- After five months of hard work by Michael Rubin and countless others, Meek Mill is finally free. The Crossover provides an inside look into his journey from a jail cell to courtside with the 76ers.
Michael Rubin was sitting in a mahogany leather armchair in his Conshohocken, Pa., office, right leg crossed over left, when the call came. It was 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday, April 24, and for the last hour Rubin had been passionately discussing his involvement in the Meek Mill case. It has been an intimate battle for him, one he says he felt viscerally compelled to support and one that he has spent one-third of his waking hours the last five months fighting. Meek’s lawyers say they haven’t had to set an alarm since the rapper was locked up in November because Rubin will call them every day, first thing in the morning, and ask, “What are we doing to get him out today?”
It all started with what Rubin labels a “wrongful conviction” in 2007. Then, Rubin says, the case was mangled by an overly strict probation officer and “a dirty, corrupt judge who has a vendetta” against Meek and has used minor technical probation violations to continuously extend his probation (now going on 11 years) and keep him in and out of jail.
“I have to interrupt you,” Ron Berkowitz, Rubin’s PR chief, said while walking into the office seemingly stupefied. “He just got, um, bail.”
“Shut the f--- up,” Rubin screamed, jumping out of his seat like a coiled spring shot him skyward. “Are you joking or serious?”
Berkowitz confirmed that he is extremely serious. He just received a call from Desiree Perez at Roc Nation, who had gotten a call from Jordan Sieve, one of Meek’s lawyers. Sieve had received an email from the Supreme Court, an order that stated the rapper was being granted bail.
“Can we go and pick him up right now?” Rubin asked excitedly, while bounding around his office and slapping hands violently with everyone in the room. “I need to call Brian [McMonagle, another of Meek’s lawyers] right now. Get me Brian on the phone. Let me get Meek on the phone. I need to find out how quickly we can get him.”
His phone rang.
“I want him at the game tonight,” he said. “Can I go pick him up or not? Will he be at the game or no?"
He hung up the phone.
“Send a note to everyone at the Sixers,” Rubin said. “Meek will be at the game tonight.”
For the last five months the Philadelphia Sixers co-owner has been both financing and spearheading the very public battle to get the Philadelphia rapper out of prison. Rubin—and countless other politicians, civil rights activists, and criminal justice reform experts—believe that Meek’s case evinces everything that is wrong with the criminal justice system.
In the original case in 2007, a police officer testified that Meek pointed a gun at him during a drug raid of his cousin’s house. Years later, another officer on the scene disputed this account, saying that Meek tossed the gun away. (Meek has never denied having a gun on him—in Philadelphia, illegal carry is only a misdemeanor). Then this February, the arresting officer was found to be on the District Attorney's office secret list of cops that they actively keep off the witness stand due to allegations of "lying, racial bias, or brutality." So Meek’s lawyers filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition to have his original conviction from 2007 overturned. Just last week the DA agreed with that assessment, saying that Meek’s ‘07 charge should be thrown out and recommending that Judge Genece Brinkley should recuse herself from the case. But Brinkley has been obdurate in her refusal to do either. (Meek has claimed that Brinkley once asked him, privately in her chambers, to mention her in a song. Meek says he refused. Brinkey has denied this accusation and has maintained she has committed no error in the case.)
Meek waived a jury trial back in 2007 because of the added cost, and was sentenced by Brinkley to two years in prison and eight years of probation. But since then he’s had several probation violations, which have landed him back in jail, on Brinkley’s orders. Many of them have been benign, mostly violating his restricted travel stipulations when he performed in concerts out of state. The most recent contretemps happened last year—first a fight at an airport in March (Rubin says Meek was simply breaking up the fight) and then an Instagram Live video that caught him popping wheelies on a dirt bike while in New York for an appearance on The Tonight Show. He was arrested the following day by the NYPD for reckless endangerment. Despite his probation officer and the Pennsylvania District Attorney recommending that Meek not serve any jail time, Brinkley sentenced him to two to four years. Rubin was in the courtroom that day in November and says he tried to speak on Meek’s behalf but was ignored by Brinkley. Rubin says Brinkley’s demeanor and behavior in court appalled him to the point of action.
“It was my first time in my 45 years on the planet where I was like, ‘I’m not letting this stand,’ ” he says. “It personally offended me.”
Rubin and Meek first became friends five years ago when they met at an NBA All-Star game and found out that they live about 10 minutes away from each other. Over the last several years, Meek has been a guest of Rubin’s at dozens of Sixers games, sitting courtside next to the owner. As their friendship grew, Meek would tell Rubin that there are two America’s—white America and black—and Rubin never believed him, labeling himself an optimist and admittedly ignorant to the systemic problems that he had never before witnessed first hand. Over the last five months, however, Rubin says, he has told Meek that he was of course wrong and the rapper was right. His friend was proof, and he felt he needed to help him fight the injustice.
“Whenever people asked me for help before, ‘I was like how can I help you financially?’ ” Rubin says. “When it happens to a good friend of yours, you’re like, ‘Ok I have to make a stand.’ Different owners have different levels of social awareness at different times. This is so personal to me. Meek is around me all the time. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I didn’t take a stand for him.”
Rubin says that after being closely involved in the legal battle for five months, he has realized how much unfettered power a judge has, how unjust the system can be. When Meek and Rubin talk during the 15 or so visits the owner has made to the prison, they discuss three things. 1) The Sixers 2) Any updates to Meek’s current legal situation and 3) When he does get out, how can the two of them help fix this pervasive issue. They have formed concrete plans.
“I feel so much compassion for how horrific the situation is that I want to make a difference,” Rubin says. “In some ways it’s good because it’s shining a light on how broken the system is.”
Just two hours before Rubin got the call on Tuesday, he and comedian Kevin Hart had visited Meek in prison, sitting with the rapper in a private room. Rubin has brought several athletes and celebrities to visit Meek over the last several months in hopes of both boosting his spirits and spreading awareness to their plight. In early April, Rubin brought his good friend Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner, to the prison for a visit. Kraft told Meek that the last time he saw him he was on a private plane heading to the NBA All-Star game. Now he’s in jail. How are you in such good spirits? Kraft asked.
“I’ve been on probation since I was 18,” Meek responded. “Been in and out of jail four times. I don’t know any other life.”
On Tuesday’s visit with Hart, however, there was an added sense of optimism. Rubin had been hearing from sources for the last week that Meek could be released any day. They toured Meek’s cell for the first time and Hart, trying to keep the mood light, told him that it wasn’t that bad. He told Meek to keep his head up, that he just has a little more time and he’ll be out soon. Then he reiterated his promise that he’d help him with his movement to fix the criminal justice systems when he eventually got out.
As they said their goodbyes, Meek quietly lamented to Rubin how many days he had spent in county already.
“Man, you can still make tonight’s game,” Rubin responded. “You never know, anything is possible.”
Over the last five months, Meek has shared with Rubin a recurring dream that he has been having recently. In the dream, Meek sees Rubin descending down from the sky in a helicopter, landing next to the prison, and then flying the rapper away. He has told Rubin about this dream on 50 different occasions.
About two hours after Rubin and Hart left the prison, Meek was sitting in his jail cell like he would on any normal Tuesday afternoon. He was watching the news on his tiny handheld television and saw the report that he had been granted bail. "What??" he said out loud, incredulous. His immediate worry, and his lawyers’ worry, and Rubin’s worry was that Brinkley would do everything she could to delay his release until the following morning. Which, Rubin and the lawyers claim, she did. Immediately after Rubin got the initial call, he told McMonagle to get down to the court and don’t leave until the order was signed. Eventually, after more waiting and phone calls and arguing, it was. Meek was free.
“At first it didn’t look like the Judge was going to work to quickly effectuate the order,” McMonagle says. “It was the people in the court system that made sure he got out. They worked tirelessly to compel this. But none of this happens without Mike Rubin. From beginning to end he has supported him financially, emotionally and he motivates the rest of us to be perfect.”
At 4:38 pm, a black 5–seat helicopter landed in a grass field behind Rubin’s office. Rubin had called Sixers majority owner Josh Harris who owns Harrah's casino, directly across the street the street from the prison, and asked for a favor. Meek has this dream, he said, could you make a special arrangement so I could land at the Harrah’s helipad and make it a reality?
Hundreds of fans gathered outside the prison, walking in droves from nearby houses in the neighborhood, driving from out of town and parking on the side of the road or the sidewalk, all races and ages. They stood behind a police barricade, forcing cops to shut down the street to thru-traffic. One young girl in a plaid dress stood on a pile of gravel in a construction zone, twenty feet high, looking out over the scene. Dozens of news cameras filmed as the crowd chanted “Free Meek,” just like they had been doing in Philadelphia for months.
At 6:40 p.m., Meek exited the prison through a back door and was ushered into the back seat of a black Chevy Suburban by Rubin. He was then driven to the Harrah’s helipad, where he exited the car and jogged through the open helicopter doors. They had a playoff game to get to. On the flight over, both men were in a complete daze. Meek asked for his son to come to the game with him, and it was arranged that his mother would drive 7-year-old Papi from his New Jersey home to meet his father. The rapper told Rubin that he knew this day would eventually come, but just didn’t know what day it was coming. He kept repeating one thing over and over: “It’s amazing.”
They landed the helicopter at Penn’s Landing, about 15 minutes away from Wells Fargo Arena. Another Suburban drove the group to the players’ entrance of the arena, arriving at 7:12 p.m., about an hour before tip-off. Meek emerged from the back seat and immediately Rubin’s 12-year-old daughter, Kylie, ran up to give him a hug. “You look like you got taller, Kylie,” Meek said. “Your dad said I’d be back soon.”
Meek is ushered through a hallway, continually pulling up his overly baggy black sweatpants that he wore out of prison. He’s asked about his emotional state. “Feels great,” he says. He’s brought into a training room, where some of the Sixers players are stretching and warming up. He daps up J.J. Redick and Markelle Fultz, who share their congratulations. Then Meek is brought into a locker room, where he immediately goes to the food spread sitting on the counter and grabs a handful of popcorn.
Time is tight before the game and he needs to shower. He grabs body wash from a locker and asks around for flip flops. Size 10 and a half Nike slides are found. As Meek showers, Rubin bounces around the hallway, overcome with emotion, clapping his hands, high-fiving and hugging anyone in his path. Meek emerges from the shower, one towel around his waist, one draped over his shoulders, and sits in a red folding chair. His barber has been brought in for a quick cut before the game. As he holds a red hairdryer over Meek’s head, Kevin Hart flies into the room, blue 76ers jacket on over a white hoodie, as full of energy as you’d expect Kevin Hart to be in this situation.
“How crazy is this,” he says to Meek. Then Hart takes out his phone and goes live on Instagram, spinning the camera around the room with Meek in the background sitting in the chair. “We home,” he says, smiling. “We home. We home. My guy home. I said we home though, Meek.”
Then Hart quickly gets serious and looks into the camera and says, “Meek got fat as sh--.”
Meek is informed that he will be ringing the Sixers ceremonial bell pre-game. Hart warns him not to screw it up. “Don’t mess up with ringing the bell,” Hart says, jokingly. “Don’t drop the bell. All it take is one stupid thing. Ohhhh ohhhhh. Meek dropped the bell.”
“Twenty years to build a reputation,” Meek says. “Ruined in five minutes.”
Several different options of clothing are laid out for Meek to put on for the game. Hart inspects them all. “Making sure they ain’t got him in no bullshit on day one,” he says. He picks up the blue container of Secret women’s deodorant that is laid out for Meek. “This the same shit they had in my jail cell,” Meek says.
Meek gets dressed and several more people pile into the room. Everyone wants to take a picture, including the Villanova men’s basketball team. Rubin, Meek, and Hart sit on a bench off to the corner and take a quiet moment alone. Then Meek puts his arms around both of their shoulders. Someone asks Rubin if the case is over now. “Yeah, it’s over,” he says.
“That’s a real friend,” Meek says.
The group leaves the locker room together to head out to the court, Rubin and Meek out in front. As they walk through the tunnel, the Philadelphia crowd erupts into cheers, fans dangling over the railing to reach out and touch the rapper. Meek, however, is still getting dressed. “Who’s got a belt for Meek?” someone asks, as another hands him a black and a blue Sixers jacket to choose from. One fan holds a “Meek is Free” sign high up overhead. The group makes it way around the court to their seats, slowly, stopping every other step to a new well wisher who wants to hug Meek and offer him congratulations, like a conquering hero, Nostos, Odysseus returning home.
He’s brought out to center court to ring the bell, and heeding Hart’s warning doesn’t screw it up, smacking it three times to deafening cheers as the entire crowd rises out of their seats. Eventually he settles into his courtside seat next to Rubin and Hart, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. He stays seated for most of the game, his son on his lap, as Hart stands beside him cheering on Sixers players and relentlessly heckling the Heat. At halftime, Meek retreats to the owners lounge with his son by his side. More fans reach over the railing. Another hundred VIPs await in the lounge with more adoration, passing phones around and asking others to snap photos of them with their arm around Meek.
Eventually they head back to the court to watch the Sixers pull away in the second half and close out the series, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012. After the game, Meek gets hugs from players on both teams as Joel Embiid lifts Hart off the ground and overhead in celebration. Rubin and Meek retreat back into the bowels of the stadium. Soon they head out to dinner together at Buddakan, an Asian-fusion restaurant that stayed open late for the group. Embiid, Ben Simmons and Justin Anderson join the two at the otherwise empty restaurant. Meek orders sea bass, because he and Rubin have both been jokingly telling each other that they are looking fat.
They know the case is not yet fully finished, they know there is another hearing set for June 18 and that Judge Brinkley is still fighting to get Meek back into jail. They know there is a lot of work left to do. Even once the case is resolved or dismissed, Rubin and Meek have long discussed what their next steps will be to continue to fight for criminal justice reform. They plan to launch a foundation to focus immediately on how you can change probation laws so that technical violations like popping a wheelie on a dirt bike doesn’t get you sent back to jail. Meek has told Rubin countless times that there are hundreds of thousands of people in jail right now facing the same thing that he is, but they don’t have the fame and attention. Both men feel that they have a responsibility to help make a difference.
But around that table, as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning, the men sat and celebrated both the Sixers series win and the long awaited return home of Meek Mill. They dined and drank and laughed until 2:30 in the morning.
“It was just a lot of love,” Rubin says. “A family that finally feels united.”