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Prince’s love of sports, from high school roundball to Paisley Park ping-pong

Prince applauds at the French Open in 2014. (PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)
Prince applauds at the French Open in 2014. (PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)

by Hanna Bubser

September 26, 2018

Prince loved a good pair of heels. He was often found sporting them on stage or in public, along with his famously outlandish wardrobe. But occasionally he preferred sneakers over heels — so as not to scratch up the gym floor.

During his time at Bryant Junior High and into his years at Minneapolis’s Central High School, Prince was thought of as something of a basketball star. Standing 5-feet-2-inches tall, he was definitely on the shorter side for the sport, but that didn’t seem to faze him.

Friends remember students cheering Prince’s name as the point guard made his way onto the court. “I really believe [basketball] was his first love,” coach Al Nuness told the Associated Press in 2016. “He was very small. But he was quick. He could handle the ball and he could penetrate and he could dish.”

Because of those formative teenage years, it should come as no surprise that Prince forged relationships with professional basketball teams later on in his life. In 2015, after the Minnesota Lynx won the WNBA championship, Prince invited the whole team to Paisley Park, where he played a three-hour celebration show. The players were treated to nonstop music, although, in classic Prince fashion, it didn’t start until 12:30 a.m.

As for visual evidence of the legend himself dribbling the ball, it’s limited. In 2000, Prince collaborated with songwriter/rapper David “DVS” Schwartz (who toured as a member of Fonky Bald Heads on Prince’s Hit N Run Tour) and Kip Blackshire (formerly of New Power Generation) on a song called “Daisy Chain.” The music video features footage of Prince playing basketball with DVS and Blackshire, and is the only widely released video recording of him playing basketball. It can be difficult to find this video on the internet due to copyright issues, which make his on-court skills seem all the more elusive.

However, many people have vouched for Prince’s athletic ability. One of the best-known people to do so was the late comedian Charlie Murphy. In 2004, Murphy recalled a 1985 interaction with Prince for a segment called “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories” on Chappelle’s Show, on which he was a cast member and writer.

In the sketch, Chappelle portrays Prince in an epic basketball battle against Murphy and his friends. Prince’s team won, of course, and the musician ended the night by serving everyone blueberry pancakes. Prince made an image of Chappelle in costume for the sketch the cover art for his single “Breakfast Can Wait” in 2013.

The musician definitely had a way of making impressions on teams, especially in Minnesota. The Wild presented Prince with his own official jersey in 2004, and today at the Xcel Energy Center there is a permanent display honoring the musician, complete with a replica of said jersey. In 2016, the team responded to popular demand and changed their goal song — the tune that plays every time the team scores a point — from Joe Satriani’s “Crowd Chant” to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”

In 2017, longtime collaborator and friend Sheila E. told The Current that she and Prince bonded over sports. “That was one of the great connections [Prince] and I had together,” she said as she prepared to return to Minneapolis for an outdoor concert during Super Bowl LII festivities. “I was very competitive and I’d always compete with him about basketball, football, Ping-Pong, pool.” The two of them would make bets on professional teams as well: “You know, what team was going to win in the Super Bowl. We would bet on things.”

Prince liked a winner, but he nonetheless embraced his often luckless hometown heroes. In 2010, he wrote a song for the Minnesota Vikings: “Purple and Gold.” He recorded it at Paisley Park one night after attending the NFC Divisional Playoff, where the Vikings beat the Dallas Cowboys. The song was streamed on the Vikings’ website but is not available in wide release.

In a 2017 interview, Robyne Robinson told The Current about getting a call from Prince about a song he wanted her to debut on KMSP, where she worked as a news anchor. “I’m really psyched by Vikings football,” said Prince, Robinson recalled. “It was amazing: the crowd, the sound, the game. I wrote a song, and I want you to play it.”

“You’re expecting this slamming bass line,” Robinson remembered about her expectations. “It’s going to be amazing and people are going to be singing this the whole Super Bowl. It’s going to be a jam, a massively, funky jam!” Instead, “Purple and Gold” turned out to be a tepid ballad.

“That was not the seminal song for Prince,” said Robinson. “But you know, he did love sports, he loved this town. He loved everything about it, and so give him an ‘E’ for effort on that one.”

A sampling of the lyrics: “Raise every voice and let it be known / In the name of the purple and gold / We come in the name of the purple and gold / All of the odds are in our favor / No prediction too bold.” Unfortunately, the song didn’t have magical powers. That year, the Vikings would go on to lose the NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints.

Prince also made himself comfortable in the spectator’s seat at many professional sports. For example, at the 2014 French Open, Prince watched Rafael Nadal defeat Dusan Lajovic from the sidelines. On the surface, this sounds pretty normal. But with Prince involved, nothing ever is. Prince watched the tennis match while holding a silver scepter, and images of his regal presence instantly went viral.

More than any other sport, though, throughout his life ping-pong energized Prince as a participant. He battled his band 3RDEYEGIRL (according to drummer Hannah Ford Welton, he was “ridiculous at ping-pong!”), he defeated Michael Jackson and Jimmy Fallon, and even won against Zooey Deschanel’s character in an episode of New Girl. On some tours of Paisley Park today, you can channel your inner sports star and hit a few volleys on Prince’s own table.

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the October edition of The Growler.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.