‘Black Duke’ takes flight After decades of resistance, black America embraces Blue Devils basketball

Once upon a time in college basketball, black fans had a special sort of hate for Duke.

This season is different. The Blue Devils are so good in the ‘hood, Jay-Z came to watch them play … in Pittsburgh. LeBron James witnessed the Zion Williamson mixtape in Charlottesville, Virginia. After every game, the internet is flooded with highlights of Williamson and Duke’s three other one-and-about-to-be-dones. The program has come so far from its so-called “Uncle Tom” days, Sacramento Kings rookie and recent Duke star Marvin Bagley III just laced the newest J. Cole beat with raps such as way back I was hated but they love me now.

And all that’s not even counting when Ken Griffey Jr., Todd Gurley, Spike Lee and former President Barack Obama came to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium for the rivalry game with North Carolina.

Black fans now root for Duke at higher rates than the general population, according to the ESPN Sports Poll. In 2017, 12 percent of black college basketball enthusiasts identified as Duke fans, compared with 8 percent of all college basketball fans. So far this season, 24 percent of the audience for Duke games on ESPN is black, compared with 21 percent for all games.


How did Duke go from ashy to classy? From supposedly privileged punks who vanquished iconic black teams to having a hairstyle named after the 2015 championship squad? From featuring white stars who fizzled in the pros to Zion running through competition like a midnight locomotive?

Like everything pertaining to Duke basketball, it starts with coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Coach K changed with the times, gradually embracing the concept of recruiting players who would be at Duke for only a few months before jumping to the NBA. His credibility grew when he started coaching Olympic teams and building relationships with legends such as James and Kobe Bryant. The turning point was Duke’s 2015 title team, featuring three one-and-dones and the “Duke Starting Five” haircut trend.

Now Duke is an apex competitor, ready for the next “Nike check coming out the projects.” The freshmen Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones draw huge TV ratings. Duke has black fans like this dude, straight photobombing ESPN in Louisville’s arena after Duke came back from a 23-point deficit in the second half:

“I do think the success of the program, having a series of one-and-done players now, Coach K being fully embraced by the stars of the NBA with the Olympics, a confluence of things have contributed to changing that narrative,” said Grant Hill, the Hall of Famer and former Duke star who was unfairly saddled with much of the black community’s dislike of his team.

“It’s kind of funny why people didn’t like us back in the day. It’s even funnier now that people are big fans because of the haircut,” Hill continued.

“But the fact that Duke is now sort of embraced is interesting.”


Jay-Z laughs during the game between the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Duke Blue Devils at Petersen Events Center on January 22, 2019 in Pittsburgh.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Duke hired Krzyzewski from West Point in 1980, two years after losing the NCAA championship game to Kentucky. In 1982, Krzyzewski brought in Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson and Jay Bilas. In 1986, that group and freshman Danny Ferry went to the championship game, which they lost to Louisville.

In that era, black America’s team was Georgetown, led by pioneering coach John Thompson. He took the Hoyas to three Final Fours, winning the 1984 national championship and the hearts of black folks with an attitude of uncompromising blackness.

Like Georgetown, Duke was an expensive, academically elite private school. Unlike Georgetown, Duke featured a high proportion of white stars, including Alarie, Ferry and, in the 1988-89 season, a bratty freshman named Christian Laettner. In the 1989 NCAA tournament, with Ferry and Laettner leading the way, Duke beat a Georgetown team featuring a young Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo to secure a spot in the Final Four. Thompson never got that close to a championship again.

The next two seasons, two players arrived who would put Duke over the top and set the Duke image for years to come. Point guard Bobby Hurley fit one type of Duke stereotype: scrappy, not overly talented, and white. Hill fit another: He was the privileged son of a former NFL star and a corporate executive, and black.

“In the ’80s, it was almost the more struggle you came from, the blacker you were,” Hill said.

Another factor contributing to black fans’ past disdain for Duke was that the team’s best white players — Alarie, Ferry, Hurley, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Kyle Singler, the Plumlee brothers — often had mediocre NBA careers. Laettner, the best white Duke player, whose arrogance and frat-boy looks inspired hate in whites and blacks alike, made one All-Star appearance and averaged 12.8 points per game over his 13-year career. J.J. Redick, twice the National Player of the Year at Duke, has a career average of 12.8 points per game in his 13th NBA season.

Laettner and Hurley got destroyed in the 1990 NCAA championship game, losing 103-73 to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, led by gold-toothed forward Larry Johnson. But in the 1991 Final Four, with Hill as a freshman, Duke took down undefeated UNLV, then went on to win Krzyzewski’s first title.

The following year, Laettner, Hill and Hurley smashed another set of black icons, Michigan’s legendary Fab Five freshmen, to capture a second straight championship.

“You had this idea about the kind of black players Coach K recruited,” said Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the African and African-American studies department. “Kind of a cut-and-dried, clean-cut type of black player … a lot seemed to be mixed-race. When it came to color, they were often light-skinned. It seemed like he had a pattern.”

Neal hated Duke basketball for years, even after he became a professor there in 2004. “What framed my view of Duke was when they played UNLV and it was portrayed as these great student-athletes versus the thugs,” he said, then added: “Laettner didn’t help.”

The Fab Five, who injected hip-hop style and attitude into college basketball, were viewed as the antithesis of Duke. Michigan’s Jalen Rose crystallized those feelings in his Fab Five documentary, describing his feelings as a 17-year-old high schooler: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.”

That was a false label — Rose’s teammate Chris Webber was a middle-class kid, for example, and Krzyzewski recruited Webber hard — but it resonated.

“I said what people had been thinking for 30 years,” Rose, now an ESPN analyst, said in an interview.

Kyrie Irving (left), during his one-and-done year at Duke, gets second-half instructions from coach Mike Krzyzewski (right) against Michigan State at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina, on Dec. 1, 2010.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/Getty Images

But with two championships, Duke could now recruit with anyone in the country. The Blue Devils won a third title in 2001 with Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. Their fourth title, in 2010, featured Nolan Smith and white players such as Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Jon Scheyer.

Black stars such as Hill, Williams and Boozer probably would have been one-and-done in today’s game. As the college basketball landscape shifted, Corey Maggette left Duke after one season. Elton Brand left after two and became an NBA All-Star.

Then came Kyrie Irving, whose spectacular 11-game Duke career in 2010-11 set the program on a new course. Irving went first in the NBA draft, won Rookie of the Year, is a perennial All-Star and became an NBA champion in 2016.

The next generation of young stars took notice.


From left to right: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson and Justise Winslow of the Duke Blue Devils wait for player introductions before their game against the Miami Hurricanes at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13, 2015.

Lance King/Getty Images

The Black Duke turning point came in 2015: the championship team featuring freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, and senior Quinn Cook.

“My freshman year, it was different,” Cook said. “Me and Amile Jefferson talk about it all the time. Warming up, it’d be like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber playing in the arena. And by my senior year, they were playing like Lil Durk and Shy Glizzy and Chief Keef and Meek Mill.”

Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” became the soundtrack to their championship run. The idea came from assistant coach Jeff Capel, the former Duke player whose jersey was spotted on Tupac Shakur back in the day.

“We play team basketball. Coach has a military background. We take charges. We get hype after little plays,” Cook said. “I think in the basketball community, it just looks like — I don’t want to say ‘corny,’ it’s just different. But coach lets you add your flair to it, add your little swagger, your team swagger.

“If we buy in and we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on the court and in the classroom, coach lets us be us.”

When Cook arrived on campus, he was surprised to find out that several teammates had tattoos. They wore sweatsuits on the road, not suits and ties. Krzyzewski was a Beyoncé fan and had a picture with Jay-Z on his phone. After a disappointing first-round loss in the 2014 tournament, Cook started growing his hair out to show his complete focus on basketball. Then the entire team said no clippers would touch their hair until they lost. That took 14 games. They left the tops of their ’dos long and shaped up the bottoms. By the time they won the 2015 tournament, the Duke haircut had trended nationally.

In 2016, Brandon Ingram wore that haircut in his one-and-done Duke season. Then came Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Bagley. Next up is Williamson, one of the most electrifying college athletes ever and the obvious first choice in the 2019 NBA draft. Barrett is projected to be picked second, Reddish fourth and Jones later in the first round.

Today, “I just think Duke has a look to it,” Cook said. “If you look at the guys in the NBA, I don’t want to say it’s never been cool to go to Duke, but Duke is everywhere now.”

Said Rose: “Now, Coach K is recruiting the player. Before, they were recruiting the program. Before, Coach K wouldn’t even necessarily want four of the top 10 players because he wanted guys who he could mold them and culture them and bring them into the system. Just because you’re a top-flight player, that doesn’t mean you fit into what we’re trying to do.”

“Now, he fits Duke to the top-flight player.”


The roots of Black Duke run much deeper than Zion, Kyrie or Coach K.

In 1892, Trinity College relocated to Durham, North Carolina, with the generous assistance of a local tobacco baron named Washington Duke. That same year, Duke’s barber in Durham, an enterprising black man named John Merrick, expressed an interest in learning about real estate. Duke helped Merrick buy the barbershop, which he expanded into a chain of barbershops. Under Washington Duke’s tutelage, Merrick made more real estate purchases, which became Durham’s “Black Wall Street” district of businesses and homes owned by African-Americans.

Washington Duke also advised Merrick as he co-founded two pioneering black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Provident Life Insurance Co. and the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. After Duke’s death, his son James Duke gave millions to Trinity College, which was renamed after the Duke patriarch in 1924. Duke family money also endowed historically black universities such as North Carolina Central and Johnson C. Smith, plus what once was the black hospital in Durham.

“There’s a reason I like Duke that’s deeper than basketball,” said rap producer and longtime Duke fan 9th Wonder, who also is a professor at Duke, Harvard and his alma mater, North Carolina Central. “The Dukes went on record saying we cannot empower black people without teaching them economic empowerment.”

Duke went on a building spree with its new endowment. The architect for many of the campus buildings still in use today, including Cameron Indoor Stadium, was a black man named Julian Abele.

This history casts a different light on the perception of Duke as a “white” school — especially since we now know that Georgetown sold 272 slaves in 1838 to ensure its survival.

“When I talk to my friends and start pulling all this history up, it’s a hard reality for them to face,” 9th Wonder said. “They’re like, ‘The black person in me should have been rooting for Duke all along.’ ”

Outside Cameron Indoor Stadium on the campus of Duke University as snow falls from Winter Storm Diego on December 9, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.

Lance King/Getty Images

The Cavs’ Tristan Thompson, the most Googled athlete of 2018, is in another Kardashian media storm This is the intersection of two cultural powerhouses

Tristan Thompson is the starting center for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers are a 12-46 team, which makes them the third-worst in the NBA, with only two nationally televised games on ESPN, TNT or ABC all year. He was once the team’s big-man defensive stopper who helped the LeBron James-led Cavs secure an unlikely NBA Finals win over the Golden State Warriors in 2016. Now, he’s just a solid performer for a team in the NBA’s dungeon. He was also the most Googled athlete of 2018.

Two days after the NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, ended, it was Thompson — not former teammate James, unofficial All-Star host Stephen Curry or reigning MVP James Harden — who was the No. 1 trending topic in the country. Why?

Instagram Photo

Because of a TMZ story asserting that Thompson was allegedly caught cheating on the mother of his child, reality star Khloe Kardashian. With her sister Kylie Jenner’s best friend, Jordyn Woods. Who has almost the same first name as Thompson’s ex-girlfriend, the mother of his older daughter. Thompson left Jordan Craig for Kardashian two years ago.

Tristan Thompson, all 11 points per game of him, is a household name.

Got all that?

Thompson’s current place at the forefront of a politically congested news cycle is a reminder of the unique intersection of two American cultural powerhouses: an unstoppable reality TV dynasty and a professional league always front and center in American pop culture. Thompson, all 11 points per game of him, is a household name.

Social media has turned this family melodrama into a series of unending memes about everything from Thompson’s alleged “womanizing” to Woods’ relationship to Jenner and the interfamily drama between the sisters. TMZ, Cosmopolitan, E! Online and everyone in between has run the same story about Kim Kardashian unfollowing Thompson and Woods on social media. That’s how dialed in everyone is. That’s the circus.


The blended family of the Jennerdashians includes Kim Kardashian, who is married to Kanye West, Khloe Kardashian, who has a child with Thompson, and Kourtney Kardashian, a model and reality star in her own right. There’s also model/entrepreneur Jenner, who has a child with rapper Travis Scott, as well as matriarch Kris Jenner and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner. Individually, these people are celebrity powerhouses. Collectively, this clan is a cultural supernova. As BuzzFeed reported in 2015, “the family’s activities over the last eight years have been a masterclass in gaming the media to keep viewers hooked on Keeping Up With the Kardashians — and themselves firmly in the public eye.”

He’s just a solid performer for a team in the NBA’s dungeon. He was also the most Googled athlete of 2018.

The Jennerdashian hurricane can overpower the (mostly black) athletes and artists who choose to walk into it. There’s usually the fun of the media spotlight followed by the free fall. Thompson has managed to avoid a fall so far, and if this is truly the end of his interaction with the family, then he’s walking out better than some.

Before Thompson there was Reggie Bush, who dated Kim Kardashian, and Rashad McCants, who dated Khloe Kardashian and was an early cast member on Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Lamar Odom was married to Khloe Khloe Kardashian . And Kendall Jenner’s exes include Ben Simmons and upstart NBA baller D’Angelo Russell. West, Scott and Tyga are just a few of the superstar artists who have jumped into the Jennerdashian ecosystem. An ecosystem that, while offering massive amounts of fame, can cloud each man’s achievements while also being blamed for each man’s downfall. Fair or not.

As Elle said in July, “What once began as an entertaining meme quickly developed into a full-blown belief that every single man that is brought into the Kardashian/Jenner family is cursed — destined to fall apart right in front of the public eye.” True or not, when West dons MAGA hats and aligns with President Donald Trump, he’s referred to as someone who is in the Sunken Place — because of his relationship to the Kardashians. When Odom faced drug problems, many believed they were due to the cameras in his face because of his relationship with Khloe Kardashian. When Scott drops a heralded album, he “breaks the Kardashian curse,” and so on.

Thompson, for his part, has played the role of a kind of lady’s man. In April, when TMZ cameras appeared to show the Cavalier kissing two women in a New York City club while Khloe Kardashians was on the verge of having their baby, he spent the playoffs fighting off crowds chanting about his infidelity. These are the reverberations of a relationship with a Kardashian-level celebrity, but he did appear to cheat on a woman who was about to go into labor with their child.

Instagram Photo

Things have been relatively quiet for Thompson in the year since his original alleged infidelity, when the media world seemed to close in on him. He’s been able to enjoy relative NBA obscurity in the middle of Ohio for a team that nobody cares about watching. He’s no longer James’ teammate. He’s no longer a part of the biggest rivalry in the NBA. He’s just a guy who grabs rebounds in a lot of lost games. The drama of the past few days, though, has put him firmly in the spotlight again — especially while the NBA is conveniently in between its All-Star Game and its first game back, Thursday night.

On Tuesday, Stephen Curry held a town hall meeting with Barack Obama. And James announced that he is a part of 2 Chainz’s album. But who cares, when there’s a living soap opera to watch? Are lives being destroyed, though, for our gaze? And are there real-life consequences we choose to ignore? After all, there are babies involved here, whose parents already have been separated, or are on the verge.

Minus the Kardashian affiliation, Thompson’s place as the talk of social media water coolers is unlikely. There’s nothing particularly flashy about him. But his current lifestyle is a convergence of themes that captivate. The interracial love affair of big, strapping black athletes and white women. The NBA’s extreme popularity, relevance and media maelstrom that never loosens its grip. The fishbowl of reality TV celebrity and the hundreds of millions of Jennerdashian Instagram followers watching these relationships come together, unfold, reconcile and fall apart again. Add all this to what can feel like our collective desire to invest our attention in anything other than the end of the world as we’ve known it. And hit refresh.

Mahershala Ali: Baller or nah? We checked out whether the Oscar nominee could really ball back in the day

From Gabrielle Union, Queen Latifah, 2 Chainz, and Dwayne “The Rock’”Johnson — singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a recurring feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this installment, we verify actor Mahershala Ali’s receipts.


As the player development manager for the Washington Wizards, Kamran Sufi doesn’t have a lot of time to watch much television. But he’ll try to make an exception on Sunday night about the time the Academy Award for best supporting actor category is announced.

“’I’ll be interested,” Sufi said. “I want to see what happens with Hershal.”

“Hershal” is Mahershala Ali, the Academy Award-winning actor who is favored to win his second Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley in the movie Green Book. But before Ali played Shirley, or Cottonmouth (Luke Cage), Remy (House of Cards) and Juan (Moonlight) he was known as Mahershala Gilmore, a Division I basketball player at Saint Mary’s College of California, just outside of Oakland.

Before he won an Oscar, Mahershala Ali played college hoops at Saint Mary’s College

Ali played four years at Saint Mary’s, with his best season coming as a senior when he averaged seven points and 1.8 rebounds in 27 games as a starter. His college career ran parallel to Steve Nash at Santa Clara, which means the two-time NBA MVP faced off against the 2017 Academy Award winner for best supporting actor in the movie Moonlight at least twice a year for four years.

That 2017 Oscar earned Ali, a 6-foot-3-inch guard known for his slashing ability on offense and his tenacity on defense, the privilege of being the first Division I basketball player to win an Academy Award.

“If there’s a player I would compare him to it, would be Marcus Smart,” said Sufi, who was a year behind Ali at Saint Mary’s. “Wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but did just enough to keep you honest. A solid defender who was physical. Hershal was competitive, and he always played hard.”

Remember how LeBron James entered the NBA with a man’s body? That was Ali when he entered Saint Mary’s, a solidly built guard who was a standout player at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, a city just under 20 miles south of Oakland.

“In terms of the look of a ball player, he had ‘it,’ ” said Ernie Kent, the head basketball coach at Washington State who was about to enter his second year as the head coach at Saint Mary’s when he recruited Ali. “His body was very developed, and once he got into the weight room with us, he got stronger and stronger. We tried to turn him into a point guard, but it would have been a lot better had we just left him in the off-guard position.”

That’s the position Ali played in high school, where he was a key player on the Mt. Eden High School team that played for a state championship during his sophomore season (losing to Servite High School from Anaheim in the 1990 CIF Division III state title game played at the Oakland Coliseum).

Ali was part of the Mt. Eden team that was stacked the next year, rising to No. 1 in the state Division III rankings going into its February 1991 game against Hayward, the No. 1 ranked Division IV team.

That game is always a huge crosstown rivalry. But in 1991 there was added drama as Ali had emerged as a key player for Mt. Eden after leaving Hayward, where he played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and was expected to be a key contributor once he made the varsity.

Mahershala Ali in his high school uniform for Mt. Eden.

Courtesy of Mt. Eden HS

“He really should have stayed with us, but he went to Mt. Eden because his stepdad wanted him to become the focal point of the team,” said Gerald “Juma” Walker, who ended his career as the No. 2 all-time prep scorer in California. “We played a more free style of basketball, while at Mt. Eden they had a Bobby Knight-style coach that had them playing like robots.”

That robotic team went on to beat Hayward rather easily, 78-56, that night before an overflow crowd. Walker, a Bay Area legend who played for four years at San Francisco, led all scorers with 25 points that day, Ali scored 14, leading five Mt. Eden players in double figures.

“They were restricted,” Ali told the San Francisco Chronicle after that game. “I don’t think anyone’s played that kind of defense against them.”

That’s a comment that Walker said held true when it came to Ali. “Hersh was like a Trevor Ariza-type player: athletic, strong defender who would hit the open shot. And he would dunk on somebody from time to time.”

To be an effective player in the Bay Area during that era of the late ’80s and early ’90s — which featured Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Drew Berry — you had to be tough. In a 1991 sectional semifinal, Ali and his teammates helped hold Murray — who played 12 years in the NBA — to 19 points (which was 10 points below his scoring average) in a Mt. Eden win.

In 1992 Ali, a co-captain at Mt. Eden, was named the prep player of the week by The Daily Review newspaper in Hayward. The newspaper credited Ali with “being the defensive leader”on a team that was limiting opponents to just 46.5 points a game.

“Every region has players that play different ways, and [Ali] wasn’t your typical Bay Area player,” said Hashim Ali Alauddeen, co-founder of the Oakland Soldiers youth basketball organization. “He played a game like he was playing football: nonstop aggression. Determined. Never passive.”

It wasn’t just Ali’s aggressive play that allowed him to fit right in at Saint Mary’s. He connected immediately with his teammates because of his hair-cutting ability. “He’d come to our room — or we’d go to his — and would charge us $5 for a haircut,” said Troy McCoy, a forward at Saint Mary’s for two years. “I’m a picky guy, but he had skills. I let him cut my hair.”

Ali was also considered the best dressed player on the team. “I’d get up at 8 in the morning and throw on some slip-ons and sweats for class, and [Ali] was putting on a nice outfit to look presentable,” Sufi said. “He always had interests that were outside of basketball. Not only was he into fashion, he also wrote poetry. He just had a different energy about him.”

Which made it easy for Ali to detach himself from the game as playing time, early in his career, was scarce due to more refined players occupying most of the playing time in front of him. As he reflected on his time at Saint Mary’s in an essay he wrote for the school’s website in 2011, Ali said that by the time he graduated, “I no longer thought of myself as an athlete.”

He elaborated on that during a 2017 interview with NPR, as he explained his shift toward acting. “At a certain point, basketball became the thing I was doing the most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn’t.”

That direction was leading him to acting, which Ali put his energies into at Saint Mary’s. After graduating from Saint Mary’s, Ali left for the opposite coast to attend New York University, where he eventually earned his master’s degree in fine arts.

His first noticeable role came in 2001, when he appeared on the television series Crossing Jordan.

“Someone called me at home and told me to turn on NBC, and I see him on Crossing Jordan,” McCoy said. “If he’s on something, I watch it. I really liked him in Benjamin Button, and he was outstanding in Green Book. I stopped watching Luke Cage after they killed him off.”

Over time, the roles became more significant to the point where Ali is today: one of the top actors in the business.

Mahershala Ali poses with his Oscar for best supporting actor.

EPA/NINA PROMMER

“I give him credit because here was someone who had a vision, and he pursued it at an early age,” Kent said. “He just blossomed to the point where he’s one of the best actors out there.”

Ali was able to connect those acting skills with basketball in 2017 when he narrated the CBS opening for the NCAA national championship game.

While he says he no longer plays, Ali stays connected with this college teammates regularly via group chats.

“All of us who played at Saint Mary’s are close,” said McCoy, who hosted Ali on his recruiting trip to the school. “We know what everyone’s doing, and we support one another.”

Which is why many of Ali’s college teammates — even if they’re not television or movie fans — will likely tune into the Academy Awards to catch the best supporting actor category.

“I remember when he became involved in theater, and you could see the rush he got from doing that replaced his rush of playing basketball,” McCoy said. “It’s amazing to see him in the acting game as one of the best.

“I don’t care about award shows,” McCoy added. “But I’ll be watching.”

Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

In ‘Creed II,’ Michael B. Jordan takes a beating and keeps on ticking With unforgettable roles in ‘Black Panther’ and now ‘Creed,’ he’s the poster boy for 2018

The American patriot and central hero of Creed II has zero interest in making googly eyes at Vladimir Putin.

Director Steven Caple Jr. made his feature debut in 2016 at Sundance with The Land, a story about skateboarders set in Cleveland. In the latest chapter of the Creed franchise, he turns a good ol’ Russian-American showdown into a deceptively fun vehicle for exploring ideas about race, patriotism, leadership and modern American masculinity. The satisfaction it brings hits unexpectedly hard, the work of a story originally written by Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker and then rewritten a couple of times, including by Juel Taylor and star and producer Sylvester Stallone.

Having ascended to heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has little time to enjoy his success before boxing promoter Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) presents him with a challenge he can’t ignore. Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the vengeful son of Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen, who reprises her turncoat role with delicious, biting iciness), wants to fight Adonis, and he wants to fight him bad. This feud is generational: Ivan killed Adonis’ father, Apollo, in the ring before getting beaten by Rocky Balboa (Stallone). The Dragos, still stinging from Ludmilla’s abandonment, have been wallowing in shame and isolation in Ukraine while plotting their way back to the top.

Despite the resurrection of a familiar rivalry, the Cold War enmity that fueled the subtext of the Rocky movies has given way in Creed II to a more complicated expression of patriotism familiar to many black Americans. Adonis fights for himself, for his community, for his city, for his father’s legacy.

They’re too polite to say it, but it’s clear that his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and his mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), see his fight with Drago as a suicide mission. Being black women with two working sets of eyes, they are, of course, right.

Creed hangs on to his belt, not because he beats Viktor but because the Russian has so little integrity that he can’t resist landing one more knockout punch after the final bell. Bianca becomes Adonis’ personal Horace Greeley, pushing the couple and baby she’s baking out of the cold, claustrophobic confines of Philadelphia and toward Los Angeles sunshine, where Adonis can figure out how to mend his bruised ego. She wants to get her burgeoning music career off the ground while she still can. Thompson’s performance reveals that no director has yet come close to capturing the full breadth of her talents. She stuns as an artsy-yet-commanding chanteuse and takes full advantage of the third act to unfurl a soaring, magical presence.

Michael B. Jordan stars as Adonis Creed in Creed II.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

In Drago, Creed is battling not only revenge-seeking Russians but also in-the-flesh white supremacy. Not only is the titanic Viktor Drago bigger, faster and stronger than Creed, he looks like what would result if master-race mad scientists were allowed to manufacture a heavyweight boxer with CRISPR gene editing.

Drago will only agree to a rematch if the fight is held in Russia. Can Creed win when “neutral” has shifted so heavily? Because asking the United Nations to monitor the officiating is not an option, Creed deduces that nothing less than an undisputed TKO will do.

The outcome of Creed II is, of course, wholly predictable. Its appeal lies in how it gets there, charting Creed’s path to redemption through the choking hot air of the California desert. As training montages go, the shift in venue serves Creed II especially well: Caple rewards Jordan’s fans with ample shots of his leading man’s rippling physique as the appropriately named Adonis gears up for the fight of his life.

In Adonis, Caple and executive producer Ryan Coogler have crafted a bridge from a stoic brand of American hypermasculinity, one in which “working class” is immediately coded as white, to a modern one that finds its core in romance and history-making legacy, a point Caple punctuates with a shot of Adonis cradling his daughter, Amara, in his father’s boxing gym as a billboard-sized image of Apollo stands watch in the background. Anger, hunger for revenge and brute strength aren’t enough to vanquish an existential opponent like Viktor Drago. Only focus, endurance and strategic precision will prevail.

Coogler and Caple are the architects of this year’s one-two punch of cinematic black power, with leading man Jordan as the fulcrum. While Coogler used Black Panther to imagine an African utopia untouched by the evils of imperialism, Caple’s latest chapter of the Rocky story projects a vision in which restoring the glory and honor of an imperfect America lies in the hands of a black man.

As Killmonger in Black Panther and Adonis in Creed II, Jordan toggles from an avatar of the lethal efficiency of the American military-industrial complex, molded and calcified by white supremacy, to a symbol of American perseverance, triumph and calculated might on the world stage. These two unforgettable roles have made Jordan the poster boy for 2018.

Adonis Creed may be an American with a world heavyweight title, but in the hands of Coogler and Caple, he belongs to black people first. And the possibilities for what lies ahead are already spinning. Baby Amara is the next generation of the Creed family, and her father has deemed her “a fighter.” Are Coogler, Caple & Co. setting us up for a chapter in which the future is female?

Are the Warriors turning LeBron James into Wilt Chamberlain — big stat lines and heartbreaks? No team in James’ career has tested the limits of his genius like the opponent he’s down 0-2 to right now

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.”

LeBron’s virtuoso 51-8-8 performance that ended in a Game 1 loss felt very Wilt-esque.

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.

Instagram Photo

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.

Record-breaking stats mean nothing in the heat of the moment. No player has ever won a title without a team effort.

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.

What if LeBron’s career had started in the Western Conference? Or if the Miami Heat passed on Wade? These and other mind-bending what-ifs, 15 years after the 2003 NBA draft lottery

The 2018 NBA draft lottery takes place Tuesday night. It’s a loaded class. And while 15 years ago, the lottery wasn’t the grandiose event it is now, a season of draft positioning (also known as tanking) on the part of some teams made the May 22, 2003, NBA draft lottery must-see TV. What happened that night, in many ways, set in motion the NBA we enjoy today. But what could have been? If a single pingpong ball had gone this way, or a front office decision had gone that way? This is NBA’s equivalent of The Butterfly Effect.

Denver Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke knew it was the kiss of death. Like any other NBA executive in 2003, Kroenke coveted 18-year-old high school demigod LeBron James. And the Nuggets, having gone 17-65 in the 2002-03 season, were very much in play for the man Sports Illustrated famously dubbed “The Chosen One.” The Nuggets won the draft lottery. They landed the No. 1 pick. Except there was a catch. This was the rehearsal that was filmed before the live show.

Kroenke, in Secaucus, New Jersey, was beside himself. There’s no way lightning would strike again, when the draft lottery went live later that night. And while Kroenke stewed in Jersey, LeBron James, Aaron Goodwin — James’ agent from 2003-05 — and a host of family and friends celebrated the impending reality of James’ professional career in a Cleveland Hilton.

Imagine a young LeBron learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis.

“We just waited to officially hear [who got the No. 1 pick] and kept partying,” said Goodwin 15 years later. “LeBron was in another room. I was on the phone. I don’t think there was any tension or worry about where he would go.” James was the belle of the ball. But he wasn’t the only future Hall of Fame name associated with the Class of 2003. Had things gone differently for two of his closest friends, the trophy case for the band of brothers affectionately known as the Banana Boat Crew would look very different.


What if the mock drafts held true, and the Miami Heat passed on Dwyane Wade?

Clippers. Wizards. Warriors. Bulls — these were the teams several mock drafts forecast for Dwyane Wade. Many thought the Heat would select a big man like Central Michigan’s Chris Kaman, or Maciej Lampe of Poland. Wade, despite one of the most memorable March Madness runs ever, was viewed as middle-of-the-pack talent. An undersized two-guard with an inconsistent shot — both assessments that ring true to this day. Very few, outside of Miami, saw the game-changing possibilities Wade would bring. And even fewer saw could foresee that the Marquette star would become the third greatest two of all time (behind Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant). There’s a Pandora’s box of possibilities — if Wade never lands in the 305.

Where does Shaquille O’Neal eventually land when he’s traded in the summer of 2004 if he doesn’t go to Miami? Where does Derrick Rose go in 2008 assuming the Bulls aren’t around with the No. 1 overall pick? Where does James go in 2010 if Wade’s not in Miami? Does he switch teams in his division, still join Wade and chase Jordan’s ghost while playing under the banners Jordan helped corral in Chicago? Or does he land in New York? Or does he never leave Cleveland in the first place? The questions we’ll never know the answer to are always the most fascinating.

How much differently is Carmelo Anthony’s career viewed if he goes No. 2 to Detroit?

This is, by far, the most-asked question from the 2003 draft. As it stands today, Carmelo Anthony is a future Hall of Famer. He has a national championship to his name and, with just one season at Syracuse is one of the more revered college players of all time. He’s Top 20 all-time in points scored — and the other 19 are all in Springfield or will eventually be. But the shortcomings of his career are unavoidable, and are capped off with a disappointing inaugural season in Oklahoma City. He’s only been to one conference finals (2009) and his era in New York was one filled with internal strife and just three playoff appearances in seven years.

Heading into the ‘03 draft, the top three was basically set in stone. James to Cleveland, Darko Milicic (who had the league captivated with his mysterious potential) to Detroit and Anthony to Denver. For a decade and a half, every basketball fan has wondered once or a million times: What if Joe Dumars and the Pistons went with Anthony instead of Milicic? It’s also one of the great regrets of Anthony‘s, too. “I was a little bit disappointed,” Anthony said. “I really wanted to go to Detroit. You had Chauncey, you had all those guys over there … Detroit, they had something going.”

A random 1997 trade featuring Otis Thorpe trade directly impacted the 2003 draft and where its most valuable piece landed.

Anthony around Detroit’s veteran leadership, on top of instantly being the best one-on-one player on the Pistons in 2003-04 makes for an interesting dynamic. Whatever defensive shortcomings he had would’ve been masked by bringing a devastating defensive force like Tayshaun Prince off the bench. The makings of a potential James-Carmelo rivalry, in the same division, would have produced a plethora of 2000s classic games. Not to mention: How would a young Anthony have influenced key series losses such as the 2005 Finals to San Antonio, 2006 Eastern Conference finals to Miami and the landscape-changing 2007 Eastern Conference finals to Cleveland? The Detroit what-ifs of Carmelo’s career remain infinite 15 years later.

How did Otis Thorpe play a role in two of the three biggest drafts in NBA history?

The Houston Rockets second consecutive title in 1995? (Partially) thank Otis Thorpe for that. The veteran power forward was traded by H-Town along with Tracy Murray to the Portland Trail Blazers in return for future Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler.

Two years later, Thorpe was involved in another trade that, at the time, barely made headlines. Thorpe and Detroit Pistons head coach Doug Collins had a strained relationship during their time together in the mid-’90s. In August 1997, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies traded for the 35-year-old Thorpe, giving up a protected first-round pick between the years 1998 and 2003. The pick came with protections and stipulations. By 2003, the Grizzlies were between a proverbial rock and hard place. The only way they could keep their draft pick is if they somehow landed the No. 1 overall pick.

There’s heartbreak and then there’s having to experience it on national television. The legendary Jerry West joined the Grizzlies in 2002 as the team’s president of basketball operations — meaning he inherited the Thorpe trade. West landed Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles the summer of 1996. He was thisclose to drafting James in Memphis, had the pingpong balls fallen in his favor. Look at West’s face when he realizes his franchise missed James by a single pick. If “this is some bulls—” ever had a face, it’s Jerry West on the night of May 22, 2003. “I hate the lottery; I think it’s a terrible thing,” West said in 2013. “And I say that knowing it has worked reasonably well.” Can you really blame West for being salty?

On a related note, Thorpe played a role in two of the three most storied drafts in NBA history. He was selected ninth overall in 1984 in a draft that featured Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. And a random 1997 trade featuring Thorpe directly impacted the 2003 draft and so everything that’s happening in pro basketball today.

What if James began his career in the Western Conference?

James in the Eastern Conference — it’s all the basketball he knows. Depending on the decision he makes this summer, it may be all we ever know. But as mentioned, James nearly began out west. Two of the top three picks in the ‘03 draft were from Western Conference squads in Memphis and Denver. Both made the playoffs in James’ rookie year.

Can you really blame Jerry West for being salty?

How would The King have looked on the Grizzlies or Nuggets 15 years ago? Memphis would’ve paired him with a young Pau Gasol, his future teammates Shane Battier and Mike Miller, Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams. Also, imagine a young James learning under Hubie Brown in Memphis. Goodwin never really anticipated Memphis landing the first pick. “If that would’ve happened, we would’ve turned Memphis into a great market,” sadi Goodwin. “And they’d have at least two championships by now.”

Denver, on the other hand, boasted another future teammate in Chris Andersen, as well as Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Nene with current Houston Rockets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik manning the sidelines.

James battling his way through a Western Conference with the likes of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Rockets and Phoenix Suns are heavyweight parallel universe matchups. Perhaps most intriguing, though, is that we would have eventually landed a James vs. Kobe Bryant series — the one matchup a league filled with stars could never make happen on its biggest stages. It’s tough to imagine a series more anticipated, debated and fawned over than a seven-game Western Conference finals featuring its two most polarizing names.

The Drake, Kelly Oubre ‘beef’ proves just how good the rapper really is Drizzy is firmly planting himself as a storyline in the NBA playoffs — and the Wizards star may just be a pawn

The Toronto Raptors are up 2-0 in their first round series against the Washington Wizards. And in those two games, Drake has finagled himself into the series’ storylines. Prior to Game 1, he engaged in Instagram comment warfare with John Wall. Exhibit A:

This led to the “God’s Plan” rapper taunting Wall from the sideline during last night’s Game 2. Exhibit B:

During the same game, Drake and third year forward Kelly Oubre crossed paths as the cameras caught the former calling the latter “a bum.” Exhibit C

Leave it to social media to recover an old Oubre tweet from 2011 where the Wizard star said the rapper had no swag—which was deleted almost immediately following Tuesday night’s game. Oubre downplayed the incident, saying the two were jawing back and forth all game. Exhibit D:

The trash talk compounds to a fascinating subplot in the playoffs that highlights court side celebrities involving themselves in the game—most recently evidenced by Dwyane Wade and comedian Kevin Hart in Game 2 of the Sixers/Heat series. But the dynamic isn’t new — the league’s greatest athlete-celebrity rivalry was Reggie Miller and Spike Lee. But let’s focus on Drake for a second. Whether you deem him a fair weather fan or not, there’s no denying his love for the NBA. There’s also no denying everything he does is with a purpose. Drake is either rap’s savviest director, an evil marketing genius or a lovechild of the two. Look no further than last week’s Atlanta episode appropriately titled “Champagne Papi.,” which even served as part of the rollout for his newest anthem “Nice For What”—which, this week, supplanted his previous No. 1 in “God’s Plan” for the top song in the country. And on Monday, he announced the title for his highly anticipated new album—Scorpion dropping in June. All the pieces matter.

His hometown Raptors are the top seed in the Eastern Conference. A potential second round matchup against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers sits on the horizon pending both advance. And his album could very well drop dead square in the middle of the NBA Finals. From Fortnite to hit TV shows, Drake has firmly entrenched himself in several culturally relevant conversations. The NBA playoffs are just his latest muse.

What if the Muhammad Ali we knew had never existed? From his brief kinship with Malcolm X to the ‘Thrilla In Manila,’ five alternative universes for Ali — and the world

From Michelle Obama, Dwyane Wade and Betty White to Steve Harvey, Jan. 17 offers an embarrassment of riches for celebrity birthday followers. One name in particular, however, towers above the others: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed and globally anointed “Greatest” would have been 76 today. To say Muhammad Ali is an inspiration for Team Undefeated is an understatement.

Loved and feared, Ali was captivating and personable. Flawed and fearless. An unparalleled showman and a ruthless instigator. There are few stones left to turn over on Ali, a man whose life has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene at the 1960 Olympics — the Summer Games that also introduced Oscar Robertson and Wilma Rudolph to the world. How Ali’s life played out is American scripture. But what if there’s an alternative universe in which certain things panned out differently? In some ways, thankfully, we’ll never know. But in others? Follow along …

What if young Cassius Clay’s bike had never been stolen?

If anyone represented the embodiment of the phrase “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade,” it’s Ali. This story has been told a million times, but it’s always fascinating because of the butterfly effect. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay sat on the steps of the Columbia Auditorium in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He was angry and sobbing. Joe Martin approached young Clay. “If I find the guy who took my bike,” Clay told Martin, “I’m gonna whup him.” Martin ran a boxing gym and told the adolescent if he was going to fight, he’d better learn how to fight. Until that point, Clay had never given a thought to boxing.

The rest, as they say, is history. If his bike is never stolen, who’s to say he doesn’t go through life as a normal kid who doesn’t even care about boxing outside of the occasional fight? And what if that same kid one day gets drafted into the Vietnam War — a battle Cassius Clay from Kentucky would have had to fight because he wasn’t a heavyweight champion of the world with religious beliefs that forbade it? It’s wild how life can change in the blink of an eye. We’ll just leave it with this: Theft is a crime and should be treated as such. But bless the soul of the person who decided to steal this kid’s bike. That’s one time when doing bad actually did a world of good.

What if Malcolm X and Ali never had their falling-out?

In order to survive, as a great man once said, we all have to live with regrets. One regret for Ali was his all-too-brief bond with Malcolm X, a fellow product of the Muslim teachings of Elijah Muhammad. X fell out of favor with the teacher, and Ali chose to follow Muhammad’s lead. At the time of X’s assassination in February 1965, the two were not on speaking terms. Never apologizing to Malcolm haunted Ali for the rest of his life. “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” he wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. … I might never be a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.” For a fascinating and detailed breakdown of their life and times, check out Johnny Smith and Randy Roberts’ Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

What if Ali didn’t sacrifice the prime of his career by protesting the Vietnam War?

The better question is, what if the U.S. never involved itself in Vietnam? Whatever the case, Ali’s exile turned him into a larger-than-life figure. At one point in American history, world heavyweight champion was the most coveted title in all of sports. Here was Ali: a young, handsome, outspoken black man who not only dismantled opponents in the ring but also took on America’s ugliest parts in a verbal fashion that has not been seen or heard from an athlete since. And he did all of this while looking the federal government square in the eye, essentially saying, “Come and get me.” Although legions of critics took a carousel-like approach to demeaning him, Ali’s popularity had skyrocketed by the end of 1967. His stated reason for objecting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” is tattooed in the fabric of American race relations. Ali’s most controversial fight, for his beliefs and for our dignity, reverberated worldwide. It cost him the years of 1967-70, when he would’ve been between the ages of 25 and 28 — a fighter’s peak years. As transcendent as his career was, even four decades after his final fight, we’re left to wonder how great it could have been if Prime Ali hadn’t been entangled with the U.S. government at that same time. Which bleeds into the next alternative universe …

What if Ali called it quits after the third Frazier fight?

Maybe it was a subconscious thing, for Ali to make up for lost time in the ring as he continued to fight in his later years. Maybe it was financial. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the reason, the cold reality is that his last iconic moment in the ring was 1975’s “Thrilla In Manila,” the end of the trilogy with Joe Frazier. The fights — Frazier handed Ali his first career loss shortly after he returned to boxing in 1971, and Ali won the 1974 rematch — define perhaps the greatest rivalry in sports history, with an extremely brutal and even more bitter feud spurred largely by Ali’s vicious and grossly disrespectful racial taunts toward Frazier. Their final clash proved a potluck of haymakers, blood and near-death premonitions. “It was next to death,” Ali said after the fight — a contest he actually won. “When a fight as hard as this one gets to the 14th round, you feel like dying. You feel like quitting. You want to throw up.” Frazier was never the same after that fight.

And it took decades for Ali and Frazier to quash their beef. By the time Ali called it quits in December 1981, Ali was a beaten and battered man and his Parkinson’s disease was imminent. Those closest to Ali’s former cornerman and doctor, Ferdie Pacheco ( who died in November 2017), say he lived with remorse for not having saved Ali from himself. He begged the boxer to quit after the third Frazier fight. Studies from Arizona State scientists discovered Ali’s speech slowed down 26 percent between the ages of 26 and 39 and he was visibly slurring his speech in 1978 — three years after the final battle with Frazier.

Would calling it a career after the Thrilla In Manila have saved Ali future medical concerns? Who knows. A trilogy with Ken Norton — one of the hardest punchers of all time, who broke Ali’s jaw in their first match and whom some feel Ali lost all three fights to — came with its own undeniable punishment. After his 1977 fight with power puncher Earnie Shavers, who landed a massive 266 punches, Ali’s speech reportedly slowed 16 percent from prefight calculations. “Ali did damage to himself, and he knew it and kept boxing too long,” says Jonathan Eig, author of last year’s Ali: Life, “but he didn’t have the information we now have about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].”

What if Parkinson’s had never robbed Ali of his most powerful punch — his voice?

America tried to emasculate the greats / Murder Malcolm, gave Cassius the shakes

— Jay-Z, “F.U.T.W.” (2013)

Ali’s decision to boycott the Vietnam War was supported by many black athletes and large pockets of the black community, but Ali was also media-blitzed from all corners. A May 2, 1967, New York Times editorial theorized that the support Ali was hoping to generate would never develop. The late political reporter and columnist Tom Wicker called Ali “… this strange, pathetic Negro boxer superbly gifted in body, painfully warped in spirit.” Less than a week later, the harsh attack on Ali’s character was rebuked by Boston University professor Theodore Brameld who said, “… because, with his warped spirit, he has the courage and integrity to refuse to participate in a war that millions of us with weaker courage and weaker integrity, and certainly far less to lose, continue to tolerate against our own consciences?”

Much like Martin Luther King, Ali’s legacy, in many ways, has been sanitized. Ali only became a truly lovable figure (to some) once he lost his ability to speak. When he no longer could use his actual voice to deliver knockouts, he was no longer a threat (again, to some) to the status quo. Ali’s political beliefs had always come under fire from both sides of the aisle. But the reality is that Americans 35 and under have no recollection of the charismatic ball of energy that earned him global acclaim and domestic scrutiny. Some prefer this image of the legendary boxer. Ali, the heavyweight champion who continued to vibrantly and verbally shake up the world into his latter decades on earth, is a bracing thought. Seeing Muhammad Ali minimized and marginalized by a handful of quotes and yearly tributes that fail to paint the full features of the man — that is beyond scary.