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‘Luke Cage’ creator Cheo H. Coker says season two is thick with sports themes and guest appearances

‘The incredible feats performed by athletes are a window to what it would be like to live among superheroes’

Supposedly, the way to pitch a Hollywood movie is to either combine two existing movies to explain your pitch (“It’s Hidden Figures meets Die Hard!”) or to take one movie and fit it to a specific situation (“It’s Belly, but in outer space!”).

I’m guessing that Cheo Hodari Coker, the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s Luke Cage, must have been pretty good in pitch meetings. When I asked him to describe the second season of his wildly popular Marvel superhero series, Coker’s summary was flawless. “Season two of Luke Cage,” he said, “is like the bulletproof version of Lemonade.” This description fits the essence of who Coker is, and how he sees the evolution of Luke Cage and series star Mike Colter.

Coker is a former music journalist and has served as writer and producer on projects such as NCIS: Los Angeles, Ray Donovan and the forthcoming Creed II. He is fluent in two distinct languages — namely, music and sports — and those languages define the prism through which he presents this season of Cage (it premieres June 22). As season one went heavy on musical guests and themes, sports personalities and sports metaphors are practically the DNA of season two. Coker’s master plan was to create a world where Cage’s every move is dissected, like today’s most prominent professional athletes.

“You can be a woke superhero without being a broke superhero.”

“If superheroes existed in the real world,” said Coker, “they would be covered the same way that sports are. You would have channels. You would have newspapers. You would have superhero gossip. They would probably have a Media Takeout for superhero jump-offs. The whole thing. You can go really deep with the metaphor, which is kind of why I always try to ground Marvel reality with real reality. It allows us to have an interesting crossover.”

One of the devices Coker employed to sell this crossover was to use a bevy of ESPN personalities in season two — which includes me, Michael Smith and Stephen A. Smith. An early plotline involves New York Jets coach Todd Bowles, who is scouting Cage at a pseudo pro day in Harlem. A Nike representative is also there because, as Cage’s right-hand man Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) says matter-of-factly, “you can be a woke superhero without being a broke superhero.”

To make this pro day, Cage naturally needed Michael Smith and me to show up to make it legitimate. Best scene of the series. “If you guys heard that Luke was out there, you guys would show up,” Coker said. “I’m a geek about sports and sports coverage as much as I’m a geek about anything else.”

Cage also has to deal with getting shredded by Stephen A. Smith on First Take after he’s embarrassed by his powerful rival, Bushmaster, a Jamaican crime lord who has Cage-like strength and is seeking to avenge an old hurt by taking over Harlem. In another episode, a colleague refers to Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) as Michael Jordan when he was with the Washington Wizards, essentially calling her a lesser version of herself because she lost an arm in season one. “Yeah, but I’m still Jordan,” Knight quips back.

“They’ll say well, you know, women directors are great at emotion, but then the action sequences are going to lack, which is bulls—.”

The sports themes in season two are endless, but not too inside-baseball. Coker admits the Cage-Bushmaster rivalry is patterned after one of the greatest rivalries in sports: the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier trilogy. Ali is Coker’s favorite athlete. Not because of his bluster, but because of vulnerability.

“He lost,” Coker said. “People put so much of a premium on being undefeated, but you learn more from your defeats than you do from your victories. If you don’t put it all on the line and lose, it means that you didn’t put yourself at risk. … If there aren’t any losses, that means you never tried to extend yourself.”

Cage fans will appreciate his vulnerabilities this season, both physically and emotionally. Cage has a rocky relationship with his girlfriend, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), as she desperately tries to get Cage to better process his anger. Cage also has a volatile relationship with his father, which was the final role for actor Reg E. Cathey, who died earlier this year. As part of his growth, Cage takes L’s from a bunch of different directions. This is all by design.

“Mike Tyson once said that everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face,” he said. “That’s kind of the metaphor for Luke because you finally have somebody that can knock him down without a suit in Bushmaster. When you suffer that big of a defeat, how does it affect you? How does it affect your psyche? How do you pick yourself up from it? Do you start looking at yourself through the prism of defeat? Because all it takes is one mental lapse and everything you’ve ever practiced for, and worked for, is gone.”

The music and sports sides of Coker’s brains are revved up. Coker goes from discussing boxing to J.R. Smith’s epic Game 1 blunder in the NBA Finals. From there, Coker moves to Michael Jordan’s 1988 dunk contest win over Dominique Wilkins and how the incredible feats performed by athletes are a window to what it would be like to live among superheroes. And from there, he tells the story of the first time he interviewed Notorious B.I.G., as Coker believes that best explains why Cage lives among us without necessarily being one of us.

“The first time I interviewed Notorious B.I.G.,” he said, “I was on his stoop on 226 St. James in Brooklyn. That was his stoop. It was the stoop that his mother wouldn’t let him leave after dark because Fulton Street and the craziness of Brooklyn back before it was gentrified. I remember interviewing him and a block down on Fulton Street, every single car was playing a different song from Ready To Die. Junior M.A.F.I.A. was on the block, and [members] Trife and Larceny came to B.I.G. because they wanted to borrow a gun to go rob somebody. It was in the middle of our interview. And B.I.G. was like, I don’t know where the gun is. And as soon as they left, B.I.G. said, ‘I know exactly where the gun is.’ Because that was B.I.G. And everybody knew him. And if you wanted to know where to find B.I.G., just go to Fulton and Washington. So remembering that, if you’re going to imagine what it would be like to have Luke in the neighborhood, that’s what it would be like.”

Stepping away from Cage’s fictional world into the real world, the superhero landscape is a lot different from when Coker first brought Cage to the screen a few years ago. It’s a lot blacker.

Since season one of Cage, there has been the billion-dollar success of Marvel’s Black Panther and the critical acclaim of the CW’s Black Lightning. “People are looking at Luke Cage like, ‘What are you going to do now?’ ” Coker said with a laugh. “Rather than being freaked out by it, the advantage I have over most in this position is that as a former journalist, I profiled A Tribe Called Quest while they were doing Midnight Marauders. I interviewed OutKast early in their careers. I interviewed Snoop. I interviewed Dre throughout his career. What you see about the innovators is that while they pay attention to what everybody else is doing, they challenge themselves within their own sound and just try to … expand and make things better on their standards while at the same time trying to replicate what made them successful in the first place.” He says that the best creatives take risks.

“I really wanted the second season of Luke Cage to be like [The Fugees’] The Score, or [Public Enemy’s] It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, or Low End Theory, or ATLiens, or Paul’s Boutique, or Eminem’s second record. The record that not only makes you not only like the group before but love them. If you liked Luke Cage in season one, I want you to love Luke Cage in season two.”

Cheo Coker’s master plan was to create a world where Cage’s every move is dissected, like today’s most prominent professional athletes.

There were small concerns from fans that the Luke Cage series might lose some of its edge with the departure of charismatic villain Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali) in the first season. However, Alfre Woodard’s character, Mariah Dillard, has grown into an arguably more sinister villain than her cousin Cottonmouth. The prominence of Woodard and Missick, coupled with the heavy influx of female directors this season — six episodes were directed by women — represent Coker’s earnest desire to celebrate what women bring to the comic universe.

“You have to basically put your money where your mouth is,” Coker said. “Because people otherwise will fall on stereotypes. They’ll say well, you know, women directors are great at emotion, but then the action sequences are going to lack, which is bulls—.”

Luke Cage isn’t a cute upstart in the NCAA tournament but a full-fledged blue blood as far as Netflix series go. The first season reportedly scored more than 5 million viewers within the first five days of its debut on Netflix in 2016, and the series is credited for “breaking” Netflix, since the streaming service crashed the day after Cage premiered. So how can Coker possibly measure season two’s success?

“Mahershala and I used to joke that we wouldn’t really know if Luke Cage was hot until a rapper comes out named Cottonmouth,” he said. “If we have an MC out there named Bushmaster or if another dancehall deejay comes out named Bushmaster, then we’ll know that we’ve done something.”

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.