Hoopology: an oral history of Prince's love of basketball


Prince Basketball
Musician Prince takes his seat for the Golden State Warriors game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at ORACLE Arena on March 3, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Al Nuness, Prince's high school basketball coach, said that "I really believe [basketball] was his first love." Throughout his life, Prince was an enthusiastic player and an ardent fan. He had a court at Paisley Park and a hoop onstage during the Lovesexy tour (and snuck a look at an offstage TV screen during a playoff game); he hosted the Minnesota Lynx and sat courtside at NBA games — and inspired a classic b-ball-centric "True Hollywood Story" on Chappelle's Show. On Saturday, April 21 — the second anniversary of Prince's passing — the Minnesota Timberwolves will play Game 3 of the first round of the 2018 playoffs at the Target Center (their first postseason appearance — and home playoff game — since 2004). It's a big day! To celebrate, here's an oral history of Prince's hoopology.


Prince [Los Angeles Times, 1982]: "My older brother [Duane] was the basketball and football star. He always had the girls around him and stuff like that. I think I must have been on a jealous trip, because I got out of sports...I wasn't bad at basketball, but my brother was better and he wouldn't let me forget it. There were other guys like that too."

Richard Robinson, Prince's coach at Bryant Junior High School [Star Tribune, July 1984]: "Prince was an excellent player; he was like the sixth or seventh man. He was an excellent ball handler, a good shooter, and very short (5 foot 2). Probably with a different group of people he would have been a starter. But, as they turned out, they were probably the best ball team that ever came along at Central. I knew he wanted to be starting and felt he should be starting. He was unhappy and he expressed that many, many times."

Jimmy Jam [Billboard, 4.26.16]: "When we met in junior high, Prince had the biggest Afro in the world. I was envious of his hair, 'cause my mom would never let me wear it like that...He was short, but he had confidence because he was a heck of a basketball player -- a point guard who could distribute, had great handles, and could shoot the lights out. Steph Curry reminds me of the way Prince played, literally. He'd run up the court and girls would scream: 'Ahhh! Prince!' It was crazy. Where we lived, Minneapolis Central [High School] was known as a basketball school, and if you could play, people respected you."

Al Nuness, Prince's coach at Minneapolis Central High School [AP, 4.22.16]: "I really believe [basketball] was his first love. He was very small. But he was quick. He could handle the ball and he could penetrate and he could dish." Prince's career ended after his sophomore season, with the guitar and the microphone beckoning, but he stayed in contact with Nuness from time to time as he rose to fame and became a reclusive celebrity. Nuness said Prince supported some of the city's AAU teams after he reached stardom. "He was a great young man," Nuness said. "He did a lot of things charitable that people didn't know, because he didn't want people to know he was doing it." (In 2004, Nuness told the Star Tribune: "Prince was a darn good basketball player. The problem is he just didn't grow.")

Jim Walsh, Minneapolis journalist and musician [GQ, December 2016]: "I played basketball with him once when we were both in high school, down at Martin Luther King Park, where a lot of pickup games happened. Central High School's basketball team were the rock stars of the neighborhood, the toasts of Minneapolis basketball. His brother Duane always wore those cool blue Puma Clydes. [Prince] was really quick. He had an Afro. He looked like all those dudes on that Central team — they were just smooth and quick and cool as hell. That basketball team was so cool and funky, a very mythic kind of boyhood basketball team. I just think that Petri dish of '70s, funk, and hoops — you drop a child prodigy in with a vision all his own into that Petri dish, and I think that is why we're talking about him today."

André Cymone [GQ, December 2016]: "He knew all the basketball players at the time. Whenever he'd shoot, he'd say some player's name. Like, 'Nate Archibald!' "


David "DVS" Schwartz, a songwriter/rapper/visual artist who worked with Prince in 2000 and toured as a member of the Fonky Bald Heads on Prince's 2001 USA Hit N Run Tour; he raps on "The Daisy Chain," from The Slaughterhouse, an mp3-only album released in 2004 through the NPG Music Club now available on Tidal; the video for the song features footage of Prince playing basketball with Schwartz, Prince's keyboardist Morris Hayes, Larry Graham, and others [Billboard, 6.7.16]:

So how did you come to play basketball with Prince?

"We would be at Paisley recording songs. I'd be watching them rehearse, or we'd be rehearsing for the tour. He had a basketball court right in the middle of Paisley next to the studio. [Keyboardist] Kip [Blackshire] and I would just start playing. You kind of have to pass through the basketball court to get to the other rooms. He used it as a rehearsal space for dancers sometimes; it had mirrors on the wall. I didn't really know he played — this was before the whole Dave Chappelle thing. He just came through one day and just started picking up games with Kip and I. We used to play 21 almost every other day. We must have played over 100 games during that year or two out there. It became a thing with us three all the time. It was fun. He was good."

So the basketball was a way of burning off energy in between music?

"We'd go out there knowing we were probably gonna play. If we were gonna record, basketball was always implied. We always had extra gym clothes in the car. We would take a break after a few hours of recording and rehearsing and play for like an hour, then go back to work."

Tell me about his game.

"He was a trash talker. He would try to make you miss every time he would shoot. Obviously he wasn't tall enough to swat you, so he would say weird things, make a weird noise, or he would run around you in a circle — anything he could to distract you. It worked for a while; then I got used to it and ignored it."

So I guess he was more of a shot specialist, a three-point guy, and not so much in the paint?

"Actually he was, though — because he was so quick, he could shake you with a crossover, fake you out. He was good with layups, like a small point guard would be. He was pretty good in the paint, actually. We played a couple games of two-on-two and three-on-three every now and then, with the other band members. I don't think we ever ran a full court, because it was only a half-court."

Scrub to 5:37 to see Prince in action. See stills from the video


[Notorious magazine, 1999]: "The Artist is a basketball fanatic, so inside the room where his band rehearses every day, a net and backboard are mounted on the wall; he's known to take on all comers. (Once, during a concert in Montreal, the Chicago Bulls were in game three of the playoffs and he was watching the game from a TV at the side of the stage while he played guitar solos. He had his wardrobe girl draw up big cards and flash the score at him.)"

Jon Bream [Star Tribune, 10.15.15]: "[Prince] performed and partied with a roomful of superstars and World Champions — the Minnesota Lynx WNBA champs — for three hours (no doubt, one hour for each of the Lynx's championships). Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, MVP Sylvia Fowles and others.

"The championship series went a hard-fought five games and Prince, who attended the decisive game Wednesday at Target Center, responded with one of the longest and most joyful performances at Paisley Park in years.

"Prince started the party with 'Purple Rain' shortly after 12:30 a.m. even though the champs hadn't arrived yet. Within a few hits including 'Let's Go Crazy,' he was showing his respect, congratulating the Lynx 'on a job well done.' On the two video screens in the NPG Music Club, a newly made slide featured the Lynx logo and the words '2015 WNBA Champions.'

"The players arrived in time, causing the invite-only crowd of Lynx staffers and Target Center personnel to grow to maybe 150...After two hours of nonstop music, the Lynx were knocked out.

" 'I didn't expect this party,' Moore said.

"What did she think of the performance?

" 'Unbelievable.'

"Of course, the Lynx didn't realize it was just halftime.

"After 25 minutes of disc spinning from DJ Mike, Prince and his band returned for another set that could best be described as a loud jam...[T]hree minutes before 4 a.m. Prince, the party man in black with a black stocking cap, bowed, walked off the stage and headed into the crowd. When he got into the middle of the dancefloor, he feigned like he was going to fall over from exhaustion. He steadied himself and marched off like a champion."

[After his death in 2016, Lynx star Lindsay Whalen tweeted, "RIP Prince. I'll never forget the explosion in the locker room when we found out he was performing for us after game 5 last season. I will always be grateful for his generosity that evening to perform for us. It was truly amazing."]

[AP, 4.22.16]: During the recently completed NBA regular season, Prince received a royal welcome while sitting courtside at Oracle Arena for a highly anticipated game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the record-chasing Golden State Warriors on March 3.

Looking as cool as ever wearing sunglasses inside, Prince smiled as he received a standing ovation from the crowd. He was in Oakland for a concert at the Oracle the following night, which was attended by Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green; [after Prince's death, Green tweeted]: "RIP Prince! Had the pleasure of seeing him in concert last month in Oakland. One of the best shows I've ever seen!!! Rest up legend!! WOW!!"


A late night pickup game in Los Angeles in 1985 inspired the 2004 Chappelle's Show "True Hollywood Stories" sketch, featuring Dave Chappelle sporting a purple outfit and a very frilly blouse — and the skills of a basketball savant. Some memorable lines: "You know where you got that shirt from. And it damn sure wasn't the men's department"; "Why don't you purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka?"

Prince sat courtside with Dave Chappelle at the 2007 NBA All-Star Game; a photo of Chappelle-as-Prince — holding a plate of pancakes — was used on the cover of the 2013 single "Breakfast Can Wait." Chappelle said, "That's a Prince judo move right there. You make fun of Prince in a sketch and he'll just use you in his album cover. What am I going to do — sue him for using a picture of me dressed up like him? That's checkmate right there."

Micki Free, a guitarist who was a member of Shalamar [Esquire.com, 4.21.17; the intro notes, "In Prince, Free found a freaky kindred spirit. They both wore makeup and high heels, and absolutely shredded guitars. The pair instantly clicked, and when Prince held court in Los Angeles, the multi-platinum behemoth made sure that Free was in the mix. From 1983 to 1989, whenever Prince was on the West Coast, he'd call up Free"]: "Charlie Murphy wasn't lying. Everything that happened in that [sketch] was for real. We went back to Prince's house after [going to a club]. It was 1985, and there was a bunch of girls with Eddie [Murphy], myself, Charlie — rest in peace — and some other guys. And out of nowhere Prince says, 'Do you guys want to play basketball?' Me and Charlie and Eddie are looking at each other like, what the hell? And Prince goes, 'Me, Micki, and Gilbert against you, Eddie, and Uncle Ray.'

"We played three-on-three. I don't remember if we changed our clothes, but I know for certain that Prince did not change his. He didn't gear up to play. If anything changed beyond the blouses, it was his heels. Prince changed into some tennis shoes. All I remember is when Prince made that first shot, it was all-net. I'm looking at him make shot after shot, like, 'What the hell?' Then at the end they really did make us pancakes — blueberry pancakes. And they were good! Hanging out with Prince was magical."

Charlie Murphy [New York Post, 8.2513]: "People have been asking me, 'Is it a joke?' It's not. The story was true, and the pancakes were off-the-hook. If Prince came out with a pancake line, he could compete with IHOP."

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