Jhe Scarborough Shooting Stars came just one basket away from winning the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) title on Sunday, losing to the Hamilton Honey Badgers by just two points after an unanswered 17 run in the fourth quarter . Despite their heartbreaking defeat, Scarborough’s season should still be considered a success – the team went to the Championship game in their first year in the league, and the scoring duo of Jalen Harris and Kassius Robertson points, is 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 isn’t even his team’s best-known guard. That accolade goes to Grammy-winning rap artist J Cole. Or, more specifically in this context, 6-foot-3 Shooting Stars goaltender Jermaine Cole.
Hip-hop and basketball have had their relationship since the former first emerged in 1970s New York. Kurtis Blow, widely regarded as the first commercially successful rap artist, announced in the 1980s that basketball was his favorite sport, 90s rap mogul Master P played on the pre-season teams of Charlotte Hornets and the Toronto Raptors, and platinum artist 2 Chainz released a 2010s album titled Rap or Go to the League. Comedian Dave Chappelle once humorously observed that it seemed like rapping or playing basketball were the only two ways out of America’s inner cities. And yet, even with hip hop’s well-established relationship to basketball, there’s probably never been anyone who embodies the connection better than J Cole.
“Jermaine Cole,” corrects Ansh Sanyal, senior marketing director at CEBL. “That’s his basketball name.”
Basketball has been a big part of Cole’s life since he was a kid. In a 2013 interview with Sports Illustrated, he said, “I was always in love with basketball as a kid, but I thought I was much 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 varsity team at St John’s University in his freshman year. It was then that Cole decided to fully pursue a career in music. Basketball, however, has always remained in the background.
Cole’s rap fame eventually allowed him to perform in settings where his basketball talent was noticed by the general public. His go-oop on a pass from comedian Kevin Hart during the 2012 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game is one of the best highlights the (often unforgettable) event has ever produced. Eventually, Cole was able to drop novelty basketball for professional competition in the CEBL.
It is reasonable to conclude that Cole’s career in the CEBL was established primarily for reasons other than basketball (i.e. marketing). The situation offered Cole a chance to live out his dream of playing professional basketball as some sort of midlife vanity project. Cole’s presence, not coincidentally, would afford CEBL the kind of media attention it otherwise would not have received, amounting to millions of dollars in publicity.
Sanyal is keen to point out that marketing benefits weren’t the main reason for Cole’s signing. “The big issue was, ‘Can he play? Can he hold on?'” Sanyal said. “And it looked like yes, he was.”
That’s of course what a marketing manager is supposed to say. Frankly, Cole is a 37-year-old musician who was a good, but not a great high school player. The data also doesn’t provide much evidence to support his basketball skills. For example, Cole is one of only two Shooting Stars players who haven’t played college basketball (guard Sarunas Vasiliakuskas is from Lithuania, where college basketball is less relevant. He once played on the national team Lithuanian). Also, CEBL is young and Cole is much older than most of the other players on the team. Even Cole seems to have a sense of humor about his single-digit tendencies. After making two three-point shots against the Newfoundland Growlers, he posted on Instagram that he “broke [his] previous career peak.
And what are the players and coaches saying about Cole’s skills? He took part in training sessions with the St John’s women’s team to help them hone their skills. His peers saw him as a capable 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 is a little big and long. Finishing around the basket, he could pull a little.
Fred Quartlebaum, who was assistant coach for 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 has made the right choice, in terms of a musical career”.
Indeed, the more one examines the situation, the more difficult it becomes to believe that he is there for anything other than commercial purposes.
This is not the first time that 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 the job from someone who deserved it,” guard Terrell Stoglin said at the time. Stoglin is a former University of Maryland player who played for BAL’s AS Sale during Cole’s stint with the Patriots. “For a guy who has so much money and has another career to come here and average, like, a point a game and still be glorified, it’s very disrespectful to the game. It’s disrespectful to those who sacrificed their whole lives for it.
While Stoglin’s opinions may represent the feelings of some players – after all, Cole takes a place in the list that could go to a young player who is more in need of a job and an opportunity to get into the game. professional – he didn’t play on Cole’s team. The rapper’s real teammates seem to like him, including the players whose playing time is most affected by his presence.
“I was in that position,” says Scarborough striker 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 this list of 10 men. I was okay with that. Yes, I wanted to play but, being a veterinarian, 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 to be named to the McDonald’s All-American team, and he went on to represent Canada at the Olympics and played against some of the greatest players of all time, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron. James. (“Dwyane Wade was the toughest match I’ve ever guarded,” Famutimi says. “Every jump shot he took, I felt like I was challenging his knees.”)
Famutimi played college basketball in the United States, played in different leagues around the world (France, Germany and Turkey were the favorites) and played NBA basketball (pre-season). And, in his knowledgeable opinion, Cole’s presence was good for the team.
“When I first heard of [Cole’s signing]like everyone else, I was like, “That’s probably a good marketing plan.” [But] during training camp, when he was working hard, sweating like everyone else, sticking to the concepts of the team… 100% he earned the respect of all of us. He fought and played hard to get on the pitch.
Cole’s stint at CEBL turned out to be short-lived. He only played four games before heading off to play (music) at some of the big festivals this summer. But Famutimi believes Cole’s time with the Shooting Stars was a beneficial experience for everyone involved. “We wanted him to stay,” he says.
Cole was also enthusiastic about his teammates. “I’m on a team with an amazing group of guys,” he said. “And the league – it’s invaluable what they allow me to come here and do and experience, so I really appreciate that.”
Whatever his merits as a player, Cole has made an impact. “I am grateful to Jermaine Cole…for bringing this light to CEBL,” says Sanyal. “What [Cole’s presence] was to amp up the focus on the product we were sure to showcase…it’s some really good basketball.
That’s of course what a marketing manager is supposed to say. But many CEBL fans and players – including Cole – might well argue that’s also true.