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

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

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

Instagram Photo

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

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

Got all that?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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De’Aaron Fox fighting to make Kings more than jesters Fox talks Sacramento’s playoff hopes, new teammates and more

SACRAMENTO, California – De’Aaron Fox was 8 years old the last time the Sacramento Kings made it to the playoffs back in 2006. Since then, the Kings have often been viewed more like jesters, based on the team’s controversies on and off the court.

With the fast and furious game of Fox now leading the way, there is optimism for a change in the old guard. Fox, newcomer Harrison Barnes, and the rest of the Kings are the first in franchise history, since the 2004-05 season, to have 30-plus wins at the NBA All-Star break, according to ESPN Stats & Information. After winning on every level previously, Fox is confident his Kings can return to the throne this season and shut up the “Twitter coaches” with a long-awaited postseason berth.

“I’ve always been a winner regardless of where I’ve been, as far as college, AAU, middle school basketball, high school basketball. My team has always been able to find a way to win. Why can’t it be different here? We’re not at the highest level yet, but we’ve always seen guys turn teams and turn franchises around. So, I’ve always thought, ‘Why not, why not, why not?’ Let me be that guy,” Fox told The Undefeated.

NBA fans are slowly getting to know Fox, whose been a godsend for the Kings since the team selected him fifth overall in the 2017 NBA draft — an argument could be that Fox is having the best sophomore season out of the Class of 2017. The lightning quick 6-foot-3-inch, 175-pounder is averaging 17.2 points, 7.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Fox also has had 15 games already this season with at least 20 points and five assists, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

De’Aaron Fox (right) of the Sacramento Kings shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 4 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

But, Fox recently talked to The Undefeated about more than Kings’ playoff hopes. The 21-year-old also delved into challenges he has had in the past and present being a young black man in Sacramento and throughout the country.

“I walk around with hoodies on all the time,” Fox said. “A black kid. No one’s going to [know] me walking into Walmart. Unless you know basketball, you’re just going to think I’m a black dude with a hoodie on unless someone asks for a picture.”


What do you think the view of the Kings was when you arrived to Sacramento?

Joke of a franchise. They talked about the playoff drought. I was like, man, ‘I wasn’t here for the long playoff drought.’ I don’t want that to keep going while I’m here. Those are most of the things that you hear. Just things like, ‘The roster needs to do this, do that.’ All the Twitter coaches. This season has definitely changed a few things. But we’re just trying to keep getting better.

Are you surprised by the Kings’ play this season?

No. It definitely surprised people, but just playing at the pace that way we play at, some teams can’t withstand that type of pressure for 48 minutes. I don’t think it was surprising.

As far as playoffs, do you guys talk about that?

Definitely … A lot of young guys just want to be able to feel that playoff atmosphere. People always ask after big games, ‘Does that feel like the playoffs?’ I’m like, ‘I’ve never played in the playoffs. I don’t know what the playoffs feel like.’ But that’s something that I definitely want just to get my feet wet with.

What has the atmosphere been like around Sacramento now that the Kings are winning? Has anyone said anything meaningful?

It’s always, ‘The Kings haven’t been this good since I was 12.’ And these are people who are close to 30 years old. Things like that. You hear about how much of a struggle that it’s been the last couple years. Just wanting to be able to turn that around is great. People talk about how happy they were when the Kings were winning. It’s crazy how much energy basketball brings to the city.

What has been the key to the Kings’ improved play this season?

The increased pace that we play with. We played at one of the slowest paces last year. I did find a little bit of success last [season], but with the way that we’re playing now, it suits me perfectly. There is a lot of space getting up and down the floor. Just being able to play fast, create more possessions and then just giving me more opportunities to help my team.

What do you think of the trades that brought forward Harrison Barnes to the Kings and swingman Alec Burks to Sacramento?

A lot of people thought we needed a true [small forward] and we went and got that, and even with Alec. We got two of them. We got better.

Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes (center) and Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox (right) fight for possession of the ball during the fourth quarter at Golden 1 Center on Feb. 3.

Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Did you have any clue that Barnes was coming and how big of an addition is he?

No, not really. He’s a great player. Dude can really put the ball in the basket. He’s 6-8, a big wing and something that we really needed. A young guy who can get up and down the court and put the ball in the basket when we need it. He scores inside out-and-out.

How do these moves help the Kings?

Two big wings. Both can defend the ball. Move the ball, they’re both unselfish, but can also put the ball in the basket.

Have any veteran NBA stars verbally given you respect after games this season?

I’ve gotten it from Draymond [Green], KD [Kevin Durant] and couple guys. Dray was just telling me things about just being a leader. We had three close games with [the Warriors this season]. One of those games came down to possessions. Before the end of the game, we took a fast shot, and it’s something I was down on myself about. [Green] was letting me know that if someone takes a fast shot, it has to be me. Either get the ball or get them a better shot or just try to control the game from a point guard position.

What would it mean to you to get to the playoffs?

One, it would be a huge accomplishment for myself and just for the city for the franchise that hasn’t been in, in 13 years. Just to be a part of the team that was able to break that streak, it’s progress. It’s letting us know that we’re getting better. We have [three more wins] than we did all last [season]. Of course, that’s progress, but being able to get in the playoffs and experience that would definitely be a lot better than missing the playoffs by two or three games.

How did you get through the struggles of last season winning 27 games?

I wish I knew. We were just trying to get through it. I never lost like that ever in my life, but everybody goes through those hard times. I was fine with it, but I didn’t want to come into this year making those same mistakes we did all last season.

When 22-year-old African-American Stephon Clark was killed by the Sacramento police, how did you take that? (Note: Clark was unarmed when he was shot eight times (six in the back) and killed by Sacramento police officers while holding a cellphone in his grandparents’ backyard on March 18, 2018.)

I’m from a big city [Houston], so stuff like that happens all the time. But I wasn’t a part of a team that’s so close to the community, and you start seeing it affect people directly. It was crazy, but it was great to see the community come together and do the things that they did. They were definitely heard …

Stuff happened in my high school. Kids passed away and those things just hit close. One, just how close you are in age. And two, you are in same community. Y’all could’ve been eating in the same restaurant before, or could’ve crossed paths without even knowing it. Just knowing that somebody lost their life to a circumstance like that … It wasn’t a car accident, you know? It wasn’t … Something like that could’ve easily been avoided. It could’ve easily been me.

Do you think about what happened to Clark and how you could be racially profiled?

All the time. I dress so similarly. I’ve got the crazy hair. I’m just your normal teenage black kid just walking around. You don’t see the car that I’m driving or what’s in my house or how big my house is. I’m bigger than most people.

What tragedies happened at your high school in Houston?

My high school wasn’t no ‘hood high school, but things did happen. Accidents happen, and there’s a few kids my years who ended up being shot and dying. One was an accident and one was just senseless violence.

Anyone pass that you were close to?

A kid that I knew since the first day I lived [in Houston] actually got shot and died my sophomore year of high school. I had known him from first grade. He lived around the corner for 10 years. It was definitely different when he passed away.

Have you been racially profiled since you’ve been in Sacramento?

I wouldn’t say that. A lot more people recognize me, but I wouldn’t say I’ve been judged. I get the looks. I live in a predominantly white area. A few of the neighbors know who I am. But as far as like, just walking through a store and somebody doesn’t know me, then they definitely throw a little look.

Your mom, Lorraine Harris-Fox, is a breast cancer survivor and the both of you have done a lot for breast cancer awareness. Can you talk about the importance of your mission?

It’s been huge, especially, the Sacramento area, because that’s where we’ve been for the most part. Just being able to touch families and be able to help patients get through their treatment, it’s been great. There’s no greater feeling besides that and then the success that we’ve been having. We’ve done a few things this year. It’s just been great.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Mt. Eden HS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahershala Ali poses with his Oscar for best supporting actor.

EPA/NINA PROMMER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kaepernick sacrificed his career — what more do people want? He has paid costs that settlements, book advances and endorsement deals can ease but cannot correct

For some, a man sacrificing his life’s work wasn’t enough.

That’s a fair conclusion to draw in the days since Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid reached a confidential settlement with the NFL. Their collusion grievance ended, shutting the door on the league’s potential exposure for what looked like a concerted effort to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL after his protests during the national anthem in the 2016 season.

Even those minimally invested in Kap’s cause, or simply interested in the continuing saga, want to know more, and the settlement scuttled that possibility. But let’s be clear: Kaepernick never owed a thing to the world, and that didn’t change when he filed suit against the league. He owes no explanation because he never should have been put in this position, a point that’s bigger than the ultimate resolution.

This has gone on so long, with buzzwords and talking points recited, that we’ve forgotten how absurd it is that we’re still talking about the way we discuss it. A decision on what to do during a song, no matter the song, in an ostensibly free country made Kap the most polarizing figure in sports since Muhammad Ali told Uncle Sam he wouldn’t risk his life fighting the Viet Cong. Whether one agreed with Ali or not, the argument that he shirked his duty as an American citizen had merit on its face. Kaepernick, at worst, declined to comply with custom. Both suffered from effective banishment. Those who find it silly that Kaepernick has been treated as his generation’s Ali should take that up with those who oppose him, not those standing behind him.

But here we are. Many do want Kaepernick to be Ali, leader of a generation bent on resistance. Given his and Reid’s belief that he should have been the face of the NFL’s Players Coalition, a group working with the league to support causes particular to black people in America, it’s fair to say he wants to lead and it’s debatable whether he knows how to do so. Not only is that OK, it should be expected. The prerequisite for courteous indifference to the national anthem isn’t the ability to helm a revolution. Rosa Parks didn’t have to be Martin Luther King, too, but that’s what is expected of Kaepernick.

Keep that in mind while judging this settlement we know so little about. A major difference between Kaepernick and Ali is the latter either knew at every turn what he was getting into or was surrounded and supported — and, in some ways, manipulated — by those who did. Kaepernick did not. He admirably got up to speed during the 2016 season, speaking resolutely with an uncommon clarity and rare insistence on publicly and explicitly challenging the white supremacy that has infected America since its conception. He was fed up, and anyone who didn’t understand why, after hearing him speak, was guilty of willful ignorance.

But a man who saw all this coming wouldn’t stop speaking publicly for two years while his profile was at its peak. Kap is Neo in this matrix, but he didn’t answer a call. In a watershed year in American history, a personal choice suddenly belonged to the world, molded to fit agenda both noble and sinister.

So it’s fitting that the significance of this settlement, because of its secrecy, can be manipulated the same way. Plausible theories exist on why a settlement means he beat the NFL, why it means the NFL threw him a bone to make it all go away or even (the least likely scenario) why this opens the door for Kap’s return to the NFL.

The reactions to the settlement ranged from disappointment to delight, with both emotions expressed on both sides of the fight. A measure of disappointment from his supporters made sense, as a chance to lay bare how far an institution will go to silence a truly anti-racist message was tantalizing. Especially after two seasons where football people and the media members who took their dictation tried to gaslight us into thinking Kaepernick simply wasn’t good enough to play in the Nathan Peterman era of the NFL. The most cynical on both sides of the debate see a settlement as proof the grievance was just about money, as if any lawsuit involving lost wages isn’t about money, or like heavy-hitting Hollywood lawyer Mark Geragos took this case only hoping for a cookout invitation when it was done.

At some point, everyone must consider what more there is to ask of Kaepernick. His detractors, should they be at all reasonable, have to think that two years out of the league — which is how long Michael Vick was out of the NFL, including that stint in Leavenworth — makes whatever point they have clear, rather than impugning his intentions to avoid the truth. And those who wanted Kap to take down the NFL might give thought to how exhausting this all has been, and how complicated any resolution had to be for the person who has had the most to lose from the beginning.

His highly specialized career still appears to be over. He tried to fund grand initiatives like his Know Your Rights Camps himself but couldn’t afford to continue. His ability to earn is now tied to celebrity, which clouds his message to many, even at a time when social media has turned us all into brands of varying scope. He has endured threats on his life and those of his family. He has paid costs that settlements, book advances and endorsement deals can ease but cannot correct. Fighting white supremacy is a big enough job that fighting the NFL may no longer be worth the energy, no matter how much he netted in the settlement.

Of course, anyone who found Kap’s fight against the NFL to be so intrinsically valuable that it should continue to the end, no matter what, is welcome to pitch in. Kaepernick’s greatest value has been as an inspiration. No one truly moved by his cause should give up because of a strategic legal decision. Journalists who wish the grievance had gone far enough for discovery to be made public should consider that exposing truth is a job of the fourth estate, not the duty of the man who may have been mistreated. To demand more of the man who’s done more than most of those for and against him is simply unfair.

Given how things have gone since, it’s fair to wonder how things would have gone had he stayed on the bench during the anthem and made no comments about why, as trying to make his point while appeasing the public and kneeling deferentially — never forget the decision to kneel was done to show respect for veterans — ultimately got him in more trouble than guys like Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch, who treated the anthem no differently from “Crazy Train” or any other song that’s played at every stadium. They did not stand, but they did so in the background (and the famously recalcitrant Lynch refused to discuss why).

Kap, the face of his cause, allowed Bennett to be unwavering in his opposition to police brutality without losing his job. It made it possible for Kenny Stills to continue to kneel during the anthem and reach more people with his words and deeds than he could otherwise. It ultimately forced the NFL, which prefers the kind of good works that won’t offend anyone, to cooperate with its players on social initiatives in ways it never would otherwise. Don’t forget, Colin Kaepernick can say he’s the only man in the NFL to bring Jerry Jones to his knee.

The man who’s done that is allowed to stop fighting whenever he wants, and for whatever reason. The choice to do more, for better or worse, rests in our hands, as it always has.

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A new breed of basketball school arises for high school grads trying to catch on with a college team Rocktop Academy is part of an emerging trend catering to non-elite players

It was early afternoon at a bleak industrial park near the Jersey Shore, and Rocktop Academy prep was about to play yet another basketball game.

The gleaming wood floor inside what looks like a converted warehouse was adorned with the Boston Celtics logo, and there was a small scoreboard on the wall. But most of the trappings common to even high school basketball games were missing. There were no mascots, no bands, no cheerleaders, no dance team and no student section. The entire crowd consisted of three parents and one friend of players from the other team. They sat on a small set of portable metal bleachers, camera phones at the ready.

This is what game day often looks like for Rocktop, a suburban Philadelphia school with no books or classrooms, and no curriculum other than basketball. Rocktop charges as much as $20,000 for seven months of intensive basketball training, room and board and, most of all, a schedule of more than 70 games, often against top-flight competition.

The Rocktop squad does not play for the glory of championships, or even necessarily to win. The team’s main goal is to sharpen the skills of its players so they can earn a college scholarship or, in some cases, just a spot on a college roster.

“We are a basketball academy, pure and simple,” said Sam Rines, a former La Salle University player who is executive director of Rocktop. “We can’t guarantee scholarships, but we promise training and playing time to get players stronger and better. We also get them exposure in front of elite competition. Then we use our connections and knowledge to put them in a position to get a scholarship.”

From left to right: Aaron Darab, 19, Angel Rivera, 19, and Lemmy Amaro, 18, make breakfast at a townhouse that many members of the Rocktop Academy basketball team share in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

For many years, it has been common practice for many top high school basketball players to transfer into one of two dozen or so powerhouse prep school programs so they can play against elite competition and train at first-rate facilities while finishing high school. Some of those schools are legendary. Oak Hill Academy in Virginia has turned out top current and former pros, including Rajon Rondo, Carmelo Anthony, Stephen Jackson and Kevin Durant. Florida’s Montverde Academy has produced NBA All-Stars Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and D’Angelo Russell. Alumni of Nevada’s Findlay Prep include NBA stars Kelly Oubre Jr., Tristan Thompson and Avery Bradley. West Virginia’s Huntington Prep can claim current pros Andrew Wiggins, Miles Bridges and Patrick Patterson.

Other top players have turned to prep schools after high school to shore up their grade-point averages (sometimes in highly questionable academic programs) so they can be eligible to play in college, although that practice is less common now, a decade after an NCAA crackdown that limited the number of core courses for which players can be credited after attending four years of high school.

But schools like Rocktop offer an updated twist on the prep school idea. They profit from the hunger that many non-elite players have to earn college scholarships. For a hefty fee, they offer players a chance to get better without eating away at their collegiate eligibility, which limits players to four years of competition within five years of enrolling in college as a full-time student.

These teams operate in the unregulated terrain between high school and college. They have no governing body, no real rules and no formal interaction with the NCAA since they do not directly provide educational services. Nobody seems to know how many even exist, although there is general agreement that their numbers are growing.

“It is like building any other kind of résumé. We are helping to build their basketball résumé.”

“There are a lot of academies popping up that are not attached to schools,” said David Maron, longtime director of the National Prep School Invitational, a tournament that has been held for more than two decades. “There are schools like that all over the country.”

In the Philadelphia and southern New Jersey area, there is Rocktop, Olympus Prep Academy, and Covenant College Prep. Central Maryland has Mt. Zion Prep, and in south central Pennsylvania there is the postgraduate program of Scotland Performance Institute.

“These kinds of programs have kind of established themselves as a step between high school and junior college for a set of student athletes,” said Jeremy McCool, the NCAA’s director of enforcement. “We have seen quite a few horror stories about what these kind of nontraditional setups can provide,” including inadequate housing and food. “And very, very, very few success stories.”

McCool, who emphasized that he was not speaking specifically about Rocktop, said basketball academies can have a hard time sustaining themselves because coaches often have a hard time getting their weaker players the kind of scholarships they want. That, in turn, hurts the schools’ marketability. Still, every time a program disappears, another one pops up, he noted. “It is like whack-a-mole,” McCool said.

Coaches say the academies are responding to a business opportunity: Young people want basketball training and exposure to make themselves more marketable to college recruiters.

“It is like building any other kind of résumé,” said Wesley Rines, Sam Rines’ son, who works as Rocktop’s marketing director, a job that includes shooting game footage that he shares with college coaches and on social media. “We are helping to build their basketball résumé.”

Ishmael Waldroy, 20, of New York City (center), and Justiz Samuels (right), 18, from Toronto, admire themselves in the mirror in the locker room while Philadelphia native Emilio Brady (left), 18, checks his phone at Aspiring Champions Training Center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, before a morning workout with the Rocktop Academy basketball team.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

Outside of teaching basketball, these academies are not schools at all. Academics are optional for players, and those who want school must make arrangements with community colleges, SAT and ACT preparation programs or other third-party educational outlets.

But book learning is not the point. At Rocktop, most of the dozen players are high school graduates with the grades necessary to play in college but not always the skills, strength or court savvy that college coaches covet. In other cases, players have the game but were overlooked in the college recruiting process. Those players and their families are gambling that Rocktop will hone their skills and give them the exposure to take them to the next level.

Rocktop helps players develop their games through constant training and competition. And with connections built over nearly three decades coaching grassroots basketball, Sam Rines serves as an invaluable reference. When Rines tells a college coach that a certain player is a shooter, or a good glue guy, or a defensive stopper, it can go a long way toward getting that player attention that might lead to a scholarship.

“Going to Rocktop helped me a lot,” said Justin Steers, a 6-foot-6-inch forward who now plays for Coppin State University in Baltimore. “We played a lot of games. Sam gave me the green light, which taught me how to lead and how to play with the ball in my hands. Plus, Sam seemed to know every college coach in the country. Everybody I talked to said, ‘Sam Rines is my guy.’ ”

Rines, 50, is a basketball lifer. He was a spot player for La Salle in the late 1980s, when the school was near the top of the national college basketball rankings and his father was a part-time assistant coach. From there, he went on to coach AAU, summer league, rec league and prep school ball. He says he worked with dozens of future collegiate players through the years and many others who made the NBA, including Kobe Bryant, Richard Hamilton, Kyle Kuzma, Tyreke Evans and Kyle Lowry.

His basketball company, Cool Hoops LLC, has run Rocktop for three years and also operates basketball camps and a recruiting service, Basketball Finders.

Members of the Rocktop Academy basketball team joke around with each other in their team van as they wait for their coaches at Woodrow Wilson Service Area in Hamilton, New Jersey, on the way to an afternoon game.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

“A lot of prep school kids fell under the radar for one reason or another,” said Ashley Howard, head basketball coach at La Salle. “Guys like Sam are valuable in that he has seen a lot of players through the years and he has good credibility when it comes to assessing talent and projecting where a player may be able to fit.”

If the story at the shimmering top of the college basketball pyramid is about schools raking in many millions of dollars while exploiting players by giving them only tuition, travel, nice swag, small stipends and a little meal money, then schools like Rocktop are the flip side of that story.

Countless players are eager to play college basketball to earn scholarships that can be worth well over $200,000 over four years. Many others just want to prolong the thrill of playing a game they love at the highest level possible. Past Rocktop players have gone on to schools including Coppin, Alabama A&M and Hillsborough Community College in Florida.

Although the very top players are sometimes offered discounts, parents most often are willing to pay the money it takes to propel the dreams of their children — even if they have to borrow it.

At Rocktop, Rines said several players are enrolled in online college courses part time, making them eligible for federally subsidized loans. Students can use part of the loan money for tuition and part of it to help pay their living expenses at Rocktop.

Nikki Beck and her husband, Basil David Beck III, said they were reluctant to send their son, Emilio Brady, 18, to Rocktop. As a high school player in the Philadelphia suburbs, the 5-foot-10-inch Emilio was a late bloomer. He did not make his high school team in ninth grade, and although he eventually made the varsity, he was never more than a role player.

“He was passive on the court,” his mother said. “He seemed more worried about making mistakes than initiating action.”

But Emilio loves basketball, and his parents could see he was steadily improving. So when he approached them about going to Rocktop, they took him seriously. He was a good student and could have gone directly to college, but walking on to even a non-scholarship Division III team would have been a long shot.

His father, a lawyer, thought the money it would cost to send Emilio to Rocktop would be best spent on college tuition. But Nikki Beck, who still remembers the sting of her parents’ refusal to support her dream of becoming an actress, prevailed when she pushed for her son to go to Rocktop.

“He eats, sleeps and drinks basketball,” she said. “I know it may be far-fetched for him to be a big-time basketball player, but at least Rocktop gives him a lived experience about being disciplined and pursuing a goal. This can be a life lesson.”

Rines thinks Emilio has what it takes to play on the Division III level next year, and Emilio’s father has come around.

“This is a gap-year basketball program,” Basil Beck said. “When we send Emilio to college next year, maybe he makes the team. Then, this is worth it.”

Basketball and more basketball

Emilio Brady, 18, waits for a ball during the Rocktop Academy basketball team’s warm-ups before an afternoon game against Covenant College Prep at the Hoop Group complex in Neptune, New Jersey.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

There is little about the Rocktop program that anyone would mistake for glamorous. While Emilio is among a handful of players who live at home, most members of the team, all of whom are 18 or over, live three to a room in a sparse, rented townhouse in an aging garden complex outside Philadelphia. The deep freezer in the house is full of easy-to-cook chicken breasts and burgers. The pantry contains boxes of cereal and more than a few jars of Alfredo sauce. Players prepare their own meals.

The team members lift weights at a local LA Fitness and practice and play games at a sports training facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where Rocktop rents court time by the hour. Those in school are allotted three hours a day to study. Otherwise, non-game days are filled with basketball, weight training, sometimes yoga and always more basketball.

Rocktop’s season stretches from September to March, longer than that at any high school or college. The team flies to a few of the most distant games, requiring the players to pay extra, but most trips are taken in a rented van driven by the coaches. This season, Rocktop has played games in Miami, Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Philadelphia; and Newark, New Jersey. Future games are scheduled in Las Vegas; Chandler, Arizona; and back in Sarasota.

The robust schedule is a key selling point for players who are excited to play against anyone — especially if they have a big name. But the schedule is subject to frequent change. A planned matchup against SPIRE Institute, an Ohio squad that includes Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball’s youngest brother, LaMelo, was scuttled in December. A November game against New Jersey high school powerhouse St. Benedict’s Preparatory was changed to a scrimmage at the last minute. The Rocktop roster is often in flux too, as players drop off the squad, mostly because they were unable to keep pace with the tuition payments, and other players are added.

So far this season, Rocktop has played or scrimmaged against community colleges and elite high school teams. They have played against exclusive private schools that produce Division I basketball talent year in and year out and schools that, like them, are full-time basketball academies. The idea is to play against the best, get the best plays on video and use that to get players the attention of college coaches.

Playing for the tape

Rocktop Academy plays against Covenant College Prep during an afternoon game at Hoop Group in Neptune, New Jersey. Rocktop lost to Covenant, 89-69.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

In the weeks before Christmas, Rocktop faced off against Westtown School, an exclusive West Chester, Pennsylvania, private school with a top-notch basketball program. Last year, the school sent shooting guard Cam Reddish to Duke. Orlando Magic big man Mohamed Bamba is a 2017 graduate.

The star of the current Westtown team is Jalen Gaffney, a 6-foot-2-inch senior guard who is committed to the University of Connecticut next season. Rocktop played reasonably well, losing by 14 points.

“They run a good structure, share the ball and play hard,” said Seth Berger, the Westtown coach. “It is a great way for us to play against college-level basketball players.”

Perhaps the greatest value for Rocktop was that Gaffney made some spectacular plays, including a couple of explosive dunks. Those highlights were featured as prominently as Rocktop’s own plays on the team’s social media feed, as well as its website, in a bid to gain the attention that the players crave.

“I’m trying to get to the best college I can get to,” said Teon Gardner, a 6-foot-3-inch combo guard from Baltimore who had some good moments against Westtown. He said the competition in the Baltimore public school league was good, but he added, “These guys we play against now are big, for real.”

Rocktop’s recent game on the Jersey Shore was against Covenant College Prep, another basketball-only academy for players trying to achieve their college basketball dreams.

The setting was bare-bones, but there was legitimate talent on the floor. Richie Jones, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-1-inch guard for Covenant, averaged more than 18 points for his New Jersey state champion high school team last year. But in part because of his size, his only college offers came from Division II and III schools and junior colleges.

The Rocktop Academy basketball players sit on the bleachers together after losing 89-69 to Covenant College Prep at Hoop Group in Neptune, New Jersey.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

“Everybody wants that full ride to a Division I school,” said his father, Richie Jones Sr. “We knew he had to get stronger, so we decided to do a year at a basketball academy.”

Olu Akinode, the father of Boye Akinode, a defensive-minded 6-foot-8-inch wing for Covenant, quickly chimed in: “The goal? It’s to go to college free. That’s it.”

Among the parents, there seemed to be no quarrel about the cost of a basketball academy. “Nothing is cheap,” said Carl Lane, whose 6-foot-5-inch son, Chase Lane, had several Division III offers but is at Covenant trying to follow three older brothers into Division I basketball.

“You have a lot of people who look down on schools like us and Rocktop because we are not schools,” said Covenant’s coach, Ian Turnbull. “A lot of other people think there is a bunch of money to be made here, but there is not. Sure, we make a living. But I tell people I get paid three ways: financially, when students go to school and when they graduate. For parents, it’s a $20,000 gamble. But if their son gets a scholarship, it’s worth $200,000. That’s what I call a good return.”

The game did not go well for Rocktop, which could not match Covenant’s size and lost. But neither players nor coaches seemed concerned. Rines was talking about an upcoming tournament where college coaches were expected to be in attendance. And his son had gotten some good footage of the squad.

Meanwhile, Emilio Brady’s shot had been off, but he pushed the ball and overall was aggressive on the court — something he was not just a few months earlier.

“I definitely think I’m getting better,” he said. “I’m enjoying this.”

Rocktop Academy basketball members walk into their team townhouse in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park after an afternoon game in Neptune, New Jersey.

Michelle Gustafson for The Undefeated

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The 23 hottest sneaker sightings of 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend LeBron, Hamidou Diallo, Dame Lillard, D-Wade — pro basketball’s best raised the bar high

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend, and the Queen City was transformed into a mecca of sneakers. Customs were commissioned and executed for athletes, celebrities and even a coach, utilizing every concept and color imaginable. And the bar for player-exclusive (PE) sneakers reached new heights of design and storytelling.

Kawhi Leonard debuted his first New Balance shoe. Puma released its second on-court sneaker of the NBA season, continuing to prove that the brand’s return to basketball is in full effect. Adidas channeled Charlotte’s rich racing history on kicks for Damian Lillard, James Harden and Kyle Lowry. The young Hamidou Diallo leapt over Shaquille O’Neal all the way to the Slam Dunk Contest trophy in a fresh pair of Under Armours that repped his upbringing. And as for Chinese sneaker giant Li-Ning, the company sent Dwyane Wade out in style in the final All-Star Game of his career. The weekend also delivered the long-awaited drop of the Adapt BB — Nike’s first auto-lacing performance basketball sneaker.

Meanwhile, the Swoosh made the sneaker world bow down to heat fit for a King — on LeBron James’ feet. And of course, in Hornets owner Michael Jordan’s city, the Jordan Brand showed out with an extensive All-Star collection featuring the retro release of the iconic “Infrared” Air Jordan 6, which MJ wore in 1991, the last time Charlotte hosted the All-Star Game. In honor of the GOAT, whose 56th birthday fell on the same day of the 68th edition of the NBA All-Star Game, these are the top 23 pairs of sneakers spotted by The Undefeated throughout the weekend.


Adidas

Damian Lillard’s dame 5 PE

Damian Lillard’s shoes during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 17 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden’s harden Vol. 3 PE

The sneakers of James Harden of Team LeBron before the 2019 NBA All-Star Game. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyle Lowry’s marquee Low Boost Low PE

Kyle Lowry’s All-Star sneakers. Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Jordan

Russell Westbrook’s “All-Star” Jordan Why Not Zer0.2

The sneakers worn by Russell Westbrook of Team Giannis during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Blake Griffin in the “Infrared” Air Jordan 6

Blake Griffin of Team Giannis sits at his locker during the 2019 NBA All-Star practice and media availability Saturday at Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Kemba Walker’s steve Wiebe x Air Jordan 10 PE

Kemba Walker’s shoes for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game. Tom O’Connor/NBAE via Getty Images

Dawn Staley’s Air Jordan 1 Custom by the original Shoe Chef

Instagram Photo

Lamarcus Aldridge in the travis Scott Air Jordan 33

LaMarcus Aldridge wears his shoes during Saturday’s 2019 NBA All-Star practice and media availability. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Shareef O’neal’s “ultra instinct” Air Jordan 10 Custom by Sierato

Instagram Photo

“Wings” Air Jordan 4

Instagram Photo

Li-Ning

dwyane wade’s Way of Wade All City 7 Custom by Solesbysir

Instagram Photo

New Balance

Kawhi LeonArd’s oMN1s pe

Kawhi Leonard’s New Balance sneakers. Tom O’Connor/NBAE via Getty Images

Nike

Kyle Kuzma’s adapt bb pe

Luka Doncic’s Kobe 4 Protro PE

The sneakers of Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks on display in the locker room Saturday night at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Quavo’s KD 11 & PG 3 Custom by Mache

Instagram Photo

Kyrie Irving’s rOKIT Kyrie 5

Kyrie Irving’s All-Star Game sneakers. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Lebron JAmes’ “Safari” LeBron 16

Sneakers worn by LeBron James during the 2019 NBA All-Star practice and media availability at Bojangles’ Coliseum. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Ronnie 2K’s Air More Uptempo by the Shoe Surgeon and Sean Wotherspoon

“Watch the Throne” LeBron 16

The sneakers on the feet of LeBron James during the 2019 NBA All-Star Game at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sunday night. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Puma

Uproar

Under Armour

Hamidou diallo’s m-tag low custom by lcs

Instagram Photo

Joel Embiid’s Anatomix Spawn custom by Dez customz and kreative custom kicks

Instagram Photo

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Duke’s Zion Williamson was the talk of the town at NBA All-Star It was a celebration of Jordan, Wade and Durant, yet the presumed No. 1 draft pick loomed large

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There’s a television hovering over a Pop-a-Shot in the corner of Fahrenheit. The swanky restaurant and lounge on the 22nd floor of the Skye Condos has the best view of Charlotte, and on Saturday it was home to J. Cole’s invite-only day party. Artists like Wale, Fabolous and Dreamville’s own J.I.D and Omen blend in with anyone who could finesse the “VIP” badge. It’s where Cole’s posted up before making the five-minute trek to the Spectrum Center to assist fellow Fayetteville, North Carolina, native Dennis Smith Jr. in the dunk contest (and go for a dunk himself).

But on the TV above the Pop-a-Shot? The Duke and North Carolina State game.

“Ain’t that where that Zion boy plays,” says a young woman, only slightly paying attention to the Pop-a-Shot.

“Yeah,” replies the guy she’s shooting against. “That [dude is] nice as s—. He’ll be here next year.”

That Zion is Zion Williamson, the talk of the town during Charlotte’s All-Star Weekend. He’s the presumptive top pick in this year’s draft and a likely marquee part of next year’s Chicago All-Star Weekend festivities. Williamson is a transcendent talent. And his vibe is already seemingly everywhere.

Even as, over the weekend, Michael Jordan celebrated his 56th birthday. Even as Charlotte welcomed hometown superstar Stephen Curry with a weekend full of pageantry. Even as Dwyane Wade’s last All-Star Weekend as a player played itself out. Even as LeBron James as one-man economy was the personification of a headline. Yes, the most unavoidable storyline was Salisbury, North Carolina’s Zion Lateef Williamson, who was technically in class.

At almost any party in Charlotte you heard Zion’s name in a litany of conversations. Walk through any hotel lobby. Sit at any bar. Williamson was the Most Valuable Player of All-Star Weekend and he wasn’t within a 120-mile radius. “I never tooted my nose up or had anything to say about the comparison to me and Zion and Zion to me,” James said at media day on Saturday. “I think it’s great — I think it’s great for the game.”

“They’re talking about me?” Zion said with a bit of a smirk. “I’m in college.”

“He’s unreal. We were talking about him the other day in our team room,” said Curry. “He has a lot of hype around him and he’s unbelievably talented, but you can’t teach, like, his passion and the way that … he plays. He plays hard every possession, and that’s an underrated skill that kids can … emulate.”

With the game’s elite taking time out of their weekend to praise him, Williamson, who dropped 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting in a victory, played it coy. “They’re talking about me?” Zion said with a smirk. “I’m in college.”

But Williamson’s time playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium is but a pit stop before multimillion-dollar contracts roll in and shoe companies engage in an arms race to acquire his services. Williamson is one of four incredibly talented freshmen at Duke, along with Tre Jones, Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett, and Barrett could be the No. 2 pick behind Williamson in June.

The freshman collective makes Duke the most hyped and the most exciting team in the country. Jones is a floor general in every sense of the word. Reddish is about cold-blooded shooting from deep. Barrett has been for years one of the most prestigious young players in the country. But it’s Williamson who has been an internet legend for years now, thanks in part to his YouTube highlight ‘mixtapes’ featuring a plethora of violent dunks. There’s also the Drake co-sign, which gives him the sort of cultural relevance most can only dream of.

Williamson may be a bull in the NBA’s culture’s china shop, but he’s nimble and graceful enough to win the respect of someone like Misty Copeland. He’s also far more than his aerial mastery. The worst-kept secret in the league is that some of the NBA’s worst teams — New York, Cleveland, Chicago — thirst for Zion not only because of his talent but because he’s a marketing department’s dream. Right or wrong, warranted or not, overhyped or not hyped enough — these are the types of conversations overheard during All-Star Weekend.

When Oklahoma City’s Hamidou Diallo was interviewed after his dunk contest victory, he was asked about Williamson, as the two had squared off in a high school dunk contest.

Williamson won that 2016 matchup, and Diallo was asked about a potential rematch next year in Chicago. “Oh, that’s tough,” he said about the possibility. “Let’s do it.” Couple that rematch with a potential Zach LaVine-Aaron Gordon rematch (the best back-and-forth since the days of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins) and Williamson has passively helped create the most anticipated dunk contest in years. And it’s a contest that could absolutely use some spiciness and intrigue, even a year in advance.

Throughout uptown Charlotte, the jerseys of this year’s All-Stars populated the streets. A healthy dose of LeBron here. Equally healthy dose of Stephen Curry there. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his own makeshift street team too, with No. 34 Milwaukee Bucks jerseys all over the place. Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and others were constant jersey presences as well. But every now and then there was a Duke No. 1 jersey, definitely not enough to rival LeBron’s fans but enough to let people know that the league’s next star is in waiting.

There are 86 days until the NBA draft lottery to see who wins the right to (presumably) select Williamson with the first overall pick. There are 123 days until the actual draft, when Williamson walks across the stage to shake the hand of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. And there are another 364 days until next year’s All-Star Game — 363 until the dunk contest. A storm brews upon the horizon.

“That dunk contest was aiiight,” one fan said to his friend as they left the Spectrum Center on Saturday night. “Nothing to write home about. They need to fix this for real.”

“Yeah, they are,” the friend said. “Zion’ll be here next year. What more do you need?”

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Sonya Curry turns experiences with racism into lessons for her children Stephen Curry’s mother reflects on racism her family endured when she was a child

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Growing up in Radford, Virginia, Sonya Curry once saw a Ku Klux Klansman light a cross on fire. She heard stories about how her mother was part of the desegregation of a high school and regularly got into fights over being called the N-word. She learned early on in her life that “racism is real.”

But through sports, Curry found a way to overcome the racism she experienced in small-town Virginia.

And while her NBA sons, Stephen and Seth Curry, were blessed to be raised by successful, educated and wealthy parents in Charlotte, she made sure they knew about her upbringing.

“The biggest thing she told us is that we grew up a little different than she did,” said Stephen Curry. “She was always quick to remind us up on the realities around the country and to appreciate our experience.”

During a weekend celebrating the NBA’s biggest stars, it was the Curry family who took center stage in Charlotte as the official hosts. For Sonya Curry, it was also a moment for her to reflect on her past — Radford sits 150-plus miles north of Charlotte.

Sonya Curry grew up in a poor African-American community where her family lived in a trailer home. Her hometown was named after the Radford family, which owned about 100 slaves, according to the The Roanoke Times via historian Jack Davis. There is a historic landmark in Radford called the Glencoe Mansion, which was built by Confederate Brig. Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton before the Civil War. Wharton’s family owned about 30 slaves, according to the paper.

Sonya’s mother, Candy Adams, said she walked 5 miles as a child to the closest all-black school in nearby Christiansburg in the 1950s and 1960s. She said blacks in Radford didn’t travel much back then because “cars weren’t readily available to black people as they are today.” Her family also shopped at black-owned stores in large part because of the racism they endured in white stores.

“If you went into a [white] store, they followed you around,” Adams told The Undefeated. “You couldn’t ride the city buses. We had to walk to school, maybe about 5 miles, because they didn’t have city buses for us and we didn’t have school buses because it was a local high school.

“We didn’t think it was that bad then. When I tell people today they say how horrible it was, but it was normal to us. We didn’t know any better.”

Public school desegregation in Virginia began on Feb. 2, 1959, and continued through the early 1970s. Adams said she was a junior in high school when she had a “frightening” experience as part of the first class that was desegregated at Radford High.

“The school was about 30 percent black and 70 percent white,” she said. “The school mascot was a [Confederate] Rebel. They had Army guards, Confederate flags and everything. They sung a racist song.”

Adams also said her brothers were beaten up by white students several times. Her mother did not let her do much outside of the family during her youth in fear of her getting in trouble. But when she did get out, she said she got into a few fights after being called the “N-word” by whites in town.

“I always got in fights,” she said. “Every time I got out I would get into a scuffle because I’m not going to be [called] too many ‘n——.’ That’s just me.”

Adams admitted her experiences made her develop a deep distrust of whites. She has overcome the pain of the racist past by talking about it over the years.

Said Sonya Curry: “She would tell me stories about almost fighting every day.”

Curry, 52, recalls being 11 years old when she was a scorekeeper at a championship game for a women’s softball league in Radford. There was an all-black team primarily made up of her family members, including her mother, playing against an all-white team. Before the first pitch, Curry and her mother said a member of the Ku Klux Klan wearing a white hood rode a white horse onto the outfield before the game.

“The game was getting ready to start, and then all of the sudden out in the field a guy in white garb from the Ku Klux Klan on a white horse rode across the outfield and lit the cross right when the game was about to start,” Curry said. “I guess it was a fear tactic. It didn’t work because all hell broke loose. My mom was on that team, aunts, cousins. They ambushed, and it was an all-out fistfight between the two teams, all women.

“[My mom’s team] was holding court, and I was like, ‘I just came here to keep score.’ Then it got broken up. They didn’t finish that game.”

Said Adams: “They thought we were going to run. We pulled up to them with bats and they ran.”

Curry said Radford High was “less than 1 percent black” when she attended the school. She was a talented athlete who was a three-sport star. She played for Radford High’s volleyball team while in the eighth grade and led the school to a Virginia AA championship as a senior. She was also on Radford’s girls’ basketball team that won two state titles and competed at the state level in the 400-meter hurdles and on the relay team.

Curry said her athletic talent shielded her from racism in high school. “You had to play sports. I had to be the best to force them to play with me,” she said.

To become the first college student in her family, she took the same classes as the top white students at Radford High. It paid off, as she was accepted to Virginia Tech as a student and volleyball player and eventually graduated with a degree in education.

“What God has for you, God has for you and nothing can block it,” Sonya Curry said. “I’m a first-generation college graduate. It wasn’t an expectation that I would go to college, period. … I made it my own personal competition that any white person next to me wasn’t going to be any better than I was. I’m going to watch them and take the classes that they take because no one is telling me what to take and I’m going to take the same classes. And that is how I ended up in college.”

While at Virginia Tech, where she was a standout volleyball player, she met future NBA star Dell Curry, a four-year starter on the Hokies’ men’s basketball team. The couple married in 1988, and their first son, Stephen, was born in Akron, Ohio, while Dell was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

When Dell Curry was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets in the 1988 NBA expansion draft, the Currys experienced more racism. The Hornets were owned at that time by George Shinn. Sonya Curry, who is a fair-skinned African-American woman, recalls Shinn erroneously thinking she was a white woman and not liking the fact that one of his black players was married to her.

“The owner called in another player, a white guy player who dated black women, and said, ‘We drafted you. We know who you like to date. But we just want to tell you to really be careful about letting people see because Dell Curry is married to a white woman and we don’t know how people are going to take them either,’ ” Sonya Curry said. “The player was like, ‘You are not going to believe what they just said.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Just the assumption of what I look like and all that.”

From left: Candy Adams, Sydel Curry, Stephen Curry and Sonya Curry take in a halftime ceremony to honor former Charlotte Hornets player Dell Curry at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 2, 2015.

Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

Dell and Sonya Curry went on to raise three children who also became sports stars. Stephen is a six-time All-Star, a three-time NBA champion and a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. Seth is a guard for the Portland Trail Blazers who also starred at Duke. Their sister, Sydel, played volleyball at Elon University.

When it became age-appropriate, Sonya began telling her kids stories from Radford.

“I don’t know what age I began telling them things, but when things came up I would say, ‘Did you know that your grandmother was part of integration as a junior in high school? Think about that,’ ” Sonya Curry said.

Stephen Curry credits his mother for helping him develop the strength of his voice on social and racial issues.

“I understand that there was stuff going on and stuff that she dealt with on a daily basis in Radford that were necessary for us to understand, even though we were brought up in a different space,” he said. “I never had to live it, per se, but I definitely understood. You could see it in her eyes when she talked about it.”

Seth Curry said he and his siblings knew they were “privileged” having a father who made millions playing in the NBA. But it was tough for them to see the trailer park she grew up in and hear her story.

“My mom always made it known to appreciate what we have and where we grew up,” Seth Curry said. “She always took us back home to where she grew up. We saw the environment. It instilled our core values in us, and she is the main reason we are the way we are today. She raised us on faith and to be grateful for everything.”

The entire Curry family was on hand as the Stephen and Ayesha Curry Family Foundation unveiled a large-scale renovation of the Carole Hoefener Center. The gym and community center has been instrumental in helping serve Charlotte. Sonya Curry said she had tears entering All-Star Weekend thinking about what impact Charlotte had on her family.

“This town raised us and has poured out love,” she said. “Now we are able to give back love to them.”

Many members of Sonya Curry’s family, who have moved from Radford to Charlotte, were on hand to see the Currys celebrate the renovation of the Hoefener Center on Friday, watch both Curry boys in the 3-point competition on Saturday and see Steph start in the All-Star Game on Sunday.

“They seem to be the first family of Charlotte, at least this week,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I have to say, on behalf of the league, we’re really appreciative of the entire family’s commitment to working with us on numerous and countless events in the community. I just hope that the Currys have energy left for the basketball.”

The highlight of All-Star Weekend for the Currys might have been Sonya hitting a stunning half-court underhand shot during a shooting competition. She said she developed the shot a couple of days earlier while practicing for the event and hitting the rim a couple of times. Her husband has said numerous times that she is the best athlete in the family.

Instagram Photo

“I can’t wait to watch it back on video and say, ‘Oh my God, it worked!’ ” Sonya Curry said about the half-court shot.

Years after using sports to survive Radford, Sonya Curry is still taking her game to new heights.

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