French Montana on 'Pop That,' AAU & Melo

Tthe Moroccan-born and NYC-raised rapper once played against NBAers Luol Deng and Jarrett Jack. Shareif Ziyadat

French Montana used to play with and against some of the best basketball talent in New York City, when he was running with the popular Gauchos and Riverside AAU teams as a teen.

Now, the Moroccan-born and NYC-raised rapper is pumping up his former teammates and competitors -- some of them now in the NBA -- with his single "Pop That," one of the hottest songs in the country. Right now, the club-thumping track, which features Drake, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, can be heard from NFL stadiums to NBA arenas to the headphones of your favorite players.

Kanye West proclaimed Montana, 27, one of his favorite rappers; Drake tapped him to open up his Club Paradise Tour this year. French has also been in the studio with Nicki Minaj, The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey, and has Diddy and Rick Ross executive-producing his debut, "Excuse My French," which is slated for a winter release.

Last week at Diddy's NYC recording studio, Daddy's House, ESPN Playbook had a chance to sit down with Montana. After about a 45-minute wait -- "Traffic, man," he said -- Montana walked in with a small entourage, holding a Red Bull and wearing his trademark dark vintage Versace sunglasses.

When asked what he was up to in the city, he said: "I came into town to do this ESPN interview!"

After many years removed from competitive sports, he was excited to take a trip down memory lane.

First off, I heard you went back to Morocco for the first time in 15 years to see your entire family, including your father. What was that like?

Man, it was crazy to be reunited with my entire family after that long. It was a blessing. I came over [to NYC] with my mother and my father, and my father made some investments that didn't work, so he left and went back and just left me and my mother. So I had to become a man at an early age. I need to get back out there to do a show. I haven't done one yet there.

So what's going to be the vibe of the album?

It's a certain sound that I can't explain. One day, I wake up feeling f----- up. I make that certain kind of music. I speak from the heart. Certain people follow lyricists and people that put words on a dictionary together, and this and that. I'm more of a rapper that speaks how I feel. I just tell it how it is."

Since "Pop That," you now have more than one million Twitter followers. Surprised how fast success has come?

Nah, I feel like I've been grinding for a long time. Just now, I'm a freshman to the mainstream.

What's been the right equation to get you to this point?

I just feel like I'm finally getting results for everything that I've worked so hard for. When you work so hard and you finally get your break, it just feels good. That's what I feel like happened.

Have you noticed a strong connection between "Pop That," a great pump-up song, and sports?

Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of NFL stadiums play it. I look at Twitter all the time and I'm like, "Giants versus the 49ers playing 'Pop That' to open up the game." Every time I look, there's always people talking about the song, like Blake Griffin was on Twitter talking that it's his favorite song. Every time I look at Twitter, there's always somebody showing support.

Will you integrate sports into your upcoming album?

Definitely. I definitely feel like it's just like a sport, music. I just feel like it's a sport and everybody got their own team. At the end of the year, whoever sells the most records is the championship winner.

What sports did you play growing up?

I used to play soccer when I was in Morocco, but I was more of a basketball player. I played high school basketball, I played AAU basketball. I used to play for Gauchos and Riverside [in New York City]. I know Kemba Walker from my block, from around my neighborhood. I definitely used to play in all the tournaments, all the neighborhood tournaments, Kingdome to Rucker Park.

Gauchos and Riverside are pretty competitive, so you must have traveled a lot.

Yeah, definitely. We went to all the big tournaments down south. But once I got grown and it stopped paying the bills for me, I was like, "This is not a job." I'm coming home sweating every day.

Who are some of the more famous guys you played against?

We played against Luol Deng [of the Chicago Bulls], we played against Jarrett Jack [of the Golden State Warriors]. I was going against them, then three or four years later they're in the NBA. I said, "Wow." It was around the same time Sebastian Telfair was doing his thing.

Ever think about taking hoops to the next level?

At that time, me coming from another country, I couldn't really go to college or get a scholarship because my paperwork wasn't straight. So I played AAU ball and this and that. When my college didn't go through, I kind of just like sat back and started playing streetball after that in big tournaments. And then in the midst of that, I started rapping. That kind of took off faster than anything.

Do you have a group of friends you still play with?

Sometimes. I'll pass out if I run full court. I don't think I could do that. Halfcourt, I'll play. I'll cross you over once or twice.

What pro teams do you root for?

I'm almost like with the underdogs. I kind of like Kevin Durant and them, I like the Celtics --

Those are underdogs? You're talking about two championship-contending teams.

But they are underdogs. Kevin Durant is an underdog because they always lose in the playoffs. I would definitely like to see Kevin Durant and them win a championship because I feel like they came so close last year, and I feel like he's active. When the season is not on, he really comes over here and plays Dyckman, and plays everywhere. Every tournament he would suit up and play, and light your a-- up. He played in every tournament and he always keeps his game up. I don't see a lot of these players do that. And he reminds me of me. He's young and just at it, and dealing with all these teams that got five All-Star players, and he's kind of like the only one.

Have you ever met KD?

Yeah, I met him in LA at the Roxbury.

So what's your greatest sports memory, period?

My greatest sports memory would be when Vince Carter jumped over that guy in the Olympics [in 2000]. Oh my god. When you were watching it, you were like, "He did not just do that." You didn't expect it and the guy that he jumped over didn't expect it. He almost fainted after. To me, it was the biggest dunk ever -- either that or when John Starks dunked it on [Michael] Jordan [in the 1993 NBA playoffs]. No one saw that coming. Also, Shawn Kemp, Clyde Drexler, all the crazy moments, like when Jordan first threw it down from the foul line.

What's your most prized piece of sports memorabilia?

I probably got a couple trophies laying around. I got this one picture of me with the six-pack when I used to play ball. I was like, "Man, look how I used to be." I look at myself in the mirror now and I feel ashamed. I'm working back at it. I've got a little four-pack now.

Who was your childhood sports idol?

At one time, I used to love Steve Francis. He had the handle. At one time, I used to love Kobe [Bryant] when he first came into the league and it was him and Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal]. I used to love Vince Carter when he first came into the league and he was jumping out of the gym. And I used to love Jason Williams when he first came in. He had the crossovers and just everything. He was killing it.

Which modern athlete do you love to hate?

I was always mad at Reggie Miller for upsetting my team, the Knicks, and my city. Spike Lee wanted to strangle him. I think the day that Spike Lee won't be there, it's going to look like something is wrong with the Knicks.

By the way, what do you think about Carmelo Anthony? Think he gets too much unfair criticism?

Yeah, man. I feel like he's a great player, man, but I just feel like it's not his time to win. I feel like every dog gets his day. There are some people that never win, but Jordan and Kobe were able to do it because they were great leaders. I feel like Melo's a leader, but he needs to lead more.

Before I let you go, I know you're big into colorful fashion. Now that it's taking over the NBA, what do you think about that?

They're biting my swag. I gotta tell them to stand down. Nah. I feel like, you know, some people like to wear colorful stuff. Some people like to be blacked down and some people just want to be colorful. Some people just have weird problems. I'm never going to wear a pink sweater. Some people just do it because they feel like they can do it.