For generations, Philadelphia’s black athletes have brought flavor to their respective sports; flavor that encompasses many layers.
Using Curious Philly, a platform that allows our readers to participate in projects like this one, we wanted to know: Which athletes in Philly sports history have embodied black culture and the city the most?
We asked, you answered.
To celebrate Black History Month, we’re sharing the stories of five athletes who fit the bill.
There were definitely some notable names left off this list, but these players stand out for what they contributed on and off the court.
Former 76ers point guard
“Allen Iverson’s hustle could not be matched. There was so much to overcome, mental and physical. Philly is a hustle city and Iverson exemplified hustle.” — Facebook submission
Iverson broke every rule there was in the NBA fashion handbook off the court while embodying Philly in his style of play on it.
“The Answer” was known for his style, which closely emulated hip-hop icons of the early 2000s: tattoos, durags, baggy pants, oversized T-shirts, chains and sneakers.
He showed up to the 2001 MVP ceremony wearing an oversized black shirt, a black headband and a silver chain around his neck. Critics found the outfit unprofessional.
Four years later, then-NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a dress code for the league. Iverson objected to the new rule, but Stern said at the time: “We’re just changing the definition of the uniform that you wear when you are on NBA business.”
It wasn’t just off-the-court apparel: Stern also enforced a rule requiring game-worn shorts to be of a certain length, and Iverson was among those fined. New York Times columnist Selena Roberts wrote in 2005 that he was “forcing NBA players into resembling the Jerry West template for the league’s ancient logo ... The league is asking players to be anything but individuals; in the process, Stern is spoiling the diversity he should be embracing.”
In a December essay published The Players Tribune, Iverson reflected on the “thug” label he was given because of the clothes he wore.
“Man you would not believe, back in the day, how many times I would get told this and that about my clothes. AI, he’s a thug. His hair, it’s gang related. He don’t dress like a professional," he wrote. “Had to be a thousand different things people said. But it’s like — do they even get how this all works? Jewelry is just jewelry. Hair is just hair. Clothes are just clothes. Answer me this…… has anyone ever committed a crime with their HAIR? O.K., I’m young and I’m black, and I dress that way. But what am I doing — just ask yourself that.”
Years after the dress code was instituted, Iverson has reflected on what happened and felt the NBA was making an example out of him and limiting his opportunity to use style as self-expression.
Today, players like Russell Westbrook and James Harden use the filmed walk into an arena as a red carpet -- an emphasis on style indirectly influenced by Iverson and other players of his era.
“I don’t have any problems with what these guys wear because they got their own style and their own originality,” he told Complex in 2016. "That’s the way it’s supposed to be, man. Everybody is their own person. I don’t have a problem with what these guys doing and I think it would be sad and unfair if they were to try to change the dress code again.”
Along with what he was sporting into the arena, his style on the court represented the grit of Philadelphia. Few questioned The Answer’s hustle. His undersized stature -- just 6-0 -- exemplified the fortitude of Philadelphia always being counted out and his heart never being valued as much as it should.
South Carolina women’s basketball head coach
Staley grew up in North Philly and played college ball at Virginia, where she was named national player of the year twice. Her style of play mirrored the hard-nosed grit of her hometown, and she brings the same approach on the sidelines.
Inspired by her long-time mentor and one-time Temple colleague John Chaney, Staley is a no-nonsense coach.
“If she tells me to do something on the court and I’m out of it, she really can’t stand it,” A’ja Wilson, former Gamecocks star and reigning WNBA rookie of the year, told ESPN last year. “She likes to yell. I could do something great, she’s still yelling.”
In 2017, she became the second African-American female coach to win a Division-I women’s basketball title when she led South Carolina to a win over Mississippi State (Carolyn Peck was the first, at Purdue in 1999).
Staley is a champion for her players. Last year, after she was ejected from a game against Missouri for her fiery words towards officials, she explained why she felt the need to speak up.
“I have to protect my players. I have to protect them from the tears they have in the locker room. And I’m going to do that every day of the week. Every day of the week I’m going to protect my players. Every day," she told The State. "Whoever wants to call our games, whoever wants to talk about our kids, I’m going to protect them every day of the week, and I protected them today.”
After the same game, Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk accused Staley of promoting a hostile atmosphere that led South Carolina fans to call Tigers players the "n" word. Staley sued the AD for defamation, and settled for $50,000 -- evidence that she will do anything to ensure she and her players are treated fairly.
The South Carolina team chant -- “We all we got, we all we need” -- is another example of the family model Staley emphasizes with her program. She wants her team and the entire community to feel as though they are a part of the team, and they show up: South Carolina led the nation in attendance last season, averaging 13,239 fans per game.
In addition to making an impact on the court, Staley uses her platform off of it: she has been vocal about the lack of opportunities for black female coaches in basketball.
“He is the total package. He’s an elite athlete who combines talent with hard work and self motivation. He is stylish and articulate and thus is able to represent the evolved Philadelphia to the world. His progressive politics and diplomatic skills, speaking out on behalf of vital social issues like racial justice and criminal justice reform, represent our city as it should be. I am so proud and pleased that Malcolm Jenkins has made Philadelphia his home.” -- Curious Philly submission
Jenkins has his social activist hat on at all times. Being a black man in America will do that.
He is a philanthropist, social activist, business owner, and most notably, plays safety for the Eagles.
His Malcolm Jenkins Foundation has been a vehicle to provide resources to youth in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Louisiana. He co-founded The Players Coalition, a group of NFL athletes working to make an impact on social justice and racial equality, in 2017. And in Philadelphia he has been a champion for abolishing the cash-bail system, raising money for nine people to get bailed out just before Thanksgiving and using his platform to highlight how this system discriminates against the voiceless.
“... I watched bail hearings in the basement of the Criminal Justice Center. The stakes at these hearings could not be higher: the chance to fight for your freedom outside a jail or time in a cage; release to a job and family or loss of employment and support. And yet it is a farce to pretend that there is justice in that room,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Inquirer in December.
On the field, Jenkins has made three Pro Bowls and won two Lombardi trophies. Off the field, he’s also a businessman who has demonstrated taste when it comes to fashion: If he’s sporting a suit, it most likely came from Damari Savile, his shop on the corner of Walnut and 7th he co-owns with Eric White.
From his play, to his advocacy, to his business acumen, Jenkins is an icon for the city of Philadelphia.
Phillies center fielder
“Garry Maddox. Two thirds of the earth is covered by water. He covered the rest. Philanthropist and businessman and Vietnam veteran.” -- Curious Philly submission
Maddox’s perfectly shaped afro peaking out underneath his cap never lost its “oomph.”
He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1968 but missed two seasons, 1969 and 1970, while serving in the Vietnam War. He reached the majors in 1972 and was traded to the Phillies in 1975.
Maddox won a Golden Glove in his first eight seasons with the Phillies, and helped lead them to a World Series title in 1980. In 1986, the year he retired, he won baseball’s Roberto Clemente award for his outreach in the city of Philadelphia.
After retiring, Maddox invested in Philadelphia through businesses and community activities. He’s the CEO of the Philadelphia-based A. Pomerantz & Company and, for 15 years, organized a barbecue challenge fundraiser outside Citizens Bank Park to raise money for at-risk youth in the city.
Maddox told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2014 how grateful he was to end up in Philly.
“I think the best decision that I made in my life was to retire here in Philadelphia," he said. “By retiring here the business community reached out to me. ... I’ve learned to always have people around me that are smarter than me and to always give back to the community, so those are the things that I focus on in almost everything that I do.”
A bronze statue of Smokin’ Joe sits in front of Xfinity Live!, a physical reminder of the impact the boxer left on the city of Philadelphia.
Frazier, a native of Beaufort, South Carolina, was an adopted son. In 1971, an undefeated Frazier unanimously won the heavyweight title in a defeat of Muhammad Ali in Ali’s first fight back after refusing to enter the draft. The “Fight of the Century” in 1971 was, in a larger context, a win for Philadelphia.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the city struggled. The manufacturing industry went under, and population, economic, and industry growth had become stagnant. Frazier’s win provided hope for folks of color who were hit the hardest by unemployment who could watch someone who looked like them succeed.