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For many in the NBA, continuing Nipsey Hussle’s marathon is a lifelong responsibility

From James Harden to Russell Westbrook to LeBron James, players continue the rapper’s message of empowerment

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30 for 30 Podcasts and The Undefeated present The King of Crenshaw. This four-part series dives into the connection between NBA players and the late rapper, entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist Nipsey Hussle. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.

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“Lost time, pressin’ rewind, it won’t budge/It’s all right, you can tell me your truth, I won’t judge …”

On June 13, two days after that posthumous Nipsey Hussle verse emerged on Maroon 5’s “Memories (Remix),” Brooklyn Nets star James Harden donned a T-shirt featuring Hussle’s image while sitting out Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks. The two events weren’t connected except to demonstrate the rapper’s cultural impact, in sports and beyond.

Hussle was killed outside his Marathon clothing store in Los Angeles in March 2019. For many in and around the NBA, the “truth” Hussle urged many to tell on the Maroon 5 cut remains powerful today, even when it’s not nationally televised like Harden’s shirt.

James Harden wears a Nipsey Hussle shirt on the sideline on June 13.

@ESPNNBA/Twitter

For some players, such as DeMar DeRozan, their connection to the Grammy-nominated rapper started with their shared origins growing up in South Los Angeles. In other cases, it was based on mutual respect and admiration for Hussle’s endeavors both in the booth and as a businessman and philanthropist in his neighborhood. But in every case, they recognized a young Black man like themselves who had talent and moved past the statistics to manifest his own destiny.

In just the past year, the evidence of Hussle’s continued influence and connection to the NBA has played out in multiple ways. In February, LeBron James, as he’d done in the past, previewed Hussle and Jay-Z’s “What It Feels Like” collaboration from the Judas and the Black Messiah soundtrack. Earlier this month, Russell Westbrook, James’ new Los Angeles Lakers teammate and one of Hussle’s closest friends, posted a video on Instagram of the LA native back home and rapping to Hussle’s “Ain’t Hard Enough” and “Grinding All My Life.” Westbrook, as many remember, painted a moving tribute to Hussle just days after his death by posting only the second 20-20-20 triple-double in NBA history, a nod to Hussle’s affiliation with the Rollin’ 60s Crips.

For Isaiah Thomas, who met Hussle when he was in college at the University of Washington and had the rapper perform at his 2011 draft party, invoking Hussle’s name is a daily occurrence.

LeBron James wears a shirt as a tribute to Nipsey Hussle during a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors at the Staples Center on April 4, 2019.

Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

“I @ his name every morning. I say ‘top of the top’ on Twitter,” said Thomas, echoing one of Hussle’s common greetings. Thomas also says he periodically revisits old conversations he had with Hussle via text message and direct message. “That’s something I try to keep alive because he’s somebody that I feel like … he’s still here just because I can hear his voice every day.”

Hussle’s presence rang loud on what would have been his 36th birthday on Aug. 15. Social media flooded with tributes to the late entrepreneur and activist. “Missing you is just apart of my DNA and I wear it with honor,” wrote his companion Lauren London. James reposted her, wishing his friend “Happy C[rip] Day.” Labelmate and friend Cobby Supreme referred to him as a “Street legend,” while Snoop Dogg simply reflected that he missed Hussle’s smile.

NBA Hall of Famer Allen Iverson also saluted Hussle, another demonstration of the decadeslong connections between basketball and hip-hop that go back to records such as Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” or the collaboration between Shaquille O’Neal and The Notorious B.I.G. Iverson was a major influence on Hussle growing up and the rapper once recalled telling Iverson how much the former All-Star meant to him and that his crossover on Michael Jordan in 1997 changed his life.

“I remember guarding him one time. That was the last time. I said, ‘All right. I ain’t guarding him no more,’ ” Hussle’s older brother, Blacc Sam, remembered of his brother’s obsession with Iverson’s crossover. “He almost crossed me up. I almost fell.”

More than Hussle’s court skills, NBA players recognized and gravitated to his philosophy of “the marathon.” The principle revolved around applying hard work to a passion, and understanding that every step and every roadblock was preparation for that future breakthrough moment. His relentless talk of self-empowerment while trying to give his community tools for financial independence paralleled the interests of many athletes who understood that the power of their platforms extended far beyond the courts or stadiums where they entertained millions. Hussle didn’t directly inspire the “player empowerment era,” nor were NBA players responsible for Hussle’s social awareness. But they felt camaraderie as they negotiated their paths through a society that for so long wanted to view them solely as entertainers.

“People respect a good person,” said Blacc Sam. “[Athletes] had real relationships with bro. It was never anything needed in exchange. They liked to be around Hussle and Hussle liked to be around them. They’d give him tickets to the games and Hussle would always support. It was just a good demonstration of a solid Black male.”

Russell Westbrook (left) of Team Giannis chats with rapper Nipsey Hussle during the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 17, 2019, at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Retired NBA champion Matt Barnes was already a fan of Hussle’s music when he first met the rapper after joining the Lakers ahead of the 2010-11 season.

“I don’t want to make it seem like we were supertight, ’cause it wasn’t that. It was just always love and respect. Early on in his career, he would be playing in the South Bay, which was where I lived when I played for the Lakers,” Barnes recalled. “So, we’d be going to, like, these low-dive bars. I’m upstairs with a bunch of 60s [Crips], smoking weed, getting ready for the show and people are looking like, ‘Is that the guy from the Lakers up there smoking with all these 60s?’ We were just upstairs talking about hoops and talking about life.

“We’re one person off the court and a whole ‘nother monster on the court. And, you know, he was similar. Very laid-back, very chill, kinda getting his thoughts together and kicking back. Then he went on that stage …”

Barnes carries Hussle with him everywhere he goes. Tupac Shakur’s face is tattooed on one hand. The other? Hussle’s. It’s a connection Barnes will keep for the rest of his life. Not just in ink, but in action, too.

Pay attention to almost every episode of Barnes and Stephen Jackson’s All The Smoke podcast and Hussle’s background mural nearly serves as the third host. “I’m working with [Hussle’s business partner] David Gross on affordable housing. I’m working on a social equity program in Sacramento to give minorities an opportunity in the cannabis space,” said Barnes. “Even on my podcast, the production team was too white. I told them, ‘Yo, we got to add some color in this.’ So, it’s we’re either giving back to the community or I’m trying to open doors for my people. I’m not the only one that did it. Nip was the king of it.”

As the conversation of mental health becomes more and more of a focal point in sports, it’s important to recognize just how sensitive that topic is in the Black community. Black men have been conditioned for generations to keep it close to the chest and “man up” or our vulnerabilities could be used against us. So it’s a powerful statement when Black men publicly acknowledge their pain by posting pictures of Hussle, or videos rapping to his lyrics, or even do something as subtle as Harden changing his Instagram profile picture to Hussle’s.

“Grief can’t simply be compartmentalized or put aside like other feelings. It can ebb and flow with moments of joyful nostalgia and deep sadness,” said Justin S. Hopkins, a Washington-based clinical psychologist who specializes in how people handle, process and learn to live with past traumas. “For guys like Westbrook who wear their passion and drive on their sleeves, or Harden, who’s truly this one-of-one kind of player and in his own unique lane, Nipsey’s platform and energy harmonized well. The deeper the connection, the deeper the mourning, and the more we must bring meaning to that person’s life and absence. The NBA players who continue to publicly honor Nipsey are attempting to do just that.”

“I appreciate you more than you know, bro. And your legacy will live on,” four-time NBA All-Star DeMarcus Cousins said of Hussle. “I’ve never even expressed it to him or told him. That dude, his leadership, his knowledge, his message … has done more for me than he’ll probably ever know.”

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.