There were two Long Beach State basketball alumni in the news last week, for wildly disparate reasons. James Ennis III was making headlines for reasons you might expect from the program’s alums: he’s in the NBA bubble trying to help the Orlando Magic to an upset of the Milwaukee Bucks (Ennis was also ejected from game three of the opening-round playoff series).
The other alum making waves was Travon Free, a Compton Dominguez graduate and Long Beach State post player who contributed to the team’s 2006-07 NCAA Tournament bid. Free didn’t make the news for exploits on the court, but because the action movie he wrote starring Idris Elba was purchased at auction by Apple. True, most former collegiate basketball players aren’t selling spy thriller scripts with established actors set to star and produce–but it’s just the latest step in Free’s unique and fascinating career.
“I consider myself extremely lucky to have made it this far,” said Free. “But for me it’s just also being lucky enough to have been good enough to make a way for myself.”
To say that way is the road less traveled is an understatement. Free came to Long Beach State via Dominguez High in Compton, as a talented 6-foot-7 post player who had a talent for writing that was nurtured by a high school English teacher named Julianne Beebe.
“She changed the trajectory of my life by convincing me I could do something besides sports for a living,” said Free.
As injuries made it clear to Free that he wasn’t going to make a living playing basketball after college, he began doing standup comedy while still in college. Free, who was also competing as one of the first bisexual basketball players in NCAA Division 1 men’s history, had an obvious talent.
Within a few years of graduating, he was a staff writer at the Daily Show, the youngest writer in the room and also the only Black writer on staff. That opened up a successful comedy-writing career that saw Free write for several shows, eventually winning two Emmys. He always had the idea of writing movies in the back of his head.
“I had always planned on making this jump, it was just a matter of when,” he said. “Once I felt like I’d kind of hit the ceiling of late night, it was time. After two Emmys it was like, ‘What more can I do here?’ Let’s go chase something else, try to master that.”
Free was nervous about making the jump but built his chops at HBO, where he sold a show with Issa Rae, and on the show Camping. Now, the 35 year-old writer has once again quickly ascended to new heights in a new arena.
He said he enjoyed the process of researching and writing the movie, a spy thriller set in Africa. But he also admitted that it was a unique thrill to see the project go into a bidding war.
“It’s a crazy feeling because everybody is making these insane offers of money you’ve never seen before in your life,” he said. “You go from being a pretty well-paid TV writer to a very well-paid film writer–in a matter of hours. It’s just phone calls and when it’s over your net worth is very different than when the day started. Then you have to go make the thing, but you’re also taking a moment to sit with it, think, ‘Oh man, my life just changed tremendously.’”
Free said he takes time every now and then to reflect on his upbringing in Compton, and how far he’s made it since. He said that he often thinks of the wall at Dominguez High with NBA and NFL superstars Tyson Chandler, Tayshaun Prince, and Richard Sherman painted on it. He’d like to see another wall painted to inspire Compton kids to try their hands at other professions.
“We all grow up thinking about sports and music,” he said. “Well, where’s the thing that tells kids even if you don’t become a pro athlete you can be the best in something else? I know there’s probably so many kids who are sitting on some kind of ability or talent that is not being nurtured because they don’t think it’s possible.”
Although there aren’t many–actually, any–who could claim to be a trailblazing LGBTQ college basketball player, an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer, and a film writer, that’s not enough for Free. He’s also been shooting black and white photos of the recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and allowing his mind to expand into any other arena that interests him. A few weeks ago, he co-wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times advocating for the Hall of Fame candidacy of John Donaldson, a Negro Leagues baseball player who died in relative obscurity despite a historic career.
“I like new things, I like new challenges,” he said. “I also react to the injustices I see around me or that I experienced growing up.”
Free’s certainly not done yet.
“I always wanted to do everything,” he said.