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If it's Sunday, these must be the Detroit Pistons. Spike has two on celebrity row at the Garden (one for his date, actress Veronica Webb, who appears in Jungle Fever). This makes three games in four days. You should have to pay this guy's popcorn bill. The only thing better than being a child all your life is being a child with money.
Shelton Jackson Lee—"I don't know why they call him Spike," says his maternal grandmother, Zimmie Shelton. "I never liked it"—was born into the middle class in Atlanta, Ga., in 1957, one of five children of a bass player, Bill Lee, and a teacher, Jacqueline Lee, both college graduates, both children of college graduates. This was, suffice it to say, a very tasseled household. The Lees moved to New York when Spike was two. By the age of five, he was being dragged by his mother to movies and Broadway shows. Loved the shows, but ate up the movies like the economy-size Ju-Ju-Bees.
The Lees spent several summers with relatives in Alabama, and in those years, 1963-65, Spike came nose-to-kneecap with bigotry. He can remember separate bathrooms for blacks and whites. He can remember moving into Cobble Hill, a white Brooklyn neighborhood, and being called nigger. "People always think discrimination is just in the South," he says. "But it's like Malcolm X said: 'The South begins at the Canadian border.' "
It didn't help that Spike was the littlest kid around. Once, two boys, both bigger, wanted to beat him up. They made an appointment with him to do so after school. Spike, ever organized, talked the teacher into letting him go home early.
When you are small and black and you are growing up in a white neighborhood and you have a slight speech impediment, you learn to be suspicious of everybody. "He is very distrustful of people," jazz trumpeter Branford Marsalis, a friend of Lee's, told the cable TV show Bravo. "He was probably never the most popular guy in class." Spike's father, who, like Spike's four brothers and one sister, chose not to be interviewed for this story ("We're kind of on gag orders," said one brother), once said, "I think Spike's size has had a lot to do with his determination to do something big."
Big to Spike was becoming a professional athlete, but the closest he ever got to the arena floor was about 100 rows back. He has always gone to games, only now he sits farther down. At the Garden, he's at courtside opposite the Knick bench. A very good high-five spot. That's a long way from some of his no-meat-but-potatoes days as a kid. Spike's father, as stubborn as 41 mules, refused to play the electric Fender bass to make ends meet. He insisted on the purity of the stand-up bass, which meant he didn't work much. Spike's mother put in stiff hours as a teacher to make ends meet but never complained. The purity of the artist must have been in her, too. "We weren't starving," Spike remembers. "But sometimes it was hand-to-mouth."
It was never easy for Spike to love his mother full-out. Jacqueline was the bad cop. Bill was the good cop. She was the disciplinarian, and he was the lenient one. "All of us liked our father better because there was never any static coming from him," Spike says. "It would be like, 'Daddy, can we jump off the building?' 'Yeah, go ahead.' "
Spike didn't have much time to straighten out his feelings before his mother died suddenly of liver cancer, in 1976. Spike, 19, hurried home from Morehouse College in Atlanta to see her. When he left a few days later, how could he have known she would go in another two days? "I think about her a lot," he says. "She inspired me to write. I got my drive from her. I think she'd like the movies I'm doing now."
But if losing his mother is what burns inside Lee, he doesn't show it. Confronting racism so young is rotten, but nearly every black American has had to do it. There is something else about him, something deeper, something hidden. But where? And what?