‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


Maya Moore: A Pioneering Spirit The Lynx forward is as fearless and captivating off the court as she is on it

Dear Black Athlete,

Don’t ever forget that you are a citizen—a part of a community

With being an athlete there comes privilege and responsibility—mainly the responsibility to never stop seeking to understand your fellow citizen and neighbor—more importantly, the ones who aren’t exactly like you.

This has been my journey as I’ve stepped into the world of mass incarceration in America and how this phenomenon has unfairly impacted black and brown men and families.

I’ve witnessed double standards and unchecked power in our home of the United States and I’m moved to act.

The American dream of freedom for all of its diverse citizens can only work if we, the people, work it! And as athletes, we know the process to achieving goals better than most.

Don’t be afraid to use your voice to challenge our elected leaders to rise.

But let us also remind ourselves to rise as we step outside of our comfort zone to see people. Really see them.

Be genuine, be thoughtful, be selfless and watch the momentum build as others join in.

We shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.

Jemele Hill sat down with the WNBA star to talk about why she cares so much about doing the right thing.

Jemele Hill: You’ve won championships on every continent but three, is that right?
Maya Moore: Yes, unfortunately.

That’s a nice not so humblebrag. [Laughs] You have four WNBA titles in seven seasons with the Lynx, obviously two college championships. You’ve been to the White House 50 times. [Laughs]
Something like that.

How do you think your success would be viewed if you were a man?
Hmm, if I was—wow. Goodness, I haven’t thought—

Serena Williams, for example, said that if she were a man she’d already be considered the greatest athlete ever.
Our society is still catching up to valuing what we do as females on the athletic field in a way that has as much respect and visibility as what the men have been doing for years. You think about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and some of those pioneers that are allowing LeBron and Steph and Kevin to do the things they’re doing now. So I’m not really ashamed of where I’m at in the history of women’s sports. Years from now, another young woman in my position doing what I’m doing is going to get that type of attention and respect.

You’ve chosen to use your platform and get involved in issues that are kind of tricky and thorny. In July 2016, you, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson chose to have a press conference to discuss the very serious issue of police brutality. What made you decide that was the moment?
It was a hard summer, 2016. We were really hurting in that moment when it was happening in our backyard of Minneapolis; the backyard of Seimone Augustus, who’s from Louisiana, and even the killing of the police down in Texas. It was all happening at the same time. So we just felt like we need to be more humans than athletes right now and to say something.

What was the backlash like?
The backlash wasn’t too crazy. We really tried to be thoughtful about respecting police. But we need everyone to rise. We need our leaders to continue to rise to end what seems preventable.

What was interesting was that Lindsay Whalen was involved. And for people who don’t know, she’s white. [Laughs]
Yes, on some days.

We don’t see a lot of white athletes who are visible when it comes to speaking out about racial issues and certainly not for something like police violence. In your locker room, what are the conversations about race like?
Lindsay loves her teammates. She has relationships with her teammates and attempts to know them. But she’s also a person who is ride or die. She’s down for her people and her family and her teammates.

Not just her, but Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart. There seems to be a different sense of solidarity between white and black athletes in the WNBA. We know you guys don’t make as much as male athletes, so in some respects you have even more to lose because you don’t have as much. So why do you think that level of fearlessness seems to exist among you?
I think there’s a pioneering, fighting kind of a spirit in the female athlete because, you know, we haven’t been raised on “All I have to do is play my sport and I’m going to have everything I want.” We’ve had to do extra and go above and beyond. And I think that builds a certain character in female athletes that gets shown in the best way when it comes to these social justice issues. It’s a natural extension of our experience, fighting for those eyeballs, for views, for attention. It’s the same thing; we’ve seen that cycle. We’ve seen the rhythm of the fight. I think the heart of the female athlete is so huge.

Lindsay Whalen #13, Maya Moore #23, Rebekkah Brunson #32, and Seimone Augustus #33 of the Minnesota Lynx attend a press conference before the game against the Dallas Wings on July 9, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Did it ever cross your mind what you could potentially lose by doing this, be it sponsors, be it fans?

And still you proceeded.
I think it was just more about being thoughtful and being honest. That was part of the reason we didn’t have as much fear, because we were just being honest and kind of raw about being a citizen of the United States at that moment.

But we’re in a league that is trying to gain momentum. And so any time you say something that can be controversial, you’re risking losing fans. You’re risking even moving your league back. But at the end of the day, I think that fearlessness is why people love us.

For you, it didn’t just stop at the press conference. You have chosen criminal justice reform and prosecutorial misconduct as the issues that have some meaning for you. Why is that?
About 10 years ago, my extended family that I grew up with in Missouri introduced me to a man who had been wrongfully convicted. And that was kind of the first time I had really thought about prison or people in prison, our prison system. His name is Jonathan Irons. And I was just outraged. I said how in the world does this 16-year-old get this sentencing without any physical evidence? I stepped outside of my middle-class comfort zone that I was raised in to really think, “Oh, if I didn’t have my mom, if I didn’t have my family, if I was a young black man at this time growing up without a lot of money and resources, what would my life be like?”

There seems to be a social and political awakening among a lot of athletes these days. Where do you think that’s coming from?
I really think some of it has to do with exposure, because we have so much access to information. And you’re seeing more athletes understand as they’ve gotten older, maybe, “I was one decision, one family away from being that person. And I’m really not that much different than this person over here, and I need to say something. I need to do something. I have been blessed with so much. I have a platform. I have a voice. I have financial means.” It’s contagious when one person decides to speak up for someone that doesn’t have a voice. I think attacking some of the structural, systematic things in our justice system is the next level of all this momentum.

With all these conversations, do you feel enough attention is being paid to the specific, unique issues that black women face? Because we have the double burden, right? We have race on one side. We have gender on the other. And sometimes those intertwine. I often make the joke that on any given day I’m either told to go write for Cosmo or go back to Africa.
Yes, there’s always going to be a need to equip and empower black women. And I’m so grateful to be standing on the shoulders of so many strong black women who have come before. And some in my family. And I just couldn’t imagine what growing up would be like if I didn’t have them to look to. And the more you see a young black girl get an opportunity, you can see neighborhoods change when you equip and empower young black women.

Obviously with black women, the No. 1 word that comes to mind is strength,
but do you feel like we’re allowed to be vulnerable at all?

That’s a great point, because it’s hard. We have this uncomfortable tension with strength and vulnerability. And we shouldn’t bash or shame women or women of color for talking about their struggles and weaknesses. Because that’s being real. That’s being human.

Maya Moore #23 of the Minnesota Lynx makes a layup in Game One of the 2017 WNBA finals.

Andy King/Getty Images

Is living overseas as a black woman kind of isolating?
Sure. [Laughs] You don’t think about some of the basic things, whether that’s, you know, I’ve got to make sure my hair’s done before I go overseas because it’s going to be three, four months before I’m going to have the hair care I need. Even facial products or just certain foods or conversation you have where there’s kind of that understanding of where you’ve been, where you’re from. At the same time, I love getting to learn and dive into other cultures and finding those connections with other people, with other women.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard this from some fans: They just want Maya Moore to stick to sports. What’s your response to people who maybe don’t want to see you in this other lane?
Surprisingly, and I don’t know if it’s just me because I don’t listen to a lot of people [laughs] outside of the people I’m intentionally trying to be around, but I’ve heard more and more people say, “Maya, thank you. You’re giving us a voice. Like, we need this more.” I’m a person, I’m a citizen and an athlete.

Do you feel as if black athletes should bear a special burden? I hate to use the word “burden,” but “responsibility”? Do black athletes have an increased responsibility to use their platforms to speak out on issues that impact their community?
It shouldn’t be that way that more of the responsibility is on the black athlete, but it’s just part of how it is. Because our ancestors, our family members, our communities have had to deal with hardships and oppression. I feel that responsibility. The more I learn, the more I look back and the more I look around.

How do you want to be remembered as a person?
I just always like to take advantage of opportunities I have to cast life-giving visions. I think that is something I’ve been the beneficiary of with great coaches like Geno Auriemma and Cheryl Reeve on the Lynx right now. You need people to give you beautiful visions to run after. I get opportunities because of my platform to paint visions of “This is how good we can be.” That’s really what’s exciting me now and is going to last throughout my career.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

New York Knicks visit balcony where King was shot Front office, players and coaches call the moment ‘chilling’

Martin Luther King Jr. was staying in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on that dismal day of April 4, 1968. He was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room at the place now known as the National Civil Rights Museum.

The day King was killed, the New York Knicks’ front-office power trio of president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and vice president of player development and G League operations Craig Robinson were all in elementary school. But they each have a vivid memory of the sense of loss the world experienced.

Perry, a Detroit native, was only 5 years old.

“I just know that there was sadness in my household. I can remember that. At that young age, it was this deep sadness,” he said.

Mills was 8 years old, but he recalls the sense of loss and his parents and grandmother being in “shock.”

Robinson, the brother of former first lady Michelle Obama, was about 5 years old. He remembers the sadness, but it also was the first time he was introduced to the word “assassination.”

“I also remember it was the first time I had a discussion with my parents about death that wasn’t caused by illness or old age,” he said. “I remember that very clearly because you heard the word ‘assassinated’ and you were like, ‘What does that mean?’ And everybody was sad. It was like the whole neighborhood was sad. It was one of those things, one that you can remember a dark cloud. I don’t remember much, but I remember a dark cloud.”

For the first time, the three men visited the museum with their team, coaching staff and other members of the Knicks organization last week.

And they all got to stand on that balcony where King lost his life while in Memphis advocating for the black struggle.

Private team tours are not new to the museum, established in 1991. But this year, player and team attendance for these tours has increased.

As the world approaches the 50th anniversary of King’s death, known as MLK50, teams are taking the opportunity to treat the private tours as a bonding experience, reflecting on the legacy of King and the civil rights movement.

For Mills, being able to spend time at the museum ahead of the 2018 commemoration was special.

“We had the opportunity, actually, to go out on the balcony, so to end up out there was just incredible. It was very captivating and interesting,” Mills said.

Robinson said that the visit was far more emotional than he’d imagined because it is the location of King’s death and because of the players’ reactions.

“These young guys didn’t grow up thinking about it the way we did, and this was a first event for a lot of the guys,” Robinson said. “And even the guys who had been there before, it had been remodeled and new, and it was interesting talking to them and seeing the disappointment in the way things were. So that was emotional for me, as well, seeing their reaction.”

Mills said Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was showing his teammates photos he’d taken on his phone a day after the visit.

“He was talking about how important it was for Walt Frazier, who was a very sort of introspective guy who doesn’t talk that much, to hear him talk about his experiences as a team and how they used to go and sit at counters and get arrested,” Mills said.

Walt Frazier and Courtney Lee at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Tom Zweibel

Frazier, a Hall of Famer who played for the Knicks from 1967-77, is the team’s color commentator.

“For our players to hear one of the legendary Knick players talk about those experiences from a personal level, I think that’s what we’re here to do, to try to get these guys connected and understand where they fit. I thought that was a very emotional moment as part of the experience,” Mills added.

Perry called the visit a tremendous learning experience.

“It was a great time for reflection about all the things that had happened in history. And when you leave there, it does really, really give me more of a sense of purpose about trying to do better and serve people.”

The mission of the National Civil Rights Museum is to chronicle key episodes of the American civil rights movement, examine today’s global civil and human rights issues, provoke thoughtful debate and serve as a catalyst for positive change, according to its website. It holds 264 exhibits, including historic collections and interactive pieces.

Knicks forward and team captain Lance Thomas has visited the museum three times, but it was his first time with the Knicks team.

“I think it was amazing, especially for us coming around this time of year,” Thomas said. “It was very powerful. A lot of people know who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but they don’t really know the story of the things that he was a part of and the things that he stood for, and we were very lucky to be able to have that tour and to have that team experience. We saw people locking into reading a lot of the descriptions on the wall. … I think we’ve come a long way, and it’s an unbelievable testament to thriving and pushing for things that you believe in. I feel like if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive, he would be proud of the progress that has been made.”

Knicks guard Courtney Lee frequented the museum during his two-season stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. This was his fifth visit.

“It’s always good to go back,” Lee said. “Especially with a different group of guys, with all the foreigners we have on our team, it was some of their first time going. So just seeing their reaction once they learned about how this country was built and the sacrifices that a lot of people made for us to live in equality — their reactions were priceless, pretty much. I can speak volumes to how Martin Luther King helped us out.”

Team veteran Jarrett Jack first visited the Civil Rights Museum when he was 15 years old.

“We had AAU nationals here in Memphis. My mom and dad are both from Louisiana, so they are familiar with the struggles and the rigors of what Dr. King and what men and women were fighting for so long,” Jack said. “They made it a point to take us even at a young age when we probably didn’t appreciate it. They would make us understand the history and kind of turn it into, instead of a basketball fun activity for us, but more of an experience. So this was probably my third time. They allowed us to go out on the balcony, which is where Dr. King had his last moments, and that was kind of chilling just to stand in the spot where he fell.”

The 34-year-old said he understands that although King is usually celebrated once a year, his legacy, his teachings and his many speeches live on daily.

“When you think about it, he’s been dead 50 years. … Five decades. … Half a century, which is a very short time for us to do things like play in the NBA or make whatever you want to do possible,” Jack said.

Visiting the museum was important to Perry because it aligns with the organization’s vision of making sure players are well-rounded.

“Basketball is something that they do as a job, but it doesn’t define them totally as people, and that’s what we want, those guys to really be well-rounded. When they’re done playing basketball, there’s a lot of life hopefully for them. Giving them a chance to experience things like what they experienced [at the museum] can go a long way,” Perry said.

For Robinson, the museum introduces some history that is not traditionally taught in schools.

The Knicks and their management team visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Tom Zweibel

“We have some foreign players on our team, and I was mentioning to Frank Ntilikina about the wall that has a lot of the black history heroes on,” said Robinson, who was Mills’ teammate at Princeton. “And I was explaining to him how, even for me, I knew who Harriet Tubman was, and I knew who Sojourner Truth was or Frederick Douglass or Dred Scott. But there were like 16 other people there who I’d never heard of. And I was just remarking at how little we get in African-American history growing up in schools. And now it’s more because you have a month now. When we were in school, you didn’t have a month. You had those encyclopedias that were beige, that every black family had, and you would flip through. But [Ntilikina] said, ‘You know, I never had any African history.’ He grew up in Belgium, family is Rwandan, and so here I am like, ‘Man, I didn’t have this,’ and then he tells me he didn’t have anything. Just watching him, that was eye-opening for me.”

The intersection of race, sports and culture exists, and the Knicks’ front office wants to encourage a climate that welcomes conversations around topics that may intrigue players.

“I try to make myself available to talk about all that stuff when they want to talk about it,” Robinson said. “I try not to be sort of editorial with my comments because, first of all, we have a professional relationship, so I don’t want my feelings to be their feelings. But secondly, of course, with my history and my familial relations, I sort of try and keep church and state separate, but whenever they want to talk about something political, I’m always right there to talk about it. And you would probably be surprised by the number of times we talk about that stuff. We have quite a few players who like to engage in what’s going on in the world today.”

Mills agreed with Robinson, saying that the three of them are always open to “answering questions, giving a perspective and letting guys have an opportunity to frame what they’re experiencing and give them some perspective.”

Perry said their doors are always open for issues beyond the players’ profession.

“That’s just how I was raised to be as a person,” he said. “I think one of the broader lessons and the type of culture that we want to have here when you start talking about sports and how it intertwines with society is unification, and that’s what we’re about.”

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Mark Blount reinvented himself as a real estate investor From Auntie Anne’s to housing, the former center created a life after basketball

After spending 10 years in the NBA as one of the league’s most dependable centers, Mark Blount retired in 2010 and knew it was time to start making moves.

With Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, as his backdrop, Blount opted to spread his wings in two different endeavors: food franchises and real estate.

Blount found a block of property sorely in need of renovation and decided to invest. He participated in rehabbing 14 units, completing the process in about a year.

“I owned quite a bit of real estate in Palm Beach Gardens — seven buildings. I went in there with a friend of mine. We renovated them, all the units there, and brought them back up to, back then it was 2012 code: new bathrooms, new floors, new kitchens and all that stuff,” he said.

Blount then joined the soft-pretzel franchise Auntie Anne’s. He opened two stores in West Palm Beach and one in Jensen Beach, Florida. After building and operating the franchises for four years, he sold the stores to focus on real estate.

“The restaurant business was a learning curve for me, but the real estate is a passion for me,” Blount said.

Blount spends his days researching and meeting with sellers and agencies about new real estate investment opportunities. He lives in Fort Lauderdale and his philanthropic efforts are focused on Palm Beach Gardens, including donating turkeys to those in need throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and contributing to local churches and Toys for Tots.

The Yonkers, New York, native grew up a Knicks fan and was inspired by players such as John Starks and Charles Smith. He played collegiate basketball at the University of Pittsburgh before being drafted 54th overall in 1997 by the Seattle SuperSonics. Blount spent three seasons in the minor leagues, including the International Basketball League, Continental Basketball Association and North American Premier Basketball. He signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Aug. 1, 2000. That season he led the team with 76 blocks, the most by a Celtics rookie since Kevin McHale in 1980–81.

He also played with the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat. He used his toughness on the court to guide his way into the business world.

“That’s why we see a lot of retired guys have a hard time trying to find something that they’re passionate about to do because [they don’t have] the energy and the passion, the focus that needs to be displayed every night. So you’re like, ‘What do I do now?’ ”

How did you cultivate your toughness?

I just had an attitude about everything. And growing up in Yonkers, I had to be tough there. I just approached everything with a straight attitude. I just thought whoever I was going against, it was just a battle.

Mark Blount #15 of the Miami Heat dunks the ball against the New Orleans Hornets on January 11, 2008 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Hornets defeated the Heat 114-88.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Was the NBA a dream of yours?

Yes. Yes, it was. Getting drafted in the second round and then not playing with Seattle, then spending a couple years in the not so minor league, then being able to make it onto summer league team and having Boston sign in to a one-year deal was [the culmination of] my dream, so I didn’t back down. I just kept fighting and kept trying to reach my dream. I spent, I think it was sum of three years in the minors before I made it.

What has been the hardest part of your journey?

Trying to get to the university and then trying to get to the NBA and then doing those things and then being able to do a couple of businesses, it’s always a fight, always a struggle. There’s always a learning curve. … I’m real patient about what I need to do and learning about it, and once I understand it then I’m able to pursue it.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was in Boston … talking to a gentleman about the restaurant, and he’s like, ‘If you’re ever going to do a business, make sure you’re there to run it every day.’ I’ve taken that to heart over the last few years I’ve been in business.

How did you make that switch to franchise owner, and why did you choose Auntie Anne’s?

I was actually in bed with Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon; I ran four restaurants at one time. Don’t ask me why, but I did. I was able to make connections with them and went through the process of learning their business and going through training and learning their sites and seeing if I was going to be a silent investor and have somebody run it for me, which wasn’t going to happen, or run it myself.

I ended up running it myself and was able to be pretty successful. [Of] the four locations that I had, the two of them I ended up closing, but they survived for about three or four years. Then two I sold.

What do you think about the Knicks now?

I’m crying inside. Especially now that Carmelo [Anthony] is gone and seeing, looks like another rebuilding process. So I’m just, I’m a New Yorker, I’m going to die a New Yorker, so that’s the way it goes. But I really hope they’re able to get some luck. They had some young guys step up and maybe a couple trays on the lottery draft, draft lottery picks. Hopefully it’ll happen.

What team should we start to watch after the All-Star Game?

Everybody’s just starting to mention Toronto. They started out on fire, so I knew they were going to be good early in the season. [Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey really understands what he’s doing there.

What advice would you give players who are transitioning from the court?

If you don’t have a passion for anything, maybe take a course, a quick course, in something. But if you don’t have a passion, there’s always different courses you can take, or there’s a lot of good things the NBA Players Association is doing. … Just talk to some of the older guys that played before. Talk to some of the guys who just retired and bounce things off instead of just running into any quick thing, business deals, with anybody.

‘The Chi’ premieres and Lena Waite talks about what makes it different from every other show set in Chicago Television Critics Diary: An early victory lap for the Showtime drama set on the South Side

PASADENA, California — The Chi, the new Showtime drama set on the South Side of Chicago, finally makes its television debut tonight at 10.

It doesn’t really do it justice to call The Chi a crime drama, although that’s what it is. It’s a thoughtful story of interlocking family traumas that begins with the murder of one Chicago boy and quickly leads to another.

The pilot, which was shot by Dope director Rick Famuyiwa, has been available to stream for a couple of weeks now. On Saturday, executive producer Lena Waithe joined the cast and co-executive producer Common for a triumphant panel at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Waithe made history a few months ago when she became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing for a deeply personal coming-out story she penned as an episode of Master of None. Showtime president David Nevins, who spoke Saturday on a separate panel, made sure to mention that the network had seen promise in Waithe long before then. Showtime purchased Waithe’s script for The Chi in June 2015.

“She brought in a script that felt like a really interesting inverse to the crime shows that are set in Chicago where the characters that are generally the guest stars, the sort of objects of the investigation, were the subjects of this show,” Nevins said. “And she had really interesting things to say about them. And there were a lot of them, but they had distinctiveness. Each character, sort of, had their own moment.”

This was intentional on Waithe’s part, and she confirmed during the Chi panel that she starts by writing characters first because she wants to craft multifaceted human beings who inspire compassion and curiosity. And she’s especially interested in providing that sort of consideration for characters who are black.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot because I was like trying to figure out when this person would meet this person, when this person comes to this and all these things would happen,” Waithe said. “And then I began writing. So that way I had a road map of how to get to where I needed to go, and I think just based on the reactions I’ve gotten from the pilot, I’m really grateful because it means all the work was not in vain.”

The story of The Chi is set off by a magnetic cast, from The Wire’s Sonja Sohn to Mudbound star Jason Mitchell, to Sleight leading man Jacob Latimore, who’s finally in a role that takes full advantage of the playful, youthful moxie he brings to the screen. But I was most impressed by The Chi’s corps of child actors, led by Alex Hibbert, who played Little in Moonlight.

The Chi asks a lot of the children in it. These characters bear witness to horrific tragedies that they barely have the skills to process. Of course, it’s not just the child actors of The Chi who have taken on this task. I found myself astonished at the depth of what’s been asked of the cast of Stranger Things, another show that features kids giving complex emotional performances in service to stories that are really for adults.

“My whole house looked like True Detective when I was figuring out the pilot.”

But The Chi provides something special in its reflection of black childhood, i.e., how often it’s cut short and how children are expected to mature quickly for the sake of their own safety. When black children are allowed to be too innocent or naive about the realities of the world, it can cost them their lives, be it Tamir Rice or Emmett Till, the son of Chicago whose casket is on display in the Blacksonian.

Waithe manages to expertly balance the teeter-totter of black youth. She incorporates the horrors that children witness and also the wonderful ordinariness of age-appropriate problems, like deciding to try out for the school musical because a girl you like is doing it. She lets us see the innocence that’s only a part-time reality for the kids of The Chi, which makes the harsher realities of their lives that much more devastating.

“For me, growing up in Chicago, I talked a lot like these kids talk on the show. I was cursing like a sailor at 8 and 9, but it’s because I was ear hustling my family,” Waithe said. “I grew up in a house with a lot of women in the house who cursed like sailors, and I was trying to be like them. … You hear about things you shouldn’t hear about. My father, who is deceased now, he suffered from a lot of substance abuse and things like that that my family couldn’t necessarily keep me away from as much. So there were things that I knew about, that I heard, and I saw probably a little bit too young.

“­­But what it did was, it did grow me up a little bit. And I think what it does is it definitely impacts the way I write children, particularly black children, particularly children who are on the South Side of Chicago, because I just know that they’re these little adults. … That, to me, was really interesting to show, is that gut innocence, but also the maturity that kids have in inner cities that they sort of are forced to have.”

I asked if it was possible to protect young actors like Hibbert, who is 12, so as to maintain some level of innocence in real life separate from what they’re asked to recreate on screen. The answer was complicated.

“It’s not far from what I’ve seen,” Hibbert said. “To piggyback off what [Waithe] says, we hear from our family, and they curse. And a lot of the kids that we hear from, not just in our grade level but in higher grade levels, we hear off of them.”

There just wasn’t that much space between the screen and real life, not just for Hibbert but also for Mitchell, 31. It’s easy to think of actors as enjoying privileged lives. The cast of The Chi reminds us that’s not always the case, that there’s real pain that informs a show like The Chi, and that provides the essence of what makes it so compelling.

It’s also what makes it stand out from a sea of copy-and-paste broadcast dramas about Chicago.

“I grew up in a fairly violent environment,” Mitchell said. “I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana, and I went to the top four worst schools in the nation. … It was imperative to be able to be tough and still have to be happy. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in this really grown-up environment, you know, when you are pressed to bring some sort of money home or, you know, you never really know these people’s story.

“So it’s good to see this TV show. It’s good to soak this in and see, you know, this sort of ecosystem and this domino effect that it has to open up a child’s eyes so early because, I mean, in Chicago if you make it to 21, they’re considered an OG, which is, like, an original gangster. And to think that you’re an original at 21? Like, you can’t even rent a car yet.”

Saints DE Cameron Jordan is a beast on the field and off of it The NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee goes above and beyond to help his community

A few days before Cameron Jordan rejected five passes that helped lead his team, the New Orleans Saints, to a 31-9 victory over the New York Jets, he’d visited a high school in the Louisiana area “on the West Bank.”

It’s his Tuesday ritual — going into the community to visit high schools or hospitals, or showing his face and lending a hand to any community event — something he’s faithfully done since his rookie season. Giving of himself to serve or encourage others is a habit Jordan learned from his father, six-time Pro Bowler Steve Jordan, who instilled great values and work ethic in him on and off the field.

Cameron Jordan is now up for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, and he is elated about the possibility of ranking No. 1 out of the 32 nominees. The NFL recently announced the nominees for the award, which gives honor to a player who exemplifies the league’s commitment to philanthropy and community impact. Finalists will be announced in January.

Giving back comes naturally to the 28-year-old. Since being drafted by the Saints in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, he has participated in at least one but sometimes multiple weekly community events as he has evolved into a defensive starter, captain, Pro Bowler and nationally recognized player.

Whether his participation has been team-related or sponsored by a community partner, a teammate or a fan, he’s remained selfless. For the past four years, Jordan has been the face of the Saints Kids Club. He spends several hours during the summer working with kids who take part in the Saints Community Patrol Summer Camps. He also delivers several motivational speeches to youth and high school students.

Each Man of the Year nominee will receive two Super Bowl LII tickets to give away to fans and community heroes. The five current players who have won the award are Drew Brees, Thomas Davis, Larry Fitzgerald, Eli Manning and Jason Witten. All 2017 nominees, including Jordan, have donned a Man of the Year helmet decal since the announcement was made in early December, and they will sport it through the end of the season in recognition of their accomplishments on and off the field. This tradition will continue for future nominees and winners of the award.

“NFL players are outstanding, generous men of character who give back to their communities,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a press release.

“Walter Payton represented the very best on and off the field and this year’s Man of the Year nominees exemplify his legacy of philanthropy and leadership. We are proud to support players as they use their platforms to drive positive change.”

In between practice and community events, The Undefeated caught up with Jordan about the driving force behind caring for the community.

What inspires you to donate your time and effort on a weekly basis to the community?

You know, if anything, I give credit to my dad. For as far back as I can remember, he’s always gave back to the surrounding community of Minnesota when he was playing, and Arizona, where we moved to after, where he’s from. He’s made an emphasis in his life just to give back just as much as he’s gotten from life. That’s a lot.

It’s easy to go to the pros and be able to try and give back to the next generation. What’s more motivating is not the fact that I’m doing it because my dad’s doing it, or I’m doing it because there’s some recognition part. If anything, I don’t want any of the recognition for it.

At the end of the day, I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a thing that can help a kid, will come back to me.

I’m not saying I’m the foundation — just a brick.

What’s your most meaningful cause to give your time to?

At this point, it’s almost a ritual to go out to a different school every Tuesday. Whether that be for New Orleans, whether that be New Orleans East, or whether that be the West Bank, you go out to as far as Houma and Boutte. It doesn’t really matter. Just the inclusiveness, the inclusivity of being able to show that there’s an NFL player that cares about these kids.

How do you balance being such a prolific football player and contributor to the team, and such a wonderful role model and community member?

I don’t know. That’s a great question because in terms of everything I do, I always want to feel like I can do more. We talk about there’s guys who’ve started a foundation, and as much as I talk about I could start my own foundation, is that also that, if I start my foundation, this is what you sort of have to stick to.

I guess it completely makes my possibilities limitless. … Me and [Saints wide receiver] Mike Thomas are doing this event Friday for the battered women’s shelter, where we’re going to take a whole bunch of families out there. It was basically just coming to each other, like, ‘Hey what can we do?’ This is an event that the Saints have helped people in the past. This is something that we can pick up and make it our own. Just whether that be going to Target and giving out gifts. Whether that be … whatever we can do, whatever we so set our minds to, that’s what we can accomplish.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to see in the community?

Anytime you do a hospital visit, anytime you talk about seeing an intensive care unit. It’s one thing to go and talk to kids, be able to see that life force, that active, vibrant energy in all aspects of life. Then you go around and you turn to a hospital visit. You see kids that are super young, months old to a couple years old, that haven’t even had a fraction of a life that you have. The empathy that you feel toward that family is just that much more genuine.

What’s the best piece of advice your father has ever given you about philanthropy?

He never did it for any recognition as well. It’s just something that you assume upon yourself.

There’s so many moments to be proud of that, as a kid, you just don’t pick up on that. As a man now, I realize how much he did. So it’s just easy enough to assimilate into the role of ‘What can I do for my community?’ As much as I try to say I’m my own man, I was molded by a perfect situation. I had a loving mother. My mom was like … she believes in the golden rule. She believes in Jesus. She believes in showing God’s light through a person.

Then you talk about my dad, who of course believes in always trying to teach the next generation, whether that be my first cousins, or my second cousins, or the random kids from our high school that just look like they may need some help. My dad was always there for that.

For more information on the nominees and the award, visit NFL.com/manoftheyear.

Watch this 16-year-old find out he is going to Harvard Ayrton Little and his classmates celebrate his acceptance and it goes viral

When 16-year-old Ayrton Little learned that he had been accepted at Harvard University in front of family, friends and classmates at T.M. Landry College Preparatory in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, celebratory mayhem erupted.

The Opelousas, Louisiana, native posted the video to his Twitter account on Tuesday, and lots of people have joined Little in celebrating.

This is the third consecutive year a student from T.M. Landry has been accepted into an Ivy League university. The high school is noted for its rigorous academic program, and its student body has a 100 percent acceptance rate into four-year colleges and universities.

“Harvard has always been my dream school,” Little told HuffPost. He plans to study math and computer science.

His older brother, Alex, was accepted at Stanford University a few days earlier, and his video documenting the moment is posted on Twitter as well. Ayrton skipped a grade and will turn 17 in February, so both brothers are high school seniors. (A younger brother, who died after an asthma attack five years ago, would have been 13 this year.)

“It still haven’t been calm since my brother’s acceptance Friday, but my brother and I realized that we have done the impossible,” Ayrton said. “Many of my classmates are also getting their decisions this week. I honestly don’t know when the excitement will die down at this point.”

“Seeing Ayrton also doing it,” Alex told WBUR, “those goals we set for each other kind of caused us to become real competitive and push each other to do the best we can.”

Their mother, Maureen Little, a culinary teacher and a single mom, said she is proud of her sons. The two always “brought home good grades,” she said.

The brothers told WBUR they plan to develop nonprofit organizations that will help other students.

Kings’ Garrett Temple and George Hill adopt Sacramento high schools ‘The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems’

SACRAMENTO, California – What do you think about the Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest? How do you handle losing? How do you deal with adversity off the court?

Those were a few of the questions Sacramento Kings forward Garrett Temple fielded during his first day as a student-athlete mentor at Sacramento Charter High School.

“At first, they started asking about basketball,” Temple said before the Kings lost to the Toronto Raptors 102-87 on Sunday. “But then they started asking great questions, life questions. It was a good start. I want everyone to know this is not a one-time thing. This is something I want to continue to grow and I plan on building a relationship with that school and those athletes.”

Temple, who is African-American, said he began thinking about adopting a school during the offseason because of the race issues in America. He ultimately decided that he wanted to become a mentor to student-athletes as well as offer financial assistance to a local high school that primarily included underprivileged kids of color. Sacramento Charter High fit Temple’s criteria.

Sacramento Charter High is a predominantly black school that also includes Latino and mixed-race students. It is in Sacramento’s challenged Oak Park neighborhood, and the school’s alumni includes former NBA star and former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Temple credited Galen Duncan, vice president of the Kings Academy and Professional Development, for doing research that identified Sacramento Charter High as a solid choice. Temple also plans to donate money to the school for computers, which he expects the Kings to match.

“Sacramento High felt like a place that could really use some help. That is why I chose it,” Temple said.

Temple’s town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High on Dec. 6 was the first of several he plans to have with students playing basketball and other winter sports. He plans to attend a boys basketball tournament at the school to show his support and perhaps even talk to some teams individually.

During the first meeting with the Sacramento Charter High kids, Temple mostly answered questions about life off the court. He was impressed that he received strong attendance of about 100 enthusiastic student-athletes.

“With Colin kneeling and other things going on bringing awareness to police brutality of that nature, I thought about things I can do to actually help,” Temple said. “The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems. I read a statistic that said we may be more segregated in schools now than we were in 1954 because of the private schools. All the white kids are going to private schools while the black kids are going to public schools that are very underserved.

“Education is important to me and my family. I wanted to try to help [make a] change.”

Temple said Kings veteran point guard George Hill also decided to choose a local school to mentor after he heard what Temple planned to do for Sacramento Charter High. Temple wasn’t surprised that Hill yearned to get involved, because of his previous charity work.

George Hill (No. 3) of the Sacramento Kings.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

“George is basically a humanitarian,” Temple said. “Every game there is a veteran [military] crew that he talks to and takes a picture with. He went to Haiti right after the earthquake. He is just a great guy.”

Hill’s reasons for participation were similar to Temple’s.

“I have always been big on the community stuff, especially as crazy as the world is today,” Hill said. “More guys of our stature and more guys that are successful need to really try to give back and take some of these young men and women right underneath our wings and just guide them a little bit.”

Hill chose Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High and is scheduled to meet with their student-athletes Monday in the first of what he hopes to be a monthly meeting this season.

Hill said it was important for him to be in a school environment that had black and Latino students because “most of those schools are looked over.” Hill’s fiancée, Samantha Garcia, is Latina, and he is African-American. Racially diverse Encina meets Hill’s criteria as it is 37 percent Latino, 29 percent black, 21 percent white and 6 percent Asian, according School-Ratings. Moreover, 93 percent of Encina’s students are eligible for free lunch.

Hill plans to talk to the students about his challenges growing up in a tough neighborhood in Indianapolis, leadership and working hard to meet their dreams and goals.

“I’m more about being a better person than a better athlete,” Hill said. “I’m going to touch base on helping others. Not judging anyone over the cover of their book. Get to know people, respect others, respect your classmates, your teachers and your peers. Teach the fundamentals and get the love back in the world, because that is something that we are missing.”

Hill and Temple also could offer kids motivation with their far-from-easy roads to the NBA.

Hill starred in college at little-known Division I mid-major Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) , which has made the NCAA tournament just once in school history. Despite scholarship offers from Temple and Indiana, he chose IUPUI to stay close to home with his ailing great-grandfather, Gilbert Edison, who died before getting a chance to see him play. The 10th-year NBA veteran was drafted 26th overall in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Hill said. “Believe. Hard work pays off. I wasn’t one of the nation’s top players coming out of high school. Everything we had to do had to be earned. It wasn’t given to us. With some of this new generation, people give them so much that when they have to go on their own, they are misguided. They don’t know how to work for it.

“I’m trying to touch a different audience saying, ‘You have to work for what you get. Don’t expect nothing. Have fun doing it.’ But at the same time, you being a better person on and off your sports life is the biggest thing that we want them to contribute to.”

Temple grew up in a stable home in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led by his father, Collis, the first African-American to play basketball at Louisiana State University. Garett Temple, however, faced adversity when he went undrafted out of LSU in 2009 while his former teammates Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas were all selected in the first round. Eight years later, Temple is the only one of the four former Tigers still in the NBA.

Temple’s well-traveled basketball career has included four stops in the NBA’s G League, a season playing for Associazione Sportiva Junior Pallacanestro Casale Monferrato in Italy and time with the Kings, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards. The National Basketball Players Association vice president is in the second year of a three-year deal with the Kings.

“I credit a lot of [my success] to my faith in Christ and my ability to withstand things,” Garrett said. “There have been times where I’ve been cut. Things have happened when there has been really no explanation for them. I just trust in the Lord and everything happens for a reason.”

The Kings’ roster includes nine players with two or fewer years of experience in the NBA, including standout rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. Sacramento also has veterans in Temple, Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, who have made it a point to mentor their younger teammates.

Kings rookie guard Frank Mason and injured rookie forward Harry Giles shadowed Temple at his first town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High. Mason and Giles served the student-athletes a dinner that included chicken, jambalaya and greens. They also sat with the student-athletes as Temple addressed them, engaged with them on social media and took pictures. Temple hopes that Mason and Giles can do something similar for a school in the future. Kings rookies Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson are expected to be on hand when Hill makes his first appearance on Monday.

“I was kind of looking at the bigger picture,” Mason said. “Garrett did a great job speaking about the future and the past, being a role model to those kids and telling them what he’s been through. With what we’ve been through at a young age, we just want to help them to not make those mistakes, take advantage of opportunities and work hard every day.”

Said Temple: “Mentoring [teammates] isn’t just on the court. It’s showing them off the court how to impact people.”

Temple’s and Hill’s meetings with the Sacramento high school student-athletes could offer life-changing inspiration. Temple isn’t underestimating the impact it can have on him, too.

“I probably will get more from it than the kids,” Temple said. “It continues to keep you grounded. It humbles you. It reminds you that at one point you were in the same shoes as these kids and had a dream of playing professional basketball. To get here, you need to understand that it’s a blessing and you’re very fortunate.

“But other people don’t have this chance. You have to pour in to the kids that won’t be [in professional sports] that athletics isn’t the only way to make it out.”

Backstage at ‘The Late Show’ with Jon Batiste The musical director and former point guard on why it’s important to keep score

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Jon Batiste reached over to the Crosley record player in his dressing room at the Ed Sullivan Theater. He lifted the needle so that Stevie Wonder’s In Square Circle could provide a little background music while he talked in the dim glow of what once was Carol Burnett’s dressing room. Old-fashioned showbiz lights still frame the vanity’s mirror, although the vanity itself is covered with books, hats, records and a speaker. A couple of paintings lean against the mirror.

The musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was quiet and relaxed, possibly the most subdued he’d been all day.

Batiste, 31, rarely stays still, which is the only way a person can hold down his Late Show gig while also acting as artistic director at the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, recording new music, promoting a Christmas album, reimagining “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” collaborating with Wynton Marsalis, writing op-eds for The New York Times and constructing a tribute to dancer Carmen de Lavallade for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors. Batiste is arguably the country’s most visible preservationist and celebrator of jazz. He and Stay Human, The Late Show’s house band, reach roughly 3 million people each night through their televisions.

Full Track

Jon Batiste’s fingers glide across the keys of a Steinway & Sons piano in the Stay Human rehearsal space ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show has recently vaulted to the top of the late-night ratings on the wings of host Stephen Colbert. Monday through Friday he provides a wry yet sunny accounting of how the world is descending into a morass of fear, uncertainty and, lately, how it’s being pushed there by famous men who can’t keep their hands to themselves. Batiste sets off the monologues with a tinkle of piano keys, a laugh or a quip. He’s the amen corner for Colbert’s sharpest jabs.

On the gray, overcast day after a terrorist plowed into a bike path in New York, killing eight people, Batiste strode into his eighth-floor office. When he crossed the threshold to find a stranger waiting for him, he held out his hand and let out one of his trademark “Yeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahs.”

His buoyant, irrepressible happiness might seem inappropriate for the day after a tragedy, even for a man who comes from the land where people give you a parade when you die. (He grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, about 20 minutes from New Orleans, before moving to New York as a teen to attend The Juilliard School.) Nevertheless, he was humming, scatting and upbeat. Batiste considers transmitting that energy to be part of his job.

“It’s an interesting line to thread, to find a joyous sound that also matches the tone of the material in the show,” Batiste said. “That’s the real challenge every day, is finding out, OK, how do we find that thing that’s gonna push the energy that we want forward but not come across as insensitive or not come across as kitsch or out of taste? And that’s what I enjoy. I love these artistic challenges.”

He’d been listening to The Commodores on the way to work, and he sat down on the small gray couch in his office, barely able to contain his humming until I joined him in the chorus of “Lady (You Bring Me Up).”

Admittedly, it’s hard not to bop your head once you hear the lively strings and driving beat of “Lady.” The Commodores are part of a playlist that Batiste made for 2017. At the beginning of every year, he compiles a mix of songs, a sort of aural lookbook for the next 365 days. This year’s mishmash included contemporary Bob Dylan, 1920s and ’30s Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee and Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album.

The yearly mix provides a thematic foundation for what Batiste wants to reference in the show. About a week after we spoke, Batiste and Stay Human played an arrangement of “Lady” during a Late Show commercial break. It’s evidence of the thoughtfulness that defines his tenure as Late Show bandleader.

“I like putting stuff into the machine and then seeing what comes out of the machine. The brain, that’s like our processing machine,” Batiste said. “So for me, I like to just make a list of all the stuff that I want to digest and assimilate and then I just live with it.”

Batiste has had years of experience putting music into his “processing machine.” He began playing with his father, Michael, in the family’s Batiste Brothers Band when he was about 6 or 7.

The Batistes are one of New Orleans’ most respected and legendary jazz clans, and they’ve often worked side by side with the Marsalis family. Both Batiste and his mentor, Wynton Marsalis, attended high school at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Wynton’s father, pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., headed the jazz department there and was succeeded by clarinetist Alvin Batiste, a distant cousin of Jon’s.

“Him and Alvin and Clyde Kerr and Kidd Jordan, they were like the four village elders who taught everybody in New Orleans music from the last 40 years,” Batiste said. His upbringing in a family of jazz musicians and his experiences playing point guard, both in school (where he was part of a state championship-winning squad) and for an AAU team, gave Batiste his energy, his musical acumen and his constant all-American drive for self-improvement.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for ESPN

“It’s a discipline to achieve whatever your desired end result is,” Batiste explained. “In sports, there’s a score. There’s statistics, and there’s a winner and a loser and a championship, and there is one team that gets it. It’s just very clear-cut.

“I think, in order to get better at being a musician and a bandleader and a composer and all these different things, you have to create things that are that clear-cut, because the competition that you’re up against is yourself. So it’s harder, if you’re not willing to look into the mirror, to define what the end result is. It’s very easy to get to a certain level and to just coast, and to not push yourself to be better, because nobody is really keeping score.”

That constant pushing isn’t just what Batiste expects of himself. He expects it of his bandmates in Stay Human too.

It’s important to get “the team to where’s there’s a built-in camaraderie and built-in sense of purpose, that you’re OK passing your guy the ball to take the shot when it counts in the fourth quarter,” Batiste said, again likening the job to running a basketball team. “It’s not always going to be you that gets to take that shot. You may have to trust your sixth man, or your 2 guard. You’re running point, and I played a lot of point. You’re going to have to trust … I’m not going to be able to take this shot. This is not a smart shot for me to take.”

Batiste comes to work after lunch — this time, he raved about the meatball sandwich at a spot on 53rd Street and Ninth Avenue — usually taking a car from his apartment in midtown Manhattan. His office is filled with sunlight, although the view is basically of a construction crane, thanks to New York’s never-ending real estate development. He’s got two keyboards, a Mac, an amp, a drum set, an electric bass and a Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. An unopened bottle of Dom Pérignon still in the box, sits on his windowsill — he doesn’t drink.

He catches up on the news and tries to get an idea of what the show will address. Because Colbert riffs on the day’s news for his nightly monologue, things at The Late Show are often in flux right up until it’s time to tape the show. That means Batiste finds himself flipping through the musical library in his head on deadline and making last-minute changes at sound check.

“Picking music for TV is so specific,” Batiste said. “It has a mystery to it until you pick that right song, play that right beat, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, of course I should have been doing that.’ So it’s a mystery until then. You gotta crack the code.”

The code-cracking continues in the Stay Human rehearsal space, which is about the size of a McMansion bathroom.

Jon Batiste, left, reacts to the music while practicing new material with his band, Stay Human, a few hours ahead of a live taping at The Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

The Late Show tapes four days a week. So Monday through Thursday, 10-plus people cram into the space with their instruments, including a tuba and a drum set, and jam.

Batiste’s assistant squeezes into a chair next to the upright Steinway and plays a song from her phone through the Marshall speaker that sits on the piano. Gradually, the band picks up the groove and joins in. There’s little to no sheet music.

Batiste and the band rehearse for roughly an hour, their choices guided by that night’s guests and notes from a morning production meeting that his assistant attends. Then he’s off to comedy rehearsal with Colbert, where the two go through Colbert’s proposed monologue. A small gathering of crew makes up the audience for the rehearsal, which was kept so off-limits that not only could I not watch, I couldn’t even be in the building while it was taking place.

All those little riffs and interjections that feel natural and spontaneous when you watch Colbert’s monologue? They’ve been rehearsed.

After comedy rehearsal, Colbert and his staff make script changes and Batiste refines his music selections. Then there’s a sound check on the stage with the whole band. This time, Batiste was working through a song with Jonathan Groff, who played King George in Hamilton and now stars on the Netflix series Mindhunter. The two fumbled around to find the right key for a jokey promotional duet for Mindhunter that Groff sang with Colbert.

While everyone ventured off to hair and makeup, Late Show staff members shepherded the night’s audience into their seats. They were treated to a bawdy warm-up act by comedian Paul Mecurio. Batiste and Stay Human played a 15-minute concert, and Colbert came out, introduced himself to the audience and took questions.

Finally, they make the television that shows up after the local news five nights a week.

Duke Ellington favored natty suits and a top hat. Cab Calloway rarely performed without his conductor’s baton, white waistcoat and tails.

While Colbert sticks to a uniform of sober suits and dress shoes, his bandleader favors blazers from Mr. Turk and fresh Jordans. Batiste is a consummate sneakerhead, and while he sat and talked on his sofa, he casually dribbled a basketball between his feet.

Now Batiste has access to an entire collection of covetous footwear, an actual binder full of sneakers, via The Late Show’s stylist. He’s an admirer of Russell Westbrook’s sartorial boundary-pushing, and though his loyalties are not wedded to one particular NBA team, he casually follows Oklahoma City.

Unlike Calloway, Batiste doesn’t come out in a zoot suit every night. But there’s a special element of showmanship involved in being a bandleader. It’s a skill, one that Batiste, who swears he used to be shy, had to learn. And his personal style, which he began to cultivate after moving to New York, is part of it. Presentation, he insists, is separate from being a skillful musician.

Jon Batiste is an avid dresser, usually opting for suits with bold colors or prints paired with custom made sneakers.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I think it really is important to think of them as different things,” Batiste said. “It requires a certain understanding of yourself and your comfort zone, and then stepping outside that and expanding your comfort zone. I actually didn’t see a connection with the two. Also, when I was growing up, it was more the older family members who took that role of presenting the band and everything like that. … That’s always a shock to people who I’ve known for a long time, to see how both those things have developed. It’s a surprise, almost, like a different person has emerged.”

Batiste interprets the world through the youthful ears of a wizened soul. His workspaces at The Late Show are a cornucopia of old and new. Crosley and Marshall are companies that specialize in making music equipment that draws on vintage aesthetics but benefits from modern technological innovation. It’s a theme that recurs throughout Batiste’s working life — he began playing for vocalist Cassandra Wilson, now 61, when he was just 22. He’s a jazz musician whose instrument of choice is the melodica, a contraption that looks like a small hand keyboard with a mouthpiece and sounds like a harmonica.

“A lot of people think that this instrument, you know, is like a child’s toy,” Batiste said, but he loves it. He recounted how he showed it to Stevie Wonder the first time they met, when Batiste was still a student at Juilliard.

“Man, you ever played one of these?” Batiste asked Wonder.

Wonder took the instrument, played it, then gave it back.

“Yeah, I used to play them, but I would get so much spit in them, I stopped,” Wonder told him.

“Oh, you got jokes!” was Batiste’s retort.

Unlike many of his earliest predecessors in jazz, Batiste boasts formal musical training besides everything he learned in his family’s band. He earned a master’s degree from Juilliard.

“I feel like it connects me to the ancestors more, the kind of founding fathers of the music,” Batiste said of his musical education. “Mothers and fathers, because women were a big part of it as well. There’s a lot of female artists that I think are still actually becoming recognized that we don’t even know about. The training just gives me another tool. Nothing can hurt you in pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of your craft.

“You know, there were great musicians who were the most erudite, studied, and they knew everything there was to know even before there were all these schools. And there were also musicians who didn’t know all that stuff, but they knew it in their own way. So, in my mind, I don’t even think about it like I’m educated more so than a musician who didn’t go to a conservatory. It’s just I know the terminology. But the person who knows it is the one who experiences it. So, if somebody is playing it on their instrument, they know it. … Whether they call it a C scale or dominant seventh chord or they just know it by whatever they know in their mind, when they play, it’s there.”

In Batiste’s office there’s a poster of Mavis Staples, one of his many heroes.

“She’s not just a musician now, she’s bigger than music,” Batiste said. “[Her involvement] in the civil rights movement and being a force for goodwill and a force of peace and a force for faith and a force in all kinds of ways. It’s amazing.”

Staples represents what he wants to achieve, Batiste said, “just what kind of energy I want to have as a performer and a celebrity. Somebody that’s authentic and is very real and also accomplished and all that, at the same time.”

In marrying youth with tradition, drawing a line from zoot suits to Jordans, Batiste has become a vehicle for advocating and communicating about jazz. He’s reverential, but not stuffy, and always repping New Orleans. (When it comes to gumbo, Batiste prefers filé to okra as a thickener for the city’s signature stew — that’s how his mama makes it.)

For decades, there’s been a panic that jazz, born in Louisiana and spread via the Great Migration, radio and vinyl, is dying. As once-booming jazz corridors in cities such as Washington, D.C., and Kansas City have shrunk or transformed, those changes are accompanied by understandable worries that no one’s interested in carrying on the genre’s traditions, that a uniquely American art form is going underappreciated outside of Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and rich people’s wedding receptions. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for directing a movie around that theme.

But there’s always a young, handsome, passionate and charismatic ambassador keeping the legacies of Bird and Miles and Satchmo alive. In the ’90s, it was Batiste’s mentor, Wynton Marsalis. Now Batiste has picked up the torch, along with the requisite fedora and porkpie hat — he’s got a stack of them in his dressing room and more in his office. As for the next generation? Well, Batiste turned 31 in November. He celebrated by traveling to see his 8-year-old nephew’s piano recital. The culture is in safe hands.

No matter if it’s a rehearsal or an actual performance, Batiste and his band member play full out, laughing and having fun with each note they play.

Melissa Bunni Elian for The Undefeated

“I don’t expect that jazz is always going to be on top like it was in the ’20s, for example,” said jazz pianist and bandleader Herbie Hancock. “The music is always evolving and constantly changing, and it’s very difficult for a lot of listeners to keep up with that.”

But he’s optimistic about Batiste’s work on The Late Show. “That experience is incredible because you’re challenged in a lot of new ways, doing that type of TV show,” Hancock said. “Because of the kind of talent he has and his experience in jazz, he’s able to more easily adapt and include new ways of dealing with the music for that kind of show than if he had not had it.”

As darkness began to settle over Manhattan, it was time for a show.

Batiste sprinted onstage to greet the show’s live audience. Joined by Stay Human, they pumped up the crowd with James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and an arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” modeled after Tito Puente’s salsa-fied version.

One of Colbert’s guests was writer and Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson, who was there to promote his new biography of Leonardo da Vinci. To introduce Isaacson, the band played an up-tempo rendition of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble,” a New Orleans ditty from 1902 later popularized by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

“I grew up with his whole family,” Isaacson explained to Colbert. “The wonderful Batiste family of New Orleans.” Isaacson gestured toward Batiste. “He’s a great man.”

When the interview concluded, Isaacson walked over for a hug, thrilled that Batiste had chosen to pay musical homage to their shared roots.

Later, Colbert said goodbye and the band exited. While the audience made its way to the lobby, stopping for pictures with cardboard cutouts of Colbert, Batiste huddled with the host for a post-mortem of the night’s show.

The process of assembling and putting out a newspaper used to be known as the Daily Miracle. Making late-night television involves many of the same pressures related to accuracy, tone and intellect. On top of that, it’s got to be funny, and it’s done in front of a live audience.

No wonder The Late Show tapes smack in the middle of Broadway. With Colbert and Batiste at the helm, it’s clear that’s exactly where it belongs.

Daily Dose: 11/16/17 Trump undoes Obama’s trophy elephant import laws

All right, kiddos. I’ll be on Capitol Hill for most of Thursday covering an event about the future of sports gambling, which should be an interesting day. I’ll let you know how it goes.

President Donald Trump loves undoing former President Barack Obama’s achievements. Whether it be things that can help his fellow Americans, policies that help us get along with other nations or, lo and behold, regulations that prevent endangered species from being killed off. Yes, Trump is going to reverse the ban on the import of trophy elephants in Africa. This move is clearly directly designed to help his son, whose proclivity for killing things is well-documented, and to thumb his nose at 44 directly, just because he can.

Our justice system can be extremely brutal. When it comes to fairness in incarceration, there are loopholes and inconsistencies that can ruin lives. Particularly in Louisiana, where state officials are on record as having desired to keep people in jail in order to “work them,” this is a specifically bad problem. Two more heartbreaking cases are in the news this week. One, a man was locked up for eight years with no trial, then freed after his case was thrown out. Another man is now free, nearly 50 years after a false rape accusation.

Remember Capt. “Sully”? Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the guy who landed a plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike nearly took the aircraft down? It led to that incredible visual of people standing on a wing in the middle of the water, a situation from which, fortunately, everyone on board survived. He became a national hero. They made a movie about his life, and Tom Hanks played him. Anyways, it awakened the world to the scourge of bird strikes in general. And this photo from a fowl hitting a Miami-bound plane is really wild.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are old. Like, legit, they have one of the more aged rosters in the NBA, so how they handle their conditioning is extremely important. In a league in which daily travel is such a critical part of life, you’ve got to manage your energy very carefully, so what they’ve started doing when they get the chance is staying the night in the same city they’ve just played in before traveling on. It makes sense and, when it comes to the NBA fixing its rest problem, might be something more teams would want to consider.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you’re not familiar with Lil Peep, I don’t blame you. His sound and approach to the game were very much on the cutting edge of where hip-hop is now, but he wasn’t without his problems. He’s suspected to have died from a drug overdose at the age of 21. Very sad.

Snack Time: I’ve mentioned the show Chewing Gum a few times in this space, mainly because it’s hilarious. It was supposed to be going away, but now, apparently, it’s back? Yay!

Dessert: Do you rock AirPods? Here’s a hack that might be useful for you.