Deon Taylor, professional basketball player turned filmmaker, talks new flick ‘Traffik,’ sports and family ‘I have become who I am today simply because I was told no everywhere I went. I’m the product of no.’

When filmmaker and director Deon Taylor stopped playing professional basketball to pursue film, a lot of doors were slammed in his face.

“I have become who I am today simply because I was told no everywhere I went. I’m the product of no.”

Now he boasts a 15-year independent film career and is releasing his newest film, Traffik, an intense thriller about sex trafficking starring Paula Patton and Omar Epps due to hit theaters on April 20.

Taylor grew up in Indiana and moved to Sacramento, California, where he played high school basketball. He caught the attention of San Diego State in the ’90s, receiving a full scholarship and being named the conference’s Newcomer of the Year. The former Division I basketball player balled professionally in Germany from 1998 to 2003.

“Basketball is life,” Taylor said. “A lot of people say that, but for me, basketball has been a vehicle my entire life. It has taken me all over the world on a professional level.”

He left the game to pursue his film career. Taylor moved to Los Angeles in 2003, pitching a screenplay he’d written on a tablet. The rejection hit hard.

“I was expecting people to love the screenplay …,” Taylor said. “Six years later, after being kicked out of 300 rooms, I eventually said, ‘I guess the only way you can make movies is if you make them yourself.’ And that started my journey for the last 15 years [as an independent filmmaker].”

Inspired to get his films out, the 42-year-old launched Hidden Empire Film Group in Sacramento. His longtime business partner and lead investor in all of his films is Robert F. Smith, the founder of Vista Equity Partners, whom Forbes recently described as “richer than Oprah and the nation’s wealthiest African-American conquering tech and Wall Street.”

“Still, to this day, I’ve never been hired by a studio to make a film, but I’ve had some major success independently and we’re in a place where the films that I’m making are being released in theaters,” Taylor said.

Taylor wrote, directed and produced the thriller Motivated Seller, starring Dennis Quaid, Michael Ealy and Meagan Good. Along with actor and singer Jamie Foxx, he produced the comedy feature All-Star Weekend, starring Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Eva Longoria. Taylor is also behind the 2014 drama Supremacy, starring Danny Glover, based on the true story of a white supremacist who kills a black police officer and takes an African-American family hostage, as well as the horror spoof Meet the Blacks, with Mike Epps and George Lopez. The sequel The House Next Door, starring Epps and Katt Williams, comes out later this year.

The Undefeated spoke with Taylor about Traffik, how basketball led him away from the streets and helped him face adversity in filmmaking, why Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan are greatest of all time and why he believes the NCAA should pay college athletes.

How is Traffik different from other thrillers?

I wanted to make a commercial thriller that would have people on the edge of their seats, but also have them learn about something horrific going on in our country: human trafficking. Many people think it’s just an international problem, but it’s happening right here in America too. As a matter of fact, 85 percent of people who are trafficked are inner-city kids, so that’s the Hispanic girl in Oakland or the African-American boy in Chicago; I can keep going. These kids are being taken, and then someone is pimping them out and later another person is taking them, and this tragic cycle continues endlessly. It’s so sad. I think what this movie does extremely well is give you the goose bumps and chills without it being a documentary.

What personal experiences motivated you to create a thriller around human trafficking?

I started getting a bunch of letters about trafficking in our area [Sacramento] and I didn’t really think too much [about] it. But then my daughter, Milan, who is 12, was up late one night playing on her video games. I asked her who she was talking to at 1 a.m. on this game. I pulled up the screen and printed out the conversation [spanning for a couple of days] and saw how this person who she thought was 11 years old had been asking her questions like ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘Do you ever go out late at night?’ To the naked eye, it seemed innocent [like to my daughter], but you could tell this was definitely a predator. It’s crazy because predators are coming from the computer and TV screens now.

How was it working with Paula Patton and Omar Epps on the film?

It was insane for a lot of great reasons. I approached it like basketball. Everyone has a part in order for us to win and be successful. Paula and Omar are our star players, and they gave 100 percent, which further drove the cast and crew. Paula also performed every single one of her stunts. When you see her being yanked from the car, it’s pretty violent. She did that herself. She wasn’t screaming, ‘Cut!’ or yelling, ‘I can’t do this.’ That kind of commitment from an actor is such a blessing.

How did you learn about filmmaking and further want to pursue it?

I never set out to be the next Tyler Perry or Ron Howard in owning my own stuff. I simply was that guy who played basketball. Growing up poor, I loved watching movies because that was my getaway. While I was playing basketball professionally in Germany, I didn’t speak the language, so I would ask my friends back in the U.S. to send me as many movies as possible. This was before Netflix and Hulu. On a lot of those DVDs, there were ‘the making of xyz’ or ‘behind the scenes’ of those films where directors, writers and filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg would show and explain what and how they did their jobs. Watching those scenes taught me filmmaking, and I soon realized that I wanted to become a filmmaker.

Deon Taylor, number 15, during his days on the Oilers basketball team.

Courtesy of Deon Taylor

How did your basketball background help you face that adversity in the film industry?

I’ve built my filmmaking career by learning, losing and bumping my head a couple of times. There were a lot of sleepless and hurtful nights, but I feel like basketball really helped me get through those times. I tell people all of the time to have their kids play sports. The adversity you go through in sports is the closest thing to real life. It’s the only place where you can be the best player on the team and the coach won’t play you. It’s all these different things that you go through in sports that prepares you for what you’ll experience and see in life. I’ve had those moments, and I apply it to life journeys and filmmaking. It’s easy to ask yourself, ‘Why does this director get hired for a big-budget movie and not me when my stats are far greater?’ But that’s where you have to be grounded in who you are and not stay looking over the fence. You have to trust God.

Did basketball keep you from falling into stereotypes?

Playing in college, it took me out of the projects and into tournaments in different cities and seeing my name in the paper and on the news as a basketball player … not for shooting or robbing someone. That could have been my fate if I fell into streets, but I didn’t because I had that love for the [basketball] game where I would spend countless hours after school practicing on the playground, shooting, dunking and even trying the latest Michael Jordan move. And even now, the game is still teaching me.

As a former Division I, full-scholarship basketball player, do you feel the NCAA should pay college athletes?

When I was playing basketball at San Diego State, I didn’t really have an opinion because I was just thankful to have my school fully paid for and be able to eat while doing something I love. But as I got older and I now look at the business of college basketball and see how much money is generating from March Madness, these players should be getting paid. I’m not saying an 18-year-old kid should be getting $100K a year. Hell, no. But they are doing a service for the university. And think about the parents who are traveling for all of the games and taking off from work to be able to support their kids at the games. It would be nice for the athletes to get paid so they can also help their families with those expenses too.

Who is the greatest athlete of all time?

Jesse Owens and Michael Jordan. Jesse was running in a time when there were no diet supplements, dietitians, sneakers or advanced sports science to enhance your athleticism. He was just a guy who was naturally an athlete. There was nothing to enhance what he was doing at that time, but he was still running that fast and at that level based on just his natural body and the makeup of his DNA. With Michael, it was his will to win. It wasn’t just his ability; it was his stamina in the fourth quarter of games. He wasn’t a freak of nature as far as body physique like LeBron [James] or Shaq [O’Neal], but his brilliance and psychology on the court was something I admired and looked up to growing up. Kobe [Bryant] possessed a lot of that, but he’s no MJ.

What conversations do you have with your daughter to best prepare her in navigating the real world as an African-American woman?

It’s an everyday conversation that’s not just about teaching but creating a lifestyle. I try to educate my daughter, Milan, on each and every thing I see without holding my tongue. I’m teaching her three core things: trust your intuition, everyone will not be happy for you and danger is around you at all times. I didn’t understand a lot of what my mother told me when I was younger, but now as a parent, danger has tripled and it’s not just about getting home before the streetlights come on now. There are predators coming from everywhere, even in the police at times. Take, for instance, the unarmed young black man, Stephon Clark, who was shot 20 times by the cops right here in Sacramento. It’s a lot to take in and continues to evolve the conversations I have with my daughter.

Shawne Merriman takes 100 students to NASCAR The ex-NFL player launched ‘Lights Out Drive’ youth initiative that exposes children to the sport

Shawne Merriman named it after his apparel line — Lights Out. The former NFL player recently expanded his personal brand to launch Lights Out Drive, an initiative that gives children exposure to NASCAR. Which is why on Oct. 1, 100 children from the program visited Dover International Speedway.

“All those kids won’t get the opportunity to be a football player in the NFL, [or play in the] NBA, but exposing them to a different demographic and exposing them to a different platform will ultimately, at the end of the day, allow them to be a part of the NASCAR circuit, somehow, some way,” the three-time All-Pro linebacker said.

“There’s media departments. There’s marketing. There’s working at the track, being a part of whatever it is. NASCAR is such a big sport, there’s so many different levels and so many different ways to be part of it, that’s ultimately what you want to do. Out of those 100 kids, you want a good percentage of kids walking out of there to still follow the sport and want to go to another track.”

Merriman’s passion is in line with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, an initiative launched in 2004, which works to diversify its drivers. As owner of NASCAR K&N Pro Series West driver Jesse Iwuji’s Chevrolet, Merriman’s goal is to offer accessibility to youths. Iwuji is one of two black drivers in NASCAR.

Merriman grew up in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and as a high school player quickly gained the nickname “Lights Out” because players who he hit were rendered unconscious, as the story has been told. He attended the University of Maryland, was drafted 12th overall in 2005 by the San Diego Chargers and was named the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Merriman spoke to The Undefeated about giving back by bringing children to NASCAR.


When did you first get interested in NASCAR?

You know what, it happened in 2008, when I was invited out to be the grand marshal of the race in Fontana [California], and it really caught me off guard because I was going to a NASCAR event. I didn’t think that people would really know who I was or know who I am. I was honored. It was cool for NASCAR to invite me out. I didn’t know that it was going to be that many football fans.

So they announced me over the intercom, people went crazy, and from that point on, I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy. I didn’t even know.’ I was walking up to the top, I was about to start waving the green flag. A guy behind me tells me, ‘Don’t drop the flag,’ and I’m looking at him like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s just waving a flag. There’s nothing to it.’

The cars all started up, and the crowd went crazy and I got so nervous because my hands started to get like clammy and I felt myself about to drop the flag because I was so damn nervous, but it was that adrenaline and it was the energy from the crowd that kind of made me fall in love with the sport. That was my first time actually being at a race. I used to watch it on TV growing up as a kid, but I had no idea it was that much excitement, that much energy there at the track.

What do you think about the lack of diversity in the sport?

For me it never really hit me hard. It was 2008, so basically nine years ago. I was in my mid-20s, and that was the first time I had an opportunity to go to a track but I got the opportunity to go to the track because I was Shawne Merriman, football player, linebacker of the San Diego Chargers at the time. That was my opportunity.

If I wasn’t who I was, I don’t know if I’d-a been open to going to the races. I don’t know if I would have been invited. I don’t know if I would have ever got a chance to see how exciting it was. That was part of my initiative of trying to get more ethnicity in there, more minorities involved in the sport, because without the opportunity, how do you really know?

I would have never known how to go to a track or how to look up the schedule or anything about the sport. That’s just part of our whole initiative to get this done.

Did the children on hand to go to the race as part of your initiative enjoy the event?

It was incredible because they really didn’t know what to expect. And we got there, and walking into the parking lot they heard a couple of the cars, it was probably two or three cars, on the track and they were doing all their practice runs. They were like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s loud,’ so they all wanted the little earpieces. I said, ‘No, no, no. Those are two or three cars that are practicing right now. Wait until 20-plus cars start up and then they start going around the track, then you’ll really see how the intensity and how crazy it is to be there.’

Maybe one day, when they get older and they’re looking for a career, they’ll remember that race that they went to and how exciting it was and want to be a part of the organization. To me, it was much bigger than trying to really inspire them to just be in the car racing.

How did you choose that group of students? What was the process for getting that initiative started?

I got the James Madison Middle School, where I went to middle school, so I got some kids from there, but I also got some at-risk kids at a top-notch program in Baltimore. I got some kids from D.C. We really wanted to get inner-city, most of the city as possible, because those are the kids that won’t have the opportunity to even go or won’t even find out the information to go or how do we get there. Whatever the case is.

I hope that grows from 100 to 1,000. I thought it was a great turnout. The kids really enjoyed themselves, and I would love to have even more involved and possibly even one day having a big race even closer to the inner city, if possible, so even more people will get the opportunity to be there.

How did you meet your driver?

So I have my company, Lights Out brand, which is an apparel company, and I was having a fashion show in downtown Los Angeles at a place called Brigade, where we hold a lot of our fashion shows at and I was introduced to Jesse, my driver, by a mutual friend of ours who’s a really big YouTube and social media star named Jason Dozier.

We talked about another 30 minutes or so at the event and I said, ‘Man, just come up. I would love to hear more about what you’re doing and how can I be more involved in the sport. Will you come to my office in the next few weeks or so?’ And he drove up from Monterey, California, all the way to my office in downtown Los Angeles, and from that point on we made it happen. He became an ambassador for my company, for Lights Out, and I became his car owner.

We were able to bring on a huge partnership and sponsor, Perfect Hydration, the water company, and they really liked our efforts and what we’re trying to accomplish. Without them, I don’t know if we could continue to do what we’re doing right now. They just really came in and gave us the resources that we need in order to be successful in our initiatives.

What do you have upcoming?

I have stuff for Lights Out. Actually, I’ve got a show coming out that I guest-starred on, the comedy Get Down, on BET, with George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, Charlie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, D.L. Hughley.

How was it working with the late Charlie Murphy?

Oh, my God. I was so privileged to not only work with him on the screen, but off set, when everybody’s trying to just relax and stuff like that, you hear Charlie. Charlie’s so real and raw and blunt and up front. I was in hair just listening to him talk all the time. He was just so damn funny. I was really blessed to get a chance to work with him before he passed away.

Are you missing football?

I’m still around it. I’m at every home Chargers game in L.A., support them in that move and really trying to get them more involved in kind of L.A. market and just do whatever I can. I’ve been around the team since 2005, and so I’m just glad to be a part and still kick it with them.

The ringside style bar has been set high for Mayweather vs. McGregor Why big boxing matches are always the most glamorous sports night of the year

Get out those red-bottomed Louboutins, fight fans.

The boxing match everyone has been talking about, Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor, is finally going down in Sin City on Saturday night. Many of the biggest names in sports, business and entertainment have been jetting into Las Vegas for the most glamorous, high-fashion sporting event of the year and will be suited, booted, slicked down and Spanxed to death in their $107,000 seats.

According to TMZ, Drake, LeBron James, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Denzel Washington, Angelina Jolie, Rick Ross and Charlize Theron are all expected to sit ringside at the T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a likely attendee. Michael Jordan, George Lopez, Mike Tyson, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf have been to Mayweather fights.

Mark Wahlberg, Idris Elba and Evander Holyfield have endorsed McGregor and will likely cheer on the Dublin-born mixed martial arts champ from the crowd.

Judging by a handful of recent Mayweather fights — especially the star-studded, years-in-the-making showdown against Manny Pacquiao in 2015 — the ringside style bar will be very high.

Singer Cassie Ventura and Sean “Diddy” Combs pose ringside at Mayweather vs. Pacquiao presented by Showtime pay-per-view and HBO pay-per-view at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 2, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images for SHOWTIME

Power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z scored a fashion knockout when they were photographed ringside at Mayweather-Pacquiao. Bey’s red cut-down-to-there Harbison caped jumpsuit and Jay’s champagne-colored tuxedo jacket and black tie earned them god status on social media. Nicki Minaj brought her girls to the yard in a blue form-fitting Herve Leger dress and matching patent leather stilettos. Diddy and his longtime girlfriend, Cassie Ventura, did “CEO and wifey” chic in a beautifully coordinated business suit and cocktail dress combo.

Actor Denzel Washington (left) and director Antoine Fuqua pose ringside at Mayweather vs. Pacquiao presented by Showtime pay-per-view and HBO pay-per-view at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 2, 2015, in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images for SHOWTIME

And, of course, Denzel Washington’s now infamous blue polyester Adidas tracksuit and black New York Yankees baseball cap debuted at the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight and birthed a thousand “Uncle Denzel” memes that gave Twitter life for months.

But what exactly is the dress code for a big fight?

“It’s really ‘dress to impress,’ very ‘grown and sexy,’ ” said celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch, the former creative style director for the National Football League who has dressed clients for big fights in the past. “You don’t have to be as dressed up as Beyoncé, but this isn’t the crowd that you want to look like a ho.

“Really big fights used to be a very elite thing to go to, and boxing still has an old-world feeling to it. If you’re a boxing enthusiast, this kind of fight is a part of history. You’ll definitely remember what you wore to this event, so you want to be comfortable and stylish.”

Actress Ava Gardner (center), actor and singer Frank Sinatra (right) and band leader Joe Loss in the front row at White City Stadium to watch Randolph Turpin fight Charles Humez for the world middleweight boxing title in 1953.

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Modern boxing has a particularly glamorous spectator history, especially in the Rat Pack era, said Bloch. Think of movie stars such as Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson attending title matches in perfectly tailored tuxedos and ball gowns.

“The last big Mayweather fight [against Pacquiao], Beyoncé was there in this red, plunging dress with a cape and all kinds of shiny cleavage,” Bloch said. “It was a moment. And Jay wore a bow tie and tux. Let’s not get it twisted: If Beyoncé and Jay come to a fight, no one else in that arena will look better than them.

“Jay envisions himself as a kind of modern Sinatra, so it’s very appropriate that he dressed up in that old-school way. Something like this in Vegas isn’t like going to the Super Bowl or an NBA Finals game. People have flown in, gotten the hotel suite, made a weekend of it — and they’re paying a fortune for their seats.”

The hilarious and self-aware glory of Charlie Murphy Comedian, actor, screenwriter — and yes, Eddie Murphy’s older brother — was a funnyman in his own right

Charlie Murphy, the straight, no-chaser funnyman who died Wednesday afternoon at the age of 57 after a private battle with leukemia, pulled off the seemingly impossible. Indeed, the older brother of Eddie Murphy, a once-in-a-generation comedian and record-breaking film star, would not have been blamed if he rode the red leather tails of his sibling’s career.

Yet, Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories sketches were central to Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central gem: The tales of a coke-fueled, slap-happy Rick James and Prince the hoops god serving pancakes to his vanquished and confused foes are eternal. Murphy also became a successful touring comedian. “It’s been a riot,” he told me during a 2013 interview when asked about his move to stand-up.

Of course, Murphy, who flashed his trademark toothy grin as if he were in on the joke, was not oblivious. He’d heard the whispers: that he was piggybacking off Chappelle, as well as his brother. “All the people that have been wondering if I could pull this off, and wondering if it was real,” he said, “that’s human nature.”

Charles Quinton Murphy was a very self-aware person. “I’m not going to make a fool of myself,” he said, “or besmirch my brother’s legacy. Before I started doing stand-up, I knew I had what it takes to develop an act. I went to clubs with not many people there and I just worked on it, man.” That’s the legacy of Charlie Murphy: hard work. Which is why it’s not surprising that there has been an outpouring of heartfelt tributes.

“We just lost one of the funniest most real brothers of all time. Charlie Murphy RIP,” posted Chris Rock, who recruited Murphy to portray the all-too-gangsta Gusto for 1993’s cult comedy classic CB4. Fellow comedian D.L. Hughley glowed about Murphy: “After every gig, he rushed home to be with his kids. He died with gigs on the books.” Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee, who cast Murphy in some of his most acclaimed work — including 1990’s Mo Better Blues, posted on Instagram: “My Late Brother-The Very Funny Charlie Murphy … Rest In Power.” And actress Gabrielle Union praised him as a “kind, sweet, funny man.” Murphy’s wife, Tisha Taylor Murphy, died of cervical cancer in 2009. He is survived by his three children.


The irony, of course, is that early on the acid-tongued, Brooklyn-born maverick wanted no part of the entertainment business. He seemed content with having served in the U.S. Navy as a boiler technician and just trying to figure things out. Even after Eddie became the biggest comedian and movie star on the planet, Charlie, who was honorably discharged in 1983, took on a more supportive and protective role in Eddie’s legendary entourage. He was security. But Charlie was watching and learning.

You could see the progression. A bit role in 1989’s Harlem Nights led to parts in The Players Club (1998) and Roll Bounce (2005). Sure, he mostly played the hated bully, but he did it with a knowing wink. By the time he became a featured player on Chappelle’s Show, his deft and thoroughly engaging ability as a storyteller was on full display.

“I’m not going to make a fool of myself. Or besmirch my brother’s legacy.”

Eddie’s big brother was now more than just a member of a Hollywood clique.

“Let me put it like this,” he explained to The A.V. Club back in 2010 of his newfound celebrity. “I’m at the Four Seasons Maui, and yesterday I was with Joe Rogan. We were standing by the pool, and the waitress came over and she said, ‘We’re getting these paparazzi in the bushes right now filming you guys. We’re going to get them out of here.’ And I thought, ‘You know what? I’ve made it.’ ”

But Murphy — who co-wrote the screenplay for Eddie Murphy’s 2007 Norbit, which grossed $159 million — liked to prove to himself and his peers that he could thrive without a net on the often brutal stand-up circuit. Although his 2010 Comedy Central special I Will Not Apologize was uneven, he continued to perfect his craft. The jokes and timing got sharper. The gigs became more diverse and interesting … and bigger. There was voiceover work for The Boondocks and 2012’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was a recurring role on Cartoon Network’s criminally underrated Black Jesus. At the time of his death, Murphy was part of the all-star The Comedy Get Down tour, which also featured George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, Eddie Griffin and Hughley. It was a powerful affirmation that the stand-up he’d worked on so consistently was ready for prime time.

Comedian Charlie Murphy performs during his appearance at The Ice House Comedy Club on December 4, 2013 in Pasadena, California.

Michael Schwartz/WireImage

“A comedian’s job is so dangerous,” he said in 2012. And then two days before his death he tweeted, “Release the past to rest as deeply as possible.” Yes, Charlie Murphy could have been just Eddie’s big brother. But where was the glory in that?