Hip-Hop 50: Jadakiss reflects on NBA legend Sam Cassell

NBA legend Sam Cassell's name-drop on Jadakiss' "Put Ya Hands Up" is a lyrical testament to the Celtics assistant coach's commitment to grinding in the game and beyond. Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic

Editor's note: In honor of hip-hop turning 50, ESPN tapped the culture's top voices to write about their favorite athlete name-drops in hip-hop history.

"Imma get Bucks like Milwaukee, cuz like Sam I Cassell" -- Jadakiss on "Put ya Hands Up" (2001)

In New York City, we don't applaud effort; we celebrate results. Notable New York Knicks like Larry Johnson and John Starks never have to pay for a drink because tough work is respected in this town. New Yorkers, whether in a hard hat or hard bottoms, watch the game differently. We pay attention to the unsexy stats, the dives into the stands, the defensive rotations, the third assistant coach and the veteran at the end of the bench.

The same could be said of rapper Jadakiss -- not for his Reebok commercial with Allen Iverson, or for the work he put in at the 2021 Verzuz at The Garden -- but because of dedication to the craft and for his line that fused hip-hop and basketball.

He grew up hearing Sugarhill Gang talk about owning "a color TV, so I can see the Knicks play basketball" on "Rapper's Delight," one of the first rap songs played on the radio, but by the time he was coming of age, the realities of how to obtain that television had changed. Through the 80s and into the 90s, hip-hop's reflection of the world had been evenly split between messages of rebellion and aspiration. First person tales of drug dealing and stick-ups became the dominant storylines. In 1994, the words of Biggie Smalls (later known as The Notorious B.I.G.) rang more true to Jadakiss: "Either you're slingin' crack rock, or you got a wicked jump shot."

Jadakiss, alongside fellow Yonkers natives Styles P and Sheek Louch, together known as The LOX, caught the attention of music veterans and executives thanks to their unique perspective and Charles Oakley-like work ethic. They were authentic, rugged and feared. They'd cruise around, looking for competition, jumping out to rap battle anyone, anywhere. When they had the chance to get on a DJ's new mixtape, they'd make sure their stories of the streets were the hardest, the grimiest and the most vivid. And in short order, they'd sign a major label contract with Bad Boy Records, joining a select roster that Biggie led in 1996.

Following a few years with major hits and a legendary contract dispute, The LOX began an organic campaign to leave Bad Boy on the radio, in magazines and on t-shirts. After a prolonged fight, Jadakiss and his partners signed with their hometown team Ruff Ryders, where they'd drop their landmark project, "We Are the Streets," which rocketed to No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 2000. New Yorkers don't applaud effort; we celebrate results.

At the turn of the century, Jadakiss' voice, storytelling and metaphors had attracted so much excitement that he earned his solo contract. And in preparing for that debut, he was focused in the studio, strictly watching hoops.

"If a movie was on, I'd have to stop the beat and watch it," Jadakiss said. "I can't watch a good movie in a [studio] session with the volume off. The volume is everything in a movie: the score, the f---ing organs, the things like that. With a game, you can still think of some bars and still watch the game. I keep on 'SportsCenter' or the NBA channel. ESPN or NBA."

Way before Damian Lillard put out music in the offseason, or J. Cole put on a pro uniform, it was rare and indeed laughable for the line between athletics and hip-hop to be crossed. Sure, Shaq had sold platinum numbers alongside impressed professionals like Biggie. Still, the next closest example of mainstream crossover was MTV's Rock N' Jock sporting events, where Naughty by Nature could attempt 50-point baskets against Mitch Richmond and actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas.

So when it came to his song, "Put Ya Hands Up," Jadakiss decided to raise the bar. He wouldn't just name-check his friends like Chris Webber or Jalen Rose. Jadakiss wouldn't just look up some player from his local NBA team to add to a line. He wouldn't go for the lay-up referencing a superstar like Hakeem Olajuwon or Clyde Drexler.

Instead, he'd merge the streets and the courts in a way never heard before: "I'm a make bucks like Milwaukee, cause like Sam, I Cassell."

By the time Jadakiss spit that line, the Milwaukee Bucks were Cassell's fifth stop around the league. He wasn't the star player (he was a part of the squad's "Big 3" with Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson) on his team. Yes, he was an invaluable part of two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets, but more than that, he was something Jadakiss could relate to -- a worker with a lunch pail, who wasn't the flashiest, wasn't the loudest, but got the job done by any means.

That line was like striking gold. And in the right circles, NBA champ Cassell was the league's most valuable player.

"In the rap world, in the slick-talker world, it was a no-brainer," Jadakiss said. "Far as reaching all the way over to basketball culture and all that, that made it much better that I was able to build a bond and a relationship with the actual person that I was talking about in the rhyme. Yeah. I ain't think it was gonna be nothing like that, though."

Jadakiss wasn't just bigging up a basketball player; this was a line for the streets -- the guys who might not have had a wicked jump shot. With that one lyric, Jadakiss from the platinum-selling group The LOX made clear that work was championship-worthy.

"That's why I am who I am," Jadakiss said. "I just try to do something witty and make you think a little. You know what I mean? I think the lines are created by the way I view the [rap] game and the way that I watch basketball."

Jadakiss is 30 years into a career that's seen him revered from neighborhood courts to courtside seats. And he returns the love wherever he goes. But the respect? The respect he saves for those who've earned it, who wear it, who live it. Not just any athlete was getting included in a song.

"It wasn't like I would see them [NBA players], and they were like, 'Yo, put me in a rhyme,' Jadakiss said. "It wasn't nothing like that. It was more love. I wouldn't do that if they just came up and asked me. 'Would you put me in a song?' 'Hell no.'"

Cassell, a journeyman point guard who racked up assists, knocked down midrange jumpers and made every team he was on better, started and ended his 15-year playing career with three championship rings and is now an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics. But his name isn't just in the history books. It's in the rhyme book of one of the greatest writers to ever do it.

"I would say thank you ... it's a [blend] of our two cultures together," Jadakiss said. "Rappers always loved basketball. They love all sports, but basketball is just that one special connection between artists and the game."

In hip-hop, we don't applaud effort; we celebrate results.

Eric Rosenthal and Jeff Rosenthal, together known as ItsTheReal, are veteran storytellers in the hip-hop space, most recently documenting the bridge between Napster and the streaming services in their limited podcast series, The Blog Era.