Mild spoilers below for Marvel’s Luke Cage.
Ask Cheo Hodari Coker which sports teams he roots for and you’d better buckle up. The creator and showrunner of the Netflix superhero series Marvel’s Luke Cage waxes loquacious while discussing his love of a wide range of squads across the country, from the Lakers and the Mets to the UConn Huskies and the now-defunct Hartford Whalers hockey team. So it’s no surprise that he regularly tunes into a certain cable channel. “I’m a huge ESPN watcher,” Coker says.
That love comes through in full force in the new season of Luke Cage. The second episode features cameos from not one, but two ESPN correspondents: Michael Smith and Jemele Hill. What’s more, it also includes an appearance from New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles. On top of that, the fourth episode features a segment with ESPN anchor Stephen A. Smith. Of course, ESPN and Marvel Entertainment share a parent company in the form of Disney. But according to Coker, these appearances weren’t a case of forced corporate synergy — nor were they easy to coordinate.
The ESPN cameos were Coker’s idea, and part of the motivation for them came from professional admiration. He used to be a music reporter and, as they say, game recognizes game. “The thing about Jemele and Michael is that I’ve always been huge fans of their shows, but at the same time, I also read their print stuff,” he says. “As a young black journalist, you tend to watch other black journalists your age.”
He also felt it also made sense for the logic of the season. The ESPN personalities show up because Luke’s friend Bobby decides to get him money through increased public exposure (“Just because you a woke superhero doesn’t mean you gotta be a broke superhero”) and arranges for our bulletproof protagonist to exhibit his skills at the combine of a fictional NFL team called the Harlem Jets. As Coker puts it, “If I was Luke Cage, if I needed to make money, I would think about, Hey, could I play for the Giants and the Jets? So it was us just saying, ‘Can we really explore that?’”
There was one wrinkle. “The NFL, of course, is so persnickety about their brand,” Coker adds. “They’re even more persnickety either than Marvel or Netflix.” Ergo the Harlem Jets, as opposed to the East Rutherford–based ones. They still snagged Bowles from the real-life Jets to coach Luke, but he wasn’t Coker’s first choice. “I was going to ask [Stanford University head coach] Dave Shaw to maybe cameo,” he says. It seemed like a match made in heaven, given that Shaw and Coker were college roommates. “But then I realized Dave’s scouting, he’s recruiting different students, and he’s on the other side of the country,” Coker explains. “There’s no way I can get Dave on a weekend to fly at his own expense to do my show.”
Plan B didn’t work out, either: “One of my favorite coach meltdowns of all time was [former New York Jets head coach] Herm Edwards,” says Coker, referring to Edwards’s infamous “you play to win the game” press conference. “So, at first, we talked to Herm. It got relatively close, but he doesn’t live in New York anymore. It didn’t line up quite right. But then, luckily, we called Todd and he was a fan of the show and he was laid back and willing to just be himself. It worked perfectly.”
Equally complicated were the wranglings with the ESPNers. The initial process of grabbing their interest wasn’t too hard, thanks to the magic of social media. “I’ve become friends with both Michael and Jemele on Twitter,” Coker says. “So I was like, ‘Hey, would you guys want to make a cameo on Luke Cage?’ And they were like, ‘Are you kidding me? Love to!’” Coker has friends in ESPN’s directing staff who opened up a line of communication with everyone’s agents.
But that’s where things became complicated. “It gets really tricky because, of course, Marvel doesn’t want you to, for any reason, have scripts out,” Coker says. “But then the personalities won’t do it unless they read the scripts.” So he opted to contact Hill and Smith and give them the gist of their scenes. “At that point, it’s a black thing,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Brother, y’know, I’m gonna flip this to you so you can see this. If you like it, please do it. If you don’t like it, then please don’t leak this.’ But it’s not official. It can’t go through agents. With all the confidentiality, it’s always really hard. So, being a fellow reporter, you’re trusting a source in talking to you and talking to them, is the way I would put it.” The strategy worked and the pair said yes.
When Smith and Hill arrived on set, the scripts they read — penned by season-one veteran Akela Cooper — didn’t end up containing all the dialogue they uttered. There was a fair amount of ad-libbing in their scene, which involves them standing on the sidelines at Luke’s combine exhibition and reporting on what they see. “They were very good at taking the script and saying, ‘Okay, how would we say this?’” Coker recalls. “He’s basically calling in a report saying, ‘Have all of the NFL guys report on the fact that we are getting ready to witness Luke Cage run through an NFL-type combine experience with a coach’ without ever mentioning the NFL, but making it sound real.”
Similarly, after enlisting ESPN host Stephen A. Smith to do a fake in-studio segment about a caught-on-tape fight that Luke gets into, some tweaking had to occur in the dialogue. “We basically wrote it in his style, not quite in his voice but pretty close,” Coker says. “So then it was just a question of making it work for him. When he read it, he said, ‘Okay,’ and it was modulated into how he would say it.”
Ovearll, Coker seems giddy while talking about his sporting adventure. That’s due in no small part to the medium that he and ESPN share. “Television is so intimate,” he says. “From the standpoint of when you’re watching ESPN on a daily basis, it’s almost as if them and [ESPN hosts] Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser are in your living room on a daily basis. You get to know them after a while.” His final assessment is as simple as Luke’s physique is impressive: “It worked really well.”