Former Nike designer focuses on youths with launch of new footwear line Jason Mayden walked away from his 14-year-career to invest in what really matters to him

Designer Jason Mayden had his dream job.

As the lead designer at Nike’s Jordan Brand, Mayden spent long days and nights researching and designing some of the brand’s top shoes for its most popular athletes. But 13½ years into his tenure, Mayden decided it was time to serve a much larger purpose — and a brand of his own. After walking away from a fruitful career at Nike, it was time to direct his attention to and invest in today’s youths. Mayden put his own skills to use as CEO of Super Heroic, a comfortable and affordable footwear line designed to inspire children “to discover new places and hold on to that invincible feeling of play.” Mayden was determined to design shoes that were not only comfortable for children but also unleash creativity and inspire physical movement and imaginative play.

“The response [to Super Heroic] has been exceptionally well,” Mayden said. “Everyone says, ‘Hey, my kids love the shoes.’ They’re so comfortable. We get a lot of videos and photos of kids running and declaring that they’re superheroes and parents smiling and laughing and interacting. That’s exactly what we designed the product to do.”

The inspiration for the brand stemmed from not only Mayden’s love for superheroes but also Mayden’s son, who struggled with his own body image issues. One night, Mayden returned home to his wife and kids after a long work trip, only to discover his son sulking in the bathroom. There he stood staring at himself in the mirror, shirtless and crying.

“He hated his body. He hated who he was and didn’t want to go to school the next day,” Mayden said.

Right then and there, Mayden’s decision was made. As much as he loved his job and working with athletes, Mayden believed his family needed him more.

“There’s no way in hell I’d be able to go into work tomorrow and not feel some type of way about [my son’s situation],” Mayden said. “I walked through the door the next day and I quit. The most important job for me is to be a good father and a good husband.”

Although Super Heroic has opened many more opportunities for Mayden, the knowledge, wisdom and skills the 37-year-old learned during his time at Nike have been essential to the success of his own business.

Mayden always had a knack for art and innovation. By the time he was 7, Mayden was airbrushing, drawing names in bubble letters, imagining his own designs and sketching pictures of cartoon characters. An avid reader of comic books, Mayden was drawn to Lucius Fox, who supported his friend and ally Batman through many of his daily activities, including designing and supplying gadgets and technology for the superhero. Mayden likened himself to Fox, in a way.

“My whole career of wanting to work with athletes was driven by me wanting to design products for Batman,” Mayden said. “So, of course, the closest one to me [growing up in Chicago] at that time was Michael Jordan.”

But Mayden and his family weren’t exactly sure he’d live long enough to see that dream come to fruition.

When Mayden was 7, he experienced symptoms of a common cold, or perhaps the flu. The family couldn’t be sure since the diagnosis changed with every doctor’s visit. Each time, Mayden and his parents were sent home. Each time, Mayden grew more ill.

“When they finally rushed me to the hospital and identified what it was, it was at a critical point. I remember drifting in and out of consciousness and listening to these discussions [of my situation].”

The official diagnosis was confirmed. Mayden was battling septicemia, a bacterial infection that sends bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream and through the entire body if left untreated. Because the infection was misdiagnosed so many times, doctors moved swiftly to do what they could to save Mayden. Treatments had begun, but at such a critical stage, there was no guarantee that any of the medications would help. Aware of how serious the situation was, the 7-year-old Mayden seemed to be the only calm one through it all. Death may have been imminent, but there were things far more important than the fight for his life.

“Honestly, I was at peace with whatever the outcome would be,” Mayden said. “Would I be able to go to school tomorrow to get my Easter candy? That’s all I was focused on: seeing my friends and getting Easter candy. I needed to get my gummy bears.”

Fortunately for Mayden, treatments were working. Doctors began seeing progress, and he was eventually discharged from the hospital. The situation, as scary as it was, inspired Mayden’s response to life’s challenges — one he continues to live by.

“At 7 years old, I realized my life wasn’t finished,” Mayden said. “When I was in the hospital and I heard people discussing my mortality — if I could make it, if I would be alive, if I would be OK — I knew that I would not let my life be defined by if because it’s always will. I will be OK, I will get to Nike, I will persist, I will achieve my goals and dreams. It was the decision I made to never let an if determine my outcome. My parents always joke that I became an adult in that moment. I’ve been moving at a thousand miles per hour since then.”

Mayden continued to grow stronger and fall even deeper into his own creativity. He knew he loved to draw, and he entertained the idea of making a career of it. Becoming a designer wasn’t a thought that crossed his mind, only because he didn’t know much about the industry.

“I was an artist and a creative, but I didn’t know that I wanted to be a designer,” Mayden said. “I’d never heard that word. I knew nothing about industrial design. It just really came to a head when I went to an auto show and I saw these products that people made. I wondered how they did that. It was my senior year in high school when I learned about industrial design. It changed my life when I heard that phrase.”

Mayden went on to study industrial design at College for Creative Studies in Detroit. While there, Mayden began forming a master plan to get to Nike. He advocated for himself. He wrote letters and called 800 numbers that were printed to the backs of shoeboxes. He found names from newspaper clippings and dialed the customer service lines pretending to be their relatives. Although he didn’t get a job offer, he did receive free stickers and posters. Eventually, he lucked up and found a recruiter during his freshman year in college. She informed him that internship requests were received all the time and encouraged him to keep applying. Mayden took her advice and submitted his application and portfolio and kept in touch, only to be rejected twice.

“When people tell me no, I just take it to mean yes,” Mayden said. “It just means no, not right now, not no forever. And my grandmother always taught me that delayed doesn’t mean denied. Even during those dark moments, it was my family and my faith in God that kept me going. Even when Nike rejected me, I told them I’d be back.”

Mayden kept applying, and on his third try, the then-19-year-old was accepted into a rotational program where his first job was to design branding, logos and graphics for Virginia Tech football phenom Michael Vick. Mayden’s work with Vick and the Nike Air Monarchs gained the attention and respect of higher-ups who wanted to keep the young designer on board.

Two years later, with the help of Nike senior designer Wilson Smith, Mayden was brought on as a member of the Jordan Brand and thrown his first project: designing a shoe for New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter.

“Derek Jeter was my real-life Batman,” Mayden said. “I’m a kid who was given the responsibility to design a shoe for one of my heroes. I was so nervous. He was the ultimate gentleman, the ultimate coach, and encouraged me to try my best and have fun.

“We would walk to restaurants and he would stop and sign every autograph of every person and take every picture. He would say hello to everyone — from the hot dog vendor to the person selling newspapers. I’d never seen anything like it.”

Studying the interactions of Jeter and other athletes allowed Mayden to be more creative and give their shoes more personality. Mayden also kept consumers and fans in mind during the process.

“I care about the first time a person experiences my products, and that’s why that unboxing experience is so unique because somewhere, somebody is opening that package for the first time,” Mayden said. “I want to make sure it’s magical and amazing, and I want it to live up to the hype.

“I value storytelling and how people interact. Spending time and watching athletes and how they prepare is a lot of my process. I’m constantly consuming information and challenging my own way of thinking. If I can assess my weaknesses while leaning on my strengths, I can prepare for what’s next.”

The experiences from Nike and now Super Heroic are what drive Mayden to keep going. Making a difference in the lives of kids and parents across the country remains the goal — even when things can be a bit overwhelming. “There are times I feel tired and feeling like I need a mental break, then I’m reminded quickly that what we do really does matter,” Mayden said. “People have been very supportive and very encouraging.”

Mayden hopes that anyone who becomes frustrated along life’s journey continues to keep pushing. In the end, it’s all worth it.

“To anyone who feels their dreams are invalid or impossible, I encourage them to just keep going because no one can do anything great in life by doubting themselves because of their experiences,” Mayden said. “Who you are, where you come from, what you look like, your gender, your age, your sexual orientation — none of that matters. Your dreams are valid.”

Dr. J talks about his new podcast and why the Philly legend is a Spurs fan ‘House Call with Dr. J’ launched after All-Star Weekend

Dr. J, the Philadelphia 76ers legend and fan, admits that he is a longtime follower of the San Antonio Spurs. But he has a valid explanation.

“It’s a former ABA [American Basketball Association] team that has been the most successful. I pull for them except when they play the 76ers,” he said with a short burst of laughter.

“I always admired the way Tim Duncan played the game and approached it and provided leadership in a quiet way, but a very forceful way. So for that franchise to continue to be successful, that’s very important to me.”

Otherwise, Julius Erving, known to the world as Dr. J, is almost always reppin’ the 76ers.

Erving started his professional career in 1971 with the Virginia Squires, then moved to the New York Nets in 1973 before landing in Philly from 1976-87. The highflier is credited with taking the slam dunk mainstream. He won three championships, four MVP awards and three scoring titles in the ABA and NBA, was a 16-time All Star and retired as the third-highest scorer in pro basketball history with 30,026 career points. Erving was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.

His newest endeavor is a podcast, House Call with Dr. J, which debuted on Feb. 19, on the heels of the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend.

“I figured on this side … being the interviewer … it probably would work,” Erving told The Undefeated.

House Call with Dr. J will feature interviews and discussions with athletes, celebrities and other people of interest.

“Dr. J was one of the first athlete superstars. He captivated audiences with his ability, strength and grace both on and off the court,” said Jack Hobbs, president of reVolver Podcasts. “I’m thrilled to have Mr. Erving in our lineup and know he’s going to wow our listeners and leave them on the edge of their seats, wanting more.”

“We’ve set it up so the interviews have been conversational more than fixed agendas,” Erving said. “I try to take it to a level above the normal interview but very much into the living room, sitting back relaxed and having a conversation with someone who you either know or you want to know.”

Erving may even attack some serious subjects. Born in 1950, he grew up with two pictures hanging on the wall of his home, staples that many black families had in their living rooms.

“During the Kennedy years, we had pictures of Dr. King at the house and pictures of John F. Kennedy,” Erving said. “It meant something for those to be up there because for us that meant that those were the individuals doing the most for your people. Between the ages of 18 to 21 when I was in college, I was a big follower of Dr. King. He was the one who my parents thought was the proper leader of the country.

“I came up in the ’60s and the ’70s,” he said. “It was a lot of activism at that time obviously with the Olympic Games. … That was impactful with the raised fists. People had to react to a broken system, and I think we see a lot of that now where a lot of people feel the system is broken and there is room for repair. So it’s a wake-up call in terms of finding out who the leaders are and listening to what they have to say.”

To listen to House Call with Dr. J, subscribe at, Spotify, Google Play or iHeartMedia. To listen on Apple Podcasts, visit

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley

Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.

“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”

“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas

Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”

“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.

It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.

Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”

Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”

The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Former walk-on at Temple now stars in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ Actor Rafael V. DeLeon says meeting Spike Lee at NBA All-Star Weekend was a dream come true

Former college basketball player Rafael V. DeLeon got the introduction of a lifetime during NBA All-Star Weekend in 2015 when he met famed film director Spike Lee. He promised himself that he’d grind until he got the chance to work on a film with Lee.

That promise was fulfilled when DeLeon was cast in Lee’s newest project with Netflix, She’s Gotta Have It, a 10-episode dramedy that follows a young woman, Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), who dates three very different men in current-day Brooklyn, New York.

The series is a reworking of the 1986 film of the same name that launched Lee’s career. Besides directing, he also starred in it as the character Mars Blackmon, an aspiring rapper and one of Darling’s love interests. In an interview with The New York Times in 1986, Lee described the film as being about a woman “leading her life like a man, in control, with three men dangling at her fingertips.”

In the series, DeLeon plays Manny Garciela, the best friend to Blackmon (Anthony Ramos).

DeLeon played for Temple University, where he started out as a walk-on and worked his way up to an athletic scholarship. After earning his degree in business administration and marketing, he landed a job working for the mayor of Washington, D.C., in the Executive Office of Boards and Commissions. The actor has also appeared in House of Cards, The Americans and The Breaks.

The Undefeated spoke with DeLeon about working with Lee, why Will Smith from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was his childhood hero and lessons he’s learned growing up black and Puerto Rican in America.

What do you hope viewers take from the Netflix series?

When Spike did the original film in ’86, he was already in uncharted territory on what was commonplace in cinema at the time. Since then, a lot has changed in culture as it relates to marriage and equality. Spike touches on some of that content from the original film, but with this remake, there’s a strong focus on black women, their liberation and being the captain of their own fate.

How was it working with Lee?

Spike is awesome! On set we were deciding on certain dance moves, and he asked me to do the worm at one point. He’s so collaborative and asks questions that really brings the best out of actors. It was a dream come true to work with him.

How did you get into playing basketball at the collegiate level?

I was always taller than my classmates as a kid, and pretty skinny and lanky too. I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which had a strong reputation for hoopers, so I gravitated toward basketball and made use of my height. I played collegiately at Averett University in Danville, Virginia, my freshman year. I knew that I wanted to play at the highest level, so the summer going into my sophomore year I sent some of my [game] tapes to the assistant coaching staff at Temple. I knew that Temple’s basketball program was in transition, so I thought if there was ever an opportunity to get a fresh start with the new coaching staff and program, then would be the time. I started off as a walk-on and made the team.

Temple Owls forward Rafael DeLeon (center) passes away from the double-team.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If you could be any athlete dead or alive, who would it be?

Muhammad Ali. Being stripped of his title in the middle of his prime and having the self-confidence to stare the unknown down while also maintaining his sense of self is something that I aspire to. Second would be LeBron James. I admire his athletic greatness. For players to navigate the world, especially in this current climate, is a fine art. LeBron does a phenomenal job both on and off the court.

After college graduation, what drew you to working in politics?

I have a strong passion for social activism and justice. When I graduated from college, it was 2010 and President Barack Obama was in office. One of my focus areas was outreach and helping move the conversation along in actionable way. I felt like politics was the quickest and most impactful way to make change, both on the systemic and personal level.

What have you learned from working in politics as a man of color?

There are a lot of variables in play in the political space. Some of it works contrary to what the perceived greater good is, and vice versa. As a biracial man of color in America, there have been things that I recognized from an early age. As a kid, I would get asked about why my father looked the way he did. Being in an African-American-dominated county, my father being Puerto Rican stood out. I was aware of how I was perceived at a very young age … when you add on to that the layers of middle-class America and how that looks to white America, I began to kind of see different levels of it play out at different stages. In college I studied business administration, and in my upper-level classes there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. I witnessed and experienced little trickle-down effects of just how deeply entrenched certain societal mechanisms were.

Who was your childhood hero?

Will from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When you look back, you see that the entire premise of the show was watching Will try to assimilate to a completely different culture and norm based on socioeconomic status. That in itself is like … whoa! The level of comedy and topics discussed was done so tactfully. It had a lasting effect on me and laid the groundwork and planted the seeds for where I am today, as far as being aware and identifying different things in life and culture.

What lessons have you learned from basketball that you’ve transferred to your acting career?

Making the team and the successes that we had as a team at Temple really showed me how it takes courage to take a leap of faith. If you keep doing that, good things will happen — shoutout to [Redskins quarterback] Kirk Cousins who said that — and you can chart your own course. I’ve always been interested in film and the arts, so when I told my parents about pursuing acting, they were really supportive. I had a track record at that point for leaving something that was secure for something that wasn’t and making it work.

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

‘Never get too high. Never get too low.’ My dad told me that. Especially as an actor in New York, the highs are extremely high and the lows are pretty low, as far as when you’re in between jobs or casting says, ‘No, thanks.’ Maintaining that center of balance and not allowing too much success get to your head, and not beating yourself up too much when things aren’t going your way, have been extremely valuable in all elements of my life.

Reggie ‘Combat Jack’ Ossé dies at 48 The hip-hop podcaster and attorney succumbs to colon cancer

When Reggie Ossé, immortalized in hip-hop culture as “Combat Jack,” announced via Twitter a week before Halloween that he had colon cancer, I knew. I think we all did.

Jack’s soliloquy ultimately was one of his final intimate moments with a culture now so different without his physical presence. It was his way of fighting while simultaneously coming to grips with what we’ll all encounter one day — our own mortality.

My uncle had colon cancer. He died Jan. 2, 1999. His death, in so many ways, is why my winter holidays can never again be truly festive. His last conversation with me, when I was 12, was in a Richmond, Virginia, hospital. “Treat people with respect and watch the universe pay you back in ways you could never imagine. I’m not scared. I’ve passed that point. I’ve lived my purpose.” I can only imagine Ossé having similar feelings.

Jack, I’d imagine, wasn’t scared in his final hours — the product of being a Brooklyn, New York, native. His thoughts were more than likely with his family, his children in particular. Above anything he meant to the culture, nothing mattered more to him than being a father. Jack being gone at 48 has yet to totally sink in. The wound is fresh and still bleeding. These days, to hear people claim they’re “doing it for the culture” is banal. But with Jack, it was authentic. An attorney who in the mid-’90s represented Jay-Z, Dame Dash, Capone-N-Noreaga and others, he also served as the managing editor of The Source. To many, though, especially within the past decade, he’s been the man who helped revolutionize podcasts and hip-hop’s role within them.

The linchpin of the Ossé’s Loud Speakers Network, and co-hosted by the likes of Dallas Penn, Premium Pete and Just Blaze, The Combat Jack Show podcast was more life lessons than mere interviews. They were glimpses into the minds of culture-shifters, narrated by the culture-shifters themselves. With his beautifully produced Mogul: The Life & Death of Chris Lighty, Ossé brought narrative storytelling to podcast culture. It’s fair to say, too, part of The Combat Jack Show’s DNA resides in many of today’s most successful podcasts and radio shows such as Rap Radar, N.O.R.E.’s Drink Champs and The Breakfast Club. The same can be said of many young journalists/content producers as well — myself included.

The culture that Ossé helped shift, curate and elevate grieves for him. Liquor meets pavement. Smoke fades to air. Tears are shed. Laughs are had. And stories are swapped on social media, on air and in person. All in homage to a man none of us can ever truly repay. You don’t necessarily quantify “influence” by dollars stacked but rather respect given, and shown. Combat Jack was a rich, rich man.

A history of Christmas Day game debuts As Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas


As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” says Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”

For the past decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. The 10 teams playing each other on Christmas Day are all playing each other on national television for the first time this season. This includes the Los Angeles Lakers, who will be playing for the 19th consecutive Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are the holiday’s main event, making them the first set of teams to play three consecutive Christmases since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-06. Steph Curry is out for the game because of an ankle injury.

Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he says. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”

The first Christmas Day game was played 70 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 50 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.

Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. The Knicks, taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the first of five games, will be playing in their 52nd Christmas Day game. Both the Knicks and Lakers are tied with the most holiday wins, 22 apiece. And in one of the weirdest facts in all of sports, the Boston Celtics (taking on the Washington Wizards in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven-game playoff series) will be playing their first ever Christmas game at home. Of their previous 30 holiday engagements, 28 were on the road and two were at neutral sites.

Speaking of debuts, Christmas 2017 brings its own set of holiday rookies in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and even veteran All-Star swingman Paul George (who never played on Christmas as an Indiana Pacer). Meanwhile, stars such as New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have to wait at least one more year. Which begs the question: How did some of the game’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their first Christmas? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. How many do you remember?


Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1956 vs. Philadelphia Warriors (89-82, L)

Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds

Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.


Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers

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Christmas 1958 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-97, L)

Line: 12 points

Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.


Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors

Christmas 1959 vs. Syracuse Nationals (129-121, W)

Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds

Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.


Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals

Christmas 1960 vs. Detroit Pistons (126-119, W)

Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists

Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).


Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1961 vs. Cincinnati Royals (141-127, W)

Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists

In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks

Christmas 1971 vs. Detroit Pistons (120-118, L in OT)

Line: 38 points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.


Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Christmas 1971 vs. Pittsburgh Condors (133-126, W) | Christmas 1976 vs. New York Knicks (105-104, W)

Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds

Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.


Bernard King, Utah Jazz

Christmas 1979 vs. Denver Nuggets (122-111, W)

Line: 7 points

Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.


Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Christmas 1980 vs. New York Knicks (117-108, W)

Line: 28 points

Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.


Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers

Getty Images

Christmas 1981 vs. Phoenix Suns (104-101, W)

Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals

Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.


Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks

Christmas 1982 vs. Washington Bullets (97-91, W)

Line: 7 points, 2 blocks

Only in his rookie season, Dominique Wilkins, the man known as The Human Highlight Reel, would have far better games than this in his Hall of Fame career. Hey, it happens.


Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)

Christmas 1984 vs. Detroit Pistons (109-108, W, Sixers)

Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)

These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.


Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks

Christmas 1985 vs. Boston Celtics (113-104, W 2OT)

Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds

Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.

Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1986 vs. New York Knicks (86-85, L)

Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks

Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.


Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls

Christmas 1990 vs. Detroit Pistons (98-86, W)

Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals

While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.


David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1992 vs. Los Angeles Clippers (103-94, W)

Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds

What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.


Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Christmas 1993 vs. Phoenix Suns (111-91, L)

Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks

Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.


Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic

Christmas 1993 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-93, L)

Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)

Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.

Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 1994 vs. Denver Nuggets (105-96, L)

Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)

The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.

Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.


Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons

Christmas 1996 vs. Chicago Bulls (95-83, L)

Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds

Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Christmas 1996 vs. Phoenix Suns (108-87, W)

Line: 0 points, 1 rebound

Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 1999 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (99-93, L)

Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds

This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.

Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers

Christmas 1999 vs. New York Knicks (101-90, W)

Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.

Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic

Christmas 2000 vs. Indiana Pacers (103-93, L)

Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds

An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

Christmas 2001 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (88-82, L)

Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.


Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors

Christmas 2001 vs. New York Knicks (102-94, L)

Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals

By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.


Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2002 vs. New Jersey Nets (117-81, L)

Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds

The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Christmas 2003 vs. Sacramento Kings (111-103, W)

Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks

While we’re pretty sure he didn’t bring his patented “work plate” with him to the arena 14 years ago, our favorite German OG, Dirk Nowitzki, feasted on Chris Webber and the Kings.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2003 vs. Orlando Magic (113-101, L in OT)

Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals

Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Christmas 2004 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (104-102, W in OT)

Line: 29 points, 10 assists

As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.


Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics

Christmas 2007 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (89-79, L)

Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks

It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.

Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics

Christmas 2008 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (92-83, L)

Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)

In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.


Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)

Christmas 2008 (88-68, Magic W)

Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)

CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.


Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

Christmas 2009 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (107-96, L)

Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists

Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.

Chris Bosh, Miami Heat

Christmas 2010 vs. Los Angeles Lakers (96-80, W)

Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds

Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.


Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

Christmas 2010 vs. Denver Nuggets (114-106, W)

Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)

Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Christmas 2010 vs. Portland Trail Blazers (109-102, W)

Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists

Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.


Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

Christmas 2014 vs. Miami Heat (101-91, L)

Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

Christmas 2014 vs. New York Knicks (102-91, W)

Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists

Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.


Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Christmas 2013 vs. Houston Rockets (111-98, L)

Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds

This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.


Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Christmas 2015 vs. Miami Heat (94-88, L in OT)

Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks

Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

Christmas 2016 vs. Boston Celtics (119-114, L)

Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds

With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.


Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

Christmas 2016 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (112-100, L)

Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds

The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.

Daily Dose: 12/8/17 John Lewis will not attend civil rights museum opening

What’s up, gang? The week’s finally coming to an end, and it’s been a doozy on the news front. This is going to be a serious weekend of self-care for quite a few of us. Also, it’s snowing across a lot of America, so that’s fun too.

I used to work in local news. It’s a cutthroat business that involves sometimes covering the most mundane of topics that just might interest a small pocket of people. But there are some staples in the industry that never change. Car accidents, store openings and, of course, house fires. That’s where we catch up with Rhoda Young. She’s apparently a citizen reporter in Norfolk, Virginia. And when she came upon one such blaze, she covered it the way she knows how. This is genuinely the best fire coverage you’re going to see all year.

So, not only is Roy Moore allegedly a sexual miscreant, he’s also apparently a racist. The guy running for Senate in Alabama has had numerous women go public with the fact that he tried to or did date them when he was an adult and they were in high school. He was banned from a local shopping mall back in the day for this. His campaign has been a pretty slimy one, and now it’s come to light that he’s got some pretty wild views on slavery. Views like, America was better when we had it.

John Lewis is not here for the nonsense. The civil rights icon and Georgia congressman is not planning on attending the opening of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi, because President Donald Trump will be there. I can’t imagine how Lewis feels about this in his heart of hearts. He worked his whole life to make sure that black folks have had the same rights as the rest of America, and here comes this guy trying to swoop in late — in Jackson, of all places. That’s got to hurt.

Shohei Ohtani is yet to set foot in a big-league batter’s box, but his presence is already making waves around the majors. If you don’t know who he is, he’s a two-way guy who some scouts think could both pitch and play the field if any franchise would let him. That’s unlikely, as the novelty of said deal would probably not be worth the risk from an injury/wear-and-tear standpoint, but it still could prove to be an interesting situation. Anyway, the negotiations for his bidding have been hotly intense, and MLB is definitely watching closely.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve never been to Boston. Not because I’ve avoided it for any particular reason, but I’m also in no rush to go. Haven’t ever really heard anything good about it, whatsoever, particularly when it comes to black folks. Now, the Boston Globe is taking a look at racism in the city.

Snack Time: If you ever find yourself in a situation with an armed robber and you could keep your composure the way this dude working at Walgreens did, then more power to you. Icy.

Dessert: Need new music? Big Sean and Metro Boomin got you covered.

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.


And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”

At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.

Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”

The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”

There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.