The Scarborough Shooting Stars came within one basket of winning the Canadian Elite Basketball (CEBL) title on Sunday, losing to the Hamilton Honey Badgers by just two points after a run of 17 unanswered in the fourth quarter. Despite their heartbreaking loss, Scarborough’s season should still be considered a success – the teams reached the playoffs in the league’s first year, and the high-scoring duo of Jalen Harris and Kassius Robertson are a dynamic backcourt to build around. . . Harris even scored 31 points against Dallas Mavericks led by Luka Doncic. However, despite his NBA pedigree, Harris isn’t even the most famous guard on his team. That distinction falls to Grammy-winning rap artist J Cole. Or, more accurately in this context, 6ft 3in Shooting Stars guard Jermaine Cole.
Hip hop and basketball have had an ongoing relationship since the former emerged in New York in the 1970s. Kurtis Blow, who is famous for being the first commercially successful rap artist, famously announced in the 1980s that his favorite sport was basketball, 90s rap mogul Master P played on the preseason squads for the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors, and platinum-selling artist 2 Chainz. released a 2010 album titled Rap or Go to the League. Even when comedian Dave Chappelle humorously noted that rapping or playing basketball seemed to be the only two ways to make it out of America’s inner cities. And yet, even with hip hop’s long established relationship with basketball, there was probably no one who better illustrates the connection than J Cole.
“Jermaine Cole,” corrects Ansh Sanyal, CEBL senior marketing director. “That’s his basketball name.”
Basketball has been a big part of Cole’s life since childhood. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2013, he said, “I always loved basketball as a kid, but I thought I was a lot better than I really was.” He also admits that although he played on his high school team, he was not a star. He also didn’t make the cut when he tried out for the college team at St. John’s University during his freshman year. It was at that point that Cole decided to turn his full attention to a career in music. Basketball, however, always remained in the background.
Cole’s rap fame eventually allowed him to play in settings where the general public noticed his basketball talent. His pass of comedian Kevin Hart in the legendary 2012 NBA All-Star game is one of the best highlights of the (oft-remembered) event ever. Eventually, Cole was able to leave novelty basketball behind for professional competition in the CEBL.
It is reasonable to conclude that Cole’s CEBL career was established primarily for non-basketball reasons (ie, marketing). The situation allowed Cole to realize his dream of playing professional basketball as a sort of mid-life aspirational project. Cole’s presence, not so coincidentally, would bring him the kind of media attention he wouldn’t otherwise have received, the equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising.
Sanyal is keen to point out that the marketing benefits were not the main reason for signing Cole. “The biggest thing was: ‘Can he play? Can he stand up?” says Sanal. “And it seemed to be, so it was.”
This is, of course, what a marketing director is supposed to say. Suddenly, Cole is a 37-year-old musician who was a good, but not great, high school player. The data does not provide much supporting evidence for his basketball skills either. For example, Cole is one of two players on the Shooting Stars who did not play college basketball (guard Sarunas Vasiliakuskas is from Lithuania, where college basketball is less relevant. He played on the national team of formerly Lithuania). In addition, the CEBL skews young and Cole is much older than most other players on the team. Cole seems to be amused by his single-figure scoring tendencies. After hitting two three-pointers against the Newfoundland Growers, he took to Instagram to say he was “broken [his] previous career high.”
And what do players and coaches say about Cole’s skills? He played in practice sessions with the women’s team at St John’s to help them sharpen their skills. His teammates saw him as a competent player: “I thought he was decent,” former St. John’s player Monique McLean told Bleacher Report in 2017. “His best thing was going to the basket, because he it’s kind of tall and long. Finishing around the basket, he could shoot a little.”
Fred Quartlebaum, who was an assistant coach of the men’s team during Cole’s time at St John’s, praised the rapper for “working hard and doing really good things”, but added: “I think he made the right choice, in terms of musical life”.
In fact, the more one examines the story, the harder it is to believe that it exists for any other commercial purpose.
This is not the first time these questions have been raised. In 2021, Cole played for the Rwanda Patriots of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and many of the same concerns arose. “I think [Cole] he took somebody’s job that he deserves,” guard Terrell Stoglin said at the time. Stoglin is a former University of Maryland standout who played for Sale AS BAL during Cole’s tenure with the Patriots. “For a guy who has that much money and has another career to come here and average, like, one point a game and get glory, it’s very disrespectful to the game. It’s disrespectful to the people who sacrificed their whole lives for it.”
While Stoglin’s comments may reflect the feelings of some players — after all, Cole is taking on a roster that could go to a young player in need of more jobs and a chance to break into the professional game — he didn’t play on Cole’s. team. The rapper’s teammates seem to appreciate him, including those players whose presence affects their playing time the most.
“me was in that position,” says Scarborough forward Olu Famutimi. “In the CEBL, you only have 10 active players for each game, and there were games [in which Cole played] I didn’t make that 10-man roster. I was fine with it. Yes, I wanted to play but, as a vet, I understood.”
At 38, (the only player older than Cole on the Shooting Stars) Famutimi’s comments are informed by a lot of experience. In 2003, he became the first Canadian named to the McDonald’s All-American team, and would go on to represent Canada at the Olympics and play against some of the greatest players of all time, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. (“Dwyane Wade was the toughest opponent I ever defended,” Famutimi says. “Every shot he took, I felt like I was competing on his knees.”)
Famutimi played college basketball in the United States, played in various leagues around the world (France, Germany, and Turkey were favorites), and played NBA (preseason) basketball. And, in his informed opinion, Cole’s presence was a good thing for the team.
“When I heard about it [Cole’s signing]just like anyone else like me: ‘This is probably a good marketing scheme.’ [But] during training camp, when he was working hard, sweating like everyone else, buying into the concepts of the team… 100% he earned the respect of all of us. He fought and played hard to get on the court.”
Cole’s stay in the CEBL was short-lived. He only played four games before he left to play (music) at some of the big festivals next summer. But Famutimi believes Cole’s time with the Shooting Stars was a rewarding experience for everyone involved. “We wanted him to stay,” he says.
Cole was just as enthusiastic as his teammates. “I’m on a team with a lot of great people,” he said. “And the league – what they’re letting me come in here and do, and experience, is priceless, so I appreciate it.”
Whatever his merits as a player, Cole was influential. “I am grateful to Jermaine Cole … for bringing that evidence to the CEBL,” says Sanyal. “What [Cole’s presence] There was a lot of focus on showing the product that we were confident in … it’s really good basketball.”
This is, of course, what a marketing director is supposed to say. But many CEBL fans and players – including Cole – could argue that it’s also true.