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Kanye West likes to hoop. And if you didn’t know that then you haven’t been paying attention.
Basketball references dot his discography. Pickup games, like the ones he would run in Hawaii while making My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, have fueled his creativity. And this past June, wife Kim Kardashian West rented out the Staples Center for Kanye's 38th birthday so he could run full-court with his boys—about one month after he decided to change the name of his upcoming album from So Help Me God to Swish.
Basketball and Kanye are almost as synonymous as controversy and Kanye.
But for all we know about Kanye and his love for the game, we don’t really know whether he can actually ball.
The answer to that important question and many more comes courtesy of Los Angeles-based music writer Josh Herwitt, who—along with yours truly—balled with Yeezus 11 days after the now-infamous 2009 VMAs.
Yes, those VMAs.
Granted, since we’re talking about West’s skills from six years ago, we’re willing to give Kanye the benefit of the doubt that he’s improved. But consider what you’re about to read a good baseline for West’s basketball talents.
Here’s our scouting report on how to beat Kanye West at basketball:
Illustrations by Henry Kaye
1. Prepare to be stunted on because Kanye will be the freshest one on the court.
The fallout from interrupting Taylor Swift was still reverberating on a Thursday afternoon when West arrived at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s west side with a pal.
Before he left for Japan to get away from the paparazzi on the advice of his friend Mos Def, and before he ended up in Rome to further decompress, West was still Stateside getting eviscerated by late night talk show hosts and psychoanalyzed in Internet thinkpieces. At that moment, he'd clearly ascended to the status of America's most hated celebrity. Even President Obama—who just recently received some new kicks courtesy of West—got in on the action, calling Kanye a "jackass" in an off-the-record comment that went viral.
It seemed Kanye circa September 2009 was walking around with a cloud constantly raining on him.
With no entourage or big theatrics, he entered the club wearing designer duds, sunglasses, and his red Louis Vuitton sneakers before making his way to the locker room. No one really bothered him.
Free of distractions and the pressure of being Pop Culture’s Public Enemy No. 1, West headed straight to the courts. Playing ball wasn't a PR move his team had set up to help begin rehabilitating his image. This appeared to be spontaneous. And sorely needed.
On that afternoon, West was humble. He was quiet. He was reserved. He was everything millions of Americans expected him not to be. For the next two hours his business was basketball.
“I introduce myself and he doesn’t really say anything to me. He doesn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m Kanye.’” says Herwitt. “He was not outspoken.”
West was wearing a fresh pair of Jordans (the exact type, no one could accurately remember), black basketball shorts, a white designer t-shirt with no logo, and a thin gold chain. No head bands, no wrist bands, no knee braces. It wasn't your typical basketball gear since he wasn't decked out in Swooshes or ratty gym clothes. The look was minimalist and everything was appropriately fitted. West, by far, was the best-dressed baller.
He warmed up by playing full-court 21. Yes, you read that right.
Apparently geniuses don't do anything halfway.
2. Force him to his left because Kanye’s looking to drive to the right.
After Kanye and his boys played a couple of games of full-court 21, enough people had arrived to play 5-on-5.
Sides were chosen and people started to introduce themselves. West kept quiet, acknowledging everyone who went up to him and slapping their hand, but he said little. Herwitt and West ended up on opposing squads. Since they’re both around the same height—West is listed at 5-foot-8 with Herwitt a few inches taller—the two were matched up in the backcourt.
West was teamed with several talented players, including DJ Clue, a regular baller at Chelsea Piers who arrived just in time for the 5-on-5 game to begin. Kanye perked up when Clue arrived, cracking a big smile as the two warmly hugged it out.
Clue, sporting a signature backwards Yankee cap, ran the point for Team West. No giant himself, Clue is a pretty good player with a quick first step and the ability to knock down straight away jumpers, especially from the top of the key. He'd also look to take his defender off the dribble and was accomplished enough to regularly score in traffic. His midrange game was respectable but not his strong suit. More than anything, Clue hated aggressive defenders. If you could get up in his grill and stay with him, Clue would get frustrated.
On this afternoon, when he wasn't jacking up threes (which he could easily make given some space), Clue looked for West. Kanye got the ball whenever he was isolated on the right wing.
“I definitely remember a certain point, they kind of just kicked him the ball on the right wing and they were like ‘Do something,'” says Herwitt. “When he got the ball on the wing, he was always sizing me up. Like, ‘How am I going to take this guy?’”
Ideally, West wanted to take his defender off the dribble using his right hand and to drive to the basket. If you gave him enough room to maneuver, he was fine.
Finishing was a different story.
“He didn’t feel comfortable with all the moves,” says Herwitt. “He could drive on me and get to the basket but he couldn’t finish. His finishing ability wasn’t polished. He couldn’t shoot off the dribble. His game was a little mechanical in that way.”
West could knock down a jumper from straight away so Herwitt couldn’t sag on defense. But if the ball was in West’s hands, Herwitt made sure to “force him to the left.” West didn’t have the confidence to drive with his non-dominant hand.
Sticking close to Kanye and aggressively guarding him would usually force him to pass. He lacked a killer crossover and “wasn’t going to fade away on you like LeBron or Kobe,” says Herwitt.
3. Work on your handle because he’s not going to slack on defense.
He might not be Kawhi Leonard out there, but West was intense on defense.
“He was a better defensive player than an offensive player from what I can remember,” says Herwitt. “He didn’t want me to score. He was definitely kind of up in my grill as far as when he defended me. He definitely didn’t sag off me a lot. He played me pretty tight.
"I didn't get a whole lot of good looks going up against him in those full-court games."
West’s major contributions were on defense because he ended the two runs without scoring a bucket. Kanye had no problem dishing it but swishing it was another story: He failed to finish off his drives and another pull-up jumper just below the free throw line came up short.
"It was almost like he was a little gun-shy," says Herwitt. "He just wasn't polished."
A triple-double no assists type of performance, it was not.
"[kanye] was always sizing me up. Like, ‘How am I going to take this guy?’”
Kanye did, however, win both games of the run. Clue and a freakishly athletic Lamar Odom clone that no one could defend carried Team West to two victories.
As the second game ended and everyone slapped five, Kanye again kept it low-key, saying "good game" or giving a head nod. Clue and West quickly caught up. Clue had to run to go DJ and he told West to hit him up later. That's when everyone noticed the crowd.
"By the time the game ended I was like, 'Where did all these fucking people come from?'" says Herwitt.
Word must have gotten out around the club that West was balling, as a horde of people cut their workouts short to get a glimpse of the superstar.
Known for attracting its fair share of NBA players during the off-season, Chelsea Piers has seen plenty of journeymen NBA players and superstars hit its courts. But none of them ever had the gym buzzing like Kanye—at least during the six years yours truly played there. A crowd several people deep formed around one of the baskets while other spectators either sat on the bleachers or stood on the track. Those still trying to run around it be damned. About two dozen people—if not easily more—had come to catch a glimpse of greatness, and that's not even counting the next wave of players who were hoping for their shot to run with West.
They would never get it, though, since Kanye then called it a day and headed back to the locker room. Sporting the same outfit he wore when he entered, West hit the exit without anyone bothering him.
On that afternoon, Kanye's presence was a present.