The real story behind the famous Chappelle skit about Prince’s late-night hoops challenge
As Micki Free checked into a Nashville, Tennessee, hotel earlier this month, the clerk, glancing at the name on the reservation, did a double take.
“Are you the Micki Free?” the clerk asked. “The guy who played basketball with Prince?”
Free laughed as he recalled the encounter. “Happens all the time when I check in,” Free said. “Been that way the last 12 years.”
It started on Feb. 18, 2004, when comedian Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central series aired a skit called Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories. In the segment, Murphy — comedian Eddie Murphy’s older brother — describes a late-night basketball outing that portrayed Prince as a shot-calling, trash-talking baller.
It was a made-up comedic masterpiece, right? A fictionalized account of a scrawny, 5-foot-2 musician as dominant athlete, right?
“Everything in that skit is true,” said Free, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter who was a member of Shalamar in the 1980s. “I played in that game. And Prince was Steph Curry all m—–f—— night!”
Prince wasn’t just some famous dude who was breaking ankles of other nonathletic famous dudes in late-night runs. Prince could actually play, a guy who might have been an impact high school basketball player under different circumstances while growing up in Minneapolis.
He played two years at Central High School in Minneapolis, and his high school coach, Albert Nuness, says he was extremely talented.
“His game was quickness. He wasn’t the best shooter, but he could split the seams and pass the ball and because of his size people loved to watch him,” Nuness said. “The player he reminds me of — Spud Webb. He didn’t have the leaping ability like Spud, but his quickness was very similar.”
One of the reasons Prince quit basketball was because he was unhappy with his playing time.
“At the time, that team was considered the greatest ever assembled in Minnesota,” Nuness said. “So it would have been hard for him to get time with us, and lot had to do with his size. But had he gone to any other school in the city — West or South — he would have played. A lot. No question.”
During 1975-76, Prince’s senior year, Central finished 25-1 and had four players receive Division I scholarships, including Prince’s half-brother, Duane Nelson, who played for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Although Prince’s basketball skills weren’t widely known at the time the Chappelle’s Show skit aired, there were signs that he had talent: He had a basketball court on the stage during his 1988 LoveSexy Tour, for instance, and during the concert he would shoot baskets and spin a basketball on his finger.
— Prince (@prince) March 1, 2016
In his video for the song The Daisy Chain, which was recorded in 2000, Prince handles a basketball throughout. The closing seconds of the video, which was shot in his indoor court at the Paisley Park complex in Minneapolis and didn’t surface until after his death, show perhaps the only known footage of Prince playing basketball.
Going back to the basketball game made famous on Chappelle’s Show: Free said it happened sometime in the mid-1980s as he was hanging out with Prince, Eddie Murphy and Charlie Murphy at a private club, Tramps! at the Beverly Center in Beverly Hills, California. When the club closed, Prince invited the group to his Beverly Hills home.
While playing music for his guests, Prince asked the group, “Do you want to play basketball?” The invite was met with laughter, but once the Murphy brothers saw Prince was serious, they geared up and took to the court at his house.
The TV skit portrayed the game as 5-on-5, half court. In reality, it was the Murphy brothers and their uncle, Ray, against Prince, his brother, Duane, and Free.
Murphy’s crew changed into athletic gear. And Prince’s crew?
“Yes, it’s true, we had on ‘blouses,’ and frilly shirts,” Free said. “The same clothes we had at the club. Prince played in 6-inch heels!”
Free remembered that Murphy’s crew didn’t take the game seriously at first.
“They checked the ball to me, I gave it to Prince and he went to work,” Free said. “You know that one move where Curry dribbles up and they got him covered, but he steps back behind the 3-point line and hits nothing but net? That was Prince.”
In the TV skit, Murphy described Prince as a combination of basketball greats Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley, a scoring and rebounding machine. Prince dominated the game, according to Murphy’s account, and capped off his game-winning shot with these oft-repeated words: “Game, Blouses.”
And after the game?
“It was just like they showed on TV,” Free said. “His chef served us blueberry pancakes, for real!”
Free first met Prince in the early 1980s and, over time, the two became friends. Prince offered to buy Free out of his contract with Shalamar and place him in his Minneapolis-based group, Mazarati. But the owner of Shalamar’s label declined and the two grew apart as Prince’s star began to shine brighter following the success of Purple Rain.
“What happened between us? He became Prince,” Free said. “He got huge and I was just one of many people he knew. I was just lucky to have my experiences with Prince, because anytime you got a chance to spend one-on-one with him, it was like a religious experience.”
Memories of their time together returned on Feb. 18, 2004, with an out-of-the-blue email from Charlie Murphy.
“I got you, m—–f—–,” the email read.
Free was still trying to figure out what he meant when he got a hysterical call from his mother.
“ ‘They’re talking about you on TV, son,’ ” he recalled her saying. “ ‘They’re calling you a girl.’ ”
She was watching the portion of skit where Charlie Murphy described her son: “And Micki Free was like the new cat in Shalamar, that when he joined the group I heard mad cats like, yo, Shalamar got a new girl, man, that b—- is fine like a m—–f—–.”
Free’s reaction was the total opposite of his mother’s.
“I was rolling,” Free said. “It was hilarious. And it was true.”
The skit captured the true competitiveness of Prince, which stretched beyond basketball.
David Z, a sound engineer, told the Minneapolis StarTribune that Prince once challenged Michael Jackson to a game of pingpong while the two were recording in the same studio.
Apparently, Jackson wasn’t a player. And it didn’t end well for the gloved one.
Prince asked Jackson, “You want me to slam it?” As Jackson cowered, Prince did just that, and Jackson was humiliated. “Did you see that?” Z recalled Prince saying. “He played like Helen Keller.”
After Prince’s death, Jimmy Fallon, the host of The Tonight Show, described being destroyed by Prince during a late-night game of pingpong. Prince delivered the beatdown while wearing a “double-breasted crushed blue velvet suit.”
That’s exactly how Free remembers Prince: a man who took everything seriously.