Shaq steps in as a ‘triple threat’ to help Papa John’s reverse course Former NBA star will be the company’s first African-American board member

NEW YORK — Papa John’s has a new face: NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.

The perennial All-Star and four-time NBA champion turned television commentator, pitchman and serial entrepreneur is joining the troubled pizza chain as what he calls a “triple threat”: its first African-American board member, a brand ambassador, and part-owner of nine franchises.

O’Neal said he had been in discussion with company officials for several months. He told the chain’s CEO Steve Ritchie, that “The only way I would want to be involved is if you got some diversity in your leadership,” O’Neal told The Undefeated. “He said, ‘I’ll take you up on that.’ ”

Not long afterward, O’Neal got a call asking him to join the board of the nation’s third largest pizza delivery chain. “I said, ‘How about a triple threat?’ ” O’Neal recalled. “Board member; I want to invest in stores to show you I’m serious; and, of course, I’ll be an ambassador to the brand.”

O’Neal’s involvement with the company, announced Friday, is a crucial step in Papa John’s efforts to rehabilitate its image after back-to-back racial controversies that crippled sales, depressed its stock price, and eventually upended its leadership.

The turmoil was ignited by company founder John Schnatter, who was also the company’s chief executive, board chairman, and the smiling pitchman known in television commercials as Papa John. In late 2017, Schnatter caused a stir when he blamed a slump in Papa John’s sales on what he saw as the mishandling of NFL player protests by the league.

His objection, while widely shared, was backed not just by people who felt uneasy about players protesting police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem. It also drew support from white nationalists and avowed racists, who named Papa John’s their official pizza.

Then, last summer, the company was rocked after it was reported that he had used the N-word on a conference call during a training session. Schnatter said he had used the word not as a slur, but to illustrate a point. Nonetheless, he quickly disappeared from the chain’s television commercials and promotional materials as the company attempted to distance itself from its founder.

Before long, Schnatter was out as CEO and board chairman, too, although he remains the company’s single largest shareholder.

“All of that stuff was uncalled for and unacceptable. It can’t happen,” O’Neal said, adding that the fact “they have new leadership” made him comfortable with being involved with the chain. As a board member, O’Neal said, he hopes to help foster a more inclusive culture in the chain’s corporate offices, where there were also reports of sexual harassment and an otherwise toxic workplace culture.

NBA Hall of Famer and restaurateur Shaquille O’Neal (right) and Steve Ritchie (left), president and CEO of Papa John’s, at the New York Stock Exchange on March 22 after Papa John’s announced that O’Neal will be joining Papa John’s as a member of the company’s board of directors and as an investor in nine Papa John’s restaurants in the Atlanta area.

Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Papa John's International, Inc.

O’Neal plans to appear in television commercials and make public appearances as part of his reported three-year, $8.25 million deal as an ambassador. He also said he intends to be a regular presence at the nine Atlanta franchises where he is now a part-owner.

“I want to be the one to help cultivate a new culture where everyone knows they are loved and respected,” O’Neal said. “I am not to say I am the savior, but this is a great opportunity.”

O’Neal has been involved in a broad range of outside businesses since the early days of his NBA career. He said he always admired former NBA stars who have gone on to business success, including Junior Bridgeman, the former Milwaukee Bucks swingman, who owns hundreds of franchise restaurants, and Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons guard who led a steel company and automotive supplier.

O’Neal said Magic Johnson, whose business interests range from movie theaters and restaurants to owning a slice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, encouraged him early on to think about leveraging his basketball career to launch a business career.

O’Neal said he started by buying a book that laid out the basics of business ownership. Since then, he has bought and sold Five Guys franchises, Krispy Kreme stores, and Auntie Anne’s locations, among other businesses. He also owns restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as a piece of the Sacramento Kings.

“I try to draw on lessons from my basketball career in how I approach business,” he said. “I do not micromanage. If I was a leader of a team, I did not try to tell the point guard or power forward how they do their job. In business, just try to set a tone. The customer is always right. Have fun, and make sure the product is good.”

O’Neal earned an estimated $292 million during a 19-year NBA career in which he was heralded as one of the most dominant players in league history. Still, he said, he is equally proud of what he is doing as a businessman.

“I have six children,” he said. “And it is cute that their dad was the Shaq. But it is even cuter if their dad can own Krispy Kreme stores, or car dealerships, or other businesses. I want them to see me as something more than just a great basketball player.”

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.





“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.




“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at natgeo.com/theraceissue.

How Kobe Bryant celebrated his Oscar win The NBA superstar partied with ‘Vanity Fair’ and hung out with Jay-Z and Beyoncé

 

Kobe Bryant could have had his first big Hollywood moment 20 years ago.

It was Black Mamba, after all, whom director Spike Lee pegged as Jesus Shuttlesworth in his 1998 film He Got Game. Bryant was all set to play the basketball phenom, the son of Oscar winner Denzel Washington’s incarcerated Jake Shuttlesworth. But he changed his mind before they started filming in 1997. The role ultimately ended up going to Ray Allen.

But Bryant’s become a Hollywood star in his own way. Sunday night, of course, he won an Oscar for best animated short film for Dear Basketball, his retirement letter. From there, the five-time NBA world champion took his statuette to the Vanity Fair party along with revelers such as Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Christopher Walken, Donald Glover and Matt Bomer. Also in attendance at the magazine’s annual bash were rapper Drake, Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige, Sean Combs, Naomi Campbell, and Olympians Gus Kenworthy, Adam Rippon and Lindsey Vonn.

Instagram Photo

Bryant later headed over to West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, where Jay-Z and Beyoncé were throwing a private party honoring Blige’s Oscar moment. Of the 150-plus in attendance were Tracee Ellis Ross, Drake, Tiffany Haddish, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Mindy Kaling, BJ Novak, Shonda Rhimes, Whoopi Goldberg, Usher, DJ Khaled, Oscar winner Jordan Peele and Angela Bassett — all of whom received invites instructing them that there would be “No sitting, only dancing.”

At the West Hollywood hot spot — which, under normal circumstances, is crawling with celebrities — there was a casino setup, and at around midnight, Joe’s Pizza made a huge delivery. Bryant said a week earlier that he doesn’t regret just now getting his big Hollywood moment — he’s not an in-front-of-the-camera type.

“I’m not the most patient of a person,” he said. “When you look at actors … and the downtime involved … it’s just too much for me. I was 17 at the time, and I wanted to … play ball. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well. I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season.”

He says he loves the art of creating. “It’s like putting together a puzzle,” he said. “That’s what I enjoy the most.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster loves his dog, Boujee — and The Powerpuff Girls The California native says that playing in snow is to his advantage

Walking the line between excelling at your first job and staying up all night because of your active social life is a cross so many of us bear at the age of 21. JuJu Smith-Schuster, the star rookie wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is just balancing it much better than most of us.

When he’s not catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger on any given NFL Sunday, Smith-Schuster is your typical 21-year-old. The former USC Trojan manages to upload weekly videos to his YouTube channel, where his nearly 182,000 subscribers can watch him do everything from making a Primanti’s sandwich to hitchhiking. He has a French bulldog named Boujee, who probably — well, definitely — has more followers on Instagram than you. And he stays up all night playing video games. Smith-Schuster did all of this and more while being named the Steelers’ rookie of the year, with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season in the league.

The California native is adjusting to life in the Steel City, but don’t expect him to say “yinz” anytime soon. He quickly chopped it up with The Undefeated after hosting a Call of Duty: World War II livestream with the newly minted first-ballot Hall of Famer Randy Moss in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.


You survived your first winter in Pittsburgh. How traumatized are you?

It was crazy! I left my pizza in the car, and literally overnight it straight froze. It’s really cold. It’s a new thing for me.

So are you trading in the sand for the snow?

I don’t mind the snow. I feel like it’s to our advantage when you live in it and play in it.

“I can spit gum high in the air, like 10 feet, and catch it in my mouth, but I don’t think I can get paid for that.”

Have you tried snowboarding?

No, I want to! I feel like it would be easier than skiing, no?

What would you do if you didn’t play football?

Professional gamer. I can spit gum high in the air, like 10 feet, and catch it in my mouth, but I don’t think I can get paid for that.

Aside from yourself, of course, who’s the best Call of Duty player in the NFL?

Le’Veon Bell. I have to say him because he’s my teammate. He’ll probably laugh if I don’t say him, but he’s up there for sure.

Your dog, Boujee, has quite the following on Instagram …

That dude loves it [in Los Angeles]. He does photo shoots. He likes those.

Are you the photographer?

Yeah, me — and he has a professional photographer. His page is starting to blow up, so they have to be professional.

Favorite cartoon?

The Powerpuff Girls.

What would your superpower be?

To control people’s minds.

What advice would you give to your even younger self?

Take the opportunity to get to know the people around you.

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.

Daily Dose: 11/1/17 José Andrés is feeding Puerto Rico

What up, gang? Wednesday was another TV day, but if you’ve only known me for a little bit, you might want to check out this podcast I did with Sarah Spain. We talked about a lot of things, but mainly about me.

José Andrés is a national treasure. While other people are out here trying to insult Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria — and by other people I mean: the president of the United States of America — the celebrity chef and Washington Wizards fan is doing his best to put food in other people’s mouths. According to The New York Times, he’s served more than 2 million meals there, which is more than any government agency has. Think about that. Dude is the man.

New York City has suffered another terror attack. This time, a man appears to have plotted for weeks to use a truck to attack pedestrians, and on Tuesday he carried out that plan and killed eight people, which Mayor Bill de Blasio called “a cowardly act of terror.” The images from the scene are a horrifying reminder of exactly the kind of world we live in when someone wants to do harm. The man who committed the act had already been interviewed by federal agents in 2015, for whatever that’s worth.

We love a good rap beef. Not like, actual beef where people end up dead, but a good personality skirmish where folks just don’t plain like each other? Here for it. And in the case of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, we have a bit of an issue. Not that they’re necessarily hating on each other, but the two have appeared on the Migos’ new song, and there’s some question about how and why that happened. Nicki has finally addressed the matter. Oh, and on top of that, she’s now the new face of H&M.

Papa John’s is bugging. The pizza company, which you probably know from a) living in the world and b) watching NFL football, is now claiming that because of protests before Sunday games, it’s losing money. I’m sorry, but this is absolutely hilarious. To think that a food company is out here questioning the leadership of a football league because its sales are suffering is completely ridiculous, but not entirely unexpected. This might be a good time to point out that Peyton Manning owns quite a few of those franchises.

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know what nobody does? Waste their drugs on trying to poison children. It’s just not a thing that happens, because on a basic level, people are not particularly interested in wasting their drugs on kids. This is obvious, but law enforcement continues to push this notion like it’s true.

Snack Time: In the midst of various Hollywood types having their actions as predatory men being exposed, we’ve got another person, but this time it’s in the news world. Specially at NPR.

Dessert: This song will forever be a banger, no matter what.

Cam Newton said something stupid and other news of the week The Week That Was Oct. 2 – Oct. 6

Monday 10.02.17

A former South Florida plastic surgeon, who in 1998 was placed on probation by Florida’s health department for a botched penis enlargement procedure, didn’t let his reputation get in the way of being sentenced to 44 months in prison for a failed butt lift. Big Baller Brand owner LaVar Ball, an expert in basic economics as evidenced by offering a $495 basketball shoe, is pulling his 16-year-old son LaMelo Ball out of high school and will homeschool him. Former 10-day White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci launched a social media-only news company that “doesn’t have reporters or staff” and will “100% be getting things wrong” sometimes. The white New York police officer who mistakenly tackled black former tennis player James Blake but was not fired is suing Blake for defamation for being “cast as a racist and a goon.” The lawyer for O.J. Simpson called the Florida attorney general “a complete stupid b—-” and said “F— her” after the woman petitioned to deny Simpson a transfer to serve parole in Florida following his release from a Nevada prison. Rock musician Tom Petty died, then didn’t die, and then died again. One member of country act the Josh Abbott Band finally supports gun control legislation after being affected by a gunman killing 59 people and injuring another 500 at the Las Vegas music festival where he and his bandmates had performed. Hours after the Nevada shooting, former boxer George Foreman challenged actor Steven Seagal to “one on one, I use boxing you can use whatever. 10 rounds in Vegas.”

Tuesday 10.03.17

President Donald Trump threw paper towels at hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. The Tennessee Titans, in need of a mobile quarterback following the injury of starter Marcus Mariota, signed a quarterback not named Colin Kaepernick. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has obviously never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, a show about terrible war strategies, said, “If I’d have watched [Game of Thrones] two years ago, I would’ve been president. … It’s got a lot of good strategies.” The NBA found a way for former teammates LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to not have to play together for the Eastern Conference during February’s All-Star game. Proving that the office of the president of the United States is now a joke, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he is “considering” running for president. The CEO of HBO, a network that will spend a reported $15 million per episode of the final season of Game of Thrones and greenlit Confederate without seeing a script, said “more is not better” in response to streaming competitor Netflix’s plan to spend $7 billion on content next year. Three billion Yahoo accounts were breached in 2013, exposing names, email addresses and passwords; roughly 100 people were actually affected. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.), who allegedly asked his mistress to abort their love child, voted for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks.

Wednesday 10.04.17

Murphy plans to retire at the end of his term. Based on, you guessed it, emails. Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were almost criminally indicted in 2012 until Donald Trump’s lawyer donated $25,000 to the re-election campaign of the Manhattan district attorney. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to NBC News, called Trump a “moron” during a meeting at the Pentagon in July; Trump denied the report and tweeted that NBC News “should issue an apology to AMERICA!”; an MSNBC reporter then clarified that Tillerson called Trump a “f—ing moron.” Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice crashes weddings in his free time, sometimes “cutting a rug,” including to rapper Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle.” Former Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom said he “woulda put my hands on” D’Angelo Russell after the former Lakers guard surreptitiously recorded teammate Nick Young admitting to cheating on his ex-fiancee Iggy Azalea. Former NHL forward Jiri Hudler, while on a flight to the Czech Republic, allegedly solicited cocaine from a flight attendant, threatened to kill her when she refused, eventually ingested cocaine in the plane’s bathroom, and then attempted to urinate on a food court; Hudler denies the allegations.

Thursday 10.05.17

Murphy resigned. NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart, responding to an incident involving the Washington Redskins and a racial slur, said “we have no tolerance for racial remarks directed at anyone in an NFL stadium.” Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton lost a yogurt sponsorship because he just had to get some jokes off. Former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, conveniently retired, said if he were playing today he would “kneel” for the national anthem. Following an “offensive” performance at a Roman Catholic college, comedian Nick Cannon said he “ain’t apologizing for s–t”; the university’s president, winning this war of words, said the school had hoped to get the “NBC or MTV version of Mr. Cannon.” Former New Jersey Nets forward Kenyon Martin said there would have been no way current Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin, who is Chinese, “would’ve made it on one of our teams with that bulls— on his head” in reference to Lin’s dreadlocks hairstyle; in unrelated news, Martin, who is black, has Chinese symbol tattoos. The St. Louis County Police Department, following a lab test, concluded that bottles labeled “apple cider” were in fact apple cider and not “unknown chemicals used against police.” A Baltimore high school was evacuated due to a possible “hazardous substance” found in the building; the substance was a pumpkin spice air freshener.

Friday 10.06.17

Not to be outdone by Yahoo, AOL announced that its 20-year-old instant messaging program, AIM, which was apparently still in operation, will be discontinued in December. Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bogut, who last year pushed the conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton was running a child trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint, said “there are bigger issues … rather than focus on this stupid political s—.” Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has followed through on roughly zero of his big promises, says he can bring power to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In a development that surely has D.A.R.E. shook, marijuana sales led to $34 million in funds for Oregon public schools. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who said last month that he doesn’t believe he ever lied to the public, accused The Washington Post of intentionally not publishing a story about famous Democratic donor Harvey Weinstein on its front page for a story The New York Times broke. Despite (alleged) white supremacists (allegedly) infiltrating the White House, white supremacists killing a woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a reported increase in hate groups since November 2016, the FBI says the group that poses the greatest threat to law enforcement are “black identity extremists,” who don’t actually exist.

Kevin Durant runs fake Twitter accounts and other news of the week The Week That Was Sept. 18-22

Monday 09.18.17

Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall was called “garbage” by a Twitter user who confused him with New York Giants wide receiver Brandon Marshall during Monday Night Football; Denver’s Marshall told the fan, “Meet me in the parking lot after the game chump!” Convicted murderer Dylann Roof, who’s really set in this whole white supremacy thing, wants to fire his appellate attorneys because they are his “political and biological enemies”; the lawyers are Jewish and Indian. Texas football coach Tom Herman, after his team’s 27-24 double-overtime loss to USC over the weekend, said he didn’t cry after the game but that there were “some primal screams” in the shower. Former Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, adding more fuel to the fire that will be Oct. 17, answered, “Why would I?” when asked whether he spoke with then-teammate LeBron James when he demanded a trade over the summer. Former NBA MVP and reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant, still mad online for some reason, apparently has spoof accounts solely for the purpose of defending himself against detractors on Twitter and accidentally tweeted one of said defenses from his actual personal account.

Tuesday 09.19.17

Oklahoma City Thunder center Enes Kanter, who has been with the team for three seasons and thus missed the team’s controversial move from Seattle, shot back at Durant by tweeting that the Thunder are “the best and most professional organization in the NBA.” In the worst mashup since Pizza Hut and KFC joined in unholy matrimony, Detroit will soon be the home of the first IHOP-Applebee’s joint restaurant. Elton John fan President Donald Trump said the U.S. will have no other choice but to “totally destroy” North Korea and its leader, “Rocket Man.” Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard used to call friends during halftime of games to ask about how he was playing. After former Washington Redskins receiver Santana Moss accused teammate Robert Griffin III of celebrating the firing of coach Mike Shanahan in 2013, Griffin shot back by accusing Moss of “subtweeting” him; Moss’ comments were made on the radio, and the retired receiver hasn’t tweeted since 2011. Former Minnesota Timberwolves general manager David Kahn — responsible for drafting point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn, neither of whom are still on the team, ahead of Stephen Curry — said New York Knicks forward Michael Beasley has the ability to replace fellow forward Carmelo Anthony if the latter decides to leave the Knicks. Former Chicago Bears defensive back Charles Tillman wants to become a fed. Hip-hop artist Boosie Badazz, when asked why he dissed late rapper Nussie on his recently released track, responded that “even though he’s gone, rest in peace, I still felt like he was a p—y for what he was doing as far as hating on me and what I had going.”

Wednesday 09.20.17

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), not great with metaphors, compared Republicans’ last-ditch effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act to being “in the back seat of a convertible being driven by Thelma and Louise, and we’re headed toward the canyon.” Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, when asked about his taxpayer-funded $200,000-a-year security costs, told a Milwaukee journalist: “F— you & the horse you rode in on.” It was New York’s Brandon Marshall’s turn to be mixed up with the other Brandon Marshall. Proving definitively that we all look alike, 6-foot-9, 230-pound former NBA player Kenyon Martin said he used to be confused with 6-foot, 200-pound rapper Joe Budden all the time in the early 2000s. NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley called current players “poor babies” for wanting more rest between games; Barkley played a full 82-game season just three times in his 16-year career and logged 44,179 total minutes, nearly 6,000 fewer minutes than LeBron James has in 14 seasons. After Hurricane Maria, which has left at least nine people dead throughout the Caribbean, Sabrina the Teenage Witch expressed her sympathy by complaining about the storm ruining her family vacation to a Nickelodeon resort. Washington Wizards forward Markieff Morris, or his twin brother, Marcus — you can never be too sure — is expected to have sports hernia surgery this week. Former NFL player Albert Haynesworth, who in 2011 said, “I couldn’t tell you the last time I dated a black girl. … I don’t even like black girls,” said the mother of his child, who is white, physically assaulted him and called him the N-word during their two-year relationship.

Thursday 09.21.17

Haynesworth, somehow upsetting another subset of the country in the process, responded to the controversy by stating emphatically that “as long as you are a beautiful REAL WOMAN trust me I’m trying to smash!!!” Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that he never “knowingly” lied while serving in the Trump administration despite saying three days before that he “absolutely” regrets arguing with reporters about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. While claiming that they want the best for their kids, American parents have effectively forced General Mills Inc. to reintegrate “artificial colors and flavors” back into Trix cereal. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a prominent cancer researcher, believes that water consumption, not sunscreen, prevents sunburn. Former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson tweeted out a story with the headline “America’s Jews are driving America’s wars” before later apologizing because “There is so much there that’s problematic AF [as f—] and I should have recognized it sooner.” The makers of Gatorade sports drink, which also produces electrolyte-infused Propel water, must pay $300,000 to the California Attorney General’s Office for telling video game players to avoid water. A Virginia woman said she shot a state trooper in the arm because “I was high as hell.”

Friday 09.22.17

After North Korea leader Kim Jong Un clapped back at Trump by calling the U.S. president a mentally deranged “dotard,” Trump kept the roast session going by calling Kim a “madman.” As further proof that machine is beating man in the fight for the planet, Walmart wants to deliver groceries to customers even when they’re not home. J.R. “Pipe” Smith, a known wordsmith, said future free agent LeBron James is “going to be wherever the f— he wants to be at.” Denver Broncos starting quarterback Trevor Siemian’s parents are still stuck in the cheap seats during home games despite their son leading the team to a 2-0 start this season. Republican lawmakers may fail to repeal the Affordable Care Act (again) because of Arizona Sen. John McCain (again).

Star Wright and the Philadelphia Phantomz make a place for hard-hitting women For this women’s football team and its founder, the motto is ‘I can play’


PHILADELPHIA — Sitting in her doctor’s office in early June, Star Wright didn’t know her football season was over, not yet.

But she had a feeling. The damage to her liver and spleen where the helmet had hit was too great, and the Women’s World Championship was too soon. She had bounced back from injuries before, though: a car accident that fractured her skull and crushed her ankle, a shoulder broken during her stint in the Lingerie League, a torn MCL.

The World Championship only comes around every four years, and at 34, this could be her last chance. “I feel like I can play,” she told the doctor.

Philadelphia Phantomz founder Star Wright waits nervously as a University of Pennsylvania doctor reviews her charts during an appointment in West Philadelphia.

“I can play.” It’s a phrase that sums up the determination and athleticism that define Wright’s life. It’s why she founded the Philadelphia Phantomz, a professional women’s tackle football team based in North Philadelphia.

Finishing their second season in June with a record of 4-4, the Phantomz are one of the newer additions to the Women’s Football Alliance, which now boasts 65 teams in the United States and Canada and is the largest of three women’s tackle leagues in the country, along with the Independent Women’s Football League and the United States Women’s Football League. They play their home games at Simon Gratz High School in North Philadelphia, where Wright lettered in swimming, basketball and track. Admission is $15, although the players aren’t paid.

Most of the women on the Phantomz were standout athletes in their youth. Some turned to football as a new opportunity for competitive play in their 20s and 30s. Others heard about the team from friends and decided to try out, seeking the camaraderie and motivational environment of the team. The 36 women on the Phantomz, who range in age from 18 to 51, often describe the team as a sisterhood.

“We teach women who’ve never played football, who know nothing about football,” said Wright, who plays linebacker and is the team’s president. “We teach them the ins and outs, how to compete and how to be players. And I think that contributes to becoming a family, too, like we’re friends where we care about each other.”

Many team members say that playing football is a chance for women to finally get the recognition they deserve, to prove they don’t need to play with men to compete at the highest level.

And let there be no doubt: These women hit hard.

“It’s very, very physical,” said running back Angie Wells, 30, who led the team in touchdowns this year despite constant knee pain from a previous surgery. “We don’t have a lot of subs. You get tired and it’s like the 12th round in a boxing match.”

“We’re trying to make a point here,” said linebacker Ebony Fowlkes, 30, an assistant basketball coach at Harcum College in nearby Bryn Mawr and its assistant director of residence life. “We’re trying to say that women can do anything.”

Members of the Philadelphia Phantoms women’s tackle football team practice in Hunting Park in Philadelphia, PA.

Members of the Philadelphia Phantoms women’s tackle football team practice in Hunting Park in Philadelphia, PA.

Philadelphia Phantomz coaches look on as defensive back Sade “Murda” Buie runs drills at Hunting Park in North Philadelphia, May 31, 2017.

Members of the Philadelphia Phantomz suit up for practice as family members and girlfriends hang out beside them at Hunting Park in North Philadelphia.

Teammates attend to Shantia Creech after she injured her foot during practice at Hunting Park in North Philadelphia.

Star Wright, her children Kyla, 10, Kion, 13, and team manager Robert “Bam” Flood grab slices of pizza for dinner before an administrative team meeting at Wright’s home in North Philadelphia.

Ebony Fowlkes, center, jokes around with Kia Ivery, right, and Angela Sherman, left, before piling into a rental van for a five-hour drive to Boston play the Boston Renegades, in Philadelphia, PA

The Philadelphia Phantomz practice offensive plays in the parking lot of their hotel shortly before an away game against the Boston Renegades in Boston, MA.

Sade “Murda” Buie applies green-colored eye black to her face before an away game against the Boston Renegades, in Boston, MA.

Star Wright, coaching instead of playing due to an injury, gives advice to her teammates before playing the top-rated Boston Renegades in Boston, MA.

Jacque Dorsey, center, makes a big tackle during an away game against the Boston Renegades, in Boston, MA.

Philadelphia Phantomz founder Star Wright drives to a doctors appointment from North Philly with downtown Philadelphia in the distance.

Philadelphia Phantomz quarterback Satoria Bell, center, and teammates during practice in Hunting Park in North Philadelphia.

Friends and family members meet members of the Phantomz at the gates to wish them luck before their game against the New York Sharks.

North Philadelphia residents watch the Philadelphia Phantomz play against the New York Sharks from a pavilion in Hunting Park in North Philadelphia.

Star Wright on the field before the start of the Philadelphia Phantomz game against the New York Sharks in Hunting Park in North Philadelphia.

Members of the Philadelphia Phantomz hold hands before the start of their game against the New York Sharks in North Philadelphia.

_

Lee England Jr. is the WWE’s king of string style The viral violinist is making a name for himself playing with Shinsuke Nakamura

The first time WWE audiences saw Lee England Jr. — a former elementary school teacher and alum of Sean Combs’ MTV show, Making The Band — was last August at a sold-out Barclays Center. He was front and center at an unexpected event: NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II, a showcase of the WWE’s developmental talent (their version of the NBA’s D-League). England was performing a live violin rendition of fan favorite Shinsuke Nakamura’s entrance theme. His rendition of the song, combined with Nakamura’s electric charisma, made for one of the most memorable WWE ring entrances. Ever.

So when the lights went out at Orlando, Florida’s, Amway Center for a live edition of WWE Smackdown! on April 4, with a spotlight shining on England Jr. and his violin, the crowd erupted. They knew magic was about to happen. England Jr.’s appearance meant that the beloved Nakamura, also known as The King Of Strong Style, was debuting on the WWE superstar roster. England Jr.’s appearance also meant that we were in for another unforgettable entrance. And that we got, complete with a show-stealing solo and a choreographed bow between England Jr. and Nakamura. Once again, England Jr. had become a viral sensation.

We caught up with England Jr. about his entrances, his relationship with Jordan Brand — he’s the only nonathlete with a contract — and the important things, like what’s in his fridge.

What made you first pick up the violin?

I was drawn to it, so my parents bought me one, but I immediately hated it. I told my pops I wanted to quit, and he said, ‘Just practice 15 minutes a day and you can quit.’ So I literally practiced so I could quit. He Jedi mind-tricked me into playing.

How is a violinist signed to Jordan Brand?

I ended up performing at [the 2010] All-Star Weekend in Dallas for one of Michael Jordan’s parties. I had five minutes to show him who I was, and ever since then we’ve had a good relationship. And that’s how I got to WWE — as a thank you from Jordan Brand for all of the years [Brand Jordan and WWE] worked together.

What’s your favorite late-night food spot?

In L.A., I’d have to say Berri’s. I usually get the seafood linguine. Or their lobster pizza.

Who’s your favorite athlete of all time?

Michael Jordan [laughs].

I saw that one coming.

[Laughs.] With MJ, it wasn’t just his talent on the court. It was his persona off the court. I was drawn to the humility he possessed even though he was the greatest basketball player of my generation. I won’t try to debate people from other generations about who’s the greatest, but he’s the GOAT to me. Even him getting cut from the team in high school, him not quitting, was huge. I’m someone who lives by that. I’m not going to let you define me. If there’s something I need to accomplish, then I won’t let you define my work.

“It was soul-opening to know I was in the land where I can trace my history.”

Who’s the most famous person following you on social media?

Jordan Brand is, but aside from them, one of the actresses from Sex and the City. Oh, and my boy Kenneth Faried, who plays for the Nuggets.

What’s the first concert you went to?

The first concert I went to, that I paid money for, was a Jay Z concert.

Which era Jay Z?

I think that was around the time of American Gangster.

What’s an album that you think is a classic that no one else does?

Goodie Mob. [1995’s] Soul Food.

A lot of people think that’s a classic, though.

I was thinking about younger cats. There’s a [1976] album by Duke Ellington called Jazz Violin Session. That’s not something a lot of people know about.

Name one thing you hate that everyone else loves.

I don’t like coconut.

Name one place you want to visit.

South Africa. I went to Africa one time before. I felt like it widened my experience as a human being. It’s the cradle of civilization and traces me back to my heritage. It was soul-opening to know I was in the land where I can trace my history.

What do you do before a big performance?

Pray. Give homage.

What advice would you give your 15-year-old self?

Love yourself. I feel like I’m cool with who I am right now. And telling myself something different from what I already knew would change the trajectory of my life. And I love where I’m at right now. So I’d just say, have fun.

What’s in your refrigerator right at this moment?

Lotta vegetables. Lotta fruit. Tomatoes. Avocados. Kale. Lime. Strawberries. I think there’s some shrimp in here. Watermelon. Peanut butter Snickers bars. They gotta be frozen. Some leftovers, and champagne.

“I literally practiced so I could quit. He Jedi mind-tricked me into playing.”

What’s one habit you wish you could shake?

Sometimes I overthink situations where I should be more spontaneous. It’s not a bad habit, but I wish I would be more spontaneous with certain things. I don’t want to be overly perfectionist. If I could just go for it, I think people would enjoy themselves more.

What are you looking forward to achieving in 2017?

I’m working on an album right now. I’m being managed by Quincy Jones. I’m looking forward to being exposed more. Not just a violinist but the total, complete package. I want people to see how focused I am with my singing and songwriting abilities too.

Is performing in front of a wrestling crowd different than what you’re used to?

No, it’s not different at all. I’ve performed NBA arenas and toured big stages all the time. One thing that was beautiful was when I first walked out to perform [at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn II] there were 16,000 people, and they were quiet as a mouse. So to have that captive audience was an amazing experience. I didn’t expect them to be that attentive. And then in Orlando, what was crazy was that they saw me and went nuts. They were so loud I didn’t think they were going to hear me.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To realize that everything you see now was once an idea. And if you manifest your ideas, you can live the life you dreamed of.