Rapper 21 Savage is helping Atlanta youth learn financial literacy ‘I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older’

ATLANTA — In the midst of his annual back-to-school drive on Sunday, rapper 21 Savage was in awe at the 2,500 kids who showed up for free haircuts/hairstyles, shoes, school uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.

The turnout wasn’t a shock, as he’s experienced that same energy for the past four years in which he has hosted “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids who live in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta.

“Doing this every year feels good,” 21 Savage told The Undefeated.

This year, in partnership with Amazon Music and Momma Flystyle, the outdoor event also offered free health screenings, mobile video game arcades, resources on mental health awareness and insurance, tips on eco-friendly sustainability efforts, local vendors, hot dogs, ice cream and fun park activities.

On Aug. 4, Rapper 21 Savage hosted his annual “Issa Back 2 School Drive” for the kids in the Glenwood Road neighborhood where he grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.

Prince Williams/Getty Images

But his giving spans far beyond his school drive.

21 Savage’s passion is in educating youth from underserved communities about the power of the dollar and the value of hard work. The throaty Grammy nominee’s nonprofit organization, Leading by Example Foundation, launched its Bank Account campaign, named after his double-platinum single, to teach young people about financial health and wellness.

“A lot of kids don’t know what to do when they get older,” 21 Savage said. “Financial literacy is an important tool they need to get through life successfully.”

A successful trap music artist known for his grim lyrics depicting poverty, street life and post-traumatic stress, 21 Savage said his efforts to promote youth and economic development are deeply rooted in his own lack of exposure and access to commerce as a kid.

“I didn’t really learn about that type of stuff until I got older and became an artist and entertainer,” he said.

The 26-year-old chart-topping performer, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, has a job program, and he offers monthly financial literacy webinars for youth.

He partnered with education-themed nonprofits JUMA Ventures and Get Schooled to offer summer employment to 60 Atlanta-area high school and college students. Their duties include light custodial and concessions jobs.

“We want to work with these young people particularly to give them opportunities,” said Robert Lewis Jr., JUMA’s Atlanta site manager. “You want to give these young folks help. They may have had issues with the law or go to a nontraditional school, and we want to give them a job. It gives them a sense of dignity when they’re working.”

“This is monumental,” said Courage Higdon, a 22-year-old Georgia Southern University student and program participant. “The program keeps us focused. It’s more than a job — it teaches us actual life skills that we can use in other places in our lives. They help us become more financially literate. As an African American community, we need to get better at it.”

The Savage Mode rapper presented JUMA with a $15,000 check to help 150 young people open their own bank accounts.

“21 Savage tries to tell us that he wants us to bring everybody around this neighborhood together to support black-owned businesses and black people in the community,” said participant Khaleege Watts, 20.

21 Savage is set to spend a day shadowing the student participants later this year.

The “No Heart” and “A Lot” rapper hosted his monthly webinars on Get Schooled’s website, where he concentrated on teaching money management habits, budgeting/saving, investments and distinguishing between credit and debit.

But his passion for giving to youth doesn’t stop there.

When he released his sophomore LP I Am > I Was in December 2018, he gifted $16,000 in Amazon gift cards to youngsters who attended the album’s companion interactive Motel 21 activation in Decatur, Georgia. He also visited several colleges and STEM schools in metro Atlanta, along with U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), to lead 21st Century Banking Workshops, cross-topic fireside chats featuring discussions on financial capabilities, career opportunities in the music business, gang violence and gun control.

“21 Savage is putting action behind his money,” Lewis said. “He actually tells people how to start their business and how to save money. He’s turned his life around and is a great spokesperson for young people. Young people were glad that JUMA partnered with 21 Savage because they said he speaks for them.”

21 Savage was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this year on Super Bowl Sunday for overstaying in the United States on a visa that expired in 2006. The MTV Video Music Award winner, who was born in the U.K. and came to the U.S. with his mother at age 7, was detained for nine days and is still awaiting a deportation hearing. The former troubled teen and high school dropout donated $25,000 to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that assisted with his naturalization issues, in June.

“A lot of people need help that’s in bad situations,” 21 Savage said. “They don’t have the funds to get legal representation, so I just made the donation. The organization does the work for free anyway, so I just thought it was necessary to contribute.”

Alona Stays, 21, received a $1,000 mini-grant from 21 Savage to invest in production equipment for her home studio. The YouTuber and aspiring filmmaker echoes her peers, calling the rapper’s philanthropic gifts and outreach efforts “amazing.”

“Not a lot of artists like him are doing something,” Stays said. “It’s a blessing for him to do this for us, and I’m very grateful. This plays a big role in anybody’s life. People like 21 Savage [are] trying to make things better. It’s not all about guns and drugs; it’s about the community and these kids.”

Cardinals QB Kyler Murray might just be Nike’s next NFL superstar athlete Partnership with Nike offers endless marketing possibilities for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft

NEW YORK — Kyler Murray beat one of the best marketing departments in the world to the punch.

Last November, in the thick of his Heisman Trophy-winning season at the University of Oklahoma, the 21-year-old phenom quarterback posted a photo on his social media accounts so recognizable that it didn’t need a caption. Murray re-created Bo Jackson’s iconic 1989 Nike ad down to every detail — the marbled backdrop, flexed muscles, shoulder pads and a wooden baseball bat propped up on strong shoulders.

In a creative way, Murray illustrated the undeniable connection between him and Jackson, two generational dual-sport athletes. Jackson is the only player in history to be named an All-Star in football and baseball, having played in both the NFL and Major League Baseball from 1986 to 1994 (three years before Murray was born). Yet, unlike Jackson, who became the face of Nike’s cross-training division in the late 1980s surrounding the launch of the brand’s timeless “Just Do It” campaign, Murray decided to focus on one sport. “The young man from Oklahoma,” Jackson said in January, “should just go with his heart.”

He ultimately chose football despite being selected as an outfielder by the Oakland Athletics with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2018 MLB draft. Murray agreed to a contract with the club that included a reported $4.66 million signing bonus and permission to play football at Oklahoma for one more year. During the 2018 college football season, he started at quarterback in all 14 games for the Sooners, hoisted the Heisman after throwing for 4,361 yards and 42 touchdowns and leading the team to the College Football Playoff. A month after declaring for the NFL draft, Murray took to Twitter to announce that he’d be “fully committing” his life and time to being a pro quarterback.

On the eve of the draft, before the Arizona Cardinals selected Murray with the top pick, Nike made it official, signing the dual-threat quarterback from Bedford, Texas, along with 26 players (and counting) as part of the brand’s 2019 class of NFL rookies. At Oklahoma, Murray wore Nike on both the baseball diamond and gridiron, before the school’s football program switched to Jordan Brand uniforms last year. In celebration of the new partnership, Murray rocked a Great Gatsby-themed 1-of-1 pair of Air Jordan 1 lows onstage at the draft, featuring “Nike K1″ on the tongues of each shoe.

“We admire the energy and commitment that Kyler Murray brings to the game on and off the field, and we’re excited to welcome him and the entire rookie class to the Nike family,” a brand spokesperson told The Undefeated. “We feel strongly that their dedication to the game will continue to inspire the next generation of athletes.”

Roughly 40 percent of the players in the NFL are endorsed by the multibillion-dollar sportswear company. And now Nike might just have its next superstar athlete in Murray. Within several hours after the announcement that he’d been signed, Murray appeared in his first Nike commercial — a one-minute spot depicting his journey from playing three sports as a kid to reaching the NFL.

“I think he’ll understand once he gets an opportunity to be on Nike’s campus, all the things that will be afforded to him,” free agent and five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh told The Undefeated at Nike’s New York headquarters ahead of the draft. “The most important thing I would tell him is, ‘Just go out there and focus on your task at hand with being a professional, and everything else will fall in line for you.’ ”

Suh’s evaluation of the young, highly touted quarterback? “He’s definitely elusive and very athletic,” Suh said. “I haven’t had a chance to truly watch him play. Maybe this year I’ll have an opportunity to hit him.”

Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay, another Nike athlete, has watched Murray quite a bit. And the two-time Pro Bowler and 2017 first-team All-Pro selection is already impressed.

“I think he’s gonna be a killer in this league,” Slay told The Undefeated. “I can just see his competitiveness — how he operates, how he carries himself … He’s a baseball guy, so you know he got a strong arm. And the thing about baseball players is they got great vision. To see that little ball, hit that little ball and catch that little ball at a fast pace. How this game is … I think it’s made for him.”

“Honestly, I want to be the best that ever played the game.” — Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray

The 5-foot-10, 207-pound Murray reminds Slay of two veteran NFL quarterbacks. “He’s a more athletic Drew Brees,” Slay said, “and you can see him as the next Russell Wilson.”

Wilson — who just became the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing a four-year, $140 million contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks — is also endorsed by Nike. He and Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are the only Nike athletes in the NFL to have their own cleats and signature lifestyle shoes. In 2017, after Beckham Jr. signed the richest NFL shoe deal in history, Nike delivered the Special Field Air Force-1 Mid “OBJ.” He also recently teased another signature sneaker that’s on the way. And on the red carpet at the 2018 ESPYS, the Seahawks star debuted his Nike Dangeruss Wilson 1. Maybe Murray will eventually join Beckham and Wilson and get the Nike signature treatment.

“He’s gonna have his own shoe,” Slay said, “sooner or later.”

Until then, the ads will keep coming — only now he has a brand behind him to do them. The marketing possibilities surrounding Murray already seem fruitful, especially if he lives up to the dream he shared in his debut Nike commercial.

“Honestly,” Murray said. “I want to be the best that ever played the game.”

Janelle Monáe wants you to be happy. And then she wants you to fight. Her new album, ‘Dirty Computer,’ is for women angry that ‘our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power’

Janelle Monáe wants you to fight oppression. And she wants you to do it as part of a gleeful, unapologetic army of self-loving black women.

Hence the synth-heavy, dance-pop vibe of her third studio album, Dirty Computer, which drops today. A 44-minute narrative film that accompanies the album aired Thursday night on BET and MTV. It’s set during a totalitarian regime far enough into the future that everyone drives hover cars and people are simply known as “computers.” When people are deemed “dirty,” when they don’t fit society’s vision for what they should be, their minds are reprogrammed and erased of all the memories that have made them aberrant. The videos Monáe published in the run-up to the film release (Dirty Computer, Pynk, Make Me Feel, Django Jane and I Like That) are all memories this clean regime seeks to delete.

Dirty Computer, and especially “Pynk,” will be remembered as a stunning coming-out for Monáe, who identifies as pansexual. So much popular art that touches on the lives of queer black women is filled with hardship, even when the endings are happy. The words, imagery and circumstances of works like The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, Rent and even Pariah feature women whose lives are demonstrably more difficult because of their queerness.

There’s anxiety in Dirty Computer — after all, their supposed unfitness for society is why the computers are being summoned for memory deletion — but misery doesn’t dominate the narrative. The dirty computers of the world are going to take it over. And when they do, everyone’s gonna be happy about it.

“It was inspired by black girl magic and wanting us to have a piece of work we can look to when we are frustrated, when we are angry, when we are feeling our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power and to the abusers of power,” Monáe said during an interview this week at the New York office of Atlantic Records, where she was curled up on a sofa in a floor-length fuchsia skirt and fitted black sequin jacket. “It was just important for us to come together, as unique beings, and for the world to see us celebrating ourselves individually and collectively.”

Dirty Computer is an unambiguous response to the election of Donald Trump, powered by fury, to be sure. (You try to grab my p—y, this p—y grab you back, she warns on “I Got The Juice.”) But mostly, the album is joyful, reveling in the pleasures of erotic and romantic vulnerability. And it is loudly, happily, delightfully queer.

Monáe has said repeatedly that her choice to wear a “uniform” of black-and-white clothing, usually tuxedos, for her public appearances was a way to honor her working-class parents, who both wore uniforms in their jobs. But Monáe’s restricted wardrobe was also a shield for her life. She had a tendency to, as she says, “self-edit.”

Well, that Janelle Monáe is gone. Dirty Computer is awash in color, and the most important one in her new palette is pink, as evidenced in the video for “Pynk.” That would be the video featuring Monáe dancing in what can only be described as labia pants, a celebration of all things black and sapphic, starring Monáe’s repeat leading lady, actress Tessa Thompson.

“I love that you called them labia pants,” Monáe said. “Some people just say vagina pants, which is fine. Some people call it the flower, which is all cool. I just thought it would be an interesting way to celebrate women. Not all women have labias or vaginas, so you have some women who don’t have them on. I tried to represent as many as I possibly could, but it is so impossible to represent all of us.”


Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, but is now based in Atlanta. That’s where she was discovered by Big Boi and where she’s set up her Wondaland record label. She’s part of a soul sisterhood of strange Southern women that includes Solange, who is from Houston, and Erykah Badu, who is, at least by the limits of our earthly understanding, from Dallas. Their hobohemia is the place to be these days. Both Solange and Badu collaborated with Monáe on her last album, The Electric Lady. The director Alan Ferguson, who is married to Solange, directed several videos for Dirty Computer, including “Make Me Feel,” with its Prince-composed synth riff and clear allusions to “Kiss.” And the more laid-back tracks on Monáe’s foray into the ’80s share a vibe with Solange’s 2012 EP True.

But Monáe’s work also calls to mind another daughter of Houston: Beyoncé. Both women boast exacting tastes when it comes to aesthetics and a dedication to labor that’s evident in their work. But Monáe also had to find a way to let her true self shine through the alter ego and alternate, futuristic universe she’d created. Her perfectionist tendencies were a creative obstruction.

“It’s something that is really getting in the way of me finishing not this project, but all my projects,” she said. “It isn’t a good way of living and being a perfectionist. It’s not fun. It’s not cool to me, actually. I still pay very close attention to detail, but when I stop enjoying the experience and when it starts getting in the way of me being in the present moment and it starts to mentally wear me down, I have got to stop.”

“It was inspired by black girl magic and wanting us to have a piece of work we can look to when we are frustrated, when we are angry, when we are feeling our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power.”

She sounded remarkably similar to Beyoncé speaking about her own perfectionist tendencies in Life Is But a Dream, the singer’s 2013 HBO documentary. The similarities don’t stop there. Both women have dedicated their art to speaking explicitly about racial injustice and celebrating people who find themselves othered in some way.

“When you look on TV, you see the leader of the free world and that whole regime not giving a f— about your family and those who look like you,” Monáe said after a Dirty Computer screening this week. “The color of your skin can just get you escorted out of a Starbucks for having a business meeting. You can be in your own backyard and a police officer mistakes your phone for a gun, and you’re murdered.”

Some may find an obvious point of comparison between Lemonade and Dirty Computer, but a more apt one would be to Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album. It was her first visual narrative project and, like Dirty Computer, Beyoncé’s self-titled album was an announcement of a sexual awakening. It was a celebration that comes with being a woman who’s realized that the rules governing women’s bodies and behavior are a load of hogwash. Dirty Computer, with its visions of dancing labias and celebration of bisexual, polyamorous relationships, does the same.

Beyoncé has created a path for modern black women to be their full public selves without apology, something Monáe acknowledged in an Instagram post about Beychella. “My QUEEN for life,” she wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of Beyoncé in her Nefertiti cape. “Always. And forever. You continuously make me feel so proud to be a Black woman & artist. Last night was EXCEPTIONAL. We must protect you at all costs!”

The two albums also mark both women’s embrace of uttering the F-word aloud. They say it with a naughty deliberateness, delighting in the shock that comes from hearing such a dirty word uttered by women eager to slough off projections of pretty, proper respectability.

“I say ‘f—’ in the album a lot,” Monáe acknowledged. “I know. It’s because I give a f—. I give several f—s about our future.”


With her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (the Chase), Monáe created an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android who was part of a futuristic society, and through three albums led listeners through the world she’d created. Monáe knows how to craft an upbeat hit that makes you want to get off your feet, like “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic.” But the personal nature of Dirty Computer is more evident than in her previous three albums. It begins with an acknowledgment that the country is not living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, something that really came into focus for Monáe after the 2016 presidential election.

But the silver lining is that Monáe decided to stop being polite and start getting real. On “Crazy, Classic, Life” she sings:

I am not America’s nightmare.

I am the American dream.

Just let me live my life.

We don’t need another ruler.

We don’t need another fool.

Monáe debuted Dirty Computer at a screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this week, which was followed by a Q&A with internet celebrity Franchesca Ramsey, and she addressed the difference.

“I feel like for a while I was just writing songs so that they can be helpful to other people, and now I feel like I need them more than ever myself,” she said. “I’m learning to really walk in it and really embrace taking my beauty, even if it makes others uncomfortable — not just going slowly but being like, you gotta do that. You have to walk it. Walk it like I talk it.

On “Django Jane,” Monáe revels, suited up as Jane Bond, in the sort of egocentric posturing we commonly associate with male rappers. She delivers a flow that suggests time spent with her Wondaland label artist Jidenna while giving listeners a moment that recalls the grimy boastfulness of “Bow Down/I Been On.”

Dirty Computer is packed with visual, sonic and thematic influences — including Prince, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Blondie, Black Mirror, Thelma and Louise, Oscar Wilde, even the video for Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” — woven within its joyful call to arms. She’s still Janelle Monáe, just more than she’s ever been before. And her insistence on her American-ness, her continued homages to her working-class roots, her undeniable attraction to killer guitar riffs, make her a Bruce Springsteen for the majority-minority America of the future.

Samira Wiley misses ‘Orange Is the New Black‘ and loves ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ — but also wants to have fun The Maryland native has a penchant for characters who are right on time

Growing up in Samira Wiley’s home, you could tell which day of the week it was by which type of shows were on television.

If it was Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday — her days — the vibe was MTV, VH1 or BET. On Mondays and Fridays, when her younger brother Joshua ruled the remote control, it was all about ESPN. Home was Prince George’s County, Maryland (she grew up in Fort Washington), and it was there that her love of performance and all things entertainment, with a pinch of athleticism, was fostered. When she and Joshua weren’t duking it out over the television, they were changing in and out of sports uniforms, hitting their respective playing fields and tearing it up in the name of competitive sports.

Wiley ran track — cross country. And she played soccer. And basketball. And for just one day, she recalls, her index finger against the side of her face, she played lacrosse. “Me and my brother,” she said, laughing, “we used to play right forward and left forward for the soccer team we were on. … Those were the glory days of my athletic prowess.”

Samira Wiley, a Maryland native, has starred in two TV series that are part of the cultural zeitgeist: Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

André Chung for The Undefeated

She’s laughing because her days as a would-be superstar athlete are all behind her — unless someone comes a-calling with a sports role that needs to be brought to life. By now, everyone knows that she spent 50 episodes starring as the beloved Poussey on Netflix’s addictive and groundbreaking Orange Is the New Black. Her character’s demise struck a chord.

“For so long, I just wanted to be an actor,” said Wiley, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. It was still like a dream. I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me. We talk about getting typecast in my industry, and I didn’t want that to happen after Poussey.”

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way.”

The character was killed by a prison guard, which sparked a protest at the fictional female detention facility. The fallout around the killing of Poussey came at a time when national headlines felt eerily familiar and #BlackLivesMatter had perhaps reached peak battle cry. “She was someone I fell in love with,” said Wiley, “and lot of people offered me roles on other things [that] felt [like] Poussey.” Poussey was a young gay woman who made some mistakes and landed in a federal prison. Post-Poussey, the Juilliard-trained Wiley wanted to flex her acting muscles in a way than the world had yet to see.

Wiley says landing her role as Poussey on Orange Is the New Black was like a dream. “When I first got my job on Orange, I was bartending. … I entered the public consciousness in this show. It … defined me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

And now she’s entering season two of Hulu’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, a series that many critics say mirrors the Trump era. The show is set in a not-so-far-off future, after the U.S. government has been overthrown by a totalitarian, Christian theonomy. Pure coincidence, considering that the series is based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel and the series was filming before the 2016 presidential election. The women in Atwood’s fictional world are subjected to misogyny in a patriarchal society, but over the first season viewers watched them fight for individualism and independence. This all seems very in line with the current political climate and the brave outpouring of women fighting against sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo era.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to do it,” said Wiley. “Because specifically … of my own journey with my queerness, and that also being a part of the typecast, I didn’t want to keep playing gay characters. I wanted people to see me as other things.” Last year Wiley married Lauren Morelli, whom she met while working on Orange. Morelli is a writer on the show. “I was unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood,” said Wiley, “but my wife wasn’t. [Atwood] is one of her favorite authors. [Lauren] was like, ‘If you’re gonna be gay for somebody, you need to be gay for this. I know you’re out here trying to do your thing and be all the colors of the rainbow, but if you’re gonna do it, this is the one.’ ”

Atwood’s world was white. The series creator, Bruce Miller, wanted to diversify near-future New England. “The decision to have people of color in this world stems … from him saying, ‘I don’t want to make a f—ing TV show with a bunch of white people.’ That’s literally where it stems from … like, ‘I don’t want to be a creator in this [kind of] world right now, even if this is the book.’ ” She says that was nice to hear.

“It’s just sort of a happy accident that the two shows I’ve been on have permeated our culture in this way,” said Wiley. “They’re relevant. They’re saying something that society needs to hear. I think [my future] is about … keeping that voice that’s relevant but also having a fun career.

“I’m very blessed, and I’m happy to be here. … I got into acting because I have a wonderful sense of play. … Sometimes I want to make sure that I remember for myself that, yeah, you also want to play and go put on a wig and be a character that you haven’t been before.”

And maybe one day she’ll wear a sports uniform again.

From Ken Griffey Jr. to the Braves’ Ronald Acuña — is Major League Baseball still not feeling hats to the back? The long battle cry of the backward ballcap

The baseball cap seems innocuous enough. A brimmed hat emblazoned with a team logo for players to wear while on the field for protection from the sun. Simple. But over the past couple of decades, the baseball cap has become a lightning rod. Depending on the direction it is turned, or who wears it, the cap is a stand-in for the sport’s racially contentious past … and present. From legends such as Ken Griffey Jr. to newcomers such as Ronald Acuña, the baseball cap has been as divisive as a Subway Series.

When is a hat not a hat?


Ronald Acuña (center) of the Atlanta Braves in action during the spring training game between the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays at Champion Stadium on March 13 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

B51/Mark Brown/Getty Images

Acuña walked into an Atlanta Braves training camp interview on Feb. 15 and left having been asked to make a sartorial change.

The Venezuelan outfielder signed with the Braves in 2014 and honed his skills with various minor league teams, getting ready for the big leagues. He’s dominated, garnering comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. for his play, and his swagger. The buzz around him, and superior performance has led him to be named the top baseball prospect entering the 2018 season and has allowed him the leverage to turn down the Braves’ $30 million offer in the offseason. The Braves and the city of Atlanta are head over heels for Acuña and the possibility of what he can bring to the franchise when he gets called up from the Gwinnett Stripers minor league squad at some point this season.

But first, there was that training camp interview.

Braves manager Brian Snitker called Acuña in to address his cap. Acuña had been wearing his hat tilted to the side, and a little bit off of his head because his thick locs were making it impossible for the cap to fit perfectly. The style balked at tradition.

Tradition. Major League baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, Latin American athletes, and has launched a diversity pipeline initiative to create more executive positions for people of color, but Major League Baseball and its fans seemingly long for the years of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Ty Cobb. When ESPN ranked the top 100 MLB players of all time in 2015, six of the top 10 players had played before integration. CBS’s 2016 list of its top 10 players also features six players from a segregated league. So when baseball fans talk about traditions or years past, they are talking about a time that excluded black athletes. And that’s not the only hard pill to swallow.

They only saw a black man with his hat backward and all of the negative connotations that come with it — disrespect, nonchalance. Code words.

Other baseball traditions and taboos are alienating to black and Latino fans. Players are supposed to respectfully trot around the diamond after home runs, sans backflips or excessive celebrations. The same self-expression in the form of chest-pounding, trash talk and playing to the crowd that has made the NBA hip — and black — isn’t allowed in baseball. Celebratory dances are frowned upon, part of a culture of unwritten rules with a simple message: Fall in line.

For example, in 2013, Yasiel Puig was pulled to the side by opposing Mets players for rubbing their noses in his home run trot. His offense? Taking 32 seconds to round the bases. All of this is code for following traditions set in stone before black and white and Latino athletes played in the same pro league(s), and when fans were segregated in the stands. And part of those baseball customs is making sure players wear their hats straight.

“It’s the look,” Snitker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 2. “You do respect the game and the organization and the team on the front of it [the hat]. I tell these guys, we don’t do things like everybody else. There’s a lot of Hall of Famers who spent a lot of time in this organization. We wear batting practice jerseys, and people don’t put glasses on over the ‘A,’ things like that, out of respect for the Hall of Famers that put a lot into this organization, and all those flags that are hanging.”

With all due respect, Snitker’s point is not only silly but it’s another reminder that baseball is about its archaic traditions —the Braves organization was founded in 1871, for reference — more than its players, and what those players represent. Acuña, by all indication, is a transformative talent who can turn the Braves’ future around — the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2013 and hasn’t won a postseason series since 2001. The organization is concerned about how he wears his hat, even as plenty of white Braves players have worn their hats backward, to the side and every other way besides straight.


The Acuña hat issue isn’t a new thing. It’s been around, most famously since the ’90s, when the aforementioned Ken Griffey Jr. was a young, swaggy outfielder who seemed poised to take over baseball. But his appearance — backward hats and untucked jerseys — flouted baseball tradition, and one of the biggest defenders of old customs was then-Yankees and current Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter.

“I shouldn’t say this publicly,” Showalter told the New York Times Magazine in 1994. “But a guy like Ken Griffey Jr., the game’s boring to him. He comes on the field, and his hat’s on backward, and his shirttail’s hanging out.” Showalter added Barry Bonds to his list of transgressors for having his shirttail untucked at the All-Star game. “To me, that’s a lack of respect for the game.” Respect. Tradition. Coded language.

What people who share Showalter’s views didn’t understand or don’t want to understand is that Griffey, who only actually wore his hat backward for batting practice, wore his hats backward as a tribute to his father, Ken Griffey Sr. When Griffey Jr. wore his dad’s hats, they were too big, so his turned them backward so they’d fit. Then he just kept doing it, into his pro career. There isn’t a bigger sign of respect for tradition than honoring a father who also used to play in the very same MLB that wanted to maintain said customs. But the controversy wasn’t about why Griffey wore his hat backward. Nobody seemed to care. They only saw a black man with his hat backward and all of the negative connotations that come with it — disrespect, nonchalance. Code words.

Griffey wasn’t afraid to hit back at his detractors. “Why should I care about a person from an opposing team?” Griffey said to the Seattle Times a week after Showalter’s quotes surfaced. “I don’t take the game seriously? Why, I do believe [Showalter] was coaching third for the All-Star team when I won the [1992] MVP.”

The criticism obviously stuck with Griffey, so he poked at the MLB one last time. When he received his Hall of Fame hat in 2016 during his acceptance speech, the first thing he did was turn it backward. One more reminder that he did it his way.

So what does this all mean for baseball as a whole? It’s about cultural irrelevance. Baseball’s reliance on homogenized traditions is its own Trojan horse, infiltrating the sport’s psyche and destroying it from the inside. Holding on to archaic practices that erase unique expressions uphold whiteness but close the sport off to audiences from diverse backgrounds. And for black fans, it’s demoralizing to see people who look like us, and express themselves like we do get constantly reprimanded for representing our cultural tics on a national stage. It’s a major reason black audiences are flocking to the NBA and the MLB has as few black players as ever.

Here’s a legendary story about Satchel Paige. During a semi-pro game, before his Negro League debut, Paige’s team was up 1-0 in the ninth inning. His outfielders made three straight errors to load the bases. Paige, fed up with his team and determined to show off his skill, walked around the bases and outfield, demanding that his teammates sit down in the infield. Then the legendary pitcher struck out the next three batters to end the game.

It’s a story that has become part of baseball lore for its brashness, showmanship and drama. And it’s the same type of story that would get someone like Paige punished for his bravado if it happened in 2018. However, that story is part of baseball tradition. It’s a part of black tradition. And baseball needs to embrace these traditions — alternative hat placements and all — or else become a cultural relic instead of regaining its place as America’s pastime.

 

Trailblazer Ora Mae Washington should be in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Her feats were ignored by white media but chronicled in the black press

UPDATE—Ora Mae Washington is a part of the newest Basketball Hall of Fame class.

Every year around this time, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announces who it will enshrine in September from among hundreds of eligible players, coaches, referees and contributors.

Since 2007, I’ve been publishing a list of African-American pioneers from the mostly forgotten Black Fives Era of basketball who, in my opinion, are its most deserving candidates for enshrinement in the Hall.

The Black Fives Era lasted from 1904 — when basketball was first introduced to African-Americans on a large-scale, organized basis — to the racial integration of the NBA in 1950. During this period, dozens of all-black teams emerged, flourished and excelled.

One individual, Ora Mae Washington, has been on my list since the first one in 2007. Few realize that this sports pioneer, born in Virginia on Jan. 23, 1898, and raised in the Germantown section of North Philadelphia, was perhaps the greatest female athlete of all time, regardless of race.

During the 1930s and ’40s, she won 11 straight Colored Women’s Basketball World Championship titles — 12 total. Washington also won nine straight women’s singles titles between 1929 and 1937 with the American Tennis Association, an all-black governing body formed to counter the racially exclusive United States Lawn Tennis Association (today’s USTA). She also won 12 straight ATA doubles championships, starting in 1925.

Washington is a forgotten trailblazer not only because the history of the Black Fives Era was long overlooked but also because she was at her peak during a time when female participation in rigorous athletic competition was frowned upon. Why? There were the standard concerns about exploitation and the risk of exhaustion for the daintier sex. Bowling, swimming, tennis and golf, were OK, but basketball? Not so much. What’s more, these archaic views were shared and promoted by some of America’s leading women at the time.

As a result, starting in the 1920s, sports educators and authorities began a systematic effort to curtail female hoops. In 1923, the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation launched a campaign against women’s competition in high schools and colleges as well as in the Olympic Games, under the leadership of Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover, then the U.S. secretary of commerce. Lou Henry Hoover was also the national president of the Girl Scouts of America.

These efforts were devastatingly effective. By 1930, only about 10 percent of U.S. colleges had women’s varsity basketball teams, down from nearly a quarter just a decade earlier. Women’s basketball was nipped in the bud just as interest and participation were beginning to blossom, and right when the pipeline for its growth was being established.

The insidious hidden effect of these efforts was to solidify a warped perception of the roles that men and women were “supposed” to play in American society as a whole.

Nevertheless, Washington walked into this context without blinking an eye.

As a youngster, she was a tennis prodigy and had already become famous through that sport by the time basketball caught her attention. In 1930, she joined all-black Germantown Hornets, a squad connected to the country’s first Colored Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association, established in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1918. She promptly led the team to a 22-1 record and the Colored Women’s National Championship title for 1930-31.

In late 1931, the Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s oldest black newspaper, organized a new African-American female team known as the Tribune Girls. Washington left the Germantown squad to join the Tribunes before the start of the next season, setting the “Newsgirls” up to dominate African-American women’s basketball for the next decade. Their trademark was “snappy playing and sharp shooting.” Soon, Washington was being hailed as “the best Colored player in the world” and became the first black female sports superstar.

African-American women’s basketball teams were commonly known by their once politically correct, now bewildering, nicknames, such as Sepia Amazons of the maple court, Chocolate Coeds, dusky hardwood lassies, bronze hoopettes, brown femme casaba squads and, my favorite, African floor queens.

But despite the growing list of independent female all-black basketball squads, the Tribune Girls had no real rivals, so they looked to historically black colleges and universities for competition.

During the Great Depression, while most black colleges were discontinuing their women’s basketball programs in favor of “refinement and respectability,” Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, did the opposite. The school enthusiastically focused on basketball, recruiting top players nationwide to become the best African-American women’s collegiate team, and perhaps the best overall black female squad, in the country by the mid-1930s. Between 1933 and 1937, the Bennett Girls lost only one college game.

Naturally, folks had to know which of the two teams was better, so a showdown was scheduled in 1934: a weeklong, three-game series in Greensboro to decide the national black women’s basketball championship.

For their first game, the Tribune Girls showed up in new red-and-white uniforms with script “Tribune” lettering sewn onto sleeveless tops and matching socks. At halftime, they changed into fresh purple-and-gold outfits. Their hot new looks set the tone. Behind shooting that was described as “almost supernatural,” the Tribunes swept the series. “They just had it all together,” Bennett player Ruth Glover explained in a modern-day interview. “They could dribble and keep the ball and make fast moves in to the basket which you couldn’t stop.”

Washington’s ferocious intensity made her unstoppable. “I didn’t believe in long warm-ups,” she once told a reporter. “I’d rather play from scratch and warm up as I went along.” Despite her size, Washington was the core of the lineup. “The team was built up around her,” said Glover. “She wasn’t a huge person, or very tall,” the Bennett player recalled. “But she was fast.”

The Tribunes-Bennett series of 1934 was a turning point for women’s sports, as it ushered in a renewed interest in female intercollegiate athletic programs overall, beyond the African-American community and beyond basketball. During the 1937-38 season, the team reportedly traveled more than 5,000 miles to fill their schedule, which included a tour of Southern states.

Together with her tennis accolades, Washington’s presence on the sports stage shattered many previously existing notions about race and gender.

She almost single-handedly filled the two-decade void between the 1920s, when Lou Henry Hoover locked down female athletes, and the 1950s, when African-American tennis star Althea Gibson burst onto the national sports scene.

I mention Gibson, specifically, because in 1950 she became the first black player to compete in any United States Lawn Tennis Association event. A year later, she was the first African-American athlete invited to compete at Wimbledon.

Gibson won the French Open in 1956 and then won back-to-back titles at the US Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 before retiring from official competition. The Associated Press named her its Female Athlete of the Year for both of those seasons, signaling to the world that African-American women in sports could no longer be denied.

Where did Gibson grow up as a young tennis prodigy? Who was her tennis mentor? You guessed it — in Philadelphia under the watchful and protective wing of Washington. Washington not only trained her but also was her teammate in ATA doubles competitions during the late 1940s.

Gibson was followed by new women’s sports icons such as Wilma Rudolph and then, of course, many other female athletes, all who could trace their lineage back to Washington’s original superstardom. It would take another generation of achievement and breakthroughs before the advent of Title IX in 1972 allowed collegiate athletic scholarships for women.

Today, record numbers of female Olympians represent the United States; 292 competed in the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, actually outnumbering men for the second Olympiad in a row, and 109 competed this year at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Their athletic lineage can be traced back to Washington’s original pioneering efforts.

Unfortunately, Washington’s fame as an athlete did not last and she was mostly forgotten. After retiring from basketball and tennis in the late 1940s, there were few career options open to African-American women, so she made a living as a housekeeper. Sadly, her death in 1971 went virtually unnoticed.

However, in 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and in 2004 a historical marker commemorating Washington’s legacy was dedicated outside the original Germantown Colored YWCA building where she began her sports career.

Washington’s pioneering contributions to sports went far beyond basketball. Based on her hardwood achievements alone, she deserves enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Elliot Perry on leaving basketball, collecting art and living in Memphis His grandfather participated in the famous sanitation workers’ strike in 1968

Memphis, Tennessee, native and 6-foot point guard Elliot Perry was Memphis State University basketball coach Larry Finch’s first recruit. He started every game during his collegiate career (1987-91), leading the program to two NCAA tournament appearances and a second-round berth in 1987.

That was more than three decades ago.

Now, Perry is director of player support for the Memphis Grizzlies, a title he’s held with the team since 2014. His responsibilities include helping players prepare for life outside of basketball — an area in which he’s found much success. He also advises the team on community-based efforts in Memphis.

Perry played for seven teams over his 10-year NBA career. Known as “Socks” because of the high footwear he wore during his collegiate and NBA careers, he retired from the NBA in 2002, closing his career out with his hometown Memphis Grizzlies on a 10-day contract. He later worked a year with the National Basketball Players Association.

“I really loved that job,” Perry said. “I was always a player rep on each team that I was on, so it was just a natural transition when I retired to go work with the NBA players association. Then I got recruited back to Memphis.”

Perry is part of the minority ownership group for the Grizzlies, along with singer Justin Timberlake, Ashley Manning (wife of Peyton Manning), Penny Hardaway and others.

“I’ve been working here about 11 years now, going on 12 years, and loved every minute of it,” he said. “Also, doing the radio with the Grizzlies.”

Perry holds a degree in marketing. He was selected in the second round (37th overall) of the 1991 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, he founded the annual SOCKS Banquet (Supporting Our Community and Kids) to provide financial support to organizations committed to helping Memphis-area youth and also serves as a board member of Teach for America.

An avid art collector, Perry focuses on modern and contemporary works by African-American artists and artists of African descent.

Perry spoke with The Undefeated about his grandfather, who was part of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, art, philanthropy and basketball.


Do you miss the hardwood?

Yes, you always miss it. Now I realize I can’t get out there and play, but you always miss it, and you miss it for a few reasons, I think. Obviously, being in the locker room and being a part of something bigger than yourself, but more importantly it’s the relationships that you build and being able to compete at a high level. Probably, every young kid in the country that’s playing basketball aspires to be in the NBA, and for me I was fortunate enough that by God’s grace and mercy, and the little bit of talent I had and the work ethic I had, I brought to my job every day, I was able to play 10 years.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s been the hardest part of transitioning from the court into the professional space?

I think the hardest part, probably for any player, is they’ve been playing basketball and being on a schedule and having an agenda and knowing exactly what to do for the majority of their life, really, and so the hard part of transitioning is a lot of players just don’t have the skill set. Whether it’s doing whatever they need to do in an office setting or if you’re going to do radio, if you’re going to do TV. I think the NBA players association has done a really good job of trying to help guys transition now. That wasn’t what was happening when I was playing.

I think one of the things that players miss out on is the ability to network while they have opportunities and doors open for them. While I was playing, I was always happy to go meet with people, to speak with kids, to speak with other people.

How did you and your wife get into art collecting?

Back in the summer of ’96, Charles Barkley took a group of us over to Japan and we played three exhibition games. And the who’s who, from Gary Payton to Clyde Drexler to Alonzo Mourning, we had a really, really good crew of guys. Anyway, I was on a plane with Darrell Walker, who was a former NBA player who was coaching at the time in Washington. He started talking to me about art … about how he has started to collect art over the past eight to 10 years, and who got him started was Bernard King. And the more we talked, the more I listened, and just started reading a little bit.

When the season started that year, Darrell would always call and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re in New York, go by this gallery or this museum.’ He would always send me books. The more I read, the more interested I got in artists, artists’ lives, their trajectory, the work that they were making, the conversations they were having around their work and why they were making work. I decided, maybe the year after that, to purchase my first piece. Then it just snowballed. I really got addicted to it. For me, the mission, and for my wife and I, this collection that we’ve been able to amass is a lot of just preservation of history and culture too.

Do you remember your first purchase?

A print by an artist named Paul Goodnight. The title of it was Tennessee T Taster.

Tennessee T Taster by artist Paul Goodnight.

www.thecollectionshop.com

Do you still have it?

Oh, yeah, absolutely still have it. No doubt about it.

Do you sell a lot of the art you collect?

No, we’re not in it for just pure money reasons. Out of the years that I’ve been collecting, that’s over 20 years or so, I’ve probably sold five pieces out of our collection. This has been a kind of labor of love and passion, and we started collecting a lot of old-school artists when we initially started doing it, but in 2004 we did a 180 and really just started collecting young, living, contemporary artists. That’s really been a much better journey in terms of being able to communicate with artists, being able to talk to artists about our mission and why we collect work, and then we’ve been able to visit their studios and hear their work and hear why they make their work.

What made you decide to return to Memphis?

It’s probably like anything else, you always can come home, but I just think that Memphis is an authentic place, this community for me personally. I was born to a 15-year-old mom; my father died a month after I was born. My family has always rallied around me. My mentor, Michael Toney, rallied around me and taught me so much, exposed me to so much at an early age and also challenged me. My high school coach poured a lot into me, and then when I signed with Memphis State at the time, Coach Finch poured a tremendous amount of his time into me and really started to help me shape why I was a leader and how I could be more of a leader in my community.

I feel obligated to give back to my community with the most precious gift that God has given me, and that’s my time.

Tell me about your grandfather’s relationship with the sanitation workers strike in 1968?

Most people know Ernest Withers’ photograph, when all of the men are holding the ‘I Am A Man’ sign and there’s a gentleman that’s walking right in the front of the camera, and he doesn’t have a sign yet, but he looks directly into the camera and the guy that’s looking into the camera is my grandfather. He worked for the city of Memphis at the sewage and drainage department. He wasn’t a sanitation worker, but he worked for the city; they wore the same uniforms.

I remember after Dr. King got killed when I was probably about 6 years old. In honor of Dr. King’s death, my grandfather used to march every year and I used to march with him as a kid. He had a fifth-grade or sixth-grade education. A lot of these injustices that we were fighting for were for his kids, and for his grandkids to be able to sit in a quality seat, around education, to be able to get equal pay, to be able to use whatever water fountain, or to be able to live in whatever community they wanted to live in.

How do you balance family, work and art collecting?

I asked my grandmother this question after I graduated college and started playing in the NBA a little bit and I wasn’t married, but just starting to have bills and do all of those things. And then when I had my daughter, obviously my grandmother was a lot older, just raising one kid is tough in itself. My grandmother and grandfather had nine kids: eight girls and one boy. And I can clearly remember asking her, ‘How did you do it? It’s impossible.’ One thing she told me was that, ‘We didn’t think about it, we just did.’

I don’t think about it, I just do. That’s what I say about balancing it all, is I just do.

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

It’s from mentor Michael Toney. When I was young, growing up in North Memphis, you see so many things. You’re growing up in poverty, so many distractions, and when he started mentoring me and he was exposing to some things, he was helping me try to gain my confidence in myself. And I can remember one time when I was struggling, he took me to a mirror, he said, ‘You see a little boy looking back at you?’ He said, ‘Everything in life that happens to you, that little boy is going to tell you. He’s going to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to compete again, he’s going to be the first person to tell you I can’t do it, he’s going to be the first person to tell you if you can do it. Other people are just going to reinforce that.’

The high-flying and unpredictable NBA Rising Stars Challenge in 5 storylines Lonzo Ball, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Smith — Team USA is loaded, but can ‘The Process’ lead Team World to glory?

The NBA Rising Stars Challenge game will certainly deliver swag, poster dunks, a barrage of 3-pointers and bucket after bucket from tipoff to the buzzer. But there are a lot of, shall we say, side narratives as well. For example: Apparently, the impact of an NBA All-Star Game snub can travel across the entire globe, even into the highest levels of government.

Despite a prolific rookie season, and a slew of injured All-Stars who needed replacements, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons won’t be playing on the biggest Sunday of the NBA calendar. The 6-foot-10 Australian phenom didn’t receive a call from commissioner Adam Silver when DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles, or when John Wall announced knee surgery, or when Kevin Love broke his hand, or when Kristaps Porzingis tore his ACL. Instead, Paul George, Andre Drummond, Goran Dragic and Kemba Walker all got the nod as ringers.

One of Simmons’ countrymen decided to use the floor of the Australian Parliament to express his feelings.

“I rise today to express my outrage at the exclusion of Australian Ben Simmons from this year’s NBA All-Star Game,” said Tim Watts, a member of the Australian House of Representatives. “In a record-breaking rookie year for the Philadelphia 76ers, Ben is currently averaging nearly 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game. He’s already had five triple-doubles, and, frankly, no one with two brain cells to rub together would want Goran Dragic on their team.” Watts’ remarks went viral, and Simmons commented, “The man has spoken [insert crying emoji],” on a video of the speech posted on Instagram.

Simmons will make the trip to Los Angeles, though, where he’ll put on for Australia in the annual Rising Stars Challenge. Per tradition, only first- and second-year players are eligible to compete, and for the fourth straight year, the game features a matchup between Team USA and Team World. With the best American players in the NBA squaring off against the league’s top talent with international roots, Simmons will rep his Aussie set as one of the leaders of Team World, along with the Cameroon-born Joel Embiid, his Philly teammate and an All-Star starter.

Although Team World claimed a 150-141 win in last year’s game, Team USA enters the 2018 contest with an absolutely loaded roster that includes a trio of Los Angeles Lakers in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, a pair of Boston Celtics in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, as well as Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks. Compared with Sunday’s All-Star Game, Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge presents a smaller — albeit almost equally high-flying, ankle-breaking and star-showcasing — spectacle that previews the leaders of the new school in the NBA. Here are five things to watch from the league’s future stars.


TEAM WORLD

  • Bogdan Bogdanovic, G, Sacramento Kings
  • Dillon Brooks, G/F, Memphis Grizzlies
  • Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Buddy Hield, G, Sacramento Kings
  • Lauri Markkanen, F, Chicago Bulls
  • Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets
  • Frank Ntilikina, G, New York Knicks
  • Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers
  • Dario Saric, F, Philadelphia 76ers
  • Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers

TEAM USA

  • Lonzo Ball, G, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Malcolm Brogdon, G, Milwaukee Bucks*
  • Jaylen Brown, G/F, Boston Celtics
  • John Collins, F/C, Atlanta Hawks
  • Kris Dunn, G, Chicago Bulls
  • Brandon Ingram, F, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Kyle Kuzma, F, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz
  • Dennis Smith Jr., G, Dallas Mavericks
  • Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics
  • Taurean Prince, F, Atlanta Hawks

*Injured, will not play in game

 

When in doubt, ‘Trust the Process’

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The game plan for Team World is simple: “Trust the Process.” That’s the creed of the young-and-promising Philadelphia 76ers, who will likely make a playoff appearance for the first time since 2012. “The Process” is also the nickname of Philly’s 7-foot franchise center Embiid, who will start in both the Rising Stars Challenge and his first career All-Star Game. Embiid will be joined on Team World by Simmons and Croatia’s Dario Saric, the runner-up for 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year. In last year’s challenge, Saric recorded 17 points, five rebounds and four assists as a starter for Team World. Expect the entire Sixers trio, who all stand 6-foot-10 or above, to both start and get buckets. That’s a feared three-man offense right there.

Will Lonzo Ball play?

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

It’s been a busy few weeks for the new-wave first family of basketball, also known as the Balls of Chino Hills, California. LaVar Ball has been frequenting sidelines overseas while coaching his two youngest sons — LiAngelo, 19, and LaMelo, 16 — who have both been straight-up ballin’ (all puns intended) in their first year of professional basketball in Lithuania. Meanwhile, Lonzo, the 2017 No. 2 overall pick of his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, is reportedly expecting a child with his longtime girlfriend, Denise Garcia, and trying to make it back onto the court after suffering a left knee sprain on Jan. 13. “I didn’t think it was going to be this serious, to be honest …,” Ball said on Feb. 7. “I thought it was going to be dealt with quicker.” The injury might cost him an appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge, which will be played on his home court at the Staples Center. Fingers crossed he can suit up. The people need Lonzo Ball on the hardwood and LaVar Ball courtside.

The dunk contest before the dunk contest

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Two out of the four contestants who make up the 2018 NBA Slam Dunk Contest will get to warm up their bounce in the Rising Stars Challenge. They’re both rookies and both members of Team USA: Mavericks point guard Smith and Jazz shooting guard Mitchell, who was a late call-up to the dunk competition as a replacement for injured Orlando Magic big man Aaron Gordon. Smith has wild leaping ability and crazy in-air flair, while Mitchell plays at a height above his defenders, frequently breaking out his patented tomahawk jams. This is another reason that Ball needs to play in this game. Lonzo + Donovan + Dennis = endless lob possibilities. We’d be looking up all night long.

Can Jamal Murray do it again?

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If Jamal Murray shows up, balls out and is named the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge for the second straight year, Drake has to consider remixing his timeless 2015 diss track “Back to Back” to pay homage to his fellow Canadian. That line from the record in which he spits, Back to back like I’m Jordan, ’96, ’97? How about Back to back like I’m Murray, ’17, ’18? In last year’s game, the Nuggets guard dropped game highs in both points (36) and assists (11). He also shot a whopping 9-for-14 from 3-point land. Oh, yeah, and he did it all after coming off the bench. C’mon, Team World, let the man start this year so he can really eat!

Throwback threads

Both Team USA and Team World will take the court at the Staples Center in vintage get-ups honoring the history of the city’s two NBA franchises. Team USA will rock powder blue and gold uniforms, inspired by the 1940s-’50s Minneapolis Lakers, while Team World will break out an orange-and-black ensemble as a tribute to the Buffalo Braves (now known as the Los Angeles Clippers) of the 1970s. Which is the fresher look? That’s for you to decide. Which squad will emerge from the challenge victorious? On paper, it’s hard to bet against Team USA. But in an All-Star Game, even at the Rising Stars level, you never really know.