Derek Luke admits he doesn’t have much game on the court. Fortunately, his latest series The Crossover, on Disney+, is about more than basketball. Adapted from Kwame Alexander’s bestselling novel-in-verse of the same name and produced by LeBron James’ production company Springhill, with Hamilton star Daveed Diggs narrating, The Crossover banks on words and family just as much as it does basketball. 

Luke, whose many credits include Friday Night LightsBiker BoyzEmpire, and, of course, The Antwone Fisher Story, stars as Chuck Bell, a former NBA All-Star whose teen boys Josh (aka Filthy McNasty) and Jordan (aka JB)—portrayed by EBONY Leaders of the New School’s Jalyn Hall and Amir O’Neil—are NBA-bound. Jumping from the present to the future, The Crossover foreshadows future events such as if one or both of the boys will make it to the NBA and their present-day reality. While the question of if one or both or neither will make it to the NBA helps fuel the show’s drama, how they will make it and what adversities they will overcome is the show’s core, its heart.  

Poverty, however, is not one of those adversities. And that is a departure from the more commonly used storyline of the struggling Black single mother depending on her son to make it to the pros to give them a better life. Chuck is not an absentee father either. Nor is he the NBA player who went broke or a womanizer. Instead, he is a coach and his wife Crystal (Sabrina Revelle, who also plays Coach Loni on All American: Homecoming) becomes the newly minted principal of their boys’ middle school, Langston Hughes. So they are solid, both personally and financially.

“I think it is important to see another side,” says Luke, who adds that the Bell family dynamic is no fiction. “I’ve met guys that were training me who were actual Chucks. One guy, he played international, his wife was an admin, and his kids are top ranked in the state.”

Chuck is a very hands-on father who personally oversees his sons’ professional and personal development. He and his wife may function as a team, but their boys adore their father and spend most of their time with him. Because Luke and his brother are just seventeen months apart, Josh and JB’s bond in the show is a very familiar one. The experience they have with their father is not. That reality didn’t keep Luke from taking cues from his own father for his role. 

“It’s my assumption of Maurice Luke. Meaning that I only remember him maybe up until the fifth grade, and then I didn’t see him again until I was in my twenties,” Luke shares. “Playing Chuck is very emotional for me, but it’s also a proud moment. I'm just excited that Chuck is present. I'm excited that he has translated basketball not just as a skill but also a skill in life.”

Addressing Black men’s health issues through his lead role, in which his character faces a major health crisis was not easy for Luke, but it is timely and serves a greater purpose. “It was challenging to embrace that,” he admits. “However, during COVID, I saw a lot of men dealing with things, and I had to transition and shift myself so I wouldn't be one of those people. And it's a real factor. I think Chuck’s [health challenges] represent [that] sometimes it's [our] tradition, sometimes it’s our eating habits, sometimes our thinking habits can ultimately convert into, I would say, mental health.”

Also, there was another emotional hurdle. “My dad passed away during COVID, and so it was sort of like a closet I didn't want to open up,” he shares. 

Phylicia Rashad popping up as Chuck’s mom Barbara is a pleasant surprise, especially her shade towards his wife Crystal’s cooking. And so is seeing a softer side of DeVaughn Nixon, perhaps best known as Kane on Snowfall, as Chuck’s nefarious best friend/brother Skinny. Black showrunners Kimberly A. Harrison and Damani Johnson, along with The Crossover’s Black writers, producers, and stars, organically infuse The Crossover with many Black cultural touchstones in literature, art, and music, especially jazz. The show’s New Orleans setting is perfectly paired to the assignment.

Working on 13 Reasons Why as Liberty High guidance counselor Kevin Porter showed Luke that young Black kids do watch these shows. “I would get kids that look like me that would ask questions and I didn’t know they watched the show. I thought it was for a specific niche,” he recalls.

As a father as well as mentor/coach in partnership with Columbia University professor Chris Emdin’s Science Genius Rap B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bringing Attention to Transforming, Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science) program that combines hip-hop with STEM education, Luke is very much interested in reaching the younger generation. “I enjoy that form of coaching and speaking into the kids’ lives about their purpose and their potential. That’s stuff that I thrive off,” he says. 

For him, The Crossover fills the void left from his childhood where he feels family programming was far more plentiful. “I hear from parents all around that it’s hard to find things for kids. I feel the purpose of Chuck and Crystal Bell is to be there for their kids.” 

And that he believes is good for the whole family and society at large. 

Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.