Before the chopper, before the Instagram announcement that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had ordered the release of Meek Mill on bail, before he put his billion-dollar voice behind a movement—before all of that, Michael Rubin was an NBA owner whose name recognition didn't extend far beyond the realm of Philadelphia 76ers Twitter. The e-commerce billionaire and 76ers co-owner had never been very outspoken on matters of national interest. Rather, he was doing what most middle-aged businessmen do: invest. The 46-year-old had invested in a series of successful ventures, including Kynetic, the parent company of Fanatics, Rue La La and ShopRunner. He bought a minority share of the 76ers in 2011. Little did he know that his interest in the NBA would yield a friendship that would change his life—and open his eyes to a world he had never seen.
Rubin and Meek met at NBA All-Star Weekend in 2013, when Rubin and his daughter were sitting next to Meek and his now ex-girlfriend, Nicki Minaj. Rubin's daughter was a fan of Minaj, so they struck up a conversation. Meanwhile, a bromance blossomed between Rubin and Meek, two Philly natives. "Over time, we became close, and now I'd consider him one of my closest friends," Rubin told B/R. Fast forward to this past NBA season: Rubin coordinated an effort to get Meek out of prison; he is working to combat systemic issues within America's criminal justice system; and he is among the most influential personalities in sports culture today.
For the B/R POWER 50, which also examines Meek's release in his own words, we sat down with Rubin to talk about his relationship with his rapper friend...and about that chopper.
Bleacher Report: I think a lot of people look at you and Meek Mill, and it seems like an unlikely pair. How did the two of you come to meet, and what was it that initially clicked?
Michael Rubin: It was a complete coincidence. We were both at the All-Star Game like five years ago, and he and his ex [Nicki Minaj] were sitting next to myself and my daughter. And my daughter was chatting Nicki up, and Meek started chatting me up. And to be honest, I had no clue who he was or what he did. But as soon as he figured out my Sixers involvement, he started asking me tons of really intelligent business questions. I think we took an immediate liking to each other, and we lived 10 minutes from each other in Philadelphia.
Even prior to any of the stuff that happened last November, I considered him to be one of my closest guy friends. We'd talk on the phone multiple times a week, see each other basically every week.
B/R: It seems like his incarceration this past year in a way brought the two of you closer together.
MR: I didn't really know anything about the criminal justice system when all this happened. I didn't know anything about probation, and I didn't really care. Last summer, he was around the city all the time. And I used to tease him about it, like, "Bro, don't you have work to do?" And he'd tell me, "I'm not allowed to leave Philadelphia. What do you not understand?" So I started trying to get involved to try to help him end his probation, because he'd been on probation for 10 or 11 years and hadn't committed another crime that whole time. And not only was I not able to succeed with that, but then he ended up being put back in jail for a technical probation violation.
B/R: What was it like to have someone so close to you thrown in prison for what seemed like such a minor offense?
MR: I remember the lawyers told me that in the history of their profession, they'd never seen anyone sentenced in a case like this, when the DA and the probation officer were both recommending no sentence. And when they said they were going to sentence him, I got up and spoke at the hearing. But the judge wouldn't really pay attention to me. When she sentenced him to two to four years, he teared up, I teared up, and I looked at him and I said, "I won't stop until we get you out of jail." To me, it was a life-changing event.
B/R: When you were in the courtroom that day, did you think it would take as long as it did to get him out?
MR: Definitely not. I told Meek he'd be home for Thanksgiving. I told him he'd be home for Christmas. I told him he'd be performing at our Super Bowl party. I told him he'd be at the NBA All-Star Game. And I told him he'd be meeting me on spring break in the Bahamas. I was wrong about every single one of those. When I talked to him on April 24, I said to him, "Maybe you'll make Game 5 tonight." And Meek said, "Michael, shut the f--k up. You've got no chance, it's never gonna happen."
B/R: I guess after what he's been through, a person couldn't help but feel jaded.
MR: So, I'll tell you an interesting story. One time I took [New England Patriots owner] Robert Kraft to go see Meek—the two of them knew each other well through me. And Robert says, "Meek, the last time I saw you, you were on my plane flying to an All-Star Game, you were on top of the world. Now you're in an orange jumpsuit sitting in jail. How do you look so happy? I don't get it."
And Meek thought about it for a minute, and he said, "I was wrongfully convicted of a crime I didn't do in 2007. My entire adult life, I've been on probation. I've been sent back to jail numerous times even though I never committed a new crime. But for the first time —this time—I know the world's fighting for me, and that makes me so happy. ... And if I've got to sit in jail to help fix this system, I'm good with that."
B/R: So he gets out of prison on the day of Game 5. How did it all come together that you were able to get him to the arena in time to ring the ceremonial bell before tipoff?
MR: When Meek was in jail, the two of us talked on the phone basically every day. And he would tell me he kept having this dream where I was picking him up from jail in a helicopter, and he'd tell me this all the time. So when the Supreme Court ruled to get him out of jail, I was like, "I'm gonna go pick him up, let's get in the car." But it was like an hour and 15 minutes away on Waze.
So I call up [Sixers co-owner] Josh Harris, because he owns the Harrah's Casino right across the street from the prison, and I say, "Josh, we gotta land a helicopter in the parking lot of the casino if we're going to make it in time for the game." So he makes it happen, and next thing you know, we're flying back from the prison in the heli, and we got to the game in time. Meek walked into the arena in prison clothes, went into the locker room, gave all the players a hug, took a shower and changed, and that was the story.
B/R: So, what was the reaction of the players when he walked into the locker room?
MR: It was like we just won the NBA championship. Joel Embiid loves Meek, and Meek loves Joel. Ben Simmons and him love each other. Robert Covington and Meek really like each other. They all play his music before our games.
When I got to the prison earlier that day, Joel called us and he's jumping up and down on his bed screaming. And then Ben's on FaceTime while we're on the helicopter. And they're all so excited. The whole thing was the most surreal experience I've ever had in my life by about 50 times, and I've seen a lot, by the way.
B/R: For yourself, and for a lot of people who didn't know much about probation, Meek's case was eye-opening. What are the two of you doing to help repair the system?
MR: Over the last six months, I've probably spent about a third of my time on criminal justice reform, because the whole system is totally broken. And I've never had something I cared about like this outside of my work, my family, my friends—I haven't had that reaction in my body like I did the day he was sentenced. So we're taking on the whole criminal justice system now, and we're gonna be announcing a major foundation soon. I'm going to be highly involved with it, Meek's going to be highly involved with it, and some other big people who you know and follow and care about will also be very involved with it. We think we can launch what will be the most impactful foundation within criminal justice reform and create a movement.
Max Rappaport is a grilled cheese connoisseur and contributing writer for B/R. His previous stops include gigs with Complex Mag, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxOnTwitter.
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