From Larry Bird to Ray Allen, the Boston Celtics have suited up some of the best perimeter shooters in NBA history
Live in the moment. It’s a motto that many preach and few actually practice. But Dwyane Wade isn’t most people. His season-long #OneLastDance is proof: a case study, actually, in gratitude and the importance of being present. Tuesday night, the icon who took his talents to Miami in 2003, where he has played with the Heat for all but 1½ seasons — takes to the court for his final regular-season home game.
There are two ways to view Wade’s career. One is via the sheer audacity of his accomplishments.
He will have scored more than 23,000 points.
He is a 13-time All Star, and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.
Wade is a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist and eight-time All-NBA selection.
That he is a three-time All-Defensive selection could have something to do with the fact that, in terms of guards, Wade is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks.
All of which provides context for him being a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. Wade is quite simply the greatest shooting guard of all time — not named Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
The second way to appreciate Wade is through the prism of the cultural impact he’s had on professional basketball, and on the world around him. There’s his very public journey of fatherhood — including his recent extended paternity leave. Wade as wielding his voice and platform in this new golden era of player social activism. Married to actor, author, and philanthropist Gabrielle Union he is one-half of a power couple with global influence. Wade’s fashion risks and fashion firsts are indelible. And, of course, there is Wade’s critical role in forming and preserving the 2010-14 Miami Heat — the team that unequivocally changed the look, the feel, the style and bravado of NBA basketball ever after.
But now, after 16 campaigns, it’s over. Wade’s farewell has been the NBA’s finest storyline of the 2018-19 season. “This year has allowed me just to play and be free and not really care,” Wade told me in February. “If I score 22, if I score two — I’m enjoying the process … this journey, that I’m ending … It really allows me to live in the moment and just enjoy it all. Normally as an athlete you don’t get to.”
I joined Wade at three of his last NBA games. On March 22, Miami was at Milwaukee, near where he played college ball. As a player, he stepped on court at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the last time on March 30. And then there was his last game at American Airlines Arena on April 9 against Philadelphia. One last ride.
CHAPTER ONE: THE WARM-UP
MILWAUKEE — Now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, former Marquette Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean has witnessed the legend of Dwyane Wade several times. There was the 2001 31-point explosion against Tennessee in The Great Alaska Shootout. Then there was the victory two nights later against Indiana. But the moment? The one that put an entire country on notice? That’s Feb. 27, 2003, when Wade, Crean and No. 10 Marquette, on the road, defeated No. 11 Louisville.
“[Dwyane] makes a move in front of our bench,” says Crean. “He starts out on a drive so it’s on the left wing, behind the 3-point line. … He gets a dribble out in front of him, he lifts the guy, does a spin dribble, OK?” Excitement rises in Crean’s voice. “[Wade] spin dribbles, shot fakes, lifts the guy and shoots it off the backboard … basically beat three people to the rim.”
Sportscaster Dick Vitale, per usual, couldn’t contain himself. This was the same year high school phenom LeBron James was a one-man sports news cycle. The year Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse was the college hoops storyline. But now a new name was tossed to the hysteria and into one of the best draft classes in NBA history.
And the Miami Heat were anxious to find its next star. “[Everyone in the Heat organization] ended up watching … all of his tournament games to prepare for the draft,” says Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, sitting on the scorers table after shootaround last month. Miami was set to play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks that night. In 2003, Spoelstra was a Heat coaching assistant. “They were super well-coached,” Spoelstra says. “And Dwyane made you watch that team.”
Walk into the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus and the first face you see is Wade’s. A large portrait commemorating the school’s Final Four run, with Wade as its centerpiece, sits beside Marquette legends such as Bo Ellis, Jim Boykin, Maurice Lucas and Dean Meminger. The 3,700-seat arena is quiet in late March, as both the men’s and women’s teams are at the NCAA tournament. Wade’s presence, though, is everywhere.
There is “M Club” Hall of Fame induction in 2009. His place on the Walk of Champions. A large banner pays him homage in the actual gym. Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey. There’s excitement in the air. Wade and the Heat are coming to town — it’s his last time playing in the city that still claims him as its own.
There’s an upbeat vibe at Fiserv Forum the morning of March 22. The Heat are holding a shootaround as The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s the Same Old Song” bleed into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Maybe it’s a Pat Riley call. He is a child of Motown, after all.
Some players are getting up shots. But Wade’s knees are already iced as he sits courtside behind the basket. Almost directly above him hangs his No. 3 Marquette jersey. He’s having fun talking to the media, and he smiles when the Ja Morant comparisons come up. A day earlier, Morant dropped a triple-double (as Wade did in ’03, and as only eight others have done in the NCAA tournament) in Murray State’s first-round win over, poetically, Marquette. “He’s special for real,” Wade said. “[He] definitely gave me flashbacks.”
Wade’s eyes glisten when I mention the name Gaulien “Gee” Smith. He’s owner of Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon on Milwaukee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where Wade got his hair cut while in college. Gee, who has cut the hair of more than 200 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, recalls Wade as a soft-spoken, respectful guy whom he held out as special. “I told him [at Skybox Sports Bar across the street],” Gee says, “ ‘Man, I knew you would be great. But I’ma be honest with you, I had no idea you would be who you are today.’ ” Wade beams at the memory.
Udonis Haslem, who entered the NBA in 2003 with Wade, returns to the court and looks over at Wade, whom he considers more than a brother. “This is … the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Haslem. “I’m living through him and his happiness. I’m enjoying all this as a friend. Real friends enjoy seeing their friends happy.”
Heat fans have piled into the Bucks’ home arena to watch the Eastern Conference’s top squad play the Heat. The past 20 years of Wade’s basketball life are on people’s chests and backs: Marquette jerseys, Olympic jerseys, Chicago Bulls jerseys, even a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. But overwhelmingly it’s about that Heat No. 3 jersey in all of its hues.
Fans Felix and Linda have made the 80-mile trek from the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the moment. “This is his home! Even though he’s in Miami for now,” Linda says, not even trying to hide her sarcasm. “He’ll always be welcome here.”
“It means a lot to see him in his last game here,” says Felix. “The things he does in the community off the court outweighs what he does on the court. Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”
It’s a common sentiment at Fiserv all night. Midway through the first quarter, during a timeout, highlights of Wade’s March Madness run splash across the JumboTron and elicit a standing ovation. “This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”
When Wade checks in with 4:41 left in the first, an even louder ovation erupts. Wade’s 12 points, though, do little to prevent the inevitable: The Heat — in a royal rumble with Orlando, Brooklyn and Detroit for three of the East’s final three seeds — lose 116-87. But the moment was bigger than the game. Both Milwaukee All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, swapped jerseys with Wade after the game. His who’s who of jersey swappers this year includes LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others.
“He is definitely a mentor, somebody I watch from afar,” Middleton said after the game. “[He’s] one of my favorite players growing up. Still one of my favorite players to this day.”
In the locker room, Wade sits on a chair with his shirt off and a gold chain around his neck with a throng of reporters around him. “I have no regrets,” he says of his farewell tour. Those who came out to see him don’t have regrets either. Pride is mixed with sorrow. Honor is in bed with sadness.
“I just know,” Linda says, “I’ma miss him.”
Crean, Wade’s coach at Marquette, has a theory about why the star’s connection to the area runs so deep. It’s not about the highlights, or the notoriety both men brought to Marquette in the early 2000s. It’s not even about what they did in the spring of 2003. It’s about the soul of a man.
“He never, ever stopped caring about Marquette or Milwaukee even after [we] left,” Crean says. “It never stopped being his home. It never stopped being his school. … He’s incredibly loyal to his friends, his family, his community. … He gets it.”
PART TWO: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY
NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Wade to have his first Madison Square Garden moment. Or, in other words, rip the hearts out of New York Knicks fans. The date was March 15, 2005, and with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the 49-16 Heat were tied at 96 with the 26-35 Knicks.
Double-teamed by Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas, Wade (then known as “Flash” in his second NBA season) turned the ball over, giving the Knicks a chance at pulling off the upset. Thomas missed a baseline jumper, allowing Wade to pull down his third and final rebound of the game — thus setting him up for the final shot. Moments later, Wade called for iso far beyond the top of the key. A hard drive left. A vicious step-back jumper. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Heat win 98-96.
The Heat’s shootaround takes place at NYC’s Basketball City. It sits on the East River with a clear view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Some players are getting shots up. Others have side conversations with coaches. The energy is calm and inviting as media types surround Wade. He’s wearing a black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.
“Besides playing at home, [Madison Square Garden] is my favorite place to play,” Wade says. “It’s a lot of great arenas in the NBA, but there’s something about MSG that’s … special. … Heat Nation is strong here, so we always have a home crowd kinda feel. It’s the lights. It’s the way the floor is lit. It’s everything.”
Wade is balancing reflection and being in the moment. The night is largely about him — he’s the third-leading active non-Knick scorer at MSG, behind LeBron James and Vince Carter. Yet, for Wade, the night is more about the playoff push. The Heat at the time were still clawing for their postseason lives — and, at press time, still are. Wade is as mild-mannered as they come in the NBA, but it’s clear that questions about Knicks coach and close friend Dave Fizdale’s ability to lead his team out of a perpetual state of rebuilding begins to annoy him. Wade’s professional career began in the Garden at the 2003 NBA draft, but in March 2019 at MSG, he had not retired yet.
Much like in Milwaukee, and at other stops this season, droves of fans arrive in Wade-associated paraphernalia. One such Heat fan, sporting the statement pink Wade jersey, walks around a concourse in full Braveheart mode, high-fiving and hugging any other Heat fan he sees. “Let’s go Heat!” he belts out. “Let’s go Wade!”
Other fans couldn’t let Wade leave New York without saying goodbye.
“I’ve only seen him once,” says New Jersey native and die-hard Wade fan Ahmed Doumani. “I can’t have him retire without seeing him again.”
Celebrities also pile up at MSG for Wade. Tennis great John McEnroe, actor John Turturro, New York Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and Kansas City Chiefs MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes are all in attendance. The most important courtside seat though, as it relates to Wade, is that of his wife, Gabrielle Union.
“It’s so nice to see him appreciate [this final season],” Union said during an in-game interview. “They say give people their flowers while they can still appreciate it, and the NBA has just done a tremendous job [of that].”
Midway through the first, Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude is gargantuan. Hairs rise on the back of necks. Goose bumps have nothing to do with the air conditioning. Fizdale, who spent eight seasons as an assistant and associate head coach in Miami, paid homage to his former player from the Jumbotron and had more to say after the game.
“I’ve learned more from him than he has from me, for sure,” Fizdale said. “When he says he’s your friend, he’s going to be there for you. He’s been there for me every step of the way. He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.”
Every time Wade touched the ball at MSG, the crowd cheered. He received “MVP” chants when he went to the free throw line — perhaps the lone accomplishment not on his career portfolio. The Knicks offense stalled in the second, allowing Miami to push ahead for good. This allowed Knicks fans to focus on what’s really important.
“Thank you, D-Wade, for whooping our a– one more time!” one fan behind press row yelled. “We’re one step closer to Zion [Williamson]!”
Wade finished with 16 points and seven assists in a 100-92 victory — although the crowd would’ve much rather preferred for it to be 18 points. A called offensive foul on Wade in a missed alley-oop drew the biggest boos of the night — from Heat and Knicks fans. After the game, hundreds of fans stuck around to take in Wade’s final moments in the Garden. New York has never had an issue with telling opponents off. It’s an unforgiving fan base. But if the city respects you, they’ll love you forever.
“Gotta pay respect,” a Knicks fan says, patting his young son on the head, “to one of the GOATs.”
Chants of “One more year!” ride shotgun with “D-Wade!” And as a shoeless Wade finally runs off the court, he’s showered with one last ovation. Inside the locker room, Wade, in a pink “Play Make Her” hoodie (a fund launched by the Entertainment Industry Foundation to empower women in the sports industry) is looking forward to summing up the night.
“I’ll be here, I’m sure, a few other times in my life. But as a player … it’s your last time, you just enjoy it,” he says. “The fans staying around after was so cool. You expect that at home, but on the road you don’t expect it.”
As the locker room clears, Wade is smiling. It’s almost over. He taps me on my shoulder. He’s seen me at many of these stops. “See you in the next city, bro.” He takes pictures with two kids — one in a Heat jersey and another in a Knicks jersey. Then he’s off into the New York night, hand in hand with Union, as hundreds of fans wait near the team bus hoping for one last glimpse of a legend.
PART THREE: VICTORY LAP
MIAMI — “Feed him the rock,” the man says, a grin overtaking the real estate of his face. Decked in a white Wade jersey and Miami Heat hat, he takes a couple of pulls from his cigarette and carries on with another guy doing the same. “He can beat Kobe’s 60.Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”
Miami knew this day would come. Erik Spoelstra made a vow to Wade (and to himself) at Wade’s home last summer when he learned this would be the superstar’s final run. “I just wanted to enjoy all these moments and be present. Not think about when it’s over, or next year,” the Heat head coach said. “I wanted to [do] everything we could to make sure it was as he imagined.”
Dwyane Wade’s final home game was the topic around the city all day Tuesday. Miami is fiercely protective of Wade, and for a certain generation of south Florida sports fans, Wade is not just one of the greats. He’s the greatest.
“For really anyone 40 and under, he’s the symbol of sports excellence in Miami,” says columnist and 5ReasonsSports.com podcast host Alphonse Sidney. “We’re too young for the 1972 Dolphins. We were in elementary school or not alive even when [Dan] Marino was elite. We’ve seen two Marlins championships, but we never really had a chance to fawn over those teams because as soon as we won the championship they were gone.” He pauses momentarily. “When it comes to elite athleticism, elite players, superstars who are a symbol of a team and a community, it’s Dwyane Wade and really no one else.”
“Dwyane Wade represents us Miamians in a way no other South Florida sports figure has,” says Maria Cabré, head of operations at J Wakefield Brewing. “He [just] gets it — a balance of humility and ego and forward thinking yet rooted in tradition. [Miami] will always be his home.”
Inside American Airlines Arena is a celebration fit for a king. “L3GACY” shirts are placed on every seat in the arena — which is filled long before tip off. Dwyane Wade highlights run in an unapologetic loop on any and every screen. The entire arena chants for some 10 minutes before tipoff.
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
There are clips and voiceovers from Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Gabrielle Union. A deafening roar erupts when Pat Riley declares, “This will be Wade County forever!”
On a night defined by emotions and immortalized by beauty, Wade’s oldest son Zaire introduced his father in a moment best described as surreal. “That one almost got me,” Wade quipped in a hallway after the game.
Following roughly 20 minutes of pre-game Wade-themed nostalgia, and a speech from the man of the hour, an actual basketball game took place. Though it was more like glorified scrimmage with the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly content with having the best seat in the house for Wade’s final Florida farewell. Spoelstra said following the game the decision to start Wade was a “no brainer.”
And, fittingly, with Chris and Adrienne Bosh, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Tim Hardaway and more courtside and nearby, the first bucket of the game was a dunk from No. 3. Everything Wade did Tuesday night — scoring, assists, rebounds, waves to the crowd — elicited thundering ovations. Everyone was soaking up the moment, even those in press row.
During timeouts, the video tributes continued. Derek Jeter’s was booed. NBA commissioner Adam Silver saluted Wade, telling him Springfield, Massachusetts was his next stop. As did his mother (Jolinda), father (Dwyane Sr.), sister (Tragil) and nephew (Dahveon). “You’ve given me the biggest gift you could ever give any of your fans,” Gabrielle Union says in hers. “Your heart.” Zaire returned on screen to thank his father for giving him a blueprint for how to live life both on and away from the court. His youngest son Zion, who participated in the Miami Beach Pride march on Sunday, had but one request for his dad. “Don’t lose your last home!” The biggest ovation was reserved for President Barack Obama. Via video he saluted Wade for a career well-played.
“Now, I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” Obama said. “In my case though, I didn’t really have a choice. My knees were shot so I had to give up basketball forever.”
News about Magic Johnson stepping away from the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t derail what was instantly one of the most special nights in South Florida history, and the Detroit Pistons’ comeback victory over Memphis, officially eliminating the Heat from the playoffs, didn’t dampen a parade 16 seasons in the making. A truly special sequence in the fourth quarter soon ignites. The game was already decided. The crowd had already erupted into another “We want Wade!” chant. Then Wade and fellow Miami favorite Udonis Haslem checked into the game together.
Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time. A turnaround fadeaway from nine feet. Then a three pointer that turned the arena on its collective head in euphoria. Then another three pointer. Then a 23-foot step back jumper that prompted his wife Gabrielle Union to slap him on the butt as he ran by. And then three minutes later, another three.
All in all, Dwyane Wade closed out his career with 30 points, including 14 in the final frame. And the 20,153 in attendance managed to squeeze in “Paul Pierce sucks” chant for good measure.
As the clock ran to triple zeros, the moment had finally set in. An era was over. Wade saved his most personal jersey exchanges for last. He swapped jerseys with his entire team. Then Zaire. The most personal swap was with No. 11 Heat jersey with “Hank” on the back. This was a homage to Henry Thomas, D-Wade’s late agent who became far more than just that over the course of his career. Wade credited Thomas, who passed away from neuromuscular disease in 2018, for molding him into the man he became after leaving Marquette.
“Wade County,” Dwyane said to the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the final whistle blew, “I love you.”
Following the final press conference of his career in Miami, Wade, in a red suit and sneakers, holding his daughter, left the building — no shirt under the blazer. Friends and family members follow him as he shows his daughter pictures of himself on the wall. Union soon joins them. This is how Wade wanted it to end. On his own terms celebrating with those he loves most.
It feels like just yesterday that he, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were covering Sports Illustrated with the tagline “The New Era.” And now, Dwyane Wade is no longer in the NBA. Wade valued his career. And he walked out of American Airlines Arena at close to midnight one final time knowing that an entire fanbase, an entire city — and an entire generation — did, as well.
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — There was an inkling that he’d come, but no one knew for sure. We’re talking, after all, about the greatest basketball player of all time. But Michael Jordan arrived bright and early, with coffee in hand, to sneaker boutique Social Status. There in the Plaza Midwood area of his city, Jordan was greeted by store owner James Whitner, who might be just as important to the local community as MJ.
Why? Well, Whitner opened his first sneaker store, Flava Factory, in Charlotte in 2005, a year after a gunshot wound he suffered during a street fight nearly ended his life. By 2007, Whitner had launched Social Status, which has emerged as one of the best shoe and streetwear retailers in the country, having expanded to six more cities: Atlanta; Houston; Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; and Tampa, Florida. And now, Social Status has its own Air Jordan, which the man whose name is on it came to see for himself.
“It wasn’t like a secret, come-through-the-back-and-show-love type of thing,” Whitner said. “He came through the front door, froze and shocked the crowd. You can’t write a release better than that. When you drop a Jordan, to get MJ to walk through the door … is crazy. It goes down in the record books.”
It was three days before the All-Star Game, and folks lined up to cop the limited-edition Social Status x Air Jordan 6, one of several pairs of sneakers released by Jordan Brand for basketball’s biggest weekend. The collection tells the story of Jordan’s journey through his home state, from an Air Jordan 5 in his high school colors to a University of North Carolina-themed women’s Air Jordan 1 and a retro of the “Infrared” Air Jordan 6 that His Airness wore in the 1991 All-Star Game in Charlotte.
The most distinctive of the bunch is without question Social Status’ rendition of the Air Jordan 6, designed with pony hair and reptile print as an homage to Jordan’s “Black Cat” alter ego. It’s a collaboration that’s been years in the making.
“The goal of the shoe was to just celebrate MJ and his legacy,” Whitner said. “Him as the greatest player to play the game means a lot for us. … I felt like we needed to wave a flag for the city through MJ.” With the superspecial Air Jordan 6, Social Status delivered quite the tribute to Jordan, whom Whitner first met in 2015 while helping Jordan’s son Marcus open Trophy Room, a boutique in Florida inspired by the space at the family’s residence where the Hall of Famer stores his awards.
Conversations began between Social Status and the Jordan Brand about cooking something up for 2017 All-Star Weekend, which was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte but was moved to New Orleans because of the NBA’s objection to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 that limited anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. By May 2017, the NBA announced that the game would return to Charlotte in 2019.
“The delay gave us time to create a better experience,” Whitner said. “We’re in constant conversation with the brand about how to engage the kids, the community, and stay ahead of things.”
The experience Whitner envisioned started with the release of the Social Status x Air Jordan 6, which sold out online in 14 minutes on Feb. 13. The next day, when Jordan made an appearance at the store, reservation slots to purchase the shoes opened on Nike’s SNKRS App and filled swiftly. But Whitner wanted more accessibility for the people of the Queen City.
“We wanted … to make sure everybody was treated fairly,” he said. Since the original release, Social Status has restocked the shoe online multiple times. “We held pairs over the weekend … so people could still touch, see and feel the product. … The new world of retail is connected to the consumer and connected in the community.”
Whitner also opened his store to host a design workshop for students from Charlotte within the Jordan Brand’s Wings Program. Since 2015, the initiative has provided more than 225 kids who experience financial barriers to pursuing higher education with full rides to their colleges of choice. For the workshop at Social Status, the Jordan Brand commissioned one of the most talented designers in the world, Dominic Ciambrone, who is known as The Shoe Surgeon.
The kids were also surprised by appearances from a pair of Jordan Brand athletes, LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs and Blake Griffin of the Detroit Pistons. The two All-Stars joined members of the Wings Program at tables and participated in the Shoe Surgeon-led session, which involved sneaker deconstruction and sewing machine practice.
“We’ve focused a lot on the process of design. Without the process you’ll never get to where you’re going, just like in life,” Ciambrone told students during the workshop. Afterward, they were each presented with a custom pair of the newly released “Infrared” 6s. Ciambrone also encouraged the students to pick the brains of the two NBA superstars.
“Events where you get to interact with kids … they just want to have real conversations. They ask you real questions,” Griffin said. “It’s cool to speak to kids at this level and hopefully say one thing that might inspire them or make them want to keep going on the right path.”
After first signing with the Jordan Brand as a rookie in 2012, Griffin extended for another two years last fall. Aldridge has been a part of the team since 2014. “When you join the brand, you put yourself on a higher level. You hold yourself to a higher standard because MJ is the best,” Aldridge said. “We have kids that follow us and look up to us. … If you have a chance to impact their lives, help them be more positive or have a good day, that’s our job. And the Jordan Brand supports us in any way possible.”
Jordan and his brand also support people like Whitner. During 2019 All-Star Weekend, 15 years after a near-death experience that was due to gun violence, he became the first recipient of the Wings Changemaker Award.
“I thank God, sometimes three times a day,” Whitner said. “Today was probably six or seven. It’s surreal to have the opportunities that I have now. I always wanna connect to the younger kids because I wanna find the kid that was me at that age in times when I was probably in my most desperate phases in life and didn’t understand my options. I want to be able to let kids know that there are options, regardless of what walk of life you come from. For me, it’s amazing. I’m incredibly blessed.”
Whitner received a certificate similar to the one given to Wings students when they’re awarded their scholarships, as well as the first pair of the exclusive “Wings” Air Jordan 4s. They will not be for sale but instead are used to honor people who give back to their respective communities.
“The shoe is amazing … but I can’t wear it! I need two pairs — one to display and one to rock,” Whitner said. “But bigger than the shoe is the commitment I’ve received from the brand … everyone down from MJ … and the leadership to continue to help build experiences and serve the consumer. That means more to me than any tangible object they can give me. … This is the first of many things we have to come.”
Washington Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal has a unique Mt. Rushmore of NBA players. He’s not saying they’re the greatest, just the guys he watched and tried to emulate — and they’re Hall of Famers in their own right (plus the GOAT). Plus, Beal talks about his favorite moments on the court against Dwyane Wade, his first experience with DIrk Nowitzki, and much more.
Vince Carter’s 2000 All-Star Weekend in Oakland, California, is etched in NBA history thanks to his instantly iconic performance in the Slam Dunk Contest. In actuality, though, Oakland should have been his second All-Star trip. The 1999 NBA All-Star Game, booked in Philadelphia — on Valentine’s Day, at that — was the most high-profile casualty of an NBA lockout that threatened the entire 1998-99 season.
“That’s where it was supposed to be? In Philadelphia?” Carter says after a January practice in Sacramento, California. Even over the phone there’s genuine shock in his voice. “Wow,” he says. “I [really] had no idea.”
But what if the NBA hadn’t had to cancel the 1999 All-Star Game? What if, in a new, post-Michael Jordan NBA, there had been a huge Philly basketball celebration to help ease the pain of losing basketball’s biggest star?
What if there had been an All-Star Weekend in 1999? You’re in luck. There is.
But first, some backstory.
It’s tough to fault Carter for not recalling. The 1998-99 season is a forgotten, or at least rarely discussed, chapter in NBA history. Owners locked out the players on July 1, and the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. There were “no trades, no player signings, no NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, or contact between players and team representatives.” There was no All-Star Game. Shortly after the 1998 NBA draft, which featured future Hall of Famers such as Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, labor negotiations came to a screeching halt as growing profits, and how those profits would be allocated in coming seasons, became the glaring issue.
Team owners, among other things, talked salary cap issues and blamed Kevin Garnett’s 1997 $126 million contract. “That … changed the landscape,” said former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik after the lockout. “This was the one where owners said something had to be done.” Players talked about the NBA’s swelling revenues, especially from television, and the rookie salary scale, among other things.
Players unfairly shouldered much of the public blame for the lockout, though in fairness, some players didn’t make it easy on themselves from a public relations perspective. While attempting to organize a charity game in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to benefit UNICEF — and NBA players — then-union president Patrick Ewing said pro athletes “make a lot of money, but spend a lot, too.” The gesture of the game did anything but win the fans’ favor back to the players. The Boston Celtics’ Kenny Anderson joked about selling one of his eight cars. And Grant Hill took a temporary hit to his reputation for, in the eyes of many, not taking more of an assertive role during the lockout — and his Sprite commercial with Tim Duncan reportedly angered several players.
By mid-October, the NBA’s preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season had been canceled. “If the [NBA] isn’t back by Christmas,” said Neil Hernberg, then the sports marketing manager of apparel behemoth Pro Player, “we could lose 75 percent of our NBA business.” The effects of the lockout hit the pockets of other business partners as well. “The market is soft,” noted Steve Raab, vice president of marketing for Starter. “Retailers are reducing and canceling orders.”
Networks were forced to revamp programming, and shortly before Christmas, the NBA announced for the first time in its history — and, to date, still the only time since 1951 — that the league would cancel its annual midseason classic. The city of Philadelphia lost out on an estimated $40 million.
“[The lockout] didn’t set me back because I had nothing to be set back from,” says Carter. “I went back to [the University of North Carolina]. I did a semester … and had a chance to work out with Coach [Dean] Smith and the team while I was waiting for the lockout to end.”
The players approved a new deal 179-5 at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, and the league’s Board of Governors unanimously agreed to ratify the compromise. The deal was widely viewed as a win for the owners, but the players did walk away with more money for non-franchise players, and for the superstars. “Did [the players] blink?” then-NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter asked rhetorically. “I guess we both blinked.”
Less than a week after the return of pro basketball back, Jordan retired for a second time.
The announcement wasn’t much of a shock, but the impact was massive and multidimensional. Television networks, which for years profited from Jordan’s magnetism, were forced to adjust to an uncertain new reality. “It’s unique to have been in a partnership with the NBA for eight years, and to have had this fairy dust sprinkled on us,” said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol. “Now we have to reintroduce this generation of stars … will we get Babe Ruth tomorrow? No.”
“I’m sad to see him go,” rhythm and blues singer/actress Aaliyah said. “But he’s had an incredible career and we will miss him. … He’s worked hard and he deserves to relax now.”
It’s Valentine’s Day weekend in Philadelphia. In real life, the 1998-99 season is just over a week old. Teams and players are working their way back into a groove.
Instead of the pageantry of an All-Star Game, the 76ers are hosting the Atlanta Hawks. Allen Iverson is his usual self — 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks — helping Philly improve to 4-1 to start the season. He’s the game’s lone bright spot in a 78-70 Sixers victory. Unfortunately, the biggest news to hit the city that weekend is a fire that engulfed South Philly’s St. Barnabas United Methodist Church. And the biggest sports-related news? Wrestlemania XV invading the city in March, headlined by a no-disqualification title match between Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock.
But let’s imagine an alternative history
Philadelphia is abuzz with Hollywood’s elite, music’s biggest names and NBA legends — both established and in the making. West Philadelphia’s Will Smith, fresh off “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” and Enemy of the State, is one of the biggest stars on the planet — he’s down front. So is Lauryn Hill — she’s one of the biggest musical artists on the planet. And Iverson? He’s in his third season and already one of the league’s most prolific scorers. But more than that? He reaches and represents a generation fueled by counterculture and soundtracked by hip-hop. While Iverson’s cornrows and tattoos are to some a sign of basketball’s decaying morals, to a younger generation he’s a symbol of defiance, swagger and perseverance.
“It’s unfair, but it’s true,” Iverson told Chris Rock. “People look at the way I dress, who I hang around, [my] jewelry — people try to make me 34 years old and I’m only 24.” People hated Allen Iverson and people loved Allen Iverson. It’s that dichotomy and that polarization that make him the obvious de facto mayor of the 1999 NBA All-Star Weekend that never was.
Also at courtside for the game are hometown heroes such as Mike Schmidt and Moses Malone. There’s plenty of room also for the other stars ruling culture: Denzel Washington, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah, Spike Lee, Snoop Dogg, Jim Carrey, Djimon Hounsou, Kate Winslet. Bill Russell is there, along with Wilt Chamberlain, whose relationship with Philadelphia is both storybook and tragic. The meeting at the 1999 NBA All-Star Game (that never was) would be one of their final times together, as Chamberlain would die eight months later.
Muhammad Ali and Philly’s own Joe Frazier, in the imaginary weekend’s most touching moment, publicly end a bitter feud that had lasted nearly 30 years with vicious taunts from both men. In real life, the two boxing icons squashed their beef at the 2002 All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Places of honor go to Julius Erving, as well as Jordan, whose presence is impossible to avoid given that most fans have yet to accept his second retirement.
Jazzy Jeff is the weekend’s official DJ. Hometown daughter Patti LaBelle performs the national anthem — paying homage to the city’s soulful musical roots with the most soulful rendition since Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. The aforementioned Hill, following the August 1998 release of her The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is tapped to perform at halftime with a string of hits, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything” and “Lost Ones.” Less than two weeks later, Hill’s place in history is cemented with five Grammys, including album of the year.
Celebrities are a necessary part of All-Star Weekend. As are big-name performers. But the biggest celebrities and performers are the ones voted in by the fans to start the game. Unlike 2019, the teams were still separated by conferences in 1999. Yet, like 2019, the game’s starters will be selected via fan vote. Here are your 1999 NBA All-Stars, for a game that never was — current and future Hall of Famers each one.
G — Allen Iverson | Philadelphia 76ers
The weekend’s point person, if you will. Though if you’re in the mix, you’ll see Bubba Chuck at every party in the city. Iverson’s popping bottles, rocking jewelry bright enough to light up the nightclub and partying to DMX, Jay-Z, Cash Money. You’re probably wondering when he sleeps? It’s All-Star Weekend! No sleep! It’s Philly, and it’s Allen Ezail Iverson, and you know he’s bringing the city out. Iverson did eventually capture All-Star Game MVP in Washington, D.C., in 2001 — also a homecoming of sorts, given his Georgetown roots. So, needless to say, the league’s leader in points per game and minutes per game in the 1998-99 season would’ve put on a show before a crowd that treats him like a demigod to this day.
G — Ray Allen | Milwaukee Bucks
Penny Hardaway really could’ve won a popular vote over Ray Allen, aka Jesus Shuttlesworth, in 1999. Penny started every game in ’98-’99 and led Orlando to the playoffs. But Hardaway’s injury history works against him here and is beginning to paint the picture of what could have been an all-time great NBA career derailed by factors beyond his control. Riding the wave of 1998’s He Got Game, the Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making gets the nod, and you best believe he’s rocking the HGG 12’s in the process — with Washington, Lee and Jordan all sitting courtside too. Hardaway was a magnificent shooter from the day he entered the league, and in his later years he became a marksman who nailed the 3 that saved the Miami Heat’s dynasty in 2013. But young Ray? Oh, young Ray could do it all. Including put you on a poster.
F — Vince Carter | Toronto Raptors
All the hoopla and hysteria we see around Luka Doncic now? That would’ve been Vince, the eventual Rookie of the Year, 20 seasons ago — had he actually had a real rookie season to lay ruin to. How massive was the Vince hype? Let his cousin and teammate, Tracy McGrady, tell it. “[Carter] lit the league on fire with his athleticism, his spectacular dunks,” he says with a smile you can almost see through the phone. “That momentum carrying into the ’99 All-Star break just would’ve been on fire.” Even in the abbreviated season, Carter’s athletic prowess became the theatrics of legend en route to a runaway Rookie of the Year campaign. Carter starts as a rookie in the All-Star Game because, why wouldn’t he?
F — Grant Hill | Detroit Pistons
One of the best (and most popular and marketable) stars in the league was set to be leaned on heavily in the post-Jordan era. His ability to do nearly any and everything on the court — Hill averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.9 percent shooting in ’98-’99 — made him an undeniable superstar with crossover appeal. Hill’s marriage to R&B star Tamia, whose brilliant 1998 self-titled album produced the hit “So Into You,” also made the former Duke Blue Devil a star far beyond the court. The sky is the limit for Grant Hill in February 1999. One question no one’s really asking at this point, though. Should we be talking about Hill’s impending summer 2000 free agency? Too early, right? Yeah, you’re right.
C — Alonzo Mourning | Miami Heat
When the center position actually counted in the All-Star Game, here is Mourning. Shaquille O’Neal had long defected to the Western Conference. And Patrick Ewing’s prime years are behind him. Mourning is, without question, the East’s best center on a team many believe will compete for a championship come June. His 20 points and 11 rebounds per night would’ve made him an All-Star in any season — but his league-leading 3.9 blocks per game make getting into Fort Knox easier than getting to the rim when Zo’s in the neighborhood.
Coach: Pat Riley | Miami Heat
With Jordan retired and the Chicago Bulls team a shell of its former self, Pat Riley’s Heat had real-life title aspirations and the squad to do it. Just a hunch, though: They should probably try to avoid the New York Knicks in the first round.
G — Gary Payton | Seattle SuperSonics
With fellow Oakland native and future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd in Phoenix, there’s competition out west for the starting guard spot, but The Glove gets the nod because he’s still very much the floor general who led the SuperSonics to the NBA Finals three years earlier. The Sonics aren’t the dominant force in 1998-99 they were in the mid-’90s, but Payton’s output was still up there with the best point guards in the league: 21.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.2 steals. Plus, Payton’s a showman of the highest order, and being able to mic him up in-game is too much basketball trash-talk nirvana to pass up.
G — Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers
It was pretty much written in stone that from the moment this teenager started his first All-Star Game in New York a year earlier, one of these guard spots would be his every February for the foreseeable future. In️ this alternate reality, Kobe Bryant returns to Philadelphia — the city he claimed, although it didn’t always reciprocate his love — and puts on an absolute clinic. Not many players have had a higher flair for the dramatic than the perpetually dramatic Bryant. With Ali, Frazier, Hill, Jordan, Will Smith and others at courtside, maybe, just maybe, Bean captures MVP honors in Philadelphia in 1999 — just like he did in 2002.
F — Kevin Garnett | Minnesota Timberwolves
The Big Ticket, like Bryant, is inked in here for as long as he can put up with Minnesota, largely accomplishing very little during his prime years. By the end of his third season in 1997-98, Garnett had become a one-of-one generational talent. He was a complete freak on the defensive end and was the only player in the league to put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per night. If that wasn’t enough, the now three-time All-Star had no problem talking an opponent’s ear off.
F — Karl Malone | Utah Jazz
Quick question. Don’t use Google, either. And please don’t Ask Jeeves. Who won MVP in 1999? If you guessed Malone, buy yourself a drink. Because of the lockout, his ’99 MVP, won in his 14th year in the league at age 35, is relegated to obscurity, sandwiched as it is between Jordan’s final MVP in 1998 and O’Neal’s virtuoso 2000 campaign. Malone, the game’s future second-all-time leading scorer, gets the fan selection here, but it does come with a caveat. There’s a young phenom in his second season at San Antonio by the name of Tim Duncan who will make this spot his very, very soon.
C — Shaquille O’Neal | Los Angeles Lakers
Like Iverson, if you’re in Philly for the 1999 All-Star Weekend that never was, it won’t be easy to miss Shaq. Sure, because of his stature. But more importantly because of his larger-than-life personality. O’Neal’s a megastar not just on the court but with a broad appeal similar to Jordan’s. And with Bryant in Philly too, there was the slight chance O’Neal and Bryant could’ve performed their long since forgotten rap collaboration “3X’s Dope” from O’Neal’s 1998 album Respect at some random party in the city.
Coach: Gregg Popovich | San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, with a young Duncan and a wily vet in David Robinson, seem poised for something special in San Antonio. They might be on to something here.
Bonus: Is the 1999 NBA All-Star Dunk contest the greatest dunk contest that never happened?
Aside from a few special moments — see Cedric Ceballos’ blindfold, Dee Brown’s no-look, Shawn Kemp’s double pump, Isaiah Rider’s Eastbay Funk Dunk or Brent Barry’s jump from the free throw line — the dunk contest lost steam in the ’90s. Bryant, as a rookie, won the contest in 1997. There was no contest at all in 1998 — and no dunk contest in Madison Square Garden spoke volumes. The contest returned in 2000 with a bang. At the Golden State Warriors’ home arena, Steve Francis, McGrady and Carter proved to be human defibrillators, reviving the contest with legendary swag.
Yet, McGrady still wonders what would have happened in Philly at the All-Star Game that never happened. Could the greatest field that never happened … have actually happened in 1999? “You had Kobe in [’97]. Then you got Vince come in. I mean, who knows?” McGrady says. “Kobe probably would’ve entered that Slam Dunk Contest that year with Vince. You just never know.”
Carter agrees, although the missed opportunity doesn’t hurt as much given the light show he and his cousin put on in Oakland. “As far as what could’ve been? Yeah, maybe that year — as far as a dunk contest,” Carter says.
A potential field of Bryant, McGrady and Carter? “Bro, I’m trying to tell you. It was some highfliers with creativity and young legs!” McGrady exclaims. “It would’ve been crazy!
Carter doesn’t want to play the “what if” game too much, though. But he realizes what those three could have brought to the floor in the 1999 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest that never was. “Kobe and I played with each other in AAU … Tracy and Kobe were good friends. The friendly competition and the mutual respect we had for each other as athletes and dunkers would’ve brought the best out of each and every one of us,” Carter says. “That would’ve been legendary.”
Professional sports’ premier soap opera is the NBA, and it invades Charlotte, North Carolina, this weekend for its 68th All-Star Game. But narrowing things to just the game is a disservice to the infinite dramatic possibilities of the weekend: Thursday through Sunday is an amalgamation of the NBA and pop culture so thorough that no other major American sports league could ever hope to measure up. What makes the NBA the melodramatic provocateur it is are the dramas. Some are obvious. Some aren’t. Some are, at best, are truly just pipe dreams. The following eight stories could spice up an already very hot weekend.
One: The All-Star method to LeBron’s All-Star madness
For LeBron James, this year’s All-Star draft was a riveting moment in a career filled with them. As fate, and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s draft strategy would have it, James’ gang is chock-full of soon-to-be free agents — and Anthony Davis, who, unless you’ve been living under a rock the last two weeks or so, you’ve heard has requested a trade — preferably to Los Angeles. While the Lakers came up short in the Davis sweepstakes, Los Angeles, and in particular James and agent Rich Paul, received backlash for what many, including LaVar Ball, dubbed as destroying whatever chemistry the Lakers had left. An improbable Rajon Rondo game-winner in Boston has temporarily quelled critics, but a 23-point dump trucking in Philly brought L.A. back to earth and staring in the face of what will be a race to eighth after the All Star break — if they hope to make the playoffs. So best believe James is using All-Star Weekend for business far beyond just the next few weeks of this season. One would be safe to bet a lot of general managers around the league are none too happy about James’ public chess moves.
Two: Westbrook and Embiid: reunited — and it doesn’t feel so good
By far the funniest moment of the entire All-Star draft was the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to Team Giannis and Ben Simmons to Team LeBron. On the surface, it’s James getting his fellow Klutch brethren in Simmons. But the trade really matters for one reason — and one reason only. Westbrook and Joel Embiid, two of the NBA’s most beloved personalities, are now forced to be teammates.
— Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) February 8, 2019
But, Westbrook and Embiid aren’t fond of each other. At all. The drama began in December 2017 during a triple overtime instant classic between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers. When the Sixers and Thunder squared off, Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams and Westbrook — after each fouled out. Oklahoma City ultimately won, leaving Westbrook to return the favor by waving at Embiid. Fast-forward to last month: In another Thunder win, Embiid landed on Westbrook following a blocked shot attempt. Embiid said it wasn’t on purpose. Westbrook believed otherwise. When asked if the two were cool off the court, Westbrook kept it funky. “F— no.” When asked what the issue between the two was, Embiid’s was sarcastic. “I don’t why he was so mad. I have no idea,” the Sixers superstar said. “But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.” Seeing these two on the court at the same time should be absolute comedy. Will they play nice? Or will they freeze each other out? We won’t have to wait long to see them square off again as opponents, though. The Sixers travel to Oklahoma City on Feb. 28, where they hope to get a win versus the Thunder for the first time in 11 years.
Three: Ric Flair, Charlotte’s (Un]official Ambassador
To be the man, you gotta [honor the man at All-Star Weekend]…
OK, so that’s not exactly how the quote goes, but the truth remains the same. Of all the celebrities linked to Charlotte, there is but one who sits at the mountaintop. In a perfect world, Richard Morgan Fliehr, known to the world as Ric Flair, would be front and center at All-Star Weekend festivities. Flair’s wild life has been documented most recently with the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 Nature Boy. There will be many black music stars and fans in town for All-Star, most notably Meek Mill and J. Cole, who are headlining the official halftime show, and hip-hop loves Flair. Think 2012’s “We Ball” with Dom Kennedy and Kendrick Lamar. Think of 2018’s Offset, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Ric Flair Drip” the video that actually starred the former world champion. There’s a possibility Offset could be in town — Charlotte’s just a stone’s throw from Atlanta — and a reunion of sorts could take place. Nevertheless, Flair is a prime candidate for unofficial All-Star Weekend ambassador. Hope he’ll rock a “Free 21 Savage” shirt.
There’s also this: So much of Flair’s DNA is visible in current NBA All-Stars. James’ obsession for the dramatic is as must-see-TV as Flair. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s threat from 3 is as crippling as Flair’s figure-four leg-lock. Westbrook’s fashion sense — need more be said? Also Flair is an undeniable fan favorite on a lifetime victory lap akin to Dwayne Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. Charlotte shouldn’t just want Flair courtside for Sunday’s game. Charlotte needs Flair courtside for Sunday’s game.
Four: Can Quavo go back-to-back into the Celebrity Game record books?
Quavo, reigning Celebrity Game MVP, looks to join Terrell Owens and Kevin Hart as the only players to be named most valuable more than once. Hart, like Young Jeezy and trapping, won it four years in a row. Take away the actual professional basketball players (Ray Allen, A’ja Wilson, Jay Williams), and look at this year’s rosters. Famous Los has already set his sights on the crown, but Quavo will again be the best hooper on the court. Huncho’s silky lefty game is only enhanced by his ability to finish at the rim and get to the free throw line at will — a la James Harden. Also: former Carolina Panthers/future Hall of Fame wide receiver (and one of the all-time great trash talkers in any sport) Steve Smith is on the opposing squad. A Smith-Quavo back-and-forth could be the closest iteration of Harden vs. Draymond Green at All-Star.
Five: Stephen Curry’s Homecoming
The two-time MVP will be a huge part in this weekend’s festivities given his deep and direct ties to the Queen City. His father, Dell, was a sharpshooter for the Charlotte Hornets for 10 seasons. And while Stephen Curry was born in Akron, Ohio (making it one of the most unexpected birthplaces of basketball royalty), Charlotte is where Curry grew up. He attended high school in Charlotte. And because no big-time schools thought much of him, Curry attended Davidson College, about 30 minutes away from downtown Charlotte — and put the school on the basketball map with unparalleled March Madness performances a decade ago. He returns to the city he calls home as the greatest shooter of all time, nearly a surefire lock to obliterate Allen’s all-time 3-point record and future Hall of Famer with three championships (and counting) to his name. Curry and younger brother Seth are both in the 3-point contest, and Curry’s presence in Sunday’s big game has the running narrative of MVP.
Six: Bombs Over Charlotte: A 3-point contest for the ages
There’s reigning champion Devin Booker. There are the aforementioned Curry brothers. Damian Lillard is made for moments like these. Buddy Hield, Joe Harris and Danny Green can all catch fire at a moment’s notice. Khris Middleton, who almost assuredly will have teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo courtside cheering him on. All-Star starter Kemba Walker has home court advantage. And there wouldn’t be an angry person in the world if Nowitzki walked away with the crown. The point being is this: There is no wrong selection here. Just enjoy the light show.
Seven: Happy birthday, Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan turns 56 on Feb. 17, the day of the All-Star Game, and expect the greatest to ever do it to be treated like the royalty he is all weekend long. Jordan’s been waiting for this weekend since 2017, when Charlotte was originally supposed to host the midseason pilgrimage, but due to the discriminatory HB2, known as the “bathroom bill,” Charlotte’s look was postponed. But this year? Here are three Jordan dream scenarios in no particular order:
- Similar to James Davis above, I, too, receive an ultra exclusive invite to whatever Saturday night party Jordan is hosting. Bringing my own cigars, Mike and I chop it up about a variety of topics. About how I found the address to his fan club in an old Sports Illustrated Kids. About how I think his “Flu Game” is really his “Hangover Game” — which is no knock on him. It’s actually more impressive.
- Someone snaps a picture of Jordan and Bill “I don’t play defense” Murray. While Jordan did most of the work versus the Monstars in Space Jam, let the record show Murray has the most important assist in world history. It’s high time we acknowledge Murray for the hero he is.
- Like last year, the game comes down to its final possession. And James, with Jordan courtside, takes the final shot …
Eight: Charlotte ‘Going Bad’ on ’em anyway?
For anyone not familiar with All-Star Weekend, it’s a continuous barrage of parties, sponsored events and open bars. There is, of course, a vital need for music at these events. And if there’s one song most likely to become the unofficial anthem of the weekend, it’s Meek Mill and Drake’s “Going Bad” which officially dropped last week. Sitting at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of Feb. 9, don’t be surprised if it jumps a few slots with an expected All-Star push. Meek is of course one of the two headliners for Sunday’s All-Star Game, along with home state titan J. Cole. Meek will also serve as the MC of pregame introductions with his and Drake’s hit likely playing some role in the moment. It’s a nice setup too, for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the nation’s oldest historically black college conference. The organization has held its annual basketball tournament in the Queen City since 2004. Because of its residency in Charlotte (which ends next year and is headed to Baltimore in 2021), the city is an annual mecca for celebrities such as 21 Savage, Cardi B, Odell Beckham Jr., Rick Ross, Bria Myles, Lil Wayne, DC Young Fly and more. Last year’s CIAA tournament netted north of $50 million, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. This year’s tournament kicks off Feb. 26.
It came up Sunday night, while I was watching Game 2 at a bar with two friends. It was right after Stephen Curry’s most video-game-like 3-pointer, the fourth-quarter heave over Kevin Love from roughly 4 feet behind the 3-point line as the shot clock expired.
“Watching LeBron right now …” said my friend Jason, 31, shaking his head at Curry’s exploits, “I wonder if this is what it felt like watching Wilt Chamberlain play the Celtics back in the ‘60s.” Jason works in information technology. “Jerry West, too,” said Marcus. He’s 34 and works in higher education in Louisiana. “They both ran up against Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Red Auerbach and all those guys.” There is a case to be made: LeBron James’ current four-year war with Golden State may be the NBA’s modern-day equivalent.
Chamberlain is the game’s original statistical anomaly, the prophyte of modern-day bulls-in-china-shops like Shaquille O’Neal and James. There’s his 100-point game in March 1962. That same season he averaged a whopping 48.5 minutes per game while putting up 50 points and 25 rebounds a night. Chamberlain, a Philadelphia native, never averaged less than 18 rebounds per game in any season of his career, and he retired averaging 30 points and 23 rebounds per game. He was the game’s all-time leading scorer until he was surpassed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984; Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan also eventually overtook him. Both Dirk Nowitzki and James will pass him early next season.
Chamberlain and Bill Russell met during Russell’s rookie season and Chamberlain’s freshman year at the University of Kansas in 1956-57. They became basketball’s original titan-on-titan rivalry. Chamberlain was the unstoppable force, which Russell has said forced him to think of different defensive schemes each time they competed. Russell and the Celtics were the immovable object in Chamberlain’s path toward NBA immortality.
“We talked about it one time,” Russell said of the lone conversation he had with Chamberlain about the difference in their careers. “[Wilt] said that [Russell having better teammates] was not true. Simply because his teammates had to feed him and I fed my teammates.”
From 1959-69, Russell and Chamberlain played against each other in 94 regular-season games. Neither was a particularly great free throw shooter, with Russell’s 54.2 percent nudging out Chamberlain’s 49.3 percent. Chamberlain had the edge in rebounding over Russell, who is widely considered the greatest defensive big man to ever live, 28.2 to 22.9. And Chamberlain more than doubled Russell in points per game, 29.9 to 14.2.
Chamberlain’s teams, however? They won only 37 of the 94 matchups, with the win-loss ratio slightly tighter in the playoffs. Chamberlain, again, held the advantage in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. But it was again Russell who walked away victorious in 29 of those 49 postseason matchups. A final tally: Russell’s Celtics defeated Chamberlain’s Warriors, 76ers and Lakers in 86 of 143 matchups (60 percent). Chamberlain and Russell played each other in eight different playoff series. Russell won seven of those eight series.
This is why watching James this postseason has been particularly astounding. In the first round vs. Indiana, the second round vs. Toronto and the Eastern Conference finals vs. Boston, James’ opponents had the better team. Cleveland just had the best player.
But no team in James’ first-ballot Hall of Fame career has tested the limits of his genius quite like the opponent he’s down 0-2 to right now. His virtuoso 51-8-8 performance that ended in a Game 1 loss felt very Wilt-esque. When Chamberlain snagged a still-record 55 rebounds in November 1960, he did so against Russell and the Celtics. But Wilt did so in a loss.
Although LeBron and the Golden State Warriors haven’t been attached at the hip his entire career in the way Chamberlain was to Russell and the Celtics, the history is peppered with special moments. In December 2012, the Warriors (with a then-rookie Draymond Green) shocked the defending champion Miami Heat at home. A month later, LeBron returned the favor in Oakland, becoming the youngest player to score 20,000 career points in the process.
A year later in January 2014, Steph Curry’s 36 points again led to another South Beach loss for the defending champion Heat. And right before heading into that year’s All-Star break, LeBron outdueled Steph (29 points and seven assists) with his own near triple-double of 36 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and the game-winning 3 in Oakland. It ranks as the first classic duel between the two multiple MVPs — though the Bay Area monster hadn’t yet graduated into its current mutation. After that game, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Curry had an always fascinating battle of “black men attempting to out-compliment the other.”
The past four Junes speak for themselves. The Cavs and Warriors are the only teams to ever play each other for the championship four consecutive times in any major American sport. Golden State has won two of three, invited former MVP Kevin Durant into the fold and, if they take care of business this week, could be returning to Oakland this weekend with their third title in four years — and Curry’s first career Finals MVP award.
The Cavaliers return to Cleveland in a series that should be tied. And beating Golden State four out of the next five games is a pipe dream. It’s James, the best player (like Wilt), against the unquestioned best team in the league for almost the last half decade (like Russell and the Celtics). Difficult takes a day and impossible takes a week. James, in most cases, makes impossible look like a random Tuesday. But the weight of that responsibility became crystal clear in one clip — when LeBron found out the Cavs still had timeouts left at the end of regulation in Game 1.
Love or loathe LeBron, the exasperation was uncomfortable to watch. He, more than anyone around the league, understands the value of getting any added advantage on the Warriors. They’re a python, smothering teams with ball movement, quick hands on defense and a steady stream of 3s. Every now and then, though, the Warriors will slip up, allowing a team to escape the constriction of their reptilian play. James knew this was the game. The entire world knew it too.
And Cleveland blew it with blunders both beyond their control and well within it. It’s how Chamberlain felt against the Celtics. Four Chamberlain vs. Russell series went to Game 7. Russell and Boston won all four — by a total of nine points. Russell is a perfect 10-0 in Game 7s in his iconic career.
Role players traditionally play better at home. But if Cleveland is to at least make it a series, LeBron knows just what Russell and Chamberlain knew — that record-breaking stats mean nothing in the heat of the moment. And that no player has ever won a title without a team effort.
On Wednesday night, Cleveland will play like its season hangs in the balance — because it does. And Golden State will enter Quicken Loans Arena knowing it can inflict a body blow that would, effectively, leave LeBron down for the count. So either the Cavaliers make adjustments to their rotations and defensive schemes and find a better clip from 3-point range or the Warriors make it back to the Bay Area, trophy in tow, without having to cancel Saturday brunch plans.
Even when I was a child in the 1960s, I wasn’t a big fan of what I’ve been calling the “Kumbaya Yada Yada” for the past 20 years. You know, how we all have to learn to live together, as if all the wise men and women don’t always teach and preach that, as if all the bullies who rise to power don’t ignore that teaching and preaching for as long as they can get away with it.
Still, when my Uncle Sam started to launch into what I thought and feared would be a disquisition on national unity, I leaned in.
Born into a sharecropping family in 1905, Uncle Sammy was short and powerful, a little big man. His movements reflected a lifetime of carrying heavy burdens, from the plantation to the factory floor. He was my daddy’s older brother, and he spoke quickly and in a low voice. He barely opened his mouth when he talked. Yet he expected his listeners to laugh or nod respectfully on cue. Just 9 or 10 years old and sitting in my uncle’s North Philadelphia living room on a Saturday afternoon, I prepared to laugh or nod.
“The trouble with white folks,” my uncle began, “is they don’t understand that black people are people too.” At those words I prepared to tune my uncle out, but with subtlety and respect. I thought but didn’t say, “If white people don’t know black people are people, and often very good people, I wasn’t going to join the effort to persuade them.” After all, generations of black people had sought to make that case, from slavery to a begrudged freedom that folks were fighting to protect and expand, from the picket lines to courthouses.
After all, in my life, spent almost entirely with black people, I’d lived among honest, loving and spiritual people. They paid their bills. They cleaned their streets when the city didn’t. They took care of their grandparents and their grandbabies when they couldn’t take care of themselves. And they prayed, humbly and beseechingly, that their tormentors receive God’s grace and forgiveness.
Consequently, at my uncle’s words, I lifted my gaze from his round and unlined face and glanced at the living room TV. I quickly took my gaze from the TV screen and rested it upon my uncle’s fingers, which, as he talked, traced the words of a newspaper, as if he could receive their wisdom through his fingertips. I returned my gaze to his face and watched his lips move ever so slightly and listened. Then I leaned in some more and tried to catch up to what my Uncle Sam was saying. This all took a few seconds.
My uncle wasn’t singing “Kumbaya.” Instead, at a rapid pace, he was explaining that the fundamental denial of black humanity led America to embrace a cruelty that hit black people first and hardest but ultimately affected and infected the entire society.
Which is to say, the South that he, my father and their father fled between the two world wars was brutal for black people, tarred and feathered with the N-word. But it was no bed of magnolias for the people who were balled up and tossed aside as “white trash” either.
Which is to say, my uncle thought that at one time or the other, almost anybody could be subjected to being treated the way black people are routinely treated in America. Consequently, my uncle wanted white America to understand that the treatment of black people served as a cautionary tale and a warning for the rest of society.
Which is to say maintaining a society that’s unjust for many of its people is a dirty job that soils, tarnishes and corrupts everyone.
From time to time, I’m reminded of my uncle’s mumbled wisdom, especially when somebody bemoans dishonesty or hypocrisy among high government officials or the absence of decency in the way someone is treated or talked about, especially by someone who is white.
America’s dishonesty and hypocrisy toward the dispossessed, the casual and routine cruelty and disregard for those defined as the other, are not new. They are as old as the broken treaties with Native Americans. It is as old as the slave auction. It is as old as the Japanese internment camps. But so is resistance, resilience and renewal.
If my Uncle Sammy were alive today, perhaps he wouldn’t speak in black and white terms. Since the 1960s, the demographics of the nation have changed so much. And the chorus demanding freedom and respect swells with many voices.
Perhaps today my uncle would decry the general inability of the favored and the privileged in America to understand and respect the humanity of those less favored, whether that privilege is based upon race, religion, ethnicity, wealth, gender or sexual orientation.
That inability to embrace the humanity of others is cruel and stupid. But it is not new. And neither is the solution. Unity is the only way to defeat the bullies and their minions.
As the wise elders say, we have to learn to live together.
This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.
“Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.
That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 film—the greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen—better than anyone.
An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college, or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which of course requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.
In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the P.S.A.L. (Public Schools Athletic League) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade and McDonald’s All-American, and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during his Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”
He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech, and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ‘96 draft, He Got Game premiered.
On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed onscreen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Stephon, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” says Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player..?”
In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee—born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn—addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Spike said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”
The idea for He Got Game came to Spike at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father, who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee fedexed the script to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Denzel, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered the skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.
In Washington, Spike had a bonafide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … Who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’ Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus…it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court…you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”
Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Spike put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen, to Kobe Bryant, to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.
“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury says with an abrupt pause. “ … to play me.”
Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to shit.”
Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it … If he can make it out of here, so can I.
It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are the visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Spike Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Ray Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ‘96 draft—in exchange for Marbury—Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.
“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’” says the now retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took Spike up on his offer, and met with him in New York.
“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”
Meanwhile, Spike was courting players from all over — a perk of being on of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warmups, or during the game, I’d run by Spike, and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie,” says University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part, but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’” Spike ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player “Mance”) and a handful of NBA roleplayers as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player “Sip”), to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit), andand John Wallace (as Lincoln player “Lonnie”), also of the Knicks.
But for Jesus, Spike envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen says. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ‘90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.
According to a Washington Post story published the day the He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie Tracy McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as The Post detailed.
In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.
“I wanna say Allan Houston, too,” McCarty recalls from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’”
Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he says, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”
In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembers, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”
On June 19, 1997, the Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his…He Got Game.”
Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ‘fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much…I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well…I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time for do a film.”
So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players — and probably some we’ll never even know about — Spike, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.
“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”
“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen says. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”
It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Spike is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.
Allen, then in his final NBA season, as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which wore onscreen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Spike tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.
He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie not just about just hoops, but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Spike responds about the prospect of a followup to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”
A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talk about a sequel,” Allen says. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.” The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and NBA Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to school, or to the NBA.
This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Spike writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttles to life.”
Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on of the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role.” he says. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”
If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he says, as matter-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”
The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, though his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — what no character can.
“I was the first,” Stephon Marbury says, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”
This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.
“Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.
That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 film, the greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen, better than anyone.
An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.
In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the Public Schools Athletic League (P.S.A.L.) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade magazine and McDonald’s All-American and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney Island, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during son Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”
He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but he accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ’96 draft, He Got Game premiered.
On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed on screen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Marbury, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” said Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player …?”
In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee, born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Lee said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”
The idea for He Got Game came to Lee at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee sent the script by FedEx to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Washington, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered his skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.
In Washington, Lee had a bona fide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’s Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus … it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court … you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”
Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Lee put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen to Kobe Bryant to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.
“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury said with an abrupt pause, “… to play me.”
Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to s—.”
Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it. … If he can make it out of here, so can I.
It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ’96 draft (in exchange for Marbury), Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.
“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’ ” said the now-retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took up Lee on his offer and met with him in New York.
“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’ ” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”
Meanwhile, Lee was courting players from all over — a perk of being one of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warm-ups or during the game, I’d run by Spike and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie!” said University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’ ”
Lee ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player Mance) and a handful of NBA role players as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player Sip) to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit) and John Wallace (as Lincoln player Lonnie), also of the Knicks.
But for Jesus, Lee envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen said. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. [Garnett] to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ’90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.
According to a Washington Post story published the day He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as the Post detailed.
In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.
“I wanna say Allan Houston too,” McCarty recalled from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Garnett and Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’ ” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’ ”
Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he said, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”
In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembered, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”
On June 19, 1997, The Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his … He Got Game.”
Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ’fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much. … I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well … I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time to do a film.”
So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players, and probably some we’ll never even know about, Lee, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.
“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”
“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen said. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”
It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Lee is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.
Allen, then in his final NBA season as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which he wore on screen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Lee tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.
He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie about not just hoops but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Lee responds about the prospect of a follow-up to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”
A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talked about a sequel,” Allen said. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.”
The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and National Basketball Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to college or to the NBA.
This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Lee writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttlesworth to life.”
Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role,” he said. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”
If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he said, as matter-of-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well. … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”
The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, although his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — which no character can.
“I was the first,” Marbury said, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”