Why ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was a game-changer The longest-running sitcom about an Asian American family is entering its last season

Progress can feel both glacially slow and lightning quick at the same time. In 2015, when ABC premiered Fresh Off the Boat, it was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994. Now six seasons later, the longest running sitcom about an Asian American family in television history will come to an end in February after 116 episodes.

ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke said of the show: “We couldn’t be prouder of this game-changing show and the impact it has had on our cultural landscape.” It was an impact that deserves its due.

From left to right: ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat stars Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang, Ian Chen as Evan Huang, Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Randall Park as Louis Huang, Lucille Soong as Grandma Huang, Chelsey Crisp as Honey, and Ray Wise as Marvin.

ABC/Andrew Eccles

I grew up in Southern California, infatuated with Hollywood. That was fitting, considering my mom named me after actor Cary Grant. She and I bonded over movies and TV. For an immigrant who came to this country with little family and no friends, movies often provided a respite for my mom’s transition to a new world despite the language barrier. It was a joy she loved sharing with me. That’s the power of film. But for all the content we consumed, we rarely had the chance to watch vivid, complex characters who looked like us.

When I was in kindergarten, Top Gun came out and my friend and I were on the jungle gym pretending to be Maverick and Iceman. I distinctly remember not even considering being Maverick because I thought there was no way I could possibly be the most important person in a story. Even if it was my own. I didn’t look the part. People like me never looked the part. Maybe, just maybe, I could be the main character’s friend.

I remember acting out imaginary movies in my house, pretending to be the blond, white hero, because that seemed like a better reality. I didn’t see any American-born Asian man without a heavy accent living his best life on-screen. It’s so clichéd and I roll my eyes as I write this — but that’s why representation matters. It’s not an affront to the status quo, it’s just a minority voice that says, “I also exist.”

In Netflix’s new film, Dolemite is My Name, the Lady Reed character (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) says: “I’m so grateful for you putting me in this movie because I ain’t never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen.” It’s a common sentiment among minorities. Randall Park, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat, posted on Instagram about the show’s cancellation: “When I first started in this business … I would’ve been completely happy to be a funny neighbor or snarky co-worker. At the time, those were the kinds of roles that were available for folks like me.”

From left to right: Ian Chen, Forrest Wheeler and Hudson Yang in Fresh Off the Boat’s Cousin Eddie episode on Dec. 14, 2018.

Byron Cohen via Getty Images

Actor Ken Jeong recently tweeted: “If it wasn’t for #FreshOffTheBoat there would be no #DrKen or #CrazyRichAsians.” Fresh Off the Boat set the course for what could be for Asian American representation, while Crazy Rich Asians, the highest grossing romcom in the last decade, sprinted away with the baton. Since Crazy Rich Asians, which stars Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, studios are suddenly interested in Asian American stories, including Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe with Randall Park and comedian Ali Wong, a former writer on Fresh Off the Boat.

By no means is Fresh Off the Boat a perfect show. Loosely based on chef/author/long-suffering Knicks fan Eddie Huang’s memoir, the show’s ratings have been in steady decline and even Wu voiced frustration when the show was last renewed. But I will always remember the first episode of its third season, which encapsulated the first-generation immigrant experience in a way I’d never seen before. In the Coming to America episode, the Huang family visits Taiwan, where they emigrated from. While there, they realize they’ve changed and Taiwan is no longer the comforting home it once was. But when they are in America, they have no family, stick out as the only Asian Americans in their white suburban neighborhood and never truly fit in because of their appearance and traditions. At this point, the father character (Park) says: “We are Patrick Swayze in Ghost — stuck between two worlds, part of both, belonging to neither.”

Fresh Off the Boat was the first network show with an Asian American cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl premiered in 1994.

Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

That episode explained and made relatable in one sentence a tough experience to describe: the in-betweenness of immigrant life. That’s not just applicable to Asians, but to everyone — Latino, African, European, etc. How do you connect to your root country if you’ve never been there? How do you wholly embrace America, when America doesn’t always embrace you back? Where do I belong if I’m always proving or defending my right to be here?

Like any content featuring minorities, Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t represent the entire Asian American diaspora, but I sure could relate to a helluva lot of it. It helped usher Asian American faces into the limelight, share some of our culture and dispel stereotypes. And it just might help some little Asian kids struggling with their identity to believe they don’t have to be Iceman in their own life story. They, too, can be Maverick.

With ‘Brian Banks’ and ‘Clemency,’ actor Aldis Hodge finds the humanity in men society wants to discard ‘Banks’ tells the story of a football star falsely accused of rape

Aldis Hodge has the kind of face that makes you squint and try to place where you’ve seen him before.

Because you’ve seen him before. A lot.

But now, you’re about to see him.

“He told me, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that.”— Brian Banks on actor Aldis Hodge

At 32, Hodge has a long list of acting credits under his belt. He started off as a kid, along with his brother, Edwin, playing small unnamed roles like “Masked teen” and “Basketball teen #2” and “Graduate #1.” He’s had brief roles on NYPD Blue, ER and Cold Case, and he’s also been in cult favorites like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Things began to shift in 2006 when he earned a role in the critically acclaimed high school football drama Friday Night Lights. Portraying Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, the quarterback who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, he got the chance to show the emotional complexity he could bring to a character on a large stage. That led to a role on TNT’s Leverage, which ran for five seasons and had him working alongside Timothy Hutton.

And now — finally! — he has a leading role in a film.

In the film, Aldis Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Brian Banks’ life.

Everett Collection

Opening on Aug. 9 is Brian Banks, the true tale of a former high school football star whose dreams of playing in the NFL were derailed by a false rape accusation.

This role is yet another indication that Hodge is on the brink of being the next big thing. Just please don’t call him that. Not to his face, at least.

“People have been telling me for years the thing that I could not stand. They’re like, ‘Yo, man, you next!’ I’m like, ‘Y’all have been telling me that for 10 years!’ ” he says before breaking into a quick laugh. “They’re well-meaning, absolutely well-meaning, but they don’t understand. For an artist who continually sees next, next, next, but you see all these other people come up in that time that they tell you, ‘Next.’ There’s a whole wave of cats coming up, but you’re like, ‘How long am I going to be next?’ ”


Coming later this year is more excellent work from Hodge in Clemency, a film that is already making critics’ short lists for award competitions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor — the exact state is unidentified — will grant him clemency. The story was inspired by the 2011 execution of Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the Aug. 19, 1989, murder of police officer Mark MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case attracted widespread attention, including pleas for clemency from former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former FBI director William Sessions.

In Clemency, Hodge plays a black man on death row who is hoping that the governor will grant him clemency.

Eric Branco

Although we’ve seen Hodge toiling on the small screen and in films for nearly 25 years, this moment and these two films mean Hodge is a name to be remembered.

In other words, Hodge acts his behind off. In Clemency, Hodge impresses alongside veteran Alfre Woodard, who plays the prison warden, and Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks as the condemned man’s estranged partner — both of whom could hear their names nominated for top honors early next year.

Both Clemency and Brian Banks are films that you want to talk about and, in some cases, may make you want to get active after you see them. The real connective tissue, at least as of late, is stories where Hodge gets to find the humanity in characters who might normally be seen as inhumane.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 2 years old,” Hodge says. “Back when I was 14, I [said] that I want to stop taking particular types of roles. The stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people, and I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.”

“I want to stop taking particular types of roles, the stereotypical tropes or this or that didn’t represent the totality of black people by culture is, right? And I wanted it to show the other side of us because we grew up seeing a completely different side and wanted to represent that truth.” — Aldis Hodge

Hodge says he finally assembled the right team to help him find such stories. Not all of the roles he brings to life affect social change, but simply portraying a diverse representation of black men, he says, ultimately helps move the needle for how black men are treated in real life.

“Like my role on Leverage. It was a fun action show. It was cool, but I played a very intelligent hacker, and to me that spoke to truth because they saw the black man playing the hacker,” Hodge says. “My father used to take apart and build computers. That’s normal in the black community, but we don’t see it represented all the time. So for me, that was truth that hadn’t been exposed in that way.

“I’m an actor. I’m not a type of actor, not a dramatic actor, not a comedic actor. I can do whatever, whenever, however. … If we’re going to be funny, how can we make it better? How can we give the audience a better experience? If we’re going to do drama, how can I engage the idea of being with it all? Emotional impact in a completely new way that the audience hasn’t really seen yet?”


Hodge has been in films before: Hidden Figures (the husband of aerospace engineer Mary Jackson), Straight Outta Compton (as MC Ren) and most recently What Men Want (as the love interest to Taraji P. Henson’s sports agent). He laughs pretty hard when I remind him he once starred alongside LeBron James in a 2011 State Farm commercial. (“Back in the day!”)

But carrying the title character in Brian Banks? That’s major.

The real Brian Banks, who is now 34, knew he had found the man to play him in the movie almost immediately.

“Aldis was the first actor that was presented to me as one who would play me in this film. And I remember him most from Underground. And what he did with Underground was very powerful. I’ve seen him in Big Momma’s House, back when he was young, playing basketball, Straight Outta Compton and Leverage,” Banks said.

“And then, after meeting him, the first thing he told me was, ‘I don’t want to just act out this thing. I want to become you.’ And I really respect that. Hearing that from him, it really said a lot about him. It said a lot about his methods as far as how he was going to tap into the story.”

Banks’ story is well-known. He was wrongfully convicted of rape at age 16 and spent nearly six years imprisoned and five years on parole, during which he had to wear a GPS tracking device and register as a sex offender. His conviction was overturned in 2012 after the classmate who had accused him confessed that she made up the incident.

Before he was accused, Banks had verbally committed to USC during his junior year at Long Beach’s Polytechnic High School. His teammates there were future NFL players DeSean Jackson, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Marcedes Lewis.

Brian Banks attends a special screening of Bleecker Street’s Brian Banks on July 31 in Long Beach, California.

Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images

After Banks was exonerated, he once again began to pursue the professional football career he’d dreamed of as a kid. After several tryouts with NFL teams, Banks began playing for the Las Vegas team in the UFL in 2012, but the league suspended the season because of “mounting debt” after he had played in only two games. The following year, Banks was signed by the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played in four preseason games at linebacker before being released. In 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to speak to league rookies, and he then joined the NFL as a manager in the Football Operations Department and assisted the Officiating Department on game days.

In the film, Hodge taps into the emotional roller coasters that make up Banks’ life.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three-dimensional character,” says Sherri Shepherd, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother. “There were scenes where every time you see him talk to his parole officer … and I just … I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had … a searching, ‘Please help me, protect me,’ that he had.”

“Those stories gravitate towards me,” Hodge says. “I played basketball, terribly, on a league from 14 years old on up. But my real sport, growing up, was fighting.”

“I still train in martial arts to this day. But I used to compete with southern Shaolin kung fu, and then I moved up to wushu and jeet kune do, taking it to the traditionalist Chinese styles. I do a little bit of capoeira. And then … Philippine knife and stick fighting. And then also Muay Thai, which I love. … I absolutely love fighting. I love the physicality, the capability of what we can do with our bodies.”


Given the critical response to Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, Hodge’s two new films and an Emmett Till series coming to ABC, it feels like a moment.

“He’s phenomenal at giving you layers to a character and creating a three dimensional character. I was in awe of the range that was displayed. It was this tenderness that he had. … a searching, ‘please help me, protect me’ that he had.” — Sherri Shepard, who acts alongside Hodge as Banks’ mother

“I think that people are starting to finally understand just how serious this space of wrongful conviction really is,” Banks says. “We have a judicial system that ideally we like to protect the innocent and keep our citizens safe. But often, it happens where the wrong person is locked up, the wrong person is prosecuted. And to just imagine losing life, losing time that you will never get back for something that you didn’t do. Being placed in a cage like an animal for a crime you didn’t commit, watching the dismantling of your family and connection and bond that you have to friends and so forth, and your community. I think that people are starting to really see and understand that this is a very serious subject, just like any other serious subject that we give so much time, attention and money to.

“There are so many people in this world that are uninformed about these types of traumatic experiences and things that go on. So I think that we have to be creative and innovative in a way to where we turn these real-life stories into works of art and some pieces of film so that people that are uninformed, that choose not to be informed, they will be informed by way of being entertained, going to see a movie and then learning something about their city, their community, their society, and hopefully be provoked to want to see change.”

And that’s the work that inspires an actor like Hodge.

“When it comes to digging into these roles, the harder it gets for the characters, and the more honest we get about the situations, the more excited I get,” Hodge says. “I get excited about those because people can see the truth. And what excites me most about these is that we are dignifying and honoring the characters that we play from a point of respect and deference.”

“And then, when I see people are affected, the thing that triggers in my mind is, ‘Oh, now we’ve hit them in the heart space!’ And, hopefully, in the mental space. Hopefully, these people can go out and leave here affected enough to help improve the situation that they just came from watching. Right?”

From ‘The Last O.G.’ to hosting The ESPYS, Tracy Morgan is back Returning from a horrific accident, the comic had to learn to be funny again

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”

Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.

He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.

“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.

Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.

It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.

We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.

He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.

“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.

The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.


Tracy Morgan and Allen Maldonado of TBS’s “The Last O.G” attend the WarnerMedia Upfront 2019 arrivals on the red carpet at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on May 15, 2019 in New York City.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.

The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.

“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”

The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.

And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.

“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”


June 6, 2019: Tracy Morgan at his home in Alpine, New Jersey just a few weeks from the five-year anniversary of the traffic accident that nearly killed him.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.

I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.

His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.

“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”

Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.

That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.

“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”

Morgan pauses.

“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”

Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”

“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”

Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.

His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.

“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.

“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”

“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”

And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”


Comedians Chris Rock, left, and Amy Schumer, center, sit with actor Tracy Morgan and Morgan’s daughter Maven during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, Feb. 26, 2018, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.

The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.

“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.

“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.

“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”

I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?

He nods.

“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”

Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.

In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.

“This story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”

After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.

“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”

“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”

Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”

That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.

It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.

“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


“I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?”

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”

Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.

“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”

“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.

“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”

“Yeah.”

“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”

Morgan laughs at his own story.

“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”

As 2019’s new fall TV shows come into focus, more black antihero stories need to be told In putting black characters who dwelled in darkness on screen, ABC and others expanded the meaning of mainstream blackness

TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.

Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”

“Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.

So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.

As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.

That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.

The hit show Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes (left) and starring Kerry Washington (right), debuted in 2012 and announced the arrival of a new era in black television.

Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images

Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.

The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.

But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.

The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard (right) star in the Fox hit Empire as Cookie and Lucious Lyon.

Photo by FOX via Getty Images

And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?

The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting.

On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.

Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.

Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.

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.

Instagram Photo

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.

ABC cancels ‘Roseanne’ after Roseanne Barr tweets racist insult about Valerie Jarrett Swift action was needed, but should it ever have come to this in the first place?

Should it ever have gotten this far in the first place?

ABC cancelled the second season of its Roseanne reboot Monday after its star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a racist insult about former Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett.

Barr called Jarrett the baby of “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes.” She tweeted an apology Monday morning, calling the statement a “bad joke.”

Within hours, Wanda Sykes, who had been a consulting producer on the show and was reportedly slated to take over the writing room in the show’s second season, tweeted that she would not be returning, essentially announcing that she had quit.

“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” ABC president Channing Dungey said in a one-sentence statement to the press shortly after Sykes’ tweet. Dungey is the first black woman to preside over a broadcast network.

On one hand, it’s easy to say this is exactly what should have happened. But I’m not so sure ABC should be applauded here. Barr made plenty of hateful quips on Twitter before the network hired her for the Roseanne reboot. What did they think was going to happen?

ABC has long branded itself as “America’s Network.” The decision to invest in a newly MAGA-fied Roseanne seemed to suggest that the network was accommodating a portion of the populace that has come to be associated with racialized violence, such as in Charlottesville, Virginia. This morning, in an essay on the third season of Queen Sugar, I took Dungey to task for giving Barr so much leeway while refusing to extend the same freedom to black-ish creator Kenya Barris. After all, it was under Dungey’s leadership that Barr’s show included a joke directed at fellow ABC sitcoms Fresh Off The Boat and black-ish, essentially reducing them to little more than Asian and black versions of “normal” white families.

At the Televisions Critics Association press tour in January, Barr’s pre-reboot tweeting prompted questions. After all, Barr had tweeted a story from conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ InfoWars site claiming that President Trump would have won the popular vote had “5.7 Million Illegals” not voted in the 2016 presidential election. She called intersectionality a “degenerate pseudo philosophy of fake left,” and shared multiple tweets best characterized as transphobic and Islamophobic, calling Muslim immigrants “savages.” She trafficked in the Seth Rich murder conspiracy.

When challenged, Barr and the rest of the writers and cast present, including showrunner Whitney Cummings, gamely laughed off her unhinged screeds. The problem wasn’t what Barr was saying, was the implication, but that she was saying it on Twitter. Barr informed the press at TCA that she and her children had found a solution: to take away her phone and change her Twitter password, as if that would somehow prevent Barr’s Islamophobia from seeping into the show. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.) In January, her bigotry was distasteful, but it wasn’t disqualifying. Why not?

ABC spent months building anticipation for Roseanne’s return, and it worked. The show’s reboot debuted to an audience of 27.3 million viewers, absolutely gobsmacking numbers in our age of streaming, DVR, and video-on-demand. The network quickly greenlit the now-cancelled second season. But its all-too-predictable ugly collapse should leave the executives of America’s Network seriously asking themselves: Was it worth it?

In its Season 3 premiere, ‘Queen Sugar’ delivers a kneeling episode after ABC balked with ‘black-ish’ This is why it’s important to have multiple creators of color across multiple networks

Who’s afraid of a little pregame kneeling?

Not Queen Sugar.

In its season three premiere, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, Queen Sugar builds on its reputation for taking on challenging social issues. This time, that means using Micah West’s (Nicholas L. Ashe) violent season two encounter with a police officer and his awakening to issues of racial justice as a bridge to explore protest and what it means to find one’s voice.

Nova Bordelon, played by Rutina Wesley, has served as the moral center of the show through her work as a journalist uncovering an unjust legal system that throws black people into private prisons without due process. Nova’s nephew Micah begins to realize the significance of his aunt’s work when he’s assaulted by a Louisiana police officer after being pulled over on a remote highway for daring to be black behind the wheel of an expensive sports car, a gift from his father, a pro basketball player.

In the season three premiere, written by Kat Candler and directed by DeMane Davis, Micah attends a basketball game between the two rival public high schools in St. Josephine’s Parish. The event turns into more than just a game when students of the parish’s majority-black high school, dressed head to toe in black, walk onto the gym floor as a white student from the opposing team is singing the national anthem. They kneel quietly and a ruckus ensues, including the unfurling of a giant Confederate flag. Micah, who has a burgeoning interest in photography, documents the conflict. It’s clear that Micah is invested in this protest in a way that he wouldn’t have been when he and his mother first moved to Louisiana in season one. Now a high school junior, Micah is showing an awareness of how class and privilege have blinkered his worldview, and how little that helped him when he was a black boy driving an expensive car in the rural South.

I’ve seen only the first two episodes, but they portend what I expect to be Queen Sugar’s most consistent and thoughtful season yet, in part because the kneeling episode doesn’t feel shoehorned into the show as a way to make it current. Instead, it is a natural outgrowth of the show’s continued reflection on black American life in the South. Furthermore, it becomes apparent by episode two that the kneeling incident will likely color the whole season. It turns out that the officer who harassed Micah targets black people generally. And because St. Josephine’s is so small, he’s also the parent of an athlete on the rival basketball squad.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts.

Season three shows what it feels like to push back against racism in a town where everyone knows everyone and a veneer of Southern hospitality is expected as a means of papering over racial hostility and inequity. What’s more, the third season is weaving Micah’s evolution in his thinking on race with his development as a teenager, pushing boundaries and differentiating himself from his mother. It is one of the most seamless examples I’ve seen of the everyday ways in which race insinuates itself into American life.

There is no running from white supremacy in St. Josephine’s. There are no timeouts. It is the white noise that colors life, whether you want it to or not. In that way, Queen Sugar is pushing back against the way larger real-life cultural forces compartmentalize the discomfort that the sight of a black person kneeling during the national anthem seems to stir up.

After all, this premiere lands just as the NFL has announced penalties for teams whose players kneel during the national anthem. And it is creating a storyline centered around kneeling high school students in the same year that ABC pulled an episode of black-ish that included a discussion about the same subject.

ABC has found itself in the midst of controversy this spring. Not only did it pull the kneeling episode of black-ish, but it also brought back Roseanne with a version that is far afield from the show’s working-class, feminist and anti-racist roots. Its title character is now a Trump supporter who’s fearful of her Muslim next-door neighbors. Nothing summed up the ethos of the Roseanne reboot more than one joke taking a cheap shot at two other ABC shows: Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. Not only did ABC’s standards and practices gatekeepers allow the joke, in which the humor hinged on being dismissive of efforts to make TV more inclusive, but ABC president Channing Dungey defended it.

Would that Dungey were as vociferous in defending black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris. These two programming decisions raised questions about to whom the network was catering and to whom it was capitulating. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Barris reportedly wants to decamp for Netflix.

Racism is a fact of American life, so of course it’s part of sports, the arena that occupies so many of our television-viewing hours. It’s only natural that it’s going to come up in shows about black life, the same way police violence is part of so many shows that are by or about black people. Dear White People, which has found its voice in an excellent second season, brought a deft touch to the story of a student experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder after a campus police officer held him at gunpoint. Atlanta tackled the trauma of witnessing police violence in its season one finale. Even Insecure took on the anxiety triggered by being black and pulled over by a cop.

The existence of Queen Sugar, Dear White People, Atlanta and Insecure right alongside black-ish is an excellent illustration of why it’s important to have multiple creators of color writing from multiple perspectives at multiple networks. Only a few years ago, neither Queen Sugar nor Dear White People existed. Go back a few more years, and neither did the networks that carry them. FX, under the guidance of John Landgraf, only recently began its expansion of high-quality, quirky programming beyond white creators by hosting Atlanta.

Imagine if ABC still drew the audience numbers that it did in the 1990s — the decision to pull the black-ish episode would have been even bigger, given the Big Three networks’ outsized role in shaping pop culture. Without minimizing the broadcast network’s decision, we can be grateful for the fragmented nature of our current television climate. If a subject is too radioactive for one network, that doesn’t mean the topic simply won’t appear on TV.

Certainly there’s always been more creative freedom in cable and streaming than broadcast television. But when can a programming decision be characterized as creative differences, and when is it censorship of ideas about race, policing and protest?

In telling the stories of all-too-common realities for black Americans, Queen Sugar shows us why it’s good to have choices.

Fifteen years ago, Reebok and Adidas wanted him badly — so how exactly did LeBron James end up with Nike? Seven-figure checks were flying and at 18 years old, a young king had to make a huge decision

It was a typical Saturday morning at Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, global headquarters. A spring day in May 2003 so quiet on the billion-dollar brand’s campus that only mild rumblings hinted at the arrival of such an esteemed guest. Yet for months, a cohort of employees, designers and top-level executives had been making preparations fit for a king.

Who was so deserving of the royal treatment? An 18-year-old from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James, whose skill in the game of basketball made his decision to skip college and jump straight to the NBA far too easy. He’d been dubbed “The Chosen One,” and folks were salivating at the best player to grace the hardwood since Michael Jordan.

His long-awaited visit to Nike took place in the lead-up to the 2003 NBA draft lottery. The Cleveland Cavaliers would win the top selection, and effectively earn the right to acquire the local phenom. To sign a young James to his first sneaker deal, Nike had to come correct.

“It was the single-greatest plan I’ve ever seen put together,” said E. Scott Morris, then a senior footwear designer for the Nike Basketball division. The night before James and his camp — including his mother, Gloria James, his best friend, Maverick Carter, and his agent, Aaron Goodwin — stepped foot onto Nike’s campus, Morris got a sneak peek. Countless hours of research went into the presentation. It took hundreds of people to bring it to life.

“It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

What sticks out in Morris’ mind is the setting. At the time, co-founder Phil Knight, then Nike’s CEO, was in process of moving his office from the John McEnroe building to a wing of his own tucked away in the Mia Hamm building. But before he’d even spent a single day behind a desk there, Knight allowed his new working quarters to be dedicated to another purpose: pitching James.

The door of the space — so massive it could’ve been an entryway to Jotunheim — opened to a motion-activated video that flashed the Swoosh, and other personalized welcome messages. On either side of a long corridor stood cases of Nike sneakers made iconic by some of the NBA’s biggest stars — Air Jordans, Barkleys, Pippens, Pennys. “You see all these shoes leading down to one case, all the way at the end, in the center,” Morris remembered. “That case had a light over it, and there’s nothing in it. It’s empty, as if to say, ‘Your Superman costume is waiting for you … if you’re ready for it.’ ”

Walk left of the empty case, and there was a conference room, where any and everything that could imaginably be branded LeBron was on display. Towels, shorts, bathrobes, swimwear. “They made this guy underwear,” Morris said. “I didn’t even know we made that.” A reception area housed more custom swag, from basketballs to bags to sunglasses.

And if James needed a snack break, Nike had actual Fruity Pebbles waiting for him — because someone, somehow, found out that was his favorite cereal. “No detail was missed,” said Morris, via phone from Oregon. “Everything they thought he might think, somebody’s job was to make sure it was available for his use, or experience.”

There were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

Walk right of the empty case, and you entered essentially a king’s treasure room. Its marvels included a mini model of James’ 2003 pewter-colored H2 Hummer, and the pelt of lion (think King Joffy Joffer’s shawl in Coming to America). There were also sketches of sneakers crafted by the brand’s top designers — Tinker Hatfield, Aaron Cooper and Eric Avar. It was here that Nike brass — most notably his future brand manager Lynn Merritt — and James’ team discussed product, and the potential of a partnership. “It’s definitely,” said Goodwin, “the greatest presentation I’ve ever seen.”

Weeks later — and 15 years ago this week — on the day of the lottery, Nike and James agreed to the richest initial shoe contract in the history of sports. “A landmark deal,” said Alexandria Boone, James’ former publicist, “one that people will remember.”

That original alliance has since transformed into a lifetime deal worth more than $1 billion. “It’s gotta be,” said Goodwin, “outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.” But back in ‘03, Nike wasn’t the only company after the No. 1 pick.


Reebok, first. Adidas, second. And Nike, third. This is the tactical order in which Goodwin, then James’ agent, scheduled his client’s in-person meetings with the top three sneaker brands during that era of basketball. Before the first pingpong ball was drawn at the lottery, Goodwin wanted a deal finalized.

“We felt like LeBron’s market was not going to be predicated by where he played, but by how he played, and how his brand [would grow],” said Goodwin via mobile. “Whether he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Sacramento Kings, he was going to make a huge difference for whatever [sneaker] company it was.”

LeBron had deep connections to all three of his suitors. On March 26, 2003, he was named the MVP of the annual McDonald’s All-American Game after a 27-point performance while rocking a custom pair of red-and-white “L23J” Reebok Questions, signature sneaker of Allen Iverson. James had worn Pro Models and T-Macs in games for his team at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron and for his AAU squad, the Oakland Soldiers (yes, for three summers, he traveled all the way to California to play ball). And it was no secret how much he idolized Jordan, the most important athlete in the history of Nike’s brand. “LeBron grew up loving everything Nike did,” said David Bond, then-vice president of U.S. sports for Adidas. “It was easy for them to sign him. It was their game to lose.”

On his first visit to Reebok’s Canton, Massachusetts, headquarters, James spent the first part of the day listening to a comprehensive pitch and marketing plan. The company’s top designers had been pulled from projects to focus on James, and James only. They cooked up more than 50 logos, and 10 sneaker designs, which Reebok executives presented in the meeting.

“We were trying to demonstrate that we were a brand that was going to pay attention to him,” said Todd Krinsky, then-president of the RBK division, which focused on fusing sports and music via footwear and apparel. “We didn’t have 1,000 NBA players, so it was a big opportunity for him to work with a brand that was really going to prioritize him.”

“It’s gotta be, outside of Michael Jordan, the best signing that Nike has ever made.”

About a month before sitting down with James, Reebok released Jay-Z’s first signature sneaker, the S. Carter. And by October 2003, the company had agreed to a licensing deal with Pharrell Williams, and would drop his signature line of shoes, Ice Creams. Iverson, still in his prime, was the face of Reebok basketball, and the brand was anxiously planning for James, the soon-to-be rookie, to be the face its future. “He was really engaged,” continued Krinsky, now the general manager of Reebok Performance. “We felt pretty good.”

What happened next has become the most lasting legend of James’ sneaker saga.

Reebok chairman and CEO Paul Fireman was a man of theatrics, with a win-at-any-cost mentality. In 1996, he signed Iverson, the top selection in the draft that year, though he’d played in Nike at Georgetown University, and his college coach, John Thompson, served on Nike’s board of directors. Fireman wanted secure another surefire No. 1 pick in James, and was willing to pay more than anyone to do so. He escorted James, his mother Gloria, and Goodwin into a private room, and whipped out a cashier’s check. LeBron could leave with it, Fireman informed said. But there were two conditions: He had to sign with Reebok, and give his word that he wouldn’t engage in conversations with Adidas or Nike.

“I was lost for words … looking at a $10 million check,” LeBron James said in 2017 during a conversation with Maverick Carter on UNINTERRUPTED’s Kneading Dough, an interview series focusing on athletes and business.

“I remember getting the check, then giving it to LeBron …,” said Goodwin. “He and his mom looking at it, and his mom’s eyes watering up … It was an emotional time … the reality of this thing that the two of them had lived their life and worked so hard for was actually happening.”

Krinsky can’t forget the contrasting reactions of James and his best friend. “I remember Mav unbuttoning his shirt and getting some air, and I remember LeBron just being stoic,” Krinsky said. “He wasn’t fazed … I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The kid then indeed made a man’s decision. “LeBron understood that he had to give that check back to Paul Fireman,” said Goodwin. “Gloria did not. Gloria wanted to keep that check and walk out. But even with that being offered, we had to see what Adidas had to say, and then finally what Nike had to say.”

“I looked at him, and thought, he’s a man already. He knows everything that’s about to come to him and he’s ready for it.”

The next meeting took James to Malibu, California, where the brand he’d worn on the court for years had rented out a house in which to share its strategy. “I was hired by Adidas to sign LeBron,” said Bond, director of basketball at Nike for most of the 1990s. In 2001, he joined Adidas, and partnered with Sonny Vaccaro, a longtime (and controversial) marketing executive. Vaccaro, who was fired by Nike in 1991, is credited with being instrumental in signing Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to their first sneaker deals.

Together, Bond and Vaccaro spent approximately a year and a half shadowing LBJ the high school star and brainstorming a radical approach to luring him. Bond suspected Nike would tell James he could be the next Michael Jordan. However, using Muhammad Ali as an archetype, Adidas pitched the idea of the young James emerging into more than an athlete (which he’s become), who could represent not just the sport of basketball, but also stand for important social issues. Bond even surmised that if presented comparable monetary offers, James would pick Adidas over Nike based upon the longstanding relationship they’d built.

But the day of — an hour before presentation — Adidas panicked. “We had agreed ahead of time, for the final contract, to offer him $100 million guaranteed, which is about what he ended up signing for,” Bond said. “At the last second, the CEO at the time [Herbert Hainer] got cold feet. He wasn’t a hundred percent certain LeBron would have $100 million worth of impact … We didn’t know what Nike’s final offer would be at that point, but as soon as we slid ours across the table and they saw the number, we knew right then it was over. It sucked, to sum it up. There’s no second place in this game. It’s either you win or you lose, and we lost.”

Following the final meeting in Oregon, negotiations concluded in Akron: all three companies on the eve of the lottery. Adidas was the first to be eliminated from contention, bringing James to the brink of a decision between Nike and Reebok. “Up until the end, I thought we were going with Reebok,” Goodwin said in 2003. According to the Associated Press, the company offered $75 million. But Goodwin says now that Reebok came in far higher (he won’t name precise terms), and in the end, James took less money to join Nike.

“Nike is the right fit and has the right product for me at the right time,” James said in a statement released on May 22, 2003, the day he signed a letter intent. “They are a good company that is committed to supporting me throughout my professional career, on and off the court.” The deal with Nike was worth a reported $90 million — with a $10 million signing bonus. In 1984, Nike had signed Jordan for $2.5 million over five years. In 1992, Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok for $3 million. In 1996, Iverson signed for 10 years and $50 million with Reebok. In 1997. Adidas signed Bryant for $5 million, and secured a six-year commitment from McGrady for $12 million. Before playing a single second in the NBA, James landed a deal worth more than the initial contracts of five All-Stars, MVPs and league champions combined.

That night — moments after Cleveland was presented with the top pick, and team owner Gordon Gund with a No. 23 LeBron James Cavs jersey — the man of the hour appeared on ABC from a party in Akron. The interview was with in-studio reporter Mike Tirico. LeBron wasted no time repping his new brand, sitting in front of the camera in his outfit of choice: a black Nike Air sweat suit, and white Nike headband.

“He knew he was with Nike, so he just put it on,” Goodwin said. “That’s him. That’s LeBron.”


On July 14, 2003, 2½ weeks after Cleveland drafted him, James and his new team traveled to Boston for a slate of games during the Reebok Pro Summer League. Krinsky sat courtside at the Clark Athletic Center for a matchup between the Cavs and Boston Celtics. During pregame warmups, James broke his layup line routine and approached the brand executive he hadn’t seen in months.

“LeBron says, ‘Listen, man, I just want to tell you that you guys gave a great pitch. It’s nothing personal. In the end, I just went with my heart, and went with what I thought was right for me,’ ” Krinsky remembers the 1½-minute conversation clearly. “S—, this kid is 18 — and he didn’t need to do that. But I really do feel like that’s a reflection of who he is. That’s how he handles business. He’s honest. He’s personal. Outside of the depressing saga of building up, building up, and not getting him, I’ll always remember that story.”

On James’ feet in that moment — a black-and-white pair of Nike Zoom Flight 2K3s. By Oct. 29, 2003, the night of his NBA regular-season debut, he’d be wearing the Nike Air Zoom Generations — the first signature sneaker of his career. Nike had lived up to its promise to LeBron James. And James more than lived up to his implicit promise to Nike. That empty case — and so much more — has been filled.

DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love appear in PSA encouraging people to seek help for mental health issues Both players have been public about their struggles

When DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love let the world know about their mental health struggles earlier this year, they sparked a national conversation.

On the eve of Mental Health Awareness Month, the NBA released a public service announcement featuring Love and DeRozan encouraging people to ask for help. It also launched a website where fans can learn about mental health and resiliency and access a variety of resources.

“Everyone walks around with something that you can’t see. The best thing that I did was to come out and say, ‘Hey, look, I need some help,’ ” Love said.

“Never be ashamed of wanting to be a better you, period,” said DeRozan.

The PSA debuts Tuesday night on TNT and will run on ABC, ESPN and NBA TV throughout the playoffs. It is part of a leaguewide effort to offer free training for league and team employees and new mental wellness programming for thousands of youths through Jr. NBA and NBA FIT. The NBA will also host events to help communities view emotional well-being as equally important as physical wellness.

DeRozan revealed during this year’s All-Star Weekend that he’s had bouts of depression. He also posted this tweet with lyrics from the song “Tomorrow” by Kevin Gates:

Love opened up about the panic attack he suffered during a Nov. 5 game in an article in The Players’ Tribune in March.

How exactly did Ray Allen become Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s ‘He Got Game’? Two decades ago in a wild casting that involved everyone from Kobe to Tracy McGrady to Coney Island’s own Stephon Marbury, a star was born

This is the second of two stories celebrating the 20-year anniversary of basketball cult classic He Got Game. The first covers the pair of Air Jordan 13s the film made famous. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ray Allen and Denzel Washington, it hit theaters on May 1, 1998.


Once,” says Stephon Marbury, matter-of-factly.

That’s how many times, in two decades, the former NBA All-Star and three-time Chinese Basketball Association champion has seen He Got Game. But he may know the story of Spike Lee’s 1998 filmthe greatest hoops saga to ever grace the silver screen—better than anyone.

An 18-year-old basketball player comes of age in the Coney Island area of Brooklyn, New York. This player attends Abraham Lincoln High School, where he wins a state championship and emerges as the No. 1 prospect in the nation. This teenager is confronted with a man’s decision: attend college, or make the jump straight to the NBA. This was in the era before the one-and-done rule, established in 2006, which of course requires players to be 19 years old, or one year out of high school, to join the league.

In 1995, Stephon Marbury led Lincoln to a win in the P.S.A.L. (Public Schools Athletic League) title game at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and was named Mr. New York Basketball. He was a Parade and McDonald’s All-American, and the consensus National Player of the Year. On Coney, Marbury’s family was basketball royalty. Don and Mabel Marbury’s three eldest sons — Eric, Donnie and Norman — all played Division I, and during his Stephon’s college recruitment, his home flooded with trophies, medals, plaques and offer letters, the New York Daily News wrote that Marbury had been “touted by some as the greatest point guard to ever come out of New York City.”

He also became the subject of Darcy Frey’s 1994 The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, as well as a Nightline special, for which ABC camera crews followed him around his neighborhood for a year and a half. Marbury could’ve gone to any college in the universe, but accepted a scholarship from Georgia Tech, and played in Atlanta for one season before declaring for the NBA. Two years after Marbury was selected with the fourth overall pick in the ‘96 draft, He Got Game premiered.

On May 1, 1998, the world met Jesus Shuttlesworth, the fictional phenom from Coney Island’s Lincoln High, portrayed onscreen by Ray Allen, then a member of the Milwaukee Bucks. Spoiler alert: In the end, like Stephon, Jesus picks college over the NBA. “It’s pretty obvious who they were doing the movie on,” says Marbury via phone from China. He’s 41 now, and recently retired from basketball. “It doesn’t take rocket science to figure that one out. Who else are you doing it on? What other player..?”

In a 1998 interview with The New York Times, Spike Lee—born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn—addressed the eerie similarities between Marbury and Shuttlesworth. “Even though Stephon, and his father, and his brothers, might think this is the Marbury story, it’s not about them,” Spike said. “Coney Island has been basketball crazy for a long time. And the story is not unique. It happens to a lot of these kids.”

Marbury had a different reason for not [auditioning]. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me…Because I knew the movie was about me.”

The idea for He Got Game came to Spike at the request of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, who challenged Lee to craft, without co-writers, an original screenplay for the first time since his 1991 Jungle Fever. Once he finished writing, Lee knew he wanted Denzel Washington for the role of Jake Shuttlesworth, the protagonist’s father, who was imprisoned for killing Jesus’ mother. Jake is granted a temporary release from Attica Correctional Facility so he can persuade his son to attend the governor of New York’s alma mater, Big State University. If Jake delivers, the governor will do everything in his power to trim his sentence. Lee fedexed the script to Washington, who called two days later and signed on. Denzel, fresh off Courage Under Fire and The Preacher’s Wife, who had worked with Lee on Malcolm X and Mo’ Betta Blues, even lowered the skyrocketing salary to star in the movie, which cost $23 million to make.

In Washington, Spike had a bonafide movie star to put butts in the seats at the theater. But Lee agonized over casting. “I kept thinking … Who am I gonna cast to play Jesus?” Lee told PBS’ Charlie Rose in May 1998, after He Got Game became the director’s first film to open No. 1 at the box office. “I knew I had to get a ballplayer from the NBA to play Jesus…it would’ve been a riskier move getting an actor to show those skills that we needed on the court…you can get away with that in boxing films, baseball films and football films. But for basketball, you need somebody who can play. And there’s no actor today — that I know — that [has] skills like … they’re pro material.”

Before filming the project in the summer of 1997, Spike put together a long list of NBA players — from Ray Allen, to Kobe Bryant, to Kevin Garnett, to Tracy McGrady and more — that he’d consider for the role. But only one could be Jesus.

“I was one of the players who was asked to audition,” Marbury says with an abrupt pause. “ … to play me.”


Big Time Willie: “A lot of great ballplayers came out of Coney Island, but most of them didn’t amount to shit.”

Jesus Shuttlesworth: “What about Stephon Marbury? He made it … If he can make it out of here, so can I.

It’s March 4, 1997. The Milwaukee Bucks are the visiting the Garden. A lifelong New York Knicks superfan, Spike Lee, as expected, is in the building, perched in his usual courtside seat. After a first half of eyeing sharpshooting rookie Ray Allen, 22, whom Milwaukee traded to get the night of the ‘96 draft—in exchange for Marbury—Lee approaches the shooting guard. In this moment, the director doesn’t play his normal heckling role. He’s a recruiter.

“Spike says, ‘Hey, I’m doing a movie. I’d love for you to audition for it,’” says the now retired Allen, 42, a 2018 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. “I gave him my information … but didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything.” A month later, when the Bucks failed to advance to the playoffs, Allen took Spike up on his offer, and met with him in New York.

“He told me, ‘I want you to audition for the lead role, but if you don’t get it, you may possibly get [another] role in the movie.’” Allen had never acted a single day in his life. “I told him I’d love to try my hand.”

Meanwhile, Spike was courting players from all over — a perk of being on of the NBA’s courtside fixtures. “My rookie season with the Knicks, in warmups, or during the game, I’d run by Spike, and say, ‘Put me in a movie! Put me in a movie,” says University of Evansville head basketball coach Walter McCarty, also a former assistant coach in the NBA. “I’d just be joking around, giving him a hard time. But I get a call after the season, like, ‘Hey, Spike wants you to come read.’ I didn’t get Jesus Shuttlesworth’s part, but was good enough for him to say, ‘We got another part for you.’” Spike ultimately cast McCarty (as Lincoln High player “Mance”) and a handful of NBA roleplayers as secondary characters, from Travis Best of the Indiana Pacers (as Lincoln High player “Sip”), to Rick Fox of the Boston Celtics (as Chick Deagan, Jesus’ host on a recruiting visit), andand John Wallace (as Lincoln player “Lonnie”), also of the Knicks.

But for Jesus, Spike envisioned a skilled, rising superstar who could pass as a teenager. “I was pretty aware who he was going after,” Allen says. “He wanted Kobe to audition. He wanted K.G. to audition. He wanted Steph to audition. And he wanted Felipe Lopez.” Then a hooper for St. John’s University in Queens, New York, Lopez’s name doesn’t appear in any reports from the late ‘90s as a Shuttlesworth candidate. That shows just how far and wide Spike was searching — and it didn’t stop there.

According to a Washington Post story published the day the He Got Game debuted, straight-outta-high school Toronto Raptors rookie Tracy McGrady, 18, then the NBA’s youngest player, auditioned but “was judged too reserved for the part.” Allen Iverson, 1996’s No. 1 pick and 1997’s Rookie of the Year, “wasn’t prepared when he came in for auditions and seemed distracted,” as The Post detailed.

In 1998, Allen told The Vancouver Sun that Derek Anderson, one of his fellow members on the original Team Jordan, read for the part.

“I wanna say Allan Houston, too,” McCarty recalls from his round of auditions. USA Today also reported that Denver Nuggets big man Danny Fortson was brought in — and, even more intriguing, that sports agent Eric Fleisher, who repped Minnesota Timberwolves teammates Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury at the time, passed up on the opportunity for both of his clients. Garnett “respectfully declined” to be interviewed for this story. “Fleisher said, ‘Unless you guarantee a good part, they’re not coming in,’” Lee told USA Today. “I said, ‘Look, come on, I’m not a GM. This isn’t the NBA. This is the movies. There are no guaranteed contracts in cinema.’”

Marbury had a different reason for not coming in. “I just didn’t feel that I needed to audition to be me,” he says, adding that he was unaware Garnett was also considered. “Because I knew the movie was about me.”

In Allen’s first audition, he rehearsed a love scene with Salli Richardson, who read for the part of Lala Bonilla, which was eventually given to Rosario Dawson. “It was like make-believe,” Allen remembers, placing himself back in that casting room. “We were all playing around, going through lines. But I didn’t know if I could act to their standards.” He was called back for a second audition. Then a third, his biggest test yet, as he sat across from Washington to read. “I was in awe,” Allen writes in his recently released biography From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love. “I felt chemistry between the two of us, as did Spike.”

On June 19, 1997, the Associated Press broke the news that Allen had been “tapped for a role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie He Got Game.” Five days later, a contrary report surfaced. “While Kobe Bryant’s still working on making the transition from high school to NBA Star, he might try working on movie stardom, as well,” reads Daily Variety on June 24, 1997. “Spike Lee is eyeing the Los Angeles Lakers rookie for the lead role alongside Denzel Washington in his…He Got Game.”

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no?”

Yet Bryant, still rocking his baby ‘fro, had already committed his summer to basketball, and basketball only. Especially after Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz, when he air-balled four times in the fourth quarter and overtime. He removed himself from contention for He Got Game. “Too much time,” Bryant told The Undefeated in March. “When you look at actors and what they have to go through, and the downtime that’s involved in that, it’s just too much…I wanted to play ball. I wanted to go to Venice Beach and play, where actually I broke my wrist. I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to work out and train all the time. There was also a lot of pressure on me coming out of high school to perform well…I needed all my resources dedicated to preparing myself for the season. I [didn’t] really have time for do a film.”

So after a screening process of about a dozen reported players — and probably some we’ll never even know about — Spike, who declined to be interviewed for this story, got his guy.

“I remember Spike calling and telling me that the part is mine, if I’m willing to commit. He told me about the process, and I said, ‘Hey … I can do it.’ How do you say no? It’s just something you don’t say no to.” On camera, Allen was Jesus. He’d spent eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight consecutive weeks with acting coach Susan Batson, an experience he likens in his book to “therapy.”

“Spike was wagering the success of this film on who he cast as the lead,” Allen says. “Because this guy is who the movie is really about.”


It’s Jan. 10, 2014, and Spike is sitting courtside at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For one night, the NBA relaxes its uniform guidelines and allows players to don nicknames on their jerseys.

Allen, then in his final NBA season, as a member of the Miami Heat, doesn’t think twice about which moniker he’ll rock. “J. Shuttlesworth” sprawls across his back over the No. 34, which wore onscreen in Lincoln and Big State jerseys. “Best basketball movie ever made,” Spike tells a sideline reporter with a shrug. He ain’t lying, either.

He Got Game is the black man’s Hoosiers. A hoops movie not just about just hoops, but also family, faith and forgiveness. The film continues to stand the test of time. “Ray Allen’s in,” Spike responds about the prospect of a followup to the 1998 original. “It all depends on Denzel … and Rosario … the original Lala.”

A few years have passed, and those kinds of conversations persist. “Nothing etched in stone, but we’ve talk about a sequel,” Allen says. “We kind of toy around with it, because there are so many things we can talk about.” The story of He Got Game is as relevant as ever in today’s world, especially if the NBA and NBA Players Association, as they’ve discussed, decide to eliminate the one-and-done rule and lower the minimum age requirement to enter the draft. By 2020, players could again face decisions as high school seniors to go to school, or to the NBA.

This film allowed Allen to essentially make that judgment twice in his life — once as the real-life player out of Dalzell, South Carolina, and again as the mythical player from Coney Island. In 1997, many men in the NBA tried out, but only one became Jesus. “I want to thank Ray,” Spike writes in the foreword of From the Outside, “for making He Got Game look very good and for bringing Jesus Shuttles to life.”

Twenty years later, Marbury has a perspective on of the casting process. “I realize I really did have to audition for Spike to know if I could act or not, to see if I was fit for the role.” he says. “It’s not as easy as you would think.”

If he could turn back time, would he audition? “No,” he says, as matter-factly as ever. “But it was a really good movie, done really well … It told the story of a person who had success at my high school.”

The film concludes with Jesus on a college court at Big State, though his father, Denzel Washington’s Jake, remains in prison. Marbury’s narrative is more redemptive, and he can claim real life — what no character can.

“I was the first,” Stephon Marbury says, “to make it to the NBA from Coney Island.”