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
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
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.
Still, the opening game loss haunted Jay-Z, and that was apparent even to his seventeen-year-old point guard. "He hates to lose," says Telfair. Or, as Jay-Z himself says in one song, "I will not lose, ever." Losing as Brathwaite's film cameras rolled was the worst of all. So Jay-Z went to work once again, using his gravitational pull to lure additional reinforcements. One of the first calls went to Jamal Crawford, a talented guard who met Jay-Z through Michael Jordan in 2001 while playing for the Bulls. "Jay called me on the phone and told me that he needed me to come down," Crawford remembers. "The one thing Jay said on the phone was, 'We can't lose.'"
The way Crawford described it, Jay-Z wasn't saying that losing was impossible, rather, that it was too possible, an unthinkable outcome etched into his mind by the opening night loss. He'd entered the EBC to create the best team the tournament had seen, to supercharge his legacy, and to win.
That was the only acceptable result. (In his song "History," he raps, "Rank me among the greats, either one, two, or three /If I ain't number one, then I failed you, victory.") Fortunately, his star power proved contagious. Not only did Crawford happily agree to join the team and fly to New York for the weekly games, the Chicago standout recruited seven-foot teammate Eddy Curry to join as well.
Crawford remembers being uncharacteristically tense the first time he stepped onto the court at the Rucker. "I was so, so nervous. It's different than the NBA," he says. "The fans are right there on you. It's just unbelievable, the atmosphere, you can't duplicate it anywhere." But Crawford soon shook off his jitters. With the two Bulls in Jay-Z's stable, Team S. Carter launched into a winning streak that would take them to the brink of a street ball championship.
On overcast summer evenings in New York, twilight gives way to cloud cover that reflects the pinky-orange glow of a hundred thousand street lamps back at the avenues of the city below. Sidewalks slowly release the heat collected during the day, leaving a soupy shroud of asphalt-smelling warmth just above the street.
The summer of 2003 was packed with those sorts of nights. Electric fans throbbed vainly in open windows above the Rucker as Team S. Carter barreled through the tournament.
Courtside bleachers swelled with fans hoping to see a nasty no-look pass by Telfair, a backboard-bending dunk from Crawford, or, even better, a glimpse of Jay-Z himself.
With the stands packed, some spectators even shimmied into trees overlooking the court to watch, all while Brathwaite's cameras rolled. As the incredible run wore on, the mere sight of the star-packed S. Carter bus was known to cause minor riots wherever it went. Fab recalls the frenzy. "You've got the S. Carter bus, and everybody was like, 'Aaah!' because everybody knew about Jay-Z and the sneaker, and then we'd roll up to the Rucker and everybody'd be like, 'Aaaah!' " he says. "There was so much excitement."
Jay-Z grew close to many of the players on his team, especially James and Crawford, who eventually became a part of the rapper's S. Carter Academy, a Reebok-sponsored cadre of athletes. Members appeared in television commercials with Jay-Z, and although the academy is now defunct, many of the athletes still flash the trademark "Roc" sign, their hands connecting at thumb and forefinger to form a diamond shape, on national television after making spectacular plays.
As general manager of Team S. Carter, he'd contact players personally to make sure they were coming to games, even arranging transportation. "He'd call you, he'd e-mail you," recalls Telfair. "If I couldn't get all the way out there, he'd make sure to have a car come pick me up."
Above all, Telfair marveled at how much time Jay-Z put into the team. "He didn't get any money for this, this was just fun for him," says Telfair. "I can just imagine how serious he is about something that's making millions and millions of dollars."
To be fair, Jay-Z was being compensated in a way that could only be measured in the number of heads-turned-pertrip as the S. Carter bus cruised from Midtown to Harlem, or crowd-volume-per-point-scored by his team at the Rucker.
There was also the marketing component. Fab was impressed by the way Jay-Z was able to go into an edgy tastemaker's mecca like the Rucker, blatantly promote a shoe made by a major corporation for mass consumption, and not be cast as a sellout. Perhaps because of his vivid lyrics and gritty past, he was able to avoid the corporate stigma while promoting his product in tandem with his team at the Rucker. Jay-Z was a sellout in a more favorable way: Reebok sold all five hundred thousand units in the first run of the S. Carter shoe that summer.
Putting together a team of NBA all-stars, renting a tour bus, and hiring Fab to film the whole enterprise was a calculated risk. A tournament victory would bring Jay-Z further street cred, more marketing clout with the consumers to whom he was marketing his shoes, and a victorious feature length documentary from Fab. Team S. Carter clinched a championship showdown with Fat Joe's Terror Squad by early August. With a roster that included Crawford, McGrady, and James, victory seemed all but guaranteed.
As the morning of August 14 faded into the afternoon, the mercury climbed into the mid-90s, promising another heavy New York night at the Rucker for the final game of the season.
Jay-Z had guided his team to the precipice of victory after a summer of scheming, schmoozing, cross-marketing, and testing his skills as a manager.
A few hours before the game, Fab met up with Jay-Z to prepare in the air-conditioned cool of the studio, as usual.
"But this day it was special," remembers Fab. "Because now LeBron was going to play . . . and Shaquille O'Neal was in New York in a hotel as a secret weapon that was going to be brought into the park solo to play for us."
"And while I'm up in the studio, I have my guy plugging in some lights, he was going to interview one of the players, and all the lights go out in the studio. I go, 'What happened?' Then I hear some people upstairs saying there's no lights. I'm like, 'What's going on in the building?' "
The disturbance wasn't unique to the studio. High electrical demand had forced a power plant near Cleveland offline, straining high-voltage rural power lines into a failure that cascaded across the entire electrical grid. The ensuing blackout left some fifty-five million citizens in the United States and Canada without electricity for nearly twenty-four hours. As traffic lights shut down, gridlock engulfed Manhattan.
A deluge of wireless activity briefly rendered cell phones useless. Crawford and Curry were stuck in their hotel rooms. Fab and Jay-Z were stranded downtown, and the other players were scattered across the city. Telfair, who'd shown up early at the Rucker, had to walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Without electricity, there was no way to light the nighttime asphalt at the storied courts.
"It was havoc. There was confusion," says Fab. "Bottom line, no game."
The tournament's organizers rescheduled the game for the following week. But there was a major problem: Jay-Z had already booked a private jet for the next day, August 15, to whisk him and Beyoncé away for a two-week vacation to Europe, one of their first vacations together. They had to be back in New York for the MTV Video Music Awards on August 28 at Radio City Music Hall, where a slew of Beyoncé's videos were up for awards, including "Crazy in Love," featuring Jay-Z. Postponing their departure by a week would cut their vacation from two weeks to four or five days, and with Beyoncé set to start her first solo tour in the fall, there was no time to reschedule. Committed though he was to his basketball team, Jay-Z refused to cancel the trip and risk alienating his superstar girlfriend in what was still an early stage of their relationship.
So when Fab showed up at the Rucker to document the final game the following week without Jay-Z, there was total chaos. "The team showed up but none of the ringers, because it's only Jay that can make those calls and put those guys on flights," he says. "There was a whole confrontation between the manager, the team, and the park guys . . . they decide that the game has been forfeited, and by default Fat Joe wins." When Jay-Z returned from Europe, he told Fab to stop working on the film. The project was dead.
"Jay-Z didn't want to put it out. I didn't want to, you know . . ." says Fab, trailing off. "It's one of those interesting stories." Fab's tapes contain hours upon hours of footage, from candid interactions between Jay-Z and his players to shots of some of the best basketball ever to grace the Rucker. Yet they remain filed away, destined to fall short of the big screen. "Who knows? It could have run the festivals," says Fab. "That was the pinnacle of the Rucker, in that period. It got so big, and that was kind of the crescendo tournament."
So, after a whole summer of meticulously organizing one of the best teams ever to set foot at New York's most famous court this side of Madison Square Garden, why would Jay-Z scuttle the documentary that was going to put it all together?
The answer is simple: he didn't win. Jay-Z said all along that he was only going to do the tournament once, and that he was going to win. And though the final game was never played, the final game was never won, either. He felt that publicizing anything less than victory would somehow taint his legacy despite the other victories notched that summer, buzz, marketing, sneaker sales, and a stronger relationship with his future wife.
He still managed to achieve those goals, even without scoring an official victory in the tournament; what he did win was much more important than what he didn't win. These days, when people talk about the summer of 2003 at Rucker Park, they don't remember that Team S. Carter forfeited the championship game. All they remember is a golden moment on the hallowed blacktop. "Everywhere I go, people still talk about it," says Telfair. "It was a unique time for Rucker basketball. It's always going to have hype, but it will never be done how Jay-Z did it."
It's safe to say that there aren't many who dwell on which team actually won the tournament. Except for maybe Jay-Z.