When Prince Rogers Nelson tragically died on April 21, 2016, the 57-year-old music icon was given a level of reverence usually reserved for royalty. "Nobody's spirit was stronger, bolder or more creative," remarked President Barack Obama of the maverick funk and rock genius. And the world seemingly agreed, as such landmarks as New York's Apollo Theater, Australia's Melbourne Arts Center, New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome, his hometown Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis and city halls in both Los Angeles and Montreal were all bathed in Prince's signature purple.
It was a breathtaking sight, yet it was the outpouring of respect from the sports community that raised eyebrows. The Minneapolis native's hometown baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, released seven white doves before the first pitch and wore purple sweatbands as each player chose a different Prince song for their walk-up music. Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta tipped his cap to Prince on Twitter before throwing a no-hitter just a few hours later. The Golden State Warriors paid homage to the guitar hero by playing a mix of some of his biggest hits before their morning shootaround. And the Minnesota Vikings delivered an emotional nod during halftime of their home opener with a rendition of "Purple Rain" performed by the Minnesota Orchestra and gospel group The Steeles.
"His impact not just on music, but on culture, truly can't be measured," said basketball deity Michael Jordan of Prince in a statement to TMZ Sports. In June 1997, even The Greatest, late boxing giant Muhammad Ali, personally requested a sit-down with Prince, who idolized the late counterculture change agent.
It should not have been much of a surprise that professional athletes across the board were giving it up for a rule-breaking visionary who once wore yellow pants with the butt cut out during a 1991 MTV VMAs performance. After all, whether it was his various appearances at NBA games or when he showed up at the 2014 French Open to watch Rafael Nadal win in three sets, Prince proved he was a serious sports fan.
The Grammy and Oscar winner was also a baller who famously played backup point guard in the early '70s for Minneapolis' Bryant Junior High. Back then, the scouting report on the barely 5'2", prodigious Afro-flaunting, smirking No. 3 described a pestering sixth man who had impressive handles, a decent jump shot and blink-or-miss-him speed.
"It's all true," veteran blues/rock guitarist Micki Free tells Bleacher Report. Free, who is gearing up for his May album release, Tattoo Burn-Redux, is forever immortalized in a 2004 episode of Chappelle's Show, "True Hollywood Stories." The hilariously conceived skit, written by the late Charlie Murphy, featured a mean-mugging Prince destroying the funnyman and his superstar brother Eddie Murphy in a game of basketball.
Free is still laughing. "I remember Prince telling me, 'Take the ball out and give it back to me," he recalls. "I took it out, threw it into Prince, he brought it down the court and swish, nothing but net his first shot. Eddie and Charlie were running around with their heads cut off. Prince was dropping bombs like Steph Curry. People call it the greatest pickup game in basketball history."
OK, maybe Free is diving into the Lake Minnetonka waters of hyperbole, but you get the point. Prince, whose 2007 Super Bowl XLI halftime show performance is roundly praised as one of the greatest of all time, loved a good matchup. Peep game.
Shoots the J!
Prince was such an intense gym rat that oftentimes he squeezed sweaty games of pickup basketball into his legendary marathon band rehearsals. On one 1984 bootleg tape in particular, gearing up for a Purple Rain gig in Detroit, Prince teased a member of the Revolution who failed to participate in a game. "You're going to get a workout somehow," he sniffed during a grueling practice session. Prince Stans had long been aware of His Royal Badness' basketball prowess (The Artist's acclaimed 1988-1989 LoveSexy tour featured a hoop onstage on which the one-man band would frequently showcase his jumper).
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Prince also mastered the art of trash-talking as if he were the second coming of Gary Payton. "The word came back that Prince said, 'It wasn't that I was a great basketball player,'" Murphy joked to me back in 2004 of his showdown with the ambitious musician. "'It was that Charlie was horrible.'"
Looking back at it all, the image of the purple-lace and satin-draped Prince kicking ass in a game of basketball and then serving pancakes to his dazed and confused opponents still comes off as absurd. Yet while the rock star/fresh innovator was known for wearing high heels on and offstage, when it came to pickup games, he chose more traditional athletic wear like the rest of us mere mortals. "Sweats, a T-shirt, had his hair done nice," former NBA All-Star Carlos Boozer described on The Triple Double Podcast in April 2016 of the time he saw Prince in action.
In 2004, the Utah Jazz power forward rented out his 18,000-square foot mansion to Prince, who he claims "had a nice little jump shot," only to see his home shockingly redesigned in all things purple. Adding laugh-inducing insult to injury, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer even slapped his trademark Love symbol in front of Boozer's gate to his massive driveway. But Boozer, after Prince reportedly changed everything back to it's original condition, harbored no bad blood for the eccentric singer, adding with noticeable awe: "That's how big Prince was."
'He played like Helen Keller!'
Prince was a table tennis God. That's the word according to anyone who has ever gone toe-to-toe with the diminutive force of nature. One of Prince's many victims was late-night talk-show host Jimmy Fallon, who spoke glowingly about the late superstar just days after his death on The Tonight Show. As the story goes, Prince laid out a challenge to Fallon through The Roots' bandleader, Questlove. A match was finally set at Spin, Susan Sarandon's New York pingpong club. Cue the laugh track.
"I open the curtain, and Prince is standing there with a double-breasted crushed blue velvet suit, holding a pingpong paddle," Fallon recalled, "and [Prince] goes, 'You ready to do this?'" Prince, of course, proceeded to whip Fallon and disappeared in a poof of smoke that most likely smelled like a mixture of lavender and unicorn sweat. When Questlove ran into Prince minutes later in his chauffeured car at a red light, he asked his musical hero, "What happened; what happened?" Prince dryly replied: "Ask your boy."
But that's not even the craziest pingpong-related Prince story. That title is reserved for his laughable battle with the King of Pop—former rival Michael Jackson. In VIBE's acclaimed 2010 oral history on the two biggest, most influential music stars of the '80s, Questlove detailed the mind-blowing and quite one-sided affair, which he described as "a pingpong game gone bonkers."
"There's the now-infamous story about a pingpong match between Mike and Prince in 1986 while Prince was overdubbing Under the Cherry Moon and Mike was working on Captain Eo," Quest said. "And they were both vying for the attentions of Prince's girl Sherilyn Fenn, who back then was the hot s--t." After an intimidating Prince ran up the score on Jackson, he later told members of his band that MJ, "played like Helen Keller."
Minnesota vs. Everybody
It was the question that followed Prince throughout his storied career: Why on Earth did one of the most successful music superstars on the planet insist on living in the brazenly understated confines of Minnesota? In 1996, the Minneapolis-born talent answered in a very Princely manner during a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey: "It's so cold, it keeps the bad people out."
Of course, there's a more straight-ahead reason why he built his sprawling multi-million dollar Paisley Park recording and performance complex in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Prince Rogers Nelson loved his home state, and that love unquestionably extended to the city's local sports scene.
In the early '90s, Prince was actually part of a private equity partnership to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves alongside NBA great Magic Johnson, Minneapolis production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and multi-platinum dance diva Janet Jackson. However, while the successful bid never came to fruition, by the time Wolves savior Kevin Garnett was drafted in 1995, a dapper Prince was an omnipresent fixture at games. It was not at all shocking to witness the singer cheering on his beloved team and a ridiculously young Big Ticket, who forged an unlikely friendship with the eccentric funk-rock icon.
When the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings made a memorable run, earning a berth in the 2009 season's NFC title game, an inspired Prince wrote the supremely hokey fight song "Purple Gold." Since 2010, the state's two-time World Series champion Twins blast The Artist's aptly titled "Let's Go Crazy" after every home run at Target Field. And when the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx won the 2015 championship, the biggest booster in the building invited the triumphant squad back to Paisley Park for a three-hour-plus throwdown that included a joyous live set that featured such hits as "Kiss" and "When Doves Cry."
"I didn't expect this party," an overwhelmed Lynx star Maya Moore told Jon Bream of Minneapolis' Star Tribune newspaper. "Unbelievable."
The Oracle Prince
On March 4, 2016, Prince gave his last concert performance at Oakland's Oracle Arena, home to the Golden State Warriors, before his untimely death. While Prince was a proud Minnesota homer, he appreciated the greatness of sports teams and athletes outside of his 612 area code. So it came as no surprise when he gave a shoutout to the Warriors' otherworldly point guard by rhetorically asking a sold out Paramount Theater crowd: "What can you truly count on besides Steph Curry?"
A few days later, the too-cool-for-school Party Man—rocking a glorious Afro, black shades, a silky pants suit and a glittery cane in hand—strutted into Oracle to witness the Warriors beat the Oklahoma Thunder. Dub Nation promptly gave the music immortal a standing ovation as he sat courtside as the personal guest of star-struck Warriors owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber.
The Purple lovefest bubbled over into the next night in the same building when Prince held the 20,000-plus capacity crowd in the palm of his well-manicured hand. As he let the spirit move him on a new empowering gem entitled "Free Urself," he challenged the enthralled crowd to "Take your place in history—I know Steph Curry is." It was the perfect last public statement from a history-making artist who lived life to the fullest. Game, blouses.