Michael Rapaport talks New York sports culture, new book

Actor and director Michael Rapaport says New York City has one of the greatest sports cultures anywhere. "We love as good as we hate," he says. "New York fans appreciate greatness even if it's on another team." / Getty Images / Nicholas Hunt

Michael Rapaport is serious about his love for sports. But he doesn’t make the mistake of taking sports too seriously.

The Manhattan-born actor, filmmaker, podcaster and (more often than not) provocateur has a lot to say about sports. And none of it includes statistics.

In his new book, appropriately titled “This Book Has Balls,” Rapaport takes on everything from basketball great Bill Russell to Broadway sensation “Hamilton.”

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Rapaport, 47, known for his work in “Boston Public” and “Justified,” lauds Serena and Venus Williams, calling their father, Richard, an MVP. He decries the “skinny-jeanification” of sports and the shame of sportscasters and their hairpieces.

Some of his most compelling words, however, come as he speaks of his own passion for the game (or games), his hours on basketball courts in Brownsville and his dreams of being a professional athlete.

“Sports are fun and the essence of sports are fun,” Rapaport told amNewYork in a phone interview. “You watch ESPN they are always in suits and talking about sports. When we watch sports, we are in a sports bar or at home with one finger up our nose and we’re eating chicken fingers.”

Rapaport grew up on the Upper East Side, and freely admits his disruptive behavior led to him being “expelled or politely asked to leave” nine schools in 12 years. He immersed himself in all things sports before deciding, at age 9, he would be a professional basketball player.

While that didn’t work out, Rapaport — who now lives in Los Angeles — made a name for himself as an actor in films and on TV. He also directed a documentary about Queens hip-hop artists A Tribe Called Quest, and an ESPN film about the 1970s champion New York Knicks.

“We have one of the greatest sports cultures in the world,” Rapaport said of NYC. “We love as good as we hate. New York fans appreciate greatness even if it’s on another team.”

Rapaport said some of the greatest basketball games he ever witnessed were at the Howard Playground in Brownsville.

“The competition level, and insanity . . . it was like nothing I had ever seen,” he said. “Pure New York quintessential basketball and s--- talking at its finest.”

In the book, he recounts a childhood chance meeting with Knicks great Earl “The Pearl” Monroe outside a Manhattan restaurant.

“I will never forget it,” he said. “It was like meeting a hero in real life.”

Rapaport has had a lot of sports heroes over the years and is reluctant to name just one.

“Lists are for laundry,” he laughed. “Obviously Serena would be at the top of the discussion. Everything Muhammad Ali did in and out of sports, and you can’t argue about Michael Jordan.”

One of his most poignant and painful New York City sports memories involves watching the 1980 Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes bout via video at Radio City Music Hall.

Rapaport, who was 10 at the time, sat heartbroken as “The Greatest” was pummeled by his former sparring partner in Las Vegas.

“I went with my dad, I was one of the only kids there,” he recalled. “It was utter hysteria. There was so much sadness and me walking out of there holding my dad’s hand and crying because my idol had not just lost — he had been beaten — it was something I will never forget.”

The book is written in short chapters that can be picked up and read at any point, he said.

“It’s quick hit,” Rapaport said. “It’s unlike any other sports book. There is a lot of s--- talking, a lot of fun. It’s really a celebration of the fans.”