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Retired from NBA, Fox now different type of role player

Kam Williams

Born Ulrich Alexander Fox in Toronto on July 24, 1969, the man better known to Boston sports fans as Rick was raised in the Bahamas by his Italian-Canadian mother and Caribbean father. At the age of 13, Rick decided to pursue his passion for basketball, and moved to Indiana to play become a part of the Hoosier State’s rich high school roundball tradition.

Tradition ran throughout Fox’s basketball career. After high school, he headed for ACC country, playing four years as a Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina under the tutelage of legendary coach Dean Smith. Following his run in Chapel Hill, Fox was selected by another storied basketball program, the Boston Celtics, with the 24th pick in the first round of the 1991 NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-7-inch forward would spend 13 seasons in the league, enjoying a storybook ending to his career that included a trio of championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers.

To many, it seemed Fox’s off-court life was just as charmed as it was on the court, particularly when he eloped with former Miss America Vanessa Williams in 1999. Though the union eventually ended in a 2004 divorce, the couple has remained on good terms. In fact, Fox has a recurring role as Williams’ character’s bodyguard on her hit ABC sitcom “Ugly Betty.”

Since retiring from the NBA in 2004, Fox has turned his attention to acting, a passion he began pursuing in the late ’90s. In recent years, he has appeared on such TV series as “Love, Inc.,” “One Tree Hill” and “Dirt.” But his breakout role came on the big screen opposite Angela Bassett in “Meet the Browns,” Tyler Perry’s new movie, which opens tomorrow.

Fox recently spoke with the Banner, reflecting on his new movie, basketball, being biracial, the touch of “serendipity” in his life.

What was it like to work with Tyler Perry?

Being a writer/director, Tyler is very hands-on, and very graciously allowed me to play a character he could have played himself. I’m grateful that he entrusted me with the role, and gave me a big opportunity in the process. … Personally, I don’t think there’s a more dedicated person when it comes to storytelling and having his message delivered to his audience. He’s obviously been tirelessly working for a number of years on the stage, as well as in movies and on TV, and I love his humble approach of consistently challenging himself and wanting to get better as a director.

What would you say is the message of “Meet the Browns?”

I think that with all of Tyler’s movies, there’s definitely a sense of faith and hope that there’s something greater than ourselves that is out there … This particular one deals with a single mother who’s facing a lot of challenges in her life, and who has maybe lost hope that there’s any support out there for her. She finds it in the South in [a] family that she didn’t even know, along with a man who’s trying to move through his own personal struggles. And on the love/relationship side of this, they both step out of their fears of beginning again to [find] each other. So I think it’s just a message of faith and hope that, regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in, there’s still more out there for you, as long as you continue to push through.

Landing the lead role of Harry is really a breakout opportunity for you. Were you at all awed by the challenge of acting opposite Angela Bassett?

Oh, totally. [Chuckles] There’s definitely a long line of deserving and more talented individuals who are waiting to work with a talent such as Angela. But having taken my hands off the wheel a long time ago, and not thinking I’m controlling this path in life, I was blessed to be in this situation. I was definitely in awe for a period of time, but it’s like getting thrown into the deep end of the ocean. Eventually, you have to start swimming. [Laughs]

So how was it working with her?

She really was like a life preserver out there for me. She was not only gracious and open, but teaching and sharing.

It seems that Tyler has a particular gift for creating characters that resonate as recognizably real.

Yeah, Angela and I experienced our characters that way as we continued talking to Tyler and worked through his vision of them and the message that he wanted to bring. There was a certain truth and realism that we wanted to have evolve out of the story. And it was easy to find as we went along, because his voice just rang through so passionately and so clearly.

I have to talk a little about basketball with you, given the Lakers’ resurgence and North Carolina’s role as the favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. Playing at Carolina, being drafted by the Celtics, and then winning three championships with the Lakers — what was that like?

Honestly, I couldn’t have scripted it any better. To have come from a small island in the Bahamas and to experience all of this is definitely a plan greater than my own imagination. I’ve learned to just accept the blessings and thank God for them, even here where I find myself working with Tyler after he nearly ran me over by accident with his car on Sunset Boulevard. I’d never met him before that incident, and shortly thereafter, we’re discussing a role in one of his movies. Serendipity seems to be a theme in my life in a lot of ways.

Is there a question nobody asks you, that you wish somebody would?

Wow, I love that question. That’s a good one. I think I’d regret throwing out an answer to that one without giving it some thought. That’s a powerful question, man.

I’ll ask you that next time. Who are you supporting for president?

Being Bahamian, and having lived here all my life, I’d have to say that I recognize the historical ramifications of a Democratic change, whether it’s a woman or a black man. Personally, I would like to see Obama win, but I don’t think we would lose as long as either of those Democrats wins.

Since you too have a black father and a white mother, do you think you might have a special insight into Obama’s background?

Yeah. Though I haven’t read his book, I definitely connected with the way he was raised — like, I have with a lot of friends who are biracial and looking for a way to effect change in general. I’ve known some who’ve felt that the hope for the future of the world rests with the views of kids who’ve grown up in biracial marriages. There’s a tolerance that you see in folks who’ve experienced both sides — in some cases, many sides — and come from multicultural backgrounds. Their perspective is not so polarizing in a black-and-white way.

How do you deal with the fact that you have both a black and white background, yet when you walk down the street, people see you as only black?

That doesn’t bother me. I have a comfort zone in whatever setting I’m in. People might perceive it as being naïve, but even when I was the only black kid in high school, I never saw myself as anything but a human being trying to get an education. In the NBA, it was interesting watching the reactions of fans or coaches when my dad would come to visit me. They’d be shocked because he was dark-skinned. Then they’d see my mom, who was as white as the beaches in the Bahamas. It was always intriguing to watch the reactions. My teammates were much more comfortable than some of my coaches when my mother showed up. The different reactions gave me an insight about how various people viewed the world. But personally, I found myself in the middle and was always comfortable, regardless. …

It’s like how Eckhart Tolle discusses [it] in [his] book “A New Earth.” He talks about how people lose the experience of taking in a human, a bird, a flower or a tree because they’re living on the superficial level of labels. Instead of really stopping to take in a person fully, they take in the label.

I think that what I was blessed with by being raised in a biracial family is that I took in people and things as I experienced them as opposed to saying, “That’s a black man,” “That’s a white man” or “That’s an Asian man.”

Not unlike how many were moved after the South Carolina primary when Obama’s supporters started chanting, “Race doesn’t matter!”

There can’t help but be more and more change, because more and more people have grown up around an interracial relationship. From that standpoint, it’s no longer such a rarity in this society, where most people just a generation before wouldn’t even consider entering one, out of fear.