The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

Inside the Clippers’ final days with Donald Sterling as owner ‘We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans.’

It is not uncommon to see Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer talk hoops before a game. Ballmer typically peppers Rivers with questions about his beloved Clippers as if he is a member of the media. Rivers shares details and typically throws in a joke that makes the fun-loving Ballmer smile.

It is a way different dynamic from what Rivers had with the team’s previous owner, Donald Sterling. Rivers told The Undefeated he has not spoken to his old boss since TMZ released audio on April 26, 2014, of Sterling making racist comments to his then-girlfriend.

“There is no need to,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why or what he was thinking or whatever. … It doesn’t matter to me. It’s already been done and said. I haven’t heard from him. It’s not like I am mad. But why? We don’t need to talk.”

Five years ago, on April 29, 2014, the controversial owner was banned for life by the NBA for his comments in what was one of the strongest penalties in American sports history. He was later forced to sell the team.

At that time, the Clippers were also pursuing an NBA title. They were the No. 3 seed in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs facing an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors team in the first round. The Clippers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 98-96 victory in Oakland on April 24. But two days later, their momentum came to a crashing halt after Sterling’s remarks became public.

News traveled fast within the organization. Game 4 was the following day. How would Rivers & Co. respond to their owner being involved in one of the biggest scandals in sports?

The Undefeated looks back at the franchise’s last days under Sterling, five years later, through the recollections of those who endured it.


‘THEY TOLD ME IT WASN’T A BIG DEAL’

Members of the Los Angeles Clippers listen to the national anthem before Game 4 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, April 27, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. The Clippers chose not to speak publicly about owner Donald Sterling. Instead, they made a silent protest. The players wore their red Clippers’ warmup shirts inside out to hide the team’s logo.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Sterling has a long history of racist behavior and had been sued on two occasions for allegedly declining to rent apartments to African Americans and Hispanics. He was also sued in 2009 by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor, who accused him of age and racial discrimination. There is also a well-known story of the Clippers owner once going into his team’s locker room after a game while players were dressing and telling his friends, “Look at those beautiful black bodies.”

Rivers said he first caught wind on April 23, 2014, that Sterling had made some controversial comments but was told by a Clippers executive they “weren’t a big deal.” Rivers alerted his players during a team meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco that the story was expected to come out, but he didn’t have details to offer.

Blake Griffin: “We remember having a meeting and Doc was saying what was happening. When he explained it, I don’t think everyone understood the magnitude of what it was going to be.”

Doc Rivers: “I was misled in that whole thing, and that is a story for the book one day. But I was told there was a story coming out and it wasn’t a big deal beforehand. I had a chance two days before to look at it. But they told me it wasn’t a big deal.”

Ryan Hollins: “Doc said that Sterling said something stupid with racial undertones to a woman, but it was not expected to be that big of a deal as it ended up being.”

Rivers: “I took this job. I knew there was going to be risk. I clearly didn’t know there was going to be that type of risk.”


‘THOSE WORDS HURT, THOSE WORDS PIERCED’

Head coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers speaks to the press after a game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 24, 2014 in Oakland, California.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

At 10 p.m. PDT on April 24, 2014, TMZ released a recording in which a married Sterling made racial comments to his girlfriend V. Stiviano, criticizing her for putting pictures on social media with well-known African Americans, including former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson and then-Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.

TMZ reported that the private taping of Sterling’s racist rant took place on April 9, 2014, after Stiviano posted a picture of her with Johnson on Instagram.

Some of Sterling’s racist audio excerpts released by TMZ included:

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?”

“You can sleep with [black men]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.”

“I’m just saying, in your lousy f—— Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.”

“… Don’t put him [Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

A stunned Rivers finally listened to the audio just before it was released.

“One of our PR guys heard it an hour and a half before it came out and he said, ‘Doc, I think you need to see this video,’ ” Rivers said. “And I went to see it and I was incensed. I was pissed. I didn’t really know what to do.”

Rivers quickly called a late-night team meeting at the hotel to talk about the Sterling report. Wearing a Clippers T-shirt, Rivers entered the meeting room, where incensed players were waiting.

Griffin: “We pretty much found out exactly what it was with everyone else.”

Willie Green: “We all got the news at the same time as the reports were coming out. We were shocked to hear it, and we all heard rumors. To hear the actual words that he said were shocking.”

Hollins: “When it came out, I was blindsided. We didn’t know it was going to be like that. We were told that he made some comments that were racially charged, but we didn’t know what they were. I guess the one that struck us was the Magic Johnson stuff, the black guy in the building. When we heard those words, those words hurt. Those words pierced.”

Rivers: “I let them know I was black too. It was funny. They were pissed at everybody, including me. That is one of the things that broke the ice. I said, ‘By the way, guys, my name is Glenn Rivers. I’m from Maywood, Illinois, and I’m black.’

“The other thing I said is I need you to trust me. I will allow you guys to choose what you want me to say, but I need you to trust me and have one voice. If I have learned one thing about racism, and I’ve been through a lot of things with racism, they never want to go after the guy that says this stuff like Sterling. They want to go after the persecuted. Everyone wants to know how the persecuted will respond rather than focusing on the guy that did something.”

Matt Barnes: “What he said was more of a shake-my-head situation than being mad. I thought he finally got caught up with this bum-a– chick no one liked. As far as the racial comments, I’ve heard much worse and have had worse done to me, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I thought he wasn’t the only owner that felt that way. He was just the only one dumb enough to get caught saying it.”

Chris Paul: “I remember meeting as a team and Doc asking us how we wanted to handle it. We agreed that we would have just one voice and let that voice with Doc. I absolutely agreed with that.”

Rivers: “I was so concerned that someone from our team would say something crazy and then they were the story. And that is what we talked about. From DJ [DeAndre Jordan] to Blake, they decided what they wanted to do. They let me be the voice, and that was huge for us because we got through that without any other controversy.”

After the Sterling news broke, Rivers said Sterling and then-Clippers president Andy Roeser were not available. Roeser later took a leave of absence on May 6, 2014, and never returned to the position.

Hollins: “I was in the elevator with the man [Sterling] right after it came out. It was awkward. I shook his hand like normal. To me, the news didn’t change anything for me. We knew. Everyone knew his mindset. Man, that elevator ride took a while. He was fighting someone on the elevator. He didn’t understand. He was like, ‘This is business as usual.’ He was saying he was going to be at [Game 4]. ‘See you tomorrow.’

“To this day, he might not see the severity. He doesn’t see it as racism. For Donald’s mindset, it was like, ‘This is for me and this is for you.’ This is not necessarily that I am better than you. It was like, ‘This is what you do and this is what I do.’ ”

Rivers: “I was by myself. … I had no one to run stuff by. And a lot of people don’t know that [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] texted me saying, ‘This is my private number. Text me every second that you need something.’ That was huge.”


‘PEOPLE WERE CALLING US TO BOYCOTT’

Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers warms up prior to the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Clippers wore their shirts inside out in protest of David Sterling.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Clippers practiced at the University of San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym on the eve of Game 4 on Saturday, April 26, 2014. The venue was the home of former Dons and NBA legend Bill Russell, who faced a lot of racial discrimination while playing for the Boston Celtics.

Rivers told a media horde that Sterling’s racist statements were not going to distract his team. Paul and Griffin also addressed the media. And while Rivers voiced that his players would not be distracted, it was quite the contrary. They were getting so many calls and texts from family and friends that it was impossible for them to block it out.

Paul: “There were a whole lot of people in our ears. Everybody’s phone was going crazy, saying this and saying that. They were telling what you should and shouldn’t do. For us, we were trying to stay together as much as possible. And whatever we did, we wanted to do it together as a team.”

Hollins: “It was so awkward, man. You are trying to focus on the job at hand. Then you have a game to play. There was a lot of energy in different places. It was kind of weird. And honestly, it divided our team. It divided a lot of stuff we were doing. A lot of people got too focused on it. Other people in their mind weren’t too focused on it. And then basketball was there. You’re getting torn in different places, and then your friends and family are saying certain things. But I don’t think we aired it all the right way.”

Griffin: “As far as distractions go, I don’t know if there could have been a bigger thing. Everybody was calling for us to do something. At one point I had to stop answering questions from people I was close to just because it was the playoffs. Doc was always talking to us about keeping your box. You got your family, but everything else goes outside the box. That was crazy because people were calling for us to boycott, and then we had to make a decision.”

There was an uncomfortable buzz in Oracle Arena on April 27, ahead of Game 4. There were rumors that Jordan and Barnes specifically, and perhaps the Clippers as a whole, would boycott the game. Warriors forward Draymond Green also told The Undefeated that he heard the Clippers players considered not playing. The Warriors were in the other locker room awaiting word on what the Clippers were going to do and planned to support them.

Barnes said Rivers left it up to the players to decide whether they wanted to boycott and just asked that they make a uniform decision. Ultimately, the Clippers players determined as a whole that their quest for a title was bigger than Sterling.

Draymond Green: “I remember the awkwardness of the whole time from when it was released to leading to the game. … Everyone seemed antsy. The most important thing was everyone was standing with them. Guys on our team were standing with them. It was a sad situation. Obviously, it didn’t just affect them, although they were playing on the team he owned. It was bigger than that. It was about our culture as a whole. It was crazy.”

Warriors guard Klay Thompson: “I felt bad for those guys. They were in a tough position. … It was definitely a possibility that they boycotted the game, and it would’ve been completely justified.”

Jordan: “I wasn’t going to play. I felt like that was a representation of us. And for me, obviously being a black player, I didn’t want to go out there and represent that. That isn’t what I am about. My teammates, I will keep their names to myself, but they agreed with me on that — and they weren’t all black.

“I wasn’t being negative or anything, but I was standing for something bigger than myself. But ultimately, when you’re a player coming up, you’re not like, ‘Oh, I want to compete for this.’ You want to do it for your teammates. So ultimately, that swayed me to go out there and fight for my guys.”

Griffin: “We never played for Sterling anyway. It wasn’t like we were going out representing Sterling. We were representing our families, the city of Los Angeles and our fans. It all took care of itself in the end. We took the appropriate stand.”

Willie Green: “The best thing for us to do was play. We had a meeting, we decided to come out, play and represent the city of Los Angeles and each other. We stayed together and tried to win.”

Barnes: “Not playing was briefly discussed, but I think we all came to the realization that we’re never playing for Donald in the first place. … Plus, we felt we had a championship-caliber team that year. … I have zero regrets.”

Hollins: “We could’ve not played. But I didn’t join the league for Donald Sterling. There are so many more racist people; he was just the one that got caught. I play for my family. I play for my city. It was weird. That is how I feed my kids, doing this. If you had a racist boss, you’re not going to participate [in your job]? It was just funny. People were telling me to give up on a couple million dollars, a couple hundred thousand, or whatever it might be, in my career for someone who is racist.”

Paul: “It was weird. It was kind of eerie. There is a part of you that is saying don’t play. Then there is a part that says if you don’t, you can be letting each other down. We are not playing for them. We’re playing for each other. It was different.”

The Clippers looked solemn as they ran out for warm-ups to a sold-out crowd before the game started. Yes, they were going to actually play in the nationally televised game on a Sunday despite the Sterling cloud hovering over the team. The Clippers made a statement when they took off their warm-up jackets with “Clippers” on them and tossed them at midcourt. The players then engaged in warm-ups donning long-sleeved red T-shirts turned inside out so the team nickname would not be seen.

The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front, and the players wore black socks and armbands. The Warriors routed the Clippers, 118-97, in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2.

The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers fight for the rebound in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on April 27, 2014 in Oakland, California. The Clippers’ blue jerseys said “Los Angeles” on the front and the players wore black socks and arm bands in protest of David Sterling.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Griffin: “I just remember the chaos, but with every situation I try to remember something positive. I just remember coming out here taking our warm-ups off and turning them inside out. I remember getting the cheers from the fans here, and at that time that didn’t [usually] happen. It was kind of in the middle of us clashing.”

Hollins: “I don’t know if throwing our shirts off did anything, honestly.”

Paul: “It was easy to say it was hard to play because we got smacked. But I don’t remember too much about that game.”

Hollins: “It was Game 4, and we were better than Golden State then. We were going to come in and take care of business and mess everything up. But they didn’t hold anything back. They let us have it. They had that energy.”

Jordan: “Do I regret playing? No, I don’t regret playing. We got our a– whooped up in Golden State anyway. I am glad I played because those group of guys, they will be connected for life.”


STERLING BANNED BY NBA

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the media about the investigation involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and accusations that he made racist remarks to a girlfriend on April 29, 2014 in New York City. Sterling, a billionaire, will be banned for life in the NBA.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rumors were circulating that Clippers players were considering sitting out of Game 5 on April 29, 2014, in Los Angeles. Players on other teams around the league were considering sitting out as well. NBA sponsors were threatening to leave their partnership with the league. Meanwhile, several current and former NBA players, including former NBA star and then-Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, A.C. Green and Norm Nixon took part in a union rally in L.A., ready to respond to word of Sterling’s punishment expected that day.

The pressure was on Adam Silver, who had replaced longtime NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. Silver came down hard on Sterling, announcing the Clippers owner was banned for life from any association with the NBA and the Clippers and was fined an NBA maximum $2.5 million. NBA owners later gave the needed vote to force Sterling to sell the team.

Many of the Clippers players got the news at their practice facility.

Paul: “I remember all those guys going to City Hall and saying something. It was a weird space for us because we were not only the team involved, but we were playing. Doc was trying to not only lock us in on the series and the game but what we were trying to do, and not use that as an out. I remember the first game back. It was unreal. Everybody wore black.”

Griffin: “Adam Silver, through Doc, told us he was going to handle the situation, and he did. We did what we were supposed to do. We were playing for something much bigger than Sterling. It was never our intent.

“We got together and handled it the best way we could have. As a team, you start training camp and go through the pain of the regular season. And you play basketball to get to the playoffs. For us to boycott the playoffs and ultimately lose a playoff series, it wouldn’t have been fair to us. You have to think somewhat selfishly.”

Draymond Green: “I didn’t think anyone was going to play. But once Adam made his announcement, it was so strong that at that point there was no reason for anyone to say anything about the stance.”

Thompson: “Everyone was really happy with how quickly Adam Silver reacted. That was great standing up for all the players on racism, institutionalism and all of that crap. Adam had our back.”

Rivers: “He was the right guy at the right time. My mama always said, ‘You’re right where you are supposed to be.’ That was my mother’s favorite saying. Adam was at the right spot at the right time.”

Hollins: “For Adam Silver, that was his strongest, ‘I’m here.’ Instead of being in the background and shying away from difficult decisions, he made a big decision moving on from Donald.”

The Clippers went on to defeat the Warriors in Game 5 and won the series in seven games. However, their title hopes ended after they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games in the second round.

On May 29, 2014, former Microsoft chief executive Ballmer won a bidding war for ownership of the Clippers, purchasing the team for a then-NBA record $2 billion.


FIVE YEARS LATER

New Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, right, shares a laugh with head coach Doc Rivers, second from right, Chris Paul, third from right, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, left, while speaking at the Clippers Fan Festival on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, in LA.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

No current players are left from the 2013-14 Clippers team. Paul was granted a request to be traded to the Houston Rockets on June 29, 2017. Griffin was re-signed by the Clippers to a five-year, $173 million deal that same summer but was traded to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 29, 2018. Jordan is two teams removed after playing for the Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks this season. Willie Green is an assistant coach with the Warriors. Barnes is retired. And Hollins is a television sports analyst for the Clippers and NBA.

After losing to the Clippers in that first-round series in 2014, Golden State has been to the NBA Finals every year since and won three championships. Barnes, who was on the Warriors’ title team in 2017, said, “I knew then they were going to be a problem.”

Rivers, meanwhile, is the last man standing on the Clippers and enjoying perhaps his finest coaching performance this season. The Clippers hope to be a major player in free agency this summer with the ability to sign two major free agents.

On Wednesday night, the Clippers are back in Oracle Arena to play the Warriors during Game 5 of their first-round series.

Jordan: “We had our opportunities. We had six years to us three, J.J. [Redick] and Jamal [Crawford]. We had really good teams, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. That happens after a while. Either you keep it going and believe in it or revamp, which ultimately they decided to do.”

Hollins: “Ballmer has gone all in. Before, Blake, DJ and Chris would get the preferential treatment, the massages, whatever that may be. The 15th man gets that now. The 15th man gets a scouting report, access to training. It’s just on another level. He’s really invested into the squad. It’s not surprising the success that he is having. Even the young guys.”

Rivers: “When I came here, no free agent would say they want to play for the Clippers. Now, every free agent says they want to play in L.A. And they don’t mean the other team [the Lakers], they mean both. To me, that is a big measure of success of where the franchise has become. The next step is getting [free agents] and then winning.”

How exactly did Ray Allen become Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’? Two decades ago in a wild casting that involved everyone from Kobe to Tracy McGrady to Coney Island’s own Stephon Marbury, a star was born

This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.


Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.

That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 filmthe greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen—better than anyone.

An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college, or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which of course requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.

In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the P.S.A.L. (Public Schools Athletic League) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade and McDonald’s All-American, and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during his Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”

He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech, and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ‘96 draft, He Got Game premiered.

On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed onscreen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Stephon, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” says Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player..?”

In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee—born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn—addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Spike said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”

Marbury had a different reason for not [auditioning]. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me…Because I knew the movie was about me.”

The idea for He Got Game came to Spike at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father, who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee fedexed the script to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Denzel, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered the skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.

In Washington, Spike had a bonafide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … Who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’ Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus…it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court…you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”

Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Spike put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen, to Kobe Bryant, to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.

“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury says with an abrupt pause. “ … to play me.”


Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to shit.”

Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it … If he can make it out of here, so can I.

It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are the visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Spike Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Ray Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ‘96 draft—in exchange for Marbury—Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.

“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’” says the now retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took Spike up on his offer, and met with him in New York.

“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”

Meanwhile, Spike was courting players from all over — a perk of being on of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warmups, or during the game, I’d run by Spike, and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie,” says University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part, but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’” Spike ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player “Mance”) and a handful of NBA roleplayers as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player “Sip”), to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit), andand John Wallace (as Lincoln player “Lonnie”), also of the Knicks.

But for Jesus, Spike envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen says. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ‘90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.

According to a Washington Post story published the day the He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie Tracy McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as The Post detailed.

In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.

“I wanna say Allan Houston, too,” McCarty recalls from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’”

Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he says, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”

In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembers, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”

On June 19, 1997, the Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his…He Got Game.”

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no?”

Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ‘fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much…I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well…I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time for do a film.”

So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players — and probably some we’ll never even know about — Spike, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”

“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen says. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”


It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Spike is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.

Allen, then in his final NBA season, as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which wore onscreen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Spike tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.

He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie not just about just hoops, but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Spike responds about the prospect of a followup to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”

A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talk about a sequel,” Allen says. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.” The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and NBA Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to school, or to the NBA.

This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Spike writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttles to life.”

Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on of the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role.” he says. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”

If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he says, as matter-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”

The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, though his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — what no character can.

“I was the first,” Stephon Marbury says, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”

 

How exactly did Ray Allen become Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’? Two decades ago in a wild casting that involved everyone from Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to Coney Island’s own Stephon Marbury, a star was born

This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.


Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.

That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 film, the greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen, better than anyone.

An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.

In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the Public Schools Athletic League (P.S.A.L.) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade magazine and McDonald’s All-American and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney Island, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during son Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”

He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but he accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ’96 draft, He Got Game premiered.

On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed on screen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Marbury, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” said Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player …?”

In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee, born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Lee said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”

Marbury had a different reason for not [auditioning]. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me … Because I knew the movie was about me.”

The idea for He Got Game came to Lee at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee sent the script by FedEx to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Washington, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered his skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.

In Washington, Lee had a bona fide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’s Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus … it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court … you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”

Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Lee put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.

“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury said with an abrupt pause, “… to play me.”


Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to s—.”

Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it. … If he can make it out of here, so can I.

It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ’96 draft (in exchange for Marbury), Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.

“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’ ” said the now-retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took up Lee on his offer and met with him in New York.

“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’ ” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”

Meanwhile, Lee was courting players from all over — a perk of being one of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warm-ups or during the game, I’d run by Spike and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie!” said University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’ ”

Lee ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player Mance) and a handful of NBA role players as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player Sip) to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit) and John Wallace (as Lincoln player Lonnie), also of the Knicks.

But for Jesus, Lee envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen said. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. [Garnett] to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ’90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.

According to a Washington Post story published the day He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as the Post detailed.

In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.

“I wanna say Allan Houston too,” McCarty recalled from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Garnett and Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’ ” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’ ”

Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he said, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”

In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembered, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”

On June 19, 1997, The Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his … He Got Game.”

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no?”

Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ’fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much. … I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well … I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time to do a film.”

So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players, and probably some we’ll never even know about, Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”

“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen said. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”


It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Lee is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.

Allen, then in his final NBA season as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which he wore on screen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Lee tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.

He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie about not just hoops but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Lee responds about the prospect of a follow-up to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”

A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talked about a sequel,” Allen said. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.”

The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to college or to the NBA.

This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Lee writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttlesworth to life.”

Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role,” he said. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”

If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he said, as matter-of-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well. … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”

The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, although his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — which no character can.

“I was the first,” Marbury said, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”

24 books for white people to read beyond Black History Month These great reads will help any reader discover the rich range of the African-American experience

For many years I was a clueless white guy. I suffered from one-ness. What I really needed was two-ness, and maybe three-ness and four-ness. I came to see my whiteness not as privilege but as insufficiency, thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois and his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk.

In a remarkable passage, the great scholar, author and activist described the Negro as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Here is the good news. I am not there yet, but I am gaining on two-ness. My white skin is no longer a prison of cluelessness. With the help of African-American friends and colleagues, I am beginning to see America through the eyes of not the Other but others. Through their generosity, I have been invited to ask questions. I heard or saw things I didn’t understand. I did not yet know how to learn, nor did I have the courage to ask a question that might come off as racist. My fear was met by encouragement from the likes of Rev. Kenny Irby, DeWayne Wickham, Dr. Karen Dunlap, Keith Woods, Dr. Lillian Dunlap. “Don’t worry,” they indicated by one means or another. “Ask away. No one is going to leave the room or show you the door.”

Some of my clueless questions:

“When I see a police car, unless I am speeding, I think protection. Tell me why when you see a cop car you may think oppression?”

“I don’t get the absence of so many black fathers in the lives of their children. What is up with that?”

“I have learned to hate the N-word. When I hear it from black rappers, should I be offended?”

“I keep running into this idea of ‘good hair’ vs. ‘bad hair.’ As someone with very bad hair, I think that anyone with any kind of hair has good hair. What am I missing?”

There came a time during these interrogations when I felt a little fatigue setting in from my colleagues. And then Karen Dunlap, my boss and president of the Poynter Institute, made it explicit. It gets tiring, she explained, bearing the burden of white people’s ignorance about black people and African-American culture. “You know,” she gave me a Sunday school teacher look, “you could read something.”

Read something. Yes, read something!

And so I have. Over the past two decades I have developed quite a nice collection of what I might generally describe as African-American literature, some of it written by white journalists or scholars but most of it created by black poets, playwrights, scholars, novelists, essayists and critics. My collection is now large enough to be displayed, and I recently did just that in the library of the Poynter Institute.

I am not claiming this to be an expert collection of works, and certainly not a model one. But it is my collection, and I believe it has made me a better friend, colleague, parent, citizen and human being. I offer this list, with brief annotations, at the END of Black History Month to encourage readers not to limit their learning to the shortest month of the year.

So please learn, grow — and enjoy.


  • My Soul Is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, by Howell Raines. A superb oral history of the key moments and key figures of the struggle.
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride. “What color is God?” a dark-skinned boy asks his light-skinned mother. “God is the color of water.”
  • Reporting Civil Rights (Parts One and Two) Library of America edition of great American journalism on race and social justice, 1941-1973.
  • The Authentic Voice: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity, edited by Arlene Morgan, Alice Pifer and Keith Woods. Rich examples reveal the power of inclusiveness in all the stories we tell.
  • The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault. A great biography of a great American artist by the historian who also gave us Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
  • Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, by Phillip Hoose. Before Rosa Parks became an American icon, a young teenage girl, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her seat on a bus. Written for young readers, but important for all.
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. First came slavery, then came segregation, then came mass incarceration.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Framed as a letter to his adolescent son, the author digs down to consequences of the continuing exploitation of black people in America. By the author who has made the most eloquent case in favor of reparations for continuing effects of slavery.
  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. “Stares unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery.” Another must-read is The Bluest Eye, a terrifying novel about cultural definitions of beauty and the tragedy of self-hatred.
  • Fences, by August Wilson. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, this play depicts what it means for a father to love his son — even at times when he doesn’t like him.
  • Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, by DeWayne Wickham. An orphan, black and poor, grows up to be one of America’s most prominent newspaper columnists.
  • Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing, edited by Deirdre Mullane. If I had to recommend a single volume, this anthology would be it: more than 700 pages of history, literature and insight.
  • In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, by Alice Walker. Glowing essays expressed in what the author of The Color Purple calls “Womanist Prose.”
  • March (Books One, Two and Three), a trilogy, graphic-novel style, on the life and times of congressman John Lewis, with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. A work for adults and young readers.
  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice. This family memoir by the former U.S. secretary of state carries us back to when she was 8 years old and her young friends were murdered in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. Widely hailed by critics of all races as “a vivid tapestry of America.”
  • Race Matters, by Cornel West. From W. E. B. Du Bois to Cornel West, African-American intellectuals have helped Americans of all colors understand the sources of racism and the need for change.
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. The 1912 short novel narrates what it means for a person of mixed race to “pass for white” within the system of American apartheid.
  • The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize. The stories behind the stories of civil rights, including the inspirational courage and leadership of African-American journalists and publishers.
  • On the Bus with Rosa Parks, by Rita Dove. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, her poetry captures a unique vision of the love and spirit of those who struggled against segregation.
  • Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver. Bought this as a college student in 1968 along with Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! by Julius Lester. Written from a California state prison by a key figure in the Black Panther movement.
  • Black and White Styles in Conflict, by Thomas Kochman. Are black people and white people the same — or different? Turns out, the answer is “both,” according to the white sociologist who drills down into American culture to reveal the sources of our misunderstanding.
  • The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin. Framed as a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation. A searing call for justice.
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. The poet was black a black man in a white world, a gay man in a straight world. His experience of two-ness created, I would argue, one of the most impressive bodies of poetry in American history. Were there not an unofficial color line in the Pulitzer Prize judging, he would have won — and more than once.

In building this list, I emphasize again that it is only special in that it is mine, and in that it has led me to a place I wanted and needed to be. There are countless worthy works not on my list, and countless more that are soon to be written. If I may borrow a phrase from the late Julius Lester: Look out, Whitey! Read some of these books and, who knows, you may get a clue. May there be two-ness in your future — and more.

LeBron, Blake, Kyrie and Kobe go Hollywood — in the best way NBA All-Stars charge into the entertainment world on a massive scale

There’s Uncle Drew. The remake of White Men Can’t Jump. And soon, possibly, a new sitcom. Everybody wants to be Hollywood-famous — even your favorite NBA players. Several are taking to the screen as front-facing talent with aspirations, in some cases, of being the next Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former athlete who became one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office draws. Others are looking to give iconic producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Will Packer a run for their silver screen money.

Either way, it’s happening. When they’re not on the court, some All-Stars are working on their postgame plan for Tinsel Town dominance. “Kobe put out a thing saying that he wants to be remembered as an investor, not a basketball player,” said television/film producer Kenya Barris. “So many athletes have these other things that they want to do, but a lot of times their physical stature, or what they’ve been doing their whole life, sort of takes the focus [off] what they’re going to be. But … they have other things they want to do. Here are some of the most impressive Hollywood moves soon coming from your faves.


Lebron James

The NBA champion has already made his mark as a TV producer. James’ well-written and highly regarded Survivor’s Remorse (recently canceled after four seasons) was very loosely inspired by his own NBA life. Most recently, he’s partnered with best-selling author, actor and activist Gabrielle Union (who is also his best friend’s wife) for an ABC development deal; on deck is a comedy, White Dave. James’ successful production company, SpringHill Entertainment, has been making some impressive moves lately, and this new show (should it be picked up) will be a single-camera sitcom from writer/director David E. Talbert (First Sunday, Almost Christmas, Baggage Claim). It’s based on Talbert’s experiences as an African-American teen raised in an all-white neighborhood who moves to a black neighborhood when his mother remarries. But that’s not all: James is empire-building. Other possible projects include an HBO show that he and longtime biz partner Maverick Carter are developing that is centered on an Los Angeles-based sneaker store. It’ll be a look inside the wild — and expensive! — world of sneakers, with Lemon Andersen also on board as a producer. Their company also has a three-part Showtime documentary coming at the top of next year that will take a look at the NBA’s influence on pop culture.

Blake Griffin

A remake of 1992’s beloved White Men Can’t Jump is on its way, with the help of Griffin and black-ish creator Barris. Also on board productionwise is Ryan Kalil of the Carolina Panthers. The two budding producers have a company called Mortal Media. But don’t be surprised if we see Griffin in front of the camera. “Blake is unbelievably funny,” said Barris. “He went to the Montreal Comedy Fest, and he was what everybody was talking about. … He did a stand-up routine every night and everybody from the industry was calling me like, ‘Have you heard Blake Griffin?!’ ”

Kyrie Irving

When Kyrie Irving’s not making headlines for why he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to head to the Boston Celtics, fans are marveling at his hilarious alter ego Uncle Drew. If you’re unfamiliar, Uncle Drew is an “older” hooper who masquerades the fact that he can ball very well and dominates local pickup games — for Pepsi commercials. He’s a YouTube marvel, and soon he’ll be on the big screen. Next summer a full-length film will arrive, and besides Irving and co-star LilRel Howery (Get Out), several former NBA and WNBA stars will make appearances, including Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Nate Robinson, Reggie Miller and Lisa Leslie.

“He did a stand-up routine every night and everybody was calling me like, ‘Have you heard Blake Griffin?!’ ”

Kobe Bryant

Might the 18-time All Star soon be adding Oscar nominee to his growing list of career accolades? Could be. He penned a poem, Dear Basketball, to announce the end of his storied career as a player, and now he’s turned the words into a brilliant animated short that he executive-produced and narrated. He worked on the film — it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and screened again at the Hollywood Bowl last month — with Disney animator Glen Keane and composer John Williams. And folks are already talking Oscar. Watch him perform it live with Williams here.

Daily Dose: 10/26/17 NAACP travel warning tells black people to be wary of American Airlines

All right, y’all, busy day in these streets on a couple of levels. I’ll be on Around The Horn on Thursday, so that’s fun, and then I’m headed to Bristol, Connecticut, for some more fun to end the week.

Some people have to fly a lot. It’s just a part of life, and business travel is an unavoidable scenario. Depending on the type of person you are, different airlines are important to you in different ways. But an airport is also one of those places where racial discrimination is absolutely a thing and can affect your life drastically. So when the NAACP says that black folks should avoid American Airlines altogether because of a string of incidents, you’ve got to pay attention. At least American is trying to be understanding.

We’ve come such a long way on marijuana. Basically, the only people in polite society these days who think it should still be illegal are backward-thinking folks who have willfully ignored the past. Between mandatory sentencing that unfairly targets people of color and the actual health benefits of trying to make the “drug” and its effects more mainstream, it’s about time we legalized it. Now, according to a new poll from Gallup, most Americans believe that to be true as well.

George H.W. Bush is an American president. Apparently, he’s also a groper. Yes, it’s sad to have to talk about such an old man in such a way, but just because you sat in the Oval Office it doesn’t mean that you get to grab women’s butts for the rest of your life. See, he’s also been in a wheelchair for a while, which his camp seems to think makes this whole thing funnier, which it doesn’t. Now, more women are coming out saying this happened. He’s even got a joke to go with his predatory ways. Yeah, not cool.

Welp, it looks like LaVar Ball was right again. The man who everyone loves to hate said the Los Angeles Lakers would beat my Washington Wizards on Wednesday night, and guess what? They did. And not only did he say that before the game, he said that during the game, while it was still happening, so whether or not he knew what he was talking about, he was correct. Why does this matter? Because one Marcin Gortat was talking trash before the game, as was one John Wall of the Washington Wizards.

Free Food

Coffee Break: We’re getting close to Halloween, which means it’s time for all of our seasonal tricks to come out of the bag. And the one that’s the best from Saturday Night Live is obvious: Tom Hanks’ role as David Pumpkins. Well, it’s coming back as its own full-blown special. This oral history of the character is hilarious.

Snack Time: If someone did this to any member of my family, I would be doing a whole lot more than just suing when it came down to it. There would need to be MANY conversations about MANY things.

Dessert: Justice League fans, here’s a little nugget for you.

How Michael Jordan’s original starting five — from Ray Allen to Michael Finley — became Team Jordan’s first stars Before Russ, Kawhi, Melo, CP3 and Jimmy Buckets, Jordan Brand got its start with All-Stars and future champions

Oct. 15, 1996, will forever be ingrained in Ray Allen’s memory. It was the night he met Michael Jordan for the first time. A young player like Allen viewed Jordan as a god in a league that had already deemed him the greatest of all time. As Jordan chased his fifth NBA title that year, he brought with him a $33 million contract, the richest in team sports history. Off the court, Jordan had brought in millions of dollars for Nike through the sale of his signature Air Jordans, the single most important line of sneakers to hit the market. Yet, as Jordan began looking toward life after basketball, he needed the help of Allen, and others, to continue to make his mark on the business world and the culture.

A 21-year-old rookie, and four months removed from being selected with the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA draft, Allen entered a matchup between his Milwaukee Bucks and Jordan’s Chicago Bulls at the United Center. He’d face his hero, the man from the posters Allen hung on his wall as a kid, in an exhibition game. “I’m intimidated,” recalled the future Hall of Famer, now 42, “because I’m not supposed to be in this moment. I’m supposed to be on the other side, watching and cheering for him. I’m like, ‘You know how many times I rooted for him to destroy whoever was on the other end of the floor? Now I gotta beat him? Now I gotta stop him?’ Now I’m this kid in this position … thinking, ‘Is this situation, this moment, too big for me?’ ”

Before tipoff, Allen and Jordan walked out onto the hardwood, met at half court and shook hands. “ ‘What’s up, Ray?’ Welcome to the NBA,’ ” Allen remembers Jordan saying. “I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

Jordan actually knew Allen quite well. He was the one who’d decided which shoes the rookie wore on his feet that night — and for most of his NBA career. Months before this pregame moment, Allen backed “out of a deal with FILA,” he said, to sign with Nike. The company planned on giving Jordan his own brand and imagined Allen as the young face of a fresh new line of products. So, in his first encounter with Jordan, Allen took the court in Team Jordan Jumpman Pros — the first sneakers designed outside of the Bulls superstar’s signature Air Jordan line.

“I was like, ‘Man … Michael Jordan knows my name.’ ”

“I was the one guy in the league who had Brand Jordans on my feet,” Allen said of his rookie season. “But I didn’t know how connected and linked in M.J. was with what was going on … if it was the company, or if he was making all the decisions. Not yet did I understand what the Brand Jordan meant, or what it was.”

M.J. had in fact selected Allen to be the first player to endorse Jordan Brand, which wouldn’t officially launch until September 1997. His Airness, however, imagined a whole squad of ambassadors representing his brand in the NBA. As a reflection of his own skills, style and swag, he wanted to build “Team Jordan” — and every team needs a starting five.


In 1997, before playing a single minute in the NBA, Derek Anderson traveled to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, ready to be pitched a potential endorsement deal. “I had no idea who I was meeting,” he says now. “I thought I was meeting with Nike itself, because I didn’t know anything about the Jordan Brand.” He finally got to a boardroom, “ … and there’s Michael Jordan. He says, ‘Hey, D.A., how’s it going?’ and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, Michael Jordan actually knows who I am.’ ”

His Airness sat before the now-retired NCAA and NBA champion Anderson, having done his research on the 22-year-old prospect. Anderson played only 19 games during his senior year at the University of Kentucky before tearing the ACL in his right knee, so Jordan asked about the progress he’d made in his recovery, and Anderson informed him that he could, once again, throw down windmill dunks. The conversation soon turned into an offer from Jordan that Anderson couldn’t refuse.

Derek Anderson (right) of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 3, 1997, at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

“The way I worked hard, and how I fought back from the adversity of my injury, he really appreciated that, and wanted me to be a part of the Jordan Brand family,” said Anderson, who the Cleveland Cavaliers took with the 13th overall pick in the 1997 draft. “I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.” Anderson had previously met with Converse but turned down the opportunities discussed there. He also canceled the rest of his scheduled visits with other shoe companies.

Eddie Jones, then a third-year shooting guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, found himself up for endorsement renegotiation with Nike after rolling with the sneaker giant for the first few years of his NBA career. In hopes of luring the 1997 All-Star (the first of three such honors) who played in the glamorous Hollywood market, Reebok, Adidas, FILA and PUMA all went after Jones. Yet the bidding war came to a screeching halt once Jordan came calling.

“When the best player on the planet, the best player to have a basketball in his hand, really wants you to be a part of something, I mean, you jump onboard,” said Jones, now retired and living in Florida.

Allen’s All-Star Milwaukee Bucks teammate Vin Baker also joined the mix (Baker struggled with alcohol over the course of his All-NBA and Olympic gold medal-winning career, but now sober, he coached this summer at a Massachusetts summer camp). Michael Finley of the Dallas Mavericks began hearing rumors swirling around the league about a master plan that Nike and Jordan had cooking.

“My agent called me,” Finley remembered, “and said, ‘Michael Jordan and his reps are starting their own Jordan Brand and want to know if you want to be a part of it.’ I was like, ‘C’mon, man. That’s a no-brainer. Of course.’ To have M.J. pick you as one of the originals, that’s an honor. It was just us five … our own little fraternity.” (These days, Finley, an assistant vice president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks, is something of a film producer.)

“The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them.”

Jordan, the alpha and omega of the basketball universe at the time, had handpicked and created an eclectic group of players in his own image to put on for the new brand. “The goal was to hopefully find athletes that had a little bit of Michael in them. In our mind, Michael was the greatest at what he did, and he was great because he did so many things really well,” said former Jordan Brand product director Gentry Humphrey, now vice president of Nike Golf footwear. “And while you may never find that one guy that has the complete package, you can find a little bit of some of those things in several athletes.”

A pure shooter in Allen, a high-flying, acrobatic athlete in Anderson, a Swiss army knife guard in Jones, a skilled stretch four in Baker, and a versatile swingman in Finley — together, they formed Team Jordan.

“Everyone brought something different, but everyone brought something from him. Everything from us was an entity of M.J.,” Derek Anderson said. “It’s almost like we were his kids. Like every kid has genes from his parents, we were a genetic build of him.”


On Sept. 9, 1997, Nike officially announced the launch of the Jordan Brand.

“A sub-brand of NIKE, Inc. the JORDAN brand is a pure, authentic basketball brand of premium, high-performance basketball footwear and apparel inspired by the performance legacy, vision and direct involvement of Michael Jordan,” reads the third paragraph of Nike’s press release from this historic day. “The brand will carry the Jumpman logo and will be packaged together to make its retail debut on November 1 for the Holiday ’97 season.”

Never before in the history of sports had a player, not to mention an African-American one, “entered into a solo venture on such a sweeping scale,” according to a Chicago Tribune report published the day the brand debuted in 1997.

“I have been involved in the design of everything I have worn from Nike since we began our relationship in 1984,” Jordan said at the introductory news conference in New York. “The launch of the Jordan Brand is simply an extension of that process.”

The Air Jordan logo is displayed at a Jordan promotional event July 31, 2001, in Harlem, New York.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

More than a decade had passed since Nike signed Jordan before his prolific rookie season and released his first signature sneaker, the timeless Air Jordan 1.

“I always felt like Jordan was its own brand, and I approached it that way,” said iconic Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, who believed the move that catapulted Jordan into his own stratosphere of the sportswear industry was long overdue. “Jordan’s shoes were as advanced as possible for the best player in the world, but also were a little more sophisticated and with … nicer materials,” continued Hatfield, who’s crafted some of Jordan’s most legendary shoes, starting with the Air Jordan 3s that dropped in 1988.

“I placed Jordan on a pedestal in my own mind, like it was its own separate brand. I was actually the one who thought up the Jordan Brand in the first place,” Hatfield makes clear, “and tried to pitch that numerous times over the years and didn’t get anywhere with it, until it finally did happen. I’m glad it did.”

Nike celebrated the momentous occasion with a huge launch party at NikeTown in New York. The guest list was loaded with stars from all walks of the culture. NBA Inside Stuff host Ahmad Rashad emceed the event, attended by everyone from Sheryl Swoopes, Kym Hampton and Dawn Staley, to rhythm and blues singer Kenny Lattimore, musical groups BLACKStreet and A Tribe Called Quest, and actors Kadeem Hardison and Damon Wayans. “It was like All-Star, Grammys and Emmys all mixed up into one,” Finley remembered.

From day one, everyone wanted a piece of Jordan Brand, which analysts projected to generate more than $300 million in worldwide revenue in the fiscal year 1998 (the Air Jordan line alone raked in $70 million in sales for Nike in fiscal 1997). On Nov. 1, 1997, the Air Jordan 13s, the first shoe under the Jordan Brand umbrella, were released at $150 a pair. The brand’s first Team Jordan sneakers, the Jumpman Pro Quicks and Jumpman Pro Strongs, wouldn’t hit until May 1998. Until then, Jordan entrusted only Allen, Anderson, Jones, Baker and Finley to wear them on the court, and to promote Jordan Brand in its inaugural NBA season.

“The brand was big before I even knew it,” Derek Anderson said. “It took off that way.”


At the end of the NBA calendar, when the season finally ends, players partake in the annual ritual of cleaning out their lockers at their home arenas. During his first season with Team Jordan, after the playoffs ended with Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Utah Jazz sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference finals, Jones recalls arriving at The Forum in Los Angeles a little late.

By the time he got there, boxes of his Jordans were missing. And the ones that were left? Jones’ teammates were already calling dibs — and mustering up the courage to see if they could get Jones to come up off of his shoes. “I swear, every guy that wore a size 13, size 14, they were like, ‘Eddie, man, I gotta have these. I didn’t want to take them without you knowing, but can I have them?’ ” said Jones, one of two members of the original team to ever get his own signature Jordans: 1999’s Jumpman Quick 6 and 2000’s Jumpman Swift 6. The brand also gave Baker the Jumpman Vindicate in 1999. “I gave them so many sneakers that day, it was crazy. I had no sneakers by the time I left.”

To get a pair of even Jumpman sneakers in the early days of the brand, you had to go through one of the members of Team Jordan. “As original endorsees of the brand, we had exclusive rights to shoes that [other players] didn’t have, and shoes before they hit the market,” Finley said. “We had the ups on guys who considered themselves sneakerheads in the league, whether it was teammates or opponents. Even referees commented on my shoes at the jump ball.”

Eddie Jones (second from right) of the Los Angeles Lakers passes against the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals played on May 22, 1998, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

This was the era before the brand diversified its color palette, so most Air Jordans released in a combination of red, black and white, the team colors of the Chicago Bulls. Yet, for Team Jordan’s Jumpman sneakers, the brand blessed its ambassadors with pairs in their own team colors. Lakers purple and gold for Jones; Cavs sky blue for Anderson and Mavs royal blue for Finley; Bucks purple and green for Allen; and white and black Pro Strongs, with SuperSonics green, red and yellow accent, for Baker, who was traded from Milwaukee to Seattle a few weeks after the brand launched.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one.”

“Most people were like, ‘I want THAT color right there.’ I had colors that were against what was normal in the market, and what people would see in shoe stores anywhere in America. It created a fervor for wanting those shoes,” Allen said. “The ball kid used to come in the locker room almost every game and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so wanted to know if you could send him your shoes.’ ”

The requests didn’t only come from hoopers.

“Fat Joe literally chased me down from the time I started. That dude, he would be on my heels for shoes,” Anderson said of the Terror Squad rapper from the Bronx, New York (who in 2016 opened up his own sneaker store, which was greenlit by Michael Jordan).

Jones has his own stories: “I remember Usher asking for some sneakers!”

When they weren’t rocking exclusive Jumpmans in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Team Jordan members could be seen on the court in custom, player exclusive (PE) Air Jordans, especially after Jordan retired for the second time in 1999 and not many players were wearing his retros on the court. Jones, who landed with the Miami Heat in 2000 after a trade, received red and black Air Jordan 13s with “E. Jones” inscribed across the tongue.

Ray Allen (right) of the Boston Celtics dribbles down the court wearing a pair of green and gold Air Jordan 11s on Dec. 31, 2010, at the TD Garden in Boston.

Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Anderson loved playing in low tops, so he persuaded Jordan and the brand to make him low Air Jordan 11 Space Jams and Concords. Finley’s PE Air Jordan 16s, with “FIN 4” on the lace cover, became such a go-to shoe in his arsenal that players across the league thought they were his own signature Jordans. Baker also wore PE 16s, as well as PE Air Jordan 9s with his No. 42 on the heel. Allen’s extensive collection of PEs could fill a museum. His favorites? The green, white and gold, and red, white and gold Air Jordan 11s that the brand presented him to honor his two career NBA championships in 2008 with the Boston Celtics and 2013 with the Miami Heat.

“I gave him a, ‘Yes, sir, absolutely … I would be honored.’ It wasn’t even a thought process.”

Nowadays, there’s of course a new Team Jordan, featuring Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook, who all get the PE Air Jordan treatment like their predecessors. In the Oklahoma City Thunder’s opener to the 2017-18 NBA season, Westbrook took the floor in a pair of PE Air Jordan 32s, a little more than a month after signing a 10-year extension with Jordan Brand. The reigning NBA MVP struck the most lucrative deal in the company’s history on Sept. 13, almost 20 years to the day that Nike hosted the event to announce the launch of the Jordan Brand.

Westbrook is the new face of the now billion-dollar brand’s Team Jordan, which all began with Michael Jordan’s first pick in 1996, Ray Allen.

“I always feel very humble about being having been with Jordan Brand since day one,” said Allen. “For me, long term, it ended up being one of the best decisions I made in my career.”

The other original members would say the same. All five took a leap of faith when Jordan asked them to be a part of his vision. And the rest is history.

“We were young kids who admired M.J. so much. He was our mentor, and was putting this thing together,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be big, only because it was him. Whatever he does, it kind of works out … it’s always big. And everybody wanted to wear Jordans.”

Halftime is game time: An oral history of ‘Drumline’ Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Dallas Austin and more on the film’s legacy and its fictional — but real — HBCU marching band



Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Drumline is inspired by the life of Grammy-winning super-producer Dallas Austin, who created massive hits with Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna and more. Austin’s life in music began during his days on his high school band’s drumline, and the 2002 film is the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old hotshot New York drummer who’s recruited to join the marching band of the fictional historically black Atlanta A&T University.

Nick Cannon stars as Devon Miles, who arrives on campus and quickly outshines senior drum section leader Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts) and forces band director Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) to reconsider his approach to musicianship. In the process, Devon wins the heart of upperclassman dancer Laila, portrayed by then up-and-comer Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy). But when Devon’s ego gets the better of him, he’s kicked out of the band and forced to fight his way back onto the drumline, while learning the value of teamwork.

The film was the sophomore effort of Charles Stone III’s film career. He made a name for himself with the iconic (and CLIO Hall of Fame) “Whassup” Budweiser ad campaign, and his directorial debut was 2002’s dark and authoritative ’hood saga Paid In Full. Drumline, which was shot mainly at Clark Atlanta University, raked in a total of $57 million at the box office.

The idea of marching bands consisting of “uncool” kids was laid to rest with the premiere of Fox 2000’s Drumline. The beloved film successfully makes the case that marching bands, especially those found at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, are melting pots of artistic athleticism. Drumline showed the world that band members not only train like the pros but also compete like champions.

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during the Drumline era.

First Quarter: Drummer Boys

Before he produced Boyz II Men’s nine-times platinum 1991 Cooleyhighharmony at the age of 19, or won his first Grammy for producing TLC’s then futuristic 1999 FanMail, or worked with Madonna, The Brand New Heavies, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Fishbone, Monica, Michael Jackson and even Deion Sanders, Dallas Austin played snare drum in his high school marching band. The Atlanta (by way of Columbus, Georgia) producer joined the drumline at Columbus High School when his older brother, Claude, a section leader, graduated. With talent far beyond his freshman classification, Austin experienced pushback from the new section leader, who attempted to haze him and expose him to the band director for not being able to read music. Austin’s high school experience is the story of Drumline, a film he pitched at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. “Fox said, ‘What’s so interesting about marching bands?’” recalled Austin, who gave studio executives a peek at footage from a high school battle of the bands at the Georgia Dome. His project was greenlit, and a script, by Shawn Schepps, was drafted.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie went into turnaround hell for eight to 10 years.

Jody GersonProducer

One day, Dallas and I are having a conversation. I asked, ‘What happened with Drumline?’ He said, ‘It just didn’t go anywhere. … I haven’t heard anything.’

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie was just sitting … but I felt like the story needed to be told. … I called Quincy Jones one day, and I was like, ‘Man, what do I do?’ He wasn’t trying to be funny or nothing, but he said, ‘You ain’t gonna make it in that industry unless you got somebody who’s Jewish on your side.’

Jody GersonProducer

I said, ‘What if I brought it to my friend Wendy Finerman [Forrest Gump, I Like It Like That, The Devil Wears Prada], who has a deal at Fox, and we produce it together?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

They came to me and said, ‘What do we do?’

Jody GersonProducer

Wendy, Dallas and I went to Elizabeth Gabler, who was the head of Fox 2000. Dallas pitched her.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I actually wanted to talk Fox out of the movie — I wanted to get it back.

Jody GersonProducer

He told us these stories about how ‘halftime was game time’ in the South, and it was not about the football game as much as it was about the marching band. And about how many of his peers in the music business started their careers on drumlines.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

She goes, ‘Well, damn, we’ve got to make this movie.’

Jody GersonProducer

Elizabeth only wanted to add one thing: ‘Can we make it in college as opposed to high school?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

So we basically started from scratch.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I still have not read the first draft of Drumline … but what was originally pitched felt like a suburban band movie, where a black kid comes to a white, uptight school and brings the funk to the school. … The only thing I knew was that the main character couldn’t read. He was illiterate. I thought, ‘No way could I rewrite this.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t like the racial implications, or what I perceived to be the potential racial implications, of doing that kind of story.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The first script was too comedic.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I spoke with the band director at Florida A&M [Dr. Julian E. White]. He started mentioning so much about the practices and the culture and just the fabric of what it means to become a band member at an HBCU. He kept saying, ‘You have to see it.’ I went to … hot, muggy Southern Florida. The whole town was just vibrating from the football field at night. They’d practice late nights when the sun went down, and early mornings, because of the heat. And there were always alumni around the field … and they’ve got snakes around their neck; their school mascot is a rattlesnake. I underestimated the richness of the world inside of the band. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be something … ’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I’d passed on the first script, and then six months later or so, it came back with a historically black college, and that was more interesting. The new script allowed me the opportunity to explore percussion … and a style of marching band — the show style — that was much more alluring, more magnetic. Then, learning more about what these kids go through, it was just like a sport, you know? I went to one of the summer training camps, and it’s the exact same thing — a real grind. That’s what inspired me to do it as a full-blown, big sports movie.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

From the first conversation I had with Charles, he’s like, ‘These are musicians, but this is a sports movie.’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I got a call from Donna Isaacson, who was head of casting for 20th Century Fox. Then Charles and I had lunch at the Beverly Wilshire and talked about the character of Dr. Lee, and the scope, and how he was looking to shoot it. He talked about how he’d dramatize the element of halftime at historically black colleges.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I was excited about the fact that Hollywood was actually telling the story of a part of the experience of attending a historically black college.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It felt like such a young, hip and super unique college story about young people trying to make a name for themselves. … I just felt happy and grateful to be doing a film about a piece of American culture … and a side of American college life that hasn’t really been tapped on enough.

Jody GersonProducer

But the studio kept focusing on a white character. That we had to have a white character to market the movie.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I got a call from Fox. They said, ‘Dallas, we don’t know how to say this, but put white people in the movie.’ I said, ‘OK, how many white people do you want?’ They said, ‘We want somebody in the band. … We have to have a character, because now it’s turning into a black movie.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The studio wanted a white character in the midst of this ensemble of color in order to support or give us the amount of money we wanted. We needed $20 million to make it. They were offering us $15 million.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

First, it was a $13 million movie, which is a lot for an urban film, so to speak, at that time. I was trying to tell them, it’s not an urban film, it’s a story … it’s a team story. We started going over $13 million, because nobody knew what it was like to film 300-piece marching bands.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I said, ‘Let me see how a white kid’s story would be inside of a black marching band without making it ridiculous.’ I go to Morris Brown College one day, and I see this kid. He’s one of the cymbal players, a white kid with red hair. I said, ‘Where’d you come from?’ He said, ‘In Atlanta, down the street. I’ve always wanted to be in the band because I grew up in the neighborhood.’ We followed that story into GQ’s character.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

I got this appointment for Drumline … and Charles was like, ‘Hey, can you play the drum?’ … I wasn’t trained growing up, playing the drums, but I’m a musician. So I saw the question as, ‘Do you have rhythm?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I got rhythm.’ It’s funny that I ended up getting the role where the guy has rhythm issues.

“In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.”Charles Stone III

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I got a hold of the script and really dug the idea. Then, I met with Charles …

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Leonard wasn’t my first pick for Sean. The studio wanted Leonard because he has this beautiful, booming voice, and he’s really good-looking. I thought he was fine in his audition, but I liked Khalil Kain [Juice, Girlfriends, Love Jones] who was good. He was a real antagonist, which is what I liked. … I had to fight the head of Fox 2000. I finally gave up.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I met with Charles over at Fox. … I got there early and was hanging out. At the time, I’d just done He Got Game with Spike Lee, and I drove a Range Rover in the movie. At that time, it was the nicest car I’d ever driven. I was like, Man, when I get my money, I’d love to have one of these. So I’m sitting at Fox, looking out the window. I see this Range pull up. The window comes down, and it’s Nick Cannon.

Second Quarter: Funky Drummers

The late 1990s and early 2000s? This was before Nick Cannon was really Nick Cannon, although flashes of stardom were apparent. A stand-up comedian from San Diego, he burst onto the Hollywood scene on Nickelodeon’s youth sketch comedy series All That and teen sitcom Kenan & Kel. At age 17, through his work on All That, Cannon became the youngest writer in television history. That talent and charisma led Nickelodeon to give him his own spinoff, The Nick Cannon Show, which launched in 2002 with Cannon starring, producing and directing. While casting for Drumline’s lead role of Devon Miles, a me-against-the-world snare drummer from Harlem who secretly couldn’t read music, screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism remembers sitting in producer Wendy Finerman’s office going through audition tapes. One especially stood out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I started to hear about all of the different people who were auditioning. I really thought, I don’t know if I’m going to get it.

Jody GersonProducer

I remember a really young Lil Wayne coming in for an audition.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

T.I. auditioned, too. He represented another part of my character, in a different way. But I felt like Nick, at the time, was closer to ‘me’ because I wasn’t overly cocky. I just knew what I was doing.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I definitely saw something in Devon. It was me … I was probably the same knucklehead who thought he knew it all. That’s … why I embodied the character so well.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Nick … had something that made me vote for him. He was cute, and he was a very talented, strong actor. He was able to show the bad boy but add a vulnerability to it that made it charming. None of the other actors even hinted at vulnerability.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to Nick and Lee Thompson Young [The Famous Jett Jackson, Rizzoli & Isles].

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They auditioned me like three or four times. In the screen test, they team you up with different people. They teamed me with Zoe Saldana. I didn’t know who she was, but there was something there.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I didn’t know that much about him … but everybody said great things about him. Once I met him, he certainly did not disappoint me.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

A friend of mine, Kim Porter, I’ve been knowing her since kindergarten. By the time we got to high school … we were kind of flirty and datey. We were in band together — she played bells. … Zoe’s character, Laila, was kind of written after Kim. … I was kind of looking for a girl who reminded me of Kim and was close to what she looked like.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Laila … I felt like she was a relatable character. … I really liked how they’d written her to be — genuinely, like, a nice person.

Wendy FinermanProducer

Zoe … you could imagine somebody falling in love with her at first sight. She had a smartness to her that was really important for her character. She carried herself like a Spelman girl.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I remember me even having a crush on Zoe. … I think she had a boyfriend at the time, though …

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

He was really funny. There was a serenity to Nick’s demeanor that was very pleasant.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to between Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington. Zoe had a realism to her. I mean, she’s fine as all hell, both her and Kerry. But Kerry had a refined technique that … for me, at the time, was a little too refined.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

That screen test, it just felt right. I had actually had a conversation with Charles the night before. I had been doing Nickelodeon work, and he was like, ‘I want you to be you. I don’t want you to bring in any of the TV persona.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Nick had raw talent … a boyishness that didn’t feel manufactured, or like he was performing. He was also so passionate to get the job.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I got the call and … I’m gonna be honest, I was just happy to have booked a job. I didn’t know how big, culturally, it was going to be.

Third Quarter: Give the drummer some

Drumline’s fictional Atlanta A&T needed a legit HBCU marching band, and Dallas Austin trusted only one person to deliver. Don Roberts, then band director at Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School, received a phone call from Austin, who asked to attend one of his band’s rehearsals. Under Roberts’ tutelage, the Marching Panthers, through performances at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl, had become one of the most recognizable bands in Atlanta and the entire nation. Austin was a huge fan. “He came to band rehearsal with his entourage,” said Roberts, a former Florida A&M drum major and the executive consultant on the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. “They watched for a little while, and then he said, ‘I wanna talk to you about this project … this movie that’s gonna be coming out two years from now.’” A year later, Roberts got a call from Drumline line producer Timothy Bourne and was brought on as the film’s executive band consultant, tasked with building Atlanta A&T’s band from the ground up. He formed a small team that included two percussion instructors, Keith Sailor and Demetrius Hubert, bass drum coach Corey Lowe and dance coach Glenda Morton. Most of the Atlanta A&T band you see in Drumline is made up of high school students from Southwest DeKalb. As for the drumline? A mix of real HBCU drummers and actors put through training hell.

Wendy FinermanProducer

We assembled the drumline long before we started shooting, because we wanted to make it as authentic as possible.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I knew the work Don was doing. If he could do it with kids, then of course he could put a fictional band together that would be just as good.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

I feel like I owe them all apologies. I didn’t know actors were supposed to be pampered. I don’t want to use the word ‘hazing,’ but, man, they went through it. We treated them as we would first-year band members.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I played in my eighth-grade band. It was a little marching band. The stuff that we were doing in comparison to what we were doing in Drumline? Man, it was small potatoes. Was I prepared? Hell no.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I come from New York, and my sister stepped in high school as a cheerleader, but I didn’t really know that much about the whole Southern HBCU band and dance culture. I was in for a ride.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

We got to Atlanta in late winter of 2001, and we were in music class at Southwest DeKalb High School. Immersing ourselves in it became an all-consuming thing.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Imagine Nick Cannon in a high school band, [next to] my drum players holding the sticks. We did that.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Nick and myself arrived two weeks prior to everyone else’s first day. We were each assigned a drum coach. I had my homie Corey Lowe on the big bass drum teaching me. Nick had this dude named Snoop, who was teaching him the snare.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

The actors get there, and we see they don’t know about drumming at all. So the real drummers, we’re laughing and making jokes, but at the same time we feel some type of way. We’re like, Oh, OK. Hollywood wants to make a movie about drumlines and HBCU culture in the South, but you have actors supposed to be doing this drumming? Like, who is Nick Cannon?

“I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.”Zoe Saldana

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I didn’t want a drum double. I remember telling Charles, ‘I want to figure out how to do it myself.’ But some of the stuff was so intricate … if I had to have a double, I wanted the best. Snoop was the best.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

All Nick carried around with him throughout that time were drumsticks. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude is really in this.’ He’s beating on tables with drumsticks … he’s flipping the sticks in the air. He’s in his trailer working one of the pads, getting the sticking down.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

In the beginning he would drop them everywhere, and by the time we started shooting he knew how to move these drumsticks so swiftly through his fingers. It was great to see how committed he was to this part.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

Nick was dedicated to getting better. One time he got frustrated … and kind of threw the sticks down. I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to play anymore?’ He said, ‘Man, I’m not going to need this after this movie anyway.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, but right now you need this, so you might as well pick up the sticks, because this is your job right now.’

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

At one point … my hand had ripped open. My drum was covered in blood. I had a big gouge taken out of my finger from the repetition of using this mallet … I played through that shit.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It was literally like boot camp. We’d show up to set, eyes red. Some people would get sick … we were doing B-12 shots. I developed hard scars on the side of my abdomen — it was scar tissue from the weight and pressure of the drum.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Everybody worked really, really hard on their characters. It wasn’t like our characters had easy things to do. They were musicians, we were dancers, and we had to practice. There were a lot of rehearsals, a lot of choreography, and a lot of routines and instruments to learn to sort of maneuver.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

… I’m over here struggling with this tuba, trying to hold it and at least pretend like I know what I’m doing.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

You couldn’t be pretending to do any of this.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I was drumming, as well. … For me, it was wanting to understand exactly what the drumlines were going through and wanting to understand what my role as leader of that band was. That was taught to me by Don Roberts.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We put the baton in his hand and had to show him how to conduct. You want to look like a real band director or people were going to chew you up. … The choreographer with the dancers, Glenda Morton, she did the same thing with Zoe. She drilled her.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

Zoe worked super hard learning all the dances. She never let up.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I thought it was a little odd for her at first because there’s such a sassy, black Southern girl thing that goes along with it. But once she settled into her character, it became second nature. Anything is awkward like that at first … shaking your hips like that.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Here I am with a classical ballet background, and I just had no mobility in my hips. … I definitely trained a lot … by the end, I felt like I could drop it like it’s hot.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We worked the crap out of those guys and they took it. They were not Hollywood. They were not too big for this. They came in and they sweated. … I remember [assistant percussion director] Keith Sailor, he started calling the guys ‘The Senate.’ … We brought it back to Charles … and the next thing I knew, it was in the script.

Fourth Quarter: Different Drummers

The first time the Atlanta A&T marching band took the field on camera was week two of shooting, for “The Halftime Show.” Freshman phenom Devon Miles was named a P-1 snare on A&T’s drumline, and in the tunnel of the football stadium, he anxiously awaited his debut performance. Cinematographer Hurlbut envisioned the scene taking shape in a huge tunnel, like the one the USC football team emerges from at the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What he had to work with was the tiny tunnel of Clark Atlanta’s Panther Stadium. Capacity: 5,000 seats.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

I was like, ‘All right. So how can we make this work? … What if we just pile the whole band in that tunnel? Not just the drumline, but everyone.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

They’re in this tunnel and you can hear the thumping and the noise outside, the cheering and stuff, but it’s muffled. Then Sean and Devon have an argument, then … the football team comes pouring in, and that adds another sonic layer of commotion.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

I had the tagline of the movie during that scene … ‘Down here, it’s about the marching bands … Halftime is game time.’ It really is that serious … it’s life.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

You see Dr. Lee come in, and he goes, ‘One band, one sound!’ … You see that long tunnel of fluorescent lights … all of a sudden, this stick comes up in the frame and goes completely parallel across the image. Then, it just goes tap, tap, tap, tap. Then, it’s like, BOOM, they explode.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

Coming out of the tunnel all hype, it was cold, we were yelling, there were so many people out there. It was late at night. We were like, Let’s get it.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.

Wendy FinermanProducer

The first moment the band was together, you kind of go, ‘Oh, my God, I get this.’ The sound. Your body. Your heart. Everything is pounding internally. … It’s really a physical experience.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I had no idea how stylized this movie was going to be. … Charles and Shane did a great job.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Everything about it felt like I was in a dream, but it felt like I had walked this dream before in real life.

“When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.”Leonard Roberts

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The sound hits you like a wave. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was like, God damn, this is so inspiring. This is unbelievable. Halftime is game time. I tried to make it as big and grand as possible. This was Devon’s first game. He gets out there, he sees the crowd, he kind of starts to freak out, he fails.

In this moment, A&T’s senior drum section leader Sean Taylor, played by Leonard Roberts, steps up for a solo. After overcoming his nerves, Devon Miles, played by Nick Cannon, follows suit, stealing the spotlight from Sean. Most of Cannon’s drumming in this scene is done by Jason “Snoop” Price.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

It was stick-around-the-head, stick-around-the-head.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

You see the stuff that’s me. And those super close shots usually are Snoop.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We filmed that part a couple of times because I couldn’t feel my frickin’ fingers … my fingers were frozen. It was so cold in Atlanta. … I made the solo up and everything, but I had to go up into the studio and do it again so it could come out really crisp and clean.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

We had to make sure everything was crisp — whatever it took to make it real.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They were able to mix all the drumming in afterwards in the edit, so they didn’t miss a beat. Every time that stick hit the snare, it popped. It sang. They made me seem like I was crazy with it. As the filming went on, you saw a bunch of wide shots. If you watch the last drum battle, it’s nothing but wide shots. By that time … I’d picked up all of the cadences.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

By the time we got to the final scene? No doubles.

Fifth Quarter: Drum Machine

Drumline’s halftime scene was beautiful, but the entire film relied upon the cast and crew nailing the fictional BET Big Southern Classic. For this battle of the bands, Drumline received the keys to the Georgia Dome. Within a tight, two-day window, everybody and their mama showed up: ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott called the event from the booth. Blu Cantrell sang the national anthem. 106 & Park hosts A.J. and Free MC’d the spectacle. And rapper Petey Pablo, who drove a Bentley onto the field, performed with Morris Brown’s actual band. It seemed all of Atlanta came out to watch real-life marching bands, which also included Bethune-Cookman, Clark Atlanta and Grambling State, square off against the Hollywood-crafted Atlanta A&T. Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Southern’s Human Jukebox, however, were noticeably absent. “Both of them gave the same answers,” Don Roberts remembers, and paraphrases: Thank you for the invitation to participate; however, we don’t lose. Not in real life and not in fiction.

As the story goes, the competition ended in a tie between Morris Brown and Atlanta A&T, whose Jackson 5-inspired, old school-meets-new-school routine was nothing short of amazing. To decide which band would emerge as victor, each team’s drumlines went toe-to-toe. But as the film’s crew prepared for the final scene, which screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism modeled after the drumline battles that often unfolded near team buses after games, Stone and Hurlbut faced a problem.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The producers came to me: ‘We can’t afford to fill the Georgia Dome for more than two days … We can’t use CGI, we can’t do tiling, we can’t do any of this stuff.’ I remember going home and waking up in the middle of the night. … I go, ‘What if we turn the lights off?

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Shane came up with a great idea of shooting it like it’s a boxing match. … All the lights would drop out except for the overheads on the field.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Nick was hell-bent … ‘I’m doing all my scenes. I’m not going to have a stand-in, no double, nothing.’ The same thing with Leonard. Nick stayed up pretty much all night long in the hotel, working.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We really did stay up all night, just drilling, drilling, drilling. We kept going over the cadences. You drop the sticks? OK, pick them up again. I told Nick, ‘If you want this to just be you in the end scene, we’re going to have to grind it out.’ And he was a champ — he grinded it out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be real. You see all these movies where they cut to the double. If I’m supposed to be the best, I wanted to do everything I could do to be the best.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Sometimes scenes in movies are shot out of sequence … but this purposefully and necessarily was shot at the very end of shooting because they needed us, the five actors in the drumline, to be as on-point as humanly possible, so that we actually did beat Morris Brown’s drumline.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were so immersed in our characters, and the Atlanta A&T band, that in our minds, when we did that scene, we really believed we were better than Morris Brown.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

You could feel the tension. Everyone on the crew was like, ‘Holy shit. Our boys are going to war right now, and we’re getting to watch it.’ There was this feeling in the air of do-or-die time.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

The real-life drummers … they didn’t feel that great about actors portraying drummers on a drumline that they’d sacrificed and worked very hard to get on [in real life]. They weren’t that impressed. So it was like boxers before a fight, all that trash-talking.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I was kind of stoking that fire a little bit, supporting both sides to bring it, you know? I actually wore a T-shirt I had made … a Morris Brown T-shirt and an Atlanta A&T T-shirt, cut in half and then sewed together. It was an ugly-ass looking shirt … but I wore it in solidarity or just support for both teams.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

One of the best parts of being in the marching band was when … the drumlines would go on afterwards. … Those battles were very intense.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

To this day, one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done is that fucking one that lays on the 50-yard line, and it’s a sea of black, but the 50-yard line is lit, and those two bands come in from the side and just line up right next to each other.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was like a Rocky moment.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

But I’ll tell you straightforward, the first time we did the scene, Morris Brown kicked Atlanta A&T’s ass.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

Morris Brown fired up a drum cadence that was so sexy … it was like, If you guys win in this movie, it’s gonna be because of some Hollywood shit.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

They were a seasoned drumline that had been playing for years. We were a drumline that was built in a couple of weeks. If you look at it, we made this movie at the end of the marching season. They’d already been playing these cadences the whole season. They were so tight that it was like, what can we do to top this? We had actors in our drumline. We had actors on the snare line. We had actors on the tenor line. We had actors on the bass line. But that couldn’t hold us back.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

We had to learn new cadences at the 11th hour just because Morris Brown came in smoking.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

After Charles jumped down my throat, I jumped down my staff’s, and we all literally went around the corner at the Georgia Dome, found us a quiet spot … and the guys went to work. Nick went to work. … They took it up a whole notch and elevated the routine. When they came back, it was war. I mean, these guys were not speaking, and Charles was like, ‘Let it stay that way.’ It was like two boxers that were about to fight. These guys were not speaking.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle. … You wanted to kill them, especially after they’d smoked us in the rehearsal.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

There was an actual fight before we started filming. There was someone from Morris Brown that was on our side, playing with our group. And they checked him. Morris Brown really checked dude … like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get him over here.’ He left from our side and went over to Morris Brown.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

People were hot, and you want that.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The percussion instructor brought me over to see what Morris Brown had cooking up. … They showed me them putting their own drums aside and [simulated] playing on the other [team’s] snares, and I thought, that’s fucking awesome.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

Charles goes, ‘Morris Brown is going to go over there and bang on A&T’s drums … we need a close-up camera here, so the reaction is absolutely real.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t tell Atlanta A&T that that’s what was gonna happen.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

Beating on someone else’s drum is a big no-no. It’s a big dis … basically like they were trying to injure the other team’s quarterback.

“It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle.”Shay Roundtree

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

When it happened, I think I just remember everybody freaking out, and it was the exact reaction that Morris Brown wanted.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

I knew that was going to happen, so when they walked up, I was preparing myself, but the rest of the drummers didn’t know.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were shocked. We took that as a real insult. It was like, Oh, shit. The reactions that you saw from Nick and everybody were real.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

They looked like, What the fuck? What happened just now? Did they really just hit my drum? I really gotta stay in formation while they’re doing this?

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We had to show that ability to withstand and hold it all in. It meant a lot when it happened, and we were hot about it. We went back and said, ‘Well, we gon’ beat on their drums.’ But it was like, ‘Nah, that’s kind of redundant.’

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We added — I don’t want to say a gymnast approach, but added different elements … more jumps, more flips, not stick flips but more people doing flips, people getting on other people’s shoulders. Cymbal players getting on other people’s shoulders, doing pushups and playing at the same time, getting on your back and having somebody play the bass drum. We added a different entertaining, performance element.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

Charles would have to say, ‘Cut,’ maybe four or five different times because we were just fully focused.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Our drumline wins … but nobody cared that that’s what was written on the script.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We laid it all out there. When you see that last and final cadence, that’s probably the one I worked on the hardest, and you get to actually see. We’re in there drumming, and sticking, throwing the sticks and catching the sticks, doing everything. By that time, we were a well-oiled machine.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

What you saw was real. Those boys were in there. They were in there playing. They were doing their thing.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Atlanta A&T gave Morris Brown way more go than anybody thought they would.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I’m super proud of that scene. That scene is special.

The Postgame: The Legacy of Drumline

In 2014, the Atlanta A&T marching band returned in Drumline: A New Beat. Originally conceived as a miniseries, it became a made-for-TV movie, told through the lens of a young female drummer who arrives on campus hoping to revitalize the fictional HBCU’s once-revered drumline. In the movie, Nick Cannon and Leonard Roberts both reprise their original roles as the now long-graduated Devon Miles and Sean Taylor. Cannon, Wendy Finerman and Jody Gerson are all credited as producers, and Don Roberts once again serves as executive band consultant. “It was executed well,” said Cannon, “but I think the higher-ups didn’t give it an opportunity to thrive as a television show.” Fifteen years since the film’s debut, the legacy of Drumline is undeniable.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

The legacy of Drumline grows, and continues to grow. No one saw it coming. They thought it was just this little film about this cool subculture.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It ended up being one of the best-reviewed films that year … very successful, and I cried when that happened, because I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Who would’ve thought that Fox’s little project in Atlanta was going to be the epic cult classic, and beyond cult classic now, that it is today? It’s been run on TV for so long that actually, 15 years later, I get recognized more now than I did in the years right after it came out, because it’s so embedded in people’s consciousnesses.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

We were told we were all a part of a little movie that ended up being a very big thing in America. A lot of young people took to it and supported it.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I’m amazed that now it’s getting to the point where … you can actually see another generation discover Drumline.

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.”GQ

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘How do you feel to have influenced a whole generation of young people?’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I’m really proud of what Drumline spawned into the culture.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I’ll be honest. I thought that really only our community, meaning the black community, was going to be able to appreciate it. … Historically black colleges, the experience of bands, that’s something that’s deeply rooted within our culture and something that, prior to Drumline, was never really talked about and never really exposed.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

People come up to me to this day, not one of them who are African-American, and they tell me how we introduced a subculture to them that they never knew existed … but that it inspired them.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We were taking something from black culture and showing it to the world, so it had to be right. It had to be correct. This was the first time that the world was going to see anything about an HBCU marching band or drumline.

Wendy FinermanProducer

No one knew about drumlines. Now they’re common knowledge.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Florida A&M thought the movie was about them. North Carolina A&T thought the movie was about them. Southern thought it was about them. Jackson State thought it was about them. Everybody sees themselves in the movie. … When I talk to these college band directors, and they see their band program in Drumline, I just feel honored that we honored them.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was part music movie, part sports movie, part superhero origin story. All of those things wrapped up in one.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

It’s the fifth quarter. We were just as important, if not more important than the football team. It was a music movie, a sports movie, all in one. That’s why it was really special.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

It’s a sports film — the discipline, and the practice. It goes hand in hand with football. It just wasn’t as cool to be in the marching band until Drumline.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Dallas Austin: Runs Atlanta’s Urban Angels Studios (formerly known as D.A.R.P. Studios), while also recording out of the United Kingdom’s TAPE London studio. He is also one half of the band, Follow the Nomad, with Naz Tokio.

Nick Cannon: Second-year student at Howard University, executive producer and host of MTV’s Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ’N Out, founder/CEO of Ncredible Entertainment.

Candace Carey: Stars as “Canbe” in the indie film Ratchetville, scheduled to release on Netflix in winter of 2017.

Tina Gordon Chism: Made directorial debut with 2013’s Peeples, screenplay writer/executive producer for Hulu’s 2017 single-camera comedy pilot Crushed and screenplay writer for the forthcoming Nappily Ever After.

Wendy Finerman: Executive producer of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and Lifetime’s new Loved by the 10th Date; founder/president of Wendy Finerman productions.

GQ: Founder and creative director of Q Brothers, a collective that translates classic pieces of literature into hip-hop musicals, which he co-writes, directs, and stars in. He and his brothers’ plays have toured the world and run off-Broadway.

Jody Gerson: Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing.

Shane Hurlbut: Recent cinematography work includes 2015’s Gabriele Muccino-directed Fathers and Daughters and 2017’s The Babysitter and The Adventurers.

Orlando Jones: Recent work includes starring in films Book of Love and Madiba, the STARZ series American Gods and executive producing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands: War Within the Cartel for Amazon and Twitch.

Earl Poitier: Recent appearances include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Shots Fired and Baywatch.

Jason Price: Founder of entertainment company P.O.P. (Power of Percussion) UNPLUGGED, and artistic director of P.O.P.’D (Power of Percussion & Drums) entertainment ensemble.

Don Roberts: Director and CEO of international stage show DRUMLine Live; executive band consultant of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and BET series The Quad.

Leonard Roberts: Recent appearances include American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Magicians.

Shay Roundtree: Recently starred in 2016’s Save Me from Love.

Zoe Saldana: Stars as “Gamora” in 2018 Marvel film Avengers: Infinity War; filming Avatar 2, set to release in 2020.

Charles Stone III: Director of the forthcoming Uncle Drew, starring Kyrie Irving, LilRel Howry, Shaquille O’Neal, Lisa Leslie, and Reggie Miller. In theaters June 29, 2018.

Jason Weaver: Has appeared in 2006’s ATL, 2010’s Lottery Ticket, the animated series The LeBrons (2011–2014), and a 2016 episode of Black-ish.