SALON TALKS

Iman Shumpert has an athlete’s mindset in acting: “I fell in love with that fight or flight feeling"

From music to a role on "The Chi," the NBA champion shares why he's getting into all sides of entertainment

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published July 17, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Iman Shumpert is seen outside 'Dancing With The Stars' Rehearsal Studio on October 08, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (JOCE/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images)
Iman Shumpert is seen outside 'Dancing With The Stars' Rehearsal Studio on October 08, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (JOCE/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images)

Outside of being an NBA champion, Iman Shumpert is a true Renaissance man. He won the 30th season of "Dancing With the Stars," is about to drop a rap album, just launched a podcast for Uniterrupted with his brother Ahrri and has a reoccurring acting role on Showtimes's "The Chi," now in its fifth season.

Shumpert's character, Rob, dabbles in the complexities of non-traditional relationships this season. When I talked to Shumpert on "Salon Talks" he spoke about how "The Chi" is full of real-life situations that lean into tough conversations, especially for young Black men. "It's not always a focus on here's the guy with the baby momma drama-type stuff," Shumpert said about the show. "I like being able to create a vibe that makes a young man sit at home and reflect on what he can handle and can't handle."

Shumpert and I talked about our bond with our daughters and parenting styles, which he lovingly calls "winging it." He also shared his approach to a multi-layered life in entertainment. "I try and do everything with grace," Shumpert said. "I do everything with intention, intention to be successful." Above all, basketball is still No. 1 for Shumpert. "Right now I'm just in more of an entertainment part of my life," he said, adding that if he had it his way, he'd be back on the court. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Iman Shumpert here or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You are a renaissance man. You can ball out of control, you're an amazing hip-hop artist and an actor too. Is one of those jobs more difficult for you, or do you feel like they just pull at different parts of who you are?

It just highlights different parts of me. I think we all have a bunch of layers to us. I fell in love with that fight or flight feeling, the "What if I fall on my face?" moment. I love that moment — the stomach drop where it's either going to be really good or really bad. It's worth it to me. 

On "Dancing With The Stars," I ain't know what I was doing, but we going to figure this out. It's a challenge. I might mess up and everybody might laugh. Or Iman wins and he's champion of "Dancing With The Stars." That's how I live my life. I take challenges as they come. I try and do everything with grace. I try and remain grounded at all times. And I do everything with intention, intention to be successful. But I don't think one is harder than the other. I think it's all just within my DNA, this is what I signed up for. This is the man that I am. This is what my parents instilled in me and that ain't changing. So whether we playing basketball, or you got me working at an office, bro, you getting the same work ethic, you getting the same enjoyment of life. It's just like, which layer are we peeling back first?

Do you have a preference, though?

I've always had basketball. I don't think I could replace a joy like that. But it just is what it is. Basketball is one of the only things I could do by myself over, and over, and over, and I don't trip. I could work out all summer by myself and it won't bother me at all. It's a confidence of knowing I'm prepared and you have no clue what's coming.

I think basketball would always be my preference. But not to say that I won't wear the other hat more at times. You know what I'm saying? I think right now I'm just in more of an entertainment part of my life. But that's what's working for me right now, and that's cool, that's what's happening, people want to hear from me, that's cool. But if it could go how I wanted in my head, them owners would have got this contract right and I'd have been hooping last year. 

When I really got into writing I felt like I was creating some of my best work. And now I'm six books in, I've written for television, all of these different things and the business part of it has stripped away some of the fun for me. Do you ever feel like that with ball?

Yeah, there's business. There's political. And you have these moments where you're like, "Man, I don't even love it no more." And then you wake up the next morning and you look in the mirror and be like, "You goofy. Shut up and go to the gym." 

"I do everything with intention—intention to be successful."

I've had them moments where I'm like, "Oh, it's so political, woo, woo, woo." And then I'm walking past a park and I watch a little kid playing, and he got his coat on, and it's cold outside, but he don't care, he still hooping. And you realize, that's why I love this.

If you saw me hoop, you would be like, "Maybe I don't love the game as much."

It's crazy, though, the love of the game is contagious. I don't think I could ever really step away from that love.

I love the dynamic of your character on "The Chi" because Emmet jumps out there with the open relationship thing, and it's all fun and games until a dude that's fly and rich pulls up, then it's like, "Wait a second. She said she was coming back later. And now it's like 10 business days." What can we can expect from you this season on the show?

I think that Rob is just establishing a safe space for Tiff. It's also a great example of the co-parenting situation that her and Emmet have on the show. You get to see that dynamic. You get to see a dynamic of Rob trying to play a little stepdaddy stuff. 

The writers keep incorporating so much real life into this show and showing us new situations that could start conversations we not used to having, whether uncomfortable or not. I think that "The Chi" has done an incredible job with just the topics that come up. We can have the conversation. 

You're from the Chicago area. So just being on set and working on a show that's Chicago-based, have you ever found yourself in situations where you're thinking, "No, we wouldn't do it like that."

Oh yeah, myself and [Hannaha Hall], we find ourselves doing that the whole time. We like, "Would she say that? Well, she would say it like this if she from out South, but she from out West." We go through that and build the character, but we're just constantly trying to add to the character. I've been trying to make Rob act so much different than me. He's so much more patient, and calm and very understanding. 

"The writers keep incorporating so much real life into this show."

It is a testament to what [the writers] are pushing as far as a Black man that will be down with his responsibilities, that will be down to take on the challenge that somebody else gives. And it's not always a focus on here's the guy with the baby momma drama type stuff. You know what I'm saying? It's a calming space for him to say, "There doesn't have to be drama. It's OK." I like that grown man in him. I like being able to create a vibe that makes a young man sit at home and reflect on what he can handle and can't handle.

Absolutely.

I think just about every parent on the earth, they ain't going to tell you, but they are winging it. They have no clue what they're doing, nobody does. We're just figuring it out, we're just making the decision every day. What you think?

Every kid is different. The big homie can't tell you what to do because it's a different generation. These kids, they not even wired the same.

Or they can tell you what to do, and you try it, and it could not work.

When my daughter was one years old she was on the iPad just banging out games as if she was born with instructions. And I'm like, "Yo, who told her how to do that?" It took her grandmother an hour to cut it on.

Yes, that's my kids, telling my dad how to work they phone like, "Yaya, give me your phone, give me your phone. Grandpa, give me your phone." They got TikTok on they phone now. They don't use none of the apps she downloaded, but she got everything on all these people phones. She be ordering V-Bucks off my PlayStation. This lady is crazy. She gets the outfits for all the characters, don't even play the game. Playing dress up. Don't even play the game. 

But you know style runs in the family, man. 

Oh, my daughter is ready. 

Your whole family, y'all get them fits off, man.

Man, that be T, man. I can't keep up no more, man. I think I'm fizzling out. I'm starting to like my looks that I like. I'm going to be Johnny Bravo after a while, brother. Let me get this same outfit every day. Y'all get used to it.

It's been cool to watch Junie and Rue both inherit that love for fashion that me and T have. They love getting dressed, they love playing dress up. Rue is a shoe and bag girl, Junie is a shades, crop top girl. You can get Junie in anything else, but she got to have her crop tops, got to have her stuff. She's very specific about her hair. Rue, easy going about that hair, she's not playing about her shoes. She's a shoe girl. 

How old is Rue?

Rue is about to be two, and Junie is about to be seven.

My daughter is two. And I wonder if it's a phase.

She on shoes right now?

She into her shoes right now. So my favorite shoes is the Black Cement 3's, right? But I bought her all of these different J's, right, all of these special collaboration joints and all that. And she was wearing them. And then one day, I got a box of Crocs. Now she's walking around like a little assistant nurse all day, like she won't take the f**king Crocs off. And I'm like, "Yo, what about these? What about these? What about these?" And, "No, no, no."

What happened to the bond with them Jordan's? What happened, baby?

It's done. You go on the road, come back home and the bond is gone. You a Croc lady now.

It's like that, man. It's amazing just watching their process, watching them figure it out, figuring out what they like. It's a beautiful thing. I love that Rue loves shoes. She be trying her momma's shoes on all day. She's walking about in her heels. I'm like, dog, what one year old walks around in heels? How are you able to get around? It's just crazy to watch them be a sponge immediately. It's the most beautiful thing in the world for me. 

I feel like a lot of different characters on "The Chi" are really in a rhythm now. But it's the last season, right? Do you feel like we needed maybe two more seasons?

I don't know, man. I'm coming along on the tail end. But it's a good show. I don't want it to have to be over. I just got here. It's definitely an honor to be a part of it. I do think I'm not a personal fan of shows overstaying their welcome. And knowing Lena [Waithe], she got so many things in her head, she probably want to close that sometime too. But I do know that there's an incredible cast, and there's an incredible fan base behind the show. 

I'm a hooper still. I don't be knowing all the buzz and everything. I ain't got the inside scoop for y'all, I wish I did. If I had the scoop, I'd spill it and say it was an accident, dog, but I ain't got no scoop.

I think one of the most interesting things that people will remember about the show if they don't bring it back, is just how they dealt with masculinity on every different level. Are there any type of cultural impacts you think it will have, you think people are going to look at maybe 10, 20 years from now and say, "Wow, 'The Chi' warned us." Or, "'The Chi' told us"?

Yeah, I think the sex trafficking, the human trafficking. Shining a light on that and saying that there are young women being taken, especially young Black women are being grabbed up and used for this. It's a harsh truth. It's something that you don't want to talk about, you don't want to think about, you don't want to see the visual. But hopefully that visual helps everybody to be a little bit more aware of this and to look out for somebody, to care, to understand that for every woman that gets taken, that's somebody's sister, that's somebody aunt, somebody mom, somebody grandmother, that's somebody's somebody. You know what I'm saying?

Absolutely.

And treating it that way. We got a theme in the house right now to be church after church. They used to say that in my church, "Be church after church." And nobody knew what that meant, and it's just holding yourself accountable: Be church after church. You out on the street, help somebody, care about somebody, love somebody. And yeah, that's all it is.

It's so easy to not be church when you walk out the door. Soon as they get in the parking lot, you already arguing over who going to get out the lot first.

Ain't it though? It's crazy. But if you can be church after church, you going to be all right. If that's really you, you going to be all right.

What can we expect from you after "The Chi?"

I'm dropping my podcast on Uninterrupted, "Iman Amongst Men." I'm doing it alongside my big brother, Ahrii. And it's probably the coolest space to sit down because my brother is also my barber. So naturally, me and him talk barbershop talk all the time. Being a barber, he's so used to doing that. I originally thought about maybe doing it in a barbershop, but something about it just made me want to have him at the table now. 

There's nothing better than sitting down and talking to him because I know that I can't lie. He ain't having it. I can't give a politically correct answer that sneaks by. He told me, "If you doing that, I'm not doing this." You know what I'm saying? And he's one of them by law. He going to say it. Either we do it this way and we doing it real, organic and we going to actually push the work towards something, or we're not doing it at all. So yeah, everybody should just buckle up.

And finally I get to put out my album. I got the sample cleared. Thank you to Dr. Dre, Scott Storch, all those involved with clearing "Let Me Blow Ya Mind." I have to remember what they really call the song. It's "Drop Your Glasses" to me. I don't have the release date. I got to wait on Apple to tell me when it's done uploading into the system and when we can actually put it up. But the day I got it, y'all will have it.

 


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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