Brooklyn's Finest: The Notorious B.I.G. lives on through Nets' latest tribute

Warning: Story contains coarse language.

TORONTO — Dennis Scott will never forget meeting the man considered by many to be the greatest hip-hop artist of all time.

The former NBA player was Shaquille O'Neal's teammate with the Orlando Magic in 1996, when O'Neal recorded a studio album titled "You Can’t Stop The Reign," a release that included a track with The Notorious B.I.G. The connection gave Scott a chance to hang out with the Brooklyn-born rapper and discuss their respective crafts.

It also allowed him to witness Biggie's brilliance up close.

"His storytelling, his delivery,” Scott, now a commentator for NBA TV, told theScore during a recent visit to Toronto. "Like he said, he was fat, black, and nasty."

Scott and Biggie might have stayed friends to this day, but on March 9, 1997, Biggie, aka Christopher Wallace, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. (That evening, O'Neal was supposed to meet Biggie for a Soul Train Music Awards after-party, but ended up sleeping through it.)

Biggie may be gone, but he's certainly not forgotten. On Saturday, the Brooklyn Nets will debut their City Edition jerseys for this season. The threads are a tribute to the rapper, with a multi-color "Brooklyn Camo" pattern inspired by his famous colorful Coogi sweater. Graffiti artist Eric Haze added a *BED-STUY* mark above the jersey's jock tag as a nod to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn where Biggie grew up.

It's the franchise's latest gesture in what's been - and will continue to be - an ongoing tribute to a man who not only changed the hip-hop scene forever, but had a passion for basketball that rivaled his love of music.

Scott also made one thing clear: If Biggie were alive today, he'd still be the most popular hip-hop artist inside NBA arenas.

'A source of inspiration'

Beyond his interactions with professional players, basketball was a big part of Biggie's life. He frequented the Crispus Attucks Playground courts in his Brooklyn neighborhood, which were renamed the Christopher "Biggie" Wallace Courts last year.

"He saw us take (hip-hop) seriously, and he wanted to learn (about basketball)," Scott said. "He would say, 'Aw, shit, I know I’m big and fat and I can’t run, but I like to shoot around in the park sometimes.'"

Biggie also referenced several NBA stars on hit songs - including the likes of O'Neal and Michael Jordan - and even created a New York Knicks-related controversy with "I Got A Story To Tell."

Being name-dropped by Biggie would have been the highest of honors back in the day, but the new generation of NBA players has its own hip-hop favorites. In a survey conducted by Billboard earlier this year, the 2018 draft class listed Lil Uzi Vert, Meek Mill, Gucci Mane, Future, 21 Savage, and Lil Baby among the top artists to listen to. Biggie didn't make the list.

Even so, the Nets are doing all they can to preserve Biggie's powerful legacy.

Since moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012, the franchise has struggled on the court, winning just one playoff series and missing the postseason the last three years. Despite that lack of success, the Nets have made a concerted effort to create an overall identity that connects the team and its fans to the borough it plays in.

Brooklyn Nets

Forging a connection with Biggie's memory is at the center of that marketing strategy. Last season, in a home game against the Knicks, the Nets raised a Biggie Smalls banner to the rafters at Barclays Center in a ceremony that featured his mother, Voletta Wallace, the DJ he toured with, DJ Enuff, and Diddy. And before this season, when the team started bouncing around design ideas for its City Edition jersey, it opted to continue honoring Brooklyn's most famous rapper.

Mandy Gutmann, the Nets' vice-president of communications, believes an important part of the strategy is authenticity.

"Biggie serves as a source of inspiration - especially for a lot of youth growing up in the borough; especially those in situations like him where they weren’t necessarily raised in a wealthy household and have their challenges," she said.

Aside from paying homage to Biggie's famous look, the patterns and colors woven into the new jersey signify the melting pot that is Brooklyn and the more than 150 nationalities who reside in the borough.

Gutmann added that when the final design was unveiled to the players, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

"They’ve worn a lot of jerseys in their career," she said. "So when you see them get excited about a design, you know you've done something right."

The threads also caught the attention of Bobbito Garcia, a famous streetball player and DJ from New York. From 1990 to 1998, Garcia co-hosted "The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show" on Columbia University's WKCR radio. In 1991, he met a young, hungry, unsigned rapper named The Notorious B.I.G., who came on the show and dropped a memorable freestyle.

"I was born in the '60s and can remember a time when NBA arenas played some awful pop music," Garcia told theScore, laughing. "So any time a franchise does anything remotely related to hip-hop, I am pleased as long as it's done well and done respectfully. The (new) uniforms are cool, because it maintains the integrity of the black and white team colors and gives hip-hop heads a hint of Biggie's style from the past."

Brooklyn Nets

Garcia's response echoed what the Nets have seen from fans since posting the jersey online.

"The number of fire emojis is telling," Gutmann said. "It’s just fire emoji after fire emoji. It doesn't get any better than that."

Nets or Knicks?

Kenny Anderson grew up in Queens, New York, as a basketball prodigy. He was scouted by college recruiters at the age of 14, named Mr. New York Basketball after a stellar career at Archbishop Molloy high school, and drafted in the first round by the New Jersey Nets as a 20-year-old point guard.

The Nets used to play at Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, where Anderson remembers Heavy D and duo Kid 'n Play as rappers who attended home games. Still, the courtside crowd never came close to rivaling the celebrity row at Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing, were the talk of the town.

"It was just hard to overcome the Knicks in terms of popularity," Anderson said.

If Biggie were alive, Anderson believes he would've helped the Nets escape that shadow. After all, having the self-proclaimed "King of New York" represent your NBA team carries a certain cache.

But it also begs the question: Would Biggie have chosen the Nets, or would his allegiance lie with the Knicks and the prestige that franchise still carries in New York despite its recent struggles?

It would stand to reason that Biggie likely would've aligned himself with the hometown Nets when they moved to his borough. But then again, Spike Lee also grew up in Brooklyn, yet he's the most famous Knicks fan on the planet.

Current New York players believe Biggie would have been on their side. "You can never go wrong picking the Knicks," rookie Allonzo Trier said.

Across the locker room, Enes Kanter agreed. "He would have been a Knicks fan. We're the team of New York."

Greg Anthony, who played for New York from 1991-95, feels the same, with a slight caveat.

"The partisan in me would say that if Biggie was still with us, he would have been a Knicks fan," Anthony said. "I think he would have a lot of pride in his home borough having a team, but I think he would still represent the Knicks."

The question generates a fun hypothetical debate, but for Mister Cee, a hip-hop DJ and radio personality who famously brought Biggie's demo tape to The Source magazine in 1992 and later served as associate executive producer on the rapper's breakout 1994 album, "Ready To Die," it's an open-and-shut case.

"Biggie would have definitely been a Brooklyn Nets fan," Cee said. "He would have been courtside every game. He would have so much pride about having the Nets in Brooklyn. He would constantly reference Brooklyn Nets players with his lyrics."

Brooklyn Nets

As a kid growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the same neighborhood as Biggie, Cee was a die-hard Knicks fan and called Bernard King one of the greatest athletes ever. But when the Nets moved to Brooklyn, he immediately switched sides.

"It's amazing to me to walk by Atlantic and Flatbush and see the arena there," Cee said. "I never thought growing up in Bed-Stuy that we would have our own team. I don’t take that for granted. I'm still amazed by it."

He believes Biggie would've felt the same pull to support a team in his borough, and that he would have teamed up with Jay-Z, a former minority owner of the Nets, to make Brooklyn the most popular NBA team in New York.

"Jay would have just kept it corporate," Cee said. "Big would have been like, 'Nah, man, we have to do more stuff for the people.' Big would have gotten Jay to get his hands dirty a little more, and made him do something more personable to represent Brooklyn."

'He would have been so proud'

While it's fun to imagine whether Biggie would have collaborated with James Dolan's band, JD & The Straight Shots, while wearing a Kristaps Porzingis jersey, or name-dropped Joe Harris and Caris LeVert on a hit single while wearing a Nets jersey in a music video, there's no doubt he would've been a prominent celebrity presence in the NBA sphere.

On Saturday, more than 21 years after Biggie's passing, the Nets will attempt to provide a glimpse of that. Barclays Center will blare some of Biggie’s greatest hits during the game, and there are other entertainment segments planned to commemorate him.

The Nets aren't stopping there. There will be a surprise gift-card giveaway at the Key Foods where Biggie used to work. Across the street is the Respect for Life Barbershop that Biggie used to frequent. The Nets provided haircuts for youths there in the past, and they're planning more neighborhood events for the future.

Cee's heartened by the team's actions, but wishes Biggie were around to see them.

Brooklyn Nets

"He would have been so proud," Cee said. "He would have worn that jersey and done anything to represent the team, whether it was performing at halftime, or pre-recording things on the Jumbotron to help rile the fans up. He would have done it all."

Many in the younger generation may not have Biggie on their go-to Spotify playlists, but his impact around New York - and especially in Brooklyn - remains, while his hip-hop legacy within NBA circles will continue on.

"History never goes away," Anderson said. "Legends never die."

Brooklyn's Finest: The Notorious B.I.G. lives on through Nets' latest tribute
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