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Cole’s love of basketball has been a source of inspiration throughout his music. He uses metaphors to bring the worlds of rap and ball together, portrayed in artworks for The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights, Cole World: The Sideline Story, and his latest album The Off-Season. His progression from the sidelines to the spotlight proves he can sit at the intersection of sports and hip-hop. Confidence comes with repetition and Cole made this point clear during his Applying Pressure: The Off-Season documentary. 

“When I really, really fell in love with rap, it was a matter of sport,” he said. “I started realizing the parallels between the rapping for me and basketball. I gotta operate at a high skill level and the only way you’re going to operate at a high skill level is putting in the hours and the practice. So it’s like coming down to The Off-Season, it was the same mentality, it’s like, ‘Damn, this is the time to get better.’” 

Cole is no longer at a fork in the road. After years of hard work in the gym, Cole made his professional debut in the Basketball Africa League playing for the Rwanda Patriots BBC over the weekend, a mere two days after he released The Off-Season, which made headlines on NBA and basketball websites for his references to Russell Westbrook, Ja Morant, LeBron James, and others.

The thing is, Cole has been sneaking in sports references in his lyrics for a while. It comes pretty natural from someone who not only loves basketball, but football, wrestling, and even chess. (American chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer does get a shout on The Come Up.) Now as an official rookie, some of these lyrics where Cole is showing love to the players mean more. 

To celebrate The Off-Season and J. Cole’s arrival in the BAL, here are the North Carolina native’s best sports rap references.