by Jesse Liptzin, special to NYSportsDay
Many sports fans love the natural vibe that exists in New York City between entertainment and sports. Athletes want to act, actors want to be athletes, and it’s great when the can mix together and share stories about each other’s trade.
Such was the case this weekend, when the stars of the new edition of Shaft assembled in Harlem to talk about the film, its coolness, its New York vibe, and the mixing of both the athletic and entertainment world.
That mix was not lost on rising star Jessie T. Usher, who plays the character of John Shaft Jr, the son of John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) in the latest iteration of the series, which has its Monday night red carpet premiere in New York and opens in theaters later next week.
Usher, who has appeared as both a basketball star (In the STARZ series “Survivors Remorse”) as a high school football star (in the film When The Game Stands Tall) and even had a piece as a boxer (in Creed II) fully understands the mix between New York heroes of stage and field. The film is all about New York urban life, and finds a solid home with the male audience that loves high octane action and the thrill of the NBA Finals.
“I bonded with me dad around watching games more than anything else, and it was basketball, especially the NBA, that brought is together as a family,” he said while handling interviews at Harlem’s iconic Red Rooster on a beautiful Saturday afternoon this past week. “I grew up around Washington, so it was baseball and basketball for me, and that passion for sports has always been around my work. As far as ‘Shaft’ goes, our whole ‘family’ is tied together through male bonding, and if we were together, you know we would be watching games and talking trash about the players.
“The characters embody tough men that love a fight and that is what sports fan will really enjoy about Shaft,” he added. “When guys are together at a game they laugh, they scream, they are upset together and that is what they can get out of this movie as well. All the emotions found in sporting events can be felt when watching the movie.”
Usher’s lead role in Survivors Remorse, where he played the lead of young Phenom Cam Calloway, also made him acutely aware of the ties between action films and sport; same audience, different genre. It didn’t hurt that the four year long run of the series coincided with the rise of LeBron James, who executive produced the series, as a force to be reckoned with both in Hollywood and of course, on the hardwood. Ironically, one of those closer bonds came not with King James, but with Jersey native Kyrie Irving, someone rumored to be making his own return to the Apple, albeit with the Brooklyn Nets vs. the uptown popular Knicks.
While Usher did not attest to any insider information on the Celtics star heading back closer to home, he certainly could see the reasons.
“I just want to see him win. If that means going to New York then I’m all for it, if that means going to LA then I’m all for that too,” he added. “He’s just such a good player and can make an impact on any city or franchise he goes too. It would definitely be helpful for most players, New York is one of the biggest sports markets and they all do well for the most part and for Kyrie I think it would be a good move.”
Whether Irving does head to Brooklyn will be seen in the coming months, but for now, the Washington, DC area native is fixated on two things, the soon to end NBA Finals and the success of “Shaft,” socially amongst sports fans.
Is Kevin Durant coming east? Usher doesn’t think so.
“He could go to New York which could be great for both Durant and the Knicks, but I don’t think he is going to end up there.” He also spoke about another Hollywood superstar turned super fan, Drake, and his antics as the Raptors version of Spike Lee. “I never heard Drake mention the Raptors when they weren’t doing this well,” he laughed. “At the same time, he has a Steph Curry and Kevin Durant tattooed on his arm. You will never see me with tattoos of players from different teams that I’m not rooting for.”
No matter when the NBA Finals come to an end this week, one thing is for sure. Hoops fans will be turning out to see Shaft, now with three generations of urban cool, from Usher to Samuel L. Jackson to the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree. It is a film that will resonate with most who love basketball and its pop culture credo, and in the youngest member of the Shaft family, they will see a well informed star on the rise on the screen, who also loves the games on the court and field. A nice crossover from basketball to film.