Without grandma, there might never have been a stage for a Spike Lee, let alone a path. Growing up at his grandparents’ house, Nigel Snipes saw the books, the pictures and ephemera of a trailblazer’s journey, but he was too young to fully grasp the context.
“My grandma’s very humble, so it wasn’t something she really talked about daily,” the Western Kentucky forward explained. “She was more focused on taking care of me and my needs. We’ve had conversations about it, certainly. Here and there, it would come up. But nothing like days of just anecdotes and anecdotes of all that she’s done.”
Although days might only just scratch the surface. Snipes’ grandmother, Jessie Maple Patton, carried the lens and the load, becoming the first African-American woman to gain entry into the New York camera operators union, writing a book about the hurdles along the way (“How to Become A Union Camerawoman”) and later launching the 20 West cinema in Harlem with husband Leroy to showcase independent black films.
She also spearheaded several documentaries and two features. The first, “Will” released in 1981, has been described by the Huffington Post as “the first post civil rights feature-length film produced by an African-American woman.” Both of her dramas dealt with basketball: “Will” is the tale of a former All-American player’s battle with drug addiction, while “Twice as Nice,” released in 1989, focuses on twin hoops players.
“If you meet her, she wouldn’t tell you that,” said Snipes, whose Hilltoppers visit Middle Tennessee in a Conference USA game Thursday night on ASN. “You’d have to dig deep and (finally) she’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”
Grandfather Leroy was a photojournalist with Ebony magazine who later worked on the crews of several films, including “Fame,” “Brewster’s Millions,” and “Rosewood.” And yet while the Hilltoppers’ swingman was raised by IMDb royalty, he said it never really felt like it.
“They would work on little small projects here and there,” Snipes recalled. “Mainly, for the most part, they focused on helping out my mom and me and school, stuff like that.”
Mom, school and basketball. Leroy built a goal for Nigel in their backyard, where the two would tussle, back and forth, the boy getting a little taller, a little wiser, and a lot stronger with each passing year.
“They put me in everything except football,” said Snipes, who leads the ’Toppers in 3-point percentage (.414). “Soccer, baseball, ultimate frisbee, basketball. I played it all, pretty much. I guess basketball is the one I liked the most, and it worked out pretty well.”
Football never stuck, although it was certainly in the genes: Father Angelo Snipes was a standout on the gridiron at West Georgia, followed by NFL stints with the Washington Redskins, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs from 1986-89.
His parents split up when he was younger, but Nigel saw his father “all the time when I was growing up.” Dad’s first career NFL interception was as a member of the Chiefs at the Denver Broncos, against a cat by the name of John Elway.
“He has that ball downstairs on his memorabilia wall,” Nigel said. “I never played football a day in my life. The private school I went to (Paideia High School through his junior year) didn’t have football. And he never forced me to play (youth) leagues or anything like that.”
After being tapped as an all-state and all-region selection as a senior at Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga., and offers from the likes of West Virginia, Florida International, Georgia State and Morehead State, Snipes cast his lot with WKU.
A physical wing with range, the 6-6 Atlanta native provides the ’Toppers with an instant jolt off the bench (8.1 points, 2.8 rebounds per game) another set of hands in community (Snipes has worked with the local Boys and Girls Club chapter, cleaning playgrounds and gardens, as well as with the United Way), and a man who follows his muse.
That and shoes.
“Jordans, Nikes, ASICS, adidas,” he said. “I’ve got a couple that cost a nice penny.”
He professed to being something of a sneaker collector, ever since high school. At last count, the inventory was at roughly 50 pairs.
“I like to do my own things,” Snipes said, “to follow my own path.”
It runs in the family. Grandma was even honored last year at the Lincoln Center in New York City, where “Twice as Nice” was screened for a new generation.
“I don’t really get into all that,” Snipes said. “She’s my grandma.”