Basketball and rap have always been intertwined. Hoopers want to rap and rappers want to hoop. In the case of Grammy-winning artist J. Cole, he’s been linked with the basketball community since he stepped on the scene, whether it’s playing pickup in the summer with NBA players or name-dropping a superstar in his work. Just listen to his last album, The Off-Season, where he referenced Ja Morant, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Dennis Smith Jr., and LeBron James. J. Cole has always had a love for the game of basketball, and on Sunday the sideline stories became reality as he suited up professionally in the Basketball Africa League.
Ben Uzoh, a former NBA player for the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors, had the opportunity of matching up with J. Cole on Sunday.
“MAN, I think he got away with a foul one time,” Uzoh told Complex.
The 2016 Olympian has played at the highest level in the world and ranked Sunday’s game as one of his top experiences in his career. We caught up with Uzoh after he battled against J. Cole and the Rwanda Patriots to talk about the experience, what it means for the league, and much more.
You’ve played Division I basketball, in the NBA, Olympics, and FIBA World Cup. Where does this experience rank?
It’s up there. It’s a great opportunity to push the game forward in Africa. There were so many kids tuned in that now have an opportunity to set a goal for themselves. This infrastructure is one of a kind, and I’m so glad to be a part of it.
My follow-up to that: You’ve played against some of the best players in the world, like LeBron, KD, Melo during your NBA and Olympic experience. Where does playing against J. Cole rank?
It’s probably right beneath those because here he is just wanting to fulfill his dream as a professional basketball player and helping push the game on the continent with his buzz, clout, reputation, and who he is as an entertainer. It was an honor to be lined up with a guy like him.
I texted you when I found out J. Cole was playing against y’all. I was shocked. What was your first reaction to finding out?
I was shocked and I was excited just because I knew the angle BAL, FIBA, and the NBA wanted to take in wanting him to be a part of it. He’s been up there in New York. He’s really tied in with some of the NBA guys that go and workout there. I’m sure there were talks and developments that happened well beyond just a couple weeks ago when he said he was going to sign. The angle he took, I was definitely excited.
You were matched up with him a couple times during the game with him guarding you. How would you breakdown his play?
MAN, I think he got away with a foul one time. [Laughs.] Without being so critical of him, I take it back to how he was able to suit up with a lot of professionals who represent their countries on this continent. He was able to represent Rwanda and the Patriots and even North Carolina. I’d rather hang it on that, so shout-out to J. Cole and everything he brought for this inaugural season.
Usually teams have scouting reports on every player on a roster. Did you guys have any idea on what to expect? His strengths and weaknesses.
For sure, I seen a couple of clips when he was out there in New York and playing in some of the pickup runs with some of those NBA guys. I said, “Man, he could kinda shoot a little bit, so we wanna keep an honest contest when he has the ball in his hand.” I’m not sure how his fast twitch is like and all that, but he has a basketball background. I think he was getting ready to walk on at St. John’s. A lot of that with a grain of salt and trying to give respect to people, he was definitely on our scouting report.
People forget J. Cole is 36 years old. Do you think if this was 10 years ago, he’d have a chance at a real pro basketball career from what you saw?
Potentially. Why not? I think he would’ve had more time to maximize his opportunities. Obviously, you don’t know where things will fall, but when you try to pursue something at a younger age, you just have more time on your hands to put effort into that.
How big is it for the African league to get attention like this? You’ve been a part of bringing Nigeria basketball to relevance on a global scale, but how big is this for everyone to be watching, even if it’s for J. Cole?
I think it’s huge, man. I think this is like the way the NBA and Toronto Raptors got together and they assigned Master P sign a preseason deal, knowing he had a basketball background and he gave up his [basketball] career to pursue entertainment and his successful rap career. It was an opportunity to continue to build the business side in Toronto. This African league is sponsored by FIBA and the NBA, so it’s a business opportunity for them to push the game forward. I don’t think there was a better name to have than J. Cole.
Are you a J. Cole fan?
Absolutely. Me and one of my sisters went to a concert of his. I definitely respect his humility and storytelling. He’s one of my favorite rappers. He’s just a different guy. He’s really woke on a lot of issues that take place in the world.
You listened to his new album?
It’s something I still gotta dissect, but just hearing the songs I heard, the Twitter reviews, and my group chats, it’s something that he took his time and energy with. I’ve seen various documentaries that he’s put together on the side as well to build momentum toward release, so it’s amazing. Any project he drops, you gotta be all ears.
J. Cole warming up to his own music. A flex. pic.twitter.com/gBVR0GXiFS— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) May 16, 2021
You say what’s up to him after the game?
Nah, but he’s around. For the most part, I keep it professional. He’s in the hotel, he’s in the bubble, he’s on campus. We get to say wassup in passing, but it’s nothing over the top.
Ain’t no shame in that. That’s still a legend.
Absolutely, but he got bodyguards and all that, but he’s a real down-to-earth guy, so I’m sure we’ll connect here in the next couple days.