Spin Moves

by December 24, 2008

by Matt Caputo

Cedric Ceballos spends a lot of time managing his two passions—basketball and music. The one-time All-Star had serious hip-hop dreams before the NBA got in the way. Though he shifted gears to pursue his hoop potential, Ceballos never totally abandoned his love for music. Now he’s in a position where he can make both work together.

The 1992 NBA Slam Dunk champ was the next-to-last second-round pick in 1990 and didn’t think he had a shot in hell at the League out of tiny Cal State Fullerton. Despite the odds, he played 10 years in the NBA before retiring from full-time ballin’ in 2000. He averaged double figures in scoring on eight different occasions and was known for putting up points. During his career, he helped four different teams reach the Playoffs for a personal total of eight postseason trips.

Today Ceballos is back with the Suns, but instead of dunking and scoring, he’s the team’s in-arena emcee and also a busy radio DJ. Besides that, Ceballos still finds the time to play some semipro ball on the side.

SLAM recently chatted with Ceballos about his life and career.

SLAM: You’ve been pretty busy since you left the League.
Cedric Ceballos: Basically, I run my mouth and use my hands. I kind of do the same thing I did when I was playing—except that I’m not playing. I was cool with everybody and had a great rapport with a lot of players, coaches and organizations. I’m DJing and on the mic a lot, doing voiceovers. When I was on the court I ran my mouth. I commentated or goofed around, made people laugh, and I do the same thing now.

SLAM: How did you get into DJing?
CC: I started DJing when I was 12 years old. When the whole hip-hop and beat-street culture came around, I just fell in love with it. I saw the movie Breakin’ and it was crazy. I had a friend whose father was from Jamaica, Queens, in New York, and his father came back with Afrika Bambaataa’s single “Planet Rock.” They woke me up in my sleep, and I came outside of our apartment in my pajamas to sit in front of that speaker and listen to it for, like, two hours. I was stuck on every sentence. I couldn’t move. I just kept making them play it over and over again.

SLAM: Didn’t you have a single out while you were in the League?
CC: Yeah, they did a collaboration album called B-Ball’s Best-Kept Secret with all of the rappers and ball players who rapped back in, like, 1994 or 1995. The name of the song is called “Flow On.” The video is on YouTube, for sure. I wrote the song—Warren’s part too. I always had a studio at the house. I always had those aspirations of becoming a big rapper, even before Big Shaq got into it. I was into it all through college and basketball. I really wasn’t in love with basketball like that as much as I was with music. I didn’t think I had a shot of going to the NBA. My college career was great, but because of the small school, I didn’t think I would get a chance. When the opportunity came to go to the League, I kind of just dropped all of that. I was like, “Let me play this ball as long as I can, and after that I’ll get into music.” I got more and more into it as time went on. Even though I have a whole album completed, I figure it isn’t cool to be over 35 and trying to be a rapper. I was too busy playing basketball to pursue it.

Rare rookie sightingSLAM: You’re in Arizona now. It must be pretty different from when you broke with the Suns in 1990. What do you remember of that team?
CC: We were the only professional sports franchise in the valley then. Nothing else was going on while we were in the Playoffs; nothing else was going on when the Suns were playing. The whole town and, really, the whole state would be shut down. We’d go into our restaurant to get something and people would argue with us over paying a check. They would never let us pay. We had a lot of great people on the team. It was a great family organization. It was easy for the valley to get behind the Suns and treat us like their own sons.

My whole first year was just, “How you doin?” meeting people. For example, when we played Michael Jordan, I shook his hand. Sometimes I wasn’t worried about playing or not. I met Magic, Larry, Charles—all the heroes that you watch growing up were out there. Coming into the game, sometimes I was more concerned about playing. One of the guys, an assistant coach, Lionel Hollins, sat me down and was like, “People like to come watch you dunk, you’re kind of exciting, you could really make a career out of this in the League.” That kind of woke me up during the summer after my first year. I realized there was so much more to this League than just being a fan of the game or just being so appreciative of getting a shot.

SLAM: There are some young’ns who read our site who don’t know about how you won the Dunk Contest in 1992. Can you break down that whole experience?
CC: I can take it back to my college days, when I won the Senior Dunk Contest. I knew that if I beat the nation’s best dunkers in college, I was going to have a chance to compete. In my first year, I didn’t get a chance to get in the contest because I really wasn’t playing at all. They only really let players [compete] who got a lot of minutes and that people knew about. The person I beat in college was Dee Brown, and he got in there and used every tactic that I used against him in the college Dunk Contest to win the NBA contest. I was mad, man. I was like, “I kicked his ass in college, and he goes and uses every tactic I got because he’s playing more minutes in Boston than I was with the Suns.” Then he went and got shoe deals and all that other stuff. The next year, he wasn’t in the contest. I just wanted to get in there and give a good showing, maybe get 10, 10, 10, 10, 10some name recognition, and get out.

Each round I went to I kept advancing. Sometimes it was a high margin and sometimes small. Shawn Kemp was out, and Stacey Augman and Larry Johnson were moving on. So I was like, “Cool, whatever happens happens.” I was going up against Larry Johnson, who was going to be Rookie of the Year that year, but once he had a poor showing, I knew I had a chance to win this. I had already won it when that happened, actually. I had one dunk left, and I came with the “Hocus Pocus” just to have some fun.

SLAM: Talk about those Suns teams you were on that went deep into the Playoffs. What was it about those teams that made you guys so tough?
CC: With the Suns, what made us tough was that we were a really close unit and a real family unit, and we would do battle with anyone who tried to come in our house. We just left it all out there. We had real trust in everybody. The coach was Paul Westpaul, who was probably the best Xs and Os coach I played for. He had offense on lock. He could make up a play on the spot and they would work. He designed a play against Portland with maybe one second left on the game clock where we had to throw the ball off the backboard just to make Portland go to sleep. Portland thought the game was over; then Charles Barkley picked the ball up and dropped it in.

SLAM: Who would you say was the hardest worker?
CC: Dan Majerle—we were road buddies. We’d be together before and after practice, doing extra running. He trained hard; the guy never stopped.

SLAM: What do you remember about Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals, when Jordan gave you guys the 55 points?
CC: That thing was so star-studded. Michael Jordan was unbelievable. It was who Michael Jordan is and always will be. It was really so perfect for us to win it. We’d changed our logo and we moved into a new building. We’d changed our coach and Charles Barkley came in. It was just a perfect opportunity for us to win. We had an awesome winning streak earlier in the season. We knocked out San Antonio, and Charles had a big fourth quarter. To battle head-to-head with Chicago was crazy.

I just remember Jordan being so focused and the look in his eye that was like, “My teammates already know what kind of zone I’m in, and I’m just going to take it to another level.” You could see that there was nothing you could do. Majerle took a crack at him, Kevin Johnson was guarding him, Danny Ainge was just kind of older and there was nothing he could really do. You kind of have to roll with the punches. If you look at Game 6, when John Paxson hit the 3 and we gave Horace Grant a two-foot shot, but he didn’t take it—I didn’t know if he was scared and didn’t want to take the last shot, and he kicked it out to Paxson for a three when all they needed was one point.

SLAM: Were you sad to leave the Suns in ’94? Do you think that team could have had a longer run if you’d all stayed together?
CC: We had another guy on the team named Richard Dumas, and we were kind of similar players. He had his problems, but they just wanted to go with him. I think they made the wrong decisions. They went and got A.C. Green, and he’s a good friend of mine, but he just wasn’t right for our team. Our team was so close—not saying that A.C. broke that team up, but we didn’t have any individuals on that team. The guy who was more standoffish was Kevin Johnson, who was kind of a private person. He even put his privacy down to better the team, and we were so together it was unbelievable. When they brought A.C. here, it kind of put a damper on things. They gave him a lot of money and he was kind of standoffish if it wasn’t a charity event or something. The team we had before—everyone on that team could go and have a meal with each and every one of us, or have conversations about family, work and ball. They kind of took the team in different directions and things came apart. They brought in Danny Manning and a lot of good individuals but not great team players; they traded Dan Majerle away, and he was the heart of the team; they kept trying to put superstars around Charles Barkley to help him win a championship, but they didn’t realize Charles Barkley was the superstar, and all he needed was a good supporting cast. The players they were bringing around him didn’t want to be the supporting cast. They wanted to be bigger than Charles, and that’s impossible. I think that’s what we knew and that’s why we reached the Finals. We knew Charles was Michael Jackson, and we knew we were the Titos, like he likes to say on TV.

SLAM: What kind of teammate was Charles?
CC: This really kind of sums it up: When somebody would come over for an autograph, or a celebrity would come over to acknowledge him, he introduced every teammate around him. If you were with him, he made sure you were not forgotten. He cared so much about his teammates and his players. If somebody was all over him and stuff, he would always introduce his teammates.

The year after we went to the Finals, my father passed away. I really didn’t tell anybody, and to this day, I don’t know how he found out about it—I’m going to ask him one day. I had just gotten the phone call, and we had a game that night. I was a little down. After the game, Charles made a speech about how we had to stick together through tough times and how “Ced has lost his Dad tonight.” I never told anybody about it, and the fact that he took the time out to acknowledge that was just great. I love the dude and what he stands for on and off the court. He’s a great person first, and his basketball passion is secondary to that. But he is that 50-50 rule. Fifty percent of the crowd is there to cheer him and 50 percent of the crowd is there to boo him. But people come and see him, period.

SLAM: You averaged 20 points or more in back-to-back years with the Lakers. What changed for you once you got back out to Cali?
CC: Cali put me in a situation where I didn’t understand or feel I was ready for all the attention of playing in L.A. I’m from there but never really got down there much as a kid. I would go to Iowa and Wyoming and people would recognize me from the Lakers. I loved going to the mall. I watched Charles, KJ and Tom Chambers get the attention for years. I never got used to it. I was amazed every time somebody said something to me.

SLAM: You also registered the first 50-point game for the Lakers in over 20 years in 1995. Did you realize you’d broken a record at the time?
CC: I had no idea while it was going on. When I had, like, 46 or 47 points with six minutes to go, and everybody was trying to get me the ball to get me to 50—until I got to 45, I never thought about getting 50. My teammates were trying to get me 50, and everyone else stopped taking shots to help me get there. Some of my teammates were taking shots and getting booed. Minnesota was putting everybody on me, and my teammates were wide open. They had two or three guys on me because they didn’t want me to get 50, and I began to think it might be something special. I saw the highlights and read the books, and at that time there were only six players from the Lakers who had done it, and they were Hall of Famers.

SLAM: Was it cool for you to play in the All-Star Game in Phoenix?
Big-ass cameraCC: I was hurt, but it was great to be voted an All-Star. I wasn’t supposed to be on the All-Star team so that was great. The game would have been great to have on film, but that it’s down on paper is enough. It’s funny, Dikembe Mutombo was the one who hurt me and he got my spot in the All-Star Game that year.

SLAM: How did you end up leaving the Lakers?
CC: When we got Big Shaq, they needed outside shooters, and I was a paint guy. I loved going to the hole and playing around the basket. Robert Horry played the same position as me, and he was a shooter. I loved my time with the Lakers. The only thing that disappointed me was not being able to play with James Worthy. I was looking forward to learning from him. When Magic came back, we got that veteran. We could have been more successful, because when we got into trouble, we’d just give it to Magic and get out of the way.

SLAM: What do you remember about Kobe?
CC: Wow—just special. His rookie year, first things first, he comes out and doesn’t realize he’s a pro now. He just loved the game of basketball and wanted to play damn near everywhere. He went down to Venice Beach and broke his hand in some pick-up game on a Sunday afternoon. When he started to practice with us—a Lakers team that had Shaq and All-Stars like Nick Van Exel, Eddie Johnson and Cedric Ceballos, and with Jerry West mentoring him—he would finish practice with us and then drive to a local high school and practice with them. When everyone else was hanging out and playing video games, he was watching high school games, pro games, playing with high schoolers, pros, college cats over at UCLA. I don’t think he rested at all his first year. He would do some stuff in practice that was unbelievable, but he couldn’t finish them because maybe his weight or strength wasn’t quite there yet. It was special to watch him; he was just so eager. It was only a matter of time before he was going to be a superstar. It was a great move by Dell Harris to throw him in there against Utah so that he could get real experience.

SLAM: What happened once you got to Dallas?
CC: I went back to the Suns first. I saw an opportunity in Dallas because I was always a fan of Don Nelson. He came from a situation where they weren’t winning a lot of games in Golden State, and he got there and started scrambling the team, mixing offenses and defenses. I was eager to get down there to be a part of the resurgence. The Lakers didn’t make the Playoffs, and then they brought me in and we went. I thought it could be the same scenario in Dallas. I came halfway through the season and knew we’d probably make the Playoffs—if not that year, then the next year. Michael Finley was an All-Star already. The next year we drafted Dirk. We got Steve Nash, who I knew from Phoenix, and we had the opportunity to turn that team around. We gave Nash a lot of money, and he was booed a lot, he got hurt early. They overworked Dirk, who could have been Rookie of the Year like Nellie said earlier, but they had so many coaches on him that he got a little run down. Even on game day, he would foul just so he could come out and rest.

SLAM: In your last full year in the NBA, 1999-00, you averaged 16.9 points and 6 rebounds. Do you think you were a little underrated?
CC: No, I don’t think I was underrated. I was the second-to-last pick in the Draft, out of a small college. I didn’t have a name. I just worked hard and enjoyed what I was doing. I think one year I came close to winning Sixth Man of the Year behind Rodney Rogers, so I felt people knew I could play. I feel like I was noted for the work I put in. I got traded to Detroit after that, and it was too cold for me. It was my first time living on the East Coast, and it wasn’t a happy time. I gained a lot of weight. Joe Dumars sent me to Miami and I reinvented myself. I got in great shape, but Pat Riley was stuck in his ways, and I really couldn’t crack his lineup. After that, I was so hungry, I didn’t want to sit on anybody’s bench and not play. I didn’t want to put my family through me coming home upset over playing time. I did that before, when I was young, but I was too hungry to watch it all from the bench in Miami. It was too hard for me to do, so I stopped playing when I was 31.

SLAM: You’ve played a ton of ball in the minor leagues. Why do you do that stuff?
CC: I want to play all the time. I play in the ABA now with the Maywood Buzz when I get a chance. I am only with the Suns during the season, but the rest of the year I live in Cali. When I get a chance to play for the Buzz, I just fly in and meet up with them. I am averaging 25 points and, like, 12 or 15 rebounds. I didn’t want to go crazy over not playing in the NBA. I was a scorer and I had that mentality; I didn’t want to allow my not playing to hurt the team. I wouldn’t have the relationships with the NBA and the teams and the players that I do now if I had stuck it out on the bench another five years or whatever. Ever since I’ve gotten out, I’ve played. I went overseas for a few games, and I was on an All-Star team that went to China and the Philippines. When I settled in and started working for the Suns, I started playing again, and I haven’t made $1 off playing semipro ball. I just like the challenge and playing in an organized game. I’m still in shape, and I can still give you 20 or 30 points. I didn’t have any major injuries, I still get up and down and dunk on cats. I had a game last week where I was getting a lot of dunks, and someone yelled, “That’s a shame, the oldest cat in the gym is dunking on everybody.”

SLAM: You’re a DJ, broadcaster and still a pro ball player. What’s next for you?
CC: A couple of things: Everybody keeps telling me my voice is cool. I want to do some voiceover and animation work. I tried acting, a couple of sitcoms and stuff, but I am really a huge individual on the screen. They really don’t like people that are tall on the screen, but I feel like I have the ability to do some stuff. My costars are, like, two feet shorter than me, so I’ve had to look into a different way. Voiceovers and stuff is what I want to do next so I don’t really have to be on-camera.