Behind the complicated relationship between Washington and baseball The Nationals could win their first World Series, but would it be bittersweet?

D.C. baseball fans were ecstatic last week when the Washington Nationals captured their first National League pennant, high-fiving, screaming and hugging each other all around town. Three local TV affiliates stayed with crowds outside the ballpark and on nearby streets long after their normal broadcast lengths, including one that didn’t join its regularly scheduled programming until well past midnight. The following day, happy Washingtonians rocked Nats gear, recounted game highlights, and reached out to contacts about World Series tickets.

It was a moment many will cherish for the rest of their lives. But not for all Washington baseball fans.

Others reflected on the region’s complicated relationship with pro baseball, its racist past and its current dynamics.

Yes, the Nationals hosted their first World Series game on Friday night against the Houston Astros and hold a 2-1 series lead, but for a generation of locals there is still bitterness over previous teams leaving town. From 1972 to 2004, the nation’s capital was devoid of the national pastime on a professional level. Fans could experience every major sports league except baseball.

Washington had been branded as a place where baseball went to fail. For black sports fans, in particular, the city’s national reputation was especially troubling.


Why BASEBALL ABANDONED Washington

Washington had generally supported the game — in good times and the more frequent lean years — since the late 1800s. And in 1943, the Homestead Grays of the Negro National League began dividing time between Pittsburgh and Washington. Their Washington home was Griffith Stadium, owned by Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith.

Grays games were played in a predominantly black section of town called LeDroit Park, home to Howard University and the historic chitlin circuit entertainment venue, the Howard Theater. The team won pennants in 1943, 1944, 1945 and 1948, which happens to be the last time Washington hosted a baseball championship game. When the major leagues were integrated, and the Negro National League folded, the Grays disappeared after a couple of seasons as an independent team. The Senators were integrated in 1954 by signing Cuban outfielder Carlos Paula.

The Homestead Grays pose in 1943 for their team portrait. In the back row, Cool Papa Bell is second from left, and Buck Leonard, second from right. Ray Brown is in the front row, far right.

Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

The 1960 Senators, who finished 73-81, drew more than 743,000 fans — a respectable number for the era (Griffith Stadium seated only 28,669 fans). But when the season ended, owner Calvin Griffith (the nephew of Clark Griffith, who died in 1955) agreed to sell the team to a Minnesota ownership group. Fans were upset that the improving ballclub was being relocated. And by 1965, Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison led the Minnesota Twins to the World Series.

More damaging was the revelation that came years later, in September 1978, when Calvin Griffith explained the move at a Lions Club dinner in Waseca, Minnesota.

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota,” Griffith said. “It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

This confirmed what black Washingtonians and some sports media had suspected of Griffith all along, and it further branded the city as undesirable for his fellow MLB owners.

“The baseball owners and commissioner didn’t understand the historical bond between the black community and Griffith Stadium [which was open for many black community events], the legacy of the mighty Homestead Grays in the city,” said Washington native Brad Snyder, who has written books about the Senators and the integration of baseball.

The Senators were replaced in 1961 by an expansion team, also named the Senators, after the American League voted to add two new franchises.

During this time, Washington was a social tinderbox. Police brutality was rampant, and Marion Barry, first chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, made his name locally in 1965 and 1966 by calling attention to the issue.

In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, things got worse. Washington saw a 67% increase in homicides between July 1967 and July 1968. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pronounced the District as “one of the crime capitals of the nation.”

Labels such as “crime capital” are difficult to shed. In the first few years after the ’68 unrest, the city experienced white flight by families apprehensive about safety, and black households with similar concerns. Those who could afford to move — not to mention spend money on a baseball game — relocated to Maryland or Virginia.

In 1971, Washington Senators’ manager Ted Williams (center) gets together with two newly acquired ball players Curt Flood (left) and Denny McLain (right) at training camp in Florida.

Getty Images, Bettmann / Contributor

Although the Washington ballclub drew 918,000 fans in 1969, finished 86-76, and hosted the ’69 All-Star Game to help commemorate MLB’s 100th anniversary, the 1970 and 1971 teams did not play as well, and attendance fell off. Fan sentiment about seeing games in a mostly black part of Southeast Washington contributed as much to the decline as losing records. The 1970 trade for former Cy Young winner Denny McLain, whose career had come to be marked by a suspension for bookmaking, another for carrying a pistol on a team flight, weight gain, and a considerable decline in his pitching skills, symbolized the fall of the franchise.

The Senators’ final home game was against the New York Yankees in 1971. They were leading 7-5 in front of more than 14,000 fans, many of whom hoisted banners and signs criticizing owner Bob Short, who had put the team up for sale after the 1970 season. But with one out remaining in the ninth inning, fans began to pour onto the diamond, pull up the bases, tear the turf, and touch the home players. Washington lost the game by forfeit, and MLB for a generation.

Short sold the team to a Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, group after the 1971 season.

“Losing the team was devastating,” said Washington native Brian Gilmore, now director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law. “I played little league coming up every year, so when the team left I eventually drifted away from it — as did so many black kids.

“Nevertheless, ‘Chocolate City’ was magical back then for a young black kid like myself. There was a sense of pride and purpose.”


‘City Under Siege’

By the 1970s, Washington became so synonymous with blackness that Parliament released an album titled Chocolate City. For decades, its mayors, police chiefs, school board commissioners and city council chairs were black. Twenty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, most of its high schools were upward of 90% black. Socially, the largely white pockets of Washington west of Rock Creek Park and the predominantly black corridors east of the Anacostia River seldom coalesced.

Between 1972 and 2003, baseball owners who heard presentations about Washington, learned the city had a subway system with a stop at RFK Stadium, a vibrant sports talk radio landscape, avid rooters of the NFL franchise and Maryland and Georgetown college basketball, and baseball-loving transients from all over the U.S. But Washington suffered from its image as a crime capital. One local TV affiliate led its nightly newscast with the number of residents murdered to date, under the headline City Under Siege.

Between 1972 and 2004, Seattle Toronto, Denver, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix all received major league baseball teams. Washington experienced only close calls (including from the 1974 San Diego Padres, 1987 San Francisco Giants, and the Houston Astros in 1995). The narrative about Washington in baseball media circles was that it was an unsafe, predominantly black city that had already lost two MLB franchises because white fans were afraid to go to the ballpark.

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners when Washington nearly received another team before the 1974 season,” Snyder said. “The baseball owners of that era were a racist and fearful bunch, especially after the 1968 riots about Dr. King’s death, about putting a team in D.C.”

“Certainly the concept of Chocolate City was not a drawing card for the MLB owners.” — Brad Snyder

When Camden Yards opened in 1992, the Baltimore Orioles averaged more than 44,000 fans. A survey determined that 21.9% of fans at Camden Yards were from the Washington metropolitan area. Baltimore had a downtown ticket office in Washington, Orioles results were featured on Washington TV and radio sports reports and some fans rocked their gear, but the city was split on the long game. Some argued that their numbers at Baltimore games signaled a thirst for baseball. Others believed that giving money to Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who opposed a Washington franchise, worked at cross purposes. Fans under 30 could not remember the Senators, so many grew up backing the Orioles.

When Washington investors appealed to MLB for a franchise during the 1990s, though, they cited their share of Baltimore attendance as a strong suit.

After the peak of the crack epidemic in the early ’90s, Washington saw an influx of young white professionals who sought to live closer to Metro transit system stations and their jobs, many of them singles who did not need a large yard or the highly ranked school systems of nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, or Fairfax County, Virginia, two of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. By 2009, the city was only 53% black, and violent crime decreased 50% from 1995 to 2010. Washington had become a more attractive destination to MLB brass.


Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper makes the first out of the game as he catches a hit by Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward during the opening day game at Nationals Park between the Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves on April 4, 2014.

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The arrival of the nationals

Some of Washington’s black and civic leadership opposed the return of big league baseball. Opponents voiced skepticism that a new team would bring revenue or employment to an economically challenged section of the city, especially for its poorest residents. But when the Montreal Expos became available, Washington’s Lerner family put in a bid. Most National League owners favored a sale, not wishing for the league to run the franchise. Twenty-nine of 30 owners voted in approval of the Lerners’ $450 million purchase.

Washington was awarded the franchise in 2004 under the condition they would build a new stadium, given that RFK Stadium was more than 40 years old. This city-funded initiative was resisted by some elected officials, especially City Council member Linda Cropp, who opposed public funding for a ballpark, arguing that schools and community services were bigger priorities. Fellow council member and former mayor Marion Barry, meanwhile, advocated that black and Latino contractors and vendors be considered in the enterprise.

Fan reaction to the return was mixed. There were those who echoed the skepticism of city officials. But fans favoring the return were excited because it meant no more trips up to Baltimore. One of the most popular fan choices for the new team’s name was “Grays” in tribute to the Homestead Grays, but team management chose to call them the Washington Nationals.

E. Ethelbert Miller, who has lived in Washington since 1968 and is a former Washington poet laureate, is glad to have the game back.

“When I decided to make this city my home following my graduation in 1972, I didn’t view this city as being a home for baseball,” Miller said. “D.C. and sports seem to always begin and end with the Washington Redskins.

“I was very happy when the game returned to D.C.”

But as the city celebrates the success of its third major league iteration, less apparent to the general public are mixed feelings about the organization’s treatment of manager Dusty Baker, who was fired in 2017 after back-to-back trips to the playoffs, and the entitlement of white fans commuting to the game by subway.

“If you want to know how black people view baseball in Washington, simply ride the Green Line after a game ends. Notice how black folks who get on the Metro at Anacostia view the white baseball fans when the train reaches the ballpark stop,” Miller said.

“This is not the Underground Railroad. It’s easy to monitor fear in the eyes of white folks and disgust in the eyes of blacks. It’s a combination of race and class. … Some of this is not going to change.”

No matter the outcome of the World Series, baseball in Washington either symbolizes triumph over recalcitrant owners, or the gentrification of the 2000s, depending on one’s lens.

Once upon a dream Photos of superfans celebrating the world of Disney

D23 is the yearly expo for the official Disney Fan Club. Held near Disneyland in California, it’s a three-day convention filled with parades, panels, celebrities, Mickey Mouse and, of course, cosplay. Fans showed up dressed as their favorite characters from the world of Disney, including Marvel, Star Wars, iconic princesses and even Walt Disney himself. As Disney strives to be more inclusive to people and fans of color, we celebrate the creativity that was on full display in Anaheim this summer.

Naomi (left) and Kaliya Trias (right) as Valkyrie and Hela, characters from Thor: Ragnarok.

Aleu Moana dressed as Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Pernell Langhorne dressed as Captain America.

Tahirah Agbamuch dressed in a look inspired by Shuri, Princess of Wakanda, from Black Panther.

Phoenix Skye dressed as Disney’s Moana Waialiki.

Joel Alexander laughs as his Hulk head is removed.

Melanie Strickland as Disney Princess Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Skyler Harper as Black Panther.

Nicole Shea dressed as Captain America.

A fan dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle.

Madison Rose shows her Disney pride, tooth gems and all.

Day Truong dressed as Aladdin.

Taylor Godfrey dressed as Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.

Amanda Temporal dressed as Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hyuma Atushi dressed as a well-known statue of Walt Disney holding the hand of Mickey Mouse.

Indiana Pacers superfan Mike Epps on his friendship with Myles Turner Ahead of his movie ‘Dolemite Is My Name,’ comedian Epps discusses his friendship with Turner and their relationship with the city that bonds them

Whenever Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner is around comedian Mike Epps, he knows some jokes are coming his way. It’s pretty much bound to happen.

“Just making fun of my feet and how big I am,” Turner said. “He’s a funny dude.”

Epps’ personal favorite is when he compares Turner to a popular Atlanta rapper.

“A 6-11 Future,” Epps told The Undefeated over the phone recently, before bursting out in laughter.

As much as their growing friendship revolves around fun and laughter, their love for the Pacers and the Indianapolis community is what brings them together. As Turner, 23, enters his fifth NBA season and Epps, 48, prepares to star with fellow comedian Eddie Murphy in the Netflix movie Dolemite Is My Name with limited release on Friday, they came together Sept. 26 for a panel discussion at Indianapolis’ Shortridge High School to motivate hundreds of teens.

Local promoter and community activist Amp Harris orchestrated the event through a new series of forums called Making the Right Play in Life, which benefits Indianapolis Public Schools.

It was Harris who first introduced Epps to Turner outside of a game setting. In January, Turner and members of the Pacers team attended one of Epps’ comedy shows. Epps, a native of Indianapolis, frequently attends Pacers games and sported team gear during the panel discussion.

“I just think that he takes a lot of pride in being from Indy, and that’s one of the things he wanted to share,” Turner said. “He takes pride in everything he does, so it wasn’t too odd seeing him out of character.”

Epps is also preparing to star in a Netflix comedy series with Wanda Sykes called The Upshaws, which is centered on an African American working-class family in Indiana.

The Undefeated recently caught up with Epps for an exclusive interview.


In regards to the event, why was it so important for you to be able to give back to the Indianapolis community, where you’re from, with a guy like Myles Turner?

You know what? For this city right here, the youth is always in need for encouragement from somebody to come back and show them that they love them and they’re thinking about them, to try and give them some encouraging words.

Every time there’s a great opportunity — especially with a guy like Myles, who has a great attitude about that game — when you match it up like that, you’ve got to be a part of that because you definitely know somebody’s life is going to be saved.

Amp Harris is always putting together these great opportunities for us in the city, and he called me to say, ‘Mike, I’ve got another way for us to get a hold of the kids, are you down?’ I was like, ‘Amp, you know how we do it. We come together and make it happen.’ So it was definitely needed.

How did that relationship start with Myles? I saw that he attended one of your comedy shows earlier this year, but when did it begin?

My man Amp Harris has always been the liaison between athletes and entertainers here in this town, and he brought Myles to the comedy show. Myles enjoyed it, and we’ve been kicking it ever since. Every time I talk to him, we’re just talking about how to better the community and improve the kids.

Indiana Pacers player Myles Turner (center) trains during the Indianapolis Pacers’ preseason.

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images

What are you expecting from him this year? He had a solid summer with Team USA Basketball, and obviously he’s putting in work to become better.

I think his confidence is up a little higher this year. He seems a little bit more stronger and I think he is going to go hard. Myles is one of those humble guys, but when he turns into a monster and he realizes that he’s got the strength to take over, then it’s over with. I’ve got my money on him.

I know you’ve been a Pacers fan for a long time, but when did your love for the team start?

Man, I’ve been a Pacers fan since Billy Knight, since the late ’70s, so to talk to me about Pacers, I’m just a die-hard fan, period.

It seems like the championship is up for grabs this season; with the Eastern Conference being wide-open, how do you like their chances this year?

They’re sleeping on the Pacers. The Pacers are going to come up and lick them this year.

Are you planning on attending any games?

I’ll be at plenty of them.

Cool. So is there anything else you would like to say about the Indianapolis community to bring awareness to your cause, especially with Myles, in closing?

I just want to let everyone know that Indianapolis is a great town that needs some improvement. We need to stop the violence and teach the kids that they’re loved out here. Go Pacers. Myles Turner can’t be stopped in 2020.

The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

The story behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first Nike signature sneaker After sharing a pair of shoes with his brother as a kid, the NBA MVP now has his own — the Nike Zoom Freak 1

ATHENS, Greece — The gym sits on the east side of central Athens in the densely populated suburb of Zografou. Nestled between collections of abundant trees is a set of stairs leading to a ground-level entrance, where a small lobby gives way to the double doors of a basketball court. Behind them is where one of basketball’s best-kept secrets once hooped.

It’s where it all began for a 12-year-old kid by the name of Γιάννης Αντεκουντούμπου.

Long before the world knew him as Giannis Antetokounmpo — the Eurostepping Greek Freak with the 6-foot-11, 242-pound body and mythical athleticism — the reigning NBA MVP played at the home of Filathlitikos Basketball Club.

“He was like a cricket,” says Takis Zivas, head coach of Filathlitikos B.C., Antetokounmpo’s first team. “His legs were immense, but his torso was small in comparison to the rest of the body.” Zivas, a slender man wearing years of coaching under his eyes, still remembers the first time Antetokounmpo came into his gym. “I just hadn’t seen a kid like that before,” he says. “His eyes, they were shining.”

Antetokounmpo learned the game of basketball on the aged hardwood of Filathlitikos’ court, its measurements, particularly in width, more fitting of a small soccer field. The two original hoops that once hung from the gym’s ceiling have been retired and permanently raised to the rafters. A pair of stanchions took their place and now hold baskets with rims slowly beginning to rust. Atop one sideline, a wall of cloudy windows allows the powerful sun to creep inside. In the heart of summer, not even the five towering air-conditioning units mounted throughout the space can overcome the scorching heat after a few trips up and down the floor.

For two years, Antetokounmpo trained here multiple times a day before being selected to join Filathlitikos’ youth team. Zivas drilled the kid at all levels of the club, including with the women’s team, while teaching him to navigate the court as a point guard with speed and discipline. At 14, he began playing with the men’s team. After his two eventual agents came to see the phenom for themselves, they started to spread the gospel of his crazy potential. By the time Antetokounmpo was 17, chairs were lined up against the wall on the near sideline for throngs of NBA scouts, general managers and owners to watch the promising prospect work out.

“The way Giannis would see things from a young age, the way he was so serious about things, the way he perceived … he had a different mentality than everybody else,” says Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Giannis’ older brother and former Filathlitikos teammate. “Like, ‘Listen, I know I’m playing in this gym, but I’m working to be in the NBA … because I know, at some point, I’m gonna be in the NBA. And when I play in the NBA, I’m gonna be ready.’ ”

More than a decade after he walked through the building’s doors for the first time, Antetokounmpo, now an All-NBA forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, returned as the NBA’s newly minted MVP. At the end of June, five days after he was presented with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy and delivered a tearful MVP acceptance speech, Antetokounmpo arrived at his childhood gym in Zografou, walked onto the court and took a seat in a chair too small for him way back then and even smaller for him now.

Leaning between his long legs, he began tying the laces of a new pair of sneakers: orange and navy Nikes, with an interlocking “GA” logo on the tongue and another logo on the heel intertwining No. 34 with the flag of Greece.

They’re called the Nike Zoom Freak 1s — Antetokoumpo’s debut signature sneaker. At 24 years old, he’s the first international basketball player to receive his own Nike shoe. A distinction that isn’t lost upon him.

“I wanted my shoe to basically introduce me and my family to the world,” says Antetokounmpo. The outer midsoles of each sneaker feature the names of his parents: his mother, Veronica, and late father, Charles, who emigrated together from Nigeria to Greece in the early 1990s to provide a better life for their boys. Inscribed on the soles of each shoe’s heel are the names of Antetokounmpo’s four brothers: Francis, Thanasis, Kostas and Alex.

“I wanted a good-looking shoe that could tell a story that a kid could relate to,” he continues. “A shoe that could make a kid work hard. A shoe that could make a kid believe in his dream.”

It’s a shoe he never could’ve imagined, in his wildest dreams, calling his own. Not when his story began back in Greece, inside this gym, where the sneakers he laced up didn’t even belong to him.


Giannis Antetokounmpo training in the black/white colorway of his Nike Zoom Freak 1, which released on July 10.

Nike

Initially, it took some persuading to get young Giannis on a basketball court. He dreamed of becoming a soccer player like his father once was back in Nigeria. But Giannis absolutely adored his older brother, Thanasis, and wanted to spend as much time with him as he could. Long story short: “I didn’t choose basketball,” Giannis says. “Thanasis chose basketball.”

The game isn’t the only thing Thanasis introduced to his little brother.

When Thanasis was 17, he signed a pro contract to play with Maroussi in the top division of the Greek Basketball League, and the club blessed him with a few pairs of free sneakers.

Giannis will never forget the day Thanasis returned home with boxes containing prized possessions that had been hard to come by during their childhood. To provide for their family, Charles worked as a handyman and Veronica sold goods on the streets of Athens, often joined by their sons. “Our parents gave us whatever they had, and it got the job done,” Thanasis says. “But we didn’t have a lot of money.”

So basketball shoes, especially new ones, were a luxury.

“I remember … he had a pair of these Kobes,” Giannis says. “Those are the shoes I wanted.” But Thanasis big bro’d Giannis, calling dibs on a coveted red and white pair of Kobe Bryant’s signature Nike Kobe 4s. “Thanasis was like, ‘You can have the ugly pair,’ ” Giannis recalls, “the heavy ones.” Of course, the younger Antetokounmpo brother accepted the sneakers and played in them. But he also plotted a way to get his feet in those Kobes.

When Thanasis fell asleep, or left the shoes at home, Giannis would take them to go practice. He’d make the trek from his family’s home in the Sepolia neighborhood of northwest Athens to the Filathlitikos gym in Zografou. The journey was approximately 4 miles on foot each way, but lacing up the Kobe 4s was worth every step and bit of wrath he’d face from Thanasis when he found out his little brother was wearing his shoes.

“Thanasis used to get mad at me,” Giannis says. “He was like, ‘No, man. Those are my shoes. I love those shoes. Don’t make them dirty. Don’t use them.’ ”

Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) wanted his first Nike signature shoe to tell his family’s story. Here, he’s pictured with his father, Charles and his brothers Thanasis (top), Kostas (right) and Alex (center). All of their names are incorporated into the design of the Nike Zoom Freak 1.

Courtesy of Nike

Their father, Charles, overheard the boys’ exchange and interjected. “My dad came out and was like, ‘That’s your younger brother. You’ve gotta share shoes with him. If he wants to wear them, he can wear them. It’s not like we have a bunch of shoes,’ ” Giannis remembers. “That’s when me and Thanasis started sharing shoes.”

The Antetokounmpo family eventually moved closer to Zografou, where both Giannis and Thanasis played for Filathlitikos. Soon afterward, sharing sneakers, which started out of necessity, became a practice that the two brothers — separated in age by two years, four months and 18 days — perfected. Giannis would play in the shoes first for the club’s under-16 team. After his game ended, he’d give them to Thanasis, who’d wear the already sweaty kicks against fellow 17- and 18-year-olds. When they were playing at different levels, the routine was easy. But Giannis kept growing, and his game kept improving, allowing him the opportunity to start playing up in Thanasis’ age group. Sharing the same sneakers in the same game presented a different challenge. It meant Giannis and Thanasis couldn’t be on the court together.

“I know a lot of people would say, ‘Man, that’s hard.’ But it was actually really fun, to be honest with you,” Thanasis says. “We’d get to play quarter by quarter. If we want a stop, if we need defense … a basket, I sub out, he puts on the shoes, he subs in. … We still beat them, and the other kids are frustrated like, ‘We’re losing to some guys who don’t even have shoes.’ ”

One day back in 2011, Thanasis pulled up to Ministry of Concrete, a sneaker and streetwear boutique in Athens, in search of new kicks for off the court. He’d saved up a little bit of money, and the store’s owner, Alex Segiet, gave him a deal on a pair of high-top Nike Dunks. “I had that one pair of sneakers for three years,” says Thanasis, who speaks gratefully, as if the shoes lasted him an eternity. “I remember he was so fascinated by the shoes,” recalls Segiet, who cherishes that transaction from several years ago for another reason. It was the first time he had ever heard about Giannis.

“Thanasis said he would bring his younger brother, once they got the money, and buy another pair,” Segiet says.

Giannis never made it into the store. He had other ways to search for sneakers.

“I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy … I might be like Kobe, KD, LeBron, all these guys that have their own signature shoe, and play with it in the game.’ I was really, really happy.” — Giannis Antetokounmpo

“There was a period where he was running around to find Jordans,” remembers Zivas. But Giannis would wear anything he could find. And he made most of his inquiries inside Filathlitikos’ gym.

“I was just hunting down shoes from teammates,” he says. “After practice, I’d go up to them and ask, ‘Are you done with those? Do you still want those?’ They were like, ‘C’mon, Giannis … but OK,’ and take them off their feet. ‘You can have them.’ I had great teammates growing up. They took care of me like I was their younger brother. There was a lot of other families and kids out there that had it way worse than me.”

Size didn’t matter to Giannis — especially if someone was gracious enough to give him a pair of shoes. “To this day … I’m so embarrassed by my toes. They’re curled up because … there was a time that I wore shoes two sizes smaller,” he says. “And there were times that I wore way bigger shoes. It was better than wearing a size smaller.”

When Antetokounmpo was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, he owned 10 or 12 pairs of sneakers. But that was about to change. Before his rookie season, he took the one offer he received for a shoe deal. It just so happened to come from the company that made his favorite pair of kicks to hoop in as a kid.

“Nike was the only company that took a chance on me,” he says. “There were other companies that did not care to sign me. … I wasn’t on the list … but people from Nike came in and said, ‘We’re gonna get that guy. We’re gonna take care of him and his family.’ That meant a lot.”

Antetokounmpo’s dozen-pair collection quickly expanded exponentially. “He was so happy,” Thanasis says, “like, ‘Man, I can keep this shoe, I can wear this one, I can switch it up every game …’ I felt like he really loved it.” One or two storage units at his apartment in Milwaukee turned to six or seven, all stacked with boxes of sneakers. “I got, like, 3,000, 4,000 pairs of shoes,” says Antetokounmpo, who in the past year moved into his first house, where he now has a sneaker closet. “And you know what’s the craziest thing? I don’t even wear them. I wear like 10 or 15 of them.”

Something else that hasn’t changed, which he admits with a tiny sense of pride: “I’ve never purchased basketball sneakers, to this day — ever.”


Growing up, Giannis Antetokounmpo shared basketball shoes with his older brother, Thanasis. Now he has his own.

Nike

In late September 2017, Antetokounmpo and his family met Nike at a downtown Milwaukee hotel. Antetokounmpo was coming off a 2016-17 season in which he averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists and dropped 30 points in his first All-Star Game while wearing a pair of Kobe 10s. Nike pitched Antetokounmpo on a contract extension with a presentation focused on him becoming just the 22nd basketball player in company history to receive a signature sneaker — and, even more monumental, Nike Basketball’s first signature athlete born and raised outside of the United States.

Antetokounmpo couldn’t believe it.

“That’s when it hit me. I was like, ‘OK, this is crazy … I might be like Kobe, KD, LeBron, all these guys that have their own signature shoe, and play with it in the game.’ I was really, really happy.” He also couldn’t help but think back to his humble beginnings in Greece. “As a kid, growing up, I never thought, I’m gonna have my own signature shoe. I never wanted to have my own signature shoe. … That wasn’t a goal or dream of mine.”

But he doesn’t question how he arrived at the opportunity.

“I know why,” he says. “I worked my a– off.”

In November 2017, Antetokounmpo re-signed with Nike.

“I had to act like it was a tough decision. There were a lot of other companies that were willing to give me a lot of money, offer me a lot of stuff,” Antetokounmpo says. He turned down pitches from Li-Ning and Adidas (whose courting included sending him an entire truck full of free sneakers). “At the end of the day, I gotta stay loyal to the people who helped me. I wanted to build a brand from what I started. … That’s who I am as a person. Deep down in my heart, I know I made the right decision.”

Weeks after the announcement of a long-term partnership, the 18-month design process of the Zoom Freak 1 began. Antetokounmpo went to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, for a brainstorming session with a 15-person product team consisting of designers, engineers, wear testers and specialists in materials, coloring and marketing. He also met Kevin Dodson, Nike’s global vice president of basketball footwear, for the first time.

“The thing that stands out to me was just engagement,” Dodson says. “He was in from the moment we sat down. He was focused. He brought out a notebook to start taking notes in detail, which I’ve never seen before. Just from that moment, we felt comfortable. Like, ‘OK, we have a partner here that wants to give everything he’s got, so we’re gonna give everything we’ve got.’ ”

Antetokounmpo expressed what he hoped for out of his first shoe: reliable traction comparable to what’s found throughout Kyrie Irving’s signature line, the same forefoot feel of the Kobe 10, and the same upper shape and fit as the beloved Kobe 4s he wore as a kid in Greece with Thanasis. He wanted his first shoe to represent home and, most importantly, family.

“We always try to work in really specific details to the athletes,” Dodson says. “We’ll at times as a team go to them and say, ‘Hey, is there anything specific you want us to have on a shoe?’ ”

An early sketch from the 18-month design process of the Nike Zoom Freak 1.

Nike

Antetokounmpo had a phrase in mind, “I Am My Father’s Legacy,” which is incorporated into the traction pattern on the soles of the sneakers in honor of the family patriarch, who died of a heart attack in 2017 at the age of 54, six weeks before Giannis re-signed with Nike.

“I wanted my dad to be remembered. I wanted people to know that he left a legacy behind,” Antetokounmpo says. “The only thing he cared about was his kids. We are his legacy. His legacy lives within us, me and my brothers. We take pride in that. Every shoe I make, that phrase is always gonna be there. It’s not going nowhere. … I know he’s looking from above and really happy with … the way the shoe came out.”

Thanasis, who recently signed a two-year deal with the Bucks to play alongside Giannis, was the last brother to see the final product. He’d spent most of the past two years playing in Greece while Nike worked on the Zoom Freak 1 and went to Milwaukee a few days before Giannis was named MVP.

“I walked in my room and I was like, ‘What kind of shoes are these?’ ” Thanasis says. “It was a different box. I’d never seen it. So I opened it, and I see the shoe. I was so excited because it looked so elegant and comfortable and powerful.”

It was only right that Giannis returned home to Greece to debut his first signature sneaker — in Athens’ ancient building of Zappeion, a circular, open-aired atrium is surrounded by three dozen columns and busts of goddesses. In 1896, the venue hosted the fencing competition of the first modern Olympic Games. More than 120 years later, Nike built out the space to unveil the Zoom Freak 1 and its first three models: a basic black-and-white version; the “Roses” edition, designed in red, white and gold, his father’s three favorite colors; and the orange and navy “All Bros” colorway, which became the first to hit retail on June 28, as a tribute to the strong bond of the “Antetokounbros.”

And, at the specific request of Giannis, the Zoom Freak 1 is reasonably priced at $120 a pair.

“People are waiting for the shoe like gnats,” Segiet says. “That has never, ever, ever happened before in the market. I’m quite sure that wherever it’s being released, at any store in the country, it’s getting sold out immediately. Who wouldn’t like to have a pair in their closet? It’s the shoe of our local hero.”


A photo of Giannis wearing the Kobe 4s that hangs in the lobby of the Filathlitikos’ gym.

Aaron Dodson

Inside Filathlitikos’ gym, behind one basket hangs a massive banner depicting Antetokounmpo gliding for a dunk in his Zoom Freak 1s, overlaid by Nike’s iconic white script: “Fate can start you at the bottom. Dreams can take you to the top.” The image celebrates what might be the greatest week of Antetokounmpo’s life, which began with an MVP trophy and ended with a signature shoe.

“We all dreamed of him having a great career and playing on a high level,” Zivas said. “Today, he’s the motivation for young kids to be involved in basketball, to be happy, and hopefully they’ll be able to achieve things wearing Giannis’ shoes.”

Nike’s banner is positioned next to a few others put up by the club to honor the three Antetokounmpo brothers who’ve reached the NBA: Giannis, Thanasis and Kostas. One day soon, a picture of their youngest brother, Alex, now 17, will join theirs on the wall of Filathlitikos’ court. Four of the “AntetokounBros” — which will take over as the new name of the gym, Zografou mayor Vassilis Thodas announced the day the “All Bros” Nike Zoom Freak 1 dropped.

In the lobby, on a wall right outside the court, hangs a collection of old team portraits. Positioned in the center of a large wooden frame is a grainy photo from the club’s 2010-11 season. A closer look reveals a young yet familiar face, sitting second from the left on the first row of players. A skinny kid wearing a baggy black T-shirt under his red basketball jersey with knees standing taller than those of the teammates on either side of him.

On the feet of the then-16-year-old Giannis are the shoes he used to steal from his older brother Thanasis — the red and white Kobe 4s that helped start his journey from this small gym to basketball’s biggest stage.

In February, Giannis Sharpie’d, “Thanasis Thanks For Sharing,” on a pair of those Kobes that Nike had specially remade for him in his size 16 to wear for the NBA All-Star Game.

“I actually got really emotional. He made me remember,” Thanasis says. “Everybody was asking me, ‘ … Thansasis, you saw what your brother wrote?’ That was our first legit, really nice shoe. I told everybody that.”

Early in his NBA career, Giannis also had a chance to share a pair of shoes.

After Giannis was drafted by the Bucks in 2013, his family came to live with him. Giannis would always take then-12-year-old Alex to basketball practice, like Thanasis used to do with him, and he also did with Kostas. Once, after Alex’s practice, Giannis took notice of another kid leaving the gym.

“Alex at the time was 6-foot. This kid was like 6-6,” Giannis remembers. “He was huge and big. He came out, and I saw his pair of shoes. They were old. I’m not saying they had holes on them, but they weren’t new. They were almost ripped apart.”

“I wanted a good-looking shoe that could tell a story that a kid could relate to. A shoe that could make a kid work hard. A shoe that could make a kid believe in his dream.” — Giannis Antetokounmpo

If anyone could relate to that kid, it was Giannis. He thought about how many times he had to muster the courage to ask someone for sneakers. There was no shame in the hustle, but what was it like to be on the other side of the exchange?

“I told the kid, ‘Next time I come, I’ll make sure I’ll get you some sneakers.’ ”

Sure enough, he fulfilled his promise.

“I had two pairs of shoes. I gave them to him, and he was so, so happy …,” Giannis says. “What people used to do for me, I did it for him. … That was the first time I was in the spot where I could do that.

“A lot of people, you give them stuff and they might … take it for granted. But a lot of kids don’t take it for granted. I didn’t take it for granted.”

Giannis will forever be grateful for the opportunity to wear those Kobes, for what they meant to his journey. He understands how a pair of shoes can help a kid chase a dream.

And now, with his own signature sneaker, he has the chance to pay it forward.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is surrounded by fans as he leaves a basketball court in Athens on June 28. Antetokounmpo was back home in Greece to debut his first sneaker and host a 3-on-3 basketball tournament he sponsors with his brothers.

Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo