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Revisiting Jay-Z, LeBron James, and the Nets’ 2010 Free Agency

Charles Maniego compares how the Nets recruited free agents, with raps as well as money, to Markinson’s ways

Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z 40-40 Club (New Jersey Nets)

In 2010, the (then) New Jersey Nets were looking to make a free agency splash. Mikhail Prokhorov became principal owner of the franchise in May, expediting the team’s move to Brooklyn. Prokhorov was then the richest owner in sports. Rapper and entertainment mogul Jay Z owned a small part of the franchise as well, his contribution to the Brooklyn move.

The Nets were looking to sign at least one free agent in a player pool that featured All-Stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Dwayne Wade,Rudy Gay and Carlos Boozer. The Nets were coming off of a 12-70 season, yet there was much to be hopeful about . Prokhorov and Jay-Z were the Nets’ biggest free agency assets going into the summer of 2010. It was the blueprint for greatness, after all.

But two years prior, Jay Z may have made the initial pitch LeBron James. In 2008, James and the Cavaliers were in the midst of a first-round playoff series with the Washington Wizards. Their 2008 contest was the third straight year the two teams had faced each other in the postseason. It was a young LeBron’s first true playoff rivalry. The Cavaliers had won both series in 2006 and 2007. Prior to their playoff series, Wizards guard Deshawn Stevenson took the credit for forcing James to miss a game-winning shot in the regular season. A pseudo-feud ensued between Stevenson and James.

After the game, Stevenson said, “He’s overrated. And you can (tell him) I said that.”

Stevenson later compared LeBron to Kobe Bryant, claiming the two were not on the same level. LeBron declined comment, saying that a response would be “Like Jay-Z saying something bad about Soulja Boy.” Soulja Boy was basically a one-hit wonder rapper with songs like, “Turn My Swag On” and “Pretty Boy Swag.” So…yeah. Jay Z was a hip-hop legend, going from rapper to multi-millionaire business mogul.

Stevenson embraced the unflattering comparison, inviting Soulja Boy to the Wizards’ playoff games against the Cavaliers. The rapper even wore a Stevenson jersey while sitting courtside in game 3 of the Cavs-Wizards series. Yes, it actually happened. Jay Z responded with a track in support of LeBron. (Explicit language in proceeding video.)

The beat Jay-Z used was from the song “Blow the Whistle” by rapper Too Short. Jay Z even performed the song in a Washington D.C. nightclub, to a rowdy crowd (h). Recently, Too Short was asked about the infamous track. He spoke with radio host Brandon Robinson about LeBron, Jay Z and the incident itself on Robinson’s “Scoop B Radio.”

The conversation occurs at around 5 minutes into the interview

The Bay Area rapper believes that the song served another purpose as well. Too Short said the following…

“So I guess in his mind he was gearing up to…at that point I think he was thinking about signing LeBron and having him play for the Nets. (Jay Z) was courting LeBron and LeBron was special to him and (Stevenson) stepped on LeBron’s toes…and Jay was like ‘I’m going to shut this down.’ And he probably saw the moment where the crowd reacted to the song and then that was on his mind.”

Robinson is no stranger to the Nets as well. His media career began as a 12-year old, covering the Nets on the “Nets Slammin’ Planet” kids radio show with former NBA player Albert King in the late 90’s. (Kudos to those old enough to remember that tidbit!) Robinson and Too Short continued to speak about the Jay Z track ... and its implications for the Nets Jay Z approached Too Short with an odd request – so obviously, he had something in the works…

“He was like, ‘Could you send me the instrumental to that?’ If a rapper called me and said: ‘send me the instrumental,’ I’ll probably say something like: ‘We didn't even bounce the instrumental, so we don't even have one.’ When Jay called, I was like: ‘ it will be there in a couple of hours man.’ I had no idea what he was going to do with it, but I am glad he did.”

LeBron and the Cavaliers ultimately won the series against the Wizards, 4-2. The LeBron-to-the-Nets recruiting reached a fever pitch in July 2010, with Nets fans hopeful that the team could end the offseason with number-one draft pick John Wall and the newly signed James – playing their home games at the Prudential Center. The Nets even perceived themselves as frontrunners for James after summer meetings with the Big Three.

Eventually, the Nets came away with neither Wall nor James that summer. James has made six straight NBA Finals appearances since the summer of 2010. Another “What If” in the Nets pantheon of what-ifs.

The Nets were unable to land any of the marquee free agents that summer. The Nets’ original back-up plan was to sign Gay, but Memphis surprised everyone, including Gay, to maxing him out. Plan B featured signing Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, and Travis Outlaw to fill the void. Ugh.

Rod Thorn stepped down as Nets president soon after free agency and Billy King took over. Ironically, Stevenson signed with the Nets in the summer of 2011, appearing in 51 games for the team before being included in the Joe Johnson deal. Jay Z sold his stake in the team in 2013, shifting to a role as a sports agent. The rest is history.

The LeBron James-Jay Z courtship, and the ensuing big splash moves signify the strategy of a previous regime. The Nets seemingly were focused on converting Knicks fans into Nets fans, and winning at whatever cost. Jay-Z, who was forced to sell out when he started repping players an agent, was in the recruiting meeting as part of the Nets delegation.

In the meeting, Jay-Z suggested opportunities in entertainment, fashion and fragrance if he came to New York. Rod Thorn and Avery Johnson talked basketball, Brett Yormark marketing and Onexim CEO Dmitry Razumov, specific business opportunities.

It didn’t work. Not because the Nets didn’t try. Not because Jay-Z limited his role. LeBron later said the Nets presentation was first rate, but Brooklyn was two years away and the roster was awful.

Now compare that situation to today’s Brooklyn Nets. With Sean Marks at the helm (and a much more patient – and humbled Mikhail Prokhorov), the Nets will no longer be pursuing the biggest fish in the free agency pool. That is evident by the Nets’ focus on the D-League, restricted free agency and Marks’ “Spring Break” European scouting trip. There will no longer be any player recruiting via rap songs and unbalanced rivalries. The focus now is on acquiring talent – from anywhere in the world.

Unlike previous years, the Brooklyn Nets seem to have a plan in place. It may take years to be fully realized. The Nets’ offseason focus is no longer on big names and stealing headlines. It’s about due diligence and steady progress.