Jay-Z at Rucker Park in New York City (Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
MUSIC

Jay-Z, Fat Joe, and the Greatest Basketball Game That Never Was

Taking rap beef to the blacktop, the duo was set for a star-studded streetball showdown at Rucker Park 18 years ago today. Then, everything went black.

In the early 2000s, Jay-Z and Fat Joe each had a hold on both the rap game and their home of New York City at large.

Needless to say, they weren’t friends.

Embroiled in beef and competing for territory on the Billboard charts and in the Five Boroughs, it eventually came to pass that the two artists had to take their rivalry to the only place that New York power players could truly settle it.

No, not the booth to make diss records. No, not Hot 97 to call each other names. Rather, they agreed to meet at Harlem’s Holcombe Rucker Playground — better known as Rucker Park — to have their two hoop squads compete in the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic.

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Coming off back-to-back Blueprint albums and a Reebok shoe release, Jay-Z had plenty of clout and plenty to promote. Facing off against Fat Joe’s Terror Squad team at the EBC wasn’t just the climax of a war of words between the two rappers; it was all part of Jay-Z’s marketing plan to push both his signature footwear and his upcoming record.

“Jay reached out to me with an idea to do a commercial for this Reebok sneaker,” hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy recalled to Sports Illustrated. “He also wanted me to do a documentary on his basketball team. That sneaker was selling, and the whole excitement around that tournament was giving credence to the shoe.”

After debuting in April 2003, the S. Carter was Reebok’s fastest-selling shoe of all time. Jay-Z’s introductory signature shoe sold for $150 a pop and was based on Gucci’s hustler-approved tennis silo from 1984. Early runs of the pairs came packaged with a CD that included snippets of The Black Album months before its release.

While the S. Carter crushed upon arrival, Jay and Reebok — the lead sponsor of the EBC — had plenty of pairs they needed to move for both back-to-school and the holiday season.

Uptown in the Bronx, Fat Joe was having a sneaker situation of his own. While already famous for the Terror Squad exclusive Air Force 1s sent to Nike by his crew, Joe was inches away from being the first artist to have a collaboration with Jordan Brand.

Jay and Joe weren’t just stepping on each other’s toes on the charts; they were competing for clout in the shoe game.

Michael Jordan and Fat Joe at the 2005 Michael Jordan Classic Basketball Game in New York City, 2005 (Johnny Nunez/WireImage)

“I was supposed to be the first artist ever to collaborate with Jordan,” Joe said an interview with radio DJ Lord Sear, as reported by William Ketchum III. “I met with him like six times, we were coming up with the design and everything. That’s when [my] 50 Cent beef was really, really on. We had went at it in the [MTV VMA] awards show. From Michael Jordan’s mouth himself, he was like, ‘I want to do it, but you know, I’m not into the rap beef and all these problems and this and that. That was it, that’s where it backed out of.”

Beef may have kept Joe from getting his own Air Jordans, but it didn’t stop him from going at Jay-Z.

“You know, me and Jay-Z, we infamous for taking shots at each other,” Joe said in the incredibly thorough The Blackout documentary. “We infamous for taking little jabs at each other.”

Those jabs on records and through interviews quickly fueled a recruiting war when the two began assembling their crews for that summer’s EBC season.

With Joe hailing from the Bronx and Hov repping BK, the two titans of hip-hop looked far beyond their boroughs when assembling their rosters.

For Fat Joe, his Terror Squad front court featured the likes of All-NBA paint patrons like Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph, and Shawn Marion. Friend of the program Stephen Jackson was known to run the wing, while Stephon Marbury, who notably ranked among the highest-paid players in the league at that time, controlled the point.

“At the Rucker, we won seven chips,” Joe recalled recently on the “All the Smoke” podcast with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes. “We were going to win.”

Jay-Z had other plans. Pulling local legends from Queens and Brooklyn, Lamar Odom led Team S. Carter in early exhibitions, while high school phenom Sebastian Telfair was picked up later on. In many cases, the prodigy point guard not yet old enough to have a beer at 40/40 was quite literally picked up.

“He’d call you, he’d e-mail you,” Telfair told SI when reflecting on the summer before his senior year. “If I couldn’t get all the way out there, he’d make sure to have a car come pick me up.”

The stage was set at the start of the summer, but both rappers remained competitive in building their rosters. Kenyon Martin came to play for Team S. Carter, later rocking Hov’s hoop shoes from Reebok in the NBA.

The pressure mounted for Joe when Jay-Z pulled in the NBA Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, LeBron James. He soon became a fixture on the Rucker sidelines, though it was assumed that he’d be saved for the championship game.

With that in mind, Joe worked quickly.

Carmelo Anthony wanted to come because LeBron James was on Jay-Z’s team,” recalled Joe. “They wanted to get at it.”

The countermoves and recruiting wars continued.

“I don’t ever answer unavailable calls, but I pick up a call and it’s Jay-Z on the phone,” Jamal Crawford retold on Knuckleheads. “He says, ‘You’ve gotta come to Rucker and play, but we can’t lose. We cannot lose.’ The first game, I throw it off the backboard, go dunk, and throw up the Roc afterwards.”

Joe took notice.

“Jamal Crawford was de-stroying out there,” Joe recalled on ATS. “It was disrespectful.”

As the summer games at Rucker continued, the heat leading up to the championship mounted. And thanks to a new rule instituted that summer, EBC managers could bring in any player they wanted for the finals.

“If we get anywhere near the championship game, I promise problems,” Jay said that summer.

In the time leading up to the showdown, Jay-Z would hint at the “problems” he had in store for Joe.

At one game, Jay arrived at Gaucho’s Gym with a young King James and All-Star status players like Antoine Walker and Tracy McGrady. The S. Carter entourage entered the gym like TMT at a Floyd Mayweather fight at MGM.

For Hov, it was not only bragging rights, it was business. Jay-Z left the Roc the Mic Tour just to appear at EBC that summer, looking to add buzz to his famed 40/40 Club and his Reebok S. Carter sneaker launch. He would appear at games with then-girlfriend Beyoncé by his side, coaching from the bench with Diddy, Steve Stoute, and LeBron’s crew all close by.

One can only imagine the business gems a young Maverick Carter picked up while in attendance.

As the August 14th championship game approached, both artists armored their rosters with plenty more pros. Rumors swirled of Fat Joe’s already loaded front court would be made even bigger by Chris Webber, Amar’e Stoudemire, and yes, Yao Ming. Joe’s backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Kareem “The Best Kept Secret” Reid was set to start the championship game with well-known subs coming in at intermission.

“The surprise I did have waiting at 57th Street was Mike Bibby and Allen Iverson when they were playing for the US Team,” Joe shared on ATS. “By the first quarter, I was going to drive down to go get them and come back at the Rucker so at halftime AI and Mike Bibby would walk in.”

TEAM S. CARTER
Possible Starting 5
G: Sebastian Telfair
G: Jamal Crawford
F: LeBron James
F: Lamar Odom
C: Shaquille O’Neal
TEAM TERROR SQUAD
Possible Starting 5
G: Allen Iverson
G: Stephon Marbury
F: Carmelo Anthony
F: Jermaine O’Neal
C: Yao Ming

While Mike Bibby and Allen Iverson waited close by on a bus playing spades, Jay-Z had arranged travel for Shaquille O’Neal to arrive in time for the showdown as the city started to swarm the park.

“The game was at like 6:00,” recalls Jamal; others have recalled the start time being more like 8 p.m. “Jay rolled past the Rucker at 2, and there was already 10,000 people out there.”

The lines reportedly started at 10 a.m.

Back in Manhattan, Team S. Carter congregated at Baseline Studios. Jay-Z brought a stack of cash — said to be a quarter-million dollars — with no plans of losing or handing over the wager. He hopped on the team bus along with LeBron and Jamal, Shaq said to be waiting nearby and Joe’s team also on their way.

And then, the power went out.

It was 18 years ago today.

With thousands of fans in attendance and thousands of dollars on the line, the teams arrived at Rucker Park with the city experiencing its biggest blackout since 1977. Downtown, the United Nations headquarters had gone dark.

The city’s most important sporting event of the summer was suddenly in the balance.

Attempting to save the day, Jay-Z reportedly lined up cars to light up the court so the game could happen, including his S. Carter van. The police weren’t having it, canceling the game that fateful night.

While the park did not have power, somehow Hot 97 did. As talent fled Harlem, trash talk between Joe, LeBron, and Shaq hit the airwaves as the ballers and rappers ripped each other in studio and through phones.

Even though fans couldn’t even heat up popcorn in the microwave, they enjoyed the audio entertainment from their cars as the radios still worked.

The next morning, the power was back on.

Even though most places only experienced outages for around seven hours, the power grid failure not only shut down New York City, it caused blackouts from Canada to Connecticut. Reports cite that the Big Apple alone took a $6 billion financial hit due to the outage.

In short order, the game was rescheduled for the following Monday.

However, Jay -Z was already on vacation with Beyoncé on a yacht in Saint Tropez.

Fat Joe’s team showed up, waiting two hours before the refs called the game and awarded Joe’s team the win by forfeit. The contest was rumored to be rescheduled again in September at Madison Square Garden, but the acceptance of the forfeit and various NBA and NCAA imperatives kept it from happening.

The no-show win was immortalized on Joe’s 2004 hit “Lean Back,” letting the world know his team “didn’t have to play to win the championship.”

For years after, Jay and Joe didn’t speak — not even while on the same elevator.

Fat Joe with the Terror Squad streetball team at Rucker Park, 2005 (Diane Bondareff/Yahoo via Getty Images)

Though some could say Joe won the battle that summer, Jay won the war that year. Reebok moved 5,000 pairs of S. Carter shoes over the course of that summer, and The Black Album dropped to rave reviews in the fall. On the album’s 10th track, “Public Service Announcement,” Jay would reference a quote from S. Carter member and EBC legend John “Franchise” Strickland — “Dude, finish your breakfast” — forever immortalizing the streetball star.

In 2010, Strick passed away, with Nike later releasing an Air Force 1 in his memory with a nod to his famous words.

While the beef between Jay-Z and Fat Joe may have made for great marketing and even better theater, the two artists turned coaches look at it differently these days.

“Before the game, Jay and I had beef,” Joe reminisced on “All the Smoke.” “It was all my fault, to be honest with you, just being crazy and flexing out here.”

“The beef does not work because you go to being on high alert and bringing 20 guys wherever you go across the country,” he said. “If we’re in the ATL Four Seasons, that’s 20 suites in the Four Seasons. We’re on two busses, we’re on two private planes. All of a sudden, you’ve got to move different and you wake up every morning thinking, ‘Is today the day that we’re about to go at it?’ All that energy? It does nothing for you. It never benefitted a thing for me. I never made a dollar out of it. If anything it made me spend more money and waste more frustration and stress.”

While Joe’s team won by forfeit, he’s quick to call out that Jay’s secret weapon could have changed the outcome had the lights stayed on.

“If they had Shaq, I’d say they win,” admitted Joe. “I’m not dizzy, I’m not crazy. You’ve got Shaquille O’Neal at that time? You’re winning, nobody’s gonna stop him.”

Fat Joe with Jay-Z at NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, 2017 (Michael J. LeBrecht II /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

In 2021, Joe and Jay are no longer rivals but rather friends. The two made up in the 2010s, commemorated on record by the remix to Fat Joe’s smash single, “All the Way Up.” To this day, the two still talk.

“I wish I was his friend 10 years ago,” Joe shared in 2018 with Hot New Hip Hop. “He’s a great guy and we text each other on Christmas and New Year’s, and we tell each other how beautiful it is have such a close relationship. I wish we would’ve been friends sooner.”

Joe is also cool with 50 Cent, thanking God for time to heal all old wounds even if it cost him an Air Jordan collaboration.

The Entertainer’s Basketball Classic still takes place at Rucker Park in 2021, with the evolved EBC selling merch and streaming content online. Still, one has to wonder what a showdown between New York’s biggest personalities, the NBA’s All-Stars and the spirit of the Rucker would’ve felt like.

“That would have been the craziest outdoor game ever,” recalled Jamal Crawford.

18 years on, we can still only imagine.