It was a scene hardly anyone could’ve dreamed up until it happened.

Tucked away in one half of a closed-off high school gym in Scarborough, Ontario, with Drake’s biggest hits blaring in the background, one of the greatest rappers of his generation, J. Cole, was suited up in Scarborough Shooting Stars gear in preparation for the Canadian Elite Basketball League’s fourth season.

Jermaine Lamarr Cole signed with the Shooting Stars last Thursday to send Canadian hoops Twitter into a frenzy, and understanding the connections between the team and rapper explains all there is to know about why this is happening in the first place.

Nicholas “Niko” Carino, co-owner of the franchise, is one of the founding members of OVO (Drake’s lifestyle brand and record label) and when Cole expressed a desire to play professional basketball, the degrees of separation between Cole, Drake, and Canada’s best professional basketball league took care of the rest. Sam Ibrahim, the other co-owner, is a local entrepreneur and one of the founding members of Playground Global. He highlighted just how quickly Cole has been embracing not just the team but the community as well after a passing conversation became a reality a month ago.

“He’s embraced Scarborough just like the rest of us. It’s actually really cool. He loves the city, he loves the slang, he loves the stuff that only we say.”

“There was a common alignment. He wanted to play, we knew some of his people, and so it came together,” Ibrahim said. “Lots of hurdles, lots of roadblocks, but now he’s on this team, he’s earning his time, and he’s a great colleague to the younger guys. He’s embraced Scarborough just like the rest of us. It’s actually really cool.

“He loves the city, he loves the slang, he loves the stuff that only we say.”

The idea of Cole playing for the Shooting Stars was first broached while he and Drake were hanging out at a club one night.

“You know, Dreamville and OVO are family,” said Carino. “Drake had a birthday party in L.A. last year. The conversation was, ‘I heard you have your team.’ It organically grew from there.”

The trickle down effect of the signing was immediate as fans stormed Ticketmaster to try and buy tickets wherever he might be playing and what became clear during the team’s media day was that this transaction is just as much about basketball as it is business for an expansion team beginning its inaugural season.

Olu Famutimi, a veteran Canadian forward who played collegiately in the USA and professionally across Europe, appreciates the professionalism Cole has brought during the first week of training camp.

“J. Cole, he’s really putting in the work,” Famutimi said. “Whatever we’re doing, he’s doing probably even more. Comes in early, stays late, and his drive right now, he wants to become better and wants to be known as a guy that can really hoop.”

Sam Ibrahim, co owner of the Scarborough Shooting Stars
Sam Ibrahim, co-owner of the Scarborough Shooting Stars/Image via Xandrae Jermaine Ramdeen

The other big name on the Shooting Stars roster is Jalen Harris, a guard who played for the Toronto Raptors as a rookie during the 2020-21 season and whose signing with the Shooting Stars was announced on Tuesday just a few hours before he spoke with the media. He played in Italy last year due to the NBA suspending him for violating the league’s drug policy. He found out about Cole joining the team through a mutual connection he has with the Martin twins who are currently in the NBA; Caleb plays for the Miami Heat while Cody plays for the Charlotte Hornets.

“Their trainer and another agent, they told me before that, ‘Hey, you got J. Cole out here,’” Harris said. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ It’s cool, glad he’s here, glad to be here with him. We’ve built a good relationship here, and just continue on with that.”

“J. Cole, he’s really putting in the work. Whatever we’re doing, he’s doing probably even more. Comes in early, stays late, and his drive right now, he wants to become better and wants to be known as a guy that can really hoop.”

The Shooting Stars have a renowned NBA name off the court as well in Scarborough native Jamaal Magloire, a former 12-year veteran who was an All-Star in the 2003-04 season and currently serves as a basketball development consultant and community ambassador for the Raptors. He has been hired as the Shooting Stars’ vice president and senior advisor and has been very impressed with the humility in Cole’s approach.

“He just wants to be treated the same, which I thought was very admirable because he is a very special individual,” Magloire said. “As far as the talent that he has, he’s played this game at a professional level in Africa, so, this is his second stint. We’re bringing him in here to play, contribute, and help us win games. That’s his goal as well. It’s gonna be fun and something that is great for the city of Scarborough and Toronto.”

As far as a role is concerned, head coach Chris Exilus acknowledges that nothing is set in stone as of yet. Everyone on the team is measured by their ability to contribute to winning and how Cole fits into that will bear itself out beginning with the first game on Thurs., May 26 against the Guelph Nighthawks. In terms of what he’s been able to assess in training camp thus far, Exilus likes what he’s seen.

Drake affiliate OVO Niko poses with a basketball
OVO Niko, co-owner of the Scarborough Shooting Stars/Image via Xandrae Jermaine Ramdeen

“I think his consistency and intensity every day,” Exilus said of the traits that stand out about Cole at practice. “He plays really hard, he’s a willing learner, he’s a willing passer, good shooter, puts the ball on the floor, so, I think he has good base skills that we’re just trying to build up.”

Having all these different elements—from Carino’s association with OVO to Magloire’s former player and current coach perspective, Cole’s celebrity status and Harris’ talent—local product Kyle Alexander, who played college ball at Tennessee, is just soaking it all in along with the opportunity to play at home. He’s also noticed his ticket requests go up a notch after the announcement of Cole’s signing.

“Man, that’s not something you just expect to hear—arguably the best rapper in the game playing on your basketball team. I’m just taking it one step at a time,” Alexander said. “I appreciate him wanting to come play with us. Honestly, he’s just one of the teammates, he’s just a cool guy. 

“I think there’s a lot of kids in here, a lot of guys who need it, who may be using this [league] as an opportunity to catapult themselves somewhere else. I think the fact that he draws some extra attention doesn’t hurt anybody.”