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

Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WarnerMedia

2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.

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

But 2019 is where the payoff begins.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morgan pauses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Morgan was almost gone too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morgan begins to cry again.

“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”

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

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

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

He nods.

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

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


This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.


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

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”

Morgan and I both break out laughing.

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

Morgan laughs at his own story.

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

Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.

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

A visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a lesson in forgiveness NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith shares his ministry experience at the prison

Editor’s note: Louisiana State Penitentiary is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Also known as “Angola” because it was built on a former plantation that held many slaves from the African country, the prison has a long and notorious history, including convict leasing in the 1800s. It was also once dubbed “the bloodiest prison in America.”


A few months ago, I received a text from my former teammate Steve Smith Sr., a man who is like a brother to me:

“For the last few years I’ve been asked to do a prison visit by a friend named Lenny. He is the team chaplain for the Buffalo Bills. Last year, I finally went and it was a remarkable and unforgettable experience for me. I know everyone has their own things going on, but I told myself I wouldn’t be silent and keep it to myself. So I’m just doing what was placed on my heart. Pray about it. If what you read interests you hit me back. If it doesn’t I completely understand.”

After I read Steve’s text message, I thought about the many times I’ve visited prisons during my career, including San Quentin in California, so I knew what to expect. I responded and let Steve know that I was interested in joining the trip. I would later find out I was wrong. The visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola State Prison, turned out to be a transformative experience for me — an emotional journey that challenged my assumptions about rehabilitation and forgiveness.

Buffalo Bills Chaplain Len Vanden Bos leads a prayer on the field after a game against the Miami Dolphins at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Miami 24 to 16.

Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Steve’s friend Lenny turned out to be Len Vanden Bos, my chaplain at Pro Athletes Outreach, an organization that builds community among pro athletes and couples to grow spiritually and have a positive impact around them. Through his Higher Ground Ministry, he takes current and former NFL players, along with Christian leaders, to prisons to spread the gospel and encourage people who are incarcerated.

I knew that Angola was a maximum security prison filled with people who were facing lengthy sentences, some convicted of violent crimes like murder or rape but others convicted under the state’s harsh habitual offender laws for which Louisiana is famous. I also assumed from everything I had heard that people would be locked in small cages with little interaction with each other outside of the prison yard. As we toured the former plantation, built on more than 18,000 acres, however, I was shocked to see men walking around, cleaning up and washing cars as if they weren’t incarcerated at all. Some were dressed in plainclothes; no one wore chains. The men slept in a big room with bunk beds, which reminded me of the 1999 movie Life, where Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play two Harlem bootleggers sentenced to life in prison for a phony murder charge. The reality of what I saw was a lot to take in, and as we walked around, I wondered how could the most violent men in Louisiana live together in what appears to be a very peaceful environment.

I don’t mean to glorify this prison. It is a prison, after all, and people are held in cells and often forced to work in sweltering heat with little money. And as we continued to walk through the prison grounds, I saw men working, some for as little as 2 cents an hour, making T-shirts for the government and license plates for every driver in Louisiana, or raising cattle to be sold on the market.

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in 2013.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Three things struck me as we toured the grounds.

First, I feel strongly that this was modern-day slavery, and it was wrong. Then I remembered slavery is still legal as defined by the 13th Amendment, which says, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Angola, like other prisons, benefits from this exemption. And I realized, yes, this is America.

Second, I witnessed how people accused of even the most serious crimes and living in extremely difficult conditions could work, live together peacefully and change. I wondered if those people working so well together were really still even a danger to anyone. This experience drove home the importance of second chances, because people change, even those who have caused terrible harm.

As we passed a church on the property that was built by the men, for example, I was struck by what they had accomplished — and what it demonstrated. I saw two incarcerated men working on a building with all of the tools they needed: hammers, nails, screwdrivers, screws, it was all there. It was a striking visual that remains stamped in my memory. Although I strongly believed that it was wrong that they were working for pennies on the dollar, their ability to do so conveyed a sense of collaboration and responsibility that led me to also believe they had hope.

The system is complicated.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and nicknamed the “Alcatraz of the South” and “The Farm” is a maximum-security prison farm in Louisiana operated by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections.

Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Throughout my visit at Angola, I saw men working and trying to better themselves through a variety of impactful programs offered there. Yes, some will, in fact, die in prison, while others will earn the second chance they deserve.

Unfortunately for the men awaiting their second chance in America, their fate rests with the political, and not with what is right. In several states, freedom is not just determined by one’s actions while incarcerated or even by the parole or pardon board. In some cases, situations like pardons require the signature of the governor of that particular state, whose contact with the person who is incarcerated is limited to a manila file folder even if the state-approved board has deemed the person worthy of a second chance.

Legislators have the power to change that, and in some cases, states have created a “no action” law that allows for pardons to go through with the recommendation of the board if it is not signed before the governor has left his term. This takes the burden of a final decision off the back of the governor, who may or may not have political concerns, while offering the offender a second chance based on the approval of the experienced members of the pardon board.

Many men and women who deserve second chances remain in prison because of politics or because they are considered a high-profile case in their state. It’s not fair to the incarcerated men and women or the bodies that govern them.

And then a third thing occurred to me.

Overall, spending time with the people at Angola led me to question my own views of forgiveness. As a follower of Christ, I believe that we are forgiven. But I had to ask myself, “Am I really forgiving others? If my forgiveness is conditional, is it real?” I’ve spent many years holding grudges against people who’ve wronged me in some way, and I imagined the grace summoned by victims of crime when they forgive those who have harmed them. I seek the peace and freedom that the forgiven men feel.

Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens prays with teammates and player from the Philadelphia Eagles after the Baltimore Ravens defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-26 at M&T Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Many of the men at Angola had already found peace through Christ, which allowed them to feel forgiven. As I prayed with them at the end of our visit, worshipping alongside men who had committed violent crimes and were now paying their debt to society, I witnessed the power of real forgiveness. It was a lesson that I carried with me when I left, and it is a lesson that I will share with the hope that others can accept and give forgiveness too.

Above the rim: Best fictional starting 5s in the history of film + TV A completely impossible yet intriguing list of matchups only feasible in a basketball fantasyland

Who would win in a one-on-one between Michael Jordan and LeBron James? Could these Golden State Warriors beat the 72-10 Chicago Bulls? How many more titles could Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant have won if they actually liked each other? What if injuries never robbed the careers of Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Brandon Roy and Derrick Rose? There’s nothing quite like nostalgia. And when it comes to nostalgia in basketball, friendships are tested, battle lines are drawn and some of the hottest takes known to man fly off without a moment’s notice.

With the NBA playoffs set to take flight this weekend, we’ve decided to bring another completely impossible yet intriguing matchup only feasible in a basketball fantasy land.

The best to ever do it on television, vs. on film. We kept this to purely fictional players. NBA players in TV or film roles were not eligible, because what fun would that be? For example, no Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) from He Got Game, no Grandmama (Larry Johnson) from Family Matters or Neon Boudeaux and Butch McRae (O’Neal and Hardaway) from Blue Chips. Don’t trip, though, because there’s a melody of skill, charisma and enough comedy to give you flashbacks to the days of MTV Rock N’ Jock. This is a mini-draft equipped with a starting five, a sixth player and head coach. We’ll then let you decide who’d win this fictional Finals. Our own Justin Tinsley has television and Aaron Dodson has movies.

Those are the rules. We good? Good. Now let’s get to it …

TELEVISION

“Will Smith” (Will Smith)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Scouting Report: We’re always left to wonder what would’ve become of the Will character had he landed the Georgetown scholarship, completing the most feared college backcourt ensemble in history with Allen Iverson, Victor Page and Kyle Lee Watson. Smith’s a big combo guard who can score at will (pun intended). There are very few holes in The Fresh Prince’s game — except for one. Several general managers have expressed concern for his decision-making in crunch time, evident in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Courting Disaster” (season one, episode 11) and My Brother’s Keeper (season two, episode 15). Is he the cold-blooded killer you need in the game’s tightest moments? Even with that, The Prince is a franchise-caliber talent.

Steve Urkel (Jaleel White)

Family Matters

Scouting Report: In the “Grandmama” episode — season five, episode seven — Eddie Winslow dumped Urkel to play with The Spider, which allowed Urkel to call in reinforcements with Larry Johnson as “Grandmama.” To Eddie’s credit, Spider was nice. But we’re not making the same mistake, as The Nerd’s game is both technically sound and visually appealing.

Brandi (Kyla Pratt)

Smart Guy

Scouting Report: The year 1998 was a rather definitive one for Kyla Pratt, basketballwise. Not only did she play a young Monica Wright in Love & Basketball, giving young Quincy McCall the business on the court, but months later in “She Got Game” — season three, episode one of Smart Guy — she did the same thing, minus TJ (Tahj Mowry) pushing her into the bushes. “Brandi,” after some persuading, joins TJ’s squad, instantly transforming the team and supplanting TJ as the squad’s best player. Instant offense. Instant culture change. Instant winner with a chip on her shoulder.

Mark Cooper (Mark Curry)

Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper

Scouting Report: The Mr. Cooper character has two things working for him that no one else on this squad does. One, he’s a former NBA player (for his hometown Golden State Warriors). And two, he brings a certain maturity level this team is going to need if we’re hoping to make any sort of noise.

Kevin Hart

Real Husbands of Hollywood

Scouting Report: Technically, Kevin wasn’t a hooper on Real Husbands of Hollywood. But as a four-time NBA Celebrity All-Star Game MVP (and co-star of a hilarious basketball game with Chris Brown), he’s my ringer. We’re going to be running a small-ball lineup much of the time, so we’re going to need as many ball handlers, shooters and comedians as possible. Basically, call it The Annexation of Puerto Rico 2.0.

Sixth man: Martin Payne (Martin Lawrence)

Martin

Scouting Report: He’s an undersized 2-guard whose confidence is nothing short of irrational. But that’s fine. Payne is a defibrillator jolt of energy off the bench. He’s never met a shot he didn’t like. He doesn’t mind mixing it and jawing with the competition. And since he’s the classic definition of a streaky shooter, you take the good with the bad. He’s basically J.R. Smith with Gary Payton’s mentality. The only question mark to his game is where his head’s at before tipoff. If he and Gina — or worse, he and Pam — got into an argument beforehand (which is like saying “if water is wet”) he can easily shoot you out of a game as quickly as he can hit three miracle buckets in a row.

Coach: Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris)

The Wire

Scouting Report: This squad is going to need a no-nonsense general on the sidelines who can occasionally verbally decapitate a referee who misses a call — as seen in the brilliant “Game Day” episode from season one. The reports are true, though. I nearly went with Prop Joe, whose commitment to being the dope-game Pat Riley wearing a suit in Baltimore heat was only superseded by the iconic line “Look the part, be the part, m—-f—–!” But then that’d mean Joe’s nephew, “Cheese” (Method Man), would be somewhere near the team. And I can’t have Cheese near my squad. Nope. No how. No way.

FILM

Calvin Cambridge (Shad “Bow Wow” Moss)

Like Mike

Scouting Report: There’s one rule for my squad: no team sneakers. Every player has the free rein to break out whatever heat they so choose, especially the young god Calvin Cambridge. He’ll be wearing a pair of white and Carolina blue Nike Blazers, which used to belong to Michael Jordan when he was a kid, giving him the ability to ball out like the greatest of all time. The kicks even allow Calvin — at a modest 4 feet 8 inches — to dunk the ball (in Like Mike, he won the 2002 NBA Slam Dunk Contest). Who needs a point guard with fundamentals when you’ve got one with shoes that have magical powers zapped into them by lightning?

Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan)

Love & Basketball

Scouting Report: Sorry, Quincy McCall, but you didn’t make the team. That’s because his childhood sweetheart, Monica Wright, was without a doubt a better hooper in 2000’s Love & Basketball, one of the most iconic black films of all time. Remember the movie’s timeless line? “All’s fair in love and basketball.” Well, what isn’t there to love about Monica’s game? She’s an athletic point guard who plays with a whole lotta swag. Just look at her No. 32 jersey, which she wears in honor of her favorite player, Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson. Her character also earned a starting job at USC as a freshman, won a championship overseas and became one of the WNBA’s first players. We need that pedigree in our backcourt.

Kyle Lee Watson (Duane Martin)

Above the Rim

Scouting Report: Yup, we’re employing a three-guard offense — and we’re running it through the sharpshooting Kyle Lee Watson. The at-times hotheaded baller made it out of the ’hood of Harlem, New York, and all the way to the Hilltop in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University, where he played in the 1990s for what was once known as black America’s basketball team, under John Thompson Jr., the first African-American head coach to win an NCAA title. We just gotta hope that when he gets the rock, he spreads his fingers and puts some rotation on his jumper.

Clarence Withers, aka Coffee Black (Andre 3000)

Semi-Pro

Scouting Report: Back in 1976, during an ABA game between the San Antonio Spurs and Flint Tropics, the first alley-oop in basketball history was recorded. “A very unusual series of moves just made the ball go in,” play-by-play announcer Dick Pepperfield uttered in awe that day. On the receiving end of the pass from the top of the key by Jackie Moon? None other than Clarence Withers (aka Coffee Black, aka Downtown “Funky Stuff” Malone, aka Sugar Dunkerton, aka “Jumping” Johnny Johnson), who’s listed at only 5 feet, 10 inches but has supreme bounce to go along with his picked-out Afro. Between Coffee Black and Calvin Cambridge, we might as well refer to the movie team from here on out as the new Lob City.

Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs)

Cooley High

Scouting Report: *Cues up G.C. Cameron’s original rendition of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”* Long before the real-life deaths of star hoopers Benji Wilson and Len Bias, the basketball world lost a great one in Richard “Cochise” Morris, from the 1975 film Cooley High. Cochise received a scholarship to play at the historically black Grambling State University but was killed before he could graduate from high school. Let’s just say that his tragic death never happened, making him a valuable addition to our roster.

Sixth Man: Antoine Tyler (Kadeem Hardison)

The Sixth Man

Scouting Report: We’ve got skill, athleticism and, most importantly, a higher being on our side. There’s no better sixth man for our squad than Antoine Tyler, who in the 1997 film The Sixth Man helped lead his younger brother Kenny Tyler (Marlon Wayans) and the Washington Huskies basketball team to an NCAA championship as a guardian angel after suffering a heart attack on the court and dying. At the end of the movie, Antoine ascended to heaven to ball for God’s team, but hopefully he’ll return to help us out.

Coach: Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson)

Coach Carter

Scouting Report: If there’s one man who wouldn’t back down to the street savant-turned-basketball coach known as Avon Barksdale, it’s Ken Carter. Inspired by a real person, and depicted by Samuel L. Jackson in the 2005 film of the same name, Coach Carter barred his entire team (which was undefeated, mind you) from playing in games because his players were failing classes. The community turned against Carter, who nearly lost his job, when what he wanted was for every player to go to college, even if basketball was a casualty. Win or lose, Coach Carter would probably have Avon doing suicides and pushups, out of principle alone.

‘Black Panther’ unlikely to change Hollywood’s lie that black movies can’t make money Hollywood’s biases have proven themselves stronger than its commitment to the bottom line

Any hopes that Black Panther’s box office conquest will spur Hollywood to greenlight heavily-financed movies featuring Pan-African stories and performed by predominantly black casts must be muted. Racial discrimination is not a product of logic, but rather its antithesis.

Marvel Studios’ latest movie, based on the comic company’s first black superhero, is generating earth-shattering sums of money, amassing $235 million over the first four days of its release in the U.S. and Canada alone. Directed by a black man, 31-year-old Ryan Coogler, with nearly an all-black cast and powered by a $200 million budget, the film is filling Disney’s corporate coffers and delighting its largely white executive decision makers. With films featuring black casts rarely enjoying big budgets, Black Panther will show the financial rewards that Hollywood can reap with black movies rooted in uniquely black experiences.

Many hope the economic triumph of Black Panther will persuade studios to bankroll similar movies with nine-figure budgets. This hope is buoyed by simple logic: Once scenario A proves itself, others, likewise seeking economic success, will copycat. Black Panther’s achievement, therefore, should coax others to understand the financial wisdom in backing black blockbusters. Proof of concept opens opportunity to others, so the theory goes.

An unavoidable truth, however, must temper this expectation: Hollywood’s ongoing discrimination against black movies isn’t supported by logic and evidence, so why believe illogical people will amend their behavior based on evidence that they were wrong all along?

Movie studios would insist that the leading reason for not investing big bucks in predominantly black films is that international markets won’t support them. Comedian Bill Maher, in that vein, said of Asian moviegoers, “They don’t want to see black people generally in their movies. The Hollywood executives are, like, ‘We’re not racist, we just have to pretend to be racists because we’re capitalists. We want to sell our movies in China [and] they don’t like Kevin Hart.’” With Hollywood increasingly reliant upon international dollars to turn profits, overseas perceptions matter greatly.

This is where the illogicalness of racial discrimination pierces through and why we mustn’t expect Black Panther’s success to lessen discrimination’s prevalence in Hollywood: The idea that “black films” don’t make coins internationally has long been proven demonstrably false.

Go back 30 years to Coming to America, a comedy starring Eddie Murphy, released in 1988, which made $160.6 million internationally. Or look at the two Bad Boys action movies, led by actors Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the original released in 1995 and the sequel in 2003. Together the films earned $210.3 million in foreign countries. The black superhero movie Blade, with Wesley Snipes playing a vampire as the lead, made $61 million internationally 20 years ago. The Fast and Furious franchise practically prints money in China, starring mixed-race Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and black actors Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson. And even the indie film Moonlight, with an all-black cast with no movie stars and a production budget of around $4 million, did $37 million internationally.

When a black movie rakes in the cash overseas, however, Hollywood insiders toss out an endless array of excuses as to why this or that black success story cannot be used to kill the assumption that black movies represent bad overseas investments.

Appealing movies with black casts can make money in foreign markets. The proof surrounds us. Just like movies featuring white leads, black movies need to be well-executed and appealing. If so, people across the globe will pay money to see them.

But why, then, does Hollywood swim against the current of evidence? Why do movie studios need proof of the concept when the concept has already been proven? The answers stare us in the face: These arguments about why black movies aren’t being greenlit are not being made in good faith; the strength of Hollywood’s biases against black movies are stronger than the commitment to the bottom line; sometimes logic is not enough to persuade people to behave in a racially fair way, particularly when discrimination pervades the entire industry.

Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack films, told the Los Angeles Times, “Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug. … It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.”

We should brace for something similar regarding Black Panther. Hollywood bigwigs will laud the movie as so unique that its appeal cannot be applied to the next black project in the pipeline waiting to be greenlit. Sure, we will get Black Panther sequels. But other movies rooted in blackness produced because of Black Panther’s success? History teaches us we should temper our expectations.

For now, a Hollywood that acknowledges the potential of black films is as fictional as Wakanda.

Slam dunk: LeBron James to produce reboot of the classic ‘House Party’ Stephen Glover and Jamal Olori — ‘Atlanta’ screenwriters — will write

LeBron James has a lot on his mind — free agency, NBA All-Star Weekend, and the second half of the NBA season — but there’s more. He and his SpringHill Entertainment partner, Maverick Carter, are producing a new House Party. The plan is to not just revive but to reinvent the franchise that starred Martin Lawrence, Kid ’n Play, Tisha Campbell and Full Force. It launched in 1990, and sequels followed in 1991 and 1994. Stephen Glover and Jamal Olori, Atlanta‘ screenwriters, will write it. “This is definitely not a reboot. It’s an entirely new look for a classic movie,” James told The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive. More to come.

Russell Simmons revolutionized the culture, but now it doesn’t matter Recent sexual assault charges reveal the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame

To date, more than 10 women have accused Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. The accusations range from harassment to rape. Simmons says, “I vehemently deny all these allegations.

The accusers include model Keri Claussen Khalighi. She says she begged for help as Simmons coerced her to have oral sex. Musician Sherri Hines accuses the author and Def Jam Recordings founder of throwing her on a couch and raping her. Tina Baker, a lawyer, says that Simmons, who managed her career at the time, invited her to his apartment, where he held her down and raped her. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet says that Simmons coerced her into sex after having his driver take them to Simmons’ place without her consent. Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam A&R executive and daughter of former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, accused Simmons of sexual abuse and also says former Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid sexually harassed her. (Reid stepped down from his position at Epic in May amid sexual misconduct allegations.)

The allegations against Simmons span from 1983 to 2016. “These horrific accusations have shocked me to my core,” he wrote to The New York Times, “and all of my relations have been consensual.”

Since the initial allegations were made public at the end of November, Simmons has stepped down from all of his companies. HBO comedy series has removed him from All Def Comedy. The New York Police Department is now opening an investigation, as seven of the alleged incidents occurred in New York City.

The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide.

Any stories about Simmons up to two weeks ago would have had a totally different first paragraph. Before the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, Simmons’ story would have started with his immeasurable contributions to black culture and, by proxy, American culture. With Def Jam, Simmons helped take hip-hop from street corners to Wall Street. His visionary approach to the music business is largely responsible for making rap music the pop culture juggernaut it is today.

Beyond that, his Def Comedy Jam launched the careers of comedians such as Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who are of course now household names. The debacle of his RushCard debit card, in which thousands of customers were locked out of their accounts over a weekend and unable to access funds, was a stain on his otherwise good reputation. All of these accomplishments, and more, used to be Simmons’ resounding legacy.

Used to be, because none of that matters anymore. While the fruits of Simmons’ cultural labor are spread across global pop culture to this day and beyond, none of those contributions would be equal to the cost from the painful toll he’s accused of inflicting on women over the course of the past three decades. The road to greatness isn’t worth a damn if that road is paved with pain and violence toward women.

So we’re left with the idea that one of the main architects of the current musical landscape — in September, Nielsen reported that the combined genre of hip-hop and rhythm and blues is No. 1, for the first time, in overall consumption — has allegedly victimized women along the way. These women were managers, artists, journalists, all who — who knows, but — could perhaps have made even larger impact on the culture.

Simmons has always been a role model for what creativity, business acumen and hard work can do, how one person’s brilliance can transform the world. Now, he may be another example of the damage that can be done to women under the cover of fame.

There will be a push — as always, and especially when black female victims are involved — to litigate just how much sexual assault is acceptable in relation to a particular artist’s contribution to popular culture. R. Kelly defenders love bringing up that his music is just too iconic to discard. Bill Cosby defenders protest that their love for The Cosby Show is just too much to sacrifice, no matter his charges. The same goes for less-discussed accused transgressors: We revere Martin despite the allegations that the titular star sexually harassed Tisha Campbell. What about Dr. Dre? Floyd Mayweather? Mike Tyson?

Where is the line, and what will be left if every man who abuses a woman is exiled from his respective level of achievement? The fact is, art will survive. Brilliance is an infinitely replenishable resource that women who are free from the anxiety and trauma of violence are more than capable of providing. The question shouldn’t be what would the world look like without the art these men provide. The question should be how much better would the world be if everyone were free to create in a world where sexual assault and violence didn’t exist. Isn’t that more valuable than a few great albums and TV shows?

Daily Dose: 10/27/17 Kellogg’s Corn Pops facing heat for cereal box

All right, y’all, almost to the weekend. I was on Around the Horn on Thursday, breaking records, and Friday afternoon I’ll be on Outside The Lines at 1 p.m. on ESPN. After that, I’ll bring things home on #TheRightTime on ESPN Radio.

Let’s quickly review the American judicial system. When police officers shoot and kill innocent black people, not only do they often get to walk free, but their acts are deleted from their records, allowing them to never face consequences for their recklessness. Now, shifting gears to those who ARE put in jail, their existence is privatized and then celebrated by the president of the United States of America. Literally. Not to mention, some of the officers are plainly stealing from people who are victims of natural disasters. Awesome.

The fate of the Bad Boys franchise is tricky. For years, we’ve been told a third installment of the classic Martin Lawrence and Will Smith movie is forthcoming, with various reboots and relaunches having petered out for various reasons. If you recall, in the second film, Gabrielle Union’s character shows up as Lawrence’s kid sister, who ends up in a romantic relationship with Smith. Now, it appears that Union might be getting her own spin-off, via a TV show, which is actually a way better idea than a third movie, to be honest.

Hip-hop in schools is nothing new. Teachers these days are using the culture in many different ways to educate and enlighten the children of America, but some efforts are better than others. It’s one thing for a couple of songs to help kids learn the Pythagorean theorem, it’s another to have your entire school repped by one of the more vicious raps you’ve ever heard in your life. And this video titled Excellence First is NOTHING BUT FIRE, KIDDOS. Straight bars. Check it out.

I don’t eat Kellogg’s Corn Pops. Ever since I was a child, they never held my interest and just seemed mad boring as a food source in a field crowded with so many more sugar-loaded options. Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, the list goes on. But in all honesty, I was more of a Chex and Crispix guy. Anyway, a new controversy is afoot for Pops because of a cereal box cover. There’s a belief that this is racist, even if not by design — which is, of course, always how it happens.

Free Food

Coffee Break: The fascination with The Notorious B.I.G.’s life will probably not end as long as I’m alive, but the stories that keep coming out of his life are fascinating and sometimes scary. Like this tale about him pulling a gun on Lil’ Kim over the fact that she couldn’t do a verse, after he allegedly slept with her sister.

Snack Time: It looks like the Brooklyn Nets are for sale, again. This time, Joseph Tsai, who runs Alibaba, is now taking over a good part of the team. Minority ownership!

Dessert: We’re wishing Gordon Hayward well, and this video of his daughters doing their best to help is adorbs.

Martin Lawrence’s ‘Martin,’ 20 years later The sitcom’s legacy is as hilarious as it is complicated

The finale of Martin aired in May 1997 as its five-season run limped to the finish line. Its demise was affected by a set of circumstances — allegations of sexual harassment, an emergency cruise storyline, a restraining order — that included Tisha Campbell walking off the Detroit set in November 1996. Core fans often omit mentioning the final season in discussions of the show, even decades later. The pain and discontent of the fifth season goes hand in hand with why Martin held such a prominent place in African-American culture during the 1990s to begin with.


Martin premiered on Fox in August 1992. Its main premise: the daily exploits of its five main characters, Martin (Martin Lawrence); his girlfriend, Gina (Campbell); her best friend, Pam (Tichina Arnold); and Martin’s two best friends, Thomas Ford (Tommy) and Carl Anthony Payne II (Cole). Its two principals, Lawrence and Campbell, had a long-established rapport.

“Martin, I’ve known him for years,” Campbell said on a December 1993 episode of Regis & Kathie Lee. “He would always say, ‘You gon’ play my girlfriend.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Right, Martin.’ But he made [good on] his promise.”

Both graduated from the school of Spike Lee classics — Campbell co-starred in 1988’s School Daze, and Lawrence appeared alongside his mentor and legendary comedian Robin Harris a year later in Do The Right Thing. Campbell and Lawrence even shared the same screen in Reggie Hudlin’s 1990 masterpiece House Party: Lawrence as Bilal, the DJ with the bad breath, and Campbell as Sidney, Christopher “Kid” Reid’s love interest. They also both appeared in Hudlin’s Boomerang in 1992. The energy of the late ’80s and early ’90s, in terms of what Hudlin and Lee were producing, directly translated into stars of those movies becoming stars of film and network television. Fox capitalized on the emergence of young black talent.

Before Fox News became the conservative conglomerate it is today, its programming model operated (and still operates) on a different wavelength. The network found success and relevancy in the swelling influence of the hip-hop generation. James Murdoch helped launch the highly respected hip-hop label Rawkus Records before selling it to his father, Rupert Murdoch — an associate of President Donald Trump’s, and the most powerful man at 21st Century Fox and News Corp. — in 1996. Shows such as In Living Color, Living Single, New York Undercover and Martin were instrumental in making Fox the massive fourth network in the ’90s.

Fox saw the allure of Lawrence — the heir apparent to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. He was an energetic and explicit comedian with big-screen experience whose routine worked just as well in intimate settings, as shown by his stint as host of HBO’s popular and influential Def Comedy Jam. Lawrence, though, questioned the network’s commitment to providing opportunities to entertainers of color. “Fox should reflect the diversity of black life instead of putting out the same show with different titles,” he said. “I’ve never met Rupert Murdoch or Lucie Salhany [Fox’s chairman]. I bet Tom and Roseanne Arnold know the heads of the company they work for.”

“It was a show that came wholly from the African-American experience that was a hit. It proved that unadulterated blackness could be mainstream.”

Martin premiered when African-American life and culture was under the microscope: It was a post-Rodney King and L.A. riots America. The show’s crux was hip, youthful blackness: Martin and Gina, the former a radio DJ at Detroit’s fictional WZUP and the latter an advertising account executive. “Its biggest legacy is the fact that it was a show that came wholly from the African-American experience that was a hit,” said former music and entertainment journalist Cheo Hodari Coker. He’s now the showrunner for Netflix’s Luke Cage. “It proved that unadulterated blackness could be mainstream.”

The show was a success from its start, averaging north of 11 million viewers in its first season. The New York Times praised the show’s quirkiness and its willingness to embrace social issues in episodes such as season one’s Dead Men Don’t Flush, which featured a dead white man — in this case, a plumber — being found dead in a black man’s apartment. After calling 911, the show’s fab five are forced to pass a qualifying quiz to prove they’re white. “Nothing makes my day more right,” Martin jokes, “than waking up white.” The charade nearly worked, too, as the crew correctly guessed white people’s favorite pie (apple) and named two Barry Manilow songs (“Copacabana (At the Copa)” and “Mandy”). The masquerade flatlines, however, when Cole incorrectly (and hilariously) answers “hot sauce” when responding to what white people put on sandwiches. Martin, John J. O’Connor wrote in November 1992, could “still blossom into something considerably more than a conventional sitcom.” And that “whatever happens, Martin Lawrence is obviously going places.”

Martin earned a following of diehard critics and fans alike. Some painted Lawrence’s pop culture dynamo as buffoonish — Bill Cosby slammed his stint as Def Comedy Jam host as a “minstrel show.” In a numbing sense of prophecy, Lawrence shot back at Cosby, saying, “For all his clean, wholesome, Jell-O pudding, I-ain’t-never-done-no-wrong image, they still didn’t let his a– buy NBC, now, did they?” The Los Angeles Times slammed the 1993 season two episode Whoop There It Ain’t for perpetuating stereotypes of black male sexuality. Newsweek deemed Lawrence’s character a “sex-obsessed homeboy shucking his way to nowhere.”

Yet many more saw the brainchild of creators Lawrence, John Bowman and Topper Carew as over-the-top comical. Episodes such as Hollywood Swinging (which featured Tommy Davidson as “Varnell Hill”), or Feast or Famine (a battle-of-the-sexes Thanksgiving episode) were not only hilarious but also made Martin, Gina, Tommy, Pam and Cole representatives of young black companionship and friendship in the ’90s. And Martin and Gina were the cool and relatable couple. “Having a steady relationship, getting with the right woman, is something I’ll always believe in,” he told VIBE in April 1994. “The one thing I’m most proud of with Martin is that it shows a black man loving and respecting his black woman.”

The many scenes and catchphrases considered classic are diverse, though many are from seasons two and three, the series’ apex. Suspicious Minds revolves around the mystery of Martin’s missing CD player, which causes him to channel his inner Nino Brown to interrogate his friends in hilarious, but ultimately unsuccessful, fashion. Season two standout Guard Your Grill finds Martin challenging professional boxer Tommy “Hitman” Hearns to a fight for Gina’s love. Many call out The Romantic Weekend from season three, more popularly known as Chilligan’s Island — the couples retreat episode that Martin finds on the back of a cereal box. The episode birthed the classic phrase “That ain’t no damn puppy!”

On-camera, in-character power struggles define the show’s legacy as well. Martin vs. Pam became a battle of wits. Martin vs. Ms. Geri was a recurring heavyweight clash. And Gina vs. Mama Payne became the in-law relationship from hell. At Martin’s height, cameos — by Snoop Dogg, Christopher “Kid” Reid, Salt-N-Pepa, former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, Jodeci (who had no clue Martin would interrupt their performance), Biggie Smalls, Sherman Hemsley, OutKast, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier and more — were a regular fixture. Yet, while the show percolated on the strength of guest stars and the chemistry of its main characters, Martin was, in many ways, a one-man band. Lawrence played nine characters: Jerome, Dragonfly Jones, Roscoe, Bob From Marketing, Elroy Preston, Otis the security guard, Sheneneh, King Beef and Mama Payne.

By nearly any metric, whether cultural impact or relevance, Martin’s first four seasons rank as some of the finest television comedy ever produced. Its stature is eye to eye with shows such as The Jeffersons, Fresh Prince, The Cosby Show or A Different World. By the start of its fifth season, however, the empire was crumbling. Allegations of sexual harassment from Campbell made headlines in November 1996. Her lawsuit, in which she named Lawrence, stated that Campbell (herself a sexual assault survivor) had grown increasingly uncomfortable on set.

The lawsuit stated that Lawrence’s advances had increased as the seasons progressed. There were rumors that the tension ramped up especially when Campbell became engaged to fellow actor Duane Martin. It all started coming out: from fits of rage in which he threatened to fire the cast during season two to the charge that Lawrence would grope and simulate sexual acts before crew members when they weren’t rehearsing or filming to Campbell pleading with the show’s writers to cease writing bedroom scenes by season five. Campbell alleged that HBO executives Chris Albrecht and Christopher Schwartz and HBO Independent Productions had long-standing knowledge of the abuse, yet neglected to take action.

Lawrence denied all claims. “Martin has long been Tisha’s champion and protector,” his January 1997 statement read, “and is thus deeply hurt by these allegations.” But the public fracture of his and Campbell’s actual and scripted relationship was part of a string of bizarre situations for Lawrence, one of America’s top comic actors who was flourishing in the wake of Bad Boys and A Thin Line Between Love and Hate.

In August 1996, he was arrested for carrying a loaded handgun in a suitcase at Hollywood Burbank Airport. Months before, he was detained by police for wandering into traffic and screaming curses in a Sherman Oaks, California, neighborhood. While no charges were filed in either case, the energy around Lawrence was overshadowing his talent. Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth attempted to quell the swelling controversy around the network’s star. “The show is called Martin, and he has proved he is capable of handling the show. Whatever is happening off the set is not affecting the show.” But it did, of course, affect the show. How could it not?

Martin thrived on the intimacy of his and Campbell’s on-camera relationship, and even more so the unbreakable bond between its main five characters. Martin could no longer deliver on its promise. Martin was no longer entertaining to watch. Campbell functioned as Lawrence’s rock — no matter the antics of the character of “Martin,” “Gina” was there to reel him in. While Campbell helped fill living rooms with laughter — like when her head was stuck in between the Nefertiti 2000 headboard in season four’s Headin’ For Trouble — stress ate at her so much she reportedly had to be hospitalized. Campbell did eventually return to the close out the series — with very specific stipulations. Most notably, she and Lawrence were to never appear in the same scene together.

Tommy Ford’s death in 2016 was a reminder that while the show is eternal, physical energies are not. Today, Lawrence, Campbell and the rest of the cast speak glowingly of one another and of their creation’s staying power. New and young fans canonize Martin. Even basketball star LeBron James, who was 12 when it went off the air, occasionally features clips of the show on his popular Instagram Stories and dropped $5,000 on a “Jerome”-themed Halloween costume. Big Sean saluted the sitcom via the video for his 2015 hit “Play No Games.” And Chance the Rapper, born eight months after Martin’s series premiere, used his career-defining verse on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” to feature a brief but direct homage to the show: Treat the demons just like Pam/ I mean I f— with your friends, but damn, Gina.

What Martin did was remain true to itself in an era when black creativity served as a necessary lifeline for black America: its music, its movies, its television programs and its literature. And it did so in Detroit, a city critical to the African-American experience. The unfiltered honesty of its jokes, its dilemmas — and its shortcomings — are its flawed and labyrinthine bookmarks. It’s impossible to discuss the show without its awful ending. It’s impossible to not discuss Martin’s countless memories and laughs.

What Martin accomplished was no different from what In Living Single or The Fresh Prince of Bel Air accomplished — it just pushed the line further. It irked some and won the allegiance of others. “Martin really was one of the first mainstreamings of hip-hop culture and black culture, which really is the rage now because of Atlanta, because of Queen Sugar and because of Power,” said Coker. “It proved there was a place for it, and the place was in the mainstream, not in the margins.”