Was J Cole’s move from hip-hop to pro basketball a mere marketing stunt?

<span>Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Reuters

The Scarborough Shooting Stars came within a single basket of winning the Canadian Elite Basketball League (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 team made it to the championship game in their first year in the league, and the high-scoring duo of Jalen Harris and Kassius Robertson are a dynamic backcourt around which to build. Harris even once scored 31 points against the Luka Doncic-led Dallas Mavericks. Yet, despite his NBA pedigree, Harris is not even the most well-known 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 maintained their ongoing relationship ever since the former first emerged in 1970s New York. Kurtis Blow, widely regarded as rap’s first commercially successful artist, famously announced in the 1980s that basketball was his favorite sport, 90s rap mogul Master P played on the preseason squads for both the Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors, and platinum-selling artist 2 Chainz released a 2010s album called Rap or Go to the League. Comedian Dave Chappelle even once humorously observed that it seemed like rapping or playing basketball were the only two ways to make it out of America’s inner cities. And yet, even with hip hop’s well-established relationship with basketball, there’s probably never been anyone who better personifies the connection than J Cole.

Jermaine Cole,” corrects Ansh Sanyal, the CEBL’s senior marketing director. “That’s his basketball name.”

Basketball has been a big part of Cole’s life since childhood. In a 2013 interview with Sports Illustrated, he said, “I was always in love with basketball as a kid, but I thought I was way better than I really was.” He also admits that, although he did play on his high school team, he wasn’t a star. Neither did he 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 fully turn his attention toward a career in music. Basketball, however, always remained in the background.

Cole’s rap fame eventually allowed him to play in settings where his basketball talent was noticed by the broader public. His alley-oop on a pass from comedian Kevin Hart in the 2012 NBA All-Star celebrity game is one of the best highlights the (often unmemorable) event has ever produced. Eventually, Cole was able to leave novelty basketball behind for professional competition in the CEBL.

It’s reasonable to conclude that Cole’s career in the CEBL was established primarily for non-basketball (ie, marketing) reasons. The situation offered Cole a chance to live out his dream of playing professional basketball as a sort of midlife vanity project. Cole’s presence, not so coincidentally, would allow the CEBL the kind of media attention it wouldn’t have received otherwise, equivalent to millions of dollars in advertising.

Sanyal is keen to stress that the marketing benefits were not the primary reason for Cole’s signing. “The big thing was: ‘Can he play? Can he hold up?’” says Sanyal. “And it seemed like yes, that was the case.”

This is, of course, what a marketing director is supposed to say. Bluntly, Cole is a 37-year-old musician who was a good, but not great, high school player. The data doesn’t provide much supporting evidence for his basketball skills either. For example, Cole is one of only two players on the Shooting Stars who didn’t play college basketball (guard Sarunas Vasiliakuskas is from Lithuania, where college basketball is less relevant. He previously played on Lithuania’s national team). Additionally, the CEBL skews young and Cole is much older than most other players on the team. Even Cole seems to have a sense of humor about his single-digit scoring tendencies. After hitting two three-pointers against the Newfoundland Growlers, he posted to Instagram that he’d “shattered [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 sharpen their skills. His peers 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 just getting to the basket, because he’s kind of tall and long. Finishing around the basket, he could shoot a little bit.”

Fred Quartlebaum, who was assistant coach on the men’s team during Cole’s time at St John’s, praised the rapper for “working hard and doing some really, really good things”, but added: “I think he made the right choice, in terms of a music career”.

Indeed, the more one examines the situation, the more difficult it becomes to believe he’s there for anything other than commercial purposes.

This isn’t the first time these issues have been raised. In 2021, Cole played for the Rwanda Patriots of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and many of the same concerns emerged. “I think [Cole] took someone’s job that deserves it,” guard Terrell Stoglin said at the time. Stoglin is a former University of Maryland standout who played for the BAL’s AS Sale during Cole’s stint with the Patriots. “For a guy who has so much money and has another career to just come here and average, like, one point a game and still get glorified is very disrespectful to the game. It’s disrespectful to the ones who sacrificed their whole lives for this.”

J Cole’s Scarborough Shooting Stars made it to this season’s championship game
J Cole’s Scarborough Shooting Stars made it to this season’s championship game. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Reuters

While Stoglin’s opinions may represent the feelings of some players – after all, Cole is taking up a roster spot that could go to a young player more in need of a job and an opportunity to enter the professional game – he didn’t play on Cole’s team. The rapper’s actual teammates appear to value him, including those players whose playing time is most affected by his presence.

I 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] that I didn’t make that 10-man roster. I was OK with it. Yes, I wanted to play but, being a vet, I understood.”

At 38, (the only player older than Cole on the Shooting Stars) Famutimi’s opinions are informed by a lot of experience. In 2003, he was the first Canadian ever named to the McDonald’s All-American team, and he 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 matchup that I ever guarded,” Famutimi says. “Every jump shot he took, I felt like I was contesting his knees.”)

Famutimi played college basketball in the US, played in different leagues around the world (France, Germany, and Turkey were favorites), and played (preseason) NBA basketball. And, in his well-informed opinion, Cole’s presence was a good thing for the team.

“When I first heard about [Cole’s signing], just like anybody else I was like: ‘This is a probably a good marketing scheme.’ [But] during training camp, when he was working hard, sweating his butt off just like everybody else, buying into team concepts … 100% he earned the respect of all of us. He fought and played hard in order to get on the court.”

Cole’s stint in the CEBL turned out to be short-lived. He only played four games before leaving to perform (music) at some of this summer’s big festivals. But Famutimi believes Cole’s time with the Shooting Stars was a beneficial experience for everybody involved. “We wanted him to stay,” he says.

Cole was similarly enthused by his teammates. “I’m on a team with a bunch of amazing guys,” he said. “And the league – it’s priceless what they’re allowing me to come in here and do, and experience, so I really appreciate it.”

Whatever his merits as a player, Cole has had an impact. “I’m thankful to Jermaine Cole … for bringing that light to the CEBL,” says Sanyal. “What [Cole’s presence] did was amplify attention to the product we were confident of showcasing … it’s some darn good basketball.”

This is, of course, what a marketing director is supposed to say. But many CEBL fans and players – Cole included – may well argue it’s also true.