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Actor Michael Rapaport On Sports Highs, Lows And LeBron

Nov 1, 2017
Originally published on November 1, 2017 6:12 am

When actor Michael Rapaport was growing up, he convinced himself he would end up playing professional basketball. There was a major pivotal moment: the legendary 1979 NCAA championship game that featured Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who both eventually became NBA Hall of Famers.

"That was like a game-changer for me," Rapaport told Morning Edition host David Greene. "I wanted to be like Larry Bird. I wanted to be like Magic Johnson. And I set a goal of being in the NBA, and I would live my life accordingly."

He did live his life accordingly — including a rigid, self-imposed practice schedule. But Rapaport didn't make it as a basketball player. Instead, he continued to be a rabid sports fan as he created a career first as a stand-up comedian, then as an actor with more than 100 TV and film credits, including supporting roles in Friends, True Romance and Beautiful Girls.

Rapaport still acts — currently on Showtime's White Famous -- but he has also become known for his podcast, YouTube videos and talk show appearances.

Now he's also an author. Rapaport's This Book Has Balls is a ranting celebration of sports from the self-proclaimed "MVP of talking trash."


Interview Highlights

On LeBron James, whom he pans but also praises in the book

LeBron has done so much off the court. You know, from social issues, speaking out on race and politics — so I wanted to give him that respect and acknowledge him. 'Cause as much as I wanted to break his chops, I wanted to acknowledge that he's been a great star. And I'm sure he's inspired many, many other athletes and many other, sort of famous, people to continue speaking out when necessary and when they feel like it.

On his deep emotional attachment to sports

Sports is one of the only safe places where you can articulate your emotions. That ABC Wide World of Sports motto: the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. ... I definitely feel the thrill of victory, and I feel the agony of defeat.

On why being a sports fan can be cathartic

We get off on the loving; we get off on the hating. We get off on the frustrations, the highs and lows of it. And it's a great thing because we have so much going on with politics and problems in the world, and I think sports has been a safe haven. You know, I'll never forget when the Yankees were in the World Series after 9/11 that year, it was like that's where we went to let our guards down. And that's where we went to sort of forget about what was going on in the world.

On why he likes athletes who stand up for their off-the-field beliefs

Before you get to the arena — before you get the gym — you're a person. And before you put on your Cleveland Cavaliers jersey as LeBron, he's a person. He's a father. He's a black man. And I'm glad that he speaks out. Because people are tired of being, you're going to cheer for me when I'm making plays but you're going to vilify me when I'm speaking out? No. You're going to love me. You're going to understand my experience. And I'm glad that these athletes are not just happy being pieces of meat, essentially.

Ashley Brown is an editor at Morning Edition and Jacob Pinter is a producer at Morning Edition.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And few New Yorkers have been as ubiquitous in the entertainment world, from acting to writing to podcasting, as Michael Rapaport. His path to more than 100 TV and film credits began with stand-up comedy in the late '80s. These days, he is starring in the Showtime series "White Famous."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHITE FAMOUS")

MICHAEL RAPAPORT: (As Teddy Snow) Peter, you should be embarrassed.

JACK DAVENPORT: (As Peter King) Interesting...

RAPAPORT: (As Teddy Snow) Well, why do you keep saying, interesting? This isn't NPR, Peter. This is a condescending, stupid conversation that you started.

DAVENPORT: (As Peter King) Joe (ph), look. That's interesting too because that...

GREEN: OK, we should tell you that Rapaport is actually a fan of NPR. He's also an obsessive sports fan, and that is what he writes about in a new book. The book has a title that's kind of funny and even accurate, but just heads-up - the title may not be something parents want their kids to hear. And that is how we began our conversation when Rapaport paid a visit to our studio in New York City.

So "This Book Has Balls" - I actually - I don't know yet if we're going to have to bleep that or not, depending - I mean, it is a sports reference, I guess.

RAPAPORT: Come on, man. You have to bleep "This Book Has Balls"?

GREEN: (Laughter).

RAPAPORT: NPR, it's 2017, man. You guys - who are you fooling?

GREEN: I - you know, I'm on your side here. I don't care.

RAPAPORT: Basketball, football, tennis ball, soccer ball...

GREEN: So Michael Rapaport and I talked about his book and his shattered hoop dreams.

RAPAPORT: Grew up wanting to be a pro basketball player, and I continued playing all sports until I was about 13. But when I saw Larry Bird play Magic Johnson in the NCAA championship game, that was, like, a game-changer for me. I wanted to be like Larry Bird. I wanted to be like Magic Johnson. And I set a goal of being in the NBA, and I would live my life accordingly. I practiced. I didn't go to family functions because I had my life on a practice schedule, and I just loved it.

GREEN: You got to explain this to me because you mentioned Larry Bird, the great Boston Celtic. Dare I say, you kind of look like him?

RAPAPORT: Yes, yes. You know, when I was a kid, people used to call me bird. And I took it as a compliment because I knew, although they weren't comparing my games, it was as close as I could get to being as good as Larry Bird. I don't think if you - if we weren't talking about basketball and I wasn't so much in love with basketball, I wouldn't get the comparison, but I'll take it, although definitely now I don't think Larry has aged as well as me, so...

GREEN: (Laughter) But you hated Larry Bird.

RAPAPORT: I hated him.

GREEN: Like, how did you - you wanted to be him, but you hated him.

RAPAPORT: Once he became a Celtic, my DNA took over. And I didn't grow up in this kind of family where, you know, you were taught to hate Boston sports. I just hated the Celtics intuitively and naturally.

GREEN: It's just happened. You're born that way.

RAPAPORT: It was like a fish to water.

GREEN: You have a 23-point list in the book of why Cleveland's LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan, the legend from the Chicago Bulls. You blast LeBron for everything from his headbands to his sneakers to his shaving habits. But you actually write in the end that LeBron is better than Michael Jordan in some ways, especially off the court. Explain that.

RAPAPORT: LeBron, you know, has done so much off the court, you know, from social issues, speaking out on race and politics, so I wanted to give him that respect and acknowledge him, you know, because as much as I wanted to break his chops, you know, I wanted to acknowledge that he's been a great star. And I'm sure he's inspired many, many other athletes and many other, you know, sort of famous people to continue speaking out when necessary and when they feel like it.

GREEN: Although it did get personal at the 2010 NBA All-Star Game. You were with your kids, and you were trying to say hi to LeBron.

RAPAPORT: And he was rude to my kids. He turned his back to us.

GREEN: Did you ever have a chance to ask him about that incident or...

RAPAPORT: No, I never spoke to him about it. And that's just one...

GREEN: ...Because, like, couldn't he - could he have just been, like, not realizing who you were or not...

RAPAPORT: Nah, nope, nope, nope, no, no.

GREEN: No, OK, all right, all right, just...

RAPAPORT: I'd met LeBron before he played a game in the NBA. He knows exactly who I am.

GREEN: Couldn't it - maybe just, like, a bad day he was having?

RAPAPORT: Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nope.

GREEN: All right, OK, well, one thing you wrote about that - about the LeBron incident - you wrote, you've read about my past, LeBron; you understand the level of emotion I live with inside my body. And that hit me - that level of emotion, especially about sports. It - is that what prompted you to write this book?

RAPAPORT: Pretty much. You're asking me good - these are very NPR-like questions. I like that.

GREEN: (Laughter) Well, thank you. We try.

RAPAPORT: You know, I'm a fan, you know? And, you know, I'm - again, I'm making fun of myself. And it's - sports is one of the only safe places where you can articulate your emotions. That ABC "Wide World Of Sports" motto - the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat - you know, that's what I was talking about, you know, because I definitely feel the thrill of victory, and I feel the agony of defeat.

GREEN: Yeah, I - the - when I read your book or listen to you, the thing I really connect with - I remember these long drives. I would go to Pittsburgh Steelers games at a time when I lived, you know, like, four hours away. And if they lost, I would want to spend the four-hour drive back listening to sports talk radio from Pittsburgh and hearing everyone else be angry with me. And it was, like, I - that's why I need it.

RAPAPORT: Right.

GREEN: What does that say about us sports fans?

RAPAPORT: You know what? It doesn't say anything about us. It's, like - it's a culture, you know? It's a culture to itself. And it's, like, we get off on the loving, we get off on the hating, we get off on the frustrations, we - the highs and lows of it. And it's a great thing because, you know, we have so much going on with politics and problems in the world.

And I think sports is been a safe haven. You know, I'll never forget when the Yankees were in the World Series after 9/11 that year. You know, it was, like, that's where we went to let our guards down. And that's where we went to sort of forget about what was going on in the world.

GREEN: But how can it do both things? How can it be intertwined with politics in a way that you like and also be a safe haven from politics?

RAPAPORT: It just does. You're not necessarily going to like it. You know, obviously the kneeling has been the subject of the year. You know, it's, like, before you get to the arena, before you get to the gym, you're a person. And before you put on your Cleveland Cavaliers jersey as LeBron - he's a person. He's a father. He's a black man.

And I'm glad that he speaks out because people are tired of just, you know, being - you're going to cheer for me when I'm making plays, but you're going to vilify me when I'm speaking out. Nah, you're going to love me. You're going to understand my experience. And I'm glad that these athletes are not just, you know, happy just being, you know, pieces of meat, essentially.

GREEN: Let me just finish by asking you what you hope people will get out of your book.

RAPAPORT: I think I hope people will get out of "This Book Has Balls" - it's a good time. It's a celebration of the true essence of loving, hating and everything in between with sports, and a little bit of "Real Housewives."

GREEN: The MVP of talking trash, Michael Rapaport - thanks so much for talking trash with us.

RAPAPORT: Yo, I appreciate this interview. These are - these were - this was great. Please don't cut this out. I'm a fan of NPR, so it's a real honor for me to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATS ANTIQUE'S "CAT SKILLZ")

GREEN: We didn't cut it out, Michael. His new book is called "This Book Has Balls: Sports Rants From The MVP Of Talking Trash." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.