‘Art of a Champion’ exhibit celebrates best playoff sneakers from Nike, Jordan and Converse Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving represented the three brands — and kicks they made iconic

NEW YORK — Back in 2012, a white mouthguard worn by LeBron James throughout one of his first playoff runs as a member of the Miami Heat featured one simple inscription: “XVI.” What those Roman numerals signify, 16, means a lot to the King, and should to every player in the NBA. That’s because 16 wins in the postseason are what it takes to earn the distinction of being called an NBA champion.

On Monday, Nike, Air Jordan and Converse honored the upcoming 2018 playoffs, as well as that coveted number James put on his mouthpiece several years ago as motivation, with the exclusive “Art of a Champion” exhibit at Nike’s New York headquarters in midtown Manhattan. It featured a collection of 16 different pairs of sneakers from the three brands, representing multiple generations of basketball. Each pair — from a revamped version of the black-and-white low-top Converse that Bill Russell sported in Game 7 of the 1962 NBA Finals, to the “Pass the Torch” Air Jordan 1s that celebrate Kawhi Leonard’s winning Finals MVP in 2014 — were put on display below unique portraits of the shoes, crafted by a group of artists.

Other sneakers in the collection included Kobe Bryant’s “Final Seconds” Nike Kobe 1 Protros, Kevin McHale’s “No Easy Buckets” Converse Fastbreak high-tops, Scottie Pippen’s “Trifecta” Nike Air Maestro IIs, Rasheed Wallace’s “Rude Awakening” Nike Air Force 1 High Retros, Maya Moore’s “Rook to Queen” Air Jordan 11 lows, Wes Unseld’s “Intangibles” Converse Star Player Oxes, Moses Malone’s “Fo’ Fi’ Fo” Nike Air Force 1 Low Retros, Kevin Durant’s “Battle Tested” Nike Zoom KD IVs, LeBron James’ “25 Straight” Nike Zoom LeBron Soldier 1s, Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s “The Scoop” Converse Pro Leather mid-tops, Michael Jordan’s “Last Shot” Air Jordan 14s, Ray Allen’s “Locked and Loaded” Air Jordan 28s and “Gold Standard” Nike Air Force 270s. Every pair will be available at retail from April to June.

Before the gallery was unveiled, ESPN’s Cari Champion hosted a panel discussion with Allen, Wallace and Erving, who shared their favorite playoff memories from their careers and the shoes they wore at the time. Allen repped Air Jordan (he’s been signed to the brand since its inception in 1996). Wallace, an Air Force 1 aficionado during his 15-year career in the league, talked Nike. And Dr. J, the O.G. of the bunch, reminisced about the old-school swag of Converse.

“It’s a lot to be said about this shoe, as well as the history of Converse,” said Erving, pointing to the Converse on his feet. “Growing up in the ’50s and ’60, the inspiration came from Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.”

With the reporters, influencers and sneakerheads in attendance, Allen, Erving and Wallace stuck around to detail the experiences they had playing in their signature shoes that the gallery featured. In the middle of the exhibit stood the WNBA’s silver championship trophy and NBA’s gold Larry O’Brien Trophy, which many of the 16 pairs on display helped players obtain.

A history of Christmas Day game debuts As Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas

 

As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”

For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.

Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”

The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.

Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.

Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?

 

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1956 vs. Philadelphia Warriors (89-82, L)

Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds

Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.

 

Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers

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Christmas 1958 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-97, L)

Line: 12 points

Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.

 

Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors

Christmas 1959 vs. Syracuse Nationals (129-121, W)

Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds

Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.

 

Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals

Christmas 1960 vs. Detroit Pistons (126-119, W)

Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists

Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).

 

Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1961 vs. Cincinnati Royals (141-127, W)

Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks

Christmas 1971 vs. Detroit Pistons (120-118, L in OT)

Line: 38 points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.

 

Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Christmas 1971 vs. Pittsburgh Condors (133-126, W) | Christmas 1976 vs. New York Knicks (105-104, W)

Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds

Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.

 

Bernard King, Utah Jazz

Christmas 1979 vs. Denver Nuggets (122-111, W)

Line: 7 points

Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.

 

Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1980 vs. New York Knicks (117-108, W)

Line: 28 points

Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.

 

Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers

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Christmas 1981 vs. Phoenix Suns (104-101, W)

Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals

Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.

 

Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks

Christmas 1982 vs. Washington Bullets (97-91, W)

Line: 7 points, 2 blocks

Only in his rookie season, Dominique Wilkins, the man known as The Human Highlight Reel, would have far better games than this in his Hall of Fame career. Hey, it happens.

 

Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)

Christmas 1984 vs. Detroit Pistons (109-108, W, Sixers)

Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)

These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.

 

Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Christmas 1985 vs. Boston Celtics (113-104, W 2OT)

Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds

Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1986 vs. New York Knicks (86-85, L)

Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks

Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.

 

Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1990 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-86, W)

Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals

While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.

 

David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1992 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (103-94, W)

Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds

What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.

 

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Christmas 1993 vs. Phoenix Suns (111-91, L)

Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks

Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.

 

Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic

Christmas 1993 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-93, L)

Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)

Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 1994 vs. Denver Nuggets (105-96, L)

Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)

The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.

Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.

 

Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons

Christmas 1996 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-83, L)

Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds

Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1996 vs. Phoenix Suns (108-87, W)

Line: 0 points, 1 rebound

Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1999 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (99-93, L)

Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds

This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Christmas 1999 vs. New York Knicks (101-90, W)

Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.

Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Christmas 2000 vs. Indiana Pacers (103-93, L)

Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds

An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Christmas 2001 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (88-82, L)

Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.

 

Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors

Christmas 2001 vs. New York Knicks (102-94, L)

Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals

By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.

 

Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2002 vs. New Jersey Nets (117-81, L)

Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds

The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Christmas 2003 vs. Sacramento Kings (111-103, W)

Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks

While we’re pretty sure he didn’t bring his patented “work plate” with him to the arena 14 years ago, our favorite German OG, Dirk Nowitzki, feasted on Chris Webber and the Kings.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2003 vs. Orlando Magic (113-101, L in OT)

Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals

Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Christmas 2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (104-102, W in OT)

Line: 29 points, 10 assists

As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.

 

Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 2007 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (89-79, L)

Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.

Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2008 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (92-83, L)

Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)

In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.

 

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)

Christmas 2008 (88-68, Magic W)

Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)

CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.

 

Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Christmas 2009 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (107-96, L)

Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists

Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

Christmas 2010 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (96-80, W)

Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds

Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

 

Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

Christmas 2010 vs. Denver Nuggets (114-106, W)

Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)

Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Christmas 2010 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (109-102, W)

Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists

Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.

 

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2014 vs. Miami Heat (101-91, L)

Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

Christmas 2014 vs. New York Knicks (102-91, W)

Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists

Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.

 

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 2013 vs. Houston Rockets (111-98, L)

Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds

This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.

 

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Christmas 2015 vs. Miami Heat (94-88, L in OT)

Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks

Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Christmas 2016 vs. Boston Celtics (119-114, L)

Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds

With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Christmas 2016 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (112-100, L)

Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds

The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.

It’s New York Fashion Week, and Russell Westbrook takes Manhattan The superstar tours the city in support of his new style book — and he has a new fashion line on the way

Thirty-five minutes before Russell Westbrook graces the stage with Fern Mallis, the celebrated creator of New York Fashion Week, there’s a line stretching down the street. The vibrant lot awaits Westbrook, standing underneath scaffolding that overhangs the 900-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This month, the six-time NBA All-Star releases his Russell Westbrook: Style Drivers (Rizzoli), a toast to the NBA All-Star’s style at work and in life.

Westbrook himself has on casual athletic gear — a far cry from the pink sweatpants and tucked-in Gucci T-shirt he wore for an earlier taped appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During a wide-ranging conversation, he and Mallis even squeeze in talk about his very specific preparation of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: “toasted wheat bread, strawberry jam and creamy peanut butter, before slicing it right down the middle.” He definitely has an appetite for going against the grain.

Westbrook arrives at Calvin Klein Collection fashion show.

Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images

And his talk with Mallis is sold out.

It’s a balmy September evening, and the crowd reflects racial diversity, age diversity, gender diversity and style diversity. Black pants are splattered with polka dots. Blood-red sneakers paired with pristine suits. Button-down plaid shirts and tan chinos are set off by Air Jordan XXXIs. Rabid NBA fans? Meh. Perhaps. This crowd challenges the traditional in favor of originality. Because that’s Westbrook.

“I’m in the process of starting my own stuff, my own line. I’m looking forward to finishing that up. … That’s my next project.”

Westbrook the two-time NBA All-Star MVP. The triple-double machine. The expectation is that he’ll lead the Oklahoma City Thunder back to the playoffs this season with new teammate Paul George. But looming larger than the elite athleticism that makes him a superstar is his game-night runway flair. Westbrook turns heads as much with his style as he does through his one-man fast-breaking ability.

Westbrook engaged the folks who came to see him, if from a distance. One click-clacked through the concert hall in sky-high Louboutin stilettos — with a 10-year-old in tow, in an orange OKC jersey. One hilariously booed as if on cue at the one mention of Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s former teammate. Westbrook revealed that he loves the postmodern mix of high and low — Topshop with Gucci, a thrift store find with Louis Vuitton. And he said he has no fashion regrets; he loved that kilt-over-slacks look he sported at last year’s NBA opener. But he’ll never, ever wear a romper, he says before laughing. A jumpsuit, yes. But no romper, ever.

Mallis, an NBA fan, rattled off Westbrook’s stats and boasted about his triple-doubles before dragging her glasses down her nose in mock dramatic flair. Westbrook was happily slumped down in a cushy chair. She looked up from the podium and quipped, “How many of my fashion audience even knows what that means?”

Russell Westbrook attends Kith Sport fashion show.

Chance Yeh/Getty Images

It was fun high fashion meets NBA elite meets new basketball fans and the most forward of fashion looks. Because of Westbrook, it all converged nicely.

“I’ll always tell [my son], like I tell everyone else, to be who you are,” he said the next day. “Everybody’s different in their own way … be who you are, and own it. That’s the most important thing for me. I’m going to continue to be who I am and own it. And be a role model to my son. And to some people around the world, as well.”


The next night, Westbrook was the special guest at a private cocktail reception on the third level (men’s ready-to-wear) of Barneys New York Downtown flagship before a book signing on the marbled main floor: bags, caps, jewelry. There the line of fans wrapped snakelike among the Want Les Essentiels purses and Louboutin backpacks, and down the sidewalk as well, waiting while he talked to a small group of fashion insiders.

The people who congregated at Barneys and at the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufman were mostly of the fashionable ilk, although the number of OKC jerseys and those rocking athletic streetwear were ever-present, and many marveled at Westbrook’s progressive, fashion-forward sensibilities. He dares to wear bright pink or printed shirts and other items that aren’t exactly code for straight male who earns his livelihood in what reads as the most masculine of spaces.

“I have a ‘Why Not?’ motto and mindset. It’s what I stand by, and it’s what I believe in.”

“I definitely didn’t encounter any bullying or anything,” Westbrook told a fan of feedback he’s received from his fashion choices. “I’ve definitely encountered people talking about what I was wearing, and what it may look like. And honestly, how I’ve dealt with it is, I’ve stayed positive.”

To say the least. And he can pinpoint the moment people realized how forward the guard is. “I had an outfit I wore in the [2012] playoffs,” he saids while his listeners sipped on champagne or white wine and munched on caviar Bellinis topped with creme fraiche, deconstructed BLTs and bite-sized kale Caesar salads, “a Lacoste fishing [lures] shirt, red glasses. From that moment, it became a thing. And it progressed into other things.” In 2014, Westbrook cut his fashion-savvy teeth via a partnership with the Barneys New York. For his Westbrook XO brand, he worked in tandem with Public School, Del Toro Shoes, Tumi luggage, jeweler Jennifer Fisher and even a fragrance with Byredo.

In conversation with Barneys CEO Daniella Vitale, who hosted the cocktail party, he said the first time he was able to flex his creative muscles was with Barneys. He learned a lot, and it upped his creative confidence. Westbrook also announced that “soon” he’ll launch a streetwear line. “I’m in the process of starting my own stuff, my own line. I’m looking forward to finishing that up,” he said. “That’s my next project.”

And this is aside from a new NBA season in which all eyes will be on Westbrook as he follows the spellbinding season he had last year, when he joined the legendary Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history who have averaged a triple-double for a season. Hours after his book signing, ESPN reported that Westbrook inked a lucrative 10-year extension with Jordan Brand — news the star athlete was clearly trying to keep under wraps.

But he’s constantly watching and working on both of his crafts: basketball and fashion. “I like to sit back and … watch each individual piece,” he said, “and see what the designer was seeing, and try to embrace that and understand the fashion. … I like to … watch the models go by and understand [the designers’] vision, what they were seeing and how they wanted to see the show play out. That’s what I’m trying to understand.”

He also understands that his fashion choices aren’t necessarily for everyone. And that, to him, is the beauty of fashion.

“I have a ‘Why not?’ motto and mindset,” Westbrook said at Barneys. “It’s what I stand by and what I believe in. It’s the name of my foundation. That’s just how I am. Who you are and what you believe in, your confidence and your swagger. It’s about you, regardless of what other people say or what other people think. If you believe what you’re wearing is OK, then go ahead and do it.”

How Martin Luther King Jr.’s death affected the NBA On the eve of Russell vs. Chamberlain, MLK Jr. was assassinated — could the game go on?

News didn’t travel as fast in 1968. Radio, evening news and morning papers were still decades away from being taken over by the internet. And the most effective form of social media was still word of mouth.

But it was a large crowd, mostly black, that gathered in a poor section of Indianapolis to hear Robert F. Kennedy speak. The night was April 4 — hours before the NBA’s Eastern and Western Division finals were set to tip off — and the crowd was upbeat, as many expected the senator to soon be the second Kennedy to call 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home.

It was evident that no one in the crowd had yet heard of the assassination that had happened earlier that evening. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination would bring black America to its knees and the country at large to a crossroads. Kennedy’s police escort knew, of course, and refused to follow him into the neighborhood, fearing a volatile reaction from the crowd. Outrage had already sprouted in various pockets of the country. Why wouldn’t Indianapolis be next?

The Democratic presidential hopeful handed down the news from the back of a flatbed truck. King was dead.

The crowd shrieked in horror. For black America, it was the bloody zenith of a decade sinister enough to rob it of every leader who seemingly had its best interests at heart: Robert Kennedy’s older brother, President John F. Kennedy, civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Malcolm X — plus the countless men and women who sacrificed their lives in both the civil rights movement and what felt like a generational genocide thanks to the Vietnam War. King, of course, was the civil rights movement’s and, alongside Muhammad Ali, the anti-war movement’s most recognizable face. And the most prominent voice of a race that has seemed always behind the eight ball of equality.

His last words as the bullet — per CBS’ Walter Cronkite, describing the civil rights titan’s final moment — “exploded in his face” on the second floor of Memphis, Tennessee’s, Lorraine Motel, “Ohhh!” King collapsed.

A man stands on balcony of Lorraine Motel in the approximate place Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was killed April 4, 1968. In the background is the rooming house from which the fatal bullet was fired. In the courtyard beneath the balcony are reporters, police officials and others.

Getty Images

Robert Kennedy — who himself would die from an assassin’s bullet just 63 days later — delivered the defining speech of his career. As any savvy politician would, he preached peace in a time of carnage. Responding with violence isn’t what King would have wanted, he cautioned. But Kennedy also sympathized with the anger. The ’60s had robbed him of a piece of his soul as well.

“What was [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] title? Why should we call off the game?”

“For those of you who are black, and are tempted to … be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” Kennedy said in the unrehearsed speech. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond and go beyond these rather difficult times.”

Indianapolis remained calm the evening of April 4 thanks in large part to Kennedy’s grace, humility and vulnerability. But Newark, New Jersey; Baltimore; Chicago; Boston; Detroit; Kansas City, Missouri; and Washington, D.C., were far less peaceful. The assassination had been announced at 8:19 p.m. in D.C. By 9:25, the first window was shattered. In Atlanta, Gov. Lester Maddox refused to lower the flag for King. He reportedly told state troopers to “shoot [protesters] down and stack them up” should they try to enter the state capitol. Maddox later lowered the flag only after being required by federal mandate.

King had spoken out against segregation, unfair housing, income and economic disparity. Now he was gone. Cities rioted out of hopelessness more than anger. Fear more than fury. And desperation more than enmity. Their pleas for justice had long gone unaddressed. America found itself involved in a war that millions opposed, barreling toward its most important presidential election in years, and the blood of the civil rights movement stained its streets. No one knew the direction the country was headed in — including the NBA. Its playoffs were set to resume the next day.


Boston Celtics player-coach Bill Russell was in shock Thursday night and all day Friday in his Philadelphia hotel room. He hadn’t slept. His mind raced. He was one of the most visible athletes involved in the civil rights movement, and for him King’s assassination was a kind of confirmation. “Stuff that I said 10 years ago, that everybody dismissed as an angry Negro talking, is coming out today,” Russell said in Aram Goudsouzian’s 2010 King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.

King hadn’t been dead 24 hours and the NBA was in an awkward position: to play, or not to play? The equivalent of today’s conference finals were slated to tip off April 5. This wasn’t the first time a major sports league had been directly affected by a high-profile assassination. Five years earlier, the NFL played after President Kennedy’s assassination — a decision infamously dubbed “Black Sunday” and one former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would define as “the worst decision I ever made.”

Even in 1968, the NBA was a majority-black league. Its biggest superstars — Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Nate Thurmond, Dave Bing, Elgin Baylor and more — were black. Jerry West was the league’s only bona fide white superstar. The black players, like black Americans as a whole, wrestled with grief, shock and rage. King was more than a civil rights leader. His work and his words were reflections of their stature. His murder was not only personal. It was affirmation of the value of black life. Or the lack thereof.

“Russell saw it as, black people continue to give to America. [Black people] were sort of the most loyal Americans of all,” Goudsouzian said. “And [King] gets taken away from us.”

In the final months of King’s life, his philosophies shifted. Tactics and philosophies had fractured the civil rights movement throughout the decade, and Black Power was usurping nonviolence as a popular resistance. King focused on the economic discrimination in America of poor people of all ethnicities. He openly opposed the Vietnam War. Exactly a year before he was killed, on April 4, 1967, King spoke in a manner very similar to Ali’s refusal to fight. “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

The assassination had been announced at 8:19 p.m. in D.C. By 9:25, the first window was shattered.

King also openly praised Harry Edwards’ Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) platform. He saw eye to eye with the OPHR with regard to it reinstating Ali, restricting apartheid South Africa from Olympic participation, removing International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, the hiring of black coaches and administrators by the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the desegregation of the New York Athletic Club.

And so with all this in mind, Russell still had a game to play. His Celtics were set to square off against a familiar opponent, Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers. Russell vs. Chamberlain was the premier rivalry in basketball. Their statures made them larger than life, and their exploits made them hardwood gods. Russell and Chamberlain carried the league on their broad shoulders throughout the decade, although the image of both couldn’t have been any more different. Russell was the thoughtful and defiant sociopolitical defensive savant who participated in the March on Washington and led the Boston dynasty via actions and words. Chamberlain was the 7-foot freak of nature and dashing playboy who compiled stats with ease but could never eliminate Russell and the Celtics to cement his place as champion.

Wilt Chamberlain (No. 13) of the Philadelphia 76ers posts up against Bill Russell (No. 6) of the Boston Celtics during a game played in 1967 at the Boston Garden in Boston.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

The previous year, Chamberlain and the Sixers had finally defeated Boston en route to the ’67 championship. After defeating the Celtics, the crowd chanted, “Boston is dead!” and sparked dozens of cigars — mimicking the victory routine of Celtics coaching great Red Auerbach. Philly’s 68-13 record (then the best ever), along with the championship, earned that season’s team an eventual Hall of Fame nod as the best team of the NBA’s first 25 years.

The Sixers returned the following season with hopes of establishing a “mini-dynasty” of their own. Visions of the Celtics’ demise were all but etched in stone. Philly was the new Boston, and Chamberlain had finally dethroned Russell. Their 1968 East finals clash was to be a mere formality. Until the course of American history changed on the second floor of a Memphis motel balcony.

Russell called his longtime friend and rival Chamberlain in the early afternoon of April 5. Though never at the forefront of the civil rights movement, Chamberlain was distraught and shaken. Neither wanted to play in Game 1, but there was hesitation about postponing. Tip-off was only hours away, and neither team knew exactly what it wanted to do. Race had reared its head in the Boston meeting. Celtics forward Bailey Howell wondered why the idea was even being discussed. “What was [King’s] title? Why should we call off the game?” he asked, angering many black players.

For the Sixers’ part, Chamberlain and Wali Jones voted not to play. Chet Walker refused to vote, calling it a “dreary charade” on the heels of the league disrespecting its black players. The sentiment was common. NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson was at a University of Cincinnati banquet on the evening of April 4. “I don’t think the game should have been played [a day later], but that’s the NBA for you,” Robertson told The Undefeated. “There was not a regard for Dr. King. He was almost like an enemy to many in America. But he was a savior to a lot of us.”

Savior or not, the decision was made. Game 1 of the 1968 Eastern Division finals went on as scheduled. There were safety concerns around the city that if the teams did not play, Philadelphia would add its name to the growing list of cities in revolt.


Leonard Koppett covered Game 1 for The New York Times. The crowd of 14,412 filled the Philadelphia Spectrum, reacting in “normal fashion.” But “shock and despondency” was the mood of most of the players. Though the effort on the court was at its expected level, the image of King’s dying body in a pool of blood covered the arena like a layer of fog.

Similar to a performance by James Brown — ironically in Boston — that same night, Russell, Chamberlain, the Celtics and the Sixers were temporary bandages on an open wound. Boston defeated a dejected Philly squad 127-118. Chamberlain finished with 33 points and 25 rebounds, but fell short to Russell’s 22 rebounds and John Havlicek’s 35 points and 11 assists. All stats and no win — history was repeating itself with Chamberlain. The pair of NBA giants attended King’s funeral the following Tuesday, a moment that would spark Chamberlain’s brief stint in politics.

Bill Russell (No. 6) of the Boston Celtics posts up against Wilt Chamberlain (No. 13) of the Philadelphia 76ers during a game played in 1968 at the Boston Garden in Boston.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Sunday’s Game 2, however, was postponed, originally scheduled on what President Lyndon B. Johnson dubbed the national day of mourning. Major League Baseball followed suit, postponing its season openers between the Minnesota Twins and Washington Senators and Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros. But while athletes grieved with the rest of the country, they were also expected to play peacemaker in communities forced to deal with vitriol of America’s bigotry. Athletes involved in the Negro Industrial and Economic Union (NIEU), which Jim Brown helped organize in 1965, were asked to “move into the streets and ghettos and try to stem the tide of racial unrest,” an April 8 Associated Press report stated. Cleveland Browns guard John Wooten, the NIEU’s executive director, noted that 35 to 40 athletes would be involved in the initiative, including the Chicago Bears’ Gale Sayers and Russell.

The haze over black America hadn’t lifted by the start of Wednesday’s Game 2. “The whole day felt like a daze — like being underwater or in humid weather,” a volunteer at King’s funeral recalled to author Rebecca Burns in 2011’s Burial for a King. “You’re aware of the moment but not aware fully of all that is around you.”

 

After the funeral, the Eastern finals resumed. Boston, having stolen Game 1 on the road in Philadelphia, proceeded to lose the next three, giving the Sixers a 3-1 lead. Philly had resumed control of the series. They resembled the team that had become the king of the hill in the Eastern Conference, until Boston mounted an epic surge, rallying from 3-1 to win the series in seven.

“If they hadn’t stolen that first game when Philadelphia was kinda discombobulated, who knows what that series looks like?” said Goudsouzian. “Then the Celtics beat the Lakers and Russell’s legend is burnished. Then he wins again in 1969, giving him two titles as a player-coach. There’s a basketball dimension to the story that’s obviously not as important, of course. But it’s still sort of interesting from … a sports perspective.” Logic says if Philly were the better team, the series dictates as much. They would have won in five or six or, worst case, prevailed in seven. It is intoxicating to ponder the possibilities. With the Boston demon officially exorcised, would Philly have repeated? And if they repeat, does Chamberlain remain in his hometown of Philadelphia, thus giving rise to a new Eastern Conference powerhouse? It just wasn’t meant to be.

King’s assassination ruptured the future of civil and human rights. King was dead at 39, his legacy partially realized by the election and re-election of former President Barack Obama. Yet, despite the romanticization of his life and words, the bullet that shredded King’s neck and the fallout thereafter affected every fabric of society. Even the NBA and its most storied rivalry.

How an all-black high school team starring Oscar Robertson changed Hoosier Hysteria The Crispus Attucks Tigers are back in the Indiana state finals for the first time in 58 years

Long before there was March Madness – which is now a multibillion-dollar industry – there was the more localized phenomenon known as Hoosier Hysteria: the run-up to the Indiana state high school basketball championship.

High school basketball in Indiana has long been akin to religion. When I was playing at Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks High School, Butler University Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, site of the final rounds of the tournament, was the cathedral. And the state title was and still is the holy grail.

Until 1997, all Indiana high schools, whether they had 100 students or 2,500, were in one single class and competed for the same title. No matter how poorly a school might have fared during the regular season, it got a second chance when the four rounds of the state tournament began.

Today there are four classes instead of one, ranked according to school size from 4A down to 1A. The tournament’s final rounds were moved from Butler Fieldhouse in 1971 and, since 2000, have been played in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA Indiana Pacers and WNBA Indiana Fever. And for the first time in 58 years, the Crispus Attucks Tigers are in the state final on Saturday, competing in Class 3A this time around. You can bet I’ll be there to cheer them on.

The bad, bad Tigers are back.

Breaking a 44-year drought

Before 1955, teams from smaller cities and towns, some so small they were barely on the map, routinely won the state title. No school from Indianapolis – Indiana’s largest city and its the state capital – had won the championship in 44 years of organized high school basketball.

But in 1955, our Crispus Attucks Tigers had an opportunity to change all that – because we were in the state’s Final Four for the first time.

Attucks had been a source of pride for Indianapolis’ black community ever since its doors opened. Our parents, our teachers and our community had taught us pride in ourselves, inner dignity and resilience in the face of adversity. Our school was known as much for its academic excellence as its athletic achievements.

We had lost only one game all season, and we were not going to lose this game. We were comfortable playing at Butler Fieldhouse, where we played many of our “home” games anyway. (Our school gym was too small to host basketball games.) And we were eagerly looking forward to the traditional champion’s ride on the fire truck and a big celebration downtown. Or so we thought, anyway.

No Indiana farm boys here

Butler Fieldhouse was packed with 15,000 fans on that Saturday night, but it seemed eerily quiet as we took the floor against Gary Roosevelt High School, led by burly center Wilson Eison and future NBA star Dick Barnett.

Even Attucks fans, confined as always to a corner of the fieldhouse and surrounded by police, seemed more subdued than usual as they cheered for their “bad, bad Tigers.”

For the first time, two all-black schools were meeting for the state championship. Not only might Indianapolis have its first state champion – Indiana would have its first all-black state champion. That would also be a first for the entire country.

The mythological image of Indiana basketball for many years was that of the skinny farm boy shooting at a rusty hoop nailed above the barn door. But there were no skinny farm boys on the court that night. Both teams were made up of kids who had developed their games on inner-city public playgrounds.

We had changed the game. We had proven emphatically that our up-tempo style of basketball could be just as effective as the plodding, feet-on-the-floor approach many coaches still favored.

And we thought we might have also changed the culture as well. Our fan base was now spreading throughout the city. Luke Walton, the radio play-by-play announcer, was now referring to us as “Indianapolis Attucks.” Perhaps we had opened a small crack in the walls of segregation and discrimination that stood at the time.

The Klan ‘brings us together’

From the time it opened in 1927, Crispus Attucks had been a segregated school. Front organizations for the Ku Klux Klan had pressured the Indianapolis school board into moving black high school students out of the general student population into a separate school of their own. All-black high schools were built in Gary and Evansville as well.

Even in the mid-’50s, the Klan had tremendous influence in Indiana politics, business and education. At one point, an estimated 25 percent of all white men in Indiana were members. One of the Grand Dragons of the Klan was based in Indianapolis, from which he oversaw a fiefdom of 23 states.

Our school was named for a man of color – part African-American, part Native American – who was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and by extension, the American Revolution. According to legend, the Klan marched past our school in a victory parade when the school opened.

But the move to segregate us backfired spectacularly at that time.

Attucks was overcrowded, and its facilities substandard compared with other schools. But most Attucks teachers had advanced degrees, and some had doctorates. Excluded from teaching at white schools, these dedicated men and women were determined to create a superior academic environment within the confines of a segregated school system.

Academics shaped everyone at Attucks

The impetus for academic excellence came from Russell A. Lane, Attucks’ principal from 1930 to 1957. He had a law degree and a doctorate in education, and believed that Attucks should set the standard for secondary school education. He expanded the curriculum accordingly, with college prep courses included.

Lane also emphasized cultural pride, discipline and respect. Athletes were students first and foremost, and enjoyed no special privileges. They were also reminded that any time they stepped on a court or an athletic field, they were representing not just Attucks, but the entire black community.

And while we may not have been aware of it at the time, our quest for a breakthrough on behalf of all-black schools was part of the larger social context of the mid-’50s.

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education had legally put an end to school segregation in 1954, although it would take years for the law to be fully implemented.

Earlier in 1955, Marian Anderson – denied the right to sing in Washington’s Constitution Hall 16 years previously – had become the first black artist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

Later that year, Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi, and his killers were never brought to justice. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and set off the Montgomery bus boycott that accelerated the civil rights movement.

Ray Crowe speeds up the game

On that evening in Butler Fieldhouse, however, all we were thinking about was winning a state championship. Attucks had come close once previously, reaching the final four in 1951 in Ray Crowe’s very first year as head coach.

For its first six years, Attucks was not allowed to play against member schools in the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA), and it took 15 years to gain admittance to IHSAA membership and the “Hoosier Hysteria” that was state tournament competition.

Before 1951, Attucks had been focused more on “legitimacy,” on gaining acceptance in the larger community. Its basketball teams played a technically sound but passive, nonconfrontational game so as not to upset anyone.

All that changed when Crowe, a math and physical education teacher, was promoted from assistant coach into the head coach position and, against all odds, launched Attucks’ period of greatest athletic success.

Crowe was totally on board with the Attucks philosophy of academic excellence above all else. That did not mean he was comfortable with the status quo when it came to basketball. He noted that “Some of the older teachers still thought we needed to avoid being too aggressive and confrontational. I needed to make them understand that the worst disgrace we could bring to the school was to lose when we had a chance to win.”

Crowe installed the more up-tempo style of play that his players were already playing on the playgrounds. It was faster, louder, more stop-and-go, more improvised – a style that, like jazz, allowed for individual excellence within a team context.

You had to be in great shape to play for Crowe. You ran on offense, pressed on defense. I think he had probably learned from the visionary coach John McClendon that you could play an all-out running game and score a lot of points while minimizing turnovers and maintaining discipline, good fundamentals and strong defense.

How the ‘Dust Bowl’ shaped our teams

 

My family – dad, mom, older brothers Bailey and Henry, and me – had moved to Indianapolis from the farms of central Tennessee in 1942, when I was 4 years old. Indianapolis was hostile territory if you were black. I was naïve about the depths of segregation in Indianapolis and in the world.

We kids being black, poor, and unwelcome outside our own neighborhood, our activities were pretty much limited to school, church, and sports. And basketball was the king of all sports. Guys played from sunrise to sundown.

There was a vacant lot near our house, and someone put up a backboard and a hoop. Our games would kick up clouds of dust, so the lot became known as the Dust Bowl. Even when we started playing on asphalt courts at the nearby Lockefield Gardens housing project, “the Dust Bowl” became the generic name for anywhere we played outdoors.

Players from Attucks dominated at both the Dust Bowl and the Senate Avenue YMCA, where indoor pickup games were played. The older players didn’t want to play with us younger kids, so we had to keep challenging them until we were competitive enough to stay on the court.

The Dust Bowl was the crucible in which my game was forged. I learned the importance of playing against people who were better than you, so you can learn from them and improve your own game.

Every moment we weren’t on the court, I was off to the side, working on my game. I started developing a side-step, fadeaway jump shot, releasing it above my head so it wouldn’t be blocked by taller players. I would even shoot at night by moonlight until the neighbors would tell me to go home.

Tom Sleet – coach, mentor, inspiration

I could practice all day and night, but I still needed someone to give me direction and structure. That person was Tom Sleet, who coached my seventh- and eighth-grade teams at Public School No. 17 and freshman basketball at Attucks. He taught us the critical importance of the fundamentals – that athleticism and gamesmanship, aka basketball intelligence – don’t mean anything unless you can execute consistently.

We learned how to pivot, how to box out under the boards, how to set a pick, how to pass and cut, how to move without the ball. Basically, we were running what is now known as the triangle offense in the seventh grade. Coach Sleet also emphasized the importance of defense and taught us how to play a tough, intense man-to-man game.

More importantly, he showed us how to become good citizens, and gave us self-confidence, a winning attitude and the encouragement to believe that we could succeed on the court and in other facets of life.

My first experience facing white players on the same court came when I was in the seventh grade at P.S. No. 17. In the eighth grade, we won the city’s first junior high school tournament.

People started taking notice, including Attucks coaches who were in the stands. Some of the older players at the Dust Bowl, seeing how serious I was about my game, started taking me under their wings and giving me helpful tips.

Following our tournament win, we got even more good news in our household: my oldest brother Bailey, better known as “Flap,” was chosen for Crowe’s first varsity squad at Attucks.

Flap was always a better shooter than I was. And where I was quiet and reserved, keeping my true feelings internalized, he was always vocal in speaking up for himself, which often put him at odds with his coach. He went on to star at Indiana Central University, setting an Indiana collegiate scoring record that stood for many years. Then he played for the Globetrotters and briefly for the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals and Cincinnati Royals, but I felt he never got the shot at the pro game that he truly deserved. He died much too young, in 1996.

Flap puts Attucks on the map

But Flap made a lasting contribution to the lore of Indiana high school basketball. His last-second shot capped a 10-point comeback against perennial powerhouse Anderson in the 1951 semi-state finals and put Attucks in the Final Four for the first time.

Even though the team lost in the semifinals and would not make it to the Final Four again for four years, this win was a turning point for Attucks basketball.

Attucks teams brought a new flair to the game, which horrified basketball purists. Having played pickup games at the Dust Bowl for years, they could play “positionless basketball” long before that term was in vogue. They had been further schooled by Sleet and Albert Spurlock, who taught industrial arts and coached track, cross-country and junior varsity basketball. All Crowe had to do was apply the finishing touches.

Crowe ran very few set plays, but his teams still played with discipline – focusing on team success, sharing the ball, working for good shots, deferring to the better shooters, playing within themselves without showboating.

And he emphasized that whatever the fans, your opponents, or the officials threw at you, you were to maintain your poise and composure. Keep your cool. He was not going to lose a game on a technical foul, and his players were not either.

Starting in 1951, Crowe’s teams were burned by bad calls in the state tournament three years in a row. He became determined that referees not be allowed to influence the outcome of a game. (This was a tall order, since there were no black officials in the Indiana Officials Association.) He stressed the need to build an early lead and keep it. His mantra was, “The first 10 points are for the refs … the rest are for us.”

He also allowed his tallest players to dunk the ball during warm-ups, alternating right and left hands, giving opponents a little preview of what they were up against before the game even began.

Attucks’ visually exciting style of play coincided with the emergence of television, and tournament games were now shown live statewide on TV.

I had seen very few varsity games up to this point. But when I watched Attucks beat Anderson on TV, I got a vision of what I could achieve.

Following in my brother’s footsteps

In 1953, Bailey graduated and went on to Indiana Central University. And, thanks to puberty and another summer of work on the farm, I grew from 5-8 to 6-3 and packed on some muscle. As a sophomore, I joined the junior varsity group lined up for tryouts. But Bill Mason, a senior guard I knew well from the Dust Bowl, kept beckoning to me. “Come on over here, Oscar,” he said. “This is where you belong.”

I was the last person chosen for the varsity, and assigned my brother’s old number, 43. Even if you were among the chosen, Crowe made it clear that your first priority was academics. All players from grades nine to 12 met in his homeroom first thing every morning. He called the roll and talked us through our homework assignments. If grades had been issued, he posted them for all to see. And then we were off to the other courses on our schedules. The day was interrupted by a second roll call at midday. The city fathers wanted to make sure we were all “in our place” and not out wreaking havoc.

I enjoyed school – the process of learning, the wisdom our teachers passed on, the personal attention and encouragement they gave us. I was naturally shy and did not raise my hand to volunteer answers, but I was ready if called upon. And bit by bit, I came out of my shell and learned to interact with people in settings other than the basketball court.

Stars Hallie Bryant and Willie Gardner had graduated along with my brother, and we were considered an unknown quantity for 1953-54. I was assigned to play forward and, sometimes the pivot as well. I came off the bench to score 15 points in our opener and started after that.

My game wasn’t yet as consistent as I wanted it to be, but we were winning – despite season-ending injuries to Willie Merriweather, Winford O’Neal and Sheddrick Mitchell, our three tallest and most talented players. By this point, I was assuming more of a leadership role, and coach moved me to guard so I could bring the ball up and create more movement on offense.

Even without our star threesome, we were still competitive till the very end of the season. In the semi-state finals, however, we lost 65-52 to tiny Milan High School, which was en route to a 32-30 championship win over perennial powerhouse Muncie Central, thanks to “the shot” by Bobby Plump.

And we took at least one small step on the culture side. As we advanced through the tournament, superintendent of schools H. L. Shibler arranged for cheerleaders from all the Indianapolis schools to join forces with our cheerleaders for the first time. That became a tradition from that point on.

1955 could be our year

As Attucks’ popularity grew, our “team without a gym” cut down on the road trips and began playing more Indianapolis schools – sometimes at the Arsenal Tech gym on the east side of town, and more and more often at Butler Fieldhouse. We could draw up to 11,000 people for our games, and were supposedly the best-drawing high school team in the country. The money went right back into improving conditions at our school.

Going into the 1954-55 season, our expectations were high. O’Neal had graduated, but Merriweather and Mitchell were back from their injuries. We had a solid, deep squad and another year’s experience playing together.

We finished the regular season 20-1, losing only at Connersville, where we had fallen too far behind to mount a comeback on their wet, slippery court and came up one point short. Then it was on to the sectionals, the regionals, and the semi-state, where we faced basically the same Muncie Central team that had lost to Milan the previous year.

Stealing the ‘game of the century’

Central and Attucks had traded No. 1 rankings all season long, and some of the media were calling this “the game of the century.” And it was a close, hard-fought battle. After numerous lead changes, Central had the ball for a last shot with 10 seconds left, but I deliberately played well behind my man and then leapt forward to steal the pass and seal a 71-70 win.

In the first afternoon game of the finals, New Albany put up a good fight, but we pulled away at the end and won 79-67. In the second game, Gary Roosevelt had its hands full with Fort Wayne North before winning 68-66.

Between the afternoon and evening games, neither Attucks nor Roosevelt teams were permitted to rest in Butler University’s dorms during the break, although white teams had always done so during previous tournament weekends. The Roosevelt players stayed with families in town, while our team was crowded into a downtown hotel room.

We figured Roosevelt would be tired in the second game, and we were right. We pressed them from the beginning, jumped off to an early lead and never looked back. We were up 21 at the half, and the only suspense was about whether we’d score 100 points. Final score: Attucks 97, Roosevelt 74.

Eison, who went on to be named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball,” had 32 points and set a three-game tournament scoring record. I had 30 with a bit of time left, but when I saw a little-used senior forward named Willie Burnley open near the basket, I felt it was more important for him to get into the championship game scoring column than it was for me to tie the record.

A celebration denied

When the final horn sounded, we could not contain our jubilation as we raced onto the court. There’s a picture of me on a ladder, cutting down the net with a mile-wide smile on my face. But our win came with a bittersweet aftertaste.

As we climbed aboard a fire truck for the traditional ride downtown, followed by a caravan of our fans cheering for their “bad, bad Tigers,” we had a strange feeling about the trip.

And when we got to Monument Circle, we didn’t stop and get off and join our fans in celebration. There would be no downtown celebration. Instead, Mayor Alex Clark read a brief tribute, we took another lap around the circle, and then our parade was redirected to Northwestern Park in the black section near Attucks, where 25,000 people celebrated around a huge bonfire.

That’s when it hit me. It seemed like it was OK for us to win for the city, and bring pride to the general population, but we were still considered second-class citizens. I hung around for a while, but I wasn’t really in much of a mood to celebrate, so I went home.

Soon enough, we learned that city officials had called Lane before the finals and informed him that there would be no celebrating downtown. Merchants and city officials were concerned that if our “colored” fans were permitted to celebrate at Monument Circle, they would riot, loot and destroy businesses, shoot out the streetlights, and engage in all other sorts of unspeakable mischief.

Can’t bring back the thrill

Once we learned what the city fathers had done to us, I was furious. To this day, I cannot forget the pain of being rejected in my own hometown. Our Attucks championship teams have since been celebrated many times, but there’s no way to bring back the innocent excitement our group of deserving black teenagers – who had earned the traditional celebration – was looking forward to at that point in time.

The following year, when we won our second consecutive state championship, capping off an undefeated season and a record 45-game winning streak, I refused to take part in another bogus, second-class celebration, and just went home after the game.

It was obvious that if basketball’s popularity discouraged racial discrimination, the public at large still had not gotten the memo. Athletic excellence might change attitudes on a personal and cultural level, but it could not by itself end institutionalized segregation and discrimination.

Fortunately for history, Bob Collins, a sports reporter for the Indianapolis Star, accurately chronicled all Indiana high school athletic teams – including Crispus Attucks basketball – despite enduring continued harassment from whites.

And that first Indiana state championship remains one of the highlights of my playing career, along with the gold medal won by our undefeated 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team and the Milwaukee Bucks’ first and only NBA title in 1971. Against all odds, we had accomplished something that could never be taken away.

The ‘bad, bad Tigers’ are back

Attucks’ success had unintended consequences. Middle-class blacks began enrolling their kids in schools other than Attucks, and those schools also snapped up the black student athletes who lived in their districts.

Despite his 179-20 record over seven years, and three consecutive trips to the state finals, Coach Crowe was never named Indiana Coach of the Year. Bill Garrett, a former “Mr. Basketball” who had been the first black player at Indiana University, succeeded Crowe as coach in 1957 and led Attucks to its third state title of the decade in 1959. Crowe had been promoted to athletic director when a new principal replaced Lane.

The traditional fire truck ride downtown was discontinued more than 45 years ago, when the state finals were moved from Butler Fieldhouse to Indiana University’s Assembly Hall.

Lockefield Gardens and the Dust Bowl no longer exist, having given way long ago to the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and IU Health University Hospital.

Attucks was spared the wrecking ball but was downgraded to a junior high school, then became a medical magnet high school serving the hospital. For many years, its days of basketball dominance were but a distant memory.

But now the program has been rejuvenated, and I’m betting that Saturday’s visit to the state finals will not be their last. The “bad, bad Tigers” are back.