It’s time for a good old-fashioned NBA spelling contest!
This year marks the end of HBO’s 2 Dope Queens specials, as well as the original podcast by comics Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson.
Now that they’ve opened for Oprah Winfrey and dished with former first lady Michelle Obama about hair, both Williams and Robinson are moving on. Robinson recently appeared in What Men Want, and Williams is in the new indie comedy Corporate Animals, which debuted at Sundance in January.
Their kiki-ing and fangirling over various celebrities has always been amusing. This season includes segments with Daniel Radcliffe, Lupita Nyong’o, Janet Mock and one particularly memorable flute lesson with singer-rapper Lizzo, who can perhaps best be described as Trap Donna Summer. Other recurring bits: the celebration of wigs, which are no longer just for your grandmother when she’s putting on her going-out clothes, and Williams’ cracks about her size 11 feet.
But one of my favorite aspects of the shows has always been Williams’ cheerleading for therapy, which she will happily discuss with friends and strangers alike.
“Even when I don’t feel like going, I always walk out like, ‘That was the best thing.’ It’s like a workout,” Williams told me recently. “It’s like you pay someone money — hopefully with just a gentle copay with your insurance. It’s like every time I go, I’m really happy that I did it. And not only that, but my friends go too, and I find that whenever I need advice from any of the homies, I always ask my therapy homies because they can process things better. But the ones that don’t go to therapy? You’re like, ‘You’re really popping off in a way that doesn’t feel nice or kind or well thought-out or compassionate.’
“I think therapy encourages you to acknowledge your feelings and also realize that you are in a world where a lot of people feel a ways and everyone’s trying all the time. It gives you compassion for yourself and it gives you compassion for others.”
Perhaps that’s what allows Williams (Robinson does not go to therapy, though she supports it) to consistently find the light in an overwhelmingly dark time and, in turn, offer a balm to this cursed era of Blackface History Month. 2 Dope Queens provides permission for its audience to laugh and enjoy the utterly superficial, one hour at a time, without feeling guilty about it. It’s a frothy escape, powered by underrepresented comics and two women who can embrace their brand of ridiculous and not need it to be anything more.
The last of the 2 Dope Queens specials, taped at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, in December, will air for the next three Friday nights on HBO.
Vince Carter’s 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland, California, is etched in NBA history thanks to his instantly iconic performance in the Slam Dunk Contest. In actuality, though, Oakland should have been his second All-Star trip. The 1999 NBA All-Star Game, booked in Philadelphia — on Valentine’s Day, at that — was the most high-profile casualty of an NBA lockout that threatened the entire 1998-99 season.
“That’s where it was supposed to be? In Philadelphia?” Carter says after a January practice in Sacramento, California. Even over the phone there’s genuine shock in his voice. “Wow,” he says. “I [really] had no idea.”
But what if the NBA hadn’t had to cancel the 1999 All-Star Game? What if, in a new, post-Michael Jordan NBA, there had been a huge Philly basketball celebration to help ease the pain of losing basketball’s biggest star?
What if there had been an All-Star Weekend in 1999? You’re in luck. There is.
But first, some backstory.
It’s tough to fault Carter for not recalling. The 1998-99 season is a forgotten, or at least rarely discussed, chapter in NBA history. Owners locked out the players on July 1, and the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. There were “no trades, no player signings, no NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, or contact between players and team representatives.” There was no All-Star Game. Shortly after the 1998 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Famers such as Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, labor negotiations came to a screeching halt as growing profits, and how those profits would be allocated in coming seasons, became the glaring issue.
Team owners, among other things, talked salary cap issues and blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract. “That … changed the landscape,” said former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik after the lockout. “This was the one where owners said something had to be done.” Players talked about the NBA’s swelling revenues, especially from television, and the rookie salary scale, among other things.
Players unfairly shouldered much of the public blame for the lockout, though in fairness, some players didn’t make it easy on themselves from a public relations perspective. While attempting to organize a charity game in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to benefit UNICEF — and NBA players — then-union president Patrick Ewing said pro athletes “make a lot of money, but spend a lot, too.” The gesture of the game did anything but win the fans’ favor back to the players. The Boston Celtics’ Kenny Anderson joked about selling one of his eight cars. And Grant Hill took a temporary hit to his reputation for, in the eyes of many, not taking more of an assertive role during the lockout — and his Sprite commercial with Tim Duncan reportedly angered several players.
By mid-October, the NBA’s preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season had been canceled. “If the [NBA] isn’t back by Christmas,” said Neil Hernberg, then the sports marketing manager of apparel behemoth Pro Player, “we could lose 75 percent of our NBA business.” The effects of the lockout hit the pockets of other business partners as well. “The market is soft,” noted Steve Raab, vice president of marketing for Starter. “Retailers are reducing and canceling orders.”
Networks were forced to revamp programming, and shortly before Christmas, the NBA announced for the first time in its history — and, to date, still the only time since 1951 — that the league would cancel its annual midseason classic. The city of Philadelphia lost out on an estimated $40 million.
“[The lockout] didn’t set me back because I had nothing to be set back from,” says Carter. “I went back to [the University of North Carolina]. I did a semester … and had a chance to work out with Coach [Dean] Smith and the team while I was waiting for the lockout to end.”
The players approved a new deal 179-5 at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, and the league’s Board of Governors unanimously agreed to ratify the compromise. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the owners, but the players did walk away with more money for non-franchise players, and for the superstars. “Did [the players] blink?” then-NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter asked rhetorically. “I guess we both blinked.”
Less than a week after the return of pro basketball back, Jordan retired for a second time.
The announcement wasn’t much of a shock, but the impact was massive and multidimensional. Television networks, which for years profited from Jordan’s magnetism, were forced to adjust to an uncertain new reality. “It’s unique to have been in a partnership with the NBA for eight years, and to have had this fairy dust sprinkled on us,” said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. “Now we have to reintroduce this generation of stars … will we get Babe Ruth tomorrow? No.”
“I’m sad to see him go,” rhythm and blues singer/actress Aaliyah said. “But he’s had an incredible career and we will miss him. … He’s worked hard and he deserves to relax now.”
It’s Valentine’s Day weekend in Philadelphia. In real life, the 1998-99 season is just over a week old. Teams and players are working their way back into a groove.
Instead of the pageantry of an All-Star Game, the 76ers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks. Allen Iverson is his usual self — 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks — helping Philly improve to 4-1 to start the season. He’s the game’s lone bright spot in a 78-70 Sixers victory. Unfortunately, the biggest news to hit the city that weekend is a fire that engulfed South Philly’s St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. And the biggest sports-related news? Wrestlemania XV invading the city in March, headlined by a no-disqualification title match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
But let’s imagine an alternative history
Philadelphia is abuzz with Hollywood’s elite, music’s biggest names and NBA legends — both established and in the making. West Philadelphia’s Will Smith, fresh off “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” and Enemy of the State, is one of the biggest stars on the planet — he’s down front. So is Lauryn Hill — she’s one of the biggest musical artists on the planet. And Iverson? He’s in his third season and already one of the league’s most prolific scorers. But more than that? He reaches and represents a generation fueled by counterculture and soundtracked by hip-hop. While Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos are to some a sign of basketball’s decaying morals, to a younger generation he’s a symbol of defiance, swagger and perseverance.
“It’s unfair, but it’s true,” Iverson told Chris Rock. “People look at the way I dress, who I hang around, [my] jewelry — people try to make me 34 years old and I’m only 24.” People hated Allen Iverson and people loved Allen Iverson. It’s that dichotomy and that polarization that make him the obvious de facto mayor of the 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was.
Also at courtside for the game are hometown heroes such as Mike Schmidt and Moses Malone. There’s plenty of room also for the other stars ruling culture: Denzel Washington, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Winslet. Bill Russell is there, along with Wilt Chamberlain, whose relationship with Philadelphia is both storybook and tragic. The meeting at the 1999 NBA All-Star Game (that never was) would be one of their final times together, as Chamberlain would die eight months later.
Muhammad Ali and Philly’s own Joe Frazier, in the imaginary weekend’s most touching moment, publicly end a bitter feud that had lasted nearly 30 years with vicious taunts from both men. In real life, the two boxing icons squashed their beef at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Places of honor go to Julius Erving, as well as Jordan, whose presence is impossible to avoid given that most fans have yet to accept his second retirement.
Jazzy Jeff is the weekend’s official DJ. Hometown daughter Patti LaBelle performs the national anthem — paying homage to the city’s soulful musical roots with the most soulful rendition since Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The aforementioned Hill, following the August 1998 release of her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is tapped to perform at halftime with a string of hits, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything” and “Lost Ones.” Less than two weeks later, Hill’s place in history is cemented with five Grammys, including album of the year.
Celebrities are a necessary part of All-Star Weekend. As are big-name performers. But the biggest celebrities and performers are the ones voted in by the fans to start the game. Unlike 2019, the teams were still separated by conferences in 1999. Yet, like 2019, the game’s starters will be selected via fan vote. Here are your 1999 NBA All-Stars, for a game that never was — current and future Hall of Famers each one.
G — Allen Iverson | Philadelphia 76ers
The weekend’s point person, if you will. Though if you’re in the mix, you’ll see Bubba Chuck at every party in the city. Iverson’s popping bottles, rocking jewelry bright enough to light up the nightclub and partying to DMX, Jay-Z, Cash Money. You’re probably wondering when he sleeps? It’s All-Star Weekend! No sleep! It’s Philly, and it’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and you know he’s bringing the city out. Iverson did eventually capture All-Star Game MVP in Washington, D.C., in 2001 — also a homecoming of sorts, given his Georgetown roots. So, needless to say, the league’s leader in points per game and minutes per game in the 1998-99 season would’ve put on a show before a crowd that treats him like a demigod to this day.
G — Ray Allen | Milwaukee Bucks
Penny Hardaway really could’ve won a popular vote over Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth, in 1999. Penny started every game in ’98-’99 and led Orlando to the playoffs. But Hardaway’s injury history works against him here and is beginning to paint the picture of what could have been an all-time great NBA career derailed by factors beyond his control. Riding the wave of 1998’s He Got Game, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making gets the nod, and you best believe he’s rocking the HGG 12’s in the process — with Washington, Lee and Jordan all sitting courtside too. Hardaway was a magnificent shooter from the day he entered the league, and in his later years he became a marksman who nailed the 3 that saved the Miami Heat’s dynasty in 2013. But young Ray? Oh, young Ray could do it all. Including put you on a poster.
F — Vince Carter | Toronto Raptors
All the hoopla and hysteria we see around Luka Doncic now? That would’ve been Vince, the eventual Rookie of the Year, 20 seasons ago — had he actually had a real rookie season to lay ruin to. How massive was the Vince hype? Let his cousin and teammate, Tracy McGrady, tell it. “[Carter] lit the league on fire with his athleticism, his spectacular dunks,” he says with a smile you can almost see through the phone. “That momentum carrying into the ’99 All-Star break just would’ve been on fire.” Even in the abbreviated season, Carter’s athletic prowess became the theatrics of legend en route to a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Carter starts as a rookie in the All-Star Game because, why wouldn’t he?
F — Grant Hill | Detroit Pistons
One of the best (and most popular and marketable) stars in the league was set to be leaned on heavily in the post-Jordan era. His ability to do nearly any and everything on the court — Hill averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.9 percent shooting in ’98-’99 — made him an undeniable superstar with crossover appeal. Hill’s marriage to R&B star Tamia, whose brilliant 1998 self-titled album produced the hit “So Into You,” also made the former Duke Blue Devil a star far beyond the court. The sky is the limit for Grant Hill in February 1999. One question no one’s really asking at this point, though. Should we be talking about Hill’s impending summer 2000 free agency? Too early, right? Yeah, you’re right.
C — Alonzo Mourning | Miami Heat
When the center position actually counted in the All-Star Game, here is Mourning. Shaquille O’Neal had long defected to the Western Conference. And Patrick Ewing’s prime years are behind him. Mourning is, without question, the East’s best center on a team many believe will compete for a championship come June. His 20 points and 11 rebounds per night would’ve made him an All-Star in any season — but his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game make getting into Fort Knox easier than getting to the rim when Zo’s in the neighborhood.
Coach: Pat Riley | Miami Heat
With Jordan retired and the Chicago Bulls team a shell of its former self, Pat Riley’s Heat had real-life title aspirations and the squad to do it. Just a hunch, though: They should probably try to avoid the New York Knicks in the first round.
G — Gary Payton | Seattle SuperSonics
With fellow Oakland native and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in Phoenix, there’s competition out west for the starting guard spot, but The Glove gets the nod because he’s still very much the floor general who led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals three years earlier. The Sonics aren’t the dominant force in 1998-99 they were in the mid-’90s, but Payton’s output was still up there with the best point guards in the league: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.2 steals. Plus, Payton’s a showman of the highest order, and being able to mic him up in-game is too much basketball trash-talk nirvana to pass up.
G — Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers
It was pretty much written in stone that from the moment this teenager started his first All-Star Game in New York a year earlier, one of these guard spots would be his every February for the foreseeable future. In️ this alternate reality, Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia — the city he claimed, although it didn’t always reciprocate his love — and puts on an absolute clinic. Not many players have had a higher flair for the dramatic than the perpetually dramatic Bryant. With Ali, Frazier, Hill, Jordan, Will Smith and others at courtside, maybe, just maybe, Bean captures MVP honors in Philadelphia in 1999 — just like he did in 2002.
F — Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves
The Big Ticket, like Bryant, is inked in here for as long as he can put up with Minnesota, largely accomplishing very little during his prime years. By the end of his third season in 1997-98, Garnett had become a one-of-one generational talent. He was a complete freak on the defensive end and was the only player in the league to put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per night. If that wasn’t enough, the now three-time All-Star had no problem talking an opponent’s ear off.
F — Karl Malone | Utah Jazz
Quick question. Don’t use Google, either. And please don’t Ask Jeeves. Who won MVP in 1999? If you guessed Malone, buy yourself a drink. Because of the lockout, his ’99 MVP, won in his 14th year in the league at age 35, is relegated to obscurity, sandwiched as it is between Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 and O’Neal’s virtuoso 2000 campaign. Malone, the game’s future second-all-time leading scorer, gets the fan selection here, but it does come with a caveat. There’s a young phenom in his second season at San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan who will make this spot his very, very soon.
C — Shaquille O’Neal | Los Angeles Lakers
Like Iverson, if you’re in Philly for the 1999 All-Star Weekend that never was, it won’t be easy to miss Shaq. Sure, because of his stature. But more importantly because of his larger-than-life personality. O’Neal’s a megastar not just on the court but with a broad appeal similar to Jordan’s. And with Bryant in Philly too, there was the slight chance O’Neal and Bryant could’ve performed their long since forgotten rap collaboration “3X’s Dope” from O’Neal’s 1998 album Respect at some random party in the city.
Coach: Gregg Popovich | San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, with a young Duncan and a wily vet in David Robinson, seem poised for something special in San Antonio. They might be on to something here.
Bonus: Is the 1999 NBA All-Star Dunk contest the greatest dunk contest that never happened?
Aside from a few special moments — see Cedric Ceballos’ blindfold, Dee Brown’s no-look, Shawn Kemp’s double pump, Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk Dunk or Brent Barry’s jump from the free throw line — the dunk contest lost steam in the ’90s. Bryant, as a rookie, won the contest in 1997. There was no contest at all in 1998 — and no dunk contest in Madison Square Garden spoke volumes. The contest returned in 2000 with a bang. At the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, Steve Francis, McGrady and Carter proved to be human defibrillators, reviving the contest with legendary swag.
Yet, McGrady still wonders what would have happened in Philly at the All-Star Game that never happened. Could the greatest field that never happened … have actually happened in 1999? “You had Kobe in [’97]. Then you got Vince come in. I mean, who knows?” McGrady says. “Kobe probably would’ve entered that Slam Dunk Contest that year with Vince. You just never know.”
Carter agrees, although the missed opportunity doesn’t hurt as much given the light show he and his cousin put on in Oakland. “As far as what could’ve been? Yeah, maybe that year — as far as a dunk contest,” Carter says.
A potential field of Bryant, McGrady and Carter? “Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs!” McGrady exclaims. “It would’ve been crazy!
Carter doesn’t want to play the “what if” game too much, though. But he realizes what those three could have brought to the floor in the 1999 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest that never was. “Kobe and I played with each other in AAU … Tracy and Kobe were good friends. The friendly competition and the mutual respect we had for each other as athletes and dunkers would’ve brought the best out of each and every one of us,” Carter says. “That would’ve been legendary.”
Nov. 14, 2007. Stephen Curry’s first major — splash. He’d just scored 24 points en route to nearly upsetting No. 1-ranked North Carolina, losing by only four points. He definitely didn’t spend that night sulking over the heartbreaking loss, or celebrating the fact that he was leading SportsCenter for the first time.
Instead, he was in my dorm. Helping me with a project. I’d asked for his assistance earlier in the week, not expecting him to show up after his big game. But there he was, low-key and helping out. That’s what Stephen Curry does. And Steph and I are friends — we were at Davidson College at the same time.
We used to hang out before parties, kick it at the library and binge on late-night chicken Parmesan. It’s been nearly 10 years (April 23, 2009, to be exact) since Curry declared for the NBA draft, and this weekend he will return to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, as a shining star who shined brighter than just about anyone thought he would. Three-time NBA champion. Six-time All-Star. Two-time league MVP. And the leader of one of the most indestructible juggernauts in all of sports: the Golden State Warriors.
We’ve kept in touch over the past decade as any college friends do, seeing each other on his various stops across the country, texting after life moments big and small, and reminiscing on the Davidson days that helped set us on our respective paths. I’ve watched him grow from the kid at Davidson to a dad and husband in the Bay Area. I’ve been awed by the player he’s grown into on the court — but never surprised at the man he’s become. For example, I wasn’t surprised when he made national headlines for taking on President Donald Trump by refusing to visit the White House after the Warriors won the championship in 2017. Curry had participated in activist efforts at Davidson, unafraid of consequences.
As we look to his return to Charlotte, I asked Curry to hop on the phone and look back at the moments that got him here. This isn’t an interview. This is a conversation between two people who were friends with dreams — mine of one day writing for a place like ESPN, and his of being one of the most dominant forces in sports. We talked about Davidson moments that shaped him and the decadelong journey to where he is now. This isn’t Stephen Curry. This is Stephen.
Hey, man, trade deadline expired about an hour ago. Congratulations on making it through. The Warriors didn’t trade you this year.
(Laughs.) Oh, I was locked into The Jump Trade Edition trying to make sure I made it through.
What does it feel like, coming back to Charlotte for an All-Star Game 10 years later? Where’s your mind right now?
I’m extremely excited. All-Star Weekend in general is usually fun. … Every city has something unique to offer. I know Kemba [Walker] is hosting in Charlotte. He’ll be playing for the Hornets and whatnot, but unofficially it’s like a little mini homecoming where I get all the sights and sounds and familiar faces.
When I graduated from Davidson in ’08, after the Elite Eight run, people were asking, ‘What’s that Steph guy going to do in the league?’ And I’d say, ‘He’s going to play forever because he can shoot, right? And he’s going to make some All-Star Games.’
That was a kind of crazy prediction back then.
Now it’s 10 years later and you’ve got a couple of MVPs, some championships. What did you think you’d be at this point?
My whole goal going in was I want to play 16 years, just like my pops. He set the bar; that’s what I want to get to, but do it my way. I guess I fell in love with the moment and spreading that joy in myself, working on my game and trying to figure out just how to win in the league, and focus. It was a hard lesson to learn my first two years. I’ve exceeded my imagination. … It’s kind of surreal to be where I’m at, [and] now to be back in Charlotte … but I’ve still got a lot to accomplish. Obviously, I’m in my prime, so the story’s still going, but it’s just crazy to think that I was outside of the [Davidson College] Belk [computer] lab on the phone with Ayesha trying to find out if I was even going to enter the draft.
I remember [April 23, 2009] you texting me when you decided to enter the league. You were like, ‘I’m in the library, and I don’t really know why.’
(Laughs.) Bro, yes! That night I was still writing a paper or something. A sociology paper, I think. Pulling an all-nighter, just confused. I don’t know why I was doing my paper at the time, trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life. I finally decided … to make that jump. And obviously, everybody knows how much I love Davidson, how hard it was to leave, but looking back, that obviously was the right decision.
Every Friday or Saturday night, [all of us] freestyling, listening to Lil Wayne. My dream was to be writing stuff at ESPN, and now I’m doing that. About you winning MVPs in the NBA. Back then, in Lamar’s room, nobody could imagine that any of these things would be happening.
One of my favorite stories is when I was passing out tickets to freshman dorm rooms, knocking on doors and stuff, trying to get people to come to games. Everybody’s reaction was so subdued and chill … everybody was sort of reserved about everything. It’s surreal to be having the conversation we’re having and doing the things we’re doing, representing ourselves and our school. That’s what makes the whole story so unique … humble beginnings.
What’s interesting about you that other players don’t really have at the top levels of the NBA, especially when I think about, like, LeBron James or Kevin Durant, is that they knew really young that they were going to be NBA players. That seemed not to be the case with you. When did you realize you were definitely doing this?
When I went to Davidson, that was my goal, but I didn’t really know. It wasn’t like a chess game where I would position everything so that I could be an NBA player. I was able to have a ‘normal’ college experience where it’s just about playing ball, hanging out with my teammates, going to school. Then we go to the [2008 Elite Eight] tournament run, we lose to Kansas, and the first question I get after … is, ‘Yo, are you declaring for the draft?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ Like, ‘No. What are you talking about?’
That was a genuine response, because it wasn’t necessarily on my radar like that. I was just playing ball. Then, between my sophomore and junior year, that’s when I first really started to assess my game in terms of being an NBA player and understanding what I needed to work on if I want to get drafted. But even so … I hesitated when it came down to making the decision. … It wasn’t like I wasn’t destined to make that jump, but in my head it was still a question mark. It took me a while to get there and to get committed.
But then when I finished my rookie year, I was trying to catch up to Tyreke Evans for that Rookie of the Year verdict … playing 40-plus minutes every game, so I really felt like I had complete control … in terms of knowing what type of player I wanted to be. And you kind of imagine that player to be an All-Star type of guy. I just had ultimate confidence at that point towards the end of that rookie year. But at first, at Davidson, I was able to just enjoy basketball without the NBA cloud over my head.
Obviously, you’re not an underdog anymore. Does that make you think back to the days when you had nothing to lose? Did you enjoy that more?
Nah, once you get to that championship level, you understand what that feels like to be the best in the world at something. You’re right, my whole motivation, and my process [back then], was really identifying with the underdog mentality. Now, it’s an entirely different experience from one that I had and love, but I love it now too.
Now, when we’re trying to go for three [championships] in a row, there’s media drama, free-agency drama, inner squad stuff we’re going through. … It’s all because we’ve been at the height of our game and people will try to pick us apart, trying to find cracks in the armor. … It’s because we’re playing for something that matters. I love being in that situation every year — and I hope that doesn’t end anytime soon.
I remember we went to an All-Star Game in Houston, what, six years ago?
I was down there for the 3-point shootout.
We were able to go to the game together. You were able to walk across the street to the game from the hotel by yourself, essentially, with no problem or fanfare. That was just six years ago.
That was the last time that I actually didn’t make the All-Star. I remember the ’fit I had: the three-piece suit without the jacket with the nonprescription glasses and this stupid hat that Ayesha made me wear. We got to walk two blocks from the hotel to the game. Maybe one person said, ‘What’s up?’ But it wasn’t like it is now at all. I wanted to go to the game just to get that experience. It definitely sucked not making it, but that was motivation. That’s probably the last time that happened, where I could be incognito, I guess. But now, I think Ayesha, she’s more recognizable than I am at this point. It’s pretty crazy, the difference in the last few years.
Then, a few years later, you’re getting called out by the president.
That seemed to take people by surprise. It seemed people didn’t expect that you have these ideals that you stick to. When we were together at Davidson, I saw a bit of that mindset develop. How did that evolve to the point of where you felt comfortable speaking out against the president?
It’s mostly just being around like-minded people, people that were even bolder than I ever was in terms of speaking up for what they believe, speaking up for black students in a majority-white student body. I gladly helped spread the message of what we were fighting for on campus. To be honest, I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you, but the way that you and [poet, author and Davidson alum] Clint [Smith] and other people that I see that I still follow on social media — and how you guys use your voice and your wisdom, education, and just how articulate — you guys are consistent in speaking up. That … emboldens me to … use the platform I have … when it comes to going to the White House or not, making those decisions, and trying to go see President Barack Obama and things that he has going on in the community, trying to just respond in different ways to make a difference.
That all started at Davidson. Just … being around people that inspire me … that’s where the seed was planted … and we all branched out into our respective worlds. We continue in that fight, so I’m going to stay on that mission in any way that I can.
A lot of athletes feel hesitant about the possible backlash of saying the wrong thing, but you speak with confidence in these situations.
I’m not going to please everybody. In terms of the international world of politics … that comes with the territory. And where sports and politics kind of cross over, just in terms of [us having] a microphone in our face every single day. They’re asking us questions about what we believe. You can obviously shy away from it if you want to. You can play it safe. I still want to make sure I’m very educated on what I’m talking about, which is why I don’t talk about everything. As NBA players, we live in a bubble. … Our lifestyle’s a little different, and you have to make sure you stay plugged in, because we all have families, we all come from communities that real stuff is happening [in] and have to support to make sure you stay in tune.
You got married around when I did, and I think Riley is a couple months older than my son? So whenever I see you, it’s always about family and how crazy this family experience is.
It’s been an amazing journey. I never thought when I met Ayesha at the end of my sophomore year … I didn’t know where my life would lead me. It’s funny … she had no basketball, sports background at all and knew nothing about the NBA … so we were wet behind the ears in terms of not knowing what we were getting into. And every step of the way, everything that’s happened, we kind of dealt with it together, and it’s helped us mature a lot faster than we … expected. I think even as parents, understanding how we’re going to raise kids not only in this crazy society we live in but one that we’re so visible [in], and people are kind of locked into every step we take, every word we say. One thing I do technically regret in terms of how fast this all came is when I brought Riley on the podium [during the 2015 NBA Finals].
I’ve always wanted to … share what I get to do, and all the experiences I have, with my family. I didn’t know how much that would blow up and how much of a splash she [would make] on the scene. If I could take that one back, I probably would, just because my goal is just to … give my kids the best chance at success and at seeing the world in the proper way … trying to give our kids the best chance to be successful and have a normal life in terms of treating people the right way, having respect, not getting too bigheaded and feeling like everything’s about them. The lessons I’m teaching my kids right now at ages 6, 3 and 7 months, it’s wild to think about. Surreal.
What is a lesson in basketball, or parenting, or activism, whatever, that you could tell 2009 Stephen Curry?
This is almost too on the nose for what’s going on right now, but find out who you are quick, because that’s the foundation … and the thing that you rely on no matter if things are going your way or not, if you reach your goals or not. Find out who you are, be comfortable with it, embrace it and let that be the most consistent thing that you can … rely on. I’d say, just the hoopla and craziness that’s happened these last 10 years, there were plenty of opportunities for me to kind of lose my mind, lose my sense of self and lose a sense of reality. It’s just wild to think about what’s thrown at us on the daily that we kind of have to kind of roll with. These wins and losses and championships, it’s important, it’s what we work our a– off for, but in the grand scheme of things, is it that serious for it to change who you are? I hope to have accomplished that and hope to keep on that path.
1920 — Negro National League is founded. There was a need for more African-American players in baseball, but the Jim Crow laws that ruled much of the South prevented players from finding teams on which they could play alongside their white counterparts. To allow African-Americans to freely showcase their talents without being banned or ridiculed, Andrew “Rube” Foster, a baseball player and manager, along with other team owners, created eight teams under the Negro National League, which was founded in Kansas City, Missouri.
1893 — Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, simply known as Sissieretta Jones, takes her place on the main stage during a benefit concert held for the World’s Fair Colored Opera Company at Carnegie Hall, making her the first African-American to do so. Jones, a soprano who was often referred to as the “Black Patti” after famous Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, came from humble beginnings in Portsmouth, Virginia, before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, with her family.
1923 — The first black pro basketball team: The Renaissance is founded. Similar to the Negro Leagues, black basketball players desperately searched for a space they could call their own. The New York Renaissance (aka the Rens) was created by Bob Douglas, an athlete and passionate sports promoter who was known as the “father of black basketball.”
1977 — Happy birthday, Randy Moss. Born in Rand, West Virginia, the TV analyst played 14 seasons in the NFL and holds the record for touchdown receptions in a single season (23 in 2007).
2003 — Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal team up to lead the Western Conference All-Stars to a 137-126 win in the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. This big three may be one of the best frontcourts the league will ever see representing the West.
1900 – The Negro national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is performed. To celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was turned into a song that was first performed by a group of 500 students in Jacksonville, Florida. It was later adopted by the NAACP as its official song.
1909 – NAACP is founded. Founded in 1909 in New York City by a group of black and white citizens committed to social justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is one of the nation’s largest civil rights organizations.
1934 – Happy birthday, Bill Russell. William Felton “Bill” Russell is one of the greatest NBA players of all time. He was player-coach of the Boston Celtics in 1968 and 1969. The five-time MVP won more championship rings than any other player. His Celtics won 11 NBA championships and went to 12 Finals during his 13 seasons. From 1959-66, they won eight straight.
1956 – Happy birthday, Arsenio Hall. Hall was the first black late-night talk show host. The Arsenio Hall Show ran from 1989-94.
2001 – Tiger Woods and Marion Jones are celebrated at the ninth ESPYS.
It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.
“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”
And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.
“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”
The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.
“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”
Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.
Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.
“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”
Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.
Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.
Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.
“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.
During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.
Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)
In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.
“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.
One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.
Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.
“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”
For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.
“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”
That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.
“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.
“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.
During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.
“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”
When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”
After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.
Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.
“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”
One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.
Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”
Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.
We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.
Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.
The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”
We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.
Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.
Best acceptance speech goes to Drake. In a surprise appearance, he picked up a trophy for best rap song (“God’s Plan”) in person. He also delivered some strong words to the Recording Academy (formerly the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, or NARAS) about past Grammy snubs.
“Know we play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual-based sport,” Drake said. “It is not the NBA. … This is a business where sometimes it is up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say … or a brother from Houston … my brother Travis. You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you are a hero in your hometown. If there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here, I promise you. You already won.” Nice. He was, though, like so many, cut off before completing his remarks.
In the days before the beleaguered show, which inched up in ratings last night, there was a lot of social conversation about how the Grammys are not and have not historically been welcoming to black people and people of color.
So when it was reported by The New York Times just days before Sunday’s telecast of the Grammy Awards at Los Angeles’ Staples Center that three of hip-hop’s biggest superstars — Kendrick Lamar, Drake and Childish Gambino — had turned down the opportunity to perform at this year’s show (Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift chose not to attend as well), the message was quite conspicuous, especially on the heels of recent Super Bowl halftime performance anxieties.
“When they don’t take home the big prize, the regard of the academy, and what the Grammys represent, continues to be less meaningful to the hip-hop community, which is sad,” Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich told the Times. Indeed, a hip-hop act has not won the much-coveted album of the year trophy since Outkast for their brilliant 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. In the 61-year run of the Recording Academy’s celebration of musical excellence, the prestigious album of the year has been won by black artists only 12 times, and, while he is no doubt a beloved genius, Stevie Wonder is single-handedly responsible for three of those wins: Innervisions (1974), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1975) and Songs in the Key of Life (1977). So yes, there was much drama heading into the ceremony.
What we soon discovered, among other revelations, was that 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys should be given the perpetual reins to host the aging music awards show, much in the same way Billy Crystal did for the Oscars. She was that good, folks. Also: Chloe x Halle, the sister duo who gave a pitch-perfect tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with “Where Is the Love,” have a transformative cover album within them. Beyoncé and Jay-Z were nowhere to be found at music’s biggest night to collect their award for best urban contemporary album for Everything Is Love. Yet, while there were some grand moments in black excellence, the Grammys still have serious work to do.
A moment of Michelle Obama magic
“From the Motown records I wore out on the South Side …” That’s how she began. Forever first lady Michelle Obama’s surprise appearance at the Grammys was so surreal that even the other legendary women who stood alongside her — Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith, Keys and Jennifer Lopez — were overwhelmed.
But Obama was instantly drowned out by applause from the crowd. “All right, you all, all right, we got a show to do,” she said with a smile. And yet the statement of women’s strength was just the beginning. Viewers witnessed a record 31 wins by women recording artists and a sharp acceptance speech by best new artist Dua Lipa, who took a dig at outgoing academy president Neil Portnow, who once stated that female artists should “step up” during last year’s ceremony. Calling it an honor “to be nominated alongside so many incredible female artists this year,” she jabbed, “I guess this year we really stepped up.” Ouch.
It’s Cardi’s world
Cardi B continued her fairy-tale run, snatching up rap album of the year for her boss platinum debut Invasion of Privacy, thanking her daughter, Kulture, as well as her husband, Offset of the Migos. “I’m sorry,” the Bronx, New York, rap queen said, before joking, “I just, oh, the nerves are so bad. Maybe I need to start smoking weed.” Cardi B became the first solo woman to ever win the category and brought the house down with her piano-driven, chest-beating 808 anthem “Money.” Rocking immaculate black peacock feathers and surrounded by an army of flapper-era dancers, Cardi earned a well-deserved standing ovation for her 1920s-inspired nod to Josephine Baker.
But Cardi B’s big night was nearly overshadowed by a tweet from Ariana Grande, who posted the word “trash” along with some stinging expletives as the rapper beat out the singer’s ex-boyfriend, greatly missed late hip-hop star Mac Miller. Grande, who won her first Grammy for best pop vocal album, quickly deleted the tweet. Cardi B, however, responded on Instagram.
Lady Gaga turns it up to 11
The first award of the night went to an emotional Lady Gaga, whose “Shallow” duet with actor Bradley Cooper won best pop duo or group performance.
And then music’s most earnest ham, clad in a glittery jumpsuit, transformed “Shallow” into a ’70s arena rock workout.
But can you play?
Janelle Monáe came out strapped … with a guitar. Within her lustful “Make Me Feel” were echoes of the Purple One, Prince. Yet Monáe was not alone in her throwback musician bliss. Singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes started out on piano and then switched to guitar. A confident Ne-Yo tickled the ivories as well during an otherwise train wreck of a Motown tribute (more on that later). Post Malone strummed an acoustic guitar on his somber “Stay” before joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers as if he’s already counting down to the moment he’s done playing on the hip-hop side of the tracks. But there was another artist who flexed the most impressive talent of the entire night.
A star is born
Imagine Lalah Hathaway jamming with Prince Rogers Nelson while wearing cooler-than-cool shades. That’s the best way to describe the music of singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist and all-around badass H.E.R. The enigmatic newcomer not only won two awards, including best rhythm and blues album for her self-titled EP, she gave perhaps the night’s most dynamic show with the empowering “Hard Place.” Her seemingly effortless soulful vocals were backed by her cracking band — and violinists. And H.E.R. even shredded a translucent guitar, bringing the crowd to its feet.
Childish Gambino has the last laugh
Childish Gambino was a Grammys no-show. But that didn’t stop the renaissance man from taking home two of the biggest awards of the night for “This Is America,” his surreal and sneering indictment of gun violence and institutional racism. Childish Gambino, who ironically appeared in a Grammy ad for Google’s Playmoji, became the first hip-hop star to win record of the year and song of the year.
Dolly, Diana and Aretha
Three of music’s most revered figures received well-deserved tributes. For country music crossover goddess Dolly Parton, who was joined onstage by Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Little Big Town and the night’s other big winner, Kacey Musgraves, it was yet another reminder that beyond her bubbly, self-effacing image, Parton is a brilliant songwriting machine defying genres. Just check out her string of classics, including “Jolene,” “Here You Come Again,” “9 to 5” and her 1974 gem “I Will Always Love You,” which was given new life when Whitney Houston’s definitive cover became one of the best-selling singles of all time.
An always regal Diana Ross, floating through in a flowing red dress while celebrating her 75th birthday, moved the audience after a too-cute introduction by her 9-year-old grandson, Raif-Henok Emmanuel Kendrick. “Young people like me can look up to her for her independence, confidence and willingness to be her unique self,” he said, beaming. “She has shown the world that nothing is beyond our reach. So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my grandmommy, Diana Ross.”
And that was an understatement. Ross launched into “The Best Years of My Life” and her solo signature classic “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” imploring the crowd to “don’t be lazy” and to stand up. With 70 hit singles and a string of leading feature film roles — including her haunting, Oscar-nominated 1972 portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues — Ross is the template for Houston, Janet Jackson, Lil Kim, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.
Finally, the late, great Aretha Franklin was celebrated with a rousing tribute by powerhouses Yolanda Adams, Andra Day and Fantasia for a once-in-a-lifetime performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Some viewers balked at the idea of Franklin receiving just one song as tribute. “I’m sorry,” said one poster. “Aretha Franklin is one of the most if NOT the most decorated, talented, influential artists in the history of music. The Grammys gave her a ONE song tribute. Trash #Grammys.” Mood.
Berry Gordy Weeps
When it was first announced that Lopez would be taking part in a Motown tribute, the news was met with bewilderment and jokes from the Black Twitter contingent. But to the astonishment of viewers, Jenny From the Block wasn’t merely a supporting player in an already questionable production, she was the star garnering more stage time than the aforementioned Ne-Yo and Smokey Robinson. JLo proved it is indeed possible to lip-sync off-key as she stumbled through such Motown hits as “Dancing in the Street,” “My Girl” and “Please Mr. Postman.”
Free 21 Savage!
There were no loud shout-outs or words of encouragement for the British-born Atlanta native from his fellow rappers. 21 Savage is still being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for failing to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa. Travis Scott made no mention of his collaborator during his performance of “Stop Trying to Be God” and the riotous “No Bystanders.” Post Malone, who partly owes the immense success and the swagger of his career-making single “rockstar” to 21 Savage, apparently wore a 21 Savage T-shirt but was also silent. The first mention of 21 Savage was made by Swedish “This Is America” producer Ludwig Göransson, who warmly stated, “He should be here.”
And album of the year goes to …
Country singer-songwriter Musgraves, whose Golden Hour picked up the top prize. No diss to Musgraves, a talented voice who will shine for years to come. But for the Grammys, it was yet another telling reminder that black art continues to be overlooked in the most coveted categories.
Tell the Grammys f— that 0 for 8 s—, Jay-Z rhymed on “Apes—” in response to the academy nominating his brilliant 4:44 for eight awards in 2018. He left with no statuettes.
The last black act to win album of the year was celebrated jazz pianist Herbie Hancock in 2008, and that was for the star-studded Joni Mitchell tribute album River. Since then, Swift has won the trophy twice, Adele beat out Beyoncé’s monumental 2016 Lemonade and Bruno Mars won in 2018 for 24K Magic, his love letter to Teddy Riley’s new jack swing. It’s a frustration that Prince knew all too well: His genre-busting 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree.
“I don’t go to awards shows anymore,” Prince said in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview. “I’m not saying I’m better than anybody else. But you’ll be sitting there at the Grammys, and U2 will beat you. And you say to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I can play that kind of music, too. … I know how to do that, you dig? But you will not do ‘Housequake.’ ”
Grammys … do better.
Professional sports’ premier soap opera is the NBA, and it invades Charlotte, North Carolina, this weekend for its 68th All-Star Game. But narrowing things to just the game is a disservice to the infinite dramatic possibilities of the weekend: Thursday through Sunday is an amalgamation of the NBA and pop culture so thorough that no other major American sports league could ever hope to measure up. What makes the NBA the melodramatic provocateur it is are the dramas. Some are obvious. Some aren’t. Some are, at best, are truly just pipe dreams. The following eight stories could spice up an already very hot weekend.
One: The All-Star method to LeBron’s All-Star madness
For LeBron James, this year’s All-Star draft was a riveting moment in a career filled with them. As fate, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s draft strategy would have it, James’ gang is chock-full of soon-to-be free agents — and Anthony Davis, who, unless you’ve been living under a rock the last two weeks or so, you’ve heard has requested a trade — preferably to Los Angeles. While the Lakers came up short in the Davis sweepstakes, Los Angeles, and in particular James and agent Rich Paul, received backlash for what many, including LaVar Ball, dubbed as destroying whatever chemistry the Lakers had left. An improbable Rajon Rondo game-winner in Boston has temporarily quelled critics, but a 23-point dump trucking in Philly brought L.A. back to earth and staring in the face of what will be a race to eighth after the All Star break — if they hope to make the playoffs. So best believe James is using All-Star Weekend for business far beyond just the next few weeks of this season. One would be safe to bet a lot of general managers around the league are none too happy about James’ public chess moves.
Two: Westbrook and Embiid: reunited — and it doesn’t feel so good
By far the funniest moment of the entire All-Star draft was the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Team Giannis and Ben Simmons to Team LeBron. On the surface, it’s James getting his fellow Klutch brethren in Simmons. But the trade really matters for one reason — and one reason only. Westbrook and Joel Embiid, two of the NBA’s most beloved personalities, are now forced to be teammates.
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) February 8, 2019
But, Westbrook and Embiid aren’t fond of each other. At all. The drama began in December 2017 during a triple overtime instant classic between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. When the Sixers and Thunder squared off, Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams and Westbrook — after each fouled out. Oklahoma City ultimately won, leaving Westbrook to return the favor by waving at Embiid. Fast-forward to last month: In another Thunder win, Embiid landed on Westbrook following a blocked shot attempt. Embiid said it wasn’t on purpose. Westbrook believed otherwise. When asked if the two were cool off the court, Westbrook kept it funky. “F— no.” When asked what the issue between the two was, Embiid’s was sarcastic. “I don’t why he was so mad. I have no idea,” the Sixers superstar said. “But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.” Seeing these two on the court at the same time should be absolute comedy. Will they play nice? Or will they freeze each other out? We won’t have to wait long to see them square off again as opponents, though. The Sixers travel to Oklahoma City on Feb. 28, where they hope to get a win versus the Thunder for the first time in 11 years.
Three: Ric Flair, Charlotte’s (Un]official Ambassador
To be the man, you gotta [honor the man at All-Star Weekend]…
OK, so that’s not exactly how the quote goes, but the truth remains the same. Of all the celebrities linked to Charlotte, there is but one who sits at the mountaintop. In a perfect world, Richard Morgan Fliehr, known to the world as Ric Flair, would be front and center at All-Star Weekend festivities. Flair’s wild life has been documented most recently with the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 Nature Boy. There will be many black music stars and fans in town for All-Star, most notably Meek Mill and J. Cole, who are headlining the official halftime show, and hip-hop loves Flair. Think 2012’s “We Ball” with Dom Kennedy and Kendrick Lamar. Think of 2018’s Offset, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Ric Flair Drip” the video that actually starred the former world champion. There’s a possibility Offset could be in town — Charlotte’s just a stone’s throw from Atlanta — and a reunion of sorts could take place. Nevertheless, Flair is a prime candidate for unofficial All-Star Weekend ambassador. Hope he’ll rock a “Free 21 Savage” shirt.
There’s also this: So much of Flair’s DNA is visible in current NBA All-Stars. James’ obsession for the dramatic is as must-see-TV as Flair. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s threat from 3 is as crippling as Flair’s figure-four leg-lock. Westbrook’s fashion sense — need more be said? Also Flair is an undeniable fan favorite on a lifetime victory lap akin to Dwayne Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. Charlotte shouldn’t just want Flair courtside for Sunday’s game. Charlotte needs Flair courtside for Sunday’s game.
Four: Can Quavo go back-to-back into the Celebrity Game record books?
Quavo, reigning Celebrity Game MVP, looks to join Terrell Owens and Kevin Hart as the only players to be named most valuable more than once. Hart, like Young Jeezy and trapping, won it four years in a row. Take away the actual professional basketball players (Ray Allen, A’ja Wilson, Jay Williams), and look at this year’s rosters. Famous Los has already set his sights on the crown, but Quavo will again be the best hooper on the court. Huncho’s silky lefty game is only enhanced by his ability to finish at the rim and get to the free throw line at will — a la James Harden. Also: former Carolina Panthers/future Hall of Fame wide receiver (and one of the all-time great trash talkers in any sport) Steve Smith is on the opposing squad. A Smith-Quavo back-and-forth could be the closest iteration of Harden vs. Draymond Green at All-Star.
Five: Stephen Curry’s Homecoming
The two-time MVP will be a huge part in this weekend’s festivities given his deep and direct ties to the Queen City. His father, Dell, was a sharpshooter for the Charlotte Hornets for 10 seasons. And while Stephen Curry was born in Akron, Ohio (making it one of the most unexpected birthplaces of basketball royalty), Charlotte is where Curry grew up. He attended high school in Charlotte. And because no big-time schools thought much of him, Curry attended Davidson College, about 30 minutes away from downtown Charlotte — and put the school on the basketball map with unparalleled March Madness performances a decade ago. He returns to the city he calls home as the greatest shooter of all time, nearly a surefire lock to obliterate Allen’s all-time 3-point record and future Hall of Famer with three championships (and counting) to his name. Curry and younger brother Seth are both in the 3-point contest, and Curry’s presence in Sunday’s big game has the running narrative of MVP.
Six: Bombs Over Charlotte: A 3-point contest for the ages
There’s reigning champion Devin Booker. There are the aforementioned Curry brothers. Damian Lillard is made for moments like these. Buddy Hield, Joe Harris and Danny Green can all catch fire at a moment’s notice. Khris Middleton, who almost assuredly will have teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo courtside cheering him on. All-Star starter Kemba Walker has home court advantage. And there wouldn’t be an angry person in the world if Nowitzki walked away with the crown. The point being is this: There is no wrong selection here. Just enjoy the light show.
Seven: Happy birthday, Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan turns 56 on Feb. 17, the day of the All-Star Game, and expect the greatest to ever do it to be treated like the royalty he is all weekend long. Jordan’s been waiting for this weekend since 2017, when Charlotte was originally supposed to host the midseason pilgrimage, but due to the discriminatory HB2, known as the “bathroom bill,” Charlotte’s look was postponed. But this year? Here are three Jordan dream scenarios in no particular order:
- Similar to James Davis above, I, too, receive an ultra exclusive invite to whatever Saturday night party Jordan is hosting. Bringing my own cigars, Mike and I chop it up about a variety of topics. About how I found the address to his fan club in an old Sports Illustrated Kids. About how I think his “Flu Game” is really his “Hangover Game” — which is no knock on him. It’s actually more impressive.
- Someone snaps a picture of Jordan and Bill “I don’t play defense” Murray. While Jordan did most of the work versus the Monstars in Space Jam, let the record show Murray has the most important assist in world history. It’s high time we acknowledge Murray for the hero he is.
- Like last year, the game comes down to its final possession. And James, with Jordan courtside, takes the final shot …
Eight: Charlotte ‘Going Bad’ on ’em anyway?
For anyone not familiar with All-Star Weekend, it’s a continuous barrage of parties, sponsored events and open bars. There is, of course, a vital need for music at these events. And if there’s one song most likely to become the unofficial anthem of the weekend, it’s Meek Mill and Drake’s “Going Bad” which officially dropped last week. Sitting at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of Feb. 9, don’t be surprised if it jumps a few slots with an expected All-Star push. Meek is of course one of the two headliners for Sunday’s All-Star Game, along with home state titan J. Cole. Meek will also serve as the MC of pregame introductions with his and Drake’s hit likely playing some role in the moment. It’s a nice setup too, for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the nation’s oldest historically black college conference. The organization has held its annual basketball tournament in the Queen City since 2004. Because of its residency in Charlotte (which ends next year and is headed to Baltimore in 2021), the city is an annual mecca for celebrities such as 21 Savage, Cardi B, Odell Beckham Jr., Rick Ross, Bria Myles, Lil Wayne, DC Young Fly and more. Last year’s CIAA tournament netted north of $50 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. This year’s tournament kicks off Feb. 26.