It's less than an hour before tipoff, and Cameron Indoor Stadium is cacophonous. Photographers and camera operators are crowded along the baselines like cards in a deck. Announcers warm their voices into microphones. Sneakers squeak and balls bounce. The students behind press row are all standing and screaming, and some are even sporting shirts with his face on it, but Marvin Bagley III doesn't seem to notice. His focus doesn't stray from the ball in his hands and the lyrics on his lips.
Bagley's mood changes with each track. When Drake's "God's Plan" starts to play, the 6'11" freshman shrugs his shoulders and shuffles his feet to the beat. "I hold back, sometimes I won't" blares from the speakers, and Bagley starts to show off: He leaps so high on dunks that the twisted tips at the top of his hair nearly scrape the rim; he lets his left hand linger high in the air as another corner three sails through the net. He puts an extra spin on his passes to teammates and bounces back into layup lines. "When he's vibing out," his high school trainer Earl Ramsey says, "that's when you really see Marvin."
Bagley is best known as a basketball player, and for good reason: He has already been named ACC Player of the Year and is a finalist for this year's Naismith Award. He is a potential No. 1 pick in this June's NBA draft. He's averaging a double-double on a roster featuring at least four future NBA players. His Hall of Fame coach, Mike Krzyzewski, considers him a future NBA All-Star. But there's another Bagley—a lesser-known man of many talents the world hasn't yet caught a glimpse of. "A lot of people see me just as a player," he says. "Music is how I introduce my life to people."
Two weeks before he made his debut as a Blue Devil, Bagley released a single, "Breathe." The rollicking, drum-backed beat was borrowed from the 2004 classic Fabolous and Just Blaze song of the same name, but the words are Bagley's own. Although he's from Arizona, Bagley's accent sounds almost Southern. On the court, he's able to bounce back and forth between brute-force jockeying for rebounds and a soft touch when shooting. And in the booth, using the name MB3FIVE, he finds a similar balance, breathlessly sprinting to the final word of each verse before softly singing behind the chorus.
At times, the lyrics rely too heavily on tropes like defying doubters, but the song soars when it sticks closest to its emotional center. Bagley wrote the words as a sophomore in high school, a year in which he moved from Arizona to California and was forced to sit out the basketball season. Writing helped him deal with the pain of being away from a game he devoted nearly all of his energy to since he could stand. "Music is a way for me to put how I'm feeling onto paper," Bagley says. "I can't put into words how much that process means to me."
Music is a way for me to put how I'm feeling onto paper. I can't put into words how much that process means to me. — Marvin Bagley III
Throughout "Breathe," Bagley seems to be reminding himself of what he can do on the court. In that way, it provided a perfect introduction to his backstory for a new fanbase.
I've been balling, doing me
Ever since I was a toddler
Don't overthink it, always keep it simple
Word to Mama
Since he was a boy, Bagley has battled against being boxed in by other people's perceptions. Nature had bestowed on him all the tools an athlete could dream of; he was often the tallest kid in his classes and on his squads, and he had the genetic pedigree of an NBA player. (His maternal grandfather is Jumpin' Joe Caldwell, a 6'5" former No. 2 overall pick; his father, Marvin Jr., is 6'6".) Coaches would barely glance at him before pointing him down in the paint, which prompted Bagley to switch teams more times than he can recall. Off the court, he was at times just another teenager trying to find himself.
I just wanted y'all to see
That there's something more than hooping
There's a bigger, better me
When he arrived at Tempe's Corona del Sol High School, Bagley took strides to show himself to his schoolmates. At lunch, despite previously having been somewhat shy about sharing his rhymes, Bagley would stand up and challenge teammates and friends to rap battles.
He also was bent on revealing himself to his coaches. One day in the summer before Bagley's freshman year, then-Corona boys basketball coach Sam Duane Jr. was strolling to the parking lot after he'd put his players through a particularly grueling workout. When he squinted up at the football stands, he was stunned by what he saw: Bagley, sprinting down the metal bleachers. "Do you know it's 110 degrees out here?" Duane shouted. Bagley smiled and started another set of stadiums.
It was only a matter of time before the boy running stairs and serving classmates in the lunchroom would lead the Aztecs to their fourth state championship in a row. But just as Bagley was beginning to come into view at Corona, he was gone. A few weeks into his sophomore year, Bagley left for the nascent Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix, which had recently lured his father (as a coach) and his little brother Marcus (a 2020 small forward). Then, less than three months later, he bounced to Sierra Canyon, a private basketball powerhouse outside of Los Angeles, which prompted the California Interscholastic Federation to declare him ineligible for his sophomore season. "Breathe" was an attempt to make sense of the changes:
And I remember all the fans
I got a mental picture of y'all sitting in the stands
Now that fire lit inside
I don't think they understand
God put me in this situation
It's part of the plan
I'm just saying, man
"You ain't keeping quiet"
Man, I tried to
But it's hard when you've been moving
And been lied to
When Bagley finally got onto the court for Sierra Canyon, he was stellar. He averaged 24.9 points and 10.1 rebounds a game, but his Trailblazers made an early exit from the state playoffs. That summer, he proved he didn't need to stay in high school any longer by dominating NBA players in the Drew League. A week later, he announced that he was done with high school basketball and reclassified to join Duke.
When he's in town on Wednesday nights, Marvin Bagley III can be found in his favorite class at Duke: History of Hip-Hop. The class is billed as an examination of "the organic social, cultural and economic foundations of Hip-Hop Culture" and one of its professors is 9th Wonder, a Grammy Award-winning producer whose given name is Patrick Douthit. 9th rose to fame working with musicians ranging from Jay-Z to Mary J. Blige. And in recent years, he's earned the nickname "The Hip-Hop Professor" for his research and residencies at several universities, including Virginia and Harvard.
Since arriving at Duke, 9th has become close with associate head coach Jeff Capel. The two talk often, attend local basketball games together and are constantly sharing new music with each other. At the beginning of the season, Capel sent 9th "Breathe." The producer was so impressed that he invited Bagley to his recording studio.
It was a moment Bagley had been preparing for most of his life. He had been scribbling lyrics since he was 6. "I used to write little rhyming words on the paper," Bagley says. "I'd start rapping them at home, when I'd finish my homework. I had to do homework before everything else. I did homework, then I could play basketball, then I could rap."
In middle school, Bagley started recording songs with his best friend, Holland Woods, whom he'd met on the AAU circuit. The two held frequent rhyme fests on the road—often in hotel rooms. Woods would download blank beats onto his laptop, and the boys would stuff themselves into a closet so Bagley could spit into a microphone his father had bought for him. "I was kind of like his first producer," Woods, a freshman at Portland State, says. "He still sends me tracks before he releases them to this day." In his subject matter, Bagley mainly stuck to hoops and family, but occasionally he laced his raps with hints of his personal struggles—like outsiders' attempts to influence him and his family. "He has a message," Woods says. "He raps about real topics."
Two weeks before his first and final season on the court for Sierra Canyon, and a year before "Breathe," Bagley released his first single, "All Americans." The song samples "Optimistic" by Sounds of Blackness and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and Bagley storms out the gate with a chilling opener:
We living in this country
And it ain't what it seems to be
I don't know what it means to me
Because really it ain't even free to me
Bagley describes "All Americans" as a "song of expression for millions of youth that feel we are sometimes under attack by the police." But "All Americans" isn't just a lamentation; it encourages listeners to "#LOVE ONE ANOTHER." It's a continuation of Bagley's larger message of love, which he had expressed in an Instagram post a couple of months prior. Posing with a police officer, Bagley encouraged his followers to make personal connections with law enforcement officers.
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When Bagley stepped into the studio in December, 9th Wonder wasted no time challenging his new pupil: He put on three beats and Bagley set them ablaze. (9th likened the exercise to having to adjust to different defensive schemes on consecutive possessions.) The producer was shocked by what he heard. "Voice, presence, rhythm, sound, confidence, passion on a microphone," 9th says, "those things come from within. You're born with certain things."
After the session, 9th met up with Capel at a high school basketball game in Durham. Capel was curious to know if his star freshman could have a serious future in music, and 9th replied that he had no doubt. Bagley, he said, was born with as much potential in music as he had in basketball. "Marvin has some stuff you just can't teach," 9th says.
There was also a hint of Bagley's biggest influences in his flow, too. "The rhyme schemes that Drake uses along with the everyday life truth that Cole speaks about," 9th added later.
Bagley says that he deeply admires rappers who tap into something real in their rhymes, and as his voice has blossomed he has strived to do the same. "It helps listening to J. Cole and Drake and rappers like that who talk about things that are going on in the world and in their lives," Bagley, who has FaceTimed with Drake and kept in touch with J. Cole after meeting him at a gym near Duke's campus, says. "Listening to them inspires me to do the same. That drives me to want to tell stories that people aren't used to."
One story still being written is Bagley's own. He has already played his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the coming weeks, he'll play his final game for Duke. A few months from now, an NBA team will select him in the draft. Bagley believes he'll be the first player picked. "I think I'm No. 1," he says. "That's the reason I play the game. … I mean this humbly, but I want to be the best player ever to play the game."
Duke's coaches are eager to watch Bagley become better known for what he does off the court, too. "Marvin will speak out on issues that matter," Coach K says. "[He] is smart enough. He and his family have great values. He'll have a lot of good things to say while he's enjoying what I think will be a very productive NBA career."
Capel also sees a link between Bagley's potential and his character. "He has a very unique view of the world. He has a big heart, a really wonderful heart," he says. "He's obviously an incredibly talented player, but he's also a really, really, really amazing kid. He's able to feel deeply. He can think deeply. He can express himself through the music. It's pretty incredible."