trade scenario.

LeBron James of the Miami Heat hugs Michael Jordan after defeating the Charlotte Bobcats, 109-98, in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 28, 2014.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

And now, with an unsuccessful trade deadline having passed, reports, rumors and sports talk shows are hot on the topic of a fractured Lakers locker room. James, fairly or not, sits in the crosshairs of a very public debacle. A season that began with pageantry and fanfare, with (vandalized) murals depicting James as the franchise’s savior, is suddenly primed for an epic collapse.

Without James, the Lakers fell from fourth in the Western Conference to ninth.

More than even the Celtics, the Lakers are this season’s train wreck. But limping, crawling or walking backward, the Celtics at least appear to be playoff-bound. Lakers controlling owner and team president Jeanie Buss attempted to quell the narrative of a blockbuster trade for Davis ever being on the table, calling the assertion “fake news.” But even if what Buss says is true, the organization allowed the angle to live far too long. There’s blood on the hands of every power player within the Lakers these days. No one, not Magic Johnson or anyone, is exempt. And with an impending free agency that will both dictate the immediate future of the Lakers and the sunset glimmer of James’ prime — this is the reality of what a marriage looks like between basketball’s biggest star and its most storied franchise.

The Lakers now sit at 10th in the Western Conference and are 4.5 games out of the eighth seed with 19 games left in the season. And the eighth seed essentially plays for the right to get embalmed by Golden State in the first round. While James’ offensive production on his way to breaking Jordan’s record, remains at an elite level, his defense has been lambasted as everything from lethargic to noncommittal. James, of course, refutes all of this, as his off-court activity remains in the fast lane.

He recently announced the 2021 launch of Space Jam 2 — the sequel to Jordan’s 1996 animated blockbuster. James has also A&Rd 2 Chainz’s soulfully stellar new project Rap or Go to the League, an album Complex has already dubbed 2 Chainz’s definitive body of work. James also recently dropped the third episode of his HBO talk-series The Shop, which featured Davis. This flurry of activity off the court has spurred questions.

But it’s hard to interrogate the work ethic of a man who has gone to eight consecutive Finals, a player who admits to chasing Jordan’s ghost, and who has logged more minutes than anyone over the past decade.

That being said, the last time a James-led team missed the playoffs was 2005. The same year Steve Nash won his first MVP with the Phoenix Suns. Bryant, in his first post-Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson campaign, missed the postseason, too. Kevin Durant was finishing his junior year in high school. James was but an infant. A postseason without James isn’t just unfathomable. It’s unnatural.

Following the crippling loss in Phoenix on March 2, head coach Luke Walton said, “We need to be a lot better.” Pockets of the Lakers fan base, including Snoop Dogg, have all but turned on the team. Bryant isn’t even paying attention to them these days.

James passing Jordan in scoring this week is a milestone — an achievement James will take with him for the rest of his career, and certainly the rest of his life. Flash back to that kid from Akron, Ohio, who found peace and inspiration watching Jordan play basketball. See now the icon standing in a class all his own. The connection, the symbolism is far deeper than the jersey number they share, or the fictional, yet coveted title of GOAT neither will never solely possess. If only James’ ultimate moment with Jordan came under far sweeter circumstances. If only.

Georgia, the elder barber, would know how to put it.

The Cavs’ Tristan Thompson, the most Googled athlete of 2018, is in another Kardashian media storm This is the intersection of two cultural powerhouses

Tristan Thompson is the starting center for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are a 12-46 team, which makes them the third-worst in the NBA, with only two nationally televised games on ESPN, TNT or ABC all year. He was once the team’s big-man defensive stopper who helped the LeBron James-led Cavs secure an unlikely NBA Finals win over the Golden State Warriors in 2016. Now, he’s just a solid performer for a team in the NBA’s dungeon. He was also the most Googled athlete of 2018.

Two days after the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, ended, it was Thompson — not former teammate James, unofficial All-Star host Stephen Curry or reigning MVP James Harden — who was the No. 1 trending topic in the country. Why?

Instagram Photo

Because of a TMZ story asserting that Thompson was allegedly caught cheating on the mother of his child, reality star Khloe Kardashian. With her sister Kylie Jenner’s best friend, Jordyn Woods. Who has almost the same first name as Thompson’s ex-girlfriend, the mother of his older daughter. Thompson left Jordan Craig for Kardashian two years ago.

Tristan Thompson, all 11 points per game of him, is a household name.

Got all that?

Thompson’s current place at the forefront of a politically congested news cycle is a reminder of the unique intersection of two American cultural powerhouses: an unstoppable reality TV dynasty and a professional league always front and center in American pop culture. Thompson, all 11 points per game of him, is a household name.

Social media has turned this family melodrama into a series of unending memes about everything from Thompson’s alleged “womanizing” to Woods’ relationship to Jenner and the interfamily drama between the sisters. TMZ, Cosmopolitan, E! Online and everyone in between has run the same story about Kim Kardashian unfollowing Thompson and Woods on social media. That’s how dialed in everyone is. That’s the circus.


The blended family of the Jennerdashians includes Kim Kardashian, who is married to Kanye West, Khloe Kardashian, who has a child with Thompson, and Kourtney Kardashian, a model and reality star in her own right. There’s also model/entrepreneur Jenner, who has a child with rapper Travis Scott, as well as matriarch Kris Jenner and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner. Individually, these people are celebrity powerhouses. Collectively, this clan is a cultural supernova. As BuzzFeed reported in 2015, “the family’s activities over the last eight years have been a masterclass in gaming the media to keep viewers hooked on Keeping Up With the Kardashians — and themselves firmly in the public eye.”

He’s just a solid performer for a team in the NBA’s dungeon. He was also the most Googled athlete of 2018.

The Jennerdashian hurricane can overpower the (mostly black) athletes and artists who choose to walk into it. There’s usually the fun of the media spotlight followed by the free fall. Thompson has managed to avoid a fall so far, and if this is truly the end of his interaction with the family, then he’s walking out better than some.

Before Thompson there was Reggie Bush, who dated Kim Kardashian, and Rashad McCants, who dated Khloe Kardashian and was an early cast member on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Lamar Odom was married to Khloe Khloe Kardashian . And Kendall Jenner’s exes include Ben Simmons and upstart NBA baller D’Angelo Russell. West, Scott and Tyga are just a few of the superstar artists who have jumped into the Jennerdashian ecosystem. An ecosystem that, while offering massive amounts of fame, can cloud each man’s achievements while also being blamed for each man’s downfall. Fair or not.

As Elle said in July, “What once began as an entertaining meme quickly developed into a full-blown belief that every single man that is brought into the Kardashian/Jenner family is cursed — destined to fall apart right in front of the public eye.” True or not, when West dons MAGA hats and aligns with President Donald Trump, he’s referred to as someone who is in the Sunken Place — because of his relationship to the Kardashians. When Odom faced drug problems, many believed they were due to the cameras in his face because of his relationship with Khloe Kardashian. When Scott drops a heralded album, he “breaks the Kardashian curse,” and so on.

Thompson, for his part, has played the role of a kind of lady’s man. In April, when TMZ cameras appeared to show the Cavalier kissing two women in a New York City club while Khloe Kardashians was on the verge of having their baby, he spent the playoffs fighting off crowds chanting about his infidelity. These are the reverberations of a relationship with a Kardashian-level celebrity, but he did appear to cheat on a woman who was about to go into labor with their child.

Instagram Photo

Things have been relatively quiet for Thompson in the year since his original alleged infidelity, when the media world seemed to close in on him. He’s been able to enjoy relative NBA obscurity in the middle of Ohio for a team that nobody cares about watching. He’s no longer James’ teammate. He’s no longer a part of the biggest rivalry in the NBA. He’s just a guy who grabs rebounds in a lot of lost games. The drama of the past few days, though, has put him firmly in the spotlight again — especially while the NBA is conveniently in between its All-Star Game and its first game back, Thursday night.

On Tuesday, Stephen Curry held a town hall meeting with Barack Obama. And James announced that he is a part of 2 Chainz’s album. But who cares, when there’s a living soap opera to watch? Are lives being destroyed, though, for our gaze? And are there real-life consequences we choose to ignore? After all, there are babies involved here, whose parents already have been separated, or are on the verge.

Minus the Kardashian affiliation, Thompson’s place as the talk of social media water coolers is unlikely. There’s nothing particularly flashy about him. But his current lifestyle is a convergence of themes that captivate. The interracial love affair of big, strapping black athletes and white women. The NBA’s extreme popularity, relevance and media maelstrom that never loosens its grip. The fishbowl of reality TV celebrity and the hundreds of millions of Jennerdashian Instagram followers watching these relationships come together, unfold, reconcile and fall apart again. Add all this to what can feel like our collective desire to invest our attention in anything other than the end of the world as we’ve known it. And hit refresh.

Today in black history: Toni Morrison is born, first all-black Broadway musical debuts, Shani Davis wins gold, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 18

1688 — First formal protest against slavery by a religious group in the English colonies is held. Four Pennsylvania Quakers write and present their opposition to slavery and human trafficking. Their document read, in part, “we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.”

1896 — Razor-stropping device is patented. Henry Grenon patents the razor-stropping device, a tool that was mainly used to sharpen blades for barbers.

1903 — First all-black musical opens on Broadway. In Dahomey, a musical comedy and the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by blacks, opened at the New York Theatre and ran for 53 performances. It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

1931 — Happy birthday, Toni Morrison. Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, and attracted immediate attention. Among her many other works are Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1988, is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful work.

2006 — Shani Davis becomes the first black person to win an individual gold medal in Winter Olympics history. Davis won the men’s 1,000-meter speed skating race in Turin, Italy.