Rappers have been making NBA references in their lyrics since the earliest stages of commercial hip-hop, and as the years passed, the one-liners have—for the most part—only grown in potency.
In the 1990s and mid-2000s, rappers began using the NBA—a game littered with terms like “shooters” and “long range”—to make myriad references about their skill with a gun. While explaining it like that can make the idea seem trite, trust us, there are a lot of ways to use gun-bars and NBA players. Honestly, that was probably all Lil Mouse did for the first half of his career.
In later years, of course, MC’s would use the NBA references to mythologize themselves, creating bars that acted as summations of their career or their status in relationship to the rap game. People like Lil Wayne, Drake and, of course, Jay Z come to mind, but there are more. Many more.
From the most intricate metaphors meant to put rival rappers six feet under in a heated battle to straightforward punchlines about doing that in real life, XXL takes a look at them all. Get an extended look at 20 of the best NBA references in rap history by peeping our list below.
Lyrics: "I can relate to kids going straight to the league/When they recognize that you got what it takes to succeed/And that's around the time that your idols become your rivals/You make friends with Mike but got to 'A.I.' him for your survival."
Everyone knows of Drizzy's knack for melody and his stylistic malleability. But, one of the Toronto rapper's more underrated strengths lies in his ability to contextualize both himself and others in the world of pop culture through quick bursts of incisive lyricism. Case in point, his first verse on "Thank Me Now," a cut from his debut album, Thank Me Later.
At the time, Drizzy was a flashy, archetype-subverting rookie taking over with his dynamic abilities and reshaping the game forever—kind of like a certain six-foot scoring dynamo did in Philadelphia 20 years ago. Drizzy did it with smooth vocals and the songwriting skills of a hit-making virtuoso; Allen Iverson did it with a lethal first step, supernatural athleticism and the most explosive crossover the game had ever seen.
Shaking up hip-hop as much as he was, it's only right Drizzy mentioned the time AI crossed Michael Jordan in the first game they played against each other. MJ was near the peak of his powers at the time, and the moment was a proverbial passing of the torch moment that lives on through YouTube clips and barbershop conversations to this day. As we know now—and as we saw coming within a year of his first album dropping—Drizzy would go on to dominate pop culture just as AI did. It's perfect.
Lyrics: “As fate would have it, Jay’s status appears/To be at an all-time high, perfect time to say goodbye/When I come back like Jordan, wearing the 4-5/ It ain't to play games with you, it's to aim at you, probably maim you."
With his legacy of nearly unprecedented dominance and cultural ubiquity, Jay Z is one of the few who can viably compare themselves to the great Michael Jordan. When he first "retired" back in 2003, he makes the comp and proclaims that if he comes back out of retiring—like MJ did in 1995, with number 45 being his brand new number—he wouldn't be playing games with the competition, and he'd bring along his trusty .45 semi-automatic pistol to maim his enemies. You could look at 2007's American Gangster and 2011's Watch the Throne as being Hov's equivalent to MJ's 1996 and 1997 NBA titles—with Yeezy playing the role of a Dennis Rodman/Scottie Pippen hybrid on the latter album.
Ultimate Rap League: Murda Mook Vs. Young HotMurda Mook
Lyrics: "I believe in the hype/That's why every time you hear me, I compare me to Mike/Example: Remember when A.I. crossed Mike out his sneakers?/Seemed so much worse 'cause we ain't think Mike had a weakness/All for that one move A.I. got his fame/They forgot Jordan had 35 and still won that game"
Murda Mook's first verse in his battle against Young Hot pretty much ended the showdown. At the time, Mook was considered the best battle rapper in the world, and so comparing himself to Michael Jordan made more than enough sense. Young Hot had a buzz and was one of the best freestyle rappers around, but most folks at the time didn't expect him to win. However, when people are put on a pedestal and mythologized as much as MJ is—and Mook was—any sign of a flaw in their game can seem monumental. Mook played on this idea and preemptively dismissing any credit the young Philly MC might have gotten for potentially one-upping him in a lyric, while building momentum with a theatrical build up leading to the inevitable conclusion for any battle against MJ or Mook—an emphatic L.
Lyrics: "But I’m limitless mentally, I’m lyrically ZMT/Lebron shit, I was in that 6 after 23"
A clever little quip from Wale's titular Ambition track, this line is as quick and efficient as they come. LeBron James wore the number 23 for the first seven years of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he switched it to the number 6 when he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. Wale was already on his way to rap stardom in 2007—the year he turned 23—and after that point, he could afford to cop a 600 Benz. Dope.
Lyrics: "Ced said, 'Look, my niggas, we got a foot in'/Being good is good, that’ll get you Drew Gooden/But me, I want Jordan numbers, LeBron footin’/Can’t guard me, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden"
It's not a stretch to say this sequence in "Return of Simba" is everything fans love about J. Cole distilled into four bars. It's the relentlessly earnest, fire in his eyes Jermaine in full effect as he compares the careers of sports icons—namely, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, to that of Drew Gooden, a journeyman NBA player—to contextualize his position as a power-hungry rap up-and-comer. At the time, Cole had been signed for about two years, but just as he said on his The Warm Up rendition of Kanye's "The Last Call," "what's a deal when you trying to be the greatest?" With that same idea in mind, Cole makes it clear he's not satisfied with simply making the league, and even at just two years in the game, the then-upstart rapper was already trying to usurp Jay Z—the rap game's Michael Jordan—to become the greatest ever, something at least a few people believe LeBron will do with the Jumpman.
"Can't Tell Me Nothing"Kanye West
Lyrics: "But homie this is my day/Class started two hours ago, oh am I late?/No, I already graduated/And you can live through anything if Magic made it."
Leave it to Yeezy to turn something as tangibly threatening as H.I.V. into an uplifting message about being able to survive anything. Gotta love '07 'Ye, for sure.
"Follow Me Gangster" Lloyd Banks
Lyrics: "My team in the cut, packing metal things/I've got more foreign shooters than the Sacramento Kings,"
The legend of the PLK had already begun when Lloyd Banks turned in these bars, so this is sort of like flipping through league pass just in time to see Russell Westbrook slash through the lane for one of his signature tomahawk jams. If you watched the NBA in the mid-2000s, you'll get these bars immediately. If you didn't, here's the rundown: During the 2003 season, the Sacramento Kings had Peja Stojaković, Hedo Türkoğlu. Both shot the three ball at a well-above average rate of over 37 percent, and could always light you up from the field if they were left open. Get it? Sure, that's technically only two shooters, but this bar predates the "pace-and-space" three point explosion, so it still makes enough sense for the time. It's also still fire.
"Show Me What You Got Freestyle" Lil Wayne
Lyrics: "And when it comes down to this recording/I must be LeBron James if he's Jordan/No, I want rings with my performance/I'm more Kobe Bryant up in all this/Same coat, same gang been starting/Same triangle offense/I come through the lane like a dargeant/Referee niggas is lame they call charging,"
In 2006 Lil Wayne was absolutely at the top of his game in terms of critical and commercial success, and because Jay Z had been "away" from the game for three years, he had a very convincing case for being the best rapper in the world. He was Kobe Bryant/LeBron James to Hov's Michael Jordan. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say he's more like Dwyane Wade; a transcendant superstar who was ripped away from his peak by external factors after a legendary 2005-2006 campaign. Weezy's still a GOAT, though, and we all know it. This line sees Tha Carter 2 rapper forecast his greatness, and at the time, not too many people argued.
"New God Flow" Kanye West
Lyrics: "Went from most hated to the champion god flow/I guess that's a feeling only me and LeBron know"
It hadn't been more than a month since LeBron James—temporarily one of the NBA's most polarizing figures—silenced his doubters by winning his first ever NBA championship in 2012. In a looser way, Yeezy had sort of his own redemption cycle after his embarrassing interruption of Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. He dropped his stellar My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album a year later, and of course, fans loved him once again. Compare that to LeBron's The Decision debacle. In both cases, excellence proved to be the best remedy for large scale PR fiascos. With his sense of both the moment and his place in it, Kanye came through once again with a fire summation of a landmark cultural happening. Oh, and LeBron himself referenced the line in a tweet shortly after it was released.
"Victory" The Notorious B.I.G.
Lyrics: "Real quick, real sick, raw nights, I perform like Mike/Anyone—Tyson, Jordan, Jackson, action, pack guns"
One thing you'll learn from this list: You can never, ever go wrong with a Michael Jordan reference. Big took the extra step of including the other GOAT Michael's in this sequence. The message? Beyond a simple proclamation of his dominance, probably nothing. But you can say this: It doesn't matter what aspect of rap it was, Biggie was dominant.
Lyrics: “The survey says, by the streets according / Kanye’s just important as Michael Jordan was to the NBA when he was scorin’/Ralph Lauren was borin’ before I wore him"
There's a very good chance you're not even an eighth as good at anything as Michael Jordan was at basketball. And you know what? You're probably doing just fine. Kanye's might just match the GOAT, though. The pre- Graduation iteration of the rapper reached Mount Olympus levels of flexing, claiming to be better at making music than Michael Jordan was at rapping while taking singular responsibility for bringing Ralph Lauren to hip-hop. Lyrically, this is Kanye at his best; witty and like so many of his other unflinchingly honest lyrics, possibly as audacious as it is accurate. Sidenote: 'Ye performed a less polished version of this verse on an episode of Def Poetry Jam a year or so before "Brand New" actually dropped.
Lyrics: "I'm Killa, you Andre Miller, got a basic game/I told your bitch to hurry up, we don't wait for trains"
There is nothing, we repeat, NOTHING wrong with Andre Miller. At his peak, the former NBA player averaged 16.5 points a game along with an impressive 10.9 assists per contest. He was nice—he had game. But ultimately, it was a basic one. In these bars, (insert lame) is Andre Miller and Cam'ron is Kyrie Irving--the guy with a mesmerizing handle, electric quickness and a jumper GM's have dreams about. Cam brought Dipset, made pink masculine and makes watching him reminisce on Instagram a totally reasonable way to spend your morning. He's a GOAT.
"It Was a Good Day" Ice Cube
Lyrics: “Which park are y’all playing basketball/Get me on the court and I’m trouble/Last week fucked around and got a triple double/Freaking niggas every way like MJ/I can’t believe today was a good day"
The song these lyrics belong to sees Cube run through a good day in the streets of Compton, where death is around the corner—and so is the basketball court, so why not run some pick up? In the game, the short and stout former NWA member destroys the competition to the tune of a triple double, "freaking" his opponents "every way like MJ," who happened to be on his way to a second consecutive NBA championship back in '92.
"Deadly Combination"Big L
Lyrics: "I be that young, pretty, fly, smooth, glorious kid/A Bad Boy, just like Notorious B.I.G/I Roc-a-Fella like Shawn Carter/With more game than Ron Harper / The bomb sparker rapper slash charm robber"
Big L is a lot like that playground legend whose career was derailed by the elements surrounding the court he built his reputation--'cept he was so nice he still made it to the league, and mesmerized listeners when he dribbled across Lord Finesse instrumentals, disarming MCs with tight rhyme schemes and irrepressible wit.
"Dead Presidents II" J. Cole
Lyrics: “My whole life practice to be the one/what it's like to be LeBron/they calling you the savior, so much pressure but u deal with it/the weight of the world on your shoulders but you still lift it"
Cole once again compares his situation as a rap up-and-comer to the rise of LeBron James. This is a slightly younger Cole who's merely in the process of breaking-out. But if you were listening to rap in the summer of 2009, you remember The Warm Up, which might you might say was young Jermaine's version of LBJ's nationally televised game against Oak Hill Academy back in 2002.
"The Heart Part 4" Kendrick Lamar
Lyrics: "Tables turned, lesson learned, my best look/You jumped sides on me, now you 'bout to meet Westbrook/Go celebrate with your team and let victory vouch you/Just know the next game played I might slap the shit out you"
Kendrick Lamar's "The Heart Part 4" sees him explain all the ugliest parts about the "split" of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook within a matter of only four bars. As we all know, KD left the Oklahoma City Thunder in order to join Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors after that same team bounced he and Russ from the 2016 playoffs. By the time the 6'10" sniper had made his decision, it was too late in the summer for OKC to make up for his absence by getting other players. As one of the top five-to-ten players in the world, Russ could've gone to any number of teams in pursuit of some championship hardware. Instead, he chose to stay the course and proceeded to average a triple double and have one of the most impactful regular seasons in NBA history. Of course, those stats couldn't change the fact that the Warriors won 73 games last year and added a top three player in the world to their roster. Russ and the Thunder were blown out each-and-every time faced-off against the GSW. Still, Westbrook never stopped attacking the basket and trying to will his team to victory. While it's probably not fair to call KD's leaving OKC a "betrayal," for K. Dot's purposes, the example works perfectly as he explains that even if the team his defector went to takes home the W, he might just give a hard foul to the "traitor" the next game. Vengeance—right or wrong—has almost never sounded so epic.
"White Iverson" Post Malone
Lyrics: "White Iverson/When I started ballin' I was young/You gon' think about me when I'm gone/I need that money like the ring I never won, I won"
AI just keeps popping up, huh? There's not too much to analyze here, but Post Malone references Iverson's status as both a revolutionary NBA player and as someone who--sadly--never won an NBA title. Making this one even a bit more notable is that Post managed to weave it into a melodic hook, making it possibly more memorable than almost every other reference on this list.
Lyrics: "My mansion sitting on 40 acres, who the neighbors?/Kobe Bryant from the Lakers, now that's paper"
Juicy J was straightforward with this one, but he's got a point; Kobe Bryant did play for Los Angeles Lakers, he was very rich, and if you're his neighbor, you most likely are too.
"Rapper's Delight"The Sugarhill Gang
Lyrics: "So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which is really on the wall/I got a color TV so I can see the Knicks play basketball"
The very first mainstream rap song in history also included a reference to the New York Knicks. It's not even the slightest bit clever, but at the end of the day, it marked the very beginning of rap's long-lasting relationship with the association.
Lyrics: "Kobe 'bout to lose a hundred fifty M’s/Kobe my nigga, I hate it had to be him/Bitch, you wasn't with me shootin' in the gym/(Bitch, you wasn't with me shootin' in the gym)"
Take a look at the way Snoop Dogg and Kanye West celebrate toward the end of Kobe Bryant's final NBA game. That's all it takes to realize one immutable truth about the retired Laker's star: People love themselves some Kobe Bean Bryant, and that affection transcends pretty much everything. The old heads respect him, contemporaries admired him, and even if you're a casual fan, chances are you've shouted "Kobe" when you launched your empty Mountain Dew in the trash can.
Ever the pop culture alchemist, Drake played on this fact in his "Stay Schemin" verse, where he turned Kobe's divorce situation into an infinitely tweetable—and definitely a bit offensive--rallying cry. Rozay's repeating the last part in his deep, guttural voice made it all the better. Drizzy later apologized to Kobe for the reference, but the Lakers star and his wife never ended up getting divorced, so it's probably all good. Yeah but word though, this line was fire.