Neil deGrasse Tyson to Kyrie Irving: “I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA” Astrophysicist is pop culture’s ultimate superfan

Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to talk. Loves it. When you ask the New York native and director of the Hayden Planetarium a question, his voice lights up. Whether it’s about science or popular culture, Tyson is eager to educate, often offering more than you even asked for.

The fourth season of National Geographic’s StarTalk, his hit late-night talk show (née podcast) that features the likes of Bill Clinton and Terry Crews, premieres Oct. 15. “I care deeply about what role pop culture plays in hearts, minds and souls,” said DeGrasse. StarTalk mixes science with comedy with interesting conversation for a show both entertaining and educational — but most importantly, accessible. “I can start where you are, what you bring to the table, and I just add to that,” he said. “I think that’s part of the successful recipe of StarTalk.”

What’s a bad habit that you have?

I’m always aware of bad habits, so I’ve probably gotten rid of it already. I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, [fried] in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw? Is it a bad habit, or is it just a habit? The real question is, if anyone has a bad habit, why haven’t they done anything about it yet if they are self-aware it is bad? I used to twirl my hair when I was a kid, but then I stopped. I notice when other people are twirling their hair, it’s interesting. I empathize with them.

“Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body.”

Kyrie Irving once said that the world is flat, although he later admitted to (supposedly) trolling. What would you say to him about this?

We live in a free country, where you can think and feel what you want, provided it doesn’t violate someone else’s freedoms. I greatly value that. So to Kyrie Irving I would say, ‘I’m glad you play basketball instead of serve as head of NASA.’ It’s a reminder there are jobs for people who have no idea what science is or how and why it works. And in his case, basketball is serving him well. The problem comes about if you are not scientifically literate, hold nonscientific views and rise to power over legislation and laws that would then affect us all. That’s the recipe for social and cultural disaster.

What’s the last museum you visited? Do you find yourself going to museums often?

I very much enjoy museums. The last museum I went to that was not local in New York City … it was an art museum in Sydney, Australia. There was a whole section that had aboriginal art, not only of Australians but also some from the Maori tribes of New Zealand.

“I have an unrealistic attraction to kettle chips. The crunchier chips, fried in peanut oil, no shortage of salt — is that a flaw?”

What is your favorite social media spot?

Lately, I have to say Twitter because of the value I derive from it. I have these random thoughts every day, and Twitter is a means by which I share these thoughts with the public. And in an instant, I get to see people’s reactions. Were they offended? Did they laugh? Did they misinterpret it? Did they overinterpret it? So I get a neurosynaptic snapshot of how people react to thoughts that I have. And this deeply informs public talks that I give. It’s my way to get inside people’s heads without violating their space.

People go to your Twitter feed to learn, so it’s nice to hear that you enjoy learning from your followers.

It’s not like I’m Professor Neil on Twitter. I tweet about a lot of really random things. People say, ‘Why don’t you give us the latest news?’ I’m not a news source. If I don’t think about that news today, you ain’t getting a tweet about it. I don’t start the day saying, ‘What am I going to tweet today? Let me think something up.’ No, it’s random. … You just happen to be eavesdropping in my brain. Before the end of the month I’ll be engaging in my Instagram account. I’ve yet to post to it. I deeply value photographic arts. It’ll mostly be artsy things, more artsy than purely educational. Then I write my own little caption about it.

So no pictures of your dinner?

If the dinner evokes some cosmic thought, yes, you’ll get a picture of my dinner. Otherwise, no.

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

I think about Jesse Owens often. I think about Jackie Robinson often. Simply because of how great they were at what they did, how honed they were in their performance and the fact that their existence meant more than their performance. In other words, the whole was greater than the sum of their parts: great athlete, at an important time, doing an important thing, having an influence on people in a positive direction.

Have you ever been starstruck?

I was a little bit starstruck when I interviewed Jeremy Irons. There are movies he’s been in where I just — how can you be this good in that role? How is that even possible? And just to shake his hand and interview him for StarTalk, that meant a lot to me. And here’s one you won’t expect. I’ve never met him, but I’d be delighted to. I’ve got him on my short list: Dwayne Johnson. I used to have a body that kind of resembled his body. He’s beefier in the last two years than he was about 10 years ago, when he was actually wrestling. He beefed up extra for the Fast and the Furious series, so not in that state, but in an earlier state, of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. When I looked like that, no one was interviewing me in the newspapers. No one was asking to publish my books. So he’s a modern reminder of a lost chapter of my life.

When you were wrestling in high school, did you want to become a pro wrestler?

No. No, no, no. No! You want to talk about physics — physics in pro wrestling is what allows things to look like they hurt when they don’t. But it’s the laws of physics exploited to fool you, rather than exploited to win.

What sport do you most enjoy watching, from a purely physical standpoint?

I like many. And there is physics in all sports, so I don’t rank them in this way. In fact, StarTalk because of the success of our shows where we cover sports, we spun off an entire branch called Playing With Science. It’s all the ways science has touched sports. We talk about famous catches, famous hits. We do talk about concussions. We brought in a neuroscientist to talk about [concussions] from football. We talk about NASCAR and the technology involved with that. We talk about the physics of driving around a track. There’s a lot of fun physics in essentially everything, you know why? Because there’s physics in everything.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Allen Iverson suspended one game for missing a game and other news of the week The Week That Was July 31-Aug. 4

Monday 07.31.17

New York Jets safety Jamal Adams, drafted to a team that went 5-11 last season, told an audience “if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” Teammate Morris Claiborne, not to be outdone, said he too would “die out there on that football field.” Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett, on the other hand, “ain’t dying for this s—.” The Baltimore Ravens signed another quarterback who is not Colin Kaepernick. Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, trying so hard to encourage star forward LeBron James stay with the team, was approved to build a jail complex in Detroit. President Donald Trump tweeted “No WH chaos.” Six hours later, recently hired White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who is not dead, lost his job. Multiple White House officials, or “the best people,” were tricked into responding to emails from a British prankster. Twelve inmates broke out of an Alabama prison using peanut butter. University of Central Florida kicker Donald De La Haye was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for making YouTube videos.

Tuesday 08.01.17

Guests at a New York City hotel won’t stop having sex up against their room windows; “Guys are together, girls and girls are together. They don’t even pull the shades down,” one resident said. A congressional staffer instructed a group of interns to not leak a meeting with White House adviser Jared Kushner; it was immediately leaked. Hall of Fame basketball player Michael Jordan said eccentric helicopter dad LaVar Ball couldn’t “beat me if I was one-legged.” Ball, keeping his name in the news, said Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski “can’t hang with me back in my heyday.” “Marijuana moms” is a cute new name for mothers who like to smoke weed; meanwhile, the government still wants to arrest certain people for marijuana use. NASA is hiring a person to protect Earth from aliens. Former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said Kaepernick, who hasn’t publicly spoken in months, should not talk openly about his social activism if he wants another job. Recently retired NBA player Kobe Bryant is getting thick. Two planes designated to be the new Air Force 1 were originally scheduled to be sold to a Russian airline. Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, known for hits like “I want to f—ing kill all the leakers,” invested almost half a million into an anti-bullying musical. Trump called the White House “a real dump.”

Wednesday 08.02.17

NBA Hall of Famer and BIG3 player-coach Allen Iverson, who has played in just half of his team’s games, averaging 9.1 minutes and two points per game, has been suspended one game by the league for missing a recent game. The Ravens are interested in another quarterback not named Kaepernick. Former second overall NBA draft pick Darko Milicic punched a horse in the face. The NFL released a video defining acceptable (simulating sleep) and unacceptable (twerking, pelvic thrusts) celebrations for the upcoming season. California Highway Patrol officers responded to reports of a kangaroo on an interstate highway; it was a raccoon. A 10-year-old boy named Frank, who admires Trump’s “business background,” offered to mow the lawn of the White House … for free.

Thursday 08.03.17

Trump told Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto “I won New Hampshire because New Hampshire is a drug-infested den”; Trump lost New Hampshire. Dukes of Hazzard actor Tom Wopat was arrested for allegedly peeling the sunburned skin off the arm of a woman and putting his finger between the butt cheeks of another woman; in response to the allegations, Wopat responded “F— them all.” A third person was arrested in Kentucky for allegedly digging up the grave of one of the suspect’s grandmother in search of valuables; “He should have known better because he was there in the funeral and he knew she didn’t have much to start with,” a relative said.

In “boy, he about to do it” news, special counsel Robert Mueller impaneled a grand jury for his investigation into Russian interference in the last year’s presidential election. A New Jersey man, possibly an eggplant emoji kind of guy, was kicked out of a showing of The Emoji Movie for pleasuring himself in the back row of the theater. A London pub, aptly named the Cock Tavern, banned the use of profanity; a patron responded to the restriction: “That’s bulls—.” The Secret Service, charged with protecting Trump and his family, was evicted from Trump Tower in Manhattan. Gov. Jim Justice (D-West Virginia) will switch to the Republican Party; the state party’s Twitter account said Justice “would be the worst thing to happen to WV” before last year’s election and called him “low-energy” and “Sad!” an hour before news broke of the party change.

Friday 08.04.17

Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who unearthed the Monica Lewinsky affair while investigating former President Bill Clinton for something else, in response to the Russia investigation, said, “we don’t want investigators or prosecutors to go on a fishing expedition.” Former President Barack Obama was blamed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the “culture of leaking” currently ravaging the Trump administration. Los Angeles Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, the architect of the Austin Rivers trade, was fired from and kept his job at the same time. Former welterweight champion Amir Khan, playing himself, accused his wife in a series of early morning tweets of cheating on him with heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua; Khan’s wife, Faryal Makhdoom Khan, responded by calling her husband a cheater, a 30-year-old baby, and accused him of sleeping with a prostitute in Dubai. Joshua responded to both set of tweets with a video snippet of Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” music video and a message that “I like my women BBW [Big Beautiful Women].”

Greg Marius married hoops and hip-hop to revive the Rucker summer league His Entertainers Basketball Classic in Harlem changed the streetball game

Something felt different as I came up the stairs from the 155th Street subway station in Harlem that Monday in 2001. Beneath the midafternoon July sun, the line outside Holcombe Rucker Park stretched down the block behind blue police sawhorse barriers. The crowd was mostly teens and grown men, dipped in standard summer street attire: icy white T-shirts, do-rags, cornrows, baggy jeans and shorts, fitted baseball caps. Security guards in bright orange Rocawear shirts patted down everyone seeking a seat. No weapons, no cameras. Those were the house rules at the world’s most famous streetball tournament, the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC).

It was the EBC’s 20th anniversary season, and I had been spending four nights a week roaming the sidelines for a magazine partnership with Greg Marius, the EBC’s founder/commissioner. I knew that Marius, who died of cancer last week at age 59, loved putting on a show for his native Harlem — and that the former rapper yearned to have an impact beyond his neighborhood. The smile on Marius’ wide, brown face when he advised me to get to the park early meant this day would be truly special.

I noticed that the first two teams warming up were not part of the regular rotation. There were no city legends such as Rafer “Skip To My Lou” Alston, Adrian “Whole Lotta Game” Walton, Larry “Bone Collector” Williams, Kareem “Best Kept Secret” Reid, or Malloy “Future” Neysmith. Also absent were NBA stars from that summer such as Ron Artest, Mark Jackson, Cuttino Mobley, Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson. The teams on the court were young, with more white players than usual. They looked out of place. This was Uptown, where local celebrities Al Cisco and Keith Slob did the Harlem Shake. Where famed announcers Hannibal, Boobie Smooth, and the duo of Duke Tango and Al Cash rocked the mic. The crowd came out to see their local heroes. Who were these schoolboys?

Suddenly, a convoy of black vehicles pulled into a restricted area near the handball courts, bringing the game to a sudden halt. Murmurs ran through the metal bleachers. Police and the Secret Service spread through the park. In walked former President Bill Clinton, who had recently opened an office on 125th Street. A collective gasp echoed through the crowd.

Clinton, just a few months out of office, made his way into the VIP section flanked by then-NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver. NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, a Brooklynite and EBC legend, joined the trio. Marius stood next to the scorer’s table, wearing his Cheshire cat smile as if it were just another day at the park. Like Biggie Smalls said, you never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.

All because of Marius’ signature blend of hoops, hip-hop and Harlem hustle.

The son of a community activist mother and hospital chemist father, Marius was raised in a brownstone in the revered Strivers’ Row neighborhood. His first act was as Greg G, a rapper in the early ’80s group the Disco Four. Recording in the early days of rap on wax, the Disco Four were true ghetto superstars. Marius co-wrote singles such as “Move to the Groove” and “Do It, Do It” on Enjoy Records and “We’re at the Party” on Profile. His writing credits continued as a part of Rooftop Records, which was the early home of artists such as Kool Moe Dee and a young Harlem prodigy named Teddy Riley.

Entertainer’s Basketball Classic CEO Greg Marius attends the Launch of the new Reebok Question Mid EBC & A5 with Cam’ron and Jadakiss at Rucker Park on August 4, 2016 in New York City.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Reebok

Marius also was a hooper. About 6-foot-5 and solidly built, Marius said he was on the team at St. John’s University during his time as a student there. The EBC was born when the Disco Four, live on the airwaves of WHBI during the legendary Mr. Magic’s radio show, challenged the rival Crash Crew to a game.

The EBC followed a trail blazed by Holcombe Rucker, a city parks worker who invented the concept of summer youth basketball leagues in 1946. Holcombe Rucker’s men’s tournament drew world-class talent to various NYC parks from the ’50s through the ’70s, then fell into decline. In 1987, Marius moved his EBC to a court that the city had recently named Rucker Park, in the shadow of the Polo Grounds housing projects at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue. Those early years were lean for Marius and his partner, a street dude known only as Gusto, who used to run Harlem’s legendary Rooftop nightclub. EBC went nearly 10 years with no sponsors, surviving on loans and skimpy entry fees. Long before YouTube highlights, Marius and Gusto sold VHS tapes from their Entertainers Store on 153rd Street.

Then the rap industry blew up in the 1990s, and EBC began landing five-figure team sponsorships from record labels such as Cold Chillin’, Def Jam and Uptown. Having your name on a Rucker squad bestowed clout in a rap industry that was often synonymous with the streets. And no one can gloss over the fact that EBC exploded along with the crack game. For all of the mainstream polish that would come in later years, the tournament has always been a place for drug dealers and stickup kids — and their rap game cousins — to floss. Yet Marius and Gusto kept it safe, as one of the tournament’s missions was to provide a haven for local youths during the hot summer months.

As the ’90s progressed, rappers went from doing shows at clubs to selling out stadium tours. Yesterday’s street dude was remixed as a hip-hop entrepreneur. Everybody seemed to have a record label and/or clothing line. Marius, meanwhile, had EBC at Rucker Park. Making it magical every summer was his full-time job. Each year, the tournament kept getting better and names kept getting bigger. Vince Carter. Allen Iverson. Kobe Bryant. His EBC helped record companies break new artists and records. Corporations realized that his tournament was the key to breaking into the coveted urban marketplace. That street/corporate balance was the power of the EBC.

I met Marius as he was cracking the mainstream in a major way. In the winter of 2000, my partner Jesse Washington, now a senior writer for The Undefeated, and I sat down with Marius at Londel’s restaurant and pitched him a magazine that would document all things related to his tournament. This is before the internet explosion, back when two-way pagers were cutting-edge tech. Think about it, we told him: EBC the Magazine.

Marius silently looked at a picture of himself on the inside cover of the prototype we had made. I could see him calculating the angles. Marius knew the streets had never seen anything like this. He enjoyed making his next move even better than the last one. This could be a power move for both his brand and himself.

Still, Marius was often leery of outsiders, myself included, who approached him with bright ideas on how to partner up and turn a profit. If he didn’t know you, or couldn’t associate you with someone he knew from around the way, then you weren’t in his scope. Marius had to be a wily individual to survive the sharks in the streets all those years. Harlem was his world, yet he yearned for what he had built to be recognized on a bigger stage. Other city tournaments were on the come up, poaching his players and crowds, wooing his sponsors. But none of those other tournaments had a magazine.

Interacting with Marius over the summer of 2001, I came to view him as a hard character to truly peg. At his core he was a good dude, raised by good parents in a good neighborhood. This background stood in stark contrast to the shadowy characters and cutthroat street environments that surrounded his adult life. Doing business with Marius was tricky. Because he was getting checks from so many different places, I never knew when his other hustles would bump up against our magazine. “Hype it up, but keep it separate” is one of his most memorable quotes to me.

The Rucker Park court stayed hot that summer. After Clinton stopped by, Shaquille O’Neal made a cameo after winning the NBA title. Street legends and NBA stars mixed it up game after game. I even found my way onto a team in the women’s division thanks to rapper and EBC team owner Fat Joe. My game wasn’t at its peak, but I managed to knock down a couple of jumpers, grab some steals and rebounds, and even earned the nickname “The Editor,” aka “The Magazine,” from announcer Al Cash.

With Marius at the helm, the EBC not only stayed relevant for 30 years but also revived the Rucker name and spread it across the globe. Marius was able to navigate among the illest of street dudes and still receive Secret Service clearance to host a president in Harlem. Greg’s Harlem.

The basketball world will always know the Rucker. Harlem will never forget Greg Marius.