Can He Coach it?
Phife is now patrolling the sidelines.
We got a story in the hype section of the current issue of SLAM on one-time SLAM writer and classic rapper Phife, and its writer wanted to blow it out a little here on the site. Enjoy…
By J. Gamble
Is ya boy Phife, of the legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest, giving up his mic for a whistle?
“Not exactly”, says Phife, the new assistant high school basketball coach and recruiter for talent-laden South Kent School, in Connecticut, and coach of 3-D Ballers, a 13-and-under AAU squad in his current hometown of Oakland, CA.
Flossing millions in worldwide record sales and a solid musical legacy—Phife, who is hustling his new production company Riddim Kidz Inc., and filming a documentary [Beats, Rhymes and Life, a history of a Tribe Called Quest], executive produced by rapper Nas and directed by actor Michael Rapaport—is taking a crack at coaching. “Anybody who knows Phife Dawg knows I am a sports head first,” says the diminutive rap giant.
After peeping the walls of his Atlanta summer home, sick with platinum plaques for albums and movie soundtracks and delicately -framed magazine covers capturing some of sports greatest moments, it is clear that his love for sports and music are at least equal in passion.
Will Smith pioneered the rapper turned actor hustle. Master P did the NBA thing. Mic-wrecker turned sideline-pacer? Now that is unchartered waters, but Phife is a gamer. Along with partner Q-Tip, Phife—birth-name Malik Taylor—made hip-hop his personal playground for nearly two decades. Then, he rebounded from kidney disease, with an assist from an unlikely donor, wife Deisha.
Sandwiched in between these slam dunks, is the recent and unexpected death of Phife’s friend and top artist JAX [Christopher Thurston], who died of a sudden heart-attack, while performing on stage at an Atlanta nightclub. It has been a rough stretch for Phife, who was medically cleared to resume activities in January. “I was sick the past few years and couldn’t commit to pursuing anything, plus the kidney didn’t kick in right away, so I had to wait to get back into my groove musically and with my new pursuits in sports,” he says. “My wife wants me to find something to do other than hip-hop.” So why not coaching?
That’s what Cardinals head coach Kelvin Jefferson asked. Jefferson, a 13-year college coaching and recruiting vet, met Phife at a “Rock The Bells” tour stop in 2008 at Jones Beach in New York. Jefferson was convinced that the platinum-rapper could be a diamond–studded coach, after they kicked it backstage about the defensive strategies of NBA coach Don Nelson.
“He knew more about basketball history than anyone I know,” says Jefferson, who coached at Colgate, Vermont, Stony Brook and American University, before coming to the New England Prep school last season. “And I know a lot of people.”
Rapping is not a common stepping-stone to basketball, but Phife grasps the deeper strategies of sports, better than most rappers. As easily as he can turn an empty arena into a hip-hop moshpit, Phife can break down the strengths and weaknesses of the 1984 Boston Celtics. Or provocatively split your wig with his ambitious recruiting strategy for making South Kent a team full of Magic Johnsons—bigs who can freak every position.
Ironically, the initial meeting between Phife and Jefferson had nothing to do with hiring the fire-spitter as a coach. Jefferson was recruiting Phife’s 16-year-old brother Zach “Boogie” Taylor; a standout guard for St. Luke’s in New Canaan, CT—Jefferson’s former school. Phife’s family was contemplating a transfer because they weren’t sure if St. Luke’s was the strongest match for Zach’s high D-1 aspirations. In the end, Zach, a 5-10 junior, decided to honor his scholarship for at least one more season, and Jefferson and Phife started kicking it and clicking. Exit rapper stage left. Enter basketball coach stage right.
Phife, a die-hard Tar Heels dude, says his coaching duties include “being the eyes behind” Jefferson’s head throughout the 2-3 game-a-week schedule. He’ll assist with player relations, running practices, and in-game situations like substitutions and recognizing the hot-hand. Phife’s preferred coaching style is based on intense pressure. ”Coaches who use that relentless pressing style,” he insists, “are among the most successful coaches at any level in history.”
At South Kent, Jefferson designs the game plan, so Phife will have to wait to throw down his coaching philosophies, but recruiting is Phife’s favorite part and his major responsibility. He will travel to southern hot-spots like Orlando and Georgia, and try to convince the areas’ best ballers that the trade in for leaving good weather and coming to a northern prep school is a shot at greatness.
“Phife is tremendous at recruiting and relating,” Jefferson says. “He will have to develop the on-court skills, drills and teaching methods, but I know he’ll pick things up quickly.”
He’ll have to, because Jefferson also knows that at South Kent, Phife’s first-year learning curve will be short. The Cardinals are a dominant squad and regularly send seven to nine players per year to Division 1 schools. Recent alumni include Dorell Wright [Miami Heat], Andray Blatche [Washington Wizards], Isaiah Thomas [Washington], Josh McKennan [Miami] and Kevin Pann [Xavier.]
A confident Phife isn’t stressing things like coaching future pros or the sideline science, “I’m a basketball lifer, “he said.” Coaching’s natural for me… I’m going to be checking out every team we play and handing out a lot of cards.”
Phife is all-in with this basketball thing and his rigorous coast-to-coast schedule seems to leave him little free time. He plans to be in Connecticut from November-March, coaching and scouting opposing teams from Houston, Memphis and Florida. April-August is spent mostly on the west coast, recruiting and coaching 3-D Ballers (pictured below). Phife even designed the AAU squad’s new jerseys and logo in the red, white and black colors of his native Trinidadian flag. And with a financial push from his good friend Rapaport [Prison Break, My Name is Earl, Boston Public], purchased new team sweats.
Music heads are probably concerned that they have seen the last of Phife the artist. Fortunately for them, and to the chagrin of his wife, Phife is not leaving music behind.
In between whistle blows, working the ball circuit and concentrating on living healthy, Phife will try to get his new record label Smokin’ Needles off the ground. Phife has a new album coming called songs in The Key Of Phife: Vol. 1 Cheryl’s Son. The new record label will compliment his Riddim Kidz Inc. production company, started with music buddies DJ Rasta Roots, “Snack” Daniels and Jah Prince. Phife has already adapted the skills he’ll display as a basketball recruiter, to his new music company by compiling a hot batch of new artists from across the country: B.R., a Boston-based MC, Chicago rapper Tamara Love, Slick-N-Rose, an Atlanta R&B group, and rapper King Cannon from Peoria, IL.
“I’m not turning my back on my love for beats and lyrics,” Phife ensures. “That’s the reason I’m getting this opportunity to coach and recruit. I want to touch lives through basketball as I did with music.”
Sidebar: Phife’s Top 5 All-Time Greatest Coaches
1. Phil Jackson: Michael needed Jackson to get over the championship hump against Detroit. So did Shaq and Kobe. Name another coach to 3-peat, three times?
2. Red Auerbach: His impact on the game is undeniable. The architect behind every last Celtics banner we saw in the old Boston Garden and the new TD Banknorth Garden. Most of his former players either become coaches or front office big wigs.
3. Dean Smith: Inventor of the Four Corners. Two NCAA titles. Coached over 1,000 games. Five of Smith’s players have won rookie of the year in the NBA and over 70 have made it to the NBA.
4. Larry Brown: Only coach to win an NCAA title [Kansas 88'] and an NBA chip [Detroit 04']. Takes over bad teams and makes them contenders.
5. Pat Riley: Always kept a big man in his arsenal: Kareem Adul-Jabbar [Lakers], Patrick Ewing [Knicks]. Alonzo Mourning and Shaq [Heat]. Versatility was his strength, always able to adapt to his personnel, from his run-and-gun showtime style in LA to his bump-n-grind defensive style with the Knicks.