Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.
Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.
But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.
Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.
“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”
Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.
“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”
Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.
“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”
Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.
While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.
Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.
With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.
Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.
“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”
Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.
Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”
Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.
George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.
Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.
A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.
“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”
Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.
“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”
The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.
James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.
“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”
One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”
Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.
“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”
In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.
Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.
“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”
Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.
“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”
In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.
“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.
His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.
Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.
Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.
Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.
“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”
This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.
There is no prescribed order for looking at these portraits of ESPY winners. No uniformity of theme to frame the athletes’ prodigious talents. No particular silhouette that conveys the significance of their achievements.
You might scroll through the images for long minutes before you find the entry point. It’s a truth about sports we hold to be self-evident — not all men and women are created equal.
Premier athletic accomplishment exists as a kind of off-ramp from normal human experience, and we are moved by the simple fact of it. Scrolling through this collection of photos, some from more than a decade ago, of some of the athletes honored, we try to establish a connection with people who do a thing that puts distance between themselves and the rest of the world. We are looking for something that gives us a way in.
A 2001 close-up of Shaquille O’Neal, fingers splayed, covering/not covering his face, invites us near. It plays with the idea that the Basketball Hall of Famer might have tried to hide something of himself if life had ever tempted him with the option. Instead, physiology became destiny, and one of the NBA’s most dominant players ever exercised his outsize personality, ambition and smarts to carry that 7-foot frame off the court and into the rest of his life.
Mia Hamm, of the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team, plays soccer on a field of young girls in Washington, D.C., or turns her face to the sun, and reminds us of that singular American moment decades ago when she and her teammates nationalized young women’s athletic joy.
At times, it feels impossible to separate the athletes from the racial context in which they occur. A portrait of Venus Williams — serene, simple, lovely — feels like the best photo you’ve ever seen of her, which requires some sleight of mind because it’s not a shot of her dominating on the tennis court while helping redefine the sport. But it does show Venus Ebony Starr Williams, breaker of serves, first of her name, outside the context of what are often racist, tiresome feels about her face and body, and that alone feels beautiful.
Mostly, the images represent athletes in the existential act of asserting themselves over, but not limited to, the sports they’ve reimagined and changed. In 2006, a young LeBron James standing in a cavernous hallway with his legs hip-width apart doesn’t telegraph who he will become so much as clarify what he brought with him into the room. It’s a certainty about the space he took up in the world long before he reached beyond basketball to build schools, produce documentaries and marshal the culture.
In many of the photos, especially the older ones, we have the subjects at a disadvantage. We begin with the end in mind. We already know their stories, so now we look for the proof of their narratives.
Who else sees Shuri, “Wakanda Forever,” in a photo of a laughing Sheryl Swoopes, the first player signed by the WNBA and a three-time MVP? Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, worked different magic in different arenas a generation before the teen tech genius in Black Panther. But she helped create and hold open the lane for black girls who wanted to be something that had never been before. These shots of Swoopes demand that you see her for who she is, even as she changed. It was all still pioneering work.
We can’t always see who they are, or were, in these photos that fix some of the world’s greatest sports figures at specific instances in time. We bring to this watch party the beliefs we already had. But we keep looking anyway, keep trying to take whatever they have to give. It is our way of trying to connect with those people fated to represent something that lies beyond the ordinary human grasp. We scour the images again and again, those of us on the outside, looking for clues.
Written by Lonnae O’Neal
At a certain point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every suburban girl in America was interested in soccer, and that was most certainly due to the influence of Mia Hamm and her teammates on the U.S. national team.
She was called the most marketable female athlete of her generation, appearing on Wheaties boxes and in commercials opposite Michael Jordan. Even two years into retirement, as Hamm was when this photograph was taken, she remained an avatar for focused, joyful, ambitious girlhood. She wasn’t just good at one part of soccer, she was great at all of it: dribbling, striking, creating opportunities for her teammates to score and rallying them at low points. Hamm carved a path to exceptionalism in a team sport and, in doing so, was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year for five straight seasons.
England had the Spice Girls. America had Hamm, Abby Wambach and Brandi Chastain. It must have been difficult to finally walk away from all of that at age 32, and it’s evident here. Hamm is crouched to tie her shoelace and appears, like many athletes shortly after they retire, as if she could jump back into her sport for just one more Women’s World Cup, just one more Olympic run.
It takes the viewer a minute to realize the only thing missing is shin guards. Like the All-American good girl she came to exemplify, Hamm, of course, is prepared. She’s making sure her laces don’t get caught in her cleats. A jaunty ponytail secures her hair. Perhaps this is a scrimmage or a clinic. No matter. The habits that build a champion are hard to shake.
The eyes are the table of contents to the soul’s story. For LeBron James, that story has been shaped for nearly 20 years by many voices, from fans to critics to the media and sponsors. But it’s been lived, every second of every day, by only one man.
Given the great American success story that followed, we sometimes overlook the young LeBron. But we all witnessed the debates over whether a teenage demigod dubbed “The Chosen One” a year before his senior prom was truly the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. We heard the barbershop banter about whether the Akron Hammer would dominate a league of grown men. Everyone had an opinion about King James. The last person it seemed to faze, though, was the one with the most to lose.
“Pressure been following me my whole life,” an 18-year-old James said after the 2003 NBA draft lottery, three years before this photograph was made.
Since his first professional game in Sacramento later that year, organized chaos has followed James like his own shadow. Which makes looking at this LeBron surreal. It’s a cue that youth, even for someone like James, is fleeting, even as we carry our emotional connection to it for the rest of our lives. No one knew the serious young man in this picture would evolve into the leader, activist, business tycoon and philanthropic force seen now. Some believed in the hype. Others didn’t. Even fewer believed he’d actually surpass the unrealistic expectations. Nothing about LeBron’s story has ever been normal.
Shaquille O’Neal’s hand could devour the average person’s head. He’d do it with a smile and his baritone laugh, of course. But there’s a deeper lesson in this 2001 photograph in which O’Neal obscures half of his own face. One that proves truer and truer as the years pass and his exploits in the NBA devolve into hand-me-down stories. Shaq’s still a pop culture dynamo and an MVP candidate for every room he steps into. But it’s getting harder and harder to see what once was. And to recognize that there was a time when maybe we, and even Shaq himself, treated the moment like a luxury rather than the gift it truly was.
Basketball may never see the second coming of Black Superman. He was a 7-foot tour de force who will likely remain the lone athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, MVP and NBA Finals MVP and release a platinum rap album. Good luck capturing that lightning in a bottle twice. In terms of the most dominant basketball player, Shaq is in the top two. Except he’s not No. 2. Like Shaq’s face here, we may see glimpses of his game again in others. There will be new athletes who blend Hollywood, the league and hip-hop. But never quite like The Diesel.
History may repeat itself. Halley’s Comet may come around every 75 years. But don’t expect to see anyone like Shaquille O’Neal again.
This is the body of the greatest swimmer of all time. It is not armored with muscle. It is not awesome. It looks naked, and a bit vulnerable. It looks quite human.
Michael Phelps delivered inhuman performances at four Olympics, collecting more medals than any athlete in any sport: 23 gold, three silver and two bronze. His eight golds in 2008 are the greatest haul in any single games. Three years after his retirement, he still holds three individual and three relay world records.
What’s not obvious in this photograph is the unique body construction that was the engine of Phelps’ dominance: long arms with double-jointed elbows, long torso attached to shorter legs, huge feet made flipper-like by flexible ankles. Most of that is hidden here. So we must look at Phelps, the human being.
Phelps grew up with a burning hole in his heart, left by his father after his parents’ divorce. Winning in the water filled the hole, and so did alcohol, but they always drained away to expose Phelps’ trauma. At age 19, two months after winning six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2009, after his eight-gold triumph in Beijing, he was photographed smoking marijuana and suspended from competition.
A second DUI arrest in 2014 pushed Phelps into intensive therapy, where he reclaimed control of his life and rebuilt a relationship with his father. That propelled him into his final Olympics, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where he sealed his legacy with his final five gold medals.
This is the human fragility of Michael Phelps. It makes him look even more awesome.
Time is loyal only to its own clock. For Albert Pujols, now 39, his best playing days are in the rearview mirror. But in this 2006 portrait, the slugger once known as “The Machine” is eyeing the future and what it could possibly hold. Pujols would capture his first of two World Series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals that year. Even then, the Dominican superstar was fielding All Time comparisons.
Yet, then as now, the same question hangs in the air. What’s next? Before the start of the 2019 season, Pujols had said he intends to complete his contract, which ends in 2021. In this photo, Pujols bothers not with the camera but rather what the camera can’t see. The same holds true now. Cooperstown? Absolutely — he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, currently sixth all-time in career homers and fifth in RBIs. More time to focus on his diverse charitable efforts? “That’s part of the responsibility God has given me,” he said during his Anaheim Angels introduction in 2011. “Not just to perform on the field, but to give back off the field.”
Whatever’s next for Pujols is truly his pitch to make. But while he’s still manning first base for the Angels, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. He’s one of the greatest baseball players ever. We should never take a gift like that for granted.
She knew. Sheryl Swoopes knew who she was and what she could do.
We did not. When the WNBA launched in 1997, many of us who respected and valued women’s basketball didn’t know how good these women really were. We certainly didn’t know that Sheryl Denise Swoopes, born in 1971 in the West Texas town of Brownfield, was one of the greatest basketball players to ever step on a court.
Look into Swoopes’ eyes and you can see the experience of being slighted, plus the peace of being unbothered by the injustice. There is the calmness of knowing that she may miss a shot, but her scoring ability can never be stopped. Her gnarled knuckles testify to collecting thousands of steals, deflections, loose balls and rebounds. The discoloration on her right foot speaks to the thousands of court miles needed to secure this knowledge of self.
Such confidence comes from scoring 47 points in the 1993 NCAA championship game, setting a record that still stands for most points scored by any woman or man on college basketball’s biggest stage. It comes from suiting up for the Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth, then leading the team to the first of four straight WNBA championships. From having a son with her high school sweetheart, coming out as gay, enduring a breakup with her partner, then marrying another man. From winning three Olympic gold medals. From being the first woman to have her own Nike shoe.
Sheryl Swoopes knew. Now we do too.
Seeing Mike Trout look away from the camera neatly encapsulates the conundrum surrounding the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. Is it unfair or is it a precious gift that one of the most dominant athletes on the planet, and the recipient of the richest contract in American team sports history, is also one of its most unrecognizable? How should we understand the bizarre path to immortality the game’s best player trots?
Since his first full campaign in 2012, Trout has been named Rookie of the Year, finished in the top four of MVP voting every season and won the award twice, made the All-Star team seven times and earned All-Star Game MVP honors twice. There’s talk that he’s already the best baseball player ever. But the scrunched eyebrows on Trout’s face mirror the concern of fans emotionally invested in a career that has barely registered in much of the country. Baseball’s waning status in American culture is a complicating factor, of course. But so is the fact that the Angels have had only one postseason appearance during Trout’s tenure. Will team success ever align with individual sovereignty?
Only 27, with presumably hundreds of games to play and millions of dollars to be paid before he is immortalized in Cooperstown, there is still time for Trout and the Angels to break out. In the meantime, we see this stoic expression on an all-time dominating presence who is frustratingly unknown.
There’s a line in George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum that states, “God created black people and black people created style.” Serena Williams was 24 when she sat for this portrait, and still in the early stages of articulating her personal style. But harbingers of what was to come — multiple covers of glossies such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar — peek through.
The frame is nearly overtaken by hair and lip gloss, and Williams gazes out hopefully, as if eyeing the future. But there’s also evidence of the conflict that has remained with Williams since she and her older sister Venus grabbed the tennis world as teens and shook it. Williams has long felt pressure to assert her femininity, especially as her skill, her physique and her boiling competitiveness made her a frequent target of sexist attacks. Accused of being mannish, Williams appears here as soft, romantic and sporting the sort of hair that every black girl who’s ever made a trip to the beauty supply store recognizes as “Wet ’N’ Wavy.”
Later, the “Wet ’N’ Wavy” locks would give way to billowing natural curls and more assertive declarations about gender and race-based inequities. Still, the raw ingredients were already present. Williams appeared as herself in the Memphis Bleek music video for “Do My…” in 2000, which not only took female athletic ability seriously but also treated it as something cool and desirable. “Throw a hand in the air if it’s the year of the woman,” Bleek instructs.
In this moment six years later, there’s a quietude about Williams. Her mouth is closed. She’s not wielding a racket or dripping with sweat, or selling a watch, or shoes, or athletic wear. Instead, Williams has continued forging ahead, making every year the year of the woman rather than settling for just one.
Venus Williams has never been known as especially talkative, so it makes sense that here she appears placid, almost sphinxlike, with a calm, understated regality. Her younger sister, Serena, issues fashion declarations that make her queenliness literal, but Venus, the first Williams sister to experience worldwide fame for her racket-based talents, is more reserved.
One of the most fascinating things about Venus and Serena Williams has been how they coexist on and off the court — they once shared a Palm Beach house together, and both are fierce, focused competitors. Their matches are fraught with an uncomfortable tension, so much so that the best thing about them tends to be their conclusions. Venus appears outwardly better at coping with loss, especially when it comes at the hands of her younger sister. She has learned to exhibit the gracious nobility of an older sibling, all the while knowing who is coming behind her.
In 2006, the year this photograph was taken, Williams wrote a letter to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club lobbying for the organization to award equal prize money to male and female Wimbledon competitors. The language was firm, its message unmistakable: “I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players,” she wrote. In 2007, Wimbledon announced a policy of gender parity in its prize money. A year after that, Venus beat Serena on Centre Court to take England’s Grand Slam title.
How fitting, then, to see her seated upon a throne of damask upholstery, secure, pleased and smiling into the distance, as if she knows what is to come.
Drake, the Toronto native and Raptors fan, has spent the 2019 playoffs blurring the line between superfan and millionaire mascot by giving Raptors coach Nick Nurse massages on the sideline, talking trash to Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and trolling opposing fans with Instagram posts. His prominence as a celebrity “ambassador” is a watershed moment for the intersection of rap music and sports.
While this all seems pretty outrageous, it’s not unprecedented. Just 11 years ago, LeBron James and Jay-Z teamed up to take on … DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy in a bizarre, hilarious feud that’s a time capsule for pop culture in 2008.
After James had terrorized Washington Wizards to the tune of 32.7 points, 6.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs (besides a timely game-winner in Game 3 of the 2006 series), the Wizards needed any advantage they could get if they wanted to overthrow the King. That’s where Stevenson comes in. The shooting guard was in his eighth year by the time the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the third time in the first round, and he decided that getting into James’ head would be his best move.
After a 101-99 regular-season win on March 13, 2008, Stevenson had this bit of trash talk for James: “He’s overrated. And you can say I said that.”
When the first-round playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Cavs and fifth-seeded Wizards was set, the Stevenson quote came back up. James responded by saying … he wasn’t going to respond. When asked, he said, “With DeShawn Stevenson, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like Jay-Z [responding to a negative comment] made by Soulja Boy. It doesn’t make sense to respond.”
A bit of context: Soulja Boy mastered the burgeoning world of social media by uploading his songs to MySpace and Napster to create a buzz for himself. His hit “Crank That” created an international dance craze and was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in fall 2007. The song was not a lyrical masterpiece: “Yeah, watch me crank that Robocop/ Super fresh, now watch me jock/Jocking on them haters, man.”
Jay-Z, on the other hand, was, and still is, maybe the greatest rapper of all time, a lyrical wizard with multiple classic albums and a rap empire at his feet. He and James struck up a kinship in the player’s rookie year, partly because they shared the DNA of being heirs apparent to greatness: Jay-Z following in The Notorious B.I.G.’s footsteps after his death in 1997 and James being the next Michael Jordan after His Airness’ 2003 retirement. (There was also one other detail: Jay-Z was a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets and may or may not have wanted to court a certain all-time great to the team.) Regardless, James’ meaning was clear — he and Jay-Z were elite and Stevenson and Soulja Boy were one-hit wonders.
Stevenson took James’ comment as a chance to add some spice to the playoffs. When the series went back to Washington for Game 3, Soulja Boy was seated behind one of the baskets. (He may not have had the sauce of someone like Drake to get seats near the bench.) Throughout the game, Soulja Boy was waving towels and doing his Crank That dance. Even Washington’s Caron Butler took a moment to do the dance after a foul. Whatever mojo Soulja Boy offered worked that day, as the Wizards won 108-72.
It was a cute story that could have ended there. But Jay-Z must have felt the need to defend his buddy, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display. Jay-Z was in Oakland, California, performing when the James/Stevenson/Soulja Boy fracas was going down, and he played Oakland, California, legend Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” and shouted-out the MC. The crowd erupted, and Jay-Z got the idea to rap over the instrumental.
“LeBron was special to him,” Too $hort said in 2017. “And ol’ boy [Stevenson] stepped on LeBron’s toes talking s— and Jay was like, I’m going to shut this down. And he probably saw the moment where the crowd reacted to the song and then that was on his mind.”
So Jay-Z asked Too $hort for the instrumental. “When Jay called, I was like, ‘It will be there in a couple of hours, man.’ I had no idea what he was going to do with it, but I am glad he did.”
The next night, as Wizards players were partying at the D.C. nightclub Love, the DJ debuted a Jay-Z song rapping over Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” instrumental: “Ask my n—- LeBron! We so big we ain’t gotta respond … Who the f— overrated?! If anything they underpaid him. Hatin that’s only gonna make him spend the night out of spite with the chick you’ve been datin’.” Without mentioning Stevenson or Soulja Boy, the intent was clear.
The series went six games, with the overrated James averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. (Stevenson averaged 12.3 points.) Stevenson would eventually find himself on the winning side three years later when his Dallas Mavericks (well, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks) bested James and the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals. While winning a championship is all good, hundreds of players have won rings. However, not many can say they were dissed by Jay-Z in a song. That moment defined Stevenson’s career almost as much as his championship.
The Warriors aren’t without their own contingent of rap stars who will be waving towels in Oracle Arena come Game 3. From E-40 to Too $hort and even MC Hammer, the Bay Area hip-hop scene is ready to lend support and maybe its own batch of troll-y Instagram posts.
Drake’s relationship with the Warriors seems a bit more amicable than that between the parties involved in the 2008 feud. But as the series progresses and the trash talk ramps up, we may yet see a magical musical moment in this NBA Finals. If it’s anything like Jay-Z’s effort, it could be the stuff of legend.