The signings start: Jimmy Butler joins the Miami Heat, and Toronto bids farewell to Kawhi Leonard
Drake, the Toronto native and Raptors fan, has spent the 2019 playoffs blurring the line between superfan and millionaire mascot by giving Raptors coach Nick Nurse massages on the sideline, talking trash to Golden State Warriors stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and trolling opposing fans with Instagram posts. His prominence as a celebrity “ambassador” is a watershed moment for the intersection of rap music and sports.
While this all seems pretty outrageous, it’s not unprecedented. Just 11 years ago, LeBron James and Jay-Z teamed up to take on … DeShawn Stevenson and Soulja Boy in a bizarre, hilarious feud that’s a time capsule for pop culture in 2008.
After James had terrorized Washington Wizards to the tune of 32.7 points, 6.6 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs (besides a timely game-winner in Game 3 of the 2006 series), the Wizards needed any advantage they could get if they wanted to overthrow the King. That’s where Stevenson comes in. The shooting guard was in his eighth year by the time the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers met for the third time in the first round, and he decided that getting into James’ head would be his best move.
After a 101-99 regular-season win on March 13, 2008, Stevenson had this bit of trash talk for James: “He’s overrated. And you can say I said that.”
When the first-round playoff matchup between the fourth-seeded Cavs and fifth-seeded Wizards was set, the Stevenson quote came back up. James responded by saying … he wasn’t going to respond. When asked, he said, “With DeShawn Stevenson, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like Jay-Z [responding to a negative comment] made by Soulja Boy. It doesn’t make sense to respond.”
A bit of context: Soulja Boy mastered the burgeoning world of social media by uploading his songs to MySpace and Napster to create a buzz for himself. His hit “Crank That” created an international dance craze and was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks in fall 2007. The song was not a lyrical masterpiece: “Yeah, watch me crank that Robocop/ Super fresh, now watch me jock/Jocking on them haters, man.”
Jay-Z, on the other hand, was, and still is, maybe the greatest rapper of all time, a lyrical wizard with multiple classic albums and a rap empire at his feet. He and James struck up a kinship in the player’s rookie year, partly because they shared the DNA of being heirs apparent to greatness: Jay-Z following in The Notorious B.I.G.’s footsteps after his death in 1997 and James being the next Michael Jordan after His Airness’ 2003 retirement. (There was also one other detail: Jay-Z was a minority owner of the New Jersey Nets and may or may not have wanted to court a certain all-time great to the team.) Regardless, James’ meaning was clear — he and Jay-Z were elite and Stevenson and Soulja Boy were one-hit wonders.
Stevenson took James’ comment as a chance to add some spice to the playoffs. When the series went back to Washington for Game 3, Soulja Boy was seated behind one of the baskets. (He may not have had the sauce of someone like Drake to get seats near the bench.) Throughout the game, Soulja Boy was waving towels and doing his Crank That dance. Even Washington’s Caron Butler took a moment to do the dance after a foul. Whatever mojo Soulja Boy offered worked that day, as the Wizards won 108-72.
It was a cute story that could have ended there. But Jay-Z must have felt the need to defend his buddy, and his flair for the dramatic was on full display. Jay-Z was in Oakland, California, performing when the James/Stevenson/Soulja Boy fracas was going down, and he played Oakland, California, legend Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” and shouted-out the MC. The crowd erupted, and Jay-Z got the idea to rap over the instrumental.
“LeBron was special to him,” Too $hort said in 2017. “And ol’ boy [Stevenson] stepped on LeBron’s toes talking s— and Jay was like, I’m going to shut this down. And he probably saw the moment where the crowd reacted to the song and then that was on his mind.”
So Jay-Z asked Too $hort for the instrumental. “When Jay called, I was like, ‘It will be there in a couple of hours, man.’ I had no idea what he was going to do with it, but I am glad he did.”
The next night, as Wizards players were partying at the D.C. nightclub Love, the DJ debuted a Jay-Z song rapping over Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle” instrumental: “Ask my n—- LeBron! We so big we ain’t gotta respond … Who the f— overrated?! If anything they underpaid him. Hatin that’s only gonna make him spend the night out of spite with the chick you’ve been datin’.” Without mentioning Stevenson or Soulja Boy, the intent was clear.
The series went six games, with the overrated James averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. (Stevenson averaged 12.3 points.) Stevenson would eventually find himself on the winning side three years later when his Dallas Mavericks (well, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks) bested James and the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals. While winning a championship is all good, hundreds of players have won rings. However, not many can say they were dissed by Jay-Z in a song. That moment defined Stevenson’s career almost as much as his championship.
The Warriors aren’t without their own contingent of rap stars who will be waving towels in Oracle Arena come Game 3. From E-40 to Too $hort and even MC Hammer, the Bay Area hip-hop scene is ready to lend support and maybe its own batch of troll-y Instagram posts.
Drake’s relationship with the Warriors seems a bit more amicable than that between the parties involved in the 2008 feud. But as the series progresses and the trash talk ramps up, we may yet see a magical musical moment in this NBA Finals. If it’s anything like Jay-Z’s effort, it could be the stuff of legend.
Live in the moment. It’s a motto that many preach and few actually practice. But Dwyane Wade isn’t most people. His season-long #OneLastDance is proof: a case study, actually, in gratitude and the importance of being present. Tuesday night, the icon who took his talents to Miami in 2003, where he has played with the Heat for all but 1½ seasons — takes to the court for his final regular-season home game.
There are two ways to view Wade’s career. One is via the sheer audacity of his accomplishments.
He will have scored more than 23,000 points.
He is a 13-time All Star, and the 2010 All-Star Game MVP.
Wade is a 2008 Olympic Gold medalist and eight-time All-NBA selection.
That he is a three-time All-Defensive selection could have something to do with the fact that, in terms of guards, Wade is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocks.
All of which provides context for him being a three-time NBA champion and the 2006 Finals MVP. Wade is quite simply the greatest shooting guard of all time — not named Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
The second way to appreciate Wade is through the prism of the cultural impact he’s had on professional basketball, and on the world around him. There’s his very public journey of fatherhood — including his recent extended paternity leave. Wade as wielding his voice and platform in this new golden era of player social activism. Married to actor, author, and philanthropist Gabrielle Union he is one-half of a power couple with global influence. Wade’s fashion risks and fashion firsts are indelible. And, of course, there is Wade’s critical role in forming and preserving the 2010-14 Miami Heat — the team that unequivocally changed the look, the feel, the style and bravado of NBA basketball ever after.
But now, after 16 campaigns, it’s over. Wade’s farewell has been the NBA’s finest storyline of the 2018-19 season. “This year has allowed me just to play and be free and not really care,” Wade told me in February. “If I score 22, if I score two — I’m enjoying the process … this journey, that I’m ending … It really allows me to live in the moment and just enjoy it all. Normally as an athlete you don’t get to.”
I joined Wade at three of his last NBA games. On March 22, Miami was at Milwaukee, near where he played college ball. As a player, he stepped on court at New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the last time on March 30. And then there was his last game at American Airlines Arena on April 9 against Philadelphia. One last ride.
CHAPTER ONE: THE WARM-UP
MILWAUKEE — Now head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, former Marquette Golden Eagles coach Tom Crean has witnessed the legend of Dwyane Wade several times. There was the 2001 31-point explosion against Tennessee in The Great Alaska Shootout. Then there was the victory two nights later against Indiana. But the moment? The one that put an entire country on notice? That’s Feb. 27, 2003, when Wade, Crean and No. 10 Marquette, on the road, defeated No. 11 Louisville.
“[Dwyane] makes a move in front of our bench,” says Crean. “He starts out on a drive so it’s on the left wing, behind the 3-point line. … He gets a dribble out in front of him, he lifts the guy, does a spin dribble, OK?” Excitement rises in Crean’s voice. “[Wade] spin dribbles, shot fakes, lifts the guy and shoots it off the backboard … basically beat three people to the rim.”
Sportscaster Dick Vitale, per usual, couldn’t contain himself. This was the same year high school phenom LeBron James was a one-man sports news cycle. The year Carmelo Anthony’s freshman season at Syracuse was the college hoops storyline. But now a new name was tossed to the hysteria and into one of the best draft classes in NBA history.
And the Miami Heat were anxious to find its next star. “[Everyone in the Heat organization] ended up watching … all of his tournament games to prepare for the draft,” says Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, sitting on the scorers table after shootaround last month. Miami was set to play Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks that night. In 2003, Spoelstra was a Heat coaching assistant. “They were super well-coached,” Spoelstra says. “And Dwyane made you watch that team.”
Walk into the Al McGuire Center on Marquette’s campus and the first face you see is Wade’s. A large portrait commemorating the school’s Final Four run, with Wade as its centerpiece, sits beside Marquette legends such as Bo Ellis, Jim Boykin, Maurice Lucas and Dean Meminger. The 3,700-seat arena is quiet in late March, as both the men’s and women’s teams are at the NCAA tournament. Wade’s presence, though, is everywhere.
There is “M Club” Hall of Fame induction in 2009. His place on the Walk of Champions. A large banner pays him homage in the actual gym. Wade courses through the veins of Marquette. Some students walk across campus in his college jersey. There’s excitement in the air. Wade and the Heat are coming to town — it’s his last time playing in the city that still claims him as its own.
There’s an upbeat vibe at Fiserv Forum the morning of March 22. The Heat are holding a shootaround as The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s the Same Old Song” bleed into Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Maybe it’s a Pat Riley call. He is a child of Motown, after all.
Some players are getting up shots. But Wade’s knees are already iced as he sits courtside behind the basket. Almost directly above him hangs his No. 3 Marquette jersey. He’s having fun talking to the media, and he smiles when the Ja Morant comparisons come up. A day earlier, Morant dropped a triple-double (as Wade did in ’03, and as only eight others have done in the NCAA tournament) in Murray State’s first-round win over, poetically, Marquette. “He’s special for real,” Wade said. “[He] definitely gave me flashbacks.”
Wade’s eyes glisten when I mention the name Gaulien “Gee” Smith. He’s owner of Gee’s Clippers Barber and Beauty Salon on Milwaukee’s Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, where Wade got his hair cut while in college. Gee, who has cut the hair of more than 200 NBA players, including Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen, recalls Wade as a soft-spoken, respectful guy whom he held out as special. “I told him [at Skybox Sports Bar across the street],” Gee says, “ ‘Man, I knew you would be great. But I’ma be honest with you, I had no idea you would be who you are today.’ ” Wade beams at the memory.
Udonis Haslem, who entered the NBA in 2003 with Wade, returns to the court and looks over at Wade, whom he considers more than a brother. “This is … the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Haslem. “I’m living through him and his happiness. I’m enjoying all this as a friend. Real friends enjoy seeing their friends happy.”
Heat fans have piled into the Bucks’ home arena to watch the Eastern Conference’s top squad play the Heat. The past 20 years of Wade’s basketball life are on people’s chests and backs: Marquette jerseys, Olympic jerseys, Chicago Bulls jerseys, even a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. But overwhelmingly it’s about that Heat No. 3 jersey in all of its hues.
Fans Felix and Linda have made the 80-mile trek from the capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, to Milwaukee for the moment. “This is his home! Even though he’s in Miami for now,” Linda says, not even trying to hide her sarcasm. “He’ll always be welcome here.”
“It means a lot to see him in his last game here,” says Felix. “The things he does in the community off the court outweighs what he does on the court. Everybody knows he’s a great player, but he’s also a great human being. That’s the sad part about seeing him hanging up his sneakers.”
It’s a common sentiment at Fiserv all night. Midway through the first quarter, during a timeout, highlights of Wade’s March Madness run splash across the JumboTron and elicit a standing ovation. “This,” a man yells from the stands, “made me a basketball fan.”
When Wade checks in with 4:41 left in the first, an even louder ovation erupts. Wade’s 12 points, though, do little to prevent the inevitable: The Heat — in a royal rumble with Orlando, Brooklyn and Detroit for three of the East’s final three seeds — lose 116-87. But the moment was bigger than the game. Both Milwaukee All-Stars, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, swapped jerseys with Wade after the game. His who’s who of jersey swappers this year includes LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others.
“He is definitely a mentor, somebody I watch from afar,” Middleton said after the game. “[He’s] one of my favorite players growing up. Still one of my favorite players to this day.”
In the locker room, Wade sits on a chair with his shirt off and a gold chain around his neck with a throng of reporters around him. “I have no regrets,” he says of his farewell tour. Those who came out to see him don’t have regrets either. Pride is mixed with sorrow. Honor is in bed with sadness.
“I just know,” Linda says, “I’ma miss him.”
Crean, Wade’s coach at Marquette, has a theory about why the star’s connection to the area runs so deep. It’s not about the highlights, or the notoriety both men brought to Marquette in the early 2000s. It’s not even about what they did in the spring of 2003. It’s about the soul of a man.
“He never, ever stopped caring about Marquette or Milwaukee even after [we] left,” Crean says. “It never stopped being his home. It never stopped being his school. … He’s incredibly loyal to his friends, his family, his community. … He gets it.”
PART TWO: DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY
NEW YORK — It didn’t take long for Wade to have his first Madison Square Garden moment. Or, in other words, rip the hearts out of New York Knicks fans. The date was March 15, 2005, and with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Wade, Shaquille O’Neal and the 49-16 Heat were tied at 96 with the 26-35 Knicks.
Double-teamed by Stephon Marbury and Kurt Thomas, Wade (then known as “Flash” in his second NBA season) turned the ball over, giving the Knicks a chance at pulling off the upset. Thomas missed a baseline jumper, allowing Wade to pull down his third and final rebound of the game — thus setting him up for the final shot. Moments later, Wade called for iso far beyond the top of the key. A hard drive left. A vicious step-back jumper. Nothing but the bottom of the net. Heat win 98-96.
The Heat’s shootaround takes place at NYC’s Basketball City. It sits on the East River with a clear view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and the Statue of Liberty. Some players are getting shots up. Others have side conversations with coaches. The energy is calm and inviting as media types surround Wade. He’s wearing a black Heat sweatsuit — and what appear to be Uggs.
“Besides playing at home, [Madison Square Garden] is my favorite place to play,” Wade says. “It’s a lot of great arenas in the NBA, but there’s something about MSG that’s … special. … Heat Nation is strong here, so we always have a home crowd kinda feel. It’s the lights. It’s the way the floor is lit. It’s everything.”
Wade is balancing reflection and being in the moment. The night is largely about him — he’s the third-leading active non-Knick scorer at MSG, behind LeBron James and Vince Carter. Yet, for Wade, the night is more about the playoff push. The Heat at the time were still clawing for their postseason lives — and, at press time, still are. Wade is as mild-mannered as they come in the NBA, but it’s clear that questions about Knicks coach and close friend Dave Fizdale’s ability to lead his team out of a perpetual state of rebuilding begins to annoy him. Wade’s professional career began in the Garden at the 2003 NBA draft, but in March 2019 at MSG, he had not retired yet.
Much like in Milwaukee, and at other stops this season, droves of fans arrive in Wade-associated paraphernalia. One such Heat fan, sporting the statement pink Wade jersey, walks around a concourse in full Braveheart mode, high-fiving and hugging any other Heat fan he sees. “Let’s go Heat!” he belts out. “Let’s go Wade!”
Other fans couldn’t let Wade leave New York without saying goodbye.
“I’ve only seen him once,” says New Jersey native and die-hard Wade fan Ahmed Doumani. “I can’t have him retire without seeing him again.”
Celebrities also pile up at MSG for Wade. Tennis great John McEnroe, actor John Turturro, New York Jets Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and Kansas City Chiefs MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes are all in attendance. The most important courtside seat though, as it relates to Wade, is that of his wife, Gabrielle Union.
“It’s so nice to see him appreciate [this final season],” Union said during an in-game interview. “They say give people their flowers while they can still appreciate it, and the NBA has just done a tremendous job [of that].”
Midway through the first, Wade walks to the scorers table to check in. The groundswell of energy, anticipation and gratitude is gargantuan. Hairs rise on the back of necks. Goose bumps have nothing to do with the air conditioning. Fizdale, who spent eight seasons as an assistant and associate head coach in Miami, paid homage to his former player from the Jumbotron and had more to say after the game.
“I’ve learned more from him than he has from me, for sure,” Fizdale said. “When he says he’s your friend, he’s going to be there for you. He’s been there for me every step of the way. He is one of the greatest guards that has ever played this game.”
Every time Wade touched the ball at MSG, the crowd cheered. He received “MVP” chants when he went to the free throw line — perhaps the lone accomplishment not on his career portfolio. The Knicks offense stalled in the second, allowing Miami to push ahead for good. This allowed Knicks fans to focus on what’s really important.
“Thank you, D-Wade, for whooping our a– one more time!” one fan behind press row yelled. “We’re one step closer to Zion [Williamson]!”
Wade finished with 16 points and seven assists in a 100-92 victory — although the crowd would’ve much rather preferred for it to be 18 points. A called offensive foul on Wade in a missed alley-oop drew the biggest boos of the night — from Heat and Knicks fans. After the game, hundreds of fans stuck around to take in Wade’s final moments in the Garden. New York has never had an issue with telling opponents off. It’s an unforgiving fan base. But if the city respects you, they’ll love you forever.
“Gotta pay respect,” a Knicks fan says, patting his young son on the head, “to one of the GOATs.”
Chants of “One more year!” ride shotgun with “D-Wade!” And as a shoeless Wade finally runs off the court, he’s showered with one last ovation. Inside the locker room, Wade, in a pink “Play Make Her” hoodie (a fund launched by the Entertainment Industry Foundation to empower women in the sports industry) is looking forward to summing up the night.
“I’ll be here, I’m sure, a few other times in my life. But as a player … it’s your last time, you just enjoy it,” he says. “The fans staying around after was so cool. You expect that at home, but on the road you don’t expect it.”
As the locker room clears, Wade is smiling. It’s almost over. He taps me on my shoulder. He’s seen me at many of these stops. “See you in the next city, bro.” He takes pictures with two kids — one in a Heat jersey and another in a Knicks jersey. Then he’s off into the New York night, hand in hand with Union, as hundreds of fans wait near the team bus hoping for one last glimpse of a legend.
PART THREE: VICTORY LAP
MIAMI — “Feed him the rock,” the man says, a grin overtaking the real estate of his face. Decked in a white Wade jersey and Miami Heat hat, he takes a couple of pulls from his cigarette and carries on with another guy doing the same. “He can beat Kobe’s 60.Why not? It’s his last home game. It’s what everybody’s here for right?”
Miami knew this day would come. Erik Spoelstra made a vow to Wade (and to himself) at Wade’s home last summer when he learned this would be the superstar’s final run. “I just wanted to enjoy all these moments and be present. Not think about when it’s over, or next year,” the Heat head coach said. “I wanted to [do] everything we could to make sure it was as he imagined.”
Dwyane Wade’s final home game was the topic around the city all day Tuesday. Miami is fiercely protective of Wade, and for a certain generation of south Florida sports fans, Wade is not just one of the greats. He’s the greatest.
“For really anyone 40 and under, he’s the symbol of sports excellence in Miami,” says columnist and 5ReasonsSports.com podcast host Alphonse Sidney. “We’re too young for the 1972 Dolphins. We were in elementary school or not alive even when [Dan] Marino was elite. We’ve seen two Marlins championships, but we never really had a chance to fawn over those teams because as soon as we won the championship they were gone.” He pauses momentarily. “When it comes to elite athleticism, elite players, superstars who are a symbol of a team and a community, it’s Dwyane Wade and really no one else.”
“Dwyane Wade represents us Miamians in a way no other South Florida sports figure has,” says Maria Cabré, head of operations at J Wakefield Brewing. “He [just] gets it — a balance of humility and ego and forward thinking yet rooted in tradition. [Miami] will always be his home.”
Inside American Airlines Arena is a celebration fit for a king. “L3GACY” shirts are placed on every seat in the arena — which is filled long before tip off. Dwyane Wade highlights run in an unapologetic loop on any and every screen. The entire arena chants for some 10 minutes before tipoff.
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
We want Wade!
There are clips and voiceovers from Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Gabrielle Union. A deafening roar erupts when Pat Riley declares, “This will be Wade County forever!”
On a night defined by emotions and immortalized by beauty, Wade’s oldest son Zaire introduced his father in a moment best described as surreal. “That one almost got me,” Wade quipped in a hallway after the game.
Following roughly 20 minutes of pre-game Wade-themed nostalgia, and a speech from the man of the hour, an actual basketball game took place. Though it was more like glorified scrimmage with the Philadelphia 76ers seemingly content with having the best seat in the house for Wade’s final Florida farewell. Spoelstra said following the game the decision to start Wade was a “no brainer.”
And, fittingly, with Chris and Adrienne Bosh, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Tim Hardaway and more courtside and nearby, the first bucket of the game was a dunk from No. 3. Everything Wade did Tuesday night — scoring, assists, rebounds, waves to the crowd — elicited thundering ovations. Everyone was soaking up the moment, even those in press row.
During timeouts, the video tributes continued. Derek Jeter’s was booed. NBA commissioner Adam Silver saluted Wade, telling him Springfield, Massachusetts was his next stop. As did his mother (Jolinda), father (Dwyane Sr.), sister (Tragil) and nephew (Dahveon). “You’ve given me the biggest gift you could ever give any of your fans,” Gabrielle Union says in hers. “Your heart.” Zaire returned on screen to thank his father for giving him a blueprint for how to live life both on and away from the court. His youngest son Zion, who participated in the Miami Beach Pride march on Sunday, had but one request for his dad. “Don’t lose your last home!” The biggest ovation was reserved for President Barack Obama. Via video he saluted Wade for a career well-played.
“Now, I know what you’re going through because saying goodbye to a career that you love is never easy. I’ve been there,” Obama said. “In my case though, I didn’t really have a choice. My knees were shot so I had to give up basketball forever.”
News about Magic Johnson stepping away from the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t derail what was instantly one of the most special nights in South Florida history, and the Detroit Pistons’ comeback victory over Memphis, officially eliminating the Heat from the playoffs, didn’t dampen a parade 16 seasons in the making. A truly special sequence in the fourth quarter soon ignites. The game was already decided. The crowd had already erupted into another “We want Wade!” chant. Then Wade and fellow Miami favorite Udonis Haslem checked into the game together.
Dwyane Wade went full Dwyane Wade one last time. A turnaround fadeaway from nine feet. Then a three pointer that turned the arena on its collective head in euphoria. Then another three pointer. Then a 23-foot step back jumper that prompted his wife Gabrielle Union to slap him on the butt as he ran by. And then three minutes later, another three.
All in all, Dwyane Wade closed out his career with 30 points, including 14 in the final frame. And the 20,153 in attendance managed to squeeze in “Paul Pierce sucks” chant for good measure.
As the clock ran to triple zeros, the moment had finally set in. An era was over. Wade saved his most personal jersey exchanges for last. He swapped jerseys with his entire team. Then Zaire. The most personal swap was with No. 11 Heat jersey with “Hank” on the back. This was a homage to Henry Thomas, D-Wade’s late agent who became far more than just that over the course of his career. Wade credited Thomas, who passed away from neuromuscular disease in 2018, for molding him into the man he became after leaving Marquette.
“Wade County,” Dwyane said to the hundreds of fans who stayed long after the final whistle blew, “I love you.”
Following the final press conference of his career in Miami, Wade, in a red suit and sneakers, holding his daughter, left the building — no shirt under the blazer. Friends and family members follow him as he shows his daughter pictures of himself on the wall. Union soon joins them. This is how Wade wanted it to end. On his own terms celebrating with those he loves most.
It feels like just yesterday that he, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were covering Sports Illustrated with the tagline “The New Era.” And now, Dwyane Wade is no longer in the NBA. Wade valued his career. And he walked out of American Airlines Arena at close to midnight one final time knowing that an entire fanbase, an entire city — and an entire generation — did, as well.
A week has passed since Ermias Asghedom — aka the Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle — was shot and killed in the parking lot outside of his clothing store in Los Angeles. He was 33. The painful loss of Hussle, whose legacy transcends music, has resonated with many, and that’s because he was also an entrepreneur, a community leader, a loving partner, a father and much more. Notably, condolences have come from the NBA community, which had embraced Hussle as an avid fan and courtside stalwart.
“So so SAD man!! DAMN man this hurt,” tweeted LeBron James, minutes after Hussle’s death was reported on March 31. Days later, the King pulled up to Staples Center (where a memorial service will be held for Hussle on Thursday) repping Nip before the Lakers faced the Golden State Warriors in their first home game following the tragedy. James wore a T-shirt featuring the cover illustration from Nipsey’s 2013 compilation albums, Nip Hussle the Great Vols. 1 & 2.
LeBron came to Staples Center wearing a Nipsey shirt pic.twitter.com/NzR3lHuNKv
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 5, 2019
James was far from the first in the NBA to pay his respects. Across the league, a collection of players, and even a coach turned to their sneakers and other team paraphernalia to honor Hussle with handwritten messages, lyrics from his songs and custom art. Whether created with a Sharpie, or paint, shoes became the go-to form of expressing sympathy. Here are 14 NBA sneaker tributes spotted last week.
Montrezl Harrell & Lou WIlliams
Rest in peace, Nipsey Hussle. pic.twitter.com/SgxhQ16Zi9
— x – LA Clippers (@LAClippers) April 1, 2019
Hours after Hussle was killed, the Los Angeles Clippers had a game at Staples Center against the Memphis Grizzlies. Fourth-year Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell wanted to ensure that the organization — one of two NBA franchises, along with the Lakers, that play in Nip’s hometown of L.A. — acknowledged him in the arena on the night his life ended. He reached out to team officials and requested a video tribute that played at both the start and end of the evening. Harrell also asked for a custom jersey to be made with “HUSSLE” printed on the back overtop of his No. 5. During the game, Harrell wore a pair of Reebok Questions on which he wrote, “R.I.P. Nipsey — 8/15/85-3/31/19.” Clippers sixth man Lou Williams also penned “Money Making NIP” on his pair of Peak Streetball Masters. “For [Hussle’s] life to be taken, basically where he was born and raised, it’s tough,” Harrell told reporters after the game. “It’s a sad day, man.”
In December 2017, about a month before he became a brand ambassador for Puma, Hussle appeared in a Foot Locker x Jordan Brand commercial alongside 2014 NBA champion and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The day after Nip’s death, Leonard honored his fellow L.A. native on a pair of his New Balance OMN1s by adding “IP” after the brand’s block “N” logo to spell Nip. On the midsole of his left shoe, the Toronto Raptors All-Star forward also included “All Money In” — the name of Hussle’s record label, and the shortened version of his mantra, “All Money In, No Money Out.”
On his final night playing the Celtics at Boston’s TD Garden, the soon-to-be-retired Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade wrote “Nipsey Hussle — Rest in Heaven” with a Sharpie on the left shoe of a pair of his Li-Ning Way of Wade 7s. Wade intentionally wore blue and yellow sneakers to represent the colors of Crenshaw High School, located in the neighborhood where Hussle grew up and endlessly repped in through his music and clothing line.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 3, 2019
Before every game no matter what, Russell Westbrook writes the initials of his childhood friend and high school teammate Khelcey Barrs III, who died during a pickup game in 2004 at the age of 16. Westbrook recently lost another friend in Hussle, who helped the star Oklahoma City point guard and his Why Not? Foundation give back to the community in their hometown of Los Angeles on Thanksgiving in 2016. (There’s also a photo of Westbrook and Hussle embracing on the court at Staples Center during 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend in L.A.) Ahead of a game against the Lakers on April 2 — Westbrook’s first time playing since Hussle was killed — he neatly jotted “NH Nip” next to “KB3” on his pair of Pokemon-inspired player exclusive (PE) Why Not Zer0.2s. Westbrook rapped the words from Hussle’s 2018 track “Grinding All My Life” on the bench before taking the court and having himself a historic night with 20 points, 21 assists and 20 rebounds. He became only the second player in NBA history, and first since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, to put up a 20-20-20 stat line. And of course, Westbrook dedicated the performance to one person. “That wasn’t for me,” he said after the game. “That was for Nipsey, man.”
Westbrook wasn’t the only player to commemorate Hussle on a pair of shoes at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena two days after his death. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also wrote “Rest Easy Nipsey” on his Nike KD 11s.
Both Nip and Toronto Raptors guard Danny Green were ambassadors for the German sportswear brand Puma. So it was only right that Green used a black pair of Puma Clyde Courts as a canvas to pay tribute to “Ermias Asghedom,” which he wrote under “R.I.P” on the outside of his left shoe for a game against the Brooklyn Nets. Green also penned Hussle’s full name on the other shoe in Tigrinya — the official language of Eritrea — as a nod to the late rapper’s African roots.
Back-to-back games for the San Antonio Spurs allowed four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, to honor Nip twice. And he did so fittingly with editions of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s signature Nikes. For a game against the Atlanta Hawks on April 2, DeRozan wrote “Crenshaw” on a pair of Kobe 11s before taking the court the next night vs. the Nuggets with “RIP NIP VICTORY LAP” scribed on a pair of Kobe 4 Protros. DeRozan showed the utmost respect to his fallen L.A. brother, who often expressed how much he loved the NBA star’s game.
— Complex Sneakers (@ComplexSneakers) April 4, 2019
In April 2017, while playing for the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas wrote messages on a pair of Nike Kobe A.Ds to grieve the horrific loss of his sister Chyna, who was killed in a one-car accident at the age of 22. “When I got the news yesterday before the game it reminded me when I got the news about my sister,” Thomas wrote in an Instagram post after Hussle was killed. Now a member of the Denver Nuggets, Thomas was a huge fan of the West Coast rapper, who shared a mutual admiration for the 5-foot-9-inch point guard. Just last year, Bleacher Report detailed how the careers of both Thomas and Hussle took off around the same time. Similar to how he remembered his sister on the court two years ago, Thomas paid tribute to Nip on his Nike Kobe 4 Protros during Denver’s April 2 game against the Spurs (the same night DeRozan inked up the same shoes). It’s also worth noting that Thomas’ last five Instagram posts have all been dedicated to Hussle.
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 4, 2019
Irv Roland, a player development coach for the Houston Rockets, and the personal trainer of reigning NBA MVP James Harden, commissioned sneaker artist Cory Bailey, aka Sierato, to craft a custom pair of Nipsey Hussle-themed Adidas Harden Vol. 3s. Roland wore them when the Rockets played the Clippers in L.A. on April 3. Here’s a dope video in which Sierato shows his process of painting the shoe that feature two hand-drawn portraits of Nip:
Heroes get remembered, but like second-year Milwaukee Bucks forward D.J. Wilson wrote on the side of his Nike Kobe A.Ds before an April 4 game against the Philadelphia 76ers — “Legends neva Die!!!” He also added “Long Live Nip” and “TMC,” which stands “The Marathon Continues,” Hussle’s oft-used motto and the name of a mixtape he dropped in 2011.
Another Nipsey Hussle tribute by another Puma athlete. This time it came on the brand’s latest basketball sneaker — named the Uproar Spectra — which Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown helped debut on NBA hardwood in the lead-up to the April 12 release. “Rest up Nip,” Sterling Brown wrote on one shoe. “Salute.”
Sierato followed up the pair he did for Roland with a custom job on some Nike PG 2.5s for Golden State Warriors forward Jordan Bell. Nip would’ve loved that blue.
Spencer Dinwiddie collaborated with Troy Cole, an artist known in the sneaker world as Kickasso, for a custom pair of the Brooklyn Nets sixth man’s own brand of K8IROS shoes, which were painted beautifully with illustrations of Hussle. Dinwiddie is a part of the long list of NBA players who hail from Los Angeles. So when he shared photos of the shoes on social media, he made his connection to both the city and Nip known. “Fun fact,” Dinwiddie wrote in an Instagram post. “We went to the same grade school .”
No NBA player shared a bond with Hussle quite like Houston Rockets star James Harden. Back in October 2016, when he returned to his hometown for a matchup with the Lakers at Staples, Hussle came through to support, wearing a pair of Harden’s first signature sneakers to the game. Less than two years later, on the night Harden was named the 2018 NBA MVP, Hussle joined him to celebrate, taking Instagram videos with the man of the hour and his new trophy. They both deemed each other L.A. legends, so when the news of Nip’s death reached Harden, he was devastated. “It doesn’t seem real,” said Harden after the Rockets played the Clippers in L.A. on April 3. That night, he wore a gold pair of his Harden Vol. 3s, on which he wrote a few Nip-inspired messages, including the word “Prolific,” a reference to opening of the 2018 track “Victory Lap” — I’m prolific, so gifted / I’m the type that’s gon’ go get it. Harden rapped the line in the tunnel of the arena before taking the floor and dropping a game-high 31 points. During a postgame interview, one reporter asked Harden about his Instagram post from the previous day that featured a photo of him and Hussle with the caption, “BRO!!!! Where did you go?? We had some s— we was working on!!!! Please don’t leave. ON GOD imma make sure I finish what we started.” What did Harden mean? What exactly were they working on together? “You’ll see,” he responded.
From celebrity basketball games to Los Angeles Lakers games with Young Jeezy and YG, Nipsey Hussle was an unabashed lover of basketball and a huge fan of his hometown team. Legendary Laker and current president of the franchise’s basketball operations, Magic Johnson, mourned Hussle yesterday. “I was so proud of Nipsey Hussle,” Johnson wrote on Instagram, “who became an astute businessman and created jobs for people who lived in South Central.”
The relationship between the game and the Grammy Award-nominated Hussle was deep: He performed at halftime at the Staples Center; helped Russell Westbrook‘s foundation at Thanksgiving; partied with James Harden and Baron Davis (and Odell Beckham Jr.); and refurbished, with Puma, a basketball court in his own beloved Crenshaw neighborhood.
Most indelible, though, are the many images of Hussle and his longtime partner, Lauren London, sitting courtside at Lakers games. They seemed a kind of royalty, yes, but more like good people who made good with their creative work — people who’d created a family with each other. In these troubled times, the couple modeled for us a deep, fun and glamorous love. And then Hussle would stand to chop it up with Denzel Washington, or some other legend.
On Monday night, Hussle’s name was scrawled on the sneakers of NBA players across the league. In remembrance. The sadness and disbelief continue. As Johnson himself said: “Nipsey Hussle’s legacy will last forever.”
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In memory of a man that was so much more than an artist. He was a businessman, philanthropist, father and protector of his community. But most of all he was an inspiration to us all. We really lost a real one … . #themarathoncontinues
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