Timeline of boxing body AIBA’s problems
There is no prescribed order for looking at these portraits of ESPY winners. No uniformity of theme to frame the athletes’ prodigious talents. No particular silhouette that conveys the significance of their achievements.
You might scroll through the images for long minutes before you find the entry point. It’s a truth about sports we hold to be self-evident — not all men and women are created equal.
Premier athletic accomplishment exists as a kind of off-ramp from normal human experience, and we are moved by the simple fact of it. Scrolling through this collection of photos, some from more than a decade ago, of some of the athletes honored, we try to establish a connection with people who do a thing that puts distance between themselves and the rest of the world. We are looking for something that gives us a way in.
A 2001 close-up of Shaquille O’Neal, fingers splayed, covering/not covering his face, invites us near. It plays with the idea that the Basketball Hall of Famer might have tried to hide something of himself if life had ever tempted him with the option. Instead, physiology became destiny, and one of the NBA’s most dominant players ever exercised his outsize personality, ambition and smarts to carry that 7-foot frame off the court and into the rest of his life.
Mia Hamm, of the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team, plays soccer on a field of young girls in Washington, D.C., or turns her face to the sun, and reminds us of that singular American moment decades ago when she and her teammates nationalized young women’s athletic joy.
At times, it feels impossible to separate the athletes from the racial context in which they occur. A portrait of Venus Williams — serene, simple, lovely — feels like the best photo you’ve ever seen of her, which requires some sleight of mind because it’s not a shot of her dominating on the tennis court while helping redefine the sport. But it does show Venus Ebony Starr Williams, breaker of serves, first of her name, outside the context of what are often racist, tiresome feels about her face and body, and that alone feels beautiful.
Mostly, the images represent athletes in the existential act of asserting themselves over, but not limited to, the sports they’ve reimagined and changed. In 2006, a young LeBron James standing in a cavernous hallway with his legs hip-width apart doesn’t telegraph who he will become so much as clarify what he brought with him into the room. It’s a certainty about the space he took up in the world long before he reached beyond basketball to build schools, produce documentaries and marshal the culture.
In many of the photos, especially the older ones, we have the subjects at a disadvantage. We begin with the end in mind. We already know their stories, so now we look for the proof of their narratives.
Who else sees Shuri, “Wakanda Forever,” in a photo of a laughing Sheryl Swoopes, the first player signed by the WNBA and a three-time MVP? Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, worked different magic in different arenas a generation before the teen tech genius in Black Panther. But she helped create and hold open the lane for black girls who wanted to be something that had never been before. These shots of Swoopes demand that you see her for who she is, even as she changed. It was all still pioneering work.
We can’t always see who they are, or were, in these photos that fix some of the world’s greatest sports figures at specific instances in time. We bring to this watch party the beliefs we already had. But we keep looking anyway, keep trying to take whatever they have to give. It is our way of trying to connect with those people fated to represent something that lies beyond the ordinary human grasp. We scour the images again and again, those of us on the outside, looking for clues.
Written by Lonnae O’Neal
At a certain point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every suburban girl in America was interested in soccer, and that was most certainly due to the influence of Mia Hamm and her teammates on the U.S. national team.
She was called the most marketable female athlete of her generation, appearing on Wheaties boxes and in commercials opposite Michael Jordan. Even two years into retirement, as Hamm was when this photograph was taken, she remained an avatar for focused, joyful, ambitious girlhood. She wasn’t just good at one part of soccer, she was great at all of it: dribbling, striking, creating opportunities for her teammates to score and rallying them at low points. Hamm carved a path to exceptionalism in a team sport and, in doing so, was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year for five straight seasons.
England had the Spice Girls. America had Hamm, Abby Wambach and Brandi Chastain. It must have been difficult to finally walk away from all of that at age 32, and it’s evident here. Hamm is crouched to tie her shoelace and appears, like many athletes shortly after they retire, as if she could jump back into her sport for just one more Women’s World Cup, just one more Olympic run.
It takes the viewer a minute to realize the only thing missing is shin guards. Like the All-American good girl she came to exemplify, Hamm, of course, is prepared. She’s making sure her laces don’t get caught in her cleats. A jaunty ponytail secures her hair. Perhaps this is a scrimmage or a clinic. No matter. The habits that build a champion are hard to shake.
The eyes are the table of contents to the soul’s story. For LeBron James, that story has been shaped for nearly 20 years by many voices, from fans to critics to the media and sponsors. But it’s been lived, every second of every day, by only one man.
Given the great American success story that followed, we sometimes overlook the young LeBron. But we all witnessed the debates over whether a teenage demigod dubbed “The Chosen One” a year before his senior prom was truly the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. We heard the barbershop banter about whether the Akron Hammer would dominate a league of grown men. Everyone had an opinion about King James. The last person it seemed to faze, though, was the one with the most to lose.
“Pressure been following me my whole life,” an 18-year-old James said after the 2003 NBA draft lottery, three years before this photograph was made.
Since his first professional game in Sacramento later that year, organized chaos has followed James like his own shadow. Which makes looking at this LeBron surreal. It’s a cue that youth, even for someone like James, is fleeting, even as we carry our emotional connection to it for the rest of our lives. No one knew the serious young man in this picture would evolve into the leader, activist, business tycoon and philanthropic force seen now. Some believed in the hype. Others didn’t. Even fewer believed he’d actually surpass the unrealistic expectations. Nothing about LeBron’s story has ever been normal.
Shaquille O’Neal’s hand could devour the average person’s head. He’d do it with a smile and his baritone laugh, of course. But there’s a deeper lesson in this 2001 photograph in which O’Neal obscures half of his own face. One that proves truer and truer as the years pass and his exploits in the NBA devolve into hand-me-down stories. Shaq’s still a pop culture dynamo and an MVP candidate for every room he steps into. But it’s getting harder and harder to see what once was. And to recognize that there was a time when maybe we, and even Shaq himself, treated the moment like a luxury rather than the gift it truly was.
Basketball may never see the second coming of Black Superman. He was a 7-foot tour de force who will likely remain the lone athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, MVP and NBA Finals MVP and release a platinum rap album. Good luck capturing that lightning in a bottle twice. In terms of the most dominant basketball player, Shaq is in the top two. Except he’s not No. 2. Like Shaq’s face here, we may see glimpses of his game again in others. There will be new athletes who blend Hollywood, the league and hip-hop. But never quite like The Diesel.
History may repeat itself. Halley’s Comet may come around every 75 years. But don’t expect to see anyone like Shaquille O’Neal again.
This is the body of the greatest swimmer of all time. It is not armored with muscle. It is not awesome. It looks naked, and a bit vulnerable. It looks quite human.
Michael Phelps delivered inhuman performances at four Olympics, collecting more medals than any athlete in any sport: 23 gold, three silver and two bronze. His eight golds in 2008 are the greatest haul in any single games. Three years after his retirement, he still holds three individual and three relay world records.
What’s not obvious in this photograph is the unique body construction that was the engine of Phelps’ dominance: long arms with double-jointed elbows, long torso attached to shorter legs, huge feet made flipper-like by flexible ankles. Most of that is hidden here. So we must look at Phelps, the human being.
Phelps grew up with a burning hole in his heart, left by his father after his parents’ divorce. Winning in the water filled the hole, and so did alcohol, but they always drained away to expose Phelps’ trauma. At age 19, two months after winning six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2009, after his eight-gold triumph in Beijing, he was photographed smoking marijuana and suspended from competition.
A second DUI arrest in 2014 pushed Phelps into intensive therapy, where he reclaimed control of his life and rebuilt a relationship with his father. That propelled him into his final Olympics, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where he sealed his legacy with his final five gold medals.
This is the human fragility of Michael Phelps. It makes him look even more awesome.
Time is loyal only to its own clock. For Albert Pujols, now 39, his best playing days are in the rearview mirror. But in this 2006 portrait, the slugger once known as “The Machine” is eyeing the future and what it could possibly hold. Pujols would capture his first of two World Series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals that year. Even then, the Dominican superstar was fielding All Time comparisons.
Yet, then as now, the same question hangs in the air. What’s next? Before the start of the 2019 season, Pujols had said he intends to complete his contract, which ends in 2021. In this photo, Pujols bothers not with the camera but rather what the camera can’t see. The same holds true now. Cooperstown? Absolutely — he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, currently sixth all-time in career homers and fifth in RBIs. More time to focus on his diverse charitable efforts? “That’s part of the responsibility God has given me,” he said during his Anaheim Angels introduction in 2011. “Not just to perform on the field, but to give back off the field.”
Whatever’s next for Pujols is truly his pitch to make. But while he’s still manning first base for the Angels, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. He’s one of the greatest baseball players ever. We should never take a gift like that for granted.
She knew. Sheryl Swoopes knew who she was and what she could do.
We did not. When the WNBA launched in 1997, many of us who respected and valued women’s basketball didn’t know how good these women really were. We certainly didn’t know that Sheryl Denise Swoopes, born in 1971 in the West Texas town of Brownfield, was one of the greatest basketball players to ever step on a court.
Look into Swoopes’ eyes and you can see the experience of being slighted, plus the peace of being unbothered by the injustice. There is the calmness of knowing that she may miss a shot, but her scoring ability can never be stopped. Her gnarled knuckles testify to collecting thousands of steals, deflections, loose balls and rebounds. The discoloration on her right foot speaks to the thousands of court miles needed to secure this knowledge of self.
Such confidence comes from scoring 47 points in the 1993 NCAA championship game, setting a record that still stands for most points scored by any woman or man on college basketball’s biggest stage. It comes from suiting up for the Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth, then leading the team to the first of four straight WNBA championships. From having a son with her high school sweetheart, coming out as gay, enduring a breakup with her partner, then marrying another man. From winning three Olympic gold medals. From being the first woman to have her own Nike shoe.
Sheryl Swoopes knew. Now we do too.
Seeing Mike Trout look away from the camera neatly encapsulates the conundrum surrounding the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. Is it unfair or is it a precious gift that one of the most dominant athletes on the planet, and the recipient of the richest contract in American team sports history, is also one of its most unrecognizable? How should we understand the bizarre path to immortality the game’s best player trots?
Since his first full campaign in 2012, Trout has been named Rookie of the Year, finished in the top four of MVP voting every season and won the award twice, made the All-Star team seven times and earned All-Star Game MVP honors twice. There’s talk that he’s already the best baseball player ever. But the scrunched eyebrows on Trout’s face mirror the concern of fans emotionally invested in a career that has barely registered in much of the country. Baseball’s waning status in American culture is a complicating factor, of course. But so is the fact that the Angels have had only one postseason appearance during Trout’s tenure. Will team success ever align with individual sovereignty?
Only 27, with presumably hundreds of games to play and millions of dollars to be paid before he is immortalized in Cooperstown, there is still time for Trout and the Angels to break out. In the meantime, we see this stoic expression on an all-time dominating presence who is frustratingly unknown.
There’s a line in George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum that states, “God created black people and black people created style.” Serena Williams was 24 when she sat for this portrait, and still in the early stages of articulating her personal style. But harbingers of what was to come — multiple covers of glossies such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar — peek through.
The frame is nearly overtaken by hair and lip gloss, and Williams gazes out hopefully, as if eyeing the future. But there’s also evidence of the conflict that has remained with Williams since she and her older sister Venus grabbed the tennis world as teens and shook it. Williams has long felt pressure to assert her femininity, especially as her skill, her physique and her boiling competitiveness made her a frequent target of sexist attacks. Accused of being mannish, Williams appears here as soft, romantic and sporting the sort of hair that every black girl who’s ever made a trip to the beauty supply store recognizes as “Wet ’N’ Wavy.”
Later, the “Wet ’N’ Wavy” locks would give way to billowing natural curls and more assertive declarations about gender and race-based inequities. Still, the raw ingredients were already present. Williams appeared as herself in the Memphis Bleek music video for “Do My…” in 2000, which not only took female athletic ability seriously but also treated it as something cool and desirable. “Throw a hand in the air if it’s the year of the woman,” Bleek instructs.
In this moment six years later, there’s a quietude about Williams. Her mouth is closed. She’s not wielding a racket or dripping with sweat, or selling a watch, or shoes, or athletic wear. Instead, Williams has continued forging ahead, making every year the year of the woman rather than settling for just one.
Venus Williams has never been known as especially talkative, so it makes sense that here she appears placid, almost sphinxlike, with a calm, understated regality. Her younger sister, Serena, issues fashion declarations that make her queenliness literal, but Venus, the first Williams sister to experience worldwide fame for her racket-based talents, is more reserved.
One of the most fascinating things about Venus and Serena Williams has been how they coexist on and off the court — they once shared a Palm Beach house together, and both are fierce, focused competitors. Their matches are fraught with an uncomfortable tension, so much so that the best thing about them tends to be their conclusions. Venus appears outwardly better at coping with loss, especially when it comes at the hands of her younger sister. She has learned to exhibit the gracious nobility of an older sibling, all the while knowing who is coming behind her.
In 2006, the year this photograph was taken, Williams wrote a letter to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club lobbying for the organization to award equal prize money to male and female Wimbledon competitors. The language was firm, its message unmistakable: “I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players,” she wrote. In 2007, Wimbledon announced a policy of gender parity in its prize money. A year after that, Venus beat Serena on Centre Court to take England’s Grand Slam title.
How fitting, then, to see her seated upon a throne of damask upholstery, secure, pleased and smiling into the distance, as if she knows what is to come.
As soon as Natasha Hastings, 32, learned she was pregnant, she began to wonder.
She pondered all the fraught physiological and cultural questions that undergird the modern motherhood industrial complex: How would her body change? Would her fiancé share equally in the work of round-the-clock baby care? What happens when she returns to her career — and would she even have a career to return to?
But she also had some custom asks: Would she ever run a quarter-mile in 52 seconds or less, again, and if so, how soon? What support would it take for her to make it to the Olympics one last time? And, crucially, would sponsors stick by her as she tries to make the trip?
Early this month, Hastings, a gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, revealed on Instagram that she was 5½ months pregnant. She also announced her intention to return to world-class competition, saying, “I’m going to go to Tokyo! Win a couple more medals!”
Questions about balancing pregnancy and world-class athletics aren’t new. At the 1960 Rome Games, sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals 16 months after having a baby, although few knew it. But Hastings is part of a new visibility and debate about the physical capabilities of female athletes after motherhood, and what systems and protection — health, economic, child care — they need around them. They are conversations we’ve rarely had, around questions we’ve hardly asked.
Hastings has been running professionally for 12 years. But now, as she pursues her dream of sport and family, she’s about to cover new ground.
When she found out that she and her fiancé, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, were expecting, Hastings remembers thinking, My God, what’s happening? She saw the excitement in his face, and he saw the dismay in hers. Yes, she wanted a baby, eventually. But she was just back from a knee injury, training for her outdoor season and hoping to compete in this year’s World Championships. They were planning to marry next year and, fingers crossed, she would qualify for the Olympics. For someone who’d been in communion with her body since she began running competitively at 10, the timing felt all wrong.
“Track is my life, you know,” Hastings said. “My job relies on my physical abilities.” Everything she’s planned for the next phase of her life — building her 400M Diva cosmetic and beauty line, and her Natasha Hastings Foundation to advocate for women and girls in sports — was predicated on exiting track on her own terms. “I’m not the first woman who has thought about family versus career,” Hastings said. “But I don’t know any man who has to make that choice, you know?”
Hastings was worried her family might be disappointed in the timing. And she was especially worried about her sponsors, particularly Under Armour, which she’s been with since 2012.
“I took a while to share with my sponsors for fear of, just, I don’t know what this looks like, I don’t know how they’re going to take this.” She didn’t know “if I’d have a job at all. Or I shouldn’t say a job, but financial support to continue to train and go after the Olympics.”
While Under Armour continued to sponsor Hastings, her fears were understandable.
Middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a six-time USA Outdoor champion, competed in the 800-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In a Mother’s Day editorial in The New York Times, Montaño wrote that female athletes are often forced into physically dangerous choices because companies such as Nike, which sponsored her, can suspend their contracts and health insurance when they get pregnant.
Athletes are always vulnerable to risk and injury that is often heightened during pregnancy. And they largely don’t get maternity leave. Some sports have responded to the challenges.
When Orlando Pride star Sydney Leroux posted pictures of her training while five months pregnant in March, her Twitter mentions included people worried about the health of her baby. But teammates and other female athletes rushed to offer their support.
Two members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in 1999 had children. The 2015 U.S. World Cup team had three mothers, and a culture of inclusion has taken root in the sport, including paid maternity leave. Moms have been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and have a portion of their salaries and medical expenses covered through the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
A bobblehead of Phoenix Mercury All-Star DeWanna Bonner features her holding her twin baby girls.
But non-team sports often seem to think female athletes don’t, or at least shouldn’t, get pregnant at all.
The message from the culture has been that female athletes should retire to have children, said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at Penn State University.
“So we haven’t had a lot of cases that have been able to be visible role models, modeling what it looks like to be working moms within sports,” she said. Her own earliest memory of an athlete mother was fictional: Sanaa Lathan’s character in the 2000 movie Love & Basketball. But she calls this new era of visibility a chance to engage in granular conversations about child care, what breastfeeding looks like when you’re also pushing your body athletically and how to bring abdominal muscles and hips back to world-class form.
Davis cites Serena Williams, who almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., via emergency cesarean section in 2017. Her story highlighted the WTA’s lack of maternity leave policies. And her well-documented struggles, both emotional and physical, to return to competition opened a new front in motherhood conversations worldwide.
In track, Hastings is familiar with the history of sprinter Marion Jones, who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics after giving birth the year before. (She was also banned from the sport for two years and had her Olympic medals stripped after charges of doping.)
Sprinter Allyson Felix, whose six Olympic gold medals include the 2016 4×400-meter relay on a team that included Hastings, struggled with complications during her pregnancy last year and had to have an emergency C-section. Her daughter was hospitalized for a month, Felix testified at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis in maternal mortality. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.
Like Hastings, Felix is also hoping to compete in Tokyo.
Along with Under Armour, Hastings’ sponsors — which include the New York Athletic Club, as well as cosmetic and feminine care products companies — congratulated her on her pregnancy and continued their sponsorship.
Hastings feels “blessed. … If there’s anything that can speak for me, it’s that I have been a resilient person and athlete and my back has been against the wall several times.” That resilience helped her get past her failure to make the 2012 Olympic team. It helped her overcome a hamstring pull before the 2016 Olympic trials. She’s relying on it now, including for all the difficult conversations about pregnancy that she wasn’t prepared for.
In deciding on child care post-baby, Hastings says she and her fiancé have had some pointed exchanges. Hastings is thinking about how she will balance the needs of an infant with her own need for speed. She can’t run if she doesn’t sleep. And in discussing her options with other women, including hiring a nanny, she’s found these mommy conversations can get thorny quick.
“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms,” said Hastings. She’s finding her instinct to rely on their wisdom difficult to square with her own world-class ambitions. “I mean this with respect and honor, and I know that they’re coming from a good place and I know that I’m also, I am coming from a place of the unknown, right? But then there’s also this space of what I do that is unknown for them.” So there’s a disconnect “even in the conversation of a nanny, you know? It’s almost like, well, you’re less of a mom for having a nanny.”
She’s always had to curate the people around her and the voices she allows in her space. “I’m in a small population of the world that thinks that what I go out and do every day is possible. I’ve lived up to a standard that to most is impossible without having a child in there, right?” Her career has always been hard. “I’m no fool to what I’m going up against,” she said. “I’m going up against probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to face in this sport.” But if she dwells on that, her race is already lost.
Hastings is trying to keep her second-most important athletic instrument — her spirit, her willpower, her determination to completely dust the women running next to her — honed and ready.
As to her body, she’s trusting her longtime coach to help with that. It’s been an adjustment for him as well.
Darryl Woodson of Training Ground Elite in Round Rock, Texas, has been working with Hastings for more than seven years. He’s never coached a pregnant athlete before, so this is new space for him as well.
When Hastings told him she wanted to get back to the Olympics, Woodson said, she was focused on whether things would change between them — if he would start to take her less seriously as an athlete.
He became disciplined about keeping their same routines early on.
Elite coaching is physical, he said, but it is also about keeping athletes in their right mind. “There’s a psychological situation for a person where they’re always feeling like, uh-oh, you’re giving up on me,” Woodson said. When athletes are injured, or have some other physical limitation, “if you make them more aware of it then it starts to bother them, and if you treat them normally then they get through it a lot better.”
As her pregnancy progressed, they made adjustments for her schedule and how Hastings was feeling. He takes cues from her, but he said her dedication to the work hasn’t wavered.
“I’m not a prenatal coach,” he said. She’s in consultation with her doctors, who say her body will let her know how much she can handle. “And that’s when we stop. Obviously, I have altered some of her workouts” to make sure they’re not overly demanding.
Typically, she’d be in the outdoor season now. She’d be doing flat-out runs over 400 meters to build strength and endurance and doing other anaerobic work. At six months pregnant, she’s not doing that, or weight training, running stairs or jumping hurdles.
She’s continuing to do 150-meter sprints. Normally, she would run it at about 16 or 17 seconds. She’s four or five seconds slower now, and she can get frustrated that she’s not hitting her pre-pregnancy marks.
“That’s where the pick-me-up comes from me, where it’s like, ‘Let’s look at the circumstances,’ ” Woodson said. “The numbers matter nothing at all if we’re not stopping training so that your body doesn’t need to get reintroduced to this next time.”
She’s actually working harder because she’s carrying more. Woodson is sensitive about using words such as weight. If she keeps her body trained, her times will rebound when she’s no longer pregnant.
“My job is to modify the program and get the same results or better and not put her under the same psychological stress,” Woodson said. His job is to listen and give her the best shot at what she says she wants. The baby is due in July, and he’s hoping she returns as soon as September but no later than October.
“We don’t know what we can and will be able to do. We just know psychologically, emotionally and spiritually what we want to do,” Woodson said. “We’ll keep pushing the same way as we always have been.”
On the track and off, Hastings wants to be a role model. Davis said it matters that she’s a black woman doing this work. This is not only because of the recent spotlight on black maternal health but also because “the tropes about black women’s femininity and sexuality within athletics have been so tied to ideas of their bodies.” Pregnancy pushes back at larger stereotypes about what is feminine, and what sport does to femininity.
“I didn’t get to this level by thinking it was impossible,” Hastings said. “I had to know and believe that it was possible, and that came with having a plan, putting the plan in place, being able to adjust here and there when you have to.” And that’s what she’s still doing.
She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities. She’s doing it for her athletic dreams of speed and glory. For her entrepreneurial dreams of reward and influence. For her dreams of black family and baby love. She focuses on that as she circles the track, chasing the person she’s always striving to be.
A year before his death in 2016, Muhammad Ali published an autobiography titled The Greatest: My Own Story.
Although the former heavyweight champion boxer never got to tell his story on film, a new documentary from HBO Sports comes pretty close. Directed by Antoine Fuqua and executive produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter, What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali is culled from at least 1,000 hours of video and audio footage and focuses on Ali’s boxing career, narrated with his own words. It will air May 14 on HBO.
What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali debuted Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, attended the screening, which took place on the 52nd anniversary of Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. The decision resulted in Ali being stripped of his world heavyweight title, which he later reclaimed two more times.
Fuqua touches upon Ali’s friendships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and the boxer’s refusal to submit himself for the draft. But everything is presented through the lens of boxing, from one of Ali’s earliest punches — when, as a toddler, he knocked out one of his mother’s teeth — to his last in the ring, when he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981. Fuqua doesn’t address Ali’s personal relationships, nor the accusations of domestic violence or infidelity that come up in Jonathan Eig’s biography. The film takes its name from an exchange Ali had with opponent Ernie Terrell, who insisted on calling him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali was so angry he called Terrell an Uncle Tom and repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?!” at him during their subsequent fight, which Ali won by unanimous decision.
Fuqua is best known for his collaborations with Denzel Washington, including Training Day, The Equalizer and a 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. The Pittsburgh native attended West Virginia University on a basketball scholarship and now uses boxing to stay in shape. We talked about his new documentary, Ali’s patriotism and the class divide in sports that are characterized by risk of traumatic brain injury.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What do you think of dictums like “stick to sports” or “shut up and dribble”?
That’s just silly, and that’s an ignorant thing to say. Just because someone plays sports or does anything doesn’t mean that they don’t have an opinion. I think it’s shortsighted and a very immature way of thinking about an athlete. Athletes have an amazing platform, and a lot of them are highly intelligent people and they can be influential. Most of them have lived on both sides of the tracks, especially African American athletes, so there’s a pretty unique perspective on the world. When you come from not much and you make a lot, that’s a long journey and that’s two different worlds. So a lot of times there’s a very interesting, complex perspective that should be heard.
What were your conversations like with James and Carter about how to make an Ali documentary that would manage to stand out?
They were pretty clear. We all love him. We all love what he stood for, and the man he was. We all agreed to be honest about the journey, his journey. We all eventually came to the conclusion: It has to be from his voice. Ali has to tell his own story; avoid as much talking heads as possible unless it’s him talking. There’s been a lot of documentaries, some well-done documentaries, but there’s never been one where Ali’s telling his entire story. There were things that we discussed that we thought were important, which was ultimately let’s show his greatness, but let’s also show some of his weaknesses.
One of his weaknesses was he was chasing greatness, always. That’s not a weakness, but he was at a place where they just wanted him to stop fighting. But how do you say that to someone like Ali? He has that gene in him, and I think that’s what makes him so amazing. Like the scene when he has the torch in his hand and Parkinson’s is at its worst, he lifts the torch twice. He didn’t have to, he did, the crowd went crazy, he came down, he did it again. Every time I see the movie it makes me smile. I think that ultimately, collectively, we walked away going, ‘What a wonderful life. What an amazing, well-lived life.’
He never loses his charisma.
Never, never. He never blinked. And he stood by his principles. He lost a lot; he paid a heavy price for it. But he seemed cool as ice, always. Even when he was in the ring, leaning against the ropes, taking some beatings at times.
Those are so hard to watch.
Even though you knew the outcome, as we made the doc, there were days where I was sitting there sweating, like, ‘Come on, Ali.’ It was rough, but it was a beautiful journey because I was not disappointed in anything that I saw. We found footage that no one’s seen before. Nothing about his life was disappointing for me. It was all very inspiring, even the low points.
This documentary gives little snippets of his life, but always in relation to boxing. Why did you decide to frame this story this way?
Boxing is the thing that put him on world stage. The boxing is the thing that — when he’s beating the guys and, saying, ‘What’s my name?’ — to me it’s the metaphor of his life. Fighting is the metaphor of Muhammad Ali’s life. It doesn’t matter to dig into how many kids he has and who he’s married to or not married to, because that’s a given. I’d rather his children did a documentary about him. I think that belongs to them, it doesn’t belong to us.
What we need right now more than anything, I think, is leadership in athletes. What is your platform, and what are you going to do with it? He had a platform and he did greatness with it. He showed us how to stand by your principles: When things were wrong, to speak up about it. He showed us what it means to be physically beat down and get back up. I think that sometime that’s more important than getting into the headline gossip, which a lot of people want to get into, which you could do about anybody’s life that lives a full life, but why?
What do you consider to be gossip?
Gossip, some people get interested in who he was with and who he wasn’t with, who he married and who he didn’t marry, what woman he was with. I mean, come on. There’s enough of that. He was a handsome, beautiful, charming man — use your imagination. Women loved him, he loved women. Men wanted to hang around him.
I don’t think Muhammad Ali’s story’s done. Somebody can go and do whatever they want to do. In my dream, I hope Laila and his children will tell a version of him one day, for them. But it should be done by them. My goal was to show the man that I admire, love, and I’m inspired by every day.
One of the things that becomes apparent is how much power white members of the news media, especially Howard Cosell, had to shape the public’s perception of Ali. Whether it’s calling the Nation of Islam a “racist cult” or framing his two wins against Henry Cooper as tragedies. Was this a way to hand that agency back to him from the beginning, and not just once he’s famous?
We all deserve that. We all deserve to have an opportunity to tell our own stories. He’s not with us anymore, so the closest I can get to that is what I’ve done. I was just telling the story through his eyes as we shaped it and gathered the material. When I have an opportunity to allow a man, especially a black man, to tell his own story, I’m going to do it.
The way this film is structured makes Ali’s decline from Parkinson’s feel like it’s evident much earlier in his life. We associate Parkinson’s with the tremors, but his speech pattern started to slow down in his 30s.
That was intentional to show that journey, because that was another fight. In the end of the documentary, the goal was to show you all the Muhammad Ali fights in the ring, out of the ring, with the military, the government, the loss of Malcolm, his friends, things like that. Being a black man, just because you change your name, the world turns on you because you changed your name, like you don’t have a right to change your name. But also, the internal battles that come from the wars you’re in in the ring: the pounding, the beating, the fighting, the stress.
I’m not a doctor, so who’s to say it was just the punching that led to Parkinson’s? But it certainly, I would imagine, it had a lot to do with it. Then, imagine the stress he was under during that time period. Black people were getting shot down and hung by trees still. He had all the close friends around him getting murdered, like Malcolm, like Martin, Kennedy. His name was as big as theirs, so imagine walking around every day with a target on your back, and as loud as he was. And going against the military.
So the goal was to also find footage where you start to see that, and I’m happy you noticed that. He was in a lot of battles; it wasn’t just the ones in the ring. But he still came out as great, he still affects us, we’re still talking about him. Even when his voice was taken away, one of his biggest attributes, his charm, his voice, his physical abilities were taken away, right? It’s biblical in a way. That’s why at the end, when he lifts the torch twice [at the Atlanta Olympics], I love him even more, because he was still showing us, he was still speaking to us as loud as he always has. That’s ‘I’m still here, man. I’m still the greatest.’
When I went to Jordan and Israel and places like that, I saw T-shirts and stuff with Muhammad Ali around the world every day. His name was known around the world. It’s amazing. How can someone say, ‘Shut up and dribble?’ Is that person’s name known around the world? I don’t think so. Is that person inspiring anybody? I don’t think so. But LeBron James is. Muhammad Ali is.
Do you think we can call Muhammad Ali a patriot?
Absolutely. A man goes to the Olympics, wins the gold medal for this country, comes home, goes to a diner just to get a burger, and they tell him, ‘We don’t serve n—–s here.’
And he says, “Well, I don’t eat them!”
The charm, right? And then they’re going to send him over to a country to go kill some people that never did that to him? A war that we didn’t even really know why we were there, to this day. … I’m very patriotic, I love this country, but that’s some bulls—. Let’s call it for what it is, that’s exactly what that was.
What did you think of the concussion crisis within the NFL before you started working on this documentary? Did your thoughts change in any way? Ali says over and over, he doesn’t want anybody to pity him. He was always reiterating how much boxing had given him. But it also eventually took away his voice.
I grew up playing football. My family and friends would go play for the Steelers. [Fuqua’s uncle John “Frenchy” Fuqua was a running back for the Steelers from 1970-76]. I box now every day; I been boxing for 20-something years. What I’m happy about is I think the NFL is taking serious steps, they have been, to try to help prevent damage. It’s a violent sport, there’s only so much you can do, but I think they’ve been handling it really well. The guys get hit, they’re taken out the game and they don’t get to go back in. They get tested right away. I think they seem to be showing great concern in trying to do something about it. But that’s all you can do is do the best you can do, make better helmets, have better protocols. But it’s a very violent sport, and if you ever played or been around, especially guys at that size, on that level, that’s like being hit by a Volkswagen. There’s only so much you can do.
I go to the fights. I’m friends with a lot of fighters. It’s the nature of the sport, to be punched in the head. Punched in the body. I watched the refs, and they do try to stop it as fast as they can if they see someone in trouble — most of the times, not always. But most of the times, everyone seems to be trying to get in there as fast as they can. Those sports are complicated and difficult because they’re violent sports. The nature of the sport is to hit each other.
Why are you so committed to boxing in your own life?
Boxing has a lot of metaphors. Boxing’s a great sport; it’s definitely chess, not checkers. People think it’s just swinging and punching, but that’s not boxing. The whole objective of boxing is get the other opponent to help you kick his a–. You trying to outsmart somebody. It’s not as primitive as people think it is. It’s a great sport to just learn some life skills, to know when to bomb and leave, when to catch your breath, when to stick and move, when to go for broke, how to get back up. And it challenges you on those things, so that’s what I love about it. It’s just you and the other guy. You don’t have help. It’s all about what you’re made of, what you have in you. So it challenges that, when your lungs are burning, your ribs are hurting, guy’s trying to punch you in the eye or jab a bit. It’s like, ‘Do I really need to do this?’
Economic stratification has a huge impact on defining who goes into football and boxing. If you can afford to put your kid into something that doesn’t carry the same risk for potential brain damage, you’re going to do it.
There’s certainly classism. … It’s just opportunity. If you’re poor living in a ghetto — I know when I was — you bounced the ball, you hit a ball with stick. You punched each other or you play football. There was no golf courses that were nearby, there was no lacrosse. There’s no polo.
But some of those sports, you don’t get camaraderie, you don’t learn how to play as a team player, you don’t physically always get challenged the same. There’s plus and minuses to it all. Classism will always be here, and the gladiators will always be the gladiators and some people will always be in the stands. It’s just the fact of life. It’s not going to ever change, ever. If they took away boxing and football … there’ll be another sport.
For some people, like myself, like LeBron, like Ali, Michael Jordan, sports was a way out. I got a scholarship to West Virginia. That was a way out, that was a way of getting out the streets, getting out the ghetto. But also, you love it. It was a place to go that felt safe. It was a place to go to create a family outside of your family, with your teammates. To get that feeling of success, to win, that’s something that you can’t put a price on.
When the NBA’s newest G League expansion team needed a guy to run things, they turned to the perfect person for the job — an experienced journeyman with the right kind of basketball savvy.
“I had no business background,” said Pops Mensah-Bonsu, the new general manager of the Capital City Go-Go. “I had planned to go to business school before working in a front office, but the opportunity came before I had the chance.”
The George Washington University standout earned a degree in psychology and played with 18 NBA, G League and international teams combined during his professional career. By most standards, he is perhaps, one of the most successful players to retire from the G League, averaging 26.6 points when he was on what he refers to as his “high horse.”
“I’ve sat in the same seats as two-way players, assigned players and G League contracted players, so I use my experiences to help guys along with their journeys,” said the 35-year-old Mensah-Bonsu.
The team is the Washington Wizards’ G League affiliate, named for go-go music, a hard fusion of blues, rhythm and blues, and funk that’s part of Washington, D.C.’s, bustling musical culture. Everything about the team fits the appeal of the local fan. And for Mensah-Bonsu, he’d already made Washington his home and quickly immersed himself in the city’s diverse climate.
When he got the call from the Wizards to gauge his interest for the general manager position, he was an NBA scout with the San Antonio Spurs, a job he’d been in for about a year. The very next day he flew home to interview with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld.
It was a success.
As general manager, he oversees the daily operations of the Go-Go while engaging in long- and short-term strategic planning.
“I always make sure to check in with players and make sure everything is going smoothly and morale is high,” he said. “As a leader, they feed off of my energy, so regardless of if I’m having a good or bad day, I come into that office with a smile on my face. I always make sure they receive my positive energy. After practice, I catch up with the head coach and see how he feels. I’m always thinking ahead of how I can help make this team better.”
If there’s anyone who can relate to G League players and their grind, it’s Mensah-Bonsu. He’s suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. At times, he suits up for practices if Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian needs him.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Christian. “He brings that physicality that you need. Intensity rate goes up instantly when he’s on the court. He’s able to touch so many different people because he’s had so many walks of life and experiences. He’s able to connect with people in a way that I’ve never really seen.”
Although he’s not far removed from his playing days, Mensah-Bonsu misses the hardwood.
“I miss it every morning I get up, every time I watch a game and every time I watch practice,” he said. “There’s a void that I always feel I need to fill. I’m a realist. I understand that my impact is now going to be on this side of the game. But when I’m on the court, I forget it and go back to player mode.”
The difference between the NBA and the G League is the salaries, Mensah-Bonsu said.
“They make a lot more money in the NBA and their CBA [collective bargaining agreement] is much more comprehensive,” he said. “But to the core, it is very similar, just at a larger scale. It’s still managing people and putting a team together.”
In the team’s first season, Mensah-Bonsu soon realized success in the league is measured through development across the board, but mainly with the development of players.
“We are here to help the players become the best they can be on and off the court,” said the first-time general manager.
The Go-Go finished their first season 25-25. It’s only the second time an expansion team finished .500 or better in the G League’s last 10 seasons.
It was his longtime dream to be part of a team’s front office. And when he needs guidance in his position, he has countless mentors, including Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and Amadou Gallo Fall, vice president and managing director of NBA Africa, to lean on.
“I’m indebted to them for always being willing to help me on this side of the game,” said Mensah-Bonsu.
He even plans to collaborate with Gallo Fall and the Basketball Africa League. “It’s a great opportunity to give African players to live out their dreams and play basketball. Every summer I try to be involved in the [Basketball Without Borders] camp in Africa; I started doing camps with NBA Ghana every year. My goal is one day to have a team in Ghana.”
Twenty years ago, if anyone had asked Mensah-Bonsu what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have answered an Olympian in track and field. Why? He had a natural “you can’t teach that” sort of talent when it came to the sport.
Mensah-Bonsu was raised by low-income Ghanaian parents whose main goal was for their children to have greater opportunities than themselves. He moved from his London home to the United States at 16 years old without his parents and attended The Hun School of Princeton. He became a two-time New Jersey state champion in the high jump and excelled on the basketball court in high school.
It was evident that he had game while playing junior basketball for the Hackney White Heat of the English Basketball League. But to take it to another level, Mensah-Bonsu knew that going to a prep school in the U.S. would help elevate his game and increase his visibility.
He had that same joy and mindset when he transferred in his senior year to St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey, where he averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds a game.
Mensah-Bonsu made a name for himself when he got to George Washington University. He helped lead the Colonials to two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (2005 and 2006). It was the first time in 50 years the program was ranked No. 10 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/ESPN Top 25 polls.
After helping his team beat Michigan State and Maryland on consecutive nights in his junior year, Mensah-Bonsu noticed NBA scouts attending his practices. It was then that he knew he had NBA potential.
He went undrafted in 2006 but worked his way into a spot on the Mavericks after summer league. That season he appeared in 12 games, averaging 2.4 points per game. He spent multiple stints with the Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA Development League. In July 2007, Mensah-Bonsu rejoined the Mavericks for summer league but was later waived. He signed a one-year deal with Benetton Treviso of the Lega Basket Serie A in September 2007, then with CB Granada of Spain in May 2008 to appear in the team’s final game. In August 2008, he signed with Joventut Badalona for one year.
“For me, my mindset was I do not intend to be here long,” he said.
Mensah-Bonsu represented Great Britain in the 2012 Games.
“I don’t think there is a bigger moment for an athlete than walking out in the opening ceremony and it was 10 minutes away from where I walked the streets of London. I remember my brother took a picture of my parents wearing my Olympic jersey.”
During his career, he endured many injuries.
“I had 10 surgeries,” he said. “Six on the knee, elbow, shoulder, eye and nose. I say my right side is my bionic side. I wouldn’t say I have recovered. I still feel pain. When I walked up the stairs and I feel some pain, it’s a reminder that it was all worth it because I’m walking up the stairs to my office as a general manager.”
In 2015, his professional playing days ended abruptly after he received a two-year ban due to a doping violation while playing in Greece. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 euros. Mensah-Bonsu was taking Adderall prescribed for a medical condition.
“I’ve played in the NBA, I’ve played in the NCAA, I’ve played in the Olympics, I’ve played in high-level Europe, and I had never failed a drug test in my life,” he said. “When that happened, it ended my career. I was still fighting to clear my name because I didn’t want that be a dark cloud over my career or the way it ended.”
After retiring that same year, he became regional representative and international liaison for the National Basketball Players Association. He said that while there he received a phone call that would finally help clear the violation. According to Mensah-Bonsu, his agent told him that an appellate committee of the Greek courts researched and found out that Adderall wasn’t a performance-enhancing drug.
Off the court, he indulges in his family and four children and his love for fashion. He even graced the runway during New York Fashion Week in September 2016.
“Fashion has always been a big part of who I am,” he said. “I remember getting a text asking if I wanted to walk for Studio One Eighty Nine, an Accra-based line by Abrima Erwiah and actress Rosario Dawson, in New York Fashion Week’s show. I was like, ‘You literally made my life.’ I was the only nonmodel at the show, and people wanted to know who I was.”
Mensah-Bonsu says he could’ve been more proactive in preparing for life after basketball, but it’s the relationships he built that have allowed him to gain success as a general manager.
“I always tell people your character is determined by how you treat people who can’t do anything for you,” he said. “I always was open to engaging with people that I came across. People remember your character and their interactions.”
His advice to current players is to start planning now.
“It’s always a good idea to think about life after basketball and lay a foundation,” he said. “Sometimes basketball isn’t fair to us. I love the game, it did a lot for me, but my career ended before I wanted it to, and such is life.”
In Mensah-Bonsu’s mind, his journey to the NBA didn’t start or finish under the most ideal of circumstances. However, his path to front-office status has earned him the opportunity to oversee a franchise and a group of hungry players.
Once upon a time in college basketball, black fans had a special sort of hate for Duke.
This season is different. The Blue Devils are so good in the ‘hood, Jay-Z came to watch them play … in Pittsburgh. LeBron James witnessed the Zion Williamson mixtape in Charlottesville, Virginia. After every game, the internet is flooded with highlights of Williamson and Duke’s three other one-and-about-to-be-dones. The program has come so far from its so-called “Uncle Tom” days, Sacramento Kings rookie and recent Duke star Marvin Bagley III just laced the newest J. Cole beat with raps such as way back I was hated but they love me now.
And all that’s not even counting when Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley, Spike Lee and former President Barack Obama came to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rivalry game with North Carolina.
Black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. In 2017, 12 percent of black college basketball enthusiasts identified as Duke fans, compared with 8 percent of all college basketball fans. So far this season, 24 percent of the audience for Duke games on ESPN is black, compared with 21 percent for all games.
How did Duke go from ashy to classy? From supposedly privileged punks who vanquished iconic black teams to having a hairstyle named after the 2015 championship squad? From featuring white stars who fizzled in the pros to Zion running through competition like a midnight locomotive?
Like everything pertaining to Duke basketball, it starts with coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Coach K changed with the times, gradually embracing the concept of recruiting players who would be at Duke for only a few months before jumping to the NBA. His credibility grew when he started coaching Olympic teams and building relationships with legends such as James and Kobe Bryant. The turning point was Duke’s 2015 title team, featuring three one-and-dones and the “Duke Starting Five” haircut trend.
Now Duke is an apex competitor, ready for the next “Nike check coming out the projects.” The freshmen Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones draw huge TV ratings. Duke has black fans like this dude, straight photobombing ESPN in Louisville’s arena after Duke came back from a 23-point deficit in the second half:
— Arty (@artyficial13) February 13, 2019
“I do think the success of the program, having a series of one-and-done players now, Coach K being fully embraced by the stars of the NBA with the Olympics, a confluence of things have contributed to changing that narrative,” said Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer and former Duke star who was unfairly saddled with much of the black community’s dislike of his team.
“It’s kind of funny why people didn’t like us back in the day. It’s even funnier now that people are big fans because of the haircut,” Hill continued.
“But the fact that Duke is now sort of embraced is interesting.”
Duke hired Krzyzewski from West Point in 1980, two years after losing the NCAA championship game to Kentucky. In 1982, Krzyzewski brought in Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson and Jay Bilas. In 1986, that group and freshman Danny Ferry went to the championship game, which they lost to Louisville.
In that era, black America’s team was Georgetown, led by pioneering coach John Thompson. He took the Hoyas to three Final Fours, winning the 1984 national championship and the hearts of black folks with an attitude of uncompromising blackness.
Like Georgetown, Duke was an expensive, academically elite private school. Unlike Georgetown, Duke featured a high proportion of white stars, including Alarie, Ferry and, in the 1988-89 season, a bratty freshman named Christian Laettner. In the 1989 NCAA tournament, with Ferry and Laettner leading the way, Duke beat a Georgetown team featuring a young Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to secure a spot in the Final Four. Thompson never got that close to a championship again.
The next two seasons, two players arrived who would put Duke over the top and set the Duke image for years to come. Point guard Bobby Hurley fit one type of Duke stereotype: scrappy, not overly talented, and white. Hill fit another: He was the privileged son of a former NFL star and a corporate executive, and black.
“In the ’80s, it was almost the more struggle you came from, the blacker you were,” Hill said.
Another factor contributing to black fans’ past disdain for Duke was that the team’s best white players — Alarie, Ferry, Hurley, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers — often had mediocre NBA careers. Laettner, the best white Duke player, whose arrogance and frat-boy looks inspired hate in whites and blacks alike, made one All-Star appearance and averaged 12.8 points per game over his 13-year career. J.J. Redick, twice the National Player of the Year at Duke, has a career average of 12.8 points per game in his 13th NBA season.
Laettner and Hurley got destroyed in the 1990 NCAA championship game, losing 103-73 to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led by gold-toothed forward Larry Johnson. But in the 1991 Final Four, with Hill as a freshman, Duke took down undefeated UNLV, then went on to win Krzyzewski’s first title.
The following year, Laettner, Hill and Hurley smashed another set of black icons, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five freshmen, to capture a second straight championship.
“You had this idea about the kind of black players Coach K recruited,” said Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department. “Kind of a cut-and-dried, clean-cut type of black player … a lot seemed to be mixed-race. When it came to color, they were often light-skinned. It seemed like he had a pattern.”
Neal hated Duke basketball for years, even after he became a professor there in 2004. “What framed my view of Duke was when they played UNLV and it was portrayed as these great student-athletes versus the thugs,” he said, then added: “Laettner didn’t help.”
The Fab Five, who injected hip-hop style and attitude into college basketball, were viewed as the antithesis of Duke. Michigan’s Jalen Rose crystallized those feelings in his Fab Five documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”
That was a false label — Rose’s teammate Chris Webber was a middle-class kid, for example, and Krzyzewski recruited Webber hard — but it resonated.
“I said what people had been thinking for 30 years,” Rose, now an ESPN analyst, said in an interview.
But with two championships, Duke could now recruit with anyone in the country. The Blue Devils won a third title in 2001 with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Their fourth title, in 2010, featured Nolan Smith and white players such as Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Jon Scheyer.
Black stars such as Hill, Williams and Boozer probably would have been one-and-done in today’s game. As the college basketball landscape shifted, Corey Maggette left Duke after one season. Elton Brand left after two and became an NBA All-Star.
Then came Kyrie Irving, whose spectacular 11-game Duke career in 2010-11 set the program on a new course. Irving went first in the NBA draft, won Rookie of the Year, is a perennial All-Star and became an NBA champion in 2016.
The next generation of young stars took notice.
The Black Duke turning point came in 2015: the championship team featuring freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and senior Quinn Cook.
“My freshman year, it was different,” Cook said. “Me and Amile Jefferson talk about it all the time. Warming up, it’d be like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber playing in the arena. And by my senior year, they were playing like Lil Durk and Shy Glizzy and Chief Keef and Meek Mill.”
Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” became the soundtrack to their championship run. The idea came from assistant coach Jeff Capel, the former Duke player whose jersey was spotted on Tupac Shakur back in the day.
“We play team basketball. Coach has a military background. We take charges. We get hype after little plays,” Cook said. “I think in the basketball community, it just looks like — I don’t want to say ‘corny,’ it’s just different. But coach lets you add your flair to it, add your little swagger, your team swagger.
“If we buy in and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on the court and in the classroom, coach lets us be us.”
When Cook arrived on campus, he was surprised to find out that several teammates had tattoos. They wore sweatsuits on the road, not suits and ties. Krzyzewski was a Beyoncé fan and had a picture with Jay-Z on his phone. After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2014 tournament, Cook started growing his hair out to show his complete focus on basketball. Then the entire team said no clippers would touch their hair until they lost. That took 14 games. They left the tops of their ’dos long and shaped up the bottoms. By the time they won the 2015 tournament, the Duke haircut had trended nationally.
In 2016, Brandon Ingram wore that haircut in his one-and-done Duke season. Then came Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Bagley. Next up is Williamson, one of the most electrifying college athletes ever and the obvious first choice in the 2019 NBA draft. Barrett is projected to be picked second, Reddish fourth and Jones later in the first round.
Today, “I just think Duke has a look to it,” Cook said. “If you look at the guys in the NBA, I don’t want to say it’s never been cool to go to Duke, but Duke is everywhere now.”
Said Rose: “Now, Coach K is recruiting the player. Before, they were recruiting the program. Before, Coach K wouldn’t even necessarily want four of the top 10 players because he wanted guys who he could mold them and culture them and bring them into the system. Just because you’re a top-flight player, that doesn’t mean you fit into what we’re trying to do.”
“Now, he fits Duke to the top-flight player.”
The roots of Black Duke run much deeper than Zion, Kyrie or Coach K.
In 1892, Trinity College relocated to Durham, North Carolina, with the generous assistance of a local tobacco baron named Washington Duke. That same year, Duke’s barber in Durham, an enterprising black man named John Merrick, expressed an interest in learning about real estate. Duke helped Merrick buy the barbershop, which he expanded into a chain of barbershops. Under Washington Duke’s tutelage, Merrick made more real estate purchases, which became Durham’s “Black Wall Street” district of businesses and homes owned by African-Americans.
Washington Duke also advised Merrick as he co-founded two pioneering black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Co. and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. After Duke’s death, his son James Duke gave millions to Trinity College, which was renamed after the Duke patriarch in 1924. Duke family money also endowed historically black universities such as North Carolina Central and Johnson C. Smith, plus what once was the black hospital in Durham.
“There’s a reason I like Duke that’s deeper than basketball,” said rap producer and longtime Duke fan 9th Wonder, who also is a professor at Duke, Harvard and his alma mater, North Carolina Central. “The Dukes went on record saying we cannot empower black people without teaching them economic empowerment.”
Duke went on a building spree with its new endowment. The architect for many of the campus buildings still in use today, including Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a black man named Julian Abele.
This history casts a different light on the perception of Duke as a “white” school — especially since we now know that Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838 to ensure its survival.
“When I talk to my friends and start pulling all this history up, it’s a hard reality for them to face,” 9th Wonder said. “They’re like, ‘The black person in me should have been rooting for Duke all along.’ ”