If you think playing basketball has nothing to do with being in a court of law…

On Thursday night, the Columbia School of Professional Studies (SPS) hosted a live recording of Emmy-winner Randy Cohen’s public radio podcast Person Place Thing featuring SPS Senior Lecturer Len Elmore. The interview centered around Elmore’s unusual trajectory, as he is a former NBA professional basketball player and a Harvard Law graduate. The recording was held in the Italian Academy Teatro with a live audience and was open to the public.

Person Place Thing’s format consists of the guest of the show talking about one person, one place, and one thing that is particularly meaningful to them, relying on the idea that “people are especially engaging when they speak, not directly about themselves, but something they care about.”


Cohen jumped into content with a prompt to encourage Elmore to talk about his person. Elmore chose American professional football player and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976). Elmore described his tenth-grade self as being “enamored” of the budding star that Robeson was, and he remembered looking up to Robeson, thinking, “Maybe I can do something like that.” Indeed, Elmore ended up becoming an All-American athlete, just like Robeson. According to Elmore, Robeson’s father was born into slavery and later became a preacher, eventually settling with his family in Princeton where Robeson was born. “It wasn’t easy for a young man of color […] to succeed in the turn of the century,” said Elmore when describing how Robeson had reportedly been beaten up by his own football teammates yet had stayed committed to the team.

Cohen and Elmore mentioned how diverse Robeson’s own career had been, since he was not only a professional football player but also a singer, actor and activist. Cohen expressed his admiration at this array of skills by good-humoredly stating that “most people are not good at anything, I’m not good at anything.”

Then, Elmore went on to describe what it had been like for him growing up in the middle of the civil rights movement and how this had shaped his conviction that law could affect change as well as his desire to “be in the parade,” not just the sidelines of said change. This desire was what eventually motivated him to work for the district attorney’s office. Elmore recounted how around the time that his admiration for Robeson developed, he had also started playing basketball—almost by chance, given that in the beginning he did not understand “how [basketball players] know which way to run.”

After discussing more of Robeson’s life and its hardships, Elmore emphasized the importance of athletes in activism and how other athletes—such as Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson—“took a page” from Robeson’s book in utilizing their leverage as athletes to advocate for the causes they considered relevant. Elmore finished these reflections by quoting his friend, who said, “the most powerful employee in America is the Black athlete,” and by explaining all the social demands athletes could make in exchange for playing their sport and entertaining the fans.


Elmore’s chosen place, after much debate with himself, was College Park, home to the University of Maryland where he majored in English. He said that after leaving his home in New York City, he had found College Park to have an “idyllic campus” and a drug store that sold the best lemonade. Elmore described his time in college as an experience of growth, meeting new friends, and diversifying his whole being. He also talked about balancing his academic responsibilities with his sports career.

Cohen asked whether basketball had kept Elmore from some of the college experiences he had wanted, but Elmore replied that basketball had only enhanced them. Elmore talked about basketball being an opportunity for him to create a community, and he mentioned that since had understood in high school what athletes meant to young people, he had “wanted to mean something to young kids.”

Elmore also resisted the notion of student athletes being viewed as employees and criticized the emphasis on money, instead of education, in their careers nowadays. He stated that, in hindsight, he viewed himself as a “beneficiary” and not as an employee while being a college athlete.


“It’s trite, but it is my thing… it’s a basketball.” Prompted by Cohen, Elmore reminisced about an interview with Bill Walton, former professional basketball player, in which Elmore and Walton were asked about a Maryland vs. UCLA (their respective teams) game from 50 years prior. Then, Cohen asked at what point Elmore realized that basketball might be his thing, to which he replied that he started seeing himself as “Chief,” a character from the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. After that, he received “300 letters from schools” and “all [he] had to do was play basketball.”

Afterwards, Cohen mentioned the difficulties of dancers and athletes whose careers come to a peak when they are still relatively young and how they have to navigate a transition into dedicating themselves to other things, which, according to Cohen, Elmore managed “gracefully.” Elmore said that he had decided to get a head start, and before his NBA contract was over, he began applying to law school. Motivated by his then girlfriend (now his wife), he applied to what she called “the best school”: Harvard Law. He received an acceptance letter from Harvard just as he was playing against the Boston Celtics; being in the area, he decided to tour the campus and thought, “You know what? I can see myself here.”

Later, Cohen and Elmore talked about how basketball has “changed dramatically” because of how fans now “love to see offense,” to the point that the NBA has legislated against defensive moves like arm bars in order to make the game more aesthetically pleasing to the audience. Elmore also discussed the shift from “team play,” which was a focus when he was playing, into “individual brilliance,” as nowadays games are even advertised as the “stars” of the teams—not the teams themselves—facing off.

Finally, the show came to a close with questions from the audience, during which Elmore discussed why he decided not to go into politics and what his main pursuit in teaching is: to instill in his students the “necessity to search for the truth” and how truth “is going to illuminate what it is you wanna do.”

The full episode of Person Place Thing with Len Elmore will be available to the public for free at a later date. To listen to other episodes in the show click here.

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