The notorious night Biggie was murdered in Los Angeles
Shaq, Baron Davis, and Nick Van Exel reflect on The Notorious B.I.G., his murder, and the city they called home
Ordained with a flow as soulful to black, post-Reaganomics America as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet during the days of the civil rights movement, the street narratives of Brooklyn’s own Christopher Wallace — deified in music history as The Notorious B.I.G. and as Biggie Smalls — helped make him a definitive voice of a generation. Then, in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles, in early morning hours of March 9, 1997, a paranoia he fought desperately to escape became his reality. Wallace’s still-unsolved murder remains an open wound. Here we catch up with a few of the 1996-97 Los Angeles Lakers — Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel, and Corie Blount — as well as L.A.’s own Baron Davis and Marcellus Wiley (and O’Neal’s mother Lucille) to discuss what it was like living and playing in Los Angeles at the time of Biggie Smalls’ murder. Some were even supposed to be with B.I.G. the night he was hit by four bullets in a drive-by shooting.
Lucille O’Neal always knew where her child was. Until the morning hours of March 9, 1997.
Her eldest son, Shaquille, was one of the most recognizable faces in America. A jovial, 7-foot, platinum-selling rapper, then a five-time NBA All-Star, gold medal winner, movie star, and the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaq’s presence and crossover appeal was second only to Michael Jordan’s. But he was still his mother’s son. And now Biggie was dead, and Shaq had told Lucille he was attending a party with Biggie that night at a Soul Train Music Awards after-party. It was to take place at the Petersen Automotive Museum, sponsored by VIBE magazine.
From her home in Orlando, Florida, Lucille picked up her phone. Shaq answered groggily. Shaq had been beyond ready to party with Biggie. The museum wasn’t too far from a Wilshire Boulevard penthouse he was staying in at the time. Shaq’s long white coat and white top hat had already been picked out. But a nap beforehand couldn’t hurt. A second nap couldn’t either. He ended up sleeping through the night, and missing everything.
“It was … a relief knowing where he was,” said Lucille. “But sad at the same time.”
Days before, Shaq had run into Biggie outside a tattoo parlor on Sunset Boulevard. “Yo, man. Be careful,” he told Biggie. Shaq, speaking via phone, says the light warning was a reference to the rapper’s presence in Los Angeles only six months after the murder of Tupac Shakur in Las Vegas.
Biggie was in California to promote his insanely anticipated sophomore album, Life After Death. And, two, to demonstrate that no matter how many records and magazines it sold, the perceived “East Coast-West Coast” rap civil war was overblown. In his last interviews — with Sway Calloway and with BET Rap City host Joe Clair — Biggie is attempting to move past what was then an unavoidable cloud over hip-hop. Fifteen days before his death, Snoop Dogg of the West and Bad Boy founder and CEO Sean “Puffy” Combs of the East, guest-starred as themselves on popular sitcom The Steve Harvey Show. In an effort to ease tensions, they shook hands and agreed to work together.
If Biggie was concerned about his safety in Los Angeles, he didn’t let on. “Yeah, yeah,” Biggie said. “I’m good. But come to my party.” The bond between the two men extended beyond their own respective levels of notoriety. I’m slamming n—–s / Like Shaquille, B.I.G. rapped on 1994’s “Gimmie The Loot,” a cut featured on his debut, Ready To Die.
“They was like, ‘Wooo, B.I.G. shouted out your name!’ ” Shaq said, recalling his Magic teammates Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott and Nick Anderson as they celebrated the nod. “It just showed me that a lot of people appreciated what I was doing — just like I appreciated what he was doing.”
Biggie’s passing took an emotional toll on Lucille, too. She met Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s Lil’ Cease when her son flew both to his Orlando home in ’96 to record “Can’t Stop The Reign.” The record came to be synonymous with the extended dominance of Biggie in rap and Shaq in hooping. Lucille said she didn’t know much about rap until her son became involved. “[Biggie] was so sweet and gentle. This was the impression that I got,” she said. “And very respectful. I looked at him like he could have been one of my children. I had great tenderness for him.”
As for Shaq — whose March 6 birthdate is forever embedded in his mind with Biggie’s murder just three days later — he still can’t shake what might have been. Just a year earlier he and Biggie recorded together, laughed, joked and talked about business ventures in and out of their day jobs. Shaq said he took Biggie out on his Sea-Doo. Biggie wasn’t a great swimmer, so when he fell off the jet ski, Shaq fondly remembers having to help find the notorious one find his bearings.
“I don’t say I could’ve prevented it,” said Shaq. “I was just saying … if I was out there by the car, would they still have fired? That’s the only thing I would say to myself.” Shaq’s been pondering this, has been haunted by that night for 20 years. “I don’t wanna make it seem like I could’ve saved him,” he said again. “I don’t wanna make it seem like if I was there, the shooters wouldn’t have shot. If I was there by the truck, after we all left and I’m dapping him up, would they still have shot?”
Ginuwine, DJ Klark Kent, comedian Chris Tucker, Missy Elliott, Irv Gotti, Aaliyah and more partied into the early morning hours of March 9. In the final hours of his life, Biggie Smalls was surrounded by love. Love that should have propelled him to the next chapter of a still infant career. Biggie had survived a war that six months earlier had taken the life of his former friend. A death Biggie said blindsided him. But even before that, B.I.G. believed death was always around the corner. “I’m scared to death,” he said in 1994, sitting on the third-floor steps of his mother’s apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. “Scared of getting my brains blown out.”
Now, he spoke of the future. His daughter T’yanna and the recent birth of his son with ex-wife and R&B singer Faith Evans — C.J., who played his father’s younger self in the 2009 biopic Notorious — inspired him. The success pouring into his life inspired him as well. His lyrics were even sharpening, evident on posthumous appearances aside from his solo work on Puff Daddy’s “Victory,” “All About The Benjamins” and “Young G’s” proved. As the party ended (shut down by the Los Angeles Fire Department), Biggie’s life lay in front of him.
Minutes later, that life ended in the passenger seat of a GMC Suburban at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire boulevards. In his pockets were an asthma inhaler, a bag of weed, and three Magnum condoms. He was two months shy of his 25th birthday.
Where were you when the news broke?
Marcellus Wiley (Compton, California, native; All-American at Columbia University; 52nd overall pick in 1997 NFL draft): I had so much going on in terms of how my life was transitioning and about to change. I wasn’t into the party scene … I remember it being in the middle of the night. I don’t sleep much. It’s weird because in L.A. when you see the local news it’s always murder-murder-fire-murder-murder-earthquake-murder-murder-bank robbery-weather-sports. This was before social media and cellphones — I ain’t have one. And they were like, ‘Biggie Smalls died.’
Nick Van Exel (current Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach; starting point guard for Lakers in 1997): We had a game that night … I decided to stay in. It’s crazy because I was a big Biggie fan and my boy, my college teammate — who was my teammate with the Lakers — Corie Blount, was a Tupac fan. That night it happened, they came to my house, it had to be like 3 something in the morning. They were like, ‘Man, they got ya boy. They got ya boy.’ I’m like, ‘Who?’ They were like, ‘Man, they shot Biggie.’
Corie Blount (backup center/power forward for Lakers in 1997): We got there early. I left [the Soul Train/VIBE party] before all that even went down. Usually, I don’t mind being in the thick of it, but it was a little wild that night. [Me and my homeboys] was on some wild stuff ourselves. But later on I heard what had happened.
Baron Davis (Los Angeles native; high school senior at Crossroads School in 1997): I was heartbroken because Biggie was one of my favorite rappers. It was a volatile time in L.A. anyway. I remember seeing a lot of the pro dudes … the next day or two and them crying about it. They was like, ‘We was right there, man.’ For me, just being in school and around, you hear rumblings in the streets. The streets talk.
The 1994-95 O.J. Simpson trial had stained the city. Not to mention the 1992 L.A. riots. L.A.-based Death Row Records, the label Tupac was signed to at the time of his murder, was also imploding. A week before Biggie’s murder, Death Row CEO Marion “Suge” Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison for violating probation stemming from his role in stomping on Orlando Anderson Sept. 7 — the night Tupac was killed — at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Tensions were high.
What was the mood in Los Angeles in the weeks following Biggie’s murder?
O’Neal: You’d go to clubs and people weren’t really in there. It took me awhile to get to the clubs because I was saying to myself, ‘M—–f—–s is coming back.’ Somebody coming back to do something. I’d pick and choose where I went. It was definitely a somber mood, a bitter mood.
Van Exel: It was quiet. When you lose somebody like that, everybody feels like they know that person. The whole city of L.A., you could feel that vibe. It was just crazy because you lost ‘Pac. Everything felt like it just stood still for a minute. Then you come right back and lose Biggie. Two of the biggest ever. You’re in that city. It was an eerie feeling.
Blount: It was all based on … who you asked. Some people really felt like that was supposed to happen. Like, ‘Man, this L.A. You don’t come out here gettin’ off like that.’ Some people who had a passion for the artistry … were upset that it happened. After it all went down, you realized that we lost two of the best artists of our time. And for it to happen in L.A., it just wasn’t a good representation of the city.
Davis: It was like the streets kinda died. It was like all the wind had been let out of L.A. The whole city was depressed. A lot of people felt the same way I did. How could we be responsible?
No one knew what was to expect. Who was next? Had hip-hop finally reached its breaking point? Would the genre — a cultural spark plug capable of making Capitol Hill cave in on itself — die, marred by murder and the agony of unfulfilled potential?
What were the conversations like with teammates and friends afterward?
Wiley: It took me back to the ignorance of … having friends who were on Pop Warner teams together and then all of a sudden one’s a Crip and one’s a Blood. Then the next thing you know one’s gone. It took me back to when ‘Pac got killed. Just the L.A. in me was like … this a damn shame, man.
Van Exel: I met Biggie two times in Atlanta. You had that sense of like, ‘Man, this was really one of the homeboys‘ … just because of the music and how inspirational he was and how uplifting he was for us. You could definitely feel it, the sense of change in a lot of people.
Blount: We was shook, man. It was almost on the same level [as] when ‘Pac died. At that time, man, Biggie’s records were hot! He had the love. For it to happen in L.A., it was almost kinda like a slap in the face. [We were] really trying to get past the situation with ‘Pac. And Biggie didn’t really try to put up any kinda representation that he was coming back at ‘Pac or nothing like that.
Davis: Why was he even here? Obviously, he had to do what he had to do. But, for me, when I heard about him dying in L.A., I was … double heartbroken. I was mad at L.A. for it.
Wiley: I really think that [Biggie] just came here to say, ‘Look, man. ‘Pac gone. Enough of the madness. I’m chillin’. I’m out here. I ain’t flossing. I ain’t doing too much. I’m just partying. I’m hanging.’ But, you know, the ignorance found him. The evil found him.
Davis: I just remember people like, ‘Aight man, they’re about to come for us.’ We killed their everything, you know what I mean?
Twenty years later. March 9 rolls around, unavoidable. It’s a chance to pay homage to a man who became a key fixture in these athletes’ pregame routines, and narrated stories of their lives. The love and admiration remain. But so does the hurt.
What goes through your mind when you hear “the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s death”?
Davis: I only got f—–g two albums, you know what I mean? I’m still waiting for a m—–f—– to release a Biggie song that I ain’t heard yet. I just felt like he was my homeboy.
Wiley: I just heard Biggie’s “Hypnotize” in Baywatch, the new Rock movie. It sounded so clean, so crispy like it came out last night! I was sitting there like it’s a damn shame that dude couldn’t make more than just two albums. It’s a damn shame that all that talent got cut short.
Van Exel: It’s still sad, man. I stay listening to Biggie. Every time [March 9] comes around it’s fresh. You start remembering and thinking about how things used to be back in the day — the music, the videos. It’s always a fresh wound that opens back up when this day comes around.
O’Neal: One of the greatest MCs of all time. One of the greatest storytellers of all time. He personifies what a lot of young males go through, especially big guys. For us, you either gonna be in sports or you gonna be a rapper. We really shouldn’t look at it like that. Like me, I wasn’t the type that was gonna get an academic scholarship. It was either I gotta be a basketball player, or join the army. A lot of brothers think like that. But B.I.G. made it. He was on his way. He was doing his thing. It was just real sad that he died tragically the way he did.
Blount: I was involved with these cats called BlackWatch. This was a little film company that had followed Biggie and Puffy around and videotaped them whenever they’d come to L.A. We went to New York, interviewed Ms. Wallace, Jay Z, Lil Cease … I was able to get around his people and see the love he had … It was sad, man. Real sad.
Davis: I’ll never forget me and Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, we were playing against [the] Dallas [Mavericks in 2007] and I think we was up 3-2 going back to Golden State for Game 6. I called Stephen and Matt. I said, “Aye, man. Don’t trip. We got Game 6. Tupac and Biggie with us.” Them fools just fell out laughing! [Biggie and ‘Pac], even still to this day, their music and my love and adoration for them is still holding me up.
Lucille O’Neal: Nobody hurts more than his mother. I don’t care what we say. Nobody hurts more than her.
Wiley: They always wanna portray the streets. It’s gonna lure the kids into that lifestyle. I raise my hand high and proud and say because of that type of music and because of these artists, they made certain that I wasn’t gonna do it. People always wanna kill these type of artists.
These interviews were edited for clarity and length.
Illustrations by Shyama Golden.