Venus showed Serena how to win Poet Nikki Giovanni meditates on Venus and Serena’s bond and reflects on her own relationship with her late sister, Gary Ann

Even at my age, understanding what love is, is difficult.

I’m a baby sister, too, and I remember watching my big sister be able to do everything. They used to tease me: “Nikki, can you read?” “No, but Gary Ann can.” “Nikki, can you play the piano?” “No, but Gary Ann can.” “Nikki, can you dance?” “No, but Gary Ann can.”

From left to right: The Giovanni family: Sister Gary Ann Giovanni, mother Yolande Watson Giovanni, father Gus Giovanni and poet Nikki Giovanni.

Courtsey of Nikki Giovanni

Gary Ann was a wonderful big sister with bangs, smooth skin and dimples. I had braids. And I was so proud that I had a big sister who could do all the important things. Similarly, Serena Williams was the little girl watching the rabbit run down the rabbit hole. There were other sisters whom she could have emulated, but she chose this one. And I have to think this one chose her. “Ms. Rabbit, Ms. Rabbit, where are you going?” “To wonderland to be the queen.” “Can I come too? I’ll carry your groceries or fetch your patches for quilts. I can help.”

And off Serena went where no one else had gone before. Years ago, I watched for the first time Serena and Venus Williams played each other in a tournament, and the reporter kept asking, “Who will win?” Venus calmly and coolly said, “A Williams.” Venus not only won but she showed her baby sister how to win.

I recently watched Venus play Coco Gauff and I said to myself: “Venus is teaching Coco how to win too.”

Not by the score but by how you carry yourself. Wheaties is wonderful to have Serena on the box cover. I purchased four boxes to be framed for my granddaughter and myself and two friends. I want that box cover hanging from every wall in the kitchen. But it is Venus who has really taught them all.

Sure, Serena has 23 major championships and we are all so proud of her. Serena has shown us you can be a woman with attitude and muscles. You can learn to speak two languages. You can take the body that used to stand on an auction block and put it on the cover of Vanity Fair naked, pregnant, proud. And you can put that same body on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar wrapped in gold. You can be Sports Illustrated’s best-dressed with your green high heels and a smirk and find someone you love to share making a baby with. Little Alexis Olympia is lucky, though, to have Aunt Venus to show her running down the rabbit hole to meet the Queen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

We give what we can. The Hare gave her speed to help her friend the Turtle feel better about herself. The poets give us words to say what we admire.

Serena gives us a new woman to say we are not afraid of our bodies or our minds. She had a big sister to say, “Don’t be afraid of yourself.” Having a big sister who loves you enough to be your teacher is great. We are all lucky for big sisters. And baby sisters who listen.

I never learned to play the piano, but I did sing a song as my big sister passed. And when my time comes, I hope I can answer, “Yes, Gary Ann, now I can do this too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Nike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nike

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

Antetokounmpo couldn’t believe it.

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

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

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

In November 2017, Antetokounmpo re-signed with Nike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Aaron Dodson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure enough, he fulfilled his promise.

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

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

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

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

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

Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”

Natasha Hastings runs down the obstacles of being a pregnant Olympic hopeful 400-meter relay medalist hopes to go to Tokyo after she has her first child

As soon as Natasha Hastings, 32, learned she was pregnant, she began to wonder.

She pondered all the fraught physiological and cultural questions that undergird the modern motherhood industrial complex: How would her body change? Would her fiancé share equally in the work of round-the-clock baby care? What happens when she returns to her career — and would she even have a career to return to?

But she also had some custom asks: Would she ever run a quarter-mile in 52 seconds or less, again, and if so, how soon? What support would it take for her to make it to the Olympics one last time? And, crucially, would sponsors stick by her as she tries to make the trip?

Early this month, Hastings, a gold medalist in the 4×400-meter relay at the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, revealed on Instagram that she was 5½ months pregnant. She also announced her intention to return to world-class competition, saying, “I’m going to go to Tokyo! Win a couple more medals!”

Instagram Photo

Questions about balancing pregnancy and world-class athletics aren’t new. At the 1960 Rome Games, sprinter Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals 16 months after having a baby, although few knew it. But Hastings is part of a new visibility and debate about the physical capabilities of female athletes after motherhood, and what systems and protection — health, economic, child care — they need around them. They are conversations we’ve rarely had, around questions we’ve hardly asked.

Hastings has been running professionally for 12 years. But now, as she pursues her dream of sport and family, she’s about to cover new ground.


When she found out that she and her fiancé, former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, were expecting, Hastings remembers thinking, My God, what’s happening? She saw the excitement in his face, and he saw the dismay in hers. Yes, she wanted a baby, eventually. But she was just back from a knee injury, training for her outdoor season and hoping to compete in this year’s World Championships. They were planning to marry next year and, fingers crossed, she would qualify for the Olympics. For someone who’d been in communion with her body since she began running competitively at 10, the timing felt all wrong.

Natasha Hastings of the United States competes in the women’s 4×400-meter relay heats during Day 9 of the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships London 2017 at the London Stadium.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

“Track is my life, you know,” Hastings said. “My job relies on my physical abilities.” Everything she’s planned for the next phase of her life — building her 400M Diva cosmetic and beauty line, and her Natasha Hastings Foundation to advocate for women and girls in sports — was predicated on exiting track on her own terms. “I’m not the first woman who has thought about family versus career,” Hastings said. “But I don’t know any man who has to make that choice, you know?”

Hastings was worried her family might be disappointed in the timing. And she was especially worried about her sponsors, particularly Under Armour, which she’s been with since 2012.

“I took a while to share with my sponsors for fear of, just, I don’t know what this looks like, I don’t know how they’re going to take this.” She didn’t know “if I’d have a job at all. Or I shouldn’t say a job, but financial support to continue to train and go after the Olympics.”

While Under Armour continued to sponsor Hastings, her fears were understandable.

Middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño, a six-time USA Outdoor champion, competed in the 800-meter race at the 2014 U.S. Track and Field Championships while eight months pregnant. In a Mother’s Day editorial in The New York Times, Montaño wrote that female athletes are often forced into physically dangerous choices because companies such as Nike, which sponsored her, can suspend their contracts and health insurance when they get pregnant.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms.” — Natasha Hastings

Athletes are always vulnerable to risk and injury that is often heightened during pregnancy. And they largely don’t get maternity leave. Some sports have responded to the challenges.

When Orlando Pride star Sydney Leroux posted pictures of her training while five months pregnant in March, her Twitter mentions included people worried about the health of her baby. But teammates and other female athletes rushed to offer their support.

Two members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in 1999 had children. The 2015 U.S. World Cup team had three mothers, and a culture of inclusion has taken root in the sport, including paid maternity leave. Moms have been a part of the WNBA for more than 20 years and have a portion of their salaries and medical expenses covered through the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

A bobblehead of Phoenix Mercury All-Star DeWanna Bonner features her holding her twin baby girls.

But non-team sports often seem to think female athletes don’t, or at least shouldn’t, get pregnant at all.

The message from the culture has been that female athletes should retire to have children, said Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history and gender studies at Penn State University.

“So we haven’t had a lot of cases that have been able to be visible role models, modeling what it looks like to be working moms within sports,” she said. Her own earliest memory of an athlete mother was fictional: Sanaa Lathan’s character in the 2000 movie Love & Basketball. But she calls this new era of visibility a chance to engage in granular conversations about child care, what breastfeeding looks like when you’re also pushing your body athletically and how to bring abdominal muscles and hips back to world-class form.

Davis cites Serena Williams, who almost died after giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., via emergency cesarean section in 2017. Her story highlighted the WTA’s lack of maternity leave policies. And her well-documented struggles, both emotional and physical, to return to competition opened a new front in motherhood conversations worldwide.

From left to right: U.S. women’s 4×400-meter relay team members Courtney Okolo, Natasha Hastings, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix celebrate their gold medals on the podium during athletics competitions at the Summer Olympics inside Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

In track, Hastings is familiar with the history of sprinter Marion Jones, who failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics after giving birth the year before. (She was also banned from the sport for two years and had her Olympic medals stripped after charges of doping.)

Sprinter Allyson Felix, whose six Olympic gold medals include the 2016 4×400-meter relay on a team that included Hastings, struggled with complications during her pregnancy last year and had to have an emergency C-section. Her daughter was hospitalized for a month, Felix testified at a recent congressional hearing on the crisis in maternal mortality. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that black and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women.

Like Hastings, Felix is also hoping to compete in Tokyo.

Along with Under Armour, Hastings’ sponsors — which include the New York Athletic Club, as well as cosmetic and feminine care products companies — congratulated her on her pregnancy and continued their sponsorship.

Hastings feels “blessed. … If there’s anything that can speak for me, it’s that I have been a resilient person and athlete and my back has been against the wall several times.” That resilience helped her get past her failure to make the 2012 Olympic team. It helped her overcome a hamstring pull before the 2016 Olympic trials. She’s relying on it now, including for all the difficult conversations about pregnancy that she wasn’t prepared for.


In deciding on child care post-baby, Hastings says she and her fiancé have had some pointed exchanges. Hastings is thinking about how she will balance the needs of an infant with her own need for speed. She can’t run if she doesn’t sleep. And in discussing her options with other women, including hiring a nanny, she’s found these mommy conversations can get thorny quick.

“I’m now entering a new world of mommyhood, and unfortunately our worst critics are other moms,” said Hastings. She’s finding her instinct to rely on their wisdom difficult to square with her own world-class ambitions. “I mean this with respect and honor, and I know that they’re coming from a good place and I know that I’m also, I am coming from a place of the unknown, right? But then there’s also this space of what I do that is unknown for them.” So there’s a disconnect “even in the conversation of a nanny, you know? It’s almost like, well, you’re less of a mom for having a nanny.”

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities.

She’s always had to curate the people around her and the voices she allows in her space. “I’m in a small population of the world that thinks that what I go out and do every day is possible. I’ve lived up to a standard that to most is impossible without having a child in there, right?” Her career has always been hard. “I’m no fool to what I’m going up against,” she said. “I’m going up against probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever had to face in this sport.” But if she dwells on that, her race is already lost.

Hastings is trying to keep her second-most important athletic instrument — her spirit, her willpower, her determination to completely dust the women running next to her — honed and ready.

As to her body, she’s trusting her longtime coach to help with that. It’s been an adjustment for him as well.


Darryl Woodson of Training Ground Elite in Round Rock, Texas, has been working with Hastings for more than seven years. He’s never coached a pregnant athlete before, so this is new space for him as well.

When Hastings told him she wanted to get back to the Olympics, Woodson said, she was focused on whether things would change between them — if he would start to take her less seriously as an athlete.

He became disciplined about keeping their same routines early on.

Elite coaching is physical, he said, but it is also about keeping athletes in their right mind. “There’s a psychological situation for a person where they’re always feeling like, uh-oh, you’re giving up on me,” Woodson said. When athletes are injured, or have some other physical limitation, “if you make them more aware of it then it starts to bother them, and if you treat them normally then they get through it a lot better.”

Natasha Hastings celebrates winning the gold medal in the women’s 4×400-meter relay final at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 20, 2016.

AP Photo/Martin Meissner

As her pregnancy progressed, they made adjustments for her schedule and how Hastings was feeling. He takes cues from her, but he said her dedication to the work hasn’t wavered.

“I’m not a prenatal coach,” he said. She’s in consultation with her doctors, who say her body will let her know how much she can handle. “And that’s when we stop. Obviously, I have altered some of her workouts” to make sure they’re not overly demanding.

Typically, she’d be in the outdoor season now. She’d be doing flat-out runs over 400 meters to build strength and endurance and doing other anaerobic work. At six months pregnant, she’s not doing that, or weight training, running stairs or jumping hurdles.

She’s continuing to do 150-meter sprints. Normally, she would run it at about 16 or 17 seconds. She’s four or five seconds slower now, and she can get frustrated that she’s not hitting her pre-pregnancy marks.

“That’s where the pick-me-up comes from me, where it’s like, ‘Let’s look at the circumstances,’ ” Woodson said. “The numbers matter nothing at all if we’re not stopping training so that your body doesn’t need to get reintroduced to this next time.”

She’s actually working harder because she’s carrying more. Woodson is sensitive about using words such as weight. If she keeps her body trained, her times will rebound when she’s no longer pregnant.

“My job is to modify the program and get the same results or better and not put her under the same psychological stress,” Woodson said. His job is to listen and give her the best shot at what she says she wants. The baby is due in July, and he’s hoping she returns as soon as September but no later than October.

“We don’t know what we can and will be able to do. We just know psychologically, emotionally and spiritually what we want to do,” Woodson said. “We’ll keep pushing the same way as we always have been.”


On the track and off, Hastings wants to be a role model. Davis said it matters that she’s a black woman doing this work. This is not only because of the recent spotlight on black maternal health but also because “the tropes about black women’s femininity and sexuality within athletics have been so tied to ideas of their bodies.” Pregnancy pushes back at larger stereotypes about what is feminine, and what sport does to femininity.

“I didn’t get to this level by thinking it was impossible,” Hastings said. “I had to know and believe that it was possible, and that came with having a plan, putting the plan in place, being able to adjust here and there when you have to.” And that’s what she’s still doing.

She’s running toward her future, not just for the girls who come next but also for women right now who are watching her for clues about their own postpartum possibilities. She’s doing it for her athletic dreams of speed and glory. For her entrepreneurial dreams of reward and influence. For her dreams of black family and baby love. She focuses on that as she circles the track, chasing the person she’s always striving to be.

Former Georgetown basketball player turns passion into acclaimed documentary RaMell Ross takes unique look at black life in Oscar-nominated ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’

If you are inclined to put people in boxes, you should probably stop reading now.

Because RaMell Ross likely won’t fit in any of them.

Such is life for a Division I athlete turned professional European hooper, turned photography student and professor, turned Oscar-nominated filmmaker for his 2018 documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening — the 36-year-old’s first movie, no less.

Ask Ross about inspiration and he’ll offer Allen Iverson “a guy I bowed down to, with deceptive speed and fluidity, like a bird flying amongst trees when he scores in the paint” alongside Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr and Tarr’s obscure, visually evocative 2011 film The Turin Horse.

If you watched Georgetown in the early 2000s — the golden days of Mike Sweetney, Jeff Green and Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje, and coaches Craig Esherick and John Thompson III — you could’ve caught a glimpse of Ross’ 6-foot-6-inch frame on the Hoyas’ bench, or scoring a garbage bucket against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

A scene from ‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’ which is set in Greensboro, Alabama.

RaMell Ross

Or perhaps you saw him ahead of the 2019 Academy Awards on The Daily Show promoting Hale County, with host Trevor Noah calling the film “truly beautiful” and “difficult to capture” while suggesting viewers might be asking, “Do I need to be high?” after watching a clip.

Drugs or not, you likely haven’t seen the film yet a current box-office total of roughly $100,000 suggests fewer than 10,000 folks have.

In a way, Hale County is a simple film: It primarily follows two protagonists, Daniel Collins (who played basketball for Selma University) and Quincy Bryant, and their respective lives and families; IMDB sums it up as “a kaleidoscopic and humanistic view of the Black community in Hale County, Alabama.”

The film is named Hale County because that is where both were raised. Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, is where they both lived during most of the filming.

Ross’ documentary is a 76-minute distillation of more than 1,300 hours of film, and seemingly about everything (from the humanist perspective) and nothing (from a traditional Hollywood vantage point).

It is a deeply visual, abstract and immersive experience, a collection of images, moments and life shot over five years in Alabama’s portion of the Black Belt, a fertile region in the South that was historically developed for cotton plantations.

Years into Ross’ journey making Hale County, Danny Glover and Joslyn Barnes, herself an institution in the socially conscious documentary and film world, came on board as producers.

But long before that, it was another “producer” that had an instructive role in the production and preproduction process both for the film, and in Ross’ life that shaped Hale County into what it would eventually become.

That would be the game of basketball.

“I can’t imagine I would have been able to do the film without my sports background,” Ross said.

Act I: A basketball dream

Ross was a late bloomer who only started playing hoops seriously at age 13. His career began to bloom his junior year at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. A scholarship offer came that same year, and a journey to play in A.I.’s wake at Georgetown followed.

So did Ross’ primal artistic instincts once he got to college, for better or worse.

“Coaches would always tell me to stop dribbling so much,” Ross said of his career. “To me, it wasn’t being fancy. It was like a bird fluttering in the wind, enjoying the free fall before grabbing the food, something more instinctually grace-oriented.

“One of my problems at Georgetown was that I was as much, if not more, interested in doing AND1 moves than I was in scoring. I realized later on I was more interested in the art of the sport, and less of the rest.

“But I also wanted to go to the NBA. It was the only career, the only dream that I had.”

Ross’ life as a Hoya got off to a rocky start after he broke his foot in the summer before his sophomore season — and broke the same foot yet again as the season was about to tip off, essentially dashing those NBA dreams entirely.

“I was ready to start, and it was a devastating realization that led to a deep depression,” he said. “I stayed in my room for two weeks and didn’t do anything. Because, what am I without basketball? What am I without the dream to go to the league?

“If I was on this Earth to go to the NBA, and it didn’t happen, what else am I missing about the world? And what else am I taking for granted about the natural order of things?”

The wheels of change started to turn, pushing him toward the arts but basketball wasn’t done with him yet, or vice versa.

Act II: A filmmaker’s beginnings

Two years after Georgetown, Ross found himself playing for Belfast Star of the Sea, eventually leading the Irish League in scoring.

His bonkers ESPN TrueHoop blog post from 2007 offers a “story from Mars” and a glimpse of the country’s chaos, which Ross experienced in full working as a regional photographer for PeacePlayers International, a community-building nongovernmental organization that brings basketball to war-torn regions, from Gaza to South Africa to Cyprus.

In 2007, one of Ross’ PeacePlayers co-workers, David Cullen, was awarded with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at The ESPYS for using basketball to promote peace and understanding between Protestant and Catholic children amid Northern Ireland’s violent decades-long conflict.

ESPN sent a photographer to Belfast to take pictures of Cullen, and the photog happened to cross paths with Ross — a random moment that sparked something greater.

“He told me you have a really, really good eye,” Ross said. “It was the first time anyone complimented my work. And when I went back to D.C., I started freelancing right away.”

With that, Ross’ second off-the-court act began in concert. Days, weeks and months of shooting soon followed.

In 2009, he moved to Hale County to work at Selma University’s YouthBuild program as a career counselor and high school basketball coach. There, Ross’ NBA dream was seemingly nothing more than a memory. But the game remained, his basketball eye now focused behind a lens.

“This idea of being the point guard, surveying the floor and trying to make all of these decisions, in the context of all these different usages of times and bodies, it’s very much like using the camera,” Ross said. “I was using it as a tool, very much the way you’d use the basketball.

“You’re not thinking about the shot, you’re just looking. And it’s all tied to extreme patience.”

Act III: The imagery of ‘Hale County’

Patience, in some ways, is also required when viewing Hale County itself.

All of which makes the thought-provoking sportscentric imagery Ross weaved into the film more of a revelation.

The film loosely centers on Daniel and Quincy. Along the way, there are still shots, and tracking shots, and time-lapses, with every angle, perspective and point of view mixed in for good measure.

“That’s why there are so many different styles of shot: Every shot is literally responding to the moment,” Ross said. “Filmmakers often preconceive what they need to get: ‘I need a wide, I need a close, cut between these things.’ ”

Indeed, each moment of Hale County offers something unique from a stylistic, storytelling and sporting perspective.

There are shots that last only a few seconds, such as the breathtaking image of a decaying hoop against a starry night. Or the juxtaposition of water dripping on concrete, first falling off Daniel while dribbling a basketball, followed by raindrops hitting the ground from a storm in the same fashion.

There are shots that capture moments rich with subtext that last more than a few minutes too. Such as watching Quincy’s toddler son, Kyrie, running back and forth (and back and forth again) in their living room for what feels like an eternity.

Or Kyrie eventually getting his hair stuck on a little kid’s hoop in the same living room. Is there something Ross is suggesting, given that the viewer watches Kyrie struggle to get unstuck but doesn’t untangle his hair from the hoop, only for the film to move on to its next shot?

“Hell, yeah,” Ross said.

Or perhaps the film’s tensest and most memorable scene: a three-minute, wide-angle still shot of Selma University’s locker room, an entire team gathered around a couch, waiting to take the court and offering up possibly every emotion on the human spectrum.

“To me in that moment, it just required that,” Ross said. “ ‘Whoa, look at this. This is wide frame.’ And I just left it. But footage from other locker room scenes, it’s nothing like that.

“You’re meta in the moment. You’re not worried about certain things, because intuition says you’ve done it so many times. You’re functioning on a different level.”

Indeed, Hale County operates on its own level, especially as a sports documentary. Latent meaning or direct explanations behind Ross’ message are always many counties away.

“It’s complicated,” Ross coyly offered when discussion turned to the film’s portrayal of sports. See the film for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Prologue: 1,000 shots, from beginning to end

Long before a random ESPN photographer unwittingly set off his artistic fuse, Ross credits his early days of practice — yes, we talkin’ bout practice — that cultivated an intensive filming process, something shooters of both types can learn from.

“Working out and thinking, all right, in one year, I’ll be able to do this,” Ross said of the basketball and filmmaking parallels. “The payoff is something that comes far down the line for individual discipline in the moment.

“That’s kind of how I saw the film: ‘I’m going to shoot for a week. Hopefully after the week, I’ll have one or two good shots. But I know that after a month, I’ll have six or seven, and then the next month, 14.’ It all adds up to something later down the line. It’s not about the moment; it’s just about discipline with the idea. This is what I’m doing.”

As a result, Ross’ future is full: He’s still living in Hale County when he’s not teaching photography at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. And he’ll also be traveling back to Durham, North Carolina, soon — this time trading out the early 2000’s Cameron Crazies for curating the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which takes place there April 4-7.

But perhaps none of that would be possible without his first basketball blueprint, one Ross can trace all the way back to Lake Braddock and his freshman coach, Robert Barrow, a high school teammate of Grant Hill’s.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to work on your ballhandling for an hour a day with no rim in sight and do these extremely repetitive drills, building up your muscles,’ ” Ross said. “And you’re going to do this exactly, not deviating at all. Just doing this.

“In college, it was making 1,000 shots a day with my father. Then bring them all together. Devoting yourself. Practicing actual devotion and belief, that what you’re doing now is perhaps painful, and still finding the joy in it.”

In the wake of Ross’ devotion, joy and insistence on following his instincts across the country and world, Hale County, a film you most certainly cannot put into a box, was eventually born.

And thank God, we all have the game of basketball to thank for that.

Today in black history: Toni Morrison is born, first all-black Broadway musical debuts, Shani Davis wins gold, and more The Undefeated edition’s black facts for Feb. 18

1688 — First formal protest against slavery by a religious group in the English colonies is held. Four Pennsylvania Quakers write and present their opposition to slavery and human trafficking. Their document read, in part, “we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are.”

1896 — Razor-stropping device is patented. Henry Grenon patents the razor-stropping device, a tool that was mainly used to sharpen blades for barbers.

1903 — First all-black musical opens on Broadway. In Dahomey, a musical comedy and the first full-length musical written, produced and performed by blacks, opened at the New York Theatre and ran for 53 performances. It featured music by Will Marion Cook from the book by Jesse A. Shipp, and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

1931 — Happy birthday, Toni Morrison. Morrison is born in Lorain, Ohio. Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 from then-President Barack Obama. The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, and attracted immediate attention. Among her many other works are Sula, Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize winner published in 1988, is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful work.

2006 — Shani Davis becomes the first black person to win an individual gold medal in Winter Olympics history. Davis won the men’s 1,000-meter speed skating race in Turin, Italy.

Kobe Bryant is gearing up for the 2018 NBA playoffs ‘I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to give back to the next generation’

When future NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant walked away from the 2018 Academy Awards, he left with an Oscar for his animated feature Dear Basketball. As well as the satisfaction that following his passion had been the right move. There was no such certainty in 2016 when Bryant launched Granity Studios, a multimedia content creation company focused on helping athletes maximize their full potential through creative storytelling.

“Building a studio is no small task,” Bryant said Wednesday afternoon during a media conference call. “My passion is writing, creating, putting beautiful stories together, weaving them in the form of a narrative.”

Now you’ll be able to hear more of the Black Mamba through his new show, Detail, just in time for the 2018 NBA playoffs. The show, written, produced and hosted by Bryant, will feature his insights as he breaks down games throughout the postseason. He gives in-depth observations for games on ESPN and ABC. The first episode will debut Thursday on ESPN+. Through Granity Studios, he created a new 15-episode basketball analysis show “for the next generation.”

“I felt like it’s important for the next generation to learn how to watch film, how to study the game,” Bryant said. “I felt like if this show was around when I was 10 years old, 11 years old, I would have gained so much insight, so much value from it, that by the time I’m 22, 25, my knowledge of the game would be at a much, much higher level than my predecessors. I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to give back to the next generation, try to share and teach some of the things I have learned from some of the great players, great mentors, great coaches that I’ve had.”

Bryant’s career spanned two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom he won five NBA championships and became an 18-time All-Star, among many other equally stellar stats.

On this call, Bryant weighed in on his new endeavor, the NBA playoffs, Ben Simmons, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets, Dirk Nowitzki, playing through injuries and more.


What are your thoughts on Dirk Nowitzki and bigs in the league?

When he first came in the league, he took a lot of 3s. The year they won championships he might have taken half the 3s than when he first came in the league. The idea of having a guy that was 7 feet, 7 feet 1 that could stretch the floor, that was revolutionary. I’m sure it inspired a lot of bigs to be able to say, ‘You know what, I want to be like Dirk Nowitzki.’ Dirk, he was looking at guys like Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, guys like that.

Dirk obviously took it to a different level because of his mobility, the ability to put the ball on the floor and spin. But, by and large, when Dirk won that championship that year, the biggest problem we had with him, that Miami and all the other teams had with him, wasn’t his picking and popping, it was his ability to play at the free throw line and below the free throw line. For him, that was his biggest growth as a player.

How do you see the playoffs shaking out? Who do you think is going to win the championship this year?

I try to stay out of the business of clairvoyancy. I kind of look at the raw picture of what I see in front of me from the execution standpoint. Obviously, a lot of it depends on the health of Golden State. Houston have put themselves in prime position with their length, versatility, their speed, their aggressiveness. They’re a very aggressive team. It’s a more aggressive team than [Mike] D’Antoni has had. Phoenix, they play with a lot of speed, but none of those guys are naturally physical. Houston has some real physical players, man. I like where they’re at.

Cleveland, obviously with LeBron, the shooting they have around him, some of the youth they infused that team with is obviously going to be dangerous. Curious to see what Toronto does. Kyrie going down makes a big difference in the Eastern Conference.

I like Houston and Golden State, pending their health, as being my top two favorites. Like I said, I kind of stay out of the business of predictions.

What is the one thing from an analysis standpoint that you are going to be most interested to see during these playoffs?

I’m just looking at it from the perspective if I was a player, right? If I was Harden in the series, I just played this game, I’m watching the film, what would I be looking at? It’s basically me going back to my old ways of watching film, how I was breaking down series when I was playing. That’s that.

What stories do you think you’re most interested in telling specifically about the Rockets, Chris Paul, James Harden, others on that team?

There aren’t really stories that I’m fascinated with telling in terms of like Chris’ performance in a playoff with Houston, how they’re meshing together, Golden State’s health. I don’t care anything about that.

The only thing I care about, I’m James Harden, we just played Game 1, what do I need to focus on and learn from Game 1 that will help us in Game 2? What could we do better in Game 1? What do we need to look for that our opposition could counter with in Game 2, right? It’s that level of detail that this show is about.

The name ‘Detail’ was pulled for a very specific reason. This is content that might not be for everyone, right? It’s really at the smallest, smallest level of basketball breakdown to try to advance in a series.

Where is your Oscar?

I have it in my house. It’s sitting right next to the Emmy Award we’ve won, as well. I look at them every morning before I go to work.

What inspires you to continue to reinvent yourself and stay on top of everything you decide to do?

I follow my passion, things that I love to do, like writing and storytelling, I enjoy that. I don’t find myself having to remind myself to work hard and push myself to stay on top of things, because I just love doing it. I don’t really look at it so much as reinvention, as my career as a basketball player was over. I loved storytelling, so here I am.

How did you manage your pain level throughout your injuries?

Sometimes you have injuries where you just have to deal with the pain. It’s not going to get any worse, but you have to deal with the pain. When I fractured my finger, there was nothing else that could be done … suck it up and play or sit out and get it fixed right then and there. That’s typically how I handled it.

During this time of year, is it hard for you to watch basketball?

No, not at all. I don’t have a hard time watching it at all. This is where me and Michael [Jordan] differ a lot. Where I was going through the process of retirement, I think people were kind of assuming Michael and I behave the same way from a competitive standpoint.

You hear a lot about a team like the Cavaliers, LeBron James flipping a switch when the playoffs come. In your experience, how do you prepare for that? How difficult is it to go to a new level in the playoffs?

Here is a thing about flipping the switch. Flipping the switch is just another word for you have one team that you’re focusing on, so you can really zero in on that team. That’s all that is. You’re still playing just as hard, you’re doing all the things, but playoffs means, if you have one team to focus on, that means you can study all your regular-season matchups against them, you can learn all the information you need to learn to prepare yourself for this playoff series. That’s flipping the switch.

Then, from the Cleveland standpoint, Cleveland seems to be executing a more democratic style of offense. I did a piece last year or a couple years ago, maybe last year, about the two-kings system that the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing with, LeBron and Kyrie, and contrast that with Golden State’s democracy. If you watch Cleveland play now, they’re starting to play with a more democratic system. See LeBron at the elbow at the top of the key being the Draymond Green of the Cavs, while the other players, whether it’s Jordan Clarkson or Kevin Love, are running corner split games, playing a rip action, doing stuff on the weak side where they’re moving off the ball. That makes them infinitely more dangerous.

What are your impressions of rookie Ben Simmons?

I think Ben played with a really great tempo. The time he’s had to watch the game has helped slow down the game for him. He’s had a chance to really observe the NBA game and be around it, pick it apart. Now that he’s playing, I think the game’s in slow motion for him, which is different than most rookies. He’s had a chance to view it a lot.

From a game perspective, his size gives him a clear advantage, his speed. He also knows how to use it. He knows his spots on the floor, he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He does a great job getting there. He’s been able to dominate and take that city of Philadelphia to a place where it hasn’t been in a very long time.