LOS ANGELES — He was asleep in Greece, halfway around the world, enjoying an escape before the start of his fourth NBA season when he was disturbed by the incessant buzzing of a cell phone on vibrate.
Devin Booker tried to ignore the noise at first, then it dawned on him (at dawn) that this could be important. The first thought that ran through his groggy head: Maybe I was traded by the Suns.
Well, no, this was bigger, actually: He was dropped by Drake.
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Friends and teammates called to tell him he was mentioned in the country’s biggest hit. Somewhat disheveled at that very moment, Booker needed a minute to realize what the fuss was about, and then he saw the verse sent by text:
“See the shots that I took, wet like I’m Book.”
The hook was straight from “Sicko Mode,” the seven-time platinum song by Travis Scott with an assist from Drake. Released in August of 2018, it was the first song in history to spend 30 weeks in hip-hop’s top 10 rankings. The official video has more than 450 million views on YouTube and Scott performed the song at last year’s Super Bowl halftime show.
And it was instantly downloaded in a hotel suite in Greece by a Suns guard who felt he’d just splashed the game-winning shot.
“Obviously I stayed up from that moment and the rest of the day,” Booker said, “just banging it.”
Not only is the song catchy, so is the trend. With astonishing frequency, NBA players are being mentioned in songs, many of them worldwide hits. Artists are name-dropping more players than public address announcers. It’s mainly concentrated in rap and hip-hop, the genres dominating the charts and ingrained in the NBA culture. That’s understandable as the music and sport are each other’s biggest fans.
Drake emphasized this in his debut album:
“I swear sports and music are so synonymous.
‘Cause we want to be them, and they want to be us.”
Preparations for the Grammys have pushed the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers out of Staples Center this week. But basketball will still represent Sunday at the awards show anyway. A number of presenters, nominees and performers have mentioned NBA players on past or current songs, and this has not gone unnoticed on locker room headphones.
Suddenly, there’s another career achievement on the wish-list of players: Win a championship, become an All-Star, make millions and get dropped in a smash hit song. Not necessarily in that order.
Chances are solid that if they do get a shout-out, it’ll likely be by Drake, the hitmaker and Raptor-rouser who constantly honors his basketball idols by penciling them into his projects. It wasn’t long ago when Booker sat in Drake’s home in Los Angeles and in the middle of an otherwise innocent conversation came this from the rapper:
“Man, I got to put you in a song.”
That’s almost like Oscar-winning director Quentin Tarantino promising to write a young actor into a script. Stunned at first, Booker said he forgot about it until weeks later, when the phone calls came in a rush.
He’s going to go down as one of the best artists of all time, and to be mentioned in one of his platinum records, wow.
Devin Booker on Drake
“That was a great feeling, man,” Booker said, “for me, for everybody around me. He’s going to go down as one of the best artists of all time, and to be mentioned in one of his platinum records, wow. And it’s a really good song, too. I was happy I was in a head banger.”
One of the nominees for Best Rap Song is titled “A Lot,” and if it wins on Sunday, the applause will be heard from Staples Center to Amway Center in Orlando. A verse written by J. Cole in that song helped inspire Magic guard Markelle Fultz and let the former No. 1 overall Draft pick know that not everyone had given up on his struggling basketball career.
Here’s the backstory: J. Cole and Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. are both from Fayetteville, N.C., and have known each other for years. Smith is also close to Fultz from NBA Summer League and the two refer to each other as brothers. Roughly a year ago, Smith described how his “brother” was hurting to the five-time Grammy nominee.
Less than a year after being chosen by the Sixers in 2017, Fultz suffered from a shoulder injury and was later diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which robbed him of his full-range shooting motion and jeopardized his future. Fultz played only 33 games his first two seasons and the Sixers virtually gave him to the Magic last February.
“He was going through a situation and it was a tough situation for someone mentally,” Smith Jr. said. “Cole said, ‘Let me holla at him.’ They just locked in. Cole chopped it up with him and one thing led to another. Crazy.”
Here’s the verse J. Cole wrote:
“I pray for Markelle ’cause they (expletive) up his shot,
Just want you to know that you got it
Though I never met you, I know that you special
And that the Lord blessed you, don’t doubt it
Dennis Smith Jr., stay solid.”
Billboard Magazine rated “A Lot” by 21 Savage and J. Cole as the No. 6 song of 2019. It has gone platinum three times and Cole’s lyrics were hailed by critics. Fultz was nearly moved to tears the first time he heard it.
“It was dope,” Fultz said. “Him shouting me out on a song really showed the love and the person he is. I play it a lot, all the time. I love it. To get put in a song is like, dope, an honor.”
And evidently it serves as motivation as well. Fultz is healthy and halfway through a redemptive season in Orlando and recently dropped a triple-double on the Lakers in an upset road win.
Musicians and songwriters historically never had use for athletes in their lyrics, which were reserved for heartbreak, love and more heartbreak. Even after Simon & Garfunkel had the lonely eyes of a nation wondering “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio” in their 1968 song, “Mrs. Robinson,” songs steered clear of sports.
The name-dropping began with the popularity of hip-hop and rap because those artists came from the same neighborhood as the players. Rapper Kurtis Blow broke ground in 1984 with his iconic “Basketball,” which became an anthem in arenas and gyms everywhere. As the background singers in the song wailed “they’re playing basketball!” he dropped an entire generation of players in six minutes and 26 seconds including, “Magic, Bird and Bernard King, and number 33 my man, Kareem.”
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 23, 2020
Suddenly the sport and its players were being romanticized almost as much as the girl next door. Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, Rick Ross … almost every mega-star is scribbling names of ballers today. Some lyrics are clever, as when Kanye said in “The Glory”:
“Class back in session so I upped it a grade.
Two years Dwayne Wayne became Dwyane Wade.”
Drake is the most prolific; he’s firing off riffs on whomever catches his hoop imagination, mostly LeBron James, a popular subject with the rap culture. It was Drake who famously crowned Stephen Curry with the ultimate nickname of respect in his 2014 song “0 to 100” with:
“I been Steph Curry with the shot,
Been cookin’ with the sauce, Chef Curry with the pot, boy”
Drake also wrote “6 Man” to get Lou Williams, then with the Raptors, votes for the Kia Sixth Man Award in 2015. Drake evidently has sway as Williams won the first of three career Sixth Man awards that year.
“When I first heard it, of course I liked it,” Williams said. “One of the biggest artists in the world, having a song about you, being Sixth Man, that’s a big deal.”
It’s not just the stars getting in songs as a wide swath of current and former player names have been dropped. They’ve mainly appeared on less popular songs — and some probably don’t even know it. The roll call includes Danny Ainge, Jeff Hornacek, Danilo Gallinari, Peja Stojakovic, Mookie Blaylock, John Starks, Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and even a coach, the late Chuck Daly. The list runs longer than the regular season.
Vince Carter, the only player to play in four different decades, has been dropped multiple times, by Bow Wow (in a cover of “Basketball”), 2 Chainz, Drake and most recently Compton rapper, Roddy Ricch. Since he’s still on the court at his advanced age, Carter has the unique experience of sharing the same playlist as his kids.
“I have a 14-year-old daughter and one day she says, ‘Dad, you know who Roddy Ricch is?’ Well, I already knew I was mentioned in one of his songs, and I knew where she was going with the question, but I played along and said, ‘I have no idea. Who’s that?’” Carter said.
Five years ago, an artist desperate for a record deal wrote his first song by linking his industry struggles with his favorite player. Post Malone called it “White Iverson” and it instantly went viral on SoundCloud. Allen Iverson loved it so much he had it played at his 40th birthday party. With a boost from the single, Malone’s debut album, “Stoney,” went triple platinum.
Today, his songs are sprinkled with NBA drops. In his 2018 song, “Wow,” he wrote: “Catch me on the block like I’m Mutombo, 750 Lambo in the Utah snow.”
There’s a song ranked No. 3 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best songs of the 2000s that combined the vocals of two of this generation’s biggest hit-makers: Jay-Z and Beyonce. Anyone named-dropped on such a hit was therefore promised immortality. However, the first time he heard it, Nick Van Exel wasn’t impressed.
“It was OK,” Van Exel said. “I was a Jay-Z fan but I wasn’t rocking to that song.”
Jay-Z wrote in the 2003 song “Crazy In Love”: “The ROC handle like Van Exel, I shake phonies, man, you can’t get next to” in a salute to the crafty dribbling of Van Exel (who then played for the Mavericks). Jay-Z was likely inspired by the 2003 Mavs-Kings series in the West semifinals, in which Van Exel scored 36 points in Game 2 and 40 points in Game 3.
“We had that great playoff run and later on, people were telling me about the song,” Van Exel said. “And then when you went in the clubs that summer, that was the song they were playing, and I’d see people pointing at me. It was a good night when that song came on. Then, on the radio, it was the only thing you’d hear. So I was like, all right, this is my jam right here. This is the jam.”
Jay-Z invited Van Exel to the opening of his Manhattan restaurant, the 40-40 Club, then later ran into him in Cancun. The two clicked, with Van Exel pleasantly surprised and impressed by the down-to-earth demeanor of the rap icon.
“He’s a basketball fan,” Van Exel said, “and I guess he saw me play and said, ‘Man, this boy is killing it.’ I also assume my last name was a challenge for him to word-play. The way he spun it and pulled it off, I thought that was nice. I officially crowned him the champ.”
Players mentioned in songs see it as a high honor, but it can get weird when the song is played in a room full of people and heads turn.
“It’s one of those things I enjoy when I’m by myself,” Booker said. “When my part comes on and everybody starts looking at me, that’s when it’s uncomfortable. I’d rather just listen to it by myself.”
Not so for Smith Jr., who said: “When I first heard ‘A Lot,’ I was in the car with my friends and everybody just turned up. I was like, ‘Wind it back, play it again.’ People still hit me up on social media with the tagline ‘stay solid’ that Cole used in the song. That’s good advice for me and Markelle and anyone. Stay solid.”
With basketball and music now forming a strong alliance, the number of NBA players used in songs doesn’t appear ready to end. When the Grammys are over and the industry gets back to work Monday, there’ll be an artist somewhere who’ll put a pen to paper while writing the next big hit and ask himself:
What rhymes with “Antetokounmpo?”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .
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