Here's What I Learned From Playing Professional Basketball With J. Cole
Photo illustration: Jeff Hahne / Stringer

Here's What I Learned From Playing Professional Basketball With J. Cole

Scarborough Shooting Stars forward Danilo Djuricic spills the Gatorade on sharing the court with the self-proclaimed best rapper alive

A couple of months ago, J. Cole surprised himself. He did not concoct a brain-busting punchline, nor did he contort a soul record into something impossibly new. No. The multi-platinum artist and founder of Dreamville Records surpassed his own expectations on the hardwood, moments before he was set to compete in a Canada Elite Basketball League showdown.

As had become the norm, fans were packing into Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre earlier than usual to see Carolina’s finest suit up for the Scarborough Shooting Stars, a professional squad that plays north of the border. And those who weren’t still queuing to enter the arena or spending bread at concession stands caught a highlight you won’t see on ESPN.

A lob from one of J. Cole’s teammates floats toward the basket. From another direction, the 37-year-old rookie is in full sprint, locs bouncing against his upper back. He ascends, arm outstretched. What happens next is the result of muscle memory or months of intense training or an innate desire to put on a show for himself and others—perhaps all three. Cole catches the ball mid-air and flushes it through the cylinder, turning a pre-game warmup into a highlight.

“I remember he came back into the locker room, like, ‘Yo, I just caught a lob, bro. I didn't know I still had that in my legs,’” remembers 23-year-old Danilo Djuricic, Cole’s teammate during the five games he played with the Shooting Stars in May and June. “I was like, ‘Damn, I didn't know you did either.’”

The moment was just the latest eye-opener in a series of them—primarily, the fact that Jermaine Cole, one of the most successful rappers of the past decade, was playing pro ball in the first place. It was the crystallization of the sort of Black boy dreams hoop fans hadn’t witnessed since Master P rocked a Charlotte Hornets jersey during NBA preseason 23 years ago. It was proving the title of 2 Chainz’s Rap or Go to the League album is a false dichotomy.

Cole has never been subtle about his love of the game, from his rhymes to his imagery. The artworks for his 2009 mixtape The Warm Up and 2010’s Friday Night Lights both prominently feature basketballs, while 2021’s The Off-Season’s album art shows a backboard and rim ablaze, as if Reggie Miller had caught fire in NBA Jam. Plus, he played in the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend Celebrity Game, during which he converted a two-handed alley-oop on national television. (The pass was courtesy of Kevin Hart, funny enough.)

In more recent times, videos of Cole draining threes and playing in competitive runs with NBA players have gone viral, further establishing his status as a legit hooper. He showed the depths of his b-ball ambitions when he announced plans to play pro ball in an open letter for The Players’ Tribune in 2020 and covered SLAM magazine the following year.

In 2021, he played a few games for the Patriots Basketball Club in the Rwanda Basketball League. According to OVO co-founder and Shooting Stars co-owner Nicholas "OVO Niko" Corino, Cole joined the Shooting Stars after discussing the possibility of doing so with Drake at his birthday party last October.

We’ve all seen the footage. There are highlights: Cole swatting an opponent’s shit, cleaning up on the boards for an easy lay, knocking down the three ball. And, sure, some lowlights. But what is it really like sharing the court and locker room with a man who went double platinum with no features? The aforementioned Djuricic, a 6’8” Harvard grad who plays forward for the Shooting Stars and assisted on one of Cole's buckets, has the answers. And, here, he shares them with LEVEL, in his own words. —As told to Peter A. Berry

When I heard from one of my teammates that J. Cole was at training camp, I was shocked. I'm like, “Are you joking? Are you serious?” I was kind of playing through my head: How’s it gonna be when I meet him? Do I call him J. Cole? Cole?

I was sitting in the gym watching film with one of the coaches on my first day. I remember feeling someone behind me, so I turned around to get a look. First, I saw the dreads. I'm like, “What the hell—this is J. Cole!” He dapped me up, like, “What’s up, I’m Cole.” Super down-to-earth guy. Genuinely chill.

He was inquisitive when we were watching film. He wanted to know everything when it came to hooping: how he could be better defensively, different coverages, when he should be blitzing or switching on a screen as opposed to staying with your man. Dude wasn't afraid to ask questions. He was really open to learning and receiving feedback, not only from coaches, but from teammates, too.

Then, he started shooting.

It's the same shot every time. His release is quick—all the right kind of fundamentals. It’s real sweet. Nice touch to it. He was there an hour before practice. His work ethic is insane. He loves the game.

He’d sit in his spot, close his eyes and envision himself in the game. He had the same focus with basketball that he did with his music.

He had individual conversations with everyone. He was genuine in terms of his curiosity. He wanted to be a great teammate. He asked everyone where they've been before and about their experiences playing in different countries. He wanted to know how it was for me playing in the Czech Republic. He tried to get to actually know people, which is important to build chemistry.

People were showing up at the gym two hours before games—way earlier than usual—just to watch him and try to get his attention. In warmups, there were 30 photographers. Fans lining up, recording him, taking pictures, posting on Instagram stories. You could tell there was so much excitement surrounding his debut.

Before games, he would ask if we had court time so he could get shots up: jumpers from different spots, off-the-dribble threes. He's not just using his fame to join a team. He's one of those guys who loves doing the extra work. In terms of pre-game rituals, he was about mindfulness, staying calm, and living in the moment. In the locker room, he’d sit in his spot—no phone—close his eyes and envision himself in the game. He had the same focus with basketball as he does with his music.

I remember when he hit his first shot. Corner three. It was a sold-out arena, and obviously there were a bunch of Shooting Stars fans there. But there were a ton of J. Cole fans there. And when he made that three, the whole place erupted. It was nuts. You could tell he was excited and proud. It was a great shot and a good moment for him. He genuinely respects and loves all the excitement and energy from the crowd.

Cole is very competitive. You can tell it's not like he just wants to be out there—he wants to win. He was quick to hold himself accountable for mistakes, apologize, and try to make up for it the next play. “My bad fellas, let's get it next time.” He’d encourage guys to keep shooting, even if they were missing shots.

On offense, he was a perimeter-oriented player. He would knock down open shots. His last bucket before leaving was a sidestep three. I didn’t know he had that in his bag. I think everyone was surprised a little bit. But what I really respect about him is he got after it defensively. He's 37 years old—to be moving like that and competing the way he was, all the respect to him.

The best part about having Cole on the team was getting to know him. He was very appreciative of how welcoming everyone was. He made it seem like it was a true family type of thing. We didn't have a ton of time together, but he made it known that if there was anything we needed in the future, or if we just wanted to talk, he was there for us. It was cool opportunity, especially in my first year playing professional basketball, to have a story I can share for the rest of my life.