By Sam Alipour
Special to Page 2

NEW YORK – These days, when approaching Spike Lee at his courtside seat at Madison Square Garden, one must take extreme caution – not unlike the care one must take when encountering the Sumatran rhinoceros.

PETA scientists have confirmed that both the rare 770-kilogram rhino and the Knicks Fan have been toying with extinction since the creation of the Earth and the birth of the Isiah Thomas Era, respectively. Because these are battleworn species, they are easily spooked. Proceed gingerly. Do not pounce. Pouncing can bring about one of two reactions: 1) Swift escape, or 2) death/dismemberment (The Sumatran rhino might have two horns, but the Knicks Fan must root for a squad of shoot-first guards and Eddy Curry – so it, too, is capable of smashing your face).

If Spike lives and dies by his beloved Knickerbockers – and he does – then Lee may soon go the way of the Sumatran rhino in a "Million Dollar Baby"-like nightmare, with Lee as Maggie Fitzgerald and Thomas as Frankie Dunn if Frankie Dunn was a moron.

Spike Lee
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Like the Sumatran rhino, Knicks fans such as Spike Lee are resilient.

So naturally, when I approach Lee during pregame warm-ups for a December bout between his beloved Knickerbockers and the Houston Rockets and introduce myself as a representative of the Worldwide Leader, Lee blankly stares back at me as if I'd just asked to sit on his lap.

But when I inform Lee that movies, and not sport, are my intended topic of discourse, he chills. Because here on this strip of real estate ceremoniously dubbed Joe Louis Plaza is a reminder of happier sporting times and the promise of a better tomorrow – one that might see the filmmaker finally hit the mat with his long-planned Brown Bomber bio flick, "Save us, Joe Louis."

Alas, there's a topic the iconoclast doesn't mind tackling.

Lee says he's pegged Terrence Howard ("Hustle and Flow," "Crash") to star as the late, great pugilist, but though the script – more than five years in the making – is finally complete, securing the coin has proven difficult.

"It's frustrating because we haven't been able to get the financing so far," Lee admits. "But we've got a finished script for a great story."

That story, Lee says, will be based around the two legendary bouts between Louis and German Max Schmeling – and the bout between the two reigning political ideologies of the time. The first fight, held at Yankee Stadium in '36 amidst the threat of a boycott by Jews who wished to draw attention to Adolf Hitler's genocidal Nazi regime, saw Schmeling upset Louis with a 12th-round knockout. In the rematch, held two years later as the two nations inched closer to war, Louis would knock out Schmeling in the first round.

"Those fights – and particularly that second one – were seen not only as great boxing matches but also as a battle between fascism and democracy," Lee says. "It'll cover all of that. It's an epic."

The script by Lee and Budd Schulberg – the 92-year-old Oscar-winning screenwriter of "On the Waterfront" who attended the '38 bout – uses a large canvas and a wide range of real life characters – including Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Japanese Emperor Hirohito, legendary singer/actress Lena Horne, and Sugar Ray Robinson – to convey the bouts' global ramifications.

Yet, despite their sociopolitical backdrop, the bouts between the American and German were not of the Good vs. Evil, Rocky vs. Drago, "If I can change, you can change" variety. In Louis, Yanks chose an African-American to represent their interests in a less-than-tolerant time while Schmeling, who employed a Jewish manager in Joe Jacobs and once sheltered two sons of Jewish friends during the Holocaust, became a hesitant ambassador for the Third Reich. Like with his previous bio film "Malcolm X," Lee, an auteur with bombastic vision but a nuanced stroke, will paint a complex portrait of the two pugilists who had become unlikely poster boys for their respective countries.

Beyond politics and sport, Lee says the ladies behind Louis will share center stage and help shed light on the complex American icon. Louis was married four times to three women, but Lee says first wife Martha will get the most screen time. "Martha is the key role," says Lee, who wouldn't share his actress wish list. "We're going to take our time casting her."

Once financing is secure, Lee must then bring order to his increasingly cluttered dance card before production can commence. Among the projects he's considering: An "Inside Man" sequel, "L.A. Riots," a drama about the violent aftermath of the Rodney King verdict of '92, and a James Brown bio – all with producer Brian Grazer and Universal Pictures, Lee's "Inside Man" partners.

Until these issues are resolved, boxing fans will have to choose from today's menu of mediocre heavyweight wannabes or wait until next season when Nate "Sugar Ray" Robinson and gang once again host the banditos from Denver.

Joe Louis, save us.

Your chance to get Ron Artest's back

All those who purchased a copy of "My World," Ron Artest's debut album, say "I."

(Cue a cricket and several Maloofs.)

Despite decent reviews (and this reporter's endorsement), only 1,000 copies of "My World" have been sold to date. Still, there's hope. This week, Artest's video for "Fever," the album's first single, competes with four other newbie videos on MTVU's "The Freshmen" for a chance to secure a spot on the channel's video rotation.

Voters can cast a ballot for Artest (or risk his wrath by voting for, say, "Standing on My Own Again" from some dude named Graham Coxon) on www.mtvu.com or by texting "Freshmen" to 22422 on their Mobile ESPN, er, cell phones. Polls close Friday at 11:59 a.m. EST, and the winner will be announced on-air on Monday, Jan. 15th.

Whatever the result, Artest is pleased with the finished product and thankful that the shoot – which was directed by Antwan Smith (director of videos for Allure, Ultimate, and Luddy) at Sapphire Gentlemen's Club in Las Vegas – allowed for some quality familial relations for the father of four.

"I had three of my kids with me, and my wife couldn't make it, so I was babysitting on the set," Artest says. "During breaks, I'd go over, see if they want something to eat, then go back, and then, 'Action!' "

All those who wish to be adopted by Artest may contact the Sacramento Kings.

The life and times (and red rear) of Jerry Rice

Jerry Rice
In his new book, Jerry Rice gives props to his pops for tough love.

In his memoir "Go Long: My Journey Beyond the Game and the Fame" (Jan. 16, Random House), Jerry Rice and co-author Brian Curtis give the play-by-play on Rice's life and career, from his hardscrabble youth as the child of a bricklayer in Crawford, Miss., to the "Dancing with the Stars" victory dais.

Along the way, the NFL legend gives his take on topics ranging from steroids to the benefits of beating your kid, giving considerable props to his dad, Joe, for setting him straight with tough love.

"If I wasn't acting right, I'd get that belt or extension cord, and I think that helped me," Rice explains during a recent phone conversation. "I never wanted to fail and I carried that on through the pros, and I think my father played a very important role in that.

"People say that's not the right thing to do to a kid. But I needed it, and I give credit to my father for doing it."

Elsewhere, the extraordinarily shy Rice takes aim at current pros like Matt Leinart, Donovan McNabb, Peyton Manning and Shaun Alexander, recounts his experience with racism in the Bay Area, gives Montana the nod over Young, and blames quarterback Rich Gannon and coach Bill Callahan for the Raiders' Super Bowl XXXVII loss.

"For some reason, they were on a whole different page," Rice explains. "We noticed Rich was doing something different: Looking to one side, then throwing to his back side. We didn't practice like that, but it was his tendency and (Tampa Bay coach) Jon Gruden knew that. He told John Lynch and those guys, 'If he looks left, he's throwing right.' "

"It cost us the Super Bowl."

Rice would not confirm reports that he then took an end-zone pylon to Gannon's tush.

Fighting the ghost of Feldman

Other than "Bad News Bears" – which gave us The Great Corey Feldman – not much fruit has been born from the marriage between sports-themed original programming and primetime TV. Now, two shows are bucking that trend.

While NBC has yet to commit to a second season of "Friday Night Lights," the critically loved drama has maintained a sturdy 2.5 rating and 7 share among adults 18-49 and – attention ad sales types – a strong upscale audience, tallying a 117 index (100 is average) in homes with $75,000+ incomes. With its recent move to Wednesday night (and far, far away from would-be springtime competitor "American Idol"), the hour-long drama saw its audience grow by 11 percent, a number that could rise with strong awards-season waves, including its recent Writers Guild of America nomination for best achievement in the New Series category.

Meanwhile, TBS has ordered additional episodes of "My Boys," its rookie sitcom about a female Cubs beat reporter for the Chicago Sun Times (Jordana Spiro). Basic cable's top original sitcom in the 18-49 demo has been a hit with the ladies, and that's no surprise to executive producer Betsy Thomas, who consulted with Steve Henson of the Los Angeles Times for help with authenticity and secured the support of Major League Baseball and the Cubs organization for uniforms, a soundstage clubhouse replica, and a Wrigley Field shoot.

"It's not a novelty that women can like sports and poker," Thomas says. "That's me and a lot of women I know."

This is fantastic news. Now please forward along some numbers.

Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at Sam.Alipour@gmail.com.




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