Reading Toni Morrison at 17, 25 and 35 It took nearly 20 years, but revisiting ‘Sula,’ I finally saw myself in her words, as only a grown woman can

In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”

After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.

Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum on Oct. 20, 2010.

Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic

For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.

When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.

During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.

The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.

It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.

I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:

She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.

Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.

Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.

The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.

So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

Award-winning New York author Toni Morrison is seen here at the Harbourfront’s International Festival of Authors in Toronto in 1982.

Photo by Reg Innell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.

Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.

So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.

And then the woman who created Sula died.

Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.

Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.

Toni Morrison attends Art & Social Activism, a discussion on Broadway with TaNehisi Coates, Morrison and Sonia Sanchez, on June 15, 2016, in New York City.

Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for The Stella Adler Studio of Acting

For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.

And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.

Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.

So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.

This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?

Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.

Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.

This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:

While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.

Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”

It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.

Westbrook, Harden, D-Wade and more pay tribute to Nipsey Hussle through sneakers The slain rapper’s funeral is set for April 11 at Staples Center

A week has passed since Ermias Asghedom — aka the Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle — was shot and killed in the parking lot outside of his clothing store in Los Angeles. He was 33. The painful loss of Hussle, whose legacy transcends music, has resonated with many, and that’s because he was also an entrepreneur, a community leader, a loving partner, a father and much more. Notably, condolences have come from the NBA community, which had embraced Hussle as an avid fan and courtside stalwart.

“So so SAD man!! DAMN man this hurt,” tweeted LeBron James, minutes after Hussle’s death was reported on March 31. Days later, the King pulled up to Staples Center (where a memorial service will be held for Hussle on Thursday) repping Nip before the Lakers faced the Golden State Warriors in their first home game following the tragedy. James wore a T-shirt featuring the cover illustration from Nipsey’s 2013 compilation albums, Nip Hussle the Great Vols. 1 & 2.

James was far from the first in the NBA to pay his respects. Across the league, a collection of players, and even a coach turned to their sneakers and other team paraphernalia to honor Hussle with handwritten messages, lyrics from his songs and custom art. Whether created with a Sharpie, or paint, shoes became the go-to form of expressing sympathy. Here are 14 NBA sneaker tributes spotted last week.


Montrezl Harrell & Lou WIlliams

The sneakers worn by Montrezl Harrell of the Los Angeles Clippers featuring a tribute to rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was killed in a shooting outside his clothing store in Los Angeles on March 31. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Hours after Hussle was killed, the Los Angeles Clippers had a game at Staples Center against the Memphis Grizzlies. Fourth-year Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell wanted to ensure that the organization — one of two NBA franchises, along with the Lakers, that play in Nip’s hometown of L.A. — acknowledged him in the arena on the night his life ended. He reached out to team officials and requested a video tribute that played at both the start and end of the evening. Harrell also asked for a custom jersey to be made with “HUSSLE” printed on the back overtop of his No. 5. During the game, Harrell wore a pair of Reebok Questions on which he wrote, “R.I.P. Nipsey — 8/15/85-3/31/19.” Clippers sixth man Lou Williams also penned “Money Making NIP” on his pair of Peak Streetball Masters. “For [Hussle’s] life to be taken, basically where he was born and raised, it’s tough,” Harrell told reporters after the game. “It’s a sad day, man.”

Kawhi Leonard

The sneakers worn by Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors before a game against the Orlando Magic on April 1 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Ron Turenne/NBAE Via Getty Images

Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

In December 2017, about a month before he became a brand ambassador for Puma, Hussle appeared in a Foot Locker x Jordan Brand commercial alongside 2014 NBA champion and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The day after Nip’s death, Leonard honored his fellow L.A. native on a pair of his New Balance OMN1s by adding “IP” after the brand’s block “N” logo to spell Nip. On the midsole of his left shoe, the Toronto Raptors All-Star forward also included “All Money In” — the name of Hussle’s record label, and the shortened version of his mantra, “All Money In, No Money Out.”

Dwyane Wade

The sneakers worn by Dwyane Wade with a message commemorating rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed on March 31, before a game between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on April 1 in Boston. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

On his final night playing the Celtics at Boston’s TD Garden, the soon-to-be-retired Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade wrote “Nipsey Hussle — Rest in Heaven” with a Sharpie on the left shoe of a pair of his Li-Ning Way of Wade 7s. Wade intentionally wore blue and yellow sneakers to represent the colors of Crenshaw High School, located in the neighborhood where Hussle grew up and endlessly repped in through his music and clothing line.

Whether created with a Sharpie, or paint, shoes became the go-to form of expressing sympathy.

Russell Westbrook

The sneakers worn by Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 2 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Before every game no matter what, Russell Westbrook writes the initials of his childhood friend and high school teammate Khelcey Barrs III, who died during a pickup game in 2004 at the age of 16. Westbrook recently lost another friend in Hussle, who helped the star Oklahoma City point guard and his Why Not? Foundation give back to the community in their hometown of Los Angeles on Thanksgiving in 2016. (There’s also a photo of Westbrook and Hussle embracing on the court at Staples Center during 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend in L.A.) Ahead of a game against the Lakers on April 2 — Westbrook’s first time playing since Hussle was killed — he neatly jotted “NH Nip” next to “KB3” on his pair of Pokemon-inspired player exclusive (PE) Why Not Zer0.2s. Westbrook rapped the words from Hussle’s 2018 track “Grinding All My Life” on the bench before taking the court and having himself a historic night with 20 points, 21 assists and 20 rebounds. He became only the second player in NBA history, and first since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, to put up a 20-20-20 stat line. And of course, Westbrook dedicated the performance to one person. “That wasn’t for me,” he said after the game. “That was for Nipsey, man.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

The sneakers worn by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Los Angeles Lakers during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 2 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Westbrook wasn’t the only player to commemorate Hussle on a pair of shoes at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena two days after his death. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also wrote “Rest Easy Nipsey” on his Nike KD 11s.

Danny Green

The sneakers worn by Danny Green of the Toronto Raptors during a game against the Brooklyn Nets on April 3 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Both Nip and Toronto Raptors guard Danny Green were ambassadors for the German sportswear brand Puma. So it was only right that Green used a black pair of Puma Clyde Courts as a canvas to pay tribute to “Ermias Asghedom,” which he wrote under “R.I.P” on the outside of his left shoe for a game against the Brooklyn Nets. Green also penned Hussle’s full name on the other shoe in Tigrinya — the official language of Eritrea — as a nod to the late rapper’s African roots.

DeMar DeRozan

The sneakers worn by DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs during a game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 2 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

The sneakers worn by DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs during a game against the Denver Nuggets on April 3 at the Pepsi Center in Denver. Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Back-to-back games for the San Antonio Spurs allowed four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, to honor Nip twice. And he did so fittingly with editions of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s signature Nikes. For a game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 2, DeRozan wrote “Crenshaw” on a pair of Kobe 11s before taking the court the next night vs. the Nuggets with “RIP NIP VICTORY LAP” scribed on a pair of Kobe 4 Protros. DeRozan showed the utmost respect to his fallen L.A. brother, who often expressed how much he loved the NBA star’s game.

Isaiah Thomas

In April 2017, while playing for the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas wrote messages on a pair of Nike Kobe A.Ds to grieve the horrific loss of his sister Chyna, who was killed in a one-car accident at the age of 22. “When I got the news yesterday before the game it reminded me when I got the news about my sister,” Thomas wrote in an Instagram post after Hussle was killed. Now a member of the Denver Nuggets, Thomas was a huge fan of the West Coast rapper, who shared a mutual admiration for the 5-foot-9-inch point guard. Just last year, Bleacher Report detailed how the careers of both Thomas and Hussle took off around the same time. Similar to how he remembered his sister on the court two years ago, Thomas paid tribute to Nip on his Nike Kobe 4 Protros during Denver’s April 2 game against the Spurs (the same night DeRozan inked up the same shoes). It’s also worth noting that Thomas’ last five Instagram posts have all been dedicated to Hussle.

Irv Roland

Irv Roland, a player development coach for the Houston Rockets, and the personal trainer of reigning NBA MVP James Harden, commissioned sneaker artist Cory Bailey, aka Sierato, to craft a custom pair of Nipsey Hussle-themed Adidas Harden Vol. 3s. Roland wore them when the Rockets played the Clippers in L.A. on April 3. Here’s a dope video in which Sierato shows his process of painting the shoe that feature two hand-drawn portraits of Nip:

D.J. Wilson

The sneakers worn by D.J. Wilson of the Milwaukee Bucks during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 4 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Heroes get remembered, but like second-year Milwaukee Bucks forward D.J. Wilson wrote on the side of his Nike Kobe A.Ds before an April 4 game against the Philadelphia 76ers — “Legends neva Die!!!” He also added “Long Live Nip” and “TMC,” which stands “The Marathon Continues,” Hussle’s oft-used motto and the name of a mixtape he dropped in 2011.

Sterling Brown

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“Rest up, Nip.” 🏁

A post shared by SLAM x KICKS (@slamkicks) on Apr 4, 2019 at 6:54pm PDT

Another Nipsey Hussle tribute by another Puma athlete. This time it came on the brand’s latest basketball sneaker — named the Uproar Spectra — which Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown helped debut on NBA hardwood in the lead-up to the April 12 release. “Rest up Nip,” Sterling Brown wrote on one shoe. “Salute.”

Jordan Bell

Sierato followed up the pair he did for Roland with a custom job on some Nike PG 2.5s for Golden State Warriors forward Jordan Bell. Nip would’ve loved that blue.

Spencer Dinwiddie

The sneakers worn by Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets during a game against the Indiana Pacers on April 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Spencer Dinwiddie collaborated with Troy Cole, an artist known in the sneaker world as Kickasso, for a custom pair of the Brooklyn Nets sixth man’s own brand of K8IROS shoes, which were painted beautifully with illustrations of Hussle. Dinwiddie is a part of the long list of NBA players who hail from Los Angeles. So when he shared photos of the shoes on social media, he made his connection to both the city and Nip known. “Fun fact,” Dinwiddie wrote in an Instagram post. “We went to the same grade school 🙏🏾.”

James Harden

The sneakers worn by James Harden of the Houston Rockets during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on April 3 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

No NBA player shared a bond with Hussle quite like Houston Rockets star James Harden. Back in October 2016, when he returned to his hometown for a matchup with the Lakers at Staples, Hussle came through to support, wearing a pair of Harden’s first signature sneakers to the game. Less than two years later, on the night Harden was named the 2018 NBA MVP, Hussle joined him to celebrate, taking Instagram videos with the man of the hour and his new trophy. They both deemed each other L.A. legends, so when the news of Nip’s death reached Harden, he was devastated. “It doesn’t seem real,” said Harden after the Rockets played the Clippers in L.A. on April 3. That night, he wore a gold pair of his Harden Vol. 3s, on which he wrote a few Nip-inspired messages, including the word “Prolific,” a reference to opening of the 2018 track “Victory Lap” — I’m prolific, so gifted / I’m the type that’s gon’ go get it. Harden rapped the line in the tunnel of the arena before taking the floor and dropping a game-high 31 points. During a postgame interview, one reporter asked Harden about his Instagram post from the previous day that featured a photo of him and Hussle with the caption, “BRO!!!! Where did you go?? We had some s— we was working on!!!! Please don’t leave. ON GOD imma make sure I finish what we started.” What did Harden mean? What exactly were they working on together? “You’ll see,” he responded.

Nipsey Hussle loved the culture — and basketball was his favorite Tragically, the artist went from courtside to being inked on players’ shoes in remembrance

From celebrity basketball games to Los Angeles Lakers games with Young Jeezy and YG, Nipsey Hussle was an unabashed lover of basketball and a huge fan of his hometown team. Legendary Laker and current president of the franchise’s basketball operations, Magic Johnson, mourned Hussle yesterday. “I was so proud of Nipsey Hussle,” Johnson wrote on Instagram, “who became an astute businessman and created jobs for people who lived in South Central.”

The relationship between the game and the Grammy Award-nominated Hussle was deep: He performed at halftime at the Staples Center; helped Russell Westbrook‘s foundation at Thanksgiving; partied with James Harden and Baron Davis (and Odell Beckham Jr.); and refurbished, with Puma, a basketball court in his own beloved Crenshaw neighborhood.

Most indelible, though, are the many images of Hussle and his longtime partner, Lauren London, sitting courtside at Lakers games. They seemed a kind of royalty, yes, but more like good people who made good with their creative work — people who’d created a family with each other. In these troubled times, the couple modeled for us a deep, fun and glamorous love. And then Hussle would stand to chop it up with Denzel Washington, or some other legend.

On Monday night, Hussle’s name was scrawled on the sneakers of NBA players across the league. In remembrance. The sadness and disbelief continue. As Johnson himself said: “Nipsey Hussle’s legacy will last forever.”

Rappers Nipsey Hussle (left) and Trinidad James (right) attend a celebrity basketball game at Crenshaw High School on June 6, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Maury Phillips/WireImage

From left to right: Nipsey Hussle, Young Jeezy and YG attend a basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Oct. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images

Denzel Washington (left) and Nipsey Hussle (right) attend a basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Oct. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images

Nipsey Hussle attends a basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Oct. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images

Nipsey Hussle (right) greets Houston Rockets star James Harden (left) at Staples Center on Oct. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images

Russell Westbrook (right) and rapper Nipsey Hussle (second from right) serve Thanksgiving dinner at Russell Westbrook and Why Not? Foundation’s fifth annual Thanksgiving dinner on Nov. 21, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Lilly Lawrence/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle attends a basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Nov. 22, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images,

Nipsey Hussle (left) and Lauren London (right) attend a basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on Dec. 25, 2017, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle (right) shakes hands with Julius Randle (left) of the Los Angeles Lakers before a game between the Lakers and the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center on Dec. 25, 2017, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Rapper Nipsey Hussle attends a basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on Jan. 17, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

From left to right: Dom Kennedy, Baron Davis, Jay 305 and Nipsey Hussle attend Hussle’s private debut album release party hosted by James Harden at The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills, California, on Feb. 16, 2018.

Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle attends the annual YG and Friends Daytime Boogie Basketball Tournament at the Shrine Auditorium on Feb. 17, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle watches from courtside at the Toyota Center in Houston on March 3, 2018.

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle performs during halftime of a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 8, 2018, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Nipsey Hussle performs during the launch of EA Sports’ NBA Live 19 at Goya Studios in Los Angeles on Aug. 24, 2018.

Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for EA NBA Live 19

From left to right: James Harden, Nipsey Hussle and Odell Beckham Jr. attend Rihanna’s fourth annual Diamond Ball benefiting the Clara Lionel Foundation at Cipriani Wall Street on Sept. 13, 2018, in New York.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Diamond Ball

Nipsey Hussle poses with kids at the Nipsey Hussle x PUMA Hoops Basketball Court Refurbishment Reveal Event on Oct. 22, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for PUMA

Jay-Z of Roc Nation Sports (left) and Nipsey Hussle attend the PUMA x Nipsey Hussle 2019 Grammy Nomination Party at The Peppermint Club on Jan. 16 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for PUMA

Montrezl Harrell of the Los Angeles Clippers wrote a tribute to Nipsey Hussle on his basketball sneakers.

The shoes of Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat on April 1 with a message commemorating rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot and killed on March 31.

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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Just got to know you! Rest in Paradise 🙏🏽 @nipseyhussle

A post shared by Wardell Curry (@stephencurry30) on Mar 31, 2019 at 7:53pm PDT

Much hated-on LeBron James is living his ‘Kingdom Come’ season Can he bring his own ‘American Gangster’ to the Lakers?

Hours before the Los Angeles Lakers’ thrilling 129-128 road victory on Feb. 7 over the Boston Celtics, the last bright spot of the Lakers’ season, LeBron James brooded. Though title aspirations were faint, his team was then 27-27 and in playoff contention.

“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” James told Masslive.com after a shootaround at Boston’s TD Garden. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. … Even though I love the process of everything I go through, to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to come for championships … there’s nothing I’m chasing, or that I feel I need to end my career on.”

The truth is James is a basketball anomaly who has always challenged basketball’s conventional wisdom.

James’ mood that night, and the Lakers’ season as a whole, brings to mind Jay-Z’s ninth album, and the idea that James is living through his Kingdom Come season. Grand hype met with mammoth disappointment, Kingdom was highly anticipated. Released in 2006, the project was Jay-Z’s post-retirement album, and his career’s worst.

“First game back,” Jay-Z said in 2013, ranking the project dead last in his discography. “Don’t shoot me.”

Jay-Z then, like James now, was already a legend with credentials for Hall of Fame status. But there were expectations that came with Jay-Z rhyming and painting pictures into mics. A standard of excellence that James is familiar with.

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………..‼‼‼👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on Mar 24, 2019 at 12:43pm PDT

Fast-forward a month and a half and the Lakers, currently 11th in the Western Conference, are officially eliminated from the playoffs. Suspensions, questionable offseason (and in-season) moves. Injuries, trade rumors and actual trades, Brandon Ingram’s health scare and Lonzo Ball’s family controversy — all these pieces matter when discussing what went wrong with a season that began with pageantry that vowed everything but a Lakers championship parade.

So for a Lakers fan base that hasn’t seen the playoffs since 2013, summer vacations starting in spring are, painfully, business as usual. Before the season, realistic projections had the Lakers winning 50 games, James capturing MVP for the fifth time and the team eventually falling to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.

But now James is preparing to start the longest offseason he’s had since 2005, when the world looked different — Apple didn’t even have an iPhone, Zion Williamson hadn’t started elementary school and YouTube wasn’t yet a verb. James also finds himself in a familiar situation: on the receiving end of mountains of criticism.

A litany of critiques, observations and charges have emerged or re-emerged this season: James sat away from his teammates during a road loss to the New York Knicks. Growing up in a single-parent household is why he’s a bad leader and teammate. James killed the Lakers’ chemistry. LeBron has a dysfunction fetish. Los Angeles doesn’t love him. His defense has been worse than court-appointed attorneys. James is a coach killer, and not only is Lakers skipper Luke Walton next on his hit list — but James is supposedly the reason Doc Rivers squashed rumors that he wanted to coach the Lakers next. And: The Lakers should look into trading James this offseason.

There are even questions such as: Does James even still care about basketball? Did he really sit out a game against the Warriors because he was in the studio with 2 Chainz the night before? How do you get swept by the Knicks?

This is just the media. NBA fans are talking as well.


I say this reluctantly / ’Cause I do struggle/ As you can see / I can’t leave / So I do love you … — The Prelude

The texts in the group chat rang out back-to-back. To back. To back. Four of us, 30ish black male friends living in big cities who have been arguing about sports and life for more than a decade.

“The playoffs are LeBron-free for the first time in 14 years. And for the first time in seven or eight years, I’m interested in the playoffs.”

“Oh yeah … [LeBron] killed the game for me. Most definitely.”

“… his move to the West and missing the playoffs shows just how overrated he is. As if the 3-6 Finals record wasn’t enough.”

“Great individual player. But overrated as a winner, big time.”

Modern day Wilt [Chamberlain], b.”

And for good measure:

“His claim to fame has been dragging teams w/ limited talent to great heights. So what happened in LA? All I heard from Bron Bron last night after the game was excuses.”

“My prayers have been answered … LeBron won’t be part of the postseason and I can watch w/ renewed interest.”

When James wins, it’s never enough. When he loses, there’s always a community cherishing his downfall.

Much of this, from both fans and the media, has been tucked in the chamber for years. But James isn’t solely to blame for this lost Lakers season. All chips on the table, his 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 8.1 assists and 51 percent field goal shooting still confirm him as a weapon of mass destruction on offense (although his 66 percent free throw shooting is well below his career average of 73.4).

And this performance has occurred after a groin injury that sidelined him for 18 games — and ultimately derailed the season. James’ physical therapist said the injury should have cost him most of the season.

After Sunday’s win over the Sacramento Kings, the reality of missing the playoffs called for perspective.

“I would never cheat myself,” James said in a Yoda-like tone after his 81st career triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), against Sacramento. “I know we’re out the playoff race, but if I’m on the court, I’m going to play how I play, and I play to win. So I will never cheat the game.”

But when you’re the best player in the world, and your team misses the playoffs in train wreck fashion, there’s not much to do other than fall on your sword. “Obviously,” James said last week, “I made a ton of mistakes. I wasn’t as good as I’m accustomed to being. I was pretty s—-y.”

Countless reasons exist why James encounters the level of criticism he does. A man of extreme extremes, his highs are incredibly high — à la the 2013 and 2016 NBA Finals. His lows are embarrassingly low — the 2011 Finals, and this season.

The energy that has surrounded him from the moment he burst onto the national scene almost 20 years ago has always been wild. There’s no way a phenom dubbed Michael Jordan’s heir apparent before graduating from high school gets middle-of-the-road coverage. He was pegged to redirect the sport and the culture around when he was getting investigated for driving a Hummer and dominating pros as a junior in high school.

Yet, how dare he be mentioned alongside Jordan, some say. Even worse, how dare he openly covet the GOAT title over Jordan? The truth is James is a basketball anomaly who has always challenged basketball’s conventional wisdom. When he wins, it’s never enough. When he loses, there’s always a community cherishing his downfall.


I ain’t talking bout the 2-3 / Mami in the zone like the homie two-three / Jordan or James, makes no difference/ We all ballin’ the same … Show Me What You Got

In 2006, Jay-Z returned to rap with his first full solo album since The Black Album. It was culture’s most anticipated spectacle — much like James’ Hollywood arrival 12 years later. The three-year hiatus was a long break between solo projects, and the album arrived two days before Thanksgiving. Kingdom Come, however, felt like a lump of coal.

Jay-Z’s unbridled confidence hadn’t wavered, though, as he displayed on “Trouble” and on the album’s best number, “The Prelude.” But the album, akin to James’ inaugural campaign in Tinseltown, was panned as disjointed and anticlimactic — even as it sold more than 1.5 million copies, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s pop album chart and, in retrospect, may not have been as critically wack as it seemed at the time.

Just a few days ago, on March 24, James took to Instagram, after a disjointed and anticlimactic season, with a message — perhaps because, in his mind, next season has already begun. “Believe me!” he exclaimed. “Promise #LakerNation the spell won’t last much longer! I swear. The marathon continues.”

So now the Lakers’ 2019-20 season begins. It has to. And if there is one last mission for James to accomplish, it’s to reverse the current narrative just like he did after the backlash over 2010’s “The Decision.” If this season was his Kingdom Come, then next season is James’ own American Gangsterthe Jay-Z album that even he dubbed “black superhero music” on the lead single “Roc Boys,” and which won near universal acclaim.

Maybe, just maybe, all this drama will have been worth it. Even with nothing to prove, Jay-Z had something to prove. And LeBron James, love or hate him, is cut from the same cloth.

A look back at ‘Above the Rim’ on its 25th anniversary Tupac in trouble, Georgetown hoops on the rise, a sports film rises to cult classic

Marlon Wayans can still smell the thick aroma of Tupac Shakur’s marathon marijuana sessions. Wayans and Shakur, both performing arts high school products, had become quick friends while Shakur was filming 1992’s Juice alongside Wayans’ friends Omar Epps and Mitch Marchand.

By 1993, it was Wayans working with Shakur on the street basketball coming-of-age film Above the Rim, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday. Shakur was the sinister and charming drug dealer Birdie, who was trying to monopolize a local streetball tournament. Wayans played Bugaloo, a round-the-way kid who was often the target of Birdie’s vicious verbal taunts.

“ ‘Above the Rim’ is the most true, ball-playing cinematic movie.” — Leon

Shakur and Wayans shared a two-bedroom trailer on set. They made each other laugh. They talked about themselves as young black creatives in a world that often sought their talents but not the soul behind them. And the two got high together — in a way.

“’Pac smoked a lot of weed,” said Wayans. “[He] would roll like nine blunts … he’d be listening to beats.” Wayans chuckles at the memory. “I’d catch the biggest contact.”

One day, Shakur refused to step out of his Rucker Park trailer. Director Jeff Pollack was confused. Everyone was ready, cameras in place. All they needed was the enigmatic Shakur. “Kick the doors off the Range Rover!” Shakur yelled as he emerged. “Real n—as don’t have doors on Range Rovers!” Shakur wanted the doors off so he could just jump out and directly into his lines.

“In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, ’Pac’s a little high,’ ’’ said Wayans, laughing. “I don’t think ’Pac knew how much that would cost production.” Shakur eventually came down off his high. And the doors stayed on the Range.




Above the Rim was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance. A month before the film hit theaters, Nick Nolte, Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway starred in Blue Chips. Later that year came Hoop Dreams, the masterful Steve James documentary. Lodged midway was Above the Rim.

Each of the three films offers a perspective of basketball as more than a game. Blue Chips focuses on the lucrative and slimy underbelly of big-business college athletics (and art imitates life a quarter-century later). Hoop Dreams is an exposé of the beautiful yet heartbreaking physical and emotional investment of the sport. Above the Rim uses New York City basketball as the entry point into the deeper story of two brothers and their tie to a young hoops phenom attempting to leave the same Harlem streets that divided them.

Set and filmed mostly in Harlem, the film was written by Barry Michael Cooper and directed by Pollack and also features Leon (Colors, The Five Heartbeats, Cool Runnings, Waiting to Exhale) as Tommy “Shep” Shepard, Shakur’s older brother and former basketball star. Martin (White Men Can’t Jump, Scream 2, Any Given Sunday) portrays Kyle Lee Watson, a high school basketball star hellbent on attending Georgetown.

Tonya Pinkins (Beat Street, All My Children) portrayed Kyle’s mother, Mailika. She hasn’t forgotten what the role meant for her career: “Probably the most I’ve ever been paid for a film,” she said. “The cast was phenomenal. It was really a party, and I was kind of the only … woman with lines in the movie.” And making his film debut was Wood Harris (Remember The Titans, The Wire, Paid In Full, Creed and Creed II) as Motaw — Wee-Bey to Birdie’s Avon Barksdale.

Bernie Mac (Def Comedy Jam, Mo’ Money) is Flip, a local junkie responsible for the movie’s most prophetic and eerie line, especially given how many key figures from the film have since died (Shakur, Mac, Pollack and David Bailey). “They can’t erase what we were, man,” Flip says to Shep toward the beginning of the film.

Marlon Wayans, who played Bugaloo in the movie, on Tupac: “Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel.”

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Above the Rim, too, entered the culture during that 1986-97 era when films such as House Party, New Jack City, Malcolm X, Boomerang, Juice, Menace II Society and others had already stitched themselves into the fabric of the ’90s black cultural explosion. Those movies did so with black directors calling the shots. Above the Rim was brought to life by Benny Medina and Pollack, who had already struck gold with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, at the time roughly halfway through its iconic run.

Above the Rim was different, though. “It was … without a doubt a story of the inner city,” said Leon, who at the time was fresh off his powerhouse role as J.T. Matthews in The Five Heartbeats. In Above the Rim as Shep, he returns to Harlem after falling on hard times. Leon is biased about the film’s cult status, and proud of it. “[Above the Rim is the] most true ball-playing cinematic movie,” he said.

Leon is humbled and entertained by the internet’s reaction to Shep, in corduroy pants, dropping 40 second-half points in the movie’s championship climax. “There’s just been so many memes people send me … it’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. And the level of on-set hoops competition, as he remembers, was electric. Many of the film’s ballplayers were just that: ballplayers.

“It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.” — Leon

In real life, Martin starred as a guard on New York University’s Division III squad in the late ’80s. He was a first-team All-Association selection in 1988-89 and was the Howard Cann Award recipient that same season as MVP. Leon, who grew up hooping in the Bronx, New York, attended California’s Loyola Marymount University on a basketball scholarship (guard) before focusing on acting.

It was while playing professional basketball in Rome and filming 1993’s Cliffhanger with Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow (in Rome as well) that Leon was approached about starring in Above the Rim. The role was first offered to Leon’s friend (and fellow heartthrob) Denzel Washington, who had just starred as Malcolm X in the iconic Spike Lee biopic. “Don’t know why it was,” Leon says when trying to recall why Washington decided against the role. “Don’t care.”

People in Hollywood knew Leon could hoop, but word-of-mouth was only a down payment on respect. “Everyone could really ball. … Everyone had all-everything in their city credentials,” Leon said. “We’d scrimmage at NYU. All the top players from the [Elite Basketball Circuit] and the Rucker, everybody was down there trying to get down. It was strictly about hoops, wasn’t nothing about acting. When you get on the court, it’s like either you could go or you can’t.”


Georgetown University doesn’t have any scenes in Above the Rim. Nor does the school make or break the plot. Yet the Washington, D.C., campus’s role in the movie is important, and seamless. Pollack (who died in 2013 at the age of 54) and Medina, as writers, had already managed to weave Georgetown into the narrative of a 1992 Fresh Prince episode. And it’s Georgetown’s role in the story of black America that gave the film authenticity.

Maybe it was because Georgetown had a successful black coach manning its sidelines in John Thompson. Maybe it was because Thompson did so during the decade in which hip-hop started to grow up, and crack cocaine was blowing up during and after the days of President Ronald Reagan. Or maybe it was the type of players Thompson recruited — and the fearlessness they played with.

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown (seen here with Allen Iverson and coach John Thompson in 1994) did in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“We didn’t apologize for who we were. We didn’t ask permission to be who we were,” Thompson said earlier this month. “Then there was the rap explosion, and people started wearing Georgetown-style gear because they were so moved. Once we started seeing the Georgetown gear in TV and movies, there was definitely more of a sense that we had arrived.”

Except for Michigan’s Fab Five, no team held the gritty cultural cool that Georgetown did in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Georgetown represented for us,” said Wayans. “It made college look cool to young black kids. That team … it made us go, ‘Yo, I wanna wear that blue and gray.’ … For kids that grew up … in the ’hood … it became cool to be smart and educated.”

Wayans, who attended Howard University from 1990-92, said, “It absolutely [made Georgetown feel like a historically black university].” And it was Allen Iverson’s impending arrival that thrilled all parties involved with the film.

Iverson’s role in basketball lore is one-of-one, and by 1994, his image was, in many ways, as controversial as Shakur’s. To one segment of America, Iverson was a goon, a two-sport local superstar who deserved to have his future stripped away after a 1993 bowling alley brawl. Iverson’s 1993 trial and eventual conviction remains a benchmark of racial divisiveness in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yet, to a whole other segment, Iverson held superhuman characteristics. He was a larger-than-life counterculture rebel who remained true to himself at all costs — in tats, do-rags and baggy jeans. Iverson, a free man in March 1994 after being granted conditional clemency by Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, was an unspoken factor in Above the Rim’s authenticity. Iverson’s story is loosely tied to that of Kyle Lee Watson.

“[Iverson] was big,” Leon said. “Having a … prominent black coach who we know would take a chance on a player [like character Kyle Lee Watson] and give him a scholarship, much the way [Thompson] did with Allen Iverson, it just made sense.”

Wayans agrees. “Allen Iverson represents the concrete and the hardwood. [Even then], he made you believe that even though you was groomed and raised in the streets, you could still amount to something great, and not let go of your culture.”

But if Iverson’s legacy is in unanimous good standing with the Above the Rim community, the reviews of the film were anything but. While Above the Rim has risen to cult status in the quarter-century since its release, many at the time blasted the film for hackneyed dialogue and situations. The Washington Post dubbed it a “stultifying cliché of a movie” that “doesn’t get anywhere near the rim.” Variety said the movie was composed of enough clichés to fill an NBA stat sheet. Roger Ebert felt similarly but praised the film’s ingenuity in character development.

But if there was praise that was near universal, it was for Shakur. “As the strong-arm hustler who darts in and out of Above the Rim, Tupac Shakur proves, once again, that he may be the most dynamic young actor since Sean Penn,” an Entertainment Weekly critic wrote in 1994. “The jury is out on whether he’ll prove as self-destructive.”


Shakur entered a particular read-through of Above the Rim’s script in typical Tupac Shakur fashion. Loud. Bodacious. Arrogant. Leon appreciated the spectacle.

Every actor and actress has his or her own way of mentally preparing for a role. This was Tupac’s. He walked right up to Leon, his estranged brother in the film, and bowed his head. “You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats,” Shakur said. “That’s my movie.”

Above the Rim marks a transitional period in Shakur’s life. His rising fame ran concurrent with controversy. Vice President Dan Quayle called for his 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, to be removed from shelves, claiming its lyrics incited the murder of a Texas state trooper. And in 1993 alone, Shakur released Strictly 4 My N—A.Z., a profound sophomore effort headlined by the singles “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “I Get Around” and “Keep Ya Head Up,” and starred with Janet Jackson, Regina King and Joe Torry in Poetic Justice.

Duane Martin and Leon Robinson were two of the stars in this film that was part of a 1994 Hollywood basketball renaissance.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

But also in 1993, Shakur was charged with felonious assault at a concert at Michigan State University. He fought director Allen Hughes on the set of Spice 1’s “Trigga Gots No Heart” video and was later sentenced on battery charges.

By the time Above the Rim’s production was underway, Shakur’s legal dramas only intensified. In November 1993, he was charged with shooting two off-duty suburban Atlanta policemen. Those charges were eventually dropped. But shortly before Thanksgiving, Shakur, along with two associates, was charged with sexual assault of a woman in a New York City Parker Meridien hotel room. The case remains an indelible stain on his career, and Shakur, until the day he died less than three years later, maintained his innocence, even as he served much of 1995 in prison for the crime.

Shakur’s legal proceedings were a constant backdrop during the filming of Above the Rim, the stress of which took its toll on the cast. “It affected all of us, you know? We had to change the shooting schedule and delay production,” Leon said. “This stuff was all going on at the same time, and it could be a bit of a distraction.”

“He was great,” Martin said of working with Shakur, “when he wasn’t in trouble.”

“It must be hard for [Pollack] to have his main character in jail and you have to shoot tomorrow,” Shakur told MTV News. “But they never let me feel that.”

In a landmark 1995 VIBE prison interview, Tupac talked about hanging around with hardened street players who showed him the baller life that New York City had to offer. Two in particular were Jacques “Haitian Jack” Agnant and James “Jimmy Henchman” Rosemond — both of whom Shakur would later implicate, respectively, in the sexual assault case levied against him and the attempt on his life in 1994 at New York City’s Quad Studios.

“I would often have conversations with him about some elements around him, but I wasn’t abreast of it all because I wasn’t there every time he was getting in trouble,” said Wayans. “I’d just say, ‘Yo, you have the power to make different decisions, watch out for this, watch out for that … You have to dodge traps. You can’t run into them.’ ’Pac’s greatest attribute is he was supercourageous, but sometimes that can also become your Achilles’ heel. Sometimes the thing that is your superpower is also your flaw.”

“You ain’t gonna have a problem with me because you in The Five Heartbeats. That’s my movie.” — Tupac Shakur

Pinkins only had one day of working with Shakur, but his confidence impressed her. “We sat and talked [for a long while],” said Pinkins. “Everyone was so excited and hype, but he was just mellow … cool, and articulate. He was funny too. Someone who made you think he was already at that level of international phenomenon.”

Shakur rarely got much sleep while filming Above the Rim. He’d leave set once the day was over, go to the studio to record and come back to set the next morning primed and ready. “[Shakur] was as dedicated as I was. He was on point,” Leon said. “He had to be because so much of my acting was done silently with my eyes.”

Shakur was Above the Rim’s emotionally charged ultralight beam. His smile could light up a room, and his rage could clear one. Shakur, Rolling Stone lamented shortly after the film’s release, “steals the show.” His portrayal of Birdie was a “gleaming portrait of seductive evil.”

Shakur’s presence in the film is a beautiful reminder of what was. Wayans can still hear his own mother warning him. “ ‘Baby…’ ” Wayans re-enacts her, “I want you to be safe. [Shakur’s] a wonderful kid. I can see the talent in him. But you be careful of the elements around him.”

Above the Rim was filmed on a budget of approximately $3.5 million. In its opening weekend in March 1994, the film recouped that sum, amassing $3.7 million — and $16.1 million overall. It lives on in the conversation of best ’hood movies and one of the definitive sports movies of its era. Above the Rim lives on via streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Lena Waithe: ‘Your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t’ The actor/producer and Emmy-winning writer is in love, in ‘Ready Player One’ and in the business of kicking down doors

Before my conversation with Lena Waithe begins, I issue a warning. She is, after all, the creator of Showtime’s excellent The Chi, a fictional series about Chicago’s South Side.

“Nothing better ever happen to Papa! I mean it, Lena!”

Waithe laughs mightily at my plea to keep the innocent and charismatic Papa free of harm. Charmingly portrayed by Shamon Brown Jr., he’s one of the three preteen black boys through which we see the neighborhood.

“Look, man,” the Emmy winner says with a giggle, “no one stays safe in The Chi. Even the children.”

What Waithe has done is create characters so tangible they feel like family. She gives an episodic answer to the “What about Chicago?” crowd. In The Chi, Waithe gives us family that you want to protect, support, and keep safe and sound. Her series takes much of what we loved about HBO’s groundbreaking The Wire and shifts focus to spotlight the very real people behind the very real headlines that we see — or don’t see enough. The Chi just ended its inaugural season’s run, but it’ll be back for a second season soon. But Waithe? She’s just beginning. Like for real, for real.

Lena Waithe turns 34 soon. She’s been working steadily in Hollywood since graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College in 2006, and she’s worked for some of the most prominent black female directors in the business — Ava DuVernay and Gina Prince-Bythewood have both been bosses — and in 2011, the S— Black Girls Say video series went viral. The much-debated sensation was written by Waithe.

And by 2018? On the eve of the Oscars, Waithe was feted by Essence at its Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, where she was honored by Angela Bassett, Justin Simien and Steven Spielberg. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “I tend to be really rounded … and I think that’s because I’ve paid a lot of dues. I genuinely love this business, this industry. I love what I do. And also, my lady, my fiancée, keeps me really grounded.”

So much of Waithe’s story stems from her own personal life — on her willingness to live out loud and stand in her own truth as a black lesbian. Last year, she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series for her work on Master of None; the “Thanksgiving” episode of that series mirrored her own experience coming out to her mom.

And despite her rocketing fame — she was featured, solo, on the cover of Vanity Fair last week — she’s unbothered. “It’s commerce, it’s exchange,” she said. “It’s like you’re hot right now, someone else will be hot next year. What happens to some people — we’ve seen it, when they get all caught up — they start to think, ‘Oh, ain’t I grand?’ There are a lot of us who are talented and gifted and great … and I see this with Donald [Glover] too, where at the end of the day we’re like, ‘Look, man. We’re pretty good at what we do, but there’s always folks coming up after us.’ There’s always [people] nipping after you. People should never get comfortable … you just have to always be a student, you have to always be humble, and you’ve got to always know that the business loves a new, shiny toy.”

But Waithe is not just talent. She’s a creator, someone who is passionate about representation and progression. And she has heavy hitters in her corner, like Spielberg, the legendary director who hired her for her most recent role, as Aech/Helen in Ready Player One.

“I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand.”

“I don’t know if he’s ever stood back to think about, ‘Oh, how are people receiving me?’ Or, ‘Where’s my legacy?’ He’s like, I just want to make things that I’m passionate about, and I think that’s my mission,” she said of Spielberg. And of herself she says, “I figure that as long as I do that, I’ll be on the right track. I’m probably going to stumble, I’ll fall, I’ll mess up, and I think that’s when you get a real sense of where you stand. But my hope is that folks will just rock with me and go on this journey with me.”

Much of her journey is about inclusion. In this season of The Chi, the series introduces us to one of the families on the South Side that is made up of two mothers, a teen daughter and a preteen son. It was subtle, and it quietly helped normalize a nuclear family that’s headed up by two lesbians in love; it wasn’t that episode’s central focus. It just was. And that’s important to Waithe.

“It’s the thing that’s on my heart,” she said. “Everybody has a cause, a thing that is … a thorn in their side, and that’s one for me.” Then she gets into the complex subject of being black and gay and out and verbal about it all — in Hollywood. “I’m so confused by it,” she said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be, because I can somewhat understand why some people want to keep their sexual orientation private — typically African-American people who are in the public eye. I guess to some extent, but I think that our children are literally killing themselves. Our queer children are thinking that they’re less than. Are thinking that they’ll never be loved. Are thinking that they’ll never have a normal, happy life. … No. Their lives are priceless.”

Waithe said something very similar and poignant to that room at the Essence luncheon earlier this month. It pierced the crowd and resounded loudly to a group of mostly black women, who were already emotionally laid out by the electrifying speech on beauty and acceptance that Black Panther’s Danai Gurira, who also was honored, had delivered earlier that day.

“The reason why people are closeted,” she continued, “is because they’re afraid, particularly in Hollywood. They’re afraid of losing a fan base. They’re afraid of losing people — lost endorsement deals and roles, things like that. [But] if they walk away from you once they figure out who you really are, like, why are we even dealing with that?”

“We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring.”

Waithe wants everyone to experience the authenticity she’s living right now. You can’t create a moment like the Thanksgiving coming-out episode inside of a black family unit, she says, without a willingness to be vulnerable.

“I think your art is stunted when you’re trying to pretend to be something you aren’t. You can’t be as happy,” she said. “If I was in the closet, I would not be a happy camper. I just wouldn’t be. I’m a real b—-. I’m a truth-teller. I can’t sit here and act like I don’t have a phenomenal woman at home, with an engagement ring on her finger that I bought as a token of my love.”

There’s of course a long history of gay people in Hollywood performing heterosexuality. Waithe takes a moment to remind. “[People] literally have partners and wives and husbands, and like — because of what? They want to protect the facade. It’s like you’re preventing your art from being as great as it can be, and that’s because you’re not being completely honest with the public. And I think it’s bulls—. If James Baldwin can be out and proud and effeminate … in Harlem and in Paris and walking around and all that kind of stuff, so can we.”

Waithe can’t say enough about this idea of unveiling and revealing. Because she doesn’t want to be out here alone. She doesn’t want to be the only revolutionary out here with a megaphone. It’s lonely.

“I see these cats all the time, out and about, they hug me and say, ‘I’m so proud of you. You’re out! You’re doing it!’ And I want to look at them and go, ‘Why aren’t you?’ Why do I have to be out here on the diving board by myself?’ ”

Lena Waithe as Helen in Warner Bros. Pictures’ Ready Player One.

Jaap Buitendijk

And now we have Lena Waithe the actor.

It’s not a space that she had designs on. But she’s being asked to come in and read for parts, as with Ready Player One, and being cast in shows like NBC’s emotionally gripping This Is Us. Casting directors are calling her people and asking for her as front-facing talent. She has, in fact, a seat at the table. All of the tables.

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to be, a television writer. When you have a presence in front of the camera, the business treats you differently. You get a little bit more of a red carpet rollout. If you send somebody an email, they respond right away. It’s just that weird caste that we have in this town.”

But she’s using her newfound power for good. And her mission is clear: help writers of color. She’s making sure a diverse group of writers has access to writing classes, and she’s all about making connections.

“People look at me and Donald and Issa [Rae] and Justin and Barry [Jenkins] and … I’m like, there’s so many phenomenal writers of color that are just dope. And not just black, but Native American, Latino and members of the queer community. People who live with disabilities. From the trans community. People who are nonbinary,” she said. “We keep hearing the story of the white girl and her mom. We keep seeing the story about this old white man on the mountain. There’s so many other narratives that we should be exploring that are interesting. We haven’t even scratched the surface.”

Waithe is already thinking ahead to the next season of The Chi. Common executive produces, and Ayanna Floyd Davis has signed on for season two as executive producer and showrunner. The show will go back into production later this year.

“We’re going to really step it up. It’s going to be blacker. The women are going to have a lot more to do. And I just have a lot more power this go-around,” Waithe said. “It’s only going to get better. For Atlanta season two, I feel like it’s a little more lived in, and Donald’s a little more confident in what he’s doing, and he’s taking a few more risks, which is really cool. And I want our season two to kind of feel like what season two of Atlanta feels like. Just a little more seasoned.”

And she has more on the way: a pilot order for TBS with Simien, with whom she last teamed up for Dear White People. “I get to be back in the saddle again,” Waithe said, “and to tell a story about a queer black girl and her two straight best friends. And them navigating life in Los Angeles, and what that looks like.”

Because telling stories, stories that don’t often get told, is what Waithe does best.

So long as Papa survives. Please?

Mia Wright has big plans as president of the National Basketball Wives Association ‘It is hugely important for those of us that have the resources to set the example’

“Managing our husbands’ brands is one thing that binds us together.”

So said Mia Wright as she welcomed hundreds of guests to the recent National Basketball Wives Association (NBWA) Women’s Empowerment Summit.

Attendees learned about the organization’s new vision and listened to a panel moderated by CBS anchor Gayle King that included Ayesha Curry, Cookie Johnson, Jada Paul, Elaine Baylor, Tracy Mourning and Adrienne Bosh. There was even a surprise visit by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters.

From left to right: Cookie Johnson, Ayesha Curry, Gayle King, Jada Paul, Mia Wright, Elaine Baylor, Adrienne Bosh and Tracy Wilson Mourning.

Kelley D. Evans/The Undefeated

“The purpose of the event is the coming out of the National Basketball Wives Association, and letting the public know and having the support of our NBA family to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, we have a mission, come join us,’ ” Wright said. “We’re not only here to break down stereotypes of women that are married to professional athletes, but we’re also here to show the importance of mentorship.”

Established in 1993, the organization was initially known as Women of the NBA, which later was changed to Behind the Bench, The National Basketball Wives Association. The nonprofit’s members include wives, significant others and life partners of current and retired players representing the American Basketball Association (ABA), the NBA, the NBA G League (minor league) and the Harlem Globetrotters.

Now the NBWA is entering the next stage of its evolution.

“I saw, along with my executive board members, that there was this need to regroup and to build the new entity that would be well representative of these women,” said Wright, who is the wife of NBA veteran Dorell Wright.

The current executive officers include Wright, vice president Tomi Rose Strickland (wife of Mark Strickland), secretary Renee Taplin-Jones (wife of Major Jones) and treasurer Donna M. Harris-Lewis (widow of Reggie Lewis).

“I found an opportunity to step into a leadership role with this organization and lead the charge on our membership and galvanizing women of influence to come together for our charitable mission,” Wright said. “I chose to take the position because I know that, being associated with professional athletes, there is a stage and this platform that comes along with that. And now more than ever in this era of social media, there’s millions of young girls that are looking up to us whether we like it or not. So … bringing women together for a charitable mission to raise awareness for underserved families and children, that’s really what it’s about.”

A Los Angeles native, Wright considers herself a “showbiz kid.” She appeared in her first commercial at 2 years old. She later became a member of the girl trio Before Dark, a rhythm and blues group signed to RCA Records.

Wright and her husband had a son, Devin, in 2008. Two years later, she became executive director of the couple’s first nonprofit organization, the D Wright Way Foundation, now known as the Wright Legacy Foundation (which includes Dorell Wright’s brother, Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright). The organization helped inner-city communities in Miami; Oakland, California; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon; and their hometown of Los Angeles. The two held events such as the Thanksgiving Festival, Adopt-A-Family at Christmas and KB3 Memorial Scholarship Fund. They also launched menswear line Scrapes & Gravel in February 2014, where she is CEO.

The Wrights welcomed their second son, Dash, in 2015, and Mia still finds herself balancing family, philanthropy and the many positions she holds.

“It is difficult because I think from the outside looking in, it looks like, ‘Oh, this is a fabulous life, you guys get to do this and that and fly here and there.’ But when you take on that spirit of entrepreneurship … it comes with a lot of responsibility,” Wright said.

“Being able to set the tone for future generations is critically important, especially now,” she added. “I think that it is hugely important for those of us that have the resources to set the example, and so that is what my balance comes from. It comes from purpose in knowing that the work that I’m doing is so much bigger than me, it’s bigger than my kids, it’s bigger than my husband. It’s literally we’re setting the tone for future generations and communities to survive and thrive.”

Wright says it’s important to have an identity as more than a basketball wife. She recalls being new to Miami at age 22 and meeting Tracy Wilson Mourning, wife of Alonzo Mourning.

“I remembered just seeing her and knowing that she had her own identity and all that she did in the community, and I said to myself, ‘I want to be like her. This is who I want to pattern my new life after.’ And it sounds a little crazy, but I think that is where the importance of mentorship comes in, because she embraced me. We were never super close, but we’ve maintained a relationship throughout the years, and her example from afar is one of the main inspirations that I had to use my husband’s platform, to create our foundations and to ensure that even though he wasn’t the franchise player, we had our footprints in those communities that he played in.”

Wright said the hardest part of her journey has been to remove fear from her spirit.

“When I say fear, that’s fear of judgment, that’s fear of failure, that’s fear in totality. Especially being in the public eye, being susceptible to the millions of opinions that you didn’t ask for, that can be quite difficult. So, yeah, that would be the most difficult thing. Kicking fear in the butt and getting it out of here.”

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Mark Blount reinvented himself as a real estate investor From Auntie Anne’s to housing, the former center created a life after basketball


After spending 10 years in the NBA as one of the league’s most dependable centers, Mark Blount retired in 2010 and knew it was time to start making moves.

With Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as his backdrop, Blount opted to spread his wings in two different endeavors: food franchises and real estate.

Blount found a block of property sorely in need of renovation and decided to invest. He participated in rehabbing 14 units, completing the process in about a year.

“I owned quite a bit of real estate in Palm Beach Gardens — seven buildings. I went in there with a friend of mine. We renovated them, all the units there, and brought them back up to, back then it was 2012 code: new bathrooms, new floors, new kitchens and all that stuff,” he said.

Blount then joined the soft-pretzel franchise Auntie Anne’s. He opened two stores in West Palm Beach and one in Jensen Beach, Florida. After building and operating the franchises for four years, he sold the stores to focus on real estate.

“The restaurant business was a learning curve for me, but the real estate is a passion for me,” Blount said.

Blount spends his days researching and meeting with sellers and agencies about new real estate investment opportunities. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and his philanthropic efforts are focused on Palm Beach Gardens, including donating turkeys to those in need throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and contributing to local churches and Toys for Tots.

The Yonkers, New York, native grew up a Knicks fan and was inspired by players such as John Starks and Charles Smith. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted 54th overall in 1997 by the Seattle SuperSonics. Blount spent three seasons in the minor leagues, including the International Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and North American Premier Basketball. He signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Aug. 1, 2000. That season he led the team with 76 blocks, the most by a Celtics rookie since Kevin McHale in 1980–81.

He also played with the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat. He used his toughness on the court to guide his way into the business world.

“That’s why we see a lot of retired guys have a hard time trying to find something that they’re passionate about to do because [they don’t have] the energy and the passion, the focus that needs to be displayed every night. So you’re like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”


How did you cultivate your toughness?

I just had an attitude about everything. And growing up in Yonkers, I had to be tough there. I just approached everything with a straight attitude. I just thought whoever I was going against, it was just a battle.

Mark Blount #15 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New Orleans Hornets on January 11, 2008 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Hornets defeated the Heat 114-88.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Was the NBA a dream of yours?

Yes. Yes, it was. Getting drafted in the second round and then not playing with Seattle, then spending a couple years in the not so minor league, then being able to make it onto summer league team and having Boston sign in to a one-year deal was [the culmination of] my dream, so I didn’t back down. I just kept fighting and kept trying to reach my dream. I spent, I think it was sum of three years in the minors before I made it.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Trying to get to the university and then trying to get to the NBA and then doing those things and then being able to do a couple of businesses, it’s always a fight, always a struggle. There’s always a learning curve. … I’m real patient about what I need to do and learning about it, and once I understand it then I’m able to pursue it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was in Boston … talking to a gentleman about the restaurant, and he’s like, ‘If you’re ever going to do a business, make sure you’re there to run it every day.’ I’ve taken that to heart over the last few years I’ve been in business.

How did you make that switch to franchise owner, and why did you choose Auntie Anne’s?

I was actually in bed with Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon; I ran four restaurants at one time. Don’t ask me why, but I did. I was able to make connections with them and went through the process of learning their business and going through training and learning their sites and seeing if I was going to be a silent investor and have somebody run it for me, which wasn’t going to happen, or run it myself.

I ended up running it myself and was able to be pretty successful. [Of] the four locations that I had, the two of them I ended up closing, but they survived for about three or four years. Then two I sold.

What do you think about the Knicks now?

I’m crying inside. Especially now that Carmelo [Anthony] is gone and seeing, looks like another rebuilding process. So I’m just, I’m a New Yorker, I’m going to die a New Yorker, so that’s the way it goes. But I really hope they’re able to get some luck. They had some young guys step up and maybe a couple trays on the lottery draft, draft lottery picks. Hopefully it’ll happen.

What team should we start to watch after the All-Star Game?

Everybody’s just starting to mention Toronto. They started out on fire, so I knew they were going to be good early in the season. [Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey really understands what he’s doing there.

What advice would you give players who are transitioning from the court?

If you don’t have a passion for anything, maybe take a course, a quick course, in something. But if you don’t have a passion, there’s always different courses you can take, or there’s a lot of good things the NBA Players Association is doing. … Just talk to some of the older guys that played before. Talk to some of the guys who just retired and bounce things off instead of just running into any quick thing, business deals, with anybody.

‘Atlanta,’ the weirdest, blackest show on TV, finally gets a return date Television Critics diary: The second installment, called ‘Robbin’ Season,’ was inspired by Tiny Toons

PASADENA, California — The weirdest, blackest show on television is finally coming back for its second season March 1 with 11 new episodes.

And in true, wonderful Atlanta form, nothing is quite what it appears to be on the surface. At least, that’s what it sounds like. None of us here at the Television Critics Association press tour can be quite sure because we haven’t actually seen season two yet. We’ve just heard creator Donald Glover and the cast, along with director Hiro Murai, talk about it.

From what Glover would tell us at Friday’s panel discussion, it sounds as if Atlanta may end up being something like a limited series, but reusing the same characters each year. This season is called Atlanta: Robbin’ Season, referring to the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s when folks, regardless of whether they’ve got much money or not, will buy the nicest gifts they can afford. And then, if they live in the trap, they’ll get jacked. Hence the name.

“We didn’t want to come at the second season in terms of how do we beat last season, rather how do we make this another season of a show I want to watch,” Glover said.

Robbin’ Season is centered on themes of economic and social mobility and what happens when you’re suddenly able to leave the trap.

Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

“You can’t be famous and be a drug dealer,” explained Brian Tyree Henry, who plays rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles.

It’s a common theme in the lives of America’s most visible rich black celebrities (rappers and ballers), which is why it comes up in shows such as Survivor’s Remorse, which was also set in Atlanta, or tons of songs. (See: Jones, Mike, for what has to be the most concise summation of this change: Back then hoes didn’t want me/Now I’m hot they all on me.)

Donald Glover and his brother, Stephen, who is a writer on the show, said the second installation of Atlanta was inspired by Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation. Several writers tried to ask for hints about the plot, and the Glovers giggled as they steered the conversation back to Tiny Toons. The room at TCA is mostly (but not exclusively) white, and I think they got a kick out of screwing with white people knowing there would be no negative consequences for it. (I mean, really, how often do any of us get to do that?) Basically, they said, all the separate bits of the 1992 Warner Bros. video are great and can be consumed on their own but work even better as a whole.

The Glovers did talk honestly about what it’s like to suddenly discover that you’re successful and famous. So did Zazie Beetz, the actress who plays Van and is also starring as Domino in the Deadpool sequel. She can’t go to AfroPunk without getting mobbed, she said. Henry realized the same when he tried to go to Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta on a whim.

“Nope! Can’t do that s— anymore,” Henry said.

Hiro Murai, Stephen Glover, Paul Simms, Brian Tyree Henry and Zazie Beetz

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Donald Glover said the specificity of those discoveries opened his eyes to just how much black identity is tied to lack of resources. Paper Boi’s journey this season is influenced by the one in his and Beetz’s and Henry’s lives because they’re honestly trying to figure it out themselves. After all, Glover had a hit album in Awaken, My Love! and had to postpone work on Atlanta’s second season to play Lando Calrissian in the new Star Wars franchise. The Atlanta crew is using the show to work through their own stuff.

It’s not all serious, though. The other side of being famous is that people give you cool stuff for free, and Henry walked out in a notable pair of sneakers. His right shoe read “BREATHE” and the left read “WALK.” Mostly, Henry said, he was wearing them because they were free, but also because he has a habit of looking down when he walks instead of straight ahead. They’re a reminder to himself to be comfortable with who he is.

New year and new kidney a miracle for Atlanta tot Mother said hospital gambled with son’s life by postponing transplant surgery after dad’s arrest

For one Atlanta-area toddler and his family, “Happy New Year” is an understatement.

Two-year-old A.J. Burgess spent a quiet, but spirited, Christmas Day with his mother, Carmellia Burgess, and sisters Zi’Yonna, 7, Za’Karreah, 5, and Kimora, 1, at their home in Snellville, Georgia. In the midst of opening presents and enjoying a holiday dinner, they reflected on his Thanksgiving miracle turned Christmas gift of life.

“It [was] his first Christmas with a kidney,” said Burgess of her son, who maintained his wide smile and sunny disposition even amid the worst of his health challenges. “We’ve wanted that so long, there really isn’t anything else to ask for.”

“Baby A.J.” was born prematurely without working kidneys, kicking off a prolonged medical crisis that would include countless hospital stays and, eventually, nightly dialysis treatments to survive. His father, Anthony Dickerson, was found to be a perfect match and volunteered to donate his left kidney. But Emory University Hospital canceled the transplant surgery, which had been scheduled for Oct. 3, after Dickerson was arrested for allegedly violating his parole by possessing a firearm while fleeing police.

Family attorney Mawuli Davis said Emory Hospital officials had written jail officials asking that Dickerson be released on bond. But he said they stopped proceeding on the day of the surgery, “stating that they delayed the transplant to January 2018, because they would require proof from [Dickerson’s] parole officer that he had complied with parole for three months.”

Hospital officials later said in a statement that they needed to be sure Dickerson would adhere to the strict aftercare requirements for living donors. But Burgess said A.J. might not have made it that long.

“I don’t understand what his dad getting arrested had to do with giving my son the kidney he needed to live,” she said. “There was a kidney right there, and [the hospital was] giving us the runaround. I felt like they were just gambling with my son’s life.”

Members of the community, religious and civic leaders and some Emory University theology students responded to the hospital’s decision by picketing and hosting prayer vigils.

“Emory’s denial of Baby A.J.’s kidney transplant was not only cruel and inhumane, but it was unethical and [contrary] to the very reason the hospital exists: You do no harm and render aid to the sick. This baby’s life hung in the balance while this institution marched in place,” said Derrick Boazman, an Atlanta talk radio host and community activist who led protests and joined in meetings with hospital administrators on Baby A.J.’s behalf.

As the outcry for Baby A.J.’s surgery to move forward mounted, Davis, fellow family attorney Harold Spence and community activists met with hospital administrators, hoping to inspire a change of heart.

Their prayers were answered the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — but not how they expected. Burgess said Emory Healthcare called around 8:30 p.m. to say that a deceased organ donor was a match for little A.J. The family rushed to the hospital to complete blood work and to get him prepped for surgery.

“I was in shock about this unbelievable blessing,” recalled Burgess. “I was so excited I could not think straight. I was putting dirty clothes in my bag. I didn’t put any outfits together. My mom ended up packing his bag for me. It was just crazy.”

The successful nearly three-hour surgery took place on Thanksgiving Eve, and the next day the family celebrated the holiday, and his new kidney, together at the hospital.

Davis said A.J.’s victory was also a win for the community.

“To know that Baby A.J. has been given the gift of life gives us hope as a community as 2017 comes to an end,” said Davis. “So many people stood up for him and his family, so many prayers were answered. It renews your faith in humanity.”

Burgess said A.J. has been doing great overall and the kidney has been functioning well. He has been battling some bladder pain that they hope won’t have to be addressed with surgery. She said that hasn’t stopped A.J. from smiling and being the fun-loving kid he’s always been. He’s also been enjoying “potty training” for the first time.

“All of Atlanta can be grateful that A.J. was the successful recipient of a kidney transplant,” Emory University Hospital spokeswoman Holly Korschun said in a statement. “Over the past few weeks, many in our community have rallied to A.J.’s cause. His parents were passionate and courageous advocates, and they showed all of us the true meaning of unconditional love.”

Burgess said she’s all out of wishes for a while, especially since filmmaker Tyler Perry heard that the vehicle she’d used to transport her children had been totaled in a crash and he replaced it with a new Honda Pilot SUV. She’d picked it up from the dealership just hours before the kidney donor call came in.

A.J. and his family have a lot to look forward to in 2018, including a meet-and-greet to “thank the community” planned for next month, which will also double as a third birthday celebration for A.J.

Burgess said she’s still processing her son’s whirlwind experience. “Somebody died so my son could live,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe how I feel — just blessed.”