Artists don’t get off-seasons. And unless you’re Allen “Practice is a State of Mind” Iverson, you usually don’t make the NBA Hall of Fame without spending summers locked in gyms, weight rooms, and hyperbolic elasticity chambers only accessible by staring into a mirror at midnight and chanting “Steve Nash” three times in rapid succession.
In the hip-hop world, originality is synonymous with obsession. The worst-kept secret of most great MCs is that they are usually Thesaurus-obsessed rap nerds, who spend more nights in the studio than at home sleeping on a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful women. See also, Devin the Dude’s “What a Job” or the quantity of rap songs titled “No Days Off.”
This partially explains why the NBA has never produced a transcendent musical talent. Plenty of outstanding athletes have bars and Shaq conjured a handful of classic singles, but none ever inhabited a singular character, personality, or originated a style. In the meantime, I keep a candlelit vigil for Nick Young to start recording freestyles over “Duffle Bag Boy” during timeouts. (Javale & Swaggy is the frontrunner for the 2019 Grammys.)
We can blame the 10,000 hours theory, but also need to assign guilt to David Stern, who reigned over the league with the joyless Puritanism of the minister in Footloose. The ex-commissioner’s threats to Iverson over “40 Bars” created a cloud of censorship that still endures under his successor Adam “Stretch Armstrong” Silver. As the Rick Ross exception attests, you can produce excellent rap music without honesty, but it certainly helps. And no NBA player is about to risk sponsorship deals or suspension to spill the tea about the conflicts, groupies, and frustrations that occur behind closed doors (unless D’Angelo Russell films it).
Nonetheless, rapping NBA players remain one of the most joyous peripheral quirks of the league. Pro ballplayers have recorded songs since Wilt Chamberlain cut “By The River” in 1960, but the onslaught of modern social media and ease of streaming allows us to bypass the fact that none of it is really worth paying for — save maybe for The Best of Shaquille O’ Neal, complete with a bonus “Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes” freestyle cassingle.
With the beckoning of Christmas, a holiday unofficially consecrated to hoops, it’s only fitting to examine the greatest and weirdest moments in NBA rap history.
The Top 10
10. Lou Williams
Consider it Game Theory, but like Jayceon Taylor, Williams has the bad habit of stealing flows from whomever he’s rapping alongside. On his “Ima Boss” freestyle, he sounds like he learned how to rap running wind sprints against Meek Mill. When he conscripts 2 Chainz, Williams’ flow reverts to his native Atlanta drawl. Conversely, it offers Williams a certain versatility that allows him to hold his own against more naturally gifted talents — similarly to how the 6’1, 175 lb. guard has survived in the league for a dozen years despite being built like Lou Bega. In addition, the three-point specialist successfully maintained a polyamorous relationship that inspired Drake to pay tribute on “6 Man.”
9. Cedric Ceballos
Despite pioneering G-Funk and gangsta rap, Los Angeles has largely failed to nurture rapping athletes. The principal exception being ex-Cal-State Fullerton and Lakers star, Cedric Ceballos, whose collaboration with Warren G was a unanimously lauded highlight from the immortal B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret compilation. The video features the blindfold-wearing dunk contest champ surrounded by admirers, balling on the Venice Beach courts, and rapping as well as anyone in the Dove Shack. It’s a slinky minor G-Funk gem whose credibility is only enhanced by Ceballos’ subsequent move to quit the Lakers mid-season and rent a houseboat in Lake Havasu — which my sources tell me partially inspired the plot of the film, Spring Breakers.
8. Allen Iverson
The Big L of rapping ballplayers, Jewels’ career was wrongfully cut short and shrouded by the eternal “what if?” question. During the early 00s, State Property and Major Figgas were the only Philadelphia rappers capable of matching the fury of “40 Bars.” Blessed with an LL Cool J-like boom to his voice, Iverson rapped the way he played: a nimble, ruthless, and relentless salvo. Hip-hop is idea as much as art form, and no NBA player has more holistically embodied its subversive streak and sense of rebellion as much as A.I. It’s never too late for him to diss White Iverson either.
7. Stephen Jackson