In case you haven’t heard, Diddy’s son, Justin Combs, has been in the news recently after receiving a full football scholarship from UCLA. Why is this news? Because many are bothered by the notion of a public university, in today’s financial market, handing out a $54,000 scholarship to someone whose father is worth $550 million. We’ll let you decide whether you think this is right or wrong, but in the meantime, we were reminded of a feature from SLAM 102 (November 2006) about Percy “Romeo” Miller, his father Master P and his good friend DeMar DeRozan. You see, Justin Combs is not the first son of a rapper to be an athletic prospect—a year after this story ran, Romeo accepted a basketball scholarship from USC.—Ed.
words DeMarco Williams /portraits Atiba Jefferson
You wanna hear something crazy? I’m sitting upstairs at Jerry’s Famous Deli, two minutes from the UCLA campus, ordering a turkey melt and listening to Master P and his son, Romeo, talk basketball. Yep, you read that right—a plain ol’ turkey melt. No mayo, no mustard, nothing. Just the bird, some cheese and bread. P orders a sandwich, too—roast beef with everything.
“Onion rings or fries?” the waitress asks. Maybe she doesn’t know who she’s talking to. But I do.
This is Percy Miller, founder and coach of the P.Miller Ballers, a man whose hoop dreams are every bit as ambitious as you’d expect from the Ghetto Bill Gates.
“To be honest with you,” P says after finalizing his dinner order, “I like coaching on the AAU/high school level. Eventually, I want to coach at the college level or maybe even on an NBA level. I get with people like John Lucas and others and just learn from ’em. Right now, I’m just learnin’ the game.”
Having gone from selling CDs out of his trunk to running a multi-million-dollar rap label, P long ago proved he was a quick study. It shows on the court: Over the past three years, the Ballers have become a serious contender in the amateur ranks. Romeo is the energetic, sub-six-foot floor leader. DeMar DeRozan, who’s also at the dinner table, is the 6-4, highlight-reeling top scorer. Two years ago, the Ballers finished third in the 14-Under AAU Nationals; last summer, they won the AAU Pacific Basketball Super Regional and finished second in the 15-Under Nationals.
“I think as I learn and prepare for the school of basketball,” continues the elder Miller, who’s also had young prep stars Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Renardo Sidney on his teams, “there’s no telling where I’m gonna go. I got a lot of experience under my belt these last six years. We veterans at this. I get college coaches saying, ‘Man, if you take a job, don’t take a job in our conference.’”
As P talks, Romeo and DeMar, both juniors, are half listening and half looking over the menu. (Well, they’re scouting Bruin cuties, too, but that kills the math, right?) It’s just after 8 pm, and they order omelets and pancakes. Kids. Sans the wacky menu choices, you’ll notice something different about this twosome. Yes, they’re wearing the requisite fitteds and tinkering with phones like any other 17-year-olds might, but when questions are directed their way, they don’t fidget or offer two-word answers—Romeo especially.
“I’ve been playing ball since the age of two,” Romeo explains. “That’s what I’ve been doing before the music thing, the rapping thing and the acting thing. This is my life right here. This is what I love doing, you know?”
The food arrives. Everybody’s meal looks right, except for P’s. “Got any white bread?” he asks, and one thing I notice—and which is confirmed in the numerous phone conversations P and I had setting up this evening—is that the man’s celebrity never supercedes his general niceness. If there’s any sense of entitlement in his 6-4 frame, Mr. Miller is hiding it well.
Thankfully, he didn’t keep all the respect to himself. Romeo, the eldest of seven, also has an air of benevolence in both his handshake and demeanor. “If you listen to my music,” he starts, “I say, You’ll see me in the pros one day. Hopefully, you’ll see me and this man, DeMar, in the pros together, in college together—just being able to play ball. I just want to see us in the pros, having fans chanting our name one day.”
But isn’t that why half the people holding this magazine are wearing a screw face—all the fans already chanting his name? Besides monopolizing your lil’ sister’s iPod, Romeo also has a hold on her TV (Nick’s ROMEO!) and DVD player (Honey). He can’t possibly flip from sitcoms to silver screen to sound-check to 16 and 6 per, can he? Rome, as his nickname goes, makes a habit of defying doubters.
“They’re gonna start seeing it now,” says the Tiny Archibald fan. “I don’t feel nobody can stop me and DeMar when we together on the court. With my speed and his leaping ability, we’re killin’ them now.” A proud P adds without a hint of hesitation, “With Romeo, he has the opportunity to be the next AI, with his quickness and his ball-handling. And DeMar, they’re already calling him the next LeBron James. They will have to put DeMar as the best player coming out in 2008. No matter who they got ranked right now, it don’t even matter!”
The next AI and LeBron? The various national scouting services may not rank his stars as highly as P does, but neither player embarrassed himself at July’s ABCD Camp, where both were named to the underclass all-star game. An athletic slasher, DeRozan has known hoops would be his calling for a long time. “I was dunking at a young age—12 or 13. I was always bigger than everybody, always faster and stronger. It made me separate myself from everybody else.” Still does, as his dunk contest victory at last year’s Main Event tourney in Vegas confirmed.