Growing up in Harlem, NY, a young TJ Porter had a vision.
He was going to dominate the city hoops scene, earn a scholarship to Duke and go on to play in the NBA. The game was his first true love, which should come as no surprise if you’re at all familiar with his hometown and its culture.
“Basketball is a big thing,” Porter explains. He’s chilling on the roof at the SLAM offices in Midtown Manhattan, rocking a clean Nike tee, black shorts and white Air Force Ones.
“It brings everybody together in the city because everybody wants to watch games,” he says. “The atmosphere, it’s crazy. You can’t get New York basketball nowhere else.”
Porter first picked up a ball at eight-years-old at the Milbank Center on 118th Street between 5th Avenue and Lenox. The passion only intensified from there, as TJ pursued it more seriously and started developing his skills. He competed against a lot of the top-ranked NYC prospects you hear about today (Cole Anthony, Precious Achiuwa, “the whole Jelly Fam”), and went on to play point guard for powerhouse high school Cardinal Hayes.
“I’m athletic, I play a lot of defense and I can get to the basket easy,” he describes. The jump shot, by his own admission, is a bit shaky, but the handles are dangerous.
And of course, coming from New York, he talks a lot of trash. “That’s all I do,” he maintains.
What sort of things do you say?
“Y’all might have to blank this out.”
TJ’s staple is to shout “We gon’ ball!” after buckets – a phrase that has also served as his motto in the music industry. You see, Porter’s dream has been slightly altered from when he was a little kid. Now 18, he’s not on his way to Duke, but rather has established himself as a promising, up-and-coming rapper.
It was at 15, in the wake of a terrible tragedy, that Porter changed courses. His close friend Juwan Tavarez, nicknamed Chico, was crossing 3rd Avenue near 115th Street when multiple shots rang out. Tavarez was struck in the head and passed away two days later at Harlem Hospital.
In his grief, Porter was scrolling through old messages and was reminded of how much Tavarez liked his rapping. TJ had been doing it as a hobby a few years earlier but had mostly forgotten about it, largely because of his obsession with basketball.
To honor Tavarez, he woke up one morning and decided to pick it up again.
“I wasn’t doing it for me,” he tells SLAM. “I was doing it for him. He always wanted me to.”
Using that as motivation, coupled with Porter’s natural flow and lyricism, the success soon followed. He embraced his role as the “voice of the trenches,” releasing hit singles such as “Tricky” that have garnered over 400,000 listens on SoundCloud. Just about a month ago, he signed a deal with Def Jam.
“It was like a dream come true,” he says. “I was happy, but I was happy more-so because I did it for a friend and I feel like this is what he wanted to see me do.”
Though it’s no longer his primary pursuit, basketball remains an important piece of Porter’s life. He participated in Nike’s New York vs. New York, a summer long tournament highlighting the best talent from the five boroughs, and can’t hide his excitement when talking about the atmosphere at Dyckman Park. The day of our interview, he’s set to take the iconic court later that evening, and is bouncing off the walls with adrenaline.
“It’s crazy because if you doing bad, they gonna let you know: Get him out of here,” he explains. “You gonna be hearing everybody in the crowd yell. But if you doing good, they gonna hype you up.”
TJ has already hooped against fellow New York rappers Sheck Wes (“He’s trash. Sheck [addressing him], you know what happened at Milbank late nights”) and Desiigner (“He’s mad energetic. He don’t stop running up and down the court.”), and wants a crack at other artists like Quavo, Dave East and Chris Brown. With a new chapter of his life just beginning, Porter recognizes the parallels between his past path and his current one.
“The hard work you got to put into music is the same hard work you got to put into basketball. Both of them go hand in hand,” he says. “You got to be consistent with both. Just how [I was] in the gym everyday, I’m in the studio everyday.
“When you play, you got to perform. It’s just like that.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Portraits by Joseph Sherman.