Commentary

Spike Lee: 'Education is the key'

Director, Knicks fan talks Black History Month, issues facing African-Americans

Updated: February 10, 2011, 10:57 AM ET
By Jared Zwerling | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

The following is the second installment of ESPNNewYork.com's two-part interview with director Spike Lee. For Part 1, in which Lee sizes up the Knicks and Kevin Garnett, click here.

While Spike Lee's conversations with Reggie Miller -- and now Kevin Garnett -- have become legendary at Knicks games, it's not his courtside seat that has made him the most visible to the public. It's been the director's chair, in which he has sat since 1989, when he broke onto the scene with the explosive film, "Do the Right Thing," which explored race relations in his hometown of Brooklyn.

Lee, whose films through the years have frequently involved African-American themes, has teamed up with MSG Networks in celebration of Black History Month to host two nights of special programming featuring black pioneers in sports.

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Rebecca Taylor/MSG PhotosAcclaimed director Spike Lee will host two nights of Black History Month specials on MSG.

On Tuesday, Feb. 15, on MSG from 7 to 10 p.m. and on Monday, Feb. 28, on MSG Plus from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., fans can watch stories about Jackie Robinson and the countless black athletes for whom he paved the way; Jackie's wife, Rachel, who gives scholarships to minority youths for higher education; Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in the American League; Negro League Baseball and Kansas City's Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, the first black player to play for the Knicks, among others who helped break the racial barrier.

Also, throughout the month of February, MSG will telecast a series of vignettes featuring current Knicks players Amare Stoudemire, Landry Fields, and Ronny Turiaf, as well as Knicks assistant general manager Allan Houston. They will honor famous African-Americans who have shown leadership, courage, perseverance, ingenuity and boldness.

In the second-part of my interview with Lee, we chatted about his involvement with MSG Networks, the athletes who had a big impact on his life and the issues facing the black community he feels are most important.

How do you first get involved with MSG Networks?

Well, I've been a New York Knickerbockers season-ticket holder since Patrick Ewing's rookie season. In fact, I got my season tickets the day after Dave DeBusschere picked Ewing. Through the years, I've been able to work my way down from the green, seats where I sat, to courtside. When I think about it growing up -- I'm 53 now -- my Knicks when I was 10 years old were [Walt] Frazier, Willis Reed, DeBusschere, [Bill] Bradley, Red Holzman, Dick Barnett -- those guys. And I would sit up in the blue -- that's next to the roof, in the blue seats -- with my [student discount card]. I think it was like a dollar or so. I never thought ever, ever, that I would get down there where I am now. I was just happy to be in the Garden. Over the years, I've established, I think, a very good relationship with Mr. James Dolan and the Garden, and the various people who work under him. I know all the players. So when I get asked to do something for the Garden, for the Knicks, it's no problem at all because they make me feel, to be honest, like I'm part of the family. So it's all love.

[+] EnlargeWalt Frazier, Spike Lee
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesGrowing up, Lee idolized Knicks stars like Walt Frazier, with whom he later became friends.

Which African-American athletes have been personal inspirations in your life?

Growing up in Brooklyn in the Fort Greene section, my heroes were Walt Frazier, Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath. Those four. That was my quartet. I was particularly into what Muhammad Ali stood for. He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War movement. So it was amazing that all these guys who I grew up with, who were my heroes, in later years I became friends with. So it was great.

Is there one quote from any of those four guys that strongly resonated with you?

Oh, yes. From Muhammad Ali: "No Vietcong ever called me n-----." I'll never forget that one. People forget he sacrificed -- how many years was it? -- in his prime. You can fight forever, but you've got a limited window for your prime years. And he sacrificed that because it was principles. He was not going to partake -- of course, they weren't going to send him to the front line -- in what he felt was an unjust war. And, you know, now he's a national hero, this and that, we all love him. But there are a lot of revisionist historians. Muhammad Ali at that time was one of the most hated men in America. They really tried to discount that, but he was hated. Muhammad Ali was hated for his stance against the Vietnam War. Hated by the majority of Americans. Hated.

It's also ironic to see him revered more now that he has Parkinson's disease.

Yeah, because now he's so sweet and innocent and they say, "Aww, we feel sorry for him." When he said he wasn't going [fight] to Vietcong, if they wanted to string him up, they would've. And on top of that, he was a black Muslim too. Oh, man -- forget about it.

That's the one thing I took away from him: his self-confidence.

Yeah, but you've got to have some skills or something to give you that confidence [laughs].

Muhammad AliAP PhotoMuhammad Ali's opposition to the Vietnam War, and his association with the Nation of Islam, made him, Lee said, "one of the most hated men in America."

What issues still concern you today in the African-American community?

My No. 1 issue today is education. Half of today's black males don't graduate high school. Only 2 percent of the nation's teachers in America are black men. There are more young black men in prison than in universities. So education is the key. I was just on a panel with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Atlanta, Ga., at Morehouse College last Monday. These young black men need to see more options because right now they only see, "I can be a baller, I can be a rapper or I can go in the corner swinging." The first two options you have a better chance of hitting the lottery than being a professional athlete or a rapper. These guys are left on their own and they go for the third option. Education is the key. I'm a graduate of Morehouse College and along with the late great Ralph Wiley, who was a big guy at ESPN, we started a sports journalism program at Morehouse. You can love sports, but there are a ton of jobs where you don't have to play -- and a lot more longevity too. It's all about exposure and for a lot of these young black kids, all they see are the rappers, the ballers and the drug guys dealing on the corners. So we need to expand their exposure. That's what I'm about.

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James Devaney/WireImage Lee and his son Jackson have been spotted courtside at Knicks games. "You've got to start them young," Lee said, laughing.

When you speak to black leaders, mentees and parents, what advice do you share with them?

There is a crisis in the African-American family today. Three out of every four African-American households are headed up by a single parent -- a mother. I'm not making a judgment on these black mothers, many of them who are working two or three jobs, holding it down, doing the best they can. But these young black boys need strong male figures; they need their daddies. Seventy-five percent of this country's black families with these young black boys and girls are growing up without a father in their house. That is a recipe for disaster. It's a crisis.

Sometimes I see you with a young boy at the Knicks games. Is that your son?

Yeah, that's my son. He's 13 years old.

That's a great bond you guys have. Do you usually go to the games together?

Oh yeah, you've got to start them young [laughs].

Jared Zwerling is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter. For Part 1 of Zwerling's interview with Spike Lee, click here.

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