It's Sunday afternoon in downtown Houston, the host city of the 62nd NBA All-Star Game, and rapper and actor Common, along with his manager and some friends, walks into the makeshift green room on the top floor of the swanky Alden Hotel. He's there to meet with some VIPs associated with Under Armour and Hennessy for their "Kicks and Grits" event, before he takes the stage as MC in the rooftop lounge.
As Common makes his way around the room saying hello and posing for photos with people he doesn't know, there's a person he immediately recognizes: Indiana Pacers starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson, who endorses UA. Common approaches him with his trademark smile, and they have a short conversation about how they've been enjoying Houston.
While Common has never met Stephenson previously, he is crazy about the NBA.
"All-Star, in general, is one of the events I love to come to," the Chicago native said. "I'm just a big basketball fan."
In fact, Common had the opportunity to suit up in a fictitious All-Star Game when he starred in the 2010 feature film "Just Wright," which included cameo appearances from All-Stars Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo. In real life, Common has played in the past four All-Star Celebrity Games, as well as his first one in 2008.
In interviews, Common is very expressive about his passion for the NBA. His sincere appreciation for the game came through while speaking with ESPN Playbook about the All-Star festivities in Houston, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Michael Jordan and his upcoming projects in 2013.
First off, are you a big Under Armour fan?
I've definitely had some good Under Armour. It kept me tight, you've got to get warm. It's definitely great for working out.
How are you enjoying Houston?
I'm having a wonderful time, man. Houston has got some of the best food. I'm just a big basketball fan and the NBA really knows how to put on a great weekend for people, and it really is for us fans of basketball to enjoy. I played in the celebrity game. I didn't do everything I wanted to do, but my friends said I did better than last year, so I'll take that.
Did you have flashbacks to when you filmed "Just Wright," being with all the NBA guys, and now you're seeing them here this weekend?
Oh definitely. I mean, that was one of the highlights of my career acting because I got to meet both of my dreams. I always dreamed of being a leading man in film and television, and then I always dreamed of playing in the NBA, so I got to do both in that project. So I mean, I definitely had my flashbacks, but I couldn't bring Scott McKnight out all the way [laughs].
Which first-time All-Star are you most excited about? There are a lot of new faces this time around.
I think Kyrie Irving is one of my favorite guys out there now. I mean, that dude can just handle the ball and he's built for All-Star. Kyrie, to me, is a premier point guard. He's already now to me a top-five point guard. He is special, man, and I just love his game. I think he's going to be like one of the great players of the league, and he's exciting to watch. I saw him in the high school game, the Jordan [Brand] Classic, and it was like, this dude is just killing it, man. He played unbelievable.
Since you're from Chicago, let's say you're the GM for the Bulls. What would be your recommendation to Derrick Rose? You think you wait him out this year?
Oh yeah. I believe in letting people heal and they know when their body is ready. You don't try to rush that back because, I mean, that's your franchise player. It's his health, his life and it's a big future. This is one year. He's 24 years old, so he's got a lot of years left. You'd rather make sure everything is done right. But you don't let this year go because they're still playing hard, they're learning and the team is building, so you're seeing what you may be missing beyond D-Rose.
Your character in "Just Wright," Scott McKnight, tears his ACL like D-Rose. Did you learn anything new about the injury while you were shooting?
I mean, I did know that it takes a lot of rehab, it takes a lot of hard work -- a lot of prayers, as Adrian Peterson said. It's just about like, honestly, getting in the mindset of I'm going to heal and I'm going to be even better. Adrian Peterson had that perspective. I just saw the young guy from Kentucky, [Nerlens Noel]. He said, "I'm going to come back even better." So that in itself, when you hear stories about people, like Adrian Peterson, they said he was down for like a moment in the locker room and minutes or some hours, or however long. But then, they said you can feel him just in his mind starting to say, "I'm about to overcome this." I think that's one of the biggest things.
I mean, you saw it in "Just Wright." You see Queen Latifah's character started really building him up, building his mental up getting back into it. You start healing the mind. It's powerful. That's why, when we look at Michael Jordan and see he's the greatest, his mind is that powerful, too. He's great at probably so many things because he puts his mind to it.
How about MJ turning 50? What stands out to you about his legacy?
[Common turns to his manager and asks, "Did we wish Mike the happy 50th? We've got to do that.”] I mean, just the competitiveness, how incredible and amazing he was. What he did on the court was just, I mean, unprecedented. It's still yet to be done. It's like a dominance and a drive and a fire that we haven't seen -- like a combination of the talent with the drive and the competitiveness and hard work. We haven't seen that in a player.
And he just brought the sport of basketball in the NBA to a whole other level. It became global. It was entertainment for people. I talk to people and they're like, "Man, I used to just watch basketball because of Michael Jordan."
Did he have a personal impact on you, maybe through a conversation?
The only thing I can say is there was one time -- this was after I was a ball boy [for the Bulls]. I was a ball boy in ’85 -- his rookie year, then his second year and part of his third year. Then, I wanted to play myself [laughs]. First of all, I liked how Mike treated the ball boys. He treated the people that worked games well. He was respectful and cool. He was just being himself and would play around with us and shoot.
Then, I can remember years later -- I don't think he remembered if I was a ball boy -- being at this party, and my boy -- he was a little bubbly -- went up to him like, "Mike, Common used to be a ball boy. He used to pick up your sweaty gear." And then Mike was like, "That doesn't make sense. Nah, that's my man." He just basically downplayed it like, "This is my guy. He's a good guy." I mean, that was words of wisdom. It was just like a good gesture for him, because my boy was trying to get a joke off it, but Mike was like, "Nah, nah, this is my man. That's in the past. We're dealing with right now. He's the man."
You mentioned earlier about how you love the food in Houston. What's your favorite? You like the big Texas-style steaks?
I don't eat steaks. I eat mostly fish and vegetables. But we went to this place called The Breakfast Klub and I was eating incredible food.
The Breakfast Club was actually the name of MJ's early-morning crew he worked out with back in the day. Remember that?
Oh yeah, yeah. I just saw Steve Kerr in the gym. It was good to talk to him. I've got a lot of respect for him. He's been on championship teams, and he was part of the Bulls.
So what's next for you?
The new television show "Hell on Wheels." We're going on our third season. I have some new music coming out, a mixtape and then an album that will be out in the fall most likely. The mixtape will be out some time in late spring, early summer. Then, also, we've got merchandise out right now. Fans can check that out at my Twitter (@Common) or go to my website, ThinkCommon.com. And we're doing stuff with my foundation. Actually, this year my foundation, Common Ground Foundation, we're having a gallery honoring Magic Johnson and Gabby Douglas. It's going to be incredible.