Jay-Z's first attempt to build All-Star team was in Rucker Park
An excerpt from new book about Jay-Z's career, involvement in New York hoops
In summer of 2003, Jay-Z assembled a team with LeBron James at Rucker Park
Jay-Z took the team seriously; he loves basketball, but also hates losing
Reprinted from EMPIRE STATE OF MIND: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner To Corner Office by Zack O'Malley Greenburg with permission from Portfolio a member of The Penguin Group USA (Inc). Copyright (c) Zack O'Malley Greenburg 2011.
Over lunch on a damp autumn day in Harlem, hip-hop pioneer Fred "Fab 5 Freddy" Brathwaite seems mired in an internal debate. He's deciding whether to tell me something about Jay-Z.
We've spent the past twenty minutes cheerfully swapping generalities, but when I ask for specifics, the pauses grow longer, his brow becomes furrowed.
"Can you tell me some kind of anecdote that shows how Jay-Z thinks?" I press. "Any moment that stands out in your mind?"
"Let me think," he says, munching his Caesar salad.
"So . . ." I continue, stalling. "I'm trying to, you know, get . . . inside his brain."
"I like the way they hooked this salad up," he mutters.
Then he blinks a long blink, as though clenching his eyelids longer will dull the regret of whatever he's about to tell me. He opens his eyes.
"I believe it was the summer of 2003 . . ."
The scene was Holcombe Rucker Playground, a hallowed slab of asphalt wedged between the Harlem River and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in upper Manhattan. Jay-Z's task: to assemble a team to play and win the Entertainers Basketball Classic (EBC), a tournament that offered no prize money, no gilded trophy, just victory, a muse if ever Jay-Z had one.
The EBC offered a perfect opportunity for Jay-Z to create a muscular cross-marketing engine for S. Carter, his namesake Reebok sneaker; the 40/40 Club, his new nightspot; and The Black Album, due out in the fall of 2003, which he claimed would be his last before ending his recording career and focusing on his business ventures. To tie everything together, he had a splashy publicity vehicle in mind: the silver screen.
"Jay reached out to me with an idea to do a commercial for this Reebok sneaker," says Fab. "He also wanted me to do a documentary on his basketball team." The plan was to capture every moment of what promised to be a victorious romp through the summer tournament and eventually turn it into a feature-length documentary about the time Jay-Z conquered the Rucker.
Fab was an ideal auteur for the project. A dapper urban tastemaker himself, he had helped export hip-hop music and style from the fire-scorched streets of the South Bronx to the primordial post-funk milieu of Greenwich Village in the early 1980s. By turning the eyes of downtown collectors and gallery owners toward graffiti, he helped establish the art form, and hip-hop music soon followed across the river to Manhattan. Fab would go on to host the hit show Yo! MTV Raps in the 1990s; in the new millennium, he developed a professional relationship with Jay-Z.
By 2003, Jay-Z was perfectly situated to gather an all-world street basketball team. Coming off his sixth platinum studio album in six years, he'd attained some measure of hip-hop immortality and vaulted into the pantheon of mainstream pop culture with radio-friendly jams like "Big Pimpin' " and "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)." The triumphal ballads of Jay-Z and his Roc-A-Fella cohorts blared from countless automobile sound systems while millions donned clothing from his Rocawear line.
Reebok released Jay-Z's S. Carter sneaker that April. Each pair was packaged in a box that included a CD with sneak-peek samples from Jay-Z's Black Album, due out the following fall. The first ten thousand pairs of the $150 shoe flew off shelves within an hour of release, making it Reebok's fastest-selling shoe of all time.
The following month, Jay-Z opened the 40/40 Club with partners Desirée Gonzalez and Juan Perez in Manhattan's Flatiron district. The nightspot's name played on the term used to describe the tiny group of baseball players who have stolen forty bases and clubbed forty home runs in the same season, aiming to lend the club a sense of exclusivity. From its inception, promoters billed the dim, high-ceilinged lounge as a place where stargazers might catch a glimpse of their favorite athlete or musician.
Decades earlier, Joe Namath and Billy Joel could be found celebrating their victories uptown at Elaine's; now, the likes of Derek Jeter and Jay-Z would frequent the 40/40.
To maximize his cross-marketing opportunities, Jay-Z arranged to have a bus plastered with images of his sneaker.
Before each game at the Rucker, the players would meet in midtown and clamber aboard. They'd make the thirty minute drive up to Harlem and stride into the Rucker to the screams of thousands of adoring fans. After decimating the opposition, they'd hop in the bus and head back downtown to celebrate at the 40/40 Club, a real-time sound track of Jay-Z's songs thumping all the while. "I was really impressed with him bringing all these things together, really cool street stuff and this whole business thing," says Fab. "That sneaker was selling, and the whole excitement around that tournament was giving credence to the shoe."
Synergies aside, the EBC wasn't simply a marketing whim. Jay-Z, a lifelong basketball fan, intended to win the summer tournament. To accomplish this goal, he'd have to unseat the defending champions, rival rapper Fat Joe's Terror Squad, a team that boasted rugged NBA players Stephon Marbury and Ron Artest, both of whom had honed their skills in New York school yards. Jay-Z was unfazed. "He was like, 'I'm going to bring this team together . . . I'm only going to do it once, and obviously I plan to win,' " recalls Fab. "Then The Black Album was supposed to come out, and then he was going to retire."
As summer settled over New York, Fab began filming and Jay-Z went to work as general manager. Previous Rucker squads were packed with street ballers, and only the best boasted one or two NBA players. Jay-Z had something different in mind. He recruited two Rucker veterans, rebound machine John "Franchise" Strickland and sweet shooter Reggie "Hi-5" Freeman, and then set about rounding out his squad with NBA players, finally accumulating a list of hard-court warriors that was almost Homeric in scope.
There was power forward Kenyon Martin, the first pick of the NBA Draft three years earlier; Los Angeles swingman Lamar Odom; and Tracy McGrady, a lanky twenty-three-year-old who had averaged 32.1 points per game during the 2003--2004 season, tops in the NBA.
Amazingly enough, McGrady wasn't even the most famous player who agreed to play on Jay-Z's team. That honor belonged to a teenager who'd just scored a $90 million endorsement deal with Nike months before playing his first NBA game: LeBron James, the top pick in the NBA draft and the heir apparent to Michael Jordan's best-player-in- the-world mantle. Though James wasn't going to play for Jay-Z's squad before agreeing to terms on a contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, an event that a street-ball injury could jeopardize, his mere presence on the sidelines at the Rucker contributed to the growing frenzy surrounding Team S. Carter.
Hours after the last revelers staggered out into the muggy Manhattan morning following the June 18 grand opening of Jay-Z's 40/40 Club, Rucker Park was set to host the opening game of the EBC. But a steady drizzle forced the game from the Rucker to a backup location, a gym called Gauchos in the Bronx. Most of Jay-Z's NBA recruits hadn't yet joined the team, and with only a smattering of pros (including the 6' 10" Odom, who served as a primary ball handler in the opener), Jay-Z's squad suffered an embarrassing loss.
"Lamar Odom, who's from Queens, he got clowned that game," recalls Fab. "He tried to do one of them classic Rucker trick maneuvers where he tried to do something crazy with the ball, and the kid snatched it . . . On the bus coming back, they all huddled and said, 'We've got to get a point guard!'"
Jay-Z, his partner Perez, and Mike Kyser, another member of Jay-Z's inner circle, put their heads together. One of the more intriguing names that emerged was Sebastian Telfair.
Jay-Z first met the Brooklyn high school star two years earlier when the two sat together by chance at a St. John's University game. "He asked who I was," recalls Telfair. "I told him I'm Sebastian Telfair, one of the top players in the country. He said, 'Oh yeah?' And he typed my name into his Motorola."
On the day of Team S. Carter's second game, Telfair found himself in the 40/40 Club, awaiting an audience with Jay-Z and Perez. Standing just shy of six feet and about one hundred sixty pounds soaking wet, the baby-faced teenager didn't look the part of an all-world street-ball team savior.
"When I walked in, they were like, 'Aw, he's a kid, how's he going to help us?' " recalls Telfair. "I looked at Jay and I said, 'I'm from Brooklyn.' And he just started laughing. But by the end of that night, he knew what exactly I meant when I said, 'I'm from Brooklyn.'"
Telfair would showcase skills honed on the Coney Island asphalt, but not before learning a kind of showmanship he hadn't picked up on the Brooklyn basketball courts. That evening, he boarded the S. Carter bus to find Sean Combs and Beyoncé Knowles, by then Jay-Z's girlfriend, casually eating soul food alongside a half-dozen NBA stars. The bus rumbled up to Rucker Park. When the dazed Telfair started to disembark, Jay-Z motioned him back. "Come here, come here," the mogul said, smiling. "You've got to make a grand entrance." So they paused for a moment and waited as the gathering flock of fans noticed the bus. Then Jay-Z took LeBron James and Telfair by the arm and strolled out into the warm Harlem evening to a thunderous greeting, the crowd parting in front of them.
"Anything that Jay was doing," recalls Telfair, "he was going to do it in a way that it hadn't been done before, in a way that people would talk about it." The young point guard took that lesson to heart, dazzling the Rucker crowd with an array of tricky no-look passes, devastating crossovers, and delectable finger rolls. Telfair racked up twenty-five points and Team S. Carter rolled to its first victory.