Cherish tonight — James and Wade are the brotherhood Jay-Z and Biggie never had the freedom to experience
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade: a high-profile black male friendship that has tragic precedent
Save for his final home game in Miami next April, Dwyane Wade’s “One Last Dance” farewell tour entered its most emotional stop Monday night in Los Angeles. The three-time NBA champion and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer squared off against his former teammate, best friend and other championship-winning banana boat crew member, LeBron James, for the final time.
It’s the end of a basketball journey that began at the NBA draft combine in 2003. But now, life is starkly different for the championship-winning half of the banana boat quartet, which also features Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. Wade’s attention to the world after basketball is already in full swing. He missed LeBron’s visit to Miami a few weeks back on paternity leave after the birth of he and wife Gabrielle Union’s daughter, Kaavia James. Whereas LeBron’s basketball career continues to ascend toward the sport’s rarefied air — with the distant possibility he could one day play in a league featuring both his son LeBron James Jr. and Wade’s oldest son, Zaire, who is already involved in the college recruitment process. But Monday night is about them and the endless memories that come with the finality of the moment.
“It’s bitter, and it’s sweet. It’s sweet and sour,” James said after the Lakers’ recent 111-88 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. “The sweet part … is I’ve always loved being on the same floor with my brother. … And the sour part … is that this is our last time sharing the same court.”
Wade’s sentiments exactly. “Having this opportunity with ’Bron, out of everybody in the NBA, he’s the person I’ve loved playing against the most outside of Kobe [Bryant],” he told the Sun Sentinel over the weekend. “Obviously, he’s also one of my good friends, and the history we have as teammates, as well. It definitely means more than just the average last game versus a team or individual.”
There is an added incentive for both former teammates heading into Monday night’s game. James and Wade, who went to four consecutive NBA Finals from 2011-14 and won two together, are 15-15 in 30 career matchups against each other. The winner, for the rest of his life, carries a lifetime of personal bragging rights. More than anything, though, the final James vs. Wade game is an opportunity to witness history in real time — but also to appreciate the last 16 seasons, and what the duo has done to elevate a game they were both expected to, and did, revolutionize.
Their relationship calls to mind another friendship between competitive men who became all-time greats as competitive brothers. It’s one that fate ended early, and one that was recently reintroduced to the spotlight on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” — Jay-Z flipping a lyric from The Notorious B.I.G.’s “What’s Beef.” Call it returning a favor for the late Brooklyn MC paying homage to Jay-Z 21 years later.
Imagine if Wade never played again after capturing Finals MVP in 2006. Or if LeBron, after the “48 special” he unleashed on the Detroit Pistons in 2007, were no longer in the game. Alternate realities that bring a tidal wave of grief and despair, just at the mere thought.
The success, the worldwide fame, the marriage to Beyoncé, the friendships with Barack Obama and LeBron James, the No. 1 albums, the Grammys — none of it can ever be enough to mute the voice in Jay-Z’s head. That nasal laugh and unperturbed voice that helped make Brooklyn a cultural zenith. Jay-Z will always remember the excitement in Biggie’s voice. The pain, too. The reality is one he’s never been able to escape, and never will: Jay-Z was one of the last people to talk to The Notorious B.I.G.
The music from the VIBE after-party for the Soul Train Awards at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum was loud. “Where you at, playboy?!” Biggie yelled for Jay over the phone.
Only two weeks before the release of his album Life After Death, Biggie wanted Jay with him to celebrate. Not just his success, but theirs. They’d survived New York City during the eras of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Reaganomics and crack cocaine — and had lived to craft graphic street soundtracks of it all. The worst of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry seemed behind them, and the rest of their lives were in front.
At least, that’s the way it should’ve been. Minutes later, Biggie was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. He was 24 years old.
Jay was supposed to be with Biggie in L.A. on March 9 but had other commitments. According to an 1997 interview with MTV, he had, however, planned to fly to Los Angeles the next day to chop it up with B.I.G. The two had known of each other since high school, but it was rarely more than a dap here, a dap there and seeing each other around Brooklyn before Brooklyn was gentrified. And before Marcy Projects became an amusement park.
Hustling on street corners was a part of their lives, while music would elevate them beyond the long arm of the law. B.I.G., of course, found success first with the release of his 1994 landmark Ready To Die. During Biggie’s rise to superstardom, Jay’s rap acumen was growing. DJ Clark Kent constantly told Biggie about this cat from Marcy Projects who was nice. B.I.G., initially, didn’t take the nudge seriously.
Biggie’s walls of resistance began to erode after hearing Jay’s “Dead Presidents” — then an undeniable New York underground smash in the pre-Reasonable Doubt days. “Yo, man,” Big said. “Ya mans is mad nice.” But even then, he still wasn’t ready to give in. This was apparently due to Kent’s insistence that Jay was just as dope as Biggie — a claim, recounted in interviews and documentaries over the past two decades, that agitated Biggie so much that he recorded the second verse of “Who Shot Ya?” as proof to Kent that Jay wasn’t “harder” than him on the mic.
History remembers the record as a line in the sand that divided Biggie and Tupac and watermarked a bicoastal feud — but, according to Kent, “Who Shot Ya?” was Biggie proving to him that no one from Brooklyn could out-rap him, including Jay-Z. The wheels of competition were in full rotation after this. Jay, per Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Kareem “Biggs” Burke, was so inspired by Biggie’s move that, days later, he recorded three songs that would later become benchmarks in his catalog: “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “D’Evils” and “Can I Live.” Not exactly the group chat LeBron and D-Wade use to keep tabs on each other, but a competitive and, at its core, respectful GPS nonetheless.
Competition brought Biggie and Jay closer and closer together, but it was fate that kindled a friendship. B.I.G. heard the “Brooklyn’s Finest” beat and wanted it for himself.
“You always giving this [guy] everything!” Biggie responded. Clark Kent was Biggie’s DJ, but Kent was also in A&R at Atlantic and was trying to sign Jay-Z. If Big couldn’t have the record, as legend has it, he was going to jump on the record. There was initial hesitation about bringing B.I.G. into the studio, not because Jay-Z didn’t want him on there but because doing so meant doing paperwork with Sean “Puffy” Combs — something Kent remembers then-Roc-A-Fella CEO Damon Dash being against.
“If you can make it happen,” Jay said at the studio session, “it’s all good.”
Meanwhile, Biggie waited nearby in a car for Kent’s call to come inside. People in the studio looked at Kent funny, knowing he had set the meeting up. But the meeting between Biggie and Jay produced instant dividends. There had always been respect between the two — and now they were meeting face-to-face again. Chemistry was immediate. They laughed and dapped countless times, and the lyrical Olympics the two entered into became a story for all time. It was also during the session that Biggie saw Jay record his verses off the top of his head.
“You ready?” Jay asked Biggie from the booth.
“I told you,” Kent said to Biggie, “he don’t write no rhymes.”
Jay and Big were always competitors, but now they were friends. By the end of Biggie’s life, there were serious talks of the two doing a joint album — the original Watch The Throne, if you will, and by far one of the most gut-wrenching what-if scenarios in rap history.
The two Brooklyn bombers, part of a collective then known as “The Commission,” officially released only three songs: “Brooklyn’s Finest,” “I Love the Dough” on Biggie’s Life After Death and “Young G’s” from Puffy’s No Way Out. They all were, as Kent has explained, inseparable.
It was a fast-break-like excitement that Wade and James would display nearly 20 years later on and off the court. They were two greats who knew they were great — but at the same time had no clue how powerful their voices would be in American pop cultural history. Both knew the climate of rap in the mid-’90s, how dangerous just existing in rap had become. But they couldn’t have thought it’d come to a head in the early morning hours of March 9, 1997. The end wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Seeing Jay tour the world, release meaningful projects at nearly 50 years old, is mind-numbing. Life goes on, and memories take up residency in the past. But pain travels. Jay was emotionally detached after Big’s death. He had been to only two funerals at that point in his life. The world kept moving, but his world, the world he and Biggie were supposed to take over together, was crumbling. “I remember the first time going out … in the car,” Jay-Z said months after Biggie’s murder. “I wasn’t driving. I was just looking out the window. Everybody was moving … and happy. That’s when I got angry.”
What the deal playboy, just rest your soul
I be holding it down yo, still love the dough …
Got the whole world on lock down you know how we flow
Don’t worry about Brooklyn, I continue to flame
Therefore a world with amnesia won’t forget your name
You held it down long enough, let me take those reins …
— Jay-Z “The City Is Mine” (1997)
LeBron and Wade’s head-to-head battles have produced a world of classics, while their time together as teammates, along with fellow future Hall of Famer Chris Bosh, forever reconfigured basketball’s power structure. With Monday night’s final LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade matchup, there’s a completion there that Biggie and Jay-Z were never afforded.
Jay-Z’s verse on Meek Mill’s “What’s Free” is proof that as the elder statesman Biggie never got to be, Jay-Z still holds the game hostage, and B.I.G.’s spirit has been an ever-present theme in Jay’s music — often seeming like a kite sent to a fallen friend. Even Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, says Jay honors her son to this present day. Biggie shouted out Jay on 1997’s “What’s Beef,” and 21 years later, the only homage Jay could return to his friend was lyric of his that he flipped. Hahaha, check out this bizarre / Rapping style used by me/ The H-O-V. It’s beautiful and tragic — a reminder of what was, and what should have been.
There’s real pain in that lyric. Not just because the world lost a great artist but also because Shawn Carter lost a friend. The success he’s had was supposed to happen with Biggie alive and well in the arena. Big never had the chance to work with Pharrell or rap over Soul-Sample Kanye beats or rap alongside young legends like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Nor was he given much of a chance to see how fatherhood and the gift of maturity would have changed his approach to music and the world around him.
Wade, the greatest shooting guard not named Jordan or Bryant to ever live, and James — arguably the greatest, period, to ever set foot on an NBA court — likely don’t see themselves as Jay-Z and Biggie. At their apex, though, Wade and James’ chemistry calls to mind the Brooklyn tag team: the respect, the gamesmanship, the joy with which they dominated. Not to mention the unforgettable highlights. It’s been a blessing to watch James and Wade do what they’ve done for the past 16 seasons. There’s no stone unturned or anything they could’ve done differently to make Monday night’s moment any sweeter.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you, ‘Oh, it’s another one of 82 [games].’ Not it’s not. Not for me,” Wade said. “It’s a game where I get to play against not only one of my best friends but one of the game’s greatest players for the last time. I want to win as a team, but I want to savor the opportunities.”
Cherish Monday night. James and Wade are the brotherhood Jay-Z and Biggie never had the freedom to experience. It’s always been more than a game.