The Oral History of Drake's Airball

Ballers, journalists, and one famous Drake adversary provide the definitive re-telling of The Boy's most viral athletic moment.

Illustrations by David Park

O n its face, it was just a lights show with some over-the-top theatrics, and a half-hearted intrasquad game involving one of the country’s pre-eminent college basketball programs. There was little reason to believe that the 2014 edition of Big Blue Madness, the unofficial kickoff of the University of Kentucky basketball season held on Oct. 17 of that year, would be anything more than a chance for coach John Calipari to promote his team and his school’s ample resources.

Sure, the event was on ESPNU, and those Wildcats would go on to run through the regular season undefeated, reach the Final Four, and produce four lottery picks and another pair of second-round selections. And, of course, Big Blue Nation will eat up anything Wildcats-related. Rupp Arena was packed for the glorified scrimmage.

Give it a few hours, and the event would become host to one of the more iconic viral moments in recent sports history. It had everything, minus an adorable animal acting like a human, that the Internet loves: high celebrity, and high failure. Complex spoke to players, journalists, entertainers and observers who were either at Rupp Arena that night, or would later closely observer what took place: Drake’s infamous airball at Big Blue Madness.

Jerry Tipton, basketball writer, Lexington Herald-Leader: For Kentucky, it’s kind of a holiday where generally the football team is not doing very well. Attention is turning to basketball, which is something of a year-round pre-occupation.

Tod Lanter, UK player, 2012-15: It’s become quite a spectacle. My dad played at Kentucky in ‘82. That was actually the first year Kentucky started doing madness. He was talking about how back then it was in the old arena and they just kind of said your name on the loudspeaker and walked out and waved to the crowd...Nowadays it’s turned into a theatrical performance where we’ve got music and lights and pyrotechnics and all of this stuff.

Devin Booker, UK player, 2014-15: It was one of the best moments that I had experienced. Big Blue Madness as a whole would have to be top three. It is when you can see how powerful Big Blue Nation actually is. 

Ben Roberts, recruiting writer, Lexington Herald-Leader: It’s a circus, is what it is.

Matt Jones, host, Kentucky Sports Radio: I think that year in particular—the only one bigger was the John Wall year.

Indeed, the nature of that year’s team only added to the luster of the evening. The 2013-14 team had a disappointing regular season, but made a surprise run to the NCAA championship game, losing to Connecticut.

Matt Jones: You had two things: There was the combination of a team that had just gone to the NCAA Tournament final, and had a good chunk of it back. That doesn’t happen in Kentucky. It’s very rare that guys come back. You had with the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein, key pieces to a team that had gone to a championship game, returning…And then you throw in the fact that Karl[-Anthony] Towns was considered the No. 1 or 2 ranked player in the country coming in and a group that was highly recruited, but not quite a superstar class. It turned out to be a superstar class…I think honestly a big part of why that one was so big was [the chance of Kentucky going] 40-0.

Lanter: I’m not going to say we expected to go 40-0, because it’s nearly impossible. We didn’t think there was anybody in the country that could touch us on a game-by-game basis.

“That was the least cool thing he possibly could have done.”
—Bomani Jones

Regardless, the promise of the team was not going to do all of the selling. Big Blue Madness doubles as Kentucky’s biggest recruiting event, with many possible future Wildcats in attendance. The evening had always been a show, but since his arrival in 2009, Calipari has taken it up several notches. Enter Drake, the Toronto-area rapper with some subtle ties to the University of Kentucky. Drake is friendly with William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley (shouted out on the Grammy nominated track “Back to Back”), a consultant for CAA, the agency that represents Calipari. Drake has frequently credited Calipari with encouraging him to get his high-school diploma, and he received a custom championship ring in honor of Kentucky’s 2012 title run.

Patrick Patterson, UK player, 2007-10: I had the honor and privilege to have met [Drake] in college when I was with John [Wall] and DeMarcus [Cousins] and Eric [Bledsoe] and all of them. That’s when it pretty much kicked off for him, his love for Kentucky. He and Calipari are extremely close.

Sam Malone, UK player, 2011-15: I think it was 100 percent coach Cal and coach Cal’s personality. The way coach Cal does things drew Drake toward him. He has that type of personality that can attract superstars...Coach Cal is a superstar. He’s big time. Just as much as a college coach, he’s a celebrity. People on the top, they tend to gravitate toward each other. Coach Cal was on the top of college basketball. Drake was on the top of rap. It was a good match.

Matt Jones: I think [recruiting] was a huge part of [their relationship] when they initially met. Then I think Cal actually started to like him. I think they’ve actually become legitimate friends, which I know makes people laugh.

Steve Jones, recruiting writer, [Louisville] Courier-Journal: I remember him out on the court after that charity-alumni game before the [2013-14] season, the season before, that’s what I’m thinking, when Julius Randle would have been a freshman on the team. They had all of these NBA guys come back and play in an alumni game. I think Drake was one of the celebrity coaches for one of the teams there.

Drake established his UK fandom before 2014 Big Blue Madness. According to Matt Jones, he followed the Wall-Cousins team to Syracuse for the regionals in 2010. He would pop up frequently in the years that followed. If you take Drake at his word, he has “always” been a Kentucky fan. Now, it was time for Calipari to capitalize on his bond with the superstar.

Lanter:  I think the rumors might have been what sparked him being there to begin with. UK fans were tweeting at him and whatnot, asking him if he was going to make an appearance because he had been courtside for the Final Four game the year before. I think it was more the fans trying to hype the situation up a little bit. There had never been, at least to my knowledge, plans of him being there before those rumors started going on. They actually squashed them saying that there was a concert out of town and he had something booked that day and wouldn’t be able to make it. I don’t know if that was told to the fans to get them to back off of expecting that so that it could be a surprise or he made some moves to schedule it to make it that day. They never really explained it to us.

Matt Jones: The day before, UK folks were saying he wasn’t [coming], I think to get it out of people’s minds. I had a buddy [with knowledge of private planes flying in and out of Lexington], and he said, "Hey, Drake just landed." An hour or two before he was there, I heard he was coming. I tweeted it out. And then it kind of circulated.

Trey Lyles, UK player, 2014-15: Guys were saying that he was supposed to come. And then we were hearing that he wasn’t going to be coming. He walked in right before I walked in. He got there right as my bus was pulling up. Seeing that was pretty cool.

Booker: We were very excited, not many other teams get the opportunity to get one of the best rappers of all time to come into their locker room. It’s great to have built a relationship with him since then as well.

Willie Cauley-Stein, UK player, 2012-15: He came into the locker room and he’s rocking all the OVO gear and we were like, "Damn, let me get some of that OVO gear, blah, blah, blah."

Malone: If I can remember correctly, he met us in the locker room. Coach Cal did his pre-game talk to us in our film room, which is the same thing we do before playing any other opponent or anything like that. He gave us his pre-season talk. And Drake was sitting down amongst us like he was one of the players.

It was not the most memorable Drake faux-pas of the night, but a picture with Drake sitting in the Kentucky locker room, in Wildcats warm-up gear, made the rounds on the Internet.

Lanter: In that picture you’re talking about, I was sitting right over his shoulder. It was pretty cool to listen to one of Cal’s pre-game speeches—quote-unquote pre-game speeches—with Drake sitting there alongside us.

Lyles: We weren’t really watching video. Coach was just talking to us. He was actually sitting next to me. He didn’t say much. He was just sitting there. In the picture it looked like he was paying attention, but I don’t know if he was listening to anything [Calipari] was saying.

“He had a look in his eye
that was like, ‘What did I
get myself into?’”
—Sam Malone

Even with Drake in the the team’s locker room, only a very select group of people knew what his role would be that night.

Booker: It was really surprising that Drake warmed up with us. We thought he was there just to perform and spend time with us. When he actually got in the layup line it was really funny to see.

Malone: There’s a long hallway that goes from the locker room to the floor. I remember going through that locker room and Drake was talking a little to us, talking about some stuff back and forth. As soon as we started walking that long hallway, it looked like he was visibly nervous to step out on the court.

Lanter: He was out of his element. As crazy as that sounds to say, our guys play on a stage in front of millions of people, with the spotlight on, ESPN cameras rolling. I bet if you handed them a mic and walked them out on stage at a hip hop concert where Drake is performing, alongside him, they’d be nervous, too. I think Drake might have known that whatever he was about to do on that court, it was probably going to be on ESPN, whether it was Top 10 or Not Top 10. I can understand why he was probably nervous.

Despite the early miss, Drake stayed in the layup line.

Malone: I was on the opposite side of the court. I remember somebody right before him did a crazy dunk.

Matt Jones: The way that would happen, and this happened a lot but especially during Big Blue Madness, is the guys would start to do dunks...And then usually the walk-ons made up for not being able to dunk by shooting the craziest layup attempt. I always thought Drake did not want to be one of the walk-ons that couldn’t dunk, but also, he couldn’t dunk.

Lanter: Drake knew he couldn’t follow a dunk with a layup, I guess.

Patterson: You’ve got to start up with some layups and free throws and then work your way up to the three.

Lanter: I had actually gotten the person’s rebound who had just shot. ... I had gotten the rebound and thrown it back [to Drake].

Lyles: I was the one rebounding [Drake’s shot], so I definitely remember it.

View this video on YouTube

Drake caught the pass, asked ‘What am I supposed to do?’ to nobody in particular, and launched a three-pointer (although his foot might have been on the arc). 

Matt Jones: He took that shot to try to be the equivalent of the guy dunking.

Malone: He had a look in his eye that was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ Then the airball came. It was just funny. He was laughing.

Lanter:  I knew it was worth noting. When he airballed it, we kind of started laughing and laughed it off and high-fived...It might have been my [pass] that caused his airball.

Booker: I thought he would be able to at least shoot a little bit since all over his Instagram he’s playing basketball, and I know he’s a huge fan.

Matt Jones: I was sitting right under the goal. I took a picture of his shot, and his form was ridiculous. That picture became the GIF file that exists of him—it was from that picture. He has his hand all up, and it’s really odd-looking. All I could think of was, ‘That’s a great picture.’ I secondarily noticed that it didn’t hit anything. All of the people sitting in the lower seats were kind of giggling. There’s so much stuff going on. The arena as a whole didn’t see it all. The UK players, I know this, were kind of giggling. Willie Cauley-Stein, who knew him a little more because he’d been there for three years, was kind of clowning him a little bit when he did that.

Cauley-Stein: I started laughing a little bit but then after he airballed, I was like, "Get this guy off the court. Give him the mic. Give him the mic."

Kevin Hart, comedian: Drake SUCKS! Shot an airball in front of a thousand people.

Lyles: It was pretty funny. I was laughing.

Lanter: [Nobody gave him a hard time] that I recall. Definitely not in the moment. I don’t think anybody gave him a hard time. We shoot airballs in warm-ups. It’s not surprising in that type of a situation, and that type of a crowd, somebody would shoot an airball. Not to mention there was all kinds of smoke in the air from the theatrics that had just happened before our layup lines. Let’s just say that he couldn’t see the goal. Let’s roll with that. Maybe we can get him a pass.

“Drake SUCKS! Shot an
airball in front of a
thousand people.”
—Kevin Hart

As big of a moment as it would become online, not everybody in Rupp Arena remembers seeing the shot.

Roberts: I could have been up there typing something or looking around at something else. I don’t remember the shot. I was sitting with people, and I don’t even remember anybody playing it up. I went home, and the next day people are talking about this airball. And I said, "What do you mean, airball?”

Steve Jones: I don’t think I mentioned it in the story that I wrote. I think I remember in retrospect thinking that I should have put that in my story. It became somewhat of a memorable thing.

Tipton: There may have been some chuckling about how inept he seemed as a basketball player. Then we moved on to other things. It wasn’t dwelled on.

Of course, it blew up on the Internet. Social media ate up the videos and photos, creating meme after meme after meme. Drake even posted something on Instagram.

Matt Jones: My Twitter exploded. It’s only exploded like that one other time, which was during the Rick Pitino-Karen Sypher [sexual assault] trial. It exploded. I was just seeing it everywhere.

Malone: I knew it had been overhyped and blown out of proportion.

Steve Jones: I can totally see how that’s a classic, in this day and age of social media, viral tweet, Vine candidate. It’s a big celebrity on a very famous basketball team. Both fans of that team and fans who hate that team would both get a kick out of it. UK fans love that he loves them. Fans who don’t like UK probably love that he looked foolish…while he was playing there.

Matt Jones: I’ve been on the Internet long enough that I know what the Internet likes. Once I saw that people were taking that picture, and photoshopping it into historical events, I could tell it had blown up, sort of like the Michael Jordan crying face. It had reached that level where I was going to see it for a long time. And then there were pictures from that night that UK released. The other picture was of him in the film room, him watching film. I know Bomani {Jones} in particular thought that was hilarious. I could just tell Drake at Big Blue Madness was becoming a thing.

Bomani Jones, ESPN radio & TV personality: First of all, what the hell is he doing in the layup line? This is just taking it a step too far. I understand that you want to kick it with the team. But what are you doing in the layup line? I’ve always said about Drake: Most people, if they had the access he does, would do a lot of the same things that he does. He’s a fan and he does fan things. That Kentucky thing, when he was in the tunnel and then he was in the layup line and then we saw the picture of him in the film room, like he was really taking notes on the film. It was like, "Nah, nah, nah. If you’re going to do all of that, you’ve got to hit the rim."

The embarrassing moment did not sour the relationship. What’s the big deal, anyway? LeBron and Melo occasionally miss everything. Although multiple people said Drake did not return to Lexington during the season, he was at the Final Four in Dallas, and a projection of him introducing Calipari was part of this past year’s Big Blue Madness.

Lyles: The whole year, he was posting Kentucky pictures, wishing us luck, telling us good luck. It was a cool thing for all of us. A lot of us, me personally, we listen to his music, we follow him and do all of that kind of stuff. For him to be interactive with us, it was a really cool thing.

Bomani Jones: One thing that I think gets forgotten from watching a lot of NCAA basketball is that regular people shoot airballs fairly regularly. It’s not like they shoot an airball 50 percent of the time. But if you go somewhere and play pickup basketball, it’s not a terrible shot when someone puts up a shot and it’s an airball. These things happen. There is certainly a human element to that. But that’s why most of us don’t play basketball in front of an audience.

Patterson: Hey, we’ve all airballed a three some time. I’ve airballed a three in a game before. It’s all good.

Lanter: He was there cheering alongside us. We [had] met him before [that night]. But he was actually dressed in our sweats, going through warm-ups with us. It was a little bit surreal.

Bomani Jones: I’m fascinated by the idea that this guy is No. 1 in the rap game. There have always been rules for a guy like Drake. It’s just odd that he is the guy. It’s very interesting that the No. 1 rapper isn’t really that cool. That was the least cool thing he possibly could have done—go out there and shoot an airball...It is another part of the tapestry that is Drake.

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