Fresh from J. Cole's stint on the Rwanda Patriots, we take a look at the parallels between his basketball career and the pioneering, late 90s NBA run of Master P.
For someone who is the proprietor of a label known as Dreamville, it's unsurprising that making what seems unobtainable into a reality, is central to Jermaine Cole’s worldview. Never one to be bound by expectations, Cole’s journey to the top of hip-hop is one that has been led by manifestation. So, when he revealed that he planned to act on his unrealized goal of playing professional basketball, his noted powers of persuasion made it a lot easier to believe, than if another MC had decided to take a starting position at the tender age of 36.
"As I approach the summit of this mountain, I still find myself staring at that other one in the distance, wondering if I can climb," he wrote in The Players’ Tribune article that alerted the world to his plans.
J. Cole attends the 2019 State Farm All-Star Saturday Night, 2019 - Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
In under a year since the article’s publication, Cole and his signature Pumas would take to the court for the BAL’s Rwanda Patriots. And while it may not have been the prime position in an NBA dynasty that he’d fantasized about, his dalliance in the Basketball Africa League has ensured that he can always say that he played professionally.
Over the course of four games, Cole didn’t exactly set the backboard alight in a way that would make him headhunted by the Lakers. But even with an unremarkable run on the court, having the gall to make the shift was enough to garner him the commendation of his fellow artists.
For relative newcomers to hip-hop culture, a high-profile artist renouncing the pen for training drills and tryouts likely seemed revolutionary. For those who’ve charted the genre’s growth, he was simply retreading ground that was first broken by another Southern hip-hop pioneer.
Master P in 2002 - Tim Boyle/Getty Images
Having shaped an entertainment empire under the similarly aspirational moniker of No Limit, Cole’s foray onto the court sees him emulate the trailblazing journey of Mr. Percy Miller, better known as Master P. Seen as an innovator in every sense of the word, adding new dimensions to the rapper’s playbook was nothing new for P by the time that he transitioned from courtside seats to the floor itself.
Following his humble beginnings as a Bay Area record store owner, P used his entrepreneurial flair to break down barriers, make movies, secure previously unheard of recording contracts, and take the regional sound of Louisiana to previously unassailable heights in terms of chart success. But where many of his blueprints have been re-traced by his descendants in the industry, Cole is the only man who’s followed his lead by attempting to turn pro.
In Master P's own estimations, none of his legacy comes to fruition without years spent as point guard for Warren Easton High School.
"Basketball saved my life," he informed Complex during a reflective interview. "It took me on the road, gave me a bigger vision. Basketball is how I escaped a lot of negativity."
Hailing from Fayetteville, NC, the young Jermaine Cole was enamoured with the sport in much the same way that P was. However, where Miller’s high school career was prolific, Cole’s progress was stunted.
"I was always in love with basketball as a kid, but I thought I was way better than I really was," Cole conceded during a Sports Illustrated profile. "I went to a middle school that didn't have a team. That kind of set me back."
J. Cole and Kemba Walker attend the 69th NBA All-Star Game in 2020 - Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Deprived of a regimen of playing day-in and day-out in his younger years, Cole’s high school days began with a managerial position before he’d finally secure a place in the line-up, with "Young Simba" eventually progressing to the point that, in his words: "by the time I was a freshman in college I had the talent of someone that should have at least been on the bench at a D-I school."
However, it was in his further education that Cole's entryway into basketball begins to parallel his predecessor's.
Believed to possess a massive upside on the court, P initially received a place at The University Of Houston on an athletic scholarship, but would quickly drop out in favour of becoming a business major at Oakland’s Merritt Community College, effectively rescinding the conventional route to a career in the NBA. While for a young Jermaine, his focus had already shifted towards the occupation that would eventually make his name, and so he chose to skip tryouts entirely.
"I was in love with music and I knew I wanted to rap. So I had to make a decision that I knew was going to change the trajectory of my life… I didn't go the next day. In my mind, I'd have made the team. Who knows what would have really happened?"
Although P would take the independent route and Cole would find himself snapped up by Roc Nation, what conjoins both rappers is that in their prime, they possessed a tenacity and sportsmanlike competitiveness that drove them to the top in their respective time-period. With both men reaching a plateau where platinum status was all but a foregone conclusion, that eagerness to conquer began to manifest in other ways.
"I caught the bug," Master P said of his decision to vie for a place in the NBA. "I had to get it out of my system. It was like, 'How good am I really? How far can I take this?'"
Once hip-hop was conquered, the pursuit of athletic glory became part of a “retirement” arc for both men.
Master P at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, 2017 - Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
In P’s case, his journey began directly after he’d declared 1998’s MP: Da Last Don to be his final album but in reality, he’d actually return to the booth a year later for Only God Can Judge Me. For Cole, this transition has been a major talking point during the first stage of what has been billed as his three-project swansong, commencing with The Off-Season and ending with The Fall Off.
Master P faced an uphill battle towards legitimacy in basketball. So, when it came time for Jermaine to put the work in, he, like hip-hop stars often do, sought out the counsel of an OG. In turn, making Miller into an informal press officer for his basketball prospects.
"I talked to J. Cole, he was like 'You know, big dawg you did it. What do you think I would have to do to make it happen?'" He disclosed to TMZ. "I said to get one of these NBA jerseys, it's not gonna be easy. It's gonna be a lot of hate, it's gonna be a lot of people not believing in you."
Having dubbed Cole as number one on the list of basketball-playing-rappers ahead of his own son, P has fervently supported the Carolinian’s decision. But as much as hip-hop is now omnipresent in the cultural world, one thing that is consistent across Cole and Miller’s hoop aspirations is the backlash that hovered over both men’s deals.
Amid concerns from staff within Charlotte Hornets who wondered if P’s signing was a cynical "publicity stunt," Miller’s arrival in basketball came at a time where the ideological and aesthetical divide between hip-hop and its unofficial sport of choice was still stringently enforced by the powers that be.
"In Charlotte with Bob Bass, who was the GM at the time, he told me, ‘Man, you’re one of the best players I’ve ever seen, and you work hard. But when I listen to your music, your music is pure filth.’ That got me out of the league," he relayed to the New York Post. "But they didn’t have an open mind to it, I can understand. I’m in Charlotte, NC, which is a Bible Belt city. If I were in another city, [like] Portland, it probably woulda been all good…. [today] I would be one of the top players in the NBA... [since] they are open to entertainment."
Initially, the news that Cole had aspirations of joining the league were met with enthusiasm, even sparking a "FRIENDS"-referencing call for a tryout with the Detroit Pistons.
However, where it was upper management that took umbrage with P’s pre-season appointment to the Hornets, it was fellow players that Cole had incurred the wrath of. Namely, the BAL’s top scorer and AS Sale point guard Terrell Stoglin.
"I think he took someone's job that deserves it," the former University Of Maryland standout proclaimed. "I live in a basketball world. I don't live in a fan world. The positive side of it is: it brings a lot of attention, and, I guess, money. I don't really pay attention to that type of stuff."
J. Cole attends the Brooklyn Nets v New York Knicks, 2019 - James Devaney/Getty Images
Despite his insistence that he could’ve flourished in a more corporately-incentivized landscape, Master P’s pre-season run at both the Hornets and his 1999 stint at Toronto Raptors were undeniably groundbreaking. And what’s more, Cole’s 5 points, 3 assists and 5 rebounds in his 45-minute tenure at the Rwanda Patriots did nothing to take away from his title of the greatest rap crossover that the NBA has seen.
During his spell at the Raptors, P would net 8 points in their resounding pre-season defeat of the Grizzlies, as well as a further 5 points, 2 rebounds and 4 turnovers. Later, he would go on to rack up appearances in the now defunct CBA and IBL for teams such as Fort Wayne Fury and Long Beach Jam.
Regardless of the fact that he fell short of guiding either of his teams to victory in the Eastern Conference, Master P’s fleeting spell in the NBA accomplished something valuable, in that it is another example of how he reappraised the boundaries of where a rapper could make their presence felt in wider society.
"I view it as I made history," he asserted to Complex. "What other hip-hop [star] or entertainer got that far? I did something."
By daring to try to have it all, Master P empowered a 36-year-old wordsmith to do the same thing. And while some may deride Cole’s performances as underwhelming, his willingness to place himself into the line of fire and succeed or fail on his own merits allows Master P’s "no limit" approach to be re-hosted for a new generation of motivated youths.
"Listen man, I just want to say I'm very proud of what J. Cole is doing," Royce Da 5”9 explained. "He's showing the young kids that look up to him that you don't have to stop at one dream. If you can somehow create enough value for yourself, you can achieve many things and do whatever you want without limits."
With both men taking the circular route to get back to their first love, only time will tell if the Master P model will become an increasingly viable route for MCs who would no longer need to choose between rapping or going to the league. But if it does, it’s only a matter of time until someone manages to excel in both lanes at once.