LL Cool J may appear better suited for the gridiron than the hardwood (word to Any Given Sunday), but the rapper-turned-actor from Queens, NY, has been affiliated with basketball for as long as he can remember. The 45-year-old grew up simultaneously pulling for the New York Knicks and Michael Jordan, and these days he can often be spotted courtside at Madison Square Garden or chatting up any of his large number of NBA friends, including Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Charles Oakley. While promoting the “A” Game Challenge, an ACE Brand-sponsored video contest in which participants compete for a chance to win a $10,000 scholarship, LL sat down with us to talk hoops.
SLAM: Did you play basketball as a kid?
LL Cool J: I did. It’s funny, ’cause I was more into football than basketball. Let me tell you why: Not because I like it better. But basketball is a game where there’s a lot of psychology and trash-talking involved, and you really can’t do as much about it. In football, I can lay my hands on you [laughs].
SLAM: But I imagine you’d be pretty good at talking trash.
LL: I am, but unfortunately, in basketball you have to back it up. And I’m not gonna say it here and lie to you, and I know this is SLAM Magazine—I am not speedy. I’m no Speedy Claxton.
SLAM: Did you have dreams of playing in the NBA?
LL: I dreamt of playing professional football and being on the court like Jordan. Michael Jordan was a huge inspiration for me in my career, because [of his] excellence, determination, the right kind of ruthlessness, the right kind of passion, desire, drive. When you think about his famous game when he had the flu and all that, those things inspire you to be the best you can be, no matter what walk of life you’re in. I’ve loved sports my whole life. Magic Johnson is one of my good friends—the things he used to do on the court were amazing. When he came back on the court after his announcement and played in the All-Star Game and then the Olympics and brought home the Gold, seeing those things was very inspiring.
SLAM: Was there a lot of NBA/hip-hop crossover when you were first coming up?
LL: Without a doubt. I was always friends with Charles Oakley—we used to hang out all the time. I knew Jordan back then. I know everybody. I’ve known Baron Davis since early on. Kobe Bryant was a guest when he was a rookie, on In The House, when I did the sitcom.
SLAM: Was he as slick a talker then as he is now?
LL: Oh, he was talking real tough. Super tough. When he was a rookie he used to come to the set and we used to talk trash about playing one-on-one.
SLAM: Ever accept his challenge?
LL: I don’t wanna do that. You don’t want me to do that.
SLAM: You grew up in New York City. Always been a Knicks fan?
LL: I grew up a Knicks fan, but you know what? I was always conflicted because Mike was so inspiring during the time when I was coming up in New York. But Pat Ewing was always a good friend of mine. Oakley [was a good friend], after he came to New York. I knew all the players. Anthony Mason was my man—he used to be in Queens all the time in my neighborhood. He used to throw guys out of barbecues for me. They were talking trash to me and Anthony Mason used to come in and grab them and be like, “Y’all gotta go! Y’all gotta go!” He was my man.
SLAM: How do you think the Knicks are going to do this season?
LL: Man, I don’t know. I don’t know. I think because so much in basketball has to do with how the players buy into the coaching system, and how the management chooses their coach—I have to see. We have to see what it’s gonna be. Chemistry is so important. We got to see. You think about all of these teams, you never know. Those guys, they’re young, but they’re getting older. They have to deliver. Physically, they’ve plateaued. Now it’s about, psychologically, can they take it to the next level? What’s interesting is gonna be, I wanna see how Kobe is gonna be. I know he just went to Germany and got that plasma-rich therapy on his right knee, but I knew he had his Achilles [injury]. This guy is a warhorse.
SLAM: You spoke about Mike being an inspiration when you were coming up—that’s kind of what Kobe’s been to the following generation.
LL: One hundred percent. And he should, rightfully so. He is super inspiring and on top of his game, all the time.