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Remembering the Mid-Pandemic Hoop Dream
How J. Cole’s “The Off-Season,” the NBA Play-In, and the return of fans inside arenas marked a historic intersection for modern hoops in 2021
On a Friday night in 2021, J. Cole — the rapper and avid hoop fanatic — released his sixth studio album, The Off-Season, to a raucous internet audience. A highly anticipated drop, the project featured an all-star squad of rappers — including Cam’ron, 21 Savage, Lil John, 6LACK, Lil Baby and Dreamville’s own, Bas — while still carving out plenty of iso space for Cole to go to work and flex his skills across a variety of 90s- and trap-inspired instrumentals.
I admit the album didn’t hook me on my first listen. I was expecting more from the rap veteran at this stage in his career — in the same way you’d expect an NBA superstar to develop his game and add a new move to his arsenal in order to stay dominant against the younger heads. Instead, I felt like Cole was relying on the same, played-out, dribble-dribble-step-back swish he’d mastered since 2009’s The Warm Up mixtape. It felt too easy, too effortless. I immediately texted my homies for their opinions.
After a group chat debate that spanned for the better part of a day, my older brother convinced me to re-calibrate my expectations and put some respect on Cole’s name. So I gave the North Carolina rapper a second listen, and realized… the album wasn’t all that bad. It was actually dope.
Despite rumblings of disapproval at first, The Off-Season became a rare highlight for rap music that year. For me, Cole’s latest work cemented him as one of our generation’s finest lyricists and has earned him an indisputable place inside rap’s Hall of Game. The stats are undeniable: 98% of Google listeners rated it positively, and it was projected to reach #1 for the sixth straight time in the rapper’s career. According to Revolt, “the 36-year-old multi-platinum artist [at that time had] nine of the top 10 songs on the Apple Music top 100.”
And if that isn’t enough juice, the 6' 2" emcee joined the Rwanda Patriots Basketball Club as part of the inaugural Basketball Africa League — in the same weekend that his album debuted. The Roc Nation artist also revealed the meaning behind his basketball-inspired album title and alluded to becoming a professional baller in a beautiful interview with SLAM Magazine, in which he became the first rapper to ever grace the famous cover:
“Just like in basketball, what you see [players] do in the court, that shit was worked on in the summertime,” he said. “So for an athlete, if they take their career seriously and if they really got high goals and want to chase them, the off-season is where the magic really happens, where the ugly shit really happens, where the pain happens, the pushing yourself to uncomfortable limits.”
In many ways, the NBA Play-In had a similarly buzz-worthy reception from basketball fans and players, alike, a year earlier, drawing just as much scrutiny as Cole’s career. After being announced by the commish, the Play-In received more surprise, hesitation, and skepticism than praise. But, looking back, it was quite the hoop fan’s dream.
For the first time in the NBA’s 74-year history, the Play-In tournament determined which #7, 8, 9, or 10-seed teams could compete in the Playoffs. And though was initially heavily criticized and dismissed by many — including loudly vocalized opposition from star vets like LeBron James and Draymond Green — I personally couldn’t be happier for this revolutionized gameplay.
Let’s start with this simple, mathematical truth: more games plus more star players multiplied by higher stakes equals better entertainment. It’s like asking J. Cole to add an extra track to his albums because we know the dude already spits bars. So why not ask for one more?
For me, the creation of the Play-In is just a reminder that the NBA — and dare I say, Adam Silver? — is the savviest sports capitalist on the planet (and for once, I don’t mean that completely disparagingly). The league is merely taking advantage of the fact that they are blessed with an abundance of talent, and as a fan, I’m here for it. By adding more potential competition into the post-season mix, they are only multiplying the opportunities for electric legends — and money, if we’re being honest — to be made.
Want to see Steph Curry splash a game-winning three, March Madness-style, in a single-game do-or-die situation? You might. Hoping to see Ja Morant transform into an apex predator while trying to keep his team in the hunt? You will. What about LaMelo Ball getting the chance to ball-out in the most meaningful game of his blossoming career? That’ll probably happen, too.
Without the Play-In tourney, none of these scenarios would be possible. And like J. Cole without a microphone, we would’ve all missed out on something enjoyable, if just for a brief moment.
It all happened while fans made their pilgrimage back inside arenas, too. After nearly one full year of watching these uber-athletes high-rise from our tiny screens during the height of quarantine, we were once again able to see them move in real-time speeds, right in time for the yoffs: Russ on an open court fastbreak; Anthony Davis swallowing up defenders on his way to the rack; Jayson Tatum palming leather, and the game, at his fingertips; and don’t forget my boy Domantas Sabonis doing whatever the hell he does to quietly reach his All-Star numbers.
If you can’t rock with any of that, then you’re just as slimy as I was for hating on J. Cole’s music when I could’ve simply appreciated an excess of lyrical greatness at no cost. What will you lose to just press play, kick back, and admit “fuck it, I’m into this”? Not a damn thing. But, if you’d rather resist and pretend like J. Cole’s songs don’t slap, or that the Play-In tournament is a sham, well, my player-hating friend, continue to live in your cold, cold world while I enjoy these peak basketball memories — with the perfect soundtrack to it all.
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