The realest moment in NBA postgame memory occurred after the Lakers won the 2010 championship. As Craig Sager interviewed Metta World Peace (né Ron Artest) about his clutch fourth-quarter play, the Lakers forward abruptly shouted, “Queensbridge in the building.” Then he made the salmon-suited Sager emphatically blurt, “Queensbridge!”
Many viewers attributed it to Metta’s idiosyncratic reputation, but rap fans understood it as a poignant shout-out to the gritty New York projects where he was raised — famously touted by MC Shan as “the place where stars are born.”
“I grew up in the ’hood, but it was like growing up in Beverly Hills because there were so many superstars around,” Metta says, over bouncing balls and buzzing shot clocks at the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo.
After a year in China and Italy, the Lakers fan favorite rejoined the purple and gold, where he’s emerged as a veteran presence at the end of the bench, mentoring the team’s young talent.
“There were hustlers out there, but you felt proud because you came from where Nas, MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Marley Marl, Tragedy Khadafi and Mobb Deep came from,” Artest continues, wearing his Lakers practice jersey and shorts.
“We were the music. The weed smoke on the block … the Henny, the late nights. The rappers wrote about our actual friends.”
Understandably, the 36-year-old couldn’t help but be influenced by the legends that surrounded him.
His cousins were dope dealers on the third floor, right next to Havoc of Mobb Deep. Capone of Capone-N-Noreaga was another cousin and an excellent basketball player, too.
“In 1990, we played in a charity basketball game and he had 69 points,” Metta remembers. “I had eight. He was a hell of a player.”
The perennially unsung great Tragedy Khadafi (formerly Intelligent Hoodlum) used to date Metta’s sister. Roxanne Shanté was his babysitter, and he remembers watching wrestling’s Survivor Series with The Firm’s Nature at the rapper’s apartment.
“We didn’t have money for Hostess cakes,” Matta reminisces. “So we’d go to Nature’s for the snacks.”
It was only natural that Metta eventually started rapping after leaving St. John’s University to enter the NBA. Since then, he’s released several albums; the most recent, Streets & Ball, dropped earlier this month.
He dismisses his early material as the work of an immature artist, and cites the evolution on his latest album, where he’s stepped up his wordplay and experimented with R&B and EDM.
“I’m not a ‘real rapper’; I just like to talk about what I’ve been through,” Metta says. “When I was younger, I just said random, stupid lyrics and censored myself because I was worried about what people would think. But now I’ve become more mature with my words and uncensored.”
He hopes to tour after the Lakers’ season finishes in April, marking the last games of Kobe Bryant’s career. It’s unlikely that the championship duo will ever collaborate, but Metta remembers when the Mamba visited his hotel room to spit lyrics that he’d just jotted down — which became a never-recorded cypher session.
“He liked one of my songs, so he came to my room and we flowed,” Metta says smiling. “He’s so much better than me … so good with words. He ought to write a movie.”
Despite becoming an L.A. legend in his own right, Metta forever remains inextricably linked to his upbringing — the neighborhood of just 7,000 that produced some of the greatest musicians ever.
“It was pretty insane. Whether on the courts or on the mic, everyone was competitive and trying to be on top,” Metta says. “If you can be the best from Queensbridge, and actually make it out, then you must be pretty good.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.