Jay-Z's first attempt to build All-Star team was in Rucker Park (cont.)
Still, the opening game loss haunted Jay-Z, and that was apparent even to his seventeen-year-old point guard. "He hates to lose," says Telfair. Or, as Jay-Z himself says in one song, "I will not lose, ever." Losing as Brathwaite's film cameras rolled was the worst of all. So Jay-Z went to work once again, using his gravitational pull to lure additional reinforcements. One of the first calls went to Jamal Crawford, a talented guard who met Jay-Z through Michael Jordan in 2001 while playing for the Bulls. "Jay called me on the phone and told me that he needed me to come down," Crawford remembers. "The one thing Jay said on the phone was, 'We can't lose.'"
The way Crawford described it, Jay-Z wasn't saying that losing was impossible, rather, that it was too possible, an unthinkable outcome etched into his mind by the opening night loss. He'd entered the EBC to create the best team the tournament had seen, to supercharge his legacy, and to win.
That was the only acceptable result. (In his song "History," he raps, "Rank me among the greats, either one, two, or three /If I ain't number one, then I failed you, victory.") Fortunately, his star power proved contagious. Not only did Crawford happily agree to join the team and fly to New York for the weekly games, the Chicago standout recruited seven-foot teammate Eddy Curry to join as well.
Crawford remembers being uncharacteristically tense the first time he stepped onto the court at the Rucker. "I was so, so nervous. It's different than the NBA," he says. "The fans are right there on you. It's just unbelievable, the atmosphere, you can't duplicate it anywhere." But Crawford soon shook off his jitters. With the two Bulls in Jay-Z's stable, Team S. Carter launched into a winning streak that would take them to the brink of a street ball championship.
On overcast summer evenings in New York, twilight gives way to cloud cover that reflects the pinky-orange glow of a hundred thousand street lamps back at the avenues of the city below. Sidewalks slowly release the heat collected during the day, leaving a soupy shroud of asphalt-smelling warmth just above the street.
The summer of 2003 was packed with those sorts of nights. Electric fans throbbed vainly in open windows above the Rucker as Team S. Carter barreled through the tournament.
Courtside bleachers swelled with fans hoping to see a nasty no-look pass by Telfair, a backboard-bending dunk from Crawford, or, even better, a glimpse of Jay-Z himself.
With the stands packed, some spectators even shimmied into trees overlooking the court to watch, all while Brathwaite's cameras rolled. As the incredible run wore on, the mere sight of the star-packed S. Carter bus was known to cause minor riots wherever it went. Fab recalls the frenzy. "You've got the S. Carter bus, and everybody was like, 'Aaah!' because everybody knew about Jay-Z and the sneaker, and then we'd roll up to the Rucker and everybody'd be like, 'Aaaah!' " he says. "There was so much excitement."
Jay-Z grew close to many of the players on his team, especially James and Crawford, who eventually became a part of the rapper's S. Carter Academy, a Reebok-sponsored cadre of athletes. Members appeared in television commercials with Jay-Z, and although the academy is now defunct, many of the athletes still flash the trademark "Roc" sign, their hands connecting at thumb and forefinger to form a diamond shape, on national television after making spectacular plays.
As general manager of Team S. Carter, he'd contact players personally to make sure they were coming to games, even arranging transportation. "He'd call you, he'd e-mail you," recalls Telfair. "If I couldn't get all the way out there, he'd make sure to have a car come pick me up."
Above all, Telfair marveled at how much time Jay-Z put into the team. "He didn't get any money for this, this was just fun for him," says Telfair. "I can just imagine how serious he is about something that's making millions and millions of dollars."
To be fair, Jay-Z was being compensated in a way that could only be measured in the number of heads-turned-pertrip as the S. Carter bus cruised from Midtown to Harlem, or crowd-volume-per-point-scored by his team at the Rucker.
There was also the marketing component. Fab was impressed by the way Jay-Z was able to go into an edgy tastemaker's mecca like the Rucker, blatantly promote a shoe made by a major corporation for mass consumption, and not be cast as a sellout. Perhaps because of his vivid lyrics and gritty past, he was able to avoid the corporate stigma while promoting his product in tandem with his team at the Rucker. Jay-Z was a sellout in a more favorable way: Reebok sold all five hundred thousand units in the first run of the S. Carter shoe that summer.
Putting together a team of NBA all-stars, renting a tour bus, and hiring Fab to film the whole enterprise was a calculated risk. A tournament victory would bring Jay-Z further street cred, more marketing clout with the consumers to whom he was marketing his shoes, and a victorious feature length documentary from Fab. Team S. Carter clinched a championship showdown with Fat Joe's Terror Squad by early August. With a roster that included Crawford, McGrady, and James, victory seemed all but guaranteed.
As the morning of August 14 faded into the afternoon, the mercury climbed into the mid-90s, promising another heavy New York night at the Rucker for the final game of the season.
Jay-Z had guided his team to the precipice of victory after a summer of scheming, schmoozing, cross-marketing, and testing his skills as a manager.
A few hours before the game, Fab met up with Jay-Z to prepare in the air-conditioned cool of the studio, as usual.
"But this day it was special," remembers Fab. "Because now LeBron was going to play . . . and Shaquille O'Neal was in New York in a hotel as a secret weapon that was going to be brought into the park solo to play for us."
"And while I'm up in the studio, I have my guy plugging in some lights, he was going to interview one of the players, and all the lights go out in the studio. I go, 'What happened?' Then I hear some people upstairs saying there's no lights. I'm like, 'What's going on in the building?' "
The disturbance wasn't unique to the studio. High electrical demand had forced a power plant near Cleveland offline, straining high-voltage rural power lines into a failure that cascaded across the entire electrical grid. The ensuing blackout left some fifty-five million citizens in the United States and Canada without electricity for nearly twenty-four hours. As traffic lights shut down, gridlock engulfed Manhattan.
A deluge of wireless activity briefly rendered cell phones useless. Crawford and Curry were stuck in their hotel rooms. Fab and Jay-Z were stranded downtown, and the other players were scattered across the city. Telfair, who'd shown up early at the Rucker, had to walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Without electricity, there was no way to light the nighttime asphalt at the storied courts.
"It was havoc. There was confusion," says Fab. "Bottom line, no game."
The tournament's organizers rescheduled the game for the following week. But there was a major problem: Jay-Z had already booked a private jet for the next day, August 15, to whisk him and Beyoncé away for a two-week vacation to Europe, one of their first vacations together. They had to be back in New York for the MTV Video Music Awards on August 28 at Radio City Music Hall, where a slew of Beyoncé's videos were up for awards, including "Crazy in Love," featuring Jay-Z. Postponing their departure by a week would cut their vacation from two weeks to four or five days, and with Beyoncé set to start her first solo tour in the fall, there was no time to reschedule. Committed though he was to his basketball team, Jay-Z refused to cancel the trip and risk alienating his superstar girlfriend in what was still an early stage of their relationship.
So when Fab showed up at the Rucker to document the final game the following week without Jay-Z, there was total chaos. "The team showed up but none of the ringers, because it's only Jay that can make those calls and put those guys on flights," he says. "There was a whole confrontation between the manager, the team, and the park guys . . . they decide that the game has been forfeited, and by default Fat Joe wins." When Jay-Z returned from Europe, he told Fab to stop working on the film. The project was dead.
"Jay-Z didn't want to put it out. I didn't want to, you know . . ." says Fab, trailing off. "It's one of those interesting stories." Fab's tapes contain hours upon hours of footage, from candid interactions between Jay-Z and his players to shots of some of the best basketball ever to grace the Rucker. Yet they remain filed away, destined to fall short of the big screen. "Who knows? It could have run the festivals," says Fab. "That was the pinnacle of the Rucker, in that period. It got so big, and that was kind of the crescendo tournament."
So, after a whole summer of meticulously organizing one of the best teams ever to set foot at New York's most famous court this side of Madison Square Garden, why would Jay-Z scuttle the documentary that was going to put it all together?
The answer is simple: he didn't win. Jay-Z said all along that he was only going to do the tournament once, and that he was going to win. And though the final game was never played, the final game was never won, either. He felt that publicizing anything less than victory would somehow taint his legacy despite the other victories notched that summer, buzz, marketing, sneaker sales, and a stronger relationship with his future wife.
He still managed to achieve those goals, even without scoring an official victory in the tournament; what he did win was much more important than what he didn't win. These days, when people talk about the summer of 2003 at Rucker Park, they don't remember that Team S. Carter forfeited the championship game. All they remember is a golden moment on the hallowed blacktop. "Everywhere I go, people still talk about it," says Telfair. "It was a unique time for Rucker basketball. It's always going to have hype, but it will never be done how Jay-Z did it."
It's safe to say that there aren't many who dwell on which team actually won the tournament. Except for maybe Jay-Z.