It’s hard for younger basketball fans to remember, but Elton Brand was, and should be considered, a star. He came into the league as the No. 1 pick in the 1999 Draft, and was co-Rookie of the Year with Steve Francis, averaging 20 and 10 that rookie year. While Stevie isn’t looking so good these days, Brand is still honing his craft on the court, and he’s adapted to all the changes in the game since he came into a vastly different league more than 15 years ago.
“Yeah, you know plodding big men, banging all the time,” Brand says about the NBA he entered in the fall of 1999. “Super, super-star centers. Every team had a serviceable center at least, but these guys were superstars: [from] Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, to Shaq back then, [who] was unstoppable. The list goes on with so many amazing centers, like Rik Smits, Patrick Ewing — guys who were incredible. And I came in kind of right after that era.”
Before Elton played two years with Duke, and then joined the Chicago Bulls, though, he was AAU teammates with Ron Artest as a kid.
There’s a reason Brand’s teammates call him an OG — he really is an original gangsta. Elton actually turned Ron, now Metta World Peace, onto rap. Since then, Metta’s released a few albums under his Tru Warrior label, but in the beginning it was Brand who had to let the feisty kid from Queensbridge know about the music being made right in his own backyard!
“I’ve known Ron since Sony walkman, with the headphones and the fluffy stuff around him,” Brand tells us like he’s pretending to be an old man. “I’ve known Ron that long. Like his first girlfriend. We were probably 13 or 14, you know. I’ve known him forever.
“And he’d listen to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.” What?
When we tell Elton that Artest sounds like a fun, goofy kid, miles from the human time bomb he was during the earlier portions of his career, Brand says, “No,” Artest had the wild child in him even then:
“…[Artest] punched somebody in the face during an AAU game, he really pushed someone down the steps.”
Still, it’s obvious Elton was tight with the artist formerly known as Ron Artest. Brand thinks Metta is a lot smarter than he was at that age, or his teammates on the AAU circuit.
“That was my boy, though. He was smart; he was always smart. He got a bad rep from the fighting or being upset or the anger. But he’s a really smart guy.
“We’d get per diem for our McDonald’s runs, and he’d just buy baloney and a cooler [laughs] and he’d save his money when we traveled. But he went home with money, I never went home with any [laughs].”
As Brand mentions, Artest grew up in Queensbridge, right across the East River from Manhattan and home to the likes of Nas and MOBB Deep, who were just getting shine at that time. Still, hip hop wasn’t Artest’s thing — he loved the R&B.
“I’d drop him off [in Queensbridge] sometimes after practice, and he didn’t live near there, he grew up IN there. I’d drive up to Westchester after practice and he was into old R&B and not even the new stuff.
“I was into all that different hip hop stuff,” Brand says. “There were a lot of Queens artists then: Mike Geronimo and CNN [Capone-N-Noreaga] and just all these different artists and he’s like, ‘Oh, I know them, but I don’t listen to their music.’”
But none of those emcees from Artest’s rap-rich neighborhood meant much to him at the time. It took a skinny white kid from Detroit to get him hooked on the mic as Brand tells us.
“And then he fell in love with Eminem,” Brand deadpans. “[Artest] would listen to Eminem…talk about his issues and Ron really fell in love with [him].”
Brand himself downplays his own lyrical skills, but he had a studio in New York where Lamar Odom — another AAU crony — and former NFL quarterback, Donovan McNabb, used to grab the mic for impromptu cyphers and freestyle sessions. McNabb even recorded a song that never saw the light of day calling out other QB’s:
“Donovan McNabb came by and wrote a diss track about all the other quarterbacks that we never released. Nas in his hey-day, and Donovan dissing other top tier quarterbacks,” Brand tells us with a laugh. It’s obvious Elton was heavily involved in hip hop early on in his NBA career.
“My stuff is totally underground, like so far underground it won’t ever be dug up,” Brand said while trying not to laugh too hard. “I did have one, I did make the Cornerstone mixtape, it’s like a big DJ kind with the guys from Fader magazine. I don’t even know if they have it because it was a CD,”
Don’t let Brand’s humble words about his rapping fool you, though. We had heard through the grapevine — we can’t remember if it was an agent, or a media member who told us — Brand and Shaq squared off on stage for a rap battle and Brand actually got the better of him. When we posed the rumor to Elton, he admitted, “It is true.”
“On a stage. In front of hundreds of people. This was pre-camera phone. There’s no footage. This is like 2000 or something and we were there on the mic and Shaq just wanted to battle. He won his rings and he was the champ and he went at me. But Shaq’s a true artist. I’d give him the nod, I don’t want no problem…We did like eight bars each.” This elicited a pretty long laugh from us, but he really doesn’t see himself as that guy anymore. He’s a dad, not a rapper, and Shaq is the only NBA player we know who has gone platinum.
“I was on stage, and it’s embarrassing to think about,” Brand continues. “Kevin Garnett was there, but he didn’t rhyme, though he was on the stage. It was a pretty ridiculous thing.”
Please take a moment to picture Elton Brand battle rapping Shaq sometime in the early 2000s with Kevin Garnett also onstage (possibly as a hype man?).
A lot has happened to Brand before and after his secret rap battle, but he’s always handled every hurdle, every twist in his career and life path, with grace and aplomb. Plus, talking to him is like taking a time machine back to the turn of the 21st century when the NBA was a very different place.