The relationship between hip-hop and the NBA tends to look like one of mutual admiration, and perhaps a bit of imitation. NBA players want to rap, and rappers want to ball, but tend to settle on being friendly with each other. Figures like Drake and Lil Wayne are fixtures on NBA sidelines, and plenty of NBA players associate regularly with hip-hop stars in their social lives.
But while plenty of NBA players have tried their hands at rapping, and plenty of hip-hop artists have appeared in celebrity pickup games, it’s rare to see someone who can actually pull off both talents. Right now though, there’s a major exception in the NBA, and he goes by the name of Damian Lillard.
The winner of this year’s Magic Johnson Award (given for combining excellence of play and dignity dealing with the media and public), Lillard has always been a bit of a surprise. He came up through Weber State University, a school known for occasional NCAA Tournament berths, but not for churning out superstars. He was drafted sixth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, and it didn’t take long for him to become the unofficial franchise player for the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s one of the best small school products in the NBA, perhaps second only to Stephen Curry (who hails from Davidson).
This season, Lillard was supposed to have the Blazers in contention. Predictors saw the Northwest Division as a tight race between the Utah Jazz and the Blazers, and while Lillard’s club ultimately came up short, he still helped propel the team to the playoffs. That feat, despite some injury issues and roster turnover at the league trade deadline, only helped to solidify Lillard as one of the true stars of the modern NBA. While he’s had good teammates come and go, he’s also singlehandedly turned the Blazers into a very respectable organization.
Along the way he’s also cultivated a pretty impressive reputation as a legitimate rapper. He who puts real effort into his work, compiles albums, and even earns praise from some of the best in the business. His biggest endorsement probably came following the release of his first official album last October, when Lil Wayne offered some thoughtful praise. By the sound of things, Lil Wayne has been a little annoyed in the past when athletes trying out rap have attempted to match some kind of stereotypical rap persona. Lillard, by contrast, just raps as himself, and even throws in some positive verses (which aren’t always common in the genre).
Don’t just take Lil Wayne’s word for it though. You can stream the album (called “The Letter O”) online, and you’ll find guest appearances from the likes of Juvenile, Jamie Foxx, and, of course, Lil Wayne. The album earned a largely positive response, suggesting that if Lillard does ever tire of being one of the best guards in the NBA, he could have a legitimate second career in music.
At the very least it’s nice to see the rare athlete-to-hip-hop crossover that actually works out.
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