Laurence Fishburne Talks Meeting Doc Rivers for ‘Clipped’ and His Sauna Scenes With LeVar Burton

SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses the third episode of “Clipped,” “Let the Games Began,” now streaming on Hulu.

Laurence Fishburne had never even heard of Doc Rivers before signing on to play the perennial NBA coach in FX’s “Clipped.”

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“I’m not a sports fan. My manager is a Clippers season-ticket holder, one of the faithful. I had thought that she sent this to me because it was a promotion for her team. And that turned out not to be the case,” Fishburne says, then chuckles. “At all.”

Indeed, the 2014-set limited series follows the basketball organization at its all-time nadir, gripped by a scandal that’s much more demeaning and grotesque than the Clippers’ legacy of losing seasons. This week’s episode of “Clipped” follows the team’s PR spiral after TMZ publishes an audio recording of octogenarian owner Donald Sterling (Ed O’Neill) delivering a racist tirade to his assistant-mistress V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman) chastising her for publicly associating with Black people.

For Doc Rivers, the viral fiasco comes with some extra embarrassment. After being made aware that TMZ was planning to post a “tape” of Sterling and Stiviano, the Clippers head coach is shown electing against listening to it, assuming that its content would fall under a certain tabloid tradition of salaciousness. Because of his oversight, he’s failed to prepare his players for a story that now casts a shadow over their championship aspirations, and their ongoing playoff series against Steph Curry and the ascendant Golden State Warriors.

“CLIPPED” -- “Let the Games Began” — Season 1, Episode 3 (Airs Tuesday, June 11th) — Pictured: (l-r) Austin Scott as Blake Griffin, Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers, J. Alphonse Nicholson as Chris Paul. CR: Kelsey McNeal/FX.
Austin Scott, Laurence Fishburne and J. Alphonse Nicholson in ‘Clipped’

Fishburne’s character owns up to his mistake at a team meeting. Then, he makes the decision to urge his players against sitting out their upcoming game against the Warriors, screening footage of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved hands as a symbol of Black power at the 1968 games. Rivers’ message: “You got something to say? Say it from that platform. Say it as champions.” It’s a rousing speech, but one that seems tragic after the Clippers turn their warm-up uniforms inside-out as a protest against Sterling and then go on to suffer a nearly 20-point loss to the Warriors.

“There’s a risk in deciding to play. There’s also a risk in deciding not to play. But the greater risk comes with playing, because you do have to deal with the reality that you may lose. That’s always part of the equation,” Fishburne says.

With the world now a decade removed from the Sterling scandal, Rivers remains a prominent figure in the NBA, most recently taking on the head coach position for the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this year. There’s plenty of Doc Rivers footage in the media already, but Fishburne wanted to personally meet with him before filming “Clipped.” So, the actor invited Rivers to a Labor Day party at his house. There, Rivers met Fishburne’s friend Wynton Marsalis, the famed trumpeter and standing artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; the pair began a debate on whether Bill Russell, the 11-time Boston Celtics champion and first-ever Black coach in U.S. pro sports, was the greatest to ever play the game.

“They went back and forth for about two and a half hours, so it was an opportunity for me to observe him talking about the sport that he loves and given much of his life to — and these guys are at the top of their field,” Fishburne says. “To listen to them talk about another individual who preceded them, who faced a lot of the same challenges and who broke many barriers was very insightful.”

A similar dynamic plays out in “Clipped” between Fishburne’s Rivers and his most surprising scene partner: LeVar Burton, playing himself. When Rivers joins the Clippers at the start of the series, he learns that Burton also lives in his L.A. complex. Sharing steam room sessions with one another, Burton becomes Rivers’ unlikely confidante: another public figure with whom he can discuss leadership frustrations, marital problems and the unique pressures of Black celebrity.

For Fishburne, who presented Burton with a lifetime achievement honor at the first-ever Children and Family Emmy Awards ceremony in 2022, the chance to act alongside his friend was “a dream come true.”

“For us to be actually engaged in conversation about the challenges and the joys and the complexities of what it is to be a successful Black public figure in America — it’s stuff that we talk about amongst ourselves,” Fishburne says. “To be able to do it in this very public way and allow people in, and through LeVar we can share with the audience Doc’s internal life, it’s really quite beautiful.”

The first three episodes of “Clipped” are now streaming on Hulu, with new episodes premiering each Tuesday.

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