by Jesús Triviño Alarcón / @jtrivinoalarcon
He enters a classroom at La Salle Academy in Manhattan’s East Village and quickly takes a seat. Groggy and a bit peeved—not for any particular reason; that’s just his usual state of being—he doesn’t proceed to take out a backpack, or open a book or write in a loose-leaf. That’s expected, though. Jim Jones is back at school, but he’s not here to attend class. The rapper from Harlem and his crew—which today consists of college and streetball standouts—are here to play in Converse’s Band of Ballers Tournament. Jones and Co. aren’t just present to play, however. The two-time defending Band of Ballers champs are here to wrap up a three-peat, and, brash and cocky, they’re letting everybody know it.
“I don’t think the competition will be up to par for another couple of seasons,” says Jones. “Until people really get that we’re coming with a bomb squad all the time.”
Class, competition, trash talk—all of it’s good, but none of it’s the reason for today’s tournament. Rather, it’s about Converse showcasing the unquestionable bond between sports and music.
“The camaraderie…the way [Converse] brings different artists together from different towns,” says Jones, of “We Fly High” fame. “Let people see it’s not always about aggression and going back and forth. It shows the sportsmanship. Plus, we like playing ball. It’s an aggressive, competitive sport and that’s what rapping and the music industry is coming from. Competition is always good.”
Jones’ enthusiasm and passion for the game is exactly the reason Converse created the Band of Ballers Tournament three years ago. You’ve all seen the highs (“Can’t Stop the Reign” by Shaquille O’Neal featuring Biggie Smalls) and lows (everything else recorded by Shaq) of the jock MC, as well as rappers’ affinity for basketball (Jay-Z’s minority ownership of the New Jersey Nets and Master P’s failed NBA run, for two). It was only a matter of time before a major sneaker company picked up on the connection. Converse is undoubtedly the right brand for the job.
“We work with musicians and artists every day, and lots of them play basketball,” says Geoff Cottrill, CMO of Converse. “So we saw an opportunity to bring legitimate musicians who play legitimate basketball in a small 3-on-3 tournament. The first one was in New York, the second one was in Atlanta and now the third one is back in New York City.”
This year’s event also marked the first time it was televised. MTV2 provided the perfect vehicle for Band of Ballers to get its first taste of national exposure.
“The crazy goal for this when I first started was to get it on MTV in the next three to four years,” says Cottrill. “People were like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ We’re a part of the game of basketball and we have every right to be in the game. We’re proud of our heritage in basketball, and this is sort of a fresh new way to take a look at what’s going on in basketball. For our third tournament to be on MTV2 is a huge compliment. I think culturally they understand sort of the natural blending of where entertainment, lifestyle, culture and sport come together. Not just sport for the sake of sport and the profession of sport.”
Similarly to the channel’s diverse mix of music videos on rotation, the participating teams also brought their unique blend of genre-bending artists. Along with Jones’ Harlem crew, Band of Ballers competitors included Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang, Chiddy Bang’s Team Swell, the Lil Twist and Corey Gunz-led YMCMB and Team Brooklyn featuring Matt and Kim along with Community’s Donald Glover.
“To me it’s crazy that we’re going to play basketball with Matt and Kim and Jim Jones,” Xaphoon Jones, one half of Chiddy Bang, says. “To see who Converse was going to bring on board is amazing.”
“The teams are mixed and matched with [real] players,” says Chiddy, the other half of Chiddy Bang. “They’re either ex-Harlem Globetrotters, some NBA players or professional players.”
Converse is so committed to maintaining the marriage of music and sports that it has also built a studio for up-and-coming artists. The studio, called Rubber Tracks, opened in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn the same week as the Band of Ballers event. Rubber Tracks is located on Hope St. off the corner of Keap St. No joke.
“The music world has been real good to Converse for a long time,” says Cottrill. “So we [built] our new studio in Brooklyn for new artists who can’t afford to get into a good quality studio. We’re going to bring them in, let them record their demo for free and let them retain all the rights. You go to Converse.com/RubberTracks and there’s a whole application process. You apply, you get accepted and you get a certain amount of studio time.”
With Band of Ballers and now Rubber Tracks, Converse is taking the oft-rhymed about connection between music and sports to the next level. It only makes sense for the sneaker company that has produced special editions for Nirvana, Metallica and more recently Bad Meets Evil (an Eminem and Royce Da 5’9” collabo that saw special Chuck Taylors made in its honor).
“We’ve had a rich history with basketball and also with music and the coming together of those two things in a unique way [is] paying respect to the game,” says Cottrill. “We’re paying respect to the game by playing real basketball. It allows these artists to step outside of their artistic persona for a minute and just ball with their friends. It’s been funny to watch because as the years have progressed, the teams have gotten better and better. You’re going to see some serious straight-up basketball.”
Though the quality of play has improved steadily over the past three years, The Jones Family continued its dominance and found itself in the finals once again, where it faced Team Brooklyn. Jones, however, was denied a three-peat, and now will have to wait until next year to hoist up the Golden Speaker Trophy. Of course, getting back to the finals won’t be easy, as Converse hopes to expand Band of Ballers way beyond a slice of the East Coast.
“Maybe we’ll do it around a great big basketball weekend sort of festivity,” says Cottrill. “But I can also see doing a couple of these around the world as well. Basketball is a universal sport. You don’t have to play in the NBA to love this game. The cool thing is that these guys will be rocking the mic tonight or last night, but today they’re just some guys playing basketball.”
When the horn sounds on Team Brooklyn’s championship win, Jim Jones is a mad, mad man. Storming out of La Salle after the loss, Jones stomps and scowls his way across the street. He’s not happy with the flow of the game. He’s not happy with the refs. He’s not happy with the loss. Just like your typical star baller.