Before he was a courtside staple, before he chose to throw his hat into the sports agency ring, and before anyone could conceive an NBA team would call Brooklyn home, Jay Z was just a former drug dealer with enough capital to self-finance a debut rap album.
Reasonable Doubt was released on June 25, 1996, full of ambition and verve and vows of greatness.
“High post like Hakeem / Got a lot of things to drop,” Jay Z promised on “Bring It On.”
The day after the album’s release, Allen Iverson was taken first overall in the second-most talent-rich NBA draft in history in nearby East Rutherford, N.J.
Kobe Bryant is the last draft pick of that class still playing, and it’s not unfair to say he and Jay Z came up together, reached the pinnacle of their respective industries and outlasted every contemporaneous rival. Different animal, same beast, right, Kobe?
So when I chronicled every athlete Jay Z has ever name-dropped on an album for ESPN The Mag's Music Issue (on shelves Friday, Jan. 23), the roundball references interested me most. Here are some highlights:
1. MJ comes first
No surprise here: Michael Jordan shows up 15 times throughout Hova’s discography, more than any other athlete, and it’s not close. (Mike Tyson’s four references come in second.) In all, more than half of Jay Z’s 80-plus references are basketball related.
“Mike Jordan of rap, outside Jay workin' / Now watch how quickly I drop 50” -- “Hova Song (Intro)"
2. It’s Not All NBA players
On “Pretty Girls,” Jay name-checks former Tar Heels head coach Dean Smith and WNBA legend Lisa Leslie. He also dished an assist to Lil Penny, the miniature star voiced by Chris Rock in Nike’s Anfernee Hardaway commercials.
3. Not All Of Them Are Nice
Latrell Sprewell got caught in the crosshairs on “It’s Alright” – “On the jewels I blew more money than Latrell, who else?” -- but Jay also piled on Sam Bowie on 2001’s "The Blueprint." Since Bowie was drafted before Michael Jordan in 1984, he’s become low-hanging fruit for just about every caustic hip-hop artist. For his part, Bowie laughed off the dis in a 2012 interview with ESPN.
4. Bo Outlaw!
For my money, the best references were the ones I never saw coming: Freddy Adu, Gale Sayers, Pete Sampras, etc. "Honey" combined my favorite reference with one of Hova's laziest rhymes ever.
"Take a lost rebound like Bo Outlaw / I'm so outlaw."
5. The One I Forgot
I had a real ripple of fear throughout this that I would overlook an obvious name-drop like a fool. Just when I thought I was in the clear, someone suggested I listen to these lines on “Nickels and Dimes” again:
“Watch me cook, throw no looks / Like Magic in his prime when Kareem skyhooked, yeah / Y’all not worthy."
And there it was. Capitalize the W on that last word, and you get Big Game James, the most egregious omission of this infographic.
So, Hova? You win again.
Note: Because it felt impossible to track down every mixtape, guest verse and stray single, I kept my references contained to songs that appeared on major LP releases under Jay Z's name. As a result, even some of his well-known stuff -- like his Nick Van Exel name-drop on Beyonce's "Crazy In Love" -- is not on the list.