It was a strange enough pairing to begin with.
On May 10, North Carolina hip-hop artist J. Cole announced that he’d been signed to the Basketball Africa League’s Rwanda Patriots, a team that was looking for ways to put themselves on the international map.
The plan worked, at least in the short run. The “No Role Modelz” rapper scored the cover of basketball’s elite SLAM Magazine, the first musician to do so. It also generated publicity for his May 14 release The Off-Season, whose cover shows the rapper standing in front of a burning basketball hoop. Meanwhile, the Rwanda Patriots were featured on YouTube highlight videos that racked up more than a million views.
The downside? In the first three games, during which Cole was on court for 45 minutes, he scored just five points, five rebounds and three assists. Having failed to set the court on fire, Cole bid farewell to Rwanda after game three, blaming his departure on unspecified “family obligations.”
A regular on the celebrity basketball circuit, Cole clearly raised the Rwanda Patriots’ profile. But the venture also made him an easy target. Basketball Africa League player Terrell Stoglin called Cole’s participation “disrespectful to the game,” while a May 27 Deadspin headline proclaimed “J. Cole’s pro basketball career is over — it should never have begun.”
Still, the retired Patriots star can at least take heart in the fact that his music career is far from over. The Off-Season debuted at No. 1. and is spawning hit singles left and right. Cole can also find solace in the fact that he’s joined a curious collection of celebrities who have attempted to cross over the line between music and sports, although usually in the opposite direction.
Take, for instance, former world No. 1 tennis player John McEnroe. Like Spice Girl husband David Beckham, McEnroe married into pop-music royalty, sharing wedding vows with former Scandal frontwoman Patty Smyth.
Sure, he could have continued berating referees, chastising fans and treating his tennis racket like Pete Townshend used to treat his guitars. But where’s the fun in that?
Instead, McEnroe, who says Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton taught him how to play guitar, parlayed his celebrity connections into a relatively low-profile career. He regularly joined his wife onstage, appeared on a Chrissie Hynde track, and formed a band with Australian tennis player Pat Cash called the Full Metal Rackets.
Then there’s Jack Johnson, the millennials’ answer to Jimmy Buffett, in whose music you can practically hear the surf rolling and feel the sun shining.
A native of Hawaii’s north shore, Johnson was 17 when he became the youngest competitor ever to reach the trial finals of the Pipe Masters in Maui. But a week after the announcement, Johnson wiped out in a big way, suffering head injuries that required 150 stitches.
The result was a change in careers, which turned out to be not such a bad thing. Johnson went on to score three No. 1 albums in just five years.
Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a rock celebrity renaissance man. In addition to singing with one of the biggest metal bands in rock history, he’s also flown Iron Maiden’s “Ed Force One” plane during world tours, and, according to the Daily Mail, was once ranked the No. 7 fencer in Britain.
“He’s kick-ass,” the 2012 Summer Olympics silver medal winner Bartosz Piasecki told a Norwegian newspaper after besting Dickinson in a celebrity fencing match. “He is short but incredibly fast, that’s his weapon... He looked like Rocky when he arrived in a brown robe with his fencing kit in a shoulder bag.”
There are more, of course.
Among the most impressive is Shaquille O’Neal, who tried his hand at rap back in the late ’90s with four albums. Shaq’s debut, Shaq Diesel, was certified platinum, while successors Shaq Fu: Da Return, You Can’t Stop Da Reign and Respect all fared well on Billboard’s R&B charts.
Then came boxer Oscar De La Hoya, who released his own self-titled debut album in 2000. A Latin-pop collection, it featured Spanish-language renditions of songs written by Diane Warren and the Bee Gees, and ended up being nominated for a Grammy.
Meanwhile, a year after the Boston Red Sox made it to the 2004 World Series, pitcher Bronson Arroyo recorded Covering the Bases, an album featuring semi-acoustic covers of Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog and Stone Temple Pilots.
Last and perhaps not least, hockey player Guy Lafleur caught the tail-end of the disco movement with a self-titled 1979 album that attempted to combine the dancefloor genre with Lafleur’s self-help narration.
So did J. Cole’s short stint with the Rwanda Patriots get pro basketball out of his system, once and for all? It’s hard to say.
According to rap impresario Master P — who fulfilled his own basketball dreams by playing pre-season games with both the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors — Cole may ultimately have his sights set on the NBA.
“When I talked to J. Cole,” Master P told TMZ Sports after the two recorded a Puma commercial last year, “he was like ‘You know, big dog, you did it. What do you think I would have to do to make it happen?’ I said, ‘To get one of these NBA jerseys, it’s not gonna be easy. It’s gonna be a lot of hate, it’s gonna be a lot of people not believing in you.’”
So far, Cole has gotten all that and more.
“You can’t just go there ’cos you’re J. Cole the artist,” Master P told him. “Nobody cares about that. And these NBA players don’t want somebody who’s gonna make them look bad. So you have to prove yourself, because they put their whole life into this. Either you’re gonna be good enough to play, or you’re gonna get exposed.”